The Terra nullius dream

“I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting.” How often have you heard these words spoken before a public event? They are de rigueur at my son’s school at every assembly and public gathering but when I asked him what he could tell me about Eddie Mabo’s fishing rods he looked at me with bewilderment. As another Australia Day dawns and we once again remember the time in 1788 when the Aboriginal people of Sydney Cove watched the sails of the convict ships enter Sydney Harbour, and muttered “Crikey” to themselves, what do those words really mean and how much of what we say is just lip service? The Yallambie days of yore that I have been writing about in these posts was not of course the first history of our district. There is another, earlier history dating back thousands of years, knowledge of which W. E. H. Stanner once described as “the great Australian silence”.

A 19th century engraving of an indigenous Australian encampment, representing the indigenous mode of life in the cooler parts of Australia
A 19th century engraving of an indigenous Australian encampment, representing the indigenous mode of life in the cooler parts of Australia

When the land that was to become the suburb of Yallambie was sold at public auction as Portion 8 at the first Crown land sales in 1838 it was assumed the land belonged to a Queen, then in the first year of her reign, sitting on a throne on the other side of the world and that it was hers by right to dispose of. It took a split decision by the best legal minds in Australia sitting on the High Court of Australia in 1992 to finally change that perception. I don’t know enough about the subject to write about it authoritatively but it seems appropriate on this day to write in a general way about the Wurundjeri, the tribe of indigenous Australians who before European settlement once occupied much of the present location of Melbourne.

The explorer, geologist and anthropologist, Alfred Howitt, son of William Howitt. Picture State Library of Victoria.
The explorer, geologist and anthropologist, Alfred Howitt, son of William Howitt. Picture State Library of Victoria.

According to the explorer and anthropologist Alfred Howitt, who with his father William visited “Yallambee” in October 1852, the Wurundjeri tribal territory was generally agreed to be all the area drained by the Yarra/Plenty River basins. It has been written elsewhere that at Yallambie the Wurundjeri occupied a more or less permanent summer camp, above a deep pool in the Plenty River that could be relied upon to never run dry even at times of the worst drought: “At that time Aborigines had a permanent camp above that long, straight, deep stretch of river below Tarcoola Drive”.

A "deep pool" on the Plenty River at Yallambie, January, 2015
A “deep pool” on the Plenty River at Yallambie, January, 2015

Archaeological studies by Banyule City Council and the MMBW have identified some evidence of pre contact civilization along the lower reaches of the Plenty River, from scarred trees to artefact scatters and possible mound sites. It is a fragile jigsaw puzzle that continuing research will add to although sometimes that puzzle can take an unexpected turn. Some years ago a newspaper reported that a skeleton had been found in a Montmorency backyard, just upstream from Yallambie and on the other side of the river. The police were called, it being believed that evidence had been found of our very own Montmorency, “Midsomer Murders”. They went away soon afterward when it became apparent that the skeleton was of Aboriginal origin and of great age, proof if proof be needed of the long occupation of the area by native people.

Banyule City Council sign posting on the banks of the Plenty River, Yallambie Park, reads: "Heartland of the Wurundjeri william".
Banyule City Council sign posting on the banks of the Plenty River, Yallambie Park, reads: “Heartland of the Wurundjeri willam”.

A few years ago at the suggestion of my wife and I, Banyule Council installed a sign on the horseshoe bend of the Plenty River at Yallambie marking the presence of the first Australians in this locality. It’s a fine looking piece of sculpture shaped a bit like a native shield propped between two logs. I’ve heard it suggested that horse shoe loops on a river were good hunting grounds for Aboriginal people. They could chase game into the bend and corner their quarry on steep banks. Perhaps the sign is a little inappropriately placed however and might have been better located upstream, near the permanent waterhole that the Indigenous people are said to have occupied as a camp. A second sign describing the Colonial history of the Wragge and Bakewell farms on the river flat would have been a better option for the location chosen. But that’s another story.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view X by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Trees and creek.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view X by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Trees and creek. The waterhole where Indigenous people are said to have occupied a camp.
Plenty River at Yallambie, January, 2015
Plenty River at Yallambie, January, 2015

The story of John Batman’s infamous 1835 “Treaty” with the Wurundjeri people is well known. Teachers told us about it in school but if you were too busy considering the aerodynamic capabilities of the latest folded piece of exam paper, I would recommend Rex Harcourt’s enormously interesting book “Southern Invasion, Northern Conquest” (Golden Point Press, 2001). It contains what I think is the clearest account in print of the circumstances surrounding the Treaty and the events leading up to it. The rejection of the Treaty by Governor Richard Bourke implemented the doctrine of Terra nullius upon which British possession of Australia until Mabo became based.

