A Sunnybank Farmhouse

On a back street of Sunnybank Hills lies a hidden gem. You'd be forgiven for missing it if you drove past - it's nestled some distance from the road, behind trees and shrubs. And besides, who would expect to find a 100 year old farmhouse in what is otherwise a fairly typical post-war suburb? The building is quite unique, one of only two remaining original homesteads of the area.

Ken had lived in this house for 20 years and was about to put it on the market to be sold. But before passing it to the next owner he wanted to get to the bottom of its history and past dwellers, questions that had been on his mind since and elderly gentleman turn up on his front door with an old photograph some years ago.

As always, we will begin the journey with the first pioneers and follow the plot of land and house through the changing landscape and owners, and also look closer at the features of the cottage.

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Pioneer Days, 1861-1882

Some districts south of Brisbane have a history almost as old as the town itself. In the mid 1800's a string of communities emerged around the main routes between Brisbane, Ipswich and Beaudesert; a rudimentary network of dirt tracks trafficked by coaches, bullock teams and travelling stock. The green slopes and fertile, low-lying soils of what is today Sunnybank Hills were designated as the "Brisbane Agricultural District" in the early 1860's and attracted a community of pioneering farmers.

The cottage and its suburban plot of land lies just south of Sunnybank railway station, in a shallow valley surrounding a small tributary of Oxley Creek. The old flood plain would have been perfect for farming and in 1861 a parcel of forty acres was acquired by the English farmer Joseph Phipps.

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Joseph Phipp's land in 1861, from the Deed of Grant. Click to enlarge.

Joseph was born in 1813 and in the 1850's he was listed as an agricultural laborer living in Gloucestershire, West England. He arrived to Moreton Bay in 1857 on the ship "Hastings", sailing from Liverpool. Joseph was a ripe 44 years old and with him on the ship were his wife Sarah and two sons, Albert Joseph of 16 years and John Thomas, 12. We don't know much about the Phipps family's early years in Australia but their name appears in a few newspaper notices from Eight Mile Plains and on several parcels of land in the Sunnybank district, including the area later occupied by the railway station. At least some of their land was used for grazing as indicated by a cattle brand registered by Joseph in 1875. It appears that they quickly settled in the Eight Mile Plains area and became part of the local farming community.

Joseph's Cattle Brand, 1875. Click to enlarge.

There ís no indication that a house was built on the 40 acre parcel during those early years. The 1861 deed shows a road which later became the Beenleigh Road but at the time it would have been no more than a dirt track, perhaps with a shallow ditch on each side, the surplus soil thrown into the center where it liquefied with every rainfall. Many of the paths in the Cooper's Plains district had been built by convict chain gangs in the 1830's and 1840's and their poor state hampered the transportation of crops to the city markets. It is likely that the the parcel of land remained a fairly inaccessible pasture until the mid-1880's.

Joseph died in his home "Springfield" in Eight Mile Plains in 1900 and was buried next to Sarah at God's Acre cemetery in Archerfield. The oldest son, Albert Joseph, pursued a city career and John Thomas became a farmer in the district. It's hard to imagine the circumstances that drove Joseph to emigrate with his family at such a late time in his life but we can conclude that the gamble paid off. Joseph and Sarah made a life for themselves in the young colony and their descendants still live in the Brisbane region.

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Joseph Phipps. Photo courtesy of Friends of Good's Acre Cemetery.

Big Change, 1882-1887

The first Queensland railway opened in 1865 and the network of branch lines spread quickly across the Southwest. When the southern line to from South Brisbane to Loganlea was completed in April 1885 the Sunnybank community found itself on a steam-powered superhighway of its time; the tyranny of bad roads disappeared and the economics of transportation and land use changed overnight. The grazing lands along the chain of stations were subdivided and the Sunnybank area became a prime district for fruit growing, in particular pawpaws, pineapples, figs and even the occasional vineyard.

In 1882 Joseph Phipps 40 acre parcel of land was sold to Andrew James Patterson who was a teller in the Union Bank of Australia. Andrew had the foresight to capitalize on the new trend of suburban sprawl that started with the first railway suburbs. He immediately subdivided the 40 acre portion into smaller lots and on-sold them in a dozen separate transactions between 1883 and 1897. Andrew's purchase was a pure investment and there is no evidence that he and his family ever lived on the land.

The First Commuter, 1887-1907

The buyer of the land in 1887, now reduced to just under 10 acres, was William Thomas, a civil servant employed by the Audit Office in Brisbane. The Government Gazettes confirm that William pursued a conventional government career from 1871 to at least 1900, rising steadily through the pay grades and promoted to Clerk and Inspector in 1889. The property was purchased with a mortgage of £360.

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William Thomas 1887 land purchase of 10 acres, fronting the creek. Click to enlarge.

In the early 1890's he began to re-mortgage the property, drawing a total of £1,340. It is likely that the land had increased in value during the land-boom years of the late 1880s and that some of the money financed additional real estate purchases, judging from "to rent" advertisements for other houses placed by William in the following years.

It is also very likely that some of the money was spent on land improvements, specifically the construction of houses. William was listed as living on the address in 1895 and in the early 1900's, and we can assume that the land was either leased or farmed by hired hands while he pursued his city career. William was among Queensland's first commuters, taking advantage of the proximity of the Sunnybank Station a few minutes walk from the house. In 1885 the station was serviced by two city bound and two return trains per day, the comfortable ride taking a mere 50 minutes.

1885 train table. Click to enlarge.

