Geoffrey Syme was nine years old when his father David Syme bought Blythswood. Apart for the first 14 years of his marriage, he lived there for the rest of his life.

Blythswood was a stone and brick-rendered two storeyed house with a slate roof. It was painted white, its doors and all its window frames and ironwork were dark green. A cascade of purple bougainvillea covered part of its northern wall. It stood on a hill above the banks of the Yarra, near Victoria Bridge. The original house, which was rectangular and quite small, had been built in the mid 1850's. His father bought Blythswood in 1882 and made major alterations and additions to it and gave the house its final shape around a central courtyard. Geoffrey Syme bought Blythswood from the David Syme Estate soon after his mother's death in 1915. She had lived there since her husband’s death, and he had to modernize the house, which he did, though without changing its basic plan. When his father died in 1908 the Probate valuation for Blythswood was £8,300, with an additional £400 for the land adjoining Maude Street. Early in 1916 Geoffrey paid £6,754-60 for Blythswood, and he probably paid an additional amount for the Maude Street land. 

The centre of Melbourne was only about four miles away from Blythswood. The view of the city was partly obscured by tall cedars and by the weeping elms at the end of the front lawn, through from the upstairs windows one could see the river flats and the Chinaman's market garden on the opposite side of the Yarra. Beyond the river were the tall chimneystacks of the factories and the roofs of the houses of Collingwood and Richmond, beyond them was Melbourne.In1867, about a decade after Blythswood was built, Victoria Bridge had been opened by Queen Victoria's son, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. Only the property next door, Rockingham, lay between Blythswood and the new bridge. This part of Kew was difficult of access until the bridge was built, and to get to the city the people who lived there used to cross the river by punt. From the time David Syme bought Blythswood in 1882 until the end of 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War, the property was run as a small farm. It had about eleven acres of land, perhaps more, with stables, paddocks, vegetable gardens

A view from the Blythswood Terrace in 1952.

and orchards, as well as the lawns and gardens close to the house.  The land and buildings were still intact when Violet Syme, Geoffrey Syme’s wife, died there in 1952, though many years had passed since Blythswood had functioned as a farm.
Layout of property boundaries

For nearly sixty years Blythswood had been, at least to a certain extent, self-supporting. In David Syme’s time, and even as late as the 1930’s and the early 1940’s most of the vegetables used in the house were grown in the big vegetable garden. Apples, pears, oranges, lemons, cherries, peaches, plums, grapes, figs, gooseberries, strawberries and raspberries were grown in the orchards and hothouses. Three or four cows grazed in the Blythswood paddocks, and they provided most of the milk for the house. There were two cow-byres, and one of the gardeners milked the cows morning and evening and carried the buckets of milk up to the dairy outside the kitchen door. The meat and poultry was not home grown, though some of it came from David Syme’s properties, and later from those of his son Geoffrey. The beef and lamb from Geoffrey’s farm, Pendleside, at Woori Yallock, and chickens, ducks and eggs were brought to Blythswood from his farmlet, Seaforth, at Mordialloc.  Nevertheless, as Blythswood was always a crowded household, extra food from Jellis the baker, Basile the greengrocer, Murphy the grocer, Marsh the butcher, Foley the fishmonger and milk from the Model Dairy was constantly delivered, usually by horse and cart. Only the Second World War and Geoffrey Syme’s death altered Blythswood's unchanging, countrified way of life.

There is no known date for the building of the original house on the Blythswood land, other than it was in the 1850's, probably towards the middle of the decade. There is no record of its builder or its original owner. It is first mentioned in the earliest surviving Kew Rate Book of 1863, and in that year a contractor named John Bowen owned Blythswood. He lived next door on the adjoining property, Rockingham, and rented Blythswood to a merchant called John Connell. The Blythswood property was a bit bigger than Rockingham. In 1867 the annual rate paid for Blythswood was £14-10 and its rateable value was assessed at £312 and £285, and that same year the annual rate for Rockingham was £10 and its rateable value was assessed at £220 and £200. John Connell bought Blythswood in 1867 and Bowen rented Rockingham to a John Ella. By 1869 Connell had bought Rockingham as well as Blythswood, but he moved again and rented out both of his properties. Blythswood was rented to a Henry Alexander Lushman and Rockingham to a J. R. Tickett. Lushman was originally called a squatter, but in 1870 the Kew Rate Book describes him as a merchant; in 1872 he is described as a gentleman, although in 1873 he is once again a merchant. Presumably it was Connell who sold Blythswood to Lieutenant-Colonel Hutton in 1874.  Hutton lived there for about eight years, until David Syme, whose status in the Rate Book is clearly described as a journalist, (not a gentleman), bought the property in 1882. Probably it was Hutton who had added a portico over the front door and built the big room, used as a billiard room - and later as a drawing room - on the southern side of the house. This room was there long before David Syme moved to Blythswood. A photograph taken in 1882, before David Syme added the bedrooms that overlooked the big courtyard, shows it in the background with its walls already thickly covered with Virginia creeper.

