It’s a saying commonly attributed to Sir Isaac Newton who they say came up with the idea right about the time an apple bounced off his head. Where other people might have been inspired to think about whether they would have an apple for lunch, the father of modern Physics turned the incident into gravity’s universal law.
What goes up comes down. It’s one of life’s maxims don’t you think?
As if to prove the old boy Newton right, last Saturday morning as I travelled along Yallambie Rd past the Primary School, something drifted past the corner of my eye and descended into the school yard. This “Unidentified Flying Object” soon identified itself as a downward travelling hot air balloon, but whether it landed due to a shortage of propane or a stiffening breeze was unclear.
Recreational ballooning is not exactly unknown in this area as the scenic nature of the Yarra Plenty valleys has drawn balloon tourists from the earliest times. The following description of a balloon landing at Heidelberg comes from a time about when Thomas was building his homestead at Yallambie and one can only imagine the excitement such events may have caused in the 19th century in the era before heavier than air flight.
“…I then threw out our anchor attached to its rope. It dragged along the ground for a long distance, and was brought up by a stump, giving us a regular jerk, and flinging my companion over the edge of the car, but he stuck to his rope. The balloon now lay along the ground bumping up and down while we tugged at the valve keeping it open. Two men came up and promptly laid hold of our ropes, acting in a very intelligent manner, quite indifferent to some English peasantry when I have encountered in like circumstances. We sprang out of the car, and also laid hold of the ropes, the valve lying open of itself. ‘Where are we,’ inquired my companion. ‘Heidelberg,’ was the reply, and indeed with all our ideas of tumbling along with the hurricane we had only reached eleven miles from Melbourne.“ (From the Melbourne Herald, page 4, 16 Nov, 1875)
Fast forward into the modern age and with an International Space Station, robot trips to the planets and space telescopes looking into the inky depths of space, the heavens have become almost a common place. To find another time when the firmament caused similar wonderment we need to look to another time more than 50 years ago when, with the Space Race drawing to a close, eyes turned skyward to see – well who can say? Yes, there was the odd migratory duck, runaway kite and even the occasional Vietnam era helicopter gunship going around up there but there was something else too. Sightings of Unidentified Flying Objects, the UFOs of our popular imagination, experienced an upsurge.
Enter into this astronomical atmosphere Ray Dean, a real estate agent from Greensborough, who began selling land at a new estate north of Yallambie called Apollo Parkways. With that other Apollo, NASA’s Project Apollo making news at the time, Dean had the bright idea of installing a futuristic looking, portable Futuro House on the edge of the vacant sub division. Looking for all the world like a flying saucer grounded by a dodgy Dilithium Drive, the Futuro was in essence a red fibreglass prefabricated building, the moulds for its construction having been imported directly from Finland, a sort of harbinger of today’s Tiny House movement. It was used as the Apollo estate office and became something of a local landmark for a while, painted yellow and perched on top of a hill on the corner of Plenty River Drive and Diamond Creek Rd for more than a decade. It was later removed to another field in South Morang where it sat slowly falling to pieces and, in the face of a suggestion that it be included on a heritage register and returned to Greensborough, being dismantled in 2018 and put away into storage. All the same, you might have been forgiven for thinking for a while back in the 70s that the top of Greensborough hill had become the home of little green men.
The Futuro house may not have qualified as a real flying saucer but if you look further afield and to another school yard, another Apollo era story blurs that line. I’m talking this time of the so called ‘Westall Incident’, not a local story but a famous tale all the same that gets aired whenever the subject turns to regular bona fide UFO sightings in Melbourne. In Westall near Clayton in April 1966, over 200 students and teachers are reported to have sighted “a grey saucer-shaped craft with a slight purple hue and being about twice the size of a family car,” fly past the boundaries of the local school before landing in a neighbouring paddock.
The story has some credibility given the great number of eye witnesses to the event and the local council eventually built a children’s playground on the paddock in honour of the story, a playground with a central installation that to my mind looks suspiciously like a Futuro House. But what really happened in the school yard over there in Westall that day? One suggestion is that the Westall UFO was an escaped RAAF target drogue, a sort of wind sock usually towed by one plane for others to follow. Another suggestion is that the object was a rogue high altitude balloon, escaped from a joint US-Australian initiative to monitor atmospheric radiation levels following British nuclear testing at Maralinga earlier in the decade. Many of the witnesses to this day still maintain however that they saw a flying saucer.
Some people will tell you the “Truth is out there” but I’m thinking maybe it just hasn’t been found yet. Conspiracy theorists say Apollo never happened but maybe the only proof positive is that, given our truly insignificant place in the universe, the answers to some of life’s riddles may never be known.
Seen from a mindset of standing on this planet on the down side of up, it’s small wonder that the occasional distortion does get caught in the eye. On a cosmic scale, accelerated masses of sufficient size can cause waves in the curve of space time but for most of us it’s more about getting a little bit of perspective in the way we view the world and for that matter, anything else that lies out there in the great beyond. Heavens above, the world is in need of some perspective right now as unseen hands grasp for the last dunny roll in the shops and the media rejoices in spreading panic of a killer plague. Yes, a little bit of gravitas wouldn’t go astray but what we really need is some karmic balance and the knowledge that with every high in life, inevitably there will be an equal and opposite low. Not every balloon in life will turn out to be a flying saucer and not every flying saucer will turn out to be a balloon. Now doesn’t that bowdlerize something a certain learned physicist once said?
Perhaps you remember it as the place you called at on your way home from school, your pocket money burning a hole for a 5 cent, white wax paper bag of mixed lollies. Five cents could buy you a lot of tooth decay in those days. Or maybe you remember it as a place to meet the gang, a place where you could fool around with Coca Cola yo-yos on strings, trade Scanlens football cards or punish the sides of the old pin ball machine inside.
It was the witness to the springtide of our lives.
I’m talking of course of that pillar of small retail society, the ubiquitous Aussie milk bar. Now largely lost to history, as a concept it has now all but vanished, like the Polly Waffle chocolate bars it sold and those frozen Sunny Boy triangular ices – free tokens printed oh, so rarely, on the inside wrapping.
An ode to the milk bars of memory.
The milk bar sprang from the old corner shop tradition of a local store prepared to sell just about anything, a Ronnie Barker world of “Open All Hours” but with a uniquely Australian twist on the theme. New emigrants into Australia from Europe after the Second War mixed the idea of the corner shop with an American tradition of soda bars but instead of lemonade sodas, the home grown milk bar sold ice cream milk shakes. It also sold ice cream in cones, lemonade in bottles, hot meat pies, sometimes newspapers (in both the morning AND the afternoon), fags and even the occasional, dangerously addictive, non-prescription pain killer. You see the milk bar would sell you just about anything in a convenience line. It even sold milk, which in case you don’t remember, in those days came in pint sized glass bottles with the cream at the top of the bottle sealed up tight with silver foil.
Although coming late onto the scene, Yallambie too had its own milk bar. Responding to community demands for a local shop, the developer AV Jennings reserved a block of land for a shop, opposite the site of a planned kindergarten on the corner of Yallambie Rd and Binowee Ave. Opening around 1971, an artist’s rendering from four years earlier shows a building on a grander scale than the one finally completed. By 1973 the “milk bar” was already styling itself as a “supermarket”, going head to head with the next closest shopping precinct, the Lower Plenty strip in Main Rd.
This was an era when supermarkets closed at Noon on Saturday so the original concept at Yallambie was for a shop that would operate as a defacto general store but stay open at other times as a milk bar. It worked for a time but the rise of petrol stations operating as convenience stores eventually saw a change in the playing field and in more recent times, the age of digital trading has shifted it again. Anything that you might previously have bought at a milk bar you can now order online from Uber Eats or purchase at the local petrol station. The station in Lower Plenty Rd, Yallambie does all this while the presence of a well-known hamburger franchise next door serves that other traditional function of the milk bar, that of social venue. The fact that you will probably need a car to get to either of them is apparently of small consideration.
Over the last 50 years, the Yallambie shop has moved from milk bar to grocery store, from department store to pizza shop and finally to its latest adaption – an Asian grocer, a reflection perhaps on the changing face of a multicultural society.
