The importance of the broad historical context in understanding heritage places ­ Articles ­ ISAA

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The importance of the broad historical context in understanding heritage places



I think its fair to say that when visiting an historic house, such as Experiment Farm Cottage we could have confidence that its conservation had been undertaken to the standards set by ICOMOS, the International Council of Monuments and Sites.

I believe the general public assume the interpretation of historic places and the stories told of them by their trustees are based on sound research undertaken by specialists from a wide range of disciplines. People have faith in institutions like the National Trust, the Historic Houses Trust and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Yet what I hear, when I question some dubious claim, is that the funds are not there for research.

What happens is that changes are made to our most important and valued places without understanding the nature and meaning of the place. It is invariably damaging. And the stories told to school groups and interested visitors bear no relation to the actual history.

It is my concern that the conservation and continuing interpretation of Experiment Farm Cottage suffers from the lack of involvement of a qualified senior historian with a broad knowledge of the early colonial period that could provide a context for interpreting the on ground architectural reality.

Take for example Surgeon Harris's story. Harris was born on a leasehold farm in Northern Ireland in 1762. He was the eldest of six children and his father died when he was a child. He attained his training as a surgeon on the job through the Naval apprenticeship system. He served some 10 years in India prior to 1787 and at the age of 21 as 3rd mate to the surgeon served in the Battle of Cuddalore against the French in the Bay of Bengal in 1783. The English suffered 102 dead and 375 wounded, so he would most certainly have gained some rather horrific experience of wounds and injuries. We know he was well educated and well read, but there is no evidence that he attended university, and at the end of his service in the Navy he had only attained the rank of 2nd mate.

In 1787 Harris inspected the ships of the First Fleet prior to their departure for NSW and took note of the arrangements. We also know that he read Phillip's account of the colony published in London in 1789. A posting to NSW was attractive to a young man on a low salary and looking for a way up. To entice experienced officers to join the NSW Corps, the British Government offered a one step promotion and waived the fee usually charged for a military commission. This was necessary because the military saw the supervision of convicts as beneath them and the marines that had accompanied Philip had refused to assist in any way with their management. Harris did his research and joined the 102nd Regiment of Foot in 1789 as Surgeon's Mate. When he arrived in NSW in June 1790 as part of the first contingent of the Corps, he was 28 years old. Harris was not a wealthy man, he was not '’strictly a gentleman’ and he had family dependent on him in Ireland. He did not come here as one of the elite, he was an officer of an inferior rank both socially and militarily. He was not, for example, allowed initially to serve on the courts because he lacked the status of a gentlemen. As D R Hainsworth after a ten-year investigation of the accounts and correspondence of the Corps concluded, the officers were more motivated by a quest for status and respectability than by outright greed, as has been so often portrayed. Duels were fought and lives were lost or lived with permanent and painful injuries because a person's honour was questioned. This issue of status was important to Harris.

The attraction of service in the colony for all the officers was the possibility of acquiring land and wealth and retirement on a military pension. Like the other officers, Harris was ambitious, and initially felt that he was badly mistaken in the opportunities open to him in NSW. He complained bitterly: initially there were no land grants for the military and their housing was no better than that for the convicts. Even the Governor's house in his opinion was poorly designed. The barracks at Parramatta he condemned as being totally inadequate. But he had some luck when the Surgeon to the Corps failed to arrive and Harris, as next in line, was promoted.

The situation improved again when word came that officers could receive land grants and he and Macarthur attained grants side by side near the Parramatta barracks in early 1793 and later in the year added Ruse’s thirty-acre Experiment Farm to it. In 1800 he purchased a lease on a small parcel that give direct access from Experiment Farm to the barracks. In a two-year period between 1796 and 1798, Harris earned from his farming almost £1,300 pounds from sale of produce to the government – contrast to his £68 annual salary as a surgeon. He was ambitious and energetic. It is accepted that Macarthur constructed a substantial house as soon as he was able, and I argue that Harris constructed EFC in that period. He could not neglect the most important asset he owned and one that could comment so publicly as to his status.

It is highly improbable that Governor King would have promoted Harris to a number of lucrative and high status positions, if in 1800 Harris was had opted to live in James Ruse's convict house in this the most important decade of his life in terms of establishing his identity, status and fortune in the colony. In 1800, he turned thirty-eight. In those years you could expect to be dead at fifty. In terms of context, we need now to look at the administrative environment in which Harris found himself in the 1790s.

