Discover the History of your House - the "Clovelly" Story

In the second part of “Discover the History of your House” we will look closer at my Auchenflower home - Clovelly. All of the methods and sources used for the research were described in Part One and I will refer to only a handful of specific references and newspaper snippets to keep the narrative informative but succinct.

I want to highlight a few things with this article: First and foremost that information available in on-line sources can go a very long way to uncover the history of your house and past owners. Between the Title Certificates, and Trove you should be able to make significant headway in your research. To illustrate this point you only have to look at the list of references at the bottom of this page - the myriad of other potential sources are very useful but may be optional if all you want is a high-level timeline and some basic biographical data.

I also want to show the great value of contacting previous owners of the house or their descendants. Some of the information in this article was provided by previous owners, and in the case of the first owner and builder I've even had the pleasure to show his (now retired) grandchildren around their ancestor's house - a very valuable and enjoyable two-way exchange of information, filling many gaps in the research for both parties.

But most of all I hope that this article will de-mystify the research process and inspire owners of vintage houses to embark on their own trips back in time. It really is easier than you may think. So let's start with a visual inspection of Clovelly and the surrounding area, and then proceed to the details of its builder and subsequent dwellers as told by the historical archives.

The House and Neighbourhood

Our house is located on a ridge on the South-Eastern side of Auchenflower, facing Jones Street and backed by Dart Street. As is often the case, the building has been extended to the sides as well as built underneath in the last few decades but it was nevertheless a fairly substantial family home at the time of construction. Generally speaking the larger homes were built on elevated lots offering summer breezes and expansive views, with the more modest worker's cottages located lower down in the valleys of the newly subdivided estates. Our house was an upper-middle class house - spacious and breezy but not opulent.

The neighbourhood is characterized by buildings typical for the 1890's to the 1920, most of them in early Federation style with large bungalows on the hillsides and smaller cottages in the valley below. A few scattered short ridge houses could be taken for earlier settlement however the land was released in the early 1900s, as we shall see later, so the handful of Colonial-style buildings are either throwbacks or potentially relocated houses. Many inter-war houses and of course modern designs are also scattered across the area.

The original part of the house offers 11 ft pressed metal ceilings throughout, adjacent drawing and dining rooms, three bedrooms, kitchen and bathroom. A central hallway 15 meters long provides separation of space and access to the house through four entrances, including a now blocked back entrance to the kitchen. Wide verandas frame the bungalow on three sides - one side having been enclosed at a later date - and the front staircase is enhanced with a very high gable pediment. In the taxonomy of Queensland vernacular styles the house would be classified as an Asymmetrical Bungalow with U-Shaped verandas, typical for the first decades of last century(1).

1946 and contemporary aerial photos, showing extensions to the
Northern and Eastern sides. The roof is otherwise unchanged.
A look at the Brisbane City Council's RPData aerial photographs reveals two things. Firstly that the house was here in 1946 - which is no surprise. Secondly it shows an extension of approximately 2.5 meters along the northern side of the house and the addition of a dining/sitting room to the eastern side(2). There are plenty other clues as to the original footprint and partitioning of the house, but we'll cover those in a separate article.

Virgin Land and First Owners, 1904 - 1911

Early 20th century map, showing
Simon Edwin Munro's land holding
Plenty has been written about the pioneering families and original estates of the inner Western suburbs - Milton, Auchenflower and Toowong - and we won't re-hash the details here. For the authoritative account of the area's colonial and federation history I can only refer to Prof. John Pearn's excellent book "Auchenflower, the Suburb and the Name".

As for our house, the story begins in 1904 as described in the article about Simon Edwin Munro and the original Grant of Land which covered the area between Milton Road, Wienholt St and Gregory St. Following Simon's purchase of the land it was quickly sub-divided and on-sold in a multitude of transactions where our particular parcel of land and the neighbouring lots passed to a Willie Lane, in September 1910(3).

From the certificate of title, the Jones Street frontage of Willie's land covered seven individual lots and measured "three chains, fifty links and four tenths of a link", or 70.3 meters in today's measurements. By overlaying this dimension on a modern map we can establish that the land was later re-subdivided into four lots.

Willie Lane's land, translated to modern measurements and
overlaid on a contemporary aerial photo (click to enlarge)
My research has drawn a blank on Mr Lane, and although I have found a few persons by that name in the preceding decades I haven't been able to tie anyone in particular to Brisbane, let alone Auchenflower. It turns out that this is of no consequence, as Wille only held the land for a few months before selling out to a new owner and the builder of our house in early 1911.

