A burning issue

You’re probably familiar with that old Aussie idiom, “The Big Smoke”. It’s used in reference to a big town or city, most usually of an Australian state capital, and has its origins in the early years of Australia when Indigenous people referred to any European settlement as a “big smoke”, as opposed to the “little smoke” of their own camp fires. As an expression it was soon adopted by European settlers, with Melbourne thus becoming a “Big Smoke”, but have you noticed something about the Big Smoke these days? There just ain’t so much of it about anymore.

Autumn leaves scattered under a tree
Autumn colours in the garden at Yallambie, April, 2022. (McLachlan)

The autumn is a beautiful time of the year in Melbourne with mild temperatures and settled weather, perfect conditions you would think for a little garden burn off. I can remember a time in my childhood when the annual fall of autumn leaves would be raked into piles, a match applied and the leaves left to smoke for hours on end until all that remained was ash, but changing attitudes to city air quality saw an end to this sort of thing. These days the only smoke you will smell is probably drifting into town from up country where properly managed, Indigenous style, cool burning takes place with the change of seasons in order to reduce the potential of summer bushfire.

Large bonfire burning at night
Winter Solstice at Montsalvat, Eltham, June, 2015. (Picture by Allison Hyland. Source from the Winter Solstice Festival, Facebook)
Preparations for a mid 20th Century, Guy Fawkes style bonfire complete with tractor tyre and a model “Guy” on top. (Picture: Argus file photo/Google search)

The option of having a damn good burn off once in a while was a luxury enjoyed by those earlier, pre-climate change generations and there are some today who will remember that time and the build-up to “Cracker Night” and the annual Guy Fawkes bonfire. Anything and everything that would burn would go onto that pyre and sometimes a few other things beside. Winty Calder in “Classing the Wool” described her father’s infant memory of a bonfire at the Wragge, Wakool River country property when Frank Wright pulled the cooling end of a fencing wire from the fire, only to be burned as he grasped at it further along its length, (Calder, p176). Although rarer these days, the appeal of a bonfire in winter has never really diminished, evidenced in part by the continued popularity of mid-winter Solstice Festivals across Melbourne, including those staged in recent years at Montsalvat and Edendale Farm in Eltham.

Incinerator/barbecue in a backyard with fields beyond the fence
Shallow inversion layer of air trapping fog across proposed site of the Australian Radiation Laboratory, 1974. Note the barbecue/incinerator located on the back fence. (Source: PIT Environmental Impact Statement)
Advertising material
Advertising for besser block incinerator for sale from David Jones in Sydney, $25.95

Individually in the suburbs of Melbourne, there was a time when it seemed that every backyard kept an incinerator, usually a Besser block built box in which rubbish of a combustible nature would be stuffed to be lit once a week, usually it seemed when the washing was hanging fresh on the Hills Hoist. Such practices added considerably to air pollution in the city and by the last quarter of the 20th Century there were increasing calls to limit the practice, or outlaw it altogether. In Yallambie, the building of the original suburb in the 1970s and into the 1980s coincided with this decline in incinerator use and one of the points made in John O’Connor’s 1974 Environment Impact investigation into the ARL proposal was that many residents had already elected to dispose of rubbish in ways other than burning in a response to meteorological conditions across the valley, (Appendice 8).

A foggy morning at the site of the proposed Australian Radiation Laboratory. (Source: PIT Environmental Impact Statement, 1974)
Actress Greta Garbo
The actress type Garbo, not the “beefy armed, blue-singletted” sort that used to collect our rubbish bins. (Picture: Wikipedia)

Backyard incinerators were eventually banned by local governments across Melbourne about 40 years ago, around about the time that the old galvanized rubbish bins collected by those beefy armed, blue-singletted garbos were replaced by plastic wheelie bins collected by extendable armed, transfer station trucks. This coincided with the big push to sort household rubbish into recyclables, green waste and hard rubbish and with Banyule Council this month delivering new bins to Yallambie residents, the system is apparently still open for refinement. The only burn offs permitted now are on suburban blocks over a ¼ hectare in size, but the amount of red tape involved in securing a permit for this and the cost of the permit fee of $157 means that at this house, we have never bothered.

Per capita Australia is one of the world’s largest producers of greenhouse gases and our past reliance on electricity generated by burning brown coal means that regulating a few suburban autumn burns is not going to make that much difference to the bigger picture. The planned closure of the Yallourn W power plant in the Latrobe Valley which supplies about 20% of Victoria’s electricity and replacing it in part by a grid-scale battery, storing power generated from renewable energy, is a sign perhaps of the direction the wind is blowing. We hear a lot about battery systems being the way of the future and the rapid advances in this technology have seen them become available in everything from your mobile phone, to cars and the national power network. The world need for lithium to build these batteries has as a result grown exponentially and wouldn’t you know it, Australia is by far the largest supplier to this date.

Mirror reflections on a salt lake
Reflections on Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt pan high up in the Andes of South America gives the impression of walking on water. (Picture: Gerald Mueller, March, 2022)

Unlike lithium sourced from South America where it is taken from evaporated pools of brine pumped from beneath dry salt pans, Australian lithium is refined from an ore called Spodumene mined in Western Australia. You would think replacing old energies with renewables incorporating lithium battery technology would be a clear win all round but recycling batteries at the end of their life has emerged as the next big issue with battery producers for commercial reasons refusing to identify the mix of metals used with nickel, toxic cobalt, manganese, rare earths and graphite mixed up with the lithium in a variety of combinations. The only way of extracting these at the end of the life of a battery is by burning it, which to my mind rather takes us back to where we started from.

In India, so called “Waste To Energy” plants operate which are designed to burn rubbish, fueling turbines to generate electricity which is then fed into the national power grid. The environmental problems associated with operating such plants are obvious but intriguingly the trouble in India has always been finding enough rubbish to burn in these furnaces as the average person on the the Sub Continent is just so darned good at recycling. It’s said we live in the West these days in a throw-away society and it’s true that we are far more likely now to throw something away than repair it. The days of my dad hammering new soles onto his shoes or mum darning socks are long gone. Likewise, the Besser block incinerators and Guy Fawkes bonfires are things of the past, relics of a pre-climate change era before the fundamentals of environment protection were properly understood.

So today, what’s our excuse?

Answering the Fermi Paradox

The green, bug-eyed monster from outer space is an image familiar to most people. It draws its inspiration from the pulp novels and B grade movies of the 1950s when the bug eyed monster standing on the gang plank of his flying saucer, armed with a death ray and demanding to be taken to a leader was a metaphorical vision for the collective fears of a post-World War 2, post-Colonial world dominated by Cold War. Leaders might be in short supply these days and a new hot war has replaced the Cold but you can bet your bottom dollar the bug eyed monsters are still out there, waiting to do their darndest as the world goes down a familiar path.

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

With hundreds of billions of stars in this galaxy and billions of galaxies in an ever expanding universe beyond you would think there would be plenty of room for the bug-eyed in us and everything else besides. Since about 1960 though, various SETI experiments around the world have been scanning the heavens for extra-terrestrial intelligence and have found guess what? Nothing – which raises a question first posed by Enrico Fermi in 1950, the so called “Fermi Paradox”. If alien life is waiting for us somewhere out there, with the universe the size it is, well, where is everybody? Frank Drake attempted to quantify this question with his famous equation in 1961, but as the equation must by need use purely conjectural starting data, the answer to Drake is always going to be entirely arbitrary with a solution anywhere from the number one, (that’s us), to just about any other number you care to want to believe in.

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

In fiction, Douglas Adams thought of a widely populated galaxy where interstellar travel was such a commonplace that hitching a ride on a passing space ship wasn’t such a big deal. His explanation for UFO sightings was simplicity itself. UFO’s were “rich kids with nothing to do”, he said. Cruising around in their space ships on the lookout for planets that hadn’t made interstellar contact, they would find an isolated spot and find some poor geek whom no one’s ever going to believe and strut about in front of him wearing silly antennas on their head making beep, beep noises. 

Adams’ aliens it seems had a penchant for the childish, practical joke.

The late Stephen Hawking by contrast proposed a very different idea for the extra-terrestrial. Should our species ever make contact with aliens, Hawking thought the exchange would be brief. Very brief.

“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”

Forget the antennas and beep beep noises. The way Hawking saw it, the gulf would be so wide that the human race could be snuffed out of existence by the visiting extra-terrestrials before they even noticed us flattened underfoot.  

Both theories have merit but when you think about it, they are like two sides of the one coin in where they will take us. Without proof it’s only ever going to be conjecture but in our search for the alien, do we really need to look so far afield? Look around on any given day and you will see what I mean. It’s all around us and it’s called life on this planet, in all its diversity. 

