Squatting on the lower Plenty, 1837

Part 1

“The Plenty he described as a rivulet of fine water, but running through a deep ravine which made access difficult. He considered the land very favourable for sheep runs.”
– D S Garden describing Governor Sir Richard Bourke’s assessment of the Plenty River from a visit Bourke made in March, 1837, (Heidelberg – The Land and Its People, MUP)

If the Wurundjeri were relieved to escape from the 1835 “treaty” with John Batman in which they had allegedly ceded a country half the size of greater Melbourne for a few blankets, tomahawks and mirrors, they might well have taken a moment to look at the fine print of Governor Bourke’s pro bono reasoning.

The infamous “Batman Treaty”

It was not the obvious inequity of the “deal” that unsettled Bourke but his belief that the Wurundjeri Aboriginals did not “own” the land on which they stood and on which their ancestors had roamed bare foot for tens of thousands of years. His reasoning was that in real estate terms, it was not by rights theirs to sell. The devil was in the detail of this decision for in the process of making it, with the single stroke of a pen it removed the last obstacle to an inevitable and inexorable influx of British settlers to the Port Phillip District. As a direct result of Bourke’s decree, pastoralists armed doubly with muskets and the notion of terra nullius came across the Straits from Van Diemen’s Land and overland from greater NSW seeking new pastures for their flocks in this reportedly “unoccupied” territory. The open, fertile and well-watered country they found waiting for them around the Yarra and Plenty River valleys was an attractive proposition to these men who, for a £10 annual licence fee, could occupy as much Wurundjeri country as they then thought fit.

A 19th century engraving of an indigenous Australian encampment.

One of the earliest of these pastoralists was Edward (Ned) Willis whose story as a squatter on the lower reaches of the Plenty River in 1837 has been briefly mentioned in these pages previously. Edward was a young man, not yet turned 21 when he arrived with his brother and uncle and more than 600 sheep in the surf at Pt Gellibrand in Port Phillip Bay on 13 April, 1837. Edward and his brother James had been driven away from their home in Van Diemen’s Land after James quarrelled with their father, Richard Willis of Wanstead in the island’s north. Edward soon brought his sheep to the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers where he created a sheep run which stood opposite or perhaps even bordered land that would later form the south eastern part of Yallambie.

Richard Willis’ Wanstead near Campbelltown built c1823. (Source: State Library of Tasmania, LINC Tasmania).

What has not been mentioned previously in these pages is that Edward’s brother, James Willis, kept a diary for five months while pursuing these endeavours. As a document written mostly on the east bank of the lower Plenty, it makes an exceptional companion piece to the “Farm Day Book” kept by the land owning settler William Greig on the west bank at Yallambie three years later. Similarly its content stands as a counterpoint to the description of Willis’ run made by Thomas Walker in his 1838 published account, “A Month in the Bush of Australia”. Like Greig’s story, James diary is filled with the thoughts and frustrations of a well born young man struggling to come to terms with a rough existence in the Australian bush and it remains as a fascinating glimpse into the life of one of our earliest Port Phillip pioneers. The extracts used here are reproduced from the Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 6 where the diary was published in its entirety.

The Port Phillip pioneer, Edward Willis, brother of James.

The diary starts on 9 April, 1837 with the brothers Edward and James Willis and their Uncle, Arthur Willis embarking on the voyage across the Straits from Van Diemen’s Land to Port Phillip where they came ashore on the 13th. Uncle Arthur left the party soon after to arrange his return to Van Diemen’s Land while Edward and James led their shepherds, John Stockly and John Fletcher, by a circuitous route north of the settlement to the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers which they reached on the 18th led there by “Old Tom”, a shepherd working for another squatter, John Wood.

