Hollywood Glamour in Skipton - The Story of Mooramong [updated 10.05.15]

Hollywood Glamour at Skipton
THE STORY OF MOORAMONG
Early History - the ‘Scottish squattocracy’
Mooramong, in the heart of Victoria’s Western District, is a sheep station renowned for the productio

HOLLYWOOD COMES TO SKIPTON

The year is 1918. In the tiny country town of Skipton in the Western District of Victoria, Australia, the townsfolk are all aflutter becaue the wealthiest gentleman farmer in the district, Scobie McKinnon, is returning home from an extended trip overseas to his property, Mooramong, with a bride.

 So who was the girl who had finally turned the head of the quiet and handsome Scobie, the Western District’s most eligible bachelor? Surely no ordinary gal.

 Well, they never expected she’d be ordinary. But never in a million years suspected she would be quite so extraordinary.

Scobie had fallen in love with and married one of Hollywood’s most well-known silent movie stars. She was a veritable siren of the 1920s silent-movie genre.  And she was coming to live in that tiny country town. From Hollywood. Hollywood. From Hollywood to Skipton. It could scarce be believed.

Claire Adams appeared in  over 40 silent movies in many of which she starred alongside some of the genre’s leading men.  And now she lived in Skipton. However, far from what you might expect Claire did not pine for her former glamorous life but rather threw herself into her new life and love and with her inimitable style, grace and sense of fun, brought a touch of Hollywood to the Australian bush.

Her first order of business was to transform the main residence on Scobie’s property into an exquisite, hacienda-style haven. She also arranged for the building of what was, at the time, the largest privately owned pool in the Southern hemisphere. A 1920′s art deco-style delight, Scobie and Claire’s pool glittered and shone like an  oasis in the hot Australian bush and they hosted countless parties beside it.

As often as they entertained Hollywood stars and associated movie bigwigs who made the long voyage from the US to see how Claire had transformed this pocket of sun-parched Australian land into her own personal jazz folly, they also hosted locals. Some elderly people in Skipton still recall the dizzying glamour of not just the glittering pool and parties but also Claire’s magnetic presence. She simply oozed Hollywood style.

But this never prevented her throwing her heart and soul into every aspect of Mooramong, which she adored. She beautified it, helped to protect it literally with her own hands when a shocking bushfire threatened one terrible summer and cared tenderly for all the animals on it.

As well as the farm dogs, Claire adopted countless stray dogs, often having them shipped down from the city by train from the Lort Smith Animal Hospital of which she was a patron and vice-president. She could never ever stand to see an animal in distress or left behind. So it’s no surprise that despite all the handsome leading men she appeared beside on film she is said always to have maintained that Rin Tin Tin was her favourite!

Scobie was, at heart,  a farmer and despite having enough money to never need work a day in his life, he immersed himself passionately in every aspect of the management of his property. Like all sheep farmers he readily accepted that the expendability of individual animals was a sometimes brutal necessity. Claire, however, was committed to each individual ovine soul.

Video footage shows her kneeling next to a  prostrate sheep which she has covered with a blanket and water bottles and which she is petting maternally. Goodness knows what ailed it but you can just imagine what the hardened farm hands on the property, not to mention Scobie himself, made of that. And yet they indulged her. With pleasure. Because who could resist such a charming woman, doing such caring work? No one.

In a move that somewhat scandalised the staid Skipton community of the time, gossips had a field day discussing rumours of a green leather cocktail bar that took up an entire room in the lovebirds home. The rumours were true and  Claire and Scobie introduced the phenomenon  of the “cocktail hour’ to the probably willing but necessarily outwardly scandalised, hard-working rural community.

You would be forgiven for thinking that a love like this – a love between two people whose worlds could not be further apart – might be destined for failure but it was, in fact, the very opposite. Gregarious, beautiful Claire (who was, her birth certificate attests, at least a decade older than her husband) and handsome, reserved Scobie enjoyed a love story that few do. They adored each other all their lives.

At their request their ashes were buried together under a headstone tucked back from the manicured lawn that surrounds the pool that was  the scene of so much fun during their lives.