I’m talking about the sort of alien life most of us hardly notice. There was such an alien in our garden only the other day, a strange, green bug-eyed creature. The praying mantis, to my mind is as near to a bug-eyed monster as you’re going to get on this planet. I certainly wouldn’t want to meet one up close if the scales were reversed. 

A praying mantis standing on a fence post
Green, bug-eyed monster in the garden at Yallambie, March, 2022.

The praying mantis is so named for the peculiar, “praying” stance it adopts with its forward limbs when hunting. After watching it for a while I began to get the distinct impression that maybe it wasn’t me who was doing the watching after all but that it was I who was being watched by those large, inquisitive eyes. What was it thinking in that tiny bug brain? Strange to relate, scientists have lately begun to accept that certain insects can experience a range of emotions and this one appeared to react to my presence, actively moving towards me when I motioned at it and standing quite happily on the back of my hand all the time while I studied it. The mantis is the bug most commonly used by people as a pet and they can live for about a year if looked after properly. At this time of year in the autumn the mantis female lays its eggs in a mating ritual that often involves the female eating the male, so you wouldn’t want to invite one home to dinner after meeting on Tinder.

In the Egyptian book of the dead the mantis aided in guiding souls to the underworld, and mantises form a common motif in the art of Pre-Columbian Nicaragua where they represent a spirit called Madre Culebra. Perhaps the best tradition though comes from South Africa where it’s said the appearance of a mantis in the home means your ancestors are present.

Who’s watching who?

The green bug eyed monster in Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy tells Arthur Dent, “Hi fellas, hop right in, I can take you as far as the Basington roundabout?” commencing a wild ride for the pyjama wearing Arthur across the galaxy in a search for the question to the answer of the meaning of life, but maybe the story was missing the point all along. Our green friend was returned to the garden and is probably out there somewhere right now making plans for its next dinner date which is all part of an infinite universe only one part of which we ever get to experience on a regular basis. There is only one planet in the Universe where we can be for sure life exists and it is this one, right here, right now. We don’t need to hitchhike across the Galaxy to find it. If you go with the number one as your answer to Drake’s equation, then life on that one planet is an incomprehensibly precious thing, to be cherished in all its diversity, from the highest mountains to the deepest oceans, even to the occasional green, bug-eyed monster found on a leaf in Yallambie.

The art of listening

They say that silence is golden and that sometimes it’s better to listen than to be heard.

In Yallambie Park last October there appeared one morning a couple of open faced, Perspex triangular boxes the mysterious purpose of which was not immediately apparent to the cursory glance. What were they for? Had they been beamed down overnight by a visiting alien space ship in lieu of the usual crop rings on the grass? I do recall seeing something similar as a central, unresolvable enigma in Stanley Kubrick’s, 2001: A Space Odyssey. In that landmark spaceship flick, a big, black monolith is tasked by aliens with the job of waking mankind up to itself.

“Stop, listen,” art in Yallambie Park, February, 2022.

That film was made over 50 years ago but in some ways, the thingamajigs in Yallambie Park might be closer in inspiration to Kubrick’s monolith than you may possibly think at first. The Yallambie boxes are part of a temporary community art installation in the park titled, “Stop, Listen” by Vincent Giles and Alice Bennett. The boxes have appeared at two parkside locations in the City of Banyule – one at Yallambie Park and the other near Warringal Park over in Heidelberg. The sites were chosen by the artists themselves as having local appeal and providing the potential of acoustically rich environments for avifauna and pedestrian traffic. The big idea is to stand inside one of these boxes, to face out towards the surrounding area and to stop and listen to everything around you. You see, most of us never stop long enough to appreciate the world around us and these structures, in spite of their wonky build and temporary star picket post quality, work surprisingly well acoustically. I’ve stood inside them on several occasions since Christmas and listened to the change of sounds the horn like structure of their form creates.

Art lover on the Main Yarra Trail, Heidelberg, February, 2022.

The Stop, Listen artists were paid $6000 for this project after securing a grant under Banyule Council’s annual Arts & Culture Project Grants scheme last year. The concept, location and installation of the art was developed and managed by the artists themselves. The money spent might seem over generous to some or tight fisted to others, but what price art? I don’t really know. Art, as they say, means different things to all who experience it. When I was down in Warringal Park on the weekend to look at the other Stop, Listen installation located there, the dog walkers were out in force and as I observed, dogs too can show their appreciation of art. Isn’t there a certain, Marcel Duchamp “Art of the Readymade” in every fire hydrant seen by a little dog?

“Stop, listen,” art north of Warringal Park, Heidelberg, February, 2022.

When I was at art school and learning the tricks of the trade in graphic design, I remember being introduced to contemporary art by way of a foam cup glued to a piece of black painted cardboard. The price tag at that time was half the cost of a small house, but it was art, or so they told me. A Styrofoam cup can be elevated to the dignity of a work of art simply by the artist’s act of choice. Art can be as simple as that.

It’s a fact that art and the performing arts have always had a raw deal in Australia and two years of pandemic have seen them pushed continually last on the handouts list. Personally, I’d like to see more of our dollars spent on the arts and less on roads and war machines, for it is my belief that it is from art that the worth of any civilization can be measured. Art in all its forms is all around us in every aspect of our daily lives and we would know this if only we could see it as such. If we could recognize its intrinsic value, the world might be a very different place. In one of my early posts I made comment about a POW of the Japanese who, observing the penchant for art in his captors, came to realize them not as barbarians but as fellow human creatures. From the transitory nature of simple installations like Stop, Listen we can come to understand the nature of art and the natural art in our nature.

Two men inside a sound cone
Secret Agent 86 and The Chief meet inside the infamous “Cone of Silence”.

Those who recall repeats of the old American spy spoof comedy, “Get Smart” will remember the acoustic problems Secret Agent 86 and The Chief found when using their “Cone of Silence.” It was a running gag, the purpose of which was supposed to enable secret conversations inside. The reality however was that use of the cone inevitably made conversation inside impossible while easy for those outside to overhear. How many of the world’s problem could have been solved before they started if there had been no secrets and instead transparency in all things? When the President of the Russian Federation says, “We have no plans to invade Ukraine,” does he mean the tanks are on their way? When a Chinese frigate sailing in Australian economic zone waters shines a military grade laser at RAAF aircraft, what do we read into this message? Are these things even happening or has the rhetoric of propaganda distorted the facts to our hearing? Maybe it’s time to sit down and talk things through before they go any further. In any situation other than the vacuum of space, sound is an ever present medium but using it to communicate properly is as much a gift of our civilization as the use of our opposable thumbs. It’s getting a balance and a perspective across cultural barriers that has always been the problem.

A line of scripture pasted inside the artwork in Yallambie Park.

While looking at the Yallambie Stop, Listen cones I noticed that someone has pasted a line of scripture, probably by way of ministry but in the very act itself, also creating art in a way. The line was 6:33 from Matthew’s Gospel but personally I like the line that follows, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” Matt 6:34

When first seen by the monkeys, Kubrick’s Monolith was silent. It erupted into a cacophony of alien sound only at the touch of that first monkey hand but the sounds soon had all the monkeys jumping up and down, walking upright and waging war upon their neighbours. Silence can be golden. All we need to do is to dump the rhetoric, get a bit of perspective and listen.

Tyger Tyger

It might seem to some people living abroad that Australia is a scary place, a land chock-a-block filled with dangerous animals, and that’s not just the ones we let loose on Canberra. There are lots of things that bite and sting in this country and of course, even in the broad coastal waters that surround it. It’s part of the natural order of the physical world with all the biodiversity and variety of life and habitat which that entails. Steve Irwin made a successful career out of promoting this to the world, wrestling crocodiles for entertainment until taking it all a little too far one day, he booked himself in for that final curtain call from which in this life there is no encore.

Sign on the Plenty River below Montmorency Park.

Everybody who has heard the song knows of the dangers of finding a Redback spider on a toilet seat at night and mention has been made before about the possibility of finding snakes in the vicinity of a river landscape. Snakes are a particular concern in this area with many homes in Yallambie located in proximity to the Plenty River and seldom a summer goes by when we do not see a snake here or at least hear of one nearby.

Tiger snake scientific illustration.

The Tiger Snake, (Notechis scutatus) is the snake most commonly found in the City of Banyule. It is a highly venomous species which is found throughout the southern regions of Australia, striped like a tiger olive and brown with seasonal variations occurring in colour. Tigers produce 20 or 30 live young in summer after mating in the spring. We had a Tiger in our rose garden last year and the year before we found one on the front door step at night, but usually the sight of birds lining up in the branches and going crook at something on the ground during the daylight hours is warning enough that there might be a snake about.

