Abandoned gaol exploration – the hidden history behind Haberfield’s Yasmar House

It’s safe to say that a fair few criminals have escaped from Aussie prisons over the years. But I reckon breaking into a gaol isn’t nearly as common – so the opportunity to check out a magnificent 19th century colonial estate hidden behind the walls of an abandoned juvenile gaol was way too tempting for this sneaky (and not always law abiding) explorer ūüėČ

Blink and you’d easily miss this historic landmark while driving¬†down¬†Parramatta Rd, Australia’s¬†oldest and most commercialised street. Built Circa 1850, Haberfield’s heritage listed¬†Yasmar estate¬†sits well hidden behind a huge wall of greenery, sandstone gates and high wire fencing. Many Sydneysiders are unaware of its existence, or usually¬†remember Yasmar for being a juvenile detention centre – but this colonial era estate is of great historic importance to our community and deserves to be promoted as a proper tourist attraction.

Yasmar Estate was one of several grand manors owned by the well known Ramsey family. The Ramseys were highly influential in the colonial settlement and development of the suburb Haberfield, now known as the centre of Italian community in Sydney’s inner west. Haberfield’s main high street Ramsey Rd is well known for its authentic Italian culture, cuisine and of course coffee!

Back in the 1800s…

Several grand Italianate style villas were built by various members of the Ramsay clan in the region, but Yasmar House is the only one that still survives today. Yasmar (Ramsay spelt backward!) is a rare example of Sydney’s surviving grand colonial estates.

Yasmar House – a unique colonial Sydney site

Yasmar was commissioned to¬†build in 1856 and was designed in the popular Georgian-inspired style by architect John Bibb, who went on to take over the architectural practice of John Verge – best known¬†for designing Elizabeth Bay House and Tempe House.¬†What makes Yasmar estate so unique is that unlike Sydney’s other surviving grand villas, this one hasn’t lost its spectacular surrounding gardens¬†of the Georgian ‘Gardenesque’ era. This was a time when gardens reflected the ambitions and wealth of their owners. An appreciation of quality landscaping¬†and horticulture was a hallmark of Gardenesque design – ¬†The Georgians favoured symmetrical fronted sandstone houses, surrounded by sprawling gardens to explore¬†and entertain¬†in. ¬†Rows of tall trees and shrubs around the property¬†provided ultimate privacy. The Georgian landscaping concept was that the estate should emerge gradually through the greenery and that gardens were a source of beauty, relaxation and novelty.

Yasmar’s secret gardens are a spectacular example of Georgian landscaping – the site contains many rare species of fauna and is known as an important site for Australian botanists today. While some¬†of its gardens were sacrificed to build the detention centre, behind the walls many¬†exotic¬†plants¬†indigenous to the interstate regions still flourish. Most of these varieties are rare species from up North Queensland way, due to the fact that three Ramsay brothers moved up to the northern end of Australia to start a sugar plantation.

Brother Edward Ramsay was an active member of the Royal Horticultural Society of NSW and he was responsible for planting such a diverse range of trees at Yasmar, including many species rarely found in private gardens. Being a zoologist, bird expert and enthusiastic horticulturalist, it seems Edward was a bit like a David Attenborough of his time!

Edward went on to become curator at the Australian Museum and his huge influence on both Yasmar and Australian biology is still evident today – His vast collections of Australian flora and fauna are a key part of the museum’s permanent collections on proud display.

It’s thought¬†that Yasmar may have been the site of Australia’s first privately owned swimming pool – a sunken, tiled area of the garden was uncovered during construction of the detention centre in the 50s. There has been debate as to whether or not this site was once¬†a pool or some kind of water feature, but it’s agreed by historians that this archealogical find in the garden is significant. While the ‘pool’ has now been lost due to the overgrowth, have managed to find a photo of it in the 90s as shown below:

Haberfield History 101

Before Sydney’s colonisation in 1788, the Haberfield region was inhabited¬†by the Aboriginal¬†Cadigal clan.¬†By the early 19th century, most of the Cadigal’s¬†population was sadly decimated by the introduction of European diseases like smallpox and displacement from the harbour which they relied upon as their main food source. In 1803¬†Nicholas Bayly (1770‚Äď1823) received the first official land grant and called¬†it ‘Sunning Hill Farm’ – there’s conflicting reports between local historians about whether or not this is how¬†nearby suburb Summer Hill got it’s name, but that’s another story…


Ex-convict turned property Tycoon Simeon Lord – owner of Dobroyde Estate

Bayly owned Sunning Hill Farm for only a¬†short time,¬†selling the farm to ex-convict turned Sydney ‘new money’ property tycoon Simeon Lord¬†around 1806 – who renamed the homestead Dobroyde after his family’s castle¬†in Lancashire. Lord’s wealth was so vast that it’s doubtful he ever actually lived in the property himself.

