Ernest Mühlstein (Milston)

Ernest Mühlstein (Milston)
Enlistment photograph of Ernst Mühlstein from 25 November 1942[1]

Arnost (or Ernst/Ernest) Edward (or Eduard) Mühlstein (or Milston) was born near Prague in Bohemia (then part of Austria) on 11 June 1893. He gained a Degree of Architecture in 1916 from the University of Prague and during the later part of World War 1 served as an officer in the Engineers of the Austrian Army. In the two years after the war, he attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague and then commenced a career in architecture for the next nineteen years.

Warned of his impending arrest by the Nazis, Ernest fled Prague for Genoa in later 1939. Many years later, in 1984, Mühltstein/Milston’s wife Gwendda recorded in a letter to the architect Jack Cheesman just how her late husband had escaped the claws of the Nazis: ‘A friend in the Czech cabinet fell into step with him in a Prague street and without turning his head said out of the side of his mouth, “Leave at once. Don’t delay, go immediately.” Ernst acted on this advice, somehow getting through Austria to Italy and embarking for Australia from Italy. He was a wealthy man in Prague, but he arrived in Australia with £5 – and a job with you [Jack Cheesman], for which I cannot thank you enough.’[2]

On 2 May 1939 Mühlstein was granted a permit to land in Australia, valid for a year, under the care of GG Lawson and JD Cheesman, architects of Edments Building in Adelaide.[3] Ernest always felt indebted to Mr Cheesman and valued his friendship to the end of his life.[4] Ernest arrived at Port Adelaide from Prague via Genoa on the Esquilino on 4 April 1940[5] using a German passport stamped with the letter J.

For the little under three years that he lived in Adelaide before his enlistment he worked in the architectural office of Lawson and Cheesman and became involved in the Adelaide arts community, particularly a group of artists known as Group 9. He also worked on obtaining his Australian architectural qualifications at the age of 47. He designed the sets and costumes for a North Adelaide theatre production of Les Galantes Chez Marie in May 1941 for the Arts Club ballet group under the direction of Joseph Siebert.[6]

Ernest Mühlstein (Milston)
Pages from the passport of Ernst Mühlstein. Note that Nazi laws at this time required that his passport show the letter ‘J’ and that he take on ‘Israel’ as his middle name to identify him as a Jew. [7]

On 25 November 1942 Ernest Edward Mühlstein enlisted at Wayville in the Australian Militia. He was taken into the 62 Deputy Commander Royal Engineers (DCRE) based at nearby Keswick under the leadership of Lt Colonel Howard Tolley. There Mühlstein was quickly promoted to Sergeant and became involved in the camouflage section of the Engineers.

On 26 June 1943 he was transferred to the 25th Garrison Battalion at Loveday as a guard and after a year, on 23 June 1944, he transferred from the 25/33 Garrison Battalion back to the 65 Aust DCRE (wks) at Keswick. While at Loveday he produced a folder of crayon portraits of members of the officer’s mess.[8]

Lieutenant Colonel Howard Tolley became aware of Mühlstein’s painting ability and engaged him to paint a portrait to hang in the Institute of Engineers in North Adelaide. He found the oil paints and supplied them to Mühlstein according to Ian Tolley, the nephew of Howard Tolley. The painting was later ‘rescued’ by Ian’s wife, Noelle Tolley, when the North Adelaide headquarters of the Institute of Engineers was closed. It now hangs in the Tolley home in Renmark. Lt Colonel Tolley DSO, as then Major Tolley, was Chief Engineer of the Renmark Irrigation Trust 1923-1926 and subsequently Irrigation Commissioner for South Australia. He played a significant role in the establishment of the Loveday Internment Camps due to both his knowledge of the area infrastructure and his role in the army Royal Engineers. He was a frequent visitor to the district in the early war years.

The painting was hung for the Royal Society of Arts Exhibition in Adelaide on 28 August 1943, ‘Not for Sale’, by Ernest Milston. Previously, in the spring of 1940 also under the name of Milston, he had entered a portrait of a mother and sons group (the Cheesman Family) that was described in the press as most striking.[9] A portrait of Miss Merle Robertson (Schwab) an accomplished pianist was exhibited in 1941[10] and further paintings were exhibited in subsequent years during his time in Adelaide.

