With a love of all things historical, it’s no great leap to find Wellington craftsman Danny Hawke forging out a career in brass and iron bed restoration and living in a home that was one of the town’s first inns.
Wellington craftsman Danny Hawke lives in a 14 room house that in 1866 was called The Stragglers Inn. It is said The Stragglers Inn, which was a stop on the Cobb and Cobb route, was built in preparation for the first wooden bridge to be constructed across the Macquarie River.
‘Stragglers’ was built by the former owner of the Wards Inn, which was situated close to the nearby Lion of Waterloo Hotel also in Montefiores. The township of Wellington was growing and the Stragglers Inn was to play an important part in housing, entertaining and watering Wellington’s growing population.
Driving past the shop front gives no indication of the bounty of antique beds Hawke keeps stocked on the rambling premises. Around 1000 bed frames in various states of repair are stacked in racks in and around his work shed, wedged between lathes and other heavy machinery.
Being in his shed is like stepping back in time. He even looks the part with his old felt hat and long beard. He’s completely at ease amid the organised chaos of rusted frames, twisted lengths of metal, offcuts and shavings.
A resident since 1983, his father Geoff purchased the premises in 1980 for a “bargain price.” Far from the restored beauty it is now, the inn (after many incarnations), was rundown, having once been a boarding house and then converted in to four flats in the 1950s.
Hawke said he has pumped the dollars back into the property since then. He described the work that’s gone into the Stragglers Inn as a labour of love and has done 90 per cent of the restoration himself.
His passion for all things historic is reflected in the beautifully crafted furniture that features throughout the large home. Ornate hand carved pieces from England, hard to find Jacobean lounges and an antique clock collection accentuate each of the lovingly restored rooms.
But far from being museum-like, the family home is warm and comfortable with plenty of traces of his two children Sophie and Thomas and wife Katie, who is a local infants teacher at Wellington Public School.
The building has had a colourful past as you would expect from its age and purpose. One of the Napoleon Bonaparte movies made in the 1970s used the inn as a primary filming location and of course no old home is complete without its own ghost or two.
“I did hear an old shearer was found deceased out the back there apparently from natural causes, there were quite a few dings in the wall from where he used to throw his beer bottles at the wall and bounce them into the bin,” he said.
“A woman who believed she could see spirits said she sensed a scullery maid walking around the place and another man who would have been a book keeper, so two ghosts apparently, but so far I have never felt any chills, but I am open to it.”
He said his goal was to have the building restored, finished and paid for by the time he was 40. While he met the financial goal, the restorations are still plodding along and evolving over time, and the family is enjoying every bit of the process.
“I’ve tried to keep it all as true to the original building as I can, even down to the light switches and original door locks, trying to bring it back to life as it should be,” he said.
“I’ve even had the name ‘Stragglers Inn’ done in lead light above the door at the entrance- that’s what this place will always be called to me, I just love the name.”
Hawke’s trade in the bed restoration business came about by default. Having just left school and unsure of what direction to take, he stepped in to help his father, who was unwell at the time. He soon found himself a partner in the business at the ripe old age of 16 and has devoted himself to restoration work ever since. He is one of very few craftsman left in Australia who restore brass and iron beds from beginning to end.
“There’s not many of us left, it’s much easier to make a new bed than restore an old one,” he said. “I don’t believe in powder coating old beds either, I think it destroys the look, it’s like dipping it in a molten plastic, it’s thick and ugly.”
He said the pits and the corrosion add to the charm of the bed, not detract.
“I am a realist, I’m dealing with things that are 140 or 150 years old, they have dings in them, that’s part of their character and a sign of their age. That’s why you get old things, you like to see a little bit of character, it’s like people- the older you get the more the canvas evolves.”
When restoring a bed, he is the only one that works on it.
“I strip it down, I repair it and make sure it all works properly, I take it out and sand blast it, spray paint it, I do all the brass work, polish it and lacquer it and piece it back together to make sure it’s all right.”
His attention to detail is precise: he has cut out small pieces of shell (mother-of-pearl) to replace inlays on a decorative brass feature.
The oldest bed on the premises at the moment dates back to about 1840. Hawke said those beds were blacksmith-made; made not from steel but forged from malleable iron, a forerunner to steel, with many featuring applied casting.
The beds were usually four posters and designed with the Australian climate in mind, complete with a mosquito net over the top as a practicality rather than a decorative addition.
With so many beds passing through his work-worn hands over the 32 years he’s been restoring them, seeing what Hawke had deemed worthy for his own bed was a must.
“It’s a special piece, it’s a Scottish made bed with cast stags in both ends and dates back to about 1860,” he said.
“It’s quite intriguing because before I found it I had a beautiful old oil painting from New Zealand (1914) featuring a stag with a broken leg up in the mountains, so when I stumbled across the bed, I thought, ahhh that’s my bed.”
The stag became the theme for the bedroom, the first themed room in the house. Further to that, Hawke has commissioned a cousin to create stained glass windows above each of the doorways. The glass piece in the couple’s bedroom features (not surprisingly) a stag, while the remaining windows depict native animals. Except one, the bathroom, which features a rather busty mermaid.
One bed perched anonymously in the work shed awaiting restoration, has a sordid history.
“The bed apparently came out of a brothel and it even has bullet holes in it, true,” Hawke said laughing.
“It’s about a 1915 model that one, don’t know where it was operational but we had another brothel bed that came from the gold fields in Victoria,” he said.
“A beautiful cast bed with no springs – the early beds had a slated hoop-iron base – so thin strips of metal woven across and probably a kapok, feather or horse hair mattress.”
When asked if there was particular bed he would like to see come through his doors for restoration, Hawke stopped to consider.
“Not really, everything that comes through is a challenge, everything has its peculiarities; it’s all satisfying in its own way.”
Macquarie View Brass and Iron Beds is located at 4 Dubbo Road, Wellington, NSW.