The reason we know so much about Claire and Scobie is because Claire used part of her substantial personal fortune (inherited when her former husband, a Hollywood movie director many years older than she, died)  to purchase video cameras and film – a thing almost entirely unheard of for a private person back then.

Claire, thankfully for us,  never lost her love of film nor her theatrical bent and she documented countless hours of her own and Scobie’s life in film. These reels sat undiscovered in metal tins for decades until a cameraman and film buff shooting something in the Mooramong  homestead came across them and, curious,  began to investigate. Above and beyond all the good times and glamour, the reels revealed their singular love story.

Thanks to the generous philanthropic bequests they left on their deaths, the spirit of Claire and Scobie  still pervades every corner of Mooramong. Claire’s perfumes still sit on her dressing table. Their gramophone stands, needle poised, ready to play the next jazz record.

At Claire’s direction Mooramong was bequeathed to the National Trust of Australia to be maintained as a flora and fauna park. Other generous bequests were made to animal welfare. Nor was the local community forgotten. As well bequests to friends and family, Scobie and Claire left an annual bequest of $20,000 to the tiny Skipton Primary School. Many Australian primary schools feature a picture of The Queen in a prominent position. Skipton Primary has a large photo of Claire and Scobie and to this day every child at the school can tell you their story.

Watch this trailer of the documentary movie: Mooramong – Private Hollywood (found on IMBD.com) and released by Caneva Media Productions in 2009. It was Caneva Media Productions that collated the reels of film that were discovered and this documentary brings Claire and Scobie as well as Mooramong and its surrounds back to life in the most wonderful way. It’s utterly gorgeous. Sigh.


Many thanks to the author of the above article (Twirling Betty) for granting us permission to use it.  Twirling Betty is a fantastic creative website with great gift ideas for everyone.

Mooramong is open to the public for inspections.
Please click on the National Trust of Australia's website for further details. 

 

Hollywood Glamour at Skipton

THE STORY OF MOORAMONG

Early History - the ‘Scottish squattocracy’

Mooramong, in the heart of Victoria’s Western District, is a sheep station renowned for the production of fine wool. In the pioneering days the area was taken up in vast ‘runs’ and the little town of Skipton, which celebrated its 175th Anniversary in 2014, was established.

The property is part of the 15,000 hectare squatting run originally occupied in 1838 by the Scottish immigrant Alexander Anderson and his two partners. When the run known as Baangal was divided in the 1860’s, Anderson took over the northern portion, which he named Mooramong.

 Anderson was prominent in the development of the Skipton area, supporting the famous Skipton Sheep Shows and the Presbyterian Church. His brother Henry Anderson for some years held the nearby Borriyalloak run.

By 1871 Anderson had sold off all but about a third of the run and had made sufficient money to commission the Geelong architects Davidson & Henderson, who a few years earlier had designed Barwon Park, to draw up plans for a very well-proportioned timber house. Built in 1873, the house was surrounded by a neat garden and hedges.

Anderson sold the property in 1889 and Mooramong passed into the hands of the Stoddart family. They were popular in the district and the football prowess of the ‘Stoddart boys’ is still remembered. The youngsters were said to have played league football whilst still attending Geelong College. It is thought that this family added the Staff Wing to the homestead.

By 1908 Mooramong had been acquired by Robert Carstairs Bell and soon the Melbourne architects Smith and Ogg were engaged to extend the homestead, with the Bedroom Wing being added in 1909.

Mackinnon ownership and horse racing – L K S Mackinnon Stakes

Mooramong was sold to W H Johnston in 1920 and then again in 1926 to L K S Mackinnon, who bought the property for his son Donald, to present to him on his 21st birthday. Originally comprising 11,300 acres, the farm was later reduced to just over 6,000 acres by Soldier Settlement acquisitions and to the present 3,800 acres upon its bequest to the National Trust in 1978, which was finalised in 1981.