The infamous "Batman Treaty"
The infamous “Batman Treaty”

The location of the signing of Batman’s “Treaty” remains unclear. Most probably it was on the Merri Creek downstream from Rushall Station where High Street now climbs the artificial embankment to Northcote. I’ve walked there along the Merri Creek Trail with Harcourt’s book in hand and that’s my favourite for it matches John Batman’s description very nicely. However, there have been several other sites suggested including the intriguing theory put forward by H. G. Turner in his “History of Colonial Victoria” that the Treaty was signed on the Plenty River at Greensborough, just a little upstream from Yallambie. The eight Wurundjeri elders who placed their crosses on Batman’s ludicrous document on that day in 1835 almost certainly had no idea what they were signing. They were not the owners of the land that Batman and his Port Phillip Association were attempting to purchase. The land was held in common by the Tribe and was not the property of any one man to dispose of. Possibly they thought they were participating in a gift giving ceremony of friendship. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

John Batman portrait by William Beckworth McInnes (City of Melbourne Collection )
John Batman portrait by William Beckworth McInnes (City of Melbourne Collection )

The world that the settlers brought to the Plenty River and the place that the Aboriginals soon occupied in it is illustrated in the following account of the gentleman squatter Captain John Harrison on the Plenty River at Yan Yean. Written by his son in 1927 it tells of contact with Aborigines in 1837-1843 but it might equally well have described the world of Edward Willis and John and Robert Bakewell when they occupied their land on the lower reaches of the Plenty River. According to Isabel Ellender who reproduced this description in her 1989 report “The Plenty Valley Corridor”, Harrison “was typical of many of the early settlers encountered by the Aborigines of the Plenty Valley in the 1830s”.

“The blacks in the district (the Plenty Valley) belonged to the Yarra Yarra tribe and were considered rather dangerous at first. But only on two occasions do I remember our having an alarm through blacks. The first time, hundreds of them surrounded the house, the quadrangle was full of them… the blacks evidently thought only women and children were at home, for presently they became very cheeky, knocking at the doors with their waddies and sticks. My father… suddenly rushed out on them with his gun in his hand; and they were evidently so surprised at the sight of him that they disappeared in a most miraculous manner… But we could hear a great jabbering going on down at the potato patch… and there, we could see some of the lubras digging up potatoes with their yam sticks. These were always carried about by them and were six or seven feet long, and about thick as a man’s wrist, with a sharp point at one end.”

Bear's Castle, Yan Yean, from a 1905 postcard.
Bear’s Castle, Yan Yean, from a 1905 postcard.

Near the head waters of the Plenty River lies a curious colonial building historically known as “Bear’s Castle”. I can remember my late father telling me of it when I was a wide eyed schoolboy. In his role as an inspector for the MMBW, my father was responsible for the water supply of a wide area, at one time ranging from the Heidelberg depot to the Yan Yean Reservoir. Bear’s Castle he told me had been built in the “olden days” to defend farmer Bear’s farm from marauding Aboriginals. I don’t think he quite believed the legend himself and more than likely the “Castle” was built as a garden “folly” in the style of the English Picturesque. But it makes a good story all the same. It’s not easy to get permission to visit the “Castle” today as it lies within the catchment of the Yan Yean Reservoir. I last saw it nearly two decades ago. Bear’s farm itself lies somewhere out in the middle of the reservoir, under about 30,000 megalitres of water.

The writer at Bear's Castle, 1997
A hairy bear at Bear’s Castle: the writer at Bear’s folly in 1997

The Wragge family of Yallambie are known to have had many dealings with Aboriginal people, if not at Yallambie, then at their Riverina properties. The Wragge’s are believed to have collected several Stone Age weapons and tools, Aboriginal artifacts that had been ploughed up in their farm fields. Winty Calder, writing in “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales – The Wragges of Tulla and Yallambie” (Jimaringle Publications, 1997) said of the native people of the Riverina that: “The bond between Aborigines and their country has never been fully understood by white people. The tact and friendliness of Charles Sturt, when he explored the Murray in 1829-1830, probably prevented trouble along the river above its junction with the Darling. People met by Joseph Hawdon south of the Murray (between Echuca and the Loddon River) in 1838, when there had been reports of native hostility, showed mixed reactions to the intruders. There was curiosity, alarm and astonishment. Some were not welcoming, others attempted to pilfer the explorers’ goods. In the early 1840s, Edward Curr rode over country along the lower Edward, Wakool and Niemur Rivers, which was unoccupied by Europeans, without any trouble from Aborigines, but he stressed the fact that he was careful, especially with the Moira blacks on the northern side of the river. Less than forty years later a new Aboriginal generation could no longer oppose the advance of white settlers. Numbers had decreased steadily as they fell victim to diseases caught from the whites, and as they were occasionally shot. They largely abandoned their health-giving, traditional hunting and fishing to hang about the settlers’ huts, miserable and underfed, hoping for hand-outs from the newcomers. The pressure of white occupation resulted in listlessness among many of the Aborigines, and loss of interest in life”. Later still, many Aborigines worked on the Wragge sheep stations as labourers, roustabouts and shearers, employees of white men on land that their forefathers had occupied for uncounted generations. Call us eccentric but where other couples would have chosen to lounge on a Queensland beach sipping gin and tonics, my wife and I spent our honeymoon plodding through paddocks in the Riverina in pursuit of this history visiting the old Wragge homesteads. At one of them I remember the modern day homesteader (not a Wragge descendant) showed us openings in the doors and walls of the original, free standing dairy, apertures which she claimed were rifle slopes, a sure sign of the dangers encountered by the original settlers of the district. I thought they looked like ventilation holes.

Phillippa Sutherland recently produced a very nice looking booklet for the Banyule Council called: “Banyule, Heartland of the Wurundjeri Willam”. It is freely available from the Council service centres and contains this final, delightful story of the Wurundjeri dream time, adapted by Sutherland from S. Wieneke, ‘When the Wattle Blooms Again’.

