Some games require a considerable investment in sporting equipment. Others can be played on the fingers of one hand. One game in popular culture is famously played on thrones, but of all games there is one that beats them all hands down when it comes to capital expenditure in real estate terms.
Golf – it’s been par for the course with players since knobbly kneed Scotsmen first started hitting a Featherie around the Highland moors with a big stick. It is a game that has uniquely always required a real lot of realty to establish all the holes and fairways and the bunkers and greens that are part and parcel of making up a golfing links and therefore, perhaps not surprisingly, the district around Yallambie has usually been pretty well supplied with golfing options.
Of these options, the Grace Park course to the north “…all sand scrapes… you could lose your ball on the fairway,” (Eric Barclay), vanished 50 years ago into the suburban sprawl but of the others, the Heidelberg and Rosanna Golf Clubs, whose names seem to contravene their Lower Plenty existence, have happily endured to the south.
The early story of the land on which these two Lower Plenty courses now stand was recounted in the last post, largely through the words of James Willis who kept a diary of his brother Edward’s squatting activities on the Plenty River in 1837. That brief squatting era was over before anyone quite noticed it had happened and the Willis brothers moved on, Edward to an eventual career in Geelong and Richard onto the Plenty River upstream. Following their departure the land on the west bank passed from 1842 into the hands of John and Robert Bakewell at “Yallambee”, but what of the land on the east bank, on the ground that made up the greater part of the Willis run?
That story resumes in 1839 with the survey of land east of the river by Assistant Surveyor T H Nutt and its subsequent sale in 1840 by the Crown. Portion 11, which covered most of the present Lower Plenty area, passed through the hands of various speculators before it was bought by Patrick Turnbull, a Melbourne merchant and pastoralist. Although Turnbull did not live on his land he did clear, fence and stock it.
In the early 50s, the Lower Plenty end of Turnbull’s east bank property was purchased by John T Brown who established the Preston Hall estate of 365 acres on which he practiced dairying and general agriculture. Brown had come to Australia in 1841 and was reputed to be the first man in Victoria to breed Clydesdale horses.
In 1855 Brown built a homestead on a ridge overlooking the (Old) Lower Plenty Rd Bridge. It featured a large, overhanging red flagged and plaster lined verandah on three sides with door and window openings to the floor and was well constructed from handmade, slop sided bricks purchased by Brown on the Melbourne wharves. These bricks had been brought to Port Phillip from Scotland as ballast in the clipper ships and similar bricks had been used across the river in outbuildings at nearby Yallambee. It would be interesting to know now whether Brown and the Bakewells, who were near neighbours and whose houses were within sight of each other across the Plenty valley, purchased some of their bricks in partnership.
In the 1870s, after the local population petitioned for a State school to be opened at Lower Plenty, John Brown offered the lease of an existing slab hut on his property for use as a school building which opened there in 1874. The building must have been pretty unsatisfactory for the purpose and was replaced in 1877 after being described in that year by the Lower Plenty school teacher, Mrs Gay, as large enough to accommodate only a dozen children.
“The slabs which compose the sides of the building are all one and two inches apart, and the shingles of the roof are so decayed that there are holes in it one and two feet in circumference.” (Elizabeth Gay quoted by W F Henderson in School at the Crossing Place, 1974).
This hut is recorded as having been located near what is now the south corner of Old Eltham and Main Roads and from these descriptions it was obviously already an old building in 1877. Was it therefore the shingle roof slab hut built by the Willis brothers 40 years before? Slab buildings were a common form of primitive utilitarian architecture, much favoured in the earliest years of the Colony, but it is an intriguing speculation all the same. As stated in the last post, after leaving Lower Plenty James Willis relocated to the original Bridge Inn on the Plenty River crossing at Mernda, a building that was of similarly rude construction. Last month it was announced that Heritage Victoria is conducting an archaeological dig at the Willis site which is expected to “shed light on Mernda’s rich heritage and help us understand land use and early community development in the area.” (Yan Yean State MP Danielle Green, quoted in the Whittlesea Leader, 16 June, 2017). Perhaps the archaeological boffins could be persuaded to come and have a similar prod around this neck of the woods one of these days, sometime soon.
In 1884, Brown sold Preston Hall to David Thomas, a partner in Craig, Williamson and Thomas, well-known drapers on the corner of Flinders and Elizabeth Streets, Melbourne. Thomas died shortly afterwards but in 1887 his widow, Mary Thomas realized their ambitions by building a new and substantial red brick home standing adjacent to Brown’s then 30 year old homestead and which was connected to it by a breezeway. Mary Thomas called the new homestead Bryn Teg, a Welsh name meaning “small hills” and its 10ft wide halls, lofty rooms, polished joinery and large lead lighted windows were complemented by a substantial blackwood staircase overlooked by a stained glass window, all of which bespoke luxury.
The widow Thomas has been described as a Scottish, “rather prim, stout lady” who lived on quietly at Bryn Teg for the next 40 years. Near the end of her life the Lower Plenty School reopened with a class room inside an old freestone barn building located behind Preston Hall and a former pupil would later recall that the old lady made sweets for the school children in groups:
“We would all eventually get a turn. In the hot weather she would make home-made lemon syrup.” (Henderson, ibid)
Mary Thomas died at Bryn Teg in August, 1925 and the homestead was put onto the market by her executors. At that time the “Heidelberg Club House Co Ltd”, which had been formed from the earlier Yarra Yarra Golf Club at Rosanna, was looking for a home for a new golf links north of the Yarra. In 1927 they paid £13,000 for the late Mrs Thomas’ home which also included 177 acres of land and famously the freehold title on the nearby Plenty Bridge Hotel.
A new course was laid out and opened on 23rd June, 1928 by the Prime Minister Stanley Bruce who on that day congratulated the club for the absence of any suggestions of golfing snobbery and for its stated ambition to “encourage ordinary players”. Over the years various modifications at Byn Teg were made by the Heidelberg Golf Club to fulfil their clubhouse requirements in a changing world. Preston Hall vanished altogether while other than some surviving interior wood work, tiled fire surrounds and lead light, Bryn Teg all but disappeared under these modern alterations.
The Heidelberg GC was formed from the Yarra Yarra GC and that last mentioned club, with a few ups and downs, continued at its 101 acre site alongside the railway line between Rosanna and Macleod stations for the next 30 years, changing its name to the Rosanna Glen or Rosanna Golf Club along the way. However, in a process that has continually plagued the viability of golf links in the suburbs, in 1962 after rates and taxes increased in one year from £3000 to £10,000, the land at Rosanna was considered to be too valuable for the club to continue on that site. A decision was made to sell the Rosanna situation and 139 replacement acres were selected just down river from the Heidelberg GC astride the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers. This was the south-east corner of George Porter’s old Cleveland Estate, owned at that time by the Bartram and Rank families. Negotiations were cordial and conducted between the Manager of the Rosanna Club, Norm Turnbull and the vendors with a nod and a handshake.
“Mrs Bartram, when a verbal agreement was reached between them, accepted a gentleman’s word as his bond, but he felt money should change hands to make the negotiations legal, and Mrs Bartram then consented to accept ‘sixpence’ to seal the contract” (The Rosanna Golf Club, W R Trewarne, 1980)
One wonders if that earlier Turnbull, the 1840s Patrick (probably no relation), conducted his real estate dealings in a similar easy fashion.
The new home of the Rosanna GC was opened by the State Governor of Victoria, General Sir Dallas Brookes on 27th March, 1965. The final cost of the course and clubrooms at Lower Plenty would ring in at about £125,000 with Heidelberg Council eventually coughing up $975,000 in 1968 for the former Rosanna links to be developed as a housing estate.
As an aside relevant to these pages, when the old Yarra Yarra/Rosanna Club House at Rosanna was demolished during the development of the Rosanna Golf Links estate, salvaged bricks from the building were used to build the Yallambie Kindergarten (now pre-school). The Yallambie Community Association had been involved with Heidelberg Council in the creation of the kindergarten project and money being short, local councillor and architect Harry Pottage, sourced second hand building materials from the former golf links at Rosanna. The Rosanna club house at Lower Plenty burned to the ground in 1974 and afterwards was completely rebuilt so in a sense the memory of what was once their first club rooms lives on at Yallambie.
The net result of the presence of these two golf courses at Lower Plenty has been the retention of hundreds of acres of Willis’ former run as open land, but in the face of economic change, how soon will it be before this situation becomes untenable? The decision by Heidelberg Golf Club nearly 20 years ago to sell the former site of the Plenty Bridge Hotel which resulted in a fight with the developer over the building of Edward Willis Court, eventually landed in a hearing at VCAT where it was revealed that the decision to sell had been governed largely by financial pressures facing the club.
More recently over at the Yarra Valley Country Club in Bulleen owned by pokies king Bruce Mathieson, an ex mayor of Manningham and developer, Charles Pick has revealed a plan to build a 217 home housing estate in what can only be described as a slight of hand where it is proposed that private golf course land subject to flooding along the river would be exchanged for public land in a prime position along Templestowe Rd. At the same time and in a worrying sign of things to come, the Victorian State government announced a new study to look at “the value of golf courses and alternative land use development proposals”, the reality of which may mean moving the boundary of the “Green Wedge” beyond the urban fringe to release land currently locked up in golf courses.
It’s all part of a property boom in Melbourne that is not without its parallel in history. In the 1880s, prior to an economic collapse that ravaged the Colonial economy and sent many people to the wall, society marvelled at the changes that had occurred in Melbourne in the 50 short years since settlement. “Marvellous Melbourne” they called it and to the people who lived through it, there seemed to be no end in sight to their prosperity or to the growth of the city founded in 1835 on the banks of the Yarra River by the Johns, Pascoe Fawkner and Batman.
The current bull market in Melbourne real estate reads like a road map of that old story as an unfailing belief in the safety of capital in bricks and mortar drives change in the built landscape of the city and suburbs. Here in the north east, multi-purpose towers in Heidelberg and Doncaster and the $31 million “Taj Mahal” Council building in Greensborough are part and parcel of a boom where fortunes are being made but apparently never lost and where it is hard to remember sometimes not only what was on a corner last year, but occasionally even last week.
In concert with this process the prices of existing houses soar in a spiral driven largely by a foreign investment bubble that continues to exclude many first home buyers while eluding approximately one third of people in general. Clearance rates at auctions in the north east are running at above 80% and when REA Group Ltd released its “Group Property Demand Index” for June, listing the Australian suburbs judged by it to be in highest demand nationwide, Yallambie was recorded at number 6 overall. Seriously? When I saw this reported on the television news last month I had to do a double take. Even a triple take. The data is based on views of property listings on realestate.com.au but the first sentence from the very first post on this blog in August, 2014 came back to haunt me:
“The glazed look that creeps across a face when you tell someone you live in Yallambie is the motivation behind this blog.”
Where’s Yallambie? Perhaps they meant a Yallambie in some other State? Or maybe on another planet?
But no, a new record for Yallambie was recorded last month when a modern home at Macalister Boulevard inside the “Streeton Views” subdivision sold for a staggering $1.67 million, $430,000 beyond the reserve. The agent for the sale said afterwards that the price was more reflective of sales in Heidelberg, Macleod and Viewbank.
“I think that Yallambie has been undervalued for a long time,” Mr Kurtschenko said. “When you compare it to the surrounding suburbs, you can get a lot more for your money.” (Heidelberg Leader, 13 June, 2017)
The median house price in Yallambie according to CoreLogic remains at $715,000, less than all of the neighbouring suburbs bar one. Rosanna ($980,000), Viewbank ($922,500), Lower Plenty ($905,000), Macleod ($830,000), Montmorency ($782,500) and Greensborough ($720,000) all have greater median prices than Yallambie. Only Watsonia ($701,500) has less.
Banyule Council has always treated Yallambie like the poor relation that these figures would imply. The road works on the corner of Yallambie Rd and Tarcoola Drive described in my April post have now been “finished” but as this photograph indicates, the road makers have asked water to run up hill. The nearest storm water drain is south along Yallambie road up a slight incline and near enough is no doubt good enough when it comes to Yallambie. Maybe the sale in Macalister Boulevard will change their perspective, but I think not.
Meanwhile over at the other end of town, the ghost of Mary Thomas looks on and sips her lemonade with presentiment as deals are made and developers decide which part of the green sward they will cut up next. The immortal PG Wodehouse was writing with an ironic understanding of a game he loved, but might well have been thinking about developers when he wrote:
“He enjoys that perfect peace, that peace beyond all understanding, which comes to its maximum only to the man who has given up golf.” (PG Wodehouse –The Clicking of Cuthbert)
“The Plenty he described as a rivulet of fine water, but running through a deep ravine which made access difficult. He considered the land very favourable for sheep runs.” – D S Garden describing Governor Sir Richard Bourke’s assessment of the Plenty River from a visit Bourke made in March, 1837, (Heidelberg – The Land and Its People, MUP)
If the Wurundjeri were relieved to escape from the 1835 “treaty” with John Batman in which they had allegedly ceded a country half the size of greater Melbourne for a few blankets, tomahawks and mirrors, they might well have taken a moment to look at the fine print of Governor Bourke’s pro bono reasoning.
