Booloominbah is the centrepiece and administrative headquarters of the University of New England, the nation’s first regional university and one of its oldest, having opened its doors to students in 1938.
The house, designed by Canadian-born Sydney architect John Horbury Hunt, was constructed on the outskirts of Armidale for Frederick Robert White, who was looking to establish a headquarters from which to run his large properties in the Upper Hunter, in the New England region, and in Queensland, and who moved to Armidale in the early 1880s.
The story of Booloominbah, and how it came to be the centrepiece of the New England University College of the University of Sydney, is so bound up with the story of the White family that it is worth digressing to give a bit of background about the Whites.
Frederick Robert White was born in 1835 at Muswellbrook in the Hunter Valley, the fifth of eight children of James White, who had been brought to Australia as a flockmaster by the Australian Agricultural Company (AAC). In time James White left AAC and made a very successful independent career as a pastoralist.
James died in 1842, aged only 43, leaving his wife Sarah with a family that was not only large but included some very young children – four below the age of seven. Before he died, however, he had purchased Belltrees near Gundy in the Upper Hunter for his elder sons; it was from one of these lines of the family that the novelist Patrick White was descended – in Patrick’ s childhood the property was owned by his father.
Frederick Robert White inherited Timor, about 20km east of Blandford, from his father’s estate, bought a property on the opposite side of the Isis River from Timor in 1859, and the following year married Sarah Amelia Arndell, a descendant of Thomas Arndell, a surgeon with the First Fleet. In 1861 he borrowed the money to purchase Harben Vale, a large property slightly to the west of Timor, and he and Sarah settled there. Like James and Sarah before them, they had a large family, the first child being born in 1863.
White became a leading figure in, and benefactor of, the Church of England, becoming a lay reader and office holder in the church of St Paul’s, Murrurundi. He was instrumental in engaging John Horbury Hunt to design a new church, of which he was the main contributor to the cost, and laid the foundation stone. In 1880 he contributed about half of the cost of another Hunt designed church at Blandford, not far down the road from Murrurundi and closer to Harben Vale. He also had Hunt build a third church at Timor as well as stables for Harben Vale.
He was also one of the main movers in a campaign to establish an exclusive boys’ school at Blandford, a movement which ultimately led to the establishment of The Armidale School.
During the 1860s and 1870s the White family worked together to strengthen their holdings by exchanging and sharing land and borrowing money from one another to purchase new properties, running the family effectively as a cooperative. There was not, however, enough land in the Upper Hunter to allow for continued expansion, and the closest land to the north, on the Liverpool Plains, was largely controlled by the Australian Agricultural Company, so any expansion north had to be on the Tablelands.
In 1874 F.R. White took up Mihi Creek east of Uralla, later called Rookwood. In the same year his older brother Francis White took up Saumarez, near Armidale, and Francis’s eldest son Francis John White took over its management.
In 1877 F.R. White bought several small blocks outside of Armidale, possibly with the intention of moving his family there from the Upper Hunter. By then Frederick and Sarah had four sons and three daughters, another three girls having died in infancy. It was the loss of twin daughters and his mother that almost certainly convinced White to test the prevailing belief that the New England climate was better for the health.
The decision to move the family to Armidale was cemented in 1880, when it was announced that the new railway line would pass through the town. White bought another 22 blocks of land to the north-west of Armidale, today the site of Booloominbah and the campus of the University of New England. While White purchased the land in 1880 it was not until 1882 that the family moved to Armidale. The Hill in Armidale was 160 hectares (400 acres), but was never a large contributor to the family's income. The property later grew to 810 hectares (2000 acres) and with the construction of Booloominbah was renamed after the house.
The first plans for Booloominbah were completed in 1882 or early 1883 and revised before tenders were called for the construction in November 1883. The builders, Seabrook and Brown, met with White and Hunt on site in February and March of 1884. The details of the contract reveal that Hunt was to direct the construction, which was to be completed by January 1886. White seems to have changed his mind and decided to halt construction while he took his family to Britain and Europe for a year. The family returned, apparently some time in 1885, as by Christmas 1886 building was well on its way and was nearly completed in 1887. Due to the extensive nature of the interior decorations, the family did not move in until 1888. Major additions were built in the mid-1890s, some of which were supervised by Hunt.
