By Cathy Jones, 2022
The house ‘Milroy’ was built c.1882 in Albert Road Strathfield for tobacco merchant George Todman (1849-1924). The house and gardens occupied over five acres of land with frontages on Albert Road and Homebush Road.
Todman, an English immigrant, had amassed a large fortune in the tobacco industry and was one of Strathfield’s most prominent and well respected residents, known for his philanthropy. ‘Milroy’ was one of Strathfield’s most famous homes. The house and gardens were often featured in newspapers and magazines of the day.
‘Milroy’s’ owner George Todman was born in 1849 in Manchester, England. He migrated to Australia about age 16 and gained employment in Sydney with Messrs Sutton and Co, tobacconists and importers. In 1875, he entered into junior partnership with the older William von der Heyde, called ‘Heyde, Todman & Co’, importers and tobacco merchants in York Street, Sydney. Tobacco was grown in Australia but relied on imports from countries like the USA and Cuba. Heyde & Todman were appointed as Australian agents for the international tobacco firm of W D & H O Wills.
Following Heyde’s death in 1896, Todman continued to manage the business, which merged in 1901 with W D & H O Wills (Australia). In 1913, Todman and architect Charles Slatyer developed the Raleigh Park tobacco factory at Kensington for W D & H O Wills to manufacture tobacco products. Towards the end of his career, Todman was a director of the British-Australasian Tobacco Co. Proprietary Ltd.
Todman was an astute businessman. While his primary interest was the tobacco industry, he also had interests in mining and land development. By his early thirties, Todman had amassed sufficient wealth to build the mansion ‘Milroy’ in Strathfield. In the late 19th and early 20th century demand for tobacco for pipes and later cigarettes was increasing. Tobacco remained highly profitable through the 1890s depression, when many other Australian businesses collapsed.
In 1911, Todman retired from active business management and embarked on an extensive redesign of ‘Milroy’ by architect Charles Slatyer, Todman’s son-in-law, who married his daughter Elsie in 1899. Todman was inspired by European architecture, arts and decorating from his many travels and set no upper budget limit for the redesign and renovations. The completed house set new standards of luxury, featuring marbled walls and stairs and bronzed ceilings. Artist Norman Carter was commissioned to paint 32 decorative panels of Australian summer scenes for the walls of ‘Milroy’.
Following the renovations in 1913, Todman gave a large garden party at ‘Milroy’ for former Prime Minister Sir George and Lady Reid and 350 guests attended.
George Todman and his wife Minnie had a family of ten children. Most of the adult Todman children settled in Strathfield, living in homes that Todman gifted when they married, These houses were designed by son-in-law Charles Slatyer including ‘Virginia’, ‘Winkurra’, ‘Carminya’ and ‘Inglethorpe’. The Todman homes are important contributors to Strathfield’s built heritage.
Todman was known for his philanthropy, making large financial contributions to the building of the Homebush-Strathfield Congregational Church and Western Suburbs Cottage Hospital. He supported many charities in his lifetime and through bequests in his will.
As one of Strathfield’s community leaders, Todman acted as a mentor for many including the architect John Sulman. With Todman’s encouragement, Sulman successfully won the tender for the design of the Strathfield Council Chambers in 1887. It is said that the design of the Strathfield Council Chamber’s clock tower is a reference to tower of ‘Milroy’.
‘Milroy’ was supported by a number of servants. An early resident recalled that Todman’s staff included “a housekeeper, parlour maid, housemaid, a coachman and two gardeners”. The staff lived in small houses in Oxford Road and “they were very strict with the staff – if they had the afternoon off they were required to be in by 9pm and if they wanted to post a letter they had to seek permission to go to the Post Office”.
Ownership of ‘Milroy’ transferred to Todman’s widow Minnie after his death in 1924. Mrs Todman died in 1929 and within a month, the house and its possessions were notified for sale.
‘Milroy’ and ‘Elwood House’ (the neighbouring property originally owned by Todman’s business partner William von der Heyde) were both sold to the City of Sydney Real Estate Coy Ltd in 1929 for £22,850. The sale of both houses and the plan to demolish and redevelop the land into the ‘Milroy Gardens’ residential estate were widely reported in Sydney’s newspapers. There was significant shock expressed that two grand and luxurious homes of less than 50 years in age could be demolished. Auctions of Todman’s property were held on-site, with the sale of furnishings, appliances and house fixtures prior to demolition. Even plants from the garden were advertised for sale.
Only seven houses of the Milroy Garden subdivision were ever built. The majority of the land was acquired by the NSW Minister for Public Instruction to build a new school. However, until 1954 when Strathfield Girls High was finally built, the land was used as a public park known as ‘Milroy Park’. During WWII, the land was leased by the Australian Army for training purposes and after the War, part of the land was laid out as a cricket oval.