Back of Blythswood. (1882)
The western side of the additions to the back of Blythswood. (1882)
The north side of the front part of Blythswood.

The property had been called Blythswood for many years before David Syme bought it. Probably it was called after another Blythswood, close to Glasgow, where Queen Victoria had stayed several times. In August 1888 she wrote to her daughter the Empress Frederick and described the property as being too much surrounded by factories; “a pretty place with pine trees and a lovely garden and a very comfortable house…… the exterior of which reminds us much of Claremont.” The Melbourne Blythswood was not a bit like the Glasgow Blythswood. Nor did it look like Claremont. It was very much smaller, it had no tower and it did not overlook the sea. The association of its name with Glasgow would have meant little to David Syme. He had spent his Scottish childhood at North Berwick, not very far from Edinburgh. There is some controversy as to whether or not David Syme paid for Blythswood entirely by himself. His father-in-law, John William Johnson, may have contributed to its cost, since he was a rich man and devoted to his children, including his daughter Annabella Syme.  He owned several properties in Kew and he lived very close to Blythswood, in a house called Studleigh Park, just up the hill in Carson Street. He is supposed to have paid for Swinton, another property adjoining Blythswood, and to have given it to his son Francis, Annabella’s youngest brother, when he married Ebenezer Syme's daughter Jane Mary in 1872. Ebenezer was an elder brother of David Syme. Yet about ten years elapse between Francis' wedding and the time Annabella and her husband moved into Blythswood. The brother and sister could not have lived side by side for very long, because Francis left his wife, Jane Mary, when their five surviving children were quite young, and she moved to Aberdeen, where their children were educated. The story about John William Johnson's generosity may well be true. It is quite likely that David Syme and his father-in-law shared the cost of Blythswood and, if the property had not come on the market until 1882, they would have been unable to unite these two family properties any earlier. Blythswood was David Syme’s first permanent home in Melbourne. Until 1882 he and his family had lived in several different parts of Melbourne, including Canterbury, East Melbourne, Albert Park, Maribyrnong and East St. Kilda. Geoffrey, their fourth son, was born when they were living in St. Kilda. When David Syme and his wife Annabella eventually came to Blythswood they brought with them five sons and two daughters, John Herbert, George Francis, Arthur Edward, Lucie Isabel, Olive, Geoffrey and Oswald Julian. There had been two more children, Caroline (b.1864) and Gabrielle (b. 1871), but both had died in infancy. Blythswood, which was comparatively small, had to be enlarged to house a big family of greatly differing ages; three sons who were grownup and had left or were about to leave school, two girls aged twelve and ten, and two little boys aged nine and four.

Since 1908 Geoffrey Syme had lived at Banool, in Studley Park Road, Kew. (1915)

The housing problem was different in 1916 when Geoffrey and his wife, Violet, moved from Banool in Studley Park Road to Blythswood. Annabella Syme had lived there until her death in 1915, and the house, though big enough, was dark and gloomy and required painting, plumbing and modernization.  Violet Syme needed a great deal of persuasion to move from Banool, a house she loved, to a place that reminded her of her intimidating mother-in-law, but Geoffrey wanted to return to his childhood home. When he came back to live at Blythswood he had four daughters, Marjorie Garnett Syme, who was usually called Mardie (b. 1902), Violet Newstead Syme, whose nickname was Hilaire (b. 1904), Joan Margaret Syme (b. 1910) and Felicity Addison Syme (b. 1914). His fifth daughter, Veronica, was born at Blythswood.

Violet Addison Syme and her four eldest children at Blythswood. (1916)
Geoffrey Syme's youngest child, Veronica, at a fancy dress party at Blythswood in 1931.

In 1916 Blythswood needed a new kitchen, a gas stove and a refrigerator, pantries and new bedrooms and a bathroom for the live-in staff. Walls were knocked down to enlarge the dining room, and this involved altering the position of what had been the steep and narrow front stairs.  A short passage was turned into a little room with a telephone attached to the wall. Perhaps more importantly, the feeling of the house changed when the brown painted walls, the heavily carved furniture, plush upholstery and the lace curtains beloved by Annabella Syme were replaced by white walls and pale silk curtains and the flowered chintzes chosen by her daughter–in-law. Brown linoleum was replaced by carpet. Most of the once fashionable 1880's furniture and his collection of bronzes went to other members of David Syme’s family, so Violet Syme was able to use much older furniture that had belonged to her English grandfathers. James Garnett of Waddow Hall had died in 1912 and Thomas Garnett of Oakwood Hall had died in 1916, and some of their furniture had been left to her.

Oakwood Hall, near Bingley, Yorkshire.

Waddow Hall, near Clitheroe, Lancashire.


