In a Sydney museum, there exists a tiny photograph on a carte-de-viste, a calling card of the kind popular in Victorian times.

The photo, with its sepia hues and timeworn stains, is of a summer house in the gardens of a long-forgotten Darling Point mansion: Retford Hall.

Another card shows its entrance gates, located at 23 Thornton Street, with two pine trees either side of a grand carriage drive that surrounds “an ornamental balloon, or pear-shaped bed, luxuriating in the possession of dwarf flowering plants …”

The Hordern family looms large in Sydney’s history, dominating the city’s retail life from the 1840s right through to the middle of the 20th century.

Anthony Hordern II and his brother set up what would become Anthony Hordern & Sons. The business grew to such a size that in 1879 they erected the Palace Emporium, the largest department store in Sydney and, some say, the world. The store’s floor space spread across 52 acres and it employed more than 300 staff.

Anthony then built a home to suit his success: Retford Hall in Darling Point.

The merchant’s mansion

Construction of Hordern’s Darling Point mansion began in 1865. It was designed by renowned Sydney architect Edmund Blacket, the man behind iconic Sydney buildings like St Andrew’s Cathedral and the University of Sydney’s Great Hall.

Built from coveted Pyrmont sandstone, the two-storey Italianate home boasted seven bedrooms on the upper floor, with a drawing-room, morning room, dining room and breakfast room on the ground floor. Unlike most homes of the time, the mansion had indoor plumbing, with a bathroom and toilet on the first floor. No late-night dashes to the outhouse for this family.

The estate’s gardens rambled across almost 3 acres of land. The views, unobstructed by today’s much taller buildings, extended from Sydney Heads to St Leonards and all the way to the Blue Mountains. The family could stroll along the wide first-floor verandahs to take in the glorious vistas.

Hordern named his new home Retford Hall, in honour of his mother’s birthplace, Retford, in Nottinghamshire.

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What became of Retford Hall?

On Hordern’s death in 1876 the family briefly put the estate up for sale. However, with no buyer on the horizon, it was taken off the market and went on to remain in the family’s possession for almost 100 years.

By the 1950s many of the once-grand mansions of Darling Point were being sold and demolished to make way for large apartment blocks. Soon, Retford Hall would be among them.

In 1959 the estate was approved for subdivision into four allotments, and the home and grounds were eventually sold in 1967. This paved the way for construction of the apartment tower you see on the site today.

Glimpses of the past live on

While the tower at 23 Thornton St bears the name of the former estate, not much else of Hordern’s mansion survives. The stone balustrade from the house was moved to Bowral, where it is in Retford Park (another historic home with Hordern links, now owned by the National Trust).

Retford Hall is one of four apartment towers along Thornton Street. Next door, at number 21 is Thornton Place, while slightly further up the road at number 15 is Hopewood Gardens, where you can still see the original brick and stone fence with ironwork and the gates. At number 5-11 is Longwood.

Hopewood Gardens also has a Hordern history. In 1924, a relative, Lebbeus Hordern built the Art Nouveau-style Hopewood House up the road from Retford Hall. With over 40 rooms, it was one of the biggest houses ever built in Sydney. After Leabbeus’ death, the house was used as accommodation for Navy personnel during World War II. It eventually became a finishing school for young women and, as with Retford Hall, it was sold and demolished in 1966 to make way for Hopewood Gardens apartment block.

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