Uncovering the history of this house was unusual, as I wasn't hired to research it! It all started with me accidentally coming across some fabulous old photos of the house and my curiosity insisting that I needed to find out more about it! In a remarkable coincidence, as I was telling someone about researching a house with an unusual name, they proceeded to tell me they had come across one recently too, Pen-y-Lan! The exact same house I was researching! She knew a lot about it and was happy to share what she knew with me!
Part 1: The Coincidence
Back in 2016, I accidentally came across these three great photos of Pen-y-Lan house at Bardon, whilst I was searching for another house. I immediately wanted to know more about the history of the house and the women in the photos. As I was in the middle of researching quite a few houses for paying clients however, it was a fair way down the priorities list, despite how curious I was! Well Pen-y-Lan wasn't going to stand for that! It wanted its story told now dagnammit!
So here comes one of those ridiculous coincidences that the universe throws at us every now and then. I was at the Brisbane City Council Archives researching the other houses, when I happened to mention to the archivist, Annabelle, that I was having trouble working out where the name of one of the houses came from. Although I knew they were from Scotland, there didn't seem to be a place of the same name, where they may have been born or lived, before they emigrated and hence could have named their new home in Australia after. We then started discussing how popular it was for people to do exactly this, hence why there are many houses in Brisbane named after towns in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Annabelle then mentioned a Welsh example that she had stumbled upon many years ago, Pen-y-Lan! Now, as you can imagine, the archives are normally a pretty quiet place, but I'm pretty sure the whole building heard my incredulous "WHAT???", which I pretty much yelled in response! She was talking about the exact same house that I had stumbled upon photos of only days before and had never heard of before then! I told her how I had posted the photos and that I was planning to research its history. She then proceeded to tell me that she had already done some of it!
It turns out that Annabelle had researched the history of Pen-y-Lan after twice being contacted by people in England about it! The first was around 15 years ago, when she received an email from a woman cleaning up a relative's estate in England. They were emailing to ask if the archives would like some photographs of a house marked as being in “Upper Paddington Brisbane”. On the back was the name of the house, “Pen-y-Lan" and the name of one of the women in the images, “Miss Cecil”. Not having an address for the house (the suburb of Upper Paddington didn't even exist anymore), or access to many of the online databases we do today, they were filed away as general photos of Brisbane houses. However, in 2010, Annabelle was again contacted by someone in England, who this time was researching a relative who had boarded with a woman called Miss Cecil, at a home called Pen-y-Lan at Upper Paddington, and wanted to know if the house still existed. This time Annabelle was able to find out much more about it, after finding an advertisement with a property description, via a search of digitised newspapers on Trove. This meant she could work out the street address and not only confirm that the house was indeed still there, but also get the Certificates of Title for the property, which would provide her with ownership details. Combined with Annabelle's research, I was able to unravel more of the story of this impressive house and the equally amazing woman that lived there!
Part 2: The Woman behind the House
Pen-y-Lan was built by Elizabeth Ann Cecil, who appears to have gone by the name "Lily". According to her death notice in the Brisbane Courier in 1919, Lily arrived in Queensland from England around 1904. Although this article records her as hailing from Yorkshire, according to census records, her family were actually from Wales. She reportedly travelled here in the hopes of improving her health after being seriously injured in a bicycle accident, although it seems an awfully long trip for someone in that situation! Already she seems like an interesting and adventurous woman though- riding a bike in the Edwardian era! Wow! When she arrived in Australia, she appears to have stayed with friends for a while and then had a house built at Upper Paddington (now Bardon). She named the house Pen-y-Lan.
Lily had female boarders stay with her at Pen-y-Lan, however she is often reported as being away from home as she appears to have been a keen traveller. She visited Japan, Indonesia and Singapore in 1914 and New Zealand in 1915. Just before her death, she also drove to Kosciusko. She sounds like a very unusual woman for her era, not least of all because she never married and had a house built for herself. She must also have been independently wealthy when she came to Australia, in order to be able to afford to build such a grand house and also to undertake all that travel.
