Sunday, 14 July 2013

Survival of a Stately Home

It means “a pile of rough stones”. One of Hamilton’s rare surviving late Victorian homes, Fettercairn is truly a survivor. Over the past 110 years, it has reinvented itself time and time again.

Fettercairn was built in 1903 for Mr and Mrs Ramsay Gow. The imposing two storey, 50 square house was an unambiguous statement by its owners of achievement and prosperity. Its crenellated parapet towered above the small cottages in Lindsay Street. The fretwork tracery on the barge boards, the tooled stucco, and the Victorian cast iron balustrades would have required specialised craftsmanship.

Gow's Residence, Hamilton NSW (16 May, 1903)
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, part of Norm Barney's Photographic Collection, held by Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

Ramsay Gow’s parents, John and Jean Gow, arrived from Scotland in 1839, going first to Tomago, and then to Newcastle, where Ramsay was born.

Ramsay worked for the Harbour Authorities (he was listed in 1901 as a carpenter). He married Frances (“Fanny”) Birkby, daughter of the owner of the White Horse Inn, Maitland. They had 12 children. Seven daughters and two sons survived. [1]

Perhaps it was the example and support of Fanny’s publican father that equipped her to become a retailing entrepreneur.

The Gow family owned a large clothing and drapery store in Beaumont Street, on the corner of Cleary Street. Gow’s Drapery became a Hamilton institution.

Gow’s Drapery, known as Montrose House, corner of Beaumont and Cleary Street, Hamilton, 15 August 1898

Photograph by Ralph Snowball, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, courtesy of Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

Local historian Doug Saxon, writing about life and school in Hamilton in the 1950s, [2] remembers Gow's as the largest shop in Beaumont Street, much favoured by his mother and grandmother. He recalls it as a shop where “not much money had been spent on updating the shop fittings in the time since it had opened”. There were two buildings – as Doug Saxon describes them, the original building had womenswear and manchester/haberdashery; the menswear department was a separate building but linked to the main shop.

Gow's eventually went out of business, unable to compete with larger shopping centres.

I have not found much more information about the Gow family, although their prominence in the community is confirmed by Peter Murray:

“In January, 1908, memorial gates were opened at the Steel and James Street entrance to (Gregson Park). These were a gift to Council from Mrs Gow and family and were erected in 1907 in honour of her late husband, Ramsay Gow, a local businessman, whose private dwelling, ‘Fettercairn’, still stands.”[3]

Entrance Gates, Gregson Park, Hamilton (n.d.)
Courtesy Newcastle Region Library

Despite its eventual decline, Gow's Drapery would have been the main source of the prosperity that enabled the family to build Fettercairn. I recall reading somewhere that Mrs Gow moved into Fettercairn as a widow. If it was built in 1903, and a memorial to her husband was gifted to Council in 1907, this could be close to the truth – at least it seems probable he did not live to enjoy his new home for long. Yet the business apparently continued for decades.


Mr Gow's House "Fettercairn" at Lindsay Street, Hamilton,
22 April 1904
Courtesy Newcastle Region Library

Eventually, Fettercairn was sold and became a private hospital.

Here we get an interesting glimpse into the development of maternity services in the area. Retired Newcastle paediatrician and local historian Dr Robert Evans told me that by 1942, private hospitals were key providers of midwifery services. Some of the 27 private hospitals in the Newcastle area provided medical and surgical services as well.

Already, I've come across quite a few Novocastrians who were born in Fettercairn, and one who had his tonsils removed there! Fettercairn had 17 midwifery beds, and these were usually managed by nurses, with private doctors visiting. It was 1951 before Newcastle Hospital acquired a midwifery section, according to Dr Evans. Fettercairn would have been  an important institution for Hamilton mothers-to-be.

The dynamics of service provision must have shifted within the health system when Newcastle Hospital assumed a maternity services role. In 1954, Fettercairn changed hands. It became a boarding house for young people coming  from the country to further their education in Newcastle. The large hospital kitchen would have served the boarding house well.

