One of Australia’s most historically significant woolsheds is at risk of falling into disrepair as maintenance costs continue to climb out of reach.
Heritage New South Wales funding has proved expensive to apply for and elusive, raising important questions for privately owned heritage assets everywhere.
Who should pay to preserve Australia’s history and is the current system in the best interest of conservation?
What is perhaps the most unique woolshed in all of Australia had largely remained a secret until it was first opened to the public in 2012.
For the woolshed’s owner Jan Harries, opening the historic site to the public was the necessary next step in the building’s 135-year history.
Built in 1886, the Old Errowanbang Woolshed is heritage listed and is of state significance, but despite this status, Mrs Harries is finding its preservation far from guaranteed.
With the site no longer a working shed, she saw the only way forward was a commercial one, but struggled to accommodate the exhaustive funding criteria that would ultimately allow the building’s purpose to evolve.
“We’ve been putting in for heritage grants,” Mrs Harries said.
The woolshed is one of only a handful of architecturally designed woolsheds from the 19th century.
One of the largest in the state’s central-west, its complex and sophisticated design allowed for the continuous processing of sheep, fleece and packaging for distribution — almost like a modern factory would do today.
The greatest number of sheep processed through the woolshed in a shearing was 90,000 in 1888.
The building’s vast bluestone pylon foundations have likely contributed to its enduring stability and 135 years of longevity.
The Heritage NSW’s description of the historic woolshed is impressive:
“The quality of workmanship in the construction of Errowanbang Woolshed is probably unsurpassed in Australia,” it says in its inventory.
Interior details such as stop chamfers — smoothed and bevelled edges of wooden beams to ensure wool doesn’t snag — show an “unusually high attention to detail in what would elsewhere be a utilitarian building”.
As old as modern Australia itself
Privately owned since its construction, the woolshed sits on a property that is equally historic.
Made of mud from nearby Flyers Creek and cow hair, the adjacent homestead was built in 1826 by William Lawson the Younger, son of explorer and surveyor William Lawson.
Its construction was so early in the colonisation of Australia that the land grant made Lawson the Younger the first Australian-born white person to be granted land, west of the Blue Mountains.
Awarded to Mrs Harries’s father-in-law in a post-war soldier settlement scheme, the homestead was initially restored out of necessity, as a place for him to start a new life.
“He drew lot one, which was this place. Everything was very rundown,” Mrs Harries said.
“He spent years not only pottering around the woolshed, but also improving the home.”
A ‘catch-22 situation’
After taking over the property 10 years ago, Mrs Harries thought that offering it as a wedding venue could be an initial capital lifeline when maintenance costs began to climb.
But after a successful first season, Blayney Shire Council requested various development consents like improved accessibility, which ground festivities to a halt.
“We’re in a catch-22 situation where I can’t hold the weddings without finishing the conditions from the council, but we haven’t got the money to do the work [for the conditions],” she said.
“It’s very difficult to fund it when we can’t hold functions to help put the money in the bank so that we can buy what we need to do the repairs.
For the council’s director of planning Mark Dicker, the process is undoubtedly complicated.
“It takes a lot of documentation in order to verify everything and it’s a slow process,” he said.
“There’s not a lot of experts around in all the required fields.”
Mr Dicker conceded that in many instances, the documents required for funding applications were very expensive, and it would be better to have a centralised panel of experts for heritage items.
“But I can see better benefit for both the buildings and the owners and the wider community of a [centralised] service through the NSW Heritage Office.”
Additions can cause ‘further damage’
Director of conservation at the National Trust David Burdon said the isolation of sites like the Old Errowanbang Woolshed could present additional conservation difficulties.
“They’re often built with rather crude technology that was available at the time,” he said.
“Sometimes modern repairs can actually do further damage to some of these buildings, so there’s a real need to conserve them properly.”
Mrs Harries agreed, saying there was also a risk that safety adaptions could harm a building’s integrity.
“We’re happy to do the main stairs, though, but that’s $10,000 just for the architect to draw up.”
Too far to care?
Mrs Harries said the isolated location of the woolshed also presented a barrier for funding and believed that historical rural assets were not given the same gravitas as those in metro areas.
“They put a pin on the map and say, ‘Oh, that’s too far. We have got to drive four hours’.
“It’s not fair that we can’t generate some genuine interest from those people who govern and direct the finances to help.”
Mr Dicker said the stakes were high with buildings the age and size of the Old Errowanbang Woolshed.
“You can never get it back once it gets into such a state of disrepair.”
Heritage NSW told the ABC it could not comment on specific grant applications and that applicants could approach the relevant agencies for feedback on any unsuccessful grant applications.