Fine prospects

John Pooley, viticulturist and owner of Pooley Wines in the Coal River Valley, might be in his mid-70s but that doesn’t appear to be slowing him down. Despite retiring almost 10 years ago, sitting in front of the fire with a pipe and a good book isn’t something he’s interested in. A few years ago, when he was obviously at a loss for something to do (despite having a winery) he suggested to his wife Libby that he could do up an old car, cars being one of his passions. After some discussion, they decided to do something together. They bought a stately old mansion and did that up instead, creating Tasmania’s newest five-start private hotel.

Prospect House, once known as Prospect Villa, is a gracious Georgian building opposite the Pooley winery at the gateway to Richmond. It is well-known to many Tasmanians who took advantage of the years it operated as a bed a breakfast and restaurant.

It still sits in the landscape as it was intended to – surrounded by spacious grounds with a circular driveway running up to the recessed portico at the entrance. In that respect, it’s been lucky, but the fortunes of Prospect House have ebbed and flowed with the history of Tasmania and, more particularly. Richmond. If the walls could speak they would tell us of times when the expansive rooms of Prospect House were full of activity, with children running up and down the central staircase, people cooking and cleaning, women giving birth, writing letters, painting and drawing, and of deaths and celebrations. They could also speak of the times when the house was empty or neglected, when it sat isolated and alone while the land was worked.

James Buscombe, a builder and carpenter who arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1822, built Prospect House in about 1831 for his family. James and his new wife, Elizabeth, moved to Richmond in 1827 where he built the Lennox Arms Inn (among other buildings in Richmond) on the land where the Richmond Arms hotel now stands.

Like many of the early buildings in Richmond, Prospect House and the Lennox Arms were built with convict labour assigned to Buscombe. He hasn’t left any information as to what prompted the family’s move to Richmond from Hobart Town, but it proved to be a prosperous one that enabled him to build Prospect House. By 1835, Richmond was the third-largest town in Tasmania, a growing market town and a convenient place to stop when travelling to the east coast or to Port Arthur. The Lennox Arms Inn provided rooms for travellers and a large range of goods.

Prospect House is built of brick on sandstone foundations. The bricks would have been made on site. At the rear of the house is a courtyard that was once surrounded by a coach house, large barn, stables and wash house. The courtyard still exists although the surrounding buildings were converted to accommodation in the early 1980s.

Enclosing the courtyard with buildings was a defensive measure against bushrangers who were a problem in the early years of the colony. Surrounding the house was about 40 acres (16 hectares) of land, most probably planted with crops such as wheat and oats, with a garden and orchard near the house.

The original detail on Prospect House suggests that it was perhaps designed by someone other than the builder, James Buscombe. It was finished in soft pink brick with a recessed portico of stone and french doors on the ground floor. The upstairs windows were fitted with cantilevered verandas. The overall effect would have been a softer look.

It has been suggested that John Lee Archer, the government architect at the time, may have drawn something up for James Buscombe, although definitely on an informal basis. There’s no evidence for this other than a comparison with some of the other buildings Archer designed such as his own place, Jutland, at New Town, and St John’s parsonage. But it also suggests Buscombe had money to spend on the building. So why did he use bricks instead of sandstone? This could have been personal choice, but it is also possible when he was building Prospect House that he didn’t have any convicts who were stonemasons. With all the government building happening then, stonemasons would have been in demand.

By the time James Buscombe died, he left in trust for his wife considerable property holdings, of which Prospect House was just one. The property was rented for a while before being sold in 1864 to Joseph William Nichols. The Nichols family didn’t immediately move into Prospect House. They let it out and sometimes it was empty while they farmed the land.

Like Buscombe, his work suggests he had a drive to succeed. He built an emporium in the main street of Richmond, where in 1854 he opened an ironmongery warehouse. He also became the town’s postmaster, as had Buscombe.

JW Nichols bought Prospect House during a severe recession in Tasmania. It wasn’t until the mining boom of the late 1870s that the economy picked up. In 1858 the property with 40 acres was valued at £110. In 1871, when the Nichols family moved into it, it was valued at £65 (with the same amount of land), and it remained that way until at least 1877.

There was another factor at work – in 1874 the Sorell causeway was built and suddenly trips to the east coast and the Tasman Peninsula bypassed Richmond. In the same year the mainline railway to the Midlands was put in through Campania, also bypassing Richmond.

Richmond became a backwater. In early 1870s, it had seven or eight pubs. By 1902 there were two.

Almost a century passed before Richmond began to recover.

In the late 1880s, a large orchard of apples, pears and peach trees was planted on the Cambridge side of Prospect House by one of JW Nichol’s sons, PJ Nichols. Nichols had problems with curling leaves which destroyed the buds. He came up with a novel solution: a well-travelled man, he had seen peach trees growing extremely well on the rich volcanic soil near Auckland and thought perhaps the soil around Prospect House was lacking in iron. He drove a rusty nail into the trunk of each tree near its base, and acquired some slaggy stuff from the blacksmith’s shop, which he had broke up and mixed with the soil about the roots of each tree. The results were apparently good.

The Nichols family ended their connection with Prospect House in 1922 when PJ Nichols and his wife Barbara moved to Hobart. Perhaps they were nostalgic for the old building though – there’s a story that when they left they took the nameplate from the gate at Prospect House and attached it to their house in Davey Street, Hobart.

During the first half of the 20th century, Prospect House changed hands several times. The house itself has been renovated, neglected to the point of being almost derelict and renovated again. Peter and Jennie Utting opened the first restaurant there the early 1970s, and in 1990 a descendant of the original Buscombes, Mike Buscombe and his wife Shauna, bought the property, running it as a B&B and restaurant for 13 years.

With their passion for Richmond and the Coal River valley, John and Libby Pooley were excited about what they could do with Prospect House. It’s been a big project and a sometimes a challenging one but for Richmond and the wider Tasmanian community, it’s good to know it’s in such capable hands.

. . .

The author would like to thank Geoff Nichols, Sam Nichols, Peter Macfie, Mike Buscombe and Warwick Oakman for their help in researching this article.

Prospect House Private Hotel is at 1,384 Richmond Road, Richmond. For more information and contact details, see prospecthouseprivatehotel.com.au.

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