Mr David Lang has lived in Rosecliffe Street, Highgate Hill, since his birth over 90 years ago and the Lang family have lived here for some 135 years. David has many recollections of daily life in times gone by.
Rosecliffe Street in Highgate Hill with its river views, an interesting collection of houses and a pathway that descends to a gully bridge, is one of the most attractive locations on my self-guided walk of Highgate Hill.
Over 20 acres of land in this location was subdivided into 101 suburban allotments in 1862.
An early house to be built in the vicinity was that of the Griffin family. A 1953 newspaper article recounts how in 1872, the family lived in “an old wagon and rough tent” while Joshua Griffin, a builder, constructed it. Aboriginal people from a camp located near the pathway that became Boggo Road often visited to watch progress on the house.
When it was sold in 1953, it was said to be one of the few homes in Brisbane still without electricity or gas connected.
When in 1877 the Griffin’s 19 year old son Henry drowned while swimming in the river, the location was referred to as “Rosecliff”. The Healy family were also living nearby in the 1870s and their home appears in later directories with the name “Rosecliffe”. The street name first appears in a Post Office Directory in 1885 with five residents listed.
Over the following decades, additional houses were constructed on the steep slopes along the river, and by the 1920s most blocks had been built on.
In around 1887, the Lang family joined the handful of others then living on Rosecliffe Street.
The Lang family
In January of 1863, the “Flying Cloud” arrived in Brisbane with 519 immigrants on board. Amongst them, travelling in the second class cabin, were Gilbert and Margaret Lang, along with their 9 children aged from 1 to 17 years old. The children were born in various locations near Glasgow, Scotland.
The family purchased a farm at Coorparoo, then known as Four Mile Camp, on Old Cleveland Road where they lived for a few years. There tragically five year old Christina died from burns after she got too close to burning logs, and her clothes caught fire. Gilbert was an accountant and worked for George Harris’ mercantile and shipping agency (see my post “Hamlet’s Ghost”) before starting his own commission agent business, importing and exporting goods.
The Langs built their home “Craigmont”, on Vulture Street near today’s Mater Private Hospital.
Gilbert’s eldest son Gilbert Thomas Chalmers Lang continued running the business and in 1885, his brothers Alexander and Robert joined him as partners.
In the same year, Robert married Elizabeth Nicol Robinson. The couple lived for a few years in “Orphir Cottage” on Glenelg Street before building their family home “Glendoon” on Rosecliffe Street a few years later. It was of typical construction style for the period, with front and back verandas, a central hallway with bedrooms on one side and dining and drawing rooms on the other. The steep roof was covered with wooden shingles.
At that time, there was no reticulated water on Highgate Hill and the house was equipped with a brick underground tank that collected water from the roof. Water was reticulated after the construction of the nearby reservoir, as I described in my post Highgate Hill Reservoir 1889 .
Due to the cooling effect of the evaporation of water, the tank was also able to be used to store butter in a container lowered into it by a rope. On one occasion the maid threw in some slops which landed on the butter! Years ago, members of the family partly excavated the tank which is still in place today.
In 1888, Robert Lang was registered as a conveyancer and the year later he was sworn in as a notary public by Anglican Bishop Webber. The position of Notary Public is an ancient one dating back to the Roman Republic and in Queensland continues to this day to be administered by the Court of Faculties in England, established in 1533, and attached to the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Robert had to travel back to England to obtain his qualification.
After the family partnership was dissolved due to the impacts of the long economic depression of the 1890s, Robert Smith Lang ran his own conveyancing business and was later joined by his son Robert Campbell Lang. After Robert Smith’s death in 1926, the Rosecliffe Street property was divided, two new houses built and “Glendoon” was converted into flats.
One house, “Roslyn”, was built as the home of David’s newly married parents and is where he was born and lives today. The other was built for his widowed grandmother.
The Lang family has had a very long involvement with the Presbyterian Church. Both Gilbert and Robert Smith Lang served as treasurer of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland. David has memories of the move from the Park Church in South Brisbane to the new location in Hampstead Road that I described in my post “Sheep, a House and Three Churches“.
