Ethel Bruce and Ruth Lane Poole – Designing the Prime Minister's Lodge

Dr Susan-Mary Withycombe

The following paper was presented by Dr Susan-Mary Withycombe at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra on 7 March 2010.

It has been an extraordinarily difficult task to come to any conclusion as to what accommodation should be provided for this residence, as it is practically certain that the accommodation which for instance would suit Mr Bruce would be in excess of what say Mr Charlton [ALP Member for Hunter, NSW, Leader of the Opposition] would require. On the other hand, it is felt that it is essential that the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth should be housed in a private residence and not have to be subjected to the public life of an hotel and the continuous importunities which would inevitably follow, and this being admitted, it would appear that accommodation must be made available on the larger rather than on the smaller scale.

On a morning in autumn 1926, two ladies met in Melbourne to talk about a house. The ladies had much in common: they belonged to the same social class; both had lived in England as well as in Australia and both were well acquainted with London, that great metropolitan capital of the British Empire; both had married men committed to the service of the Empire. Each lady had experienced times of separation from her husband: one while he was fighting for Britain and recovering from wounds received in the Gallipoli campaign; the other while he was working for the British Colonial Forest Service in Sierra Leone and again later while surveying forest resources of Papua and New Guinea for the Australian Government – both places he considered (with good reason) to be unfit for a white woman. Now reunited with their respective husbands, both ladies were living in the fashionable Melbourne suburb of South Yarra, and within two years both couples would move to Canberra, a city under construction and about to become the seat of government of the Commonwealth of Australia. The house in question was the future residence of the Australian Prime Minister.

The capital city project had languished for nearly 10 years after the foundation stone was laid and the city named 'Canberra' in 1913. Even before that, the federal government had taken almost a decade to agree on a site. In 1914 the outbreak of war diverted attention and funding from the project; work on essential infrastructure slowed to a standstill, and once momentum was lost it took tremendous effort to get it started again.

One reason for the slow-down was the reluctance of politicians and public servants to leave the comfort and splendour of Melbourne, where as part of the Federation agreement the seat of government was temporarily located. A quarter of a century after Federation, the federal parliament still met in high imperial magnificence in the Victorian Parliament House.[1] It took astute lobbying, a vigorous press campaign and increasing pressure from other state capitals – especially Sydney – to push them out.

Apart from the Member for Eden Monaro, in whose electorate Canberra was situated, one of the few politicians to take positive action for the capital city was Stanley Melbourne Bruce, Prime Minister from 1923 to 1929. In July 1923, his government made the commitment that after its current term expired early in 1926, the next elected parliament would meet in Canberra.

Suddenly the tempo shifted from near stagnation to purposeful haste. Within three years a whole city had to be built to a stage where it could accommodate the seat of government, and provide housing and social amenities for an initial population of about 7000 people. But the government was reluctant to spend money on the scheme. Accordingly, the construction of ‘monumental’ buildings was deferred: Parliament House and other government buildings would be ‘of a provisional character’. The very modest budget left no slack for lavishness or luxury, but it did allow for good, sound construction – no marble or gilding, but decent quality brick and tile.

Within these limits, provision was made for two official residences: for the Governor-General, representing the head of state, and for the leader of the government – the Prime Minister. Since Federation the Governor-General had resided in Melbourne in the Government House of Victoria, an extravagant Italianate construction built at the height of Melbourne’s prosperity after the gold rush. It needed a domestic staff of 55 to run and its ballroom was bigger than the one at Buckingham Palace. But there would be no palaces in Canberra. Instead, the vice-regal family would be housed in old Yarralumla Homestead, the pleasant and comfortable headquarters of a large grazing property, roomy enough but decidedly rural. A new house would be built for the Prime Minister. The Chief Architect, Department of Works and Railways, John Smith Murdoch, made some preliminary drawings, but since he mostly designed large official constructions – including the provisional Parliament House – he called in Oakley and Parkes – the Melbourne firm of architects who had won a government competition to design cottages for Canberra – to develop the details and give his sketch 'the residential touch'.[2]

In March 1926, the Federal Capital Commission (the body in charge of building the city) engaged Mrs Ruth Lane Poole to design the interiors, including the furniture, of these two official residences. The project had to be completed in time for the official opening of Parliament in Canberra in May 1927, giving her little more than a year to finish the job. In addition to a tight deadline, she had to work to a strictly limited budget to comply with the greatly reduced scale and far more meagre funding for the federal capital than originally intended. Very few people – let alone women – in Australia in the 1920s had comparable training, although some had the artistic talent and technical skills. Nevertheless, it was remarkable that the Federal Capital Commission – a very masculine group of officials in a construction-site town run by the Public Service and the Army – should have engaged her at all. Perhaps they recognised (correctly) that for this particular job a woman’s touch was needed – and that this particular woman was exceptional.

