Our house: histories of Australian homes

David Dolan
Australian Heritage Commission, 2001

37 - A house (and a horse) named Peter Pan

Church Hill, Coolgardie, Western Australia

The house at Coolgardie with owner Margaret Moore, son Nick and animals, in 1997.

The house at Coolgardie with owner Margaret Moore, son Nick and animals, in 1997.

'Peter Pan' is an 1890s house built in Coolgardie in the eastern goldfields of Western Australia. Coolgardie was enjoying a few short years as Australia's richest goldfield, before being eclipsed by Kalgoorlie. With a population of 60,000, Coolgardie was the colony's third largest town with substantial public buildings, most of which survive. The vast majority of the early population lived in tents, portable kit homes, or iron huts which have almost all disappeared. The disappearance of the ordinary people's homes from the first gold rush has distorted the historical record embodied in surviving built form.

All we have left of early Coolgardie domestic structures are a handful of houses built for those at the top of the mining-town hierarchy, and of these Peter Pan is among the most interesting. Reflecting the itinerant nature of mining populations and the rise and fall of the industry, it has had many owners and occupants, at one point deteriorating almost to the point of no return, but was rescued in time to celebrate its hundredth birthday.

The single storey brick and stone bungalow was built in 1896-7 in the suburb of Church Hill, as a residence for the manager of the French-owned New Austral mine. The land surface was built up to create a level base and the house was erected without foundations, which, combined with the use of soft local stone, has caused considerable problems with movement and cracking. It is no larger than an average suburban middle-class home of the period, but due to high labour costs and the rough living conditions of most people in the region, it was almost a mansion in goldfields terms.

The house is built in a simple version of the popular Federation style. Its symmetrical front with a central doorway and two bay windows, one to the main bedroom and one to the drawing room, hides an unusual, purpose-built interior. Visitors entering through the front door step into a small hall with a diagonal corner fireplace, from which they can go into the front rooms mentioned, or follow a narrow central passage to the rear.

This unusual arrangement suggests that the house was also a workplace for its first occupant Albert Thomas, general manager of the mining company. It is a hall designed as an office-like room in which confidential business discussions could take place while casements to the main rooms permitted family members to come and go without interrupting them. As well as making the verandah a circulation space, casements like these were popular in many parts of Australia for opening the house to cooling breezes. It was a good house for entertaining, as dining and drawing rooms could be made one large space by opening a concertina folding wooden door between them, and the dining room bay window opened onto a garden facing the side street.

Plan of the house Peter Pan.

Plan of the house Peter Pan.

Note: Scale 1: 100

Thomas was English-born and educated and had also worked professionally in South Africa. He was only 24 when he arrived in Australia to become general manager. In 1901, aged 29 he became the first member for Dundas in the WA parliament. His position carried social obligations, as indicated in letters found by the present owners during renovations. Mrs Thomas must have tucked her mail into the top of the bedroom mantelpiece as items were found almost 90 years later behind the fireplace surround.

One letter gives an insight into the life of the elite on the goldfields. Written on 13 October 1905 to Mrs Thomas by her son Ron who was in England, it concerns the choice of music and players for soirees in the Thomas home, with opinions on Mendelssohn and Ron's self-assessment as a fiddle player. As if to remind us of the gap between rich and poor, another, dated two days earlier, is from an indigent ex-servant who relates her hard-luck story in an attempt to touch Mrs Thomas for £5.

In 1906 New Austral ceased operation and the house was sold to timber merchant Samuel Rowe who named it 'Leighton'. The house had stables on the western side, and on the east was a gravel tennis court which Rowe adapted for croquet. These facilities were lost when subdivision of the block resulted in new buildings on both sides and deprived the house of its corner location.

Mrs Kath Stewart, a daughter of Samuel Rowe, recalled the stables and hayloft at the back of the house. The older children used the loft for skating but she was discouraged by the 'spiflihater' up there, invented to keep her from climbing up and falling down the chute. 'I can remember our clothes line was raised by wooden clothes line props and when the Aborigines would come to the back door to sell props our dogs would howl loudly.'

Mrs Stewart also remembers when her father, a skilled competitive cyclist, 'rode to Kalgoorlie by bicycle twice a week to bring the mail to Coolgardie [78 km round trip] and I believe the dirt track was very bumpy in places'. Rowe had moved his family up from Perth, but they did not stay long, and the house then had a number of tenants.

Ernie Scahill bought 'Leighton' in 1929, and renamed it 'Peter Pan' after winning a motza when Darby Munro rode that celebrated racehorse to its second Melbourne Cup win in 1934. That was in the depths of the Depression, and the year of the Kalgoorlie race riots which led to the house having one of its most infamous temporary occupants. An amateur athlete and serious drinker called Jordan died during a pub brawl which involved barman Claudio Mattaboni, and during the days of anti-immigrant rioting which followed a lynch mob went looking for the alleged killer. Scahill gave refuge to a fellow-publican's employee by assisting Mattaboni to flee to Coolgardie where he hid in the cellar of Peter Pan until order was restored and he could be taken into custody and put on trial (he was acquitted).

Fluctuating gold prices and ever-changing technologies of extraction make mining a cyclical business. With renewed activity in the area Peter Pan celebrated its fiftieth birthday by returning to its original status when Western Mining Corporation acquired it for a manager's residence. During the years 1947-57 while it filled this role the gardens were resuscitated and superbly kept, and once again there were parties and good living.

The next private owners were Mr and Mrs HW Auburn, who unwisely tried to address the movement problem of the foundationless house by building heavy concrete buttresses at the front, creating a challenge to future restorers. In 1971 Peter Pan was bought by E Keith Harvey, a retired engine driver who shared the house with a succession of male friends, one of whom recently recalled 'we had so much fun sitting in the kitchen shooting the rats off the stove'. Mrs Stewart remembers driving past the house when it 'was like an old junk yard full of old vehicles ...'. Peter Pan was in decline and legal complications kept it empty for ten years after Harvey's death in 1977.

Tex Moore with the dining room fireplace he reassembled from pieces in the backyard

Tex Moore with the dining room fireplace he reassembled from pieces in the backyard

A career in local government brought Bill (Tex) Moore to Coolgardie in 1977 and he and his wife Margaret soon determined to buy Peter Pan. They moved in with their family at Christmas 1987. There was iron missing from the roof and serious water and termite damage. Vandals and squatters had left graffiti and lit fires in the house using floorboards and joinery, and ceilings had collapsed. Fireplaces, doors, and furniture had been stolen. As well as repairing the damage, the Moores created an enclosure at the end of a verandah to give Peter Pan the closest thing it has ever had to an indoor lavatory.

It is typical of the devotion with which the Moores are now restoring Peter Pan that after combing the backyard and finding all but two little pieces of the dining room fireplace, which had been smashed and abandoned by thieves, Bill reassembled and reinstated it. Peter Pan is now home to a menagerie of orphaned dogs, cats and baby kangaroos which thrive on the same loving care, and it is hard to believe the house was ever happier in its hundred years of existence.

Acknowledgements

Bill and Margaret Moore for sharing their knowledge and documents, Tim Moore for his research for a 1995 student essay. Photographs: David Dolan.

The Author

David Dolan is Professor and Director of the Research Institute for Cultural Heritage at Curtin University, Western Australia. He is a member of the Heritage Council of WA, and a Councillor of the National Trust of Australia (WA). He has been Curator of Lanyon Homestead near Canberra, Manager of Collection Development and Research at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, and a Director of AusHeritage Ltd.