Elizabeth Bay House guidebook
The Macleay Family: England and Australia 1790-1839
Elizabeth Bay House is the most elegant and sophisticated house of the 1830s in New South Wales. The house's sophistication reflected that of its builder, Alexander Macleay, who arrived in Sydney in 1826 with his wife and six daughters. The Macleays' interests included entomology, horticulture, landscape design, architecture, natural history illustration and fine art. Macleay was delighted with Sydney, despite its social isolation and persuaded other members of his family to join him. Elizabeth Bay House's first residents, in 1839, were Alexander Macleay and his wife Eliza, their eldest son William, unmarried daughter, Kennethina, nephews William and John Macleay and grandchildren Arthur and Georgiana Onslow, the children of their daughter and son-in-law, Rosa and Arthur Onslow, who lived in India. The Macleays' younger son, George, came to NSW in 1827 and managed Brownlow Hill, Camden, the family's country estate. The 19th century history of Elizabeth Bay House is largely concerned with these family members.
Alexander Macleay (1767-1848) had accepted the post of Colonial Secretary of New South Wales from financial necessity. As a well-educated Scot, he had entered the British civil service in 1795 as chief clerk in the War Office. In 1806, as a result of his administrative efficiency, he had been appointed secretary of the Transport Board. The Board was disbanded in 1818 following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. At the time of his enforced retirement Macleay kept both a London house (12 Queen Square, Westminster, 1807-1823) and a country house (Tilbuster Lodge, Surrey, 1803-1825) for his large family. He had lost heavily through the failure of his brother's bank in Scotland and was spending liberally on landscape improvements at Tilbuster Lodge and the development of his celebrated entomological collection. In 1824 he entered into the first of a series of loans from his son, William. In 1825 his former colleagues secured his appointment as Colonial Secretary of New South Wales. Macleay's appointment reflected the consolidation of the colony's administration, underway since the early 1820s. The appointment provided Macleay with an official residence (initially rent free), a salary of £2,000 paid in addition to his civil service pension of £750 and offered him relief from debt.
Macleay's entomological collection began in the early 1790s in Britain. He was chiefly interested in lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). He was elected a member of the Linnean Society in 1794 and served as its secretary from 1798 to 1825. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1809. By 1825 his insect collection was believed to be the largest in the possession of a private individual. It had developed significantly through Macleay's patronage of field collectors and the purchase of individual specimens at auction, at great expense. While he did not publish on entomology himself, a number of early 19th century British natural scientists paid tribute to him for access to his collection and his knowledge.
Macleay and Ralph Darling, Governor of New South Wales from 1826 to 1831, were both politically conservative and sympathetic to the evangelical faction of the Church of England. Between 1826 and 1839 the Macleay family resided in the Colonial Secretary's House in Bridge Street Sydney, adjacent to Government House. This reflected both Macleay's status as the colony's senior civil servant and the close relationship between the Macleay and Darling families. Governor Darling's grant to Macleay of 54 acres (21.8 hectares) at Elizabeth Bay in 1826 was therefore regarded as nepotistic, made all the more controversial for the land having been reserved for public use. From 1826 onwards Mrs Macleay and her daughters were active in charities founded by Eliza Darling: the Female Friendly Society, for the relief of poor women and the Female School of Industry for the education of poor girls as servants.
Macleay developed Elizabeth Bay as a celebrated landscape garden. The site of the house was chosen for its vistas across Sydney Harbour. The native bush was retained and planted with exotics to enhance its botanical interest and the dramatic topography was embellished with picturesque structures: a turretted stables, cottages, a rustic bridge, terrace walls and grottoes. Macleay's development of his garden reveals his informed taste and romantic enthusiasm. Plans for Elizabeth Bay House were in hand by 1832 but construction was delayed until 1835, probably as a result of the expense incurred in developing the garden. This was to have lamentable consequences for the completion of the house and Macleay's enjoyment of his labours.
Ralph Darling was succeeded by General Richard Bourke as Governor of New South Wales in 1831. While Darling had been a Tory, Bourke was a liberal and the harmonious relationship between the Governor and his Colonial Secretary was not to continue. Following disagreements over policy, Macleay was forced to resign his post on 1 January 1837. His replacement was Edward Deas Thomson, son-in-law of Governor Bourke. Macleay remained a respected figure and was elected Speaker of the first Legislative Council in 1843.
Alexander Macleay (1767-1848)
Alexander Macleay was born in Wick, in the far north-east of Scotland. In the 1780s he entered the wine trade in London. Between 1795 and 1818 he pursued a British civil service career. He was elected a member of the Linnean Society in 1794, as a result of his amateur interest in entomology. He served as secretary of the Society from 1798 until 1825, when he resigned to take up the post of Colonial Secretary of New South Wales. To commemorate his term of office in 1825, Fellows of the Society commissioned his portrait from the fashionable Regency portraitist, Sir Thomas Lawrence. In 1838, William Sharp Macleay commissioned copies of this portrait, one of which hung at Elizabeth Bay House.
Eliza Macleay (née Barclay) (1769-1847)
Eliza and Alexander Macleay married in London in 1791. They had seventeen children. All but one of their ten surviving children came to New South Wales. The foundation stone of Elizabeth Bay House was laid on her birthday, 13 March 1835.
