The First People
The countryside of the Derwent Valley surrounding Glen Derwent was first occupied by the Leenowwenne clan, one of the five clans of the Big River Nation. They lived in the Derwent River valley for tens of thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans.
When the evacuation of the Norfolk Island colony began in 1807, the former convicts farming on the island were granted land along the banks of the Derwent River as compensation. One of these farmers was James Bryan Cullen, an ex-convict “first fleeter” who left Norfolk Island in the “Second Embarkation” on the Porpoise on 26 December 1807. Cullen received a grant of land of 65 acres, probably in 1808, part of which Glen Derwent now occupies.
The oldest structure at Glen Derwent is the sandstone building that houses the stables and hay loft. This building is thought to have been the original cottage occupied by Cullen and his wife, Elizabeth Bartlett, and their three children Sophia, Catherine and Elizabeth, until the larger house was built. The National Trust have advised that this building may date from as early as 1808, just 4 years after the settlement of Hobart, making it one of the oldest surviving buildings in the Derwent Valley. As the Cullens’ farming expanded, they built the large sandstone barn, coach house and carpenters loft and the main house by around 1818.
Lease to Thomas Triffitt
Cullen died in 1821 when he shot himself with a pistol. An inquest found that he had accidentally shot himself in the chest. At the time of his death he owed the considerable sum of 104 pounds 7 shillings and 2 pence to George Read, although it is worth noting his estate was worth considerably more. Cullen had not made a will and his wife Elizabeth applied for Letters of Administration in 1821. These were granted in 1824 Elizabeth struggled to immediately pay claims against her husband’s estate, having to sell their second grant of 40 acres surrounding Peppermint Hill across the river, to clear her late husband’s debts. The original 65 acres and the house were then leased to Thomas Triffitt.
An Inn for the weary travellers and Irish revolutionaries
The property was sold to Judah Solomon in 1829 and a licence was obtained to trade as an Inn. The first licensee was a former convict named Oscar Davis, who came to Van Diemen’s Land in 1815 as a convict sentenced to 14 years for forgery. He named the Inn “The King of Prussia” after his birth place. Oscar Davis retained the licence of the Inn until 1835. It was licensed to H G Wallis in 1835 and Emanuel Benjamin in 1836.
In 1837, Judah Solomon sold the property to Captain R Armstrong, owner of neighbouring property “Bingfield” (now Valleyfield) for £2,500. Captain Armstrong advertised it To Let “but not as a Public … House”, “well adapted for a school or private residence”.
Renamed as the ‘Derwent Hotel’
The property remained un-let until a licence was granted to Sarah Anson from 1840-41. She named it the ‘Derwent Hotel’.
It was during the property’s life as “Elwin’s Hotel” that it became home, for two and a half years, to its most famous inhabitant – the Irish aristocrat and revolutionary, William Smith O’Brien, following his release from Port Arthur.
Smith O’Brien was the leader of the failed Irish uprising and rebellion in 1848. For his part in the rebellion, he was exiled to Van Diemen’s Land but being part of the educated aristocracy and a former member of the British Parliament, he was not treated as an ordinary convict, more as a political exile. In his book The Great Shame, Thomas Keneally describes Smith O’Brien as “the Mandela of his age”. Smith O’Brien spent some time at Maria Island, then Port Arthur for a few months, then came his time at Glen Derwent, where he rented a room (the current Green Room) with adjoining lounge for £6 per month. Although still a convict and in exile, he was permitted by the authorities to roam the district.
In 1850 Robert Armstrong was having financial problems and sought to sell both “Elwin’s Hotel” and “Bingfield”.
A century of the Downie Family
William and Mary Downie purchased Elwin’s Hotel in 1854, renamed it “Glen Derwent” to reflect their Scottish heritage, and the Downie family successfully farmed the land and lived in the house for the next 106 years. To this day, descendants of the Downies continue to have pastoral interests in the Derwent Valley
During the Downie family’s time, Glen Derwent was an extensive hop farm, with the hop kiln being built in 1870. Other evidence of the property’s hop growing past is in the large cast iron gate valves that can be seen in paddocks, and closer to the house near the mulberry tree next to the tennis court. In the western paddock on the southern end, a slightly raised bank can be seen running between the valves. This was to retain the water for the flood irrigation of the hop fields. The open channel beside the tennis court carried water, pumped up from the river. As the hop industry declined after the Second World War, The Downies gradually changed to dairy farming, and parts of the land were sold. The property once extended over the highway and included land that is now the New Norfolk Golf Club.
From ‘The Mercury’
From ‘The Mercury’
1942 Distant View by C T Downie showing the original hop kiln cowl and several since-removed outbuildings
The Oakley Family
In 1961 the property was sold to the Oakley family who ran the property as a dairy, with part of the house converted to flats, until the property was put up for sale in July 1989.
Malcolm and Barbara Lewena purchased the property in 1989 and immediately commenced restoration and conversion of Glen Derwent to once again provide accommodation. Work on the Main House, Tank Cottage and Master’s Stable was completed in 1990. The restoration was consistent with the colonial craftsmanship and methodology used in the construction of Glen Derwent. Their son Stuart recalled chipping in stripping back all of the red cedar doors, some of which were unfortunately repainted by later owners.
The Lewenas added to the already extensive landscaping around the house, including rose gardens around the circular drive and between the house and the road, and deepening of the natural “billabong” to create a more permanent ornamental pond. Some compromise was required for modern practicalities, since the Regency period was not known for such luxuries as bathrooms with hot and cold running water. In total, 38 trades persons and sub-contracting firms were involved with 15,000 man hours spent “on site”.
Bed and Breakfast
Carol and Stan Durkin purchased the property in December 2002 and ran it as a successful bed and breakfast until they sold it in 2009.
Glen Derwent once again became a private residence but the owners were unable to keep up with the maintenance, and once again the buildings became run down and the garden overgrown with the loss of many of the rose bushes and some major trees. The speed and density with which assorted noxious plant can grow at Glen Derwent in only a few seasons are testimony to the fertility of the soil.
The Virtue Restoration
Rob and Liz Virtue purchased Glen Derwent in November 2016 and have begun to once again restore the house, outbuildings and grounds to their former glory. Along with more prosaic works, such as updating fire safety and hot water systems, restoration has included removing carpets and exposing the original, albeit somewhat paint-spattered, pit-sawn floorboards, held down by hand-forged iron nails. Ongoing works include once again re-stripping and polishing the red cedar and Huon pine joinery and restoring rooms to their original colour schemes.
The initial works in the gardens started with clearing the waist-high grass, hemlock and blackberry. This work has been akin to an archaeological dig exposing Incan ruins. Hidden beneath the overgrowth were old sandstone steps and retaining walls, some dating back to the original convict construction, and later pathways, ponds and iris beds planted by the Lewenas and Durkins.
A decidedly non-Georgian and little-used swimming pool set in to one side of the front lawn has been removed and replaced by a parterre garden, more in keeping with Regency aesthetics. This has been planted with annuals and roses to complement the slowly recovering remnants of the formerly extensive rose gardens.
A Learning Process
We are always learning more about Glen Derwent and its history, so if you want to know something of its past or features, please ask. Conversely, if you notice some feature or have some knowledge of why things may be as they are, please tell us. We would love to know.