You might think this is all a new trend but it’s interesting to reflect for a moment in these pages so often devoted to historical matters, that Chinese herbalists were a feature of Melbourne dating from the goldfields era while Afghan or Indian hawkers were once a common sight in outback Australia. On up country properties like Thomas Wragge’s Tulla in the Riverina, the dignified, bearded and turbaned travellers were sometimes the only way that country people could secure the latest in 19th century consumer society. Their wagons were specially designed with shelves and drawers with sides that could be lowered to display dress material, trousers, hats and shirts, patent medicines, essences, pins and all manner of wares. At Tulla the hawker arrived in the shearing season and set up shop just outside the Home Paddock, not so close to intrude on the homestead but close enough to be reached by foot. As Betty Lush, ne Wragge recalled, remembering her childhood and quoted in Calder’s ‘Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales’:
“At some time during the shearing period the Afghan hawkers would appear with their horse and cart. They were a sort of travelling store and were no doubt a useful institution for the shearers in those days of ‘humping your bluey’ and the nearest store 15 miles away. They always fascinated me. Not only for the variety of things that they stocked but they were colourful people with turbans. They were often quite generous too and many a time I came away from a visit to their cart with a paper cone of boiled sweets…”
A sort of veritable milk bar on wheels.
As an Asian grocery store, the “Yallambie Food Mart/Asian Groceries/Dollar Shop Supermarket” as it styles itself has a lot to live up to but, as it turns out, it is a remarkably well stocked institution for an emporium of this kind located in a suburban back street.
And yes, you can still buy your milk there.
Paul Keating famously described this as the “Asian Century” and has long insisted that we are part of it, in spite of a few claims to the contrary both here and abroad. There’s no escaping the fact that Australia is nearer Asia than it is to either of its previous two greatest spheres of influence, the United Kingdom and United States, neither of which seem to be particularly united just now. I’m afraid a bit of Xenophobia is an all too common part of the human condition, but have you noticed lately the results of unsubstantiated fears of COVID-19 coronavirus? In the heart of the Chinese community down Whitehorse Rd way, face masks have become the latest in fashion accessories and you could shoot a cannon down the middle of the street without fear of hitting anyone. Newspapers have reported that Asian restaurants across town are half empty half the time and at hours of the day when they should be the best part full. Already it has been reported that the iconic Shark Fin House in Little Bourke St, Melbourne, has closed its doors after an 80% drop in customer numbers. I ask you, whatever happened to the spirit of the Blitz?
Locally, there are Chinese takeaways near to Yallambie in Lower Plenty, Rosanna and Greensborough, so let’s pause for a moment and give them a thought.
Yow Sing near the corner of Rosanna and Lower Plenty Roads does a pretty mean, homemade dim sim, the ancient décor of the shop probably unchanged from a time 50 years before when the shop converted from a haberdashery known for some reason as “Blue Hills”. I’m thinking now might be a good time to try a dim sim there again as the building of the North East Link Project will soon separate this forgotten shopping precinct from Yallambie once and for all.
There are a number of other Chinese eating houses to choose from in easy reach from Yallambie. Several are located in Greensborough but for mine, the best tucker is found at “Li’s Dumplings” in Main Rd, Greensborough. And if you think that’s too far to travel for a feed, please note. You’ll find Li’s dumplings one of the items stocked frozen at the Yallambie shop, so put away those Uber eats.
Deciding to do our bit for the Blitz, we took ourselves off to Li’s Dumpling and Noodle in Greensborough for a meal last Friday night. The décor at Li’s is plain and the seats are hard, but the food and family style atmosphere is terrific. Li’s specialize in dumplings, the skins thin and light but strong enough to hold a variety of yummy fillings intact. They plunge the dumplings in boiling water, stirring vigorously to prevent them sticking then add a cup of cold water half way through the eight minute cooking process to bring out the flavour. I’m told this is the secret of boiling a good dumpling. Or if that doesn’t suit, you can get them fried, the bottoms of the dumplings turning a light golden brown in the process.
We don’t eat out much but when we do it often seems to be to this particular little restaurant that we go. That said, we haven’t got even a part way through the menu yet. Li’s is an establishment that probably does more takeaways than sit down meals and when we went in there with a birthday party once I think they nearly fell down in surprise. There’s an informal atmosphere present here, the sort of feeling you get when you enjoy a home cooked meal though Mum’s Sunday roast was never like this.
On this night we chose chicken and coriander dumplings to start with but there are many others you might choose from, each one rolled, pressed and filled by hand. I’m told that the range of fillings on the menu mirrors what a northern Chinese family might cook at home and reading from the list you’ll find lamb and coriander; chive, vermicelli and egg; fish and calamari; lamb and onion; spicy beef and others just too numerous to mention here.
We also ordered sizzling chicken, its sizzle filling the table with steam; honey chicken, the batter light and crisp and without that risk you get of it weighing heavily on an overstocked tum; and a beef fried noodles which I think would give the best fried noodles of my life a run for its money. That was a noodles I remember buying from a Chinese cook serving from a caravan window on an island in the Pacific years ago, a bit too far away now to pop out for a takeaway.
So, if you’re hungry and not just for the memory of Polly Waffle, get yourself down to your local shop and if that shop turns out to be a Chinese eating house or a repurposed milk bar, well you’ll be doing your bit for your local community right now. A changing world has made it hard going for the small retailer, the current fears of a global pandemic only compounding the problems for one section of our community. I suspect these problems aren’t going to go away for a little while yet but until they do, keep rattling those chopsticks.
For tens of thousands of years the presence of fire has been a reality check in this, the world’s smallest and outside of the Antarctic, the driest continent on Earth. Aboriginal people used these ingredients to their advantage in pre-history, regularly burning the countryside to reduce fuel loads and promote game in a practice we now call “firestick farming”. Early European navigators noted the smoke from the decks of their rolling ships and called Australia that “burning country” while remarking at the same time on the “park like” nature of its scenery. But it was no park. It was a carefully crafted mosaic habitat, created by the locals using a system of land management that had been learned and developed by their forebears over generations.
All human activity has the potential to force changes on the natural order and it seems likely that the Indigenous approach gradually modified the Australian landscape by promoting the spread of volatile, Eucalypt forest at the expense of naturally less flammable plants. The overland explorer of south-eastern Australia Thomas Mitchell observed that, “Fire, grass, kangaroos and human inhabitants seem all dependent on each other for existence in Australia. Fire is necessary to burn the grass and form these open forests in which we find the large kangaroos.” In the Pacific Rim, the extinction of giant flightless Moa birds in New Zealand and the whole sale destruction of the Rapa Nui subtropical broadleaf forests of Easter Island shows what can happen when humans get it wrong but generally Australia’s First people lived in a harmonious relationship with the land.
The Australian continent the Aboriginals sought to successfully control is a hugely fire prone land and nowhere is this more-so than in its South Eastern corner. A recent report by an independent assessment group (Risk Frontiers) ranked the top 10 fire danger post codes in Australia by risk potential and wouldn’t you know it? They are all located in Victoria. It’s a danger that might not have been fully appreciated by the initial wave of European settlers in the 19th century but with the end of Aboriginal land management, the bush was primed for what came next. In terms of the area damaged, the devastating bush fires that consumed much of the Port Phillip District on “Black Thursday”, 6 February, 1851 still stand as the most wide spread of the dozens of major fires that have occurred in the State of Victoria since European settlement. Over five million hectares of country burned and a million sheep were destroyed in 1851, while the comparatively low human death toll of 12 is perhaps only a reflection of the small and dispersed population of the Port Phillip District at that time.
“Fire commenced by the upper Plenty River when bullock-drivers left a smouldering fire behind them. Driven by strong, hot, north winds, it swept through the Plenty and Diamond Creek districts and close to Heidelberg before joining with other fires. Thousands of hectares of grassland were burnt; dozens of homesteads, woolsheds, bridges and shacks were destroyed; crops were lost and thousands of head of stock incinerated. Even though so close to the source of the fire, “Yallambee” escaped.”
(Calder, “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, recording the tale of the 1851, Port Phillip District bush fires.)
As remarked by Calder, John and Robert Bakewell’s Yallambee Park missed most of the destruction wrought by the 1851 fires although it is known that other properties in Heidelberg area were amongst those affected. Fire was an ever present concern in the colonial period and Calder records that a later fire may have been the eventual fate of the Bakewells’ original wooden “Yallambee” farm house although direct evidence of this beyond the anecdotal would appear to be slight.
