History. Mount Martha House has it in spades. Behind its weatherboard Federation Queen Anne façade and door-lined corridors leading to a wealth of wondrous story, this grand old dame has real class. Built in 1889-90 on the Mount Martha Estate subdivision and now the stomping ground for families, friends and community groups strengthening the ties that bind, the building was designed by well-known Melbourne architects Tappin, Gilbert and Dennehy. It is now owned and managed by the Mornington Peninsula Shire.
History buff, founder and manager of the Mount Martha House Historical Collection Gill Gordon, pictured, took Mornington Peninsula Magazine on a riveting tour of this gorgeous piece of historical real estate and we lived to tell the tale. “Yes, there are stories of ghosts ‘living’ here and things moving around, but Mount Martha House is so much more than that,” says Gill. “Over the years the building has had multiple uses. From its hotel beginnings to being used as a semi-private country club, training school for the RAAF and a WRAAC barrack, it’s seen a lot. There were around 100 rooms when it opened in 1890-91 (although some reports say it opened in 1889) and the first season was so popular there were another 25 rooms built soon after.
“Owned by businessman Robert Watson from the Mount Martha Estate Property Company, Mount Martha House — then known as Mount Martha Hotel and Coffee Palace — was probably built in response to the temperance movement. It was a place of alcohol-free entertainment but it went bust after just 12 months. American circus performer William Trainor/Traynor was the first manager when it opened and he loved to play billiards. Colonial wine and billiard table licences were granted to the second proprietor, a Miss or Mr Mayes.”
There were many owners of Mount Martha House before it became a community centre in 1979 after the Mornington Peninsula Shire purchased it for educational purposes. At the turn of the last century, people would board ferries in Melbourne and pile into Rourke’s wagonettes at the Royal Hotel in Mornington once they had landed on solid ground to make their way to this treasured holiday spot. There were very few roads and lots of bushland back then, so fires were a common occurrence. One fire was started from the sparks of a copper out the back of the building. Another caused visitors to pile their luggage and bikes on to the road and run to the beach for shelter.
Gill continues: “Women bathed at South Beach back then, while men swam on the other side of Watsons Rd. There was a windmill on South Beach too that provided fresh water to the visitors. In 1942, the house became the first RAAF officers’ training school and was known as the command centre from then onwards. There was force training on the beach, while the whole region from Craigie Rd to Hearn Rd and Nepean Highway to the beach was closed off. Eleanor Roosevelt came to visit her troops at Mount Martha House twice during World War II while staying at a private house on the Esplanade. The Women’s Royal Australian Army Corp purchased it in 1950 and that’s when more stories started to circulate.”
There used to be five huts out the back of Mount Martha House where the WRAAC girls stayed. Apparently there were many windows sliding up and down with girls and boys coming in and out. Room five was set alight ‘on purpose’ so the new CFA fire truck and the men who were operating it would have to come for a visit too. “There were many high jinks. The girls used to hang their underwear on the line and the boys would fly it up the flagpole,” laughs Gill.
“There are so many wonderful stories about the house and region and that’s what motivates us — the volunteers at the Mount Martha House Historical Collection — to keep finding out more. We catalogue historical memorabilia and archives and are constantly researching. We also have a replica WRAAC bedroom display, offer history tours upon request and provide a historic audio trail.”
Whether or not Henry the ghost keeps an eye on the place like some believe, Mount Martha House is brimming with life, laughter and special memories made for future generations to enjoy. Visit this special place filled with historical significance soon. Tours, including a visit to the onsite model railway, are on the last Wednesday of the month at 11am.
Find out more at www.mountmarthahouse.com.au