Saturday, 14 March 2015

Knowing the Gow family of Fettercairn, Hamilton

There was no celebratory clinking of glasses of Scotch whisky when Fanny Gow, aged 42, gave birth to a boy in 1886, after 10 girls in succession. Temperance was the watchword of this prominent Hamilton family. Ramsay Gow, Fanny’s husband, was a foundation member of the Sons of Temperance, a member-only organization devoted to a life of abstinence from alcohol. Fanny herself was a great worker for the temperance cause, though her father was a publican.

It has always intrigued me that Ramsay Gow is celebrated for his contribution to Hamilton, but it is his wife’s story that really fascinates.

Ramsay married Frances (‘Fanny’) Birkby in 1860. Her father Thomas Birkby was by then the owner of the White Horse Inn at Maitland, but he had had a varied career, including as an overseer of convicts, and a police constable.

Ramsay and Fanny’s much awaited first son was named Walter Ramsay Stuart. Two years later, another boy William Allen Hodge, was born.

Walter’s daughter Vera Carter (nee Gow), spoke at a large Gow family reunion in 1996.[1] Her speech filled in many of the details that were missing when I wrote the original blog post on Fettercairn.

‘I imagine there was often an enormous sigh of relief that (my grandmother’s ) biological clock had run down,’ said Vera. She continued:

‘After all the years of ceaseless childbearing, one would expect Fanny to retire gracefully and put her feet up.’

Of their 13 children, nine had survived. Fanny still had a large family to take care of, but in time, this energetic woman wanted something more. Not just for herself and her family, but for the women of Hamilton who sewed and knitted clothes for large families. She knew exactly what was needed.

In the mid 1890s, around a decade after bearing her 13th child, Fanny Gow embarked on a new career. As Vera explained:

‘Newcastle was expanding towards Hamilton and beyond, and Gow and Co., Drapers and Milliners, Montrose House, Beaumont Street, Hamilton came into being, due to her enterprise, energy and initiative – supported of course by Ramsay. ‘

An asset to Beaumont Street, the department store prospered, rivalling Scott’s and Winn’s in Newcastle.

Gow’s Drapery (Montrose House), corner of Beaumont and Cleary Street, Hamilton, 15 August 1898
A discount chemist now occupies this site
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, courtesy of Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

In 1903, building began on the Gow’s new home, to be called Fettercairn after Ramsay’s Scottish origins. Of a grand scale even today, the Victorian style mansion would have been seriously impressive then. At last, after 14 years’ hard work consolidating the business, the Gow family would have a substantial home that stood as a testament to their success.

Ramsay Gow experienced great losses in his childhood, learning early to be independent. He was born to John and Jean Gow, a year after his parents arrived in Australia from Fettercairn, Scotland. Together John and Jean had eight children, but their father John died when he was just 44. Ramsay was 4 years old. His mother Jean died when he was 10, and he went to live, not altogether happily, with his older brother David and wife Margaretta. After leaving school, Ramsay first worked for David, but soon left to join the Department of Navigation.

Ramsay never visited David and Margaretta again, remaining in the Department of Navigation for 28 years.

When Ramsay Gow retired from the Department of Navigation in 1901, he would have only six years of productive life ahead of him. Apparently a quiet and dignified man, he was a JP, a member of the Agricultural Society, the Hamilton Bowling Club and of course, the Sons of Temperance. Ramsay devoted himself to acquiring and managing real estate, and died in 1907 of a cerebral thrombosis. He was 67.

The Gow family residence, Fettercairn, at Lindsay Street, Hamilton, 22 April 1904
Photograph courtesy Newcastle Region Library

How sad it was that Ramsay and Fanny had so little time together to enjoy what they had worked so hard to create.

Fanny gifted a set of gates at the entrance of Gregson Park to the Hamilton Municipal Council, to honour her husband.

Vera Carter tells how her father Walter began working in the store at the age of 14. He took over from Fanny around 1906, a year before Ramsay’s death.

When I interviewed the four remaining ‘Gow girls ‘ – former employees who as as young women had worked behind the counters at Gow’s in the early 1940s and 1950s - they told me that Walter Gow was by then the owner. Their interactions were mainly with the manager, Ray Hitchcock, but they recall Mr Gow coming in at 10 am every morning to do his rounds of the counters. More fascinating details about the inner workings of the store are  here.

The store closed sometime in the 1960s. The world of retail was changing, as were customer shopping patterns and expectations. It appears Gow’s may not have kept pace with the times

Of Fanny, Vera writes:

Fanny wasn’t a cuddly grandma, she seems to have been respected rather than loved. Her grandchildren were in awe of her, and she would not allow them to use the front staircase, insisting they use the back stairs. She was religious, strong minded and energetic, and it is obvious she ruled her family and the staff of Gow and Co. with a very firm hand..’

Fanny Gow died at Fettercairn in 1923, having lived in the grand house for 16 years as a widow.

