Colleen Godsell

Colleen Godsell talks about the restoration project involved in saving The Barn, the last remaining maritime building in Sydney and the birthplace of scouting in Australia. Colleen takes us through the highs and lows of her five year personal commitment to fundraising and the overwhelming support from the scout movement and the Mosman community.

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maddy godsell
23 May 2011, 18:55 · #

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this was a great video I think that this was a amazing story and I think what you have done is speechless.
from maddy

Wayne Patten
10 September 2021, 11:06 · #

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Hi. I was a member of 1st Mosman Cubs & Scouts for most of the 1960s.
They were great times. There was a very good collection of photos of the old Scout Troops over the years upstairs in the meeting room, the southern end closest to the wharf. The opposite end was the kitchen. The toilet was a smelly outside loo at the back of the building beside the cliff.

When I first started as a cub, about 1960, the jawbones did not exist outside the main door. They were erected in the midsixties when I was in Scouts, as I have a clear memory of my father, who is now 91, being part of the working group who erected them. I have now memory as to how they were acquired, but clear memory of helping to erect them.

Wayne Patten.

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Moving to Mosman and living in Mosman

I first moved to Mosman in 1986. I was in my early 20s but I had a passionate love affair with it well before then. I used to visit Mosman about the age of 9 or 10 with my favourite aunt Kelly. We’d come across on the ferry from Circular Quay and we’d have lunch with Cliff and Lillian Done. So I knew from about the age of 10 that I would one day live in this community I just fell in love with it. I just thought – what a great place to grow up.
30.15 I don’t know, I was determined, yes, I was just so determined to live here and I can remember when I bought my house in 1986 we paid $281,000 for it and the interests rates were 21%. You can imagine the horror – my parents’ experience – the thought of their daughter committing to that in her early 20s, but I was so determined – we live there still.

I’m grateful for that opportunity to raise my three children here, it’s been a wonderful experience, and so giving something back pays a bit of homage to that – that feeling that you know you are – I’m very grateful for living here.

The Barn – birthplace of scouting and heritage of building

for me it was a combination of things it was the knowledge that it was, or had become the birthplace of scouting in Australia, that really inspired me to reform and do it because I could see … I had a great interest in, and have a great interest in youth development and leadership and I thought I could – if I was able to bring this home I could not only restore the last remaining piece of early colonial maritime architecture in Sydney from the whaling period but I could dust off the first place of scouting and bring it back into the light, so for me it was more than just the building.

Tarpot the Aborigine

I commissioned an archeological investigation of the site and we found no evidence of Aboriginality, but it still remains for me a part of the project that is incomplete because we’ve never pursued, and we’d like to pursue the interpretation of place to include the Aboriginal story of the last Cammeragal person from that region.

Unfortunately his European nickname was Tarpot and we don’t know anything about him and that’s a real shame, and I don’t know that we’ll ever really know anything about him but I think there’s going to come a time in the very near future where we commission an interpretation and we erect storyboards at that site so that the early colonialism is displayed alongside the original inhabitants out of respect because so many of our local students visit this as a part of their local studies guide out of their programme in their local schools and they’re not seeing the full picture. And I’d like them to see the full picture.

But the last sighting of Tarpot was in 1888 and the metro – a little unsure as to how much time he spent there because of the location of the original cave being very high up on the cliff.

Barn used for first polling booth

I think the Barn is the heart of Mosman because if you consider back in those days how we were living in sort of semi-rural conditions the Barn was a meeting place. It was one of those few facilities where everyone could come together and it was before the local council and any sort of public facility where groups of people could gather and discuss important issues of the day so that meeting was in December 1891 and then two years later on the 6th June, 1893 it was used as the first polling booth in the Mosman community so I think it is the heart of Mosman.

Birthplace of scouting and saved from demolition 1925

In 1925, the last official photograph was commissioned by council before the demolition. It went into the paper and there was a huge public outcry. The community was not ready to let this go, even though it was in such poor repair. The local scouts launched a campaign, ‘save the oldest building for the oldest troop’, and went about fundraising for the money required.

