From Yallambie to Heidelberg & the road to salvation

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

It was already old when I was young.

From the outset, St John’s Church of England was always there, it’s influence on district life felt or implied in many ways. Later, when I knew the church, the Reverend Simondson had by then become an institution. Perhaps he had been there from the start? The Rev’s piano accordion was like a white toothed chest appendage that squeaked when he moved, his weekly pastoral crusade to the young heathens of Banyule Primary School a regular thing.

Recollections of the church in spring time, Sunday School classes moved outside into the crisp, fresh air of the park to make the most of a beautiful morning. Children singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children”, its lyrics loaded with unintended racism. Book prizes at Christmas and the annual Parish fair. The hard work of the Ladies’ Guild on the white elephant stall like an elephant in the room. A bus, lying mysteriously on its side on the banks of Salt Creek one Sunday morning some time in the 1970s. Its brakes had failed at the top of Burgundy Street and it had careered out of control with a load of schoolgirls before overturning in Heidelberg Park. The driver was killed, the girls shaken. And always the church bell calling the faithful to worship. When I was old enough I had the job sometimes of ringing it. A temperamental thing, it was harder to get it swinging than I had imagined.

It all started readily enough when we were quite small, my parents simply asking, “So where do you kids want to go to Sunday School?”

“What’s that?”

“It’s like school, but on Sunday. Sunday, school, get it. You could go to the church in Arden Crescent where you went to kinder or St John’s in the Park where we were married.”

My sister answered for both of us. She usually did. “I want to go to the place Mummy and Daddy got married.”

‘There’s a school on Sunday?’ I thought with a sinking feeling, maybe. ‘I wonder if there will be finger painting?’

St John's Church of England, Heidelberg from the south west before addition of side porches below the bell tower
St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg from the south west before addition of side porches below the bell tower
St John's Church of England, Heidelberg from the north east before addition of side chapel &, vestry
St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg from the north east before addition of side chapel &, vestry

The association of Yallambie with St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg, the third oldest church in Melbourne, goes back a long way. The Bakewell brothers at Yallambie, like their friends and relations in law the Howitts, were Quakers at the time of their arrival in Australia. Quakers or the Religious Society of Friends (or Friends as they call themselves), other than making porridge believed in a doctrine of the priesthood of all Christian believers. They avoided creeds and the hierarchical structure of churches and refused to swear loyalty oaths or participate in wars. The established churches “viewed the Quakers as a blasphemous challenge to social and political order” which in an earlier time, before the Act of Toleration, led to a degree of persecution.

John Bakewell’s name appears alongside that of Dr Godfrey Howitt on a grant of a burial ground in Melbourne to the “Society of Friends” by the Governor of New South Wales in November, 1847. However, by the time of his return to England in 1857, Robert Bakewell’s resignation from the “Society” was accepted by the Nottingham Monthly Meeting (of Quakers) because “he had entirely discontinued his membership during his long residence in Australia.” (Minutes of Nottingham M. M., February, 1857).

Possibly Robert and John had found that during their stay in Australia, their support for an as yet unestablished outpost of Quakerism in Port Phillip gave them little scope to advance their aim of creating a successful farm in the English character on the Plenty River. In an era when the interests of church and state were often intertwined, it was the Church of England that was at the seat of power in Port Phillip. It is believed the Bakewell brothers, like their brother in law, Dr Godfrey Howitt, lost interest in Quaker activities some time after arriving in Port Phillip. In the case of Howitt, his “gradual alienation from ‘Friends’ followed his increasing identification with ‘upper’ classes of Melbourne and with the established church”. (Quakers in Australia in the 19th Century,William Nicolle Oats).

When plans were drawn up by the Church of England diocese to build a church in the Heidelberg parish, on the list of donors alongside the names of church trustees, local gentry Hawdon, Martin and McArthur, the Bakewells’ name appears in the Church accounts book, their initial contribution being £10. (The pre gold rush wage of an agricultural labourer in 1850 was about £26 per annum).

A grant of two acres which had been reserved in the “diamond shaped” village green of the original subdivision of the Warringal village was secured from the government and the foundations of St John’s Church of England were commenced in 1849. The foundation stone “J. W. 1850”, believed to be the oldest surviving engraved stone of this sort in Melbourne, was laid the following year and the building officially opened in October, 1851.

