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Harold Sparks: Auctioneer, Accountant and Councillor

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Harold Sparks.

Harold Sparks’ stay in the Moorabbin district was relatively short but during that time he made a significant impact. He was born in 1853 at sea, off the island of St Paul in the Indian Ocean, to Sarah (Waterworth) and Henry Palafox Gerona Sparks, a surgeon. (Later documentation gives Henry’s occupation as civil servant.) [1] Harold had at least two brothers. One was Overton who was born about 1840 and a second was Conrad who was born in 1855 in North Adelaide. Harold was christened on November 13, 1853 at Christ Church, North Adelaide, as was his younger brother two years later. When twenty three years of age Harold married Annie Richardson, at Beltana Station, north of Port Augusta in South Australia. This Irish domestic servant, born at Gortavoy in County Tyrone, Ireland, was twenty-one at the time of her marriage. While living in South Australia the couple had two sons. Alan Waterworth Sparks was born at Magill on November 2, 1882 but he died on March 23, 1882. His brother, named Harold Overton, was born on July 23, 1878 also at Magill. A third son, Glenmore Charles, was born on March 6, 1885 at Gipsy Village.

While managing a furniture store in Adelaide Harold Sparks heard reports of the land boom in Melbourne and, according to Michael Cannon, decided to travel to this rapidly developing city to seek his fortune. [2] By 1883 he was employed by C H James as a “general manager and confidential clerk” whose duties included supervising the office, bidding at auctions and arranging auction sales. C H James, initially a North Melbourne grocer, became a very successful but unscrupulous land speculator owning land at different times in Fairfield, Ivanhoe, Heidelberg and Rosanna as well as two large sheep stations in New South Wales. In 1884 he was advertising the sale of 109 blocks of land at Picnic Point, now Sandringham [3] and in 1887 the rate books of the Shire of Moorabbin recorded that he owned one hundred and three allotments and a fifteen acre property in Bluff Road, called Glenmore. It was on this property that Harold Sparks and his family resided. [4]

Land speculators like James valued highly the presence of a public transport service because it increased the value of their land, made it more attractive to buyers and enhanced the speculators’ chances of making large profits through sales. [5] The government was responsible for railways but at the time was not prepared to extend the line from Brighton to land James held further south, so his solution was to form a company to construct and manage a tramway. For this he needed the approval of the local council, an authorization the Moorabbin council was very reluctant to grant. To bypass this hurdle James’s envisaged solution was the creation of a new shire where he had a greater chance of nominating his own candidates and influencing the decision makers without the powerful presence of Thomas Bent, a man who had his own personal agenda. As a result James advocated the severance of the West Riding from the Shire of Moorabbin. A key element in the campaign to achieve this goal was the preparation and presentation of a petition to the Minister of Lands. Harold Sparks as an employee of James had a key role in implementing this strategy and it was through this involvement that Sparks increased his profile with local residents.

Subsequently, more than one hundred and fourteen residents in the shire urged Sparks to stand for a vacancy on the Moorabbin Council. According to an advertisement in the Brighton Southern Cross they did this because of his “indefatigable and unremitting labours in advancing the affairs of the West Riding of the shire. [6] Sparks agreed to be nominated, acknowledging the flattering request and offering to further the interests of the Shire of Moorabbin and, in particular, those of the West Riding should he be elected. [7]

Sparks, aged thirty two years, took his council seat on September 21, 1885 and once there pursued with vigour the severance issue and the development of the Beaumaris Tramway Company until his resignation on October 31, 1887. While these two matters were pre-eminent in his thoughts and actions, he did sponsor and support other matters of importance in the development of the district. The construction and maintenance of roads was a major concern to shire councils and a major source of expenditure. Sparks saw the advancement of the district largely depended on the making of good roadways and envisaged the time when the management and building of roads was handled by a central authority rather than local councils. Road-making he believed was a science and it was time the shire gave it more attention. Strong foundations were necessary. He proposed that the roles of shire secretary and engineer should be separated so that more attention could be given to the roads but he did this while acknowledging that John Keys, who filled both roles, had proved himself to be an efficient officer. He saw the destruction and deterioration of roads being largely due to the usage of heavily-laden wagons with two and a half inch tyres and as a consequence he advocated the adoption of wheels with four inch tyres to lessen the pounding the roads received. To encourage the wagon owners to change their wheels he proposed a registration system and a levy on wagons with two and a half inch wheels, an idea he realised would not be popular with many market gardeners in the shire. [8] Thus some of his actions were brave acts against entrenched and often powerful shire figures who had their own personal interests to pursue.

