Percy Dobson: Speculator and Business Man

Percy Dobson, a young man with influential business and family connections, played an important role in the foundation of Mentone. He married and built a substantial house in Mentone but later his life was blotted by scandal related to his business affairs.

Percy was born on November 22, 1855 in Gertrude Street Collingwood to Elizabeth and James Dobson. He was the eleventh child born into the Dobson family but four sisters had died before his birth. At the time of his birth his mother, who was a Peacock, was thirty eight years old and his father, who was noted on his birth certificate as a draper, was forty four years. Other documents list Percy’s father as a tailor. The family travelled to Victoria in July 1852 on the Prince Regent as paying passengers, the parents were accompanied by their children; William Peacock, James Rickett, Frederick, Joseph, and Thomas. Harriet Hardy was born in Adelaide.[1] Besides Percy, three additional children were born to Elizabeth and James in Victoria; Miriam Edith 1857, Harry Peacock 1860, and Horace Herbert 1862. The first two of these children, like Percy, were born in Collingwood while Horace’s birth took place at Richmond.

Details of Percy’s early life and schooling have not been found. However, during his late twenties, when his occupation was listed as ‘merchant’, it is known that he was strongly immersed in the land boom of the 1880s and actively engaged in the purchase and sale of land. He was associated with Charles Henry James and Matthew Henry Davies in their land speculation activities. Charles Henry James married Percy’s sister, Harriet Hardy Dobson in 1873 and Davies acted as his solicitor in several land purchases. In addition, Percy was named as the manager of several of Davies’ companies on documents noting his occupation as merchant.

In March 1, 1882, Percy Dobson, acting on behalf of the Southern Investment and Agency Company Limited, signed the transfer papers for the purchase of two hundred and seventeen acres and twenty two perches, less six acres and thirty perches that had been acquired by the Victorian Government for the construction of the Caulfield Frankston railway line.[2] A little more than a year later the title to the land was transferred to the National Land Company Limited, another Davies company and one of which Dobson was manager and shareholder. It was this land that was sub-divided by Matthew Davies, offered for sale and given the name of Mentone. Percy Dobson purchased two allotments in this subdivision, one on June 16, 1883, on the corner of Naples Road and Mentone Parade but stretching back to Venice Street. The second purchase was made for an adjacent property in Naples Road on July 16, 1883. On the same day that he made his first purchase he joined with his brother-in-law, Charles James, in purchasing an allotment on the Esplanade (Beach Road) that ran through to Mentone Parade located today in the vicinity of the Mentone Girls’ Grammar School. James, himself bought a large block of land on the corner of the Esplanade and Moorabbin Road (Warrigal Road) where he subsequently built a two storeyed house named Bleak House.

A detail of a real estate land poster showing location of Dobson’s property in Mentone. Courtesy Mordialloc and District Historical Society.

Born in Wexford County in Ireland Charles Henry James started his business life in the new colony as a grocer in North Melbourne but soon moved into land speculation, purchasing large swathes of land and subdividing it for sale at great profit. He had extensive holdings in the Shire of Moorabbin in 1887. The rate records of that year list him as the owner of two hundred and thirty nine allotments spread throughout Mentone, Black Rock and Moorabbin. There was also a house in Black Rock on 15 acres of land and another three and a half acres in Moorabbin (Portion 50 Lot C). James also owned land in other areas of Melbourne and in New South Wales.

By the time he was thirty years old Percy Dobson was in partnership with his brother-in-law Charles Henry James in a wine and spirit firm and in land speculation activities. This partnership was concluded in 1883 when Percy was paid out with £75,000 cash, a very substantial sum of money at that time.[3] In the early 1880s as manager of the Southern Investment and Agency Company and the National Land Company Limited, and on behalf of these companies, he was involved in the purchase of the Balcombe land, later named Mentone. Almost a month before the purchase of the Balcombe land Dobson, on February 14, 1882, acquired over forty acres from Anne Baxter, the widow of Thomas Baxter, on the southern corner of what today is Beach Road and Warrigal Road. The allotments stretched back to the railway line. Dobson paid £2036 5s for the land with a deposit of £600. A little over twelve months later the title to this land, with the exception of a small section, was transferred to the Southern Investment & Agency Company. That company in turn had the title to the land transferred to the National Land Company in February 22, 1884.

