By Narelle Coulter
“The Swords held garden parties here. They used to play croquet on the lawn. If I close my eyes I can just see them, staff serving the guests, the cucumber sandwiches”
Kay Noy is conjuring up a mental image of the fund-raising garden parties held at Nenagh Lodge, one of Dandenong’s grand old homes in Close Avenue.
Joan Elizabeth Swords, widow of Fredrick Swords, whose family founded the Dandenong Advertiser newspaper, purchased the property in 1936.
She named it Nenagh Lodge after the town in County Tipperary, Ireland, where Fredrick’s mother was born.
The Greater Dandenong Heritage Study describes the house as a “gabled form English domestic bungalow style house with unglazed Marseilles pattern terracotta tiles to the roof, shingled and half-timbered gable ends, cement capped brick chimneys with tall chimney pots, unusual Tudor styled casement windows set in groups with leaded and stained glass, exposed rafter ends, bracketed and board lined eaves, and a gabled entrance porch”.
According to a history of the Sword family prepared by the Dandenong and District Historical Society, the family took a keen philanthropic interest in the local community.
That tradition continued at Nenagh Lodge where Mrs Swords held functions, including lavish garden parties, to aid the Dandenong and District Hospital as well as the agricultural society, St James Church of England and the Dandenong Boy Scouts Ladies Committee.
During the Second World War she organised functions to raise money for the Red Cross.
Joan Swords passed away at Nenagh Lodge in January 1948, aged 74.
She and Frederick had 12 children. Her son Ted Swords then occupied Nenagh Lodge with his wife, Catherine, living there until 1967.
On 13 November 1967 ownership of Nenagh passed to Dandenong charity Wallara, known in those days as the Dandenong Mentally Retarded Children’s Welfare Association.
At the time a Journal reporter wrote that Nenagh was “set in an acre of attractive grounds and flanked by a swimming pool, it has been the scene of countless functions to aid various charities”.
Fifty years later Nenagh is now known as Williamson House.
Even though it lies within the grounds of Wallara, the house is used by Wintringham Aged Care as accommodation for the elderly.
Its new name recognised the funding provided by the D.T. Williamson Foundation for the restoration of the property in 2011.
Kay Noy is Wallara’s longest-serving employee. She has seen Wallara and Nenagh go through many transformations over the years.
Part of her job is showing students around the vast Wallara complex in Potter Street.
“It’s a lovely building. I run Wallara’s Insight Program and I always take students to the house and explain its history.
“The students ask a lot of questions and I love talking to them about the Swords family and the garden parties held here.”
One of those who remember the garden parties at Nenagh Lodge is life-long Dandenong resident Ken Masters.
Ken’s mother took him to the garden parties when he was a boy.
“The garden was extraordinary in the old days. It was a rare thing in Dandenong to have a swimming pool, even though every time I saw it the pool was empty.
“The house was a beautiful big old home, double-storey with a sweeping staircase up the middle.
“I was also fascinated by the peacocks in the garden.”
Little remains of the original garden save for a huge Canary Island palm in front of the house.
And there are also rumours that Nenagh is haunted.
“Staff who worked here were convinced there was a ghost,” Kay said.
“Things they had moved had been moved back, noises, little things like that.”
She said Nenagh was a special part of Wallara and she felt sure Mrs Swords would approve that her old home was being used as a place of shelter for the elderly.
“I’m sure Mrs Swords would be delighted to know it is still helping those less fortunate than they were. It is really carrying on the legacy.”