Ardoch's formidable manager in the 1930s and 1940s

Jessie Brownlee

When Jessie Brownlee (1893–?)  began managing Ardoch in 1936, she moved into Iris Henson’s flat who had managed the flats for the previous six years. The flat was next door to what had been Ardoch’s dining room. John Campton remembered Jessie as a rather large, formidable lady who had her own maid and could be very strict. Nevertheless, she managed the flats well, keeping things in order and dealing with complaints.

Jessie was a nurse by profession but had developed excellent management skills when she managed the career of her brother, the internationally famous opera singer John Brownlee. Dame Nellie Melba had heard John sing as a young man and encouraged him to study overseas. To raise money to do so, his older sister, Jessie, arranged concerts.  The pair departed Australia in 1923 with Jessie acting as John’s manager – which she continued to do for the next ten years. John retained an ongoing association with Dame Nellie, singing with her at Covent Garden and on her final tour of England and Scotland. She was Godmother to John’s first child.

Perhaps it is this association with Dame Nellie Melba that has led to the belief that this famous diva once performed at Ardoch. No information has been located which would confirm such an event occurred, yet it persists as one of Ardoch’s urban myths.

In 1936 The Argus reported that after returning to Australia the Brownlees took a flat at Ardoch and Jessie ‘so loved the surroundings that she [had] taken over these flats.’[1] The rate books record that Ardoch was owned by a company based in Sydney headed by Dr George Armstrong. Jessie Brownlee became the Victorian agent for George Armstrong & Son P/L in 1941.[2]

Jessie was often noted in newspapers as a guest at various receptions, lunches and recitals, sometimes hosting events herself at Ardoch. A dance for more than 150 people was held at Ardoch in 1938 for guests of honour Mrs RG Casey (wife of the then Federal Treasurer and future Governor General), her niece Mrs Arthur Bullivant and Miss Nina Bullivant. In the style of the day, the paper reported on the flower arrangements in the reception and supper rooms, some of the guests’ clothes and listed some of the attendees.

As yet, no information can be found about what happened to Jessie once she left Ardoch in 1950.

[Image: The Home: an Australian quarterly, vol 10, no 3 (1 March 1929), p. 52

[1] ‘Miss Brownlee’s Flats’, The Argus, 27.5.1936, p. 16

[2] The Argus, 18.6.1941, p. 2