A POST-WAR POST

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.

"...something dear to the memory of the late Thomas Wragge"
“…something dear to the memory of the late Thomas Wragge”

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.

Ray Harryhausen's fleece, the sort of gold that Jason found on Colchis.
Ray Harryhausen’s fleece, the sort of gold 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.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station with cattle in foreground.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station with cattle in foreground.

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.

Uardry 0.1
Uardry 0.1

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's first Tulla Homestead, on the Wakool River, NSW, c1873.
Thomas Wragge’s first Tulla Homestead, on the Wakool River, NSW, c1873.
Thomas Wragge's second Tulla Homestead, on the Wakool River, NSW, c1900.
Thomas Wragge’s second Tulla Homestead, on the Wakool River, NSW, c1900.
Chowar Homestead, an out station of Tulla on the Niemur River, photographed 1905.
Chowar Homestead, an out station of Tulla on the Niemur River, photographed 1905.

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.

Thomas Wragge at the Yallambie Homestead, c1903.
Thomas Wragge at the Yallambie Homestead, c1903.

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.

Clearance sale announcement from 1947.
Clearance sale announcement from 1947.

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.

Tulla Homestead, June, 1994
Tulla Homestead, June, 1994

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.”

Investigating the ruins of Tulla Station, June, 1994
Investigating the ruins of Tulla Station, June, 1994

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.”

Norman Williams bronze bust
Norman Williams bronze bust

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.

Norman Williams DFM and Bar, CGM
Norman Williams DFM and Bar, CGM

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.

Rear gunner, (Hallifax Bomber), by Dennis Addams, AWM
Rear gunner, (Hallifax Bomber), by Dennis Addams, AWM

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.

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When the war is over

"Most Australian families have an ANZAC story tucked away somewhere in the ancestral vaults." These medals belonged to Pte Clarke, 5th Batallion AIF, the great-uncle of this writer's wife.
“Most Australian families have an ANZAC story tucked away somewhere in the ancestral vaults.” These medals belonged to Pte Clarke, 5th Batallion AIF, the great-uncle of this writer’s wife.

April 25th this year marks the centenary of the first ANZAC Day landings at Gallipoli. In retrospect they weren’t worth a zac strategically but the events of that day have been commemorated ever since on what has become an increasingly important day of Australian and New Zealand national honour.

The spiritual birth of the Australian nation, the so called “baptism of fire” at Gallipoli, is memorialized with something akin to a religious fervour each year. It even gets a football match played in its name at the MCG and that’s about as religious as you can get in this Land of Oz.

Living in Yallambie, you’re never far away from the presence of Australia’s armed forces on ANZAC Day. There’s a Dawn Service at the Simpson Barracks each year. In the past there have been Repatriation Hospitals operating at Bundoora and in Heidelberg.

Bundoora Homestead, Repatriation Hospital, Bundoora, c1920s
Bundoora Homestead Repatriation Hospital, Bundoora, c1920s

Rumour has it, a soldier of the Great War was even buried beneath a cypress tree after 1918, possibly in the grounds of the former convent, Casa Maria, now Kurdian Court, Yallambie. (Conversation with local historian, Shane Stoneham.)

"Casa Maria" Convent, formerly Woodside Farm, Yallambie.
“Casa Maria” Convent, formerly Woodside Farm, Yallambie.

Years ago when our son was very young I well remember him waking me conspiratorially early one ANZAC Day with the words, “Look Daddy, look, I’ve found the money.”

He had in hand my father’s old war service medals and was holding them out to me in a jingly, jangling coin-like demand to get out of bed.

Most Australian families have an ANZAC story tucked away somewhere in the ancestral vaults. As a nation we have a long history of punching above our weight in other people’s conflicts, usually in places with diamonds, oil or strategic rubber plantations. Those medals didn’t see the light of day much when I was a boy. My son’s long dead grandfather had never, ever worn them in life although he did march regularly on “The One Day of the Year” until stopped by ill health. As an ex POW, Dad’s feelings about the war were probably something of a mixed bag.

In 2000, in an attempt to sort through the contents of that bag, I self-published a book at Yallambie of my late father’s memoirs entitled “Titch: The Telling Tales of T C McLachlan”. It was printed in a very limited edition, to be shared exclusively among friends and family. It told the story of my late father, Sapper Tom (Titch) McLachlan, VX33554 in World War II, his childhood in Depression era Ballarat, his active service in Malaya and Singapore with the 2/10th Field Company, RAE and the time that he subsequently spent as a Prisoner of War of the Japanese on the Burma Thailand Railway.