Donald John Scobie [D J S] Mackinnon was born in 1906. Donald’s mother Jessie was a member of the Simson family, who in in the mid 1800’s were owners of Trawalla Station near Beaufort and later of Trawalla, a grand Italianate mansion in Toorak.

His father [L K S] was a senior partner in the Melbourne firm of solicitors, Blake and Riggall and a noted racehorse owner. The famous sprinter Woorak was part of his stable, as was the 1914 Melbourne Cup winner, Kingsburgh.

Chairman of the Victoria Racing Club for twenty years, L K S was so admired by his racing peers that the Melbourne Stakes, run at Flemington on Derby Day, was re-named the L K S Mackinnon Stakes. The Mackinnons lived in Domain Road, South Yarra and spent summers at their family holiday house in Sorrento. They drove Rolls Royce vehicles with personalised number plates, relaxed in the Committee Box at Flemington Racecourse and schooled their son at Geelong Grammar, where he excelled at rowing.

It was usual for sons of ‘well-to-do’ families to complete their education at Oxford or Cambridge and Donald [or Scobie as he was called] was no exception to this rule. After finishing at Geelong Grammar he was enrolled at Jesus College, Cambridge. A tall and talented oarsman, he was a very popular captain of the college’s first eight. Under his captaincy, the crew won carnivals in 1926, 1927 and 1928. The decoratively inscribed oars used by his winning crews adorn the walls in the Library at Mooramong.

Along with the Mooramong property, for Donald’s 21st birthday his father also had delivered to Cambridge a Rolls Royce, for his use whilst studying in England. Donald had a successful and enjoyable time at Cambridge. His academic career was relatively undistinguished, however he livened up his studies with frequent trips to London’s theatres and restaurants. Term holidays were spent at the Mackinnon’s ancestral estate at Duisdale on the Isle of Skye, which L K S had inherited from two maiden aunts.

On his return to Australia, Donald took over Mooramong and set about the more serious business of becoming a grazier.

Skipton meets Hollywood in London

In 1937 Donald [Scobie], then aged 32, returned to England for a rowing re-union that was also centred around celebrations in advance of the coronation of King George VI. At that time Scobie was one of the most eligible bachelors in the Western District.

There were many pre-coronation parties being held in London and it was at one of these that Scobie met Claire Adams, a Canadian born actress and famous Hollywood silent movie star. In 1937 she was in England to sing on BBC Radio. Prior to this Claire had enjoyed a stellar film career, spanning approximately 50 films, many of them “action movies” which involved doing her own stunt work on horses and with some featuring the original Rin-Tin-Tin.  Born in 1894, she was briefly a child actress, then a nurse in the Great War. In 1919 Claire won a beauty and talent competition that took her from Winnipeg to America.

After retiring from film work in 1928, the year “talkies” were introduced, Claire married a very wealthy film producer, Benjamin Hampton, many years her senior. Widowed in 1932, Claire forged a successful singing career giving concerts in Hollywood which then, fortuitously as it turned out, took her back to England where she had earlier completed her education.

It was at a party in Mayfair where Claire and Scobie’s eyes ‘met across a crowded room’, as the saying goes and Claire reputedly said to one of her friends – “That is the man I am going to marry”.

The two fell in love and three weeks later on the 1st of April 1937 they were indeed wed, at Christ Church of England, Mayfair. The event was recorded in the social pages of newspapers and magazines in Britain, America and Australia.

He was thirty-two and she was forty-three, although their Marriage Certificate, a copy of which is on display at Mooramong, shows that Claire somehow “lost” more than a decade when this document was signed. Regardless, they made a most attractive couple and following their wedding celebrations, embarked on a year-long honeymoon touring Scotland, Europe and America.   

Claire always had a movie camera with her, as well as stills cameras. Throughout their lives together, both she and Scobie delighted in taking footage of their exploits, much of which is featured in the wonderful DVD, ‘Mooramong - Private Hollywood’.

From Victoriana to Art Deco

In March 1938, the Mackinnons arrived in Australia, also bringing with them their Bentley convertible, which is shown in film on this DVD being transferred from a ship to the docks in Sydney. The Mackinnons continued on to Melbourne and Donald introduced Claire to her new home, Mooramong.

