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Barry Humphries and Camberwell’s Golf Links Estate


On the morning after Barry Humphries died, Sammy J on ABC 774 publicised the suggestion that Willison Station on the Alamein Train Line should be renamed after him.

Willison is one of the least patronised train stations in Melbourne. To the casual observer, it would seem a very low-key tribute to the global phenomenon that was Barry Humphries.


Willison Station c. 2010s

However, Willison was Humphries’ local train station during his youth. In all the accolades to his prolific and at times controversial career, nothing much has been said about his connection to the Camberwell area, particularly the Golf Links Estate.


I thought I would have a go.


The Humphries move to Camberwell


According to his autobiography, More Please, published in 1992, Barry’s parents, Eric and Louisa, met at Sunday School in the working class north-eastern suburb of Thornbury.[1] Although he doesn’t say as much, the autobiography reveals Louisa harboured deeply rooted pretensions towards upward mobility. In short, she was a massive snob.


She abhorred the shaggy eucalypts and narrow wooden artisan houses of Thornbury. Barry’s mother believed, he wrote, that ‘if you had survived the Depression and liberated yourself from Thornbury, you deserved a nice brick home with a 33 foot setback, picture windows, a terrazzo porch, a bird bath, a ‘nature strip’ and a driveway with ‘provision for motor-car accommodation.’ [2]


The new Golf Links Estate in East Camberwell offered such an opportunity.

Fortunately for Louisa Humphries (or perhaps because of her), her husband had abandoned his long held dream of being a dentist and dutifully followed his grandfather into the building trade.[3] He operated a business building sturdy suburban villas in all the popular styles of the time, mock Tudor, Spanish mission, neo-Georgian, Californian bungalow and moderne. Sometimes, for a wealthier and more daring client, Eric Humphries built a house in a ‘jazz moderne’ style with glass building blocks and aubergine-coloured ‘manganese’ bricks. He was able to easily transfer these skills to the new Golf Links Estate.


Promotional image of 38 Christowel Street

By the time their first child Barry was born in 1934, the Humphries were ensconced at 38 Christowel Street (or Christowell Street depending on what end you were on). A short time later, they moved next door to Number 36. This would become Barry’s childhood home.


The ‘Golf Links’ part of Golf Links Estate


The Golf Links Estate took its name from Golf Links Train Station, the original name for Willison Station. The area’s connection to golf began when the Surrey Hills Golf Club leased paddocks off Riversdale Road in East Camberwell in 1907. First known as ‘Judd’s Reserve’, then ‘the slaughter paddock’, and then ‘Bellett and Cook’s paddock’, the land the Surrey Hills Golf Club leased was ‘of a triangular shape’. The Club quickly arranged for the construction of a jarrah clubhouse containing a large dining room, lavatories, showers and lockers. The land was very sandy – a hallmark of a ‘links’ style course – that allowed it to be played on all year round.


Surrey Hills Golf Club then dutifully changed its name to Riversdale Golf Club in 1908.

By 1913, the land boasted a club house and flowerbeds. Wrote Argus correspondent ‘Baffy’, ‘no metropolitan course has a more beautiful natural setting than Riversdale.’ Yet, as another correspondent wrote, ‘the game is clearly one for enthusiasts being about the slowest thing on record for an outsider to watch.’[4]


At some unspecified point I’ve managed to track to only between 1908 and 1924, highly influential members of the Golf Club managed to persuade the State Government to calve off the western platform at Riversdale Station and move it 400 m down the former Outer Circle Line to create a new station for the Golf Club.[5] This new station was named Golf Links Station.


By 1926, the Golf Club was threatened by encroaching urban development. As this was the reason they had moved to Riversdale Road in the first place, the Club’s leadership decided it was time to purchase their own land. They found a spot between High Street Road and Huntingdale Road where they remain today.


Despite now not being anywhere near Riversdale Road, they kept the name Riversdale Golf Club.


The ‘Estate’ part of Golf Links Estate


Early advertisement for Golf Links Estate

A year after Riversdale Golf Club moved out, the land of the old golf course was subdivided. According to Barry Humphries, it was always meant to be a model suburb showcasing the upward mobility of post-WWI Melbourne. Camberwell Council deemed the houses of the new estate were to only be made of brick.[6] It invested heavily in roads, footpaths, tree-planting and other conveniences; including a large recreational park area near the Estate (Riversdale Park).


