Fran Milburn (right) and one of her brides.

200 wedding dresses and counting

Former Novocastrian Frank Milburn holds a precious family photograph collection, but unlike most collections of random photos, this is a collection of his mother’s life work as a dressmaker.

“My mother was a seamstress from when she was about 16 years old. She was given her mother’s sewing machine, and from when she was 16 to when she was 21, she worked at an orphanage in Young, New South Wales, making hats and shorts and stuff for the kids in the orphanage,” said Frank.

“When she came out of the orphanage, she went to work with her cousin in Tumbarumba, where my mother had come from and worked with her cousin who had a little dressmaking business there. And it was from there that my mother eventually met my father in Wagga. He was an Englishman and about 12 years older than her, but she always said that if anyone wanted to marry her, they’d have to ask her three times before she’d agree.”

Watch now – Carol Duncan speaks with Frank Milburn about his collection. Can you help identify any of the brides?

Carol Duncan speaks to Frank Milburn about his collection of photographs of his mother’s wedding dresses.

Frank’s father worked for Electric Light Manufacturing Australia (ELMA) which had moved production inland to Wagga Wagga due to concerns of coastal attacks during WWII.

“But a couple of years later they moved back (to Newcastle) and they said to my father, ‘If you want to come back, if we haven’t got a job for you, we’ll find a job for you.’ Anyway, he finished up being, until he retired, the purchasing officer at the lamp works. I was born here, but my two brothers were born in Wagga before they moved.”

As an in-demand seamstress, Fran Milburn earned more than her husband, and Frank recalls his mother working through the night to make dresses for brides, bridesmaids, mothers of the bride and debutantes.

“My mother used to charge 40 pounds to do a wedding right from the start, including whatever the person wanted. It could be three bridesmaids, the bride’s mother, and the going away dress; everything was included, and she insisted on the wedding day of being at the church to make sure the dress was just right as the bride walked off down the aisle.”

One of the things Fran asked for of her brides was a wedding photo, and Frank estimates that his mother created dresses for more than 200 weddings and debutante dresses.

A huge collection of this sort is an incredible gift to share with the community, but Frank has a problem.

“She never ever wrote on the back of them. So we had a box of photos and my mother estimated she did over 200 weddings in her time. Before she passed on, she gave me all her photos from through her life,”

Frank Milburn 2023

“But I didn’t know who they were, well, maybe a handful. I knew who they were, but it wasn’t until I put them on the Lost Newcastle site that, suddenly, people were coming out of the woodwork, you know, left, right, and said, ‘Oh, that’s so and so’.

“Initially, we put over 80 photos on Lost Newcastle, and suddenly, within no time, we had about 50 of them identified, who they were.”

Fran’s mother gave her the material to make her wedding dress in 1937.

“It was magnolia satin. Everything was sort of scarce. So when her two sisters later married, they both had the dress, and they had it altered slightly, and then another family friend had it, so they were right into recycling back at that point.”

Fran Milburn at her own wedding in 1937. Her dress was also worn by her sisters and another friend.

Frank hopes that maybe more of the brides in the collection can be identified, and that perhaps some new photos are added to his collection by local families.

“I’ve had people, say, ‘Oh, I remember Mrs Milburn! She made my dress!’, and I’ve nearly felt like saying, ‘Oh, would you mind sending me a photo?’ I think there is one in the back. Where the lady did send one to me.”

Get in touch if you think you can identify any of the brides or share more photographs or information with Frank and his family.

Can you help identify any of these brides? Click through to enlarge the photos – some have information, some don’t.

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