Meroogal is a house that has been greatly cherished by its owners. Four generations of women, belonging to the same family, have lived under its roof from the time it was first occupied in February 1886, until its purchase by the Historic Houses Trust, almost one hundred years later in August, 1985. In announcing the acquisition, the then Premier, Neville Wran said that: 'Meroogal was being purchased because it was the most intact late nineteenth century house known in New South Wales and the acquisition would enable the fine collection to be retained in the house.'
Meroogal is important because of its architecture, because it has survived with relatively few changes and because its contents offer a charming testament to early days and early ways.
The house was built for Jessie Catherine Thorburn and her unmarried children. It passed from her unmarried daughters to their Macgregor nieces, daughters of their married sister, and finally to the Macgregors niece, June Wallace. It has been home to a household of women, who lead busy and fulfilled lives and whose daily routines encompassed domestic chores and the pursuit of their own interests and talents. Meroogal was a hospitable home, welcoming family and friends. It was the scene for christenings, weddings and funeral gatherings. The patterns of living first laid down in the 1880s and 1890s were to be repeated by each generation. Furniture, household objects, diaries, letters, scrap books, photographs and even clothes have remained at Meroogal, allowing us to sift through each layer of its occupation, discovering the contribution made by each generation.
It is unusual for a house to be occupied by the same family for such a length of time, up to the present, even in rural areas. It makes it possible' to explore aspects of life in a country town in the late 19th and 20th century. The way in which the family used the house, cared for and changed the fabric of the building, is still apparent and provides insights into the character of the family and their circumstances. It is not a grand house, in fact, it is rather ordinary. The unusual succession of family ownership, through the female line, is an expression of the ties between members of a family and their material possessions. Changes have been made, rooms added, furniture moved around, but the fact remains Meroogal has survived to make its contribution to our social history.
Life at Meroogal
Some houses are immediately friendly and inviting. They are usually associated with a family who are content with and attached to their home. The personalities of the owners and occupants of such houses can be read through the furnishings and decoration of the houses, their belongings and their garden. Such houses need not be large, nor their owners prosperous. Meroogal is such a house.
The house originally stood in five acres on a corner block, and is partially built from hardwood cleared from the site. Surrounded by a white picket fence, its garden was a local showpiece for many years. Outbuildings included the stables (demolished in 1980) and a single storey extension, known as the back wing, linked to the house by a covered walk and containing a sewing room, groom's quarters and a lumber and feed storage room.
In the 1890s this modest house was home to six people: the elderly Jessie Catherine Thorburn, her son, Robert Taylor, and four daughters, Annabella Jane (Belle), Georgina Isabella (Georgie), Jessie Catherine (Kate) and Kennina Fanny McKenzie (Tottie), plus a housekeeper and George, the groom.
Life at Meroogal was a progression wherein the patterns and activities established in the early days of its occupation were continued and modified over the following decades. Some practices were lost or abandoned due to changes in social customs, changes in technology, or more particularly, by changes in the size of the household. Despite these changes, and changes to Meroogal itself, much of the fabric of life at Meroogal can still be experienced or imagined today.
Tottie came to live permanently at Meroogal in 1896 and the years that followed were busy and happy ones in this household of women. Every day the sisters would rise from their beds, sometimes as early as 4.30am in the summer months, and begin their daily routines, which hardly varied from week to week, year to year. Kate would go into the garden to pick flowers, fresh with morning dew for the house. She was a gifted gardener and flower arranger, always willing to share her knowledge. Tot and Belle would begin the day's baking, while Georgie, with Kate's help, would be dusting upstairs, sweeping and polishing the linoleum-covered floors, or setting out the laundry tubs if it was washing day.
Referred to as 'the water picnic', washing day was a team effort and took place in the large yard, alongside the orchard. A wood-fired copper and three big tin tubs were set up under a large gum tree. The first tub was used for washing, the second for rinsing and the third for the blue bag. The clothes were hung on two lines, supported by timber props in the yard beyond the back wing. When still slightly damp, they were stretched and folded and put through a mangle to avoid ironing.
The kerosene lamps had to be gathered from the rooms downstairs for trimming and filling before they were stored in the china pantry, ready for the evening. Bundles of kindling were wrapped, ready for heating the bath water, soap made and the hundred and one things that came under the heading of household duties.
At 9am breakfast was served; baked apples and toast was a favourite. From the orchard came an abundance of fruit, including peaches weighing almost half a pound, which never failed to win first prize at the local show. Fruit pies, Christmas cakes, scones, pikelets, soda loaves, Kate's shortbread and Tot's applecake were just some of the household's repertoire. The loaf sponge cake was a permanent fixture and as soon as one was gone another was made jointly by Kate and Tot with six eggs: Tot beating the yolks and Kate whisking the whites on a large plate with a dinner knife.
Midday dinner was the main meal of the day, with a siesta and bath to follow, then afternoon tea and a light supper in the evening. The wood stove was allowed to go out after lunch and the afternoon tea and supper were prepared using a small burner. In the autumn, winter and early spring the sisters spent their evenings in the dining room. They would put kerosene lamps on the table after supper, write letters at one end, and one would read aloud to the others. They were all fond of reading and Dickens and Ruskin were favourites. On summer evenings, they would gather in the sitting room or side verandah, occupying their time, often crocheting or knitting.
