Our house: histories of Australian homes

Andrew Brown-May
Australian Heritage Commission, 2001

15 - Mocatta House

69 Hackney Road, Hackney, South Australia

Mocatta House from Hackney Road in 1997.

Mocatta House from Hackney Road in 1997.

Opposite Adelaide's Botanic Park, a solid white stone fence with four sentinel gate pillars frames the colonial Georgian-style house of rendered bluestone, the large entrance door flanked by French windows. The block is part of land originally sold by the South Australian Company in 1847 to John Henry Pace, a watchmaker. In 1848, Pace sold two acres to Charles Chamberlain, a gardener. The first four rooms and the vaulted cellars beneath were built by 1853, though little remains above-ground from that period. From 1876, the house passed into the hands of the Nitschke family in the successive names of Eliese, her husband Wilhelm, and son Gustav.

I have only once been inside my house, one summer about ten years ago when my father and I were visiting Adelaide. Just as when he was a boy, his own father would tell him about our house whenever they drove down Hackney Road, so too dad would during our annual holidays to his home town, slow the car past that solid white fence and tell us about the place where our great great great grandfather Wilhelm Nitschke once lived.

Though neither my father nor myself ever held title to the house, in a strange and deeply felt way it has always belonged to us. Dad and Grandpa May's stories compete with the written record of ownership. Every house has multiple layers of meaning, intertwining and competing narratives which all take the physical fabric of the house as a point of departure. Our house did and will always belong to someone else, but remains the repository of my family's myths and everyday stories.

Wilhelm Nitschke had premises in Hindley Street from the 1850s, and directories first show him living in Hackney Road in 1878. A coppersmith by trade, to his industrious invention in Adelaide is variously attributed the first manufacture of ice, the first baths and the first fire brigade. The distillery he founded was the colony's first, operating next door to 69 Hackney Road until 1941.

(Detail) Wilhelm Nitschke stands resolutely by the front garden pond at his Hackney Road house (looking south) in the 1880s.

(Detail) Wilhelm Nitschke stands resolutely by the front garden pond at his Hackney Road house (looking south) in the 1880s.

Four generations of my family worked in the distillery, and a fifth in the shape of my microbiologist father as a small boy first encountered yeasts under a microscope in its laboratory. During the Nitschke period, developments at the house included the front cellar and above-ground additions, and a large drawing room with curving bay window extending from the south side. After 1910 when the Nitschkes bought 'Vailima' a few doors down, No 69 was occupied by the distillery managers.

After the distillery's decline late in the 1930s, the house became dilapidated. After a stint as a boarding house, it was purchased in 1941 by lawyer and poet, Patricia Hackett, who altered fireplaces and parts of the roof. Unequal floors were raised to the same level, and ceilings lowered to a consistent height. A terrace was added, and the removal of the verandah possibly dates from this period.

The house stood slightly raised above the cellars which, only half underground, were a venue for Hackett's Torch Theatre. Dr Mildred Mocatta became part owner in 1950, sole owner after Hackett's death in 1963. Mocatta bequeathed the house to the National Trust of South Australia in 1981. After her death in 1984, under the terms of a licence agreement, it was occupied by her long-time companion Mrs Marchant, who moved to a nursing home in 1991.

Dr Mocatta left her house, land and art collection to the National Trust, to be kept as a memorial to her taste. From 1985 the Mocatta House Committee managed the property and considered options for its future use. In 1987, a Management Plan recommended conservation measures, particularly for the damp-affected cellars. The Trust considered commercial uses for the property but these plans foundered on local zoning and building requirements which would have demanded expensive renovation.

Dr Mocatta wrote to me in 1983 that she had left the house to the National Trust 'as it is of historic interest'. Though thus bequeathed, and to the surprise of those who felt the Trust had a moral obligation to retain the house, after a period leased as a Transcendental Meditation Centre it was sold into private hands in 1994 as part of a rationalisation of the Trust's property portfolio. An encumbrance was placed on the title to protect the integrity of the house and cellars.

The history of Mocatta House is one I have only learned from written accounts in heritage reports and history books. Dad and Grandpa May, always knew the house as Schweizer (Swiss) House, presumably because of its elevation above the cellars, as if on stilts. I juxtapose the house with my family stories and with the handful of heirloom objects: a miniature tea-set crafted of Prussian coins, attesting to Wilhelm's skill and craft; a silver medal awarded at the 1866-67 Victorian Intercolonial Exhibition for his patent still; and two photographs. Neither Dad, Grandpa May or his own father, ever owned the house, but all were given Wilhelm as a middle name.

A family group on the verandah in 1905.

(Detail) A family group on the verandah in 1905, including 'Grandpa May' as a child. The motto 'Vacuum is the greatest force in creation' is visible on the verandah gable.

As child and son of the head distiller, Grandpa May played hide-and-seek under the house. Grandpa insisted that the cellars were never used in association with the distillery, but rather for the personal liquor collection of the managers. One day, he remembered, a storm flooded the cellars and all the bottles bobbed around with their labels floating off. Grandpa used to ride around the fish pond out the front on his bicycle, once falling in. Scrutiny of the c1905 photograph reveals an inscription on the verandah gable relating to a seminal family story, told by Grandpa and Dad, about our industrious if not eccentric patriarch. Lacking a vacuum valve, one of Wilhelm's stills had collapsed after cold water was let in to the hot tank. In 1878, he put out a challenge in the Adelaide Register that 'vacuum is the greatest power in creation', denying the existence of air-pressure and offering £500 to anyone whose experiments could beat the results of his own.

As descendants of Wilhelm Nitschke's only daughter, the Mays became separated socially over time from the house and from the Nitschkes. On that day when my father and I finally happened to knock on the door of our house, it was Mrs Marchant who kindly invited two strangers in whose curious story of ancestral connection was convincing enough for her to give them a tour. Standing on the cellar earth under the house, we had tears in our eyes - at last we had come home.

Acknowledgements and Bibliography

May family reminiscences and family photographs, and the plans are based on those in the National Trust 'Conservation Management Plan'.

Advertiser, 5 August 1889.

Morrison, W. Frederick, The Aldine History of South Australia, Adelaide 1890, Vol. 2.

National Trust of South Australia. 'Conservation Management Plan' for 69 Hackney Road, Adelaide 1987.

Warburton, Elizabeth, St Peters. A suburban town, The Corporation of St Peters, Adelaide 1983.

The Author

Dr Andrew Brown-May is a Lecturer in Australian History in the History Department at The University of Melbourne. His Melbourne street life won the 1999 Victorian Community and Local History Award, and was shortlisted in the NSW Premiers History Awards. He is Director and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Melbourne Project.