Nineteenth Century Maitland

The Hunter Valley to the north of Sydney offered the early colony an abundance of natural resources, including red cedar, coal, lime, salt and fertile land for agriculture. Cedar cutters were the first to move into the area, clearing the rainforests which had been home to the Wanaruah Aboriginal people. Between 1818 and 1821 free settlers took up Governor Maquarie’s promise of land grants and, by the 1820s, European settlement was well established.

By the late 1830s, the area known today as Maitland was a substantial administrative and mercantile centre. The Hunter River provided transport for the timber industry, while large steamships could dock at nearby Morpeth. Goods were transported to the Maitland stores, which supplied settlers and travellers from as far afield as New England, northern New South Wales and inland Queensland.

Wealth came at a price. In 1835 there were 18 inns in Maitland, prompting the Quaker James Backhouse to comment that it was a town ‘drunken with rum and prosperity’. By contrast, during the same period the region’s other burgeoning centre, Newcastle, had only two.

During the mid 1800s, famine, agricultural and industrial changes in Britain and Europe prompted tides of emigration. Men and women seeking a new life in Australia poured into the Hunter Valley. To help address the social issues, the philanthropist Caroline Chisholm founded one of her Female Emigrants’ Homes at East Maitland in 1842.

As Maitland grew it prospered and, by the 1870s, the wealth and stability of Isaac Beckett and Samuel Owen had grown too.


A Successful Partnership: Isaac Beckett (1810-1888) and Samuel Owen (1811-1884)

Isaac Beckett and Samuel Owen were born in Sheffield, England. In 1838 they arrived in Maitland to try their luck and, in 1839 set up the trading partnership, Owen and Company. These were years of opportunity, and the General Store they operated in Maitland sold everything that settlers might need, including guns, frying pans, kettles, bags, sacking, bird cages, candle sticks, irons, dress materials, soap, poultry and alcoholic beverages.

In 1840, Beckett returned to England to marry Caroline Cooper while back in Maitland, Owen married Margaret Eyre. Beckett returned to Maitland with his new wife in 1843 but, during the intervening years, severe drought and depression had hit the region. The boom years of the 1830s were over and shopkeepers, farmers and squatters suffered together.

Owen and Company put their stock up for auction, but Beckett was able to buy much of it; enough to keep the company going. As times improved, the two men formed an equal partnership in the business, trading as Owen and Beckett. In addition to their store in High Street, Maitland, they acquired and rented out numerous properties all over town. Family life thrived along with their growing business: the Owens had six children, while seven (three of whom died in infancy) were born to the Becketts.


A Prestigious Site

Somewhat late in their lives, the partners Beckett and Owen shared the purchase of an elevated block of land which had been part of the estate of the late George Yeomans. Fronting onto Church Street, Maitland, one of the town’s most elegant and prestigious addresses, the site was directly opposite St Mary’s Anglican Church, a High Victorian Gothic building designed by Edmund Blacket, and its parsonage. The Church was opened in 1867 and consecrated the following year. George Browne won a competition for the design of the new Rectory, which was completed in 1881.

Other nearby buildings in prosperous Victorian Maitland included the Jewish Synagogue (which closed in 1898) and Maitland Public School, built in 1873 on the corner of Olive and Elgin Streets.

Beckett and Owen commissioned local architect, William White (1829-1879) to design two family homes in Church Street where White’s son, Rupert, also lived. Entcliffe (now known as Grossmann House) and Brough House were designed to mirror each other. Perhaps to preserve some degree of privacy as family and callers came and went, the principal entrance to each residence was located on the outer side wall. However, the two properties shared a common Laundry, a measure which would have allowed them to share the onerous duties of washing day.


From Victorian Home, to Leading School

Beckett and Owen were already elderly when they moved into their new homes. Their children had grown, and for this reason it is difficult to ascertain the original usage of some of the rooms on the upper floor of Grossmann House. Although well documented as being abstemious throughout their earlier years, Beckett and Owen seem to have felt the need for a little comfort and were prepared to keep up with the mores imposed by Maitland society, and their homes reflected their successes in life.

In 1880, according to the Certificate of Title, Isaac Beckett transferred ownership of Entcliffe to his wife, Caroline. Caroline died in 1884 and left the house to the couple’s eldest son, Thomas Cooper Beckett, but Isaac continued to live there until his own death four years later. An obituary which appeared in the Maitland Mercury acknowledged both Isaac’s business acumen and his role as a respected member of the community.

