Rippon Lea is one of those classic Melbourne icons that I hadn’t visited since, probably, my primary school days. Back then it would have been, just a good excuse, not be in class and I would have most likely almost passed out from boredom as our tour guide took us through its magnificent history. Even on this day as my brother and I entered the grounds (some 30 odd years later) I didn’t plan to visit the house itself, really I just wanted to look around the gardens as I thought they would be a good example of how things were done 100+ years ago. Jason on the other hand had no intention of missing out on the house tour and in hindsight I’m definitely glad to have done both (our tour guide was both interesting and passionate about the history of the property).
A brief History: Rippon Lea is roughly 8km from Melbourne central and in its day was countryside living but is now heavily surrounded by the suburbs. The house was completed in 1868 built originally for Frederick Sargood who had made his fortune selling soft-goods (textiles) on the goldfields. It originally had 15 rooms (currently there are 33 rooms) and was extremely modern for its time having internal toilets, its own electricity supply (supplied from generators, most houses did not have electricity at this time) and an underground watering system to the garden that was supplied by the man-made lake. The property originally took up 26 acres but by 1870 was 45 acres, 2 of these purely for the kitchen (now days it is only 14 acres, and when I say ‘only’ I mean that retrospectively). Frederick’s wife Marion died in labour in 1878 (giving birth to her 12th child) and Frederick went back to England until 1882 when he returned to Australia with a new wife and yet another child (you start to understand whey there are so many rooms). The house was then renovated and furthermore in 1897. The Sargood family were keen gardeners with a particular interest in orchids and ferns. A huge fernery was also added to the property on there return from England. Frederick was to become ill and die while traveling to New Zealand in 1903. Lady Sargood sold the property to Thomas Bent for 20,000 pounds and returned to England for the rest of her life.
Thomas Bent (Bent by name bent by nature it seems) was next to purchase the property. He was, apparently, a bit of a shady character who went on to be Premier of Victoria in 1904 (why doesn’t that surprise me). He never actually lived at Rippon Lea but used it for entertaining and charity events. He gradually began subdividing the property. Bent was soon to be removed from office in 1908 over his involvement in land scandals and died only a year later, probably saving Rippon Lea from further subdivisions.
Benjamin Nathan purchased the property in 1910 being a wealthy furniture business owner of ‘Maples Furniture and Music Stores’ and moved into the property with wife and 2 daughters. He used the house as a family home and continued to use the home for charity events particularly through the war years. Benjamin was also very interested in gardening having award winning orchids and even introduced many native Australian plants to the gardens. At this stage there were up to 17 gardeners employed, he built the conservatory and 14 glasshouses. Benjamin Nathan died in 1935 and his daughter Louisa Nathan (later Jones) inherited the property.
Louisa modernized the house (influenced by Hollywood, lounge was a dead ringer for Hearst Castle in California) making the house become famous for entertaining, charity functions and parties by the new pool. Louisa sold some of the property to the ABC in the 1950’s in preparation for the 1956 Olympic Games (and when I say sold I really mean compulsory acquisition) and in 1963 the Federal Government put a second Compulsory Acquisition Order on a further 4 acres of land to extend the studios. Louisa took this to the High Court but in a long (very public) battle lost. She (that same year) made arrangements with the government to have the property go to the National Trust upon her death and when she died in 1972 the Acquisition Order by the ABC was withdrawn. It is now days safe and open for inspection for all to enjoy.
The house and its history was fascinating but it was now time to check out the gardens themselves. A lot of the trees are massive having been here for so long and I love the fact that it was actually a person (long dead) who planted the seedling that grew into the trees that we get to enjoy today showing that planting a tree and watching it grow is both an extremely enjoyable and non-selfish act. We travelled clockwise around the back of the house where there is an impressive stable and at the very northern part of the garden an orchard that would have provided food to the house in its day and appeared (on our visit) to be still being used. The orchard is only part of it original size that is now under tarmac in the form of suburban streets. As mentioned previously there were many glasshouses that were part of this Orchard and vegetable garden that would have ensured food even through the winter months. The windmill in the background (pictured above) shows where the border of the property is these days in relationship to the ABC studios. The windmill pumped water to the entire garden and is still in use today providing water to 80% of the garden.
Next we entered the fern-house, now with a fern-house you build a frame and slap on some shade-cloth, right. Back then, however, there was no such thing as shade-cloth and I can’t even imagine how much you would need to cover this construction (enough to give your local Bunnings team-member in the shade-cloth isle a heart attack anyway). This, however, was made with thin strips of timber, placed screwed and painted (leaving an equal strip of light, 50% blockout so to speak) over an exquisitely built metal frame that covered an area the size of your old school suburban house block. It was absolutely awesome inside (if not a little garish on the outside).
The fernery leads you out and in the direction of the lake that dominates the eastern part of the gardens. It was originally excavated in the 1870’s and further enlarged in the 1880’s. It is full of ducks and a variety of other birds while the lake itself is home to eel, carp and tortoise. Other interesting features of the lake are the summer house, boat house (told you the lake was big), waterfall and even a lookout (which actually gives you a good view even though it really isn’t that high). Apparently you can see all the way to Port Philip Bay from here but I must admit I didn’t notice this when I was there, maybe I didn’t look in that direction. The lookout was completely restored in 1980. The lake is mostly filled with exotics but was interesting to note a few Australian natives Ghost Gums Corymbia aparrerinja, Cabbage palms Livistona australis and Bunya pines Araucaria bidwillii in the mix.
These gardens are joined up with huge lawns including the nursery, cedar, western and central lawns that link this whole property together while keeping them visually separate boarded by impressive trees that I mentioned earlier. I have left you with some more images below of our walkabout.
Hope you have enjoyed this edition of ‘My Walkabout Plants’ and see you next time.
Sources of Information:
- tour-guide information.
- All own photography.