Kindly donated to Community History by Hilary Silbert
When the people of Cottesloe consider their history, few will realise that one of Australia’s most significant women lived amongst them.
Who is she?
The lady on the fifty dollar note!
It was the result of a compromise that Edith Dircksey Cowan (born Edith Brown at Glengarry, Geraldton) came to live in Cottesloe in 1896. The beach side suburb had been named Cottesloe only ten years earlier. She arrived with her husband and children to live at “Bleak House”, situated on the south-western corner of Avonmore Terrace and Rosendo Street. Edith, who was to become the first women to be elected to any Australian Parliament, had rural origins and her husband James had enjoyed time in York and Grass Dale. The decision to move from their home in Malcolm Street, Perth to Cottesloe was to be near the hub of activities that had attracted the attention of Edith and still enjoy the rural atmosphere of the district. The family had been leaving their home for Albany to escape the summer heat, so now they could enjoy the sea breezes and the coastal pleasures of Cottesloe Beach. They had friends who had made the move and, though arduous, chose to travel to Perth some 8 miles, with Fremantle being 4 miles.
The first house built in the area in 1892 was “The Summit “owned by the Foulkes family in Avonmore Terrace, on the corner of Salvado Road. On the 4th of May, 1895 James Cowan, Esquire of Perth, had paid £35 to Adam Jameson and Daniel Kenny of Perth, Medical Practitioners and on the 13th April, 1896 he purchased the second parcel of land for £350 from Edward Hooley of Perth and Charles Dempster of Northam with a mortgage of £500 with interest at £7 per centum per annum.
In Rosendo Street the Cowans would have been neighbours of the families residing in “Belvedere”, the Campbells, and the Burt family in their summer residence, “Tukurua”. The Moseleys lived opposite on the south east corner of Rosendo Street and Avonmore Terrace and the Holmes, in “Banksia”, were on the corner of Salvado and Swanbourne Terrace, now Marine Parade. An interesting link to the neighbours for the Cowans was the fact that Francis Moseley was the Master and Registrar of the Supreme Court whilst James also worked in the legal field. Septimus Burt was the third party signature as the solicitor on Edith Dircksey Brown and James Cowan’s Marriage Settlement document on the 13th of March, 1890.
The property the Cowan family occupied was located on Section 78E Lot 6 and section 79E Lot 5 on the south west corner of Avonmore Terrace and Rosendo Street, Cottesloe Beach. The rates in 1905 (the earliest records available) were £1.17.6 and struck at sixpence in the pound. The person registered in the rate book as the owner is James Cowan, Police Magistrate. By 1906 the person rated is James Cowan and owner, Mrs E.D Cowan. It is noteworthy that Edith is named in the District Road Board Roll as the owner and was list as E.D not Mrs James Cowan as was the custom of the day. The Electoral Roll for the Claremont District dated July 25th 1908 shows all the family recorded as residing in “Bleak House,” Avonmore Terrace, Cottesloe. Only Helen aged seventeen, was unable to be registered. Avonmore Terrace was a new street, constructed in that year.
22 Avonmore Terrace on the corner of Avonmore and Rosendo Street, c. 1945.
So in the beginning of the Cowans in Cottesloe in 1896, the family consisted of Edith aged 35 and James aged 48, married seventeen years, daughters Dircksey (16 years ), Hilda Edith (13), Ida Marion (11), Helen May Burdett (5) and their son Norman Walkinshaw, aged 14.
To imagine the Cottesloe of this era: there were two trains a day, the coast road was named Swanbourne Terrace and householders built tracks through the bush at their own expense. Orchids and wild flowers were present in the bush and the broken ribs of shipwrecks were visible in the winter storms. Ships would travel quite close to the shore and drifts of coal smoke were visible. The train fares to Perth were single 1/2 (adult), 8d (child) and return 1/9 and 1/-. The railway connecting Fremantle to Perth had been opened in 1881 with fares based on 1 and 3/4 pence per mile for first class and a penny per mile for second class. Under three years of age was free and half fare was for children from three to twelve years of age. Cottesloe Station replaced Bullen’s Siding in 1896 and Cottesloe Beach Station was established as the neighbourhood siding. There were twenty two listings in the Post Office Directory for Cottesloe. In 1898 the Telephone Exchange opened with 88 subscribers on the list and in the same year there was the introduction of cabs. By 1901 the main gravel streets to the beach were laid, the first being Jarrad Street, and in 1903 electricity was connected.