Frances Derham, 1894-1987
Frances Derham, 1894-1987

Once, the water of Birrarung (Yarra River – ‘river of mists’) was locked in the mountains. This great expanse of water was called Moorool (‘great water’). It was so large that the Woiworung had little hunting ground. This contrasted with the Wathaurung’s and Bunurong’s hunting ground, the flat which is now Port Phillip Bay. Mo-yarra (‘slow and fast running’) was the headman of the Woiworung. He decided to free the country of the water and cut a channel through the hills, in a southerly direction, until he reached Koo-wee-rup (Western Port). However, only a little water followed him and the channel gradually closed up. At a later time, the headman of the tribe was Bar-wool. He remembered Mo-Yarra’s attempt to free the land. He knew that mo-Yarra still lived on the swamps beside Koo-we-rup. Each winter he saw the hilltops covered with feather-down which Mo-Yarra plucked from the water birds sheltering on the swamps. Bar-wool resolved to free the land. He cut a channel up the valley with his stone axe, but was stopped by Baw-baw, the mountain. He cut northwards, but was stopped by Donna Buang and his brothers. Then he cut westwards, through to the hills to Warr-an-dyte. There he met Yan-yan, another Woiworung. Yan-yan was busy cutting a channel for the Plenty River in order to drain his homeland of Morang. They joined forces and the waters of Moorool and Morang became Moo-rool-bark (‘the place where the wide waters were’). They continued their work, and reached Warringal (Heidelberg-Templestowe flats – ‘dingo-jump-up’). There they rested while the waters formed another Moorool. When Bar-wool and Yan-yan set to work again they had to go much slower because the ground was harder and they were using too many stone axes. They cut a narrow, twisting track between the Darebin and Merri Creeks, looking for softer ground. At last they reached Port Phillip. The waters of Moorool and Morang rushed out. Woiworung country was freed from water, but Port Phillip was inundated.” A charming story that in an uncanny way echoes what we know of the landscape from the geological record. The course of the Plenty River was changed 8000 years ago when volcanic eruptions in the west deposited a basalt flow that the river was then forced to cut a path through, creating Greensborough’s Plenty Gorge. The Plenty River at Yallambie marks the end of this basalt plain. The river bed at Yallambie and downstream until its confluence with the Yarra River in View Bank, follows the original course of the river across older, sedimentary beds. In prehistoric times when water levels were lower, the first Australians saw Port Phillip Bay as a game filled, grassy plain with the prehistoric course of the Yarra River cutting a route across it to the sea. I am told that the ancient river bed is still there, underwater somewhere at the bottom of the Bay. It has been modified to form the shipping channel so recently and so controversially deepened and is used by vessels entering the relatively shallow waters of Port Phillip enroute to the Port of Melbourne. So on this Australia Day, if you get the opportunity to take a dip with your inflatable kangaroo in the “True Blue” waters of Port Phillip or to play a game of beach cricket on some Peninsula shore line, remember for a moment a time before 1788 and 1835. A time when the first Australians hunted real kangaroos out on the grassy plains of Port Phillip where holidaying Aussie fishermen now pull in flathead and snapper. Those grassy plains are long gone now, as are the native camps of the plains and the Plenty River. They exist now only in a time of Dreams.

Frances Derham
Frances Derham, 1894-1987

Walking with dinosaurs

A dinosaur was seen at Yallambie yesterday. Not the reptilian monster variety so favoured in the movies of Ray Harryhausen and Steven Spielberg, but a cone from a tree, largely unchanged since the Jurassic period.

Bunya cone
Bunya cone

The Bunya Bunya “Pine” or Araucaria bidwilli is a native of Queensland. The huge cones it produces erratically every few years contain edible seeds, a little like a potato or roasted chestnut. The tree in the garden at Yallambie that dropped the cone almost certainly pre dates the current Homestead. It was planted about 150 years ago by the early settlers from a seed reportedly supplied by Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, colonial Government Botanist and the then director of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, possibly to mark the event of the first Royal visit to Australia by Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh.

Early picture taken on the south lawn at Yallambie with Bunya pine on left.
Early picture taken on the south lawn at Yallambie with Bunya pine on left.
Group on the lawn at Yallambie, seated under the Bunya pine. Annie Murdoch (ne Wragge) is seated behind the dog. Alice Wragge is far right behind the Bunya branch, holding her hat.
Group on the lawn at Yallambie, seated under the Bunya pine. Annie Murdoch (ne Wragge) is seated behind the dog. Alice Wragge is far right behind the Bunya branch, holding her hat.

The Bunya is an Araucaria, a curious genus of evergreen coniferous trees in the family of Araucariaceae and a survivor from a time more than 100 million years ago when much of the land in the southern hemisphere was joined into a single super continent – Gondwanaland. Trees like the Bunya of Queensland, the Norfolk and New Caledonia “Pines” and the Monkey Puzzle of Chile, Araucarias all, are a clue to the original distribution of the species. Seen from a distance the Monkey Puzzle, so named because the task of climbing the sharp and interlocked branches are a puzzle even for the monkeys of South America, is a very similar tree in aspect to the Bunya. The Bunya is sometimes even referred to as the “False” Monkey Puzzle. The Bunya is however slightly more open in growth than the Monkey Puzzle, which is a handy thing when, like the monkeys of Chile, you need to climb one.

