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Blundells Cottage to close and reopen to reality

Alice Oldfield was a shepherd's wife before becoming a boarding house matron who anyone of marrying age would like to have met. If  alive today Alice would probably be in the shadow of ASIO's almighty headquarters in Constitution Avenue, for it overshadows Blundells Cottage near Lake Burley Griffin, where Alice Oldfield earned her place in Canberra's history.

After Harry Oldfield died in 1942, Alice turned their tiny stone cottage into a boarding house from where she started match-making. It is just as well the multi-storey spies bunker wasn't about in the 1950s, nor zealous building or licence inspectors, because they could have made life difficult for Alice.

National Capital Authority strategic marketing manager Pam Owen and National Capital Authority heritage manager Anna ...
National Capital Authority strategic marketing manager Pam Owen and National Capital Authority heritage manager Anna Wong at Blundells Cottage in Parkes.  Photo: Matt Bedford

An enterprising women, she advertised two bedrooms in the four-room cottage. She hauled water from the Molonglo River for a huge vegie garden from where she grew and sold pumpkins and potatoes at Queanbeyan. She added a premium to her fresh eggs when selling a dozen to any Canberran hungry for fresh food.

Alice Oldfield's story is coming to light as the National Capital Authority and conservationists give Blundells Cottage a makeover.

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The authority's heritage manager Anna Wong says the cottage will be closed from Friday, December 12, to March 13, while the interior will be whitewashed to bring back the atmosphere of an early workers cottage. The place was limewashed annually in its day, for appearances as well as an antiseptic.

In Mrs Oldfield's era which ended in 1962 accommodation was tight. She had 50 boarders, including three families at different stages, who squashed into two small rooms.

"She would hold card nights and would chaperone the single people. A couple returned later to say they had met at one of Mrs Oldfield's card nights and they married later," Ms Wong said.

The Oldfields are one of three families who will be singled out among many working families who lived in the cottage from the 1850s. The picket fence added later, when the cottage was unoccupied, will be taken down. Pots, pans and all the other old objects will be cleared from the cottage and catalogued, and the interior joinery will be painted and floorboards in the front bedroom and parlour waxed.

Mrs O'Brien outside Blundells Cottage in 1956. Mrs O'Brien boarded there with her husband.
Mrs O'Brien outside Blundells Cottage in 1956. Mrs O'Brien boarded there with her husband. Photo: Supplied.

Blundells origins are based on the Scottish estate tradition of a landowner encouraging self-sufficiency, by providing workers with a house and rewarding the occupants hard slog and clean morals with an opportunity to acquire land for themselves.

"If you worked hard, you should be rewarded under the mid-19th century reform period," says Wong. "Campbells [of the Duntroon agricultural holding] were very good land owners," she says.

Assisted immigrants the Ginn family from Suffolk,  England, were the first occupants from about 1857 to about 1874. They will be represented in the two front rooms. People will get an insight into the highly regulated immigration program, where officials counted the sheets, shirts, dresses and all other items newcomers brought on their journey to Australia.

The NCA's marketing manager Pam Owen says being a married couple, the Ginns were required to bring their own double bed. In a stroke of luck the authority has found that old iron bed among its exhibition items. Inscribed on the bed is its maker RW Winfield of Birmingham. Apparently Winfield was the Ikea of the day, making transportable furniture. 

Bullock driver George Blundell's era will be represented in the shed, covering from the 1870s to the 1930s.

The Oldfield family will be represented in the remaining two rooms. Mrs Oldfield died in 1960. Her last tenants were the Sainsbury family who rented two small rooms with their three children, Sue, Brian and Wendy.  Ms owen says Wendy and Brian still reside in Canberra and have shared their valuable memories.

"At that stage there was still no electricity or water. Brian tells a wonderful story of the refrigerator propped up between the verandah and tank stand. They put in an iceblock to keep things cold. The bathroom had a dirt floor, a copper, and trough and bathtub."

 The Sainsburys took "eat-in kitchen" to a new level, having a double bed, wash stand, cooker, dining table and five chairs in the room. 

These days Blundell Cottage's caretakers are determined to fire up the 1888 bread oven, where Mrs Blundell baked for the family including eight children three times a week. They reckon the smell of freshly baked bread and scones will go down a treat for young school children calling to experience an era bound to re-fire their imaginations too.