The 1790s administration

Of particular importance is the fact that the administration was essentially split: a civil administration was in charge of the convicts who were provisioned with funds from the British Home Office's budget, and the military, who was answerable to and funded by the War Office. Within this environment, as Surgeon to the Corps Harris was personally liable for the expense of medicine needed to treat the military and their families and for the provisioning of hospitalised men. Early on, he asked Phillip, not to construct a Military Hospital until additional supplies arrived because of the costs he would have to bear. He also queried the costs to be levelled against him for members of the military placed in the civil hospital. War Office records show that it took Harris at times six years to be reimbursed for such expenses. It is no surprise then that Harris testified much later to the Bigge Inquiry that in the early years he sometimes treated seriously ill soldiers at his home. So Harris had a very good reason to build a house, and a bungalow, with which he would have become familiar in India, was ideal for his situation. Bungalows were typically, constructed by British officials as places for both living and working in.

There are similarities between the residence of Dr Wilson in Maidapur in the 1790s and EFC: the raised platform, the verandah and French doors, and the integrated roof form. The anti-1790s’ construction argument that no other examples of a similar house have been found in NSW and that therefore Experiment Farm Cottage could not be a pre 1800 construct is based on a sample size that is so minute that it would never be given any consideration in scientific circles. They existed in British India why not here?

The accounts and correspondence of the British War Office and the Home Office provide even more insights into the day-to-day functioning of the colony; basically nobody did anything for nothing and Harris from 1794 until mid 1801 had the duties of three medical officers in a geographically expanding colony as well as an augmented military population. The British records show daily fees charged by Surgeons White and Balmain, for duty on Norfolk Island, or any extra duties at all. Yet Harris is remarkably absent from the accounts. Although, the subject of a replacement surgeon’s mate was raised frequently enough, it did not materialise.

These extra duties I believe are the explanation for the issuance to Harris sometime prior to 1800, most probably in 1794, of building materials sufficient to account for the construction of Experiment Farm Cottage on the only land Harris owned free hold, Experiment Farm. This was not a grant that theoretically could be rescinded but an outright purchase. His title was entirely secure. The building materials were the easiest way to pay Harris, without involving the home government and also provided a way for the local administration to get out of a sticky spot when they authorised a change in the local arrangements that was not ultimately sanctioned. Analysis of brick and mortar samples taken from near the chimney in the roof cavity by the Trust’s architect, David Sheedy, have been dated to pre 1800 and numbered roof trusses, discovered in the 1960s’ renovation that indicate construction in a government workshop of the period are corroborative. Harris had the need, the ambition, the Indian experience, the means and the vision to build Experiment Farm Cottage in 1794.

It was only ten years later, that he built the first two storied verandah-ed house in Australia, Ultimo House, and commissioned the Sydney Court House, specifying a verandah, and later gave Francis Greenway his first private commission in Australia, introduced him to the Macquarie’s and set off Greenway’s architectural career. There can be little doubt that Harris was an architectural innovator.

Context 3

The context of the creation of the paid position of Police Magistrate in Parramatta by Governor Brisbane in 1925 is essential to understand the relevance of evidence for example that has been construed to indicate that EFC did not exist because Harris was living above the Court House in the later 1820s. One is a letter that says Harris was living in Parramatta and sat looking out of the courthouse window all day. Another is a reference in an official to an allowance for house rent. In fact the circumstances of the creation of the position of Police Magistrate establish that this evidence has no bearing whatsoever on the existence or otherwise of EFC. When Brisbane created the position he appointed his personal physician, Dr Donald Mcleod, a member of his retinue who needed to live nearby to the family then resident at Government House Parramatta. He rented for £80 per annum for five years the two-storey residence of Richard Rouse, the ground floor was to used by the court and by the police and the upstairs was to serve as a residence for the single, McLeod.

Brisbane was recalled shortly after and McLeod had to go with him. Harris was persuaded to take the job until a replacement could be found. Whether he lived there or not we don’t know, but the arrangements for the single McLeod and for the married Harris, with Eliza likely to be exposed to the convict constables and the riff raff that hung around downstairs is highly unlikely. It was not a suitable place for a lady. The essential revelation of this context is that the existence of accommodation had nothing to do with Harris’s needs, but was to do with the needs of the first incumbent in the job.