Grace Wragge (ne Wilson) standing with shawl around her shoulders. Probably her sister, Alice Wragge, seated and Syd Wragge, Grace’s husband lying down. A fence around the old east west tennis court is on the left. Bunya pine visible in the background.
Grace Wragge (ne Wilson) standing with shawl around her shoulders. Probably her sister, Alice Wragge, seated and Syd Wragge, Grace’s husband lying down. Bunya pine is visible in the background.
Harry Wragge at Yallambie holding up a shot gun. His father, Thomas Wragge, is standing behind on the left of picture. Another son, Syd Wragge, is lying in front of him also with shot gun. Annie Wragge, Thomas' eldest daughter, is sitting up next to Syd. Another daughter, Alice Wragge, seems to be in the middle of the 3 women behind Harry, (eyes turned down). The 3 point tree in the background above Alice’s shoulder is the Bakewell era, Italian cypress still growing at Yallambie. The Bunya pine is to the right.
Harry Wragge at Yallambie holding up a shot gun. His father, Thomas Wragge, is standing behind on the left of picture. Another son, Syd Wragge, is lying in front of him also with shot gun. Annie Wragge, Thomas’ eldest daughter, is sitting up next to Syd. Another daughter, Alice Wragge, seems to be in the middle of the 3 women behind Harry, (eyes turned down). The 3 point tree in the background above Alice’s shoulder is the Bakewell era, Italian cypress still growing at Yallambie. The Bunya pine is to the right.

A few years ago, when our son was still quite young, Father Christmas brought him a radio controlled, model aeroplane of infinite possibility. In that time honoured tradition, I took our son outside on Christmas Day to educate him first hand in the finer arts of piloting a model aeroplane. After his initial test flight, I took the controls myself and managed to fly the plane on my first pass into the top most branches of the Bunya nearly 40m above our heads. The expression on my son’s face as I looked at him and he looked at me, tears welling in his eyes, resolved me immediately in my course of action. To the strains of “Don’t do it Daddy – I’d rather have a daddy than a plane,” and with a passing thought to those monkeys across the Pacific, I hoisted myself up into the sharp branches of the Bunya, pausing only once to wonder at a mummified possum, (an indicator perhaps to my possible fate) eventually climbing all the way to the top from where I was able to dislodge the plane to the ground. That done the only question remaining then was, “Now how do I get back down?”

By the time I stood once more safely on Terra Firma, having miraculously avoided that all too rapid descent, my clothes were in tatters and my arms cut to ribbons but I had the time honoured words ready, used by father to son for generations. “Don’t tell your mother.”

The Bunya "Pine" at Yallambie, c1955
The Bunya “Pine” at Yallambie, c1955

There are several other old Araucarias growing in the Yallambie Park reserve and one or two in the private properties neighbouring its boundaries, including at least one other Bunya. One old Hoop Pine (Araucaria cunninghamii) was cut down in its prime in a private garden in Moola Close in recent times but the “Lone” Hoop Pine which is growing still so superbly on the river flat in Yallambie Park is a magnificent specimen. Standing alone, noble and tall and listed by the National Trust of Australia Register of Significant Trees, it is ranked of State significance. I collected a seed from a cone of this tree nearly 20 years ago and planted a seedling at the bottom of our garden adjacent to an old Pinus radiata that was at that time in sharp decline. The Pinus is long gone now but the Hoop Pine is growing nicely in its place and measures something now over 5m tall.

Misty morning with Hoop pine , August, 2014
Misty morning with Hoop pine , August, 2014

There are a few Bunyas growing in Heidelberg Gardens, probably planted there by fellow Heidelberg Shire Councillor of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge, Peter Fanning in the 19th century. I remember running barefoot through Heidelberg Gardens as a child, my chief memory from then being of that “prickly park”. Araucaria’s are seen in many types of parkland but considering the size of its cones, it’s a wonder that the Bunya has been planted so extensively in public spaces. Summer nights in Yallambie are occasionally disturbed by Narnian “Dufflepud” thumping when the Bunya has a mind to drop its cones. It’s a bit like Tom Hanks in the movie “Castaway” with his sleep disturbed by the coconuts falling around his camp. Years ago I travelled through some remote parts of the Pacific and the fear of falling coconuts is something you hear people talk about there but not with any great seriousness. Likewise, although unlikely,I imagine the damage would be pretty severe were a Bunya nut ever to nut your noggin.

Bunya pine at Yallambie, January, 2015
Bunya pine at Yallambie, January, 2015

As a fruit tree the Bunya provided the first Australians with an important source of indigenous bush tucker in Queensland. It was one of the few foods that they would harvest in excess of their immediate needs, taking the seeds away and burying them to eat the edible tubers at a later date. The trees were highly prized by the Queensland tribes who called them Gubbi Gubbi and held vast gatherings in the forests of the Bunya Mountains when the cones were ripe. Stories exist of the murder by Aboriginals of unfortunate Red Cedar cutters in the Bunya Mountains, retribution for the damage done to Bunyas during the extraction of their cedar logs. From 1842 Bunyas were protected by the colonial government of New South Wales in what became known as the “Bunya Proclamation”. Unfortunately, one of the first acts of the new government of Queensland upon separation in 1859 was to revoke this decree and proclaim new timber getting regulations, an early example of victory by loggers over conservation but by that time the Bunya tree and other Araucarias were being planted in homestead gardens across Australia, including the garden at Yallambie.

