Bert Birtles self-published Black Poppies in 1924. It included a sketch of the young poet by his relative B. E. Minns.

By Lyn Collingwood, Bulletin 7/2018

After their marriage on 23 August 1923 newlyweds Bert and Dora Birtles were in digs at Ellangowan, 1 Stewart St, for about a year, living on her teaching salary and playing their gramophone day and night. While there Bert, in a limited edition on art paper, self-published his verse collection Black Poppies. Included were ‘Beauty’ (its subject matter physical love) and ‘Satisfied Desire’. Dedicated to ‘D’, it had first appeared in the Sydney University student magazine Hermes and brought about the expulsion of its author, charged with ‘committing misconduct in writing a poem’.

Studying philosophy at night, a Socialist and a proponent of the Free Love Society, Bert met Dora Toll, at university on an Exhibition and a Teacher’s College scholarship, early one evening in a Fisher Library queue in the quadrangle. Dora shared Bert’s love of writing and got into trouble with her own explicit poem ‘Moon-Shadows’ published in Hermes. It was at the insistence of her father (founder of the transportation and logistics company Toll Holdings) that the couple married, a union that lasted until Bert’s death.

The pair became part of a network of Leftist literati including Nettie Palmer, Jean Devanny, Kylie Tennant, Christina Stead, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Frank Dalby Davidson, Flora Eldershaw, Marjorie Barnard and Miles Franklin. Dora was also a member of the International Women’s League Against War and Fascism. She worked as a reporter and wrote in a variety of genres, including children’s fiction, the book of the film The Overlanders, and North-West by North, an account of her 1932 sea voyage from Newcastle to Singapore. Also known as Kim, Bert continued to write poetry while working internationally as a political journalist. A significant work was Exiles in the Aegean: a personal narrative of Greek politics and travel.

Dating from ca 1889, Ellangowan was built of brick on stone foundations with an entry porch and a slate roof. Downstairs were two halls, a pantry, storeroom, kitchen and drawing, dining and sitting rooms; while upstairs comprised five bedrooms, a workroom and a bathroom. Outside were stables, a coach-house and a laundry, with a tennis court set in terraced lawns. Close to the bus and tram, its original neighbours were Katoomba on Stewart St, and Glenlea and Edsberg on Mary St.

Charles Jackson Campbell built Ellangowan but did not live there for long. He is photographed here in Darlinghurst Gaol in 1894 facing a long sentence for forgery. (Image: State Records)

Mary St commemorates Mary Chisholm née Bowman who purchased land from George Miller. Following the subdivision of her large estate, several lots were bought in 1876 by goldsmith and jeweller Timothy Tillotson Jones, then living at Dellwood (now 10 Leichhardt St). In 1886 lots 18 and 19 (1 Stewart St) were bought from Jones in the name of Sarah Louisa Campbell, wife of merchant turned estate agent Charles Jackson Campbell (born at St Mary’s in 1860), and Ellangowan was erected. However, Campbell was soon in financial trouble. John Newton and John Broomfield became mortgagees in possession and exercised their power of sale. In August 1890, on account of the Proprietor’s ‘departure from the district’, Ellangowan’s contents were advertised for auction – walnut furniture, piano, Brussels carpets, curtains, kitchenware, glassware, mantels and overmantels. Charles Jackson Campbell, a declared insolvent, did leave the district. After spending a good deal of time in court over property disputes in Surry Hills and Willoughby, he found himself in gaol in 1894 at the start of a 14-year sentence for forging a title deed.

Hundreds of professionals went broke in the early 1890s. It was a bad time to sell property and the house was tenanted. Robert William Pooles, an employee in the Lands Office, lived there. However, he was declared bankrupt in October 1891 and the next month the property was put up for mortgagee auction but failed to find a buyer. As it turned out, Pooles was exposed as a swindler, living off cash advances from Lloyd’s on the assurance he was a doctor and a remittance man destined to inherit £23,000 on the death of his father in England. When Mr Lloyd received a brief cable from England (‘Pooles bad’) Pooles moved to Melbourne. In 1896, after paying a week’s board, he shot himself dead in a Carlton lodging house. His body was identified by Cuthbert Casswell who had been at school with him in England and who saved him from a pauper’s funeral. Pooles, aged 27, was reputedly engaged to a fashionable young woman in Melbourne.

