Miriam Ann Hamilton (1924-2014)

Miriam Hamilton nee Terry, a descendant of both the Rouse family of Rouse Hill and the Thorburns of Meroogal, was, with her late husband Ian, one of the last co-owners of Rouse Hill House and its collection.

Miriam Hamilton was born on 29 October 1924, the eldest daughter of Roderick Buchanan Rouse Terry, great-great-grandson of Richard Rouse, and Jessie Arminella Thorburn. As a child Miriam lived with her parents and younger sister Elizabeth (Betty) in cottages at Rouse Hill and Box Hill. The two girls spent a great deal of time at Rouse Hill House, the home of their great-grandfather Edwin Stephen Rouse.

Miriam Terry on the verandah at Rouse Hill House, 24 October 1929 – her 5th birthday. Miriam’s younger sister Betty is seated in the background. Photographer unknown. The Hamilton Collection.

These visits were fondly remembered as full of fun – music and charades, themed birthday parties, and trips to the city with their aunt Kathleen. Not all memories were quite so pleasant – Miriam and Betty caught ringworm from the calves and had to have their heads shaved!

It was at Rouse Hill House that Miriam developed her lifelong love of books, gardens, antiques and music, and, more importantly, a strong sense of family history through the stories of her grandparents Nina and George Terry. Miriam’s association with Rouse Hill House was to last a lifetime.

In the early 1970s, Miriam was a member of the National Trust Rouse Hill House Preservation Committee. By 1977 the property was jointly owned by Miriam’s father Rod (Roderick) Terry and his younger brother Gerald. That year, in an attempt to secure the house’s future, Rod sold his share in the house and its contents to Miriam and her husband Ian, and the Hamiltons went to live in the house with Rod. In 1978 the property was resumed by the NSW Government, although the Hamiltons retained their share in the contents.

The Hamiltons fought vigorously to regain the property, but when legal avenues were finally exhausted they left their share of the contents largely in situ in the house as an act of goodwill. Most of the objects owned by the Hamiltons were subsequently leased and then sold to the Historic Houses Trust, forming what is now known as The Hamilton Rouse Hill Trust Collection.

At Sydney Living Museums we tend to associate her with Rouse Hill and Meroogal, but there was so much more to Miriam. She married Ian Thomas Hamilton in June 1945, and helped him establish his engineering business. In 1952 they moved to Hunters Hill, where Ian had lived since he was seven and Miriam had spent time as a child. Here she became an active community member. In her spare time – she only had five children to wrangle – she campaigned to secure a fully trained teacher for the local preschool, raised funds for the primary school, sailing club and All Saints Soccer Club, and was a foundation member of the Hunters Hill Historical Society and inaugural convenor of its social committee.

A newspaper item on preparations for the Society’s first social activity – ‘A Victorian Rout’ in November 1961 – rather evocatively described Miriam ‘madly Scarlet Pimpernelling around the Hill … for period dresses and props …'1 In fact, two of these costumes came from Rouse Hill House.

The committee’s most ambitious project, an exhibition of colonial furniture held in the Hunters Hill Town Hall in November 1962, featured items from both Rouse Hill House and Meroogal. It attracted significant crowds and good local and metropolitan press coverage, and was subsequently described by the late Kevin Fahy AM as an ‘exhibition of Australian furniture which … is of considerable importance in retrospect … the first deliberate attempt to define and present an exhibition of Australian nineteenth-century furniture’.2

Miriam was a determined and outspoken advocate for the preservation of our heritage. Most famously – or infamously at the time – she was one of the ‘Battlers for Kelly’s Bush’, a group of local women who formed the then unholy alliance with the NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation which led to the world’s first Green Ban, saving the remnant bushland site on the Parramatta River at Woolwich from development.

It is difficult today to appreciate the courage it took for these ‘establishment’ women from a conservative community to associate with a then communist-led union – or the horror with which some in the community greeted (or rebuffed) them. Miriam developed an enduring respect for those seemingly disparate souls who had helped, such as our former Chair Jack Mundey AO, and was always adamant that the contribution of all thirteen ‘Battlers’ should be recognised. The Battlers were awarded the Honorary Freedom of the Municipality of Hunters Hill in 1996 at a special presentation held in their honour.

A member of various organisations such as the Australiana Society, of which she was a life member and former committee member, Miriam contributed articles to a variety of journals. She purchased a number of objects to retain them in family ownership and prevent collections from being broken up, and devoted much of the last 30 years to exploring Australian history through her own family. Miriam wrote about her family and graciously provided access to her research and private collection for our exhibitions and publications. Miriam was always generous with her time, her collection and her knowledge, and a firm believer in sound research, even when she was proved wrong.

Following her husband’s death in 1995, Miriam remained committed to Rouse Hill House and Meroogal, and continued her interests in their history and interpretation in her role as Honorary Curatorial Adviser and life tenant of an apartment in Rouse Hill House. In 2002-3 Miriam worked with staff on Picturing the Studio, a temporary recreation of the Breakfast Room (the Studio) at Rouse Hill House c1929-30 based on Miriam’s memories, using objects from Rouse Hill and Miriam’s own collection.

Miriam Hamilton in the Studio at Rouse Hill House, recreated as the Breakfast Room, 2003. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of the Hamilton family.

In May 2013 Miriam organised a family gathering at Rouse Hill House for the descendants of the five Terry brothers – her father Rod, Geoff, Ted, Gerald and Noel – to celebrate their lives and recognise their contribution to preserving the property and its contents. Over 100 descendants enjoyed the opportunity to catch up with relatives or meet for the first time, to share memories and gain an insight into their fathers, grandfathers and uncles.

Miriam Hamilton died on 15 October 2014, just shy of her 90th birthday, which would have made her quite cross. It says much about the vitality of someone of such a great age that the initial reaction of those who heard of her demise was shock. Everyone expected her to go on forever, something that she seemed quite determined to do.

Kind, energetic and caring, with a great sense of the absurd, Miriam was passionate – about life, about history, and most of all about her family, past and present. In such a very full life, her proudest achievements were her five children – Jane, Ian, Nanette, Hugh and Derek – and eleven grandchildren, in whose lives she was such an important and vibrant presence.

Sydney Living Museums wishes to extend our deepest sympathies to her family and many friends.

  • 1. The Weekly Times, 1 November 1961, p7.
  • 2. Kevin Fahy, Christina Simpson and Andrew Simpson, Nineteenth Century Australian Furniture, David Ell Press, Sydney, 1985, p11.

About the author

Jane Kelso

Historian

Jane developed a love of old buildings and the past growing up in a landscape of old country homesteads and Horbury Hunt woolsheds and churches near a country town whose glory days were ‘history’.

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