Rouse Hill House & Farm, Rouse Hill

Recently I paid a mid-week visit to Rouse Hill House and Farm. Amongst the expanding suburban sprawl in the north-west of Sydney, from the Windsor Road you can spot an old schoolhouse atop a hill, and behind a row of trees is one of the oldest colonial houses in the district.

Rouse Hill was built in 1813 by convict labour for Richard Rouse. Rouse was the Superintendent of Public Works, and was given a land grant at Rouse Hill along with instructions to build a tollhouse between Parramatta and Windsor. It was near the site of the Battle of Vinegar Hill (1804), the largest convict rebellion in Australian history. The Rouse family lived on the property from the 1820s until the 1990s.

The site has been redeveloped in recent years to include a visitor centre and educational facilities for school groups. There were buses of school children on site on the day of our visit, and they could be glimpsed wearing schoolclothes of the 1800s, dutifully following a school teacher wearing a heritage-style dress and carrying a basket. Quite a contrast with the modern shuffle of cars, trucks and buses down the hill.

Tours of the house are at set times, and we were fortunate enough to arrive in time for a guided tour with one other visitor. Hannah, our guide, was informative and engaging. It felt like a private tour with the space and time to really take in the surroundings. We were whisked up the hill to the house on a people mover, passing by the relocated Rouse Hill public schoolhouse. There were panoramic views out to the Blue Mountains and Windsor, and whilst there is only a small fragment of the original landholding left, it is possible to imagine what it must have been like 200 years ago.

The house is unique for being occupied by the same family for six generations. The hallway, fitted with three stag heads, opens up into the four rooms on the ground floor. These rooms are a record of the family that lived there, densely filled with all manner of paintings, furniture and fittings, the high ceiling rooms covered with intricate wallpapers, curtains and furnishings, sideboards loaded with photos. Although it has been empty of Rouse relations for nearly 20 years, there is somehow a feeling of trespassing, that surely the family will be back at any moment.

Upstairs there are seven bedrooms which are usually inaccessible to the public. Above the stairs there are sections of ceiling which are exposed due to hail damage and flooding decades before. Restoration continues but there is more of a remedial approach: repairs are done in a similar style using like materials or from material salvaged on site to keep historical integrity intact. This is also in accordance with the way the family seemed to retain or repurpose household items, rather than dispensing with them once the initial use had passed.

The rear of the house leads out to servants quarters, kitchens and a butler’s pantry, amongst other rooms, and there is a paved arcade area which was used as a venue for musicals, entertainments and feasts after hunting parties. The Rouse family was known for the breeding of thoroughbreds, and the stables are a testament to the value of their livestock. Beautifully carved stalls housed the horses which included several Melbourne Cup entrants and winners.

There are a couple of horses on the property, along with some cattle that were being rounded up as we watched. The hen-house on the property was well-known; whilst in ruins now, at the time it was built there were no other brick houses in the area so the poultry had superior accommodation to the majority of the local dwellings. The bathhouse, separate to the house, is still intact. The linkages with Aboriginal heritage in the area is acknowledged with bush tucker tours of the farm.

At the visitor centre there are computers set up with virtual tours of the rooms, including the bedrooms, with additional information available on paintings and photographs which adorn each room. You can relax with a cuppa and just take in the sense of history and space of the site. The site is one of the Sydney Living Museums with lots of interesting information about the farm here. The blog post on Hirsute heritage and facial fashions is particularly entertaining.

More than any other house museum I have been through, this house felt as though the family had stepped out, perhaps a few decades ago, and had forgotten to return. Have you ever been to a place that made you feel like this?

[Photo: dining room table, set for a meal, Rouse Hill House & Farm. Note the half-moon shaped plate – have you seen one of these before?]


Bygone Beauties: Treasured Teapot Museum & Tearooms, Leura

Tucked a block away from the main thoroughfare in Leura, Bygone Beauties is the home of the world’s largest private teapot collection. The collection spans over 5 centuries with teapots from all over the world and they have been predominately collected within Australia. The teapot collection commenced in 1974 when a geisha girl teapot was spotted by Ronald Hooper, a previous joint owner of the museum.

The museum reflects and preserves the diversity of tea drinking in Australia. The scope of the collection gives an indication of how wide-reaching the tea drinking culture extends around the world, with samples of teapots from Australia, America, Europe, Africa and Asia. The materials used in the making of teapots includes china, fine porcelain, silver and cast iron, to name a just a few.

A wide selection of teas is on offer in the tea room, along with morning and afternoon teas, traditional high tea and champagne high tea. There are light meals and refreshments, and the specialised teas can be purchased along with all sorts of tea-related paraphernalia.

