Saturday, July 27, 2013

Mrs Oswald Gibson and her dolls houses

Nearly three years ago, I wrote about dolls houses made and raffled in Tasmania to raise funds during World War II. At the time, I noticed several other names which kept appearing when I searched for dolls houses in the Australian digitised newspapers. I intended to write about them then, but other things happened, and I'm just now getting back to them.

One of the people I came across was Mrs Oswald Gibson of Melbourne, Victoria, who made three dolls houses and two markets or shopping centres, which she exhibited to raise money for charity.

Mrs Gibson's husband was, I gather, a racehorse owner with an interest in the arts. He died in 1931, leaving his wife, Mrs. Fanny Maud Gibson, £500, as well as the income from his estate during her lifetime, all his personal effects, his motor-car, furniture, ornaments and pictures. Many pictures by artists including Arthur Suker, O. Tilche, Rosato, Muschamp, as well as bronzes, etc, were left in trust to the Geelong Art Gallery, although Mrs Gibson was to have their use and enjoyment during her lifetime.

I can't find much about her life while her husband was alive, although it seems that she had no children. A year after her husband's death, when she was about 60 years old, Mrs Gibson moved from Lakes Entrance, where they had lived, to a flat in Tintern Avenue in Toorak, a prestigious suburb of Melbourne. The year after that, 1933, she made her first dolls house.

The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.) 30 September 1933 p 5

Mrs Gibson presented this dolls house to the Animal Welfare League to be "disposed of" (raffled?) at a fete on November 18, 1933.

The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.) 30 September 1933 p 5

Mrs Gibson did not make the house itself, but reportedly made everything else. "The beds have real blankets and sheets, and the dinner table is fully equipped from cocktails to sweets. A cat sits by the fire and there is a bulldog in the kennel."

This dolls house was on view at Mrs Gibson's flat in October, and at the Animal Welfare League ball  on November 6.  It raised more than £50.

Mrs Gibson travelled to New Zealand at the beginning of 1934, to visit her nephew and to go fishing in the Bay of Islands. Here she is pictured with the 242 lb, 10ft 7in swordfish she caught:

The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.) 10 March 1934 p 6

On her return, she created and displayed a model market, again in aid of the Animal Welfare League. It was called the Melbourne Centenary Market, as Melbourne was then celebrating 100 years since its foundation. The framework and building were made by the Toycraft Company. The market had "stalls, salesmen, buyers, and a marvellous array of goods", about which the newspapers do not give many details, except for "one greengrocer's stall, which includes more than 400 articles, from cabbages to tiny sacks of French beans and boxes of strawberries".

Photos of the Melbourne Centenary Market in the Animal Welfare League scrapbook, from The Kindness of Strangers: A History of the Lort Smith Animal Hospital, by Felicity Jack (on Google Books).

The market was displayed at Mrs Gibson's flat, at the home of another charity worker, Miss Nyulasy, in Myer's dining rooms, and at the Animal Welfare League ball, and was then sold to raise funds.

Photos of the Melbourne Centenary Market in the Animal Welfare League scrapbook, from The Kindness of Strangers: A History of the Lort Smith Animal Hospital, by Felicity Jack (on Google Books).

In 1935, Mrs Gibson travelled to Japan and China, and after this trip made miniature Japanese gardens as table decorations. 

The Australian Women's Weekly 'Homemaker' Section, January 18 1936

An article in the Australian Women's Weekly described how she made the gardens. Many of the features of the gardens were made from found objects, including "chunks of asphalt, chips of slate, road metal, or river stones ... all collected by Mrs. Gibson wherever she goes", and "one bridge, which spans a rocky mountain chasm, is actually a gnarled rib-bone left in the garden by a dog!" Mrs Gibson had also brought back Japanese grass seed and Japanese soil - something that she certainly wouldn't be able to do today! Most of the trees and flowers, however, were artificial, created by Mrs Gibson:
"Cherry-blossom is made from statice, dried and tinted pink with a fine paintbrush. Millinery flowers taken to pieces and remade in tiny blossoms and buds are placed on minute stems and fixed in garden plots of barbola. .... The wistaria is made of tiny pieces of paper painted mauve and stuck on fine, dried twigs. Accurately-shaped paper leaves in vivid reds and browns supply the color for an autumn garden. Winter was the most difficult [season] of all of them to make. Bamboo shoots and small bamboo leaves form the garden and the whole scene had to be painted gently with white, over rocks, houses, bridges, and frail twigs and powdered with fine Japanese quartz to represent snow. Mrs. Gibson made snowshoes a quarter of an inch long for a Japanese laborer trudging up a mountain path." (The Australian Women's Weekly 'Homemaker' Section, January 18 1936)

As with the first dolls house and the market, these miniature gardens were sold for charity. I don't suppose any of them have survived.

