Remembering June Wallace

I came to know June when the Historic Houses Trust (now Museums of History NSW) became interested in Meroogal back in the 1980s. We travelled up and down to Nowra together on a regular basis for many months.

June was a model of graciousness, courtesy and generosity. It was not easy for her – letting go of a place that represented her family history and her very dear Thorburn aunts with whom she had spent so many happy times. We took the discussions slowly, getting to know and trust one another and sharing deep conversations.

We had a lot of laughs along the way too. Indeed we had a way, between us, of making each other laugh till we both cried. And we shared many meals around the dining table at Meroogal and fish and chips on the journey home.

Whilst we discussed business, we enjoyed a different relationship too. June was always keen to know about my children and extended family, about Jo and her family and she was full of good advice. And she remembered everything I told her. Oh to have her memory! I came to understand June well – I think – though there was always a sense with her that there was more.

June had some real sadnesses and difficulties in her life. But as the strong and intelligent woman that she was, she had learned to live with these and to get on with life and she was invariably positive and great fun. To know June was to understand Meroogal at a deep level. She embodied the place through her genteel nature, commitment to family, high intelligence, inquiring mind, and that special mix of frugality and generosity that was the hallmark of women of her generation and background. I, and many others, will miss June. She was a very special person.

Peter Watts, former director of Sydney Living Museums

June Wallace 1917-2010

June Wallace (nee Steel) was born on 9 July 1917, the daughter of Margaret Ross and James Barnet Steel. At the age of three her parents’ marriage ended and June moved to Nowra with her mother to live at Kintore, a cottage built on the horse paddock attached to historic Meroogal house.

June spent much of her time with her aunts and great-aunts and frequently stayed at Meroogal, living there in the years before completing her education at boarding school in Sydney.

In 1944 June married Charles Wallace but continued to visit Meroogal and her aunt Elgin who lived there regularly. In 1977 Elgin Thorburn died and June inherited Meroogal, keeping the tradition of handing down the house to women in the family, but for the first time since it was built, the house would not be permanently occupied.

Despite a busy family life in Sydney, June was very conscious of the family tradition and was also very fond of the property, continuing to visit Meroogal and her friends in Nowra once a month. Each visit started with a cup of tea on the verandah, the traditional gathering spot from when the Thorburn sisters had lived at the property. An inspection of the rooms always followed.

June was very conscious of the value of the house, from a personal viewpoint but also as part of the heritage of Nowra. As custodian of Meroogal, June took great care to maintain its character, adopting the traditional housekeeping techniques, mending and modifying the house in keeping with its original existence. June also continued to care for the possessions her mother and aunts had kept, regarding the house and its contents as a collection. As a result of June’s conservation, the house was in good condition when the Historic Houses Trust purchased the property in 1985 and was described by the Premier of the time Neville Wran as the “most intact late nineteenth-century house known in NSW”.

Although June, her adult children Margaret and Peter, their friends and relatives used Meroogal on weekends and holidays, the upkeep became difficult. After offering Meroogal to all the descendants, June came to the very difficult decision to put the house on the market. When the Historic Houses Trust negotiated to purchase the property, June allowed for the family possessions, which she had planned to remove from the house, to remain so that they and the stories behind them would forever be a part of Meroogal. June was of particular importance to the development of Meroogal as a museum. She was a talented oral historian adding personality to the house through her vivid memories and stories of the house and her forebears.

June Mary Wallace died Monday 5 July 2010, aged 92 years - four days short of her 93rd birthday. She is survived by her children Margaret and Peter, granddaughter Kathryn and her many friends.

June was one of an elite group of people who recognise the historical value of their family home and its evolved family collection to the wider community. June understood that Meroogal could be a joy to visit for many people.

She was unstinting in her willingness to tell you what she knew. She had a wonderful memory and would tell you when she didn’t know something, rather than hypothesize – an ideal subject for oral history.

She also had the ability to be direct in a friendly fashion and, to tell you when she thought YOU might be hypothesizing in the wrong direction. June’s recollections have provided the basis for Meroogal being one of the best provenanced family collections in Australia and her knowledge of family life at Meroogal have given us a house that readily comes alive when visited.

June was always good company. Travelling from Sydney to Meroogal and at Meroogal I always enjoyed June’s company and her acute observations about life in general, as well as the life at Meroogal. I am very pleased and privileged to have known June and worked with her.

Meredith Walker, museum collection and heritage adviser, Heritage Futures

Mrs Wallace was extremely generous with her time and with her memories. She willingly gave thousands of hours of oral history covering every aspect of the property, from the nature and composition of the garden in the 1920s to the individual provenance of over 3500 objects in the collection. These recollections were clear, considered and affectionate. That we know so much, and in such detail, of the nature and habits of each of the extended family who lived at Meroogal is due in a large part to the clear, consistent and considered recollections of June.

That we can engage with faces in photographs as individuals and be aware of their personalities and their particular roles within the family and the community, that we know who made decisions about the pattern of the wallpaper and the colour of the painted ceramics, or whose skills produced the Mountmellick work, that we know how to make Tot’s loaf sponge beating with a knife rather than a fork, or the name of a dog leaping joyously in the covered way, is due to her. Mrs Wallace’s passion for the place, her love of the family and incredible energy for a constructive life was infectious, and her willingness to share this hugely appreciated and an extraordinarily treasured legacy.

Suzanne Bravery, one of Meroogal’s first curators

June was always generous with her time and stories and her remarkable memory has enabled us, as guides, to bring the family and the house to life for our visitors. As the last owner of Meroogal, June was gracious and charming and her visits added an extra depth to any of our functions and events. To us she was inspirational and was the perfect role model of an adventurous woman growing up in Nowra. She travelled the world and had a fascinating life but always kept her connections to our town.

I am writing this message during a day of well-booked school holiday activities here at Meroogal. The story of Alice in Wonderland is being explored and played-out by a group of children in connection to the world of early Nowra. A bottle labelled 'DRINK ME' has been found down the well, croquet has been played on the lawn and a very special tea party is being held on the lawn with a cake saying ‘EAT ME'. Thanks to June, the children have experienced a magical home and seen parasols and top hats, beautiful china tea cups and intricate fans, a handmade nightdress and dancing shoes. June will always have a very special place at Meroogal for us as staff and guides.

Cheryl Scowen, former SLM staff and Manager of Meroogal

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