If these walls could talk: Rouse Hill House & Farm
The song was from a smash-hit new musical comedy The geisha, a romantic tale set in the ‘Teahouse of Ten Thousand Joys’.1 An enthusiastic performer, Edwin Stephen took to the role with gusto, ‘his make up on the occasion being faithfully exact and causing much amusement’.2
A theatrical family
Edwin Stephen, grandson of the house’s builder, Richard Rouse (1774–1852), wasn’t the only family member to perform that night. His youngest daughter, Kathleen (1887–1932), played ‘Beauty’ in the night’s opener, Beauty and the beast. In the second act she and her mother, Bessie (Elizabeth, nee Buchanan, 1843–1924), played the parts of royal confidante and handmaid in a tableau vivant of the tale of the beautiful but doomed ‘Queen Vishti’.3 Accompanying them on the pianoforte was Kathleen’s sister, Nina (1875–1968).
The beautiful queen and her graceful attendants, their classic dress, the harmonious coloring [sic] of the draperies, and the lovely wreaths and garlands of flowers made an entrenching picture, the effect of which was much enhanced by the use of coloured lights.4
The location of the event – a fundraiser for a new well at the local parsonage – was the arcade linking the service wings behind Rouse Hill House. It was the setting for a series of concerts, both amateur and professional, hosted by Edwin Stephen and Bessie to raise money for local schools and churches.
‘The squire of Rouse Hill’
Born in 1849 to an established family, Edwin Stephen typified the role of Victorian country squire. He was an amiable host and a prominent benefactor of the people in his community, many of whom had a direct economic relationship with the Rouse Hill estate. After the premature death of his father, Edwin (1806-1862), the family’s estates had been divided: Edwin Stephen’s elder brother, Richard (1842-1903), inherited Guntawang cattle station, and the then 12-year‑old Edwin Stephen received the Rouse Hill estate. The livestock on which the family wealth had been built was shared between them, with their mother, Hannah (1819‑1907), appointed as one of Edwin Stephen’s trustees.
During the 1890s and early 1900s Edwin Stephen and Bessie enjoyed the emerging ‘Edwardian Summer’ – until drought, economic crisis and eventually war brought the era to a shuddering close. Edwin Stephen’s passion for champion horse breeding was epitomised in the construction of the Rouse Hill stables in 1876 and by a meet of the Sydney Hunt Club at the property in 1895. The fundraisers held in the same period have the character of country house entertainments, and concert pieces and tableaux set in exotic lands, such as The geisha, were as much a part of the Edwardian Summer as house parties and charades.
Theatricals aside, the arcade was also the setting for family events, most notably the wedding breakfast held for Nina Rouse, who married neighbour George Terry in April 1895. The guests were received in the drawing room before proceeding to the decorated arcade to listen to the speeches and enjoy refreshments.
A common theme in the obituaries published after Edwin Stephen’s death in 1931 was his position as successor to ‘an old pioneer family’. The sesquicentenary of the founding of the NSW colony was fast approaching, and those families who had been long established in the colony were viewed with nostalgic curiosity and as local celebrities.
He was a man of refined nature and of exalted Christian ideals. Though of a retiring disposition, he made many firm friends who will regret to learn of his passing. His hospitality was well-known and for his many acts of benevolence his memory will be revered.’
Obituary for Edwin Stephen Rouse,
Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 25 September 1931
- 1. The geisha: a story of a tea house, composed by Sidney Jones, libretto by Owen Hall, lyrics by Harry Greenbank. First performed in London, 1896.
- 2. Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 13 May 1899.
- 3. ‘Vishti’ (or ‘Vashti’), the wife of Persian King Ahasuerus, was deposed for refusing to show her beauty to the king’s guests (‘The book of Esther’, Old Testament).
- 4. Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 13 May 1899.
Recently added stories
Uncovering the trail of a lost masterpiece
Sydney Living Museums volunteer, author and art historian Robert Holden has devoted his sleuthing skills to the search for a missing life-sized portrait of Irish-born prima donna Catherine Hayes last seen in a photograph from 1917. Can you help with this ongoing mystery?
About Bohemian Harbour: Artists of Lavender Bay
With its sweeping views across the sparkling water to the city skyline, Lavender Bay on Sydney’s lower north shore has inspired generations of artists. This spring, a new exhibition at the Museum of Sydney celebrates our spectacular harbour through the perspectives of some of the city’s best-known and most admired artists.