Eskbank House and Museum


Eskbank House and Museum

Eskbank House and Museum is an unique Lithgow institution which celebrates the past with a wide range of activities from theatre to seasonal events and science-based days to bring the community together in a spirit of fun and enquiry.

At Eskbank House and Museum

at Eskbank House and Museum

The original Eskbank House was built from Australian cedar and local sandstone on Wiradjuri land by Alexander Binning for Thomas Brown in 1842. Brown was the first local industrialist, establishing the coal industry in Lithgow.

The fairly simple house is perhaps the first significant house built in the Lithgow area. It consists of four rooms connected by a hallway, attached to a court-yard which leads to the kitchen and wood-room. Together with its outbuildings, Eskbank House provides a wonderful insight into early colonial life.

In the 1920s William Mortlock enclosed the courtyard and extended the building. Then Eric Bracey, a local businessman, bought the property in 1948 and spent many years re-furbishing and re-furnishing the house. Eventually he donated it to the people of Lithgow, and in 1966 it was opened as one of the first house museums in NSW.


At Eskbank House and Museum

Now Eskbank House stands in a hectare of beautiful lawns and gardens. The four front rooms have been preserved much as they were in Thomas Brown’s day, and house the Bracey Furniture Collection, with some beautiful early Victorian furniture. They also contain the Nationally Significant Lithgow Pottery Collection, and many objects from the history of the ironworks in Lithgow. These include popular heritage items in the grounds such as Possum the Locomotive.

Originally named Cyclopes and built in 1912, Possum was brought to the Lithgow Blast Furnace from England in 1919 by Hoskins Bros to work in the Lithgow iron and steel works. After time in Port Kembla it retired in 1967, was donated to the Lithgow District History Society and moved to Eskbank House in 1969. Other exhibits include a hansom cab and a pennyfarthing bicycle, as well as a Buffalo Pitts Engine used to haul coal and two skips from the State Mine.

Visitors to the museum can enjoy a group tour of the museum or wander by themselves amongst the buildings and gardens. The Courtyard Gallery hosts regularly changing art exhibitions of community and professional art, including an event called Waste2Art.


At Eskbank House and Museum

Eskbank House also hosts music concerts, plays, and themed events such as the Roaring 20s Garden Party, Steampunk Festival and a Halloween Fashion Parade. Its Treasures from Home event invited people to bring along an object with a story about its significance to the local area. These included specially commissioned jewellery, a babys night dress and a pair of convict manacles.


At Eskbank House and Museum

The popular Eskbank Steampunk Festival turns the house into a Victorian Village of the future. Eskbank Steampunk is such a wonderful experience, comments Lithgow City Council Mayor Maree Statham. The activities, displays, markets and high tea are all first class, but it is the visitors in costume that really win the day.

Eskbanks 1950s party, commemorates the Blagoyevich family which lived there during the 1950s and held parties there with Michael Blagoyevichs band The Fugitives. It offered dancing to the Ridgey Didge Duo, a milk bar with bottomless milkshakes, and a carnival with 50s wheels and flicks. Other entertainment included the balloon pop and ring toss, croquet with the local Lithgow Croquet Club (which started in the 1950s, badminton, totem tennis and quoits, as well as 50s cars and caravans from the Lithgow Historic Car Club. There were also prizes for the best 50s threads in the Hip Threads Competition.

Theatre also finds a home at Eskbank House. The local Blast Furnace Theatre brought a childrens picnic theatre production Hansel and Gretel to Eskbank House in


At Eskbank House and Museum

2015, with the audience travelling all over the grounds of Eskbank House with Hansel and Gretel. Writer and director Catherine Lockley also created and directed the Vampire Masquerade Fashion Show as part of the Halloween 2016 festivities.


Pioneers in Petticoats at Eskbank House and Museum earlier in 2016

And Blaxland and Daughters moving one-woman play Pioneers in Petticoats in 2015 brought four outstanding colonial women to life in this perfectly appropriate colonial space. This year Blaxland and Daughters Matilda Fish and the Bushranger will perform there too.

Eskbank House also embraces the sciences, holding a Pollinator Week Workshop where the community took part in activities including building a bee hotel, identifying pollinators and making seed-balls. Eskbank has celebrated International Mens Day too, with a Movember event including a barbecue.

So Eskbank House and Museum continue to be a vibrant part of Lithgow life, led by Lithgow Councils imaginative Cultural Officer Wendy Hawkes, backed by Council and helped by a dedicated team of wonderful volunteers.



