Nailing history at Rouse Hill House

When Richard Rouse, superintendent of the Parramatta lumberyard, won the contract to build tollhouses along the new turnpike road running from Parramatta to Windsor in 1811 he couldn’t have known that his name would be etched in colonial history.

Shortly after arriving in the colony in 1809, Governor Macquarie commenced building or refinishing roads between distant townships and outlying farming areas to improve transport and communication and increase the colony's economic wellbeing. In order to manage traffic along these new roads, and help fund their upkeep, Macquarie ordered a series of tollhouses to be built at strategic points, much like modern-day toll booths on freeways today. It was during construction of such a tollhouse that Richard Rouse received permission to take up land and construct a dwelling on the elevated grassy ridge, then known as Vinegar Hill.

​By 1819 Rouse Hill House was standing and the farm was up and running, its sheep sleeping safely within closely paled, dingo-proof enclosures and the stables awaiting Syntax, founder stallion of a soon-to-be celebrated stud.

Until recently, it was understood that some of the older working buildings 'clinging on' at Rouse Hill Estate date back to those heady founding years. The woolshed, for instance, was said to be almost as old as the house itself. More recently, however, it has emerged that none were constructed until well after Richard Rouse’s death in 1852, when the property passed to his son Edwin, who had lived mostly at Guntawang Station near Mudgee, running his father’s expansive pastoral holdings.

Utilitarian farm structures like sheds, cow bales, piggeries and slaughtering rooms are typically ephemeral and sometimes function for short periods of time before being pulled down and repurposed or destroyed. The actual number of work buildings erected by Richard Rouse on his farm therefore is impossible to pinpoint, although like others of their time, they were no doubt framed with local timber using age-old European carpentry techniques that relied more on splitting than sawing. As labour was cheaper than buying expensive hand-forged nails and bolts, the buildings were painstakingly jointed using an array of mortice and tenon, cogged, notched, halved and dovetailed joints, then locked in place with wedges or hand-whittled wooden spikes called treenails.

By the time Edwin, his wife, Hannah, and their brood moved to Rouse Hill in 1855, the machine age was well and truly underway. Revolutionary labour-saving materials - galvanised iron roofing tiles, galvanised corrugated iron sheeting, and different generations of mass-produced iron nails, bolts and screws - have left telltale evidence that enables otherwise undocumented buildings to be dated to within a decade or so, as well as providing insight into their use and development.

Given such mass-produced industrial materials were used in constructing the surviving 19th-century work buildings at Rouse Hill, and despite some containing components recycled with frugality from earlier buildings, there is no doubt the structures were built in the second half of the 19th century.

Indeed, recognising that they were built between 1860 and the mid 1870s has not only provided clues to how the property was remodelled and worked during that time - first under Edwin Rouse, then after his early death in 1862, under his youngest son, Edwin Stephen - but has revealed who built them.

Edwin Stephen Rouse grew from impressionable boy to mature man at Rouse Hill and owned the property from 1862 to 1931. He left little in writing, but did recount much of Rouse Hill‘s history to his Terry grandsons. Two of them, Gerald and Ted, duly repeated these precious stories to historians before they themselves passed on. Indelibly impressed on Ted’s memory was that ‘all of the good sheds’ at Rouse Hill were built by ‘a man called Dickson’ who was ‘killed on the Windsor Road when he fell from the drays and they ran over him’. These recollections led to the discovery of Thomas Dickson, a Scots immigrant, born in Edinburgh in 1823 and overseer at Rouse Hill in the 1860s through to the mid 1870s. Significantly, after Dickson’s death in June 1877, the construction of working buildings at Rouse Hill came to an abrupt halt.

Apart from the fact that his children were born and died at Rouse Hill, and that he lived in the overseer's cottage, it's surprsing how little is known about Dickson, given his long involvement with the farm and the important works he supervised. Now that his story has emerged, more will surely be learned about him. It is telling, for instance, that a photograph of him features alongside images of friends and family in Edwin Stephen Rouse’s personal photograph album. Edwin Stephen probably found him a man to look up to, having lost his own father when just a boy and growing to adulthood in the years when Dickson was overseer and builder at Rouse Hill.

Judging by their fastenings and other material features, the earliest buildings at Rouse Hill - and likely to have been built by Thomas Dickson - are the potting shed or the overseer’s cottage, both of which date to the 1860s. The woolshed, cow bails, slaughterhouse and barn were built over the following decade or so.

These buildings, and newer constructions such as the sadly ruined tank stand (c1875), which may represent the last of Dickson’s handiwork, are intriguing in that they reveal a progression in one carpenter’s building methods during a period when more and more mass-produced materials became available and labour costs increased.

In his earlier buildings Dickson used an impressive range of archaic construction techniques and pain staking workmanship that led people to think them older than they are. But in the later structures he took more and more shortcuts, with logs no longer being squared with an axe and the time-consuming jointing method of an earlier period all but disappearing.

The construction of the outbuildings at Rouse Hill is significant because it shows how a man steeped in traditional building practices, like others throughout Australia, adapted his approach to take advantage of an ever-widening range of cheap, mass-produced and quite revolutionary new building materials.

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