This house is one of Glebe’s oldest surviving stone buildings, dating from ca 1856. It was isolated, surrounded by vacant land until the early 1870s when Ambrose Thornley jnr erected Florence Villa next door. Both homes had addresses on Kennedy St before that thoroughfare was absorbed into an extended Leichhardt St.

The Retreat was built for James Rothwell, a George St saddler and harness maker who won several government contracts. A land speculator at St Leonards and Gordon, he also had an interest in the Angel and Crown city hotel. There were other Rothwells working in leather in George St: John, a saddler, and Richard, a boot and shoe maker.

James Rothwell married Maria Harding, a niece of convict-made-good John Neathway Brown (a forbear of actor Bryan Brown), at St Peter’s Newtown in 1851. The couple lived in George St before moving into The Retreat where they built a bathing house on the foreshore. Their third child James William was born at Glebe in 1859, but by 1865, when their second son Thomas died aged three months, they had returned to live at their city business address.

James had moved his home to Neutral Bay by the time of his death on 20 March 1880. His widow died on 21 September 1886, leaving an estate of £2705 to the surviving children: Lavinia (1852-1917), Elizabeth (1855-1929) and James William (1859-1930). This money had run out by 1905 when James jnr was charged with embezzling from his employer. The sole supporter of his two unmarried sisters, he was ordered to repay the money in lieu of gaol. James died single on 31 January 1930 and was interred at St Thomas’ cemetery North Sydney.

The next known occupier of The Retreat was pioneer settler Ann Maria Smith née Bowman who moved there ca 1870 from Guildford Lodge (the site of the present Woolcock Institute building). Ann was 23 months old when she landed in Sydney aboard the Nile in 1801 with her brother William jnr and parents William and Susan as Scottish free settlers. Her uncle John Bowman, who arrived with his young family three years earlier on the Barwell, had been granted land in what is now the Hills District and sent back favourable reports on the colony. Soon after arrival William Bowman received 100 acres at Mulgrave Place. Following the deaths of their mother in 1803 and their father in 1811 Ann and William jnr lived with their extended family in the sparsely settled farming district. Armed robbers who held up Ann and her cousin George at night on the Windsor Rd in 1820 were summarily executed. Ann’s brother moved out of the area to set up business as a publican at Sutton Forest.

On 12 July 1826 Ann Maria Bowman married James Smith (1795-1851) who had arrived in Sydney with his family as free settlers on the same ship as Ann’s uncle in 1798. James’ father John had been engaged in London with John Bowman as carpenters to build a corn mill at Parramatta. When the project lapsed, John Smith in 1799 received a land grant of 150 acres which he named Torry Burn, producing grain, fruit and cattle. The Smiths and the Bowmans remained friends and their children intermarried. They were Presbyterians, pro Governor Bligh and anti John Macarthur, and, after benefiting from the convict assignment system, anti transportation.

The Retreat in 1867, sketched by Edmund Blacket's daughter Edith who had studied with Conrad Martens. (image: State Library of NSW)
The Retreat in 1867, sketched by Edmund Blacket’s daughter Edith who had studied with Conrad Martens. (image: State Library of NSW)

James Smith farmed with his extended family and supplemented his livelihood working on government farms. By the time of his marriage he had been Superintendent at Grose Farm (the site of Sydney University) and Longbottom Agricultural Station for two years. After a temporary appointment at Emu Plains Agricultural Station, he was promoted in 1831 to Superintendent at Emu Plains and Superintendent of Government Stock. He acquired Smithfield a farm at Eastern Creek.

The couple had at least ten children. John William (1827-1906), James Daniel (1829-1927) and Mary Ann (1830-1907) were born at Grose Farm. Born at Smithfield were: Christiana Eliza (1832 88), Eleanor Elizabeth (b. 1834), William (b. 1837), Susannah Catherine (b. 1837), Robert Charles (1838-87), Sydney (1840-77) and Emily Sophia (b. 1842). Most of the children were baptised by Dr John Dunmore Lang who had married their parents in Sydney’s newly built Scots Kirk. The Smiths were loyal supporters of Lang who organised the passage of hundreds of free immigrants, particularly Scottish mechanics.

In 1851 John Smith died after being hit on the head with an iron bar wielded by his son-in-law John Bootle. The men had argued after Smith’s daughter Mary Ann had spent the night at her parents’ house and returned home to pick up some clothing. Smith struck first, with a riding whip with a bone handle. Following the inquest – held in his own Bell and Crown Tavern on the Western Rd – Bootle was sentenced to six months’ gaol. Mary Ann Bootle, who at the time of her father’s death was recently wed with a three-month daughter, remarried twice.

