As the first Europeans to settle within the Port Phillip District, now the state of Victoria, the Henty family not only made an indelible mark on the Western District (the first to introduce Merino sheep), but also in Kew, the suburb which they settled. And while some of the family’s homes have disappeared over the generations, a number, including those now occupied by Trinity Grammar School and Ruyton Girls’ School, fortunately, remain.

The history of the Henty family, along with the houses they built, was the subject of a webinar recently held on a cold blustery Melbourne evening. The speakers for the evening included Robert Baker, who spoke of the genealogy of this illustrious family as they migrated from England, along with houses such as Swinton. Cathy Dodson, an archivist for Ruyton, gave an insightful presentation on the history of the imposing polychromatic brick pile called Tarring, when it was home to the original owners, Henry and his wife Marion Henty (née McKellar). And finally, Rohan Brown, who has been a mathematics teacher at Trinity for 33 years, was able to offer a comprehensive record of what was then called Roxeth, now Henty House and built by George Lewis in 1857.

As fortune changed for this remarkable family, so did their landholdings, initially covering several hectares of prime land on a relatively high patch in Melbourne. Original maps from the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) from the early 20th century showed how vast these Henty plots were, framed by individual house plots that appear to take up what would now be conceived as an entire neighbourhood. So why Kew? Someone asked at the end of the presentations. What made the Henty family and all their offspring decide to settle here, building lavish homes, and on truly grand estates? One explanation that seems plausible was that it was a time before Melbourne had adequate sewerage and drainage that would have been a regular problem in the flatter parts of the city. However, these hilly sites must have given the architecture, as well as the family, just that much more prominence.

While Robert Baker was able to convey the wealth of the family in the 1840s, including ownership of 24,000 acres, 10,000 sheep and 270 cattle at Merino Downs in the Western District, Brown shared the stories of Roxeth. And for those who doubt investing in real estate, Brown, being the mathematician that he is, was able to calculate the amount Roxeth initially cost the family and what it’s worth today. Originally set on 8 acres, it was slowly reduced in size to four when Trinity purchased the property in 1906 for 3,000 pounds. “The rule of thumb is that a house doubles every 10 years. So, 120 years later, it should now be roughly worth $24 million dollars,” said Brown, who also commented that the Henty house wasn’t particularly handsome or overly decorative. He also pointed out some of the changes made over the years, including the demolition of the adjacent simpler single-storey house, with a returned veranda.

In contrast, Tarring, now part of Ruyton Girls' School, was, and still is, sumptuously appointed with grand arched foyers, 27 rooms, separate dressing areas, a library, and generous accommodation for staff. And with all the people needing to originally service this palatial pile, three staircases were conceived: the main one being for the family, one for the nursery (for the children to go between their sleeping areas and their particular section of the garden), and a corkscrew shaped staircase for the servants. Dodson showed the audience numerous black and white photos of the house and the grounds, including an unusual Burmese-style timber folly/garden house that was purchased by the Henty family from the Melbourne Great Exhibition of 1880. However, fortunes don’t last forever. So, while the Henty family at Tarring still had the dosh to live relatively well, three quarters of the land was sold off in 1885 after the couple went to London and made the mistake of leaving their business affairs to Henry’s brother Herbert, turning as they say, ‘a large fortune into a smaller one’.

Although many would be saddened by the transformation of these architectural gems into schools, Dodson made the point, that if they hadn’t been purchased by schools, they could have easily been further reduced in land size, with these prized and historic homes completely demolished for new subdivisions.

The presentation given by the Kew Historical Society was not only an important insight into the Henty family and their offspring but a glimpse of how they lived, including numerous hectares surrounding each house. One of the Henty houses, then fronting Studley Park Road, screened by high hedges and dotted with Norfolk Pines, included land for the cattle to graze and two glasshouses, one of them heated to protect the more rare and tropical species (as recorded in a newspaper article as late as 1914). And while the Henty family no longer reside in these significant homes, their legacy will continue in perpetuity.

Kay & Burton is a proud supporter of the Kew Historical Society.

1904 Tarring with Miss Beatrice Henty (credit: Ruyton Heritage Collection)

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'Swinton' in Swinton Avenue, Kew, built in 1959.

VISIT KEW HISTORICAL SOCIETY

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