Does anyone know anything more about this period of Fettercairn's history?

In 1978, Fettercairn was bought by a well known Newcastle surgeon, Dr James Holley. Living here with his wife and five children, Dr Holley  began what would would turn out to be a ten year program to restore the historic property.

 In the early years after purchase, Dr Holley set up a surgery in the lower level front rooms. Several rooms and adjoining buildings were demolished to provide a large backyard in which frangipani, ti-tree, lilli pilli, wisteria and cannas grew. In 1987 an inground pool was added.

The labour of love that was the restoration of this grand old home was suddenly halted when the December 1989 earthquake struck. Hamilton was at the epicentre of the quake, and Fettercairn sustained very significant structural damage.

Estimates to repair Fettercairn ranged from $160,000 to $750,000. The Holley family felt that having invested so much time and money restoring their home, they were unable to continue that scale of investment to bring it back to the pre-earthquake standard, so laboriously achieved over so many years. In May 1990, James Holley applied to Newcastle City Council “with great sadness” for permission to demolish Fettercairn. [4]

Dr Holley's application to Council reports that the building had been inspected by the Australian Eagle Insurance Company. The Company considered Fettercairn unsafe for occupation; it had been irreparably damaged and they had therefore paid out all claims against it.

What followed was a heated community debate over what should be done. Some people thought the Holley family were entitled to do as they wished; others (including many Novocastrians who were born at Fettercairn in its hospital days) wanted it preserved. A relative of the original builders, the Gow family, Mrs Jenny Watson, heard of the proposal from as far away as South Australia. She wrote to Dr Holley and the National Trust, urging that Fettercairn be saved.

On 18 June, 1990 the Heritage Branch of the NSW Department of Planning refused the application to demolish Fettercairn. Ten grounds were stated, including:

  • “Fettercairn is a valuable item of the local environmental heritage. Its cultural significance is related to the early development of Hamilton and the Gow family, who were prominent members of the Newcastle and Hamilton community since about 1850.
  • It is a fully intact example of an upper middle class Victorian villa that is rare in this area of Newcastle.” [5

Most interestingly, the letter confidently declares:

No financial hardship will be suffered by the owner if the building is conserved as he has advised that he has already been paid out by his insurance company”.

Understandably, Dr Holley was apparently furious. As reported by Mike Scanlon in the Newcastle Herald (29 June, 1990), Dr Holley countered that he disagreed very strongly that the house could be readily repaired. He had a letter from his insurers saying that his property – which he loved – was uneconomical to repair. No one from the Heritage Branch had inspected the home.

The Newcastle City Council endorsed the Planning Department’s decision. A grant of $2000 was given by the Minister for Planning to fund an engineering and feasibility study for Fettercairn.

It is interesting to reflect on this battle and its outcomes. Clearly, relatives of the Gow family were not in a financial position to re-purchase the property that long ago had left the family’s hands. Yet the representations of Mrs Watson would have had some impact on deliberations by the Department of Planning, as did the community debate.

Dr Holley might well have felt backed into a corner, with his right to make the best decision on his own and his family’s behalf, compromised.

Since then, clarity and transparency have been established around the processes affecting NSW heritage buildings, so purchasers and vendors know what they are getting themselves into. Fettercairn is now listed by the Newcastle City Council on the heritage schedule to its Local Environmental Plan.[6]It is described as an above average example of a late Victorian residence.

What happened to Fettercairn after the earthquake?

In 1994, Fettercairn was sold by Dr Holley to Newcastle printmaker and photographer, Philip Gordon. Philip was looking for an art gallery in which to showcase exhibitions of Australian artists, and he was prepared to take his time carefully repairing the damaged building.

Over the next 18 months, Phil committed himself full time to this painstaking, labour intensive work.

