By Melissa Walsh Photo Yanni
When John Tallis died in 1996 and bequeathed the family property, Beleura, and its considerable contents to the people of Victoria, he left behind a treasure to be nurtured, trusting that his wishes would be honoured. That is something the volunteers at Beleura House and Garden have very much taken to heart as every day they treat the Mornington property as a labour of love. One of those volunteers is Jan Cleveland who has lived on the peninsula for twenty years, and been working as a tour guide for the past twelve. Along with forty other dedicated house and garden guides, Jan ensures that every visitor will be able to unravel how we lived in the second half of the 20th century, an astonishing legacy.
“I was originally introduced to the property through my association with the Mornington Gallery. We came to do a tour here and Anthony Knight OAM, director and trustee of the Tallis foundation, took us through the house which was completely empty at that stage as they were preparing it to be opened to the public,” said Jan, sitting in the grand Beleura homestead. “The year was 2000 and I was immediately hooked.” Anthony Knight has been known to say ‘Once Beleura gets you, you’re gone’ and this could not be more true for Jan and her fellow tour guides.
“It becomes like a second home here and, when you do your research before becoming a tour guide, you feel like you know the family,” said Jan, whose favourite part of the home is the library.
“I love the whole place but I could spend hours in that library. All the books have been put back exactly where John Tallis had them. Everything in the home belongs to the Tallis family. Sometimes it feels like they are still there and I half expect John Tallis to walk into the library and get a book,” she says with a laugh.
To become a tour guide, volunteers need to read a lot about the home and gardens, and go through the house often to get a feel for it. There is also a fabulous archival section where all the Beleura questions can be answered.
“When we start the house tour we always begin at the back door as this is the door Mr Tallis always used. He never answered the front door and only opened it if he was going out to do a spot of gardening,” said Jan. “It is a custom of Australia for country houses that the back door is used and this one is accessible through the winter garden where we explain to guests that the family never wasted anything. The back door goes into the French kitchen where we talk about entertaining, then onto the archival room and another small kitchen towards the guest bedrooms. Along with the oak dining room, this is the part of the home that Mr Tallis preferred to be. It is at the other end of the home with the library and we take the tour group through this section also.”
Speaking about the property, there is a fondness in Jan’s voice of the family and its history that is more than just a job.
“This place really does get to you. There is nothing like the feeling of walking into the home and seeing things just as they were all those years ago,” she said of the property where every person can have an insight into life in the 20th century.
The property was built in 1863 by James Butchart and, after his death in 1869, was described as the finest mansion in the colony and sold to Charles Edward Bright who married Anna Marie Georgiana Manners-Sutton, daughter of Sir John Manners-Sutton, Governor of Victoria 1866-1873. Beleura thus became the unofficial summer retreat for the Governor and his family. Subsequently owned by a succession of rich, powerful and successful families, Beleura was purchased in 1916 by Sir George Tallis but held in his wife Amelia’s name, and again used as a summer retreat. Sir George was the first owner to add land to Beleura, giving it an estate sufficient to support a fine house. Lady Tallis died in 1933 and Sir George, who in retirement farmed Beleura and a splendid property Braehour at Wagga Wagga, continued to use Beleura as a summer retreat. Sir George died at Wagga Wagga in 1948. In 1950 John Tallis took Beleura by family agreement saying at the time that it was a momentous decision, and not wholly a wise one. His life from then on was dedicated to the preservation of Beleura, and the dedication continues with the hard work of the volunteers and staff at the magnificent stately home and garden where time stands still.
If you are lucky enough, you might even catch a glimpse of John Tallis sitting on the old garden bench catching the sun’s rays where more than one sighting has occurred over the years.
If not, the sheer history and elegance of the home is astonishing and the gardens are a magnificent reflection of the life and legacy of the Tallis family.