A TURBULENT PAST

With its deep, shady verandahs and elegant symmetry, Elizabeth Farm, is an iconic, early colonial bungalow. Established in 1793, it was extended and modified over the following 35 years for John and Elizabeth Macarthur, best known as pioneers of the Australian wool industry. 

Today, set within a recreated 1830s garden, the house records the achievements, political intrigues and personal struggles of one of the early colonies most influential and controversial families. Within its walls, plans were hatched to topple a governor, and the private anguish of isolation and mental illness was endured. In later years Elizabeth Farm was home to the Swann family, whose efforts and affection for the house most likely saved it from destruction.

The early decades of the colony of NSW were marked by tumultuous events as strong-willed individuals clashed over personal ideals and ambitions. At the centre of many of these conflicts was John Macarthur. Ambitious, volatile and supremely self-confident, Macarthur arrived in the colony in 1790, a young lieutenant in the newly formed NSW Corps. With his wife Elizabeth and son Edward, he had barely survived the journey on the famously brutal Second Fleet due to illness, but not so their second child, an unnamed daughter born and buried at sea. 

John, the son of a textile merchant, and Elizabeth, the daughter of a Devon farmer, initially viewed the colony as a short-term ticket to wealth. But instead it became their permanent home. At his death 36 years later, John Macarthur was one of the wealthiest landowners in the colony, owning over 24,000 acres (9500ha) of land with stock valued at £30,000.

Cottage to Homestead

The cottage they built in 1793 was a large, simple dwelling that resembled countless farmhouses in southern England. The cottage at this time did not show any of the elegance or sophistication that, following a series of alterations and extensions, would later define it as an iconic example of colonial domestic architecture. It was, however, sturdy and well built, and the Macarthurs took pride in it. 

With a personal interest in architecture, John Macarthur was determined to build a residence worthy of his family’s position in colonial society and directed the constant alterations himself. The late 1820s saw a suite of elegant, interconnected formal rooms created, windows were replaced by French doors, floors were lowered to provide extra ceiling height, and deep verandahs with delicate lattice work were added. 

Public and Private Lives

While the name John Macarthur will always be associated with the Australian wool industry, it was his conflict with a series of colonial governors that would determine the path of his and his family’s lives. A duel with his commanding officer, William Patterson, led to his first departure to England in 1801. He returned to the colony in 1805, bearing a grant for 5000 acres (2025ha) – the land that would become Camden Park. 

In January 1808, Macarthur’s pivotal role in the military overthrow of the new governor, William Bligh led to his second return to England, this time for eight years. Over these years, it was Elizabeth who ran the household and oversaw the family’s pastoral interests. 

John Macarthur was a devoted family man but he was plagued by depression, which at times left him unable to leave his bed and eventually cost him both his sanity and his liberty. In early 1833, John was confined to the family’s property at Camden Park where he died in 1834. After John’s death, Elizabeth Farm was inherited by his eldest son, Edward. Elizabeth remained there until her death in 1850, aged 83. She was buried with John at Camden in the family mausoleum.

In 1881, the family reluctantly sold the 1100 acre (445ha) estate and for the next 22 years it led a precarious life. The neighbouring estates of the 19th century, once home to the prominent Blaxland and Wentworth families, vanished one by one, their histories preserved only in street and suburb names. 

The Swann Family

In 1904 the future of the house was assured when it was purchased for £600 by local school teacher William Swann and his wife, Elizabeth. Of their nine daughters, eight remained in the house through their adult lives. Educated, philanthropic and socially aware, the sisters followed careers from postmistress to dentist, music teacher to headmistress. Yet for economic reasons, they were eventually forced to further subdivide the remaining land, reducing the estate to around 1¼ acres (0.5ha). All the while, the recognition of the special history of the house grew.

The house was listed as a historic site in 1960 and eight years later, the last three surviving Swann sisters found a sympathetic buyer in the newly formed Elizabeth Farm Museum Trust. Preserving the house, however, proved beyond the scope of the well-meaning association and the property was transferred to the NSW government. 

As part of the newly formed Historic Houses Trust of NSW (now Sydney Living Museums), Elizabeth Farm opened as a museum in 1984. The original line of the carriage loop was reinstated and a garden to the east of the house was recreated with plants known to have been grown by Elizabeth Macarthur. Copies of known furniture were commissioned which meant the house could become a barrier free museum where visitors can wander at will. Pared back and uncluttered, the rooms - like stage sets - invite visitors to fill them with stories of the families who have lived there and create an immediacy of experience that is uncommon in historic houses.

© Dr Scott Hill, Curator, Elizabeth Farm, Meroogal, Rouse Hill House & Farm, Sydney Living Museums ‬

Elizabeth Farm

Open Wednesday to Sunday

10am - 4pm

Adult $12 | Concession $8 | Family $30 

Members and children under 5 FREE

70 Alice Street, Rosehill, NSW 2142

+61 2 9635 9488

sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/elizabeth-farm