May 26, 2024

Cliveden: Melbourne’s Largest House

Near the MCG, where the Pullman Hotel is today, used to stand ‘Cliveden’, Melbourne’s largest and most opulent house.

William Clarke senior
William Clarke senior

William Clarke was a farmer and small businessman, who moved from England to Van Dieman’s Land in 1829.

Like a lot of early migrants he came to the colonies seeking opportunity, but his start was modest; with his savings he opened a butcher’s shop in Hobart.

The Colonial authorities at the time were dispensing farmland to new arrivals, in order to encourage immigration. After two years in Hobart, Clarke applied for a land grant and was given 2 000 acres near Campbell Town.

He worked the farm with his family, and gradually acquired other properties nearby.

Many other settlers would arrive in Van Dieman’s land from Europe, hoping to take advantage of the same policy. But by the mid 1830s the land rush was over: all of the prime farmland had been distributed.

Many of these later arrivals then turned their attention to the mainland, looking for new opportunities.

They found leadership in John Batman and William Fawkner: in 1835, both led independent expeditions to what would become Victoria. While settlement in Hobson’s Bay was prohibited by the British authorities in Sydney, Batman and Fawkner established a small village there anyway.

When the community began to thrive, official sanction was given; Melbourne became a formal settlement in 1837.

Melbourne in 1837
Melbourne in 1837

Sensing further opportunity, that same year William Clarke shipped 1600 sheep to found a cattle station near the You Yang ranges, west of Melbourne. He also purchased properties in Ballarat and Sunbury.

As Clarke’s holdings grew, he diversified his business. He began lending money at interest, and would eventually help found the Colonial Bank, where he served as director.

His wealth made him famous: an imposing man with a bushy beard, serious and fiercely competitive, in Victoria he was known as ‘Big Clarke’. When he died in January 1874, he was the country’s largest landholder.

William Clarke junior
William Clarke junior

Control of his vast holdings then passed to his eldest son, also named William Clarke.

Born in Hobart in 1831, Clarke the younger had begun working for his father’s company as a teenager, and had assumed control of its farming concerns in 1860. Now installed as head of the entire operation, he continued to run it much as his father had done.

A financial boom in Victoria in the 1880s further increased his fortune.

While Clarke was similar to his father from a business perspective, their personalities were quite different.

Clarke was a more genial man with a range of interests outside of work. He was fascinated by science, a patron of the arts, loved to socialise and host parties, and was a sports fan who served as President of both the Melbourne Cricket Club and the Victorian Football Association.

He was also elected to Victoria’s Parliament and gave generously to charity. In 1882 he became Australia’s first Baronet, Sir William Clarke, in recognition of his philanthropy.

Cliveden in 1887
Cliveden in 1887

Clarke had lived for many years in Sunbury, but in 1887 he decided to relocate to Melbourne. Nearing 60, both he and his wife Janet wanted a more refined lifestyle, and to take advantage of the attractions of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’.

As the economy had boomed in the 1880s so had the city. For a time, it was among the richest in the world, and had many fine buildings, restaurants and entertainments for people of means.

Clarke decided he would build a new residence close to the city centre. He purchased a large plot of land in East Melbourne, adjacent to Fitzroy Gardens, for the purpose.

Aerial view of Cliveden on its corner location
Aerial view of Cliveden on its corner location

Clarke would build on a grand scale, reflective of his status as one of Australia’s wealthiest men.

The house was designed in the decorative Italian Renaissance style, and would feature 3 stories, 28 bedrooms, 5 bathrooms, 17 individual servants’ quarters and 3 oversize marble fireplaces in the dining room alone. No expense would be spared: oak panelling was shipped from England for the interiors, stained glass and a team of craftsman to install it were brought from Florence.

There was a 5 000 square foot ballroom, and the grounds were stocked with native and exotic plants. The total cost was the then staggering sum of 182 000 pounds.

Clarke and his wife moved into the house in 1888. He dubbed it ‘Cliveden’, after the famous country estate of the Astor family in Buckinghamshire.

