Tea time

Every Australian knows the story of the jolly swagman who liked to camp by a billabong while stuffing jumbucks into his tucker bag. In the song, the swaggie was brewing himself a billy tea “as he watched and waited ’til his billy boiled”, but somebody should have told him that a watched pot never boils. He was rudely interrupted from his repast by the arrival of a squatter on a gee gee, demanding an official look inside his bag.

It’s a well-loved tune, but I wonder.

If the swaggie had sat down for a cuppa with the troopers one, two and three instead of jumping into the billabong, would things have ended up differently that day? Tea has a way of diffusing a situation, calming nerves while invigorating debate, even something as problematic as the finer points of jumbuck ownership.

Tea and damper. (Source: Coloured wood engraving, 1883, State Library of Victoria) http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/155681
Diggers at tea. (Source: Pen and pencil drawing by Charles Lyall, c1854-6, State Library Victoria) http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/72282

Tea has long been an integral part of the national character of this country. The obligatory meal of tea and damper was for years a staple of bush life and it was said that a bloke could survive on little else if need be. One of my earliest memories is of watching my dad, an old country boy, throw a handful of tea leaves into a boiling billy over a camp fire and watching him spin it by the handle over his head to draw out the brew. I always wondered how he got the boiling water to stay inside the pot.

Tea was right there at the start of Australia since it was a British tax on the stuff in the American colonies that led to the need for a new home for Britain’s convict classes after that party in Boston. The home eventually chosen would be New South Wales but there was a certain amount of wishful thinking that went into the planning stage of the new colony. Joseph Banks’ glowing report of the suitability of Botany Bay had been written with the rose coloured glasses of hindsight and the remembered heady days of his youth spent nearly two decades earlier in the company of the great explorer, James Cook at the other end of the world. Cook was by then a cannibal’s tooth pickings so when Botany Bay proved shallow and unsuitable for settlement, it was only with dumb luck that the First Fleet found one of the world’s great natural deep water harbours at Sydney, just to the north. Governor Arthur Phillip had high hopes for the new colony and his plans were for an ethnically harmonious, egalitarian and in particular alcohol free society, but it was a plan that would come massively unstuck in the face of the self-serving antics of the New South Wales Corps, the Rum Corps, a little later. It resulted in Australia’s only ever military coup d’état but one is left to wonder whether Australian history would have been any different if the 102nd Regiment of Foot had traded tea instead of rum?

Phillip packed a teapot in 1788 and served tea to his officers at regular afternoon tête-à-têtes at the leaking, canvas framed, First Government House he called home where the guests of honour would sometimes be Aboriginal visitors who had been kidnapped especially for the occasion. You might call this an early attempt at Reconciliation, 18th Century style, but with the colony on the verge of starvation in those early years, maybe tea was used to hide the meagre sandwich board and take the edge off hungry appetites all round.

Unlike Phillip’s unwilling Aboriginal luncheon companions, the convicts didn’t usually get invited to Phillip’s tea parties so the prisoners started to brew a native creeper, sweet sarsaparilla into a drink of their own, an approximation of tea which had the added advantage of some beneficial active antioxidants. For throats parched by the warm New South Wales climate though, it just wasn’t the same.  In 1819, China tea was placed on the official convict ration and from that time onward it became an Australian staple. Many of the early colonists were soon growing and clipping their own tea bushes, but for years tea farming in Australia remained a relatively rare industry in spite of the Australian Town and Country Journal observing in 1881: “The plant might be grown in every garden in the colony where the climate is not colder than will suit the orange tree… The plant is hardy at Melbourne and Hobart, as well as Sydney.”

Stereoview of two women taking tea in a garden. (Source: private collection).
A quiet cup of tea. (Source: Wood engraving by F A Sleap, 1878, State Library of Victoria) http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/251167

Tea drinking was assimilated into the habits of society and permeated both the public and private realm, becoming embedded in the very fabric of the Australian way of life along the way.  Tea was used as a measure of civilisation in what was otherwise a sometimes primitive world.  Describing a meeting place of Society in early Melbourne town, Northumberland Cottage, Georgiana McCrae wrote in her journal: “I was told that, in earlier days, the whole population of the settlement, about fifteen persons, had assembled (at Northumberland) to drink tea.”

And in a further commentary on combining the roles of wife and mother with Society hostess:

Self portrait by Georgiana McCrae. (Source: Wikipedia)

“Captain Cole, to tea, and whether for the sake of prolonging his stay beside his lady-love, or from actual thirst, he took no less than NINE of our small teacups full of tea. While pouring out the seventh cup I could hardly conceal the effects of a twinge of pain, but the captain and Thomas Anne didn’t make a move till 10pm.” (Georgiana’s Journal, Melbourne 1841-65)

After her visitors had made their departure, with her tea service put away, Georgiana gave birth to a daughter at 3am.

A late 19th Century Moran & Cato tea tin.

In Australian homesteads like the Wragge family properties, Yallambie and Tulla, there is little doubt that tea drinking would have been an established routine, enjoyed by both family and the staff. Tea was regarded as a staple for such households, “Large supplies of essentials, such as flour, sugar, and tea, were stored…” (Calder: Classing the Wool, p101) with black teas from India and Ceylon later in the Century replacing the Green China teas that had earlier been popular. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management said that black tea was “more highly flavoured than the Chinese” calling it, “The most popular non-alcoholic beverage in this country, (Great Britain).”

Throughout the 19th Century and indeed for much of the 20th, to be an Australian meant also to be a part of the greater British diaspora. The Brits had for years been putting milk in their tea, a practice that is thought to have started in the 17th or 18th Centuries when the Chinese porcelain cups used to serve tea were feared to be so delicate that hot tea might crack them. Milk was added to cool the liquid and reduce the risk. Black tea is best brewed at hotter temperatures than green so with the industrial age came a more cynical reason for using milk. Employers added it to shorten the length of tea breaks since hot black tea required long tea breaks to drink it. The addition of milk cooled the tea thereby shortening the breaks required and increasing available work time for the factories along the way.

A 19th Century Chinese railroad worker’s tea set, with basket.
“… probably delivered by a milkman called Ernie”

There was a time years ago when non-homogenized milk was delivered to houses in glass bottles topped with foil. The magpies would peck at the top to get at the cream if you left the bottles out late in the morning . In the Heidelberg area milk came from the Eaglemont Dairy and I’m guessing was probably delivered by a milkman called Ernie driving a very fast milk cart. Some stores are now selling non-homogenized milk again describing it as organic. The milk needs a shake before using but I like the resulting smoother, rich creamy flavour.

A super-sized harvest cup. A teacup to warm the cockles of a gardener’s heart on a cold July day.

Tea drinking has always been a way of life in this house. My wife and I met over a cup of tea and like the British factory workers guzzling their lukewarm, milky tea while production stopped, any project around this house or in the garden for that matter needs to be interrupted regularly by a super-sized cup of tea in order to proceed smoothly.

“…we’ve given it a home and have been making tea in it all week.”
The card found inside the thrift store purchased teapot.
Maggie’s violet tea cup. A cherished memento from a long departed relative.
Relics from the war service of this this writer’s father, including the tin tea mug carried as a POW

For mine, the only way to make tea is for it to be properly brewed in a pot and not with the sweepings from the tea factory floor collected into little paper bags with a string attached. I know this preference is probably atypical today and that many people now might not even own a teapot. We on the other hand, while having many, always have room for one more. Last week we were visiting a large, well known Greensborough thrift emporium where we found a very nice EPNS pot which was purchased for $12. It was nearly black with tarnish but polished up very quickly when we brought it home. Inside was found a touching, hand written note describing it by a now lost and forgotten hand as “Nanna’s silver tea service teapot”. Apparently nobody had wanted Nanna’s best pot since it had been relegated to an Op shop. Well, we’ve given it a home and have been making tea in it all week. It pours beautifully and joins many such “heirlooms” which reminds us of the long line of tea soaks we have on both sides of the family.

Tea drinking isn’t complicated. Sip, taste and enjoy one of life’s little but unregarded luxuries. Arthur Phillip enjoyed it. The jolly swagman would have if given the chance. So for those coffee drinkers who don’t know how, or any who would otherwise prefer to use a paper bag with a string attached, here’s what to do.

Use freshly drawn water and fill the kettle only with the amount you need. Black tea is best made using water boiling at or near 100°C

Allow the tea to stand, brewing the tea leaves from three to five minutes depending on the style of tea, plus your own individual taste.

Stir the pot when you are ready to pour. I use a spoon but my wife just turns the pot around on the table with a giddying regularity. Don’t use a knife if you are in any way superstitious. Remember the old saying, “Stir with a knife and stir up strife”. Use a strainer if you don’t like leaves in your cup but the fact is, we can drink huge amounts of leaves without harm. I had a friend whose grandmother was superstitious and liked to make a show sometimes of reading tea leaves at the end of a cup.

Cups for tea drinkers thinking of buying a lotto ticket.
The Robur Teapot, made in Melbourne throughout the 20th Century.

When taking milk in your tea, always add the milk to the cup first for a smoother flavour and to avoid scalding the milk. Choose your favourite tea cup and saucer, pour the tea slowly and take time to inhale and appreciate the aromas created by the fresh brew.