It was not the obvious inequity of the “deal” that unsettled Bourke but his belief that the Wurundjeri Aboriginals did not “own” the land on which they stood and on which their ancestors had roamed bare foot for tens of thousands of years. His reasoning was that in real estate terms, it was not by rights theirs to sell. The devil was in the detail of this decision for in the process of making it, with the single stroke of a pen it removed the last obstacle to an inevitable and inexorable influx of British settlers to the Port Phillip District. As a direct result of Bourke’s decree, pastoralists armed doubly with muskets and the notion of terra nullius came across the Straits from Van Diemen’s Land and overland from greater NSW seeking new pastures for their flocks in this reportedly “unoccupied” territory. The open, fertile and well-watered country they found waiting for them around the Yarra and Plenty River valleys was an attractive proposition to these men who, for a £10 annual licence fee, could occupy as much Wurundjeri country as they then thought fit.
One of the earliest of these pastoralists was Edward (Ned) Willis whose story as a squatter on the lower reaches of the Plenty River in 1837 has been briefly mentioned in these pages previously. Edward was a young man, not yet turned 21 when he arrived with his brother and uncle and more than 600 sheep in the surf at Pt Gellibrand in Port Phillip Bay on 13 April, 1837. Edward and his brother James had been driven away from their home in Van Diemen’s Land after James quarrelled with their father, Richard Willis of Wanstead in the island’s north. Edward soon brought his sheep to the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers where he created a sheep run which stood opposite or perhaps even bordered land that would later form the south eastern part of Yallambie.
What has not been mentioned previously in these pages is that Edward’s brother, James Willis, kept a diary for five months while pursuing these endeavours. As a document written mostly on the east bank of the lower Plenty, it makes an exceptional companion piece to the “Farm Day Book” kept by the land owning settler William Greig on the west bank at Yallambie three years later. Similarly its content stands as a counterpoint to the description of Willis’ run made by Thomas Walker in his 1838 published account, “A Month in the Bush of Australia”. Like Greig’s story, James diary is filled with the thoughts and frustrations of a well born young man struggling to come to terms with a rough existence in the Australian bush and it remains as a fascinating glimpse into the life of one of our earliest Port Phillip pioneers. The extracts used here are reproduced from the Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 6 where the diary was published in its entirety.
The diary starts on 9 April, 1837 with the brothers Edward and James Willis and their Uncle, Arthur Willis embarking on the voyage across the Straits from Van Diemen’s Land to Port Phillip where they came ashore on the 13th. Uncle Arthur left the party soon after to arrange his return to Van Diemen’s Land while Edward and James led their shepherds, John Stockly and John Fletcher, by a circuitous route north of the settlement to the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers which they reached on the 18th led there by “Old Tom”, a shepherd working for another squatter, John Wood.
18th April, 1837
Edward and I with our guns started on foot to woods about a mile off, where we procured the assistance of old Tom the shepherd, who conducted us to a creek about two miles off running in a northerly direction. We pursued its course for three miles and found it to be a permanent steam.
We crossed it and came to our present one, which although rather thickly timbered we have every reason to be satisfied with. It is bounded in the South and the East by the Yarra. The stream I have alluded to forms its western boundary (which we call Edward’s Rivulet, but I perceive the surveyors have on their charts dignified it by the name of the ‘River Plenty’), while on the North we have a forest called by us Epping Forest.
Such is the spot selected by Edward for his place of residence for four or five years at the least, when it is hoped he will be able to leave this savage life and move once more among civilised beings…
His employment here during the day is that of a common labourer, and at night he is in momentary dread of losing all he possesses in the world by the attacks of the wild dogs of the country, his ears being alternately regaled with their hideous howls and yells, the squeaking of the flying squirrels, the corkscrew-like noise of the possums and the gloomy monotonous note of that frightful bird the ‘Mow Pork’, which “concord of sweet sound” is not unfrequently accompanied by the reports of our firearms and the shouts of ourselves and men to frighten the dogs from us.
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were employed in erecting a yard at Wanstead, the run (so called after a place of that name known to us in Van’s Land) and clearing a ford over Edward’s Rivulet.
James’ estimate that they had travelled three miles upriver before crossing the Plenty would seem to place them squarely opposite Yallambie. However, it is likely that this estimate and other distances mentioned later by James are a little inaccurate, especially when considering the trouble likely encountered moving alongside the unmapped river and struggling through forest and a still virgin countryside. The west bank of the Plenty upriver from the Yarra confluence is overlooked by a steep escarpment so it makes sense that they travelled some distance before attempting a crossing. It seems more than likely that the first crossing place therefore was south of Yallambie at the ford near the end of Martin’s Lane which would over the next few years become the first access route into Eltham and beyond. Edward and James apparently were working in advance of their shepherds since the crossing with the flock and the horse and cart was not attempted until the 22nd.
22nd April, 1837
Set out from Wanstead – reached the ford – crossed with the sheep but found the banks too steep to get the horse and cart over. With spades, axes and tomahawks we commenced digging away the bank on each side, but finding at noon that we still had a day’s work before us, we walked the horse over and carried the contents of the cart across. We then loaded the empty cart by means of a rope into the stream and fastened the horse to it on the opposite side with ropes and traces.
This plan failed as the horse had no power of draught, so we were forced to pull it out the best way we could. This method succeeded, though not until we had been tugging and pushing and bursting ourselves for about three hours. This Herculean labour being accomplished, we reloaded the cart and ascended the first rising ground, when we found about a quarter of a mile from the ford, the yard which Edward and Stockly had built the day previous.
Erected our tarpaulin into a sort of gipsy-looking affair to shelter us from the dews of heaven, and after a hearty meal of damper, bacon and tea we lay down to rest, and although our sleeping place consisted but of the rudest possible contrivance, and in a country equally wild looking, we both declared in the morning that we had had visions of feasting and dancing, of splendid apartments, of beautiful women and of delicious music flitting before us all night.
I could hardly avoid a slight shudder when I first awoke to see a huge mass of food lying close to me, which one of the men with a beard ten days old asked for, calling it ‘the damper’. Verily it was a damper to the delicate state of my feelings at that instant, but it was but for an instant, for I presently commenced an attack upon it myself and thought it very good feeding for a beggar as I then was, and still am…
James’ diary makes many references to their food resources, or rather lack of them, and to his “beggarly” status. On the 23rd April he “caught half a dozen very fine black fish, decidedly the most delicious fish I ever tasted”, and on the 4th May he ate an eel which Edward had caught in the river, “our bacon being all expended.” A sickly ewe had earlier been butchered and although it “proved very poor meat”, “Fletcher made us sea pies of it so long as it lasted, a great treat to us.” On the 15th May they enjoyed another “very splendid sea pie” the preparation and eating of which was described in the following way.
…Viz, two kangaroo rats, two quails, four parrots, one wattle bird, two satin birds (of the magpie species) and a few slices of pork.
It was served up in a large black iron pot and was most delicious – poor Ned was filling his plate a second time. He took some pains to select the most savoury morsels and was just emptying the last spoonful of gravy when the log on which his plate rested slipped and its contents were deposited on a heap of ashes, and great was the laughing at the fall thereof, the dogs being the only animals benefited by the display of Ned’s taste in helping himself…
The destruction of Edward’s meal on this occasion wasn’t the only such instance of loss recorded in the diary. Al fresco dining at their camp was a matter of necessity and not a matter of choice.
Dull and miserable – at supper this evening Fletcher made sundry attempts to light the lamp before he could succeed. The night was dark and cloudy and there was some wind. The light resisted the puffs of wind until we had all seated ourselves round the table when to infinite confusion, and as I was in the act of cutting a slice of pork, out went the light, away flew the candlestick, which Fletcher had perched upon a huge tin dish and had placed on the weather side of it a board, by way of protecting the luminary from sudden gusts – I rose with the laudable desire of assisting Fletcher in re-lighting the lamp, for I saw that his stock of patience was nearly gone, my knee struck the table which was not proof against this unexpected shock, it gave a lurch, tottered, and fell, when the pannikins of tea, the pork, damper and rice, together with the plates and knives and forks were all thrown in wild disorder all around us.
The wind now abated considerably and we succeeded in keeping the lamp alight which revealed to our view a most delectable chaos. A scramble ensued, in which the dogs persisted in joining, and it was with difficulty that we managed to satisfy ourselves with the fragments rescued from their devouring jaws.
House-keeping in the absence of a kitchen, or for that matter a house, could be a bit of a hit and miss affair. James described the trial of their situation thus:
…It would amuse some of our friends in Van Diemen’s Land to take a peep at us. We take our meals in the open air unless the rain be so violent as to wash the tin plates and pannikins off the table, which cannot be put upon legs until placed in the hut we propose to commence next week – it is at present supported by four logs about six inches from the ground, one of which, the thickest, serves us as a seat on one side.
Our fire is in front of us with a kettle of tea, tea pots being superfluous at Port Phillip. We are surrounded by three or four hungry dogs watching for a mouthful. There is a lump of salt pork in a tin dish, and a damper weighing about twenty pounds, sometimes relieved by a few birds and fish, the latter very seldom now. The men sleep under the tarpaulin, which also protects from the weather a cask of pork and divers other stores.
Our tent is pitched a few yards off, one side is piled high with flour, sugar, tobacco, and our two trunks placed one on the other, form a dressing table covered by a thing intended to look white, its original colour, but being spotted with ink, gunpowder and a variety of other ingredients which have occasionally dropped thereon, together with drops of rain and marks of dust, it would at present be a hard task to convey to anyone the pleasing diversity of colour it presents to the admiring eye of the beholder. We think at some future period of getting it washed.
Our mattresses are laid on the ground, each with a gun case along its side by way of uniformity. A sheep skin serves for the carpet, a trunk of books for a chair, a bag of soiled linen at night keeps the door closed. My writing desk is now my pillow and I am half reclining, half sitting at it. If I am in want of a bright thought, I have only to turn to the right and cast them on a bar of soap or a bag of sugar.
Sleeping beside their gun cases, the brothers’ firearms were apparently always near at hand and it seems, at least by the evidence presented in the diary, were almost constantly in use. In part, the diary reads like a litany of terror for the native birds and wildlife of the lower Plenty as they shot at virtually anything that moved in the surrounding neighbourhood, all of which seems to have gone into their cooking pots. On the 17th May James wrote that they, “Had a stew of birds for supper – capital tho’ it would have been all the better flavoured with ketchup.”
On the 24th James was practicing his shooting on a stationary target when he experienced a mishap while using a small pistol.
…On Sunday while Edward was in town I amused myself for half an hour by practicing at a target with a pistol, cleaned and reloaded it. Took the pocket pistol – found difficulty in pulling the trigger – loaded a second time with buck shot. The pistol burst in my hand, the lock and barrel flying in one side behind me, leaving nothing but the stock (split across the trigger) within my grasp – fortunate to escape – might have caused my sudden exit from this world of woe.
This happened on the Sunday but significantly James took three days before he wrote about his brush with death in the diary. Instead, what he did write about the following day was a description of his bitter feelings towards his estranged father Richard Willis and the family feud in Van Diemen’s Land that had resulted in their exile and which had caused James so much personal unhappiness.
This state of things cannot last. Some fearful crisis is at hand. Some impending calamity awaits our family. I dread to conjecture when any father’s unnatural conduct will have an end – he has driven all his sons from his roof… but I grow disgusted at the very remembrance of it – I have already polluted this sheet of paper with the name of a father who loathes the sight of his child – of a husband who does anything but honour and protect his wife, who outrages her feelings and strives by every possible means to render her home as miserable as it should be happy…
The near death experience with the exploding pistol had caused James more than a little self-reflection. His father, Richard was by some reports a somewhat “difficult” man. The Australian Dictionary of Biography states that Richard Willis managed to quarrel with most of his neighbours in northern Van Diemen’s Land in the 1820s and 30s and also that, “unpopularity may have been a factor in his decision to return to England,” permanently in February 1839. Whatever the cause of Richard’s quarrel with his son, there is no doubt that it affected the boy deeply.
…Ned and I smoked a cigar and retired for the night. Talked of friends in Van Diemen’s Land. I lay thinking until three o’clock in the morning – went to sleep – dreamed I was not a beggar.
As stated previously, James refers to his beggarly status on several occasions in the diary, displaying a wry sense of humour in this self-assessment and describing his pecuniary problems with the following diary entries.
…Some are born under a lucky star, and some an unlucky star. None of the former could possibly have been shining at my introduction into life. An income of some four or five thousands a year would make this world to me a very beautiful world, but as it is I have ever found it as much the reverse as possible…
And this entry two weeks later, although by this time his money needs would appear to have almost doubled:
I was very industrious – sitting on a bucket turned upside down and watching the embers of the fire, thinking of a thousand things, I often am inclined to think there must be some mistake about my present condition. I fancy I could spend so amazingly well an income of five or ten thousands. What a delightful thing it is to have a command of money. How easy it would be to make people patronise you. What an excellent nice fellow I should become all at once. The magical influence of that same filthy lucre is truly surprising. I believe I never shall be a rich man – I have a sort of presentiment that it cannot be. I shall never be able to do more than earn a subsistence – drag on a mediocre kind of existence without having any very beautiful visions to look back upon, such as delicious music, captivating women, grand and mighty cities and a thousand pleasures and enjoyments that can be procured by money and when once seen one may almost live upon the remembrance of them.
