Jane and I moved to Glebe in the late 1970s, the outcome of a conversation on a bus with a teaching colleague from Tempe High. I was chatting with Stella about our plans to move from a semi in Leichhardt to a freestanding house in Stanmore. Stella gave me a bit of advice – ‘Glebe’s good’ she said and left it at that.
And so the search for the freestanding house in Stanmore ended at a two-storey terrace in Darling St Glebe – No 4. The house, built in the 1890s, was originally owned by John and Winifred Hickey. John died in 1928 and Winifred in 1957 and the house was for sale now following the death of their eldest child Meg in 1977. The ownership had passed to five Hickey descendants, but Meg continued to live there as a condition of her father’s will which granted occupancy for her lifetime as an unmarried daughter. Our purchase process was quite a nightmare – an Old System title and three of the four remaining inheritors dying before the sale was finalised (one of them intestate) leaving their wills to be sorted before a settlement could be reached. The sale took 2½ years to complete and included a fair deal of legal wrangling about the agreed sale price, owing to a property boom in the late 70s. By the time the house was settled, $36,000 sounded pretty cheap. While we waited for settlement we rented a house in Rosebank St, the Leichhardt semi long sold.
Number 4 Darling St was a solid house, but nothing had been spent on maintenance or Meg’s comfort for many years. I remember my parents’ alarm when they first saw the inside of the house and their incredulity at our enthusiasm for its potential. With the help of a mate who had some good tradesmen contacts, we became the owner/builders in the traditional terrace makeover, saving whatever features could be saved, but having to replace/renew many parts. We stayed in Rosebank St until this work was finished, some 12 more months, meeting tradesmen before and after work and making some pretty important decisions by torchlight on the run. Thinking it was our forever house, we spared no expense. By the time the renovations were complete, we had a massive mortgage – more than $30,000 from memory – and laybys all over Sydney.
But in 1986 we found another house that we thought we liked even better. We weren’t actually looking, but it was only across the road – 11 Darling St. The ‘For Sale’ sign went up one Friday night and after a very quick look inside on Saturday morning, Garry White put our offer of $150,000 (the asking price) to the vendors and it was accepted. The attraction of this house was the vacant block of land next door – 13 Darling St – also on the title. 11-13 Darling St had been Robert and Florence Stokes’ home. Robert Stokes was said to have been a gardener on the Lyndhurst Estate, buying the land for his house when the estate was reduced in size. The street front was a now disused fruit and vegetable shop and across both of the blocks at the rear was a disused two-storey corrugated iron shed where children’s furniture had been made. Florence died in 1929 and Robert in 1931. By 1986, the only remaining Stokes descendant was their youngest child Ada. We had caught an occasional glimpse of Ada in our days at No 4, most memorably one December afternoon as she waited in the street for her lift. She was wearing a splendid tulle and lace dress, caught at the waist with a flared three-quarter length skirt, looking remarkably like Fonteyn in Swan Lake. By the time the house was for sale, Ada was in care. Jan Craney bought No 4.
Built in about 1900 the Stokes house, like the Hickey house when we first saw it, was now quite run down. The only hot water came from a latter-day shower installed in the downstairs rear of the house in what had been an undercover, but doorless, laundry/stable area. The demarcation between the shower and the rest of the concrete slab was a row of bricks; the copper and the tubs were still sturdily in place but the once open access was now shielded from the weather by a flimsy plywood cut-out shape, roughly matching the large arched entrance way from the garden.
We thought we could do it all again … but we didn’t. We both now worked long office hours, had nowhere else to live while any repair work was being done (the shed was uninhabitable) and the house simply beat us. We got hot water for our washing up by filling buckets under the shower rose and then completing the task in plastic storage bins resting on a wooden board (cut to measure!) laid across the laundry tubs – one bin for washing and one for draining. We soaked our worn clothes in buckets of Napisan and washed them in the shower; the big stuff went to the laundromat. The single power point in the kitchen fused the first week we were there; an array of extension cords and multi-socketed power boards snaked from the working power point in the laundry/bathroom to various appliances in the adjoining kitchen. The only running water (cold) in the kitchen came from a tap above a small enamel shaving basin. Did I mention that our fridge was also in the laundry/bathroom, directly opposite the only toilet in the house?
None of this stopped us or the neighbour’s cat Moya from enjoying ourselves. Moya was initially and reluctantly allowed only a few paw steps through the kitchen door before being shooed home. The next exclusion zone was the lounge room. Next the way upstairs. Next the bedroom. Moya played an indifferent role when we sold the house – a mere flick of the tail and one eye occasionally opened in response to ‘how cute’ as people passed by her slumbering form in the middle of the bed. But every morning around 5 am, she let out her ‘release me now’ meow, in order to put in an appearance at the neighbour’s house.