Ruth Lane Poole with three daughters joined her husband Charles in Melbourne in the autumn of 1925. They had been married for 14 years, but had spent barely five together – a brief sojourn in Western Australia where their second daughter was born. For most of her married life, while her husband worked overseas for the British Colonial Forest Service and visited her briefly on leave, Ruth lived with her own extended family in Ireland and in London. In 1925 Charles was appointed Commonwealth Forest Adviser, based in Melbourne but soon to be transferred to Canberra. Here at last they were able to establish a home together.

Ruth belonged to a gifted family. Her grandfather, William Pollexfen, was a successful ship owner and merchant, running his business from the town of Sligo in the north-west of Ireland. From the age of 15, when her parents separated, Ruth lived with her talented cousin, Lily Yeats. Lily’s father, John Butler Yeats, was a portrait painter; her elder brother, William, was the well-known poet and playwright; her younger brother, Jack, was an artist; and her sister Elizabeth a watercolourist, designer and printer. Lily inherited some of the Pollexfen good sense in money matters: it was she who began to establish the family on a more secure financial basis by working in William Morris' embroidery workshop.

Ruth joined her cousins when they were living in London at Bedford Park, a suburban development that embodied new concepts in urban and domestic design – a prototype 'garden suburb' – and home to many artists and writers. Here Ruth began to practise her skills in drawing, design and embroidery, as she became acquainted with William Morris’ ideas and admired his work. In 1902 she returned to Ireland with the Yeats sisters to help found an arts and crafts establishment in Dublin. Ruth thus lived and worked in the very centre of the arts and crafts movement. Her cousins gave her an education that would enable her to earn her own living, as they did, in one of the very few ways socially acceptable for a woman of her class.

Ruth soon became very much involved in the arts and crafts movement in Melbourne. In September 1925, she made a substantial contribution to the Society’s annual exhibition in the Melbourne Town Hall, for which she designed a whole room in order to display works of other artists as well as some of her own, and to demonstrate that Australia possessed both the raw materials and the craftsmen to build, decorate and furnish a room to the best international standards. At this time also, she began to contribute articles to the Australian Home Builder (from November 1926, re-named The Australian Home Beautiful), a popular magazine that provided practical information on building and equipping the home, gardening, cooking and home decorating.

The letter of appointment, dated 29 March 1926, asks her to ‘wait upon Her Excellency Lady Stonehaven and Mrs Bruce at the earliest possible moment with a view to ascertaining their wishes which will be met as far as possible’. So here she was, consulting Mrs Ethel Bruce about her wishes for the Prime Minister’s residence in Canberra.

While federal parliament was meeting in Melbourne, the Prime Minister and Mrs Bruce lived in Shipley House, described in the Australian Home Builder as a ‘stately old home’ with a beautiful formal garden occupying two acres or so in South Yarra.[3] Shipley belonged to the Casey family, and Richard Casey was the Prime Minister’s friend whom in 1924 Bruce had persuaded to join the Commonwealth Public Service and go to London as Australia’s liaison officer (‘in effect, as Bruce’s political agent’).[4] The Caseys’ dignified mansion may be seen as another manifestation of high British Imperial style, worthy of the Prime Minister of one of Britain’s most successful colonies – though not as extravagant as Melbourne’s Government House or as triumphal as the Exhibition Building. Now, in 1926, anticipating the move to an official residence Canberra, the Bruces were building a new house of their own at Frankston in the Prime Minister’s electorate of Flinders. Designed by RB Hamilton, Melbourne, and Sydney architects Prevost Synnot and Rewald in the fashionable Spanish style, Pine Hill was comfortable, spacious and very modern.[5] It is not difficult to see many similarities between this house and the one being built and designed at the same time in Canberra – indeed, considerable cross-fertilisation is highly probable. Certainly Mrs Bruce had a great many ideas on the subject she was discussing with Mrs Lane Poole.

