Recently, I was privileged to visit Newington House, the former home of John Blaxland, the elder brother of Gregory Blaxland. But such an inspection is a bit tricky as Newington House is now in the centre of the Silverwater Correctional Complex.
Consequently, there were several layers of security before entering the complex.
Once through the barrier, it is a relatively short distance to Newington House. From the impromptu car park, you are conscious that the house is surrounded by prisons that have daunting, razor-wire, perimeter ‘fences’, Newington House and the accompanying St Augustine’s Chapel are, however, in an open area.
Newington House is now occupied by the Inmate Classification and Case Management Branch of the Silverwater Complex. In 1998, this branch moved into the house that had been partially restored.
Newington House is situated on the southern side of the Parramatta River at Silverwater. In 1797, Captain Henry Waterhouse, and John Rowley initially established a Saxon Merino sheep stud there. They built up a flock of fine wool sheep some two years before John Macarthur imported merinos from the Royal Stud.
However, Newington Estate is primarily the story of John Blaxland. He was born at Fordwich, just north of Canterbury in Kent on 4 January 1769, the eldest son of a family of gentlemen farmers. His younger brother Gregory was born 27 June 1778.
Their father died in 1780 and the family moved to Canterbury where both John and Gregory attended King’s School. John left school in 1887, entered the army and rose to the rank of captain in the Duke of York’s cavalry. He married Sarah Davies in 1794, but in 1795, she and her baby died as she was giving birth. In 1797, John married Harriet de Marquett. They had four sons and six daughters.
Within the Blaxland family, it was decided that John and Gregory and their families would migrate to New South Wales. The decision was influenced by the rise of French expansionism across Europe and the urgings of Sir Joseph Banks, a friend of the family, who championed the possibilities and rewards of settling in New South Wales.
The younger Gregory and his family were the expeditionary force and they arrived 11 April 1806. John and his family arrived nearly a year later on 4 April 1807. Both Gregory and John had capital to invest. When John arrived, he was welcomed by Governor Bligh with whom he dined and where he and his family spent the first few days. Initially, John and his family moved in with Gregory’s family at The Vineyard (the site now being in the suburb of Rydalmere) before moving to a house in Parramatta owned by D’Arcy Wentworth.
On 24 April 1807, John Blaxland received a grant of land of 520ha and reserved the grants of Waterhouse, Shortland, Archer and Haslam and a roadway from the Shortland property to the Parramatta Road. He called his acquisition Newington after the family property in Kent.
Being located on the river, one of the reasons the site was chosen was that it provided an appropriate place for the development of saltpans from which salt, a much sought after commodity in the colony, could be harvested. Blaxland was assisted in this by William Rutter, a salt maker, who had travelled to New South Wales with him. It also met an undertaking to the British Ministry that requested salt making have a high priority on Blaxland’s agenda.
The Blaxland brothers decided to pool some of their assets and work as partners. Initially, they acquired two additional properties that were held as leasehold. These properties were situated on both sides of the High Street that is now the corner of Market and George Streets. One was used as a stockyard and on the other, located on the south-eastern side of George Street, stood a house into which John and his family moved. It was from here that John Blaxland opened Sydney’s first dairy.
John looked after the town enterprise while Gregory remained in the ‘country’ and bought livestock. John was made a Magistrate but, because he felt that the Colonial Governor had not fulfilled his part of the contract, especially concerning with the provision of convict labourers to work the land, his relations with Governor Bligh soured.
Both John and Gregory were signatories to the petition to remove Governor Bligh – the famous Rum Rebellion.
In September 1808, he set sail for England in the Rose. Bligh sent a message to the Governor of the Cape of Good Hope requesting him to arrest Blaxland when he stepped ashore. This was done and John was first confined to prison for one month and then taken aboard HMS Powerful where he was confined for a further period. When he eventually reached England, he was granted parole but still not informed of the charges under which he had been held.
He was also informed that he would be required to give evidence at the court-martial of Lt Colonel Johnston who had been charged in connection with the Bligh mutiny. This trial, which did not commence until 7 May 1811 and only lasted thirteen days, had kept him in England for three years. During that time he convinced the Earl of Liverpool that Bligh’s charges against him were unjust. He finally left for New South Wales in 1812 carrying with him orders that the terms of his original contract should be enacted without alteration.