David Lang’s Recollections
At the time David was growing up, this part of Highgate Hill was still inhabited by wildlife that has long disappeared. He recalls boxing with a young kangaroo that would visit the house to be fed. It eventually became too large and powerful and the boxing came to an end. The green frogs which once were common have now also become very scarce.
David believes that the name “Rosecliffe” has its origins in the local red soil. During his childhood and youth, the road was unsealed and became very slippery when wet.
The steep terrain caused problems in the provision of sewerage, completed in much of the rest of Highgate Hill in the 1930s. Eventually in around 1951, temporary rails were built to allow construction along the riverbank. Some remnants remain in backyards along the river.
Across the river, the site of the University of Queensland was a collection of paddocks. David remembers the dairy cattle as well as sugar cane growing. This was a remnant of the enterprise started in the 1860s by William Dart. His sugar mill on the St. Lucia riverbank was swept away in the 1893 floods.
Door to door traders such as the sharpening man regularly passed along our streets. David tells of how in the difficult pre-war years, they were often paid in kind with food such as eggs.
With low car ownership and many small neighbourhood local shops, groceries were delivered to the door. There were also deliveries of milk and bread as well as fruit, vegetables and meat. Rosecliffe Street was even visited regularly by a man selling jam. David recalls how in the days before milk bottles, their daily delivery was left in a billy can, hanging from a suitably hooked part of a verandah bracket.
David also recalls the clothes prop man with his distinctive call as well as the Rawleigh’s representative selling a range of medicines.
Gas was reticulated in the area in the years following the establishment of the South Brisbane Gas Works on Montague Road in 1885. Electricity became available from 1916. Refrigerators, introduced in the late 1920s, remained uncommon and expensive until after World War 2.
Along with most other families, the Langs used an icebox with large blocks of ice regularly delivered. The weekend roast would be stored in a meat safe hanging under the house until it was time to be cooked. Both utilised ingenious devices to stop the ants getting in.
Whilst the idea of hanging a joint of meat under the house for a day or two in the middle of summer might not sound like a good idea to many today, David comments “it didn’t hurt me”!
Ice chests for sale in 1937, and women delivering ice in 1942.
David’s first recollection of a refrigerator is that owned by a neighbour who lived across the street in “Puck’s Palace”, the house built by Douglas Price (see my post Douglas Price – Tragic Modernist ). It was powered by kerosene. and his neighbour used the fridge to store home made ice-cream.
Washing machines were initially also very expensive and not common until the 1940s. Until then, washing was a time-consuming and tiring process. Items were boiled in the copper using soapy water. White and coloured items had to be washed separately.
David remembers when their copper was converted from wood chip to much more convenient gas heating. After rinsing in a tub, items were put through a ringer and hung on the line supported by wooden clothes props.
Many homes in those years did not have a telephone (see my post From Telegraph To Telephone) and there was a pole mounted street fire alarm in Rose Street, now renamed Ampthill Street. Many a young boy would have been tempted to break the glass and push the button, however there was a hefty fine of £20 for frivolous calls.
Another of David’s memories is of the mysterious Rosicrucians who met in a house in nearby Borva Street on the other side of the steep gully that divides Rosecliffe Street. Occasionally they could be seen in their robes and there were rumours of other activities inside.
David went to school at nearby Dutton Park State School but had to transfer to South Brisbane Intermediate School to complete his final two years of primary school. This was an idea introduced by the Queensland Government in 1928 as a stepping stone between primary and secondary schools for 12 to 13 year-olds, These schools were phased out by the mid 1950s.
For many, this was the end of their education but David continued on to attend Industrial High in the city in preparation for his electrical apprenticeship. He went on to run a very successful electrical contracting business.
We are lucky indeed to be able learn first hand of everyday life in days gone by from someone with as good a memory and as keen an interest in family and local history as Mr David Lang.
© P. Granville 2022