William's land was put up for auction in 1899 when a well promoted campaign offered the full ten hectares including a "well finished villa of eight rooms, with verandas all round 10 ft wide". The auction failed and the property was later advertised for private sale, with "splendid black soil - will grow anything, permanent water and many improvements".

This is not Ken's cottage, and we can conclude there was previously a larger dwelling on the 10 acre plot of land which was demolished some time after 1899.

The Cottage

We are now in the era where Ken's cottage was built so let's pause for a closer look. The building can be classified as a colonial-style gabled cottage, with a pyramid-shaped roof and a stepped front veranda. The style is typical for the decades either side of year 1900.

A closer look reveals several original features. Firstly, the external walls are clad with 8" chamferboards on internally exposed framing. The chamferboards have a central bead on the internal surface and the internal partitions are made of VJs.

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Original and very typical features of the house, from left: 1) metal window hoods, 2) 6" floor boards, 3) 8" chamfer boards, 4) exposed internal framing, 5) inside surface of chamfer boards, with centre beading, and 6) VJs

The cottage has been expanded to the back and to one side which has involved a relocation of the kitchen and addition of a bathroom. Some internal walls have been added to provide separation of space. There is no brick chimney but Ken has confirmed that a metal stove alcove was once present. In conclusion, this was a simple and functional house, built with pride but without pretention for a hard-working farming family.

 

We don't know whether the cottage was present at the same time as the larger, eight-room villa that was advertised in 1899 but this may have been the case. The below photo was given to Ken by a senior member of the Bendell family (see below) and it shows the cottage as it was "around the turn of the century" according to a handwritten annotation.

The cottage with unknown occupants, 1890's to 1910's

The late Victorian fashion would indicate a date from the late 1890's through to 1910, allowing for some "cultural lag" for this part of rural Queensland. It is possible that the cottage was built for the people farming the land during William Thomas' ownership of the property.

Market Gardeners, 1916 - 1951

The land and buildings were finally sold in 1907 to Emma and Walter Wood who were fruiterers with shops in the city. In 1912 Emma re-married a Harry Haiselden who was later recorded as a surviving soldier in the Great War.

The next owners were Alfred and Ellen Bendell, for the full 35-year period from 1916 to 1951. The couple had at least one child, Doris, who later married a George Richardson. There were other branches of the Bendell clan in the Sunnybank area, some apparently having joined Alfred and Ellen from the UK, but the detailed family relationships are not clear. Suffice to say that the Bendells made their mark in Sunnybank Hills and are mentioned in local histories as one of the pillars of the local farming community. Their memory is honored in the name of a nearby street and parkland.

As previously mentioned it was a member of the Bendell family who gave Ken the photo of the cottage. The senior gentleman told of his childhood, when he would arrive by train at night and walk to across the creek and fields. There was only one light visible to the southeast -  the lamps of the farmhouse cottage like a beacon in the dark. The 1946 aerial photo in the title image was taken during the Bendell era and it shows a crop growing in the field around the lonely house, possibly lucerne, and what looks like chicken coops and other outbuildings at the back. The area was entirely agricultural well into the 1940's.

Suburbia Arrives, 1959

During the 1950's the population of Brisbane grew by 25%, passing the 1/2 million mark in 1954. New housing estates and suburbs developed in every direction including Sunnybank and surrounding areas to the south. Following a number of short-term owners in the 1950's the 10 acres of land were eventually bought by a development company and subdivided for suburban housing.

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1959 subdivision of land bought by Brisbane Development Pty Ltd

The land now comprised nine individual plots covering an area of "one acre, one rood, eighteen perches and six tenths of a perch", or about 5,500 square meters in today's measurements. In that same year lot number 42, still containing Ken's cottage, was bought by the widow Ruth Lilly Michael

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1959 purchase by Ruth Lilly Michel, completing the subdivision of the land

Over the following decades, Mrs Michel and later owners would watch as the empty plots surrounding the little farmhouse were gradually built on and inhabited, including by families from the growing Sunnybank Chinese population. The 100-year journey from a pioneering farmer's creekside pasture to hundreds of suburban housing lots was complete.

Final Thoughts

It was easy to become fascinated by Ken's Cottage, particularly after seeing how the 1940's aerial photos contrast against the current urban landscape. The house offers a great case study of suburban development and in particular the role played by the railways in the early evolution of the greater Brisbane region. And the house itself is a gem - unique in the area and one of the few reminders of the suburb's rich history. Let's hope that it will be preserved and cherished by its owners for another hundred years.

Thanks Ken for giving me access to the house and providing the old photo and snippets of information gathered over the years, it's been a fascinating research project.

Key sources:
- Deed of Grant of Land and historical Title Deeds for the property, courtesy of the Queensland DNRM
- TROVE newspaper archives, in particular for the Brisbane Courier
- Genealogy.com, for family trees, census records, passenger lists and electoral rolls
- Post Office Directories from the 1870's through to the 1940's
- Pugh's Almanacs, 1859-1927
- Aerial photographs from PDOnline, http://olr13.brisbane.qld.gov.au/website/MN_CP/index.htm
- Paddocks to Pavements, Railway Centenary, Sunnybank 1885-1895, Sunnybank HS & Citizens Ass., 1985
- Miscellaneous texts on Queensland history, some of which can be accessed at http://www.textqueensland.com.au/ 
- Parish maps, courtesy of the Queensland State Archives
- Brisbane House Styles 1880-1940, a Guide to the Affordable House, J. G Rechner
- Friends of God's Acre Cemetery, http://www.foga.org.au/graves/phipps/phipps.htm