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.


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.

9 thoughts on “Diggers in the Garden State”

  1. I had the pleasure of living in Meares House as my father was Commander 3rd Military District, the Army’s Victorian Military District commander back in the 70s. He was the only one to reside there in that capacity as it was renovated as a private dwelling prior to my family moving in and I believe returned to the School of Music after we left. It was a beautiful home but I’m convinced it was haunted. Great memories.


    1. Hi Sally, Meares said he designed Aldermaston in an attempt to relive his “childhood fancies in later life” so I think he would have approved of your childhood there. Maybe you have read my later post, “Things That Go Bump in the Night”. There is still an idea around the Barracks that Aldermaston is haunted but then some people have said the same thing about Yallambie Homestead. Possibly just the possums in the roof. Regards from Ian


    2. I also lived there as a child ( I was the eldest of five) in the mid 1950s as my father was an officer at Watsonia Barracks and I too had many happy childhood memories. The large gardens and orchards were wonderful places to play. In those days there was farm land and a dairy close by and we used to go mushrooming in the paddocks before school. We went to school in Lower Plenty and I remember walking past the oak trees around the house down the long poplar driveway on a hot summers day to catch the bus to school. I have some photos of us as kids in a little porta pool in the garden with the house in the background.


      1. What wonderful memories. It would have been idyllic. Did you have any weird incidents? There were a couple in my time. I drove past it not long ago. Still looks the same except for the severe land reduction surrounding it. It’s majesty has gone a little.


      2. No funny or unusual incidents when we were there Sally. Just snakes and red back spiders plus some blue tongued lizards. Many stories though.


  2. I definitely believe it’s haunted. I woke up one night to heavy breathing on my face and thought it was our dog. But when I turned the light on there was nothing there. I walked out to the landing and looked over the railing and saw the dog asleep by the front door. I’ve never forgotten it.


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