View of harbour from South Head shewing the entrance, Watsons Bay, and Vaucluse 1848  Vaucluse House Collection

Vaucluse House: a brief history

‘There is not a lovelier site in the known world’, wrote the Sydney-born barrister and novelist John Lang about the Wentworth family’s estate of Vaucluse. 

By the mid 1800s, when Lang was writing,1 the striking harbourside villa was still to be finished, but the surrounding estate boasted gracious gardens and parklands, wooded greens, orchards and vineyards.

Vaucluse House began as a stone cottage, built in 1805 by Sir Henry Browne Hayes, an eccentric Irish knight of ‘grotesque appearance’.2​ Originally from Cork, he was transported to NSW for kidnapping a local heiress and attempting to marry her by force. It is thought that he surrounded the cottage with Irish peat to protect it from snakes: it was Brown Hayes’ belief that St Patrick had ‘so managed matters that no snake could not live on or near Irish soil’. He named the property Vaucluse after the village of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse near Avignon in southern France, where the Italian poet Petrarch once owned a secluded estate. ​

Oil on board. Depiction of Vaucluse House, after the addition of the large drawing room. Foreground of rocks and water with a small sailing boat.
This painting captures the picturesque qualities of the Vaucluse estate. Popular in the late 18th and 19th centuries, the idea of the picturesque emphasised the relationship between buildings and their landscaped and natural settings which created pleasing textures, irregularities and views framed as if in a painting. Closely tied to romantic ideals of the sublime qualities of nature, it was a reaction against the order, formality and symmetry of the neoclassical style. Vaucluse Bay by George Edwards Peacock, c1846–50. Sydney Living Museums, acquired with funding from the Friends of the Historic Houses Trust
ABOVE: Through the misty, almost sublime light, this view shows Vaucluse House nestled in the still secluded bays of Sydney Harbour. View of harbour from South Head shewing the entrance, Watsons Bay, and Vaucluse by Conrad Martens, 1848. Sydney Living Museums V88/972
 

Sir Henry built a pretty little cottage … upon which the house of Mr. William Charles Wentworth now stands. There is not a lovelier site in the known world … Travel where you will the eye will not rest upon any spot more favoured by Nature than that exquisite valley which was called Vaucluse.

barrister and novelist John Lang, 1859Unknown Object

In 1827 the cottage was bought by William Charles Wentworth. Explorer, barrister, writer, he was by then a prominent figure in the colony but carried the stigma of his family’s convict past. The illegitimate child of a convict mother and a father tried but acquitted for highway robbery, he and his lover Sarah Cox, herself the daughter of ex-convicts, had the first two of their ten children before marrying in 1829. That same year the local press reported that ‘W.C. Wentworth Esquire is about to add to the natural beauties of Vaucluse by the erection of a new and elegant chateau’.3

One of Wentworth’s first improvements to the estate was ‘a splendid suite of outbuildings’, including a barracks for convict servants and an imposing sandstone stables with seven stalls, harness room, fodder room, men’s quarters and coach house.4 With its corner buttresses, castellated turrets, arches and carved Gothic detailing, it is one of the earliest surviving domestic Gothic revival buildings in Australia.

Extensions around the core of the existing cottage added a dining room, bedrooms, sitting room and drawing room, along with a two-storey kitchen wing, and by the early 1830s laundry, storeroom, guardroom, and even a boathouse were completed. Further extensions followed: a three-storey bedroom wing and two-storey stairhall to link the bedroom wing to the house. One of the most significant improvements was the remodelling of the drawing room in the 1840s most likely under the direction of the government architect Mortimer Lewis.5 Designed in the hope of impressing suitors for the Wentworth daughters, the room featured fine imported ceiling and cornice ornaments, a hand-blocked floral wallpaper border printed by English wallpaper firm E T Archer and chimney piece of Carrara marble, and is today considered one of the most significant colonial interiors surviving in Australia.