In early 1936, Mrs Gibson travelled to the United States, and on her return started her second dolls house, Tintern Hall.

Photos of Mrs Oswald Gibson with her dolls house in the Animal Welfare League scrapbook, from The Kindness of Strangers: A History of the Lort Smith Animal Hospital, by Felicity Jack (on Google Books).

With this house, it seems that the newspapers recognised that there was growing public interest in Mrs Gibson's creations, and they provided far more details than before. Tintern Hall is described as follows:
"The green-roofed house is 6ft x 6ft x 3ft with a marvellous terraced garden containing a porcelain-lined swimming pool, lily and goldfish ponds, a garage with a cement approach, a model car and even a watch dog on guard. The long expanse of lawn in front of the house has been made by shredding lichen moss on to glue-smeared sandpaper and then dyeing it to match genuine green sward." (The Argus, 29 July 1936)

"Children are ardent admirers of this doll's house, made by Mrs. Oswald Gibson." 
The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.) 30 September 1936 p24

"There are electric lamps and fires that really work. Hand-hooked rugs are in every room. A library of 110 books has each volume bound in real leather; genuine painted pictures by Harold Herbert and Jessie Traill adorn the dining room walls. The kitchen has an electric stove, a frigidaire, a vacuum cleaner and complete equipment even to a hand- painted dessert service and pastry all ready for the oven.
The dinner served in the dining-room has the infinitesimal fillets of whiting rolled in real crumbs. In the library there is a card table equipped even to cigarettes and the pictures are by Mr Norman Trenery, Miss Judy Fraser, Miss Currie [probably Edith Currie] and Mrs Watson [Walsoe?]. The central stair case has genuine stair rods and the children's nursery with quintuplets in a cradle shows the most up-to-date picture frieze, shelf of toys and birthday party tea, while a minute dolls' kitchen occupies space on one wall.
Bewitching old French dolls house furniture is in the bedroom and drawing room.
There is even a cocktail bar while one crystal chandelier has been made from a tiny inverted salt cellar. There is a model bathroom all glass mirrors, gleaming taps, porcelain bath and basin, even a radiator, a sponge glass and toothbrush. ... The household consists of 19 people with a generous supply of dogs cats and kittens." (The Argus, 29 July 1936)

I wish we could see the paintings - and indeed all the details - in this photo more clearly!

Mrs Oswald Gibson with Tintern Hall. The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.) Thursday 30 July 1936 p 20

Another newspaper report explains that it "took four months to make, and was furnished with odds and ends from all parts of the world. ... Mrs. Oswald Gibson ... picked up its furnishing in her travels, for the most part. A toy dog from Kobe does duty in front of the house, with a terrier from New Zealand, and a versatile bathing girl by a pool has a home-made body, a head bought in Melbourne, and a pair of slim legs from America. A pineapple was once a seed pod in the roadway in Honolulu, and period furniture 40 years old comes from Paris".
(The Advertiser, 27 August 1936 p 8)

Lady Fairbairn (l) and Mrs Oswald Gibson (r) at the opening ceremony for Tintern Hall at Ball and Welch Ltd, Melbourne. The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.) Friday 21 August 1936 p 18

Once again, the dolls house was displayed to raise money, at Mrs Gibson's flat (where over 1,000 people saw it!), at an Animal Welfare League fete, and at several stores around Melbourne: Ball and Welch's in Flinders St, Read's in Chapel St, Charles M Read's in Chapel St, Prahran, and Foy and Gibson's in Bourke St. It also travelled to Geelong for display there in Nobles Coffee Inn. More than £200 was raised, which was to be used to fund a new animal ambulance. (I'm not sure if 'ambulance' was used with the same meaning as it has today, as this ambulance is described as containing " separate compartments for 30 dogs and 40 cats").

