Blackwood, Western Victoria

Children of Victoria’s Western District squatters revisit their gilded history

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Tony Wright

There was a time, not so long ago, when Australia’s real power often sat sipping whisky around the lounges of a couple of big old homesteads on the rich volcanic soil of Victoria’s Western District, the spine of the Grampians mountain range cutting the northern horizon.

  • Here, at the Beggs family’s sprawling Nareeb Nareeb wool property and the nearby Ritchie family’s Blackwood, mingled the members of what author Richard Zachariah calls “a regular salon of like-minded grandees, all of them related, occupying key sites of political and economic power”.
Allan Myers, QC, on his property in Dunkeld beside a hut where his great-grandfather lived.
Allan Myers, QC, on his property in Dunkeld beside a hut where his great-grandfather lived.

Photo: Rebecca Hallas
“The salon included a prime minister, Malcolm Fraser; his brother-in-law Hugh Beggs, who was active in woolgrower politics and would chair the Australian Wool Corporation; Fraser’s sister-in-law, Victorian Liberal Party president Eda Ritchie; her husband Robin Ritchie, chairman of Geelong Grammar; and Hugh Beggs’s wife Frankie, whose father, Sir David Fairbairn, was a minister in successive Liberal governments from the Menzies years on.”

  • Who might have imagined, as this “salon” met for lamb roast dinners, the conversations charting the nation’s path, that the long gilded era of the Western District squattocracy would soon fade?
    Read More:

Ritchie’s sell bluestone Blackwood in Western Victoria to Chinese interests
By Jonathan Chancellor
Monday, 17 February 2014
The historic 2,420 hectare farm, Blackwood near Dunkeld has been sold by the Ritchie family, bringing its association to an end for a second time.

The Blackwood homestead, with private cemetery, is located on the Dunkeld - Blackwood Road, eight kilometres north east of the township of Penshurst.
The Blackwood homestead, with private cemetery, is located on the Dunkeld – Blackwood Road, eight kilometres north east of the township of Penshurst.
  • There are unconfirmed suggestions the sale reputedly at around $14 million was to one of China’s biggest textile manufacturing companies.
  • Blackwood was marketed as a western districts icon, with a history dating back to 1842, and outright ownership by the Ritchie family dating back to 1845. It is actually the second time the property has been sold by the Ritchie family as it was bought back in 1927 after an 11 year gap following the great war.
  • The Elders website says it is under offer with Shane McIntyre unable to confirm any details.
  • The Blackwood homestead, with private cemetery, is located on the Dunkeld – Blackwood Road, eight kilometres north east of the township of Penshurst.
  • It comes with the original two roomed bluestone homestead, constructed after 1842; a second bluestone homestead built in 1864; a bluestone and timber woolshed, and the current Blackwood homestead, stables and coach house which were constructed in 1891 amid four acres of garden.[1]

Blackwood is one of the finest nineteenth century examples of the Picturesque house in Australia and a masterpiece of the architectural practice, Butler and Ussher.

  • The long single storey gabled composition of the main building gives a distinctly Australian character to an architectural idiom derived principally from contemporary English works.
  • The complex of homestead, stable block and coach house date from 1891 when they were erected for R B Ritchie, and still remains in the Ritchie family. The contractor was Charles Hosking.
  • The perimeter walls of the house are constructed in bluestone. The terra cotta tile roof (the tiles were imported from Bridgewater in the est of England) is punctuated by a variety of half timbered gables and clusters of tall red brick chimneys.
  • The variety of window types displayed across the facade reflect the scale and importance of the rooms they illuminate.

Internally, the house incorporates a superb suite of principal rooms comprising reception hall, drawing room (with inglenook and an elevated by window), dining room, study, and billiard room.

