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Raheen

This article was first published in the  White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No. 310 on 30th April 2009, two days after the death of its high profile owner Richard Pratt.

 

The patriarch lies dying in his bed in that house which has so many stories to tell. His family is gathered around. Each time there is a crunch on the gravel you know that someone else has arrived to say there farewells. Anyone from the most powerful in the land to the local gardener. The patriarch has built himself up from nothing, there have been some mistakes, some skeletons in the closet, some last minute twists, but he is able to leave a legacy to his family and to society that must count for something.

Don’t you love those BBC costume dramas? We can’t produce the stories or the stately homes to match what they have in Britain. Or can we?

Richard Pratt died a very public death this week at Raheen. Prime Ministers past and present attended his bedside as did people from a wide range of society. I think he might forgive my slightly theatrical description above. He was a thespian and would not be unaware of the theatricality of his passing. He toured to England as an actor in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. He passed up a career as a footballer. And it was fitting that he spent the last few decades of his life in a mansion with a history as rich and varied as his own.

The Mansion Knowsley called was erected on the heights overlooking the Yarra River. Like other important mansions such as Como and Toorak House it had rolling grounds running down to the river which have since been truncated. It was built for the successful brewer, Edward Latham. Like many in Melbourne his fortunes suffered a severe downturn in the late 1880s when banks went belly up and we headed to a great depression because they had made loans for people to purchase land and properties even though it was obvious they could never repay those loans. Thank goodness we have learned those lessons.

Latham was forced to sell up and there was a buyer. Henry Wrixon was a barrister and later politician. Now that doesn’t necessarily produce enough of the readies to purchase a mansion – unless of course you marry a rich widow. (By the way, if any of our subscribers have a list of rich young widows we would be pleased to receive it - for research purposes. The ‘young’ bit is optional.) Wrixon had fortunately married Charlotte, a wealthy widow and daughter of Henry 'Money' Miller and so Knowsley was theirs. He soon renamed it Raheen after a district in his native Ireland.

After his death the mansion was purchased by the Catholic Church for their newly arrived archbishop – Daniel Mannix. He would walk down the hill each day distributing coins and homilies to the deserving poor of Richmond, Collingwood and Fitzroy on his way to St Patrick’s Cathedral.

In 1981 the Catholic Church sold the property to a Polish immigrant who had done well in the recycling business. Many thought that a now run-down mansion in the hands of ‘new money’ would soon be turned into a McMansion. It turned out to be the opposite. The Pratts set about restoring and refurbishing the mansion in its original spirit. And it was there that the scene described above was played out this week.

Come with me into the ballroom at dusk. This is the time when you can still see the flowers in the ballroom garden, but in the fading light you can start to hear the walls reflecting back the conversations that have taken place there.

“Believe me, one hundred years from now people will still be enjoying the fruits of the Carlton Brewery.” (That must be Latham) “When I was in charge, 90% of our graduates were teetotallers.” (Sounds like Mannix) “If we extend the wing out there it will need to pay respect to the existing building and the site.” (Sounds like Glenn Murcutt) “Are you sure the spires will be taller than the English at St Pauls?” (Mannix) “Believe me gentlemen, we can never hold our heads up high until we give women the vote” (Wrixon I think) “I’ve got it planned so that the St Patrick’s Day parade is led by up to a dozen V.C. winners on white chargers. Why don’t you drop around the corner for tea at our place one time?” (Probably John Wren) “That’s a lovely voice dear, and what do you mean no-one performs the classic musicals any more. We’ll soon fix that.” (Jeannie) “I have already campaigned for a half day off on Saturdays so there will be no playing of frivolous music in my house on the Sabbath.” (Wrixon) “I see no advantage for these Protestant Sabbatarians wanting to kill all enjoyment on a Sunday. Our pews continue to fill while theirs lay empty.” (Mannix) “I know there is a danger that the Communists will take over the Labor Party but ‘The Movement’ will stand up for all that’s right and good.” (Bob Santamaria) “Thank you for your hospitality and your wishes for a long and fruitful life.” (President Ngo Diem) “I might be late home tonight dear. Don’t wait up. Since they elected me president of the Melbourne Club I feel I really have to go.” (Not sure here. I know there have been Catholic and Jewish members of the Melbourne Club but possibly not as president so I’ll go for Wrixon.) “I know the other politicians aren’t interested in your plans for saving the Murray-Darling Dick, but I am and I plan to be premier for a while yet.” (Jeff) “You were late home again last night dear” (Mrs Wrixon) “You might have foresworn earthly vanities but you always carefully adjust your top hat and frock coat before walking through the poor.” (That’s the mirror.) If the garden’s wilting we’ve got waste water at the factory. I’ll bring some home.” (Sounds like Dick) “If Tommy Bent gets elected speaker instead of me it will show the condition that Victoria’s come to.” (Wrixon) “You never did understand Ireland Dan.” (Sounds like the archbishop’s old mum.) “A little flutter on the horses never did any harm.” (Take your pick.)

You will probably find plenty of books that tell you about the architecture of Raheen. But that’s not what makes a building special.

Next time you are passing along Studley Park Road, pause at No.92. It’s a private house and you can’t see much from outside. But if you stand quietly for a while at dusk you might just hear some voices.

BL

Copyright © 1995 - 2017 White Hat.

Other articles in the series Seven Mansions of Melbourne:

Seven Mansions of Melbourne - overview

No. 1 – Tara
No. 2 – Raheen
No. 3 - Cranlana


You can find a comprehensive guide to markets around Australia at The White Hat Guide to Markets in Australia.