Our house: histories of Australian homes

Susan Marsden
Australian Heritage Commission, 2001

14 - Dunmoochin, A cottage of the old West End

1-3 Maud Street, Adelaide, South Australia

Dunmoochin in the 1990s.

Dunmoochin in the 1990s.

Adelaide was surveyed in 1837 as capital of the new British province of South Australia. Its founders sought both liberal reform and financial gain and so the city was set out with spacious main streets and in one-acre sections offered cheaply as bait to investors who soon profited by subdividing them. Adopting Wakefield's concept of systematic colonisation, proceeds of land sales were used to ship working-class families to the colony. This cottage is the perfect expression of that Wakefield ideal. It was built by young, married settlers who were willing to work steadily to save a large sum (on labourers' wages) and buy land for their own home. It is a typical early Adelaide house, set firmly in the tradition of the detached, single-storey cottage of rural Britain.

Irish emigrants John and Honora Griffin and their son Martin arrived in South Australia in 1852. John, a labourer, had timed his arrival well as most of the colony's able-bodied men had gone seeking gold in Victoria and NSW. By 1856 he had saved enough to buy an allotment in south west Adelaide, a purchase dictated not only by its affordability and the proximity of labouring work but perhaps also by his Roman Catholicism as the bishop's palace and church were within close walking distance. Labourers and the poor concentrated in Adelaide's West End for the following century.

Griffin's block fronted two of the narrow interior streets created during the speculative resubdivision of the city's first decade. Alfred and Maud Streets define sides of Town Acre 467 which cost the purchaser of a Preliminary Land Order in 1836 only £1. John paid £35 for his tiny 12.5 x 12 metre portion. By 1858 the rate assessment recorded that he had built a three-roomed cottage. Its superior workmanship and use of the handsome and durable Mount Lofty Ranges bluestone suggest that John built the house himself. Adelaide Council's Smith Survey of 1880 delineated the same three-roomed building and its present plan is identical but for the addition of an iron lean-to.

The cottage has bluestone rubble walls, brick quoins and raised gable ends enclosing a slate roof. It is a double-fronted L-shaped plan of 9.6 x 6 metres with two front rooms and a narrow central passage facing Maud Street. The third original room is a lean-to. In keeping with early town practice the front is set back only one metre from Maud Street and the side wall is right on the Alfred Street boundary. The front corner room had a fireplace (the chimney survives) and was probably the kitchen/living room, with other rooms used as bedrooms. They were not crowded by nineteenth century standards as there were only three children. The youngest, Mary, perhaps attended the nearby Poor School, opened by Josephite nuns in 1869.

After their parents died, ownership passed to Martin and Mary in 1890. Mary's husband Gavin Ritche, a builder, may have added the back verandah, later enclosed with corrugated iron, which completes the present rectangular plan. This was the only major change ever made to the cottage. It was divided into a narrow bathroom and a room used as laundry, sleepout and finally, kitchen. City houses were connected to deep drainage in the 1880s but the toilet stayed out in the yard, where it is still.

Martin, a saddler and collar maker, lived in the cottage until his death in 1913. J Burns (labourer) settled in for about ten years from the mid-1920s and had the cottage wired for electricity (the wiring is still in use). Ernest Roy Wilson and his wife Norah Magdalene bought it in 1942. Neva Wilson remembers living there for seven years until she was 14. The tenth, and last, baby was brought home to the front corner room. 'I can remember Mum in their bedroom with the new baby and salt damp on the walls.'

A Japanese crew filmed Neva at the cottage in 1996 for her story as an urban Aboriginal woman. Her parents were raised at Koonibba, a Lutheran mission on the west coast, and came to Adelaide to get a better education for their children. They'd absorbed the mission's message that the way to get on was by conforming with the white man's ways. Ernest worked for the railways and gained a transfer to Adelaide Railway Station, later working at Port Adelaide as a wharf labourer. 'My brothers and sisters would give their pay to Mum.' One son, Godwin, helped buy the cottage and later a house in suburban Cheltenham.

Few Aboriginal families lived in Adelaide or any town in those days as the government restricted their movements. They lived mainly in the West End along with other recent arrivals, Greeks and Italians. Visitors stayed with Aboriginal families they knew from the missions. 'All the people from the west coast used to come and stay with our family.' The west coast term Nyunga has since been adopted as Nunga by many Aboriginal South Australians as their own name. Men stayed overnight with the Wilsons before enlisting and after demobilising from war service. 'We were walking over bodies sleeping in the passage and they used to camp out in the yard. Growing up at that time was like party time, there were always other people there.'

