Sydney Architecture Images- Eastern Suburbs

Elizabeth Bay House Historic Houses Trust


Unknown Britsh Designer and John Verge, John Bibb (supervising architects)


7 Onslow Ave Elizabeth Bay




Old Colonial Grecian


rendered brick Builder James Hume


Elizabeth Bay House is one of the most sophisticated works of architecture of the early 19th century in New South Wales, once known as "the finest house in the colony". Elizabeth Bay House's incomplete state reflects the 1840s depression which devastated a class of prominent colonial civil servants, pastoralists and merchants. The house is significant for its association with the history of the intellectual life of NSW in the areas of scientific (natural history, particularly entomology, botany) and aesthetic endeavour through its association with three generations of Macleay family. 

The layout of the former (c.54 acre/22 ha) Elizabeth Bay estate provided the structure of the modern suburb Elizabeth Bay. Its subdivision reflected the fate of 19th century villas in the inner eastern suburbs of Sydney. The siting of Elizabeth Bay House and surviving elements of Elizabeth Bay Estate provide rare examples of sophisticated Landscape design in early 19th century NSW. In its heyday the garden was known internationally through the letters and published accounts of local naturalists and visiting scientific expeditions, as a fine private botanic garden with picturesque features of dwarf stone walls, rustic bridges, and winding gravel walks, and a fine plant collection of choice and rare species, particularly bulbs. 

The house has long been significant to the conservation movement in Australia. This is indicated by proposals to refurbish the house as a museum for the 1938 sesquicentenary of white settlement, Professor Leslie Wilkinson's ownership share in Elizabeth Bay Estates Limited (1926-1935), the acquisition of the property by the Cumberland County Council in 1963 for its historic significance and the 1972-76 restoration by Clive Lucas, one of the first modern, scholarly conservations in Australia (Historic Houses Trust 1997).

Elizabeth Bay House is a Greek Revival villa with a centralised Palladian layout with two levels, two unconnected cellar wings beneath the house and attic rooms under the roof. It is built of soft Sydney sandstone with a protective coat of sand paint. There is a square entrance vestibule leading into an oval, domed saloon around which a cantilevered stair rises to an arcaded gallery. The Australian Cedar joinery is finely moulded and finished simply with wax polish. The timber floors throughout are Australian Blackbutt. There is an original, large brass door lock on the front door.

The square entrance hall preludes the soaring space of the oval domed saloon. The entablatures and fluted pilasters of the doorways, the tapering grecian architraves and panelled reveal shutters of the windows and the plaster cornice and frieze decorated with laurel wreaths.

The stairway is Marulan sandstone and built into the wall, resing on the tread underneath. The cast iron bannisters are painted in imitation bronze. Eleven carved stone brackets support the first floor balcony.
The portico is a light, single storeyed structure of iron and wood.

Verges attention to symmetry can be seen in the blind windows constructed on the walls of both sides of the house.

Alexander Mcleay (1767-1848), public servant and entomologist, was born at Wick, a fishing village in Ross-shire, Scotland. He moved to London int 1786, marrying Elizabeth Barclay there in 1791. Mcleay, who was employed in the civil service (1795-1825) was well known in British and European natural history circles, having amassed by 1805 one of the most significant insect collections in Britain. He was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London in 1794 (Natural History Society commemorating the great Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, whose "Species Plantarum" (1753) became the internationally accepted starting point for all botanical nomenclature (binomial naming of plants by genus and species, based on their sexual reproductive parts) and served as its secretary (1798-1825). He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1809. Botanist Robert Brown, Mcleay's close friend and suitor of his eldest daughter Fanny, a competent botanical artist, named the plant genus Macleaya in his honour.

In enforced retirement from 1817 when his department was abolished at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Mcleay's finances were stretched to support a large family (10 of 17 children survived to adulthood), town and country residences, and his obsessive collecting of insects. When assets had to be sold upon the collapse of his brother's private bank in Wick, in which Alexander was a partner, he began in 1824 to borrow heavily from his eldest son, William.

Mcleay accepted the position of Colonial Secretary of NSW, arriving in 1826 and moving into the Colonial Secretary's house (fronting Macquarie Place) with his wife Eliza, their six surviving daughters, an extensive library, and an insect collection then "unparalleled in England" for its size, range and number of type specimens (first to be named of a species). Three of the four surviving sons came later to NSW, of whom two, William and George - shared their father's natural history interests. (From the early 1820s the spelling Macleay was adopted; descendents of Alexander's brothers retained MacLeay or McLeay).

