These short articles are currently being published one at a time in the White Hat Melbourne Newsletter. As they form part of the weekly quiz in that newsletter, exact locations are not given. However it should take little research to unearth that information.
This article was first published in the White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.214 on 19 April 2007
Recent tragic events in Melbourne have led to the same setting being shown on television news night after night. For the reporters, it is just the scene of the current story, but for those who know Melbourne well it also conjures up other images.
In my case I see a tall proud man standing with his family on his estate surveying the railway in the distance. This is Sir John O’Shanassy, Victoria’s second premier and later premier twice more. I then see a picture of two politicians making their way down Collins Street. “Just look at Long John and Little Johnny going at each other” says one of the bystanders. John Fawkner, one of the co-founders of Melbourne stands about five feet tall in his socks and is commonly known as Little Johnny Fawkner. O’Shanassy is well over six feet and known as Long John O’Shanassy. There they go arguing their way down Collins Street with Little Johnny have to take three strides to Long John’s one.
Long John was born in Ireland and when his father died he was forced to leave school. He became apprentice to a draper and later married and in 1839 decided to head off to Sydney to see what opportunities awaited in a new colony. At that time, shipping from England usually docked at the new settlement of Melbourne before heading on to Sydney. In Melbourne we spotted those who were strongest, most intelligent, most attractive and those whose business skills were capable of generating wealth and opportunities for others and we persuaded them to stay. The rest we sent on to Sydney. Long John was persuaded to stay and set of to the Westernport area to try his hand at farming, but the drought defeated him. He returned to Melbourne and set up a drapers store in Collins Street. He knew he had a fine wife but it was only then that he began to realise how fine. Margaret was an astute businesswoman and the drapery business thrived allowing John to turn his attention to making a difference in society through politics. This did not of course preclude a continuing interest in business. He floated the Melbourne and Suburban Railway Company in 1857. In the population boom associated with the gold rush, private railways were pushing their way into the newly establishing suburbs of Melbourne. There was money to be made and there was no point waiting for governments to do such things.
By now Long John is three times premier of Victoria. The Irish immigrant with limited schooling coming from the mercantile classes is able to hold the top office in this prestigious colony with gold money flowing in as if there is no tomorrow. Of course, those from more prestigious backgrounds are not likely to forget his ‘lower class’ background. That is why he purchased 6 hectares of land in the Camberwell area and had an impressive mansion built there. He called it ‘Tara’. Tara was the seat of the ancient kings of Ireland, and although he is no longer King of Victoria in the form of Premier, he still regards himself as a kingmaker. During his years as Premier, Mrs O made sure there was still money coming in. “As long as you oppose payment for politicians John” she said “then if you want me to cut ribbons I’ll be doing it at the drapery store where we can make a profit out of it in order to support the family.” Mrs O, as first lady of Victoria, continued to operate the Collins Street drapery. Long John was determined to show that new money did not equate to lack of taste. Tara was built in Italian Renaissance Style long before that became fashionable in Melbourne. Inside there are reproductions from Ghiberti's Baptistery Doors in Florence. Sir John plays host at Tara to the sort of society dinners that he could never have aspired to back in Ireland. During the soirees the favourite piece is no doubt The Harp that once through Tara’s Halls.
Sir John stands out the front of Tara with the family. He has recently been accused of influencing the path of the Camberwell railway. Instead of continuing a straight line through Camberwell it makes a long curve to the right and up an unnecessarily steep grade before entering Camberwell Station as if to keep its distance from Tara. “Long John loves railways but not in his back yard” say the locals. They weren’t always that disrespectful. They were happy to live in ‘BallyShanassy’ but have now renamed that to Burwood Village.
The O’Shanassy family continued to live at Tara until the turn of the century. Since then there have been a number of owners until it was bought by the Anglican Church in 1951 who named it after the first Bishop of Australia. These various owners have subdivided and sold off the land of the estate until Tara is now confined to a large suburban block.
