Nine tenths of the law

There’s a principle that states that possession is nine tenths of the law. It’s a principle that is familiar to every school yard bully who ever stole your toys in the playground, but that fact did not deter the British when they arrived in Australia from the end of the 18th century onward. Finding an Aboriginal population had beaten them to nine of those tenths by a matter of a mere 60 thousand years or so, they promptly moved the goal posts. They declared the land unoccupied, in spite of appearances to the contrary, thereby reducing the locals to the surprising legal status of flora and fauna.

It was a Colonial sleight of hand but it achieved the intended result. The concept of Terra Nullius granted the Crown under European right of discovery the capacity to assess survey and sell Deepest Darkest Australian Terra Firma to an emerging settler society in a pattern of dispossession that would soon be repeated throughout the Australian colonies. At Port Phillip in 1835 however, there occurred a brief anomaly that remains today as the only recorded attempt by an emerging settler society to treaty with the Australian native people in the 19th century. The story of John Batman’s dubious treaty is reasonably well known, although the actual location of the signing has long been debated, but what isn’t so widely appreciated is that one of the suggested locations for the signing was a site on the Plenty River just a little way upstream from Yallambie. Batman’s journal for various reasons remains an unreliable document, but it does describe a meeting that “took place alongside of a beautiful stream of water”:

Title: “Batman’s treaty with the aborigines at Merri Creek, 6th June 1835”, by John Wesley Burtt, c1888. The Merri Creek has long been a popular alternative location for the Treaty negotiations and Burtt’s 19th century painting was a faithful recreation of events based on oral traditions which placed the signing in the Merri Creek area. (Source: La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria)

“The country here exceeds anything I ever saw, both for grass and richness of soil. The timber light, and consists of she-oak and small gum, with a few wattle.” (John Batman)

John Batman portrait by William Beckworth McInnes. (Source: City of Melbourne Collection )

James Blackburn in 1855, H. G. Turner in 1904 and George Vasey in 1909 all identified the “beautiful stream of water” described by Batman as the Plenty River while David Wilkinson more recently fixed the location more precisely, recording that the meeting took place at a distance some three miles north of its confluence with the Yarra, (Wilkinson: The Early History of the Diamond Valley, 1969).

Jim Poulter in “Batman’s Treaty – The True Story”, (Red Hen Enterprises, 2016) also examines this story and in the process quotes the Aboriginal elder William Barak who was present at the signing:

“…Batman sent some potatoes from Melbourne to the camp of the Yarra blacks. Then the blacks travel to Idelberg (sic). All the blacks camp at Muddy Creek. Next morning they all went down to see Batman, old man and women and children…” (William Barak)

“All the blacks camp at Muddy Creek. Next morning they all went down to see Batman, old man and women and children…” (William Barak). The Plenty River at Yallambie, June, 2018.

In his diary, Batman records that he named the stream where the signing took place, “Batman’s Creek, after my good self” forgetting of course that the stream must already had a native name. Poulter explains that the Aboriginal name for the lower reaches of the Plenty River at the time was “Kurrum”, a Woiwurung word meaning “Muddy”, and in a forensic examination of Barak’s full text, concludes that the tribes therefore must have gathered at Heidelberg before meeting Batman on the lower Plenty.

Banyule City Council sign posting on the banks of the Plenty River, Yallambie Park, reads: “Heartland of the Wurundjeri william”.

It’s an interesting proposition. Wilkinson’s distance of three miles north of the Plenty/Yarra river confluence is about the same distance as Yallambie is from the river junction, although most commentators favouring a Plenty River signing have generally put the actual location at Partington’s Flat in Greensborough, a little further upstream from Yallambie. Be that as it may, the incident remains historically as the only ever recorded attempt in Colonial times to recognize Aboriginal prior ownership of the land. The reasons for this are obvious if understandably understated. M F Christie in “Aboriginies in Colonial Victoria” (Sydney University Press, 1979) states that “if it was acknowledged that the Aborigines had the right to dispose of their land as they saw fit, then the Crown’s claim to all Australian lands would be in doubt.” For this reason it was quickly dismissed by the then Governor of New South Wales, Sir Richard Bourke who immediately declared the Batman treaty invalid. The land in effect belonged to nobody.

John Batman’s dubious “Treaty”.

With perhaps just a little irony then, when the time came for Europeans to sell “nobody’s land” a few years later, the first sales outside Melbourne involved land from this very same treaty signing country – a country that would later constitute the greater part of the Heidelberg District with the area that now constitutes Yallambie itself forming a large part of Portion 8 in Hoddle’s 1837 survey.

Walker’s subdivision of Portion 8 with coneptual overlay of Bakewell c1850 survey map and (part) modern street plan.

As explained previously in these pages, most of Portion 8 soon passed into the possession of John and Robert Bakewell who had arrived in the Port Phillip District of NSW in April, 1840. The Bakewells were Quakers and shared religious and familial ties with the cultural elite of Melbourne through their friendship and kindred ties with the Howitts. Work on their Plenty Station probably began even before a complete title had been established for this in itself was one of the pillars on which rested the British claim to a legitimate occupation of Australia. Both Richard and William Howitt, writing a decade apart after separate visits to Yallambee in 1842 and 1852 respectively make reference to the productivity of the country under European occupation, and of its formerly “sterile” state while in native hands.

“How neat and nicely fitted-up was their house! In it, with its thin walls and French windows, you seemed scarcely in-doors. It was the Sabbath, and on the table lay the Bible, and not far from it a Literary Souvenir. Guns were piled in corners, but which I dare say are now, the first country newness being over, seldom used.” (Richard Howitt, Impression of Australia Felix)

The Bakewell brothers’ Yallambee by George Alexander Gilbert, (Source: State Library of Victoria collection).

“The hunter races of the earth, the forerunners of the house-building, ship-building, ploughing, busy, encroaching white man — they who occupied the wilderness, and sat under the forest-tree, without commerce or ships, living easily on the animals of the chase — they who lived like the mammoth and the mastodon, the kangaroo and the emu — have perished with them, and are daily perishing before the civilised and artistic tribes, indomitable in the spirit of the conqueror and the possessor.” (William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold)

La Trobe University’s Lucy Ellem, writing in an unpublished paper, “Plenty Botanical”, states that Richard Howitt’s 1842 account “sets a scene of British virtue, order, and good management at the Plenty Station,” and goes on to say that:

“Howitt evokes the piety and literary culture of the inhabitants, and refers to dangers faced in this frontier settlement. The Bible, brought out for the Sabbath, attests to the centrality of religion in these Quakers’ lives. It also legitimates for them their presence there, their husbandry rendering this land useful and productive, fulfilling a Biblical command to ‘subdue’ and ‘replenish the earth’…” (Ellem: Plenty Botanical)

It is an interesting insight into the workings and the motivations of the European mind in a 19th century frontier society, but Lucy also notes that the native forests described by Richard Howitt as a “sterile stringy-bark” wasteland were in actual fact a productive and essential resource for Indigenous people.

“Abounding in edible and medicinal plants, weaving fibre, timber for hunting spears and digging tools and habitat for game, this “almost worthless” land had for millennia provided the staples of Aboriginal life. But captivated by the luxuriance of imported species, Howitt is almost oblivious to the ‘natural’ nature that surrounds him. Confronted by the ‘vast and sterile’ Australian bush, he scarcely names a native species.” (Ellem: Plenty Botanical)

John Batman said in his diary that the land he passed through in 1835 “appeared laid out in farms for some hundred years back, and every tree transplanted. I was never so astonished in my life.” Many settlers after Batman recorded similar impressions of a virgin landscape which to all intents and purposes appeared to be laid out in imitation of an English gentleman’s estate. With an approach founded in the European idyll, it was an instinctive reaction for them to overlook the fact that this “natural” aspect was anything but that. It had been shaped by a fire stick farming culture over millennia to develop fields of grass land suitable for kangaroos and with carefully defined copses of woodland habitat suitable for possums.

Indigenous Australian encampment from an engraving by John Skinner Prout. (Source: Wikipedia).

Captain John Harrison, an early settler of the Yan Yean area, observed the lives of the Wurundjeri on the Plenty River and wrote that their diet consisted chiefly of speared fish, goanna, possum, kangaroo, yams and the grubs collected from the roots of wattle trees. He noted their clothing in winter consisted of possum skins joined together with kangaroo sinews and that the men carried spears and the women yam sticks. Following this theme, Wilkinson also adds that native camps typically consisted of about 30 people, their houses were made of bark and boughs and that their hair was worn in elflocks with faces painted red with ochre.

Batman’s first contact with the natives of Port Phillip occurred in the winter of 1835. During the winter months it is commonly believed that Aboriginal people moved away from the exposed river flood plains of the Yarra into the more protected forested land and elevated country of the Plenty Valley and at Yallambie this resulted in what has been described as a camp that “existed on the high terrace on the neck of the Plenty River just north of Yallambie Estate ‘the Plenty Station’.” (Weaver: Lower Plenty Archaeological Survey, 1991)

Such claims appear to have been based entirely on oral tradition for it’s a fact that Australia’s First People left very little real physical evidence of their occupation. All the same, at Yallambie I sometimes like to walk along the River in the fading light of evening, the sound of the jogger’s footfall coming up behind me like the echoing steps of a vanished people whose feet passed without a mark over the landscape. It is then that I wonder how this country might have looked at another time – a time before Bakewells and boundaries and my mind wanders. Every gnarled gum tree with an old scar becomes a Canoe Tree and every raised mound of earth becomes a midden. It is a Dream Time of the imagination.

“Every gnarled gum tree with an old scar becomes a Canoe Tree…” Old growth billabong woodland at Yallambie, June, 2018.

This month the Legislative Assembly of the Victorian State Parliament passed a bill aimed at negotiating Australia’s first Aboriginal Treaty. Thirty years after Bob Hawke’s unfulfilled promises of this same idea were made at a national level, and 183 years since John Batman’s self serving attempts, the Victorian state legislation is intended to facilitate the establishment of a Victorian Elders Council which it is hoped will pave the way towards a Treaty negotiation itself. It’s a small step and the legislation still has to pass the Victorian Legislative Council, but with support from the cross benches, this time it just might get up.

In the media in recent times there has been much debate about Australian sovereignty. The question of foreign ownership of real estate and resources in the land we call the Lucky Country is a much discussed issue, but in all this debate, the question of Aboriginal prior ownership of this country has gone missing. Australia is the only Commonwealth country not to have a treaty with its Indigenous people. Yet every dairy farm that has been purchased in recent times by Chinese business interests and every mining lease that has been carried off shore by a multinational company has done so for ready money but without a thought to the first owners of this country. Now might be as good a time as any to give this just a passing thought.

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Old MacDonald had a farm

The end of Jacobite ambitions on the bloody battlefield of Culloden’s Drummossie Moor on a cold, windswept April morning in 1746 was not the end of the story for its principal protagonist. While the Government would have preferred the end to feature the end of a rope, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, “The Young Chevalier” and rightful heir to the thrones of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, spent much of the following five months on the run from Government forces.

Sheltering in the heather, escaping from one scrape or near miss to another, the story of the flight of Bonnie Prince Charlie entered the folklore of legend. Long after the events of 1745 and 1746, the story of his failed uprising was told and toasted by the fireside in Scottish bothies and Baronial houses in both word and song:

…Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing,
Onward, the sailors cry.
Carry the lad that’s born to be king
Over the sea to Skye.
Though the waves leap, soft shall ye sleep,
Ocean’s a royal bed.
Rock’d in the deep, Flora will keep
Watch o’er your weary head…

Contrary to the popular idea of the Skye Boat Song lyric, it was Charles and not his companion Flora MacDonald who kept watch that night while the other slept on the trip from Uist in the Outer Hebrides to Skye off the west coast of Scotland, but the underlying sentiment remains the same. Dressed as he was as Flora’s maid servant, the boat party were almost certainly all aware of the true identity of their 5 foot 10 inch, cross dressing Royal passenger with the £30,000 Government bounty on his head, but it is part of the romance of the Jacobite legend that not one of them that night or those he encountered in the time before or after ever attempted to claim that reward.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart painted by William Mosman around 1750.

Sadly though, when it was all over and Charles was safely back in France reviewing his shattered dreams through the end of a bottle, it was Flora and the broken regiments of the Jacobite Army who were left to bear the full force of Hanovarian retribution in the Highlands. For Flora herself this meant arrest and a short time spent as an unwilling guest at the Tower of London.

