Light shone through from the front veranda as the owner led me along the hallway. I noticed the lovely stained-glass windows around the door. Devonscot, meaning ‘Devon Cottage’, was the home of John Western, who arrived in Australia from England in 1882. He was among the first to select property in the Victorian Strzelecki Ranges, land that was so heavily forested that sunlight hardly penetrated through the trees. It could take days to travel from one side of the thick bush to the other.
The early years were hard. Many of the sheep were killed by dingoes, our Australian native dogs. His first dwelling was a fern-log hut. One day after John had been away working, he returned to find it burnt down. After the terrible 1898 bushfires, he wanted to build a new timber residence; by 1899 the house in Arawata was finished. In October he married Agnes Ritchie and they went on to have nine children.
Not only did John Western have a desire to establish himself in Australia, he also brought his strong faith in God. He was a Local Preacher, and for more than fifty years, he rode his horse many miles in this ministry. He was also the Sunday School Superintendent for twenty-two years, Secretary of his church (1920-47), a Shire Councillor (1908–1926) and in 1926/27, the Shire President.
Agnes was full of missionary zeal. In the 1920s she instituted self-denial-week when all the family (except Father!) had to go without sugar on their porridge so they’d have extra money to give to missions. Agnes was particularly interested in spreading the Gospel in India. She even went there on a visit.
John and Agnes maintained a strong custom of hospitality for visiting missionaries. It’s wonderful that their descendants continue this tradition. These days, the current owners, Doreen and John, always have a desk in the guest room so their visitors can feel at home if they need to do any private writing or study. When we called there, we also felt comfortable and welcome at Devonscot.
As we ate fresh banana cake in the big kitchen, I was amused by Doreen’s description of family members sliding down the sill of the open window to bring water in from the well. Any wonder it was worn smooth over the years! Doreen and John Western (who is the grandson of the original John), bought the old home and raised their four children there. They still run cattle and sheep on the 250-acre property.
While they’ve always cared for the historic house, the family still treated it as their own comfortable home with lots of fun times. When they were doing some renovations one year, John climbed onto the roof to demolish a chimney. He threw the bricks down the opening into the room below where the children gathered them up from the hearth and tossed them through the front window!
Later we walked in the garden where some of the first John Western’s plants were still alive and doing well. Perhaps they were hardy like the pioneers who came to South Gippsland and cleared the land for farming. As I looked back at the front door, I wondered if someone had made a mistake all those years ago. Maybe it’s symbolic. Was this house meant to be a place for those who were not only content in their home, but who also appreciated where they were coming from when they went out into the world? You see, Devonscot reads from inside the house.
(This story was previously published in Captivated! Magazine)