If the “white death” of sugar takes your fancy, then add a spoonful and stir but for mine, you will lose the taste of the tea by adding sugar to it.

So make mine white and without please. Hooroo, I’m off for a cuppa.

Chateau Yallambie?

The late Douglas Adams once described alcohol as “a colourless volatile liquid formed by the fermentation of sugars” which he went on to explain was noted for its intoxicating effect on certain carbon-based life forms. (Adams: HHGG) It is unknown when the first of these “carbon-based life forms” discovered that the naturally occurring sugars in Vitis vinifera, the common grape of Europe and the Mediterranean world could be manufactured into a sort of consciousness altering yet palatable beverage, but all indications are that we were doing so from the moment we first learned to bend the elbow above those opposing thumbs.

The earliest archaeological evidence of wine production comes from Eastern Europe and dates to about 8000BC, which presumably also gives us a clear indication of a time for the first morning hang over. As the Greek historian Thucydides wrote reflectively two and a half thousand years ago, “The people of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learnt to cultivate the olive and the vine.” By the time of Thucydides, the cultivation and harvesting of grapes, or viticulture as it is more properly known, was going great guns and formed an important trade commodity throughout the Classical world.

Winemaking flourished during the age of European expansion and went with the settlers to their New Worlds. Vines were brought to Australia in 1788 on board the First Fleet and after a little trial and error, Australian made wine had become available for sale domestically by the 1820s. Monty Python might have dismissed Australian wine last century as little more than “Chateau Chunder”, but by then the very real success story of brands like Penfolds Vintage Grange showed that Australian wine was something to be taken seriously by oenophiles both here and abroad.

Grape vines planted in a private garden at the Cascades Estate, Yallambie, October, 2017.

There are estimated to be nearly two and a half thousand wineries in Australia today and they are found in every Australian state across 65 winegrowing regions with one count putting the actual number of individual grape growers at something over 6000. There are more than 600 wineries in Victoria alone, which is more single producers than in any other Australian state. Many of these grape growers are boutique or family operated businesses but if you were to take into account every amateur making a few bottles in their kitchens or garden sheds as well, there must be many, many more. Here in Melbourne’s north for instance, the Eltham Winemakers Guild has for 50 years been promoting the concept of amateur wine making and their annual wine show regularly attracts over 500 entries in the most diverse categories offered of any such show nationwide.

Scene at Yering, Baron de Pury’s Yeringberg vineyard, by H L van den Houten, 1875. H29754 (Source: State Library Victoria) http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/136868

The beginnings of this story in Victoria has its place in the first days of settlement of the Port Phillip District. It is commonly accepted that the first grape vines for wine making in Victoria were planted by Donald Ryrie at Yarra Yarra Yering in 1838, probably from cuttings provided by the MacArthur family of Camden. The Yering enterprise was a small experiment at first as the Ryrie property was initially intended to be a grazing concern, but with the arrival of James Henry Dardel, a Swiss national and experienced vine dresser, the work soon developed. The first Yering vintage wasn’t bottled until 1845 but to this day wine is still produced at Yering Station where it is proudly marketed to consumers as Chateau Yering, “the oldest vineyard in Victoria”.

In 1840 while still involved with Ryrie, Dardel joined his countrymen, the Belperroud brothers Jean and Alexandre on a project to plant a second vineyard in Victoria at a site well familiar to the readers of this blog. In 1840 the Belperroud brothers, assisted by Dardel, planted an acre of wine making grapes for the Messieurs John and Robert Bakewell at their Station Plenty thus making the Bakewell’s Yallambee the second oldest vineyard in what would become the State of Victoria.

“The Belperroud brothers… with the help of James Dardel… planted a one-acre vineyard on the Plenty River beside Ryrie’s Track, just above its confluence with the Yarra, on Thomas Walker’s Crown Portion No. 8. It was Victoria’s second acre of vines after Ryrie’s. The vineyard was the property of the Bakewells of Yallambie, Lower Plenty.” (Raymond Henderson, From Jolimont to Yering, p172, Roundabout Publishing, 2006)

Mr Clark’s Deep Creek Station near Keilor, by Eugene von Guerard, 1867. (Source: National Gallery Victoria) https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/5677/

Jean, later John (1801-1883) and Alexandre (1804-1875) Belperroud were skilled vignerons from Cornaux near the shores of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. They arrived in Sydney in November, 1839 and by January the following year they were in Port Phillip where, “Fortunately, for the vignerons of 1840 contract work was available in the gardens and properties of the well-to-do.” (Dr David Dunstan, LaTrobeana, Vol10, No.2) The first of these gardens was the Bakewells’ Yallambee and after Ryrie, this was the second planting of vines overall.

The Bakewell brothers’ Yallambee by George Alexander Gilbert. (Source: Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria, H29575) http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/294649
North east facing rise above the soccer ground at the back of Kardinia Drive, Yallambie, May, 2021.

Henderson states that the Bakewell vineyard was located at what is now the back of Kardinia Drive where it looks east over the present day soccer ground and north across the high voltage electrical easement. If this was the site, this initial location was possibly not a success as the Gilbert and Bateman pictorial evidence shows grape vines and hops growing later, on the river flat further north, below the site of the Bakewell prefabricated house and existing Homestead. In the late 1850s William Howitt would describe this site:

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. (Source: National Gallery Victoria)

“From the brow of the hill on which the house stands, on a lawn of rich Kangaroo-grass, the bank descends steeply to a flat of from four to five acres, which is laid out in a garden, orchard, and vineyard… From the hill near the house you have a full view of the whole garden. The fruit-trees were nearly all in blossom, and the vine-plots were well dressed and kept. They cut their vine-stocks there generally much shorter than in Germany, little more than a foot from the ground, and give separate sticks to each. Mr. Bakewell’s were an exception. I was surprised to see the flat of this garden planted with the vines, and the sloping sides of the hills only partly planted with them. But as they grow the grapes chiefly for market, no doubt they obtain much heavier bunches, but they would not produce so finely-flavoured a wine. ” (William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, 1858).

James Dardel and the Belperroud brothers were pioneers of the early wine industry in Victoria and after working at Yallambee the Belperrouds, followed later by Dardel, moved to the Geelong area where they were involved in establishing a successful and highly respected wine growing region which flourished there until grape phylloxera saw its demise later in the century.

In spite of Superintendent La Trobe’s best efforts for them, as Swiss nationals the purchase of land remained difficult and expensive for these emigre viticulturists. In his correspondence, La Trobe called them “a superior class” of emigrant but until the land situation was remedied by a new Act of Naturalization in 1849, foreign vignerons inevitably worked at vineyards owned by British subjects, or on other activities altogether. Jean Belperroud offered French lessons in an advertisement in the Port Phillip Gazette in October, 1840. James Dardel managed a cheese factory in Bulleen.

The Port Phillip pioneer, Edward Willis.

In 1841 with the economy contracting, Jean Belperroud commenced working on a new project – Berramongo, a vineyard at Dewings Ford on the Barwon River. The new vineyard was planted on land owned by Charles Swanston, a merchant and leading member of the Port Phillip Association and Swanston’s business partner, his son in law, Edward Willis. This was the same Edward Willis who was squatting on the lower reaches of the Plenty River in 1837. It would seem reasonable to assume therefore that the Willis/Belperroud association commenced at Yallambee at the time the Belperrouds were showing their vine planting and vine dressing skills to the Bakewells.

The Victoria Vineyard at Waurn Ponds near Geelong, from the sketch book of Eugene von Guerard. http://barwonblogger.blogspot.com/2017/09/victoria-and-albert.html
Jean (John) Belperroud photographed late in life. (Source: From Jolimont to Yering)

The Belperrouds are considered to have been key figures in the pre-phylloxera wine industry of Victoria. In 1859 Jean won a horticultural prize of 150 guineas for a treatise he wrote on wine making in Victoria which was afterwards published sparking “a wider debate among would be authorities on viticulture in the new land.” (Dunstan, ibid) It’s a debate that continues to the present day as any simple search of the internet will tell you.

I don’t pretend to know much about this subject beyond how to pull a cork out of a bottle but a pal of mine used to write a wine buff’s blog, The Inquisitive Palate which impressed by how much can be said on this subject. People have been writing about wine since the time of Thucydides and probably will be doing so for as long there are drinkers. A recent story in the news told a tale about how a dozen bottles of wine had been sent up to the International space station to be aged for a year in a weightless environment. Not quite sure what the point of this was but the boffins claimed that the journey had changed the wine on a molecular level. When the first bottle was opened after it arrived back down here from orbit, the wine cognoscenti said it “tasted like rose petals, smelled like a campfire and glistened with a burnt-orange hue.”

So there you go. I don’t suppose any of us will ever get a chance to taste this sort of Space Age plonk, but here’s the idea. Get yourself a bottle of Aussie Chateau Chunder from the corner shop. Decant it. Throw in some rose cuttings from the garden, some charred orange peel and let the resulting mixture stand next to the Webber while you’re putting a prawn on the Saturday afternoon barbie.

Voilà. You’ll either have a drink that’s out of this world, or vinegar. A drink perhaps not unlike something they made around here 180 years ago.

Château Yallambie

The farm of Mr Perry on the Yarra (Fulham Grange at Alphington), by Eugene Von Guerard, 1855 showing Perry’s vineyard. https://www.alphington.org.au/acconline/2020/6/25/m1qdljwrrhmszmhrrqfe1rn93m06nf

…and in between are the doors

You’ll find it lurking unregarded at the bottom of any tool box.