The parents' room had chairs and a cushion-topped woodbox near the fire where the family listened to serials on the wireless. The five girls shared three beds in the other front room, their mother making them shut the window as it was so close to the street. The two youngest boys slept in the iron addition and the others in a shed. The girls washed clothes in troughs and a copper in the open yard where their mother tended flowers and vegetables, a fig tree and a grape vine. Firewood and visitors' bedrolls were also stored there. Visitors sat in the kitchen in the masonry lean-to with its wood stove, or at a table outside.

In summer everyone ate there, and it was too hot inside the house so we put mattresses in the yard and all slept there. It was fun. My parents told stories, they'd talk about the "wild black man".

Salt damp is endemic to old Adelaide houses. The Wilsons propped up the walls and painted them, making a party of it with everyone helping, and laid new lino (the present owner discovered seven layers). They sold the cottage to Clementine Taylor in 1948, who sold it to Nellie Grace Hill (a widow) in 1951. She had the phone connected, added another iron lean-to for extra beds, removed the wood stove and fireplace and installed a plug-in electric stove in the iron room. Front rooms were carpeted and panelled with masonite to cover the crumbling walls. The external side wall was cement rendered, worsening the salt damp. Bolts set into the front wall held seats for the women who were said to use Mrs Hill's rooms.

The old cottage now attracted contrasting public treatment. It is still placed under Housing Improvement Act (1941) regulations for substandard housing but it is also listed on the South Australian and City of Adelaide Heritage Registers (1986 and 1987), on the recommendation of heritage consultants Donovan, Marsden and Stark. Despite heritage listing and its dilapidated state 'Dunmoochin' was sold by Nellie Hill for $57,100 in 1987. The south west corner, last remnant of West End working-class residence, shared in a small way the gentrification of other inner city areas such as North Adelaide.

Graham Brunsgard and his parents bought 'Dunmoochin' to restore because it was an interesting house, treated it for white ants and brought hot water to the bathroom, but made no substantial changes. Graham was increasingly distressed by the impact of central city life on a small and exposed house, protesting over drunks, smashed windows, commercial din and parking fines. 'I was given no help by the council and battled it over trucks parking in front and over new property development. I've had lots of aggravation.' Today, withdrawn behind his walls, Graham is unwilling to risk spending money on restoration.

It's a holding operation. First, lack of money, then the politics and speculation down here. It's got quite ugly. I've lost interest and I'm prepared to let the place fall down.

Acknowledgements and Bibliography

My thanks to Neva Wilson and Graham Brunsgard, interviewed by telephone in August 1997, Brian Samuels (Heritage SA) and Paul Stark (Adelaide City Council). The photograph is from Adelaide City Council.

Adelaide City Council heritage file no 14/0405, 1-3 Maud St.

Hemming, S, 'Kaurna in Aboriginal Adelaide', Journal of the Anthropological Society of South Australia vol 28, nos 1 & 2, December 1990.

Marsden, S, Stark, P and Sumerling, P, eds, Heritage of the City of Adelaide: an illustrated guide, Adelaide City Council, 1991, 1996.

Pikusa, S, The Adelaide house 1836 to 1901, Wakefield Press, Adelaide 1986.

South Australian directories (Mortlock Library).

Heritage SA, file no 6628.13427, 'Dunmoochin'.

Thomas, J, ed, South Australians 1836-1885, vol 1, SA Genealogy and Heraldry Society, Adelaide 1990.

The Author

Dr Susan Marsden is National Conservation Manager at the Australian Council of National Trusts and a member of ACT Heritage Council. She has worked for 25 years as a professional historian and heritage consultant, including as South Australia's State Historian (1988-95) and as a Visiting Fellow at the Urban Research Program, Australian National University (1995-99). Her publications (some co-authored) include: South Australia's heritage (part 2); Heritage of the City of Adelaide; 'Waterfront alive', in River Change (Newcastle); and Urban heritage: the rise and postwar development of Australia's capital city centres. She contributed a chapter to Patrick Troy's A history of European housing in Australia and is the editor of Our House.