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The Bassett-Darley Estates
The Bassett-Darley estates was the name given to nine portions of land, five on Sydney's northern beaches and the others at Granville, Liverpool, Appin and the Illawarra. They were the lands inherited by Katherine Wentworth from her father, D'Arcy Wentworth, when he died in 1827. However, the name did not enter the lexicon until 1877 when the colonial parliament passed the Bassett-Darley Estates Act. Like many large nineteenth century estates which were gradually subdivided and redeveloped over time, they occupy an interesting place in the history of Sydney's social and industrial development.
The name was bestowed in acknowledgement of Katherine's two marriages – the first to Benjamin Darley when she was 22 and the second to William Bassett two decades later. The purpose of the act was to remove legal impediments which, until then, had prevented Katherine selling her estates. Its full title was An Act to authorize the trustees of the Marriage Settlement of Mrs Bassett to sell and dispose of certain lands at Manly Beach and elsewhere in the Colony of New South Wales.
Background to the Bassett-Darley case
Katherine's problem arose half a century earlier when D'Arcy Wentworth decided that all the real estate he bequeathed to his nine children was to be entailed. His will specified that his children were to have only a life interest in their estates, and that after their death the estates were to pass, in turn, to their children 'in order of primogeniture, males to be preferred over females'. It was D'Arcy's way of trying to ensure that all the land he had acquired remained in the family.
Since Katherine was only two when her father died, the restrictions were of no immediate concern to her, and her estates were managed on her behalf by her half-brother, William Charles Wentworth. But when, in 1847, she married Benjamin Darley, her new husband quickly took a proprietorial interest in the land. Even so, he could do nothing about the entailment, and while it was by then relatively simple to 'defeat' or 'bar' the tail in New South Wales, this could not occur until Katherine's as-yet unborn children reached the age of 21. Hence, for Darley, there would be no opportunity to free the lands for sale until at least 1868.
Benjamin died in 1864 before any of this became possible but three years later, when Katherine agreed to marry William Bassett, the time was approaching when the restrictions on the estates might be lifted. The eldest of Katherine's four children from her earlier marriage, Kate, was 19, although the youngest, Edith Mary, was still only 11. Her only son, Benjamin Wentworth Darley, who was first in line to inherit his mother's estates, was 13, just eight years away from reaching his majority. So, before her wedding and in order to make sure that her interests were protected, Katherine entered into a marriage settlement with William whereby the estates were placed in the hands of two trustees, to be administered for Katherine's 'sole and separate use' and 'free from the debts and control of her intended husband'. The trustees were George Osborne, the husband of one of Katherine's nieces, and Edwin Daintrey, a Sydney solicitor, who in 1869 was replaced by Alexander Stuart, later to become premier of New South Wales.
When the time came, each of Katherine's children took appropriate steps to bar the estate tail, thereby giving up any future rights to the estates. That left Katherine, through her trustees, in sole control and, as she received only a small income from leases, it was obvious that she would be much better off if the land were sold. But there was a problem. In drafting the marriage settlement, the lawyers had neglected to give the trustees the power of sale, and the only way to remove this impediment was through a Private Act of Parliament – hence, the need for the Bassett-Darley Estates Act of 1877.
Katherine cashes in
Within weeks of the act being passed, the most valuable of the Bassett-Darley estates, that at Manly Beach, extending from The Corso to the land owned by the Catholic Church, was subdivided and offered for auction. Most of the lots were quickly snapped up and, by the end of the year, Katherine, who was then living permanently in London while her husband remained in New South Wales, had netted in excess of £35,000.
Over the next few years Katherine's other estates on the northern beaches – at Manly Vale, Freshwater, Mona Vale and Palm Beach – were sold, raising a further £20,500, while the 250-acre (100-hectare) portion on Duck River at Granville brought in more than £8,800, with most of the land being put to industrial use. It was there that the Hudson brothers established the mighty Clyde Engineering Company, at one time the largest manufacturing and fabrication works in Australia.
By contrast, the portions at Liverpool, Appin and the Illawarra added little to Katherine's haul. The land at Liverpool, adjacent to the Liverpool asylum, was resumed by the government to allow drainage work to be undertaken, while the 100 acres (40 hectares) at Appin found its way into the hands of Bridget Kelly of Waverley, though how this occurred and what small amount of money was involved is far from clear.
Katherine's land in the Illawarra – the largest of her estates and potentially very valuable – was, unfortunately for her, largely subject to long-term leases and, apart from £1,265 paid by the railways commission to run the southern line through the property, none of it was sold until after Katherine's death in 1898. By that time only one of her children, Emily Sophia, was still alive, and the gains went to her.
So, despite D'Arcy Wentworth's dying desire that his lands remain forever in the family, the Bassett-Darley estates went the way of most of nineteenth-century estates, broken up by round after round of subdivision into smaller and smaller lots.
Tony Dawson, 'Certain lands at Manly Beach and elsewhere: Katherine Wentworth and the Bassett-Darley estates' Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 91 part 2, December 2005, pp 148–162