Blairgowrie, Burnside, Parramatta. Digital Order Number: a106153

The opening of Blairgowrie, No. 1 Cottage and first of the Burnside Presbyterian Orphan Homes

Saturday 17 June 1911 was a fine day, the skies kept clear by a “nondescript” high over most of the eastern coast. The Parramatta district, despite the fine day, was not at its best – a thin murky veil of smoke haze hung over the basin. The views available from the tower of Gowan Brae, usually taking in the Blue Mountains, the Southern Highlands, and even, allegedly, the “clocks upon the city spires” were obscured. Colonel James Burns (later Sir James Burns), businessman, ship-builder and philanthropist, stood ready to receive the Lady Dudley, wife of the Governor-General, into his home before the party travelled to Town Hall, Parramatta. Today marked the opening of Cottage No. 1 – ‘Blairgowrie’ – and realisation of Burns’ vision.

Whilst travelling from Katoomba to Sydney by train, Burns’ noticed and was inspired by the orphanages, convents and homes of the Roman Catholic Church, and was prompted to reflect on the lack of such facilities in his own Church. He “thought of it all the rest of the journey, and by the time he had reached Sydney he had come to the conclusion that there ought to be such a home, though on a larger scale, for Protestant boys”. In 1909, the idea had firmed, and Burns made an offer to the Church.

Understanding that your Church is desirous of forming a Presbyterian Boys’ Home, where orphan and abandoned lads may be trained to become useful citizens, I am prepared to purchase and have transferred free of all cost the piece of land which has been shown to you, comprising forty-five acres of good agricultural land, in an elevated and suitable position near my own residence.

And should you accept this land, then it will be understood that a substantial building will be erected worthy of the district and position occupied, and I agree to make a donation of 500 [pounds] towards such a building, and will otherwise assist as far as I possibly can.

After considerable discussion, it was decided the Burnside Homes would be modelled after the cottage system or Quarriers Homes of Scotland, instead of the large single building favoured by other institutions. Cottage Homes were viewed at the time as an innovative scheme untried in Australia, centred on providing a ‘home’ for the child. The plan for Burnside was to build a number of homes around a “central village green and playground”. The architects, McCredie and Anderson of 9 Bridge St, Sydney, envisaged 10 cottages, a separate administration block and caretaker facilities covering an area of 16 acres with the farm, orchard and garden areas covering a further 29 acres.

Burns himself had not wanted the homes to be named after him, despite it being suggested by the board. Rev. Ronald G. Macintyre, managing director of the Burnside Presbyterian Orphan Homes (1927-34), stated in his book, The Story of Burnside, that the Board wanted a way of linking the Homes to Burns, done in a way that he would accept. William Wood suggested the name ‘Burnside’ to Macintyre, linking the donor’s name with a creek that ran through the property. Macintyre responded that it was “a capital idea, it incorporates the name Burns, but do not mention that in Colonel Burn’s presence or he will not agree. The Scottish sound will get him”. And so it had – Burnside was accepted, and the name “Burnside Presbyterian Orphan Homes” was decided upon.

Careful planning had gone into the opening ceremony of the first Burnside cottage. The committee had advertised in the lead up to the event that local residents were to make their own way to the grounds. This was to ensure that transport to the site was available for visitors from Sydney and others arriving by train. Indeed, to ensure smooth transit, an extra tram had been arranged, due to leave the station at 1.47 pm and to drop passengers at the corner of Pennant Hills Road, a mere half mile from the event. Burns and Lady Dudley, accompanied by the Duchess of Bedford and Sir Alexander Napier were scheduled to leave Gowan Brae shortly after 2 p.m. Rather than heading directly to the site, the Vice Regal party were to drive to Town Hall, Parramatta where they would be joined by the New South Wales Lancers, acting as a royal mounted escort for the party’s journey to Burnside.

