Julie-Anne's House in Clifton

In this instalment we will leave the big smoke and look at a historic home in Clifton, a small rural township on the Darling Downs, a short detour from the New England Highway between Toowoomba and Warwick. As usual we will summarise the European history of the area, the use and subdivision of the land, and the builder and subsequent inhabitants of the house. We will also take closer look at the features of 120 year old, recently renovated home.

Settlement and Subdivision

Travelling to Queensland from the Hunter valley in 1827, Allan Cunningham found a flat and fertile region west of the Dividing Range which was rich in indigenous grasses, much owing to the Goonneeburra tribe who burned the land every spring to regenerate vegetation and fauna. Cunningham noted that the area was ideal for agriculture and named it Darling Downs after the NSW governor. He returned to Moreton Bay the following year to chart a return path over the range, later named Cunningham’s Gap, which became a gateway for future trade through the port of Brisbane. 


News of the discovery sparked a swift influx of squatters from the south and by the mid 1840s  the area was covered by a patchwork of large stations. The partners King and Sibley established the nearly 35,000 hectare King’s Creek run in 1840, which a few years later passed to John Milbourne Marsh (1820-1891) who re-named it Clifton after his birthplace, a suburb of Bristol.

Original boundary of the Clifton Station. Extract from Buxton's 1864 map of Darling Downs, overlaid on modern aerial photo. Click to enlarge.

In 1853 the Clifton run was acquired by William Butler Tooth (1827-1915), an immigrant pastoralist from Kent and owner of many stations throughout the colony. But the rising Queensland population forced the government to resume lands  for selection and agricultural settlement, and Tooth found himself on a shrinking property. When the Toowoomba to Hendon railway was surveyed in 1867 he invested in 109 acres of crown land just east of the planned Clifton railway station, thereby securing a significant portion of the future township for subdivision and development. Clifton town was formally established when the railway arrived in 1869 but population growth was slow over the following two decades.

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William Butler Tooth's 109 acre land purchase east of the planned railway, 1867. Click to enlarge.

Fast-forward to 1890 and Tooth’s 109 acres were transferred to Hurtle Fisher (1825-1905), a notable importer and breeder of race horses who settled on nearby Headington Hill. Fisher completed the subdivision of the land into about 30 lots which were on-sold between 1891 and 1899, and his family name is immortalised in one of the streets transecting the neighbourhood. 

The Builder 1891 – 1893

William Gordon Gillam (1841-1926) arrived in Moreton Bay from Leicestershire in 1863, in the company of his parents and siblings. The family settled in Spring Creek, a few miles east of the future Clifton township, where father Charles established the Clifton Arms Inn. Before leaving England young William had purchased some Lucerne seeds, prompted by Queensland relatives complaining about the lack of a reliable crop for winter feed. He planted the seeds, propagated them and eventually on-sold seeds to local farmers who turned the Darling Downs into a major Lucerne growing district.  


In 1872 he set out to build the Gap Hotel in Cherry Gully, south of Warwick, which became a staging post for Cob & Co coaches. But by 1883 the business had failed and William was reported to be insolvent. He returned to Allora to make a living as a carpenter and builder in the district and by the early1890s he was reportedly doing very well, having diversified as insurance agent and aerated water manufacturer. 


Julie-Anne’s cottage sits on a 2,800 sqm lot of land in the former Fisher estate which was purchased by William in 1891. The title deed has a mortgage stamp dated 1893 which probably signifies the construction of the house, but William himself was listed in Allora at the time and  throughout the following years. It appears that the house was built as a speculative development and it passed to the next owner only a year later, in 1894. William and his wife didn’t raise any children but the considerable Gillam clan continues to thrive in Clifton and the surrounding districts.

