SUE JACKSON Therapist | Writer | Photographer | Activist

An avid blogger for the last fifteen years, I believe in the power of the word to change the world. I have participated in, and reported on, a range of protests during this period, including the successful East-West Link campaign and, more recently, our wonderful, home-grown Extinction Rebellion (XR). If you believe, like I do, that it is time for ordinary people to rise up in defence of the planet, I encourage you to explore this blog, share it with your networks, and – of course – take action.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Until next year - Happy Birthday House!

Happy 136th Birthday, Frances!

The party might be over for this year's Happy Birthday House!, but bear with me because I haven't yet finished the story of our own home.
I explained how the first owners, the Hawkins, were a coach painter (him) and a professor of music (her). It is lovely to imagine live music filling this house since its very beginnings. But try as I might - and I checked the newspapers, local music schools and even nearby Melbourne University's archives (where there were no women professors at all listed for that era) - I could find no trace of a Mrs J Hawkins.
I suspect that the couple lived a respectable, low-key life.
I had a momentary thrill when I discovered a Mr John Hawkins who twice took the stand in the local Court. The first time he appeared as the plaintiff, assaulted by 'a perfect stranger', one 'Mr Charles Lacy, a middle-aged man, apparently in comfortable circumstances', who paid his debt to society, if not to Mr Hawkins, with 'five bright sovereigns'. Then I saw another side to Mr Hawkins, when he turned vigilante, chasing a robber running out of a boot shop down Johnston street before making a citizen's arrest.
It was only much later that I learned that this John Hawkins was not our coach painter, but rather a shoemaker. Come to think of it, that might explain why he put himself at risk chasing the villain who stole the boots. He knew first hand just how much effort had gone into making them.
Neither 'my' John Hawkins nor his wife ever appeared in Court, which is why I surmise they were respectable. And the coach painter was only once reported in the press, when in 1886 at an event that sounded like a big yawn, he presented an essay  'historically and descriptively' to a roads improvement society.
Perhaps sick of the 'obnoxious vapour' emanating from the 'stagnating pools' in the nearby Edinburgh Gardens, in 1900 the Hawkins made their sea change. They moved to Meek Street Brighton, within walking distance of the pier, the municipal baths and the yacht club. I can easily imagine John G on a sunny morning, whistling as he meandered through the marina, unobtrusively inspecting and tut-tutting to himself about the shoddy paint work on some of the yachts.
The Hawkins retained their house in Fitzroy as an investment property. It was occupied by a succession of single tradesmen, until in 1912 a Miss N.E Balchin, 'teacher of pianoforte' arrived. Miss Balchin is the heroine of my story.  And below is the crime scene of Obscene Demands of Docile Young Woman.

Yes - all roads do lead to the Fitzroy Town Hall

With the arrival in 1917 of her brother, Henry George, and her musical sister to share her home, Miss N.E was instantly demoted. From a self-described 'teacher of pianoforte' she became a mere 'music teacher'. I wonder if her brother, who was a bricklayer, thought she was getting above her station and pressured her to make the change. If so, that was not the first time she had been put in her place by a man.
The Fitzroy City Press in February 1906 featured a lengthy article on the Napier Street School concert held, you might not be surprised to hear, at the nearby Fitzroy Town Hall. The male journalist rhapsodised about the packed programme, all of which was supported by Miss N.E Balchin on piano.
We heard how '"It's no joke to be a baby" was recited by the infants with a very good conception of action and humour. The Bell exercises were musical and pretty, and the floral dances by senior pupils were decidedly picturesque and graceful. Hoop drill by the little ones, and an Irish jig by little Miss Williams were the chief attractions.' The programme went on and on.
Yet all the reporter, clearly no stranger to hyperbole, had to say of our heroine was 'Miss Balchin accompanied satisfactorily on the piano'. 'Satisfactorily'! - I think she deserved a medal for stamina. And even at such a distance, I can still feel her smarting.

As you can probably tell, I haven't quite finished the story of our house. Next time look out for the tale of Torn Apart Kiwi Lovers Reunited in Paradise  

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Hooray - Happy Birthday House!

The big weekend has finally rolled around. We Fitzroy residents/researchers have turned revellers to salute some of our suburb's oldest buildings, beneath the banner: Happy Birthday House! Of course every celebration needs a party and no party is complete without balloons, so I made sure I collected mine from the hallowed steps of the Fitzroy Town Hall first thing yesterday. And as I look out the window now, I can see them tied to the front gate whipping about in the breeze.