The sisters were accomplished needlewomen, making many of their own full-skirted dresses, trimmed with lace collars and cuffs. The new iron beds at Meroogal, on which they slept under mosquito nets, displayed snowy white pillow shams covered with their own Mountmellick embroidery. Kate made all the silk-covered lamp-shades when electricity was installed. At home, Mrs Thorburn wore a small crochet cap, and as she got older these were made by Tot, who later passed the skill on to her niece, Elgin.
As well, they attended to more practical tasks of repairing wear and tear, for they were a frugal, careful family. The Thorburn sisters were not wealthy, but they were resourceful in their housekeeping and made do with what they had. They kept up appearances and had the knack of adjusting things so that repairs and other changes were not obvious. They warded off shabbiness with invisible mending.
Nowra was well known to the Thorburns before their move from Barr Hill and once settled it was not long before they consolidated their positions as established and well-respected members of the community. The four sisters had a wide and varied circle of friends from Sydney and Melbourne whom they visited and who visited them. Although the Meroogal household predominantly comprised women, it was by no means exclusive of men. The Thorburn sisters liked men, enjoyed their company, but they chose not to marry.
An outstanding shared characteristic of the four sisters was that they had minds which turned outwards towards others and not in upon themselves. There was a great warmth of welcome for visitors. On the first Monday in every month, the Thorburns were ''At Home". Women of similar social position as themselves came to call. No-one was specifically invited but it was the custom to call and pay one's respects.
In her diary, Tot records many happy drives in the family buggy and the occasional excursions to Jervis Bay and Yalwal. As well as Tot's diaries, the sisters each kept scrapbooks, with newspaper clippings of local events and reports of family births, deaths, marriages, graduations and achievements. Georgie, the quietest and gentlest of the four sisters, had a lively sense of humour and liked to illustrate her letters and scrapbooks with caricatures and cartoons. It was Belle who acted as mother to her nephew, Bruce Stafford, who was only two when his mother, Margaret Hannah Stafford died after giving birth to her second son, Thomas. The baby lived at Meroogal until his premature death, aged 17 months. In the years before his father remarried Bruce spent much of his time at Meroogal, includng Christmas and school holidays.
Life at Meroogal in the early part of the 1900s went on much as before, but at a slower pace. Visits from family and friends continued and for some time prior to her death in 1908, Mrs Thorburn's sister, Georgina Matthews, came to live at Meroogal bringing some of her own furniture.
In 1916, Mrs Thorburn died at the age of 91. The same year, her married daughter Mary Susan, and her husband Roderick Macgregor, moved from Torrisdale at Cambewarra to a cottage, built on the horse paddock at Meroogal from some of the material from their old house. They called it Kintore.
With the Macgregors close by at Kintore, a new dimension was added to life at Meroogal. The Thorburns and Macgregors saw each other daily and had meals together regularly. Of all their close relations who had been at Cambewarra in the 1880s only Kenneth McKenzie was still there, living in a small cottage he built beside Llanthony. Kenneth McKenzie was the youngest of Jessie Catherine Thorburn's brothers. He was a keen naturalist, interested and knowledgeable about local timbers and building - which started as a hobby and became his regular occupation. Cabinet-making was another of his hobbies and Meroogal contains several examples of tables with inlaid tops and work boxes that he made using local timbers.
In the mid-1920s life was a different picture from the 1890s. As the sisters grew older, life slowed down. Two of them moved into the back wing to save walking upstairs and made the upstairs bedrooms available to visitors. In the year following the death of Roderick Macgregor in 1919, Margaret Steel and her young daughter June, then aged three, came to live at Kintore. June spent much of her time with her aunts at Meroogal, and frequently stayed overnight. She remembers the three- monthly visits of her great uncle Robert Taylor Thorburn to his relatives at Meroogal from Sydney, where he lived until his death in 1934.
Tot's great achievement in old age was to learn to drive a car - a 1928 Ford tourer which she continued to drive until she was 82. "There's nothing to it - it's just like driving a buggy' she said. Clad in cream dustcoat, shady hat tied on with a gossamer veil and leather gauntlet gloves, Kate beside her, Tot would coast down the hill to save petrol and to get a running start in gear. Top speed on the open highway was controlled at 25 m.p.h., less in town. The car, as with the house, was kept well polished, and was shrouded under a dustcover in its garage.
When Kate died in 1945 Tot went to stay in Sydney with her Macgregor nieces Margaret and Elgin, never returning to Meroogal as it held to many memories for her to live with. She died in 1956. Meroogal passed to the Macgregors. As a family, the Macgregors were different in character from the Thorburns, possibly due to the influence of their father, Roderick Macgregor, and the modest circumstances of the family. A teacher at the Cambewarra School until ill health forced him to retire, Roderick had an appreciation of art and literature and kept abreast with science and philosophy. This knowledge was passed on to the Macgregor children, who were taught at the family home, Torriadale, by their father. Both families were conscious of their Scottish background, as were their relations, the McKenzies. Like the Thorburn sisters their Macgregor nieces had grown up on farms, but they were more practical, and more independent than the Thorburns.
