On the fifteenth of August 1855, John Oxley and Henry Molesworth Oxley were given a holding of 4200 acres in the Bowral area, by Crown Grant. Though subdivided many times since and now peppered by a sprawl of houses unforeseen by Mssrs. John and Henry, the link with Bowral’s early beginnings has not been completely lost.
Karrara sits proudly at the end of a rising white gravel drive, behind a modest bluestone fence fronting Moss Vale Road and a small sign bearing the property’s name. This stately house and surrounding gardens are one of the few substantial properties remaining from that original Crown Grant to the Oxleys. Despite the size of both the 130-year-old house and the extensive grounds, it is amazing how few people are aware of this property. In fact, owner Catherine Davies points out, “I’ve met quite a number of people who have travelled between Bowral and Moss Vale for many years and still don’t know the house exists. Giving directions to tradesmen is amusing. The majority of them have no idea there’s even a house here.”
For a house that seems to have stayed out of the public eye, Karrara has had a full and varied life. Catherine takes up the story. “My husband Col always believed that the house was originally built in 1870, and he thought that the Howard Smiths built it, but a recent valuation places the age of the house closer to 1860.” This would make Karrara one of the first substantial houses in the Southern Highlands—along with some grand houses at Sutton Forest built at a similar time. There have been descriptions of an almost identical house between this property and the Bowral township, but no evidence of this second house remains today.
Catherine has spent a good deal of time researching the history of the house over the last year. “Because the house is so old, it makes things more difficult when there’s no-one around to question, and you want to find things out.” Still, this hasn’t perturbed Catherine and she’s accomplished a great amount of detective work on the previous incarnations of Karrara.
The land wasn’t originally subdivided until the 1880’s, well after the house was built. In fact, as late as 1886, the property where Karrara stands today was still listed as being owned by the Oxleys. This raises some interesting questions about the original use of the residence. Was it John Oxley’s residence or was it built as a guest house, or possibly something else? Catherine is continuing her research in an effort to find out more.
“All I’ve discovered so far from that period of time, is that in 1898 it was operating as a guest house, because there were articles in papers of the time listing guests of the various establishments in the area. There was a list of guests from the Imperial Hotel and a similar list from Mt. Gladstone, which is what the property was originally called.”
What other uses are there for a large property being used as a guest house? Why, a school of course.
Ads originally appeared in local papers in June 1892, stating that “. . . a girl’s school had just moved into this wonderful building with forty rooms . . .”, from a previous location at Sutton Forest. So, sometime in 1892, Mt. Gladstone opened its doors as The Bowral Ladies College. Unfortunately for the young girls of the Southern Highlands, it wasn’t long before the owners struck financial difficulties and the school was forced to close its doors—only about six months in total. It was only a few years later that the headmistress turned up in Sydney again running another girl’s school.
During the First World War, the house played a part in the War Effort as a recuperative area for returned soldiers. Upon the end of WWI, and there no longer being a need for the facility, Mt. Gladstone appears to have been sold to private owners in 1919, who moved in and again ran the property as a guest house.
Catherine was surprised to make contact with members of that family when, “One day a couple knocked on the door and introduced themselves as relatives of the family who had lived at Mt. Gladstone in the 1920’s.” Frank, the grandfather, contacted Catherine again several years ago and provided a number of old photos of the property that were in his possession. “Since then we’ve spoken a number of times and he’s become my main source of information. Frank’s family owned and ran the establishment until about 1946 and the property remained a guest house until well into the 1950’s, possibly as late as the 1960’s.”
Mt. Gladstone was subsequently sold as a private residence in the 1960’s and passed through several families before Col purchased it late that decade. Two of the owners during this period were apparently a botanist, responsible for much of the rare plant species dotted throughout the grounds, and a potter (of the clay-wielding variety, not a distant relative of Harry). The name change to Karrara was very much Col’s doing, possibly out of frustration with the large gardens surrounding the house. Catherine laughs that Col “. . . claimed that Karrara was an aboriginal word meaning ‘long grass’. And I know how much he used to really dislike mowing lawns.”
The property is frequently approached by inquisitive visitors, with varying reasons for stopping by. “Over the years, quite a few people have driven up the driveway and then out the side drive without ever stopping—I’m really not sure what they’re looking for. Just stickybeaking, I guess.” Catherine recalls another visitation much more fondly. “Not many years ago, a couple knocked on the door to tell me that they were celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary and had spent their wedding night and honeymoon right here when the property was Mt. Gladstone. That’s such a sweet story.”
“Unlike the house”, Catherine calmly states, “I don’t have much of a history. I moved to the Southern Highlands when I was ten and have been down here since then; aside from the obligatory year in Sydney. I married Col in 1988 and moved in here at that time. He already owned the property, had spent five years restoring it and had moved in during 1970. When he bought it, Karrara had just been subdivided from the Ivy Tudor Inn site and the motel site.”