Bunya pine at Yallambie, January, 2015
Bunya pine at Yallambie, January, 2015

In the family of Araucariaceae there are three genera of which the Araucarias form one. They are “living fossils” of the forest and it is commonly believed that the long necks of sauropod dinosaurs may have evolved specifically to graze on the foliage of the tall trees. A third genus known as Wollemia was known only through fossil records and its only extant species went undiscovered until 1994 when the Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis ) was found growing in an inaccessible canyon, 150km north west of Sydney. It’s a truly remarkable story and one I would suggest you read in detail elsewhere. I read a very informative book a few years ago by James Woodford on the subject but managed to leave it on the roof of my car one day so can’t lend it to you. I found the book later blowing up and down Lower Plenty Road in the rain but was at least able to salvage the last chapters describing the progress of the Wollemi Pine’s reintroduction into civilisation. Fewer than 100 trees are known to be growing in the wild, in three closely situated localities within Wollemi National Park. It is listed as critically endangered but a propagation programme is underway to sustain it in garden form. This might be meeting with some success. We were at a party last month and the Christmas tree in the home was an impressive living tree, standing more than two metres tall in a pot. Not a Norfolk Pine, the tree more usually used in Australia for such purposes, but a very fine looking Wollemi “Pine” that looked like it had stepped right out of Morticia’s garden room in the “The Addams Family”. It had lovely, fern like leaves which is a contrast to those of the Bunya which has sharp, prickly fronds well suited to ripping the motor out of a Victa lawn mower. The Wollemi would make a great landscape tree. I wonder whether Banyule Council could possibly be encouraged to plant one down in the Yallambie Park reserve?

As if in commentary to that farcical notion, my thoughts are suddenly interrupted here as the skies of Yallambie come alive with a flock of Sulphur Crested Cockatoos outside our window. They are wheeling and screeching around the neighbourhood to land in the upper branches of the Bunya where the model plane was once lodged. Don’t let it be said that native birds avoid exotic gardens. They know exactly where to come when doing the rounds. I dare say though that the cockies around here find the Bunya cones too tough even for their large beaks. It might explain the mess the pesky blighters have made recently of our other fruit trees. I caught them in our walnut earlier, stripping the branches leaf by leaf and dangling while they did so looking like they were hanging from a trapeze. They are sitting in the Bunya now looking at me as if to say, come and get me. They don’t know about that plane or the monkey in me. It’s said that if you’re looking for dinosaurs today, to look no further than to the birds of the sky. But just for a moment, look again at the trees they perch in. It might be that the herb you’re looking at is of a similar antediluvian origin.

Sulphur Crested Cockatoo in oak tree at Yallambie, January, 2015
Sulphur Crested Cockatoo in English oak tree at Yallambie, January, 2015
Agave "century plant" flower and parrot at Yallambie
Mexican Agave “century plant” flower and parrot at Yallambie
Pesky little blighters: Sulphur Crested Cockatoos in walnut tree at Yallambie, January, 2015
Pesky little blighters: Sulphur Crested Cockatoos in walnut tree at Yallambie, January, 2015

Dear diary

Recounting the past can be a difficult exercise if we rely entirely on the memory carrying capacity of the cauliflower that sits between our ears. Two decades ago, at a time almost before the internet, I was advised most earnestly to start keeping a written diary at Yallambie. “It would make a good history,” was the assertion. I promised to do so but of course, in the years that followed, I never did. Looking back, it seems now like the passage of time has smothered the old cauliflower with something like melted cheese.

At some future date, should historians ever feel the need to consider the early years of the 21st century, the transient nature of today’s digital age may leave their vision blurred. Not so the written word.

In 2002 an old diary was found under the floorboards of Yallambie Homestead, bearing the title, “Yallambie Day Book, 1866”. That date predated the time of the building of the present Homestead but came from a time when Thomas Wragge was already active at the Bakewell property and probably sub leasing it to John Ashton. Winty Calder, author of the Wragge family history, “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, examined the diary in detail and discovered the book had commenced its life as a farm diary on the last day of 1866 but that after 1882 it had been used by another hand to record veterinary practices. The later hand turned out to be that of Henry Wragge, the brother of Thomas and of whom not much had been previously recorded.

Yallambie Homestead from the north west. Jessie Wragge on the left with her sisters, Alice and Annie on the right. This photograph is reproduced in Garden, "Heidelberg: the Land and its People, 1838-1900". The man is erroneously indicated there to be Thomas Wragge. Calder "Finding Uncle Harry" suggests the man was in fact, Henry Wragge.
Yallambie Homestead from the north west. Jessie Wragge on the left with her sisters, Alice and Annie on the right. This photograph is reproduced in Garden, “Heidelberg: the Land and its People, 1838-1900”. The man is erroneously indicated there to be Thomas Wragge. Calder “Finding Uncle Harry” suggests the man was in fact, Henry Wragge.

Henry Wragge, MRCVS, worked as a veterinary surgeon in Melbourne and Castlemaine and may have seen service in the Crimean War. He served on the first three boards of the Veterinary Surgeons Board of Victoria. He diagnosed pleuropneumonia in Victoria in 1858 and advised destruction of the affected herd, advice that was subsequently ignored by the government of the Colony of Victoria. The disease was not eradicated until 1970.

Henry died at Yallambie in 1898 but it was the finding of his written diary that allowed his history to become more widely understood. Calder published Henry’s story in her book “Finding Uncle Harry”, (Winty Calder, Jimaringle Publications, 2004).

Two men and dogs on the grass tennis court at Yallambie in the 1890s. The man on the left was identified in Calder, "Finding Uncle Harry" as probably Henry Wragge wearing his Victorian Volunteer Light Horse cap.
Two men and dogs on the grass tennis court at Yallambie in the 1890s. The man on the left was identified in Calder, “Finding Uncle Harry” as probably Henry Wragge wearing his Victorian Volunteer Light Horse cap.

