A House In The Making
Susannah Place, a terrace of four houses built in 1844, opened as a museum in 1993. Since this time the public has been able to watch a ‘museum in the making’ unfold. This approach has allowed visitors to view the normally hidden processes of museum interpretation and conservation while enabling us to seek feedback and incorporate this into future interpretation. Back in 1993 visitors could access two of the four houses. In September 2006 the final terrace, No 62, was opened to the public.
No 62 has the longest history of continuous domestic occupancy of all the houses - from 1845 to 1990. The last ‘official’ residents Ellen and Dennis Marshall left in May 1990 after having lived there for 28 years. Since 1990 the house was occupied by caretakers. While the public enjoyed and were sometimes amazed at the presence of ‘real’ people in No 62, as caretakers they could make no changes to the house as previous residents had done.
The Historic Houses Trust decided to open No 62 in response to a rare opportunity to involve two of the past residents in the process of re-creating their former homes. The first phase involved two rooms: the ‘middle room’ that functioned as the kitchen, dining room and workroom used by Ellen Marshall in 1970s and the girls’ bedroom that was shared by Patricia O’Brien and her two sisters Mercia and Colleen in the 1940s.
The Rocks during the 1940s was full of American service personnel, children played war games in the street, and parents blacked out windows and dimmed lights. Patricia’s schooling at St Patrick’s had come to an end. The day after her 14th birthday she started work in the Grace Brothers’ shirt factory at Broadway, giving her pay of twelve shillings and sixpence to her mother. Patricia described the small bedroom she shared with two of her sisters as having ‘a double bed, a single bed, a small dressing table and one wardrobe - we didn’t have many clothes to fill it’. The dressing table was the most modern piece of furniture in the house.
Thirty years later, in the 1970s, The Rocks was under threat of redevelopment. The Marshalls, like others in the area, were notified by the newly formed Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority that Susannah Place was zoned for redevelopment. Unfazed by this, Ellen was busy brightening up and making a home of the drab house she had moved into: ‘everyone called the paint Maritime brown - everything was brown. I painted around the fireplace red because it was just so drab. It was all the go to have one wall a different colour, a feature wall’.
I painted red around the fireplace because it was just so drab. It was all the go to have one wall a different colour, a feature wall...
Ellen Marshall, tenant of terrace 62 from 1962 to 1990
Susannah Place Museum is indebted to both Ellen Marshall and Patricia Thomas who allowed us into their lives, shared their memories, loaned photographs, donated objects and answered endlessly questions about life at Susannah Place.