|Historical notes: ||District History
Captain John Hunter and Captain Arthur Phillip led the first expeditions north of Sydney Cove into the tribal lands of the Gurringal soon after the landing of the first fleet, searching for suitable agricultural land and fresh water. Rock carvings are the only evidence of Aboriginal habitation. In 1896 a large expanse of bushland was reserved as parkland and named Ku-ring-gai Chase for the original inhabitants. This name was also adopted by the shire formed in 1906 and the municipality gazetted in 1928.
Millwood Farm on Blue Gum Creek was established in 1814 by a marine, Williarn Henry, the first white settler in the Ku-ring-gal area. In the 1820s ex-convict Joseph Fidden, a major force in the districts development, eventually became a ferryman after a brief attempt at farming. He rowed sawn timber from the government sawpits on the Lane Cove River to Sydney and dropped off supplies to settlements on his way home. The sly-grog and other facilities he provided at the infamous Fiddens Wharf attracted the rough-living sawyers and bushmen of the district.
Later Daniel Mathew established two sawmills, one at Clanville (Roseville) in 1825 and another at Rosedale (Pymble) in 1838. Most of sawyers moved on when the trees were felled, leaving cleared land for fanners and orchardists who followed. One was Robert Pymble who gave his name to the suburb where he established the first north shore orange orchard. Other early settlers were Richard Archbold at Roseville and Robert Pockley at Killara. The Lane Cove River was used to carry the produce to Sydney. The harbour barrier delayed the suburbanisation of the Ku-ring-gai district and in the early 1880s the tiny settlement was judged too small to warrant a railway line. Access to Milsons Point remained difficult although a coach service pliedthat route from 1881 to 1887. By 1885 it was also possible to travel to Sydney via the five bridges road crossing the water at Fig Tree, Gladesville, Iron Cove, Glebe Island and Pyrmont.
The single-track North Shore railway line that went from Hornsby to St Leonards in 1890 finally reached Milsons Point in 1893 where passenger and vehicular ferries completed the journey to the city. The North Shore Ferry Company had been carrying passengers from Milsons Point to Circular Quay since the 1860s and by the 1890s around 5 million people crossed the harbour by this means every year. Offering suburban subdivisions along the railway line in advance of the stations, speculators developed Ku-ring-gai well before completion of the North Shore Bridge in 1932 set off another flurry of real estate promotion. Ku-ring-gai grew slowly in the nineteenth century, its population being 4,000 by 1901. However, over the next two decades its population quadrupled. By this time, with its large residences in beautiful, leafy surrounds, it had changed from a district with a dubious reputation to one that attracted people of high socio-economic status, 73 per cent of whom were home owners.
During the interwar years of 1921 to 1933, the population increased by 45 per cent from 19,209 to 27,931 with a 68 per cent rise in the number of occupied dwellings, the proportion of brick to weatherboard being 5:1. The same sort of increase occurred from 1933 to 1947 when a further 43 per cent of people moved into the district bringing the total population to 39,874 and adding 3,564 houses. Even greater restriction on the use of timber and fibro occurred in this period so that 3,182 of these were brick. Clearly, Ku-ring-gai suffered less in the 1930s depression than other municipalities where development was much slower. Its people also encountered less unemployment - only slightly behind Vaucluse with 16 per cent unemployed, Ku-ring-gai and Mosman registered 18 per cent unemployed in 1933 - although the proportion of owner occupation did fall to 68 per cent
(Source: AHC Register of the National Estate - indicative place listing - Mahratta Avenue Urban Conservation Area).
The Briars was built on land first granted to John Terry Hughes on 18 August 1842. Hughes' grant comprised 2000 acres and was part of Portion 400A of the Parish of Gordon, County of Cumberland. After Hughes' death in 1851 the land was conveyed to a number of businessmen and land speculators who subdivided it into four major estates (Robertson & Hindmarsh, 2010, 3).
The Briars marks the first period of residential expansion in Wahroonga which followed the opening of the railway in 1890.
The Bundarra Estate was offered for sale in 1892. The estate stretched from the Pacific Highway (then known as Lane Cove Road) north across the North Shore Railway, lay west of Woonona Avenue and encompassed the properties on both sides of Bundarra Avenue (Robertson & Hindmarsh, 2010, 3).
Jessie Edith Balcombe, wife of public servant William Alexander Balcombe (1855-1939) purchased lots 5, 6 and 16 of the Bundarra Estate on 14 April 1895 and built The Briars on Lot 16 in 1895, facing Woonona Avenue (ibid, 3).
The Briars was designed in 1895 by architect Charles Herbert Halstead (1865-1941) for William Alexander Balcombe. Charles Halstead. Halstead is considered to be the architect for West Maling ( 1889), constructed in Penshurst. He was also the architect for the Old Science Building ( 1899) at Sydney Grammar School and was the architect for a number of church and public buildings in the southern suburbs of Sydney.
It was financed by a mortgage from William Henry Hargraves, Deputy Registrar in Equity (Balcombe's employer). Halstead was a young architect born and trained in England who migrated with his family to Australia. He practiced as an architect and a nurseryman from 1893 to 1912 and then again solely as an architect from 1912 until he ceased practice in about 1935 (ibid, 3).