A verandah and fountain were added in the early 1860s, yet the house remained incomplete: even the most obvious element – a front door – was still missing. ‘Where did visitors to the house enter?’ remains a constant source of mystery among visitors today, who also often comment on the paucity of bedrooms. Only three for ten children: Thomasine (Timmie), William (Willie), Fanny, Fitzwilliam, Sarah (Joody), Eliza (Didy), Isabella (Belle), Laura, Edith and finally D’arcy. While the intention was to build more, this never happened and poor Fitzwilliam remained in his ‘room in the hall’, his only privacy a wardrobe acting as a screen. Of the house’s unfinished state, former curator and architectural historian James Broadbent talks of ‘a fragmentary, muddled house with a character particularly evocative of its mercurial owner’.6

 
 
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This c1920 view from the driveway across the carriage loop shows the stables and rustic pergola to the right (now demolished). The stables were built in the Gothic revival (or Gothick) manner, meaning they reflected the forms, structures and decoration typical of the Gothic style popular across western Europe from the 12th century. Nielsen-Vaucluse Park Trust photograph album, Sydney Living Museums
 

IN THIS GARDEN …

Both William and Sarah were committed to improving the grounds of the estate, originally established by Hayes but by 1830 expanded to 515 acres (208.3 ha) and covering much of the present-day suburb of Vaucluse. Along with parklands, orangeries, orchards, vineyards and greenhouses, a ‘pleasure garden’ framed by large trees featured surviving 19th-century plants such as camellias and a fountain that was installed about 1861 when the Wentworths returned from Europe. The kitchen garden produced fruits such as pineapples and melons that won prizes at the annual floral and horticultural shows.  

Drawing on sources such as plant lists, letters and archaeological surveys, the kitchen garden today is planted with fruit and vegetables known to have been available in the colony in the mid 19th century: jam melons, scarlet runner beans, custard apples, Coe’s golden drop plums, King of the Pippins apples, Winter Nelis pears, pomelos, black and white Genoa figs, pomegranates and strawberry guava.

To the southwest of the house, a series of engravings carved into the escarpment mark the presence and connection of generations of Aboriginal people to this land before and since European contact, including individuals such as Bobby, who lived and worked at the house in the 1860s. 

A peach, grown at Vaucluse … measuring nine inches in circumference. In this garden there grows the most delicious fruit in the colony.

Australian, 13 January 1830​

 
 
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A view through the ‘pleasure garden’ to the drawing room verandah. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the idea of the pleasure garden, a place to take delight in the sensory pleasures of ornamental plantings, pathways and views, became a popular feature of the fashionable garden, along with elements such as the orchard, kitchen garden, park and greenhouse. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums
 
 

OF COURSE NOT VISITED

William Charles Wentworth was a talented and outspoken lawyer and politician. Although himself ‘a man of immoral life and lowest origins’, he was part of a new generation of Australian-born colonists determined to break down the social and civil barriers that divided free settlers from the convict-stained.7 He campaigned strongly and relentlessly for civil rights, particularly representative government and the right to trial by jury. 

Yet despite his achievements, wealth and a fashionable estate that rivalled any in Sydney, the family struggled to gain acceptance in Sydney society. Writing of Sarah Wentworth following a visit to Sydney, Lady Franklin, wife of the governor of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), observed, ‘very handsome, lady like and amiable, but of course not visited.'8 Somewhat more bluntly put by the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Whenever a woman falls, she falls forever … She becomes as it were socially dead.'9

To escape this social exclusion, from 1853 to 1861 most of the family travelled and lived in Europe. Before leaving, much of their furniture was put up for sale. Listed in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1853, the inventory of items would later become a valuable reference for furnishing the house to reflect the Wentworths' time there. When William, Sarah and four of their children returned in 1861, they brought with them 25 crates of furniture and a collection of Grand Tour souvenirs. The house today is furnished with objects provenanced to the Wentworth family, complemented by material acquired based on sale inventories and advertisements of its original contents. 
 

