Neglected past to get a bright future


p2214-Pitchi-Ritchi-1STORY and PHOTOS by ANDREA JOHNSTON
Radio 8HA/SumFM
Living in a sanctuary amongst sculptures by one of your favourite artists sounds idyllic for any art and nature fan, but the challenges in one mysterious corner of Alice Springs are anything but.
Volunteer Caretaker Chris Warren has been keeping an eye on the Pitchi Richi Sanctuary near Heavitree Gap for about a year, and understands just how monumental a task it will be to bring the area back to a standard that can accommodate tourists. But he remains positive.
“A lot of work is going on that people can’t see and don’t appreciate, and we often get complaints that ‘things aren’t happening’ and ‘it’s never going to be open again’. We take a more optimistic view, but it is going to take time. The reality is that it’s a big job and it’s going to get done!”
The nine acre property has a portion that is heritage-listed sanctuary, and within that zone is reportedly Alice Springs’s first two-storey building, called Chapman House. It includes statues by Victorian sculptor William Rickets, as well as a collection of geological and historical artifacts collected by Leo Corbett, who originally ran the location as a bird sanctuary.
p2214-Pitchi-Ritchi-8Warren says: “The rest of it has pretty much returned to bush, although in the past it was a thriving orchard and agricultural concern.”
Tasks on the to-do list include everything from eradicating buffel grass, to restoration of statues and artifacts, through to grant applications and fundraising.
The sanctuary’s current state is a far-cry from its heyday as a major tourist attraction, or just somewhere for locals to hang out.
It’s reported that Leo Corbett and his wife Elsa were a very hospitable couple with an open-house policy, so you could come in and make yourself a hot drink in return for a small donation.
“It’s been described as Central Australia’s first man-made tourist attraction. At its height, buses used to stop of their way back from Uluru. There were managers who had the responsibility of providing an Aboriginal cultural experience involving billy tea and damper, spear throwing and boomerang throwing demonstrations and things like that.”
Mr Warren recently played tour guide to the Alice Springs Field Naturalists Club, and he was surprised to find out how many of his visitors had been to Pitchi Richi before, despite it being closed for the best part of two decades.
p2214-Pitchi-Ritchi-6There were mixed reactions to Pitchi Richi’s current state, with some visitors surprised at how well the sculptures had held up against the elements, and others depressed because they could remember it as it was in the good old days.
Heritage Alice Springs manages the site and is currently reviewing its strategic plan for the sanctuary. Meanwhile, the organisation would welcome assistance from anyone willing to volunteer practical or organisational skills.
Chris is optimistic about what lies ahead, and has an idea for the direction of Pitchi Richi that chimes with the past, but provides for the future.
“A quite often forgotten aspect of this place is this was the new farm district. Agriculture is an important part of this place, so I think a level of sustainable agriculture – whether it be functional and providing an income for Pitchi Richi or whether it be a demonstration farm for sustainable agriculture in Central Australia could be a part of that plan,” he says.
The beauty of Pitchi Richi and Ricketts’s sculptures will be celebrated through a photographic exhibition at The Residency in April. It’s being co-curated by Chris Warren and Stefan Carrillo as part of The Residency Arts Program, and will open on Thursday April 2nd.


  1. Chapman House is not the first two-storey building in the Alice, that honour goes to Adelaide House, next to the John Flynn Memorial Church, in Todd Mall. It was built in 1926.
    The next two-storey building was the first Catholic presbytery, constructed next to the first Catholic Church in Hartley Street. This was built about 1931-32.
    Following this was the original Anglican Church in Bath Street, constructed in 1935. The ground floor served as the Anglican minister’s home, the upper floor was the church. This building was demolished in the early 1980s to make way for the current Anglican Church.
    Next to come was Griffiths House, built in 1941 by Reverend Harry Griffiths, in Hartley Street on the site of what is now the Yeperenye Shopping Centre (about where the Hong Kong Restaurant is presently operating).
    Griffiths House was intended as a boarding house for students attending the Hartley Street School but initially was occupied by the Army during World War II. The building was destroyed by fire in 1983, if my memory is right.
    It’s of interest to note all the earliest two-storey buildings in Alice Springs were associated with religious connections.
    In keeping with that theme, a large army mess hall (equivalent to a two-storey building in height as I recall it) was built on the corner of Bath Street and Wills Terrace.
    After the war, the mess hall was taken over by the Catholic community. Named Xavier Hall (if my memory again serves me correctly), it served as an interim Catholic Church until the current building was completed in 1969.
    The building then briefly served as the OLSH School in the very early 1970s (in those days generally referred to as the Convent School) while the new campus was built, after which the old hall was demolished.
    Chapman’s House is, I think, the first secular two-storey building in Alice Springs.
    I’m uncertain what year it was completed but certainly by the early 1950s. The two-storey Alice Springs Upper Primary School was built at the north end of Anzac Oval in 1952; later to serve as the original Alice Springs High School, Community College of Central Australia, and finally as the Anzac Hill High School.