Sparks saw expenditure on the steel tramway on Point Nepean Road from Elsternwick and almost to Cheltenham as an excellent investment and said he looked forward to the time when it extended to Melbourne on one side and to Mordialloc on the other. He saw it as the roadway of the future. He had a particular interest in Beach Road, known at that time as the Esplanade, and saw its completion from Brighton Beach Railway Station to Mordialloc as a considerable achievement, giving the public “the finest seaside drive in the colony.” [9] For the council the road meant extra revenue in the way of increased rates, providing a good return on the original investment of funds, Sparks suggested.

Other matters Sparks spoke confidently about were the disposal of nightsoil and restrictions that should be placed on municipalities disposing of this noxious waste in the shire, the planting of trees on main roads, the construction of an artesian well at Mordialloc, the building of baths at Picnic Point and Mordialloc as well as the purchase of the Mentone Baths from the National Land Company. [10] However, he did point out that the Mentone Baths were not safe for bathers as the fence was not shark proof. At high tide the fence was below the surface of the water. Moreover, to put the property into suitable condition he believed the expenditure of £50 was needed. [11]

There were at least two other important local initiatives involving Sparks. One was the formation of a company to publish a local paper and the other was the establishment of the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum at Cheltenham. Sparks convened a public meeting in the Cheltenham Mechanics’ Hall to discuss the idea of a local paper. The district he believed had become a suburb of Melbourne, and in keeping with the pace of the time, needed a paper of its own. He saw the possibility of purchasing the Southern Cross newspaper and establishing its main office either in Brighton or Cheltenham. The audience enthusiastically adopted the idea of forming a newspaper company and elected provisional directors to see to its implementation. [12] At a subsequent meeting of the directors of the “Express Newspaper Company” at the Exchange Hotel in Cheltenham they were unanimous in the view that a newspaper would be viable option in the immediate future, but the reality was that it did not happen. The establishment of the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum at Cheltenham did occur but not for some years later and after Harold Sparks had left the district. [13]

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Exchange Hotel c1890. Courtesy Eric Longmuir.

A New Year’s Ball was organised in 1887 in honour of Harold Sparks and his wife in recognition of his untiring efforts on behalf of the community as a councillor and advocate. The newspaper gave a very favourable report of the occasion in the Cheltenham Hall decorated with flags of all nations and where the dancers added to the colour with their fancy dress. There were pretty maidens in continental dresses, costumes from the cloister, a Parisian clown, a mercantile marine and a bold Hussar in undress uniform. The motto of the evening was “we meet occasionally, and when we do, we enjoy ourselves.” Harold Sparks thanked his friends and the public generally for their expression of goodwill and drew attention to some of the good things happening in the district with which he was associated. He mentioned the extension of the railway to Picnic Point from Brighton and the benefits that would be derived from the establishment of the Beaumaris Tramway.

A few months before the Ball sour notes were creeping into Harold Sparks’ public career. He was one of the proposers for the formation of Mutual Improvement Society where matters of public interest could be debated. At its first meeting he was invited to debate with Cr David Abbott the question of severance versus division of the West Riding of the Shire into two. David Abbott took exception to the proposal believing the Harold Sparks had broken an agreement that the issue of severance or division of the West Riding should not be raised publicly. (The first petition for severance and the counter petition for the division of the riding drawn up in 1885 had both been withdrawn before being presented to government by mutual agreement between the parties.) Therefore, Abbott would not be drawn on the issue and instead offered to present a recitation of a poem that he was sure “the audience would not have heard previously.”

In 1887 a second petition was organised by Harold Sparks in an effort to achieve the severance of the West Riding from the Shire of Moorabbin. A counter petition in favour of the sub-division of the riding was also organised. In this latter instance David Abbot was involved. The Minister of Public Works, John Nimmo, rejected the severance petition because the proposed plan would have split Cheltenham and Mordialloc between two shires but the matter did not rest there. Sparks claimed that David Abbott at the council table accused officers of the Public Works Department “of acting unfairly and with great favouritism to the severance side.” [14] Sparks took it upon himself to write to the Commissioner of Public Works informing him of this event and advising him to seek a public apology from Cr Abbott for this cowardly attack.

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David Abbott, Councillor in Shire of Moorabbin.

