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The Sydney houses where authors and poets lived and worked

Miles Franklin winner Jessica Anderson wrote Tirra Lirra by the River and The Impersonators at 117 Macleay Street, Potts Point. Photo: Steven Siewert Ethel Turner wrote Seven Little Australians while living at 1 Werona Street, Killara. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Literary duo Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw lived at 22 Orwell Street, Kings Cross. Photo: Steven Siewert

Poet Dorothea Mackellar’s childhood home was at 10 Dunara Gardens, Point Piper. Photo: Steven Siewert

Peter Carey. Photo: Steven Siewert

When Ethel Turner was told she would be moving to a new home on Sydney’s north shore, the avid diarist wrote: “We have decided to go to Lindfield. I have named it the Sepulchre but Mother objected so I shall call it the Catacombs”.

Despite her initial trepidation it was while living at “Inglewood”, a square house with a long balcony and verandah, surrounded by towering gums and wattles, that Ethel wrote one of the country’s most well-known books, Seven Little Australians.

The bush setting undoubtedly influenced the novel, which has been in print continuously since it was published in 1894 and has sold more than 2 million copies in English.

But today you could walk by Ethel’s childhood home (1 Werona Avenue), which has been rezoned to Killara and renamed Woodlands, and find no hint of its significant links to this classic Australian novel and its author.

While London has its famous blue plaque scheme, many Sydneysiders would during their daily commutes unknowingly pass by the houses and apartments where some of the country’s greatest writers lived and wrote.

There is the one-bedroom flat in the art-decor Cahors building (117 Macleay Street, Potts Point) where Miles Franklin winner Jessica Anderson wrote Tirra Lirra by the River and The Impersonators.

Or the two-storeyed stuccoed brick house (10 Dunara Gardens, Point Piper), where poet Dorothea Mackellar – who penned the now immortal line “I love a sunburnt country” – spent her childhood.

Cavendish Hall (2 Billyard Avenue, Elizabeth Bay) was the home of one of Australia’s finest poets, Kenneth Slessor, and where he began to write his famous elegy to his drowned friend Five Bells.

And there’s the Kings Cross apartment (22 Orwell Street) where the literary duo Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw, who penned Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow under the literary name M. Barnard Eldershaw, lived together after fleeing their families.

The only comprehensive guide to literary landmarks in Sydney is Peter Kirkpatrick and Jill Dimond’s now out of print Literary Sydney: a Walking Guide to Writers’ Haunts and Other Bookish and Bohemian Places.

Dr Kirkpatrick, a senior lecturer in Australian literature at the University of Sydney, said knowing where writers lived and wrote provided insight into how the city influenced their work, and in turn, how their work has influenced understandings of the city.

“It is important because it’s how we understand who we are,” Dr Kirkpatrick said.

“Why would you read Australian literature? For all sorts of reasons but certainly one of them would be to have some understanding of where we come from and what that means, what the landscape and the environment means.”

But discovering where writers had lived in Sydney was not a simple process. Dr Kirkpatrick and Ms Dimond had to scour postal and phone directories, old rare books and library archives. They also had to contend with street names and addresses that had been changed over time or had been incorrectly recorded.

“There are a number of Australian authors who still lack good standard biographies and even those there are, aren’t necessarily interested in the specifics of place,” Dr Kirkpatrick said.

During the course of their research, the pair discovered that many of the literary landmarks in the CBD had been demolished in the high-rise boom of the 1960s and 1970s and most of the remaining ones were in private hands, with no plaques or memorials to mark their literary links.

The closest Sydney probably has to London’s blue plaque scheme is the “Sydney Writer’s Walk” which consists of a series of brass plaques, baring the names of writers, embedded in the footpath around Circular Quay.

But the authors commemorated are not all Sydneysiders and have, in some cases, tenuous links to Australia. They also have not been updated since they were first installed nearly 25 years ago, incorrectly suggesting that several writers including Judith Wright, Ruth Park and Morris West are still alive.