Other Ellangowan tenants were wholesale chemist Josiah Hemmons and his wife Kate, daughter of teetotal John Craven, long-serving Prahran Town Clerk. The couple had moved from Melbourne after Josiah was declared insolvent in 1883. Kate’s brother, Macquarie St writing clerk Charles Ogden Craven, also survived two declarations of bankruptcy in 1887 and 1895. After Kate Hemmons’ death aged 52 in 1898, the funeral left Roslyn Toxteth Rd for Waverley Cemetery where her widower was buried in 1922.

In April 1893 Ellangowan, a ‘gentleman’s residence’ set in ‘pleasure grounds’, was finally sold. It was bought for £2400 by engineer James Blackwood (1831-1916) who moved there from Pyrmont and was soon advertising for house painters. The Blackwood family owned the property for the next 51 years.

James Blackwood was born in Johnstone, a coalmining and cotton-milling town in Renfrewshire county Scotland. In 1863, representing shipbuilders Blackwood and Gordon of Port Glasgow, he travelled with his young family to Sydney on the steamer Alexandra. Blackwood sold the vessel to Australasian Steam Navigation and joined the company as its engineer. During his 21-year-employment Blackwood made two return visits to The Clyde superintending the building of 16 coastal steamers contracted for Australian waters. In 1885 he set up business on his own account, establishing James Blackwood and Son marine engineers and ironmongers. He died aged 85 at Ellangowan on 6 November 1916, predeceased by Elizabeth Gatherer Blackwood (born in 1829 in Benstone a coalmining town near Quarrelton, Renfrewshire) who died at Ellangowan on 4 July 1895. Both were buried in the family grave in the Presbyterian section at Rookwood.

Born in Renfrewshire to James and Elizabeth were: Agnes Storie (1858-1946), Susan Faulds (1860-1936) and Ludovic (1862-1939). James jnr (1871-1959) was born in Sydney. Agnes was still living at home when her father died and remained at Ellangowan for a year or so afterwards. She did not marry.

A shipping engineer, James jnr married Florence May McCoy at Chippendale in 1899. They had three sons and three daughters. Agnes Storie’s birth was registered in Glebe in 1904 and Donald McCoy was born at Tara, Leichhardt St, in 1908. By the time Ulla McCoy was born in 1914 this branch of the family had settled at Wahroonga.

In 1880 Susan Faulds Blackwood married George McCredie who began his working life as an apprentice carpenter with the Australasian Steam Navigation Company, her father’s employer. In partnership with his brother, George founded A L & G McCredie architects and consulting engineers. One of their projects was excavating for Sydney’s first telephone tunnels where rats gnawed on the wires. When bubonic plague broke out near the wharves in 1900, McCredie, experienced in managing rodents, was put in charge of hands-on quarantine and cleansing operations. The early death of the ‘Victor of the Plague’ at age 43 in 1903 was attributed to his house-to-house inspections in the affected areas. Commemorated by an obelisk among the Blackwood graves in the Presbyterian section at Rookwood, he was survived by his widow and eight living children. Susan McCredie died 33 years later.

Susan and George McCredie bought land at Guildford where they built Linnwood (now listed on the NSW State Heritage Register). Although this was their principal residence after 1891, because of the distance from the city they kept occupancy of Rewa on Glebe Point Rd near present-day Eglinton Rd. This was the scene of a twist of fate in April 1895 when their 13-year-old son James Thomas died there. George McCredie was foreman of the jury at the notorious trial of George Dean, accused of poisoning his wife and baby. Directed by Justice Windeyer to speed up the deliberation process, George argued that the jurors were taking their time because they were taking the case seriously. This resulted in the jury being locked up and the news of the death of his son being withheld until after the trial.

Ludovic Blackwood inherited Ellangowan and he and his brother James became Joint Managing Directors of the family firm. (As an executor of the will, Ludovic argued in court about the amount of stamp duty levied on its shares.) In 1908 Ludovic moved from The Mains Boyce St to his newly built mansion Marabar on ten acres at Beecroft. Servants wanted there as cooks, laundresses and maids were asked to call at Ellangowan, probably for initial scrutiny by his sister Agnes. Marabar remained the home of this branch of the family until 1966 when Ludovic’s surviving son George MCredie Blackwood died. A conservationist who gave up his passion for the stage to enter the family business, George bequeathed to the public the Ludovic Blackwood Memorial Sanctuary, a remnant blue gum forest adjacent to Marabar.

