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The Ghost & Mrs Blundell

The humble stone house perched on the edge of a national capital's artificial lake is as much a landmark as the similarly positioned political and cultural institutions that dwarf it.

There more than five decades before Canberra was made official in 1913 – and another 51 years overlooking a rivered flood plain prior to it becoming a lake bed – it's equally known for its historic relevance and the ghost who's said to haunt it.

That particular entity is also linked to yet another intriguing, unsolved regional mystery.

Source: Trove.

Blundells Cottage (or Farmhouse) - named for its longest-residing tenants rather than the Ginns who were its first, or the Oldfields as its last of long-standing.

Built by George Campbell of the local landed gentry clan, for William Ginn, the man charged with ploughing the surrounding paddocks owned by his benefactor. The ploughman's brood remained on until Will himself became a landowner, establishing “Canberra Park”, near Gungahlin, in 1874.

Bullock driver George Blundell and his midwife spouse, Flora, moved in thereafter.

George was the son of a convict assigned to the Campbells of Duntroon. His mother was a woman of rather scandalous disposition; one descendant, Dr Allan Hawke, has recently released a book on some family skeletons of a more moral nature.

[NB: Another relative is one of Australia's most outstanding sportspeople, squash supremo Heather McKay].

With Flora giving birth almost every two years, the couple would need to add to the simple dwelling in order that they might fit their eight children.

The sturdy, rough-hewn walls – blue crystal-laden rock (porphry) and sandstone quarried from Mount Majura and Black Mountain and local slab timber – duly extended, bringing it to a total of six rooms.

[NB: Such stone was also used for the nearby St John's Church of 1845, “under the shadow” of which George was born, baptised in along with six of his siblings in 1849, educated at the adjoining school, married within and spending “a long life of useful service in church matters”, including the 1872 erection of the chancel and tower.]

Never so vain as to name the property after themselves - “Poplar Grove” apparently its original poetic appellation - was home until George's death in 1933, 16 years after his bride.

A shepherd and stockman “reminiscent of figures in the late Banjo Paterson's verse” with the apt surname of Oldfield came next. Harry and his “eccentric” wife Alice inhabited the picturesque though rudimentary property for almost 30 years – Alice on her own for the last decade-and-a-half, taking in boarders and never seen dressed in anything but black following her husband's passing.

In a century of occupancy, the amenities of modern life – water, gas and a sewer line – were never part of the deal. Electricity was only connected once it was repurposed as a museum in 1964.

And it was the precariousness of such conditions that led to its attached legend.

An original artwork by Queanbeyan artist, Jenny Shepherd.

The eldest Blundell child and one of three girls, arriving the year after her parents moved in, was also christened Flora (Susannah) for her Scottish-born mother.

There's some familiarity with the general story: in 1892 when just 16, on a winter evening while ironing in front of the fire, Flora got too close, her nightdress erupting in flames. She succumbed to her injuries the following day.

The echo of her former self is said to continue to inhabit the place that was home for all of her tender years.

Shadowy garden appearances; items moving about, apparently of their own accord; the pervasive feeling that you're not alone within the confined space even if this is the case. More disturbingly, a burning smell.

All these allusions to the supernatural are to be found in various sources – and occasionally referenced by those who believe they've had an encounter. (Another suggestion is a figure “all in black” seen moving about within the building itself; might it be a case of mistaken identity and instead it's Alice Oldfied?).

Interestingly, the first known reports of such phenomena are as insubstantial as the ghost itself.

Photo: Justin Smith Photography.

Perhaps though, if Flora remains tethered by her earthly bond, it has less to do with the nature of her death than her final resting place – where some also claim to have crossed her path.

Mrs Flora Blundell c1900. Source: Wikipedia.

Despite heavy rain, there was a large turn-out on Sunday, August 14, 128 years ago, for the teenager's burial, conducted by the well-liked Rev. Robert Steel, in the Presbyterian section of the Queanbeyan Riverside Cemetery of 1846.

Twenty-five years later, also on a rainy Sunday, her mother would be laid alongside her. The handsome Mrs Blundell, known for her “devotion to home, church, and God”, had lived the remainder of her days in the place where her beloved child was taken.

Of the other seven siblings, Charles and Herbert are there also (12 and 9 respectively at the time of Flora Junior's death, they dying in 1923 and 1957 ). Husband and father, George, however, lies alone in the Anglican churchyard of St John's.

Mother and daughter's combined burial marker is the only one of its kind of the almost 4,000 within “God's Acre” on the bank of the Queanbeyan River. In contravention of the Christian tradition in which bodies are laid with the feet pointing eastwards – in order that they might rise more easily come Judgement Day – theirs face west.

In the context of Christianity, being laid to rest in some other orientation was generally considered a pagan burial, reserved as punishment for those who'd sinned extraordinarily, or criminals. Clearly, none of those would apply in this instance.

There are those pesky floods that have long disturbed the eternal slumber of many; this was the case for Charles Blundell in 1925, although his record attests to this. What's noted in the Cemetery Register is that in 1981 (five years after the last major flood), remains of the Blundell women's marble monuments were found (and are still in situ), Council erecting a small headstone with plaque to replace them.

Other grave furniture has been relocated after disasters, natural and otherwise (not necessarily accompanied by the occupants), and while there are a few “out of alignment”, that of the two Floras is the only one facing “backwards”. As to the why, I'm so far, dare I say, at a dead end.

That is just a reflection of the tree in the window, isn't it ...

Might this then, account for otherworldly restlessness?

And what of the quaint Cottage to which they were so attached in life, providing as it does a “symbolic foil for the majesty of” not just the one Parliament House of 1927, but since 1988, two?

Almost as disturbing as the tales of Flora's ghost, after the final exit of the more corporeal residents, it was to make way for a lake to be named for the capital's creator (at least, using the middle and last names of Walter Burley Griffin).

Rescued from oblivion by the National Capital Development Commission (under the guidance of Sir John Overall* since 1958), it has been revitalised on a number of occasions so as to maintain its status as a bastion of the region's historic record.

It is the only “pre-Federal Capital building in the National Triangle”, and one of the few surviving stone buildings in the wider area.

[NB: Within its collection is a small steel spike used by Charles Scrivener for the 1910-1911 survey of the Canberra site. “As the land was still part of NSW at the time the datum spike was linked through other survey points to Macquarie Place in Sydney where all surveys and road measurements began. The spike was fixed in a eucalypt growing at what is now the southern end of Commonwealth Avenue until the tree was felled during road works in the early 1960s.” This piece of local history was retained and rehomed.]

The building was officially reopened on, of all days, Friday the 13th March, 1964, Canberra's 51st birthday. Present was Jack (Joseph) Blundell, last child of George and Flora and at 86, the last surviving of his siblings.

Still operating as a museum, its shutterless windows are unblinking eyes that continue to overlook a modern city that's grown up and around it.

Though small in stature, more than 160 years on, the spirit of Blundells Cottage is undiminished - in all manner of speaking.

* Sir John Overall is indeed a relative - my husband's father.


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