Sharp to the touch, pointy at one end and marked by a cruciform top at the other.

The Phillips headed screw was an innovation when it was first marketed by its namesake, the American businessman Henry F Phillips more than 80 years ago. Its self-centring cruciform face was designed to align a driver with a screw aperture in ways that a traditional slot headed screw did not and it soon became a commonplace in any home handyman’s kit. Along the way though, the ubiquitous screw also became the source of one of the smallest but most often repeated mistakes seen in period style. Call me a fanatic in such things if you like, but while this old house might join only where it touches, you will never see a modern Phillips headed packing screw holding it together when an old fashioned, slot headed wood screw will do.

“…when an old fashioned, slot headed wood screw will do”. Amber, cut crystal door pulls on a shop in Yass, (McLachlan)

This obsession with detail, for that is what it is, translates into all sorts of other ways and this is never more so than in my ongoing fascination with old door furniture. It’s usually the first thing I look at when entering an old house or Victorian era shop for the first time. I’ve been collecting the stuff from second hand yards for years and I sometimes joke that one day I’ll start my own museum of door handles. Then I realize that I’m probably living in one.

Doors are as old as the history of civilization itself and for as long as there have been doors we have needed to find ways to get in and get out of them. Originally doors were made with primitive locking devices such as wooden or iron sliding bolts or a latch string – a small strap of leather threaded through a hole in a door and used to raise and lower a bar inside. Door handles as we know them today arrived surprisingly late on the scene but when they did the idea soon caught on. Handles were produced in spun brass, cast iron, pressed tin or copper, cut crystal, pressed glass, china and wood and came in a seemingly endless variety of shapes, sizes and designs.

H & T Vaughan “draw back” style rim lock and ceramic wood grained door pull on the kitchen door at Yallambie.

The typical Victorian era door generally contained four flush finished or mould trimmed panels, the shorter pair of panels located lower on the door, the longer above. In later Edwardian doors, this configuration was reversed. Most door furniture used in Australia in the Colonial period was supplied in sets and imported, but as the Century progressed, a few Australian manufacturers started to get in on the act. In 1892, W C Faulk and Sons of Sydney marketed a range of door plates which included “a series on which are painted specimens of Australian flora, such as the waratah, the flannel-flower etc beautifully executed for the firm by Messrs Lyon, Wells and Cottier”, a Sydney firm known as “art decorators and glass-stainers”.

Page from an 1897 trade catalogue by the English firm, Bullers Ltd. (Source: Ian Evans)

It is unclear what style of door furniture was used at Yallambie in the early 1870s but Calder suggests a possibility that some was sourced from the Royal Derby China Factory in England. A photograph of Annie Wragge from the 1890s in the Bush collection shows her painting a door with china finger plates, handles and key escutcheons but little of this would survive at Yallambie after alterations made to the house in the 1920s. New bronzed steel door furniture was introduced and the positions of the handles moved higher on the door stiles in a style more typical of the Edwardian era.

A young Annie Wragge decorating a door at Yallambie. (Source: Bill Bush collection)

China finger plate and door handle.

Ethel Temby believed that a dodgy caretaker from the time the property stood vacant after the AV Jennings sale later sold remaining china door plates at the Plenty Bridge Hotel for pin money. If true, it’s an example of how the story of a property in a physical sense can vanish over time. It is the detective task of the restoration renovator to try to make sense of that story.

A glass maker I knew was once commissioned to recreate some of the missing historic glass features of Parks Victoria’s Werribee Park Mansion. The property built in the 1870s is well known for its remarkable collection of 19th Century architectural etched glass and the windows above the main entrance and across the stairs are particular delights. I remember remarking about some of the sand blasted glass I had seen on reinstated windows at that building and asking him if he had been responsible. His professional pride was offended at the suggestion that I would think him guilty of using sand blasting techniques where by rights only traditional, acid etching should ever have been considered. In actual fact he was given the task of reproducing the light shades used in the grand hallways at Werribee Park Mansion where legend had it the original shades had been broken by priests playing football up and down the halls during the long period when the property was used as a Catholic Seminary. I guess the Americans would call this the “Hail Mary Pass”.

“…the story of a property in a physical sense can vanish over time.” Damaged finger plate photographed at Reedy Creek Homestead, Broadford, 2003. (McLachlan)
One of a pair of doors photographed at Werribee Park in 2001. (McLachlan)

If you have ever visited grand historic properties of the 1870s like the Mansion or the National Trust’s Barwon Park at Winchelsea, or indeed more humble homes like Reedy Creek Homestead, you may have seen rooms where surviving examples of cut glass or “crystal door” furniture can be found. A pair of these handles in the Victorian era would have cost upwards of 20 shillings, five times the price of a standard set, and a property like Barwon Park, there are many, many doors.

Cut crystal, amber glass door set at Barwon Park, Winchelsea. (McLachlan)

The definition of Crystal when applied to glassmaking is something of a misunderstood word. Glass is a generic term while crystal is a subcategory of glass which is made by adding lead oxide during production. Therefore, all crystal is glass but conversely not all glass is crystal. The best way to tell clear crystal is to hold it up to sunlight and if it reflects a prism, then it is crystal. In 19th Century door furniture, the crystal was subsequently cut by hand on a wheel to create a variety of facets and silver leaf added to the back of the glass in order to add extra brilliance. With amber glass, the crystal is made in much the same way but with sulphur and iron oxide added in the glass making process and gold leaf substituted for silver.

Glass door furniture and lead light.
One of Annie’s painted doors carrying amber glass door furniture.
A bedroom door at Yallambie.

The intrinsic beauty of these items and the skill exhibited by the 19th Century Bohemian glass makers who created them I find astonishing in objects so apparently utilitarian in nature. Why anybody should therefore ever see the need to remove these works of art from a house I don’t know, but many have. Over the years we have managed to pick up a little of this style of door furniture from demolition yards and junk shops, both clear crystal and amber glass. One set of amber glass finger plates we were reliably informed came from Billilla in Brighton, the 1870s home of Winty Calder’s paternal great grandfather, (Thomas Wragge was a maternal).

Long crystal finger plate on the back door at Yallambie.

Another set, a rare, long, clear glass style of plates now found in our hallway came from a seller in the “tell him he’s dreaming” days of the old Trading Post newspaper. He had managed to collect a lot of this sort of stuff at the height of the spate of demolition work that destroyed Melbourne as a Victorian era metropolis in the 1950s and 60s when such things went unregarded. When we met him he had become “Born Again” and told us he was getting rid of the worldly things of another lifetime. He felt sure the world would be at an end sometime soon and material things were therefore of little importance.

That was 20 years ago and more and we are still here but I must say, put like that, he probably had a point. I have another thing, an old fashioned French style rim lock the story of which continues on with this thought. It was bought in Melbourne from a Lebanese emigre who told me that the lock was all that was left of his house in Beirut when it was flattened during the civil war. It just goes to show how stories can be locked up in material objects but, all the same, I bet you never knew old door furniture could put your life into some sort of perspective.

James Carpenter No. 60 rim lock on a shed door at Yallambie.

A rim lock is a sort of steel box that sits on the surface of a door at the edge, the so called rim as opposed to the mortice lock that sits inside the door stile. Nowadays, most door locks are mortice locks that are designed to sit within the door. Throughout the 19th Century the appearance of rim locks changed only marginally. The architectural historian, Ian Evans wrote of rim locks that, “like Henry Ford’s first cars, they were available in any colour, so long as it was black”. English manufacturers like James Carpenter and H &T Vaughan must have shipped tons of these locks to Australia in the days of sail and their locks with keepers where the chute lifts rather than withdraws can be found in situ in many old houses today, usually though with a backup contemporary lock added for security.

Privacy lock on the new bathroom.

Installing an interior rim lock was probably the last thing I did in the bathroom project I recently finished and which I wrote about in March. This lock was a specially sourced, Victorian original bathroom lock, complete with privacy latch which on a room with a clear glass lead light door might seem pointless exercise but for me was a detail as necessary as choosing slot headed screws over Phillips to attach it. Finding the lock was one thing. Finding a keeper to match it was another. It is frustrating fact that when an old lock gets removed during the demolition of an old house, so often it is the innocuous lock keeper that gets left behind.

The pandemic and the risks of touching shared surfaces has given pause for thought for these architectural necessities which go so often unregarded at our finger tips, but as that long dead and dearly departed, counter culture poet Jim Morrison once said “there are things known and things unknown, and in between are the doors.” Jim was thinking of a certain notorious rock and roll band, but we all know what happens when a child turns a door handle to enter a secret garden or pushes beyond the overcoats inside the depths of a wardrobe. Opening a door into another place can reveal strange things, or it can reveal nothing more than old coats. For mine, what we use to get through those doors can say a lot about what we expect to find inside.

Knock if you want to see Harry Potter. A cupboard under the stairs at Yallambie.

Blue is the new black

What’s your favourite colour?

It’s a simple enough question and one most of us probably had an answer to as a child, but as Monty Python’s Sir Galahad the Chaste found to his cost at the “Bridge of Death”, when it comes to choosing colour, some things are never easy.

