The housekeeper's granddaughter

Did you know that Parliament House was once a family home? For over 130 years, Parliament's housekeepers and their families lived onsite. One lucky resident was Louise Butler, granddaughter of Assembly housekeeper George Pearse.

Postcard of Parliament House gardens in the early 20th century. Courtesy of Parliament of Victoria.

George Edwin Pearse was the first Housekeeper of the Legislative Assembly. He and his wife Louisa raised their eleven children at Parliament House. Though two of the children would sadly die in infancy, three sons and six daughters grew up playing in the Parliament House gardens.

George served as housekeeper for almost 49 years, retiring in 1902. Eldest granddaughter, Louise Butler, wrote the following letter with some memories of her grandparent's extraordinary home.  

The fires were of coal which was hauled up in buckets to the upper floor. Not far from our door was a room stacked with kindling wood quite near the Members’ Bathroom.

Louise Butler, granddaughter of Assembly Housekeeper George Pearse.

Louise wrote: 

I am the granddaughter of the first housekeeper after Parliament was conducted in St. Patrick's Hall on the end of Bourke St.

Later the present building was being erected. My grandparents and family lived in a home situated in the gardens behind Parliament House.

Parliament House was draped in black cloth when Queen Victoria died. Later when the Duke and Duchess of York arrived the House was all lit up with coloured lights. The Duchess became Queen Mary.

The House was lit with gas in our time — electricity had not arrived. The cable tram passed by every day until midnight and not on Sunday morning.

The fires were of coal which was hauled up in buckets to the upper floor. Not far from our door was a room stacked with kindling wood quite near the Members’ Bathroom.

On the arrival of the Duke and Duchess, as well as the coloured flags the House was draped with red yellow velveteen.

Filtered water for the Members to drink. Water bottles shaped like a decanter and cleaned with shot.

Queen’s Hall was carpeted with red felt when the Prince of Wales, later Edward 8th, arrived for some function, possibly the opening of Parliament.

Sir Edmund Barton and J.C. Watson were also there in our time and quite often used our entrance rather than climb the front steps.

Sir Alexander Peacock had a peculiar laugh — the Members would tell him funny stories just to hear him laugh.

During my grandfather’s term of office there (of 48 years) the Mace was stolen; no-one knew where it went. A replacement was found and kept in my grandfather’s bedroom — just before the House was due to sit, the messenger would call for it, which I would hand to him.

My grandfather had a staff of 10 men, 3 charwomen and 2 rouseabouts and there were only 3 gardeners to tend the lovely gardens.

My grandfather retired in 1902. I had the pleasure of living there for 2 years before his retirement.

From our kitchen window, we looked across at the Princess Theatre.  
“The Sign of the Cross” starring Julius Knight was staged there. I remember a large cross all lit up with creamy light perched on one of the towers.  

I remember the table on which Queen Victoria signed the Proclamation for Federation which was covered in black cloth. This table was eventually to go on Canberra and after it was unwrapped and displayed in the Queen’s Hall some nuns asked my grandfather for the black cloth. 

When Mafeking was relieved, the crowd rushed up on the Parliament Steps and sang the National Anthem. 

A lock-up room where a Member was locked up for some misdemeanour.

Recumbent lions on parapets and a dome on the roof is my picture of Parliament House up on my wall.

The gardens were surrounded by a high fence, the lass from the Council’s Housekeeper and I had gone to look for thistles to feed our canary and 3 lovely seagulls and were locked in. The gardener did not know we were there when he chained the gate, however, the lass’s father helped us to climb the gate. 

I was also refused entrance to our residence once by a policeman, however, telling him I lived there, he let me through. There was a great crowd around — it was the occasion of the relief of Mafeking.

In grandfather’s office were numerous kinds of pens and nibs of every sort, parcels of pink blotting paper also lead pencils.

Our laundry was boiled up in a huge copper on which one stood on 3 steps to poke down the boiling washing; there were lines strung across everything dried by gas which was left on very low all night and next day put through the mangle.

On garden party days the guests came through the Library and a wooden staircase into the gardens. A school friend and I wagged it from school, put on our best clothes and mingled with the crowd; some uniformed men took a liking to us, offering us refreshments. I think they belonged to the ship the Duke and Duchess of York sailed in. The garden party was given to George V and the Duchess later Queen Mary.

Whenever the Governor came to open Parliament, the red carpet vas rolled down the steps and often to hurry the men along, my grandfather would say, "You will have the Governor coming up the steps before you get the red carpet down.”

Our drawing room had a door which led to a cellar some feet deep one climbed down several steps in it.