‘A most excellent brick house’: Elizabeth Farm

Handwritten document.
Original grant of Elizabeth Farm, 1793. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales: ML D186
Curator Dr Scott Hill explores some of the enduring mysteries buried in the architecture of Australia’s oldest surviving homestead.

November 2018 marked 225 years since the Macarthur family moved to Elizabeth Farm near Parramatta. Today the house stands as Australia’s oldest surviving homestead. Expanded over four decades, at its core remains much of the original 1793 structure. By studying the building, documents and the archaeological evidence, we can imagine the simpler structure that the family moved into. However, some intriguing anomalies in the documentary evidence raise questions about how much we can know.

Arrival

The Macarthurs – John, Elizabeth and their young son Edward – arrived in Sydney on 28 June 1790 after an 11-month voyage. John was a lieutenant in the NSW Corps. The family’s first home was a rudimentary hut in Sydney Town, but they soon moved to a more substantial two-room brick cottage. A daughter, named for her mother, was born there.

Meanwhile, the colony’s activity was expanding west to Rose Hill and its richer soil. In 1793, with his responsibilities focused in this fledgling town – now renamed Parramatta, an anglicised version of its Aboriginal name, Burramatta, ‘the place where the eels lie down’ – Macarthur was granted 100 acres. Unlike other British colonies, in NSW officers and privates could be given land grants, together with convict workers who were fed from government stores, as an incentive to settle and farm. Macarthur named the land for his wife, and quickly began building a home.

Detail of a painting of Elizabeth Farm from a distance.

The residence of John McArthur Esqre. near Parramatta, New South Wales, Joseph Lycett, 1825. Sydney Living Museums

‘Building a house’

Located on rising ground just below the prominent ridgeline south of the Parramatta River, the family’s new house was visible from all directions, and overlooked the alluvial flats that were being cleared for planting crops. Parramatta was initially accessed from Sydney by water, but soon a ‘good carriage road’ was created, incorporating Aboriginal tracks. The house was convict built and, though larger and better constructed, it was still similar in design to the colony’s humbler cottages, and to the governor’s house in Parramatta (replaced in 1799).

The house sat on a low mound to guard against damp, and was accessed by a small flight of steps; in later years the surrounding ground would be raised and a carriage loop added. Inside, its floor was also a foot higher than it is today, as the floor was lowered in the late 1820s when the house was remodelled to create higher ceilings.

The simple facade was symmetrical, with two small windows each side of a central door. There was a slight eave, but no verandah at this stage. Originally the building seems to have been whitewashed; later it was painted with the yellow limewash reproduced today.

Portrait view of part of verandah with palm and other trees behind.
Elizabeth Farm, view of front verandah from garden. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

The steep roof with its split-timber shingles was especially prominent. Set at an almost 45-degree pitch, it rose nearly 3 metres at its ridgeline to provide an adequate slope to shed rainwater. Rafters of pit-sawn timbers were individually numbered for assembly. They were covered with boards, over which shingles were nailed. This roof, encased by later work, remains today as the most intact element of the original house.

The bricks were locally made at the Parramatta brickworks, and laid in standard colonial construction, without a cavity. With imported lime in precious short supply the mortar was a simple mud loam. The footings were stone, laid in long courses. This would cause endless issues, as it still does today. Resting on a foundation of reactive clay, the house would bend and bow as the ground expanded and contracted; with their weak mortar, walls would crack and doors stick. Today, the footings can be seen in the ‘archaeology room’ at the rear of the house, which was left unrestored by the NSW Government in 1980, as the multiple phases of the house’s construction are seen there most evocatively. Also visible in this room are several closely spaced post holes, which suggested to some researchers an early verandah, or a lightly built lean-to. This was replaced in turn by larger skillion-roofed rooms whose stone and brick footings remain.

View inside the roof at Elizabeth Farm. Photo © Ian Sansom

Archaeology room at Elizabeth Farm. Photo © Paolo Busato for Sydney Living Museums

A letter home

In the year after the house was built, Macarthur described it in a letter to his brother in England. What seems a straightforward description has since led to much debate:

In the centre of my farm I have built a most excellent brick house, 68 feet in front, and 18 feet in breadth. It has no upper story, but consists of four rooms on the ground floor, a large hall, closets, cellar, &c; adjoining is a kitchen, with servants’ apartments and other necessary offices. The house is surrounded by a vineyard and garden of about 3 acres; the former full of vines and fruit trees and the latter abounding in the most excellent vegetables. The farm being near the barracks, I can without difficulty attend to the duties of my profession.

John Macarthur to his brother, quoted by Elizabeth Macarthur, 22 August 1794

One question revolves around identifying the ‘four rooms’; another relates to the dimensions stated in the letter. The oldest rooms of the house are usually accepted as being the hall and two flanking rooms which, before they were extended in the late 1820s, were almost square. Yet their combined length is closer to 48 feet wide, considerably shorter than Macarthur claims. Was it a simple transcription mistake, or was he exaggerating the house’s dimensions? And was it coincidence that the house slightly exceeded the 44-foot width of Parramatta’s original Government House?

An early theory was that skillion rooms were originally attached at each end of the house – the space later occupied by verandahs, and finally coved alcoves – and that these might be the ‘closets’ (meaning small rooms) mentioned in the letter. Certainly the hall (now called the ‘vestibule’, to distinguish it from the later servants’ hall) indicates that this was a house displaying – or aspiring to – a social rank significantly higher than that of the nearby cottages. Only a handful of its contemporaries could boast such a space. Beneath it was the house’s first cellar, accessed by stairs in what is now the back hall. It was later replaced and filled with building rubble, and was rediscovered and excavated in 1972. Further doors must have been located in the hall’s rear walls to provide access to the service buildings and kitchen.

Another internal door must have accessed the bedroom behind. Now termed the ‘library-bedroom’, this was once thought to have been an early extension to the house, but recent mortar testing and an analysis of the footings strongly suggest that it was in fact original. This interpretation means the two front rooms, central ‘large hall’ and the bedroom were the ‘four rooms’ of the 1794 letter.

Detailed plan of building from front, with verandah detailed.
Detail drawing of Elizabeth Farm, north elevation (detail), 1982. NSW Department of Public Works and Services

Service buildings

Macarthur also mentioned the service buildings behind the main house. The decision to build a separate kitchen (a feature of most early colonial houses), to reduce heat and the risk of fire, proved a wise precaution when that building dramatically burnt to the ground in the summer of 1805. In her early letters Elizabeth also refers to a dairy for producing butter; it is unclear, however, whether this was a separate building, or a room within a larger construction.

Ongoing study of the house will no doubt raise as many questions as it answers. A particular focus will be the order of construction of the service wing, which included the house’s second kitchen. As we seek to answer questions such as these, and our knowledge of the original 225-year-old structure grows, it will highlight much of what we have yet to understand of the house’s expansion over time.

This story originally appeared in Unlocked: The Sydney Living Museums’ Gazette, our quarterly members’ magazine.

Find out more about the magazine

About the author

Dr Scott Hill

Curator

As a teenager, Scott Hill was captivated by pictures of ruins, trying to imagine how people had lived in these dramatic and crumbling spaces.