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.
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 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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
© P. Granville 2023