William Sharp Macleay (1792-1865)
The Macleays' eldest son also combined a career in the British civil service with interests in natural history. Between 1818 and 1825 he was an attaché to the British Embassy in Paris and later Secretary to the Board for liquidating British claims on the French Government arising from the Napoleonic Wars. From 1825-1830 he was British commissioner at Havana, Cuba, on the court overseeing the abolition of the slave trade. He was a judge in Cuba from 1830 to 1836, when he retired with a pension. He joined his family in Sydney in March 1839, moving to Elizabeth Bay House with them in September of that year.
Frances Leonora (Fanny) Macleay (1793-1836)
Frances Leonora (Fanny) Macleay, through her letters to William, has provided lively accounts of the development of the Elizabeth Bay estate and the social life and interests of the Macleay family. Fanny was a helpmeet to her father in the tending of his natural history collections. She sent botanical drawings to Robert Brown, editor of the Botanical Magazine. Brown had been her suitor in c 1814-1815, but Eliza Macleay had opposed the match. In 1836 she married Thomas Cudbert Harington, Assistant Colonial Secretary, but died six weeks later. No portrait of Fanny has been found.
Sir George Macleay (1809-1891)
George Macleay came to Australia in 1827. From 1828 he managed his father's 15,000 acre (6070 ha) estate, Brownlow Hill, Camden, with his brother James. He inherited Brownlow Hill in 1848 and finally settled his father's financial affairs in 1859. In 1829-1830 he accompanied Captain Charles Sturt in his second journey down the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers. The colonial government rewarded Macleay for his honorary service to Sturt with a squatting lease of 1280 acres (437 ha), Toganmain, on the lower Murrumbidgee between Hay and Narrandera. George Macleay lived abroad from 1859 and acquired Pendell Court, Bletchingly, Surrey. George, left a life interest in the Elizabeth Bay estate under his brother William's will, sold leaseholds of the subdivided estate in 1865, 1875 and 1882. He was knighted in 1869 and made a KCMG in 1875.
Kennethina Macleay (1805-1864)
Kennethina Macleay moved to Elizabeth Bay House with her parents in 1839. In 1845 she departed with them to Brownlow Hill. Following the death of her sister, Rosa Onslow in 1854, she returned to Godstone, Surrey, to care for her Onslow nieces and nephews.
Sir William John Macleay (1820-1891)
William John Macleay was studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh when he accepted the invitation of his uncle, Alexander Macleay, to come to New South Wales. He accompanied William Sharp Macleay to Sydney and moved with the family to Elizabeth Bay House in 1839. In that year he also took up a squatting run adjacent to that of George Macleay on the lower Murrumbidgee. Karrabory (later Kerabury) was to be the source of his wealth. He sold his interests in it in 1888. William's interest in natural history was nurtured by his cousin, William Sharp Macleay, who bequeathed to him the Macleay collections. He extended and diversified the collections, presenting them to the University of Sydney in 1888 with an endowment for the Macleay Museum. He was knighted for his benefaction in 1889.
Lady (Susan) Macleay (1838-1903)
From 1855 a seat in the New South Wales parliament necessitated William John Macleay's residence in Sydney. In 1857 he married Susan Emmeline Deas Thomson, daughter of Edward Deas Thomson, Alexander Macleay's successor as Colonial Secretary. William and Susan Macleay leased Elizabeth Bay House from 1865 until their deaths in 1891 and 1903 respectively.
Arthur Alexander Onslow (1833-1882)
Arthur Alexander Onslow moved to Elizabeth Bay House with his grandparents in 1839. In 1841 he was sent to school in England. In 1857-1861 he returned to Sydney as a naval captain on HMS Herald, and with William John Macleay, became a scientific associate of William Sharp Macleay. Taking sick leave, he returned permanently to New South Wales in 1864. In 1867 he married Elizabeth, the daughter of James and Emily Macarthur and lived at Camden Park, Menangle. Under William Sharp Macleay's will, the Elizabeth Bay estate was entailed to Arthur Onslow and his descendants.
James William Macarthur Onslow (1867-1946)
James William Macarthur Onslow inherited Elizabeth Bay House in 1891, his father, Arthur Onslow having predeceased him. In 1892-1893 he undertook an extensive renovation of the house, probably necessitated by George Macleay's long residence in England. Following the death of Lady Macleay, the house was leased by George Michaelis. In 1911, Michaelis purchased the property, ending the Macleay family's association with Elizabeth Bay House.
The Finest House in the Colony
Conceived as "the finest house in the colony" Elizabeth Bay House was built for New South Wales' senior civil servant, Alexander Macleay. Macleay's appointment as Colonial Secretary reflected the expansion of the colony's administration during the 1820s, which gave rise to a colonial middle class. Elizabeth Bay House, similarly, reflected the rise (both in Britain and the colonies) of the detached villa set within several acres of landscaped garden as the ideal form of middle-class housing. The house was associated with a series of Greek Revival villas built for the heads of the departments of the colony's civil service, on the adjacent Woolloomooloo Hill. The builder and architect, John Verge, was responsible for many of the Woolloomooloo Hill villas, although the extent to which he may be regarded as the designer of Elizabeth Bay House is unclear.
