Advancing in Australia

After James Bentley Corbin married Margaret Mary Clancy at Concord in 1868, James took his new wife away from the semi-rural surroundings she had grown up in, and they settled in the city. It is not known where in Sydney James lived in the years before he was married, but for the first three years after 1868 the couple lived at 89 Riley St, East Sydney.

Their first child, Harry, was born in 1869, followed by Albert in 1871, who turned out to be the brains of the family. Among the very few photos of this family that have survived to the present day is a pair of tiny child portraits in a locket which belonged to Margaret - although we do not know for sure who they are, the best guess is that these are the two eldest sons. The photos (below) are very old, and with early cameras being unable to cope with any movement by the subject, the grumpy children were forced to stand still and brace themselves against the table! It is supposed that the child on the left is Harry and on the right Albert, and these images were used at the Corbin Gathering in 2008 to represent them, despite the uncertainty, because there were just no other images of either of them.

In 1873 James & Margaret had a third son, John, but he died 2 days after birth. He is buried with his mother at Rookwood. Perhaps it was after losing this child that Margaret felt an urgency to capture images of her two living children, and the locket photos were the result.

Two more sons then joined the family, Percy in 1874 and Edric in 1876. Corbin & Nicolle were still operating their carpentry business from their Castlereagh St address and the Corbins were now living there as well. The two-room weatherboard workshop of earlier days had by then become a six-room 'house & workshop'. (Phillip Nicolle lived in King St, later settling permanently in Randwick.)

But by the time Herbert was born in 1878 the family had moved to the country. They settled in what is now called Valley Heights, in the Blue Mountains near Springwood. They were still there when Harriet was born in 1880, finally a daughter after six sons!

Just why the family moved from Sydney to Valley Heights is an intriguing question. The Castlereagh St business, Corbin & Nicolle, continued to appear in the Sydney Directory. Is it possible, in those early days of the railways, that James was actually commuting to the city from Valley Heights, or, alternatively, did he take on local projects while Nicolle ran the Sydney operation? Further research into the Corbins' life at Valley Heights could help clarify the picture.
Valley Heights about the time the Corbins lived there

It is thought the family lived in a sandstone cottage on what is now the Great Western Highway, just beyond the western end of the railway station. The locality had a range of names in the early days, the Corbins' residential address was given variously as 'Valley Western Line' and 'Bee Valley, Blue Mountains'. The primitive railway station, which had only been in existence for a couple of years, was called 'The Valley'. The line itself had been open for about ten years.

James is said to have developed a fondness for bushwalking while they lived at Valley Heights, and later, in retirement, used to return to the Springwood area to go camping.

In 1878, while the Corbins were still at Valley Heights, Maurice Clancy, Margaret's eldest brother who had been brought out from Ireland as a baby, and who later gave James his first job in Sydney, died at the age of just 40. The long list of notices in the newspaper of the day suggests it must have been a large funeral.

It was not long after this that Corbin & Nicolle embarked on their great project, the Victoria Arcade.

For a decade they had been operating in Castlereagh St right behind Maurice Clancy in Elizabeth St. For a few years the Corbins had lived there - brother and sister were living back-to-back - it seems very likely that the Corbins and the Clancys would have had a 'back gate' connection between their properties.

Perhaps someone noticed, sometime over those ten years, that it was a very convenient location for a thoroughfare (a private one at that stage), being directly opposite Rowe St and thus giving access to the General Post Office. Perhaps it was Maurice who noticed the potential, for it was he who would have enjoyed the shortcut through the Corbins' place to get to the GPO. Maybe Maurice himself proposed the idea of combining their properties and building an arcade. One can imagine he and James and Phillip Nicolle chatting about it at Maurice's place. But if so it was a dream for the future and Maurice died before the dream could be realised.

With James moving his family to the mountains, it appears he would not have had a major city project in his plans at that stage. Maurice's death, however, would have changed that. James and Phillip, with the cooperation of Maurice's widow Annie, could see an opportunity to acquire and consolidate a number of old properties surrounding the Clancys and the Corbin & Nicolle premises. Maybe they could build the grand arcade they had dreamed about. Sydney was in a period of prosperity when much of the old town was being pulled down and many new projects were on the go - city property would not be getting any cheaper, the time to act was now.

Of course the above account is speculative, it may not have happened quite like that, but what we do know is this - by 1882, within four years of Maurice Clancy's death, James and his family had moved back to Sydney, and, with a series of properties acquired in both Castlereagh and Elizabeth Sts, the Victoria Arcade project was underway.

The Corbins' new home address was Glebe Rd, Glebe. (The street is now called Glebe Point Rd.) They occupied a handsome two storey semi-detached house. It was a sign that James' business had flourished.

In 1882 Lillian was born. Lillian's descendants remember her talking of how well the Glebe household was run and of her special fondness for her 'Papa'. Lillian lived at home for some years after the older children left, and, unlike her siblings, she passed on to her family her memories and a sense of personal connection with Margaret & James, known in that family as 'Mother & Father Corbin'.