“It has been claimed that there was a serious fire in 1866 which destroyed the Bakewell house.” (Calder, ibid, p77)
The Plenty River at Yallambie marks the boundary between two fire services, the Country Fire Authority on the Lower Plenty side and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade on the Yallambie side but fires are no observer of official boundaries. On Christmas Eve last year fire trucks raced up Greensborough Rd from here towards a fire in the Plenty Gorge near the Metropolitan Ring Rd while the month before, four fires started overnight in Lower Plenty and Viewbank between Edward Willis Court and Seymour Rd. We could see the lights of the emergency service vehicles from that fire flashing across the valley in the night and wondered what was up. It was confirmation if confirmation had been needed that even here in the suburbs the landscape is not without fire risk.
The deadly Black Saturday Bushfires 10 years ago will never fade from memory and most people living on this side of town probably knew somebody directly affected by the disaster, but as our news services continue to ring this year with the latest stories of the calamitous 2020 bush fires sweeping across the country right at this moment, it is the national scale and the sheer breadth of the disaster that makes this fire season stand alone. Virtually the whole continent is on fire in some part or in some place, burning even as I sit here, typing about it like Nero on his fiddle while Rome burned. You can smell it on the air and see it in the afternoon light. There is no escape.
So what can we do? Australia has just recorded its hottest and driest year on record. Again. Many now believe that it is human-caused global warming that has raised the severity of heat events and the associated dangers of wildfire by speeding up the annual drying of the rural landscape. The southern part of Australia has warmed on average by about 1.5° C since 1950 but try telling the politicians that there are consequences to pulling fossil fuels out of the ground with our opposable thumbs to fuel antiquated carbon emitting power stations and you will likely be met by indifference. Some reports state that the 2019/20 fires have already filled the Australian skies with two thirds of the nation’s annual carbon dioxide emissions and experts are warning that it may take forests more than 100 years to re-absorb what’s been released so far in this season. That’s assuming that in a hundred years we still have forests.
Addressing the British Parliament in July last year on the dangers of man-made climate change, Legendary natural historian and documentary film maker, David Attenborough said that, “Australia is already facing having to deal with some of the most extreme manifestations of climate change.”The sight of Sir David looking out from behind the lens of his camera in the future and saying, “I told you so” ain’t going to help us much but maybe, just maybe it might be the consequences of this season’s fires that will at last spur Australia into some sort of climate action. Sir David has long resisted attempts at politicizing his life’s work but at age 93 he’s going for broke and taking aim at government policies head on:
“We have to convince bankers and big business that, in the end, the long-term future lies in having a healthy planet. And unless you do something about it… you’re going to lose your money.”
So there’s the crux of it. Mention furry animals and trees and you will be met by stony silence from Government circles but talk to them about economics and potential damage to property, the financial sector and the danger to the quintessential Aussie way of life and you just might get some action. In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s series, the Golgafrinchams adopt the leaf as legal tender, burning down all the forests they find in order to avoid the rampant hyper-inflation of the currency that the presence of too many trees has created. The story was a jest, yes but possibly you know a Golgafrincham. I suspect there may be one wanting to stand as your member come the next election.
Every Christmas time in a tradition dating back to the reign of King James I, a sprig of winter hawthorn blossom is presented to the reigning British monarch. By custom the blossom is used to decorate the Royal festive table but in doing so it poses a Yuletide conundrum. Christmas in the northern hemisphere, unlike Christmas here in the south, occurs in winter. So what is hawthorn doing flowering in the winter tide of an English December?
The unlikely answer is steeped in legend and early Christian folklore. Following the crucifixion, Saint Joseph of Arimathea is said to have travelled from the Holy Land to English shores where, weary after his long voyage, he thrust his staff into the ground on Wearyall Hill in Glastonbury. The day was Christmas Eve and the staff, which Joseph had earlier cut from the same tree Roman soldiers had used to make Christ’s Crown of Thorns, miraculously took root in the ground, developing overnight into a hawthorn with the unique ability to flower twice a year. Once in spring and again in the winter.
This then is the story of the tree they called the “Glastonbury Thorn”.
Written records of the Thorn do not appear until 1502 when it was recorded that the tree “do burge and bere greene leaves at Christmas” and “growth in Werall”, but undoubtedly the source of the legend is much older. Sir William Brereton visited the tree in 1635 and took cuttings from its branches, carving initials on its trunk and noting as he did so that many had done the same before him, writing afterwards “so famous and so much visited and frequented on the day of Christ’s nativity.”
Brereton was to become a formidable general in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army during those rather uncivil, English Civil Wars. He was Parliament’s Commander in Chief in Cheshire when James son, Charles I had his Crown forcibly removed which, being firmly attached to his head at the time, created something of a headache for the monarchy.
The King was replaced by the autocratic Cromwell, a Puritan zealot who, amongst other things, hated Christmas and kings but not necessarily in that order, dismissing the traditions of one as superstitious nonsense and the Divine Right of the other as an anachronous blight on society. The Thorn he regarded as just another ancient superstition so one of his blockheaded, Round Headed soldiers, taking inspiration from what they had done previously to the King, chopped at it with an axe. The Puritan commentator James Howell recorded that when he did so, the tree poked the solider in the eye with a thorn, blinding him.
“…going to cut down an ancient white hawthorn-tree, which because she budded before others, might be an occasion of superstition, had some of the prickles flew into his eye, and made him monocular.”
Chalk up one for the Mayblooms then.
After the death of that Christmas Grinche Cromwell, the restored Merry Monarch Charles II overturned the Yuletide ban and the Glastonbury Thorn was born anew from cuttings that had been preserved in church yards. The tree survives to this day as grafts in various places throughout Britain although in recent times Cromwellian style vandal attacks have been perpetrated on the plant growing in the original location at Wearyall Hill. Yet always the Thorn, like some sort of botanical Lazarus, rises again.
The Glastonbury Thorn is a variety of hawthorn, specifically Crataegus monogyna var. biflora, the biflora bit in the title referring to the plant’s unique ability to flower bi-annually. The appeal of this multi flowering tree is perhaps understandable as it is an addition to a story of a tree that has long been steeped in arcane folklore. In some places in the British Isles in years past, hawthorns were sometimes referred to as ‘faerie trees’ and it was said carrying a sprig in your pocket would protect you from evil and the depredations of the faeries that we all know lurk at the bottom of every garden.
Hawthorns in the form of the single flowering Crataegus monogyna were brought to Australia by the early settlers and the tree gives its name to a Melbourne suburb and an AFL footy team, the name apparently developing after a remark made in the early days by Superintendent Charles La Trobe when he compared the native shrubs to the east of the town to flowering hawthorn bushes.
Hawthorns in time were to become an invaluable hedging plant in the colonies and were used as windbreaks and as living boundary markers. Settlers found that thorns were particularly useful in retaining wandering stock as they could be planted in rows in a process known as hedge laying. In this process, trees were planted closely together with a pleach cut into the back of each trunk and a pliable hinge of wood at the front. The trunk of the tree would then be laid down at a 45° angle to the next trunk with stakes driven into the plants to keep them in position creating a unique-looking, stock proof hedge.
Post and rail fencing was a feature of Yallambie but it is probable that hawthorn hedging was also incorporated in places during the farming era as a few remnants of these plants remain marking old boundary lines along with a few stand-alone specimens. Regrettably Crataegus monogyna is classed as an environmental weed in Victoria resulting in a modern minimization of the plant alongside river side environments yet for all this, the reality is it is a beautiful small flowering tree, very hardy and much loved by native birds. Hawthorns were in bloom in Yallambie for a week or so in October with the peculiar, sickly sweet smell of their flowers filling the air and mixing with the drone of bees as a herald of the onset of warmer weather. Hawthorn flowers give way to pome fruit in an Australian December and as a cut foliage, this fruit or rather haw berries make a striking arrangement in a vase on the festive table without the disadvantage of the cats’ wee like fragrance of the earlier flowers.
Christmas is a time with some long established if controvertible traditions and the Christmas wanderings of Joseph of Arimathea could be said to be one of these. While the Gospels generally agree on the role he played in the burial of Jesus, they remain silent regarding other details. Prior to the fourth century, the previously stated legend developed that Joseph had come to Britain after the Crucifixion and Medieval writers in Britain were later able to furnish Joseph with a background story, binding him up to the Arthurian legend and declaring him responsible for bringing the cup of Christ’s Last Supper with him to English shores – the celebrated Holy Grail of legend.