Macleay had come to New South Wales on account of his declining fortunes. The building of Elizabeth Bay House was therefore dependent on maintaining his civil service salary and a good relationship with the colonial governor. Macleay appears to have had plans for the house by 1832, although its commencement was to be delayed until 1835. The house was not made habitable until 1839, possibly as a result of Macleay's loss of his post in 1837. At the time of its conception Elizabeth Bay House was by far superior to the house occupied by the governor but it was to be eclipsed by the new Government House completed in 1845. As with many of Verge's commissions, its construction was curtailed as a result of the looming financial crisis of the early 1840s, which devastated early colonial society.
John Verge (1782-1861)
John Verge was born in Christchurch, Hampshire, where the Verge family had been bricklayers and stone masons over many generations. In 1804 he left for London and between 1808 and 1828 lived and worked in the heart of Holborn, Bloomsbury and Clerkenwell. His career encompassed the roles of tradesman bricklayer, builder, builder-architect and speculative developer. By 1828 he had acquired a considerable amount of property - a row of terrace houses, two detached houses, ten cottages, a smith's shop and a factory. In 1828, however, he migrated to Sydney with his son, Philip, intending to settle on a land grant. He took up 2,560 acres (1,036 ha) on the Williams River, south of the present town of Dungog.
Client and Architect
The attribution of Elizabeth Bay House to John Verge has rested on the evidence of his office ledger of 1834-1837, which contains transcripts from an earlier ledger, which has not survived. Verge (1782-1861) had worked as a speculative builder in London before migrating to New South Wales, intending to settle on a land grant. Insufficient capital forced his return to building in 1830. In 1832, he employed the Liverpool-trained architect, John Bibb (1810-1862), who took over the practice in October 1837, when Verge retired to a pastoral holding, Austral Eden, on the Macleay River in northern New South Wales. Bibb is likely to have been responsible for the elegant plans which survive from Verge's office. The experienced builder-architect, James Hume, was brought from Scotland by Alexander Macleay to supervise the building of the house, which concluded in September 1839, almost two years after Verge's retirement. The relative contributions of Macleay, Bibb and Hume to the design of Elizabeth Bay House are unknown but cannot be discounted.
The Villa Plan
As a villa Elizabeth Bay House was fashionable, although its design was conservative. The neoclassical villa had preoccupied British architects since the 1720s. By the 1820s the villa form provided a vehicle for a variety of historicist styles, such as the Greek and Gothic Revivals. Elizabeth Bay House's plan reveals it to be a direct descendant of mid-18th century villas by architects such as Sir Robert Taylor. Its rooms are arranged around a central stair hall, connecting with it and with each other. The principal rooms, located on the ground floor and the French windows of its three principal elevations, emphasise the house's relationship with its garden. The breakfast room bow contributes to an exterior seen in the round.
The villa form allowed architectural experimentation with shaped interior spaces. Elizabeth Bay House's cubic entrance hall leads to an elliptical, domed, top-lit saloon containing the stair. The saloon dominates Elizabeth Bay House's plan. On the ground floor, the residual quadrant shapes allow for the dining room servery, a cupboard and a lobby. While the breakfast room echoes the oval of the saloon on a smaller scale, the other ground floor rooms are economically partitioned within the plan, although this is more noticeable in analysing the plan than from experiencing the building. The rooms of the upper floor are similarly partitioned, with limited privacy as a result of most bedrooms opening to a hall visible from the saloon. The coarseness of this planning gives rise to the hypothesis that the first-floor plan was prepared after the ground-floor plan, Verge possibly having been presented with a ground-floor plan and elevation, but having been left to resolve the planning of the first floor.
The planning of villas sought to achieve economies in terms of their interior spaces through the careful arrangement of rooms. At Elizabeth Bay House this is most evident in the location of service rooms, most of which were arranged within the centre bay of the rear elevation, on either side of the back stairs. The back stairs, screened from the saloon by doors on the ground and first floor levels, provided servants with discrete access to all levels of the house. The back stairs provide access to two mezzanine rooms used as bedrooms for female servants early in the 20th century.
Elizabeth Bay House was provided with fully lined and detailed attics while the largest of its cellar rooms was fitted with a hearth suitable for a large kitchen range. It appears with the construction of a separate service wing that accommodation for servants and a basement kitchen became largely redundant. The service wing, while contemporary with the house, was evidently an afterthought and lends weight to the theory of imported or adapted plans. However, there are no references to it in Verge's ledger. It was parallel with the house and connected to it by a covered way across a stone paved courtyard. While of two storeys, its height corresponded with the string course of the back of the house. It was demolished in 1927.
The Macleays at Elizabeth Bay House 1839-1845
On 1 January 1837, Governor Bourke forced Macleay's resignation as Colonial Secretary, following disagreements over policy. For Macleay the loss of his salary of £2,000 was a heavy setback.
The Macleay family drew on the resources of William. William initially shared his father's grand vision. Returning to England from Cuba in 1836, he acquired furniture and fittings for Elizabeth Bay House before joining his family in Sydney in 1839. Marble chimneypieces were purchased for the ground floor rooms. Casts of classical sculpture were ordered in addition to the figures for the saloon. Given his later actions, however, it may have been William's examination of his father's affairs which halted the building of Elizabeth Bay House's colonnade and portico. By September 1839 the house was made habitable and the Macleay family moved in.
