Robert Darroch, our inaugural Vice President, and Sandra Darroch, the inaugural Secretary, were guests at our Christmas Drinks in 2005 gathering.  Robert has sent us this eye witness account of the Society’s beginnings.

The Glebe Society was officially launched at a function in Glebe Town Hall in, I believe, 1968. (Ed: The Inaugural Meeting was held on 27 March 1969, and the first General Meeting on 19 June 1969 – Kate Smith, Bulletin 4/1975.)

If my memory serves me, Dr Kemp Fowler, who had some executive role at Sydney University and lived in Leichhardt Street, chaired the inaugural meeting.

We must have publicised the meeting well, for I think over 50 turned up (which, given the then low level of gentrification, was a surprisingly large number).  Yet I also seem to recall that it was held in a heavy storm, which may have deterred a few potential attendees.

Bernard Smith, Professor of Fine Arts at Sydney University, was elected the inaugural President.  I was elected vicepresident.  My wife Sandra was elected secretary.  Bernard’s wife Kate became social secretary.

I have a feeling that Max Solling was elected treasurer (though I may be wrong – Max was certainly involved in the launch of the Society, for I recall him hosting at least one pre-launch meeting in his rented premises in Glebe Point Road).

There was little or no involvement by “old Glebe” residents, many of who viewed what they saw as Paddington-type gentrification of “their” suburb with deep suspicion, bordering on hostility.

An interesting question to ask (and we asked it at the time – see my answer below) is: was there a viable or substantial “old Glebe” community in 1968? Were we obtruding into something important, even precious?  Were we responsible, perhaps, for its weakening, even its ultimate destruction?

I’ll go back to that in a moment.  For I want to return to the launch of the society, and what led up to it (for I gather the history of the society is being compiled).

Historically, it followed the establishment, first, of the Paddington Society,  then that society’s first “clone”, the Balmain Association (the inner-Sydney gentrification movement, having started in Paddington in the early 1960s, spread first, to Balmain, then to Glebe).

To a large extent, it was the example of the Paddington Society that played midwife to the Glebe Society, and led to its coming into existence.

Robert Darroch (photo by Andrew Craid)
Robert Darroch (photo by Andrew Craid)

The Paddington Society itself had been inspired by London’s Chelsea Society, which had been founded by a gentleman called Marsden-Smedley, possibly in the 1930s. His son, Luke Marsden-Smedley, a railway engineer, came out to Sydney in the late 1950s and, to his colleagues’ dismay, decided to settle in Paddington, then regarded as little more than a slum, ripe only for demolition.

Luke and John Thompson (poet and broadcaster), with the help of an architect called Gazzard, I think, resolved to “save” Paddington, and the Paddington Society, consciously modelled on the Chelsea Society, was one of their main instruments of preservation.

Sandra and I knew Luke and his wife Marigold very well because of our mutual friend, the artist Paul Delprat (we four were on the board of the Julian Ashton Art School – Paul being the great grandson of Julian Ashton).

At the time we were living in rented premises in South Street, Edgecliff, but hungered after a terrace house like Luke’s in Hargrave Street.

However, we couldn’t afford the Paddington prices (over $20,000 for anything at all decent), nor was Balmain much cheaper. But Glebe was.

Sandra and I were both going back to Sydney University to do courses (it was the Wyndham gap year), and so Glebe, adjacent to the university, was a logical place for us to look (besides, I knew a bit about Glebe – see below).

Around the same time, a number of Sydney University staff were also looking around Glebe for places to buy.  Some had already moved in.  Bernard Smith had just been appointed Professor of Fine Arts, and he had found a house in Avenue Road in the Toxteth estate.

So it turned out that, around the end of 1967, we ourselves found a lovely, undone-up terrace house around the corner from Avenue Road in Toxteth Road.  It cost $13,500, which we could just afford, mortgaging ourselves to the hilt.

At that stage we did not know Bernard and Kate.  However, we met soon after, and the idea of forming the Glebe Society was born.

The actual genesis of the Society took place at a meeting at Newington College, where Paul Delprat was the art master. Newington’s headmaster, Doug Traithem, had either just been sacked for his anti-Vietnam views, or was threatened with dismissal (by the then head of the ABC – Talbot Duckmanton – who was on the board of Newington).

Sandra was at this protest meeting (I was working that night on the Daily Telegraph) and she met there Bernard and Kate, who were also supporting Traithem.