Born at Glebe to Ludovic and Mary Wilson Blackwood were James (1896-1916), Peter Gatherer (1900-01), George McCredie (1903-66), Mary Gatherer (1905-58) and Elizabeth Gatherer (1907-68). Ludovic was greatly affected by the wartime death of 20-year-old James, buried in the cemetery attached to the Heilly-Sur-Ancre hospital. Educated at Miss McCredie’s school at Glebe Point and SCEGS (‘Shore’ where he was a senior prefect, Latin prize winner, rower and runner) James enrolled in Arts at Sydney University but enlisted six months later. His newsy letters, published posthumously by his father, became progressively less effusive as the war progressed. Pro-conscription, he observed wryly that he was not old enough to vote in the divisive referendum. Following James’ death, Ludovic was posted his son’s effects: scarf, two books, notebook, letters, identity disc, photo, wrist watch, soap box, compass, two coins, belt, wallet, boomerang pendant and Testament. Ludovic also received the customary Memorial Scroll and King’s Message, the pamphlet Where the Australians Rest and a Victory Medal. Whether these gave comfort or prolonged his grief is unknown. James’ gold watch was passed to his aunt Agnes who soon lost it, offering a reward in October 1917 for the ‘soldier’s keepsake’ mislaid between the Globe Theatre and the Glebe tram terminus.

After the death of patriarch James Blackwood, rooms in Ellangowan were sublet by Mary Flynn who lived there with her youngest child Harold James and her husband, ex-railway employee Thomas, one of the workers who built the Katoomba turntable. In the 1890s Thomas was often away from home and Mary was left with their nine children in Bathurst, dealing with pregnancies and creditors. The doctor and the truant officer were regular visitors. In 1895 Thomas Flynn was fined for not paying school fees for four of his children. Repeat truant Roger Squire Flynn was threatened with the Vernon Industrial School and appeared in court for stealing a fowl from a convent and throwing stones at a Chinese market gardener. In adult life Roger worked underground as a cable jointer. He twice escaped being burnt to death when high-tension cables exploded. On the second occasion he was pulled out of a Clarence St manhole overcome with fumes and his clothes ablaze.

Thomas Flynn died at Ellangowan on 4 April 1925 and was buried at South Head Cemetery, as was his widow Mary who died at Glebe in early 1934. Others who rented rooms at 1 Stewart St in the 1920s-1940s included grocer Roger Ernest Davis and his wife Edith, clerk Robert Turville Curtis, building contractor Hans Delmar-Dahle who subsequently moved to Granville where he became a tennis court proprietor, and Mona Pearl Read née Travanion. In the late 1930s members of the Kosmon Church held services at Ellangowan.

In 1939 Ludovic Blackwood died and his son George McCredie Blackwood inherited Ellangowan. He continued to rent out the ‘waterfront flats’ before their purchase in December 1944 by Ellen Beatrice Adams née Cruwys (1890-1958). In 1962 the property was sold by the Public Trustee to trotting jockey turned general carrier Thomas Alwyn Dewell and his second wife Betty Doris née Wratten. (He and first wife Valerie Joan née Buyers had been long-term tenants.) In April 1970 the Dewells sold Ellangowan to Riviona Investments (it went into liquidation in 1996) and the mansion was subsequently demolished. The Dewells bought 288 Glebe Point Rd where ‘Toddy’ died in 1993 and his widow ten years later.

A hand-made sign outside Ellangowan asks drivers not to bump the fence, ca 1965. Today a unit complex Ellanbay sits on the site and the street is one-way in the opposite direction.(Image supplied by Lyn Collingwood)
Sources: Australian Dictionary of Biography; Birtles, Herbert Victor Black Poppies; Land Property Information NSW: Certificates of Title; Letters of Private James Blackwood, died of wounds in France, December 2nd 1916, aged 20; Moore, Deidre Survivors of Beauty; NSW cemetery records; NSW electoral rolls; NSW registry of births, deaths and marriages; Rodney Hammett; Sands Directories; SL Magazine Autumn 2017; Trove website.
– The Friends of Linnwood (‘phone 9632 9203) organise regular Open Days at Susan and George MCredie’s historic house at 25 Byron Rd Guildford. The next scheduled is Sunday 9 September, 11am-4 pm. The $3 entry fee supports restoration and conservation.
– Terry McMullen read this article closely and questioned Bert being ‘a proponent of the Free Love Society’. Deirdre Moore in Survivors of Beauty writes that Bert ‘advocated a Free Love Society’.
Bert seems to have been floating an idea, not promoting an informal group which was in the 1920s swinging in Redfern.