Million-dollar legal campaign to keep legendary property intact
This is a tribute to some of the most remarkable and distinguished characters to ever grace the social and sporting domains in rural NSW
Featured Image: Denise and John Cobcroft at a Sydney ball in 1974. Picture: Rick Stevens
Caroline Overington The Australian 12:00AM November 1, 2017 Sydney
They were two of the tallest, most accomplished and agreeable Australian bushmen ever to come striding off the land, and a family dispute about the tens of millions of dollars in assets, including prize-winning cattle and first-class racehorses they left behind has taken almost a decade to resolve, but now it’s done.
Two properties owned by the famed Cobcroft horse-breeding family will stay in the hands of two Cobcroft sons, securing the dynasty’s future. The family, whose roots go back to colonial days, has been responsible for breeding a stable of first-class racehorses, among them the AJC Derby winner Caranna in 1955. More than 60 years on, horses descended from that stallion and his daughter Vista Anna, raised on the family’s legendary Parraweena property at Willow Tree, near Tamworth in northeast NSW, wear the family’s yellow and white silks.
But the future of their property was thrown into doubt by the deaths of two brothers, John and Brien Cobcroft, in 2005 and 2010.
Brien, born in 1934, and John, born 1938, were raised at Parraweena, which has been in the Cobcroft family since 1932. Both could ride before they could walk, and despite being well over 2m tall, both became skilled horsemen.
Brien, who like his brother boarded at the exclusive Sydney boys school Shore before spending time as a jackaroo, took up campdrafting — a kind of cattle herding on horseback — as a youngster, winning the event at the Quirindi Show for 11 straight years. As an adult, he took up three-day eventing, winning a bronze medal at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 on a six-year-old gelding, Depeche, that he spotted at Wyong racecourse (where it ran second-last) and bought for £600.
“Cobby’’ was also a bush poet and a founding member of the Banjo club, the group of racing figures who gather regularly to honour the works of Paterson. His brother John was more an elegant polo player, and it was while so dressed that he met his wife and soulmate, Denise McLaglen, at the 1966 Singleton horse show.
Denise, described by friends as a “warm-hearted, titian-haired beauty with dancer’s legs” was the daughter of Hollywood actor Arthur McLaglen, who had a role in the 1927 Australian film For The Term of His Natural Life. She danced in London, and worked in film in Paris and New York before moving to Melbourne, where she appeared on The Don Lane Show.
John and Denise married in the 1960s and had no children, devoting themselves to country life at Parraweena. Denise in particular loved dogs, mares, and poultry, awarding ribbons to hens all over the country. They were considered a “striking couple”; she was beautiful, he had the longest-legged moleskins anyone had ever seen.
Brien was twice married, first to Gillian — with whom he had two sons, Peter and Niklaus, who each had three children — and then to Jennifer.
All agreed preserving the property into the next generation was a family goal, but problems arose when John Cobcroft died in September 2005, leaving a will giving his brother the right to manage the family properties until the death of “my wife Denise, my brother Brien and his wife”, after which Brien’s sons should get 50 per cent of his assets, while their children — Daisy, Jasper, Hermione, Benjamin, Amanda and Teya — should share the remaining half provided they never took illicit drugs. In this way, the Cobcrofts hoped to keep the property intact for at least one more generation.
Denise Cobcroft lived on at Parraweena for five years until her death in May 2010. This was followed by Brien’s death in July 2010, leaving only Brien’s second wife, Jennifer, and his children and grandchildren still alive.
Among other things, Jennifer was bequeathed by her husband a terrace house in Sydney’s inner-city Paddington and an income of $1000 a week. She launched court proceedings for greater provision in 2015, and by the time of the most recent hearing, NSW Supreme Court judge Julie Ward was able to say “there have already been a number of court proceedings in relation to the brothers’ wills”.
There was much at stake: in May, valuer Christopher Meares put Parraweena at $32.589 million and an associated property, Parraweena Highlands, at $14.647m — more than $47m together. Key to the family’s thinking was whether they could provide for Jennifer, who was willing to give up her rights to the property, while also raising sufficient funds to provide for Brien’s six grandchildren, four of whom are still minors, without selling the land.
The family took part in Family Court mediation in 2014 and February this year, before agreeing to terms in June, leaving the Supreme Court to approve a “family deed” on October 27. According to court documents, the deed “has the effect of resolving all issues” related to Jennifer Cobcroft, and is aimed at the “family’s desire to keep certain property within the family and also seek to avoid reducing its value by selling it off in parts”. Jennifer Cobcroft has “relinquished her entitlements and has raised no objection to the proposed distribution”, effectively bringing ligation to an end.
Legal costs were estimated at $1 million. The family did not respond to a request for comment.