Dan Brown borrowed a page from this well used book, making himself a wealthy man along the way and confirming the reality that every story has the potential to become legend. Like the idea behind the Nativity itself, the story of the Grail represents a search for meaning, a search that we are all on at one time or another and not just at Christmas. As for the common hawthorn, while it is true that it is an indigenous plant of the British Isles, some writers on this subject have also suggested that the bi-flowering variety Sir William Brereton found at Glastonbury might once have been a native of the Middle East.
Who’d have thunk? Stranger things than that are possible at Christmas. Ask any five-year old. In every fiction then it seems we might be closer to the truth than the lies that surround us and in every search can be found meaning.
What’s small and furry, has a duck bill and webbed feet, lays eggs while suckling it’s young and can be found on occasion with a sting close alongside its beaver like tail?
I’m sure you know the answer already although chances are, like me you’ve probably never seen one outside of a natural history museum. If you’ve got 20 cents in your pocket though, you could be closer to one than you think.
Ornithorhynchus anatinus – I was walking in the park early in the morning a week ago when I saw it. As I crossed the river from the Yallambie to Montmorency side at the bridge below the site of Casa Maria I heard a splash and, pausing to look upriver in the direction of the sound, I heard another movement just below me. Turning in the direction of the new sound, I was just in time to see something furry go into the water with a kersplosh and an instant later I saw it rolling over in the water of the overhanging river bank, unmistakable now in its appearance with a short, flat tail. It didn’t break the surface of the water again while I watched but I could see the direction that it took underwater, marked by a “V” on the surface of the pool heading in the direction of an obscuring reed bed and the source of the first splash. ‘Must be a pair of them,’ I thought as I turned away. ‘That’s a good sign for the health of the river.’
Playtpus, for that’s what my furry friend turned out to be, is a somewhat paradoxical animal. A semi-aquatic, egg laying, mammal it is the sole survivor of the family Ornithorhynchidae, in the genus Ornithorhynchus (bird billed). When stuffed examples were sent for study from Australia to Britain at the end of the 18th century, outraged scholars believed they were the victims of an attempted antipodean hoax for if the imaginary Babel Fish can be used as “a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God,” then the Platypus is the ultimate contradiction. It proves that God has a sense of humour.
Platypus are possibly more common along watercourses in the suburbs than you might think. Shy and nocturnal, they are all too seldom seen however. Historically, the Plenty River is said to have been abundant with these aquatic native animals with Thomas Wragge’s grandson, Frank Wright remembering the river at Yallambie before the Great War, writing that, “Possums and platypus were plentiful. Often we would see six or ten platypus in a day.”(Wright, Recollections of the Plenty River, 1974, quoted in Calder, p212). Similarly Wragge’s great grandson, Bill Bush reported seeing them regularly while growing up at Yallambie in the 1950s but in all the years that we’ve lived here, this is the first time I’ve seen one.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the Platypus is an endangered species. Not yet. It is evidence only of the difficulties some species have adapting to life within an urbanised landscape and how unobservant we tend to be in our every day lives. I see wallabies often enough in Yallambie Park, including a pair that seem to have taken up residence on the ridge above the Platypus bathing pool. We’ve even had a beautiful, chocolate coloured swamp wallaby in our garden but while wallabies and kangaroos seem to have urbanized OK, other animals don’t necessarily adapt so well. Platypus are susceptible to illegal netting practices in the river and the morning I spotted the Platypus, I saw a dog running off the lead and into the water in the immediate vicinity of the sighting.
It has been reported that Australia has the fourth-highest level of animal species extinction in the world with the number of extinct species topping 40 with another 106 listed as critically endangered. Clearing land for urban expansion and agriculture, logging forests and damming rivers have all contributed to this problem while Victoria also enjoys the dubious reputation of being the most deforested state in Australia. More than 60 per cent of the forest that existed at the time of first settlement is now gone. The announcement yesterday by the State Government that logging of native timber in Victoria would end by 2030 is at least a step in the right direction and an indication that the Government is aware of the problem and concerned by the flow on effects of the destruction of native ecosystems. But will it be too little, too late? Already the critics are lining up, supported by a conservative Federal government, to claim that the State Government is putting furry animals ahead of timber industry jobs. A decade sometimes seems like a long way away.
Meanwhile we city folk can continue to take our walks in the reinstated setting of a suburban park land environment, convinced that everything is going to be alright Jack. It brings me joy to see our chocolate coloured swamp wallaby exploring the lower reaches of the garden although, given the history of urban landscapes, I suppose my chances of seeing another Platypus down by the river anytime soon are about as good as seeing the legendary Babel Fish.
“An effect of an old home and garden is to give a sense of being part of the continuity of life, of having roots in the past and prospects in the future.”
Ethel Temby, from her personal history of Yallambie Homestead, 1984
Ethel wrote this in the early ’80s while reflecting on more than two decades of life at Yallambie. In the 30 odd years since, the seasons have come and gone and the years have brought change. Plants and garden beds have been removed and reinstated. Drought has wrecked the garden more than once, only for it to recover and be born anew. Geriatric trees have succumbed to the passage of the time and collapsed to be replanted. Some things don’t change though and one of these is the arrival of the Spring time and the possibilities the season has to offer. I like to think the continuity described by Ethel might be something that had its beginning with R Bakewell and E L Bateman, found recognition in the writings of the Howitts and Louisa Anne Meredith and is a tradition that survives to this present day. As Ethel once said, quoting from Brown in her history:
A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot! Rose plot, Fringed pool, Ferned grot.
Fresh buds bloom, showers soften the earth and there is a warmth in the air outside already. It’s been a lovely Spring, don’t you think? Sorry for not writing about it more right now but I’ve got to get outside. Something’s waiting for me.
I’ve heard it said that one man’s treasure can be another man’s trash. As I look around at our tumble down house built in another time and in answer to the needs of another era, I can say it comes as hardly any surprise. As an idea, it’s scarcely novel.
I remember my father having an old folding Autographic Kodak with a lens that popped out on the end of a bellows and with a little silver pointed scribe which could be used to write directly onto the film. As a child I was fascinated by the mechanics of the object, especially the possibilities of that pencil, but it was only later when I was at art school and getting briefly interested in photography that I thought more about it. With access to a dark room I started wondering what sort of a picture such a camera might be capable of producing in the modern era.
When I asked my father his reply was to the point.
“Oh that. I couldn’t get the film for it anymore so I threw it into the rubbish.”
“Oh, never mind that. It was old when I got it. I bought it from a man in a pub you know. By Jove, though,” he paused. He used to talk like that. “Do you think it was hot?”
“No, not really?”
Thus ended in the Pater’s belated realization of his role as a fence, any possibility of a foray into a world of experimental art photography.
My wife’s parents have always had a good appreciation of period style and my father in law in particular has a collection of interesting if now entirely obsolete cameras. At one time he even had his own dark room but, as a freelance commercial artist, that was probably a necessity of business. The reality is, the older they have grown the more modern their tastes have become, a trend in which they are not alone. Just go mid-week to any second hand auction house to see the low prices these sales generate, a by-product of the Marie Kondo led minimalism craze and the dictates of Instagram fashion. It’s a fad but one that overlooks the fact that the old product is generally better made, lasts longer and is sometimes more aesthetically pleasing than a modern day equivalent. Pauline Morrissey calls the trend “fast furniture” and puts it into the same realm as fast food and fast fashion.
The cuckoo clock that hangs over this table for instance and which offers the occasional lunatic tune on the half hour as I type is one example. It keeps pretty good time and makes more of a contribution to family life here than an equivalent digital device. It was rescued from a rubbish pile one day in need of new bellows and replacement weights. Dusted down and rejuvenated, our feathered friend continues to make a fitting and regular Laurel and Hardy commentary on the unstated, state of the union.
So it was no surprise after a recent visit to her parents that my wife returned with another discarded object tucked under her arm.
“It’s a mandala,” she said holding up a bent and rusted object for me to inspect. “Apparently my parents got it from Matcham Skipper at Montsalvat back in the day. Mum and Dad threw it away in the garden but it’s going to be bolted onto that wall over there.”