Transport arrangements may not have been the only concern of the organising committee. Lady Dudley’s car accident, just two weeks prior to the opening ceremony, may have caused consternation amongst organisers. Lady Dudley, on her way to the Bronte baths, had sustained “shaking and a few bruises” after the car she had been travelling was badly damaged, jammed between two trams in Oxford Street, Paddington. The chauffeur, Cameron Ranhall, attempting to cross between two trams travelling in opposite directions, mistimed the crossing, resulting in collision, but miraculously, few injuries. Masses of pure white flowers, including the Lady’s favourite – lily of the valley and baby hyacinths – were said to have been delivered to Government House in displays of sympathy by the public.

No such accidents befell the travelling party on this day. The Vice Regal party arrived without incident. Lady Dudley, also known as “The White Duchess” on account of her partiality for dressing in white, did not disappoint on this occasion. She arrived dressed in “mauve cachmire de soie, with a folded belt of white satin, and white satin buttons, brown furs, and fur toque with white satin crown and white flowers”. She was escorted through the “large and distinguished crowd” to her seat by Senator Walker, Chairman of the Burnside Board. Prayers were read, the Moderator addressed the crowd, describing the “great objective of this Burnside Home”, and then Lady Dudley addressed those gathered. The Sydney Morning Herald presented her speech to its readers:

I am very sensible of the kind welcome which has been offered to me today. And I would like to assure you of how much pleasure it has given me to come amongst you and be permitted to take part in this opening ceremony. I can assure you also that I am heartily in accord with this project for the care and betterment of those little children who are not only in the unhappiest of circumstances, but are also orphans. It undertakes, this project, the care of these children in a most unselfish way. And with that way I should like to declare myself greatly in sympathy, for, instead of affording them the shelter of some large institution, where it is perhaps difficult, or almost impossible, to preserve the home character of things, it has been arranged to establish these cottage homes, which may be made homes indeed to the children who live in them. [Applause]. Senator Walker made use of one phrase which went straight to my heart. He said, ‘Each of these homes will have a mother.’ It means a great deal to these children that such a kindly arrangement has been made for them. When the children are gathered together in small homes, such as these, they will be as nearly as possible what their real homes would have been. It is, I think, essential to remember in this young country the immense importance of preserving, in fact of creating, the home sentiment. For we all know the influence for good which it exercises upon every community. Home, as was well said today, is the forge where character is bent and moulded into shape. [Applause]. And the impress which the influence of home leaves upon character, for good or for bad, we know that it leaves for ever. So I think there can be no nobler work than this, which has been undertaken by the Burnside Homes – the giving to these children deprived of their homes a place where they shall receive the real influence and training of home. [Applause]. I shall have much pleasure in opening the Burnside Homes [Applause].

To those in the crowd, the speech resonated with the “true ring of womanhood and motherhood.” Indeed, motherhood was a theme in the reporting of the opening of Blairgowrie. Each home, it was emphasised, was to “have a ‘mother’”. Each cottage was to become a “distinct home of its own” with a “carefully chosen mother”. Each Mother was to do her own ordering to suit the needs of her own children and her own cooking. The influence of home for the good of the community, particularly in a “young country”, was reported around the country.

Lady Dudley turned the key to open the cottage, to rapturous applause. Elaborations inside the cottage had been avoided with a view to keep things “plain and simple”. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the matron’s room was so placed as to keep “efficient control” over both dormitories, each with eight beds apiece, and the sleep-out verandah, which faced east. The dining-room was described as “large, airy and well-lighted”. Portland cement finished the interior, alongside fibrous plaster ceilings and cornices. The work had been carried out by Mr. George Dalton.

A golden key was presented to Lady Dudley by Mr Walker on behalf of the board, and, according the Sydney Morning Herald, three cheers arose from the crowd. The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate reported that, “before the applause had wholly died away on the winter afternoon’s still air, an answering sound of children’s voices, raised in similar cheers, came floating, like sweet music, upon the ears of all present”.


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Bonnie Wildie, Research Assistant, City of Parramatta, Parramatta Heritage Centre 2016