Birdie and Urbane

Rowe Family

Urbane Rowe, Thelma Rowe as a small child and Blanche (Birdie) Rowe in about 1912.

Bondi Junction

99 Grafton Street Bondi Junction with Urbane Rowe at front gate and Birdie Rowe on veranda with friends.

Blanche Lane and Urbane Rowe

by Gaye Gibbs and Joy Wilson

Blanche (Birdie) Lane was the fourth child of Samuel and Catherine Maria Lane (née Parker). She was born at Windsor on 19 April 1886. Her parents ran a series of shops, mainly in Windsor and Wodonga. Blanche was called Birdie, because of her bright and chirpy personality. She had pretty dark wavy glossy hair.

Birdie thought of herself as a country girl. She loved horses and riding. Once when she was a small girl she wandered off and was lost. Eventually they found her out in the paddock, asleep, curled up in a horse’s neck. Her parents were concerned the horse might tread on her and left her to wake up undisturbed. Birdie was never to forget her love for horses. She could handle a rifle too, and, when visiting her brother’s farm, would go out shooting rabbits and would skin, gut and cook them. Birdie came to Sydney to work for her great-uncle James Anderson as a general servant at 97 Grafton Street (next door to the Rowe family) when she was about 13. James was bedridden for many years, and a housekeeper, Mrs Arkwright, ran the house.

Birdie joined the Methodist Church at Bondi Junction and soon made friends there. She had Sunday and a half day off each week, so she and her girlfriends would go to Bronte Beach in the summer. She learnt to swim and dive from a board, unusual accomplishments even for men in those days. Eventually she was to teach her own children.

* * *

Urbane Rowe was born on 30 April 1868 in Old South Head Road, Woollahra, the son of James and Anne Maria Rowe (née Horswell). James and Anne Maria had migrated to Australia in 1857 from Devon. James worked as a stonemason. They lived in a little weatherboard cottage in Woollahra. Later, they moved to 99 Grafton Street, Bondi Junction when Urbane was two years old. He was the eighth of ten children.

Urbane attended the newly opened Woollahra Public Primary School from 1877 until he was eleven. He then took up his trade as a gas plumber. His parents had to pay for him to do his apprenticeship (4 shillings a week). His work involved putting in the gas lighting in homes, and digging the large trenches needed by hand; there were no machines to do it in those days.

James Rowe died in 1894 and Anne Maria in 1907. Urbane’s brother Jabez, a hunchback, inherited the house with the proviso that Urbane could live there rent-free if he looked after Jabez.

* * *

Birdie met Urbane who lived next door, and they were married at the Methodist Parsonage, 50 Dowling Street, Paddington, on 18 July 1908. Urbane was 40 and she was 22. Urbane stopped work after his marriage. His father had left him some cottages and he saved and accumulated more property so that he ended up with about eight properties. He managed the cottages himself, collecting the rents and carrying out repairs.

Birdie Rowe

The marriage had its difficulties. Birdie wanted to have the same amount of money as Urbane and would save up a deposit for a small cottage, then use the rent to pay it off. She had no trouble getting finance, which runs contrary to the history of the day. The bank manager must have realised her intelligence and astuteness. She was always much keener on business than housework. Birdie was good with her hands and particularly liked concreting, and laid paths, did guttering and other handy jobs. Yet, at the same time, she did beautiful embroidery and loved flowers, especially pansies, snapdragons and sweet peas. She was a very complex woman, born before her time.

Urbane Rowe

Urbane was a great animal lover. He bred fox terriers, canaries and fowls; grew dahlias and loved his garden. He won prizes for all of these at the Royal Easter Show. For about four years, Urbane also raised pigeons. The family ate the meat and the eggs from the fowls and pigeons.

Urbane possessed a good singing voice, but never went to church where he might have enjoyed singing. The political meetings held on the corner in Bondi Junction were of interest to him since he enjoyed a good argument over politics and was a firm liberal.

For as long as his daughter Thelma could remember, he had grey hair. He would not tell Thelma what the original colour was, but she suspected it was ginger. He had very blue eyes and good eyesight, and did not wear glasses. However, when he was ten he fell off a gas lamp post and landed on some glass. He lost the sight in one eye. Urbane was unable to enlist for the First World War because of this. He neither drank nor smoked.

The Home

The house in Grafton Street was a double fronted cottage with a gable roof and two attic rooms. It was built of rubble with a slate roof and a bull-nosed veranda. The walls were lined inside with plaster on a wooden frame. The small front yard was filled with beautiful dahlias and roses. There was a great view of Sydney Harbour from the front attic bedroom. They could almost see the heads and see as far as where the Harbour Bridge now stands. When there were fireworks, as on the King’s birthday, they would take turns watching from the small window.