Context 4

In terms of Experiment Farm Cottage, perhaps the most stunning impact of context is that related to Elizabeth Macarthur’s letter of March 1839 that refers to Laurentz Campbell and his family living in the new cottage on the Harris Estate. And that they were her near neighbours. This was the letter, discovered in 1976, that initiated the overthrow of the long-held view that the house was a 1790s construct, and indeed was the very reason why the Trust purchased the house in the first place. On the surface this looks fairly convincing, that the Campbells were living on the Harris Estate, but in fact a sketch and painting by Conrad Martens, done at almost same the time Elizabeth was writing, show the building we now know as Broughton Hall as Campbell’s House, and a search of Campbell’s land dealings established that he had purchased the land from the Reverend Samuel Marsden. The Campbells never lived on Harris’s Estate and there is no evidence that they had any association with it. Elizabeth made a very understandable slip of the pen. Harris and Marsden had been contemporaries in the colony since the 1790s and had died within weeks of each other in 1838. Elizabeth, who had reached her late 70s at the time, was writing a gossipy letter to her son in England.

What is interesting is her language. Broughton Hall, which we would consider to be a mansion, in English terms at the time qualified as a country cottage; near neighbours, refers to social peers. Whoever was living at EFC at the time did not qualify.

Context 5

Pictorial Evidence [go to to see reproductions of images] Since publication of 'Australia’s Oldest House' I have been accused of leaving out pictorial evidence that did not suit the 1790s’ argument. These pictures were left out because I did not regard them as evidence. There were too many questions associated with them to permit them to be relied upon.

Take the 1805 view of Parramatta by George Evans. The house in the left distance with the gardens in front has been interpreted as EFC. The original painting was 17cm by 33cm. It has been described as a topographical painting, technically correct in every detail and Evans was a surveyor. I think the foreground is likely to be very accurate, but with distance the detail is likely to diminish. So assessing the image as a source is problematic. But there are some facts we can apply to this image. One, it was painted in front of Government House at the head of George Street. We know that the distance between George street and the Wharf was one mile and that EFC was located overlooking the river near the wharf. We also know that the first cross street we can see is Church Street. This cross street runs roughly adjacent to the house. This is where D’Arcy Wentworth had a grant and I believe the house and garden here is Wentworth’s 'Woodhouse'. Experiment Farm Cottage is located much further to the east.

Let’s look at John Eyre’s 1813 engraving. A very truncated extract of the small cottage has been claimed to be EFC. But what of the buildings further to the right. Perhaps they are the Barracks, but where is the garden that was between the Barracks and the EFC and the strip of land leased by Harris that traversed it? A case could be made that the house is EFC – the outbuilding at the rear could be the kitchen. Going back to the 1805 view, which I suspect is Wentworth's place but which is claimed to be EFC, this view also shows a second building at right angles to the house. If you argue that the house in the 1805 view is EFC, why would you not claim that the larger house with the outbuilding at the side was also EFC. The case is inconsistent even within that paradigm. There is no evidence to support the claim that the small cottage at the rear is EFC and it is very difficult to imagine Harris and his wife living there from 1819 into the 1820s.

But essentially, the point is this: the identity of these buildings is too open to interpretation for them to be taken as evidence for the existence or otherwise of EFC.


There is only one piece of evidence that may support an 1835 dating and that is the fact a new cottage was constructed somewhere on Harris’s 170 acres. We don't where it was.

We do know however, that the existing EFC was occupied by one of Harris’s heirs in 1839 and that over the next few years it underwent substantial renovation. It was re-shingled, something that was only necessary every twenty to thirty years; a brick layer repaired the oven; a carpenter was needed to repair the doors and windows. Not the sort of work you would expect in a new house.

There is an enormous amount of evidence that I have not been able to touch on today, but it is detailed in Australia Oldest House and all the citations are provided for people to follow up for themselves. At the very least I hope that I have convinced you of the importance of historic context and the important role of historians in understanding and interpreting heritage sites, and I don't only mean research, but analysis and understanding of the mores and social and living conditions of the period in question. I hope I have convinced you that that the ICOMOS Burra Charter cannot be ignored, merely because of financial expediency heritage conservation and interpretation requires a multi-disciplinary effort for credible outcomes to be achieved.

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