DEANS, Edgar Absalom (1903-1991)

Edgar Deans in the 1930s
Portrait of Edgar Deans in the 1930s.
Courtesy Margo Watson

Edgar Deans is best known for his role in the management of Walter Burley Griffin’s Greater Sydney Development Association (GSDA) and for his civic duties in the Castlecrag community and with Willoughby Municipal Council.

Born in Perth, Western Australia, to Absalom and Annie Deans on 28 November 1903, Edgar moved with his family to Sydney at the age of six. After completing his schooling at Sydney Technical High School, he commenced work at 16 for various firms, including a chartered accountant. Edgar moved to Melbourne to work with various chartered accountant firms and gained his professional chartered accountancy qualifications by correspondence. He subsequently completed a Diploma of Commerce at the University of Melbourne.1

By 1926 conflict between Walter and Marion Griffin, then living in Castlecrag, and a group of Melbourne shareholders in the Greater Sydney Development Association (GSDA) had come to a head. To resolve these issues, special meetings of the board and shareholders were held over two days in August 1927 at which detailed accusations against the Griffins were aired and Walter strongly defended his position through his lawyer, Edward Beeby. The outcome was that Griffin formally signed an agreement to cease all litigation between himself and the GSDA board; the chairman Mr BJ Parkinson retired from the board and was replaced by Charles John Cerutty; and the Sydney-based company secretary was sacked and replaced by Edgar Deans.2

The 24-year old Deans enthusiastically settled into his new role and became a popular member of the Castlecrag community. His attraction to his new surrounds was soon enhanced when romance developed with Amy Kathleen (‘Cappy’) Mahady, a close friend of Louise Lightfoot who worked as a typist in the GSDA Melbourne office and had been transferred to the Castlecrag office by Griffin. She joined Louise in living with the Griffins at the Grant House in The Parapet. Soon the community was awash with the news: “Cappy is going to marry Edgar Deans!” They married in 1929.3

In addition to his formal duties as company secretary, Edgar also became closely involved in Walter Griffin’s grand project to develop a country club and golf course for the GSDA’s proposed model garden suburb at Castlecove. Griffin had first proposed to develop the course in 1924, but there was no further action until April 1928, when Deans reported to the GSDA shareholders that areas of the Castlecove Peninsula were being contoured for a nine-hole public golf course. This move was strongly opposed by the chairman and Commonwealth Auditor General, Charles Cerutty, who was an active golfer and saw himself as the company’s authority on golf course design and management. Griffin established a parallel GSDA board in Sydney that authorised contracts and payments for the project. This generated renewed conflict between the Griffins and Cerutty, backed by a group of Melbourne GSDA shareholders, which placed Deans in a difficult position. Internal documents indicate that he handled the conflict with maturity, responding in November 1930 to a confidential letter from Cerutty requesting financial details in these terms:

As an individual I have no more right to extract information from the private books of the Company that I have to Burgle the Commonwealth Bank. If it did so and used the records of the Company for my own private purposes or allowed others to do so, I would be committing a grave breach of the trust that is necessarily imposed on my by the Board. I think it is also against your interests as a Director to have personal correspondence with me in this way and to receive information from me in the dark.4

Edgar Deans at the Castlecove golf course opening ceremony
Edgar Deans tees off at the official opening of the Castlecove golf course on 12 April 1932.
Photo Walter Burley Griffin Society, courtesy Deans and Batterham families.