I looked at it with interest. I’d seen similar things before on suburban homes of a certain age. Many have a sort of Brutalist honesty in form and the rust this example had collected in the garden only seemed to add to the shadows cast by the afternoon light onto the indicated wall. It concealed a story of potentialities. Apparently my wife’s grandmother had taken her father out to Justus Jörgensen’s Montsalvat in Eltham when his family re-emigrated from England as £10 Poms after the War. He was only a kid but he already wanted to be an artist. For some reason or other and in spite of her strict Baptist upbringing, Nan took her son over to Montsalvat where Matcham’s sister, Helen gave them a tour of the buildings many of which were still in the construction phase.
“Nan took one look at all those “Bohemians” and their libertine lifestyle and couldn’t get Dad out of there quick enough. She eventually found him an apprenticeship at Colour Gravure but imagine if he had been allowed to stay.”
“Yes, he might have missed out on a spectacular career as a commercial artist where he reached the top of his profession and instead learned how to mix concrete and spit rocks for Justus Jörgensen.”
The story of Justus Jörgensen’s artists’ colony at Montsalvat is well known. It is Australia’s oldest artist colony and is famous for being constructed by the artists themselves from cast off materials scavenged from places all across Melbourne. It’s a principle that seems to have extended into the production of art as for most of his life Matcham Skipper, 1921-2011, as one of the principle artists in residence at Montsalvat, was a keen advocate of the concept of “art in the found object”.
One of Justus’ sons, Sigmund Jörgensen who died earlier this year wrote of the Matcham method:
“He loved the stuff and, given the opportunity, would have filled the whole of Montsalvat under metres of his junk. To Matcham, it was inspirational… each piece containing an inspired thought of what he might do with it when he had the time.” (Sigmund Jörgensen, “Montsalvat”, 2014, Allen & Unwin)
Everyone remembers Matcham Skipper today for his exquisitely fine jewellery but that was only one side of what was in essence a multi-faceted career. Sculptor, jeweller, ironworker, photographer and builder of dreams, in his lifetime Matcham Skipper would turn his hand to many things. Mandalas could be described as an eastern sort of cosmic diagram of the infinite world which extends beyond our vision and Skipper borrowed from the concept, using off pressings sourced from the Sidchrome tool works in Heidelberg and incorporating welding skills learned from the Commonwealth Industrial Gas complex in Preston to create strong yet sometimes delicate structures. In the 70s, Skipper mandalas became a bit of a must have for the bare arsed exteriors of many newly minted brick veneers, like the shag pile carpets inside and the flared trousers of their owners outside. For a while they became a much copied static design motif all around town although often it can be said without the mastery of a Skipper original.
“Once, driving him (Matcham) through a Melbourne suburb, I pointed out an ill-formed mandala that had been fixed to a front wall of a cream brick veneer home. I said to Matcham, ‘Well, there is your legacy, the welded mandala.’ Matcham groaned, his great idea prostituted for the almighty dollar.” (Sigmund Jörgensen, ibid)
The annual Montsalvat Arts Festival is happening this weekend but with admission fees and prices charged for individual events across the two days, perhaps the almighty dollar long ago subsumed the guiding principles of what Montsalvat originally stood for, indeed if those principles ever really existed.
Many of the architectural elements that were used to build Montsalvat were reputedly sourced from the yard of the demolition company “Whelan the Wrecker”. Whelan’s sign on building sites “Whelan Is Here” followed by “Whelan Was Here” on an empty block became synonymous with a Post War desire for urban renewal and social change in Victoria. Like the buildings it consigned to the scrap heap, the Whelan company in its original form is now long gone but it’s said that during its existence, the company always expressed an appreciation of the heritage of the old buildings it was their task to destroy as evidenced by the select parts of the buildings they salvaged from the wrecking ball. But it is also true that under their watch, much of Melbourne’s 19th century character was sacrificed with hardly a voice heard in protest.
As reported in Robyn Annear’s fascinating 2005 book, “A City Lost & Found” detailing the history of Whelan the Wrecker in Melbourne, in 1965 Whelan purchased a disused quarry in East Brunswick with a million-and-a-quarter cubic metres of ‘air space’ to fill. It was estimated that the old quarry hole would take Whelan’s 50 years to fill. In less than 10 it was half-full and many of the best buildings in the city had ended up in it. I’ve sometimes wondered what might be found if in years to come an archaeological dig was conducted on the site.
It’s said that life imitates art and the idea of recycling has now become far more accepted today than it ever was in the days when Matcham Skipper was alive and punching out his mandalas. Recycling has become a catch cry in the 21st century but with China becoming more selective with the plastics it is willing to accept from Australia to be sent back to us as mass production stamped “Made in China”, we may have to start taking responsibility for our own actions. The collapse of SKM in August with debts of $100 million has sent the state’s recycling system into chaos with some councils reportedly forced to send thousands of tonnes of recycling to land fill.
No one wants to be “that hoarder” who ends up consumed by the detritus of a life out of control, but it’s also true that most of us could do more at patching and repairing than throwing away. For every piece of recycled timber used in a building project, a plantation tree or patch of old growth forest is saved. For every dumpster diver sourcing a culinary feast from a bin outside a supermarket, edible food that would otherwise end up as landfill, (up to 7.3 million tonnes in Australia every year according to a recent report) is a win in the war on waste. Recycling it seems has always been an art form, one that old Matcham was onto a long time before anyone else.
Throughout the ages the collective memory of primitive societies has been preserved by what we call “the oral tradition”. It might seem unlikely now in this age of the internet and digital space, but before the invention of the written word, oral tradition was often the only way that human beings were able to preserve the record of generational knowledge outside the superfluous grey matter found between their ears.
We might think we’ve come a long way since but in some ways the power of memory is as important now as it ever was. Oral history, as opposed to oral tradition, is an academic discipline which can be defined by the collection and study of historical information using recording devices and interview techniques, a process which strives to obtain information unavailable by other methods. Publishing these personal histories has never been more popular with desk top publishing and cheap printing making the process relatively easy.
Locally, the Greensborough Historical Society has taken a leaf out of what could be called the oral history book by publishing a couple of recent companion volumes, “As I Recall” and “Do You Recall?” which feature stories drawn from the memories of long-time residents of Greensborough and nearby suburbs. Last week while travelling on the 293 Greensborough bus with my nose buried in the pages of one of these tomes which happened to be opened at a chapter describing the history of the now defunct Diamond Valley Community Hospital, a woman sitting next to me after first apologizing for reading over my shoulder pointed at the page and said, “I was born at that hospital.”
“You and about 10,000 others,” I said, quoting directly from the pages of the book.
What followed then turned into an interesting chat about her memories of the local area before I had to let it go and get off at my stop, leaving her story only half complete. It was a loss in one respect. Given longer I’m guessing I might have turned her story into a post, but in another respect it was a gain as it got me thinking about history and the importance of memory within the spoken framework. As it happens, both GHS volumes contain chapters recording the memories of one Eric Barclay and are complete with his impressions of what it was like growing up in a Post War rural environment on what was colloquially known as the Grace Park Estate, Greensborough. This estate was located more or less on the northern boundaries of Yallambie and at one time was home to a rough and ready, 9-hole golf course. It was an area parts of which remained semi-rural into the last quarter of the 20th century and Eric’s story makes an interesting tale.
Born in 1938, Eric Barclay was the only child of Henry and Dorothy Barclay who were aged 60 and 40 respectively when their son surprised them by being born. The family owned a small weatherboard cottage on a 10 acre farm in Elder St, Greensborough, south of where Henry St ends at the T intersection. The Barclay property was located about an equidistance from Greensborough, Montmorency, Watsonia and Lower Plenty and could only be accessed along unmade roads and bush tracks. The house, which had been relocated from Collingwood in an earlier era, was without power, sewerage or mains water and although basic in its necessities, it proved to be a happy and healthy childhood environment for young Eric.
“We were hillbillies. We never ever got the light on until the early 50s…. We were very primitive out there. One thing about it, when we were hungry we had a bit of an orchard. Dad was a good gardener. We had vegetables. We had plenty of chooks, plenty of eggs.” (Eric Barclay, “Do You Recall?” GHS, 2017)
Much of Eric Barclay’s story as related in the two GHS books is devoted to what he called his memories of “The Big Paddock”, (the title of his chapter in “Do You Recall?). The Big Paddock was a 600 acre area roughly bounded in the west by Greensborough Rd, in the north by Nell St, the east by the River where the unmade track that was Elder St petered out, and by Yallambie in the south.
