The Armytage Family of Como
Adrea Fox (Como Historic House and Garden)
The news of John Brown's 1847 house, 'Como', being auctioned in the December of 1864 spread quickly through the opulent rooms at The Melbourne Club. One member, Charles Henry Armytage, who was staying in Melbourne on business, became particularly interested when he found out that it would be a mortgagee's auction. He and his wife Caroline lived with their eight children at Fulham Station, a large sheep holding just outside Geelong. The combination of their hard work in the country and Charles' inheritance had brought considerable wealth. The time had come for a town house. Como would be the ideal abode to consolidate the family's standing in the burgeoning Melbourne social scene.
At the October inspection Charles Armytage decided he would buy the property. After the inspection he went straight across the river to Bell and Butt, furniture makers of Richmond, and ordered all the dining-room furniture for Como - two months before the auction. In December, he bought the property for fourteen thousand pounds. His family moved in for the 1865 social season of parties and balls, securing their position as one of the premier families in the Government House set. Caroline was a woman used to managing a sheep station when her husband was away. She once wrote, 'One of the happiest times in my life was at Fulham Station teaching the Aboriginal children and worker's children with mine'. The genteel coquettishness of Melbourne's matrons would have been a shallow environment for this pioneering woman.
Two more children were born at Como: Ernest Adolphus in 1867 and Leila Christina in 1875. Ethel Maude, aged seven, died there in 1872 despite the efforts of Caroline and the children's nanny, Berry, to nurse Ethel through the diphtheria epidemic. When Ethel Maude died, Caroline placed two silver shillings on her eyes to pay the ferryman to take her child's spirit from this world across the river to the spiritual world. Before the child was buried, she removed the coins from her eyes, put them in a small package and wrote on the front, 'The silver shillings I placed upon my darling pet's eyes the day she died, Caroline Armytage, 1872.'
Charles and Caroline decided to settle permanently at Como, and Charles commissioned Arthur E Johnson, his brother-in-law, to design a ballroom extension, with children's bedrooms above, at a cost of one thousand two hundred and twelve pounds and fifteen shillings. The extension was completed in 1875, but Charles died at Como the next year, at the age of fifty-two, of a pancreatic disorder.
Caroline, aged forty-four, was left with nine children; her youngest, Leila, was but nine months old. Caroline was also left with pastoral properties throughout Victoria, including Como, to manage in addition to a large investment portfolio. She was financially independent for the first time in her life. The decisions she had to make about the state and her children's future occupied the traumatic months after her husband's death. Her eldest son, Charles Norman, had to extend his formal education, having completed his junior years as a boarder at Geelong Grammar.
On 26 December 1876, the servants were busy packing trunks onto carriages at the front of Como House while the Armytage children played games around them. Finally, Caroline, her nine children and a large retinue of servants drove off down Toorak Road, through Melbourne to Port Melbourne. This amazing entourage, including two cows for fresh milk, thereupon boarded the sailing ship the Assam and toured the world for four years. Charles Norman was sent to Cambridge while Caroline, the other children and servants went to Egypt, India, China, Japan, Russia and through Europe. This journey was documented in a diary kept by Ada, Caroline's eldest daughter. In 1878, 'Mumma went to the Paris International Exhibition; she walked up to an exhibitor and bought a large ebonised door for the Drawing Room. He looked rather bemused when she asked to have it sent to Melbourne Australia.' During this tour Caroline sent crate-loads of mirrors, vases, chandeliers and furniture back to Como.
The Melbourne that Caroline returned to in 1881 was a booming metropolis. Large city buildings were being erected, and services such as electricity, sewerage and telephone exchanges were being connected. Caroline redecorated Como with her eclectic collection. Once the restoration was completed it was time to re-introduce her family and Como to the social elite of Melbourne. One of the first social evenings she organised was a charades night which was held on 23 June 1882.
In 1891, Caroline returned once more to Europe, this time for the education of her youngest daughter, Leila, who was now sixteen years old. Leila attended ‘Villa Leona’ in Paris, Madame Yeatman's Protestant Institute for Young Ladies. She studied French, English, History, Religious Instruction, Drawing, Piano and Elocution. While Leila was in Paris, her older sisters, Laura, Ada and Constance, stayed in London with their mother. Caroline was prepared to travel not only to educate her sons, but also her daughters.
On 10 November 1894, Leila's debut was held during The Melbourne Cup season. The society magazine Table Talk described the ballroom and other areas of Como as 'beautifully decorated with garlands of fresh flowers and foliage plants, and the large verandah was decorated in a Moorish fashion'.