“We procured the assistance of old Tom the shepherd, who conducted us to a creek about two miles off…”

18th April, 1837
Edward and I with our guns started on foot to woods about a mile off, where we procured the assistance of old Tom the shepherd, who conducted us to a creek about two miles off running in a northerly direction. We pursued its course for three miles and found it to be a permanent steam.
We crossed it and came to our present one, which although rather thickly timbered we have every reason to be satisfied with. It is bounded in the South and the East by the Yarra. The stream I have alluded to forms its western boundary (which we call Edward’s Rivulet, but I perceive the surveyors have on their charts dignified it by the name of the ‘River Plenty’), while on the North we have a forest called by us Epping Forest.
Such is the spot selected by Edward for his place of residence for four or five years at the least, when it is hoped he will be able to leave this savage life and move once more among civilised beings…
His employment here during the day is that of a common labourer, and at night he is in momentary dread of losing all he possesses in the world by the attacks of the wild dogs of the country, his ears being alternately regaled with their hideous howls and yells, the squeaking of the flying squirrels, the corkscrew-like noise of the possums and the gloomy monotonous note of that frightful bird the ‘Mow Pork’, which “concord of sweet sound” is not unfrequently accompanied by the reports of our firearms and the shouts of ourselves and men to frighten the dogs from us.
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were employed in erecting a yard at Wanstead, the run (so called after a place of that name known to us in Van’s Land) and clearing a ford over Edward’s Rivulet.

Glimpses of moving sheep in the Australian bush, from The illustrated Australian News and Musical Times, (Source: State Library of Victoria).

James’ estimate that they had travelled three miles upriver before crossing the Plenty would seem to place them squarely opposite Yallambie. However, it is likely that this estimate and other distances mentioned later by James are a little inaccurate, especially when considering the trouble likely encountered moving alongside the unmapped river and struggling through forest and a still virgin countryside. The west bank of the Plenty upriver from the Yarra confluence is overlooked by a steep escarpment so it makes sense that they travelled some distance before attempting a crossing. It seems more than likely that the first crossing place therefore was south of Yallambie at the ford near the end of Martin’s Lane which would over the next few years become the first access route into Eltham and beyond. Edward and James apparently were working in advance of their shepherds since the crossing with the flock and the horse and cart was not attempted until the 22nd.

Conjectural map of Edward Willis 1837 pastoral run based on the 1945 Adastra Airways Aerial survey map of Melbourne . Position of hut recorded at 1841 census marked on the east bank down river from Yallambie.

22nd April, 1837
Set out from Wanstead – reached the ford – crossed with the sheep but found the banks too steep to get the horse and cart over. With spades, axes and tomahawks we commenced digging away the bank on each side, but finding at noon that we still had a day’s work before us, we walked the horse over and carried the contents of the cart across. We then loaded the empty cart by means of a rope into the stream and fastened the horse to it on the opposite side with ropes and traces.
This plan failed as the horse had no power of draught, so we were forced to pull it out the best way we could. This method succeeded, though not until we had been tugging and pushing and bursting ourselves for about three hours. This Herculean labour being accomplished, we reloaded the cart and ascended the first rising ground, when we found about a quarter of a mile from the ford, the yard which Edward and Stockly had built the day previous.

A night camp with sheep, from The Australian News For Home Readers, FG, (Source: State Library of Victoria).

Erected our tarpaulin into a sort of gipsy-looking affair to shelter us from the dews of heaven, and after a hearty meal of damper, bacon and tea we lay down to rest, and although our sleeping place consisted but of the rudest possible contrivance, and in a country equally wild looking, we both declared in the morning that we had had visions of feasting and dancing, of splendid apartments, of beautiful women and of delicious music flitting before us all night.
I could hardly avoid a slight shudder when I first awoke to see a huge mass of food lying close to me, which one of the men with a beard ten days old asked for, calling it ‘the damper’. Verily it was a damper to the delicate state of my feelings at that instant, but it was but for an instant, for I presently commenced an attack upon it myself and thought it very good feeding for a beggar as I then was, and still am…

James’ diary makes many references to their food resources, or rather lack of them, and to his “beggarly” status. On the 23rd April he “caught half a dozen very fine black fish, decidedly the most delicious fish I ever tasted”, and on the 4th May he ate an eel which Edward had caught in the river, “our bacon being all expended.” A sickly ewe had earlier been butchered and although it “proved very poor meat”, “Fletcher made us sea pies of it so long as it lasted, a great treat to us.” On the 15th May they enjoyed another “very splendid sea pie” the preparation and eating of which was described in the following way.