The expense of this explains in part why the new settlers in Ashburton lacked these facilities for years.


The first 24 acres of the newly dubbed Golf Links Estate went on sale in May 1927. Camberwell was now booming; £4.4 million of land had been sold in the past five years.[7]


Eric Humphries built 38 Christowel Street in the ‘Tudor style’ as his first speculative villa. Shortly after Barry was born, the family moved next door to the house Eric built in an ‘Elizabethean style’.


A few years later, much to Louisa Humphries’ horror, the land next door was snapped up by Mr and Mrs Tootell who proceeded to build a two storey house startlingly similar to her own. As a result, Mrs Humphries barely spoke to the ‘architectural plagiarists’ next door, and the two families exchanged only polite courtesies their entire lives.

36 Christowel Street in 2023

‘I can still remember those remnants of fairway, tee block, bunker and rough between the pristine brick homes, and the puckered grey golf balls we sometimes dug up as we planted our new garden,’ wrote Humphries in his memoir. The clubhouse, now derelict, remained for a few years before disappearing entirely. With it went the few native trees left before the creation of the golf course.


This was by deliberate design. ‘The eucalypt was banished,’ Barry wrote. ‘The New Gentility demanded silver birches, liquid ambers, pin oaks, prunus plums and magnolias. Every back yard had a lemon tree and a Japanese maple; although after Pearl Harbor most of these were patriotically poisoned.’


To maintain the exclusivity of the new suburb, the ‘brick only’ ruling meant builders could not erect any timber dwellings in case anyone wanted to keep backyard animals or other signs of the working classes from just over the hill.


By 1936, twelve years after the electrification of the Ashburton Line (as it was known before Alamein was opened in 1946) residents succeeded in saving the largely superfluous Golf Links Station from abolition. A suggestion of changing the name to Christowel failed so instead, the station was named after Arthur John Willison.[8]


Willison, a long time City of Camberwell councillor and a key driver of the establishment of the Royal Women’s Hospital, seemed worthy enough of the honour and the station has been known as Willison ever since.

‘The noticeable thing about the men and also the women who waited for the train on Willison Station was that they wore hats,’ Barry told The Age in 2005.[9] ‘Workmen in particular wore a kind of uniform of Akubra trilby, baggy grey trousers and a faun — always faun — half Norfolk jacket over a two-tone fawn and burgundy cardigan and an open-necked shirt. They could be seen rolling their own cigarettes and the older men often sported a returned serviceman's badge. They always carried battered Gladstone bags in which one presumed were sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper and a copy of The Sporting Globe, Truth or Smith's Weekly.’


It seemed from a very young age Barry Humphries was already keenly observing suburban life with a healthy dose of his mother's pretentiousness.

Life in Camberwell in the post-WWII era


As he grew up in the new Golf Links Estate, Barry Humphries realised there was a gulf between his socio-economic circumstances and those of the Australian working class. He was, in his own words, ‘a molly-coddled little Lord Fauntelroy from the Golf Links Estate.’


The workmen on his father’s building sites fascinated him. ‘I used to love watching the cement being mixed,’ he wrote. They would tease him about the consequences of getting too close and falling in. When he began to pick up the workmen’s vernacular, his mother scolded his father for allowing her precious son to associate with the ‘more common elements’ of society.


Camberwell South Primary School

For the first year of his schooling, Barry Humphries attended South Camberwell State School, ‘a raw red-brick two-storey building that stood in an extensive asphalt wasteland, bounded by the palings of adjacent houses.’ His parents harboured aspirations to send him to Camberwell Grammar but after a year at South Camberwell, he attended Camberwell State School.


‘The hardships of life were nothing compared with the shrieking, thumping, yelling, wrestling maelstrom of human maggots into which I had been hurled,’ he wrote.

When he finally made it to Camberwell Grammar, a ‘blissful respite’ from his persecution at state schools, he had already stepped onto the path towards his entertainment career. ‘At the School,’ according to the School’s obituary published on Facebook on 24 April, ‘Barry excelled at writing and literature, something his first English teacher, Mr Brown noticed, putting forward some of his fledgling writing pieces to the Grammarian where his poetry and literary pieces were then regularly featured.’


