Part IV: Edwardian Rubble

By Michaela Ann Cameron

Supported by a Create NSW Arts and Cultural Grant


Slated for Demolition

In a number of articles published from September 1908 to January 1909, the Evening News reported that The Cedars was abandoned, overgrown and increasingly unsafe, and ‘owing to want of funds to effect repairs, it has been decided to call for tenders for purchase and removal of the buildings.’[1] Inevitably, those with a respect for the rich history of the building voiced well-reasoned arguments about the value of the ‘fine old relic of the early days,’ citing Francis Greenway’s contribution, how much it cost to build, its impressive architectural features as well as its first occupant Reverend Samuel Marsden’s own significance, and also offered excellent ideas for its adaptive reuse. Frank Walker, the Honorary Treasurer of the Australian Historic Society, for one, wrote to the Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald:

This country is not so overburdened with historical relics that it can afford to allow them to be demolished wholesale, and the thought naturally arises, … Erected as it was on a commanding site, even if not required as a private residence, surely it might have been acquired by the municipal authorities of the historic town to preserve the building, either by converting it to some public use…or turning it into a museum for the repository of Australian curiosities…and used to commemorate the name of one who served his day and generation well[.]

One of the chief attractions of Parramatta is its wealth of historic associations, and now that we are waking up to a sense of the value of these possessions, every one of them should be rigidly preserved for the sake of generations to come…One by one our present day “links with the past” are thus being severed, and in a few years many of these picturesque and sturdy buildings, which alone preserve the memory of other days, will have vanished, and their associations perish with them.[2]

All fell on deaf ears.

Vale, The Cedars (1)
Historic Parramatta House. Over 100 Years Old. Now Being Demolished,” Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 – 1931), Saturday 2 January 1909, p. 3, National Library of Australia.

In truth, it seems the unpopular decision to demolish was not actually due to the parsonage being entirely beyond repair or insufficient funds. Indeed, the Evening News admitted, the ‘walls and roof [were] in an excellent state of preservation,’ and according to Walker of the Australian Historic Society, ‘Still staunch and solid as the day it was built, in the ordinary course of events there was no reason why it should not have lasted another century.’[3] ‘A Parishioner’ corroborated these statements, describing The Cedars as ‘mainly in excellent preservation, [it] only required trimming off, so far as the outbuildings were concerned, and the usual repairs which any house would require after months of neglect.’[4] Furthermore, these ‘usual repairs’ were not prohibitively costly; when community members protested against ‘this most unfortunate act of vandalism’ in the newspapers ‘for weeks’ and ‘a meeting of influential parishioners was held under the presidency of Archdeacon Günther…to consider ways and means to save this fine old building,’ Mayor William Noller, ‘one of the prominent local churchmen’ and a major building contractor himself, said ‘about £200’ would ‘put the mansion in order and ma[k]e it tenantable.’[5] Mayor Noller’s quoted sum was less than a tenth of what the parsonage had cost to build almost a century earlier, and that percentage does not even take into account how much more valuable a £2500 expenditure was in the 1810s compared to the value of the same monetary figure in the early 1900s. Given the widespread public distress surrounding the imminent destruction of the parsonage, contemporary newspaper reporters thought it reasonable to assume that the sum of £200 could have been raised for the repairs among the concerned parishioners alone. Yet, when the parishioners’ representatives sought out an interview with the trustees ‘to discuss with them the financial aspect of the matter,’ which likely would have eliminated the supposed financial obstacle to keeping the parsonage, the trustees ‘declined to meet [them] and, in fact, called for tenders for the demolition…’[6]

Scots Church, Parramatta
St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Parramatta (built 1840), aka “The Scots Church,” “Scotch Church,” and “The Auld Kirk,” pictured here when it still stood in its original position on Church Street, Parramatta, next to the Post Office (to its left out of frame) and the Court House (to its right out of frame, no longer extant). The Scots Church was demolished and reconstructed and now stands as “The Wentworthville Presbyterian Church” at 7 McKern Street, Wentworthville. John Henry Harvey, Scots Church, Parramatta, (c.1880–1938), H91.300/722 / 1760334, State Library Victoria.

