Elizabeth Farm is an historic estate in Rosehill, a suburb of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Elizabeth Farm was the family home of wool pioneer, John and his wife Elizabeth Macarthur. It was commenced in 1793 on a slight hill overlooking the upper reaches of Parramatta River, 23 kilometres west of Sydney Cove. This area belonged to the Burramattagal clan of the Dharug people, whose presence is recalled in the name Parramatta.
The small, solid three-roomed brick cottage was transformed, by the late 1820s, into a smart country house, surrounded by ‘pleasure grounds’, orchards and almost 1,000 acres (4 km²) of semi-cleared land. Enveloped within later extensions, the early cottage remains intact, making it Australia’s oldest surviving European dwelling.
The homestead, now a house museum, is creatively furnished with props and copies of objects known to belong to the Macarthurs of Elizabeth Farm. Impressive cedar joinery has been restored while carefully reproduced paint schemes, fabrics and floor coverings provide an authentic impression of this early 19th-century household. The Macarthurs' garden of native and exotic ornamentals, fruit trees and vegetables has been recreated around original plantings and archaeological features dating to the early 19th century.
Avoiding the use of rope barriers and screens, an innovative 'hands on' approach encourages visitors to explore and interact with this evocative historical environment: sitting in chairs, leafing through letters, playing the piano or pulling up beside an open fire. The museum offers an introductory video and free guided tours. Elizabeth Farm is open to the general public.
Elizabeth Farm is a modern museum with an unusual approach to interpretation. Like a stage set, the house is decorated with replica furniture and props, presented in sparse, abstract, evocative, perhaps even puzzling, arrangements. Stories and impressions emerge of a family caught in the whirlwind of colonial life: flung far from home to a dangerous place, coping with separation, isolation and loss, enduring hardship, securing wealth, prestige and power. This is not a period piece, but rather a carefully reassembled puzzle: some of the pieces remain missing whilst others have been deliberately left out. Elizabeth Farm aims to intrigue, raise questions, provide clues and stimulate the imagination. Who were the Macarthurs and what were they like? How did they run their estate? Why did they choose to risk everything by sailing to Australia? And what became of the Burramattagal, Wangal and Wategora clans whose land was taken over, or the hundreds of convicts and servants who laboured here? What can their story tell us about colonial society and empire? Why is their house, an unfinished cottage, important to us today? Literally ‘hands on’, Elizabeth Farm allows museum visitors to move freely through the house and garden: to open doors, try out furniture, read family letters and newspapers, relax on shady verandahs or rest before open fires. Filled with clues, stories and characters, a vivid atmosphere emerges: a museum without barriers, history you can touch.
Having arrived in the dismal prison colony of Sydney three years earlier, the young soldier John Macarthur and his wife Elizabeth, both 25, were eager to house their growing family. From nine births, seven children grew to adulthood. In coming decades, the Macarthurs' trading and farming interests, along with John’s political ambitions and affairs, came to dominate colonial society. Elizabeth, not always content, remained in Australia for the rest of her life, while John returned twice to England forging contacts and patronage and directing his sons’ education. Above all, John Macarthur’s success in both developing and promoting the lucrative colonial trade in wool has stamped Elizabeth Farm on the national consciousness.
Changes in the architecture of Elizabeth Farm mirrored the growing prosperity and influence of a powerful colonial family in the early decades of the 19th century. John Macarthur's taste for classical design is revealed in sophisticated joinery, plasterwork, furniture and finishes. His preference for a broad roofed, shady bungalow, rather than two-storey mansion, suggests trading and military connections with India, Asia and America along with an uncommon appreciation of the temperate antipodean climate. A century later, this building form would reappear as the iconic Australian homestead.
Renovations came to a halt as Macarthur's mental health deteriorated. Following his death in 1834, Elizabeth Macarthur occupied the unfinished house until her death in 1850. Sold in 1883 for subdivision and redevelopment, the estate passed through various owners until 1904 when, greatly reduced in size, the near derelict Elizabeth Farm was purchased by William and Elizabeth Swann and their large family. Under public ownership from the late 1960s, the house was finally opened for viewing in 1984 under the care of the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales.
