Neutral Bay Land Company Estate

As the architect Walter Liberty Vernon was designing and constructing his own home ‘Penshurst’ in Neutral Bay in 1884/5, he was also planning a model suburb for the undeveloped slopes around him.

Vernon had only recently arrived from England. He was aware of the latest thinking in town planning, in particular the London suburb designed by leading architect Richard Norman Shaw called Bedford Park, and had worked on estate planning in Britain.

With his architectural partner William Wardell, and the department store owner Edward Lloyd Jones, Vernon acquired property from John Cooper and land owned by Patrick Hayes on a 90+ year lease. The Company offered sub-leases to prospective residents for the same period. This form of tenure was not as desirable as freehold so the Company emphasized that leasehold was much cheaper than outright ownership of the land – an advantage that allowed ‘ready money’ for use on building a fine house.

Several houses, designed by Vernon, were built as speculative ventures by David Jones. Some were featured in the Company prospectus, along with a sketch of ‘Penshurst’, as evidence of the respectability and viability of the enterprise. Some original estate houses survive today in Wycombe Road. These include ‘St Julians’ at No. 23, ‘Missenden’ at No.29, ‘Rupera’ at No.27, ‘Alteryn’ at No.57, ‘St Helens’ at No.72, ‘Tendring’ at No.49 and ‘Tenalba’ at No.31. Several later houses were designed by Howard Joseland who partnered Vernon in 1889. By then the Company boasted some 33 houses on or ‘adjoining’ the estate averaging £1,100 each with ‘no encouragement for the erection of buildings to deteriorate the value of these’. One’s investment was, therefore, secure.

The Company Estate was one of the first planned suburban developments in Sydney and anticipated the intense interest in garden suburbs that swept the city in the early 1900s. It was marketed as both a ‘marine suburb’, beause of its proximity to Sydney Harbour with views across the water, and a ‘model suburb’ because this was a place where residents could be assured of a high quality of life and amenity, something planned rather than dependent on chance. Because of Vernon’s involvement, the suburb had been ‘saved from the indiscriminate builder’ so that each house was well-designed and beautiful. Each had its spacious garden with the promise of facilities nearby such as a tennis club, a church and harbour baths. The prospectus announced the presence of a resident medical doctor. Ferries to the city from Neutral Bay were frequent and cheaper than services to other locales.

Vernon’s influence was also apparent in the naming of the streets and early houses, and this lent to the Englishness of the place. Notably Cooper Street became Wycombe Road in honour of Vernon’s place of birth.

Of particular significance was the importance given to surrounding nature and the beauty of the site. The prospectus stressed that the ‘wooded heights, deep gullies, and charming views are intact’ while ‘every care’ had been taken ‘to maintain its special characteristics’. However, while many of the estate’s houses and gardens remained intact by the mid-20th century, the ‘wooded heights’ of Neutral Bay were covered in flats and villas and the ‘deep gullies’ lost under footpaths and bitumen.

Vernon’s involvement with the venture ended when he took up his position as Government Architect in 1890. The Company seems to have folded with the impact of the Depression in the following years, though Howard Joseland designed houses built on estate land as late as 1894.