Soon after his arrival he was granted 54 acres (22ha) by Governor Darling at Elizabeth Bay, with commanding views of Sydney Harbour. It was usual practice for grants to be made to eminent citizens in the colony but Macleay's grant generated some heated editorials in Sydney's newspapers. It involved the alienation of public land, the former Aboriginal settlement of Elizabeth Town, later earmarked for an asylum. In 1826 Macleay set about improving the site, using assigned convict labour. He employed his horticultural expertise, assisted from the late 1820s by gardener Robert Henderson, to establish a private botanic garden with picturesque features of dwarf stone walls, rustic bridges, and winding gravel walks. (Hughes, 2002)

In May 1831 The Sydney Gazette enthusiastically reported improvements at Woolloomoolloo Hill (Potts Point) and Macleay's neighbouring estate at Elizabeth Bay "5 years ago the coast immediately eastward of Sydney was a mass of cold and hopeless sterility, which its stunted and unsightly bushes seemed only to render the more palpable; it is now traversed by an elegant carriage road and picturesque walks…That these rapid improvements were originated by the proprietor of Elizabeth Bay cannot be doubted. He was the first to show how these hillocks of rock and sand might be rendered tributary to the taste and advantage of civilized man. As to the estate of Elizabeth Bay, noone can form an adequate judgement of the taste, labour and capital that have been bestowed upon it. A spacious garden, filled with almost every variety of vegetable; a trelliced vinery; a flower garden, rich in botanical curiosities, refreshed with ponds of pure water and overlooked by fanciful grottoes; a maze of gravel walks winding around the rugged hills in every direction, and affording sometimes an umbrageous solitude, sometimes a sylvan coup d'oeil, and sometimes a bold view of the spreading bays and distant headlands - these are living proofs that its honorable proprietor well deserved the boon, and has well repaid it." (Carlin/HHT, 2000).

As with the design of the house, the design of the estate appears to have involved a number of people whose respective contributions are not known. Fanny Macleay regarded her father as the mastermind, referring to Elizabeth Bay as "our Tillbuster the second", a reference to the Macleay family's country estate in Godstone, Surrey, which Alexander had improved in 1817. In September 1826 she promised her brother a plan of the recently acquired grant "when Papa has decided where our house is to be and the garden etc". Although Nurseryman Thomas Shepherd had practised as a landscape gardener many years previously in England and his 1835 (public) lecture (in Sydney) included suggestions for the further improvement of the Elizabeth Bay estate, he does not claim credit for involvement, however informal, in its design. It may be that Macleay considered his views old-fashioned.

In 1825 Robert Henderson had been recruited at the Cape of Good Hope by Alexander Macleay. Henderson's obituary records that he superintended the laying out of the gardens of Elizabeth Bay and Brownlow Hill. In February 1829 Fanny wrote "we have now some beautiful walks thro' the bush. Mr (Edward) Deas-Thompson who is possessed of an infinity of good taste is the Engineer and takes an astonishing degree of interest in the improvement of the place."

John Verge's office ledger contains many references to the design of garden structures, including gates and piers and copings and "scroll ends" for garden walls. The entries are dated between April and November 1833. A design for a bathing house (not built) dated 1834 and initialled "R.R.", may be attributed to the architect and surveyor, Robert Russell (1808-1900) who arrived in Sydney in that year.

Macleay's approach to the Australian bush was in contrast with that of the majority of colonists, who customarily cleared it and started afresh. Nurseryman Thomas Shepherd wished others to emulate this:
"The high lands and slopes of this property are composed of rocks, richly ornamented with beautiful indigenous trees and shrubs. From the first commencement he (Macleay) never suffered a tree of any kind to be destroyed, until he saw distinctly the necessity for doing so. He thus retained the advantage of embellishment from his native trees, and harmonised them with foreign trees now growing. He has also obtained the benefit of a standing plantation which it might otherwise have taken twenty or thirty years to bring to maturity."

The bush was planted with specimen orchids and ferns to enhance its botanical interest, which could be enjoyed in the course of a "wood walk". Two surviving notebooks (Plants received, c1826-1840, and Seeds received, 1836-1857) list the sources of plants for the garden and illustrate a comprehensive approach to plant collecting, similar in their approach to entomology. The plant and seed books contain entries for purchases from nurserymen Merrrs Loddiges of Hackney, London, and exchanges with William Macarthur of Camden Park. They also record the plants contributed by visitors to the estate and by William Sharp Macleay's natural history collectors in India.

Alexander Macleay had a great passion for bulbous plants, particularly those from the Cape of Good Hope. The explorer Charles Sturt, contributed many bulbs collected on his journey to South Australia in 1838, having been presented with four bulbs of Calostemma album from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew during his visit to Elizabeth Bay in February 1831. Bulbs featured in the large collection of plants which William Sharp Macleay brought with him to Australia in 1839. 88 varieties of bulbs were forwarded to him in 1839-40 by his scientific correspondent, Dr Nathaniel Wallich, Superintendent of the botanical garden in Calcutta.

