Despite its landscape classification by the National Trust in 1998 the history of Yallambie remains little known. The locality doesn’t rate a mention with any of the local historical societies, Banyule City Council are disinterested and you won’t find much about it if you go looking for it elsewhere online. “We need to start our own Yallambie Historical Society,” my wife said to me one evening. “We can have a membership of two. Three if you count buster.” In the absence of such a society I am going to quote at length from Winty Calder’s sweeping and award winning book “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, The Wragges of Tulla and Yallambie” (Jimaringle Publications, 1996). In over 576 pages, Calder’s book tells the story of the Wragge family, their association with Yallambie and with several wool producing stations in the Riverina. The passages about the early development of “Yallambee” are comprehensive. The following extract of those passages are reproduced here by permission of the author.
Bakewell property John (1807-88) and Robert (1809-67) Bakewell were trained in Yorkshire woolen mills as wool sorters, and reached Port Phillip on 7 April 1840 with members of the Howitt family, including their sister, the wife of Godfrey Howitt. As partners, Robert did the farm work while John concentrated on pastoral properties and wool-sorting. Soon after their arrival, they opened a wool-sorting business at the corner of Market and Flinders Streets but, on 9 December 1850, they sold it to Richard Goldsborough who had started a similar business in Melbourne in 1848. In 1888 Goldsborough combined with Thomas S. Mort of Sydney. Another early purchase made by the Bakewells was land beside the Plenty River east of Melbourne, where the climate was (and still is) temperate. Rain falls throughout the year, with slight peaks in spring and autumn, and averages about 700 millimetres (26 inches) per year. The mean monthly maximum temperature is about 27 degrees C (80 degrees F) in January, but falls to less than 12 degrees (53 degrees) in June and July. The mean monthly minimum in February is about 13 degrees C (55 degrees F), and about 5 degrees C (42 degrees F) in June, July and August. Any frosts are light and snow is rare. The land acquired by the Bakewells had been initially purchased from the Crown by speculator, Thomas Wills and his wife, Mary Ann. Son of a convict who was transported for highway robbery in England, Wills became a successful businessman in Sydney. In January 1839, he acquired a rectangular piece of land, designated as Crown Grant Portion 8 in the Parish of Keelbundora — 390 hectares (970 acres) west of the river — for £1,261 and used it as a sheep run. It has been stated that Wills built a house with a ‘pillared and balconied front,’ and of ‘graceful architecture’. As Wills was a speculator, who held the land for only a few months, it is more likely that the house given that description was erected later by the Bakewells. In July 1842 they purchased, from a subsequent owner, the land on which their residence would stand. By June 1839, Wills had sold Portion 8 to Thomas Walker and made a profit. Walker subdivided that land into twelve blocks with areas from 20 hectares (50 acres) to about 40 hectares (100 acres), then sold them between June and November 1839 to more than double his money. Either Wills or Walker seems to have called Portion 8, “The Plenty Station”. The Bakewells made their first purchase of part of Portion 8 in July 1840; another purchaser from Walker was James David Lyon Campbell and, about 1840, William Greig attempted to establish a farm by the Plenty River on what would become an extension of Campbell’s land, near the northern extremity of what would become the Bakewells’ holding. Struggling with virgin land, Greig hired a bullock team to clear stumps from the flats where he intended to grow potatoes. He planted mustard and cress, cabbages, turnips, peas, carrots, spinach, melons, lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, cauliflowers, broccoli and onions. He also kept chickens and had a pony to help him collect supplies; but