Engraved foundation stone, St John's Church of England, Heidelberg
Engraved foundation stone, St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg

The architectural style of St John’s is reminiscent of an English Parish church from the Decorated period of English Gothic Revival. Its idyllic setting near the river curiously drew this comparison with Yallambie in the 1987 Loder & Bayly, Marilyn McBriar Heidelberg Conservation Study:

HEIDELBERG PARK/ST. JOHN’S
Existing Landscape character
This zone is dramatically different from any area previously described. Its closest affinity is with Yallambie well to the north…
The area is characterised by old plantings of mixed conifer species and a minor sub-planting of deciduous trees.

Thomas Wragge, who purchased Yallambie from the Bakewells, was a staunch Anglican and became a regular worshipper at the church. In the words of one of his descendents, “He probably thought he owned that church.” His commitment extended also to the home. In the homestead that Thomas built at Yallambie to replace the earlier Bakewell farm, it is recorded that it was Thomas’ habit to read a service to his family every morning. On one occasion while reading an appropriately filled fire and brimstone sermon through a thunderstorm, Thomas turned to a window and indicated a horse that had been killed by a bolt from above, emphasizing by example the fate to be expected of those who wandered from God’s grace.

“(He) always had a service in the morning and (once) he was just sort of reading — blessing the gathering and there was a frightful crack of lightening and a clap of thunder together. And Olive said she was looking out and then underneath the oak tree in the paddock a horse was struck by lightening so she said she would always remember the prayers at Yallambie.” (Quote from Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, Winty Calder, Jimaringle Press, 1996).

Horse carriage in the farm yard just north of Yallambie Homestead.
Horse carriage in the farm yard just north of Yallambie Homestead.

In an age when Sunday was still “church day” and most people attended regularly, the Wragge family were active members at St John’s, Heidelberg travelling there regularly to Sunday services along Lower Plenty and Rosanna Roads by horse and carriage, but never it seems by motor car. At least not initially. In some ways, Thomas Wragge was very conservative and it has been said that he believed that the novel machines that started to appear in the Heidelberg district at the end of the 19th century were wicked instruments. His son Harry had enjoyed the use of a bicycle for some time but Thomas forbade his family to have anything to do with motor cars. However, in the case of at least two of his sons, perhaps his wishes were not always entirely respected.

Young Harry Wragge and his bicycle on the road to Yallambie, c1895
Young Harry Wragge and his bicycle on the road to Yallambie, c1895

“(Before Thomas died) Syd and Harry were very keen to get a motor car, but their father would have none of the new-fangled idea. He held strong views that horseflesh had served him well all his days, and that motors were an invention of the devil. Harry would not take ‘no’ easily, and kept plaguing away for consent, until Thomas finally told him he would be disinherited if he got one of the hateful things. The family was most concerned about this, because they knew that the old man might well carry out his threat. To their horror, a little later, the whisper flashed through the family that Harry, despite all threats, had got a car (a Hurtu) and was keeping it secretly in town. Harry had, in fact, done just that. Many a quiet run he had round and about after doing all possible to find out where his father might be going, so he could go elsewhere. Cars were not registered and carried no identification numbers.

“During one of these runs, his one-lunger (sic) was snorting south in Nicholson Street a bit north of the Exhibition building where the road is fairly level. A policeman on a push bike decided he was speeding and called on him to stop. Harry began to panic, visualising his name in the newspapers and his inheritance gone, so he decided to make a run for it. The bobby came pedalling after, and Harry gradually drew away on the level road. Reaching the slight rise to the Exhibition building, the car slowed up and soon the bobby was right behind breathing heavily and gasping threats. It seemed that capture was imminent, but with a flash of genius, Harry slapped on whatever brakes he had; the bicycle crashed into the rear and the policeman took a fearful toss with a buckled front wheel. Harry and car escaped unhurt, and Harry had saved himself from the loss of perhaps £50,000.”

(Extract from Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, Winty Calder, Jimaringle Press, 1996).

It is doubtful that if Harry had been caught that day his father would have taken such drastic steps as to disinherit him. At the end of his life Thomas had put aside his reservations and had entered into arrangements with The Motor House Company for a Brazier priced at £475. This was not delivered until two weeks after his death on 12 May, 1910. All the same, it is nice to imagine his widow Sarah Anne, who took possession of the car, driving it like Granny in Tweety and Sylvester until her death five years later. Picture the sales pitch of that car, which had by then been replaced with another. “Practically new you know. Hardly anything on the clock. Driven by a little old lady who only took it to church on Sunday.”