Lily was by all reports a generous philanthropist, donating time and money to various charities throughout her life. She died on 25 January 1919 and the full details of her will were published in the newspaper. This reveals both her generous nature, and the extent of the resources she had at her disposal. Her real estate holdings were valued at £4571 and her personal estate at £8845- massive amounts for the time, especially for an unmarried woman. In addition to family, she left money and belongings to many others, including a cottage to her old maid. For those of you who noticed the cats and dogs in the photos- they were not forgotten either. The dog and its belongings are allocated to a carer and, in a rather sad choice, the cats are to be put down Maybe she thought they would miss her too much?
Part 3: The House
Frustratingly, Elizabeth's death notice doesn't tell us the exact date she built her house at Upper Paddington (didn't they realise all us house detectivies would want to know this one day??? Sheesh!) However, the house is referred to in The Brisbane Courier on 22 November 1910. This notice advertises that "Miss Cecil, Pen-y-Lan, Upper Paddington, will not be at home for some months." Not something you are likely to publicise these days!! This is the earliest reference I could find in the newspapers and it is also the year recorded on the photos of the house and its residents. Therefore we know it must have been built before 1910. If she arrived in Brisbane around 1904, then we narrow the date range down to between 1904 and 1910.
A check of Post Office Directories for these dates shows her at Latrobe Tce in Paddington from 1904 to 1907, not listed in 1908 or 1909 and on Simpsons Rd, Paddington in 1911. There is no digistised directory for 1910, but combined with the newspaper article above, we can be fairly confident the house was built between 1907 and 1910. Without hours more searching of other records, it is difficult to put an exact date on it though. This date range is certainly consistent with the style of the house, as after the turn of the century, it was much more common to have a "bungalow" roof, where the verandahs are included under the main structure of the roof, rather than having a roof over the core of the house, then a lower, separate roof (often curved) over the verandah. Regardless of when exactly it was built, Lily and her house must have been held in fairly high esteem, as by 1911, Miss Cecil and her house are being used as evidence of the prominent citizens which inhabit the locale, in order to promote the sale of the nearby Bardon Estate!
So, where does the name of the house come from? Pen-y-Lan is an area of Wales, however, unlike my discussion with Annabelle that led to all this research, it doesn't appear that Miss Cecil was actually from this area. However, she did grow up in Wales and so would presumedly may have spoken Welsh or at least known some Welsh words. From what I can tell, and from what one of you commented, Pen-y-Lan means "the summit" or similar. The house is located at the top of a steep rise, so is this why she chose the name? We will probably never know for sure!
After Lily's death in 1919, Pen-y-Lan was offered for sale and the advertisement in the newspaper provides a very detailed description of the house. It appears to have been quite modern for its time, with electric lights, plumbed water, gas stove and even a "Nickel Geyser" (an early version of an instant hot-water system) The Joyce family bought Pen-y-Lan and members of this family remained there until at least 1940. I'm told that more recently the Waugh family lived there.
A survey drawing of the house in 1942 gives an idea of the overall form of the house at this date, showing those lovely wide verandahs that the women are posing on in the photos. An aerial photo from 1946 also shows a similar outline. From what I can see in the recent images on Google, although renovated and extended, the front of the house doesn't appear to have been too altered from its original appearance.
I really wanted to see what it was like inside though! Luckily for me, the house went on the market in 2021 and I could have a peak inside via the real estate listing photos! You too can have a look here. Thankfully, despite extension and renovation, many of the beautiful original features remain. I am sure that Miss Cecil can also still be seen taking tea on the verandah from time to time :)
This is only an extract from the full history I uncovered for this house. References citing the sources of the information contained in this report have been omitted from this online version to make it easier to read. Some images and maps have also been cropped to show details more clearly. Please contact me if you would the details of any references, or if you want to know where to find the full size versions of the images and maps.