Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Como House

Como House was built in 1847 for the barrister Edward Eyre Williams and his family.  It is named after Lake Como in Italy, where it is said he proposed to his wife Jessie.  It originally had only a single storey, but stood on 54 acres of land extending down to the Yarra River.  Barrister Williams grew 'sick of travelling into town' and sold the property in 1853 to John Brown,  a wealthy wine and spirit merchant.

Brown added the second storey and had the garden landscaped, which was then surrounded by orchards and farmland.  Our tour guide told us that Brown entertained extravagantly, inviting all the 'best' people from Melbourne who graciously accepted his hospitality and gave him the moniker 'Como Brown' (any relation, I wonder, to The Unsinkable Molly?).  However, because he was 'in trade', he was never admitted to the prestigious Melbourne Club.  Not only did he fail to enter this exclusive level of society, his extravagance eventually led him to bankruptcy.  During the family's tenancy one of the daughters, Susan, scratched her name on a window with a diamond ring. ( Have you noticed it's always a diamond ring?  What a popular form of graffiti - the Mitford girls did it, Southern belles did it, I've encountered this quite a few times.)  In this case Susan's brother followed her signature with ' a fool.'  (I wonder if he, too, had a diamond ring?)

In 1864, Como House was purchased by Charles and Caroline Armytage, wealthy pastoralists, to be used as their their Melbourne town house.  Now, I've always thought of 'pastoral' in religious terms, but of course there is the link between Christianity and sheep in the Bible, isn't there?   Charles Armytage was a 'gentleman squatter' - also a member of the Melbourne Club.  With 700 square miles of land and the wool his sheep produced he was part of the early aristocracy ('squattocracy') of Victoria.  Many squatters were city gents who ran their vast pastoral properties from the town houses, leaving managers to oversee the country estates. 

The Armytage's had ten children, five of each gender, with four of each reaching adulthood, though only two sons and one daughter would marry, which seems rather strange to me.  Charles Armytage died in 1875 leaving Caroline a widow at the age of 44 with nine children, the youngest of which was nine months old.  Our tour guide said that she sent her eldest sons out to manage various pastoral estates, but that she held the reins of power at Como House.  This website describes what a remarkable woman she was and gives a glimpse of the amazing lifestyle she and her family enjoyed.  The women seemed to spend large amounts of time in England.  The tour guide said that the last two Armytage daughters who lived at Como House, Constance and Leila, were spinsters.  In fact, Constance had been married, a bit late for the time at 36, to a Captain Arthur Fitzgerald who was aide-de-camp to the then Governor of Victoria.  One website I found wittily remarked that soon after moving to England he decamped with her £70,000 dowry, and thus ended the marriage.  She lived as though single from then on, remaining in England for several more years until the death of one of her brothers.

In 1959, after 95 years of Armytage family ownership, the last survivors of the Armytage family, Constance and Leila, sold the Como estate to the newly formed National Trust of Australia (Victoria).  Como House was the first property acquired by the National Trust of Australia, in fact the organisation was formed for this very purpose.  The Armytage ladies had heard of properties like theirs being demolished or re-developed into nursing homes and the like.  Their aim was to have Como House preserved as their family home. 

I couldn't help but feel that the National Trust was surprisingly lacking in entrepreneurial skill:  the gift shop sold no picture books of Como House, no specific memorial trinkets, no postcards...not that I likely would have bought them, but without being able to take photos inside, I found this frustrating.  Internet to the rescue!  This website has two posts showing the interior, though not entirely as I would wish.  Never mind.  See the photo of the servants' bells and tell me you don't think of Downton Abbey! 

My notes captured quite a few images for me:  the exquisite crocheted curtain in the Nanny's room, a knitted bedspread, the friendship quilt on the guest bed where guests' initials were embroidered on a square by a servant after the visit, the chaperone's chair at the end of the sitting room that provided a window into the ballroom, the art deco furnishings of the two daughter's rooms used after the rest of the house was closed including a beautiful pink depression glass candelabra.

Como House is often used for vintage clothing sales and - what took us there - was the setting for one of the Phryne Fisher television shows.  We saw a camera crew in the outside kitchen and wondered if another episode was to be filmed there.  More on that later!


Anonymous said...

I love that word "sqatocracy". I went to the link for the interior and enjoyed those photos. I'm wondering why you weren't allowed to take indoor photos. Did you have to pay to tour this place?

Carolyn said...

How silly that you were not allowed to take indoor photos?! when obviously the interiors are being filmed elsewhere for the TV series :S
I'm glad you are continuing to enjoy Melbourne.

BigLittleWolf said...

Love the pictures, and the information... Oddly, what sticks with me is the ten children!

It used to be so "normal" to have large families, and also, for some of the infants or young children not to make it.

My grandmother was one of 8 or 11 children (I can never recall), all from the same mother. And 100 years ago (or more), that wasn't unusual.

Always interesting to come here, Shelley... Thank you.

Shelley said...

Terri - I have always assumed one cannot take photos; it's more common in my experience than in being able to use a camera. In the past it's been about use of flashes and degradation of paintings (if that's even true), but I think Bill would say it's because you'd never get me out of some buildings! Yes, I think we paid something like 10 AU$ for entry to Como House.

Carolyn - We thought we saw a camera crew, but weren't certain as they were leaving just as we arrived.

LBW - Yes, big families were the thing back in Victorian times. My Grandparents all came from families ranging from 9 to 13 siblings. I'm so pleased you find interesting things here at my blog. What a nice compliment!

Unknown said...

Great post about Como House - I completely agree about the lack of entrepreneurial skill! I feel that we here in Australia do not put enough effort (or money!) into what few stately homes that we do have here. The National Trust is independent of the government and pretty much relies on donations and volunteers to keep it running and so seem rather limited in what they can achieve regarding preservation and events for the public. It is such a shame. How much more money they could make if they had a proper gift shop and a tea room experience (such as that at Highclere Castle in England?). I believe Como runs at a loss of 250,000 per year due to the costs of upkeep and lack of income. At the moment, they take group bookings only and only on set days (Wed afternoons and certain Saturdays I believe) - no walk ups. They were, however, open for free to the general public on Melbourne Open House Weekend which just ran last weekend and I was excited to see that they allowed photography in the interiors as long as no flash was used. I took a number of photos which I was able to post on my FB page. Email me if you'd like a few - I'm not a photographer and just took quick snaps as there were so many people around but if you'd like them, they're yours.