Two bold new displays at our house museums reveal the power of reuniting archival material with the places whose stories they tell.

It might be surprising to know that government records can tell us a lot about people’s lives. ‘Archives in the houses’ is an initiative developed by our Curatorial Team to display significant archival material from the NSW State Archives Collection at the Sydney Living Museums sites to which they relate. Primary historical records of the places, people and events that make up the stories of SLM properties are well represented in the State Archives Collection, and this project formally unites the two.

In June, we installed the first of these displays – one at Elizabeth Farm, the other at Vaucluse House. For both displays, our curators drew upon original letters and documents from the State Archives Collection to tell important stories from the past. A selection of these archives are reproduced within the displays.

Elizabeth Farm: a dark mind

The Elizabeth Farm display explores the decline in John Macarthur’s mental health during the last years in which he lived at the Parramatta property. For a long time, John had struggled with sickness and depression. After news arrived in 1831 that his son John had died in London, his sense of despair and confusion gave way to rage and paranoia. Things at Elizabeth Farm were in a state of disarray.

In July 1832, John’s sons James and William petitioned the Supreme Court of NSW to adjudicate on their father’s sanity. A month later, an official inquiry – or ‘inquisition’ as it was called – declared John a ‘lunatic’. His wife, Elizabeth, who had long endured episodes of John’s volatility, relinquished his care and custody to their sons. She and John never met or spoke again, and just two years later he died at the family’s estate at Camden.

The Elizabeth Farm display features a selection of Supreme Court records from the State Archives Collection that relate to the committal of John Macarthur for lunacy, including a copy of an inquisition parchment that contains the court’s decision signed by a jury of 24 men.

  • Painting of man wearing yellow vest, white collar and dark coat against red background.

    John Macarthur (detail), artist unknown, c1850s.

    Dixson Galleries, State Library of NSW: DG 222

  • Closeup of handwriting.

    Inquisition parchment with signatures, 3 August 1832 (detail).

    NSW State Archives: NRS 13524

  • Document on paper with red markings.

    Inquisition parchment with signatures, 3 August 1832. Documents relating to the committal of John Macarthur for lunacy.

    NSW State Archives: NRS 13524

Vaucluse House: a breach of promise

In May 1825, the first breach of promise case to be brought before a NSW jury was heard in the Supreme Court of NSW. Sarah Cox, aged 20, claimed that Captain John Payne, a mariner, had promised to make her his wife but soon after married a wealthy widow. For a woman in the 19th century, a broken engagement meant the loss of future financial security, and Sarah sought compensation through the courts.

Payne denied that he’d promised marriage. However, the display at Vaucluse House includes a letter Sarah submitted to the Supreme Court as evidence in her case. In the letter, written by Payne to Sarah on 15 February 1822, he promises to make her the ‘companion [of his] future life’. The jury found in Sarah’s favour, awarding her £100, a tenth of the figure she had sought.

In other ways, the case would prove life-changing for Sarah. During the legal proceedings, she and her attorney, 33-year-old barrister William Charles Wentworth, became lovers, and in December 1825 Sarah gave birth to their first child, Thomasine. The couple married in 1829.

  • Light-coloured portrait of young woman with dark hair wearing high collared dress.

    Sarah Wentworth, nee Cox (detail), William Nicholas, 1853.

    Sydney Living Museums

  • Closeup of part of handwritten document.

    Letter from John Payne to Sarah Cox, 15 February 1822 (extract).

    NSW State Archives: NRS 13471 [9/5198] Cox v Payne 1825

  • Handwritten document.

    Letter from John Payne to Sarah Cox, 15 February 1822.

    NSW State Archives: NRS 13471 [9/5198] Cox v Payne 1825


Visit Elizabeth Farm or Visit Vaucluse House to discover these stories in full. 

This article originally appeared in Unlocked: The Sydney Living Museums Gazette, our Members’ magazine.

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