The Bruces had seen the preliminary drawings in November 1925, and 'expressed general approval'.[6] Four months later Mrs Bruce was ready to discuss details. Prompt action was necessary if she wanted changes made because the builder (James G Taylor of Sydney) had been commissioned on 6 January and given until 6 July 1926, to complete the job.[7] She was concerned that the size and facilities of the kitchen, scullery and laundry were not adequate, and considered that accommodation for only two domestic staff was insufficient.[8] Such matters were vital to the proper management of the house and the wellbeing and therefore the good will of its servants. Her concerns were considered reasonable, and addressed promptly. While the builder proceeded with the front part of the building, Oakley and Parkes made the required alterations to the service wing. On 16 April (about a fortnight after the consultation between the two ladies) the architects sent Mrs Bruce an amended plan that enlarged the kitchen, improved the scullery, servery, pantry and laundry, and added space for cold storage and an extra toilet for staff. On the floor above they extended the service wing to provide four bedrooms, ‘giving accommodation for at least six servants’, and then added another bedroom in the attic above for two more. In addition they noted the request for detached accommodation for a chauffeur, another garage for an extra car, and stables.[9] (A household staff of eight or nine was considered reasonable for that sort of house in those days.)

So far, so good. But a week later the relationship between the architects and the interior designer began to fray. Who was to be responsible for what? Replying to the Federal Capital Commission Chief Architect’s request for details of internal doors and wall panelling, Oakley and Parkes wrote:

Mrs Lane Poole requested us not to prepare these details until she had decided what style the rooms were to be finished in. We presume that we are to fall in with Mrs Lane Poole’s wishes as much as possible, but if it means any departure from the contract, we will notify you.[10]

Ruth was now in direct contact with the architects, and she conveyed to them several matters raised by Mrs Bruce, such as accommodation for a married chauffeur, a loose box in the stable, and the size of the laundry.[11] She explained to the chairman of the Federal Capital Commission, John Butters, that although such matters were ‘really outside the domain of internal decoration’, they were important and causing anxiety, and also that her own work was being hindered by the necessity for making structural alterations before she could proceed. In a handwritten postscript she explained that since the suggested panelling for several main rooms was ‘so out of keeping’ she had provided, at the architects’ request, 'detail of what is necessary'.

Then there was the matter of fireplaces – essential household equipment for Canberra’s freezing winter climate. The architects had provided coal-burning grates surrounded by coloured tiles; Mrs Bruce preferred open fireplaces for burning wood – the fireplaces at Pine Hill would be large enough to burn substantial logs. Since the Territory had no coal but an abundance of wood, this was a sensible suggestion, and Ruth contacted the architects and supplied them with the details of the type of fireplace required.[12] On the other hand, since she recommended the fireplaces be made according to a design by Harold Desbrowe-Annear (another Melbourne architect and a personal friend of the Lane Pooles), she might have anticipated some professional jealousy on the part of Oakley and Parkes.[13] But the Federal Capital Commission could see the sense of her proposal; Butters sent a telegram to the architects on the same day as Ruth sent them her letter: ‘PLEASE SEE MRS BRUCE IMMEDIATELY RE FIREPLACES AND ARRANGE MAKE CHANGE SHE DESIRES’.[14]

By mid-May the architects were beginning to resent what they perceived as Mrs Lane Poole’s interference in the ‘architectural treatment of the inside of the House’ and wrote to the Secretary of the Federal Capital Commission (Charles Daley) expressing their feelings: ‘We would like to know just how we stand with Mrs Lane-Poole, who appears to be desirous of making somewhat radical changes in the detail of our design for the building.’ The Secretary sent them a conciliatory reply, with a copy to Mrs Lane Poole.[15] Of course the architectural treatment of the inside of the house was the responsibility of the architects; they should not take exception to any suggestions she might make, but of course she had no power to authorise changes. Working against the clock, the Federal Capital Commission did not need any hold-up caused by a row between the architects and the interior designer.