He recalls that local engineer Mervyn Lindsay had assessed the property and done some specifications for the work required. This was Phil’s guide. Merve told me that Fettercairn was the name of the village and brewery in Scotland where his own family had originated.

Phil’s biggest job was the cracked brick walls – the internal walls were solid brick, the external ones were cavity. Carefully – so the wall did not collapse – he drilled out the cracks, raked out the crumbled mortar, and repacked the spaces with fresh mortar. This was all done by hand, and 700 buckets of mortar were used. The walls were then rendered.

The archways upstairs were particularly difficult because the bricks had been cut individually by hand to form the curve.

The internal and external walls were connected with metal S wall ties – upwards of 500 of these were replaced.

Metal S wall tie on external wall of  BarZingahh, Newcastle (2014)
Photograph by Matthew Ward

The floors of beautiful kauri pine were restored and polished. Interior design help was sought to choose appropriate heritage colours.

Phil told me how he approached the home as an archeological dig, finding enough items to fill a display cabinet in his present home.

The spaces behind the many fireplaces and the gap between the pressed metal ceilings and floorboards yielded up some fascinating treasures. The ceiling spaces housed gas pipes that had been installed for the lighting, and moisture condensed on them. From time to time, some floorboards would have to be raised to access the pipes. Phil imagined that when this was happening, the children of the house had fun dropping childish items into the dark spaces.

Lipstick, and a Victorian Christmas Pudding Doll, found at Fettercairn
The dolls were a Scottish tradition, used in Christmas puddings
as a good luck charm

Antique dropper, found at Fettercairn

Phil Gordon tells how one day when he was working on the house, a woman who was a descendant of the Gow family arrived. Phil showed her some of the items he had recovered, and she remembered one of the balls. She told him how “old Mr Gow” would “only tell you once” to get into the horse and sulky. She had been playing with that ball, but it had disappeared and she dared not search for it, for fear of being left behind. When she returned, it was nowhere to be found. After all those years, here it was!

A collection of marbles, including a Blood Alley (separate), and a cigarette butt embedded in mortar, found at Fettercairn

Phil staged upwards of 75 art exhibitions in Fettercairn, including artists such as Dallas Bray and Nigel Milsom, sculptor Peter Speight and the Novocastrian Quilters. The elegant, high ceilinged rooms provided a perfect setting for the work. Visitors were awed by the surrounds, which sometimes threatened to overshadow the art work.

I asked Phil if the house would have been practical to live in.

“It was hard to heat, hard to clean”, Phil agreed.

Coca Cola Yo-Yo and remnant of clay pipe, found at Fettercairn

In 2000 Fettercairn changed hands again, returning to its past use as a private family residence. “I’m glad there are children there again”, says Phil. “It’s a fabulous place for kids, with so many nooks and crannies and places to hide”.

Fettercairn is impossible to miss, walking west along Lindsay Street from Beaumont Street. While it has weathered into the streetscape, its red brown Flemish bond bricks and Queen Anne casement windows are still marks of distinction of this grand survivor.

To my way of thinking, Phil Gordon proved something – that sustained work of skill, care and patience can create a miracle of restoration. As I said in Tale of Two Buildings, one of the critical factors that determine whether a building endures is having someone to love it. Perhaps buildings are not all that different from people, after all.

Fettercairn (2014)
Photograph by Matthew Ward


Unattributed photographs are by Ruth Cotton.

Note: Dr Holley and the present owners of Fettercairn were invited to contribute to this story, but no response was received.