The Macgregor sisters, Helen, Margaret and Elgin were also interested in the arts, and after Helen moved permanently into Meroogal in 1934, aged 53, Margaret and Elgin continued their practice of dividing their time between Meroogal and Sydney.
From the late 1940s, Meroogal was identified in the town with the Macgregors. When neither her sisters nor other family or friends were at Meroogal, young neighbours Elaine and Shirley Gray took it in turns to stay overnight, to keep Helen company. The Gray's house was further along West Street, built on land formerly belonging to the Thorburns.
Helen Macgregor made a few changes at Meroogal to accommodate some of the Macgregor family furniture from Kintore. In the early 1950s, for company and as a source of income, Helen let the upstairs bedrooms to tenants. The presence of tenants made a further change in the daily routine of Helen Macgregor and her sisters. Instead of using the side as an entrance as family and good friends had done in the past, the sisters used the front entrance, allowing the upstairs tenants principal use of the side entrance. The bathroom was shared, with the tenants entering from the side verandah.
There was no running water inside and washing up was done in a basin. One of the first things Helen Macgregor did on inheriting Meroogal was to connect the gas, which had been available since 1905. The Thorburns had not liked its smell, so did not bother. The house was rewired, in an unsightly way, painted, and the sewing room in the back wing converted to a bedroom.
Life was very different from the Thorburn's time at Meroogal. With the addition of a bed and a cupboard, the drawing room, which was no longer needed for social occasions, was turned into a bedroom for Margaret Steel when she came to visit. Helen slept in the downstairs bedroom and Elgin used the little bedroom upstairs. Helen was a poor traveller and rarely left Meroogal. Instead she travelled vicariously through books, spending much of her time reading in the dining room (where she substituted a small radiator for the fire). For cooking, she used a small gas burner, eating her main meal in the middle of the day.
With the death of her two elder sisters, Margaret Steel in 1971 and Helen Macgregor in 1973, Elgin moved permanently to Meroogal. Despite being in her eighties and having suffered a stroke, she lived at Meroogal mostly on her own. Elgin's legacy to Meroogal was the colour green, it being her favourite way of cheering up an object that took her fancy. Her niece, June Wallace, visited her regularly, as did her other relations from Sydney. Elgin developed her own routines, choosing to sleep upstairs in the little bedroom. She used the back bedroom as a second kitchen-living room.
June Wallace inherited Meroogal on the death of her Aunt Elgin in 1977. From this time onwards the house was no longer permanently occupied. Despite a busy life in Sydney, June was conscious of the family tradition and was very fond of the property. She visited Meroogal and her friends in Nowra once a month, continuing the pattern she had established while Elgin was alive. Each visit started with a cup of tea on the side verandah, the traditional gathering spot from when the Thorburn sisters had lived at Meroogal. This was followed by an inspection of the rooms, to check on how things were.
One of the reasons for Meroogal's survival lies in the character of June Wallace, the last private owner. Although living in Sydney, she kept Meroogal, visiting regularly for eight years. During the 1970s, several people actively involved in building conservation had visited Meroogal and she was conscious of the value of the house, both from a personal viewpoint and as part of the heritage of Nowra. As custodian of Meroogal she took care to maintain its character. When replacing worn curtains, she chose material that matched as near as possible the existing ones, which themselves had been copies of the previous curtains. Similarly, when replacing the wallpapers in the drawing and sitting rooms, June's choice was limited by availability and they are, therefore, only distant approximations of their earlier counterparts. Likewise when renewing the picket fence she took care to copy the old one.
Thus, when the Historic Houses Trust purchased Meroogal, the house had, in a sense, already been conserved, and was generally in good condition. In caring for Meroogal the aims of the Trust have been to identify, retain and conserve the characteristics that contribute to its significance; and to explain this significance to visitors.
The first stage was to search documents, including local records, newspapers and family papers and photographs. Members of the family and former tenants were interviewed and provided much information about the family and the house. From this information, an examination of the house, and a comparison with other houses, the primary significance of Meroogal was considered to be "its evidence of the lives and histories of the four generations of one family who lived in the house, and of their taste and circumstances". It was considered to be "of special value for its evidence of the lives and roles of women in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and as a rare example of a house (in an urban area) which has retained much of its original and early furniture and household contents for over one hundred years". This statement identified what is important about Meroogal and provided the basis for the conservation action that followed.
Although many changes have been made to Meroogal - rooms have been added, and furniture and decorative finishes changed - these changes have not obscured Meroogal's early history but rather have provided layers of history, each of which is partially transparent. With the aid of photographs and the recollections of the family and other people associated with Meroogal, it is possible to see each layer.
Instead of returning the decorative character and finishes of the house to the way they were, or might have been at a particular period (as it happens with most building conservation projects), the Historic Houses Trust decided to retain the house and its contents much as they were when the property was purchased. HHT has sought to retain those characteristics which make Meroogal significant, to retain the look and feel of the house, that is, to do as much as was necessary, but as little as possible.