David Abbott said it would be hypocritical of him if he did not believe the case for sub-division of the riding was treated unfairly by officers of the Department. [15] Nevertheless, he thought it most inappropriate that Sparks should have written to the Department and breed dissent there. His fellow councillors supported his stand and agreed they had no clear recollection of the exact words spoken in the council chamber. A vote of censure was recorded against Cr Sparks for his action. [16]

Harold Sparks’ response was to publish in the Brighton Southern Cross the correspondence related to his actions and the answers from officers of the Department together with those from men who were spectators at the council meeting. [17] There was also a letter from Cr Abbott as president of the shire to the Minister of Public Works. This action by Sparks was no doubt expensive, taking up a significant part of the paper, but he saw it as being necessary to justify his stand. He followed this up by calling a public meeting at the Cheltenham Mechanics Hall to report his actions and to hear any opinions of his public acts. [18] Other than himself, only one councillor, Cr Comport, was present. David Abbott had left Melbourne to undertake a tour of Europe and had indicated his intention to retire from council. Sparks in thanking those present for their attendance said that he had expected that those who attacked him would have had the manliness to meet him on the public platform. In his view any man who could say things behind a public man’s back that he was ashamed to say on the platform deserved to be treated with scorn. The Cheltenham Leader however had no hesitation about going public with their view. The proprietors had no sympathy for Sparks and condemned him because, in their judgement, he acted unwisely in turning tattler and informer. [19]

For Sparks matters came to a head a few months later concerning the agreement between the Council and the Beaumaris Tramway Company. The argument was about the words “a going concern” contained in the agreement. Discussions about the tramway had been proceeding for some time and representatives of both parties had signed a draft agreement, with Harold Sparks being one signatory for the council. The Minister of Public Works had indicated he would recommend the Governor in Council to ratify the agreement. but Cr McSwain drew attention to the words ‘a going concern’ and asked that they be struck out. The Directors of the company demurred saying it would be impossible for them to go ahead with the construction of the tramway should this happen. Cr Sparks insisted with great vehemence that the phrase must be retained.

The meaning of the offending phrase, according to Sparks, was that at the end of the 30 years agreement the Council could purchase the tramway company, the price being determined on the basis of its value as an investment. [20] Cr Bent believed the price should be based on an assessment by a board of arbitrators. This he saw as being reasonable for if the phrase ‘going concern’ was retained the council would have to pay for ‘goodwill’, and in thirty years time the sum involved might be beyond their resources. [21]

Cr Sparks, no doubt frustrated at his inability to achieve his goals regarding the tramway company, rose from his seat, handed in his resignation to the president, and abruptly left the council chamber. As he was leaving he was heard to say that he would not remain with such a “shabby rowdy lot any longer.” Although some colleagues requested him to remain, his resignation was accepted and a returning officer was appointed to conduct an election to fill the vacant position in the West Riding. [22] The Brighton Southern Cross , very supportive of Sparks, noted they were not surprised given the turbulence and acrimony that had been displayed. During his term of office, the Cross said, he had to fight an uphill battle in almost every question of reform he had initiated. [23] The irony of the situation was that David Abbott, a bitter foe of Sparks, an extensive land owner in his own right, and an opponent of ‘a going concern’, returned from his European tour, offered himself for the position and was subsequently elected. [24]

After his resignation from council Sparks continued to involve himself in community and local issues. Within a month he was writing to the Cheltenham Leader urging its readers to assist in amusing the poor newsboys of Melbourne at a picnic to be held at Half Moon Bay and thanking those who had participated at an earlier function at Cheltenham where sixteen pounds have been raised. This money, he pointed out, was used by the boys to start a coffee place where tea, coffee or soup was always available for a penny. [25] He became a director of the Beaumaris Tramway Company and chairman of the Southern Hotel Company. [26]

In 1888 Sparks was still promoting the cause of the Beaumaris Tramway Company. As a recently elected director of the company he was a member of a delegation to the council seeking to remove a hurdle that prevented the council reaching agreement with the company. The council was concerned about the issue of liability in the case of an accident. “If company’s servants got drunk, and through their neglect the horses bolted and passengers were injured would the injured individuals be able to sue the council?” he was asked. Mr Sparks explained that the company would place £1000 in the bank against such an eventuality and maintain it at that level should at any time it be reduced by legal actions. With this assurance, agreement was reached and the company was in a position to begin operating. [27]

