Step past the dog statues guarding the door of Retford Park, and you'll find a fascinating history of the mansion and its dog-loving owner James Fairfax.
Hidden in the gardens of the Southern Highlands landmark, Retford Park, is a small cemetery dotted with headstones. Visitors often stop to read the names and ages of the deceased: Paloma, Juno, Apollo – all younger than 15 when they died. Children? No, the local guides are quick to assure visitors. This is the burial ground of James Fairfax’s much-beloved dogs.
James Oswald Fairfax AC, the great-great-grandson of newspaper proprietor John Fairfax, was a generous philanthropist and art collector with a lifelong passion for animals. He bought Retford Park in 1964 for £15,000 and transformed it from an agricultural homestead into a gentleman’s residence that reflected his own refined tastes.
A canine connection
There’s an uncanny presence of dogs throughout the property. As well as the pet cemetery, there are two marble dog statues standing guard at the front door, a portrait in the hall of Fairfax with his first Chihuahua named Francie, and an impressive 2.5 metre painting by John Wonnacott that hangs in the stairwell depicting Fairfax with his two black Labrador Retrievers.
John and Sharon Mulholland, House Managers at Retford Park from 1986 to 2017, say all these personal touches reflect Fairfax’s deep bond with dogs. “James grew up with pets and was an animal lover through and through,” says Sharon. “He would save ants from water, move spiders out of harm’s way, support causes and spoil his dogs unashamedly. He loved them to be near him whenever possible.”
Fairfax died in 2017 at the age of 83, and throughout his life, it’s believed he owned over 13 dogs, including a Chihuahua, Labradors and German Shorthaired Pointers. Later in life, a family member gave Fairfax a Rhodesian Ridgeback named Paloma, and this would be the start of many Greek god inspired ‘Ridgies’ to enjoy life on the estate.
There was Juno (goddess of women and childbirth), Apollo (god of archery, music and dance), Iris (goddess of the rainbow) and sister Selene (goddess of the moon). Sadly, Iris died just six months after Fairfax passed away; however, Selene continues to live at Retford Park – the last of Fairfax’s dogs to be seen curled up on a favourite lounge in the grounds.
The Mulhollands, who live onsite in the Milkman’s Cottage, care for Selene and still remember when the property was a grand country escape for both Fairfax’s visitors and their dogs. “[James’s] guests were encouraged to bring their dogs for the weekend. Many walks were enjoyed, and many sticks were thrown before all would return for refreshments and a lounge, including the dogs!” remembers John. “Retford Park was a very relaxed and well utilised country home where guests and pets were made to feel as welcome as each other.”
According to a current Retford Park house guide, these visits resulted in lots of canine hijinks, including one dinner party where a guest attempted a party trick in-between courses and chimed the dinner gong in the ‘wow room’ (the spectacular dining room, so called because that’s what most visitors exclaim upon entering). Unfortunately, he was unaware of the Ridgeback hiding under the table, and the dog shot out, throwing the dinner party into chaos.
Retford Park today
Fairfax believed that Retford Park should be preserved for the enjoyment and benefit of future generations and bestowed the property to the National Trust (NSW) in 2016. It is the largest gift received by the National Trust of Australia.
Through careful conservation and protection, thousands of visitors enjoy the house and gardens every year, including many who bring along their dogs to share the experience. With dogs trotting across the lawns and family picnics under the grand trees, Retford Park is a rare example of a heritage property that has stayed true to its unique character while also maintaining a valuable place in the modern world.
And if you’re wondering where Fairfax is buried … just take a walk to the pet cemetery, and you’ll find a large headstone marking the spot where his ashes are buried alongside the dogs. It reads: James Oswald Fairfax AC 1933 –2017.
Visit Retford Park
Retford Park Gardens are open Thursday through Sunday every week, and house access is by guided tour only on Saturdays and Sundays. Find out more.
Plan your next dog day out
The National Trust (NSW) has four pet-friendly properties you can visit with your dog on leash: Retford Park, Harper’s Mansion, Dundullimal Homestead, and Saumarez Homestead. Check each property for opening days and hours.