A mansion built from selling firearms

A mansion built from selling firearms
Jeff Atkinson

This large house at 48 Drummond St, Carlton, was built with money made from selling small arms to the citizens of Melbourne. It is one of Melbourne’s most florid examples of the Victorian Baroque style, with many exterior decorations, terra cotta roof ornaments, and an equally spectacular interior. It was initially called Benvenuta, meaning “welcome” in Italian.

The house was built in 1892 for Mrs Leah Abrahams, the widow of Henry Abrahams, who made his fortune selling rifles, shotguns, pistols and revolvers from a shop on the corner of Elizabeth St and Little Collins. When he died in 1885, his widow Leah continued to run the business, assisted by her four adult sons. But in the early 1890s, the sons and the business were in deep trouble, facing conspiracy charges to defraud. They were accused of stamping cheap Belgian and other lower-grade firearms with well-known brands and fraudulently selling them as higher quality guns than they were.

However, the sons’ troubles did not stop their mother from having this large and ostentatious home built for the family. For its construction, architect Walter Scott Law imported materials from Italy - stained glass and more than 15 tons of marble and steel - and artisans to create the ornate interior. Mrs Abrahams and her twelve adult children lived in the mansion from the 1890s until she died in 1914. After her death, it remained in the family’s hands as a leased property until 1950, when the Victorian Government purchased it for the University of Melbourne.

When it was leased, it had a chequered and colourful history. In the 1920s, the Commonwealth Government transformed it into offices for the Arbitration Court and the Federal Attorney-General’s Department. It was converted into an Italian club at one stage, boasting a ballroom, orchestra, and a regular Sunday boxing match.

Benvenuta also had its share of dark history during this period. It is reputed to have originally contained a large strong-room, which in the 1930s was blown open by the authorities in pursuit of a quarter of a million pounds in unpaid taxes owed by Leah’s sons. A bullet hole in the stained-glass window at the top of the stairs is supposedly evidence of criminal activity occurring from 1938 when the house was leased to a North Melbourne wine merchant.

In 1949, a shortage of student accommodation for the rapidly growing University of Melbourne led to the state government purchasing numbers 46 and 48 Drummond St, Benvenuta and its adjacent house, Rosaville, for repurposing as a student hostel. Rosaville had in 1900-1902 been the home of the noted Australian artist Frederick McCubbin.

In 1954 the hostel was named Medley Hall, after the recently retired Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Sir John Medley. In 1969 the neighbouring terrace house on the other side, number 52 Drummond St, was also purchased, and an extension linking all three buildings was constructed. The three adjacent houses now form the residential college Medley Hall •

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