Originally raised in Glebe, Col had studied law in Sydney and moved to the area in the early 1950’s after deciding he wanted to practice in the country. “He took to the country lifestyle very quickly,” Catherine says.
One wonders whether Col really knew what he was getting himself into when he originally purchased Karrara. There wasn’t a single pane of glass intact anywhere in the house, there were holes in the walls, possums living in the ceilings and, because of its operations as a guest house, it was three times the size that stands today, with an extra outbuilding. Catherine remembers, “When Col bought Karrara, everyone told him he was crazy. But he had the vision, and the patience to restore it. There were builders here for ages demolishing, rebuilding and restoring—about five years in all.”
As with most renovation projects, the expected timing didn’t exactly run to schedule. Col and his family moved in while the house was still being restored – the upstairs was complete and part of the kitchen was ready – but the rest was still deep in construction. Frustrated that things were moving too slowly, he and his three sons decided they would hurry the process along. “They all grabbed sledgehammers and assisted with the demolition of one of the walls”, Catherine recounts. “When all was said and done, they’d done a very impressive job, except for the minor fact that it was the wrong wall! I’m not sure how that was explained to the builders the next day.”
Catherine refers fondly to how much Karrara has meant to her and Col as a family home, rather than just a showpiece or tourist attraction. “Col would quite often come home from his office at Moss Vale and have lunch here—even just by himself if I was at work. He loved the house so much.”
Karrara has also proven to be a hit with the kids of all ages. The house is full of secret cupboards and ‘cupboards within cupboards’ (as every big, old house should be) which are great for long games of hide-and-seek. Catherine recalls a story about the children hiding everywhere through the house, including inside a commercial clothes dryer in the laundry.
Other adventures with the children weren’t so innocent. “Col invited some friends over one afternoon. They’d been caring for their very active granddaughter for several weeks and Col thought they might be able to take a break, relax and sit outside under the trees for lunch, while their granddaughter played safely in the house with the other kids. Col was sitting facing the house and his friends, and saw all of the children, including his friend’s granddaughter, walking around the house on the bullnose roof above the first-floor verandah”, Catherine laughs. “He didn’t say a word, just hoped fervently that his friends wouldn’t turn around and that no-one fell off. They didn’t, no-one did, and they never knew what their granddaughter had been up to.”
As with any property from this era, the ubiquitous outbuildings meander through the grounds. A series of sheds, probably original coach-houses, lean along one edge of the side driveway. The family soon learnt that you could keep more than just coaches or cars in them. “When Col first moved in, he’d been here several months when the boys came running up one day saying, ‘Daddy, we’ve found a lady living in one of the sheds.’ So he went down and found that there was actually a woman living in one section of the sheds. She left shortly after that and wasn’t seen again. He never knew who she was, where she came from or how long she’d been living there.”
Catherine is confident that despite Karrara’s age, nothing untoward has ever taken place within its walls. “I’ve always felt that there are no ghosts here. I had a psychic friend stay for a few days and she told me as she was leaving, ‘You know, you’re right—there are no ghosts in this house.’” Even without the presence of otherworldly beings, there have still been legacies left by people who worked in the house in years gone by. A tradition in this area, and possibly also elsewhere, was for the wallpaper hangers to inscribe their signature and the current date on the wall underneath the paper before it went up. Upon removing the old wallpaper in the kitchen, Catherine found the signature and date of the last installation. She likes this display of workman’s pride and leaving something for the next generation to discover. “I’d like to think that the crew that did our wallpapering followed the lead and left their details for someone else to find in the future.”
Karrara has had a full life and continues to be a very comfortable family home, but what of the future? “It would be wonderful if the house could stay in the family, but who knows.” A lot of people ask Catherine how she lives in a house this large, but it’s obvious after spending a little time with her, that she’s very relaxed and comfortable here—it truly is home.
Aside from the house, Karrara boasts magnificent grounds that Catherine is working hard to bring back to their former glory for the years to come. “The front garden was in quite a distressed state – full of privet, hawthorn and huge radiata pines.” You could barely see the magnificent Bunya Pines, of which there are several, so overgrown was the garden. “I’ve spent a number of years clearing the weeds and unwantables away and we’re almost back to a clean slate to move forward from.” Though she’s not quite sure what sort of garden and landscaping to put in, it’s a safe bet that she’ll be keeping them quite informal to suit the relaxed nature of the house.