What then for Fettercairn?

The history of Fettercairn is told in the blog post ‘Survival of a stately home’ including its time as a private hospital and a boarding house for students from the country.

The future of the historic house came to public notice after the 1989 earthquake, when the then owner, Newcastle surgeon Dr James Holley, applied to Newcastle City Council for permission to demolish it. He had bought the property in 1978, and devoted almost a decade to its restoration.

After heated community debate, permission was refused, because of its local environmental heritage. Three or more years in limbo followed, until in 1994, Fettercairn found a new owner – Newcastle printmaker and photographer Philip Gordon. After 18 months of meticulous restoration work, Philip was able to open the Lindsay Street Gallery. Upwards of 75 exhibitions would be staged there.

Notes of ideas for exhibitions to be held at the Lindsay Street Gallery, Hamilton
Philip Gordon, mid 1990s

Meanwhile, the Gow descendants had scattered far and wide, but the threat to their ancestral home had spurred some of them to arrange a family reunion. Through  a collection of letters left by Philip Gordon to the current owners of Fettercairn, we get a sense of what the preservation of this house meant to the family.

Frances East, granddaughter of Ramsay and Fanny, and daughter of Ethel Alice (4th daughter) met Philip and Theresa Gordon in mid 1996, following the reunion. The restoration of Fettercairn was complete and first art exhibition had just been opened in the Lindsay Street Gallery. With other relatives, Frances had been invited to see the house.

On return to her home in Christchurch, Frances wrote a letter of thanks to the Gordons:

‘There’s no need to say that the Gow reunion was a great success in every way – and our visit to my Grandparents’ home was a nostalgic experience. As I told you, I stayed at Fettercairn many times until my Grandmother died – something no other person at the reunion had done. It was a great experience to have you both show us around and we were very impressed with the love with which you had so painstakingly restored the grand old home and retained all the ‘bits and pieces’ that you found during the restoration period. We were very touched with the retention of the torn up and slightly charred letter written by my much loved Aunt Katie (Harris).[2]

Restoration of Fettercairn in progress
Photograph by Philip Gordon

Vera Carter, another granddaughter of Ramsay and Frances, daughter of Walter Ramsay Stuart Gow, wrote to Theresa and Phil on 27 August, 1996 thanking them for inviting them to the opening of the Lindsay Street Gallery:

It was a great occasion and you have a wonderful collection of paintings. As I told you, we were almost reconciled to the thought that Fettercairn would disappear and to have it restored so beautifully is almost a miracle. I’m sure Grandfather Ramsay and Grandma Frances Gow would be delighted.’ [3]

In a later note, Frances East echoed Vera’s sentiment, speaking for all the Gow descendants:

‘…we are all delighted that people like you both, who have so lovingly restored our old family home with great care and interest, are the new owners.’[4]

Restoring the archways required the bricks to be cut individually to form a curve
Photograph by Philip Gordon

In 2000, Fettercairn changed hands again, returning to its past use as a family residence. In September 2014, photographer Craig Smith and I took a group of Lost Newcastle followers on a walk to explore Hamilton’s historic past. Always mindful of the privacy of people who reside in historical places, we were unexpectedly invited in by its present owners. Everyone was in awe of the way they have taken custodianship of this beautiful house, which continues to be a grand Victorian residence.

In the Fettercairn entrance hall is a glass case with memorabilia of the Gow family
This photograph is of a Gow family portrait. Members have been identified
by descendant Frances East
Standing at rear:
Ethel Alice Victoria 3rd daughter 1875-1959 (mother of Frances East)
Edith Annie 2nd daughter 1869-1943
Lucy Theresa 4th daughter 1872-1966
Adults seated:
Lydia Frances 1st daughter 1867-1951
Ramsay Stuart Gow 1840-1907
Frances Theresa (Fanny) 1844-1923
Seated next to Lydia (left) is Beatrice, 6th daughter 1881-1969
Seated next to Frances is:
Jessie Milne 5th daughter 1880-1966
On floor left to right:
Walter Ramsay Stuart 1st son 1886-1962 (father of Vera Carter)
William Allan Hodge 2nd son 1888-1969
Catherine Ross Gow 7th daughter 1884-1962

Photograph by Craig Smith, taken of a photograph in Fettercairn 2014, courtesy of the current owners


Thank you to the current owners, who shared documents and photographs passed to them by Philip Gordon. Philip Gordon generously assisted Hidden Hamilton with information for the original post.

Related posts

[1] Speech ‘The Gow Family Succession’ by Vera Carter given at the Gow Family Reunion, 1996. Further quotes from this speech are in italics, not referenced.
[2] Letter from Frances East to Philip and Theresa Gordon, 29 September, 1996. 
[3] Letter from Vera Carter to Theresa and Philip Gordon, 27 August 1996. 
[4] Letter from Frances East to Philip Gordon, 17 October 1996. 

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