It might surprise you to hear it, but there is a new fashion disturbing the dusty world of history academia. The boffins call it “Big History”, a term they use to explain a multi-disciplinary examination of the history of the Universe from the Big Bang to the present day.
By calling it Big History, that doesn’t mean necessarily that the next time you see an historian he will automatically be carrying a tape measure or even a bathroom scales. Some things are just too darn big to put a proper measure upon. What we call Big History is really an attempt to illustrate one of the fundamental points about history, the fact that we’re all part of a larger story and, in order to see where we are going in that story, we need to see where we have come from.
There are some who will argue that the name “Big History” is a bit of a vague term and that what we really have is just the same thing that has been taught in the hallowed halls of our places of learning since Renaissance times. In 15th century Italy for instance, Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci developed the concept of the Universal Man which placed man at the centre of the universe, a limitless figure in his capacity for knowledge. We’ve come a long way in our understanding since then but it is an irony that in the modern age, when mankind is at last in a position to understand what is truly our quite insignificant place in the Cosmos, we have reached a point where we no longer look to the heavens and wonder – a thing our ancestors had done previously since they first stepped away from the camp fire light at night to gnaw on a bone of the woolly mammoth.
Light pollution from our cities and the glowing screens of hand held smart phones have shut out the night sky from observation and our minds in a way unknown to Galileo, even after all that unpleasant business with the Inquisition and the comfy chair.
Those of us of a certain age will remember back to a time in our youth when the much touted Halley’s Comet made its generational pilgrimage to the inner solar system in 1985. I remember my mother telling me from an early age that a school teacher had told her about his stunning observation of Halley’s previous visit in 1910 and how, although he would be long dead by the time of its return, he expected most of the children in his class would live to see its return in the mid-1980s. I remember thinking it a bit of a letdown when it finally arrived, the light pollution of the skies over Rosanna lessening the effects of the comet in the sky, but I did manage to take this photograph with a fast slide film, an image that with a little modern day Photoshop enhancing is at least some sort of a record of the event and of a time in my life.
On a scale of all things then, there is no greater subject than the study of the night sky. On a weekend last month a friend brought his telescope to Yallambie and on a dark, moonless night he demonstrated it to us in the back garden in the shadow of our Bunya Pine. His telescope was a homemade affair that would have done Galileo proud. It consisted of not much more than a pipe with an old photo copier lens attached, mounted on a tripod but capable of producing surprisingly effective results. We turned it to what looked to my eye to be a fairly bright spot in the heavens to find a spreading glow of light that hinted at unknown worlds and infinite possibilities.
Our friend identified it as the “Great Nebula in Orion” and then turned our attention to Alpha Crucis, a multiple star system which appeared to our eyes as a single star at the base point of that most familiar constellation to Australian eyes, the Southern Cross. In quick time we then looked at Betelgeuse, Sirius, Aldebaran, the globular cluster Omega Centauri and the Pleiades, the latter known by many things in the mythology of ancient peoples the world over but called the seven Karatgurk sisters in a story of the local Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation.
The Australian Aboriginals call it their Dreamtime but to look up at the stars is to literally look back into time. One of the greatest of the many great achievements of the Hubble Space Telescope was the Hubble “Deep Field” observations where the mighty telescope was turned continuously to seemingly empty points of space to record long exposures of the faintest light. What the astronomers found still does my head in to think about. In those supposedly empty patches of space the telescope recorded tens of thousands of galaxies, each galaxy itself filled with countless billions of stars. Not bad for an empty patch of sky in an expanding and ever accelerating universe where, as Carl Sagan once famously observed, the number of stars is far greater than the number of grains of sand on all the beaches of the world.
It sort of puts you into your place doesn’t it? Our ancestors used to look towards the Moon and in an exercise in Pareidolia, constructed a face from what they observed. We’ve all done that at some point but at the end of last January the world got a chance to see the “Man in the Moon” in full detail when it was treated to a magnificent Super Blue Blood Moon – a total lunar eclipse of a second full moon in a month during the Moon’s closest orbital approach to the Earth.
We looked at it at Yallambie that night through my father’s old binoculars and I photographed it at the moment of totality with the longest lens I could find, unfortunately without a tripod and with the camera perched hand held on the top of the pickets of a garden fence. The resulting photograph doesn’t really do what we saw that night justice but then that’s true of most things that happen to you in life.
In 1874 a locally produced photograph of the Moon recorded in stunning detail was reproduced and distributed to schools, libraries and Mechanics Institutes throughout Victoria. The image was the creation of Melbourne’s very own 19th century wonder of astronomy, the “Great Melbourne Telescope”. It is a little known fact but Melbourne was once home to what was then the second largest telescope in the world, the GMT or “Great Melbourne Telescope”, a reflecting telescope with a polished speculum (metal) mirror of 48 inches (1.2 metres) diameter. Conceived in the 1840s, designed by leading British astronomers and manufactured in Ireland it was erected at the Observatory in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens in 1869 where it was intended to explore the nature of the nebulae in the southern skies.
Cutting edge technology for its day, the Great Melbourne Telescope was beset with problems from the outset and was quickly overtaken by instruments installed at other more appropriate, non-city based locations worldwide, but for Melburnians of the 1870s and 80s it remained as a visible evidence of their city’s claim to be one of the great capital cities of the world and a tangible proof of “Marvellous Melbourne”.
By the 20th century however the Great Melbourne Telescope had become more or less old hat. It was dismantled and its component parts sold in 1944 to the Mt Stromlo Observatory in Canberra where, with many modifications, it continued to be put to good use observing the Southern skies. In 1984 Museum Victoria acquired a large number of discarded artefacts of the Great Melbourne from the Mt Stromlo Observatory which the Museum intended to form as part of a new collection. It was a fortunate move because in 2003 the Mt Stromlo Observatory was itself all but destroyed in the devastating Canberra bush fires of that year. The fires were so intense that the aluminium domes of the Observatory buildings melted at 660°C but in a stroke of unplanned luck, the intense fires stripped away all the modern aluminium and plastic additions to the GMT leaving behind little beyond its original steel and cast iron components. With the pieces Museum Victoria had already secured in 1984 it was thought that 90% of the original instrument had survived.
Since 2003 a dedicated band of volunteers and staff at Museum Victoria have since been carefully restoring the pieces of the Great Melbourne Telescope, recasting and machining the missing parts with a dream of one day returning it in working order to its original building at the Melbourne Botanic Gardens.
On an Easter long weekend as we ponder our Creator and an out of control Chinese space station threatens to come crashing down around our ears in a sort of April 1st prelude, wouldn’t that be a stunning Phoenix like contribution to history on a scale both small, and large?
Genealogy is one of those things that is met with either interest or disdain, depending on your viewpoint. As far back as Genesis it has been a closely considered subject and, although it sometimes seems to me that we can’t see the wood for the family trees, from my experience it’s a matter which would appear to be dependent entirely on whose relative it is under general scrutiny.
“You’ll find nothing in there but fair dinkum kosher Scottish aristocracy,” I tell my wife if she gives me half a chance to steer the subject, but somehow that’s a claim that never seems to have the intended effect. Her eyes take on that glassy, faraway look and it’s about this time that she finds something of particular interest to look at up on the ceiling.
Be that as it may, the pursuit of history sometimes invokes a mention of genealogy and, in the last post, I used the Bakewell connection to the wife of John James Audubon to introduce in brief outline the story of that famed painter of America’s birds.
Lucy Audubon, née Bakewell, was a second cousin of Yallambee’s John and Robert Bakewell, but that was not the only familial connection of note in what is really a most intriguing family tree, even for the unrelated. In Henderson’s pedigree can be found, amongst others, a Bakewell Yale professor, a Bakewell Chief Justice, a Bakewell geological scientist and a Bakewell practitioner of early lunacy treatments. Alongside these however and of particular note perhaps, was Robert Bakewell of Dishley Grange (1725-95), the noted agriculturalist and stock breeder and considered by many to be the father of modern agricultural practices. The uncle of that Robert Bakewell was the great-great grandfather of the Yallambee Bakewells.
Before too long then it appears as though we’ve got Bakewells coming out of our Yallambie ears, but perhaps that’s just getting a little bit ahead of our story. The nearest relative of especial note related to the John and Robert B of Yallambee was it turns out, Benjamin Bakewell, a flint glass maker of Pittsburgh and a first cousin once removed of the Yallambee Bakewells and an uncle of Lucy Audubon.
The name of Benjamin Bakewell is noted by those who make a serious study of the history of glass making and his factory under numerous partnerships was producing glassware of the highest standards for three quarters of a century. Described as “a man of wide-ranging intellect who found creative expression and financial success in the manufacture of glass”, Benjamin Bakewell’s factory “produced objects that reflected the highest quality of craftsmanship and decoration achieved in Nineteenth Century American glass”, (Frick Art & Historical Center).
Benjamin Bakewell emigrated to America from Derby in 1794 and embarked on a series of business pursuits which included a brewery, run in partnership with his brother William (the father of Lucy Audubon), and an import/export business trading in American commodities to Europe in Bakewell’s own fleet of ships. In 1808 Benjamin took a failing glass making factory in Pittsburgh and redeveloped it as Bakewell & Ensell, the first glass factory to make fully cut glass in America and by the 1820s it was recognized as one of that country’s premier glass establishments.
“In the history of Nineteenth Century American decorative arts, Benjamin Bakewell stands out as an exemplar of innovation, creativity and entrepreneurial initiative. His enterprise, founded in 1808, had a vital role in establishing Pittsburgh as a major center of glassmaking in the Nineteenth Century.” (ibid)
Whether free-blown, mold-blown or pressed glass, Bakewell glass revealed an innovative approach to design and decoration using a variety of decorative techniques which included wheel cutting, engraving and cameo-incrustation. When the Bakewell factory finally closed in 1882 it had by then become the longest running flint glassworks in continuous operation in the United States, with successive generations of Bakewells having added to the legacy.
Following Benjamin Bakewell’s initial enterprise for business, subsequent generations of Bakewells all made their mark. Thomas Bakewell’s application of chemistry and Benjamin Bakewell Jr’s talent for innovation, added to the mechanical expertise of John Palmer Bakewell and the practical and steady hand of Benjamin Bakewell Campbell, created a factory which influenced the cultural and industrial landscape of the United States throughout the 19th century in an exemplary marriage of the decorative arts and industrial processes.