By his own account, he sucked at maths and even more so at the only thing that mattered in an Australian private school: sport.

The return of one of their own


After completing his secondary schooling, Barry Humphries went on to fail University. He had come to resent the conservative nature of Camberwell, preferring the more bohemian inner suburbs. To his parents shock, he wanted to pursue a career in the theatre. Barry’s mother would often opine in his presence, ‘Eric and I just don’t know where Barry comes from.’


‘My first thought was, how am I going to tell my folks?’ Humphries told Keith Dunstan in 2006. ‘This was an inconceivable way of earning a crust. Who had ever met an actor? A fellow with dyed hair once came to school to read us poetry. He was considered a very odd sort of person.’[10]



A later incarnation of Dame Edna Everage

While travelling from one Victorian town to another with a theatre group in 1955, Humphries entertained his companions with a character he called Edna (named for his favourite nanny at Christowel Street) who came from Moonee Ponds.


From the beginning, Edna revealed a meticulous observation of suburbia. She had an ear for catching every cliche and prevailing prejudice, wrote Keith Dunstan. Another of Humphries’ characters, Sandy Stone, ‘a decent elderly man from the suburbs’ would become Humphries test of just how much boredom an audience could take.


Edna, Sandy and their creator would become global megastars.


Development threatens the Golf Links Estate


Cover of 'Our Inter-War Houses' with 38 Christowel Street in the foreground

It took another 40 years but Barry Humphries eventually developed a nostalgic affection for the Camberwell of his youth. He became a passionate advocate for preserving it.


In 1991, he was asked to write the foreword for a National Trust document called ‘Our Inter-War Houses: How to recognise, restore and extend houses of the 1920s and 1930s’.


‘Although Melbourne has expanded monstrously,’ he wrote, ‘its inner suburbs still remain surprisingly intact and are amongst the most congenial and attractive residential areas anywhere in the world. With the coming of the Yuppie, for all his absurdities and pretenses, many houses teetering on the brink of oblivion have been saved from dereliction and even in some cases, over-restored.’[11]


In 1995, a developer sought to build a dual occupancy residence at 66 Fairmont Avenue on the Golf Links Estate. A group of concerned residents mobilised to oppose the development. Their effort to protect their estate from development attracted widespread public attention. Several notable Camberwell identities, including Humphries, athlete John Landy (who lived in Christowel Street at the time) and prominent historian Geoffrey Blainey all wrote in support of rejecting the application.


Realising the threat of development, the Golf Links Estate Residents group engaged a heritage architect who stated, ‘architecturally, the estate is Victoria’s best and most well-preserved collection of the prevailing house styles, in the period between the two wars, sited in one well defined urban area.’


Boroondara Council then voted against its own planning department and rejected the proposal. The developer went to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (VCAT today) and lost.


Denise Ryan wrote in the Sunday Age in 1996, ‘this is an example of the tension between the State Government policy of encouraging higher density in inner suburbs and residents' desire to preserve remaining suburbs of intact period homes.’[12]


It’s a conflict that continues today.


In 2016, Humphries went on to opine of Sandy Stone, his boring man from Melbourne’s suburbs, ‘he deepened over time. Gradually I began to feel myself turning into him.’


John Barry Humphries: 1934-2023




References

[1] Humphries, Barry, More Please (London: Viking, 1992). 3 [2] Ibid. 7 [3] Ibid. 30 [4] "Golf," Punch, 1908 [5] Allan, J Alex, The History of Camberwell (Victoria) 1841-1950 (Historical Society of Victoria, 1950?). 206 [6] "Historic Camberwell Estate," Herald, 27 April 1927. [7] Ibid. [8] ""Golf Links" or "Christowel"?," Argus, 9 February 1935. [9] "Return of a Passionate Pilgrim," The Age, 7 October 2005. [10] Dunstan, Keith, "The Evolution of Edna," The Age, 21 January 2006. [11] Raworth, Bryce, 'Our Inter-War Houses,' National Trust of Australia. [12] Ryan, Denise, "Duel Occupancy," Sunday Age,

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