'Don Bank Cottage'/'St Leonards Cottage',
6 Napier Street, North Sydney
‘Don Bank Cottage’, formerly ‘St Leonards Cottage’, vies with
‘Henbury Villa’ for the distinction of being the oldest surviving
dwelling in North Sydney.
Research in the 1970s and early 1980s suggested that it may have been built on the Wollstonecraft land grant in the 1820s - only the second house constructed there, after ‘Crows Nest Cottage’ which it came to resemble closely. Letters between Edward Wollstonecraft and his partner Alexander Berry refer to a small house being built on Crows Nest Farm around 1823. An 1833 survey refers to ‘Crows Nest Cottage’ and another un-named building in the vicinity of present-day ‘Don Bank’. It was the understanding of the White family – the last people to live in the building from 1915 to the mid-1970s – that Edward Wollstonecraft built their house. James White, who bought the house in 1903, had lived in the area since the 1860s and may well have learned the history of the place from those who could actually recall its construction. If this is correct then ‘Don Bank’ predates ‘Henbury Villa’ by a decade.
The earliest certain reference to the house by its first name, ‘St Leonards Cottage’, is in the Sydney newspapers and Low’s Directory of 1847. Then, a grocer called Richard Peek was living there. By this time the Wollstonecraft Estate was wholly owned by Alexander Berry for Edward had died in 1832. In 1853 Berry put several lots at this eastern extremity of his vast property up for sale. ‘St Leonards Cottage’ was apparently part of the land sold to William and Charlotte Carr. The best description we have of the property dates to 1854 when Charlotte, then a widow, put her new purchase on the market again.
The cottage contains front veranda, entrance hall and four comfortable rooms, the drawing room being fitted with Register stove. All the rooms are papered, and the cottage is beautifully finished having been intended as a residence for the present proprietor. Detached, but almost adjoining the cottage, are two iron buildings, containing extra bedroom, store, kitchen and servant's room. The grounds in front of the cottage are delightfully laid out, and planted with the choicest fruit trees and shrubs. There is also a well of excellent water in theg arden and the whole is enclosed with a close paling fence.
Sitting, as it did, on one of the ridge lines that extended back from the harbour peninsulas, this ‘really pretty villa’ had views of the water. St Leonards, as the settlement had been known since 1833, was a collection of dispersed stone and timber buildings.
In 1854, the four room house with its verandah and symmetrical frontage – a French glazed door either side of the central front door - was typical of the Georgian-style cottages that could be found across Sydney and the colony. It was constructed of thick timber ‘slabs’, possibly cut with an adze, rather than thinner sawn planks or weatherboards. Slab buildings, particularly those with the timbers set upright as they are at ‘Don Bank’, were unknown in the colony before the 1820s but relatively common after that decade. The simplicity of the style reflected the still basic nature of the north side settlement. It is interesting to note, nonetheless, that the interior was ‘beautifully finished’ with wall paper and presumably skilled carpentry. And the resident in the 1850s clearly could afford domestic service.
Despite this, the utilitarian nature of the house must have contrasted with the more opulent and ornate stone houses that were beginning to appear on the slopes of St Leonards. 'Rockleigh Grange', the nearby home of artist Conrad Martens, was a stone Gothic villa completed in the 1840s. It was followed in the 1850s by similar dwellings such as ‘Clifton’ and 'Sunnyside’ at Kirribilli, and ‘Honda’ on the slopes of Neutral Bay.
By 1890 the house had grown from four rooms to eight including an adjoining laundry and kitchen. In that time it had accommodated, among others, the family of an accountant and the retired ship’s captain Benjamin Jenkins who also served as Mayor of St Leonards between 1884 and 1888. ‘St Leonards Cottage’ was, despite its timber construction, still a respectable address. Possibly the garden that extended some 100 metres to the north and 50 metres to the south added to the salubriousness of the place.
With Jenkins death in 1901 and the subsequent sale of the property in 1903, the cottage lost most of its garden to subdivision. The new owner was Irish-born saddler James White. The house was rented out for 12 years until his son Thomas moved in with wife Catherine and three daughters. They would stay for the next 60 years.
At some point during the White's ownership or residence, ‘St Leonards Cottage’ became ‘Don Bank’. The name first appears in Council records in 1927 but may well have been attached to the house earlier. Its origins remain a mystery. There are other ‘Don Banks’, one in Sheffield and one in Launceston - each with a Don River nearby. There is no such waterway in North Sydney.
The White family were devout Catholics and ‘Don Bank’ was perfectly placed in the centre of, what might be called, Catholic North Sydney. A short distance to the south was the convent of the Josephite sisters with their charismatic founder St Mary McKillop. St Francis Xavier School and Church, run by the Jesuits, was just to the south of the convent. A short walk to the north brought the family to Monte Sant' Angelo, the school founded by the Sisters of Mercy in the 1870s. Just beyond was the first Catholic Church in North Sydney, St Mary’s.
The Whites lived in 'Don Bank' until the 1970s. It was a place of family gatherings and celebrations. The house lost its view of Sydney Harbour in 1958 when the first of North Sydney’s new office blocks went up in Miller Street. In its last decade 'Don Bank' was surrounded by large office blocks and was seen as a throw back to another era.
In 1969 the house was included on the itinerary of a tour of ‘Historic Houses of North Sydney’ by the North Shore Historical Society. Marjory Byrne recalled the day: ‘When I peeped over the front fence, taking care not to disturb Mrs White, the owner, who was sitting peacefully on the front verandah, I knew I loved the place and its garden’. Marjory would write the first definitive history of the house in 1981.
Catherine White died in 1974 and the Society began agitating for the saving of Don Bank mindful, no doubt, of their first unsuccessful campaign to save ‘Bell’vue’ which became one of the lost houses of North Sydney in the late 1950s. This time history was on the side of preservation. The White family wanted the old house to stay up and so did North Sydney Council, some of whose councillors were veterans of the Residents Action movement. A Don Bank Trust was established in 1976 to raise awareness and money for the purchase of the house. The following year, the New South Wales Heritage Act was passed and State funds became available to assist the purchase. ‘Don Bank’ was bought by Council. It was restored and opened as a Museum in 1981, a role it has fulfilled since. The house was listed on the New South Wales State Heritage Register in 1999. It remains one of the finest examples of a slab house from the early to mid-19th century in Australia.