Altogether Flora MacDonald spent a year in a sort of loose captivity in and around London before being pardoned in the general amnesty of July, 1747 but in the intervening time, something else had happened. With the Jacobite threat now seemingly extinguished once and for all, there was time at last to sit back and take stock. The modest Highland lass who had bravely sheltered the arch rebel himself in his time of greatest need had somehow become a celebrity.

Allan Ramsay’s portrait of Flora MacDonald

Flora was the toast of Society. Her portrait was painted by Ramsay in a boon to shortbread makers ever since. Sympathisers came to visit including Frederick, the non-pretending Prince of Wales who met her, partly to annoy his father, but principally to thumb his nose at his younger brother, the Duke of Cumberland, the “Butcher” of Highland infamy. The story goes that when Frederick asked Flora sternly why she had sided with his father’s enemies, she replied she would have done the same for anyone, even Frederick himself if she found him in similar distress. The answer is said to have impressed the heir apparent.

Following her pardon, Flora married and left Scotland for the American colonies where her husband ironically fought for the Hanovarian King against the Revolutionary armies. Forced by the British defeat in America to return to Scotland, Flora MacDonald died on the Isle of Skye in 1790 where Dr Johnson’s epitaph for her perhaps formed a lasting memorial for her life.

“Her name will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.”

The Highlands emptied of their people and the world moved on, but the memory of the Prince and his father, the “King Over the Water”, lingered on in memory. The romanticisation of the Jacobite story started during Flora’s life time but gathered pace in the 19th century, with George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822 and Victoria and Albert’s 20 years later. Victoria and Albert’s visit began for them a long love affair with the country and with the Queen’s own somewhat dubious claim to a Scottish heritage. With this in mind then, it’s no wonder then that the large Scottish contingent present in Port Phillip’s pioneer settler society of the early 1840s had its own fair share of sentimentalist Scotophiles.

Portrait group of John Brown and Queen Victoria. Oil painting by Charles Burton Barber.

Arriving in the vicinity of the Plenty River in July, 1840 one of these settlers, John MacDonald of Skye and his wife Catherine established a farm of just under 200 acres which, perhaps not surprisingly given their heritage, they named “Floraville”. The land was part of Wood’s Portion 27 in the parish of Keelbundora north-west from Yallambie in Portion 8 and was purchased for £400. MacDonald paid for the land almost entirely with a mortgage from a cashed up Dr Godfrey Howitt who had arrived in the Port Phillip District just three months earlier with his wife and brothers in law, John and Robert Bakewell.

Old survey map (part of) showing Wills’ Portion 8 (Yallambee) and Woods’ Portion 27 (MacDonald’s Floraville) straddled between the Darebin Creek and Plenty River, (marked Yarra Rivulet).
John MacDonald in 1849, (Source: electricscotland.com)

According to research made by a descendant, Betty Wooley, John MacDonald, ex Sergeant of the 26th Regiment, was born in Skye in 1806. He married Catherine in 1827 and came to Port Phillip in 1838. The land he purchased in Portion 27 backed onto the Darebin Creek but Betty believes that the MacDonald farm also had access to the Plenty River where it runs through the Plenty Gorge near present day Janefield.

Birth notice from the Geelong Advertiser, 10 January 1842 placing John MacDonald’s family at the Plenty River.

A listing in Billis & Kenyon’s 1932 ”Pastoral Pioneers of Port Phillip” confusingly mentions a John Macdonald of “Floraville”, Lower Plenty, 1841 to 1842 and this may be the start of a certain uncertainty that has surrounded this story from the start. A contemporaneous newspaper article from the same time in “The Australasian” also suggests that: “In partnership with John W Shaw the Bakewells took out a depasturing licence in 1841 for a run called Floraville…” (The Australasian, October, 1936)

Birth notice in the Port Phillip Patriot, 3 January, 1842 placing John MacDonald’s family at the Darebin Creek.

What does this mean? The Bakewells’ property “Yallambee” has at times been referred to in print as “Floraville”, a name which seemed to suit its garden perfectly. To get to the truth it is probably important to look at what happened to John MacDonald’s farming interests during the economic crisis that hit Port Phillip in the early 1840s.

With the onset of the recession the MacDonalds like so many other colonists, found themselves in financial difficulty. In February 1842 the family’s wet nurse sued for payment of unpaid wages and in April, labourers were reported to have taken MacDonald to court over an outstanding payment for the sinking of a well at Floraville.

Dr Godfrey Howitt, by Samuel Calvert, 1873.

Three months later Godfrey Howitt foreclosed on his mortgage to John MacDonald and the property was advertised for sale in the newspapers in terms that might well have been used to describe the Bakewells’ own Yallambee Park instead.

9th July 1842 – ‘Floraville Estate’, on the Plenty Road, the whole farm fenced in and subdivided into two paddocks of about one hundred acres each, there is about fifty acres under cultivation, or ready for the plough. On it is erected an excellent weather boarded house, containing six rooms and out offices, with barn and huts, stockyards etc., a well ninety feet deep of good never failing water. The view of the house is extensive; the roads are good, and the distance from town so short, that produce may be conveyed to the market at very trifling expense.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station with cattle in foreground. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria)

Even with the economic hardships of that time, Dr Godfrey didn’t have to look very far to find a ready buyer for the MacDonald Farm. On the 31st August, 1842 under the terms of the earlier mortgage, “Floraville Estate” was conveyed to Dr Godfrey’s brothers in law, John and Robert Bakewell for £575.

John Bakewell (Source: Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina, Alexander Henderson, 1936)

Perhaps this then is the origins of the name “Floraville” at Yallambee. The Bakewells may have used their newly purchased property further up the Plenty initially as a depasturing run as has been suggested in the Australasian article, but seven months later it is clear they were prepared to make it available for lease. In March 1843 the following advertisement appeared:

To Be Let, the Capital Compact Farm, Floraville, lately in the occupation of Mr Macdonald, only 11 miles from Melbourne, consisting of 200 acres of excellent land, The greater part clear, and first rate soil. Thirty acres are now in crop, and speak for themselves. The house is furnished with a veranda, and contains six rooms. The huts and stockyards are all superior. The proprietors being desirous of procuring a good tenant, intend to let the whole at an exceedingly low rent. For further particulars apply to Messrs J. and R. Bakewell the proprietors, Plenty Bridge.

After letting MacDonald’s Floraville before presumably selling it, did the Bakewells subsequently adopt the name as a sometime alternative to their Lower Plenty property, Yallambee simply because they liked the sound of it? They might not have fully appreciated the Jacobite implications of the name but it sort of fitted in with what Robert was trying to do with the garden at Yallambee at this time. Certainly it is from this point on that the name “Floraville” like the earlier title, “The Station Plenty”, is mentioned occasionally in the sources in context of the Bakewells’ Yallambee Park narrative.

River valley photographed from the Plenty River Trail opposite Montmorency Secondary College, July, 2016.

Much has been made of the cultural history of the Plenty River and its course through the Upper Plenty Valley. Melbourne Water, as custodians of a part of that history as it applies to the Yan Yean catchment, and Whittlesea Council, with its reserve of heritage assets, do a very good job at defending that history, but lower down the picture has not always been so clear.

Anderson’s Mill on the River Plenty by G. A. Gilbert. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

The Plenty River above and below the Plenty Gorge is like a tale of two rivers defined by the spill over of geology from the volcanic plains to the west. As Winty Calder explained in “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, the two halves of the River mark the crossing point of two geologies, one ancient the other recent, at least in geological terms. The resulting landscape shaped the people and the lives of the settlers who came to stay.

“More than one million years earlier, basalt flows from the west had pushed the pre-existing Plenty River eastward before cooling and forming rock, the surface of which ultimately weathered into rich soil. The displaced river gradually cut down through the basalt and into the underlying, much older sandstones and mudstones…”
(Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales)

From its source on the forested slopes of Mt Disappointment, through the Yan Yean swamps and its final confluence with the Yarra River, the Plenty River is a rich cultural asset filled with interesting stories and history. The story of how Old MacDonald’s Farm became at some point and in some quarters, interchanged and intertwined with the Bakewells’ Yallambee Park, at least in name but perhaps also in memory, is but one of these.

So with this in mind, the next time you find yourself reaching across the table for that last piece of shortbread from a souvenir tin, if your eyes should meet a Jacobite biscuit heroine gazing your way, spare a thought for her eponym “Floraville”, another fragment of the Yallambie puzzle.

Under the Milky Way (tonight)

It might surprise you to hear it, but there is a new fashion disturbing the dusty world of history academia. The boffins call it “Big History”, a term they use to explain a multi-disciplinary examination of the history of the Universe from the Big Bang to the present day.

By calling it Big History, that doesn’t mean necessarily that the next time you see an historian he will automatically be carrying a tape measure or even a bathroom scales. Some things are just too darn big to put a proper measure upon. What we call Big History is really an attempt to illustrate one of the fundamental points about history, the fact that we’re all part of a larger story and, in order to see where we are going in that story, we need to see where we have come from.

The “Vitruvian Man” c1490 by Leonardo da Vinci. (Source: Wikipedia, from the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice)

There are some who will argue that the name “Big History” is a bit of a vague term and that what we really have is just the same thing that has been taught in the hallowed halls of our places of learning since Renaissance times. In 15th century Italy for instance, Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci developed the concept of the Universal Man which placed man at the centre of the universe, a limitless figure in his capacity for knowledge. We’ve come a long way in our understanding since then but it is an irony that in the modern age, when mankind is at last in a position to understand what is truly our quite insignificant place in the Cosmos, we have reached a point where we no longer look to the heavens and wonder – a thing our ancestors had done previously since they first stepped away from the camp fire light at night to gnaw on a bone of the woolly mammoth.

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquistion

Light pollution from our cities and the glowing screens of hand held smart phones have shut out the night sky from observation and our minds in a way unknown to Galileo, even after all that unpleasant business with the Inquisition and the comfy chair.

Halley’s Comet photographed in the skies over Rosanna, February, 1986

Those of us of a certain age will remember back to a time in our youth when the much touted Halley’s Comet made its generational pilgrimage to the inner solar system in 1985. I remember my mother telling me from an early age that a school teacher had told her about his stunning observation of Halley’s previous visit in 1910 and how, although he would be long dead by the time of its return, he expected most of the children in his class would live to see its return in the mid-1980s. I remember thinking it a bit of a letdown when it finally arrived, the light pollution of the skies over Rosanna lessening the effects of the comet in the sky, but I did manage to take this photograph with a fast slide film, an image that with a little modern day Photoshop enhancing is at least some sort of a record of the event and of a time in my life.

Star gazing at Yallambie, March, 2018

On a scale of all things then, there is no greater subject than the study of the night sky. On a weekend last month a friend brought his telescope to Yallambie and on a dark, moonless night he demonstrated it to us in the back garden in the shadow of our Bunya Pine. His telescope was a homemade affair that would have done Galileo proud. It consisted of not much more than a pipe with an old photo copier lens attached, mounted on a tripod but capable of producing surprisingly effective results. We turned it to what looked to my eye to be a fairly bright spot in the heavens to find a spreading glow of light that hinted at unknown worlds and infinite possibilities.

The Great Nebula in Orion as photographed by Joseph Turner in 1883 using the Great Melbourne Telescope. (Source: Museum Victoria)

Our friend identified it as the “Great Nebula in Orion” and then turned our attention to Alpha Crucis, a multiple star system which appeared to our eyes as a single star at the base point of that most familiar constellation to Australian eyes, the Southern Cross.  In quick time we then looked at Betelgeuse, Sirius, Aldebaran, the globular cluster Omega Centauri and the Pleiades, the latter known by many things in the mythology of ancient peoples the world over but called the seven Karatgurk sisters in a story of the local Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation.

The Australian Aboriginals call it their Dreamtime but to look up at the stars is to literally look back into time. One of the greatest of the many great achievements of the Hubble Space Telescope was the Hubble “Deep Field” observations where the mighty telescope was turned continuously to seemingly empty points of space to record long exposures of the faintest light. What the astronomers found still does my head in to think about. In those supposedly empty patches of space the telescope recorded tens of thousands of galaxies, each galaxy itself filled with countless billions of stars. Not bad for an empty patch of sky in an expanding and ever accelerating universe where, as Carl Sagan once famously observed, the number of stars is far greater than the number of grains of sand on all the beaches of the world.

It sort of puts you into your place doesn’t it? Our ancestors used to look towards the Moon and in an exercise in Pareidolia, constructed a face from what they observed. We’ve all done that at some point but at the end of last January the world got a chance to see the “Man in the Moon” in full detail when it was treated to a magnificent Super Blue Blood Moon – a total lunar eclipse of a second full moon in a month during the Moon’s closest orbital approach to the Earth.