It was reported in the press as the largest house in Melbourne, if not all of Australia.

View from Cliveden's rooftop
View from Cliveden’s rooftop

Cliveden soon became a fixture on the social calendar of Melbourne’s wealthy elite.

Clarke and his wife indulged their passion by hosting lavish parties, the opulence of the house providing a glamourous backdrop. In the warmer months they would often entertain in the garden, and many dances were held in Cliveden’s spacious ballroom.

A rooftop terrace was constructed, which provided views of the MCG, the Yarra and the city.

But Clarke did not get to enjoy his new house for long. The economic boom that had driven Melbourne’s expansion in the 1880’s, gave way to a sharp downturn the following decade.

This climaxed in the banking crisis of 1893, where an investment bubble based on land speculation finally burst. The Colonial Bank, and many other intuitions, lost enormous sums.

Clarke, devastated that his company had contributed to people losing money, paid many investors back out of his own pocket.
The bank would stabilise, but the strain told. Long work hours caused Clarke’s health to decline, and he died suddenly of a heart attack in May 1897.

Cliveden then passed to his wife, and she continued to live in the premises for another decade, until her death in 1909.

Her heirs then decided to sell the property. It was bought by another prominent Victorian family, the Baillieu’s, who added another floor and converted Cliveden into 48 apartments.

Interior of an apartment at Cliveden Mansions
Interior of an apartment at Cliveden Mansions
Cliveden Mansions dining room
Cliveden Mansions dining room

Apartment living was still something of a novelty in Australia in the early 20th century. ‘Cliveden Mansions’, as the property was re-badged, attempted to make it as desirable as possible.

The apartments came fully furnished and were embellished with tasteful decorations and modern conveniences like gas heating. Their proximity to the City, to the Gardens, and to public transport, were all highlighted in advertising material.

One thing the apartments did not have, was their own kitchen.

‘Kitchenettes are unknown at “Cliveden Mansions”. All meals are prepared in the up-to-date kitchen presided over by a highly-accomplished French chef, and served in the dining room by a courteous and efficient staff. The dining room is solely for the use of tenants and their guests.’

– From an advertisement for ‘Cliveden Mansions’

Morning tea could be served in the tenants’ rooms on request. The building also had a fully equipped garage, and an onsite mechanic for repairs and servicing of the residents’ cars.

Cliveden Mansions in 1968
Cliveden Mansions in 1968

The apartments were originally successful, but after World War II began to lose their lustre. Features of the building like the communal dining room were then viewed as old fashioned, and the building’s luxurious trappings seemed out of place with the austerity of the period.

The apartments steadily lost patronage over the next two decades; by the 1960s they had become tired and in need of repairs.

The property was sold again in 1968, and this time demolished.

The end was inglorious. Local firm ‘Whelan the Wrecker‘, an infamous participant in the city’s development, removed the valuable fixturing and then flattened the building with a wrecking ball.

Most of what was saved was sold at auction. This ran to 2 500 lots and so gives some idea of the scale of the building.

An ad for the new Hilton
An ad for the new Hilton

A Hilton hotel was built on Cliveden’s former location in 1970. The new premises, named ‘Hilton on the Park’, featured a ground floor complex with bars and restaurants, and an 18-story tower with 419 guest rooms.

While not as immediately stylish as Cliveden, the hotel would also work its way into the fabric of the city.

Its proximity to the MCG would make it a popular meeting point for fans on their way to and from the footy. And when the VFL opened up to interstate teams in the 1980s, it became the first choice for visiting clubs to stay at.

In time, its very 1970s design would make it an iconic landmark in its own right.

In the ground floor public spaces of the hotel, one of the dining rooms was named ‘The Cliveden Room’. This was fitted out with doors, light fittings, and plate glass windows all salvaged from the demolition of the old mansion.

The Pullman Hotel, present day
The Pullman Hotel, present day

In 2014, the property was sold to the Accor chain, and its name changed to the ‘Pullman Hotel’. The new owners removed the Cliveden Room during refurbishment in 2017, and the remaining artefacts were sold at auction.

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