Elizabeth Farm was the home of John and Elizabeth Macarthur and the centre of their mercantile and farming empire for over 35 years. The homestead is regarded as both the oldest and most historic building in Australia and is an important site in the development of the wool industry.
Elizabeth Farm was the site of political intrigue around Australia’s only coup d’etat and the personal struggles of John’s incredible mood swings suffering depression. The house is an important centre in the Camden story and many decisions made here that effected the family’s holdings at Camden Park in the Cowpastures district.
The house was lucky not to be demolished and lay derelict for a period. Once when architect William Swann’s family rescued it in 1904 and again the mid-20th century. Elizabeth Farm is currently a house museum opened in 1984 and owned by Sydney Living Museums, formerly the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales.
Elizabeth Veale, who became the first lady of the colony of New South Wales, married the fractious John Macarthur, an ambitious officer on half-pay, in England in 1788 in the village of Bridgeule in Devonshire. Macarthur joined the 68th Regiment just before his marriage as an ensign and after the birth of his son transferred as a lieutenant in the New South Wales Corps.
The couple travelled to New South Wales in the Second Fleet on the Neptune, before transferring to the Scarborough arriving in 1790. John’s reputation and ill-temper was a constant source of frustration, which Elizabeth bore with patience and forbearance.
In 1793 John Macarthur was granted 100 acres at Rosehill of some of the best land on the Parramatta River which he named after his wife. The family with three children moved to Elizabeth Farm in 1793. By 1794 the farm had expanded to 250 acres with 100 under crops, 20 acres of wheat, 80 acres of corn and potatoes. His livestock included horses, cows, goats, and pigs and with additional grants and purchases, the farm expanded to over 500 acres.
Building Elizabeth Farm
The house was constructed in 1793 as a single level building of four rooms with adjoining kitchen and servants quarters built on a low ridge overlooking the Parramatta River. James Broadbent describes the house as a simple late 18th century English vernacular cottage, with a shingle hardwood roof. From this design evolved a characteristic form of the colonial cottage.
JM Freeland describes the house as a simple rectangle. built of hand-made English-size bricks set in clay and shell-lime mortar. The steeply pitched roof was formed of massive balks of pit-sawn timber held together with wooden pegs, sheathed with cedar planks and covered with split swamp-oak shingles.
Sydney Living Museums states:
The cottage… resembled countless farmhouses seen in southern England. The balanced, symmetrical design of paired windows placed to either side of a central doorway was typical of the Georgian style then popular in England.
An extra bedroom was added along with a verandah. James Broadbent maintains that the addition of the verandah was influenced by Colonel Grose’s addition of a verandah on Government House, which Grose had seen while serving during the American War of Independence.
John was exiled from the colony in 1809 for his part in the Rum Rebellion with Governor Bligh. During his absence Elizabeth ran the household and the family’s pastoral interests at Camden and Seven Hill, from Elizabeth Farm. The house was possibly shaded from the north and east by verandahs. Elizabeth had little interest in redesigning the homestead.
Macarthur returned to New South Wales in 1817. The Macarthurs were successful selling wool in London and pressed for another grant at Camden. With good fortunes, John Macarthur sought to build a house appropriate to his wealth. He began home building and planning. Elizabeth Farm was remodeled. He added new stables, and a new cottage, called Hambledon, and building at Camden under the influence of Sydney architect Henry Kitchen.
From 1821 the house was remodeled under the supervision of stonemason and bricklayer John Norris from a Georgian house to a Regency style that better suited colonial taste. Elizabeth was turned out of the house in 1826 due to renovations when the dining room, drawing rooms, and library bedroom were extended into the verandah area completed by 1827.
Macarthur’s depressed state of mind meant that his building frenzy subsided. He recovered by 1828 and put his time into the Australian Agricultural Company. In 1831 he was again planning building additions, mainly at Camden. In 1832 he was declared insane and confined to Elizabeth Farm. Macarthur’s insanity worsened and he was moved to Camden in 1833, where he died in 1834.
Elizabeth returned to Elizabeth Farm in 1833 and with the assistance of architect John Verge had it habitable with needed repairs. She did not make any further changes to the house.
Life at Elizabeth Farm
Elizabeth Farm was a mixture of town and country life. The house was about half-a-days travel by boat from Sydney and a short walk from Parramatta.
In 1794 the house was surrounded by a vineyard and garden of three acres, including fruit trees and vegetables. The fruit trees included almonds, apricots, pear and apple trees. There were between 30 and 40 staff at the farm – 13 as stockmen, gardeners or stable hands and female servants in the house.
Elizabeth had nine children, with seven surviving. Elizabeth learned to play the piano in her first days in the colony. The Macarthurs were well-read with books, magazines, and albums from England. Elizabeth was part of the Sydney social set and was on cordial terms with the governor’s wives.
James Broadbent reports that the house was elegantly fitted out with fine china and silver from England. Furnishings were never opulent and the house was never a centre of the colony’s social life.
After Macarthur’s death, the farm was managed by her sons, while Elizabeth and her daughters lived in a comfortable style. In Elizabeth’s last years she visited her daughter Emmeline and husband Henry at Watson’s Bay.
After Elizabeth died in 1850, aged 83 years, Emmeline and Henry lived at Elizabeth Farm until 1854. Edward Macarthur inherited the house and leased it out. On his death in 1872 the house was inherited by his niece Elizabeth Macarthur, James’ daughter. The house standing on 1000 acres was sold in 1881 for £50,000.
The table at Elizabeth Farm
John Macarthur was an early riser, usually, 4am and breakfast, served around 10.00am, might have consisted of ham, boiled eggs, bread and butter, and perhaps mutton. The table would have been set symmetrically which was typical of Georgian order and decorum.