Blythswood was very much cut off from the rest of the houses in Studley Park.  The property was like a little farm, though it was so close to the city. In Kew this was not particularly unusual, since there were many other big properties nearby. Even in the 1930's and 1940's paddocks were not at all uncommon. The paddocks near the top of Carson Street belonged to the Misses Carson, and there were more paddocks in Stevenson Street and in Studley Avenue. Banool, the house where Geoffrey Syme had lived since 1908, had just over four acres of land as well as stables and a cottage.  Apparently it was hard to sell this property. The two-storeyed Victorian house was very big and Kew was no longer a fashionable place to live.  It was much more fashionable to live in a grand, but smaller and more manageable house in Toorak. Banool’s land was sub-divided and the house was pulled down about 1920. Banool Avenue, near Kew Junction, now runs through what was once Geoffrey Syme’s property. Although the house was so close to the city, living at Blythswood was always like living in the country. What made Blythswood different from other big properties in Studley Park was its privacy. By the latter part of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century almost all of its adjoining properties belonged to members of the Syme family. Swinton, lay on Blythswood's northern boundary. Another, Conisboro, was on the corner of Maude Street and Carson Street, just beside the front gate of Blythswood, and Rockingham lay to the south.

Annabella Syme had inherited Conisboro from her father, John William Johnson. No one seems sure of how to spell the name of this house; sometimes it is Conisboro, and just as often it is Conisborough. In 1902 this dark, unattractive Victorian villa was her somewhat unwelcome wedding present to her son Geoffrey. It had become empty in 1901 when John Herbert Syme, his eldest brother, moved from Conisboro to Rockingham, which was on Blythswood's southern boundary.

Conisboro, Carson Street, Kew.
John Herbert Syme's house, Rockingham, next door to Blythswood.
Rockingham, with its red brick house, garden and paddocks was Herbert’s own property. Certainly it was not a part of the David Syme Estate in 1908. This Rockingham house had replaced the original house on its land and was built several decades after Blythswood. It was much noisier there than at Blythswood, because it lay close to the edge of the Cutting though the hill, and was very near the tramline in Barkers Road, a road that became Victoria Street just after it had crossed Victoria Bridge. Until the early 1930’s both Blythswood and Rockingham had paddocks with boundaries onto Findon Crescent, which was the road that separated the two properties from their eastern neighbours. There was no easy access to Blythswood, which was another reason why it was such a private place. The gates of the front and back drives were very close to each other at the bottom of Carson Street, at the corner where it turned into Bakewell Street, a short street that later became part of Findon Crescent.  This was a quiet corner where little traffic passed by.
Front and back drive, the Findon Crescent paddocks, the vegetable garden & the boundary with Rockingham. (1939)
View from the Terrace, overlooking the Ruwolt factory and city skyline
To the west the river frontage, all the untouched native bushland where the Yarra suddenly curved southwards towards Victoria Bridge, was part of the Swinton, Blythswood and Rockingham land. On the Blythswood land the cliff fell steeply down to the river. This hillside was called the Terrace. It was overgrown with native trees and bushes, ending with a few big willow trees at the river's edge.  There were no tracks or paths leading upward towards the house and garden and there was so much undergrowth and so many fallen logs that it made it difficult to reach the Blythswood garden from the river. Nor could one forget about the snakes that lived on the Terrace, though these rarely came up into the garden. The rough track that ran beside the river was muddy and slippery and there were many roots of the willow trees to trip one up. It would have been very easy to fall into the Yarra. It flowed just a few feet below, and falling into the river would have been dangerous.
The Blythswood land was at the corner where the river turned. No one ever swam near this bend because the current was strong, there were whirlpools and a few snags lay just under the surface of the water. Across the river, opposite the Terrace, was wide flat land that was often flooded and became like a lake.   For many decades this rich alluvial land was cultivated as a market garden. It had dark brown fields, striped green with the vegetables that were grown by the Chinese family who owned the land. All the people who worked there were still traditional enough to wear large pointed straw hats and trousers and coats made of blue cotton. One could often see several of them working in the fields, and others driving the horses and carts which set out laden with fruit and vegetables for the market.The bushland between Blythswood and the river also extended southwards across Rockingham, and ended near Victoria Bridge. The Blythswood garden was cut off from the Terrace by a very thick old boxthorn hedge that ran right across the property from north to south. There was only one rusty, padlocked gate that could let one into the Blythswood garden. Beside the Blythswood hedge, within the garden, was a bumpy, mossy, undulating path and above it was rather steep grassy bank. The Rockingham garden was less well protected, with only a wire fence between its bushland and garden with its muddy ponds at the edge of the cliff.It was not easy to come into the Blythswood garden from the east or the north. The Findon Crescent paddock formed the eastern boundary and the Maude Street paddock, which only had a wicket gate into Maude Street, more or less blocked access from the north. It might have been Geoffrey Syme who built the asphalt tennis court in the middle of the Maude Street paddock. The paddock around it was more or less U-shaped and beside the tennis court was an open-fronted lattice-walled tennis pavilion. A path edged with rose bushes led from the pavilion to the front drive. The Findon Crescent paddock was quite big. It had a few clumps of old trees and there was a small dam at its northeastern corner. Both Geoffrey and Herbert Syme sold their Findon Crescent paddocks towards the end of the Depression, probably in the early or mid 1930's - presumably to provide capital to put into The Age. Little brick villas were built on the land.
The usual way to get to the house was along the front or the back drive. Visitors always came in by the front gate at the bottom of Carson Street.  Blythswood’s address was 1, Carson Street, Kew, E.4, though all that was ever embossed on the writing paper was "Blythswood, Kew." That was sufficient address for the postman. He came twice a day, quite early in the morning and again in the afternoon. He rode his bicycle up the front drive, delivered the letters to the front door, then took a side path beside the lawn to go though the wicket gate into the Swinton property. The gates of the front drive were of wrought iron and were supported by red brick pillars.  They were never shut. The drive swung gently to the right just inside the gates and curved in a leisurely double S until it broadened out into the circle of gravel in front of the house. It was a red gravel drive, which washed to a soft yellow brown, then turned red again every few years when it was top-dressed with

