Time Travel to Marvelous Melbourne – Como House

Time Travel to Marvelous Melbourne - Como House

Last week I was overcome with excitement when my copy of Mrs Beeton’s Guide to Garden Management – the art of gardening arrived in the post – finally! The tricky thing is that this Wordsworth Reference Series book doesn’t let you know when it was first published or reprinted.  It does own up to being newly type-set in 2008. So should I assume that it is abridged?

I’ve never heard Mrs Beeton’s name associated with a gardening book. I have seen reference to a Mr Beeton’s gardening guide. Doing some googling I found that Mr S.O. Beeton published this book in 1861. So now I’m not sure which book I actually have?

On the plus side this book does have one very long article on the usefulness of the Dutch Hoe. Be advised do not operate heavy machinery while reading this coma-inducing quote.

The Dutch Hoe, or Scuffle, as it is sometimes called, is shown at A. It consists of a sharp and comparatively narrow blade, attached to the socket by two arms, which spring from the lower end of the latter, and are fastened at their extremities to the blade, one on one side and one on the other. The blade of the hoe being thus attached forms an angle with the handle, and by means is almost parallel to the surface of the soil when in use. The edge is thrust into the earth with a pushing motion and cuts up the weeds, which, with the surface soil, pass through the aperture between the arms.  By this arrangement the tool meets with far less resistance, and the labour is rendered far lighter than it would be if the opening was closed, or even if the socket for the handle proceeded immediately from the centre of the blade.

The mysterious and legendary Dutch Hoe

As we know the Beetons were editing or compiling these books from many other uncredited sources rather than writing them. This gardening book like BOHM is a grab bag of articles from horticultural magazines, journals and pamphlets. This led me to wonder about the reliability of this book as a text for explaining how the Victorians gardened. Was this the kind of book that you owned rather than used? Certainly it is likely to be a reference book that came out to the colonies but does it capture gardening in Australia in the Victorian era? Australia has such a radically different climate to the Mother Country.  In other words have I been barking up the wrong tree?

Como House - Living in very grand style in colonial Melbourne

While I try to find some Australian gardening reference books I decide to visit Como House in inner-city Melbourne. This amazing house was built in 1847 and is still furnished with its original period furniture and boasts a vegetable garden – hazar!

Apart from being stonking enormous it really has a very plain exterior or I guess elegant depending on your point of view. It actually looks more like an English Regency house than a English Victorian country mansion. The family that built this house were extremely rich owning some 1 million acres of sheep farms across Victoria – baa! It seems unlikely that lack of money was the barrier to a  full flowering of fanciness in architecture.

I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside due to the low lighting that they use to conserve all the soft furnishings. Have a look at their gallery if you are interested.  I was however allowed to take as many photo’s as I wanted in the laundry – very happy!

The laundry outhouse at Como

So by way of an update to my earlier post exploring Victorian laundries here is the real thing.

The devices on the window sill are for ironing crimps into fabric and lace.

In the back left hand corner is a wood fired copper in the corner. Just to the right of the copper is a black iron stove for heating Flat Irons.

Stove for heating irons.

This laundry would have been a hot and steamy spot. It does at least have high ceilings and lots of doors and big opening windows. So not as bad as it could be – still I bags working out in the garden rather than in the laundry as a Washer Woman. I do love the old shabbiness of this room!

A green winding mangle just like Grandma used to use.

That’s probably enough laundry porn.

The kitchen was really unbelievably basic which is surprising as it was the kitchen they used right through until the 1960′s when they sold the house to the National Trust.

The benches in the kitchen were all low; about mid thigh in height.  I’m 165 cm (5ft 6 in) and I would have had to stoop down uncomfortably to use them. The tour guide said this was evidence of how short people were during this era – I don’t know – this would make them very very small indeed.

The scullery seemed cramped for catering to such a large household so maybe they used more of the outdoor space around kitchen than just the indoors? This would be a good solution apart from the flies.

Scullery - not the Queen's

Unfortunately the 5 acres of garden remaining around the house are a legacy of the the 1920′s. The vegetable garden is a recreation of a garden planted by the Mistress of the house in 1925 and uses varieties that were available in Melbourne between the wars.

The 1925 Vegetable Garden with chicken coop but no Art Deco stylings

A little disappointing for me as I was hoping to see how Victorian-Melburnians grew their vegetables. While my time traveling experiment wasn’t entirely successful I have since found one fabulous book and a lead on another.

Remembered Gardens – Eight women & their visions of an Australian landscape by Holly Kerr Forsyth is a wonderful read. Forsyth states that

“Gardens created in the colonies during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901) displayed all the plants popular in Britain.  In towns and cities, front gardens of the less wealthy continued to feature circular and oval beds surrounded by upturned rock or glazed tiles…Gardens of the wealthier settlers now featured edging of Box, introduced to the colony in about 1828, and even carriage circles. A typical front garden for a large Victorian terrace house might have a parterre of box hedges encasing standard roses.”

So nothing yet specifically about the vegetable gardens but it is likely that Melburnians were using the same vegetable seeds as the English.  To confirm this I need to track down an 1858 publication called Brunning’s Australian Gardener. More time travel maybe required!

Artichoke flowers at Como

9 Responses to “Time Travel to Marvelous Melbourne – Como House”


  • That kitchen really does look horribly inconvenient. It’s interesting that they haven’t restored the garden like they have the house – is this evidence of a lack of learnings, or something else?

  • Lovely pictures! It strikes me that the scullery looks closer to a modern kitchen than the other part, which makes sense, since most of us do it ourselves now. I thought the stove was fascinating as well. Thanks for sharing your field trip with us.

  • Dear Governess
    I think the reason that they recreated the 1925 vegetable garden is that the place they had spare in the garden was the site of the 1925 garden. I also got the feeling that interpreting the garden was very marginal to their curatorial interest in the furniture, artifacts etc. I am surprised that they weren’t more excited by the kitchen and garden possibilities for living history.

    Dear SJ, I agree the scullery felt both modern and familiar. I would struggle in the Ballroom and at the massive dining table but I knew exactly how I would work in that scullery.

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