Blog : Real estate / Property

How do Australia’s historic homes make money?
Tuesday, 16 February, 2016 0 Comments

In the final season of Downton Abbey, which begins tonight on Channel 7, everyone from the cook Mrs Patmore to Lady Mary has to make some changes as the estate struggles financially.

How can Downton make a profit? Will the Earl be able to pay the wages of all the staff?

The high costs of running such households, is one reason why some of Australia’s grand manors did not survive.  Owners simply could no longer afford the staff and the upkeep required.

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For those lavish properties able to create and sustain new sources of income, what kind of business can keep the place going?

Is being open for tea and scones enough in 2016 to cover the cost of running these grand old homes?

Every house has a story

Grand homes in Australia were typically, though not always, built in Victoria and NSW and some remain in private hands.

Created for individual families these epic houses were built more to impress than to last and each faces unique economic and maintenance challenges.


Most of the surviving grand mansions are owned or operated by the National Trust. Each branch of the trust is independent and the funding models along with the businesses associated with these historic properties varies from state to state.

In Melbourne for instance large period homes are used for photography or filming for shows like Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, while some period homes in Western Australia are leased out by the National Trust to renters.


What businesses help fund these mansions?

At Collingrove Homestead in South Australia, the house is run as a bed and breakfast offering the public the opportunity to live like a lord or lady of a Barossa Velley manor home.

At Werribee Park mansion in outer Melbourne,  built in the 1870s for the Chirnside family, part of the property operates as an upmarket hotel and spa.

Many of the country’s period properties are often hired out for weddings, parties, corporate functions and events.

Ayers House in Adelaide operates as a successful museum, according to the CEO of the National Trust of South Australia Darren Peacock.



“Collingrove (in the Barossa) works as an upmarket B&B.  We have tenants who manage it for us.  Whereas Ayers House works as a museum.  So at the moment we’re hosting Miss Fisher’s costume (exhibition).  It’s the perfect backdrop for glamorous costumes,” he says.  “It’s how you make a museum and historic home profitable,” he says adding that there is a museum at Collingrove too and the eight-room house is rented out for dinners and other functions such as weddings.

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Large scale exhibitions held at Rippon Lea in Melbourne’s Elsternwick has been one way for the National Trust to make money for the upkeep of the 15-bedroom house and surrounding estate.

In 2015 over 100,000 people visited the house for the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries costume exhibition which has since moved to other historic properties in NSW and SA.


“Maybe two weeks ago we had a Disney event at Rippon Lea, it was a Frozen event with (singer) Ricki Lee (Coulter),” says Sherredan Nuthall, boutique properties manager at the National Trust in Victoria. “It was great, Ricki came and sang some songs and they (Disney) set up this epic event for children,” she says.

Fashion photography and wedding photography are also popular with Labassa in Caulfield, which is often rented out by Melbourne- based location managers for various advertisers, brands and labels.

“The image of a beautiful woman in a beautiful gown standing in front of decaying walls appeals to photographers,” Nuthall says, as the upper rooms of the property are empty and in a state of disrepair.

“The cafe at Rippon Lea makes a bit of money and any money it does make goes back into the house, but the point of the visit is to engage visitors to come back and maybe have a wedding there.”

“It’s to get them emotionally invested in the place,” she says.

Dance classes in the ballroom, art classes and jewellery valuations are just some of the newer events the trust in Victoria has put on in an effort to generate the funds needed for repairs and maintenance.

“We’re always looking for new areas of business. We may not be popular in two years’ time for weddings.  What if the period drama genre isn’t that popular? We are always looking at net sources or revenue,” says Nuthall.

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Upkeep ain’t cheap

If you thought the cost of having your place re-stumped was over the top, spare a thought for property managers at the National Trust.


The nation’s grand homes often need repairs and you can hardly Hire a Hubby to fix the leaking roof or damp in the wallpaper at a heritage listed house.

“The biggest issue is always going to be maintenance.  We can raise a zillion dollars but there’s always something,” Nuthall says, noting that while you may have just fixed the roof on one property you might then need to do some emergency repairs on something else, like the conservatory.


“At Labassa for example, most of the funding goes towards making it (the house) water tight,” she says.

Specialist repair experts also aren’t cheap.

“Their rates are higher than traditional tradespeople and there are big demands on their time,” she says.

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Still standing

There are grand mansions in most capital cities. Here are some of our favourite historic homes that are now National Trust properties.

