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In 2010, Liz Rushen was commissioned by the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne to write a book about the relationship between Bishopscourt, the people who have occupied it and how the building has shaped their lives. The resulting book, Bishopscourt Melbourne: Official Residence and Family Home (2013) focuses on the lives of the women and families who have inhabited the residence and how the building has impacted their lives.

Bishopscourt photograph by Robin Page, 2006.

Surprisingly, little had previously been written about Bishopscourt. It was the first house to be built in East Melbourne; it remains the largest intact urban estate in the City of Melbourne and is one of only seventeen buildings surviving from 1854.[1] It is listed on the Register of the National Estate (004995), the Victorian Heritage Register (H0027) and has a citation by the National Trust of Victoria (B187). As a result of proposals to subdivide and sell parts of the property in 2000 its designation and significance were confirmed and extended to include the garden. Despite these registrations very little is known about the building or the property as a whole.


Liz Rushen tells how the first occupants, Bishop Charles Perry and his wife Frances moved into an unfinished building in January 1853 and since that time it has been the residence of each Anglican bishop, and later archbishop, of Melbourne.[2] Occupation by various tenants during the nineteenth century, including three years as the interim Government House, totalled approximately six years of non-episcopal use. The social and economic conditions of the times shape the way houses are used and this is nowhere more evident in Melbourne than in Bishopscourt where modifications to the building have been made for and by successive archbishops. These changes to the structure of the house inform us about the differing needs of the inhabitants and how house was used. Significantly, although the interior has been refurbished many times, the main bluestone residence has been left largely intact.


While James Blackburn’s original design of an Italianate villa mansion in a picturesque landscape was mirrored in many of Melbourne’s boom-time homes and public buildings the turn-of-the century extension designed by Walter Richmond Butler, inspired by the arts and crafts movement, set the standard for modern additions to classical buildings. Essentially a private home, Bishopscourt was built on the model still practiced by English bishops where his home is also his office. Ever since the Perrys moved in opinion has been divided between the building’s overriding function: is it a public or a private space? It is this contested view of Bishopscourt which has governed the lives of all residents in the past 160 years.


This is the story of fourteen remarkable women and the residence each has occupied in turn. First, the book looks at Frances Perry who has been greatly misunderstood; a woman who has received a poor press from the time she departed Melbourne. Then the book moves to Mary Moorhouse, the ‘Mrs Moorhouse’ who was so little known that her first name is often not recorded. Emma Goe is remembered for her work amongst Anglican churchwomen and also for her tragic death at Bishopscourt during her husband’s episcopate, a circumstance which was to be repeated by her next two successors. The family of Alice Lovell Clarke ensured that her memory was kept alive, but of the two Mrs Lees, Edith Head or Beryl Booth, very little remains in the records. In the post-Second World War era, Jean Woods, Yvonne Dann, Jean Penman and Audrey Rayner have interpreted their roles in very different manners, as have the two archbishops’ wives of the twenty-first century, Margot Watson and Joy Freier. For each of these women, one of the greatest challenges has been to create a family home in a building which was essentially a public house.


With very little in common, as the wife of the leader of the Anglican community in Melbourne each related to Bishopscourt in a different way and made her own distinctive contribution to this unique house. There has always been an expectation that the archbishop’s wife would support her husband in his role, ‘two for the price of one’, clerical wives working as an unpaid curate in the parishes and the bishop’s wife in the episcopal residence. In many ways, this role was a two-edged sword: all the archbishop’s wives were raised to eminence but they had to subsume their individual personality and interests in the light of their husbands’ position. It is no coincidence that the first three wives had no children: it was not the position for someone pre-occupied with family responsibilities. While the accessibility of the archbishop is, to a large extent, determined by his wife, the community’s response to the archbishop rises and falls on the attitudes of his wife and although it is their husbands who are appointed to the role, the women are judged, even today, on their social engagement with the wider community and the extent to which they are influential in the Church.


Some saw Bishopscourt as an ideal venue for entertaining and extending the Church’s ministry while others found its spaces too large and utilized only a few rooms. Some were leaders in philanthropy; some sought refuge in outside work; some were consumed by the domestic while others supported their husbands and worked behind the scenes. Several were more visible than others while the demands of the role impacted on the health of many. What was seen to be in their husband’s interests was also seen to be in theirs. At a time when women did not occupy a public space, these women’s lives were very public and they were expected to be leaders in society and if not leaders, then certainly role models for Anglican parishioners.


While their husband’s roles were well-defined, each woman faced a subtle path in treading the difficult terrain between Anglican expectations and the social mores of their times. Significantly, three of the first four wives were from Hull, the centre of evangelicalism in England. This was no accident in a climate where evangelicalism was seen as the most suitable background for a colonial bishop. Frances Perry brought her own network with her: she was accompanied by her sister and the wives of the handful of men who were to become the leaders of the Anglican Church in Victoria. Melbourne was establishing itself and her circle and influence was able to grow with it. To some extent the women were alienated in a large house on a hill and with the exception of Beryl Booth all these women were English until the installation of Yvonne Dann in 1977.