"Titch — The telling tales of T C McLachlan"
“Titch — The telling tales of T C McLachlan”

I cannot remember a time in my childhood when I wasn’t aware in some way of a sketch in outline of that story. Dad had been a prisoner long before I was born but he hadn’t been to gaol and my Mum never baked him a cake with a file in it. I’d seen Samurai on our old telly, watched them fight with razor sharp swords and dangerous looking throwing stars and I had seen them fly magically over tall obstacles. They were worthy opponents, straight out of a story book.

The truth was more complicated and certainly rather less magical. It has taken me a life time to gain a proper understanding of it.

Writing specifically of the 2/10th Field Company in action on Singapore, the Official Historian noted that “these technical troops made a valiant stand,” (Lionel Wigmore, “The Japanese Thrust”, p321, AWM) but the enduring ordeal for the unit came only after they became prisoners of war of the Japanese.

The 2/10th Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers, 2nd AIF. This Unit photograph was probably taken at Bonegilla in north eastern Victoria in late 1940. By wars end five years later, one in three of the men in this photograph were dead.
The 2/10th Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers, 2nd AIF. This Unit photograph was probably taken at Bonegilla in north eastern Victoria in late 1940. By wars end five years later, one in three of the men in this photograph were dead.

My Auntie Melva once said in answer to a relative’s questions about family history, “Why do you want to know about them for? They’re all dead.” Auntie Melva has been dead herself these many years but her answer I guess is an illustration of the contrasting values placed on history by those who have lived it and those who go out in search of it. Totalitarian rulers have been known to rewrite it but it is history that gives us our sense of place. It is why at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we remember.

ANZAC Day dawn service at Gallipoli, photographed by the writer in Australia's Bicentenary year, 1988.
ANZAC Day dawn service at Gallipoli, photographed by the writer in Australia’s Bicentenary year, 1988.

I find something perverse in the current fashion of immortalising the ANZAC Day legend. After all, war is at the root of the ceremonies and as my father once said, “Anyone who seeks to glorify a war never lived through one.” The back firing action this week by a supermarket giant to cash in on the ANZAC tradition in an ill-advised attempt to spruik their products was as tasteless as the so called “fresh food” they were seeking to promote. Paul Keating, that most eloquent former Australian Prime Minister, once said that we make too much of the Gallipoli legend, but his 1993 eulogy at the funeral service of the Unknown Soldier of the Western Front has itself been immortalised and now takes its place as a part of the wider ANZAC legend.

https://www.awm.gov.au/commemoration/keating.asp

ANZAC Day dawn at Gallipoli in Australia's Bicentenary year, 1988.
ANZAC Day dawn at Gallipoli in Australia’s Bicentenary year, 1988.

Some of the most poignant expressions of artistic endeavour have resulted from military conflicts throughout history and the world over.

"Stormtroops advancing under gas," etching and aquatint by Otto Dix, 1924
“Stormtroops advancing under gas,” etching and aquatint by Otto Dix, 1924
Eine Mahnung zur Vorsicht bei der Arbeit (Plakat), 1924 by Käthe Kollwitz.
Eine Mahnung zur Vorsicht bei der Arbeit (Plakat), 1924 by Käthe Kollwitz.

The poetry of Wilfred Owen, the paintings of Goya, the evocative images of the great German expressionists Käthe Kollwitz and Otto Dix and more recently, the confronting portrayals of Afghanistan veterans by contemporary artist and  Archibald prize winner, Ben Quilty to name but a few.

Air Commodore John Oddie, painting by Ben Quilty
Air Commodore John Oddie, painting by Ben Quilty

Similarly, the POW images drawn by Ronald Searle, Jack Chalker and Ray Parkin fix themselves in our minds in a way that even the grainy and authentic photographs of George Aspinall do not.

War also finds expression in music: Victoria Chorale will be performing "Music in War and Peace" at Federation Square on Saturday night and then in St Patrick's Cathedral, Ballarat, on Sunday at 2.30pm.  Works include Elgar's "To the Fallen" and a new piece, "Augustam Amice" by contemporary Australian composer, Adrian Pertout.
War also finds expression in music: Victoria Chorale will be performing “Music in War and Peace” at Federation Square on Saturday night and then in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat, on Sunday at 2.30pm. Works include Elgar’s “To the Fallen” and a new piece, “Augustam Amice” by contemporary Australian composer, Adrian Pertout.

An ex-POW once reported his feelings upon seeing a jungle branch draped in abstract fashion against the linear design of the corrugated metal wall of a Japanese barracks. Across the barrier of their language he enquired of his gaolers why it was that this seemingly functionless object had been placed there. The reply he received was that they found it pleasing to their eyes. The POW felt a pain beyond the usual pain inflicted by a Japanese beating as he recognized the capacity for artistic endeavour within his enemy. It was easier to hate them as brutes than to accept them as fellow members of the human race, capable of a higher expression.

