University of Newcastle Library guides

Athel D'Ombrain Photographic Collection:  Introduction

Listing of the photographs and negatives from the collection of Athel D'Ombrain A.M. (1901-1985) who was a photographer, optician, naturalist, author, cricketer, pioneer angler, game fisherman and historian.

The Athel D'Ombrain Photographic Collection

Maitland Town Hall


The Athel D'Ombrain Collection was deposited with the University of Newcastle Archives in 1982.

Athel D'Ombrain A.M. (1901-1985) was a photographer, optician, naturalist, author, cricketer, pioneer angler, game fisherman and historian.

He was born in Casterton, Victoria in 1901. His father, a general practitioner, was one of the pioneer ornithologists of Australia. It was his father who educated Athel in the wonders of the natural world. His interest was further developed by living on Sydney's north shore at a time when the suburb was sparsely settled and a fine place in which to study birds and animals.

He attended Shore College, Sydney between 1913-18, and later studied agriculture at Hawkesbury Agricultural College.

In 1929 he moved to Maitland to work as an optical dispenser at his brother Arthur's ophthalmic surgery practice, and for over 20 years was associated with his brother in Maitland, and later Newcastle.

Athel was a well respected cricketer with the Northern Suburbs Cricket Club. In recognition of his long playing and administrative services, he was made a Life Member of the Club in the early sixties and Patron from 1968.

In February 1936, he married Esma Drew, of Clarencetown, by whom he had a son, Robin, who later became a Technical Officer in Chemical Engineering. Esma died in May 1980.

Around 1950 Athel retired from optometry and became a photographer for The Maitland Mercury. After the 1955 flood hit his home he left the newspaper and established a commercial photographic business in Maitland. Concurrent with these activities he was a "photo-finish operator" at the Maitland Showground and a stringer cameraman.

Through the efforts of Athel and Newman Silverthorne, the Newcastle and Port Stephens Game Fish Club was formed with Headquarters at Bundabah on the northern side of the Port. In 1935 the fishing enthusiasts built a clubhouse at Shoal Bay.

The Fish Club was taken over by the Army in the Second World War, following which it was incorporated into the Country Club Hotel. He was renowned as a pioneer angler who adopted a scientific approach to the sport and who was very successful in the post war years. He is credited with devising the now widely accepted tag and release concept for big game fishes, commencing his first experiments in 1938.

Athel was an expert naturalist especially on Port Stephens and its flora and fauna. For example, he visited Cabbage Tree Island regularly for 44 years observing and banding the sea bird called Gould's Petrel. The island is the only known nesting place of the species.

He also enjoyed looking at the birds in the wetlands at Hexham as he travelled between Maitland and Newcastle in the train. Previously he had contributed several articles to the Newcastle Morning Herald. In 1965 he wrote a piece about the birds at Hexham, which came under the notice of the Herald's Editor at the time, Mr E.K. Lingard, who liked the story so much he asked Athel to write a weekly column. For some time he became a Saturday correspondent for The Herald. He also authored a number of published books, 'Game Fishing Off the Australian Coast' and 'Fish Tales', and an unpublished account of Gould's Petrel, called 'North East of Toomaree', and an unpublished autobiography.

His newspaper articles and books contributed a great deal to the unfolding of the wonders of nature. Moreover, he was continually identifying specimens found in the bush and backyards for individuals.

On the 9 June 1975, in recognition of his service to photography and the study of nature, he was awarded Member of the Order of Australia.

In 1981 he became a Convocation Visiting Scholar at the University of Newcastle.

One of his roles was to work in association with Denis Rowe (University Archivist at the time) in the Archives in the Auchmuty Library, cataloguing his photographs and organising the articles about nature that he had written for the Newcastle Herald.

He continued to write his columns up until a few months prior to his death at age 83 in 1985. According to his son, Mr Robin D'Ombrain, he wrote a total of 995 articles for the Newcastle Herald.

He was a member of the Royal Australian Orthnologists' Union, an Associate of the Australian Museum and a Member of the Order of Australia.


These photographs are accessed via our Living Histories @ UON. Click the tabs in the left-hand column to see the listings of the images.


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