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?]