William Brisbane—a pioneer of the district
William Brisbane was born on 16 March 1842 in the Scottish town of Perth. At age twelve he accompanied his father, William Brisbane senior, on a journey to the Victorian goldfields on board the ship Henry Ellis, arriving in Melbourne on 10 March 1854. His mother and four siblings stayed in Scotland. William Brisbane senior had been a pawnbroker and cork cutter in Scotland. His brother James had already come to the colony of Victoria in 1840 and James' sons and a daughter later settled in Berwick, as soon as land was available there. Brisbane Street in Berwick is probably named after James' branch of the family. After five years on the goldfields, William senior set up a shop in Berwick, in partnership with young William, selling items like homewares, groceries, jewellery, and medicines for both humans and livestock. The store is believed to have been located along the Princes Highway, opposite Edrington Park and next to today's Jack Kirkham Reserve. Between 1863 and 1867 William senior bought a number of town blocks, in what we now know as "Old Berwick", some of them jointly with his son William. A brother and a sister of young William, and two of his nephews would later migrate and settle in Victoria also. William Brisbane senior died on 19 Oct 1875 and he willed his real estate to his daughter Elizabeth and £100 each to his other three children. The inventory of his will, as drawn up in 1877, showed that he then owned all his real estate together with his son William as 'tenants-in-common' in equal shares. The value of his assets was listed as £312 in property, no cash or other possessions, and debts to young William of £80. Young William had to agree to sell the properties — which he didn't — before they could be put on the market, stymieing the anticipated distribution of the proceeds. William carried on the store, and used some of his capital to move into saw milling. An ad about the shop in one of the local papers in October 1877, shows a great amount of timber products, and reference to a steam powered timber mill, which we know operated close to Beaconsfield railway station.
In 1876 William ventured into acquiring some land in Upper Beaconsfield, and in time would become a prominent estate agent, land valuer, arbitrator and an "energetic and successful" auctioneer. Brisbane first selected the 20-acre allotment 64, parish of Pakenham, on 7 July 1876. The location of his selections can be seen on the map on page 17. He fenced his land and cut firewood. Immediately afterwards on 24 July he selected a nearly adjacent 72-acre block, allotment 78. To finish off, on 26 July he selected 40-acre allotment 77. Trumping all of the above, in early September 1876 Brisbane seized the opportunity to buy insolvent Henry Snell's 318-acre selection in the Sugarloaf Road region of Upper Beaconsfield. This selection straddles the boundary of the parishes of Gembrook and Pakenham — the northern part is known as allotment 1A section D parish of Gembrook, the southern part is allotment 60 parish of Pakenham. Snell was one of the first permanent settlers in the Upper Beaconsfield area. He had built a 7-roomed house in the vicinity of today's Corringham Road, which survived until about 1935. This property was officially held by Brisbane, but had some significant mortgages attached to it. Improving the land in those days meant clearing and fencing your properties. With a hungry mill needing more and more timber, we can assume Brisbane was only happy to clear his own land and sending logs to the mill. Later developments would prove that this supply was not nearly enough for Brisbane's purposes. The above activity was hardly enough to test Brisbane's capabilities. His grandest design would have probably started upon being acquainted with Charles Souter, publican of the Gippsland Hotel at Beaconsfield. Souter had a hand in gold prospecting activities at the Haunted Gully diggings, where the Beaconsfield Reservoir exists today. Somehow Brisbane became aware of Section 49 of the Land Act 1869, and saw a very lucrative opportunity on many levels. Section 49 was intended for diggers — where they were allowed to annually lease a block of land no more than 20 acres near a digging site, for cultivation while they were digging, for the princely sum of 1 pound per annum. If this block was found to be auriferous, it could be returned back to the miners for exploitation; if not, as long as the block was cleared and fenced an application could be made for a Crown Grant (a purchase) from the Government, generally at 1 pound an acre. A loophole in the law was that you didn't have to be a digger to apply for this special lease. It was common that under other sections of the land act that to obtain a Crown Grant of land, you had to clear, fence, make shelter and occupy your block for a period of time first. In Upper Beaconsfield, there was much waste (uninhabited and wild) land, accessible by getting to Berwick by rail, then on foot or on horseback. Section 49 offered an opportunity to obtain this fresh land, without need for occupying it, and with minimal improvements. Brisbane 'went to town'. A March 1878 Argus article describes the process explicitly. Go to Berwick on the train, stay at Souter's Hotel, borrow a horse, and Mr Brisbane will show you around the district and assist you in selecting a block of land. By then, the article states, that most of the country within five miles of the railway had already been selected, but there was more country further north. Viewing the original land ownership maps (parish plans) of Upper Beaconsfield, shows vast areas mysteriously divided into just less than 20 acre blocks — shaped by Brisbane's forays for desirous selectors. The lands department was entirely complicit by allowing final surveys to contain perfectly fitting road access to every block — ie better to draw in some lease money from what was described as degraded granite waste land generally considered poor for cultivation, and then get 1 pound an acre from speculators/opportunists keen to own some land. Recurrently, the request to the lands department from the lessees of the blocks, for a Crown Grant of the land, came in the form of a printed proforma letter. It was printed by Brisbane, and identified Brisbane as the agent acting on behalf of the lessee, and that Brisbane would prove that all government conditions had been satisfied. Naturally Brisbane would collect a commission from the selectors for these services. However, Brisbane managed to extract further profits from these selectors, with a plan that meant some selectors barely had to lift a finger to get their land. In a land dispute between a Mr Bell and Mr Williams on a 20 acre block, John Yeoman a bailiff stationed at Berwick wrote: "I saw the clearing and fencing mentioned therein done by Mr Brisbane for the applicant Mr Williams." We contend that Brisbane may have charged selectors a very concessional rate, or nothing for clearing someone's block, in return for the excess timber equally making its way to Mr Brisbane's timber mill in Beaconsfield for free or at little cost. An advertisement below locates his mill in the centre of the 20 acre blocks in the parish of Pakenham, selling timber for building or fencing for those not involved in such a scheme.
