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History House

Item details

Name of item: History House
Other name/s: Wickham House
Type of item: Built
Group/Collection: Residential buildings (private)
Category: Terrace
Location: Lat: -33.8641922282 Long: 151.2124271110
Primary address: 133 Macquarie Street, Sydney, NSW 2000
Parish: St James
County: Cumberland
Local govt. area: Sydney
Local Aboriginal Land Council: Metropolitan
Property description
Lot/Volume CodeLot/Volume NumberSection NumberPlan/Folio CodePlan/Folio Number
LOT1 DP64691
All addresses
Street AddressSuburb/townLGAParishCountyType
133 Macquarie StreetSydneySydneySt JamesCumberlandPrimary Address


Organisation NameOwner CategoryDate Ownership Updated
Royal Australian Historical SocietyCommunity Group 


Designer/Maker: George Allen Mansfield
Construction years: 1853-1872
Current use: Head Office for the Royal Australian Historical Society
Former use: Aboriginal land, town lot, Residence, club, doctors rooms


Historical notes: The "Eora people" was the name given to the coastal Aborigines around Sydney. Central Sydney is therefore often referred to as "Eora Country". Within the City of Sydney local government area, the traditional owners are the Cadigal and Wangal bands of the Eora. There is no written record of the name of the language spoken and currently there are debates as whether the coastal peoples spoke a separate language "Eora" or whether this was actually a dialect of the Dharug language. Remnant bushland in places like Blackwattle Bay retain elements of traditional plant, bird and animal life, including fish and rock oysters (Anita Heiss, "Aboriginal People and Place", Barani: Indigenous History of Sydney City http://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/barani).

With the invasion of the Sydney region, the Cadigal and Wangal people were decimated but there are descendants still living in Sydney today. All cities include many immigrants in their population. Aboriginal people from across the state have been attracted to suburbs such as Pyrmont, Balmain, Rozelle, Glebe and Redfern since the 1930s. Changes in government legislation in the 1960s provided freedom of movement enabling more Aboriginal people to choose to live in Sydney (Anita Heiss, "Aboriginal People and Place", Barani: Indigenous History of Sydney City http://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/barani).

Subject site
The area in which History House is located was once a part of the Governor's Domain, the extensive grounds associated with the First Government House in Bridge Street which was occupied by successive Governors of New South Wales from 1788 until 1845. These grounds were subdivided into building allotments in the late 1840s, after the First Government House had been demolished and the Governor had moved into the Gothic grandeur of the present Government House. Eight allotments on the west side of Macquarie Street between Bent Street and Bridge Street were put up for sale in 1847 but the land on which History House was later to be built did not find a buyer until 1849 when it was purchased, together with the allotment immediately to the south, by Joseph Nottingham Palmer. The price was 10 pounds per foot of the frontage, a total of 300 pounds. Between 1849 and 1857 the land changed hands three times and was owned by Thomas Fisher, a barrister and son-in-law of William Charles Wentworth; Thomas Woolley, a merchant and William Bland a medical practitioner, all well known members of Sydney society. With the substantial rise in land prices due to the demand for housing following the gold rush, the sale price of the two allotments increased to over 3,000 pounds by 1853 when they were purchased by William Bland but there is no evidence that any building had been built on the site of History House at this date. The two allotments were finally sold separately in 1857 one to George Oakes and the other John Black.

No. 133 Macquarie Street, Sydney, the home of the Royal Australian Historical Society and now known as History House was designed in 1871 by the architect George Allen Mansfield for his uncle George Oakes, a well known pastoralist and politician. The house was the last in the row of quality Victorian town houses to be built on the west side of Macquarie Street, between Bridge Street and Bent Street. It was probably completed in 1872.

The owner and the architect
George Oakes purchased the land in 1857 when he was a member of the Legislative Assembly representing Parramatta, but it was not until 1871 that plans were drawn up for a house on the site. During the 1860s Oakes had spent a considerable time overseas, but by the early 1870s he returned to his Australian interests including politics. In 1872 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly representing East Sydney and probably used his new house in Macquarie Street as a town house when Parliament was sitting. His family home was in Parramatta.

The architect for Oakes' Macquarie Street house was his nephew George Allen Mansfield. Mansfield was a prominent architect of the period and from 1867-1879 was architect to the Council of Education as well as maintaining his private practice in partnership with his brother. He is best known for his school buildings such as the Crown Street, Cleveland Street and Sussex Street schools and also for major institutions such as the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Mansfield was instrumental in establishing architecture as a profession in New South Wales. He was a founder of the Institute of Architects and its President from 1871 until 1876. His drawings for History House, dated December 1871, are still in existence. These were given to the Institute of Architects (NSW Chapter) by the Royal Institute of British Architects and may have formed a part of the portfolio which Mansfield submitted to the RIBA when he applied for membership. He had the distinction of being the first Australian to be elected a Fellow of the RIBA. Mansfield's 1871 drawing of the front elevation of the house for George Oakes is titled 'a first class residence in Macquarie Street'.