Thomas and Sarah Ann Wragge in a Brazier outside Yallambie Homestead shortly before the death of Thomas, 1910
Thomas and Sarah Ann Wragge in a Brazier outside Yallambie Homestead shortly before the death of Thomas, 1910

The children of Thomas and Sarah Wragge all became regular parishioners at St Johns, in between visits to the family’s sheep station in New South Wales. Tom Wragge (Thomas’ eldest son) was confirmed at St John’s on 20 June, 1878 and Annie (his eldest daughter) on 18 July, 1889. Caroline Victoria Wragge (Thomas’ third daughter) married Francis James Wright at St John’s on 14 October, 1896 and Annie married Wallace Murdoch there on 20 August, 1903. Annie and Wallace’s daughter, Nancy Wragge Murdoch was baptised there in 1905. Nancy would later inherit Yallambie Homestead through her mother and live there until the end of the 1950s.

In 1907, Thomas Wragge gave £500 to the vestry of St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg to help them purchase adjoining pieces of land in Yarra and Hawdon Streets to build a new church. “This land was wanted because the population of Heidelberg was then concentrated near the railway line, and it was thought that the old church was badly placed. The church hall was moved to that land, and a new vicarage was built on it.” (Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, Winty Calder, Jimaringle Press, 1996) “…the basic wage was 7/- per day, £4.2.0 per week, so approximately £210 per annum. So Mr Wragge’s generous offer is equivalent to about two and a half annual basic wages.” (A Church in the Park, St John’s Anglican Church, 2001).

Membership of the Church of England was a spiritual comfort to Thomas and his family and they are remembered there with at least two memorials. The Holy Table or altar at St John’s was a gift to the church by the wife of Thomas Wragge, Sarah Anne in 1902. Solidly constructed of polished blackwood and with a carved front it stands appropriately before the magnificent Wragge family “Ascension Windows”. The windows were a gift to the church in 1920 and dedicated by three of the children of Thomas and Sarah Ann to the memory of their late parents. It was recorded in the church minutes of 1920 that the Wragge family at that time “desired the best position in the church” for their proposed windows and that the vicar therefore suggested the chancel in the sanctuary, the arrangement replacing an earlier design of geometric stained glass. The Wragge windows show Christ ascending with an aureole of cherub like faces adorning the perimeter. The Holy City is shown below with the apostles bowing in reverence. The left and right panels show Mary and John. The triptych bears the following inscription: “In loving memory of Thomas and Sarah Ann Wragge for many years worshippers in this church. Presented by their daughter Annie and two sons Syd and Harry 1920.” I read that inscription often in bygone times, the man in the front pew perhaps looking at his watch during the Reverend Simondson’s sermon. Who were Thomas and Sarah Ann Wragge in life? I didn’t know.

The Ascension Windows triptych at St John's Church of England, Heidelberg. Inscription reads,"In loving memory of Thomas and Sarah Ann Wragge for many years worshippers in this church. Presented by their daughter Annie and two sons Syd and Harry 1920."
The Ascension Windows triptych at St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg.
Inscription reads,”In loving memory of Thomas and Sarah Ann Wragge for many years worshippers in this church. Presented by their daughter Annie and two sons Syd and Harry 1920.”

St John’s became the mother church of several other churches throughout the district. Upon his death on 12 May, 1910, Thomas Wragge left Yallambie to his wife Sarah Ann, excepting one acre of land on the north west corner of the property. Under his will, Thomas Wragge bequeathed this land to the Church of England with the stipulation that a church should be built on it. The transfer of land was finalised in 1912 and construction of a church began. Conceived possibly on grand lines, the Church of the Holy Spirit, Watsonia on the corner of what is today Yallambie Road and the Greensborough Highway, was never completed. It’s boarded up, unfinished end became the home of roosting pigeons. In the 1950s the congregation of the Church of the Holy Spirit moved to a new location closer to the population centre of Watsonia near the rail station. A petrol, service station would later occupy the Greensborough Road site on the edge of Yallambie. There’s probably a moral somewhere in that story.

In the early 20th century there had been a notion of relocating St John’s, Heidelberg to the land in Hawdon Street that had been given to the church in 1907 by Thomas Wragge. In 1958 however, a decision was made to consolidate Parish operations at the old church in the park. The Hawdon Street site and its hall were disposed of, the sum realized for the Parish being £17,050. The upper and lower church halls at St Johns at the front of the building were built at this time and a side chapel, vestry and porches were added to the church. In 1966, soon after the alterations were reconsecrated, the Ladies Auxiliary of St Johns organized an historical exhibition of local significance to raise funds for the Church Missions. The considerable interest which the exhibition generated directly resulted in the formation of the Heidelberg Historical Society which today bases itself nearby at the Old Court House in Jika Street. For another half century the St John’s Church of England site remained relatively unchanged drawing this praise just a decade ago:

“It must have been good to hear it (the church bell) ring out for the first time from the square tower so cunningly located that it formed the focal point of a vista through an avenue of eucalyptus from the main road. We are grateful today for the foresight that chose a lie of the land that still enables one to see the tower across a modern suburb; and for later municipal planning of parkland which saves the church from being ‘built out’.” (Extract from “A Church in the Park”, St John’s Anglican Church, 2001).