It’s has been said said that money isn’t everything but at times James wrote of a desire to remove himself completely from his current situation:
Very wet. Drawing logs for the sheep yard. Hard work, as well as dirty, lifting those same logs. Smoked a cigar, went to bed – wished myself anywhere but at Port Phillip.
And a few weeks later he wrote again, this time wishing himself back in London while sarcastically contrasting his dreams with his daytime labours and the “intellectual conversation” of their shepherds:
…Our ears were regaled some two or three hours with the highly intellectual conversation of John Fletcher and John Stockly the shepherds. Warmed my toes. Went to rest much edified – dreamed of Aborigines – building chimneys –sheep – split stuff – and London.
The joys of living under canvas through a Port Phillip winter quickly palled on the Willis brothers. James was at the settlement in Melbourne, “which at present consists entirely of turf and weather boarded huts, a very primitive looking place” and staying at John Pascoe Fawkner’s board and lodging house where Fawkner’s “one-eyed, genteel wife makes things as comfortable as one can expect,” eating her “curry which was of rabbit and certainly excellent”, when a terrific storm hit the District. James in Melbourne wrote that “the thunder and lightning (was) the most terrific I ever witnessed. I congratulated myself on being comfortably housed and thought of poor Ned at the Inn.” Edward’s own subsequent tale of the confusion at their Plenty River camp was duly recorded in the diary by James:
He said it must have been about ten o’clock when in a sound sleep he was awoke by a desperate rush in the sheep fold. At the same instant he heard the two men shouting and hallooing in the most vehement manner, and one flash of lightning which illuminated the tent was followed by a deafening clap of thunder. He sprang from his bed expecting to find all the sheep scattered and an easy prey for the dogs, for so dark was it that you could not see beyond your nose.
The first thing he did was to cheer the men by his voice. Another blaze of lightning for some moments blinded all three of them and they reeled about insensible. Fletcher ran against a tree, a branch of which had wellnigh ripped his bowels open, and then measured his length on the ground where he lay several minutes in momentary expectation of being swallowed up by the earth. Stockly at a short distance from the yard called Fletcher to open the gate, for he thought he was driving the sheep before him, when undeceived he ran up to the fire and enquired ‘whose fire that was’, his hair literally stood on end, he was in his shirt and presented a picture of the most unutterable despair.
During the time the rain descending, the wind blowing and the repeated peals of thunder was such as to appal the heart of a lion. Fully convinced that the wild dogs had got among the sheep the men shouted, yelled and uttered every variety of noise to frighten them away. They both behaved uncommonly well throughout, but such was the tremendous war of the elements that they anticipated nothing short of an earthquake as they declared to me afterwards.
Suddenly it became fair and they found that Master Bush, one of the sheep dogs, in his alarm had jumped in among the sheep as if he sought shelter from them during the dreadful convulsion. Edward stood some minutes at the door of his tent and on reviewing the scene he had just witnessed could scarcely refrain from laughing when he saw the two men in their shirts running about like maniacs they knew not whither with their hair standing on end and bawling, squalling, shouting and screaming in the most frightful manner and falling prostrate on the ground, and then tumbling over a log. Another, mistaking the fire he had just left for some strange fire, fancying he was driving all the sheep into the yard when he called out to have the gate opened. A few of the sheep got out when the rush was made, but in the morning they were found standing quietly beside the fence.
The Willis brothers were still living under canvas in early June when the land speculator Thomas Walker visited their camp on the Plenty. Walker memorialized this visit in his 1838 book, ““A Month in the Bush of Australia” writing that, “Willis is still living in his tent, but with as much comfort as under such circumstances can be looked for. He has got a nice situation in the fork formed by the junction of the creek “Plenty” and the Yarra Yarra.” (You can read Walker’s full extract in my 2014 post, here). James recorded Walker’s visit in the diary with the following entry:
Edward arrived from Melbourne with some gentlemen who came overland from Sydney. Two of them drove a gig the whole way, the rest on horseback, having crossed four rivers and met with no kind of impediment. They accomplished the journey in about a month. Edward with his visitors after dining returned to town, where he has to arrange respecting the payment for two allotments he purchased for Willis Macintyre and Co.
Throughout most of the narrative of James’ diary, while living in their tent, James writes that the brothers were occupied during the day splitting timbers for a sheep yard and for an associated slab hut. The hut was commenced on 16th May and was presumably located within easy reach of the river ford. The 1841 census placed it where the Plenty Bridge Hotel would later stand above the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge.
On the 23rd May James wrote, “Fine morning. Wet afternoon. Drawing logs for the hut. Slow work – no hired men – all done by our own hands. Ned acts carpenter – he is adzing logs – says it makes his back ache.” Four days later Edward was visiting a neighbouring squatter John Nicholas Wood whose shepherd “Old Tom” had originally led them to the Yarra Plenty confluence. Wood’s run was located approximately in the vicinity of where Hawdon’s Banyule Homestead would later be built. James had described Wood as “a good-natured little fellow though his manners are not the most refined” and Edward was hoping to enlist his help, “roofing the hut, which it is highly expedient we should inhabit before our beds are washed from under us.” The brothers were both suffering from colds at this time as they entered their first Port Phillip winter. On 1st June the building was far enough advanced for Edward to go to Melbourne to purchase nails “to put the roof on the hut” and on the 10th it was James who was in Melbourne collecting a further supply of nails. The deprivations of their house-less existence had taken their toll however and at the end of July, James’ health broke down completely. His painful illness required his immediate removal to Melbourne where the doctor, finding he was “suffering from inflammation caused by cold”, bled him in the Dracula-like medical fashion of the day. Whether or not as a result of the bleeding or simply as a result of a strong constitution, after an interval James was able to write, “I am at length quite restored to health…”
His humour also seemed restored. John Batman had loaned them his transport, “the only gig in the settlement” to get the invalid to Melbourne and also offered James a room in his home on Batman’s Hill during the period of his convalescence, which was duly declined subsequent to the following chivalric reasoning:
“…I thought it better to decline his offer as he was at that time an invalid himself, and moreover I was rather afraid of encountering the bright eyes of his daughter – for she might have evinced something like that tender solicitude for the wounded Knight’s recovery which the gentler, the fairer, and the softer sex are never without, and which might have prompted something like gratitude in my breast towards the sympathising damsel, admiration probably would follow, and then God knows what. But it seems that the fates have reserved me for a better, or perhaps a worse destiny than would in such case have been the inevitable result.”
The fates had indeed reserved another destiny for James. In the diary entry written just before James’ illness, James described a journey made by the brothers and their neighbour John Wood, up the Plenty River. They were provisioned and had been intending to explore the country for three or four days but after they “had traversed the course of our creek the ‘Plenty’ (or ‘Edward’s Rivulet’, as we call it) some five or six miles”, the party came to a halt upon “a tract of most excellent grazing land.” James wrote that Edward and Wood then “discovered that they must return home instantly to dress sheep”, the implication being that a race was on between the two squatters to see who could relocate a flock to the new pasturage first.
James’ illness occurred directly after this event and when he had recovered sufficiently to return to the Plenty a month later he found that Edward had removed himself to a location which was by James’ estimation, “about seven miles higher up the Plenty”, presumably the land the brothers had seen with Wood previously. At this new location it seems that a second hut had by then been constructed. The building had a thatched roof, as opposed to the nailed shingles of the earlier structure, and had been made ready for the arrival from Van Diemen’s Land of a third Willis brother, William. James described a high hill nearby from which could be “enjoyed a view of the surrounding country for twenty miles and more in every direction.” This second run it would seem therefore was located somewhere north of the Montmorency or “Epping” Forest and in the vicinity of modern day Greensborough, where an apparently unrelated farm “Willis Vale” later developed. It has been suggested (conversation with Anne Paul, Greensborough Historical Society), that the view from the high hill mentioned by James might have been from the top of Flintoff’s Hill near where modern day Civic Drive intersects the Greensborough Bypass, or from Yellow Gum Park in the Plenty Gorge Parklands, but for now this must remain a matter of conjecture.
…and for the first time we found ourselves in a snug turf hut eleven feet by thirteen, with a thatched roof and neatly whitewashed inside.
Ned has a very respectable bedstead in one corner built of wattle sticks; one in the opposite corner is being made for William, whose arrival we are expecting. A rude contrivance bearing some faint resemblance to a sofa stands in the corner near the chimney; it answers the double purpose of sofa by day and my bed at night.
Our table is a very ingenious affair, being a hair trunk placed upon four stakes knocked in the ground, which with two wooden seats entirely of a new fashion and to which we have given the name of chairs, completes our stock of furniture. I should not omit our bookcase, which is composed of three long wattle sticks reaching from wall to wall on either side of the hut, along which our extensive and valuable collections of books appear in formidable array, having their backs, however, towards the company.
On various parts of the wall are skins of birds, and preserved amongst which the tail of a black cockatoo extended in shape of a fan, its feathers being black and crimson alternately, is handsome; several wings and tails of parrots—three kinds—are beautiful — as well as the entire skins of parrots having almost all the colours of the rainbow, some of which are the most rich and lovely I ever saw.
Sky blue, lavender, crimson, scarlet, orange, green and black are the most conspicuous, all being exquisite contrasts to each other.”
Today a large part of Willis’ 1837 pastoral run retains a pleasingly rural character with the land occupied by two golf courses and the Yarra Valley Parklands. How much Edward and James experiences in 1837 involved country that would later form part of the Bakewells’ Yallambee must however remain uncertain. There is no doubt that they roamed freely about nearby and probably at least crossed over a part of it. One of James’ earliest diary entries written on the 28th April mentioned them finding “a small spot of grazing land five miles off” and on the 14th May they found “some beautiful country about four miles from Wanstead” that Edward proposed turning one day into a second run, so the Willis boys were obviously on the lookout for extra pasture from the outset. Garden writing in “Heidelberg – The Land and Its People” thought that the surveyor Robert Hoddle’s notes suggested that Willis’ run involved both sides of the Plenty River, although he readily admits that Hoddle’s notes are difficult to interpret.
The sale of land on the west bank of the lower Plenty in 1838 and on the east bank in 1840 brought an end to the brief squatting era on the lower Plenty. With the return of their father to England at the start of 1839, Edward Willis returned to Van Diemen’s Land and his personal association with the Plenty River ended. In a letter dated 24th March 1839 Edward states that he was leaving the Plenty River ”having notice to ‘quit’ due to the imminent land sales”. He goes on to warn against future occupation of his hut on the Plenty River: “I’d scarce recommend you. For the fleas will soon make it prodigiously clean. That their bloody attacks are not meant to befriend you. This useful bit of information mind is given gratis. For the thriving squatter to the flea good bait is”.
Edward married Catherine the daughter of Captain Charles Swanston at Hobart Town in 1840 and subsequently joined his father in law in partnership in Geelong. James’ diary ends with a statement of his hopes of one day soon himself being offered a position managing a store in Geelong but by 1841 it is believed that he was established at Mernda at a wattle and daub hotel (the Bridge Inn) on the Plenty River crossing. In addition to the inn, Willis’ Mernda enterprise involved a pastoral holding of 400 acres which he again called Wanstead. After their previous Vandemonian and Lower Plenty Wanstead experiences, it’s a wonder that James was still dusting off that nomenclature for another outing at Mernda, but he remained in possession until 1851.
As the story of James Willis and his Plenty River diary fades into forgotten memory, it is comforting to note that the “unlucky star” recorded by James would ultimately be proved wrong by history, at least in a sense. The Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 6, MUP 1986 credits ownership of the diary manuscript to James Willis’ great-grandson, Dr R W Pearson. So it seems that James finally got to appreciate the joys of a family life that he earlier believed would be forever denied him.
Though evidently not in the arms of one of John Batman’s bright eyed daughters.
It’s a bit of a cliché, but the incongruous sight of men leaning on shovels around a road sign announcing the apparent falsehood, “men at work”, is one we are all familiar with. In Tarcoola Drive, Yallambie at the start of April one such sign went up on the nature strip near the corner. It read “roadwork ahead”, a precursor to sawn lines being cut into the road surface in front of it, then – nothing. It has been like that for a month, a road hazard if not actual roadwork, evidence that somebody at the road depot at least has a sense of humour. There the sign has stood forgotten, oblivious to traffic and to all intents and purposes seemingly abandoned. Eventually a motorist missing the corner drove right on over it, bending it into a shape like banana or a boomerang made by an Aboriginal on a bad day.
The intention I’m told is to build new kerb “outstands” on the corner. These projecting kerbs are intended to reduce the speeds of vehicles entering and exiting Tarcoola Drive by making the turn disproportionately more dangerous. Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge, who owned one of the very first motor cars in the Heidelberg district, is said to have preferred a horse and cart. He may have been right.
Roads were an early priority of this area and it has been argued by D S Garden that the creation of the Heidelberg Road Trust in 1841 constituted the earliest known form of local government within the Port Phillip District. The road to Heidelberg had been formed in 1839 and was known initially as the “Great Heidelberg Road”. It was laid out by the surveyor J Townsend who followed a line that was more or less parallel to the Yarra River.
I picture Townsend in those far off days whistling the highs and lows of “The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond” as he surveyed his route, the design splitting Heidelberg Road into two paths after the Darebin Creek ford. His Upper Heidelberg Road, known initially as the Nillumbik Road, ran along the top of the ridge while the Lower Heidelberg Road, first called the Mount Eagle Road, followed the valley contours.
