Simon and Lucy Fraser and the first “Torbrek”
Simon Fraser was born into a farming family in the Inverness district of the Scottish Highlands in 1823 and lived in Boston, Lincolnshire for some time before moving to Liverpool where he had an ironmongery. He probably met Lucy Simpson in Boston as she was born there in 1831. They married in London in 1856 and the couple, along with the first 3 of their 6 children, migrated to Brisbane in 1862.
They lived on Stanley Street in South Brisbane for some years and Fraser worked as an auctioneer and commission agent. In 1876, he purchased around 4,000 square metres of land at the crest of what was by then known as Highgate Hill. There shortly afterwards the Frasers built their house “Torbreck”. The name, An Tòrr Braec in Scottish Gaelic, means ‘The Speckled Hill” and is the name of a farming hamlet not far from Inverness.
Over the years, Fraser purchased additional adjoining land expanding his holding to around 7,000 square metres.
Simon Fraser was later in partnership with his eldest son Alexander and they were very active in the 1880s real estate boom.
From 1869, he also represented various electorates as a member of the Queensland Colonial Legislative Assembly . He was highly respected due to his integrity but was said to be “a dull speaker”. He was appointed as Chairman of Committees in 1884 and in that role he at times had a casting vote, for example in the decision to extend the railway to Fortitude Valley in 1887.
In his book on Highgate Hill, John Jarrott relates a story told to him that “a son of Simon Fraser was deputed to watch for his father each afternoon when Parliament was due to rise. The son watched the gates of Parliament through a telescope in the attic of Torbreck. When father’s carriage was sighted in either Alice or William Street, the potatoes were put on the stove for dinner.”
Simon Fraser died early in 1889 at age 64. The property boom came to an end in that year and Queensland entered into a long economic depression. The family business would have been one of the first to suffer, with income drying up and loan repayments to make on land which in the past would have been quickly subdivided and sold.
Lucy took out two mortgages on the Torbreck property totalling £5,400. In 1892, a meeting of creditors decided to wind up in liquidation the family company, which had debts of almost £16,000. Lucy and Alexander were allowed to keep their household furniture, but little else.
The second Torbreck
After losing Torbreck as a consequence of the liquidation, Lucy rented various houses in the area for some years, including in 1898 ours just down the hill. (see my post Glenview – A Highgate Hill House circa 1883 ). In around 1908, the family built a new “Torbreck” in Wahcumba Street, Dutton Park.
In 1930, Lucy died at the second Torbreck in her hundredth year. She had been a member of the Diamantina Orphanage committee, president of the South Brisbane Benevolent Society, a member of the Charities’ Organisation Society, which she represented on the National Council of Women, and president of the Women’s Auxiliary of the London Missionary Society. She was survived by 6 children, 10 grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren.
In 1892, the title to the original Torbreck was transferred to the Commercial Banking Corporation as part of the liquidation of assets and the property was sold. Unfortunately, the relevant title deed is badly damaged and illegible. The house was rented out to various people over the following years. Amongst these was the Penfold family. Henry Penfold, a produce merchant, had also gone through financial difficulty with two liquidations by agreement of his creditors. However, he had the money to give his fifth daughter Lillian a small family-only wedding reception at Torbreck when in 1900 she married barrister Arthur Lilley, a son of Sir Stephen Lilley, judge and onetime Premier of Queensland.
In 1901, the house along with almost 7,000 square metres of accompanying land, was sold to Arthur Praeger, a clerk at the titles office. Over the years, the Praegers sold off sections of their property. On Dornoch Terrace for example, the Maxwell family purchased a section on the western side and constructed their house “Aloombah” next to Torbreck in around 1913.
Arthur Praeger died in 1929 but Alice continued to live in Torbreck and rented out guest rooms in the house. After her death in 1950, ownership passed to her two daughters Beatrice and Blanche.
Old Torbreck gets a reprieve
The houses existing in 1926 on the section of Dornoch Terrace near Torbreck are shown in number 79 of the Brisbane City Council historic Detail Plans. Only three of these remain today – Mardon Flats now once again a private home, Clova and The Summit which has been incorporated into a recent high-rise development adjacent to the park described in a previous post in this blog, Highgate Hill Park. The Summit also forms part of the story of the Rumpf family and their house across the street that I described in my post Beer, Books and a Bookie – the Story of a Highgate Hill House .
There were plans in 1937 to build a set of flats at the site of Torbreck. These were featured in an article in the Telegraph newspaper which described an increase in the “flat-habit” in Brisbane as being driven by a general desire for easier living, coupled with an acute problem of obtaining competent domestics and satisfactory houses to let.