Better days: Tom "Titch" McLachlan, Frank "Kanga" Corr and Neville "Nev" Merrigan, hay making at the Merrigan family farm, Barnawatha, post war.
Better days: Tom “Titch” McLachlan, Frank “Kanga” Corr and Neville “Nev” Merrigan, hay making at the Merrigan family farm, Barnawatha, post war.

When my father returned to Australia at the end of 1945 in his new “loose fitting uniform” the best advice the repatriation department could give the ex POWs was to forget about what had happened and to simply get on with their lives. Post-Traumatic Stress as a diagnosis only came into vogue in the 1980s although it has surely been around since the first humans were chased around the forests by sabre toothed tigers.

Shortly before he died my father confided to me one day in answer to my enquiry that even then, nearly 50 years after the end of World War II, not a day went by when his thoughts did not stray back in some way to those days he had spent as a POW. This is the true legacy of conflict. ANZAC Day is not just about the fallen soldiers but it is about the men who return home carrying with them the burden of their experience. It is about the families they leave behind. It is about the destructive legacy that war levels on a civilised society. It is a legacy that continues even today as the Australian Government moves to commit yet more troops to the Middle East, the words of the Judean People’s Front still ringing in their ears, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

"My Brother Jack", Cpl A J "Jack" McLachlan, 2/14 Batallion, 2nd AIF, the writer's uncle. Wounded in New Guinea he spent "three days crawling through the jungle on my hands and knees" to aid. He had this photograph taken to send home to reassure worrying family. The arm is deliberately posed to hide the injury. His family, knowing he had been injured but unaware of the details, believed on receipt of this picture that he had lost the arm altogether.
“My Brother Jack”, Cpl A J “Jack” McLachlan, 2/14 Batallion, 2nd AIF, the writer’s uncle. Wounded in New Guinea he spent “three days crawling through the jungle on my hands and knees” to aid. He had this photograph taken to send home to reassure worrying family. The arm is deliberately posed to hide the injury. His family, knowing he had been injured but unaware of the details, believed on receipt of this picture that he had lost the arm altogether.

The consequences of Australia’s 20th century military conflicts manifested themselves in a variety of ways for the soldier survivors which were not always apparent by their physical injuries. Some turned to the bottle. Others affected that peculiarly Aussie brand of stoicism — a devil may care, “she’ll be right” attitude that masked an underlying pain. Some chose to live a solitary life and, rarely, a few even found solace in self-destruction. Most sought refuge at some point in the comfort of the local RSL where they could share unspoken memories with mates who understood or could laugh at the sometimes absurdly black humour of war’s lighter side.

At the Shrine of Remembrance on ANZAC Day, 2010. One of the last marches of the 2/10th Field Company with original members, Neville Merrigan and Frank Holland Stabback at the rear.
At the Shrine of Remembrance on ANZAC Day, 2010. One of the last marches of the 2/10th Field Company with original members, Neville Merrigan and Frank Holland Stabback at the rear.
Age shall not weary them: the late Neville Merrigan and Frank Holland-Stabback, still marching in their 90s on ANZAC Day, 2010.
Age shall not weary them: the late Neville Merrigan and Frank Holland-Stabback, still marching in their 90s on ANZAC Day, 2010.

I remember my father parked on a Saturday in the tin shed in our back garden at Rosanna, the chimney of the pot-bellied stove smoking away like a steam ship in the winter of his life. ‘What did he do up there?’ I wondered. “Just getting the scratchings,” he would say, offering his interest in picking that ever elusive gee gee as justification for his solitary musings.

Dr Meares of Yallambie’s Aldermaston Manor served in New Guinea and in the Northern Territory himself during World War II as an Army doctor but it was his post war work helping disturbed veterans that led him to an eminent career in psychiatry. After the war was over, Meares became fascinated by hypno-analysis and a treatment where patients were encouraged to air repressed feelings of conflict. After a trip to Nepal in 1956 he embraced Eastern philosophical ideas such as pain management through mind control. His therapies were somewhat unorthodox for the time and this led him to a gradual departure from the main stream field of psychiatric medicine.

Meares was the author of over 30 books including the 1963 “Atavistic Theory of Mental Homeostasi”and pioneered what became known as “Stillness Meditation”, advocating the idea of accessing the undisturbed calm within a person as an antidote for anxiety, illness and pain. Between 1973 and 1979 he held self-hypnosis classes for up to one hundred people every week which he described as a community service.

Ainslie Dixon Meares (1910-1986)
Ainslie Dixon Meares (1910-1986)

In his student days in the 1980s, a teacher pal of ours worked in a well-known Melbourne book store. He maintains that “Meare’s books went out like hot cakes and we sold them as fast as we could get them in.” They were by far the biggest selling item on the catalogue.

