Dishonourable Real Estate Practices of the 1880s

The 1880s land boom

During the 1880s, the population of Brisbane more than doubled, creating a huge demand for housing. At the same time, large amounts of capital became available, much originating from Britain. Banks, as well as a fast growing Friendly Society sector, competed in the race to lend money. Many large blocks of suburban land, purchased in preceding decades at give away prices, were subdivided and sold. Land speculation was rife and a great boom commenced.

Fact and fiction

In 1895, the journalist and author John David Hennessy published his first novel “The Dis-Honourable”. The story is based in Brisbane during the 1893 flood, and Hennessy first published it in that year in serial form in several regional newspapers under the pseudonym “Carey Grove”. Much of the detail is based on true characters and events drawn from the author’s experience, especially as a journalist. One contemporary reviewer complained that the people Hennessy based his characters on were in fact too thinly disguised and easily recognisable.

In Chapter 6, the novel’s protagonist, in true Victorian style wrongly accused of murder, meets an acquaintance named Fielding during a train journey from “Breezeland” (Cleveland) to Brisbane. Fielding had been involved in real estate and they discuss the sale in the previous decade of a fictional “Westmead Estate”, now covered with flood waters. The novel’s description of Westmead is obviously based on an estate along the railway line near Norman Creek.

Lithograph for the East Woolloongabba Estate, 1886, a possible model for the “Westmead Estate”. (State Library of Queensland)

In this post, I’ll compare extracts of the novel’s commentary, highlighted in green, with real life examples of various Southside estate developments. 

He was an auctioneer and valuer named Fielding who had succeeded in one of the best businesses of its kind in the city but through the changed times, after having reduced his staff of clerks to one and an office boy, he found it difficult at that to pay his way.

The lithograph

The fictional Westmead Estate, in common with actual developments, employed lithographic prints in their marketing, which showed the location, layout and other details of the development Many were printed in colour, like Westmead.

The lithographs were really works of art, printed in colours, by a leading Sydney firm, regardless of expense.

Misleading descriptions

In the novel, Fielding describes the advertising for the fictional Westmead Estate. 

  The wording of the advertisement was a literary achievement, quite equal to the picture described.

Hennessy calls the area in which the Westmead Estate was located “East Bunooboonoo”. The East Woolloongabba Estate was possibly the model for Westmead. In 1885, the promoters described the land as

undulating in formation, perfectly free from noxious, bilious and impure air. It is particularly healthy, being open to the refreshing influence of the sea breezes which come up
NORMAN’S CREEK
with a vigour that breathes new life to the inhaler.
“Oh, as the bee upon a flower, I hang
Upon the honey of thy eloquent tongue.”

Detail from East Woolloongabba Estate lithograph, 1884. (State Library of Queensland)

It was widely believed that disease, particularly typhoid fever, was spread by miasma, or foul air. As a result, advertising often spoke of breezes and fresh air. This aspect is not left out of the Westmead Estate advertising.

..one of the most lovely rural pictures to be seen in all Australia ; whose cool breezes would breathe new life into the lips of age, and mark the blushing cheeks of maidens coy with ruddier health and rosier hue.

Lithographs often included an idealised artist’s impression of the site. Fielding describes the Westmead representation.

There was a fancy picture of the estate, with several nice-looking houses near at hand. The artist must have drawn a little upon his imagination, for one place, what certainly looked like a villa residence in the picture, proved on inspection to be an old cow shed.

A typical idealised representation – the Wecker Estate on Old Cleveland Road. (State Library of Queensland)

Occasionally the actual image lives up to the description as with the 1884 Witton Estate at Indooroopilly,

“It is one of the prettiest little walks within a thousand miles of the city from Indooroopilly Station to Witton, running along the bank of the river, at a considerable altitude, with a high bank to the right, here and there clumps of evergreen studding the slope and relieving the romantic mountainside, with a picturesque spring running out from and across the track which is spanned by a rustic bridge, the whole scene presenting a perfect picture of rural life.”

The Fryer Library has images of this track in an album dating from the 1880s.

Small lot sizes

In 1885, the Undue Subdivision of Land Prevention Act was passed which specified a minimum lot size of 16 perches (405 square metres). Before then, lots were often smaller, and after the law was passed the minimum legal size remained common. In “The Dis-Honourable”, Fielding cynically explains why.

People will usually give as much for a small allotment as a larger one, and if a man wants a fair-sized piece of land, all he has to do is buy several.

