Mansion comes up roses

JILL WORRALL
Last updated 07:52 17/02/2014

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It can all look so desirable on the surface ... a grand 60-room mansion, a private lake, a grotto for summer picnics, a hothouse growing exotic flowers and fruits.

Most of us would probably be tempted by the lifestyle of the rich landowner (as long as there was someone else to do the cleaning).

But as the saying goes, money does not always equate with happiness, and that seems to have been the case for the owners of Werribee Mansion just south of Melbourne.

Werribee is considered one of the finest Victorian-era mansions in Australia. Its origins are woven into a classic rags to riches story, but alas one that was also to have a tragic conclusion.

Werribee Park was established by Thomas Chirnside, a Scottish migrant who landed in Australia in 1839. Thomas had apparently been something of a wild child in his native Berwickshire farming community but once reaching Australia as a young man he turned over a new leaf.

With single-minded determination Thomas set out with entrepreneurial zeal to become a successful farmer, surviving long journeys across vast tracts of remote territory in Victoria and South Australia searching for land and maintaining his wealth through plummeting wool prices in the early 1840s. Within a few decades he was a prominent member of Australia's "squattocracy", farmers who'd grazed apparently unowned land, accumulated cash through wool sales and then continued to buy more land.

By 1870, and now joined by his brother Andrew and various other relatives, Thomas owned more than 100,000 hectares of land in Victoria, including a vast property beside the Werribee River, which he'd begun to amass a few years before during a search for land with a ready supply of water and close to the expanding city of Melbourne.

In a hint of the troubles that lay ahead, Thomas had made a trip home to Scotland some years earlier, fallen in love with his cousin Mary, but his proposal of marriage had been turned down. Brother Andrew, however, who sailed back to Scotland for a holiday a few years later, did rather better, marrying Mary himself.

In 1873 Thomas decided to build a mansion, not for himself, but for Mary and Andrew. If it was an act of unrequited love, it was on a grand scale as the house took five years to build and cost [PndStlg]60,000 (at least $4m today). Italianate in style with 60 rooms, the Werribee Mansion was built from bluestone, adding an interesting touch of home for visitors from South Canterbury. The extensive, park-like gardens were believed to have been designed by the director of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens.

Thomas then continued his relentless drive to purchase more land, as far afield as the Gulf of Carpentaria, and in the process becoming one of the largest landholders in Australia. But he was a man beset with worries: about ending up bankrupt, the possibility of drought, the government finding ways to take his money and so on. Eventually his brother and sister-in-law convinced him to move into the mansion where they could keep an eye on him as he battled with "melancholia".

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Sadly, this was to no avail because in 1887 he committed suicide in the mansion's laundry. He'd been recognised as not only a highly successful farmer and entrepreneur, but a local benefactor as well, along with being involved in the development of horse racing and hunting. He not only imported red deer (given to him by Price Albert, husband of Queen Victoria) but has the dubious honour of being the man who introduced foxes into Australia.

The family stayed on at Werribee but there was no happy ending for the Chirnsides. Andrew died three years later and in 1908 Mary died as a result of burns after her hair caught on fire from a bedroom candle.

By 1923 the property was entering a new phase, as a seminary owned by the Roman Catholic Bishops of Australia.

Werribee Mansion became Corpus Christi College, a role it held for 50 years, almost the same length of time it was the Chirnside family home. Students started their day at 5.55am for meditation and Mass. All meals were taken in silence and, along with a full programme of studies, there were afternoons of sport, work on the property to maintain the gardens and even, for some students, altar wine bottling duty.

The college closed in 1973 when the property was bought by the Victorian State Government.

Thanks to this enlightened move, Werribee is now open to the public.

Although there is a charge to tour the house itself, the grounds and the extensive collection of painstakingly restored farm buildings are free to visitors. The Chirnsides were considered good employers, giving each family who worked for them a cow, maintaining a six-day working week and encouraging education for children. Workers were provided with basic food too, as part payment for work.

On a sweltering Victorian day when I visited, the grounds were the scene of family picnics and cricket games. The one cool oasis was the Grotto, a shell and pebble- lined cave created in a rocky mound that protrudes into the artificial lake. A favourite with the Chirnsides on summer days, it is now a glimpse into elegant days long gone, plus for those interested in reptiles, the rocks are a perfect habitat for snakes (deviating from the winding path is not recommended).

Alongside the original homestead, which has been recently restored, is an impressive vegetable garden, in which was growing an intriguing mix of traditional vegetables and Asian specialties. The reason for this becomes apparent thanks to a series of display boards outlining how the garden has been adopted by members of Greater Melbourne's Burmese community (along with a growing number of immigrants from Africa).

This group has also been responsible for helping to revive the colourful, sweeping curves of the formal garden beside the mansion.

Food from the garden is not just shared by community members but is used in the kitchens of the luxury hotel and spa complex that operates from part of the mansion complex (including wings added during the seminary years).

Werribee needs at least half a day, if not longer, to explore properly because alongside the mansion's gardens is the Victoria State Rose Garden. Developed in the Werribee Park grounds, this garden has won the World Federation of Rose Societies' award for garden excellence and features over 5000 roses.

The garden, which covers 2.5ha, is planted in beds designed to represent a Tudor rose. There are sections devoted to Australian- bred roses, David Austin blooms, and old roses, along with beds starring the best hybrid-tea and floribunda roses.

One of the features of the garden is the number of climbing, standard and weeping roses, along with festoons of blooms suspended between pillars beside the numerous pathways.

When I visited, the gardens had just been subjected to days of relentless 40 degrees Celsius heat so I wasn't expecting to see any flowers at all. Amazingly, the gardens were ablaze with colour, a tribute to not only the tenacity of the rose plants themselves but also to an extensive watering system.

While some of the colour was the result of new blooms that had opened as the heat abated, some was the result of flowers that had been turned into almost instant pot pourri but were still intact on the branches.

If the Werribee mansion, its farm complex, tree-studded park and the state rose garden aren't enough for a day out, the property is also home to the Werribee Open Range Zoo. This zoo, one of Zoos Victoria's three properties (the others are the Mebourne Zoo and Healesville Sanctuary) specialises in African animals, including endangered gorillas and rhinos.

Werribee is a 30-minute drive from the centre of Melbourne along the Princes Freeway, which leads to Geelong and the Great Ocean Road. Entry to the gardens, farm complex and National Rose Garden is free. Tours of the house itself are available (charges apply).

- The Timaru Herald

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