In 2012 I began this theatre company and my daughter Jessica joined me. But I had no idea that four years later we would regard Brush Farm House, built by our pioneering explorer Gregory Blaxland, as our second home too.
No, we dont live there. But we have been able to work there, to use it as our rehearsal and performance space. And it is perfect for our historically based plays such as Pioneers in Petticoats, which will be performed there this Saturday 21st May at 3.30 and 7.30pm.
The house is one of Australias oldest colonial homes, with a long history stretching from 1807. It was occupied first by prominent private families, then institutions, and is now run jointly by Ryde Council, NSW Corrective Services and Macquarie Community College, with a charter for educational and community use.
Brush Farm House stands on part of a grant of 25 acres made in 1794 to Zadoc Petit. The first European settlement ofwhat would later be called Ryde occurred in 1792.The area represents one where the earliest phases of European settlement and expansion of Australia occurred.It takes visitors back to a time when the Ryde district, as only the third area of European settlement in the fledgling colony, was vital to the establishment and growth of our nation’s agriculture, cattle and wine industries.
Between 1794 and 1797, other land grants were made and then consolidated by Lt. William Cox during 1800-1801. The estate was next sold to Gregory Blaxland in 1807, a year after he had arrived in New South Wales.
Brush Farm House was built in 1820, seven years after Gregory Blaxland had made is historic trip over the Blue Mountains with William Wentworth and Lieut William Lawson, which is recognised as the first successful crossing by Europeans, and which led to the surveying expedition by George Evans which reached what is now Bathurst and Goulburn in 1814 and then the road Governor Macquarie ordered built and which was accomplished by William Cox in 1815 with a gang of thirty volunteer convicts in a remarkably short time.
Brush Farm House was originally two storeys over a cellar, built of sandstock brick with sandstone foundations. Gregory Blaxland experimented here with various agricultural projects. He tried unsuccessfully to grow hops, but his experiments with fodder for cattle and sheep resulted in the first cultivation of buffalo grass for fodder. Gregory and his brother and partner John Blaxland are regarded by many as the founders of the nation’s cattle industry.
It was also at Brush Farm House that Gregory made Australias first internationally acclaimed wine. He persisted with growing different grape varieties and with different methods of cultivation he had observed at Cape Town on his voyage to Australia, and succeeded on 1822 by shipping to London one quarter of a pipe of red wine, fortified with brandy. There the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce awarded him a silver medal in 1823.
Dissatisfied with this, he persisted with his experiments and in 1828 offered the Society a second sample which won Blaxland the Society’s Gold Ceres Medal, now held by the Mitchell State Library. The wine was reported to be claret.
The Brush Farm House site also contains cisterns, wells and traces of a former carriage loop and drive, remnants from the early nineteenth century.
In 1831, during a depression, the house was sold to one of Gregory Blaxlands sons-in-law, George Forster, and remained in the Forster family until 1880. George Forster later became Premier of NSW, and Colonial Treasurer as well.
I was delighted to find out that in 1881 Brush Farm House then became the home of John Bennett, a well-known mid-nineteenth century theatrical impresario. Maybe thats why we feel at home on the front veranda with its typical late Victorian wrought iron. The staircase and ceilings also date from this time. Mr Bennett loved horse racing as well, and founded and developed the Rose Hill Racecourse.
It is also interesting to know that for many years the Brush Farm Estate, because of its height and situation midway between Sydney and Parramatta, operated as a signal station to relay messages from vessels on the Parramatta River to the Parramatta township.It was known as “One Tree Signal Station”.
From 1894 the Brush Farm Estate became the Carpentarian Boys Reformatory, the first boys’ reformatory to be established in NSW. When it relocated to Mount Penang, Brush Farm House housed girls. It was then used as an administration centre for a school for handicapped children before its sale to City of Ryde in 1990, by the Department of Corrective Services.
All of these subsequent uses have left marks on the house, as well as the unrecorded but none-the-less significant usage of the site before the colonists arrived, by the Aboriginal occupiers of the land for many thousands of years. An Aboriginal informant assured me it must have been a mens sacred site, because of its elevated position and being surrounded by waterways.
Forster Hall, as it is now known, an addition at the back, was used as a schoolroom when the building housed young people.
Displays on Brush Farm House walls of archival images of the building, its views and its occupants record and interpret the long history of the building. Each room has been named for people with strong associations with the site, including Blaxland, Forster, Carpenter and Wallumetta, recognising the aboriginal people who lived in the area.
Brush Farm House now stands high on its hill, dreaming in its landscape. Imagination can people it with many figures from its layers of occupation: lithe black figures among the trees, colonists on horseback, Gregory Blaxland bending over rows of vines, a convict woman drawing water from the well. Then come young people, here to learn trades or get well, boys and girls with their own dreams, trials and (we hope) some laughter too. Perhaps John Bennett stood on the chequered veranda and saw the dramatic possibilities of carriages sweeping up to the door of his newly restored Victorian mansion. Down below, across the river, Gregory Blaxland would have seen his brother Johns larger edifice, Newington, now the administration wing of Silverwater Prison. The irony that his own Brush Farm House now stands in the grounds of a training academy for Corrective Services staff would perhaps have pleased some of the convict workers here.
For my part, Im glad that this house has been so respectfully restored, and that it is currently being used for exhibitions, education and events like theatre performances. Come and wander round after we bring some women from the nineteenth century alive in a building that took shape during that time. Magic!