With 'Jolly Jo' and Tom Keel of the Fitzroy Residents' Association at Fitzroy Town Hall

I was particularly looking forward to meeting up with some fellow local history nuts. And they didn't disappoint.
I've always wondered why the Town Hall was built where it is, with no view of mountains or expanses of water as is usual for such grand municipal buildings. The only view from our town hall is of a row of modest houses and of course, as it's Australia, a pub. Jo and Tom were able to enlighten me.
Apparently, the city elders settled on the site simply because they could get it for free. Perhaps they intended one day to move elsewhere, but that never happened. But, as far as I'm concerned, it couldn't be better placed. 
It is just so unexpected and quirky to be wandering along the back streets and to stumble upon such a grand building. I know when I first saw it I could hardly believe my eyes. Also, as we Aussies pride ourselves on our egalitarian roots, why shouldn't the most eminent building in Fitzroy be no ivory tower, but instead located right in the thick of things, where ordinary people go about their lives?
There's not much Tom doesn't know about the neighbourhood, and he pointed me in the direction of what are believed to be its oldest houses.

These three 'One-up, One-down'ers at numbers 4,6 & 8 Moor Street were built in 1851 

This row of tiny houses were probably workers' cottages. I was intrigued when I realised that I had recently come across the home of a very close neighbour of theirs constructed around exactly the same time. But this one couldn't have been more different.
Rather than being built of solid bluestone like the one-up, one-downers, the house located at 42 Moor Street was made from corrugated iron, that 'wonder material' of the 19th century. Instead of being built to last, it was designed to be dismantled and portable. Rather than being made on site by local tradesman, the iron house was pre-fabricated probably in Manchester, England, packed in a wooden crate and transported to Australia by ship.
Lucky for us, 'Bellhouse' was rescued from demolition by the National Trust, and you can visit it, as I did, at 399 Coventry Street, South Melbourne.

Bellhouse - believed to be the only remaining example of the work of Edward T Bellhouse

I couldn't help wondering what the the next-door neighbours made of the iron house. It was easy to imagine them hanging out of their upstairs windows and exchanging asides as the strange-looking kit home took shape next door. They must have been blown away if the advertising was correct - which I know is highly unlikely - that 'from their simplicity of construction they can be erected in a few hours'.

Glass Terrace Gertrude Street - Celebrating its 159th Birthday any day now

I can quite understand why Andrew Levy, who lived in Glass Terrace in 1878 was dismayed at the loss of two of his favourite pieces of jewellery - a gold ring and an egg-shaped pearl. All I can say is that I did by best, Andrew. I had a good hunt around, but drew a blank. Sorry.

You might have noticed that, because I always drop everything for a party, I haven't fulfilled my promise to tell you more about the seedier side of old Fitzroy. And especially the tale of the Obscene Demands of Docile Young Woman.
But watch this spot.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Sherlock Holmes: Who Needs Him? (Happy Birthday House! 2)

In researching our house I have unearthed dead ends, tantalising 'maybes', plenty of material for fantasy and a few concrete facts.
Fact one is that the house was built in 1885.
Before that, it was a mere twinkle in the eye of one James D P Edwards, 'builder and architect', who lived in the same block. He was ideally located because his neighbours included  two gardeners, two ironmongers, two carpenters, a mason and a hatter (whose services, I'm sure, were indispensable for tradesmen braving Melbourne's icy winters).  No doubt James D P utilized many of those neighbours' talents constructing his residential empire.
I forgot to mention that the tradesmen's ranks also included a coach painter, Mr John G Hawkins. Together with his wife 'Mrs J Hawkins (Professor of Music)', John G was our home's first occupant and the person for whom I believe the house was custom built. I know that is quite a claim, but hear me out.