In 1825, he gave the land to his daughter Sarah Ann and her husband Dr David Ramsay as their wedding gift. A shrewd businessman, he put a clever caveat on his present that the ownership deed to Dobroyde stay in the Lord family until the death of both parents.

Despite Lord’s technical ownership over the area, the newly married Ramsays settled down at Dobroyde and became known as a prominent, powerful family. Devoutly religious, they went on to¬†have ten children. They were widely recognised for their active involvement¬†in the local church¬†community – several Haberfield landmarks are¬†namesakes of the Ramsey family, including St David’s Presbyterian Church,¬†Ramsey High St and Dobroyde Parade. After David Ramsay’s death in 1860, he was buried at Dobroyde and Sarah Ann ensured¬†the inheritance was divided up between their ten children.

Dobroyde: the Yasmar years

When David & Sarah Ann’s daughter Mary Louisa married Alexander Learmonth, they gifted their daughter and new son in law a plot of land. Mary Louisa and Alexander used it to build a house and Alexander named their newly erected marital home ‘Yasmar’ (Ramsay spelt backward) in honour of his father in law David Ramsay,¬†who he was known to be very fond of. Inspired by his late father in law, Learmonth later went on to become 1st Superintendent of the local Sunday school and Mary Louisa¬†used Yasmar’s barn and horse stables to teach classes there, until the school was moved to her late father’s¬†adjacent¬†namesake church St David’s, due to popularity. After Alexander died in 1877, Mary Louisa continued to live at Yasmar for some time, eventually¬†moving to Concord with their¬†unmarried¬†daughter Mary, until her death in 1904.

Yasmar: The Grace Bros years

Single and living in Concord, the widowed and unmarried Learmonth ladies eventually sold off Yasmar to fellow parishoner and devout Presbyterian Albert Edward Grace who, with his brother Joseph Neal went on to start Australia’s most iconic department store Grace Bros. The famous¬†Grace brothers made various renovations to Yasmar, upgrading it from Georgian to Edwardian-inspired. They added decorative features including stained glass and grand cedar double entry doors.¬†Legend has it that Yasmar was even featured in a 1920s Grace Bros department store catalogue, though it’s not known if any copies still exist today – perhaps forgotten in someone’s attic to one day be rediscovered (!).

Yasmar – The ‘Gypsy’ Era

The Grace Bros were committed Presbyterians, so when Joseph married fellow parishioner Sarah Selina Smith¬†in 1911, ownership of Yasmar was transferred over to her. Smith, who went by ¬†the name ‘Gypsy’ and husband Joseph were both enthusiastic gardeners¬†and were known to spend much of their free time enjoying Yasmar’s grand, maturing gardens.

When Gypsy Grace passed away with no next of kin, Yasmar and its expansive grounds became abandoned.¬†The expansive¬†area¬†became known as ‘Ramsay’s Bush’ – overgrown and unkempt, local legend has it that the abandoned area attracted camps of (actual) gypsies and vagrants, which was said to have caused safety concerns within the community at the time.

Haberfield is Born: Garden City movement

Because Haberfield was founded¬†in 1901, it’s¬†become known as Sydney’s 1st Federation suburb.¬†Today, strict council laws are in place to protect its many original single storey bungalows, traditional terracotta/slate tiles and heritage house colours. The area has retained a real quaint sense of village culture, due to its¬†popularity with families¬†and the many older generations of Italians who immigrated to this tight-knit¬†working class community¬†during the 50s & 60s.

The design of Haberfield suburb was inspired by a progressive¬†European urban planning strategy called ‘greenbelt’ towns.¬†This vision known as the¬†‘Garden City’ movement¬†was (and still is!) a popular¬†socialist ideal to create a balance of residential living alongside¬†commercial and agricultural industries in large¬†cities. Garden City architects¬†saw that capital¬†cities were sorely lacking in clean country air and public gardens. They realised overcrowding was causing disease and death, so promoted parks as being essential for a well functioning city for both health and recreational reasons.