The buildings retain the same configuration of rooms, the same surface finishes and the same floor coverings. The furniture and other contents are also in the same positions as they were when the property was purchased, with a few minor exceptions. Some repairs have been undertaken to allow windows and doors to operate freely, and to replace badly worn verandah floorboards. Some water damage had occurred in the ceilings and walls, and to prevent this recurring a portion of the roof of the house has been replaced and additional downpipes and underground drainage added. In the former servants' quarters new brick footings have been built along the south side of the building where the original timbers had rotted, and the roofing of the covered way linking the two buildings has been replaced. Painting has been limited to that necessary to prevent decay.
In contrast to the conservation policy for the house, and as a result of detailed recollections of the garden, the Trust decided to restore the garden to its form in the late 1920s.
Inside the house, the conservation policy for the care of the collection has been stabilisation. Much of the furniture and other objects were in good condition but others were extremely fragile. The Trust sought to retain the history of each object as apparent in the signs of wear and the evidence of mending. In the case of paintings, which were the objects needing the greatest attention, the approach was to do as much as was necessary to save but not improve them: warped frames, discoloured photographs and mismatched mounts were kept to retain their authenticity.
Many of the contents of Meroogal were fragile. The linoleums and carpets were worn, but to change these would alter the house: if its contents and furnishings were changed it would cease to be an old house.
To conserve the interiors and the collections within the house, visitor numbers are limited to small guide-assisted groups. When the house is not open to the public, light levels are kept to a minimum in order to minimise damage to fragile items, particularly paintings, photographs and fabrics. A long term program for conserving major items not on display, such as costumes, has been commenced.
The conservation of Meroogal is an ongoing process.
Architecturally, Meroogal is distinctive and atypical. Although two storey timber houses were a relatively common building form in late nineteenth-century Australia, particularly in towns along the eastern coast where timber was readily and cheaply available, they were never as popular as single storey houses and they are now quite rare.
The particular appeal of Meroogal comes from its picturesque design. The first-floor bedrooms are partially within the roof space and the resulting balconies and dormer windows, combined with the steepness of the roof, the gables and their decorated bargeboards, the verandahs and bay window, all combine to give the house its attractive picturesque quality.
The design character of Meroogal suggests an American source. There are some parallels with Meroogal in nineteenth-century American pattern books - both in the arrangement of rooms and in the decorative Gothic style of architecture. The octagonal form of the drawing room, for instance, suggests the likely use of a pattern book. Such books were available in Australia and Kenneth McKenzie, who designed and built Meroogal, may have had one. The composition of Meroogal is remarkably accomplished and if American sources are accepted, it is a skilful adaptation of these sources to commonplace building practices in Australia.
Twenty years prior to designing Meroogal, Kenneth McKenzie designed and built Llanthony at Cambewarra for his sister and brother-in-law, Georgina and Samuel Matthews. The two houses have many features in common, such as the gables and bargeboards and the coffered ceilings. However the rooms at Llanthony are not so well-arranged and the construction details differ.
Apart from Llanthony, Kenneth McKenzie designed several other buildings in the district: Argyle House, c. 1864 (which he built for his brother-in-law prior to building Llanthony), the Union Church and the School of Arts, all in Cambewarra. He also supervised the building of the Presbyterian Manse in Nowra.
Compared with other houses of similar age, Meroogal has had few alterations. Relatively early in its history, and probably around 1890 (when the household was at its largest), a new kitchen was added; the old kitchen was incorporated in the dining-room, and the entrance to the pantry moved to the new kitchen. The lumber room, added at the end of the servants wing, was built (according to family tradition) for the drag owned by Robert Taylor Thorburn. The privy was demolished in 1938 when Meroogal was connected to the sewer, and the stables, which were partly on the adjoining lot, were demolished in 1980.
Although the picturesque design of Meroogal is unusual, the construction is similar to other modest-sized timber houses of that time. Downstairs, the walls of the hall, the living rooms and the bedroom are lined with plaster and the timber ceilings are coffered. The kitchen, pantry and bathroom under a skillion roof at the rear are much simpler in design and finish, as are the upstairs bedrooms. The walls and ceilings of these rooms were originally lined with 6-inch-wide tongue-and-groove boards, but some have been replaced by, or covered with, hardboard. The original servants' quarters, now called the back wing, were also timber-lined. This difference between the front rooms and the back rooms was typical of houses until recent decades.
In 1886, the site was covered with tall trees and shrubs, similar to much of the bushland around Nowra today. Some of the timber was used in building Meroogal and was pit-sawn on site. The windows were probably made in a local joinery shop, as was the staircase. The cast iron on the verandahs has an unusual wheat motif; it may have come from Brisbane as foundry proprietor, Harvey Sergeant, registered this design there in 1886, and although there was much pirating of designs, only few examples of this pattern exist elsewhere.
The house assumed its present exterior colour scheme of green and white in the early 1960s. Prior to that it had a variety of polychromatic colour schemes. The original scheme had cream walls and deep red window frames with details picked out in blue and grey. This style of painting lasted well into the twentieth century, when most people would have considered it highly unfashionable.