Tigers are also notably good climbers and last week with the birds squawking suspiciously at the back of the house again, my wife discovered a large one poking its head out of the hollow in our back oak tree. There is a hole just above head height in this tree below the bee hive and she said she looked up because she had an uncanny feeling that something was watching her. By the time I got out there our Tiger was on the move, apparently intending to settle inside a nest of the large elkhorn fern I had tied into position only the day before. I came armed with a phone camera in one hand and an axe in the other but, remembering that most people get bitten when trying to kill or frighten a snake and also that the species is in actual fact protected in this State, I chose the camera.

Tiger snake in the back oak tree at Yallambie, January, 2022. (McLachlan)

So there it is, taken from a small distance while remaining out of harm’s way. Frightening isn’t it? But at the same time strangely beautiful.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night

Copy A of William Blake’s original printing of The Tyger, 1794. (Source: British Museum via Wikipedia)
Tiger on the move on the Plenty River Trail, Montmorency, January, 2022. (Source: Jack Charles, via Monty Life 3094 FB Group)

Usually, if given half a chance, a snake will keep its own counsel and so after I had made a bit of noise around the tree, this particular Tiger was encouraged to be on its way to a destination unknown. Dear reader, maybe it’s in your own Yallambie garden right now? There are certainly a few snakes around this January. Later that same day this video was posted on a Montmorency FB group page, the location reportedly near the Lower Plenty football ground on the Montmorency side of the River.

The Tiger is said to be one of the most poisonous snakes in the world and with its wide distribution, before the development of antivenins, the species was responsible for regular fatalities. Untreated, death in humans will occur in about half of all Tiger snake bites. On average maybe two people still die each year in Australia from Tiger snake bite, usually in places where access to medical aid is not readily available.

Instructions from 50 year old Melbourne made snakebite lancet kit.

The danger of snake attack must have taken a little getting used to in colonial Australia, especially for Irish settlers coming from a country where there are famously no snakes. In the early years of the 19th Century, the Irish gentleman convict Sir Henry Browne Hayes surrounded Vaucluse, the house he built near South Head in Sydney Harbour, with a moat of Irish peat turf in the belief that the soil, coming from a land once blessed by St Patrick, would prevent snakes from crossing over into the property. Hayes had earlier been transported for kidnapping an Irish heiress and forcibly marrying her for her money so it could be argued that the real snake in this story was to be found inside already. Curiously though, it was later claimed in an exercise of wishful thinking that the moat had been highly effective in achieving its goal.

The wife of the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, Lady Jane Franklin had her own ideas about snakes and was so concerned by what she saw as the problem on the island that when she came to the Colony in 1839 she personally funded a bounty of a shilling for the head of every snake killed. The scheme brought ridicule and she was persuaded to abandon it when it became clear that the convicts were neglecting their work to pursue Lady Jane’s money for jam. Certainly it didn’t have the effect on the island’s snake population that Lady Jane hoped or which a similar bounty scheme on the Tasmanian Tiger that was introduced at about the same time would bring. That scheme resulted in that particular Tiger’s eventual extinction.

The snake bounty cost Lady Jane £600 in one season but she was not the sort of person to sit at home idly pouring tea as the wife of the Lieutenant Governor when she wanted something done. She purchased 130 acres (53 ha) of land near Hobart Town for a botanical garden where she built a museum of natural history and in 1843 when the Franklins left the Colony, she handed over 400 acres (162 ha) for a university. Two years later, Sir John Franklin was named the commander of the infamous expedition that, in an attempt to find the fabled Northwest Passage, became trapped in the ice where it descended into madness and destruction. Lady Jane never accepted the death of her husband and for decades after the Admiralty had officially given up hope of finding survivors, personally funded multiple search expeditions into the Arctic. On one occasion she travelled to Out Stack, the northern most part of the Shetland Islands of Scotland and the north most part of the British Isles just to get as close as she possibly could to her missing husband. Not surprisingly she found Out Stack uninhabited by people, missing expeditioners, and snakes.

Lady Jane never fully realized some of her ambitions. Her museum of natural history was converted into an apple store after her departure from Van Diemen’s Land and her husband’s missing polar exploring ships were not found until this century. As for ridding Tasmania of snakes, that barmy idea was never going to get anywhere and had about as much legs as a snake. The reality is, snakes do play an important middle-order predator link in the chain of our ecosystem and they help keep the numbers of introduced pests like rats and mice under control. That’s why in most Australian states, snakes and other reptiles are protected under the Nature Conservation Act of 1992 and to kill and injure or take one from the wild may incur a fine up to $7,500, or even a jail sentence.

So should you ever experience that creeping feeling in the garden that something is watching you with its cold, reptilian stare, please don’t panic. Remember that the watcher like most other things in this world has a place and its own reason for being. The danger of the snake is real but there is beauty also, a metaphor for life itself really.

What the Dickens? 

Bike rider on the Plenty River Trail at Montmorency
The Plenty River Shared Trail on the Montmorency side of the River, December, 2021, (McLachlan)

Take a stroll up-river from Yallambie and you will soon find yourself faced with a dilemma. Should you choose the River Trail on the western “Greensborough” side of the River, or the eastern “Montmorency” side? The two paths at this point are a legacy from the days when the River north of Yallambie was managed between two now defunct municipal councils, the Shires of Eltham and Diamond Valley. A map might tell you that it’s all become a bit of Banyule today, but that earlier legacy remains, like a choice between the high road and low road of life.

Trees and Plenty River at Montmorency
Looking up stream from the “high road” to the Montmorency side of the River, August, 2021, (McLachlan)

When it comes to a history of maps on the east side of the River, the land dubbed “Epping Forest” by James Willis in 1837, the first attempt at nutting one out was made by T H Nutt in 1839, Robert Hoddle’s Assistant Surveyor. Land sales followed in February the following year when the two main buyers on the west bank were Captain Benjamin Baxter in the south and the Sydney based entrepreneur, Stuart A Donaldson in the north. 

Stuart Donaldson, the man who named “Montmorency” in 1840. (Source: Mitchell Library, via https://www.visittenterfield.com.au/things-to-do/history-heritage/famous-faces/stuart-donaldson)

S A Donaldson was reportedly a somewhat conceited and affected character and it was he who gave a name to the Montmorency or Montmorenci area, though it’s unclear now whether he had any real connection to Montmorency, one of the oldest and most distinguished noble families of France, or just liked the sound of it. Possibly like Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, his connection with Montmorency was all in his head, but the name stuck anyway. In those cashed up days of Melbourne’s first land boom, and within a few months of the initial purchase, Donaldson sold his heavily forested bush block, grandly styled as the “Montmorency” estate, to a business partner, “Judge” James Donnithorne. 

Stream flowing between trees overhanging from river banks
The Plenty River at Montmorency, November, 2019, (McLachlan)

James Donnithorne the new owner of Montmorency was a retired East India Company civil servant and although a judge at Mysore, India for only a short period of his life, introduced himself as “Judge” James wherever he went ever afterwards. Donnithorne’s wife and two of his three daughters had died of Cholera in India in 1832, and in 1838 Donnithorne packed off a surviving daughter, 17 year old Eliza Emily to London while setting about creating a new life for himself in New South Wales. In Sydney the Judge was involved in numerous money making schemes, becoming like another of his business partners, Charles Ebden, “disgustingly rich” in the process. 

From 1840 onwards, operating as a somewhat faceless, Sydney based absentee landlord, Donnithorne used his Plenty River estate as a nice little property earner, keeping the money down south, literally, while at the same time using the Montmorency property as collateral for loans in his wheeling and dealing.  

The Judge at this time must have appeared to Sydney society as a somewhat moneyed up, eligible widower but wouldn’t you know it? At around this time in 1841 he began a defacto relationship with his Sydney housekeeper, a relationship that would produce both a son and a daughter. In the face of this, Donnithorne’s remaining legitimate daughter Eliza, earlier sent packing to England and now grown, made haste to New South Wales in 1846, it was said to save her inheritance. The housekeeper and her children were given their marching orders and Eliza moved in with dear old Dad and his pots of money at Cambridge Hall, his home in Newtown in Sydney’s west. With James aging, Eliza was to become his carer and confidant and when he died in May, 1852, she found herself the chief beneficiary of his estate. 

