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Davidson house

Ron and Dianne Davidson's house, 24 Fothergill Street, its story as told in their book: Fighting for Fremantle, Fremantle Society, 2010, chapter 6.

Chapter 6: A Good Place to Live

The Fremantle Society had wider aims than the protection of significant historic buildings. Possibly its most important aim was contained in object (b) of its inaugural constitution: ‘Encourage the improvement of the Fremantle area as a desirable residential and commercial district whilst retaining its unique character.'

To this end subcommittees were set up to give advice on restoration of old houses and provide information about availability of materials and relevant tradesmen. Where old houses were being demolished, the Society organised the rescue of fittings, timber, stained glass and iron lace, mantelpieces, plaster roses, doors, windows, skirtings and anything else that could be reused, often also raising funds for the Fremantle Society. In the 1970s this operation was largely managed by Les Lauder and a young local antique dealer, Richard Brouwer, who was also then on the Fremantle Society committee.

The Society was tirelessly promoting Fremantle as a good place to live. This was at a time when many residents were leaving for newer suburbs that were established when market gardens outside Fremantle were being subdivided for housing. Many Italian, Croatian and Portuguese settlers wanted to get out of their wooden and limestone houses and into brand new brick and tile. Their tum-of-the-century cottages in Fremantle reminded them of houses in their European villages. They hadn’t travelled to the other side of the world to live in an old stone house again. However, many found that the! suburbs usually lacked comer shops, friends and a Fremantle city centre within walking distance. When they wanted to return they found that ‘new people’ had already moved in and prices had gone up.

The new people, often attracted by Fremantle Society publicity, were younger and better educated than the original owners of the old houses, but frequently didn’t have much money. They moved into houses which were in bad shape. Many had served for years as low-cost rental accommodation, where potentially imposing dwellings had become doss houses for destructive drunks. The Society wanted its members and supporters to buy any available limestone houses pre-1925. The next step was to restore them - properly. The society put out a policy document. It offered lists of old, restorable houses on the market to all members, as well as advice on skilled tradesmen and restoration materials. It maintained a pool of hard-to-get materials for sale and a stock of iron lace for loan to members so they could recast missing pieces for their old homes. Authentic restoration was the aim. To oversee this, Les Lauder toured Fremantle and East Fremantle in his noisy beige VW giving instructions; he was an expert who suffered no disagreement.

Fremantle became in the 1970s and early 1980s a city of house restorers. As the authors, Ron and Dianne Davidson, were part of this wave, their experience was probably typical. They were looking for a cheap house, liked the cosmopolitan feel of Fremantle, and were persuaded by Les to move there in 1976. Society member Annie Woollett was then keeper of the list of available houses and took

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Ron and Dianne on a trip around a collection of turn-of-the-century villas.

The Davidson residence in 1976 (from the book)

They stopped in Fothergill Street, high on a limestone ridge with a panoramic ocean view. Like many of the turn-of-the-century limestone and brick houses in Fremantle, the house Annie was showing had seen better days. It had been a scrap metal dump after being a fine middle-class house, part of a speculative block of five - two villas and three workers’ cottages - at the top of the ridge that overlooked Fremantle Gaol (as it was then known), where the first owner worked as a doctor. All strata of society were represented at the top end of Fothergill Street including a merchant prince and a pioneer educator and politician.

Ron and Dianne’s house, like the one next door, featured a bay window and a fine living room, complete with an elaborate ceiling and a servant’s bell.

The servant had lived out the back in a weatherboard room just big enough for a bed and a wash basin. When the Davidsons first saw the house all that was holding the roof together were several thick coatings of red oxide paint. There were still holes the size of a lumper’s fist. However, rain tumbled down the steeply pitched roof so fast that only an occasional stream lodged on the elaborate moulds of the lath and plaster ceilings. When rain reached the wall it amalgamated with accumulated cooking fats and remnants of tar deposited for decades by hand-rolled cigarettes. Mothers hated their sons and daughters buying these houses. Ron’s mother was characteristically direct: ‘Why would you want to live in a slum even if it did cost only $25,000?’ The same view was expressed by several of Ron and Dianne’s friends.

It was a lucky house, though, if not for the previous owner. A former Italian

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owner had decided to remove was holding the roof anything old rather than moving out. There wasn't to he much left that was old except for occasional bits of wall: no bay window; no old woodwork; lowered ceilings; blue tiles on the roof; and terrazzo everywhere. Then fate had a say. The morning that destruction was due to begin the owner had a heart attack and abandoned the project. The house was allowed to decay gracefully for another seven years.

