Long Road Home

This is the story of an ambitious Scottish stonemason named John Shand who established one of Australia’s most enduring legal dynasties but then somehow faded into history.

Telling the family story should have been easy for me but this was a sometimes awkward journey, calling into doubt an image projected in a rapid social ascent in Sydney of the early 20th century.

When my uncle Alec Shand QC passed away in July 2011, an obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald noted that “for more than a century from the mid-1880s, AB, JW and Alec Shand demolished witnesses, defeated prosecutors and dazzled juries.”

There was no mention of John Shand (1825-1891). He had arrived in Sydney in 1853 and finished up as a successful farmer and a police magistrate at Penrith Court.  John had begun the family’s legal tradition on the other side of the bench, paving the way for the barristers that followed.

The family had also forgotten him. The knowledge of our Australian story had begun one generation after the pioneer John Shand. It was John’s son, my great-grandfather Alexander Barclay (AB) Shand KC (1865-1949), who was regarded as the patriarch.

AB had begun life on his father’s farm, Wallgrove Estate, on Eastern Creek in outer western Sydney but had become a leading legal figure in NSW. He refused an invitation to become a Supreme Court judge, preferring the greater income of the barrister but served as a Royal Commissioner on industry inquiries. AB and his wife Florence made a formidable couple in Sydney of the early 1900s. He was a leading member of the Bar Council and a friend of senior politicians while she was a tireless worker for the poor and infirm, sitting on the boards of various hospitals, schools and women’s auxiliaries.  Her sudden death in October 1929 left a hole in AB’s life that could never be filled.

As small boys, my father John and his twin brother Alec were sent to spend afternoons at the Vaucluse residence of their widowed grandfather.  The once dashing AB had become an immense and forbidding figure by the late 1930s.

As he consumed vast quantities of food, the gruff old barrister would exhort the children to clear their plates before sending them off with the maid to swimming lessons at Parsley Bay.  There was no time for small talk or family history. The Shands, like many Australian families, were looking to the future, not the past.

There was a connection to a canal pirate in Cornwall that I was keen to adopt, but we thought of ourselves as English, from a Sydney family with Anglican roots.

For reasons lost in time, AB had bestowed the middle name Wentworth on his son Jack Shand QC and it had been passed down through four generations of Shand men all the way to my son Jack. It hinted at a pioneering colonial respectability. William Charles Wentworth had crossed the Blue Mountains with Blaxland and Lawson and then became the colony’s greatest statesman. Back in the 1970s, one of the  Wentworths had once abused my father in public over this. We were imposters, they declared bitterly. We were social climbers who had stolen the family name to get ahead.  We dismissed this without a skerrick of supporting evidence.

Our identity as a family had been forged in the court rooms of Sydney.  AB’s son John (Jack) Wentworth Shand QC (1897-1959) had followed in his father’s footsteps becoming the most famous barrister of his day. Jack’s son Alexander Barclay Shand QC (1929-2011) had become the third generation to take silk at the NSW Bar.

The SMH noted that Alec had resembled “his tall and handsome grandfather (his father was less prepossessing – ruddy and stout).

“But if he had AB Shand’s demeanour, Alec had his father’s tenacity. As Sir Garfield Barwick said of Jack – and it applied to his son – he had ”the capacity of insinuation in tone that could annoy and bring a witness into antagonism”, according to the SMH.

Beyond the storied legal history, the Shand family had mislaid, or even discarded, the knowledge of its origins. A casual inquiry into the archives of the NSW Births Deaths and Marriages would become a quest to understand how this had occurred and also to claim an unlikely inheritance from the late 19th century. This was quite literally a road that ran back into our past.

It was a crumbling potholed strip of tar named Rudders Lane that connected the Great Western Highway with a grim row of tumbledown shacks, a trotting track and some disused paddocks that had once been my great-great grandfather’s farm, Wallgrove Estate at Eastern Creek.

Housing estates had sprung up all around in neighbouring Rooty Hill and Minchinbury, but progress had bypassed Wallgrove. The M4 freeway framed the southern boundary, with a view of Eastern Creek Raceway and the M7 thundered along the western edge. The land in between was less developed than it had been in 1890. Remnants of the orchards and gardens of Chinese tenant farmers had long ago disappeared under the weeds and brambles.

However in December 2010, big changes were afoot on Rudders Lane. A huddle of workman’s sheds had recently appeared in the scrub. This was the advance party for the construction team that would build the 60-hectare Huntingwood West Employment Precinct.

In 2007, Rudders Lane had been officially closed by the Blacktown City Council, all the permits had been issued and a developer Goodman was already spruiking the warehouse and factory sites to prospective buyers. There was one problem. A year later it was discovered that the roadway had never actually existed in any formal sense.