Super Blue Blood Moon in the north eastern sky over Yallambie, 31 January, 2018

We looked at it at Yallambie that night through my father’s old binoculars and I photographed it at the moment of totality with the longest lens I could find, unfortunately without a tripod and with the camera perched hand held on the top of the pickets of a garden fence. The resulting photograph doesn’t really do what we saw that night justice but then that’s true of most things that happen to you in life.

Photograph of the moon by Joseph Turner using the Great Melbourne Telescope,1874. (Source: Museum Victoria)

In 1874 a locally produced photograph of the Moon recorded in stunning detail was reproduced and distributed to schools, libraries and Mechanics Institutes throughout Victoria. The image was the creation of Melbourne’s very own 19th century wonder of astronomy, the “Great Melbourne Telescope”. It is a little known fact but Melbourne was once home to what was then the second largest telescope in the world, the GMT or “Great Melbourne Telescope”, a reflecting telescope with a polished speculum (metal) mirror of 48 inches (1.2 metres) diameter. Conceived in the 1840s, designed by leading British astronomers and manufactured in Ireland it was erected at the Observatory in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens in 1869 where it was intended to explore the nature of the nebulae in the southern skies.

Erection of the Great Melbourne Telescope c January, 1869. The telescope was erected in the open air, with the building that eventually housed it constructed around the telescope once the main components of the instrument had been assembled. (Source: Museum Victoria)

Cutting edge technology for its day, the Great Melbourne Telescope was beset with problems from the outset and was quickly overtaken by instruments installed at other more appropriate, non-city based locations worldwide, but for Melburnians of the 1870s and 80s it remained as a visible evidence of their city’s claim to be one of the great capital cities of the world and a tangible proof of “Marvellous Melbourne”.

By the 20th century however the Great Melbourne Telescope had become more or less old hat. It was dismantled and its component parts sold in 1944 to the Mt Stromlo Observatory in Canberra where, with many modifications, it continued to be put to good use observing the Southern skies. In 1984 Museum Victoria acquired a large number of discarded artefacts of the Great Melbourne from the Mt Stromlo Observatory which the Museum intended to form as part of a new collection. It was a fortunate move because in 2003 the Mt Stromlo Observatory was itself all but destroyed in the devastating Canberra bush fires of that year. The fires were so intense that the aluminium domes of the Observatory buildings melted at 660°C but in a stroke of unplanned luck, the intense fires stripped away all the modern aluminium and plastic additions to the GMT leaving behind little beyond its original steel and cast iron components. With the pieces Museum Victoria had already secured in 1984 it was thought that 90% of the original instrument had survived.

Bush fires surround suburban Canberra during the 2003 firestorm that destroyed the Mt Stromlo Observatory. (Source: Wikipedia)

Since 2003 a dedicated band of volunteers and staff at Museum Victoria have since been carefully restoring the pieces of the Great Melbourne Telescope, recasting and machining the missing parts with a dream of one day returning it in working order to its original building at the Melbourne Botanic Gardens.

On an Easter long weekend as we ponder our Creator and an out of control Chinese space station threatens to come crashing down around our ears in a sort of April 1st prelude, wouldn’t that be a stunning Phoenix like contribution to history on a scale both small, and large?

Through a Bakewell glass, darkly

Genealogy is one of those things that is met with either interest or disdain, depending on your viewpoint. As far back as Genesis it has been a closely considered subject and, although it sometimes seems to me that we can’t see the wood for the family trees, from my experience it’s a matter which would appear to be dependent entirely on whose relative it is under general scrutiny.

“You’ll find nothing in there but fair dinkum kosher Scottish aristocracy,” I tell my wife if she gives me half a chance to steer the subject, but somehow that’s a claim that never seems to have the intended effect. Her eyes take on that glassy, faraway look and it’s about this time that she finds something of particular interest to look at up on the ceiling.

Fair dinkum kosher Scottish aristocracy? (Source: Gold Museum Collection)

Be that as it may, the pursuit of history sometimes invokes a mention of genealogy and, in the last post, I used the Bakewell connection to the wife of John James Audubon to introduce in brief outline the story of that famed painter of America’s birds.

Lucy Audubon from a miniature by Frederick Cruickshank, c1831.

Lucy Audubon, née Bakewell, was a second cousin of Yallambee’s John and Robert Bakewell, but that was not the only familial connection of note in what is really a most intriguing family tree, even for the unrelated. In Henderson’s pedigree can be found, amongst others, a Bakewell Yale professor, a Bakewell Chief Justice, a Bakewell geological scientist and a Bakewell practitioner of early lunacy treatments. Alongside these however and of particular note perhaps, was Robert Bakewell of Dishley Grange (1725-95), the noted agriculturalist and stock breeder and considered by many to be the father of modern agricultural practices. The uncle of that Robert Bakewell was the great-great grandfather of the Yallambee Bakewells.

Robert Bakewell of Dishley Grange from a painting by John Boultbee.

Before too long then it appears as though we’ve got Bakewells coming out of our Yallambie ears, but perhaps that’s just getting a little bit ahead of our story. The nearest relative of especial note related to the John and Robert B of Yallambee was it turns out, Benjamin Bakewell, a flint glass maker of Pittsburgh and a first cousin once removed of the Yallambee Bakewells and an uncle of Lucy Audubon.

Benjamin Bakewell, glassmaker of Pittsburgh, USA.

The name of Benjamin Bakewell is noted by those who make a serious study of the history of glass making and his factory under numerous partnerships was producing glassware of the highest standards for three quarters of a century. Described as “a man of wide-ranging intellect who found creative expression and financial success in the manufacture of glass”, Benjamin Bakewell’s factory “produced objects that reflected the highest quality of craftsmanship and decoration achieved in Nineteenth Century American glass”, (Frick Art & Historical Center).

Benjamin Bakewell emigrated to America from Derby in 1794 and embarked on a series of business pursuits which included a brewery, run in partnership with his brother William (the father of Lucy Audubon), and an import/export business trading in American commodities to Europe in Bakewell’s own fleet of ships. In 1808 Benjamin took a failing glass making factory in Pittsburgh and redeveloped it as Bakewell & Ensell, the first glass factory to make fully cut glass in America and by the 1820s it was recognized as one of that country’s premier glass establishments.

Bakewell sulphide portrait decanter of Benjamin Franklin, c1826-35 from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Source: Wikipedia)

“In the history of Nineteenth Century American decorative arts, Benjamin Bakewell stands out as an exemplar of innovation, creativity and entrepreneurial initiative. His enterprise, founded in 1808, had a vital role in establishing Pittsburgh as a major center of glassmaking in the Nineteenth Century.” (ibid)

Whether free-blown, mold-blown or pressed glass, Bakewell glass revealed an innovative approach to design and decoration using a variety of decorative techniques which included wheel cutting, engraving and cameo-incrustation. When the Bakewell factory finally closed in 1882 it had by then become the longest running flint glassworks in continuous operation in the United States, with successive generations of Bakewells having added to the legacy.

Benjamin Bakewell Jr (left), grandson of his namesake, c1852. (Source: Pixburgh: A Photographic Experience from the Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center).

Following Benjamin Bakewell’s initial enterprise for business, subsequent generations of Bakewells all made their mark. Thomas Bakewell’s application of chemistry and Benjamin Bakewell Jr’s talent for innovation, added to the mechanical expertise of John Palmer Bakewell and the practical and steady hand of Benjamin Bakewell Campbell, created a factory which influenced the cultural and industrial landscape of the United States throughout the 19th century in an exemplary marriage of the decorative arts and industrial processes.

John Bakewell (Source: Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina, Alexander Henderson, 1936)

How much if anything Yallambee’s John and Robert B knew about the glass making efforts of their American cousins will probably never be known but I refer to the story here to add to my earlier contention that the wider Bakewell family is full of such stories of innovation and entrepreneurship.

After John and Robert departed Yallambee in 1857, Yallambie was leased, then purchased by Thomas Wragge who in about 1872 built the present Homestead, (managing to change the spelling to its more common form along the way).

Thomas Wragge photographed in the 1880s. (Source: Bill Bush collection).

The first prefabricated Yallambee had impressed Richard Howitt who wrote in 1842 that with its “French windows, you seemed scarcely in-doors.” (Howitt: Impressions of Australia Felix)

The new house that Wragge built by contrast featured “a large, arched window of figured glass at the top of the stairs” (Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales) and an acid etched, glass overhead fan light and side lights at the front door, a remaining fragment of which was found under the floor when the boards were disturbed in modern times.

Group on the front step at Yallambie Homestead, c1895. Harry Wragge is the boy standing apart on the left. The highly reflective glass in the sidelight behind his shoulder suggests acid etching. Jessie Wragge and her mother Sarah Anne are the two women at right. (Source: Bill Bush collection)

When Thomas Wragge’s daughter Sarah Annie and her husband Walter Murdoch remodelled Yallambie, possibly starting in about 1919 and continuing on until 1923, this etched glass at the front was removed and replaced with a lead light design that was also to be repeated elsewhere in the house. As a part of this process the front door was cut down and the fan light removed to accommodate a large lead light window within the upper door panel. This was the arrangement that remained in place until the end of the 20th century.

The Temby front hall,1984. (Source: Calder collection)
The three stages of development when reinstating the front entrance. The hallway stripped. The hallway plastered. The hallway glazed.
Acid etched glass at Yallambie, March, 2018.

At the start of the new millennium a long process commenced to rebuild the front entrance into a resemblance of the original 19th century configuration. Original acid etched glass side lights were sourced from a house that had been demolished in Albert Park and the very personable Paul Storm, Australia’s only remaining practitioner of the highly skilled and dangerous art of acid etching on glass, was commissioned to create a new fan light to suit. It featured a “Golden Fleece” motif in a sort of latter day nod to old Tom’s original ambition.

Bathroom window and lead light, December, 2017.

Stylistically appropriate, the large front door panel found its way, with modifications, into the lower sash of a double hung bathroom window in the Edwardian extension of the house. An upper sash was also created to match and incorporated a purpose made, square cut, clear “picture” window for observing the moon at night from the bath tub, a curious but stated minimum requirement for the window from the glass designer’s wife.

Lead lighting –  I’ve always admired the skill of one of our friends who, over time,  has produced countless complex and colourful works of art in his own home and was all too ready to help with the end result in this case. Armed with this certitude and a few Youtube tutorials to suit, this amateur quickly found that, while there may be a bit of a knack to cutting glass, the main challenge confronting the novice lead lighter is the amount of time needed to do even a small leadlight project properly. With a monthly blog to write up, it’s not as though any of us has time on our hands these days is it?

Former side lights used in a 4 panel door plus newly made top light, December, 2017.

In time the leadlight side lights from the front found their own good way into a new but typically still unpainted four panel door and a matching overhead vestibule window was created to suit. The small panel shown above the Edwardian style door in the photograph here represents hours of patient work and more than a little broken and wasted glass. Even so there remains a mistake in the final design. I didn’t spot it until I’d finished but I’m not about to remake it. Give the man (or woman) a cigar who can spot the difference.

Sarah Annie Wragge at Yallambie, c1890. (Source: Bush collection).

According to Winty Calder, Thomas Wragge may have purchased porcelain door trim for Yallambie Homestead at the Royal Derby China factory during a trip to England and some of these items may have been subsequently removed prior to the A V Jennings sale when fittings were allegedly used by the agent’s so called “caretaker” to generate beer money at the Plenty Bridge Hotel.

Glass door furniture and lead light.

Whatever the truth, in later times several door fittings have been replaced with original glass or porcelain fittings scrounged obsessively from demolition yards and junk shops on a beer budget.

The Ascension Windows triptych at St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg.
Inscription reads,”In loving memory of Thomas and Sarah Ann Wragge for many years worshippers in this church. Presented by their daughter Annie and two sons Syd and Harry 1920.”

The period following the end of the Edwardian era was a time of great change and upheaval in Australian society. At Yallambie a generational change had occured. As previously recounted in the pages of this blog, the Wragge family commissioned a magnificent triptych chancel window at St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg showing Christ ascending with Mary and John on the side panels. Meanwhile, Thomas Wragge’s “arched window of figured glass”, over the stairs at Yallambie disappeared from living memory during Sarah Annie’s renovations when the original staircase, a “wide curved central stairway”, (Calder) was remodelled.

Stained glass installed into the dining room.

In another nod to the past, an old stained and leaded glass window has now been positioned in a window at the back of the stairs as a sort of surrogate reinterpretation of that first idea. Purchased in another dusty junk shop in SA, reputedly sourced from a defunct school of architecture in NSW, and brought to Victoria on the roof of our car, the window is possibly an early Australian example of the glass painters’ art.