How much if anything Yallambee’s John and Robert B knew about the glass making efforts of their American cousins will probably never be known but I refer to the story here to add to my earlier contention that the wider Bakewell family is full of such stories of innovation and entrepreneurship.
After John and Robert departed Yallambee in 1857, Yallambie was leased, then purchased by Thomas Wragge who in about 1872 built the present Homestead, (managing to change the spelling to its more common form along the way).
The first prefabricated Yallambee had impressed Richard Howitt who wrote in 1842 that with its “French windows, you seemed scarcely in-doors.” (Howitt: Impressions of Australia Felix)
The new house that Wragge built by contrast featured “a large, arched window of figured glass at the top of the stairs”(Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales) and an acid etched, glass overhead fan light and side lights at the front door, a remaining fragment of which was found under the floor when the boards were disturbed in modern times.
When Thomas Wragge’s daughter Sarah Annie and her husband Walter Murdoch remodelled Yallambie, possibly starting in about 1919 and continuing on until 1923, this etched glass at the front was removed and replaced with a lead light design that was also to be repeated elsewhere in the house. As a part of this process the front door was cut down and the fan light removed to accommodate a large lead light window within the upper door panel. This was the arrangement that remained in place until the end of the 20th century.
At the start of the new millennium a long process commenced to rebuild the front entrance into a resemblance of the original 19th century configuration. Original acid etched glass side lights were sourced from a house that had been demolished in Albert Park and the very personable Paul Storm, Australia’s only remaining practitioner of the highly skilled and dangerous art of acid etching on glass, was commissioned to create a new fan light to suit. It featured a “Golden Fleece” motif in a sort of latter day nod to old Tom’s original ambition.
Stylistically appropriate, the large front door panel found its way, with modifications, into the lower sash of a double hung bathroom window in the Edwardian extension of the house. An upper sash was also created to match and incorporated a purpose made, square cut, clear “picture” window for observing the moon at night from the bath tub, a curious but stated minimum requirement for the window from the glass designer’s wife.
Lead lighting – I’ve always admired the skill of one of our friends who, over time, has produced countless complex and colourful works of art in his own home and was all too ready to help with the end result in this case. Armed with this certitude and a few Youtube tutorials to suit, this amateur quickly found that, while there may be a bit of a knack to cutting glass, the main challenge confronting the novice lead lighter is the amount of time needed to do even a small leadlight project properly. With a monthly blog to write up, it’s not as though any of us has time on our hands these days is it?
In time the leadlight side lights from the front found their own good way into a new but typically still unpainted four panel door and a matching overhead vestibule window was created to suit. The small panel shown above the Edwardian style door in the photograph here represents hours of patient work and more than a little broken and wasted glass. Even so there remains a mistake in the final design. I didn’t spot it until I’d finished but I’m not about to remake it. Give the man (or woman) a cigar who can spot the difference.
According to Winty Calder, Thomas Wragge may have purchased porcelain door trim for Yallambie Homestead at the Royal Derby China factory during a trip to England and some of these items may have been subsequently removed prior to the A V Jennings sale when fittings were allegedly used by the agent’s so called “caretaker” to generate beer money at the Plenty Bridge Hotel.
Whatever the truth, in later times several door fittings have been replaced with original glass or porcelain fittings scrounged obsessively from demolition yards and junk shops on a beer budget.
The period following the end of the Edwardian era was a time of great change and upheaval in Australian society. At Yallambie a generational change had occured. As previously recounted in the pages of this blog, the Wragge family commissioned a magnificent triptych chancel window at St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg showing Christ ascending with Mary and John on the side panels. Meanwhile, Thomas Wragge’s “arched window of figured glass”, over the stairs at Yallambie disappeared from living memory during Sarah Annie’s renovations when the original staircase, a “wide curved central stairway”, (Calder) was remodelled.
In another nod to the past, an old stained and leaded glass window has now been positioned in a window at the back of the stairs as a sort of surrogate reinterpretation of that first idea. Purchased in another dusty junk shop in SA, reputedly sourced from a defunct school of architecture in NSW, and brought to Victoria on the roof of our car, the window is possibly an early Australian example of the glass painters’ art.
You might wonder at so much attention seeming to be wasted on detail while so many parts of an old building are crumbling around the occupants’ ears. You might think it’s a story filled suspiciously with glasses of a rose colour but when it comes down to it, we all want to make a mark as we sail through on our allotted span. Maybe that means the changes made to a pile of bricks and mortar sometimes called home. Or maybe it’s the untangling of a genealogical record for the sake of an imagined posterity. Or maybe it’s simply a few words recorded in an obscure blog read by someone, somewhere, some time while looking through a glass, darkly.
To ornithologists with an archaic command of the English language, it could have been murder. It occurred one morning last week in the trees above Yallambie Park, but there wasn’t a strangled body left hanging in the branches and the Homicide Squad wasn’t called in to investigate.
It’s an obscure bit of phraseology, but according to the Oxford Dictionary, any noisy gathering of crows is collectively known as a “murder”, and that’s just what we had circling over the Yallambie escarpment here the other day. Like a scene from an old Alfred Hitchcock horror film, dozens of these large black birds circled and swooped through the tall trees, all the while filling the air of the Plenty Valley in every direction with their strident calls.
By the Oxford’s definition then it was a murder, and a murder of some magnitude. The aerial perambulations of these birds lasted a good ten minutes and as I stood watching them, I wondered to myself, ‘What could possibly be going on inside those bird brains rising high above the ground up there in the sky? What could they be saying to each other?’ To my mind their avian behaviour certainly seemed considered and their vocalization in many respects carried the nuances of language.
Our fruit trees have been laden this year and the cockies and lorikeets for a long time have been making deep inroads into the crop. For a while there was a bit of a stand-off between the cockatoos and the new arrivals but in this may be a clue in essence to what the crows were really chatting on about during their mid-air confab. When the crows subsequently took up an unofficial residency in the area under the outraged watch of the cockatoos, a neighbour told me that she thought, “There must be a plum tree in the neighbourhood because the birds keep dropping pips onto our tin roof.”
Go figure. Our plum tree has since been stripped quite bare. No wonder those birds had so much to say about Yallambie on arrival.
Among birds, the corvids (crows and ravens) are reputedly the most intelligent and have the largest brain for body size. They are highly social and renowned for their problem-solving abilities. You’ve probably seen them on the National Geographic Channel dropping shell fish and nuts onto hard surfaces to crack them open, or by improvising with found objects to form tools to open lunch boxes. One report even suggests that they can count to a kindergarten level, and that’s even while substituting claws for fingers as I suppose they must do.
Crows are one hell of a bird then so it surprised me to find out that calling a gathering of big black crows here in the State of Victoria a murder might actually be a misnomer.
You see, the big, black birds we see here aren’t considered by the experts to be crows at all. It turns out the birds we see in South-eastern Australia are classed by the people who know about such things as ravens, the bird Noah chose to release first up from the Ark, and it is an error of binomial nomenclature reporting to describe them otherwise.
So there you go. In the best Agatha Christie tradition, sometimes a murder isn’t necessarily what it seems, even for those of us accused of regularly murdering English here in WordPress. So maybe next time you are thinking of crying out, “Stone the crows,” perhaps what you should really be saying is, “Stone the ravens.” Doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?
The bird we call a “crow” in South-eastern Australia is actually the “Little Raven”, a bird of smaller proportion to the larger, closely related Australian Raven and next time you’re at the football standing next to a barracking Adelaide supporter, you could try suggesting they use the more literally correct form of endearment, “Carn the Little Ravens.” Try that one day and see how far you get.
The Little Raven is just one of the many types of bird that inhabit the air up and down the Plenty Valley, permanently and on a seasonal basis. The reports of the first settlers of this area are filled with descriptions of the bird life they saw, with James Willis’ diary especially filled with lists of the species he encountered as he happily blasted away at them to send them spinning out of the sky and into his cooking pot.
Thomas Wragge and his family are also remembered for having kept a captive Sulphur Crested cockatoo in a large cage on the back verandah at Yallambie in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Cockatoos are very long lived birds and can be taught to mimic the spoken language of humans. When Thomas installed one of the very first telephones in the Heidelberg district at Yallambie, an early model Ericsson wall phone, the bird developed a talent for squawking out a call in imitation to what it had heard voiced with the ring on previous occasions. “The telephone, the telephone,” the bird would scream whenever it heard the phone alarm, which I guess was every bit as good as having an extension bell in the garden.
Later, the Tembys also kept a pet cockatoo at Yallambie but they dispensed with the cage on the verandah and parked the bird instead on a beam in the kitchen from where it could chat regularly with the family.
Be that as it may and leaving all talking birds aside, while on the subject of ornithology it is an earlier connection to the story of the Bakewell brothers of the 1840s Station Plenty, (Yallambee) that most interests me and which is worth telling from this point.
The Bakewell story carries a close and familial connection with a piece of feathered history of small but international import. According to Alexander Henderson’s pedigree in his “Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina”, John and Robert Bakewell and their sister Phoebe Howitt (née Bakewell) were 2nd cousins of Lucy Bakewell, the wife of that most famous painter of American birds, John James Audubon. The Yallambee Bakewells and Lucy shared the same ancestor – Robert Bakewell of Castle Donington, their great grandfather.
Lucy Bakewell’s family moved to the United States in 1801 when she was 14 years old and she almost certainly never met her younger Australian emigre cousins who were born after that date. However, it is said that her father William was acquainted with Joseph Priestley and that Dr Erasmus Darwin had been her infant physician and, while not a member of the Lunar Society himself, William Bakewell’s dealings with these prominent members of that famous society of liberal thinkers is evidence perhaps of the sort of circles the larger Bakewell family moved within.
In an assessment, the Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Rhodes in his 2004 Audubon biography wrote that: “Even for English country gentry, the Bakewells were literate to an unusual degree.” It is therefore not so surprising the paths taken by the later members of that family when arriving in Australia. John and Robert’s acclimatization experiments at Yallambee and Phoebe’s patronage of the arts, together with the activities of her husband, Dr Godfrey Howitt, have all been well documented and form part of a tradition.
So in the best Quaker style then, it might be said that Lucy Bakewell was the product of something more than the usual ornamental education given to gentle women of that era and when John James Audobon met her for the first time in early 1804, he was immediately smitten. Lucy was just short of 17 years old. He was 18.
“She was tall, slim, graceful, poise, modest and lovely to look at, with a turned-up English nose and smoky gray eyes – in the recent estimate of one of her cousins, ‘a fine lively girl.’ She was also, as Audubon would discover, intelligent, loyal, well read, musical, meticulous, a good horsewoman and an athletic swimmer.” (Richard Rhodes, John James Audubon – The Making of an American, 2004).
John James Audubon was born in 1785 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) and raised in France during the dangerous and chaotic period after the French Revolution. In 1803 he was sent to America by his father, ostensibly to oversee his business interests there, but primarily to escape conscription into the French armies of Napolean. On Arrival in New York City, Audubon learned English in a boarding house run by Quaker women and as a result used the Quaker form of “thee” and “thou” in common speech and in his writings ever afterward. Although otherwise then an archaic form of expression, one wonders whether such Quakerisms added to the attraction of the young man in Lucy’s eyes when they met for the first time. Lucy’s father was a Unitarian but she would perhaps have remembered with childish nostalgia the Quaker connections present in the wider Bakewell family that had been left behind in England.
The Bakewells and Audubon occupied neighbouring estates in Pennsylvania and in the winter of 1804 when skating on the frozen waters of the Perkiomen with Lucy’s younger brother, Tom Bakewell, John James went through a hole in the ice narrowly avoiding being drowned after being drawn by the current under the surface for 30 or 40 yards before emerging through another hole further down. The resulting exposure contributed to a near fatal illness. As fever increased to delirium, Lucy had Audubon removed from his own home and brought to her family’s property. The fever took 10 days to break by which time Audubon was so weak he that he could not stand up. She nursed him back to health, his convalescence lasting throughout the Christmas of 1804, Lucy reading to him and talking with him while all the while developing an intimacy, (the sort feared by James Willis in another post).
As the young Frenchman recovered he would probably have been keenly interested in the novel surroundings he saw in the American home of these English Bakewells. Lucy’s father William, “in the English tradition of technological entrepreneurship”, had that year brought a young mechanic and millwright from Scotland to install an experimental steam-powered threshing machine at his farm which that Christmas was ready for testing in the barn yard. It was clear that the American Bakewell property was demonstrably at the cutting edge of agricultural science, even at the start of the 19th century.
An understanding was soon blooming between the young couple.
“They walked their adjoining woods and went riding. They exchanged childhoods, hers in Derbyshire, his along the Loire. They discovered their common love of country life and distaste for cities. The one reserved but steadfast, the other flamboyant and bold, both gifted at friendship, they began to fall in love.” (ibid)
The marriage of Lucy Bakewell and John James Audubon three years later was a love match but in many ways it was Lucy who was the rock upon which the great painter subsequently founded his talents and prodigious ambition. Theirs’ was a marriage of true minds but maybe it was also a reflection of some of the best Quaker ideals, a legacy from her Bakewell origins which encouraged the educated feminine mind. The marriage has been called the most important event in Audubon’s life because it was his wife who was “the spur to his ambition and the balance wheel to his character.” It was Lucy who raised their children and kept their home, even working as a governess and opening schools to provide an income while Audubon’s career took him for months at a time into the wilderness, for years overseas to find a publisher of his drawings, and into financial hardships that at one point involved bankruptcy.
John James crossed the Appalachians to Kentucky to start a new life with Lucy and it was in the frontier wilderness of North America that he truly began to fully revel in the natural world he saw all around him. Largely self-taught as an artist, Audubon developed his own methods for drawing birds from collected specimens, combining these with extensive field observations. He often portrayed birds as if caught in motion, especially feeding or hunting. The resulting work, “The Birds of America”, was a monumental task by any stretch of the imagination. In it Audubon documented all the birds of North America, painting the subjects in naturalistic poses in a style quite uncommon for their day and publishing the end result at life size in giant “double elephant” sized folios. At the height of one long separation Lucy wrote of her husband, “If I were jealous, I would have a bitter time of it, for every bird is my rival.” John James’ project at times was to border on an obsession.
The Birds of America was sold by subscription and took years to complete but it made John James famous both nationally and internationally.” The 435 plates each more than a half square metre in area and printed by Havells of London, depict some 1,065 different species, the majority drawn from specimens that Audubon himself had captured. He discovered 25 new species and 12 new sub species during the process. Some of the birds he drew are today extinct and this to the modern mind adds a certain poignancy to his legacy.
Compare the stiff poses of that other famed painter, the painter of Australian birds, John Gould from a similar but slightly later era with those of Audubon to appreciate the natural genius of the painter of America’s birds. Pelicans wading the shallows of interior rivers, flocks of songbirds soaring in the air and passenger pigeons darkening the skies – Audubon observed and recorded all of them.
Lucy outlived her husband by more than two decades after his death in 1851. Sadly for those around him, Alzheimer’s disease had left the great painter’s “noble mind in ruins” before the end. From then until her death in 1874, Lucy worked with her family tirelessly to preserve her husband’s tradition and when we examine the work of John James Audubon, it is easy perhaps to ignore the lifetime of separation and sacrifice that was required by his wife to make the artist’s best endeavours a reality.
The story of John James and Lucy Audubon was an American love story. A love story between two people on another continent and in another time but it was also a love story that involved a common and enduring love of the natural world and all that goes into it. We can all identify with that, especially today in this world of ugliness and built cities. Today at Yallambie when I look up into the sky at the visiting crows that are not crows, or at the other many and varied forms of bird life that fill this part of the Plenty Valley, I sometimes think of Audubon and his American birds and of that small, familial connection here from another time and of another place.
Shortly before Christmas last year the bulldozers moved in and did their thing. In no time at all the “Cactus House”, the Yallambie House of Mystery in Tarcoola Drive had done the big vanishing act, leaving behind nothing but an open block of land and a few soon to be forgotten memories.
The Cactus House in Tarcoola Drive had been a bit of an enigma for nigh on 5 years, ever since the old lady who last lived there departed this mortal world for the great beyond. The cream brick veneer she called home must have been one of the first houses built during the subdivision of the Yallambie estate as it is visible in an aerial photograph made prior to 1971, but not in a photograph of the newly formed Tarcoola Drive c1968. It was built within a literal stone’s throw of where William Greig had earlier built his cottage. Since her death it has stood vacant, or at least it has remained vacant to all appearances. There was a feeling whenever you walked past that you could never be entirely sure about this, or indeed who or what might be watching from those brooding but seemingly empty windows with their unstated memory.
We called it the Cactus House because of a vast forest of exotic cacti that had been allowed to grow across the frontage on Tarcoola Drive. Local memory suggests that the cacti were planted prior to 1970 by the second owner of the house in an attempt to keep neighbourhood dogs from roaming into the property from the street. This was before the advent of front fencing which, as a concept, had initially been opposed by A V Jennings on the Yallambie estate.
Be that as it may, collecting cacti had been something of a Victorian craze for a while and gardens filled with rare botanical specimens even became a bit of a status symbol in the 19th century. Today there are a few extant plantings scattered through the homestead garden and even along the river bank if you know where to look, so maybe the Cactus House plantings had been sourced from these.
At any rate, one type of cacti, the infamous prickly pear introduced from South America in the 19th century, is known to have become an invasive species all over Australia before the introduction of a moth in the 1920s was used to control its spread. The story goes that the moth, whose caterpillars ate the cactus, was such a successful biological control that scientists were subsequently encouraged to try something similar with the cane beetles that were a problem in North East Queensland. Unfortunately the toads they imported to eat the beetles hadn’t read the menu board and instead ate everything, not excepting the cane beetles, but then I digress. That’s a whole other story.
Moths aside, the Cactus House was an impressive sight in Yallambie and some of its plants must have been nearly a half century old by the time the whole kit and kaboodle disappeared from the face of the earth.
For all that, with its wide frontage and a rear boundary facing Yallambie Park, it was always going to be a latter day target of the developers, especially as the house became systematically more dilapidated in recent years. As the mail piled up in the letter box uncollected, then the letter box itself disappeared altogether, I thought it would be only a matter of time before the inevitable occurred.
With the removal of the house, as expected the block where it stood has now been cleared from corner to corner and the cacti that were a distinctive, almost Mediterranean style feature at the front are all gone, utterly and without a trace. So too the lemon tree at the back of the garden. Nothing was saved of the garden from the wreckers’ waltz. Nothing but a single, solitary gum tree near the front footpath where pedestrians pass by which, I assume as a native planting, the Council in their wisdom refused a planning permit to remove.
It might seem an odd thing to be making a fuss about here. After all, they were only a few old prickly plants and this sort of house and garden destruction is going on all over Melbourne, right? Blink and a garden is gone and usually the house along with it. Before you know it in no time at all the block is usually filled again by a house as if by magic, usually from boundary to boundary or, what is more often true, a collection of multiple houses built as close together as the confines of the property will possibly allow. So stay tuned and keep your eyes to the ground.
Meanwhile, about the time that Yallambie’s Cactus House met its end, another house of memories in Banyule Rd, Rosanna similarly met its Waterloo. That’s no surprise but I make note here because the house was once the home of a family friend, elderly Mrs Rowe, and the 517 bus from Yallambie always passed right by it. I often looked at it when going by as Mrs Rowe had been a friend of my parents at the church. While we had known her for many years, she was only ever known to us as Mrs Rowe, and never by her first name. That’s just not the way it was done then. She lived to a right, venerable, old age but I guess she must have been gone a good decade or more by the time her house came down.
Mrs Rowe bless her heart gave my sister a handkerchief painstakingly hand embroidered to carry on her wedding day and later, she gave my wife and I a young Mulberry to plant at Yallambie to mark our own. Mrs Rowe is gone. Her house is gone. Her garden is gone. But that tree she gave us to mark that day produces a new crop of fruit over an extended period each year. Maybe it will still be doing so at Yallambie after we’re gone.
Mulberries are a species of deciduous flowering trees that produce a crop of edible berries over an extended period up to and after Christmas in Melbourne. There is a grove of them growing in the Darebin Parklands which were planted by Chinese market gardeners along the Cobb and Co wagon track around 1860. The Park Management Committee at Darebin have in more recent times replanted sections of the “Mulberry Avenue” in a nod to local history which is commendable and shows what can be done when there is a will and a way. Elsewhere Mulberries don’t seem to be planted very often in the suburbs any more, which is another mystery to me every bit as big as the Cactus House as they are a great little tree in very many respects.
There are many species of Mulberry but the tree we planted here all those years ago is a Black Mulberry (Morus Nigra) which is thought to have originated in Persia but which was planted extensively in English garden estates from the 17th century onward in an attempt to establish a silk worm industry. Apparently as a resource for silk worms they weren’t much use but the fruit of the Black Mulberry is delicious. A bit like a blackberry but without those annoying prickles and the invasive growth habit to contend with.
