James Fairfax to gift historic Retford Park estate

James Fairfax to gift historic Retford Park estate
James Fairfax to gift historic Retford Park estate

The philanthropic former newspaperman James Fairfax has now moved to formalise the gifting of his now subdivided historic Retford Park estate in the NSW Southern Highlands.

The Italianate 1887 residence will sit within a protected 32-hectare heritage curtilage to be owned by the NSW National Trust.

Retford Park will be another heritage property on the National Trust Heritage Trail, which will run along the Old Hume Highway 31, including Harper's Mansion at Berrima, Golden Vale at Sutton Forrest, Riversdale at Goulburn and Cooma Cottage at Yass.

The Old South Road property, which sits on the southern edge of Bowral’s rapidly suburban expansion, comes with about 100 hectares including land zoned for subdivision which is being conducted through Savills.

The project director, Allen Robinson said Mr Fairfax was determined to maintain the integrity of Retford Park with plans that were sympathetic to the heritage property and surrounding areas.

The philanthropic former chairman of the ailing publishing company that bears his family name had long advised he would bequeath Retford Park for the benefit of the public.

The story was written by me in 2009 in the Sydney Morning Herald. It was his idea for at least three decades.

Retford Park has been the country home of the arts patron since he paid £15,000 in 1964 for it on a then four-hectare holding.

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Retford Park, with an Italianate revival-style mansion, dates back to the 1880s when it was the summer retreat of the retailing Hordern family. It sits in well maintained gardens that include three Wollemi pines and a Guilford Bell swimming pool pavillion.

"I think Retford Park is an important part of the heritage of the Wingecarribee Shire area and provision has been made in my will for the house and the immediate surrounding land, including the garden, to be left in trust to be viewed by future generations," Mr Fairfax told me in 2009.

Listed on the register of the national estate since 1980, Retford Park takes its name from the village in Nottinghamshire, the northern England town from where Anthony and Ann Hordern immigrated in 1825.

The grounds have many heritage oaks, an enduring association with the Hordern's retailing business, whose emblem was an oak tree under which were the words "While I live, I'll grow".

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It was first sold after Anthony's great-grandson, Sir Samuel Hordern, died in 1956, leaving an estate of $279,000. It was briefly owned by the cattle stud operator King Ranch (Australia), of which Edwina Hordern's husband, Peter Baillieu, was managing director.

In his 1991 book, Regards to Broadway, Mr Fairfax recollected he'd had no plans to buy a country house. "But chatting to Peter Baillieu at a cocktail party in December 1963, I learned that Retford Park and 10 acres [four hectares] of land were to be sold." 

It occurred to James that it might be a suitable place for his mother to stay on her annual six month visits from England.

Mr Fairfax, the eldest son of the late Sir Warwick Fairfax and his first wife, Betty Wilson, then set about regularly buying adjoining rural land.

He also set about enlivening the house. 

"When my offer of £15,000 for the house and 10 acres with an option to buy another 10 in three years was accepted, I went into the usual ‘What on earth have I taken on?’ syndrome, but soon

recovered as I got involved in the redecoration which was being done by Leslie Walford," he recalled to Sue Rosen in 2011.

"Some six months later, in the winter of 1964, I commissioned Donald Friend to paint a mural in the dining room," he said.

Photos courtesy of Highlife Magazine, which reports on life in the Southern Highlands of Australia

Jonathan Chancellor

Jonathan Chancellor

Jonathan Chancellor is one of our authors. Jonathan has been writing about property since the early 1980s and is editor-at-large of Property Observer.

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Historic Bowral

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