Hughenden Hotel – Matilda Fish and the Bushranger

Hughenden Hotel Image

The historic Hughenden Hotel, Woollahra

Matilda Fish and the Bushranger is the second of Blaxland and Daughters productions to be performed at the historic Hughenden Hotel. Earlier in 2016 it also hosted our one-woman play Pioneers in Petticoats, which showcases four inspirational Australian women.

Since The Hughenden was built around 1870, it has experienced many changes, from a grand family home to a Masonic Hall and even a Ladies College. In 1993 the building was transformed into a boutique hotel, which hosts a variety of art exhibitions, literary events and theatrical and operatic performances.

The original builder was Dr Frederick Harrison Quaife, son of Australias first philosopher and Professor of Divinity, Barzillai Quaife. Barzillai lived on Queen Street and preached in the Congregational Church on Ocean Street, Woollahra. His son Frederick ordered the house built in the Victorian Italianate style, with black marble fireplaces, servants bell ropes and an unique staircase which are all still features of the hotel. Dr Quaife was an important social and political figure in the colony asa founding father of the British Medical Association and later its President,bringing the first x-ray machine to the colony. He was also a foundingfather of the British Astronomical Society in Australia. Dr Quaifes initials arestill etched in Lombardic script in the glass above the hotel entrance.

After this, The Hughenden led a chequered life as a Masonic Hall, guest house, nurses home, dance hall, and the Riviere Ladies College. The Riviere Colleges motto was Des Fleisses Lohn Rewards of Work and Diligence and it inspired a generation of Australian women to pursue varied brilliant careers.

The College was founded by the German Professor Georgs, a Professor of Music, and his wife, and had several homes in Woollahra between 1877 and 1911, before moving to its final home at the Hughenden in 1912. Here it operated until 1920 under headmistress Mrs Mitchell-Mears, who had been (as Matilda Meares) a woman pioneer graduate of Sydney University in1889. The curriculum at Riviere College included geography, history, English, general knowledge, composition, arithmetic, German, painting and music.

A number of leading Australian women were educated at Riviere College. They included Lillian De Lissa, a pioneer in early childhood education, who saw education as the basis of social reform. She established the Kindergarten Unions of South Australia Western Australia. and also went to Great Britain where in 1923 she helped found the Nursery School Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Other graduates of Riviere College included Dame Constance DArcy, a distinguished obstetrician and gynaecologist who pioneered antenatal care for women, and was committed to lowering the maternal mortality rate. Dame Constance DArcy also became the first female Deputy Chancellor of the University of Sydney, founder of the Royal Australian Nursing Federation, foundation member of Sancta Sophia College and fought for equal pay for women. Another Riviere student, Margaret Estelle Barnes, was one of Australias first female dentists. The logo of Riviere College is etched in the glass in The Riviere wing of The Hughenden.

Eventually the building became lodgings, and fell into disrepair until the Gervay family re-discovered it in 1992 and restored it as a boutique hotel. Distinguished prize-winning author Susanne Gervay and her family began the lengthy restoration of The Hughenden with the legacy left by her parents, who escaped communism in Hungary to find a safe haven in Australia.

Since then it has become known as one of Sydneys premiere boutique hotels, located at the top of Woollahras Queen Street, across from Centennial Park. This park began as the Sydney Common, proclaimed by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1811, with its open areas intended for public use. Redesigned as parklands in 1888, it became Centennial Park in 1901 and was the focus of Australias founding as an independent nation, where Australias first Governor General, Lord Hopetown, was sworn in and the Federal Constitution proclaimed on 1st of January.

The Hughenden Hotel has hosted travellers and many unique functions, and lies at the crossroads of heritage Woollahra Village, Paddington markets, designer fashion boutiques, the Sydney Cricket Stadium and Football Stadium, the Entertainment Quarter and Fox Studios. It sits among one of the largest expanses of colonial Victorian architecture in Australia, which is classified by the National Trust as an area of historic and architectural importance.

In addition, the Hughenden Hotel is an uniquely Australian arts and literacy hotel, a patron of the arts and literary life. Susanne Gervays series of childrens books beginning with I Am Jack has become a vital resource on bullying for schools, and a internationally touring Australian play. In addition, The Hughenden Hotel is home to the Australian chapter of The Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). It also supports a number of charities including Room to Read, which brings literacy to the children of the developing world, Books in Homes which reaches out to indigenous and disadvantaged children, Monkey Baa Theatre and many other community organisations.