Deans became the de facto manager of the Castlecove Golf Course and it was a proud movement when he was the first to tee off at its official opening on 12 April 1932. Over the following months he reported regularly to Cerutty on the financial position of the company’s golf enterprise. Edgar later recalled that he had worked closely with Walter Griffin in developing the course and “when the course was built … local people flooded out there, particularly on weekends, and we made a lot of money.”5

1932 may have been a year of great hardship for most Sydneysiders, but it was one celebration for the Deans family. Not only was Edgar vindicated in his belief that the golf course would be successful, but after living in a small flat at Milsons Point and then various houses in Castlecrag for short periods, Edgar and Cappy moved into the GSDA No. 2 house on Edinburgh Road in Castlecrag during that year. Frank and Anice Duncan joined them in the small two-bedroom cottage and things became crowded when Cappy brought home their first child, Kaaren, in 1932. She was the first infant born at Cabarisha Hospital and Marion Griffin referred to her as ‘Castlecrag’s first baby’. Edgar’s sister Joyce came to live with them and help our minding her niece, so she had to sleep in the open pergola at the front of the cottage!

The Duncans moved into their delightful Griffin-designed cottage in 1934, giving the Deans more space in into the GSDA No. 2 house for their expanding family. Paul was born in 1934 and a second daughter, Margo, arrived in 1938.

Edgar recalled that he served as secretary of the Castlecrag Progress Association for 13 years and of the Neighbourhood Circle, which met on Saturday nights in the GSDA No. 2 house. They invited speakers and upwards of 20 people attended these social gatherings, while the Progress Association held its meetings at the Griffin’s house in The Parapet. Edgar and Cappy were involved in planting trees along the streets and encouraging locals to water them. They were also active in the movement to establish the Castlecrag Community Centre. Around 1938 they lobbied the Department of Education to buy land for a school at Castlecrag and they organised a demonstration at the shop for this cause. Cappy was also involved in lobbying for a baby health centre which opened around 1939 in Willoughby Park. Eric Nicholls designed a new house built for the Deans at 170 Edinburgh Road and the family moved there in 1938.6

Portrait of Edgar and Cappy Deans
Portrait of Edgar and Cappy Deans in the 1950s. Courtesy Margo Watson

With the onset of the 1930s Depression, Edgar worked for the GSDA on a part-time basis and he established his own chartered accountancy practice at this time. He became increasingly involved in civil activities over the years. Following his extended period as secretary, he served as president of the Castlecrag Progress Association for four years and he played a key role in the establishment of the Willoughby Federated Progress Associations, for which he served as secretary for eight years and president for two. It was therefore no surprise when Deans accepted a nomination to stand for Middle Harbour Ward on Willoughby Municipal Council in 1948. He served on a number of council committees, becoming deputy mayor for two years and mayor for four.7

Edgar took up teaching at the local Technical & Further Education (TAFE) College in 1950. In 1959 he and Cappy Deans moved to Canberra, where Edgar took up a teaching position with the then College of Advanced Education, becoming its Deputy Principal in 1968. Cappy died in Canberra during 1975, but Edgar maintained contact with the Castlecrag community until his death in 1991. The Castlecrag Progress Association and the Walter Burley Griffin Society organised a memorial planting to commemorate his contribution to the community on 5 June 1993 with some 150 people in attendance.8

–Bob McKillop

Acknowledgement: Thanks are extended to Margo Watson (nee Deans) for her assistance in preparing this profile.

1Leslie, Esther, The Suburb of Castlecrag: a community history, Chatswood, Willoughby Municipal Council, 1988, p 115.

2University of Melbourne Archives, Charles John Cerutty papers, Box 1, File 1927.

3Spathopoulos, Wanda, The Crag: Castlecrag 1924-1938, Blackheath, Brandl & Schlesinger, 2007, pp 75, 78, 220.

4University of Melbourne Archives, as above, Box 2, Letter Deans to Cerutty, 11 June 1930. Also report by Deans of 16 November 1928; Cerutty letters to Deans on 8 and 22 July 1931.

5‘Memories of Early Castlecrag: Edgar Deans and Frank Duncan’; Interview by Sue Randle at Castlecrag December 1988, Walter Burley Griffin Society website.

6Interview as above; The Crag, No. 160, August 2006, p 2.

7Leslie, Esther, as above, p 116.

8The Crag, No. 89, July-August 1993, p 3, ‘A Tribute to Edgar Deans’.