Catherine’s faith in the continued longevity of Karrara draws, in part, from its own determination not to go the way of so many other old houses. “In the 1980’s we had very severe bushfires through the area. Fire had been burning along Moss Vale Road but fortunately, it had been extinguished before it really threatened the house. The next morning Col went out and found that some cinders had landed on the timber verandah boards and burned right through them, but they hadn’t ignited the wood. Being an entirely timber house, it would have burned up very easily and quickly but obviously, it wasn’t meant to go at that time.”
With the love and passion that Col and Catherine bring to Karrara, there is no doubt that it will continue on as one of Bowral’s most stately properties well into the decades to come. It is indeed a magnificent old house, whispering of a different time in history and our culture. Providing comfort for travellers, abbreviated schooling for young girls, healing for wounded soldiers and, for so many years, a wonderful environment for a raising a family, one wonders what form it might take on in the next one hundred years and whether John and Henry would be proud of what they started so many years ago.
Col Davies was a prominent local solicitor and respected personality. He spent many years working with local Apex and Rotary chapters, sat on the Board of Bowral Hospital and The Law Council and was Founding Chairman of the Family Law Section – a national body. Col was awarded an Order of Australia Medal in 1993 for Services to the Community and Law. He and Catherine were at Government House to receive his OAM the day Sydney was announced as the host city of the 2000 Olympic Games. Col Davies passed away in 2002.
Originally published in High Life Magazine, January 2004
David sweeps a hand at the fire-engine red Fiat 130 Coupe (a 1970’s model) glistening gently under a noontime winter sun. “This model’s considered a classic for Fiat using the talents of Pininfarina—the celebrated Italian auto designer. And they only made four and a half thousand of them. Yes, I could have bought a new Commodore instead and it would probably give me a better ride and be more reliable, but you just can’t get style like this everywhere.”
This ‘off the cuff’ exchange gives a subtle hint at the value David and Donna Manton place on their lifestyle and surroundings, and their conviction not to shortcut either.
For instance, who still has a turntable these days? Far from being a retro objet d’art, for David, there’s nothing better for delivery of quality sound when the mood strikes. “It can be ten at night, everyone else can be in bed in the other pavilion and I can put the stereo on—full tilt. I can crank it up and if I feel like dragging out a KISS album from ’76, which I’ve been known to do from time to time, I can do it and not worry about disturbing anyone.” While the style and substance of David’s musical choice may be open for debate, these qualities in their newly built home on a treed hill overlooking Bowral, and the journey they undertook to realise this dream, is definitely not.
“We were living in Sydney back in the early 90’s, renting a flat in the Inner West. It was a far cry from the leafy suburbs that I was used to while growing up, so when it came time to buy our first home, we wanted more than was being offered within Sydney in that price bracket.” Like so many people who today call the Highlands home, David and Donna knew very little about the area when they started looking outside Sydney. “We originally started looking in the Blue Mountains area—we’d been going up there for years, to visit family. It’s a nice area, but the distance and nature of the winding road in turned us off. We came down here for a weekend, discovered the ease of access from Sydney to Bowral and fell in love with the area immediately.”
Donna was also very keen to make sure that the change of location brought about changes in the home and family structure also. “The intention was always for us to start a family and moving to Bowral gave us this opportunity without having to whack the kids into day-care as soon as they came out of the hospital. We’ve really enjoyed the last three and half years in Bowral and look forward to seeing the boys continue to grow up in this environment.”
What price the treechange? For most people, the usual headaches involved with moving out of the city to the more relaxed country lifestyle are kept to issues like packing, finding new schools, settling into a new circle of friends and the like. Watching your builder go into liquidation before completing your dream home was definitely not on the list for David and Donna.
“We’d engaged a local architect to design the house and were mid-way through construction when the builder started to have problems. We spent a long time wondering whether we’d ever see the house finished. The positive side is that Donna and I hadn’t been together for too many years at that point and decided that if we could get through that as a couple, without going to pieces, then we could make it through anything.”
Donna is less philosophical about the experience. “I’d never build another house for myself again, ever. But we definitely got tougher during the process. In the end, I wasn’t standing for anything.”
“It was a dark time”, recalls David. “The only thing that could have been worse is that our insurance could have been with HIH. I remember driving home one night and hearing on the car radio that HIH had gone belly up. Here I am thinking that the announcer had said HIA (our insurers) and knowing that we were only half way through the payment schedule to complete the house. I nearly crashed the car.”
Even today it’s difficult to recall incidents during the construction process with much humour. “To be honest”, says David, ”The funniest thing I can remember was when the Caterpillar excavator flipped over and slid down the hill during excavation. The driver was ok, but they had to get a crane in to pick it up. If that’s the funniest thing that happened, it probably gives you an idea of where our emotions were at the time.”