The Cape York Miner, 1911 - 1920

John Skirving in 1941, age 76. 
Photo courtesy of the Skirving
John McEwan Skirving was born in Longford Tasmania, in 1865(4). From that point he disappears from the records for forty years to emerge again in the year 1908, in the tiny township of Bloomfield which marks the southern boundary of the Cape York peninsula. The electoral roll that year lists John's as a "miner"(5), and indeed he was a partner in an tin claim located at China Camp, on Lode Hill. 

John Skirving and the
Lode Hill Mine (click
to enlarge)
In early 1907 John's partner, JT Elliott, had worked the claim for many years but with limited success as the alluvial mine required large quantities of water to blast the tin-bearing sediment from the exposed vein and separate it by sluicing. Elliott had relied entirely on collected storm water which was in limited and seasonal supply, effectively choking the output of the operation(6). But in that year an application was made to the Mines Department for a $150 loan to construct a water race from the Roaring Meg Falls to the Load Hill mine and drive a tunnel through the hill(7). The application was approved and by early 1908 four men were reported to be employed in the works(8).

The race was to be two feet wide and stretch for a full three miles, the flume made from cedar cut during the clearing of the path through the rainforest. The tunnel through lode hill was to be 40 feet long(8). In other words this was a substantial piece of engineering for such a remote and inaccessible spot. Unsurprisingly the dense scrub and torrential rains made the works difficult and caused delays(8), and perhaps this is why John Skirving was brought in as a partner. One could speculate that the Tasmania-born had previous experience of felling, transporting and processing the 12,000 feet of timber required to build the race, skills that his miner companion was lacking.

John builds a home in
Auchenflower (click to

Be it as it may, the works were approaching completion in late 1908(9) and by early 1910 the Cairns Post reports that the mine had already yielded 25 tonnes of tin, the "immense load (..) melting away like sugar when the water touches it". The editor proclaimed that "Messrs Elliott and Skirving are to be congratulated upon their energy in surmounting all the difficulties that deterred others"(10). With or without congratulations we can assume that the partners were delighted with their achievement, as by mid 1910 the two claims yielded 12 tons per month at a monthly value of about $1,000(11,12). We can also assume that the original loan of $150 to build the raceway was quickly repaid.

By mid 1911 the China Camp claim was described in the press as "one of the richest alluvial tin properties in the Commonwealth"(13) and shortly thereafter, following the appointment of a new Manager of the operation, John Skirving was reported to be "proceeding south"(14). In July 1911 the two partners sold the claims for £16,000(15), equivalent to about $2 million in today's currency.

A few months earlier, in April 1911, John had purchased the Auchenflower land along Jones Street from Willie Lane(16). The sale covered seven separate lots but by the time John sold the land a decade later it had been been re-subdivided into four lots with houses built on each. We therefore know that John re-subdivided the land and built the four houses, three of which were of identical footprint and the fourth, our house on the corner, somewhat larger and with expansive views in two directions(2).

Theodora and her two boys, 
photo courtesy of the Skirving 
In early 1913 John was still a bachelor, listed as living in the (in those days) rather fashionable People's Palace building on Edward St in Brisbane(17) - now known as the Palace Backpackers. But in June that year, at the ripe age of 48, he married the 27-year old Theodora Lewis(18). John had applied for water to be extended to Jones Street in late 1912(19) and we can surmise that the construction of the house was underway with the view of taking occupation with his bride by mid 1913. I don't have a confirmed completion date for the house, but sometime in early to mid 1913 seems very likely.

In 1915 the couple were listed as living on Kellett St(20), confirming that their residence was our corner house. They had two sons, Glen and Clyde, and were still listed at the address in 1919(21) but a year later the house was sold to the next owner(22) and the family moved to Corparoo(23). John's other three houses on Jones Street sold in the following years(16). He had invested a good slice of his mining proceeds in property, including a now demolished "Skirving Building" located in a prime spot on Queen St, which was sold in 1938(24).

And so ends the story of John Skirving, the crafty tin miner from the York. Theodora died in 1939(25) and John himself in 1944(26), his remains resting at the Mt Thomson cemetery(23). Joel, one of the couple's great grandchildren, has kindly provided me with some additional information on John who is remembered by the family as a stern character and "taciturn, teetotalling methodist". Joel also confirmed that the couple's next residence was Coorparoo House, a very grand and later sub-divided estate located on Princess St in what is now Camp Hill.

When searching for information on John I came across the following passage in the book "Ghost Towns of Australia (click to enlarge)"(27):

A good yarn - but historically inaccurate. The author probably confused Skirving with his partner Elliott, or any of the many Cape York "tin scratchers" of that time.

