As I entered one of the rooms at Elizabeth Farm, the guide was still shaking her head after a discussion with a visitor. "They insisted that Cadman's Cottage in the Rocks is the oldest house in Sydney". I reassured her that there's no contest, no debate. The homestead on Elizabeth Farm was indeed the oldest house in Australia. Commenced in 1793, it pre-dates the 1816 Cadman's Cottage by some 23 years.
I'm here at Elizabeth Farm for its annual open day. There are guided tours and talks given by the curators of what is one of the most treasured properties owned by the Historic Houses Trust of NSW and the first permanently protected property in New South Wales.
But there is much more significance attached to Elizabeth Farm apart from just being the oldest house in Australia. The property is a tribute to the life and times of John and Elizabeth Macarthur, early settlers and pioneers of the Australian wool industry.
Arriving in 1793 on the second fleet with a small family, Macarthur was an officer in the New South Wales Corps and was granted 100 acres of land at Parramatta. He quickly established a small three room house which was added to extensively over the following years. The land was transformed into a large successful farm with orchards, crops of vegetables, wheat and a variety of animal stock. Macarthur is famously credited for kick starting the Australian wool industry, breeding merinos for their fine wool.
An ambitious and abrasive man, Macarthur managed to create conditions that caused much conflict within the colony. He had a virtual army of servants and convict staff. He had his own personal armed guard of Aboriginal men dressed in war paint and carrying spears. Twice he had to return to England to defend his name. Once after being involved in a duel with a fellow officer and then for his involvement in the revolt against Governor William Bligh. He opposed the rights of emancipist convicts and accepted enormous and generous land grants. His erratic behaviour saw him walking through Parramatta brandishing a sword and eventually taken to spend his last years at his property at Camden.
The house is not authentically furnished like it would have been at time of the Macarthur's but it does invoke an old world charm. The historical use and archaeology of various rooms are well documented. There are striking portraits of both Elizabeth and John and there is an awkward looking lumpy four poster bed. The grounds contain a small vegetable plot as well as plants that the Macarthur's introduced to the property. There are some original trees including a huge Chinese elm with an alarming 45 degree lean and some magnificent bunya pines.
The farm has been at times in a state of ruinous disrepair. It owes its restoration and preservation to various strong-minded dedicated enthusiasts. This culminated in the NSW state government issuing a permanent preservation order in 1977.
The farm's tea room serves a classic Devonshire tea with a range of delicious scones. Elizabeth Farm and tea room are only open weekends from 10.30 am to 3.00 pm. Entry is $8.50.