Penshurst – A Sea Captain’s Mansion Saved from Ruin

I have a soft spot for Penshurst, the historic house I’m going to share with you today – which was actually one of my very first home tours – in fact I visited it before I’d even clicked ‘publish’ on my first blog post! (Original post here).

When I was a teenager, after school my best friend and I used to walk down to the river, swim at Bicton Baths and then we’d walk home, sometimes taking a different route to look at the beautiful houses by the river. One day in 2000 we chanced upon this huge old Victorian house, which looked much like the below at the time.

It was a wreck then, but there was something about it, sitting proudly on the hill, older than any other house around it – it had a presence. I was enthralled.

ABOVE: Penshurst in 2000.

ON TOP OF THE WORLD: A photo of the back of the house, before its renovations.

So were Tim and Frances Brien from the U.K, who first clapped eyes on Penshurst in 2001, a year after I first came across it. The Briens, who own a childcare centre, came across a newspaper ad with a drawing of what the house might have once looked like (see below).

But as they drew up to the house, they realised the drawing was not entirely accurate! Time had weathered the home so much it was a dilapidated ruin. But they were hooked – and they bought it.

ABOVE: The newspaper drawing of the house as it was advertised.

ABOVE: The house as it actually was. Yep, they were brave!

PENSHURST TODAY: The Briens know the value of patience – the home took ten years to renovate, the beautiful gardens years to landscape as well. Now tall plane trees to the side of the home are accented by formal hedges and beds of lavender.

One of my favourite things about my job is getting to stickybeak inside houses I’d admired for years, and when the chance came to write about Penshurst, I jumped at it. It didn’t disappoint me – but it did disappoint its first owner. Built in 1897 for a sea captain, the limestone house, named Penshurst, was built on the highest spot in the area atop Richmond Hill, with panoramic ocean, river, city and Darling Ranges views. Absolutely spectacular views. But the story goes that the sea captain’s wife turned up to look at the house one day while it was being built, hated it on sight, turned around and drove back down the road, refusing to ever live in it.

Whether that tale is true or not, Penshurst has not seemed to have had much luck enchanting any of its owners – until the Briens came along. Before them, the house was always a rental. Its previous owners included a WA premier and a man who had spent 20 months at a German prisoner-of-war camp in WWI (both who never resided there) and in 1941 the house was even divided into four rental flats. “We were the first owners who actually lived in it,” laughs Tim. (The house is now on the market with Space Real Estate).

When the Briens made it theirs, the place was a ruin, falling apart from years of termite damage, vandalism and lack of maintenance. It was once even close to demolition in the 90s – how lucky it didn’t go through! “When we bought it, everyone told us we were crazy,” says Tim, who took on the daunting task of project manager – at just 28!

SEA VISTA: The ocean views beyond Penshurst.

THE MAIN SUITE: How nice to wake up to views like these every day.

TOP: The gardens then and now – not easy to landscape a limestone cliff! BELOW: Penshurst is a late Victorian house of an unconventional design, with its two multi-faceted bays at right angles to one another. According to the Heritage Council, there was no other building built to this plan configuration. The Briens added a sleek, modern living and garage extension.

ABOVE: While the Briens renovated, they had lots of visits from numerous people who had lived at Penshurst at some point during their lives. One past occupant gave them this old photo of the entrance hall and how it used to look.

ABOVE: The entrance hall today.

While the renovations at Penshurst went on, Tim said drivers constantly slowed down in the middle of the road to stare at the house, passers-by stopped to chat, and many people who have lived in the house since it was built have dropped in to share their stories and old photos.

It took renovations tallying a million dollars, but so impressive was Tim and Fran’s work, they won the 2012 Western Australian Heritage Award for Outstanding Conservation of a Residential Place. Now after more than ten years in the home, they have decided to sell; looking forward to giving another family an opportunity to enjoy the home and excited about starting the next chapter in their lives – well, except for Tim and Fran’s daughters, aged 8 and 10, who have lived at Penshurst their whole lives.

“The kids got really upset,” says Tim, adding that one of his daughters had always complained about living in an old house and claimed that when she was grown up that her house was going to be “new and modern”. Perhaps not surprisingly, she’s now devastated that they are leaving and has taken it into her own hands to try to make Tim’s real estate agent, the lovely Toby Astill of Space Real Estate, miserable every time he comes over. “She hates Toby, and the poor man hasn’t done anything wrong,” laughs Tim.

But could they really leave, after the excitement of living through what may be one of Perth’s most dramatic home renovations? Tim says it is likely they will find another project. I look forward to seeing the next one.

NOT A BAD VIEW: This house is as lovely inside as you might imagine a house called Penshurst would be. I’ve always wanted to live in a house with a fancy name so I can say pompous-sounding things like, “We spent summers at Killarney” or “during my childhood at Windmere”. (I did give my house a name when I bought it but The Crap Shack is not quite the same).

VIEWS TO DIE FOR: Perched high on Richmond Hill, the home’s river, city and ocean views took my breath away. According to the Heritage Council of Western Australia, Penshurst was built in the colonial era when the merchants of Fremantle actually preferred to settle closer to the heart of town – just on the outskirts in the terraces of East and South Fremantle. While East and South Fremantle ask for a pretty penny these days, it’s views like these that fetch premium prices in Perth.

OLD AND NEW: The home lets Francis and Brien indulge their love of the traditional and the modern. The older part of the home has been decorated in a classic style, with numerous antiques. Clean lines and modern and retro pieces reign in the contemporary open-plan living.

THE MUSIC ROOM: Adjoining the formal lounge is a music room, with an old telescope for watching boats come down the river.

THE MODERN EXTENSION: Frameless glass bi-fold doors open the space up to the outdoors and make the most of the spectacular river and city views. Tim and Frances are big believers that when renovating a heritage-listed property that any new extensions should be distinguishable from the original home, as is customary in the U.K where they lived before. So they added a very modern open-plan living extension. It works perfectly, the concrete walls and zinc cassette cladding a beautiful juxtaposition against the restored tuckpointed walls of the original home.



Childcare centre owners Tim and Frances Brien, who lived there with their two daughters, aged 8 and 10, and their chocolate Labrador puppy


A fully restored, heritage-listed 1897 sea captain’s house that had once fallen into disrepair


Fremantle, Western Australia




Period features, fireplaces, panoramic ocean, river, city and island views from hilltop position, library, music room, cellar, modern open-plan living extension, entry hall, wraparound veranda and balcony, children’s activity room, formal lounge, study, lap pool


The house is currently on the market with Toby Astill from Space Real Estate.


Author: Maya Anderson

When Maya Anderson was thinking of a name for her homes and design blog, nothing seemed more fitting than House Nerd. Obsessed with everything to do with houses, renovating and interior design, Maya is a features journalist by training with a background in print and a focus on homes and real estate. She has been renovating her 1970s house since forever, loves dogs and can eat her body weight in dumplings.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *