The Harper Story

Harper’s Mansion was built by James and Mary Harper soon after 1834, when they bought land in Berrima township. James Harper was the only son of William Harper and Margaret Morgan, both convicts.

We know William was convicted at the Old Bailey in London of stealing two horses in 1799 but we do not know Margaret’s crime, only that she came from Dublin. The family seems to have adjusted well to colonial life, both father and son being granted small parcels of land, possibly in the Illawarra.

James must also have received an education, probably in Parramatta where William and Margaret’s marriage took place, as by the 1820s, he is recorded as being an overseer (farm manager) in the Illawarra and later in the Southern Highlands, a position which required a person to read, write and manage accounts.

Mary Robinson, James wife, was two years older than James and arrived in Sydney in December 1825, a convict transported from Birmingham in England, for 14 years. We do not yet know her crime. They probably met whilst James was working at Denham Court near Campbelltown and on 14 August 1826 James and Mary were married at St. Peter's Church of England Campbelltown. They were to have seven children, only three of whom survived to adulthood.

Coming to Berrima In 1829, James became a constable for the District of Sutton Forest, possibly based at Bong Bong, the original township in the Southern Highlands. When Surveyor General Thomas Mitchell surveyed a new line of road to link Sydney with the new pastoral areas of the Monaro and the Riverina he selected the site of Berrima to be the district’s centre. At Berrima, the Wingecarribee River is narrow and could be spanned by a bridge enabling traffic to cross even when the river was in flood.

James probably saw acquiring land in this new township as an opportunity to better himself. He bought land in the centre of the township on which he built The Surveyor General Inn, named after Thomas Mitchell, and became its first licensee in 1835, at which time he resigned as District Constable. This inn still operates and remained in the Harper family until 1924 when it was sold.

Then, in May 1834, James also purchased 100 acres of Crown Land at the northern end of the township for £28 15s. It was on this 100 acres that James built his house, originally known as Harper’s Hill, but nowadays referred to as Harper's Mansion.

Though not large by today’s standards, it was far grander than other residences in the village, which were mainly slab cottages. There is no doubt that James had high aspirations. His home was stylish, modelled on those favoured by the middle-classes in Sydney.

The simple rectangular house has double brick walls on a foundation of sandstone blocks. Worked sandstone is used for the window lintels and sills, for the door lintel, for quoins at the corners of the house and for a decorative line above the verandah. The sandstone probably came from a quarry nearby and might have been worked by convicts and the bricks are likely to have been made locally. The front door is in the centre and the 12-pane sash cedar windows are placed symmetrically on either side. It has a covered verandah with flagstones.

Inside it is fitted out with hardwood floors, cedar doors, windows, fireplaces and skirtings. The two main downstairs rooms were probably used for guests while the family lived upstairs accessing it via a steep flight of stairs leading from the back door. The kitchen was in a separate building at the back, now demolished.

In June 1844, James Harper was nominated to the District Council of Berrima by two of his fellow publicans and from this we can infer he was a man of substance and standing in the community.

The 1840s saw a general financial downturn and many fortunes based on high levels of borrowing were lost. James also suffered financially. He sold 2 acres of his land in 1841 and in July 1844 mortgaged the rest of his 100 acres for £200. Had James lived, he would possibly have been able to repay the loan but when he died in 1845, aged 39, Mary was unable to meet the debt and the house went to the mortgagee. She subsequently remarried and when she died in 1851 was buried, like James, in Sutton Forest churchyard.

In 1853, the Catholic Church bought the property and used it first as a presbytery then as a home for nuns of the Daughters of Lady of the Sacred Heart, who ran a school in the village.

From 1905 the house was rented out by the Church.

When the National Trust acquired the house in 1978 it was in a very poor state. Between 1979 and 1983 the building was re-roofed and all the external brickwork, stone and joinery restored. Inside floors and ceilings were repaired or replaced and the old staircase removed and rebuilt. The fireplaces, windows and doors are original but have been stripped, re-stained and in some cases new glass inserted.

Photos of the house before this renovation are located in several of the rooms. Only two acres of James’ land remain.

From 1999-2007, the National Trust rented the property to Michael Jackman, a local landscape gardener, who laid out the present garden and built the maze. Harper’s Mansion is now managed on behalf of the National Trust by local Volunteers. 

  • For a more detailed history see Ann Beaumont's book (available to purchase in our shop),
    A Light in the Window


  • More information on the original kitchen at Harper's, click here