Nyrambla: Ascot Spy House Spills Its Secrets

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. 

Nyrambla undated photo
Photo Credit: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

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. 

old advert for Nyrambla
Photo Credit: Trove/National Library of Australia

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. 

society announcement
Photo Credit: Trove/National Library of Australia
Nyrambla undated photograph
Photo Credit: Trove/National Library of Australia

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. 

event clipping
Photo Credit: Trove/National Library of Australia
children's party clipping
Photo Credit: Trove/National Library of Australia

…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.

World War II officers at Nyrambla
Photo Credit: Ozatwar.com

“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. 

Nyrambla Today

Nyrambla through the years
Photo Credit: Lost Brisbane

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. 

Nyrambla interior photos
Photo Credits: Lost Brisbane, Ray White Real Estate, Facebook

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.

New Owners

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. 

Community Lodges Petition to Add Nyrambla House to QLD Heritage List

The Ascot community has lodged a petition to include the Nyrambla House on Henry Street into the Queensland Heritage Listing. Used as a spy house for Australian, U.S., and allied soldiers during World War II, the home was sold at auction to a private owner.

Australian artist Lawrence Daws and his wife Andree, both deceased, used to own the property but their family decided to sell the mansion to an undisclosed new owner during an auction held in May 2021.  

The famous Ascot house has been cited as a heritage place with the Brisbane City Council since 2008 but the locals believe the house should also be acknowledged in the state register. In 2022, the Allies will be celebrating the 80th Anniversary of their collaborative work during World War II to defeat the Japanese forces. 

“It would be an appropriate acknowledgment of the strong bonds that bind Australia and the United States of America,” the petitioners stated. 

The petition will remain active until 30 Nov 2021. 

The Queensland Heritage List may consider adding a place to the list if it has brought  significant value to the “state’s wider pattern and evolution of history and heritage.”  

The Nyrambla House, originally built in the mid-1980s as a residence for Henry P. Abbott, was subdivided and then converted into rows of flats in the 1920s after G.W. Whatmore of the Centennial Hall Ltd acquired the property from Abbott. 

By the Second World War, the Central Bureau occupied the house for Allied codebreakers to intercept Japanese communications. In 1988, American veterans dedicated the plaque installed at the Nyrambla House, which reads:

“Central Bureau, an organisation comprising service personnel of Australia, USA, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, both men and women, functioned in this house from 1942 till 1945. From intercepted enemy radio messages, the organisation provided intelligence which made a decisive contribution to the Allied victory in the Pacific.”

Photo Credit: Paz Avalos/Google Maps

The deed to the Nyrambla House remained with the Whatmore family until the auction last May 2021.