James named his Glebe house 'Alresford'. The street numbering changed on no less than three occasions while the family was there, which caused confusion for earlier researchers, but it is certain the family were in the same house the whole time, and James lived there until the last few years of his life. The house still exists, it is 363 Glebe Point Rd, but sadly in the 1920s it was hidden behind a row of shopfronts. For more about this house, and about our current links with the Corbins' long-time neighbours at Glebe, see 'The Glebe Road House and the Harpurs'.

In 1885 James & Margaret's ninth and last child, Ernest, was born.

Left: original photo of the Glebe Road house,
showing the Harpurs' side. The Corbins' half
of the house and front door is just visible at
extreme right.

About this time the old shops and houses that Corbin & Nicolle had acquired, along with their own workshop and Maurice Clancy's old house, were all pulled down, and work on the new arcade got underway. Corbin & Nicolle moved into a workshop in Park St. The Sydney Directory lists them as 'carpenters & joiners' but they would have had little time for other clients while the arcade was going up. Unfortunately no building plans or other construction details of the arcade are known to have survived.
Interior, Victoria Arcade, 1892

The Victoria Arcade was completed in 1887/88. It was a four-storey building with grand facades facing Elizabeth and Castlereagh Sts, and an unusual oval-shaped interior space with a central kiosk and spectacular glass roof.

There were 100 tenants. According to council rate books, most of these tenants paid their rent to the 'Victoria Arcade Company', however the shops on the Elizabeth St frontage were under the control of partners 'Goodlet, Corbin & Nicolle' - maybe this was the partners' proportion of the financial return, while the financiers took the bulk of it.

John Hay Goodlet was a wealthy merchant dealing in timber, brick and most other building materials. (He was also a philanthropist and church leader.) He was the major supplier of building needs, including stained glass, to The Strand Arcade. He would have played a similar role at the Victoria Arcade. His partnership with Corbin & Nicolle as landlords on the Elizabeth St frontage was presumably a form of payment for his services.

Victoria Arcade - Elizabeth St frontage:
the new building is dominant in 1892 (left) but not in 1960 (right)

The name 'Corbin & Nicolle' was built into an archway at the Elizabeth St entrance, and many of James' descendants had it pointed out to them by older relatives over the years. The Victoria Arcade was one of five grand arcades built in the city in the late 1800s, the only survivor today being The Strand.
Left: looking along Rowe St towards Castlereagh St and Victoria Arcade
Right: Castlereagh St with Victoria Arcade in left foreground

From the book 'Saga of Sydney' (1962, p208):
Opposite the Castlereagh Street end of Rowe St is the Victoria Arcade. This glass-domed arcade was built in 1887, with 24 small shops and 4 island kiosks and had also many offices and studios in its upper three storeys. Like Rowe St, it was a resort of Sydney's Bohemia, and a thronged shopping centre. A project for extending the Carlton Hotel may involve the demolition of the Victoria Arcade.
And so it happened - by 1965 the Victoria Arcade was gone. Within another decade there was a raised public awareness of heritage which saw buildings like the Queen Victoria Building saved and finally refurbished. If only the Victoria Arcade had lasted those few extra years it might still be with us today. The Carlton Hotel & Arcade, which replaced the Victoria Arcade, has itself been replaced - the site is now occupied by the BNP Paribas Centre. It too has an arcade, a small one called Verandah, thus maintaining a tradition on this site started by Corbin & Nicolle.
JBCorbin's hydraulic lift mechanism

With the opening of the Victoria Arcade, James was at the peak of his powers. In 1889, when the firm moved from Park St to No.86 Hunter St, they were no longer mere 'carpenters' but began describing themselves as 'builders and contractors' and promoted themselves in the Sydney Directory. (The address 86 Hunter St no longer exists, it is now the location of Chifley Square.) Optimistic of the country's future, James invested - eventually he owned a number of houses and properties around Sydney as well as development land in Western Australia. In 1890 he registered a patent for a hydraulic lift mechanism, presumably determined to improve on the lift at the Victoria Arcade which was only hand operated.

Although few stories or impressions of the man have been passed down to us, the facts of James Bentley Corbin's life point to his character - his leaving his homeland, his success in business, the move to the mountains, the great arcade - he was energetic and ambitious, but also an innovator, capable of generating ideas as well as pursuing goals. But his path of progress was about to be disrupted.

Next page:  Setbacks.

No.363 Glebe Point Rd is the red-roofed building
just visible behind the dry cleaners.

Margaret Mary Corbin
(nee Clancy):

Right: this framed portrait is
the only image of M.M.Corbin
that we can be sure of.

Below: personal effects.

From an 1888 map of Sydney.
When this map was produced the Victoria Arcade was brand new.
Note, in those days Martin Place did not extend through to Elizabeth St.

Site of the Victoria Arcade today:
Left: as viewed from Martin Place.
Centre: Elizabeth St frontage of the BNP Paribas Centre.
Right: Castlereagh St frontage of the BNP, from where Rowe St used to be.