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The woman behind the original restoration of the Old Farm at Strawberry Hill

Augusta Maude Bird in driveway, 1903. (Courtesy Bird Family)

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The origins of the saying “behind every man there is a great woman” are unclear and there are many contemporary variations on this theme.

What is clear is that, in Albany’s written history, there are very few women who are celebrated, yet their husbands are usually in the spotlight.

What I plan in this occasional series is to right that wrong, and focus on some of Albany’s older “power couples”.

An entrepreneurial architect and Maude

The Bird family is well known in Albany.

Francis Bird, an English migrant, was an entrepreneurial architect and timber merchant in Perth in the late 19th Century whose business had fallen on difficult times and he was looking for a fresh start.

He owned substantial properties on the Canning River and overlooking Freshwater Bay in Perth and had entered a partnership with Benjamin Mason to cut jarrah forests near Kalamunda.

His family home, still standing and owned by the City of Canning, was named “Woodloes”.

Francis married Augusta Maude Earnshaw in Busselton in 1871, and they were eventually to have 15 children.

“Twelve survived childbirth and eight of them achieved adulthood. “

Twelve survived childbirth and eight of them achieved adulthood.

We can already appreciate the endurance of Augusta (or Maude as she was better known).

Moving to Albany and buying the dilapidated Strawberry Hill Farm

The decision to move to Albany was prompted by an accident in 1888 to Francis whose eyesight was affected by a rubbish fire at his home in Claremont.

He was partially blinded by cinders, and the irony was that, at the time, he was acting as an insurance agent for fire risks.

Doctors recommended a cooler climate.

He and Maude with their growing family of six sons and one daughter sold their Claremont property and purchased the dilapidated Strawberry Hill Farm from the Spencer family who had let the property fall into serious disrepair.

Francis saw the purchase as a short-term property investment but, with the help and inspiration of his wife, he changed his opinion and they threw themselves into extensive and much-needed home renovations.

Old Farm, Strawberry Hill, 1939.

Turning a fearsome sight into a local treasure

Maude’s initial impressions were guarded as she later wrote:

“This house and the kitchen were apart, each a separate building.

“The kitchen was a fearsome sight – it had low black ceiling and a big brick oven, a ruined old fire place – just a cavern, slab walls that were crooked handsawn with rough tree part on the outside, split and broken everywhere.”

“The kitchen was a fearsome sight – it had low black ceiling and a big brick oven, a ruined old fire place – just a cavern, slab walls that were crooked handsawn with rough tree part on the outside, split and broken everywhere.”

“A tiny pane of glass as a window in the middle of the south wall.

“A more dreadful and dreadfully dirty and tumble-down dark hole could not be imagined.”

The tasks were monumental.

Maude especially admired the exotic wallpaper in the Drawing Room that had been imported by Lady Spencer, probably from the Cape Colony in South Africa.

However, it had been badly damaged so the builders were given explicit instructions to salvage as much as possible.

The instructions did not percolate down to one of the workmen.

“He decided that the wallpaper remnant was rubbish so he gathered it up and burned it all. “

He decided that the wallpaper remnant was rubbish so he gathered it up and burned it all.

A postscript – there are still hopes to replicate the wallpaper in all its glory.

Remodelling and re-establishing the grand era of Sir Richard Spencer

Francis Bird, as well as resuming his architecture practice in Albany (he was the government’s Inspector of Works under noted colonial architect George Temple Poole), threw himself into the renovations and even as an old man was constantly working in the house or grounds.

It was Maude who planned most of the garden layout to re-establish the grand era of Sir Richard Spencer.

They remodelled the driveway so that visitors arriving by carriage would be impressed by the sweeping views of the house and plantings.

They even renamed the estate to become “The Old Farm at Strawberry Hill” to reflect the property’s original status as the first farm in WA.

It has since reverted to its current form of Strawberry Hill/Barmup under the stewardship of the National Trust of Australia (WA).

“The Old Farm became an entertainment hub in Albany.”

The Old Farm became an entertainment hub in Albany.

“At Home” afternoons were regularly staged by Mrs Bird on Saturdays, with strict rules of etiquette and behaviour, appropriate to the Edwardian period.

Tennis and croquet were played on the lawns and readings of plays and poetry took place.

Maude’s patriotic verses used for Albany’s first Avenue of Honour

Maude’s energy was also outstanding.

She had been badly injured in a carriage accident in 1876 which made her profoundly deaf and almost blind.

It even prompted a trip to the UK in 1913 to seek specialist medical advice but this had limited success.

In her later years, she turned to writing poetry and penned patriotic verses which were used at the dedications of Albany’s first Avenue of Honour along Middleton Road and of the York Street Fallen Soldiers’ Memorial in 1921.

She and Francis celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary in 1931 with their large family.

Francis died in 1937 (aged 91) and Maude died nine years later at the age of 94.

“In her short obituary in the West Australian, it is significant that more was written about Maude’s father, husband and one of their sons than about her own life. “

In her short obituary in the West Australian, it is significant that more was written about Maude’s father, husband and one of their sons than about her own life.

Perhaps this was just a sign of the times for this remarkable lady.

 

Reference: Bird, Ivan (comp.), The Story of Strawberry Hill, Middleton Road, Albany, Western Australia 1791 to 1891 and 1891 to 1940. 2002.

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