These days we take for granted the concept of blue for boys and pink for girls but it’s said that this is only a post-war marketing phenomenon and that remarkably, before that time these colour codes were either reversed, or did not apply at all. Starting from such a basis then, is it any wonder that when it comes to painting and decorating around the house, choosing the right colours can sometimes be fraught with as much difficulty as splashing the paint about the walls?

In need of a splash of paint: the exterior of Yallambie, c1988. (Source: John Botwood collection)

Although it was definitely fashionable during the mid-Victorian age to pick out different elements of a building in separate colours and shades of colour, it could be argued that Thomas Wragge and his family were always more interested in their farms than fashion. It’s impossible to know now what the colour scheme was at Yallambie in the early days. The stucco render of the house remained unpainted during Annie Murdoch’s post 1919 renovations and throughout the subsequent Bush and Temby eras. During the Ozimek family residency of the 1980s, the Ozimeks sought expert heritage advice in their choice of a specially mixed green/grey which by stretching the imagination, was supposed to roughly match the tones of previously unpainted cement.

Painted for the first time: the exterior of Yallambie at the start of the 1990s. (Source: John Botwood collection)

Available black and white photography from the 19th Century would indicate that exterior joinery at Yallambie was painted with a mixture of dark window frames, doors and window sashes. As a rule of thumb, a typical Victorian colour scheme for the joinery on a masonry house of this age might be deep Brunswick green or Indian red for window sashes and doors, with the same colour being used on gutters, barge boards, cappings and other mouldings. Although paint scrapings used to collect evidence of previous painting styles remain largely ambiguous at Yallambie, by the middle of the 20th Century it is clear that window frames and sashes had been repainted an unassuming white before being repainted again by the Ozimeks in the 1980s in a mass effect of the aforementioned Brunswick green.

“…dark window frames, doors and window sashes.” (Source: Bill Bush collection)
Red door, 2018.
Blue door, 2021

Since arriving here in the 1990s we have experimented with the alternative Indian red on some of that green exterior joinery but found that the harsh Australian sun soon burned the colour out of the red paint. Was there an alternative?

So called heritage colours are a bit of a misnomer but at Yallambie their use in the past has contributed to an overall effect which once saw the property cast in the starring role of a ghost story. What we wanted then was something that might tick the heritage boxes but in the process send those old ghosts packing.

The spooky house, March, 1997.

Film evidence of the old Bakewell era stables which was demolished at the start of the 1980s showed that the barn doors had been painted in a pure French blue, a colour that had also been used at some later time to paint the screen doors of the house.

You don’t have to live in a toadstool house to experience the joys of a blue door. (Source: Noddy Book 15)
Blue stable doors seen in Peter Bassett-Smith’s 16mm colour film.

With this in mind and with our imagination filled with happy scenes of sunny picture postcards of Provence, it was off to the paint shop to look at their colour cards for a “super intelligent shade of the colour blue”. Whether this blue might in practice prove to be intelligent in design in a general sort of way, or only when compared to all those other colours of the rainbow in the colour books at the paint shop remained the 64 dollar question.

Nancy Bush exiting the blue screen, front door as seen in Peter Bassett-Smith’s 16mm colour film.

As a pigment, blue has historically been one of the most difficult to create. Some ancient cultures did not even have a word for it. In those cultures the word for blue was subsumed by other words which were also used for black or green, which I’m thinking probably made for some rather odd greetings on a sunny morning.

Cave paintings at Chauvet Cave in southern France.

Blue is not an earth colour so you won’t find it splashed around the cave homes of prehistoric people, in between their hand prints and pictures of bison. The first stable blue colourant used in the ancient world came from lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone much prized by the early Egyptians. Using Bronze Age tools, they laboriously ground the stone up and used it to colour everything from the stone tombs of their pharaohs to the eyeshadows used by the delectable Cleopatra in her efforts to lure Caesar into her bed.

In ancient China on the other side of the world, blue pigments were created by blending heavy elements such as mercury, barium and lead, a recipe that was also used in a popular but fundamentally toxic “elixir” consumed by the political elite of that country. These days, modern factory production in the People’s Republic ensures that everybody gets their fair share.

Giotto’s 700 year old blue ceiling in the Scrovegni Chapel, Italy. (Source: Wikipedia)

Over the centuries blue remained a colour most usually associated with royalty and divinity. It remained rare but by the Renaissance a change was in the air. In the visual arts, the use of blue by the early Renaissance painter Giotto set his work apart from the work of his predecessors. Using techniques hardly changed since the days of ancient Egypt, Giotto used ground lapis lazuli to create his deepest pigments. The hard stone took weeks to patiently grind into a paste which could be applied as paint to the ceilings of chapels, and those ceilings required a whole lot of paint.

You never know what you might find beyond a blue door. (Source: BBC)

Blue pigment remained uncommon and expensive in any form until the early industrial age but by the dawn of the 20th Century chemical innovations meant there were hundreds to choose from. Picasso used little else over the course of the few years he painted in the depressed state of his so called “Blue Period”. Maybe he was depressed by the lack of other colours at the bottom of his paint box, but on a house I think its use turns out to be a happy colour. After much deliberation the colour we chose for the exterior joinery of this house would best be described as a French Louis blue.

In a survey the French once elected blue as their favourite colour of all which might explain all that blue we see in those picture postcards. It’s claimed that using blue on window shutters in the south of France somehow discourages the entry of flying insects and while this may or may not be true, there’s no doubting the cheerful effect of using the colour in any place where the sun shines hot. Blue is commonly supposed to symbolize serenity, stability, patience and understanding and we’re going to need a little of that I’m thinking. The Autumn is good painting weather and after spending the long weekend with my wife turning a large, triple sash window at the front of the house into a masterpiece worthy of Picasso, we stood back to look at our combined handiwork.

“I love this,” she said. “We very probably sent those nice people at the Eltham paint shop crazy getting this right, but I really like the choice of colour now. It makes me happy.”

“Thanks goodness for that. One window painted, only about three dozen and more to go.”

Take a deep breath.

Today must be bath Sunday

It’s said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and at Yallambie Homestead, with its tumble down verandahs, unpainted corridors and chaotic ongoing renovation that makes for a lot of beholding. Long before the spate of “reality” renovation shows popularized it as entertainment, swinging a hammer had become somewhat of a weekend entertainment in this house, a leisure time activity it could be said that’s more usually reserved in other places for men wearing arrows on their jackets and working in a chain gang.

Sometimes it feels to me like it’s been hard to tell the difference.

I can’t say we didn’t enter into this with our eyes wide open. When the property was up for sale in 1993 a real estate column summed up the broad reality of the project, warning that, “Once imagination ceases and practicality takes over, Yallambie House looks like a lot of work (and money) for potential buyers.” (Heidelberger, p23, 16 December, 1993). It’s been that way ever since and while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it has had its moments. Just look back on some of these posts written on a monthly basis over the last five or six years. Then again, not everyone might necessarily agree with our obsession with the Victorian aesthetic. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all.

The cast iron, claw foot bath photographed in 1993. A bit rustier but not much changed today.

Back in 1993 I remember a property agent speaking derisively of the old claw foot bath tub present in one of the bathrooms at Yallambie, declaring that it would have to be one of the first things to go in any renovation, but it was precisely for this and for other original elements in the house that, flying in the face of all common sense, our interest was piqued.

The rest as they say is history.

To illustrate how things rely so much on your matter of perspective, in 1993 it was a renovated bathroom upstairs that received special praise by an agent in a newspaper article:

“A fully refurbished tiled spa bathroom hints at the standard of luxury that might fittingly go with ownership of Yallambie Homestead.” (The Age, p39, 11 December, 1993)

But you know what? Luxury has never been my thing. Given the choice between the old fashioned and modern, the impractical or the practical, the impractical wins out every time.

And that’s been our approach to life ever since. So when the time came for renovating a bathroom here, it was pretty clear in which direction we would soon be heading.

Freud said that soap is the yardstick of civilization and while the average house in Victorian times didn’t usually include a dedicated bathroom, it could be said at Yallambie civilization came by pretty late in the day. The first plumbed bathroom wasn’t introduced until Annie Murdoch’s 1926 renovations, which I guess explains why most people in those days reportedly only ever had a bath on Sunday, and ponged for the rest of the week.

Currently there are three bathrooms at Yallambie, the previously mentioned spa and the claw foot bath, upstairs and downstairs respectively, but it was the bathroom attached to the old servants’ quarters that properly gave us the horrors. After a quarter century living with it, the time had finally come for it to go and meet its maker.

“…poo brown tiling and cheap acrylic cabinetry” of the bathroom prior to being removed.

Or in my mind, I was ready to send it to that other place.

Out came that hammer.

By the look of it, I’m guessing the previous poo brown tiling and cheap acrylic cabinetry had been put in more than 50 years ago, with little else of note preceding it. It was a joy to knock it down. For its size, the bathroom has often been thought of as the most expensive room in a house to renovate and while wrecking it is the easy part, putting it back together is another story. Even with the best laid plans, inevitably there are complications.

The old tiling in this room had been applied to tile sheeting battened onto the wall which in effect lost us several inches across the width of what was already a particularly small room. That didn’t suit us at all so off it had to come. As I levered it from the wall I peered at the back of the sheet as it came away in my hands. “A”, “S”, “B” I began to read before downing tools and jumping out of the window which had been left open to clear the lingering dust. A phone call later to the Asbestos removal professionals and the first unforeseen problem was solved and the first unforeseen expense added to the ledger.