Painting and redecorating was more frequent in the first than the last fifty years. The exterior has been repainted only twice since the 1950s and in between times, as a cost-saving measure, only those areas which had deteriorated were painted. As a result, there are now distinct variations in the colour of the exterior.
Like other old houses, changes have been made to Meroogal to introduce town water, gas and electricity, and to connect to the town sewer. Changes have also been made to suit the needs of the occupants and for decoration and repairs.
Town gas was available in Nowra in 1905 but it was not connected until 1958, after the house passed to the Macgregors.
Town water was available in 1912, and prior to that, the family relied upon roof water, drained into an underground well. In 1928, electricity was introduced but rather than buy ready-made shades, the Thorburn sisters made their own to suit the character of the rooms.
After the Macgregors inherited Meroogal they made a number of changes, including rewiring the house, replacing some of the linoleums, and painting the interior. They made further changes to accommodate tenants. Although none were major changes, together they shifted the character of Meroogal's interior further away from its nineteenth-century beginnings.
On careful inspection the repair techniques of the family can be seen around the house, including patching of timber lining boards - using a mixture of sawdust and putty, devised by Elgin Macgregor - and the concrete drain alongside the kitchen, also made by Elgin. Elgin's love of green paint is also a feature of the buildings.
Meroogal today looks much as it did in 1960. Small changes have been made for repairs, and in 1983 Mrs Wallace reluctantly replaced the wallpapers which had survived in the drawing room and sitting room since early this century. At the same time the picket fence was renewed and extended the full length of the Worrigee Street frontage and moved ten feet further north, to place it for the first time, on the property boundary.
Neither the Thorburns nor the Macgregors felt they had to "keep up with the Jones" but they did feel they had to "keep up appearances" by maintaining a standard in the care and comfort of the house. Their requirements were both practical and modest. Like many other old people, through sentiment or lack of funds, they kept the outmoded and obsolete features of their house that younger people would change. Similarly, they kept the objects for which they no longer had a use. This is why the wood stove in the kitchen and numerous other items at Meroogal came to be kept, rather than modernised.
In the context of Nowra, Meroogal is one of approximately a dozen houses, built before World War II, which are notable for their larger-than-average-size, their architectural character, and their contribution to the townscape. Most of these are within a few blocks of Meroogal.
Compared with today's standards, Meroogal is a small house for a family of six people, plus servants. It is neither grand nor lavish but it was large in the context of Nowra. It had all the requirements for a well-to-do family in a country town and was stylish, comfortable, and distinctive. Meroogal was a house to be proud of!
The contents of Meroogal are remarkable, not so much for their individual merits, but for their intactness as a collection. While it is common for houses to survive one hundred years, it is unusual for them to retain their furniture and contents, particularly the wealth of domestic ephemera of the type still at Meroogal.
Meroogal contains furniture and items associated with all the people who have lived there, and some of their relatives. There are things that belonged to each of Jessie Catherine Thorburn's children and also items belonging to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, particularly the Macgregors. Some of the possessions brought from the house at Barr Hill are also there, together with furniture and memorabilia from Jessie Catherine's parents, the McKenzies, her sister Georgina Matthews, and her brother Kenneth McKenzie.
The Thorburns left all of their belongings to the Macgregors, so combined with the contents of Kintore, the Macgregors had more furniture than they needed. Some of the pieces from Kintore were kept, such as the dining room table, while some of the Meroogal furniture, including its dining table, two sofas, a bookcase and some chairs were sold to a member of the family. The contents of Meroogal are therefore an amalgam of two household collections, with the majority from the Thorburns. Belongings inherited from other family members are included.
Although the contents of Meroogal may be called a collection, the family themselves were not collectors, but they did not part with things easily. Apart from the scrapbooks kept by the Thorburn sisters, both they and the Macgregors collected books (most of which have been given away). Many photographs, mostly accumulated from family and friends, have survived. Although furniture was sold or given away over the years, and as things wore out a few were discarded, the Thorburn family belongings remained more or less intact because they had valued and cared for their possessions. The Macgregors also kept things - Helen and Margaret both being hoarders.
The dining room, kitchen and pantry contain the family silver and china, and many everyday household objects; tools for repairs, cooking utensils, cleaning equipment, lamps, candlesticks, and shopping baskets. Many have not been used for decades while others are recent acquisitions.
The hall chest contains a wealth of family memorabilia, including miniature books with tartan covers - a favourite with the Thorburns - miniature playing cards, a tartan sash worn by Mrs Thorburn (which originally belonged to her mother, Mary McKenzie), fans, seals, letters and documents, and some of the Thorburns' dresses.
Upstairs, there are more clothes, a collection of fabric remnants and other sewing paraphernalia, and a large amount of household linen; pillow shams, doylies, runners, tablecloths and bed linen.
As a whole, the collection is not of great decorative or fine arts value, but it is of enormous value for what it shows about the character of a family, and their lifestyle.
In the big balcony bedroom, the bedroom suite (now without its original bed), shows the consistency of room furniture that was popular in the nineteenth century. The bentwood furniture is also typical of the period, and was bought when Meroogal was first occupied.