The flats were never constructed. It’s interesting to speculate whether the high rise Torbreck would have been built in this location if the 1937 proposal had proceeded.
The birth of the third Torbrek
In around 1957, Rowley (Edward Rowland) Pym, described in one memoir as a “one armed country fencer” conceived the idea of a high rise residential block on the site of Tobreck. Whilst some sources state that Pym’s grandmother owned the old house, it was transferred to Torbreck Pty. Ltd., the developer, directly from Alice Praeger’s two daughters who had inherited the property in 1950. At the time of sale in 1958, there was a mortgagee Dorothy Rowlands. She or her husband Archibald were possibly relatives of Pym’s.
Initially Pym had difficulty in generating interest in the project, but his persistence led to Queensland architects Aubery Job and Robert Froud accepting the brief. They previously had concentrated on domestic home design and were influenced by both their experience in sub-tropical Brisbane as well as knowledge of developments overseas. There are similarities, for example, with Jorge Machado Moreira’s 1952 Antonio Ceppas Building in Rio de Janeiro. The plan included a 14 floor tower block and an 8 floor linear garden block in close proximity, the two types of structure proposed by Le Corbusier in his 1925 Plan Voisin for Paris.
Construction and sales
Construction of what was Queensland’s first multi-storied home unit development took place in the period 1958 to 1960. It was a totally new concept for Brisbane, with each of the 150 home units having at least one private balcony, electric kitchen, sewerage and garbage disposal facilities, washing machine and clothes drier. Softened water was provided via storage tanks on the roof, and the latest in automatic lifts provided.
The original plan also included some features which did not come to fruition including shopping facilities and professional suites at ground level, a basement laundry service, a restaurant with room service, a terrace café, roof and indoor gardens, a tennis court, putting green and fully equipped children’s playground. Some of these ideas were just too advanced at the time for the Brisbane City Council to approve and cost overruns also resulted in deletion of some items.
Pym formed Torbreck Real Estate Brokers to market the development with significant sales off the plan. The marketing strategy centred on presenting home units as providing all the benefits of traditional housing coupled with a cosmopolitan lifestyle. It was claimed that rental of the ground floor facilities, that unfortunately did not eventuate, would cover maintenance costs. As Queensland had no strata title scheme at that time, owners received £1 shares in Torbreck Home Units Limited to the value of the purchase price. Torbreck remains under company title today.
The builder was Noel Kratzmann, head of one of Queensland’s largest building companies at the time. He was also one of the investors in the development company. The lift slab technique was used for the garden block. This process seeks to reduce cost by pouring concrete floor slabs on the ground and then lifting them into position using hydraulic jacks. The high rise block used conventional building methods.
The garden block under construction (State Library of Queensland)
An observation platform was erected during construction from where visitors could follow the progress and a plastic model of the development was on display at the site office. On completion, the observation deck at the top of the tower was opened to the public to encourage further sales and Torbreck became a popular Sunday outing destination.
The first residents moved into their units in December of 1960.
Reid Murray Developments had taken over as the developers in 1960 but got into financial difficulties as they overstretched in their purchase of land around the country as well as retail stores. By 1962, the total cost of Torbreck had grown to £1,196,639 whilst receipts from unit sales were only £682,7243. The builder, N. A. Kratzmann Pty. Ltd., encountered financial difficulties and in early 1963, Reid Murray were considering providing them with financial assistance. However, in June of the same year Reid Murray were delisted from the stock exchange with losses of over £9,000,0005.
A lengthy liquidation process eventuated and a Parliamentary investigation3 headed by barrister Peter Connolly in 1964 uncovered irregularities in financial reporting of Reid Murray Developments.
Being 14 floors high and located almost 70 metres above sea level, Torbreck quickly became a Brisbane landmark, visible from many parts of the city. It paved the way for the development of high rise living in Brisbane.
In 1994, Torbreck was heritage listed, being considered an important example of post-war international style architecture, modified to suit local conditions. At the time, there was considerable angst on the part of some unit owners as they feared listing would decrease their property value and hinder upgrade work.
One academic paper written in 2015 discusses the success of the development in introducing a new way of life to Brisbane and how Torbreck has become something of an institution with many long term residents. Many units have been held for decades. Sixty years after its completion, Torbreck still dominates the hill on which it is built.
- Florence Lord article on Torbreck from 1932
- Place-Names of Inverness and Surrounding Area Roddy Maclean NatureScot 2021
- P. Connolly, Report of a Special Investigation into Reid Murray Developments (1964)
- Courier-Mail February 15 1963 page 11.
- Sunday Mail June 26 1963 page 26.
© P. Granville 2017-2021