Who lived at your place? A pony lived at mine

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This was published 3 months ago

Opinion

Who lived at your place? A pony lived at mine

Here’s my latest lockdown game, playable by as few as one person, alone at a computer, and therefore perfect for these difficult times. It’s called Lockdown House Hunt and all you need is the address of a house that’s been around for a while – your own, that of someone famous, or just a place down the road.

The game started a week ago when I was planning a visit to Concord. It was there, in a backyard shed, that Mervyn Victor Richardson created the first prototype of his rotary lawnmower, famously using an old jam tin as the petrol tank and a billy cart to provide the wheels.

The Victa lawnmower was invented by a Mervyn Victor Richardson in a backyard shed in Concord.

The Victa lawnmower was invented by a Mervyn Victor Richardson in a backyard shed in Concord.Credit:Jessica Shapiro

I had an evil thought: what if the current owners of the place have failed to keep a well-trimmed front lawn? Sure, I’m easily amused, but, it’s only down the road, and maybe worth a detour. It would give me a story to tell Jocasta, who is also easily amused.

To find the exact address, I consulted Trove, the National Library’s online database of Australian newspapers. Trove is searchable, so the word “Victa”, and a 1950s date range, reveals classified advertisements in The Sydney Morning Herald in which Mervyn Victor Richardson was selling the machine from his home workshop, “open all day Saturday”.

I now had an accurate address to whack into Google. Instant disappointment. It emerges the house was demolished in 2018 and replaced with a duplex – seemingly without any concern, or even awareness, of its place in industrial history. The front gardens of both new properties are entirely paved, so not much role for the device that was created there.

I find this less amusing than the overgrown lawn I was hoping for, but, by now, I’m gripped by Trove. I’d used it before but hadn’t realised the spectacular results available once you search for a street address. Whack one in, enclosed by quotation marks, and suddenly the smallest events are revealed – items for sale, competitions won, letters to the editor from long ago.

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Once started, I can’t stop. I start with my own address, a house built in the early 1900s. Trove throws up two hits – both entrancing. In 1914, the then-resident advertised in the Herald that he had a pony and sulky for sale. The pony was 13-14 hands and was going “cheap”. Presumably, the pony lived in our backyard. Maybe one day, digging up weeds, I’ll find a rusty horseshoe and will now know the height of its owner.

The second mention came in December, 1931. The Holbrooks company, producer of various condiments, was running a sales campaign. Three people had been hired and instructed to visit 10,000 homes in NSW, knocking on doors to ask if the household was equipped with one of the company’s products – Worcestershire Sauce, No 2 Sauce or Pure Malt Vinegar. If you could prove you had a bottle, they’d give you 10 shillings’ worth of goods; if you had all three, they’d hand over a cheque for ONE GUINEA (the capital letters as featured in the Herald).

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Trove is silent as to which of the products was in use in our house, back in 1931, but at least one of them was. I like to think it was the Holbrooks Worcestershire, as the house’s kitchen still features a bottle of the stuff.

If it works for my house, what about others? I decide to check the childhood homes of past Prime Ministers, as the address is generally listed in their memoirs. I strike out with Paul Keating’s childhood home in Bankstown, but Trove is more helpful when it comes to John Howard. His childhood home – 25 William Street, Earlwood – is now the site of a KFC franchise, but back in the 1940s, the address was twice featured in the pages of the Sydney Sun.

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In both cases, it was a competition victory for Stanley Howard, John’s older brother. He won in 1941 for submitting a joke to the “Let’s Have Some Fun” column in that same paper, and again in 1945 for submitting a magic trick to the same newspaper’s “Tricks Time”.

I end the day in a Trove frenzy. The house in Adelaide in which the Hills Hoist was invented by Lance Hill is still standing, but, staring at Google’s satellite image, I can see no Hills Hoist in the backyard. What an affront! Talking about Adelaide, Julia Gillard’s childhood home, I discover, was previously the residence of one Marion Carnegie who, at age 10, wrote to the local paper requesting a penpal in Norway, the US or South Africa. She wanted someone who, like her, was 10 years old.

Of course, having discovered the name “Marion Carnegie”, you can then use Trove to discover if she did anything else newsworthy. Oh, here it is: at age six, she presented a bouquet to Lady Norrie, wife of the South Australian governor, to mark a visit to the local school. There’s even a photograph of Marion, page three of the Adelaide Advertiser, her back to the camera, as Lady Norrie beams down.

Could it be that lockdown has finally sent me mad, or could Lockdown House Hunt, and its endless accompanying searches, prove a winner for the times?

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