A turbulent past
In 1793 John Macarthur received his first grant of land at Rosehill, soon after renamed Parramatta, which was rapidly developing as the colony’s second centre. He named the property Elizabeth Farm for his wife, and it was quickly followed by an adjoining grant, which he named Edward Farm for their eldest son. The family relocated from Sydney in December that year. Surviving letters from Elizabeth to her mother and friends in England tell of their farm and home life, from anecdotes of their children to the gift of a piano from the First Fleet surgeon George Worgan. It is in these letters that we read of the precarious first years of the colony as they finally gave way to prosperity.
John, the son of a textile merchant, and Elizabeth, the daughter of a Devon farmer, initially viewed the colony as a short-term ticket to wealth. But instead it became their permanent home.
Cottage to Homestead
The cottage they built in 1793 was a large but simple dwelling that resembled countless farmhouses seen in southern England. The balanced, symmetrical design of paired windows placed to either side of a central doorway was typical of the Georgian style then popular in England. The cottage at this time did not show any of the elegance or sophistication that, following a series of alterations and extensions, would later define it as an iconic example of colonial domestic architecture. It was, however, sturdy and well built, and the Macarthurs took pride in it. John described it as:
‘... a very excellent brick building, 68 feet in length and 18 feet in breadth. It has no upper story, but consists of four rooms on the ground floor, a large hall, closets, cellar, etc; adjoining is a kitchen, with servants’ apartments, and other necessary offices. The house is surrounded by a vineyard and garden of 3 acres, the former full of vines and fruits trees, and the latter abounding with most excellent vegetables’
John Macarthur to his brother James, quoted by Elizabeth in A letter to her mother, 23 August 1794, Macarthur Papers A2908
Amazingly, this original house still stands as the central rooms of the bungalow that visitors see today. Over the next 35 years, the house was enlarged and improved as the family’s wealth and influence increased. With a personal interest in architecture, John Macarthur was determined to build a residence worthy of his family’s position in colonial society and directed the constant alterations himself. The late 1820s in particular saw the greatest activity, as a suite of elegant, interconnected formal rooms was created, windows were replaced by French doors, floors were lowered to provide extra ceiling height, and deep verandahs with delicate lattice work were added.
At the same time, his attention constantly shifted as he switched focus from his land at Pyrmont in Sydney, to Camden, to Parramatta. Employing a succession of architects and builders, and consulting a variety of pattern books, he considered designs for villas and grand houses, starting construction on some before abandoning them as his psychological state wavered and his attention went elsewhere. A substantial bedroom wing was designed for Elizabeth Farm, but was never built. Macarthur’s ‘steam engine power’1, as Elizabeth described his bursts of manic energy, propelled these schemes, but was symptomatic of his deteriorating mental state.
- 1. Elizabeth to Edward Macarthur, 17 December 1826, Macarthur Papers A2906.
[a] man of the most violent passions, his friendship strong and his hatred invincible
Macarthur family friend, Robert Scott, 1822
Public and private lives
While the name John Macarthur will always be associated with the Australian wool industry, it was his conflict with a series of colonial governors that would determine the path of his and his family’s lives. A duel with his commanding officer, William Patterson, led to his first return to England in 1801. But far from being court-martialled, he returned to the colony in 1805 triumphant, bearing a grant for a colossal 5000 acres (2025ha) – the land that would become Camden Park. Only a few years later, in January 1808, the immovable object of his implacable nature collided with the proverbial force of the new governor William Bligh. Macarthur’s pivotal role in the military overthrow of Bligh led to his second return to England, this time for eight years.
... believe me my Elizabeth the period of my separation from you has been an almost uninterrupted scene of indescribable wretchedness.
John Macarthur to Elizabeth Macarthur, 1814. Letter from a rented house in Chelsea, London, 26 July 1814, quoted in Macarthur Onslow 1914, p242
Over these long years, it was Elizabeth who ran the household and oversaw the family’s pastoral interests. She maintained pleasant relations with the governors and their wives, and was a frequent guest of Bligh’s replacement, Lachlan Macquarie and his wife Elizabeth. For Elizabeth and her three daughters, life with its mix of social rounds and daily routines was a far cry from the hardships endured by most colonial women, though to her youngest daughter Emmeline at least it was ‘stupid [and] monotonous …’
While John Macarthur’s public life was tumultuous, his private life was every bit as eventful. Fiercely devoted to his wife and family, he could be ruthless if crossed. Family friend Robert Scott described him as a ‘man of the most violent passions, his friendship strong and his hatred invincible’.2 Governor Darling commented, ‘[he] is a man of strong passions, and observes no medium in anything. He is equally ardent in his desire to serve as he is to injure’.
He was also plagued by depression, which at times left him unable to leave his bed, and eventually cost him both his sanity and his liberty. In early 1833 John was confined to the family’s property at Camden Park, where, separated from Elizabeth and away from public gossip, he died in April 1834.