Percy Dobson also acquired the two adjacent allotments to the Baxter land in March 6, 1883 from the executors of William Rucker’s estate. Rucker was an accountant of Queen Street, Melbourne who had gained the land at the original government sales, as had Balcombe and Baxter. Dobson held this land a few days over one year before the title was transferred to the National Land Company on March 25, 1884. This land of 50 acres 3 roods 30 perches together with the Baxter land completed the block from Parkers Road to Warrigal Road, including what is today the township of Parkdale.

Both National and Southern companies, amongst numerous others, were the creation of Matthew Davies and were formed to buy, sell and mortgage freehold land, to negotiate loans of all descriptions and to lend money on the security of property, stocks and shares. The National Land Company was registered on January 23, 1882 while the Southern Investment & Agency Company was registered on March 11, 1882 a few days after Dobson signed the contract of sale for the Balcombe land. By 1884 both companies had huge holdings of land in the Shire of Moorabbin. The Southern Investment Company rateable property was eight hundred and eighty one acres in 1883 all of which was transferred to the National Land Company in February 22, 1884 when the company was wound up voluntarily in the January of that year. Clearly, as manager of both companies, Percy Dobson was very busy. In September 1887 the National Company was placed in voluntary liquidation but by this time it is unlikely that Percy Dobson was actively involved.

Percy Dobson built a substantial house on his seven acre property in Naples Road, Mentone in 1884 [4] and in the following year on July 1, his marriage to Emily Elizabeth Tayler was celebrated by the Rev Samuel Taylor at St Andrew’s Church of England Brighton. Emily was the daughter of Lloyd Tayler a prominent and successful architect. It was about this time that Dobson entered into a partnership with David Findlay Watson to form the Dobson Watson and Company in Flinders Lane, Melbourne, where they were engaged in business as tea merchants and general importers. The company was also involved in land speculation.[5] Watson became Dobson’s brother-in- law in 1885 when he married Dobson’s younger sister, Miriam Edith. [6]

Killara in 2006, house built for Percy Dobson in Mentone. Courtesy Kingston Collection. Photographer Joe Astbury.

Percy Dobson and his new bride lived for only a short time at Killara, his new house on the Mentone subdivision, before they sailed for British North Borneo where Percy had business interests. The Mentone property was transferred in August to Percy’s father-in-law Lloyd Tayler and to his business partner and brother-in-law, David Watson. Percy and his new bride spent some time at Sandakan, in British North Borneo, where he took up a partnership with Benjamin de Lissa in the North Borneo Trading Company which was registered in Melbourne. [7] After a stay of about two months, on November 15, 1885, the couple left Sandakan on the steamer Vorwaerts for Hong Kong and thereafter to London via Japan and America. Dobson, together with de Lissa and William Pryer, the first Resident of Sandakan, was presented to the Prince of Wales at St James Palace in London on May 31, 1886. Percy and his bride remained in England for at least another year before returning to Melbourne. [8]