Now, from my research I’ve discovered that a number of families from the first Mosman 1908 scout group mortgaged their homes, had signed loans to buy this property so for me it became – once I understood that – it became a personal challenge to honour that legacy of the original gift. So it took about three years after that before they fundraised the money required to restore her, and it is still the birthplace of scouting in Australia.

Dances at The Barn

It was known as the place to be on a Saturday night and those dances were actually hosted by that local scout group as a fundraising activity, and people would come from all over Sydney. In fact, it was famous amongst US personnel as being the only Dixieland venue for music in Sydney and many of the musicians in their 80s and 90s now tell me that if you hadn’t played in the Barn you hadn’t played.

The old scouts tell me stories about when they were young cubs and the way of polishing the parquetry flooring was to put all on a Hessian sack and then sit a little scout on it and then drag them around by the legs, so that’s the way that they used to polish the floors before the Saturday night dances.

But yeah, even before that, sort of the 1920s, late 20s, it was used as a ballroom. It was a way of promoting Mosman as a community for people to consider settling in, and attracting visitors. It was used as a ballroom on Saturday nights, so it has had a great history for entertainment if you like.

Disrepair and decision to save The Barn

I stood silent witness to the problems of the Barn, I must confess, for more than 10 years before I moved forward. Like many locals I saw it as being really significant but somebody else’s problem. I couldn’t imagine that building so historic would be allowed to continue in such disrepair without somebody, like the National Trust or the NSW Heritage office or council stepping forward, and then one night after being in the city and catching the ferry home late at night … it was torrential rain I do remember, and going into the Barn just to check that everything was ok and being ankle deep in water. It was about midnight and I just made a promise to the building at that point that I would do whatever it took to protect it and restore it, and that in fact, it wasn’t somebody else’s problem, it was our problem and it was about time we all got together and do something about it. That was really for me the turning point in about the year 2000, to start doing something about it.

Risks identified and fundraising

In September 2001 we launched a community SOS to the wider community in full knowledge that in identifying its risk that we are putting ourselves in danger because when you identify the amount of damage and risk to the property you make it more vulnerable and in fact, developers warned us at that time and I really have to give credit and thanks to the NSW Scout Association for trusting me to bring it home because at any time they could have sold it and got rid of it and made a lot of money on it because even at its worst it was worth millions. But they didn’t, they trusted me to bring it home and it took five years of fundraising to bring it home, so it was – there was blood in the water down at Mosman Bay when we announced the true condition of the site.

And as the deeper into investigative works we went the greater the problem became because it was in the geo-technical reports that we realised that the slope behind the building was as high risk as Thredbo and that’s when the insurers and Scouts Australia ordered us off the site and off the premises. It really had to come to that in order to bring it forward, so after that it was just a journey of lobbying the Prime Minister, engaging Tony Abbott and Jillian Skinner who did a lot of good for us during that time and really just interacting with the community and running and hosting fundraising events to bring it forward.

No, I had a lot of opposition in fact. I had a lot people criticize my actions in trying to do this restoration project because I was seriously out of my league I was told on several occasions because I don’t come from an architectural background or an engineering background, which is probably a good thing because ignorance is bliss and when you don’t know what you’re faced with, you’re unaware of the risk, you just jump in because you know it’s the right thing, so for me it was all about passion.

No, a lot of people said that we should give it up, that we were, in fact, not in a position to, and if the scouting movement couldn’t fund it then they should be made to give it up. But what you’re saying when you say that is that youth and development and heritage in this country – one cannot prop up the other, but in fact, if you allow that to happen you’re sending a very clear message that you don’t value either, so it was about valuing both and moving forward.

Having said that about that little bit of criticism there was overwhelming community support. I made friends on that project that I consider to be family now and I would have been lost without them because there were moments when in the process of discovery we realised that the work on the slope behind the building for example was going to cost $748,000. There were times when it felt like the air was sucked out of the room. You know, where was that money going to come from, where was that help going to come from, but you know, having committed to it the only way forward was forward.

They were very hard times during the course of that.