While Ruth was designing the official residences she continued her monthly contributions to the Australian Home Beautiful magazine. In May 1926, she wrote positively about the houses Oakley and Parkes designed for Canberra.[16] One might expect the architects to be pleased by this good publicity – except perhaps for the title, 'The small house at Canberra'. The houses they designed were suburban, and they planned a moderately large modern suburban house, similar to contemporary houses in well-to-do Melbourne suburbs, for the Prime Minister. But the Prime Minister’s residence had to be more than that.

How much more? No-one seems to have known. None of the states had official residences for their premiers. This was the first time Australia had built any such thing for a head of government. They did not even know what to call it. 'Residence' was too grand a title for a house intended only to be ‘provisional’; ‘cottage’ was not grand enough.[17] Some time in 1927 they settled on ‘The Lodge’, an ambiguous title for a provisional house intended to be replaced by something grander, a title for a house in the country – not a country house, in the English sense – something like a hunting lodge. Did Mrs Bruce make the suggestion? Or was it Mrs Lane Poole? No. In a telegram to Mrs Lane Poole dated 12 April 1927, the Federal Capital Commissioner, John Butters, claimed that the suggestion was his. Wherever it originated, over the years The Lodge has acquired its own distinctive connotations.

A comparison of the plans of The Lodge with those of 'the better class houses' designed by Oakley and Parkes for the capital is illuminating. At first glance, The Lodge is much bigger than the cottages. They have no designated servants’ quarters, The Lodge has accommodation for an indoors staff of eight. The cottages have three or four bedrooms, as well as a ‘sleepout’ (a semi-enclosed verandah where people might sleep in mild weather, Spartans in a Canberra winter), but only one toilet and bathroom. The Lodge has no ‘sleepout’, but four of the five bedrooms for the Prime Minister’s family and guests have access to balconies, and the five share three bathrooms. In addition it has three bedrooms with one bathroom for maids, a small flat with sitting room and bathroom for the housekeeper, and a bedroom with ensuite downstairs for the butler. Two additional toilets are supplied downstairs, one for staff near the kitchen yard and one off the cloakroom for guests. Both the cottages and The Lodge have a drawing/sitting room and a separate dining room, but The Lodge also has a study, a breakfast room and a billiard room.

The architects designed The Lodge as a superior private home. But it had to be more than that because in addition to suitable private living quarters for the ‘first people in the land’ it also had to provide dignified reception rooms for official functions. The Lodge certainly had many more rooms than the cottages, but the size of the rooms is much the same, indeed, some of the rooms were surprisingly small for their intended function. The dining-room in which official dinner and luncheon parties were to be held, for example, could accommodate only 12 people seated at the table. (It has since been enlarged.) The drawing-room is no bigger than my own in suburban Hughes, and the Prime Minister’s study is much smaller than my husband’s. The largest room in The Lodge is the billiard room (perhaps because it had to accommodate a standard-sized billiard table). The entrance hall is tiny in comparison with that of Pine Hill. In an article published by the Australian Home Beautiful in November 1929, JA Alexander described the rooms as ‘small, and in some instances, poky’.[18] Ruth, more tactfully, described the house as ‘manorial architecturally and suburban in size’.[19] Furnishing it appropriately was a challenge.

The rooms of a house do not always have to serve the purpose indicated on the architect’s plan. Ruth suggested one change, which Mrs Bruce wholeheartedly endorsed. The room in question was the ‘breakfast room’; the ladies wanted to make it into a private sitting room. ‘This is the essentially feminine room of the house,’ Ruth wrote later in an article for Home Beautiful.[20] ‘Just as the man has his study or den to retire to from the living room, which must, of course, be a general room, so the mistress of the house must have a safe retreat … However pleasant the relationships, it is only right and proper that each should have an individual, a personal room in the house.’ Both ladies enjoyed companionate marriages, and each of their husbands would agree that his wife should have a room of her own. The Prime Minister had his study and his billiard room (both decidedly masculine spaces and furnished as such), why should his lady not have her morning room? But on this issue the ladies met the determined opposition of the architects.

Ruth pursued the matter in her furnishing scheme, which she presented to the Federal Capital Commission in July.