The Victoria Branch of the Australian Garden History Society maintains an ongoing interest in the Yallambie Homestead area and runs occasional, much appreciated working bees in the Homestead garden. Their last visit was November, 2014 when about a dozen Society members spent a day working around the garden. A few weeks later, one of those members contacted me and said that although she had not realized it during the working bee, she recalled that she had been a visitor at the Homestead on an earlier occasion. That was in the 1970s, during ownership of the property by the Temby family. She had forgotten much of that childhood visit, including the location of the house, but remembered it when she saw an account of Yallambie written by Ethel Temby and kept in the files of the Heidelberg Historical Society.

Ethel and her husband Alan Temby came from Eaglemont to live at Yallambie Homestead in 1961, before the development of the surrounding suburb of Yallambie and at a time when the district still retained a largely rural character. The 6 Temby children enjoyed an idyllic life at the farm. Their horses grazed in Yallambie Park, asparagus gone to seed was cut on the river flat and an annual crop was gathered in from the old fruit trees in the orchard. Bee boxes were kept in the Homestead garden and in the park and the children took a keen interest in the native wildlife that lived in the surrounding area. A cockatoo was kept in the kitchen and was known to regularly perch on the ceiling beam from where it would chat to the family. Years later Ethel told of how she had once seen a tiger snake slide underneath the back kitchen door but the direction it was going was from the inside going out. On questioning, her sons admitted that they had trapped the snake outside the house weeks before and brought it inside to keep as a pet. It had escaped and been loose about the house for days. They hadn’t liked to mention this to their mother for fear of upsetting her.

Yallambie Homestead from the south, September, 1978
Yallambie Homestead from the south, September, 1978

Ethel loved the Homestead’s aged garden which had remained largely unchanged since the 19th century. Her contribution was to plant a forest of natives, mainly north of the house, her method being to scratch the surface of the old stable yard, cover it with a copy of The Age newspaper and plant a seedling into it.

The old pump house at Yallambie. From a Christmas card by Harry Ferne who lived in the gardener's cottage associated with this building in the 1970s.
The old pump house at Yallambie. From a Christmas card by Harry Ferne who lived in the gardener’s cottage associated with this building in the 1970s.

It was in or about 1980 that I saw Yallambie on the one occasion in my teens. A school mate and I were roaming far afield on bicycles and rode through Yallambie Park. We stopped to explore the old abandoned and deserted Homestead pump house that was at that time still standing on the river bank. At least my friend did. Like a goody two shoes, I stayed with the bikes and told him officiously he was trespassing while he climbed about inside, eventually to wave at me from a window on the upper level. While I waited I looked up at the elderly Homestead on the ridge and wondered who could possibly live there. Mainly the ghosts I thought.

The old pump house burned down soon after this. I hope my friend didn’t leave the gas on.

In 1984 Ethel Temby, by then a widow, sold the Homestead at public auction. I can remember my late father at the time critically remarking on the run down nature of the property. For 30 years an inspector for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, my father seemed to know a bit about the house. The antiquated water system at the Homestead was the bane of his working life. Although it had been connected to the reticulated water system in the street, this was only turned on when the levels in the Homestead’s tanks dropped, which was usually at the time of highest summer demand. The ensuing decrease in water pressure was a problem for the immediate neighbourhood, or at least for the water officer who controlled it.

Ethel moved to Phillip Island after leaving Yallambie. Two of her sons remained in Tarcoola Drive for a while, building mud brick houses near the Homestead that incorporated materials salvaged from the demolished Bakewell era stables. Ethel is remembered separately as a passionate conservationist and an advocate for social justice, especially in regard to the deinstitutionalization of the intellectually disabled. The Ethel Temby Research Grant is a study scholarship for health care workers, named in her honour. Ethel died aged 97 in 2012. Her account of Yallambie, written around the time of her departure in 1984, remains as a glimpse into the Temby family history of Yallambie.

A V Jennings real estate brochure from the sale of Yallambie Homestead, c1961
A V Jennings real estate brochure from the sale of Yallambie Homestead, c1961

YALLAMBIE HOMESTEAD
(The Temby family’s history at Yallambie, as recorded by the late Ethel Temby MBE, 1914-2012).
A house that is of interest only because of its architecture or its age is only a building – cold, impersonal, of no general appeal. A garden planned for display may please the eye as window-boxes do, but may yet attract no human response.

Yallambie was built as a home for Mr. & Mrs. Thomas Wragge and their three daughters (sic) close to 110 years ago. Except for three of those years it has always been a family home. It passed to one of the Wragge daughters and her husband and then to a grand-daughter and her husband, Mr. & Mrs. Cliff Bush. The Bush’s two children grew up there but as suburbia drew closer and closer the family sold the remaining 165 acres of the farm to the developer A. V. Jennings. For three years the house was empty and the garden suffered the looting that is often the fate of unattended places.

