After almost a century belonging to other owners, Julian Roberts and his wife, Chaxi, have bought back Corinda, his ancestral home, and they are intent on restoring it to its rightful place in Hobart society.
By Anabel Dean, photography Monika
Hobart is a city of heirlooms. Georgian buildings stand cheek by jowl on town squares with luminaries on stone plinths gazing thoughtfully out to sea. High up, on the slopes of Glebe, there’s a Victorian mansion with a meticulous parterre garden that isn’t easily overlooked.
Corinda had always caught Julian Roberts’ attention but he had not the slightest clue that he was walking among the ghosts of his own family when he strode across the cobblestone courtyard six years ago. He was unknowingly about to reclaim his ancestral home. “I phoned Mum after seeing Corinda that day and said that I’d fallen for it,” he recalls. “’Oh well’, she said, ‘it is only your family home!’”
The plan to bring Corinda back into family hands after an absence of nearly 100 years was crystallised one frosty winters’ night when Julian’s wife, Chaxi, went into labour with the couple’s first child. It was one o’clock in the morning as the couple drove fixedly to hospital from their home at Brockley Estate, a historic Merino property at Buckland, about an hour’s drive from Hobart. “It was foggy, there were mobile blackspots along the road, and we didn’t see a single car until we got to the Tasman Bridge,” Julian recalls. “We felt so remote.”
After Ione was born, life returned to a degree of normality, so Julian took matters into his own hands. The family needed to be closer to Hobart and Corinda was still on the market. He phoned the owners of the villa which was built in 1878, lovingly restored in the 1990s, now transformed into a lavish bed and breakfast similar to Brockley Estate.
“I said: ‘my great-great-grandfather built your house and I’d like to come and see you’,” Julian recalls. “The owners were very nice so I just told the truth. I said: ‘Look, we don’t have enough money to buy Corinda, but you might consider lending us the money in a vendor finance kind of arrangement?’” astonishingly, the owners agreed, although in the end the bank lent money using Brockley Estate as security. “I call it our pre-Royal Commission bank loan,” Julian laughs. “There’s no way they would grant it now as it was way too risky.”
Ownership was confirmed with another benevolent gesture. “My grandmother had walked into this house once to give a box of photos and documents to the people who restored it to former glory,” Julian recalls. “They gave the box back to us when we bought Corinda back.” He pauses, appreciatively. “We are the custodians for now,” he says. “It was an alignment of stars really, and every time I walk in, I have this feeling ‘my family walked here’.”
Corinda speaks of a vanished society through the brica-brac bought at auction and collected over centuries by connoisseurs. These are displayed in six elegantly furnished guest bedrooms spread over two floors and the atmospheric drawing room. Many of the offbeat trinkets of boom and bust reveal the forgiving memory of a colonial outpost where family history often started with a convict.
Samuel Crisp began as a sawyer in rural Suffolk, England, but was transported to for the term of his natural life in 1828, having stolen a sheep from a neighbouring farmer to feed his starving family. He behaved well enough that his wife and children were allowed to join him, and soon Samuel Crisp earned his ticket of leave, making a fortune in the Tasmanian timber business. One of Samuel’s 12 children, Alfred, inherited the business and built the uniquely Tasmanian villa of Corinda on land previously used for a convict-run vegetable garden.
Alfred was Julian’s great, great grandfather: a man of industry who served as a Hobart magistrate, an MP, a five times Lord Mayor, and a father of 10 children. “He probably didn’t tell everybody that his father was a convict,” Julian says. “People only really started talking about that here in the 1970s and ‘80s because, before that, they wouldn’t let you into the Rotary Club if you were from convict stock.”
Everyone is proud of convict stock these days. State Governors have stayed in the high-ceilinged gold-leafed rooms that are now proudly inscribed with family names. A grand blackwood staircase leads with Baltic wainscot to Alfred Crisp’s room. It overlooks the harbour and the city with magnificent rooftop views. Mary Spode’s room is still in possession of its original claw-foot bath while, in the Verandah Room, there’s a loo that looks across the ocean to Antarctica. Another window frames brooding Mount Wellington with a splendid magnolia tree dwarfing the garden topiary below.
Other rooms display manuscripts, maps, land titles, rolls of official proceedings, paintings that mark moments of grandeur at the bottom of the world. There’s an original native blackwood commode known as “a thunderbox” and, propped above a wardrobe in Basil Crisp’s room, there’s a bike. It’s not just any bike. One of Alfred’s sons, Alfred Basil Crisp, was an amateur cyclist in the golden age of the bicycle. In 1895, he won Melbourne’s Austral Wheel Race, the oldest continuously run track event in the world, and still one of the toughest. He was a complete novice on a bike with no brakes, an unknown Tasmanian who took off with the trophy. Framed photographs of Basil in his heyday decorate the walls. He is a favourite. “I just like Basil’s you-can-do-anything-if-you-try attitude’,” Julian confides. “It’s what I’ve always done.”
Julian was to have studied law, but he didn’t like university so went backpacking around Europe with a friend, for seven months, with no money. He got to London with 10 pounds in his pocket and ended up doing IT. And hospitality. One day he woke up “in an office full of nerds in West London” and thought what am I doing?’ He had met Chaxi Higuera by then, but finding London a bit cold, she suggested a return to her birthplace in the Canary Islands. The couple stayed for two years then Julian bought his bride back in Tasmania.
The first winter at Corinda ended up being colder than London. You could see breath vaporise in a cloud. Modern heating was installed and renovations began. Six guest rooms in the house take note of important historical details but Corinda isn’t traditionally fussy. Julian fixed things, continually looks for replacement parts, at the moment he needs crank handles for the servants’ bells. There are no servants anymore, of course, but there’s an old picture of the family that never seems to gather dust. It’s an object of continued admiration.
“Eleven children are all piled onto a horse and cart at the front of Corinda,” says Julian, pointing at the grand portico. “There are no plants in the picture because Corinda had just been finished and it was a dirt plot then. I look back to that time and think, wow, that’s connection. Aren’t we lucky? We are just so lucky.” The bare dirt has become a horticultural adventure that rambles between self-contained accommodation in the coach house, servants’ quarters and gardener’s cottage. A mix of topiary and trees and shrubs have been laboriously planned and planted over decades to follow Victorian parterre lines. It’s a dreamy patchwork maintained in the style created by Alfred Crisp with formality broken by a flourishing kitchen garden.
The kitchen is a central part of the Corinda inheritance. Guests take breakfast in a conservatory downstairs but the best of Chaxi’s Spanish cooking heritage comes together with chef Ben Gilligan at a pop-up intimate dining experience, a highly curated event, limited to 30 people every week. There are high teas and cooking classes too. These events, inspired by necessity during COVID-19, allow inspiration and innovation to flow from the kitchen using the best of locally grown product with recipes Chaxi learned sitting on her grandmother’s knee. The local newspaper spread the word and now the phones run hot. The events are booked out every time. Everybody likes an heirloom. AC.
For more information, visit corinda.com.au.