In the late nineteenth century the district was known as Coorparoo or East Coorparoo. Much of the available land on the apex of hills was purchased by wealthy residents on which to build large, stately houses away from the increasingly crowded inner-city areas. In 1885 Abraham Street Jnr purchased just over three acres of land that included the subject property. Street was employed by Barnett & Co., warehouse and import business on Market Street in the city. Initially Street was employed as an office-boy but worked his way to a trusted position managing the company’s finances.
In 1887 Street jr. commissioned Brisbane based architectural firm, Oakden, Addison and Kemp, to design a grand house for him on the Camp Hill land. From 1887 to 1895 the firm undertook the design and building of some of Australasia’s major building works, with clients including large companies and banking corporations. The firms remaining Brisbane work includes The Mansions on George Street, Albert Street Wesleyan Church, and Cumbooquepa in South Brisbane (Somerville House).
On completion, the grand timber and brick home was named ‘Rockhampton House’ and was one of two grand houses designed by Oakden, Addison and Kemp for Street. The other was situated close by and was named ‘Wandoo’. In 2018, Wandoo is situated on the opposite side of Princess Street.
Street became conspicuous for spending large amounts of money on these grand houses and a lavish lifestyle, whilst his employer, Barnett & Co., was increasingly troubled financially. Following police investigations, Street was arrested on suspicion of embezzlement and fraud. After a well-publicised trial, Street was convicted of defrauding over £10,000 pounds from Barnett & Co. and sentenced to ten years prison in Boggo Road Goal. At the conclusion of the trial, the judge described Street’s actions:
Debauchery and gambling, indulgence in sports quite above the convict’s station, and in mad speculations of which he knew nothing, made a pretty catalogue for a man not much more than 30 years of age. He goes to a felon’s cell, a felon’s dress, diet, and degradation without a tongue being moved to commiserate.
It was reported that as Street was being removed from the court following sentencing, he laughed and shouted “I didn’t care if had been twenty years”. Street’s crime led directly to the failure of Barnett & Co..
Following Street being declared insolvent, Rockhampton House was sold to George Dingwell Gorrie and Isabella Gorrie in 1888. It is unclear how long the Gorries resided at the Camp Hill property as they were not recorded in the Post Office Directories nor the Electoral Rolls for the majority of the time they owned the house. From 1889 to 1890 the Gorries took out a succession of mortgages, each over £1000. In April 1891 the property was advertised for sale:
Magnificent Family Mansion known as Rockhampton House
Situated on a Beautiful Hill
The Mansion is a large two-storeyed brick dwelling of 14 rooms, including drawing room, library, dining-room, cloakroom, five bedrooms, bathroom, cellar, pantry, kitchen, storeroom, servant’s room, man’s room, washhouse, waterclosets, and urinal, and is faithfully built of the best materials … the staircases and mantelpieces are in themselves Works of Art and the purchaser will find himself possessed of without doubt the Handsomest Family Mansion in the Colony of Queensland.
The property, however, was not sold at this time and remained in the Gorrie’s possession until the 1920s. Under the Gorrie’s ownership the name of the house was changed to ‘Coorparoo House’ and for a time was tenanted.
In 1921 John Skirving purchased the property and was first recorded at the Princess Street address in the same year. Skirving had made his fortune as a partner in the ownership of several far north Queensland tin mines. Prior to the Skirving family moving into the Princess Street house, they had resided for several years in Auchenflower. John Skirving died in 1944 and left the property to both his sons, Clyde Douglas Skirving and Glen Sinclair Skirving. In the early 1950s Clyde Skirving, recorded as a commercial traveller and indent agent, bought his brother’s share of the property.
In 1950 the exterior of the house underwent several alterations which were featured in a newspaper article in the Brisbane Telegraph, entitled ““New Look” Luxury”. Following the introduction of Parisian fashion designer, Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ in 1947, which purposefully stepped away from the militaristic and austere women’s fashion of the war years, Dior designed garments with full skirts, small waistlines and feminine lines using fine materials unobtainable during the war. In relation to the alterations made to the house, the article quotes Skirving lamenting the harsh war years when “the scarcity of materials made it impossible to build”. In 1950, however, he was able to carry out these changes to the house, in response to changes in fashion.
The changes to the house included the enclosing of the verandahs and the rendering of the external face-brick. Inside the house minor changes were made including the installation of electric appliances in the kitchen, hot water service and a washing machine. The article stated that the majority of the Victorian internal features had been retained:
All of the best qualities of the old home have been retained … The 16 ft. high ceilings in the downstairs rooms retain their original lath and plaster … The house has five bedrooms, a toilet and bathroom upstairs. Downstairs are four rooms, including a lounge-dining room, sunroom-nursery and kitchen. In the lounge room the Italian marble fireplace of the old home has been retained. Solid cedar sliding doors divide the lounge from the dining room … The building stands on an acre of its own well-kept lawns and gardens. The circular drive is lined with small cypress pines.
The alterations did not diminish the striking and imposing impression the home made on the high hill. In 1962, the Skirving family sold the property to pharmacist, Colin George Caswell.
In 1977 Caswell had the ‘Italianate’ style entry porte-cochere constructed as well as the small verandah on the front of the ground floor bay window. The swimming pool was constructed earlier in 1967.
Rockhampton/ Coorparoo House remains one of the finest houses in the Camp Hill area and is important to the history of the area as it represents the pattern of development when the wealthy purchased large allotments situated on the apex of hill on which to build their stately homes away from the crowded inner-city suburbs and the continuation of this occupation through the twentieth century with alterations to update the house reflecting the fashions of the time.