Whenever a woman falls, she falls forever … She becomes as it were socially dead.

Sydney Morning Herald, 27 May 1847.

The courtyard of Vaucluse House in 1909, around the time the estate was transfered into public ownership.  Sydney Living Museums
 

END OF AN ERA

William died in England in 1872. According to his wishes, Sarah arranged for a mausoleum to be built on their Sydney estate ‘so that we may all rest together in our native place’10 His body was returned to Sydney, and following a funeral service at St Andrew’s Cathedral was interred in a vault cut into the rock to the east of the house. The funeral – the first state funeral in NSW – was attended by over 2000 mourners, while an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 people lined the route as his body was carried from the city to Vaucluse. In death he finally received the acceptance he failed to achieve in life.

Old yellowed image of the mausoleum. It is sitting on top of a large sandstone rock.
The Wentworth mausoleum, c1880. Built on a rocky outcrop on the hill above Parsley Bay, the mausoleum overlooked both Sydney Harbour and the Vaucluse estate, and could be seen from the front verandah of Vaucluse House. Sarah also wished to be buried at Vaucluse, but was buried at Eastbourne, England.Sydney Living Museums COL_NVPT5_9​


 

Many who had before held aloof – some who had denounced him as a firebrand – more who regarded him as a dangerous revolutionist – others who had vilified him as a wild disturber of society – all gathered around him at the successful termination of his career and recognised him as a great public benefactor.

NSW premier Sir James Martin, speaking at Wentworth's funeral, 187311

 

After extensive public pressure, in 1911 the state government resumed nearly 23 acres (9.3 ha) of the Vaucluse estate to provide public access to the Sydney Harbour foreshores. By 1912 the Vaucluse Park Trust granted ‘Public access to the ground floor of the Old House only’ with regular visiting hours established in 1915. The property was acquired in 1980 by the Historic Houses Trust as one of our first properties and has been carefully presented to reflect the Wentworth family’s life. 

Vaucluse House is a living museum. To visit is to be immersed in the stories and experience of this remarkable family and the harbourside estate which shaped much of their lives. A ramble might include spotting eels in the creek fed by a waterfall in the southern paddock, paddling in the beach paddock, sampling a macadamia or lilly pilly, smelling lemon verbena in the service courtyard before heading into the ‘elegant chateau’, sometimes draped in wisteria – the vine that since the 1920s has been an enduring spring time attraction. 

Colour photo of room at Vaucluse House showing couch, piano and sewing box on red and blue carpet.
Second room, Vaucluse House. Photo © Nicholas Watt for Sydney Living Museums

Notes

  • 1. John Lang, ‘A special convict’, Household Words: A Weekly Journal, vol 19, no 474, 23 April 1859, p489.
  • 2. Ellis Bent in Yvonne Cramer, This beauteous, wicked place: letter and journals of John Grant, gentleman convict, Canberra, 2000, p 98.
  • 3. Australian, 29 March 1829.
  • 4. Australian, 7 March 1829.
  • 5. James Broadbent, The Australian, Colonial House, Sydney, 1997, p226.
  • 6. Broadbent 1997, p226.
  • 7. H Dumaresq to Australian Agricultural Directors, 25 Feb 1836, quoted in Carol Liston, Sarah Wentworth: mistress of Vaucluse, Historic Houses Trust, 1988, p22.
  • 8. Liston 1988, p43.
  • 9. Sydney Morning Herald, 27 May 1847.
  • 10. Sarah Wentworth to Thomasine Fisher, 20 December 1861 from Hughes & Griffin 2006, p27.
  • 11. Sydney Morning Herald, 7 May 1873

About the Author

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Joanna Nicholas
Curator
House Museums Portfolio
A number of triggers encouraged Joanna to pursue her love of houses and their interiors.These included stubborn...
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