Australia's Oldest House

Australia's Oldest House - by Sue Rosen


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Australia's Oldest House - by Sue Rosen
Australia's Oldest House - by Sue Rosen

Colonial firebrand John Harris constructed the archetypal verandah house, the model for two centuries of Australian homes. Sue Rosen explores his life as a naval surgeon, magistrate, power broker, police chief and explorer who strode through the colony in convict times. She tells the story of his innovative house, still standing after 205 years.

What's in a Picture?

The use of images as historical evidence, brought to the reader courtesy of the Australia's Oldest House Debate

by Dr Sue Rosen

In the July 2010 issue of History (click here to download PDF copy or end of this article), Ian Jack advanced pictorial evidence in an endeavour to undermine my findings on the origins of Experiment Farm Cottage in my new book, Australia's Oldest House.1The National Trust, present owner of the cottage, maintains that it dates from the 1830s, which if true would mean it has little architectural or historic importance. Australia's Oldest House examines the life of John Harris, the first owner, and the evidence relating to the cottage's age. In it I conclude that the weight of evidence indicates that it was built in the 1790s, making it the oldest house in Australia, and one of the most influential in introducing the verandahed bungalow, a characteristic Australian house type ever since. For the 1790s it was a very sophisticated domestic structure.

The book also draws attention to the NSW National Trust's inadequate engagement with historians. It criticises the Trust for a superficial interrogation of historical evidence and their failure to abide by the principles of the ICOMOS Burra Charter in the management and conservation of Experiment Farm Cottage.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to discuss the pictorial evidence because the early pictures of Parramatta underline the issues at the very core of Australia's Oldest House. Firstly, their calibre as direct evidence and secondly, the use made of pictures in historical and conservation methodologies.

Figure 1 George Street Parramatta from the gates of Government House, c.1804-1805, George Evans. [Historic Houses Trust, Caroline Simpson Collection, No.31758]The earliest image to consider was painted by George Evans in 1805 from the front of Government House, Parramatta and at the western extremity of George Street [Figure 1]. The original measures 17cm by 33cm. A claim has been made that the house in the middle distance on the extreme right behind an extensive garden is the first Experiment Farm Cottage'and that today's building which is different in appearance is therefore not the one that existed in 1805. However it is essential to look at corroborative evidence in the landscape. George Street ran from Government House to the wharf at the head of the river with houses set in gardens on both sides. These are clearly evident in the view. Experiment Farm Cottage was located beyond the eastern extremity of George Street, yet in this view, the house mooted as being Experiment Farm Cottage is closer to the midpoint of George Street, south-east of the first cross street and overlooking the George Street houses that continue well beyond to the eastern horizon. We also know that Experiment Farm Cottage was located south of the barracks and store, neither of which is visible in this view.

Conceivably the siting of the house is due to perspective decisions by the artist, but without any record of his intentions, we cannot presume he displaced the cottage for reasons of perspective.

Depictions in watercolour of remote buildings in broad landscapes take on an impressionistic form and cannot be relied on for architectural detail. This is particularly apparent in Evans's 1805 view where there is detail in the foreground that dissipates toward the horizon. It is a small picture, capturing an extensive area. Evans had no inkling that digital enhancement would facilitate minute examination of remote landscape elements and load his artistry with documentary significance. So we cannot know from his painting the actual details of the house, neither can we accept that it represents Experiment Farm Cottage.

Figure 2 South west view of Parramatta in New South Wales, 1811 / artist unknown. [Historic Houses Trust, Caroline Simpson Collection, No.31759]It has also been suggested that the building on the far left in an 1811 view is the three-storey government store and that Experiment Farm Cottage is the substantial building to its right. But limitations like those applying to the 1805 view prevent us treating this picture as representing the cottage.

Figure 3 View of part of the town of Parramatta In New South Wales. Taken from the south side of the river. John Eyre.1813.Next is an 1813 engraving [Figure 3]. Dr Jack claims that the cottage depicted in an extract from this [Figure 4] is the original Experiment Farm Cottage, and distinctly unlike the present building. This is a general view from the south-east, again without unequivocal indicators of precise locations.

