The Laheys' legacy
By Susan Prior
I was trawling through the online archives of the John Oxley Library, Brisbane, Queensland, when I came across an intriguing photograph of a gigantic flagpole erected by the Lahey family in the Corinda–Sherwood area in the year 1914. Some older residents will know about it, of course. This flagpole was built by the Lahey family in front of their home Wonga Wallen, adjacent to their mill. The Lahey family were influential early pioneers in Queensland and in themselves have a fascinating history. This photograph inspired me to find out some more about this amazing family. Here is what I found.
Lahey’s Sherwood Sawmill
David Lahey with his 10 brothers and sisters arrived in Australia with his parents Francis and Alicia Lahy, on the Belissima from Northern Ireland, via Liverpool in 1862. The family worked energetically together as a formidable unit, building a successful business empire centred around the Pimpama area of South-East Queensland.
David married Jane Jemima Walmsley in 1881 and the couple had 12 children, eight boys and four girls. One boy died in infancy.
In 1910, keen to secure employment for his sons, David Lahey branched out from the core family business. He purchased 19 acres, increasing to 26 acres, alongside the railway line and Oxley Creek on the border of Corinda and Sherwood. That year, the family took up residence in one of Brisbane’s earliest grand homes, Greylands at Indooroopilly on the Brisbane River. Built in 1876, it still stands today.
When David Lahey registered his business, Brisbane Timbers Limited, it was enthusiastically and optimistically documented that he planned ‘To carry on all or any of the following businesses namely:- Sawmillers, Joiners, Merchants, Storekeepers, Farmers, Butchers, Commission Agents, Produce Dealers, Exporters, Importers, Boat builders, Carriers, Shipowners, Engineers, Blacksmiths, Builders, Contractors and Financial Agents.’
In 1911, the mill opened for business, with logs being brought to the site by bullock wagon drawn by teams of 16, and sometimes as many as 20, bullocks. The Lahey boys would travel from Indooroopilly to the mill by powerboat down the Brisbane River and then into Oxley Creek arriving at the jetty they had constructed onsite.
The family’s substantial new home, Wonga Wallen, was built adjacent to the mill in 1912 and the family subsequently moved there from Greylands. Its name was in fond memory of the family’s time at Pimpana with its views to Mount Wongawallan. It is hard to comprehend today, but the busy household consisted of 25 people. Apparently, it was an exuberant place with much teasing and practical joking among the occupants. They would swim in the clear waters of Oxley Creek, where a springboard was erected near the jetty.
By 1912, all the sons were working at the mill, apart from Romeo who was completing his education in Sydney. Eldest daughter Vida was now an acclaimed artist (you can read more about her later). Esmé was a Sydney Teachers College graduate, and the two youngest girls, Mavis and Jayne, were boarding at Brisbane High School for Girls (later known as Somerville House).
In 1915 and 1916, four of David and Jane’s sons enlisted. The war left the timber mill in a tricky situation with many key staff fighting overseas. However, the mill prevailed and post-war it expanded, with timber being imported from Fiji, among other places, to be milled. Unfortunately, this project proved unsuccessful and the mill shrank back to something more like its original size.
Eventually, in 1956, the Corinda mill was sold to Carricks Ltd. Carricks kept it operating for some time, but also expanded operations to include manufacturing furniture. The furniture factory survived the 1974 floods when it was inundated up to the second storey, and continued on as Elite Furniture into the early 1980s. The site then became a storage facility. Many residents will remember this dramatically going up in flames in September 2007. The site was subsequently cleared to make way for the new Sherwood Bus Depot.
But that isn’t quite the end of the Laheys’ story, albeit a very condensed version.
On the bus depot site remains a piece of industrial infrastructure, originally part of the mill. Fenced off to visitors, it was heritage listed in 2010. Brisbane City Council describes its significance as being ‘a rare surviving remnant of early twentieth century industrial activity in the Corinda locale,’ and ‘a surviving remnant of the Lahey’s Corinda sawmill illustrating the way in which industry contributed to the growth of the Corinda/Sherwood area.’
Which, to me anyway, begs the question, who is maintaining it? And, how can we get close enough to admire or study it (depending on our inclination)?
Well, thanks to the efforts of Nicole Johnston in following this up for me, I received a response from Brisbane City Council; here it is.
At this point I scratched my head and came to the overwhelming conclusion that, even though the site is heritage listed, since council sold the land they can only put moral pressure on the owners to do the right thing and maintain the industrial infrastructure.
At the time the bus depot was being planned council made a big deal about this heritage listing, and in fact used this as a sweetener to help persuade those who were against the bus depot going ahead to agree to it.
You may think the industrial infrastructure that remains is a pile of junk. But it is our pile of junk and if it is worthy of heritage listing I would think it is worthy of preserving.
As an aside to the Lahey Sawmill story, Romeo, David and Jane’s fourth child, played a prominent role in the establishment of a National Park covering a large area of the McPherson Range, here in Queensland. The Lamington National Park was proclaimed in 1915.
As for the amazing flagpole, or rather flagpoles, which were the catalyst for me recounting this fascinating tale – one was constructed at Wonga Wallen and the other at the mill, but there is little information about them except for a couple of impressive photos. They were said to have been designed and built in 1914 by Romeo Lahey in order to prove to a passing caller at the mill that a flagpole could be erected without its base being sunk into the ground. The first version was built by the house as a prototype, and when this proved successful the Lahey brothers set about constructing the larger version in the mill yard. As it was being hauled into position a cable broke and the flagpole collapsed. A second attempt was successful. At 76 m it was higher than the summit of the Story Bridge. It consisted of more than 1000 pieces of timber and had a diameter of more than 2 m at its widest.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find out what became of this structure and when, so if anyone knows I would love to find out.
Left: Romeo's flagpole. Right: raising the structure. Photographs courtesy of John and Hazel Lahey.
Neighbours for 76 years
Someone who knows the sawmill site well is Joan Nordling. Joan has lived in Railway Terrace for 76 years, first in her parent’s house and now next door in her own place. She regaled me with some wonderful tales about the mill and how they were kept awake at 1.00 am as the logs were unloaded from the trains with loud crashes and bangs. While I was chatting to her, she pointed out a tree just across the way from where she lives that she believes was planted by Romeo as a memorial for the mill workers who served in the war. It is a lovely connection to our past and has been preserved on the site of the new bus depot.
This article was first published in the Summer 2015 edition of local Brisbane magazine Living in The Shires.