By J. McClure, B.A., B.Ed. for Caulfield Historical Society Newsletter February 1973
There are two reminders in Caulfield of the Howitts: an old house in Kooyong Road called “
‘Rosemont’, and Howitt Street nearby. The Howitts were a gifted family with a wide range of talents, and made significant contributions in many fields including ethnology, literature, medicine, the civil service, botany and entomology. Dr. Howitt’s ‘devotion to botany’ (3) is perpetuated in the name Howittia Trilocularis given by Baron von Mueller (of Melbourne Botanic Gardens fame) to a violet flowered evergreen shrub with heart-shaped leaves. (6) The members of the family associated with Caulfield are Dr. Godfrey Howitt, one of Melbourne’s pioneer doctors, and his nephew Alfred William Howitt, explorer, civil servant and scientist. John Bakewell, brother-in-law of Godfrey, is also connected with Caulfield’s early history through his land purchases, (1) some allotments being adjacent to Dr. Howitt’s. Robert Bakewell, the other brother-in-law, became a founder of the firm Goldsbrough, Mort & Co. (4)
Godfrey Howitt was born on 8 October 1800 in Derbyshire into a Quaker family, (2) (4) and later studied medicine at Edinburgh. He practised for some years in England and also built a European reputation as an entomologist and botanist. (3) (4) In 1839, he emigrated to Australia on board the ‘Lord Goderich’, for the sake of his eldest son’s health. (5) With him were his family, his wife Phoebe, and his brothers-in-law John and Robert Bakewell. (4) (5)
Dr. Howitt quickly established a practice in a prefabricated wooden cottage he had imported from England and which he erected at the corner of Collins and Spring Streets, then on the outskirts of the infant town of Melbourne. He remained at this site for nearly thirty years, the land he had bought soaring in value, particularly in the wild gold-rush years of the 1850s. Over the years Dr. Howitt acquired considerable landed interests – 7,000 acres near Cape Schanck; (5) a partnership in Murrindindi station near Yea for a short time; (8) and about 110 acres in Caulfield. (5) He was one of the original grantees of land in Caulfield, taking a total of four allotments on either side of Kooyong Road between Glen Eira and Balaclava Roads. In this area he established a farm, (4) and in 1869-70 built ‘Rosemont’. (3) (9)
Dr. Godfrey Howitt’s contribution to Melbourne’s development as a city was considerable. In 1847, when the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital was established, Godfrey Howitt was one of the first three honorary physicians. (4) In the same year, he was President and honorary physician of the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum. (3) He was an original council member of the University of Melbourne 1853, (4) and in 1854-55 was the first vice-president of what later became the Royal Society of Victoria. (3)
‘Rosemont’ is an unusually compactly designed house for its age. There is a minimum of hall space, and the men servant’s rooms are not separate from the house which was usually the case. A single-storey gable-roofed carriageway at the front of the house connects it to some of the outbuildings, while the rest of the Men’s rooms form part of the rear of the house. The small verandah at the back of the house has an unusually massive timber roof beam and support. The house itself is a two-storey building of hand-made bricks, with textural relief offered by polychrome decoration over the window arches, and elegant pillars flanking the downstairs windows. The chimneys are of interest for the ‘statuary niches’ in their construction. Originally, the second storey had a handsome cast iron verandah above the arched brick portico, however this was removed many years ago. The stables along Balaclava Road (7) have also disappeared.
Inside, the house is more impressive than its altered external appearance would suggest. The hallways in both storeys have massively elaborate high relief arches, and most of the ceilings are of embossed leather which is also found on the hall walls downstairs. The remaining ceilings are pressed metal, the one in the dining room being particularly ornate in design, with matching ornate cornices. The original marble fireplaces still exist, the dining room fireplace being a restrained ‘square-pillar’ style giving an impression of formality. The fireplace in the master bedroom upstairs is very attractive and suitable for a bedroom; it is of simple style, in white marble, with delicate pink lilium blooms on the tile surround. There were two staircases in the house, the back stairs, still in use, and the main stairs which have been removed. A trap door which used to be under the main staircase gives access to a large wine cellar which also has an iron safe in one wall.
On 13 September 1852, Dr. Howitt’s nephew, Alfred William Howitt aged 22 had arrived in Melbourne on board the ‘Kent’. (5) Alfred spent the next two years prospecting on the Victorian goldfields, and then, between 1854 and 1859 farmed his uncle’s land in Caulfield for a short time. (4) Thus the Howitts were among some of the first settlers in the area. Alfred later led the Burke and Wills relief expedition, the rescue of King by Howitt’s party being depicted on one of the bas-relief panels on the Burke and Wills monument in Spring Street. (4)
In 1863 Alfred Howitt became Warden of the Goldfields and Protector of the Aborigines in Gippsland and Secretary for Mines in Victoria in 1889. (2) (5) During this time he did notable work in petrology and in studying the language of the aborigines under his charge. He was also responsible, indirectly, for the clearing of Rome’s malarial swamps, (5) the eucalyptus seeds he collected from the children in Gippsland being sent to his father in Rome. He planted them in the marshy ground which was drained as the young eucalypts, with their greedy water consumption, grew to maturity.
Thus, first twenty years, Caulfield was linked with another of the many prominent families who helped shape Melbourne life, and who lived in the Caulfield area.
- Foot survey maps, 1853
- Mennell, P. The Dictionary of Australasian Biography
- Pike, D. Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 4
- Howitt, M.E.B. The Howitts in Australia, Vic. Historical Magazine, Vol. 3, 1913
- Henderson, A. Pastoral Pioneers of Victoria and the Riverina
- Lord, E. Shrubs and Trees for Australian Gardens
- M.M.B.W. survey map 1905
- Billis & Kenyon, Pastoral Pioneers of Port Phillip
- Caulfield rate books
Written by J. McClure, B.A., B.Ed., for The Caulfield Historical Society Newsletter, in February 1973