How I Came to Start My Novel, Part 2: The 1920s Landowner

This is the story of the first owner of my house, the first of the ‘House of Women’.

The first owner of our house was a woman by the name of Ethel Lottie Rogerson, a married woman who lived in Mount Lawley, an old suburb approximately 8 kilometres north east of Daglish. Technically, she just owned the land, as the house was not built until almost two decades later; but her name is the first that appears on the title, and therefore the first of the women whose history is entwined with my own.

The Daglish precinct only came into existence in 1925, marketed as an affordable and spacious alternative to the more pricey blocks in Subiaco and Shenton Park across the train line (and it still is). When the Daglish train station was commissioned in 1925, land to the west of the train line and south of Hay Street was made available for sale, encroaching on the then-virgin bushland. Daglish was the first major development area in the City of Subiaco since the area was gazetted in 1897, and the streets were still only sand and rocks in 1928 when Ethel purchased not only the block of land that our house was built on, but the neighbouring block as well, a piece of land described as ‘one rood, 11 and 8 tenth perches’ and for which she paid the sum of £119 (approximately $8,000 today).

Curious as to how a married woman might become the owner of two pieces of land I began to research Ethel using the digitised newspaper system Trove and ancestry.com.au which gave me access to the old electoral rolls. I wanted to go back to early in Ethel’s story, to find out as much as I could about her.

Ethel was born in 1887 to parents Charlotte and John, and seemingly lived her entire life in Perth, dying at the age of 80 in 1967. At the time of the 1916 electoral roll (when she was 29), Ethel was married to a contractor (builder) by the name of Robert Rogerson and living in East Perth. Over the next fifteen years, Ethel and Robert moved a few times, never very far – even at time moving to the house next door (from 701 Beaufort Street in Mount Lawley to 699 Beaufort St).

As I read through the electoral rolls, I could see as their various children came of age (the voting age at the time was 21). Sadly, Ethel and Robert’s first daughter Grace, who was born in 1910, passed away at the age of two years and five months, when Ethel was still very young, age 23. Many years later their son Arthur Edward, recorded as a student and a daughter Gwendoline Alice, a nurse, appeared on the 1936 electoral roll, indicating they had both turned 21. The following year, in 1937, neither Arthur nor Gwendoline appeared as living at the house in Beaufort Street, suggesting they had moved out of home, but by 1943 another daughter Jean Ethel appeared on the electoral roll, and Robert was now recorded as being a ‘builder.’

In 1949, when Ethel would have been 62 and Robert some years older, Gwendoline moved home again. Listed on the electoral roll as a nursing sister, it is my suspicion that she moved home to assist her elderly mother with her very sick father. Robert Rogerson died shortly after, on July 12th, 1949, leaving Gwen temporarily at home with her mother and youngest sister Jean. Jean appears to have lived at home with her mother Ethel for her entire life, or at least until the historic electoral rolls end in 1963.

However it was many years earlier, in the early days of the Great Depression, when Ethel started selling off the land in Daglish. Given that Ethel didn’t work, it is a fair assumption that she was acting under instruction from her husband, who may have chosen to have the land in his wife’s name for legal or business reasons. (However it is possible she may purchased the land using an inheritance, my research has not progress that far. Yet.)

After purchasing the Daglish land in 1928, the block was divided into two, and then she sold Lot 137, (now my neighbours block) to Edwina Evie Henson in December 1929. Perhaps due to poor sales during the Depression, Ethel held onto the second piece of land for another three years, finally selling the empty corner block to Doris Isabella Turpin, a ‘spinster’ living in 1320 Hay Street Perth on September 7th, 1932.

Doris – who is the inspiration behind my novel – and her story will be the subject of my next blog.

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my desk 2017

How I came to start my novel

July 2005

As she walked down the stairs to her waiting car, Judith looked up at the house one more time.

‘You know,’ she said, ‘this house has only ever been owned by women.’ She smiled at me, her eyes crinkling against the winter sun, and then she got into her car and drove to her new home. I turned and surveyed the house my husband and I had just bought. It was a rambling late 1920s (or so I thought) interwar cottage. Built solidly of limestone and bricks, and wood and tile it had the traditional wooden floors and high ceilings in the original, front part of the house, and a large sunlit modern extension in the back. Judith had bought the smaller original house in the 1980s, and raised a family within its walls, extending it with her architect husband, Greg, in the early 1990s. Then in 2005, my husband and I bought the house.

At the time I considered her comment curious, thinking it would be unusual that a house of that vintage would be owned solely by women in such a traditional male-centred society as 20th century Western Australia, but I didn’t investigate the claim further until almost a decade later.

In 2014, I was three quarters of the way through a post-graduate professional writing degree at Curtin University. I had enrolled in a unit called Writing the Past, and I knew before term even started what my major project was going to be. I was going to research Judith’s claim – and discover the women who had previously owned my house. I even knew what I was going to call it: The House of Women.

I had ordered a copy of the house title the year before, but not spent much time pouring over its spidery copperplate writing. When I pulled it out of the yellow envelope, my eye quickly fell upon a name that immediate disproved Judith’s claim that only women had owned the house. A husband and wife had owned the house in the 1970s. I was surprisingly disappointed, but not enough to stop me from persisting in my research when I saw all the other owners had been women, all the way back to the 1920s. I pulled a notebook from my shelf and began taking notes.

It is from within these notes and the stories I discovered along the way, that my novel has originated. While in 2014 my research was strictly for personal interest (and the university assignment), the notion that I could turn any part of it into a novel was not seeded until much later. A throwaway comment in 2005 started a journey that now in 2018, I am still pursuing. And the story of a woman who lived in my house over fifty years ago, has formed the basis of my novel.

Since the novel is based on real people in a real time and place, historical accuracy is very important to me. I’m also a complete research nerd, and will happily spend hours pouring over photographs and old books to determine how things really looked, what things cost, how people travelled and what they ate.

But while my novel is fiction, it is based on a number of individuals who are very real. They are modest people, every day people that you would not know about unless they were a distant relative, (or unless a random writer one day stumbled upon their stories). But while I type my novel, I will also be sharing real stories here, the real lives on which my novel is based. Because they deserve to be written as well.

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my desk 2017

My writing space has been set up with images of the people and places I am writing about, with the added nostalgia of my own grandmother’s clock and crystal