‘Vale, The Cedars,’ an article in The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate might shed more light on the reason for the trustees’ apparent lack of cooperation with parishioners. It briefly mentioned that the trustees were under pressure, as they were being ‘pursued by the Board of Health regulations,’ and had ‘waited until their patience [gave] out, and…accepted a tender for the demolition of the buildings and the removal of the material.’[7] This may suggest that the trustees were caught up in ‘red tape.’ No ulterior plan for the parsonage site on the part of either the trustees or the government was revealed in the newspapers at the time, nor is it clear (at the time of writing) precisely when O’Connell Street was first connected to the Great Western Highway. But the sheer fact that the removal of the parsonage ultimately did allow O’Connell Street to connect to the Great Western Highway, as it does today, perhaps indicates the parsonage, which had always occupied the ‘perfect’ spot, was probably now for the same reason simply in the wrong spot.

Even so, as a brick building, there was the (not altogether satisfying) option of reconstructing the parsonage elsewhere. This option would have at least preserved the historic building, albeit at the expense of its context, thereby losing its spatial relationship to Old Government House, St. John’s Church, and Marsden’s final resting place at St. John’s Cemetery. A decade or so later, in 1925, for instance, demolition began on the ‘Scots Church,’ which then stood on Church Street, Parramatta in Burramattagal Country, and by 1928 it was fully reconstructed at Wentworthville, Boolbainora Country, where it remains to this day.[8] In late 1908, though, the historic parsonage was not deemed worthy of, or eligible for, the same treatment.

‘Vale, The Cedars’

‘Howl, fir tree, for the cedar is fallen.’

Zechariah 11.2

While major developments in historic localities today actually create opportunities for professional archaeologists to painstakingly investigate a heritage site and report on their findings prior to any excavation and building works being undertaken, in 1908 that was most definitely not the case. The contractor, a Mr. Wainwright, quickly unleashed on the parsonage site, showing as little concern for the site’s historic fabric as one would expect, considering it had been so undervalued as to be sold and handed over holus-bolus to his will and pleasure.

The resulting ‘regrettable demolition’ provided those with deep pockets to pick over the beautiful bones of the parsonage carcass in what was described as a ‘monster unreserved sale’ of ‘the whole of the first-class material, comprising, 200,000 bricks,’ as well as items made of marble, cast-iron and ‘solid cedar,’ and ‘cut-glass chandeliers.’[9]

Monster Unreserved Sale, The Cedars building materials
Advertising. Building Materials. Monster Unreserved Sale by Auction, Today, Wednesday, Dec. 16, at 11 o’clock,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW: 1888 – 1950), Wednesday 16 December 1908, p. 3, National Library of Australia.

The demolition of the parsonage also provided ‘the historic borough with a series of mild sensations.’[10]

Hidden Treasure

Mr. Wainwright had been ‘at the business of buying old buildings and removing them’ for eighteen years, but while ‘he had known of other people finding articles of value hidden away, he himself had never found anything of value before.’[11] On 23 December 1908, however, whilst ‘busily engaged’ removing the floorboards in one of the parsonage’s front rooms, Wainwright unexpectedly received an early Christmas present:

A short length of tongue-and-groove board, 2ft or 3ft away from the fireplace, was loose…My pickhead happened to fall off, and in stooping to get it my eye fell on what looked like a baking-powder tin, just under the joist. I picked the tin up, and was about to throw it to my mate when I noticed that it was rather heavy. A gentleman named Ward was watching operations. He saw me pick up the tin. I took the lid off in front of him. On top was a piece of cheesecloth, old and worn, and underneath a piece of brown paper. On removing them I beheld gold sovereigns. I immediately replaced the lid, and put the tin in my trousers pocket. When by myself I emptied the sovereigns out. At the bottom of the tin was a piece of paper with writing upon it. I read it and then placed it in the fire, and to make sure that it would not blow about I ground the remains into the earth with my boot. The empty tin is now 20ft down the well, and the sovereigns are in my pocket. No one will know how many there are, and no one will know what was written on the piece of paper. They are my property, as I bought everything about the building.[12]

Tin of Sovereigns, Contractor's Lucky Find, St. John's Parsonage, Parramatta, The Cedars
Tin of Sovereigns. Contractor’s Lucky Find. The Secret of the Burnt Document,” The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Friday 25 December 1908, p. 5.