The entrance to the front drive

more red-ochre gravel. It was edged on both sides with a narrow border of grass and had beds planted with a few flowers and shrubs. These beds then merged into rich brown earth beneath the big old elms, pine trees and Morton Bay fig trees that lined the drive. The garden on the right hand side of the drive was thickly overgrown, but it was exciting place for a child to play. There was no path through it, since it bordered onto the gardens of Conisboro and three other small houses that fronted onto Maude Street. Two old elm trees grew near the front gate on the Conisboro side of the drive. Here one could always find little groves of elm saplings, pinecones lay on the ground, possums had their home there and in the spring there were big clumps of snowdrops. The left-hand side of the drive was planted much more formally. The trees here were Morton Bay figs and the flowerbeds edging the drive broadened out and finally disappeared under them. Then there were several elm trees and nothing much grew in the soft, dark boggy earth under them. In the clearing under the trees was the dogs' cemetery. Half way along the front drive a short gravel drive led down to the big asphalt courtyard behind the house. On one side of this drive were bushes of plumbago and a fallen tree covered with ivy.  On its other side, beside the gate, was a very large Chinese lantern bush.
The courtyard just behind the house was always called the 'big courtyard' to distinguish it from the little red tiled one that was surrounded by the wings of the house, and from the smaller red gravel courtyard that lay in front of the coachman's cottage.

The green-painted gate at the entrance to the big courtyard was always kept open.  By1920 the arch above it was covered with old, thick-stemmed wisteria. More wisteria extended along the courtyard fence, and in the spring its blossoms covered the courtyard with pale mauve flowers. Visitors usually passed by this short drive and continued along the main drive towards the front of the house. The cow paddock with the tennis court was on the right, almost hidden by trees, then the drive curved gently to the left and broadened out into a circle of gravel between the house and the front lawn. This area was quite big; four or five cars could park there quite easily without blocking the entrance to the house.

The gate to the backyard. (1900)

Front lawn of Blythswood

The front lawn was of tough buffalo grass and several cedars, two monkey-puzzle trees, two weeping elms and a palm tree were planted around it.  Three purple cinerarias clung to life at the foot of the palm tree. Hidden under one of the cedars was the little green hut where the motor mower was kept. On the edge of the lawn a flagpole sometimes, though not often, flew the Union Jack. Not the Australian flag. Blythswood was a very English household, even in David Syme’s time.  Perhaps surprisingly, he was a Royalist.

David Syme bowing to the Duke of York and the Governor-General. (1901)

The back drive was called the tradesmen's entrance. It smelt of dead leaves and was like a little country lane, not graveled, but with soft dark earth which often boggy and full of ruts. Its gate was of wood, painted dark green to match the wicket fence, and lay only about ten or fifteen yards from the front gate. The curves of the back drive more or less followed the curves of the front drive.  On one side of it, beyond the dividing hedge, were the Moreton Bay fig trees of the front drive, but on the left was a line of elm trees and beyond them the little paddocks and the vegetable garden.

The back drive ended with a wire gate. This was near the coachman's cottage and usually it was shut and one had to open it to get into the gravelled courtyard at the back of the stables. In Geoffrey Syme’s time the cottage was empty, but David Syme’s coachman had lived there for many years, perhaps up to the time of Annabella Syme’s death. It was a long, narrow house with two bedrooms, a kitchen with an iron range, and another little room, which had a bath in it. It didn't have electric light and the lavatory was outside, just beyond the coalhouse and storeroom that were extensions of the cottage. In the 1930’s and 1940’s the coalhouse still held sacks of coal for the fires in the house, and the storeroom was filled with things like Victorian perambulators and rocking-horses, cupboards and broken chairs and tables; all the unwanted residue of the late 19th century and very early twentieth century.