In July 1813, the partnership between John and Gregory Blaxland was formally dissolved. On 30 November 1813, Macquarie granted 2,759ha of land to John Blaxland at Luddenham in the same area as the land grant to his brother Gregory. But other demands were denied. It was not until 1831 that Blaxland received, as reparation, an extra 4,144ha of land.
Meanwhile, John had constructed an embankment near the Parramatta River and enclosed about 45ha where he erected a cottage and laid out grounds, gardens and an orchard. The salt pans were contributing to the Blaxland’s income and it was noted that by 1827, Newington was sending eight tonnes of salt to Sydney every week. In 1816/17 he established a factory to make blankets and tweed and in 1819, he built a flourmill and a limekiln. These ventures were in addition to cattle, logging and the exploration for coal.
In 1829, John Blaxland was appointed to the Legislative Council which he retained until it was dissolved on 5 January 1843 whence he was appointed a nominee member of the new Council in July 1843. He resigned from the new Council on 13 September 1844.
In 1829, construction of Newington House began. The construction was completed in 1832. In 1838 the Chapel, dedicated to St Augustine and designed by John Houison, was built. Finally in 1840, the impressive veranda, also designed by John Houison was added to the house. It featured unfluted Tuscan columns each cut from a single piece of Pyrmont sandstone.
In 1843, Newington was mortgaged to the Australian Trust Company for £2,000. John Blaxland died there on 5 August 1845 and was buried in a vault built near the chapel. At the death of this wife on 31 May 1852, her remains were interred with his. The remains were later removed and buried at St John’s Cemetery, Parramatta.
By 1860, the Blaxlands had lost control of the estate.
By 1863, Newington was very run down, although the slaughterhouse and the saltpans were both still in use. At this time, ten hectares of land including Newington House were leased to the Methodist Church for use as a boys’ boarding school on the understanding that the rent from the first five years of occupancy would be used for repairs to the buildings.
It was in July 1863 that nineteen pupils were admitted to the school. This humble beginning was the genesis of Newington College. By 1880, the College began the move to its present address in Stanmore, an inner-city western suburb of Sydney. Newington College on its Stanmore campus was officially opened on 15 January 1881. Newington Estate was eventually sold to John Wetherill in 1877 for £14,000. He subdivided the property into the Newington and Rosebridge Estates and was selling land for the next twenty years.
In 1879, Newington House was offered for sale by auction but remained unsold although as early as June 1860, James Barnet, the Colonial Architect, reported on the house and buildings and concluded that it was suitable for a boys’ reformatory or a benevolent asylum for aged/destitute women that was then located at Hyde Park Barracks. He recommended that lots 78, 79, 87 and 88 of the Newington Estate should be purchased. In September 1879 a payment of £5,000 was made to Wetherill and by 1880 Newington House became Government property.
In 1883, Newington House was opened as a Benevolent Asylum for Aged Women. Between 1912-18 buildings were added and the function of the facility changed from asylum to a state hospital with Newington House at one time being used as nurses’ quarters. In 1969, the house became the administration block within the Silverwater Correctional Complex.
Today, John Blaxland is less well known than his brother Gregory whose ‘fame’ appears to rest on his journey of discovery across the Blue Mountains in 1813.
Although this was an important episode in Gregory’s life and in the growth of the infant colony, this exploratory journey only occupied 26 days of his 75 years of living. He perhaps should be best known as a vigneron, agriculturist and pioneer rather than an explorer. Gregory hanged himself on 1 January 1853 at his home in North Parramatta and is buried at All Saints Cemetery at Parramatta.
On the other hand, John might be considered the accountant of the family. He was a very capable landowner, merchant, organiser, entrepreneur and politician. His gracious house on the Newington Estate fronted the Parramatta River and from there he could have visual contact with his brother’s Brush Farm House, be aware of the Macarthur’s Elizabeth Farm, D’arcy Wentworth’s Home Bush Estate and probably John Blaxland’s (Gregory’s eldest son) house, The Hermitage at Ryde.
He would have also been aware of scheduled ferry services from Sydney to Parramatta.
As one wanders around gracious Newington House, one is mindful of something of what it was like to be alive in the first half of the 19th century in New South Wales. Although today hemmed in by a prison, one is conscious of the line of palm trees that marked the original drive to the river, accentuating the very central role that the river played in the lives of those who lived along its shores.
*Gregory Blaxell is an historian and author. He has been boating offshore and in the harbour for more than 25 years. His latest book is The River: Sydney Cove to Parramatta.