Our stable - oops - kitchen ceiling

As I mentioned in my last post, I was lucky enough to have been taken under the wing of Lina Favrin, Information Services Officer, at the Fitzroy Library. Lina managed to locate our house on one of the earliest Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works maps. In what is now our kitchen, there was a beautifully inscribed 'S', which indicates the location of a stable.
This made sense because the kitchen ceiling is very different from the ornate plaster ceilings elsewhere in the house. Its burnished planks have always reminded me of below decks on a boat, so it seems fitting that the kitchen was probably the site of transportation, even if of a non-nautical nature. It's easy to imagine visiting horses tethered there, feed bags around their necks, waiting patiently for John G to put the finishing touches to their owner's coaches.
Speaking of horses, I'm aware that last time I promised you a tale of Run-away Horses. This really did happen in old Fitzroy, at least in one instance I discovered. And that day the hero was none other than James D P Edwards himself.
I was proud to learn via the local Fitzroy City Press, under the heading 'A Miraculous Escape', that our builder was not only a skilled designer but a man of steel.
One day in 1886, the very year that the Hawkins moved into our house, James D P was being driven around on business by 'his man', who 'turned a corner too sharply' with the result that their gig overturned and they were thrown violently to the ground. (It's just so hard to get good staff!). Fortunately, our hero managed to keep his head as well as catching the horse's, thus preventing the horse from bolting. While the men only suffered a 'severe shaking', the gig's splash board was broken - perhaps to the advantage of John G's coffers.
The talents of James D P Edwards didn't just stop at design/building knowhow and physical strength. He was also a fine word smith and, something that I greatly appreciate, a local activist. And it's to him that I owe the second tale that I promised you last time - Illegal Burial Grounds.

Dead dogs' cemetery no more: the magnificent Edinburgh Gardens today

On his morning constitutional in the nearby Edinburgh Gardens one day in 1883, James D P spotted something disturbing. Noticing a 'huge box with trap door attached' adjacent to patches on the ground that had obviously been recently dug, the intrepid builder concluded that people were burying dead dogs in the park. He promptly shot off this protest letter to the Mercury and Weekly Courier: 'I should like to know if this is what we pay rates for, to have brought into our midst the germs of typhoid fever... We have enough to put up with in the obnoxious vapour arising from the numerous stagnating pools around us, without making a cemetery for dead dogs in the centre of what is placed at the disposal of the resident as a recreation reserve, as well as to improve the healthiness of the locality.' Go James D P!

Check out my next post for another true story from the seamy side of early Fitzroy: Obscene Demands of Docile Young Woman.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Happy Birthday House!

I'm a history student from way back, so when I read a flyer in our local library - where else? - encouraging residents to research their houses, I was delighted. For one thing, it gave me an excuse to hang around more in libraries, which are just about my favourite places, and to confer more with librarians, who are just about my favourite people. Also, ever since we moved to inner-city Melbourne thirty years ago, the whole family has been intensely curious about our home's history and its previous occupants, so I grabbed the opportunity to learn more.
The flyer was the brainchild of the Fitzroy Residents Association. Under the banner 'Happy Birthday House!' the FRA hopes to increase the participation of fellow Fitzroy residents (who occupy some of Melbourne's oldest homes) in the National Trust Heritage Festival, which starts later this month. The actual FRA Birthday Party will be on 20 April.

The State Library of Victoria didn't really fall down. This is just a sculpture in its forecourt

I got my birthday wish well in advance of the party though because my investigations led me straight to libraries.
First I spent time at the State Library of Victoria, where I learned heaps about getting started at an introduction to geneaology seminar. Participants got to sit beneath the famous dome at leather-topped desks with swan-necked reading lamps that would have looked right at home in the London of Sherlock Holmes. It was the perfect setting for people bent on following in the great detective's footsteps.

Doctor Watson - where are you? 

From there I moved on to the wonderful Fitzroy Library. By the way, the adjoining Town Hall, or to be more precise, the hall's steps, will be the venue for the party. Revellers will meet there and each will be presented with a balloon decorated with salient details about their home's history, for displaying on their fences to impress passers-by.

Party venue and Fitzroy library

At the Fitzroy Library, I settled in the research room, which I had mainly to myself for the duration and where the highly-skilled librarian, aka Information Service Officer, Lina Favrin, took me in hand. She began by reacquainting me with the vagaries of microfiche, which I learned the hard way can make you nauseous if you look at them too long without a break. Lina introduced me to the Sands and McDougall post office directories, rate books and the frail and musty-smelling Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works maps.
I spent a delightful few days at the library, immersed in the past and only occasionally emerging, blinking in the sunshine, to relax under a tree in the tiny park opposite.
Last time I had devoted myself so single-mindedly to historical research was as a twenty-year-old Uni student. It was sheer pleasure to re-visit that time - with no thesis looming - and to experience all over again just how satisfying discovering a few ancient puzzle pieces can be.

Run-away horses. Illegal burial grounds. Obscene demands of docile young women. Who needs Holmes' London? Read my next post to hear all about the seamy side of early Fitzroy.