Rudders Lane had never been gazetted as a public road though locals had used it for access since the 1860s. To tidy up this detail, the State Government had compulsorily acquired this 8000 square metre strip of land in 2008. However, there had been no payment of compensation to its legal owners.  In 2011, more than a century after John Shand’s death, his descendants would reclaim his property rights, not to mention the knowledge of his story.

In December 2010, I had located the grave of John Shand and his wife Mary Barclay in the old Presbyterian section of Sydney’s Rookwood cemetery. The granite headstone was lying flat on the ground, having fallen from its plinth. By the headstone, there were half-buried shards of a broken bottle, perhaps used for long ago floral offerings. There was a date, 1943, on its base, suggesting it had been a long time since anyone had visited.

John had died in September 1891 aged 66 years. Mary had lived on until 1911when she passed away at 82. No other family members had been buried there.

My father, retired psychiatrist Dr John Shand, bore his great-grandfather’s name, but had never heard of John Shand.  Barclay, his great-grand mother’s maiden name, had survived in his twin brother Alec’s middle name. Other branches of the family had also preserved the Barclay name, but no-one quite knew why.  The names of these pioneers were never spoken of in the family. Sitting by the grave in the sun with my parents and 14-year old daughter, we reconnected a thread stretching back hundreds of years.  Unfortunately, the weak link seemed to have been my grandfather Jack Shand.

A brilliant and unorthodox advocate, Jack’s legal exploits had held Sydney in thrall in the days before television. His entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography noted that “his reputation as a courtroom tactician rested not only on his many victories, but also on his willingness to accept difficult and often seemingly impossible briefs.”

In 1954, he also secured an acquittal for a glamorous model named Shirley Beiger who had shot her philandering boyfriend dead outside Chequers Night Club in Sydney’s Pitt St. For all his public acclaim, Jack Shand had played a minor role in the lives of his six children from two marriages. In 1939, Jack already had four children when he left his first wife Enid (my grandmother) for another woman, Judy Westgarth whom he had met at the Killara Tennis Club. They had another two children together.

In 1959, Jack Shand was still appearing in high-profile cases even though he was dying from stomach cancer. His last and possibly greatest case came in a South Australian royal commission into the conviction of an indigenous man named Rupert Max Stuart condemned to hang for the brutal murder of a nine-year old girl.

Though he knew he was dying, Jack Shand never got around to sorting out his affairs. When he passed away in October 1959, he left no will, nor any final instructions.

Jack’s second wife Judy inherited the family home “Wentworth Cottage” in St Ives, but there was precious little else. The rest had been frittered away through gambling and high life.

For his inheritance, my father received only the briefcase that Jack had carried into court through many of his great legal battles. They shared the name John Wentworth Shand so with the monogram “JWS” the case could hardly go to anyone else. Alec got the old man’s law books and a wonderful head start in the law from the family name.

Money had never been very important to Jack. On at least one occasion, AB had been forced to settle his son’s gambling debts with Sydney bookmakers. AB’s generosity had ensured that Jack’s children received a first class education while his son indulged what newspapers described as a “zest for life” and “his frolicsome ways.” In Jack’s life of fast cars and slow horses, there was no time to explain the origins of the family.

Until we located their grave in December 2010, John Shand and his wife Mary had slipped steadily into anonymity.

That night, while searching Google references,  I came across a notice in the NSW Government Gazette. In January 2008, then State Minister for Planning Frank Sartor had signed off on the compulsory acquisition of “the residue” of a parcel of land situated in the Blacktown area. The land “was said to be in the ownership of John Shand and Alexander Barclay Shand.”

The land turned out to be a sliver of my great-great grandfather’s estate.  Authorities had apparently made only a minimal effort to inform us of the impending acquisition.

My 14-year old daughter Noliwe, whose mother is Zimbabwean, saw this chain of events through her African heritage. “Today we found the ancestors,” she announced. “And so to thank us they have given us a gift.”

The lawyer representing the NSW Department of Planning did not share our sense of nostalgia. Under NSW law, possession or occupation of a parcel of land was sufficient evidence of ownership, she said drily. Therefore Blacktown City Council was the rightful owner and been paid a six-figure sum by the State Government in compensation. And this was the end of story, she said.

The principle of indefeasibility (a State guarantee of ownership) applied only to Torrens title land. The Torrens system, under which land title is recorded with a volume and folio number, was only just beginning in 1867 when John Shand bought Wallgrove.  Many landholders didn’t bother to convert their Old System titles to Torrens.

Our claim to Rudders Lane seemed to be sunk  until I discovered that the National Library held a poster advertising an 1890 auction sale of the Wallgrove land.

