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Ashgrove Time Capsule

This time the story of a house takes us to Ashgrove, a fine suburb nestled between Mt Coot-tha and the Enoggera hill; a gateway to the Gap and D'Aguilar National Park. The object of our research is a 1925 cottage on a street just off the Ashgrove village, at the southern side of suburb. Externally the house is typical for the neighborhood and street but inside awaits an amazingly well preserved environment with colour schemes and hardware that are essentially untouched since the house was built almost 90 years ago. And the story of original land owners, builder and occupants covers the full range from prominent colonialists to regular citizens of their time.

I wanted dwell on the unique interiors of this house and quickly realized that my usual camerawork wouldn't be up to the task. Queenslander houses are by nature "dusky" and require some good optics and careful composition. So for this job I teamed up with my blogging colleague Elizabeth from the Walk Among the Homes Blog to capture the inside environment. But before we open the door and let Elizabeth loose, let's consult the ownership deeds and paint a history of this particular plot of land.

First Land Owner, 1860 to 1868

The dirt track that was to become Waterworks Road was established in the 1850s, initially to service timber raiders in the upper reaches of the Kedron Brook and later for pastoral leases along the creek valley. Sale of freehold land began in the mid-1850's and the first settlers moved into the area over the following decade.

Francis Gill's 24 acres of land, just south of today's Ashgrove village. Waterworks Road and Jubilee Terrace are drawn on the plan but would have been no more than dirt tracks at the time. Click to enlarge.

As we trace the ownership of the plot of land back in time we reach the year 1860, when a 24 acre parcel located between Waterworks Road and Ithaca Creek passed from the Crown to Francis Gill. This was 15 years before the name Ashgrove was even used for the locality and about 60 years before residential subdivision - the land would have been no more than a patch of scrub along the track. Francis was a young man of 14 that year, possibly the son of R. Gill who held positions as postmaster of Toowoomba and Ipswich. Perhaps Francis was schooling in Brisbane at the time, his father purchasing the land as a nest egg. In any case it is likely that it was used for pasture throughout his 8-year ownership.

The Government Gazettes report that Francis entered the civil service in his twentieth year, as a "clerk of the 5th class" in the savings bank department. In 1870 he was promoted to "Gold Commissioner's Clerk and Mining Registrar" at the Gilberton Gold Fields in the far north. The opportunities offered by the service must have been tremendous, with Queensland's population almost quadrupling from 28,000 to 102,000 in the decade from 1861 to 1871. His career with the Department of Mines eventually brought him to the Ravenswood and Palmer gold fields where he was listed as police magistrate.

Francis Gill the auctioneer, agent and broker. 1887 Brisbane Post Office Directory

In the 1880's, as the great Australian land, mining and investment bubble was revving up for its final burst of speculative fever, Francis left the service and set up shop in Brisbane as auctioneer, agent and broker. But the mining boom turned to bust in the 90's and Francis returned to government service. He relocated with his family to Perth to take the position as under-secretary of mines, but his wife died shortly after arrival and he was forced to leave the the department due to disagreements with the minister. In 1904 we find him on Woodlark Island in New Guinea, as the warden of the island's gold field, where he stayed for more than a decade, was promoted to resident magistrate and lost a leg in an undisclosed accident.

Francis eventually made his way back to Western Australia where he passed away in his son's residence in 1926, a "sufferer at rest".

The US Consul and Businessman, 1868 to 1876

The next owner, John Wallace Barnett, arrived from Melbourne in the 1860's and by the end of the decade he had established himself as a land and real estate agent, stock and share broker with offices on Queen Street in Brisbane. Just like the previous owner he was tapping into the opportunities offered by surging population growth, a booming economy and rising land values.

John Wallace Barnett, date unknown

In 1868, the same year that he bought the 24 acres of land, John was elected Alderman of the West Ward and appointed US consul in Brisbane. But his fortunes wouldn't last long. He died a few years later, age 47, in his home on Leichhardt Street. The land passed to a heir in accordance with his will and to the next owner in 1876.

The Father of Ashgrove, 1876 to 1895

Justice G. R. Harding

George Rogers Harding plays a central role in Ashgrove's history. George was 28 years old when he left England for Brisbane in 1866, a fully fledged barrister and married family father. On arrival he leased and later bought 75 acres of land in the future Ashgrove area, part of a large cattle station that included a stone house called St John's Wood which he modernized and expanded. The house still stands on Piddington St and is now known as "granite house".