Banyule Council’s report “Heritage Guidelines for Warringal Village, 2006” describes the Warringal Village/St John’s/Heidelberg Park precinct as “historically, aesthetically and socially” significant and states that”St John’s Anglican Church, at the highest point in the township, is the dominant key structure… The church, and more particularly its spire, may be seen from a number of points in the Area. It is a highly picturesque element that underscores the early history of the Village reserve.”

The same report makes these recommendations:

“The size and shape of new buildings should relate sympathetically with those of the adjacent significant buildings. New buildings should not dominate existing significant places… New buildings should respect existing settings and neither dominate nor obscure views or sight lines to existing significant buildings.”

Building work on Burgundy Street, Heidelberg, church & car park on left, November, 2014
Building work on Burgundy Street, Heidelberg, church & car park on left, November, 2014

So just what is going on at St John’s today? If you stand at the lower end of Burgundy Street and look across Heidelberg Park to the view that was formerly of St John’s Church of England, all you will see now are medium level apartment buildings. The unit developments that have been built on Burgundy and Jika Streets along the south west boundary of the church threaten to overpower the site. But they are nothing when compared to what has most recently gone in behind the church on Vine Street on the south east boundary. “Streeton Park on Yarra” as it is styled is a Freemasons premium retirement living complex conceived on a large scale. A deep excavation has been made up to the fence line of the church and a balcony apartment block built which now completely dominates the location, rising above the dugout and standing above ground level almost as tall as the tower of the church itself.

Streeton Park on Yarra & St John's Anglican Church, November, 2014
Streeton Park on Yarra & St John’s Anglican Church, November, 2014

Before this project was commenced, the then mayor of Banyule was quoted as saying in the Heidelberg Leader newspaper that not everyone wanted a garden and that many people wanted affordable living, like that which would be provided by the new project. Trouble is, that’s where the argument falls flat. “Streeton on the Park” was not conceived as affordable housing but is a premium retirement complex providing a wonderful lifestyle opposite the river.

Streeton on Park, Vine Street, Heidelberg, November, 2014
Streeton on Park, Vine Street, Heidelberg, November, 2014

My parents have their own accommodation nearby in the St John’s memorial garden, the site of their ashes now overlooked by the apartment complex next door. They loved St John’s in life and after their marriage they remained active members of the congregation at St John’s for decades. I still have the letter written by the vestry of St John’s formally thanking my father for the voluntary work he put into the garden in the 1980s. The garden at St John’s then was a place of solitude and quiet reflection. Now it is a place from which to wave to the neighbours.

Wedding at St John's Church of England, Heidelberg
Wedding at St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg

I am told that the church protested about the Streeton Park on Yarra project and that the objections were taken to VCAT. Failing to have the project stopped there was also an attempt to have one storey removed from the high level plans and to have the buildings set back at a distance from the boundary line. VCAT passed the plans. The Church “turned the other cheek” and not only has the ambience of the location been irretrievably destroyed, but the resulting increase in land values that apartment living encourages means that St John’s itself distressingly must be seen to be under potential threat. In an era of dwindling congregations the church by default now finds itself sitting on acres of premium land opposite Heidelberg Gardens and worth potentially millions.

St John's Church of England, Heidleberg before intrusion of apartment development
St John’s Church of England, Heidleberg before intrusion of apartment development
St John's bell tower from the car park with Streeton Park on Yarra apartments behind, November, 2014
St John’s bell tower from the car park with Streeton Park on Yarra apartments behind, November, 2014

Streeton Park on Yarra has taken years to take shape beside St Johns. For a long time it stood as a massive hole in the ground the development apparently on hold. It was like that in 2011 when the church hosted a “Back to St John’s” service to mark its 160th anniversary.

Similarly, in the 1970s the F18 freeway project to link Greensborough Road to the Eastern Freeway stalled within the City of Heidelberg when objections were raised to a road that would have bisected the community and potentially destroyed the important landscape around the Warringal Parklands. The freeway reserve is still there in the form of a linear park called Rivergum Walk at the back of Beverley Road but it is unlikely now to ever be used. But is that the end of the matter?