for all this, he had few fences. He proposed that, when he was established, he would develop a dairy farm and hire out bullocks. Greig did manage to erect a house (or hut) with store and kitchen, but his plans failed as the Australian economy went into decline during the next couple of years. He went into receivership and lost his 51 hectares (156 acres) in November 1841. It has been claimed that a timber mill was built beside the river, across the flats from a point below the site on which the later “Yallambie” homestead would stand, and that this mill was operated by a large water-wheel. However, it is not clear when this mill was in use. It has been claimed that: ‘In the 1960s (the mill’s) foundations were still visible when the river was low.’ The Bakewells continued taking up lots in Portion 8 until February 1854, almost certainly unaware of the underlying geological formation. More than one million years earlier, basalt flows from the west had pushed the pre-existing Plenty River eastward before cooling and forming rock, the surface of which eventually weathered into rich soil. The displaced river gradually cut down through the basalt and into the underlying, much older sandstones and mudstones, which produced poor soils on the western side of the new river valley, although nutrient-rich soil developed from the alluvium that was deposited on the floor of the valley when the winding stream flooded. Most of Portion 8 was on those poorer soils, although it also included some of the river flats in the valley floor. Although much of the land was of poor quality for farming, and the quality of most lots did not justify the inflated prices paid for them, the Bakewell brothers succeeded because they were willing to work hard and did have some capital. The acquired about 246 hectares (606 acres 2 roods 36 perches)of “The Plenty Station”, north of the Lower Plenty road, and called their land “Yallambee Park”. Credit for building the second residence on Portion 8 belongs to the Bakewells; and evidence from a surviving plan of the Bakewell property indicates that their gracious pre-fabricated house stood where Thomas Wragge would later construct a tennis court for his family. In mid-1842, Richard Howitt, the Bakewells’ near-neighbour, visited the farm and commented that:
At the river Plenty reside J. and R. B. The river is a small one, but as its name imports, never exhausted. The locality is at the commencement of the vast and sterile stringy-bark forests. Part of the farm is consequently almost worthless, and the other by the water-side, of the richest quality. Their weather-boarded house is situated beautifully on an eminence in the wild region, overlooking the river and its meadow. Winding down a foot-path, cut in zig zags, you descend to the Plenty-flat, in which is the garden, one of the best in the whole district; full of (for the time they have been planted) astonishingly large, healthful, and beautiful fruit-trees. Vines I never saw grow so freshly, so luxuriantly. Foreign shrubs and trees, amongst which I noticed cypresses, R. had raised from seed in abundance. The whole pleased me; but that which was the pleasantest surprise, was a largish clump of what in England we should not look for in a garden, yet what once filled in England the soul of Linnaeus with delight, covered over with its golden bloom—gorse; the seed whence it was raised taken from a common near Nottingham. On May-day it was that I first visited J. and R. B. Their farm and ours are only six miles from each other; yet so thoroughly had I been absorbed by the demands of our own wilderness, that two years had elapsed before I found leisure to visit them. It was a pleasure to see them so pleasantly located. How neat and nicely fitted-up was their house! In it, with its thin walls and French windows, you seemed scarcely in-doors. It was the Sabbath, and on the table lay the Bible, and not far from it a Literary Souvenir. Guns were piled in corners, but which I dare say are now, the first country newness being over, seldom used. Of books there were a good display; ‘friends, substantial friends, and good,’ in the forest.
