Closer to Paradise at Woodbury

A 19th-century Midlands farmhouse is revealing its secrets to new owners Allen and Linda Cooper, who have restored and saved a piece of Tasmania's architectural and farming history. ISABEL BIRD takes a look at what they have achieved in the past nine years.

IT WAS a freezing cold Tasmanian all-seasons kind of day when Queensland couple Allen and Linda Cooper found what they had been looking for.

The retiring professional heritage conservationists were travelling up the Midland Highway to Launceston in sunshine, sleet and then misty rain when they spotted the crumbling remains of an old farmhouse.

Woodbury House was exactly what they wanted.

"It was sad but very romantic," Mr Cooper said.

"It was teeming with rain when we got here and this poor old thing was looking out. All the doors and windows had been stolen and smashed, and they had all these big sheets of corrugated iron across the windows.

"Half the romance in these places is found before they are restored - when they are sagging, forlorn and showing their age.

"We had always wanted to restore a derelict Georgian farmhouse."

The 1823 paddock-stone home stands as a testament to the hard-working free settlers and farmers in the Midland region of Tasmania.

Today the Coopers have brought Woodbury House back to an original, liveable state, so that they may inhabit the charming home in the next chapter of its life in the 21st century.

Its restoration was a massive undertaking but one that the couple were ready for.

The front walls were leaning six inches forward into the ground, gaps existed between major walls, one half of the house was floorless, the roof was falling in and mounds of concrete had at one stage been slathered across its stone walls for preservation.

The project wasn't a simple renovation or restoration - it was a complete rebuild that required underpinning and specialist framing techniques to ensure the house would stand for another 200 years.

Nine years after the Coopers began, Woodbury House is almost fully restored.

Mr Cooper said the huge project, which is the biggest house the couple have tackled, was one that required the necessary heritage experience and passion to complete.

He said restoration of the surrounding outhouses, including the barn, shearing shed and former barracks was also a priority, with the stables having already been restored.

"When you are rebuilding a house of this size, every job becomes large. The stonework, the plastering, the plumbing and the electrical work are all huge because the home is spread out over such a distance.

"(For example) a modern house can take up to six months to plaster and for it all to dry out so it can be painted. In a house built out of paddock stone, it takes well over a year for the plaster to dry out."

Mr Cooper said a driving aim was to restore the essence and integrity of the original home.

"The house was falling down but the fabric was still here. It was a case of conserving this original fabric. For instance the doors and skirtings are all blackwood cut from timber on site, and all these mouldings are cedar.

"In 1823 to 1825 cedar would have come from the government works and during Georgian times it was never polished but left natural. When (the second owners came in) they stained the cedar with mahogany stain and that is significant. I won't remove that because it shows the transition of the 1870 period, and that is an important thing."

Another example of the preservation of the home's history in all of its stages occurs in the kitchen, a high-ceiled space with stone walls and a tall fireplace that was originally built without a roof.

Here a small section of the front wall is covered by navy-blue painted concrete, directly behind the door.

Mr Cooper said the concrete had been painstakingly removed to reveal the home's original paddock-stone walls.

He said the strip of concrete was left to provide an example of what previous owners had done to the home.

House of discovery

FINDING Woodbury House signalled the beginning of a loving restoration project that will ultimately complete the couple's lifetime of work in the conservation field.

But they did not expect to find Australia's largest cache of concealed objects in the depths of their old home.

During the rebuild the house has revealed its secrets.

When the Coopers first bought the home, it not been lived in for 30 years.

Before this, the home had numerous owners and occupants, but many items including old boots, children's shoes, leather leggings, a straw hat and parasols remained hidden in the house for a hundred years, in the walls and in a bricked-up bread oven.

"A shoe was the first thing we found. At first I thought `oh blimey, a rat has dragged it out', but it was in a place which wasn't accessible, between two roofs.

"I thought `this is strange', and then I found some more and I kept on finding shoes stuck away around chimneys and in hidden places.

"A good friend, Ian Evans, was researching the subject, and he came down and we looked together and found a total of 38 items."

Architectural heritage researcher Dr Evans completed a PhD in this previously undiscovered topic in Australian history entitled Touching Magic - Deliberately Concealed Objects in Old Australian Houses and Buildings, and Woodbury House was just one of his subjects.

Dr Evans visited numerous national sites for his research and also came to Tasmania on many occasions finding items hidden in houses across the state, such as shoes, garments, books, domestic artefacts and dead cats.

He said that the ritual practice was a form of folk magic based on the superstitious beliefs of the people in the 19th and early 20th centuries, used to ward off evil spirits, witches and demons.

For instance, it was believed a shoe placed near a fireplace or chimney would protect an open-entry point into the house and act as a decoy for spiritual beings, thereby protecting the occupants.

"I was in England a few years ago when I was told about the concealment ritual there ... I realised there was a good chance that it came to Australia with the convicts and settlers," Dr Evans said.

"It may have begun as a secret ritual of the building trades. Builders had to protect the occupants of their houses from intruders and the weather, so protection from evil was also part of their duty of care. The ritual escaped into the community.

"I believe children's shoes and garments were preferred because they enabled the people who practised this ritual to harness the power of the good and innocent to combat evil."

In his PhD, Dr Evans wrote that the shoes at Woodbury may have been connected to either the Harrison family, who were the first family to have lived in the home, or the Headlam family, who were the second.

Dr Evans discovered an article in The Examiner in August 1860 where four members of the Harrison family had died within 30 days.

"Deaths of more than one member of a family have been known to have occurred in other Australian houses where concealments were made and are referred to elsewhere in this thesis," he wrote.

Mr Cooper said he believed that most of the items belonged to the Headlam family.

Ultimately, the truth and reasons behind these concealments are left to speculation.

"Between 1825 and 1828 the Headlams extended the house and put a kitchen on, and some of the shoes were found there," Mr Cooper said.

"It was just one of those practices that prevailed in those times. They used to think that a witch could gain access to your body via your organs, and another practice was to urinate in a bottle, fill it with thorns and thistles and put it under the floor so that if a witch entered, she would get the mixture inside of her."

In the nine years up until this point of the home's restoration, interior designer and antiques dealer Mrs Cooper has been waiting for its completion so she can decorate.

In the intervening period she has conducted archaeological digs among the surrounding outhouses and paddocks, and has unearthed broken shards of china and other decorative items discarded around the home.

"I found the old tip. They just must have smashed all of the china, which is such a shame, and then they set fire to them so some are unusable.

"I'm boxing it all up and putting the same colours and designs together, so we can piece together certain items and glue them together.

"We also found some old glass beads that had fallen down the stairs from the attic. When Allen pulled out a cupboard, these beads were sparkling and he realised that they were gold leaf ... we wondered whether servants may have taken them up there and they had fallen down."

A dream come true

MRS Cooper said the restoration project was finally on its way to completion.

"It is a beautiful house," she said.

"We had someone visit the other day from England whose great, great, great, great grandfather built the house.

"He had seen the house in the 1980s when it was in a mess and no one was living there and had been too scared to enter the house because it was derelict. He was shocked by what we have done, and very emotional.

"When we first saw this house it, was crying out for someone to restore, and while we realised that it might be a long slog, we knew it was possible.

"It was just by chance that we found it, but it was meant to happen."

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