‘I grew up at a police station’: 82-year-old shares family memories from Balmain Watch House
The story of the beginning, journey and rebirth of the Balmain Association’s most cherished building
The Balmain Watch House carries many memories for Margaret Collett (Nee Gray), being both born and raised in the now historic police station. Her parents were Eliza and Sergeant Ira Gray; she was the 9th daughter and 12th child. The Watch House is of historical and social significance as one of the surviving buildings of Sydney and owes its present existence to two factors; Governor Fitzroy’s message to the Legislative Council on 28 September 1852, and the Balmain Association.
Balmain’s history as one of the first land grants in the colony and its varied development made it a unique atmosphere with extraordinary physical surroundings that we’ve come to know today. Governor Fitzroy’s message introduced a Bill for the erection of lockup watch houses for short prison terms because of the vast distances between ordinary gaols.
The Balmain Watch House at 179 Darling Street was a police lockup designed by Edmund Blackett in 1852 and built in 1854. It was a single-storeyed building with four rooms: a guard room, a constable’s room, and male and female cells. Unsigned and not updated, the 1854 drawings were unearthed in the archives in 1971, making it possible to visualise how the original Watch House looked.
Nothing more is known of the Watch House until 1864 when a report advised that urgent repairs were necessary. By 1878 the population expansion was sufficient to require a police force of six to look after the building. The construction of additions to the building in 1881 included the erection of the upper storey, the kitchen wing at the side, the front verandah and stairs, and the cells, privies and exercise yards at the rear. The door between the Female Cell and Guard Room was blocked up, and a corridor was created across the larger male cell to provide access to the rear areas as can be seen by visitors to the Watch House today. Unfortunately, no drawings for these additions have been found.
The Watch House exemplifies the simplicity of early colonial buildings, with the later constructed upper storey designed in harmony with the early Victorian lower storey. The only decorations are the minimal chimney mouldings and the bas-relief stone frames around the windows. However, the building’s austerity is relieved by the colours and markings of the bare stone walls, and the ghostly stripes visible on the awning. With its slate and iron roofs, copper guttering, wooden verandah posts and twelve-paned windows, the Watch House provides a sampler of early colonial style and materials.
1887 saw a new police station built further up Darling St, but the Watch House remained as an overnight lockup, though the extent to which prisoners were kept there is unknown. Ira Gray had been promoted to Constable First Class in 1920 and Sergeant Third Class in 1928. In the late 1920s, the Watch House solely became the residence of the local Balmain policeman and his family. Sargeant Ira Gray, his wife Eliza and their family of twelve children lived there from 1930 to 1945.
Margaret grew up at the police station with her eight sisters and five brothers and attended the local Balmain public school. In descending order, the children were Allan, Douglas, Jean, Jessie, Nola, Merle, Marie, Dorothy, Sylvia, Ronald (d 1933), Edna, Margaret, Bruce, and Eric (d 1942). Ronald and Eric died at birth.
The Charge Room was furnished with a 3-seater-lounge and table, sideboard, gramophone and piano. The right cell was a bedroom for two boys, and three girls shared the left-hand cell. Through the exercise yards were the two rear cells which were not used as bedrooms. The left-hand cell was the Play Room, or more accurately the Work Room and the adjacent cell was strung with clotheslines. Upstairs, the remaining four girls and boys were in the present-day Office and History Room. The Meeting Room area was enough room for two more children. The Main Bedroom took the remaining space with a double bed for mum and dad with room for the baby’s cot.
Margaret’s sister Marie would take Bruce and her under a bed in one of the cells and read to them by torch and put it under her chin to scare the youngsters. When Margaret later got whooping cough and had to stay in bed, she would tie the sheet to the brass bedposts and make a tent.
“When mum and I had morning tea, she would pour some in my little red bakelite tea set and would put an arrowroot biscuit on a plate; I still have the tea set today.”
She and Bruce would bounce down the staircase steps on their bottoms, and sit in a box and “slippity dippity” their way down to the cells. They would sit on the front steps of the Watch House and count cars and trams going by, and at Christmas, the Methodist Church would stop and sing carols on the back of a truck.
“I had a small pedal bike with two wheels on the back that looked like a horse. Bruce would stand on the back axle, and we would ride it down the back street towards the Colgate factory near the water.”
When war broke out in September 1939 the two eldest brothers, Allan and Douglas joined the army, and Eliza put Margaret’s Micky mouse doll on top of the kitchen cupboard wearing an army hat on his head and his arm pinned up in a salute. Time passed, and things changed, and Balmain was declared a danger zone, Margaret remembers her mum taking her and Bruce on the train to Bombala where she stayed at her grandparents home until it was safe to return.
“When the war was on, we could see the Sydney Harbor bridge from upstairs. The sirens would start, and searchlights would light up the sky.”
Margaret’s sisters did their bit for the war effort with Nola joining the WAAFS, Jean went nursing, and Jessie joined the WANS doing volunteer work. The children were in and out of the Watch House during and after the war.
Looking back now, Margaret’s most precious moments about the Watch House were the memories of her mother and father amid times of depression and war. From sitting on her father’s lap in the garden to looking forward to Friday nights where he would bring Bruce and her 5c worth of lollies. He had also turned one of the outside toilets into a birdcage for canaries and finches. Later he built large stone and cement fish ponds outside the back door filled with goldfish — Margaret could never catch one.
Her father had been promoted to Sergeant Second Class in 1937 and to Sergeant First Class in 1940, taking up duties at Regent Street on 27 March 1944. He had just passed his inspectors exams and was being fitted for his new uniform. Soon after Margaret’s 6th birthday, her father passed away without warning. With two sons away at war and after losing two baby sons in the last ten years, Ira had a few strokes and passed away on 13 November 1944 at Balmain Hospital aged 55. Her sister Jessie had just given birth to his first grandchild on 5 November 1944 — eight days before their dad died. It was Marie (16 years old at that time) who told Bruce and Margaret that their dad had died, the only thing Bruce could say was “what does died mean?” Margaret remembers her mum telling her it was the biggest funeral Balmain had ever seen.
Eliza and the remaining children moved from the police property in 1945 and relocated to the army hub at Herne Bay (now Riverwood) for 12 months. Later they were given a housing commission home on the corner of Toongabbie and Seven Hills where her mum had first pick of the new estate.
“Years later when I went to Parramatta Home Science Secondary High School we didn’t have much to live on so Mum made my uniform out of Dad’s old police pants, and I was so proud to wear it.”
There was no smoking or drinking or bad language in their home — only love. Margaret was just 18 years old when her mum died in a car crash on the 30 August 1956. Margaret remembers how her mum said she would have married the same man and would’ve had all his children if she lived her life over.
By the 1960s the police vacated the Watch House and deterioration became rapid, it was unused, in a sorry state and slated for demolition. The building became a target for vandals and a home for vagrants, a leaking broken derelict. Fortunately, the Balmain Association formed in 1965 to maintain the historical value of the area, joined forces with the National Trust in a fight to preserve the building, with the restoration of the Watch House becoming its most cherished project.
Out of the family of 14 children including the two sons who died at birth, there are only four still alive, Jessie, Dorothy, Margaret and Bruce, with her dearly loved sisters Edna and Marie passing away last year.
Present-day visitors to the historical site, including Margaret and her extended family, appreciate the enormous achievements of those early members who worked so hard to restore the building and its history. The Association now has its headquarters in the restored Watch House and manage it as an exhibition space that reflects their efforts to preserve the heritage of the Balmain, Birchgrove and Rozelle communities.