The only problem worth remarking upon when picking Mulberries is the deep red stain of the fruit that seems to get over everything. As a problem however, this one can be a put down as a truly remarkably delectable dilemma.
The fruiting season of Mulberries in Melbourne is nearly over for the summer but in case anybody reading this has a tree growing in a garden or indeed is thinking of planting one instead of a housing estate at the bottom of their garden, here’s a thought. As a fruit, I’m of a mind that the Mulberry is an improvement on the thorny and sometimes downright dangerous prickly pear and, furthermore, in the off season you can take a dance around a Mulberry “Bush” on a cold and frosty morning.
Where were you the day they shot John Lennon? For those younger than a certain age the answer is probably, “A twinkle in my father’s eye,” but for the rest of us it seemed like one of those seminal moments in life when history is written.
I have a memory of that warm December afternoon in Melbourne. School had finished for the summer and I was in the garden at the family home in Rosanna when my father came outside with the news he had just heard broadcast on the radio.
“Hey. You there.”
“No, no, no,” he chanted, using a metre borrowed from The Beatles.
“That bug. You know, Lennon, the Beatle. They just shot him in New York.”
“I dunno. Probably some sort of music lover I guess. I heard it on the wireless just now.”
I remember the sense of disbelief. Lennon, the man who wrote the double entendre “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” Dead at 40. With a bullet. Forty sounded old.
To put that day into its era and within the context of the Yallambie narrative, the ex-Beatle died 37 years ago this week on December 8th, (a day later in Australia). It was a time when Ethel Temby was still living at Yallambie Homestead and the last of the vacant blocks from the original AV Jennings sub division were fast disappearing into the suburban landscape, giving Santa more work to do it seems with every passing year.
Lennon’s old band mate Paul is in Melbourne to play some shows today and tomorrow and the circumstance got my mind to wandering. When I opened a box at home containing some shiny natural history specimen beetles collected at Yallambie in Christmas times now past, it got it wandering off in a fairly random direction. It’s a direction entirely appropriate for this, the silly season, and a better line to travel than dwelling on an historic, senseless murder. My old dad’s words about bugs seemed to come back like a blast from the past, along with a flood of lines from a poem you may have heard.
When Christmas comes the Christmas heat’ll
bring once more the Christmas Beetle
The first inflammatory breeze’ll
set him buzzing like a diesel.
So with apologies to lovers of the British ’60s beat who, like me, thought at the start this post was shaping up to be about the walrus, or beetles spelled with an “A”, think again. The question is, just where have all those Christmas Beetles gone?
It’s an oft asked question these days. When I was a kid it seemed that Christmas was the time when shining Christmas beetles were a common thing in the garden. Maybe I was just more observant then or maybe it was the plastic toy “Bug Catcher” that arrived from Father Christmas one Christmas morning, but finding anything like a Christmas Beetle now is something of a rarity and the fact is, I haven’t seen an actual Christmas Beetle at Yallambie for several years. The photograph above is of some wood boring, Jewel Beetles which were collected at Yallambie, but I’m afraid they weren’t found in a single day, or in a single year for that matter.
The beauty of Jewel Beetles has long been recognized by jewellery makers who prized them and in the latter half of 19th century incorporated real beetles into everything from hatpins to bracelets, an expression of the Victorian fascination with the natural world, even while their other behaviour did everything to destroy it.
True Christmas Beetles by comparison are a type of scarab and are a fairly chunky, sometimes large insect that come in a variety of metallic colours. They are quite harmless to touch and if you’ve ever had one to hold it’s something to feel the determination of the little fellow as it pushes through your fingers.
It leaves me wondering, what goes on in a beetle mind as he sits there, snug as a bug in a rug in the palm of your hand. Does he have a name? Something scientific probably. Latin sounding, no doubt. Maybe his friends call him Ringo?
Adult Christmas Beetles feed on eucalyptus leaves and it was claimed in our Colonial past that the quintessential gum tree could sometimes be seen to bend under the sheer weight of the numbers of massed beetles. No more.
I don’t know if this has a relevance, but it has been reported in Germany that the flying beetle population in Germany has crashed by more than 75% over a 30-year study period. Reasons for this remain uncertain but if the results of the German survey into this phenomenon correlate into a worldwide trend, then we likely have a problem. The German report concludes that, “Loss of insect diversity and abundance is expected to provoke cascading effects on food webs and to jeopardize ecosystem services.”
80% of wild plants rely on insects for pollination and 60% of birds rely on insects as a food source. The fact is that only 10% of the world’s insect population have been identified and it is believed that many are going extinct before they can even be named.
Yallambee’s Robert Bakewell, an amateur entomologist of some standing, would have been most disturbed by this statistic, even as his net descended down upon the last Pussycat Swallowtail or his pin pierced an increasingly rare Christmas Beetle.
Comment has already been made in the pages of this blog about the decline in bee populations but apparently the decline is not limited to bees and is linked to a general loss of bio diversity worldwide. The evidence for a beetle decline in parts of Australia is anecdotal but undeniable. Climate change, loss of insect habitats and the use of pesticides have all been suggested as possible causes of this beetle malaise but the general consensus is that it has been a combination of factors without any one single cause. The plastic Bug Catcher of my childhood is in the clear after all.
The Herald Sun reported today that a recent La Trobe University study had found that human disturbance to ecosystems such as clearing forest for farmland has led to profound changes in the diversity of ant species world wide. Professor Heloise Gibb was quoted saying that, “The disappearing ant species are more likely to be predators, increasing the chances that pest populations might explode.”
In the case of the old Christmas Beetle, it’s unclear what if any effect a decline in the population will cause. The belief is that the “dual life history” of the insect is at the heart of the problem. The larvae feed on the roots of grasses, the adults on eucalypt leaves and with both environments in short supply around urban Melbourne these days the decline is understandable. It’s one explanation of why Christmas just isn’t what it used to be, at least for beetles.
Meanwhile, over in Melbourne tonight, that other rare Beatle is making his appearance stage left, some might say in the style of “Dame Nellie Melba’s Farewell”. The weather has been a trifle inclement of late but here’s hoping there’s still a chance for a fine night, a warm summer, and to the truth of those words:
“…the Christmas heat’ll bring once more the Christmas Beetle”
The Australian writer and historian Don Watson once posed the tempting question, “What will history make of us should there be any historians left to write it?”
The news last week that the State Government had decided on Corridor A as the chosen route for the North East Link freeway leaves a devastating conflict of emotions for nearby communities. There is the feeling of relief that the alternative B, C and D roads will now, at least not for the time being, be built, but this is coupled with a general feeling of dismay at the destruction Corridor A is likely to wreak.
Corridor A when built will largely cut an underground path under Viewbank and Rosanna, with road interchanges located at Bulleen and Lower Plenty Roads, but it will be the surface road parallel with Greensborough Road along the Western boundary of Yallambie with Macleod and in Watsonia in the north, together with the associated road interchanges at either end that will have the most obvious visual impact. At least 75 homes are expected be lost to the plan and it’s pretty clear to anyone familiar with the local area just where these are likely to be.
The government spent $100 million to write a study of their four, so called alternative routes which included the utter surprise of their Corridor B proposal through the heart of Yallambie, but in the end the extra corridors were a smoke screen, an attempt to muddy the water surrounding a proposal to build Corridor A which, because it was expected to be cheaper, was always going to be the favoured option.
Corridor A has been talked about ever since something like it was first proposed in the 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan. It wasn’t built because enough people could see back then that it was a bad idea. So what has changed? A decade ago the proposal was still on the table and costed at $6 billion, but last week’s announcement rings in now at over $16 billion. The real question then is, just how much is this thing going to cost eventually, and I don’t just mean in dollar terms.
Perhaps the NELA aren’t aware of some of the worry and the sleepless nights that they have given Yallambie and Lower Plenty residents since the first suggestion of Corridor B was disclosed in August. Perhaps they don’t care. This sort of cavalier attitude is nothing new, as the recent to-ing and fro-ing over the abandoned East West Link proposal is evidence, but fifty years ago the following story illustrates perhaps just how strongly passions can run on such matters.
In the mid 1960s, at a time before the first spade had been turned on Melbourne’s freeway network, a plan was developed by Doncaster and Templestowe City Council in conjunction with the Country Roads Board to widen Templestowe Rd in Templestowe at the Thompsons Road intersection. The plan when first discussed involved realigning Templestowe Rd at its closest approach to the Yarra River with Parker St in the east, through the heart of the Templestowe township.
But there was a problem. Finn’s Upper Yarra Hotel, a local landmark of some renown, stood right in the path of the new road.
The Upper Yarra Hotel was a much loved building. James Finn had opened his hotel as a beer shop on the Templestowe corner in 1866, near what is now a vanished river crossing, and over the years various additions had been made to it which had combined to create a strange amalgamation of architectural styles. The idiosyncratic compact construction of the original building seemed to stand at odds with the later, two-storey block fronted section but somehow they combined almost by accident to form a building of considerable rambling charm.
The Upper Yarra was delicenced in the early 1920s but as it aged and became more dilapidated the rustic appeal of its setting became a favoured subject for local artists. The various parts of the hotel itself were painted a rusty red colour in an attempt to bring unity to its conflicting parts and as the paint peeled the overpainted words “Finn’s Upper Yarra Hotel” stood out like a ghostly commentary as to the building’s former life, an old world garden and a cobbled stable yard behind the hotel completing the overall effect of a genteel rural decay.
The grown up grandchildren of James Finn were still living somewhat reclusive lives at the old hotel in the mid 1960s when the Council came a knockin’. Doncaster and Templestowe City Council had purchased the land on which the Upper Yarra Hotel stood from the executors of the estate of the son of James Finn and the Council were trying to force his grandchildren from the building which the surviving generation still occupied. The Council met with some militant but probably understandable opposition from the residents who objected to being moved away from the building their family had occupied for over a hundred years. One contemporary newspaper report described how a party of journalists was chased away from the hotel environs one evening in 1967 by an aging Finn brother wielding a big stick, smashing up a photographer’s car in the process in the mistaken belief that the newspaper party were officers from the Housing Commission come to enforce an eviction order.
In the end the Council got their way of course and the Finns removed themselves voluntarily from the building on the 28th May, 1967. On the night of departure however a mysterious fire broke out in the old weatherboarded building, quickly reducing it to a pile of cinder and rubble in spite of the best efforts of the Country Fire Authority to combat the blaze.