John Smith’s widow shared The Retreat for a time with another daughter, Christiana, whose seven year old son Lesley Arthur Carney died there of scarlet fever in 1874 and was buried in Balmain Cemetery. Ann Maria Smith, who bred birds for sale, died ‘of paralysis’ at The Retreat on 27 April 1880, leaving her property to her youngest surviving son ‘gentleman’ Robert Charles who three months later auctioned the house’s contents. These included ‘canaries in full song’, a double-barrelled shotgun, a canopion musical instrument, a Cossack-bred horse and a Newfoundland dog. Although Robert advertised that he was leaving the city for the country, his address was 57 Talfourd St Glebe at the time of his death on 14 June 1887.

The family of Joseph Sparke Walford (1855-1946) lived at The Retreat for most of the 1880s. A public servant, Walford progressed from junior clerk in the colonial accounts branch to registrar in the colonial treasury. He married Mary Jane Hannam at Yass in 1880. Their three children were born at Glebe: Oscar Joseph (1881-1948), Clare Elizabeth (b. 1883) and Jerome ‘Jack’ (1887-1932). Also living with them were Joseph’s sister Maria Louisa Walford and her husband, Mary Jane’s brother Alfred Reuben Hannam, who married at Glebe in 1881. The Hannams’ son Alfred Henry was born at Glebe in 1882; their second son Leon Walford died aged six months at 53 Leichhardt St in 1884. Joseph Sparke Walford, who married twice, died at Cremorne on 26 February 1946.

Following the departure of the Walfords and Hannams the house was home to a series of occupiers 1889-1900: Bertie Law, George Painter, surgeon John Alfred Pybus, surgeon Andrew Brownless and insurance manager J J Allen. In 1893 a son Jack was born at The Retreat to Josephine ‘Nina’ née Carpenter and Dr Pybus, who exhibited Scottish collies and who later settled in England. The poultry and carrier pigeons put up for sale in 1896 probably belonged to Dr Brownless, a son of Sir Anthony Brownless who migrated to Australia in 1852 as a gold seeker and who became Chancellor of Melbourne University. A prominent Sydney medico and a mining speculator, Andrew Brownless in 1898 divorced Rosky Frumy née Gainsborough after she tried to shoot him in Coolgardie.

From ca 1903-18 the Hosking family, Methodists, lived at The Retreat which they renamed Homecroft. The household consisted of used furniture dealer Walter Frank, his wife Agnes Eugenie née Wheeler, and their children: saleswoman Carrie (b. 1880), Alice Isabel (1883-1967), salesman William Frederick (1885-1950), Walter Frank jnr (1890-1946), Sidney Arthur (b. 1895), Elizabeth (b. 1898) and Frank born at Glebe in 1905. After Walter’s death on 2 May 1912, his widow ran the ‘F Hosking’ furniture warehouse on George St West (now Broadway). Agnes died at Woollahra on 26 April 1945 and was buried with her husband in Waverley Cemetery. A marine draughtsman, Sidney enlisted as a gunner in the First World War. He was repatriated home in 1917 after being severely wounded and entered a wicker chair manufacturing partnership, Killorn Bros.

The men who lived at 53 Leichhardt St in the 1920s worked with boats: lighterman Edward Alexander Lamb (his wife Ellen May) and master mariner James Francis Kenny (his wife Irene Lucy). Numbers 49-53 Leichhardt St then became part of ex-seaman Sylvester Benedict Stride’s shipbreaking yards where coastal vessels were dismantled and salvaged parts sold. The Stride family (Sylvester and his wife Grace, shipwright Henry Joseph, labourer James Kenneth and fitter William) lived at number 49. In 1936 Sylvester was fined for sinking a hulk off Long Reef without permission, and in 1943 for speeding in a motorcar placing stress on the tyres. (During the war years the government tried to conserve rubber.) He died aged 73 on 17 February 1967; his widow aged 86 on 24 May 1979. They were buried in the Catholic section at Rookwood.

The Retreat, like its near-neighbour Bellevue, was saved from demolition by occupancy by squatters and community activism. The restored house’s waterfront location and prize-winning garden was in 2007 the perfect venue for a Glebe Society champagne high tea hosted by its owner John Williams.


Sources: 1828 NSW census; Australian War Memorial website; Bell’s Life in Sydney & Sporting Reviewer 1.11.1851; Evening News 7.3.1895, 18.10,1905, 2.5.1912; website; Glebe Walks website; Historic Houses website; Historical Records of Australia; NSW cemetery records; NSW electoral rolls; NSW registry of births, deaths, marriages; Sands Directories; Sydney Architecture website; Sydney Mail & NSW Advertiser 27.3.1880, 25.2.1893; Sydney Morning Herald various issues including 9.10.1851,19.8.1852, 22.8.1855, 30.7.1859, 3.12.1859, 24.7.1863, 10.11.1865, 6.7.1880, 21.9.1886, 11.9.1893; 20.10.1909, 27.11.1911, 4.5.1912, 22.6.1912, 31.1.1930, 21.8.1937, 2.10.1953.