It was Mr. Wainwright’s fifteen minutes of fame. In the coming days and weeks, the contractor’s account of his ‘romantic’ discovery of the parsonage’s hidden treasure received quite a few inches of column space in newspapers all over New South Wales, not least because of how ‘elaborate’ his actions had been to ‘destroy the identity of the thrifty soul who once possessed’ the gold sovereigns.[13] Were the sovereigns the secret stash of gold miner George Pile? If so, though he was still alive he never admitted as much, and it would have been odd that one so enamoured with gold would be so careless as to leave it behind; if not, then news of the gold buried ‘neath his own boards must have been frustrating to one who had spent years during the gold rush obsessively digging for buried treasure and yet failed to sniff it out almost right under his own hearth.

For those already reeling from the impending loss of the historic building itself, the news that the contractor paid no heed to the historic value of the tin and its contents for all Australians and thought solely in terms of its monetary value for himself was, of course, yet another major blow. The news prompted Frank Walker, Honourary Treasurer of the Australian Historical Society, to pen a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Many of your numerous readers will have had their curiosity awakened by the action of the contractor in refusing to disclose what the writing was on the piece of paper found in the tin. If it is of any historical value it seems a pity to withhold the information, unless some very special object is concerned in not making it public.’[14] The journalist covering the story for the Barrier Miner in far flung Broken Hill in Wilyakali Country was less guarded in his opinions of Wainwright’s actions:

One would have thought that after such a stroke of good luck Mr. Wainwright would have been only too pleased to have given all the particulars in connection with the find, but, with a reticence as provoking as it is mysterious, he refuses to give any information except [his]..bare account of what took place … Is it possible…in spite of all the elaborate precautions he has taken not to let any one know who the sovereigns belong to, that Mr. Wainwright has never heard of the right of the Crown to treasure trove? His dignified reserve as to the number of sovereigns in the tin, however, suggests that he may know something about it.[15]

If nothing else, thanks to Wainwright’s strange compulsion to broadcast his discovery whilst adamantly maintaining that he would withhold so much information, we know that the gold sovereigns carefully stowed away were part of the building’s history, and even have a rough idea of their location beneath the floorboards of the parsonage’s front room. Alas, there were undoubtedly many more non-glittering historical treasures that Mr. Wainwright’s unknowing eye dismissed as worthless items as the soon-to-be forgotten contractor busied himself lining his pockets with golden sovereigns and undoing the not-so-easily forgotten Colonial Architect Francis Greenway’s first major work in the colony.

Spooks, Spectres and Ghostly “Somethings”

Historically-sensitive members of the community, quite rightly, already felt that the destruction of the parsonage site was sacrilegious on multiple levels but, shortly after the sensation of the sovereigns, Wainwright’s on site activities would fall under the category of ‘desecration’ in a far more literal way and provide Parramattans with a second ‘sensation.’