After John’s death Elizabeth Farm was inherited by his eldest son, Edward, while his brothers James and William inherited Camden Park and the new mansion that was finally completed there. Ignoring family concerns, Elizabeth remained at her beloved Elizabeth Farm until her death in 1850, aged 83. She was buried with John at Camden in the family mausoleum.
Quite a ruin
For any house to survive standing for more than 200 years is remarkable. Towards the end of her life, during the 1840s, Elizabeth had despaired: ‘Our dear Parramatta is falling down – it is quite a ruin’, suggesting that maintenance of the old homestead, even then, was starting to slip. It was probably the combined effects of poor quality construction and unreliable building materials, along with the ongoing problem of highly mobile clay subsoils that caused foundations to heave back and forth in the ground and made the walls shift and crack. Such movement is still apparent and often alarming to visitors today. In 1855 Edward, who had returned to NSW, contemplated a complete makeover of the property, commissioning society architect John Hilly to remodel the house into a two-storeyed Gothic or Italianate villa. Fortunately, at least for us, these plans never proceeded.
In 1881 Edward’s wife Sarah and niece Elizabeth, his brother James’ only child, reluctantly sold the 1100 acre (445ha) estate, and for the next 22 years it led a chequered, precarious life. The land was subdivided and the house resold and leased to tenants, one of whom even used the servants’ quarters as a glue factory. Around it the new suburbs of Harris Park and Rosehill developed, connected by new train lines to the city centre. The neighbouring estates of the 19th century, once home to the prominent Blaxland and Wentworth families, vanished one by one, their histories preserved only in street and suburb names, and the tell-tale bunyas and other pines that still dot the landscape.
- 2. Robert Scott to his mother, 14 May 1822, Scott papers SLNSW A2263.
The Swann family
‘The house then, at first glance, appeared to be a veritable ruin. There were many broken panes of glass, partially covered with torn pieces of hessian, the papers hung from the walls in melancholy festoons, cobwebs were draped over everything, and altogether the place very uninviting.
‘In 1904 my father purchased the house and 6 acres of land surrounding it. A member of the syndicate who sold it, told him that they were asking the price of the land only, as they recognised that the house was too old to be considered an asset; the only use for the house, they said was to pull it down and build a cottage with any of the material that might be insufficiently good condition. This, he said, they intended to do, unless they soon found a buyer. However, my father had some knowledge of architecture, and he saw that the foundations, walls and roofs were perfectly sound and strong; he also recognised that it would be pure vandalism to destroy such a historic building unnecessarily, so having purchased it, he immediately proceeded to have it thoroughly cleansed, disinfected and repaired, and we moved into it on 30th of December, 1905.’
Source: Miss [Margaret] Swann, ‘Elizabeth Farm House 1793-1914’ in Parramatta and District Historical Society; Journal and Proceedings. Vol. 1. The Cumberland Argus Ltd., Parramatta 1918.
In 1904 the house’s future was assured when it was purchased for £600 by local school teacher William Swann and his wife Elizabeth – the second of that name to call the house home. Of their nine daughters, eight remained in the house through their adult lives. Educated, philanthropic and socially aware, the sisters followed careers from postmistress to dentist, music teacher to headmistress. Yet for economic reasons, they were eventually forced to further subdivide the remaining land, reducing the estate to around 1¼ acres (0.5ha). All the while, the recognition of the house’s special history grew.
In 1960 the house was listed as a historic site, part of the Cumberland Planning Scheme that also saw Elizabeth Bay House – which had itself been inherited by the Macarthurs’ great-grandson, James Macarthur-Onslow – and Camden Park recognised. In 1968 the last three surviving Swann sisters, Edith, Nona and Ruth, found a sympathetic buyer in the newly formed Elizabeth Farm Museum Trust. Preserving the house, however, proved beyond the scope of the well-meaning association, and the property was transferred to the NSW government.
Hands on history
As part of the newly formed Historic Houses Trust of NSW (now Sydney Living Museums), Elizabeth Farm opened as a museum in 1984. The original line of the carriage loop was plotted using an archaeological survey and reinstated. While significant trees had survived, including olive trees, a Chinese elm, Hoop pine and several bunya pines, the garden that Elizabeth Macarthur enjoyed had long since vanished, so to the east of the house a garden was recreated with plants known to have been grown by the family.
Assembling an original collection of the Macarthur’s furniture would always be impossible, so copies were made of known pieces; for example: beds, a dining room sideboard, portraits and a writing desk. Significantly, this also meant that the house could be a ‘barrier-free’ museum, where visitors could wander at will, handling objects or taking a seat in the drawing room. Pared back and uncluttered, the rooms - like stage sets - invite visitor to fill them with stories of the families who have lived there, and create an immediacy of experience that is uncommon in historic houses.