Written & Illustrated by Gifford and Eileen Eardley
William John Iliffe was born in London in the year 1842 and came to Sydney as a young lad in 1852, where he followed various pursuits in the nature of employment. It is evident that he had a natural bent for plant cultivation for he took up an area of ten acres of land at West Botany, a one-time bush hamlet now known as Rockdale. Here, against the border of Rocky Point Road, he established the Rose Vale Nursery, and more or less concentrated his efforts on the growth of numerous varieties of roses. At one time, so it has been related, he had more than eighty-thousand plants, each growing in separate earthenware pots, to supply the demands of the gardeners of Sydney Town.
Unfortunately there does not appear to be any record or illustration of the design of the original Iliffe homestead at Rockdale, however, William Iliffe succeeded in his business and eventually married Sarah Morse, who lived in a small double-fronted cottage almost opposite the nursery property. In 1873 the splendid stone residence, aptly known as Rose Vale Villa, was erected, the walls being constructed of exquisitely wrought sand- stone, insofar as the facade was concerned, taken from the quarry which then existed at the eastern end of Bestic Street where it then terminated at the north-western slopes of Rockdale Hill.
Rose Vale Villa was a commodious one and a half storied residence which contained, on the ground floor, a large Drawing Room, a Dining Room, an-Entrance Hall and two Bedrooms. Upstairs there were four Bedrooms contained within the slated roof slopes, each served by attractive dormers, two at the front of the roof and two at the back, whilst end windows, with stone mullions, admitted. light from the end gables. The deep overhanging barge-boards of the gables were excellently cut into pierced pattern-work. The two stone chimneys were gems of their kind and followed an Italian design, the top of each being enclosed with a rectangular shaped cut stone slab. The smoke apertures were placed immediately beneath the coping slab and, arranged in groups of three, were shaped like round-topped pigeon holes. There were separate verandahs at ground floor level, one at the front, and another at the northern side, each being provided with cast-iron supporting posts and a delicate cast-iron fringe, which was of the type now known as Sydney Lace. Each verandah was entered from path level by gracefully curved hand-cut steps. Full length French windows, complete with double folding shutters, were provided to the main rooms. The Drawing Room projected from the facade to the front level of the verandah and contained an excellently wrought three-sided oriel window, the flat roof of the extension being surrounded on three sides by a stone-topped balustrade, supported at short intervals by stubby turned stone pillars. A really beautiful entablature adorning a residence which may be regarded as one of the finest of the stone cottages erected in the St. George District.
The kitchen and scullery, together with a breakfast-room, were formed by an eastern extension at the rear of the main building, access being given by a side verandah. This arrangement was common to houses of the period, as it served to keep cooking odours from the bedrooms and living rooms, and also had the merit of giving, to a certain extent, safety against fire, when wood was so universally used in fuel stoves and clothes boiling “coppers”, The scullery, apart from its general purpose for washing clothes and dishes etc., also came into use for “washing up” humans on the occasion of the normal weekly tub. The everyday business of hand and face washing was generally relegated to the sanctity of the bedroom wash-stand, where the marble top supported a large water basin and a jug- of ornate floral pattern inlaid in its voluptuous curves, together with a china soap-stand, ring-stands, and similar bric-a-brac.
East of the kitchen was a large packing shed, built of timber scantlings, its sides and roof covered with corrugated iron, purely functional without any architectural merit There were. some eight or nine heated-glass-houses which gained winter warmth from a coal heated boiler per medium of circulating hot-water pipes. Each hot- house possessed a small water trough, replete with gold-fish, to provide the necessary humidity for the plant growth.
Double white-painted gates provided entrance of vehicles to the property from the Rocky Point Road,’ the entrance, being flanked by a huge “monkey-nut” tree (perhaps a Scotch Fir) which provided edible items of great interest to the local children. These nuts were often taken by the girls of the family to the Zoological Gardens, then at Moore Park in Sydney, where the monkeys, although interested in the offering, and appreciated the gesture, found that they ‘had no hammer to crack them open and they were too hard for the teeth.
Some fifty feet away from the entrance gate, on ‘the northern side of the drive, were the stables, -cart-houses, harness-room, feed-loft, and beneath the same roof at its southern end were two small rooms dedicated to the use of John Ah Hee, a delightful kindly-natured and tiny Chinese gentleman with an enchanting surname. The stable building housed the, four-wheeled flat-topped horse-drawn lorry,- which, under the care of the nursery overseer, Lambert Laurence, made the daily round, of the Sydney florist shops, such as Searles and Birmingharns in Oxford Street. John Iliffe had two horses for, this work, using one at a time in the lorry. There was a fine white coated animal named “Victor” and a more demure lass, of brown, colouration, who answered to the name of “Dolly”. The horse paddock ‘ranged northwards along the frontage- of Rocky Point Road to the intersection of Bestic Street, and covered about an acre of grazing, land. Leaving the stables the drive curved round to the south in order to reach the confines of the packing shed where the lorry wagon was loaded with orders gained for the daily round. In addition to the glass-house equipment there was a large edifice given over to the propagation of ferns.
Quantities of the seeds of the Kentia Palm were specially imported from Lord Howe Island, and, under the care of John Ah Hee, were individually planted in separate earthenware pots, and, when about a foot or so in height, found a ready market for the decoration of drawing rooms of both cottages and more pretentious houses of suburban Sydney. Another speciality was the importation from Japan of Haresfoot Fern; the roots of which were fashioned, or rather entwined, to represent monkey and other animal shapes, houses, boats, and kindred subjects, they were even to be purchased wrapped around coconuts fitted with a short length of cord for suspension purposes. On arrival these seemingly hairy roots were first soaked in water and then hung in the green-house until they sprouted, and when covered with a mass of tiny fern shoots, were ready for distribution per medium of the florist’s shops. These pretty novelties were in great demand by people fortunate and interested enough to maintain a bush house.