We always felt welcome in Darling St. The street was in transition, from mostly older ‘battlers’ who seemed to have come to the area via a boarding house on the corner of St Johns Rd and Darling St during the Depression and later bought in the street, to a wave of younger newcomers. When we gave a spare key to Agnes at No 1 to let in a delivery man while we were at work, she showed us where she’d keep it. She placed it on a nail on the back of her front door, our key completing her numbered set from 1 to 30.
Our goodbye dinner at No 11 for Agnes when she left to join her children and grandchildren in country NSW was on a Sunday night. We thought Sunday was a safe bet for us all: the ‘oldies’ Agnes, Trixie from No 7 and Mrs Mac from No 19 would want to be back home in bed by 9pm or so and we’d be fine for work the next day. Sometime after midnight, Jane and I were showing signs of real tiredness. We’d been regaled with stories about the sly grog shop at No 3 where Pearly Redmond played the piano naked and in full view from the street. Trixie recalled her alarm when unsavoury callers mistook her house for Pearly Redmond’s, especially as Trixie had her ‘kiddies’ asleep upstairs. Our moving from one side of the street to the other was apparently perfectly normal behaviour in Darling St and a full list of like residents was provided. On a sadder note was the rumoured unspoken antipathy between the Catholic Hickeys and the Protestant Stokes. Meg Hickey and Ada Stokes, both unmarried and living alone in their later years, were thought to have never spoken to each other.
A friend staying with us at No 11 after a relationship broke up viewed the backyard shed as therapy. She demolished it. We later watched a cloud of termites hatch simultaneously from the remaining wooden pillars. The swarm of this looked like a tumble weed. Who knows where they were headed …
We did a little work at No 11. Upstairs got a very smart new black and white bathroom, but the idea of the single-storey freestanding house never left us. Only this time, it would definitely have to be in Glebe. We moved to 30 Arcadia Rd in 1992, a house with many power points, along with the gifted Moya – ‘gifted’ as in a farewell present from our delightful No 9 neighbour, not in the sense of any semblance of intelligence.
30 Arcadia Rd has no rear access. It is perched on the cliff top above Harold Park and sunset views to the west are spectacular. The house was liveable from day one and the location provided our first brush with possums, bats and street parties. Unlike the stable occupancy of our two earlier Glebe houses, this house had regularly changed ownership and we learnt little about its former occupants. Our only tale came from a woman we saw standing in the street one day with her granddaughter, pointing out our house to her. She told us she’d boarded there during her Teachers’ College days in the 40s with a widow whose harness-racing husband had been killed in a track accident. Once inside the house she clearly recalled its original layout and her then unobstructed view of the racetrack from her bedroom window.
But there were problems. Not with race night itself – ‘Would the riders for Race 6 please assemble in the marshalling area’ was about as loud as it got, with the exuberant and bustling exception of Miracle Mile night – but any opposition by affected locals to the $25 million refurbishment of Harold Park in the mid 90s was clearly identified as self-interest. The community as a whole would benefit from the new hockey field in the centre of the race track. A few locals did successfully lobby for the closure of the Maxwell Rd entrance and against the plan to open grandstand access via a walkway at the bottom of Arcadia Rd. But this lobbying business was very tiring work and our shirking from the need for constant vigilance planted the seed for yet another move. We had no idea what lay ahead for the Harold Park site, but whatever it might be, our house was in the thick of it.
Moya was buried in the front garden at 30 Arcadia Rd. She died peacefully at home in October 2000, well satisfied with Sydney’s Olympic performance. Within a year she was replaced by Bankie and Max, both painstakingly lured from the wild cat colony at Bankstown TAFE.
And so another round of house hunting began. Nothing across the road was for sale and Sydney was going through yet another property boom. We pretty much knew the desirability of every street and laneway in Glebe by this time. The answer was staring us in the face – Glebe Point Rd itself! In 2003 we moved to a house originally owned by Ben Stone, a former Council alderman and the owner of the Waratah Stove Company. The house name plate ‘Waratah’ is still intact. This house met all our essential requirements – immediately liveable, plenty of power points and mostly on one level. And it too came with a two storey rear ‘shed’, only this was a conversion of Ben Stone’s billiard room and pigeon loft into a very comfortable living space. And by 2009, both of us now retired, we had the time, energy and an on-site getaway for yet another go at that renovation thing.
We have no plans to move again. The house is very comfortable and the neighbourhood is wonderful. But those places across the road look pretty good …
Bankie the ‘good’ cat died in 2014. No garden burials this time; he was cremated. Max the ‘other’ cat is yet to join him.