Claire almost immediately set about re-modelling the Victorian era homestead into a building much more familiar to her in style, something that was at that time straight out of contemporary Hollywood.

The well-known Melbourne architect Marcus Martin was engaged to modernise the homestead and work swiftly began to alter it into the house one sees today, exceptional in its location and unique to Australia.

Mantelpieces, ceiling roses and other intricate details from the Victorian era were removed and replaced by the clean, uninterrupted lines and features of the Art Deco period, with the emblematic green colour from this era featuring in the wall-to-wall carpet, blinds and many other furnishings.

The weatherboards on the exterior were rendered over, the swimming pool and its cabana were built and the beautiful walled garden created. The pool, reputedly hand dug by 16 – 18 men and 9 feet deep at one end, was the largest in Victoria at the time and it was also heated, by a coke-fired boiler. Central heating had been installed, also fuelled by coke and the huge original cast iron boiler still remains in a bunker at Mooramong, a testament to engineering ingenuity from another age.

Mr and Mrs Mackinnon entertained lavishly and soon, a visit to Mooramong became one of the favourite pastimes within Western District and Melbourne social circles. The deep green bar in the Mooramong ‘Games Room’ was reputedly modelled on one that was on the Queen Mary. There was initial reluctance amongst the locals with regard to the introduction of ‘cocktail hour’ at the homestead, but it was not very long before this tradition was enthusiastically adopted.

 Diamonds, Rolls Royces and Philanthropy

The Mackinnon’s had very full and happy lives together at Mooramong, where they farmed, entertained and became very generous benefactors to many worthy causes, including the Skipton Hospital and the localprimary school, the Melbourne University Veterinary School and the Lort Smith Animal Hospital, together with many others.

Mrs Mackinnon was always a glamorous figure, wearing beautiful clothes, furs and jewels. She was the very best customer of Georges, often ordering new season’s fashions in every colour available. And she never sent anything back!

She was also a most loyal customer of both Hardy’s and Kozminky’s jewellers. Her diamond collection was quite famous and after her death in 1978, the sale of her jewellery realised a quarter of a million dollars at auction in Melbourne.

Scobie loved cars and the Mackinnons always had a Rolls Royce or a Bentley in their garage. Such was his allegiance to Rolls Royce, that Scobie had one converted into a ‘ute’ for working on the property.

It was used for carting around hay, lambs and the many dogs that Claire adopted. She was renowned for rescuing numerous abandoned puppies and dogs from Lort Smith, including a blind spaniel that made its home on the couch. Claire in particular was extremely fond of all animals and the Mackinnon bequest to the National Trust in 1981 enabled the 800 acre Mackinnon Nature Reserve at Mooramong to be created, as well as ensuring the preservation of the homestead and its beautiful gardens.

 World War Two

Conflict and Compassion

This western district sheep station worked with the community to grow and develop resilience, through fighting fire, establishing reserves, revegetation, hosting breeding programs and participating in the war effort. Claire Mackinnon sang at many benefit concerts, working tirelessly for the Comforts Fund and numerous garden parties were held at Mooramong to raise funds during WWII.

 Following the outbreak of World War Two, rationing of materials and fuel brought significant changes to life at Mooramong. During annual shearing, Scobie harnessed draught horses into the old wool wagon and carted huge stacks of bales into Skipton in order to save petrol.

 Conflagration at Skipton

One event of great significance to Mooramong and in the lives of the Mackinnons during this war period was a catastrophic bushfire that swept through the property in January 1944, following the careless lighting of a campfire by two young drovers.

Many buildings were lost in this tragic event, which also claimed a number of lives in the Skipton and surrounding area. However the Mooramong Homestead was saved, due in no small part to Claire’s determination and her own tremendous efforts at dousing flames and embers with a bucket and mop, while kitchen staff ran small hoses onto hedges - ways that are incomparable to the fire-fighting methods of today.