The house
As originally built, the house which Mansfield designed for Oakes was a typical Victorian upper middle class town house - a gentleman's family residence. On the ground floor were a fine entrance hall, drawing room and dining rooms, the public parts of the house and on the first and second floors a study, bedrooms and dressing rooms. The front verandah and balconies commanded a view over the Botanic Gardens and harbour while small balconies at the back of the house, overlooking the back yard, provided additional light and through ventilation. A back wing at right angles to the main house contained the service areas and servants' quarters. A second stair case in this wing provided access to the house by doors on the half landings of the main stairs so that the servants could move about the house unobtrusively. The basement, which contained the kitchen, was accessible not only from the front of the building but also from Phillip Lane at the rear.

From Club to doctors' rooms
The use of the house as a private residence was short lived. By 1879, when Oakes was appointed to the Legislative Council, his house had become the premises of the Reform Club of which Oakes was a founder member. On 10 August 1881 after leaving Parliament House, Oakes was knocked down in Elizabeth Street by a steam tram and died a few hours later. After his death ownership passed to his son Arthur, a medical practitioner and was let, first from about 1882 to 1884 to the Hon William Broadribb MLA and then from about 1887 to 1889 to the Warrigal Club, much favoured by squatters when visiting from the country. From 1892 until 1922 the house was used as a boarding house, as were many other such buildings in Macquarie Street. In 1922 the house was purchased by Dr George Armstrong and was used as doctors' consulting rooms.

Dr George Bell
In 1927 the distinguished surgeon, Dr George Bell, purchased the house and used it both as his residence and as consulting rooms. For many years this part of the city remained comparatively peaceful but by 1952 this had changed and while Dr Bell continued to use the house for consulting rooms he and his wife no longer resided there. By 1969 when the Royal Australian Historical Society acquired the house it was occupied by a syndicate of doctors, including Dr Bell, and was called 'Wickham House'. It was structurally sound but many internal alterations and additions had been made to divide the large rooms into consulting rooms and offices. White painted partitions and linoleum concealed much of the beauty of the original structure.

A home for the Royal Australian Historical Society
In 1901 when the Royal Australian Historical Society was founded it had neither the funds nor the ambition to own a home of its own. Instead the Society met in a number of different venues and was eventually provided with rooms in the Department of Education building in Bridge Street. In 1941, forty years after its foundation, the Society acquired its own premises in a former wool store in Young Street. This served the Society well but by 1957 it was apparent that the site would eventually be required for a large scale redevelopment plan proposed by the AMP Society. After very lengthy negotiations and when the AMP Society had eventually acquired all of the other sites in the area bounded by Phillip, Young and Bridge Streets the RAHS finally had to move. 'Wickham House' was available for purchase and was acquired for the RAHS by the AMP Society, substantially on an exchange basis for the Young Street premises.

In order to make the house suitable for use by the Society, restoration and construction work was carried out, under the direction of Mr Barry Swain of Peddle, Thorp & Walker. The back wing, formerly the service wing and servants' quarters, was demolished to make way for a lift and fire stairs and an auditorium and first flor extension was constructed. The main public rooms of the house were restored for use as reception rooms and upstairs the first and second floors were converted for use as offices, library and museum. The Society moved in to its new home in 1970 and the house was renamed 'History House'. It was officially opened by His Excellency the Governor-General of Australia, Sir Paul Hasluck, Patron of the Society, on 12 November 1971.

Since its acquisition by the Society much work has been carried out to maintain and enhance this important and now rare example of the town houses which once graced much of Macquarie Street. The external fabric has been repaired and the drawing room and dining room, once again used as public rooms, have been redecorated and furnished in a manner appropriate to the period of the house. Original paint colour schemes in the drawing room and dining room were discovered and restored during work in 1985 by Clive Lucas & Partners. Much of the beauty of the house lies in its fine timber work. The staircase is of cedar as are the doors and door cases with carved mahogany detailing. The entrance hall is floored with a parquetry design made from about a dozen different species of timber.

