The leprechaun in the garden

Most of us have some childhood memory – or something half-imagined, half-remembered – of a garden of seemingly infinite adventure, far from the reasonable world of grown-up things; a place where the shadows slip and shake and mingle. That may be the reason a line in a 1911 story by the Australian children’s author Ella McFadyen (1887–1976) stirs so deeply. ‘It was,’ she writes, ‘a very old garden.’

The Goblin of Vaucluse’, written when the author was 23, is the story of a little girl, Berry, and her cousin John. Berry’s father has taken a houseboat at Vaucluse Bay, and on a March day of ‘thin, flaming heat’, the children row ashore to explore the garden at Vaucluse House. There, in a peculiar twist (for it turns out to be St Patrick’s Day), they encounter both a leprechaun and the ghost of Sir Henry Browne Hayes – the eccentric Irish convict who established Vaucluse Estate in 1803.

‘The Goblin of Vaucluse’ was published at the end of the Edwardian era, a golden age of children’s literature. It presents a uniquely Australian take on one of that period’s most resonant literary motifs: the child in the garden. It also provides a wealth of detail, filtered through a fictionalised account, about the grounds of Vaucluse House at the turn of the 20th century.

The secret garden

In 1911, it had been some 50 years since Sarah and William Charles Wentworth had put the finishing touches to their sprawling habourside estate with its pleasure garden, vineyard, orchards, parkland and picturesque bush setting. But the house and its grounds were very much in the public eye.

Black and white photograph of a houseboat in a bay
Houseboat at Vaucluse Bay, about 1900–10. State Library of NSW PXE 711 / 90

In a matter of a few years, from 1905, much of what remained of the Wentworths’ former estate had been subdivided and sold. At this time, much of Sydney’s shoreline was in private ownership. Shark Beach (today’s Nielsen Park) and Vaucluse Bay were both fenced off, and a caretaker prevented picnic parties and pleasure boats from landing. In 1910, following intense public lobbying, the NSW government stepped in and acquired Vaucluse House, its harbour foreshore and 23 of the original 515 acres, including the Wentworths’ private pleasure garden at the front of the house, as a ‘public recreation ground’. In February 1912, Vaucluse Park swung its gates open to the promenaders and picnickers of Sydney.

‘The Goblin of Vaucluse’ is set during this brief in-between period – after the grounds had been resumed by the state, but before its people could access them. On 15 March 1911, the same day the story appeared in the ‘Young Folks’ section of the Sydney Mail, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the park was largely ‘shut against the public’. [1] This was, in a very real sense, a secret garden.

Black and white newspaper masthead reading 'Young Folks'

Masthead for the Sydney Mail’s ‘Young Folks’ section, 15 March 1911.

They crossed the bridge where the bamboos cluster, and climbed into the old orchard, and then they got into the garden itself, but I mustn’t tell you how, for fear you would get in that way yourself, and it is a secret.

Black and white photograph of a sandstone building and encroaching trees

The old laundry at Vaucluse House, April 1916. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection; Nielsen-Vaucluse Park Trust photograph album no. 1 (32442) © Sydney Living Museums

Where the sea winds roam

Ella McFadyen (which she also spelled ‘M’Fadyen’ in the early years of her career) was born in Petersham and lived in and around Sydney for the rest of her life. [2] She had certainly visited Vaucluse House and was also aware of the campaign to acquire the house and grounds for the public. Her first collection of poetry, Outland Born – also published in 1911 – contains the poem ‘Wentworth House’, a picturesque evocation of the ‘garden down where the sea winds roam’.

Betwixt the hills and the narrow bay,
Amongst its figs and its tall bamboos,
Stately still in its slow decay,
The mould’ring mansion of Old Vaucluse.

Like the poem, ‘The Goblin of Vaucluse’ is an intriguing record of the vestiges of the Wentworths’ mid-1800s pleasure garden, before it took on the character of a municipal park, with cheerful floral displays, park benches and concreted paths. The story contains a wealth of closely observed detail describing the sensory pleasures the illicit explorers, Berry and John, experience in the rambling, romantic old garden. Though overgrown through years of neglect – the estate had been unoccupied since 1898 – this was still more or less the garden the Wentworths had known.

Much is also recognisably the garden visitors experience today. (The Historic Houses Trust restored the Wentworths’ pleasure garden in the early 1980s.) Original Wentworth-era plantings such as the giant bamboo in the beach paddock and the sentinel fig at the house’s eastern corner still stand. Other elements have been lost during Depression-era public works and later in the century, as some of the ‘great old trees’ Berry and John encounter succumbed to age.

Black and white photograph of Vaucluse House with large fig tree and vine covered verandah

Vaucluse House, June 1909. A Norfolk Island pine planted during the Wentworths’ time casts a long shadow across the lawn, but has since been replaced; the Moreton Bay fig at right fell in a storm. At left, a large Port Jackson fig dating back to the Wentworth era (obscured by another in front) still stands. Sydney Living Museums V92/33-2

They wound on among trees and crooked bowers and old overgrown arbours, and at last came out on a sweep of smooth, green lawn ... set about a fountain full of hyacinths. Behind stood the house with broad stone verandahs curtained with vines, and above, a wide low parapet all castellated and grey.

Black and white photograph of a rustic pergola

Old pergola in the garden at Vaucluse House, about 1920. Nielsen-Vaucluse Park Trust photograph album no. 1 (32497) © Sydney Living Museums

The leprechaun & the ghost of Sir Henry Browne Hayes

McFadyen herself associated her ‘lyric gift’ with her father’s Scots ancestry and the ‘ghostie folk’ of the highlands and western isles. But she also identified with the ‘touch of Irish’ on her mother’s side – the heritage she draws on for her St Patrick’s Day fable.

