6 Historic Australian Houses You Can Visit

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Aug 22, 2017

Love a period drama? Step into these grand country homes for tea, tours and fascinating tales, writes Angie Kelly.

Mornington, Victoria

Beleura House & Garden

Open for piano recitals, book readings, gardening lectures, choir performances, costume dramas, high tea and house and garden tours.

Once the summer residence of Melbourne theatrical entrepreneur Sir George Tallis, this stately Italianate mansion with spectacular gardens was a favourite getaway of Dame Nellie Melba – she is said to have loved the four-tap tub in the guest bathroom.

Beleura, built in 1863, stayed in the Tallis family until 1996, when it was bequeathed to the people of Victoria. The Tallis legacy of arts patronage lives on through a program of events in association with the Melba Opera Trust and the Australian National Academy of Music. Visitors can tour reception rooms with original furniture, artworks and a priceless Steinway & Sons grand piano, as well as the “Melba” bedroom in which the world-famous soprano stayed.

Don’t miss: the Australian Welsh Male Choir, an ensemble of singers ranging in age from 40 to 90-plus, performing Welsh classics on Thursday, 21 September; the 1.30pm show is followed by afternoon tea.

More: Five-hour tours are held from Tuesday to Friday and on the third Saturday of the month (bookings essential).

Longford, Tasmania 

Woolmers Estate

Open for accommodation, tours, functions and events.

It’s been 200 years since commissariat officer Thomas Archer I settled the now World Heritage-listed convict site that is the intriguing Woolmers Estate. Six generations of Archers lived on the northern Tasmanian property until 1994, when Thomas VI bequeathed it to a private trust.

The convict-built Italianate homestead and the many farm buildings around it are a veritable time capsule to which visitors flock. “It’s as though the family has just walked out,” says the estate’s events manager Sue-Ellen Groer. “The Archers prided themselves on never throwing away anything so there is 200 years worth of possessions – it’s a very intact collection.”

Accommodation in seven historic workers’ cottages is three-and-a-half stars and in November and December, the estate’s 19th-century rose garden is at its blooming, fragrant best.

Don’t miss: Woofs, Wags and Walkies on 23 July, a fun day out for canines and their carers. For car lovers, the Convicts to Classics Car and Bike Show is on 17 September.

More: Woolmers Estate is open seven days a week from 10am to 4pm for guided and self-guided tours.

SEE ALSO: Cultural and Historic Destinations That Kids Will Love

Scone, NSW

Belltrees

Open for farmstays, corporate retreats, group tours and polo matches.

Seven generations of the White family have called Belltrees home since Merino-wool pioneer James White purchased the property on the banks of the Hunter River in 1853. The 52-room Federation homestead was built in 1907 and parts of it are open to visitors. Group tours also take in the woolshed, chapel, school and post office, built to support the 60-plus workers who once lived on the farm.

“It’s a private village here,” says Serena White of the 9000-hectare property, an hour’s drive from the cellar doors of the Upper Hunter. “We have family living in nine homes on the property, while other cottages are used for lunches and B & B accommodation. My husband, Pete, and I have restored them all.” 

The original Colonial homestead is now a museum containing cast-iron farm implements made by the property’s blacksmith, historic photos, crockery and domestic accoutrement from 160 years of life at Belltrees, which is still a working cattle farm.

Don’t miss: Scone Polo Club’s tournaments, to be held at Belltrees on 9, 10, 22, 23 and 24 September.

More: Accommodation and group tours must be booked in advance.

Hamilton, South Australia

Anlaby

Open for house and garden tours, weddings, B & B accommodation and special events.

In 2004, Sydney finance workers Andrew Morphett and Peter Hayward began their labour of love: restoring Anlaby, one of South Australia’s most important Victorian-era properties. They took on running the farm – the state’s oldest working Merino stud, acquired in 1839 by Frederick Dutton – and undertook major restoration work on the estate. It took 18 months just to rewire the 32-room mansion and years to clear four hectares for garden redevelopment.

Next, they set about re-creating the library that is part of the Anlaby legend; when acclaimed poet, historian and novelist Geoffrey Dutton grew up on the estate, the library housed some 10,000 books. Andrew and Peter searched the world for tomes carrying the Dutton bookplate.

“The farthest afield we’ve found them is in London,” says Andrew. “This is a living, breathing property and restoring it is a lifestyle. We work really hard but it’s a constant source of enjoyment. When we have events, we have a chance to share it with people – the place just comes to life.”

