He was born in Casterton in the Western District of Victoria in 1901. His father, a general practitioner, was one of the pioneer ornithologists of Australia, and had helped in the formation of the Royal Australian Ornithologists’ Union. It was through his father, and the excursions they shared together, that Athel learnt about the natural world. His interest was further developed by living on the north shore in Sydney at a time when the suburb was sparsly settled and a fine place in which to study birds and animals.
He attended Shore College, Sydney between 1913-18. After being educated at Shore, and realising that his interests were not academic, he later studied agriculture at Hawkesbury Agricultural College, and worked on the land at Somersby, garnering much success as a citrus-grower. He was part winner of a Wembly Medal and winner of several prizes in local citrus shows.
Athel had also studied optometry and when his brother, Arthur, an opthalmic surgeon, said he should move to Maitland and work with him as a manufacturing optician he said he would. In 1929 he moved to Maitland to work as an optical dispenser at his brother’s practice, and for over 20 years was associated with his brother in Maitland, and later for some years in Newcastle.
Athel was a well respected cricketer with the Northern Suburbs Cricket Club. Known as ‘Dom’ to his fellow cricketers, his first A Grade season (1929-1930) marked the beginning of an association with the Club that would last over fifty years.
Besides playing, he was also served as Secretary from 1930-36, and later conducted Coaching Classes. 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 1934 he, along with Wallace Fitness, approached the secretary of the Hunter River Agricultural and Horticultural Association Show Society, asking whether they could display some local photographs in the Fine Arts Pavilion at the 1934 annual Maitland Show. The request was accepted, and so was founded the Maitland Salon of Photography. In 1946 Maitland Salon became an Australian Photographic Society approved Salon and then in 1958 became an International Salon with approval from the Photographic Society of America and finally in 1982 the federation International De L’ Art Photographique granted its patronage.
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. “There was not one house at the bay at this time – nothing but bush”, he says. 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 renown 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 was invited to become a Convocation Visiting Scholar at the University of Newcastle, the third to hold the position since its inception in 1977.
As a result of his photographic work over many years, he amassed a monumental collection of photographs relating to the Hunter Valley. One of his roles as Convocation Visiting Scholar was to work in association with Denis Rowe (University Archivist) 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 Orthnologist’s Union, an Associate of the Australian Museum and a Member of the Order of Australia.Date of Birth1901Date of Death1985OccupationPhotographerOther OccupationWriterOpticianHistorianPlace of ResidenceMaitland, NSW
Athletics Carnival - Shot Put event at an unidentified location. Photo from Newcastle Teachers' College Album, NSW, Australia - 1956
Mr. Sam McKeachie looking through upstairs window, Aberglasslyn House, Aberglasslyn, NSW, Australia - March 24, 1961
Peg Bartlett in 100 year old period dress looking out of top window (coloured negative), Aberglasslyn House, Aberglasslyn, NSW, Australia - March 24, 1961
Peg Bartlett in 100 year old period dress looking out top window, Aberglasslyn House, Aberglasslyn, NSW, Australia - March 24, 1961
Front verandah showing front door, Aberglasslyn House, Aberglasslyn, NSW, Australia - March 24, 1961