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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Australia, journal, university

Sweet mysteries of antiquity

A long long time ago, in 2012, the remains of the Lord of Ireland and last King of England to die in battle, Richard III, was found in a car park.

Above link leads to info page. Contains images of human remains.

Image: pexels.com

The Wikipedia page also says he happened to be right under a parking space where the tarmac had been painted R (for ‘Reserved’).

It’s a neat coincidence, and I like to imagine that in the spirit realm he trying to use the parking lot as a giant Ouija board* all that time to tell people where he was.

I found out about Richard III because I have been running around for another assignment, trying to come up with a Proposal. AKA: practice asking for money from hypothetical VIPs to invade sites to do archaeology. Number of words written: 0 out of ~2000.

A lecturer told me that in the 1960s and 1970s, some community clubs (think: similar to Rotary or Lions) would go to old cemeteries, and if the headstones were crumbling they would shove them to one side, and place a lawn over the graves so they could have spaces for lovely green parks.

Anything for lawn bowls, amirite?

Image credit: wikimedia commons

This is probably what I will write on when I am done typing frantically for the other 4000 word assignment on Glenthorne. Number of words written for that one: ~3800/4000.

To revisit, Glenthorne House was a 3 storey mansion built in the 19th Century, and burnt down mysteriously in 1932. Little about it was documented.

An interesting thing occurred yesterday as I was reviewing the historical records. I had a lightbulb moment 💡. The records only point to a vague possibility there was more than one fire, but I am entirely convinced that there were two events, about six years apart, that were critical to the destruction of the house. The evidence was always there, but simply jumbled.

It was quite exciting to have this realisation, and I hope to blog about in more detail once I’ve submitted the assignment. I wonder if they would accept a theory postulated by a student as mainstream.

I hope everyone is doing well! I am still reading WordPress posts in my feed, and will channel words towards commenting again when I have done more homework.


*You could pay me to survey graves but not any amount of money to use a Ouija board, as I find that stuff creepy AF.

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journal, university

Between a rock and a hilly place

This appears to be a pile of rocks. It sits on top of a hill, in Glenthorne National Park, South Australia. It was not known about until very recently, when a worker involved in the development of trails stumbled upon it, in the tall grass.

Photo: mine

The worker’s colleagues all said it was probably just nothing, but he said he had a funny feeling it was significant:

• From the hill, you can see many fields, and the ocean in the distance; it is a peaceful view.

• The rocks were clearly not from around the National Park. Some were rounded, which only happens to rocks that have been made smooth by the ocean

• The placement of the rocks looked very intentional, with some edges interlocking, not unlike a jigsaw puzzle. This suggests that they were all hand placed.

The deliberate placement of this pile of rocks lead the gentleman to conclude that this was likely a grave.

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The construction workers eventually agreed to fence the rocks off out of respect.

This remains unconfirmed, but likely. In discussions with the head Archaeologist on our team, I gathered that they thought it probably was not a human’s grave, as:

• The present-day National Park was owned by very important, influential colonialists in the 19th Century, and people who died would have had Christian burials down by the Church.

• Non-Christian persons around at the time would have been Aboriginal Australian, who do not like to have hard objects over their resting places, so this is unlikely.

• Another reason this could have been a private burial was that this was a scandalous one, like a lady of the night. However, the elevation, sentimental atmosphere of the hill and the rock placement would seem at odds with this hypothesis.

Glenthorne National Park is on land that was owned by the First Police Commissioner of South Australia, Major Thomas O’Halloran, who sailed to Australia from London in 1838. As mentioned, he was very influential, and he owned stallions in his time, which is like a modern day squillionaire collecting Maserati sports cars.

The worker and head Archaeologist suggested this was likely the grave of a prized horse, if not Major O’Halloran’s most prized horse.

An Arabian horse. Photo by Ealdgyth, from Wikimedia commons.

The grave will unlikely be excavated (I have since learnt on the field trip that it is common consensus in Archaeology that digging is often the last resort for investigating a site, due to its destructive nature*).

The site obviously meant something special to someone, and we now have the technology to analyse/scan what is under the earth without disturbing it with shovels, and so this is what archaeologists are going to do for further research projects.

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So there you have it! Our field trip last week was at Glenthorne. The horse grave was a little diversion from the main project though. Archaeologists are actually looking for this house:

c.1919 Image credit: State Library of South Australia

This three story mansion was called Glenthorne House, built in the 19th Century. It passed down wealthy colonialist families before it was given to the military, who billeted soldiers there.

The house was burnt down in 1932, and questions remain around why it happened: Did the army blow it up on purpose? Where did they hide the rubble?

And that’s what we were digging for – an unresolved 90-yo mystery. I felt a little bit like I was in a Scooby Doo episode when I heard the brief.


*I could rename this blog, but Dreams of Surveying doesn’t have the same ring to it.

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