Bank managers had reservations about houses like the one the Davidsons were looking at. The Society at its formation received a letter from a member saying she had been unable to buy an old house in East Fremantle because the bank wouldn’t lend the full amount. While waiting to arrange for extra money someone at Council put the owner in touch with a developer who paid the full price in cash and demolished the house. The Fremantle Society sought advice from the Paddington Society. They had had the same problems until they convinced banks that old restored houses went up in value much more quickly than modern ones. Ron and Dianne finally managed to convince their bank and bought the house.

The first task was to strip the house of the flat plastic paint which made it look like an aquamarine blob. This involved the spraying of caustic soda on the paint, which was no picnic. Occasionally a house-stripper would sit in a caustic pool. It was not uncommon then to see them, pants down, being given sprays of vinegar to neutralise the caustic burns. Not surprisingly, tradesmen didn’t want these particular restoration jobs or didn’t have the skills to do them. Owners had to learn on the job. They did wondrous things. Without any experience, for instance, Ron laid a pine floor which has stood the test of time.

A small group of older tradesmen did undertake serious repairs for Fremantle Society members. They were passed from one restoring owner to another with reverence and flattery. When the Davidsons were surprised to discover that the chimney that had serviced the tiled fireplace in their elegant lounge room had come down eight years earlier during the Meckering earthquake they put out a call for Bob Keppie, the Society’s extraordinary bricklayer. His charge was seven dollars an hour, with the owner acting as his brickie’s labourer.

Bob liked to tell his amateur assistants he had done his apprenticeship fifty years earlier as a lad living in Glasgow. During winter Bob would leave a saucer

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of water on his window sill. His mother checked the water next morning. If it was frozen the weather was too cold for bricklaying and she let him sleep. Otherwise she sent him off to the almost freezing building site. Building towering smoke stacks which tapered ever so gently upwards became his specialty.

Bob in 1976 was an invalid pensioner with serious stomach problems and attitude. Each morning at eight he’d be standing on a wooden scaffold he’d built around the remnant of the Davidsons’ chimney, wearing shiny silver-buckled shoes that never seemed to get dirty. Bricklayers were sculptors with bricks, he would tell Ron a little grumpily, as Ron stumbled along a scaffolding plank with the first bucket of mortar. Ron was told to call it mud. The sculptor with bricks gave instructions - but only once. A blade of grass or a pebble brought a terrible stare for the assistant. At 2 p.m. it would be knock-off time for Bob to play bowls: his assistant would collapse.

Stan Henderson was one of the Society’s master carpenters. He’d arrive on the job with his fifty year old - probably original - tools. Over the years his saws

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had been sharpened until they shimmered like a rapier. His chisels were mere stubs. With these saws he did wonderful things. He eschewed the electric saw.

The next old tradesman on the scaffold was John Pope. John was a seventy-ish plasterer who could still cut and run a mean mould. There were no prefabricated fibreglass moulds around in those days. John was as outgoing as Bob Keppie was self-contained. It was his job to run moulds on the Davidsons’ new brick chimney and on the front fence that had been demolished by an overloaded scrap-iron truck and had to be rebuilt. He’d stand on the chimney, scour surrounding back yards and look for neighbours to tell that the weather on the roof was ‘as cold as a frog’s foot’ and other colourful phrases.

Any house having problems with its stumps - and few didn’t - needed Victor Pampling. Victor was an enthusiastic Englishman who worked under houses rather than in them. He made ricketty kitchen areas sound. But at a high personal cost: when last seen by the authors in the 1990s Victor was suffering from mesothelioma as a result of encounters with asbestos dust under houses. He died soon after.

Eitan Friedman was a Society tradesman - tiler - who was very different from all the rest. He was an anarchist in the true sense of the word who fitted well into seventies Fremantle. Eitan was a young Israeli with three engineering degrees and three desert wars behind him. He didn’t like either. But he had worked during university holidays with his grandfather who had taught him the art of laying tiles that varied slightly in size: somewhat like the Victorian and art nouveau tiles house restorers wanted him to lay. Eitan disliked rules and wasn’t worried by time. The house next door booked him for 10 a.m.: he was knocking at the door of the Davidson house at 10 p.m. He was like that.

With time conservation tradesmen became more common and more formally trained - but less picaresque. Fremantle people became richer and could afford to have their houses restored in one hit. A Fremantle pastime passed. When last seen by the authors, Eitan, the last of the old school, had been on crutches for ten years after a motorbike crash. He now paints and makes superb jewellery. He still dislikes rules and clocks.

The Davidson residence in 1990 (from the book)

References and Links

Davidson, Ron & Dianne 2010, Fighting for Fremantle, Fremantle Society, chapter 6.


Garry Gillard | New: 15 June, 2016 | Now: 3 June, 2020