Signs on Rosanna Road have been asking in this pre election week “Who will fix Rosanna Road?” Who indeed? One party has suggested a curfew on heavy transport on Rosanna Road at night. Another party wants to build a freeway elsewhere, in Royal Park. Nobody really wants to say what everyone is thinking. Like another elephant in the room the ghost of the F18 has haunted successive governments the plans “on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”

Will the eventual solution of the road problem in Banyule see the destruction of parkland in Warringal as first proposed in the 1960 and 70s, or will the destruction move further out into leafy Eltham, the “outer ring” option? As I ponder this question, I picture old Mrs Wragge seated in her Brazier in the early years of the 20th century driving along a much quieter Rosanna Road to church on Sunday. Money is the religion of the modern day, the speed of living and development at any cost the maxim. Too bad we only have the one planet. In the words of someone somewhere, if a tree falls in the forest and no one blogs about it, who gives a damn?

North east exterior of St John's showing Wragge window in the end of the Sanctuary at right and Streeton Park on Yarra apartments on left, November, 2014
North east exterior of St John’s showing Wragge window in the end of the Sanctuary at right and Streeton Park on Yarra apartments on left, November, 2014
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Edward Willis, the Plenty Bridge Hotel & the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge

Old Lower Plenty Road, Bridge and Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1900
Old Lower Plenty Road, Bridge and Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1900
Old Lower Plenty Road, Bridge and Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1957
Old Lower Plenty Road, Bridge and Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1957
Old Lower Plenty Road, Bridge and cycle path, November, 2014
Old Lower Plenty Road, Bridge and cycle path, November, 2014

So to make a liar of me the council street sweeping machine came down Tarcoola Drive again last week, the second time in as many months. Unusually, the parks and gardens department also sent a crew out to mow the fields of Yallambie Park. Maybe somebody is reading these posts after all.

On Sunday I took the hound for a walk across the newly mown common. It’s a fine place to stroll on a sunny day or to sit beside the river under one of Robert Bakewell’s trees and chill out. It’s a place to look deep down into the pools formed by the slow moving flow of the lower reaches of the Plenty River and to keep an eye out for the platypus or bunyips probably lurking there in equal measure. It’s a place to search for meaning.

Looking towards Yallambie from Lower Plenty during the farming era
Looking towards Yallambie from Lower Plenty during the farming era
Soccer ground, Yallambie Park, homestead on the hill, November 2014
Soccer ground, Yallambie Park, homestead on the hill, November 2014

My walk took me down stream to a point where pedestrians and cyclists may cross the river over the refurbished Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge to the newly made residential court, enthusiastically sign posted as “Edward Willis Court”.

The other side of the river, the “eastern bank” or Lower Plenty side was never technically a part of Yallambie although at times its history has featured in our story. Garden states that Robert Hoddle recorded in his survey field notes of June to September 1837 that the pastoralist Edward Willis was in occupation of the east bank of the Plenty River but observes that the run may have overlapped the western (the Yallambie) side of the river.

“Willis’s house, when built, was on the eastern side of the Plenty, north of the (old) Lower Plenty Road bridge. Though Hoddle’s notes are difficult to interpret, it appears that the run may have overlapped the western side of the Plenty.” (Heidelberg, The Land and Its People 1838-1900, Donald S. Garden, MUP, 1972).

Edward Willis was born on 12 September 1816 at Hornsby, Cumberland, England the son of Richard Willis and his wife Anne, née Harper. He arrived in Van Diemen’s Land with his parents in December 1823 aboard the SS Courier and until he was 21 he worked on his father’s property, Wanstead, near Campbell Town in Van Dieman’s Land. In 1837 with his brother William he crossed to Port Phillip, taking 500 ewes and several rams from his father’s pure-bred merino stud and in April the brothers took up their run on the Plenty.