“It had a wire fence around it and besides briar bushes only had cattle, kangaroos and hares in it… Every year The Big Paddock used to get burnt out. We had no fire brigades in Greensborough in those days. The locals would get out and fight it, my father and Mr Bell and others. Almost every year up to the late 40s our area’s 5 to 10 acre farmlets had a planned burn off and they’d do maybe three places one night, all the men. The women would have a central place where they’d have cups of tea and a few beers later on. We did that until all the tussocks had been cleared off. We’d look forward to it as kids, we’d have a bag each and go round beating out the posts so they didn’t take fire.” (Eric Barclay, “Do You Recall?” GHS, 2017)
Eric’s father, Henry was employed at “Stubley’s”, a produce merchant in Main Rd, Greensborough with ties to a motor garage and service station of the same name. Later Henry found work at Annie Murdoch’s Yallambie, a circumstance that will be of particular interest to readers of this blog. The following words are reproduced here, directly from the pages of the Greensborough Historical Society volume, “Do You Recall?” published by the Society in 2017.
My father Henry Banwell Barclay ended up working at Yallambie House, the mansion. They used to have quite a market garden there, they would have had a couple of hundred acres I reckon. They had river frontage on the Plenty. The driveway of Yallambie House ran through to Lower Plenty Road.
Going through the paddocks I’d take Dad over his lunch and a bottle of cold tea. Dad worked down there on the river flats. They had vegetables and fruit trees. It was pretty substantial. Old Joe worked there as well as Dad who was 60 when I was born in Whittlesea in 1938.
The people that had Yallambie, the elderly lady was Mrs Murdoch. She was the owner, the matriarch. Her daughter married a Mr Bush. They were lovely people. They had two children, Elizabeth, about my age, and Billy who was a lot younger. I can remember Elizabeth going to Ivanhoe Grammar.
They had two Daimler cars and one day Mr Bush said “Now, young Eric I’d like to give you a bit of pocket money.” I used to wash the two Daimlers once a fortnight and get three bob… three shillings, which was good. We didn’t have a lot of money. My father had spent a lot on his children (from his first marriage) in the earlier days setting them up. I would have been about 11 at the time. He was 71 and still working over there.
They had an asphalt tennis court there and a year or so later Mrs Bush said “Eric, if you’d like to bring some of your friends over you can play tennis.” So Leslie Dunstan, Donny Bell, Robert Collins and myself would go over there and sweep the leaves off and mark the lines and play. There were elm trees and a big verandah out the back and Mrs Bush would come out and she’d say “Righto boys!” She’d have a table set up on the verandah and we’d have lemonade and butterfly cakes and that. They were terrific.
Each year around Melbourne Cup time they’d put Dad and Mum and myself in the Cup sweep and I’d have to go across Melbourne Cup morning and see what horses we had.
There was a manager’s house there, the cookhouse, the whole lot. In the early days the manager was a Mr Gardiner. The cook was Nellie.
Eric’s story continues with his memories of the Plenty River, the riding school at Woodside, (Casa Maria) and Wragge’s Anglican Church of the Holy Spirit.
Us kids learnt to swim in the Plenty River, you’d get holes 20 foot deep. There were platypus and water rats. It was a beautiful stream. When I was a bit older Leslie Dunstone, Donny Bell and myself used to fish it from one end to the other, nearly down to the junction with the Yarra River. That’s a long walk. We’d take hurricane lamps and the dogs with us, a tin of baked beans and a bit of bread.
Along Yallambie Road, which was a gravel road, on the left was Bellamy’s. They had a poultry farm, there were very few houses. You went right along and there was a gate. You’d open the gate and keep going and right down the end of Yallambie Road was Nancy Hosack’s riding school. She had a nice home and the riding school and the stables and so forth. Nancy used to compete in a lot of the gymkhanas and Benny Weir, who lived in Greensborough off Alexandra Street down near the river, was probably one of her greatest competitors in them.
Past the gate, on the south side of Yallambie Road, going west, was the army camp land. Years later they brought all the people in from Camp Pell, which was like a Housing Commission kind of setup in Royal Park. That’s when all our chooks started to get stolen and so forth. They brought them out to the army camp for housing up at the top end of the camp in Yallambie Road.
Where the petrol station is now, there used to be a church there. It was a little brick Church of England church. I think they used to have a service there about once a week. A lot of people wouldn’t know that had been there.
Benny Weir’s swimming hole was probably one of my favourite spots on the Plenty. They had a rope hanging over the river and kids would go swimming there.
In about 1950 Eric’s father began selling off parts of their 10 acre farm. Australia’s leading Greyhound trainer, Stan Cleverly bought half and built the substantial brick home that stands today on a double block at the top of the rise in Elder St at the Henry St intersection. Stan installed a straight greyhound training track alongside his home where he trained from 50 to a 100 greyhounds at a time, although in the words of Eric, “Later on, it paid him more to get dogs beaten. He got outed for a year.” Eventually, Eric sold the last 3 ½ acres of the Barclay farm and moved to Macleod in 1966. His family’s presence is remembered in the area in the name of “Barclay Park”, a small reserve in Plenty Lane, Greensborough.
The importance of these spoken histories has also been recognized by the Heidelberg Historical Society which has recently put out a call for volunteers prepared to offer their services in recording the oral stories of older residents of the Heidelberg area. In reading back over the two companion volumes of oral history published earlier by the Greensborough Historical Society, I am of a mind that the more successful chapters of such books are those that, like Eric Barclay, allow the interviewee to tell remembered personal anecdotes as opposed to dry lists of unchecked facts and figures. Oral history is not about the replacement of the established order of historical sources. Go struggle with a University thesis if you want that. Oral History instead is about the perspective, thoughts, opinions and understanding of interviewees in a primary form.
On a personal note, as previously mentioned in this blog, around 1980 my late father sat down with a cassette tape recorder and recounted a life time of memories. As a lad I used to wonder about what he was up to. It seemed to me he had taken up the habit of talking to himself behind closed doors. Only after he was dead could I recognize, as he had probably done earlier, the importance of an oral legacy. A decade later I turned a transcript of those recordings into a book, the larger part of which records his impressions of World War 2 and his life as a POW of the Japanese. To my mind today, it makes an absorbing read, not as a history of that War but as the impressions of how the War affected the life of one man, caught up in a world conflict far beyond his control. My father’s was just one more voice from an otherwise unheard viewpoint falling from the pages of the history of the vast tragedy that engulfed Western Civilization in the first half of the 20th Century.
“Now, about five o’clock the next morning, our commanding officer, Major Keith Lawrence, gathered us around in a group. Not in ranks or anything like that and with words to this effect. He said, “I have a few things to explain to you here.” And he went on to tell us, you know, the position as he knew it. That the war had virtually ceased on the mainland and that we were now all gathered on Singapore Island and we had to make the most of what we had. And then, I suppose I’m only one of the two hundred and fifty or sixty men within our unit. I’m sure the others were just as shocked as I as when he turned around and said, “There is not a mile of barbed wire anywhere in front of us.” In other words he meant, we had no fortifications at all.” (Spr McLachlan learns the truth of the myth of ‘Fortress Singapore’, from “Titch – Telling Tales of T C McLachlan”, Yallambie, 1999).
So if you know an old-timer, sit down with them sometime soon and listen to their stories. It can be a pretty rewarding experience for the listener, but make sure you write down what you are told or even record it on your iPhone if that’s the way you work. There’s a gold mine of undiscovered primary history sources out there just waiting for someone to sit down, to stop, and listen.
It’s said that if you’re not careful, waving a red flag could get you a visit from the pointy end of a very angry bull. That’s if you’re unlucky enough to find a member of that bovine species with its horns down and tail up, charging past when you happen to be holding one. Yet in the 19th century a red flag could be the herald of something quite different and in practice, rather more sedate.