Soldiers aside, there’s always been a need for self-help mantras and today’s modern living seems to be driving the trend to new heights. Over in Lower Plenty there is a meditation venue called the “Vine and Branches Personal Growth Centre”. Set in a 5 acre retreat alongside the Yarra River near its confluence with the Plenty, it aims to promote “growth, holistic health and healing”. Personal growth must be a growth industry since in a sign of the times they have just moved a one hundred year old, disused church from nearby Templestowe and refurbished it for use as an additional venue on site.

Meanwhile, in Heidelberg, the former sub branch of the RSL closed its doors after reportedly failing to get their pokies revenue ticking over. It would seem that pokies are at the heart of many RSL operations today with returned service men themselves taking something of a back seat. In this brave new world of the 2nd millennium, AD, there is no room for sentiment and the sound of jingly jangling money has replaced the sound of jingly jangling medals and the voices of the returned service men yarning over their tall glasses. The Heidelberg RSL was located just below the Heidelberg railway station on the corner of Mount and Yarra Streets, within a block of the land donated by Thomas Wragge to the Anglican Church in the 19th century. The 97 year old RSL building was demolished in the weeks leading up to Christmas. I watched it come down on a day to day basis on my way to and from work. It didn’t take long before there was nothing left of the old building other than a vacant block for yet another Heidelberg apartment complex, and sadly, a few fast fading ANZAC memories.

2/10th Field Company relics including a tin mug that was carried through 3½ years of captivity and the medals that "didn’t see the light of day much".
2/10th Field Company relics including a tin mug that was carried through 3½ years of captivity and the medals that “didn’t see the light of day much”.

Green Days

In the previous post, Lady Betty Lush remembered her childhood visits to the Yallambie Homestead:

“I also loved to be allowed to wander in the garden under the tall pine trees and around the river. It seemed to me a dream garden…”

Travelling around the suburb of Yallambie today it is sometimes hard to reconcile those impressions with the reality of life in a modern city. In 1959 when Nancy and Cliff Bush prepared to leave their farm at Yallambie after a century of occupation by the Wragge family, they commissioned a film maker and family friend, Peter Bassett-Smith to make a 16mm film as a record of the property before it was consumed by the proposed A V Jennings housing development. That film is now housed at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra after its owner, Bill Bush donated it to the library. As a testimony to a farm in close proximity to a capital city in Australia in the middle part of the 20th century, it is a fascinating picture. The scenes of rolling green fields, mature tree lined drives and gardens, the dams filled with water, and the solid, old homestead with its c1840 stable block are a glimpse into a golden, nostalgic world of which only a remnant has survived to the present day.

Still from the film "Yallambie" by Peter Bassett-Smith
Still from the film “Yallambie” by Peter Bassett-Smith

When surveyed at the start of the 1960s, the A V Jennings plan for the subdivision of Yallambie cut through the house garden. Pegs observed close to the Homestead at that time suggest that Jennings also contemplated the demolition of the c1870 farm house.

Still from the film "Yallambie" by Peter Bassett-Smith
Still from the film “Yallambie” by Peter Bassett-Smith

After construction, Tarcoola Drive cut through the house paddock and Lambruk Court opposite the Homestead crossed the site of the old stockyards and loading ramps. A V Jennings auctioned the first blocks of land at Yallambie in September, 1966 for an average price of £4118. From 1974, after the Victorian Government Gazette published its approval, the new suburb was officially listed as “Yallambie”, within the City of Heidelberg (now City of Banyule). Today it is home to a resident population of several thousand people, many of whom are probably unaware of its earlier history. For them and for any others who might be interested to see the beauty of a now vanished farming era, here is that film:

Diggers in the Garden State

Sometime in the 1980s in the last decade of the “Cold War”, there was a tall graffiti on a bus stop in Greensborough Rd outside the entrance to the Watsonia Military Camp. “U2” it proclaimed in large letters of carefully drawn sans serif. It was there for a long time, homage to a rock band from Ireland, without deference to the base beyond or to American spy planes flying thickly in the blue skies up above.

"American spy planes flying thickly in the blue skies up above..."
“American spy planes flying thickly in the blue skies up above…”

Travelling quickly past, the army barracks in Heidelberg’s north wasn’t something we thought about much, unless while turning the pages of a Neville Shute book on the beach on the Mornington Peninsula in the summer holidays. There was some expectation that suburbia would someday obliterate the barracks, if the Cold War Ruskies didn’t manage it first, as agrarian land has never been able to co-exist for long in Melbourne without someone, somewhere wanting to come along and put a housing estate on it. And there were several hundred acres of it enclosing the Watsonia Camp.