Lighting was by candle or kerosene lamp at first, then gaslight, and much later electricity. The fireplace in the living room had a small grate. It shared a chimney with the kitchen fuel stove. Urbane tried burning wood for a time, but it was difficult to get good timber. Until gas was connected, they burned coke, which was stored in a huge pile in a corner of the backyard. When gas became available, they installed a two-burner gas stove that was considered a real luxury. Water was heated in a copper for a bath on Saturdays and washing on Mondays. Clothes were boiled in the copper and scrubbed on a wooden scrubbing board.

The Children’s Education

Thelma and Ray went to Woollahra Public School like their father. Thelma attended from seven to fourteen years of age. Ray stayed at Woollahra until sixth class. The children respected, even feared, their teachers. Girls were not caned, but were kept after school or asked to stand in a corner or out in the hall. The studies included botany, mathematics, history, and geography. In English they read many of Dickens’s books and Hamlet. Fine pen work was begun with the practice of pothooks. School sport was vigoro played at Centennial Park, walking to the park was tiring. In the summer, they went swimming on Fridays at Bronte Baths, and walked about a quarter of a mile to catch the tram. They also did maypole dancing and marching.

Thelma went to Sydney Technical College after leaving school at 14. She studied dressmaking for 5 years full time. Ray was good at drawing at school. He obtained his Intermediate Certificate at Sydney Technical High School (a selective high school), and became an apprentice to a sign-writer which required a four to five year technical college course part-time. He enjoyed his work. Ray was also a talented singer and won a lot of Eisteddfods. He sang in the chorus of many Gilbert and Sullivan operettas as a teenager.

Shopping and Cooking

Breakfasts were more substantial meals in those days. Ray would rise first and go round to the butchers for the meat, as they had no refrigerator. The meat was usually chops or sausages. Birdie cooked a proper breakfast: porridge, eggs, bacon, toast, the works. Milk was delivered twice a day, ice for the ice chest every two days, bread and the greengrocery each day and the bottle-o man came to collect old bottles regularly. A Chinaman brought around a cart with fruit and vegetables. There was a market garden down near Cooper Park in Bellevue Hill.

There was a large branch of McIllwraiths Grocers in Bondi Junction, and Thelma as a little child liked to watch the grocer pat and weigh the butter when shopping with Birdie. You could buy cracked biscuits there. The cracked ones were put aside and sold at penny per bag for plain ones, and tuppence for sweet ones. These were very popular with all the children.

The family rarely went visiting, but relatives and friends regularly called in on Saturday mornings after shopping in Bondi Junction. Birdie used to cook a batch of scones first thing in the morning for any visitors that might drop in. There were usually about ten people there. Thelma helped from the age of thirteen, making scones while Birdie poured endless cups of tea. On Saturdays, they would have a baked dinner, which Birdie cooked well. On Sundays, there would be bread and salad for tea before evening church. Birdie was particularly fond of chicken dinners and baby lamb chops. She cooked apples with cloves and cinnamon for desert and quinces. She used a lot of cloves, cinnamon and lemon in her cooking, and made the most beautiful gingerbread.

The Church

Birdie and the children went to the Methodist Church, at Bondi Junction. It was called the wedding cake church – a lovely old sandstone building with a steeple on one side. The children attended the Sunday school in the afternoon and Birdie went to the night service. Thelma and Ray were involved in many of the church activities. Dancing and alcohol were forbidden by the church, but it provided a good social outlet for the community.

A Sunday school picnic was held once a year and 500-600 children would attend. When Thelma was little, two double-decker trams would be hired to take the group into Circular Quay. A hired ferry would take them to Nielsen Park. There was always a bit of a swell in the harbour when they alighted and this made it very exciting. Cordial (lolly water) and a bun for morning tea were served on arrival. Older children then helped parents to make fresh sandwiches for lunch. There were the usual races, and parents could take their children swimming. The lunch was served to the children who sat at trestle tables.

The Sunday School Anniversary was held on the second Sunday in October. Church was attended three times on the one day (somewhat tedious for children). The church would be packed with extra chairs down the aisle. All the girls wore a new dress, their best for that summer, plus new shoes and socks and a hat and gloves. Mothers also tried to have a new outfit.


On Saturdays when the shops were shut and other children were possibly at the pictures, Thelma and Ray liked to go swimming with their family. Urbane and Birdie were keen swimmers. Breaststroke was the preferred style. They went to Bronte, Bondi and Clovelly ocean pools. Women wore a one-piece woollen bathing suit, sleeveless and with the legs down to the mid thigh, plus a swimming hat.

Urbane was a great walker and took Thelma and Ray on long walks out to South Head Road and Double Bay and even into Paddy’s Market in the City where they would have boiled peas and saveloy sausages for lunch served on a plate. Behind the houses on Edgecliffe Road, were cow pastures and Chinese vegetable gardens. When the family walked through them, they would chat with the Chinese gardeners. Later, tennis courts were built there.

Sometimes, they would catch a tram to Circular Quay and then walk to Observatory Hill. Thelma recalls, Dad used to take us to the Observatory. We would watch the vehicular ferries going across the harbour and the boats coming up and down. At 1 o’clock a big gold ball would be lowered from the Observatory and Pinchgut would fire a canon. We sometimes went for a ferry ride, the vehicular ferry was free.

