A good news story about Australia’s past

Regular readers will have noticed that the website was down for a few days. My lovely website host says that I shouldn’t take it personally. It wasn’t the Russians: … hackers just send out web crawlers to attempt to hack into any site they can — they run scripts over and over to find any kind of vulnerability and it is all automated. This is the second time it has happened, and it is a total bore to everyone, especially my website host, who has to fix it up.

So much of our media news is dire that I thought it would be good to start the year with a story of virtue and prosperity. I grew up in the northern NSW city of Armidale, and went to the local university, UNE. Its central building was a magnificent country house, ‘Booloominbah’, designed by Horbury Hunt and owned by a branch of the pastoral White family (Patrick White was a scion of another branch). The scale and grandeur of the multi-storied house still impresses me, though it is fair to say that we the students saw it then just as the home of Admin, of one of the dining rooms, of the common room, and a warm environment at night in which to canoodle, always keeping a sharp ear out for the night watchman. Here is a shot of about half of it, in winter. Yes, snow does fall there, often.

Houses of this type are common in New South Wales and Victoria, especially in the tablelands where most of the good wool came from. ‘Bool’ was built in 1888 at the end of the great boom. A few miles away was ‘Saumarez’, owned by a relative.

The UNE Vice-Chancellor’s house, ‘Trevenna’, was built for the owner’s mother at the same time, a few hundred yards from Booloominbah . There was a lot of money about at that time. The money came from the great wool boom of the 19th century, stimulated first by the expansion of population after the gold rushes of the 1850s, then by the American Civil War, which caused a reduction of cotton exports to Europe, and then by the growing prosperity of the Western world, during which cotton clothing for the working class gave way to wool. In per capita terms in the late 1880s the Australian colonies were the wealthiest societies in the world, but strikes and a depression ended all that, which is another story.

I have kept an interest in ‘historic houses’, and like to stay in them on road trips. More and more old houses are being renovated, some for occupation, some for the B&B trade. Occasionally you will see one on a back road, and wonder about its history. They all have histories. Most had only a brief hey-day as grand residences, as they relied on platoons of servants. Few owners could afford to run them once the depression of the 1890s gathered strength. The first world war saw many turned into convalescent homes for officers, or orphanages, or even guesthouses. The family connections have in nearly all cases long gone.

I saw just such a country house a long time ago on a drive from Grenfell to Canberra, and its size and aspect were visible miles away. I learned it was called ‘Iandra Castle’, and tried unsuccessfully to visit it. But recently I joined a National Trust tour of the place, marvelled at what had been done there, and learned its history. The history is even more interesting than the house. From the first floor you can see to the Weddin range, twenty or so kilometres away. All you can see was part of the original property.

Big houses imply lots of money. In the case of Iandra, where did it come from? Originally from Ireland, and brought to Australia by William Greene, an officer of the Royal Navy who had been part of the guard for Napoleon on St Helena. He had enough money to bring out not just his whole family, but all his domestic staff, two racehorses, two bulls, a cow and his library. Oh, and a prefabricated house prepared in London. Of course, he needed a ship to bring it all, so he chartered one for the purpose. Greene died in Melbourne, in the house he brought with him. You can visit the historic property today. His son, George Henry, was one of the first five graduates of the brand-new Melbourne University. He seems to have been both restless and innovative. He took up some land in Victoria and then in NSW, married, sold his land and toured overseas for a few years. In 1878 he returned to New South Wales, and purchased 32,000 acres of land between Young and Grenfell, at 6/6d an acre.

George Henry planned on a big scale. The property was too big for him to run  — it was a holding of 80 square kilometres. He started with sheep, but saw the potential for wheat in the good soil and usually regular rainfall. He either invented share-farming (there are other candidates for this honour) or he adapted it to his purposes. He had the plains cleared , and set about finding people who wanted to be share-farmers. Wheat was doing very well at the time, and he was able to go into partnership with excellent farmers.

The system was simple, and you can still find versions of it used in Australia today. In his case, Greene provided the land ready to be ploughed, all the seed and two-thirds of the fertiliser. The farmer provided the plant and the labour. The crop’s proceeds were divided 50:50. Greene wanted his partners to keep trying to improve, and as an incentive allowed them to keep all the yield above 21 bushels to the acre. If the crop reached 27 bushels to the acre he and the farmer shared the surplus about 27 bushels once again on a 50:50 basis. In the science of agriculture he was at the cutting edge, as we say today, and he was the first farmer to use Farrer’s ‘Federation’ wheat commercially

Everybody did well out of this scheme, and as Greene grew older and had other responsibilities (he became the local MLA, and was involved in successful railway agitation), he was happy to sell the blocks to those farmers who wanted to buy them. And they were blocks of decent size, 500 acres or so, much bigger than the soldier settlement blocks of the 20th century, which were often 320 acres, too small on which to make a good living. Greene did well through the sales, too. We don’t know how much it cost him to develop the land he bought for 6/6d an acre, but in two cases he sold 500+ acre blocks for more than £8 an acre. No one complained — that was the market price. When he died the share farmers, past and present, constructed a memorial to him.

Greene built a substantial house not long after his arrival in the area, and at the turn of the century he decided to enlarge it. The result is what we see today, the old house having been absorbed into the new. For a house of 1908 it was in some respects extraordinarily modern. I thought it was built of stone. No, the structure is reinforced concrete, with a mainly stucco finish. The house had electricity generated by a large generator in an outbuilding, hot and cold water to all bathrooms, the kitchen and the laundry, a telephone system, a reservoir and filtration ponds to provide potable water, proper sewerage, and a properly built servants quarter in another building. The house has 57 rooms, and the stables have roller doors that must have been some of the first in Australia. They still work. The gardens and trees are a century old, and in excellent condition.