But, back to the news. The images of Tara continue to be shown in the local tragic news story. It is now called Broughton Hall.
This article was first published in the White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.310 of 30th April 2009
This article can now be found at The White Hat Guide to Raheen.
No.3 - The Myer Family Home - Cranlana
Melbourne after the gold rush saw a lot of ‘new money’. When this new money came easily it was often invested in the McMansions of the time. Melburnians often regard these demonstrations that wealth doesn’t always mean taste as ‘examples of Melbourne’s grand heritage’.
Then there were those who with little or no money were through their own enterprise able to establish sustainable businesses that employed many people in the growing settlements. Numbers of them did not feel the need to build showy mansions and, at the same time, helped establish Melbourne as the undisputed philanthropy capitol of Australia.
One such was Simcha Myer Baevski. Arriving from Russia, he set up in the schmutter trade in The Lane (as Flinders Lane was then called). Later, they shifted to Bendigo and set up a small store but things didn’t go well. Now, if Sidney had an MBA he would know that trading conditions were not currently conducive to retail and that mail order catalogues were disrupting traditional buying patterns and as a result he should write a new detailed business plan or exit the industry. Sidney didn’t have an MBA but he had a violin. And like any good Russian Jew, at night he could make it sing and make it cry and make it give comfort and make it talk. Maybe it was the violin that told him that if the customers would not come to him, he should go to them. He obtained a hawkers cart and headed out door to door. He had very little English at this stage but Mrs Bendigo, her face flushed and hands red raw from scrubbing felt somehow quite special standing on the front step draped in a piece of cloth that Sidney assured her “suited her complexion”. She did have a little money which she was putting aside for something else but he was such a well-mannered man - not the sort you normally meet in the street - and, after all, it really did suit her complexion.
Years later Sidney, who had dropped his last name and was just known as Sidney Myer, would enjoy spending time on the floor in his Melbourne department store and assist new staff with their first sale. “The customer is special - without them you or I don’t have a job - so we have to make the act of buying a special occasion for them.”
But back to the Myer family home. Sidney’s first marriage had no issue - although the matter of whether the divorce was legal under Australian law was a different issue. He then married a certain Miss Ballieu - a name that may ring a bell He was to die as (unknighted) Sidney Myer and she as Dame Merlyn Myer - the honours and lack thereof being another issue for another time. For the new family house, a house which had been built about 20 years earlier in Toorak was purchased. Over time it saw a number of additions and extensions but always remained understated compared with the Victorian McMansions of an earlier generation. The department store in Bourke Street was another matter. The crown of the art deco building was the wonderful island windows with their sense of magic and something special inside. The store might be flamboyant but the family home wasn’t. After all, it was the customer who needed to feel special - not the proprietor. The art deco windows have long since gone and successive restorations have left only token facades of the original art deco building - but then Melbourne has always valued facades over architecture.
Back at the family home, the most important creation was the addition of a sunken garden. This remains as possibly one of the finest sunken gardens of its type in Australia. The designer engaged for the work was Desbrowe Annear. We have already mentioned his work in one of Melbourne’s Hidden Gems for his design of the beautiful Springthorpe Memorial which you can see at: http://www.whitehat.com.au/Melbourne/People/Desbrowe-Annear.asp
The garden was important not only for family activities but for informal entertaining of staff of all levels from the department store. Today members of the Myer family still live there and because the house does not make a showy presence, the only indication is the Myer crest on the gate. As a family home, you are unlikely to have a chance to look inside, but never mind. You can head along to the Sidney Myer Music Bowl and listen to the Sidney Myer free concerts - both bequeathed to Melbourne by Sidney and the Myer family. If you do, listen closely to the solo violin and see if it has a message for you.
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Some links related to historic homes on this site
7 Melbourne Mansions
Black Rock House
Government House, Melbourne
La Trobe's Cottage
Le Page Homestead
Myer Mural Hall
Point Cook Homestead
Portabe Iron Houses
The Mansion at Werribee Park
The Wheeler Centre