Monday, December 22, 2008
In the late 1980s, the oldest resident of the cottage at Government House was a Major Mitchell cockatoo called “Cocky McGrath,” whose death from natural causes in 1994 was genuinely mourned by the Queen and the Royal Household, especially by Cocky’s kinsman Brian (now Sir Brian) McGrath, who was at that time the Duke of Edinburgh’s private secretary, and is now an extra equerry.
News of Cocky’s demise reached the R.Y. Britannia in Jamaican waters.
Cocky could speak – “Marg-aret,” among other memorable words and phrases – although by that time nobody remembered who taught him, or why.
The cottage, actually a fairly substantial, rambling weatherboard house in the grounds, was originally built during World War I, or shortly afterwards, as an official residence for the military secretary to the governor-general.
Edward Kenelm Digby, 11th Baron Digby, K.G., D.S.O., M.C., (1894–1964), who occupied that position from 1920 to 1923, brought Lady Digby and their infant son and daughter to live in the cottage. The Hon. Pamela Beryl Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman, their eldest daughter, had vivid childhood recollections of having lived there, aged three, and shared these with Charlie Curwen when, in 1978, she returned to Melbourne with her ancient third husband, Ambassador W. Averell Harriman (Yale College class of 1913) – inter alia a Bonesman, sometime secretary of commerce in the Truman administration, ambassador to the Soviet Union, ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, and governor of New York – to represent the United States Congress at the funeral of the Right Honourable Sir Robert Menzies, K.T., C.H., F.R.S., Q.C.
During World War II, when the King’s younger brother, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, was governor-general, for some reason it was thought safer for the Duchess, their infant sons, the Princes William and Richard of Gloucester (the present duke), and their household to live on the grounds of Government House in Melbourne than at Yarralumla. As unlikely as this now might seem, Japanese bombing of the federal capital was either expected or seriously feared, and the ground floor of the cottage was extended to accommodate them.
As a much younger bird Cocky McGrath witnessed all these developments but, as a longstanding member of successive vice-regal households, he was ever the soul of discretion.