The first record of the name Ashgrove, from the 1874 Brisbane Directory

We won't go into the details of Mr. Harding's life and achievements here, for a deep-dive on the subject see the list of references below. Suffice to say that he rose quickly through the ranks of the Queensland legal system and made Puisne Judge of the Supreme Court in 1876. The family of 12 children hosted many events in St John's Wood which became known as the "house of entertainment". Local legend has it that he also received Prince Albert and Prince George (later King George V) on their 1881 Australian tour, however this has been disputed in recent times.

George bought the 24 acres south of Waterworks road in 1876, most likely as a speculative investment. His holdings included hundreds of acres of land locally and across the Brisbane region but by the time of his death, in 1895, the depression had gutted the value of the real estate portfolio and his estate was left bankrupt. The parcel was placed under temporary administration and later transferred to the Queensland National Bank, one of his major creditors.

Glenmoor is Built, 1925

The earliest known record of Ashgrove as a suburb dates from 1887, when the Department of Public Works invited tenders for the construction of a school and teacher's residence on land donated by Justice Harding. The Grove Estate north of Waterworks Road was subdivided in 1880's but residential development was slow and the population remained sparse and predominantly rural for several decades.

Ashgrove ca 1920, with the future tramway line and station marked in red. The 24 acre portion is located just above the "creek" label on the map, one of the last portions to be subdivided. Click to enlarge.

But in the mid 1920's the neighborhood stirred to life, sparked by the extension of the tramway to the corner of Waterworks Road and Devonshire St. The arrival of public transport caused a surge in land sales and property development across the new commuter suburb. Subdivision of the 24 acres south of Waterworks Road Creek started in 1917 and in 1921 a 32 perch plot was bought by Archibald James Nielsen.

Finial subdivision, from the 1931 deed

Archibald was born in the Boonah area in 1886 and married Ada in 1908. Relatives of the couple have told us that "Archie" had started a career in the police service but promised to resign as a condition of the marriage, at the still young age of 21. Over the following 15 years we follow his trail from Boonah to Brisbane, his occupation initially listed as a butcher, then carter and finally railway employee.

Archibald bought the plot of land in Ashgrove in 1921 and the deed has a 1925 mortgage stamp which almost certainly marks the construction of the house. The Nielsens remained in the house with their four children until 1931.

Ada and Archibald Nielsen, photo courtesy 
of the Nielsen family

The name of the house, "Glenmoor", is hand-painted on a framed pane of figured glass on the gable over the veranda. It appears to be contemporary with the construction date and was probably commissioned by Archibald and Ada. Sources from the late 1800's mention an agricultural Glenmoor district close to Yandan, about 50 kilometers from Boonah, and it is possible that the name relates to the Nielsen family's early days in that part of the state.

Glenmoor Up Close

Glenmoor is a "porch and gable" bungalow, with two street-facing gables and originally L-shaped veranda, a style typical for the 1910's and 1920's. The veranda to the left of the house was later enclosed but the overall footprint of the house is unchanged. The design was one of the hundreds of off-the-shelf standard worker's dwellings offered by the State Advances Corporation in the first decades of the century.

Glenmoor's footprint and layout, from the State 
Advances Corporation Design of Houses, 1928. Click to enlarge.

The house has three bedrooms, a hallway and parallel dining and living rooms separated by a fretwork arch. At the end of the veranda is a small bathroom which was originally supplemented by an earth closet (dunny) in the back yard. The opposite rear corner is occupied by a roomy kitchen with a stove alcove. The unusually spacious and very well maintained single garage still stands in the back yard.

The main living areas of Glenmoor have undergone minimal change since the construction date and it is obvious that even the wall paint is one coat thick and still going strong after nearly 90 years. Some of the key features of this amazingly well preserved home are showcased in the below pictures, courtesy of Elizabeth at the "Walk among the Homes" blog (click on the pictures to enlarge):

Living room, with original satin cream wall paint and dark-stained 
pine joinery, typical for the 1920s

Interior joinery

Figured glass, door bell, rim lock and kitchen cupboard made from surplus VJ timber.

