Dictionary of Sydney

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The Yasmar Estate is without doubt one of western Sydney's 'Great Houses'. It is a rare survivor from the period when wealthy landholders and businessmen invested in architecturally designed houses set in spacious grounds. They were laid out, according to mid-nineteenth century landscaping protocols and reflected the power and aspirations of their owners.

Few of these great nineteenth century houses have survived, and those that have, such as Lyndhurst and Willandra, have lost their gardens and surrounding land. Of the handful within the Cumberland Plain to retain the core elements of their original settings, Yasmar alone still stands.

Entering the estate

The original Italianate style sandstone entry pillars, marked in gold and black remain, as do the high ornate iron palisade gates. Beyond these, extraordinary old greenery still survives along Australia's oldest yet now most commercialised road. Century old trees, including now scarce mature natives of the former Cumberland Plain overhang the serpentine driveway. Equally rare exotics and an intact period garden, all carefully and deliberately planted according to the nineteenth century landscaping principles of the Englishman JC Loudon also remain unspoiled.

To heighten the sense of grandeur of the house, a teardrop shaped carriage loop reveals the elegant Greek revival lines and Georgian symmetry of the dressed sandstone block. The cast iron pilaster verandah supports are from the same foundry as those at Elizabeth Farm and each set of double multi-paned doors and French windows have shutters down to the verandah flagstones.

Early landholders

Before white settlement, the land was occupied by the Cadigal clan of the Eora language group. In 1803, Ensign Nicholas Bayly (1770–1823) received the first land grant here and called it 'Sunning Hill Farm'. This may explain the origin of the name of the adjoining suburb of Summer Hill, which is on the southern side of Parramatta Road in the Ashfield Municipality. [1] Through dubious means, the farm was soon acquired by the colony's then largest landowner, Simeon Lord (1771–1840), who renamed it Dobroyde after his Lancashire origins. [2] Lord was an astute businessman, yet despite his extensive and powerful connections and wealth, his standing 'within polite society' was clouded due to his convict past. He had been transported for stealing textiles in Manchester in 1791.

In the nineteenth century a woman's property was, by law, transferred to her husband on marriage. To prevent this, Lord placed a caveat on the dowry of Dobroyde when his eldest daughter Sarah Ann married the Scottish merchant, naturalist and ship's surgeon Dr David Ramsay (1794–1860). [3] Under the Deed of Marriage, the property could only be given to 'the issue' of the marriage after the death of both parents. Their first-born of 10 children was Mary Louisa (1826–1904), who in 1850 married Alexander Learmonth (1820–1877).

Design and building

On the ridge to the west of Dobroyde Homestead, a land parcel was excised as part of Mary Louisa's inheritance. In 1856, Learmonth commissioned the colonial architect John Bibb (1810–1862) to design their home Yasmar, the name being Ramsay spelt backwards. [4] Bibb went on to take over the architectural practice of John Verge, best known for Elizabeth Bay House, Lyndhurst and Tempe House (all of which have lost their original settings). The importance of Bibb's work in the evolution of Australian architecture is today acknowledged, yet little remains of his domestic work. Yasmar House stands as an outstanding example of his best work and is in a remarkably intact condition.

The late Georgian era 'gardenesque' principles of gradually revealing the house, set well back from, and above its road frontage on a small ridge and within a dense garden setting, well suited Lord's descendants who inherited Dobroyde.

Yasmar philanthropy

The extended Ramsay clan were pillars of Presbyterianism. Amongst many philanthropic endeavours, Dr Ramsay was on the first Presbyterian Education Board, at the behest of John Dunmore Lang. The first home Sunday school began in Dobroyde Homestead and later moved to Yasmar House under the supervision of the Learmonth family, who also established a day school. Due to growing demand in 1862 both were transferred to the newly built St David's church hall in Dalhousie Street which was then in direct view from Yasmar. This became the foundation of what later became Haberfield Public School, built on the north west of the estate on the former Yasmar House horse paddock. The Yasmar carriage house and stable, renovated in 1990, remain today between Yasmar House and the school.

Gardens and plants

Botanical matters were integral to the operation of the Yasmar Estate and several Ramsay clan family members excelled in this area. Dr Ramsay continued to pursue his passion for rare plants at Dobroyde, and was presented with a silver medallion for Pine Apple at the Flora and Horticultural Society Show. Not only was the garden layout integral to the totality of the place, but so too was plant selection and propagation. Earlier, around 1830, Ramsay had established the Dobroyde Gardens Nursery alongside Iron Cove Creek (today Hawthorne Canal), which his son renamed New Dobroyde Plant and Seed Nursery in 1867. The nursery continued until 1906. It was also the nucleus for the twentieth century nursery Camellia Grove.

The diversity of plant material found today in the garden, particularly species indigenous to Queensland, is attributed to Edward Pierson Ramsay, Mary Louisa's brother. In 1875, when the Linnaean Society of New South Wales held its first meeting, Sir William Macleay and Edward Pierson Ramsay were original committee members. Later Edward became a fellow of the London Linnaean Society. Among his many professions, Edward was a notable horticulturist, having considerable input into Victorian garden design and species registration. Much of Yasmar's planting also reflect the association with the Jindah sugar plantation at Maryborough in Queensland, which was purchased by three of the Ramsay brothers. Many species, worthy of representation in the State's Botanical Gardens, are now also deemed 'rare', having grown to maturity in an untouched state. Examples include the Chilean wine palm ( Jubaea chilensis), the Bunya pines (Araucaria bidwillii ), figs (Moreton Bay fig, Ficus macrophylla and Port Jackson fig, Ficus rubiginosa), kauris (Agathis robusta) and fire wheel trees (Stenocarpus sinuatus). Edward was a long-time curator at the Australian Museum and a founder of the Entomological Society of New South Wales. He built Dalhousie House (demolished in 1930s) on Waratah Street, today the site of Dobroyd Point Public School.