The dolls house was "finally disposed of" in February 1937, and its new owner presented it to the Children's Hospital, for use of the children. This is no doubt admirable, and I hope the children enjoyed it, and were perhaps inspired with a love of fine and tiny things - but I can't help thinking of all those miniatures by Australian artists, and the old French furniture, and all the other wonderful contents of the house, and wishing that it had been donated to a museum instead! (Apparently, a movie was made of the house and its different rooms, which was to be shown in Melbourne, and also sent to New Zealand and the United States. It would be wonderful if a copy has survived somewhere.)

At the end of 1936, Mrs Gibson had a serious illness. After some months of convalescence, she travelled to Singapore and Java, from where she returned in early September 1937. She did not begin another dolls house immediately - instead, she planned a world trip. In April 1938, she sailed from Sydney to New Zealand and on to England via the Panama Canal, and returned via South Africa seven months later.

Her third and last dolls house, built on her return from the world trip, was her largest. It was exhibited around Australia from August 1939 until September 1940, with much publicity, so many details of its furnishings and inhabitants are recorded for us.

MEET SIR GERALD LILLIPUT AND HIS FAMILY! trumpeted the first newspaper announcement concerning the dolls house, a 20 roomed house named Lilliput Mansion. The house itself was designed and built by a model boat-builder and cost £46. The furnishings, which Mrs Gibson collected for it for two years from all over the world, cost £170. It took Mrs. Gibson nine months' intensive work to build and equip 'Lilliput Mansion'.

The following details are taken from many newspaper reports. As several, in different states, use the same wording, I assume they were based on information provided by Mrs Gibson.

 The two dolls on the steps here look like Caho dolls to me! 
"Notices reading, "do not touch-do not point," restrained the children from touching, but did not keep them from pointing excitedly at the "Lilliput Mansion"."  (Caption:  The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 September 1940, p 4. Photo: Chronicle, Adelaide, 23 May 1940)

The mansion covered an area of six feet ten inches by four feet eight inches, and was built and furnished at a scale of one inch to a foot (1/12). It was built around three sides, with a courtyard in the centre, containing a swimming pool and a garden. It was a modern design, described as "on the lines of a Spanish mansion", and had two stories with a verandah running around the courtyard. The rooms were open on the outer sides so that the interior could be seen better.

It represented a day in the lives of Sir Gerald and Lady Lilliput and their friends.
"The Lilliputs begin their day in a modern swimming pool, from where visitors will be conducted on a tour throughout the house to the night nursery, with its decoration of the elves and fairies, and the Chinese ballroom with a correct ballroom floor and musical instruments, and where a ball is being held. The tiny billiard room is completely furnished, even to the cocktail table and minute box of cigars, and the French drawing room, with its Louis XV gilt and brocade furniture, has a white velvet carpet and soft pastel curtains. Sir Gerald's big game hunting trophies, in the form of armor, antlers. and skin rugs, decorate the main entrance hall, and in the lounge and music room Mignonne, the daughter of the house, is seen seated at a period grand piano playing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata reproduced to perfect scale." (The Advertiser, 7 May 1940, p 6)

Upstairs, the bedroom where Morsel lies sick with mumps, and the bathroom where we cannot see the lady taking a foam bath.  Below, Sir Gerald Lilliput in the drawing room. Mrs Oswald Gibson appears to be adjusting plants in the garden bed outside. (The Australian Women's Weekly, 9 Sep 1939, p 38)

In the drawing-room, Sir Gerald Lilliput was reading a tiny newspaper, a real printed copy which cost 7/6, but Mrs. Gibson made the tiny cheque book lying open on a writing desk. There were embroidered foot-stools the size of finger-nails. Upstairs, one of his grandchildren, Morsel, is in bed suffering from mumps ("a fashionable complaint just now"). His treasures include a tiny cricket bat and out of the picture, a white mouse in a tiny cage. In the glass-panelled bathroom next door a lady is taking a foam bath. Some of the guests are playing billiards with cues only half the size of matches, and the cocktail cabinets are filled with minute glasses and bottles, each bearing an authentic label. 'Miss Minute' teaches in the schoolroom, where there are maps, globes of the world, &c'., not much larger than the mouse, and books with nursery rhymes in minute handwriting. The library has a typewriter only about an inch square . The kitchen, full of all kinds of foodstuffs, is fitted out in minutest detail, down to the mouse trap, perfectly finished but small enough to catch a fly, while the cook is nearly as broad as she is long.