Preparing the stained glass for transport, February, 1999.

You might wonder at so much attention seeming to be wasted on detail while so many parts of an old building are crumbling around the occupants’ ears. You might think it’s a story filled suspiciously with glasses of a rose colour but when it comes down to it, we all want to make a mark as we sail through on our allotted span. Maybe that means the changes made to a pile of bricks and mortar sometimes called home. Or maybe it’s the untangling of a genealogical record for the sake of an imagined posterity. Or maybe it’s simply a few words recorded in an obscure blog read by someone, somewhere, some time while looking through a glass, darkly.

 

Bird is the word

To ornithologists with an archaic command of the English language, it could have been murder. It occurred one morning last week in the trees above Yallambie Park, but there wasn’t a strangled body left hanging in the branches and the Homicide Squad wasn’t called in to investigate.

It’s an obscure bit of phraseology, but according to the Oxford Dictionary, any noisy gathering of crows is collectively known as a “murder”, and that’s just what we had circling over the Yallambie escarpment here the other day. Like a scene from an old Alfred Hitchcock horror film, dozens of these large black birds circled and swooped through the tall trees, all the while filling the air of the Plenty Valley in every direction with their strident calls.

By the Oxford’s definition then it was a murder, and a murder of some magnitude. The aerial perambulations of these birds lasted a good ten minutes and as I stood watching them, I wondered to myself, ‘What could possibly be going on inside those bird brains rising high above the ground up there in the sky? What could they be saying to each other?’ To my mind their avian behaviour certainly seemed considered and their vocalization in many respects carried the nuances of language.

Cockatoos in a walnut tree at Yallambie.
Rainbow lorikeet photographed at Yallambie, January, 2018.
Little Raven, (corvus mellori) photographed at Yallambie, January, 2018.

Our fruit trees have been laden this year and the cockies and lorikeets for a long time have been making deep inroads into the crop. For a while there was a bit of a stand-off between the cockatoos and the new arrivals but in this may be a clue in essence to what the crows were really chatting on about during their mid-air confab. When the crows subsequently took up an unofficial residency in the area under the outraged watch of the cockatoos, a neighbour told me that she thought, “There must be a plum tree in the neighbourhood because the birds keep dropping pips onto our tin roof.”

Go figure. Our plum tree has since been stripped quite bare. No wonder those birds had so much to say about Yallambie on arrival.

Among birds, the corvids (crows and ravens) are reputedly the most intelligent and have the largest brain for body size. They are highly social and renowned for their problem-solving abilities. You’ve probably seen them on the National Geographic Channel dropping shell fish and nuts onto hard surfaces to crack them open, or by improvising with found objects to form tools to open lunch boxes. One report even suggests that they can count to a kindergarten level, and that’s even while substituting claws for fingers as I suppose they must do.

Crows are one hell of a bird then so it surprised me to find out that calling a gathering of big black crows here in the State of Victoria a murder might actually be a misnomer.

You see, the big, black birds we see here aren’t considered by the experts to be crows at all. It turns out the birds we see in South-eastern Australia are classed by the people who know about such things as ravens, the bird Noah chose to release first up from the Ark, and it is an error of binomial nomenclature reporting to describe them otherwise.

So there you go. In the best Agatha Christie tradition, sometimes a murder isn’t necessarily what it seems, even for those of us accused of regularly murdering English here in WordPress. So maybe next time you are thinking of crying out, “Stone the crows,” perhaps what you should really be saying is, “Stone the ravens.” Doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?

The bird we call a “crow” in South-eastern Australia is actually the “Little Raven”, a bird of smaller proportion to the larger, closely related Australian Raven and next time you’re at the football standing next to a barracking Adelaide supporter, you could try suggesting they use the more literally correct form of endearment, “Carn the Little Ravens.” Try that one day and see how far you get.

The Little Raven is just one of the many types of bird that inhabit the air up and down the Plenty Valley, permanently and on a seasonal basis. The reports of the first settlers of this area are filled with descriptions of the bird life they saw, with James Willis’ diary especially filled with lists of the species he encountered as he happily blasted away at them to send them spinning out of the sky and into his cooking pot.

Sulphur Crested Cockatoo, non captive in an oak tree at Yallambie a few few years ago.
Syd Wragge resting his back against the bird cage at the south east corner of the house, with James Hearn and possibly Will or Harry Wragge, c1900. (Source: Bill Bush Collection).
Unidentified woman seated on the corner of the south east verandah at Yallambie, c1900. Note the crested pigeon perched on the edge of the basket and possibly taken from the cage just visible on the left of the picture. The dog was apparently not a bird dog. (Source: Bill Bush Collection).

Thomas Wragge and his family are also remembered for having kept a captive Sulphur Crested cockatoo in a large cage on the back verandah at Yallambie in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Cockatoos are very long lived birds and can be taught to mimic the spoken language of humans. When Thomas installed one of the very first telephones in the Heidelberg district at Yallambie, an early model Ericsson wall phone, the bird developed a talent for squawking out a call in imitation to what it had heard voiced with the ring on previous occasions. “The telephone, the telephone,” the bird would scream whenever it heard the phone alarm, which I guess was every bit as good as having an extension bell in the garden.

Later, the Tembys also kept a pet cockatoo at Yallambie but they dispensed with the cage on the verandah and parked the bird instead on a beam in the kitchen from where it could chat regularly with the family.

Yallambie seen from the south east, c1890, before the addition of the later shingled verandahs on that side. The cockatoo cage can be at the end of the metal verandah, just along from a ground floor room used as a study by Thomas and where he had his telephone line installed.  (Source: Bill Bush Collection).

Be that as it may and leaving all talking birds aside, while on the subject of ornithology it is an earlier connection to the story of the Bakewell brothers of the 1840s Station Plenty, (Yallambee) that most interests me and which is worth telling from this point.

Phoebe Howitt, (née Bakewell ) c1858. (Source: State Library of Victoria).

The Bakewell story carries a close and familial connection with a piece of feathered history of small but international import. According to Alexander Henderson’s pedigree in his “Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina”, John and Robert Bakewell and their sister Phoebe Howitt (née Bakewell) were 2nd cousins of Lucy Bakewell, the wife of that most famous painter of American birds, John James Audubon. The Yallambee Bakewells and Lucy shared the same ancestor – Robert Bakewell of Castle Donington, their great grandfather.

Lucy Bakewell’s family moved to the United States in 1801 when she was 14 years old and she almost certainly never met her younger Australian emigre cousins who were born after that date. However, it is said that her father William was acquainted with Joseph Priestley and that Dr Erasmus Darwin had been her infant physician and, while not a member of the Lunar Society himself, William Bakewell’s dealings with these prominent members of that famous society of liberal thinkers is evidence perhaps of the sort of circles the larger Bakewell family moved within.

“The Orrery” by Joseph Wright of Derby, c1766, (Derby Museum and Art Gallery).

In an assessment, the Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Rhodes in his 2004 Audubon biography wrote that: “Even for English country gentry, the Bakewells were literate to an unusual degree.” It is therefore not so surprising the paths taken by the later members of that family when arriving in Australia. John and Robert’s acclimatization experiments at Yallambee and Phoebe’s patronage of the arts, together with the activities of her husband, Dr Godfrey Howitt, have all been well documented and form part of a tradition.

So in the best Quaker style then, it might be said that Lucy Bakewell was the product of something more than the usual ornamental education given to gentle women of that era and when John James Audobon met her for the first time in early 1804, he was immediately smitten. Lucy was just short of 17 years old. He was 18. 

“She was tall, slim, graceful, poise, modest and lovely to look at, with a turned-up English nose and smoky gray eyes – in the recent estimate of one of her cousins, ‘a fine lively girl.’ She was also, as Audubon would discover, intelligent, loyal, well read, musical, meticulous, a good horsewoman and an athletic swimmer.” (Richard Rhodes, John James Audubon – The Making of an American, 2004).

Lucy Audubon from a miniature by Frederick Cruickshank, c1831.

John James Audubon was born in 1785 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) and raised in France during the dangerous and chaotic period after the French Revolution. In 1803 he was sent to America by his father, ostensibly to oversee his business interests there, but primarily to escape conscription into the French armies of Napolean. On Arrival in New York City, Audubon learned English in a boarding house run by Quaker women and as a result used the Quaker form of “thee” and “thou” in common speech and in his writings ever afterward. Although otherwise then an archaic form of expression, one wonders whether such Quakerisms added to the attraction of the young man in Lucy’s eyes when they met for the first time. Lucy’s father was a Unitarian but she would perhaps have remembered with childish nostalgia the Quaker connections present in the wider Bakewell family that had been left behind in England.

The Bakewells and Audubon occupied neighbouring estates in Pennsylvania and in the winter of 1804 when skating on the frozen waters of the Perkiomen with Lucy’s younger brother, Tom Bakewell, John James went through a hole in the ice narrowly avoiding being drowned after being drawn by the current under the surface for 30 or 40 yards before emerging through another hole further down. The resulting exposure contributed to a near fatal illness. As fever increased to delirium, Lucy had Audubon removed from his own home and brought to her family’s property. The fever took 10 days to break by which time Audubon was so weak he that he could not stand up. She nursed him back to health, his convalescence lasting throughout the Christmas of 1804, Lucy reading to him and talking with him while all the while developing an intimacy, (the sort feared by James Willis in another post).

As the young Frenchman recovered he would probably have been keenly interested in the novel surroundings he saw in the American home of these English Bakewells. Lucy’s father William, “in the English tradition of technological entrepreneurship”, had that year brought a young mechanic and millwright from Scotland to install an experimental steam-powered threshing machine at his farm which that Christmas was ready for testing in the barn yard. It was clear that the American Bakewell property was demonstrably at the cutting edge of agricultural science, even at the start of the 19th century.

 An understanding was soon blooming between the young couple.

“They walked their adjoining woods and went riding. They exchanged childhoods, hers in Derbyshire, his along the Loire. They discovered their common love of country life and distaste for cities. The one reserved but steadfast, the other flamboyant and bold, both gifted at friendship, they began to fall in love.” (ibid)

The marriage of Lucy Bakewell and John James Audubon three years later was a love match but in many ways it was Lucy who was the rock upon which the great painter subsequently founded his talents and prodigious ambition. Theirs’ was a marriage of true minds but maybe it was also a reflection of some of the best Quaker ideals, a legacy from her Bakewell origins which encouraged the educated feminine mind. The marriage has been called the most important event in Audubon’s life because it was his wife who was “the spur to his ambition and the balance wheel to his character.” It was Lucy who raised their children and kept their home, even working as a governess and opening schools to provide an income while Audubon’s career took him for months at a time into the wilderness, for years overseas to find a publisher of his drawings, and into financial hardships that at one point involved bankruptcy.

John James Audubon by John Syme, 1826, (Source: Wikipedia, from The White House Historical Association).
The Raven: plate 101 from “The Birds of America” by John James Audubon.

John James crossed the Appalachians to Kentucky to start a new life with Lucy and it was in the frontier wilderness of North America that he truly began to fully revel in the natural world he saw all around him. Largely self-taught as an artist, Audubon developed his own methods for drawing birds from collected specimens, combining these with extensive field observations. He often portrayed birds as if caught in motion, especially feeding or hunting. The resulting work, “The Birds of America”, was a monumental task by any stretch of the imagination. In it Audubon documented all the birds of North America, painting the subjects in naturalistic poses in a style quite uncommon for their day and publishing the end result at life size in giant “double elephant” sized folios. At the height of one long separation Lucy wrote of her husband, If I were jealous, I would have a bitter time of it, for every bird is my rival.” John James’ project at times was to border on an obsession.

Passenger Pigeon: plate 62 from “The Birds of America” by John James Audubon. A notable example of anthropogenic extinction, the pigeon which once number in the billions became extinct at the start of the 20th century due to hunting and habitat loss.

The Birds of America was sold by subscription and took years to complete but it made John James famous both nationally and internationally.” The 435 plates each more than a half square metre in area and printed by Havells of London, depict some 1,065 different species, the majority drawn from specimens that Audubon himself had captured. He discovered 25 new species and 12 new sub species during the process. Some of the birds he drew are today extinct and this to the modern mind adds a certain poignancy to his legacy.

Australian Raven: from The Birds of Australia by John Gould

Compare the stiff poses of that other famed painter, the painter of Australian birds, John Gould from a similar but slightly later era with those of Audubon to appreciate the natural genius of the painter of America’s birds. Pelicans wading the shallows of interior rivers, flocks of songbirds soaring in the air and passenger pigeons darkening the skies – Audubon observed and recorded all of them.