The extraordinary 1865 Locomotive Act of Great Britain, sometimes known as the “Red Flag Act”, was an old law that required a man to precede at walking pace all steam powered vehicles on the open road and to carry a red flag or lantern as a warning while doing so. It developed in the middle years of the 19th century after intense lobbying from horse-drawn carriage operators and the railway industry in what was seen even then as a cynical attempt to stifle legitimate competition to their services. The Act gave local authorities unprecedented powers over speed limits which were set between 4 and 2 mph and the authority to specify the hours during which steam vehicles might use the roads, the combined effect of which was to limit the rise of steam powered road transport throughout Britain and her Empire for decades. It was enough to take the puff out of what has otherwise been called, “The Steam Age”.
Towards the end of the century, with motoring innovation and the use of the new-fangled internal combustion engine gathering pace, the Red Flag Act was seen for what it was. A patently absurd anachronism. The Act was amended and in 1896 finally repealed, after which time experimental steam transport was finally free to develop and operate unhindered.
By then it was nearly too late for road steam but all the same there were still some who were willing to try. Thomas Clarkson began producing steam buses at his Moulsham Works in Chelmsford, England at about this time with the company’s prospectus declaring that, “The Chelmsford motor omnibuses are steam propelled, and… are entirely free from smell, noise, and vibration.” The Clarkson vehicles had a two-cylinder horizontal engine with a tubular boiler and a working pressure of between 150 and 250psi and averaged almost 4 miles to a gallon of paraffin fuel.
At the dawn of the new century A G Webster & Son of Hobart imported a number of these Clarkson omnibuses to Australia and several were adopted by the state railways for use in passenger services on the roads. This photograph of a Clarkson vehicle parked outside the Plenty Bridge Hotel in Lower Plenty opposite Yallambie was taken in 1905, possibly during a proving exercise in that year. Another photograph apparently from the same series shows the same vehicle on a timber covered road, perhaps somewhere in the Upper Yarra or Upper Plenty area, localities the vehicle presumably might have travelled through after leaving the Plenty Bridge. A closer inspection of this photograph appears to show an indigenous member of the party in the middle of the group, looking away from the camera, fourth from the right. Could this photograph have been taken during a visit to the Coranderrk Aboriginal Enterprise near Healesville?
In the other picture, the Plenty Bridge picture, Edward Joseph Rigby has been identified seated in the driver’s seat. His son, Edward Jr is standing at the rear of the vehicle along from his mother. Rigby Sr was an engineer and early motoring enthusiast, being a foundation member of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria. It is believed that he was responsible for the elegant chassis construction of the Clarkson vehicles used in Melbourne.
Six Clarkson vehicles were ordered by the Victorian Railways but they were used for only a short period after proving unreliable in service. Steam transport in Victoria at this time was largely limited to the tried and true uses employed to such good effect by the railways, to which industry it was ideally suited and well established throughout the world.
The story of the early railways in the Heidelberg district reads as a chequered tale. The lack of regional progress throughout the latter part of the 19th century has been blamed mainly on the lack of an efficient, direct route into the north east, the result of protracted councils’ infighting and disagreement over the form such a railway should take and the route it should follow. Getting a train to Heidelberg in the early days involved a juggling act with timetables and a backwards and forwards movement along spur lines before there was even a chance of getting anywhere. As one wag put it at the time:
“In the old days of buses and coaches, travellers could hope, on starting from Melbourne, to reach the place in about an hour, but with the advancing times and the railway communication they could now do the journey in one hour and a half.”
(The Mercury, May 1888, quoted in Garden)
It seems the visit of a Railways steam omnibus to Lower Plenty might have had its merits.
A direct steam engine rail route to Heidelberg was finally established in 1901, extended to Eltham in June, 1902 and reached the end of the line at Hurstbridge in 1926. The route as built performs a vast arc around the Yallambie area with the stations at Rosanna, Watsonia and Montmorency all about an equidistance from the main body of the Yallambie housing estate which is centred on the western banks of the Plenty River. A modern regular bus service from St Helena, the 517, connects Yallambie today to train services at Rosanna and Greensborough Stations, although the route it takes through the back streets can add up to half an hour to a trip. This however is about the same time that it takes to walk to Montmorency Station along the Plenty River Shared Trail from Yallambie, so it’s really a case of whether or not you fancy the exercise when you’re commuting. Other bus routes connect Yallambie to all points of the compass with the 513 along Lower Plenty Rd to Eltham and the 293 from Para Rd in Montmorency to Doncaster and Box Hill being particularly useful.
The State Government’s commitment to public transport is clear with the recent removal of the Lower Plenty Rd level crossing and redevelopment of the Rosanna Station being just one local example of this policy. At the same time though, the Government’s decision to build a North East Link freeway down the western boundary of Yallambie and underground through Heidelberg is evidence of another commitment entirely.
With the use of hybrid cars and Peak Oil giving the roads of the future an unknown prospect, it remains to be seen what shape the future transport needs of Melbourne might take. As Melbourne bursts at its seams and with new development across the city outpacing existing infrastructure, perhaps we need to look back at what happened in Heidelberg in the 19th century to get an idea of where we are going. “Sleepy Hollow” they called the Heidelberg area due to the poor roads and lack of rail access but when the railway finally arrived, in the face of all the infighting that came with it, the route was not necessarily the best that might have been chosen. As for steam transport on the roads, well that one clearly never moved much beyond a walking pace.
Outside the old Court House in Jika Street, Heidelberg, now the home of the Heidelberg Historical Society, there stands an old water trough, a local example of what was known in its day as a “Bills Horse Trough”. Bills Horse Troughs, so named after the public benefactor whose financial legacy created them (but not incidentally the same Bill whose poster activities I’ve seen prosecuted so relentlessly around town), were a necessary device in an era when so much was relied upon from horse travel. The Jika Street trough was originally located on the corner of Martins Lane and Lower Plenty Rd near Yallambie, opposite a place now marked by the glowing golden arches of the Yallambie franchise of a certain hamburger restaurant chain. The trough was moved to Heidelberg in the early 1980s after the widening of Lower Plenty Rd in an earlier period and restored with funding from the Australian Bicentennial Authority in1988.
Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge’s love of horses has been well documented and horses were clearly an integral part of life at Yallambie throughout the farming era. Eventually though, horse transport on the roads was to disappear to be replaced by the erstwhile horseless carriages that are so much a part of our lives today. Every one of us relies on our vehicles, whether they be motorised, horse drawn or steam powered but for mine I’ve always liked to think there is an alternative.
It’s ever there and doesn’t need costly road tunnels, rail crossings or even watering troughs.
You’ll find it down below your knees if you stop long enough to take a look.
In an unmannerly modern world it seems that the epithet “gentleman” is more likely to be found these days on the door of a public loo than out there in the less than genteel mores of society. It might be that this is evidence of a new standard but the fact remains, it was not always so. The word “gentleman” at one time was a word that carried a certain polite social expectation since to be a “gentleman” removed a man, at least in his own mind, from the general hoi polloi of the professional and labouring classes, the “great unwashed” of literature.
In 1861, Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge signed the certificate of his marriage describing himself as a “gentleman of Lower Plenty” while his bride signed herself as Sarah Ann Hearn, a “lady”. A hundred years earlier, Lord Chesterfield had written plenty of advice about what this actually meant in practice, advice that had become pretty widely accepted by the time Wragge brought his bride to Yallambie, but it is advice which today has been largely forgotten. The good Lord is better remembered now chiefly for having a chair named after him.
As a code, the Chesterfield ideal flourished in the otherwise egalitarian society of the Australian colonies of the 19th century in spite of, or perhaps because of the 20 thousand kilometres by sea that separated Australian society from the rest of civilization. Transplanted from the British Isles by early settlers the code attempted to reproduce as far as possible the traditions of a polite society in a rude world under the demanding vicissitudes of an alien sun. Colonial intellectuals might look to the contents of a man’s library to judge a gentleman’s character, the dandies the cut of his coat and heralds the existence of armorial bearings, but for all of this one standard remained inviolable. That was the ability of a man to live respectably within his means on an unearned income.
When Thomas Wragge decided to take his growing family on a visit to England in 1892 to see the land of his birth, he did so as a representative of Australia’s new landed squattocracy. The family chose to travel that year as saloon passengers on a single class steamer, the Peninsular and Orient Steam Navigation Company’s SS Valetta with the manifest describing each member of Thomas’ family as either a “gentleman” or “lady”. Keeping up appearances, there would be no room for any of life’s riff raff on this voyage for Thomas.