The trickling creek, known as Bray’s Drain, flowed through the Iliffe property, about midway in its depth, its banks being covered with tuber-roses and overtopped by rhododendrons. Between the horse paddock and the creek was a large area devoted to rose growing, these plants also extending to the eastern boundary fence. Opposite the drive, on the eastern side of the creek, was the Bulb Garden, given over to narcissus of various sorts, daffodils, and such like botanical treasures. East of this floral paradise was the cow-paddock where two cows dined in comfort amidst a surround of the local bushland. South of the bulb garden, and also on the eastern side of the creek, was a flower garden, usually riotous with colour, then an acre of feathery-plumed pampasgrass, and then another acre devoted to camellia trees.
All in all Rose Vale Villa was the show place of Rockdale, with its flower dotted lawns, kept in immaculate condition by Ah Hee, and its hydrangea and azalea bordered walks. People came from everywhere to purchase flowers at three pence per bunch, to inspect its green-houses and its hot-houses, coming away with all manner of beautiful plant gems which the green fingers of William John Iliffe and John Ah Hee had so lovingly raised.
As before stated this latter Celestial gentleman lived within the stable, at his own desire, and his only recreation appeared to be his Saturday night jaunt to visit his compatriots living mostly in the Haymarket area of Sydney town. Otherwise he chose to dine in solitary state, in his own domicile, on the numerous rice dishes that he concocted, intermixed with pieces of pork and duck, the latter having the appearance, as far as the skin was concerned, of having undergone the rigours of French polishing. John Ah Hee used chop sticks for eating and never, under any circumstances, did he dine with company. It is interesting to note that his little teapot, together with his chop-sticks, are still cherished, as mementos of a kindly gentleman, by members of the family.
One of John Ah Hee’s few pleasures was to sit beside the driver of a horse-drawn hearse at funerals associated with the Iliffe family or immediate friends of that family. On one occasion when John Ah Hee was absent in town, the stable rats decided to have a feed of wax-matches, the resulting conflagration, although surprising to the rodents no doubt, burnt down the stables and the two roomed domicile. John Ah Hee was found temporary accommodation with his countrymen until such time as the stable structure was rebuilt and his domicile re-established. John Ah Hee was said to be well over ninety years of age, and completely blind, when he passed away. According to Chinese custom he was temporarily buried at Rookwood Cemetery, and after a passage of ten years or so, his remains were disinterred and sent back to his ancestral grave in China. It should be mentioned that William John Iliffe held a very high opinion of the character and merits of John Ah Hee, and made provision in his will “that he should be retained and kept in comfort to the end of his days”.
At one period a florist shop was established in the Sydney Arcade for the sale of seedlings, palms, ferns, and floral products of the Rose Vale Nursery. This shop was later taken over by two maiden ladies, the Misses Balcom and Baptist. Another venture was the purchase, and development, as a nursery of some forty acres of land at the head of Stoney Creek, located at the corner of Stoney Creek Road and Croydon Road, extending along the latter thoroughfare to its junction with the Forest Road, the house being erected near this latter junction. This land was subdivided by Messrs. Peach Brothers about 1917, the housing allotments being served by streets named after members of the Iliffe family, such as Ada Street, Hancock Street, Rose Street, and Iliffe Street. The beautiful expanse of the Bexley Golf Links and the adjacent Kingsgrove Park were also included, at one time, in the estate.
There were five children in the Iliffe family who, in turn, were named Emily, Harriet, Annie, William, and Ada. After the death of William John Iliffe the eldest girl (married to Mr. Hancock) carried on the business at Rose Vale Villa. Harriet married Thomas Smith and resided in a cottage fronting Bestic Street at the north-eastern corner of the Rose Vale property. Annie passed away at the early age of nineteen years, whilst William died in babyhood. The youngest girl, Ada, married Frederick Mumford.
After the closure of the Rose Vale Nursery the family opened a florist’s shop on the original property, with its frontage to Princes Highway. About this period, although the major part of its land had been subdivided, Rose Vale Villa came into use for wedding receptions and similar small public gatherings, for which its tree clad surround and interior beauty were well suited. The former nursery gardens, at their subdivision, were served by extensions northward of York and George Streets.
About 1962 the Rockdale Municipal Council became interested in the purchase of the Rose Vale Villa for the establishment of a regional folk museum. However, the purchase price of £27,500 was beyond the council’s resources for this particular cultural venture and the matter lapsed. The house was later demolished but fortunately the stones of the beautiful facade were given to the council for inclusion in some structure which, someday, we hope, will again show their beauty to the best advantage. The site of the old home is now occupied by the Rose Vale Garage, constructed after the manner of its kind, but conveys no semblance of the erstwhile beauty of the famous house once known so far and wide as “Rose Vale Villa”.
The authors are indebted to Mrs. Cottrell, and her sister Mrs. S. A. Messer, and also to Mr. Clive Smith, the florist of the Tramway Arcade at Rockdale, descendants of the Iliffe family, who have kindly supplied much of the information utilised in the preparation of the above essay.
This article was first published in the May 1970 edition of our magazine.
Browse the magazine archive.