Saturday, 2 August 2014

Woolmers Estate

The penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land was established in 1803 with a small population of convicts, soldiers and some free settlers.  From 1788-1830s free grants of land were distributed to settlers in the colony.  A small but wealthy farming and trading community emerged. However, very few ex-convicts, known as emancipists, prospered and became prominent in public life. Through grants and purchases of land, free settlers in Tasmania owned a very large proportion of all the property and became very influential.  The wealthier settlers could build pastoral empires at the expense of their struggling neighbors.

Woolmers Estate is located in the Norfolk Plains, a district that is well watered by the Macquarie and South Esk rivers.  The agricultural and pastoral potential of the area meant that it was quickly exploited. Many early land grants were made in the area, the most significant being that awarded to Thomas Archer. Having arrived in Australia in 1811 aged 21 to take up a posting with Commissariat Department in Sydney, Thomas Archer was later transferred to Port Dalrymple in northern Tasmania where he was granted Woolmers in 1817.

When Thomas Archer received his land grant, he selected the site for a number of good reasons. There was good water available from the nearby Macquarie River and the land was lightly timbered and ideal for grazing sheep and cattle. It was set on a ridge for good sight of the surrounding countryside in case of Aborigines or bushrangers. Plus he liked the “View”. By 1817 there were more sheep in Tasmania than NSW, and from the 1820s the Tasmanian Midlands became a major merino breeding centre.

Having arrived at an early date in 1817, Thomas Archer was able to quickly establish himself as the most significant settler in the district.  By 1825 he had been granted a total of 5,545 acres and had purchased a further 2,142.  In later years he acquired substantial other landholdings, notably the neighboring properties of Fairfield and Cheshunt.  He also extended the area covered by Woolmers estate which in 1855 consisted of a total of 12,271 acres.  The estate remained one of the largest privately owned properties in the colony.

The construction of Woolmers House commenced in 1819.  It appears to have been largely complete by the time Governor Macquarie stayed there in 1821 and is still largely complete. The house was significantly extended in 1845 with the addition of a new Italianate wing transforming the building into one of the finest, colonial estate houses in Tasmania. The 1840s modifications were designed by William Archer, the third son of Thomas Archer and the first architect born in Tasmania.  Significantly, much of the earlier house was incorporated into the extended building rather than being destroyed. The house is unusual in that it provides outstanding evidence of the architectural evolution of a gentleman’s rural residence over time.  The redevelopment of the property in the mid-1840s placed Woolmers in the first rank of colonial estates.

A key feature of the house is the wonderful walled garden. This circular formal garden was created so that the Archer family could enjoy privacy away from the sights and sounds of the estate’s convict population and other workers. Aside from the desire for privacy & seclusion, the wall also provided protection & shelter from the prevailing wind.

The garden was constructed with pathways arranged in a haphazard fashion around a typical English cottage style garden. There is also a heritage listed Mulberry tree on the main croquet lawn, a quaint little “Smoking House” and one of the few garden walls in Tasmania, if not Australia, to incorporate a twin “Thunder Box” in the actual wall, making it possible to visit the toilet “Two by Two” whilst enjoying the garden area.

Thomas Archer was among the first settlers in Van Diemen’s Land to improve his livestock in order to take advantage of the new opportunities in the fine wool export trade.  Some of the stud merinos he acquired came from John McArthur’s flocks in New South Wales and others were imported from England. The earliest documented woolsheds in Australia are probably those of Woolmers (1820s), Panshanger (1821) and Brickendon (1820s).

The assignment system was set up to provide convict labour to settlers in exchange for food and clothing. The first convicts were assigned as farm servants and for personal service to officer-farmers who had been authorized to receive land grants in 1793. The government saw reformative employment as a cost effective measure to develop colonial infrastructure and assist settlers in establishing rural and commercial enterprises.

Sir George Arthur, the Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land from 1824-1836, developed and administered the assignment system in Tasmania. He recognized that the settler formed a very important cog in a greater machine. Working on a large farming property became the most common assignment for convicts. In Tasmania, an average of 54 percent of male convicts were assigned to settlers during the period 1820 -1835. The need to provide rations and shelter for convicts favored larger enterprises, as small farmers were less able to support convicts on a consistent basis and would return them to the colonial authorities for reassignment.

Large farming enterprises were labour intensive.  Their development was dependent on the availability of cheap labour.  The large country estate quickly became established as the archetypal symbol of the assignment system.  As estates were generally managed along paternalistic lines it was thought that masters could instil convicts with good habits of industry. As one of the larger estates, many convicts worked at Woolmers in the period from the early 1820s to the 1850s.

In practice, the Archer families shared labour between the neighboring properties, Woolmers and Brickendon.  This was especially the case during harvest seasons when assigned servants were rotated between the two properties. With a combined convict population of over 100, Brickendon and Woolmers formed the second largest pool of convict labour in private hands in the colony, after the Van Diemen’s Land Company.  The surviving musters show that between 1830 and 1835 from 41 to 51 male convicts were assigned to Woolmers annually and between 34 to 43 to Brickendon.

The estates were places where a premium was placed on particular skills, especially those possessed by convict mechanics (blacksmiths, carpenters, tanners, bricklayers etc) and skilled agricultural hands (ploughman, shepherds, dairymaids etc), and many of these skills are exemplified in the surviving architecture and layout of the estate.