The eclectic art of The Hughenden includes artworks from the 1800s to today. Dr Quaifes portrait and the silver plate awarded to him for his services to the Ambulance in 1886 hang in the bar, a permanent exhibition of the works of Australian childrens illustrators is located in The Reading Room, and important portraits of Australian icons including Barry Humphries by eminent artists hang in the reception area and Victorian lounge.

The vibrant history of the Hughenden Hotel provides a perfect setting for the colonial subject-matter of Matilda Fish and the Bushranger. The pleasant atmosphere of its restaurant also makes it a great place to enjoy dinner afterwards with your friends.

Wendy Blaxland

Blaxland and Daughter Plays in Historic Family Home


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!

CROSSING callback rehearsals Brush Farm House

Abercrombie House

In May Pioneers in Petticoats will have the great pleasure of playing at Abercrombie House, a gracious mansion outside Bathurst.

Abercrombie House was built in the 1870s by James Stewart, of the pioneering Stewart family. James father William Stuart came to New South Wales in 1825 to be Lieutenant Governor General of New South Wales, second only to the Governor. He was given a land grant in Bathurst when he retired, encouraged to go there by early Bathurst settler Sir Ralph Darling.

The Stewart family soon bought another 12,000 acres of land, expanding the property to 15,000 acres. However, the building of Abercrombie House did not begin until 1870, and took eight years. Its builder, James Horne Stewart, was born in Edinburgh, and came with his family to NSW in 1835. He married Harriet Bryce in 1855 and they had five children.

The two storey house is constructed in the Jacobean Scottish Baronial style, and looks as if it has been transplanted from the Scots moors. Originally known as The Mount, it is made of granite blocks with sandstone dressings to its quoins and window surrounds. Its 52 rooms, covering 210 squares, include 30 fireplaces and a magnificent ballroom. The houses most striking architectural feature is its curvilinear parapeted gables topped by iron finials. Extensive outbuildings include stables that had room for four to five coaches as well as being home to the master coachman and his family.

Abercrombie House is considered to be of great historical significance and is listed on State and National Heritage Registers as an outstanding example of Victorian Tudor architecture.

The secondary gates at Abercrombie House have an interesting history, since they are much older than the house. They were brought from Toxteth Park in Sydney (now St Scholasticas College), which was built in 1829. Toxteth Park was the home of Sir George Wigram Allen, who was the brother in law of Harriet Stewart, the wife of James Horne Stewart. The house was sold in 1901 to the Good Samaritan Sisters and they wished to bring the gates from their old convent in Pitt St which was being demolished. The gates from Toxteth Park were no longer needed so they were transported to Abercrombie House.

James Stewart lived there at the Mount until he died in 1920 at the age of 95. He had a number of tenant farmers and was known as a kind landlord. In times of drought he halved the rent for his tenants so that the families could survive.

After James died in 1920 his son Athol, who had been born there, took over the property. He had married Frances Helen McDougall in 1905. But when his wife died in 1927, Athol closed the house and moved to Sydney. The house remained empty and fell into decline until it was bought by the Morgan family from James Stewarts great grandson in late 1968.

Rex Morgan said We went looking for a weekender and ended up with a 50 room mansion. But he became determined to restore the house to its former splendour. It gave us a greatchallenge, he said.

A condition of the sale was that the name of the house be changed. The Morgans decided to call it Abercrombie House partly because it is located in Abercrombie Shire, but it also refers to General Sir Ralph Abercrombie, under whom William Stewart had served in the 1790s in the West Indies.

Since 1969 the Morgan family has made major renovations to the house.

Rex still owns the property which is currently occupied and managed by his son Christopher, who grew up at Abercrombie House, and his family.

The house was totally barebecause it had been closed by theStewart family in 1927, said Christopher.

Growing up withhis two siblings in AbercrombieHouse was a magical experience. We all played hide-and-seekendlessly in those first summers, hesaid. It felt like wed moved into acastle.

After Rex and Mary Morgan had completely restored the property and grounds they launched a programme of public heritage tours of the house. Christopher says hes privilegedto be able to live in the historic residence,and provide his children witha similar experience to his own.

Its very much alive, he said. Ithas a warmth about it. The grandeuris palpable.

Now, as a middle-aged man livinghere and raising my own childrenhere with my wife, it just feelswonderful. We are all very honouredto be its custodians.

But the family also really enjoys sharing the house with visitors.

I had always envisaged it becoming a great cultural centre, and it’s only the last few years that it’s really become that, says Rex Morgan.

We have had members of the royal family stay with us, and people like Dame Joan Sutherland that used to come regularly for lunch.

That’s one of the great attractions- the privilege of being able to share it: not only with high-end people, but with everybody. I think to be able to share it is probably the key thing in our whole way of life.

