Hobbit House in Oatlands tells 160 years of stories through layers of historic wallpaper

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A convict-built cottage in Tasmania’s South Midlands is slowly revealing 160 years of secrets through its many layers of historic wallpaper.

The Hobbit’s House, as its owners affectionately call it, is an 1860s clapboard house built in Oatlands by convict James McDermott.

McDermott was transported to Van Diemen’s Land in 1850 for stealing a cow, but was later pardoned and worked as a farm laborer in the Oatlands area.

He and his wife Mary Ann and their three sons lived at the cottage for 60 years between them.

Wallpaper historian Alan Townsend said the cottage got its name from its sagging walls.

Retired restorer Linda Clarke helps remove wallpaper from The Hobbit House.(Provided: Alan Townsend)

“There are so many layers of wallpaper in this tiny little house that the ceilings sag towards you, making you feel like you’re underground,” Mr Townsend told Helen Shield on ABC Radio Hobart.

He said the cottage was a time capsule and added layer after layer of wallpaper – 86 different types in total.

“Not only do you have about 160 years of people lining it every two or three years, but it’s never been touched.”

One piece has 30 layers of wallpaper.

old wallpaper representing a green and red floral pattern
Floral wallpaper from The Hobbit House in Oatlands.(Provided: Alan Townsend)

Why all the layers?

Smoke from the chalet’s open fires would darken the wallpaper, leading occupants to add more on top, Mr Townsend said.

“The other problem is that being a wooden house you have a lot of drafts, and every year or two you would re-paper and keep the drafts… over time you end up with 30 layers. “

He thinks the McDermotts probably acquired discount scraps from local stores.

The current cottage owner invited Mr Townsend to pick up some wallpaper when she was removing it – he wasn’t sure what to expect but arrived with conservation volunteers Linda Clarke and Karen Stott to find some tons.

a living room in an old cottage in oatlands with sagging walls and ceilings
This photo of the Hobbit House in 2012 shows how it got its name.(Provided: domain)

“We noticed right away that some of the first layers were really, really interesting.

“One layer depicted a landscape filled with classical ruins like an MC Escher painting that could never exist in reality; somehow in the 1860s they thought it would make a good wallpaper. “

old wallpaper depicting stone buildings, with a blue background
Some wallpapers in the house depict ruins.(Provided: Alan Townsend)

Not just wallpaper

Oatlands is known to be a cold and windy city in the winter.

In an 1860s cottage, occupants also covered cracks and gaps with old dress fabric, burlap, newspapers and even children’s homework, Mr Townsend said.

“We have 100 years of textile history,” he said.

Between 1864 and 1880, the McDermotts taped their children’s homework to the wall, which Mr. Townsend initially thought was more practical than for display.

The children received a blank book, with each page containing a beautifully written line at the top; some lines reinforced the school’s moral messages.

old homework that says 'belinquish the friendship of the wicked' used as wallpaper in an old cottage
The homework on the walls reads: “Renounce the friendships of the wicked.”(Provided: Alan Townsend)

“Your job was to copy that line 20 or 30 times across the page to get that beautiful copperplate writing that the 19th century is famous for,” he said.

“You see a real transition; the parents are convicts and are totally illiterate.

Old school assignments written in neat cursive script that says
The homework repeated the phrase, “Strive to excel in what is truly noble.”(Provided: Alan Townsend)

He said the McDermotts had signed official documents with an “X”, meaning they could not read or write, “while their children were getting a pretty good education in Oatlands in the 19th century”.

“I think that’s why there’s so much of their homework stuck on the wall because you have really proud parents who want to document what their kids are doing.

Mr. Townsend also found part of a letter duly signed by James McDermott.

“We know he was illiterate; by the time the children were old enough to read and write, the parents used them to write them letters.”

Olive Green and Cream Floral Wallpaper
Mr. Townsend is writing a book on historical Tasmanian wallpaper.(Provided: Alan Townsend)

Paris, London, Hobart Town

Mr. Townsend is writing a book which will chronicle some of Tasmania’s social history discovered through the wallpaper.

When people looked at Tasmania’s colonial history it was often a dull picture, he said, ‘but if you lived here in the 1850s you had access to the most amazing shops’ .

“You can get just about anything you can get in stores in London or Paris in stores in Hobart,” Mr Townsend said.

A house in Evandale has bespoke French wallpaper from the 1800s in which the entire room was an individual work of art depicting two royal families meeting in the deserts of Arabia.

Initially, decorative wallpaper was reserved for the wealthy, Townsend said.

“But then jump to the 1860s and you have convicts buying it,” he said.

“The reason for this is that in the mid-19th century machine printing arrived and what was once a luxury item was suddenly available to everyone.”

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