Sunday, 4 September 2016

Frescati House

The New Norfolk district was settled by farmers who had been evacuated from Norfolk Island in 1807-08. When Governor Lachlan Macquarie visited the area in 1811, he was disappointed by the lack of progress made by the Norfolk Islanders, but urged them to persevere. He also selected the site for a township that he called Elizabeth Town in honour of his wife. Macquarie had his surveyor draw up a town plan and lay out the streets but until the 1830s there was little to be seen at Elizabeth Town, more popularly known as New Norfolk.

Government Cottage had been built during Colonel Tom Davey’s administration (1813- 17) as a country retreat for the Lieutenant Governor and it was used by subsequent governors until 1848. By 1833 there were about 30 houses and a number of government buildings including the Invalid Hospital and Insane Asylum, now part of Willow Court.

The chief administrator of the island, Colonial Secretary John Burnett, decided that he too would have a country home at New Norfolk. Burnett had arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in November 1826 to take up the newly created position of Colonial Secretary. He has since been described as being unsuited to what was the most prestigious and influential office in the colony after that of the Lieutenant Governor. By 1834 the hospital barracks, (still standing), had been operating for three years - an earlier timber building dated to 1827 - and the adjoining asylum for just a year.

Burnett’s land was opposite the hospital and crossed by an “Irrigating Cut” which watered land cultivated by the hospital and supplied water to some local residents as well as serving his own allotment. In a January 1834 memo, Burnett wrote that he was “at present building” on his allotment. Burnett’s permanent residence was in Macquarie Street in Hobart and it is possible that Frescati was built as a country retreat and a convenient place to stay when the Lieutenant-Governor was in residence at Government Cottage.

The scale of the house that Burnett was building in 1834 is not known but seems to have been completed in several stages. It’s possible there was already a building on the property and that Burnett was merely extending it in 1834 but there appears to be no documentary evidence of this. The series of extensions may have been added in a relatively short period of time to provide accommodation for Burnett’s large family. He had been accompanied to the colony by his wife and nine children, some of whom were still living in the family home in 1834. Newspapers of the time refer to Burnett being assigned convict workers as late as 1837 and as early as 1834 when he was loaned two carpenters who appear to have been on site from 1833, as well as a bricklayer and a plasterer, and in October 1834, a shingler for a week and a painter for a month.

The year 1834 was not a happy one for Burnett. He was suspended in August for breaching the land regulations in the north of the colony. The case dragged for several years and although he was exonerated in 1838 Burnett did not return to his former position. He was made a Deputy Clerk of the Peace at New Norfolk in 1839 and in 1842 he was appointed Sheriff of Van Diemen’s Land, a position he held until his retirement in 1855. He died at his house in Macquarie St Hobart in 1860, aged 80.

The extent of Burnett’s occupation of Frescati is not known but in 1843 he offered the house for lease. This is the first recorded evidence of the name of the house. The spelling has since varied, from Frescati to Frescatti and Frascati – the latter after its presumed namesake in Italy. Further advertisements offering the house for lease appeared in 1845. By 1853 Frescati was let to Dr John Meyer, Medical Superintendent of the Insane Asylum and in July of that year Burnett offered it for sale. By this time the house appears to have reached its maximum size.

Described in sale notices variously as a “villa residence” and a “cottage”, the accommodation then comprised a dining room and drawing room, seven bedrooms pantry, kitchen and scullery, and a larder and dairy besides various outbuildings and a stable with a hay-loft over. “That well-known and much admired villa residence with between three and four acres of ground in the township of new Norfolk, known as ‘Frescati’. This elegant cottage has been built, and the pleasure gardens and garden laid out, without any regard to expense and combines all the convenience of a town with perfect retirement of the country, and with the most beautiful scenery.”

Dr Meyer purchased the house but only six months later Frescati was again on the market, Meyer having resigned with the intention of returning to England. An auction of the household furniture and effects was held that December. Archdeacon R. R. Davies bought the house but may not have lived in it. The house was occupied by the hospital’s new Medical Superintendent, Dr George Francis Huston by 1859 when the Board of Commissioners was informed that the house would shortly be put on the market. The question of accommodation for the Medical Superintendent arose: should the house be purchased by the Commissioners for his use or should entirely new quarters be built?