About 10 years later, Richard’s father, William Howitt, also visited the Bakewells. That was in October 1852, and his description of their property gives us some idea of Thomas Wragge’s impressions when he first saw the property:
The Plenty farm is very agreeably situated on a high swell above the river of that name. It has a considerable extent of cultivated fields; and the house is one of those wooden ones brought out of England, and which seem as good now as on the day they were set up. They certainly have answered well. To this are added extensive out-buildings, generally of wood, and some of them roofed with sheets of stringy bark. We found a hearty welcome from Mr. Robert Bakewell, who chiefly resides there. From the brow of the hill on which the house stands, on a lawn of rich Kangaroo-grass, the bank descends steeply to a flat of from four to five acres, which is laid out in a garden, orchard, and vineyard. The river runs round this flat in a semicircle, coming up at each bend near to the foot of the hill on which the house stands. The river is not a large one, not wider than a good high-road. It is, like all the Australian rivers, deep between its banks, and is encumbered with an extraordinary number of fallen trees. From the hill near the house you have a full view of the whole garden. The fruit-trees were nearly all in blossom, and the vine-plots were well dressed and kept. They cut their vine-stocks there generally much shorter than in Germany, little more than a foot from the ground, and give separate sticks to each. Mr. Bakewell’s were an exception. I was surprised to see the flat of this garden planted with the vines, and the sloping sides of the hills only partly planted with them. But as they grow the grapes chiefly for market, no doubt they obtain much heavier bunches, but they would not produce so finely-flavoured a wine. The apples, pears, and plums there flourish and bear immensely. They have plenty of gooseberries, which do well in places shady and not too dry for them; and I am persuaded that they would succeed there well on the plan of the market gardeners near London, that is, grown under the fruit-trees, especially in cherry-orchards. Currants they have too. All other fruits flourish beautifully. They have the finest and most abundant peaches, where they are cultivated ; but that is yet but rarely. I read, as I was on the voyage, of peaches and all sorts of fruit being as abundant in Australia as in America. They would be so, if they were as much cultivated as in America; but this is by no means the case: land is too high, labour too dear, and the people in too great a hurry to make fortunes, with the favourite and universal idea of “going home.” Therefore fruit we found very rare and very dear. Their apples and pears are superb, and of a large size and good flavour. Plums, apricots, melons, grapes, and almost all kinds of fruit are as fine as can be grown, where they are grown. Almonds and figs abound on the trees, the latter producing two crops a year: the quinces are gigantic in size, and make the most admirable marmalade. They have oranges and lemons in the open air; but they succeed much better at Sydney, whence Melbourne is chiefly supplied. I saw filbert trees; and they say they bear abundantly. English cherries are splendid; and I am told that, as on the continent of Europe, they are obliged to prop the branches of the apple-trees, the crops are so heavy. The Japanese fruit, the loquat, which grows on a tree very much resembling the medlar, is frequent. It resembles a yellow plum about the size of a pigeon’s egg, with a peculiar acidulous flavour. All kinds of kitchen vegetables do well. Peas now (the 18th of October) were in flower ; and they had long been cutting asparagus. The sea-kale crop was over. I observed that the rhubarb there grows nearly flat on the ground, instead of upright as ours does, though brought from England. I heard of very large rhubarb, but I only saw very small. The scorzonera, or Schwarz Wurzely is finer than any I saw in Germany, the roots being as thick as your thumb, and very tender. All these things you see growing amid the strangest and most foreign-looking things, especially the loquat, the date-palm, great fleshy prickly pears, with their oval leaves stuck one on the end of another, and their purple fruit; cacti and cereuses, which with us only flourish in the conservatory. But, spite of foreign vegetation, the English stamp and English character are on all their settlements. They are English houses, English enclosures, that you see; English farms, English gardens, English cattle and horses, English fowls about the yards, English flowers and plants carefully cultivated. You see great bushes of furze, even by the rudest settlers’ cottages. There are hedges of sweet-briar around their gardens, bushes of holly, though rare; and, what is odd, the finest holly-trees I saw were grown from seeds of the fine old trees about our own house at home. There are hawthorns and young oaks in the shrubberies. There are cowslips and oxlips now in flower in the gardens; but I saw