Cambridge Hall, the home of James Donnithorne and his daughter, Eliza in Newtown, Sydney, (Source: Wikipedia)

Eliza as a wealthy, 30 year old heiress had been expected to return to England where she still had family, but something seemed to be holding her back, and it wasn’t just the matter of finding a boat big enough to carry off all that loot. Legend has it that Eliza had fallen madly in love, the object of her desires a Mr George Cuthbertson and a date had even been set for a wedding. A gala event was planned and invitations were sent out to the social elite of Sydney. On the morning of the nuptials it was reported that “the bride and her maid were already dressed for the ceremony; the wedding-breakfast was laid in the long dining-room, a very fine apartment. The wedding guests assembled—the stage was set, but the chief actor did not turn up to keep his appointment.” (Australian Dictionary of Biography, quoting from an early source)

Heartbroken, the jilted bride demanded the preparations be kept ready for her fiancé and from that day onward and for three decades after until her death in 1886 aged 64, it’s said Eliza’s “habits became eccentric”. She never again left the house, the blinds were pulled down and the door kept on the chain, never opened by more than a few inches except to the clergyman, physician and her solicitor. Some exaggerated reports even suggest she never got out of her bridal gown and was still wearing its yellow and tattered threads on the day she died. The wedding breakfast was found undisturbed on the dining table where it had “gradually mouldered away until nothing was left but dust and decay.” (Ibid)

Probably you recognize this tale as it is supposed to have been used by Charles Dickens as the model for one of his most famous characters, Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. The identification of Eliza with the atrophied, Miss Havisham is purely circumstantial and probably unfair to Eliza’s memory, but Dickens is known to have had great interest in the Australian colonies. The story of the jilted heiress of Sydney, although apparently anecdotal, was notorious in its day. 

Old lady surrounded by dust and cobwebs
Martita Hunt appearing as Miss Havisham, (or was she playing Eliza Donnithorne?) in David Lean’s classic 1946, Cineguild, screen adaption of Great Expectations.

Could this then be the basis of Dickens’ famous creation? Two of Dickens sons spent time in Australia and the author maintained numerous correspondents in the Colonies for decades. Clearly the writer must have done some research when creating another of his Expectations’ characters, the escaped convict Abel Magwitch, but probably the real story will never be known. There’s a lot written about it on the internet but it rather strikes me like the chicken and the egg story. At any rate, the Dickens Club of the UK were willing to entertain the possibility of truth when they stumped up cash in 2004 to restore Eliza’s Newtown gravesite as a place of Dickensian pilgrimage. In the absence of other historical primary personal sources from the Montmorency area, the result of a long history of absentee ownership, it makes for rather good yarn from the area, don’t you think? 

What is known for certain is that Eliza never married and continued to own the Montmorency estate until her death in 1886, involving herself enough in local affairs to argue from the darkened seclusion of her Sydney home about the building of the railway through Montmorency and access roads across the property. At her death, Montmorency passed to an English nephew who bankrupted himself and his Australian interests in unsuccessful attempts to patent an early form of machine gun, thus ending the association of the Donnithorne name with Montmorency. 

With a bullet. 

Montmorency Station in the early years of the 20th century. (Source: Madden albums of Australian railways photographs, State Library of Victoria picture).

Montmorency continued to evolve in the 20th Century and by 1914 a township was developing within the boundaries of the Eltham Riding. A Presbyterian Church was established in 1917 and a private school, St Faith’s with about 50 students, opened in Mountain View Road. The Montmorency State Primary School opened in 1922 and a railway station in 1923, but in the words of Dianne H Edwards, “Many residents felt geographically they belonged to the Heidelberg Shire and hoped to become affiliated with that municipal body.” Well they had to wait a long time, right up until 1994 in fact and the creation of Banyule Council, but the memory of Stuart Donaldson and the Donnithornes is at least reflected in the name, Montmorency. 

As for Charlie Dickens, he had a knack for creating some of the most memorable characters in 19th Century English literature and many of them have entered the vernacular. When my wife says to me, “It’s looking like Miss Havisham’s,” I know it’s time for a clean-up and if I say to you, “a Dicken’s style Christmas” you will probably know what I mean. 

A Dickensian Christmas

Dickens largely defined the tradition of the Victorian Christmas “zeitgeist” with his 1843 novella, “A Christmas Carol”. The tale of an elderly miser transformed to kinder ways by spectral visits is one that gets wheeled out at this time of year, every year. So this December, if your Australian Christmas celebrations should happen to include ghosts or any other sort of nod to Dickensian Christmas style, maybe spare a thought for our local history and the phantom of Montmorency’s Eliza, whose journey along the high road of life never quite reached her festive season.

Line of tree at Montmorency park
Trees marking old fence line, a relic from the farming days at Montmorency Park, December, 2021, (McLachlan)

Jump start

Australia is a land filled with things that jump. From our jumped up, political grand poobahs who jump with the cat, to introduced bunnies and toads jumping about in plague proportions, there are a lot of things that jump I’d like to tell go jump. While in those cases this is a sad Downunder reality, there is another hopping creature of kinder repute, famous the world over for a built in Sporran and long tail. Take a walk along the Plenty River in Yallambie at the end of any day and you might even see it on occasion, that true Australian native and most recognized of all Aussie fauna, the kangaroo.

Bunny plague, from “The Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers”, 1867. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

“Kangaroo” is a generic term most usually applied to the larger species of the macropod family, the smaller being the “wallaroos” and “wallabies”. There is an apocryphal story told about how this furry, hopping, pouched animal got the name “kangaroo”. It’s said the word came from the first meetings of European explorers with Indigenous people on the east coast of Australia in 1770. Captain Cook was exploring up and down the eastern seaboard, discovering things left, right and centre and giving them names in the erroneous belief they didn’t have names. When it came to the animal that hopped though, Cook wasn’t so sure so with sudden insight he asked the locals if they had a word for it. Their reply, “kangaroo” is roughly thought to have translated as “get stuffed”, which is what Cook’s men did to the poor animal after catching it and sending it with Banks collection back to England, but whatever the truth of this story, the animal was unique to European eyes.

Josephine’s hubby, without the hat, (watercolour on ivory by J Parent).

To these European newcomers, Australia was a land full of strange things, especially the kangaroo. Matthew Flinders, a man who also liked to name things, named Australia’s third largest island, Kangaroo Island while he was charting the south coast in 1800, finding the island literally hopping with the animals. The French Baudin expedition which encountered Flinders at a place Flinders unimaginatively named Encounter Bay also found kangaroos. They even brought a few of the blighters alive back to France while leaving Baudin himself dead in Mauritius. The kangaroos were promptly let loose in the garden at Malmaison with a menagerie of other Australian animals, all for the amusement of the soon to be Empress Josephine whose husband was away at the time, conquering Europe in a funny hat.

The kangaroo to French eyes seemed evidence of just how odd life could be on the other side of the world, an idea some people have never really got past. The kangaroo soon hopped into the young Australian consciousness, becoming emblematic of this country and featuring on the national coat of arms, the one dollar coin, the tail planes of the national airline and, most memorable of all, the mast of a winning 12m yacht off Newport, Rhode Island.

A kangaroo photographed at the back of houses along the Plenty River in 2017.

There are a surprising number of kangaroos in suburbia but they are shy and not easy to photograph so you’ll have to take my word for it. I’ve seen them lost on Tarcoola Drive and Yallambie Road where they have probably wandered from the Simpson Barracks, but the day I struggled to overtake one in my car on Lower Plenty Rd as it jumped down the hill at just under the 70km road speed limit is something that literally leaps to mind. With the awarding of contracts last week for the North East Link Project, those roos might be advised to stay well clear of the roads. There ain’t that much headroom to jump in a tunnel, you know.

Kangaroos contemplating the tunnel site at Borlase Reserve, Yallambie, May, 2019.
A spiny anteater echidna seen on the Plenty River Trail at Yallambie, November, 2019.

If you live along the river here you might even find the occasional kangaroo, wombat or spiny anteater in your garden. A neighbour said to me that she had been looking across to our garden in the twilight one night and thought, ‘Oh, there’s Ian. He’s moving about pretty fast.’ Well, I’m not renowned particularly for my speed with a lawn mower and what she had seen was the swamp wallaby that seems to have taken up residence at the bottom of our garden. We see it off and on and I even managed to get these photographs of it earlier this year before it disappeared again down the escarpment.

Swamp wallaby in the garden at Yallambie, May, 2021.

The swamp, or black-tailed wallaby is a thick-set animal which moves with its head low and tail straight and it is thought that this behaviour, combined with the species’ dark, sometimes black, coat is one source of the panther legend of the eastern coast of Australia. There are many stories told of people seeing black panthers in the bush, supposedly the off spring of escaped circus animals or the mascots of visiting American service men in the Second War but whatever the truth of the legend, I’m thinking you are going to want to make a complaint to your optometrist should you mistake your resident giant mouse for a panther any time soon.