The family would probably have been waited on by the butler, a convict named James Butler, who arrived in 1818 with convictions for forgery and started work at Elizabeth Farm in 1825. In the 1828 Census, the household staff consisted of 13 staff: a gardener, a coachman, a butler, two grooms, a cook, four labourers, two maidservants, and a footman – all convicts.
The cook was Thomas Blake, two maidservants, Jane Mead and Margaret Shepherd, a footman, John Bono, an Indian. The staff were reported to have been well treated and returned this with loyalty during times of difficulty with John’s incredible mood swings.
Garden at Elizabeth Farm
Scott Hill makes the observation that little remains of the original garden, while paintings and sketches of the period only give an idealised view of things. Conrad Martin’s works were completed after Elizabeth’s death and only give a glimpse of what was present in the garden.
There was an ‘extensive’ kitchen garden that was to the east of the house although some hoop pines survive. From Hill’s research, an 1816 letter from Elizabeth states that the kitchen garden had 23 fruit trees, oranges, peaches, pomegranates, loquats, shaddock, and guava.
Hill notes that the famous ‘waratah’ camelia at Camden Park was first planted at Elizabeth Farm in 1831 and later transplanted to their country property, where it still prospers.
The garden also had roses, foxgloves, aloes, agaves, and bulbs. It is thought the garden had the first olive tree in the country which is described by Thomas Mitchell.
Elizabeth fostered a botanical interest in the next generation, particularly William, who managed a successful nursery at Camden Park for many years. She valued the local vegetation of the Parramatta River area and 1795 she wrote home to her friend Miss R Kingdon from Elizabeth Farm at Parramatta:
The greater part of the country is like an English park, and the trees give it the appearance of a wilderness or shrubbery, commonly attached to the habitations of people of fortune, filled with a variety of native plants, placed in a wild irregular manner.
On Elizabeth’s carriage trips out and about she noted that in spring:
The native shrubs are also in flower and the whole country gives a grateful perfume.
The Historic Houses Trust acquired the property in 1983 and opened it as a house museum in 1984. Before this the house had fallen into disrepair.
The house was purchased in 1968 by the Elizabeth Farm Management Trust from the Swann family, who had previously lived in it The house was placed on a list of historic buildings by 1949 Cumberland County Council.
Management of the house passed to the State Planning Authority, then the Heritage Council of New South Wales continued restoration.
The HHT was established in 1980, and rebranded as Sydney Living Museums in 2013, and is part of the NSW Office of Heritage and Environment within the state government.
The NSW State Heritage Inventory states that:
The Elizabeth Farm house is part of the oldest surviving construction in Australia and a rare survival of the earliest period of colonial architecture. The house is one of the most evocative houses relating to the earliest period of Australian European history and is one of the most aesthetically pleasing of colonial bungalows.
The garden contains remnants of some of the earliest European plantings in Australia, including the European Olive. Older indigenous species include kurrajong and bunya bunya and hoop pines. 
Michelle Scott Tucker, Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World. Sydney: Text Publishing, 2018.
Michelle Scott Tucker shines a light on an often-overlooked aspect of Australia’s history in this fascinating story of a remarkable woman.
Kate Grenville, A Room Made of Leaves. (Novel). Sydney: Text Publishing, 2020.
What if Elizabeth Macarthur—wife of the notorious John Macarthur, wool baron in the earliest days of Sydney—had written a shockingly frank secret memoir? And what if novelist Kate Grenville had miraculously found and published it? That’s the starting point for A Room Made of Leaves, a playful dance of possibilities between the real and the invented.
 James Broadbent, Elizabeth Farm Parramatta, A History and a Guide. Historic Houses Trust, Sydney, 1984, pp. 5-11.
 Broadbent, 18-22.
 JM Freeland, ‘Elizabeth Farm, New South Wales’, in Historic Homesteads of Australia Vol One, Australian Council of National Trusts Heritage Reprints 1985.
 Hill, ‘A Turbulent Past’.
 Broadbent, 18-19.
 Broadbent, 24-26
 Broadbent, 35.
 Broadbent, 38-39.
 Broadbent, 44-48
 Scott Hill, ‘At the Macarthurs’ table’, The Cook and the Curator (Blog), Sydney Living Museums, 10 January 2013. Online @ http://blogs.sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/cook/at-the-macarthurs-table/ Accessed 14 April 2017
 Scott Hill, ‘Mr Butler: The Macarthurs’ Butler’, Elizabeth Farm, Sydney Living Museums. Online @ http://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/stories/mr-butler-macarthurs-butler Accessed 14 April 2017.00
 Scott Hill, ‘Abundance & Curiosity At Elizabeth Farm’, Elizabeth Farm, Sydney Living Museums, 2014. Online @ http://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/stories/abundance-curiosity-elizabeth-farm Accessed 14 April 2017.
 Letter from Mrs Elizabeth Macarthur to Eliza Kingdon, March 1816. State Library of NSW (SLNSW): ML A2908 in Scott Hill, ‘Abundance & Curiosity At Elizabeth Farm’, Elizabeth Farm, Sydney Living Museums, 2014. Online @ http://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/stories/abundance-curiosity-elizabeth-farm Accessed 14 April 2017.
 Hill, ‘Abundance and Curiosity’.
 Letter from Elizabeth to Miss Kingdon, September 1795, Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta in Sibella Macarthur Onslow, Some Early Records of the Macarthurs of Camden. Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1914. Online @ http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks13/1302011h.html Accessed 10 Feb 2017
 Office of Heritage and Environment, Elizabeth Farm, NSW Government, 2014. Online @ http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/heritageapp/ViewHeritageItemDetails.aspx?ID=5051394 Accessed 14 April 2017
Originally posted 14 April 2017. Updated 25 July 2020.