The Heidelberg Road commanded regular traffic from its inception. The route beyond to the Diamond Valley and Lower Plenty initially led to a ford over the Plenty River near what is now Martins Lane. Although shorter this route was discarded in 1840 in favour of the current line which was considered easier. William Greig, who as recounted previously farmed at Yallambie in that year, used this way regularly to visit town. That was until the early perilous condition of its surface sent his pony lame. Richard Howitt meanwhile, who lived on the Heidelberg Road at Alphington and who we remember for his visit to his Bakewell brothers in law at Yallambee in mid-1842, was equally unimpressed.
A beautiful town is Melbourne,
All by the Yarra’s side;
Its streets are wide, its streets are deep –
They are both deep and wide
Escaping from one quagmire,
There’s room enough for more;
Such a beautiful town as Melbourne
Was never seen before…
(Richard Howitt, Impressions of Australia Felix, p299)
One of the first tasks of the Heidelberg Road Trust then was to macadamise the road surface, a process that was commenced in 1842 and which was to introduce a technology which had not long been developed in Britain. The metal for the project came from a bluestone quarry at Alphington on the west bank of the Darebin Creek. As the colony emerged from the economic stupor of the 1840s, visitors to the Heidelberg district were astonished by the experience of travelling on a luxury road that boasted an incredible macadamized surface, the first in the Port Phillip District. In March, 1848, Bishop Perry wrote after travelling on this road that:
“Yesterday we drove to Heidelberg, which is the most settled part of the country. The distance from Melbourne is about eight miles, and the road is the only made road in the colony… Here and there we went along, were neatly piled up heaps of broken stone, ready for mending the road, just as you see in England; and at places we found men at work with shovels levelling, filling up holes etc.”
Almost a decade later in 1857, an attempt was made to reform the Heidelberg Road Trust by declaring the district a municipality. It failed after a petition opposing the move, led by the leading gentry of the region, was delivered to the government. Yallambee’s Bakewell brothers must have been getting ready for their return to England when they signed but all the same, their names appear there near the top of the parchment alongside such luminaries as Hawdon of Banyule, Martin of Viewbank, McArthur of Chartresville and what amounts to a mid-19th century virtual who’s who of the Heidelberg district. It appears there had been some disagreement over which part of the Heidelberg Road would most benefit from spending of the available road finances. The Bakewells, preoccupied with their return to England, possibly believed no money should be spent on it at all.
Transportation has changed and roads might be different but disagreements about spending on infrastructure hasn’t changed that much in the one and a half centuries since. The present State government dropped more than a billion dollars to dump the East West Freeway when it came into office, all to prove a point. In the State Budget announced today, the same government released plans to spend another $100 million on a feasibility study of a North East Link, the so called missing link between the Western Ring Road and Melbourne’s south east.
The North East Link is an old idea that harks back nearly half a century to the “1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan” which it might be argued was an attempt to turn Melbourne into a Los Angeles of the south. They largely succeeded in that plan for as a contractor once told Arthur Dent shortly before his planet was demolished by the Vogons, “It’s a bypass, you have to build bypasses.” The glaring exception however was the freeway that was to have been built through Heidelberg. Carrying the moniker F-18, the 1969 plan was to drive it through the Heidelberg community like a Thunderbirds’ atomic road maker, road laying machine, cutting a swathe through the landscape. Thankfully the plan was abandoned in the early 1970s and the land in Buckingham Drive and Banyule Road at either end of the freeway reserve was later sold for housing. The Freeway reserve is still there in between in the form of a linear park but the plan is now to either build a tunnel under the City of Banyule or direct the route further out through Nillumbik Shire. Either option fills nearby communities with impending dread.
In Banyule, on a local and I might say, somewhat “smaller” scale, the City Council set aside $38,000 in the 2016/17 Budget for the work near us in Tarcoola Drive mentioned at the start of this post. However, they tell me that they are determined to spend only about half of that amount this year, the rest being put aside presumably for when they feel like coming back to do the job properly. Maybe they’ve run out of money already.
Like the F-18 on a larger scale, this is not the first attempt to deal with a perceived traffic problem in Yallambie. In the mid ’90s there was a proposal drawn up to transform the same corner into a retro fitted roundabout, a project aimed at slowing traffic in Yallambie Road, as opposed to the current attempt at slowing traffic in Tarcoola Drive. That roundabout was never built, but was constructed instead onto the corner of Binowee Avenue and Yallambie Road near the shop with speed bumps formed at the approaches.
To add a bit of currency to an old problem, yesterday afternoon our son came in from school and said that as he crossed Lower Plenty Road to Yallambie Road with a green pedestrian light, he had”nearly been run over by a car turning the corner.” In 1993, during the development of Yallambie’s Streeton Views subdivision, the Traffic Engineer for the project Greg Tucker reported that a grade separated pedestrian overpass across Lower Plenty Road to the schools in Viewbank was unwarranted. “The provision of traffic signals at Grantham and Crew Street would incorporate pedestrian crossing facilities in any event…” (City of Heidelberg business paper, 8 Feb, 1993). In subsequent developments, the Martins Lane intersection was substituted for Grantham Street.
I’ve heard tell that it used to be an unofficial policy at VicRoads to undertake remedial roadwork but to do so only after a road death had occurred. A bit like shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. The profusion of roundabouts and speed bumps at the northern end of Yallambie Road are something that was added after 1980 and only after the pedestrian death of a child on Yallambie Road near the Primary School. In those days Yallambie Road was a sort of alternative route to Eltham bound traffic on Greensborough Road. The 46 page “Yallambie Road Traffic Study” prepared by Nelson English, Loxton & Andrews for Heidelberg Council in 1982 reported that approximately a third of all traffic on Yallambie Road was through traffic and that up to 78% of traffic exceeded the then maximum 60 km/h speed limit with the highest speed recorded at 100km/h. The report also noted that the impending signalisation at both ends of Yallambie Road was expected to result in even more through traffic.
The decision three years later to extend Elonera Avenue, Yallambie in the City of Heidelberg through to Elder Street, Greensborough in the Shire of Diamond Valley as a part of the Daniel’s sub division opened up another access point into Yallambie, This time from Greensborough in the north. The Yallambie Community Association which was a then very active institution, strongly opposed this connection, but their collective voice remained carefully ignored by those who make the decisions. Once again the ad hoc solution has been to retrofit speed humps, this time along Elonera Avenue.
The folly of creating communities without satisfactory infrastructure is nothing new. What happened at Fishermen’s Bend in Port Melbourne is a case in point and is a classic example of what can happen when the profits of a few investors and developers are put ahead of the interests of the wider community. At Fishermen’s Bend, a few property developers, mostly with connections to the then Liberal State Government, became insanely wealthy overnight when the former industrial land they had invested in was rezoned with a stroke of a pen to allow multistorey apartment buildings. Some individuals made profits of over 500% on their investments but planning for residential infrastructure such as schools and roads was almost completely disregarded in the process, leaving taxpayers to pick up the tab at a later date. It has been described as a classic example of how not to develop land ear marked for urban renewal.
Sometimes it’s not about what you know but who you know along this highway of life. The Premier of Victoria at the time of the release of the 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan freeway blueprint was the legendary, late Sir Henry Bolte. Ol’ Henry reportedly enjoyed a tipple now and then but in March 1984, long after his retirement as Premier, Bolte suffered serious injuries when the car he was driving collided with another vehicle near his home. Surveys here and abroad have consistently reported that the majority of road accidents happen near our homes but in this case it was alleged at the time that Henry had been drink driving. In the end, charges were never laid after the police mysteriously “lost” the blood sample taken from the injured ex-Premier after his crash.
Bolte recovered but his legacy remains in the testament of the road network that he envisaged and that has been built right across greater Melbourne. Maybe one day we will all be travelling in driverless Tesla cars on this network, but the vote as far as it affects Banyule remains out.
Personally my money’s all on a future involving the Jetsons’ flying car.
Select sources: Heidelberg - The Land and Its People, D S Garden; The Diamond Valley Story, D H Edwards; The History of Our Roads, Maxwell Lay in The Heidelberg Historian, June 2005; Yallambie Road Traffic Study 1982, Nelson English, Loxton & Andrews; Yallambie Community Association papers; City of Heidelberg business paper, Feb 1993
The bunyip is a rare creature. So rare in fact that you would be hard pressed in a world without fantasy to find anybody today who will fully admit to ever having seen one. But according to the testimony of first contact era Aboriginal people, the bunyip was real, an amphibious animal much given to lurking in the dark waters of reedy creeks and billabongs, coming out at night to make a meal of the unwary. Their descriptions in the early 19th century varied widely and ranged from an animal with tusks and a furry body the size of an ox to a creature something more like an emu with a horse like tail, a duck bill, feathers and flippers.
There’s something to be said for the creative imaginations of the first Australians or maybe their propensity for the gentle leg pulling of the white interlopers. Their contradictory stories fascinated the pioneer settlers who wanted to believe that in a land where so much was strange, something still stranger waited just over the horizon yet to be found. The bunyip quickly entered the Australian narrative and it is perhaps not surprising that over time it has been used to sell all manner of things, from boot polish to lawn mowers and has featured in film and in literature.
In one favourite literary and pictorial example, Jenny Wagner and Ron Brooks’ “The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek”, a bunyip again and again asks the existential question as he emerges from the swamp, “What am I, what am I, what am I?” It’s a question that has occurred to most of us at some point in life, and not just bunyips.
I always loved this story book as a kid and its strangely disturbing drawings. The bunyip spends his time exploring the question of existence and is not put off when he meets a mad scientist who, without looking up from his studies, announces matter-of-factly that, “Bunyips simply don’t exist.” Unfortunately the scientist probably had a point because, in spite of Aboriginal testimony to the contrary, the modern consensus would seem that bunyips are a furphy and always have been.
“What a pity,” said the Berkeley’s Creek bunyip when this fact is revealed but the interesting thing for our story here is that, myth busting aside, Yallambee’s John Bakewell is as likely as any in the early history of Victoria to have bagged himself a bunyip. Like his brother Robert, John was an inveterate collector of all things zoological and would surely have been much interested in the story of the bunyip and the surprising thing is, he had more than half a chance to coax one onto the warm hearth rug at Yallambee. Or better still and true to the fashions of those times, get out his long rifle and turn the bunyip into the hearth rug itself.
In addition to being in partnership from 1841 with his brother Robert at Yallambee (Yallambie), John was also a third part of a business partnership with John Mickle and William Lyall which developed extensive pastoral interests around the Western Port area and elsewhere in the 1850s. But it was at their Tooradin run of 16,000 acres, which the following decade John Bakewell would later own exclusively, that legend noted a terrible bunyip lurked alongside the marshy banks of the Bunyip River, somewhere in the deep waters of a lagoon that was never dry even in the hottest of summers. This bunyip, known locally to the Aboriginals of Western Port as Toor-Roo-Dun, was reported to be emu-like in appearance and in habit resembled an eel. It was greatly feared by the Aboriginal tribes who never bathed in the waters of the Western Port swamps for it was said: “A long time ago some of the people bathed in the lake, and they were all drowned, and eaten by Toor-Roo-Dun.” (The Aborigines of Victoria, Richard Shepherd and F. Grosse, 1878).
Like a Creature from the Black Lagoon, Toor-Roo-Dun was a terrifying bogeyman of the native peoples, an unspoken menace that lurked just beyond the edge of sight, an equal part measure of Aboriginal doubt and fear. If truth be known however, the story may have been told to gullible settlers as part of an ongoing Aboriginal prank, so as if to up the ante, the settlers themselves managed to turn the whole business of the bunyip into political satire. In 1853 the Australian journalist, orator and politician, Daniel Deniehy, famously derided the attempts of the squattocracy to introduce a titled, hereditary aristocracy into colonial society by calling the concept a jumped up “Bunyip Aristocracy”, by which ipso facto decree he implied, it didn’t exist.
What John Bakewell thought about Deniehy’s speech remains unrecorded but there is no doubt that at the time it was made, by dint of his various business dealings, Bakewell was well on his way to joining the ranks of this imaginary Australian bunyip peerage. His partnership with his brother Robert at Yallambee also included a successful wool classing enterprise in Melbourne’s Market Street (which became Goldsborough, Mort & Co.) and from 1845 to 1852 involved a large pastoral run at Burnewang on the Campaspe River north east of Bendigo (Sandhurst), clocking in at 113,000 acres. His partnerships with John Mickle and William Lyall from 1851 involved even more extensive undertakings with large runs at Western Port, the Western District and on the Snowy River.
John Bakewell left Yallambee and returned to England with his brother in 1857 and settled at the Old Hall, Balderton in his home county of Nottingham. In England two years later he married Emily Howitt, the niece of Melbourne’s Dr Godfrey Howitt, before returning to Victoria for a final visit in 1862 to resolve his remaining business affairs.
In the UK, Bakewell lived the life of a true blue Bunyip Aristocrat, in spirit if not in name. His Australian adventures had made him a wealthy man. Neil Gunson in “The Good Country – Cranbourne Shire”, 1968, describes the Western Port properties as “Bakewell’s great Tooradin empire,” (p123) noting that they were “early put out to lease,” the revenue derived presumably proving to be a nice little earner for the British based Bakewell.