  • The billiard room includes an elevated stage area, ensuite urinal, and gives access to the lower staircase. The homestead complex is well sited on a hill top position overlooking the surrounding plains with views of the Grampian Ranges and stands apart from the day to day farm buildings of the estate.
  • In conception and certain details, the house reflects the work of the English architect, Richard Norman Shaw; however, Butler and Ussher have grouped theses elements into a more strident asymmetry than is shown in Shaw’s works with the main concentration of gables, oriels and chimneys around the reception rooms balanced by the plain low slung expanses of terra cotta roof tiles of the bedroom wing.
  • The Picturesque but spreading multigabled design with sections of half timbering compares with contemporary English works, particularly to Edward Ould’s Wightwock Manor of 1887 and 1893, and C F A Voysey’s Walnut Tree Farm of 1890.[2]
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Wightwick Manor, March 2005, built 1887(Pronounced ‘Wittick’) is one of only a few surviving examples of a house built and furnished under the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement The Garden Front, Walnut Tree Farm by C. F. A. Voysey. Before 1897Walnut Tree Farm was designed in the summer of 1890 for R H Cazalet at Castlemorton in Worcestershire UK and plans and elevations were published in the British Architect in September and October 1890,[3]

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Blackwood is unique in its composition, consisting of a hip with a long ridge which runs virtually the entire length of the long east elevation.

  • A strikingly bold south elevational composition consists of gables, a half hip roof, and an observational composition consists of gables, a half hip roof and an observation tower, which combine bluestone in the walls, sandstone for window details, half timbering and plaster to the gable ends, and Major’s patent terra cotta tiles from Bridgewater (UK) for the extensive roof and subsidiary gables.
  • The interior is treated in the Jacobean manner and has Dado panelling and strong timber cornice details with panelled ceilings.
  • To the south side of the intimate entrance porch are the principal formal rooms, the hall, the drawing room with a delightful octagonal bay off one corner, the dining room and the billiard room. To the north of the entrance are the more private morning room and bedrooms which proceed along the east front and return around the north elevation.
  • The service section and servants’ rooms are to the west beyond the hall and bedroom corridor such an extended plan is not found in suburban residences of the Melbourne Queen Anne.
  • The homestead complex is well sited on a hill top position overlooking the surrounding plains with view of the Grampian Ranges and stands apart from the day to day farm buildings of the estate.
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It’s the end of an era for historic Western District property “Blackwood”. In the Ritchie family for five generations since settlement, brothers Jason and Dan – sons of Eda and the late Robin Ritchie – have placed the Penshurst property on the market with price expectations in the vicinity of $15 million plus.[4]

  • First settled in 1842, the 2428-hectare property features a recently renovated six-bedroom bluestone homestead, a manager’s residence, two cottages, a bluestone coachhouse and other outbuildings as well as about 2000 hectares of barley, wheat and canola crops.
  • Shane McIntyre, of Elders, is running an expressions of interest campaign closing at 5pm on November 8.
    The listing
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from George Tibbets article “The so-called Melbourne Domestic Queen Anne”
Fed arch Historic Env vol2 iss2.pdf

AFTER five generations of Ritchie family ownership, the legendary Blackwood, at Penshurst, is for sale.
Jason Ritchie and brother Dan are the current custodians of the 2428ha property which has been in the family since 1842.
The impressive holding has a sound farming reputation but is also well known for the original bluestone homestead that remains on the property.

  • Jason and Dan have owned the property for the past 14 years and have transformed it from a mostly livestock operation to a viable cropping enterprise.
  • “It’s always going to be an emotional thing (selling), but it’s also an exciting thing and gives us the opportunity to move on and do different things with our lives,” Jason said.
  • Jason runs the day-to-day operations of the farm, along with a couple of staff, and has spent considerable time and money transforming Blackwood into a good yielding cropping property.
  • Wheat, barley and canola are most commonly sown each year.
  • Jason said it was not uncommon to yield above six tonnes of wheat per hectare and above 2.5 tonnes of canola a hectare.
  • “There’s been a lot of working up of the soil, levelling paddocks out and picking up rocks,” Jason said.
  • “Basically turning what was previously probably unarable country into arable country and generally improving the soil structures.”
  • About 2000ha of canola, wheat and barley crop will be included in the sale of the property.

In the heart of the Western District, the property enjoys good rainfall and is watered by a system of tiered dams and two bores that reticulate water via 50mm-75mm pipes to troughs.