Balcombe's uncle had formerly been Governor of St Helena - a volcanic island in the Southern Atlantic Ocean; it is believed that the house that he lived in on St Helena was also called 'The Briars' and that this house was built to the same plan (National Trust (NSW), 1983). Napoleon Bonaparte reputedly had lived in the Governor's house on St. Helena for some time after his exile to the island in 1815, while a permanent residence was being built for him.
William Alexander Balcombe was son of Thomas Balcombe, who worked for the Australian Agricultural Company at Port Stephens, and as a survey draftsman in Sydney for the Surveyor-General. William married Jessie Edith Griffen on 1/7/1884 at Raymond Terrace. He became Chief Clerk in Equity. William died at Hornsby in 1939. Jessie was still living in 1944. In 1903 the Electoral Roll recorded them both living at 14 Woonona Avenue, Wahroonga (Murley, 2007). Several historical records reveal that Napoleon was often seen playing with Balcombe children during his stay with the family (Liu, 2015, 13).
The garden is much reduced by subdivision. In November 1924 Jessie Balcombe sold parts of Lots 5 & 6 (fronting Bundarra Avenue) subject to covenant and retained Lot 16 and the eastern parts of Lots 5 & 6. In 1935 she was listed as the sole proprietor of The Briars. By this time the estated had been reduced to 1 acre 2 roods and 29 1/2 perches in area and comprised Lot 16 and the eastern parts of Lots 5 & 6 which contained the stables and other essential outbuildings. The Great Depression hit the Balcombes hard as they were mortgaged to the Bank of Australasia from 1935 until 1941 and in 1941 Jessie sold The Briars to Winifred Laura Phipps, wife of Joseph John FLower Phipps of Chatswood, merchant. The Phipps continued to own the estate until 1949 when Lot A was sold to Nathaniel Joseph Victor Howes. Lot A comprised what is now known as no.s 12 and 14 Woonona Avenue and was the same as the original Lot 16 minus the two access driveways excised in 1959 to give access to Lots B and C which were the remnants of the original back paddocks of The Briars.
Howes owned The Briars until 1968 when it was sold to Ian and Judith Heydon of Wahroonga. As part of the process of selling The Briars, it appears that Howes subdivided the allotment into the two lots known today as 12 and 14 Woonona Avenue (containing the house of The Briars)(ibid, 4-5).
The front block (12 Woonona Avenue) was built upon, with a single storey red brick home that obscured views of The Briars to its rear (north).
The former tennis court (between Woonona Avenue and the Briars house's front door) was subdivided off and a single storey house built there (c1968).
The Briars' driveway (which led to the former stables on the house's west)(demolished) was subdivided off. There is now a steep bank along this western boundary. There is a line of coniferous trees about where a Himalayan cedar tree (Cedrus deodara) was (in a photograph of c1915 a 5-6m tall deodar/Himalayan cedar was to the west of the house, along with a giant bird-of-paradise flower (Strelitzia nicolae). Both are now gone). These were between what is now the garage and the boundary fence.
The creeping fig (Ficus pumila var.pumila) that covered the portico in 1915 was removed for a period and restored to the portico in the 1960s. An 8' high chain wire fence along the eastern boundary was erected in the 1960s (probably c.1968). A c.1915 photograph shows the house open to the tennis court, but with two flanking wire mesh fences (starting roughly at the house's outside walls') that appear to be climbing in height (presumably to stop tennis balls).
In 1972 the Heydons sympathetically renovated The Briars house (NTA, 1983). In 1983 the Heydons requested that a Permanent Conservation Order be placed over the property (ibid, 4-5).
Subdivision of former Briars estate (1990s?) was approved by Land & Environment Court (SEPP5) and 6 single storey villas were built adjoining the State Heritage Register boundary, on an adjacent block, while retaining a line of mature turpentines (Syncarpia glomulifera) on the drive to the house's (and one to 12 Woonona Avenue's south-west) west.
John & Elizabeth Fuller bought the property in 1999 when in poor condition, sympathetically renovating it further (over two years: Liu, 2015, 13) along with its garden. The garden has been planted in a more formal 'compartmentalised' manner of garden 'rooms' and one which seeks to screen by hedging adjacent development which has encroached on the property on all sides.
The c.1968 house on its former tennis court at the front facing Woonona Avenue was demolished in 2009 and, after refusal in a NSW Land & Environment Court appeal, a modified application for a two storey residential flat building was approved on 12 Woonona Avenue by the Ku-Ring-Gai Planning Panel in 12/2008. Construction proceeded there in 2009 to the extent of excavation and construction of the basement car park.
On 30/10/2009 Ku-Ring-Gai Council purchased this block for open space so that an appropriate visual curtilage could be reinstated for The Briars. In January 2010 Council filled and re-grassed the site (12 Woonona Avenue) as a small public park, thus restoring part of the 'front' setting (and curtilage) of The Briars to Woonona Avenue, allowing it to be seen from there again (Robertson & Hindmarsh, 2010, 5; HIS, 2009, pers.comm., J.Fuller, 8/1/2010).
The Fullers have opened their home to the National Trust of Australia (NSW) and their garden through Australia's Open Garden Scheme (now Open Gardens Australia). The property is now on the real estate market (Liu, 2015, 13).