Lucy Audubon in her old age, c1860. (Source: New Brunswick Museum)

Lucy outlived her husband by more than two decades after his death in 1851. Sadly for those around him, Alzheimer’s disease had left the great painter’s “noble mind in ruins” before the end. From then until her death in 1874, Lucy worked with her family tirelessly to preserve her husband’s tradition and when we examine the work of John James Audubon, it is easy perhaps to ignore the lifetime of separation and sacrifice that was required by his wife to make the artist’s best endeavours a reality.

The story of John James and Lucy Audubon was an American love story. A love story between two people on another continent and in another time but it was also a love story that involved a common and enduring love of the natural world and all that goes into it. We can all identify with that, especially today in this world of ugliness and built cities. Today at Yallambie when I look up into the sky at the visiting crows that are not crows, or at the other many and varied forms of bird life that fill this part of the Plenty Valley, I sometimes think of Audubon and his American birds and of that small, familial connection here from another time and of another place.

 

Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush

The Cactus House is cactus.

Shortly before Christmas last year the bulldozers moved in and did their thing. In no time at all the “Cactus House”, the Yallambie House of Mystery in Tarcoola Drive had done the big vanishing act, leaving behind nothing but an open block of land and a few soon to be forgotten memories.

Aerial survey photograph made of a still some what undeveloped Yallambie area prior to 1971.
The newly formed Tarcoola Drive, Yallambie, c1968. This picture looks across the road towards the site where the “Cactus House” would soon be built. The Allima Ave intersection is on the left and Slagmolen’s “Casa Maria” is visible behind the pencil pines on the ridge. (Source: Composite made from the Bill Jones Collection)
E L Bateman’s pencil study for View XII in his Plenty Station series showing William Greig’s, c1839 cottage standing above the river behind the site of the later Yallambie “Cactus House”. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria Collection).

The Cactus House in Tarcoola Drive had been a bit of an enigma for nigh on 5 years, ever since the old lady who last lived there departed this mortal world for the great beyond. The cream brick veneer she called home must have been one of the first houses built during the subdivision of the Yallambie estate as it is visible in an aerial photograph made prior to 1971, but not in a photograph of the newly formed Tarcoola Drive c1968. It was built within a literal stone’s throw of where William Greig had earlier built his cottage. Since her death it has stood vacant, or at least it has remained vacant to all appearances. There was a feeling whenever you walked past that you could never be entirely sure about this, or indeed who or what might be watching from those brooding but seemingly empty windows with their unstated memory.

We called it the Cactus House because of a vast forest of exotic cacti that had been allowed to grow across the frontage on Tarcoola Drive. Local memory suggests that the cacti were planted prior to 1970 by the second owner of the house in an attempt to keep neighbourhood dogs from roaming into the property from the street. This was before the advent of front fencing which, as a concept, had initially been opposed by A V Jennings on the Yallambie estate.

Cactus collection of Charles Darrah later housed at Alexandra Park, Manchester. (Source: Manchester Archive & Local Studies)
Queen of the Night, night flowering cactus at Yallambie.
Flowering Zygocactus at Yallambie.

Be that as it may, collecting cacti had been something of a Victorian craze for a while and gardens filled with rare botanical specimens even became a bit of a status symbol in the 19th century. Today there are a few extant plantings scattered through the homestead garden and even along the river bank if you know where to look, so maybe the Cactus House plantings had been sourced from these.

Prickly Pear at Yallambie Homestead, March, 1984. (Source: J T Collins Collection, La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria)

At any rate, one type of cacti, the infamous prickly pear introduced from South America in the 19th century, is known to have become an invasive species all over Australia before the introduction of a moth in the 1920s was used to control its spread. The story goes that the moth, whose caterpillars ate the cactus, was such a successful biological control that scientists were subsequently encouraged to try something similar with the cane beetles that were a problem in North East Queensland. Unfortunately the toads they imported to eat the beetles hadn’t read the menu board and instead ate everything, not excepting the cane beetles, but then I digress. That’s a whole other story.

Prickly pear infestation in an Australian bush land environment prior to biological control.

Moths aside, the Cactus House was an impressive sight in Yallambie and some of its plants must have been nearly a half century old by the time the whole kit and kaboodle disappeared from the face of the earth.

The A V Jennings Yallambie estate, c1968. Ekari Crt is in the middle of the picture. The Allima Ave, Tarcoola Drive intersection is on the right. Adina and Koolya Courts at left. (Source: Bill Jones Collection)
Looking in the same direction along Tarcoola Drive, January, 2018.

For all that, with its wide frontage and a rear boundary facing Yallambie Park, it was always going to be a latter day target of the developers, especially as the house became systematically more dilapidated in recent years. As the mail piled up in the letter box uncollected, then the letter box itself disappeared altogether, I thought it would be only a matter of time before the inevitable occurred.

Site of the “Cactus House” as seen from the Yallambie Park side, January, 2018.

With the removal of the house, as expected the block where it stood has now been cleared from corner to corner and the cacti that were a distinctive, almost Mediterranean style feature at the front are all gone, utterly and without a trace. So too the lemon tree at the back of the garden. Nothing was saved of the garden from the wreckers’ waltz. Nothing but a single, solitary gum tree near the front footpath where pedestrians pass by which, I assume as a native planting, the Council in their wisdom refused a planning permit to remove.

It might seem an odd thing to be making a fuss about here. After all, they were only a few old prickly plants and this sort of house and garden destruction is going on all over Melbourne, right? Blink and a garden is gone and usually the house along with it. Before you know it in no time at all the block is usually filled again by a house as if by magic, usually from boundary to boundary or, what is more often true, a collection of multiple houses built as close together as the confines of the property will possibly allow. So stay tuned and keep your eyes to the ground.

Meanwhile, about the time that Yallambie’s Cactus House met its end, another house of memories in Banyule Rd, Rosanna similarly met its Waterloo. That’s no surprise but I make note here because the house was once the home of a family friend, elderly Mrs Rowe, and the 517 bus from Yallambie always passed right by it. I often looked at it when going by as Mrs Rowe had been a friend of my parents at the church. While we had known her for many years, she was only ever known to us as Mrs Rowe, and never by her first name. That’s just not the way it was done then. She lived to a right, venerable, old age but I guess she must have been gone a good decade or more by the time her house came down.

Planting the Mulberry, June, 1994.
The Mulberry tree, December, 2017.

Mrs Rowe bless her heart gave my sister a handkerchief painstakingly hand embroidered to carry on her wedding day and later, she gave my wife and I a young Mulberry to plant at Yallambie to mark our own. Mrs Rowe is gone. Her house is gone. Her garden is gone. But that tree she gave us to mark that day produces a new crop of fruit over an extended period each year. Maybe it will still be doing so at Yallambie after we’re gone.

Mulberries are a species of deciduous flowering trees that produce a crop of edible berries over an extended period up to and after Christmas in Melbourne. There is a grove of them growing in the Darebin Parklands which were planted by Chinese market gardeners along the Cobb and Co wagon track around 1860. The Park Management Committee at Darebin have in more recent times replanted sections of the “Mulberry Avenue” in a nod to local history which is commendable and shows what can be done when there is a will and a way. Elsewhere Mulberries don’t seem to be planted very often in the suburbs any more, which is another mystery to me every bit as big as the Cactus House as they are a great little tree in very many respects.

Mulberry fruit at Yallambie, December, 2017.

Blackberry and ivy growing out of control on the Yallambie escarpment below the water tower in 1995.

There are many species of Mulberry but the tree we planted here all those years ago is a Black Mulberry (Morus Nigra) which is thought to have originated in Persia but which was planted extensively in English garden estates from the 17th century onward in an attempt to establish a silk worm industry. Apparently as a resource for silk worms they weren’t much use but the fruit of the Black Mulberry is delicious. A bit like a blackberry but without those annoying prickles and the invasive growth habit to contend with.

The only problem worth remarking upon when picking Mulberries is the deep red stain of the fruit that seems to get over everything. As a problem however, this one can be a put down as a truly remarkably delectable dilemma.

The fruiting season of Mulberries in Melbourne is nearly over for the summer but in case anybody reading this has a tree growing in a garden or indeed is thinking of planting one instead of a housing estate at the bottom of their garden, here’s a thought. As a fruit, I’m of a mind that the Mulberry is an improvement on the thorny and sometimes downright dangerous prickly pear and, furthermore, in the off season you can take a dance around a Mulberry “Bush” on a cold and frosty morning.

Try doing that over a cactus.

Cactus Agave, “century plant” flower and lorikeet at Yallambie

“So this is Christmas”

Where were you the day they shot John Lennon? For those younger than a certain age the answer is probably, “A twinkle in my father’s eye,” but for the rest of us it seemed like one of those seminal moments in life when history is written.

I have a memory of that warm December afternoon in Melbourne. School had finished for the summer and I was in the garden at the family home in Rosanna when my father came outside with the news he had just heard broadcast on the radio.

“Hey. You there.”
“What?”
“No, no, no,” he chanted, using a metre borrowed from The Beatles.
“What?”
“That bug. You know, Lennon, the Beatle. They just shot him in New York.”
“What, who?”
“I dunno. Probably some sort of music lover I guess. I heard it on the wireless just now.”

I remember the sense of disbelief. Lennon, the man who wrote the double entendre “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” Dead at 40. With a bullet. Forty sounded old.

To put that day into its era and within the context of the Yallambie narrative, the ex-Beatle died 37 years ago this week on December 8th, (a day later in Australia). It was a time when Ethel Temby was still living at Yallambie Homestead and the last of the vacant blocks from the original AV Jennings sub division were fast disappearing into the suburban landscape, giving Santa more work to do it seems with every passing year.

Lennon’s old band mate Paul is in Melbourne to play some shows today and tomorrow and the circumstance got my mind to wandering. When I opened a box at home containing some shiny natural history specimen beetles collected at Yallambie in Christmas times now past, it got it wandering off in a fairly random direction. It’s a direction entirely appropriate for this, the silly season, and a better line to travel than dwelling on an historic, senseless murder. My old dad’s words about bugs seemed to come back like a blast from the past, along with a flood of lines from a poem you may have heard.

When Christmas comes the Christmas heat’ll
bring once more the Christmas Beetle
The first inflammatory breeze’ll
set him buzzing like a diesel.
(Leon Gellert)

So with apologies to lovers of the British ’60s beat who, like me, thought at the start this post was shaping up to be about the walrus, or beetles spelled with an “A”, think again. The question is, just where have all those Christmas Beetles gone?

Jewel Beetles found at Yallambie.

It’s an oft asked question these days. When I was a kid it seemed that Christmas was the time when shining Christmas beetles were a common thing in the garden. Maybe I was just more observant then or maybe it was the plastic toy “Bug Catcher” that arrived from Father Christmas one Christmas morning, but finding anything like a Christmas Beetle now is something of a rarity and the fact is, I haven’t seen an actual Christmas Beetle at Yallambie for several years. The photograph above is of some wood boring, Jewel Beetles which were collected at Yallambie, but I’m afraid they weren’t found in a single day, or in a single year for that matter.

Parure crafted for the Countess of Granville from real scarabs by Phillips of Cockspur Street, London, c1884. (Source: Gray & Davis)

The beauty of Jewel Beetles has long been recognized by jewellery makers who prized them and in the latter half of 19th century incorporated real beetles into everything from hatpins to bracelets, an expression of the Victorian fascination with the natural world, even while their other behaviour did everything to destroy it.

Christmas Beetle (Porter’s)

True Christmas Beetles by comparison are a type of scarab and are a fairly chunky, sometimes large insect that come in a variety of metallic colours. They are quite harmless to touch and if you’ve ever had one to hold it’s something to feel the determination of the little fellow as it pushes through your fingers.

It leaves me wondering, what goes on in a beetle mind as he sits there, snug as a bug in a rug in the palm of your hand. Does he have a name? Something scientific probably. Latin sounding, no doubt. Maybe his friends call him Ringo?

Adult Christmas Beetles feed on eucalyptus leaves and it was claimed in our Colonial past that the quintessential gum tree could sometimes be seen to bend under the sheer weight of the numbers of massed beetles. No more.

Jewel Scarabs from around the world, (National Geographic).

I don’t know if this has a relevance, but it has been reported in Germany that the flying beetle population in Germany has crashed by more than 75% over a 30-year study period. Reasons for this remain uncertain but if the results of the German survey into this phenomenon correlate into a worldwide trend, then we likely have a problem. The German report concludes that, “Loss of insect diversity and abundance is expected to provoke cascading effects on food webs and to jeopardize ecosystem services.”

80% of wild plants rely on insects for pollination and 60% of birds rely on insects as a food source. The fact is that only 10% of the world’s insect population have been identified and it is believed that many are going extinct before they can even be named.

