Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sydney (Don) Featherstone (1902–1984)

by M. French

This article was published:

Sydney (Don) Featherstone (1902-1984), ambulance officer and amateur cinematographer, was born on 16 November 1902 at Darlington, Durham, England, second of six sons of Joseph Featherstone, railway shunter and ambulanceman, and his wife Eliza Dorothy, née Moody. In 1911 the family migrated to Toowoomba, Queensland. Educated at Harrowgate Hill School, Darlington, and Toowoomba East State School (1912-14), Sydney left aged 12. He worked for a year as a boot delivery-boy before securing an apprenticeship as a coach-trimmer and signwriter in his uncle’s paint shop, where he was nicknamed `Don’ to avoid confusion with another apprentice. In 1924 he moved to a larger firm in Brisbane but, made redundant by the introduction of spray painting, returned to Toowoomba. He was self-employed until 1927, when he found work as a machinery painter at the Toowoomba Foundry.

Tall and lanky, in his youth Featherstone had moderate local success at swimming, tennis and rifle-shooting and, learning to play the steel guitar, participated in two local entertainment groups, the Bohemian Club and the Merry Makers. An early member (1927) of the Toowoomba Art Society, he won prizes for his paintings at the Royal Adelaide Show and the Brisbane Exhibition. On 25 February 1933 at St James’s Church of England, Toowoomba, he married Emmie Gillam, a shop assistant.

At the foundry Featherstone initiated a benevolent fund and started first-aid training under his father, gaining the St John Ambulance Association instructor’s certificate in 1939. Rejected in 1942 for active service in the Royal Australian Air Force, he worked as a medical orderly in the Civil Constructional Corps at Wallangarra, Drayton and Canungra, and at Truscott, Northern Territory. In January 1946 he became an ambulance officer and honorary instructor at the Toowoomba station of the Queensland Ambulance Transport Brigade. From late 1961 to June 1968 he was a nurse and, from 1965, a first-aid instructor at Toowoomba Mental (Baillie Henderson) Hospital, Willowburn. On 27 July 1966 he was awarded the insignia of the serving brother of the Order of St John.

Featherstone’s great love was film-making. He had bought a second-hand 16-mm Kodascope camera in 1926 and had begun experimenting with home and holiday films. By 1980 he had made fifty-five films including fictional stories, travelogues, and historical epics and documentaries—mainly about the Darling Downs, including the only surviving footage of the royal visit there in 1954. He was a foundation (1952) and life member (1961) of the Darling Downs Amateur Cine Society. Widely acknowledged as the best amateur film-maker in Australia, he won several national and international prizes for his work. He was awarded the BEM in 1978.

Infrequently irascible, Featherstone was noted for his enthusiasm, humility and charity, and his joy in the small pleasures of an `amateur’ artistic life. In retirement he taught painting at adult education classes and introduced art therapy at Baillie Henderson Hospital. He handed over his film collection to the Heritage Building Society for preservation in 1982. Survived by his wife and their daughter, he died on 6 May 1984 at Toowoomba and was buried in the local cemetery. His autobiography, Brush, Camera and Memories, was published in 1985.

Select Bibliography

  • Toowoomba Chronicle and Darling Downs Gazette, 28 July 1966, p 10
  • Chronicle (Toowoomba), 31 Dec 1977, p 1, 16 Apr 1982, p 4, 9 May 1984, p 17.

Citation details

M. French, 'Featherstone, Sydney (Don) (1902–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


16 November, 1902
Darlington, Durham, England


6 May, 1984 (aged 81)
Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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