It should be borne in mind that this house, although the official and private residence of the Prime Minister of Australia, is only provided with one drawing room and there is no other room in the house either for the wife of the Prime Minister to write letters in or to receive callers. The breakfast room in this case is a luxury and when I proposed to the architects using this as a boudoir or little morning room they explained to me that it must either be used as a private dining room or breakfast room – in short, a room which needs a sideboard – for, owing to the necessity of lighting the laundry, which is built immediately under this room, a bulkhead was built in an alcove. This is a concrete erection standing 3ft. high by 5 ft.5’ long, and to camouflage this structure it is necessary to cover it with timber and so to make of it a mock sideboard without drawers or cupboard: in fact it is a shelf. As the dining room can be most comfortably used for breakfast, we must supply the Prime Minister’s wife with a small morning room for her own use.[21]

The length of her explanation is a measure of the strength of her feelings on the matter. True to her arts and crafts training, Ruth was never going to design a fake sideboard to cover up an architectural infelicity. The contest went on for weeks. In a letter to the Chief Architect dated 28 August, Oakley and Parkes objected that the alcove formed part of the planning of the room and had already been built. Why could it not be covered with a nice blackwood table top and used for ornaments? In their opinion it would make the room more attractive. ‘We have told Mrs Lane Pole several times that we do not favour her idea in this matter.’[22] The Chief Architect told them, politely, to have the alcove bricked up.

Time was running out. The builder had already been granted an extension to his contract until 31 October and was applying for another.[23] Ruth had to have everything settled before the Prime Minister and Mrs Bruce departed for London where the Imperial Conference was to begin on 19 October (this would mean leaving Australia at the beginning of September at the latest to make the long sea voyage). Before they left, the Prime Minister wrote to the new Minister for Home and Territories, Sir William Glasgow, who was responsible for the federal capital city, justifying his own actions and those of Mrs Bruce in the matter. Cabinet had agreed that ‘it was essential that the Prime Minister’s residence should provide proper accommodation for servants’. He emphasised that he and his wife had not been pressing for additional accommodation and expenditure in and on the Prime Minister’s residence to meet their own personal requirements, but rather to provide ‘proper and necessary accommodation in the residence of the Prime Minister of the day, whoever he may be.’[24]

Having presented her scheme for furnishing The Lodge, Ruth now had to carry it out. She submitted it in July, the builder having already secured an extension of his contract until 31 October. The pressure remained acute. Ruth had drawn plans for the furniture, but it had still to be built. Fabric had to be purchased and made up into curtains, covers and bedspreads. All the carpets, wall-paper, electric light fittings and shades had to be obtained and put in place. And because this was to be an official residence, furnished and equipped so that one prime ministerial family might move out one day and another move in the next, all the usual household items had to be supplied: linen, china, silverware, glassware and crystal, and all the appliances and equipment for the service wing. The installation of heating and electric systems caused further delays, so that the builder’s contract had to be extended several times more before all the work was complete.

In a series of articles published in the Australian Home Beautiful at the same time as she was working on the project, Ruth gave verbal expression to her principles of interior design. ‘Decoration is the art of ornamenting construction, not of constructing ornament,’ she began.[25] She preferred to think of herself as a ‘house furnisher’ rather than an ‘interior decorator’ because the term ‘decoration’ was frequently misused. She considered house furnishing to be ‘one of the most alluring of all professions’, and one which almost every woman has at some time an opportunity to practise in her own room, house or flat. Ruth addressed her articles to the first-time house-furnisher, the young bride about to enter possession of her first home, but she applied the same principles to the large-scale project of furnishing the official residences in Canberra.

From September 1926 to February 1927, she dealt in greater detail with furnishing individual rooms. First she made suggestions about the choice of rooms according to the function they must serve:

The dining room is one of the most important rooms in the house and yet it is one that is only used for, at the outside, three house of the day. The general practice of allotting the largest room for this purpose is a great mistake; where space is valuable the smallest, I may even suggest the darkest room might be taken for the dining room. The living room should most decidedly be the largest, brightest and best room in the house.

The dining room of The Lodge is on the south (cool) side of the house with windows opening eastward. The drawing room and study are located on the north side, with the advantage of a warm, sunny aspect in winter.