The new tub in place, July, 2020.

Given that the servants’ rooms were a post 1910 addition to the house we chose an Edwardian inspired look for the room including subway tiling and chrome fittings. The fittings were mostly purchased new from a popular internet auction site while the tile design was made up as we went along with tiles sourced from at least five different tile suppliers. All the work was done by yours truly, excepting of course the electrics and the plumbing and while the tiling alone took me a long, long time I find such processes almost therapeutic and in a creative way, not that far removed from my professional life as a commercial artist.

The tiling takes shape, August, 2020.

The therapeutic process of laying tiles with a furry apprentice under your feet, July, 2020.

The old ceiling proved to be in pretty poor condition and wet plastering over your head has never been my idea of fun so after some discussion we decided instead to replace it with Baltic pine lining boards, after first considering pressed metal. Either would have been appropriate for the Edwardian look we intended, but the Baltic boards won out as they continued through with a theme already established in the nearby kitchen area. The cast iron vent introduced into the ceiling in front of an electric exhaust fan was found locally a couple of years ago at the formerly annual, pre-pandemic, Lower Plenty Primary School car boot sale. Don’t ask me how such a thing ended up for sale there.

“The usual colour was a shade of cream, buff or light brown for the walls with a buff ceiling. From the 1880s, sanitary wallpapers were made which could be used in bathrooms. As a rule, no cornices were used. The only real concession to decoration was a stained-glass window, which served a dual function by retaining privacy for the occupant of the bathroom while providing a degree of natural light.” (The Bathroom, Victorian Splendour, Suzanne Forge, Oxford Press, 1981)

A dry run of the mosaic floor tiles used to work out the pattern, December, 2020.

Painted surfaces were kept deliberately simple and we did away with architraves altogether, tiling mud cap tiles over any edges and attaching other tiles onto a surface level adjacent to the plaster, in effect leaving no edges for cleaning purposes. The level of the floor was dropped so that the surface came out on the same level as the timber floor in the passage way outside and the tiling sloped towards a single drain point in the floor. We developed a floor pattern design using small hexagonal and square mosaic tiles which, given the small area covered, was of necessity kept simple.

“…done and dusted,” February, 2021.

The Edwardians often favoured lead light glass in bathroom windows and with this in mind I had already previously repurposed the old Yallambie front door lead light into the window of this bathroom. The bathroom door itself was pretty decrepit and after measuring up I noticed that an old leadlight door removed at another time from above the front balcony at the other end of the house would fit, after using a little amateur carpentry. The only concern might be the use of transparent rather than translucent glass in the leadlight of this door, but in a choice between privacy and aesthetics, it was the aesthetics that of course carried the day.

“Today must be bath Sunday.” The finished project, February, 2021.

So here is the result. My wife is happy with it but happier still that it’s finally done and dusted and we can at last move on to other projects. She handed me a broad brush the other day and reminded me we have the whole outside of a house to paint now.

And it’s a big house.

Doesn’t she know I have a blog to write?

A metaphor for the modern world

Having a tinkle, taking a slash or going for a leak – they’re all phrases used to express the nature of something we all do but which polite society says must retain a certain ambiguity in general speech. That’s the thing about English as she is spoke. Sometimes a good metaphor says as much about something as saying the thing directly.

There was a time not so very long ago when if you were rushing to find the smallest room in the house, it’s likely you wouldn’t find that room on the inside. More often than not, the smallest room in the house was somewhere outside.

And on cold nights, that could seem like a long way outside.

The classic Aussie outdoor dunny. This example behind a church at Windeyer on the NSW Tablelands.

In the days before the advent of modern plumbing systems, the typical Australian outside toilet, the dunny, was found at a discreet distance from the house, home of the redback spider and a place where the business of doing your business could stay nobody else’s business. When Yallambie Homestead was built it’s unlikely the toilet was given much consideration in the plan of the original design. The great Aussie khazi was pretty much usually a bit of an after-thought, a simple, rudely built structure not commonly remembered for its architectural merit.

“There was no plumbing or external pipes, and the family used a hip-bath filled with water brought up from the kitchen. Additional water was probably kept in a large jug, with a basin in which to wash face and hands.” (Calder: Classing the Wool, p84)

“…a strategically presented pot cupboard”

Tin hip bath at Amess House, Churchill Island. (McLachlan)

At the Homestead a bathroom of sorts was situated on the upper floor in a small room located just above the front door. The main feature of this room was a hip bath which was laboriously filled by hand once a week by servants bringing hot water up from the kitchen. The house employed a small army of servants to look after the needs of the family and these servants included both a parlour maid and a chamber maid. It was the task of the chamber maid to maintain each of the six and sometimes seven bedrooms in the house, each of which would have been provided with a washstand and chamber pot, the latter kept either in a strategically presented pot cupboard or placed simply under a bed. Waste would be routinely carried discretely downstairs every morning by the chamber maid and emptied into an outside cess pit.

Assorted chamber pots in the maids’ closet at Barwon Park, Winchelsea. (McLachlan)

Such a system certainly saved on the necessity of nocturnal visits to the privy by family members during the night and while it might sound like a primitive arrangement, it was an efficient if labour intensive arrangement that remained a common feature of many Australian houses until well into the second half of the 20th century.

As a six year old, I remember staying over with my parents at the home of my father’s sister in Ballarat, just around the corner from Lake Wendouree. The house probably hadn’t changed much since the 19th Century and I recall Aunty Melva explaining the toiletry arrangements of the house which seemed like a novelty to me, a wide eyed kid from the suburbs of Rosanna.

“The toilet’s outside in the garden but you don’t want to be going out there on a freezing night in Ballarat. Here, just let me put this under your bed.”

And with that she produced a po which she slipped under the bed in the second best bedroom of the house.

I remember my parents looking at this pot dubiously after Aunty was gone and my mother’s horrified reaction, “Well, I’ll not be using that,” but after its use was explained to my wonderment, I was fascinated by the device in ways only a small child can. I decided if anyone was to use that thing, that person was going to be me.

In the dark of night therefore I crept out from the old Army stretcher that was my make shift bed and into the room where my parents were sleeping where I woke my mother.

“Mummy, I need to wee.”

“Well you can go outside and use the toilet.”

“No I want to use the potty.”

“Well you can’t. What would your Aunt think tomorrow? She would think I had used it.”

So much for the act of nature where my mother was concerned, and with that and nursing a great feeling of injury I crept off to the outside dunny at the bottom the garden, on a cold Ballarat night in winter where funny to relate, I found I didn’t need to wee after all.

Thus began and ended my childhood experience of the Victorian era chamber pot but the story is an illustration of the sensibilities that surrounded one of life’s most basic functions. The po, as the chamber pot has often been referred to, has been called many things in its day. The old thunder jug of yesteryear has alternately been known as the gazunder, Jordan and Jerry, and a good many other things besides, all euphemisms designed to disguise the real and very practical purpose of the item.

A novelty chamber pot produced as propaganda during World War 2.

There are a few theories about how the word Jerry was coined as a metaphor for the chamber pot. Some think it was because of the similarity in the shape of the German military helmet. Others say it was due to war time propaganda which depicted a German soldier hiding under a bed and listening to careless talk, a bit like the Reds of the later Cold War era. Whatever the reason, chamber pots became a useful object for British propaganda during the War years especially when referencing the nasty, Nazi leadership.

The unpleasant contents of the chamber pot

I have a small, novelty pot, too small to be ever useful I’m afraid, which is marked “Adolf in Po-land”, with the German dictator’s face placed strategically on the inside where the unpleasant contents of a pot would usually sink. In an earlier era, similar pots were made with another dictator’s face in the pot, the Emperor Napoleon. Adolf is thankfully no longer with us although strange to relate there are some who will always maintain he went off to live on a farm somewhere in Argentina. For some reason conspiracy theories have always been popular but in a world gone a little potty of late, it seems they have taken hold like never before. If enough people believe something to be true, then for practical purposes it literally becomes true, in spite of empirical evidence to the contrary.

So to all the tin pot dictators and would be dictators who I’ve been hearing about in the news and are alive the world over today, I’m telling you now, old pots aren’t needed much these days. The potty has had its day and if nothing else, you’ll find it makes a pretty damn fine flower holder, and that’s a metaphor for the modern world.

Fill the nastiness in that bowl with a few of life’s flowers…

Waving not drowning

The summer holidays are a time when many Australians find themselves on a beach. That’s of course unless you’re an Australian Prime Minister serving your country during war time. Then you might find yourself not on a beach at all but off it and, by the by, not waving, but drowning.