They discovered that we lived within a few hundred yards of each other, having recently moved in.  I do not know if it was Sandra who suggested to Bernard forming a local society (I suspect, given the Marsden-Smedley connection, that it was), but in any case the suggestion was made, and a decision taken there and then to follow it up.

Which was all very well, but a lot had to be done before we could hold that inaugural meeting in Glebe Town Hall.

I was put in charge of the politics, which were very complex – far more complex than anyone realised.

The first thing was to find out what sort of place we were trying to “preserve”, what were the threats, what were the existing power structures, who were the community leaders (indeed, what were the existing community subsets), who were our allies, who our likely opposition, and so on.

There appeared to be two main threats. One was Parks Development, a big real estate “developer”, which was trying (very hard) to get the foreshore land, which was zoned “waterfront industrial”, even though the waterfront industries – timberyards, etc – were in terminal decay.

The fact that Max Solling worked for the Maritime Services Board, which was in charge of the foreshore land, was a plus for us, as was the fact that my father was high up in the Department of Main Roads (see below).

The other threat was what were called “three-storey walk-ups”.  For what was happening in Glebe was that developers (like Parkes Development) had moved in, and were actively demolishing old houses (Glebe was once a very fashionable suburb) and replacing them with threestorey, red-brick apartment blocks, of very low quality, and abutting directly on to the street.

And Leichhardt Council, the local authority, was being (suspiciously) compliant in this obvious rampant destruction of Glebe.

Oh, yes, and there was a third – and perhaps the greatest – threat, called “the Western Distributor”.This was a Main Roads plan – believe it or not – to drive an open-cut expressway through the heart of Glebe. Worse, it was to go through the middle of the Toxteth estate, and would have meant, for example, the destruction of the old Allen home – Toxteth House – then (as now) St Scholastica’s College.

We could not confront these horrors immediately, but it did give us a potential constituency. And so we began to enlist the incipient opposition to these threats to our preservation cause, along with “easy” support targets, such as the academics who were increasingly moving in – I recall that a Professor of Architecture lived around the corner from us in Mansfield Street.

But the key, it seemed to me, was Leichhardt Council.  And here there was a crucial local “power-broker” – the deputy Mayor, Les McMahon.

Les was a man on the make.  He was an official of the Plumbers’ Union, and an up-and-comer on the right of the Labor Party.  He lived with his family in a Housing Commission bungalow in Forest Lodge, behind the Lew Hoad Reserve. He had married the daughter of the local MP, Danny Minogue (who lived a few doors up from Bernard in Avenue Road). And he had just replaced the previous local Labor big-wig, “Doc” Foley (it was a very Irish-Catholic area, despite its Anglican origins).

Doc, who was still very much alive, and president of local Labor’s Glebe Point branch, was a rather seedy GP, whose surgery was in Glebe Point Road, near Boyce Street.  He had commandeered a concrete bus bench for his waiting room, and dispensed doctors’ certificates and local patronage in traditional Tammany fashion.  (Once he had commandeered a council steam-roller, so legend had it, repainted it, and sold it back to the council.)  Around the Wentworth Park Housing Commission estate was graffiti declaring “DOC FOLEY WEARS LACE UNDERPANTS”.

But Glebe was now Les’s bailiwick, and he viewed it as his stepping-stone to higher things (he eventually succeeded Jim Cope as the local MHR).  He immediately saw the emerging Glebe Society – for he would have soon seen our “recruiting” literature – as a threat, or challenge, to his “territory”.  And here he had in his vision the example of what had happened recently in Balmain, also Leichhardt Council territory.

Balmain, once the very cradle of Labor power in Sydney, was slipping away from the party, as gentrification and, even more worryingly, left-wing radicalism, set in.  Les and Labor had seen some of their branches in Balmain taken over by – horror of all horrors – the Trots (not Harold Park, but followers of Leon Trotsky).  The names Origlass and Wyner, Trotskyite Balmain Labor turncoats, had struck fear in local Labor throughout the Leichhardt Municipality. The last thing Les wanted was to see that repeated in his own backyard.

So it was a very concerned Les who sought a meeting with me in mid-1968 (a date which had other resonances – Detroit was burning, and Paris was in revolt).

