To the west of Melbourne provided excellent prospects for grazing and pastoralists in the early days. This week we look at two significant properties, Point Cook Homestead and Stables and Werribee Mansions. Both Point Cook Homestead and Werribee Mansions were built by the Chirnside brothers – Thomas and Andrew – perhaps one of Melbourne’s and Victoria’s most successful families.
Pt Cook Homestead was a single storey Bluestone dwelling built in 1857. Consisting of seven rooms, with an attached servants quarters wing of four rooms, there was also an attached weatherboard wing. The front verandah faces the coast, the homestead being a stones throw from the beach. A further detached building served as ‘meat house’, dairy room and rabbiters hut. This building was the earliest structure on the site and it was believed to have been constructed in 1849.
The Chirnsides were sporting types and imported quality thoroughbred race horses from the very beginning of their enterprise. Horses from their stables here at Point Cook won the 1874 Melbourne Cup (Haricot), the 1880 Caulfield Cup (Tom Kirk) and the 1879 Caulfield Cup (Newmister), the 1878 Geelong Cup (Newmister) and many other feature races.
Water had to be stored, as there were no local creeks or lakes, and the land in summer was hot and arid. Above ground and underground tanks with an extensive storage mechanism provided drinking water for domestic animals and humankind alike.
The Chirnsides built a jetty for wool shipment prior to the construction of the Geelong Railway link being built in 1856. In fact they donated the required land for the Werribee Station, to ensure their requirements were met.
Thomas signed over most of the run to brother Andrew in 1882 retaining only the Homestead and a few feature paddocks. His son George was benefactor on Thomas’s death in 1890. George and Annie Chirnside used the homestead as a winter retreat and hunting lodge preferring to live in the city to rural life. A new timber wing was added to the homestead between 1895 and 1911 to accomodate their guests.
The property was purchased by Sydney Dalrymple in 1920, his major contribution was a new jetty which is still standing.
The Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works purchased the property eventually in 1978 after the property had changed hands several times and fallen into general disrepair.
Conservation and restoration started around this time. The remnants of the old garden were preserved and specimen trees from the nineteenth century protected. The old fig tree (edible) behind the stables is a good example. It is a rare survivor from those times and quite possible is a unique variety no longer grown.
The Point Cook homestead is of historical significance as one of the earliest examples of pastoral activity in Victoria.
And the Chirnsides. When Werribee Park was built Point Cook became a hunting lodge and focal point for all the sporting activities of this very wealthy Pastoral family. With massive land holdings on the Western Plains it was deemed destiny for the family to build its Shangri La – Werribee Park Mansion.
The Chirnsides, touched by brilliant success and terrible tragedy, were very canny Scots.
Through clever business, hard work, imagination and some very fast racehorses, the Chirnsides played the market on commodities – sheep and cattle – by driving large herds and flocks overland to Adelaide and gaining much higher prices per head than would have been possible in Sydney – or Melbourne which was but a fledgling colony in 1839.
At their peak, the Chirnsides holdings were listed at 200,000 hectares, spread across Victoria, NSW and Queensland. The Werribee holding itself was 34,000 hectares with over 63,000 head of sheep spread over property ranging from Laverton to the You Yangs across to the boundary of Port Phillip Bay. The Chirnsides called it ‘the Eden of All the Colonies’ and were devoutly Christian – but didn’t mind a punt or a drink.
Werribee Park Mansion was built between 1874 and 1877 in the Italianate style which echoes 16th century Italian Renaissance Architecture. It was first developed in Britain in 1802 by John Nash and this grand ostentatious style soon made its way to the colonies. It was further developed and popularised by Sir Charles Berry, Architect in the 1830s.
The Mansion with its magnificent, fine interiors still holds some of the original furniture. It is a replication of a grand English country house and many of its associated buildings and features are still standing and remain unchanged. The central building is predominantly bluestone with a sandstone facade on three sides. It is the largest, most intact example of the use of Barabool Hills Sandstone applied to a privately owned building in Victoria. The original 19th century laundry is still totally intact and authentic, and is a rare example of such a facility. The sunken glasshouse and the 17th century style grotto are unique in Victorian Architecture.
The Mansion is a massive 60 rooms consisting of two wings which adjoin at the rear of a central block. The facade of sandstone is simple yet awe inspiring. A stone railed balcony surrounds the central block on three sides and is topped with a central tower that sits high above the second storey. Below an arcade, beautifully panelled and painted, allows soft light through a series of arches to the large windows of the internal structure.
The feature windows were all of stained glass and featured motifs and pastoral scenes from the Mother Land – England. Deer – fauns, stags and does all featured prominently – with 12 smaller windows picturing game that can be hunted in each month of the year.
The interior is beautifully crafted with ornate cornices, display niches and superb wrought iron detailing on the grand staircase. Elaborately decorated arches from the large feature windows, massive fireplaces with delicately carved opulent features, and Corinthian Pilasters or piers featured in the main hall, a massive formal Dining Room and a British style drawing room – all make for an extraordinary treasure of bygone times.
Parterre Gardens (now restored), the original fountain and the large ornamental lake with its unique central grotto add further to the pure joy of this building.
The design of the building was prepared, developed and executed by Architects Colquhoun and Fox.
To describe the 60 odd rooms in the building would be onerous. The best option is to arrange a visit. The mansion is open from 10am to 4pm Weekdays and from 10am to 5pm Weekends and Public Holidays.
The grounds are open from 9am till 5.30pm. Entry to the Werribee Park Gardens and the adjacent Victoria State Rose Garden is free. Admission charges are moderate. Check here: werribeepark.com for details. You can also visit the Point Cook Homestead – details here.
Walk in real history, step back in time. Thomas Chirnside ultimately took his own life – he suffered from deep depression. Andrew died of a heart attack three years later in 1890. Mary his wife died in 1908 when her hair caught fire from a candle.
The Catholic Church purchased the property in 1922 from Andrew’s youngest son George. It became known as the Corpus Christi College, a seminary for priests. The church added two new wings, the first in 1925 and the second in 1937. Some effort was made to blend the new with the old. In 1973, the Church sold the property to the Victorian State Government.
Since then the mansion has been extensively renovated by the State Government to return it to its original splendour. The property is now a museum operated by the National Trust.
So now when you drive through ‘Deer Park’, perhaps glancing East to ‘St Albans’ these names shall no longer be a mystery. You are moving through living history. Embrace it. It is a spectacular past. And a story that should not be forgotten. The Chirnsides – truly pioneers.