EXPLORING SYDNEY: Abandoned Inner West Gaol Exploration – The hidden history of Yasmar House, Haberfield

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 😉

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 (1770–1823) 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 😉

 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 – this 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 😉

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  – looking 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


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s