…Viz, two kangaroo rats, two quails, four parrots, one wattle bird, two satin birds (of the magpie species) and a few slices of pork.
It was served up in a large black iron pot and was most delicious – poor Ned was filling his plate a second time. He took some pains to select the most savoury morsels and was just emptying the last spoonful of gravy when the log on which his plate rested slipped and its contents were deposited on a heap of ashes, and great was the laughing at the fall thereof, the dogs being the only animals benefited by the display of Ned’s taste in helping himself…

The destruction of Edward’s meal on this occasion wasn’t the only such instance of loss recorded in the diary. Al fresco dining at their camp was a matter of necessity and not a matter of choice.

28th May
Dull and miserable – at supper this evening Fletcher made sundry attempts to light the lamp before he could succeed. The night was dark and cloudy and there was some wind. The light resisted the puffs of wind until we had all seated ourselves round the table when to infinite confusion, and as I was in the act of cutting a slice of pork, out went the light, away flew the candlestick, which Fletcher had perched upon a huge tin dish and had placed on the weather side of it a board, by way of protecting the luminary from sudden gusts – I rose with the laudable desire of assisting Fletcher in re-lighting the lamp, for I saw that his stock of patience was nearly gone, my knee struck the table which was not proof against this unexpected shock, it gave a lurch, tottered, and fell, when the pannikins of tea, the pork, damper and rice, together with the plates and knives and forks were all thrown in wild disorder all around us.
The wind now abated considerably and we succeeded in keeping the lamp alight which revealed to our view a most delectable chaos. A scramble ensued, in which the dogs persisted in joining, and it was with difficulty that we managed to satisfy ourselves with the fragments rescued from their devouring jaws.

House-keeping in the absence of a kitchen, or for that matter a house, could be a bit of a hit and miss affair. James described the trial of their situation thus:

…It would amuse some of our friends in Van Diemen’s Land to take a peep at us. We take our meals in the open air unless the rain be so violent as to wash the tin plates and pannikins off the table, which cannot be put upon legs until placed in the hut we propose to commence next week – it is at present supported by four logs about six inches from the ground, one of which, the thickest, serves us as a seat on one side.
Our fire is in front of us with a kettle of tea, tea pots being superfluous at Port Phillip. We are surrounded by three or four hungry dogs watching for a mouthful. There is a lump of salt pork in a tin dish, and a damper weighing about twenty pounds, sometimes relieved by a few birds and fish, the latter very seldom now. The men sleep under the tarpaulin, which also protects from the weather a cask of pork and divers other stores.
Our tent is pitched a few yards off, one side is piled high with flour, sugar, tobacco, and our two trunks placed one on the other, form a dressing table covered by a thing intended to look white, its original colour, but being spotted with ink, gunpowder and a variety of other ingredients which have occasionally dropped thereon, together with drops of rain and marks of dust, it would at present be a hard task to convey to anyone the pleasing diversity of colour it presents to the admiring eye of the beholder. We think at some future period of getting it washed.
Our mattresses are laid on the ground, each with a gun case along its side by way of uniformity. A sheep skin serves for the carpet, a trunk of books for a chair, a bag of soiled linen at night keeps the door closed. My writing desk is now my pillow and I am half reclining, half sitting at it. If I am in want of a bright thought, I have only to turn to the right and cast them on a bar of soap or a bag of sugar.

“Looking For a Sheep Run”, an optimistic camp scene by A D Lang, 1847, (Source: State Library of Victoria).

Sleeping beside their gun cases, the brothers’ firearms were apparently always near at hand and it seems, at least by the evidence presented in the diary, were almost constantly in use. In part, the diary reads like a litany of terror for the native birds and wildlife of the lower Plenty as they shot at virtually anything that moved in the surrounding neighbourhood, all of which seems to have gone into their cooking pots. On the 17th May James wrote that they, “Had a stew of birds for supper – capital tho’ it would have been all the better flavoured with ketchup.”

