The darling of the downs.
It speaks volumes about the state of the pastoral industry on Queensland’s Darling Downs in the second half of the 19th century that in the grounds of Talgai homestead there’s a stone cottage that many farmers would regard as an elegant residence. Although it’s often referred to as the paymaster’s house and, indeed, it did serve that purpose during the heyday of the 300,000-acre (121,405-hectare) sheep station, it is, in fact, the house built for the homestead’s architect, Richard Suter.
Suter had carried out a number of commissions for the Church of England in Queensland and was responsible for building St Mark’s Church in Warwick, where the foundation stone was laid in 1868. As he had no permanent residence on the Downs, it was part of the deal that when George Carr Clark commissioned Suter to design the homestead for Talgai station later that year he would provide him with a residence.
Suter was then able to supervise the construction of the sprawling sandstone homestead and a huge shearing shed from a convenient base just a stone’s throw from the building site. His design took the form of a wide “U” shape and the 150 square metre homestead was made from 50cm thick sandstone blocks quarried on the property. Wide verandahs on all sides were a concession to the harsh summer climate. There were six chimneys and 11 fireplaces, 5m high ceilings and a large underground cellar.
Uncommonly for houses of this vintage, the kitchen was attached, occupying one end of a wing that included a breakfast room, servery or scullery, entrance hall and the dining room. A voluminous sitting room and smaller adjoining parlour formed the short base of the “U” and the bedroom wing, beginning with the master bedroom and including numerous smaller bedrooms, formed the other long side. The doors and interior woodwork of red cedar and spotted gum were hand-hewn or pit-sawn and the hand-carved fireplace surrounds are believed to have been crafted by one of Clark’s granddaughters, who took her inspiration from the local native plants.
Talgai station was first taken up around 1841 by the Gammie brothers. The station was typical of holdings at the time. When Queensland was a young colony, sheep were king and the squatters, or “pure merinos” as they were called, controlled vast holdings and lived the kind of lives they could only have dreamt of back in the old country. In 1853, 60,000 sheep were shorn on the property, an amazing feat given that all sheep had to be washed before shearing with hand shears.
In the following year the property was sold to Thomas Hood and John Douglas, both of whom were politicians. Douglas went on to become treasurer and premier of Queensland. In the next decade Talgai was owned by various partnerships and, following the Crown Lands Act of 1868, which forced the resumption of many large runs for closer settlement, the station was divided into two runs. West Talgai was owned by Charles Clark, while the eastern part of the station belonged to his brother, George.
The Clarks were unusual in that they were second-generation “squattocracy”, as they had been raised on their father’s property, Ellinthorp Hall, in Tasmania. They had returned to England for their education, then lived in Paris for a time before returning to make their mark in Australia. George arrived on the Darling Downs in 1865, with his wife Ellen and their baby son, George Carr.
Using stock from the family stud in Tasmania, the Clarks went on to establish a highly successful merino stud. Their first consignment of rams averaged 268 pounds in 1883 and they even exported back to Tasmania. In the 1880s the 32,100 acre (13,000 hectare) property carried 20,000 sheep and 3000 Devon cattle.
George and Ellen were active members of the community and hosted musical soirees at which Ellen entertained guests by playing her piano and singing and George accompanied her on the violin. They were noted for their charitable works and opened the grounds and, by now, substantial gardens for church fundraisers.
George briefly served in the Queensland parliament but preferred a life away from the public gaze. He supervised the establishment of the gardens, which included an orchard with citrus and stone fruit trees and table grape vines, as well as a vegetable garden and a magnificent entrance carriageway of bunya pines. A massive olive tree remains near the kitchen to the present day, protected, as is the homestead, by its heritage listing.
George was also a pioneer of systematic fencing and, in total, spent £32,000 on improvements, a fortune for the time. With abundant water from the Dalrymple Creek, he was able to plant irrigated lucerne crops and invited local small farmers to cut what they needed to tide them over in tough seasons.
The homestead formed the epicentre of what amounted to a village with workers’ cottages, men’s barracks, a slaughterhouse, blacksmith’s shop, dairy, piggery, carriage house, barn and station store, among the outbuildings. There was also a small sandstone chapel for family worship. Only a segment of it remains today, as in accordance with family wishes it was demolished when George Carr died in 1942. It was intended to have been reused to build a tower for St Mark’s Church in Warwick, but the stone was too heavy, so it ended up in various bridges and garden walls on the Darling Downs.
By the time of George Carr’s death the property was substantially reduced to its present 300 acres (121 hectares) and family fortunes were so reduced that all furnishings were sold off when the property finally moved out of Clark hands after 74 years. Talgai passed through various hands and suffered fluctuating fortunes during the next 60 years. But the homestead was built to last and when the present owners, Roz and Max Baldwin and their three adult children arrived in 2004, they inherited a building that was structurally sound, but suffering from “financial constraint, the vagaries of weather and lack of appreciation”.
The Baldwins spent the best part of three years restoring the homestead, which they now run as an elegant farmstay. They’ve also added a self-catering, three-bedroom cottage to the property’s assets and spent countless hours and doubtless another small fortune, restoring the gardens. Roz’s pet project has been the replanting of bunya pines to restore the carriage entrance to its original grandeur.
“It’s not something I’m going to live to enjoy,” she says of these slow-growing giants. “But I like to think that future generations will enjoy my legacy, just as we enjoy that of George and Ellen Clark.”