Thomas Walker, 1804-86
Thomas Walker, 1804-86

In 1837, Thomas Walker, who was to become a significant player in the subsequent development of the Heidelberg district, (for a short while he owned the land that would later form Yallambie, having purchased it from Thomas Wills), wrote this contemporary description of the situation of Willis and his neighbouring squatters in the fertile and well watered country encompassing the confluence of the Yarra and Plenty River systems:

“After having spent the forenoon in the township, we proceeded on Friday afternoon on an excursion up the Yarra Yarra. We were accompanied by Mr. Edward Willis (son of Mr. A. Willis, of Wanstead, Van Dieman’s Land) to whom I was introduced by Mr. McIntyre, of Willis, McIntyre and Co., Sydney. It came to rain shortly after we left, and night also closing in, we did not get so far as we intended, but had to stop for the night at a settler’s Mr. Mollison’s, where we slept on the floor before the fire, but with cloaks and blankets enough to keep us warm, so that I never slept more soundly. I think no class of people live in a rougher way than many of the settlers do here at present. Mr. M. is erecting a hut, which will be well enough when finished, but in the mean time it is open and comfortless; no furniture has he except a bench or stool, a broken cup or two, tin panicans, a couple of knives and forks, and a plate or two. All he has to eat, is Irish salted pork, damper, and tea and sugar; and the light we had, was produced by burning rags in pieces of the fat pork. Upon the whole, I never met people living in a style more rude and rough, or with less attention to comfort, but to which they seem perfectly indifferent, aware it is only a temporary inconvenience. We there met a brother settler of Mollison’s and Willis’, named Wood (son of Captain Wood, of Snakebank, Van Dieman’s Land), and they made us heartily welcome, and afforded us a specimen of a certain class of Port Philip Squatters. The class I mean is numerous, and consists of off-shoots (sons) of Van Dieman’s Land settlers, who are sent over here with a few sheep to do for themselves, there being no room for them in Van Dieman’s Land…

On Saturday, after breakfast, we left Mr. Mollison’s, and proceeded to Mr. Willis’, passing through Mr. Wood’s station. Willis is still living in his tent, but with as much comfort as under such circumstances can be looked for. He has got a nice situation in the fork formed by the junction of the creek “Plenty” and the Yarra Yarra. We dined with him, and then returned home, seeing as much of the country as time and a rainy day would permit.” (Extract from “A Month in the Bush of Australia,” Thomas Walker, J. Cross, 1838).

Until the Plenty River was truncated by the Yan Yean Reservoir in the mid 1850s, it was quite substantial. Joseph Tice Gellibrand considered it one of the few streams in Port Phillip that justified the term “river” and named it “Plenty” in 1836 because the surrounding country had such a promising aspect. Gellibrand might have been advised to stop in the neighbourhood for he disappeared without trace early the following year while exploring the country around another river system, the Barwon. At this early date, the river had a number of names which included “Threepenny Creek,” “Willis’s” and Robert Hoddle’s name, the “Yarra Rivulet” before these were gradually discarded in favour of Gellibrand’s “Plenty River”. By 1838, all the land from Willis’s on both sides of the Plenty up to Whittlesea was occupied. Boundaries were determined by the squatters themselves, most of whom were single men who were by then living in stringy bark slab huts. The country must have appeared well watered and attractive to these first white residents.

At the end of the decade Edward Willis returned to Wanstead and his association with the Plenty River ended. He married Catherine, daughter of Captain Charles Swanston in 1840 at Hobart Town and subsequently joined his father in law in partnership in Geelong. He became a prominent citizen in that town’s development and died in England in 1895.

Edward Willis run east of the river was surveyed in 1839 by Assistant Surveyor T H Nutt following on from Hoddle’s initial inspection and was sold by the Crown. In 1841 in the Census, a wattle and daub hut was listed there with ten inhabitants. The land sale of portion 11, which covered most of the present Lower Plenty area, passed through the hands of speculators before being bought by Patrick Turnbull, a Melbourne merchant and pastoralist. Although he did not live on the holding he did fence, clear and stock it .

In 1855 the Preston Hall Estate of 365 acres on the site of Willis’ old run was purchased by John Brown who practiced dairying and general agriculture there. In 1884, he sold the property to David Thomas whose widow Mary in 1887 built a substantial red brick home, Bryn Teg (also known as Preston Hall), across the river and opposite Yallambie.

A track out to Ryrie’s run in Yarra Glen had been established early. It probably followed an old Aboriginal footpath and this is now mostly represented by the form of Main Road. The crossing place over the Plenty River was bridged and a few years later was described by Richard Howitt during his visit of 1843.

“We paced on from our Yarra-cottage towards the Plenty through the wild bush, noting particularly how well, to our right, on the river’s slopes and flats the land was cultivated, and extensively too; covered with emerald-green crops of corn, contrasting admirably with the dingy colour of the wild interminable woodlands. In two hours we reached the Plenty, a delightful though small tributary of the Yarra; clothed far and near with the fresh beauty of cultivated growths. Over the Plenty is a bridge that a painter would not overlook; nor yet the one at the Diamond Creek; both being picturesquely formed of trees laid across, covered with poles athwart again, and lastly overlaid with large sheets of stringy bark.” (Impressions of Australia Felix, Richard Howitt, 1845).

