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Yaralla Estate is classified by the National Trust as 'the most significant, suburban Edwardian estate in New South Wales'. Situated in Nullawarra Avenue, Concord West, Yaralla Mansion was the former home of Eadith Campbell Walker. Her father, Thomas Walker, banker and philanthropist, commissioned Edmund Blacket to design the large two-storey building with four-storey tower, in the 1860s. The grounds of Yaralla covered over 100 acres (40.4 hectares), part of a land grant to convict Isaac Nichols, the colony's first postmaster, and was acquired from his sons by Thomas Walker in the 1840s in lieu of a bad debt.
Yaralla is situated on the Parramatta River extending from the bay opposite Mortlake to Concord West, and edges Major's Bay, Yaralla Bay and part of Bray's Bay, where the Rivendell section is located. It gently slopes up from the river to Concord Road. The top sections were sub-divided in 1908, 1912, and 1922, becoming estates of Federation and Californian bungalow homes built for soldiers after World War I.
Building the mansion
The Walker family was in residence in 1870 and celebrated Christmas in their new home. Thomas's wife, Jane Hart, died from tuberculosis on Boxing Day 1870. They had only one child, a daughter named Eadith Campbell Walker, born in September 1861.
After his wife's death, Thomas prevailed upon his youngest sister, Joanna, to come to Australia and be governess to his child. Joanna adopted a little girl, Annie Masefield, who grew up with Eadith at Yaralla.
Famed architect Sir John Sulman completed extensions to the upper floor and dining areas of the main house in 1899. Sulman married Annie in 1893.
Early perspective views and working drawings were by the hand of John Kirkpatrick, a draftsman employed by Edmund Blacket's office. Original design by Blacket shows two stories on one side of the mansion and one on the other. Blacket died in 1883, so work appears to have passed on to John Sulman. John Sulman extended the second floor to cover all of the building, relocated the original Blacket staircase to the back of the building and designed several outbuildings, including stables and a dairy block.
Hosting Sydney society
Yaralla House became the hub of Sydney society in the early decades of the twentieth century. The Governor General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, often resided for weeks during the years of World War I.
In 1920 the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) stayed for a week on a private holiday after his official visit to Sydney and Eadith had a squash court built for his enjoyment. Edward never played on it as it contained a concrete floor. However, his aide-de-camp, Louis Mountbatten, and another staff member played a game, as was recorded in the Prince's published diary. Dame Eadith entertained the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) there in 1927. Eadith visited London on several occasions, receiving royal invitations to Coronations.
Aviator Ross Smith landed on the front paddock in June 1920 and shared cucumber sandwiches for afternoon tea with Dame Eadith. Premier Lang's family stayed during the Sydney Harbour Bridge opening in 1932.
The Guest Register of Yaralla House showed 40 years of comments and signatures of the rich, famous, infamous and a multitude of overseas guests from 1897 to 1937.
Eadith held many parties and fund-raising events at Yaralla, including one to help establish the Kindergarten Association. She supported Australian artists, hanging many of their paintings at Yaralla. Rowing regattas and pleasure cruises used Yaralla wharf. Orphans and children from the Deaf and Blind Society and Ashfield Infants' Home were entertained at Christmas with Punch and Judy shows, small railways and slides, and festive boats on the large swimming pool. The Blue Bird of Happiness, Mother Hubbard, or the old Woman in the Shoe distributed gifts and clothing. Halloween parties were another favourite time, with lavish decorations on the building and grounds, and fortune-tellers in papier-mâché caves.
During World War I, Yaralla became a tent city for returned soldiers suffering tuberculosis, the disease from which Eadith Walker's mother had died.
A large establishment
Although Annie moved out after her marriage, Eadith was not alone, as Yaralla had a large staff of gardeners, cooks, housemaids and grooms. Many Tenterfield relatives came to stay. Twin cousins, Egmont and George Walker lived at Yaralla for many years, each having a room named after them. They were in residence when the Prince of Wales visited in 1920.
A large dairy, stables complex, Italian fountain and balustrades, grotto, pool and bath-house were added to the grounds. Two wharves catered for residential and commercial needs. Yaralla had its own power house and fire station, bakery, laundry and other service buildings, many housing the large staff of engineers, butlers, gardeners and housemaids.
Yaralla was famous for its orchards, rose arbours and picking gardens. During World War I, Eadith often sent provisions to the Prince of Wales Hospital in Randwick, where she endowed the library. Her diary herds and poultry won prizes at the Royal Easter Show. She had many famous horses including one named after the mansion.
After Dame Eadith died in 1937, the contents of her estate were auctioned by Lawson's over eight days, making it the biggest auction ever held in Australia.
As none of Thomas Walker's only brother or surviving sisters produced any issue, and Dame Eadith never married, the estate finally came under the Walker Trust Act 1939. Eadith Walker was born before legislative reform allowed married women to own property in their own right. Thomas Walker left his estate to a child or children of her marriage, afraid that she would be hounded by fortune hunters because of her great inherited wealth. As she died childless, and none of her aunts or uncles had surviving issue, the trustees reverted to the spirit of his will, which had a clause stating that, if she died without issue, the estate should be used for benevolent, but not religious, purposes.
There were 330 claimants to the will, all descended from Eadith's grandfather's youngest brother, who had married 3 times and had 13 children in total. As these descendants, mainly living in Tenterfield, New South Wales, or Queensland, were all 5th degree blood relations, none qualified to inherit. The trustees sought the help of the government and donated, as directed by the will, land and money for the Thomas Walker Memorial Hospital to be built on Rocky Point, a section well away but visible from Yaralla Mansion.
Yaralla was used as a convalescent hospital after World War II. It was closed in the 1970s, when significant demolition of outer buildings took place. There were rumours that the estate was to be sold but local action groups protested. The main house was reopened in 1993 and was used to house a renal dialysis unit from Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. This closed in the early twenty-first century and underwent refurbishment to open as a dementia care unit for HIV/AIDS patients.
The outer buildings fell into varied states of disrepair and are being restored by heritage architects and craftsmen and Concord Heritage Society, whose members raise funds during Open Days held twice a year.
The Yaralla stables area has been converted into a museum, which features many photographs, documents and memorabilia sourced from various people and places showing the estate in its heyday. It can be visited on Yaralla Open Days.
Sheena Coupe, Concord – A Centenary History, Concord Municipal Council 1983
Patricia Skehan, Eadith: Concord's Royal Kin, the author, Sydney, 2003
Patricia Skehan, The Walkers of Yaralla, 3rd edition, Concord Heritage Society, City of Canada Bay Museum, Concord NSW, 2006
Patricia Skehan and Jill Hodder, Where the Blue Wattle Grows: spooky stories from Yaralla, the author, Sydney, 2006