Spying in Ascot? Find out how Nyrambla, a historic home on Henry Street, became a top-secret decoding base in the Second World War.
A Banker’s Home
More than a century after it was built, Nyrambla still stands proudly at Henry Street in Ascot, after having been many things to many people — home to a banker, an alderman, prominent society personalities, even serving as headquarters for code-breakers in the Second World War.
Nyrambla was originally built in 1885 during a time when grand residences were built on the apexes of the hilly suburb of Ascot.
Designed to be a two-storey family house by Brisbane architect James Cowlishaw, Nyrambla took up three large estates spanning from Windermere and Lancaster Roads. It had separate structures for the servants and the stables.
The house was designed for the manager of the Australian Joint Stock Bank, Mr Henry P Abbott.
Per historical records from Brisbane’s Local Heritage places, the Abbotts came from a family of wealthy sheep ranchers in New South Wales and named their home “Nyrambla” after a station owned by Mrs Abbott’s side of the family.
Shortly after Mr Abbott’s retirement from banking, his family decided to return to Sydney where he died in 1903. When the Abbotts left, the Australian Joint Stock Bank rented out the mansion to Mr Patrick Perkins, a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Queensland who came from a family of Irish brewers.
The Subdivision of Nyrambla
By the early 1900s, Nyrambla was subsequently divided to include more tenants thus creating Henry and Abbott streets around the 15-acre estate, as it has existed today. Mr T. Herbert Brown, the son-in-law of Sir Samuel Griffith, the inaugural Chief Justice of Australia, lived in one of the properties with his wife.
The bank then advertised and sold the estate in allotments of different sizes. An acre of the site with the original house was acquired by Edward David Miles, an alderman in Charters Towers and a Member of the Queensland Legislative Council.
Ten years after owning Nyrambla in the mid-1920s, the Miles family sold the property to George Willoughby Whatmore of Centennial Hall Ltd and the Willoughby Trust Ltd. Generations of Mr Whatmore’s family owned Nyrambla, including Brisbane socialite Andree Daws, Mr Whatmore’s great-great-grandchild, until her death in August 2020.
Converting Nyrambla into Flats
In 1929, or roughly four years after their patriarch’s death, the Whatmore family agreed to convert Nyrambla from a sprawling mansion into six flats with Cunningham & Jones overseeing the construction. From its main entrance on Yabba Street, the house could now be accessed through Henry Street, much like it is today.
The flats remained family homes, where numerous social events took place among Ascot’s elites.
…Then it Became a Spy House
Then in the 1940s, the government requisitioned Nyrambla as a spy house for the Allied Forces led by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur and Australian General Thomas Blamey.
For the next three years, the 18 enlisted servicemen and six officers of U.S. 837th Signal Service Detachment and members of the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) and cryptanalyst from the Australian Cypher Section worked at the back garage to decipher intercepted Japanese codes using a Typex machine and IBM tabulators. The decoded messages were transmitted to Allied bases from all over the world.
“At Nyrambla, Central Bureau decrypted a Japanese Army Air Service signal intercepted by No. 51 Wireless Section at Darwin. The signal contained the Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Japanese Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s itinerary for his forthcoming trip to Rabaul. As a result, on 18 April 1943, Yamamoto’s aircraft was intercepted off Bouganville by US P-38 Lightning fighters and he was killed. In May 1943, the 837th Signal Service Detachment was renamed Special Intelligence Service led by Colonel Harold Doud,” per historical accounts from the Queensland WWI Historic Places.
In its modern existence, the former spy house became a nine-bedroom house with seven bathrooms, six-car garage spaces, two sunrooms, with a living room area on the second floor. It had a separate guest wing as well as an art studio for its last Whatmore descendant, the Daws.
Despite countless renovations, Nyrambla kept most of its late Victorian features with a hipped corrugated iron roof, iron cresting and finials, and street-facing gable. Each story of the house is featured with a verandah with a metal curved roof in the typical fashion of 19th-century dwellings.
The verandah levels are fortified with timber posts and top rails with cast-iron balusters, whilst tall, vertical arched windows are featured on the right sidewalls. The house itself is an elongated rectangular structure with U-shaped wings on the backside where the kitchen, the breakfast room, and the maid’s quarters are located.
The long rooms of the main house are divided using folding doors. Six bedrooms and a sitting room fill up the spaces on the second floor, whilst several fireplaces with tiled hearths and marble mantelpieces are found all over the house.
The Central Bureau consisting of soldiers from Australia, the USA, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand used Nyrambla until 1945, whilst titles to the property stayed with the Whatmore family. Over seven decades, Nyrambla was called home by many tenants, who were Brisbane VIPs like Jan Powers, Billie Brown, and Blair Edmonds.
A private investor acquired this Ascot historical treasure in May 2021 for nearly $9 million after tight competition among interested buyers.