Our house: histories of Australian homes

David Dolan
Australian Heritage Commission, 2001

38 - Nicklup Homestead

Harvey Hills, Western Australia

Nicklup Homestead in 1997.

Nicklup Homestead in 1997.

Nicklup Homestead is a slab house built around 1860 in the Harvey Hills about 150km south of Perth in Western Australia. The little timber slab house gives no hint of the grandiose fantasies which gave it birth. To appreciate Nicklup it is necessary to understand not only the way the house has been used since it was built, but the way it came to be. It begins as a story about land, location, and ambition. The land on which Nicklup Homestead was built was involved in two bizarre misadventures of European settlement in Australia. First, the governor's land-grab ....

Captain James Stirling, Swan River Colony's first (Lieutenant-) Governor, negotiated the right to 100,000 acres of land grants for himself when he sold the British government the idea of a western settlement with his absurdly glowing reports. The original Swan River Colony was a disaster and barely survived. Among the land Stirling grabbed for himself in 1829 was an area around the later town of Harvey, including the present site of Nicklup.

The colonists' pretensions of becoming lords and ladies in a new land were soon revealed as a bitter joke. In 1839 Stirling's trustees sold land which included the site of Nicklup to the British-based Western Australian Company, and the second fantasy was launched. The WA Company was formed to promote a Wakefield-type immigration scheme based on funding infrastructure and migration from the sale of land at high prices, along the lines tried in South Australia in 1836.

The hinterland of this 'Australind' (from Australia and India) settlement was supposedly suitable for intensive farming in small holdings, and a mighty port city trading across the Indian Ocean was confidently envisaged. The WA Company 'utopia' collapsed within a year of the arrival of the first party in 1841. There were several reasons for this fiasco, but the one relevant to the shape and character of Nicklup Homestead, as it later developed, was the unsuitability of the land for small holdings.

Nicklup's slab construction is visible in the laundry.

Nicklup's slab construction is visible in the laundry.

The third European effort followed from the failure of the Australind project, and was also to prove unsuccessful. Through the 1840s most of the Australind hinterland remained unoccupied (by Europeans) and the subject of legal disputes. From the early 1850s this land was sold for prices far lower than Australind had set, and the future of the region was seen in pastoralism.

Among the settlers who moved into the Harvey Hills, where they initially ran sheep, was the founder of Nicklup, WJ Clarke, son of Ephraim Clarke, a local surveyor, builder, publican and farmer. William James Clarke was granted two parcels of land, including the site where, in the 1860s, he built Nicklup Homestead of hand-cut jarrah slabs with laths and mud filling, and a single brick chimney. The place acquired its name at this time, one of many WA names ending in 'up' and assumed to be corruptions of Aboriginal words.

Neither the Harvey Hills region around Nicklup nor the coastal plains below were entirely suitable for sheep, due to lack of trace elements. The easy ride on the sheep's back joined the list of broken dreams. Clarke diversified into cattle, leased adjacent land for his flocks and herds, employing Aboriginal labour, and around the homestead developed produce gardens and fruit trees which are still to be found.

This mixed subsistence pattern dictated the style and scale of house: a modest family home for a property that was more than a smallholding, but never a pastoralist's country seat. When Clarke left Nicklup after 20 years the homestead was almost as big as it was ever to get. It was a house which was always going to have to earn its living.

The Clarke family was still in residence at Nicklup in 1888 awaiting the arrival of James and Isabella Taylor. James had been in the area doing contracting work, and had arranged to buy Nicklup, but had to return to Victoria to collect his family. After their sea journey to Bunbury, where they built a dray for the midsummer trip to Nicklup, which was interrupted by a tropical cyclone flooding all the rivers in their path, the modest homestead might have seemed a welcome refuge, had it not still been occupied by the Clarkes! The eight Taylors built a temporary shelter while the vendors organised their departure, so Nicklup's simple comforts must have been appreciated when they moved in.