It was a tragic loss to history for the area. The Council had been discussing the possibility of moving the hotel out of the path of the imagined road realignment in a manner that they would later employ to save another historic Doncaster building, Schramm’s Cottage, in the 1970s. The fire put an end to any further discussion, Ad infinitim.
Eventually the Council accepted a cheque of $365.95 as compensation for the loss of the building, but the money was not really the point. The final irony in the telling of this story is that when the realignment of Templestowe Rd eventually took place, a decision was made to straighten the route to meet with Foote St parallel to Parker Street, which is the situation as it exists today. If Finn’s Hotel had been standing and not by then a pile of ashes, it would have been in the clear.
Today a so called “History Pavilion” on Templestowe Rd, Templestowe marks the site of the former Upper Yarra Hotel, with photographs plastered around the interior detailing the (now mostly vanished) history of the area. It is a strangely sad, not often visited tribute.
So how does this story affect the reality of the Corridor A proposal for North East Link? The above tale is an example that road plans are not set in stone until such time as they are actually set in concrete, whether they be tunnels or tarmac and you don’t have to burn down a building to find this out. Melbourne University transport lecturer John Stone was quoted in a newspaper story about State Government transport spin doctoring in The Age last month saying that, “Communities are presented with Maggie Thatcher’s old line – ‘There is no alternative’ – and often there is. But under the current system, the community can only be heard if they can create enough political will to be heard.”
Opponents of North East Link Corridor A have called a public meeting today on a rainy afternoon at Koonung Creek Reserve, Balwyn North and the AGM of the Friends of Banyule is scheduled for Thursday night at the old Shire offices in Beverley Rd, Heidelberg where there will be no prizes offered for guessing what will be the main item on the agenda that night. The opposition to Corridor A in these neighbourhoods is understandable but by any reckoning, the real opposition to the route should be coming from groups here in the north. Corridor A will be a surface road when it passes through Greensborough, Watsonia and Yallambie/Macleod and two of the three major new road interchanges will be situated here. The lack of opposition here however is the result of the earlier sleight of hand exercise conducted by NELA when they divided community opposition with the suggested alternative Corridors, B, C and D. That’s what the State Government got for spending a $100 million to investigate the alternative corridors, although they said at the time the money was to be used to cover the cost of “geotechnical investigations, design, environmental and social studies”. The cold, hard reality is that Corridor A will have a devastating effect on the City of Banyule, dividing the municipality in two in a north south direction along Greensborough Rd while doing little to relieve the very real traffic problems in the area. Vale to the City of Banyule.
Like the Finns at the old Upper Yarra Hotel, the lives knocked about by these road proposals are real people with real homes, each with their own story to tell and each with a sense of community and belonging. $16 billion and counting sounds to me like an awful lot of money to be spending on building a road, a road that won’t even do what it is intended to do, that is complete the missing link in Melbourne’s Ring Road system. Look at a map of the proposed route of Corridor A and you will see that the Corridor A route does not contribute to a ring at all but is a dent in the road plan, driving ring bound traffic back towards the city before asking it to fan out again in an easterly direction.
So when is a ring not a ring? When it is a link in the eyes of the North East Link Authority. The building of Corridor A will not remove the need to build a completed ring through Eltham in years to come. The thing is, by then the State will be so bankrupt that this will never happen, no matter what needs might then be presented. By that time too with the advent of AVs (autonomous vehicles), cars as we know them now might be a thing of the past, which poses some interesting speculation in answer to Don Watson’s original conundrum.
It was a name given to him affectionately by his fellow artists as a passing nod to his organized ways. They started out as a loose association in the mid ’80s in what was then semi-rural Box Hill, experimenting with plein air painting, but as suburbia overtook the artists’ camps along the Gardiners Creek they relocated to a new camp on “Mount Eagle”, at an old cottage at what is now Summit Drive in Eaglemont near Heidelberg, cementing in our consciousness by doing so an art movement that would forever be remembered as the “Heidelberg School”, Australia’s first nationally focused art movement.
Typically it was Walter (Walt) Withers, The Colonel, who found them another home when the group moved from the Eaglemont cottage. In September, 1890 Withers arranged a lease on the late David Charteris MacArthur’s “Charterisville”, just to the south of Mount Eagle, and here he painted and taught while subletting the lodges to a procession of his fellow artists. The contemporary critic Sidney Dickinson named him, along with Arthur Streeton, as a leader of the “Heidelberg School”, which in Withers’ case was almost certainly an exaggeration, but there is no doubting his significant role within the group.
In the critical period between 1889-90, at a time when Frederick McCubbin and several others were still painting in a conventional style, it has been noted that Withers “was experimenting with a brave and confident impressionistic style” and that “he was probably the first artist to paint major works using techniques of impasto”, (holmes à court Gallery).
When the Heidelberg School artists dispersed to other places after those “Glorious Summers” of the late 80s and early 90s, it was the English born Withers who chose to stay on in the Heidelberg district and paint impressions of the Australian bush while the Australian born Streeton left to paint in foreign fields and the real leader of the Heidelberg School, Tom Roberts was lost to portraiture. Withers alone remained, the sight of his bicycle with canvas and painting box strapped on board becoming a regular sight throughout the Heidelberg district.
In 1894, with his wife Fanny and the beginnings of their family of six children, Walt leased another house in Cape St, Heidelberg where he taught painting while maintaining a city studio.
Four years later the Withers family moved again to a new home, “Withers Court” on the corner of Darebin and Hawdon Streets, Heidelberg and it was probably there or at Cape Street that the grown up daughters of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge took painting lessons from him, learning techniques they would bring to their home to paint selected interior joinery at the homestead.
Possibly it was a social as well as an artistic outlet for the Wragge girls. Their mother, Sarah Anne Wragge wrote cryptically and critically in 1898 in a letter that she believed her daughters weren’t learning much about painting under the artist’s supervision.
“So Jessie has finished her paintings at last, and I quite think with you that there must be more talk than work at that studio.” (Sarah Anne Wragge – her underline – quoted by Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales)
The weather boarded Withers Court house still stands next to the rail tunnel in Heidelberg near to where the current duplication of the rail line between Heidelberg and Rosanna is right now, in a way that is pertinent to this story, reshaping the surrounding landscape. It was the building of the original cutting and rail tunnel under Darebin Street that determined Walt to move his family from Heidelberg in 1903 to a new location in Eltham. A large rock, blasted from the Heidelberg cutting, had crashed through the roof of his studio and damaged the canvas he had been working on, making Walt’s mind up in the process that it was high time to move on.
The Withers family relocated to “Southernwood”, a small farm set on 2 ½ acres on Bolton St, Eltham opposite the Montmorency Estate where he built a large adjoining studio. Here he spent the last 10 years of his life, famously painting many scenes in and around Eltham while still continuing to roam further afield on his bicycle as the painting mood took him.
He was living there, dividing his time by spending weekdays at his city studio and his weekends with his family at Southernwood when one day in 1907 he headed off from Eltham on a painting expedition on the road to Heidelberg. The result of that day, a small, loosely painted plein air oil sketch, which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria alongside some other more well-known and polished Withers’ masterpieces, carries the somewhat misleading title, “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg”. The title has helped to obscure the identity of this sketch for a hundred years as the result of a close inspection of the painting, which is freely available to view online the NGV web site, has only now revealed some rather familiar details.
In 1907 “Heidelberg” would have been a somewhat generic term. The old blue stone, Lower Plenty Road Bridge marked the official separation of Lower Plenty and Main Roads but it was on the Lower Plenty or Main Rd side that Walt appears to have set up his easel that day to paint the sort of rural Australian scene so beloved by him.
The apparently anonymous building in the painting on the left side of the road is on closer study quite obviously a loose interpretation of nothing other than the old Plenty Bridge Hotel, the story of which has been recounted on several occasions within the pages of this blog.
From the service wing with chimney, set at right angles to the main building, the post and rail fence on the opposite side of the road and the poplars planted at the far end of the building – the details are all there.
It was a light bulb moment when I was looking at this painting on the NGV web site and realised what I was really looking at. Withers has painted the land fall past the front of the PBH towards the valley of the Lower Plenty River, showing the road stretching towards the approaches of the bridge, hidden by the bend, just as it is today.
It got me thinking and to doing a little reading. Two versions of a biography of Walt Withers written by his widow Fanny have been reproduced in Andrew Mackenzie’s 1987 book, “Walter Withers – The Forgotten Manuscripts”. The longer of these two biographies, somewhat misleadingly titled, “A Short Biography of Walt Withers”, was published by Withers’ fellow Heidelberg School artist Alexander McCubbin in about 1920. Together, the two biographies contain Fanny’s written descriptions of many of her husband’s artworks and reading through them they make for some rather interesting details in the telling.
In 1907 Withers had painted a major canvas which Fanny called “Springtime on the Lower Plenty”, or “The Valley of the Lower Plenty, Victoria”, the obverse of which contained a replica of another Withers work. The story of the main painting as explained in Fanny’s writing is confusing because she freely interchanges the titles of her husband’s artworks in the context of the two biographies, but from the description “Springtime” was obviously an enlarged, studio version of the NGV oil sketch. I use the third person singular indicative as sadly the painting was destroyed in a devastating bush fire at Eltham on Black Friday, 13 January 1939.
Fortunately another painting of the same subject but painted in the tones of Autumn, “but from another point of view” was started at about the same time as “Springtime” and was worked on by Withers on and off up until the day he died. This painting has been called both “The Return from the Harvest” and “The Valley of the Lower Plenty” which makes for more confusion but Fanny wrote that it was a favourite of the artist and the largest canvas her husband ever worked upon.
“Again a road subject, with three figures, swags on their backs, two together and one following behind, walking with swinging steps towards the small hotel, nestling amongst the trees, at the side of the road. The time is Autumn, and the colouring rich and full toned. This painting is the most romantic of the painter’s work. It was much beloved by him, and it was the last canvas he painted on, the sky being completed by him the day before he was seized by his last attack of illness.” (Fanny Withers writing in “The Life and Work of Walter Withers, Landscape Painter.)
The painting was purchased and gifted to the Geelong Art Gallery which inexplicably today does not keep it on current display. It is some years since I saw the painting in the Geelong gallery myself and my memory of it is vague but clearly from the above description the painting is another image produced from painting expeditions to the countryside around the Plenty Bridge Hotel.
