December 10, 2019

The story of Vaucluse House and those who lived there

On a peaceful, green, upward slope from the sparkling blue of Sydney Harbour, about six miles from the heart of the modern City, lie the grounds and the old colonial mansion known as Vaucluse House. It is one of the cherished historical possessions of Australia, preserved to-day as a relic of former times, as a memorial to William Charles Wentworth whose home it was, and as a fascinating museum of domestic furniture and furnishings in the early-to-mid Nineteenth Century.

Vaucluse House itself remains much as it was when Wentworth left it, over a hundred years ago. Among tall trees stand the yellow-grey walls with their battlemented tops and turrets, telling of the Early Victorian Age's love of pretentious pseudo-gothic architecture. The lower floor of the house is half surrounded by a wide, shady patio roofed and screened by wistaria. In front are green lawns and bright masses of flowers. On one side the ground falls away into a shallow gully, cool and dim under great, gnarled, wide-spreading trees. Within the house, rooms and hallways retain the ponderous furniture and the furnishings and the knicknacks which, a hundred years ago, were the outward and visible evidences of solid bourgeois prosperity.

It was an Age, in Wentworth's class, of heavy male self-importance, of obedient and respectful wives and children, of deferential servants. And this is the atmosphere which a modern visitor to Vaucluse House should, in imagination, try to re-create. Only thus will such a visitor find himself, even more herself, able to understand the strange - to us - combination of luxury and discomfort, of snug corners and draughty corridors, of imposing dining rooms and bare bleak kitchen, of marble stairs in narrow and twisting stairways, of floor-tiles said to have been obtained from the ruins of Pompeii - costly and impressive to talk about to a guest, but, oh, how cold in winter to the feet!

These are a few of the things which make Vaucluse House so interesting.

The house and grounds themselves are indeed both delightful and interesting. But our interest in them is enhanced by some knowledge of the men who lived here.

Here are the stories of two men - that extraordinary character, the “gentleman convict", Sir Henry Browne Hayes; and then that other most controversial figure, hated by some, venerated by others, William Charles Wentworth.

The Almost Incredible "Gentleman Convict" Sir Henry Browne Hayes

Miniature portrait of Sir Henry minus his mustache,
is believed to have been painted by Adam Buck 1759-1833
Apparently, the first person to erect a substantial dwelling on the site of Vaucluse House was a convict transported to these shores-Sir Henry Browne Hayes, from Cork, Ireland. Whether that original building was later incorporated in the house we have to-day, or whether it was entirely demolished and replaced, we do not know. But certainly Sir Henry did acquire the land and build a residence upon it in the year 1803; and such evidence as we possess rather tends to suggest that the old Hayes home was incorporated in the new one, the one which we see now, built for William Charles Wentworth in 1829.

But who was this “first inhabitant”, this knighted gentleman of Cork, who found himself transported as a convict to the penal settlement of Botany Bay? And what manner of man was he?

In 1797, Sir Henry Browne Hayes, the son of a wealthy merchant, had already occupied the honourable office of Sheriff of the City of Cork. He could swagger about the town, too, in the uniform of a Captain of the Militia. Also he had received the highly prized honour of a knighthood, presumably in recognition of his loyal services to the King of England-at a time when the majority of his compatriots, or as they claimed "all true Irishmen”, were seething with the spirit of revolt against hated English rule.

Hayes was then a young widower, about thirty-five years of age, with several children. His appearance was given: about 5' 7" tall, straight, fresh-coloured, a little pock-marked, with brown hair and “remarkable whiskers". Later he was described as having been haughty in manner, conspicuously over-dressed, and very proud of his captaincy in the local Militia.

Now, this Sir Henry Browne Hayes determined to augment his fortune. He had heard of a young lady, a Miss Mary Pike, an heiress, staying with a relative in the district. To her, one night, Sir Henry sent a forged letter purporting to come from the doctor attending Miss Pike's mother, stating that his patient had been taken very ill and that Miss Pike should come to her at once.

It was then past midnight and everyone was in bed; but Miss Pike hurriedly dressed, and the coachman was summoned to harness the horses and bring the carriage to the door for her. Then she set out But suddenly-as they were bowling along the dark streets-a small bunch of men, one of them armed with a pistol, stopped the carriage and surrounded it. In a trice, its terrified inmate was forcibly snatched away and placed in another carriage waiting near; and captors and prisoner were driven off. When they pulled up, they had arrived at the Hayes home at Mount Vernon.

Here, Sir Henry himself was waiting with a priest (genuine or bogus) and the necessary witnesses, to force Miss Pike to go through a marriage ceremony. But the lady objected most vehemently, probably hysterically; at one crucial moment she "screeched and flung the ring from her”; and only when Sir Henry produced a pistol, threatening to shoot himself, was the lady frightened finally into submission.

Even then, when the ceremony had been completed, it was impossible to convince Miss Pike that it was genuine, that she was indeed a wife. At length Haves himself seems to have realised that his schen had miscarried, and that if he could not persuade the lady to accept the fait accompli, he had not only missed acquiring her fortune but also had endangered his own life. The abduction of an heiress was then a capital crime. Eventually, apparently in panic, he locked her up in a small room and rushed out of the house into the night.

A few hours later, Miss Pike's family arrived on the scene to release her. A reward of £1,000 was offered for the arrest of Hayes. But he had gone into hiding.