Halmaturus ualabatus, (swamp/black wallaby) by John Gould, from The Mammals of Australia, vol 2, 1863.
Louis de Rougemon “Turtle surfing,” illustration by Alfred Pearse, from Wide World Magazine, 1898.
“The Great Octopus,” illustration by Alfred Pearse, from Wide World Magazine, 1898.

It seems no matter how bizarre the animal, people are always trying to go one better. The Indigenous story of the bunyip was swallowed whole by credulous settlers wanting to believe in the presence of ever stranger sights just beyond their horizon. As late as the end of the 19th Century, Louis de Rougemont, known to history as “The Fabulist”, was telling spell bound London academics tall tales of flying wombats, giant octopus and surfing turtles in the Kimberley, even addressing the British Association for the Advancement of Science in a Baron von Munchausen style display. Perhaps the strangest thing about his unlikely stories really was that anyone believed them for an instant. Later de Rougemont entertained music halls where he was billed as “The greatest liar on earth,” which was perhaps the nearest thing to the truth he ever came.

Since the last Thylacine Tasmanian Tiger died sad and neglected in a Hobart zoo in 1936, people have wanted to believe in the continued existence of an exotic, striped furry animal with sharp teeth, lost in the wilds of deepest darkest Tasmania. There they see in every pet Labrador spotted momentarily wandering on a country road, an animal that became extinct more than 80 years ago. There are something over 700 specimens of Thylacine Tiger DNA preserved in museums all round the world and there have even been suggestions that one day the Tiger might be brought back from extinction using this material. Something like this has already been touted with the Wooly Mammoth on the melting Tundra of Siberia, using elephants as surrogate hosts and using CRISPR DNA technology. With the population of existing herds of elephants in decline in India and Africa though, we have to ask ourselves about the ethics of this and why anyone would try to resurrect an extinct species when we don’t seem to be able to look after the ones we do have.

Australia’s megafauna including giant kangaroos became extinct roughly around the time Indigenous people first arrived on the Australian mainland, about 60,000 years ago. This has caused considerable debate amongst the people who make a living arguing about such things. Did the megafauna become extinct because of the arrival of Indigenous people in Australia, or did this happen due to a changing climate at around roughly the same time, give or take about 10,000 years? The argument centres around the effect of humans on the environment, Indigenous peoples included and our contribution to the extinctions throughout recorded and pre-recorded history. It seems to be a rule of thumb that wherever the animals with opposing thumbs turn up, their presence is likely to harm other animals. This was not such an issue in pre-history when bare foot prints trod so lightly on the landscape, but today it is a different story.

Temperature gauge at 6PM in Lower Plenty, summer, 2019.

There is no doubt that the world is currently in the midst of another great extinction event, the sixth in world history. This one however is different in that it is widely accepted to be the result of the exploitation of the planet by humans and anthropogenic climate change. The common populations of kangaroos, wallabies and wallaroos are generally not endangered in Australia but there are hundreds of other species that could be in danger of joining the Tassie Tiger, and sooner than you might think. The fact is, Australia’s biodiversity is in decline with more than 1,700 species and ecological communities at risk and over 300 animals threatened with extinction, to add to those we have already lost. It is a complicated situation but as climate changes these problems are not going to go away and must be faced. A very important summit has just started over in Glasgow, seen as our last real chance of addressing the problems facing the planet that have been building since the dawn of the Industrial Age. The Australian Prime Minister initially refused to go to Glasgow until shamed into action by world opinion, jumping with the cat like a kangaroo with his tail between his legs all the way to the UK in what has been called a “barnacle removing” attempt to excise critics both here and abroad. There like Louis de Rougemont before him, he will be asked some uncomfortable questions regarding the perception of truth and his so called “Plan to Deliver Net Zero”, particularly in regard to the detail, or rather lack of it. I only hope they write down the PM’s answers and make sure he signs at the foot of the page in front of a dozen witnesses when he jumps. I wait, like much of the rest of Australia’s wildlife, on the result.

Pie night

It is one of the standing jokes of Football that the finals series usually goes by without supporters of the Melbourne Demons even noticing as they catch up on a little late season snow on the fields or chew on a cheese board in the MCC Members. Finally, 57 years since their last success, it was the Melbourne FC that held the cup aloft on Grand Final night, running out winners against the Footscray Bulldogs. Congrats to you Melbourne. Those old, moggies were obviously not listening when I advised them last month to, Carpe Diem. In this house we watched the Grand Final from Perth on the telly, just like tens of thousands of other households across Melbourne that night and in our case, tucking into a traditional Footy Pie Night during the game. There are any number of ways to make that great Australian culinary masterpiece, the meat pie. If you’re a vegetarian, you don’t even really need to use meat, but tonight when the attention of Footy tragics turns to the draft, here’s tell of a serve of “dog’s eye and dead horse” from the 2021 Finals series that was.

The rest of us can eat humble pie: Melbourne, not so bitter on Grand Final night.

2021 GF pie

Shortcrust pastry ingredients
  • 275g plain flour
  • ¾ tsp salt
  • 150g unsalted butter, cold, cut into 1cm cubes
  • Butter to grease the pie dishes
  • 4½ tbsp chilled water (plus more as needed)
Pie lid
  • 1kg packet, store bought frozen puff pastry sheets, recently thawed
  • 1 egg yolk, lightly whisked with 1 tbsp water
Filling
  • 1.25kg gravy beef cut into small pieces
  • 250g short cut bacon cut into short strips
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp pepper
  • 2 or 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 150g frozen green peas, defrosted, plus extra to serve
  • 2 onions, diced
  • 5 tbsp plain flour
  • 1¼ cups (315ml) beef stock
  • 3 cups (750ml bottle) dry red wine
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp black pepper, coarsely ground
  • Tasty, sliced cheese
Method

For the filling, sprinkle beef with ½ tsp salt and ¼ tsp pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large heavy-based pot over high heat. Add half of the beef and brown, then remove. Repeat with remaining beef, adding more oil as needed. Set aside.

Turn the heat down to medium-high. Add crushed garlic, bacon and onion with a little oil and cook for about 3 minutes. Add the flour and stir through. Slowly add beef stock, stirring constantly. Once the flour is dissolved thoroughly, add the tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, pepper and dry red wine. This recipe uses a full 750ml bottle.

Return the beef to the pot, cover with lid and adjust heat so it’s simmering gently. Leave to cook slowly for up to 2 hours. Remove pot cover, increase heat slightly and simmer for a further 30 minutes, stirring regularly or until the beef is fork tender and the liquid has reduced to a thickish gravy. Stir through 150g thawed peas and allow the filling to cool before chilling in the fridge until quite cold, (warm filling will ruin the pastry).

For the shortcrust pastry, combine 275g plain flour, ¾ tsp salt and 150g unsalted butter and mix by hand into a dough. Turn out onto lightly floured work surface, briefly knead together to form a smooth ball then pat into a 2cm-thick round disc. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for 1 hour.

You will need individual pie dishes. I used the single pie dishes my mother baked with 30 years ago but you could use ramekins or large muffin tins if you don’t have individual pie tins. Butter each dish and cover with a piece of baking paper. Roll out the shortcrust dough thinly on a lightly floured work surface. Cut out pie dish shapes and line the pie tins. Prick bases with a fork and freeze for ½ hour.

Preheat the oven to 180°C fan-forced (200°C conventional). Fill each pie base with the cooled pie filling topped by a slice of Tasty cheese. Cut pie shapes from the recently thawed puff pastry. Brush around the edge of the shortcrust with egg, then top with the puff pastry. Trim the excess, stamping round the edges firmly with a fork, then brush the lid with egg and cut a 1cm cross in the centre.

Bake for 30 minutes until a deep golden brown. Serve with tomato sauce and steamed peas.

Home-made pies take time and patience, sort of like your favourite footy team.

Did somebody say Pie Night?

Put away the muskets

The sight of Australia’s first Governor, Arthur Phillip lying face down on a Sydney beach in1790 with over three metres of Indigenous barbed spear in his shoulder is not something that immediately springs to mind when we think of Reconciliation. The tribes had many grievances but what elevates this story in my mind is what came next, or rather what didn’t come next. As the critically injured Phillip was bundled back into the bottom of his boat by his men, he ordered his soldiers to put away their muskets.

Phillip survived and went on to make a full recovery but there’s no escaping the fact that the arrival of European society in this country remained a catastrophic event in the lives of First Nations people. It is hard at times to reconcile the many perspectives borne of the cross cultural clashes that followed but asking forgiveness for what happened in the past does not necessarily mean to forget history, even where the passage of time makes truth telling a challenge.

