Culture //

The wicked witches of the Inner-West

Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and Annan-dale

Art by Shania O'Brien

The Annandale Witches Houses come alive as dusk begins to fall. On the northern end of Johnson Street, the row of gothic manors sit high atop an imposing stone wall, looking down like Shakespeare’s crones on passers-by. Kennilworth, Highroyd and Hockingdon each command a towering, eerie presence, but none arrest the spirit as forcefully as The Abbey. Gargoyles chatter away at the top of the mansion’s turrets, gazing out on Blackwattle Bay now glimmering and churning with reflections of city lights. The Lady in White wanders the lonely halls of The Abbey, and the women painted onto intricate tiles reminisce about the rowdy parties of the free-love era. 

The sandstone walls of The Abbey have borne witness to over a century of mischief, magic, and Masonic rituals. Today, families file past on their way down Johnson Street to play by the waterfront, and drunken teenagers stumble by after long bacchanalian nights of drinking at Jubilee Park. All the while they spin yarns about the rambling old home and its mysterious former residents. 

Rumours of the house’s haunted history swirl around Sydney’s Inner West. Mediums gathered and ghost hunters trawled the halls in the 1970s, carting their ectoplasmic machines in search of the paranormal. 

“I’d say we are good and haunted,” Dr Davis, former owner of The Abbey, told Woman’s Day in 1967. “The front door opens and there are footsteps that sound as though someone is coming up the stairs, but when we investigate, there is no one to be seen.”

For decades residents have slept with the light on. Doors slam shut of their own accord, pets become highly strung, their fur standing on end, and neighborhood kids are sent running by a peculiar presence in the dungeon. The mysterious sound of bells and ghoulish bagpipes haunted the Davis family, following them into the old music room and encroaching on their domestic peace. Deceased relatives are known to appear from time to time. Dr Davis’ wife saw what she believed was the ghost of her father watching her ominously from the belltower. Mrs Davis herself is thought to have returned following her own death. And time and time again, former residents claim to have caught a glimpse of a female figure — the Lady in White — haunting the manor of an evening.

“Once, I was in the music room and her ladylike footsteps came in the front hall, up the steps and into the room, which went cold … I couldn’t get out fast enough,” Francesca Davis told the Daily News. One witness insisted the lady was the victim of a 20th century murder enacted during a brief period when the manor served as boarding house for private schools.

The house is filled to the brim with ghoulish statues. Sandstone lions decorate the now-manicured front yard warding off the faint-hearted, severed heads adorn bedroom doors and stone figures are decorated with droplets of red paint. The crimson wallpaper still covering communal areas harks back to the mansion’s 19th-century construction — decked out with wooden paneling and faux-gothic furnishings.

The Witches Houses were built in 1881 by John Young, the former Mayor of Sydney, father of the bowling green, engineer of London’s ephemeral Crystal Palace, and builder of much of St Mary’s Cathedral. He pioneered the construction of Annandale, attempting to establish the suburb as a rival to wealthy eastern enclaves like Darling Point. In Young’s own house, just steps from the Abbey, he created Australia’s first bowling green and opened it up to the public, making way for an iconic Aussie take on an age-old pastime that has kept seniors out of strife and given barefoot twenty-somethings an excuse to drink beer in the sunshine ever since.

The Abbey was constructed as a gift for Young’s wife, Eleanor, to lure her away from England. He pieced together stained glass windows, stole numerous gargoyles from his day job at St Mary’s, and modeled the house on the Scottish baronial manors she was accustomed to. Yet, despite its gaudy interior replete with quatrefoil motifs to garner good luck, The Abbey didn’t do the trick. Young’s wife never arrived and the house remained uninhabited in the mayor’s lifetime. Young was a high-ranking Freemason and his cultish tendencies extended to The Abbey’s decor. Tessellated paving, Masonic trefoils and eight-pointed stars are dotted throughout in friezes and tiles, leading many to believe the property was briefly repurposed as a Masonic Lodge. 

Young’s unrequited love wasn’t the only heartbreak witnessed by The Abbey. In the 1920s, the house was acquired by prominent solicitor Ernest W. Warren, only for his wife to die in a car accident several years later. Afterwards, the house was reconfigured as apartments and a variety of families moved in. Whilst it couldn’t give Warren the sanctuary he’d hoped for, it provided comfort and refuge for working-class families with nowhere else to go. The children who grew up in the mansion ran rampant around the area, or so they say. They played hide-and-seek at the local public school, scooted about the factories and dived into Blackwattle Bay when the summer heat got too much. 

The Abbey brought artists and writers into its orbit too: Mark Twain is said to have stayed the night there, and novelist Christina Stead penned her final works under the exposed beams and vaulted ceilings of the Abbey’s spacious studios and living rooms.

Geoffrey Davis moved into The Abbey in 1959. It was the year that Six O’Clock Rock hit the screens and the Sydney Opera House began construction. Davis filled the house with old LPs, magic lantern slides, cloisonne vases and collections of seashells. There was never a dull day in Davis’ Abbey. From time to time he would fill the swimming pool up with trout and the family would spend the day casting lines into the water. 

Davis was a prominent surgeon and pioneered the provision of birth control and safe abortions in Sydney and internationally. He was a member of the Sydney Push, a left-wing intellectual subculture that grew out of Sydney Uni and the pubs in its surroundings. Robert Hughes, Frank Moorhouse, Eva Cox and the like spent long nights at The Tudor, Flodge, and the British Lion debating left-wing libertarianism and the philosophy of John Anderson. Their parties at The Abbey were notorious. 

Bottles of wine balanced atop piles of old books, couples curled up on couches beneath stained glass windows and huddled under The Abbey’s gothic archways. The Bushwacker Band took the stage and leftie folk sounds echoed through the property, drifting all the way up to the turret where guests hid away from the crowds. Academics, artists, and activists poured in until the early hours of the morning. And when the sun peaked over Blackwattle Bay, Davis was known to push the party-goers out the back stairs with a wooden broom.

Eventually the sun set on the Sydney Push and the wild nights at the Abbey came to an end. Ivy grew over the sandstone facade, wallpaper slowly peeled away and dust began to fester and settle in untouched corners of the castle. 

Davis died in 2008, and a year later his children sold the property to Ann Sherry, the CEO of a cruise company. The smoke stains left by bohemian water pipes and French cigarettes were scrubbed away, the disintegrating floorboards were replaced, and the dungeon — once motheaten and mystical — has been repurposed as a cellar and a yoga studio. She revived the once jungle-like garden into an inner-city Garden of Eden. Passionfruit, rhubarb, and lettuce grow plentifully, the grotto is filled with tulips and bougainvillea clambers up the gate, enveloping the mansion in vibrant colour.

Just last week The Abbey was put back on the market. The $15 million slice of history will cast a spell on a new family and entangle it into the house’s mystery, just as it has former residents for over a century. “I’ve lived elsewhere for years and years and years, but it was always there,” Davis’ son Gervase told House and Garden magazine. “It was always a part of us.”