Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW : 1895 – 1930), Sunday 1 December 1907, page 7
HISTORIC HOMES OF N.S. WALES.
IX. – OLD CLOVELLY, WATSON’S BAY.
(WRITTEN FOR THE ‘SUNDAY TIMES’ BY MARY SALMON.)
Only within the last year or so has the old mansion at Watson’s bay known as ‘Clovelly’ been demolished, though for some time it had been in a state of semi-ruin, such as was considered dangerous to any unwary person who might enter. It seems strange that so well-built and handsome a building should have been given over to decay, and that the owners should ever have allowed it to slowly disintegrate until the Health authorities compelled its demolition. Many schemes were afoot for its utilisation for a district library, a Council-chambers, and other such purposes, but they came to naught. In its day Clovelly was one of the finest houses and grounds round Sydney. The land on which the actual house stood was a grant to a seaman of H.M.S. Sirius, called Watson, and it is said that WATSON’S BAY WAS NAMED AFTER HIM. The master of H.M.S. Foxhound, of whom Wentworth speaks, was also named Watson, so there have been a variety of opinions regarding the origin of the name for the bay. Captain Watson had a hand in erecting the Macquarie Lighthouse in 1816, so there is every reason to believe he may have been commemorated in this way. ‘Clovelly,’ to modern people, however, invariably recalls Sir John Robertson, who used to delight in a nickname, which, it has been said, he first gave himself — ‘The Knight of Clovelly and King of the Bay.’ But an earlier and greater man than ‘honest’ John Robertson lived originally in the old homestead, and, so far as history allows us to trace it, had the mansion built and christened for his own residence.
This was Sir Henry Watson Parker, who came out with Sir George Gipps as his private secretary in 1838. It was in the days when a Governor was selected, who, having been a good soldier and having won battles, was considered a suitable man to govern a dependency, about which the Home authorities know little and cared less. Although nothing could ever be said against Sir George’s integrity, honor, or intellect, his temper was so strong and arbitrary that he alienated his friends, and his secretary had as much as he could manage to keep the Governor off the rocks of terrible discord. But Mr. Parker was a young lawyer, with a capitally level head, and when, in 1843, he married Emmeline Emily Macarthur, fourth daughter of John Macarthur, of Parramatta and Camden, he decided, for some years, at least, to cast in his lot with the colonists, and take up life in Australia. When, in 1844, Sir George Gipps was recalled, Mr. Parker took up politics in Sydney, and in the pre-Responsible Government days—1849 — was a member of the Council and Chairman of Committees. After the new order of government was established, Henry Watson Parker FORMED THE THIRD MINISTRY, and Sir Henry Parkes always spoke of him as one of the ablest men, among a number of notables, who were then prominently before the public. He lived prin-cipally at ‘Clovelly,’ where he had a fine library, and, being a very retiring man, of exceptional refinement and cultivated tastes, the life of society had few charms for him. It was then that many of those beautiful trees and shrubs were planted, which gave Watson’s Bay so distinctive a look, and even until very recently, when vandalism destroyed the lovely estate, there might be seen floral treasures gathered from every part of the earth.
Australians, with a prodigality born of affluence, do not value such possessions ; otherwise, the growth of many years would never have been allowed to go entirely to waste, and the garden to become again a wilderness. Robertson Park, as it was at one time resolved to call this domain, would have contained specimens of handsome trees from every, zone of cultivation. In very early days, when Watson’s Bay was known as Camp Cove, the first set-tlement of the Slrius men was by the side of the rill that even to-day flows through the estate. When gardens were rare, 1790, a few huts were built there, to be near fresh water, and some vegetables grown. ‘There is a pleasant prospect all round, and five thousand young trees are growing between the two rills,’ said an early narrator. One of the streamlets diverged through the Clovelly Estate ; the other went through Bay-street into the waters of the harbor. The old water courses may yet be traced, but of original growth there is no sign. When, in 1859, Mr. Parker was beaten on electoral reform, he determined to return to England, and we only hear of him again as an unsuccessful CANDIDATE AGAINST GLADSTONE for Parliamentary place, and as commisioner of the Sydney Exhibition of 1880 and of Melbourne in 1881. He was meantime knighted, and died at the close of ’81. There is only one regretful memory hanging round the story of his residence here, which refers to the death of the poet Evelyn, whose work may be seen in old copies of the ‘Empire,’ which had many clever men writing for Its pages. Evelyn was in Government employ, and Parker spoke reprimandingly to him on some occasion. This was bitterly resented, and one day Mr. Parker met Evelyn in public, when the latter insulted his superior, saying that there now was equality between them, being out of office and in the common street. A constable was called, and Evelyn given in charge. Although only a small term was given for the offence, it broke his heart, and immediately on his release EVELYN COMMITTED SUICIDE. Being in days when those in authority behaved in an arbitrary and haughty manner to their class inferiors excuses Parker, to some extent. But it has been said that, a lover of letters and a sensitive man himself, he felt the matter keenly, and much regretted the event.
