The Lodge in Canberra was originally built as a temporary residence for Australian Prime Ministers. It was not huge, but comfortable enough, with five reception rooms, a billiard room, and three bathrooms. The house was set in attractive gardens, with a tennis court and pavilion.
‘Silvertail’, Toorak born Stanley Bruce was the first Prime Minister to occupy the property. He and his wife Ethel moved in on May 4 1927, only five days before the official opening of Parliament House.
Almost immediately a satirical piece appeared in the press. The following was in the Labor associated Daily Standard;
MR BRUCE’S BATH
‘…in completing the upholstering and furnishing of the Right Honorable gent’s lodge at the capital city they had to put Yale locks on the doors of his boudoir and bathroom to prevent his eager admirers, devotees or toadies from purloining his toilet shavings etc. We are told that these have a special fancy for the contents of the Ministerial tub, which they carry away in bottle or bulk when they get the chance. Ladies of a certain age and anaemic diathesis are, we are told, most prone to this kind of sneak-thieving – whether for purposes of internal or external use, as an eyewash or nerve restorative, is not stated. (Daily Standard (Brisbane) May 6 1927)
Mr Bruce found The Lodge a bit small for entertaining and it seemed he might move out quite quickly.
Labor won in a landslide at the 1929 election, and leader James Scullin, the son of a railway plater, chose not to take Mr Bruce’s place at The Lodge. Aside from his working class values, Scullin’s decision was influenced by a rapidly worsening economy. Within days of his victory the world was reeling from the Wall Street crash.
Mr Scullin, Prime Minister, said tonight that he intended to let the Prime Minister’s Lodge for some public purpose, “Personally I am very comfortably housed at the Hotel Canberra”, he said. “At a time when economy is so urgent I think we should set the example at Canberra. The maintenance of the Prime Minister’s residence costs a good deal more to the taxpayers than people have been given to understand.” (Newcastle Morning Herald October 26 1929)
Mr Scullin’s decision was another opportunity for humour;
It was hoped that rent received would cover the maintenance of the house, estimated at £26 per week.
The right leaning Canberra Times published a tongue-in-cheek piece on the subject of a tenanted Lodge;
The visitor or maid, who might happen to drop a soup plate on the floor would have the unpleasant thought that a direct loss of a guinea had occurred, without taking into consideration the damage to the carpet, which might run into pounds.
One would need a steady hand when dining at the Prime Minister’s Lodge. It may be argued that people accustomed to luxury would know how to look after valuable household goods, and that awkwardness is a trait of the bourgeois, but the fact remains that of those twelve water jugs that cost £34, seven have been broken. The remainder, together with other delicate articles, have been carefully put out of harm’s way, and it will be interesting to learn whether the new tenant – the Lodge is to be advertised for one, – will use the water jugs, the soup plates and the many other articles that have apparently made no big appeal to the present Prime Minister and his wife. (Canberra Times November 6 1929)
However, there were no takers for The Lodge.
Meanwhile, life at the Hotel Canberra was not quite as comfortable as Mr Scullin had anticipated. He was unable to eat his meals in peace because people kept wanting to say hello and shake his hand. In the end a wooden screen was erected around a corner table for the Prime Minister and his wife. However, it didn’t completely resolve the problem;
THE LODGE LIVES AGAIN
Neither the Bruces or the Scullins had children, but the next couple in The Lodge certainly did!
Labor lost the December 1931 election and suddenly the empty Lodge was being spruced up to welcome Joe and Enid Lyons and their large brood, well the youngest ones anyway; Brendon, Barry, Rosemary and Peter. The Prime Minister’s last instruction as he left for the office on the first day was that the children be good and not annoy their mother, who was busy unpacking boxes.
Perhaps the last word should go to the chauffeur at The Lodge, Ray Tracy, who had worked for (among others) Scullin and Bruce. Looking back in 1950 he said;
After the spectacular collapse of the Labor Government in 1931 I found myself with a new boss and suddenly became a family man in a big way.
Bushy-haired, genial, generous Joe Lyons had become Prime Minister in a voting avalanche that swept Labor into Opposition for nearly 10 years.
When I presented myself for orders, he told me to ‘continue with the ordinary routine.’ But how different the routine proved to be. Before long I found myself regarded more as a companion than a driver. I was living at the Prime Minister’s Lodge, sharing the Prime Minister’s recreations, taking meals in his dining room, and keeping a watchful eye on his robust, growing children. (The Daily News (Perth) March 15 1950)
The Lodge would never be so full of warmth, life and laughter again.
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