Two years passed by. At the end of that time, Hayes evidently considered that the affair had at last blown over-especially as rumours had been put around to the effect that the abduction was really only a "romantic episode”, and the lady herself, until it came to the point, had been by no means unwilling. Then, two years after the abduction, Hayes an old acquaintance to "betray” him and reward.

The resultant trial was one of the sensations of the year. To Sir Henry's obvious surprise-he had thought he had more influence!-the jury found the prisoner guilty but recommended mercy.

So-in due course-Sir Henry Browne Hayes, Knight, lately of Cork, found himself on the convict ship Atlas under sentence of transportation, for life, to a new and remote penal settlement away on the other side of the world. But

In order to secure myself respectful treatment and decent accommodation (he wrote), I had paid a considerable sum to Captain Brookes, commander of the ship.

And one of the free passengers in the ship, Surgeon Jamison, later complained that the favoured convict had actually been allowed to dine at the captain's table, provided with accommodation in part of the round-house, and permitted to stow a great deal of his baggage in the already crowded cabin allotted to passengers. By contrast, Surgeon Jamison himself had been put into a tiny sleeping-place in which bags of sugar were stored.

convicts in early Sydney

Arriving at Sydney, however, Hayes found himself plunged into trouble from which neither wealth nor influence could save him. There is no doubt that the man was insufferably arrogant and a born troublemaker. But early Sydney was no place for haughtiness, and any trouble-maker (unless in the privileged military caste) could very soon find himself in very serious trouble indeed.

When he demanded permission to form a Masonic Lodge, of which he would be President, the Governor (Captain King) informed him curtly:

If H. B. Hayes is not sensible of the indulgence already allowed him, instead of being president of a Freemason's Lodge at Sydney, he will be put under a “president” (of another kind) at hard labour.

Nevertheless, the noble Knight seems to have avoided the threatened punishment for awhile; and he continued, as one writer afterwards put it, “to behave as though he were again a perfectly free agent and the dictionary contained no such word as Convict." In August, 1803, he purchased for £100, at an auction sale, about 105 acres of farmland on which he erected a cottage, naming the whole property Vaucluse.

Of some interest to-day is a note, still in existence, showing a list of seeds supplied to Sir Henry for his garden. Among them were: one gallon of oak tree seeds, one gallon of beech-tree seeds, and one quart of laburnum seeds. So to-day we can look at some of the fine old oaks and beeches on the estate, and regard them as probably having been planted as seed by Sir Henry Browne Hayes - the Convict-Knight - in 1803.

In December, 1804, Sir Henry leased Vaucluse to a Samuel Breakwell for seven years at a rental of £27 a year. But our "hero” was soon in trouble again and re-transported to the even more grim settlement at Norfolk Island, the Governor (Captain King) believing him to have been involved in stirring up unrest among the Irish convicts. His tenant, Breakwell, though not a convict, also found himself under arrest-for abducting a convict-girl-though he seems to have talked his way out of it.

However, Hayes was eventually permitted to return to Sydney; and when the Mutiny occurred the Mutiny of the Rum Corps Officers instigated by John Macarthur - he evidently sided with the Governor, Captain Bligh. At any rate, in 1809, Captain Bligh recommended a pardon for Hayes; and later he renewed the recommendation in London. In the meantime, Hayes was probably living with his tenant, Breakwell, on the estate at Vaucluse.

It was during this period that Hayes adopted a measure which may have been unique, for “defending" the house against snakes. For snakes infested the district. They had even entered the house, and (to his horror) at least one had been found actually in his bed. But how could he get rid of them?

Well, according to an old legend, once upon a time St. Patrick had banished all snakes from Ireland. So it was said that the smell of the peat from Irish bogs would drive away snakes anywhere. Hayes therefore imported from Ireland 500 barrels of peat, with which he filled a trench dug all around the house. No snake then, he believed, would ever cross that barrier of the sacred soil of Ould Oirland! And, for double assurance, the work was done on St. Patrick's Day-by a gang of convicts every one of them Irish.

That story is partly confirmed by a line of dark peat-like soil found under the present verandah in 1928, when it was being excavated in the course of restoration work. We cannot, however, produce reliable evidence as to whether or not the treatment was effective! Anyhow, no snakes have been reported in Vaucluse House recently!

During the reign of the Mutineers, after Captain Bligh's overthrow, Hayes was sentenced by them to hard labour at the Coal River (Newcastle), a very terrible punishment for having supported the Governor. But in 1812 the new Governor, Colonel Macquarie, granted him a full pardon, and so, at last, he was free again to return home to snakeless Ireland.

Yet even then-even then-his adventures and misadventures were not over. His ship, the Isabella, was wrecked on the Falkland Islands; and on that occasion Hayes behaved in such a disgraceful manner as to evoke the condemnation of some of his fellow passengers, including a fellow-Irishman, General Holt. Afterwards, Hayes could only make excuses for himself on the grounds of “self-preservation”. It was a humiliating finale to that tragi-comedy which had begun, fifteen years before, when the knightly ex-Sheriff of Cork had set out to win Miss Pike's fortune.

Twenty years later, at the age of 70, he died. He died in Ireland; and if we can believe his obituary notice:

... Sir Henry Browne Hayes, most sincerely and universally regretted ... a kind and indulgent parent, and a truly adherent friend ... endeared to every person who had the honour of his acquaintance ... buried in the family vault in the crypt of Christ Church, Cork.


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