 Soldier Settlement at Mooramong

After World War II, approximately half of the then existing Mooramong farmland was acquired under the Soldier Settlement and Rural Finance Commission Scheme. The scheme was established between 1946 and 1959 and was administered by the State Government to assist returning soldiers and other members of Australia’s armed forces. One important remnant from the scheme remains within the Mooramong estate - a Soldier Settler’s Hut, which is located in the horse paddock south of the homestead precinct, on the track towards the Shearing Shed and Shearer’s Quarters.

Soldiers were able to purchase or lease the blocks of land to start farming activities and visitors to Mooramong can explore a typical Soldier Settler’s Hut from the 1940’s/50’s post-war era, in order to gain an appreciation of the spartan life returning soldiers and their families experienced whilst establishing a farming enterprise.

Soldier Settlement schemes were administered in Australia by the state governments for the benefit of returned servicemen after both World Wars, although it should be noted that WWI aboriginal servicemen were denied access to the scheme and only a tiny number nationally we're given land after WWII. 

 Life in peacetime, Endowments and Bequests

Eventually the war was over, new fences and buildings including the Wool Shed and Shearer’s Quarters were constructed and Mooramong returned to normal. Claire and Scobie resumed their active social life, attending horse races and parties in Melbourne, but still spending a lot of time at Mooramong, where Scobie continued to participate in the day to day running of the property and Claire oversaw care of the very colourful gardens. The Mackinnons also travelled overseas extensively and collected many mementos of their journeys to other parts of the world.

In peacetime as in wartime, the Mackinnons supported their district’s activities and endowed a fund enabling the older students from the Skipton Primary School to have an interstate trip each year. The Year 2 students attend an overnight camp at Mooramong each year, with the youngsters and their teachers having a wonderful time looking for bandicoots and possums whilst exploring the property after dusk.

Claire and Donald never had children of their own, but they became godparents to many. Children were always at Mooramong, as shown by the footage contained in ‘Mooramong - Private Hollywood’. Their outstanding generosity in life continued after their deaths, with many charitable bequests, the most important of which was to entrust ownership of the property to the National Trust of Australia (Victoria).

Mooramong - a Living Museum

The Mooramong homestead is a fascinating example of Art Deco remodelling and refurbishment, with all of its stylish overhead lighting, the many very long windows and the green colour evident in carpet, blinds, bathroom fittings and crockery etc.

As the Mackinnons had no children, or other relatives to which the property and its contents could be passed, it remains intact with the many pieces of fine furniture and artwork collected during a lifetime of travel by Claire and Scobie. There is also a large collection of knickknacks throughout the house, many featuring the animals Claire so loved, including specially made “dog booties”,for outside canine romps.

A Steinway pianogracesthe music room, along with a Wire Recorder and microphone. Claire had wanted a white piano but this request was denied and the first Steinway that arrived was sent back, reportedly because the tone was not quite right. The replacement instrument is a rarity in that this piano is made of Walnut. It was hand crafted in Hamburg, Germany and is dated 31st August, 1938.

The Wire Recorder is a highly unusual piece of equipment to have in a private home, due to its great expense. These were usually only found in radio studios, but Claire used it to record her own singing. Remnants of             these recordings, some under the tutelage of her father Stanley Adams, feature on ‘Mooramong - Private Hollywood’

Other interesting features within the homestead include the Film Projector Cupboard with its original equipment, Scobie’s impressive desk and the original papers in his Study [complete with gun cabinets] and Claire’s desk which is set up as a stage when opened. Thegrand table in the Dining Roomwouldseat 26 when fully extended towards both ends.

The full genealogy of the Mackinnon clan back to the 600’s appears on one wall of the Library, in a large hand-written document embellished with the Mackinnon tartan, opposite the rowing oars from Cambridge.

In addition to the green ‘Queen Mary’ bar with its highlight thin red stripe, there is a very early remote controlled television, with a 10 metre lead to allow viewing anywhere in the Games Room, including from a Grant Featherston chair.

The main kitchen features a huge oil-fired AGA stove and the adjoining ante-room has a fascinating array of cooking equipment and gizmos from the 40’s through to the 70’s.