By June 1889 the construction of the tramline between Sandringham and Cheltenham was completed and a celebratory function was held at the Great Southern Hotel at Beaumaris. This was a double celebration because it was also the opening of the hotel. There were about fifty guests who travelled on the three horse trams to the hotel, including H C James as chairman of the Beaumaris Tramway board and Harold Sparks as chairman of the hotel board. The guests commented on the magnificent belt of ti-tree that could be seen over when seated on the upper parts of the cars. At the luncheon James Maloney praised the tram company for “practically reducing what was a wilderness into a garden” while Joseph Pickersgill in his toast to the success of the great Southern Hotel said it was better built and furnished than any hotel he saw overseas. [28] A few weeks later members of the shire council were entertained at lunch where Harold Sparks revealed some of his progressive ideas for the hotel. A telephone was to be installed so that yachtsmen whose yachts were harboured in the beautifully sheltered bay facing the hotel could have them available for departure at a moments notice, gas was to be connected and he envisaged electric trams replacing the horse tram, and monthly and periodical tickets being issued. [29]

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Great Southern Hotel and Beaumaris Baths. A Percy Fairlam photograph courtesy Betty Kuc.

It was only a few months later, after receiving praise for his acumen, Harold Sparks was in deep financial trouble. In February 1890, his employer C H James, accusing him of embezzling money whilst acting as his manager, issued a summons against him. In addition, Harold Sparks was brought before Judge Molesworth in the Insolvency Court. [30] It was at these latter court hearings that some of the startling and dubious practices of many land boomers were revealed. The judge remarked after hearing of the extent of Sparks’ transactions, “The insolvent is certainly the biggest speculator I ever heard of on £3 a week. [31]

Mr Braham, a lawyer for Sparks’ trustees, in questioning C H James in the Insolvency Court commented on the witness’s loss of memory about those doubtful or shady dealings, whereby he had so recently raked innumerable golden shekels into his coffers. He went on to cynically suggest that James’ sub-divisions ignored sanitary trifles such as right of way and drainage in the race to provide salubrious country residences on pocket handkerchief allotments for the working poor, many whose morals were being ruined through huddling together in the crowded lanes of the wicked city of Melbourne. Sumptuous food was provided for those who assisted at the auctions and something less grand for the smaller buyers. Free conveyance in drags and well appointed vehicles was provided to the various places of sale. There was always plenty of ‘grog’ before the sales, but nothing after, so this helped to attract potential buyers. [32]

Sparks played an important role in these conspiracies to entice people to buy land. Dummy bidders were organised, sham contracts drawn up, and deposits paid and bills signed by Mr Sparks only to be taken up later by Mr James. There was the sham sale of a property at Mentone where the sale was made to Sparks to enable him to borrow money as a dummy for James. Judge Molesworth noted that where contracts entered into by Sparks proved a success, James came forward as a principal and claimed the profits and where they were a failure Sparks was represented as the principal and was made liable. [33] Harold Sparks agreed that he promoted companies formed with the purpose of buying land owned by James and he attended sales of land in which James had an interest. Although he did not personally bid at these sales he had other people there to do so with the aim of keeping the price up. After the sales were made contracts were set up in his name. [34]

The extent of Sparks financial commitments is revealed in the insolvency documents where many men claimed they had passed money across to Sparks in payment for land but the relevant documents were not transferred. Several men deposited money to purchase land on the Trafalgar Estate at Sandringham but the deal fell through due to Sparks’ insolvency. Calls were made by several companies in which Sparks held shares; but he was unable to meet them. Sparks main debts were listed as follows:

Reservoir Hotel Company £111 – 10 – 0
Evening Standard Newspaper Company £168 – 7 – 10
Scotia Land and Investment Company £687 – 10 – 0
Beaumaris Park Company £250 – 0 – 0
Osborne Park Land and Investment Co £750 – 0 – 0
Colonial Bank £1680 – 0 – 0
Charles Henry James £1304 – 6 – 9
Of the debt to James £1270 had been a cash advance at 8%.

Lesser amounts of money were owed to tradesmen and to others for professional services. The butcher in South Brighton, Robert Bertram, was owed thirty one pounds twelve shillings and three pence. The bill of the chemist, William Stephens of Bay Street Brighton, was for seventeen pounds fifteen shillings and three pence, while solicitor Edward Hart claimed eight pounds five shillings and two pence for professional work. James Garton who conducted a livery stable submitted an unpaid account of sixteen pounds seventeen shillings for hire of horses and vehicles as well as buggy repairs. All these and many other debts not given here were accumulated over a six year period by a man initially being paid three pounds a week by his employer C H James. Later this sum was increased to two hundred pounds per year together with the house Glenmore at Black Rock. [35]

In May 1890 both the legal representatives involved in the Sparks insolvency case sought an adjournment from the judge but he refused to grant it, believing he was being asked to take part in a sham. The adjournment was being requested to give the parties the opportunity to reach some compromise. Mr Bryant, the lawyer for C H James, told Justice Molesworth that there was no evidence that anything improper would take place if the adjournment was granted but the judge was not convinced. Nevertheless, the judge struck the case out without allocation of costs. [36] The parties involved negotiated a solution and the criminal prosecutions were abandoned. [37] Subsequently Sparks sued James who made a cash payment to the Sparks’ estate thus averting further court action.

