Chances are, if you put a hand in your pocket anywhere in Australia before 1966, what you would pull out would likely contain something dear to the memory of the late Thomas Wragge of Yallambie.
The “shilling ram”. It was a common enough Australian coin from before the Second World War until the introduction of decimal currency in 1966 and featured the portrait of a fine Merino known as “Uardry 0.1”, the Sydney Show Grand Champion ram of 1932.
Bet you didn’t know that sheep have names. Well at least the important ones do. Names like “Kevin” and “Bob” I have no doubt, (although when addressing one another, I have it on good authority that most sheep resort to the more usual sobriquet of “Baa”).
Thomas Wragge had been dead many years before that first shiny, shilling ram was struck so he never saw one in life. He collected more than his fair share of shillings in his woolly career though. Much more than his share those with a Socialist bent might say, including a good measure from activities at the Uardry Station itself with which property he was pretty well acquainted at one time.
Thomas was first and foremost a sheep farmer. I don’t know much about farming sheep personally but I suppose there’s probably more to it than just planting a few sheep seeds in the ground, splashing them with a watering can and watching them push up like little daisies.
Young Thomas Wragge arrived in the newly proclaimed Colony of Victoria in November, 1851 aged 21, but he showed no interest in rushing off to the Victorian gold fields. He believed in another form of gold, the sort that Jason found on Colchis.
At different times in the 50s and 60s Thomas worked on, or leased, the 604 acre Heidelberg property “Yallambee Park” from its owners, John and Robert Bakewell who were wool sorters from Yorkshire, (see the October, 2014 post, “A Yallambie Historical Society”). But Yallambie was no sheep run.
In the early 1860s, while still involved with the Bakewells’ “Yallambee Park”, Thomas, together his brother William and brothers in law John and James Hearn, developed a 32,000 acre pastoral run in the Riverina. They named their property Uardry and it was they who introduced the first Merino sheep there, antecedents in a way perhaps of that very same “Uardry 0.1”, of 1932.
AKA, Mr Baa — the pre-decimal shilling ram.
The Wragge/Hearn Uardry venture lasted only a decade. By 1870 Thomas had left the partnership following a disagreement with at least one of his Hearn brothers in law. It was around this time that Thomas formally purchased “Yallambee Park” from John Bakewell (Robert having died in Middlesex in 1867, leaving his share to his brother) and commenced construction of the current Yallambie Homestead.
Thomas had determined to develop his own sheep station, branching out onto an anabranch of the Murray River, across the border in the colony of New South Wales. The 110,000 acre property (or rather properties) in New South Wales that he gradually acquired he called Tulla Station. Wragge built his first homestead at Tulla in 1873. Later in 1896, when the Riverina property was well established, he built another, grander Tulla under the supervision of his son Syd. In its heyday before being resumed by the government for closer settlement, it is said that Tulla and its out station Chowra, stocked one of the great Merino flocks of New South Wales.
Thomas Wragge used his estate at Yallambie as his city digs while making a fortune from his Riverina sheep properties. He died at Yallambie in May, 1910, aged 79 and his estate was then valued at something under a half million pounds. At the time of his death, Tulla was a consolidated property of both freehold and leasehold land, about 15 kilometres wide from the Niemur River to the Merribit Creek and Wakool River.
The property remained under the administration of the trustees of the estate of Thomas Wragge for the next 35 years, losing about 23,000 acres in 1926 to a forced subdivision for closer settlement under the terms of The Border Railway Agreement. At that time, the governments of Victoria and New South Wales envisaged a sort of rural utopia for Australia, modelled in part on the English ideal of a system of villages dotted across the landscape a few miles apart, supporting a large population with an agricultural economy. Members of the Wragge family had said that the subdivisional lots excised from Tulla in 1926 were too small for viable farming and by 1941, after years of disastrous drought, only three of the 24 lots had been paid for and seven had been repossessed by the estate.
The introduction of the Wakool Irrigation Scheme ushered in a new era for the district which required a different type of farming. It was a type that the trustees of the Thomas Wragge, firmly rooted in the traditions of the pastoral age of the 19th century, had no wish to engage in. During the mid-1930s the main channels of the system had been constructed directly through Tulla and Chowra but despite this, very little use was made of the water except for stock and domestic requirements.
Not long after the Japanese entered World War II in 1941, the Commonwealth Government embarked on an war time, experimental rice growing project at Tulla utilising the Wakool Irrigation Scheme. The stated aim was to develop an industry capable of feeding starving Islander and Asiatic nations after an anticipated Allied victory. In the end, the whole of the remaining property at Tulla was compulsorily resumed from the trustees of the estate of the late Thomas Wragge following the end of World War II. It was intended that the land should be subdivided into farms for ex-servicemen, some of whom would be rice farmers, and sold under the process of the Soldier Settler Scheme of New South Wales.
