Singapore House, image and photo, above Eastern Beach.

Eastern Beach’s Singapore House … on the record

SINGAPORE, 1862: It’s grainy, indistinct and blurry – about what you’d expect from a photo of a structure snapped off in 1862. But it’s startling nonetheless.

What you see, from a distance, is a long, double-storeyed structure, its ground floor well shaded by a deep verandah, overlooking a precipitous cliff with a rude goat-track path leading down its sharp face.

A rough pencil sketch from the same era shows in greater detail, if not greater accuracy, the same building, presumably a few years earlier for it lacks the distinctive verandah.

But the twin jetties reaching out into Corio Bay at the base of the cliff in front of the building leave no doubt it’s the same structure. A short-lived condominium which for a while was clearly among the best property Geelong hosted.

Singapore House, or Singapore Terrace, on what is today Eastern Beach Road, near the corner of Swanston Street, was a complex of nine adjoining buildings inhabited by more than 70 residents in what was described as “a respectable sphere of life”.

It’s fair to assume they were people of means and that developer Alexander Fyfe’s housing project, built in 1855 of timber imported from the Far East, turned him a reasonable profit.

Looking out to the water, the You Yangs and on a clear day to Mount Macedon and the Dandenongs, the building had the best view in town. This was long before peppercorns, cypresses or any other trees blocked the vista.

In fact, it wasn’t far removed from when Aboriginal humpies adorned what is now the entry to neighbouring Eastern Park at the end of Corio Street, then a roughhouse waterfront thoroughfare of stores, pubs and brothels.

In at least one of those pubs, the public bar counter doubled up as a coroner’s autopsy slab when the need arose. Bottoms up, as they say.

For many years, but now long forgotten, Singapore House was remembered as scene of the greatest and worst fire Geelong ever saw. A little like Black Friday of 1939 if you like: wicked but consigned to a history largely beyond living memory.

Looking over old pictures at The Geelong Club a while back, I tripped to the pencil sketch of the Corio Bay waterfront from Eastern Beach to Moorabool. It’s undated but I’m guessing it’s somewhere around the original club’s inception in 1859.

The sketch features names for the various buildings it depicts. Not unlike another famous picture of early Geelong’s waterfront, painted by Wilbraham Liardet from the Western Beach aspect.

It points out Corio Villa, Dr Day’s house, police quarters, pilot houses, Fyfe House, a stone wall, Bayview House — now the derelict Ritz Flats — the Volum Brewery and Macks Hotel.

Front and centre of this simple tableau, however, near the corner of Swanston and The Esplanade, is the extraordinary structure of double-story timber terrace houses.

Now I’ve tracked down a photograph. The only photograph as far as I can ascertain.

It was commissioned in 1862 by the Geelong council and features, hard and high left, in a scene of waterfront Geelong snapped from Eastern Beach. It must have been taken just weeks, perhaps days, before it went up in flames on March 18.

Welcome to Singapore Terrace.

Hope your insurance is paid up, though. For within just seven years, in March 1862, “the greatest ornament of the Esplanade overlooking the Eastern Beach” was burned to the ground.

It was a waterfront inferno to match any New Year’s Eve fireworks since, maybe even the clipper Lightning’s conflagration on the bay a few years later in 1869.

The fire started between floors and, fanned by a strong, hot north-north-westerly, proceeded to demolish the buildings, leaving all its occupants homeless.

Reports said the saddest sight was the “throng of bewildered and terrified women and children rushing from the houses”. Some were appalled at the enormity of the threat facing them, one was overjoyed at evacuating her “little ones scatheless”.

Residents and bystanders watched on, gobsmacked at the furious afternoon spectacle and the firefighting industry battling to contain the blaze. Fire brigades from Geelong, Newtown and Chilwell and their engines, buckets, hoses 60 metres up from the beach couldn’t stop the blaze from turning the resinous timber the terraces were built of from turning white hot and collapsing.

Lucky thing was no-one died in the fire. No so lucky were domestic pets — presumably dogs, cats and budgies — and chickens. Oh, and evidently, someone’s pet monkey expired as well.

Oddly enough, however, rodents that had been plaguing the area cleared out a day or two before the fire. A case, as the Irish firebrand Flann O’Brien might have noted, of rats leaving a sinking chimp.

Selling property: Reveal that true sense of place

Selling a property and looking for that extra edge to attract potential buyers?

Maybe you need to lift your game beyond listing just the normal features and attributes of said property.

New owners like to know about their prospective pile’s story. Its background. How it fits in locally.

Older houses often boast curious and unusual stories; layers and colours, if you like, across the years.

Dig about and find what stories there are to your house, to its occupants, its neighbourhood, and you could have a serious additional selling attribute.

Sure, features, location and price are all important. But just think, if you’re buying a new house wouldn’t you like to know its story?

Sense of place is valuable. So value it.

The following is an example of how you can tell such a story.