Recent attempts to gain a viewing of the original of this artwork at Geelong have been unsuccessful. The very poor resolution reproduction from the Gallery shown here does not allow for an observation of “the small hotel, nestling amongst the trees” described by Fanny but it does give a general feeling of the landscape on the western approach to the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge. In this painting the trees on the left hand side of the picture mark the southern boundary of Thomas Wragge’s Yallambie and one is left wondering whether the three swagmen returning “from the harvest” and painted by Withers might have been itinerant field workers going for a drink at the Plenty Bridge Hotel after a long day working in the Yallambie fields.
Maybe Walt even dropped by the Homestead that day to pay a visit to his former painting students, heading off with Sarah Annie’s husband, Walter Murdoch for a drink, as was Murdoch’s want, at the Plenty Bridge soon afterwards. It’s a thought.
Plagued by ill health later in life, Walt Withers died at Eltham of cerebral thrombosis on 13th October, 1914 aged just 59 years.
His daughter remembered him as being six feet tall in his socks and solidly built, with brown hair slightly curling at the sides, big, soft, hazel eyes and a large, bushy moustache. He is buried in the church side graveyard at the Rose Chapel (St Katherine’s), St Helena.
Writing in the forward of Andrew Mackenzie’s book, Kathleen Mangan, the daughter of Charles McCubbin wrote of the Heidelberg School artists that:
“…it was a time of freedom of spirit, gaiety, and great artistic and intellectual advancement, a glorious burst of artistic achievement which erupted into flame at the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties, a flame that was all too quickly extinguished by the Outbreak of World War One.”
The Great War was only two months old when Withers died. The artist mantra in the district passed to others, the colonies at Montsavat in Eltham and the Heide Circle at Bulleen becoming just two expressions. A story from the Heidelberg Artists Society of an incident involving artists during the Second War has a certain relevance to the Yallambie story. It is recorded that one day around 1940, two painters had set up their easels in the vicinity of Banyule Rd when a farmer armed with a shotgun and accompanied by a couple of enormous dogs arrived on the scene demanding to know their business. The artists were dressed for painting in Army disposals – slouch hats and blue boiler suits – while from a distance their easels might have been mistaken for surveyors’ tripods.
At that time the Army had just resumed a part of the old Yallambie Estate nearby to create Camp Q (Watsonia), now known as the Simpson Barracks, and the unnamed farmer feared that a survey heralding a forced annexation of his own land was about to take place. Summing up the relative sizes of the farmer’s firearm and the jaws of his hungry hounds, the artists wisely packed away their easels for another day, the decision possibly a loss to art but a gain for rural diplomacy in the district.
The association of the work of Walt Withers with the story of the Yallambie area joins the tradition of the earlier pictures of A E Gilbert and E L Bateman and the writings of Richard and William Howitt and Louisa Anne Meredith. For all that, the work of Walt Withers has fallen somewhat out of favour in recent years. Not one of the paintings he produced in and around the Heidelberg and Eltham districts and that are now in public ownership are currently on display at the galleries. “The Return from the Harvest”, AKA “The Valley of the Lower Plenty”, described by Fanny as “the most romantic of the painter’s work… much beloved by him” and likewise the NGV’s oil sketch “Springtime” must remain therefore, at least for present time, unobserved.
Heightening this unfortunate circumstance is the reality of the danger posed to the artists’ footsteps by the plans of the North East Link Authority, a subject and side subject of this blog in recent times. The location of the two Walt Withers paintings discussed above stands under direct threat of the potential building of a Corridor B through Yallambie and Lower Plenty. The tranquillity of Walt Withers churchyard grave at St Helena would be broken by the building of a Corridor C. And the implications of Corridor A on the legacy of the Heidelberg School in Banyule goes without saying.
Does anybody care?
His paintings largely forgotten, his Plenty Valley and Heidelberg subjects at risk of being despoiled by the road builders – poor Walt, “The Orderly Colonel” must be turning over in his St Helena grave.
Appearing as the harbinger of our doom, the sight of cranes clawing at the Melbourne horizon is an unmistakable sign of a scurrilous attempt to turn the “World’s Most Liveable City” into a “megalopolis” of over 8 million people by the year 2030.
At first glance, the two concepts would appear to be mutually exclusive, but if the crystal gazers are right, it’s a real possibility Melbourne will grow from a city of just under 4 million people at the 2016 census to an astonishing double that number sometime inside the next two decades. The so called Urban Growth Boundary, first sketched onto a map by government 15 years ago, has proved in practice to be a rubbery line that stretches this way and that way according to political whim while the old “Green Wedge” which was supposed to fill the void beyond the boundary with a ring of non-urban land, has been gradually whittled away to little more than half its original size resulting in urban sprawl and the loss of some of our most fertile agricultural lands.
It’s taken 180 years to get to this point but by any reckoning, Melbourne was always a town founded on the unchallenged principle that growth is good for us. From the heady days of the Victorian Gold Rushes and the regular boom and bust of the Real Estate economy, there has only ever been one way – the way forward. Australia has now been without an official recession for 26 years, something the commentators maintain can be counted on as some sort of a world record, but was Paul Keating right when at the start of the last one he described the descending bust as, “the recession we had to have”? Is growth really that good for us?
The pre-emptive actions of the pioneers of Port Phillip in 1835 are probably the nearest Australia ever came to the American way of doing things when it comes to an assessment of our pioneer history. In the United States, government generally took a back seat as the covered wagons rolled out across the Prairie, the settlers founding towns along the way wherever they came to rest, safe in the power that the Second Amendment gave to them to control their own destiny. In the Australian colonies by contrast, settlement was typically occasioned by Government initiative, either by sending convict fleets to the South Seas or by private enterprise supported by Royal decree.
In Melbourne, things happened slightly differently with the Over Straiters arriving from Van Diemen’s Land in 1835 and the Overlanders coming from New South Wales the following year to found an illegal settlement at Port Phillip, in spite of official Government policy designed to prevent it. Only after the settlement was reasonably well established did Government bow to the pressure of what was by then a fait accompli and sent in administrators armed with the acts and statutes of New South Wales to try to sort it all out. As a result, when it came time for the Roberts Russell and Hoddle to lay out the streets prior to the first land sales, some settlers found the houses they had already erected were standing in a no man’s land in the middle of the proposed roads and would need to be demolished. John Batman’s brother Henry was one who lost his home in this fashion, much to the amusement of the irascible John Pascoe Fawkner, who despised him.
The Heidelberg district to the north east of Port Phillip was founded around the three way river confluence of the Yarra/Plenty Rivers and Darebin Creek and was one of the first places to be settled outside of Melbourne itself, becoming for a while an almost fashionable location and a desirable neighbourhood for the genteel set. As such it didn’t last long with the absence of a direct railway line and properly maintained roads arresting district development in the second half of the 19th century, but the resulting quiet solitude combined with the natural beauty of the river valleys appealed greatly to those who chose to live there.
Sleepy Hollow they called it and when the artists discovered it towards the end of the 19th century, the area became famously the home of an Australian Nationalistic impressionistic art movement, the “Heidelberg School”.
The square mile of country that made up the Yallambie region on the north eastern edge of the Heidelberg district remained more or less undisturbed until the second half of the 20th century, wedged in as it was between the towns of Eltham in the east and Greensborough in the north, its lands locked up within the surviving boundaries of Thomas Wragge’s farm and the neighbouring army camp. Yallambie as a suburb developed only after the sale of the 19th century homestead and its remaining farm land to the developer A V Jennings in 1958.
The process of subdivision was initially slow, commencing in 1966 but by the early 1970s with urban sprawl gathering momentum, the neighbourhood had begun to take shape with roads and landscaping in place and an active district progress association with a dedicated membership operating with effective results.
Neighbourhood spirit was strong and a firm sense of community was a feature of the area.
The 1st Yallambie Scout Group formed and operated out of a hall built and paid for by residents’ initiative while local sporting clubs like the tennis club, soccer club and a junior cricket club, the “Yallambie Sparrows” all called Yallambie home.
The suburb enlarged further at the start of the 1990s when land was carved from the south east end of the Simpson Army Barracks to create the “Streeton Views” estate, the name a real estate developer’s invention that had its basis in the notion that the Heidelberg School artist Arthur Streeton had once painted there. The idea of the subdivision of the Army land had been first mooted in 1986 as a means of supplying low cost housing to Army personnel but in the end, when the developers came on board, housing for the Army was limited to a few street locations around Crew Street, paid for by the sale of land to the public in other locations. No doubt for a while it proved to be a nice little earner for those developers lucky enough, or well-connected enough, to get themselves on board.
The subdivision at Streeton Views was initially opposed by the Yallambie Progress Association as a matter of principle, it being felt at the time that if Army land was going to be released it should be used to create park land and not an addition to the existing housing estate. A public reserve and the artificial lakes between Arthur Streeton Drive and Lower Plenty Road were arrived at as something of a compromise but the changing of the name of the local primary school from Yallambie PS to Streeton PS and subsequent loss of the Community Hall to the Education Department became a sore point. The developers at Streeton Views were selling blocks advertised as being in proximity to a primary school and the name was changed under the guise of a school merger although the reality was that it fitted nicely with the developer’s business model. The old wooden pole sign at the corner of Yallambie and Lower Plenty Roads which had been there from the start announcing the identity of the estate as “Yallambie” was removed about this time and the more permanent inscription “Streeton Views” was set into stone retaining walls on Arthur Streeton Drive and The Grange in a move further designed to confuse people.
At the start of the new century surplus land that had been previously reserved for an SEC substation adjacent to the Yallambie/Streeton Primary School was subdivided into another new estate, this time carrying the appellation, “The Cascades” with water pumped up and down a nearby gully occasionally to create the fantasy land of a fast flowing mountain stream. Many fine, modern homes have been built within the new Yallambie estates with one house in Macalister Boulevard setting a new price record for the suburb at a sale earlier this year.
This sort of subdivision activity is being repeated all across Melbourne these days with the resulting urbanization and infrastructure pressures leading to the population estimates mentioned at the start of this post. Towns like Whittlesea further up the Plenty River were supposed to sit outside the Urban Growth Corridor within the Green Wedge but the rapid rise of new suburbs along Plenty Road has seen Whittlesea now almost absorbed into the metropolitan sprawl in a process known as “conurbation”, a concept first promulgated at the time of the start of the First World War but perfected only after the Second.
