Meroogal’s Uncle Kenny

Kenneth McKenzie

Kenneth McKenzie was born around 1835 in the parish of Lochbroom, Ross Shire, on the north-west coast of Scotland, the youngest child of Thomas and Mary McKenzie.

The McKenzies, like most Highlanders, were Gaelic speakers, making a difficult living as shepherds and farm labourers in the aftermath of decades of Highland clearances; part of a population swelled beyond sustainability on marginal land.

Like thousands of their fellow Highlanders they left Scotland in the 1830s, seeking a better life in Australia.

The family embarked on an emigrant ship called the James Moran which sailed from Ullapool in October 1838 and landed at Sydney in February 1839. On arrival the McKenzie family went to Jamberoo, working at first as farm labourers before moving on after a few years to a leasehold farm at Terara on the Shoalhaven River - only to lose their house and nearly all their possessions in a massive flood in February 1860. By that time Kenneth’s eldest sisters had married and left home. The remaining members of the McKenzie family moved to higher ground at Cambewarra, building a house which they called Fairfield.


Cambewarra remained Kenneth McKenzie’s home for the rest of his life although he spent some years away from the district in the 1850s and 60s, working on the goldfields at Mitchell’s Creek near Bathurst. When he returned to Cambewarra around 1871 he set up as a builder and is listed as such in the New South Wales Post Office directory for 1872.

Kenneth McKenzie was an active member of the Presbyterian church, serving as an elder for many years. He was present at the foundation of the Nowra Highland Society in 1884 and also a foundation member of the Nowra Choral Society. He played the flute, performing regularly at local concerts - in aid of the Cambewarra Presbyterian Sunday School; in support of the prize fund of Cambewarra Public School; to celebrate the opening of the new hall for the Nowra School of Arts in May 1892.

The Shoalhaven Telegraph described him in 1922 as someone who was “keen on all manly sports”. In the early 1870s, “when rowing was all the rage on the Shoalhaven”, he was an expert oarsman, and took part in several regattas held at Numba. He played cricket and tennis and took up bowls at the age of 85. He was also a keen naturalist and bushman.

Kenneth McKenzie did not marry although he had some admirers, judging by a couple of Victorian valentines that were sent to him when he was in his 30s. In his 50s he proposed marriage twice but was turned down on both occasions. He lived at Fairfield with his elderly parents until their deaths, his niece Tottie Thorburn keeping house. Tottie’s diaries record a steady stream of visitors to the house, friends and family coming to tea, staying overnight sometimes, sometimes staying longer. Meroogal has many mementoes of Uncle Kenny, including a collection of small cream jugs and several examples of his woodwork.

The builder

Kenneth McKenzie was the architect of Meroogal, the picturesque two-story timber house built on the corner of West and Worrigee Streets Nowra in 1885-1886 for his widowed sister Jessie Thorburn and her unmarried daughters. Architecturally, Meroogal is distinctive and atypical for Australian houses of this time. It has been suggested that the design character of the house indicates a North American architectural pattern book source. Details such as the octagonal form of the drawing room can be found in A. J. Bicknell’s Detail, cottage and constructive architecture published in New York in 1873 while Andrew Jackson Downing’s Victorian cottage residences, also published in New York in 1873, includes designs for two-story timber cottages festooned with gables. These pattern books were available in New South Wales and known to be used by Australian architects in the 19th century but there are no examples among the remaining book collection at Meroogal.


In Cambewarra Kenneth designed a house for his sister Georgina and her husband Samuel Matthews, the Cambewarra storekeeper. This house, called Llanthony is, like Meroogal, a two-story timber house, with picturesque gables and bargeboards and a decorative Gothic bay window. Kenneth is supposed to have designed and built this house in 1867, following Georgina’s marriage to Samuel in 1866. His other, documented, buildings in Cambewarra are later and include the School of Arts, for which he was the successful tenderer in January 1879 and the Cambewarra Union Church which opened in July 1900. Both were simple timber structures.