Throughout the construction of Booloominbah, White continued to manage his four properties, often travelling to supervise them personally. During 1888 the White families at Saumarez and Belltrees worked together to run non-union shearers through the blockade. In 1891 eldest daughter Kate married Thomas Richmond Forster and Frederick bought Forster Abington and included him in the White family cooperative. Kate came back to Booloominbah to have each of her children, thus fulfilling the family's desire for a true family home.
In 1902 the youngest son turned 21 and White transferred ownership of his properties, one to each son. He died in the following year, leaving a substantial estate, from which he gave substantial sums to the Armidale and Grafton Diocese for building works, to be undertaken by Hunt. He also gave money for missions to New Guinea and Melanesia and to the indigenous people of North Queensland. Hospitals in Armidale, Murrurundi, Muswellbrook, Sydney and the Prince Alfred Hospital also benefited.
Sarah White continued to live at Booloominbah for the remaining 30 years of her life. Between 1916 and 1919 Sarah turned over the service wing for the use of the Red Cross as a convalescent home for wounded Great War service men. In 1922 some of the land around Booloominbah was sold off and the remainder was leased as small farms.
Sarah died in 1933, leaving the house to whichever of the grandchildren would buy it within 12 months. In the Great Depression, none of the children seem to have been in a position to purchase the property and it was discussed that perhaps the house would have to be sold.
The idea of a university in Armidale was first floated in 1922 as a logical extension of the significance of education in the local economy – as well as its state schools the town already had several boarding schools. The drive for a university in Armidale was also driven by the New State Movement, an organisation with strong links to the Country Party, which itself had a strong following in the town. The New State Movement, which was still going in the 1960s, wanted the New England region to become a separate state, perceiving (correctly in my view) that a region so remote from Sydney would command scant attention from a Sydney-based government.
When local member D.H. Drummond, who sympathised with the NSM, became the Minister for Education in 1927 he moved quickly to establish a teachers' college in Armidale. The Armidale Teachers’ College began operations in temporary premises at the Demonstration School, and saw construction of its permanent facilities in 1929, after the demolition of Armidale Gaol.
The campaign to establish a university continued and in 1934 the local proponents established a “Provisional Council for the establishment of a University College”.
In 1934 Drummond suggested that if a sum of £10,000 could be raised the Government would be more willing to support a university college. Drummond was aware that under the NSW University and University Colleges Act 1900, there was a provision that if any Church or body raised and spent the sum of £10,000, the Crown would subsidise that sum pound for pound, up to a total Crown contribution of £20,000.
Although the Act did not apply to colleges external to the University of Sydney until it was amended in 1937, Drummond took a stand on equity grounds, arguing successfully that the Government “could not logically and in equity grant concessions to an institution in the metropolitan area, and deny them to public spirited men and women who were prepared to give money and time to establish University Colleges in provincial centres”.
By 1936 very little headway had been made and it looked unlikely that such a sum could be raised. Apart from the effects of the Depression, there was an undercurrent of doubt as to whether Cabinet would in fact give effect to the proposal.
In March 1936, however, Drummond was informed by the Deputy-Chancellor of Sydney University, the Hon. Mr Justice Halse Rogers, and the Vice-Chancellor, Dr. R. Wallace, that Mr T.R. Forster of Armidale had advised them “that he was prepared to purchase the magnificent home, known as ‘Booloominbah’ and its park of approximately one hundred and seventy four acres from the Trustees of the White Estate and to present it to the Sydney University on the following conditions:
(1) That the Senate would accept the responsibility of founding at once – that is in March 1937 – a University College.
(2) That when the College reached a point of absolute support, the University should grant full autonomy as an affiliated College of Sydney University.
Suddenly, at a Cabinet meeting in late April 1936, Drummond was ambushed. One of his colleagues moved out of the blue “that the item – a University College for Armidale – be struck off the Cabinet list”.
In his account of the episode in A University is Born (Angus & Robertson, 1959), Drummond said:
I was thunderstruck, realizing that if carried the news would get round, and irremediable damage would be done to the cause. Moreover, the decision would be sent to Mr Forster, who could scarcely be blamed if he withdrew his offer.