In 1842, as the result of a sustained drought and over-speculation in land and stock, the colonial economy crashed. Throughout the 1840s leading figures of colonial society declared bankruptcy. Alexander Macleay had placed himself in a precarious financial situation, even without the pressures of the 1840s depression. In 1841, the first of the estate's subdivisions had been made. In late 1844, Elizabeth Bay House was mortgaged to Hastings Elwin, the manager of the Trust Company. In early 1844, Alexander Macleay's bills were being charged to his son's account and by October it was calculated that Alexander was in William's debt to the sum of £18,195.
Soon after, the drawing room furniture was sold to furnish the newly completed Government House. William, in part payment of his father's debts and to keep his father from the insolvency court, took over the mortgages and assumed control of the estate in February 1845. Alexander, after less than six years in his grand, unfinished house, moved with Eliza and Kennethina Macleay to live at his country property, Brownlow Hill. In 1846 he was involved in a carriage accident at the gates of Government House, Sydney and died in 1848 at Tivoli, Rose Bay, the residence of his daughter and son-in-law, Christiana Susan and William Dumaresq.
Elizabeth Bay House had been conceived as the finest house in the colony, but by 1845 it had been eclipsed in scale, social prominence and fashionability by Government House, which had risen on the eastern flank of Sydney Cove.
By 1845 the severe Greek Revival detailing of Elizabeth Bay House was losing its appeal. William Sharp Macleay, lacking the aesthetic sensibility of his father, gave no thought to completing the building.
Botany and horticulture
Macleay's approach to the Australian bush was in contrast with that of the majority of colonists, who customarily cleared it and started afresh. The bush was planted with specimen orchids and ferns to enhance its botanical interest, which could be enjoyed in the course of a 'wood walk'.
Two notebooks survive - partly in the hand of Alexander and partly in the hand of William Sharp Macleay - Plants Received at Elizabeth Bay, c 1826-1840, and Seeds Received at Elizabeth Bay, 1836-1857. These list the sources of plants for the Elizabeth Bay garden and illustrate a comprehensive approach to plant collecting, similar to their approach to entomology. The plant and seed books contain entries for purchases from the nurserymen Messrs Loddiges of Hackney, London and exchanges with William Macarthur of Camden. They also record the plants contributed by visitors to the Elizabeth Bay estate and by William Sharp Macleay's natural history collectors in India.
Macleay's garden was notable for its fruit trees. Many visitors also remarked on Macleay's achievement in creating a garden in what some people believed to be Sydney's dry conditions and sandy soil. The Elizabeth Bay estate was progressively lost to subdivisions.
The History of the House After 1845
William Sharp Macleay, owner 1845-1865
William Sharp Macleay (1792-1865) lived alone at Elizabeth Bay House for twenty years following the departure of his parents and sister in 1845. He did not complete the house externally and appears to have been reluctant to refurnish its drawing room, having sold its original contents to Government House in 1845.
William Sharp Macleay did not enter parliament (unlike his brother George and cousin William), although he was one of three Commissioners under the Education Act of 1848. Elizabeth Bay House was closed to all but the small circle of scientists and colonial intellectuals with whom William associated. The boundary of the estate was marked by signs warning potential trespassers of guard dogs.
George Macleay, absentee landlord 1865-1891
George Macleay (1809-1891) inherited a life interest in the Elizabeth Bay estate under his brother William Sharp Macleay's will, which entailed the estate to the descendants of his nephew, Arthur Onslow (1833-1882). George Macleay had left New South Wales in 1859, selling his colonial assets to live as an English gentleman in London, Surrey and the south of France. George offered subdivided lots of the Elizabeth Bay estate on 99 year leases in 1865. Following a further subdivision in 1875, 18 acres (7.3 ha) of the original 54 acre estate remained. In 1882 a further subdivision left only 3 acres (1.2 ha) of garden around the house.
William John and Susan Macleay, tenants 1865-1903
William John and Susan Macleay became George Macleay's tenants in 1865, living in the house until their deaths in 1891 and 1903 respectively. They appear to have acquired much of the house's original furniture when George offered it for sale in 1865. During the 1850s William had become a scientific associate of his cousin, William Sharp Macleay and had thus inherited the Macleay natural history collections. William John and Susan Macleay did much to redress Elizabeth Bay House's reputation for poor hospitality. Susan Macleay possessed a good singing voice and a good knowledge of classical music. She was also involved with charitable work for the Sydney Female Refuge.
At the 1875 auction of Elizabeth Bay estate leaseholds William John Macleay acquired three lots of the former kitchen garden at the cheap price of "£100 for the three". These formed a large block on the lower corner of Ithaca Road and Billyard Avenue. George Macleay allowed him to lease additional land in 1879. The leasehold provided William John Macleay with a new location for his extensive natural history collections. A large building, which he called the Macleayan Museum, was constructed in 1875. A smaller building for his entomological collections was built nearby in early 1880. In 1885 he built the Linnean Hall as a headquarters for the Linnean Society of NSW. He had been its founding President in 1874. The Macleay family's collections were transferred to the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney in 1888. Knighted for this benefaction in 1889, William John Macleay died in 1891.