All of the family liked things made of wood, no doubt influenced by Kenneth McKenzie whose hobby was collecting local native timber and making small pieces of furniture such as tables and work boxes, which he gave to his nieces and great-nieces. Some of Kenneth McKenzie's work at Meroogal demonstrates the nineteenth-century interest in wood samples and are also fine pieces of handicraft.
The living rooms hold an interesting collection of paintings, mostly of the Shoathaven district, by visiting or local artists. Many of these were bought in the early years of the house and include two paintings by Louis Frank who worked in the area. There are two paintings of Meroogal itself, one of which is by the artist Samuel Elyard whose family were pioneers in the district and who lived nearby in Shoalhaven Street. The other is by a family friend, John Browning. In contrast to many families, neither the Thorburns nor the Macgregors had portraits of themselves on the walls, and the photographs are of family and friends. These include photographs of Dr Grant, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Nowra and a major figure in the district; Thomas Thorburn and his friends from St Andrew's College, and; Maggie Stafford (nee Thorburn) and Minnie Macgregor who both died at an early age.
The Thorburns had no copies of well-known masters, and no family portraits - a very common feature in nineteenth-century houses. Indeed the furnishing was restrained, even sparse, by the standards of the late-nineteenth century. Theirs is a parochial collection, mostly of the local environment: places that they had come to love since coming to Australia. There are also several prints of Scotland, and a portrait of Queen Victoria by Kenneth McKenzie hung in the dining room for many years. A print of Lord Kitchener (a soldier-hero of British involvement in Africa and Egypt), moved around the kitchen and the dining room for many years.
With few exceptions, neither the furniture nor the pictures have been static. From time to time, things were changed to suit the seasons or individual preferences. Helen Macgregor, for instance, was particularly fond of paintings of flowers in the dining room.
The furniture and the paintings were not the only items that were rearranged. Floor coverings and other furnishings were also changed from time to time, more because of wear, than fashion or impulse. The carpet in the sitting room is an early one, the original being underneath it, but all the other carpets and linoleums are the second or third generation. Parts of the original drawing and dining room carpets have been found on the floor in the back wing.
In the early decades the Thorburns redecorated the house and some changes may have been made to the floor coverings. With the exception of the drawing room, sitting room and the big balcony bedroom, all the floors were covered with linoleum and this has been replaced several times. Apart from some remnants of an early dining room linoleum, most of those visible are post-Second World War. They are a special feature of Meroogal, both for their variety and because they are now unfashionable and becoming rare in old buildings. Technically, some of them are 'congolcum', a cheaper form of floor covering without the hessian base and a fore-runner in manufacture and appearance of vinyl, which overtook the linoleum market in the 1960s. In the kitchen is a typical inlaid linoleum, popular in the 1930s-1950s. It is made up with pre-cut pieces of marbled linoleum welded together in a pattern.
The carpets and rugs are mostly nineteenth century, some of them came from Kintore and others were purchased in recent years. On the staircase are several layers of carpet, the uppermost one having been moved and turned in order to lengthen its life. It, and many of the other floor coverings are extremely fragile and cannot be replaced. Special care is therefore needed to avoid further wear as indeed the former inhabitants would have wished.
When June Wallace inherited Meroogal, she regarded the house, the contents, and the grounds as a collection. She continued caring for the things which her mother and her aunts had kept; a few items broken or worn were thrown away or replaced with similar things. When the Historic Houses Trust negotiated to buy Meroogal, Mrs Wallace, in order to keep the collection intact, allowed the family possessions which she had planned to remove, to remain at Meroogal.
A Guide to the House
DownstairsEach of the three living rooms on the ground floor reflect different aspects of life at Meroogal and demonstrate changes that have occurred. In the drawing and sitting rooms, these changes have not made a substantial impact: they were, and still are, the most complete rooms in the house and retain much of their nineteenth-century character and furnishings. In contrast, the dining-room is the most altered room in the house.
The character and status of the kitchen, the pantry, and the bathroom are in marked contrast to the living rooms and have altered significantly with the introduction of new furniture and fittings.
The downstairs bedroom, now an office, was used by various members of the family and guests, and for a short time by tenants.
The side verandah approach to the house was the one most commonly used by the family up until the arrival of tenants. After that, the side entrance was used by tenants and the family used the front entrance. Sitting on the side verandah, with its northerly aspect and its fine view of the Cambewarra range, was a favourite pastime of both the Thorburns and the Macgregors.
HallThe hall has changed very little since the house was first built, except in its decoration. The joinery has been painted a number of times but has generally been in shades of grey, as at present. However, for much of its life the walls were papered, most notably with a grey marbled paper (such a pattern being common in nineteenth-century halls).
The hall has all the appurtenances commonly found; a hall stand for hats and clothesbrush, umbrella stand, a hall table holding a silver tray for visiting cards, clock, and a painting of the house.
The clock was brought from Scotland with Thomas McKenzie in 1839 and was later swept away in the flood at Terara. Its face and chain were found and a new case was locally made.
The camphorwood chest and stair closet hold a wealth of family memorabilia and the small cupboard has always been used for storing sheet music.