Blthswood Stables 1882

The coachman's cottage, the stables and potting shed. (1939)

Hilaire on her pony on the front drive of Blythswood. (1916)

The stables lay in front of the coachman's cottage. Anyone who came in by the back drive had to go under the archway of the stables and cross the big courtyard to reach the stone-flagged passage that led to the kitchen door. Until 1952 the stables were kept just as they had been at the time Annabella Syme died. By 1915 the last of the carriage horses had been sold or were kept at pasture, either at Blythswood, or perhaps in the country. Geoffrey Syme’s two eldest daughters, Mardie and Hilaire, had ponies at Blythswood, so the stables may still have been used until the early 1920's.

The stables

The ladder is on tbhe left hand side of picture

The stable buildings were made of rendered brick and divided into two parts by an archway that had stone hitching posts at each end. On its southern side was the stabling for the horses. This part had a red brick floor that sloped slightly to a central drain and its ceiling had heavy beams. Its lower walls had about four feet of white tiling, topped with a rim of yellow tiles. There were two big timber loose boxes as well as stabling for four other horses. At least six horses could have been brought back to Blythswood without any difficulty, because bridles, saddles and harness still hung on the walls and the mangers were clean, though empty. The stables smelt faintly of horses and of hay. There were two lofts. One was a hayloft directly above the archway, and in it were the big bins for hay, oats and chaff. This was sent down to the ground by a chute that had a double channel. All one had to do was stand in the archway, pull a handle, and a shower of hay or chaff or bran came down the chute.
Even in 1940 this fodder was still needed for the horses that occasionally grazed in the paddocks.  The hessian bags of fodder were lifted up into the loft by pulley and through a trap door, because the only way for anyone to reach the loft was by a tall wooden ladder attached to the inner wall of the archway.

It was scaring to climb this ladder, which had become old and rickety and the ground was very far below. It was about 1937, before Geoffrey Syme felt too old to climb the ladder, he had made a circular train track for the Hornby trains he had given to his youngest daughter Veronica.  It was a double track that went right around the loft. There was also a second, smaller loft where there were still broken trunks and boxes and odd bits and pieces that had belonged to his parents’ day. There were rats in there and despite its skylight and the tower-like ventilator in its roof, it always smelt old and musty, quite unlike the bigger loft which was clean and smelt of hay and chaff.In the same building, but on the opposite side to the stables, were two little stone-floored rooms. The harness room at the back had tall glass cupboards lined with green baize. These held more bridles and bits of harness, and had hooks where the coachman had hung his coat and hat and whips.  It had become a storeroom, largely filled by the many cabin trunks and big, square hat boxes with round red, white yellow and white Orient Line labels marked with the letter S.  Violet Syme travelled with an immense amount of very heavy luggage.  She always went to England on an Orient Line ship, because Colombo was one of the ports where these ships were stoked. Two cousins, Geoffrey and Jerry Horsfall, the sons of her father's sister Cissie, were tea planters near Kandy and they always came down to Colombo to spend the day with her. The Peninsula and Oriental Steam Navigation Company ships went to England via Bombay and by-passed Colombo, so none of her luggage in the stables had P. and O. labels. The small room in front of the harness room had become Geoffrey's workshop. It had a window that looked onto the big courtyard, so when he was standing at his workbench he could see all that went on at the back of the house. Carpentry was one of his hobbies, and he was a really good carpenter. The room had a special smell, which came from sawdust and from the cigar boxes in which he kept the nails and screws. These boxes had once been filled with cigars from Havana, and inside the lids there were pictures of very exotic Cuban women, usually wearing mantillas and dressed in red.

