A PASSION FOR THE PAST: Laurel Thomas & Blenheim Hall.
Ever since she can remember Laurel Thomas says “It was a dream I'd always had, to buy something really old with history and rescue it.“ Just how Laurel came to acquire Blenheim Hall is a tale of serendipity and determination.
When Laurel first visited Blenheim during the 1960's it was in her professional capacity as a doctor making a routine housecall on an elderly patient. At the time she made that first house call Blenheim was inhabited by three retired nurses, elderly sisters who lived cocooned in the house which was kept in a state of perpetual gloom with curtains tightly drawn against the outside world. Little did she know that one day she would be ripping up lino and tackling rising damp in order to bring the house back to its former glory.
For various reasons Laurel and her family moved away from Carcoar during the 1970's but she never forgot the town or Blenheim. During her absence ownership of the house changed hands a number of times with very little being done towards its upkeep other than superficial maintenance. “When I retired finally, I wanted to find an old house to rescue, something to do in my old age” Purely by chance Laurel heard that Blenheim was on the market. “When I knew the house was for sale I behaved very badly and rang the real estate agents saying 'I want it, I want it.'.. Anyway, the owners, who were the third generation down from the old ladies let me have it at a reduced price because they knew I loved it so much that I would care for it which was lovely.”
It wasn't until Laurel started restoring the house that she began to seek out more information about the history of Blenheim. A self confessed history sleuth Laurel admits to being intrigued by the original owner of the house, a man by the name of Barnard Stimpson. “We knew that it was built by Barnard Stimpson but we didn't know much about him except that he was the first mayor of Carcoar.” Digging around through family history groups Laurel discovered that he was a grocer's boy who came out to Australia as a convict in 1835 after stealing money from his employer. He was assigned as a a servant to a local landowner Thomas Icely at Coombing Park.
Remarkably this grocer's boy from England managed to acquire a lot of property, including a flour mill, a store, shares in couple of gold mines and at least two merino studs. Eventually Stimpson would serve on the Legislative assembly alongside his former master and mentor Thomas Icely. Like many who rose to prominent positions in Australian society during this period Stimpson hid his past to avoid the social stigma of 'convictism'. Contemporary accounts of Stimpson's life skirt around those early years but it is worth noting that in 1851 he put his name to a petition from the Australasian Anti-Transportation League calling for a ban on convict transportation (it didn't officially end until 1868).
At the time Blenheim was built Barnard Stimpson wasn't mayor yet but the large house perched on a hillside above Carcoar's administrative centre clearly reflected his aspirations. In May 1861 a travelling correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald wrote:
Mr. B. Stimpson, has built a very handsome cottage and laid out some pleasure-grounds just over the Scotch church, which is also a great ornament to this place, and attracts the attention of every visitor.' (The Sydney Morning Herald, Friday 3 May 1861)
A decade later Blenheim continued to attract favourable comment with the following:
Mr. Stimpson has a beautiful garden high up the hill, and from his broad verandah an excellent view is obtained on almost every side. Mrs. Stimpson has a capital store closet for fruit, with apples ranged tier above tier on shelves for winter use, and in front hang grapes which are thus available for dessert as far into winter as the month of August.' (Empire, Monday 13 March 1871)
Although it was built about 1860 during the mid Victorian period, the house has hallmarks which are typical of the earlier Colonial period which is characterised by a simple well proportioned facade and a verandah which encircles the house giving the impression of a wide brimmed hat pulled down at the edges - not unlike the original Coombing Park homestead owned by Thomas Icely. As with many buildings associated with Stimpson Blenheim also features a decorative timber valance around the verandah which echoes those found on the old Commercial Bank in Belubula Street and the Fernside homestead.
Although it was a house of quality Laurel points out that, “it wasn't a luxurious house. It was a family home..” Stimpson married a local girl from Millamalong and he helped to bring out some of her family from England. The couple had one child, a daughter, who would marry the local bank manager from the Commercial Bank and they lived here with their seven children. By the time the last child died sometime during the 1960's, the house had been in the one family for three generations. In the decades which followed the house would be purchased by the Rothery ladies (distant relatives of the Cliefden Rotherys and Thomas Icely) and passed down through two generations of that family.
Despite her fascination with the original occupant of the house Laurel concedes that it was never her intention to strip the house back completely to one period which would have meant demolishing a bedroom built in the late 1800's and the enclosed verandahs and bathroom from the 1950's. “I took the historic houses philosophy and they say that a building isn't looked after unless it's lived in and it isn't lived in unless it's comfortable. So kitchens and bathrooms are fair game and other things so long as they are more or less in keeping.“ The result of Laurel's endeavours is a house which is in sync with both the past and the present. When Laurel purchased the property in 2003 all the original furnishings had been taken away or sold off with the exception of a large desk which was still in the small office from where Barnard Stimpson dispensed wages to his servants and workers. These days it takes pride of place in the library. Elsewhere, the 'strangers room' which was originally intended as a place for weary travellers to spend the night now serves as a kitchen. Laurel has tried to furnish the house in a way that is appropriate to the style of the home with antiques she has acquired over many years. Many of the rooms are painted in lovely deep colours which bring out the rich hues of the original cedar architraves and skirtings. In the hallway a section of wall inside a cupboard has been left unpapered to reveal an original brown faux marble paint effect. “I couldn't live with it so we've left all of that underneath the wallpaper and it's only got a water-based glue so if anybody in the future wants to go back to the original they can tear it off.”
Behind the scenes extensive work was carried out to stabilise the building which is built of random stone with walls up to eighteen inches thick and rendered on both sides.“The house,” Laurel points out, “had deteriorated even when the Rothery ladies lived there because very little money had been spent on it -a bit but not a lot... Every surface that you see is new or newly repaired because every wall had cracks in it caused by the subsidence of the land, some of the floorboards had to be pulled up and renewed, all rewiring, all replumbing. We put the electric wires underground, drainage all the way around, excavation, etc, etc. Yes, it was pretty bad. Pest extermination and so on. So it was great fun.” she says with a laugh.
After nearly twenty years in residence Laurel is preparing to leave Blenheim but she will no doubt continue to feel a special affinity with the house and its former inhabitants and is pleased to have added another layer to its ongoing story. “This is a special place,” she says looking out across the town from the south facing verandah “ not just because of the history but because of the ongoing community. It's extraordinary how well-knit and supportive the community is. It's a beautiful place to live.”
Photo: Courtesy of the Cobb family