Jul 16, 2012

What the Tour Guide said about Vaucluse House

What follows will be a word dump of everything I remember of what the tour guide said and what I thought was interesting. This is more for my benefit than anyone else's, this is so interesting to me and I don't want to forget it. I wished I'd done something like this after I went to the Sydney Jewsish Museum in year 8 or 9.

I consulted the site of the Historical Houses Trust and Wikipedia during the writing of this to jog my memory and to get the upstairs rooms right, the upstairs area of the house is fairly twisty and confusing and I'm no good with building a mental picture of it when it's not really regular. When I quote the guide, that's from my memory, and it is fallible. The information I've got here may not be absolutely factual depending on my memory and the accuracy of what the guide told me.

Don't read this if you're not interested in the customs and houses of rich early colonial families. You have been warned.


Vaucluse House is in a fairly isolated location, reflecting the social position of the Wentworths. While Wentworth himself was rich and influential, his wife Sarah nee Nox had been living with him for two year before marriage and in that time bore him two children (they had ten in total - three sons and seven daughters). The pre-martial living arrangement (and the children, of course) made Sarah something of a social outcast in the colony, so their children also had little opportunity to socialise with other children (especially important for finding potential suitors for their seven daughter)

Dining Room

The room where I caught up with the tour guide is the dining room. At that time, dining rooms were thought to be masculine rooms, so the colour scheme is dark, there are no draps, which are seen to be feminine, it's all dark wood and gold inlays and there's a huge fireplace. The china plates were from China (with the unmistakably Chinese red and pink patterns you see on even on Chinese bowls today), in other words, very valuable in that era (this will come up several times throughout the tour, Chinese items were very popular and very costly at that time), the chairs had embossed Spanish leather upholstery and the cutlery had ivory handles (Guide: the poor elephants for their ivory).

Women would "withdraw" from the dining room after the meal to the drawing room, while the men stayed in the dining room to talk and have cigars. The tour guide said that people often asked why the drawing room was called that "Did they draw in it?", but no, it's because women would withdraw into it after the meal. They had to, the guide explained to us that at that time, women had to wear stays and corsets, which made them physically very weak. He said this: "We think that what the Chinese did to their young ladies were cruel, with binding their feet, you know, but the English used to make girls wear stays when they were six, to keep their waists thin. All the women were squeezed into these tiny corsets, and if they took it off they wouldn't be able to sit up, because they never developed muscles there. No wonder they were so prone to fainting spells, and needing smelling salts, this is what all the swooning was about. Remember that they would have had many many layers on, they couldn't even go to the toilet after they were dressed up because their clothing would be in the way. The petticoat liberated women down to six (not sure about this number) layers, mind you, us blokes would have also had about four layers on, and you can imagine with Australia being much hotter than England."

Before we left the room he showed us a little handle next to the fireplace, and when he swung it down, a bell rang. It could be heard in the servants' wing and was used to signal the servants. The guide told us that every room downstair (not sure if he said downstairs) had a bell like that, and they all sounded different so the servants would know which room they were needed in, but they all sounded the same to him.

Drawing Room

The drawing room was next, this is where the women came to gossip and chat after meals and it really was fairly obviously more feminine. There's draps and the colours are light and cream and gold and there's cushions and lovely ornaments. The drawing room is actually the original room of the original stone cottage. Vaucluse House was originally a stone cottage built by a fairly dodgy knight (Guide: the government didn't really know what to do with him, so they basically told him, there's a plot of land over there, why don't you take that and stay out of the way), and he named the house after some old poet. Wentworth bought the stone cottage from the dodgy knight and then expanded it, first the downstairs rooms, the servant wings and then upstairs. He opened a false door to show us the original stone wall of the cottage, and he said (more or less, I can't remember his exact words now): "But of course he didn't put that in to show off the original stone walls, the people of that time were very particular about symmetry. Everything had to be symmetrical. If you look at this room almost everything is symmetrical, the windows, the layout, and this fake door is put in to be symmetrical to that door *pointing to the door we just came through*. It's like, yin and yang." Notice the Chinese reference again?

"Notice how opulent the room is? This was meant as a room for the daughters to meet potential suitors, it had to be, put it this way, he had seven daughters to marry off, this is his way of showing he's rich. And he was one of the richest man on the colony. The wallpapers are reproductions, but the fresc (I don't know how it's spelt, I think it's pronounced "frisk" but it's the floral wallpaper border) are the original. They were drawn here in Australia, then sent back to England to be painted, then sent back to Australia to be applied (I don't exactly remember this bit, just that they were began in Australia, sent to England to do be continued and got sent back again, might be designed here, drawn in England and painted here, the point being that Wentworth went through some trouble to get these done, sent them to England and back). The carpet has lined edges (the carpet's edges had a raised woven edge that wrapped around it), this is a reproduction, but the original was done this way too, it means that the carpet was woven specifically for this room and made to fit the dimensions of the room." And it's such a lovely room, it had tall glass windows that allowed the sun to come in and had a view of the pleasure gardens, the wallpapers were beautiful and the furnitures are exquisite. I saw a lovely chess set there, with white and red pieces.

The Little Tea Room

This little tea room is where one of the daughters comes to enjoy her tea. By examining the joinery of the room, they were able to determine that this room is probably the first expansion of the house. It had a little wooden locked stand/box where tea leaves were stored, and it the daughter always had the key with her. This is because tea was very expensive at that time, it literally had to go around the world twice before it came to Australia, and while servants don't drink tea (guide: they were perfectly happy with their rum), they knew they know the price of tea on the black market. The tea stand has department so the daughter can mix her own tea blends. There's a portrait of the daughter hanging on the wall above the fireplace (it looks strange because the neck is too long - guide: you can see the artist took some liberty with her neck) but I really can't remember her name. I was trying to read the calligraphy on paper on the table in the room, but the guide told me they were just props (yeah, the paper's not yellow enough for it to be real) and that he probably wrote some of that.

