Stately homes: The mirror and metaphor of colonial South Australia

19th December 2012

Robert M. Stone

Established by an Act of the English Parliament in 1834, South Australia (SA) was intended to be a model colony. Without convicts, it was to be populated initially by British migrants drawn from the disaffected middle classes—those who were influenced by such factors as religion, politics and self-interest— as well as sponsored emigrants (‘young marriageable persons’) of both sexes who would ease the overcrowding in England. The capital, Adelaide, was a planned city, its population selected according to Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s (1796–1862) economic, social and political theory of colonisation.

The proposed colony of SA was therefore an attractive proposition for those who professed ideas of civil liberty, social opportunity and equality for all religions. However, regardless of the opportunities for social improvement afforded to the middle classes, there was no comparative incentive for the English aristocracy and landed gentry to emigrate, which left a vacuum in the social hierarchy of the colony. This vacuum was filled by a distinct class that emerged from within the colony and who are described in this thesis as the ‘new gentry’.

The new gentry styled themselves leaders in the community, and built stately homes as a visible manifestation of their wealth and position. However, stately homes are more than just physical objects: they also contribute to a wider cultural landscape  and  the  construction  of  particular  perceptions of ‘the past’, both in terms of human behaviour and social complexity, and the origins of an area or set of ideals. Over the first 80 years of the colony,  economic accumulation, social positioning and closely negotiated social interaction resulted in the creation of a densely layered landscape—both in terms of emergence and consolidation of the notion of the ‘new gentry’, and also of the physical expression of this negotiated social class on the Adelaide landscape. Stately homes made a statement about the nature of basic social relationships, such that the architectural symbolism of wealth, taste and authority was both intentional and obvious; they also conveyed a message of exclusion based on social status and class. Between 1850–1880 the new gentry formed themselves into a tight social network and built their homes in exclusive residential enclaves with symbolic barriers which had a significant impact on the cultural landscape.

The stately homes of the new gentry were not mere copies of the homes of the English landed gentry. The new gentry aimed to create their own version of the landed gentry based on an independent image of colonial Australia, while at the same time remaining conscious of those characteristics that were essential to separate them from the rest of society. Their highly independent nature was also reflected in the architectural designs of their houses: there was no one dominant style, yet there were sets of common architectural features. There was also no single dominant internal configuration, yet a consistent pattern of specialist rooms and—through processional pathways— common social barriers, is evident.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century events took place that had a profound impact on this exclusive world and, in turn, on the role and status of stately homes. Many large pastoral leases were resumed by the government and sold for farming. Being designed to accommodate an earlier cultural and social scene, the economic base which supported these stately homes was now diminished, resulting in many becoming  redundant  and  either  demolished  or  sold  for alternative uses. Demolition of  former stately homes can result in the total or partial obliteration of tangible cultural heritage, whereas demolition of associated buildings and re- use of stately homes can significantly reduce the intangible cultural heritage that is the image of life in the nineteenth century. Over 50% of the stately homes considered in this thesis have undergone a change in use, with a consequential impact  on  the  state’s  cultural  heritage.  Preservation  of heritage is one form of cultural salvage and a world that is about to be lost is in need of preservation.

Robert M. Stone
Stately homes: The mirror and metaphor of colonial South Australia
Thesis Abstracts
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