Butterfly Collector, (unidentified), Daguerreotype. (Source: George Eastman House Collection).

Yallambee’s Robert Bakewell, an amateur entomologist of some standing, would have been most disturbed by this statistic, even as his net descended down upon the last Pussycat Swallowtail or his pin pierced an increasingly rare Christmas Beetle.

The search for the ever elusive Pussycat Swallowtail.

Comment has already been made in the pages of this blog about the decline in bee populations but apparently the decline is not limited to bees and is linked to a general loss of bio diversity worldwide. The evidence for a beetle decline in parts of Australia is anecdotal but undeniable. Climate change, loss of insect habitats and the use of pesticides have all been suggested as possible causes of this beetle malaise but the general consensus is that it has been a combination of factors without any one single cause. The plastic Bug Catcher of my childhood is in the clear after all.

The Herald Sun reported today that a recent La Trobe University study had found that human disturbance to ecosystems such as clearing forest for farmland has led to profound changes in the diversity of ant species world wide. Professor Heloise Gibb was quoted saying that, “The disappearing ant species are more likely to be predators, increasing the chances that pest populations might explode.”

In the case of the old Christmas Beetle, it’s unclear what if any effect a decline in the population will cause. The belief is that the “dual life history” of the insect is at the heart of the problem. The larvae feed on the roots of grasses, the adults on eucalypt leaves and with both environments in short supply around urban Melbourne these days the decline is understandable. It’s one explanation of why Christmas just isn’t what it used to be, at least for beetles.

Meanwhile, over in Melbourne tonight, that other rare Beatle is making his appearance stage left, some might say in the style of “Dame Nellie Melba’s Farewell”. The weather has been a trifle inclement of late but here’s hoping there’s still a chance for a fine night, a warm summer, and to the truth of those words:

“…the Christmas heat’ll
bring once more the Christmas Beetle”

Yeah, yeah, yeah…

Vale Banyule

The Australian writer and historian Don Watson once posed the tempting question, “What will history make of us should there be any historians left to write it?”

The news last week that the State Government had decided on Corridor A as the chosen route for the North East Link freeway leaves a devastating conflict of emotions for nearby communities. There is the feeling of relief that the alternative B, C and D roads will now, at least not for the time being, be built, but this is coupled with a general feeling of dismay at the destruction Corridor A is likely to wreak.

Corridor A when built will largely cut an underground path under Viewbank and Rosanna, with road interchanges located at Bulleen and Lower Plenty Roads, but it will be the surface road parallel with Greensborough Road along the Western boundary of Yallambie with Macleod and in Watsonia in the north, together with the associated road interchanges at either end that will have the most obvious visual impact. At least 75 homes are expected be lost to the plan and it’s pretty clear to anyone familiar with the local area just where these are likely to be.

The government spent $100 million to write a study of their four, so called alternative routes which included the utter surprise of their Corridor B proposal through the heart of Yallambie, but in the end the extra corridors were a smoke screen, an attempt to muddy the water surrounding a proposal to build Corridor A which, because it was expected to be cheaper, was always going to be the favoured option.

Melbourne’s road network with missing links from Vicroads publication “Linking Melbourne”, February, 1994.

Corridor A has been talked about ever since something like it was first proposed in the 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan. It wasn’t built because enough people could see back then that it was a bad idea. So what has changed? A decade ago the proposal was still on the table and costed at $6 billion, but last week’s announcement rings in now at over $16 billion. The real question then is, just how much is this thing going to cost eventually, and I don’t just mean in dollar terms.

Perhaps the NELA aren’t aware of some of the worry and the sleepless nights that they have given Yallambie and Lower Plenty residents since the first suggestion of Corridor B was disclosed in August. Perhaps they don’t care. This sort of cavalier attitude is nothing new, as the recent to-ing and fro-ing over the abandoned East West Link proposal is evidence, but fifty years ago the following story illustrates perhaps just how strongly passions can run on such matters.

In the mid 1960s, at a time before the first spade had been turned on Melbourne’s freeway network, a plan was developed by Doncaster and Templestowe City Council in conjunction with the Country Roads Board to widen Templestowe Rd in Templestowe at the Thompsons Road intersection. The plan when first discussed involved realigning Templestowe Rd at its closest approach to the Yarra River with Parker St in the east, through the heart of the Templestowe township.

Finn’s Upper Yarra Hotel on Templestowe Rd, Templestowe. (Source: Doncaster Templestowe Historical Society)

But there was a problem. Finn’s Upper Yarra Hotel, a local landmark of some renown, stood right in the path of the new road.

An early view of the Upper Yarra Hotel before the addition of the west wing.

The Upper Yarra Hotel was a much loved building. James Finn had opened his hotel as a beer shop on the Templestowe corner in 1866, near what is now a vanished river crossing, and over the years various additions had been made to it which had combined to create a strange amalgamation of architectural styles. The idiosyncratic compact construction of the original building seemed to stand at odds with the later, two-storey block fronted section but somehow they combined almost by accident to form a building of considerable rambling charm.

The Upper Yarra was delicenced in the early 1920s but as it aged and became more dilapidated the rustic appeal of its setting became a favoured subject for local artists. The various parts of the hotel itself were painted a rusty red colour in an attempt to bring unity to its conflicting parts and as the paint peeled the overpainted words “Finn’s Upper Yarra Hotel” stood out like a ghostly commentary as to the building’s former life, an old world garden and a cobbled stable yard behind the hotel completing the overall effect of a genteel rural decay.

Finn’s Hotel photographed towards the end of its life by John T Collins in 1963. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

The grown up grandchildren of James Finn were still living somewhat reclusive lives at the old hotel in the mid 1960s when the Council came a knockin’. Doncaster and Templestowe City Council had purchased the land on which the Upper Yarra Hotel stood from the executors of the estate of the son of James Finn and the Council were trying to force his grandchildren from the building which the surviving generation still occupied. The Council met with some militant but probably understandable opposition from the residents who objected to being moved away from the building their family had occupied for over a hundred years. One contemporary newspaper report described how a party of journalists was chased away from the hotel environs one evening in 1967 by an aging Finn brother wielding a big stick, smashing up a photographer’s car in the process in the mistaken belief that the newspaper party were officers from the Housing Commission come to enforce an eviction order.

Finn’s Hotel seen from near the corner of Templestowe and Thompsons Rd, Templestowe. (Source: Doncaster Templestowe Historical Society)

In the end the Council got their way of course and the Finns removed themselves voluntarily from the building on the 28th May, 1967. On the night of departure however a mysterious fire broke out in the old weatherboarded building, quickly reducing it to a pile of cinder and rubble in spite of the best efforts of the Country Fire Authority to combat the blaze.

The end of Finn’s Upper Yarra Hotel on the night of 28 May, 1967 as reported in “The Sun” news pictorial the next day.
Newspaper clipping from the front page of the Doncaster and Outer Circle Mirror, 27 September, 1967.

It was a tragic loss to history for the area. The Council had been discussing the possibility of moving the hotel out of the path of the imagined road realignment in a manner that they would later employ to save another historic Doncaster building, Schramm’s Cottage, in the 1970s. The fire put an end to any further discussion, Ad infinitim.

Eventually the Council accepted a cheque of $365.95 as compensation for the loss of the building, but the money was not really the point. The final irony in the telling of this story is that when the realignment of Templestowe Rd eventually took place, a decision was made to straighten the route to meet with Foote St parallel to Parker Street, which is the situation as it exists today. If Finn’s Hotel had been standing and not by then a pile of ashes, it would have been in the clear.

Today a so called “History Pavilion” on Templestowe Rd, Templestowe marks the site of the former Upper Yarra Hotel, with photographs plastered around the interior detailing the (now mostly vanished) history of the area. It is a strangely sad, not often visited tribute.

“History Pavillion,” at Templestowe on the site of the Upper Yarra Hotel, November, 2017. The bricks used in the cairn were salvaged from the ruins of the hotel after the fire.

So how does this story affect the reality of the Corridor A proposal for North East Link? The above tale is an example that road plans are not set in stone until such time as they are actually set in concrete, whether they be tunnels or tarmac and you don’t have to burn down a building to find this out. Melbourne University transport lecturer John Stone was quoted in a newspaper story about State Government transport spin doctoring in The Age last month saying that, “Communities are presented with Maggie Thatcher’s old line – ‘There is no alternative’ – and often there is. But under the current system, the community can only be heard if they can create enough political will to be heard.”

Opponents of North East Link Corridor A have called a public meeting today on a rainy afternoon at Koonung Creek Reserve, Balwyn North and the AGM of the Friends of Banyule is scheduled for Thursday night at the old Shire offices in Beverley Rd, Heidelberg where there will be no prizes offered for guessing what will be the main item on the agenda that night. The opposition to Corridor A in these neighbourhoods is understandable but by any reckoning, the real opposition to the route should be coming from groups here in the north. Corridor A will be a surface road when it passes through Greensborough, Watsonia and Yallambie/Macleod and two of the three major new road interchanges will be situated here. The lack of opposition here however is the result of the earlier sleight of hand exercise conducted by NELA when they divided community opposition with the suggested alternative Corridors, B, C and D. That’s what the State Government got for spending a $100 million to investigate the alternative corridors, although they said at the time the money was to be used to cover the cost of “geotechnical investigations, design, environmental and social studies”. The cold, hard reality is that Corridor A will have a devastating effect on the City of Banyule, dividing the municipality in two in a north south direction along Greensborough Rd while doing little to relieve the very real traffic problems in the area. Vale to the City of Banyule.

Like the Finns at the old Upper Yarra Hotel, the lives knocked about by these road proposals are real people with real homes, each with their own story to tell and each with a sense of community and belonging. $16 billion and counting sounds to me like an awful lot of money to be spending on building a road, a road that won’t even do what it is intended to do, that is complete the missing link in Melbourne’s Ring Road system. Look at a map of the proposed route of Corridor A and you will see that the Corridor A route does not contribute to a ring at all but is a dent in the road plan, driving ring bound traffic back towards the city before asking it to fan out again in an easterly direction.

Melbourne’s road network with proposed North East Links from RA, September, 2017. Corridor A is the shorter, therefore theoretically cheaper dotted line to the left at Bulleen.

So when is a ring not a ring? When it is a link in the eyes of the North East Link Authority. The building of Corridor A will not remove the need to build a completed ring through Eltham in years to come. The thing is, by then the State will be so bankrupt that this will never happen, no matter what needs might then be presented. By that time too with the advent of AVs (autonomous vehicles), cars as we know them now might be a thing of the past, which poses some interesting speculation in answer to Don Watson’s original conundrum.

 

Withers’ Way

They called him “The Orderly Colonel”.

It was a name given to him affectionately by his fellow artists as a passing nod to his organized ways. They started out as a loose association in the mid ’80s in what was then semi-rural Box Hill, experimenting with plein air painting, but as suburbia overtook the artists’ camps along the Gardiners Creek they relocated to a new camp on “Mount Eagle”, at an old cottage at what is now Summit Drive in Eaglemont near Heidelberg, cementing in our consciousness by doing so an art movement that would forever be remembered as the “Heidelberg School”, Australia’s first nationally focused art movement.

Heidelberg Historical Society marker in Summit Drive, Eaglemont.
Charterisville in Ivanhoe, built by David Charteris McArthur, c1845. (Heidelberg Historical Society picture)

Typically it was Walter (Walt) Withers, The Colonel, who found them another home when the group moved from the Eaglemont cottage. In September, 1890 Withers arranged a lease on the late David Charteris MacArthur’s “Charterisville”, just to the south of Mount Eagle, and here he painted and taught while subletting the lodges to a procession of his fellow artists. The contemporary critic Sidney Dickinson named him, along with Arthur Streeton, as a leader of the “Heidelberg School”, which in Withers’ case was almost certainly an exaggeration, but there is no doubting his significant role within the group.

Portrait of the Heidelberg School artist, Walter Withers, 1854 – 1914. Source: Wikipedia

In the critical period between 1889-90, at a time when Frederick McCubbin and several others were still painting in a conventional style, it has been noted that Withers “was experimenting with a brave and confident impressionistic style” and that “he was probably the first artist to paint major works using techniques of impasto”, (holmes à court Gallery).

When the Heidelberg School artists dispersed to other places after those “Glorious Summers” of the late 80s and early 90s, it was the English born Withers who chose to stay on in the Heidelberg district and paint impressions of the Australian bush while the Australian born Streeton left to paint in foreign fields and the real leader of the Heidelberg School, Tom Roberts was lost to portraiture. Withers alone remained, the sight of his bicycle with canvas and painting box strapped on board becoming a regular sight throughout the Heidelberg district.

