Benalla woman’s rare photo only known image of paper pattern queen

Treasured: Benalla's Heather Edwards with her photo of Madame Weigel and her great aunt Sarah Neilson. Photo by Simon Ruppert

When Benalla’s Heather Edwards was just 15 her great aunt Sarah Neilson came to live with the family.

She bought with her stories of her former employer, and close friend, Madame Weigel.

“My great aunt was Madame Weigel’s domestic maid,” Mrs Edwards said.

“She had a big house in South Melbourne, and in those days wealthy people employed others to dress them and look after the house.”

That was the role Ms Neilson held. Her sister, Agnes, was the cook and housekeeper.

Madame Weigel had migrated from Poland, with a brief stop in New York where she learned to create paper patterns, which people used to make clothing.

When she arrived in Australia, she found an untapped market — so she created one.

In Australia in the late 19th century, popping to the shops to buy clothes was not heard of for the vast majority, especially in rural areas.

Even outside rural areas, clothing for babies and children was not available.

“People of my age, their grandmothers used Madame Weigel’s patterns to make all the family’s clothes,” Mrs Edwards said.

“Particularly country women, on farms, they would use an old curtain or any spare material and use those patterns to clothe everyone.

"She was an amazing woman, well ahead of her time. She had shops on major streets in Melbourne and Sydney, she was a household name.“

One afternoon, when listening to the radio, Mrs Edwards heard a Dr Veronica Lampkin being interviewed.

“She had done her doctorate on Madame Weigel,” she said.

“She said she had not found any photos of her and was asking if anyone could locate one.

Rare: This image is believed to be the only surviving photo of Madame Weigel. It depicts her and Sarah Neilson travelling in the late 19th century. Photo by Simon Ruppert

“I actually wasn’t sure if I had one. In fact I didn’t think I did.

“One day I was rummaging through some draws and I saw my mother’s handwriting on a small piece of cardboard.

“It read ‘Madame Weigel with Great Aunt Sarah’.

“I turned it over and it was a very clear photo of them both. In amazing condition when you consider its age.

“When Madame Weigel‘s husband died she and my great aunt Sarah travelled the world for about three years in the late 1800s.

“They went all over the world, climbed the Swiss Alps, and went through a lot of countries.

“The photo is of them travelling together.”

Recalling the radio program she had heard, Mrs Edwards went on a search for Dr Lampkin.

"I came across her website, got in touch and introduced myself,“ Mrs Edwards said.

“She was so thrilled, you’d think she won the lottery 10 times.”

In Queensland, in a rural area called Templin, the local museum ‘Templin House of Fashion’ had already hosted an exhibition of clothes made from Madame Weigel’s paper patterns.

“Dr Lampkin told me she had appeared on ABC’s Landline in 2021 talking about Madame Weigel and that exhibition,” Mrs Edwards said.

“So when I got in touch with Dr Lampkin she asked if it would be okay if I spoke to Landline to do a follow-up, which we did.”

Mrs Edwards also travelled to Templin to deliver the photo and see the exhibition.

“It was amazing to go up there. We got the greatest of welcomes, they treated us like celebrities,” she said.

“Templin is small, even smaller than Benalla, but it has a fantastic museum.

“The House of Fashion is located in the old headmaster’s residence next door to the local school.

"There are four or five buildings where they hold exhibitions.

“They love the story of Madame Weigel, but there was always a question mark over what she looked like.”

While Mrs Edwards has held on to the original photo, it has been reproduced and enlarged to form part of the exhibition.

"They had an opening where they unveiled the photo when we were there,“ she said.

“Dr Lampkin loves it, she calls the photo ‘The centrepiece of the jigsaw’.”

Dedicated: Dr Veronica Lampkin has penned several books on the life of Madame Weigel. Photo by Simon Ruppert

If you would like to find out more you can access the Landline episode on ABC’s iview by searching ‘Madame Weigel’.