The Mystery Room

It's a rectangular room that can open up into the veranda and the historians don't really know what it's for. One theory comes back to their obsession with symmetry, as there is another room on the opposite side of the house that's the same shape and size, called the strangers' room (now used by the Historic Houses Trust as an administrative office). They were used to house travellers who were riding by (guide: though who would be riding by here I don't know, it's pretty much in the middle of nowhere). They had their own bathrooms but had no access to the main house, which makes sense. This is the only room in Vaucluse House that the Historic Houses Trust rents out. It can be used as a luncheon room and used for other functions (guide: though I have seen some brides duck in here to touch up before their big entrance).


The guide pointed out the base of the stairs are barred by a white gate, which is used to keep the dogs from going upstairs (and they had really big dogs then). On top of all the stairs are also gates, this time to keep the children from going downstairs. So "no dogs upstairs and no children downstairs". If the children were ever taken downstairs, it was to show them off to guests, they would be dressed in lovely clothing, sent down to play the piano, do a little recital and taken upstairs again.

The Second Room

Upstairs, finally: this is a fairly big room where the family would have spent most of their time when there are no guests. The downstairs rooms were opulent, but they weren't child safe. The upstairs rooms were, and when there were no guests the whole downstairs area was closed up, the family just used the upstairs area. The family would have stayed in this room a lot, they would have had their meal here too (guide: notice that it's a fair way from the kitchen, but that's not their problem, the servants have to cook it and bring it up here to them).

Master Bedroom

This is where the fun part (for me) was. The bed they slept on was so piled with three layers of mattresses: the bottom most filled with hay, the one above that with horse hair, and the topmost one stuffed with down feathers. Every day after the family has woken up, the servants would have to take the whole thing apart, air it out, and put it back together again. This is a measure used to ensure some degree of hygiene and to get rid of beg bugs. (guide: this is where a nursery rhyme we now have came from, "don't let the beg bugs bite", and I suppose this is why there was the story with the princess and the pea) The bed, when made, was so high off the ground that there was a little wooden movable three step device that lets them get onto the bed. But, the steps double as something else. If you open the top of the steps, it's actually a chamber pot, where the second step is the actual bowl the waste goes into and the top step is where wool is stored, to be used as toilet paper. (guide: in light of this the saying "got out of the wrong side of the bed" makes more sense, if after a full night where you did your business, you stepped out of the wrong side of bed, you know what you would step into) The bed is also a lot shorter than the bed we're used to, and the part close to the headboard is raised, sort of like a shallow sofa. This is because while modern people sleep lying down flat, the people of that time slept almost sitting up. This is why they had so many things like night gowns and night caps, they were there to make sure their upper body stayed warm. The reason for sleeping that way is because people of that time often had respiratory problems due to the use of coal and things like that, so they had to sleep upright to help them breathe.

The room (and the whole upstairs area in general) is very practical and austere compared to the opulence of the ground floor, the floor is not carpeted, but it instead paved with wood, there are no gold inlays etc. This is because upstairs is the family's personal area, no guest would have been able to see it, there was no need to show off to anyone. Another reason that the floor is wood instead of carpet is because the couple's bath would have been taken up to their room on the first floor, water taken up here by the servants and then the whole set up taken back down again when the bath is done (there was no plumbing upstairs). It would have gotten the floor wet, and that would be hard to clean up if it was carpeted. 

Fiztwilliam's Room in the Hall

This house has some wasted spaces due to its nature of being expanded from one room. This is a prime example: this is originally a corridor that went nowhere (not the only one in the house, I saw another, no as long, more like an alcove, where they put a tall cupboard in). But it was sectioned off using a large wardrobe that had a door in the middle. The wardrobe didn't even reach to the ceiling. This is where the younger son slept when he came home (he's usually living at his school - Sydney Grammar, if I rememeber right). One of the strange things about it is that the doors and drawers of the cupboard were on the outside, so Fiztwilliam wouldn't have been able to reach it from inside his "room". The guide explained that this is because the servants had to lay out his clothing for him, and then dress him. If no servants helped him dress he would sit naked in bed. This is not because he was spoilt, but because at that time no one could dress themselves. Elastic were not invented yet, underwear were literally tied onto you with string, sleeves and other pieces of the complicated clothing they wore then were pieced together using metal clasps. So the servants had to dress each other and then the servants would dress the masters.

Children's Room

This is on the second floor, and acts as a nursery for the four young children. The guide told us that to the green in the wallpapers in this room, the people back then had to put arsenic in it. He said that it's pretty incomprehensible to him that to get that green, they would put arsenic on the nursery wallpaper and hope the children don't lick it.

Miss Wentworth's Room

The older Wentworth daughters lived here, and it's a fairly typical teenage girl room for its time. Guide: notice that the chamberpot is just sitting there in the middle of the room. If you think about it, they had so many other restrictions on their behaviour at that time compared to the modern teenage girls, who wold bare their midriffs or wear skinny jeans. The Wentworth daughters wouldn't have thought of doing any of that, but they had their toilet facilities sitting in the middle of their room, and if you ask a teenage girl now none of them would consent to doing something like that. It just shows how taboos and thoughts change, and how it can sort of flip.

Sarah's Landing

This is just a little landing on top of the stairs with a lovely view of the bay (before the council planted the huge trees). There's a couch and a table and there's a nice breeze coming in through the window, and apparently Sarah, Wentworth's wife, would often spend time here when there's free time. (guide: if it's a nice day, you might find one of the guides here...studying...)

Around 2700 words. I could have written two After the Bomb creative with that many words :( I still only have one up my sleeve.

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