SHE was called “The Duchess of Spring Hill” and the brass plaque at the front of her former home in Leichhardt Street is as close as you will get to the little circular blue plaques that dot the London homes of everybody who was somebody.
Dame Cecilia McNally MBE, never gave her age away but was said to be 86 when she died in July, 1996. She was born in country New South Wales in the early 20th century, one of eight children of Irish parents, and left home at 19 in pursuit of wealth.
During the Depression the astute Miss McNally noticed that people were keeping their money as gold so she decided to go into the business and became the first woman ever to obtain a gold buyer’s licence.
Her hunt for old jewellery and gold bars took her through the Outback and from Broome to Thursday Island, usually driving alone in her big 1938 Chevrolet.
Miss McNally settled in Brisbane just after World War II and was a great entrepreneur. As well as her antique shops in the Valley and the Tattersalls building in the city, she owned at least eight properties in Spring Hill and was the easily the suburb’s biggest landholder.
The home at 49 Leichhardt Street which carries the brass plaque, was purchased by James Fisher, a builder, for 150 pounds in 1862. He built a gracious colonial style house. By the time Miss McNally bought it in April 1965, it was in a poor state of repair, smashed and vandalized, occupied by the homeless and recommended for demolition. She set about returning it to return it to its former glory.
A dame formidable despite her frail yet elegant appearance, she set to work with a passion and with her love of all things old and English, (especially the monarchy) she turned it into a stately home.
The 27-room home featured ceilings more than four metres high, bay windows, fireplaces, stained glass windows hand-made in Brisbane of St John of Jerusalem, and of course, brilliant city views. But her proudest achievement was the grand staircase she designed and had built from 100-year-old timbers she had found in Gympie.
After her death, the house was converted into four apartments.
In 1994, the Duchess decided to run for Lord Mayor of Brisbane and called it a “smear campaign” when it was said she was in her 90s. She wouldn’t say what her age was but only that they should take off a decade.
Perhaps her greatest achievement though is that Cecilia McNally was a great philanthropist. She gave generously and often to charities, in particular the Mater Hospital, which inherited her property. She raised enormous amounts by organising the annual two-day Spring Hill Fair, a project she started in 1973 and that, sadly, died with her.
She was always a fighter, taking on authority when she disapproved, and she waged many battles to keep the Spring Hill Fair running, even when zealous councillors tried to shut it down.
The Duchess also can be credited with overseeing the re-urbanisation of Spring Hill and its restoration from an inner city slum to its original status of being a very desirable place to live.
She had two titles. Her goddaughter advises: “Her two different titles were bestowed upon her by two different monarchs. The first title of Dame is from The Sacred order of St John of Jerusalem (A monarch in its own right which is closely affiliated with the Catholic Church) and the later is obviously from the Queen. I understand the Catholic Church began beatification of her a few years after her passing so she will begin sainthood soon.”
At her funeral, Cecilia McNally was described as Brisbane’s “most truly colourful citizen”, a fitting epitaph.