The principle she applies here is that of suitability: a room should be suitable for its purpose, and the furniture should be suitable for its room. 'Suitability in furniture, as in every line of life, is of primary importance'.[26] So, the dining room of a house in which 'a certain amount of entertaining is done' (like The Lodge), should be large enough to give both 'comfort to those who are seated at the table and ease to those who have to wait upon them'. The room must be wide enough to allow waiters to pass easily behind the chairs of the diners (the minimum width of the room is therefore 13 feet 4 inches), and the backs of the chairs must not be too high for the waiter to pass dishes over (the maximum height is 36 inches from the floor.) The chairs themselves should be comfortable.

The human anatomy has been entirely overlooked by the modern designer of chair seats. We must again revert to the Georgian days to find a chair which supports the bones of the sitting human frame. This is the saddleback seat. The soft padded seats which superseded these for reasons which I have never been able to fathom, appear very comfortable, and indeed are comfortable, to the sitter for the first few minutes, but after a time they become as irksome as a wooden seat.[27]

Further, the side chairs should not have arms, 'because not only do they take up space but they make it very difficult for the diner to take his place or to leave it.' The chairs at the ends of the table (the 'carvers') may have arms. The table should be no less than three feet wide 'for comfortable diners', and long enough to allow two feet for every cover. (‘Less than this means a crush, difficulty of waiting and a confusion of cutlery and glass on the table.’) Finally, the comfort of the dining room is greatly increased, she suggested, if the room is carpeted in order to reduce noise.

As one might expect from her training in the arts and crafts tradition, Ruth believed firmly in William Morris’s dictum: ‘Have nothing in your house which you do not believe to be beautiful or know to be useful.’ Comfort and convenience belong to her ideal of practical utility. Chairs should be comfortable; fireplaces should produce heat but not smoke; both should also look good.

Her own ideas of beauty excluded ostentation and ‘showiness’. She preferred the simple, uncluttered classical style now known as ‘stripped classical’, a style that accorded well with the early twentieth-century emphasis on cleanliness and hygiene. ‘Simplicity of line is of first importance,’ she wrote. ‘Very little ornamentation, if any, is necessary.’ She had no time for fussy frills or dust-collecting drapes and swags: her window-curtains hung straight down from plain rods; her beds had no curtains or canopies, just low bedsteads fashioned from fine timbers, with simple bedspreads in attractive fabrics. True to William Morris’ principles, she believed that workers should live and work in attractive and comfortable spaces, and she realised this belief in the rooms she designed for their use at The Lodge. The maids’ twin bedrooms were to have prettily coloured walls, floors covered with linoleum with rugs beside each bed, pretty floral chintz curtains and bedspreads to match. She supplied ‘a wooden chest of drawers of nice proportion with mirror combined and two chairs,’ but since these small rooms shared a ‘fitted bathroom’ she saw no need to clutter them with a wash-basin.[28]

The choice of timber was another matter she considered to be of great importance. As a matter of principle, as well as of government policy, Ruth chose Australian timber in order to furnish the official homes of the foremost people in Australia. This is not surprising, since she was the wife of the first Forester of the Commonwealth and so had privileged access to information about Australian timber, and this project was an excellent opportunity to showcase it. But it was a choice in advance of its time.

Australia possesses a fine range of beautiful woods for cabinet work, and there are not wanting the skilled craftsmen to carry out the building of notable pieces of furniture on the lines of the old masters of this art. Curiously enough, although Australia possesses these woods, she has no faith in them herself, with the result that it is almost impossible in either Sydney or Melbourne to buy in any quantity pieces of furniture in good taste made of Australian timbers.[29]

She used appropriate Australian timbers for every piece of furniture as well as for the floors, doors and panelling. The study, dining-room and hall are half-panelled in Tasmanian blackwood, the floors are jarrah and mountain ash. She engaged skilled Australian craftsmen (including De Groote of Sydney, and Melbourne firms Ackmans Ltd, WH Rocke and Co., and CF Rojo) to build the furniture to her designs. She also used Australian leather to cover some of the chairs, and she promoted the idea of a collection of Australian paintings to adorn the walls. (In 1929 the paintings on the walls of The Lodge included works by Norman Lindsay, Blamire Young, Bernard Hall, Thea Proctor and BE Minns.) Where Australian materials were not available or suitable, she was asked to use first quality British – furnishing fabrics, fittings, carpets, silver, china and glass. Her cousin Lily Yeats acted as her agent in Britain, obtaining the necessary materials and dispatching them promptly in order to meet the tight deadline for the project’s completion.[30]