In my last post, I wrote about one of the greatest athletes of Australia’s colonial age, Tom Wills who now lies mouldering away in a grave up at the Warringal Cemetery, within easy reach of the mortal remains of the not so athletic Mr T Wragge Esq of Yallambie. As Wills’ old football clubs, Melbourne and Geelong readied themselves to play off in the 2021 football finals series, it seemed to me like a good time to recount a shortened version of the short life of Tom Wills. Here was a Ripping Yarn for the telling, make no mistake. The documented friendships Wills enjoyed with First Nations people, touched only lightly upon in my post, was another side to that story, made all the more remarkable by the death of his father who was murdered alongside 18 others by Indigenous people in Queensland.

Maybe like me you saw the sensationalist claims that surfaced in the press soon after that post. Those claims detailed the alleged involvement of Tom in a deadly and disproportionate retaliatory raid on Indigenous people that followed the Cullin-la-ringo massacre. The claims were based on a racist diatribe written anonymously to a Chicago newspaper in America, more than 30 years after the event and if true, they put Wills in a very damaging light. On first reading the detail of the I Zingari jacket sounded particularly incriminating.

Days passed. Indigenous leaders were asked to comment. The AFL said they would need to take advice. Melbourne FC triumphed in the Grand Final. Finally, the day following that game, Martin Flanagan revealed in The Age that the story about Wills had only partly quoted the Chicago article. Taken in its entirety, little of the source material could be said to be plausible. The Chicago writer had managed to get nearly all Tom’s family relationships wrong, the lurid portrayal of the attack by the tribes at Cullin-la-ringo was clearly an utter fabrication, while the writer had even managed to locate Cullin-la-ringo in the wrong Australian Colony altogether.

Wills’ biographer, Greg de Moore who spent more than ten years of his life researching his definitive “First Wild Man of Australian Sport”, while not prepared to dismiss completely the possibility of Wills involvement in the attacks that followed Cullin-la-ringo, said he had found no evidence of it during his research. In the heat of the moment that followed the death of his father, as first man on the scene after the attack, Tom had certainly called out for vengeance, but was Tom thinking of lawful or lynch mob justice?

Last weekend, following up on the original story, another much more likely event appeared in the press, describing how Wills had lead the Indigenous cricketers he was supposed to be mentoring into the destructive effects of alcohol abuse. Alcohol likely led to the premature deaths of a number of the Indigenous cricketers but then, this was a fate also shared by Wills himself. Wills has been elevated to legendary hero status by proponents of the history of our game and his early recognition of the natural brilliance of Indigenous sportsmen is well understood but in the final analysis, off the field Wills was something of a flawed character. Last month saw a famous Grand Final victory for the Melbourne Football Club, the first for the club in 57 years, and but for the questions so recently raised, a moment that should have been celebrated in Tom Wills’ folklore.

The story of Reconciliation has for a long time been a story filled with suspicion and mutual misunderstanding, made worse by the lack of a Treaty with the First Nations and the so called “History Wars”. It can be a fraught topic to write about but The Age lead this morning made a pretty good attempt. In that story, associate editor, Tony Wright summarized the murder and dispossession of Indigenous people that marked the first years of settlement in the Port Phillip District, a dark irony he says as many of the perpetrators were Gaelic-speaking Highlanders who had themselves been victims of the Scottish Clearances. These were brutal times for many but Wright says the British government, having just banned slavery across its empire, was infused with evangelical, humanitarian fervour for the Indigenous peoples of Australia. Wright quotes the first resident Supreme Court judge, John Walpole Willis who said that “the colonists and not the Aborigines are the foreigners… [the colonists] uninvited intruders.” What transpired though was a different reality. Land was seized under the doctrine of Terra Nullius, massacres were covered up and the influx of European diseases resulted in an almost complete crash in the Indigenous population. The total Indigenous populace of Victoria before white settlement has been difficult to estimate and is hotly debated today but it is thought that the decline after 30 years had been by as much as 80 per cent.

Such a figure is a sad indictment on our society but there is a way forward. Today Victoria has plans to become the first jurisdiction in Australia to develop a long overdue Treaty with First Nations people via its Yoo-rrook Justice Commission. Wright says, “Victoria’s quest for truth and justice, we might reflect, does not come before time.” It seems to me that after 18 months of lockdowns, conspiracy theories, global warming inaction and nuclear subs, Australia stands on a threshold, more divided now than at perhaps any time since Federation. Last week even saw the bizarre sight of Americans in New York, egged on by a conservative media, demonstrating to “Save Australia” from itself. Maybe it’s time for us to look beyond the lines that divide us in this country and remember what it is that makes every single one of us an Australian, from those very first inhabitants to all of us Johnny-Come-Latelies. Yes, it is time for truth telling but after the truth has been told, let’s put away the muskets.

Carpe diem

While Yallambie can be rightly regarded as the geographic heart of the City of Banyule, it is the Warringal Cemetery at Heidelberg that is its absolute dead centre. People have been dying to get in there for years, but it seems to me that when they do, they usually don’t have that much to say about it. “Carpe diem,” said Mr Keating, Oh Captain My Captain, but when all’s done and dusted, all that’s left is the dust. The unspoken whispers and forgotten memories of lives once lived. 

The grave of Thomas Wentworth Wills at Warringal Cemetery, Heidelberg.

If you’re lucky, sometimes the epitaphs in a cemetery will offer up an indication of what lies beneath your feet – from Martin Luther King’s “Free at Last” to Spike Milligan’s famous, “I told you I was ill,” but likely as not the stories must remain forever anonymous. At the Warringal Cemetery, the inscription to Thomas Wragge on the Wragge family monument states rather matter-of-factly, “Died at Yallambie, Heidelberg” but nearby is another, rather more intriguing stone with an altogether different inscription. 

“Thomas Wentworth Wills, Founder of Australian Football”. 

So who was Tom Wentworth Wills, “founder of football”, and what’s he doing at Heidelberg? Not much now I hear you say, but in the middle years of the 19th Century on sporting fields across the Colonies, it was an altogether different story. 

Tom Wills’ epitaph at Warringal.

Tom Wentworth Wills was the son of Horatio Wills and nephew and namesake of Thomas, the brother of Horatio. Uncle Thomas Wills has been mentioned before in these pages. He was a prominent early owner of land in Port Phillip, first owner of the Crown land that now forms the Yallambie estate and the owner of Lucerne, one of the finest homes of the early Heidelberg district.  

Uncle Thomas Wills’ Lucerne, c1960. (Source: picture by Colin Caldwell, State Library Victoria)

Brothers Thomas and Horatio were the sons of a former Sydney convict, transported to Sydney for highway robbery in 1799. Relocating to Melbourne in the late 1830s the two men were soon involved in a range of commercial and pastoral activities, owning property in and around Melbourne, left right and centre. 

Molonglo River, photographed by William James Mildenhall, c1920s. (Source: Wikipedia, National Library of Australia)

In April, 1840 Horatio took his wife and their four year old son, Tom up country to a large pastoral run he had acquired at Mount William on the edge of the Grampians (Gariwerd) in the western part of the Port Phillip District. Horatio’s son, Tom Wentworth had been born in 1835 on the Molonglo Plains near present day Canberra and at Mount William it’s said the boy was soon mixing freely with the Indigenous tribes who were still numerous in the area, playing their games and learning their languages. Interestingly, considering what came later, it’s said Tom was introduced at this stage to an Indigenous ball game known as Marngrook. 

After a rudimentary education in Melbourne, young Tom Wills was sent to school at Rugby in Old Blighty where from age 15 he displayed a spectacular disinterest in his studies while excelling at school sports. Tom was soon captaining the School and playing First Class cricket up and down the length and breadth of the land and, in the winter months, the school ball game of Rugby.  

Tom Wills photographed in a studio in Geelong in 1859. (Source: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra) https://www.portrait.gov.au/portraits/2014.57/thomas-wentworth-wills

On his return to Australia in 1856, Tom Wills continued to display a disproportionate interest in sports. He achieved fame playing cricket for Victoria against New South Wales but it was the letter he wrote to a newspaper in July, 1858, calling for cricketers to take up winter sport for which he is now best remembered. The letter resulted in the first ever scratch match of Australian football, played on Saturday, 7 August 1858 between 40 Scotch College boys and a similar number from the Melbourne Church of England Grammar School. One team wore pink, the other blue. The ball was a “huge sewn many seamed round ball” provided by Tom for the occasion and played across a roughly surfaced, half mile pitch. After a fierce contest lasting three hours and without recourse to anything sounding like a set of rules, both teams had scored a single goal.  