The Widow Suffragette - 1920 to 1924

Jessie Martin, photo courtesy
of the John Oxley Library
In October 1898 the National Mutual Life Association advertised "MONEY TO LEND" on freehold security(28). This was a recurring ad in the Brisbane Courier for many years. The manager of the Brisbane branch, located at 150 Queen St, was Sidney Martin, born in Nottingham England in 1862 and married to Jessie Evelyn Martin since 1885(29).

The couple had three children in the years following their marriage - Florence, Ernest and Evelyn(29,30), but in other respects the young family seemed to live quiet and private life. But as they entered the new century they rose through Brisbane society and figured increasingly in the social and business columns of the newspapers. Sidney had made his name in the finance and mortgage business(29) and Jessie was very active in several organisations and charities, as upper class ladies often were when not occupied with "home duties". She was particularly involved with women's rights issues and specifically the activities of the Brisbane Women's Club, the National Council for Women and the Young Women's Christian Association(31).

Evelyn weds at 
Rangemoor, 1911
The Brisbane Women's Club was founded in 1908 and became a driving force in establishing political equality for women in Queensland, campaigning for issues such as equal pay, the removal of the double standard in divorce laws, establishment of baby clinics and the right of women to sit on juries(32). As the 1910's drew to a close Jessie was the president of the club and heavily engaged in the sister organisations.

The family's ascent in society was reflected by changing addresses which came to include Milton, Toowong, Rosalie and Clayfield (5,17). At the time of Evelyn's wedding in 1911 they resided in the very grand colonial villa "Rangemoor" in Clayfield(30). But with the children out of the nest perhaps this residence became excessively spacious. The pair eventually moved out and by 1919 they were living in a house named "Clovelly" on Queen's Road in Clayfield(5).

In that same year Sydney died and Jessie moved back to the Milton neighbourhood. She purchased the Auchenflower property from John Skirving in January 1920(22) and in the 1921 electoral roll she was living in our house which now also went under the name Clovelly(5). I haven't found any earlier name for our house so it is safe to assume that she simply transferred the name of the Clayfield house to her new home.

The Auchenflower Clovelly must have been a challenging residence for a single lady of a certain age. The benefits of views and breezes would have been offset by its location on a hillside which can only be reached by scaling a slope from Munro Street or Jones Street. As was often the case in those days, maids were employed to cook in the sweltering summer heat, keep the house clean and wash clothes using the rudimentary tools of the day. One 1921 Brisbane Courier advertisement for a maid was placed by Jessie(33).

In early 1924 Jessie was reported as being in ill health and unable to attend her many commitments(34) and by September that year - only four years after moving into the house, an auction was held to liquidate her collection of "superior silky oak furniture", household linen and utensils(35). She left Clovelly and her next and last recorded address was McGregor Terrace in Paddington(5).

1924 - Jessie down-sizes and sells Clovelly
Jessie died in 1936, mourned by her two adult daughters. The Courier mail paid tribute to her many years of tireless engagement in charity and the local women's movements(31).

The Blair Family - 1924 to 1964

Athol and Kathleen Blair were from originally from Toowoomba(36) but by 1919 they were living in Kangaroo Point with their baby daughter Elizabeth "Betty" Blair(5). Athol was the young Queensland Manager of the International Harvester Company of Australia, a US subsidiary established in 1912 to manage the local distribution of International Harvester products. The company grew quickly and became a major industry player which Athol was to manage for a full thirty years(37).

Mr and Mrs Blair and young Betty made Clovelly their home in late 1924(38). The house was well suited to entertaining and so they did, with three separate parties reported in the press from 1926 to 1928 - one for adult friends and two fancy dress parties to celebrate Betty's 8th and 9th birthdays (39,40,41).

Parties at Clovelly - 1926, 1927 and 1928

The family appears to have lived a quiet suburban life throughout the 20's and early 30's. A surveyor's plan of the property from 1931(42) shows a number of now demolished outbuildings which provide us some clues to the facilities and living arrangements of the time.

1931 Surveyor's Plan with now
demolished outbuildings (click to

Firstly, the plan shows a garage at the end of the access road to Kellett St. Many garages were built in the 20s and 30's as car ownership spread among the middle and upper classes, ending the reliance on electric trams and trains for the daily commute. Despite Clovelly's proximity to both types of public transport it is very likely that the Blairs had a car by this time, considering Athol's line of work.