This doll looks to me like an Erna Meyer man! Although perhaps he is a Caho who has been given hair by Mrs Gibson - his feet do seem to be metal. (The Courier-Mail, Brisbane, 31 July 1940, p 6)

In the dining-room a beautifully appointed glass-topped table is illuminated from beneath with electric light in most modern manner, and the dishes on the table include plates of oysters "au natural" (made by Mrs Gibson), and a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket. Tiny wine glasses are at each place, accompanied by appropriate decanters and olives the size of pins' heads tempt the visitor.

The bronze ornaments on the mantel-shelf of one of the rooms are more than 100 years old. Original paintings by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite and Evelyn [Eveline] Syme hang on the walls of two of the rooms. Nearly all the exquisite carpets and rugs in the model have been hand-hooked, and the color schemes have been carried out as carefully as if for an ordinary home. Pictures and small ivory animals and decorative objects have been collected from all over the world, or, as Mrs. Gibson says: 'Some from China, some from the chain stores.'

Inhabiting the mansion were 45 dolls and 24 toy dogs (of famous breeds, apparently) and cats. All the dogs had been covered by Mrs Gibson with real hair coats, and were perfectly to scale; the cats were made from small scraps of fur. The dolls, "a special kind bought in London" which "can be bent to any shape", were dressed by Mrs Gibson, and some even had their hair permanently waved by Mrs. Gibson using a hot hairpin.

  Lady Wakehurst [left] paid an informal visit yesterday to Lilliput Mansion which was made by Mrs Oswald Gibson (right) and is being exhibited at Anthony Horderns' 'Art Gallery in aid of the Red Cross Society. Lady Wakehurst was presented with a pair of crystal candlesticks about 1-inch high made by Mrs Gibson. (The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 September 1940, p 13.)

On the balcony outside the upper story children swing on the rails, while down below in the garden bathing beauties sun themselves beside the pool. In a lily pond dozens of gold fish are swimming. In cages in the sun room bright blue and green love-birds poise on minute boughs. Indoors the butler rings the gong for dinner, and electric lights and radiators are lit. In all there are 38 electric power points in the mansion, and 100 feet of wiring, from the mansion's own transformer.

 One journalist gives us some insight into Mrs Gibson's thoughts on miniatures:
CHATTING with Mrs. Oswald Gibson, who has brought all the way from Melbourne the dolls' house she intends exhibiting for Red Cross funds on and after July 31, I asked her a question of the kind that a schoolboy relative calls a 'sinker.' Did she agree that the reason why many people love tiny things is because from them they gain a sense of security, the opposite to that feeling of insignificance which is experienced in the presence of monumental grandeur? She thought perhaps the psychologists were right. At any rate, she said, it gave one a pleasant feeling of power and confidence to handle the miniature replicas of the articles used in our daily life. Except for a few articles of furniture, everything in the Lilliput Mansion is Mrs. Gibson's own work, including the tiny toilet accessories and the household china, which are fashioned from barbola.  (The Courier-Mail, Brisbane, 25 July 1940, p 9)

The house and its contents were transported in four crates, travelling by boat from Melbourne to Adelaide, to Perth, to Brisbane and to Sydney. Mrs. Oswald Gibson travelled separately - one report describes her arriving on the Melbourne express. Each time, she spent about seven hours placing the furniture, and, "though the kitchen equipment includes miniature vacuum cleaners, mops, and dusters, the tiny furnishings are actually dusted by Mrs. Gibson with a fine camel-hair paint brush."