Built-in veranda, likely to be re-opened in future renovations

Exterior views, including a majestic backyard mango, the 
front stairs to the porch, the original stove alcove and a veranda door

Hardware removed, showing a single coat of wall paint on VJ boards

The Master Brewer's Family, 1931 - 2012

Alois Wilhelm"Bill" Leitner was born 1878 in the town of Lichtenstadt in Bohemia, now known as Hroznetin and part of the Czech republic. After university studies in Prague and Germany he attained the degree of Master Brewer in 1902, emigrated to Australia that same year and spent the following 18 years working at increasingly senior levels in breweries across Victoria, NSW and South Australia. He married  Alma Emma Holtz, another German descendant, in 1906 and the couple had three daughters and a son.

Meanwhile in Brisbane, the Castlemaine brewery was continuing a multi-decade run of success with "XXXX" branded ales fashioned after Victorian styles developed in the 1870s and 1880s. But in the 1910s the management team decided to develop a new formula more suited the Queensland climate and palate, resulting in the 1916 release of the "XXXX Sparkling Ale", which despite an enthusiastic reception was plagued with production problems.

The Castlemaine brewery on Milton Road, 1929. Click to enlarge.

Alois was recruited to address the problems in 1920 and he wasted no time. New strains of yeast were imported from Europe and, following much experimentation and production changes, the "XXXX Bitter Ale" was launched in 1924 to great acclaim. The Courier Mail reported:

"Mr Leitner and his expert staff of brewers make a study of Australian 

requirements in regards to beer. "The tendency among Queenslanders today", 

said Mr. Leitner, " is in the direction of a light, palatable beer. This seems 

to accord better with the climatic conditions in this State". Judging by the recent 

large increase in orders, Mr Leitner's brew seems to have hit the popular taste". 


The launch of the "Bitter Ale" coincided with the introduction of "Mr Fourex", the sharply dressed, yellow boater hat-wearing gentleman still used in the company's advertising.

Alois was retained by Castlemaine as Head Brewer and throughout the 1920's he continued to improve the product using the latest machinery, rigorous procedures for pasteurization and filtering, quality control and construction of a large refrigeration plant. Ninety years later his creation remains one of the best known Queensland brands and was also brewed under license in the UK for many years.

The Leitner family, early 1920's

When Alois died suddenly in 1931 the family consisting of Alma, three daughters and a son were forced to leave the "Maidstone" residence, a villa on the brewery grounds facing Milton Road which was later demolished to make room for the expanding factory. Alma and the children moved to Glenmoor that same year, where Alma and the girls remained for the rest of their lives. The last daughter passed away in 2012, aged 99 and still living among the memories of 81 long years spent in her beloved Ashgrove house.

Glenmoor in the 1930s (left) and 1940s (right), photos courtesy of the Leitner family

Final Thoughts

Again we see how typical Queenslander house in a vintage suburb hides a rich history of characters and events, some of which are inter-woven with the stories of other houses that we've looked at in this series.

For example, Justice Harding of Ashgrove had a sister in law that was married to Robert Drury, the manager of the Queensland National Bank, who figured in the West End cottage story. The bank was one of the major creditors for Harding's land investments and we already know that Drury's famously loose lending policies applied preferentially to close friends and family.

I also came across a newspaper notice where the last Leitner sister, who lived in the house for an amazing 81 years, was listed as a guest at a fancy dress party in my own hose, Clovelly, in 1928. On reflection this was perhaps not such a coincidence - the two daughters were contemporary and born to upper-middle class industrialists living in the same area. Of course they attended the same girls school and knew each other. And Brisbane was a small town at the time. But nevertheless.

Thanks to the current owners for the invite to view and research their lovely home. I hope that the story of Glenmoor will enhance their enjoyment of the house and that it will be passed down, with another chapter added, to future owners.

Key sources:

- Personal communications with the Nielsen family, by the current owner
- Personal communications with the Leitner family
- Ashgrove Historical Society
- Deed of Grant and historical Title Deeds for the property, sourced from Queensland DNRM
- TROVE historical newspaper archives
-, for family trees, census records, electoral rolls and passenger lists
- Post office directories from the 1870's through to the 1940's
- Pugh's Almanac, 1859-1927
- NSW and Queensland Government Gazettes, 1836-1900
- Aerial photography, BCC PDOnline
- Miscellaneous texts on Queensland history, some of which can be accessed online at TextQueenland
- Parish and miscellaneous maps, courtesy of the Queensland State Archives
- Brisbane House Styles 1880-1940, a Guide to the Affordable House, J. G. Rechner

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