top of page

Sugar Country Houses

The Clarence River on a busy Tuesday afternoon

I always look forward to a drive through the sugar districts along the Clarence and Richmond rivers, from Grafton to Ballina. It's a beautiful part of the world, and of course, lots of vintage architecture reflecting both the Queensland tradition and southern styles, in various stages of repair and despair. This time I was alone in the car and took the opportunity to make detours along the way.

 As a brief historical background, these districts were raided by cedar getters in the 1830's and agricultural communities were established along the rivers over the following decades. Once cleared the land was used for general farming and over time increasingly for sugar plantations. Many towns were established arund river ports and were serviced by steamers from Sydney and other major cities. As for other rural areas the wave of mechanisation and motorisation lead to a steady population decline and some of the towns are now a fraction of the size of a hundred years ago.


First out, this rather rare and well-maintained "M- roofed" gabled cottage, spotted close to the highway in Ulmarra. This is a doubled-up version of the two-room colonial gable of the late 1800's, see the below example from Woodburn. A brick fireplace warms the core living areas and a separate chimney services the kitchen under the skillion extension to the rear. This is a gem and it warms the heart to see it in such great shape.

"M-roofed" gabled cottage

Next a house with a dutch gable roof and a U-shaped, stepped veranda with streetfacing entrance and pediment. Probably dating from the early 1900s, this house would be comfortable in any contemporary Queensland neighborhood if it was high-set on stumps, not low-set on brick piers. I spotted houses on stumps all the way to Coff's Harbour but the style is relatively rare south of the Tweed valley.

House with u-shaped, stepped verandas on brick piers

The grander houses in these communities were generally built on the river and facing the water, while the humble worker's cottages were located away from the river on the other side of the main road. You need to get off the highway and walk through the riverside blocks to spot the upper-crust dwellings. This Victorian brick residence with multiple extensions overlooks the river in Ulmarra.

Sprawling Victorian

Even the little fibro sheet houses were built with pride and attention to detail. Spot the deco-inspired detailing on the front porch of this worker's cottage.

Deco fibro

Another stately Victorian Regency-style house with a separate kitchen wing, overlooking the river. This dwelling was clearly built for one of the leading families of Ulmarra and the spectacular river views from the property are captured in the title photo.

Victorian Regency

Next up a tragedy - a colonial gabled cottage in a desperate state, apparently slated for demolition. I don't know the reason why, the "bones" look to be in good nick at least viewed from the outside. How many families were raised within these walls over the past 130 or so years? The multi-colored sandstock bricks in the old chimney hint to a diversity of clay sources and uneven firing temperatures.

Colonial gable with brick chimney, Woodburn

Sitting on the highway, a short-ridge colonial cottage, painted salmon pink with moss green roof and details which could also be at home in any of Brisbane's inner-city suburbs. The color scheme is perfect against the sugarcane backdrop. I spotted examples of this classic design all the way down to the central coast.

Colonial short-ridge cottage

This impressive bungalow with river views was probably built for the manager of the Broadwater sugar mill which is next door. The house has multiple original extensions to the back and a separate kitchen wing. This home is for sale - submit your offers!

The sugar mill manager's bungalow on the river

Another humble and ancient colonial M-roofed cottage, this time in Broadwater. The old bearers are well supported by brick piers but the bottom chamfer board on the gable is missing - better replace it before terminal rot sets in.

M-roofed colonial cottage

This is a fairly standard asymmetrical bungalow on its last legs, but my interest was drawn to the well-preserved "thunder box" at the rear of the house. I was tempted to trespass for a closer view but the weeds were too high and full of burrgrass.

Derelict bungalow, with backyard "thunder box

The district is scattered with old barns, stables and other outbuildings of various designs, some with timber slabs. Perhaps another research and documentation project when time allows, before the termites and weather finish them off. They certainly add character to the landscape.

Roadside shed

That's all - in summary a very enjoyable couple of hours on the road. Next time you pass through the sugar towns why not stop for a rest by the river to enjoy this special part of the world. As the highway is upgraded both to the North and South I expect that the district will see a resurgence from tourism and small-holdings over the coming years. Perhaps this is a good time to buy a historic cottage, overlooking the old river, and make it yours.

bottom of page