Outbuildings at Mooramong including the chauffer’s hut, the stables and tack room, dairy, laundry and meat house can also be viewed by visitors, along with some of the old farm machinery and the extraordinary cast iron water boiler in the bunker, a testament to engineering ingenuity from another age.

Nearby is a tennis court built in the 1930’s and the site of the old orchard and vegetable gardens, with a more recent drip-irrigated orchard planted within a protective fence.

The Mackinnon Nature Reserve

The creation of this Reserve formed part of the bequest to the National Trust and it is the home of many species of native birds and animals, including the endangered brolga and Eastern Barred bandicoot. A partnership with Zoos Victoria will soon see a trial of Maremma dogs bonded to a flock of sheep and also acting as guardian dogs for the bandicoots, against predation by foxes and other feral animals.

This is also one of the largest reserves in Victoria actively devoted to the protection of native grasslands and much of the area has had sheep excluded from it since 1988.

Recent works funded by the Glenelg Hopkins Catchment Management Authority have redeveloped a major causeway bordering the reserve, which will enable retention and release of water via sluice gates, from within the main Horseshoe Swamp wetland area. Completion of the project in April 2015 will now enable control of this most important of resources, in periods of both drought and flood. 

Walled Gardens

There are two walled gardens at Mooramong. The inner pool garden formed part of the major changes made in 1938 when the swimming pool was dug and the cabana (changing rooms) built. This area reflects the Californian style garden of the 1930’s and it was the scene of many garden parties and ‘comfort’ parties during WWII. The flowers planted were bright and colourful, such as dahlias and gladioli.

The enormous bay tree is a remnant from pre-1938 when the outer walled garden was Victorian, with a hedge and grass walks between cottage style flower beds.

The gardens today reflect a mix of older trees and shrubs, colourful flowering plants and salt tolerant species which cope well with the bore water that Mooramong is reliant upon during periods of low rainfall.  

 Forever Together…….

As requested in their Wills, Claire and Scobie’s ashes are buried together in the walled garden, beneath a beautiful flowering peach tree. Theirs is a remarkable love story, now part of the district’s folklore and worthy of being recounted in one of those motion pictures that they both enjoyed so much.

 Donald John Scobie MACKINNON died in 1974, aged 68.

Claire Adams MACKINNON died in 1978, aged 84.

_______________________________________ 

Guest Accommodation at Mooramong

GUEST ACCOMMODATION AT MOORAMONG

Visitors to Mooramong now have the opportunity to stay on the property in one of the refurbished worker’s houses, the Stockmans and Overseers Cottages. Set in delightful gardens and comprising three bedrooms, beautiful furnishings and fabulous new bathrooms, these cottages are a great way for families or couples to soak up the atmosphere at Mooramong.

Cottage style pet friendly accommodation is also available in the very comfortable Rouseabouts Quarters.

Enjoy a few tranquil nights immersed in the unique history of Mooramong. Guests have free use of the swimming pool and tennis court, together with a complimentary guided tour of the homestead.

For more information please call 03 9656 9804 or visit www.NationalTrust.org.au/Vic/Mooramong

More than your normal backyard pool. Claire Adams was known to host "Hollywood-style' parties here for a guest of other celebrities.

The Penalty(1929). Is a crime film, directed by Wallace Worsley, and written by Philip Lonergan and Charles Kenyon, based on the novel by Gouverneur Morris. Cast: Lon Chaney, Charles Clary, Doris Pawn, Jim Mason, and Claire Adams.

The film is about gangster Blizzard, whose legs were accidently amputated at a young age. Driven insane by his situation, Blizzard becomes a crime lord. He tracks down the doctor who performed his operation, and plots a twisted revenge.. he kidnaps the doctor's daughter's fiance and graft his legs onto what is left on Blizzard's legs.  Claire Adams plays the role of an undercover detective.

Sit back, relax with a cuppa and get set to watch the entire movie, "The Penalty" from the comfort of your armchair. Running time is 89 minutes.

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