The arrival of Jean Woods in the mid-nineteen fifties was the pivot point of the old and new views of an archbishop’s wife. Melbourne was still seen as a colonial outpost, a prized outpost, but Australia was becoming more influenced by American ideals and many adjustments had to be made to adapt to this rapidly-changing society. Some of the women were more successful in this than others and it is significant that of the eight English-born archbishop’s wives, Jean Woods was the only one to make her home here on her husband’s retirement. The transient nature of their role complicated their acceptance into the local society.


Liz describes how the reality of running this grand house has been hard work, complicated by the interface between public and private spaces and the need to provide pastoral support for countless clergy wives while performing a philanthropic role in the wider community, or maintaining a professional work involvement for the more recent wives. The demands on both the archbishop and his wife were great. Some succumbed, like Archbishops Lees, Head and Penman, wives Emma Goe, Alice Lovell Clarke and Winifred Lees and the family of Archbishop Booth. Others, like the Perrys, escaped to England every ten years while the Moorhouses called it quits after only ten years. Yet others have bought country properties to escape the rigours of life at Bishopscourt. By the very nature of the role the bishop was an elder statesman of the Church and his wife was expected to be of a similar age, as Archbishop Lees found to his cost when he introduced his much younger second wife to Melbourne.


In many ways it is an inadequate and inconvenient house. It may seem incongruous to call ‘inconvenient’ a magnificent gated mansion in its own vast grounds facing glorious inner-city parkland which would sell for many millions of dollars today. But it has been extended, redecorated and improved piecemeal over many years. With no endowments to cover furnishings or maintenance, alterations and refurbishment have always been sketchy, driven by economic imperatives to spend as little as possible on the building. Facilities have always been insufficient to cater for large numbers of people and as residents in an ‘institutional’ house there has been the expectation that they would host frequent, and often interminable, visits from visiting clergy. All this entertaining, without a budget for hospitality.


While the Presbyterians dominated Melbourne’s social and wealth rankings in the nineteenth century there was a persistent perception that the Anglican Church was also wealthy. To some extent this view found expression in the grand houses of the clerics and the ‘palaces’ of their bishops. This was certainly the situation in England, where Queen Anne’s Bounty and substantial endowments still provide for lavish homes and their upkeep, and generous budgets for entertaining. But it was not the case in this colonial outpost. The Perrys moved into an unfinished ‘palace’ and the building problems created since the first sod was turned have impacted on the lives of the incumbents ever since.


Opinions about Bishopscourt have been polarized since it was built and with changes made as each new archbishop has taken up residence, the house is still evolving. The size and position of Melbourne’s Bishopscourt has always made it particularly vulnerable to subdivision, from the 1903 proposal to demolish the building and erect new houses on the site as means of earning revenue for the church to similar efforts from the 1960s onwards. The pro-sale lobby has usually acted during the interregnums but in each case, overwhelming opposition by members of the diocese and the local community has prevented any site redevelopment from taking place.


The first part of this book looks at the establishment of an Anglican presence in Melbourne, including the building of a residence fit for the bishop and the years when Bishopscourt was not an episcopal residence. The second section looks at the ways the occupants of Bishopscourt were able to adapt to the rapid changes in society brought about by two world wars. Part three looks at the Australianisation of Bishopscourt, a time of diversity and change. Bishopscourt is a prism through which the archbishop’s wives have interpreted their roles. The story of Bishopscourt is presented chronologically, firmly located within the evolution of Anglicanism in Victoria and the broader social context of Melbourne’s development.


Bishopscourt was the forerunner of several major commercial, cultural and administrative buildings constructed in Melbourne during the 1850s to cater to a rapidly growing population following the discovery of gold in Victoria. Several of these substantial stone and brick buildings still survive, including Parliament House, the Treasury building in Spring Street, the Public Library, the Melbourne Club and the Customs House. As such, the life of the building, in terms of curtilage, architecture, furnishings and garden are important to the place of Bishopscourt in Melbourne’s social history, not only as a player but also in setting a standard in terms of design and architectural merit over one and a half centuries. 


While Bishopscourt survives today as one of Melbourne’s iconic buildings, the archbishops’ wives provide a window on the changing role of women and the family in society, and with Jean Penman, one archbishop’s wife and Clemence Woods, another’s daughter, both ordained priests, it provides a platform from which to view the progress of women’s ordination in the Anglican Church.


Bishopscourt has become a metaphor for the Anglican Church in Victoria, combining position and dignity with visibility. However, the building is not a museum but a living entity whose occupants, particularly the women, have made a significant contribution to Melbourne’s religious, social and philanthropic life and whose lives have reflected the changing roles of women in the family, the church and society.


[1] Heritage Victoria, Melbourne’s Survivors: a glance back to 1854, 2004.

[2] The first three incumbents of the role were Bishops, but with the subdivision of the diocese in 1905, Henry Lowther Clarke, the fourth Bishop of Melbourne, became the first archbishop.

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