30 April, 2017

Hanging ten at 'The Heights'

As I mentioned in my previous post, I recently attended a "paranormal investigation" at 'The Heights', a National Trust property in Newtown, overlooking the Barwon River. Did we communicate with spirits? Well, I remain unconvinced, however as I also said, various people present claimed to have heard the word "white" issue from one of the electronic devices in use.
To anyone with knowledge of the property's history, this is potentially very significant. Could the word in fact have been "Whyte"? You see, WHYTE was the surname of the man who in 1889 married Minna Ibbotson, daughter of the businessman Charles Ibbotson for whom 'The Heights' was built on "Newtown Hill" in 1854.
Louis  Australia Whyte was the second husband of Minna Elizabeth Ibbotson of 'The Heights' in Newtown. He was a keen amateur sportsman and in 1894 became Australia's first amateur golf champion and throughout the 1880s and into the 1890s he competed in a number of tennis championships across Victoria and New South Wales, also winning two titles in that sport.
He and Minna married in England in 1889 and it was here that their only surviving son - Louis Melville - was born in 1890. Within two years, as a family of three, they returned to Australia where they lived at 'The Heights'.
Louis Australia Whyte. Image taken
from the Tennis Archives website
In June, 1892, a stillborn child - a younger brother for Louis - was born to the couple. Neither birth nor death was registered, however cemetery records show that a stillborn male child given the Whyte surname was buried in the Ibbotson grave at the Western Cemetery. On 18th July The Argus published a birth notice announcing the birth of a stillborn son to the wife of Louis A Whyte at 'The Heights' the previous month on 27th June.
Despite the loss, life continued at 'The Heights' with both Louis and Minna regularly involved with the local community. On the 9th November, 1892, Louis spoke at a banquet to celebrate the recent election of a new mayor - Cr J.R. Hopkins (Geelong Advertiser, 10th November, 1892).
In September, 1907, Louis and Minna hosted an event to which they invited members of the Barwon Heads Golf Club - of which Louis was then president - to play on the private course which he had established on the grounds at 'The Heights'.
All was not well however. For many years Louis had suffered from what was at the time of his death, described as "insomnia and neurasthenia". Whilst the term neurasthenia is not generally used today, during the 19th and early 20th centuries it was a common diagnosis for stress, depression and a variety of nervous conditions probably including post traumatic stress disorder as shell-shocked soldiers were also diagnosed with the condition. In many circles it was considered to be a disorder suffered predominantly by the wealthier classes and was sometimes referred to as "Americanitis".
As a result of his ongoing mental health issues, on 3rd April, 1911, Louis took his own life. The subsequent inquest found that he had died from a single revolver shot to the head and that his body was discovered by his son who upon being unable to raise his father's attention, had gained access to Louis' bedroom by breaking a window.
The Geelong Advertiser of 7th April, 1911 reported that Louis' funeral was a large one with the cortege consisting of the hearse, two mourning coaches and 30 vehicles. He was laid to rest at the Western Cemetery.
Following his death Louis' widow Minna and their son - commonly known as "Lou" - remained at 'The Heights'. Like his father, Lou was educated at The Geelong College (1900-1908) and was also a keen sportsman. In 1919 he spent six months in Hawaii. Here, at Waikiki Beach he learnt to surf. Upon his return to Australia he brought with him four redwood longboards which he acquired from Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian man credited with introducing the sport of surfing to the world. Two of those boards can be seen today at the Australian National Surfing Museum in Torquay. This afternoon, I went for a visit:
Timber surfboards brought to Victoria by Louis Whyte
in 1919, located at the Australian National Surfing Museum
Swim suit (left) worn by Louis Whyte, Australian
National Surfing Museum
On his return to Australia, Lou took his newly-acquired boards to Lorne where the photo below was taken in 1920, in the process, bringing the sport of surfing to Victoria.
Louis Melville Whyte. Image taken from the Victorian Collections website

Louis Whyte and friends with their boards at Lorne, 1920. Australian National
Surfing Museum
Lou's other passion was motoring and where his grandfather Charles Ibbotson had once stabled his horses, Lou now parked his cars. His 1957 Daimler can still be seen in the stables at 'The Heights' today.
As a member of the social elite, Lou was no doubt considered a highly eligible bachelor, however it was not until 1936 at the age of 46 that Lou secretly married his partner of 15 years Ella Layton Wyett (known as Marnie). As described in a piece written for Vic News, magazine of The National Trust of Australia (Victoria), Lou and Marnie only announced their marriage in 1938 after the death of Lou's mother Minna who strongly opposed any romantic match for her son.
Grave of Minna and Louis Australia Whyte, Western Cemetery
Unsurprisingly, there were no children born to the couple who lived the remainder of their lives at 'The Heights'. Instead, with the assistance of  architect Harold Bartlett, they turned their attention to the old house which Lou inherited from his mother and which over the years had undergone various additions leaving it dingy and somewhat ramshackle. The makeover of the house undertaken by Bartlett and the Whytes, saw 'The Heights' redesigned as a modern, fashionable home of the 1930s, light and open where the original house had been dark and enclosed. At the same time, the interior was transformed by the noted interior designer Reg Riddell and the garden underwent a transformation at the hands of Marnie.
Over the years however, the land surrounding the house which was originally purchased by Charles Ibbotson was variously subdivided, sold, donated or compulsorily acquired for various purposes. One of the earliest pieces of land to go was a section which was acquired in the 1920s by the Country Roads Board with a view to building an extension to Aberdeen St which at that time stopped at Minerva Rd. This work was a precursor to the construction of Deviation Rd which, after a protracted battle, was opened in 1933. Contemporary newspaper reports indicate that Lou instituted legal action which culminated in the Supreme Court when the Newtown and Chilwell Shire Council endeavoured to have him pay part of the cost of construction of the road as a neighbouring landholder. Lou argued - successfully - however, that as the land had been compulsorily acquired, the council who by then had charge of construction, could not expect to claim costs from him as the previous owner.
Louis Melville Whyte in later years. Image taken from
the  website of The Geelong College
Not all "The Heights'" land was acquired under such controversial circumstances however. As a former pupil of Geelong College, Lou was no doubt keen to support his old school. According to the College's website he both sold and donated a total of around 49 acres of land extending between Minerva Rd and the Barwon River to the College beginning with an initial purchase of 15 acres in 1945. In 1960, the site opened as the junior school campus of Geelong College.
Over the years, various parcels of land were sold and today, all that remains of Ibbotson's original purchases is the 1.13 hectares upon which the house and outbuildings stand. Lou and Marnie lived the remainder of their lives at 'The Heights'. Lou died on 10th April, 1975 and was buried the following day in the lawn section of the Western Cemetery. Marnie survived her husband by only a few months, dying on 18th September, 1975. She was buried with Lou the following day. Their grave is marked by a simple plaque.
Grave of Louis Melville and Ella Layton "Marnie" Whyte, Western Cemetery
(NB note the misspelling of "Layton", spelled "Leighton" on the headstone)
Following Marnie's death 'The Heights' passed to the National Trust and today, is open to the public, providing a unique glimpse into a significant piece of Geelong's past and the life of the Ibbotson and particularly, the Whyte family. It is also interesting to note a number of the street names which now surround 'The Heights' and which stand on what was once land owned by Charles Ibbotson and the Whytes. Names such as Ella Close, Layton Crescent, Louis Court, Melville Avenue and of course, Whyte Court.

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