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Private Lives: Labassa's Artists

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by Nadine Cresswell-Myatt (subscribe)
Freelance writer exploring Melbourne and beyond. If you enjoy the following article click on the Like button, Facebook it to your friends or subscribe. I'll update you with yummy and often free events. Like my photos? I instagram @redbagwilltravel
Explore Labassa's bohemian past

In Melbourne, we are blessed with fine mansions. Some like Como House and Ripponlea attract tourists from around the world. They come to gain a glimpse of Melbourne's establishment and their lavish abodes.

Labassa in North Caulfield is less well-known but falls firmly into the category of lavish grand estates. The two-storey mansion had 35 rooms and the grounds extend all the way to St Kilda Beach, with entry gates on the corner of Balaclava and Orrong roads.

There was a string of seriously rich owners including Alexander Robertson, a partner in the Cobb & Co coach service, and John Boyd Watson II, heir to a Bendigo mining fortune.

The mansion was decorated with the finest embossed wallpapers and mahogany timbers and a huge stained-glass window dominated the entrance hall and a rare trompe l'oeil ceiling.

Now restored, you can see the mansion in all its glory on one of the regular opening days. But that is not what this article or the forthcoming event Private Lives: Labassa Artists is about.

You see Labassa has had a much interesting history than simply rich people living the high life. It has also had a fascinating bohemian past.

As sometimes happens to large mansions, it was turned into flats in the 1920s and as these became run down it became a warren of cheap accommodation for 'interesting' people. So many spaces were rented out and there was even one tenant living in a cupboard under the stairs.

In the words of actress, singer, and writer Jane Clifton who lived at Labassa from 1971 to 1973, residents were a "motley, often itinerant, collection of hippies, students, librarians, teachers, the occasional drug dealer, muso and/or pop star. People rode their motorbikes from the rear courtyard out through the front door for fun."

Labassa National Trust

Chatting to a Melbourne artist, I asked her if she visited Labassa in her youth. "Oh, yes. I remember it well, she said. "It was full of artists and writers. I remember meeting the writer Frank Hardy there. We used to go to parties there some of which went on for days. When the police knocked on the door because the neighbours were complaining I was usually the one pushed forward to calm them down, because I looked a bit more respectable than some of the residents. Especially the one who was completely naked except for drawings all over her body."

Thankfully the National Trust did not turn its back on all this amazing social history and in 2013 they gathered together 135 former residents, owners and their descendants and began to research project into Labassa's remarkable bohemian past. Compiled by historian Vicki Shuttleworth, you can read more such accounts of Labassa's bohemian past at the Labassa Lives Journal.

Or to experience it for yourself attend a forthcoming event at Labassa, which focuses on its creative rather than simply its rich past.

You will begin the Private Lives experience with refreshments in the Drawing Room, followed by a guided tour of those rooms with a particularly strong artistic heritage.

Visitors get to meet former residents and hear their personal tales of life in the house. Painter Stephen Hall has a "great big little story of survival and inspiration" to tell.

Filmmaker John Laurie recalls the days when "we were beatniks and drank claret".

Your evening view from the Tower includes the story behind Labassa's inclusion in Kenneth Slessor's poem Fives Bells . Why did Slessor mention Labassa's tower in his famous poem? Learn the true story as you climb the heights.

Also, learn how singer-songwriter Hans Poulsen used the tower for band rehearsals.

Tour groups then return to the Drawing Room to hear about the room's artistic legacy and an eye-witness account of the most spectacular theatre production mounted by Labassa's resident artists.

Please advise dietary requirements.

Independent mobility is needed to explore the house as there is no lift.

No parking in Manor Grove (I guess some of those neighbours still remember those wild parties.)

On Friday 10 January 2020 at 7:00pm

Bookings are essential through
Adult: $35 / Concession $30.

labassa hallway
Photo National Trust

Also if you also feel you have a special connection to Labassa or stories about its social history, then email Vicki Shuttleworth on
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Why? Experience the bohemian past of an iconic Melbourne mansion
When: On Friday 10 January 2020 at 7:00pm
Where: Labassa 2 Manor Grove Caulfield North
Cost: $35 or $30 concession
Your Comment
Private lives sounds like a great event but seeing the mansion at any time would be a treat.
by Gayle Beveridge (score: 3|7970) 267 days ago
What an interesting article Nadine. Are you sure the person living under the stairs wasn't Harry Potter? Many of the names mentioned were familiar to me. Neil.
by Neil Follett (score: 2|758) 280 days ago
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