In her work for the Federal Capital Commission – indeed, in all her work – she avoided the avant-garde, in contrast, for example, to her contemporary Marion Mahony Griffin. It would not have been ‘suitable’ for these official residences to be furnished with anything startlingly new. Using Australian timber was a new idea, but Ruth introduced no novelties in the design of the furniture, believing that there was no need to alter the fundamental shapes of chairs and tables. ‘All the pieces in use today are copies of older ones’, she wrote; ‘the good work lived and became ‘period furniture’; the bad found its way on to the fire heap.’[31] Individual incumbents might, of course, bring in novel pieces of their own, but the basic furnishings would remain over time and should rather provide a pleasant and peaceful background to the residents’ busy lives than an intrusive display of the designer’s originality. For the same reason, Ruth avoided strong colour contrasts, choosing mostly neutral and natural tones.

Completing The Lodge in time for the official transfer of the seat of government and the opening of Parliament in Canberra by the Duke of York on 9 May 1927, was a very near thing. Mrs Bruce concerned herself with the fine details. On 7 April she sent the Federal Capital Commission Chief Architect a long hand-written list of matters to be dealt with – power points, flyscreens, heaters, light fittings – and she sent her own housekeeper, Miss MacDonald, to make sure the house was properly cleaned before she and her husband came up to Canberra on 4 May. Even the Prime Minister took a personal interest and sent telegrams. A flurry of activity ensued.[32] Fortunately The Lodge was able to fulfil its intended functions at the beginning of May, although the garden was not completed and Mrs Bruce discovered a great number of shortcomings to be addressed before she and her husband took up residence again in August.

Ruth Lane Poole certainly won the approval of the first lady to occupy The Lodge, but circumstances, fashions and tastes change, and the wives of later prime ministers demanded alterations. Some prime ministers chose not live in The Lodge at all (our former prime minister John Howard only camped there).

The Prime Minister’s Lodge seems destined to last forever – which Australian government would now be courageous enough to suggest building a prime ministerial palace at tax-payers’ expense? But Ruth’s understanding was that it was to be replaced by something much grander within five years. It was intended for the use of incumbents for their term of office, normally a few years only.

Bruce lost the elections by a landslide in October 1929, and his successor James Scullin decided that he could not justify living in a large house with a domestic staff of eight at a time of financial crisis, so he and his wife Sarah stayed in a suite at the Hotel Canberra. Just over two years later, in December 1931, Joseph Lyons’ new United Australia Party swept into government by another landslide. Lyons and his wife Enid already had 11 children, and a twelfth was born in 1933. The Hotel Canberra was out of the question for so large a family, but the Lodge with all its bedrooms needed only slight modifications in order to accommodate them.