The cost of the purchase of Frescati, together with the cost of repairs “absolutely required”, was estimated at £1300 (about $200,000). Following an indication from Davies’ Trustees that they would accept £1060 for the house, the Director of Public Works was asked to inspect the building and report on its condition. He wrote: “I do not consider £1000 too much to pay for the premises which though of wood are in a fair state of preservation and has attached to them a fine block of land containing three acres or thereabouts and more particularly as a new residence could not be provided without the land for less than £1400 or £1500.” He suggested a sum of £150 would cover the necessary repairs and alterations and a further £180 for proposed additions.

The house was duly purchased and plans were drawn up, none of which appear to have survived. Parliament voted £300 for repairs and additions but, as this was less than the original proposal, some economies had to be practised. There are few records relating to repairs and alterations carried out at Frescati. Later references by Dr William Macfarlane, Medical Superintendent between 1880 and 1915, suggest that there were some repairs in 1891 but the details have been lost. In February 1908, Dr Macfarlane informed the Chairman of the Official Visitors that his quarters required to be papered, painted and generally repaired throughout and “a new floor is necessary in the Drawing-room as, I am informed, the joists are in an advanced state of decay.”

In 1952 there was a proposal to convert the house into two three-bedroom flats. This came to nothing but the plans, drawn up by the Chief Architect of the Public Works Department, may be the earliest surviving plans of the building. The house probably retained what was basically the 1853 configuration until 1961, with two wings partially enclosing a flagged courtyard at the rear of the house. Dr Anderson and his family were the last permanent residents of Frescati. Dr Anderson was recruited from England and photographs of the house were sent to him prior to his departure.

When the Anderson family moved into the house in 1952 the wings at the rear were in poor condition. A room was used by the New Norfolk Players to store costumes. Another room was known as the workshop. The two wings were demolished in 1961 and partially rebuilt. A new study/bedroom, water closet and bathroom were constructed on part of the site of the old bedroom wing. The old kitchen wing was also taken down and a new kitchen and laundry were built. It seems that an effort was made to duplicate the profile of the old weatherboards. The weatherboards on the old part of the house are hardwood but those on the new section are pine. Many of the outbuildings seem to have survived into the 1960s but the stables were removed during Dr Anderson’s period (1952-66). A garage was built during this period. One of the sheds contained two stalls and obviously had been used for horses at some stage. Other outbuildings included a chicken shed. A range of sheds at the back of the house were covered by a grape vine.

Following the Anderson’s departure, apart from a brief period when Dr Burgess-Watson occupied the house, Frescati was no longer used as a permanent residence. For a short time it was used by Miss Muriel Knight for her speech therapy classes with the children from the hospital. It was also used for art and craft sessions by patients from the neighbouring wards adjoining the hospital recreation ground. By 1981 when R. W. Gowlland wrote Troubled Asylum, the house was deserted and already showing the ravages of time.

The importance of the house was beyond doubt, and the hospital at one point fenced Frescati and installed infrared security within the yard. This security system fell into disuse following the sale of the hospital site after the closure of the Royal Derwent Hospital/Willow Court complex in the summer of 2000-2001. The last remaining outbuilding was destroyed by fire in 2010. The same fire almost killed the grapevine which has since been nursed to health by the Friends of Frescati.

In December 2010 the Friends of Frescati was formally established by the Derwent Valley Council as a Special Committee under the Local Government Act. While formed with a specific focus on the gardens around Frescati, the Friends have lobbied all levels of government and submitted multiple grant applications in partnership with the Derwent Valley Council as owner of the site.

In 2015, the Derwent Valley Council welcomed the announcement that the Willow Court Barracks Precinct and Frescati House were to be assessed by the Australian Heritage Council for possible inclusion in the National Heritage List. The two buildings in the precinct are older than those at Port Arthur and are deserving of national recognition.

Main Text & Information Sources
Very special thanks to Councilor Damian Bester of Derwent Valley Council for sending me the proofs of historical information signs he has designed for erection around the various buildings at Willow Court and for allowing me to use this wonderful information to tell the story of Frescati House on the blog.

Willow Court History Group Press Release -10/6/2015 

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