First, he tried to come to grips with what we were after.  He took me around “his” Glebe, pointing out various items we might try to preserve (including the bandstand in Jubilee Park and the AIF memorial fronting what is now (surprise, surprise!) the Dr H.J. Foley Rest Park.

I told him we were more interested in the tiles on the steps of the houses in Victoria Road, and the Cape Cod architecture in Toxteth Road.  He confessed to me that, although he had lived all his life in Glebe, he had never “seen” those tiles before, nor realised they were of significance.

Strangely, but gradually, he began to look on me, and through me the nascent Glebe Society, as his educators about a Glebe he had never before realised existed.  (Eventually, we became friends.)

And it was because of this blossoming relationship (coupled with my fervent assurances that we had no political designs on or in Glebe) that he sent me to see the real power in Glebe – Father Roberts.

Father Roberts, with whom I was granted an audience in the Catholic presbytery in Woolley Street, grilled me on the motives behind what we were doing in the area. (I gathered that Les had told him that we were benign, but he wanted to hear for himself.)

However, his primary concern was not our political potential, nor even our preservation activities (though the fact that we were trying to save St Scholastica’s went down well with him). Rather it was our religious intentions.

It turned out that he had heard we were interested in saving Lyndhurst, the then almost derelict former mansion in Bellevue Street.  And residing in Lyndhurst, apparently, was a religious cult called “The Children of God”. Worse, its local leader had shown interest in our activities (naturally enough, as we wanted to save his premises), and Father Roberts was very afraid that we might be in cahoots with him and his sect.

What had happened, I learned out later, was that the sect was proselytising in the Catholic areas of Glebe (particularly in the Glebe church area between Parramatta Road and St Johns Road), and gaining converts among the young. When I laid his fears in this direction at rest, he gave his considerable imprimatur to our plans to form the Glebe Society.

And so, with local Labor and the Catholic Church on side, or at least neutralised, we were able to go ahead and hold our inaugural meeting in the Glebe Town Hall.

The rest is history.


As it happened, the Glebe Society did play a role in stopping the Western Distributor (which now goes through Lilyfield) and thus saving St Scholastica’s and much of Glebe Point. We also stopped any more three-storey “walk-up” developments.  And although we lost some foreshore land, most of it was saved.

And not only did we preserve the Cape Cod houses in Toxteth Road, and the more-significant Italianate villas in Allen Street and elsewhere, but we were present at the creation of the Federation style in Australia’s architectural history.  Bernard and I were walking along Bell Street one Sunday when we came to the house – “Montana” – on the corner of Boyce Street.  Bernard stopped and said: “You know, that style of house is now called ‘Queen Anne’. That’s not very appropriate.  It should have a better, more Australian name”. And he thought for a moment, then said: “It was probably built around 1900. I think that style should be called ‘Federation’ ” .  And so it has been, ever since.

Finally, what happened to us, the Darrochs? Well, around 1970, London beckoned.  So in 1971 we sold our house in Toxteth Road (doubling our investment) and sailed off to Europe.  With our windfall, we bought a large house in what was then the worst part of Notting Hill (we inherited 13 black tenants!). But we could see a suburb that was bound to rise.  And it did.  Alas, however, we sold too early.  The house we finally ended up in, before moving back to Sydney, we let go in 1992 for the equivalent of $600,000.  But Notting Hill continued to “improve”, and indeed accelerated.  That house is today worth the equivalent of $4 million.  Weep, weep.  Still, you can’t win them all.

And the local community? Were we responsible for its demise?  For I doubt if there is much left today as we found it in 1967/8.  Interestingly, I know something about that pre-Glebe-Society community, for my mother grew up in Wigram Road and later lived in Toxteth Road.  It was a tough, working-class community, very Irish-Catholic, as were Paddington and Balmain, pre-preservation-society.  But it was decaying by the time we middleclass yuppies started moving in.  To be frank, they – the pre-Glebe-Society community – looked on Glebe as a slum. It was a place to escape from, given any excuse, and as quickly as possible.  They didn’t take much pushing to quit for greener fields, perhaps at Winston Hills. But, also to be frank, what we in the Glebe Society were doing was restoring Glebe to what it was before its decline in the firs half of the last century – one of Sydney’s better suburbs, full of rare and marvellous buildings, as Bernard’s book, “The Architectural Character of Glebe” pointed out.  That, I hope, is what we will be remembered for.

– Robert Darroch, November 2005