The lifestyle of the Armytage family and Como was made possible by the large group of servants employed to do the day-to-day work. The exact number of servants Caroline employed to maintain Como is not known. However, we do know that she employed cooks, a laundress, a housemaid, a needlewoman, 'Tweeney' (a between-the-stairs maid whose bedroom was in the tower), a parlourmaid, a milkman, a messenger, two permanent gardeners and a coachman. Como was just over 54 acres in area (21.9 hectares) and, like all the large properties around South Yarra and Toorak, both supported and was supported by a large number of working-class retainers.
Despite the severe economic depression of the 1890s, during which over 100,000 people left Melbourne, the Armytage family, with their wealth derived from 'the sheep's back', continued to enjoy an elegant lifestyle. Nellie Melba sang opera at their soirees in the ballroom, and the botanist Ferdinand Von Mueller often joined in social activities with the family.
The constant round of parties, musical evenings, and celebrations for Federation in 1901 enabled Constance to meet Captain Arthur Fitzpatrick, the aide-de-camp to the governor of Victoria. After a brief engagement, Constance and Arthur were married at St.John's, Toorak on 9 May 1906. The wedding was the social event of the season. The reception was held at Como and was attended by the cream of Melbourne society, including old friends such as the artists Arthur and Emma Minnie Boyd. The bride and groom went to live in England. At some point, however, Fitzpatrick left Constance disappearing with the seventy-thousand-pound dowry and ending the marriage. It is unclear what transpired between the couple but, from that time onwards, Constance lived the life of a single woman.
Behind the glittering social world of Melbourne during the years before the First World War, the Armytages’ lives were frequently touched by tragedy. Ernest Adolphus died in 1898, aged thirty-one; then, in November 1909, their beloved mother, Caroline, passed away at Como, aged seventy-seven. This was the end of an era.
In 1910 Freddy Armytage died, and Leila travelled to Maidenhead in England to accompany Constance back home to Australia. While she was away, their mother's estate was settled, and Como was sub-divided into 64 allotments which were auctioned on 25 February 1911. The estate was severely depleted, losing a substantial part of the original Sangster-designed garden. The remaining house and garden were purchased by Mr John Buchan on behalf of the three Misses Armytage - Ada, Laura and Leila.
In 1913, Ada travelled to England, taking her niece Edna Armytage to join Connie and Leila. They were stranded in Europe by the First World War -a catastrophe which neither they nor their countrymen could have envisaged.
At the outbreak of the Great War, Ada was 55 years old, Constance 43 and Leila 39. Leila joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) in England for the Red Cross and was sent to an Australian Military Hospital in Le Havre, France. By 1916, Constance was also living in Le Havre, where she worked side by side with Leila as an untrained nurse and ambulance driver, picking up the wounded and the dying soldiers from the battlefields.
During the eleven years the sisters were away from Melbourne, Laura, a quite frail, artistic woman, lived on at Como. Upon the sisters' return after the war, they found a rather tired Como with a dowdy and faded Edwardian splendour.
Wartime experiences no doubt changed the sisters' outlook on life forever. They set about re-decorating Como in a style that was lighter and less cluttered than the home in which they had grown up. In the 1920s the four middle-aged sisters adjusted to a world of changed values with the waning of the colonial upper class. In this world they assumed their new role as the matriarchs of a large extended family.
In 1921 the Armytage family sold 35 acres of Como's river frontage, leaving just over five acres of house and garden. Of the five sons, only two married; and, of the four daughters, only Constance married. Ada died in 1939. Laura lived as a recluse at Como from the 1920s and died in 1956.
The post-war housing boom and the push for modernity associated with Melbourne's 1956 Olympic Games meant that many of the city's colonial buildings and the old estates in South Yarra and Toorak were being demolished. The last surviving children of Charles and Caroline, Constance and Leila Armytage, sold Como to The National Trust of Victoria in 1959. Como was the first house the newly formed Trust acquired. One of the most significant aspects of the Trust's purchase was the acquisition of the house's complete contents. Over forty years ago, the Armytage sisters realised that if Como were to survive as an expression of their family and its lifestyle it must remain intact as a home. They also left an extensive archive of diaries, letters, journals and photographs. Ada was an avid amateur photographer, and spent years documenting her family and Como with her lens.
Life can be seen to contain two major elements: the animate and the inanimate. While the inanimate bricks and mortar, objects and pathways, help in our understanding of this family, it is the animate, the social history, which makes Como live. The Armytage family lived at Como for nearly 95 years, and was owned and managed by women from 1876 to 1959.