And now you have the opportunity to see Abercrombie House come alive with four women from the nineteenth century when Pioneers in Petticoats brings colonial history alive there. Dont forget to book at or call Ticketek 13 28 49.


Abercrombie House

The Arms of Australia Inn – interview with Rosemary Weaver

Arms of Australia Inn Museum

Pioneers in Petticoats is performing this Saturday at the historic Arms of Australia Museum, which will be open for audience members to view for a gold coin donation. Come and enjoy seeing Australias colonial history come alive in a truly evocative atmosphere.

The Arms of Australia Inn Museum is one of the oldest inns standing in the Penrith area, one of what were originally 23 roadside inns in the Nepean district.

It was built in 1826 as a farm house in this important agricultural area, then bought by John Mortimer, who eventually in 1840 turned it into an inn, because the road had been built across the Blue Mountains and was the main route to Bathurst, Orange and the gold diggings.

The Arms of Australia was the final inn before travellers started to climb into the mountains, and the next inn stood at the top of the first hill. In its early days the area was made dangerous by a number of bushrangers, so the two inns had a signalling system. They hung a lamp in a window if it was safe to travel. If the light wasnt lit, travellers stayed where they were till morning.

The inn had a number of paddocks and holding pens for the sheep, cattle and horses travelling through the mountains, said Rosemary Weaver, Senior Vice President of the Nepean Historical Society which runs the Inn. The Society calls the Inn home, along with the NSW Corps of Marines, whose members recreate the lives and times of the First Fleet Marines, sailors, convicts, gentlemen of quality and their ladies and enjoy being in meticulously recreated clothes from these times.

However, the accommodation for people at the inn wasnt as spacious. The inn didnt have any bedrooms, so most overnight travellers had to sleep in the barn, on the veranda or under their wagons.

But two years later regulations came in decreeing inns had to include rooms for women and children, said Rosemary, so four more rooms were added for the women and children.

The inn provided travellers food such as mutton, steak, bacon, bread and possibly fresh vegetables, along with ale and other drinks; the same fare as in all the inns on the road from Sydney to the interior.

People would also have enjoyed reading newspapers here, even if they were a couple of months old, and exchanging information about what was ahead of them, added Rosemary, But there wouldnt have been much variety in the food.

Eventually when the railway came through in the 1860s the inn closed, because it was quicker and easier for travellers over the mountains to use the train.

The inn then became a private house for about a hundred years, and finally in 1972 was sold for subdivision.

This was the time when the inn was in greatest danger of demolition. In fact, the bulldozer was already on-site when a quick-thinking neighbour stepped in.

Luckily, said Rosemary, Ivan Casson decided to take the rotor out of the bulldozer. This gave just enough time for Penrith City Council to finalise a deal to buy the land and building, which it still owns.

The Historical Society owns all the items in the museum, which have been donated by people in the area.

It took the society four hard years to restore the building which had been vandalised, some flagging stolen and termites had destroyed the floor and roof, said Rosemary. Finally it opened in 1976 as a museum.

At least three to four thousand visitors a year come to the Arms of Australia Inn Museum.

Since the Bicentenary of the Crossing of the Blue Mountains from 2013 to 2015, our visitor numbers have really increased, said Rosemary. Now we have lots of schools coming to the museum, because life in colonial times is on the history curriculum. We split the students into groups of ten to play with old-fashioned games, make butter, wash clothes and so on. They really enjoy it.

The museum also hosts visiting groups such as Probus, and a number of special events every year. It holds an Open Day to celebrate William Coxs building of the road across the mountains with his thirty convicts, an amazing achievement in just six months, a lunch to celebrate Captain Watkin Tench finding the Nepean River in 1789, and the Airing of the Quilts weekend.

Rosemary became involved with the Museum in 2000, when the Historical Society was presented with a bugle, and a historic diary, and she was asked to come and film it.

And Im still here, she laughs. Then Museum gets under your skin. We also have groups interested in the paranormal coming to see if they can spot any ghosts. I also love the museum because I come from England, where the recorded history is so much longer, and when you only have 200 years of recorded history, you cherish it. So many families here are related too, which makes all the stories very interesting. You know the people whose history is being preserved here.

The Arms of Australia Inn Museum is open every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9am till 2pm, and on the first and third Sundays of every month from 1pm till 4pm, staffed by knowledgeable volunteers from the Historical Society.

I asked her about the museums future.