The tradition of drinking tea has been honoured for centuries. For millions of people, it has been an integral part of the fabric of daily life, providing structure to the day at set intervals, offering familiarity and comfort in times of need. The phrase ‘tea and sympathy’ comes to mind.

Thinking about the ritual of tea drinking reminds me of a tea tray set with a well-used teapot, covered with a hand-knitted cosy, surrounded by a milk jug, sugar bowl, tea cups, saucers, spoons and a tea strainer. The loose leaf tea had been measured into the warmed teapot. Then there was the pouring of tea and the requests for the weaker first cups rather than the more robust later cups of tea. There were everyday, serviceable cups and saucers, made of a heavier china to withstand regular washing as well as the fine bone china sets which were used for special occasions, exquisitely decorated with flowers and intricate patterns. I am still compelled to check the bottom of cups and saucers when I come across them to see where they were made.

It was a delight to look around the teapot museum and see the extensive range and variety of teapots, cups, canisters and even tea cosies on display. There were some tea sets in smaller cabinets, and the collection is grouped into various sections including geography, age, novelty and Australiana. Silver teapots are displayed along with Art Deco style teapots; teapots were also used for advertising and were popular as souvenirs. Children were given miniature tea sets and there are several on display. There were the sturdy Brown Betty teapots as well as fine china that was almost transparent in its delicacy. It was thirsty work and I needed a cuppa after taking it all in.

Do you have a tea-drinking ritual or memory?

[Photo: detail of one of the many exquisite tea sets in the museum]

Eskbank House

Recently I went along to have a look around Eskbank House. It is located in Lithgow and was the first house built inside the Lithgow valley. Built in 1842 for Thomas and Mary Brown, the house was their residence for nearly 40 years. The helpful guide advised me that they were the only owner-occupiers of the house until it became a museum in 1966. There were various other tenants over the years, mainly mine managers and their families, and the house has had various incarnations over time.

The property was one of the earliest house museums in NSW, opening in 1966. Originally the house consisted of four rooms and a central courtyard. There were fireplaces in each of the rooms, and during my visit on a glorious late autumn morning the flagstone hall had a definite chill despite the warmth outside. It would have been very fresh there in winter.

There have been various additions and demolitions over the years, and there are four outbuildings in the large gardens. There are displays in each of them, including the most recent building which was constructed in 1993. This is the pottery museum and it holds the Lithgow Pottery Collection. There is also a range of industrial machinery in the grounds, including Possum the Locomotive, which worked on the Lithgow Ironworks from 1919 until 1928 when it was relocated to Port Kembla. Possum was gifted back to the museum in 1969.

Throughout the house and the gardens there are various items of interest. The furniture in the master bedroom includes an exquisite four-poster bed, and there are several period pieces of furniture as part of the Bracey Furniture Collection which help provide an insight into how the house would have looked over a hundred years ago. The wide assortment of tools and household paraphernalia in the stables and blacksmith area are a testament to the skilled trades of a bygone era, as are the samples of the Lithgow Pottery Collection.

At the time of my visit, the gallery space (old courtyard) featured some amazing local artwork courtesy of the Waste2Art Exhibition 2016. There are regular exhibitions held here which help to keep Eskbank House a living space and worth a visit.

There is an excellent website on Eskbank House here, and a detailed blog post here by Anne Dignam which helps to flesh out the history of the property. Some of the photos I took at Eskbank House are available through this link.

What brings history to life for you?

[Photo of Eskbank House taken near the stables]


Train of thought*

The railway station at Mount Victoria was formally opened in 1869. The sheer magnitude of the railway construction through the mountains must have been overwhelming, an engineering feat through dangerous and challenging terrain. The road through the mountains would have been over 50 years old but was still rough in parts and had been given a good thumping during the gold rush years.

Inevitably the coming of the railway opened up the mountains and created new opportunities for businesses and lifestyles away from the established towns in Sydney and surrounding areas. There is a good overview of the impact here.

The towns along the railway line would have thrived; those further off the track (excuse the pun) may not have fared so well. I wonder how expensive it was to travel initially as a passenger. Was it something that would have been within reach of an ordinary person?

By 1894, the trip from Sydney to Katoomba cost five shillings and sixpence; roughly about $40 in today’s money. These days a full fare is $5.80/$8.30 one way, depending on the time of travel.

From historical accounts, Mt Victoria began to thrive once the railway arrived, and it was an important gateway to the central west. It was a changeover point and a large staff were employed at the station and in the dining rooms to meet the demands of feeding the hungry hordes who disembarked at the station with about half an hour to refresh themselves as the trains were refueled, ready for the next stage of the trip.

The museum at Mt Victoria contains an amazing array of paraphernalia relating to this now lost time.

Do any transport options near you capture your imagination?

*Title of a song by Sharp.

[Photo of the platform at Mount Victoria station]