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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.