Comfortable perhaps, and dry in a wet climate, but not spacious. Isabella was seven months pregnant when she made the journey with her husband and six living children, and Syd her first-born at Nicklup was to be followed by another five there. A family photo c1895 shows twelve people crowded on and around the verandah, and the compression of activity within the four-roomed house is almost unimaginable today. Around 1900 a detached wooden dormitory block was built to the north of the main house to accommodate extra children, and this was demolished in 1932.

The Taylor household on the verandah at Nicklup in 1895.

The Taylor household on the verandah at Nicklup in 1895.

There would have been few quiet times, with eldest son Dick being first up most days to feed the horses at 4 am. But a place like Nicklup was only viable with a large family. The extraordinary diversification which they undertook to feed themselves required a cheap labour force: they kept chooks and pigs, and expanded the orchard behind the house to include apples, grapes, loquats, lemons, mandarins, olives, oranges, pears, persimmons, plums and pomelos. Their main cash-flow came from sale of chaff, milk and for a time, wine.

Today, the only other building visible from Nicklup Homestead is a distinctive flat-iron barn, built c1900 with a wooden bracing grid. Now in disrepair, it was designed to be vermin-proof to protect the oats and chaff.

Nicklup was at its most populated around the turn of the century, and after that the crowding diminished as the Taylor children left home. By 1921 when James and Isabella were 72 and 64, only two sons remained. Nicklup was transferred to their youngest son Bert, who was noted for his modernising tendencies and was always among the first in the district with innovations such as a motor vehicle, milking machine, and reinforced concrete structures.

In other respects Bert and his wife Rose maintained Nicklup traditions: they filled the house with seven children, and diversified into field peas, silage, and increased dairying which was now the mainstay of the Harvey district. The second Taylor era was brief; the children had to be farmed out to friends and relatives due to the premature death of both parents.

Plans of Nicklup, redrawn by Shibou Dutta.

Plans of Nicklup, redrawn by Shibou Dutta.

Note: The rooms are (from 1-7): verandah, lounge, sleepout, bedroom, kitchen, porch, bedroom and laundry. The farm's site plan, as Ernie Taylor remembers it in 1930, includes chaff shed and lean-to milking shed (far left), homestead (centre), temporary dormitory (dotted), meat house (far right) and the orchard in a bend of the creek.

The homestead was little changed when acquired by the Gooding family in 1941. They modernised the facilities, replacing collapsing ceilings, plastering and renewing internal walls, and creating the fibro bathroom, toilet and laundry at the rear. These latter were as they are now when new owner Erik Hagen moved into Nicklup in the late 1950s.

Nicklup Homestead at the end of the twentieth century was basically the 1860s house with 1950s additions at the rear. It had defied the pressures of change. Like a symbol of its resistance to alteration, a row of huge wooden columns march across the rear of the homestead where a major extension was commenced and abandoned in recent decades. Living space pressure receded when the Hagens combined operation of the property with their adjacent Golden Grove property.

The Taylor family held a big reunion at Nicklup in 1988, but Nicklup Homestead is now in semi-retirement. In recent years it has been tenanted, used for staff quarters, and occupied by an unmarried son. Sadly, since this was written, in 1997, the decision to expand a nearby reservoir means that Nicklup - the creek, the orchard, and the house itself - will be engulfed in rising waters.

Acknowledgements and Bibliography

Alice Steedman (research assistant). Photographs: David Dolan and originally, James Taylor (1895 photograph).

Crowley, FK, Australia's western third, Melbourne, 1960.

Hocking Planning and Architecture, 'Harvey Hills heritage assessment', 1997.

The Author

David Dolan is Professor and Director of the Research Institute for Cultural Heritage at Curtin University, Western Australia. He is a member of the Heritage Council of WA, and a Councillor of the National Trust of Australia (WA). He has been Curator of Lanyon Homestead near Canberra, Manager of Collection Development and Research at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, and a Director of AusHeritage Ltd.