Editor’s Note: Sara lived and gardened at Ashcotte in Bendigo before she moved to Nonsuch in Tasmania in early 2005. We have added the pages from her time at Ashcotte which originally appeared on her personal website and her Victorian Flower Garden website.
Hannah was born in 1865 to John Wolstencroft and his wife Sarah Ann (nee Hadfield); her birthplace was ‘in the vicinity of the McIvor Road Bridge’ in Bendigo. In 1865 Bendigo was a thriving goldfields town in central Victoria, Australia. It had been established about a decade, and Hannah’s birth home was likely little more than a temporary dwelling that no longer exists. John Wolstencroft had emigrated to the Bendigo goldfields from Oldham (now a part of Manchester) in Lancashire, England about 1856; his wife came out after some further six years, together with John’s younger brother, William. John and William set up as a brick manufacturers in Miller Street (where there remains a brick yard, possibly the one the brothers established, to this day). Hannah had one surviving brother, Joseph, who was two years younger than her (two other brothers, another Joseph and a Thomas, died in childhood, probably in the epidemics that swept the hot, dusty and crowded goldfields, perhaps even among the scores of children who drowned in the notoriously unpredictable Bendigo Creek). See John Wolstencroft’s Obituary for more details on his life.
I know very little of Hannah’s childhood and teenage years, other than she had a good upbringing and became a particularly gifted pianist. At some point in her youth Hannah spent a year in England with her parents, probably visiting relatives in Lancashire.
In 1889 Hannah married Henry George Bloomfield in the Anglican St Paul’s Cathedral in Myers Street; the ceremony was conducted by Dean MacCullagh. Henry Bloomfield was born at Golden Point near Castlemaine (a town some half an hour down the train line from Bendigo) about 1862, and spent fifty years as a guard on the Victorian Railways, forty of those years based in Bendigo: the coming of the railway to Bendigo in the early 1860s was a great event, reducing the journey to Melbourne to a mere five hours from the previous four or five days by Cobb & Co. coach.
Hannah and George had three children: Walter Joseph, born in 1890 who went on to become a well-known Bendigo businessman (and whose scrawling child-like signature still adorns a brick on the outer wall of the top room); Ada, born in 1892 (and who became Mrs. E.D. Lane); and Mabel Mary Sarah Bloomfield (who died in Ashcotte on the same day as her mother, but two years later).
In 1892 Henry Bloomfield purchased a piece of land about seven minutes walk from the railway station; the house that he and Hannah built. They called their home Ashcotte (naming houses was common in late ninetenth-century rural Australia when house numbers were rarely used; a house name was a postal necessity).
Why the name ‘Ashcotte’ for the house? I still haven’t been able to research this fully, but the name probably comes from old Lancashire.There was once, I believe, a tiny parish or village called Ashcott now absorbed or destroyed in modern England, but there is also a place called Ashcott House in Chorley, some 18 miles as the raven flies from Oldfield. Is this house (now a kindergarten) what inspired Hannah to call her home Ashcotte? (Hannah could well have seen it in the year she spent in England.) I am certain the answer lies somewhere in old Lancashire … I just have to find it. (There is also an ancient village, once a Norman manor, called Ashcott in Somerset, but that’s too far away from the Wolstencroft origins to be of significance.) There are many ‘Ash-‘ names in Lancashire, particularly Ashby or Ashton; the word ‘cotte’ means a cottage. Thus Ashcotte literally means cottage among the ashes or ash trees.
Hannah and George moved into Ashcotte towards the end of 1892 … and thus the legend begins. Hannah adored Ashcotte and adored her family. Her music, her house and her family became the foundation stones of her life, and her obituary (set out in full below) makes mention that she neglected public life in favour of house (which she rarely left) and family.
Ashcotte is a fairly substantial Victorian construction (I call it a cottage because it is not particularly large) that is typical of the era. It is built of double red brick with a red tin roof. The original house had only four rooms, two each side of a central hallway. Within a few years a kitchen and cellar was added to the back of the house. While Ashcotte was originally very small, it has a number of features that set it apart from the usual railway guard’s cottage (normally constructed of weatherboard rather than brick). First is its double brick construction … and doubtless Hannah’s father, John Wolstencroft, supplied the bricks free of charge from his brickyard on Miller Street; few railway guards could have afforded this kind of brick dwelling. (There is also the possibility John paid for the house as a wedding gift for his daughter … several smaller cottages further down the street are Wolstencroft cottages for the brick workers.)
