By Ian Evans, Glebe Society Bulletin, October 2020
Glebe was almost lost to the onslaught of the bulldozers. Former Glebe resident Ian Evans writes a chapter in the complex history of the movement against destruction of the suburb by the Department of Main Roads. Ian and his family lived in Sheehy St and later Mansfield St during the 1970s and 1980s.
It was in the house at 18 Mansfield St that Ian began to explore and write about the distinctive qualities of old houses. His many books have sold some 175,000 copies, providing owners of old houses throughout Australia with the historical and technical information to guide the conservation of the buildings in which they lived.
His PhD in 2010 identified and described the previously unknown history of the practice of magic in Australia in the period 1788 to circa 1935. Ian received a Medal in the Order of Australia for his contribution to the conservation of Australia’s historic heritage
Current residents of the suburb they call a village are perhaps not aware of how close Glebe came to virtual annihilation by the NSW Department of Main Roads.
This is my story of the events of that time – events that shaped the suburb of Glebe as it is today. The Glebe Society and residents of the suburb have their own stories.
In the early 1970s, when Glebe was distinctly downmarket, two expressways were being planned to scythe through Glebe, destroying its village atmosphere and a great many houses.
This story of the way that the suburb was saved is one that weaves through time. It involves two premiers of New South Wales and a building designed by an early Australian architect. It extends over some 150 years and ends with the survival of a suburb that had been marked for destruction by the NSW Department of Main Roads.
The politicians are Sir Robert Askin, Liberal Premier of the State from 1965 to 1975, and Neville Wran, Labor Premier from 1976 to 1986. The architect is John Verge, a star of Sydney’s building boom in the late 1820s and early 1830s.
Dr. James Bowman, son-in-law of John Macarthur, built a grand house in 1835 to a design by Verge. It was located on the western outskirts of Sydney with a view towards the town and overlooking the waters of Blackwattle Bay. It was called Lyndhurst.
Elegant in its design and furnishings, Bowman’s house began a downhill slide after he lost it in the depression of the 1840s. By the 1970s it was a shabby hulk and appeared destined for demolition.
The Department of Main Roads, given its head by the Askin Liberal Government, proposed to ease Sydney’s traffic problem by constructing expressways to the north and the west of the city. Both were to pass through Glebe and, in the process, slicing and dicing the suburb into three chunks would destroy thousands of houses and a community in the process.
The north western expressway was at first on course to take out the greyhound racing hub, in what had once been elegant parkland between the city and Glebe. Greyhound racing was still a big deal and its power survived until the 1970s. Representations were made and the course of the expressway was diverted. It would now avoid Wentworth ‘Park’ greyhound racing centre but Lyndhurst was doomed.
Well, not quite. In the process of researching Verge’s life and work I found Lyndhurst and was soon motivated to see if anything could be done to save it. At Lyndhurst I met its only resident, Kevin Garner. Kevin lived upstairs and there ran the Lyndhurst Christian Centre, a group aimed at giving hope to some of Glebe’s least lucky residents.
Kevin put me in touch with a journalist, Joye Wallace, at The Sun, a Fairfax newspaper of the time. Joye had no power over the main pages of that paper, being part of the team in what was then known as the ‘women’s pages’.
We had a common goal: saving Lyndhurst from the bulldozers of the Department of Main Roads. A community meeting was arranged and, with Kevin Garner’s consent, it duly took place in one of the large upstairs rooms at Lyndhurst.
The Save Lyndhurst Committee was formed with the conservation architect Clive Lucas as nominal chairman. Press releases would be written by me and issued in the name of the Committee. Joye took down the names and contact details of all of the people at the meeting. Sadly, the notebook in which all of these enthusiastic people were recorded was lost within a few days of the meeting.
This was a setback … or was it? I decided to press on without them, unhindered by any need to seek approval for press releases from a large committee. There had been a committee: but I had no idea who its members were.
In the weeks, months and several years that followed I issued a stream of Save Lyndhurst Committee press releases – every one of which gained public attention. Clive Lucas was an acceptable figurehead for the committee and was quoted in every press release. Lyndhurst became a cause.
Premier Askin, a childhood resident of Glebe, did nothing to help. The expressway would proceed come what may. Wentworth Park’s greyhounds, saved from the DMR’s bulldozers, would race on.
After Askin left politics, the grateful greyhound racing fraternity arranged for the construction of a memorial to the former premier which was duly erected in the corner of Wentworth Park. Askin was flattered, calling the monument a ‘very nice gesture of the Trustees of Wentworth Park.’
The Save Lyndhurst Committee’s press release, revealing the tacky monument, was issued in association with the Glebe Society and made a front page story in the Sydney Morning Herald. At least one newspaper cartoon appeared. Its design was likened to a boot in the gleefully derisory media coverage that followed its construction at a cost of $2,000.00.
The former premier was mocked. The monument was a political and personal embarrassment and Askin withdrew his blessing. It was swiftly demolished. But a point had been made.
This is a long story, told for the first time, and space requires that it be made short. Some months before he became Premier in 1976, Neville Wran, then the leader of the NSW State opposition, agreed to meet John Morris, Director of the National Trust of NSW, and me. The Trust supported the cause but realising the matter of Lyndhurst was in good hands left it to the Save Lyndhurst Committee to make the running. There was immense opposition to the expressway and support for Lyndhurst in Glebe and Albert Mispel, a member of the Society, was always involved.
In his office in Parliament House in Sydney’s Macquarie St, Wran listened with interest as John Morris and I briefed him on the history and significance of Lyndhurst. ‘Right,’ he said, ‘let’s go and have a look.’ He called up a car and, after John Morris excused himself, Wran and I proceeded to Lyndhurst. I had warned him that decades of neglect and ill treatment had left Lyndhurst in very poor shape.
Wran was not daunted by what he saw. He made no promises but after he became premier of NSW in 1976, several months after his visit to Lyndhurst, the Department of Main Roads found another route for their Glebe motorway. Lyndhurst became the headquarters of the newly formed Historic Houses Trust of NSW. And Clive Lucas was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire, one of Australia’s last recipients of an OBE. The citation for his OBE referred to his role in the campaign for Lyndhurst.
In 1985 I placed the records of the Save Lyndhurst Committee in the care of the Historic Houses Trust. These consisted of a cardboard box filled with a large number of press releases, a great many press clippings and correspondence covering the period from 1971 to 1984. I gave these to Peter Watts, at that time Director of the Trust.
The Historic Houses Trust eventually moved to a better address in Macquarie St and lost interest in Lyndhurst which was sold to a private owner. All of my press releases were binned but everything else appeared to be safe in the files of the Historic Houses Trust, now Sydney Living Museums – with a single exception.
On requesting a copy of a newspaper cartoonist’s take on the Askin monument to illustrate this story I was told that it could not be found. The cartoon was the last straw that sealed the fate of the monument. And it did the government that Askin had so recently headed no good at all. I eventually found it in my own files.
Askin and his government are long gone but Lyndhurst survives and so does Glebe – saved from annihilation after a long and bitter struggle involving many people. Residents of Glebe owe a debt of gratitude to the Save Lyndhurst Committee, Neville Wran and the Glebe Society.
I declare a personal connection to this story. John Verge married my great-grandmother in 1858. I’m not one of his descendants but I researched his life and wrote an unpublished biography of him which is held by the State Library of NSW. Had I not explored Verge’s life, found Lyndhurst and lobbied Neville Wran to save it, Glebe would be a very different place today.