John and Elizabeth Macarthur
In 1788, when the young soldier John Macarthur married Elizabeth Veale in Bridgerule, Devon, she was over 4 months pregnant - a timid 23 year old villager from Devon, south western England. At the age of 7, her father died. Her mother, in financial difficulties, remarried shortly afterwards and then once again in later life. Elizabeth was raised almost entirely on charity. John Macarthur, son of a Plymouth draper, was, at the time of his wedding, on unauthorised leave from his regiment in Gibraltar, on orders to return. Having borrowed money to enlist, John had no intention of fighting abroad. Wars with Spain and America were over by the time he’d drawn his first salary. The more lucrative postings to India were unavailable to someone of John’s low social standing. Seven years in the army had left him restless and dispirited.In the anxious months following his marriage, Macarthur agreed to an alternate posting with the New South Wales Corps and the prospect of advancing both his military career and reputation. The company’s mission was to protect the remote prison settlement, although its officers soon found opportunities in trading, farming and land ownership hard to resist. The Macarthurs arrived in Sydney, two years after their wedding, in 1790. It was another three years before a house was built at Parramatta, 23 kilometres upstream from Port Jackson. By the late 1820s, this small, solid 3-roomed brick cottage was transformed into a smart country house, surrounded by 'pleasure grounds', orchards and almost 1,000 acres (4 km²) of semi-cleared lands. From nine births, seven children survived infancy. Until the late 1790s, officers and governors used public money to carry out private business, buying and selling incoming cargoes and undertaking highly risky trading ventures in the south Pacific. During these early years, the Macarthurs' shipping and farming interests, along with John’s political conflicts, ambitions and affairs, came to dominate colonial society. Elizabeth Macarthur, not always content, remained in Australia for the rest of her life, while John returned twice to England forging contacts and patronage and directing his sons’ education. Towards the end of his life, John Macarthur’s work focused entirely on developing and promoting trade in colonial wool – the backbone of Australia’s economy for the next century. As a result, Elizabeth Farm is stamped on the national consciousness. Although enveloped within later extensions, the Macarthur’s early cottage has survived intact, making it Australia’s oldest European dwelling. By the 1830s, having enlarged and refined his Regency Bungalow, Macarthur’s health was in serious decline, along with his grasp on politics, business and family affairs. His death in 1834 brought renovations to a halt, leaving the homestead unfinished. His handsome library, drawing and dining rooms, though newly formed and plastered, were still unpainted. Cedar joinery was yet to be fitted. A much needed wing of bedrooms was never built. Elizabeth Macarthur remained at Elizabeth Farm, despite her children's wishes to leave, until her death in 1850. As the mansion at Camden became the Macarthurs' 'family seat', Elizabeth Farm fell slowly into disrepair. A lifetime’s residue of furniture, paintings, ornaments and books were finally cleared out by family agents in 1854.
John Macarthur, aged 23, his wife Elizabeth and their infant son Edward arrived at Port Jackson in 1790. John was a Lieutenant with the New South Wales Corps, an army regiment assembled for colonial defence. Their voyage from England with a large fleet of convict ships left 278 prisoners dead, almost a quarter of those on board. By the beginning of 1793 Macarthur was stationed in Parramatta, a rapidly expanding agricultural settlement, west of Sydney. As Regimental Paymaster and, later, Inspector of Public Works, Macarthur had valuable resources at his fingertips. Along with convict labour were tools, materials and access to regimental salaries. He was also fortunate in having the pick of prime farming land. Having built a home, a simple rural cottage, on a government grant of 100 acres (0.4 km2), ground was cleared for pasture and planting. With fresh water and fertile soil, the farm was doubled in size within a year, cropped with corn, wheat, potatoes and vegetables. 3 acres (12,000 m2) of fruit trees and vines surrounded the cottage along with exotic trees, shrubs, flowering bulbs and annuals. To graze and work their farm, the Macarthurs stocked 130 goats and 100 hogs along with a horse, 2 mares, 2 cows and a wide variety of poultry. The first European plough was used here. Despite several hundred acres of land under cultivation, large areas of thick, uncleared bush remained for hunting and gathering raw materials. From river banks and wooded gullies to grassy ridges, the local Dharug landscape was thriving with ducks, wallaby, fish and eels - easy prey to Macarthurs dogs, traps and guns.