Historic themes

Australian theme (abbrev)New South Wales themeLocal theme
1. Environment-Tracing the evolution of a continent's special environments Environment - naturally evolved-Activities associated with the physical surroundings that support human life and influence or shape human cultures. Changing the environment-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Environment - cultural landscape-Activities associated with the interactions between humans, human societies and the shaping of their physical surroundings Developing local, regional and national economies-National Theme 3
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Environment - cultural landscape-Activities associated with the interactions between humans, human societies and the shaping of their physical surroundings Landscapes of urban amenity-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Events-Activities and processes that mark the consequences of natural and cultural occurences Providing a venue for significant events-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Health-Activities associated with preparing and providing medical assistance and/or promoting or maintaining the well being of humans (none)-
4. Settlement-Building settlements, towns and cities Accommodation-Activities associated with the provision of accommodation, and particular types of accommodation – does not include architectural styles – use the theme of Creative Endeavour for such activities. Residential-
4. Settlement-Building settlements, towns and cities Land tenure-Activities and processes for identifying forms of ownership and occupancy of land and water, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal (none)-
4. Settlement-Building settlements, towns and cities Towns, suburbs and villages-Activities associated with creating, planning and managing urban functions, landscapes and lifestyles in towns, suburbs and villages Creating landmark structures and places in urban settings-
4. Settlement-Building settlements, towns and cities Towns, suburbs and villages-Activities associated with creating, planning and managing urban functions, landscapes and lifestyles in towns, suburbs and villages Developing suburbia-
4. Settlement-Building settlements, towns and cities Towns, suburbs and villages-Activities associated with creating, planning and managing urban functions, landscapes and lifestyles in towns, suburbs and villages Indicators of early town planning and the disposition of people within the emerging settlement-
7. Governing-Governing Government and Administration-Activities associated with the governance of local areas, regions, the State and the nation, and the administration of public programs - includes both principled and corrupt activities. (none)-
8. Culture-Developing cultural institutions and ways of life Social institutions-Activities and organisational arrangements for the provision of social activities (none)-

Procedures /Exemptions

Section of actDescriptionTitleCommentsAction date
57(2)Exemption to allow workHeritage Act
Order Under Section 57(2) to exempt the following activities from Section 57(1):
* The maintenance of any building or item on the site where maintenance means the continuous protective care of existing material;
* Change of use
* Internal alterations to the 1970's extension at the rear of the building.
Dec 15 1989
21(1)(b)Conservation Plan submitted for endorsementHistory House CMP, by Design 5 Architects for Royal Australian Historical Society, 2000. CMP endorsed by Heritage Council 19 December 2000 for a period of five years, expires 19 December 2005. Dec 19 2000
57(2)Exemption to allow workStandard Exemptions ORDER UNDER SECTION 57(2) OF THE HERITAGE ACT 1977

Standard exemptions for engaging in or carrying out activities / works otherwise prohibited by section 57(1) of the Heritage Act 1977.

I, Donald Harwin, the Special Minister of State pursuant to subsection 57(2) of the Heritage Act 1977, on the recommendation of the Heritage Council of New South Wales do by this Order, effective 1 December 2020:

1. revoke the order made on 11 July 2008 and published on pages 91177 to 9182 of Government Gazette Number 110 of 5 September 2008 and varied by notice published in the Government Gazette on 5 March 2015; and

2. grant the exemptions from subsection 57(1) of the Heritage Act 1977 that are described in the attached Schedule.

Donald Harwin
Special Minister of State
Signed this 9th Day of November 2020.

To view the standard exemptions for engaging in or carrying out activities / works otherwise prohibited by section 57(1) of the Heritage Act 1977 click on the link below.
Nov 13 2020

PDF Standard exemptions for works requiring Heritage Council approval


Heritage ListingListing TitleListing NumberGazette DateGazette NumberGazette Page
Heritage Act - State Heritage Register 0069202 Apr 99 271546
Heritage Act - Permanent Conservation Order - former 0069215 Dec 89 1211087
Local Environmental PlanCSH Local Environmental Plan 4 07 Apr 00   
Register of the National Estate  21 Mar 78   

References, internet links & images

TypeAuthorYearTitleInternet Links
Tourism 2007History House View detail
WrittenAnnable, Rosemary1996History House, 133 Macquarie Street, Sydney
TourismAttraction Homepage2007History House View detail
WrittenCurby, Pauline and Macleod, Virginia2014Royal Australian Historical Society - Library Significance Assessment
WrittenDesign 5 Architects2001History House, 133 Macquarie Street, Sydney : conservation management plan, incorporating conservation analysis and conservation policy

Note: internet links may be to web pages, documents or images.

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Data source

The information for this entry comes from the following source:
Name: Heritage NSW
Database number: 5045712
File number: S90/04433 & 89 1161

Every effort has been made to ensure that information contained in the State Heritage Inventory is correct. If you find any errors or omissions please send your comments to the Database Manager.

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