Australia House

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The grand house with a beautiful walled garden standing at 407 Wilbrod St. has been the residence of the Australian High Commissioner since 1940. It is believed the house was designed by Ottawa architect J.H. Watts, the first curator of the National Gallery of Canada, who also designed several large houses for the Booth family (the Fleck–Patterson House at 500 Wilbrod St. (now the Algerian embassy), the Frederick Booth House at 285 Charlotte St. (which burned down in 1956 and is now the site of the Russian embassy) and J. R. Booth’s house at 252 Metcalfe St. (now part of Trinity Western University).

 

The house was built in 1910 for William Davis[1] and his wife Agnes[2].  Davis, who came from a wealthy family, unsuccessfully dabbled in stocks and squandered his inheritance. According to newspaper reports, he died suddenly on Christmas Eve 1916, as he was dressing for church. This, however, was a polite deception as he had died at his mistress’s apartment, a scandal that Ottawa society could not admit to publicly in 1916.

 

Agnes and her daughters eventually moved and the house stood empty until Senator William Cameron Edwards bought it in 1920. Colonel Edwards was the son of lumberman W.C. Edwards, who lived at 24 Sussex Ave. (now the prime minister’s residence) and nephew of John Edwards, who built 345 Laurier Ave. E., just a block away (the headquarters of the Examination Unit during World War 2).

 

Between 1937 and 1939, 407 Wilbrod was the home of Dr. Erich Windels, German consul-general. A career diplomat, Windels was a cultured man who hosted musical soirées with his wife, who incidentally was the great-great grand-daughter of George Frederick Handel.

Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who lived just two blocks away, attended some of these soirées and grew fond of the Windels. In his diary, King writes that “Mrs. Windels spoke frequently of how much I had contributed to their happiness in Ottawa” (cited in Wood, 2000).

 

In 1938, fearing that war might break out in Europe, King decided to write a personal letter to Hitler, urging restraint and entrusted this letter to Windels to deliver in person. On July 21, 1939, King met Windels at Laurier House to receive Hitler’s response — an invitation to visit Germany at the head of a Canadian delegation. King was delighted and had high hopes he could avoid a war but an election was due and King decided it would be more appropriate to schedule his trip after the election. As tensions escalated in Europe, King continued to work with Windels through August to prevent war but these efforts, of course, failed.

 

After Canada declared war on Germany, King visited Windels one last time at his home to say a personal goodbye. In his diary, King wrote: “I told him that … I hoped that the terrible conditions which had arisen between our countries would, if anything, strengthen rather than lessen the faith that we had in each other. That I regarded him and Mrs. Windels as true friends. …What a cursed thing war is, that it should create situations such as this” (cited in Wood, 2000).

 

In 1940, the German government re-assigned Windels to the German consulate in Philadelphia and not its embassy in Washington, apparently because it suspected his loyalty to the regime. He died in 1966.

 

[1] Davis was the son of M.P. Davis, a successful contracto. A photograph of M.P. Davis’s large house on Rideau St. can be seen in the section Lost Sandy Hill.

[2] Agnes was the niece of Senator R.W. Scott, a minister in Laurier’s cabinet. Evidence suggests that she was also Amaryllis, the society reporter of the late 19th C., whose columns in Saturday Night and the Ottawa Free Press provided much of the material for Sandra Gwynn’s book The Private Capital.