There was also a "wash house" with attached outdoor "earth closet". The wash house would have contained a couple of built-in basins, each with a cold tap and one with a fire box underneath, and a mangle(43). Monday was the traditional laundry day across Australia and the laborious procedure would have occupied most of Kathleen's day. The dunny featured a wooden bench with a hole over a metal pan which was accessed through a hatch door. Sawdust or ash was sprinkled on the pan after each use and paper from old newspapers and catalogues was dispensed from a hook on the door. The pan was emptied weekly by the "dunny man", who under the cover of darkness carried the full pans on his shoulders back to a waiting truck(43). All of these outbuildings were central to 1920's suburban life but a few decades later they had outlived their purpose and none have survived to the present day.

Betty (right) the debutante, aged 18
Betty attended Somerville House from 1932 to 1936(44) and in her 18th year she was ready to enter society as one of seven debutantes presented at the Naval, Military and Air Force Ball of 1937, which was held at the City Hall in the presence of the Acting Premier, Lord Mayor and Chief Justice(45). This marked the beginning of her adult life and in the following years she attended Queensland University where she studied journalism and contributed to the student magazine(46). In 1939 she was still an unmarried young lady, reported to be holidaying with her parents (47).

Betty (right) at a university 
ball, 1938
At some point between 1943 and 1949 Betty married the up-and-coming solicitor Connal Gill and they settled in Toowong(5). With the world at war and Brisbane taking a central role in the Pacific campaign the intensity of social reporting subsided and records of people's everyday lives become scarce. The electoral rolls confirm that Athol and Kathleen remained in Clovelly until 1953, when Athol died at the age of 66(37). There is a second death reported in the house only four months later when Kathleen's sister Marjorie passed away(48).

Our neighbour, who was born and raised in her current home, remembers Clovelly as empty and boarded up during much of the 1950's and 1960's. Perhaps the loss of Kathleen's husband and sister in such a short time made the house too difficult to live in, while the living memories made it too hard to sell. In any case, the mothballing was fortuitous as it spared the house from unsympathetic renovations. Kathleen remained the owner of the unoccupied house until her death in 1963 when it passed to Betty(49), and it left the family soon thereafter.

Betty Blair remains the person with the longest association to Clovelly - a full forty years. She went on to have two daughters, work in journalism(44) and by 1980 she was living with Connal in Indooroopilly(5). That's where the records end and I hope that she lived a long and happy life.

1964 to Now - A Summary

At this point we venture into the personal histories of people who are still among us today and out of respect for their privacy I will leave out their names.

The buyers of the house in 1964 were a couple with two adult sons, who converted Clovelly into a boarding house for overseas students(50,51,52). One of the sons, GP, kindly provided the following overview of this chapter of the house (click to enlarge):

GP later became a regionary bishop in a Christian church and in the early 90's he engaged heavily in the anti-abortion movement, staging sit-down protests outside clinics in the region. The father of seven has refused to pay any of the many fines imposed on him, resulting in multiple sentences including an 8-month jail term that commenced in May 2012.

1964 - Clovelly is converted to a 
boarding house. Building Approval 
Card, BCC Archives. 
Following subsequent sales in 1975 and 1981 very little was done to Clovelly which largely remained in it's original size and condition(53), but in 1987 the house passed into the hands of a young medical family with a passion for Queenslanders. Major renovations were undertaken, the extensions were added to the North and East sides and a pool was built in the excavated back yard(54). Notes on this family can be found here.

1996 saw the next set of owners, again a young medical family with a love for the Brisbane vernacular. Clovelly underwent a third major change with the addition of space in the excavated undercroft. This family had a passion for the arts and in particular music, hosting piano recitals in the spacious drawing and dining rooms(55).

And lastly, our own time in Clovelly started in early 2012, on the eve of its centenary birthday.

Final Thoughts

The story of Clovelly is a post-hoc narrative concocted by an amateur, but every part is based on factual information gathered from reliable sources. It is possible that I will re-visit the source material sometime in the future to see if anything more has come to light, but I think I know enough about the house and its history by now to truly understand it and enhance my daily enjoyment of it.

Yes - I do enjoy the house more by knowing these things. The imagination fills the voids between the  historical facts. It's like they're all still here. Old man Skirving sits in a cane chair in the dusky sitting room, tanned and marked by years of work in open-cut mines, drawing on a pipe and reading from a paper while his young wife potters in the kitchen and the little boys play in the back yard. Jessie Martin, the society widow, waits quietly on the edge of her bed in the master bedroom as she faces the prospect of moving house yet again, probably for the last time. Little Betty Blair storms down the hallway in her "gypsy" outfit while her mother dresses the supper room in scarlet and gold. A young future clergyman lies awake at night,  listening to the bats fighting over cocos nuts above. A teary little boy buries his bottle of savings under the house and swears to return one day. Piano recitals in the drawing room, the French doors wide open to the summer night. Our story will also be added to the collection and just like our predecessors we hope for a happy ending.