Drawing RoomThe Thorburns used the drawing room for formal and special occasions tea parties, musical evenings, family christenings and the regular monthly 'At Home' which continued into the 1920s. By the latter part of the Macgregor period the room was used as a bedroom with the introduction of a small divan, and later a chrome bed and a large wardrobe. This happened because of the presence of the tenants upstairs, combined with ill health and changes in the social life of the owners.
The room's unusual octagonal shape is one of the features that suggest that the design of the house may have been taken from an American pattern book, such a shape being popular in America in the late-nineteenth century. The early decoration of the room consisted of the pink painted scheme still visible, a cream and gold wallpaper and a floral pink bordered carpet. Pieces of both the wallpaper and the carpet were found in the house. The existing wallpaper was put up in 1981 and was chosen to closely resemble both the scale and colour of the original. Similarly the existing net curtains were made in a similar design to the earlier lace curtains.
Unlike most Victorian drawing rooms, the furniture has always been arranged around the walls and like most of the furniture in Meroogal it has moved to different rooms from time to time.
The pictures are arranged in typical Victorian fashion and include a number of members of the family - but only those who had never lived at Meroogal. The paintings by Louis Frank, above the piano and fireplace, reflect the Thorburns attachment and loyalties to the Shoalhaven.
Sitting RoomThe sitting room was used during the day in much the same way as a modern family room. Friends were entertained here and the daily papers and current magazines and books were kept on the centre table. The room was warm and light with its large northern facing window which made it ideal for reading, sewing and embroidery. The telephone was connected early this century and fixed to the wall above the corner desk. Here letters and accounts were kept and attended to.
The existing wallpaper dates from 1982 and replaced a rich pink and purple floral paper dating from early this century. This explains the depth of colour in the ceiling and joinery, a paint scheme designed to complement the earlier wallpaper.
Many of the more personal belongings were kept in the cedar bookcase; diaries and journals, newspapers clippings, wills and other legal documents, favourite books, ornaments, and shells. The scatter of pictures of members of the family on the octagonal table also reflects the family use of the room.
Dining RoomThis is the most altered room in the house, having been doubled in size to take in the earlier kitchen when the existing kitchen was built to the side of the house in c. 1890. The two different floor levels of the room date from this time and have been a source of irritation ever since. The dining room has always been the principal living room. The larger fireplace made this room the focus for the house on winter days and evenings and the dining table was the centre of many activities. The western end of the room has always been used as an adjunct to the kitchen. The table at that end was used for breakfast and ironing and when the first refrigerator arrived it had to be placed in the dining room because of limited space in the kitchen. Previously an ice chest had also sat in the dining room.
The present light colours of the room are only recent. The ceiling and joinery have been painted in four earlier polychromatic schemes including pink/red brown, yellow/green and orange brown/red brown. In the early 1920s, the Thorburns put up a brown marbled wallpaper to avoid smoke stains which had affected the previous wallpaper and the resulting darkness of the room is prominent in the memories of many people who knew Meroogal up to the 1960s. The floor still has several layers of linoleum laid one over the other.
The china pantry has not been in active use since the 1940s and retains many items of silver and glassware. The original paint scheme for the dining room can be found on the inside of its door. Being one of the coolest places in the house the pantry was used to store bottled fruit and jams. Eggs were kept fresh in isinglass placed in large earthenware jars.
Kitchen and PantryThe kitchen was added to the house in c.1890 when the original kitchen was taken into an enlarged dining room. Over the years it has been adapted many times to accommodate changing technology. For instance, water was originally pumped from the well in the backyard and heated on the fuel stove. Later a tank to collect roof water was built enabling water to be piped to the kitchen. At the same time the stove was modified to accommodate a basic hot water unit. A sink was installed when the sewer was connected in 1938. The fuel stove became obsolete when a gas stove was purchased in the 1950s and this was replaced with an electric and then by the current gas stove in the 1970s. An ice chest and later a refrigerator were always problems because of lack of space in the kitchen and they were, rather uncomfortably, put in the dining room.
The adjoining pantry originally housed large bins for flour and sugar but since 1936 it has served the dual purpose of laundry and pantry. The copper was added in 1958.
The back door conveniently opened on to a covered way connecting the back wing. It was to this door that the butcher, baker, milkman and tradesmen called.
These simple utilitarian spaces retain much of their original character. The curtains and shelf papers have been changed periodically with the present day vinyl curtains and contact being installed in the 1970s.
Backroom and Back Verandah
In the late-nineteenth century, it was becoming standard practice in larger houses for bathrooms to be a separate room. Even in large houses they were often little more than a partitioned off portion of the verandah. This bathroom, is therefore superior to many of its contemporaries.
The present cast iron bath replaced an earlier tin one in the mid 1920s and when the sewer was connected in 1938 the lavatory and basin were added. In 1965, during the time when the family shared the bathroom with the tenants a coin-operated electric hot water service was installed replacing an earlier chip heater. The two fruit boxes, with padded lids, on the back verandah still contain kindling and newspapers collected for this.
UpstairsThe cedar staircase, with its many layers of carpet runners rises to a hall and four bedrooms. These semi-attic spaces reveal the architectural skill of the house's designer. The rooms are neatly tucked into the roof space and with their low walls, raked celings, balconies, dormer windows, horizontal boarding and pastel colours, have an intimacy and character peculiar to themselves. Much of the charm of these rooms comes from the contrast between the simplicity of the finishes and decorative character of the furniture, some of which was bought new for the house when it was first occupied in 1886.