In the beginning I persuaded everyone that I could bring this home in a year and very quickly I realised that that wasn’t going to happen, so it was really for me, about the personal commitment to bringing it home and when you really commit to something that is as problematic as that restoration project was you have to accept that it’s a process of pacing yourself, of knowing that you will have small victories along the way but ultimately it’s committing to whatever it takes to bring it home, not to a timeframe because you cannot predict how the public will respond. You cannot predict how the scope of works will progress. If there is help, where that help will come from because really it’s about – on a day-to-day basis, just inching forward day by day.

Contribution of Mosman Council

It’s important to acknowledge the contribution of Mosman Council through this process. From the very beginning they were on board for this project. The fact that we have a conservation management plan in place is thanks to Mosman Council and Godden Mackay Logan our heritage consultants. Mosman Council contributed $20,000.00 to that and also $5000.00 to the investigative works at that time I was funding myself, and more importantly the staff came on board. Planning & development and heritage gave countless hours of consultation to me personally, and support through the process of this long restoration. You know, I can imagine, even after donor fatigue set in the council staff were still engaged and still concerned and still – could see what I could see, that this was worth bringing home.

Eleanor Whitcombe and 1925 image before demolition order

This is the last photograph that was commissioned by Mosman Council in 1925, the last official photograph before the demolition order was issued for the building to be pulled down, so this is the photograph that actually caused the public outcry that the ‘Barn’ was going to be demolished and that something should be done, and that’s when in 1925 the first Mosman scout group launched an appeal to raise the funds, the £443 that was required to purchase the property for Mosman Council and begin the restoration of this project again.

Even way back then you know, they were looking for a new clubhouse it just seemed to be such a terrible waste and I think a lot of the older residents still had very fond memories of the balls and dances here in the 1930s, ’40s & ’50s, so I think it was that grassroots movement that actually did save the building from demolition.

Well, yes we were very fortunate enough in our project to come across the author Eleanor Witcombe. Eleanor Witcombe was commissioned to write the first piece of children’s literature in this country, specifically designed for Australian children. The Prime Minister of the day Ben Chifley had had – was growing a little tired of all the fairies and goblins of English literature and he wanted something that reflected the early colonial beginnings of this country, so he commissioned Eleanor to write a play or something that would encapsulate those early humble beginnings and Eleanor wrote Pirates of the Barn, Smugglers beware.

The Barn today

It has a shared use actually, the ‘‘Barn’‘, scouts meet once a week and we hold various events on weekends but it also is home to a number of local community groups. We have children’s ballet, Dutch School on Friday, ladies’ pilates, yoga, the Mosman Evening College run salsa dancing classes here and it just has a wonderful variety of uses.

Story of the Whale Bones

These are the whalebones that used to be at the front of the building. They were authenticated by a member of the Australian Museum, they’re actually the jawbones of a humpback whale that they believe was harvested in this local area and during the restoration project, about 1927/28 the scouts erected them and they sort of arched over the front doorway and many of the local residents remember them from that period in time and certainly some of the paintings from that era show them in the actual painting.

So one of the projects we’d like to do in the future is to somehow restore them with fiberglass or something, a protective coating and put them back on the outside of the building again because in the restoration project we attempted to restore this place to a period in time and we think that sort of ‘Phoenix rising from the ashes’ in 1927

They put them on the outside of the ‘Barn’ in about 1928 and they remained there until….yeah, a long time, do you remember them there, I think in the 1970s after the first rock-fall they were moved inside as a part of that restoration project.

Greatest challenge in restoring – what period to celebrate

But I think if you celebrate … the greatest challenge for the ‘Barn’ in the restoration was choosing a period in time to restore it to.

It is, so many different – and they said, ‘when you decide that Colleen, lock on’, I said, ‘I think it’s a really big decision you know, I guess for me I’ll have to dedicate it to the movement because it’s here because of them’.

So that’s what I did – was then to dedicate it to the movement of that time hence the ‘be prepared’ and the ‘the promise’ and whatever so when kids come here they get a sense of place, and also they can cheat when they have to give their promise in law because they can read it on the wall. They don’t have to memorise it anymore.