Geoffrey Syme in one of his early cars.
His last car was a black sports Bentley, which he bought in 1936. He never employed a chauffeur. He liked driving himself.
On the south, in the garden next to the Rockingham land, two paths eventually led to the front door of Blythswood. The quicker path to the house went past a greenhouse and the potting shed. The potting shed was rather dark and smelt of damp earth and cow manure.  It had two small rooms, one where the tools were kept, and the other had waist-high benches piled with loam and potting-mix. Here one of the two younger gardeners, either Jack or Davis, could often be found potting up the seedlings from the seed boxes which were kept in the cucumber frames that were beside the little vegetable garden. This second room had a door that led into another conservatory.The little vegetable garden opposite the potting shed had apple trees, its two beds were bordered with different kinds of thyme, and strawberries and a few vegetables were grown here. The main vegetable garden was further away, next to the paddocks. Until the beginning of the Second World War this big vegetable garden was kept in perfect order, but then Jack and Davis joined up, and the head gardener, Mr. Russ, retired. He was old and in any case he was too important to be expected to do heavy manual work.Mr Russ’ hobby was dahlias. He experimented and crossbred different strains of them. They looked rather like Rose Cupid, Cameo, Salmon Kunai and Golden Ballade dahlias - perhaps the dahlias grown by Mr. Russ are related to them.
The vegetable garden& orchards. 1939
George Roff, the fourth gardener, came to work at Blythswood in 1914 to work for Annabella Syme. He was the gardener at Blythswood for the next forty years. Though he was older than Jack and Davis, he was considered as a handyman and the least important of the gardeners. When the war began he became the only permanent gardener. Though he always had some casual help, he was frail and he could not keep the whole of the garden in perfect order. He mowed all the lawns and maintained the garden that was closest to the house, but Blythswood's garden needed four or five gardeners, a need that was impossible to fulfil in wartime.
George Roff raking the front drive.
The path that led past the potting shed had a low box hedge on one side and the garage and laundry walls on the other. There was a lavatory beside the laundry, its door almost covered by a veil of white jasmine. Fuchsias grew under the laundry windows. Opposite one of the laundry windows was a little arbour that had been formed by a very old wisteria. The trunk and thick branches of wisteria had made it like a house with walls and a roof, and branches that were so strong and so bent that they formed hammocks and seats in which one could curl up and read. This arbour backed onto what was known as the 'the little lawn'. This lawn was of soft English grass, in contrast to the thick buffalo grass of the front lawn. On it grew four cherry trees and two miniature orange trees that produced big, rather sour oranges. On three sides of this lawn was a very old hedge of espaliered apple trees. The branches of these apple trees had been trained so close to the ground that a child could jump over them quite easily. On the southern side of this lawn was one of the two grape houses.  These were long, low enclosures of wire netting with doors at either end and were planted with different varieties of purple and white grapes. In the orchard between the grape houses grew three very tall, old cherry plum trees that produced large crops of little red-skinned fruit.At the corner of the little lawn one had three choices. One could turn right into the little courtyard, choose the longer route that led to the side gate of Rockingham, or else one could continue on past a privet hedge and arrive at Violet Syme’s garden and the steps up to the front verandah of the house.
Steps leading to the front verandah of the house.

Her garden had a tiny lawn, a bed of lily of the valley and flowers like roses, heliotrope and honeysuckle. Its marble-flagged path was edged with low-clipped hedges of rosemary and lavender. The path led to a little round pond and then to a stone bench flanked by two stone pillars. In the spring this garden was a mass of daffodils; hyacinths edged the pond and candytuft grew between the flagstones. Behind it, to the south, was the forest of bamboo that hid any sight of Rockingham and the large wooden building that was Herbert Syme's ballroom. Beyond the steps to the verandah was an archway that led to the front lawn. It was part of the series of posts that supported the verandah. This arch was covered with Virginia creeper that turned scarlet in the autumn. Terracotta pots of geraniums and begonia stood on the path beside the steps that led to the big drawing room.

Another way to the house was along the edge of Blythswood's southern boundary. First one went past the gate of the big vegetable garden. This had a central path that led from the wire-fronted peach house right down to the big paddock near Findon Crescent. Before the war it had neat rows of all sorts of vegetables; carrots, parsnips, celery, lettuce, cabbages, cauliflowers, peas and beans. There were several rows of big thistle-like globe artichokes, and a square asparagus bed that was a mass of dark green ferns for most of the summer. At other times it was just a bed covered with straw and manure, where for a few weeks of the year one could dig for the white spears of asparagus. A privet hedge separated the back gardens of Blythswood and Rockingham. This hedge was so tall and thick that no one could see into the next-door garden. This is not strictly true, since Geoffrey Syme’s younger children and elder grandchildren had made a long tunnel within the hedge and could crawl along it and see if anything interesting was happening in Rockingham's kitchen garden or on its tennis court.  The excitement was in spying and not being found out. Of course nothing ever did happen and about the most interesting event was an occasional tennis party or watching Ethel Syme go to the little red brick kitchen which had been built for her in the garden.  Unlike her sister-in-law, she was the sort of person who enjoyed making the jam and preserved fruit for her household.

