Thomas Chirnside arrived in Australia in 1838, with his Bible and some savings. He bought sheep on the Murrumbidgee, but moved on to Melbourne where he joined Andrew who arrived in 1839. Together they moved between the colonies but by 1842 they had returned to Victoria.
Just before the Gold Rushes started in 1851, the brothers began acquiring land at Werribee in outer Melbourne. There Thomas settled, gaining a freehold of 80,000 acres. Andrew settled on 50,000 acres near Skipton; he also owned a 38,900 acre Mt Elephant station. This family was doing very well! Along the way, Andrew had gained a wife Mary (née Begbie) and six children.
Italianate taste, complete with loggias, balconies with balustrading and a symmetrical pyramidal composition
A number of architects’ names have been associated with the design, including London trained James Henry Fox and Scottish trained James Gall, but no-one seems to know for sure. This is bizarre! Of course I realise that documents can be destroyed over the decades, but surely Werribee Mansion was important enough for researchers to find some original architectural information. Or perhaps the older family members might know.
Completed in 1877, the bluestone house, faced on three sides with sandstone, featured a classical revival style called Italianate. You can easily see the loggias, balconies with Renaissance balustrading and the distinctive symmetrical pyramidal composition. All rather restrained.
The house had 60 rooms in several wings, and the interior was not at all restrained. The drawing room featured a fine cut-glass chandelier, ebony-and-gilt cabinets, an ottoman and attractive carpeting. There is a handsome staircase with rococo statues holding up lamps, a billiard room with a panelled ceiling and carvings, a marble-paved conservatory featuring a fine plastered ceiling and etched-glass windows, a library, bedrooms, dining room and morning room. The main hall has a particularly classical look with mosaic floor, Corinthian columns and gold-leaf.
From 1877 on, this grand landscaped estate was the centre of social life for the family; they hosted sporting events, hunts, balls, vice-regal visits and military displays.
Entrance (left) and stair case (right)
Most of the Chirnsides' furniture was made in Edinburgh and shipped in 58 crates. While on holiday London in 1881, Thomas Chirnside also acquired a collection of 73 paintings by contemporary artists and Old Masters. Today many rooms retain the Chirnside's original furnishings and lavish decoration of the Victorian period; in fact a third of the original Chirnside items brought from Scotland are in their rightful place. Thomas continued to live at his nearby property in Point Cook until his last few years, when he joined Andrew and Mary in the Werribee home.
The gardens and impressive views were integral parts of Werribee Mansion. The house was surrounded by 10 hectares of formal gardens which displayed a geometric parterre, pond, grotto, glasshouses and open space parkland. Possibly the garden designer responsible for Werribee was William Guilfoyle (1840–1912), curator of the famous Melbourne Botanic Gardens.
Main hall (left) and upstairs gallery (right)
Thomas died in 1887, Andrew passed away three years later, in 1890 and Mary died in 1908. Andrew and Mary were survived by four sons and two daughters. The sons subsequently divided the estate but kept the core part, the house and surrounds, for themselves. In 1921 son George sold the family’s last holding in Werribee Park.
Corpus Christi College opened in Werribee Park in 1923, and operated there for 50 years. This Catholic seminary was a training ground for young men entering the priesthood in the Dioceses of Melbourne, Ballarat, Bendigo and Hobart. During its time at Werribee Park, the Catholic Church added several wings to the original Chirnsides' home.
The Victorian Government acquired Werribee Park from the Catholic Church in 1973 and started restoring the mansion and remaining 400 hectares of land to their former glory. The original house and gardens were eventually listed for Heritage protection, but the later seminary additions were excluded from the classification.