Walter Withers’ studio at Cape Street, Heidelberg, c1894.

In 1894, with his wife Fanny and the beginnings of their family of six children, Walt leased another house in Cape St, Heidelberg where he taught painting while maintaining a city studio.

Four years later the Withers family moved again to a new home, “Withers Court” on the corner of Darebin and Hawdon Streets, Heidelberg and it was probably there or at Cape Street that the grown up daughters of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge took painting lessons from him, learning techniques they would bring to their home to paint selected interior joinery at the homestead.

Wragge painted four panel door at Yallambie.

Possibly it was a social as well as an artistic outlet for the Wragge girls. Their mother, Sarah Anne Wragge wrote cryptically and critically in 1898 in a letter that she believed her daughters weren’t learning much about painting under the artist’s supervision.

“So Jessie has finished her paintings at last, and I quite think with you that there must be more talk than work at that studio.” (Sarah Anne Wragge – her underline – quoted by Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales)

The stableyard at Yallambie, c1900 by Sarah Annie Wragge showing the Bakewell era stables on the left and stableyard wall, both now demolished. Laundry building at right. I’m thinking maybe Annie couldn’t paint horses? (Source: Bill Bush collection)
Sarah Annie Wragge hand decorating a door at Yallambie Homestead, c1890. Source: Bill Bush collection

The weather boarded Withers Court house still stands next to the rail tunnel in Heidelberg near to where the current duplication of the rail line between Heidelberg and Rosanna is right now, in a way that is pertinent to this story, reshaping the surrounding landscape. It was the building of the original cutting and rail tunnel under Darebin Street that determined Walt to move his family from Heidelberg in 1903 to a new location in Eltham. A large rock, blasted from the Heidelberg cutting, had crashed through the roof of his studio and damaged the canvas he had been working on, making Walt’s mind up in the process that it was high time to move on.

Southernwood, Walt Withers’ former home on Bolton St, Eltham and the site of a major road reconstruction, November, 2017.
Walt Withers old studio at Southernwood as it appeared during a sale of the home in 2011. Source: Domain
The rail tunnel built under Darebin St, Heidelberg in 1901 and currently in the process of being rebuilt with duplicated line, November, 2017.

The Withers family relocated to “Southernwood”, a small farm set on 2 ½ acres on Bolton St, Eltham opposite the Montmorency Estate where he built a large adjoining studio. Here he spent the last 10 years of his life, famously painting many scenes in and around Eltham while still continuing to roam further afield on his bicycle as the painting mood took him.

Tranquil Winter, Walt Withers, 1895. The house on the ridge is still standing today in Walker Court, Viewbank. This masterpiece was singled out for praise at the time by the eminent British critic, R.A. M. Stevenson, but today is not on general display. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

He was living there, dividing his time by spending weekdays at his city studio and his weekends with his family at Southernwood when one day in 1907 he headed off from Eltham on a painting expedition on the road to Heidelberg. The result of that day, a small, loosely painted plein air oil sketch, which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria alongside some other more well-known and polished Withers’ masterpieces, carries the somewhat misleading title, “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg”. The title has helped to obscure the identity of this sketch for a hundred years as the result of a close inspection of the painting, which is freely available to view online the NGV web site, has only now revealed some rather familiar details.

Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg (sic), 1907, Walt Withers. Source: National Gallery of Victoria
https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/3251/

In 1907 “Heidelberg” would have been a somewhat generic term. The old blue stone, Lower Plenty Road Bridge marked the official separation of Lower Plenty and Main Roads but it was on the Lower Plenty or Main Rd side that Walt appears to have set up his easel that day to paint the sort of rural Australian scene so beloved by him.

Looking north east along Main Rd from the corner of the Plenty Bridge Hotel, from a screen still of original footage of the opening of the Heidelberg Golf Club. The trees on the side of the road pictured here are a feature of Withers “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg” (sic).

The apparently anonymous building in the painting on the left side of the road is on closer study quite obviously a loose interpretation of nothing other than the old Plenty Bridge Hotel, the story of which has been recounted on several occasions within the pages of this blog.

A much later picture of the Golf Club Hotel, AKA, the Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, c1950 but clearly showing the service wing set a right angles to the main buillding.

From the service wing with chimney, set at right angles to the main building, the post and rail fence on the opposite side of the road and the poplars planted at the far end of the building – the details are all there.

John Irwin balancing on Mick Noonan’s motor bike, outside the Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1950. This is perhaps the only known photograph that offers a glimpse of the eastern approach to the old Lower Plenty Road Bridge past the PBH, the direction chosen by Withers in “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg” (sic). Source: the John Irwin family collection

It was a light bulb moment when I was looking at this painting on the NGV web site and realised what I was really looking at. Withers has painted the land fall past the front of the PBH towards the valley of the Lower Plenty River, showing the road stretching towards the approaches of the bridge, hidden by the bend, just as it is today.

It got me thinking and to doing a little reading. Two versions of a biography of Walt Withers written by his widow Fanny have been reproduced in Andrew Mackenzie’s 1987 book, “Walter Withers – The Forgotten Manuscripts”. The longer of these two biographies, somewhat misleadingly titled, “A Short Biography of Walt Withers”, was published by Withers’ fellow Heidelberg School artist Alexander McCubbin in about 1920. Together, the two biographies contain Fanny’s written descriptions of many of her husband’s artworks and reading through them they make for some rather interesting details in the telling.

The Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1928. Panorama made from screen stills of original footage of the opening of the Heidelberg Golf Club. Although this picture is looking in the opposite direction to Withers “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg” (sic) many of the details painted by the artist are discernable here.

In 1907 Withers had painted a major canvas which Fanny called “Springtime on the Lower Plenty”, or “The Valley of the Lower Plenty, Victoria”, the obverse of which contained a replica of another Withers work. The story of the main painting as explained in Fanny’s writing is confusing because she freely interchanges the titles of her husband’s artworks in the context of the two biographies, but from the description “Springtime” was obviously an enlarged, studio version of the NGV oil sketch. I use the third person singular indicative as sadly the painting was destroyed in a devastating bush fire at Eltham on Black Friday, 13 January 1939.

Fortunately another painting of the same subject but painted in the tones of Autumn, “but from another point of view” was started at about the same time as “Springtime” and was worked on by Withers on and off up until the day he died. This painting has been called both “The Return from the Harvest” and “The Valley of the Lower Plenty” which makes for more confusion but Fanny wrote that it was a favourite of the artist and the largest canvas her husband ever worked upon.

“Again a road subject, with three figures, swags on their backs, two together and one following behind, walking with swinging steps towards the small hotel, nestling amongst the trees, at the side of the road. The time is Autumn, and the colouring rich and full toned. This painting is the most romantic of the painter’s work. It was much beloved by him, and it was the last canvas he painted on, the sky being completed by him the day before he was seized by his last attack of illness.” (Fanny Withers writing in “The Life and Work of Walter Withers, Landscape Painter.)

The painting was purchased and gifted to the Geelong Art Gallery which inexplicably today does not keep it on current display. It is some years since I saw the painting in the Geelong gallery myself and my memory of it is vague but clearly from the above description the painting is another image produced from painting expeditions to the countryside around the Plenty Bridge Hotel.

Thumbnail of “The Valley of the Lower Plenty”, Walt Withers. Source: Geelong Gallery
Looking towards Lower Plenty in the 1920s from a viewpoint similar to “The Valley of the Lower Plenty” but much closer to the bridge.

Recent attempts to gain a viewing of the original of this artwork at Geelong have been unsuccessful. The very poor resolution reproduction from the Gallery shown here does not allow for an observation of “the small hotel, nestling amongst the trees” described by Fanny but it does give a general feeling of the landscape on the western approach to the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge. In this painting the trees on the left hand side of the picture mark the southern boundary of Thomas Wragge’s Yallambie and one is left wondering whether the three swagmen returning “from the harvest” and painted by Withers might have been itinerant field workers going for a drink at the Plenty Bridge Hotel after a long day working in the Yallambie fields.

The Plenty Bridge Hotel and the western abutments of the Lower Plenty Road Bridge, c1927. Panorama made from screen stills of original footage of the opening of the Heidelberg Golf Club.
Drawing of Rose Chapel, (St Katherine’s) at St Helena by Victor Cobb, 1935. Withers was buried here in 1914. The building was burned almost to the ground in a bush fire in 1957 but rebuilt. It is interesting to note that the reverse side of this original drawing bears the artist’s inscription describing it as a drawing of “Rose Chapel, St Helena, Eltham”, evidence of how place names like Heidelberg and Eltham were generic district terms used loosely by artists. Private collection

Maybe Walt even dropped by the Homestead that day to pay a visit to his former painting students, heading off with Sarah Annie’s husband, Walter Murdoch for a drink, as was Murdoch’s want, at the Plenty Bridge soon afterwards. It’s a thought.

Plagued by ill health later in life, Walt Withers died at Eltham of cerebral thrombosis on 13th October, 1914 aged just 59 years.

His daughter remembered him as being six feet tall in his socks and solidly built, with brown hair slightly curling at the sides, big, soft, hazel eyes and a large, bushy moustache. He is buried in the church side graveyard at the Rose Chapel (St Katherine’s), St Helena.

Writing in the forward of Andrew Mackenzie’s book, Kathleen Mangan, the daughter of Charles McCubbin wrote of the Heidelberg School artists that:

“…it was a time of freedom of spirit, gaiety, and great artistic and intellectual advancement, a glorious burst of artistic achievement which erupted into flame at the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties, a flame that was all too quickly extinguished by the Outbreak of World War One.”

The Great War was only two months old when Withers died. The artist mantra in the district passed to others, the colonies at Montsavat in Eltham and the Heide Circle at Bulleen becoming just two expressions. A story from the Heidelberg Artists Society of an incident involving artists during the Second War has a certain relevance to the Yallambie story. It is recorded that one day around 1940, two painters had set up their easels in the vicinity of Banyule Rd when a farmer armed with a shotgun and accompanied by a couple of enormous dogs arrived on the scene demanding to know their business. The artists were dressed for painting in Army disposals – slouch hats and blue boiler suits – while from a distance their easels might have been mistaken for surveyors’ tripods.

Army cadets at Camp Q, Watsonia, (Yallambie), 1944. Source:  Australian War Memorial

At that time the Army had just resumed a part of the old Yallambie Estate nearby to create Camp Q (Watsonia), now known as the Simpson Barracks, and the unnamed farmer feared that a survey heralding a forced annexation of his own land was about to take place. Summing up the relative sizes of the farmer’s firearm and the jaws of his hungry hounds, the artists wisely packed away their easels for another day, the decision possibly a loss to art but a gain for rural diplomacy in the district.

YALLAMBEE by George Alexander Gilbert. Source: State Library of Victoria
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VI by E L Bateman 1853-1856. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

The association of the work of Walt Withers with the story of the Yallambie area joins the tradition of the earlier pictures of A E Gilbert and E L Bateman and the writings of Richard and William Howitt and Louisa Anne Meredith. For all that, the work of Walt Withers has fallen somewhat out of favour in recent years. Not one of the paintings he produced in and around the Heidelberg and Eltham districts and that are now in public ownership are currently on display at the galleries. “The Return from the Harvest”, AKA “The Valley of the Lower Plenty”, described by Fanny as “the most romantic of the painter’s work… much beloved by him” and likewise the NGV’s oil sketch “Springtime” must remain therefore, at least for present time, unobserved.

Site of former Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, November, 2014

Heightening this unfortunate circumstance is the reality of the danger posed to the artists’ footsteps by the plans of the North East Link Authority, a subject and side subject of this blog in recent times. The location of the two Walt Withers paintings discussed above stands under direct threat of the potential building of a Corridor B through Yallambie and Lower Plenty. The tranquillity of Walt Withers churchyard grave at St Helena would be broken by the building of a Corridor C. And the implications of Corridor A on the legacy of the Heidelberg School in Banyule goes without saying.

Does anybody care?

His paintings largely forgotten, his Plenty Valley and Heidelberg subjects at risk of being despoiled by the road builders – poor Walt, “The Orderly Colonel” must be turning over in his St Helena grave.

The Big Con of Conurbation

The game is afoot.

Appearing as the harbinger of our doom, the sight of cranes clawing at the Melbourne horizon is an unmistakable sign of a scurrilous attempt to turn the “World’s Most Liveable City” into a “megalopolis” of over 8 million people by the year 2030.