James William Macarthur Onslow, owner 1891-1911
Arthur Onslow predeceased George Macleay and in 1891, Elizabeth Bay House passed to his eldest son, James William Macarthur Onslow (1867-1946). Through his mother, James inherited Camden Park, Menangle, and thus possessed two fine houses built by John Verge. Elizabeth Onslow adopted the surname Macarthur-Onslow by Royal Licence in 1892. In that year she requested that family portraits and documents be transferred from Elizabeth Bay House to Camden Park.
In 1892-1893 James William Macarthur Onslow commissioned a program of repairs and alterations to Elizabeth Bay House, carried out by the architect, George Allen Mansfield. These renovations included the replacement of the plumbing, the introduction of gas lighting and a new servants' electric bell system. Two bathrooms were added, which Lady Macleay complained as having taken up the best two servants' rooms. Her maid had slept in one and her housemaid in the other. These servants were then accommodated in the back bedrooms. Much of the house's early hardware was replaced.
At Lady Macleay's request canvas blinds (visible in early views of the house) were replaced by wooden louvred shutters. The morning room was provided with external venetian blinds. The morning room French windows had opened to an abrupt drop to the sandstone terrace since 1839, when the building of the house had been halted without its planned colonnade. Lady Macleay, concerned for the safety of her visitors, requested that Mansfield prepare plans for a portico with a balcony accessible from the room. The tender for the construction of the portico was let on 31 January 1893.
Mansfield recommended further changes to make the house more fashionable. These included a new front door with stained lead glass transom and sidelights and verandahs and balconies to three sides of the house. He proposed to replace the existing dome with one of stained glass and create a widow's walk. Lady Macleay, for sentimental reasons, did not agree to these changes.
George Michaelis, tenant 1903-1911 and owner 1911-1926
Following Lady Macleay's death, Macarthur Onslow leased the house to George Michaelis (1867-1936), a leather merchant and prominent member of Sydney's Jewish community. Michaelis resided at Elizabeth Bay House with his wife Lilian and their three children Alan, Rupert and Elaine, and his parents-in-law, Moritz and Sarah Gotthelf. In 1910, the entail of the Elizabeth Bay estate was overcome and the various leaseholders were able to purchase the freeholds of their blocks. Michaelis purchased Elizabeth Bay House for £8,000 in 1911. In May 1921, Elizabeth Bay House was the subject of an article in Building. Florence Taylor, its author, recommended that the house become a museum under public ownership in recognition of its architectural quality.
Elizabeth Bay Estates Limited, owner 1926-1940
George Michaelis sold the property in 1926 to Sir Sydney Snow for £40,000. Snow shortly after sold the property for £60,000 to Elizabeth Bay Estates Limited, a development company whose shareholders included Leslie Wilkinson, Professor of Architecture at Sydney University. Wilkinson reputedly proposed to remove the dome so that the saloon would be open to the sky, recalling the interior of the Roman Pantheon.
The final subdivision of the Elizabeth Bay estate took place in September 1927 when its remaining three acres were divided into sixteen lots, which were put up for auction by Stanton & Son and Richardson & Wrench. The kitchen wing was demolished to allow the construction of a road giving access to allotments behind the house. Only five of the sixteen lots sold and these did not include the three lots at the rear of the house. Many of these blocks were to be offered again, unsuccessfully, in August 1934 by Peach Brothers Real Estate Auctioneers. Some remained unsold until the late 1940s.
An Artists' Squat c 1928-1935
Elizabeth Bay House failed to sell in 1927 and a caretaker was installed. A number of artists occupied the house rent free as 'squatters'.
A Reception Venue 1935-1940
In 1935 Elizabeth Bay Estates Limited leased the property to Mr and Mrs A. Hall and Mrs L. Minnett who renovated and redecorated the house as a venue for fashionable receptions. The mid-19th century bookcases were removed from the library, which became a ballroom. The first function held in the house was the wedding reception of musical comedy stars Madge Elliot and Cyril Richard. Between 1935 and 1940 Elizabeth Bay House featured in Sydney's social pages as a glamorous setting for wedding receptions, parties and balls.
In 1937, the socialite, Mrs Rodney Dangar campaigned to preserve Elizabeth Bay House as a museum to commemorate the 150th anniversary of European settlement in Australia. With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 and consequent austerity measures, the house was to have a rather different role.
Mrs Evangeline Olga Murray, owner 1940-1963
In 1940 Elizabeth Bay House was sold to Mrs Evangeline Olga Murray, wife of James Daniel Murray, real estate agent of Sydney. The architect, Charles C. Phillips, drew up plans to subdivide the house into fifteen flats. Its rooms were partitioned with the exception of the entrance hall, saloon, breakfast room and morning room. The ground floor rooms were subdivided for multiple flats, with kitchens and bathrooms for many of these accommodated in single storey wings built over the side terraces. Kitchens and bathrooms were accomodated in the former dressing rooms and partitioned corners of upper floor bedrooms. These alterations were carried out sympathetically, with little damage to the original fabric of the house. Mrs Murray furnished the flats with antique furniture, in deference to the age and quality of the house and perhaps as a reflection of the social status the house retained, even in decline.