The thing is, the “Watsonia Army Barracks” as we called it wasn’t actually in Watsonia. A Commonwealth reserve, the land the camp occupies has habitually been a geographic part of Yallambie, separated from neighbouring Watsonia and Macleod by the Greensborough Hwy and the western end of Yallambie Rd. Known simply as the Simpson Barracks after 1986, not after the Private soldier with the donkey (who incidentally was not a Simpson but a Kirkpatrick), but after a World War II Army brass hat, its official address is Mackay Rd, Yallambie and it occupies what was in the 19th century the western most portion of the Yallambie estate.

Wragge women on a post and rail fence. Sarah Ann Wragge appears to be the person in the middle. Picture taken probably in the fields that later became the Simpson Army Barracks.
Wragge women on a post and rail fence. Sarah Ann Wragge appears to be the person in the middle. Picture taken probably in the fields that later became the Simpson Army Barracks.

When Thomas Wragge died in 1910 his 604 acre Heidelberg property, Yallambie Park, passed to his wife Sarah Ann (less one acre bequeathed to the Church of England) and upon her death five years later, to three of their surviving children, Sarah Annie Murdoch, (ne Wragge) and her brothers Syd and Harry, with a another brother sharing equally from the income.

Between 1920 and 1921, Annie, Syd and Harry agreed to divide the Yallambie estate between them. While the two men received a larger share of the land, Annie took the homestead with 109 acres, including the gardens and the prime alluvial river flats on the western banks of the Plenty River. Syd and Harry both received 247 acres.

Syd leased his brother’s share and with the two portions he and his wife, Grace, developed a farm on the western most part of Yallambie. They named the enterprise “Tulla” after the Wragge family’s famous Riverina sheep station. Syd’s daughter, Lady Betty Lush, (ne Wragge) would later recall her father’s Blanding Castle style farming activities with the following description chronicled by Winty Calder in her book, “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”:

“We built a weekend house on the highest ridge and bought and moved from nearby another house for the manager. Stockyards, fowl pens, stables and cow bails were erected and we went into farming in a small way. In my father’s lifetime we kept bees, fowls, had horses out on agistment in the paddocks but most profitable of all were some middle Yorkshire pigs. These if not a financial success, and it has been said most of my father’s ventures were not a financial success, were definitely a breeding success as one boar ‘Tulla Laird’ (we called the farm Tulla) was champion pig for three years at the Royal Melbourne Show…”

Tulla Laird, with apologies to the Empress of Blandings.
Tulla Laird, with apologies to the Empress of Blandings.

Betty also remembered with fondness her visits to the Yallambie Homestead in the 1920s, by then occupied solely by her Aunt Sarah Annie and Uncle Walter Murdoch and their daughter, her cousin, Nancy. By the early 20th century the garden planted by the Bakewell brothers and Thomas Wragge had reached its maturity and fully justified its nomenclature, Yallambie Park.

"The garden planted by the Bakewell brothers and Thomas Wragge had reached its maturity..."
“The garden planted by the Bakewell brothers and Thomas Wragge had reached its maturity…”

“As a small child I can well remember our trips out to Heidelberg every Sunday afternoon, wet or fine, to supervise the running of the farm, first father then mother, and our weekend visits and Easter vacations spent there. On these longer visits one or all of us were invited always for some reason to Yallambie, very often for dinner and the evening. I loved these visits even though nearly always in the early years I would fall asleep with a book by the billiard room fire while the older ones played a game or so after dinner. Often I would ride down there with a message, only too glad of an excuse to go there. Auntie Annie was always very generous and seemed pleased to see us, and I had what was then known as a “crush” on Nancy. I also loved to be allowed to wander in the garden under the tall pine trees and around the river. It seemed to me a dream garden…”

Kath Wright (later Adams) at Yallambie, 1918
Kathleen (Kath) Wright who, like Betty Wragge, was a cousin of Nancy Murdoch. Kath grew up at “The Trossachs” in Odenwald Rd, Eaglemont and “often rode her horse from her home in Eaglemont to Yallambie when visiting Nancy”. This photograph was taken in 1918 in the stable yard at Yallambie when Kath was about 18 years old.

Betty’s father, Syd Wragge, died prematurely in 1927 aged only 53. His widow Grace initially continued running their Heidelberg farm as a dairy but due to the poor soils on the remote heights located away from the Plenty River flood plain, (Richard Howitt’s “vast and sterile stringy-bark forests” of 1841), and the fact that artificial fertilisers were not used, it was never a great success. In 1934 she decided to sell her 247 acres for £10,000 to Ainslie Meares, a family friend and relation of the wife of a cousin, Jim (JP) Hearn.

Ainslie Dixon Meares (1910-1986) was born in Melbourne and after graduating in medicine from Melbourne University, practiced in the field of psychiatry. He pioneered the concept of therapeutic meditation and wrote many books on the subject on his way to becoming arguably Australia’s most distinguished, certainly its best known and most flamboyant, psychiatrist.