In the first decades of the house the upstairs rooms were in constant use by the family and by visitors, but as the Thorburn sisters became older they found climbing the stairs difficult and two of them slept in the back wing rather than upstairs.
By the 1950s, the back bedroom and little bedroom were let as a flatette, the former being converted to a kitchen/sitting room. The simple makeshift kitchen, with its fabric screen converted from an unwanted clothes horse, remains unchanged.
The rooms were originally painted in buff and beige hues but there have been many subsequent schemes, mostly in pastel hues of pink, cream, blue and green. The present colour schemes are mostly post-1950.
Several of the rooms retain earlier linoleums under the present ones. The blinds have all been replaced. The introduction of flyscreens in the 1950s allowed the removal of mosquito nets from the beds, except in the big balcony bedroom where full length shutters prevented the fitting of flyscreen doors.
As with the remainder of the house some or the furniture has been moved or modified and some has been sold. The beds have changed considerably: in the 1920s they were black iron with kapok and feather mattresses. The beds were covered with white marcella quilts and decorative Mountmellick embroidered pillows.
Back Wing and Stables
The back wing was originally known as the servants' quarters and was probably occupied by the housekeeper and George, the Chinese groom-come-gardener. Its initial use did not last long but it continued to be used as accommodation for the family and later for tenants.
It is likely that this wing was originally divided into three small rooms, possibly two bedrooms and a kitchen. By the 1920s one internal wall had been removed to form a large room at the western end to provide steeping quarters for the aging Thorburn sisters who had difficulty climbing the stairs to the bedrooms in the house.
The smaller room at the eastern end, nearest the house, was used for many years as a sewing room. Victorian dresses and other items of clothing made by the Thorburns can still be found at Meroogal.
After World War II, building materials were scarce and there was a severe housing shortage in Sydney and many country towns. The letting of bedrooms with shared use of bathroom, laundry and often the kitchen, was commonplace. In this period tenants occupied rooms upstairs in the house but by the early 1950s, Tot Thorburn (although not living at Meroogal), had let the large room in the back wing.
The back wing was occupied by a succession of tenants for 20 years from the early 1950s. This area is now used to display pictorial material relating to Meroogal and also a changing exhibition of small objects from the collection. The tenants' kitchen has been retained as a reminder of its former use.
The lumber room was added to the back wing c.1890, effectively connecting it to the stables, and thus creating a pleasant semi-enclosed feeling to the backyard. It is thought the room originally had no floor and was used to house Robert Taylor Thorburn's drag. Certainly the floor was introduced very early in the life of the room and in living memory it has always been used for storage. The door at the side of the room gave ready access to the chicken run and clothes lines, making the lumber room an ideal place for large bins containing chicken feed. A large mangle also resided here and the slightly damp sheets were taken straight from the lines and stretched and folded before being passed through the mangle. The Thorburn sisters also used the room for making soap.
Over the years, the lumber room became a clearing house for furniture and objects given to the family by relatives and, in turn, pieces were given away or sold. The room is presented as it was found when the building was acquired.
The stables were built at the same time as the house and had access from the adjoining paddock and also from the backyard. They consisted of a loose box, carriage house, food store and a loft above. The building was later modified when the family acquired a car and the loose box was converted to a garage.
Due to a misunderstanding over a later subdivision the stable building straddled the adjoining block and despite the family's endeavours to retain it, it was demolished in 1980. Many of the objects stored in the loft were removed to the lumber room and other rooms in the back wing.
The high timber fence around the modern toilet building indicates the position and height (less the gables) of the stable building.
GardenWhen it was built, Meroogal was situated on the north-east corner of an allotment of just over one hectare, an area almost ten times its present size. In addition to the existing flower garden and backyard, there was a horse paddock, orchard, vegetable garden, chicken run, drying area and later a tennis court. With the exception of the flower garden and backyard, the other parts were gradually subdivided between 1914 and 1959.
At the time of its purchase by the Historic Houses Trust, the surviving garden was overgrown, most of its decorative edging tiles had been removed, the picket fence had been built on a new alignment and the paling fences had gone. It was decided to restore the garden to its appearance in the late 1920s which was largely unchanged from its original form. The fences and flower beds have been reconstructed and a host of perennials and annuals reintroduced into the garden.
Of the larger plants in the garden, the jacaranda trees with their electric blue flowers in November and December have been a notable feature for many years, as has the portwine magnolias at the side gate, and the numerous roses.
The orchard, which was situated to the south of the house, and enclosed by a fence, provided all the fruit required for the family. The backyard also had several fruit trees including a mulberry (recently replanted), Californian crown apple (miraculously still bearing fruit despite its trunk being almost entirely hollow) and a William pear. This area was used as a service entry - the butcher, baker and tradesmen calling at the kitchen door, rather than entering through the main garden. The pump, adjacent to the back verandah, drew water from the well which was, in turn, filled by roof water.
The areas furthest from the house retained their indigenous trees and each year one was felled to provide firewood for the house.