Over the seven years that I’ve lived in Glebe Point Rd on the former Benledi Estate – now also the home of Kelly Wallwork’s Glebe Tram mural – the history of the place came to me by chance, improbably: it began with a brick up my stormwater pipe and ended with American tourists at my door. Between those two strange events I learnt a little about how subdivision works, and how much it defined the socioeconomic history of Sydney throughout the 20th century.

Richardson & Wrench sales plan for the Benledi Estate. (image: National Library of Australia)

Council gave me my first lesson when I took my brick story to them in 2012. Or rather, the lack of a lesson: they wouldn’t tell me who owned the access lanes through the Benledi Estate. Really? Privately owned? All I wanted were some basic water services to satisfy a grouchy neighbour. Instead I got a mystery to solve.

Making the trip to Prince Albert Rd, I was certain Land and Property Information would tell me what the Council would not. Yet they knew less than I did – ‘Looks like a public road’ – and that was the greater shock, that in modern times there could be bits of Sydney unregistered. But my disbelief was overheard by the world-wearied customer next to me – ‘You should go downstairs to the old records’, he said. That’s how the addiction starts.

It was Alexander Kethel who subdivided and sold the Benledi Estate on September 29, 1900. Lot 1 of the Benledi Estate is a story the Glebe Society knows well. It is the site of Ben Ledi itself, the house built for Kethel c.1885. Kethel was one for nostalgia: he was born in Perthshire, Scotland, where the mountain Ben Ledi rises to 879 metres. When sold, Lot 1 was incorporated into the (now demolished) Sydney Hospital for Sick Children on the corner of Glebe Point Rd and Wigram Rd. From 1915 to 1989 Ben Ledi was the Sydney Homeopathic Hospital before passing to Council ownership and becoming the Glebe Library.

Alexander Kethel (1832-1916) (image: State Library of NSW)

Kethel could have ended up anywhere. He was a humble seaman who jumped ship in Sydney in 1853 and headed for the Victorian goldfields; but by the 1870s he had found success as a Sydney timber merchant. Politics followed. The diversity of his experiences was reflected in his centrist politics: committed to free trade in coalition with Sir Henry Parkes; an advocate for forest conservation; an avid supporter of societies. Kethel was the Member for West Sydney in the NSW Legislative Assembly from 1885 to 1889, and then a life member of the NSW Legislative Council from 1895 on.

When the Benledi Estate auction was over, half of it ended up in the hands of three developers. Lots 4, 5 and 6 became four terraces at 176-182 Glebe Point Rd. Lots 7 and 8 became five terraces: 168-174 Glebe Point Rd (those named after Tasmanian rivers) and 1 Hereford St around the corner. And the six lots 9-14 became the eight terraces of 3-17 Hereford St built by Charles William Coulton. In total, 11 lots became 17 terraces. Squeezing extra properties out of land has always been a favourite developer trick, and subdivision has always made developers rich.

Coulton died in 1916, the same year as Kethel but having considerably more wealth. Coulton, a former President of the Master Builders Association, left his widow 40 houses and three blocks of land, all in the eastern suburbs, in addition to their nine-room residence in Randwick.

Coulton was also a better subdivider than Kethel. Whenever Coulton developed a block of land he promptly dedicated any access lanes to the relevant council. Kethel never bothered, and nor did his neighbours at 19 Hereford St, the Korffs (of Coffs Harbour fame). The access lane that runs along the western border of the Benledi Estate (behind the library between Hereford St and Wigram Lane) is owned by the estate of John Korff’s daughters, while the access lane that doglegs within the Benledi Estate is owned by Kethel’s estate. Each of the lanes was separated from any of the subdivided lots, orphaning them indefinitely. They have no name, and the Council isn’t interested in taking ownership of them (though, bizarrely, in 1963 Council tried to extract overdue rates from the long-dead Kethel for his lane – unsuccessfully, I assume).

Once subdivided, who owned the Benledi Estate terraces? The stamps on the historical Certificates of Title for my own home tell a story of diminishing status: first a builder, then farmer, engineer, labourer, stonemason, debt collector, and by 1980, widow.

Who lived in them? I really had little idea, until one Saturday afternoon in 2014 when I found an older couple peering into my windows. I’d just returned from grocery shopping with bags in my hands, and we looked at each other quizzically. Ian asked the first question. ‘Excuse me, is this terrace a set of apartments or one home?’ Of all the questions to ask, this made no sense to me, and I certainly wasn’t looking for tenants. ‘Just one home’, I replied. He then pointed to the upstairs bedroom. ‘Sorry to ask, but I used to live in your front room 50 years ago.’

Of course, I took him and his American fiancée inside for a quick tour of the place. Weeks later, Ian posted a letter and shared his Glebe life. Ian Campbell became a full-time opera singer in 1967 with the Elizabethan Trust Opera Company (now Opera Australia), and later sang at the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973.

The Sydney seasons were relatively short, requiring the Company to be on the road in the other capitals and even doing inland tours with piano accompaniment. … All of this is to say that every time I returned to Sydney I went to a rental agent on the corner of Glebe Point Rd and Broadway, to find a flat. They handled many in the Glebe area.

So after spending two university years at 178 [Glebe Point Rd] in the downstairs rear, I stayed in 180 at one time, in the upstairs front room which had an enclosed balcony in those days. I even had a girlfriend in 176 briefly. She dropped me for a pianist who did not leave town as frequently as I had to. Many lovely memories.

The enclosed balconies and empty gardens of 176-182 Glebe Point Rd, early1970s. (image: Bernard and Kate Smith, The Architectural Character of Glebe, Sydney: University Co-operative Bookshop

Today the row of enclosed balconies at 176-182 Glebe Point Rd are gone, the terraces restored with their original façades. The subdivisions within subdivisions are over too, and gone are the days of revolving tenants. When I moved to Glebe in 2010, I was the only owner-occupier in the row. Today the number is three out of four. Like patterns that repeat in a fractal, the Benledi Estate tells a story of increasing then decreasing subdivision, transience then permanence; a story that will be familiar to many residents across Glebe.