Tom Collins, and the story of Tom Collins house

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An original Furphy Farm water cart at Tom Collins House, Swanbourne. The carts were invented by Joseph Furphy's brother John. The carts gave rise to the term 'a furphy', relating to the gossip, tall stories, or dubious items of news the World War One troops-in-training in Broadmeadows, Victoria, exchanged while gathered around the carts to fetch water.

In 1949 Samuel Furphy, youngest son of the novelist and poet, Joseph Furphy (right), who wrote under the pen-name of Tom Collins, presented a small wooden worker's cottage in Servetus St, Swanbourne to the Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA).

This cottage had been built and lived in by his father in 1908, after he came to join his sons in Western Australia in 1905. Felix and Samuel had established a foundry in Grey St, Fremantle. Joseph and his wife Leonie, came to help them with the business.

For seven years until his sudden death in 1912, Joseph wrote very little. He described himself as a 'grafter, pure and simple'. However, he maintained his correspondence with Miles Franklin and Kate Baker, among others, as well as with his mother in Shepparton. Joseph hoped to the end to return to the writing which had already brought into being the novels Such is Life, Rigby's Romance and The Buln-Buln and the Brolga together with numerous poems which had been published in The Bulletin.

Joseph's grand-daughter Emily Main describes the building of what is now known as Tom Collins House - 'the boys, that is my father and Sam, helped him put in the stumps, but Joseph designed the wooden building himself, constructing sections of the timber framework on the ground. As lifting these into position was too heavy for one man he enlisted the aid of Thomas Reinfield, a German builder who also helped him with the finer cabinet work such as making the window frames. Joseph constructed the roof timbers and put on the galvanised roof.'

After Joseph's death, Leonie remained in the house. When she died in the late thirties, Sam and his artist wife Mattie (pictured right) moved into the small cottage after making alterations of their own.

These included the installation of doors and fireplace overmantle which Mattie had made during her studies at Perth Technical School with James Linton. Featuring panels of beaten copper, these provide a dramatic example of the excellent craft work produced in the early days of the school.

In 1949 Samuel Furphy gave the cottage to the Fellowship on the condition that it be maintained as a memorial of his father. At the same time he bequested funds to the University of Western Australia for an ongoing essay prize and the purchase of art works.

In order to provide more space for meetings, the Fellowship opened up the front two rooms where some of the Furphy memorabilia is displayed. A third room was opened in 1994 as the Bert Vickers Library to house a large collection of books by Western Australian authors as well as first edition copies of Joseph’s books.

The house was registered by the National Trust in 1978. Its historic significance lies not only in the fact that it was built and lived in by Joseph Furphy, sometimes called the Father of the Australian Novel, but also the collection of original copper work by his daughter-in-law Mattie as well as its long association with leading Western Australian writers. As one early member, Jean Lang, affirms, it is the only house that was built and lived in by a writer and has since then been associated with literature almost continuously.

In 1996 Government plans to develop West Coast Highway required that the Fellowship relocate the house. After years of discussion it was moved to its new home in the bushland of Allen Park, only one kilometre from its original site. Restoration was undertaken with proceeds from the sale of the Servetus Street land to the Government plus a Government grant of $50,000.

Now Tom Collins House has become the main feature in a Heritage Precinct which is under the jurisdiction of the Nedlands City Council. Next door to playing fields, it is in sight of the large weatherboard house which Joseph helped to build for his son Samuel, on the corner of Clement and Marmion Streets. In his letters to his mother Joseph frequently reported on projects he worked on for his son as well as the bush through which he took his regular walks.

So the new locality was not only ideal for writing workshops and readings, but still historically authentic. In recognition of the successful resiting, the Heritage Council of Western Australia granted Tom Collins House Heritage Listing in 1999.

Further information on Tom Collins House can be found in the Conservation Report, a copy of which is in the Vickers Library. The report was prepared by consultants Drs Dorothy Erickson and Robyn Taylor and architect Murray Slavin.

Tom Collins House is listed with the National Trust and the West Australian Heritage Council. As well as being the major Writers Centre in the Western suburbs, it contains most of the prize-winning copper repousse work done in the early 1900s by Samuel Furphy’s wife, Mattie.

 

Joseph Furphy, who wrote as Tom Collins.
Tom Collins House at Allen Park, Swanbourne, after the move from Servetus Street.
Mattie Furphy with her husband Samuel, the youngest son of Joseph Furphy.
Bought in 1897, this was Joseph Furphy’s typewriter. More about the typewriter here.
Joseph Furphy's writing desk at Tom Collins House. 

References:
Barnes, John (1990) The Order of Things: A Life of Joseph Furphy. Oxford University Press.

Eds Barnes, J. & Hoffmann, L. (1995) Bushman and Bookworm. Melbourne: Oxford University Press Australia.
Erickson, D. & Taylor, R. (1995) Heritage Assessment & Conservation Plan for Tom Collins House.

Perth: Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA) & Heritage Council of Western Australia.
Lang, Jean (1987) At the Toss of a Coin. Joseph Furphy: The Western Link. Tom Collins Press. Swanbourne, Western Australia.