Figure 4 - Extract from Figure 3 which is claimed to be Experiment Farm Cottage.There is no apparent reason why Experiment Farm Cottage would be the little cottage shown in Figure 4, rather than the larger cottage in the mid-ground to the right extracted in Figure 5.This larger cottage has an outbuilding at the rear that might correspond to the detached kitchen of Experiment Farm Cottage. Complicating the matter, a re-examination of Evans 1805 water colour [Figure 1] shows there is another building constructed at right angles to the cottage claimed to be Experiment Farm Cottage. It can also be seen similarly situated in this engraving.

Figure 5 - Extract from Figure 3 showing detail of the house to the north of the cottage identified as Experiment Farm Cottage.A case might be made that Figure 5 depicts the barracks, but uncertainties concerning the configuration of the barrack buildings at that time make it problematic. Problems with proximity to the river and other buildings, and perspective issues, preclude definite identifications. Further, the building in Figure 4, having no outbuilding, cannot be identified with the cottage in Figure 1, claimed to be Experiment Farm Cottage, which does have an outbuilding, running at right angles to the main house, as shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6 - Extract from Figure 1.If the 1805 view depicts Experiment Farm Cottage, then consistency demands that it is the larger building in the 1813 engraving, the one shown in Figure 5. There are too few signifiers to ascertain the identity of any of these structures. The pictorial evidence simply does not have the probative value to support either view of the dating of the present Experiment Farm Cottage. This is not an issue that historians should be prepared to settle with conjecture and subjective interpretation.

Figure 7 - Joseph Lycett's depiction of Ultimo in 1820. [Mitchell Library, SLNSW: ML PX*D 41]To identify the smaller cottage in Figure 4 as Experiment Farm Cottage would also require us to accept that Dr and Mrs Harris moved into it from the newly renovated two storied Ultimo House [Figure 7] and lived there in 1820 and 1821, and that Harris conducted the Court of Petty Sessions in it at that time. That notion would challenge the credulity of anyone familiar with Harris's life and times.

Figure 8 - House of L Campbell Esq. J.P. Parramatta 20 March 1839, Conrad Martens, 1839. [Mitchell Library, SLNSW: C970]In contesting my claims in Australia's Oldest House, Dr Jack refers to Elizabeth Macarthur's 1839 letter, mentioning her near neighbours the Campbells 'who have occupied a new cottage on the Estate of the late Dr Harris', a letter composed contemporaneously with Conrad Martens's sketch of Campbell's house. He is convinced that Australia's Oldest House is wrong in identifying the Campbell's new home as the two storey house appearing in Martens's work. Martens sketched the new house in a drawing titled: House of L Campbell Esq. J.P. Parramatta 20 March 1839. [Figure 8] The architectural detail indisputably shows that Campbell's house was not Experiment Farm Cottage. Land tenure documents show that Campbell had purchased the land on which he built from Samuel Marsden, east of Marsden's house, Newlands.

Figure 9 - Parramatta from grounds of H.H. Macarthur. Conrad Martens.  [Historic Houses Trust, Caroline Simpson Collection, No.30936]Martens completed his Parramatta from grounds of H.H. Macarthur in 1839 [Figure 9]. We can be confident that the house it shows on the rise above the river is Campbell's, rather than Newlands as claimed by Dr Jack, because only one house is depicted there, and Campbell's house was between Martens's painting position at Vineyard to the east, and Newlands, further west. If Newlands was depicted there would be two houses in this area, Campbell's and Newlands beyond. Newlands cannot be seen inParramatta from grounds of H.H. Macarthur because it is beyond the line of sight from Martens's vantage point.

Figure 10 Birdseye View of Parramatta [Mitchell Library, SLNSW: ML_XV1B_Parr_01]]The situation and relationship of the two buildings is evident in the 1879 Birdseye View of Parramatta [Figure 10], where there has been attention paid to the detail of individual structures. The Birdseye View is quite a different art form to Martens's water colour landscapes and valuable corroboration. These images emphasise the point that the identification of architectural details in broad views is unreliable because they are impressionistic. In contrast, the sketch by Martens with Campbell's house as the sole subject is far more credible, because the house is the focus of the work.

