History and images of an historic Hunter Valley homestead

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The history of Skellatar House - introducing the Blackets

William Bowman, the older brother of the twins Edward and Andrew Bowman, had occupied for a time the old slab-walled homestead built by Sir Francis Forbes on the Skellator estate, but it was destroyed by fire, possibly in the 1870's. So a new Skellatar homestead was needed for the twins - the bachelor Edward, and Andrew, who had been married but was now a widower. They chose a Sydney firm of architects to design it.

Let's digress from the Bowman family history for a little while here, to tell you something about these architects who designed Skellatar House.

It was an architectural practice called Blacket and Son. Edmund Blacket, born in 1817, was the third Colonial Architect of New South Wales. He was appointed to this position in 1850, but he resigned in 1854 to begin private practice. He became established as a leading architect, designing the Great Hall at Sydney University, several cathedrals and more than a hundred churches, as well as schools, commercial buildings and private houses. His son Cyril, born in 1857, entered into partnership with his father, and he was elected president of the Institute of Architects, New South Wales, in 1903.

Here's an indication of how important the Blackets are considered to be. A book has been written about them by Morton Herman, in a series called "Famous Australian Lives" published by Angus & Robertson.

In Chapter 11 there's a section that deals with the design of Skellatar House, including a sample of the architect's plans. Here's a short extract:

In 1881 the Blackets designed a large country house for Andrew and Edward Bowman at Muswellbrook in the Hunter River Valley. It was very much in the nature of a working farmhouse, and the evolution of the design is curious. Edmund Blacket got out the first design, which was carried through to full working drawings ready to commence building. It was a manifestly Victorian design, but nevertheless controlled and firm in its lines. The quietude of the scheme must have caused dissatisfaction, for the next year Cyril got out a much more elaborate version with heavy ornamental woodwork to the verandas, and chimneys that could only be called wild. Although this scheme, too, was taken to full working-drawings stage it was not built. The final design shown on the contract drawings comprised exactly the same scheme except that all the heavy woodwork was replaced by lacy cast iron.

One of the Bowman twins had produced an early sketch of their requirements for the house, including a polygonal bay window in the drawing room, which was incorporated into all later plans. The original sketch, pictured left, is held in the Mitchell Library.

Whichever one of the twins made the sketch, he must have been a fairly talented fellow. They were lawyers, remember, not architects, but this looks like a very professional effort for an amateur. But it definitely says, above the drawing, 'Mr Bowman's sketch'.
As noted in the extract from Morton Herman's book, both Edmund and Cyril Blacket had a hand in the design of Skellatar House. But Edmund, the father, died suddenly in February 1883, and Cyril was responsible for the final design and acted as superintendent of the construction. The designs show a progression from a more sober Georgian-influenced style, the work of Edmund, to a full-blown late Victorian design, complete with romantic detail, as favoured by Cyril.
All three sets of Blacket plans are preserved in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. There are twelve pages of plans altogether, but here are two examples.

The floor plan is the final version, showing the ground floor of the main house, and the upper floor. Also shown are the separate kitchen and servants' quarters - once again, ground floor and upper floor. As with most houses built in this era, the kitchen is housed in a separate building because of the fire risk, and it was a very wise move, because the servants' quarters did in fact burn down in 1937. When the servants' quarters were rebuilt they were made into an attachment at the back of the house, so that the outside rear wall of the main house became an inside wall. Possibly at the same time as this rebuilding was going on, a decision was made to extend the verandah around three sides of the main house, both upstairs and downstairs - instead of the verandah around one-and-a-half sides that is shown in the floor plan. So the house as it stands today is slightly different from the original construction.

One of the most fascinating things to be found in the Mitchell Library is the original building contract, dated 20th April 1883. Attached to the contract are 18 pages of detailed, handwritten building specifications. There were meticulous instructions for the mason, for the bricklayer, for the plumber, and for the carpenter, the plasterer, the painter and the glazier. Nothing was left to chance. The page shown above gives instructions to the plumber.

There's even a list of instructions for the labourer. Here's an extract from the poor old labourer's list.

- Clear away the grass over the site of the different buildings and 20 feet beyond in every direction.
- Dig trenches for all walls 2 feet below the surface of the ground, stepped where required.
- Dig trenches for foundations of hearths, sleeper walls and verandah walls, 18 inches below the surface of the ground.
- Dig cellar as drawn in dotted lines, to the depth of 8 feet below the level of the top of base course, the trenches for walls to be one foot deeper.
- Dig trenches for 500 feet of drain pipe, 18 inches below the surface of the ground, and for 50 feet of drain pipe, 7 feet below the surface of the ground, to drain the cellar.

Remember they had no mechanical diggers in those days.
But wait, there's more. The labourer's list goes on for another half a page before it gets to the best bit:

- Dig tank as drawn, 17 feet 6 inches diameter and 17 feet deep below the surface.

So the labourer had to dig a hole 17 feet wide and 17 feet deep.
This was the cavity for an enormous brick-lined rainwater drainage tank, with a domed roof. There was a pump installed to lift the collected water into a holding tank in the roof of the house. The underground tank still exists in pristine condition, and, on the rare occasions that it rains, it still retains large quantities of water. We have estimated the capacity to be 90,000 litres. Unfortunately, only a small part of the roof area now drains into the tank.
The first page of specifications also refers to the fact the Bowmans, rather than the builder, were to supply, "all the Bricks, Joists and Rafters required in the erection of the building, also all the Locks, hinges, bell pressers, bolts and door furniture.." Further on there is a note that all stone is to come from "a quarry on the estate", and the bricks were probably made on the nearby Balmoral estate of William Bowman.

It seems that the Bowmans supplied a lot of the material that was used in the construction of Skellatar House. But it doesn't sound as if they were supplying any of the red cedar for the joinery and the kauri pine used for the floors. There's no mention of them providing the slate tiles for the roof, or the glass for the windows and the plaster and paint for the walls. So there's an awful lot of material still to be supplied by the builder, and an army of tradesmen, not to mention all that digging. Want to hazard a guess as to how much John Morrison of Sydney charged for the building of Skellatar House in 1883?

It was £2,800. Probably a small fortune then, but it's still a lot of house for the money.

The agreed completion date was 31st January 1884. The contract was signed on 20th April 1883. So this enormous building was completed in just nine months from start to finish, without all the machinery we have available today. Just sourcing all the materials and transporting them to Muswellbrook must have been a mammoth task in those days. There was no Bunnings in Maitland, no semi-trailers going up and down the New England Highway. Nine months, and just £2,800.

Click here for the conclusion of the Bowman Era of the history of Skellatar House

Click here to skip the rest of the Bowman Era and go straight to the Eductation Era

Click here to return to the Skellatar House home page

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