New South Wales: Saumarez & Strickland House

Saumarez Homestead

Located in Armidale, work on this Edwardian homestead began in 1888 on a 40,000 ha block.  It has 30 bedrooms and 15 other buildings were built on the massive property from 1880 to 1910 including a milking shed, cottage, slaughter shed, stables and a blacksmiths’ workshop.


The house is open to the public, adults can see the house and garden for $12. It can also be hired for functions including weddings.

Strickland house

Built in the 1850s for the second mayor of Sydney, John Hosking, this two-storey sandstone Italianate mansion features Doric columns and stunning views of the harbour.


In 1912, the 4.9ha site was purchased by the NSW government. From 1915-1989 it operated as the Strickland Women’s Convalescent House.  In 1994 it was declared an urban park and it is on the NSW Heritage Register. 

It opens to the public annually for the National Trust Heritage Festival and tickets are sold each year to those who want to watch Sydney’s New Year’s Eve fireworks on the lawn.  It is also used for filming and events.

Victoria: Labassa & Como House


Labassa in 1908.  Picture: John Boyd Watson family photograph collection/ State Library of Victoria

Originally called Sylliot Hill, the property was first built as a modest eight-room home in the 1860s. In 1873 it was turned into a 20-bedroom home. In 1883, the 6.3 ha site was renamed Ontario by new owner Alexander William Robertson.  Over the next decade the house was extensively remodeled and five more bedrooms were added. Mining magnate John Boyd Watson named the mansion Labassa in 1904.

After his death in 1911, the land around the house was gradually subdivided and his widow sold the allotments. The house was home to some of Melbourne’s wealthiest families up until the 1920s when the 35 room mansion was converted into a block of flats.


By the late 1970s, the flats were home to a community of artists before the rundown mansion was purchased by the National Trust in 1980. It now operates primarily as a wedding venue and a location for photography and filming. It is open to the public one Sunday a month and tours are available for $15 for an adult.


Como House

The Brown family outside Como House, 1860-1870.  Picture: State Library of Victoria/ National Trust
The Brown family outside Como House, 1860-1870.  Picture: State Library of Victoria/ National Trust

Built in 1847, this South Yarra mansion originally stood on a 21 ha block. It was home to the prosperous grazing family, the Armytages for nearly a century from 1864.  It was one of the first Melbourne homes to have a bathroom, but the sewage wasn’t connected to the house until the early 20th century.

There is a servants’ staircase and a security tunnel that led up to the house which were designed to ensure the family weren’t exposed to any riff raff. In 1959 the house was sold to the National Trust.

Tours of Como House and gardens run most days and tickets can be booked online.  The entry fee for an adult is $15. It also operates as a wedding reception venue and hosts exhibitions.

South Australia: Ayers House & Collingrove

Ayers House

Ayers House.  Picture: State Library of South AustraliaThe house pictured with the family outside in 1860.  Picture: State Library of South Australia 

Originally built as a nine-bedroom house, this home was significantly developed in the 1860s and 1870s into a Regency home fit for noted businessman Sir Henry Ayers who served as premier five times. It was one of the first houses in Adelaide fitted with gas lighting.

There is a museum on site and the house is open to the public through tours and exhibitions.  It is also used for weddings and functions.



Collingrove Homestead

Located in the Barossa Valley, building for this slice of England began in 1856 for the pastoralist Agnas family.

The French Provincial style mansion grew with the family and the final owner, who inherited in 1911, spent a fortune modernising the property.  It retains many family heirlooms including a 1725 bible and dining chairs sent over from England.

The property was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1976 by Robert Agnas. Collingrove is now a bed and breakfast and is available for weddings and other functions.

Western Australia: Woodbridge


Woodbridge.  Picture: State Library of Western AustraliaWoodbridge pictured in 1894.  Picture: State Library of Western Australia (Image #009635D)

Located in the Swan Valley, the property’s first owner was Governor Captain James Stirling with a cottage initially built on site in 1831.

The mansion was later built in the 1880s for media baron and politician Charles Harper.

Harper set up a school in the billiards room and in the 1940s the entire house was turned into a boarding school before the National Trust took over the place in 1968.

Courtesy National Trust of Australia (WA)Woodbridge today. Picture: Courtesy National Trust of Australia (WA)

Queensland: Wolston House

Wolston House in 1890. Picture: State Library of Queensland
Wolston House in 1890. Picture: State Library of Queensland

Built in 1852 by Dr Stephen Simpson on a 250 ha property, this homestead was extended in the 1860s.



It was originally one large room with a four-sided veranda that was linked to the dairy next door and also had a cellar. It is open to the public for tours on Sundays, the adults entry fee is $8.80.

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