no primroses. There are lots of snapdragons of various hues, roses and lilacs, looking very English. England reproduces herself in new lands; and how feeble seem the native races against the sinewy, plucky, pushing, predominating Englishman. The hunter races of the earth, the forerunners of the house-building, ship-building, ploughing, busy, encroaching white man — they who occupied the wilderness, and sat under the forest-tree, without commerce or ships, living easily on the animals of the chase — they who lived like the mammoth and the mastodon, the kangaroo and the emu — have perished with them, and are daily perishing before the civilised and artistic tribes, indomitable in the spirit of the conqueror and the possessor. One thing pleased me there, — the old English dog, in the fire-places of the country houses instead of stoves. Wood is the chief fuel; the fires it makes are very warm and cheerful; and at the Plenty we found them very acceptable, for it came on heavy rain, followed by a south wind, which is always cold. I don’t know when I felt it colder than when we arose at five o’clock in the morning to return. The valley was filled with white fog, and the grass glittered in the rising sun with a frosty dew. But the sun speedily chased away fog and dew, and all was bright and warm. All night the quails in the corn-fields near had kept up their plaintive cry, which would make us fancy that their name was but an ancient pronunciation of the word “wail.” Towards morning they were superseded by a host of other birds with strange voices, many of them clear and bell-toned. The woods which at a distance surround the place, looked very duskily pleasant in the morning sun, and the voices of birds thence came mingling with the more familiar ones about the house… magpie… laughing-jackass… leatherheads… a tree-creeper… The boys amused themselves with fishing, and caught what they call black-fish and trout, to us quite new fish, and a brilliant blue crawfish, with prickles all down each side of its tail. I amused myself with watching the huge spiders which the common people here will persist in calling, not tarantulas, which they are, but triantelopes, and examining the, to me, equally new vegetation on the banks of the river: the tea-scrubs; a Michaelmas daisy growing on a shrub; another shrub, with flowers and leaves like buckwheat, which they oddly enough call the native currant, &c. &c.
It is understood that the Bakewells carted grapes, other fruits and vegetables by dray along the Heidelberg road to market in Melbourne. The Bakewells had other visitors beside members of the Howitt family, and some left pictorial records of the property. About 1850, George Alexander Gilbert depicted the house and orchard from the eastern bank of the Plenty River, using coloured pastels. At some time between 1852 and 1859 Edward La Trobe Bateman, cousin of Governor La Trobe, must have stayed with the Bakewells while he made several pencil drawings of their property. These were collectively called Views of the Station ‘Plenty’ Port Phillip District; and they now form part of the Felton Bequest in the National Gallery of Victoria. The ten skilfully executed drawings, showing about fifteen years development by the Bakewells, give a clear impression of their complex of buildings, with house, outhouses and yards, their extensive planting of trees and other vegetation close to their house and on the slopes below it, their post-and-rail fences and the picket fence around the garden, a gardener’s shed at the bottom of the river cliff, their vegetables, vines and fruit trees on the rich river flats, and a distant hut with a water tank, as well as glimpses of the tree-lined Plenty River. In 1987, based on these illustrations, a horticultural botanist attempted to identify species planted by the Bakewells. These included elms (Ulmus procera, or x hollandia) close to the house, and possibly a maple (Acer sp.), a polar (Populus sp.), and an oak (Quercus sp.), as well as shrubs that may have been Cape Honey-flower (Meliathus major), jasmine (Jasminum sp.) and a species of Eleaganus, as well as irises (Iris sp.) and a climbing rose (Rosa sp.); cypresses (Cupressus? macrocarpa and C. Sempervirens) on the slope in front of the house and among the grapes on the river flat; Spanish Dagger (Yucca gloriossa) in the garden near the house and on the river flat near the tool shed; possibly Prickly Pear (Opuntia sp.), Silver Wormwood (Artemisia arborescens), Canary Date Palm (Phoenix canariensis), Century Plant (Agave americana) and Creeping Coprosma repens) beside the lower end of the steps down the river cliff; possibly a pumpkin or squash, as well as a passion fruit (Passiflora edulis) vine and a poplar (Populus sp.) near the tool shed; a conifer (?Picea sp.), willows (Salix ?alba and S. babylonia) and possibly a ti-tree (Leptospermum sp.) in a grove near the bottom of the steps; also grape vines (Vitis vinifera) trained onto upright posts and various fruit trees on the river flat, as well as some plants of Giant Reed (Arundo donax) and New Zealand Flax (Phormium tenax).