[1] Thanks to Mrs Mavis Ebbott, local Hamilton historian, for information on the Gow family. Valuable other information for this account has been derived from an anonymous HSC Senior Geography Project titled “Fettercairn” : How does and historic Hamilton building reflect the changes that have occurred in a suburb of Newcastle over the last century?” (11 July, 1994). The HSC assessment project was passed from Dr Holley to the next owner, Philip Gordon, thence a copy came to me. As yet, I have not been able to ascertain the author.
[2] Saxon, Doug: Hamilton: memories of life and  school in the 1950s. Fishing Point (2010).
[3]Murray, Peter: From Borehole to Hamilton Jubilee1848 – 1921 (self published) 2006.
[4]Letter from R Power, Manager, Heritage Branch, NSW Department of Planning, to Newcastle City Council, 15 May 1990, from Dr James Holley.
[5] Letter to Mr Lewis, Town Clerk, Newcastle City Council, 18 June 1990.
[6] The Newcastle Heritage Register is a database of all heritage items and heritage conservation areas in Newcastle. Refer to


A J Guesdon said...

DEATH.GOW. — At his residence, Manning River, December 19th, DAVID GOW, aged 51years, late of Newcastle, eldest son of the late John Gow, Fettercairn, Montrose, Scotland, and father of Robert Gow, and brother of James F. and Ramsay Gow, of this city, deeply respected by a large circle of friends. Family Notices. (1879, December 27). Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW : 1876 - 1954) , p. 4. Retrieved from

Ramsay died in 1907

wife was still there until at least this date:

HAMIL'TON.A' number of friends assembled at "Fettercairn," the residence of Mrs. Ramsay Gow, of Hamilton, last week, to bid farewell 'to Mr. Robert, Gow,. Jun., on the occasion of his return to India. Mr. Gow, who is a so! of, Mr. Robert Gow, sen., of the sandhills, Newcastle, served his apprenticeship to the engineering trade with Messrs. Morrison and llearly, of Carrington, and subsequently gained his certificate as an r.t.giner., Sabseqtienfly he received on appointment in India which placell him in c1?hcrg oathe Cosalporo Sugar-worlis in. Calcutta, where le has now been, engaged for the last five years, end recently. cams overto the Newcastle hlastrit to spend a holIday amongst hiis friends, who decided toentertain him at a social before returning. Advantage was also taien of . theoccasioi to piesont Mi. Gow with a goldsovereign-case eas-a token of frilendship,.Tia. reclpiont sultably aciaowledged theglit, .aid said he approclatcd the sentiments which had accompanied it. Daring ihO.e ovening .rl hrci?noments wor0 dis-.lIensed, atid- masleal ltoiis .were contributed by Misses Grey. 'Pulver, and it.Young and Messrs. Gow and Sinclair. Mr., Gow sailed for India by R.M.S.Osterley on Saturday. HAMILTON. (1910, June 15). Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW : 1876 - 1954) , p. 6. Retrieved from

kind regards,

alison - Pittwater Online News

Ruth Cotton said...

A. J Guesdon. Thank you for confirming Ramsay Gow died in 1907. I have recently met with four women who worked at Gow's Drapery in the 1950s, and they have given me much more detailed information about the store. I will post that story in the next couple of weeks. Ruth Cotton.

julesbern said...

Have just chanced upon this via a friend. I am a direct descendant of John Gow, have some information and articles on this great old home and fortunate to have this all brought to my attention via letters from around Australia after a call for help when I started tracing my family history.
Have yet to read through in it's entirety, just wanted to make a comment and will pop back in later.
Bernice Gow Townsville.

Ruth Cotton said...

Thank you julesbern (Bernice) for getting in touch. I am gathering information for a follow up post on Fettercairn, so would love to see what you have. I can be reached by email at Ruth Cotton.

Alison Seaward said...

Hi Ruth
This may seem a strange question. My grandmother Vera Hooker worked for the Gows around 1918 to 1924. She had my father in 1920 but was unmarried and did not tell my father that she was his mother until dad was in his 70's hes now 95. She would not tell dad who his father was. I wondered if the former employees remember her or and gossip concerning her?

Alison Seaward said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ruth Cotton said...

Alison Seaward the former employees I have been in touch with would be 'younger' than your grandmother so unlikely to know - good luck with your search.