A herculean task: clearing the woolshed

Cameo sepia toned portrait of man.
Thomas Dickson, builder and overseer at Rouse Hill. T Boston, c1875. Sydney Living Museums COL_R86_0785_31
The first stage of a major conservation project at Rouse Hill Estate involved removing thousands of objects accumulated over 150 years of the property’s occupation. 

Evocative reminders of Rouse Hill Estate’s rural past are the 19th- and 20th-century farm buildings that run along the hilltop behind the house. The woolshed is the first of these that visitors see up close: a long, low structure of simple, locally cut, timber-slab construction with a corrugated-iron roof. It’s thought to date from the late 1850s, when Edwin Rouse, son of the estate’s first owner, Richard Rouse, expanded the property he had recently inherited. The woolshed was built by Thomas Dickson [pictured], a Scottish immigrant who worked as overseer and lived with his family in a cottage, also built by him, that still stands nearby. 

Panning across all the objects in situ inside rustic wooden shed.
Panorama inside the woolshed. Photo Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums

What’s in a name? 

Although this building has long been referred to as ‘the woolshed’, its original use is unknown. Physical evidence, such as wall-mounted tether rings, indicates that part of it was used for horses. We know it as the woolshed because of oral histories passed down through the family, as related by Gerald Terry, the estate’s last permanent resident: ‘My grandfather [Edwin Stephen Rouse, son of Edwin] said that when he was a boy they used to use that shed to repack wool that had come over the mountains [from the Rouses’ country property Guntawang] … There was no trace of wool in there when I remember it. Grandfather used to use [the main room] as a feed shed, you know, fowl feed …’1 

The building originally comprised just two rooms. Later, along with sawn timber floors, a series of low walls were added along one side of the larger room to form storage bays, and the room was divided with a partition to create a tool room. Edwin Stephen added a pigeon coop with distinctive weatherboard sides to the north end, which was later used for chickens. Over time, windows and extra doors were cut into the slab walls; the final addition was a carport, built against the southern end. From the 1930s, the largest room was repurposed for maintaining farm tools and machinery. It became known as ‘the engine shed’ after an engine was installed to run large power tools – drills, saws and grinding wheels – by belts that ran from an overhead shaft. Gerald Terry continued to use the engine room as a workshop into the 1990s. 

As farming at Rouse Hill declined, the woolshed was increasingly given over to storage. A bewildering array of tools, farm equipment, machinery parts, furniture and paraphernalia accumulated on the benches, cabinets, walls and floors. It became a dense, complex and visually chaotic space. 

  • 1. Oral history interview with Gerald Terry by Joy Hughes, 23 September 1985, Sydney Living Museums. 
A jumble of objects in a wooden walled shed.
Objects stacked on every surface in the tool room. Photo Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums

Ongoing conservation

Rustic timber buildings like the woolshed were never intended to have long lives; they were instead typically demolished and replaced, or simply abandoned to the elements. The landscape between Rouse Hill and the Hawkesbury is dotted with the remains of similar structures. Following Rouse Hill Estate’s acquisition by the state government in 1978, the woolshed was stabilised. However, the ongoing deterioration of its simple timber-post footings, and past damage from termites and borer, meant that by 2020 a large-scale intervention had become necessary to ensure its survival. This follows similar, extensive conservation on the barn, cart shed and dairy in recent years. With these other structures, much of the collection – including carts and horse-drawn equipment – could be left in situ. At the woolshed, however, far greater access was needed, including lifting sections of the timber flooring. This meant the structure had to be fully emptied. 

A complex task 

A key factor in the significance of the collection at Rouse Hill Estate is that it’s preserved – wherever possible – in the same locations as in 1978. This presented a considerable challenge for the project team: not only would thousands of objects of all sizes need to be removed, but they would also need to be accurately returned to their original location at the project’s end. Because of the amount of disturbance it would involve, a full survey of the woolshed’s contents had never been conducted; a substantial amount of new documentation was therefore required. 

To begin, we divided the rectangular structure into 16 zones, determined by the shed’s simple post-and-beam construction. Basic plans were drawn of each zone, identifying the position of large objects such as tables or machinery. The objects were extensively photographed and further notes made of their location. This proved an especially complex task where material was stacked or heaped: boxes full of hardware resting on a pile of hessian sacks, entangled with ropes, balanced on oil drums, and so on. Some material was especially fragile, such as a cardboard box full of heat globes, and their removal was a complicated, time-consuming procedure. It took the full team of seven to extricate a 6-metre ladder over and between machinery. The heavier objects to be moved included an anvil and a vehicle chassis weighing well over 150 kilograms. 

Once removed, the objects were identified and assessed for conservation. All organic material – timber, textiles and paper – was sealed and then frozen for a week at –20˚C in case of any insect life. At the same time, the rear of the stables was fitted out for long-term storage. The woolshed has never been a sealed environment; subject each year to fluctuating humidity, high heat or near-freezing cold, conditions for storage are far from ideal. Further, a fine, pale brown dust blown in from the fields and unsealed roads routinely covers every object. The decision was therefore made that some significant objects should now be removed for their preservation to climate-controlled storage. 

  • Two workers wearing blue aprons and gloves at long outdoor table working with trays of objects; shed wall visible behind.

    Team members Julieanne Rabier and Gay Hendriksen cleaning trays of hardware and a portable pigeon coop.

    Photo Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums

  • Two men wearing blue aprons and masks working on object inside wooden shed.

    Team members Cameron Allan and Carlin de Montfort cleaning an axle and wheel thought to be from a Model T Ford.

    Photo James Horan © Sydney Living Museums

  • Cot on verandah, with greenery visible to right of image.

    ‘Telescopic’ folding cot used by the Sherwoods, set up on the verandah of the overseer’s cottage.

    Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

Traces of past lives 

The most evocative objects in the woolshed are those linked to the stories of the estate’s various inhabitants. Sometime in the 1910s, Arthur Sherwood, a farmhand who lived with his family in the cottage built by Thomas Dickson, broke his leg, preventing him from enlisting in World War I. While recuperating, he slept on the cottage’s verandah on a folding bed – thought to be the one shown above right, found in the tool room. Manufactured by the New York Telescopic Bed Company in the early 1900s, the bed forms a neat package when folded; when in use, its canvas stretcher expands ‘telescopically’ on a crisscrossed frame. The same bed was used by Arthur’s wife, Clara, when she slept on the verandah in the fresh air while recovering from bronchitis. 

Tucked away in a corner of the ‘engine room’ was a wheel and axle assembly from an early motor car (above, middle). Over the decades, the Windsor Road that runs past Rouse Hill House has seen dramatic shifts in technology, from foot and animal-drawn traffic to modern motorised transport. All of this was witnessed by Edwin Stephen, who grew up with horse-drawn carriages and later, in the early years of the 20th century, owned a Model T Ford. The wheel and axle uncovered in the engine room may be an actual remnant of that first car. The timber wheel with its metal rim certainly indicates that it’s from a very early vehicle, and resonates with newspaper reports of early cars ‘breaking’ their wheels in potholes along the then unpaved road. More pieces thought to be from this early car remain in the outbuildings at Rouse Hill Estate, including a hand crank, a transmission, and, unexpectedly, a windscreen repurposed as a shed window.