Duffy House

Feature by Caroline Smith


Planned restoration reflects importance of Irish immigrant history in Perth


Planned restoration reflects importance of Irish immigrant history in Perth

Driving through the north Perth suburb of Wanneroo, alongside Yellagonga Regional Park with its woods, lakes and wetlands, a visitor may come upon a small limestone cottage, built in the Victorian style that stands out starkly in a disused field. But despite its modest appearance, the building known as Duffy House tells a story of Irish immigrants and their role in the region’s early development, which perhaps explains the strenuous efforts of community members and local politicians to restore and protect it.

Having grown up here, I have long recognised the area as a centre for market gardens and small farming and winery operations: a semi-rural part of Perth, although not one specifically identified with the city’s Irish community. However, looking back at the early years of European settlement in Wanneroo, it is evident that many new immigrants did in fact come from Ireland and Britain, and formed a tight-knit community of which the Duffys, with their enterprising dairy farm, were only one part.

Built in 1913, Duffy House and its surrounding property was the site of dairying production until 1962, when operations were moved elsewhere, and in 2009 the house was abandoned altogether upon the death of its owner Jack Duffy, great grandson of Irish immigrants. Since then, the house’s journey followed a path of attempted heritage-listing and threatened demolition, under the jurisdiction of several government bodies.

In January this year, management of the property was transferred from the West Australian Planning Commission (WAPC) to local government body the City of Joondalup, which had long called for its restoration, against a backdrop of demolition planned by the former. In addition, $300,000 was offered by the state government towards the development of Duffy House, which is expected to be turned into a café or tearooms. Local media also played a role in building community support for restoration and protection efforts, with a 2017 article in Community News alerting people to the dilapidated state of the house.

The contrast between the building in 2017 in which graffiti and dead animals had been found and its initial appearance and features was quite astounding. Upon completion in 1913, Duffy House was considered to be one of the most modern homes in the district, constructed by local builder George Dawson for Frederick Duffy, a prominent member of the Wanneroo community. Many years later, Frederick’s son Jack recalled how its unusual features enabled it to adapt to the natural environment.

Dr Haines, who lived in East Wanneroo, told Dad it would be healthier not to put a ceiling in the house. So he didn’t. We certainly had plenty of fresh air through the place. Visitors sometimes said it was a bit cold in winter, but I never felt cold there in 80 odd years and there isn’t anywhere cooler in summer.

The surrounding property that included 25 acres of land had been occupied by the Duffy family since the 1860s, when Frederick’s grandmother Sarah moved into the area as a widow.

Perhaps it is Sarah’s story which provides the most fascinating insight into the lives of Irish immigrants in the area in the latter half of the 19th century. Along with her husband Bernard and five children, Sarah arrived in Perth in 1859 on the Hamilla Mitchell (a ship that would be wrecked off the coast of China ten years later) and settled initially in the city’s southern suburbs. There the family operated a small dairy farm, but within eighteen months tragedy struck when Bernard broke his neck after falling from a cart.

It was in the aftermath of this event that the Duffys moved northwards to the emerging township of Wanneroo. From such humble beginnings the family managed to build up a strong business that would allow them to gain an important place in the community: an article from 1940 recalls Sarah Duffy transporting butter to the city every day on horseback, while her daughters Mary and Sarah employed five ticket-of-leave men on the farm, and son Barney started work at the age of twelve, carting timber to the city. Later, he too turned to dairying, and in 1890 became manager of Sir George Shenton’s property, also in Wanneroo.

It was in this second generation that the Duffy’s began to become more integrated within the fabric of Perth society: first daughter Margaret Duffy married successful dairy farmer Henry Gibbs, and became a prominent figure within the Catholic community, with connections to Loreto Convent and the Sacred Heart Association. Barney himself had married Catherine Hughes in 1873 and built a limestone house on his property near Lake Goollelal, employing eight ticket-of-leave men.

Duffy.jpgBut it was Barney’s son Frederick who would build Duffy House on the family land, consolidating his own position in the district. He too, had married well, into the pioneering Cockman family whose home Cockman House is also nearby and is the oldest residence in Wanneroo, built in 1870. Frederick, who was inaugural secretary of both the Wanneroo Roads Board and the Wanneroo Agricultural Society, established a market garden on the Duffy family land and kept both horses and cattle as well as cultivating a wide range of vegetables. Upon his death in 1924, his widow Eva Matilda Duffy (neé Cockman) continued the family tradition of dairying with the help of her children. Beginning with one cow and building up to seventy, the family produce soon came to be a staple at Brownes Milk depot in North Perth, and this continued under the guidance of sons Jack and Bob until the dairy was relocated off the family property in 1962. But Duffy House remained in the family until Jack’s death in 2009, ending a presence of almost 150 years in the area.

Jumping forward to 2018, the rich history of the Duffy family was a boon in the campaign to protect their homestead: speaking in State Parliament in November of that year, Member for Kingsley Jessica Stojkovski said,

To my knowledge, Duffy House is the oldest remaining building in the Joondalup area and an important part of our local European history. The house was built by the Duffy family, one of the local pioneering families in the Wanneroo-Joondalup area and was built from hand using limestone that was cut from Perry’s Paddock a short way away … the surrounding land was worked by the family as a market garden and then later as a dairy.

Ms Stojkovski who has taken a particular interest in Duffy House said later that her earlier work as a strategic planner in local government had made her aware of the need to preserve properties such as this one. 

Through this process I learnt the value and attachment community have with our heritage buildings. Those things that tell the story of where we have come from

Driving past Duffy House now, it’s nice to know this small corner of Irish history in the area will be preserved.

Caroline Smith is an Irish-born, Australian-raised journalist and doctoral student whose background has included writing for local newspapers in Perth, covering finance news in Sydney, and producing freelance articles on Irish and Italian history for various national and local publications. She is currently completing a thesis on the Holocaust in Italy.