Orleigh Estate, on sale some 4 months before the Act was passed, had many lots of just 12 perches (300 square metres). Along the river, where lots were only slightly larger, many buyers purchased 2 or even 3 to build large houses, which were later swept away by flood waters. My post The Origins of Orleigh Park describes this.

orleigh small allotments
Detail from the Orleigh Estate plan showing lot sizes as small as 12 perches. Even prestige blocks along the river were only around 14 perches. (State Library of Queensland)

Another example is the large house “Dorra Tor” in Highgate Hill which was built on three adjoining 17 perch blocks in Stephens Paddock Estate. See my post “Dorra Tor” – Plywood, Politics and Punters for more.

“Dorra Tor” in Highgate Hill stands on 3 small subdivisions. (Google Earth)

In the novel, members of the syndicate selling the land placed dummy bids when someone was trying to purchase a block adjacent to one that they had already bought.

In some cases where it was seen that a man wanted an allotment to complete a block, members of the syndicate, or their friends, ran him.

It seems that such behavior was well known, as some advertising made a point of indicating that there was no syndicate.

witton no syndicate 1886 tele 7 sep
Witton Township Estate, Telegraph (Brisbane) 7 September 1886 via Trove.

Non-existent infrastructure developments

Infrastructure developments such as railways, tram lines and bridges under consideration were mentioned as inevitably increasing the future value of the land in question. In our fictional exemplar, the advertising extolled

the advantages of the proposed railway station and the proposed tramway terminus.

Orleigh Estate advertising stated that the tram line would soon reach the estate, with a resultant large increase in land value.

“The Auctioneers consider it no stretch of imagination, or in any way an extravagant assertion to state that no matter what prices these lots realise at present, they will at least be worth double the same amount within the next twelve months, when it is almost a certainty the tramways will be running there.”

This finally occurred 40 years later, in 1925.

tram at orleigh 1969 bcc.
A number 78 tram at the Orleigh Park terminus, 1969. (Brisbane City Council)

Some estates were even named after mooted items, with an illustration based on the artist’s imagination. We’re still waiting for the bridges at St. Lucia and Bulimba featured in the lithographs below. Plans for a St. Lucia- Hill End bridge were recently shelved for a third time in 135 years,

The Bulimba Bridge Estate, 1885. (State Library of Brisbane)
The promoters of “Princess Bridge Estate” in St Lucia imagined a bridge across the river to Boundary Street, West End. (State library of Queensland)

Preying on greed

Hennessey mimics the common anecdotes used by auctioneers that preyed on the fear of missing out on making a windfall. Fielding recalls the auctioneer’s performance :

‘Why’, he said, nodding across to a well-known Brisbane merchant who, I happened to know, was one of the syndicate of proprietors, ‘I am permitted to state that Mr. Gregory bought three of the lots in last Saturday’s sale at Bunting’s Paddock, and sold them afterwards at the handsome profit of £120.

Compare this with this extract from advertising for the East Woolloongabba Estate.

The auctioneer may state that Mr. E. M. Foster bought four of the lots in Potts’s Paddock at the sale last Saturday, and sold them during the following week for the handsome profit of £100!

Both go on to describe another buyer from the previous week who rejected an offer to sell his blocks, as he expected far greater profits in the not too distant future.

The big day

The auction sale was almost always held on site on a Saturday afternoon. Free transport was provided by hired omnibus (see my post Brisbane’s Omnibuses cab, tram, special train or occasionally river steamer.

There was a string of two-horse wagonettes and omnibusses and cabs, placarded with announcements of the sale and invitations to ride to the ground free of charge, which reached half way down Queen Street.

omnibus lewis estate woolloongabba
Detail from the 1889 lithograph for Lewis Estate, Woolloongabba. (State Library of Queensland)

Before the auction commenced, attendees were treated to a lunch. In his novel, Hennessey describes a repast undoubtedly based on his considerable experience as journalist covering sales. It comprised

spread laid out on long tables, such as many of them had never clapped eyes on before – fowls and turkeys, and hams, and great mounds of beef, and tongues; bottles of beer and wine, spirits with fancy gilt labels, unlimited fizz, and soft drinks for the teetotalers in any quantity.

Lunch before an auction sale of land. ( Illustrated Sydney News, 25th January 1879 via Trove)
Extract from the Thompson Estate lithograph, 1889 (State Library of Queensland)

After an eloquent speech, the auction commenced, with dummy bids from members of the syndicate selling the land pushing up the price.

The sale never once flagged, and what with the excitement and drink, there’s no doubt lots of purchasers gave double what they would have done for the same allotments if they had been sold privately.

