One of the delights of visiting Saumarez Homestead in Armidale is the way the former inhabitants spring to life as a volunteer guide leads you through the rooms telling stories about the White family.
The personalities of three of the five daughters of the house – Mary, Doris and Elsie – loom particularly large, as they never married and so lived out their days in this grand country homestead, which has changed very little since the early days of the 20th century.
Born between 1882 and 1890, the girls attended the recently-established New England Girls’ School and then boarded at Ascham in Sydney for two years to round off their education.
However, they were not allowed to complete the leaving certificate, as their father, FW White, believed this was inappropriate for young ladies who would never have to earn their own living.
Until marriage took them away to be mistress of their own households, they were expected to keep themselves busy with light chores, social engagements, charitable works, hobbies and sporting activities.
Acceptable sports for young ladies in those days included tennis, golf, horse riding (sidesaddle only) and the latest craze, bicycling, which, oddly enough, females were permitted to do astride.
As the eldest daughter in a family with seven children, Mary was burdened with responsibilities from an early age – and growing up serious, plain, large and bespectacled, soon seems to have withdrawn from the social whirl and devoted herself to arts and crafts.
Mary’s bedroom at Saumarez bears testament to her activities, with a full-figured dressmakers’ dummy standing near the Singer sewing machine; her collection of blue and white porcelain up on the picture rail; and examples of the chip-carved furniture that she made herself and successfully exhibited dotted around the room.
Mary also took a keen interest in photography, movie-making, and the emerging women’s arts and crafts scene in Sydney, and became a collector of her friends’ etchings, water colours and oils, including some now housed at the New England Regional Art Museum.
Unusually, she travelled to Japan at the age of 23, and several souvenirs from her trip, such as the Satsuma vase in the dining room, are on display in the house.
Her niece, Anne Philp, notes in Ladies of Saumarez that Mary, although naturally shy, later took on positions of civic responsibility, founding the Tablelands branch of the Country Women’s Association and being actively involved in the education of girls and young women through her position on the Council of the New England University College.
Mary’s youngest sister, Doris, also managed to step into a wider world than the Saumarez Homestead, by becoming a nurse.
The halcyon Edwardian chapter of life on the property drew to a close in 1914, with elder son Harold going off to fight in France, mother Maggie becoming involved in Red Cross work, and all of the girls serving as Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nursing orderlies.
After the war, Doris persuaded her father to allow her to do professional nursing training at Armidale Hospital, on the proviso that all her wages were donated back to charity.
When Doris died in a car accident in 1926, her place in the family was taken by a nursing friend, Margaret Simpson, who moved into the house to care for FW White as he succumbed to Parkinson’s disease.
The best-known daughter of Saumarez is, of course, Miss Elsie, who spent almost all of her 97 years on the property, outliving all of her siblings.
Her father’s girl, Elsie loved nothing more than being outdoors, helping with the mustering, tending to her own horses and dogs, or competing in local shows.
She even preferred to sleep out in the fresh air, winter and summer, occupying a single bed on the verandah that still stands there today.
After FW’s death in 1934, she assumed many of his responsibilities in the town and on the property, continuing to ride until she was in her seventies and fiercely resisting any changes to the furnishings and routines of the house.
As Anne Philp comments in her history of the family, the fact that Saumarez still presents an Edwardian appearance and conveys such a strong impression of pre-World War I Australian country life, is due to Miss Elsie, “who jealously conserved the Homestead in all its detail. Nothing was changed, no furniture was sold, nothing was thrown away, no kitchen or bathroom modernisation was carried out”.
Miss Elsie died at the end of 1981, and the house and all its contents, together with the garden, stable and farm buildings, were donated by White family descendants to the National Trust of Australia.
For Saumarez Homestead contact details and information about tours, including specialised ones such as ‘Unseen Saumarez’ conducted by Molly the Maid, ‘Saumarez Arts and Ceramics’, and ‘Heritage Innovation and Invention at Saumarez’, see http://www.nationaltrust.com.au/placestovisit/saumarez
The homestead is always available for booked group tours, but is only open to the general public on weekends and public holidays from September 1 to June 14.
Published in Live, Love, Play magazine,Fairfax Regional Media, 2012