The mischievous ‘goblin’ of the story’s title is alternately described as a leprechaun and a fairy shoemaker (the word ‘leprechaun’ is thought to derive from the old Irish leath bhrogan, or shoemaker). Several early McFadyen stories embroider identifiable Sydney settings with fairy-tale themes in this manner. But ‘The Goblin of Vaucluse’ is unusual for the fictional sketch it presents us of a historical figure.

The founder of Vaucluse Estate, Sir Henry Browne Hayes, arrived in NSW as a convict in 1802, after having been convicted for kidnapping the Quaker heiress Mary Pike and forcing her to take part in a sham marriage ceremony at his home in Cork, Ireland.

In McFadyen’s hands, the abduction becomes a gentle romance; thanks to Berry and John, Sir Henry is reunited and reconciled with the ‘little lady in a grey silk gown with a Quaker bonnet hung over her arm’. The author also takes some liberties with Hayes’ looks. Far from being a handsome man with a soldier’s bearing, he was, according to one contemporary observer, ‘formidable and grotesque’ with his untrimmed moustaches – though his manners were, it was said, ‘gentlemanly’. [3]

There were great Moreton Bay figs at this point about the creek, and in among their twisted roots a little old brown man with a red cap in which was set a sprig of shamrock, with horn spectacles on his nose, had set up a last and was working busily at a pair of shoes.

Black and white photograph of a stream, paddock and bushland

A far corner of the garden at Vaucluse House, April 1916. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection; Nielsen-Vaucluse Park Trust photograph album no. 1 (32495) © Sydney Living Museums

A charmed circle of Irish earth

‘The Goblin of Vaucluse’ also presents an intriguing take on a legend long associated with the first owner of Vaucluse. In 1859, John Lang published an account in Charles Dickens’ London journal, Household Words, recounting how Sir Henry had imported barrels full of Irish turf and encircled the house with it, in order to keep it free of snakes. [4] (Ireland’s patron saint, St Patrick, is credited with having driven snakes from the Emerald Isle.)

The historical truth of Lang’s account is slippery. But it was certainly the accepted mythology of Vaucluse House at around the time McFadyen was writing. In 1903, the Australian Town and Country Journal published a photograph of the house. Its caption points to a mark on the lawn indicating where Hayes had ‘placed a consignment of Irish earth in order to keep the snakes away’. [5] For McFadyen, who set her story on St Patrick’s Day, the tale provided an irresistible means of anchoring her enchanted garden in local legend.

Never such innocence, never before or since

‘The Goblin of Vaucluse’ was published in the same year as English author Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden – another tale of an old garden with magical qualities. The story is run through with a thread of symbolism common in Edwardian children’s literature: the garden as a place of escape from the adult-controlled domain of the home.

In their secret garden, Berry and John are free to roam as they please and make their own decisions. Alive to the world of the imagination, they are open to fantastical experiences and accept the fairy shoemaker as unquestioningly as they do the fish, dragonflies and water beetles at the creek.

Black and white photograph of four children, one with toy sheep, in a walled garden

An Edwardian childhood: Roderick, Geoffrey, Gerald and Edwin Terry in the garden at Box Hill House, about 1907. Rouse Hill House and Farm Collection, Sydney Living Museums

McFadyen herself seems to have had something of a strict Victorian childhood. In a 1972 interview, the 84-year-old reflected on the influence of her ‘isolationist’ mother, who home-schooled her six children: ‘Mother was always very set in her ways and so of course she made no concession to youth … We were very sternly brought-up children, and we didn’t have near as much fun as most children do.’ [6]

Representations of childhood in fiction often tell us as much about an adult longing for a lost childhood – or a desire to redeem an unhappy one – as they do about childhood itself. In HG Wells’ 1906 story, ‘The Door in the Wall’, a prominent London politician is haunted by the enchanted garden he discovered as a child, whose location is now lost to him in ‘the incurable blurs of memory’.

Tellingly, McFadyen does not divulge how Berry and John find their way into the garden at Vaucluse. For all its vividly realised detail, their secret garden remains inaccessible to us, or at least to adult readers – for it is, in a sense, childhood.

The fairy shoemaker, last and shoes and all, had vanished, and the shadows were creeping over the garden. They crept out quickly through the way I mustn’t tell you about, off down the road in the warm, still evening.

Black and white photograph of children on a seesaw

Children on a seesaw in the grounds of Nielsen Park, showing Greycliffe House in the background, about 1916. Nielsen-Vaucluse Park Trust photograph album no. 1 (32494) © Sydney Living Museums


[1] ‘Vaucluse Park’, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 March 1911, p. 12.

[2] McFadyen’s papers are held by the State Library of NSW.

[3] Ellis Bent, Letterbook, 1809–11, NLA, MS 195 quoted in Vaucluse House: A history and guide, Sydney: Historic Houses Trust of NSW, p. 10.

[4] John Lang, ‘A special convict’, Household Words: A Weekly Journal, vol. 19, no. 474, 23 April 1859, p. 489.

[5] Australian Town and Country Journal, 13 May 1903, p. 33.

[6] Ella McFadyen, interview with Hazel De Berg, Hazel De Berg Collection, National Library of Australia (DeB 615-61).

About the Author

Photograph of Helen Curran, assistant curator at Sydney Living Museums
Helen Curran
Former Assistant Curator
Helen was Sydney Living Museums’ dedicated gardens...
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