Estates in flood prone areas

It was bad enough that land values dropped precipitously in the early 1890s when the bubble burst. However, many hapless Brisbane buyers found that their overpriced land was also flood prone. As mentioned above, “The Dis-Honourable” has as its setting the 1893 flood. As the train passes the Westmead Estate with most of its houses underwater, Fielding thinks back to the sale, years before.

Who thought anything about floods in those days ? It’s true that one chap living in the neighbourhood did suggest it at the sale. But Catchall [the auctioneer] sat on him in a moment: said he had evidently been drinking too much of the vendor’s beer, or he never would have said such a thing.

The situation along Norman Creek and its tributaries illustrates the cavalier attitude of developers towards flood prone land. Right through the 1880s, lots on numerous estates adjacent to the creek were sold. On the 1933 flood map below, I’ve addded the outlines of those for which the State Library of Queensland holds maps.

Some of the real estate developments along Norman Creek superimposed on the Bureau of Industry 1933 flood map. (Queensland State Archives, annotated by P. Granville)

Large profits were made. The Norman Estate in Woolloongabba, for example, was purchased by the Queensland Deposit Bank for £90 an acre and lots, most of which were of 16 perches (300 square metres), were sold from £20 up to £200.

In another quote from the novel, Fielding recalls how streets were laid out along poor land that would be difficult to sell as housing lots, to maximise profit. Streets were usually just cleared bushland dotted with tree stumps, and eventually improved at local government expense.

As far as possible the streets and principle roads must run along swamps and gullies. We shan’t be at the expense of making them into good roads and such things never show on the plans.

As can be seen from the map below, the Deshon Estate was laid out with Kingfisher Creek, a tributary of Norman Creek, impinging on Deshon Street. Many of these housing lots were later resumed and now form Woolloongabba Rotary Park. Despite much of Kingfisher Creek now running underground and the completion of flood mitigation work, the area remains flood prone.

Deshon Street mckellar 1895 slq
Deshon Street and Kingfisher Creek. Detail from McKellars 1895 map. (State Library of Queensland)
deshon street 1893 slq FS
Deshon Street during the 1893 flood. (State Library of Queensland)

The 1893 flood

Brisbane suffered frequent floods, but it was the three in quick succession in 1893 that caused the greatest mayhem. Badly flooded lots were often abandoned, with their purchasers still paying off their loan. Many defaulted, stoking the banking crisis which was unfolding.

In 1893, flood waters reached 26 foot (8.35 metres) at the Port Office, covering close to the full coloured area in the map above. Some of these estates were almost completely inundated. Today, much of the area is classified as having a high likelihood of flooding on the Brisbane City Council flood awareness map.

Heathfield Estate 1893 qut
Clark, James (1893) Heathwood Estate, East Brisbane, 1893 Flood. This is numbered “1” on the flood map above.(QUT Digital Collections)

In the novel, as the train passes the flooded Westmead Estate, passengers heard

above the noise of rolling wheels, and wind, and rain, and swirling waters, the wailings of women and the cries of children, as, wet and hungry, they were half dragged into boats from the miserable ruined homes, which but yesterday many of them had looked upon with honest pride.

Norman Creek at the Stanley Bridge Estate (no. 3 on the flood map) in 1893, showing residents being evacuated by boat. (Robert Augustus Henry L’Estrange Collection, QUT.)

The journey ends

The train pulled up at the Melbourne Street terminus, wisely built on a level with the embankment. The water lapped the topmost step of the two flights of broad stairs leading down to the street. The terminus had been transformed into a pier head, surrounded on every side by over twenty feet of water.

South Brisbane Station during the 1893 flood. (Henry Alcock Collection, Fryer Library, University of Queensland)

The aftermath of the land boom

Land values began to drop from their unsustainable high values in 1899. Government public works ground to a halt and the economy was hit by industrial disputes. As a result, first building societies and then land banks began to fail. Following the 1893 flood, 8 of the 11 “banks of issue” suspended payment in May, before they were reconstructed. These were the major banks that issued banknotes convertible to gold, and made loans to other forms of banks and building societies.

The Queensland National Bank closed its doors on May 15, 1893 for a period of reconstruction. (P.Granville)
A one pound banknote issued by the Queensland National Bank. (coinsandaustralia.com)

All this helped deepen the crisis, as the public’s trust in banking institutions was greatly diminished. The price of housing didn’t regain the 1890s level until the boom following World War 2. 

median house proce unsw
House prices in Australian capital cities didn’t exceed 1880s boom levels after WW2. (University of NSW)

It’s clear that Hennessey’s description of the deceptive and misleading approach taken in real estate sales of the1880s has a firm basis in truth. This contributed to the subsequent crash and the prolonged depression of the 1890s.