Kenneth McKenzie’s niece Tottie Thorburn, who lived in Cambewarra with her uncle and grandparents in the 1880s, records another building project in her diary: she noted on 1 August 1888 that Uncle Kenny and Roderick Macgregor “drew out a nice plan for their new house”. Roderick Macgregor was married to Kenneth’s niece Mary Susan Thorburn and the Macgregors lived on a farm called Torrisdale at Cambewarra. This new house was completed in September 1889. It is possible that other buildings may be attributed to Kenneth McKenzie. Tottie has a cryptic reference in her diary for 22 August 1891 that “Uncle finished Mrs McKay’s house, came home for good.”

“To Miss Katie Billis”

There is another cryptic clue in the single architectural drawing surviving in the Meroogal collection. This drawing, which carries Kenneth McKenzie’s stamp, has been generally supposed to be of the south elevation of Llanthony but there are some important differences of detail between the drawing and the actual house as built. On the back of the plan is an inscription “To Miss Katie Billis”, disguised in extremely elongated letters as a series of parallel lines. Jessie Billis, Katie’s sister, had married Kenneth’s nephew Robert Taylor Thorburn in Melbourne in 1886. Kenneth was at the wedding and a series of letters to Kenneth from Katie also survive. It seems that Kenneth McKenzie proposed marriage to Katie Billis in 1888 and was rebuffed. Perhaps the drawing was Kenneth’s plan for a future house for he and Katie?

Uncle Kenny and Roderick Macgregor “drew out a nice plan for their new house”.

The bushman

Kenneth McKenzie was a bushwalker and a naturalist, particularly interested in the local cabinet making timbers that could be found on Cambewarra mountain near his home Fairfield.

In the early 19th century the locality was known as a rich source of red cedar. A few stands of this valuable timber could still be found in Kenneth’s time and the mountain boasted several other large tree species. Kenneth’s knowledge of these local timbers was extensive. A veteran Shoalhaven journalist named Charles J B Watson, who had known Kenneth since boyhood, wrote an article for the Australian Forestry Journal in October 1921 in which he declared that Kenneth McKenzie “yielded to no one in his regard for the pristine glories of the bush”. He wrote that he was “always delighted to extol the virtues of local beech, messmate, sassafrass, lilipilli, apple, turpentine, mahogany, maple, redwood &c, as against the merits of imported timbers”. He also recalled that Kenneth took up cycling at the age of 67 and used his bicycle to explore forests beyond Cambewarra, becoming well-known to officers of the Forestry Service.

Kenneth McKenzie “yielded to no one in his regard for the pristine glories of the bush”

William Bäuerlen

Sometimes Kenneth tramped the mountain alone, sometimes with companions. One such companion was the German-born botanist William Bäuerlen (1840-1917) who had collected Australian plants for Baron Ferdinand von Mueller for many years and was employed as a botanical collector by Joseph Maiden at the Technological Museum, Sydney, from 1886-1904. Bäuerlen’s first letters to Maiden were written from Cambewarra in July 1886. His name appears in the diaries kept by Tottie Thorburn, Kenneth McKenzie’s niece. She records a visit by Bäuerlen to 'Fairfield' in April 1888 when he and Kenneth spent two days on the mountain collecting specimens. There were further visits in May and September 1888 and again in November 1890. In 1891 Bäuerlen published the first part of an intended series on The wild flowers of New South Wales. A copy of this publication, now very rare, found its way into the book collection at Meroogal. It was illustrated by Gertrude Lovegrove, a Shoalhaven local and an occasional visitor to Meroogal, along with her younger sisters.

