THOMAS HOLT’S SUTHERLAND COTTAGE: ON CLOSER INSPECTION
Picture a cottage, if you will…
Not one that gets its glow from brightly whitewashed walls under a tightly thatched and bound wheat straw roof. Not one that breathes the soft air of lavender down a misty cobbled path behind box hedge in an English country garden. But something more rugged. Something more natively suited to where it finds itself, something that reflects the brashness and personality of a people and a land once far removed from the rest of civilisation, a distant and wild place that took in the unwanted element of British society, flung across the high seas; a new and fledgling colony where things, as they have thrived and progressed, could just as easily have withered and died away for good had it not been for the determination and sheer tenacity of its new inhabitants to make it succeed.
Such a cottage exists.
Not on the dusty weathered plains beyond the Great Dividing Range, although there are such things there. Not in the rustic shambolic remains of gold diggings scattered through towns along the dry western rivers and creekbeds, although there are such things there. Not in the rugged windswept landscape of an Arthur Streeton oil painting, though such things certainly are there.
This cottage exists in the very heart of the palm and grevillea tinged suburban ideal of the Sutherland Shire, a southward expansion of the city of Sydney, only footsteps from the lapping waves of Botany Bay, that hallowed body of water where Cook and his party came ashore to pronounce a new foundation of European acquirement.
In the years and decades that followed that initial landing, the colony would grow and augment, to the west, the north and south. Free settlers would arrive to replace the legions of convicts, commercial trade would be born, farming and working of the land to feed the bustling colony, building and development expanding into an almost limitless boom that continues to this day; fortunes would be made, by those willing enough to take an entrepreneurial chance.
One such fortune was that of the English immigrant Thomas Holt, born 14 November 1811 in Yorkshire, who came to Australia in 1842 and gained great wealth and fame as a wool trader, financier and businessman.
He soon became a successful landowner, building six mansions south of Sydney, including a Victorian Gothic grand estate ‘The Warren’ in Marrickville. He invested in over 3,000,000 acres of pastoral land across NSW and Queensland and consolidated more wealth selling holdings after gold was discovered in the 1850s. He was at various stages a director of the Sydney Tramway and Railway Co. as well as City Bank. He was also a successful parliamentarian, being member of the inaugural Legislative Assembly and the first Treasurer of the colony.
Later in life he would found the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, before returning to the country of his birth and continuing charitable work for the Salvation Army and the Rev. A. Mearns and Dr Barnardo, publishing Christianity, or the Poor Man’s Friend before passing away in 1888.
Among Holt’s many achievements he also holds the dubious honour of playing more than just a minor part in Australia’s great rabbit plague, after several of the beasts escaped from the grounds of his well stocked Marrickville mansion ‘The Warren’ and hopped off into the Sydney sunset. The rest, as they say, is history.
In the 1860s Thomas Holt acquired a considerable tract of land of some 13,000 acres around Kurnell in the Sutherland Shire, including Captain Cook’s landing site. It was here he constructed Australia’s first oyster farm at nearby Gwawley Bay. As the estate in Sutherland grew, he employed teams of workers on site digging the oyster claires and tending the property, and in the 1870s established his final mansion known as Sutherland House complete with English park landscape over 786 acres.
The cottage that we speak of was part of Thomas Holt’s Sutherland Estate. It was one of three similar workers’ cottages situated at the centre of the holding, and is in fact the only surviving remnant of this once grand and historic estate. It was probably inhabited by gardeners, coachmen or general hands and their families, as can be seen by the basic character of its workmanship and unadorned decoration. Its construction is of simple weatherboard. It has a corrugated iron and skillion roof to keep out the rain, and a large wraparound verandah to keep the walls cool through the beating hot summers. The brickwork of a later laundry addition remains on the back side of the property, while inside it retains “original lath and plaster walls and ceiling linings, and original ledge and sheeted internal walls.”
Official dating can be difficult due to the nature of the long-running design use of such cottages, however it is typical of a style of architecture once prevalent in the Shire, and can be traced to be a product of at least the 1870s. As such, it remains one of the oldest buildings in the Sutherland Shire, often reported to be the oldest. The offset angle to the street frontage is testament to the true age of this building.
When Thomas left the estate, the land was sold to his son Frederick who resided there for thirteen years with his family before leasing the mansion to Mrs Mary Hamilton in 1894 for use as an infirmary. In 1908 the property was subdivided including the worker’s cottage which was sold at auction on 20 April 1908 with 33 acres. It was once again subdivided into two lots in 1952, but remained relatively unchanged as a structure, being owned for a continuous period of 70 years by the one family, of which Jan Buchanan was the last resident. During this time it was known as ‘The Gunyah’ which is an Aboriginal term for humpy or crude bush shelter.
In 2003 Sutherland Shire Council bought the property from Jan Buchanan for the sum of $610,000 and placed it on the Local Heritage List for preservation and future restoration for the benefit of the community. It was thought to be in good hands with the council researching the origins of the building and investigating the possibilities of its next course of action. There have been several heritage impact statements over the years of ownership by council, however no work has been undertaken to restore the house.
Fast forward to 2013 and the recently elected (and it must be said, development-friendly) council headed by Mayor Kent Johns have decided abruptly to remove the house from its draft LEP (among other heritage items), and document and demolish the building before selling the land for private redevelopment. Previous owner Jan Buchanan was devastated, telling Fairfax reporters “When I sold it, the council told me they had grandiose ideas about its restoration. They promised there would be a caretaker to look after it, but the last time I went to visit it was vandalised and run down. I had to walk away.”
