1 May 2021 Susannah

My Visit to Woodlands

Woodlands House, Killara

Australia does not have a fantastic record when it comes to preserving the homes of famous writers. One example is the D.H. Lawrence house in Thirroul, now falling to ruin. When Patrick White’s Centennial Park home came up for sale, the government was NOT interested in buying it for the nation. So, it has been heartening and wonderful to recently discover a case where the opposite has occurred.

A few years ago, ‘Woodlands’, the Killara house that was once home to Ethel Turner, and where she wrote her classic novel Seven Little Australians, came up for sale. It was bought by a couple who had never heard of the author nor the book. Albert Lim was from Malaysia, his wife Eva from China. It would not have been surprising if these ‘new Australians’ had taken little notice of the literary heritage of their new home.

However, the reverse has happened. Albert and Eva have beautifully restored rooms in their home to the way they’d have looked when Ethel lived there. Ethel was born in England, so they have planted a small English-style cottage garden to commemorate the land of her birth. She was only a small child when she came to Australia and rapidly became proudly and resolutely Australian, so at ‘Woodlands’ there is an Australian garden as well, with 7 trees planted to represent the 7 children of the story. When her publishers wanted her to spend time in England to gain some ‘English polish’, Ethel refused.

Seven Little Australians broke new ground in so many ways – amongst the first Australian novels to feature a girl as the major character, the first by a white woman to include an Aboriginal legend and sympathetic comments about the plight of the Aboriginal people, and one of the first books to give a realistic picture of the city life of Aussie kids. Published in 1894, in 1994 it was the only book by an Australian writer to have remained continuously in print for 100 years. Quite an achievement for the 23-year-old girl whose first novel it was!

I was just thrilled to be invited to ‘Woodlands’ recently to meet with Albert and Eva and to hear their plans. They are eager to share their home’s literary heritage with school children, members of literary societies, teachers and librarians. They hope to host events and parties at the house, introducing a new generation to the riches of Ethel’s novel. Ethel’s great-grandchildren will be involved. She wrote about 40 books, but it is Seven Little Australians which has remained the favourite.

Along with Albert and Eva, and my fabulous assistant Cheryl, I am establishing a new literary group – ‘The Friends of Ethel Turner’. We hope to publish a newsletter (probably twice a year), inform you about ‘Woodlands’ and forthcoming events, and let you know about Ethel’s legacy. The State Library of New South Wales holds the original manuscript, donated by Ethel’s granddaughter, plus many of her other papers, so there will be information about the treasures preserved there. If you would like to join this new group, please visit this page and sign up. You will only be contacted when the newsletter comes out, or a new event is planned. There is no fee to pay. You would simply be helping to support an important part of Australia’s literary heritage. Albert and Eva are to be congratulated on their desire to embrace the unique history of their home and to generously share it with others.

In an era when fiction was supposed to be about ‘good’ children, Ethel Turner dared to make her seven Aussie children naughty, getting into constant scrapes and sometimes getting away with them. I’ll be giving a talk on Zoom all about Ethel Turner and Seven Little Australians on Sunday 16th May. Discover why it is such a beloved classic.

There are limited seats available to join my Tea with a Book Addict group on Zoom for a 60 minute talk, followed by a group chat about the author and the book.

Please join us as a ‘friend’ to Ethel Turner. Like to tell me something about Ethel Turner? Please do so by leaving a comment.

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Featured image credit- Woodlands House, Killara, home of Ethel Turner 1891-1894, photo by Cheryl Hill

Comments (13)

  1. Maria

    I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read the book, an omission I must rectify. Nevertheless I am impressed and appreciative of the efforts of Mr and Mrs Lim to preserve and share such an important part of Australia’s literary heritage. The failure by government to purchase White’s home and secure public access is nothing short of a national disgrace. Of course, it’s possible that White, who could be a little reclusive at times, may not have approved of the hoi polloi visiting his home 😉

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh, do read ‘Seven Little Australians’ as it is a wonderful book. Yes, Albert and Eva are really to be congratulated on what they have done. I do agree that curmudgeonly Patrick White would probably have hated the thought of literary tourists going through his home, but it still should have been saved.