The plan of the Bakewells’ farm that has survived from this period gives the total area of their property as 246.76 hectares (606 acres 2 roods 36 perches), with 29 hectares (71 acres 1 rood 28 perches) under cultivation, 210.3 hectares (519 acres 1 rood 19 perches) used for grazing and 6.4 hectares (15 acres 3 roods 29 perches) being developed as a garden adjacent to the house. The furthermost gully, west of the house, was dammed, and there were two huts on the west side of the gully closest to the house. In the north of the property, and beside the river, was an old garden and a hut, which may have been Greig’s cultivation and residence. To the south of that garden was a shrubbery and another cultivated area. Developments above the river cliff, north of the house complex, included: a rick yard; another hut; a tool house; a hot house; and a dairy. The main house had a detached kitchen. Below the cliff, on the river flat, was a tool shed, adjacent to the garden, and a third cultivation area.
Until 1850, Warringal (probably meaning ‘Eagles Nest’), or Heidelberg, beside the Yarra River about 5 kilometres (3 miles) south-west of “Yallambee”, was regarded as a distinctly aristocratic locality. The beauty of the river scenery and the quiet countryside, 18 kilometres (12 miles) from Melbourne, had attracted men of means who built country residences away from the increasingly unpleasant business district. Despite the accolades of the 1850s, Heidelberg and its surrounding district remained a quiet backwater from the early 1860s until the mid-1880s, but it did remain a beautiful place for picnics. Dairying became the main industry in the district, but no other successful enterprises were attracted so population declined. Fortunately, Heidelberg was spared the disaster, on 7 February 1851, which would become known as Victoria’s ‘Black Thursday’. Fire commenced by the upper Plenty River, when bullock-drivers left a smouldering fire behind them. Driven by some 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. By the late 1840s John Bakewell’s holdings also included large areas at Western Port. From 1847 he was in partnership with John Mickle and William Lyall, dominating thousands of hectares on either side of the Great (or Koo-wee-rup) Swamp. By 1849, John and his brother, Robert, held “Burneweng”, or “Burnewang”, a run of almost 45,700 hectares (112,293 acres) on which they grazed 12,000 sheep and 800 cattle. John Bakewell also held “Tooradin Estate”, which would be subdivided into a number of large holdings in the 1860s. One of them, called “Field’s Waters”, or “Yallambie”, was sold to Robert O. Timms in 1878 and to George Fairbairn in 1884. It would be interesting to know the origin of that second name.
Thomas Wragge’s “Yallambie” Thomas Wragge may have worked for the Bakewells at “Yallambee” during part of his first decade in Victoria, but he certainly knew that property from 4 February 1854. It is highly likely that Thomas was the Bakewells’ active tenant from 1857 (when they returned to England, probably regarding “Yallambee” as a good, steady source of income) until about 1863, just before he went to “Uardry”. During most, if not all, of the 1860s, the whole property apparently was leased to John Ashton, as a sub-tenant to Thomas Wragge. Ashton endured bad seasons which caused poor economic returns. Regardless of climatic conditions, prices of farm products had dropped by 1860. Serious flooding in April 1861, followed by a dry winter, was bad enough, but there were two floods in the winter of 1863, followed by another in mid-December when all the small, tributary valleys of the Yarra River became lakes. Torrential rain at that time seriously damaged fruit crops, causing great loss of income; and many farmers were ruined. The disaster may have influenced Thomas Wragge to join the partnership with his brother, William, and the Hearn brothers. Heavy rains in mid July 1864 caused another flood, which was followed by lesser floods in August and November. Then drought in the summer of 1864/1865, with rust and caterpillars, resulted in poor crops. A severe hailstorm in December 1865, which damaged orchards and market gardens, was followed by another caterpillar plague. Many tenant farmers on low-lying land were unable to pay their rents. Although harsh conditions continued until 1868, John Ashton apparently was able to survive, which was probably due to the fact that the bulk of “Yallambee” was grazing land and produce from the river flats was not the only source of income. Thomas Wragge must have been alerted to these climatic hazards of the district, but he would have known that, while their effects were serious for small farmers