  2. Further to my previous comment, I’ve got a few more tidbits of history concerning “Pop” Chapman, who first lived at what later was called Pitchi Richi (Chapman’s name for his residence was the “Pearly Gates”).
    Chapman was the founder of the Centralian Advocate in 1947 but he wasn’t the first to attempt to establish a newspaper in Alice Springs.
    That honour goes to John Driver, who commenced a short-lived publication in the late 1930s (circa 1938).
    Each edition was comprised of a single broadsheet printed on both sides, and (to my knowledge) was called the “Centralian”. It’s likely to be the inspiration behind Chapman’s “Centralian Advocate” that commenced about a decade later. (John Driver later took up the lease for Elkedra Station, where my father was first employed as a jackaroo in 1953-4).
    The comment that “in the past (Pitchi Richi) was a thriving orchard and agricultural concern” is of great interest.
    It was Chapman who first identified the potential for table grape production in Central Australia, he promoted this idea in 1953-4 after the positive response he got from fruit and vegetable wholesalers in South Australia. Unfortunately during 1954 a consignment of pawpaws from Darwin arrived in Adelaide infested with fruitfly, which led to the SA Department of Agriculture implementing a blanket ban on all horticultural produce from the Northern Territory.
    Chapman died in January 1955 and his vision went with him. Many years later Ian Dahlenburg arrived in Central Australia with a dream to establish a table grape farm (one of the places he investigated was Rocky Hill on Undoolya Station), and he and his wife Chris began the new industry with the establishment of Ti Tree Farm in 1975 – two decades after Chapman died.
    Chapman also had another vision of note – he was part of a consortium that proposed the development of a three-storey hotel in Alice Springs in late 1950.
    At this time Alice Springs had a population of about 2000, the tourist industry was in its earliest infancy, and the Hotel Alice Springs (owned and operated by Ly Underdown, jr. and his mother Daisy) was being rebuilt into a two-storey building (completed by about 1956).
    Ly Underdown went on to add a third level to the HAS, completed in 1965. This became the first three-storey building in Alice Springs, 15 years after Chapman’s proposal and a decade after he died.

  3. It’s interesting that both Adelaide House and Griffith House were built by religious bodies. Rev. John Flynn, a Presbyterian, and Rev. Harry Griffith, a Methodist, both had the welfare of the NT as a central focus during their long association in the early decades of the twentieth century.
    Part of Flynn’s radical vision was to inaugurate the Old Timer’s Aged-Care Home, now overseen by the Uniting Church.
    The land on which Griffith House stood was gifted back to Indigenous interests and is part of Yeperenye Plaza today.
    There are some who find the bottle shop that sells grog to be a misuse of that grant, particularly when liberal alcohol supply continues to be the cause of social malaise as demonstrated in “The hidden harm: Alcohol’s impact on children and families” report which provides insight into the magnitude of this problem and the large numbers of children being put at risk.
    The report found that “almost 30,000 incidents of alcohol-related domestic violence are reported to police a year, and that’s just in the states and territories where this data is available. Over 1 million children in Australia are affected by others drinking, with 142,582 substantially affected. More than 10,000 children are in the child protection system where a carer’s drinking is a factor”.
    It’s ironic that Griffith House, as Alex Nelson notes, was set up to assist youth. It can’t be said that the modern era has value-added to that proposition.
    “More young people are developing dementia, with a fifth of them living in Aged-Care residences because there is nowhere else for them to go” notes Professor Draper of the University of Sydney.
    “Young people had higher rates of certain types of dementia, including frontotemporal and alcohol-related conditions, which often resulted in frequent challenging behaviour” (Aust. 2/2/15).
    As a society, we seem to have lost the plot with one in six elderly Australians waiting at least nine months for a place in a high-care nursing home. Waiting periods are longest in the NT (Aust. 28/1/15).
    The report notes that there are 1000 people a week turning 85 and 2000 people a week turning 65 in an ageing population.
    Aged and Community Services Australia chief executive John Kelly recently said that demand for Aged-Care was fast outrunning supply.
    “You will need to open two 70-bed residential care facilities every week for the next seven years (to cater for demand) and that’s not just going to happen.”
    I remember in the mid-60s when Pete Townshend from The Who sang “I hope I die before I get old.” He’s now in his late-60s and like many of us, probably wondering what our governments are doing about increasing grog outlets and neglecting Aged-Care.
    We seem to have got ourselves in a position where unless we do something about putting money into salvaging youth and charting a course towards a quality of Aged-Care, we will witness a steady increase in homeless young and old.
    I am the first to admit that living in denial is better than facing the reality, but that wasn’t what our grandparents generation thought was the right attitude to community.
    And I quite agree, but anyway, she’ll be right, mate. No worries.