There was a long straight path beside this hedge. A row of pear trees grew next to it and under them grew clumps of small, pale mauve Dutch iris. The central trunk of each pear tree was cut out, so that its strong low branches spread widely. These trees were easy to climb and very comfortable to sit in. In spring snowdrops grew beside the wire-enclosed fig house and the pear trees were white with blossom. Opposite the pear trees was a big bed planted with moss roses, apple trees, and the three tall cherry plum trees. Further along the path was the glass-windowed brick hothouse. This was heated by a small fuel stove, and in it grew delicious white grapes. Further along this path, past a big bed of roses, was a rather mysterious part of the Blythswood garden. This began near the little wicket gate into Rockingham. Felicity had carved F. A. S. and V. S. (her initials and Veronica’s) into the gatepost.   Access to Rockingham through this gate was normally not a problem, but for about a year, probably in 1938, Herbert Syme became ill and he and Geoffrey had a violent quarrel, so no one from Blythswood was allowed to use the gate to take the shortcut across the Rockingham garden to the tramline.Near the gate was a large bed of old lilac trees, beside which was a track that lead to a wire-enclosed shelter which was known as the possum house, though probably it had only held some of Annabella Syme’s birds. 
Nurse Waldie with Felicity and Joan Syme on the path beside the Blythswood/Rockingham boundary. (1916)
This part of the garden was dark and gloomy, and in it were large islands of grey stones, held together by prickly fern, trails of ivy, and an occasional briar rose that never flowered. These mounds were of different shapes and sizes and had mossy paths around them. They were probably about three or four feet high, but they towered above a small child and seemed to be unclimbable.
Elm trees took away all the sun from this part of the garden, as did the thick forest of bamboo that separated it from Violet Syme's little English garden. Of course the bamboo took all the goodness from the soil of her garden. It was fun to play in this forest. The tallest of the bamboos, when tied together at the top, made Indian tepees and, when the centre of these tepees was cut away, tiny rooms were formed and furnished with beds made out of lengths of bamboo. Violet Syme was definitely not a gardener. She hardly ever sat in her garden. Probably it was known as hers because shecould see it from her bedroom and from the drawing room. It reminded her of her home in England and perhaps she just wanted to get rid of part of the forest of bamboo between Blythswood and Rockingham.
On south side of the house were shallow steps that led up to the front verandah. This tiled verandah ran from these steps near the door of the drawing room, past the library and the front door and ended near the dining room windows. Its tiles were old and pale, probably put there before David Syme came to the house. Half way along, at its southern corner, there was a wide part of the verandah that had once had glass walls, just like a green house. Geoffrey removed these walls and made the whole verandah open.  In this corner was a fern garden. This was a bed of earth about twelve feet by eight feet, edged with slabs of grey slate about ten inches high. Dozens of pale brown rocks had been scattered over the bed to form a hilly landscape, and different sorts of ferns had been planted between the rocks. Apart from regular watering it was totally uncared for; the rocks had become covered with moss, little paths had formed and because of the lack of soil most of the plants were stunted. Everything was in miniature; the maidenhair ferns were like tall trees. It was the perfect place for a child to play with dolls-house sized dolls.
The front verandah.
There was a big lawn directly in front of the house. It always seemed immense. It probably was quite big. Even though it was surrounded by trees, the whole sweep of lawn in front of the house was never overwhelmed by the cedars and monkey puzzle trees and weeping elms and the solitary palm tree that were planted around it.  The lawn was of tough buffalo grass, which became white with frost in winter and grey on the rare occasions when it was top-dressed. The branches of the cedars and weeping elms swept down to the ground, and around the trunk of the biggest elm was an iron seat. This was a very private place to sit, because it was like a tent and for most of the year no one could see in or out through the curtain of leaves.  To the side of the lawn, quite near the house, a circle of English grass was set into the buffalo grass. This was Geoffrey Syme’s clock-golf lawn. It had a hole in the middle of the green and at its edge were Roman numerals that marked the hours of the day. Golf was one of his passions, and he often practiced his putting here. There were two flowerbeds on this southern side of the lawn, beyond the encircling trees. One was small and round with branches of little pink roses trained over it on a wire frame, and the other flowerbed was big and oval and planted with annuals like stocks and petunias. There was a weeping rose and another flowerbed filled with cinerarias on the opposite side of the lawn, near the summerhouse. Playing with the taps on the front lawn was a popular game with Blythswood children. There were about eight of these taps, all hidden in the grass in little square holes covered with wooden lids. Each had a different water pressure, though they should all have been

Front Lawn. 1939

more or less alike. One or two sent up tall jets of water like a fountain, and the others simply trickled water into the holes in the ground. Throughout the summer big sprinklers revolved on the lawn. The favorite taps were at the far end of the lawn, out of sight of the house. Here one turned on the tap under the smaller weeping elm and the water would gradually form a river that ran towards the gutter and crossed the gravel path. From there it would go down another path that led to the Terrace. This path had no gutter, so the running water created a series of waterfalls and miniature lakes and narrow rivers and gorges. It was a never-ending pleasure to form these different landscapes, but the game had to be played when Geoffrey Syme had gone to work. He regarded the game as a waste of water - which it was - and he got very cross if he saw the little rivers.

