Australia, university

Death of Glenthorne House

One of the research questions at our field school was: Was Glenthorne House lost to accidental fire and / or demolished by the Australian Army?

Glenthorne House was a 3 storey mansion built in the late 19th Century and was described as “handsome”, “lovely”, and impressive to visitors. It had thirteen rooms, a famous interior woodwork of cedar and inside there was even a grand piano flanked by two staircases. On a scale of 1 to 10 on the Fanciness rating it probably scored at least a hard 8.5.

Glenthorne house, picture from 1919. Courtesy of State Library of South Australia.

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It passed through a number of wealthy families, and then in 1913 the Australian Government mandatorily acquired the estate from then-owner Harold Drew, because the army needed to use the land. (Can you imagine? Poor Harold Drew.)

Then the house died a horrible flaming death when it caught fire one morning, and people could not put the fire out.

The army decided to clear it and when it was done, there was nothing left but a crater in the ground

I’ve included here the newspaper article from a paper called The Advertiser (which is still going today, by the way!) that detailed the fiery incident. Date of article: 22nd August 1932.

Crater in the ground, Snipped from our lecture slides. We got to sit in this crater at our field school! Photograph was taken by Brian O’Halloran, 1959. Courtesy of Smith, Walshe and Burns 2018.

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Reading through the supplementary material, I learnt that when the Army first took over the land, they wasted no time getting to work, building extra barracks and officers’ quarters on the land. Commanding Officer Captain Normal Campbell and his wife moved into the fancy mansion in 1913, and moved out again in 1925.

There were also notes detailing that soldiers were billeted in Glenthorne house, and some of the young blokes were overjoyed about this because it was probably the 1920s equivalent of being allowed to crash at a Novotel/Hilton. Anyway, a soldier named Albert W. Pedler wrote in his diary that some of the “lucky lads” got to choose their sleeping spots in some of the enormous built-in cedar furniture.

Later, according to Albert Pedler’s diaries, when he went back to Glenthorne to stay, he and his friends were forced to pitch tents on the property because “the lovely house had burnt down.”

Camping! Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com

But get this: his diary was dated 1927, five years before the article I pasted above.

What jumped out to me was this – according to The Advertiser, the house had been condemned for human habitation “some years” leading up to 1932. How did a house shift from a “grand”, “lovely”, “handsome” mansion reserved for an important Captain up until 1925, into a decrepit building unfit for billeting infantrymen in 1927?

image from pexels.com

Albert Pedler’s diary entry, which seemed to have an anachronistic detail, seems to provides the answer.

It’s also not a stretch of the imagination to suppose that an initial fire would have exposed the famous cedar interior to the elements, facilitating a rapid deterioration of the house leading to 1932, making the interior environment unsafe for human habitation.

Given the Army has forcibly bought the property and tried to get as much use of Glenthorne house as possible even after damage, the fire was unplanned and likely accidental. (Also note that the Advertiser says that people tried to put the fire out with a hose, and had to rescue the furniture). Given how everything turned out, there were likely two fires: one around 1925-1927, and the final one that finished it in 1932.

The timeline I made for the report to illustrate the point.

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I found working this out all very exciting and emailed the university course coordinator. He was intrigued by this interpretation, as he hadn’t heard it before. He must have gone digging for more historical sources, because a couple of days later he wrote back. It turns out that one of the principal researchers of Glenthorne House had indeed determined that something fishy had happened to the house (she wrote circa 1924-1927), that stopped people from living in it.

The past researchers only wrote, though, “it was possible that there were two fires”, but I am entirely convinced that there was. I mean, Occam’s Razor is a real tool and philosophy used for problem-solving, after all – “the simplest explanation is the answer.”

So, while I wasn’t the first person ever to notice this bizarre detail and turn of events, it was nice to have a real Archaeologist at university come back and tell me I wasn’t nutty and speculating with wild conspiracy theories. Goodness knows, the world has enough of those.

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Out of interest – have you ever witnessed a house burning down? I’ve seen 2 or 3 in my lifetime, as a passer by.

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11 thoughts on “Death of Glenthorne House

  1. Congratulations on your deductive work! I’ve never seen a house burn. I have seen a burnt house. There was a fire in the neighborhood where I first lived as a newlywed. The house had had a fire and all the windows were gone and the exterior was soot covered where the smoke had escaped upward. That was what struck me. I don’t remember if the roof was intact or any other details….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Those pesky wombats!! You might be onto something…

      It was thrilling! Your comment has me reflecting I could put my own interpretation just at the end, like a riddle, so that readers/bloggers can work it out.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Not witnessed, but the holiday house in the English Lakes which my family used to rent did burn down, completely, and the lack of mains water was critical.

    Old farmhouse, built of stone –

    No army involvement, – but in our area, a whole valley was requisitioned by Defence, for essential training, .Centuries old public access ended, except on days when the red flag isn’t flying. . ,

    Liked by 1 person

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