Ten years prior, when council had originally purchased the property, they had a heritage impact statement prepared by Truman, Zaniol and Associates Pty Ltd. The Statement of Significance surmised:
“No. 5 Evelyn Street North is historically significant as a minimum at a high local level as a unique and tangible remnant of development in the Sutherland Shire from the early part of the 20th Century, and prior to the implementation of smaller lot subdivision. It is likely to be the oldest remnant workers cottage in Sylvania and certainly the only remaining evidence of the Holt Sutherland House Estate – all other buildings having been demolished. The significance of the place is embodied in the associations and historical nature of the existing cottage, how it addresses the street being offset, its extant original and early fabric and mature landscaping, all of which provides tangible historical evidence of the State Significant Holt Sutherland House occupation”.
In conclusion, the report suggested a possible candidacy for state significance, identifying the historic links to the Thomas Holt Estate and the rarity of the building within its own geographic environment.
In 2007 a comprehensive Historical Assessment of the house was undertaken by Dr. Annable who presented a glowing report to council for the preservation of the cottage.
“Historical research confirms the importance of the Sutherland House Estate in the history of the Sutherland Shire and its association with Thomas Holt. Historical research and physical analysis also confirm the historical significance and rarity of No. 5 Evelyn Street at a local level and highlight the ability of the fabric of the place to demonstrate the way of life, domestic amenities and tastes of its late 19th and early 20th century occupants and owners…
Much of the fabric of the original cottage is intact, as are early 20th century additions to the decoration and finishes. The cottage demonstrates the domestic amenities of estate workers in the late 19th century, a pattern of domestic life that was little changed until the advent of a piped water supply and sewerage in the mid-20th century. Much early 20th century decoration is preserved in the cottage, demonstrating the tastes and financial resources of its owners and is likely to be rare. The essence of the place resides in its simple form and scale, its materials and its modest decoration. Its owners and occupants were ordinary people.”
She continued, “The cottage has the ability to demonstrate a way of life that is now virtually extinct in the Shire. Its materials, method of construction, number and size of rooms, decoration, floor coverings, domestic facilities, simple garden and neat unpretentious appearance have considerable power to evoke a way of life that is now gone.”
In conclusion, Dr. Annable insisted council take urgent action to preserve the cottage in its original form, and prepare a Conservation Management plan to guide its full restoration and adaptive re-use as a private residence. Her findings were discussed by the council’s heritage sub-committee in 2008, who concurred the necessity to preserve the building, and a report was presented to council in February 2009.
Questions are now being raised as a result of council’s total disregard for previous heritage assessments that clearly convey the importance of the house at a local and possible state level. The originality of the structure, the intact fabric of its construction inside and out, and its historical context relating to the Thomas Holt Estate all show with blinding light the significance of such a building to the very make-up and culture of the area and indeed the early years of Sydney’s expansion.
Sutherland Council nominates the prohibitive costs of restoring the house as the reason for proposed demolition. Originally it was slated to cost somewhere in the order of $200,000, now it is claimed that those costs have blown out to $495,000. “In its current state it is derelict, it would be irresponsible to invest more council funds in this property” said Mayor Kent Johns (in fact it is only derelict because council allowed it to become so).
With the land and property being acquired several years ago for the sake of preservation and restoration, monetary sources should have been allocated long before this point in time. The fact council wants to demolish the building before the sale also raises questions as to their real motives… Why demolish rather than sell as is and offer potential buyers the opportunity to restore one of the oldest buildings in the area and own a piece of historically significant real estate? Most private vendors always sell their land with a house in tact, no matter whether it is to be restored or offered as a potential development site – what the buyer then does with the property thereafter is up to them. It seems clear in this case the council wants this house off the LEP and gone from sight, perhaps to increase the base value of the land it sits on.
I personally believe the house is far too important to let go so easily. I would like to see the cottage remain in public hands, and restored, as historian Edward Duyker has suggested, in collaboration with local TAFE trade schools. Once restored the cottage could serve unlimited potential as a working museum, art studio or classroom, perhaps focussing on the crafts of the late 19th century. There would also be room for a period vegetable garden outside serving gastronomic fair of the era and educating modern day students how the lives of working families were once lived in the Shire.
Its proximity to historic Botany Bay could position the Sutherland Shire as a place not only to associate with the early days of settlement but also a place to see it in palpable action. A rare opportunity indeed to uphold some of the original character of the area that may be taken away once and for all if the current crop of cash hungry councillors get their way.
We all know just how important it is to keep things like this alive, the question is, do we have the necessary will, the tenacity and determination that those early settlers had, in order to maintain this tiny piece of early pioneering heritage in the middle of an upper-middle class Australian suburban ideal – the kind of place that this very cottage helped create.
Click on images below. All pictures Inheritance.
IMPORTANT: CLICK HERE to make your submissions on the Sutherland Shire draft LEP before 17 September 2013. Removal of the Thomas Holt cottage at 5 Evelyn Street Sylvania should be utterly opposed among other heritage removals.
An earlier post on Sutherland Shire Council’s Draft LEP plans here. NOTE: As predicted, “buildings like this Art Deco Commonwealth Bank are at risk…” Guess what, a DA has just been announced that will add extra levels and potentially ruin this famous building.