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Mericourt – A Story about a House

When I decided to research the history of my home, a Californian bungalow in Hughesdale, I had no idea that an outcome would be a pilgrimage to a little village in France. Nor did I foresee that the task would give the centenary of the World War One armistice a special significance for me. The research process was exciting, with many twists and turns, and it owed a great deal to the clues given by Helen Gobbi, History Monash historian.

Reading “Taking Its Place – A History of Oakleigh” by Helen Gobbi[1] was an indispensable start to the project. It revealed why and how Hughesdale (initially South Oakleigh) was developed, and the reason for the intriguing preponderance of English railway station names as Hughesdale street names. I wondered why my street, Richardson Street, was not also a station name. The Monash City Council was another early port of call, to seek original floor plans for my house. Unfortunately, these did not exist, but I was sent a document from the 1970s which helpfully gave the year of construction as 1925.

The next stop was the State Library of Victoria. Here was a substantial amount of information about vernacular architecture. A very useful reference was Peter Cuffley’s book, “Australian Houses of the Twenties and Thirties[2] which explained how bungalows became seen as the “ideal style for the average suburban house”[3] from around 1908. They were regarded as simpler and cosier than the Federation styles, and more affordable. Bungalows became very popular with the Australian public after appearing in American magazines which advertised home plans and building materials.[4]

Helen Gobbi’s book explains that the Victorian Government stimulated housing in 1920 (partly to meet the needs of returned soldiers and immigrants) through a loans scheme operated by the State Savings Bank of Victoria (SSB). It is likely that my house was built by Robert Muir who constructed around 150 Oakleigh houses in the 1920s, many in the streets running off Carlisle Crescent.[5] Back at the State Library, it was a thrill to find a book of house plans approved for SSB loans, many of which were Californian bungalows[6].   At the Library I also sourced the Sands and McDougalls Directories online[7] which listed streets in each Melbourne suburb, with the residents (for postal purposes) at each house number. Strangely, there was no Richardson Street in the decade from 1925. I seemed to have hit a brick wall with the research.

At the Monash Federation Centre, I mentioned the Richardson Street mystery to Helen Gobbi, who instantly replied that Richardson Street was originally “Paddington Road below the railway line” (or “Paddington Road South”), but that it was renamed in 1936 in honour of Cr Richardson, a former Oakleigh mayor and strong lobbyist for Hughesdale Primary School. We could now look up Paddington Road in the Sands and McDougall Directories at the Federation Centre. The numbers, however, were different to the current house numbers, so which was my house?

At this point the Monash librarian at the Federation Centre, Aysha Hossain, stepped in with her own discovery. She had been looking for me through Trove [8] In my ignorance I had not thought it worth looking for such an unassuming house in old newspapers. Aysha found two entries from the same family, pre and post 1936, the latter of which gave my current address and the former of which identified the house as being at 60 Paddington Road, South Oakleigh. Using the name of Knight, who inserted the entry, we were able to cross reference to Sands and McDougall and find Sarah Jane Knight at 60 Paddington Road in 1925. Here was the first resident of the house!

The Trove entries were “In Memoriam” notices in the Melbourne Argus, submitted by Henry and Sarah Knight, and later only Sarah Knight. Such notices were common in the post-World War One years. In 1939 the notice read:

“KNIGHT In ever loving memory of Lieut. Mervyn Digby Knight, M.C., 60th Battalion. Killed in action July 6, 1918, dearly loved son of Mrs Knight and the late Henry Knight, “Mericourt”, Richardson Street, Oakleigh SE 12.”

This was another breakthrough – the original name of the house. But why “Mericourt”? Google helped here, showing that at Mericourt-L’Abbe on the Somme in France there is a military extension of the communal cemetery. Cross-referencing to Mervyn Knight via the National Archives website (www.naa.gov.au) did indeed show that Mervyn Knight was buried in that cemetery.

Putting aside the house itself for a while, I was now keen to find out more about Sarah Knight and her family. Ancestry.com recorded the family members, including the names of an older son who survived service in the war and a daughter, Isabella. Isabella Knight, a dressmaker, was listed in electoral rolls for my house address until her death in November 1953, suggesting (with another clue) that Sarah was indeed the original owner.