Prime Minister Harold Holt on the beach and dreaming about the mermaids before leaving office in the most spectacular fashion. (Source: Australian Information Service)

On a windy summer’s day in 1967, with Australia at war in Vietnam, the then Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt donned his togs and went into the water off Cheviot Beach at the back of Portsea, never to be seen again. That the personal safety of a serving head of state during war time could be taken so lightly was a good one, even for a country as lackadaisical about such things as this one. Conspiracy theories later abounded, the nonsense more in keeping with the Qanon theories of today than in touch with reality. Had he been taken by the mermaids? It was said the PM had a reputation as a pants man and those mermaids certainly have their charms. An even more absurd story soon began circulating which proposed that Prime Minister Holt, a lifelong conservative, had in reality been a Communist agent and had been working for the Chinese government all the time while serving as an Australian Member of Parliament. According to this theory, the PM had faked his own death and instead of drowning he had been pulled on board a waiting Chinese submarine outside Port Phillip by wet suited Chinese frogmen and taken to Red China where he lived out the remainder of his life like some sort of pampered Panda behind the Bamboo Curtain. All complete and utter nonsense of course since, as his widow Zarah later claimed in an unnecessary response, poor Harold, “Didn’t even like Chinese food”. All the same it remains a good story and one to trot out occasionally in the silly season of the Australian summer, a time when our thoughts inevitably turn away from the even harder to believe lies being told elsewhere in the world to a few of the greater questions in life.

Summer holidays on the Mornington Peninsula. (VL McLachlan)

Like where do we go on holiday during a pandemic?

It’s true that most Australians love the beach and with a country that enjoys the advantages of so much coastline, that’s not hard to see why. Yallambie might be a long way from a beach but at this time of year with our streets quiet and face masks unavoidable, the memories of summers long past come to mind as many and varied as the destinations.

Port Phillip Bay, a body of water more or less enclosed by metropolitan Melbourne and the city of Greater Geelong, remains to this day the holiday preference of many Melbournians in the summer time. The bay covers about 2000 square kilometres in area and has a shore line that stretches along 260km of enclosed coast. Most of Port Phillip, while shallow, is navigable with a dredged shipping lane that follows an earlier, prehistoric river bed of the Yarra drowned by rising waters at the end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago.

The days of gunboat diplomacy. HMVS Cerebus, renamed HMAS Cerberus after Federation, photographed at the mouth of the Yarra, Hobson’s Bay, c1914. (Source: Friends of the Cerberus Inc from the State Library of South Australia, http://www.cerberus.com.au/1914.jpg)

Port Phillip Heads, from a print by Edwin Carton Booth, 1870 after John Skinner Prout. (Source: Wikipedia)

From the earliest days then, Port Phillip was always going to be a key to way we imagine ourselves and it quickly became a stopping off point in our contacts with the rest of the world. The rocky heads at the entrance to Port Phillip through which a “Rip” surges at the turn of each tide were often the first sight most immigrants saw on arrival and they became the avenue by which Victoria’s golden mineral wealth later flowed out to the Empire and its first point of defence. In the 19th Century Port Phillip had the reputation of being the most heavily fortified British harbour in the southern hemisphere. The presence of Victoria’s own rotating turret, monitor class warship, the HMVS Cerebus, supported by batteries deployed at fortress locations on either peninsula and on islands inside the shipping channel led to the claim that Port Phillip was a veritable “Gibraltar of the South”. Indeed the first shot fired in World War 1 is said to have come from one of these Port Phillip batteries when a shell was sent across the bows of a German merchant vessel trying to slip anchor at the outbreak of hostilities.

CSS Shenandoah being refitted at Williamstown, 1865. (Source: Wikipedia)

View of the North Shore, Port of Melbourne by W F E Liardet, 1862. (Source State Library of Victoria,
http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/405148)

The Bay must have been some sight in those great days of sail with multifarious shipping filling the horizon, from lumbering fishing trawlers to elegantly constructed wooden Barques and armed warships, all criss-crossing the bay with abandon to the port at Melbourne. In 1865 the American Civil War Confederate commerce raider, CSS Shenandoah arrived at neutral Port Phillip to refit, an event that caused a popular sensation in the young colony but which later resulted in heavy pecuniary damages being awarded against the British government in an international court of arbitration. A cannon from the Shenandoah, left behind by the parting ship can be found to this very day at Churchill Island in Western Port, the name of which belies its location just to the east of Port Phillip. The story of the visit of Shenandoah to Melbourne is legendary and just one more example of the rich tapestry of our local maritime heritage.

Cannon at Churchill Island attributed to the Confederate raider, CSS Shenandoah. (McLachlan)

The PS Ozone on Port Phillip. (Source: Wikipedia)

The youngest son of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge, Harry has been mentioned in these pages previously mostly because of his sporting activities. Harry was introduced to boating on Port Phillip Bay at an early age and holidayed at the Nepean Hotel at Portsea where he travelled on George Coppin’s bayside paddle steamers, the PS Hygeia and the PS Ozone. These low draught steamers had the advantage of being able to ply the shallow waters of Port Phillip with impunity and without reference to the vagaries of wind direction required by sail. They became a famous sight on the Bay in the second half of the 19th Century and into the early years of the 20th. The wreckage of the paddle wheel of one, the SS Ozone, is visible even today a little way off the beach at Indented Head on the Bellarine Peninsula. The Ozone was scrapped in 1925 and deliberately sunk at Indented Head as a breakwater, a fate shared by more than one famous ship and even the occasional Great War submarine. Probably the most significant of these though and certainly the oldest was the aforementioned 150 year old HMVS Cerebus which was sunk at Black Rock as a breakwater at about the same time as the SS Ozone at Indented Head, the value of the warship as a very early example of breastwork ironclad naval technology not then properly appreciated.  The Cerebus breakwater is still there even now, a rusting piece of colonial history and easily visible from the beach at low tide, its guns silent and the hulk a home for a mixture of Australian fur seals and rubber suited, sport diving enthusiasts.

In what was a relatively short life, Yallambie’s Harry Wragge is known to have enjoyed various boating activities on Port Phillip Bay and on one documented excursion early in his married life, Harry travelled with a family group in a small dingy across the Bay to Portarlington. The weather roughened and other members of the boating party made a decision to return to Melbourne by road. As Winty Calder later explained:

The sporting Harry Wragge. (Source: Anne Hill collection)

“Harry and his young son, Stewart, set off (to return) by boat. When they did not return in the evening, Annie Murdoch (his sister) and Olive Wragge (his wife) became anxious and organized a rescue party to search for them. The attempt was unsuccessful, but the missing pair was finally found eating a hearty dinner after reaching their jetty. As they failed to let anybody know where they were, they were not very popular for some time.” (Calder, p216)

Harry survived the water that day but, as the fate of another Harold later showed, getting into deep water can have its perils. The world right now seems flooded by some pretty deep tides and it’s going to be tricky to navigate our way out of them. When HMVS Cerebus plied its way up and down the Bay all those years ago, the threat to our sovereignty then was presumed to be military and from the Tsarist Russia. Today it is the threat of economic sanctions from Australia’s largest trading partner in a time of worldwide economic turmoil that is under review. Holt was the Prime Minister under whose leadership Australia began waking up to its place in Asia and although it would take another Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam to formally recognize the People’s Republic, time has only confirmed the reality. I guess there never was a Chinese submarine lurking off the Victorian coast for Holt in 1967 but who knows, these days facts seems to be dependent on Nietzsche and his perspectives, especially in anything to do with politics. We never did get Holt’s snorkel back all those years ago and without a snorkel, waving not drowning might in the end prove just a little difficult. There’s more to being an Australian though than our love of a good holiday and I’ve been thinking, rolling with the punches could prove to be just like rolling with the waves.

We’re a resilient lot. Just you wait and see.

Who’s afraid of the dark?

In the back streets of Yallambie this month, many homes are ablaze with Christmas lights within and without, an ode to an event that happened under another sort of light, “shining in the East beyond the far” more than 2000 years ago. Tinsel glitters inside while on the roof tops outside, who’s to say you won’t see a reindeer with a nose glowing bright adding to the illuminaton.

Real candles burning on a “resin rich Christmas tree”.

O Christmas Tree, how lovely are thy branches

Don’t you just love Christmas? A time to put the cares of the world aside for a moment. The tradition of hanging lights in trees started about 500 years ago when the Protestant reformer Martin Luther added a candle onto a Christmas tree to symbolize the birth of Christ, “the Light of the World” and it was subsequently popularized in the English speaking world by Albert, the Teutonic consort of Queen Victoria. Given the highly flammable nature of resin rich Christmas trees it might seem surprising that Christmas tree lights were originally real, live burning candles with holders placed to catch the resulting dripping wax. While electrics are used today for obvious reasons, I bet those original flickering fire lights looked magical.

2020 Tannenbaum

The electromagnetic radiation known as “Visible Light” is a universal constant and the ability to create it has long been evidence of civilization and a proof against the night time shadows that any small child can tell you hides the monster under the bed. From the campfires of prehistory to elaborate candelabra in great castle halls, ingenious devices have been found to make light, but it was the perfection of mineral oil lamps and town gas supplies in the 19th Century that properly propelled society into the modern world. It was this technology that reformed industry and kick started the industrial revolution as broad waist coated, cigar smoking, city based factory owners discovered that by using it, the proletariat could be worked right around the clock. It’s an idea that quickly caught on and we’ve been paying that particular piper ever since. In the following years the mass production of lamps in brass, pewter, tin and glass and the relatively low cost of the mineral oils that fuelled them meant that effective lighting soon became a commonplace.

A mechanically ventilated lamp from the second half of the 19th Century. Winding the key produced a draught allowing the lamp to burn efficiently without a chimney.