Robert Hoddle produced a classic 19th century rectangular street grid for Melbourne, the wide avenues named after a motley collection of Port Phillip identities, politicians, Royalty and Vice Royalty. The main north south road, east of the town was named after Hoddle himself and for motorists stuck in the grid lock on Hoddle Street today the question probably is, why did Hoddle create a city plan without an orbital route around the city centre? The answer of course is that Melbourne was laid out long before such questions were ever an issue and the present situation where the Eastern Freeway finishes at a dead end at Hoddle Street has only compounded the original problem.
Which brings us back in a roundabout sort of way to what has been most lately on my mind, the North East Link. Without proper road reserves the four alternative routes would each require tunneling and a buyback of houses that might have brought a smile to John Fawkner or a frown to Henry Batman in another era. A mail out to every household in the City of Banyule last month cost ratepayers an alleged $110,000 and included a letter describing the four corridors and Council’s grave concerns about the impact of the Corridor A (Viewbank) proposal. The letter also makes the point that the Corridor B (Yallambie) and Corridor C (Eltham) proposals would connect the Western Ring Road with East Link at the aptly named Ring-wood. The letter was signed by the Mayor of Banyule and the last paragraph sums up the situation: “Council has long recognised the need to complete Melbourne’s Ring Road as a direct orbital link from the Metropolitan Ring Road to Eastlink at Ringwood…”
In other words, Banyule Council supports the concept of Corridor B equally as much as Corridor C as a viable alternative to bad, bad Corridor A! The scenic railway of the Corridor D (Kangaroo Ground) proposal has already been ruled out by most pundits which leaves Corridor B looking increasingly like an unlikely NEL compromise between Corridors A and C, routes which have been strongly opposed by Banyule and Nillumbik respectively. Let’s face it, when it comes to opposing Corridor B through Yallambie and Lower Plenty, we are on our own as the letter from the Mayor of Banyule makes quite clear.
At a meeting at the old Heidelberg Town Hall last month, during a long discourse about the limitations of Corridor A, the Mayor made the fair point that something needs to be done because Rosanna Road, the current de facto orbital link, was well, “full”. Yes, it’s full but it’s not just Rosanna Rd that’s full. The reality is that it’s the planet that is full and we have only been adding to the problem. I might be in a minority but I’m sure I’m not alone in not wanting any of these road proposals built. The ongoing need to build more freeways is a symptom of the problem but not the problem in itself. With desalination plants needed to provide our society with drinking water and a conurbation of towns and cities fast consuming our arable land surfaces, mankind has not been kind to the planet it calls home. When those covered wagons wheeled out across the Prairie in the 19th century it seemed that there were no limits to the horizon but the reality today is so much more uncertain.
Marco Amati from the RMIT Centre for Urban Research was quoted in a story in “Domain” last week saying that the greening efforts of local governments had not been as effective as hoped and that with a major decline in canopy coverage, “As they lose vegetation, urban areas start to act like heat sponges.”
To digress along this line, consider for a moment the case of a remote Pacific island, Ocean (or Banaba) Island, an elevated speck of rock within the island nation of Kiribati, (pronounced “Kiribus”). Just 10km in circumference, Ocean Island had been home to a British phosphate mining industry for the first ¾ of the 20th century leaving its hinterland a scarred moonscape when I saw it during a prolonged visit some years ago, denuded of both vegetation and the tribal society that once called the island home.
The shameful plight of the Banabans is a long and compelling story, too long for these pages, but suffice to say that the exiled locals now live mostly on a completely different island in the Fiji group. Meanwhile the ecological fate of their homeland is to my mind the story of our planet in a microcosm. The Island is infamous for its droughts and so much vegetation was eventually removed from it that when rain clouds approached the island, it was recorded that the clouds would separate around the pulsating heat emanating from the denuded rock surfaces to join up again on the other side, dropping all the while their much needed rain into the ocean. This claim might seem far-fetched, but the mining industry on the island had a desalination plant operating on the island long before Victoria ever needed one.
I’m not pretending that there’s an answer. You wanna planet of 7½ billion people and counting, you need cities to put ’em in and roads to get them around. That nutcase in North Korea reckons he has the answer to having too many people on the planet, but his answer isn’t really an answer and would destroy the planet itself.
The English animator Steve Cutts summed it up poignantly in 2012 with his environmentalist message, “Man”. The prospect of a flying saucer arriving to mete out primary justice to mankind might raise a Golgafrinchan style smile right now, but without flying saucers to make good our escape, a smile may be the only thing we have left one day on this “Pale Blue Dot”.
Legend has it that a dozen years or so before the founding of Melbourne, a South American pirate by the name of Benito Bonito took brief refuge at Port Phillip while on the run from the Royal Navy with the stolen “Treasures of Lima” in his hold. There in a cave at Pt Nepean it is said the pirate hid a fabulous hoard, sealing the entrance afterwards with an explosion of gunpowder. As you might expect from such a story, Bonito reportedly met his end soon after at the end of a rope hanging from an English yard arm but be that as it may, one thing is certain, the so called “Lost Lima Treasure” was never seen again.
Many doubted the origins of the tale and indeed whether Bonito had ever been anywhere near Port Phillip but the story persisted, gaining some currency 20 years later when a man turned up in the new settlement at Melbourne claiming to have been a cabin boy on Bonito’s pirate ship. Sporting a map tattooed onto his arm as a supposed proof of the existence of the pirate treasure, the old sailor found willing ears and wishful thinkers in the infant township. The map itself was no doubt a fake, used to con free drinks from gullible patrons in Melbourne’s early shanties but it did fuel an ongoing hope in the improbable. Numerous gopher holes soon appeared in the sand dunes at Pt Nepean, the work of would be treasure hunters or what is more likely literally true, eternal optimists.
It was the visiting American writer Mark Twain who once said that the history of Australia “does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies,” and further west along the Victorian coast another story, the legend of the “Mahogany Ship” sits somewhat nicely into this same category. It too involves a story of early map making and forgotten voyages into Australian seas, but in the case of the Mahogany Ship, the origins of the story are placed even earlier.
The legend of the Mahogany Ship revolves around the reported siting of an ancient shipwreck on the beach at Warrnambool in the 1840s. Contemporary eyewitness accounts described it as being of “antique design” of “hard dark timber – like mahogany” and sitting high in the sand dunes at a considerable distance from the high water mark. By the later years of the 19th century the shifting dunes had covered the wreck and its remembered location had been forgotten but by one count, 27 different eyewitness reports had been recorded and it was later speculated from these descriptions that the wreck had been a 16th century Portuguese caravel, lost on the south coast of Victoria during a voyage of discovery by Cristóvão de Mendonça in 1522. The theory goes that knowledge of the voyage and the maps made during it had been suppressed due to the Portuguese operating in what had then been deemed to be Spanish waters under the Treaty of Tordesillas, and that any other evidence was subsequently lost in the Great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. To further the story, an ambiguous French copy of a Portuguese map purporting to show a Great South Land, “Jave la Grande” survived at Dieppe and this has been used by advocates of the Mahogany Ship story as confirmation of its truth ever since.
Mendonca aside, there is no doubting the importance of having a good map to find your place in the world and when Captain Cook arrived on the east coast of Australia in 1770 without one, the uncharted Great Barrier Reef very nearly caused his ruin off the coast of north east Queensland. With HM Bark Endeavour holed and fast taking on water, disaster loomed as Cook showed an almost uncanny presentiment to find the mouth of the Endeavour River, the only place for miles around where he could possibly beach his ship for repair. Some adherents to the Mahogany Ship story have suggested that Cook’s ability to navigate through treacherous reefs to safety owed more to his knowledge of ancient Portuguese maps than his own 18th century sailing ability, a suggestion that almost certainly does Great Britain’s greatest navigator a disservice, but it makes for an interesting conspiracy theory all the same.
Any study of the past inevitably involves map making and Yallambie is no exception. The Bakewells had a survey of their farm at Yallambee drawn up in the early 1850s, probably at a time when they were contemplating a return to England, and this map has appeared several times within these pages. It is a useful primary source and by comparing the information contained in it to the modern setting it is possible to draw some interesting conclusions about the layout of the Bakewell farm and the context of E L Bateman’s drawings within it and this, for the importance of the record, is worth affirming.
As has been stated in a previous post, it was the belief of the Wragge descendant, Nancy Bush that the original Bakewell cottage was located where the tennis court was later built, the foundations of the house presumably ending up as the starting point of her family’s grass court surface.
A second residential building stretched in a northerly direction up the slope and was connected to the cottage by a trellis covered walkway with a third building, marked as a kitchen wing on the survey map, placed at right angles at the far end. The location of these additional buildings is now largely buried under the floors of the Wragge era Yallambie Homestead.
A fence across the kitchen yard enclosed the southern end of a large building marked “dairy” on the Bakewell plan and this building was located where the smaller, present day Yallambie dairy stands to this day.
Another Nancy Bush belief held that the original cellar was located under the dairy and in Bateman’s Plenty Station View III which shows the southern end of this building behind the cottage, there would appear to be some sort of underground access into the side of the far building to confirm this.
North of the structure marked “hothouse” on the plan was a stable yard with a large stable block located on the eastern boundary and this building was still standing into the early 1980s when a modern mud brick home was built to replace it. Beyond the stables was a tool house and rick yard with a shrubbery and William Greig’s old hut and garden completing the picture within the immediate surrounds of the house.
The North East Link Authority when it made its bombshell announcement at the start of August about smashing a Freeway through Yallambie, released their own map of their plans but anyone who has tried looking at this map has found that it remains frustratingly unclear about the real intentions of their strategic planners. Their web site is little more than a sales pitch which studiously avoids any attempt at revealing too many facts while the so called pop up community consultation meetings that have been staged at various locations across the community have been even less use, an equal part spin and sometimes downright disinformation. At one of these recent meetings it was stated that a diamond shaped corridor B interchange at Lower Plenty Rd would go under the river and not over it and that it would be located on the eastern side of Main Rd. Oh, but tellingly that, “nothing has been decided”.
The lads at North East Link seem to have taken a leaf out of Nietzche’s book who famously said, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” The unstated fact is that trucks using the anticipated interchange would certainly require a grade of no more than 4%, so it is an impossibility to take the road in a tunnel under the Plenty River while still arriving at a meaningful level to connect access roads to Main and Lower Plenty Roads. Taking a road under the Plenty River flood plain would also involve tunnelling through a geologically unstable water table requiring constant pumping throughout the life of the road. My interpretation of the proposal is that if built, (perish the thought) the intention of North East Link is to exit the tunnel near the corner of Binowee Avenue and Moola Close, Yallambie and cross the Yallambie Flats on an elevated flyover and that saying otherwise is just a further attempt to draw a smoke screen over the whole exercise. Should corridor B ever be given the nod, when it comes to the crunch the engineers would wade in, the spin doctors would stand aside and the practicalities and liabilities of their plan would finally be admitted.