Ainslie Dixon Meares (1910-1986)
Ainslie Dixon Meares (1910-1986)

Meares employed the architect Lesley Forsyth, renowned for his Neo-Tudor houses, to design a two storey brick residence. It was built in 1936 on the high ground that had earlier been selected by Syd Wragge for his dairy farm. Ainslie Meares and his wife Bonnie (ne Byrne) named their house “Aldermaston” after the village in the UK where the couple had spent their honeymoon two years earlier. It was constructed in the style of an English country house at an estimated cost of £7000 and featured a turreted castle tower, steeply graded slate roofs and crisp, white French windows. Its blend of Art Deco and Gothic constructional ideas, together with its sweeping views of Mt Dandenong and the Plenty Ranges was a remarkable architectural realization. A contemporary newspaper report described the finished building:

The circular wooden staircase lies in a rounded turret and leads to the balcony, which surrounds the central hall… all the main rooms open from this spacious hall, which is panelled with Queensland maple … opening from the left hand side of the hall with folding doors is the long, light sitting room at the end of which a tall bay window is carried from ceiling to floor …directly opposite is the dining-room. One of the most attractive rooms in the house is the study, which is octagonal and is panelled with Queensland maple to match the hall. This delightful room has windows on three sides and a door opening to the garden from a fourth …a breakfast room corresponding in shape and size opens from the opposite corner of the hall, and leads to the kitchen and servants’ quarters which are in a separate self-contained wing.

Ainslie’s brother is reported to have lived in a house on another ridge in the district and the two properties were within sight of each other.  Many years later Meares wrote about the inspiration for the design of Aldermaston:

“The old home in which I had been brought up was of unusual design with a central hall going up to the full height of the two storeys. We often try to relive our childhood fancies in later life, and I drew a plan for a house on this principle. I gave these ideas to the architect Mr Les Forsyth, and he designed the details and supervised the building”.

 

Meares' Aldermaston Manor
Meares’ Aldermaston Manor

Aldermaston was rated with an A1 grading by Graeme Butler in his 1985, “Heidelberg Conservation Study, Part 1” which contained the following glowing citation:

“Built in the Neo-Tudor style, so favoured in Heidelberg. Aldermaston is perhaps the biggest and the best, showing an extension of the eclectic style to suit the modern concept of massing. Clinker face brickwork, steep overlapping slated gabled roofs and multi-paned shuttered windows are the components of the style, whilst the curved driveway, with main and service entrances spaced along its length, illustrates a design for facility on a grand scale. Internally, the two levels of the house are carried through to overlook a vast two level space, in the Great Hall manner, with the lacquered veneered panelling, large fireplace, and gallery which communicates with the upper level rooms. The garden has basically survived and is an important part of the hillside setting. This is an outstanding and original house of the Neo-Tudor style and the former first marital home of Australia’s most renowned psychiatrist, Dr Ainslie Meares. The building is of state importance, architecturally and historically.”

Picture from The "Heidelberg Conservation Study, Part 1", 1985
Picture from The “Heidelberg Conservation Study, Part 1”, 1985

In 2011, the Banyule Heritage Review recommended the house for inclusion on the Commonwealth Heritage List.

The Meares lived at Aldermaston for only a brief time in the 1930s before the Army requisitioned the property for training purposes. With the threat of war looming, the adjacent land to the north of the property was developed as an Army training ground and included administrative staff, reception and transit camps for the troops. The area was given the official title of “Camp Q”, but soon became known, somewhat inaccurately, as simply the “Watsonia Barracks”.

Army cadets at Watsonia (Yallambie) military camp, 1944, AWM
Army cadets at Watsonia (Yallambie) military camp, 1944, AWM

In 1941 the Army formally purchased a part of the property and the Meares home was turned into a training hospital for the duration. By that time, Ainslie Meares had enlisted in the Army as a doctor with the rank of Captain. On at least one occasion during those years, Captain Meares, like Evelyn Waugh’s fictional Captain in “Brideshead Revisited”, found himself billeted in Army barracks at the Camp while senior officers were living in the comfort of the manor house.

The 7th Division on parade at Watsonia (Yallambie) military camp, 1944, AWM
The 7th Division on parade at Watsonia (Yallambie) military camp, 1944, AWM

With victory in World War II, the “Watsonia Barracks” began to wind down and by 1946 it was practically deserted. Between 1946 and 1951 the old Army Nissan huts were being used by the Victorian Government as makeshift housing. Some were removed and were to find new life in other uses, such as meeting halls for Scout troops in the district.