  1. History of Parliament House, Parliament of Victoria.
  2. Memorandum, 25 November 1925, Federal Capital Commission, Prime Minister’s Residence – General Building. NAA: A292, C8174. p. 396.
  3. ‘Home of the Prime Minister’, Australian Home Builder, 15 August 1924, pp. 59–61.
  4. WJ Hudson, ‘Casey, Richard Gavin Gardiner [Baron Casey] (1890–1976)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 13, pp. 381–5.
  5. J Nicholls, ‘The home of the Prime Minister’, Australian Home Beautiful, 1 August 1927, pp. 14–18. See also Bruce Manor (34 Pinehill Drive, Frankston), Victorian Heritage Database, accessed 18 February, 2010. This website has good pictures of the house and grounds. Synnot was very likely a relation of Ethel’s – her maternal grandmother was Jane Elizabeth Synnot. On Spanish style, see Peter Cuffley, Australian Houses of the Twenties and Thirties, Five Mile Press, Knoxfield, Victoria, 1989, pp. 92–105.
  6. Memorandum, 25 November 1925. NAA: A292, C8174, p. 396.
  7. Letter to James G Taylor from Secretary, Federal Capital Commission, 6 January 1926. NAA: A292, C8174, p. 384.
  8. Memorandum to Commissioner Harrison from Commissioner Butters, 15 April 1926. NAA: A292, C8174, p. 335
  9. Letter to Chief Architect, Federal Capital Commission from Oakley and Parkes, 16 April 1926; letter to Mrs Bruce from Oakley and Parkes, 16 April 1926. NAA: A292, C8174, pp. 328 and 329.
  10. Letter to Chief Architect, Federal Capital Commission from Oakley and Parkes, 23 April 1926; letter from Oakley and Parkes to Mrs Bruce. NAA: A292, C8174, p. 319.
  11. Letter to Commissioner Butters from Ruth Lane Poole, 14 May 1926; letter to Oakley and Parkes from Ruth Lane Poole, 14 May 1926. NAA: A292, C8174, pp. 305 and 306.
  12. Letter to Secretary, Federal Capital Commission from Ruth Lane Poole, 13 May 1926. NAA: A292, C8174, p. 304.
  13. ‘The ideal Australian fireplace’, Australian Home Beautiful, June 1926, p. 35.
  14. Butters to Oakley and Parkes, 13 May 1926. NAA: A292, C8174, p. 311.
  15. Letter to Oakley and Parkes from Secretary, Federal Capital Commission, 18 May 1926. NAA: A292, C8174, p. 291.
  16. Ruth Lane Poole, ‘The small house at Canberra: How the plan of the federal capital is being carried out’, Australian Home Beautiful, May 1926, pp. 15–19.
  17. Letter to Secretary, Federal Capital Commission from Oakley and Parkes, 26 September 1925; telegram from Oakley and Parkes, 28 September 1926. NAA: A292, C8174, pp. 425, 427.
  18. JA Alexander, ‘The Prime Minister’s Lodge at Canberra: A description of the official residence and its furnishings’, Australian Home Beautiful, 1 November 1929, pp. 13–16.
  19. Letter to CS Daley from Ruth Lane Poole, 15 July 1926. NAA: A292, C8174, p. 275.
  20. Ruth Lane Poole, ‘The house and its furnishing, Part IV: Planning the boudoir or morning room,’ Australian Home Beautiful, 1 January 1927, pp. 27–30.
  21. Ruth Lane Poole to Federal Capital Commission, July 1926. NAA: A292, C8174.
  22. Letter to Chief Architect, Federal Capital Commission from Oakley and Parkes, 28 August 1926. NAA: A292, C8174, p. 215.
  23. Memorandum to Commissioner, Federal Capital Commission from Architect, Federal Capital Commission, 12 August 1926; letter from JG Taylor to Architect, Federal Capital Commission, 28 October 1926; memorandum to Chief Commissioner, Federal Capital Commission from Architect, Federal Capital Commission, 21 December 1926. NAA: A292, C8174, pp. 236, 199, 176.
  24. Letter to the Minister for Home and Territories from the Prime Minister, 30 August 1926. NAA: A292, C8174, pp. 218–19.
  25. Ruth Lane Poole, ‘The House and its interior’, Australian Home Beautiful, 7 June 1926, p. 39.
  26. Ruth Lane Poole, ‘The House and its interior’, Australian Home Beautiful, 7 June 1926, p. 42.
  27. Ruth Lane Poole, ‘The House and its furnishing: The dining room – Part I’, Australian Home Beautiful, 1 September 1926, p. 27.
  28. Letter to Oakley and Parkes from Architect, Federal Capital Commission, 15 June 1926. NAA: A292, C8174, pp. 282.
  29. Ruth Lane Poole, ‘A home for a Governor-General’, Australian Home Beautiful, 2 May 1927, p. 14.
  30. John Dargavel and Lenore Coltheart, Charles and Ruth Lane Poole, Uncommon Lives website.
  31. Ruth Lane Poole, ‘A home for a Governor-General’, Australian Home Beautiful, 2 May 1927, p. 14.
  32. Letter to Architect, Federal Capital Commission from Mrs Bruce, 7 April 1926; telegram to Architect, Federal Capital Commission from Mrs Bruce; letter from Chief Commission, Federal Capital Commission to Oakley and Parkes. NAA: A292, C8174, pp. 121, 122, 135–9.
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