The house built for the Macarthurs in 1793 was a '...very excellent brick building 68 feet (21 m) in length, and 18 feet (5.5 m) wide…' The four roomed hut faced north, overlooking the river. Accommodation was cramped and, without verandahs, offered little protection from Parramatta's fierce summer heat. To the rear was a freestanding kitchen and accommodation for convict servants. In coming decades, the cottage was enlarged and updated, taking on the form of a Regency Bungalow, set within well planted 'pleasure' grounds. Influenced by fashions from India, the Macarthurs added a broad overhanging roof, deep shady verandahs, tall glazed doors and full length shutters. Inside, improvements were made to joinery, fireplaces, furnishings and finishes. Much of the inspiration for these works came from Macarthur himself, with the likely assistance of architects Henry Kitchen, Henry Cooper and John Verge. By the early 1830s, Macarthur's health was failing, along with his grasp on politics, business and family affairs. As construction continued on the family's grander estate at Camden, the long awaited additions to Elizabeth Farm were put on hold, including a detached 2-storey wing of bedrooms. Even his handsome library, though newly plastered, was left unpainted and without joinery until after his death in 1834. During the next few decades, under the direction of Elizabeth, only the most basic repairs and alterations were carried out. Apart from changes to paint schemes and improvements to the kitchen and servants quarters in the mid-1840s, the homestead remained unchanged. John Macarthur's plans for a stylish Parramatta seat were left undone – his vision, tragically never more than a dream.
By 1800, John Macarthur had become one of the most important pastoralists in the colony having vastly increased his landholdings by purchases from other settlers. Macarthur acquired his first sheep in 1794, possibly for mutton. By 1800, his flock had grown to six hundred, part of which was now producing fine wool. During his four-year absence in England from November 1801, control of his farms at Seven Hills, Pennant Hills and Parramatta, was placed in the hands of his wife, Elizabeth. Receiving high praise for samples of fine wool, Macarthur gained official support for his vision of a fine wool industry in New South Wales. He returned in June 1805 with six Spanish merinos from the Royal flock in London and the promise of a grant of 5000 acres (20 km²) from Lord Camden. Taking up land in the Cowpastures, south of Parramatta, Macarthur named it Camden after his highly placed ally. The breeding merinos were kept at Elizabeth Farm and their flocks increased greatly in value, number and reputation. In 1822 and 1824 Macarthur was awarded gold medals by the Society of Arts in London in recognition of his contribution to the production and trade of fine wool. From the efforts and enterprise of John Macarthur, his family and others like them, grew Australia’s richest primary industry.
Vision and grit
Between 1791 and 1800, John Macarthur's ambition and personality brought him into conflict with successive Governors. As regimental paymaster, Macarthur had control of substantial funds. This enabled him to trade in liquor and household items, purchasing incoming cargoes and reselling these to colonists at enormous profit. Profiteering from government money was common, although questioning the authority of governors was risky. Continuing quarrels with colonial officials proved costly for Macarthur, who on two occasions returned to London to defend his name; the first in 1801 for his part in a duel with Lieutenant-Governor Paterson, and later, in 1808, for his role in deposing the unpopular Governor Bligh. This second incident left Macarthur and his two teenage sons, James and William, isolated in England until 1817. Careful to exploit his circumstances abroad, Macarthur pursued business opportunities in England, in particular the promotion of the fine wool industry. Meanwhile, the farming and family interests in New South Wales were delegated to his wife and cousin Hannibal Macarthur. On returning to the colony he actively opposed the rise of 'Emancipists', or freed convicts, who threatened the wealth and political influence of land owning 'Exclusives'. In 1825, Macarthur was appointed to the newly formed Legislative Council and remained a member until 1833. At the time of his death in 1834, Macarthur's estates amounted to over 37,000 acres (150 km2) with stock valued at £30,000; a great fortune acquired in a little over forty years. Behind this achievement lay John Macarthur’s drive, cunning and vision, a skill for self-promotion, as well as Elizabeth Macarthur’s determination, pragmatism, shrewdness and support.
