In 1874 the grand estate of Rupertswood was commenced in that the building of the primary mansion was started and completed between 1874 until 1876. It was built for Sir William Clarke in the borough of Sunbury. When the foundation stone was laid on the 29th of August 1874 over a thousand people were in attendance. Built to the design of Architect George Brown, its construction was completed by George Sumner and Company. Interior decorations were to the specifications of Shemmel and Shilton. The substantial entrance featuring a superb gatehouse and massive gates were also constructed at the time to the specifications of George Brown.
It was designed as a two storey mansion featuring a 100ft high tower, mansard roof and ‘widow walk’. Surrounded by extensive gardens and parklands with a large artificial lake, the property was serviced by a huge central water tank of brick and cement holding over 9000 gallons of water. The leading landscape architect of the time William Sangster was engaged to complete these works and provide a unique and delightful vista for the Clarke family and their many guests.
Rupertswood was one of the Victorian Colony’s largest houses and it was built and supported on the considerable affluence of the Clarke dynasty. Sir William Clarke was described as a landowner, stud breeder and a philanthropist.
His wealth was founded on family inheritance. He was essentially a grazier, but through careful stewardship he became a banker, a member of the Legislative Council and even maintained a Light Horse Battalion and Artillery Battery on his property for the fledgeling Colony. He was an active Freemason and in 1889 became the first Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of Victoria. He personally largely funded the building of the first Freemasons hall in Collins Street, Melbourne.
Financially he survived the crash of the 1890s but it is believed the strain of the overall financial crisis on his many holdings contributed to his death in 1897 from a heart attack. Rupert, one of the couple’s ten children inherited Rupertswood (rather fitting!) and Sir William’s wife and all their siblings were generously cared for in his will where over 1,000,000 pounds was distributed. The family holdings extended to Tasmania, South Australia and New Zealand and included a substantial shareholding in the Mt Lyell Copper Mine on the West coast of Tasmania. The shares were jointly owned with Sir William’s brother Joseph Clarke who built a substantial home in Toorak known as Mandeville Hall – a story for another day.
Rupertswood is of historical significance as it is the birthplace of the Ashes Cricket Series, being the place where Lady Clarke presented the Captain of the visiting English XI an urn; containing the burnt bails from the historic match played at Rupertswood during the tour of 1882; to the victorious Captain of the touring English side – Ivo Bligh.
The Clarke family held many events – hunts, balls and house parties with the many guests arriving by Train at the Estate’s own private Railway Station. The station remained in use (for students of the Salesian College now located there) until December 2004.
The property was purchased from Rupert Clarke in 1922 by H V McKay, the famous industrialist (and inventor of the H V McKay Sunshine Harvester). McKay had long coveted the property but managed to only live there for four years before dying in 1926.
Pastoralist William Naughton purchased the property in 1926 and largely subdivided its holdings. In 1927 the remaining property and mansion were purchased by Archbishop Daniel Mannix’s proxy for the Salesian order who have held ownership ever since. Major ‘Eucharistic’ Festivals were held there every year from 1931 until 1981, with thousands travelling by train to the event every year. A proxy was required as the Freemasonry connection still held and both they and the Catholics detested each other at the time.
The original mansion was completely restored with the help of Interior Designer and Victorian Architecture specialist Jacqui Robertson, then converted into a hotel and used for formal events, weddings and receptions until 2014. The full contents of the mansion were auctioned off in 2014 (including many original fittings and furnitures) and the building is now used as an administration office for the Salesian College. In closing the Salesian College occupancy has not been without serious controversy with the school and its clergy featuring rather too prominently in the recent Sexual Abuse Royal Commission just completed.
Far better to remember the halcyon days and perhaps picture a grand picnic adjacent to the beautiful ornamental lake, attended by Victoria folk in all their finery enjoying high tea. Then travelling home in the comfort of their own First Class coach drawn by steam locomotives to Spencer Street Station.
Sometimes it’s the buildings that hold our attention and sometimes it’s the people who created these beautiful places. In this instance Sir William Clarke was a visionary and larger that life.
Til next week – adieu.