“Our football-game had no rules at all. Tripping, elbowing, tackling, or anything else, was practiced with impunity.” 

The game continued the following week, and the week after that but without further addition to the score and the match was ultimately declared a draw. Possibly by that time there were not enough uninjured players left to continue risking life and limb. Looking at all the black eyes and crocked shins, Tom Wills must have thought on reflection it would be better to have something that at least sounded like some rules, so he retired with three others to the local pub to jot something down on a table napkin. It’s unclear now how many drinks the sportsmen had sunk by the time they began writing, but it’s said the rules when decided were based on Wills’ own memories of his Rugby playing days and that “nobody understood them except himself…” 

From such beginnings was a game created. 

Known simply in this country ever since as, “The Footy”, it is a game that even the best informed spectators sometimes have trouble understanding. It requires the endurance of the half marathon runner, the athleticism of the basketball court and at least, in its historic form, the sheer physicality of a combat arena. “Quidditch,” without pads and brooms is how one wag recently put it, but it goes without saying that the early game played by Wills and his contemporaries would hardly be recognisable from what is played across Australia now.

As conceived in that pub, the game initially had recourse to a mere ten rules, with rules soon being added and others altered as time went by. In the words of Geoffrey Blainey, the game was not born ready-made, “The rules just grew, spreading more like a climbing vine than a tree.” 

Two teams playing on a country style ground, (possibly Corio?) in what look like Melbourne and Geelong colours, pre-1900. (Source: Harrington Collection, State Library Victoria) http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/11535

Tom Wills’ early notion of putting a Rugby style cross bar between the goal posts was never adopted but initially goals could be either rushed across the line or kicked through. Minor scores when the ball went either side of the posts were not counted. Play began not with a bounce or basketball style throw of the ball into the air, but with a rugby style kick off, the players lining up on opposite sides of the field and attacking the ball in a phalanx. The high mark or overhead catch of the ball was a spectacular feature of the sport right from the start, but when it was caught the catcher was required to call out, “Mark” and the game would stop for the player to take the resulting place kick. For decades a mark could also be claimed even if the ball had travelled only the length of a player’s foot, the so called “little mark”, and while throwing the ball has never been allowed, palming the ball with an open hand as a variation on handball, the flick pass, was used almost into the modern era.  

…and the big men fly. Geelong v St Kilda at the Corio Oval in 1914. (Source: Geelong Historical Society, published in The Road to Kardinia, 1996)

From the start, football became a hugely popular spectator sport in Victoria. Long before soccer and rugby became popularly established in the big English cities, The Footy gripped the imagination of Melbourne from where it was exported to practically every Victorian country town and across the land into the other Colonies. The big Australian sporting grounds used for cricket were in plentiful supply and found to be ideally suited to the long kicking which was a feature of the game.  

Arthur Streeton’s “The National Game”, 1889, from the 9 X 5 exhibition of Heidelberg School Artists. (Source: Wikipedia, the Art Gallery of NSW) https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/OA11.1963/#about

Australian Footy developed into a sport able to cross social barriers and unlike cricket, it wasn’t a game with a distinction between gentlemen and players. In Melbourne the home grounds of the most important teams were all located near to each other across the inner suburbs with the ground at Geelong accessible by paddle steamer across the Bay. The spectators, the so called barrackers – a word that originated in Melbourne around 1880 – came from every walk of life, an appeal that has continued into the modern era. It wasn’t so long ago when it seems to me a football crowd was dominated by the mums and dads with their Thermos flasks, grandmothers with their knitting and kids with footballs under arm, waiting for a chance to get onto the ground for a kick after the siren.  

What Tom Wills would have thought of sport in the modern era we will never know, but in his day Wills stood alone as the pre-eminent athlete of the Australian colonies. In addition to his endeavours in colonial cricket, which including helping to form a team of Indigenous cricketers that later toured England, Tom Wills went on to play over 200 games of Australian football. He captained both the Melbourne and Geelong Football Clubs which were formed in Victoria in 1858 and 1859 respectively and which are today considered the oldest, continuously existing clubs at an elite sporting level of any code in the world.  

Neil “Nipper” Trezise, (right) a cousin of this writer, chasing after the ball in a Geelong, Collingwood game of the 1950s. The last time Geelong and Melbourne met in a Preliminary Final, the players included, names like Trezise, Bob Davis, Ron Hovey and Ronald Dale Barassi. (Private Collection)
Gary Ablett Snr shows the Hawks a clean pair of heels in ’92. (Private collection)

To follow any football team through thick and thin isn’t easy, especially when the thin seems to be lying so thickly across the playing field. I’ve been a tragic Geelong Cats supporter all my life but those who look at the later day successes of the Geelong Football Club forget now how long that success was in coming. Those who remember Gary Sidebottom left standing on the side of the Geelong road with his kit bag under arm before a Preliminary Final or were with me in the outer at the ’G in ’89 and saw Ablett Snr kick 9 goals in a losing Grand Final side will know what I mean. I don’t believe that ‘Digger’ has really “been following Collingwood for 137 years,” but sometimes when you have a favourite team and follow their travails for long enough, it can feel like that. Perhaps only present day supporters of the Melbourne FC, a team without success within the living memory of most people, can relate.

Neil Trezise punches the ball clear of Dick Reynolds in the last quarter of the ’51 Grand Final. Reynolds, the non playing coach at Essendon, brought himself on at the end in an attempt to lift his side. Geelong went on to win the game in a tense finish by 11 points. Note the huge spectator crowd that has spilled dangerously beyond the fence, completely covering the boundary line. (Source: the Geelong Football Club, published in The Road to Kardinia, 1996)

With a Preliminary Final about to be staged next week between these two famous old clubs, Melbourne and Geelong, the first since 1954, the Cats to start as underdogs, I come back in a roundabout sort of way to my story and what it means to me to find Tom Wills mouldering away in the dust at Warringal.

The match day ball from the 1952 Grand Final. Neil Trezise kicked four goals with this ball that day. (Source: Victorian Collections, from the Geelong Football Club) https://victoriancollections.net.au/items/5a08191a21ea671aa81c88e9
St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg from the south west. (Picture: Cliff Bottomley, 1956)

After retiring from football in 1874 and inter-colonial cricket in 1876, Tom came to live at Heidelberg where the Wills name had once been so widely recognized. From early 1879, Tom lived in a rented house in Jika Street opposite the police station, near the Presbyterian chapel with a cheese factory at the end of the street.  In the trees behind the house stood the tower of Wragge’s favourite church, the St John’s Church of England, and beyond that the Heidelberg Cricket Ground and racecourse. 

Heidelberg Football Club, c1897. The club was founded in 1876. (Source: Wikipedia, http://www.heidelbergfc.com.au)
Heidelberg Oval, 1908. (Source: Wikipedia, State Library Victoria)

Tom is known to have played with and coached the local cricket club at Heidelberg but by then his stature as a sportsman was largely diminished. Tom Will’s bowling action had become suspect but on the rough, unflattened country wicket at Heidelberg in a team made up of yokel farmers, local gentry, and occasional cow herders, no one seems to have noticed. Probably the last recorded outing of Wills on a sporting field was at Heidelberg in March, 1880 when playing cricket for Heidelberg against the “Bohemians” aged 45, he took five wickets, sharing the bowling honours that day with Charles Nuttall, a farmer from Banyule. 

Wills was ostensibly a rather complicated character, to put it mildly. At one moment charming and at another offensive, he had been a drinker since his Rugby days, but by 1880 the truth was he had become an inveterate alcoholic. On 2 May that year, less than two months after the Bohemians game, in a fit of depression he took a pair of scissors and stabbed himself through the heart. 

The jurors at the inquest that followed included such Heidelberg luminaries as Thomas Davey the butcher, Edward Studley the baker and I’m guessing the candlestick maker but the burial of Wills at the Warringal Cemetery after an Anglican service went largely unnoticed, attended by only a half dozen members of his immediate family. 

It was an inglorious end for someone who had been a sporting legend in his own life time. Greg de Moore in his invaluable biography of Wills said he “stands alone in all his absurdity, his cracked egalitarian heroism and his fatal self-destructiveness – the finest cricketer and footballer of the age.”  

So there it is. What happens on the sporting field might seem like life and death, but if you want to get some perspective, look around the graveyard and tell me what you see. “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” If you had looked in at the gates here at Yallambie on three occasions in the early Noughties, you might have seen some lunatics waving blue and white scarves and charging madly around the garden in celebration of victory. That’s what The Footy can do to otherwise sane people.

