In the Hobbit House, 86 types of wallpaper tell almost two centuries of stories

A convict-built cottage in Tasmania’s southern Midlands slowly reveals 160 years of secrets through its layers of historic wallpaper.

The Hobbit House, as it is affectionately known by its owners, is an 1860 timber cottage 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 three sons lived in the cottage between them for 60 years.

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

Retired curator Linda Clarke helps remove wallpaper at the Hobbit House.Supplied: Alan Townsend

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

He said the cottage was a time capsule, adding layer after layer of wallpaper — 86 different types in all.

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

A room alone has 30 layers of wallpaper.

old wallpaper with a green and red floral pattern
Floral wallpaper from the Hobbit House in Oatlands.Supplied: Alan Townsend

Why all those layers?

Smoke from the cottage’s open fires would darken the wallpaper, leading to residents adding more over the top, Mr Townsend said.

“The other problem is that as a wooden house you get a lot of drafts, and every two years you have to re-paper and keep the drafts out… over time you get 30 layers.”

He thinks the McDermotts probably bought discounted leftovers from local stores.

The current owner of the cottage invited Mr. Townsend to pick up some wallpaper while she was removing it.

a sitting 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.Delivered: Domain

“We saw right away that some of the early layers were really interesting.

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

old wallpaper with images of stone buildings, with a blue background
Ruins are depicted on part of the wallpaper of the house.Supplied: Alan Townsend

Not just wallpaper

Oatlands is known as a cold and windy city in winter.

In an 1860s cottage, residents would also cover up rips and holes with old clothing 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 pasted their children’s homework on the wall, which Mr. Townsend initially thought was practical rather than showing.

Children were given a blank copybook, with a beautifully written line at the top of each page; some rules reinforced moral messages from school.

old homework with the text 'leave the friendship of the wicked' used as wallpaper in an old cottage
Homework on the walls reads: “Relinquish the friendships of the wicked.”Supplied: Alan Townsend

“Your job was to copy that line 20 or 30 times on the page to end up with that beautiful brass handwriting that the 19th century is so famous for,” he said.

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

Old school homework written in neat cursive script that says 'aim to excel at what is truly noble'
The homework repeated the line: “Strive to excel in what is truly noble.”Supplied: Alan Townsend

He said the McDermotts had official documents signed with an “X”, meaning they could not read or write, “while their children are getting a pretty good education in Oatlands in the 1800s”.

“I think that’s why so much of their homework is taped to 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 correctly signed by James McDermott.

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

Olive green and cream floral wallpaper
Mr Townsend is writing a book on Tasmania’s historic wallpaper.Supplied: Alan Townsend

Paris, London, Hobart Town

Mr Townsend is writing a book that will tell some of Tasmania’s social history discovered through wallpaper.

When people looked back on 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 could get pretty much anything you can get in the shops of London or Paris in the shops of Hobart,” Mr Townsend said.

A house in Evandale has custom French wallpaper from the 1800s with the entire room being an individual piece of art depicting two royal families meeting in the deserts of Arabia.

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

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

“The reason is that by the mid-1800s, machine printing came in and what used to be a luxury item was suddenly available to everyone.”

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