The front doorway and the windows of the ‘top room’ (Hannah’s room, where she is most frequently seen) are made of royal blue and ruby etched glass. The front two rooms have magnificent fireplaces with surrounds made ofjapanned wood (a painting technique which makes a wood hearth appear as if it were made of marble; japanned wood was very popular in the 1880s and 1890s, and these two fireplaces are exquisite examples) and with cast iron Victorian ‘economy grates’ (most likely originally meant for coal). The back two rooms also have open fireplaces in them, as does the kitchen, which also would have had a cast iron stove in it; I have recently put back a wood stove which heats the entire house in winter. The floors in the house are all of wood, and the floor in the top room has a pattern of flowers and leaves painted over it; the doors are still the original – thick panelled wood with ivory porcelain door knobs and key hole covers, and the front door still has its original brass knob and pushbell. The vents in all the rooms are of a beautiful cast iron in the pattern of roses. Originally all the ceilings would have had central roses in much the same pattern (unfortunately they have now all gone): Ashcotte was built in the days of gas lighting, and all the vents and roses were designed to vent rooms of leaking gas (having new plumbing and wiring put in the house is a nightmare, because it was never built with that in mind).
Shading the front of the house is a deep bull-nose verandah which originally had (and within the next two years or so, will again have) wooden supports and wooden decorative tracery. Originally the back of the house had a verandah as well, but that has since been demolished (in order to keep the fierce summer sun away I have had a pergola built across the entire back of the house; wisteria and clematis now crawl over it). Only when the house was renovated about ten years ago has there been an internal bathroom and toilet; originally the bathroom, toilet and laundry were a separate brick building abutting the side street. Ashcotte is set into Quarry Hill: the back of the block is some fifteen feet above street level. To get from street to front door you must climb a steep (everyone complains about them!) flight of slate steps that make you grasp the stone walls to either side for support, and gasp for breath. The house soars above the street … it is a simply beautiful location.
While Ashcotte is small (there has since been one more room added), it is quite lovely … and it had servants quarters built as a separate residence at the back of the block; Hannah had the time to concentrate on her children, music and house while two servants tended the chores. The servants quarters have since gone, but their foundation stones – huge sandstone blocks, like those that form the foundations of Ashcotte itself – are now scattered about the garden and I used many of them to line the pond that a friend and myself built earlier this year.
The street had opened up to residential building only 2 years before Hannah and Henry built there … in a painting of Bendigo of 1889 Quarry Hill (the hill on which Ashcotte stands) is largely bush. Now it is covered with houses commanding beautiful views of Bendigo and the surrounding bushland – and which capture the cooling summer evening breezes.
Henry Bloomfield died in 1928 aged 66; he left Ashcotte to Hannah. Unfortunately, she did not have many years left herself to enjoy it; she died in 1933 after at least a year of poor health, and joined her husband in the Bendigo Cemetary which is only a few minutes walk from Ashcotte. I recently traced Hannah and George’s grave: apart from a block of granite with the name BLOOMFIELD on it, the grave is unmarked … their children did not bother to erect anything more substantial to commemorate their parents’ memories – perhaps because all of them eventually left Bendigo. The grave was choked with weeds when I found it: now it is clean, but still pathetically unadorned. Whatever, Hannah doesn’t live there … she never left her beloved home.
When she died on 25th April 1933, Hannah was well-known enough to merit an obituary in the Bendigo Advertiser:
BLOOMFIELD: a wide circle of people will regret the death of Mrs Hannah Bloomfield, in the early hours of yesterday morning at her residence ... She had been in indifferent health for about 12 months, but her final illness lasted for about eight weeks. Although it was not unexpected, her death came as a shock to her family which was entirely devoted to her. The late Mrs Bloomfield was a native of Bendigo, born in the vicinity of McIvor Road bridge in 1865. She was married to the late Mr Henry George Bloomfield by Dean MacCullagh in St Paul's Church in 1889, and after an interval of three years came to live in her present residence. Except for a period of twelve months, during which she was with her parents in England, she lived in Bendigo all her life. Her husband died about four and a half years ago. Public activities had never occupied much of the late Mrs Bloomfield's life, it being taken up solely with the care of her family and home, to both of which she was deeply attached. She was also a keen lover of good music and was an experienced pianist. Her family of three - Walter, a well-known businessman of Bendigo; Ada (Mrs E.D. Lane) and Mabel - will miss her presence greatly, and their friends' sympathy goes out to them in their bereavement. The funeral cortege will leave from the late Mrs Bloomfield's residence for the cemetary at 11 o'clock this morning.
I now use the top room (Hannah’s room) as my writing room, and I have no doubt that Hannah is peering over my shoulder as I type this. Her bedroom, where she gave birth to at least one of her children and where she died, is now mine, and Hannah is kind enough to allow me to sleep undisturbed most nights.