If you are just the slightest bit interested in Australian rural history, then you need to plan a daytrip to Rouse Hill House now. This house has been the home for six generations of the Rouse and Terry families, from the early 1800’s to as recently as the 1990’s.
The complex in the north of Sydney is unique: Since the house has always been in the hands of just one private owner family before joining the Sydney Living Museum administration, the buildings remain untouched and unaltered at large, thus being a great opportunity for today’s visitors to look in depth into the ways of life of former times.
The Rouse family made their fortune with crops and horse breeding. In fact, they were the best known suppliers of working and race horses in the area, having bred the famous race horse Peter Pan, winner of the Melbourne Cup.
They belonged to the upper classes of society with a house that was attended by servants, and surrounded by a number of outbuildings housing their precious horses, the livestock and the farm workers. To be invited to a jazz evening on a Sunday afternoon in the leisure gardens of Rouse Hill House was the social highlight for any family in the surroundings.
To fully appreciate the house and the farm you need to join one of the guided tours. We walk up a short stretch of unsealed road – the historic Windsor Road, still part of the Rouse Hill property and in its original state. On top of the little hill you can see the modern Windsor Road with its loads of cars and massive shopping centres, what a difference to what is right in front of us.
Before turning into the driveway that leads up to the house we walk past the old schoolhouse, a beautiful little thing dating back to 1888 in a faded oxblood colour, surrounded by a white picket fence. Close-by a maypole and the free-standing school bell. This house is still in use today, but not as a regular school but rather for modern day school kids who spend the day here to experience the way school days used to be more than 150 years ago.
Past the old gate and some paddocks we see some strange looking pine trees in the distance. We learn from the guide that these were quick growing trees that were planted by settlers as landmarks to show travellers the way from one reputable home to the next. What an ingenious idea!
The Rouse Hill House is rather unspectacular. It is painted in the same oxblood shade and has the typical shutters and verandah that you would find on most Australian homesteads and historic properties. But what a surprise when we step over the threshold in our covered shoes!
Unlike the other historic houses that Sydney Living Museum is looking after such as Vaucluse House or Elizabeth Bay House, this house is not brought back to its most glorious days. It is preserved in exactly the state as it was when the last owner moved out into a nearby nursing home in the 1990’s. The interesting bit about this is that the family had a knack for not throwing things out, so while we squeeze into the small entrance hall we are looking at original pieces all of all sorts that have been accumulated over several generations.
Moreover, the curators are careful not to make any changes to this house, and this includes any imperfection and damage. To a layman the stuff you will see here will all look historic in some way or the other, even if you are looking at 100 years of history, but when you spot the 1960’s TV set in the old schoolroom then you realise that you really are looking at a family home that people used to live in for generations.
The house is dimly lit, the shades are mostly drawn to protect the wall paper from direct sunlight and to prevent further fading and other damage. The smell is dusty and stale. It is hard to believe that the last owner did live in these rooms until very recently. But you can easily see the pride and the glamour this house must have seen in its heydays.
Out through the back door we walk through the covered patio that was the working area of the house staff. It still looks like the butler was just about to step back in to finish his job with the lamps. There is even a dead rat hanging from a hole in the ceiling that hasn’t been removed by the museum staff to follow the strict rules of conservation without alternation.
Outside in the sunlight the guide warns us to stay close – too many snakes around. We look back to see the house and the back building made of raw bricks which were the house staff quarters. While we cannot look inside we are told that temperatures can rise in this west facing building enormously, and that living conditions for house staff were in fact worse than for the precious race horses which were housed in the magnificent stable building that we draw our attention to next.
In particular the roof is an architectural masterpiece that is still admired by experts today. It ensured that even in summer the horses would enjoy cool temperatures and perfect ventilation. The room next door was later used as a garage at a time when horses were no longer needed for farm work and transportation and the family fortunes had decreased. You can still see the fuel calculations in pencil on one of the white washed walls.
The tour concludes with a quick walk around the other outbuildings – wooden sheds, an old-timer, a workers cottage made of corrugated iron. We return to the main house and have a last walk through the leisure gardens, past the ornamental out house and the summer pavilion. While the splendour and the flavours are long gone you can still see the walking paths that were set up for the afternoon stroll of the ladies who must have enjoyed the flowery smells and fresh airs when showing off their hoop skirted dresses and fine umbrellas.
Rouse Hill House is an impressive piece of Australian history. Even though a bit outside the city on the outskirts of Sydney, it is very much worthwhile a visit to learn more about the rise and fall of the Rouse family and about the ways of life of the many generations that lived here before us.
Rouse Hill House & Farm. 356 Annangrove Road, Rouse Hill. http://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/rouse-hill-house-farm/ Open on weekends only, guided tours only. $8.00 for adults, families $17.00.