Historians, writers and community activists were brought together to discuss and delve into the layered histories of Tempe House site, landscape and the river environment. Each session of three speakers focused on a specific theme, ranging from histories of place, architecture and social life to popular expressions of history and questions of identity.

Landscape and Place


Session 1


In late 1790, Governor Phillip was so outraged with the spearing of his gamekeeper McIntire by the Bidjigal man Pemulwuy he ordered a punitive expedition to bring back the heads of ten Aboriginal men. Lieutenant Watkin Tench’s two fruitless expeditions to Botany Bay in search of Pemulwuy and his warriors have been seen as incompetent, reluctant or both. In fact, Tench’s military manoeuvres - force-marching overnight and wading the mudflats of the Cooks River and Wolli Creek - were competent military tactics born in the British Army’s experience of guerrilla warfare in North America. Pemulwuy had the advantage of terrain, which Tench tried to negate by surprising a known campsite at first light. This talk will explore how Tench introduced a tactic that was to echo down the ages of Australian frontier warfare – the dawn raid.

Dr Stephen Gapps is an award-winning historian and museum curator. His most recent book The Sydney Wars – Conflict in the early colony 1788-1817 was published by New South Press in 2018. 

Stephen Gapps


Ian Tyrrell, author of 'River Dreams: The People and Landscape of the Cooks River', will discuss how Tempe House embodied ideas of a pastoral, Arcadian landscape derived from English painting and prose and poetry through the ‘Vale of Tempe’; how these ideas arose to prominence, how they  came to define the ideal for the colonial settlement of Cooks River, and how they have continued to influence the river throughout the 19th century and even beyond. 

Ian Tyrrell is a former Scientia Professor of History at UNSW now Emeritus Professor of History at the university. He was shortlisted for the NSW Premier's History Award for 'Crisis of the Wasteful Nation: Empire and Conservation in Theodore Roosevelt's America' (2015) and 'True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform, 1860-1930' (1999).

Ian Tyrrell


Alexander Brodie Spark chose a site for his house that was backed by a wooded hill he later called Mt Olympus, emphasising the association between his European travels in search of the ‘picturesque’ and his own vale of Tempe. His aspirations for the landscape and garden of this estate modestly echoed those of Alexander Macleay at Elizabeth Bay. This talk will focus on the development of the garden around Tempe House during Spark’s ownership and will draw upon the material used for the 2008 exhibition 'Lost gardens of Sydney'. 

Colleen Morris is a landscape heritage consultant with extensive experience in garden history, the assessment of cultural landscapes and conservation management. Colleen is a  member of the Heritage Council of NSW, a former National Chair of the Australian Garden History Society (2003-2009) and is the author of the award winning Lost gardens of Sydney (2008) and The Florilegium, The Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney (2016).

Colleen Morris


The name of Tempe was bestowed in 1826 on the estate by its original owner merchant Alexander Brodie Spark, he named the estate after the ‘vale of Tempe’ in Ancient Greece which Spark visited as a young man during his gentleman’s grand tour of Europe.  Learn about ‘Mount Olympus’, named by Lady Jane Franklin, wife of the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1838, after her visit to the house and its famous gardens. In this talk Ross Berry highlights the design by fashionable Colonial architect John Verge famous for other fashionable estates such as Elizabeth Bay House, Camden Park and Tusculum (also built for AB Spark). Hear about the ownership of the estate for more than 100 years by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan who built beautiful St Magdalene’s Chapel in 1888 and how the estate was placed on the NSW Heritage Register in 1999 to ensure its permanent preservation for the future.

Ross Berry is the honorary historian of Tempe House. He started his passion for historic houses in the 1980s and has gone on to become a volunteer guide at Government House (Sydney) and is now a guide for the future open days at Admiralty House. 