We also know, thanks to Martens' account books and his labelling of the works that Campbell purchased a copy ofParramatta from grounds of H.H. Macarthur at £15.15.0 and two copies of a painting of his house at £3.3.0. Would Campbell really have engaged in such expenditure if it was not truly his house, but Marsden's Newlands? Corroborative evidence from land tenure documents and Martens' accounts justifies confidence in the identification of the Campbell.

The pictorial evidence clearly fails to establish that Experiment Farm Cottage is not Australia's oldest house. Neither can it prove my conclusion that the cottage was built in the 1790s. That is why the book presents a much broader array of evidence, and a study of Harris himself.

No document has been produced by the National Trust which analyses the evidence for the later date proposed for Experiment Farm Cottage. Without coherent analysis of all the evidence within its historic context, the management, conservation and interpretation of Experiment Farm Cottage have been compromised. The importance of considering each piece of evidence in the context of all the evidence cannot be overstated. This is the difference between a reliable evidentiary approach and wishful thinking.



1 Sue Rosen, Australia's Oldest House: Surgeon John Harris and Experiment Farm Cottage, Halstead Press, Sydney, 2010.

As discussed in History, July 2010

Download the July 2010 issue of History where Sue Rosen's "handsome but pugnacious book" is discussed by Ian Jack, President of the Royal Australian Historical Society.


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Reviews for Australia's Oldest House

Phillip Adams, Late Night Live, ABC RN

“Lusciously illustrated, nicely written and a bloody good read”

Elizabeth Farrelly, Spectrum SMH 10-11 July 2010

“Rosen has upset the applecart ...  [she] has undertaken exhaustive analysis that seems generally to point back to the 1790s construction date."

Adam Piper, Journal of Australian Colonial History, Vol 13. 2011.

"Debates, divisions and internal wrangling amongst individuals and groups that have responsibility for the conservation and interpretation of built heritage are,regrettably, the norm. Disparity in opinion and differences in the interpretation of evidence have (and continue to) plague heritage conservation.

"In this extremely well written, well structured and well researched work Sue Rosen draws ourattention to one such debate and its consequences — whether Experiment Farm Cottage, now owned, conserved and managed by the National Trust of Australia(NSW), was built c.1795 or c.1835. This is not just a moot point but rather 'a matter of historical and cultural importance' (p. 9). ... Rosen has crafted an exceedingly readable narrative fully rooted in archivalevidence which remedies this omission.

"As with the whole of this work, Rosen demonstrates high professional standards in her analysis of both primary and secondary sources... the book is a timely reminder of the importance of excellence in conservation planning and management given the current assault on built heritage conservation by all sides of politics ... The work is well written and edited ...

"Australia's Oldest House makes an important contribution to our understanding of the social, economic and political world of early-colonial New South Wales."

Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum, Issue July 2010

Read the article on Australia's Oldest House as it appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 2010

File size 2.07 MB

ABC Mornings: Australia's Oldest House - March 2010

ABC Mornings: Australia's Oldest House - March 2010
ABC Mornings: Australia's Oldest House - March 2010

ABC Mornings, Friday 19 March  2011 - with Linda Mottram

History tells us who we are. It tells us where we've come from, who we belong to and how we've coped with adversity through-out the ages. So, when we're looking at historic evidence, artefacts that can be scientifically dated, it's essential that we get it right.

Susan Rosen is a historian and she's concerned that the Experiment Farm Cottage in Parramatta has been incorrectly dated. She's penned a book called "Australia's Oldest House", challenging the long-held view that it was built in the mid-1830s. Sue says it was a product of the 1790s. That's a 40 year discrepancy, so, in this case, what does that mean for our understanding of the young colony?

Listen to the interview and you'll find out!