John and Elizabeth Macarthur, with their frail son Edward, arrived in Sydney, two years after their wedding, in 1790. It was another three years before a house was built at Parramatta, 23 kilometres upstream from Port Jackson. From nine births, seven children survived infancy. In coming decades, the family's trading and farming interests, along with John’s political conflicts, ambitions and affairs, came to dominate colonial society. Elizabeth Macarthur, not always content, remained in Australia for the rest of her life, while John returned twice to England forging contacts and patronage and directing his sons' education. Towards the end of his life, John Macarthur devoted himself entirely to the development and promotion of trade in colonial wool – the backbone of Australia’s economy for the next century. As a result, Elizabeth Farm is stamped on the national consciousness. By the 1830s, having enlarged and refined his Regency Bungalow, Macarthur's health was in serious decline, along with his grasp on politics, business and family affairs. His death in 1834 brought renovations to a halt, leaving the homestead unfinished. His handsome library, drawing and dining rooms, though newly plastered, were still unpainted. Cedar joinery was yet to be fitted. A much needed wing of bedrooms was never built. Elizabeth Macarthur lived at Elizabeth Farm, against the wishes of her children, until her death in 1850.
From June 1793, John Macarthur's grant of 100 acres (0.4 km2), Elizabeth Farm, was cleared for pasture and planting. A second grant in 1794, named after his first son Edward, doubled the estate in size. Within a few years, having purchased a number of neighbouring farms along the Parramatta River, Macarthur's estate was cropped with corn, wheat, potatoes and vegetable plots. 3 acres (12,000 m2) of fruit trees and vines surrounded the cottage along with European trees and a rambling ornamental garden. The Macarthurs stocked 130 goats and 100 hogs along with a horse, two mares, two cows, and a wide variety of poultry. The first European plough was used here. Despite some land under cultivation, large areas of bush remained uncleared. From river banks and wooded gullies to grassy ridges, the Durag landscape was thriving with wildlife. People of the Burramuttagal, Wangal and Wategora groups continued to maintain long and complex connections with the place. To supplement foods grown and grazed, the Macarthurs also hunted native fauna – ducks, wallaby, fish and eels – aided by dogs, rifles and traps.
By the late 1820s, this small, solid three-roomed brick cottage was transformed into a smart country house, surrounded by 'pleasure grounds', orchards and almost 1,000 acres (4 km²) of semi-cleared lands. Elizabeth Farm remained in Macarthur family ownership for another six decades. Following Elizabeth’s death in 1850, the homestead garden grew wild, while paddocks, fields and fences were neglected. Tenants occupied cottages on the estate under various arrangements. Finally, debts and complications in winding up the 40 year lease of a woollen mill led to the sale of Elizabeth Farm in 1881. From 1904 to 1968, Elizabeth Farm, on less than 5 acres (20,000 m2), was owned by the Swanns, a large, progressive and well known local family of Quakers, whose appreciation of the old farmhouse led to its preservation. The property was acquired by the State Government in 1979 and, after several years of restoration, was transferred to the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales in 1983. The Macarthur’s early cottage has survived intact, enveloped within later extensions, making it Australia’s oldest European dwelling. The current museum was launched in 1984.
- Architecture of Sydney
- Camden Park Estate, New South Wales - another property developed by John and Elizabeth Macarthur
- Elizabeth Farm, Historic Houses Trust Website, , April 2006.
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