Depression and World War had changed people’s perceptions of big holdings, and absentee landlords like those at Tulla were considered fair game. Tulla and Chowar were divided into three specific settlements with a total of 24 farms divided from Tulla and allocated to ex-servicemen by ballot. This was the beginning of the history of the “Tullakool” Irrigation Area and it marked the end of the Tulla that Thomas Wragge had known.
Block 224 in the “Tulla settlement” included both the 1873 and 1896 Tulla homesteads. In the late 1950s that block was purchased by a returned serviceman named Bert Hahn. Bert was reportedly miffed to find that he did not qualify for a nice, new asbestos house under the terms of the Soldier Settler Scheme since Board records showed he already had an existing house, or houses, on his block — Tulla mark 1 and 2. Bert battled with the bureaucracy. He didn’t want to live in the old homestead. It was too large. It was too old. It was probably haunted.
In his desperation, Bert decided to take matters into his own hands and planted a string of dynamite around the back of the rambling building. The resulting explosion completely destroyed the back verandahs, office and adjacent rooms, the vestibule and the dining room and seriously damaged the remaining structure.
Bert got his asbestos house.
The stained glass panel containing the name “Tulla” that had been above the front door of the large homestead somehow survived the explosion so Bert removed it and repositioned it over the his fibro front door.
In 1994, my wife and I visited the ruins of Wragge’s Tulla Station while on a mission to learn something about its history. The property had been purchased from Bert Hahn in 1972 by Norman “Shake” Williams, a veteran rice farmer. Norm already owned several blocks in the settlement so he put Block 224 to little use and instead kept the old Tulla farm as a cross between a rice farm and a nature reserve, a habitat for hundreds of bird and marsupial species.
Norm very obligingly showed us over the remains of the old Wragge buildings which by then were in a distressingly damaged condition. The original 1873 homestead had collapsed completely and the 1896 building, blown to kingdom come more than 30 years previously, was being used as a sort of sheep shed. While we were exploring the ghostly corridors of the once stately home that day, another vehicle arrived on the farm carrying the local National Party MP who it apparently was there to just to make a social call. “Two visits in one day,” said a surprised Norm to no one in particular. “Often a month goes by out here and I don’t meet anybody.”
The isolated style of his life, the wildlife and his memories seemed to suit Norm. The MP took me aside after a little while and said, “You might not know this but that old farmer you’ve been talking to was the most decorated NCO airman of the RAAF in World War II. He won the Distinguished Flying Medal twice, and the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. There’s a bronze bust of him on display up there in Canberra.”
So busy had we been exploring the history of a 19th century ruin that we had quite managed to ignore the living history right in front of us.
After the MP had made his call and gone on along his way I delicately steered the conversation with Norm away from rice and ruins and onto the RAAF. Norm told me that he had been a tail gunner in a Pathfinder Squadron in World War II and had served later in Korea and Malaya. One night in 1943 while flying over Germany, in the action that I subsequently learned resulted in his Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, Norm’s Handley Page Halifax bomber was so badly damaged by German night fighters that the crew prepared to bail out. Norm, although severely wounded and with his turret smashed to pieces, instead instructed his pilot on the radio intercom to manoeuvre the Halifax in a way that would give him a reasonable chance to fire from the immobilised tail turret. As the German night fighters returned to finish off the damaged bomber he shot two of them down. As a result the Halifax and her crew somehow survived the mission and managed to limp home to its airfield in England where Norm was cut from the turret.
The servicemen of the Second World War are nearly all gone now, as are all of those from the so called Great War, “the war to end all wars”. But the process continues. Australia still sends her troops all too often to fight in faraway places. As moral philosopher James Flynn has pointed out, we live in a bubble of the present in which many people are ahistorical. Flynn says that people who are ignorant of history and other countries invariably fail in their politics.
“Think how different America would be if every American knew that this is the fifth time western armies have gone to Afghanistan to put its house in order. And if they had some idea of exactly what happened on those four, previous occasions…”
Norm Williams died at Barham in 2007, aged 92, but his story and others like it will live on. The papers have been full of these stories leading up to ANZAC Day. As members of the human race we live our own stories each day in what we call the present, a dividing line between the past and the future, moving forever inexorably into the future, but it is when we think of the past that we become truly time travelers. The modern day Renaissance in the ANZAC tradition is driven at least in part by a new generation wanting to reconnect with its history and the origin stories of their antecedents.
So on this ANZAC Day, mark the stories of sacrifice of Australians in war but pause to remember also what that history really means and of the irrevocable changes wrought on this nation by a 30 Years War in the last century. It seems that those who don’t learn from history are truly destined to repeat it.