Ross Berry


Caroline Chisholm was the first advocate of the #MeToo movement in Sydney - back in the 1840s she established a not-for-profit accommodation, transport and employment agency to help hundreds of poor immigrant girls arriving without shelter, jobs or personal security. Caroline expanded her work over some twenty years to include men and families too – travelling to the Victoria Gold fields and even suggesting women should vote. A friend of powerful men in NSW as well as Charles Dickens, Florence Nightingale and Earl Grey, Caroline helped set the groundwork for modern Australia. In her latter days in Sydney, she established a girls’ school at Tempe House describing in her advertisements the rooms being ‘spacious, lofty and well ventilated, and the out-buildings … excellent.’ Sarah will outline Caroline’s story and her special connection to Tempe House.

Sarah Goldman has spent most of her life as a journalist in newspapers and producer in television and international news.  An Irresistible Force, Caroline Chisholm is Sarah’s first book

Sarah Goldman


By the 1820s, Romantic fashion was in full swing across women’s fashion, with voluminous skirts and sleeves increasing in size through the 1830s and 40s. Early colonial New South Wales was no exception. Local makers and providers of fashion competed with imports from Britain to clothe the bodies of both established and aspirational Sydney society. Hilary draws on her expert knowledge of the history of fashion - from archaeological textiles to shoe making. The talk explores colonial fashions and fashionabilities, focusing on the 1830s when Tempe House was built. 

Hilary Davidson is a dress historian and curator. Hilary lectures, teaches, writes and broadcasts across Australia, and internationally. Her book 'Dress in the Age of Jane Austen' will be published by Yale University Press in October 2019.

Hilary Davidson

The House, the Stories and Sydney Society


Session 2

The Living History of the Cooks River 

Session 3


This talk will explore the ancient and ongoing Aboriginal connections to the Cooks River. Aboriginal people lived along the river for many thousands of years before it took the form we know today. Despite two centuries of development, some Aboriginal sites have survived, and they provide a glimpse into the lives of the people of the river. Their story did not end when Europeans arrived in Sydney. Aboriginal people continued to live along the river – it was a place of resistance, a place for camping and a place for fishing. Ever adaptable, Aboriginal people created new ways of living in a changing colonial world.

Paul Irish is a historian and archaeologist with Sydney firm Coast History & Heritage. He is the author of 'Hidden In Plain View: The Aboriginal People of Coastal Sydney' (2017), and 'Aboriginal History along the Cooks River' (2017) and also created the 2015 NSW History Fellowship exhibition 'This Is Where They Travelled: Historical Aboriginal Lives in Sydney' in collaboration with researchers from the La Perouse Aboriginal community.

Paul Irish


Sydney’s estuaries were prominent transport routes for most of the 19th Century. The difficulty of the terrain meant that most trips had a water component. Boatmen, ferrymen and watermen serviced this need. Skiffs and wherries were used to row and sometimes sail people across rivers and estuaries and from ship to shore. The boats used were similar to the types that had developed in the ports and rivers of England, but some evolution to suit local conditions occurred. Boatbuilder and writer Ian Smith will discuss the types of boats that local ferryman Willie the Boatman would have used, and the role the ferrymen, boatmen and watermen played in the community.

Ian Smith is the President of the Australian Historical Sailing Skiff Association and the author of books on maritime heritage.

Ian Smith


Willie the Boatman Brewery was founded in the backyard of Pat McInerney. Pat along with Nick Newey were keen fishermen, lovers of beer and devoted Tempe residents. 

Pat first heard the story of William Kerr when he was on a historical walk with Laurel and Bob Horton.  William Kerr, convict servant to the owner of Tempe House, Alexander Spark, was assigned the task of ferrying people and supplies across what is now known as the Cooks River. Some years later when the home brewing became more serious Pat and Nick knew the only name for their new business had to be Willie the Boatman. Six years later and the Willie the Boatman brand is well respected around the state of NSW. In this talk, Pat will outline the inspiration for the brewery, the stories of Willie the Boatman and how the brand has become a feature in the local landscape. 

Pat McInerney is the co-owner of Wille the Boatman Brewery in St Peters, which he established in 2014. He is passionate about the community and a keen supporter of fundraisers and grassroots campaigns. Willie the Boatman boutique offerings will be on sale to sample at the festival.

Pat McInerney

NB. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Pat McInerney
was unable to give his talk. 
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