On the 24th James was practicing his shooting on a stationary target when he experienced a mishap while using a small pistol.

…On Sunday while Edward was in town I amused myself for half an hour by practicing at a target with a pistol, cleaned and reloaded it. Took the pocket pistol – found difficulty in pulling the trigger – loaded a second time with buck shot. The pistol burst in my hand, the lock and barrel flying in one side behind me, leaving nothing but the stock (split across the trigger) within my grasp – fortunate to escape – might have caused my sudden exit from this world of woe.

Shepherd returning to the fold, from The Australian Sketchbook, S T Gill, (Source: State Library of Victoria).

This happened on the Sunday but significantly James took three days before he wrote about his brush with death in the diary. Instead, what he did write about the following day was a description of his bitter feelings towards his estranged father Richard Willis and the family feud in Van Diemen’s Land that had resulted in their exile and which had caused James so much personal unhappiness.

This state of things cannot last. Some fearful crisis is at hand. Some impending calamity awaits our family. I dread to conjecture when any father’s unnatural conduct will have an end – he has driven all his sons from his roof… but I grow disgusted at the very remembrance of it – I have already polluted this sheet of paper with the name of a father who loathes the sight of his child – of a husband who does anything but honour and protect his wife, who outrages her feelings and strives by every possible means to render her home as miserable as it should be happy…

The near death experience with the exploding pistol had caused James more than a little self-reflection. His father, Richard was by some reports a somewhat “difficult” man. The Australian Dictionary of Biography states that Richard Willis managed to quarrel with most of his neighbours in northern Van Diemen’s Land in the 1820s and 30s and also that, “unpopularity may have been a factor in his decision to return to England,” permanently in February 1839. Whatever the cause of Richard’s quarrel with his son, there is no doubt that it affected the boy deeply.

12th May
…Ned and I smoked a cigar and retired for the night. Talked of friends in Van Diemen’s Land. I lay thinking until three o’clock in the morning – went to sleep – dreamed I was not a beggar.

Willis’ Run seen from Cleveland Ave, Lower Plenty June, 2017. “Mount” Eagle in the distance at left and the Austin Hospital at Heidelberg visible at right.
Willis’ Run at the confluence of the Yarra and Plenty Rivers, June, 2017.

As stated previously, James refers to his beggarly status on several occasions in the diary, displaying a wry sense of humour in this self-assessment and describing his pecuniary problems with the following diary entries.

3rd May
…Some are born under a lucky star, and some an unlucky star. None of the former could possibly have been shining at my introduction into life. An income of some four or five thousands a year would make this world to me a very beautiful world, but as it is I have ever found it as much the reverse as possible…

And this entry two weeks later, although by this time his money needs would appear to have almost doubled:

18th May
I was very industrious – sitting on a bucket turned upside down and watching the embers of the fire, thinking of a thousand things, I often am inclined to think there must be some mistake about my present condition. I fancy I could spend so amazingly well an income of five or ten thousands. What a delightful thing it is to have a command of money. How easy it would be to make people patronise you. What an excellent nice fellow I should become all at once. The magical influence of that same filthy lucre is truly surprising. I believe I never shall be a rich man – I have a sort of presentiment that it cannot be. I shall never be able to do more than earn a subsistence – drag on a mediocre kind of existence without having any very beautiful visions to look back upon, such as delicious music, captivating women, grand and mighty cities and a thousand pleasures and enjoyments that can be procured by money and when once seen one may almost live upon the remembrance of them.

It’s has been said said that money isn’t everything but at times James wrote of a desire to remove himself completely from his current situation:

9th May
Very wet. Drawing logs for the sheep yard. Hard work, as well as dirty, lifting those same logs. Smoked a cigar, went to bed – wished myself anywhere but at Port Phillip.

And a few weeks later he wrote again, this time wishing himself back in London while sarcastically contrasting his dreams with his daytime labours and the “intellectual conversation” of their shepherds:

25th May
…Our ears were regaled some two or three hours with the highly intellectual conversation of John Fletcher and John Stockly the shepherds. Warmed my toes. Went to rest much edified – dreamed of Aborigines – building chimneys –sheep – split stuff – and London.