Anlaby also sells wool throws, blankets and scarves, all made from the property’s fleece. Even Prince George has an Anlaby baby blanket, gifted to Prince William in 2014, the station’s 175th anniversary year.

Don’t miss: the annual open-garden weekend on 14 and 15 October, featuring the International Woolmark Prize exhibition, shearing demonstrations and garden-sculpture and horse sales.

More: One-hour tours, plus lunch or Devonshire tea, can be arranged for groups of 10 or more.

Jimbour, Queensland 

Jimbour House

Open for garden tours, weddings and outdoor opera performances.

Since 1924, staff have been tending to the bougainvillea, roses, palms and jacarandas on this 4500-hectare cattle farm in southern Queensland’s Darling Downs. Formal flowering beds surround the sandstone homestead and the lily ponds, vine-covered pergolas and citrus orchard are popular photo spots for wedding parties. Visitors can wander the magnificent gardens but the home itself, built in the 1870s, is off-limits (although newlyweds can stay overnight in the mansion’s master suite).

The property was purchased by the Russell family in 1923 and though grand, the mansion was derelict. Two members of the family live at Jimbour today, caretaking what is generally agreed to be the only true example of an English-style country mansion in the state.

The audiovisual Living History Walk tells the story of Jimbour from the days of the early settlers to its current position as one of Australia’s most elegant, heritage-listed private homes.

Don’t miss: The Merry Widow, with David Hobson and Queensland’s leading opera singers, at this year’s Opera at Jimbour on 22 July. There’s also the annual Open Garden weekend on 14 and 15 October. 

More: Visitors can take self-guided tours of the garden, woolsheds, chapel and orchards every day. Guided tours for a minimum of 15 people are available on request.

SEE ALSO: Spend a Night on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour

Yarrawonga, Victoria

Byramine Homestead & Brewery

Open for homestead tours, lunch and beer, cider and wine tasting. 

When Nicole and Wade McPherson and their five children moved from Melbourne to her parents’ 2000-hectare vegetable farm in North East Victoria, the 175-year-old homestead in the middle of the property was on a separate title. It went on the market seven years ago and the family snapped it up, beginning restoration work to make it safe for visitors. A unique octagonal shape, the home was built by colonial explorer Hamilton Hume for his widowed sister-in-law, Elizabeth, and her nine children. 

“We wanted it to show its age so we haven’t changed much,” says Nicole. “What’s really interesting about the homestead is that it was designed around a central fortress, with all rooms facing outwards and no hallways, to keep the family safe from bushrangers.”

Nicole and Wade scoured antique shops to re-create the original interiors and set up self-guided tours, including audio presentations telling Elizabeth’s story. The holes Elizabeth made in the walls – through which she could aim guns at approaching bandits – have been filled in but visitors can view a collection of antique dresses similar to those she’d have worn in the 1850s.

Don’t miss: the Devonshire tea or ploughman’s lunch washed down with a Bullock and Dray Draught, one of the boutique beers produced on-site. Visit the Brewery and Cider House to sample a Stockman’s Stout, Quinn’s Poison cider or homemade spiked ginger beer. 

More: The property is open to guests from 10am to 4pm, Saturday to Thursday.

Woodbridge, Western Australia

Woodbridge  

Open for heritage tours, riverside dining and special events.

One of the state’s rare examples of a Victorian filigree-style mansion, Woodbridge was built by pastoralist, politician and newspaper proprietor Charles Harper on land he bought in 1883 on the banks of the Swan River, north-east of Perth. The house was restored after being acquired by the National Trust in 1968 and there are plans for further improvements. Every room has items that once belonged to the Harpers, including a two-metre, gilt-edged mirror, silver-embossed brushes and combs and hand-painted crockery produced especially for the family.

Woodbridge encapsulates the entrepreneurship and innovation of the state’s wealthier Victorian-era families, says the National Trust’s Sarah Murphy. Of particular interest is the custom-made bedroom suite and period photos of students who attended Guildford Grammar School, which Charles established in the home’s billiard room. Riverside at Woodbridge, a restaurant in the former coach house, has views of the water and the house and is a popular venue for weddings and functions. 

Don’t miss: From Guildford to Gallipoli, a series of readings and video presentations about brothers Gresley and Wilfred Harper, who grew up at Woodbridge and sent detailed letters and postcards home from the trenches. Go to the website for dates and times.

More: Visitors can see the home from 1pm to 4pm, Thursday to Sunday. Self-guided and pre-booked group tours are available. Note that the property is closed in July. 

Main image: Byramine Homestead & Brewery

SEE ALSO: Family Farm Stays to Get the Kids Close to Nature