Eaglemont Scout Group Hall, removed to Chelsworth Park, Ivanhoe from the "Watsonia" Barracks in 1958.
Eaglemont Scout Group Hall, removed to Chelsworth Park, Ivanhoe from the “Watsonia” Barracks in 1958.

Dr Ainslie and Bonnie Meares returned to Aldermaston Manor but in 1951 they vacated the house again and sold the remaining part of their property to the Army which had decided to extend the Watsonia Camp. At the time there was an expectation that the Army would also purchase the Yallambie Homestead, its gardens and river side farmland. Sarah Annie Murdoch had died in 1949 and the remaining Wragge property at Yallambie had passed to her daughter, Nancy. A preliminary approach was made to Nancy and her husband, Cliff Bush.

The Hon Josiah Francis, Minister for the Army in 1954
The Hon Josiah Francis, Minister for the Army in 1954

“About 1954, the Federal Government put Nancy under considerable pressure to sell her property for extension of the Watsonia Military Camp. She opposed the resumption, but invited Mr Francis, Minister for the Army, to visit her at Yallambie. The entertainment she provided included good food and a Henry Clay cigar, out of which a silverfish popped. Whether for that or for some other reason, the government dropped its plans to compulsorily acquire Yallambie.”

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

Vintage Henry Clay cigar box of the 1880s.
Vintage Henry Clay cigar box of the 1880s.

The Army’s collective “nyet” meant that after 1951 the Camp did not expand beyond its existing boundaries. Nancy retained her Yallambie property but at the end of the decade, after a century of occupation by the Wragge family, she sold it to the real estate developer A. V. Jennings which developed the Yallambie housing estate there after 1966.

Meares’ Aldermaston House remained largely immune from advancing suburbia and was utilised as a residence by the Army’s Victorian Military District commander in the 1970s. Since 1984 it has been the HQ for the Defence Force School of Music where the crashing of cymbals can no doubt be heard mixed in with the laughter of the kookaburras.

In 1991 the Commonwealth declared about 120 acres (50 hectares) of the Simpson Barracks, surplus to Army requirements and sold it to the Defence Housing Authority. The “Pioneer Property Group” entered into a joint venture with the Authority and developed about 500 house lots on the land which was dubbed “Streeton Views” estate at Yallambie. Arthur Streeton had been an official artist in the Great War but I expect it was his earlier Heidelberg School paintings and not his visions of war torn France that the developers had in mind when imagining the Yallambie project.

Pond at Streeton Views estate, Yallambie, March, 2015
Pond at Streeton Views estate, Yallambie, March, 2015

As housing estates go, the Streeton Views exercise was handled with some degree of sensitivity. A grassy common intended to reflect the style of the nearby Meares house and ornamental lakes fashioned from levees banks bordering Lower Plenty Rd were significant features. John Hawker, horticulturalist with Heritage Victoria, was retained to provide advice on preserving a number of significant, pre settlement native trees within the development. The estate won the 1994 Housing Industry Award for best medium density development and the 1996 Urban Design Institute of Australia Award for Best Estate over 200 lots nationwide.

River red gum and pond adjacent to Lower Plenty Rd at Streeton Views estate, Yallambie, March, 2015
River red gum and pond adjacent to Lower Plenty Rd at Streeton Views estate, Yallambie, March, 2015

A recent Armed Services audit of assets at Yallambie is rumoured to have attached a staggering one hundred million dollar price tag on the remaining Army land at the Simpson Barracks, but Mum’s the word, Mr Hockey. The Army has been spending millions on building programmes inside the Simpson Barracks and on security upgrades to the entry points. New gatehouses, due to be completed in June, are being constructed at the main entrance on Greensborough Rd and on the Yallambie Rd entry points.

I saw inside Aldermaston in 2009 while on a tour arranged by the Heidelberg Historical Society but photography was forbidden at that time. Late last month, for the purpose of illustrating this post, I went up to the barracks with the intention of photographing Aldermaston from public stomping ground outside the fence. After a conversation with the guards at the nearby gatehouse that included a discussion about the relative merits of the art of photography around a secure military base, I put my post 9/11 camera away and didn’t get much of a picture I’m afraid.

Aldermaston, photographed with a post 9/11 camera, March, 2015
Aldermaston, photographed with a post 9/11 camera, March, 2015

Thinking about what became of Meares’ home, the greatest distinction of Aldermaston House remains its superlative setting on the highest ground in Yallambie and, thanks to the Army, this has never been built out. The occasional fly over by Army helicopters and loosened roof slates is the price we pay in this suburb for having that extra slice of green swath down the road.

