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Plaistow at Joyces Creek near Newstead in central Victoria, reflects changes in ownership, fashion and the fluctuating fortunes of the times.
Its front façade presents as a traditional pioneer homestead ??? a single-storey brick building surrounded on three sides by deep, shady verandahs. Wander through the gardens to the rear of the building and over 150 years of history is evident in the conglomerate of buildings that link around the kitchen garden and well.
The current owners, Peter and Lil Skilbeck, bought Plaistow in 1984 and have been fascinated by its history ever since.
???We were already living in central Victoria at Dean, near Creswick, so we looked at the property just out of curiosity,??? says Peter. ???But we immediately loved the place and bought it two days later, much to the surprise of our three children.???
The land was settled by a Colin Mckinnon, who selected it in 1840, in the first wave of pastoral settlement following Major Mitchell's Australia Felix expedition of 1836. Colin sold the grazing rights to two brothers, George and Alfred Joyce, early in 1844 and they named the property Plaistow after their family home in Essex, England.
The Joyce brothers came from a well-to-do family: their father Thomas, was a tinsmith who had designed the Bullseye Oil Torch, a hand-held lantern that ran on whale oil. (Thomas had also secured the rather lucrative contract to supply the lantern to the London police force.) This invention led the family company to seek supplies of whale oil, and the company ship used for this purpose brought George (in 1840) and Alfred (in 1843) to Australia to seek their fortunes.
George ??? a tailor by trade, who, for a while ran a small business in Bourke Street, Melbourne ??? was keen to be a farmer and applied himself to learning the ropes. When he and Alfred bought Plaistow, they built themselves a small and humble cottage from pit sawn timber with a mortice and tenon framework and bricks made on the property. It eventually became the overseer's home. As their fortunes increased, the brick homestead was built.
The existing kitchen was actually built for George and his wife Helen in or about 1846. It pre-dates by six years the brick homestead, which consisted of three formal rooms with a attached maids' rooms and classroom across the rear. Some extensions are brick, others are built from weatherboard and although the main homestead buildings remain intact, there is little evidence of the large number of outbuildings erected between 1844 and 1854. An auction notice dated 1862 includes one that offers accommodation for 60 men.
The southern boundary of the property follows Major Mitchell's homeward track. Plaistow was ideally situated on open native grasslands, well watered by a creek now known as Joyces Creek.
Not long after the Joyce brothers arrival at Plaistow, the booming gold rush took place all over central Victoria, and the Joyce family made a small fortune selling hay for the goldminer's horses which passed their homestead en route to the diggings. The property also has a claim to fame as the source of the first wool received for sale at the Goldsborough Wool Store in Melbourne in 1848.
When Peter and Lil moved into Plaistow, the homestead was ???structurally sound but aesthetically sad,??? says Peter. ???Our first job was to install 152 metres of spouting to catch the water supply from the roof and this all feeds into the large original underground tank. The verandah's floors all had to be replaced and we are gradually restoring the interior.???
Peter and Lil are both inveterate collectors: antiques and memorabilia crowd every room. The kitchen and sitting room are overflowing with their teapot collection, while the pantry displays a utensil collection and china piecrust holders in every shape imaginable. There are also antique dolls and toys ion the children's wing and hundreds of old tools and farm implements in the outbuildings.
The Skilbecks run Black Poll cattle, angora goats and 25 different breeds of poultry on the 100 hectares surrounding the homestead, which is all that remains of the original 10,000 ??? acre holding. The registered brand, CB over Plaistow, has been in continual use since the 1860's and is currently used by neighbours who once owned the homestead and most of the land.
In spring, when Joyces Creek is normally in flood, Plaistow overlooks river flats completely covered in water ??? a haven for waterbirds. A canoe indicates you can paddle upstream when the water is high.
The land was grazed right up to the house when the Skilbecks bought Plaistow but, over the past 13 years, they've developed a lovely 1.2 hectare gardens around the homestead, using framework of giant peppercorn trees and elms around which they've planted roses, perennials and cottage-garden favourites, which have self-seeded around the winding brick paths and in the nooks and crannies of the old garden. A large vegetable garden and orchard have also been planted, making the family almost self-sufficient in the way it would have been in early days.
The evolution of the garden has presented an endless challenge for the Skilbecks. ???The nettles and marshmallows were waist high in the back garden when we arrived,??? says Lil. ???There was not one rose in the garden. All our friends have generously given us cuttings and we've collected many other plants from country markets.???
Peter and Lil are both teachers. Lil works four days a week as a mathematics teacher at Maryborough Regional College. When Peter was retrenched from the public service in 1994, they decided to increase their involvement in tourism.
???We had been involved in two major events in 1986,??? says Peter. ???In September 1986 we provided lunch for the South Australian Police contingent who were re-enacting the gold escort from Castlemaine to Adelaide as part of South Australia sesquicentenary. Then, two weeks later, we had a full-scale open day to commemorate 150 years since Major Mitchell passed through area. We set up trestle tables on the front lawns and invited people to tour the house and gardens. It was a great success and we've been building on that ever since.???
Plaistow is listed by the Historic Buildings Council of Australia and is on the Register of National Estate. The Skilbecks now regularly open the homestead and gardens. It was a great success and we've been building on that ever since.???
Plaistow is listed by the Historic Buildings Council of Australia and is on the Register of National Estate. The Skilbecks now regularly open the homestead and garden to tour groups by appointment and provide escorted tours accompanied by Devonshire teas and lunch when required.
???In summer we set up tables in the garden,??? says Lil. ???And, whatever the weather, people love to see the fresh scones come out of the wood stove.???
Now that their three children have left home, the Skilbecks also offer bed and breakfast on the homestead.
???This homestead is not grand, but its survival is a tribute to the hard work and ingenuity of our pastoral pioneers,??? says Peter. And to the hard work of its current owners too.
For further information please feel free to contact us.