Oh, and another tip — use a professional writer to do the job. It can make all the difference.


Cypresses and currawongs, bunya bunya pines and peppercorns, art deco and heritage are part of the furniture around Eastern Beach.

So too, heritage properties, bluestone pavers, the smell of the sea, history dripping from the fig trees and 100-mile views across glistening waters to faraway hills and horizons.

Peep inside a few houses and you’ll find all manner of collectibles, old architectural renderings, glorious cornices, fireplaces, verandahs, cast-iron and polychrome masonry, observatories …

It paid to be observant in early Geelong. Eastern Beach oversaw the merchant trade that grew Geelong as it plied its way across Corio Bay below, right from the port’s earliest Point Henry days and the shaky-looking jetties off Yarra Street.

Police quarters and pilot houses were positioned high on what is now Eastern Beach Road. Until 1960, it was Victoria Parade. With no trees impeding their view, the inhabitants of these quarters had first sight of ships entering the bay.

Painters such as Mossman and Liardet, in the 1840s, depicted Eastern Beach as an area apart from the centre of Geelong. It was lightly wooded and a solid uphill walk from the Corio and Yarra streets CBD. But then, everywhere in Geelong was an uphill walk those days.

It wasn’t long before the town’s well-to-do took up residence there: Fyfe, Day, Douglas, Solomon, Harding and numerous others all found their way over time.

Alexander Fyfe, one of its earliest developers, built the illustrious but ill-fated Singapore Terrace there. Just near Swanston Street; nine magnificent units of imported cedar and housing more than 70 wealthy residents.

That was in 1855. In 1862, sadly, the whole project came crashing to the ground in a terrifying blaze.

But Eastern Beach didn’t lose its allure.

In the late 1880s, an exquisite etching of Eastern Beach by artist Melton Prior was published in the London Illustrated News.

The area was clearly a prosperous Antipodean idyll, populated with wooden bathing sheds and sailing ships. Elegant, coiffed ladies, well-dressed gentleman and happy cherubs lolled and strolled about the grassy cliffside paths. Two-storey mansions punctuated the background.Things didn’t come much better in Victorian times.

By the 1920s, buildings such as the Walbaringa Maisonettes, Windlesham and Rosehaugh brought new inter-war architectural blood to a precinct where accountants, merchants, auctioneers, solicitors and retailers had long occupied federation and Victorian cliffside homes.

Rosehaugh, at present-day 48 Eastern Beach Road, was built by William Reid after he bought the site as fenced land from the estate of John Price in 1923. The Reid family kept the house until the late 1960s when it was bought by Clive Hill. It changed hands again, more recently, to its present owners, who hail from Victoria’s southwest.

Less than a stone’s throw from the historic iron prefab Corio Villa, which sold for an undisclosed sum in 2013 after being advertised at more than $5.2 million, Rosehaugh is an extremely rare property to hit the market.

When the Californian bungalow-styled Rosehaugh came into being, then as now, big changes were afoot in Geelong.

The Market Square clock tower was removed, after nearly 70 years in the town’s centre, Bert Rankin was given the nod to skipper the Geelong Football Club ahead of their first VFL flag. Carji Greeves took out the first Brownlow Medal, after Charles Brownlow died months earlier.

A new bridge was built over the Barwon, Ford started building a new factory at North Geelong, the Phosphate Works too. The Joy Ark on the waterfront was being dismantled, its frame to be re-used building The Palais.

Meanwhile, City Hall was clamouring for a clean-up of the rubbish tip further out around neighbouring Eastern Park, presaging the start of building on the art deco swimming enclosure at Eastern Beach. Things were looking up for the area, and by and large they’ve remained up ever since.

Mind you, salubrious as Eastern Beach might be, it’s not been without its peccadilloes.

Running squabbles between police and hoon hot-rodders were long a fixture of the area. No so these days. And a certain former mayor resident along the cliff-face once campaigned for a casino on the waterfront, basically in front of his home, before he was bundled away behind bars for nicking millions that he blew on gambling.

There’s also the story of another former mayor, and a senior local public servant, both resident on the estimable Eastern Beach, as the road is abbreviated, clashing nastily over fenceline encroachments, reportedly with sizeable firearms drawn in the standoff.

One of the more curious tales involves Dr Day, John Day, whose home was beside the site that would become Rosehaugh. Day experimented with all sorts of things; ozone, hydrogen peroxide, turps, benzene, petrol, essential oils inter alia. He ran up diagnostic blood tests and other clever 19th century medical advances.

Day’s antiseptic work led to the world’s first toilet deodoriser. A chemical version, perhaps, of the gnarled ancient peppercorns lining the former Victoria Parade once widely viewed, in the days of nightsoilmen, as repellent to insects and other nasties.

They’ve certainly helped maintain that salubrious aspect of Eastern Beach, those pretty, heavily-scented beauties. And make no mistake, this address is still salubrious.

Very salubrious.


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