The bunyip is a rare creature. So rare in fact that you would be hard pressed in a world without fantasy to find anybody today who will fully admit to ever having seen one. But according to the testimony of first contact era Aboriginal people, the bunyip was real, an amphibious animal much given to lurking in the dark waters of reedy creeks and billabongs, coming out at night to make a meal of the unwary. Their descriptions in the early 19th century varied widely and ranged from an animal with tusks and a furry body the size of an ox to a creature something more like an emu with a horse like tail, a duck bill, feathers and flippers.
There’s something to be said for the creative imaginations of the first Australians or maybe their propensity for the gentle leg pulling of the white interlopers. Their contradictory stories fascinated the pioneer settlers who wanted to believe that in a land where so much was strange, something still stranger waited just over the horizon yet to be found. The bunyip quickly entered the Australian narrative and it is perhaps not surprising that over time it has been used to sell all manner of things, from boot polish to lawn mowers and has featured in film and in literature.
In one favourite literary and pictorial example, Jenny Wagner and Ron Brooks’ “The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek”, a bunyip again and again asks the existential question as he emerges from the swamp, “What am I, what am I, what am I?” It’s a question that has occurred to most of us at some point in life, and not just bunyips.
I always loved this story book as a kid and its strangely disturbing drawings. The bunyip spends his time exploring the question of existence and is not put off when he meets a mad scientist who, without looking up from his studies, announces matter-of-factly that, “Bunyips simply don’t exist.” Unfortunately the scientist probably had a point because, in spite of Aboriginal testimony to the contrary, the modern consensus would seem that bunyips are a furphy and always have been.
“What a pity,” said the Berkeley’s Creek bunyip when this fact is revealed but the interesting thing for our story here is that, myth busting aside, Yallambee’s John Bakewell is as likely as any in the early history of Victoria to have bagged himself a bunyip. Like his brother Robert, John was an inveterate collector of all things zoological and would surely have been much interested in the story of the bunyip and the surprising thing is, he had more than half a chance to coax one onto the warm hearth rug at Yallambee. Or better still and true to the fashions of those times, get out his long rifle and turn the bunyip into the hearth rug itself.
In addition to being in partnership from 1841 with his brother Robert at Yallambee (Yallambie), John was also a third part of a business partnership with John Mickle and William Lyall which developed extensive pastoral interests around the Western Port area and elsewhere in the 1850s. But it was at their Tooradin run of 16,000 acres, which the following decade John Bakewell would later own exclusively, that legend noted a terrible bunyip lurked alongside the marshy banks of the Bunyip River, somewhere in the deep waters of a lagoon that was never dry even in the hottest of summers. This bunyip, known locally to the Aboriginals of Western Port as Toor-Roo-Dun, was reported to be emu-like in appearance and in habit resembled an eel. It was greatly feared by the Aboriginal tribes who never bathed in the waters of the Western Port swamps for it was said: “A long time ago some of the people bathed in the lake, and they were all drowned, and eaten by Toor-Roo-Dun.” (The Aborigines of Victoria, Richard Shepherd and F. Grosse, 1878).
Like a Creature from the Black Lagoon, Toor-Roo-Dun was a terrifying bogeyman of the native peoples, an unspoken menace that lurked just beyond the edge of sight, an equal part measure of Aboriginal doubt and fear. If truth be known however, the story may have been told to gullible settlers as part of an ongoing Aboriginal prank, so as if to up the ante, the settlers themselves managed to turn the whole business of the bunyip into political satire. In 1853 the Australian journalist, orator and politician, Daniel Deniehy, famously derided the attempts of the squattocracy to introduce a titled, hereditary aristocracy into colonial society by calling the concept a jumped up “Bunyip Aristocracy”, by which ipso facto decree he implied, it didn’t exist.
What John Bakewell thought about Deniehy’s speech remains unrecorded but there is no doubt that at the time it was made, by dint of his various business dealings, Bakewell was well on his way to joining the ranks of this imaginary Australian bunyip peerage. His partnership with his brother Robert at Yallambee also included a successful wool classing enterprise in Melbourne’s Market Street (which became Goldsborough, Mort & Co.) and from 1845 to 1852 involved a large pastoral run at Burnewang on the Campaspe River north east of Bendigo (Sandhurst), clocking in at 113,000 acres. His partnerships with John Mickle and William Lyall from 1851 involved even more extensive undertakings with large runs at Western Port, the Western District and on the Snowy River.
John Bakewell left Yallambee and returned to England with his brother in 1857 and settled at the Old Hall, Balderton in his home county of Nottingham. In England two years later he married Emily Howitt, the niece of Melbourne’s Dr Godfrey Howitt, before returning to Victoria for a final visit in 1862 to resolve his remaining business affairs.