Another reason that I won't pursue the research much further is a nagging feeling that I'm intruding on these people's lives. They have a right to privacy just like anyone else and I have no reason to extract more from the archives than I need to satisfy my basic (my wife would say mildly pathological) curiosity.

But there are a few things that I'd like to have to complete the story. Most of all - the original house plans and the name of the architect. I rate this chance as being close to zero but would be thrilled if it came true. Also some photos of  the Blair family, and some pictures of the house from the first decades of the century.

And - the original name of the house, before Jessie re-named it Clovelly. I'd just like to know.

Many thanks to J. Skirving for sharing details on his great-grandfather, to D. Skirving for the photos of John Skirving and family, to GP for his description of Clovelly in the 1970's and to the S family for sharing their memories of the 80's and 90's. Also to Annabel Lloyd and her colleagues at the Brisbane City Archives, and Kay Nardella at the QLD Department of Natural Resources and Mines for their guidance and help.

(1) Brisbane House Styles 1880 to 1940, A Guide to the Affordable House; Judy Gale Rechner, Brisbane History Group 1998
(2) PDOnline; Brisbane City Council
(3) Department of Natural Resources and Mines; Certificate of Title no 192299
(4); Australia Birth Index
(5) Australian Electoral Rolls
(6) Trove; Cairns Post, 5 September 1936; 
(7) Trove; Townsville Daily Bulletin; 7 November 1907
(8) Trove; The Northern Miner; 1 January 1908
(9) Trove; Worker, Brisbane; 22 February 1908
(10) Trove; Cairns Post; 18 February 1910
(11) Trove; Brisbane Courier, 16 August 1910
(12) Trove; Cairns Post, 22 August 1910
(13) Trove; Cairns Post; 19 May 1911
(14) Trove; Cairns Post; 12 May 1911
(15) Trove; Cairns Post; 29 July 1911
(16) Department of Natural Resources and Mines; Certificate of Title no 185764
(17);Census Records
(18); Australia Marriage Index
(19) Trove; Brisbane Courier; 18 September 1912
(20) Trove; National Agricultural and Industrial Association of Queensland; Members'Roll 1915
(21) Trove; Brisbane Courier; 21 February 1919
(22) Department of Natural Resources and Mines; Certificate of Title no 256430
(23) Personal communication, Skirving Family
(24) Trove; The Courier-Mail; 25 February 1938
(25) Trove; The Courier-Mail; 8 April 1940
(26) Trove; The Courier-Mail; 18 December 1944
(27) Ghost Towns of Australia; George Farwell; 1965
(28) Trove; Brisbane Courier; 7 October 1898
(29) Trove; Brisbane Courier; 4 November 1919
(30) Trove; Brisbane Courier; 14 August 1911
(31) Trove; The Courier-Mail; 6 May 1936
(32) Brisbane Women's Club;
(33) Trove; Brisbane Courier; 2 July 1921
(34) Trove; Brisbane Courier; 20 May 1924
(35) Trove; Brisbane Courier; 16 September 1924
(36) Trove; Brisbane Courier; 2 October 1915
(37) Trove; The Courier-Mail; 17 November 1953
(38) Department of Natural Resources and Mines; Certificate of Title no 914950
(39) Trove; Brisbane Courier; 20 September 1926
(40) Trove; Brisbane Courier; 22 June 1927
(41) Trove; Brisbane Courier; 21 June 1928
(42) Brisbane City Council Archives; Water Supply and Sewerage Department Detailed Survey Plans 1931
(43) Privater Lives: Australians at Home Since Federation; Peter Timms; 2008
(44) One Search: Somerville House Centenary Oral History; Details from Content and Structure section
(45) Trove: The Courier Mail; 27 April 1937
(46) Trove: Semper Floreat; 5 May 1938
(47) Trove; The Courier Mail; 23 December 1939
(48) Trove; The Courier Mail; 12 March 1954
(49) Department of Natural Resources and Mines; Transfer D40232
(50) Department of Natural Resources and Mines; Transfer D99542
(51) Personal Communication, "DP"
(52) Brisbane City Council Archives,Building Approval Card; 1964
(53) Personal Communication, neighbour
(54) Personal Communication, "R&WS"
(55) Personal Communication, "AL"

If you have corrections or additional information on any of the subjects in this article, please let me know.

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