As a lifestyle, the residents of Cottesloe Beach had parties, played croquet and had friends who would come for weekend visits. There was mixed bathing and bathing boxes soon made an appearance. There were bands and alfresco concerts held on the beach and pier. Cottesloe drew painters interested in seascapes and flowers. Edith was particularly interested in the etchings of H. van Raalte and acquired his works.
One local recorded event of the period: In 1900 Lady and Sir John Forrest opened the W.A Deaf and Dumb Institute. John Forrest was the Surveyor General in 1883 who was responsible for the streets and reserves in Cottesloe. The Cowans would probably have attended this occasion and they had a connection to the high profile couple: Edith was involved in the work of the Karrakatta Club with Lady Forrest, and the same Lady Forrest, as Margaret Hammersley, had been engaged to Edith’s uncle Maitland Brown. Fellow neighbours, Mrs Moseley and Mrs Holmes, were also involved with the work of the Karrakatta Club. Another event the Cowans were sure to have attended was the performance of the cantata, “The Errand of Flowers, “produced by the Cottesloe Branch of the Ministering Children’s League. It was performed to a packed hall in 1905 and Edith was a member of the committee. In addition, the family and their neighbours could well have attended the changeover ceremony from a Road Board to a Municipality on September 27th, 1907 with the other Cottesloe residents of the day.
During their years in Cottesloe, Edith and James travelled to Europe leaving their daughters to run the house. In December 1902 when James was earning £450 as a Police Magistrate the fare was £475. They returned in August 1903 having visited galleries, museums, plays and the theatre and been like many of the Western Australians of the period who travelled abroad. Edith believed the need to travel was educative, broadening ones horizons and lessening the sense of isolation. She travelled again to England and Switzerland whilst a resident of Cottesloe. In March 1912 she left on her own and arrived in London in April returning in February 1913. She was said to be carrying a letter of introduction that reflected her connections to every charitable movement in the city of the day.
In terms of education for the family, the girls attended Perth Girls’ School, formerly the Perth Colonial Girls’ School. It was local, being located in Irvine Street between Stirling Highway and View Street and was run by Miss Amy Best and Miss J.A Nisbet (who had succeeded Mrs Veal in 1887). According to Edith’s grandson and biographer Peter, the school had many names so it is probably the Cottesloe High School. Norman attended High School in Perth which became Hale School. It is possible the two youngest girls may have been amongst the first pupils of Cottesloe State School.
All the children lived at “Bleak House”, even as they entered their careers. In 1897 Dircksey gained a government exhibition having passed in eight subjects and in 1899 she gained a matriculation to the University of Melbourne, there being no local university. It is quite ironic that her mother was so involved with education at all levels and saw it as vital that, Dircksey would forgo her university place due to the expense for the family. She remained a public servant all her working life. She worked in the Supreme Court, as did her Avonmore Terrace neighbour, Mr Moseley. Hilda attended Claremont Teachers’ College and would have been one of the first students.
At the time of her residence in Cottesloe Edith was involved in the following activities:she was elected to the North Fremantle Board of Education in 1896 and became the Secretary. She was a delegate to the first conference of the District Boards in 1911.
In 1897 the Ministering Children’s League Convalescent Home opened in Cottesloe on the corner of Warton Street and Swanbourne Terrace. Edith was a member of the Executive from the foundation and Vice President for several years.
From 1905 to 1910 she was Vice President of the Karrakatta Club that she had helped found in 1894, it being the first women’s club in Australia.
She formed a branch of the District Nurse Society in Cottesloe because the area needed better medical services. She acted as President and continued until 1914. She helped found the Children’s Protection Society in 1906 and was a member of the Executive as Secretary. Son, Norman was the Honorary Solicitor from its inception. As a result of lobbying by Edith and others, in 1907 the first Children’s Court was established.
In 1908 she helped establish the first day nurseries. In the same year Edith sought to introduce sex education in schools. The year 1909 saw her involved with the formation of the Women’s Service Guild and was she was the Vice President until 1917. There was a branch in Cottesloe.
In 1912 the Cowan family returned to their home in Malcolm Street, Perth after sixteen years in the coastal district of Cottesloe Beach. As they left they would have observed the growth of the iconic pine trees now associated with Cottesloe. By then the trees would have had seven years growth, having been just eighteen inches high at planting.