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  • Sue Wighton

Caboolture's Hidden Treasure

As you watch laughing children tumble out of buses into the bright Queensland sunshine and spill into Caboolture’s Abbey Museum on a school excursion, you could have no inkling of the ancient treasures and unique artefacts held inside this modern-looking building.

The Abbey Museum of Art and Archaeology is a hidden treasure, standing benignly amidst pleasant fields in the back blocks of Caboolture, just off the road to Bribie Island.

What is this place? And how on earth did it come to be here?

If I told you about a group of intrepid travellers who came to Caboolture from England via Cyprus and Sri Lanka – laden with precious artefacts and antiquities from medieval times and beyond – you simply wouldn’t believe me.

Stained glass window - Coronation of the Virgin

The enthralling story of the Abbey Museum is shrouded in curious tales of spiritualism, faith, Freemasonry, precious objects and artworks, and global pilgrimage. It’s the romantic story of one man and his passion for collecting. Not just things, but people, ideas and philosophies.

The Reverend John S M Ward – founder of the Museum – was born in England in 1885. Described as charismatic and eccentric, John Ward was a devoted educator, author, poet, mystic, visionary and Masonic historian. The son of an Anglican clergyman, Ward was a deeply spiritual man, interested in both Western and Eastern spiritual ideas. In 1929, he founded a mixed monastic community, the Confraternity of the Kingdom of Christ, and in 1934 established Britain’s first social history museum – the Abbey Folk Park – at New Barnet, north of London.

Ward’s radical vision was to create a truly ‘living museum’. Visitors were invariably entranced as they glimpsed the daily lives of their ancestors through a series of carefully curated buildings and historical objects. In fact, the newspapers of the day dubbed him ‘the man who collects houses’ after he rebuilt a 16th-century ‘Witch’s Cottage’ and a 17th-century blacksmith’s shop, among thirty other buildings on the site. The central attraction was a remarkable prehistoric village of several buildings meticulously reconstructed from local materials.

After the bombing of London in the Blitz in 1941 during World War Two, Ward was forced to close the Museum.

Then in 1945, Ward and his community relocated to Cyprus with their crates of precious antiquities, where they extracted a meagre existence from a farm they’d purchased.

In those intervening years of the 40s and into the 50s many famous Australian artists spent time at the Abbey Folk Park (now renamed the Abbey Art Centre) as part of an artists’ community. Luminaries like Bernard Smith, Leonard French, Noul Counihan and later Russell Drysdale and Arthur Boyd spent time there. Another famous visitor was thought to be the renowned English sculptor, Henry Moore.

John Ward died in Cyprus in 1949.

Before too long, Cyprus was no longer viable due to the trouble between the Greek Cypriots and the British, so the community once again was on the move. They travelled to Australia via Egypt and Sri Lanka, eventually arriving, penniless, in Sydney in 1956.

Ten years later, the community moved to their current, permanent home in Caboolture, Queensland, where the legacy of the Reverend John S M Ward lives on. The philosophy and spirit of this curious, intelligent and eccentric man echo through the current Abbey Museum and the community which embraces it.

While much of the collection was sold to finance the community’s extraordinary peregrination from England via Cyprus, Egypt, and Sri Lanka to Australia, the Museum still holds a prestigious collection of antiquities, spanning more than a million years of human history.

Highlights include a gilded cartonnage mask from ancient Egypt, Bronze Age swords and spears, medieval stained glass and art artworks, medieval manuscripts, 17th-century carved panels from Cheveley Manor and exquisite samurai swords.

Members of the original community, Michael Strong and his wife Edith Cuffe, along with volunteers, are highly involved with the running of the Museum and associated developments. This includes the highly popular, annual Medieval Festival which takes place in the grounds.

Today, the Abbey Community and the Board of the Abbey Museum of Art and Archaeology continue to breathe new life into John Ward’s vision of an immersive, living museum.

The community itself continues to flourish as a vibrant centre for spiritual growth and well-being. Regular church services are conducted in the beautiful church, bathed in the light of the many glorious stained-glass windows. Many of these windows date from medieval times while some remnants originate from Winchester Cathedral in England. 

In keeping with Ward’s lifelong commitment to education, in 1983 the community established a primary school in 37 hectares of beautiful bushland setting. 

Visitors to The Abbey Museum of Art and Archaeology make many return visits to delight in the romance, mystery, and magic of this hidden treasure.

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