Ernest Mühlstein (Milston)
Portrait by Ernest Milston of Lt Colonel H G Tolley DSO. Courtesy Ian and Noelle Tolley, Renmark

Gordon Thomson, deputy director of the National Gallery of Australia, wrote in a eulogy in 1968, ‘An important part of Ernest Milston’s life was his painting. He was a sensitive and able draughtsman with a fine sense of style and form. Especially during his Adelaide period, he worked in oils and water colours a great deal and produced notable portraits and landscapes. When he began his private practice in Melbourne, he gave up painting altogether. He refused to treat his art as a hobby and was unable to give it a significant proportion of his attention.’[11]

Ernest Mühlstein (Milston)
Mrs Catharine Cheesman and sons (left). Mrs Geoffrey de Crespigny née Kathleen Cudmore (1908-2013), portrait by Ernest Milston (right). Source: Cheesman painting[12], de Crespigny Painting[13]

On 6 April 1945, while living in Adelaide, Mühlstein lodged an application for naturalization as an Australian citizen. The application was dealt with by the Commonwealth Investigation Branch of the Attorney General’s Department. During that time Mühlstein was transferred from Adelaide to the Engineer in Chief’s staff in Melbourne where he worked in the Directorate of Fortifications and Works as a Staff Sergeant. In Melbourne he worked on the designs for renovations to the military college at Duntroon[14]. He was discharged from the army on 20 March 1946.

In 1946 Mühlstein wrote to the Red Cross in Adelaide seeking news of his family who had remained in Prague. The Red Cross informed him that his older brother, Viktor Mühlstein born 6 Sep 1890, was deported to Terezin ghetto on 10 August 1942 and to Auschwitz on 26 Oct 1942. There was no further trace of him. His brother-in-law Dr Erich Steinhard, married to Gerda, was deported from Prague to the ghetto of Lodz in Poland on the 26 Oct 1941 and there was no further trace of him.[15] Ernest also received a similar report from the Red Cross concerning Gerda and her three children.

Upon his naturalization he officially anglicised his name by deed poll in Melbourne to Ernest Milston on 20 August 1946 and then obtained a position as a senior architect in the Public Works Department in Victoria. His Australian architectural achievements were significant, including a role in the design of the World War II addition to the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne and the design of post war housing in Melbourne.[16] In February 1954 the Queen and Prince Phillip dedicated Milston’s Forecourt at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne where Milston was presented to the royal couple.[17] After winning the prize for the design of the Shrine forecourt he left the government department and set up a private practice. He then designed the administrative building for Rio Tinto’s Bell Bay offices and, in his ‘greatest contribution to Australian architecture’, designed with Don Fulton the Mary Kathleen township.[18]

Ernest Mühlstein (Milston)
Postwar photograph of Ernest Milston.[19]

Ernest Milston retired in 1967 and died in 1968 in Melbourne. He was survived by his wife, historian and author Gwendda, and her daughter from a previous marriage, Sonia Ettinger (Coalstad).


Research by Geoff Bull 2023

[1] National Archives of Australia: B884, S111558, Service Record, page 3

[2] Milston, G, 16 May 1984, Letter to JD Cheesman, Architecture Museum, University of South Australia

[3] Landing Permit, 2 May 1939, Commonwealth Department of the Interior.

[4] Tomson, Gordon, 9 July 1968, eulogy

[5] Passenger List, Ernst Muehlstein, NAA item 12135800

[6] Adelaide Advertiser 7 May 1941, Plans and Parties, page 7

[7] National Archives of Australia: A435, 1945/4/4997, Department of Immigration File, pages 25-26

[8] Milston, G, 16 May 1984, Letter to JD Cheesman, Architecture Museum, University of South Australia

[9] Adelaide Advertiser, 11 Sep 1940, Pictures for Spring Exhibition, page 16

[10] The News, 5 July 1941, Found Etchings at Hut in the Desert, page 2

[11] Thomson, Gordon, 9 July 1968, eulogy

[12] Cheesman Painting,

[13] De Crespigny Painting, 1941,

[14] Herald, 27 July 1942, West Point Features in Duntroon Building Plan,

[15] Council of Jewish Communities in Bohemia and Moravia, Red Cross Society of South Australia, 1 Nov 1946,

[16] City of Boroondara Municipal Wide Heritage Gap Study Vol.4: 6 Reeves Court Kew

[17] The Bulletin, 24 February 1954, Vol 75 No 3863, Personal Items, page 10


[19] Milston Papers, 1976.0025, Papers of Ernest Edward Milston, The University of Melbourne Archives, box 15