Words Penny Harrison Photographs Celeste Faltyn
For more than 150 years, the Lithgow family has run the beautiful historic property of Flowerfield as a prominent pastoral enterprise and social hub in the Yarra Valley. It’s easy to slip back in time at Flowerfield. The grand old Coldstream property dating back to the 1850s is rich with history and charm.
Sitting atop a rise that looks out towards mountain ranges, the property was once part of grazing land that stretched from Yering to Gardiners Creek (now Glen Iris). John Lithgow, who had come to Australia from Northern Ireland in 1842, at the age of 20, leased this land in partnership with family friend Robert Blair.
In 1854, John purchased the section of land he named Flowerfield and was the first resident Anglo Saxon farmer in the Lilydale district.
Flowerfield has been in the Lithgow family for four generations, with the rambling house built in 1854. Present owner Elizabeth Lithgow says that for the past 158 years, the property has operated flourishing Shorthorn and Limousin studs, along with sheep and dairy cattle. It has also bred working and thoroughbred horses, while commercial cropping has included wheat, oats and table peas.
“Flowerfield pastures have won awards in Department of Agriculture competitions and annual cattle live weight and carcass competitions have been based on the property,” Elizabeth says.
In its heyday, it was renowned as a home of fox hunting and polo. In traditional English fashion, riders would gather at the nearby crossroads and wait for the huntsman to sound the horn. Polo matches in the expansive grounds saw Melbourne’s polo enthusiasts turn out to take part in the age-old divot-stomping during half-time.
Those were the heady days of afternoon tea parties, charity fundraisers and polo dances that lingered long into the night. “It was a very bright time,” Elizabeth recalls. “I used to come here at about the age of 18 for polo tournaments. There were marquees set up on the polo ground and they held dances for young people.”
The polo field at Flowerfield has been quiet for the past 11 years after a lack of riders saw the club relocate its focus to Werribee. But, these days, there is a renewed excitement in the air as local demand has seen the “king of sports” return to its Yarra Valley home.
“I wanted to get back to that time,” Elizabeth says. “The polo club has started up again and last year the first match was held here. There was a dinner in a marquee down on the polo ground and it was just like old times; a lot of fun.”
Elizabeth, also from a pastoral family in the Yarra Valley, first met her husband, John Lithgow, when she was riding to pony club with a friend one day. “He was master of the hunt club and he galloped past and sent a shower of gravel all over us,” she recalls with a laugh.
A few years later, the couple married and Elizabeth came to live at Flowerfield. It was in 1952 that John co-founded the polo club, based at Flowerfield. His passion for horses saw him serve as president of the Victorian Polo Association and master of the Yarra Glen and Lilydale Hunt Club.
Since his death in 1991, Elizabeth has continued the family’s farming and horse-based pursuits. She is a councillor of the Royal Agricultural Society, an executive member of the Moonee Valley Racing Club, and a life member of the Yarra Glen and Lilydale Hunt Club and Yarra Valley Polo Club.
The couple’s three children, Amanda, Julie and Douglas are now integral players in the family’s pastoral endeavours. Douglas runs a family property at Benalla, while Amanda and Julie continue to operate the 200ha Flowerfield property as a Black Angus cattle farm, along with Elizabeth’s family property, Wonga Park Homestead.
“Mandy’s very good on tractors, so her role is working with the heavy machinery and cattle,” Julie (also a part-time tourism manager) says with a laugh. “I do most of the co-ordination, and some fencing.”
Although a modern farming operation, there are reminders of the past at every turn. Inside the house, old black-and-white family photos jostle for space alongside artworks of dogs and horses, many of them by Amanda, a prolific artist. There are stately dining and living rooms, a billiards room, the original wood-panelled den and the spare room where Prince Philip once spent the night after competing in a polo match.
The garden, designed by Edna Walling, also hints at the property’s age, with its sweeping lawns, pretty rock walls and a sprawling liquid amber and golden elm. “The garden was very much the work of my mother-in-law, Maud,” Elizabeth says. “She lived for the garden and, up until she was 90, was very busy working in it.”
Throughout the years, Flowerfield has survived drought and bushfires, but it has always offered an enchanting lifestyle. As young children, Julie, Amanda and Douglas savoured the fox hunt afternoon teas their parents hosted.
During polo barbecues, they remember tearing around the garden after dark with guests’ children, playing elaborate games of ‘spotlight’ and locking their ‘captives’ in the cubby house. And, when they were older, they were keen riders at fox hunts.
“I don’t think we caught many foxes during those hunts,” Julie says. “But it was more about seeing the countryside with friends. It was about the stirrup cup (the traditional mulled wine served at the start of a hunt), the hip flask for those extra chilly days, and the call of tally-ho.”
Elizabeth says she is thrilled to see her grandchildren (Julie and Amanda’s children) also experiencing the joys of life at Flowerfield. “They’ve all taken to horses the way their mothers did. Julie spent 11 years working in Singapore and her children had had no contact with horses. But as soon as they returned home, they were straight into it. It’s obviously in their genes.
“And it’s lovely for them to see that social side coming back to Flowerfield with the polo. Everyone is very excited about the matches and the parties, and we see it as a way of bringing the district community together again in the Yarra Valley.”