When I started this blog, I was in China and most of my readers were in Australia. Now, I’m in Australia and my readers are spread all over the world. I used to be explaining China to people who hadn’t lived there, and while I still enjoy writing about China, I’ve been thinking lately that it’s time to start explaining Australia to all my friends from elsewhere. That means I need to start exploring Australia more myself! Which brings me to today. My aunt works at a school so we planned to get together while we were both on holidays. Today we went to Vaucluse House, an early colonial property on the south head of Sydney Harbour. It was the first historical museum in Australia, and has been open to the public as a museum for 100 years.
The initial land grant for the area dates to 1793, only five years after European settlement, but it was another ten years before ex-convict Sir Henry Browne Hayes began to build on the land. The story goes that he had peat/dirt from Ireland sprinkled around the cottage in hopes of keeping out snakes! He also held the first official St Patrick’s Day celebration there in 1810.
William Charles Wentworth bought the cottage in 1827, and over the next 50 years several different building projects resulted in a three storey family home, kitchen and servants’ quarters, stables, gardens, and more. (The house was owned by him and his children until it became a museum.) It was, at the time, a secluded country house; the trip to town (horse and cart on a bad road) took two and a half hours. It is just up the hill from the bay, and for some time was the first house ships would see on their way into the harbour. The sides of buildings facing the water were all crenelated to create a fancy visage.
Vaucluse House is now a museum housed on 25 of the original 515 acres – and surrounded by very exclusive real estate. We joined a tour of the house, and I really enjoyed all the stories our guide told – there were all kinds of scandals in the families’ histories. William Charles Wentworth was the son of a man acquitted of highway robbery four times before his family made him head off to the colonies, and the convict woman he took up with on the way over. William and his wife, Sarah (illegimate child of convicts), had two of their ten children before marrying. Wentworth campaigned for civil rights as a young lawyer, but became quite conservative in his later years. (You can read more stories here and here.)
The house is filled with authentic furniture – a few original pieces, others sourced to be as close to the originals as possible, and also replications of what was in the house originally. Most of the furnishings were sold in 1853 when the family left to travel in Europe; a list of items for sale published in the newspaper helped restorers make the house look as authentic as possible. Some of the family’s pieces were locally made, but a lot were sourced and brought out from Europe. The fancy parlour was especially fascinating – a room created almost exclusively for receiving suitros for the family’s seven daughters. There is a beautiful piano one serial number away from the original piano. There are small side tables of Australian wood. There is a chess set of different stone panels. There are THREE rows of decorative cornice work. I was entranced by the original hand blocked and painted floral borders around each panel of the walls. (You can read more about the house here.)
The gardens are beautiful, too, and there has been a lot of work done to make them as close to “authentic” as possible. There are large camelia trees dating to the 19th century, gravelled walks through gardens, a fountain outside the house (dating to 1861), and rolling lawns down to the water’s edge – although trees have now grown up to almost completely hide the water view. I was especially entranced by a stand of tall, pale paperbarks.
After touring the house we went to the tearooms for a lovely lunch. Even the tearooms have been open nearly a century! Much of what they serve is from the kitchen gardens, which are filled with produce that was available in the young colony when the Wentworths lived at Vaucluse House. The menu included a list of garden produce currently in season and being used in their dishes.
It was a really lovely day, especially as I got to share it with my lovely aunt. One of the bigger consequences of my choice to live overseas for 11 years is that I haven’t been able to spend much time with family, especially extended family, as an adult. It’s really fun to now start making up for some of that time away.