So was it worth it? “Despite all the challenges, I can’t imagine moving from here and getting anything better”, says Donna. “The 180-degree views across the fields—which enable an outdoor connection even during the colder winter months—are stunning. I love the panorama, and so I’m constantly pulling the blinds up, no matter what the day is like. I just love it.”
David agrees. “It’s gorgeous with the vista sweeping down the hill and across the paddocks. So our original decision was correct. Buying the land—not in an estate—but with established trees and getting an individual design was justified in the end, but getting there was certainly more than we expected or bargained for. For example, moving in was very anti-climactic for me. We went through all the hassle of getting the house finished, then moved in during the wettest year in recent memory, with the house surrounded by mud and we had to wade through it to get to the front door. I felt like I was on a boat because it was impossible to step off the house floating in this ocean of mud. It was everywhere. And I struggled with that—it was depressing for the first few months. One day I started realising how beautiful and special this place is. And it gets better each and every day.”
The house is approached from uphill via a long driveway nestled alongside a massive pine windbreak. The land falls away more steeply closer to the house, so the first real view of the house is from above roof level. Instantly noticeable are the slicing roof planes of corrugated iron balanced by a two-storey circular ‘drum’, also clad in corrugated iron. Views over Bowral, filtered through the mature eucalypts, can be seen over the house, giving the first impression of the views available from inside.
The driveway sweeps down and around the house leading to the front door, which is actually at the back of the house, at the base of the circular drum. David remembers, “The original site for the front door was at the front of the house, also in the drum. Because of the slope of the land, this door ended up about fifteen feet below ground level and would have needed about thirty steps to get down to it.”
Through the front door and into the living area, it’s easy to think that this might have been some child’s treehouse on a massive scale and that you can reach out through the windows and pick the leaves. The views swing from the north through to south, following the run of the Mittagong Rivulet. The Bowral Brickworks chimney punctuates the clear sky in the distance. Cows graze through the adjacent paddock while parrots cartwheel and chase each other through the treetops at eye level. This is David’s favourite room. “You sit in this lounge room during the daytime and you’re up inside the tree canopy. You can’t see the base of any of the trees—just the foliage.”
The living area flows out onto a timber deck projected over the fall of the hill, again offering stunning views and connection with the landscape and wildlife. “We spend a lot of time outdoors on the deck and the terrace during summer. Summer here is beautiful and I love it. Last year we lived out on the deck—BBQ’s and dinner out there each night—you really do miss it during the winter.”
Upstairs from the living room, with some framed views toward the Gib from the stairs, and into the library. This room is located in the circular drum directly above the entry and provides the link between the living areas and the bedrooms, located in a separate pavilion. The bookshelves in the library are custom-built to follow the curve of the room and stepped up and down to allow more glimpses to the beautiful views. “It’s been really difficult finding carpenters prepared to tackle the joinery in a room like this”, David explains, “But we’re really happy with the result.”
Donna comments, “A lot of people say that the house has a nautical theme, because of the ‘porthole’ windows in the doors into the drum, and because my maiden name was Gilligan, the house gets called the S.S. Minnow.” David laughs, “So, obviously, I get called the Skipper. It’s cute, but we still haven’t had the sign made for the gate.”
Past the children’s bedrooms—both with full height views back over the terraced lawns and through the trees—the Master Bedroom and deck command more sweeping views. This sanctuary is where Donna feels most at home. “Our bedroom is my favourite space without a doubt. It’s so big, open, bright and airy. To wake up and look out over the trees and fields is magic and such a change from our bedroom outlook in Sydney.”
The style and feel throughout the house is one of subdued elegance, but unmistakably modern. A self-confessed ‘clutter freak’, David was adamant about achieving a certain quality of finish, even resorting to re-educating tradesman and suppliers about the choices available. “When the door hinges went on, they started installing them in brass. I said to them ‘It’s got to be brushed silver, everything is brushed silver.’ And their response was, ‘What do you mean? Everyone likes brass.’”
The hard work and attention to detail have paid off. The result is harmonious and comfortable. Once the painting was finished and it was time to decorate, Donna pulled out a piece of artwork she’d been saving for years and found that it matched the colourings and furnishings perfectly.
This is a unique house and a unique location. Unlike the acres of mass-produced housing unrolled across the countryside, this is a house that interacts with the landscape and thrusts the occupant right into the middle of it. Overlooking the neighbouring cattle properties and seeing the weather coming up from the south; watching the skies change colour and the wind whip through the trees as storms march in is an opportunity not afforded to everyone, nor to every house.
There is still work to be done. Landscaping is yet to be completed and there is a Japanese rock and water garden to be created alongside the entry. A house this special is not always easy – neither during its birth nor over its lifetime. It might be easier to have a simpler house, in a simpler location, but just like David’s Fiat, “you just can’t get style like this everywhere.”
Originally published in High Life Magazine, January 2004