‘Brent Knowle’

31 Shellcove Road, Neutral Bay

BJ Waterhouse designed this house for Major JH Evans Booker in 1914.

The owner was very ill when he commissioned the house. This may explain the desire for a large dwelling that could accommodate numerous servants and guests while providing Booker with privacy and easy access between his bedroom, dressing room, library, drawing room and dining room.

Booker's was a large Sydney house by any standards. As well as living quarters, it had five bedrooms, three maids’ rooms and a ‘man’s room’, in the proximity to the stables and loft, which probably accommodated a man or boy who looked after Booker’s horses.

In the manner of many upper class houses, Waterhouse designed this dwelling so that the working areas were grouped together to maximise efficiency and minimise the interaction between the residents and the domestic help. Interestingly, one of the maid's rooms had its own verandah; an unusual comfort for domestic staff.

The house design also reflected both the lifestyle of a passing era and the arrival of modern trends. The property had horse stalls, a coach house and an automobile garage. In this period, horses were beginning to share roads with motorised transport. But the presence of horse accommodation was also proof that Major Evans Booker was a man of considerable wealth who partook in riding for recreational rather than practical reasons. It was an interest he might have developed while serving in the military in the late 1800s.

The style of the house is very much influenced by the contemporary English Arts and Crafts architecture – particularly the designs of CFA Voysey. This is most apparent in the use of varied and dramatic roof planes. The half hipped gables evoke the feel of a thatched house.

Booker never got to enjoy his purpose-built home on fashionable Shellcove Road. He died in July 1914 at his Marrickville abode, 'Kaluah'. In its obituary of 22 August, the journal Newsletter described Booker as ‘an able and shrewd master’ of finance, property and ‘business investments’. The cost of construction for the Shellcove Road house was £10,000, the equivalent today of more than $3.3 million dollars.

In 1917 the house was bought by HE Pratten, MP, mining entrepreneur and former Mayor of Ashfield who made a fortune from his fruit canning and jam factory. An English immigrant, it was Pratten who gave the house its name ‘Brent Knowle’ – probably after Brent Knoll, a hill in Somerset, England, known for its Bronze Age relics.

In both name and design, then, the dwelling indicates the strong attachment to Englishness in the decades following the establishment of the Australian Commonwealth.