In the late 1890s, Sydney real estate businessman¬†Richard Stanton¬†was¬†inspired by the Garden City ideals. He saw that overcrowded Sydney town had recently suffered outbreaks of bubonic plague in nearby Ashfield and inner city and the urban town would benefit from a¬†similar style Garden suburb. He¬†purchased part of the subdivided Ramsey’s Bush area and began¬†executing vision of a perfect suburb he called Haberfield –

Stanton immediately started development of the overgrown, rural fields into an orderly, clean living and aesthetically pleasing suburb. In the same spirit as the religious Ramseys, he declared Haberfield be created “slumless, publesss and alleyless” to promote a family friendly feel – a safe, suburban oasis a few kilometres away from the scandal of Sydney town’s debauchary and disease-ridden inner city. In fact, to this day there has never been a pub in Haberfield – so it seems this teetotaller influence is still strong enough in the suburb today to prevent any pubs¬†from opening up here ! All trade remains very family-friendly and Italian-inspired.

For more information on the history of Yasmar and Haberfield, do check out this PDF  the NSW Crown Land has released for historic record.

Yasmar – Detention Centre era

After the NSW Government acquired the deceased¬†estate of Yasmar in the 1950s, it was used as a Children’s Home for delinquents and wayward youths. In the late 70s-early 80s it was renovated and from 1981 until 1994 it¬†operated as a Children’s Court and juvenile detention centre.¬† Fortunately, the architects worked with NSW Heritage Office and the National Trust to ensure the gaol facilities were designed to¬†complement¬†the gardens and not obstruct the main house.

The main house was turned into the magistrate’s court room to retain a sense of majesty and most of the overgrown gardens were sacrificed to make way for the prison blocks. The low rise, single storey blocks were built with light brown bricks and a muted blue/green colour scheme, which effectively conceals the gaol behind the surrounding greenery.

Note in the exploration photos of the prison buildings below, the gaol block name ‘Waratah’ which is inspired by the local indigenous plant, which is a nice touch.

¬†Pretty Pathways ‚̧

Beyond the grand sandstone pillars lies a grand pathway, which accommodated for wide horsedrawn carriages. Although today this path appears to lead straight up to the estate, it was actually once circular shaped, looping up to the main house and barn which sits in the back left corner of the sprawling property. The loop shape has now been lost, due to the more modern gaol buildings.

The¬†gardens are now maintained by a small team of dedicated caretakers and local interest groups, who do a wonderful job of maintaining the grounds and deserve recognition for their tireless efforts to keep Yasmar Estate looking elegant! These volunteers are a true asset to Sydney’s community –¬†it’s thanks to people like this¬†that Yasmar’s magnificent gardens have not fallen into total disrepair.¬†The towering Bunya pines have been allowed to grow to maturity and overshadow¬†the gaol, making it feel like walking through Jurassic Park or some private school property¬†ūüėČ

 Main House

The ornate cast iron on the verandah was orignally sourced from the same factory as iconic Elizabeth Farm¬†in Parramatta. The house appears to be well preserved and maintained from the neat exterior surroundings, though it’s rumoured that inside has been damaged by water leaks and termite infestations. Unfortunately all windows and doors were securely boarded up, so it was impossible to sneak inside and see any further in the house.

Barn & Stables – ¬†Sarah Ann’s Sunday School

The quaint barn and stablehouse are sandwiched between the far back corner boundary fence and the local public school. These well preserved buildings originally once housed horses and other farm animals Рthis is where Sarah Ann Ramsay held her Sunday school classes.

The¬†disused barn and stables are now just a storage space and a spot¬†to park cars. Apparently it was¬†restored in recent years and although it’s kept securely locked up now, would love to have a peek through those big barn doors, to see what original features are still exist inside…imagining there’s a cute old horse carriage in there ūüėČ

Juvie Gaol

While creeping vines try to take over the walls, recent pruning has kept them looking neat and tidy. Doing a lap of the prison perimeter feels a lot like circling the raptor pen in Jurassic Park  Рlooking through the thick plastic peepholes in doors and gaps in the formidable metal gates, I almost expect there to be a cold, reptilian eye staring straight back ! Instead, only see more pathways and catch a glimpse of a modest recreational area with basketball court and outdoor seating area, which look to be firmly fixed to the ground to prevent any escape attempts.

Yasmar’s uncertain future

SO what will become of Yasmar’s grand gardens? Well, luckily¬†Yasmar is protected by a heritage listing, so it’s in reasonably safe hands for now.

In recent years it’s been proposed that parts of Yasmar¬†be turned into¬†a horticulturalist centre and plant nursery, to harvest these rare species and put the¬†profits put back into Yasmar’s ongoing maintenance, which would be great to see happen.

The downside is that save for the rare open day, the NSW Government refuses reopen Yasmar’s doors to the public – which is a real shame, as Sydneysiders would greatly benefit from having access a much needed public garden and heritage tourist attraction along the urban stretch of Parramatta Rd. It ¬†seems pretty¬†silly, when it could easily be marketed as a great offbeat tourist attraction, ¬†much like Old Melbourne Gaol is for lucky Victorians! If there’s one thing Parramatta Rd could do with, it’s more walking trade along the strip – It’s so sad seeing¬†long stretches of sad looking derelict federation-era¬†shopfronts and whole blocks of houses knocked down to make way for the new Westconnex motorway.

