7 June 2024

Reviving John Knowlman's stylish residence in Goulburn

| John Thistleton
Join the conversation
Evan Dodds cleaning one of the chimneys on Highgate.

Evan Dodds cleaning one of the chimneys on Highgate. Two metres high, the chimneys are a crowning feature of what once was a statement home for prominent retailers in Goulburn. Photo: Greg O’Neill.

Refurbishing ‘Highgate’, a grand home overlooking central Goulburn, is reviving the flamboyance of two rival retailers who once lived there.

Highgate belonged to the Knowlmans and later the Rogers, whose large department stores, like the home itself evoked the confidence and exuberance of Goulburn’s boom years.

The son of a London draper, John Knowlman commissioned the building of Highgate, named after his brother Christopher’s London location. His great granddaughter Louise Allison said John suffered from asthma and had come out to Australia at age 18 for a more favourable climate.

He worked for Horden Brothers in Sydney and later established a small shop in Whitton, before coming to Goulburn in 1888 and starting Knowlman Brothers.

He became mayor of Goulburn and lived with his family in Highgate from 1897 until his sudden and unexpected death aged only 45 in 1910.

George Rogers, the son of Charles Rogers, an enterprising cabinetmaker, lived at Highgate with his family from at least the 1920s up until his death in 1952, according to newspaper records. He worked for 50 years at the family’s department store.

READ ALSO Quirky home in Goulburn comes with a city of invested admirers

Used as a boarding place after that for many years, Highgate fell into disrepair. A prominent builder in Goulburn, Tom Skeffington, bought the neglected residence 60 years ago and the family has held it ever since.

His son Thomas Skeffington said his father installed new ceilings and an inside bathroom because the original bathroom was outside in the rear section of the home. He also built several flats in about 1968 on the property. “We have long-term tenants there; some have been there since 1970,” Thomas said.

Scaffolding around Highgate today for painting and repairs is in contrast to the homemade ladders and boxes Thomas and his mother Lilo (Lieselotte) scrambled over years ago, armed with wire brushes to clean down the roof before painting it.

Painter and home restorer Greg O’Neill with Highgate’s owner Lieselotte (better known as Lilo) Skeffington.

Painter and home restorer Greg O’Neill with Highgate’s owner Lieselotte (better known as Lilo) Skeffington. The job of painting Highgate once fell to Lilo and her son Thomas. Photo: John Thistleton.

Neither of them are tall, yet Lilo stood on tip toes with her brush attached to a stick to paint the two-metre high chimneys. Mother and son were on the roof for weeks toiling in blazing heat.

Growing up with his sisters Sylvia and Cynthia, Thomas remembers five bells in different rooms, each one with its individual sound to identify from which room it was being rung. “They are attached to wires running through the ceiling,” he said. “We have had possums in the house and I can remember as a child waking up in the middle of the night, and possums playing inside, running along and tripping on the bell wires and the bells would suddenly be tolling.”

A piano was placed in one of the bedrooms, Disney characters dance across the wallpaper in another bedroom.

Goulburn painter and decorator Greg O’Neill surrounded Highgate in several levels of scaffolding in February to enable a comprehensive inspection and safe access to the work which needed doing.

Scaffolding around Highgate enabling substantial refurbishment, including structural repairs on some of the ironwork and woodwork.

Scaffolding around Highgate enables substantial refurbishment, including structural repairs on some of the ironwork and woodwork. Photo: John Thistleton.

He has been working there with his offsider Evan Dodds ever since, replacing barge boards and three decorative finials on the roofs, scraping and washing off old paint and rust and repairing ornate features before painting.

Repairing broken leaves on roof-top decorative tulips, the tradies made a mould from an original leaf and made replacement leaves with plaster of Paris and concrete. “I think we need to give these houses respect,” Greg said. “I just love the restoration of these old houses.”

Pieces of iron lacework had fallen from the front verandah and broken. He rang around foundries until he found one in Sydney which inspected the Church Street address and its lacework on Google Maps. Two hours later the foundry rang Greg to say they still had the same pattern mould and would dispatch a replacement piece to Goulburn. “I couldn’t believe it,” Greg said. “It was remarkable and took a few phone calls to find.”

An earlier photograph of Highgate in Church Street, Goulburn.

An earlier photograph of Highgate in Church Street, Goulburn. Photo: Knowlman family collection.

Greg said stripping back 100 years of multiple coats of paint, cleaning the rust back to bare metal and applying kill rust had brought back the profile of the iron lacework.

He is repointing bricks with a mix of white sand and hydrated lime and stopping every now and then to give curious passersby a brief history of Highgate.

To find out who would build such a magnificent home and why is to recall young men coming out from England and setting alight Goulburn with their burning ambitions and vision for a grand city.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments
Catherine Haskins8:03 am 17 Jun 24

How incredible this building, Highgate, is still there. What a beautiful building and great that it’s receiving love for its future. Christopher Knowlman, the brother of John, was my 2x Great Grandfather and I occasionally google family names to see if anymore info can be added to my family tree what a delight to find this article.

Daily Digest

Do you like to know what’s happening around your region? Every day the About Regional team packages up our most popular stories and sends them straight to your inbox for free. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.