Photograph of "Yallambee" from south east by John T Collins, State Library of Victoria
Photograph of “Yallambee” from south east by John T Collins, State Library of Victoria

Jennings’ survey of the property cut through the house garden and pegs close to the verandah indicated that had they not found a buyer for the house it would have been demolished. In 1961 the homestead with 2 acres was put up for auction but without success. Some months later it was bought by Ethel and Alan Temby the present owners who were looking for a larger place for their family of six.
In the 20 years that the Tembys have been at Yallambie the area surrounding the homestead and the conditions of life at the house have seen remarkable change. Tarcoola Drive in front of Yallambie Homestead cuts through the old house paddock. Lambruk Court runs across the site of the stockyards and loading ramp. Just south west of the present house fence someone is living on the filled-in dam, once prolific with yabbies until poachers dragged it with nets. Jennings leased the paddocks to a cattle owner. There were water troughs in every paddock, no other houses were in sight and to reach the road (Lower Plenty road as it used to go across the old bridge), the family opened and shut five sets of farm gates.
18 years ago there was a sale of cattle at the yards and it is only 16 years since a pet sheep was torn to ribbons by a pack of feral dogs. There were three dogs often seen late at night on the slopes between the road and the house. The farm tracks were sometimes impassable in wet weather and the record long time to drive the 600 hundred yards from the road was 45 minutes of zigzagging over the grass.
From time to time the Tembys reared orphaned animals, and a kangaroo which seemed to like grazing with the horses would pound down the hill to the house when called. A wombat left her mark on a back door when she tried to get into the kitchen. The door still has its protective sheet of metal.

Folding brochure from land auction during subdivision of the Yallambie estate
Folding brochure from land auction during subdivision of the Yallambie estate
Folding brochure reversed
Folding brochure reversed

Before Jennings developed the surrounding area (10 years after purchase), the telephone was a private one which left the public line and crossed the river at the foot of Longs Road. The private line was low, supported on saplings and thin poles and in places crossed thickets of hawthorns. It frequently broke, mostly between the poles, so drums and boxes had to be perilously mounted while the wires were twisted together again.
Even the climate has changed with the coming of the houses. The combined warmth of so many dwellings has reduced the severity of the frosts. The hills no longer look nor feel like ski slopes. No tree now still has frost 50 feet from the ground at 11 a.m.
All this may seem incredible such a short time ago and only 9 miles from the G.P.O. but the Yallambie district remained rural long after most land surrounding Melbourne had long been developed. Today Yallambie (district, not Homestead) is in many ways like a country town and has something of the same sense of community. It is partly isolated by the Plenty River and the Watsonia army camp, and has only three access points – either end of Yallambie road and the north end of Tarcoola Drive. Many local residents refer to the Homestead as “the farm”.

Yallambie Homestead from the south east, September, 1978
Yallambie Homestead from the south east, September, 1978

The first occupants of the land by the Plenty were a tribe of Aborigines who had a permanent camp by a long deep pool on the river – it always had water and fish even in the worst droughts. The name Yallambie is an approximation of the Aboriginal word meaning place of shade, or shelter.
The first white settlers were two brothers, Robert and John Bakewell, who first held the land on lease from the New South Wales government. Very soon after, in 1840, they bought 604 acres.
The land is sharply divided into river flats and higher areas where the main stands of timber were of stringy bark. The higher land is banded with clay and mud-stone, but the river flats are rich alluvial soil, subject now to rare flooding. Before Yan Yean dam was built the floods were much more frequent. In those days the river earned its name and a timber mill operated by a water-wheel was built on the river across the wide flat below the homestead. In the 1960s its foundations were still visible when the river was low.

Plenty River in flood looking upstream towards the site of the old pump house (removed early 1980s) which had earlier replaced the windmill visible here.
Plenty River in flood looking upstream towards the site of the old pump house (removed early 1980s) which had earlier replaced the windmill visible here.

The flat was established as a market garden and orchard and grew a great variety of vegetables. One of the former row of fig trees remains, (the rest were bulldozed by the Council several years ago), there are two walnuts and several other remnants of the orchard. The Bakewells grew grapes for the Melbourne market. These with other fruit and vegetables were taken by dray along Heidelberg Road. Heidelberg Road is the oldest road in the State and then had a toll where it crossed Darebin Creek. It is not known whether the Bakewells (who were Quakers) paid the toll or cheated the State as so many others did by pushing through the bush to a place up stream where the creek could be forded. The trip to market took two days at that time.
The Bakewells created a wooden house – a pre fab brought out from England. It may well have arrived with them. With its French windows it was particularly appropriate for the hotter climate and the lovely environment the brothers found. The Bakewells also had property near Tooradin and used to journey between the two places – a considerable undertaking then, and hour’s drive today.

Photograph of "Yallambee" from north west by John T Collins, State Library of Victoria
Photograph of “Yallambee” from north west by John T Collins, State Library of Victoria

In about 1870/71 Mr. Thomas Wragge, who had earlier bought Yallambie from the Bakewells, started building the present homestead. The original (pre fab) house appears to have been where the tennis court was later laid out.
A huge oak tree was probably an early planting by the Bakewells. The tree (from an acorn they brought?) is near the south-west corner of the present house. Perhaps as old as the tree – about 140 years – is the stump with remnants of white paint on it now almost completely in its shade. When the Tembys bought the house from A. V. Jennings the stump supported a sun-dial. By the time they took possession it had been stolen as had china finger-plates from some of the doors, and other things from the house.
But some pieces of history are hard to remove and the old hand-pump that raised water from a tank under the drive is still there, though no longer useable. Water in the underground tank comes from the roof and before the days of electricity or ice deliveries the butter would be hung in the tank to keep it cool in summer. In the 1966/67 drought the water was used to keep some of the garden alive, especially the old magnolia grandiflora. Part of the original square sectioned iron guttering that takes the roof water remains on the west roof of the house.
The tennis court must be very old because the area is now over-hung by huge branches of the big oak and of the buya pine (araucaria bidwilli). No one would have placed a tennis court under the bunya if it had been big. I drops very prickly leaves, large branches and every three years or so, huge, heavy, cones bigger than pineapples. The buya and many of the older trees were given to Mr. Wragge as seedlings by Baron Von Mueller when the famous botanist was at the Royal Botanic Gardens. There are some old fashioned garden plants and garden pests at Yallambie – some of them far too plentiful and seemingly impossible to eradicate. Ivy has killed several trees. Bindweed, some scrambling plants and onion weed are constant enemies. The ducks and bantams that used to keep down the insect pests and add life and colour to the garden have been massacred by neighbours’ cats and dogs. Four bantam hens remain. Bulbs, shrubs and trees were planted with forethought and at any time of the year there are flowers somewhere in the garden. Honesty, lilac, laurels, a big range of bulbs in flower from April to October, mock orange, flag iris, arum lilies, ixias and Sparaxis, michaelmas daisy, roses, wisteria, christmas roses, periwinkle and many others keep the succession going. There is always a patch of colour somewhere in the garden. The seemingly casual arrangement of the plantings creates corners out of the sun or shade or wind where a person can be alone to read or recuperate or talk with a friend. “A garden is a lovesome thing…”(T. E. Brown).

