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The houses of the rich have helped to create the social geography of Melbourne. Toorak House, for example, gave not only its name but its social cachet to an entire suburb. Within Toorak most of the street names derive from one mansion or another: St George's, Illawarra, Towers, Devorgilla, Dunraven, Trawalla, and many more. Elsewhere, the phenomenon is not quite so pronounced, but it is apparent in such suburbs as Syndal (Redmond Barry's country home), Banyule (Joseph Hawdon's house, arguably the first Melbourne mansion), and Ripponlea (Sir Frederick Sargood's grand mansion).

Although very few houses in Melbourne would qualify as having 20 rooms - the figure that is sometimes used as a threshold by statisticians - the number of houses of above-average size and pretension is probably considerably in excess of 3000, far more than in the other Australian capital. Melbourne's mansions are the product of fortunes based on squatting, trade, and the 1880s land boom. The squatters are a continuous factor. The traders are harder to generalise, but some made their primary fortune in servicing the gold rushes, while others - especially in clothing retailing and footwear - flourished in the following decades of growth, benefiting from protection and overseas capital inflow. The land boomers rose to prominence in the 1880s.

The earliest mansions do not fall within simple categories. La Trobe's Cottage began as a small prefabricated structure, but as the de facto Government House was very prominent socially, and had grown by the 1850s into an extensive complex of buildings. A simple house by later standards, gentleman-settler J.D. Lyon Campbell's Campbellfield, in what is now Abbotsford, was thought ruinously extravagant in 1839 and sold at a substantial loss after Campbell's death. James Hawdon's Banyule is not technically a squatter's house as it was built on freehold land. Bishopscourt in East Melbourne, designed by James Blackburn, was the Anglican bishop's palace. It had to be completed at least nominally by Blackburn's son, James junior, of the firm of Newsom & Blackburn, after construction was interrupted by the gold discoveries and Blackburn's death.

Squatters whose runs were beyond the urban periphery began to establish urban pieds à terre from the 1850s onwards. Many chose a site on the route into town, where they could conveniently stop, perhaps hold stock on the way to and from market, and yet maintain an urban lifestyle. William Pearson built Craigellachie in Caulfield, while Essendon attracted the Boadles, David Peter, Lewis Clarke and later W.J.T. ('Big') Clarke, Thomas Learmonth and James Hearn. Others maintained holiday houses at Elwood and Brighton, or combined urban and resort functions by choosing St Kilda. Other squatters, like Robert and John Simpson and Archibald Fisken at Toorak, and Thomas Maidment at Kew, retired or moved permanently to the city and entered society.

The traders included Frederick Sargood (draper) at Rippon Lea, James Thompson (of McEwan's ironmongery) at Kamesburgh, Brighton, and stock and station agents, James Butchart at Beleura, and James Grice at Oma (later Nareeb). Boomers were of course more extravagant: Henry Daugleish and, after he failed, Mars Buckley (of Buckley & Nunn), at Beaulieu, Toorak, Matthew Davies (Bracknell), J.M. Davies (Devorgilla), C.H. James (Illawarra), and best of all, Matthias Larkin at Lake View, South Melbourne, known to contemporaries as Fraudville.

Some of these houses were surrounded by magnificent gardens. Rippon Lea survives, but Devorgilla also had sinuous plantings, a lake, an ornamental iron bridge, and a fernery. Cambus Wallace added direct access to the beach, and a bathhouse nearby. The mansion garden often contained an extraordinary range of fruits and vegetables, not merely to supply the family and staff with food, but also to sell commercially. A cow was normal, and other livestock optional. Most mansions had stables and coachhouses, usually with groom's quarters and sometimes those of other menservants attached.

Although the great houses of England were the model for the mansions of Melbourne, the scale was quite different. A reader of the standard British text, Robert Kerr's The gentleman's house (London 1864), would find little relationship to Melbourne practice beyond a few general principles about separating the circulation routes of family from staff, accommodating maidservants as far as possible from menservants, placing breakfast rooms to catch the morning sun, and - in the very largest Melbourne houses - assigning appropriate functions to the butler and the housekeeper.

The depression of the 1890s marks the end of the mansion era. Some were still being built during the worst years, but many were left incomplete or undecorated, while others were left vacant or in the hands of caretakers. With the new century came pressure for the development of suburban estates, the decline of domestic service, women less confined to the home, more demand for conveniences and gadgets, and the rise of flats, often created by subdividing the more cumbersome of the mansions.

Miles Lewis