Amid the fancy fonts and filigree designs was written in plain bold capitals: TORRENS TITLE. The map also showed that Rudders Lane and the rest of the road network did not fall within the boundaries of the blocks being sold. They would remain on the certificate of title, even after the Shands were long gone.

Rudders Lane had seemingly been in limbo for decades, used by everyone but seemingly owned by no-one, not even the State of NSW.

To John Shand, the lane was just a short cut that bisected his land and then swung westward across the creek to the family homestead. John had planned the subdivision with thoroughfares that spoke to the spirit of the age. Centennial, Federal and Union Roads would be created as boulevards twenty metres wide with names that spoke of nationhood as the colonies moved towards federation in 1901. The lane was not even worth naming back then.

John Shand was a migrant success story. He arrived in Sydney in November 1853 with his wife Mary and two-year old daughter Jane aboard a cargo ship called the Hope. Once a servant, he had been working as the toll collector on the River Spey at Fochabers in northern Scotland. The discovery of gold in New South Wales in 1851 had created a dire labour shortage and artisans like John were in high demand as a great civic works programme was underway.  John and thousands of Scottish quarrymen and masons worked the yellow block sandstone of Pyrmont from which much of Sydney’s original cityscape was hewn.  Later, he won a contract to build the stone pier at Ulladulla on the south coast of NSW and used the proceeds to buy Wallgrove in 1866.

By 1890, he and his wife Mary Barclay had raised five children on Wallgrove, built a school, a tannery and a dairy.  At 65 he was a civic figure in the Penrith area, a police magistrate, a deacon in the Presbyterian Church and a vice-president of the local branch of the Free Trade Party. With the sale of the farm, John was contemplating retirement in a new three-storey terrace house in Pitt St Redfern.

The sale poster boasted of “superior farms of various sizes” and a tannery for auction sale on the ground on March 1 1890. With Sydney’s population pushing westward, Shand saw Wallgrove becoming a significant food bowl with orchards, vineyards, nurseries and market gardens.

However, the NSW land boom of the 1880s was about to end. As Australia headed into the depression of the 1890s, the value of Sydney property would fall 20 per cent in the next two years. The auction was a flop with less than 100 acres of Wallgrove sold, mostly by offering mortgage finance to buyers – a 25 per cent deposit, the balance in 7 years with 5 per cent interest.
This 1889 photo of the family at home on Wallgrove was kindly supplied by my cousin Elizabeth Michell, another great-great grandchild of John Shand.
John’s comfortable retirement in Redfern was short lived. A year later, he died suddenly of pneumonia and pleurisy.  The balance of the estate, 317 acres, was valued at only £1587. By comparison, the five stone cottages he owned overlooking Jones Bay in Pyrmont, plus a vacant block of reclaimed land, were estimated to be worth £6355.

Over the next three decades, the family gradually sold off all the blocks along Rudders Lane. Each block was sold with a guaranteed right of way allowing free use of the lane. The last 20 hectare parcel, the former Wallgrove homestead, was sold in 1920. It was described as “the residue” of the title, overlooking the fact that the 8000 square metre strip of road still belonged to the Shands.

A dozen owners had a guaranteed right of way to their farm gates, so it’s arguable that Rudders Lane had no economic value.

However when the NSW Government later bought all the surrounding land, the value of Rudders Lane was renewed. The government’s plan had been to turn the land into parkland or small market gardens. However, it was later decided to sell it for commercial use and so the Huntingwood West Employment Precinct was created. It was only in October 2007, when the Department of Planning asked the council to close the lane, that the oversight was discovered.

It’s now 2016 and the old road has been transformed. It’s been dramatically widened and it’s been kerbed and guttered for the first time. Rows of new factory sites and warehouses have filled with tenants.

Meanwhile, the State Government has conceded that the family title to Rudders Lane has endured. As of March 2016, I have nearly completed the task of contacting potential beneficiaries and verifying their claims to the estate. So many wills and probate documents have been unearthed in attics or in the files of family solicitors. It won’t be a fortune but a nice little drink is coming to a lot of family members.

In the meantime, in the interest of accuracy, I will have to concede the allegation that our connection to the Wentworths may indeed be dubious. In three years of research, I found no documented link between the Shands and the Wentworths.

It’s but a small social misdemeanour.  As John Shand’s journey showed, a hardworking migrant could become anything or anyone he dreamed of in the early days of Australia. So I’ll be keeping the name no matter what in the hope that this is still true today.

UPDATE. December 27 and I’m back in Fochabers Moray and this time daughter Noli has come with me. Last time here in 2009, I managed to uncover the gravestone of John’s ancestors: his father and mother John Shand and Barbara Wilson and grandparents James Shand and Jane Scott, notice how the Scots kept their maternal maiden names. The grave stone had fallen and been buried.