  4. Further to my post of yesterday on various social concerns confronting Territorians, I’d like to add why it is that Adelaide House, Griffiths House and the Old Timer’s Home are of interest to me as community projects that were set up by religious organisations.
    Not that I wish to endorse everything these bodies do, but in the forthcoming NSW election, Rev. Fred Nile, the leader of the Christian Democratic Party in the Upper House of the NSW Parliament, has just released as one of his policies “proper funding for aged care, and an upgrade to NSW’s palliative care system. Everyone has the right to live with dignity.”
    In this, he is radical.
    In requesting campaign donations, Nile quotes Division 4A of Part 6 of the Election Funding, Expenditure and Disclosures Act 1981 (NSW).
    One of those disclosures refers to the fact that payments must not be made on behalf of a “prohibited donor”, e.g., a property developer, tobacco industry business entity or liquor or gambling industry business entity.
    With over $300,000 contributed to political parties in the last NT election by the alcohol industry and more by its cohorts, the need for reform in the NT is obvious.
    In my ignorance, I used to think that Fred Nile was a bigot back in the 70s, but he was an early campaigner for Aboriginal Land Rights.
    His policies often reflect family issues in line with his religious faith and is someone who gets bad press for his so-called right wing views.
    Former Labor NSW Premier Neville Wran lived to review his opinion of Fred.
    In terms of Nile’s stand for aged care and alcohol reform, he is the type of social reformer that NT politicians could choose to follow.

  5. Very interesting comments by Russell Guy. I heard a statement on ABC radio (a national program) a couple of days ago that, in terms of the social services being provided to people in need in Australia, our nation is returning to the standards that prevailed in the 1920s and 30s.
    Those were very tough times for people who had little with which to survive, and is the reason why the national referendum held in September 1946 to give the Commonwealth powers to legislate on a wide range of social services was carried in all states – one of the few successes in the history of referendums in Australia.
    While clearly there is a necessity to ensure we don’t become a “nanny state” that deprives individuals of their capacity to manage their own lives, there is a real danger that the pendulum is swinging too far to the extreme right of our mainstream national politics at a time when economic conditions are becoming much more uncertain for the not-so-well-off.
    One individual who was so affected by the apparent iniquities of his times was sculptor William Ricketts, who rejected entirely the values of general Australian society in favour of Aboriginal spirituality, at least by how he perceived it.
    Many of the statues he made in Central Australia which became such a distinctive feature of Pitchi Richi were based on his studies of Aboriginal people residing at the Bungalow (Old Telegraph Station). This work was undertaken when Pop Chapman was still residing at what later became Pitchi Richi.

  6. According to a story written by Jose Petrick in 2003, Rickets had a small kiln at Pitchi Richi (Alice Springs), but the pieces made were unsatisfactory. Fifteen pieces that were made at his sanctuary in the Dandenong Ranges were transported to Alice and remain in the PR sanctuary.

  7. Mr. Nelson and Mr. Guy seem to have lost the details of the article about Pitchi Ritchi.
    The sanctuary was set up by Leo Corbett after Chapman had passed away leaving the property to Corbett. There was a large citrus orchard at the side of the house which unfortunately suffered its demise when the bore became brackish.
    Despite the sanctuary being closed for many years after numerous managers, Elsa, Leo’s widow continued to maintain the property.
    All handwritten signs were maintained and rewritten as required.
    She worked tirelessly trying to control the buffel grass environmentally so as not to cause harm to the many birds who still enjoyed this haven.

  8. Chapman’s house was built by Mr Bruce Goodluck and it had the first swimming pool (a cement square) in Alice Springs.

  9. Some interesting tidbits about Charles Henry “Pop” Chapman.
    His father Charles Henry GEDYE Chapman was been mistakenly linked to the naming of Mount Chapman in Papua.
    He has a connection to the Dangar’s via his father. He is a first cousin three times removed to Henry Dangar.
    His mother is Julia Downing and their connection to 10 Downing Street is unproven.

  10. Hi, I heard there is going to be an open day at the reserve tomorrow 16/04/2016 with a view to start things happening, to repair things. I have been Googling the event today but cannot find the details again – can anyone send me a link to it so I can spread the news, please?

  11. @ John O’Brien: This is from the brochure:
    Pitch Ritchi Sanctuary Open Day Saturday 16 April is from 9 till 12 noon. It costs $10 each or $15 family (cash only). Heritage Alice Springs members will lead guided tours of the William Ricketts statues every half hour.

  12. So much time and energy to protect and preserve our recent heritage while at the same time government AAPA Lhere Artepe, developers etc are busy trying to destroy our much older heritage.

  13. Fascinated to come across this comment page as I am currently carrying out some research in respect of Charles Henry Chapman and his father.
    CHC was my son in law’s second cousin three times removed, his great aunt Eliza Downing emigrating to Australia in 1852.
    Julia Downing, Eliza’s daughter being the mother of CHC. Am I right in thinking that “Chapman’s House” illustrated in the newspaper was the home of CHC?
    All very frustrating as two years ago I was in Alice Springs and was unaware of the family connection. Absolutely loved the Red Centre.
    Look forward to hearing from someone.
    Bob in the UK


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