Mervyn Knight migrated with his family to Australia from Somerset, England, in the late 1800s or early 1900s. A clerk, he enlisted in the AIF 4th Light Horse, Victoria, at age 23, in August 1914, a few days after recruiting centres opened.[9] He served at Gallipoli, in the Middle East and then on the Western Front. He was recommended for a Military Cross in September 1917, receiving the citation

“…He set a splendid example of fearlessness to his men”.[10]

He served under (the then) Brig-General Harold “Pompey” Elliot in the 60th AIF Battalion. Mervyn was killed during a counter attack by the enemy in the Morlancourt sector shortly after the Battle of Hamel, in the early hours of 6 July 1918, while conducting his men back from the front line. “The news of his death caused profound grief throughout the unit”.[11] Attended by a small group of officers and men, he was buried in the Mericourt-L’Abbe Communal Cemetery [military] Extension, a cemetery used by units defending Amiens. [12] In September 1924 Sarah Knight paid for an additional inscription on her son’s grave, to read (below his name and service details):

“In memory of the dearly loved son of Mr and Mrs Knight of Caulfield Vic.”[13]

In mid-July 2018, a few days after the centenary of Mervyn Knight’s death, I travelled from London to Calais, then via Amiens to the village of Mericourt-L’Abbe. On a beautiful sunny day, under a clear blue sky, I was alone in the cemetery by Mervyn’s grave, thinking of Sarah and her poignant letter to the War Graves Commission in 1927, stating that

“On receipt of the sum of 14s/10d a photo of the grave was to be forwarded to me but only your acknowledgement of this sum was received by me. I am anxious to have a photo of my son’s grave and would be glad if you would kindly answer this favour to me.”[14]

How tragic that Sarah Knight almost certainly never saw her son’s grave in person.

Mervyn Knight's grave at Mericourt-L'Abbe cemetery

Mericourt-L’Abbe cemetery. Photo by Ann Nield

Ian Evans, in “Restoring Old Houses[15] said that “Research of this type [into old houses] depends as much on luck as on the perseverance of the restorer and the availability of the right source material. Most people should consider themselves well satisfied if they can discover the name of their house, its first owner and the year of construction. In undertaking a program of building research the best approach is to adopt an attitude of hopeful pessimism. “

One of the greatest thrills of my project was being able to reinstate a brass plaque with the name “Mericourt” on the front of my house, one hundred years after the death of Mervyn Knight. [16]

I also feel extremely fortunate to have learned so much about my house. As a result, it now means far more to me than just a dwelling place in an appealing architectural style. Californian Bungalows, by virtue of their time in history, have a special link to our returned soldiers and their families, and it is appropriate, I believe, that we regard them with some reverence a hundred or so years on.

Ann Nield, January 2019

 

[1] Gobbi, H.G. Taking its Place A History of Oakleigh marking its sesquicentenary 1853-2003. Oakleigh and District Historical Society Inc, 2004

[2] Cuffley, Peter Australian Houses of the Twenties and Thirties Five Mile Press 1989

[3] Ibid p 48

[4] Boyd, Robin Australia’s Home Melbourne University Press 1952, and Butler Graeme, The Californian Bungalow in Australia Lothian Books 1992.   In addition, a full bungalow was shown at the Sydney Ideal Home Exhibition in 1916 and another bungalow was an exhibition house in Rosebery, Sydney, in 1916.

[5] Gobbi, H.G.: op cit p.162

[6] State Savings Bank of Victoria Design Book: Timber Dwellings 1936. This was the only year of publication available at the State Library and it seemed reasonable to assume that many of the plans would be similar to those of the mid 1920s.

[7] www.slv.vic.gov.au/search-discover

[8] www.nla.gov.au – Trove is a depository of Australian newspapers, magazines and many other documents.

[9] His service number was 129.

[10] Commonwealth Gazette No. 120, quoted in www.aif.adfa.edu.au – “The AIF Project” – Mervyn Digby Knight page.

[11] 60th Australian Infantry Battalion War Dairy available online at awm.gov.au. (Mervyn Knight is also mentioned in books by Ross McMullin and Matt McLean.)

[12] A wonderful source was also the book by R.S. Corfield “Hold Hard Cobbers: The Story of the 57th and 60th and 57/60th Australian Infantry Battalions 1912-1990, Volume 1 1912-1930” (Glen Huntly: 57/60th Bn AIF Association, 1992, which is now very rare but fortunately held in the Australian War Memorial.

[13] At the time of his death the Knight family was living in Kooyong Road, Caulfield.

[14] Mervyn Digby Knight files available on naa.gov.au/service records.

[15] Evans, Ian Restoring Old Houses A Guide to Authentic Renovation 3rd edn Sun Books 1989 p. 33

[16] Ian Evans, in his The Complete Australian Old House Catalogue (Flannel Flower Press, 2000) p. 50, says that “The name of a house is very much a part of the character of the building and, if missing, should be restored to reinforce its historic character and provide it with the full flavour of its past.”