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Memories of Canonbury

August 9, 2022

A visit to Audrey Keown

In May 2022, Hannah Hibbert, ATC Archivist, visited Audrey Keown. Audrey had spent time at the AJC run convalescent home Canonbury. As part of the war effort, Canonbury was purchased in 1919, used as a home for returned servicemen and then for children. Audrey was keen to make sure the story of Canonbury was not forgotten, and this month Racing through Time tells the Canonbury story.


Racing during the war years was curtailed, though prominent horses such as Cetigne, Poitrel, and Wedding Day made headlines in races such as the Doncaster and Derby. Despite this, the Australian Jockey Club (AJC) rallied to do their part for the war effort. From August 1914, references in the AJC Committee minute books demonstrate how the AJC donated all spare monies to Red Cross Societies, relief funds for various countries, and organisations such as the Citizens War Chest Fund, the Allies Day Fund, the Regimental Comforts Fund, and the Salvation Army. In 1915, Sir Adrian Knox, AJC Chairman, went to Egypt with Sir Norman Brookes as an Australian Red Cross Commissioner, taking stores and medical supplies to the wounded at Gallipoli.

As the effects of the war extended beyond the official ceasefire, the AJC continued to do its bit. They purchased a harbour-side mansion known as Canonbury, located at Darling Point.

Thanks from the British Red Cross Society to the AJC, ATC Heritage Collection


In June 1919, the AJC purchased a harbour-side mansion known then as Canonbury. Originally on the site was a cottage build in 1841 by Charles and Mary Bones. Sold to Arthur Dight, it was converted into a much larger two storey villa. This house, called Lansdowne, was largely demolished in 1904. It was rebuilt by Harry Rickards, the vaudeville entertainer and entrepreneur. A gothic mansion in a style which reflected the halcyon days following Federation and given the name Canonbury.

Canonbury, c.1920, Woollahra Library Collection

Purchased for a price “not exceeding £18,500”, as identified in the AJC Committee minutes, Canonbury was formally opened on 23 January 1920 by His Excellency the Governor, Sir Walter Davidson. Its charter indicated it would be maintained as a “Home for those suffering from permanent or serious disabilities sustained whilst on active Naval or Military Services.”

Canonbury, c.1920, Woollahra Library Collection


The AJC supplied the staff, managed the accounts, and organised for repairs at Canonbury until the 1940s. The AJC Committee resolved that a “Committee of Management of Home” would be created consisting of the Chairman of the AJC and 11 other persons, to be appointed annually at the first Committee meeting in each year. The first appointed committee consisted of (according to the AJC minutes in May 1919) “Mr Wesche, Mr Shepheard Laidley, Miss Edith Hill and Miss Owen to be invited to join the Committee as representing the Red Cross and the Chairman was authorised to offer Major Aspinall and Mr Blythe seats on the Committee. As representing the AJC M. J. Barnes, Mr Colin Stephen and Mr A. Howie are to be invited.”

In the annual report for 1923, a quote from one of the patients at Canonbury was included –

“The beautiful surroundings, the excellent food and housing conditions, have done much to make tolerable and endurable the drawbacks under which we all labour in a greater or lesser degree. Hence, we feel that a letter expressive of our appreciation should be written to show the AJC – what we hope they already know – that we remember and are thankful”.

An electric pianola was bought for the house, entertainments were organised, and regular repairs kept the house in good condition.

The Canonbury Account ledgers, ATC Heritage Collection


By the mid-1920s, as cases from the Department of Repatriation reduced in number, the use of Canonbury shifted to “The Australian Jockey Club War Memorial Convalescent Home for Children”.

Audrey Keown contracted polio in the 1938 polio epidemic. She was about eight years old. From the children’s hospital at Campbelltown, she was transferred to Canonbury in May 1938. At that time, Miss Winifred Lang was the head of the physiotherapists and a pioneer in the treatment of polio. Audrey remembers she did physio every day. The children often spent time in a warm saltwater pool where they did exercises that helped their paralysed limbs.

Other people involved at the time included Dr Edgar Stephens, a renowned paediatrician, Dr Archibald Aspinall, Matron Stella Colless (who had served during World War One), the Head Sister Austin, and the nurses Ruth Johnson, Kathleen Champion, Margaret Davidson, and Mary-Ann Gibson.

Days were taken up with physio, school lessons, occasional outings, and visits from family. On Saturdays, the children were allowed to spend time on the enclosed veranda. They were wheeled out in their beds and the radio was fed to the loudspeaker so the children could listen to the community singing.

Christmas was a fun time at Canonbury with a party every year. Staff would play the piano, there were cakes and ice cream, they were allowed to ride the little train that went round the garden, and one year, there were ponies to ride. Audrey remembers her time at Canonbury with great fondness. She got stronger and felt cared for during her time there. She will never forget what it meant and what it did for her.

After Pearl Harbour in 1941, the children and staff at Canonbury were moved out to Molong, outside Orange. On the harbour and very close to the Japanese embassy, Canonbury was believed to be unsafe. At Molong, they still went for daily treatment and schooling continued. However, staff were leaving to join up and so the children were sent home and Canonbury closed at the end of the 1942.

Audrey having a Christmas train ride, 1938, Consolidated Press Ltd, A. Keown collection


It was noted in the AJC minutes from July 1941 that the number of children who had been admitted to Canonbury since it became a convalescent home in 1926 was 1807. “It is most satisfactory to receive assurances of appreciation from many quarters of the work done and the Committee again desires to express its thanks to the Committee of Management, the Hon Medical Staff, and the Staff of the Home for their untiring efforts.”

Thanks were given from parents for the attention and care given to their children while at Canonbury. Audrey will never forget what Canonbury meant and what it did for her. She feels that without it she would not have been able to go on and live the life she did. She would have been nothing without her time at Canonbury. Audrey became a speech and drama teacher working at PLC from 1959 to 2002, receiving an OAM in 1996 and remembered fondly by her students.

The author thanks Audrey for her time in sharing her memories of Canonbury on which this article draws heavily.

Hannah Hibbert

ATC Archivist

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