Advertisement in The Courier-Mail, Brisbane, 30 July 1940, p 6

I can't find final attendance figures, but by the time it left Brisbane, before being shown in Sydney and Newcastle, 37,000 people had viewed it. (Australia's population in 1940 was just over seven million people.) In Adelaide, 3,000 people saw it on a single day. In Brisbane, the children of the Crippled Children's Home and the Deaf and Dumb Institution visited it. As I mentioned above, there was a great deal of publicity for it. In each new location, it was officially opened by a local dignitary, and in Adelaide, all radio stations described it on their children's programmes, and Mrs Gibson was interviewed by the ABC. Over £1000 was raised in all, and donated by Mrs Gibson to the local branches of the Ministering Children's League, The Travellers' Aid Society, the Fighting Forces Comforts Fund or the Red Cross, etc.

So what happened to this marvellous, popular, nationally known dolls house mansion? When Mrs Gibson presented her next creation in 1941, she explained that it had been sold as a war economy measure - its owner, Sir Gerald Lilliput, had gone to the war, and his wife had invested in an arcade of shops. In reality, we learn from a newspaper report, it had been divided into three sections and given to children's hospitals and institutions.

Not surprisingly, as it was wartime, Mrs Oswald Gibson did not travel overseas before building her shopping arcade. (Perhaps, also, her travels to four other states with the Lilliput Mansion had satisfied her itchy feet!)

Lilliput Arcade, as it was known, was first exhibited in April 1941, so Mrs Gibson had had five months after the final showing of Lilliput Mansion in which to create it. (She had also found time to make miniature lamp shades, clocks, baskets of fruit, and vases of flowers made from beads and shell, to sell at a market garden fair in Melbourne in November 1940.)

 John Haddock, fishmonger, & 'all dairy produce', Lilliput Arcade, Sunday Times, Perth, 12 Oct 1941, p 12.

The arcade had 12 shops (or 14? reports varied), built on the scale of one inch to a foot, and was 9ft. long. It showed life-like scenes in a shopping centre on a Friday morning. Shops represented included confectionery, the "Kerlie" beauty parlour, "Diane" florist, "Applepulos" the fruiterer and greengrocer, who is a certified Greek subject, meat emporium, fish shop, frock shop and milliners, and a delicatessen. The cafe contains tiny tables and chairs, tumblers, and all the necessary equipment for serving meals and drinks. Among the 7,000 items in the display were realistic fruit, meat, and almost every known type of vegetables, made by Mrs Gibson from barbola, tiny books bound with real leather, and diminutive ices and other refreshments available at the Victory Cafe. There were 55 tiny shoppers.

The Victory Cafe in Lilliput Arcade, Western Mail, Perth, 16 October 1941, p 3S

Lady Lilliput was managing directress, and was to be seen in her tiny office, complete with desk, typewriter, and telephone. Miss Minute, the governess from the mansion, ran the bookshop in the arcade, and the shoppers include grandmamma and her small grandson Morsel (who was seen in bed with mumps when the Lilliput Mansion was exhibited).

 The Advertiser, Adelaide, 2 December 1941, p 4.

As with Lilliput Mansion, Lilliput Arcade was shipped to Brisbane, Rockhampton, Perth, Adelaide and Tasmania. Once again, a Brisbane journalist gives us a personal insight into the making and care of the items:
"THE tripe was rather difficult to make,' I heard Mrs. Oswald Gibson admitting to the Governor (Sir Leslie Wilson) on Friday afternoon, when he and Lady Wilson reached the butcher's shop during a preliminary tour of the Lilliput Arcade in Allan and Stork's, before his Excellency opened the little show....
I HEAR that one of the biggest problems connected with the arcade is the dusting. I can readily believe it. The book shop alone, with its 520 volumes smaller than post age stamps is something to cope with. Some idea of the fiddley size of the fruit shops' wares may be gathered from the fact that the bundles of asparagus are about the size of bundles of gramophone needles." (Sunday Mail, Brisbane, 27 July 1941, p 9)

Exhibiting Lilliput Arcade raised £ 1,089, which Mrs Gibson donated to local branches of the Red Cross, the Fighting Forces Comforts Fund, the RAN Relief Fund, etc . At its final exhibition in Melbourne, the individual shops making up the arcade were raffled. (2 children, A. Major, of John St. and R. Saltmach, of Footscray, who won 7th and 8th prizes, had not collected their little shops, the paper reported.)  