The future lies with the children, she replied. I watch the very young children, in their first few years of schooling, come and play with the old equipment. They write on slates in the schoolroom, use the wringer after theyve washed clothes, churn the butter and taste it. They get a feel for what life was like without i-phones and computers. And thats important. I think theyll remember that, and hope they will think it is worth preserving, as we do.

So come and see Pioneers in Petticoats bring colonial women alive at The Arms of Australia Inn Museum on Saturday 30th April at 2pm. And explore Penriths history in the Museum as well.


Interview with actress Brigid O’Sullivan from Pioneers in Petticoats

Brigid O'Sullivan colour

Recently I asked Brigid Sullivan about her experience acting in Pioneers In Petticoats. Here is what she told me.

What was your journey towards becoming an actor?

First; my father was an art director so I was on shoots and sets as a young child, and I wanted to do what Dad did. Secondly, as a child, I really responded to the element of make-believe and believing in the moment and loved it. Thirdly, I had begun classical ballet, was very keen on it and showed some aptitude, but at 12 or 13 I started to do theatre. Comparing it with ballet, I thought acting seemed easier and it didn’t force you to make a choice at a young age about what you wanted to do that you might not be physically suitable for.

I trained at the Ensemble Theatre and am a firm believer in the benefits of following the discipline of a three year course of training, though its not for everyone. It also gives you some tools in a very competitive tough profession. I was fortunate to have been at the Ensemble when Hayes Gordon was there; he was inspirational and a pioneer in Australian theatre.

What is your theatre background? After the Ensemble training, I became part of the Studios Rep run by the Ensemble at the old Independent Theatre, now taken over by Wenona School. I did a couple of shows with them, then a few years with a touring Shakespeare company, then found my way into film, and some soapies. Casting directors were often very friendly and liked the Ensemble actors, so they gave newbies bit parts to enable them to apply for an Equity card which you needed before you could get work. Then in the early nineties I went to the UK, based myself in London, and worked there. I toured around the British Isles in some traditional and some experimental plays, mostly playing English and American roles so my accent skills came in handy. I chose England above the US on the practical basis of being able to get a working visa for England.

I ended back in Australia because I eventually became homesick for my family and friends. I found work and then met my husband. Really, I came back for my family, the weather and the lifestyle! England is a much larger market so you do get more consistent work. Back here, having overseas experience can be resented by some people, but by and large it does help, because you are confident that you can get work in that larger market place. And in England there is more work to see, and you have access to European work too.

What do you enjoy about being an actor? The audience response. It is much more immediate when you are in live situations, but in film and other media you still get that feedback but at second-hand, and later. With a younger audience, children are more open to coming along with you for the ride.

I also love the chance to take people out of themselves for a brief moment. As an actor you’re not solving cancer, or building a building, doing something huge. But you can take someone to another place. As performance media have changed, you can now work with people who have jobs in intensive care, to train them, help them manage their stress levels and do their jobs better.

Stage, screen or both? Both; they are different media and give you different sorts of satisfaction. With digital media now you can go back and fine-tune your performance; when it was film-based you rarely got a second chance. In screen media there is the discipline of acting while so much technical stuff is going on around you, for example placing something on a table without it looking weird because the camera is focussed on a particular spot from a specific angle. With onstage work, the feedback and buzz when a shows goes well is an amazing adrenalin high.

What attracted you to audition for this show? I loved the sound of the stories; they seemed to be real story-telling by the camp-fire, and exciting because of that. The wording of the audition notice was also very clear and professional, showing that the company understood the process of putting on a play and had respect for people in the process. I had also known about Wendy’s prolific writing output in books and at Marian Street Theatre for Young People, and liked the idea of working with people from different generations I like challenging self.

Have you done any other shows like this? I haven’t done a one-woman show before apart from stand-up comedy. I have played multiple roles in shows but only with other actors.

What is different about a one-woman show? You do feel a bit more under pressure, and you have more awareness of the audience because there are no other actors to play with.

Was the process of rehearsal different in this show? Not really, but it was more intense, because it is just you and the director, so you are really drilling down. Jess is a meticulous director, so I was often very tired after rehearsal.

What is the most satisfying part of this show? The audience, and working with the team. Jess is very hard-working and talented, the script is beautiful, Dee and Andrew are great to work with, and so is the audience. But it is a big call asking people to watch just you for so long. Will they come along for the ride? Will they be moved, cry, and laugh at what you’re doing?

