Suburban dentist, a salt works, and one of Queensland’s most important female novelists

Suburban dentist, a salt works, and one of Queensland’s most important female novelists

Image above: Australian News and Information Bureau & Elliott & Fry (Firm). (1895). Mrs. Campbell Praed. Retrieved July 8, 2017.

By Susan Prior

I am thinking of renaming this blog The Rabbit Hole, or, alternatively, Two Degrees of Separation, because the number of times I start an article with one story and finish with another is amazing. One classic example was the article ‘Scantily clad lady balloonists turn heads in Brisbane’ about the first (wo)manned flight in Brisbane, which linked, somewhat tenuously, to Dr Thomas Pennington Lucas of Lucas’s Papaw Ointment fame. 

Today’s article is another example of a minor piece of Brisbane history, which connects to something that is rather unexpected and (to me) exciting.


Just down the road from where I live is a suburban dental practice. No surprises there. But what is fascinating is the building in which it is housed. And the fascinating connections made through time and space to one of Queensland’s most important and prodigious female novelists, Mrs Campbell Praed.

A suburban dental practice

On 24 November 1936, The Courier-Mail published a lengthy article about the building, which was apparently the first of its kind designed specifically to combine a family home and a working space, titled ‘Professional Man’s Practice at Home: A House to Suit His Needs: A Domestic Style’.

Dual Purpose Home, 24 November 1936, The Courier-Mail

Clearly, in its day, the design of this home and business premises was significant enough to warrant a detailed write up. Either that, or the architect, and/or the dentist who commissioned the building were ahead of the game in marketing themselves and gaining useful publicity. Apparently, this building was the pinnacle of domestic style and business practicality. What fascinates me is that it has been used continuously for the dual purposes of suburban dental practice and as a home since the day it was built.

As the article states:

‘To plan a house that will at once serve domestic and business purposes is a problem often confronting professional men with practices in the suburbs or in the country. While it may be desirable that a home life and business life should be closely associated, in certain circumstances, the house should be so arranged as to keep both interests in water-tight compartments.

‘A two-storeyed home is a simple solution of the problem. The ground floor can be devoted to business interests, and the upper storey can be a private home, completely isolated from the general public who have reason to call as clients.’

The building was commissioned by dentist Mr RAV (Bob) Wills, and designed by a young, up-and-coming, Brisbane architect, Mr John J Ahern.

You can read the article, which goes into detail about the building – the balcony veranda to catch the summer breezes, the fernery as an integral feature of the house, and so on – in full, here

I particularly like this part of the description:

‘Walnut veneers have been used most artistically in the dining room. From the floor, the walls have been panelled in walnut to a height of 3ft, above which they are covered in paper of tapestry pattern. Mock moulded beams, also in walnut colour, supply a note of interest in the ceiling, which thus harmonises with the general decorative scheme. The furniture is of highly-polished walnut.

‘Green Kitchen

‘Communicating with the dining room is the kitchen, which is almost entirely in green. Relief is supplied by the silvery gleam of the Monel* metal sink extension draining boards. One side of the kitchen is given over to the sink and a line of cupboards, an arrangement that permits of a steady and orderly progression of household work before and after a meal.’

Dr Peter Coates practised at the surgery for 42 years, retiring in 1999, at which time Dr Terence Lee took over. I contacted Dr Lee to tell him about this article and he came back to me with this: 'the walnut veneers in the dining room were covered with paint for many many years.  Recently we renovated the whole residence upstairs.' He went on to tell me that he removed the paint to expose the walnut veneers, which have now been restored to their original condition.  

The dental surgery today. The planter boxes have gone, although the supports for them are still there, and the fernery and veranda are now enclosed.

Mr Bob Wills

While I was finding out about the surgery, I did some hunting into the background of Mr Wills. According to his obituary, it seems he was the son of Mr AE Wills of Hassall Street in Corinda. AE Wills was also a dentist having qualified in Rockhampton, where he practised for 12 years before coming to Brisbane and joining his brother, Mr Herbert Wills, in a practice in Queen Street. He then moved to a practice in Corinda; he was a foundation member and past president of the Oxley Golf Club. 

Mr AE Wills’s father (and Bob’s grandfather) was Dr Samuel Joseph Wills. When Dr Samuel Joseph Wills emigrated to Australia and established a salt works in Gladstone

And so down another of these glorious rabbit holes I go, to discover more about our dentist’s grandfather and how he came to establish a salt works in (almost**) tropical Queensland.

Dr Samuel Joseph Wills

According to his obituary in The Week, Mr SJ Wills was an educated man who gained diplomas as a veterinary surgeon from London and Edinburgh Universities. He practised for a while in Dorset, but then emigrated to Queensland in 1866. Unfortunately, he found ‘little scope in the colony for his calling’, so he travelled to Gladstone where he established a salt works and a timber mill.

He went into partnership with Colonel Mackenzie of Auburn and, more interestingly (for me, anyway), with Mr Arthur Campbell Bulkley Praed of Monte Christo, Curtis Island. But more on him in a moment.

Mr Wills ran his salt works for 10 years, until the abolition of import duties on salt made the business unviable. He then entered the teaching profession. There is a highly detailed description of the salt works in an article in The Brisbane-Courier on 23 May 1874, where he is called GJ Wills; I think SJ Wills and GJ Wills are one and the same. I am not sure too many people called Wills would have started a salt works in Gladstone at that time. If anyone knows differently please let me know. 

Back to Mr Campbell Praed, and his wife Rosa Praed

Rosa Caroline Praed – early photograph

Mr Campbell Praed was married to the Queensland-born author Rosa Praed (née Murray-Prior, and, sadly, no relation to me). In The Australian Dictionary it says this about her time on Curtis Island: 

‘Campbell Praed had a cattle run, Monte Christo, on Curtis Island near Gladstone where his wife spent two lonely, miserable years. These experiences figure in her autobiographical My Australian Girlhood (1902) and in the novels, The Romance of a Station (1889) and Sister Sorrow (1916). In 1876 Campbell returned with Rosa to England to enter the brewing trade in Northamptonshire. She resumed writing, drawing upon her Australian experiences, and published An Australian Heroine in 1880. Writing as Mrs Campbell Praed, she produced more than forty-five books over the next four decades, approximately half of which deal with Australian material.’

In the John Oxley Library’s SL blogs article about Rosa, she is described as ‘one of early Queensland’s most important writers’, who wrote 45 to 50 novels, half of which were set in Australia. It goes on, ‘Her fiction repeatedly explores the theme of intelligent women trapped in marriages with insensitive and sometimes violent husbands’.


As usual, I have digressed completely from Mr Bob Wills, dentist, of Graceville. But what a delightful find – that his grandfather was linked to a prodigious and important Queensland novelist.

Now I shall have to go and hunt down some of her books to read.


*Monel is a nickel-copper alloy with high tensile strength and resistance to corrosion. ‘Monel® alloys are nickel-base alloys that contain between 29 and 33 percent copper. Initially created by metallurgist Robert Crooks Stanley and patented in 1905 by the International Nickel Company. The metal was given the name Monel in honor of the then-director of International Nickel. Not surprisingly, Stanley later became Director of International Nickel.’ 

** Tropical Queensland is defined as the area of the state north of 23.5° S. Gladstone is just shy of this at 23.8426° S.

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