There was a lot of bush in the Bondi Junction and Cooper Park area then. Urbane knew a lot about the local plants and explained them to Thelma and Ray. He would point out the gee-bungs, four corners, christmas bells and many others. Thelma recalls how, When we were young, he used to tell us kids a continuing story that lasted for years. On summer nights, Urbane would walk with the children up to Bellevue Hill Park to look at the night sky, watch for shooting stars, and to see the light house beacon.

Urbane regularly made the children kites out of brown paper, wooden cross pieces and a rag tail. They were small kites, about 18 inches [45 centimetres] long and flew beautifully. The children would ask him to make them larger and fancier, but these never flew as well. They would fly the kites on a flat section of ground at Centennial Park, a good walk away.

In the winter, the children would sometimes go to the pictures. Mainly, they went to the Olympia or one in Woollahra. They did not go often enough to get hooked on the serials that were very popular. Admission was threepence, and an ice cream or ice block cost a penny. Thelma sometimes earned pocket money by collecting horse manure. Urbane would give her one or two pennies for a bucket.

In the early years, Urbane had the better relationship with the children. However, Birdie spent more money on the children’s outings and took them for long visits with relatives. They often visited Uncle Orrie in the country near Warrah Creek. When Thelma was about seven, she was holidaying there during a drought. There was little water so they all went down to the creek to have a swim and cool off. Thelma got 20-30 leeches on her but did not know until she came out of the water. They were hanging all over her. She carried on greatly as they pulled them all off. Ray got one or two and they didn’t bother him.

Sewing and Clothes

Birdie made the children’s clothes and Urbane’s shirts. She taught Thelma some sewing. Birdie was a good sewer, but did not sew in the same efficient manner as her daughter. She bought up remnants at sales and then had hell’s own job getting the garment out, having to put in little scraps to make up a piece. Nevertheless, she could sew beautifully and made and embroidered her granddaughter Joy some lovely doll’s clothes and made tiny shoes with kid soles. Even these doll’s clothes had tiny pieces let in. She especially liked to embroider pansies, foxgloves and violets and favoured fabric which featured these flowers.

Thelma wore frilly aprons and voile dresses with lace inserts for best. Sleeves were always long or three quarters. In summer, Thelma wore a straw hat even to go shopping. In winter, she wore a velour hat. Birdie would put Thelma’s hair in rags on Saturday when she washed it so that she would have ringlets. She knitted long lacy socks for Thelma. They were very rough especially when wearing new shoes.

The later years of Urbane and Birdie

Urbane and Birdie continued as landlords, even through the Depression years. They lost money since their tenants could not pay their rent. There was nothing to be gained from evicting good tenants since squatters would move in. After the Depression, they wiped out the rent bills as it was impossible for people to pay them.

Urbane got water on the knee in his early sixties. He tried many things to reduce the swelling, various evil smelling ointments, hot and cold packs etc. His knees swelled up horribly and this led to him being eventually bed-ridden for his last three to four years. He was in a convalescent home at Sister Drady’s Private Hospital in Fairweather Street, Bellevue Hills for two years until he died on 22 January 1941 aged 72 years from myocardial failure, having suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for 10 years. The war was in full swing at this time and the day before he died he talked to his son-in-law Harry about it. Urbane felt the real threat was not Germany but Japan. He feared invasion by many boats coming from the north.

Birdie moved into her own terrace in about 1946 at 145 Grafton Street and let out rooms there to provide extra income. She remained a good conversationalist at this time. Her grandchildren could discuss not only the past but philosophy, religion or other quite intellectual subjects. In the end she had a stroke and moved to a convalescent home in Avoca Street Randwick (currently Milford House) where she lived for about six years, and her children visited her regularly. She also developed Parkinson’s disease and her condition deteriorated. She caught pneumonia and died on 29 November 1964 aged 78 years.

The children of Urbane Rowe and Birdie Lane

1) Thelma Catherine Marie born 29 January 1911. She married Henry (Harry) Thomas Boaz Jessep on 2 November 1935 at the Methodist Church, Bondi Junction. They had three children: Harry, Joy and Gaye and fostered a fourth child, Kay. Thelma died on 9 May 2008 aged 97 years. She had a clear mind up until the end.

2) Urbane James Raymond (Ray) born 25 October 1913. He married Lola Ann Codey at All Saints’ Church Ocean Street Woollahra on 4 June 1942. They had two daughters, Susan and Laurelle who was adopted when she was 2.5 years old. Ray died on 4 March 1975.

The memories of Birdie’s daughter Thelma Catherine Marie Jessep and granddaughters Joy and Gaye
Birth Death and Marriage records.

To contact Gaye please click on email address at the top of this page.

This article is part of Grahame Thom’s family history web site – September 2009

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Sam and Catherine Lane

The story of Samuel Lane and Catherine Maria Parker; parents of Birdie