Photograph of Yallambie from south east by John T Collins, 1984, State Library of Victoria
Photograph of Yallambie from south east by John T Collins, 1984, State Library of Victoria

The water tower used to hold water pumped from the river. Its height gave the pressure for the water to flow around the garden and to the stock troughs. When reticulated water arrived at Yallambie it was linked to the concrete tank and was switched on in summer when the water pressure was low. The pump-house by the river was burnt by vandals about three years ago. Soon after the gardener’s cottage at the foot of the hill at Yallambie was also burnt.
Four generations of families have lived in the historic pile that is the present Yallambie Homestead. Four generations of children have slept in its bedrooms, slid down its bannisters, played in the garden, climbed the trees, ridden their ponies, watched possum and platypus, and had birthday and Christmas, coming of age, engagement and wedding parties in its big family rooms. Each family has made its own impact.
Mr. Wragge’s three daughters, in an era when young ladies painted or sewed and made music, each painted panels for the three doors in the billiard room.
In 1923 it was decided to modernise the house. Marble mantelpieces were torn out and smashed, the old staircase was removed and a big 23 step flight replaced it. In the bedrooms marble was painted to look like wood. Art nouveau did some terribly inartistic things. A brick wall with wooden doors in it enclosed the house garden. It was pulled down and replaced by post and rail, painted white. At this time the cellar was filled in with rubble and the billiard room extended, a bay window being added.
At some stage in the 1950s the National Trust looked at Yallambie, but to restore it would have cost a fortune even then. A figure given was £16000.
The present family has repapered walls that had 1920s style and colour, and painted to maximise light in a house that seemed to have been built to keep out the blistering Australian sun. Floors now do not have carpets screwed down with polished wood strips between. Mats on bare wood emphasise the spacious rooms. But Yallambie is not a showplace – just a family home with a mixed assortment of furniture to meet the family’s needs.
The architecture of the house reflects the emphasis on social class of a hundred years ago. The family rooms have curved window tops, the staff windows are square. In between are the minor curves of the butler’s pantry and the nanny’s bedroom. But the nanny’s room is the only bedroom with no fire place! Door handles are low on staff doors, higher on family doors. Perhaps this indicated an attitude to children. It kept them out of their parents’ hair but the staff could cope! And when electricity was installed there was no switch at the family end of the kitchen.
Now the mother of pearl capped bell pushers do not connect to the service board in the kitchen and if they did the woman who pressed the bell would have to run out and answer herself. Staff sitting rooms, bedrooms and bathroom lead off the kitchen – there is no light in their L shaped passage.
At one time Yallambie employed fourteen people including three gardeners who used to “make plants” in a glasshouse. The glasshouse has fallen down, but the present family still sow seeds and strike cuttings to make their plants. In 1962 there were only 4 Australian native trees or shrubs in the garden. The native ‘forest’ planting in front of the old stables has all been grown in the last 15 years. Only the northern section of the stables remain now. The dividing walls are of native rock, the back hand made bricks and the front and end the remnants of the original timber. The stables appear on a survey map of 1852. They probably date from the very early Bakewell days. Part is paved with rounded river stones.

Yallambie Homestead and Bakewell era stables, corner of Tarcoola Drive and Lambruk Court, c1970
Yallambie Homestead, water tower and Bakewell era stables, corner of Tarcoola Drive and Lambruk Court, c1970

The garden, the river flats and the house have all been used many times to serve the community. Garden and house party, sport day and literary luncheon have all been used to raise money for various purposes or just to bring people together. A Halloween party one year helped neighbouring Americans to feel at home. Churchill Fellows and high school students are among those who have gathered at Yallambie. Journalistic licence leads to imaginative detail – a recent press description of the house included “rusting tanks”, “shingle roof” and “tottering chimneys”. The roof is slate, we can find no rusting tanks, and no one need fear a tottering chimney. Some of the cement rendering has fallen onto the roof. Yallambie seems as solid a homestead now as it was a hundred years ago.
An effect of an old home and garden is to give a sense of being part of the continuity of life, of having roots in the past and prospects in the future.
The Temby’s family of 6 has grown with marriage and children to 16 so the family house built by Thomas Wragge in 1870 remains just that. It is a place all its families have loved.

Yallambie Homestead from the north west, September, 1978
Yallambie Homestead from the north west, September, 1978