In 1878, Old Government House at Parramatta opened as a genteel boarding house. When the local bowling club was looking for a green in 1882, they approached the proprietor, Mrs Abrahams, about leasing a piece of land behind the house. To sweeten the deal they suggested her boarders could use the green when it wasn’t required for matches. However, Mrs Abrahams said she needed the area for her cows. She considered that fresh milk was more important for her guests’ welfare than throwing down a few bowls. 😎🐄
The boarding house was subsequently run by the Bishop family. Patriarch, Mr Daniel.T. Bishop (one time Mayor of Newcastle), his wife Elizabeth, their adult son Arthur, and the three young Miss Bishops. The family lived on site, occupying a row of outbuildings that included the old guard rooms, stables and servants’ quarters.
Mr Bishop found that running the establishment at a profit was difficult, which he blamed on the poor reputation of the town;
Mr D. Bishop, lessee of the old Government House, wrote for a continuation of the reduction of rental to the end of lease. [The trust had previously reduced the rental from £200 to £100 per annum] . The writer added in a postscript: – “I am confident that you will agree that the town has, without doubt, the worst name in the colonies. And why? Look at the sanitary state, the poor houses – the common talk of the inhabitants, who say and do all they can to harm the place. (Cumberland Argus Feb, 13 1892.)
However, the boarding house itself was well regarded. Here is a description published in The Daily Telegraph on September 2 1893;
Old Government House is now in a first-class state of preservation, and is used as a boarding house. The ‘tocain’ of the soul…is the dinner-bell’, and the walls of the old vice-regal residence now resound with the joyous summons to the boarder, instead of the rattle of the drums and the sentry guards of long ago. Large excavations run under the house, partitioned off into cellars, with bins for wines in many of the compartments, while in others are stout logs, fully 12in. thick, as supports for barrels of liquor. One is struck with the loftiness of the rooms, and the immense thickness of the walls, which must run over 3ft.
The thickness of walls meant that the building was comfortably cool in summer. Boarders took their meals in Governor Macquarie’s old dining room and one lucky lodger was allocated the original billiard room as a spacious bedroom. Mr Bishop had read up on the history of the house, and entertained his paying guests with stories of the house’s glory days.
Unfortunately there was a serious fire at the property in 1893. The women of the Bishop family lost a lot of their clothes, but at least there were no injuries.
When I started reading accounts of the event I was bemused by comments that the fire was presumed to have been started by ‘occupants smoking meat‘. I had a vision of boarders preserving slices of beef and mutton over little braziers in their rooms!
The truth was more mundane. There was an open shed and a small coach house close to the outside wall of the bedroom occupied by Arthur Bishop. The idea was to smoke bacon for the boarders’ breakfasts, but sparks must have somehow penetrated the roof and caused the interior of the bedroom to ignite.
‘There was a slight breeze at the time, and the fire ran through the old rafters of 10 rooms at the back, detached from the main building.’ (Daily Telegraph August 31 1893).
Two years later Daniel and Elizabeth Bishop retired to Sydney. The boarders left, and the Vice-Regal residence remained empty until Mrs Abrahams took it on again;
At the last meeting of the Parramatta Park Trust, Mr. C.J. Byres presiding, it was resolved to accept Mrs Abrahams’ offer for a seven years’ lease of the historic premises. That lady, who intends to convert it into a first-class boarding establishment, agrees to pay an annual rent of £50 for the first five years and £75 for the last two years….Most persons, other than those blinded by love of state traditions, will approve this release of Old Government House from a state of inglorious isolation to a career of commercial usefulness. (Cumberland Free Press Jan. 16 1897.)
Sadly, things did not go well for Mrs Abrahams. Within a year she was struggling to pay her rent.
There was some welcome diversion for the guests on August 1899 when Mrs Mary Marshall, granddaughter of Governor Charles Fitzroy, visited from England. She spent the day touring the house with Mrs Abrahams and sharing her childhood memories.
Mrs Marshall remembered Mr Green, the first gold commissioner, riding into the courtyard and throwing her a nugget of gold. She kept the treasure and had it made into a brooch. Mary had arrived in NSW with her parents in August 1849, aged seven or eight. Her mother took over Lady Fitzroy’s position as the Governor’s First Lady and was considered a charming hostess. Lady Fitzroy had been killed in a carriage accident at Government House in December 1847.
But I digress. A few months later Mrs Abrahams admitted defeat and relinquished her lease. Once again, the boarders had to find alternative accommodation.
In 1901 Old Government House was leased by a school, and another chapter in its life began,
FOOTNOTE – Who were the Government House boarders? It’s hard to track them down all these years later, but among them I discovered a Mrs Gallagher and her daughter Mary. James Kearney, Parramatta’s favourite doctor and most eligible bachelor, had been attending Mrs Gallagher at the boarding house in 1893 when he met and fell in love with Mary. They pair married in 1899 (yes, it took a while). They lived happily ever after at Parramatta. It seems appropriate to end on that romantic note.
ONE MORE THING – Covid issues allowing, it is still possible to dine at Old Government House at Lachlan’s Restaurant, named for Governor Lachlan Macquarie. My partner and I will be booking a table when things settle down. It will be fun to pretend we are genteel boarders. 😍
FOR THE FULL HISTORY OF OLD GOVERNMENT HOUSE, CLICK HERE.