In 1893, the then Department of Public Instruction resumed the property to provide a permanent home for Maitland Girls’ High School, which drew students from a wide area in the north-west of the state. One of four public High Schools established in New South Wales, the School was first located in a low lying area which had been flooded earlier in the year. The opportunity to move to spacious Entcliffe, with its proximity to the railway station, seemed ideal.

Fifty pupils were enrolled when the Headmistress, Miss Grossman moved into the upstairs rooms of Isaac Beckett’s grand home, with her mother and sister. The ground floor was turned into classrooms, and first term started in 1894.


An Educational Legacy

‘I see her now, entering the main rooms of the old building for roll-call, entering with all the dignity and deliberation the occasion warranted.  But never haughty.’ Eleanor Hinder (a former pupil)
During her time as Headmistress of Maitland Girls’ High School, Jeanette Grossman made the school one of the most respected institutions in the community, and her leadership became part of school legend. In 1914, she was transferred to North Sydney Girls’ High School.

Perhaps due to the small flourish with which Miss Grossman ended her signature, it has been erroneously assumed for some decades that her name was, indeed, Grossmann, an error reinforced by the name plaque donated by the Sydney branch of the Old Girls’ Union in 1935 which marked the renaming of the property in her honour. The name is recorded as ‘Grossman’ in the Royal Australian Historical Society Journal of 1945, and the name of Miss Grossman the property was changed from Grossmann to Grossman House by the National Trust in 2007.

By the 1940s, despite structural changes made in 1918 to increase accommodation and the acquisition of Brough House in 1919 as a hostel for students living outside the immediate area, overcrowding had become serious. In 1939 the school was amalgamated with the Domestic Science School next door, and teachers and staff were poured into over-crowded and cold rooms. Hilma Ellis, a biology teacher from 1946 to 1950 recalls that the present day ‘Dining Room, Store Room and Butler’s Pantry had housed 38 teachers in cramped conditions’. In 1963, Maitland Girls’ High School moved to new, purpose-built premises in East Maitland.


Grossmann House and the National Trust

In April 1964, following the relocation of Maitland Girls’ High School to larger premises, the Department of Education granted permissive occupancy of Grossman House to the Hunter Regional Trust to develop the property as a house museum of the Victorian period. The building was opened to the public on 4 June 1966. It was the second house museum established by the Trust, opening just three years after Experiment Farm Cottage at Harris Park, Parramatta.

Permissive occupancy of Brough House was granted to the National Trust in 1972. Between 1974 and 2004, the property was leased to Maitland City Council for use as a municipal art gallery. It is no longer used as such, and the Trust is currently considering options for its use and interpretation.

As at other National Trust properties, Grossmann House is presented as an accurate reflection of the lives and lifestyle of its inhabitants, focusing on how rooms would have been used and how they would have looked, rather than concentrating on individual items.

Nothing in the collection, apart from a writing case presented to Miss Grossman in 1890, belonged to previous residents of the building. There are also two Bills of Sale from Owen and Beckett’s store as well as a carton label. Nevertheless, much of the collection came either by gift or bequest from families associated with early Hunter Valley settlers. As well as being a direct link to the lives and times of those settlers, these items are now recognised as the National Trust’s premier collection of mid to late nineteenth century furniture, china, silver, costume, textiles, juvenilia and artworks.


1830-1850: Victorian respectability versus a new rural vernacular

From the late 1830s, clothes for men reflected the growing difference between life in town and bush. Urban dress became sombre in an attempt to portray status and breeding, but clothes for squatters, prospectors and country men whether rich or poor became more colourful and better adapted to the climate. This trend continued throughout the century until by the late 1890s, as the country moved towards Federation, the typical clothes of the bushman – broad-brimmed felt, or cabbage-tree hats, riding boots and moleskin trousers – had become synonymous with the new national character.

During the 1840s and 1850s, apart from the décolleté of evening wear, women were covered up as never before. The poke bonnet hid faces so that they could only be seen from the front. Long, wide skirts – often flounced to add volume – were swathed over many petticoats and a horse-hair pad known as a crinoline (crin is French for horsehair) which was the forerunner of the cage crinoline.

Boned corsages fitted tightly and were designed to make the low waist seem even more so. The front was often decorated with a plastron, a fan-shaped piece of material. Bodice and skirt were one-piece until the middle of the decade when they became separate, perhaps to facilitate cleaning, allow mixing and matching and make dress and undress easier.