There’s a quiet corner of Highgate Hill bordering South Brisbane where many surviving old houses boast spectacular views. One of these is the home “Dorra Tor” which has a fascinating history.
Thomas Blacket Stephens
Thomas Blacket Stephens arrived in Brisbane with his wife Anne nee Connah in around 1856. He established a fellmongery and tanning business and also purchased the Moreton Bay Courier newspaper business in about 1859.
He served as an alderman as well as a member of the Queensland Legislative Assembly, filling a number of ministerial positions over the years.
Stephens was an enthusiastic buyer of land in the numerous Government auctions held in the 1850s. Amongst a number of other purchases, he accumulated almost 100 acres roughly bordered today by Vulture and Gloucester Streets and Gladstone and Annerley Roads.
Parts of this land closer to town were subdivided and developed in the 1860s. The southern part remained undeveloped for decades and became known as “Stephens’ Paddock”.
Over the years, this large tract of land was used for various purposes. Stephens himself is said to have sunk a deep shaft near the corner of Gloucester Street and Gladstone Road looking unsuccessfully for gold.
There are reports of cricket matches being held on the rough terrain of the paddock in the 1880s, an indication of the scarcity of playing fields in Brisbane at the time.
Stephens’ Paddock subdivided
Thomas Stephens passed away in 1877 and his eldest son William took on
the management of the family’s land. William was born at South Brisbane in 1857 and was also active in business and local government. He served as the first mayor of the Town of South Brisbane.
He decided to subdivide the paddock in 1890, despite the fact that the market was weak. The huge land boom of the 1880s was over and Queensland was heading towards bank failures and a deep depression.
Perhaps he hoped the proximity of the land to the city and the new railway station planned nearby (see my post Gloucester Street Railway Station ) would assist sales.
As was typical at the time, the land was divided into quite small blocks of around 17 perches or a bit over 400 square metres. This was to encourage the sale of multiple blocks at a higher total price than a single large block and also to enable purchase by small investors. They were just over the 16 perch minimum size specified by the 1884 Undue Subdivision of Land Prevention Act.
“Dorra Tor” stands on 3 of these small blocks on Laura Street. The street was probably named after William Stephens’ sister.
One of the 3 subdivisions, portion 11, was sold to a George Simpson a year after the estate went on sale. Portions 12 and 13 were purchased 7 years later again in 1898 by Hender Underwood, a storeman. In the increasingly difficult economic climate, the lots moved slowly.
Nevertheless, an image looking down Gloucester Street from Gladstone Road from around 1891 does show a number of houses already built on the estate.
The Hancocks build the house
In April of 1907, all three lots were transferred to Mary Isabella Hancock. Isabella Hancock nee Peel was the wife of Josias Henry (Harry) Hancock. They had married 5 years previously and had established their home “Scotby” on nearby Prospect Terrace shortly afterwards. Scotby is a village in Cumberland, England where Mary Isabella’s mother had lived.
Isabella Peel was born in Cumberland and emigrated to Australia with her family as an 7 year old in 1884. Her father James was a coach builder and with her two brothers founded Peels Ltd., which was based in Stanley Street, South Brisbane. In the motor vehicle era they continued as coach builders as well as motor traders.
Harry Hancock was born in Ipswich in 1875. His grandfather Thomas, father Josias and uncle Thomas junior had established a timber mill in Ipswich in 1867, after immigrating from Cornwall. The business grew steadily and Harry joined it after finishing school. A partnership was formed with Joseph Gore in 1904, the company then becoming known as Hancock and Gore.
Harry was a dominating figure in the firm as it grew to become Australia’s largest plywood manufacturer by the time of his death in 1945. With over 2,000 employees, it was Queensland’s largest employer after the railways.
It seems that the Hancock’s first home was not entirely to their liking, as after purchasing the land in Laura Street in 1907, they built the home later known as “Dorra Tor”. They gave it the same name “Scotby” as their first house.
The attractive original stained glass of “Dorra Tor”.
They stayed here for only 3 years, with one of their children, Clarence, born in the house in 1909.
The Hancocks sold the house in mid 1910 and built a new home on Mowbray Terrace, once again named “Scotby”. It remained in family hands until 1965 is now heritage listed.
The sad Kidston interlude
The house was purchased by William and Margaret Kidston.
They renamed their new home “Dorra Tor”, after an historic house in the Falkirk area of Scotland, where they were both born. It fell into disrepair in the 1920s and no longer exists.
William followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming an iron moulder at the Carron Works near Falkirk that had been established in the early days of the industrial revolution. He married Margaret Scott in 1875 and they had five sons and a daughter.
The Kidston family decided to emigrate in 1882 and eventually made their way to Rockhampton, where Kidston became a bookseller. He entered politics and became a Labor member for Rockhampton in the colonial government in 1896. Under Premier Anderson Dawson, he was part of the ministry of the world’s first though brief Labor Government in 1899.
He later became Treasurer in a Liberal-Labor coalition, then formed his own party and served as premier twice, from 1906-1907 and then 1908-1911. He is the only person to ever make a comeback with a second term as Premier of Queensland. His achievements included electoral reform, finally giving women the vote in State elections and creating a one vote, one value framework.
