Melbourne in the 1880s was a boom town. With the influx of wealth from both the Golden Fleece (the Merino Wool) and the Gold Diggings of both Ballarat and Bendigo, many of the newly rich (noveau riche) set about building their Shangri-Las. At the same time the rest of the population were also building and expanding into the outer suburbs of Kew, Essendon, Williamstown and Malvern. Mr Clarence Hicks, the original owner of Frognall, the very large mansion situated on 7 acres of land at 54 Mt Albert Rd Canterbury, was a timber merchant, arguably Melbourne’s largest and most successful.
The most recent valuation of Frognall done in recent years put the property value at an estimated $20 million.
Unlike many of the homes we have reviewed in the past Clarence Hicks the original owner was neither a pastoralist nor a mining magnate. He was – a timber merchant – the material of choice for most building projects during the 1880s. Clarence was very well connected with Melbourne’s early elite. His father had been the registrar for Copyrights and Patents and a close friend and confidant of both John Batman and John Pascoe Fawkner.
Clarence Hicks commissioned the colony’s leading builder of the times, Mr Robert Gimlin to ‘erect one of the finest mansions in the colony’. It appears to have been oft quoted in respect of many of Melbourne’s mansions. The elite of the colony were somewhat competitive. At the time Mr Clarence Hicks was the President of the Boorondoora Shire (better known as Camberwell).
The mansion constructed became known as Frognall. True to trend in the 1880s it was an Italianate style mansion. However it was unique in that it featured an amazing degree of concrete architectural renderings including arcaded and balustraded loggia. The grand building is enhanced with a pedimented entrance and deep bracket eaves with a tower capped on each side by projecting broken pediments.
The major difference between Frognall and other impressive 1880s mansions is that the estate and gardens remained largely intact. As well, the service wing, stables and coach house block remained in relatively original condition. It has however since been subdivided, unfortunately.
Clarence Hicks was not to enjoy his creation for long. Located less than a mile and a bit from his timber yards in Upper Hawthorn (opposite the Tower Hotel) it all went pear-shaped with the crash of the 1890s. All that remained of the original extensive timber yards was a Mitre 10 hardware store and carpark.
Clarence fought valiantly to protect himself from bankruptcy and managed to do so. He headed to Western Australia where he had previous dealings with the WA Jarrah Timber Company. He had resurrected his career, but unfortunately met with an untimely early death at 46 years of age. He was by that stage also the Grand Master of the Western Australia branch of the Masonic Lodge – a connection that may well have saved him from total misfortune during the crash of the 1890s.
The estate was purchased by the Laycock family in 1901 who remained in residence there until 1942. The family offered the building to the Commonwealth Government as a gesture to the then War effort. The house became an RAAF base, part of the communications network, and remained so for over 40 years.
Frognall was privately purchased in the early 1990s. The present owners received permission to subdivide and there are now a further 4 properties on the estate.
Many of Melbourne’s grand homes and mansions did not survive the early 20th century or if they did, were modified terribly during the 1960s through until 1980s. Frognall has survived and for that we are fortunate. A grand home with an equally grand and impressive beginning. A reminder perhaps of more genteel times.