Macleay's garden was also noted for its fruit trees. In 1835, Charles Von Hugel noted "pawpaw, guava and many plants from India were flourishing". Georgianna Lowe (of Bronte House) described the shrubbery and adjacent garden, in 1842-3 commenting on the wealth of fruit trees and other plants assimilated into a Sydney garden:
"Mr Macleay took us through the grounds; they were along the side of the water. In this garden are the plants of every climate - flowers and trees from Rio, the West Indies, the East Indies, China and even England. And unless you could see them, you would not believe how beautiful the roses are here. The orange trees, lemons, citrons, guavas are immense, and the pomegranate is now in full flower. Mr Macleay also has an immense collection from New Zealand."

Many visitors commented on Macleay's achievement in creating a garden in Sydney conditions. Georgianna Lowe described "some drawbacks to this lovely garden: it is too dry, and the plants grow out of a white, sandy soil. I must admit a few English showers would improve it." (Carlin/HHT, 2000).

Plans for the villa were in hand from 1832 but construction did not commence until 1835. Elizabeth Bay House was built between 1835 and 1839 by the accomplished architect and builder John Verge. It is believed that Verge worked from plans acquired from a British source prior to 1832. Macleay, in addition to his post, was an entomologist of standing in the world of natural science and had been secretary (1798-1825) of the prestigious Linnean Society in London. He brought with him his huge insect collection, a library of 4000 works and a wide knowledge of horticulture and botany.

The internal design of Elizabeth Bay House was loosely modelled on Henry Hollands Carlton House built c1820 for the Prince Regent in London. Macleay could not afford the intended encircling colonnade.

The house's architectural significance rests largely with its interior, owing to its state of incompletion. A planned encircling colonnade was not built. It is possible that Macleay's son William Sharp, after his examination of his father's finances upon joining the family in Sydney in 1839, called for a halt to the building of the house.

When the house was finished in 1839 it was occupied by Alexander, his wife Eliza, their unmarried daughter Kennethina, unmarried son William Sharp, the Macleay's nephews William and John and two Onslow grandchildren. Their five other daughters had married. At the same time wool prices dropped and transportation ended in 1840 and the colony was plunged into depression. Macleay was already in debt. The depression, these debts, the capital he had outlayed on the house and garden, the expenses of his various country properties and the loss of his large official salary brought about bu early retirement meant that by the early 1840s he was in financial difficulties.

The garden became known internationally through the letters and published accounts of local naturalists and visiting scientific expeditions:

" the drive to the house is cut through rocks covered with splendid wild shrubs and flowers of this country, and here and there an immense primeval tree… In this garden are the plants of every climate - flowers and trees from Rio, the West Indies, and even England. The bulbs from the Cape (of Good Hope) are splendid - you would not believe how beautiful the roses are here - Mr Macleay has also an immense collection from New Zealand."

Botanist Joseph Hooker (Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 1865-85) described the garden in 1841 as "a botanist's paradise My surprise was unbounded at the natural beauties of the spot, the inimitable taste with which the grounds were laid out and the number and rarity of the plants which were collected together." Macleay corresponded with and sent indigenous plant specimens to Kew, donated exotic plants to the Sydney Botanic Gardens, supplied trees to nurseryman Thomas Shepherd, exchanged plants with William Macarthur at Camden Park, encouraged local naturalists, and promoted exploration. As a member of numerous public and charitable committees, he exerted considerable influence in the establishment of the Australian Museum, the Australian Subscription Library, and more particularly on policy at the Botanic Gardens.

Alexander Macleay, who had served diligently as Colonial Secretary, was ousted from office by Governor Bourke in 1837. The loss of salary contributed to his financial problems: British debts were unpaid; mortgages that had funded the lavish expenditure on both Elizabeth Bay House and Brownlow Hill, his country house near Camden, were due: pastoral ventures failed in the 1840s depression. (Hughes, 2002)

An attempt was made to subdivide the land in 1841 but the blocks did not sell. While others were forced to declare bankruptcy, Macleay was saved by his eldest son William Sharp Macleay, also Alexander Macleay's largest creditor. In 1845 W.S.Macleay insisted his family move out of the house and then took it over the payment of the debts himself. Macleay's library and the drawing room furniture were sold to pay creditors. William Sharp Macleay (1792-1865), public servant, scholar and naturalist, and eldest son, inherited his father's insect collection, and stayed at the house until his death in 1865. Alexander and Eliza moved, bitterly, to Brownlow Hill. He was elected Speaker of the Legislative Council (1843-46). Injured in a carriage accident in 1846, and still suffering the effects, he died at Tivoli, Rose Bay, the home of one of his daughters. George Macleay (1809-1891) pastoralist and explorer and third surviving son, inherited his father's debts.