Woollahra Council also has a plaque scheme – into which Christina Stead’s childhood home (14 Pacific Street, Watsons Bay) was recently inducted – but it is not specific to novelists and only a handful are added each year.

While writers’ houses have become key sites for tourists visiting England and America, you can count on one hand those that have remained open to the public in greater Sydney.

There is May Gibbs’ Nutcote house museum in Neutral Bay. Eleanor Dark’s family home Veruna is a writers’ retreat in Katoomba and Christina Stead’s childhood home Lydham Hall is a council-owned museum in Rockdale. Artist and writer Norman Lindsay’s house in Springhood is also open to the public, although the emphasis is on his artwork.

That is not to say there have not been attempts to preserve more houses of writers.

There was a two-year battle over Patrick White’s bungalow cottage “Highbury” (20 Martin Road, Centennial Park), where the nobel laureate lived and wrote from 1964 until his death in 1990.

The National Trust lobbied federal, state and local governments to buy the house and convert it into a public literary centre, museum or venue where artists could stay and write.

But the state heritage listed property was sold at auction to an investment banker for an estimated $3.2 million in 2005.

Nearly a decade on, the trust’s former NSW director, Elsa Atkin, still considers it one of Sydney’s greatest losses.

“To win the Nobel prize is a huge thing and not to in any way acknowledge Patrick White is a very sad reflection on us as a nation,” Ms Atkin said.

“We lost a really wonderful opportunity to do something. It would have been something Australia could have been proud of but money won out in the end.”

The home of May Gibbs (5 Wallaringa Ave, Neutral Bay), who wrote and illustrated Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, was close to becoming apartment blocks before some high-profile campaigners, such as Dame Joan Sutherland and Patrick White, convinced the council to pay about $2 million for it in 1990.

The museum is run by a charitable trust and has one full-time staff member. Curator Stephanie Lake said about 6000 people visit the museum the year, with 60 per cent from Sydney.

Doctor Kirkpatrick, however, was less enthusiastic about turning writers’ homes into museums.

“The sort of writers’ museums you see in London I find are dead, airless spaces. They are just empty rooms, with cabinets full of bits and pieces of stuff, usually not terribly interesting, associated with the writer,” Dr Kirkpatrick said.

Dr Brigid Magner, a lecturer at RMIT University who is writing a book on literary tourism in Australia, said the high price of real estate in Sydney could be why there are fewer writers’ houses preserved as public spaces.

“I think that is a big problem because real estate is so much and the public bodies like councils just feel like they can’t justify spending $2 million on a house that is going to be a heritage property,” Dr Magner said.

If money can not be outlaid to purchase the property, heritage listings can also preserve a house to some extent by adding stringent controls and processes for any proposed redevelopments.

Patrick White’s Highbury house, Ethel Turner’s Woodlands and Christina Stead’s Woollahra property are all on the state heritage register.

But there can be reluctance on the part of owners to have their property heritage listed out of fear it would make the property more difficult to renovate and to sell in the future.

“I think there really has to be people who are in positions of power who believe in the value of it – there has to be that sort of will to keep these cultural places,” Dr Magner said.

“It seems like you have to have a passionate group of locals to lead a campaign, there has to be someone who is going to bequest the house or a resident who cares.

“You have to have luck, serendipity.”

Dr Kirkpatrick’s top picks from Literary Sydney: a Walking Guide to Writers’ Haunts and Other Bookish and Bohemian Places:103 Moncur Street, Woollahra: Barbara Baynton lived here from 1890 to 1903 and wrote her short story collection Bush Studies.9A Wharf Road, Birchgrove: Peter Carey lived here when he first came to Sydney in 1974, the year his first collection of stories The Fat Man in History was published.Cavendish Hall, 2 Billyard Avenue, Elizabeth Bay: Kenneth Slessor lived here between 1931 and 1935 and started “Five Bells”.124 Chelmsford Street, Newtown: Henry Kendall here lived when his first book, Poems and Songs, was published in 1862.154 Probert Street, Newtown: Henry Lawson lived with his wife Bertha Bredt here during the early days of their marriage in 1898.

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