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  • Writer's pictureHelen Avaient

Clarendon House is Australia's greatest Georgian house

Updated: Mar 23, 2022

The grandest classically Georgian house in Australia is open to the public in Tasmania.

As a lover of both beautiful old homes and history, visiting Clarendon house near Evandale was a must see and do on my list of gorgeous Tasmanian heritage homes. This National Trust property is open to the public, enabling the visitors to come experience and enjoy this colonial treasure. It definitely lived up to my expectations, in fact – it surpassed them. Even before you enter the house, the grandeur is evident. The rear of the building is almost as spectacular as the front entrance.

First opened to the public in 1969, this three story building is a mix of architectural styles. The design is characteristic of the late Georgian period. It has also been described as neo-classical with a bit of American style plantation house architecture. This house is grand and meant to make an impression as soon as you see it. Pairs of Ionic pilasters flank the ground floor windows.

Visitors to this country mansion will also be able to wander the grounds of this colonial farm complex with its extensive gardens and parklands. Imagine the deer and peacocks that roamed the grounds when the Cox’s lived here. While the onset of Dutch Elm disease devastated native elms around the world, the rare Avenue of Elms at Clarendon remain unaffected. These magnificent trees are over 150 years old and the National Trust are developing a conservation program to protect them.

Even before you enter the house, stroll through the heritage walled garden that has been lovingly planted and maintained by dedicated volunteers. These gardens would originally have been the kitchen gardens, where the fresh produce for the estate would have grown.

Then continue the outside tour and walk through the servants’ wing, stone and brick woolshed, stables, stone barn, cottages and coach house. The brick shearing shed is one of the most solid of its kind that I have seen. This is because the family lived in hitere for a while, before the main house was built.

Cox cared for his convicts, servants and farm workers. Still standing today, adjoining the coach house is their terraced accommodation. The ground floor was for living and dining, with a bedroom on the first floor. This was unusual housing at the time and show the care that Cox had for his workers. James became a leading campaigner in the anti-transportation movement.

Historically, masonary buildings were left unpainted, thought to give the house an opportunity to “breathe”. Often they were given a finishing coat of limewash or distemper, which allowed moisture to permeate through the exterior walls. At Clarendon, the slow process of removing modern paint and restoring the walls to preserve them takes a long time to do it right. This is not a pristine newly constructed home, it is a heritage house that constantly requires maintenance and being able to see the process here is part of its charm. This grand old house is being cared for.

James Cox (1790 – 1866) was the first owner of Clarendon. The house was built in 1838. James Cox helped introduce merino sheep into Tasmania. James was born in England and joined his parents in New South Wales, Australia in 1806. He ended up being one of the richest men in Tasmania’s history.

James and his first wife Mary arrived in Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen’s Land, in 1814. This was only 26 years after the first fleet arrived, and it was a wild land. Convicts and bushrangers were found throughout the island. As a free man, James was granted 700 acres of land on the banks of the South Esk river, south of Launceston. He later successfully petitioned for another 6000 acres.

The original wooden house expanded rapidly to house the ever growing family. Sadly, Mary died in 1828 whilst giving birth to her ninth child. James was 38 at time and soon married nineteen year old Eliza Eddington, the daughter of the Lieutenant Governor David Collins and his mistress Margaret Eddington. James and Eliza had eight children.

By 1838 James was a wealthy woolgrower and Clarendon house was built to showcase this wealth. Convict labour helped build the house, and work in the growing wool and agricultural business.

Clarendon was inherited by his grandson (also named James Cox) and four generations of the family subsequently lived here, until 1917. The Tasmanian Closer Settlement Act enabled the government to buy large estates and subdivide them into smaller farms. This allowed families to be able to afford property and become self sufficient. It also made the Clarendon estate no longer viable to support the family.

Alex Boyes owned the property until 1945, followed by Walter and Kathleen Menzies who maintained it as a horse racing stud. By 1962 the house was not in good shape. It was easier to upkeep large houses and properties with the cheap convict labour, which was unavailable in the 1900s. Mrs. Menzies donated the house and outbuildings, along with nine acres of land, to the National Trust. The trust then began the task of restoration that would take many years and is still ongoing. Admission fees to the property go towards the works.

None of the current furnishings and fittings are original. People have donated items that reflect how the home would have been furnished with in the 1800s.

Stepping into the home through the grand front entrance brings visitors to the main foyer. To the left is a spacious and well appointed living room. Several rooms in the house boast papier-mache cornices on the plaster ceiling. The floors are made of hardwood.

To the right is the dining room with its large table big enough to entertain twelve. Fireplaces grace each room, reminding us of how cold it gets in Tasmania.

The ground floor also houses the office where owners would work from home (similar to 2020 onwards), and there is a small sitting room that would have been an intimate gathering place for the lady of the house and friends.

Visitors can climb the wooden stairs to the floor above that contains bedrooms with views out over the estate.

Dreamy four poster beds dominate the rooms. These beds are smaller than modern day large queen and king sized beds. People were mostly shorter in bygone times.

Chamber pots and water jugs remind us of days before indoor plumbing. I think that the decorations on these essential items had to be as pretty as possible for the times, as the odours would not have been attractive at all.

One of the upstairs rooms has been recreated to showcase the “feminine” activities of the gentle ladies. Women were admired for their skills in sewing, painting and music. Before sewing machines, all sewing was done by hand. Often skilled seamstresses would earn money by making and repairing clothing for others.

The Cox daughters were also taught to garden and each had their own garden where they could plant and tend whatever they chose.

Another room has a collection of gorgeous dresses from the 1830s to the 1960s. Back in those olden times, the outfits were complex. Voluminous petticoats, bustles to make your dress puff up at the back, corsets, chemises, stockings, gloves, pantaloons (or bloomers) were all necessary garments. Caps and bonnets were worn upon the head, and the hair would be decorated with combs, ribbons, flower and jewels.

Downstairs, visitors can see where the servants would have prepared meals. These rooms are far less glamourous than those occupied upstairs.

The servants wing is next to the main house and contains a laundry, dairy, bakery and 1storehouse as well as accommodation for workers. Reading the information boards paints a picture of the conditions in the 1800s and enables visitors to get a glimpse of what life would have been like then. Seeing the equipment that was used makes me grateful for modern appliances.

On the grounds of Clarendon is the Australian Fly Fishing Museum. This is not regularly open, but special visits can be arranged by calling Clarendon. Weddings, corporate functions and special events can also be arranged at Clarendon by contacting the National Trust.

Chatting with two of the wonderful volunteer tour guides at Clarendon, they said people were encouraged to bring picnics and enjoy the grassed areas of the estate. There is no charge to wander around the estate, although donations are encouraged. There is a small fee to tour inside, and the monies raised go towards the maintenance of this wonderful house.

Happy Travels!

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Graham Palmer
Graham Palmer
Jan 07, 2022

Good review of the house and its history. Funding must be difficult to obtain as the house and certain outbuildings have fallen into disrepair. It’s sad to see an important piece of Tasmania’s past in such poor condition and it deserves better support from government. My wife and I rented the Sheperd’s Cottage from 1996 until 2000. After we left it was converted into two holiday units until subsidence of the footings caused it to be abandoned.

Helen Avaient
Helen Avaient
Jan 09, 2022
Replying to

Thank you for that added bit of history Graham. Yes, it does need more funds to repair different parts. I do hope that by reading my article, more people visit, enjoy and help fund it.

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