A (reportedly) solitary grave was discovered in the parsonage garden.[16] When questioned about the grave by a reporter from The Cumberland Argus, the contractor Wainwright responded: ‘“Yes, here it is.” And sure enough, there was a small plot of ground enclosed by a few rough slabs of stone about mid-way between the western end of the mansion and the adjoining residence.’[17] The location of the grave was decidedly odd, given that St. John’s—the general cemetery for all religious denominations in the era concerned—is situated only metres from the parsonage grounds and was where the parson himself officiated burial ceremonies anyway. Since most of the brief contemporary reports of the grave’s discovery did not attempt to identify the remains, initial thoughts on reading the accounts were that it might have been the grave of one of the Māori People who lived at the parsonage, a theory that gains traction in light of competing claims about four undocumented Māori burials having taken place at St. John’s Cemetery or Rangihou Reserve.[18] The notion that the grave discovered at the parsonage contained Māori remains was certainly one with which former pupil of The Cedars Mrs. Patience Bedford Isaacs wholeheartedly concurred as recently as the mid-1960s. Indeed, most interestingly, she also claimed that four graves were found during the demolition, not one, and that they were actually discovered, not in ‘the garden’ but in a more secretive and, therefore, eyebrow-raisingly suspicious location ‘under the foundations of the Library wing.’[19] It was the selfsame ‘spot,’ she claimed, that the ‘strange chill and dancing lights were seen on several occasions running into the ground’ to the horror of the young girls boarding there in the 1890s. In the 1960s, the woman interviewing Patience surmised ‘Perhaps…[it was a] ghost or reflections from a lantern whose owner was on a midnight assignation in the underground tunnel. Who knows!’[20] Of course, the grave may well have been under the foundations of the Library in the Victorian era, but the wings and main block had originally been disconnected in the Georgian era, so this was not quite as suspicious as it appeared to Patience. Patience was elderly, relying on her fading memory, and no doubt embracing her role as storyteller by drawing on some of the old girls’ ghost tradition to inject some colour into her memories of the early days of Tara. We also cannot discount the possibility that she unintentionally conflated her knowledge of Māori living at the parsonage with the hyped up ghost stories of her girlhood and the equally sensational story of the discovery of a grave in the garden when her old school was obliterated.

St. John's Parsonage, Parramatta, St. John's Rectory, The Cedars, Reverend Samuel Marsden, St. John's Cemetery Project, Old Parramattans, Francis Greenway
Isabel Mary Flockton, “Rev. Samuel Marsden’s Parsonage at St. John’s Parramatta, c. 1860,” from a drawing by Edmund Thomas, (1909), V1B / Parr / 13 / FL3272845, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. Note that the out-buildings are connected to the central block but that this picture of the parsonage was created in 1909, the year the parsonage was demolished. It may be that the out buildings had been connected by c. 1860, but they were not connected in Greenway’s original design, as depicted here.

When the Sydney Morning Herald published a slightly more detailed report regarding the ‘lone’ grave at the time of the demolition, they stated that it was ‘supposed to be that of an old male servant of the Rev. Samuel Marsden…whose great desire was to be laid at rest within the grounds of the parsonage.’[21] Exactly what evidence supported this ‘supposition’ made in 1908 is unknown; but, if correct, the servant who reportedly articulated this burial wish clearly considered the parsonage a most suitable place for his eternal rest, presumably because he could not even conceive of a time when the parsonage that loomed so large in the Parramatta he knew would no longer be relevant to the Parramatta of less than a century later. Whomever the human remains belonged to, ‘the contractor [Wainwright] stated that part of his contract was to open the grave, but there his duty would end. One of the Parramatta undertakers would do the rest; but Mr. Wainwright understood that the remains would be taken up and transferred to St. John’s cemetery.’[22] Although the St. John’s burial register makes no mention of what surely would have been a noteworthy reinterment, they were reportedly subsequently disturbed from their resting place and transferred a few metres down the road to St. John’s Cemetery after all, disturbing quite a few living Parramattans in the process.[23] After the grave was opened and the remains were ‘satisfactorily disposed of,’

the workmen sleeping in the outrooms [of the parsonage] complained of “strange noises” in the witching hour of midnight … [I]t was not until someone discovered an opossum up one of the chimneys that this particular ghost was laid. Since then, however, there has been a revival in spooks and spectres, several persons asserting that strange noises may be heard o’ nights: some go as far as to say that ghostly “somethings” have been seen roaming around lately, but although the Rambler has seen several who aver that they have heard the noises and also others who know somebody who said they saw something like a little fat man in spirit form, he himself has discovered nothing in the spirit line nearer than the public-house window a quarter of a mile away. Rest assured. There is at least one neighbouring resident who carries half a brick in his coat pocket on lodge nights, so there is probably a bad time in store for somebody.[24]

