Historic ‘Laura Villa’ is located in the heart of the seaside village of Portarlington, Victoria. It is estimated her date of build is in the mid 1800’s due to the presence of hand-made brick foundations upon which the wooden structure rests, combined with the history of brick making within the town. The Victorian Rustic Gothic design is also unique to this era, as the Gothic influence was prevalent in many of the 1840’s-50’s buildings in the area. For example:
- Coryule, Drysdale – c 1849 by Anne Drysdale & Caroline Newcomb;
- The Old Seaview Hotel, Portarlington – c 1855 by Duncan McKenzie;
- Shoubra, Highton – c early 1850’s by A. Chambers (purchased by William Higgins in 1856).
Originally fronting north to The Esplanade, and overlooking Port Phillip Bay, this heritage listed property is still in remarkably excellent and original condition, featuring a beautiful, large central door with unique top and sidelights, a projecting bay window on the east, large timber framed double-hung windows (most still exhibiting the original hand-drawn glass), a high pitched slate gable roof, marble fireplace in the main Lounge, and open fire places to the other three main rooms. The design and layout of Laura Villa’ would suggest a build date of the 1840-50’s being the peak of the Gothic revival. The villa sits on hand made bricks, which also supports the theory of a pre-1850’s build, as Portarlington had its own brickworks (TH Widdicombe) from the early 1850’s. These handmade bricks also fill the cavity at the base of all the walls – they really knew how to build with quality and grace back then … The style is incredibly similar to the Historic ‘Calhoun’s Family Hotel‘ sited to overlook Portarlington Pier.
Perched on the highest, shoreline point, ‘Laura Villa’ once enjoyed 360 degree views. Sited high on the cliff, above a sheltered cove that stretches eastward from Hat Rock, ‘Laura Villa’ would once have overlooked the historic sea baths and bathing-house c mid 1860’s onwards. Perhaps part of the property’s history includes the accommodation of tourists visiting the popular seaside resort Bathing-House – built prior to 1868 – which was located directly in front of ‘Laura Villa’ ??? Remnants of the Bathing-House are still visible on the beach and, at low tide, further out to sea. Was ‘Laura Villa’ the very first name given to this magnificent property ???
The verandah with its unique cast iron fretwork appears to have been added later – in the 1870’s. The convex verandah design ensures that high winds cannot get caught under the roof area and lift the verandah away.
There is also evidence to suggest that one of the original huts from John Batman’s first camp remained on the property until the land surrounding the building was radically subdivided in the 1950’s. Jeanie Paine, from which much of Portarlington’s history has been documented, is adamant that she often slept in this tiny cottage as a child, which is often referred to by the locals as ‘Batman’s Cottage’ or ‘Mimosa’ or ‘Shepherd’s Cottage’. She claimed that the tiny cottage was originally sited on the property of ‘Laura Villa’, when her mother owned the estate. This is supported by the heritage description defining the cottage to be the oldest building on the Bellarine and that this cottage is linked to Batman’s visit of 1835. The Cottage was later moved diagonally across the intersection of Drysdale and Gellibrand Streets, and then later to the town of Drysdale, near the historic railway station, where it now sits, fully restored.
‘Laura Villa’ was originally sited on The Esplanade, between Fisher and Gellibrand Streets, with Drysdale street to the rear. Coincidentally, many of the streets in Portarlington are named after prominent pioneers, some of which are listed below:
David Fisher was the manager of the Derwent Company (formally the Port Phillip Association) and had interests in the Indented Head area from as early as 1836 – noting that Indented Head included the entire peninsula at this time.
Joseph Tice Gellibrand was a lawyer and former Attorney-General, explorer and also a member of the Port Phillip Association. He met an unfortunate end when he and his partner George B L Hesse attempted to reach Melbourne via the interior of Victoria. They did not arrive and were never heard from again. It is probable that their horses were lost and they died around the end of February 1837, in the heat of summer.
Anne Drysdale was one of the first women to acquire a land holding, and with the assistance of Dr Alexander Thomson (one of the three men John Batman left to build an encampment on Indented Head) her first run was located along the banks of the Barwon River. She later joined forces with Caroline Newcomb (who arrived in Port Phillip with the Batman family as governess to John Batman’s children in late 1835) to acquire and build the infamous ‘Coryule’ estate c 1848, located on the perimeter of the township of Drysdale (formally Bellarine).
Interestingly, Drysdale and Newcombe Streets run parallel through the township of Portarlington. Caroline Newcomb documented in her diary in 1848, that she had in her care, two of Eliza Batman’s daughters. She was very relieved to receive word from Eliza that she was coming to ‘Coryule’ to pick them up. Eliza was apparently very grateful for Caroline’s assistance and said that she would no longer be needing her help . . . Folklore speaks of some of the Batman children schooling in Portarlington . . .