At Western Port today, John Bakewell is remembered by a Bakewell Street in Cranbourne and a Yallambee Rd in Clyde, the latter road named after a local subdivision of his Tooradin run, sometimes also referred to as “Fields Water”. John Bakewell died at Balderton in 1888 leaving four grown up children.
Alexander Henderson in his rare and compendious 1936 publication, “Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina”, describes John Bakewell as “one of the most prominent of the early pioneer squatters.” It is therefore surprising that in the narrative of Victorian history, his story has been somewhat forgotten. This blog is guilty itself of contributing to an ambiguity by publishing several times a photograph from the SLV purporting to be that of J Bakewell of Bendigo. As John and Robert were known to have had an extensive pastoral run on the Campaspe, (their Burnewang property), I had always assumed this picture to be of Yallambee’s John Bakewell. A photograph in the Henderson book however reveals a different man. Accepting Henderson’s image to be correct I have now replaced it in my legacy posts. Like the Berkeley’s Creek bunyip, John B has had an existential identity crisis. Fortunately for the purpose of my last post, both men at least were committed pogonologists.
So what happened to John Bakewell’s bunyip in the 21st century? Instead of a bunyip aristocracy Federal Australia got its Senate in 1901 which serves as an Upper House of Parliament and is intended to represent the States. Over time this “house of review” has allegedly instead become a “house of obstruction”, populated by minor parties who in a preferential voting system, have done deals with the major parties to secure their franchise. A Greens Senator last week likened the filibustering of the Senate to a scene from “Men Who Stare at Goats” where captured combatants are stuck in a crate and played “The Wiggles” for days on end as a form of torture. The Age reporting thought the process was more like something from “The Lord of the Rings” with Gandalf standing on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm roaring, “You shall not pass.” Perhaps we should take a leaf out of the Queensland example which in 1922 managed to abolish the Upper House of State Parliament altogether.
The irony at Yallambie is that when you vote in the local government ward at Council elections, you vote in an electorate called “Bakewell”, named after the brothers with the bunyip pedigree. Although voting is compulsory at all levels of government in Australia (yes, they have to use the full force of the law to get Australians into the booth on polling day), in 2016 at the last Banyule Council election in Bakewell Ward, no vote was required. After any other potential candidates took a collective step backwards, the sitting member was elected unopposed which is perhaps the truest indication of what we really think about local government.
The bunyip aristocracy might never have got off the ground within the Australian nationhood but believing implicitly in the rhetoric of our egalitarian society denies the simple truth that who you are and where you are born plays a big part in the opportunities you get dealt in life. Was the iron suited outlaw, Ned Kelly born bad or was he made bad by a system that was weighted against him from the day that he first drew breath? It is a question that has intrigued historians and sociologists for generations. We’ve all heard the expression, “He was born on the wrong side of the tracks,” but the reality is that sometimes people have little choice in the matter.
In Melbourne today, many government funded schools now exclude student applicants from disadvantaged suburbs. The Gonski Report was supposed to level out the playing field but with Government refusing to fully fund that report’s recommendations, its commendable ambitions have been made a mockery. In Yallambie, you might pay a premium to rent or buy a house that falls within the “zone” of the so called better of the local government schools but still find your children excluded if your house falls a few millimetres outside the zone on a map. It is a process that continues to drive up the price of real estate in certain suburbs all across Melbourne.
Many reports locally and internationally have identified a direct correlation between poor educational standards and recidivism but in some enlightened communities the problem is now being addressed by a new approach called “Justice Reinvestment”. This is a process which takes the money that would otherwise be spent building prisons and using it instead to fund education and community infrastructure in disadvantaged communities. In many cases it has led to a cut in crime and ultimately saved money.
It seems like a good idea to me, but good luck to the Lucky Country if you expect the idea to ever catch on here unilaterally any time soon. It’s enough to make a Berkeley’s Creek bunyip balk and jump right back into the watery hole from which he came, the words of the scientist still ringing in his ears, “You’re nothing.” In a country lacking imagination just as much as aristocrats, maybe there’s a good reason why none of us have ever seen a bunyip.
Most men who have attempted a beard have probably been one without realizing it as they study the shadow of their stubble in the mirror. It’s not a common word, although I opine it could be useful if you get stuck with a handful of Gs and Os at the end of a Scrabble game. Pogonologists were, on the available evidence, more or less the norm throughout the male gender of the species in the later Victorian age. In Yallambie a look at the faces staring back at you from old photo albums might have you believe that the place was full of pogonologists. John Bakewell was one. So was Thomas Wragge. Edward La Tobe Bateman was another, as were most of the Howitts. At least as far as the men of that illustrious family were concerned.
Pogonology: literally it means the study of beards. A pogonologist is one for whom beard growing has become something of a science. It derives from the Latin “pogonias” meaning bearded, a word that was common throughout the Classical world. The clean shaven Emperor Constantine IV was occasionally known by the moniker “Pogonatus” from some sort of confusion with his father Constans, with whom he had reigned initially and who is mainly remembered now for sporting an imposing chin of facial hair.
It is said that men grow beards not to impress the female of the breed but to impress other men. “Lord, I could not endure a husband with a beard on his face; I had rather lie in the woollen,” said Shakespeare’s Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing”, affirming she would rather sleep in scratchy blankets all night than with a bearded man. Yet beards have been around since the cave man, evolving from their primitive natural state to the crimped and trimmed sophisticated designs of later years. The beard would become a symbol of individual style and an expression of personality as men learned to improve on the work of what had been blessed to them by nature.
To some cultures of the ancient word, the beard was a mark of wisdom or alternatively a sign of physical strength. To swear by your beard was considered a sacrosanct act and the kissing of beards could be used as a sign of greeting. To tweak a man’s beard however was considered a grave insult, the equivalent today of an Australian Prime Minister having the temerity to robustly discuss refugees with an American President.
Strange to relate, beards were taxed in Tudor England, first by Henry VIII who liked beards but needed the money, and then by Elizabeth I who simply didn’t like them. The peak of male fashion in beards was reached however in the 17th century when their care was considered the most important part of a man’s daily routine. Hours were spent starching, curling, crimping and trimming beards with the results sometimes dyed and perfumed to suit the owner’s tastes. Such efforts needed to be protected and the owner of a beard might choose to retire to his slumbers at night with it securely protected in a leather case around his neck.
The powdered wigs of the 18th century restricted the popularity of beards for a while but in the Victorian Age they returned with a vengeance. This was an age of Great Men and the bushy beard became a symbol of their world view, the size of the beard seeming to be in direct proportion to the community standing of its owner.
The earliest photographs of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge shows him with a “chin curtain” style of beard, a type that he seems to have favoured his whole life. That most revered of American Presidents of Wragge’s era, Abraham Lincoln, is remembered for a similar look which he called the “Shenandoah”. It made him look terribly wise, even when all around him was turning to ashes. Before Abraham Lincoln, no US President sported a beard but after Lincoln, every President bar two until Woodrow Wilson had either a beard or a moustache. Perhaps the current American President, with a society as divided now as in the time of old Abe, could be induced to ditch the comb over for a similar hirsute habit. Women would love it because, when you’re a star, you can do anything. At least that’s what this President tells us.
From the available photographic evidence, Wragge’s sons mostly adopted fashionable moustaches during the Edwardian era. Walter Murdoch, who married Thomas’ eldest daughter Sarah Annie in 1903, similarly wore a terrific walrus protuberance on his upper lip. Until the later alterations, there was no internal bathroom plumbing at Yallambie Homestead so water had to be brought upstairs to wash basins in the bedrooms or to a tin hip bath kept in the single available washroom. In an age when shaving was a time consuming business involving a cut throat razor and strop it is easy to imagine the trouble and care required in their daily shaving ritual.
By the time we came to live at Yallambie in the early ’90s, the old house did at least enjoy modern if somewhat incomplete plumbing. Without quite realizing it, in the best traditions of Thomas, this writer has worn a beard on and off throughout his life, usually growing one when it was out of fashion then shaving it off when it came back. The last time was an attempt at a Zapata when the latest Millennial craze for beards was first kicking off. Fashion books and web sites have since been dedicated to this hairy subject with one survey suggesting that 55% of males worldwide wear some sort of facial hair. The current beard vogue became so big in the early 2010s that some reports even proposed facial hair transplants might be had by those men having trouble developing a decent growth on their chins. Not all beards are grown in the face of such adversity however. Guinness Records measured a beard a few years ago at nearly 2½ metres in length. Sarwan Singh, the wearer of this beard, is a Sikh and says that he has done nothing special. He considers his facial locks to be a divine gift from God. All the same, Sarwan should beware for beards can be dangerous. Hans Steininger the owner of a 1½ metre beard in 16th century Austria, died when he stepped on the end of it, tripped and broke his neck.
The lengths and the dangers of the beards of the lumbersexual and hipster subculture from the fashionable end of Melbourne town pale in comparison. Beards can grow on average about 14cm a year but there are those who said that in 2017, beards were about to go the way of the man bun. A recent sighting of a full beard with flowers trained through the fuzz on a fashionable Fitzroy street has me thinking otherwise, maybe.
As for me, personally the three day growth in my mirror is just too darn peppery these days, so when it comes to Yallambie pogonology, my vote has already been cast.
From the hanging gardens in Babylon and the capabilities of the very capable Brown of Great Britain, garden fashions have come and gone like the seasons, to be remembered now like the weeds in a Bangay box hedge. 19th century Australia was no exception to this rule and in 1865, the English nurseryman John Gould Veitch wrote while visiting Victoria that there had grown up in the colony “a very decided spirit for the introduction of any novelty which may be likely to prove of use or ornament to the gardens of the colony.”
There were many novelties to distract Victorian gardeners but of all of them, it was the craze for collections of pine trees, or pinetums as they were sometimes known, that has left the greatest mark on our millennial landscape. We’ve all seen the presence or former presence of colonial homes marked in country Victoria by stands of tall conifers, sometimes long after the settlers and sometimes the homes themselves have vanished. Collecting conifers was for a while a fashion in 19th century Victoria and no garden of any consequence in the colony could be said to be ever truly complete without its own resident selection of trees.
“Floraville”, the Bakewells’ garden at Yallambee Park was already well established before this coniferous craze properly kicked off but Thomas Wragge, who adopted Yallambee in the 1860s and who purchased the property in 1872, appears to have been well placed to take over at least in spirit where the Bakewells maybe left off.
The background to this story has been shrouded by the passage of time but as mentioned in the previous post, the Yallambie identity “Old Harry” Ferne who lived on the river bank at Yallambie in the 1970s believed anecdotally that the pine trees that then surrounded his home were sourced from Victoria’s first Government Botanist and director of the Royal Botanic, Baron Ferdinand von Mueller. Winty Calder, writing in “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” repeats this legend but also speculates about the origins of the story, observing that:
“…von Mueller frequently gave seeds and plants to people. However, it is more likely that the Bakewells were the recipients of von Mueller’s plant material, during the period 1857-1873, than was Thomas. During those years von Mueller distributed many plants to public institutions and to private individuals, but he claimed in 1865 that ‘the distribution of plants to private gardens has been very limited and in reciprocation only’. Unfortunately the National Herbarium in Melbourne apparently now holds little of von Mueller’s correspondence with private individuals, such as Thomas Wragge or the Bakewells, or notes relating to associated exchange of plant material. But Thomas Wragge did gain possession of Yallambie two years before von Mueller ceased to be Director of the Botanic Gardens, even though he continued as Government Botanist. Before 1873, Thomas could have continued a plant exchange begun with the Bakewells, and it is not impossible that such an exchange might have continued for a few years after 1873…”
Even without a triplane, the “Green” Baron of Colonial Victoria certainly seems to have got around a bit. Public gardens were laid out at many goldfields centres with places like Ballarat, Bendigo, Castlemaine and Kyneton all receiving large numbers of trees and seeds for their Botanic Gardens from von Mueller. Indeed, a visit to a public garden in any reasonably sized town in country Victoria today will usually turn up at least a few trees with a claim to some sort of von Mueller provenance, with many of these trees being pines, araucarias or otherwise coniferous in nature.
Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, KCMG came to Australia in 1847, arriving in Victoria in 1851. In 1853, Lieutenant Governor Charles La Trobe appointed him to the newly created role of Victorian Government Botanist and from 1857 he was also the Director of Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens. Mueller travelled widely throughout Victoria on prolonged field trips and on just one jaunt into the hitherto unexplored Buffalo Mountains and Southern Gippsland, he covered 1500 miles and added 936 new species to the Victorian plant list.
From the very beginning of his directorship, (or should that read dictatorship), of the Gardens, von Mueller saw the Gardens as an important collecting and distribution centre for plants and seeds throughout the new colony. During the period 1857-8 alone, the record states that no fewer than 39 public institutions and 206 private applicants received plants from von Mueller’s department, with 7120 plants and 22,438 packets of seeds being distributed and 57 gardeners receiving live cuttings.
With these numbers in mind it seems to me very possible that von Mueller might well have supplied plant material to the Bakewells in the 1850s, possibly in a reciprocal exchange. The Bakewells had established their garden in the early 1840s and by the mid-1850s it was well established and in a good position to take part in such an exchange. Furthermore, from the first days of settlement, Robert Bakewell conducted the garden at Yallambee as an early and successful experiment in Victorian Acclimatisation, the colonial principles of which the Baron was a well-known and early active supporter.
