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Tara

This article was first published in the  White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No. 214 on 19th April 2007

 

Recent tragic events in Melbourne have led to the same setting being shown on television news night after night. For the reporters, it is just the scene of the current story, but for those who know Melbourne well it also conjures up other images.

In my case I see a tall proud man standing with his family on his estate surveying the railway in the distance. This is Sir John O’Shanassy, Victoria’s second premier and later premier twice more. I then see a picture of two politicians making their way down Collins Street. “Just look at Long John and Little Johnny going at each other” says one of the bystanders. John Fawkner, one of the co-founders of Melbourne stands about five feet tall in his socks and is commonly known as Little Johnny Fawkner. O’Shanassy is well over six feet and known as Long John O’Shanassy. There they go arguing their way down Collins Street with Little Johnny have to take three strides to Long John’s one.

Long John was born in Ireland and when his father died he was forced to leave school. He became apprentice to a draper and later married and in 1839 decided to head off to Sydney to see what opportunities awaited in a new colony. At that time, shipping from England usually docked at the new settlement of Melbourne before heading on to Sydney. In Melbourne we spotted those who were strongest, most intelligent, most attractive and those whose business skills were capable of generating wealth and opportunities for others and we persuaded them to stay. The rest we sent on to Sydney. Long John was persuaded to stay and set of to the Westernport area to try his hand at farming, but the drought defeated him. He returned to Melbourne and set up a drapers store in Collins Street. He knew he had a fine wife but it was only then that he began to realise how fine. Margaret was an astute businesswoman and the drapery business thrived allowing John to turn his attention to making a difference in society through politics. This did not of course preclude a continuing interest in business. He floated the Melbourne and Suburban Railway Company in 1857. In the population boom associated with the gold rush, private railways were pushing their way into the newly establishing suburbs of Melbourne. There was money to be made and there was no point waiting for governments to do such things.

By now Long John is three times premier of Victoria. The Irish immigrant with limited schooling coming from the mercantile classes is able to hold the top office in this prestigious colony with gold money flowing in as if there is no tomorrow. Of course, those from more prestigious backgrounds are not likely to forget his ‘lower class’ background. That is why he purchased 6 hectares of land in the Camberwell area and had an impressive mansion built there. He called it ‘Tara’. Tara was the seat of the ancient kings of Ireland, and although he is no longer King of Victoria in the form of Premier, he still regards himself as a kingmaker. During his years as Premier, Mrs O made sure there was still money coming in. “As long as you oppose payment for politicians John” she said “then if you want me to cut ribbons I’ll be doing it at the drapery store where we can make a profit out of it in order to support the family.” Mrs O, as first lady of Victoria, continued to operate the Collins Street drapery. Long John was determined to show that new money did not equate to lack of taste. Tara was built in Italian Renaissance Style long before that became fashionable in Melbourne. Inside there are reproductions from Ghiberti's Baptistery Doors in Florence. Sir John plays host at Tara to the sort of society dinners that he could never have aspired to back in Ireland. During the soirees the favourite piece is no doubt The Harp that once through Tara’s Halls.

Sir John stands out the front of Tara with the family. He has recently been accused of influencing the path of the Camberwell railway. Instead of continuing a straight line through Camberwell it makes a long curve to the right and up an unnecessarily steep grade before entering Camberwell Station as if to keep its distance from Tara. “Long John loves railways but not in his back yard” say the locals. They weren’t always that disrespectful. They were happy to live in ‘BallyShanassy’ but have now renamed that to Burwood Village.

The O’Shanassy family continued to live at Tara until the turn of the century. Since then there have been a number of owners until it was bought by the Anglican Church in 1951 who named it after the first Bishop of Australia. These various owners have subdivided and sold off the land of the estate until Tara is now confined to a large suburban block.

But, back to the news. The images of Tara continue to be shown in the local tragic news story. It is now called Broughton Hall.

BL

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Other articles in the series Seven Mansions of Melbourne:

Seven Mansions of Melbourne - overview

No. 1 – Tara
No. 2 – Raheen
No. 3 - Cranlana
No. 4 - Lowther Hall

 


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