Army Black Hawk helicopters flying low over roof top chimneys of Yallambie Homestead, March, 2011
Army Black Hawk helicopters flying low over roof top chimneys of Yallambie Homestead, March, 2011

It’s an irony that in a world that can no longer afford the environmental destructions caused by military conflicts, it is the Army that has done much to develop a land management strategy at Yallambie. Indigenous trees have been replanted, stands of River Red Gums regenerated and the Yallambie Creek that runs through the Base has been stabilised and overplanted, a boon for wildlife. Driving past on a Saturday morning a few weeks ago the Army woodland bordering Yallambie Rd was brim full of kangaroos. Captain Kangaroo, the all new recruit, perhaps?

The pressures that suburban development can bring can be illustrated by a brief mention of the story of the Plenty Gorge Park upriver from Yallambie. The first proposal for a Park in the Gorge came in the Melbourne Planning Scheme of 1928 however nothing was done until suburban development reached the area in the 1970s and 80s. A community action group, the “Friends of the Plenty Gorge, Inc” was formed in 1987 with the stated aim of extending the Plenty Gorge Park into the southern fringes of the Gorge environment. Irreconcilable differences within the group emerged when land owners bordering the Gorge around Janefield in the south, many of whom had previously maintained the area and thought themselves best qualified to do so, found themselves at loggerheads with environmentalists who favoured a wider strategy. The group effectively disintegrated soon after the southern boundaries of the Park, which placed urban development in close proximity to the Gorge bushland, were declared.

“The debate that tore apart Friends of the Plenty Gorge in many ways reflected debate occurring in the wider society regarding private and public ownership of assets.”

(A Story in Landscape, Gerry Closs, The Australian Experience in the Plenty Valley, Plenty Valley Papers, vol 2, 1996.)

Batman's c1841 apple tree and old Maroondah Aquaduct pipe bridge near the corner of Corowa Cr and Lear Ct, Greensborough, downstream from the Plenty Gorge, March 2015.
Batman’s c1841 apple tree and old Maroondah Aquaduct pipe bridge near the corner of Corowa Cr and Lear Ct, Greensborough, downstream from the Plenty Gorge, March 2015.

Travel anywhere around Melbourne these days and you will find open land is now at a premium. In most suburbs temporary fencing surrounds building projects, very often where houses have been demolished on larger blocks to make way for the multiple unit constructions that seem to be forever popping up like mushrooms. Big Ears might be happy to live in a mushroom but somebody is certainly getting wealthy on the strength of it. A newspaper report last month suggested that “developers are making apartments smaller and smaller because it supercharges their profits.” (The Age, 19 March, 2015). Look at the following link to see what the 70 years since the end of World War II have done to Melbourne and its suburbs.

http://1945.melbourne/

Where will we be in another 70 years? It is a frightening fact that the Chinese used more greenhouse gas producing concrete in three years from 2011 than the United States used throughout the entire course of the previous one hundred years. As Paul Gilding so eloquently explained, “The Earth is Full” and we’re not about to get another one to replace it. There’s a war going on out in the suburbs and this one doesn’t involve the Army. Dr Meares treated returned servicemen suffering from the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress after the War but today it is modern living that is creating victims and people are both its culprits and casualties. Apartment living and the fashion for smaller house blocks might answer the needs of an expanding metropolis but they deny people the health giving benefits in both a physical and spiritual sense of managing a garden.

I was driving with my son yesterday and he pointed at the slogan that can be seen on the number plates of most, late model cars — VICTORIA THE PLACE TO BE.

“What does that mean?” he said.

“Dunno, not New South Wales I suppose. I remember when the plates used to say — THE GARDEN STATE.”

In addition to his series of drawings of "Yallambee", E La Trobe Bateman was a noted garden designer and laid out East Melbourne's Fitzroy Gardens in 1856. In 2011 a plaque was placed on a "meditation bench" in the Gardens to commemorate the life of Ainslie Meares. This is the view from that bench.
In addition to his series of drawings of “Yallambee”, E La Trobe Bateman was a noted garden designer and laid out East Melbourne’s Fitzroy Gardens in 1856. In 2011 a plaque was placed on a “meditation bench” in the Gardens to commemorate the life of Ainslie Meares. This is the view from that bench.

Former State Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett has appeared on television recently and written in the press, proclaiming the health giving benefits of gardening. “I know from experience that gardening is a great antidote to stress and anxiety”, (Herald Sun, 4 March, 2015). Loved and loathed by Victorians in equal measure, Jeff was a controversial figure in political office but since leaving government he has undergone something of a transformation. His work for the mental health organization, Beyond Blue is well known but Jeff claims that it is his garden that gives his life the balance that it needs on a day to day basis and that moreover, Beyond Blue is the most important work he has ever done. It’s an idea that I think would have left old Dr Meares chuffed.

Inscription on the "meditation bench", Fitzroy Gardens, East Melbourne.
Inscription on the “meditation bench”, Fitzroy Gardens, East Melbourne.