Colonel Bruxner, as Acting Premier, was in a difficult position. Leader of a minority Party, he was holding the scales between the Party groups, and finding it no light task. I knew he was heart and soul with the movement, but a political leader cannot always do what he would like.
Desperately with one eye on the clock, I used the parliamentary device and talked out time.
Finally, at 12.45 p.m., I suggested the decision was too important to be rushed, and secured an adjournment till after lunch.
Drummond took advantage of the lunch hour to seek out George Nott, master builder “and good citizen of Armidale”, whom he knew to be in town, and solicit his help, pleading that if the resolution were carried, not only Armidale, but the whole of the north would lose the greatest opportunity it had ever had.
His reaction was swift and generous. “Is £1,000 any good to you? I will give you £500 in cash, and another £500 in bricks the day the job is started.”
George Nott saved the day. He was better than his word. By the time we started the Booth Science Block, bricks were at least double their 1936 value, yet he delivered the 100,000 bricks that £500 would have purchased in 1936 ...
When we resumed our Cabinet meeting, my colleague took up his papers with an air of finality, and said, “Well, Mr Chairman, I think we had better settle this matter now”.
“Pardon me”, I interposed, “but within fifteen minutes of leaving this room I raised £1000. If the Government will give a firm undertaking to go ahead, the northern people will do their part. I am sure we can get the rest of the £10,000”.
The day was won ...
There remained many battles to be fought and won. One of the more important ones was won by T.R. Forster himself. In March 1937 the Fund which had been established to hold the monies raised locally stood at only £5,000 of the necessary £10,000, and it was clear that the required amount would not be raised before Forster’s option on Booloominbah expired. On 30 March 1937, D.H. Drummond wrote to the Premier, foreshadowing that he would like to discuss with him “certain alternative proposals which would enable Cabinet to retain the offer and yet not involve the State at this juncture in any great expenditure of money”.
To continue the story in Drummond’s own words:
As a result of this letter, an historic meeting took place in the Premier’s room at his Department late on the evening of 7th April 1937, at which Mr Justice Halse Rogers, Dr R. Wallace, the Premier and myself were present.
The discussion ranged over ways and means – though the desirability of the proposal was not in doubt.
Finally the Premier suggested that as an interim scheme “Booloominbah” might be carried on as a university hostel with tutors, until such time as the financial position improved.
Mr Forster, who had remained silent during the earlier discussion, immediately reacted.
“Mr Premier”, he said, “the north is entitled to a University College with the two Faculties of Arts and Science, and I will be satisfied with nothing less.”
The Premier thought for a while and then said, “Very well, gentlemen, if the people of the north raise not less than £10,000 by 30th June 1937, I will engage, subject to the concurrence of Cabinet, to give the proposal full support and to arrange for the passage of the necessary legislation. If the north fails to raise £10,000 by 30th June the business is ended.”
This left the small matter of raising the necessary £5,000 in a matter of weeks; the rate at which money was coming in remained a mere trickle. A very gloomy meeting took place at The Armidale Express in the office of Roy Blake, Managing Director of The Armidale Newspaper Co. Ltd. and Secretary of the University Movement. Also present were Eustace Simpson, Chairman of the Finance Committee, Dr R.B. Austin, and Drummond. The question was raised whether they should approach the Premier and seek an extension of time. Drummond felt that the terms arranged with the Premier were so binding that they could not go back to him. They took the only course that seemed open to them:
We made a final appeal, stressing the need for swift generosity if the College was to materialize. By what seemed to us almost a miracle the trickle became a relative flood.
Dr Austin secured from Charles Mott a cheque for £1800 and a promise of any balance needed to reach the required total. From Miss Elsie White of “Saumarez” among others, came a similar donation with a similar blank cheque.
I had been obliged to return to Sydney, where I received on 30th June, at 3.30 p.m. a telegram from Roy Blake, “Delighted to inform you University College Fund fully subscribed – Cheers”.
With that the Government rushed through amendments to the University Act in the last weeks of 1937, and at the commencement of the academic year 1938 Booloominbah opened its doors as the New England University College of the University of Sydney.
Note: The principal source for the history of the house and of the White family is Bruce Mitchell, House on the Hill: Booloominbah, Home and University 1888-1988, The University of New England, 1988.
The Booloominbah entry on the New South Wales Heritage site may be found here.