Many early lamps consisted of little more than a fuel reservoir or “font” pegged into a candlestick which incorporated a flat, animal-fat fuel laden wick to create the basic principles of a lamp. It must have come as some kind of relief to the whales splashing happily about in their oceans when mineral oils were introduced in the second half of the 19th Century as previously it was their rendered down blubber that was used to create lamp oils. New fuels meant new burner technologies and lamp designs became more elaborate. In some cases, much more elaborate.

“In some cases, much more elaborate.” That one time visitor to Yallambee, Louisa Anne Meredith at home in Twamley, Tasmania, c1860. Note the grand table lamp behind her shoulder. (Source: State Library of Tasmania, from the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, https://stors.tas.gov.au/TASIMAGES$init=AUTAS001126186493W800)

A three wick Shaffer Perfection burner. (Source: A Heritage of Light, Loris Russell)

In the early days of Melbourne it was said that it was easy for the unwary to lose their way at night on the dark, ill-defined streets of Hoddle’s village.  As street lighting was a rarity at that time, people either stayed at home at night or carried a covered lantern with them when daring to venture out. Taverns in those days were required to hang a lamp outside as a requirement of their licence and in many places this might have been the only light available in the street, other than the stars in the sky. Look closely at this early photograph of Kent’s old Plenty Bridge Hotel near Yallambie and you might observe the large lantern hanging above the entrance of the premises, a typical feature of this type of establishment.

Bike riders at Kent’s Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1900. (Source: Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria, H2013.70/14,
http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/239916)

With the coming of the rushes, Victoria’s goldfields presented many problems for the diggers who made the muddy creek banks their home of which lighting was but one. The writer traveller, and social commentator William Howitt who visited Yallambee in 1852, recorded some of the difficulties that he encountered on the Bendigo goldfields and in particular his experiences on the diggings after dark:

Trade advertisement from the Ballarat Times, 1861

“You generally live in the midst of a grand honeycomb of such pits and water-holes. For this reason it is our rule not to go out to dine on the diggings; and we make very rare exceptions, for they are only safe by daylight…” (Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, Letter XXI, “Intelligent Friends”)

Back Creek, Bendigo by S.T. Gill 1860, (Source: State Library of NSW Collection).

William Howitt

In spite of this, in the same breath Howitt then goes on to chronicle a night time dinner he enjoyed under canvas with that erstwhile, previously mentioned relative of this writer, Bendigo Mac, a meal which in the story was interrupted by a cry outside when, seizing the candles from the table, the diners found a child in danger of drowning in a mine hole behind the tent.

“As we were at dinner, and it was quite dark, there was a cry outside of “A boy in a hole! A boy in a hole!” (Howitt, ibid)

Lachlan MacLachlan, AKA “Bendigo Mac”

In Howitt’s story, the child was saved without any lasting harm but, given the circumstances, the goldfields became an excellent testing ground for new lighting technologies. Enterprising American businessmen with an understanding of the needs of the frontier were soon selling oil burning lamps to the diggers by the thousands. By 1865, well over 600,000 gallons of kerosene were imported annually from the USA into the colony of Victoria where it was sold on the gold fields for about £1 per four gallon tin, while the actual lamp itself could be purchased for as little as three shillings and sixpence. The humble “kero” lamp as the paraffin oil lamp became known in Australia, had come to stay and became a fixture in Australian homes and on rural properties across Victoria, remaining in use there long after the “Rush That Never Ended” properly ended and long after such lamps had become obsolete in other parts of the world.

“Most artificial lighting in the house came from kerosene lamps that either hung from moulded, plaster rosettes in the ceilings or were carried about the house by hand. It was the responsibility of the parlourmaid to refill lamps during the day to ensure continuous lighting at night.” (Calder: Classing the Wool, describing lighting at the Homestead, p84)

Christmas puddings and hanging lamp in the kitchen at Yallambie

While the days of a parlourmaid being available to fill lamps at Yallambie in the manner described by Winty Calder might be long gone, modern electric lighting now coexists with period fixtures in an eclectic, electric mix. The converted American gasolier in the old dining room at Yallambie, pictured below, is one fixture mixing old and new and was picked up on a well known internet auction site a couple of years ago for $100 after it was removed from Sydney’s historic Tattersalls Club during renovations.

An 1860s gasolier relocated from Sydney’s historic Tattersalls Club.

With the widespread availability of electrics and the trend of replacing incandescent and halogen bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps and LEDs, it’s sometimes easy to take lighting for granted. When our electric supply from the street was cut by a falling branch last month it left us without power across four long days. The resulting romantic candle lit dinners and oil lamp lit nights were a novelty at first and the blank screens on our electronic devices a sort of relief, but after a while it got me thinking about how we use the symbolism of light.

An early view of St Johns Church of England, Heidelberg from the north

Over at St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg which Thomas Wragge knew so well, the coming Christmas Eve service will hopefully have the usual candles, carols and Communion, though given the restrictions in this pandemic year, the congregation is unlikely to be sitting elbow to elbow.

St John’s features a number of beautiful windows of stained glass. “Christ as the Light of the World”, loosely based on the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt’s famous painting, is one that maybe recalls Luther’s intent with the candle in the tree. The window was created by George Dancey in 1925, the artist who also created the Wragge “Ascension Windows” five years earlier. It was the window my old Dad chose as his particular pew, sitting under its jewel like colours on all those many sunny Sunday mornings of my childhood. Highly allegorical, the image comes from “Revelation”, and shows a typically western European looking Jesus carrying a lantern and knocking at a door without a handle. A version of Hunt’s original toured the world to enormous crowds in the early 20th century when it was claimed that four-fifths of the newly Federated Australian population at that time viewed the painting, which I’m thinking must still be some kind of record.

So why is it said light has “long been evidence of civilization”? The world has been in a dark place before, both in a practical but also a spiritual sense and while this year will be remembered for all the wrong reasons, in the face of what’s been touted as a “truth decaying” epistemological crisis in a post truth, post modern, pandemic ravaged world, it is the Light we always turn back to.

Astronomers have lately been excited by the prospect of a rare, visible conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the evening sky in which the two planets will seem to be fused over consecutive nights at Christmas into a single, bright “star”. It is an event that has lead to speculation that it was a similar conjunction of the planets that Three Wise Men allegedly saw all those years ago and from which they drew their own meaning.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Someone once wrote this in an old, oft quoted book, a book we used to see opened sometimes at Christmas. It’s an idea that transcends all the the sunshine and corresponding darkness we have had cause to create. Call this the duality of the yin and yang if you like but as any wise man can tell you, without a notion of the darkness, there is no light.

And, who’s afraid of that ?

Rose is a rose is a rose

When it comes to the mostly incomprehensible and often repetitive modernist poetry of Gertrude Stein, the simple words “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” are probably her best known and certainly most imitated. Stein, an American writer who made her digs in Paris, was making the point that things are what they are irrespective of the words we use to describe them. While the mental connections people make when they hear certain words have intrigued metaphysical thinkers since ancient times, “Rose is a rose” has become a bit of a catch phrase with people wanting to sound eloquent while ignoring the richer possibilities of the English language. Other writers have parodied her words and politicians have exploited them but I think it was perhaps the poet’s life partner, Alice B Toklas, who probably found the most fitting use for the verse. She created plates with Stein’s rose line painted right round the rim on which she served hash brownies to their Bohemian guests. Suddenly those rose words from Stein sounded oh, so very deep.

Stein’s words were the work of a self-proclaimed genius for that’s what she boasted to the Parisian avant-garde when they came to the salon she hosted in the early years of the 20th century. With so many of these darn flowers in cultivation though, maybe words cannot describe this most loved of all garden flowering plants. There are tens of thousands of varieties of rose and with no two ever quite the same, how do you generalize? There are Hybrids and Species, Floribundas and Dwarfs, Shrubs and Climbers, all divided into countless types and sub-types completing a bewildering array destined to test all but the most avid of weekend gardeners. Maybe a rose ain’t just a rose after all.

The story of this flower in cultivation starts about 5000 years ago although it’s said the fossil record goes back much, much further. All of another 35 million years or so, give or take a few rocks. Roses were depicted in the art of the ancient Minoans and Egyptians and in several other ancient cultures. King Midas and Alexander the Great are supposed to have grown them while the love of the Roman world for the rose goes without saying. Rose petals scented the wine at their feasts and masses of blossoms showered the naughtiest of their orgies. The Romans are thought to have been the first people to grow large quantities of roses for what we would now call a commercial use and so many flowers were eventually needed by the ruling elite that other crops were neglected, pushing the common folk at times to the brink of starvation.

Rose water which is made by steeping petals in water was used as a medicinal ingredient by the Romans and by other cultures in their turn. The use of rose water as a delicate flavouring in Eastern cuisines has also long been appreciated. It can be added to jellies and syrups, various puddings and is used in exotic cake recipes.

Roses appear in traditions of all the world’s major religions and used as a motif it has particular significance to many. The large circular windows of stained glass in Gothic cathedrals are commonly known as “Rose” windows, the stonework tracery of the windows mapping out in architectural form the petals of a flower. One famous rose associated with a cathedral is the Tausendjähriger Rosenstock or thousand-year rose, a wild dog rose which grows on the wall of the Hildesheim Cathedral in Germany. It’s thought to be the world’s oldest living rose and may have been planted in the early 9th century. The Tausendjähriger was nearly destroyed by Allied aerial bombing which hit the cathedral in 1945 but the roots survived and the rose blossomed amongst the ruins which just goes to show, sometimes an old dog really does have a few new tricks.

