Monday, 9 January 2017

Saumarez Homestead

Despite living for more than ten years in the 1970’s and 80’s just a few kilometres from it, I had never been to Saumarez Station, literally just outside of Armidale on the New England Tablelands of NSW.
I knew of it, of course and I had been told tales of the homestead in particular, because for a brief time, which never extended beyond her training, Sue had hoped to be a volunteer there. She was wide-eyed in her descriptions of what could never be described as a house.

So despite being aware and spending years and countless trips north and south passing the sign on the New England Highway, I had never turned in. Perhaps because Armidale has been a place I have returned to regularly for business and personal reasons, familiarity bred an ill-conceived contempt.

The Avenue
Nothing prepares you for your first glimpse of the homestead as you pass The Avenue - theoriginal entrance to the house. The current road skirts the Avenue, but it is worth the experience to stop near the start of the avenue and wander down toward the entrance gate. Planted in 1898, there is a row of exotic trees along the inner row on either side of the old road and an outer row of endemic pines planted to protect them. It has created the effect of a funnel drawing you into the homestead but it is not until you arrive at the gate that the full grandeur of the building opens a vista on a different time and place.

Saumarez Station dates back more than 180 years when Henry Dumaresq, ex 9th Regiment and gallantly wounded at Waterloo and then a commissioner with the Australian Agricultural Company, decided to squat on a run “outside the boundaries” dictated by the then Governor of NSW, in order to find suitable pasture for his stock. He named it after the famous Saumarez family of his home, Jersey in the Channel Islands. Dumaresq and his brother William had their main properties in the Hunter Valley and had been the centre of controversy about the acquisition of land. Great debate raged in the public arena as to whether they were free settlers or rogues. It was never his home and after his death in 1838, the family continued to use it as a head station. It was sold to Henry Thomas in 1856. Thomas extended the original cottage by adding a brick extension but the everlasting story of Saumarez started in 1874, when Francis White bought the property.

White’s brother Fred bought Booloominbah at about the same time, on the hill to the north and was to build an enduring mansion from the designs of John Horbury Hunt, which would later be the first building of what would become the University of New England and one of the most recognisable examples of wealth and privilege of the time of the squatters. It is hard to imagine that a rivalry between the two families didn't exist.

Francis was gone soon after arriving on Saumarez and his 23 year old son, FJ White, set about creating his own dynasty on the place. He married Maggie Fletcher in 1881 and seven years later, built a single story brick homestead on the hill above the farm buildings, at the same time as Uncle Fred was building "Bool". Maggie set about having children and creating gardens. The core of White’s business was fine wool and with accessible markets overseas which could be easily accessed by the northern railway line, taking his wool directly to markets in Sydney and loading on ships to overseas customers, it was a business that boomed. The White’s were very wealthy and their lifestyle and position in Armidale’s society reflected that.

The imposing entrance
In 1906, Maggie and several daughters went on a world tour which last a year, so FJ decided it was time to expand the homestead. They didn’t need the extra room but the huge Booloominbah homestead of his uncle’s must have played on his mind and pleasing Maggie was always a favoured pastime. While they were away, he bought in the original architect from Scone, JW Pender to build a second story and turn the original into an Edwardian manor house. When Maggie returned to Saumarez, it was evening and light generated by its own acetylene plant, poured from the windows.

FJ and Maggie were gone by the end of the 1930’s and although the property was left to their five daughters, it was managed by their brother Archie from his property “Bald Blair”, near Guyra. Over time, the property fell to the care of two of their daughters, Mary and Elsie, neither of whom ever married. Mary, the socialite and actively involved in Armidale life, was on the first council of the University of New England and is remembered most often by Mary White College. Elsie was the homebody and attended the gardens, the affairs of the farm and was a keen horse rider.

When Elise died in 1981, aged 97, the homestead was beginning to need closer love and attention, the once glorious gardens were overgrown and the business of farming was rust on the old machinery. The family decided to offer the homestead and ten acres to the National Trust and because of its significance in showing the pastoral history of NSW, the Trust accepted.

Henry Thomas built this brick
extension to the first farm cottage
Today, whilst the 3 000 acres which remains of FJ’s original 100 000 acres is farmed by family descendants, the small portion under the care of the National Trust is lovingly and energetically managed by Les Davis, ably assisted by his wife Libby. Armed with the Trust’s trust and a team of willing volunteers, Saumarez battles on, but it’s a tough fight. Dwindling financial resources are an increasingly vacant bedfellow with aging infrastructure but you would hardly know it.

This is a great place to visit.

Tours of the homestead happen at 10:30am, 2:00pm and 3:30pm on weekends and public holidays but the venue is open on all other days of the week. It’s not just the homestead to see, because below the main building, there is an extensive array of old farm buildings and equipment to explore and Henry Thomas’ 1860’s brick extension to the original farm cottage.

The gardens are lovely and there is at least an hour of wandering to soak them up. A heritage rose garden is well underway, including many of the roses originally bred at Saumarez Homestead pre 1930’s.

Guest sitting room
When you visit, stay for a while. The homestead tour is fascinating, with 30 rooms to be shown through, all garnished with the original furnishings, furniture, artworks and photographs Maggie and her daughters filled the house with. You’ll understand the class and gender distinctions of the day clearly when you see how the house was built to cater for FJ and Maggie’s views on life. For instance, when servants came into the area of the main house, they always came upstairs, even if it was only one, so the building reflects that. The women all had bedrooms on the first floor but the men were all on the ground floor. Yes, I checked … the floorboards creak on the stairs. When electricity was introduced into the house, all of the light fittings were fixed into the ceiling close to windows so that with curtains drawn, the women would not cast shadows of their bodies which could be seen from outside.

Today's photos available soon
Saumarez is a mecca for wedding and wedding photographers. A function centre has been built to cater for larger functions. There is also a café, albeit with a limited lunchtime choice but within that there are gluten-free options. They even serve gluten-free scones, which made my picky palette happy.

Take your camera, take a hat and take your time.