With Westconnex’s¬†recent destruction to many of Haberfield’s important heritage buildings, it feels like now more than ever it would be great to give¬†Yasmar back to Sydney.¬†Fingers crossed this unique example of Sydney¬†colonial architecture will continue to be preserved and not just become another stretch of highway.

XO Gia

The ‘Drummoyne Boys’ gang – secret clubhouse in abandoned bowlo

Kids who grew up around the inner west suburb of Drummoyne during the 90s probably heard of, or in some way encountered the Drummoyne Boys gang – AKA ‘DB’. Back in the day when teenagers¬†still got rolled for Sony Discmans, these little lads were like hyenas. On their own, they weren’t so bad and could sometimes even be kinda cute, in a weird way…but in a small pack, they were known to be an unsavoury species to avoid.

While DB’s dangerous reputation was no doubt¬†bolstered by the bragging of teenage boys, I still got a huge¬†kick out of accidentally discovering their top secret headquarters¬†recently. Being completely oblivious¬†that Drummoyne Boys gang still existed today, stumbling upon¬†their hideout and learning their legacy still lives on today¬†gave me a great nostalgia rush and a big belly laugh. Being one of the few (if not the first) female to tread on their territory was definitely fun experience ūüėČ

According to Urban Dictionary, DB is in fact a real gang and their reputation around town is:

“A street gang based in the Inner Western suburb of Drummoyne, Sydney. Better known as a bunch of stupid lads with nothing better to do than buy champion pants and make up funny handsigns that sort of say ‘DB’, the Drummoyne boys are best know for such shocking, gangstarific crimes as:¬†

  • Graffitiing Walls¬†
  • Starting fights with little kids
  • Drinking alchohol (but making sure it’s a barcardi breezer or something)
  • Shoplifting

…don’t have official colours, although anything from InSport should do you just fine. Oh and don’t forget your nautica hat either.”¬†

DB’s lair¬†is located inside an abandoned sports facility. baggsing it as their own by scrawling ‘DB lives here’ and intimidating threats all over the walls in texta. DB’s foreboding warnings look juvenile, so I guess these lads are pretty young and the new generation of the crew.

However, any site that could potentially show evidence of the old Balmain Tigers rugby league club signage is of significant historical importance to Australian sports and Sydney’s community. So sorry DB, sometimes exploring means treading on some toes to capture an important Kodak moment.

Hopefully the boys¬†didn’t mind me busting in on their hideout for the sake of our mighty Balmain Tigers. DB’s¬†design choices and decorating ideas complement the roaring tiger at the front entrance pretty¬†well, I reckon ūüôā

You don’t¬†have to lurk inside¬†for long to see these boys are living it up in their multimillion dollar bachelor pad. Upturned mattresses and tables scatter the main entertainment areas, two poker table sit proudly in two separate playing rooms and the kitchen is looking grimy because no girls are allowed in there to give the tabletops a thorough wipedown. It makes me wonder what their bedrooms look like…

While the grotty gang are certainly lax about their living standards, it’s more mess than downright gross. I’ve seen abandoned places in much worse states than this, so it’d only take a few days cleaning to tidy up the interior.

Structurally, the building itself is still in fairly good condition – with some TLC and a spring clean from DB, its retro vibe could be quite charming. The site is currently zoned for recreational use only, so you’d think the inner west community would support this place reopening one day.

Unfortunately the reason why yet another Sydney entertainment venue is unlikely open up again one day is due to a development proposal underway to build – you guessed it – a high rise residential estate. so it looks likely that Drummoyne residents will soon lose this once enjoyable local playhouse and watering hole for good.

Am amazed that DB still exist and wonder if the today’s teenager around the inner west side still like to loiter at Drummoyne Maccas, Sutton Place newsagent and the cricket oval. It’s a pleasant surprise to see that at least some of Sydney’s youth are still exploring outside and mucking around old school style, rather than holed up indoors all day on their iPhones ūüėČ They’re¬†just having a lark, as kids are known to do and not hurting anyone by hanging out here for the time being, at least.

My unauthorised clubhouse tour brings back fuzzy memories of a few faces from that 90s era DB crew – I wonder if they grew up to be gangsters, or embraced the inner west hipster life. Am unsure whether they’ll be happy about this post or hate me now. But I hope they’re honored their time as temporary caretakers of this venue is valued as a little slice of Sydney history – at least to me.

XO Gia