History and images of an historic Hunter Valley homestead

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The history of Skellatar House - the Forbes era

A male child called Francis Forbes was born on the island of Bermuda, on the edge of the Caribbean, in 1783. He was the elder son of Doctor Francis Forbes, a man of Scottish descent. Francis Forbes, the son, travelled from Bermuda to England at the age of 19 to study law at Lincoln's Inn in London. Later he returned to Bermuda and was appointed Attorney General there in 1810. In 1816 he became Chief Justice of the British colony of Newfoundland in North America, and then in 1823 he was appointed Chief Justice of New South Wales. He was the first Chief Justice of New South Wales - that is, the position didn't exist until he was appointed - and he arrived in the colony with his family in 1824. Around this time the British government was starting to encourage free settler migration to the colony, and the settlement of the Upper Hunter began in the following year, 1825.

Francis Forbes received a land grant of 2,560 acres from the governor, Governor Darling, and he was allowed to purchase a further 10,000 acres The original 2,560 acre Crown grant included the site of Skellatar House, although it was built long after Forbes' death. But the name comes from the name Francis Forbes gave to his estate. He named it Skellator, that's Skellator ending in o-r, after a Forbes estate near Aberdeen in Scotland. The current spelling, Skellatar, a-r, was not adopted until the lands passed into the hands of the Bowman family. Francis Forbes' brother George also came to New South Wales at this time, and he named his own nearby estate Edinglassie, after another Forbes estate in Scotland.

Francis Forbes is a very significant figure in Australian history. He was responsible for converting the legal system of New South Wales from that of a penal colony, with total legal power vested in the Governor, to that of a free settlement. He was a member of the first New South Wales Legislative Council from 1824 to 1836. And he was one of the first persons to be knighted for services to the colony. There is an historical society, based in Sydney, called 'The Francis Forbes Society for Australian Legal History'.

This society recognises in its name Sir Francis' contribution to the formation of the legal system in New South Wales, which later became the legal system of the nation of Australia.
There are a number of portraits of Sir Francis in the Mitchell Library
in Sydney, as well as one in the Supreme Court of New South Wales.
He looks splendid in this portrait from the Mitchell Library, every inch
the Chief Justice.

Sir Francis' government duties kept him very busy, and he had to spend most of his time in Sydney. The Skellator estate was used for sheep grazing, but it was run by Sir Francis' brother George, of Edinglassie. However, around about 1830 a slab-walled house was constructed on the Skellator estate. It had three bedrooms, a parlour, and the usual domestic outbuildings, and it stood on land that is now occupied by the Muswellbrook Water and Sewerage Works at the corner of Sydney Street and the Skellatar Stock Route.

Sir Francis was a sick man by this time, and he spent some time at his Muswellbrook house in 1834, hoping to restore his failing health. Unfortunately he didn't recover, and so he was obliged to retire from his position as Chief Justice in 1837.

He returned to the Skellator estate in 1837, and again in 1838, trying to make a success of his farming venture. But it wasn't a success, partly as a result of the Great Stock Depression in the 1830's. He died in Sydney in 1841 at the age of 58, and by 1846 the land of the Skellator estate, as well as the slab-walled house and its contents, were the subject of a mortgagee sale. His widow was left penniless, although she did eventually receive a pension from the Crown in recognition of her husband's services. Sir Francis Forbes' sons had tried to rescue the family fortunes with a plan to create a new town called Forbestown on the South Muswellbrook portion of the estate, but after the sale they moved with their mother to the Darling Downs in Queensland.

Sir Francis Forbes left an enduring legacy in Muswellbrook, which is reflected in a lot of local names - not just Skellatar House, Skellatar Street, Skellatar Stock Route, Skellatar Park Racecourse, but also Forbes Street and Francis Street.

Click here to read about the Bowman Era in the history of Skellatar House

Click here to skip the Bowman era and read about the Eductation Era

Click here to return to the Skellatar House home page

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