The Saga of Munro Ferguson and Yaralla


Yaralla ‘given away to the Government’.

Good intentions are often misconstrued as Miss Eadith Walker discovered to her dismay in 1914. Returning from an overseas trip, Miss Walker heard that the Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, did not have a place to call home for his stay in Sydney. She generously offered the use of Yaralla, not realising the political and social storm that would follow. 

Newspapers across the country took up the story. As the old adage says, never let the truth get in the way of a good story, and good stories abounded. According to which report one read, Yaralla was being given away, rented or otherwise disposed of, to the Government.

New Home for the Governor-General”

The S.M. Herald came out yesterday morning with what is known in journalistic circles as a “scoop.’’ Following a big scare heading – the biggest in the paper – came the information: “A residence has been provided for the Governor-General in Sydney.

“By the generosity of Miss Eadith Walker, Yaralla, Concord, has been placed at the disposal of the Federal Government for the use of Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson.” 

“Mr. J. Anstruther, A.D.C. to the Governor-General. inspected Yaralla yesterday on behalf of his Excellency and Miss Walker’s well-known palatial property on the Parramatta River is regarded in every way as a suitable home for the representative of the King in the Commonwealth.

“Considerable improvements have been made to the house and grounds in recent years, and they now comprise one of the finest residences in New South Wales. 

“It is understood that Miss Walker, who returned from a visit to the United States only a few days ago, has intimated her desire to present the estate to the Government, as a permanent home for the Governor-General, and that this generous offer will probably be accepted. 

“With customary self-effacement, Miss Walker, on being approached last night, preferred not to discuss the matter, being content to make her patriotic gift without comment.”

The whole article continued with a history of the mansion, a short sketch of Miss Walker’s career, and a strong eulogy of the lady as a philanthropist. 

According to another article, Government House in Macquarie Street had been appropriated by the Holman state government, and the Governor-General was denied the use of it. Eadith’s offer then became a political football.

A Political Move

Labor Charge. Governor-General not a Party to It. 

A Federal Labor member stated this afternoon that the offer of Miss Walker to loan Yaralla to the Governor-General had been brought about for political purposes in order to assist the Federal Government in the coming election campaign, although Miss Walker had no intention of assisting such a scheme, and was entirely ignorant of the significance that might be attached to her generous offer.

Nor was it slighted that the Governor General was in any way party to the arrangement or had the remotest idea of its political aspect. 

It is also reported that the Governor of New South Wales felt it his duly to advise the Governor-General on the position. The arrival in Melbourne of an official attached to the New South Wales Government House staff gives colour to this statement. It is believed his mission is to place the whole facts before the Governor-General so that the latter may not be induced to The Saga of Munro Ferguson and Yaralla avail himself of Miss Walker’s hospitality without the fullest realisation of the circumstances and the position he may otherwise unwittingly help to create.

“It is one of the cutest political moves I have heard of for a long time,” said the member in question. “I doubt that Miss Walker offered the freehold of Yaralla to the Federal Government, but rather that she notified her readiness to hand over the house and grounds for the convenience of the Governor-General when he is visiting Sydney. His Excellency would in these circumstances be Miss Walker’s guest while he remained there.”

(The Tamworth Daily Observer)
Saturday 20 June 1914

New Home for the Governor-General. Yaralla

Another article continued the SMH’s theme.

“His Excellency, accompanied by Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, will come to Sydney on the occasion of their first visit to New South Wales, on July 10, and will stay at Yaralla for about a month. They will then proceed to Brisbane, where the Governor-General will open the show, and will return to Melbourne in time to welcome the delegates of the British Association Congress towards the end of August.

“Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson was desirous of paying a visit to New South Wales at the earliest possible moment, especially as he did not, unlike previous Governors-General, make Sydney his first landing-place in Australia. The fact that the historic building in Macquarie Street was no longer available created a serious difficulty, which has been overcome by Miss Walker’s timely offer.” 

This article also stated “her desire to present the estate to the Government, as a permanent home for the Governor-General, and that this generous offer will probably be accepted. With customary self-effacement, Miss Walker, on being approached last night, preferred not to discuss the matter, being content to make her patriotic gift without comment.” It was hardly ‘without comment’. 

The Story contradicted.
Miss Walker Indignant..

Our Sydney correspondent last night wired as follows: The report that Miss Eadith Walker had offered her fine residence, Yaralla, at Concord to the Commonwealth Government for the permanent use of the Governor-General is contradicted by Miss Walker.

“There is not a word of truth in it,” said Miss Walker, “and I feel the utmost indignation at being placed in such a position. I have nothing further to say until I have consulted my trustees.” It is stated, however, that the Federal Government had approached Miss Walker with a view of obtaining Yaralla for a month when the Governor-General visited Sydney, and Miss Walker had acceded to the request.

Papers as far afield as the Kalgoorlie Miner quoted the Prime Minister, Mr Cook, as stating that no rent was being paid for Yaralla. 

The Sunday Times reported the following information: “The Governor-General, on account of Yaralla, Concord, being situated some distance from Sydney, was threatened with some inconvenience. This has been overcome by the Navy authorities having granted him the use of a launch and the Government having placed, in addition, the launch Premier at his disposal during the month that he will stay in Sydney.”

The Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, Thursday 16 July 1914) reprinted this article which appeared in a number of papers across the state, proving how popular the G-G was according to the general populace.

The Governor-General.

Although the opportunities have been few and inconspicuous, the new Governor-General has evidently made the most of them since he arrived in Sydney, as he has created a distinctly favourable impression both by his personal appearance and bearing, and by what he has said. There is no doubt that in the important political trouble with which he was faced almost from the day he landed in Melbourne, his Excellency came through with flying colours, notwithstanding some of the Labour party’s jibes; and anyhow people here seem as if they are very serious in their desire to give him a very loyal as well as a personal welcome.

This is partly due to the fact that his Excellency has no home of his own, historic Government House having been appropriated by Mr. Holman and his crowd for other and baser purposes than those for which it was provided and used for so many years. This was one of Mr. Holman’s big mistakes, and it will take a long time for many people to forgive him for it. Meanwhile, Sir Ronald and his already popular wife are doing very well at Yaralla, Miss Eadith Walker’s charming home at Concord, and the signs are that they will spend an interesting and enjoyable time in New South Wales.”

Some of these enjoyable times included a garden party at Yaralla. The Newcastle Morning Herald’s report follows: “Garden parties in the winter are not ideal functions. An English lady, driving in a motor car to Yaralla, Concord, where the Governor-General and Lady Helen Munro-Ferguson held a reception on Friday, said that she had never felt so frozen before in her life. The bitter wind made fur coats indispensable, and the distance of Yaralla from town was a very great drawback. Remarks that were not intended in the nature of blessings were uttered as people toiled tediously up the river in three steamers, and one lady whose gown was washed by a wave said something quite unprintable. 

“The third boat load of guests arrived too late to be received, and when Sir Gerald Strickland left early, and the band played “God Save,” many guests hurried away also, thinking the party had broken up.

Yaralla was not looking its best, as this is not the time for flowers. Most people had not time to explore the rose garden, or visit the swimming pool. As soon as they had greeted a few friends, and scrambled for tea and strawberries in an all-to-small marque, it was time to undertake the interminable journey back to town. Also Eadlth Walker did not appear at the party, nor did her usual faithful bodyguard.

Lady Helen wore an elegant gown of black soleil tulle and chiffon, the bodice embroidered in royal blue and gold, a becoming black toque with autumnal flowers in front. The best dress worn by a guest was probably that of Miss Macarthur Onslow (Camden Park). “ 

Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners Advocate: Friday 7 August 1914.

Miss Walker Speaks Again

Miss Eadith Walker said this afternoon that the true facts of the case were that she was requested by the Federal Government to place Yaralla at the disposal of Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson for a month, from July10, and she consented. 

There was never any question of handing over to the Federal Government as a permanent abode for this or any other Governor-General.” 

Leader (Orange, NSW)
Saturday 20 June 1914

In the Evening of her Days.
A Notable Philanthropist

Miss Eadith Campbell Walker is the only child of the late Thomas Walker, from whom she inherited Yaralla. It is interesting to note, in connection with her present action, that Thomas Walker was a native of Leith,Scotland, which Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson represented in the House of Commons for many years. It was in this part of Scotland that the families of the Governor-General and Miss Walker lived for many generations. Miss Walker’s father was, it will be remembered, one of the earliest supporters of representative government in Australia. He was a representative of Port Phillip in the old Legislative Council of New South Wales before separation, of which he was an advocate. Ex-Senator J. T. Walker, who is a cousin of Miss Walker, was born in Midlothian, and his father, who was also a native of Leith, came to Australia in 1844. 

Miss Walker belongs to the class of philanthropists who do good by stealth. Her name seldom figures in published donation lists, but it is well known that she has been a munificent contributor to almost every deserving philanthropic institution in New South Wales, especially in Sydney. Naturally of a retiring disposition, she has preferred to do her charitable work quietly and without publicity. The Walker Convalescent Home owes its existence to her munificence, and she has been a most generous contributor to hospitals and numerous other institutions. In the evening of her days she has not relaxed her zeal and sympathy for all good causes. Her latest patriotic act is in keeping with her whole life, which has been abundantly full of public spirited service for her fellow-creatures and her country.

SMH, 19 June 1914

The Prime Minister’s Statement

The Prime Minister had the last word, in referring to the ‘Yaralla incident” and making an apology to Miss Eadith. Mr. Cook, referring to the offer of Miss Walker to lend Yaralla to the Governor-General for a month, said that he deeply regretted that the matter should be given the complexion it had. Miss Walker, when approached by him (Mr. Cook) had simply acted as she had always done, with kind spirit, patriotism and good citizenship. The Government was deeply grateful to her for her generosity and it was to be regretted that the facts were garbled in the first instance. 

Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga,
Monday 22 June 1914)

(Ed: Politics and rumours – things never change. It is amazing what wonderful information can be garnered by just typing a single word into the search engine of the National Library of Australia’s Trove data base [a collection of digitised newspapers from all over Australia]. 

A special thank you to our Trish Skehan for weaving them together into an interesting story.)

 

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