Cumberland County Council and State Planning Authority, owners 1963-1977
In 1959 Elizabeth Bay House was declared an historic building under Clause 38 of the County of Cumberland Planning Ordinance "as a building whose preservation is essential for reasons of historic or architectural interest". In August 1963 the house was purchased from the estate of the late Mrs E. O. Murray by the Cumberland County Council. The Council was abolished in 1964 and its responsibilities were assumed by the State Planning Authority, which in 1972, became the Planning and Environment Commission.
Under State Planning Authority ownership, Elizabeth Bay House's flats became increasingly tenanted by employees of the Authority. The tenants received notice to quit in early 1973, however, a "stayput" group of long-term residents opposed the Authority's plans on the basis that the house was already open to public inspection, as the tenants showed visitors through. It was not until April 1974 that the last of these took up alternative accommodation.
In the mid-1960s the State Planning Authority commissioned essential repairs to the roof, dome and portico. This work was carried out by the NSW Public Works Department, under the supervision of the Government Architect, E.H. Farmer, in association with consultant architect, John Fisher. In January 1973 the State Planning Authority announced plans to restore Elizabeth Bay House at a cost of $275,000. The house was to be leased by Sydney City Council after its restoration. The ground floor's large reception rooms were to be used for entertainments by the City Council, the State Government or the State Planning Authority; or for mounting displays and exhibitions. The upper floor was to provide two apartments, one to be used by the Lord Mayor of Sydney, the other for guests of the City Council.
Restoration work proceeded under the direction of architect, Clive Lucas of Fisher Jackson Hudson Architects. Historically informed decorative schemes were introduced and a fine collection of William IV furniture acquired for the house. Restoration costs had risen from the 1973 estimate of $275,000 to $750,000 in 1976 when the newly elected Labor Premier, Neville Wran, argued for a public use for the house. The 1975 agreement between the Planning and Environment Commission and the Sydney City Council was set aside and the house placed under the Elizabeth Bay House Trust.
Elizabeth Bay House opened to the public as a museum on 12 March 1977. In 1981 it became one of the first properties of the Historic Houses Trust. In 1988, the Trust adopted a policy to interpret the house according to the evidence available of its occupancy by Alexander Macleay and his family between the years 1839 to 1845. The interiors continue to be refined to this end.
A Guide to the HouseThe Terrace
Elizabeth Bay House was once the centrepiece of an estate celebrated for its horticultural interest and its sophisticated response to its Sydney Harbour setting. While the estate has been lost to subdivisions, the house's orientation on an axis with Clark Island and the Heads may be appreciated from the terrace. Alexander Macleay's expenditure on his garden from 1826 onwards contributed to his mounting debt and ultimately to his inability to complete the house (constructed 1835-1839) to its original design. An 1838 watercolour view by Conrad Martens (exhibited in the library) shows the house with its intended Doric colonnade. This would have been supported by the terrace which surrounds the house on three sides. The portico, with cast iron Ionic columns, was built to the design of George Allen Mansfield in 1892-1893.
The cubic entrance hall contrasts with the lofty oval saloon. The ceiling rose is a Greek Revival waterleaf motif while the frieze is of Roman laurel wreaths. The arch leading from the hall to the saloon and the blind arches framing the doors to the dining and drawing rooms were marbled soon after the completion of the house. The original marbling of the blind arches has been uncovered and repaired, while that of the saloon arch has been recreated according to an original fragment surviving at skirting level in the saloon. Elizabeth Bay House's interior decoration was probably not completed until after 1845, owing to Alexander Macleay's financial crisis. The walls of the entrance hall and adjacent drawing room appear to have been given an interim finish known today as polished plaster. A pigment was added to the setting coat of the plaster to relieve its starkness during a long curing period. The plaster was then rubbed to a smooth finish. This finish has been simulated in modern oil-based paints.
William Sharp Macleay acquired marble chimneypieces for Elizabeth Bay House and a suite of rosewood furniture for its drawing room in London before joining his family in Sydney in 1839. By early 1844, Alexander Macleay's financial crisis had become apparent. William had not been re-imbursed for the purchase of the drawing room furniture. His decision to sell it to the colonial government for use at Government House precipitated his taking control of Elizabeth Bay House in part payment for his father's debts in February 1845. In the ensuing rift Alexander, Eliza and Kennethina Macleay retired to their country house, Brownlow Hill. A detailed inventory survives for the sale of the drawing room furniture. The inventory describes the drawing room furniture as en suite and indicates a stylistic unity between the furniture and the room's Greek Revival cedar joinery, plaster ceiling rose and marble chimneypiece. The furnishings were conventionally rich as appropriate for a room to which the ladies withdrew at the conclusion of a dinner party. The upholstery fabric was a yellow silk taberet, trimmed with crimson and yellow silk cord, gimp and tassels. Each window was fitted with a gilt timber cornice or pelmet. The pelmets supported a valance of crimson and yellow bullion fringe, a rich but ubiquitous soft furnishing. Bullion fringe came into vogue during the Napoleonic Wars and was inspired by the decoration of military uniforms. The Brussels weave carpet with its white ground was an ostentatious furnishing, given the difficulty of maintaining its cleanliness. Only the muslin curtains were recorded as having been made in the colony.