Another point worth considering is that when it came to approach, plants were not the only thing von Mueller was known to cultivate. He cultivated working relationships with people of consequence and was often rewarded handsomely for it. Von Mueller collected titles throughout his life like they were going out of fashion with the “Sir”, “Baron” and the “von” parts of his name being all titles that were added to his name during his lifetime. Not only were the Bakewells well-connected by religious and familial ties to the Howitts and through them to the wider cultural elite of Melbourne, but “Yallambee Park” had been acknowledged within intellectual circles with several internationally publicized descriptions.
Edward Latrobe Bateman, whose association with the Station Plenty (Yallambee) has been recounted in considerable detail previously in these pages, is another contender for a Mueller connection at Yallambee. He had been described as a “splendid artist” by von Mueller and at the Intercolonial Exhibition of 1866 which Mueller helped arrange, Bateman decorated a Great Hall and a Rotunda. Significantly, Bateman also found considerable later success as a garden designer of both public and private gardens. Obviously these people were all moving within the same circles.
Thomas Wragge by contrast was a farmer and although he would in time achieve pastoral success and considerable economic wealth, it has not been suggested that he moved within the same creative or intellectual associations as Bateman, or of the Bakewells and Howitts.
At any rate, whatever the origins of the Yallambie tree scape and whether Wragge inherited the genesis of the collection from the Bakewells, it seems clear now that Thomas and his family enjoyed the trees as they reached maturity at the end of the 19th century and that they probably continued to add to it up to and into the 20th.
In the 19th century plant collectors achieved fame as they combed the continents in search of new pines and no gardener was considered worth his salt without an ability to provide his patron with a collection of at least some description.
At nearby Eaglemont, where elm trees were once saved at the expense of those in Yallambie, the forester William Ferguson planted a great pinetum, the largest in the colony, on the summit of “Mount Eagle” for J H Brooke as a prelude to a grand estate envisaged for that place. The first curator of the Geelong Botanic Gardens, Daniel Bunce visited in 1861 and recorded that “under the skilful management of his gardener Mr Ferguson”, Brooke had accumulated “the largest number of conifers of any establishment in the colony”. The house was never built and Ferguson left the project in 1863 with Brooke himself leaving for Japan four years later. However, in the 21st century at least some of Brooke’s trees remain, hidden away inside the private gardens of wealthy Eaglemont homes, proof of the enduring nature of the grown landscape and especially the legacy of 19th century pinetums.
At Yallambie the Bakewell/Wragge conifer collection survived well into the 20th century and its condition was intact enough to draw comment from Old Harry in the 1970s and 80s. Over the years many landscape reports and surveys were written identifying its importance, first by Heidelberg City Council and then, after 1994, by Banyule City Council. One of the first but certainly not the last of these reports “Plenty River & Banyule Creek” by Gerner Sanderson Faggetter Cheesman was published in October 1983 and noted that:
“The introduced species planted adjacent to the homestead, Yallambie, also require thoughtful management, not because of any problem they create, but rather because of their cultural importance. The planting here reflects past fashions of the Victorian era. Tall, dark foliage plants such as Pinus spp., Araucaria spp., planted quite randomly are all in fair condition…”
Old Harry had recently moved into a new home in Tarcoola Drive when that report was published but a few years later another report (previously quoted here) was delivered by Loder & Bayly, Marily McBriar, the recommendations of which in part read:
“An area which requires protection and sensitive management. Conservation of important historic plants, eg. conifers, and partial reconstruction of farm elements…”
More than 30 years later the value of these reports and others like them would seem to be only in the ongoing evidence they provide of what Council hasn’t managed to deliver over time. One by one and sometimes more than one the trees of the pinetum have gone to pot, collapsing sometimes in spectacular fashion. In the last 20 years alone I have by my own count seen more than a dozen of these trees vanish and, with the exception of the trees in a few private gardens, they have not been replaced.
All the same, the list of old plantings that remain today in Yallambie Park and within private gardens nearby still manages to read like some sort of pine growers’ plant catalogue. The list includes Araucaria bidwilli (Bunya Bunya Pine), Araucaria cunninghamii (Hoop Pine), Callitris glaucophyla (Murray River Cypress Pine), Cedrus deodara (Himalayan Cedar), Chamaecyparis funebris (Funeral Cypress), Cupressus lusitanica and Cupressus lusitanica glauca (Mexican Cypress), Cupressus macrocapa (Monterey Cypress), Cupressus sempervirens (Italian Cypress), Cupressus torulosa (Bhutan Cypress), Pinus canariensis (Canary Islands Pine), Pinus nigra var maritima (Black Pine), Pinus pinaster (Maritime Pine), Pinus pinea (Stone Pine) and Pinus radiata (Monterey Pine). As an exercise in botanical history, this list which was sourced from several of the more recent Banyule Council studies, is a tribute to the surprising longevity of some of these species at Yallambie and a memorial to the garden in which they once stood.
Garden fashions have come and gone and the popularity of pines within an Australian river environment long ago lost their allure. At Yallambie, in spite of the recommendations contained within numerous commissioned reports, exotic plantings have given way to a native landscape.
As if to follow this cue, vandals imposing their own agenda once attacked one of Robert Bakewell’s Cypresses on the river bank, leaving the tree in a shockingly ringbarked state. The tree took months to die in a process that was heartbreaking to watch. A similar end was suffered by the 400 year old “Separation Tree”, a River Red Gum in the Royal Botanic Gardens that suffered two ringbarking attacks before its final demise a couple of years ago, leaving garden lovers and history buffs equally appalled.
The late, lamented Separation Tree was already well over 200 years old when von Mueller began his directorship in 1857. In 1873 however, a year after Thomas Wragge completed his purchase of Yallambie, the Baron was summarily sacked from his position at the Gardens. It was felt within some quarters that von Mueller was more concerned with the science of plants than the business of creating a pleasure gardens for the leisured elite of Melbourne.
During his tenure Mueller had urged the establishment of a plantation of conifers at the Gardens, its purpose supposedly being to demonstrate the usefulness of the forestry industry to Victoria. Numerous trees remain from Mueller’s pinetum and can be found on the Garden’s Hopetoun and Hutingfield Lawns today but the humiliation of his situation was almost too much for a Baron to bear. After his dismissal legend has it that Mueller never again set foot inside the Gardens, pining like Adam outside the Gates of Eden.
The work of his replacement, Mueller’s protégé the young William Guilfoyle, is now mostly the landscape we see at the Royal Botanic Gardens today. After 1883 Guilfoyle remodelled Mueller’s pinetum, changing it from regimented avenues of trees to strategically placed specimens which survive in the Gardens today as signature trees. Von Mueller’s approach had gone out of fashion, his legacy dead seemingly like the Dodo.
Contemporary reports suggest that Von Mueller’s demise was the result of the lack of fountains and statues installed at the Gardens under his watch, the absence of which was keenly felt by the Melbourne masses who had a seemingly insatiable thirst for such things.
Ironically, if you step off the tan and into the gardens today, one of the first things you may see hidden behind the neighbouring shrubbery outside the National Herbarium of Victoria, is a small statue of the good Baron himself. It was installed there in 1984 to mark 150 years of settlement, its presence in the Gardens seemingly illustrating a point. When it comes to gardening, if you wait long enough, inevitably you reap what you sow.
He was known locally as “Old Harry” and in the conservative pre-Whitlam era ’60s, Old Harry Ferne was something of a Yallambie eccentric. The stories that surrounded Harry were legendary and as he assured his listeners, they were all true. Well, mostly. A square peg in a round hole. You might say that they broke the mould when they made Old Harry.
Harry Ferne lived in a one room cottage on the banks of the Plenty River. He was a relative or maybe a sometime friend of the Temby family at Yallambie Homestead. Nobody was really quite sure exactly. He moved into a cottage in the garden on the river flat below the Homestead in 1968 and stayed there for more than a decade, even in the face of increasing pressure from Heidelberg City Council to move him out. In a recorded interview made in the early 1980s Harry remembered that, “When I arrived in the area there was a forest of trees. Now there’s a forest of houses.” (Heidelberger, 2 June, 1982)
Like a hermit at the bottom of the garden in the finest of English folly traditions, Old Harry was a bit of an enigma. He walked with a pronounced stoop that belied his clipped moustache and a somewhat understated military bearing. A “real gentleman” as one local described him but a man who was for all that, prepared to live outside of the mores of society. Local children from the nearby developing housing estate seemed drawn to him and “descended on him in droves, keen to fish for tadpoles in his water storage ponds,” or to simply spend time with this curious character with the mysterious past. In an era when children could spend as much time as they wanted with an older, unmarried man living alone in peculiar and reduced circumstances without anyone batting an eyelid, Old Harry and his stories became a magnet for juvenile gangs, the king of the kids in the Yallambie area.
Harry’s Yallambie Cottage was a single roomed timber dwelling that had been built at the foot of the Yallambie escarpment sometime in the dim dark, far distant past, nobody could quite remember when. Maybe it was a re-erection of a Bakewell pre-fab, but who knows. Harry said, “When I took over the cottage, it was a ruin. No windows, no door, no water and no sewerage. Just possums in the roof, bees in two walls and a wombat under the floorboards.”
Harry set to work and cleaned up the ramshackle building, laying brick paving and redeveloping the remnant gardens surrounding the exterior.
Harry was fascinated by the history of the area and especially the legend that Baron Ferdinand von Mueller had contributed to the Yallambie landscape. He would point out trees to interested listeners as possible contenders for a von Mueller provenance. Even in 1970 these trees were well over 100 years old and on one occasion Harry narrowly escaped with his life when a pair of trees from the Yallambie pinetum collapsed and nearly destroyed his house.
The Yallambie Cottage was surrounded by a forest of these exotic trees and in the winter months the smoke from Harry’s fires hung low, trapped by their overhanging branches. Harry did a lot of his cooking on a barbecue in a half barrel outside but his cottage also housed a cast iron range where he made toast and where an old kettle was kept continuously on the boil for anybody who cared to stop by long enough to share a yarn and a strong cup of tea.
Harry’s cottage neighboured the nearby old Yallambie pumping house which in the farming era had been used to draw water up from the river for use in the outlying paddocks. Invoking the principle that possession remains nine tenths of the law, Harry claimed the pumping house likewise as his own, although ostensibly it was located on Heidelberg City Council land. This was Harry’s world. It was a place to spend time with friends both young and old. It was a place to watch the passing of the seasons and to stare at the reflections in the waters of the river. And it was a place to think about the past.
Harry’s was a naturally artistic nature and he spent hours in the fields sketching the surrounding river landscape. He was a friend of the Dutch sculptor Rein Slagmolen whose artists’ colony at the nearby former convent, Casa Maria, was an early feature of the pre subdivisional landscape of Yallambie. Harry also had friends in the theatre and the opera who probably wondered at what they had struck when they came to visit him in his rural realm.
Harry kept a car, an early model VW Beetle, but it didn’t get driven about much. Harry didn’t find much need to get behind the wheel or to leave the area. The Temby children and others kept their horses on the Yallambie river flats and it was the horses that Harry preferred to populate his drawings with.
Harry kept an old concrete water trough near the cottage for the horses but when one enterprising young lad used Harry’s water colour paints to paint the trough an ultramarine blue, Harry was less than impressed.
In the summer months Harry harvested the fruit from the Yallambie orchards and in those days, there were many more trees than the few that remain today into the 21st millennium.
Pears, apples, loquats, figs, grapes and walnuts grew on the river flats in abundance but Harry also added to his crop by collecting baskets of blackberries from the vines that grew out of control along the river. Harry was a surprisingly good cook and the produce was baked into apple and blackberry pies and shared around the neighbourhood with friends and acquaintances. Throw in the occasional snared rabbit and Old Harry was virtually living off the land at Yallambie. “We’re 10 miles from the city, yet you would think we were 100 miles away,” he said. Every year on the 5th November a great bonfire would be kindled on the flats marking Guy Fawkes’ treasonous plot and “cracker night” would be celebrated with a great deal of noise and potatoes roasted in the embers of the fire.
There was no bath or shower in the Yallambie cottage and Harry’s ablutions were limited to a regular swim in the river. Toiletry arrangements involved a septic tank which Harry installed himself alongside the cottage but herein were sown the seeds to the eventual demise of his riverside rural idyll.
The cottage stood on the Plenty River flood plain. Three times in the 1970s Harry was flooded out and on one occasion he battled a surge of water that came up to his chest inside the house. Harry dug a deep 100 foot trench to the river and carted 10 tons of white sand onto the river flats to shore up the property and to protect it from flooding, but it was to no avail. The Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works wanted Harry gone, reasoning that every time the river flooded there was of a risk of Harry’s septic getting into the stream. In 1978 the matter went all the way to the Housing Commission and The Honourable Geoff Hayes, the State Minister of Housing.
In the face of this Harry finally resolved to buy a block of land in Tarcoola Drive bordering the derelict Yallambie Homestead stables. He paid about $5000 for his block and designed and built a home, putting many of his own details into the construction of the interior, everything from the blue slate floor to the leadlight chimney window, (courtesy of his friendship with Rein Slagmolen). It was a far cry from the Yallambie Cottage but Harry didn’t stop there, carving a garden into the steep slope at the back of his Tarcoola Drive address, slashing blackberries and replacing them with clusters of pampas grass and a jungle of ferns. Hundreds of blue stone blocks were introduced into the landscape with Harry erecting a flying fox rope pulley to man handle the rocks down the slope and into position. Brick paving and ponds were designed to create a Japanese style feel to the garden.