What are the greatest challenges about the show? Being just one person on-stage. As an actor its a lot of dialogue to memorise, and you memorise it in a different way. Well, you use the same tools, but the triggers to memorise the words are slightly different because there is no dialogue. There is also the challenge of having enough rehearsal time; in Australia you rarely have enough. But you need to juggle and manage. I was also nervous about singing, because I come from a musical family but am not musical myself. So it was scary, but I think about the singing as coming from a character and then its fine. I also had to find the rhythm to pace myself for the show, and leave enough energy to act all the characters.

Do you have a favourite character? I like them all for different reasons. Mary Bryant is so feisty, resilient and able to endure; Lola Montez is fabulous because she is a show girl and has so much chutzpah. Eliza Hawkins is lovely and helpful. And Fanny is the geek, a character I knew because I was the girl who is good at school but rubbish at everything else. Fanny is the outsider who casts an eye on all the others round her.

Is changing character on stage hard to handle? No, because you make simple clear choices about what to do. I quite enjoy it. I struggle with being clumsy, so I tend to panic about the logistics and worry something will go wrong. But I go back to basics, think who I a character, where am I going, what is my objective? The costume helps me a lot too, because it makes me walk and move differently. It supports me in becoming the character.

Is changing the physicality of the characters tricky? Initially, but not when I have found the best possible choice to make the change clear for the audience. I have done a lot of event and physical theatre work, which helps me in this play.

Is it a demanding show physically? Yes, because there is no breather in the play. And I’m a gritty actor, and I’m not 25 any more.

What scenes do the audience respond most to? They respond to different parts of the different characters. Mary’s journey is about cocking two fingers at authority, and the audience responds to the thought of her lost husband, home and children, and her tenacity. With Eliza, the audience responds to her ability to look on everything as a big adventure and embrace it. They love the silliness and showgirl nature of Lola; the sheer entertainment of it and the way Lola acknowledges that she’s hamming things up. With Fanny they are looking at a life being constrained by others, and people respond to her loss at the end.

What are the hardest parts of the play to remember? Well, the emotional arc of each character is clear, but it can be tricky to nail the exact words when there are so many. The sections using dialogue are generally easier to remember.

Have you ever forgotten your lines on-stage in Pioneers? Momentarily, but you know where the story is going so you can find a way through.

How do young audiences respond to the show? The show changes slightly when its a younger audience. I play Mary Bryant’s losses lighter, make Lola Montez more of a silly, funny lady; and the kids laugh at the silliness. They also enjoy the participation like pretending to row.

What are some of your favourite questions about the show? When children ask if the stories are true and I can answer that they are. They are amazed. Whats your favourite costume? How long did you rehearse, where do you get your costumes, how do you find out about an accent? So I can tell them a bit about the process of being an actor and how a show is made.



Writing ‘Pioneers in Petticoats’

The writing desk

My constant companion – Persephone, who like to ‘help’ me write

The impulse for writing Pioneers in Petticoats came directly from my previous writing project, the play CROSSING. In about 2010 I took the decision the write a play to help commemorate the bicentenary of the most widely recognised crossing of the Blue Mountains by a group of men led by one of my forebears: my great-great-great-great grandfather Gregory Blaxland.

CROSSING was a wonderful and fascinating project, but it became all-consuming for the next four years, as I struggled to find a way to research, write and fund it. There was so much research material the Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson expedition was part of a process of discovery rather than an stand-alone event, which stretched from the earlier crossings including the Aboriginal crossings over thousands of years forward to the subsequent road-building and opening up of the interior of New South Wales to colonial development. I went to courses, read masses of books, took the daunting and exciting step of reaching out to different Aboriginal communities to find out their points of view, contacted local and professional historians, and amassed a wonderful sea of material. Great, but this material wasnt a play.

Eventually I wrestled the material into a narrative, wrote and rewrote it, found I had to leave all my source material behind to help the characters come alive and speak in their own voices, and finally, with the energy and determination of my daughter Jessica, another theatre professional who had decided she wanted to be part of the project helping as dramaturg, we had a play in two versions. The forty-five minute version worked for primary schools, and a longer version suited family audiences.


Using professional actors and creative team members such as a designer and composer for original music meant that we could afford only three actors playing a total of about forty parts, and needed funding sources. Luckily we found them, chiefly from a NSW grant channelled through the Royal Australian Historical Society, the Blue Mountains City Council and the Blue Mountains Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Society as well as a number of generous sponsors including the Blue Mountains Bus Company which lent us a tour vehicle.

The Mountains community had decided that it was important to commemorate the early crossings over three years, from the early expedition through to the founding of Bathurst. And once we had managed our first years performances, juggling a cast which travelled from Lithgow to the Central Coast and schools through the Blue Mountains and Sydney, we decided we should continue to perform the play, offering it to other communities and schools. CROSSING culminated in a performance at the Bathurst Entertainment Centre in 2015 to almost 300 people, and travelled to 130 schools and over 18000 school children over the three years.