Harold Sparks’ employment with C H James ceased in June 1889, a short time after the death of his wife at
Black Rock. [38] Annie died at Glenmore, Black Rock, May 18, 1889 aged 34 years. In November 1891 Sparks applied to the Supreme Court of Victoria requesting that he be granted letters of administration for her estate. At the time he was living in Tyler Street, Preston. It was while living there that Sparks remarried. The wedding, to Annie’s unmarried sister, Eliza Louisa Richardson, conducted by the Rev E Denton Fethers, took place at Sparks home on June 9, 1890. [39] Sparks and his new wife remained at Preston until 1894 while he conducted business as an accountant in the city.

Eliza and Harold moved to New South Wales and it was in North Sydney that Harold died on March 6, 1913 when sixty years of age. Cause of death was listed as cardiac asthenia and renal inadequacy. He was buried in the Church of England cemetery at Gore Hill.

Harold Sparks was a man of ideas, expressing thoughts that were ahead of his time. He was a forceful advocate for the support of the young and aged and was able to generate a following on social and local issues. He had charm and delighted in sharing his knowledge in speeches and letters to the newspaper. He was a man who made ‘political’ blunders and a person who ruffled some of his senior colleagues, creating bitter foes. He was a man who was prepared to engage in doubtful business practices in order to make money. He was a whirlwind during the time he was a resident in the Shire of Moorabbin. Good or bad, he made a mark.

Author

Graham J Whitehead

Footnotes

  1. Registry Office, Births Deaths and Marriages.
  2. Cannon, M., Land Boom and Bust, Heritage Publications, 1972.
  3. Brighton Southern Cross, October 4, 1884.
  4. Shire of Moorabbin, Rate Book, 1887.
  5. Melbourne Punch, June 23, 1885.
  6. Brighton Southern Cross, August 8, 1885.
  7. Brighton Southern Cross, August 8, 1885.
  8. Brighton Southern Cross, July 23, 1887.
  9. Cheltenham Leader, November 5, 1887.
  10. Brighton Southern Cross, April 24, 1886.
  11. Brighton Southern Cross, September 18, 1886.
  12. Brighton Southern Cross, July 31, 1886.
  13. Whitehead, G., The Melbourne Benevolent Asylum Comes to Cheltenham, .Ref No 302 Kingston Historical Website [ http://localhistory.kingston.vic.gov.au ]
  14. Brighton Southern Cross, July 9, 1887.
  15. Brighton Southern Cross, July 9, 1887.
  16. Shire of Moorabbin Minutes, July 4, 1887.
  17. Brighton Southern Cross, July 16, 1887.
  18. Brighton Southern Cross July, 23, 1887.
  19. Cheltenham Leader, July 23, 1887.
  20. Cheltenham Leader, November 1887.
  21. Cheltenham Leader, November 5, 1887.
  22. Cheltenham Leader, November 5, 1887.
  23. Brighton Southern Cross, November 5, 1887.
  24. Cheltenham Leader, November 12, 1887.
  25. Cheltenham Leader, December 10, 1887.
  26. Brighton Southern Cross, June 22, 1889.
  27. Brighton Southern Cross, November 24, 1888.
  28. Brighton Southern Cross, June 8, 1889.
  29. Brighton Southern Cross, June 22, 1889.
  30. Brighton Southern Cross, April 19, 1890.
  31. Argus, May 23, 1890.
  32. Table Talk, May 9, 1890.
  33. Age, May 23, 1890.
  34. Public Records Office, VPRS 762 P/O Unit 350 Harold Sparks – Insolvency Papers.
  35. Public Records Office, VPRS 762 P/O Unit 350 Statement by James at the Insolvency Court.
  36. Age, May 23, 1890.
  37. Table Talk, May 23, 1890.
  38. Federation Index: Reg No 6255.
  39. Registry Office, Births Deaths and Marriages, No 2551.

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