Harry said, “I love the feeling of rocks and water. I want to achieve a harmony between man and nature. I don’t think I’ll ever actually finish the garden. It’s an ongoing evolutionary process.”
He never did finish. Time had moved on and “Old Harry” was now approaching an age befitting his moniker. Soon after moving into his new home, vandals burned the pumping house and the cottage to the ground on the river flats.
Harry said, “I don’t think I’ll ever shift out of Yallambie. It all depends whether I get married or not.”
The garden Harry built in Tarcoola Drive is now a ruin, his cottage and the pumping house little more than memory. The sobriquet “Harry’s” on a letter box of a house now the only pointer to the identity of its original owner.
Harry didn’t marry of course. He died 30 years ago from a coronary occlusion while on the Heidelberg Golf Course, proof if proof be needed that if you’ve gotta go, better to go while doing something you love.
But for all that there are some who still think that Harry was true to his word. At the setting of the sun as the shadows lengthen under the trees on the river escarpment, there is a very real feeling that maybe Harry never left Yallambie after all. It is a belief held by the current owner and visitors to the Tarcoola Drive house that Harry built. At the closing of the day, the spirit of Old Harry lives on.
We were at Yallambie and wondering where to go.
“What about carols?” said my good lady.
“She lives in Geelong. That’s too far to travel on Christmas Eve.”
“Not Carol’s. I mean carols. The sort you sing.”
“Oh, I see. Then I suppose Noel’s is out of the question.”
It’s an unlikely story but Christmas carols in Yallambie usually means a bit of travelling. The only church, the Anglican Church of the Holy Spirit on the corner of Yallambie and Greensborough Roads, was torn down in 1961.
All the same, “it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas” and in the backstreets of our town right now the gardens and the exteriors of many Yallambie houses are already decorated with Christmas lights while nearby shopping centres have been adorned with Council sponsored ornament. Every year these shops begin posting their Christmas sales ever earlier, the sight of the Easter Bunny pulling a sleigh down Yallambie Rd a seemingly inescapable destiny.
The very first Christmas in what 50 years later, would become the Colony of Victoria, occurred in 1803 at the short-lived convict settlement at Sullivan Bay in Port Phillip near modern-day Sorrento. The weather that December remained blisteringly hot and fresh water was scarce. A more inhospitable or exposed location for a settlement could not be imagined but for homesick Englishmen far from the blazing Yule-log and holly bough of home, celebrating Christmas was a tradition, even if at Sullivan Bay it was not motivated by any particular sense of spiritual obligation.
Four days before Christmas Day, David Collins, the Lieutenant Governor of the settlement, ordered the stores to issue a pound of raisins to each person so that Christmas puddings could be made. In spite of the difficulties being experienced by the Sullivan Bay settlement at that time, it would seem from the record that Christmas was still an occasion for Old World ceremony. Plum puddings boiled in the oppressive heat of an Australian summer would become the prototype for the stereotypical Aussie Christmas but in December 1803 it was still all a very new experience. A time of goodwill and ghosts and an occasion to reflect on far away homes forever in exile.
As Christmas neared, those reflections took a turn. Some of those at Sullivan Bay were not so sure that Santa had their calling cards, lost as they were abroad in the wilds of this Great South Land. They decided to take matters into their own hands and in the early hours of Sunday morning, Christmas Day 1803, a few convicts stole from the settlement items including a kettle, a gun, boots and medical supplies. Not so much as a tin drum or toy trumpet among the whole Christmas shopping list, but these convicts, like Blackadder’s Baldrick, had a cunning plan.
“A daring robbery having been committed on Sunday morning in the Commissary’s tent, and the sick having been at the same time meanly plundered of their provisions in their tents by some person or persons at present unknown, the Lieut. Governor calls upon all the well-disposed persons in the settlement to aid and assist in bringing the offender or offenders to justice…” (General Orders, Sullivan Bay, 1803)
Two days later on the 27th December, five convicts absconded from the settlement intending to “walk to China”. Four were never seen again (a sixth was shot by the garrison watch and severely wounded). The Sullivan Bay settlement itself was soon after abandoned in favour of the more promising Derwent River in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) however the fifth escapee, William Buckley, lived on with Aboriginal people, learning their languages and their customs and becoming an accepted member of the tribes. He circumnavigated Port Phillip Bay, early on losing the kettle while crossing the Yarra River “falls” before eventually settling in the vicinity of the Bellarine Peninsula.
More than 30 years later at the founding of Melbourne, Buckley emerged from the bush like a latter day Port Phillip Crusoe, carrying wooden spears and impressively dressed in native fashion to welcome John Batman’s party. Buckley, the “Wild White Man of Port Phillip” as he became known, would never really settle back comfortably into the European world but soon received a full if belated pardon from the colonial authorities proving once and for all that sometimes all our Christmases do indeed come at once.
As an escapee from convict oppression, the story of William Buckley and his admission into an indigenous world unfamiliar to the land of his birth has a contemporary and somehow familiar ring as populations are displaced by change and internecine conflict across every part of this Pale Blue Dot. The corresponding rise in ethnic nationalism the world over highlights a need felt by all peoples for a tribal identity over and above even what they feel for the football team at the end of the street. Brexit and the movement for Scottish independence were driven by this, but closer to home the disconcerting One Nation movement in Australia is a part of this same social phenomena.
Last month in Eltham, just beyond the boundaries of Yallambie, about 100 anti-refugee protesters demonstrated against a proposal to install Syrian refugees at a former local care facility. One Nation declared the protest was nothing to do with them and in the end the rent the crowd that turned up was itself outnumbered by protesters protesting against the protesters. Eltham has a reputation for left leaning politics and liberal social values and has a historically strong artists’ community. The anti-protesters brightened up the streets in the days leading up to the “Battle of Eltham” by tying thousands of handmade, brightly painted butterflies to Eltham trees and stenciling butterfly images onto pavements in a show of solidarity with the refugees.
I was in Eltham on the day of the protest and saw some of the anti-refugee protesters in the street. They looked somehow out of place in those leafy Eltham surroundings. How is it, I wondered, that growing a bushy beard and donning a knee-length oilskin is supposed to make you a more patriotic Australian than the next man in a multicultural society? The answer of course is that it doesn’t. The underlying truth when you peel back the window dressing is that as a human race we enjoy more similarities than differences.
As a traveller in years past I have seen at first hand some of the points of origin of this latest installment in trans-border refugee movement. Travel is an enriching experience and has become almost an Australian rite of passage among young people but I find it hard now to equate the pictures I see of ruined buildings on news feeds with those far off places of my distant memory. I have walked those streets and wandered through the Al-Madina Souq of Aleppo. On occasion I was invited off the street into family homes where I was told that this was the way they would most like visitors to see them and not as governments have defined them. How could those places and those people have been bombed into ashes and their lives ground into so much dust? What does it feel like to lose your home, your livelihood and the lives of those you hold most dear? Surely we as a nation could do more to meet our moral obligation to the displaced peoples of this world?
Australia enjoys a remarkably stable, tolerant and inclusive democracy but we take very few refugees on the world scale. Our democracy is something most Australians take for granted and it must be one of the few places in the world where the government has enacted laws to obligate people to vote come election-day. As one wag at the ABC put it during the Australian Federal Election in July, in this country it’s all about the battle for the Australian political middle ground.
Mutuma Ruteere, a UN special rapporteur, this week warned that “fringe elements” were in danger of entering the political mainstream but he said that “Australia was not unique among western democracies in grappling with popular support for parties with discriminatory policies”.
It seems clear that extremist viewpoints are on the rise everywhere. When I was in the States in March this year a few months before our own Federal election I saw the then candidate for the Republican nomination campaigning on television in Fox advertorials, masquerading as current affairs which seemed to have been modelled on the illusory truth effect. I never doubted then that before too long the campaign of this most unlikely of US Presidential nominations would run out of puff. From a country of over 320 million people I asked myself, was this really the best they could come up with?
Who’d a thunk?
As a president time may show that, in spite of appearances, the election of a foul mouthed, misogynistic, xenophobic, tax avoiding casino mogul as unofficial leader of the Free World will prove to be the best thing for Americans since sliced bread. Stranger things have happened. I wouldn’t like to make a prediction but if nothing else, it certainly indicates some sort of a seismic shift although, like the pigs in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” who started walking around on their hind legs, it’s sometimes hard to draw a distinction.
On the last day of November, 1835 soon after the founding of Melbourne, John Pascoe Fawkner while ploughing for a potato bed near the falls on the virgin south bank of the Yarra, dug up an old and rusted kettle. Some settlers saw the pot as evidence that French or Spanish travellers had been at Port Phillip in a previous era but William Buckley recognized it as the pot he had lost all those years ago during his escape from Sullivan Bay.
Fawkner secretly treasured this pot. During that first Christmas in 1835 at what was to become Melbourne, Fawkner saw it as link to that other settlement 32 years earlier. In his mind it somehow legitimized European presence on those Aboriginal lands, the legality of which remained (and remains) very unclear.
Within five years the Bakewell brothers would be farming on the Plenty River at Yallambie. It was the start in Victoria in a wave of regular net migration into Australia that continues into the present day.
Tradition has it that Christmas marks the birth of Jesus, the Christian Messiah, the message of whose ministry 2000 years ago called on all people, even the poor and oppressed, to repent and love their enemies. It is a time when we wish peace and good will to all men (and women) and call for a better understanding for in a way, we are all travellers through life on this island earth.
Two-up, Tattslotto or the track, many Australians like the punt and on Melbourne Cup Day, the first Tuesday in November, even those who would otherwise give racing no second thought sit up and take notice. If you’re like me, you don’t have to like racing particularly to enjoy the Melbourne-wide public holiday the State Government declares every year to mark the “Race that Stops a Nation”. It stops because we’re all on holiday.
Personally I wouldn’t know one end of a horse from the other. Possibly the psychologists would have something to say about a childhood remembered listening to my father “taking the scratchings on the wireless”, an old valve type Astor Mickey every Saturday morning, followed by the broadcast races in the afternoon. He thought of the process as a form of entertainment and often didn’t even bother to bet and if he did, it was for never more than a few dollars for the day. In time I asked him if he were to add up all the wins he had had and compare them alongside to all the losses, well would he be a bit in front, or rather a bit behind. His response was frank and to the point, “Listen son, mark my words, if anyone ever tells you they win on the TAB they are lying to your face.”
It was a good attitude to bring to the punt. Racing for him was a culture. Occasionally he would take the family to a country race meeting and apparently this was supposed to be something of an occasion. I remember it was invariably stinking hot and for some reason I never quite fathomed, I always seemed to be over dressed in my Sunday best. On arrival my mother would put out a picnic rug and a Thermos on the lawn, Dad would disappear to inspect the bookies’ tents and my sister would take off to admire the horses in the training yard. It was usually at this moment that I would ask for the first, but certainly not for the last time that day, “Can we go home now?”
But the gees gees were in the old man’s blood. His brother had been a jockey riding for the racing stable of Frank Musgrave in the 1930s and before that their father had worked as a stockman for Coghlan and Boase & Co, stock and station agents in Ballarat. During my own childhood our cousins in that town kept a racing stables which legend has it was even moderately successful for a while. My memory of that place was being put without a saddle or bridle on top of an old grey mare that I was told had not galloped for about half a century. The next thing it was off with me clinging to its neck like grim death, charging towards the busy main road which loomed up ahead at the end of the path. Looking back on it, it was probably my strangling hold on the neck of the horse that had sent it flying down the path in the first place and the harder I held on, the faster she went. Finally, as I contemplated throwing myself off before the impending intersection and its looming road traffic, my grip must have relaxed and the horse stopped mid stride. “Oh thankyou dear, dear horsey,” I whimpered as I climbed down gingerly from on high, determined to never go through that again. My cousins though were more than impressed when they came up. “Crikey, Ian, we haven’t seen that horse so very much as move in years. How on earth did you manage to get her to gallop?” Apparently natural horsemanship is something you are born with.
The family of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge were certainly born to horsemanship. A daughter, Alice Wragge even managed to marry one of the stable hands, an itinerant bricklayer who worked at Yallambie, very much to the enduring outrage of her father. Wragge’s Yallambie featured an extensive stables complex which dated from the previous Bakewell occupation of the property and which survived into the 1980s, the sound of clip clopping hooves echoing across the years from a time when the concept of horsepower carried a literal meaning. A brother of Thomas Wragge, Henry, whose diary was found under the floorboards at Yallambie Homestead, is also remembered as one of the earliest practitioners of equine veterinary medicine in the Victorian Colony. In the words of Winty Calder: “Horses were an essential part of the life of the Wragges”, and properties like Yallambie and their Riverina pastoral holdings could not have been run without them. (Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p173).
Quoting from her father Frank Wright’s memories, Calder goes on to recount an occasion at Jessie Wragge’s 1910 funeral and an incident that well illustrates the horse skills present in the family.