In 1839, with eight Macleays in residence, the dining room was probably in daily use. While the family party was possibly extended from time to time, the Macleays were not reputed for their hospitality. Elizabeth Bay House's dining room sideboard was described stylistically as "Louis XIV" in the deed by which Alexander Macleay relinquished Elizabeth Bay House to his son, William, in 1845. The Louis XIV style, based on the decorative arts of pre-revolutionary France, had reactionary political overtones in the 1820s-1830s. Alexander Macleay possessed portraits of Louis XIV and the executed Stuart King Charles I and possibly chose the Louis style for his dining room to reflect both his political conservatism and his monarchist sentiments. The Louis style reflected a romantic taste and became increasingly fashionable into the 1840s. Alexander Macleay's table was graced by a silver centrepiece in the form of a branch candelabrum. This had been subscribed by prominent colonists in 1839 as a token of their esteem and partly in response to Macleay's forced resignation as Colonial Secretary.
Elizabeth Bay House's entrance hall leads to an elliptical, domed, top lit saloon or stairhall. The saloon is the house's piece de resistance; arguably the finest interior of a 19th century Australian building and a superlative example of colonial craftmanship. It may have been inspired by the stairhall designed by Henry Holland in 1811 for the Prince Regent's Carlton House Palace, London. The saloon stair is an extraordinary achievement in terms of its engineering. Each tread is a single piece of stone cantilevered from the wall (the protruding stones can be seen within the saloon cupboard) and rests on the step beneath it. Additional support is provided by the curve of the stair. The saloon floor, stair, balcony and its supporting stone consoles are all of Marulan stone, a mudstone, possibly quarried in the vicinity of the Macleay country property, Brownlow Hill. The stone's figuring was originally accentuated by a polished finish. The Marulan stone chimneypieces of the bedrooms retain this finish. The bronzed cast iron balusters are of English manufacture. The handrail is of colonial cedar. The door beneath the stair is false and intended to maintain the symmetry of the arrangement of doors and openings. In December 1837 Christiana Susan Dumaresq wrote to her brother, William Sharp Macleay, asking him to select bronzed plaster of Paris "female figures as large as life, to stand in the Hall & Saloon with lights". The figures and their plinths remained in the house and were listed as part of the estate of Lady (Susan) Macleay in 1903. The present figures are modern copies.
The breakfast room echoes the oval saloon on a smaller scale. Its door is curved accordingly. It is situated so that its bay window traps the morning sun. The Macleay family appears to have used it as an informal sitting and dining room, furnishing it with pieces retired from the drawing and dining rooms of their previous home, the Colonial Secretary's House in Bridge Street, Sydney. The room was probably originally wallpapered. A fragment of wallpaper recovered from the architrave above the French doors revealed the paper's two-tone red and buff colour scheme and floral pattern. This has led to the installation of a reproduction of a c 1835 damask patterned paper.
The library at the time of its completion was the largest room in an Australian house. This reflected the importance Alexander Macleay placed on his books and natural history collections. As a consequence of his financial crisis, an "extensive and valuable library of nearly 4,000 volumes ... comprising the major part of the well selected library of Alexander Macleay" was offered for sale by the auctioneer John Blackman in April 1845. The Elizabeth Bay House library was probably intended to be fully fitted with bookcases, however, only a single "library fitting" was sold to W.S. Macleay for £70 in 1845. Alexander's collection consisted mainly of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). He had begun to collect by 1794 when he was elected a member of the Linnean Society of London. The Linnean Society was a gentleman's scientific society founded in 1788 by James Edward Smith, who had purchased the collections of the Swedish scientist, Carl von Linné (Linnaeus, 1707-1770), devisor of the Latin binomial system of classifying plants and animals used today. Macleay served as the Secretary of the Linnean Society from 1798 to 1825. By 1825 Macleay's insect collection was believed to be the largest in the possession of a private individual and was remarkable for the range and importance of its specimens. It included many "type" specimens which had provided the basis for the first published descriptions of newly discovered species. William Sharp Macleay used his father's collection of scarab beetles as the basis for his Horae Entomologicae, published in 1819 and 1821. This work contained an important pre-Darwinian theory of the relationship of species. William expanded and diversified the collection in line with his broader interests in biology. An example of this was his collection of Sydney Harbour marine specimens. William bequeathed the collections to his cousin, William John Macleay, who attempted to form a comprehensive collection of vertebrates and also collected in the areas of ethnography and geology. William John Macleay presented the collections to the University of Sydney with an endowment for the Macleay Museum in 1888. Several of Alexander Macleay's mahogany insect specimen cabinets have been conserved and placed in the library by agreement with the Macleay Museum. They are fine examples of late 18th century English cabinet-making and relate to the published designs of Chippendale (1762), Hepplewhite (1787) and Thomas Shearer (1788). They were designed as bookcases and subsequently fitted with drawers to contain insect specimens. The drawer fronts of Macleay Museum Cabinet No. 1 feature a collection of specimen timbers. The large cedar four-sided cabinet in the centre of the room was made by Francis Lewis in Sydney in c 1857, probably for William Sharp Macleay.
Elizabeth Bay House's upper floor is a complex construction. Large beams span the large ground floor rooms, consequently the upper floor contains few masonry walls, the majority being of lath and plaster. The stud walls add to the loading of the beams. Outside Miss Macleay's room they bow, parting company with the skirtings. The timber floors are of blackbutt. Elizabeth Bay House was constructed with two upstairs water closets flushed from cisterns located in the attic and roof space. Both were entered from the upper hall. These were renovated in 1892 and 1940 with all vestiges of them removed in the 1974-1976 restoration.
