Richard Hayes Harnett (1819-1902)

by Brian A. Scott

Harnett is an excellent example of a committed land speculator enjoyed the highs and lows of success.

Richard Harnett arrived in Melbourne in 1840 and, by 1845. residing in Sydney. He commenced his own broking business in 1847. From 1860 to 1871 he lived at Gore Hill, and was mayor of North Willoughby in 1870. In 1871 he remarried after the death of his wife and lived in Mosman between 1872 and 1888. In 1870 He entered into a partnership with Alexander Stuart (1824-1886) a well-connected land speculator from Scotland. Stuart was elected to Parliament in 1874, appointed Colonial Secretary in 1876 and became Premier of New South Wales in 1883.

Harnett’s practice was to buy large parcels of land cheaply and, where possible, subdivide. His contact with councils would have been an advantage. By introducing vital transport links such as ferry service, road development and tram services, he was able to attract but to more remote regions.

Harnett purchased his first real estate in 1859. It was a large parcel of undeveloped land in the North Shore suburb of Mosman, which he planned to subdivide. However, the following year he was declared insolvent, with a deficiency of liabilities to assets of £59,875. He subsequently leased property at Gore Hill and remained there until 1872. This was a period of consolidation. However, in 1870, he received an inheritance from his uncle in Ireland in the amount of £22,000. The proceeds were used to buy substantial landholdings at Mosman (1,700-1,800 acres), Middle Harbour, Neutral Bay, Chatswood Willoughby, Longueville, Lane Cove and Riverview. In 1871 John Eales sold Rupert Kirk’s 339 acre. Woodford Estate to Richard Harnett for £1,500.

While at Mosman, Harnett expanded his land interests there, also developing many roads, opening a large sandstone quarry and pioneering horse-drawn omnibus services. His eldest son, Richard Hayes Harnett junior (1850-1938), joined his father in his land speculation activities and became the first mayor of Mosman Council when it was inaugurated in 1893.

As business developed, Harnett would use weekly auctions to attract regular sales. These commenced in 1874 and continued until his death.

Harnett’s chief interest was real estate speculation. An early acquisition was the 900 acre Kings Pla Estate from the pioneer land owner Isaac Nichols, and, in 1876, he opened up a subdivision of his land which he called Chatswood Estate. The blue gum forest over this area had been largely cleared for farming and grazing activities by this time. As a prominent land owner, Richard Harnett senior was an active supporter of the North Shore Railway, and he was rewarded in 1885 when Henry Parkes again became Premier on a platform to construct the line. Harnett sold portion of the estate to the government for the railway formation, together with Chatswood station and goods yard. He had commenced subdivision of his Willoughby Park Estate (near the railway route) in 1884.

Richard Harnett junior recounted, in 1870, his father purchased, amongst other things, 450 acres -Mosman and over a 1,000 acres at Longueville and Chatswood. Immediate emphasis was then given to the establishment of a ferry service. In 1872 he was responsible for construction of wharves at Mosman and Neutral Bay and the formation of the Mosman and Neutral Bay Ferry Service. Harnett junior also claimed that in his lifetime €40,000 was invested by his father in roads and infrastructure.

In 1877 Harnett senior introduced the first line of buses from Milsons Point to Mosman, as well as lines to Chatswood, Longueville, Pymble and Middle Harbour, and commenced the foundation work for the North Shore Railway.

In 1883 he sold 2 acres of the TH Lewis grant to Albert Radke on which he was to build his tannery.

Harnett was one of the successful entrepreneurs scattered across Sydney before 1890. He was politically connected, had access to available credit lines, and was commercially aggressive yet cautious. He was attracted to large underdeveloped parcels of land in areas such as Mosman, Hunters Hill and Lane Cove, but was also active in other emerging areas not directly connected to the transport links. He was not timid in advancing his plans for expansion and sales maximisation. The purpose was to subdivide the land into allotments small enough for the average home owner. Initially, in the 1870s, he was associated with some of the ferry companies that could offer easy access to some of these more remote waterfront areas, and as the land began to sell, he ventured further inland to Chatswood, Willoughby and St Leonards districts. At one stage, Harnett owned in excess of 25 per cent of Mosman land.

Transport remained an important variable in facilitating the flow of sales. Remoteness could, during these developing times, stifle demand, but easy access to the waterways made purchases more attractive. With the emergence of road construction and road transport, demand increased. Harnett would build roads where councils would not; progress was slow but steady.

Hartnett continued to increase his stock of land, but as the inevitable economic slowdowns occurred credit and available funds became tight. The policy of borrowing short and investing long did, and still does, represent a formula for financial difficulty. In such times the lenders may not be prepared to extend terms and quick sales of assets are required to satisfy the debt.

Richard Harnett did not show any large profits or indeed acquire any substantial net wealth from the thousands of acres that he owned. The holding costs such as council rates and charges plus the interest charged on mortgages, coupled with the slow turnover of land stock, would have made life difficult. During the 1880s he began to sell some of his land to his eldest son.

In 1888 Harnett senior obtained a mortgage from “London Chartered Bank of Australia” secured by a charge over land he held at Mosman, Neutral Bay, North Sydney, Lane Cove and Willoughby. The General Manager of the bank, James L Ballantyne, was also his son-in-law. Clearly the depression of the early 1890s was emerging and, as always, one of the first industries to be impacted is real estate. In the space of 30 years, first in 1860 and then in 1890, Harnett felt its sting. In 1896 he was forced to satisfy this debt by conveying property, including holdings at Mosman, Middle Harbour, Lane Cove, Longueville and Riverview, to his son and son-in-law.

The probate grant after his death was recorded as €3,711/13/9 made up of assets of €119,277 and liabilities of €164,808/10/8.

It was noted that the executors of his estate were HC Catt and James L Ballantyne.

At the time of his death in 1902 he lived with his daughter in Orchard Road, Chatswood, virtually opposite Chatswood Oval. Amongst the mourners at his funeral were former mayor of Lane Cove HC Catt, C Ludowici, son of JC Ludowici and P Dettmann, all dignitaries from Lane Cove. This attests to the influence that Harnett had on Lane Cove.