23 August 2011

Werribee Mansion 1874-77, Victorian elegance near Melbourne

Thomas Chirnside (1815-87) and his brother Andrew (1818-90) were born in East Lothian Scotland, sons of a farming family.

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

Andrew wanted his wife and children to live in a very special home. In conjunction with his brother, he set about building an elaborate 60-room Italianate style home at their Werribee Park property, 20 ks outside Melbourne. Using the finest materials and expertise, the home was built in three years.

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.

a small section of Werribee Mansion gardens


Andrew said...

A late friend's husband was trying to buy the estate not too long before he died. While it sounds a bit early, it must have been when the government bought it in 1973. He would have bought it to make money from it, so lucky the government did buy it. It could be surrounded by seventies housing now.

A beautiful house, meerkats, African wildlife and roses. Wonderful.

Related to Chirnside, you may find this link interesting. http://www.walkingmelbourne.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=23&t=6439

Hels said...

great link, thank you. Goes to show the difference 20 years can make.

In the mid 1870s, Andrew built an Italiante flummery of loggias, balconies and balustrading. By the mid 1890s, Percy built The Manor in Queen Anne Edwardian taste, with turrets, towers and timber elements on all the verandas.

the foto fanatic said...

Wow! What a property! Not too bad for a Presbyterian farmer from Scotland.

It's terrific to see that it is still accessible to us.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
We find the history of houses such as this absolutely fascinating. What is incredible is how, in such a short time, the brothers were able to build up and retain such a vast fortune.

The appearance is not at all dissimilar to that of Osborne House, reputedly designed by Prince Albert, on the Isle of Wight although the Werribee Mansion would be, we imagine, some twenty-five to thirty years later.

Have the Catholic additions at Werribee been demolished to give the house back its original integrity? If not, for what purpose are they used as we imagine that the house is now open to the public rather in the way of National Trust properties in the UK?

Joe said...

Werribee Mansion is a wonderful spot. I remember a picnic on the river bank near the old boathouse. It was many years before the open range zoo opened but they must have commenced acquiring animals because I remember getting quite a shock when several giraffes appeared on the opposite bank.

Hels said...

foto fanatic

I have no idea how the two brothers arrived with next to nothing in 1838-9 and within 12 years had made a VERY nice life for themselves. Even for a large family and many staff, a 60-room mansion on a huge parcel of land seems excessive.

But they dearly loved Werribee Mansion and so do most modern visitors who examine the house and gardens.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

The Catholic additions alongside Werribee Mansion were NOT demolished and are used as a hotel/conference space/wedding vanue/spa etc. You can see the add-ons in my bottom photo (right side).

Werribee Open Range Zoo is still a delight for families, as are the State Rose Garden and the Heritage Orchard.

The entire complex was opened as a tourist attraction in 1977, run by Parks Victoria (arm of State Government).

Hels said...


I agree. I took the children to visit Werribee Mansion years ago and they loved the zoo and gardens more than the interiors. Personally speaking, I truly loved the rooms, interior decoration, furniture and paintings.

Now the children are adults, they said they want to go back again ... to the winery :) And spa!

Hermes said...

What a house and to me here the shrer acres involved. That was so interesting from Andrew.

Hermes said...

or even sheer

Hels said...


I did not realise that the house had been on the open market, but even if it had moved into private hands, there could still have had Heritage Protection. In all probability, it seems as though the government realised how close the community was to losing Werribee Mansion and its estate, and quickly got permanent protection. Just in the nick of time?

Clipping Path said...

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thanks a lot for sharing with us :)

Hels said...


you are welcome. My preference is for Georgian architecture, but since Melbourne virtually didn't have a colonial era, I am delighted that Werribee Mansion survived intact.

Lord Cowell said...

That first photo reminds me a little of Highclere Castle with the square turret and orange stone.

Hels said...


I normally think of Tudor architecture as owing nothing much to the Italian renaissance. But many architectural historians can detect a sort of an English-Italian renaissance revival style in Highclere, just as I assume you can.

I imagine that two young men, thousands of ks away from home and with not another relative in Australia except for each other, would cling to something of the familiar. It would have been very comforting building their family home in Australia in a way that reminded them of great family homes back in Britain.

Nicholas V. said...

Great post on this delightful grand old dame of Victorian architecture.

Hels said...


grand old dame is correct. I am still amazed that the estate was saved, protected and used again, largely with its original beauty intact. We tended to destroy everything old and beautiful.

Janice said...

I've just read your fascinating blog on Werribee Mansion, fantastice that you know so much about this gorgeous building! I have a question! Is the Ballroom an add-on component to the original mansion or was it a part of the original design?

The Ballroom room is now a commonly used reception centre for functions, parties, weddings etc as part of the Werribee Mansion Reception Centre. It has a separate stepped entry and adjoins to the left of the mansion's impressive front facade.

The fact it has a separate front enrty leading directly into the Ballroom room leads me to ask this question.. also its interior is not as embellished as some of the Mansion room's interiors.

Hels said...


The hotel (and its ballroom) was located inside the 1926 seminary buildings, so was not part of the original mansion's design. Nonetheless, it is rather impressive :)

Anonymous said...

See an extensive article about the picture windows at Werrribee Park:http://wp.me/p28nLD-1l9

Hels said...


Many thanks. I appreciate good references.

melbourne home builders said...

thanks a lot for the post...

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