On February 24, 1890 Percy Dobson died at Moreland from cardiac failure. He was thirty four years old. [9] He was buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery two days after his death. Emily Elizabeth and he had been married for four and a half years and were without children. In his will, made in London on July 22, 1887, he left his estate to his wife with the proviso that should she predecease him his estate would be passed to his sister, Miriam Edith Watson. When his will was presented for probate the details provide additional insights to Percy’s activities. The liabilities of the estate outweighed its assets by £7451.3.4d. Percy Dobson owned property in Richmond, Toorak, Northcote, Beaumaris and Mentone. Killara, his house in Mentone, was valued at £1630.3.1d, while twelve allotments of land in Beaumaris held by the partnership of Dobson and Watson were valued in total £1287.9.0. Percy also had an extensive portfolio of shares but many were worthless shares in gold and silver mining companies. The eight shares he held in the North Borneo Trading Company had no value although the 150 shares in the Melbourne Tramway and Omnibus Company Limited were valued at £1312. He held 500 shares in the Mentone Hotel Company that were valued at £62.0.8d. He was also holding promissory notes from various individuals that amounted to £8321. The half share in stock held by Dobson Watson and Company included cornsacks, flooring, onions, pig iron, cement, glassware, silver ore, butter and tea. Against these assets was a substantial list of liabilities including items purchased by the Dobson Watson Company. There were also advances from the Bank of New Zealand, Bank of South Australia, City of Melbourne Bank and the Royal Bank of Australia to purchase goods for the trading company. Along with medical expenses to five doctors [10] was an account for the Mentone Hotel for £7. Other expenses were to share brokers, chemists, solicitors and butchers, and a series of promissory notes to Fraser and Company amounting to £14,820. There was also a liability of £6 8s 9d, due to the Church of England Sunday School Mentone as this sum was given to Dobson for safe keeping. [11]

With the death of Percy Dobson, his partner in the Dobson Watson Company was compelled to call a meeting of the firm’s creditors where it was revealed that the company had assets valued at £70,262.0.9d and liabilities of £82,128.9.6d leaving a deficiency of £11,866.8.9d. [12] Secured creditors included Messrs Fraser and Co Ltd, auctioneers, and the Bank of South Australia. Unsecured creditors included a number of companies who had supplied goods to Dobson Watson & Co and the Bank of New Zealand who provided an overdraft. [13]

Table Talk in reporting a meeting of creditors of the Dobson Watson Company commented on what it judged as being practices that would startle the business world. This was particularly in the way Percy Dobson obtained and used credit. The example given was an overdraft from a bank of £3500 which was then offered as an investment in a firm at 7 per cent. The newspaper also reported that Dobson withdrew large sums of money from the business for unnamed purposes. The Table Talk reporter wondered why is was necessary for Percy Dobson to arrange overdrafts from four banks to start the Dobson Watson Company when he had previously received the large amount of £75,000 as his share from the concluded partnership with C H James. “Why would he use other people’s money when he had such a large capital resource available to him?" was the question asked. Perhaps Dobson had already disposed of a large part of this cash resource in the building and furnishing of his house, Killara, in Mentone and the purchase of shares in other companies. Even so there seems to be a large amount of money unaccounted for.

Percy Dobson’s wife Emily Elizabeth remained in residence at Killara until she remarried in 1896. Her second husband was a medical practitioner at Chiltern and it was in that Victorian country town that Emily died in 1948. [14] She left assets to the value of £35,016 11s 3d. The land surrounding Killara was sub-divided into twenty five allotments in 1922 and sold as part of the Killara Estate. The house itself was sold in 1929. [15]

Tower of Killara, Mentone, 2006. Courtesy Kingston Collection, Photographer Joe Astbury.


  1. Shipping Records: Nominal List of Passengers.
  2. Certificate of Title.
  3. Table Talk, April 18, 1890.
  4. Killara, 6 Harkin Avenue.
  5. Percy Dobson’s Probate Records.
  6. Digger Pioneer Index, 1836-1888.
  7. Correspondence, Ross Ibbotson.
  8. Percy Dobson made his will in London in 1887.
  9. His Death Certificate gives his age as 32years.
  10. Dr C E Astles, Dr P W Dyring, Dr C Mc Farland , Dr O’Hara, and Dr O’Neil.
  11. Public Records Office Victoria VPRS 28/P2 Unit 293 File 43/280.
  12. Dobson Watson &Company: Statement of Assets and Liabilities, Public Records Office VPRS 28/P Unit 538 File 43/280.
  13. Table Talk, May 16, 1890.
  14. Probate, Emily E Harkin, Chiltern, Public Records Office, File 421/550.
  15. Will of Emily Elizabeth Harkin, Public Record Office Victoria, VPRS 28/P3 Unit 5023 File 421/550.
27 June 2018
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