14 thoughts on “Long Road Home

  1. What an extraordinary, very interesting story, Adam. I always love all the twists in family histories, but this one is made more intriguing by the character of John Shand and the relationship to the present day with the government (and your skill as a wordsmith, of course). I’m looking forward to watching that battle unfold in further installments.

    • Adam
      I finally wrote a bio on AB for Wikipedia but forgot to tell you.


      Feel free to add or correct as you see fit. I was very interested to discover and add the connection to the Purser family linking another Newington tribe of distinction. Do you have a portrait of AB that you could upload onto Wiki Commons and add the his bio? Even if I had access to such a pic it would be beyond my capacity (pure Luddite) to add it.
      Scott Brandon Smith

  2. An enjoyable read Adam … mysterious, both historical and contemporary with a treasure hunt thrown in …. great story! … and its weird …as kids we’re ignorant of the historical context/connections within which we live ….until we start attending funerals and hearing/learning/discovering things for the first time … and we start taking an interest in our past…trying to join the dots. Well done again.

    Brent P.

    PS … everyone back then was so sensitive about their social position …so you’d imagine there would be a a very good reason for your family using “Wentworth” …. because to adopt it without merit would be silly/a nonsense thing to do and everyone would have known about it back then because Sydney was very, very small …everyone knew everyone ….it’d be a stupid act … and I think it’s safe to assume the “Shands” weren’t stupid then and they aren’t stupid today ……. so be proud of having it and don’t give it up lightly!!! :o)))))))))))

    • Thanks Brent,
      A few bits that didn’t make the edit. Old AB practised in Wentworth Chambers. His father John owned a small block at Wentworthville, the old estate of the Wentworth family. The families certainly knew each other. There is definitely a story there I didn’t get to, typical lazy journalist, you might say.

      • Hi Adam,
        A great read. I knew Alec very well. He was founding Chairman of Amadeus Energy, a company I founded in 1995.
        Regards…Geoff Towner.

  3. Good story Adam. I assume you are aware that Alexander Barclay (AB) Shand KC (1865-1949) attended Newington College. The family seems to have moved around a fair bit in the school market with his son at Grammar and grandsons at Shore and great-grandsons at Cranbrook. I might use some of your story to put a quick bio of AB on Wikipedia as he is listed on the notable Old Newingtonian page but his story isn’t told.

  4. Very much enjoyed the story Adam… and seeing the 1890 Wallgrove notice. I now know where Wallgrove house was in relation to nearby Bungarribee, the property of Charles Roberts’ friend and business colleague, Charles Smith (1799-1845). The only photo I’ve found is the Gov Printer image. Going by the ground floor facade, it appears to be a modified domestic dwelling. Cheers John

  5. Hello Adam. I am writing webpages on the past of the Cumberland Plains … on Eastern Creek and South Creek areas – also on “Devil’s Back” south of Wallgrove. Plus the “Blacks Town”, and Upper Castlereagh near Penrith. Would appreciate any other details of Wallgrove or Eastern Creek. The old house site would now be very near the Lighthorse Intechange? As example of the sorts of webpages I write on the past, here is one on Belle Starr – http://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/5737284/belle-starr-short.htm — Kind Regards, John Byrnes – john.mail@ozemail.com.au

    • Hi John, thanks for your post. Always glad to meet people who are doing research on the area which has been mostly overlooked. The old house site is probably a kilometre south of the interchange. The old real estate map may help you to pinpoint it. Let me know if you have any further queries. Kind Regards

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  7. Thanks Adam for your research. It is good to catch up on family history. My mother was Edith Margery Logan (nee Shand) of Ipswich, Queensland and often spoke of the lawyer Shands whom she knew as a young child. Paul Logan

  8. A good read Adam, I enjoyed it.
    As for your hero Jules Francois his name, a bit like your Wentworth, was an affectation. He was baptised John Feltham. He was a friend of my grandfather John Fortunatus Higgins, a journalist and politician. His Fortunatus was also an affectation as he was baptised John Francis. Our ancestry is not quite so illustrious as yours, although today it might be more kindly looked on, as Jack Higgins’ grandmother was transported for stealing a sheep at the age of 20. She was never to see her husband and children in Ireland again. An expensive sheep. She got her own back as she lived to be 104.
    Anyway, I will always be grateful to Archibald for his fountain. I love it and its quaint juxtaposition with St Mary’s Cathedral (where my mother and father were married) with Queens Square a little further on. Just across the park is the Hyde Park Hotel once owned by my great grandmother.
    So much for my ancestral trivia.

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