dependent on cultivated crops and orchards, those effects were much less on pastures. With good management most of “Yallambee” might be run at a profit, despite the poor quality of soil on its higher areas. Anyway, he may have already been planning to use the property as a home base while acquiring productive land in the Riverina of New South Wales. From 1871, Thomas Wragge was rated for “Yallambee” and listed in the Heidelberg Rate Books as its owner, although a common law title was not conveyed to him from John Bakewell until 20 December 1872, and contract of conveyance for £2,950 (a little under £5 an acre) was not formalized until 28 February 1873. A Certificate of Title under the Transfer of Land Act 1890 was issued to Thomas Wragge in 1891, confirming that he was proprietor, in fee-simple, of the estate covering 244.7 hectares (604 acres 2 roods 35 perches). On the north side of the Eltham road, the eastern property boundary was eastern edge of water in the southward-flowing Plenty River, so the water course was part of the estate, but probably was subject to general rights of public access. The western boundary was Greensborough Lane (later Greensborough Road), but a triangular piece of land in the junction of the Eltham road and that lane was excluded. Although later some of them were usually in New South Wales, “Yallambie” would be the home of the Wragge family until the death of Thomas in 1910, and then it would remain in family ownership for another fifty years. The poorer land was gradually cleared, divided into five fenced paddocks for grazing horses and a dairy herd, and two acres on the river flats were used for a fruit and vegetable garden. “Yallambie” was crossed by three main gullies running southward to the Eltham 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 for 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 Bakewells’ farm. Thomas changed the spelling of the property’s name from “Yallambee” to “Yallambie”, to avoid confusion with another “Yallambee”. The name “Yallambie” was claimed to be an approximation of an Aboriginal word meaning ‘place of shade’, or ‘shelter’, and had been derived from the long, deep pool in the Plenty River where there was always water, even in the worst droughts. Before European settlement, there had been a permanent Aboriginal camp beside it. Fish could be caught in the crystal-clear Plenty River, and the growing children would spend happy hours rambling along its tree-lined banks to find possums and platypus. Although partially beheaded in the mid-1850s, when the Yan Yean Reservoir was constructed, a continuing flow in that river was guaranteed, which was just as well because Heidelberg did not receive Yan Yean water until the 1880s.
Little has been recorded about Thomas’ use of “Yallambie” land beyond the immediate surrounds of the house and the cultivation of the river flats, but it is evident that he was leasing 202 hectares (500 acres) to tenants by the 1880s. These were: butcher John Brundell in 1883, 1884 and 1885, as well as a James Wragg of Yarra Bend, in 1885; John Hanson of Carlton, who leased a ‘hut etc’ in 1886; and John Sill and Thomas Davey, graziers of Heidelberg, from 1886 until 1888. On 20 April 1888, an indenture of lease was transferred from Messrs Davy and Sile (or Sill) to John Blanchard, who would pay a rental of Stg£300 in quarterly instalment for the next twelve months. The spread of introduced plants in the still new colony is indicated in the agreement with Blanchard that he would cut all sweetbriars down 3 inches below ground. In addition, he would allow Thomas Wragge free entry to his house and land; and also Blanchard was not to cut down any timber without permission in writing, or sell dead wood, and allow his landlord to remove any fire wood required for his own use. Thomas paid all the rates. John Blanchard remained as Thomas Wragge’s tenant into the 1890s.
District development In 1872, “Yallambie” was adjacent to largely undeveloped country, and a visitor to the district noted that: ‘For beauty of a quiet rustic kind there are few places in Victoria that can compete with the districts of the Plenty and the Upper Yarra’. There was no railway in the 1860s and 1870s so roads were important, but their poor condition probably contributed to the district’s decline and lack of progress during those decades. By the 1880s Heidelberg was linked to Melbourne by coaches which ran over steadily improving roads. The natural beauty of undulating hills and ridges in the district was attracting influential men. They began developing fine farms and, by the 1890s, “Yallambie Park”, of about 245 hectares (604 acres), was the fifth largest of these.