Old Lower Plenty Bridge, seen from the west bank of the Plenty River, down stream
Old Lower Plenty Bridge, seen from the west bank of the Plenty River, down stream
Looking upstream from the east bank of the Plenty River below the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge, November, 2014
Looking upstream from the east bank of the Plenty River below the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge, November, 2014

In 1865, the Heidelberg Road Board informed the Eltham Road Board that the existing Plenty Bridge was by that time “in a dangerous state” and a decision was made to replace the earlier structure, Heidelberg and Eltham jointly agreeing to share the cost. Stonework for the new bridge was by R Turnbull and Co. and the ironwork by E Chambers and Co. with the designing engineer G Francis supervising the work. This is the historic iron and blue stone bridge which today stands slightly down stream from the modern 70 km/h limit dual carriage way. The old bridge became notorious in its last years of road service as the scene of many motoring accidents, the sharp bend and narrow crossing from west to east being too much for many drivers. With construction of the modern bridge and realignment of Lower Plenty Road, the old bridge was allowed to fall into disrepair but was refurbished and reopened in 2001 as a crossing point for pedestrians and cyclists using the Plenty River Trail. The blue stone was repaired and repointed and the iron work was removed in its entirety to be repaired off site before reinstallation.

Plenty Bridge Hotel
Plenty Bridge Hotel
Site of former Plenty Bridge Hotel, November, 2014
Site of former Plenty Bridge Hotel, November, 2014

Near the eastern abutment of the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge next to the entrance of Edward Willis Court stands today a single, very elderly poplar growing out of the embankment. That tree marks the site of Plenty Bridge Hotel which opened there in 1858. Location of the hotel next to the bridge and an associated toll gate reflected the continuing significance of this river crossing to the district. The site, adjacent to the south east corner of the Yallambie farm and across the river from it, was to remain the centre of community life for the area for more than 100 years. Wallace Murdoch, who married Sarah Annie, the eldest daughter of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge, is said to have known the hotel all too well. He was a frequent customer at the pub and died of sclerosis of the liver in 1926. The 1923 renovation of Yallambie Homestead, commenced when Annie inherited the property, was encouraged by Wallace and used an architect friend of the family said to be a man Wallace met at the pub.

Legend has it that another patron of the Plenty Bridge Hotel was the notorious gangster, Squizzy Taylor, who spent time at the hotel and is supposed to have practiced his shooting by firing at a dead tree across the river with a revolver. (Recorded interview of Elsie Barnett by local historian, Shane Stoneham.) Squizzy was fatally wounded in a 1927 gun fight with a criminal rival so maybe his shooting practice was not to much effect.

View of Golf Club House, (Bryn Teg) and hotel
View of Golf Club House, (Bryn Teg) and hotel
Opening of the Heidelberg Golf Links at Bryn Teg, 1928
Opening of the Heidelberg Golf Links at Bryn Teg, 1928

In 1926, the seven decade old Plenty Bridge Hotel premises were purchased by the Heidelberg Golf Club Company Ltd which at the same time acquired 177 acres of Mary Thomas’ “Bryn Teg”. In 1927, under the supervision of Harry Alexander, that company commenced construction of a golf course which was officially opened the following year by the Federal Prime Minister, Stanley Melbourne Bruce.

At first, until the Club secured its own licence, the business of the Plenty Bridge Hotel was conducted by a Licensee, the operation run as a “19th hole”. The trading hours of 9am to 6pm initially rather restricted the drinking of the players but its position just outside the city’s metropolitan limits meant that it was one of the few places in Melbourne at that time where you could travel to for a drink on a Sunday.

Golf Club Hotel, aka the Plenty Bridge Hotel
Golf Club Hotel, aka the Plenty Bridge Hotel

In time the 19th Hole was relocated to club rooms within Mary Thomas’ old house, Bryn Teg, that building being considerably redeveloped by the club in the process. The Plenty Bridge or “Golf Club Hotel” as it had become known survived until about 1957, just as residential development at Yallambie and Lower Plenty kicked off. Another “Lower Plenty Hotel” was built on the ridge overlooking the Lower Plenty township and the Plenty Bridge Hotel disappeared under an embankment raised across the site. Thus it remained, undisturbed for two generations its story, like Frodo’s ring, all but forgotten. If any reflection was given to the weedy mound that hid the mortal remnants of all that remained of the community’s former cultural hub, it was assumed that the ground formed a part of the public open space of the river environment.