Two contrasting personalities, William, a Cambridge classical scholar, controversial pre-Darwinian theorist, author and contributor to leading scientific journals, and recluse: and George, a pragmatist, and subsequently a peripatetic bon vivant; the brothers, individually and jointly, contributed to NSW's scientific and horticultural advancement. Both were involved with the Botanic Gardens, Australian Museum and, beginning with their father, maintained an unbroken connection with the Linnean Society of London (1794-1891).

William arrived in 1839 in NSW with important collections of insects from South America (on which he published) and from Cuba where he was posted by the British Government (1825-36), as well as a large collection of plants. At Elizabeth Bay, two notebooks of plants and seeds exchanged, imported or desired for its garden, which he compiled with his father, reflect the extent of their horticultural pursuits and provide vital records of this outstanding colonial garden. William was a corresponding member of the Royal Botanic Society of London. During his residency at Elizabeth Bay - with the family from 1839 and alone from 1845 - the house continued as a favoured location for local and visiting scientists and Sydney's intellectual circle. William Sharp Macleay died unmarried, leaving the estate to George and the insect collection to his cousin William John Macleay (Hughes, 2002).

Visiting esteemed English nurseryman John Gould Veitch describes in an 1864 journal entry, Elizabeth Bay House's garden as one of "few private gardens in Sydney where gardening is carried on with any spirit. Those of Mr Thomas Mort, of Darling Point, the late Mr William Macleay of Elizabeth Bay and Sir Daniel Cooper of Rose Bay, formerly contained good collections of native and imported plants, but now they are no longer kept up." (Morris, 1994)

After William Sharp's death in 1865 George Macleay inherited the estate (he had moved to England after 1859, when the trustees had been able to settle the estate. A keen zoologist, George had donated specimens to his brother and to the Australian Museum; he presented the papers of his father and his brother William Sharp to the Linnean Society of London and through Charles Nicholson, Greek statuary to the University of Sydney. George progressively subdivided the estate and sold leaseholds of a substantial portion and leased the house to his cousin William John Macleay and his wife Susan.

William John (1820-1891) pastoralist, politician, patron of science, and nephew of Alexander, was born in Wick, came to NSW with his cousin William Sharp Macleay in 1839, and became a squatter with extensive pastoral runs in the Murrumbidgee whose profits would ultimately fund the scientific interests engendered by his uncle and cousins. He was a member of the Legislative Assembly (1856-74), a trustee of the Australian Museum (1861-77), and in 1862 helped found the Entomological Society of NSW. In 1865 he inherited the insect collections of Alexander and W S Macleay and leased Elizabeth Bay House, living there with his wife Susan. William John, like the Macleays who had lived in the house before him, was an ardent collector, sponsoring collecting expeditions including that of the "Chevert" to New Guinea in 1875, and broadening the collection from insects and marine invertebrates to encompass all branches of the natural sciences (such as birds and reptiles). Encouraging the study of botany, he was the first president of the Linnean Society of NSW (1874). The Linnean Society of NSW presented the Macleay's early plant and seed books to the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW. (Hughes, 2002)

By 1875 the Macleay family collections at the house were now so large that William John had a curator George Masters appointed to look after the collection. In 1889 the collections were presented to the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney, where the government built a musuem (1886-88) to which the collections were transferred, together with some original collector's cabinets, library, Macleay papers, and an endowment for a curator (this remains as the Macleay Museum).

W J Macleay was knighted in 1889 and died in 1891, leaving substantial bequests to various institutions including the University of Sydney and the Linnean Society of NSW. His wife stayed there until her death in 1903. The couple had no children.

After the death of George Macleay in 1891, under the terms of William Sharp Macleay's will, the house was passed from their nephew Arthur Alexander Walton Onslow who had died, to his eldest son James Macarthur Onslow of Camden Park. By this time the 22 hectare estate had shrunk to 7.5 hectares through successive subdivisions.

In 1927 the remainder of the land around the house was sold. In this final division the kitchen wing at the rear of the house was demolished to allow an access road for allotments behind the house.

By 1934 the house and eleven lots remained unsold due to the depression. Artists squatted in the house until 1935 when it was purchased, renovated and refurbished as a reception house. Five years later the house was again altered to accomodate fifteen flats.

In 1963 the Cumberland County Council purchased Elizabeth Bay House and essential repairs were carried out. The State Planning Auhority assumed control in 1972 and it was decided to restore the house as an official residence for the Lord Mayor. A change of government signalled a change in policy and a decision that the house become a public museum. It was put in the care of a Trust before coming under ownership of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW in 1981.

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