As badges of heraldry the rose was used by the Houses of York and Lancaster as emblems in their long Wars of the Roses. These were the simple gallica and alba roses of Europe but the arrival of the China rose into Europe in the late 18th century changed everything. It introduced the colour yellow into rose cultivation, an explosion of repeat flowering cultivars and the start of what we now call “Old Garden” roses, many of which are heavily scented to a degree not enjoyed by modern varieties.

Roses of course are a big part of Melbourne’s Spring Racing Carnival and it’s a pity that, in this pandemic year, they will be doing all that flowering tomorrow with no one much to appreciate their effort, ’cept maybe “Robert the Rose Horse”. Reds and pinks, yellows and mauves, stripes and solids will be on display. The only thing you will never see at the Cup, or anywhere else for that matter, is a blue rose.

Take a walk around any back street of suburban Yallambie right now and you’ll see roses growing in profusion in many gardens, often with scant regard and all the while doing what they do best. That is flowering away for all the world to see while being totally ignored, the air around them tinged with scent, food for the bees.

Louisa Anne Meredith, (Source: Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts).

Roses were grown by Robert Bakewell in the early years of Yallambee and in 1856 when Louisa Anne Meredith visited the property she described enthusiastically the roses she saw growing there, naming several of them and singling out especial praise for the “Cloth of Gold”, a popular yellow climber of the middle 19th century, now little grown.

And then the wreath of roses! Nothing like them has gladdened my senses since. One, monarch of the whole, seemed a giant elder brother of the noble ‘cloth-of-gold’, with great ruddy juicy stems, polished spreading leaves; and such flowers!

The Station Plenty, view VIII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria)

A full-blown one might have formed a bouquet for the ample bosom of Glumdalclitch herself; the colour was rich warm buff, almost saffron colour, deepening in the centre, and the texture of the broad petals was that rich wax-like substance, like a Camelia, but even thicker.

It was the noblest of the rose-tribe I ever saw, and well contrasted by the delicate Annie Vibert and Devonienses, Banksias, &c., while the cloth-of-gold and some other deep-red roses aided to make up the courtly group around.

(Over the Straits, Louisa Anne Meredith)

“Paul Ricault”

While that old “Cloth of Gold” is long gone we do have a number of hardy roses growing here which we look at fondly with our rose coloured glasses at this time of year, every year, the names of many of these plants now forgotten.

One amazing cabbage rose growing near the front of the house is possibly “Paul Ricault”, a cultivar originally bred in France in the mid-19th Century. The flowers of this plant are quite literally the largest blooms I’ve ever seen on a rose and at its best this flower is more like a double peony in structure than what I normally think of in a rose. Cabbage roses or Centiafolia (one hundred petalled) as a type date from about 1550 and their earliest forms were once regarded as a type of species but are now thought to be a naturally occurring hybrids. Cabbage roses were bred by Dutch rose growers as early as the 17th Century and it is this rose that you see in so many of their still life paintings of that era.

A standard “Peace”

Probably the most widely known rose type we have in our garden though is “Peace”. This famous and much grown hybrid tea was developed in France in the 1930s. Legend has it that with war looming cuttings of a new creamy yellow rose were sent to the US, some say on the last plane to leave Paris before the Nazi invasion, and in America in 1945 it was given the name “Peace” to mark the ending of hostilities. Sample roses were given to each of the delegations at the inaugural meeting of the United Nations with the words, “We hope the Peace rose will influence men’s thoughts for everlasting world peace”. It is a hardy and vigorous plant described by one rose expert as “without doubt, the finest Hybrid Tea ever raised”. With over 100 million Peace roses said to have been sold since 1945 that’s a pretty fair call. The rose in our garden is a grafted standard, a ‘rose ball on a stick’, which we rescued from the garden of my wife’s late grandparents’ home in Eaglemont about 20 years ago.

A bit of “Peace”

“Peace” as a concept is a worthy symbol for a rose I think. Heaven knows we all need a little peace around the edges of our lives this year. The White House Rose Garden was replanted in 2020, the first time in 60 years, but I don’t think peace has been on the agenda there much lately. Maybe it’s an irony but the new Rose Garden recently became the source of a super spreader pandemic event among White House personnel, an event which included the President himself. In the weeks leading up to an important election, what happened at the Rose Garden a month ago has come to exemplify a lot about what’s been happening in America.

“Peace” – it’s a small word with a very big meaning and one worth keeping in mind. The healing properties of roses, the essence of their aroma and the symbolic associations of the plant itself with the Amor have long been appreciated. Maybe the pictures I’ve included here which were taken mostly this last month or so will tell the story of what I’m feeling more than words ever possibly can. You see, sometimes words aren’t enough. Rose is a rose is a rose taken together makes a garden, and that’s a lovesome thing.

Primavera

Botticelli’s, “Young Man Holding a Roundel”. (Source: Sotheby’s)

Legend has it that in February, 1497 when art across Florence was destroyed in a religious fervour that would become known as “The Bonfire of the Vanities”, the Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli consigned many of his greatest works to the flames. In consequence paintings by Botticelli, an artist who painted secular subjects in tempera that look surprisingly like religious objects in tapestry, are rare. So rare in fact that last month when the press reported the last known Botticelli portrait in private hands was on the market, the starting price then was a cool US $80 million. Remind me to check my trousers for loose change next time I’m pulling on my socks, but with only a dozen or so of Botticelli’s portraits thought to have survived to the present day, it’s pretty much a clear case of supply and demand.

Anyone who remembers the pre-Creative Cloud versions of Adobe Illustrator will know the angelic face of Botticelli’s Venus.

I’ve said before in these pages that artistic expression is one of the things that defines our humanity, but I’m afraid this is not something that can easily be defined in dollar terms, a truth that was all too evident when the arts community held out its empty beret for a Government funded COVID rescue package in March. As a case in point, Botticelli’s two best known masterpieces are of course “The Birth of Venus” and “Primavera,” both considered to be key moments in the history of Western art but neither of which you are ever going to see wearing a price tag. The paintings are believed to feature the original “It-girl” of the Renaissance Simonetta Vespucci, who in the case of the Venus, was painted in her very becoming birthday suit as a tribute to angelic beauty. In the Primavera the same face is used again but as an allegory of the youth and vitality of spring. Simonetta died young so both the Primavera and Venus must have been produced posthumously. If the Venus is a homage to beauty and the Primavera an affirmation of spring, then both paintings can be seen as a testament to the short lived nature of beauty in all its forms.

Botticelli’s Primavera in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. (Source:Wikipedia)

Botticelli worked as an artist more than 600 years ago but his paintings were still an inspiration to the Pre-Raphaelites when they came along in the 19th century and to their supporters like Edward La Trobe Bateman who sketched the Yallambie landscape in such famously minute detail and who later developed as an important garden designer. I’ve written posts about gardens and the changing seasons a couple of times previously but this year I’m thinking it all seems somehow different, and not just in the playing of footy finals interstate. An ABC science report yesterday about the health giving benefits of getting out into the garden during the pandemic quoted a Dr John Martin of the Taronga Conservation Society who said: “In our everyday life, there are things to discover about nature, and they don’t require travelling to the African savanna. There are very interesting things just on our doorsteps.”

 The same article pointed to the Urban Field Naturalist Project, a programme that urges people to look more closely at the natural world all around them, to be inspired by it and in some cases use it as a spring board for creativity.

“Take a moment
Listen, smell, look
Observe life around you
It may be familiar
Perhaps without intent, your attention has been caught
Share your observation as a story
We can all be Urban Field Naturalists” (The Urban Field Naturalist Project)

Yallambie Peony, September, 2020. Peonies flower just once a year and their blooms never last long. Fortunately when one lot of flowers ends in the garden there always something else just beginning. Bit of a life lesson really.

The Primavera was painted with a meticulous observation with perhaps 500 identified plant species depicted and about 190 different flowers recorded. Art historians have agonized about the meaning of the Primavera for hundreds of years but on one level at least I think it’s all quite simple. As an ode to spring the source of the Primavera is classical mythology but as for inspiration, well that itself is eternal. You don’t need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to buy into such niceties. You don’t necessarily need to find an artistic talent otherwise hidden under a rock to create it and you don’t need to travel to the African savannah to discover it. You see, it’s all around us. It’s around us even now in the form of a season that arrives around about this time of year, every year. Poets have written stanzas dedicated to it, painters have tried to capture its mood while gardeners the world over have rejoiced in nature’s unquestioned ability to be a show off.

I’m talking about spring of course, the real Primavera, and it doesn’t cost a thing. I’m afraid 2020 will long be remembered for all the wrong reasons but with Melbourne having been in a second lockdown these past two long months I’m hoping that the long dark tea-time of the soul is now almost over. The genie has been pushed back into the bottle and if we take care from this time on, there’s every chance he will stay there. Take a deep breath through the confines of your face mask and taste a change in the air. The bees are buzzing, the flowers are blooming and spirits are lifted outside in the glorious sunshine of early October. It’s spring in Yallambie, a time when hopes rise and we can all enjoy a bit of our own personal Primavera.

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

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