Available here

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RN By Design: Australia's Oldest House - June 2010

RN By Design: Australia's Oldest House - June 2010
RN By Design: Australia's Oldest House - June 2010

ABC Radio National by Design, Wednesday June 2, 2010 - with Alan Saunders

Is Experiment Farm Cottage in the Sydney suburb of Parramatta Australia's oldest house? Sue Rosen clearly thinks it is, because that is the title of her book on the house and the man who built it, surgeon John Harris. But opinion is divided on the subject: was it built in the 1790s or the 1830s, and why does it matter? We explore the issues with Sue Rosen and William Holmes a Court, CEO, National Trust

Available here

Click here to download audio

Australia's Oldest House - Late Night Live ABC RN

Australia's Oldest House - Late Night Live ABC RN
Australia's Oldest House - Late Night Live ABC RN

ABC Late Night Live, Tuesday 16 March  2011 - with Phillip Adams

There's been an ongoing 30-year dispute over what is Australia's intact oldest house. Historians and architects are arguing whether Experiment Farm Cottage in Parramatta was built in 1795 or, as the National Trust says, 1835. Regardless, the man who built the house, John Harris, is a fascinating story in himself.

Available here

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Letters, Sydney Morning Herald

A united approach to heritage - 13 July, 2010

Elizabeth Farrelly has written engagingly of the need for more rigour in assessing heritage buildings ("Stumbling blocks" July 10-11). She draws a sharp distinction between historians and architects, and talks of "an epic battle". These are bleak times for heritage in NSW and battle lines drawn among practitioners would not be helpful.

many skills are needed to understand a heritage site. In the case of Experiment Farm Cottage, Sue Rosen has argued vehemently for a 1790s date based on documentary evidence which she conceded is inconclusive. She does not test her hypothesis against reputable images of john Harris's cottage in 1804 or 1813. Both show a house narrower than the present house without verandahs.

What is needed is a wider, dispassionate reappraisal of the documentary evidence, both for the 1790s and the 1830s, along with the graphic and cartographic evidence, and a new look at the physical fabric of the house. I have suggested that the national Trust, which owns Experiment Farm, that historians, archaeologists and architects should be involved in a collaborative venture.

Ian Jack
President, Royal Australian Historical Society, Sydney.

Heritage value is out of the picture - 15 July, 2010

In my book Australia's Oldest House, referred to by Elizabeth Farrelly ("Stumbling blocks", July 10-11), I analyse a comprehensive array of evidence across two centuries - cartographic, pictorial, official and private correspondence, and chemical fabric testing - to conclude that Experiment Farm Cottage was built in the 1790s. In 30 years of debate, no other scholarly analysis has been made public.

The two images Ian Jack says are pictures of the cottage do not pass muster (Letters, July 13). Factoring in perspective and known topographic features, it is impossible to agree with him. To rely on these as incontrovertible evidence does not bode well for a credible resolution of the origins debate. Dr Jack appears to have no evidence not fully considered in my book.

But by all means let's have the debate - the implications of such a sophisticated house having been built in the mid-1790s, and being Australia's oldest house, are too exciting to ignore.

Sue Rosen

Cottage picture still obscured - 17 July, 2010

Sue Rosen (Letters, July 15) says she carried out a comprehensive analysis of evidence to conclude that the existing Experiment Farm Cottage was built in the 1790s. The two images referred to by Ian Jack (Letters, July 13) show a house on the site which is markedly different from the house that is there now.

The first was painted by George Evans in 1804 and the second is after a work by John Eyre published as an engraving in 1813. Both are panoramic views of Parramatta, thus enabling the location of the cottage to be ascertained. Both works show other buildings in the town accurately.

Rosen's book, Australia's Oldest House, fails to mention either work, let alone demonstrate why they cannot be accepted as evidence for dating the house. The omission of this important evidence seriously negates any claim that Rosen has established a 1790s construction date for Experiment Farm Cottage.

Ian Stephenson
University curator, University of New England

The Oldest House? A New Beginning - May 2011

The Oldest House? A New Beginning - May 2011
The Oldest House? A New Beginning - May 2011

ABC Hindsight, Sunday 1 May,  2011 - with Lorena Allam

Historians and heritage specialists are at odds over which colonial building in NSW is the oldest intact house in Australia: Experiment Farm Cottage, or Elizabeth Farm House. This feature explores the dispute, the detective work which has cast new light on the established interpretation of Australia's colonial built heritage, and the difficulties inherent in trying to understand the past through extant sources such as images and buildings. It's also the story of the man behind the building of Experiment Farm Cottage: the Irish surgeon John Harris.

Available here

Click here to download audio