Golf Club Hotel, aka, the Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, c1950
Golf Club Hotel, aka, the Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, c1950
Site of former Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, November, 2014
Site of former Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, November, 2014

As the 2nd millennium dawned, an approach was made to the Heidelberg Golf Club to purchase the site of the former Plenty Bridge Hotel which remained alienated under their title. Rumour has it that the potential developer charmed the Golf Club committee with the story of a wish to build a “dream home” on the spot. However, once the sale was completed and only AFTER title was secured, the land was mysteriously rezoned from low density to Residential 1. Plans were then lodged with Banyule City Council to build 22 attached, double storey unit style buildings across a 9m frontage, 0.7ha “battleaxe” block.

Such an over development of the land as proposed in this initial scheme was met with general alarm by the community. A public meeting which I along with many others attended, was called at the Lower Plenty Hotel in December 1999 to discuss the issue. A representative of the developer was present to display the suggested plans and supposedly to answer questions from the public. To issues such as storm water run off into the Plenty River, the removal of existing trees, the impact on fauna and of the general propriety of the style and density of the proposed buildings in a culturally and historically important setting, it soon became apparent that the representative had few creditable responses.

Over 30 objections were eventually made to the planning application at Council from across a wide range of the community and the application for a planning permit was dismissed. The development proponent took the matter to VCAT which also dismissed the application, the Registrar noting in doing so the high quality of the objections. There then followed a lengthy process where the plans were resubmitted every few years with slight changes, the proponent having the luxury of full time professional representation at the Tribunal and a seemingly inexhaustible bank balance, the public relying on the enthusiasm and energy of individuals. In a battle of attrition, the objectors needed to win their case on every occasion the application was presented. The developer just once.

Edward Willis Court, November, 2014
Edward Willis Court, November, 2014

The outcome at the Plenty Bridge was inevitable. After a decade of attempts the developer succeeded in having a plan for the site passed, albeit as a very much reduced project of 6 individual house blocks in what is now Edward Willis Court. The 2 largest river red gums and a silky oak within the development were retained during this subdivision. Will they be allowed to remain? The experience of houses built in the recent past at nearby “Streeton Views” in Yallambie has been that old native trees left within the vicinity of new housing are at risk once residential development progresses. The larger of the red gums was assessed independently twice during the application and was recorded as being between 2 and 300 years old (A&R Tree Surgeons, K F Gerraty Forestry Consultant). The disposition of limb failure in old river red gums would suggest that housing will need to be situated at some little distance from these trees in Edward Willis Court.

200 year+ river red gum, at future Edward Willis Court, 2000
200 year+ river red gum, at future Edward Willis Court, 2000
200 year+ river red gum, at Edward Willis Court, November, 2014
200 year+ river red gum, at Edward Willis Court, November, 2014

The current house blocks I noticed are numbered from 11 to 16. Does this reflect future ambitions for the lower consecutive numbers and does it necessarily follow that ultimately we will get the 1999 scheme by proxy? As a mad conjecture then, why not rebuild the Plenty Bridge Hotel itself? Not in competition with the modern Lower Plenty Hotel and its pokies but as a boutique hotel catering to a smaller crowd with reference to the history of this important site. Although it has been buried to a considerable extent by earthworks that presumably originated from the ridge above, the actual footprint of the Plenty Bridge Hotel remains to this day. I have heard that a surviving floor plan of the original building exists within a private collection and numerous photographs of the exterior exist, showing the building at various times during its life and from different angles. A similar building programme was conducted from scratch with much success at the Walhalla’s Star Hotel, probably with less information to go on. The popularity of the nearby Sulwan Thai restaurant which operates from a former weather board home in Main Road is an example of the need for places of this size in the locality.

The battle between developers and the supporters of our cultural and physical environment has been played out often in the suburbs and with a State election due at the end of this month it is an issue that I’m sure will again be in focus. The primary concern of early squatters like Edward Willis was to make as much money from the land in as short a space of time as possible before moving on. In the words of Thomas Walker in 1837, “…they seem perfectly indifferent, aware it is only a temporary inconvenience.”

Prophetic words given the attitudes of developers in this modern day. Theirs is a short term, profit driven prosperity driven by population growth and measured against the costs to a world endangered by impending environmental crises and a future clouded by global warming.

Golf Club Hotel, aka, the Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west towards Old Lower Plenty Bridge, c1950
Golf Club Hotel, aka, the Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west towards Old Lower Plenty Bridge, c1950