Saturday, November 2, 2013

Sepia Saturday: The Phelan family's home

The theme photo for this week's Sepia Saturday blog is a house.

Serendipity. I was browsing through the Picture Victoria's photo collection, randomly putting in key words as you do, and was absolutely astonished when this one popped up on my screen.

Phelan home, Sydney Rd, Coburg (Pentridge), c1870 [Picture Victoria ID 16437]
The original photo is held by the Coburg Historical Society and shows the home that the Phelan family lived in for almost 100 years. I was pretty excited because I had never seen a photo of it before.

When Daniel Phelan arrived from Ireland in 1856 he was employed by the Penal Department as a warder and worked at Pentridge Prison north of the city of Melbourne. He retired as Chief Warder in 1892. The village that grew around the prison was also called Pentridge but in 1869 that was changed to Coburg because of the stigma. 

In the 1850s the Governer of the prison and the fifty warders lived on site, with about 400 prisoners housed  in dormitories that were clean and well-ventilated but crowded. The prisoners worked as carpenters, tailors, shoemakers, coopers, tinsmiths, painters, stonecutters and labourers. For several decades the warders (mostly Irish) formed the majority of the district's adult population and they socialised together outside work as well because of their shift work hours of up to fifteen hours! 

In 1863 the rule about living on site was changed to a requirement that the warders must live within 400 yards of the prison in case of trouble so Daniel and Jane Phelan with their growing family were able to move from the prison into their own house on Sydney Road. An article in the Coburg Historical Society's Newsletter (September 1993) shows that in 1881 there were 74 warders and other staff were living in the local community, concentrated in a few streets near the prison. One in fifteen persons in Coburg was a prison officer.

An old sewerage map shows the Phelan home and Pentridge Prison
The house was only small but Daniel and Jane had nine children. Only two married and several died young but after the parents died three sisters (later four when a sister was widowed and returned home) and a brother stayed on in the house. I've heard a number of stories about 'the aunts' - they grew more eccentric as they got older and I think there may have been a 'pecking order' as in a chicken pen. Poor old Daniel, the brother, didn't hold much power. And the house never changed. I'm told they lived as if in the 1800s still.

In 1909 a brother, Jack, died and I found a newspaper item that amused me. Apparently the body had been lying in the coffin in the front room for a few days and after the funeral the sisters decided to fumigate the room by burning sulphur. And ended up nearly burning the house down!

A fire in the front room. The Argus, 1 Apr 1909
The street number of the Phelan's home was 401 Sydney Rd, directly opposite the Holy Trinity Church. (It was later changed to 543.) It remained the family home until the last sibling, Daniel, died in 1959. All the houses in that area were demolished by the Metropolitan Board of Works for road alterations but nothing was done to the road and there is still no house on the site.

Street view (from the same position as the original house photo), Google Maps (October 2013)
I suggest you wander over to Sepia Saturday to see the houses that the other participants blog about. I'm off to do the same.


  1. A good story - tough that they had to live 'in' the prison!
    Well done for tracking down what it is today - I thought of that but ran out of time.

  2. That is a wonderful story and a wonderful method, taking a starting photo and building on it. I can just see them growing old together. I wonder how they organzied the chores. I can imagine one of them scurrying down Sydney Road to do the shopping, though it was a time of home deliveries so perhaps they were more reclusive.

  3. Great story!! Funny that so few married though.

  4. The fumigation story is pretty funny, isn't it; were they fumigating to rid the house of germs, or to rid the house of odor? Great story here...

  5. It's amazing that you found the photo in a search engine. I can't imagine having such success in my searches for ancestral homes. Such interesting stories, too.

  6. The style of that house looks unusual. Unusual also that so many of the offspring lived together in the same place for so long.

  7. Wow, what an amazing house indeed, I could see living in a design like that. The street lamps are so stunning too. Thanks, I thought this was such a joy to read.

  8. I very much like the design of this house, and the lampposts out front. It's all very charming. I reading enjoyed reading this, thank you.

  9. Oh my goodness, the fumigation story is too funny! Had the body still been there, it might have turned into a cremation....LOL

  10. What a cute house - the brick work around the windows and door looks like lace.

    The history behind the town and the personal family story make this a very interesting post. I enjoyed reading it.

  11. A fascinating house history. What would we do without the internet!. I can relate to your excitement at finding the picture of your ancestral home, as it was a chance casual browsing on Family Search that brought up that my great great aunt had died in the USA - the first time I ever knew of a transatlantic connection - and it was through my blog that I then discovered some new third cousins.

  12. Sulphur smokes hot and dangerous even when not burning...glad the house was okay.


  13. Wow, there were so many interesting things about this post -- that the photo came up on the search engine (I should be so lucky), the history you were able to provide, the stories, and I loved the street light --- looks most regal standing in front of the house.

  14. The scale of the prison on the map means it must have been huge = a total contrast to the Phelan's house. I ca understand the need for fumigation but to set fire to the place was unlucky to say the least.

  15. It's always a big moments when something serendipitously crosses ones path. I can feel your excitement at seeing this house for the first time.
    We watched a few of the Australian "Who Do You Think You Are" episodes and naturally, the penal colonies were a big (and fascinating) feature of many. This was equally as interesting.

  16. Serendipity! The ladies fumigating, although amusing, is quite worrying; there could have been more than one death in the family as a result!

  17. That pattern of coloured bricks is called polychrome I believe, among other things, and was popular in Melbourne in particular from the 1880s onwards, but your Phelans must have been ahead of their time to have it on their house in the 1860s :-)

  18. It's always a pity to see an empty lot fenced in with no planning being done to make it into something or let it go back to what it once was. Fences can be such unpleasant things. A neighbor fenced in her 5 acres saying she was having problems with people coming onto her property from down in the woods where weddings are held. She told me she'd put in a gate so I could come over. I've never used the gate. All she did was fence herself off from everyone else. I hope she's content on her isolated little island.


I love to read your comments. Thankyou for your interest.



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