Samuel Elyard

Watson identified three “bush lovers” in his 1921 story in the Australian Forestry Journal - the botanist Bäuerlen, the bushman McKenzie and an artist: Samuel Elyard (1817-1910). Elyard became an artist at an early age, painting street scenes, picturesque buildings and landscapes in and around Sydney while working as a clerk in the Colonial Secretary’s Office. When he retired from the public service in 1868 he settled at Nowra where his family had long been landholders. Several of his paintings of scenery around Nowra were exhibited with the NSW Academy of Art in the 1870s and he later exhibited in local shows and exhibitions. A watercolour painting of Meroogal by Elyard, possibly painted during the construction of the house, forms part of the Meroogal collection.

Sometimes Kenneth tramped the mountain alone, sometimes with companions.

The woodworker

When Kenneth McKenzie died in December 1922 he left several allotments of land, some household furniture and personal effects to his niece Tottie Thorburn and to various of his great-nieces and nephews. The personal effects were unspecified except for his “scientific instruments, carpenters tools and tool chests” which he left to his executors – of whom Tottie was one – and his “inlaid chest of drawers” bequeathed to his great-niece Margaret Steel. Woodworking had become Kenneth’s craft on his retirement from building.

The use of inlaid Australian timbers is the defining characteristic of Kenneth McKenzie’s cabinet-work...

Meroogal collection

He made many gifts of cabinet-work to family and friends and there are several examples of his work in the Meroogal collection including a games table, a cutlery box, table tops and the small “chest of drawers” that he bequeathed to Margaret Steel. The games table has an inlaid top featuring a central chessboard edged with cribbage blocks. One of the table-tops uses inlaid timbers to create a powerful trompe d’oil perspective and perhaps for this reason it was later used in the house as a firescreen, sitting in summer in front of the dining room fireplace. The cutlery box – also inlaid – was once in regular use on the dining room side-table, housing the family’s best silver.

Other examples of Kenneth’s woodwork include a writing desk for Katie Billis, a “fancy cabinet” for which he was awarded a Certificate of Merit at the Royal Agricultural Society’s Easter show in 1904 and an inlaid chess table exhibited at the Royal Easter Show in 1905. Around 1917 he made a doll’s cradle for the youngest daughter of the Reverend T. Jamieson Williams, Presbyterian minister at Nowra, as well as inlaid boxes for her elder sisters and an inlaid table for the minister and his wife.

Australian timbers

The use of inlaid Australian timbers is the defining characteristic of Kenneth McKenzie’s cabinet-work and his boxes and tables are a deliberate celebration of these local timbers. In September 1901 the Shoalhaven Telegraph reported that a large work-box, made by Kenneth and raffled at a village fair in aid of the Shoalhaven Agricultural Society’s new pavilion, comprised “no fewer than 580 separate pieces of timber”. Kenneth also made lists of the woods used in the construction of particular items, noting both botanical and local names. The Meroogal games table, for example, used 16 different woods including Australian red cedar, blackwood, coachwood, honeysuckle, silky oak and musk. The list for the “chest of drawers” names 19 different woods. Even small objects might include several timbers: a presentation mallet made by Kenneth for the laying of the foundation stone of the Presbyterian Hall at Nowra in 1901 was described as “a handsome article composed of nine or ten different varieties of local timber”.

Apart from “fancy” cabinet-work Kenneth McKenzie could turn his hand to more utilitarian items. During the First World War he made hundreds of walking sticks for wounded soldiers in rehabilitation hospitals and convalescent homes from Randwick to Bomaderry. It was his practice, according to his obituary in the Shoalhaven Telegraph, to present each returning soldier from the Cambewarra district with “a walking stick made with his own hands”.

Written by Megan Martin. Based on research by Tamara Dolan, Barbara Konkolowicz, Sandra Lee, Sarah McCarthy and Megan Martin, and with thanks to the recollections and reminiscences of the late June Wallace. January 2013.

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Megan Martin

Megan Martin

Former Head, Collections & Access

Megan is the former head of Collections & Access at Sydney Living Museums. She has a particular interest in the working of the historical imagination, in teasing out the meanings of objects in museums collections and in crafting the stories that can be recovered/discovered through a close reading of those items of material culture.

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