Standing in front of a dilapidated old Queenslander on a sweltering Saturday in Brisbane, an already dejected young couple feels even worse.
Just hours earlier, Caylie Fernandes and David Jeffery were crestfallen when the Paddington house they’d hoped to buy and transform into their dream home had been won by a rival bid at the property’s auction. After trudging back to the real estate agent’s office, the first-home hopefuls are sent to look at the only other property in the area still open for inspection. They soon find themselves staring at 86 Heussler Terrace, in inner-west Milton, the suburb that adjoins Paddington. Clumsily divided into flats, the home – built in 1912 – has clearly seen better days.
Stepping inside, they clamp their hands across their faces in a futile attempt to ward off the stench of dog faeces and rotting rubbish trapped inside the house’s small, airless rooms.
Downstairs, raw sewage drips from a broken pipe and pools next to a threadbare couch and discarded drug paraphernalia, while rusting car bodies litter the overgrown back yard.
“I made a beeline straight down the back stairs because I was going to vomit,” Caylie says. “But David’s going: ‘it’s amazing, the possibilities of this house, it’s beautiful’.”
She laughs at the memory, now relaxing on the rear deck of the two-storey, book-lined home overlooking a neat garden and the tree-filled grounds of St Francis Theological College. “As we walked out, I told the estate agent to get rid of the tenants, clean the house and put on some bread to bake, because it’s disgusting and no one’s going to buy it like this. The whole time David’s muttering, ‘shut up, what are you doing?’ ”
The nurse-counsellor, then 25, and her builder beau (now husband), 23, argued for a week before making an offer on the property in December 1996. It took another three years to painstakingly restore the house to its former glory – with their own hands, paycheque by paycheque – to create the home where they would celebrate their marriage and raise children Will, now 10, and Kitty, 9.
“While we were tearing it apart, my mum [Sue] said, ‘hey guys, don’t be so gung-ho because you might come across something’. We’d already found old bottles and trinkets here and there, which I still have. One of the last things we did was rip up the three or four layers of lino and in the kitchen, in the corner near the stove, there was this slight lump. Underneath we found three old Commonwealth Bank passbooks, four £5 notes and some coins. I rang Mum and said, I’m going to frame these, then I put them into my chest of keepsakes and promptly forgot about them.”
Another 21 years would pass before Caylie, now 47, would rediscover these vintage relics and begin to unravel a fascinating real-life intrigue of colourful characters past and present, galvanising a community of suburban sleuths in the process.
THE UNIVERSE PROVIDES
A firm believer in what bestselling American author Elizabeth Gilbert describes in her 2015 book of the same name as “big magic”, Caylie is confident the universe delivers what people need when they need it, especially when it comes to creative endeavours. From spending six years living, working and renovating a flat in London to more than two years sailing around the world and blogging about the experience, she and David have certainly lived a life of adventure.
Then, mid-last year, while taking time out after several years of combining parenting with work and writing her first book, Bedtime Stories for Busy Mothers, Caylie found herself at a loose end. Hunting for mementos among her keepsakes for her 30-year Brisbane State High School reunion, she came across a yellow envelope. Inside were the worn, blue-bound passbooks, dating from 1943 to 1958, of Eleanor Webster of Heussler Tce, Milton, Arthur William Joseph Webster, also of Heussler Tce, and Muriel White of 19 Bristol St, West End, just across the river. The passbooks recorded bank deposits totalling £2000 – conservatively estimated at $61,500 in today’s currency.
“[The contents of the envelope] still smelt old and I was immediately taken back to the day we found them,” Caylie says. She posted a photo of the collection on the popular Old Brisbane Album Facebook page in August last year, with the question, “what do I do with this?” Her post drew an almost instantaneous flood of responses.
Who were the owners? Where had the money come from? What was it for? Why had it been hidden? Does the money still exist and, if so, can any rightful heirs be found to claim it? Within 24 hours, the search was on and the Under the Lino project was born. “It’s like someone dropped a bomb in my lap and asked me to defuse it,” Caylie says, laughing. “It started this monumental stream of communication between hundreds of people who jumped on board straightaway. I could not keep up and literally worked on it 24/7 for the next month.”
In the nine months since the original post, more than 750,000 words have been written, hundreds of documents compiled and the records of dozens of organisations – including the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Queensland Rail and Australia Post – scoured by more than 1000 people across Queensland, Australia and the world, all collated by Caylie. A crowd-funding campaign raised $16,500 to self-publish the first run of 1000 copies of the Under the Lino book, due to be published in September, while another $1000 was granted under the Brisbane Lord Mayor’s Suburban Initiative Fund and Paddington councillor Peter Matic to set up an interactive website.
Caylie has also applied for a $20,000 John Oxley Fellowship – with recipients expected to be announced later this month – to create a school program based on the Under the Lino experience to teach children critical thinking in history. She has already spoken at two schools and to several local historical groups, with more planned.
“I had the most boring history teacher on the planet, who would put us all to sleep in seconds, but this project has finally brought history alive for me and made me understand why it’s so fascinating and why we are where we are today,” Caylie says. “It’s given me an empathy for those who’ve gone before me and an insight into life in Brisbane during the First and Second World Wars, but probably the biggest thing I have now is a connection to my local community that is absolutely massive. It’s brought people together in an environment that is safe, that is interesting, where we’re learning stuff, we’re respecting those who have gone before us, and paying tribute and homage to our elders.
“We’re also letting kids know this stuff is fascinating and interesting and has absolutely everything to do with what we do today, and why we are the people we are.’’
“Historical crack”. That’s how historian and lecturer Glenn Davies laughingly describes the Under the Lino project – a drug that has intoxicated a community and snared its members in an addiction unlike any other. “They’re lapping it up. To be honest, I’m quite gobsmacked – [Caylie’s] got more than 1000 people actively involved in her Facebook page, and they’re all quite engaged in trying to work out what’s going on,” says Davies, 53, an author who lectures at the Australian Catholic University and is head of the history department at Craigslea State High School, in Brisbane’s north.
People such as retired public servant and genealogy enthusiast Lyn Cox, who has spent countless days working into the small hours to trace the Websters’ family tree in a bid to help find elusive answers and tell the story. “I’m desperate to see where it’s going; I’m addicted,” says Cox, 62, who became so invested in the project she’s now joint administrator of the Facebook page. “I’ve got lots of books on the history of Brisbane; I’ve always loved the history of [the city] and this is just filling in a few more little holes [as to] how Brisbane was in this time.
“And, of course, everybody is interested in a little bit of a [possible] murder mystery and, you know, ’allo, ’allo, ’allo, what’s going on here, then?’’ she laughs.
Davies agrees, adding it is rare people can become actively involved in solving a mystery and take some ownership of the tangible final results – as they can with Caylie’s book, which will credit all contributors.
“For some reason, this has really hit almost a bit of a zeitgeist,” Davies says. “People often think history is a dry, academic subject that you study in school, but of course it’s the complete opposite of that – history is all around us. Genealogy is a massive thing these days; people are swabbing their mouths and getting their DNA tested so they can connect with fifth cousins they’ve never heard of.
“Think about the movies we watch all the time, fiction, novels and games. We’re awash in our community with the study of history,” adds Davies, fresh from a day supervising Craigslea High’s annual cross-country carnival.
“Caylie’s collaborating with the community but also teaching history. She’s using 21st century digital technology to tap into an older need to express our link with our local area.
“More than anything else, it shows the value of the incredible community of Brisbane.” ■
Follow the story as it unfolds further at www.underthelino.com.au