  • There is a central laneway system linking the paddocks on the property and fencing is in excellent condition.
  • The property includes the grand 700-square metre, six-bedroom homestead from 1892, a manager’s residence, guest cottage and historic coach house.
  • “We’ve got about 800 tonnes of grain storage and we have a continuous flow grain dryer, which basically means we can just start harvesting at 9am, so that’s certainly improved the efficiency of the operation,” Jason said.
  • The property also has a bluestone woolshed and ram shed with yards.
  • Blackwood is 10km northeast of Penshurst and about 20km south of Dunkeld.
  • Hamilton is also nearby.[5]
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“Blackwood” A Western District Icon

“Blackwood” is a western district icon, with a history dating back to 1842.

  • Ideally located to the south of Australia’s famous Grampians mountain range, “Blackwood” offers the pinnacle in rural living with a broadscale flexible income stream and a superb mountain vista.
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  • Rural properties of the calibre of “Blackwood” rarely come to the market. Most of “Blackwood” has never been sold.
  • Astute investors will recognise the unique characteristics that make “Blackwood” one of Victoria’s finest rural holdings.
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  • Thoughtfully positioned on a prominent hillside location overlooking the property, “Blackwood” homestead stands in an English and native treed and lawned setting, providing a curtain of privacy and brilliant spring texture surrounding the homestead.

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  • “Blackwood” presents quality farm improvements of purpose and function. A central laneway system allows easy stock movement.
  • Modern farming practices have retained the outstanding fertility of the “Blackwood” soils, which are renowned for their ability to produce high yielding crops, excellent clean wool, prime fat lambs and beef.
  • “Blackwood” has been conservatively farmed over many generations. In most recent years, cropping has been introduced, significantly enhancing the returns and production of one of Victoria’s landmark rural holdings.
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The land was first taken up as pre-emptive right by James Sceales in 1842, some 10 000 acres, and by October 1845, James Ritchie had full control of Blackwood having bought out his partner Sceales. James Ritchie had arrived from Scotland in April 1841.

  • Blackwood has most recently been farmed by Jason Ritchie, the son of the late Robin Ritchie, onetime chair of Energy Victoria and his wife, Eda Ritchie, the commissioner of the Shire of Moyne, a former president of the Victorian Liberal Party and the sister of Tammy Fraser and Hugh Beggs, the former head of the Wool Corporation.
  • The cemetery, surrounded by a bluestone fence, located some distance from the current homestead contains several unmarked graves of the Ritchie family, as well as and an obelisk dedicated to James Ritchie, who died in 1857, aged 45 when his horse bolted and threw him against a tree.
  • News Ltd papers suggest the buyer was Zhejiang RIFA Holding Group which credits itself as worth more than 10 billion yuan ($1.9 billion) having been established in 1993.
  • While carrying cattle and cropping, Blackwood could be used by RIFA to breed and showcase the thousands of fine-woolled merino sheep.
  • RIFA executives had previously been undertaking study trips to Western Australia with InvestWest foreign investment agribusiness head Verghese Jacob advising representatives on opportunities in the sheep supply chain.

The main bluestone homestead and separate stable block was constructed in 1891 by the architectural firm, Butler and Ussher for Robert Blackwood Ritchie on a hill top overlooking the surrounding plains with view of the Grampian Ranges.

  • The homestead was constructed of local bluestone in the Picturesque Aesthetic style.
  • Bluestone has been combined with sandstone for window details, along with half timbering and plaster to the gable ends, all under Major’s patent terracotta tiles from Bridgewater in the UK.
  • The interior is in the Jacobean manner and has dado paneling.
  • Notes from the National Trust state that the tender accepted for the construction of the house was for 4790 pounds, 1000 pounds being allowed the contractor for ‘old building’. The tender for the stables was for 1202 pounds.
  • The house and stables took 18 months to construct.

George Tibbits, in an article titled ‘The So-Called Melbourne Domestic Queen Anne’ describes Blackwood Homestead as one of the finest 19th century examples.