Is it possible that ‘Laura Villa’ was originally built on Crown Land by a squatter, a woman escaping from a life thwart with loss, betrayal and heartache, to a place of peace – where her beloved husband had originally organised a home to be built on the newly acquired Port Phillip lands – in a time before all the deaths and injustices had rained upon her family ?? Did they manage to defy the constabulary with this last bid to build an exquisite home on lands that were, as yet, of no interest to the British ??? Is it possible that she was able to live her last years in peace and harmony in a beautiful house the looked across the growing ugliness that Melbourne represented to her, and, in the security that no-one knew of her existence ??? Is it possible that her trust was once more defied upon her passing; and that the property was not forwarded to her daughters, but “acquired” by the solicitor entrusted to manage her affairs upon her passing c 1856 ?? The article John Batman – Descendants of the Founder outlines the injustices to this poor family who had such love and high hopes. Perhaps one day, the elusive treasure box will be found and the mysteries laid to rest:
” . . . Batman’s family was composed of seven daughters and one son. Maria, the eldest daughter married a Mr Robert Fennel, who owned what was then known as the Yarra Grange Estate, situated on the river near where the punt used to be at Studley Park. There is a tradition that some members of the Batman family buried an iron box, containing considerable jewellery and money belonging to the family, somewhere in the estate, and from what can be learned that iron box is rusting somewhere beneath the surface of the soil now . . . “
The coincidences mount up and yet, the build date remains unconfirmed. It is impossible, however, to ignore the facts that can easily date the build to prior early 1850’s i.e. the siting of the house on the highest shoreline point, hand-made bricks, the building sited across the junction of three of the original titles, the Gothic style, slate roof, the extraordinary chimneys . . .
One can only imagine the views the property would have enjoyed back then, watching the ships roll by . . .
It was to William Higgins (a prominent Geelong lawyer) that the three titles, across which the building extends, were granted from the Crown in the November of 1873 . . .
He held the property for 10 months during which time the three titles must have been consolidated as the properties were sold to the second titled owner, Frederick Willey, on just the one Certificate of Title, on the 1st Day of September of 1874.
Frederick Willey and his family arrived in the area in 1849, on the ship ‘Hope‘.
At the time of purchasing ‘Laura Villa’ Willey owned ‘Avondale‘. He later acquired ‘Sea View Farm‘, as well as a number of smaller properties around the East Bellarine region. He was very active and prominent in the Portarlington community – residing at ‘Laura Villa’ until he died in 1900 . . .
Reference as to the name of the property being ‘Laura Villa’, was published on the death notice of Frederick Willey’s first wife some 24 years earlier, in 1876 . . .
Frederick Willey’s probate details the distribution of his estate, including the fact that he left ‘Laura Villa’ to his son, Robert Willey, and his son-in-law, John Leigh, who promptly put the property up for sale. The Executors’ Sale Notice provides and insight into the times and intimately describes the property in all its grandeur. Interestingly, the Probate was prepared by W&W Higgins, Proctors, Yarra Street, Geelong – remembering that William Higgins was the first titled owner of the property when transferred from Crown Land . . .
It appears that the property did not sell and remained in the son and son-in-law’s names until the son-in-law died in February 1916.
Robert Willey promptly sold the property on the 28th February 1916.
From this point on, the ownership of ‘Laura Villa’ changed many times until 1937. There also appears to have been a name change to ‘Claremont‘ sometime in the early 1900’s – which is the name to which the house has been referred until recently, when some of the more distant past has be unveiled. There is record of the Pywell’s being ‘resident’ at ‘Claremont’ and also, a transfer of ownership to Isabella Pywell in 1925 until 1937 – which supports the belief that the Pywell’s lived in Claremont for many years, using it as a guesthouse when visitors would sail across from the other side of the bay on the old SS ‘Edina’ from 1880 to 1937. It is said that whenever the SS ‘Edina’ docked at Portarlington, the family would move out to the coach house, to make more room for paying guests . . .
Mrs. A. Pywell was listed in the 1939 Sands & McDougall directory as resident at ‘Claremont’ Drysdale Street and also as proprietor of Claremont Guest House.
The McLean’s purchased the property in 1937 and also ran a guest house in the holiday season using the name ‘Claremont’. The property was substantially subdivided by the McLean’s in 1950 and again in the late 1950’s, at which time ‘Laura Villa’ lost her driveway, her views to the Bay, and, her “The Esplanade” address.
The front fascade of this beautiful and historic building is currently obscured from view and can no longer be embraced and enjoyed in its original grandeur. The original kitchen has been demolished, and the building enlarged, however, this magnificent and significant part of Australia’s white beginning, likely to have been built by one of Australia’s founding pioneers, and in reasonably original condition, has survived many decades of neglect. 1966 saw the final parcel of land subdivided which leaves “Laura Villa” as we see it today. The property still exhibits a magnificent 150+ year old Peppercorn Tree, however, the original Norfolk Pine (estimated also at around 150 years old) which once lined the driveway (branches of which can be seen in the historic photo of the house) had survived the ravages of ‘progress’ until the morning of the 8th September 2011, when the magnificent, healthy Norfolk Pine was tragically destroyed. This Norfolk Pine had been used as a guide for the fishermen for as long as the locals can remember …
That very Saturday, Gardening Australia featured a historic property in Tasmania where the pride of the heritage garden boasted a 150 year old Norfolk Pine just like the one that had just been destroyed . . . A tragedy that can never be redeemed . . .
As this is a private home, the property can only be viewed from the roadside.
– Close proximity to Town Centre – obtain Directions here
– Other Historical POI’s in Portarlington
– Facilities available at Portarlington
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- Sealed Road