Our house: histories of Australian homes

Fiona Gardiner and Greg Hallam
Australian Heritage Commission, 2001

13 - Koongalba, The timber getter's residence

Yandina, Queensland

Koongalba at Yandina in 1997.

Koongalba at Yandina in 1997.

Koongalba was built in 1894 as a home for John Anthony Low and his wife Louisa Ann who were among the first European settlers to live their entire lives in the Maroochy district. The cutting out of timber in the hinterland of the Mooloolah-Maroochy region to the north of Brisbane began in the early 1860s. John's father, James Low, moved to the Mooloolah area in 1863 in partnership with William Grigor, and they established themselves as timber-getters.

When gold was found in what became Gympie in 1867 James Low moved his family to the Maroochy River, establishing a depot on the track between the diggings and Brisbane. With construction of a new road and river crossing James relocated again and set up a hotel and store on the river's south bank. The Maroochy was a busy waterway for river traffic transporting goods and timber and the Low's store and hotel became a focal point for trade. With ongoing settlement in the area the town of Yandina was surveyed in 1871. James actively promoted the development of the community and encouraged the establishment of a government school. He prospered through trade, timber cutting and cattle grazing on the large areas of land he had acquired around the Maroochy River.

When James Low died in 1883 his widow Christina continued to run the store and post office, and when the hotel licence lapsed, she ran it as a boarding house. In 1889 she had a new house built for herself called Coondalbour and this was the model for the house built nearby by her son John in 1894. The area south of the Maroochy River declined with the opening of the railway line in 1891 and the post office was closed and the hotel was later demolished.

John Low took over James' timber and grazing businesses upon his father's death, continuing to cut, haul and raft timber. John became engaged to Louisa Ann Bury in 1893 and decided to build a house. He bought two half acre allotments on the opposite side of Wharf Street from his mother's house, Coondalbour. John intended to use the allotment on the uphill, southern side of Wharf Street for the house, and the land on the northern side for a garden.

Fortunately for historians John kept detailed books and recorded arrangements for the house. He wrote to Pettigrew & Sons, 'Will you be good enough to let me know the lowest price you would cut me some logs at your mill in Maroochydore. I am thinking of putting up a house and as money is scarce and times are hard I hope you will be able to quote a low price for me.' There are copies of orders for timber (native beech and pine), cedar joinery and hardware to complete the house. Charles Brown, Low's raftsman, delivered some of his own beech logs to the sawmill and his Aboriginal workman Donald brought the timber from the wharf to the building site by bullock wagon.

John and Louisa were married in January 1894, with their house being completed in the following May. It was built by master carpenter Willie Grigor, the son of William Grigor, James Low's former partner and an old family friend. Willie was paid £23/4/8 for his work and John wrote that the total expense of the house was £230, 'without being painted but which will have my early attention'. In the same letter he described this as 'a four roomed house with verandah all round 7' [feet] wide also kitchen 16' x 12' with verandah 6' wide on one side with gangway connecting the two 6' wide'.

Low children on the verandah of their house at Yandina in 1904.

Low children on the verandah of their house at Yandina in 1904.

The single-storeyed timber and iron residence is located on a level site at the crest of a hill above Wharf Street with views to the northeast towards the Maroochy River. The original building, of four rooms with a central corridor, has a corrugated galvanised iron gable roof with skillion roofed verandahs to all sides. Verandahs have unlined ceilings, chamfered timber posts, timber brackets and capitals, and a timber handrail with central support. The building is entered via central front steps and a panelled cedar front door with glass sidelights and fanlight. The rear verandah has been enclosed and provides access to the rear wing, but retains verandah fittings and features a similar central door, sidelight and fanlight assembly to the front. Each room has a two cedar sash windows opening to the verandahs.

>The original back section was once a storeroom and kitchen, joined to the main house by an open covered walkway. Water tanks on stumps stood beside the walkway and the family carried the water inside. The toilet was also at the back 'a mile away' and a 'great dark pit in the ground'. Changes made during the first 20 years included replacing the timber shingles on the roof with iron in 1914 - a welcome change as they had harboured cockroaches - enclosing the back verandah and removing the detached kitchen. The house was stumped with concrete stumps in about 1920.

Like his parents, John was also active in Yandina and Maroochy district affairs. He held various positions of social prominence including as a member of the Maroochy Divisional Board, auditor for the Moreton Sugar Mill in Nambour, Justice of the Peace, and member of Maroochy Provisional School and Yandina State School. John died in 1914 as a result of an accident while he was out timber-getting. He was only 51 and Louisa had nine children aged between three and 19 years to rear.

Cool in summer ... Koongalba verandah in 1997.

Cool in summer ... Koongalba verandah in 1997.

All nine children were born in the parents' back bedroom and the younger children also slept there. When older, the girls used the other back bedroom (four in a double bed) and the boys slept on stretchers on the verandah. The front bedroom was kept perfect for visitors. As one child recalled later,

The verandahs were used for everything. We sat on one side to be cool in summer and another side to be warm in winter. The tool boxes, the farm gear, the mangle, the cask for salt beef, a large box of rafting 'dogs' were all stored on the verandahs. When Vena married … the wedding reception was held on the verandah.

Dairying was the family's main source of income. They also tended chickens, vegetables and fruit, using the loft (or attic) of the house to ripen bananas. Not surprisingly with all this work on her hands, Louisa never remarried and continued to live in the house until her death in 1957. After Louisa's death the house remained vacant until 1970, and with no maintenance carried out, became very run down. It was purchased in 1970 by Jim and Audienne Blyth, a grand-daughter of John and Louisa Low. Audienne writes that the house was officially valued at $600 and considered fit for demolition only.

My happy childhood memories of visiting my grandmother's house were very different from the realities of a derelict house and run down property.

Despite this she was keen to restore the old family home and refurnish it in original style, including with Louisa's mangle. Since 1970 the Blyths have renovated much of the home, including removal of the outside wall of the rear verandah, replacement of most of the verandah flooring, and the erection of a new detached kitchen/bathroom/laundry wing connected to the main house by an open walkway. For the first time, the house was wired for electricity and connected to town water and telephone.

The house was repainted in its original white and brown with a red roof. The rear verandah has since been enclosed and a family room added in place of the open walkway. The residence now consists of the original building at the front with a later wing added to the rear, and is surrounded by landscaped grounds with substantial plantings of mature trees.

The Blyths named their house Koongalba in 1994 to mark the 100th anniversary of the home. Koongalba means 'place of clean water', the Aboriginal name for the area around the Maroochy River at Yandina.

View and plans of Koongalba, drawn by Shibou Dutta.

View and plans of Koongalba, drawn by Shibou Dutta.

Note: The rear sections in the plan extend in one line, living room, kitchen, as indicated in the layout sketch.

Acknowledgements and Bibliography

The 1904 photograph is from Mrs A Blyth's collection. The 1997 photographs are reproduced with permission from the Queensland Department of Environment, and the plan is based on those prepared by that department (now the Environmental Protection Agency).

Blyth, Audienne, John Low's house and family Yandina. Koongalba 1994-1994, A Blyth, Yandina, Queensland, 1994.

The Authors

At the time of writing both Fiona Gardiner and Greg Hallam worked in cultural heritage in the Queensland Department of Environment in Brisbane. Fiona Gardiner is a conservation architect and the Principal Heritage Research Officer in the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency. Greg Hallam is an historian and Heritage Project Officer for Queensland Rail.