Estate architecture was regarded as vital in achieving the aims of the assignment system.  Separate quarters for female assigned servants within the house, clearly defined service areas, service staircases, separate quarters for an overseer and detached barrack-like accommodation for male servants were all considered to be features of the well-ordered estate. Skilled workers, such as gardeners, coachmen and artisans were provided with their own cottage style accommodation whereas other agricultural workers were housed separately in simpler quarters.  Ideally the estate complex should also include a chapel where the convict population could be mustered each Sunday.

The farming complexes were also places where male and female convicts worked alongside each other unlike the public sector where, housed in barracks or female factories, they were generally kept apart.  As well as being sites of work, they were also sites of leisure and recreation.  They were places where many sections of colonial society interacted, a process which estate architecture was deliberately designed to control.  Thus, following British practice, the front of the house was the place where the family resided and visitors of status were received, while the back was the area connected with work and service. All of these features are remarkably well preserved at Woolmers.

While the assignment system created opportunities for many convicts to start a new life, opposition to the transportation of convicts grew steadily, culminating in the 1838 Molesworth report.  The assignment system was considered inconsistent, a lottery dependent too often on the character of the masters, rather than the nature of the crimes. It was also criticized for the perceived contradiction at the heart of the system – that assignment to a well disposed master meant that transportation could often be a reward for evil-doing.

Withdrawal of the assignment process commenced in Tasmania in 1839, to be replaced with the probation system which sought to punish systematically.  In 1840 and 1841 there was a labour shortage as no convicts were assigned to private settlers.  Due to the cessation of transportation in NSW the convict numbers increased dramatically from 1841 increasing the convict population by over 40% in four years. The probation system added to the convicts’ misery as the severe depression from 1842 meant that convict pass-holders could not find work.

From the settlers’ perspective the numbers of convicts increased with no off-setting economic contribution, and they deeply resented the additional imposts levied on them to pay for more police and goals which they considered the responsibility of the British government. The failure of the probation system turned the majority of colonists into implacable opponents of transportation itself.  Thomas Archer at Woolmers strongly supported the abolition of transportation. Both Thomas Archer and William Archer of Brickendon with other family members signed a petition, published in 1850, for the immediate abolition of transportation.

Following the death of Thomas Archer in 1850 the trustees decided in 1855 to lease the 11,000 acre property.  However, no lease was eventually entered into and a manager was appointed.  Descendants of the Archer family intermittently lived in the main house at Woolmers and during the second half of the 19th century frequently leased the house and farming estate, often to family or relatives.  The land continued to be leased as sheep runs.  In 1912 a total of 6,147 acres of the Woolmers estate was purchased by the Government for closer settlement.  Most of the remaining area was either leased or turned over to orchards.

Following the end of the Second World War a further 5,856 acres was compulsorily purchased by the Government in 1947 under the Closer Settlement Scheme.  Only the homestead area of 15.63 ha (just over 34 acres) remained in the possession of Thomas Edward Cathcart Archer.  In 1974 the property was inherited by Thomas William Archer who never married and died in 1994. Since then Woolmers Homestead has been owned, maintained and managed by the Woolmers Foundation which operates as a tourism attraction.

The property is an example of an intact convict era estate in Australia and contains some exceptionally early and significant buildings including an early woolshed.  It provides outstanding evidence of the way in which architecture and estate design was used to reinforce class and gender divisions during the convict assignment period.  Until the death of Thomas William Archer in 1994, Woolmers had remained in the hands of one family. As a result it has retained many of its original interior fittings, furniture and other artifacts. Although almost all the agricultural land and pastoral runs associated with the property have been sold, the house and its estate buildings form a cultural landscape which is remarkably intact.

Woolmers house, gardens, villa and associated outbuildings are in remarkably good state of preservation. The integrity of the property is one of its outstanding features. While some structures, notably the chapel, have been converted to other uses, few original architectural features have been lost. Exceptions include the male convict quarters and parts of the original service wing replaced in the l840s. Unlike many other colonial houses, Woolmers also contains a large number of its original fittings, furniture, paintings, dinner services, glassware, cutlery, toys, motor vehicles, farm equipment etc. Considerable archival correspondence relating to the property, the family and estate workers, much of it in the Archives Office of Tasmania, also survives.

The Woolmers Estate, along with the neighboring Brickendon Estate were inscribed onto the Australian National Heritage List in November 2007 as being of outstanding national significance because of their close association with the convict consignment system and in July 2010 included on the World Heritage list as Australian Convict Sites, being among the world's best surviving examples of large-scale convict transportation and colonial expansion of European powers through the presence and labour of convicts.

An absolutely magnificent property to spend the day wandering the grounds, take a guided tour of the main house and walk in the footsteps of both convicts and colonial landowners. Woolmers is also the site of the National Rose Garden.
Highly Recommended!!

Woolmers Estate Website -

Main Information & Internal Photos – 
Australian Heritage Database & Signs around the Woolmers Estate

Australian Dictionary of Biography - Thomas Archer

Thomas Archer Picture -
State Library of Qld Digital Picture Collection - Thomas Archer