As the Herald Sun reported in a front page story on Wednesday, the full effect of a similar solution to another transport problem is only now beginning to be understood as the reality takes shape in Melbourne’s southeast.
Just picture for a moment a road of at least six, but more likely eight lanes stretching across the Plenty River flood plain, but if you can’t, here’s a digitally altered image of a picture I took of the landscape three years ago to give you an idea.
And just for good measure, the survey map used above but this time with corridor B splashed onto it in all its glory. Absurd as it might look, I think it is likely to be one of the more truthful representations of this unlikely proposal up to date. It’s a large file so click on it for the detail. You might even see your own roof somewhere in there.
It is part of an obvious attempt not to reveal too many facts about any of the proposed routes of North East Link before a final announcement is made later in the year. The late inclusion of corridor B within the proposal I think has a lot to do with the perceptions of Yallambie’s place in the world, or at least perceptions of the suburb in the eye of the authorities.
In the September edition of “RA”, the magazine of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria, there is a four page article detailing the North East Link proposal complete with a generalised map by way of illustration. Interestingly the article states that “broadly, NELA has been looking at three possible routes for the proposed freeway,” going on to explain what in effect constitute the options for corridors A, C and D. The route for corridor B through Yallambie doesn’t rate a mention. The implication is that in real terms, corridor B serves the same business model as corridor C but that the Yallambie/Lower Plenty route has been belatedly included as something slightly easier to digest than the unpalatable Eltham option. I expect most people who heard about Yallambie as an alternative to the Eltham route last month had to then go and look up Yallambie on a map because in cartographical terms, when it comes to your place in the world, it’s all about where you draw the line.
If you drive along the top end of Bell Street in West Heidelberg today, an enormous apartment block is right now fast reshaping the landscape, sitting there like a latter day QE2 beached on top of the ridge. This apartment block carries the moniker “The Ivanhoe” in large, friendly letters emblazoned across its Upper Heidelberg Rd frontage and the building has been described by the property developer as being located in the suburb of Ivanhoe. The project website, obviously aimed at an overseas market, describes the suburb of Ivanhoe as “a sanctuary of leafy green streets, parklands and river walks with a strong sense of community and belonging.” The thing is, this description belies its location on the west corner of busy Bell Street and Upper Heidelberg Road. The location of “The Ivanhoe” is actually West Heidelberg, or at best Heidelberg Heights, to use the jargon of real estate agents. The border of the suburb of Ivanhoe ends at Banksia Street but it seems nobody stumping up the money to live in one of these apartments wants to wake up one day and find them self suddenly living in unfavoured West Heidelberg. The solution, just move a line on the map. Do you think anyone will notice?
North East Link obviously think nobody will notice when it comes down to the nitty gritty of moving lines around a map of their proposed corridors. It’s all about what you reckon you can get away with. The State Government has vowed that one of these suggested routes will have traffic thundering through it in the early 2020s but like Benito Boninto rampaging up and down the Peruvian coast, the Pirates of the North East Link aim to wreak havoc and destruction on impacted communities without so much as a by your leave. The explosion of gunpowder used in a cave at Pt Nepean will be nothing compared to what they have in mind. To them, communities and the people living in them are simply arbitrary boundaries – mere lines to shove around on a map wherever they want – an inconvenience to their plans best not discussed within delicate hearing.
The story of the 16th century Mahogany Ship and the presence of Captain Cook on the east coast of Australia in 1770 long ago entered the blurred line between historical fact and legendary fiction but in the years to come, how will we look back on the Pirates of the North East Link and the last months of 2017? Will the anger and bitterness that these road proposals raised be remembered or will their legacy live on in history as a postscript to the main story, the forgotten doodles in a road planner’s imagination?
“But the plans were on display…”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a flashlight.”
“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.”
Thus Arthur Dent learned at the start of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy of the plans to destroy his home for a new road.
“It’s a bypass. You’ve got to build bypasses.”
This week the State Government through the guise of its North East Link Authority dropped a bombshell. It came right out of left field and landed in the solar plexus of the Yallambie community, catching all and sundry totally by surprise. As I listened to the news of this exploding shell broadcast on early Monday morning radio, I couldn’t help but think I had been weirdly trapped inside a scene from the chapters of a Douglas Adams’ science fiction farce, but this was no laughing matter. Secret proposals have been going on behind closed doors at North East Link and while nobody has been looking, somebody just moved the goal posts.
The North East Link Authority, charged with finding a route for the missing piece in Melbourne’s road system, had just announced a choice of four alternative routes to fill the void in that network. Wikipedia has long listed three of them, an eastern option from the Western Ring Rd to East Link via Kangaroo Ground and Chirnside Park, (corridor D); a central option from the Ring Rd to Eastlink via Eltham and Warrandyte, (corridor C) and a western option from the Ring Rd to the Eastern Freeway at Bulleen via Watsonia and Viewbank, (corridor A). But a fourth, previously un-thought of route has unexpectedly been thrown into the mix by the lads at North East Link. Their so called corridor B. The B is for bomb.
In essence corridor B is an afterthought. Maybe even a Furphy. A bad and cynical attempt to wrong foot opposition to an already unpopular road by dividing discussion. If built this unexpected option would be a disaster for Watsonia and Yallambie and would completely and utterly destroy the Lower Plenty township to boot.
The unique landscape at Yallambie and Lower Plenty has remained largely unchanged since the 1840s and was recognized and classified nearly two decades ago by the National Trust. Who could possibly think the idea of exiting a tunnel over this landscape and filling it with a spaghetti of connecting roads could be a good idea in this day and age? The corridor B proposal aims to smash a gaping hole into all of it (literally) by taking a route off the Greensborough Highway through Watsonia and the northern borders of Yallambie, almost certainly compulsorily acquiring and demolishing the homes of countless families in the process, before plunging underground along the existing electrical easement and spewing out of the ridge directly in front of the Yallambie Homestead. If that old and fragile building does not fall down from the vibrations during the underground blasting process of building the tunnels, then the combined effects of over a hundred thousand vehicles a day travelling on it will.
There are practical considerations for the builders’ of these roads not tunneling under rivers so the proposed corridor B route would presumably follow an elevated flyway across the Yallambie Flats, obliterating the existing soccer ground if not the tennis club in the process before crossing the Plenty River opposite the Lower Plenty Hotel and ripping the heart out of the Lower Plenty township itself.
You can forget ever having another drink at the Lower Plenty Hotel while marveling at its unique bush land setting.
You can kiss goodbye the Heidelberg Golf Course and the adjacent green wedge of the historic Edward Willis landscape. This proposal is an utter disgrace and would be a catastrophe for this area.
And just for good measure, for those who worry about such things, you can forget about selling your real estate right now. Your house has just become unsellable overnight by the mere mention of this road. So much for Yallambie as the 6th most “in demand suburb” in Australia.
What could they have been thinking? Who are the Vogons who dream up these ideas without a by your leave and then try to back pedal them as a realistic alternative to an existing transport problem?
But no, that’s not the end of it. The road they call corridor B would then travel through the back of Lower Plenty for an unspecified length before heading back underground again only to emerge and bash a path through the edge of Warrandyte and Donvale at Reynolds Road in order to meet up with Eastlink. How many communities do these planners plan to destroy along their merry way?
I was a child growing up in Rosanna when the battle lines were first drawn up in the 1970s to stop construction of what was then known as the F18 Freeway. That road aimed to carve a surface route through the back streets of the former City of Heidelberg. I might have been a kid but I remember the adults around me mobilising public opinion, attending protest rallies and vowing to lie down in front of the bulldozers if it came to the point. The years have moved on and those remembered adults of my youth are now all dead but still the fight marches on and into another generation.
I’ve been writing regularly in these pages for three years about the merits of this very special corner of the world. My writing has been an attempt to draw attention to Yallambie, its natural beauty, its historic stories and the fantastic lifestyle to be enjoyed while living on the lower reaches of the nearby precious Plenty River. I’ve mentioned in these pages the possibility of a North East Link more than once, the last occasion in my May post of this year. In my wildest dreams though I never imagined for one moment that this hot potato would fall out of the fire so close to home and that the decision makers would pull this one on us like a Yallambie rabbit out of a hat. It might be sleight of hand but they’re not fooling anyone.
Let’s call a spade a spade and call this proposal for what it is. An absolute turkey that has only been suggested now to deflect attention because of the real fight the government knows it will have on its hands with the other routes. The other corridors have been on the cards for many, many years and local groups opposed to them are well organised and ready for the fight. Before last week this had never even been suggested as an option for Yallambie and the local communities in Yallambie, Lower Plenty and elsewhere have been caught completely unprepared. It is insulting that residents have had to find out about this proposal from the newspapers and radio news. Yallambie is a small suburb and we have always had a small voice, but what consideration has been made for the people living here and elsewhere and for the birds and wild life, the historic landscape and the special bushland setting? What of beauty and nature and all those things that make up life in one of the best living environments in the city of Melbourne?
North East Link proposes to destroy all of that unless we make ourselves heard.
Stand up and have your say now. If we leave this until it is too late it will be no use complaining when you wake up one day to find yourself living in a car yard.
This morning I woke before the sunrise and lay in bed worrying while I listened to the dawn chorus of singing birds. Would the bell like sounds of the King Parrots soon be replaced by the noise of a hundred thousand vehicles a day spewing from a hole in the ground like the legions of Mordor? As if in answer to my question a lone kookaburra joined in with a tune, the ensuing laughter of its call ringing loudly in my ears. Maybe the kookaburra had been reading those newspapers. The North East Link Authority’s Monday announcement was driven off the front page the next day by a story about the Opposition Leader, a crayfish and the company he keeps. It’s good to keep these things in perspective.
Luckily for Arthur Dent, he was able to hitchhike a lift from a passing spaceship to escape the destruction of his hometown by the bulldozers. The rest of us are not so lucky. The decisions made on Melbourne’s road network in the near future will effect this city and the people living in it for generations to come. The destruction of communities in order to build these roads will look pretty stupid when Peak Oil has stopped vehicles in their tracks and left nothing behind other than a hole in the ground and an inter-generational debt with a fiscal and social implication of almost unimaginable proportions.