Whatever happened to the coaches at Vaucluse House?

Many visitors returning to Vaucluse House ask us about displays at the house remembered from years past – a meteorite displayed in the courtyard, the ‘Pompeiian tiles’ (actually 19th-century north Italian, and inscribed by their maker Strino Ferdinando) and, most often, the three coaches that were once in the stables, a story going back about 100 years.

Vaucluse House was acquired in 1910 by the New South Wales Government in the course of securing land around the Sydney Harbour foreshore for public use; parts of the house were first opened to the public in 1912.1 The first Trustees set about creating a museum of ‘Australian historical objects’, emphasising the life and career of William Charles Wentworth, who had owned the estate from 1826 to 1872 and whose daughter Eliza remained there until 1898. The Trustees actively acquired original Wentworth possessions disbursed at the 1900 auction of the house’s contents, and accepted gifts and loans of material related to Australian colonial history. There were a pair of pistols used in a hold up of a Cobb & Co coach, a tree trunk blazed with explorer’s marks, and a ring thought to have been owned by convict and chronicler Margaret Catchpole.

Also displayed were a coach, a landau and a ‘chariot’. Seen with three barefooted children in the 1924 photograph (below) is the largest of the three, a thoroughbrace coach described variously as a ‘Cobb & Co. coach’ and ‘a royal mail coach’.2 Once owned by the Nowland family, it was used on the extensive mail and passenger runs they operated across the Liverpool Plains in the latter 19th century, and then acquired by the Royal Australian Historical Society (RAHS) who lent it for display at Vaucluse House.






The Nowland coach, then displayed in the cart bays of the stables at Vaucluse House, was clearly a magnet for visiting children; 1924, photographer unknown. Vaucluse House Collection, Sydney Living Museums

The landau, an elegant and comfortable sprung coach with a top that folds down front and back, was a formal vehicle of a type still used by the British Royal Family. It was brought to the colony by Scottish pastoralist George Ranken (1793–1860), who acquired a large grant near Bathurst in 1822, and was later sold to a Bathurst undertaker for use in funeral processions. In 1925 ‘the famous Ranken coach’ was acquired by the RAHS, who lent it to Vaucluse House in July that year.3

It was described effusively in the press as ‘the first family coach used in New South Wales’ – no doubt news to other coach owners in the early colony.4

The third, smaller, vehicle was a ‘chariot’. Also called a ‘post-chaise’, a chariot was a fashionable small coach for one or two passengers. It could be pulled by one horse and driven by a single servant, and used by affluent or aspirational families ‘without attracting social scorn’.5 This example was built possibly as early as 1822 by the English coachmakers the Messrs Thrupp and is thought to have been originally owned by settler and merchant Alexander Berry (1781–1873). It remained with Berry descendants until 1930, when it was relocated to Vaucluse House; it was formally presented to the Trustees in 1932.

At length the garden gates are reached, and the old coachhouse comes into view. This building … serves to shelter a pair of remarkable vehicles, one being no less than a Royal Mail coach, more ancient even than it appears to be; while the other is the first family coach used in New South Wales. This latter vehicle [was] brought from Scotland in 1821 by the Iate Mr. George Ranken, of Saltham, Bathurst ...
Mary Corringham, ‘Vaucluse House: a visit in spring’, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 September 1926

The three vehicles had an active life, even after they went on display.

As reported in The Canberra Times on 27 January 1938, the Ranken coach, and most likely the Nowland, featured in a Sydney street parade from Circular Quay to the Royal Agricultural Society Showground at Moore Park as part of the celebrations of the sesquicentenary of European settlement. A few weeks later, on 6 March, a costume pageant entitled ‘Garden party of the Wentworth period’ was held at Vaucluse House, featuring a parade of historical figures, some of whom – such as the Wentworths and Blaxlands – were portrayed by their descendants. Most of the ‘guests’ arrived by carriage: the Ranken coach was first, carrying the unlikely trio ‘Caroline Chisholm’, ‘Lady Mitchell’ and ‘Mrs Marsden’. Last to arrive was the Nowland coach. It seems likely that the Berry chariot was also used. A commentary explained the identities portrayed and their costumes, in some cases actual 1830s and 40s clothing. Other highlights of the pageant were ‘Aborigines in war paint’, members of the La Perouse community, who ‘[held] a corroboree and [gave] a display of boomerang throwing’ before meeting ‘Governor Phillip’, who came ashore at Vaucluse Beach.6

Women in colonial costume, in front of the Ranken Coach, Australian Sesquicentenary Celebration 1938. Australian Historical Society.

In 1957 the Nowland coach travelled to South Australia for the filming of Robbery under arms, in which it appears, badged as the ‘Royal Mail’.7 In a scene (44 minutes into the film) that would send shivers down a museum curator’s spine, it races along a winding dirt road before being held up by bushranger ‘Captain Starlight’ (played by Peter Finch) and his gang. In 1976 the coach was transferred to the Gulgong Pioneer Museum, then in 1980 moved again to the National Museum in Canberra.8 In 1986 the Ranken coach was returned to the RAHS by the newly formed HHT, and the RAHS in turn donated it to the National Museum to be reunited with the Nowland coach.

The Berry chariot was extensively restored by students and staff of the School of Building at the then Sydney Technical College in 1961, and returned to Vaucluse House on 12 December that year. Following the creation of the HHT [now Sydney Living Museums] the decision was made that, for conservation reasons, it should no longer be housed at the property, and in 1996 it was transferred to the Powerhouse Museum.

  • 1. J Hughes, ‘A pond in a privately owned paddock’, Insites, Summer 2006.
  • 2. M Corringham, ‘Vaucluse House: a visit in spring’, Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), 25 September 1926.
  • 3. ‘Vast throngs witness pageant of nationhood’, Canberra Times, 27 January 1938.
  • 4. ‘Historic coach at Vaucluse House’, SMH, 25 July 1925.
  • 5. M Simpson, Berry chariot accession notes, retrieved 14 November 2012 from <http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=163466>
  • 6. ‘Crinolines once again on the lawns of Vaucluse House’, SMH, ‘For women’ supplement, 7 March 1938.
  • 7. Robbery under arms, The Rank Organisation, 1957.
  • 8. Nowland coach accession notes, retrieved 20 November 2012 from <http://www.nma.gov.au/collections/highlights/nowlands-mail-coach>

Graphic that says Insites - published in insites magazine

Originally published in: Insites, Autumn 2013, pp 12-13

About the Author

Man in blue and white checked shirt holding pineapple.
Dr Scott Hill
Elizabeth Farm, Meroogal, Rouse Hill House & Farm
As a teenager, Scott Hill was captivated by pictures of ruins, trying to imagine how people had lived in these dramatic and crumbling spaces.