My Fathers Were But Strangers Here

​'The tomb is still in an unfinished state' wrote a visitor to Vaucluse in the summer of 1873. 'Men are working but Ms W[entworth] said they are drunk and away oftener than at work.' The indolence of these artisans labouring at the Wentworth Mausoleum is worth comparing to the enthusiastic mid - winter cavalcade of mourners who wound their way to Vaucluse for the burial of William Charles Wentworth on 6 May 1873.

The Empire, a publication that gave the funeral and procession special attention in its 7 May 1873 issue noted that 133 carriages and 2200 attended the burial at the estate following the service at St Andrews.

William Charles Wentworth was a nineteenth century hero in a land still described by twentieth century commentators as possessing no heroes. Wentworth's stature amongst his contemporaries is especially evident in the powerful public reaction to news of his death in England on 20 March 1872.

A recent display of W.C. Wentworth portraiture and memorabilia at Vaucluse, Wentworth as Hero, displayed commemorative poetry, Wentworth the Good, as well as a specially commissioned funeral dirge published by Jas Rending and Co, Sydney, This public grief is evidence of W.C. Wentworth's heroic reputation among nineteenth century Australians. Here was it man who had agitated for representative government, judicial rights for the convict class, as well as helping to create the nation's first university (Sydney University).

His commanding role in New South Wales government was recognised when the colonial legislative bodies voted in August to grant him a public funeral. It was Australia’s greatest expression of community mourning since the Burke and Wills funeral voted by the Victorian Legislature in 1863.

A family burial site at Vaucluse had been chosen many years earlier and a letter from Sarah Wentworth in 1831 alludes to the family’s desire to construct a vault at Vaucluse. Although William Charles Wentworth, to the despair of his daughters, remained indifferent to the comforts of the church, Sarah Wentworth insisted that the family vault be consecrated ground. The consecration ceremony was finally performed on the day of the funeral within sight of Vaucluse House. The records reveal an uninspired service and readings at graveside (Genesis 1:1 -14 and 1 John 21-30) that failed to match the grandeur of the setting.

A psalm contained the lines:

which but hear my mournful cry; ​my fathers were but strangers here and as they were, aim I…

The choice of the tomb was typically Wentworthian: quixotic. The sandstone vault was to be hewn from an impossibly large sandstone boulder on the western slope of what the family called ‘Parsley Hill’. This modest hillock is now capped by the Wentworth Memorial Church. Sarah Wentworth's instructions for fabricating the tomb were quite precise: ‘… on no account [are you] to allow the outside to [be] interfered with "she wrote to her son-in-law John Fisher in May 1872.

Not only was this immense rock and soon-to-be-constructed mausoleum visible from the Vaucluse House verandah , it was also a prominent harbour landmark if we are to trust James Martin's eulogy reported in the Freeman's Journal on 10 May 1873 ... [T]his monument will be a lasting and conspicuous memorial, visible to all who enter and all who leave our port... "

Unfortunately, both these important vistas have been lost to the Vaucluse subdivisions and mature plantings in the area. The mausoleum constructed atop this sandstone vault was designed in the Gothic style by the Mansfield Bros., a Sydney architectural firm. Who briefed them is unknown, but there were ample themes to draw upon at the Vaucluse estate.

Sarah Wentworth's correspondence reveals, however, her personal oversight of the internal structure of the vault, the acquisition of the marble sarcophagus (from Brussels) now visible through the door of the mausoleum, the ‘iron railing’ and event the planting. She suggested willows.

If these willows were ever planted they have been overgrown by the many muture brush box trees that now crowd the site. This eucalypt grove gives the Wentworth family tomb an exaggerated but picturesque Gothic atmosphere very different from the family's original intentions. The earliest photographs, for instance, show grasslands to the west and south.

In the 1980s, historical researcher Joy Hughes identified many of the documents associated with the mausoleum and its site. Then in 1991 the Trust commissioned a conservation analysis is of the mausoleum. Consequently, when the Federal government announced its One Nation program program of conservation work creation grants in 1992, the Conservation Analysis and Guidelines and the extensive research of Joy Hughes allowed the Historic Houses Trust to react quickly and present a well argued application As a result, the Trust was awarded $200,000 in Commonwealth funds for the repair and stabilisation of the mausoleum and its site. This will hopefully proceed with the cooperation of the Anglican Church.

Naturally, these plans include the much needed interpretation and integration of the Wentworth Mausoleum into the Vaucluse House estate. The nineteenth century notables gathered for William Charles Wentworth’s funeral in 1873 considered that the tomb would become a place of pilgrimage for Australians. The conservation of this Gothic monument to one of the nation’s most important political figures will allow this potential to be realised for twentieth century admirers.

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