Stand on the footpath at 147 Ocean Beach Rd, at the far end of Sorrento’s main street, and observe the modest weatherboard cottage down the bricked driveway. The roof of an upmarket business to your right half-obscures the cottage, built about a century ago.
Transport yourself back a century. From the front door emerges an old bearded man with a weathered face, hat pulled firmly down on to his forehead. He is speaking to someone in the house in a clipped foreign accent.
You step aside to let him pass. He nods a greeting, taking you in with shrewd eyes as he turns up the hill towards the Continental. The grand, gleaming limestone hotel, already half a century old, welcomes well-heeled guests who arrive from Melbourne aboard the fast, silent steam ferries that serve Port Phillip Bay towns.
He is Albert Backius, clipper ship crewman, boat builder, fisherman, a Swede who fetched up in Portland, Victoria around 1880, spending several decades there and being naturalised in 1897 before settling in Sorrento with his second wife.
The neat little cottage was built to his design, in the style of a Swedish fisherman’s cottage and named ‘Sandarne’, after the Swedish town from whence he started his life roaming the world on sailing ships.
He is said to have crossed the Equator five times, possibly two return trips to Australia in a clipper trading in wool or wheat, then his final voyage south. Perhaps he made a round trip in the fabled Cutty Sark or the equally superb Thermopylae, which set a record of 63 days to Melbourne on her maiden voyage in 1868-69 to collect wool.
The ‘Argus’ reported her arrival on 13 January 1869: “The splendid and almost unprecedentedly rapid passage made by the new clipper ship Thermopylae, from London to this port, has created more than ordinary interest in nautical and commercial circles…
“It seemed almost impossible, and certainly never entered into the calculations of the most sanguine, that a voyage to the antipodes could be accomplished by a sailing-ship in 59 days, the period taken by the Thermopylae to within sight of the Australian coast… Thermopylae departing Fuzhou
“She is in every respect a fine specimen of Naval Architecture, a model of symmetry and beauty; her sweeping lines and exquisite proportions, her graceful outline and general compactness, conveying an idea of perfection.”
One can imagine Albert Backius looking out over Port Phillip from the Conti, searching for the inbound and outbound clippers. (Thermopylae soon abandoned the Australian run to trade in tea from London to Foochow (now Fuzhou), China. She and the Cutty Sark battled for supremacy on that run.)
Albert Backius built boats in a big shed behind Sandarne, among them the motor launch Starlight for himself and a craft for Lucy Coppin, daughter of comic actor and entrepreneur George Coppin, builder of the Continental Hotel.
The house, still substantially intact, is a rare example of an early 20th-century cottage of a fisherman-boatbuilder, located in Sorrento’s main street, which leads from the Port Phillip waterfront to Coppin’s amphitheatre on Bass Strait.
Sandarne’s historic significance has been acknowledged by the Mornington Peninsula Shire, which has erected a plaque contaioning details of it in Sorrento’s main street at the corner of Darling Road.
The property (pictured) is currently under threat of development through a recent failed application to put up “a three-storey mixed use building comprising two retail premises, 14 apartments, basement car parking, demolition of a building in a heritage overlay, carparking and loading bay variations and associated works”.
Were Albert Backius still with us, he might have chased such an applicant out of town brandishing a marlin spike!
Shire planners recommended refusal of the proposal, on the grounds that:
■ The proposed development does not comply with the mandatory height and setback requirements of the Design and Development Overlay – Schedule 28 (Ocean Beach Road Commercial Precinct).
■ The proposed development will adversely affect the significance of the Sorrento heritage precinct and does not meet the relevant strategies of Clause 15.03-1 of the State Planning Policy Framework.
■ The proposed development does not meet the relevant objectives and strategies of the Mornington Peninsula Localised Planning Statement, which is Clause 11.05-2 of the State Planning Policy Framework.
■ The proposed development fails to contribute to the character of Sorrento and does not meet the relevant objectives of Clause 21.07 (Guiding Future Township Development), Clause 22.02 (Activity Centres) and Clause 22.17 (Sorrento Historic Precinct Policy).
■ The lack of adequate car parking and loading facilities within the proposed development.
They could have added: “And Sorrento simply cannot allow yet another of its heritage buildings fall to the bulldozers and the boring glass box that will inevitably follow.”
Councillors emphatically backed their planners – but will the applicant head for VCAT and its whimsical practitioners, whose pro-development decision has put the Conti in peril?