The ship left Melbourne on the 26 March, 1892 and stopped at the Port of Adelaide where ongoing passengers were excited to find Lord Sheffield’s 1891-92 returning English Test cricketers come on board. The team was captained by the renowned Dr William Gilbert Grace, a huge figure in the cricket of this era in both his sporting achievements and his commanding presence – 6 ft 2 in (1.88 m), an ever expanding girth and a bushy, black pirate beard to match. To the great interest of Thomas’ sons, nets were put up on the deck to allow the cricketers to keep in condition during the long sea voyage and to their general excitement Thomas’ youngest son Harry, then nearly 12 years old, was given the opportunity to bowl to the great W G in the nets. The unexpected result of this would be remembered by his family for generations with Harry’s nephew, Frank Wright later writing of the encounter and of Harry’s subsequent development as a cricketer.
“In the playing of deck games, young Harry, then aged only 11 or so, clean bowled Grace in a game of deck cricket. It seems to have created such an uproar that Grace lost his temper, so things could have been so-so for a while. The aura surrounding young Harry for this feat was probably the cause of his later interest in cricket. My first recollection of him in the early 1900s is in his flannels, eating an enormous meal at Yallambie one Saturday evening after having played in some match at Heidelberg.” F S Wright, 1949, State Library of Victoria, Manuscript Collection and quoted by Calder, p119, Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales
The lack of grace of Grace at losing his wicket to an eleven year old might seem to have been a bit of an over-reaction but the bearded cricketer was well known for possessing a highly competitive streak. The stories of his refusal to “walk” when out are legendary and although some of them are probably apocryphal, one sometimes quoted tale recalls the cricketer coolly replacing the bails in a first class game after they had been dislodged by the leather, remarking as he did so for the umpire’s benefit, “Windy weather out here this morning.”
Such blatant examples at gamesmanship could have and sometimes did have unintended consequences in the sporting arena. In a match at The Oval in England in 1882, Australia’s Fred “The Demon” Spofforth is said to have boiled over in righteous anger at an unsporting run out by Grace of an Australian batsman who had wandered out of the crease to do a “bit of gardening” between balls. It inspired “The Demon” to a bowling rout of the Englishmen with the Australian quick capturing a decisive 14 wickets, Australia winning the match by seven runs with a famous published “obituary” to English Cricket afterwards appearing in the press, the body to be “cremated and the ashes taken to Australia”.
In a way strangely pertinent to our story, these “Ashes” as they became known enjoy a vague familial association with Yallambie which you won’t find mentioned in any of the many history books of the subject. Wragge’s wife, Sarah Ann Hearn was a full cousin of Sir William Clarke, 1st Baronet and it was at Clarke’s country seat, “Rupertswood” near Sunbury that the most enduring and famous trophy in cricket was created as a nod to the earlier death notice to English cricket. One of cousin Clarke’s many hats was as president of the Melbourne Cricket Club and he was instrumental in bringing the English cricketers to Australia in 1882 after their shock loss at the Oval.
The tour became known as the battle to reclaim the imaginary Ashes of newspaper obituary invention but how much Sarah Ann had to do with her cousin’s family at Sunbury in this era is uncertain. What is known is that her husband Thomas’ brother, Henry Wragge, a veterinarian was at Rupertswood around this time working in Sir William’s stables and that Henry had been living with his brother’s family at Yallambie. Perhaps the story of The Ashes had become a family anecdote to them by the time Harry had a chance to roll his arm over to Grace 10 years later. It’s a thought.
W G Grace remained a much loved cricketer for many years with the public both in England and abroad and a respected and sometimes feared opponent. The contemporary monthly almanac “Cricket” wrote of the 1891-92 English tour of the Australian colonies, “The great as well as the most pleasing feature of the tour to the general public was Dr W G Grace’s consistent success as a bat. Time has not even now withered, nor custom staled his infinite variety.”
It was the second tour of the Australian colonies for Grace, 18 years after the first and the first of the Test cricket era. W G was 43 years old at this time but still took third place on the English Test batting averages while in Australia.
Grace chose to take the field as a Gentleman/Amateur as opposed to the Player/Professional class but herein lies one of the great shams of what is sometimes referred to as the “Golden Age” of cricket. The game could be said to have been suffering from a sort of existential crisis at this time for to be a gentleman in cricket parlance meant to take the field purely for the love of the game and without financial incentive. At least that was the theory. “No gentleman ought to make a profit by his services in cricket,” wrote the MCC in November, 1878. Sounds simple enough doesn’t it but it was a decree in practice openly flouted by many of the greatest of the Amateur cricketers of the era. This was a time when leading Amateurs were often better rewarded than the game’s Professionals, commanding high appearance fees and extravagant expense accounts but still demanding separate gentlemen’s dressing rooms from their labouring class team mates. Grace was no exception and made a considerable sum of money as an Amateur in 1892 even while Lord Sheffield’s loss making tour racked up expenses, including the cost of the presentation of a magnificent silver shield to the colonies to be used for a domestic competition still bearing his name to the present day.
As an in demand if theoretical Amateur first class cricketer, Grace probably didn’t have a financial need to take his medical practice too seriously, which may have been just as well for his patients as I’m thinking the cut of his scalpel might not have matched the cut shot of his cricket. On one occasion in 1870 while playing for the MCC, Grace then a 22 year old medical student was present when an opposing batsman was struck in the head by a rising delivery on a difficult wicket. Grace took command of the situation and prescribed a stiff brandy for the patient and a lie down who, without further treatment, was dead four days later from an undiagnosed fractured skull.
So much for medicine as a profession for one of the great Amateurs of the game.
It’s natural to think of sport as being a form of play but for the Professional there is no doubt that it has become a task orientated occupation like any other involving physical exertion and carrying a formal structure. In other words, work. Play on the other hand, is all about leisure and having a good time and it is perhaps this distinction that has always separated the Amateur from the Professional and the Gentleman from the Player.
The reality of this has become clouded over the years but any park cricketer today could probably tell you more about what it means to play the game in the amateur spirit than those who have played the game as Amateurs historically. There have always been cricketers who have pulled on the flannels for nothing more than the smell of the new mown grass, the blue skies and the sheer love of the game, including this writer in his youth as an indifferent but always hopeful opening bat for the Lower Eltham CC.
Modern associations with the game of cricket are rarely found in Yallambie but they do exist if you look carefully. The only full sized cricket grounds in Yallambie are those that can be found inside the Simpson Barracks but I’m not about to enlist to get a game there. A junior team was founded locally in 1979 and fielded sides, the Yallambie Sparrows and the Yallambie Eagles across two decades in the NDCA, JIKA, PDCA and HDCA using the Winsor Reserve in Macleod as their home base and winning premierships in 1983, 84 and 86. Alan Connolly who represented Australia as a medium-fast bowler in Test cricket from 1963 until 1971 lived in Tarcoola Drive, Yallambie after retiring from first class cricket. Probably the most unique cricket connection in Yallambie however is the existence of a book shop in a suburban court side home location dedicated entirely to the subject of cricket. Roger Page Cricket Books has operated in Yallambie for 50 years with a customer base from across the world.
The days of thinking about cricket in terms of Amateurs and Professionals are long gone, if they ever truly existed with the last of the prestigious “Gentlemen versus Players” games staged in 1962 after which the MCC voted to abolish the concept of amateurism altogether. Next month will mark the start of a new Ashes campaign, the 71st in the history of the game and if there’s still room to remember the principles of that earlier era I’m afraid you won’t find them voicing it on Rupert’s Fox Sports. The introduction of a numbering system this year on the backs of cricketers’ whites marks one more break from tradition but what can we expect in a world where players take the field with huge pay packets in the pockets and a win at all cost mentality that saw three Australian Test players shamed and banned last year for ball tampering. The boos the English crowds reserved for the players on their return to first class cricket in the recently completed World Cup “coloured pyjama” short form of the game was not unexpected. Just a bit ironic. Theirs was not the first occasion of cheating in cricket and it won’t be the last. Just the most amateurish.
It may be true that the only Gentlemen to be found in cricket today is in the form of a word on a dressing room door, but watch out. Come the first ball bowled in The Ashes at Edgbaston on the first day of August, expect to see batsmen doing what they have always done in cricket in every form of the game. Flashing the outside edge of a bat at a rising delivery and as we say in this country, “Swinging like a dunny door”.