But by the time the second years production was underway, I knew I wanted to tell another side of early Australian colonial history that of the women. CROSSING necessarily focussed on the mens stories, apart from Elizabeth Hawkins magnificent account of taking her family of eight children with her husband and mother on a bullock dray to Bathurst. This took eighteen days and they almost lost all their goods on the notoriously dangerous steep hill down towards the Liverpool Plains.

At first I thought it would feature just women of the Blue Mountains, because I had had reluctantly to leave out of CROSSING several stories begging to be told, especially that of Louisa Meredith, a wonderful essayist and artist whose narratives are still in print.

But then other womens stories began to jostle for my attention, and I decided to choose five women to represent a range of those who came to Australia during the nineteenth century.


As I read their stories and reflected on the courage with which they faced pregnancy and childbirth, the loss of family members and the various reverses of fortune that any life brings, all hampered by the heavy garments and heavier social restrictions of Victorian times, I marvelled at their appetite for adventure, wit in writing and drawing and facing discomfort. The name pioneers in petticoats came early, to reflect my admiration for these remarkable women.

But who to choose? First a convict woman, of course. And I simply couldnt go further than the story of Mary Bryant, a First Fleet convict, who had helped plan and execute a daring escape that inspired many others. With her husband Will Bryant, the Fleets only fisherman, her two small children and other convicts, she successfully stole the fledgling settlements only fishing boat and sailed it two thousand miles up the east coast of Australia and around to Batavia (now East Timor).

Sadly, her husband let slip who they were, and the convicts were shipped back to England to stand trial for their escape.

Another outstanding candidate was Fanny Macleay, who emigrated with her father, the new Colonial Secretary (second only to the Governor in the colonys pecking order), her mother and five other unmarried sisters. This was not for her social standing I was determined to include women who were interesting for their own deeds but for her immense energy as she became de facto mother to her fourteen younger brothers and sisters, and her fascination with all branches of science. Fannys father was one of a number of natural scientists who collected new plants, animals, shells, rocks, insects from the newly discovered continents, and traded them and Fanny was his secretary and assistant. So she handled correspondence, collected, preserved and swapped specimens with collectors world-wide, and managed to keep the family going by scrimping and saving as her father ran up debts to finance his hobbies. He eventually took with them to New South Wales the worlds best insect collection. How she longed, she wrote to her older brother, to be able to stay in the British Museum, or to speak for herself at meetings of the Royal Society, rather than have her father present her findings for her. Women were not allowed to work as independent scientists.

In the colony Fanny helped marry off four of her sisters (one refused to marry) and kept her mother relatively calm through their trials and tribulations, since all the girls fell for gentlemen who had Papas generosity or financial lack of common sense and tended to arrive back at the family home, Elizabeth Bay House, with insolvent husband and children in tow.

Fanny finally married herself, to her fathers Anglo-Indian assistant Thomas Harrington, when she was in her early forties, but sadly died less than six weeks later. Worn out, one can hardly help feeling, from the rigours of keeping her family afloat.

I was also intrigued by the story of Matilda Fish, a colonial woman of similar class, who had lost her first husband to an Indian cholera epidemic, and remarried the first mate on the ship bringing her and her four small children back to family in Sydney, only to find herself deserted when notorious bushranger William Geary stole her money in a daring home invasion. But this story was one too many, and felt that it demanded its own space it is at present becoming a two-hander play.

I wanted to construct Pioneers in Petticoats as a series of monologues for one woman, to give an actress space to display her versatility in the same style that our actors in CROSSING and their audiences had so much enjoyed. So I decided that the next character would honour the Blue Mountains roots of the original idea and tell the Elizabeth Hawkins epic family journey over the mountains in the bullock dray from the point of view of Eliza, the eldest daughter, aged eleven and a half. I had unearthed family material from the Bathurst History Society that gave me background into why the family had left England, since it had suffered not only the loss of its eldest two sons within a year of each other, but also the mothers mental instability as a result of her grief, and the financial insecurity that came at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in England. A number of themes were beginning to emerge, including the sheer courage of emigrants to leave everything behind to provide a better life for their children, whether they saw this as being in New South Wales like Elizabeth Hawkins, or in escape from it, as did Mary Bryant. Another is the importance of the family unit.

