From the street 50-52 Warren Road looks like a typical 1930s Art Deco block of flats, side by side, with beautiful colour variation in the bricks which make them stand out.
But in a twist on today’s development practice, where the façade of a property is kept and the rest demolished, here we have the reverse.
Behind the brick facade from the late 1930s sit two large villas built in 1886-1887.
Now there is a DA before council to demolish all the structures and build a ‘boarding house’ with an underground carpark.
How did the villas get built, joined together and converted to an Art Deco block of flats? What can these buildings tell us about the development of Marrickville?
The first thing to note is that the buildings sit on Gadigal/Wangal land taken by the British and then parcelled out to various men to help build the new colony of New South Wales.
By 1865 the land was owned by Laurence Harnett (Harnett Avenue) who worked in the NSW Legislative Assembly. Laurence came from a family which had been one of the first to take land in the Monaro area around Cooma. It is said that his mother was one of the first white women to walk on that land.
The second thing to know about Marrickville is that its beginnings are linked to the wealthy and those close to power.
Laurence moved to Sydney and worked in the parliament being made Sergeant at Arms in 1873. He remained in the job until retirement in 1909. He purchased 26 acres of land in Marrickville and had a large house and stables built which he named ‘Harnleigh’ (an amalgamation of his parent’s family names; Harnett and Hensleigh).
The Harnett connection to Marrickville and the New South Wales parliament is deep. Two of Laurence’s sisters married men from Marrickville who were also involved in the parliament.
Mary Anne Harnett married Gerald Halligan in 1853. Instrumental in the creation of Marrickville, Gerald was Marrickville’s first mayor (called Chairman at the time) and also was to become Under Secretary of the NSW Department of Public Works.
Another sister, Elizabeth, married Adolphus Clapin in 1859. Adophus was Assistant to John Jackson Calvert, Clerk in the Legislative Council Chamber, who also lived in Marrickville. Clapin’s Fernbank Estate sat next to Calvert’s Woodlands Estate.
All these men have streets named for them; Gerald Street, Calvert Street and Fernbank Street.
Breaking up the Estate
Laurence began to sell off his land in the early 1880s. The first sale took place in 1882 and there were subsequent sales in 1885, 1886, and 1887. Eventually the land where 50 and 52 Warren Road sit was sold to William Roach (Roach Street) who then subdivided and sold it on.
The new buyer was builder George Lynch Blunt.
The mid-1880s was a boom time for Marrickville. The suburb had greatly expanded with more industry, a tram service and a new railway line expected to pass through the area; it would finally open in 1895. With this boom land had become valuable, especially those estates near the transport hubs. Many builders (the developers of their day) were buying up lots, building on them and then quickly selling.
Someone who also bought lots at Harnleigh at this time was a builder we have talked about elsewhere, Sydney Cabban. (See The three eras of Otaki).
George Blunt had built two villas (our 50 and 52) by 1887 and sold them immediately. Number 50 sold to Eliza Morphy and 52 to Ninian Melville, or more specifically, his wife Mary.
Number 52 Owners
Ninian Melville was also connected to the NSW parliament as a politician of some renown at the time. The son of a convict he had entered a trade (cabinetmaking) and then parliament where he sat for 14 years. He was something of a controversial figure, once sued by a fellow parliamentarian for assault in the chamber of the house.
Being such a fiery figure and in financial difficulties at this time, it is likely that Mr Melville purchased the house in his wife’s name to ensure she could retain it if any difficulties arose. Through all this he still managed to become mayor of Newtown in 1882 and of Ashfield in 1896 (he represented Summer Hill ward). Mary Melville died in 1932 and the title went to her daughter, Lilian. She kept ownership of the house until 1938, when it is likely its frontage was connected to number 50, as by then the Jones family had entered the picture. But more of them later.
Number 52 Residents
From at least 1889 the villa was occupied by the headmasters of Marrickville West Public School (MWPS). The very first Headmaster of MWPS was William Roberts and he remained at number 52 until 1894 when his replacement Michael Dwyer arrived. Michael’s more famous wife Kate is discussed in ‘Marrickville women at war’.
When the Dwyers left the villa remained connected to education through the work of Miss Jean Brodie (no relation). Jean Brodie, who may or may not have been in her prime, ran a private school in the house until she retired in 1918. She then moved a few doors down to number 46 where she died in 1929.
Lilian sold the house in 1938 to the Joneses and the transfer of ownership from the rich and powerful to those of humbler origin was complete. Albert Jones was a gas fitter, Kate was his wife and William Jones was a motor mechanic. I believe they altered this building and number 50 because William had title to number 50 in 1935.
The story of how number 50 gets to join with 52 is different but just as telling. George Blunt sold the house to Mrs Eliza Morphy very shortly after it was built. There is very little to be found about Eliza other than she was a widow living in Camperdown at the time of the purchase. She also appears to have developed a business relationship with a Queenslander called Richard King. Their names appear as residents at number 50, called ‘Ravenswood’ between 1888 and 1892.
Richard King is inextricably linked to the mining industry in Ravenswood, north Queensland and in particular the town of Totley just 2km’s away. Richard created the first silver mine in Totley in 1881/82. To raise more capital he launched the Ravenswood Silver Mining Company in Sydney in 1882 and helped start a mini silver rush around Totley which led to the creation of the town in 1886. Like some wild west story the King family ran the town. Richard was MD of the company, “Edward was the mine manager, William owned the boarding house and store; and George ran the brickworks. Over half the streets of the township were named after King family members”. (1) But the rush only lasted a short time and Richard sold the company in 1888.
Eliza sold the house in 1891 to George James, who was also a school teacher. But again, we know very little of Mr James other than he remained in the house, keeping the name ‘Ravenswood’, until his death. The family retained ownership until 1935 when William Jones bought it.
The two houses remained under the Jones’s ownership until the 1970’s when they were sold separately only to be reunited under one owner by 1978.
While on the surface these buildings look to be examples of the Art Deco boom of the 1930s, their back story tells us something of the development of Marrickville. A story of a time when it was considered a desirable residence for the wealthy, a respectable distance from the dirty city. A time when rich and well-connected people owned large estates and properties, then sold them off as the city encroached. And how in the end the city did engulf them and changed Marrickville’s character completely, just as the character of these houses changed.
(1) Queensland Govt. Website. https://apps.des.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=600457
*Image: Gerald Halligan. Marrickville 75 years of progress. 1861-1936. Compiled by The Marrickville Council.
*Image: Laurence Harnett. Fairfax Corporation. (1900). Sergeant-at-arms Laurence Joseph Harnett at the parliament offices, Sydney, 6 June 1905 Retrieved April 6, 2021, from http///nla.gov.au/nla.obj-157680809
*Image: John J Calvert. http://digital.sl.nsw.gov.au. State Library of NSW File Number 1863390 IE Number 1863382
*Image: Ninian Melville. http://digital.sl.nsw.gov.au. State Library of NSW File Number FL1792568 IE Number 1792562