‘Clovelly’ meantime was bought by Edward Flood, the merchant, and it afterwards passed into the hands of Mr. J. J. Davies, whose daughter Margaret brought it to Sir John Robertson on his marriage with that lady. It was old-fashioned and out-of-date, but was capable of much improvement, and although Sir John Robertson had not very great notions of more than being comfortable, and had no great artistic tastes, yet he soon supplied any deficiencies in the appointments. There were beautiful marble mantelpieces in the house at the time of the veteran statesman’s death, and it was said they were brought down to him from Edmond’s Hotel, once a gentleman’s residence, at the time boing converted into the Shaftesbury Reformatory for naughty little girls, whom Sir Henry Parkes decided to put in stone cells, with grated window’s and iron-barred doors. ‘A man brought down the mantelpieces,’ ‘said an old-timer, ‘and stood waiting, cap in hand, in the room with Sir John to be paid.’ ‘What do you want ? Are you waiting for anything ?’ enquired the knight. ‘I thought, perhaps, you might like to pay me, sir, was the reply. Sir John’s supply of ready money was proverbially low, though his generosity, even when it referred to what was, strictly speaking, not even his own, was also well known. ‘Pay ?’ said he, contemptuously. ‘Are you not able to pay yourself ?’ ‘Thank you, sir,’ was the rejoinder, ‘I’m glad you mentioned it,’ and he proceeded to appropriate all the iron fittings, from the partly dismantled house.
Another story of Sir John Robertson finds many believers. He had supped at the Reform Club, and, finding himself short of coin, borrowed half a sovereign from a political colleague. Returning home along the road, when at the head of Parsley Bay he was stuck up, and his money demanded. Fumbling in his pocket, he picked out the coin and handed it to the man, saying, ‘There, take it. It isn’t really mine.’ I borrowed it from —- , and if I’d known this would happen, I’d have asked him for two — one for you and the other I’d have kept for myself. He would never have missed it.’ There has always hung round Sir John Robertson a certain public affection, for, as someone remarked, ‘Even his very failings were lovable.’ In spite of an impediment in his speech, his personality, especially as an old man, was imposing. His fine aquiline nose, long silvery, silky hair, and piercing blue eyes, made him a remarkable personage at the social gatherings which he loved to attend, even to within a few days of his death. Sir John loved to be a host, and much of the money (£10,000) voted to him for his many public services was spent in paying for present and past entertainments which he had given to his friends. It was said no one ever asked a favor of Sir John that he did not try to grant it ; and that he gained for others what he could not even attempt to get for himself or those belonging to him. Having had a practical, hard-working early life, and having gone through many vicissitudes in his passage FROM AN “OVERLANDER” TO
A PREMIER, he knew the needs and trials of working people. Even in political life, where he held the reigns of power longer than any other Minister in Australia, being at the head of four Cabinets, he was magnanimous, and once withdrew from the Premiership to give his late political chief, Sir Charles Cowper, the place. ‘I let ‘Slippery’ Charlie into office,’ he said one day. The strong virility of Sir John had established him from the first in the front rank, and his individual personality had never failed to impress itself on the opinions and political faith of his followers, as well as on the whole political life of the country. Even as almost a lad, his first step up in life was brought about by his trying to do something for some body else. When only about sixteen he worked his way to England on the ‘Sovereign,’ a sailing vessel of the usual few hundred tonnage common in those days. He had known a young man, unfortunately a convict, but evidently belonging to people of refinement, and he undertook to deliver letters and a package to the exile’s mother. This contract he carried out, and one day, later on, was surprised to get a letter from Lord Palmerston, asking him to call at his official residence. Although only then a young sailor bent on seeing the world. John impressed himself upon the British statesman, and was entertained at his country house, and, on leaving England, received a letter to the Governor, Sir Richard Bourke, from Lord Palmerston, which, however, he never used, as he rambled about for two