The cortege must have been about half a mile long. Behind the horse-drawn and black plumed hearse were two or three mourning coaches followed by a great line-up of buggies, traps, jinkers and the like, all horsedrawn. Starting at Yallambie, the procession went via Upper Heidelberg Road to the Heidelberg Cemetery. As the hearse approached the bottom of the hill near Rosanna Station, one of the horses attached to the first mourning coach started to play up just about level with where the entrance to the Yarra Yarra Golf Links subsequently stood. Probably the vehicle’s brakes were not effective during the long descent. There was no britching in the two-horse one-pole harness and all each horse could do was to try to hold back with the collar up near its head.
The off-side horse of the first coach started to kick, and got one leg over the pole. The coach ran off the road to the right and crashed into the fence in a fair tangle; and there it stuck.
The hearse continued slowly on, crossing the gully and the new railway. The second coach stopped and so did the rest of the procession. The horse had no discernment at all, or else it would not have picked that company for its misbehaviour. From a dozen vehicles poured over fifty men – brothers, cousins, second-cousins and others who had spent a great part of their lives in saddles. They rushed in a mob to the tangle of horses, making soothing, hissing noises to calm them.
In a second, someone was sitting on the head of the fallen horse while others were unharnessing all the others. The hearse continued slowly plodding up the hill to the west. The horses were reharnessed, the coach hauled out of the fence by a dozen men and the horses coupled up again. The men rushed back to their vehicles, and the procession reformed. The hearse was only about 200 yards ahead, and before it got to the top of the rise the vehicles were back in place.
(Cader: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p211).
Hey presto, the dignity of the funeral procession was preserved. The wayward horse had chosen the wrong lads to mess with on that day. Horses were a part of the family’s everyday life as evidenced by Frank Wright’s further childhood memories at Upper Heidelberg Rd:
“I remember Will (Wragge) arriving one day on horseback and taking me on the pommel to Yallambie… I clearly remember an uproar one day [about 1902] when a party from Yallambie were riding to Essendon [probably to see Syd Wragge’s fiancé Grace Wilson], and Alice (Wragge) was thrown from her horse in Bell Street. Our place, being nearest belonging to the family, was returned to and Alice’s face, all grazed and bloody, made a vivid impression on me, as she sat on her horse in our yard before dismounting.” (Cader: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p139).
But of course it was at Thomas Wragge’s 110,000 acre property in NSW that the horse really came into its own and Thomas was very careful about the care of his animals.
“During the 1880s Thomas Wragge’s property became so large that much time was used riding to different parts of it, and many horses were needed. Always concerned about their welfare… one particular way in which Thomas cared for his horses has long been remembered. He insisted that a bucket of water should remain in the shade near the stables during the summer, so that bits could be immersed in it and cooled before being put in the horses’ mouth. Any man who failed to do so was instantly dismissed.” (Cader: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p105).
Country race meetings had their place in this world and Calder mentions a meeting at Tulla which, as a communal occasion, seems to have interrupted the shearing in that year:
“Race meetings were important social events. New Year’s Day 1887 was a Saturday and, after the usual homestead chores, all hands went to the races held at Fisher’s selection beside the Deniliquin road. Significantly, the Tulla diary entry for the next day reads: ‘Nothing much doing today – hot day.’” (Cader: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p116).
Fisher’s selection was a small holding taken up within the wide boundaries of the Tulla leasehold and according to Calder was “a continuing source of nuisance and annoyance for Thomas Wragge”. There was a bush pub located on the selection, a mere mile from the Tulla woolshed. The implication here is that sore heads after New Year’s race day drinks resulted in a diary entry, “Nothing much doing today,” with the station sheep perhaps fortunate not to face men with sharp shears after a day and night of solid drinking.
Thomas tried to buy the selection and its pub on a number of occasions but antagonism between him and the proprietor, a Mrs Beaton, meant that she refused to sell to him at any price. Eventually Thomas solved the problem by means of a simple ruse. Calder continues:
“He persuaded a man from Geelong to pose as a buyer, and that man finally made a deal with Mrs Beaton, paid a deposit and obtained a receipt which he handed to Thomas. It has been suggested that Thomas promptly rode over to the pub, ordered everyone out of it and burnt down the building.”
Thomas might not have approved of a bush pub and a country race venue in such close proximity to his woolshed, but the racing of horses was an important social activity for 19th century Australian pastoral dynasties and a family like the Wragges were no exception. They structured their year around the Melbourne Cup, moving down from the family’s properties in the Riverina annually to be in Melbourne for the running of the Cup. They then stayed on at Yallambie throughout Christmas and the hottest months of summer to avoid the worst heat of inland NSW.
As an event, the Cup has been run over 2 miles (3200 metres) at Flemington every November since 1861. Many people like to have a little flutter on the result with the certain knowledge it very probably is just “chucking money away” all the same.
We’ve all heard the story.
A man I know gets his haircut from a chap whose sister is married to a bloke who drives a taxi who gave a ride to a sporting type wearing a loud jacket who had spoken to a lad who sweeps out the stalls at a stables where he got this tip straight from the horse’s mouth, from Mr Ed, the talking horse.
Whether the Wragge’s liked a wager themselves is unrecorded but it could be argued that the very act of farming in a marginal landscape in NSW, a test for the soul and an arena for struggle in anybody’s language, was itself a form of gambling.
We like to think that flying in the face of adversity is a part of the National Character but in latter years it has come to mean something more. Australia has the dubious honour of losing more money on gambling per capita than any other nation on the planet – something well over $1000 on average per adult annually. 80% of Australians, the highest proportion of any country, wager something, somewhere, sometime but this hasn’t necessarily been a problem historically. For most of the history of the running of the Melbourne Cup, there were few other methods of gambling available to the general public, even with the inevitable illegal SP bookmaker working out the back of a shop in the suburbs. The process of picking a winner was a reward in itself. But when gambling left the track and entered our pubs and clubs in the form of poker machines or into a Casino at Southbank the State Government insisted we had to have because “the other states have got ´em”, it entered the vernacular. It made a few people, the owners of poker machine and casino licences very rich, but at the cost of making some folk very poor.
Like my father listening for the “scratchings” without placing a bet, I like to think it’s all about the process and not the end in itself. It makes horse sense that if I buy a lotto ticket then leave it unchecked for weeks, I’ve bought weeks of entertainment value. There is always the idea lurking at the back of my mind that there is a possibility of it being a winner, no matter how unlikely the reality. It might even explain the continuing popularity of the Cup in an Australia where there are now so many other forms of gambling available. You see, the Cup is not just about the gambling although that has always been a part of it.
At the first running of the Cup in 1861 the VRC issued two ladies tickets to every gentleman club member in the belief that “where ladies went, men would follow”. So historically the Cup has always been about other things – the fashions and the flirting, the boozing and the bookmakers, the race track and the roses. But most of all it has always been about the horses and the holiday. What other excuse do we need to have a good time?
The bees have made themselves at home behind the shingled walls of our verandah. On warm days the honey they make has been known to drip out onto the deck below, or even back into the ceiling inside the house where a stain on the plaster took several thousand licks of paint to conceal. Other than that though they don’t seem to be doing much real harm, and with the old verandah looking a bit shonky these days, it may be that honey is the only thing holding the whole humongous hotchpotch upright. With bees in trouble on several fronts, to my mind they might as well stay where they are. Our friends the bees are in need of all the help they can get.
You’ve probably heard that there’s something wrong with bees. They are on the decline worldwide with parasites, loss of habitat, pesticides and the mysterious colony collapse disorder held largely to blame, yet bees have been buzzing around this island earth since a time before the dinosaurs. As a motif they have long been used by man to symbolize industry and orderliness, yet on an evolutionary scale, it has taken us the mere blink of an eye to bring bees in this modern age to their bees’ bended knees.
The experimental film director Godfrey Reggio introduced the Native American word “Koyaanisqatsi” to popular culture in 1982. In the Hopi language it means “unbalanced life”, but in the more than three decades since, the situation Reggio described in film has not changed. All over Melbourne right now, developers are smashing up gardens for multiple occupancy dwellings, tearing up farm land for new suburbs, all the while cynically leaving here and there an occasional geriatric gum tree or token strip of park to appease the regulators. It’s not much chop for the people but it’s tantamount to a desert landscape for bees.
August was almond pollination season in the southern states of Australia. The two almond trees we have in our garden already have fruit on them, at least until the cockies cotton on to it, but in the natural order of things there are now many other plants following the almonds into flower. It highlights the importance of a diversity in flowering plants in the garden, an idea that has been promoted by bee activist and author, Doug Purdie, in books like “Backyard Bees”.
By contrast the monoculture farming techniques used up country creates Koyaanisqatsi of the highest order. These techniques offer bees rich sources of nectar for short periods, then nothing for the remainder of the year. Commercial production of almonds in the triangle between South Australia, NSW and north-west Victoria is a case in point and highlights the inherent dangers of these practices. It involves vast numbers of almond trees being grown artificially in a marginal landscape using lots of Murray River irrigation. Because there are few other trees in this area, truck-loads of bee hives are brought in from interstate every spring to assist in a pollination event which is is as surprising as it is unsustainable. Bees are brought from as far away as Queensland where worryingly a pest bee, the Asian Honey Bee, has recently been found. The Asian Honey Bee is believed to have been the original source of the parasitic mite, Varroa destructor which has caused so much damage to bee colonies around the planet. Australia remains one of the few places in the world where the destructor mite has not been seen but with the related Varroa jacobsoni already present on Asian honey bees around Townsville, the introduction of the destructor in the near future is now taken as a given. When that happens, it is farming practices like the almond pollination events of southern Australia that will make the spread of the mite across this island continent virtually unstoppable.
The European bee so familiar to our gardens was introduced to Australia in 1822 and in the nectar rich regions of our flowering eucalypt forests it soon became firmly established. It is the heavy work horse of the pollination world, a typical hive containing about 80,000 bees. Native bees, of which there are about 2000 varieties, are by comparison smaller, generally solitary and produce less honey. To the early settlers with their peculiar idea of finders keepers, this great southern land where little bits of Europe seemed so easily to reinvent itself must have seemed like a land flowing with proverbial milk and honey. In due course it had to be admitted that the keepers weren’t the finders after all but while the milk comes in suburban cartons these days, at Yallambie the second part of that flow equation can be thought of as being quite literally true.
Bees were probably kept in this area from the early days and in the second of the State Library’s c1856 daguerreotypes of Robert Bakewell’s garden, a rectangular shape in a lower corner may be evidence of a bee box positioned at that time on the Plenty River flats. If this interpretation could be proved to be correct, then in would put the Bakewells at the cutting edge of apiarist technology at that time since bee boxes with removable combs, as opposed to the more traditional skeps, were only perfected by Lorenzo Langstroth from an earlier design at the start of the 1850s.
Peter Barrett in “The Immigrant Bees”, (Springwood, 1995) quotes from Louisa Anne Meredith’s book “My Home in Tasmania” and uses her book as evidence of the Merediths’ bee keeping activities in Van Diemen’s Land in the 1840s. So the sight of bee boxes at Yallambee during Louisa’s 1856 visit would not, by association, seem to have been so out of place.
The Tembys kept bees during their tenure at Yallambie in the second half of the 20th century and a son of Ethel was still keeping bee boxes in Yallambie Park when we came to live here in the early 1990s. There were bees living inside a hollow oak in the Homestead garden at the time and I mentioned them to Ethel’s son, thinking they might be of use to him. “Yes, I can dispose of those feral bees,” he answered meaningfully. And so that was the end of that.
The bees are still in the oak and have now spread to an elm. They may have been the original source of the bees in our verandah. At this time of year the garden is literally buzzing with the busy little blighters. The Pride of Madeiras in our garden are in bloom and truly live up to their axiom, “the bee flowers”.
The above is about as good as I could manage with my simple point and shoot camera but it has been a good spring and there are plenty of other flowers in the garden around which the bees have been plying their trade. Some time ago my father in law turned up with a new lens on his camera and took the following series of photographs:
When seen up close in these pictures at a size not usually possible to our eyes, I like to wonder, ‘What goes on inside those little pin size heads?’ It’s all a question of scale and macro lens technology, but if you met one of these very alien looking little creatures up close, what sort of conversation might you have about their perspective on life? Do they know something we don’t know? Maybe you would find their space ships had been, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, “due to a terrible miscalculation of scale… accidentally swallowed by a small dog.”
Bees are known to forage up to 8km from their hives, even without their space ships, so the bees centrally located here at Yallambie are potentially now at work across the entire length and breadth of the City of Banyule. The Council doesn’t have any special planning laws restricting bee keeping in the community, providing all activities remain in accordance with the Apiary Code of Practice which requires the owner of hives to provide a nearby water source and also limits the number of hives and their location within urban environments. Bless them. I wonder if it insists on drinking straws for the bees as well?
Australia is a huge producer of honey and we actually produce more honey than our population of 23 million can consume. At the same time however we import honey into this country on a large scale. Australian honey is very pure and is therefore a valuable commodity on the world market. Not surprisingly therefore, cheap foreign honey is imported for the locals while the best home grown produce goes overseas. Ask any New Zealander about the cost of dairy produce in their country and you will hear a similar tale told.
For all of the problematic future facing our bees, they remain an integral part of the eco-system and the single most important link in our industrial food chain. All our crops are heavily reliant on their pollinating efforts but bees have been around a long time and over the passage of millennia have witnessed many changes. Whether they survive the current climate of change reflects on the ability of mankind itself to survive. So plant something flowering today and give the bees a helping hand. A world without bees would be quite simply a world without.