Sunday, October 11, 2015

Gough Whitlam's birthplace

Harry Frederick (Fred) Whitlam and Martha (“Mattie”) Whitlam nee Maddocks, were married on 10 September 1914 and on 18 December 1914, bought a block of land in Rowland Street Kew with a mortgage from the State Savings Bank of Victoria (under the Credit Foncier programme) signed off on 30 January 1915. Mattie's father, Edward, who was a Master Builder by profession, built, and probably designed the house for the. Plans were prepared by February 1915, and construction completed by May 1915.  On 11 July 1916 their son Edward Gough Whitlam was born in the house built by Mattie's father, on the kitchen table according to family legend. Presumably Gough was conceived in the front bedroom of the house sometime around early October 1915. Fred and Mattie therefore were in the house no more than 5 months before their attempts to produce offspring were successful.

Fred Whitlam was working at this time in the Commonwealth Crown Solicitor’s Office, in the Attorney General’s Department, headed by Robert Garran. In 1917, Fred Whitlam was promoted to senior Clerk in Sydney, and so on 25 October 1917, Ngara was sold. The new owners were Samuel James Woods, a tailor and mercer, and Mabel Lucy Woods who obtained co-operative finance through the Starr-Bowkett Building Society. they only paid off their mortgage in 1932  (City of Boroondara citation 'Ngara')

So as far as birthplaces go - Ngara could not be more connected to the birthee. It was built by Gough's grandfather, for his parents to live in as their first proper home, in order that they could start a family and where Gough was conceived, born and raised for his first year and a half. It is a house which tells the origin story of Australia's most transformative leader.

Boroondara  General  Cemetery contains the graves of several Whitlam family members including  his  grandparents,  Edward  and  Elizabeth  Maddocks and their  daughter  Janet, (Gough's maternal aunt) and  Edward’s  brother  John  Henry  Maddocks, (Gough's maternal uncle who died at Fromelles on 19 July 1916). Edward's sister Elizabeth is also buried at the family plot although not listed on the grave stone (Lea Ram, Birth and death in Kew)

The Heritage Council tribunal (comprising Jim Norris (Chair), Oona Nicolson, and Emma Russell), decided that: " ... the association between the birth and, approximately, the first eighteen months of Gough Whitlam's life does not constitute evidence of a special association between Whitlam and the Place."

The Planning Panel (comprising Ray Tonkin (chair) and Peter McEwan) for Amendment c208, (which included the heritage overlay for Gough Whitlam's Birthplace) determined that: "... submissions and evidence do not demonstrate that the association between Gough Whitlam and Ngara is a special one sufficient to warrant recognition in an individual HO."
Although in a contradictory conclusion it states that: "no evidence demonstrated the likelihood of an enduring association of the site with the life and legacy of Mr Whitlam." and then: "The Panel suggested that the place could be recognised by a plaque or sign, presuming that it will soon be demolished." It doesn't make sense to put a plaque on a place that doesn't have "an enduring association with his life and legacy".

But this could also be taken as a challenge to create such an enduring association. It is also likely that the historical narrative will be read in the context of the temporal coincidence of Gough's death and the failure to preserve his birthplace; some are already:
see also  Lea Ram, 'Birth and death in Kew [Gough Whitlam, ‘Ngara’, 46 Rowland Street]' Kew Historical Society: newsletter  No. 109, December 2014, p6.

The decisions are not consistent with considerable numbers of birthplaces in Australia and the World. In Victoria, the birthplaces of HV McKay, John Curtain and Percy Grainger are considered of heritage significance primarily for the fact of these important historical figures having been born there. The US has innumerable birthplaces of its leaders and heroes, commemorated and memorialised, some such as Lincoln's log cabin of doubtful provenance and authenticity. but the point is that we need somewhere to project our feelings about people from the past, or else they may disappear from our consciences and public memory. 

The coincidence of the commencement of demolition and Gough's death, may have sparked public concern for the house, but there is also a causal relationship. We have a natural instinct to connect people to places. the roadside memorials to crash victims remind us of this every day. There will be a hole in our group memory caused by the loss of Gough's house, that a plaque will not fill.

1 comment:

  1. My goodness, look at the state of that house in the picture! If I saw a house like this in Sutherland Shire, I'd be calling the council about what an eyesore it is! I really hope someone is able to get it restored on the double!


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