109 St Johns Rd, once home to ‘Wandering Poet’ William Pell (image: Phil Young)
109 St Johns Rd, once home to ‘Wandering Poet’ William Pell (image: Phil Young)

In 1952 self-styled ‘Wandering Poet’ William Pell was staying at 109 St Johns Rd when he penned his six-stanza ‘At Sunset on the Nullarbor’, expressing a mixture of admiration and nostalgia at Trans-Australian Railway’s move to new technology:

Today the Diesel takes the track,
She’s swift and up-to-date,
But in my mind is carried back
Along the line dead straight
The thoughts that linger of the past,
The Memory and the Dream
Of when I made the journey last,
And came this way by steam.

By 1959 Pell had moved to Rooty Hill to be closer to his employment as a Water Board labourer working on the construction of the Warragamba Dam. To mark its opening he penned another salute to the modern age:

So when you turn the water on
Just pause a while to think
Of how the project was begun
So you could have a drink
And how you have that extra power
In your electric lights
That comes to you at any hour
From Warragamba’s heights.

William Pell and his brother Leonard Pell (ca 1901-83) arrived in WA in 1908 aboard the Persic with their parents Glasgow-born Anne née Bryson (1870-1921) and Dublin-born William Pell Sharpley (1861-1925) who had married in Croydon England in 1895. They lived near Albany at Torbay Junction before settling at Grassmere where William senior took up farming. Trained as an analytical chemist, he returned to England during the First World War to help manufacture munitions. Back in Australia he was a member of the Torbay-Grassmere Drainage Board and took an active interest in politics before his death on 27 December 1925.

During the 1930s William junior lived in Gippsland Victoria before moving to rural NSW then Sydney. He travelled around England and the Continent, married in Scotland, and by 1963 was in Brisbane. He died aged 94 on 13 August 1992 at Bridgeman Downs. His verse appears to have been published only in newspapers.

Number 109 St Johns Rd was number 31 until ca 1905 when the road subsumed Denman St. The two-storey house (five rooms plus kitchen with basement entry) dates from ca 1896. Its first occupants were accountant Aubrey James Vickers (1849-1914), his wife Maggie Susan (1849-1938) and their daughters Margaret Elizabeth, Mabel Louise and Alice Maud. Aubrey was born on 16 January 1849, the fifth son of Belle Isle Jamaica sugar plantation owner Benjamin Vickers and Elizabeth née Shilleto. Benjamin died in 1877, his widow in the mid-1880s; by which time Aubrey had migrated to Australia with his wife and eldest daughter and settled in Glebe where Mabel and Alice were born in 1881 and 1885 respectively. Elizabeth Vickers divided her estate among seven of her children, making no provision for Aubrey, the plantation passing to his eldest brother. However, Maggie and her two younger daughters were bequeathed £300 by another of Aubrey’s brothers in 1923.

Aubrey Vickers died on 2 July 1914, and his widow at Cremorne on 25 October 1938. Both were buried in Waverley Cemetery. Margaret, who married George Thomas Flood in 1900, died in 1956 at Chatswood. Mabel and Alice, an artiste, died unmarried in 1959 and 1970 respectively.

After Aubrey’s death the family’s effects, including a horse and cart, were put up for sale and the house advertised for rent. Occupants of 109 St Johns Rd in the interwar period included seaman William Francis Lister; joiner Andrew Allan Foote; Cecelia and Edmund Gale, labourer; and Florence Margaret and Henry George Lewis Bridgland, ambulance driver. During the 1930s it was the home of caretaker Edwin Chapman Henderson and his family.

When Glebe Society member Ian Edwards bought the house in 1969 it was one of hundreds in Glebe slated for demolition by the Department of Main Roads to be replaced by expressways. Back then Glebe wasn’t a café society (there were a couple of Chinese eateries and that was about it) but there were plenty of shops selling basics at Forest Lodge and near neighbour 103 St Johns Rd was still the old-fashioned family grocery it had been since 1896. Its last owners were Dorothy Ann and Reginald Alfred Harris who allowed customers to run up big tabs. Dot sliced cold meat by hand, climbed the high ladder to fetch stock from the shelves and provided free babysitting (including jelly babies) while Reg leaned on the counter, gossiping with locals taking a rest on the Arnott’s courtesy chair.

Sources: Albany Advertiser 6.1.1926; Nepean Times 28.4.1960; NSW cemetery records; NSW electoral rolls; NSW online registry of births, deaths, marriages; personal knowledge; Q cemetery records; Q electoral rolls; Sands Directories; Vic. electoral rolls; WA online registry of births, deaths, marriages; West Australian various issues including 12.1.1926.