  • Heritage Victoria records show in 1893, Robert Blackwood Ritchie (known as R.B Ritchie) married Lillian Mary Ross, the daughter of pastoralist, William Ross of the neighboring run The Gums.
  • R. B and Lillian had two children, Robert Blackwood Ritchie II (known as Robin) born in 1894, and Alan Blackwood Ritchie, born in 1895.
  • In 1897, Lillian died at Blackwood, and R.B took his two young sons to Scotland to be raised by his mother Janet, while he returned to Australia and was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly as the Western Province representative between 1903-07.
  • In 1916, R.B sold the homestead and 3,800 acres to James Robertson of Skene, after his eldest son, known as Robin was killed on the Somme in France in World War I in 1916.
  • R.B bought his younger son, Alan, to visit Blackwood after the war in 1919, and took joint ownership of the remaining Blackwood land. But after his wife Naomi drowned while swimming the property was sold in 1924.

Alan Ritchie returned to Australia after graduating in 1924, and in 1927 purchased back the homestead and 3,800 acres which had been sold in 1916.

  • Alan Ritchie married a Canadian woman, Margaret Witcomb, having met her in London on a three year absence from Blackwood.
  • They had four children, Robin, Judith, Blyth and Linton between 1937 and 1946. When their eldest son, Robin, married in 1965, Alan and Margaret left Blackwood.[6]

PROPERTY OVERVIEWLocation Details: Blackwood is located 21kms south of the township of Dunkeld, 10kms north east of Penshurst and 32kms from the city of Hamilton.
Land Use: Grazing, Cropping
Cropping: Cereals, Oilseeds, Legume
Description of Country: The outstanding volcanic soil types that comprise “Blackwood” are widely renowned. Undulating in nature, these red and brown soil types are noted for their suitability to raise-bed or conventional cropping.
Annual Rainfall: 630 millimetres
Other Improvements: Machinery shed, Silo(s), Sheep Yards, Cattle Yards, Managers accommodation, Shearing shed, Other Housing
Number of Paddocks: 30

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Water Supplies: Dams, Bores
Comments: “Blackwood” is watered by two substantial interconnected bores and a third smaller bore reticulating water via 50mm and 75mm pipes to troughs throughout the property with a 125K litre header tank as a reserve, providing high quality reliable stock water. The dams also make up a significant environmental wetland, the summer flocking site for around 1/3 of Victoria’s Brolga population (270) as well as many other rare and endangered birds such as Latham Snipe, Spoonbills and Pelicans. The island has become a rookery for large amounts of Ibis as well.A system of tiered dams support the network, ensuring a never failing stock water supply.

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Crops: Approximately 2,000 hectares of winter crop has been planted.
Pastures: Throughout it history, “Blackwood” has a reputation for its breeding, fattening and finishing ability, due to outstanding pastures of rye grass, cocksfoot and natural grasses, ideally suited to the Western District of Victoria.

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Nearest Regional
Centre: Hamilton
Distance from Centre: 32.00 kilometres
Agriculture: Saleyard, Grain silo, Truck depot, Railyards
Air service: Daily
Mail service: Daily
Schools: Primary bus, Secondary bus
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Type: Freehold
Possession: Vacant Possession

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Description: “Blackwood” homestead comprises six bedrooms, main bedroom ensuite and dressing room, 2 further bathrooms,2 powder rooms, formal entrance hall, formal dining room, formal sitting room, billiard room, study, chef’s quality modern kitchen of exceptional standard, adjoining meals area, family room, laundry and 2 bedroom self-contained guest accommodation.”Blackwood” homestead has many ornate original features of the era such as ceiling to floor open fire places, ornate timber dado panelling, handcrafted timber ceilings, high skirting boards and leadlight windows throughout.Historic bluestone carriage shed, with mezzanine, grooms accommodation and stables complete the homestead outbuildings.
Bedrooms: 6
Bathrooms: 3

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Livestock carried: Cattle
Livestock capacity: 25000.00 dse

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Further information:
Land Area 2428 hectares

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  2. ^;search=place_name%3Dblackwood%3Bstate%3DVIC%3Bkeyword_PD%3Don%3Bkeyword_SS%3Don%3Bkeyword_PH%3Don%3Blatitude_1dir%3DS%3Blongitude_1dir%3DE%3Blongitude_2dir%3DE%3Blatitude_2dir%3DS%3Bin_region%3Dpart;place_id=15769
  3. ^ “CFA Voysey” by Wendy Hitchmough, p.39
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