Greene died in 1911 and, as so often happens, his energy and inventiveness were not passed down in abundance. One of the sharefarmers became the manager when the son decided to live in England (he became a Conservative MP), and the sharefarmer’s surname, I’Anson, is incorporated in the name ‘Iandra’. The place is also called ‘Mt Oriel homestead’.

It is absolutely worth a visit if you are going that way, though you need to be sure that the place will be open for inspection. Greene’s energy and innovative spirit are part of the history of a most successful farming area. Those of us who take our food for granted can give some acknowledgement to those who made that possible. It is so easy to denigrate what was done in the 19th century, and ignore the fact that without the development that occurred then we would all be a lot poorer if we were here at all. I’d like to have met George Henry Greene. He was a most unusual bloke.




Join the discussion 20 Comments

  • BB says:

    Very interesting Don I have been to ‘Iandra Castle’, some years ago I was quite impressed with the place. You realise looking at this how great their wealth was from the common herd like me.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Thanks, Don. Yes I was wondering what had happened to your site. Sure it wasn’t the Russians?

    It is an ever fascinating and changing scene, the coming and goings of the country’s wealth sources that attract the best and the brightest.

    In the old Beaudesert Shire where I live, my next door neighbour’s is the oldest, continually lived in house in Queensland and many nearby are only a year or so younger. These big verandahed houses were often built from huge slabs of Australian Red Cedar ( Toona australis) and are architectural marvels.

    These people followed Cunningham and the Leslie Bros and built as close to the Moreton Bay convict settlement as the law would allow.

    These wealthy bush societies produced great leaders that shaped our nation and it is sad to see the diminishing influence of the bush in today’s leaders. They had a good grip of the real world.

    • dlb says:

      Is that the Collins / Fraser homestead you are referring to?

      • Don Aitkin says:

        No. If I have it right, the Collins/Fraser place is Mundoolun, in Queensland close to the border with NSW on the Albert River, a long way away.

      • spangled drongo says:

        Yes, spot on, dlb and while that old Mundoolun homestead is not very grand, some of its neighbours are, considering they were built when architects were virtually non existent in this NOTW.

        I understand that the oldest surviving house in Qld is supposed to be Newstead House (1846) and it has been a museum for a long time.

        • dlb says:

          Talking about red cedar, my grandfather who worked for the Collins when he was young, used to say all the pews in St John church on the property were fashioned out of one red cedar log. The log had been lying on the property for some time, blackened by bushfires, until an aboriginal working there drew the Collin’s attention to it.

          • spangled drongo says:

            dlb, you’d be interested in this historic detail:

            Most of that red cedar came from the shelf on the western side of Mt Tamborine where some of the Mundoolun (Collins/Fraser) land was. Delpratt, from Tamborine Station on the junction of the Albert R and Canungra Ck, who owned most of Tamborine Mt at that time, also built a beautiful home there.

            The cedar was cut and hauled out by bullocks and what couldn’t be hauled was skidded down the escarpment. Now you mention it, I know where there is a huge, abandoned old log. I assumed it was gum but I better get my axe and check the grain.

            Collins/Frasers ( Collins girls married Fraser boys) were instrumental in getting Queensland’s first national park established in that cedar country (Witches Falls 1908) and they were also involved in getting the huge area of Lamington Plateau listed as a nat park soon after. Considering that this was valuable and potentially rich farming country, it is to their environmental credit.

            I ended up buying the remains of that Mundoolun land (abt 90 acres) on the shelf where the cedar grows, to protect it from tourist development, pretty cheap, about 25 years ago as it adjoined our existing place. There is still plenty of cedar left and I am very tempted at times to cut a tree to build a boat or furniture.

          • spangled drongo says:

            Sorry, dlb, that link to the Mundoolun church wouldn’t take but if you google St John the Evangelist Mundoolun Anglican Church there are some great photos and stories.

          • dlb says:

            Thanks SD.
            Yes, I am well aware of the great work RM Collins did for the National Park movement in Qld.
            I see you are doing your little bit too, keeping those tourist developments away 🙂

  • beththeserf says:

    Not Russian hackers? Phew, thank goodness fer that!
    That second historic homestead looks exactly like my old school in Melbourne… memeries. )

  • spangled drongo says:

    Don, I find those historic names like Saumarez and Dumaresq that are linked to the Napoleonic wars, somehow fascinating.

    Cunningham was responsible for Dumaresq’s name to be sprinkled about and Saumarez, being an Admiral in Nelson’s time was no doubt well regarded by colonials.

    I’m sure that the end of the Napoleonic wars must have created a big unemployment vacuum with lots of young men looking for somewhere just like Australia to get their teeth into.

    There was a beautiful governor’s residence on the Esplanade at Southport called “Seabank” where the Qld Governor with his entourage used to occupy over the (mainly) Christmas holidays. When it was being demolished for a high rise apartment block I bought the cedar French doors and many other beautiful fittings for a song including some old diaries that spoke of the cowboy having to quietly walk the cow down from Govt House in Fernberg Rd Paddington, Brisbane for the Gov’s daily fresh milk supply. It used to take about a week and I remember it said the cowboy and cow crossed the rivers by ferry.

    There mustn’t’ve been any dairy farms near the beach in them days (~1875).

  • Chris Warren says:

    Unfortunately, it seems this blog is blocked by some antimalware programs.

    “donaitkin.com” is blocked for some as it is listed in this file:


    It looks like it only takes an email to this antimalware service to fix?

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