For years Melba had travelled the world, living in hotels or renting homes in Europe. Immediately after her 1909 outback tour of New South Wales and Queensland, Melba decided it was time to buy a place in Australia.
During a visit to Australia and the Yarra Valley of her youth, Melba took an impulsive decision which finally gave herself and her family a home of their own.
Melba was staying at St Hubert’s a vineyard property that David Mitchell leased in the Yarra Valley.
One evening when driving back to St Hubert’s with John Lemmone, Melba noticed a for sale sign on the gate of a property near Coldstream. Pamela Vestey in her book Melba: A Family Memoir describes the moment:
“They simply had to go in and inspect the house. Nellie gripped by excitement, decided it was a beautiful site. Taking in the house with a glance, she looked across at the beloved blue hills of her childhood. The house, with sixty acres, was bought on the spot. David Mitchell pointed out that there was no water supply and that the hill site caught all the winds, but Nellie maintained that all could be arranged. She set to work to organize everything and soon she had the makings of a house she could live in. She named the house Coombe Cottage.” (1)
The property was known as St. Leonards but Melba renamed it Coombe Cottage was named after a house of the same name in England where Melba and George had spent two happy summers.
Melba purchased the property on November 17, 1909 from the widow of John Dooley who had died the year before. John Dooley had purchased the property in 1904 from James Speakman who had called it Cullwin Lodge. (2)
Before returning overseas, Melba organised to enlarge the house and garden.
William Guilfoyle, a landscape gardener and botanist drew up the overall plans for the garden. He was the curator of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne from1873 until his death in 1912. (3)
The additions to the house were entrusted to the firm of Grainger and Little. John Grainger was an architect and engineer and father of Percy Grainger. John Grainger had an extensive private practice in Melbourne and in 1879 had won the competition to design the new Princes Bridge. He was a close friend of David Mitchell. (4)
George who had been travelling with Melba, decided he wanted to stay in Austrlaia and take up farming. He settled at Coombe Cottage.
On August 12, 1911 Melba was again back in the district and visited Lilydale to look at the progress being made at Coombe Cottage. (Ref:…)
In 1913 George married Evelyn Doyle and they made their home at Coombe Cottage.
Over the years, the home was extended to accommodate family guests.
The lodge at the front gate was built in 1926, a copy of an existing lodge in England, by the firm of W & L. Butler & Martin.
Both Evie and her daughter Pamela loved the garden.
Writing in her pamplet Coombe Cottage produced for an open garden day, Pamela spoke of her mother’s battle to keep the garden going:
“Evie had a great influence on the garden, indeed, it might not have survived without her hard work in it during the second World War, when she looked after it with very little help. She also improved the general planting when the mains water was extended along the Yarra Glen Road.”
Pamela also described the layout in detail:
Within the shelter of the hedge and the winding shrubberies, the straight paths lead to the different sections of the garden. Across the croquet lawn the rose garden faces the house. The Quilter walk, with its sundial (“I count the bright hours only”) divides the herbaceous border. To the east pencil Cypress trees lead to the swimming pool, built in 1913, and has white wisteria on its terrace. Azaleas, lilacs, old fashioned roses and bulbs in their season line the paths and the citrus trees make up the Italian garden.
At the end of the Quilter Walk is found the old kitchen garden, with the trellis of grape vines now surrounded by fruit trees, while a smaller vegetable garden is reached by a path to the west. Further west is an Australian garden, with a pond and native plants to encourage the wild life who have lost so much of their habitat in this district. Sometimes wombats and echidnas and smaller creatures arrive, following their old trails and braving the killer road. The summer house provides a pleasant shelter for other travellers.
Most of the trees in the garden were planted in 1912 or 1913, but the lovely oak tree near the front of the house is much older, planted, perhaps, with the first enclosure of the property.
The clock tower on the garage rings out each hour and has an inscription on its side: East West Hames Best. Beyond are the stables, once the busiest part of the place and still in use.”
Coombe was also the place Melba returned to whenever she was in Melbourne as it gave her the chance to relax and entertain her friends.
These include people from the world of music, the theatre, the arts and vice regal.
These included Ellen Terry.
1. Melba A family Memoir, Pamela Vestey, p 133.
2. Coombe Cottage pamphlet, Pamela Vestey.
3. Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press Volume 4, pg307-308.
4. Australian Dictionary of Biography Melbourne University Press Volume 9 pg69-72.