Unearthing a millionaire’s cash

Glengariff 1923 - John Oxley Library State Library of Queensland 1923Glengariff is an elegant heritage-listed home in the Brisbane suburb of Hendra. Its ornate gables, chimneys, verandahs, archways, and landscaped gardens, are all echoes of a stylish Victorian past. Built in 1888-1889 on five acres of land by the colony’s manager of the Commercial Bank of Australia, the home was initially called Dura. The manager of the Queensland National Bank then lived there, before start-up Irishman Thomas Charles Beirne acquired the estate in 1898, renamed it Glengariff which means “rough glen” in Irish, and made the home his own for the next half a century. On its former grounds, I found relics from the man himself.

TC Beirne 1884 aged 24 - John Oxley Library State Library of QueenslandT.C. Beirne (picture right) was born in 1860 the son of a farmer at Ballymacurly, Roscommon. He arrived in Australia in 1884 with barely a penny to his name. Beirne was a canny trader who elicited enormous loyalty from his employees, and he became one of the great retailers and one of the few Australian millionaires of his time.

Beirne built a drapery and retail empire with stores across Queensland and offices overseas. Today’s commercial monoliths of Myers and David Jones both include T.C. Beirne in their genealogy. Myers began their national expansion in the 1960s by taking over Allan and Stark in Queen Street in Brisbane, a year later McWhirters in Fortitude Valley.  McWhirters was founded by a former employee and partner of T.C. Beirne. Meanwhile, David Jones responded by taking over T.C. Beirne in the Valley, and then Queen Street’s Finney Isles.

Beirne’s legacy, like his former home, is still in plain sight today. His largest store, the TC Beirne Building in the Valley, is still there, right across the street from McWhirters. These two centres together established Fortitude Valley as the largest shopping precinct outside of a central business district in Australia. Then there’s Beirne Lane in Ipswich, the T.C. Beirne School of Law at the University of Queensland, and T.C. Beirne Park that was once the backyard of his Glengariff estate.

It’s in this park where, equipped with a Minelab metal detector, I unearthed some real reminders of this astute Irishman. You can see my video here.

Lamson Cash CarrierThere were a number of coins, the oldest a 1933 Australian halfpenny which may have been dropped during one of the many fabulous family occasions that Beirne hosted. Perhaps it was when granddaughter Doreen Hooper was celebrating her 21st birthday in 1933 and Glengariff “was a blaze of light for the party, the grounds being festooned with coloured, fairylike lights, cables of which also illuminated the large dance veranda, which was further brightened with palms.” Or maybe when two other grandchildren Joan Hooper and Sybil Douglas were making their debuts in 1936, and the home was “enclosed with flags and floodlit with coloured lights.”

One discovery, however, was perhaps held by Mr Beirne himself. It’s a brass cash carrier that transported money from the point of sale to the bookkeepers in the back office, maybe in the nearby T.C. Beirne Building itself. Although no longer cylindrical, the item clearly shows the makers mark for a Lamson cash carrier that was first patented in 1882. It’s a beautiful find that is perfectly symbolic of the great retailer himself.

Courier-Mail front page - Friday 22 April 1949 (2)When Beirne passed away in 1949, it was front page news. His five surviving daughters gifted the home to the Catholic church to ensure that the graceful Glengariff was preserved and not turned into flats. They gave the remaining three acres of land to the city council. Although Mr Beirne no longer strolls the verandas overlooking his park, his presence here is still very much alive.

Photo credits
Glengariff 1923 – John Oxley Library State Library of Queensland
TC Beirne 1884 aged 24 – John Oxley Library State Library of Queensland
Lamson Cash Carrier and coins – my own
Courier-Mail front page – Friday 22 April 1949

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