But this doesnt apply to the last of the four women I chose for Pioneers in Petticoats. Like many, I have always been fascinated by Lola Montez, whose column inches in the newspapers rivalled Queen Victorias. Legendary for her marriages, affairs, extravagance and ability to bewitch men, I wanted to find out more about her. Several sources were I felt unfairly harsh. But when I read the lectures she gave near the end of her short life, it became clear she was rebelling against the role by which women of her times were constrained. She had no children, earned her own living time and again by performing, dancing, lecturing, and stated I want women to be judged by the same rules as men. Lola was not afraid to take the liberties she desired, including smoking in public and using a horsewhip when she felt insulted. A complex woman, I wanted to show her as more than a saucy minx as she is too often portrayed.


Bianca, our beloved white cat who often keeps me company as I write

Choosing just four women was due to constraints of length; in the schools version, sadly, we have to leave out Fanny Macleay. And there were so many more women clamouring, jostling for their space on stage, that it would be easy to write a sequel. Women in nineteenth century Australia eared their own living by writing or painting, collected seeds, chose sheep for their bloodlines, ran stations and families, businesses and theatres including one that funded much of the rebellion at Eureka. When we wonder what women did then, it is because their stories havent been heard widely enough, not because they didnt take their part as pioneers alongside the men.

The form had chosen itself; one woman would transform herself onstage into all these women, one after the other, in order to make full use of the transformative nature of acting, and she would also play other characters as needed: governors, husbands, mothers.

But after all the fun of finding my research material from the snippets on the Internet which led me to a range of printed material, and reading the new and older books I tracked down about the more prominent women, I had the task of bringing them alive. How would they speak, what would they let us hear? Fanny and Lola had written letters and lectures, and much had been written especially about Lola in newspaper accounts. But what about Mary Bryant, who hadnt written anything down? Eleven year old Eliza, known only from her mothers letter?

By now I had soaked myself in background material for several years, working on CROSSING. I knew how men and women of different classes would address each other. But there were also court transcripts available from Mary Bryants trials, especially the later one, which made it clear that she had been the driving force behind the escape and its success.

So it was time to dream. This is the most challenging and exciting time for me of writing a play, because I have to let myself become the characters, to a large extent, before I can speak in their voices. Often I do my housework while interviewing a character, being myself as an interviewer, and then replying out loud as the character I am investigating. My husband and the cats know not to worry.

Mary Bryant was the hardest character in this play, not just because she was first, but because her story is the harshest. I had to find her joy in her children and her escape, as well as go through the loss of her children from fever on the voyage back to England and a trial for her life. I was writing it in autumn, and my regular morning swim in our pool was becoming colder and colder. As I hesitated on the chilly step, water to my thighs, Id say If Mary Bryant could face what she did, so can I, and plunge in. And wed be awayas I swam, the scenes began to form, the words came.

I visited the Macleay Museum of Natural History at Sydney University, established by Fannys great-nephew and still holding specimens Fanny would have labelled and handled, and marvelled at these sad dead birds and animals, before going gladly back to bring Fanny and her admirer Thomas alive among her instruments. An embroidered woollen Kashmiri cape Id bought years ago in India and an old crocheted doily for her hair became part of her costume.

For Eliza I had more liberty. I went back into my own ten-year-old self, but added six younger siblings to an older brother and then all those memories of family trips: the excitement, the weariness, the danger and thrill. And I wondered what she made of the new skies of Australia, comforted by the closeness of her family. For me, the pivotal part of her mothers letter to her sister in England, only found and published thirty odd years ago, is where she talks about their first night camping in the bush, where her husband plays his flutes, and asks Eliza to dance for them in the firelight. And so I brought that to life.

And Lola? Well, she was able to sum it all up. She went through so much in her relatively short life. And Lola faced extraordinary events, such as the lightning bolt that tore through the theatre on the goldfields during one of her performances, setting light to the scenery and blasting out through the back wall. Lola made sure everyone was unhurt (several audience members were understandably unable to speak), calmly directed the extinguishing of the flames, and went back to the scene.

But as we prepared for the first performance of Pioneers in Petticoats in 2015, we were in no doubts that Lola had cast her eye on us. A violent storm prevented the crew and audience reaching the theatre on the central coast, while the actress was stranded there, without electricity, for several hours. And the second performance also had to be rescheduled because the schools roof had been blown off.

But Id braved storms with Mary Bryant in an open boat, hysterical sisters with Fanny, that steep hill with Eliza, and Lolas horsewhip. I wasnt quite a pioneer in petticoats. However, I am their descendant, as we all are, and proud to call them my forebears.


And something beautiful from the garden