The Towers of Burnside: Robertson Home - Dachaidh Clann Donnachaidh

Selected for Google Maps and Google Earth

Comments (4)

Marilyn Whiteley on February 15, 2008

Thanks, Ian, for sharing your Burnside exploration. Marilyn

Ian Stehbens on February 15, 2008

Dear Marilyn,

Let me tell you a little about this Burnside precinct.

A young Scotsman, James Burns, migrated to Australia in mid C19, and made his first wealth as a young man on the Queensland goldfields and related ports though entrepreneurial retailing. He expanded his interests into the SW Pacific, establishing plantations (more than 60 in PNG alone but also in Solomon Islands and other areas, as well as a trade store empire in Pacific ports. Copra, coir, cacao and spices were the raw products but the sugar, tobacco addictions of the plantation workers were generated and sustained and major investment in general retailing, plus travel became elements of his trading 'empire'. His business was called Burns Philp (BP) and earnt a critical reputation in the Pacific which lingers today as "Bloody Pirate", primarily as a result of the exploitation or opportunism in regard to acquiring plantation land. I have met the grandson of "Bottle". Bottle was so called because he gave BP the land for a plantation on Misima Island in exchange for an empty bottle, according to the descendants of Grandfather Bottle.

James Burns' BP operational base was Sydney, and he built a scottish castle called "Gowan Brae", as his home in North Parramtta and it was surrounded by a moderate estate. In later life, in 1908, he offered the Presbyterian Church land and money for a substantial and model orphanage which was accepted. A Scottish village resulted through the donations of a variety of benefactors and corporate gifts including the generous Burns. It was to be a model village and was influenced by the earlier reaction in Europe to the air-pollution disease, rickets, for Europe believed the remedy was something to do with "fresh airs" - sunlight on endocrinal system and the production of caciferol hormone was unknown to them, then.

These towers that I have photographed are on some of these orphanage buildings. In general each orphanage was built for around 30 children, and the village included cultivated vegetable gardens, a dairy farm, a full school, hospital, swimming pool, pharmaceutical dispensary, and approx 16 group homes. They were built on spacious attractive land on a ridge overlooking Parramatta with views to the CBD of Sydney (26kms). It was contiguous with his estate from which the land was excised. Water was pumped from Hunts Creek, and the managers lived in solid homes in the Burnside precinct. All but one of these buildings remain. And now they are designated a heritage precinct of heritage items.

By the 1970s the welfare system in Australia had changed and orphanages were no longer required because of supporting benefits for lone parents. Burnside as an organization continues as part of the Uniting Church Caring Services, supporting families and children, advocating for justice and social support.

The Burnside properties and Burns' estate have been broken up and sold. Burns died in 1923, quite a broken man, for two sons died as a result of war injuries. Burns was committed to the militarism of his day and had a rifle range on his land. I believe he funded another home as a result of the deaths of these sons, the square-towered War Memorial Home at Burnside. From his estate, a last home was built, and called Gowan Brae, the same name as his residence. Later because his residence became an orphanage briefly, the second was renamed Lincluden.

In the sell off, Redeemer Baptist School acquired the largest number of homes. The Uniting Church retained some including the hospital and around it built its theological education centre, Centre for Ministry. The Burnside School for Orphans is now Burnside Public School. Alan Walker College bought Lincluden and the manager's residence, Strathalbyn.

Most of his personal estate including his beloved Gowan Brae was eventually acquired by The Kings School, which has built impressive primary and secondary schools for boys on the spacious and attractive land.

The Burnside Gardens land was sold to developers who have turned it into a high status residential estate including individual residences on their own lot and clustered town housing for which services such security, recreation facilities and maintenance of landscaping are cooperatively organized.

And I reside in Strathalbyn, beside the current decorative but repositioned gates to Burnside Gardens residential estate.

James Burns created a legacy through his entrepreneurship and philanthropy, enhanced by the generosity of other philanthropists and the good management and development by the subsequent owners including the Presbyterian Church, Uniting Church, Redeemer Baptist School, The Kings School, Royal Institute for Blind, Alan Walker College, and the Burnside Gardens estate developers and residents.

The former orphanages can be viewed on Google Earth lined up on either side of Cumberland Highway/Pennant Hills Road from James Ruse Drive to Gollan Avenue. The Kings School is seen with its abundant sporting fields on the northern side of Cumberalnd Highway. The primary school cluster of Kings School buildings surrounds the former Burns residence Gowan Brae, whilst the larger cluster of buildings to the NE is the secondary section of The Kings School.

Marilyn Whiteley on February 15, 2008

Ian, I noticed the orphanage tag as well as the others, so I assumed there was some connection with that history that you had shared only briefly. Thank you for taking the time to put it together now for me and for others who may wish to read. In my own research at the moment I am struggling with the moral ambiguity of good intentions in the past. Your tale presents moral ambiguity in some other dimensions. Marilyn

(Panoramio is behaving strangely again, so who knows whether this comment will become attached to your explanation! We probably won't know for a few hours.)

Ian Stehbens on February 15, 2008

That was quick Marilyn. I have been nervous about Panoramio for it took a little bit of time to write this comment and then it seemed to disappear. But I found it on your page, but at last it has appeared on my page, at least, sometimes.

Yes the ambiguity of history is central here in Australia this week. Our Prime Minister, displaying the qualities of a statesman, has led the parliament, with the support of the Leader of the Opposition, in an apology to the Indigenous People. But on Sydney talkback radio on the aggressive right wing of pop politics, a substantial even majority of callers have denied the need for such apology and the saying of "sorry".

Eva from Kiev made an unsolicited comment about this, saying that it is the sign of a great nation when it can repent. A surprise phone caller from New Zealand this morning told me that they were so proud of the conduct of their neighborouring country for this. A PNG pastor rang yesterday to say he had stood with his family and they wept together with joy and gratefulness when they heard the Prime Minister of Australia on their TV making this apology.

For me, it was a most significant and hopefilled day.

Coffee time (means: I had better stop there in this forum. I can feel myself warming to a long conversation.)

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    by Ian Stehbens