Evidently, young impressionable girls at a boarding school were not the only Parramattans who feared spectral emanations and told ghost stories in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Regardless of any community objections from this side of the veil or ghostly, ‘little, fat’ objectors from the spiritual realm, by the end of the first week of January 1909, or sometime shortly thereafter, the once imposing St. John’s Parsonage was reduced to ‘a mere heap of tumbled bricks’ and ‘one of the many Parramatta memories only.’[25]

<< PART III: LADIES’ COLLEGE      ♦      CONCLUSION >>


CITE THIS

Michaela Ann Cameron, “Lost Landmark: St. John’s Parsonage, Parramatta,” St. John’s Online, (2020), https://stjohnsonline.org/about/the-parsonage/lost-landmark/part-iv-edwardian-rubble/, accessed [insert current date].


Notes

[1]The Cedars,” Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 – 1931), Saturday 26 September 1908, p. 10; “Historic Parramatta House. Over 100 Years Old. Now Being Demolished,” Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 – 1931), Saturday 2 January 1909, p. 3.

[2] This block quotation is an amalgamation of two of Walker’s letters to a newspaper editor, which covered similar ground. The original letters can be viewed at “St. John’s Parsonage,” The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Thursday 31 December 1908, p. 11, “Historic Parramatta House. Over 100 Years Old. Now Being Demolished,” Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 – 1931), Saturday 2 January 1909, p. 3 and “The Cedars. Protest from the Historical Society,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 – 1950), Wednesday 6 January 1909, p. 2.

[3]Historic Parramatta House. Over 100 Years Old. Now Being Demolished,” Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 – 1931), Saturday 2 January 1909, p. 3.

[4]The Cedars. Protest from the Historical Society,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 – 1950), Wednesday 6 January 1909, p. 2.

[5]The Cedars. Protest from the Historical Society,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 – 1950), Wednesday 6 January 1909, p. 2. See “Death of Alderman W. P. Noller. District Mourns Loss of Noble Citizen. Long Record of Devoted Services,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 – 1950), Wednesday 23 December 1936, p. 1 for information on Mayor Noller’s “technical knowledge” and his experience as a major building contractor, as well as details of his later involvement ‘as a driving force behind a multitude of improvements to Parramatta Park” where the projects he was involved with were much larger in scale and more costly than what the parsonage would have required.

[6]The Cedars. Protest from the Historical Society,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 – 1950), Wednesday 6 January 1909, p. 2; “Brevities,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 – 1950), Saturday 19 December 1908, p. 4.

[7]Vale, The Cedars,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 – 1950), Wednesday 9 December 1908, p. 2. For the history of the Board of Health see, C. J. Cummins, A History of Medical Administration in NSW, 1788–1973, 2nd edition, (North Sydney: New South Wales Department of Health, 1979), pp. 71–80, https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/about/history/Publications/history-medical-admin.pdf, accessed 6 May 2020.

[8] Peter Arfanis, “St. Andrew’s Church, Parramatta, Lives On,” Parramatta Heritage Centre, (2015), http://arc.parracity.nsw.gov.au/blog/2015/12/22/st-andrews-church-parramatta-lives-on/, accessed 18 April 2020.

[9]Advertising. Building Materials. Monster Unreserved Sale by Auction, Today, Wednesday, Dec. 16, at 11 o’clock,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW: 1888 – 1950), Wednesday 16 December 1908, p. 3.

[10]Rural Notes,” Watchman (Sydney, NSW : 1902 – 1926), Thursday 11 February 1909, p. 8.

[11]Tin of Sovereigns. Contractor’s Lucky Find. The Secret of the Burnt Document,” The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Friday 25 December 1908, p. 5.