The summerhouse at the far end of the lawn was hidden from the house by the branches of a cedar. Probably it was built when Geoffrey was a little boy. It had a central door with three steps leading up to it, and its windows were too high up to open or to let anyone - at least anyone the height of a child - see into the room. It had deep cupboards in which were a few old toys. Good toys were never kept in the summerhouse. Beside the summerhouse was a sandpit made out of an old bath sunk in the ground, and, further on, was yet another bamboo forest. Rockingham, next door, had a summerhouse too, but it was different, open-sided and set on a little hillock. Rockingham had two additional attractions; the conning-tower of a ship and a series of big, shallow, muddy ponds, which were near the top of the Terrace and hidden from sight of the Rockingham house by a row of trees and bushes. The Blythswood children were never allowed to play in the Rockingham garden, except by invitation, but it was the Blythswood children's delight to trespass and paddle in the ponds and sail boats. It was possible to sneak in over the wire fence near the Terrace, usually about six o'clock in the morning when no one at Rockingham was awake. This game, made all the more fun because it was forbidden, ended about 1938 when Herbert and Geoffrey had the severe quarrel that caused the wicket-gate between the properties to be locked. No one dared trespass again.

The back entrance to the house was through the big courtyard on the eastern side of the property. The back verandah was exactly in front of the stables. Members of the family and many regular visitors usually left the front drive and turned down the short drive that led to the big courtyard. They parked their cars near the verandah . Few were brave enough to park in the garage or under the archway of the stables. The house and the stables were linked - but not really united - by a long wooden building on the southern side of the courtyard. This was painted dark green and had a corrugated iron roof that was painted a dark red. The garage, which was slate-roofed, was really a part of the stables and had once been the carriage house. Next to the garage, in the first part of the wooden buildings, was the coke hole, with its bags of coke for the rather small heater that successfully heated all the water for the house. Then there was a lavatory and then the laundry. This had three sections; the lower part had a bricked-in copper and two troughs, the middle part had a mangle and tables and ropes on which to hang damp clothes, and the upper part had a big ironing table. Next to the table was a gas ring that was used to heat the different sized flat irons that the laundress, Mrs Minty, rubbed with beeswax so that they would run more smoothly. Between the laundry and the house were the two more rooms that had become Felicity Syme’s workshop. They were small and dark, and it was here she did her carpentry. Her father did his carpentry in his own workshop in a room in the stables, on the other side of the courtyard. Next to Felicity's workshop was the boot-hole, where George, the gardener-handy-man, polished the shoes.The back verandah was old, belonging to the period when David Syme added a second storey to the back of the house. Originally, probably going back to the 1850's, there had been a group of small rooms, all separated from the main house. The re-building united these rooms to the house.  They were still in use in the 1950’s. One was the meat house with white tiled walls, a red tiled floor, wire cupboards and steel hooks on which to hang carcasses of meat. Next to it was the vegetable room, where vegetables and fruit were stored in wire-fronted cupboards and on racks. Then came the dairy, which had a sink and a long stone bench on which were placed the big steel pans into which George poured the buckets of milk he had carried up from the cow-byre. The storeroom beside the dairy was L-shaped. It was always kept locked, though it held little of value.  The first part held the iron bins full of flour and the sacks of sugar and the twelve-pound tins of Tuckfield's Indian tea and China tea. It had shelves filled with rows of tinned food; things like salmon, sardines, anchovies, peaches, apricots, marrons glacés, even little glass jars of caviar and foie gras; special food that hardly ever appeared in the dining room. The second part of the storeroom held bits and pieces. Extra glasses and plates and dishes used for parties, old vases, and photograph frames, things that were rarely wanted but could not be thrown away in case they were needed. At the end of this series of rooms was a large square room. It had been built on by David Syme. Originally it was to have been a smoking room for his three eldest sons. The old house plan marks it as a study, and the list for Probate calls it an outside study, it later become a nursery nursery, (where else could Annabella Syme have put her youngest children, Lucie, Olive, Geoffrey and Oswald and their nurse and governess? Even with all the re-building, in 1882 Blythswood was a rather crowded household), and by the end of the 1920’s this room had become 'the workroom', a sewing room where a Miss Shea, and then a Miss Greene, came several times a week to do the household sewing and mending.

When Geoffrey Syme bought Blythswood he made very few changes to the garden. It was the house that was the problem. It had been neglected since his father's death in 1908, even though his mother and younger sister Olive continued to live there until 1915.The inventory made for the assessment of Annabella Syme's Probate Tax makes it possible to recreate much of the interior of the house in 1915. It was dark and gloomy, typical of the 1880's with unattractive furniture, much of it bamboo. Violet Syme hated it. She did not want to live there amongst the memories of her dominating mother-in-law. It is thanks to her that it became bright and cheerful, the brown linoleum disappeared as did much of the furniture, the walls were painted white and many repairs and alterations were made. Blythswood became Edwardian rather than Victorian, a happy house, always full of children, family and friends.

Floor plan of the front of the house.
Floor plan of the back of the house.
Floor plan of the front of the house - upstairs.
Floor plan of the back of the house - upstairs.


Copyright © 2012 Dr Veronica Condon. All rights reserved.