William Gordon Gillam's land purchase, 1891

A Look at the House

Julie-Anne’s house was built as a comfortable middle-class home comprising three bedrooms, formal drawing and dining rooms, a sizeable kitchen, maid’s quarters, verandas along two sides and a wash house under a skillion extension to the rear. The house is low-set on flat ground, veranda roofs are stepped and convex. External walls are chamferboard, internal partitions made of VJ boards and the floors of pine, in usual order. The ceilings are exclusively of timber. There is no evidence of a brick chimney, somewhat unusually for the era and location, but the original kitchen did have a stove alcove. A well-preserved dunny, now converted to toolshed, graces the backyard. Some notable features of the original parts of the house are shown below.

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From left: central hallway, part of the original drawing room and internal  panel door with transom window

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From left: original "granite" pattern rolled glass, a pane of cameo glass with a flower motif on the front door, and different width chamferboards indicating original and new external walls

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Rear view, with original wash house to the right and a new kitchen extension to the far left

1894 to the 1980’s, a summary

The buyer of the house in 1894 was William Mitchner, a Prussian immigrant listed as a man of "independent means" in Allora. Contemporary newspaper notices reveal his many dealings as auctioneer, hotel proprietor, store owner and real estate investor. There are no records of him living in Clifton and we can assume that the house was rented during his ownership.

 

When William died in June 1918 he had no living relatives and his estate of about £35,000 was to be divvied up among various charities in accordance with his will. Unfortunately his death preceded the WW1 armistice by a few months and some of the nominated charities were located in Germany. The donations fell foul of the “Trading with the Enemy” act and the Public Curator claimed that part of the estate. The legal wranglings went on for years, but some of William’s estate was bequeathed to Darling Downs churches and hospitals, and to a monumental shelter in the Warwick Cemetery.  

The Mitchner Shelter at Warwick Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Rootsweb.

A humble carpenter occupied the house from 1900 to 1906, when it was purchased by Original and Olive Whitman. Yes – his full name was Original William James Whitman, curiously enough to be reported in the local press when he was a young boy. The couple moved from Birdsville to Clifton in the year 1900 and by 1911 Original was listed as a store keeper in town. 

Original Whitman, Clifton storekeeper

In 1926 the property passed to Ernest and Frances Byers, who moved to Clifton that same year from Boorowa NSW with their son. Ernest joined Dr Rushton Smith’s local practice as a dentist, but a devastating double tragedy struck when Frances died in 1927 followed by Ernest only six months later. The 12-year old son was orphaned and the property came under the administration of the Public Curator. We haven’t been able to find out the name of the son or his fate, but we know that he sold the house when he turned 18.

 

The next family owned and lived in the house for 51 years, from 1933 to 1984. The father, a respected local dentist, converted a bedroom to a surgery and a part of the side veranda to a small waiting room. When Julie-Anne’s builder excavated the back garden for a kitchen extension a few years ago they uncovered an alarming number of human teeth, which thankfully had a benign explanation. In the days before municipal waste collection household rubbish was often dumped in pits in back yards. Some of the five sisters from this family have kindly assisted our research.

 

Julie-Anne and her family took possession in 2004, and the house turned 120 years old this year. 

Final Thoughts

I was very excited to research a property on the iconic Darling Downs – a region that developed concurrently with and in some ways ahead of the sister settlement Brisbane. The area is soaked in history and I have a long list of sites and attractions for future visits. 

 

With respect to the house, the research turned out to be a fairly straightforward affair which yielded good biographies of the builder and various inhabitants. As always, the information in this article is merely an abstract of the 45 odd pages of clippings gathered from books, newspapers, directories, genealogical records and other sources. Only one of our research objectives failed - trying to pin down the original name of the house - but it is possible that one was never used or needed. Clifton was a very small and sparesly populated township when the house was built in 1893.

 

Many thanks to Julie-Anne and her family for giving me the opportunity to research their house, and for preserving this piece of local architecture in such a dedicated and thoughtful way. 

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Key sources:

- Deed of Grant and historical Title Deeds for the property, sourced from Queensland DNRM
- TROVE historical newspaper archives
- Genealogy.com, 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

- Miscellaneous texts on Queensland history
- Parish and miscellaneous maps, courtesy of the Queensland State Archives