[12]Tin of Sovereigns. Contractor’s Lucky Find. The Secret of the Burnt Document,” The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Friday 25 December 1908, p. 5.

[13] For the “thrifty soul” quotation see “Rural Notes,” Watchman (Sydney, NSW : 1902 – 1926), Thursday 11 February 1909, p. 8; See, for example, “Contractor’s Lucky Find,” Singleton Argus (NSW : 1880 – 1954), Tuesday 29 December 1908, p. 1.

[14] Frank Walker, “St. John’s Parsonage. To the Editor of the Herald,” Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Thursday 31 December 1908, p. 11.

[15] Town Talker, “Town Talk,” Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 – 1954), Monday 4 January 1909, p. 2.

[16]Tin of Sovereigns. Contractor’s Lucky Find. The Secret of the Burnt Document,” The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Friday 25 December 1908, p. 5; “Rural Notes,” Watchman (Sydney, NSW : 1902 – 1926), Thursday 11 February 1909, p. 8.

[17]A Lucky Find. “The Cedars” Demolition. A Plant of Sovereigns. A Grave to be Opened,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 – 1950), Saturday 26 December 1908, p. 4.

[18] “History of Rangihou,” Rangihou Sacred Burial Site, (n.d), https://rangihousacredburialsite.wordpress.com/the-history-of-rangihou/, accessed 6 May 2020 and “Maori Sacred Burial Site – Rangihou, Parramatta,” Rangihou, (30 July 2012), https://rangihou.wordpress.com/2012/07/30/the-history-of-rangihou/, accessed 6 May 2020. Maarama Kamira identifies St. John’s Cemetery as the most likely burial place, correctly noting that “The records for St. John’s Cemetery were destroyed by fire in the 1930s. It is probable, but not identifiable, there are Māori burials at this cemetery.” See Maarama Kamira, Māori Trade & Relations in Parramatta, (Parramatta: City of Parramatta Council, 2016), p. 9. There was also no reason for the Māori to have been denied burial at the cemetery: it was a ‘general cemetery’ for all religious denominations and ethnicities in this period. Kamira concurs: “There is some speculation about the remains of the four [Māori] boys who allegedly died in New South Wales. There is no independent evidence they died in Parramatta or where they were buried. Marsden referred to families coming to take their bones back to their family sepulchre. Given that Marsden was introducing Christianity to the natives, it is probable that any of the bodies not returned to New Zealand would have been buried in consecrated grounds. At that time, it would have been the Old Parramatta Burial Grounds, now St. John’s Cemetery. As the records are no longer in existence, it is impossible to ascertain where they are buried.” Maarama Kamira, Māori Trade & Relations in Parramatta, (Parramatta: City of Parramatta Council, 2016), p. 21.

[19] Bronwyn Hubbard, Tara: A Telling of the Tapestry, (Masons Drive, North Parramatta: Tara Anglican School, 1997), p. 50.

[20] Bronwyn Hubbard, Tara: A Telling of the Tapestry, (Masons Drive, North Parramatta: Tara Anglican School, 1997), p. 50.

[21]Tin of Sovereigns. Contractor’s Lucky Find. The Secret of the Burnt Document,” The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Friday 25 December 1908, p. 5.

[22]A Lucky Find. “The Cedars” Demolition. A Plant of Sovereigns. A Grave to be Opened,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 – 1950), Saturday 26 December 1908, p. 4.

[23]Tin of Sovereigns. Contractor’s Lucky Find. The Secret of the Burnt Document,” The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Friday 25 December 1908, p. 5. Parish Burial Registers, Textual Records, St. John’s Anglican Church Parramatta, New South Wales.

[24]Rural Notes,” Watchman (Sydney, NSW : 1902 – 1926), Thursday 11 February 1909, p. 8.

[25]Historic Parramatta House. Over 100 Years Old. Now Being Demolished,” Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 – 1931), Saturday 2 January 1909, p. 3.