years, and, returning then to Australia, made straight for the bush, where he lived for many years, only coming to town as business called him. When John Robertson entered Parliament we were still on the wrong side of most political reforms, and he saw the State through many important advances, not least being Manhood Suffrage, vote by ballot, the division of electoral districts on a population basis, the abolition of State aid to religion, national education, but, above all in his estimation, free selection over the public lands of the colony. Sir John Robertson may always be said to have been A DRAMATIC CHARACTER, one who would hold the centre of the stage against allcomers, and have a fair share of the Limrlight, but his public speeches were always free from mock oracular, meaningless phrases. As a friend, he knew no prudence or expediency, often going into the very teeth of Justice, and people were apt to ask him to gain for them very undeserved favors, which . somehow he pulled through, very often to his own detriment. He was very forgetful, however, and a story is told how he lost Rodd Island, to his sister’s family (she was married to Mr. Rodd at Barnstaple, Five Dock). It was in the times when the islands of the harbor were under discussion to, bring them directly into the possession of the people, and Mr. Rodd had some claim on the little island, now a pleasure resort, at one time the animal quarantlne ground. He wanted Sir John to see his claim through by registering before a certain date, before the Harbor Island Alienation Bill passed, and Mrs. Rodd gave the paper to her brother, saying, ‘Mind, John, on no account forget about this.’ In order to remind himself he put the paper carefully in the crown of his high, bell-topper hat, and there it remained for a considerable time, long after the period for registration had elapsed, until one day, being asked if he had made everything right, the document was re-discovered. ‘So you see,’ said Mr. Rodd, one of the sons, ‘we lost a valuable piece of property, which the Government would have had to buy back from us at considcrable cost.’ Sir John owned a very extensive vocabulary, which, like his namesake, Friar John, he used plentifully on occasions, and which earned for him socially an unenviable repute. He appreciated a joke even at his own expense, and used to tell how one resident of the hill refused to travel with the ‘wickedest man in Watson’s.’ In splte of his ‘bullocky’ language, however, he had a silvery tongue on occasions, and was a great favorite with Lady Jersey, at whose side he might always be seen at a garden party — a fine, venerable, noble looking personage, whom everyone, down to the street urchins, knew and spoke to. The death of Sir John took place at ‘Clovelly,’ and was a quiet, well-behaved event, such as the passing out of a hard, well-spent lite should be. Lady Robertson had been dead almost ten years. On a bright May morning of 1891 the old veteran was found in bed quietly sleeping ‘the sleep that knows no waking.’ Near by, in the cemetery at South Head, they both rest under a huge, thimble-like shaped cairn of granite. The design was by the late Horbury Hunt, the architect, and his taste in monumental architecture is said not to equal that of his house designs,’ but what’ the stone lacks in beauty is made up in substantiality. Now the old homestead is no more, and only the relic of a garden survives in the park, which is the frequent resort ot picnickers. It is a remarkable fact that the house where Sir John spent his childhood, on the north side of the harbor, on the long point of land which used to be known familiarly as Robertson’s Nose, has also entirely disappeared. It was a very substantial stone erection, built by Sir John’s father, and should have weathered the storms of ages. Now no trace of a homestead remains where it once stood.
An old identity of the bay, and especially of ‘Clovelly,’ was Blanket, one of the Maori crew who, in the days of private pilotage, made a special feature of Port Jackson’s pilot service. They were a set of splendid, strong men, who, however, all vanished from the neighborhood, except Blanket He remained with Sir John Robertson until his death, which took place some years before his master’s. Blanket was Christianised, had no vices, and was a model for a white man, let alone one of a primitive race. Everyone in the bay knew him in the times when it was an Isolated little community, with only a bus running to and from South Head morning and night, and a small ferry steamer that also plied very seldom.