A regular bug-bear of timber getters, or even farmers hauling their produce out of and around the Shire of Berwick was he state of the roads — winter quagmires often being referred to in Council notes. Brisbane thought he might have a partial answer. Between his saw mill at Beaconsfield and his 318-acre property, Brisbane requested all land owners along the Cardinia Creek valley to excise a narrow portion of their land to construct a horse drawn tramway, for the purpose of ferrying goods and passengers along the route (see parish plan on page 17). A company was subscribed to by some of these land owners and other prominent Upper Beaconsfield settlers, but calls for the full investment needed were put on hold, and just as well for all of those involved. Brisbane managed to get all the private land holders required to provide a way, no mean feat in itself. But the tramway had to cross the Princes Highway and Beaconsfield-Emerald Road to complete its journey. Council and Government were describing this predicament as an individual monopolising the roads to the exclusion of other people, that is, not at all complimentary. No traction could be made on satisfying that concern, so the tramway project was scuttled before works started. There were insufficient funds to even pay a lawyer on the board, who did the legal work to set up the company.
During 1877/78 Brisbane built the 'Berwick Sanatorium' also known as Beaconsfield House, on the 318-acre allotment 1A. It was situated on the highest position on Salisbury Road, now known as Pen Bryn. The sanatorium and a non-official post office under the name 'Beaconsfield' were opened on 1 October 1878. Telegraph facilities became available in April 1879.
Unfortunately, not everything in William Brisbane's life was going as well. He was in financial trouble, but to what extent is puzzling. For his large 318-acre property in Upper Beaconsfield he had taken out various mortgages, and he had debts in other places. The Age of 12 March 1879 reported about a meeting of creditors where a resolution under the Insolvency Statute for 'liquidation by arrangement' was passed. Brisbane's estate balance sheet showed secured liabilities £5,077 13s 6d; unsecured liabilities £6,579 16s 11d; and assets of £11,795 17s 10d. The assumed surplus was £138 7s 5d. Beaconsfield House with 40 acres of land was first advertised for sale on 8 December 1879. It was then advertised for lease, but ultimately sold to James Walford. It reopened on 8 October 1880. With an assumed surplus, one wonders why Brisbane didn't sell off some of his personal portfolio of properties in Berwick, Upper Beaconsfield, and other places, to meet creditors demands, rather than being wound up ignominiously of all his assets. Although his assets were carved up, Brisbane made sure the sawmill assets were swiftly made his business partner's sole concern, beyond the administrator's reach. In June 1880, details of one of the many debts Brisbane owed came to light. Three months before his father's death, on 12 July 1875, his father had become guarantor on a loan taken out by young William from the Bank of Victoria to the tune of 500 pounds. By 1880 £300 of the debt still had not been repaid. The estate of William the elder was held in paralysis, as young William refused to sell any of the land he had half a share in with the estate of his father. The bank lost patience, called in the money, and accepted some of William's personal property as payment for the debt. Brisbane walked away from this 'liquidation by arrangement' disaster with his tail temporarily between his legs. It was never publicised as a bankruptcy, which implies creditors were getting some pennies in the pound for the money they were owed by Brisbane. The laws back then imposed no bans on Brisbane to continue trading, so he brashly started again with saw milling and real estate trading, winning the trust of new business associates. There is a lot more to Brisbane than can be covered in one article. His forays into being a Shire councillor are covered in Charles Wilson's book.
First published in the Village Bell, Issue 219, March 2020