Western Mail, Perth, 13 November 1941, p 6S

Mrs Gibson, who had moved to 85 Mathoura road, flat 3, then announced that she would make no more models until after the war, as she felt that there was more urgent work to be done. Although she did make a model of the papier mache depot in Punt rd, South Yarra, in late 1942, where workers were urgently needed, no other dolls houses are mentioned in the newspapers after this date. Instead, she made 1,000 "attractive, durable, and fireproof" ashtrays from waste products, which she intended to present to servicemen patients in convalescent hospitals around Melbourne as Christmas gifts.

The only other mention I have found of Mrs Gibson making miniatures is in 1947, when she made miniature furniture (all scaled one inch to a foot, 1/12 scale) to be raffled in aid of the Lord Mayor's Food for Britain Appeal. It was displayed at Myer's Ladies' Lounge, where raffle tickets were on sale. Among the pieces were a "petticoat dressing table, complete with a tiny bristle hairbrush, fairy-like mirror, powder bowls and scent bottles, which would all fit on the top of a matchbox", and flexible English dolls, including a cook, busy with her pastry board, a refrigerator with butter, milk, and a lifelike crayfish; pastel bowls of flowers, dishes of tropical fruit, a carpet-sweeper, a writing table with crystal candlesticks made from glass beads and needles, a shaded reading-lamp, and perfectly modelled tea, coffee, and dinner sets of barbola.
Again, Mrs Gibson made her miniatures from unwanted bits and pieces; for example, a realistic radiator was made from a button, a curtain ring, a scrap of fine wire, half an acorn, and part of the backbone of a rabbit.

Mrs Gibson lived for nearly 20 years more, dying in 1966 at the age of 95.

 Mrs Oswald Gibson. The Mail, Adelaide, 22 November 1941, p 9.

I would love to know if any of Mrs Gibson's miniatures have survived, both those she made herself, those she bought (including the flexible dolls bought in England and the old French furniture) and the miniature paintings done by well-known Australian artists. I don't hold out much hope for the dolls houses donated to children's hospitals, but perhaps some of the winners of the Lilliput Arcade shops, or the purchasers of the miniatures in 1947, kept their treasures safe. I do wish that someone had had the foresight to recognise these miniature creations as works of art, and to keep them for posterity. What a wonderful picture of 1930s life they would give us!
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  1. wow. what wonderful creations. I love that she used found objects, including a bone found by her dog. and giving some of the dolls perms with a heated hairpin!
    I hope some of her work has been kept.

    1. Yes, I have seen photos of chairs made from bones before (usually wishbones from poultry, I think), but a bone for a bridge and part of a radiator I haven't come across before! I'd love to find some of her work - even better photos would be good, which some of the publications may perhaps have kept .... fingers crossed!

    2. Mrs Gibson appears to have had a passion for both miniatures and giving to others. Hopefully some clear photos will surface of some of her miniatures. There must be some around somewhere. Thanks for the article Rebecca.

    3. Thanks, Sharee! She sounds like an interesting person - I'd love to have seen people's reactions to her picking up bones and bits of asphalt!! I might see if I can contact some of the papers - those that are still in existence, anyway. Thankfully these photos were reasonably clear - there were others that didn't come out as well, and often the print on the back shows through. I'll post an update if I find any!

  2. Great post - very interesting. Thank You.

    1. Thank you, Troy, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  3. what a great story.. wouldn't it be amazing to find some of her creations..

    1. I thought it was pretty amazing, Christine! I guess there's more chance of one of her ashtrays having survived, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a dolls house! -D

  4. What an interesting person. It was really good that she raised so much money from her hobby for charity. I wonder who has the dollhouses now? Would be very interesting to find out. IndyPoppy

    1. Very interesting - it would have been great to know her, I think. And she raised an enormous amount - she paid for the cost of transporting the mansion and market around Australia, and her own travels to each location, so she put in a lot of her own money and energy.
      I suspect that the dolls houses given to children's hospitals would not have survived - they probably would have been played with until wrecked, then put in a shed or basement until eventually being chucked out. Of course, I'm hoping that didn't happen, but collectors have tried to trace dolls houses given to institutions in the UK, usually without success - or in one or two cases, have found them languishing in a damp shed, just about to be thrown out ... The Royal Children's Hospital still exists, but the ones which received the sections of Lilliput Mansion weren't even named - unless in the minutes of a meeting of the charity somewhere ... However, it might be worth following up!