A curious feature of the Yasmar garden is a rectangular, sunken pit with brick detailing on the bottom, an ornate coping and end-piece, and benches on either side. Some suggest this was a very early swimming pool, while others say it indicates a sunken conservatory, or a propagation or shade house. Known evidence records water and a pump being installed to remove the water, while its brick sides appear to be bowing into the void, both due to minimal maintenance over many decades. Above it is a failing timber pergola. Around this site there is evidence of remains of timber posts and brick footings from previous structures.

Later owners

The Yasmar Estate has only had three owners. In 1904 Joseph Neal Grace (1859–1931), co-founder of the Grace Brothers Department Store, took out a lease on the estate. [5] When Joseph married Sarah Selina Smith (known as Gypsy) in 1911, the estate was transferred to her. Joseph and Gypsy were both notable gardeners, and Joseph wrote that he was happy to 'fill in my days in my garden'. He died suddenly at Yasmar in 1931. Gypsy remained here until the estate was commandeered for officer's quarters during World War II.

Some original Georgian elements of Yasmar House remain. The elegant curves of the entry foyer, the six panel cedar doors, and the finely crafted joinery of its architraves and skirting boards are intact. Grace also introduced many Edwardian era elements to its interior. These include stained and leaded glass in the front and rear entry double cedar doors, finely crafted Federation era mantles and pressed metal in the rear rooms, and the Danks Baronial Study, which featured in the 1920s Grace Brothers catalogue.

Since 1944, the estate has been occupied by the New South Wales Government. In 1946 it became a centre for juvenile justice. Initially, timber structures were erected on the former tennis and croquet lawns to house delinquent boys. The grand reception rooms of the house became a children's court and others served as magistrates rooms.

In 1981 the estate was turned into a Juvenile Detention Centre. The new buildings were designed by government architects and they consciously avoided unsympathetic additions to the entrance of the house or to the gardens. The work was also carefully guided by the New South Wales Heritage Office to ensure that the quiet oasis ambience and historic enclosed vistas remained untouched. The house retained its traditional carriageway approach despite the construction of low-scale, single-storey masonry buildings either side of the driveway. All the major trees survived. The facilities were named Dobroyde and Waratah and the Sunning Hill Education and Training Unit opened for its inmates. A drawing of Yasmar House was used as its logo, and indeed continues to be the logo at the new site at Juniperina Juvenile Justice Centre. In 1984 the east wing was nominated for a Royal Australian Institute of Architects Award for its innovative concept and sensitive management of the heritage setting.

Yasmar's future

The Department of Juvenile Justice relocated in 1994 and the house has been vacant since then. A lack of maintenance has led to rain seepage, the loss of ceilings and termites attacking the magnificent parquet floors.

The future is now uncertain. This great gentleman's villa and garden has survived intact and it has the potential for meaningful conservation. Its future use should reflect its importance, and ensure that this rare survivor continues for future generations.

The citations on the New South Wales State Heritage Register and the Register of the National Estate acknowledge each of the three ownerships. They also note that both the house and the garden are exceptionally rare.


Australian Home Builder, February 1923

Colin Brady, Yasmar Homestead Haberfield, a conservation study and draft conservation policy, 1982

James Broadbent, The Australian Colonial House: architecture and society in New South Wales 1788–1842, Hordern House, Sydney, 1997

Isadore Brodski, Dr David Ramsay: a sketch of his family, Sydney, 1960

Coles Myer Archives, State Library of Victoria, manuscripts section

P Cox and Clive Lucas, Australian Colonial Architecture, Landsdowne Editions, Melbourne, 1978

Cserhalmi, Otto and Partners Pty Ltd, Conservation Analysis for Yasmar, 185 Parramatta Road, Haberfield, prepared for New South Wales Public Works Department, Sydney, 1994

Gwen Gardiner, 'Yasmar, 185 Parramatta Road, Haberfield', unpublished paper, extracts published in Ashfield and District Historical Society Journal, no 3 'The Dobroyde Plant Nursery'; no 4 'History of the Yasmar Property'; no 5 'Yasmar – the garden'; no 6 'Dr David and Sarah Ramsay', 1984

Grace Brothers, Catalogue, 1923

CA Henderson, 'Recollection: Sydney to Homebush, 1855', The Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 8 supplement, 1923

R Lorenzato et al, Yasmar: a conservation and rehabilitation study, 1993

Herman Morton, The Early Australian Architects and their Work, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1954 and 1973

National Trust of Australia (NSW), Survey of Gardens in New South Wales, 1981

NSW Department of Commerce Heritage Design Services, Yasmar Juvenile Justice Centre 183–185 Parramatta Road, Haberfield Conservation Management Plan, 2002

Verena Ong, Yasmar Juvenile Justice Centre 185 Parramatta Road, Haberfield, Heritage status report for the Heritage Group State Projects Public Works Department, 1992

The Journal of the Retail Traders Association, 1922–23, pp 33–36

Ramsay file, Historic Photograph Collection, Macleay Museum, University of Sydney


[1] B H Fletcher, 'Bayly, Nicholas (1770–1823)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 1, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1966, p 76

[2] D R Hainsworth, 'Lord, Simeon (1771–1840)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 2, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1967, pp 128–131

[3] Arthur McMartin, 'Dr David Ramsay (1794–1860)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 2, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1967, p 361

[4] Herman Morton, 'Bibb, John (1810–1862)' Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 1, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1966, p 96

[5] GP Walsh, 'Grace, Joseph Neal (1859–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 9, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1983, p 65