Atop Northcote stands a massive red brick church. Before the church was built in the mid-1920s there once stood one of the most splendid and ornate houses in this district. Commanding a view not only of all of Northcote, but of Melbourne to the south-west, the Dandenongs to the east and on a fine day Port Phillip Bay. As it is the highest point in the district not surprisingly the people who have lived here have been of great influence and power.
The original rambling mansion was constructed in 1841 by William Rucker out of blue stone and brick. It was a formidable two storey building complete with balcony, fountain and gardens and clearly designed to show off the owner’s influence in the new colony of Victoria. Rucker was one of the original purchasers of Northcote land in 1840. He purchased two sections, a total of 262 acres for 2266/10/- pounds, a huge sum for the period! Within a year he had bought more land and proceeded to build the house of his dreams. So extravagant was this house is it became quickly named ‘Rucker’s Folly’. He had originally come to Melbourne from Van Dieman’s Land within a year or so of it’s founding by John Batman. By the end of 1837 Rucker had constructed one of the first brick buildings in Melbourne and founded the Derwent Bank of Hobart’s office in Melbourne – being the first bank to set up business. Later on joining with the Union Bank with Rucker as director. In 1841 he retired to pursue land speculation. Rucker borrowed 10,000 pounds from the Union Bank on the guarantee of a number of prominent Melbourne business men including John Pascoe Fawkner, J B Were and Alexander McKillop. By 1843 Rucker was insolvent because of the downturn in land sales and the Union Bank now owned the mansion. Rucker only lived there for less than three years.
In 1853 Robert Jacomb bought the ‘Folly’ but quickly sold it minus two acres to Thomas T a’Beckett – a solicitor and member of the Legislative Assembly. It is more than likely that a’Beckett never lived there. Within two years another member of the Legislative Assembly, Hugh Chilvers, was the new owner.
Within two years in 185 the first of two Northcote councillors moved in – John J Morris (of Morris & Meeks, iron merchants of Bourke St., Melbourne). He renamed the house ‘Sunnyside’. In 1880 Morris was one of the co-founders and President of the Northcote Health League. It was Morris who called for a new subdivision of the Shire of Darebin. In time this group became the first Borough Council in 1883. Morris was elected for a total of four terms from 1883 – 1885/6. He occupied Sunnyside for over 28 years.
After Morris in 1885, George C Clauscen gained ownership. During his residence he built the ballroom. Not only was he a councillor with Northcote for two terms, but became mayor of Fitzroy in 1887. He was a retailer beginning business in 1857. He ran a store in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy as a ‘furniture warehouseman and manufacturer’. More importantly in Northcote he is considered the father of the cable tram. It was under his instigation that the Clifton Hill to Northcote and Preston Tram Co. came into being. The High Street viaduct leading to Rucker’s hill was built and High Street widened at a total cost of 3000 pounds. Like many people, Clauscen suffered during the depression of 1890 and vacated Sunnyside. Being wealthy meant little as most of the wealth was tied to property speculation. Thus by 1894 many of the mansions around Northcote were vacant as were many of the working men’s houses. This was a period of great difficulty for everyone for four long years. Wondering where the next meal was coming from. Men could no longer look after their families and often went to look for work. By 1891 12% of houses in the district were vacant as workers sought work elsewhere.
E. A. Riches was the next owner and re-named it ‘The Alpines’. It is more than likely that he allowed some subdividing of the land. The elegant ballroom was used from 1902 till well after World War II by Westleigh College, a private school, for its primary school. In 1918 Riches sold Sunnyside and moved to another more splendid mansion – ‘Norwood’ in Brighton. Norwood was considered to be one of the most extravagant of its type and the Riches family the last to live there. Unfortunately it fell to the wreckers hammer in 1955 when large mansions were deemed too costly to run.
In 1925 after many years of neglect Sunnyside was demolished. The current church was constructed over the next two years 1926/7.
The only reminder of this once great mansion is the ballroom still standing at 212 Clarke Street.
The view of Sunnyside is from the period just before demolition
Butler, Graeme (1982). City of Northcote urban conservation study. Alphington: City Of Northcote.
Latta, D. (1986) Lost Glories: A Memorial to forgotten Australian Buildings, North Ryde, N.S.W. : Angus &? Robertson
Lemon, Andrew (1983). The Northcote Side of the River. North Melbourne: Hargreen.
Sands and McDougall’s Melbourne and Suburban Directory 1864- 1974. [Microfiche]. (1974). Melbourne, Australia: Sands & McDougall.
Shaw, AGL. (1996) History of Port Phillip Settlement: Victoria Before Separation, Carlton South, Vic. : Miegunyah Press
Swift, William George (1928). The history of Northcote: From its first settlement to a city. Northcote, Vic: Leader Publishing.
Ward, Andrew (2001). Darebin Heritage Review 2000, Vol. 3. Burwood, Vic: City Of Darebin.