Took my family to Sydney for the weekend, ostensibly for a quick sightseeing stopover but actually so that we could attend the annual open day at Camden Park House.
We were lucky with the rain, and managed to explore the house and extensive gardens before it poured.
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During the first week of June 1805 the signal was made at Sydney Harbour’s South Head and Elizabeth’s prayers were answered. John Macarthur, having left NSW for England in 1801 under the cloud of a pending court-martial, triumphantly sailed up the harbour in a ship he part-owned, unsubtly named Argo. Its figurehead was, equally unsubtly, a golden fleece.
During his enforced English sojourn (this was the first, the second time was after the Rum Rebellion of 1808) John had gained an important friend in Sir Walter Farquhar, avoided sanction for duelling with his commanding officer, sold his military commission, convinced the government that the future of New South Wales rested with him, and wrangled the purchase of seven rare and prized Spanish rams. He even managed to bring five of them home alive. There is luck here, certainly, but also a canny ability to spot an opportunity and to capitalise upon it.
John also brought home his daughter Elizabeth, his nephew Hannibal, Sir Walter Farquhar’s nephew Walter Davidson, several skilled tradesmen and their families, and a range of seeds and cuttings. One of the olives he brought back is probably the one still growing today in the gardens of Elizabeth Farm, at Parramatta.
And there was one more thing brought back from England to show Elizabeth: a letter from Lord Camden to Governor King granting John Macarthur 5000 acres of the best land yet discovered by the colonists, with the promise of 5000 more. It was by far the largest grant allowed so far in the colony. Walter Davidson, Sir Walter Farquhar’s nephew, was also to have a grant of 2000 acres, adjacent to the Macarthurs’ new estates.
Camden noted the ‘pains which had been taken by John Macarthur Esquire in increasing and improving the breed of sheep in New South Wales,’ and pointedly warned King that ‘His Majesty’s Government takes a particular interest in forwarding the objects of this letter. I am therefore persuaded you will do everything in your power to promote its success…’ King took the hint and, after some inevitable to-ing and fro-ing, Macarthur was granted the land that would become the Camden Park Estate, located about 70kms from the heart of Sydney.
The beautiful house in the picture above wasn’t finished until 1835. Until that point John, then Elizabeth and then their sons William and James worked the property from ‘a miserable hut’ and then later from a modest cottage. John died before the grand house was finished, and is buried (with Elizabeth) on a nearby hilltop. And Elizabeth never lived in it either, although she visited there with her sons.
Elizabeth Macarthur’s descendants still live in the house, and manage the adjacent farmlands – with dairy cows these days, rather than sheep – and with under a thousand acres, rather than original ten thousand. Although Elizabeth and John had four sons, only one of them (James) had a child: a girl. She ended up inheriting almost everything (including her grandmother’s farming skills) and it is from her that the current inhabitants of Camden Park House are descended.
What was I expecting to find there, I wonder? I barely found a genuine trace of Elizabeth, although she and her female descendants were very much honoured in the stories told by the volunteers.
Visitors were allowed into the roped-off ground floor rooms, and in each room an enthusiastic volunteer attempted to provide some context and history. No photos allowed, I’m afraid. Apparently the upstairs areas have been modernised, as has the kitchen, but the rooms I saw seemed frozen in the mid-1800s. Beautiful, of course, but I didn’t envy the cleaner… Solid furniture, lovely rugs, chandeliers converted from whale oil to electricity, multiple paintings in oils, marble fireplaces, huge cabinets full of gilt-edged dining ware (not dishwasher proof, as I helpfully pointed out to The Husband).
My kids particularly liked the enormous cellar, which runs the length of the house, and I liked the endless warren of outbuildings. In it’s heyday Camden Park was a self-contained village, directly and indirectly employing hundreds.
But in the end I think we all enjoyed the gardens even more than the house. Elizabeth was a keen gardener and bequeathed her love of plants to her youngest son William, who along with his brother James were the two men who really made Camden Park into the jewel in the Macarthur crown.
The brothers were enviably close and remained so their whole lives. William’s scrap of memoir in fact begins with a paragraph about James, noting that in William’s whole life the two did not live apart from more than ten years in total and that was only when one or another of them was overseas. Even when James married, he brought his (very understanding) English wife to live at Camden Park with him and William. All three seemed to get along just fine.
William was the very model of a nineteenth century botanist – he was a Fellow of the Royal Society and the gardens at Camden Park were his extensive laboratory. One of his particular passions was camellias, and William was responsible for developing over 60 different new varieties.
Pictured at right is William’s Red Waratah, Camellia japonica ‘Anemoniflora’. And I’m keen to pop in to my local nursery to order the first variety William created, which is still in popular production, called Camellia japonica ‘Aspasia Macarthur’. But that’s mere souveniring – and it certainly won’t tell me anything new about Elizabeth Macarthur.
So am I glad I went to Camden Park House? I think so, yes.
It was useful to see the lie of the land (rolling hills) and to get a sense of where the house lay in relation to the river and to the original working farm originally called Belgennie (which lies out of sight of the House and about half way between it and the Nepean River).
It was nice to be a little clearer about where Elizabeth Macarthur is buried, although the family cemetery wasn’t open to the public.
And I definitely gained a better understanding of the wealth that accrued to Elizabeth’s sons. Theirs was very much a family business and, like many Australian migrant stories, the sacrifices of the parents paved the way for the children and grandchildren to thrive.