Friday, May 25, 2012

WR Black Home for Children, Chelmer

This old house at Chelmer has many links to Brisbane's history - some fortunate and others rather less than fortunate.

The house, originally known as Hurlton, was designed by GHM Addison and built on the river in the late 1880s for Mr John W Sutton, proprietor of an ironworks and shipbuilding business at Kangaroo Point. A perk of this enterprise was that Mr Sutton had his own steam launch, which he used on occasion to take members of amateur photography and field naturalist groups on excursions. Sutton himself was a keen photographer and even dabbled in X-ray photography. The Suttons moved out after their family grew up and the building was rented out to a school for use as a boarding facility. This school was the embryonic Church of England Grammar School (known locally as "Churchie"), now one of Brisbane's elite boys' schools. Sutton's ironworks firm was virtually destroyed in the 1893 flood, and the remnants of the business were sold. Mr Sutton died in the early 1900s, and after his death, Mrs Sutton returned to live at Hurlton until her own death around 1928. Here are a couple of photographs of the house from around this time.
(Source unknown)
(Photo: The Queenslander, 1932)

Into the story of this house now steps Mr WR Black, a man born in Northern Ireland in 1859 and a Queensland immigrant in 1880. He first located himself in Maryborough, where he worked as a farm labourer, timber-cutter and fencer. Moving to Brisbane, Black was employed to deliver coal in a hand-cart, but he was intelligent and thrifty enough to be able to start out in his own right as a carrier in 1885, complete with a horse and cart.

William Robert Black must have been an industrious chap. Only fifteen months after starting his horse-drawn carrying business he decided that he would commence to transport goods via the Brisbane River, and he purchased the requisite vessels to do so. At one time he had six steam launches and twenty coal lighters at work on the river.

His next venture was to buy some land and to commence mining for coal. The land was at Bundamba, south-west of Brisbane, and the mine he established was the Blackheath Colliery. With modern machinery, the colliery was soon producing around 600 tons per day - the most of any mine in the state. Black extended his interests with the purchase of more coal mines, and he eventually retired in 1920. Once retired, he set about dispersing his fortune to the needy. He had never married, and throughout his life he had made many bequests to the Presbyterian Church. His biographer says that he saw his wealth as a trust, and believed that "much had been given so that by him much might be done". A great supporter of education for children, he was involved with many such enterprises through the Presbyterian Church. Here is a brief and by no means exhaustive list - Fairholme ( a girls' school near Toowoomba), Scots College ( a boys' school at Warwick), Somerville House (girls, Brisbane), Brisbane Boys' College. The Townsville Daily Bulletin described Black as "one of the greatest, if not the greatest philanthropist in Queensland".

Not long after the death of Mrs Sutton, WR Black purchased Hurlton and presented it to the Presbyterian Church - it opened on 24 November 1928 as the Presbyterian Home for Children. At various times it has been a girls' home as well as a home for disabled children.
(Photo: State Library of Queensland and John Oxley Library; #2898)

From here on the story is rather difficult to tell. I can only say thank goodness that modern child welfare protocol is rather different than it used to be. Here is a heart-wrenching story, found online, of one of the children who stayed here. I can't vouch for its veracity, and I don't want to imply that every case was like this - clearly I wouldn't know that. Even one is enough, but other similar stories about the home can also be found on the internet. It seems a shame that a place that started as the result of such altruism and generosity could have had such sorry outcomes.

What of the building? I took this photograph at the location, and it doesn't look like Hurlton at all. Whether that structure was demolished and another erected, or the original building has been modified out of recognition, I cannot say.
(Photo: © 2012 the foto fanatic)

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  1. Terrific post. Oh the irony of Black's bequest.

  2. Mark: The story linked to in the blog asserts events from around WWII, but reads like Dickensian England in the nineteenth century. I found this history to be quite chilling.

  3. According to the Brisbane City Council Heritage database (it has a council heritage listing), the house is indeed Hurlton, albeit largely modified. The brief summary given says: "Much of the original exterior timber fretwork has been removed due to termite damage and the first floor rebuilt, however the ground floor remains intact. The property has been restored and returned to a family residence."

  4. Hi Nathan

    Thanks for the update - I appreciate that info.

  5. I am a former ward of the state from the original WR Black house.....I survived the place!

  6. I worked at WR Black home in the early 1990s and can tell you that every child who resided there was loved and cherished by every member of staff. Many of the residents spent weekends with the staff in their own homes, so close were the relationships built between staff and residents. It was a happy, vibrant place and was more than just a house - it was home. The photo from 2012 is taken from the back of the house and shows the rooms under the first storey. They were beautifully cool and airy, and housed the young girls who were transitioning to live in the community.


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