At the time of their purchase of the house, there was some satirical comment , mentioning that previously the Premier had lived in very modest circumstances. The Kidston family took possession in June 1910, moved in, and in the following month Margaret died of a heart attack. Public schools and offices were closed for a day as a mark of respect and she was laid to rest in Rockhampton. One obituary mentioned how although she had never been “in society”, she moved quietly and naturally into her new position when her husband became Premier, earning great respect.
Kidston and his unmarried children continued to live in the house until December 1911, when it was once again sold. The asking price was £1,150. In that year, Kidston decided to resign from politics and became President of the Land Court, in which role he continued until his death in 1919.
Bookmaking and coach-making
The house was purchased by John Henry (Jack) and Lucy Sears who retained the name “Dorra Tor”.
Lucy Sears nee Kinealy was born in Orange NSW, where her parents Michael and Anne had settled after immigrating from County Cavan in Ireland. Her father Michael was a coach builder and eventually established his own company.
In 1897 he took up hotel keeping and became the licensee of the Locomotive Hotel in Orange. He sold his coach factory in 1901. The next year, tragedy struck the family when one of the Kinealy daughters, Margaret, suffocated in her bedroom from the fumes of a charcoal brazier she used to heat the room. Just 3 years later, Anne passed away.
Jack Sears was born on a property “Bora” near Warren, NSW, in 1876 where his father was a property manager. In 1902, he married Lucy Kinealy in Sydney. They moved to Brisbane in around 1910 along with their first daughter Clare.
By 1912, Lucy’s father Michael and three of her siblings had joined her in Brisbane. Her brother Bob formed a partnership with husband Jack, running a bookmaking business. They became very well known in Brisbane. Jack was also a noted race horse owner and billiards player.
The pair hit the news in 1924 when a punter by the name of Trihey, after making some cash bets, made large bets using a cheque as security. He won £4,340, but his unusual behaviour led Sears and Kinealy to do further checking, and they found a history of bouncing cheques. As it appeared that Trihey would have been unable to pay if he lost the bet, they decided not to pay out the winnings. Trihey complained, but Tattersall’s Club ruled in favour of the bookmakers in what was a very controversial decision.
Lucy made the home a social centre. As well as family weddings, Dorra Tor saw numerous charitable fund raising events, some quite large.
Meanwhile her retired father Michael, a skilled coachmaker, kept busy making furniture for the house. He passed away at “Dorra Tor” in 1919.
The social events continued into the next decade, as the Sears daughters grew up. Clair was around 13 years old at the time of this party.
In 1922, the family decided to leave Brisbane and settle in Sydney. Jack and Bob travelled to Calcutta for a stay working as bookmakers. Back in Brisbane, Lucy set about selling a vast array of furniture, paintings, carpets and other possessions as well as the house itself.
The house didn’t sell, but Lucy left with daughters Toots, Joan and Clare in 1923 to meet up with Jack for a long holiday. They returned home for a few years and finally managed to sell the house early in 1927. Once again advertisements appeared for a long list of furnishings.
From Sears to Shear
Confusingly, Dorra Tor passed from the Sears to the Shear family. Martha and Peter Shear owned property comprising two shops and a dwelling in Melbourne Street where today the Convention Centre is located.
Following resumption to widen the street, they were in dispute with the Council regarding the compensation offered. In 1926, the Land Appeal Court granted them £10,500. The following year they purchased “Dorra Tor” for £1,850.
They lived in the house until the mid 1930s and seem to have created a number of separate flats for rental. They then moved to the Darling Downs and rented out the entire house.
In 1937, the Reverend William Henry Wright Lavers, who ran a group called the “People’s Evangelistic Mission”, rented the house to start a home for elderly women called the “Frances Lavers Memorial Home of Sunshine”. It was named in honour of his late mother.
They occupied the house for some years, however by 1941 they had relocated to New Farm. The Reverend Lavers got into a spat with the “Truth” newspaper in 1942 after an elderly lady was found wandering around the streets of New Farm.
“Dorra Tor” was once again in the news in 1943 with a blatant case of war profiteering. Martha Shear had rented the house to a Mrs. Osbourne for £3 a week. Osbourne had sublet the house to the US Army for £45/10/- a month, or almost 4 times what she was paying.
Seven women, working for the US Army and occupying the house, applied for a determination as they were struggling to pay the rent, even though employed full time.
The severe shortage of housing during the war prompted the Federal Government to introduce price controls. Rentals were calculated by the court based on the value of the house and ongoing costs.
Interestingly, the Fair Rents Board valued the house and land at £1,735, less than Martha Shear had paid for it in 1926. The rental was reduced to around a third of the original figure.
The house stayed with the Shear family until 1973 and then passed rapidly through numerous hands.
In yet another interesting addition to the house’s varied occupants over the years, the current owners purchased it from a company offering astrological, psychic and clairvoyant services.
“Dorra Tor” has now returned to being a family home.
A poem written by William Kidston in 1891 “The Ballot is the Thing”