Lost – Elizabeth Bay Mansions. Found – the artwork of Gladys Owen

View from Darling Pt across Rushcutters Bay to Elizabeth Bay

View from Darling Point across Rushcutters Bay to the Elizabeth Bay mansions 1879 – source City of Sydney Image Library

Yep! This photo above has caused me a lot of grief. But let me start at the beginning. I am currently researching high society in Sydney during the 1920s. Until recently I thought (naively as it turns out) that I could simply read up about the wealthy and then fashion up a house and lifestyle for my main characters. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? How wrong was I!

This is a black hole in our history. Our novelists were not writing a Sydney Great Gatsby – they were, for the most part, writing about life in the bush. Later, the subject has hardly been touched on, which has impacted on the amount of research I now have to do. I was just realising all this a few weeks back when I decided I might have to look into the history of houses in the area to pinpoint and research the lifestyles and choices of the people (particularly the daughters) that lived in them.

Tantalisingly all these high society people are floating around in Trove in gay abandon. They are having farewell parties (off to the Continent, San Francisco, Hawaii). Hosting charity functions, balls, afternoon tea parties, enjoying the sea breeze at Hotel Cecil, Cronulla and all manner of other social activities. I swear they travelled and partied more than we do but what did they do day after day? How were the hours in their day actually filled when you were wealthy (you weren’t travelling on the Continent) and you didn’t need to work? Enter the picture above.

I chose five houses in the Elizabeth Bay area to research, working mainly on the images. It was late at night, I found this photo and reference to a short history of Ellizabeth Bay Mansions and being tired, I didn’t write the reference down – simply saved the photo. I thought I’d go back the next day and look into the reference. Could I find it the next day? OF COURSE NOT! The photo was there but no reference.

A few days later I visited the Mitchell Library and experienced first hand the very misguided changes that have been made to this historic library. Because of staff cuts, there were only two staff members on to help with people wanting to access the special collections. I was requesting maps of Darlinghurst Road in the 1920s and also looking for those notes on Elizabeth Bay Mansions. With the new changes to the Library I was told to put my requests in at the State only to find that what I wanted was at the Mitchell. I ended up going backwards and forwards between the two libraries four times.

I was very frazzled – almost as much as when I was Waiting for Eleanor Dark. In the confusion I missed requesting a book that I did come upon about Elizabeth Bay mansions. Another trip down to Sydney! But I did find the wonderful woodcuts and etchings of Gladys Owen. I was given an enormous folio tied with a ribbon and I was mesmerised going through images of Spain, Italy and England created between 1919 and 1960. This is what the Mitchell should be for. To look at special collections in the building where these collections are housed. It is with relief I heard that the recent changes and staff cuts are going to be reversed!

I can’t keep up with my characters!

SwainsLast week my two young women, Sarah and Louie, were walking down Pitt Street in Sydney in 1924 way before I was ready for them to even leave their houses! If you look carefully at the image above you will see hashes. Yep that’s where I’m missing information. They are catching trams, going into little cafes for cups of tea, having lunch etc before I’m even organised.

I want to stop right in front of them with my notebook and say, “Excuse me, if you could just tell me which tram you caught this morning. Or even if there is a tram from Elizabeth Bay. I also need the name of the cafe you are going to. How much is a pot of tea in February 1924 would be helpful too. And what’s with this marocain stuff? Why does everybody seem to be wearing it? I mean what does it look like? And do you know, girls, that your dresses are great but your shoes! Don’t get me started on the awfulness of shoes in the Twenties. I will do you both a favour and avoid mentioning them.”

There is so much to hunt down and check. For instance I still don’t have Louie’s last name but there is a suggestion already that her family is wealthier that Sarah’s. Sarah’s father, Henry Montague, works in Pitt Street in finance I think but at this stage I’m not sure what he does exactly.

There’s an interesting Swiss German with a yacht but I have no idea how he is going to make his way into the novel. By boat you are probably thinking to yourself. Tempting but how to work that in. Have Sarah in a dinghy in Rushcutters Bay drifting aimlessly? There is the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia nearby so may be, but another research point to check – was the club there in 1924?

In the scene I am working on now, Sarah and Toby Linden are walking in Hyde Park, enjoying the green shade away from the busy streets of Sydney. But wait…No they are not! After looking for some images of Hyde Park around that time I discovered this:

Hyde Park 1925

Construction of St James Station

Hyde Park was dug up for the new underground railway in 1919 and wasn’t beginning to look like the Hyde Park we know and love until 1926. My characters are determined on a romantic walk (well sort of) and a park must be found. Botanical Gardens? Hold on, I’ll just go and check!