Note

The perch, or more correctly the square perch, was a unit of land measurement commonly used in Australia before the introduction of the SI system. It equates to approximately 25.3 square metres. The minimum sized residential lot introduced 1885 in Queensland was 16 perches or around 405 square metres.

Further Reading

The 1893 Financial Crisis in the Colony of Queensland Jon Stanford

Real estate maps of Queensland (State Library of Queensland)

© P. Granville 2023

13 thoughts on “Dishonourable Real Estate Practices of the 1880s

  1. Paul, thanks for the great history of some of these estates. The details you have listed against these popular estates are fascinating. These estate maps definitely promoted their benefits in both the newspaper advertisements and on the maps themselves.
    Joseph

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s all very interesting Paul, and certainly a reflection on the tactics of real estate agents. Much of the early Rocklea and Coopers Plains Estates claim “access to permanent water”, and almost all of the area flooded regularly. I wonder where Hennessey lived while in Brisbane? According to some online family trees, his youngest son was named “Wynnum Groom McDonald Hennessey” born NSW c1896 and died in France in 1917.

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  3. Thanks Paul. Once again, a great piece of work. I must read The Dishonourable again.

    What is your next project about?

    Bill

    Dr William J Metcalf

    Adjunct Lecturer, Griffith University,

    Honorary Associate Professor, University of Queensland,

    Brisbane, Australia

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Bill. I’d love to find out who the character the Honourable Constant McWatt us based on. In the novel he goes to England specifically to con an ex colonialist into selling him a block of land for a low price and then makes a huge origin subdividing it. Could it be Thomas MacIlwraith? I’ve been working on a house history for friends which has required a fair bit of sleuthing .

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  4. Hi Paul, thank you for posting this interesting article and for including a link to the photograph album of views of Witton Manor and the Indooroopilly area held in the Fryer Library . As your picture of the book cover shows, former Fryer Librarian, Nancy Bonnin wrote an introduction to The Dis-Honourable when UQP republished the facsimile edition in 1985. It is worth reading…

    “The literary historian, Cecil Hadgraft, in his book Queensland and Its Writers, says of the novel: ‘It gives us glimpses into a past that many living can still recall; old Sydney House at Toowong, for example, now pulled down to make way for the ABC television studios, is almost certainly part of the setting of the crime…With a few modifications it might well be issued as a novel written by a modern, and nobody would know the difference.’ The London Times of 4 August 1896, whose tongue-in-cheek attitude to Australian events would also appear to have changed but little over these seventy-seven years, said in its review that ‘the descriptions…give us a good idea of the anxieties of colonists who inhabit a Sahara irrigated by spasmodic deluges.'” Such anxieties are of course still very much with us. The Dis-Honourable remains relevant to our situation today.

    Simon Farley
    Fryer Librarian

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Simon thanks for your comment . I saw when I was researching the post that Nancy Bonnin also thought that the part of the book describing the railway journey was based on a trip Hennessey took from his home at Wynnum into the city to cover the Methodist conference then underway. This had me confused as the conference took place in early March after the third flood.Do you have any background to her opinion thanks?

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      • Hi Paul, yes Nancy writes “I believe these chapters to be a direct reportage”. The flood waters started to recede on the 21st of Feb and the conference started on 2 March. It would only make sense if he left Wynnum to stay in the city well ahead of the commencement of the conference.

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      • Thanks Simon, that could be the answer. I was thinking of including a reference to this in my post but I was confused by the timing. Perhaps Nancy mentioned the train journey in her address to the English Association of Queensland that you have recorded on cassette.

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    • Hi Simon, thanks so much for that. You probably know this already but I only discovered over the weekend that Hennessey first published “The Dis-Honourable” in serial form under the pseudonym “Carey Grove” It appeared in a few regional papers in the second half of 1893, so he must have been busy writing the book soon after the flood. You can contact me at pdgranville@gmail.com

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  5. Hi Paul, I didn’t know that. I didn’t find anything specifically about that train journey from Wynnum in Nancy’s research notes. It was good to go through the boxes though. I found a cuttings book in box three that has lots of contemporary newspaper articles about Hennessey and pasted in original covers of his books including “The Dis-Honourable”. One cutting records the death of his son in WWI. Thanks for your email address.
    Best wishes
    Simon

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