The past is not such a foreign country

“You are destroying your past, and one day you will realise it when it is too late.”

These words were spoken by Dutch artist Rein Slagmolen nearly fifty years ago and were quoted in a local newspaper report. At the time Slagmolen was referring to the impending demise of an historic, National Trust classified landmark at Yallambie but his words have a discouragingly all too familiar ring to them today as they echo across the passage of the intervening years. As the built face of Melbourne continues to change with every passing year, it turns out the past is not such a foreign country after all. They do things just the same there.

William Laing's Casa Maria, formerly "Woodside Farm", (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
William Laing’s Casa Maria, formerly “Woodside Farm”, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

Slagmolen had been living at Casa Maria, “the House on the Hill”; a local feature on a ridge on what is now the north eastern edge of Yallambie. As stated in the previous post, when John and Robert Bakewell created their farm, “Yallambee Park” at the start of the 1840s by buying up most of the parts of Walker’s subdivision of Portion 8 north of the Lower Plenty Road, the one section that they overlooked was a strip of land combining Walkers’ Lots 6 & 7.

Walker's subdivision of Portion 8 with coneptual overlay of Bakewell c1850 survey map and (part) modern street plan.
Walker’s subdivision of Portion 8 with coneptual overlay of Bakewell c1850 survey map and (part) modern street plan.

This land of about 68 hectares was at this time in the hands of Nicholas Fenwick, later Police Magistrate at Geelong. In 1843, by dint of a complicated deal involving several disassociated parties during the turbulent period characterising the first economic crisis of the Port Phillip District, the land was handballed to William Laing and Peter Johnstone. William Laing soon became the sole owner of the property and built an attic roofed farmhouse, probably adding it in front of a pre-existing, single storey cottage he found already located there to the north.

Laing called the property “Woodside”; an appropriate name perhaps given that Richard Howitt, writing about nearby “Yallambee” in 1842, recorded that: “The locality is at the commencement of the vast and sterile stringy-bark forests.” (Impressions of Australia Felix)

1945 aerial survey showing late 20th century subdivisions and site of Casa Maria (Woodside) farm.
1945 aerial survey showing late 20th century subdivisions and site of Casa Maria (Woodside) farm.
Squatting era kitchen wing, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
Squatting era kitchen wing, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

In the late 1960s, foundation members and honorary architects for the National Trust of Australia, John and Phyllis Murphy, reported that the earliest cottage section at Woodside most probably dated far back to the 1830s and the first days of settlement in Victoria.

Verandah detail, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
Verandah detail, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

The Murphys were well known Melbourne architects at the time and noted for their conservation work at what is still reputed to be Victoria’s earliest building, “Holly Green” (Emu Bottom Homestead). They speculated that the original cottage at Woodside was as old, or perhaps even older, than that Sunbury property itself. Remarkably this would have put the first construction at Woodside outside the first Crown land sales of Heidelberg and back into the short lived squatting era on the Lower Plenty, but their hypothesis seems immaterial now. By any State of Victoria measure, Woodside was old. Very old.

This earliest part of Woodside was used by Laing as a kitchen wing and to minimise fire risks it was kept separated from the main building. It consisted of a large, single storey kitchen/living room area and three utility rooms. The doors of the cottage were small by any standard, barely 180cm tall, with wooden steps that by 1970 had been worn quite hollow by the passage of time. High beams in the roof were concealed by a low ceiling lit by small, crooked windows and much later, a sky light and west facing louvre window. The sum total of kitchen “mod cons” consisted of a simple wooden kitchen dresser built alongside a huge kitchen fireplace. The fireplace had originally been an open arrangement with a chimney crane used to lift pots over the embers, later replaced by the installation of an Aga stove.

Dormer windows", (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
Dormer windows”, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

The other, or front section of the house, erected by William Laing when he took possession of the property, was dual level with two attic dormer bedrooms across a small hallway which was reached via an iron made staircase. These bedrooms were built without internal fireplaces but were kept warm in winter by the heat from the exposed brick work of the chimneys from the ground floor rooms below. Australian Red Cedar joinery was a feature of the lower rooms although later, much of this was ignominiously painted over. The walls were of soft, hand-made bricks and rendered with lime mortar. The roof, originally slate shingled, had been replaced by tiles after a fire in 1950.

20th century addition, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
20th century addition, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

William Laing died in his 90s in 1891 and Woodside passed to his family who continued to farm it until well into the 20th century.

Paved courtyard, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
Paved courtyard, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

A third section of the house with walls made of battened fibro sheets was added between the original cottage and Laing’s main building, joining the three parts together into a “house that Jack built” whole. A small paved court yard was located in a space left vacant on the western side between the two original sections and planted with vines.

Donald S. Garden writing in “Heidelberg: the Land and its People” states that Woodside suffered a somewhat “chequered history” in its later years. A man named Brassier farmed and operated a vineyard at the property, (adding to an early local tradition started by the Bakewells in 1840) and he was followed by a certain Ms Nancy Hassock who operated a riding school there. She was succeeded by a Mr Shaw, who also operated a riding school.

In 1950 Woodside was purchased by an order of novitiate nuns, the Santa Maria Order, who renamed the property “Casa Maria”, the name by which it became more generally known over time in the surrounding community. By this time the original property had been reduced to 11 hectares. The nuns built a prefabricated structure behind the house and this they maintained as a dormitory and chapel.