Carpe diem, Cats, but come what may next week, this is one for the history books.

What if?

That old moggy, Yusuf Islam used to tell us to remember the days of the old school yard, but when it comes to your school days, I’m sure there are some things you remember fondly while there are others you’d rather forget.

It might seem strange to relate now, but right up until it was banned in Victorian Government schools in the mid-1980s, it was not unknown for students to be walloped and whacked in pursuit of the getting of wisdom. “The cuts” as it was bluntly termed was a fact of school life which students endured on an occasional basis, only to bounce back again like the proverbial India rubber ball at the end of a Tendulkar cover drive. My own father used to proudly tell how earlier in the Century, he probably held the record for getting the cane on his very first day of school, then age five. For myself I had to wait until Grade 5, and then it came only in the form of a strap across the palm, the reward of confession and of believing that tripe about George Washington and the cherry tree.

That strap wielding, grade 5 teacher of painful memory was also the music teacher at our primary school, sporadically substituting strap for baton and baton for strap while requiring students to sing their times tables, in mathematical progression and in reverse. It was a task we hated but there’s no doubting its effectiveness in getting those numbers to lodge inside stubborn heads. In retrospect he was a pretty good teacher, if a product of an earlier era and one day I recall during a history lesson he wrote two letters onto the board, I and F. One of the smallest words in English he explained, but in history, a word that had the largest of all meanings. I started to pay attention after that.

One day the teacher showed us a famous newspaper photograph of a flood that had happened in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. Elizabeth Street he said had in the earliest days of settlement been a creek and wouldn’t you know it, that creek was still there, deep down underneath the pavement. The natural landscape might have been modified by people building over it, but the newspaper showed what could still happen to the town if a flash flood rolled down the street.

Neville Bowler’s Walkley Award winning picture of Elizabeth Street in flood, February, 1972. (Source: The Age) https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/from-the-archives-1972-chaos-as-floods-batter-melbourne-20200213-p540oi.html

The picture won a Walkley Award for the photographer, the late Neville Bowler which just goes to show what can happen when you’re the right man, in the right place at the right time. Years later I went to work at the same newspaper as Neville and even then people were still talking about the day Nev got his toes wet.

You could see Elizabeth Street as a microcosm of the bigger picture. With a population trending towards 8 billion people, it’s hard to say what it is that constitutes a natural landscape any more for it is an obvious truth that wherever you find people, you will find a world that has been altered from its original state.

Australia’s first people probably started the wheel rolling on this continent when they arrived here 60,000 years ago, even without actually discovering the wheel. It was a small taste of what was to come. In colonial Victoria, the gum trees of Gippsland would be methodically ringbarked by settlers as they moved up into the upper valleys. For decades the dead shapes of the trees stood like white sentinels over the new pastures thus created, silent testament to the advance and the cost of European civilization.

William Howitt (Source: Wikipedia, British Library)

In the Mallee country of Western Victoria the scrub land was flattened and stumps were uprooted. It was a practice that loosened the soil and resulted in dust storms that in dry years darkened summer skies. But it was in the gold country of Central Victoria that the most dramatic change occurred. The earth was turned upside down and mountain streams turned to sludge by eager diggers in their pursuit of an elusive mineral wealth, a fact noted at risk to his health by that recorder of Goldfields society, William Howitt. Soon after visiting the Bakewell’s Yallambee, Howitt very nearly died of dysentery after drinking from a fouled water hole on his way to the fields.

Morning mists on the Plenty River, September, 2019. (Picture GIF by I McLachlan)

Clean water was at a premium on the goldfields and there were riots when ethnic minorities were accused of spoiling the water, riots that probably had more to do with a latent racism on the fields than the wish for environmental conservation. Australia is a dry land and much has been made of harnessing our meagre water resources. Bridged over, and tunneled under, scooped out and stream altered almost to oblivion, our rivers are today a much changed environment. Melbourne’s first dam was of course on the upper catchment of the Plenty River and these days if you went looking for it, I think you’d be hard pressed to find anything that might qualify as a natural landscape within the City of Banyule. Even those places you might think meet the requirements, like the Banyule Flats or the Plenty River Corridor are more or less a reinterpretation of the world the early settlers found here in the primordial state.

Bakewell era survey map of “Yallambee”. (Source: Bill Bush Collection)

When you look at a map of the City of Banyule, it’s readily apparent that the landscape is dominated by the confluence of three water systems, the Yarra and Plenty Rivers and the Darebin Creek. The Plenty forms the eastern most boundary of Yallambie but it is worth noting that the suburb is also crossed by at least three intermittent streams, two of which are tributaries of the Plenty River with the other being a tributary of the Yarra. All have or rather had names.

“Yallambie was crossed by three main gullies running southward to the Eltham (Lower Plenty) road, and the Wragge family would have names for them. The most westerly one, just east of Greensborough Lane, was called ‘Dead Horse Gully’ – for obvious reasons. The next was ‘Ferret Gully’, because a lost ferret was seen there from the road, and recovered. The reason of referring to the third one as ‘Adams Gully’ was lost within a few decades, but it may be that an employee named Adams had occupied the huts shown beside this gully on the early plan of the Bakewell farm.” (Calder: Classing the Wool, p76)

These streams are still there in their various forms, hidden or altered. Adams Gully, (shown in the above slideshow in pictures from 1978-9 from the National Archives of Australia) also known as the Yallambie Creek or more prosaically the Watsonia Drain, crosses the breadth of the Simpson Barracks from its headwaters at the top of Greensborough Rd to near the ARPANSA facility where it is piped underground before emerging again on the other side of Lower Plenty Rd. At the back of Corandirk Place the creek bed has been delightfully restored but whether this landscape is anything like its pre-settlement state is doubtful. All the same, the overall effect is pleasant enough and tellingly, in a strange sort of way, not entirely unlike a Japanese garden.

“…not entirely unlike a Japanese garden.” The Yallambie Creek (Adams Gully) below Corandirk Place, August, 2021. (McLachlan)

The middle stream, known as Ferret Gully in the 19th Century, was dammed in the 1990s to form the central feature of the Streeton Views’ award winning landscape design. It was built to retard the increased stormwater flows from the estate and last year the Environmental Coordinator at Banyule Council, John Milkins told me on enquiry about this subject: “Our understanding of water sensitive urban design has changed hugely in the past three decades since Streeton Views Estate was established. The reeds have an important role around the full extent of the ponds in pollution treatment and in habitat provision.”

The pond at Streeton Views Reserve, Yallambie, May, 2020. (Picture by I McLachlan)

So there is my point. It’s known that our oceans are located “downhill from everywhere” and it’s true that practically everything that falls onto the ground and into the streams will eventually end up there. With all the building work going on in Melbourne these days, the short term concern has been about the effect of all that muddy water and sludge on our aquatic environments.

Borlase Reserve woodland before the road builders moved in, May, 2019. (Picture by I McLachlan)

This is no more true than at the western most of these Yallambie gullies, Borlase Reserve, the so called Dead Horse Gully. The Gully forms the head waters of the Banyule Creek and, as previously reported in these pages, this area has been ear marked as the spring board for the State Government’s ill-famed North East Link tunneling project. Even as I write this, this gully is in the process of being dug up, re-routed and reimagined in a measure initially intended to relocate utility services prior to construction contracts being awarded. How this and the later tunneling project itself will eventually effect the Yallambie community and particularly the beautiful Banyule wetlands downstream is anybody’s guess, but with so many reports and environmental statements having been written and debated on this subject ad infinitum, I suppose they know what they are doing…

The Banyule Wetlands at the back of Viewbank, June, 2021. The source of the Wetlands comes from the Banyule Creek rising from Dead Horse Gully in the south west corner of Yallambie. (McLachlan)

If you think about it though, it’s not just the downstream Banyule wetlands that we need to be thinking about. It’s everywhere because everywhere is on the downhill side of gravity. It’s all going to end up in the ocean eventually for the ocean is the ultimate depository of every road side spill and discarded plastic drink bottle. Islands of floating plastic in the ocean and the less visible microplastics and nanoplastics have been putting the willies up marine biologists for a while now. From the reservoirs and roads to the reinstated and reinterpreted river systems, we have a lot on our plastic plates these days.

The Plenty River at Yallambie, August, 2020. Every time a car is washed on the side of the road in Melbourne, all that soap has to end up somewhere. (McLachlan)

It might seem like flogging a dead horse to say so, but with what’s going on up at Dead Horse Gully right now, will we get the chance to look back on ourselves in the future, at the plastics and pollutants, the road tunnels and empty apartment towers, at the gas fracking mines and choking oceans and ask the question, “What, if?”

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

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