  2. Hi Susannah,

    The manuscript of ‘Seven Little Australians’ held in the State Library of New South Wales is inscribed on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register of documentary heritage of significance to Australia – the inscription ceremony was held at the State Library in 2019.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Wasn’t it good of Philippa Poole to donate it to the State Library! Such a special document that deserves to be on the UNESCO Register.

  3. Clodagh Harrison

    So good to hear that Albert and Eva Lim are generous and inclusive owners of Woodlands. A wonderful opportunity to celebrate Ethel Turner and that her Seven Litte Australians is on the UNESCO Register as Australian Memory of the World. WOW!

    I noticed the photograph and wonder if it comes from the ABC’s tv drama series. I remember being the publicist for TV Drama at the time and it was quite difficult to get the necessary photos as they were not always there at the same time!

    It was a wonderful tv series with excellent actors.

    It would be terrific to see again so many of our early tv dramas.

    I’m in England these days and can see so many wonderful black and white films on the Talking Pictures channel and old tv dramas on the Drama channel.

    Could we go international and share of our tv heritage.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I agree that the fabulous adaptation of ‘Seven Little Australians’ should be more easily and widely available. It was so well done.
      I didn’t know you’d been the publicist – how fascinating.

  4. This is the best news ever Susannah! 7 Little Australians was enormously important to me as a child – the first book I ever read where I recognised the places – oh, that shock of joy when reality was represented imaginatively!
    In about 1997 I chose to shift my career into heritage and tour guiding and began volunteering at Nutcote as the only place that united literature and heritage – and into the Education Building Philippa Poole strolled one day: Ethel’s granddaughter! I was practically gushing – total fangirl – and Philippa turned out to be such a thoroughly delightful person. I invited her and some of her family to visit Government House when I became a Guide there so that they could see the Ballroom that featured in The Little Larrikin.
    I told Philippa how keen I was to work as an Education Officer in my imagined Museum of Children’s Literature which would be sited (I had decided) in the house where Ethel wrote 7LA – the most significant site of children’s literature in Australia. The only teeny tiny obstacle to this dream was that the house was in private ownership (I used to wander down and gaze upon it when I was working at Masada College library) and there was no way it would ever become a museum.
    And then – a breathtaking opportunity, a gobsmacking threat! – the house was on the market. But the conditions of sale meant that the whole property could be bulldozed. I made an impassioned speech at the meeting at Kuring gai Council – but the only person who paid any attention was someone from the local newspaper. So – local fame, and no gain at all. I abandoned all hope of ever being able to deliver education programs or tours of this wonderful property.
    And now, dear Susannah, you have opened the door of possibilities once more….

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Fabulous to have your enthusiasm, Jo. It is a very important house and just so wonderful that Albert and Eva are happy to ‘share’ their home with others. I also met Philippa Poole and even stayed a weekend with her, and she showed me all her Ethel Turner treasures – it was amazing. Perhaps you could write some contributions to our planned newsletter? We’d love that.

  5. Vanessa Stockford

    I do love Seven Little Australians, but my favourite Ethel Turner has to be The Cub. I scoured second hand bookshops for years for Captain Cub and Brigid and the Cub, but neither had quite the same charm as meeting The Cub for the first time.

    I have, over the years, acquired a number of lovely old editions of Ethel Turner’s books – the thick cream paper and the occasional line drawings are a real pleasure.

    Looking forward to settling in with my cuppa and watching your talk Susannah, whether I manage to get there for the live session or make do with the recorded version. Thank you for the series – most enjoyable!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Isn’t that a shamethat the house is not being preserved as Stead knew it.

  6. Robyn Thurston

    Hello Susannah,

    Just heard your interview with James Valentine, I found it so interesting and informative, thank you.

    I congratulate Albert and Eva on their support of Australian literary history, they are very generous in sharing the beautiful Woodlands with Ethel Turner fans. If I am ever in Sydney at a time when it is open, I’ll look forward to feeling a sense of history around me.

    Thanks for your fabulous work,

    Kind regards,

    Robyn

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks for your kind words and I am glad you enjoyed the interview.
      Yes, Albert and Eva have done something really special in saving and opening up such an important part of Australia’s literary heritage.

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