Casa Maria pictured from the west, south and east, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
Casa Maria pictured from the west, south and east, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

In 1960 Casa Maria was sold again, this time to the property agents Arthur Tucket & Malone. The property was leased for ten years to a succession of tenants but with the carve up of the nearby Yallambie Homestead estate by the developer A V Jennings from September 1966, it was only a matter of time before Casa Maria would itself come to the building planners’ attention. A contemporary newspaper reporting on the Casa Maria property recorded that: “several hundred yards away is Lord Ragg’s Yallambie homestead.” Thomas Wragge would certainly have been amused by this presumptuous promotion of his person to the peerage, however the two properties did occupy adjoining ridges on the western lower reaches of the Plenty River. Laing had been Wragge’s nearest neighbour.

According to Ethel Temby’s memoir, Jennings’ first survey of the Yallambie Homestead “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 the end, Yallambie Homestead was spared this inglorious fate, but for Casa Maria, the end seemed nigh. John T. Collins, a teacher by profession and keen amateur photographer, would record the building between 1967 and 1969 in a series of photographs taken as part of a National Trust programme aimed at recording historic properties.

In the 1960s Rein Slagmolen became the final occupant of the Laing farm house. He was a Dutch born sculptor who, with his wife Hilary Prudence Reynolds, had immigrated to Australia from central Africa shortly after World War II.

The wrecking ball threat...
The wrecking ball threat…

The Slagmolens had four sons and were still renting Casa Maria in 1970 when the wrecking ball came swinging. The family kept horses and enjoyed a semi-rural lifestyle. Their sons would recall frightening childhood friends with night time tales of bushrangers, stories that seemed all too real to ears and imaginations tuned to the sounds of horses in the surrounding paddocks.

Casa Maria childhood, (Slagmolen family collection).
Casa Maria childhood, (Slagmolen family collection).

Rein kept an artist’s studio in the nuns’ old prefab chapel/dormitory from where he operated a successful business “Vetrart Studios” working on collaborative commissions for new church spaces.

Stations of the Cross (6 stages of 14) by Dutch artist Rein Slagmolen, on display in St Francis Xavier Church, Mayona Rd, Montmorency.
Stations of the Cross (6 stages of 14) by Dutch artist Rein Slagmolen, on display in St Francis Xavier Church, Mayona Rd, Montmorency.

The beautiful, light filled Modernist interior, with its sculptures and lead light panels at St Francis Xavier Church, Montmorency are just one local example of his work.

Slagmolen interior of St Francis Xavier Church, Montmorency.
Slagmolen interior of St Francis Xavier Church, Montmorency.
Holy water font by Rein Slagmolen, located inside the entrance to St Francis Xavier Church, Montmorency.
Holy water font by Rein Slagmolen, located inside the entrance to St Francis Xavier Church, Montmorency.

The Slagmolens attempted unsuccessfully several times to buy Casa Maria from the property developer syndicate and a community campaign was launched to save Casa Maria, but it was all to no avail. The chance to create a Montsalvat style artist community at Yallambie was lost. In the words of Donald S. Garden, “the battle culminated in yet another victory to private enterprise,” (ibid). Casa Maria, formerly “Woodside Farm”, was demolished in 1971 to make way for an enlargement of the Yallambie housing estate, the so called “Santa Maria Subdivision”.

Today if you walk past the former location of Casa Maria along Allima Avenue and into Kurdian Court, Yallambie, there is little to remind you of the presence of one of the earliest colonial properties ever built in Victoria. A number of ancient Italian Cypresses still mark the lines of the old garden but these are probably held in little regard, the exotic home of nuisance possums and cockatoos.

As quoted at the start of this post, Rein Slagmolen said, “You are destroying your past, and one day you will realise it when it is too late,” but perhaps he had it all wrong. As the past is destroyed it fades from our collective memory. Without records, who remembers what has gone before? If they are not written down, stories are all too soon forgotten, a fact that has perhaps never been more true in this digital age of email. This has been the operating inspiration behind the existence of this blog from the very first post of August, 2014.

At the time of writing this post, two houses which occupy the former front yard of Casa Maria at 38 and 40 Allima Avenue are scheduled for auction by separate agents later in the month. Furthermore, on a suburban block opposite these houses, a new home is even now nearing completion after a brick veneer from the old A V Jennings/Santa Maria subdivision was cleared away to make way for it. A new, two storey house fills the block almost to its boundaries. It will be a fine home when complete but in a few years’ time, who will remember the earlier succession of homes it replaced and the haunting layers of their life’s existence?

If you’re like me and enjoy watching old episodes of the British made documentary series “Time Team” on cable, it seems there are very few places in the UK where you cannot dig without turning up Roman mosaics or Iron Age ring forts. The European archaeological history of Australia is small beer by comparison but at 10.30am on this Friday at Eltham Library, Jeremy Smith, an archaeologist at Heritage Victoria, is scheduled to give a talk about one example at the site of Viewbank Homestead, just down river from Yallambie. That 1840s era homestead was professionally demolished in 1922 and several digs in the last two decades have uncovered an array of artefacts: jewellery, porcelain, ornaments and coins, all of which give an insight into the lives of the settlers of this district.

Archaeological investigation of remains of Viewbank Homestead, Viewbank, 1997
Archaeological investigation of remains of Viewbank Homestead, Viewbank, 1997

Long academic studies have been devoted to the story of Viewbank. Perhaps one day someone will show enough interest to stick a pick or trowel into the forgotten histories at Yallambie, some of which are still there to be found, just below our pedestrian feet.

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