What might have been: Edward Macarthur’s plans for Elizabeth Farm 

Elizabeth Farm would have been unrecognisable to its original inhabitants had its second owner, Edward Macarthur, realised an ambitious scheme to thoroughly remodel the house. 

Elizabeth Farm house is the result of constant remodelling, extensions and renovations carried out by its creator and first owner, John Macarthur. The original 1793 cottage – simple, though certainly large by early colonial standards – was a far cry from the elegant bungalow it had become by the 1830s. John Macarthur died in 1834, and his large estate was divided between his surviving sons. The eldest, Edward (1789–1872), received the lion’s share, including Elizabeth Farm. John’s wife, Elizabeth, retained a life interest in that house, and would live there for the rest of her days.

Cameo portrait of man in hunting colours on white horse.
General Sir Edward Macarthur, John Botterill after William Strutt, 1866. State Library Victoria

The Macarthurs’ eldest son 

Edward first left Sydney in 1799, aged nine, for an education in London. His adult career began in England and progressed rapidly. Along with promoting both his family’s and wider colonial interests in London, he fought in the Peninsular War (1807–14), served as secretary in the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, and was recommended by the Duke of Wellington for a military post in Ireland. Following two previous return visits to Sydney, in 1851 he returned again, now as deputy adjutant general – the second-in-command of NSW’s armed forces. That year saw dramatic changes: first as Victoria was created a separate colony, and then as the gold rush began in both colonies. 

Elizabeth Macarthur had died the year before. Edward, however, didn’t return to live at the property he owned. His sister Emmeline and her husband, Henry Watson Parker, who had been living at the Parramatta estate for several years to look after the elderly Elizabeth, were still resident. Then, after their departure, William Henry Allport was appointed Edward’s agent for the estate and moved in with his family, ending the unbroken Macarthur occupancy of Elizabeth Farm since 1793. 

The Eureka Stockade 

Meanwhile, to the south, tensions between miners and the colonial government over the costs of a mining licence were escalating on the Ballarat gold diggings, and the adjutant’s headquarters relocated from Sydney to Melbourne in August 1854. In December, as events reached their climax, Edward travelled to Ballarat, arriving two days after government troops had overthrown the mutinying miners at the Eureka stockade, and finding the situation calm. The following year his superior officer was declared medically unfit, and Edward was appointed his successor. He was now in charge of all of the colonial military in both Australia and New Zealand. The accompanying seat on Victoria’s Legislative Council was second only to the new governor, Charles Hotham. 

Edward’s position quickly rose again when, in December 1855, Hotham died. Edward – the eldest son of a man who had overthrown a governor in a coup in which Edward had himself taken part, the ‘Rum Rebellion’ of 1808 – now became Victoria’s Administrator, its governor in all but name, and presided over the official opening of its first parliament the following year. 

Coloured illustration of large group of people with handwritten caption.
Sir Edward Macarthur opening Parliament, Legislative Council 1856, William Strutt. Reproduced with the permission of the Victorian Parliamentary Library

John Frederick Hilly 

Though Edward was attached to Elizabeth Farm, it was clearly not large enough for someone of his prominent role and so, as his father had before him, he looked to remodel the house. He employed the fashionable architect J F Hilly (1810–1883), who had arrived from Warwickshire in 1839 and was active in Sydney during the boom years of the 1840s to the 1860s. Hilly’s better known surviving work includes Bishopscourt (1846) in Darling Point; Greycliffe (1851) and nearby Carrara (1855, now Strickland House) in Vaucluse; Bomera (1856) at Potts Point; and Redleaf (1863) in Double Bay; as well as churches St Patrick’s at Church Hill (1844) and St Thomas’s, Enfield (1848). For Richard Rouse junior he built Guntawang (1869), at Gulgong in the Central West of NSW. Of his commercial work, the neoclassical facade of the Commercial Banking Company (1854) was saved when it was moved from Martin Place to the University of Sydney and rebuilt in 1925–28. Hilly’s own house, Undercliff, sat near the western end of Grantham Street, Potts Point, until shortly after his death, when it was demolished for the expansion of Cowper Wharf road and warehouses. 

Hilly provided two designs for Elizabeth Farm, which would have adapted the house almost beyond recognition. In the first version (below left), drawn superimposed in red over the original house plan, a substantial new dining room has been added where the small corner bedroom once occupied by Edward’s father is located; in the second version, that room faces west, built over the service court. Both designs feature a new and considerable central hall, with a stair extending to the new upper – or ‘chamber’ – floor. With the exception of the old kitchen, the rear service buildings have been demolished. 

Though no elevations survive, when the plans are compared to Hilly’s extant houses it’s easy to imagine the main verandah of Elizabeth Farm transformed from its original Doric loggia into an Italianate arcade, similar to his design for Sir Edward Knox’s Fiona in Edgecliff (1864, now Ascham School).

Black and white photo of two storey building with ground floor arches.
‘Fiona’, in the grounds of Ascham School, Edgecliff, 1958. Photo © Ian Scott. Courtesy Woollahra Libraries Digital Archive: pf002242

The fate of the plans 

The remodelling, however, was never to be. In January 1860, Edward retired and returned to Sydney. In a letter he wrote from Parramatta to the Victorian Legislative Council, he drew special notice to the symbolic nature of Elizabeth Farm: 

Here under the parental roof at Elizabeth Farm were inculcated principles and maxims which in after-life have been the means of my obtaining gratifying assurances that of themselves would have been ample to secure for me a memorable place in your records, even had my name not already been associated with the opening of your first constitutional Parliament …1 

In spite of these ‘gratifying assurances’, Edward decided to return to England and was both knighted, and then married, in 1862. At his direction, in 1865 the house did undergo repairs and was leased out. 

Even had Edward stayed, Hilly’s ambitious scheme could never have been realised. Elizabeth Farm was built on highly reactive clay soil that has caused cracking ever since. The lower walls, some from the 1790s and which retained their original mud mortar, could never have withstood the weight of the proposed upper floor. Like so many plans contemplated by his father for the family’s estates at Pyrmont, Camden and Parramatta, the designs were put away.

  • 1. Edward Macarthur to the president and members of the Legislative Council of Victoria, 1 February 1860, Sir Edward Macarthur letters received, 1808–66, with some enclosures and draft replies, State Library of NSW, A 2917, p330. 

Key to plans

1. Proposed dining room 
2. Library 
3. Drawing room 
4. New hall 
5. ‘Own room’ (ie, for Edward’s personal use) 
6. Storeroom 
7. Butler’s pantry 
8. Bedroom 
9. Dressing room 
10. Upper hall 
11. Bathroom 
12. WC 
13. Servants’ stair

Scheme 1

Original ground floor plan.

Chamber (or upper) floor. Redrawn from orignal.

About the author

Man in blue and white checked shirt holding pineapple.

Dr Scott Hill


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