In the UK, Bakewell lived the life of a true blue Bunyip Aristocrat, in spirit if not in name. His Australian adventures had made him a wealthy man. Neil Gunson in “The Good Country – Cranbourne Shire”, 1968, describes the Western Port properties as “Bakewell’s great Tooradin empire,” (p123) noting that they were “early put out to lease,” the revenue derived presumably proving to be a nice little earner for the British based Bakewell.
At Western Port today, John Bakewell is remembered by a Bakewell Street in Cranbourne and a Yallambee Rd in Clyde, the latter road named after a local subdivision of his Tooradin run, sometimes also referred to as “Fields Water”. John Bakewell died at Balderton in 1888 leaving four grown up children.
Alexander Henderson in his rare and compendious 1936 publication, “Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina”, describes John Bakewell as “one of the most prominent of the early pioneer squatters.” It is therefore surprising that in the narrative of Victorian history, his story has been somewhat forgotten. This blog is guilty itself of contributing to an ambiguity by publishing several times a photograph from the SLV purporting to be that of J Bakewell of Bendigo. As John and Robert were known to have had an extensive pastoral run on the Campaspe, (their Burnewang property), I had always assumed this picture to be of Yallambee’s John Bakewell. A photograph in the Henderson book however reveals a different man. Accepting Henderson’s image to be correct I have now replaced it in my legacy posts. Like the Berkeley’s Creek bunyip, John B has had an existential identity crisis. Fortunately for the purpose of my last post, both men at least were committed pogonologists.
So what happened to John Bakewell’s bunyip in the 21st century? Instead of a bunyip aristocracy Federal Australia got its Senate in 1901 which serves as an Upper House of Parliament and is intended to represent the States. Over time this “house of review” has allegedly instead become a “house of obstruction”, populated by minor parties who in a preferential voting system, have done deals with the major parties to secure their franchise. A Greens Senator last week likened the filibustering of the Senate to a scene from “Men Who Stare at Goats” where captured combatants are stuck in a crate and played “The Wiggles” for days on end as a form of torture. The Age reporting thought the process was more like something from “The Lord of the Rings” with Gandalf standing on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm roaring, “You shall not pass.” Perhaps we should take a leaf out of the Queensland example which in 1922 managed to abolish the Upper House of State Parliament altogether.
The irony at Yallambie is that when you vote in the local government ward at Council elections, you vote in an electorate called “Bakewell”, named after the brothers with the bunyip pedigree. Although voting is compulsory at all levels of government in Australia (yes, they have to use the full force of the law to get Australians into the booth on polling day), in 2016 at the last Banyule Council election in Bakewell Ward, no vote was required. After any other potential candidates took a collective step backwards, the sitting member was elected unopposed which is perhaps the truest indication of what we really think about local government.
The bunyip aristocracy might never have got off the ground within the Australian nationhood but believing implicitly in the rhetoric of our egalitarian society denies the simple truth that who you are and where you are born plays a big part in the opportunities you get dealt in life. Was the iron suited outlaw, Ned Kelly born bad or was he made bad by a system that was weighted against him from the day that he first drew breath? It is a question that has intrigued historians and sociologists for generations. We’ve all heard the expression, “He was born on the wrong side of the tracks,” but the reality is that sometimes people have little choice in the matter.
In Melbourne today, many government funded schools now exclude student applicants from disadvantaged suburbs. The Gonski Report was supposed to level out the playing field but with Government refusing to fully fund that report’s recommendations, its commendable ambitions have been made a mockery. In Yallambie, you might pay a premium to rent or buy a house that falls within the “zone” of the so called better of the local government schools but still find your children excluded if your house falls a few millimetres outside the zone on a map. It is a process that continues to drive up the price of real estate in certain suburbs all across Melbourne.
Many reports locally and internationally have identified a direct correlation between poor educational standards and recidivism but in some enlightened communities the problem is now being addressed by a new approach called “Justice Reinvestment”. This is a process which takes the money that would otherwise be spent building prisons and using it instead to fund education and community infrastructure in disadvantaged communities. In many cases it has led to a cut in crime and ultimately saved money.
It seems like a good idea to me, but good luck to the Lucky Country if you expect the idea to ever catch on here unilaterally any time soon. It’s enough to make a Berkeley’s Creek bunyip balk and jump right back into the watery hole from which he came, the words of the scientist still ringing in his ears, “You’re nothing.” In a country lacking imagination just as much as aristocrats, maybe there’s a good reason why none of us have ever seen a bunyip.