The morning room was a small daytime sitting room used by the Macleay women. The quality of its joinery, plaster decoration and marble chimneypiece indicates that while located on the upper floor, it was a room where visitors might be received. The French windows provide a celebrated view across the harbour to Clark Island and the Heads. Venetian blinds were first installed in 1892. They are hung on the outside of the windows to deflect the heat of the sun. They replaced canvas blinds visible in early views of the house. The portico, with a balcony entered from this room, was added in 1893 at the instigation of Lady Macleay, concerned for the safety of her guests. A brass touch plate installed during the 1892 renovations survives on the back of the door. In 1941-1942, soon after the division of Elizabeth Bay House into flats, the artist, Donald Friend (1915-1989) lived in this room.
The upper floor of Elizabeth Bay House contained six bedrooms, four of which had adjacent dressing rooms. The rooms facing the harbour were the more desirable and one of these has been furnished as the principal bedroom. The contents of the principal bedroom and Miss Macleay's room were not listed in 1845, owing to William Sharp Macleay allowing his mother and sister to take away their own property when they removed to Brownlow Hill. The Trust's furnishing of these rooms is informed by an overview of bedrooms of the period and aims to contrast the treatment of major and minor bedrooms.
The contents of Alexander Macleay's dressing room were also not listed in 1845. A dressing room typically contained a man's washstand, dressing table and wardrobe (corresponding with those of his wife, which were located in the bedroom itself) a clothes rack and usually a single bed for times when the couple did not sleep together. The dressing room presently contains a press-secretaire, a typical late 18th - early 19th century piece for such rooms, with dual provision for writing materials and clothes storage.
Miss Macleay's Room
This room has been furnished as the bedroom of the Macleays' unmarried daughter, Kennethina. The Tasmanian hardwood tent bed, c 1830, is hung with dimity, a cotton with a woven stripe. Tent beds, with hangings sewn in one piece, were described as ubiquitous in New South Wales in the early 1840s. Holland blinds have been installed with reproductions of 1840s pulley hardware, according to the evidence of the architraves. Miss Macleay's washstand is accommodated in a corner of the room rather than in an adjacent dressing room.
This room has been furnished as the bedroom of a servant as suggested by its scale and simple architectural detailing. This room was one of two servants' bedrooms converted to bathrooms during the 1892 renovation of the house. The Macleays were reluctant employers of convict servants. The shortage of free servants and the stringent financial circumstances arising from Alexander Macleay's investments in land left them with few options. Alexander Macleay, as Colonial Secretary, was well placed to select skilled labour for his own household. Martha Handcox, a lady's maid, had been employed by a respectable family in London over a seventeen year period prior to 1835, when she was persuaded by the family's butler to rob her mistress of £2,000 worth of jewellery. She was duly convicted with a life sentence and arrived in Sydney in February 1836. A Mr Caswell applied to have Handcox assigned to his household, enclosing an account of her good character. Macleay, instead, assigned her to Mrs Macleay. She appears to have remained with the Macleays until December 1845 or later. Eliza Macleay, according to Lady Franklin, "was a ladylike old lady but very severe to her convict servants, the worst mistress in the colony to them". There is no record of the Macleay family employing girls from the Female School of Industry as domestic servants.
A butler's pantry typically contained built-in dressers for the storage of ceramic dinner and tea services and possibly a safe for silver and plate. A hearth and a sink with running water assisted with the washing and polishing of plate and daily cleaning and trimming of lamps. The pantry played an important role in the service of dinner, as it was here that the cold dishes of the second and third courses - the pastry, fruit and confectionery - were kept under metal gauze covers until required. Its two doors, one from the back hall and the other entering the saloon, assisted with the passage of food from the kitchen to the table.
The courtyard was originally a service yard between the house and its kitchen wing. The kitchen wing was demolished in 1927 during the final subdivision of the Elizabeth Bay estate. The kitchen wing comprised a kitchen, scullery, servants' hall (servants' dining room), laundry, ironing room, storeroom or pantry and coal store. In the late 19th century its upper floor housed male servants.
Elizabeth Bay House possesses an undercroft of two large and entirely separate cellars. To the north are the wine and spirit cellars, the domain of the butler or footman. These are partly vaulted to support the saloon floor above. These cellars contain a cask room and bins for storage of bottled wines, whose painted labels for sherry, sauterne, madeira, claret and brandy partly survive. While table grapes "quite comparable with Europe's finest" were grown on the Elizabeth Bay estate, wine for the Elizabeth Bay House cellars was purchased and possibly produced at the Macleay country properties. The cellars to the south contain a larder, dairy and coal storage. Each room was fitted with a lock and was the preserve of different female servants under the watchful eye of the housekeeper. The largest of these cellar rooms is constructed with a hearth suitable for a large kitchen range. Basement kitchens are typical of English houses (particularly town houses) of this period, and may support the theory that Elizabeth Bay House was built from imported architectural plans. The hearth shows no evidence of use and was probably made redundant by the construction of a separate kitchen wing.