At first glance, the two concepts would appear to be mutually exclusive, but if the crystal gazers are right, it’s a real possibility Melbourne will grow from a city of just under 4 million people at the 2016 census to an astonishing double that number sometime inside the next two decades. The so called Urban Growth Boundary, first sketched onto a map by government 15 years ago, has proved in practice to be a rubbery line that stretches this way and that way according to political whim while the old “Green Wedge” which was supposed to fill the void beyond the boundary with a ring of non-urban land, has been gradually whittled away to little more than half its original size resulting in urban sprawl and the loss of some of our most fertile agricultural lands.

It’s taken 180 years to get to this point but by any reckoning, Melbourne was always a town founded on the unchallenged principle that growth is good for us. From the heady days of the Victorian Gold Rushes and the regular boom and bust of the Real Estate economy, there has only ever been one way – the way forward. Australia has now been without an official recession for 26 years, something the commentators maintain can be counted on as some sort of a world record, but was Paul Keating right when at the start of the last one he described the descending bust as, “the recession we had to have”? Is growth really that good for us?

The pre-emptive actions of the pioneers of Port Phillip in 1835 are probably the nearest Australia ever came to the American way of doing things when it comes to an assessment of our pioneer history. In the United States, government generally took a back seat as the covered wagons rolled out across the Prairie, the settlers founding towns along the way wherever they came to rest, safe in the power that the Second Amendment gave to them to control their own destiny. In the Australian colonies by contrast, settlement was typically occasioned by Government initiative, either by sending convict fleets to the South Seas or by private enterprise supported by Royal decree.

John Batman portrait by William Beckworth McInnes (Source: City of Melbourne Collection )

In Melbourne, things happened slightly differently with the Over Straiters arriving from Van Diemen’s Land in 1835 and the Overlanders coming from New South Wales the following year to found an illegal settlement at Port Phillip, in spite of official Government policy designed to prevent it. Only after the settlement was reasonably well established did Government bow to the pressure of what was by then a fait accompli and sent in administrators armed with the acts and statutes of New South Wales to try to sort it all out. As a result, when it came time for the Roberts Russell and Hoddle to lay out the streets prior to the first land sales, some settlers found the houses they had already erected were standing in a no man’s land in the middle of the proposed roads and would need to be demolished. John Batman’s brother Henry was one who lost his home in this fashion, much to the amusement of the irascible John Pascoe Fawkner, who despised him.

Wragge women folk on a post and rail fence at Yallambie, c1890. (Source: Bill Bush collection)

The Heidelberg district to the north east of Port Phillip was founded around the three way river confluence of the Yarra/Plenty Rivers and Darebin Creek and was one of the first places to be settled outside of Melbourne itself, becoming for a while an almost fashionable location and a desirable neighbourhood for the genteel set. As such it didn’t last long with the absence of a direct railway line and properly maintained roads arresting district development in the second half of the 19th century, but the resulting quiet solitude combined with the natural beauty of the river valleys appealed greatly to those who chose to live there.

“Tranquil Winter”, by Walt Withers, 1895 showing a house which stands today in Walker Court, Viewbank. The Wragge daughters at Yallambie took painting lessons from Withers about this time. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

Sleepy Hollow they called it and when the artists discovered it towards the end of the 19th century, the area became famously the home of an Australian Nationalistic impressionistic art movement, the “Heidelberg School”.

Real estate brochure from the A V Jennings sale of Yallambie Homestead.
The fields of Yallambie prior to the residential subdivision. (Source: Eltham District Historical Society)

The square mile of country that made up the Yallambie region on the north eastern edge of the Heidelberg district remained more or less undisturbed until the second half of the 20th century, wedged in as it was between the towns of Eltham in the east and Greensborough in the north, its lands locked up within the surviving boundaries of Thomas Wragge’s farm and the neighbouring army camp. Yallambie as a suburb developed only after the sale of the 19th century homestead and its remaining farm land to the developer A V Jennings in 1958.

Folding brochure from land auction during subdivision of the Yallambie estate

The process of subdivision was initially slow, commencing in 1966 but by the early 1970s with urban sprawl gathering momentum, the neighbourhood had begun to take shape with roads and landscaping in place and an active district progress association with a dedicated membership operating with effective results.

Folding brochure reversed

Neighbourhood spirit was strong and a firm sense of community was a feature of the area.

A 1978 picture of Moola Close, Yallambie. The proposed NEL Corridor B tunnel would probably emerge at a point to the right of the photographer. (Picture source: Winty Calder)

The 1st Yallambie Scout Group formed and operated out of a hall built and paid for by residents’ initiative while local sporting clubs like the tennis club, soccer club and a junior cricket club, the “Yallambie Sparrows” all called Yallambie home.

River red gum and pond adjacent to Lower Plenty Rd at the Streeton Views estate, Yallambie, March, 2015

The suburb enlarged further at the start of the 1990s when land was carved from the south east end of the Simpson Army Barracks to create the “Streeton Views” estate, the name a real estate developer’s invention that had its basis in the notion that the Heidelberg School artist Arthur Streeton had once painted there. The idea of the subdivision of the Army land had been first mooted in 1986 as a means of supplying low cost housing to Army personnel but in the end, when the developers came on board, housing for the Army was limited to a few street locations around Crew Street, paid for by the sale of land to the public in other locations. No doubt for a while it proved to be a nice little earner for those developers lucky enough, or well-connected enough, to get themselves on board.

Adastra Airways aerial survey photograph of the Yallambie/Lower Plenty district in 1945 showing a predominantly rural landscape.
Aerial survey photograph made of a still some what undeveloped Yallambie area prior to 1971.
Aerial survey photograph of the Yallambie area in 1981 before the development of “Streeton Views” and “The Cascades”.
Aerial survey photograph of the Plenty River at Yallambie, 2017.

The subdivision at Streeton Views was initially opposed by the Yallambie Progress Association as a matter of principle, it being felt at the time that if Army land was going to be released it should be used to create park land and not an addition to the existing housing estate. A public reserve and the artificial lakes between Arthur Streeton Drive and Lower Plenty Road were arrived at as something of a compromise but the changing of the name of the local primary school from Yallambie PS to Streeton PS and subsequent loss of the Community Hall to the Education Department became a sore point. The developers at Streeton Views were selling blocks advertised as being in proximity to a primary school and the name was changed under the guise of a school merger although the reality was that it fitted nicely with the developer’s business model. The old wooden pole sign at the corner of Yallambie and Lower Plenty Roads which had been there from the start announcing the identity of the estate as “Yallambie” was removed about this time and the more permanent inscription “Streeton Views” was set into stone retaining walls on Arthur Streeton Drive and The Grange in a move further designed to confuse people.

At the start of the new century surplus land that had been previously reserved for an SEC substation adjacent to the Yallambie/Streeton Primary School was subdivided into another new estate, this time carrying the appellation, “The Cascades” with water pumped up and down a nearby gully occasionally to create the fantasy land of a fast flowing mountain stream. Many fine, modern homes have been built within the new Yallambie estates with one house in Macalister Boulevard setting a new price record for the suburb at a sale earlier this year.

Entrance to “The Cascades” at Yallambie, October, 2017. The proposal for NEL Corridor B would take a road underground through the electrical easement in this picture.

This sort of subdivision activity is being repeated all across Melbourne these days with the resulting urbanization and infrastructure pressures leading to the population estimates mentioned at the start of this post. Towns like Whittlesea further up the Plenty River were supposed to sit outside the Urban Growth Corridor within the Green Wedge but the rapid rise of new suburbs along Plenty Road has seen Whittlesea now almost absorbed into the metropolitan sprawl in a process known as “conurbation”, a concept first promulgated at the time of the start of the First World War but perfected only after the Second.

Elizabeth Street, Melbourne in 1847 looking north past the Collins Street corner. (Source: Tinted lithograph by J. S. Prout, National Library of Australia)

Robert Hoddle produced a classic 19th century rectangular street grid for Melbourne, the wide avenues named after a motley collection of Port Phillip identities, politicians, Royalty and Vice Royalty. The main north south road, east of the town was named after Hoddle himself and for motorists stuck in the grid lock on Hoddle Street today the question probably is, why did Hoddle create a city plan without an orbital route around the city centre? The answer of course is that Melbourne was laid out long before such questions were ever an issue and the present situation where the Eastern Freeway finishes at a dead end at Hoddle Street has only compounded the original problem.

Which brings us back in a roundabout sort of way to what has been most lately on my mind, the North East Link. Without proper road reserves the four alternative routes would each require tunneling and a buyback of houses that might have brought a smile to John Fawkner or a frown to Henry Batman in another era. A mail out to every household in the City of Banyule last month cost ratepayers an alleged $110,000 and included a letter describing the four corridors and Council’s grave concerns about the impact of the Corridor A (Viewbank) proposal. The letter also makes the point that the Corridor B (Yallambie) and Corridor C (Eltham) proposals would connect the Western Ring Road with East Link at the aptly named Ring-wood. The letter was signed by the Mayor of Banyule and the last paragraph sums up the situation: “Council has long recognised the need to complete Melbourne’s Ring Road as a direct orbital link from the Metropolitan Ring Road to Eastlink at Ringwood…”

A 1994 map of Melbourne’s road network with missing links indicated and no suggestion of a “Corridor B” poposal. From a Vicroads publication “Linking Melbourne”, February, 1994.

In other words, Banyule Council supports the concept of Corridor B equally as much as Corridor C as a viable alternative to bad, bad Corridor A! The scenic railway of the Corridor D (Kangaroo Ground) proposal has already been ruled out by most pundits which leaves Corridor B looking increasingly like an unlikely NEL compromise between Corridors A and C, routes which have been strongly opposed by Banyule and Nillumbik respectively. Let’s face it, when it comes to opposing Corridor B through Yallambie and Lower Plenty, we are on our own as the letter from the Mayor of Banyule makes quite clear.

Lower Plenty Road in 1914, south west of the Rosanna Rd intersection. (Source: Picture Victoria, Heidelberg Historical Society image).

At a meeting at the old Heidelberg Town Hall last month, during a long discourse about the limitations of Corridor A, the Mayor made the fair point that something needs to be done because Rosanna Road, the current de facto orbital link, was well, “full”. Yes, it’s full but it’s not just Rosanna Rd that’s full. The reality is that it’s the planet that is full and we have only been adding to the problem. I might be in a minority but I’m sure I’m not alone in not wanting any of these road proposals built. The ongoing need to build more freeways is a symptom of the problem but not the problem in itself.  With desalination plants needed to provide our society with drinking water and a conurbation of towns and cities fast consuming our arable land surfaces, mankind has not been kind to the planet it calls home. When those covered wagons wheeled out across the Prairie in the 19th century it seemed that there were no limits to the horizon but the reality today is so much more uncertain.

Marco Amati from the RMIT Centre for Urban Research was quoted in a story in “Domain” last week saying that the greening efforts of local governments had not been as effective as hoped and that with a major decline in canopy coverage, “As they lose vegetation, urban areas start to act like heat sponges.”

To digress along this line, consider for a moment the case of a remote Pacific island, Ocean (or Banaba) Island, an elevated speck of rock within the island nation of Kiribati, (pronounced “Kiribus”). Just 10km in circumference, Ocean Island had been home to a British phosphate mining industry for the first ¾ of the 20th century leaving its hinterland a scarred moonscape when I saw it during a prolonged visit some years ago, denuded of both vegetation and the tribal society that once called the island home.

Early 20th century photograph of Banabans in traditional dress on Ocean (Banaba) Island. (Source: A St. C Compton collection)

The shameful plight of the Banabans is a long and compelling story, too long for these pages, but suffice to say that the exiled locals now live mostly on a completely different island in the Fiji group. Meanwhile the ecological fate of their homeland is to my mind the story of our planet in a microcosm. The Island is infamous for its droughts and so much vegetation was eventually removed from it that when rain clouds approached the island, it was recorded that the clouds would separate around the pulsating heat emanating from the denuded rock surfaces to join up again on the other side, dropping all the while their much needed rain into the ocean. This claim might seem far-fetched, but the mining industry on the island had a desalination plant operating on the island long before Victoria ever needed one.

I’m not pretending that there’s an answer. You wanna planet of 7½ billion people and counting, you need cities to put ’em in and roads to get them around.  That nutcase in North Korea reckons he has the answer to having too many people on the planet, but his answer isn’t really an answer and would destroy the planet itself.

The English animator Steve Cutts summed it up poignantly in 2012 with his environmentalist message, “Man”. The prospect of a flying saucer arriving to mete out primary justice to mankind might raise a Golgafrinchan style smile right now, but without flying saucers to make good our escape, a smile may be the only thing we have left one day on this “Pale Blue Dot”.

Telling tales of life in the suburb, it's history, homes and hyperbole

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