Part 2

The joys of living under canvas through a Port Phillip winter quickly palled on the Willis brothers. James was at the settlement in Melbourne, “which at present consists entirely of turf and weather boarded huts, a very primitive looking place” and staying at John Pascoe Fawkner’s board and lodging house where Fawkner’s “one-eyed, genteel wife makes things as comfortable as one can expect,” eating her “curry which was of rabbit and certainly excellent”, when a terrific storm hit the District. James in Melbourne wrote that “the thunder and lightning (was) the most terrific I ever witnessed. I congratulated myself on being comfortably housed and thought of poor Ned at the Inn.” Edward’s own subsequent tale of the confusion at their Plenty River camp was duly recorded in the diary by James:

3rd May
He said it must have been about ten o’clock when in a sound sleep he was awoke by a desperate rush in the sheep fold. At the same instant he heard the two men shouting and hallooing in the most vehement manner, and one flash of lightning which illuminated the tent was followed by a deafening clap of thunder. He sprang from his bed expecting to find all the sheep scattered and an easy prey for the dogs, for so dark was it that you could not see beyond your nose.
The first thing he did was to cheer the men by his voice. Another blaze of lightning for some moments blinded all three of them and they reeled about insensible. Fletcher ran against a tree, a branch of which had wellnigh ripped his bowels open, and then measured his length on the ground where he lay several minutes in momentary expectation of being swallowed up by the earth. Stockly at a short distance from the yard called Fletcher to open the gate, for he thought he was driving the sheep before him, when undeceived he ran up to the fire and enquired ‘whose fire that was’, his hair literally stood on end, he was in his shirt and presented a picture of the most unutterable despair.
During the time the rain descending, the wind blowing and the repeated peals of thunder was such as to appal the heart of a lion. Fully convinced that the wild dogs had got among the sheep the men shouted, yelled and uttered every variety of noise to frighten them away. They both behaved uncommonly well throughout, but such was the tremendous war of the elements that they anticipated nothing short of an earthquake as they declared to me afterwards.
Suddenly it became fair and they found that Master Bush, one of the sheep dogs, in his alarm had jumped in among the sheep as if he sought shelter from them during the dreadful convulsion. Edward stood some minutes at the door of his tent and on reviewing the scene he had just witnessed could scarcely refrain from laughing when he saw the two men in their shirts running about like maniacs they knew not whither with their hair standing on end and bawling, squalling, shouting and screaming in the most frightful manner and falling prostrate on the ground, and then tumbling over a log. Another, mistaking the fire he had just left for some strange fire, fancying he was driving all the sheep into the yard when he called out to have the gate opened. A few of the sheep got out when the rush was made, but in the morning they were found standing quietly beside the fence.

A flock of sheep at a bush camp, from The Australian Sketcher, JAC, (Source: State Library of Victoria).

The Willis brothers were still living under canvas in early June when the land speculator Thomas Walker visited their camp on the Plenty. Walker memorialized this visit in his 1838 book, ““A Month in the Bush of Australia” writing that, “Willis is still living in his tent, but with as much comfort as under such circumstances can be looked for. He has got a nice situation in the fork formed by the junction of the creek “Plenty” and the Yarra Yarra.” (You can read Walker’s full extract in my 2014 post, here). James recorded Walker’s visit in the diary with the following entry:

3rd June
Edward arrived from Melbourne with some gentlemen who came overland from Sydney. Two of them drove a gig the whole way, the rest on horseback, having crossed four rivers and met with no kind of impediment. They accomplished the journey in about a month. Edward with his visitors after dining returned to town, where he has to arrange respecting the payment for two allotments he purchased for Willis Macintyre and Co.

An echo of the Willis brothers on the Plenty – (Cottage, Macedon, by Frederick McCubbin, c1895, Art Gallery NSW).

Throughout most of the narrative of James’ diary, while living in their tent, James writes that the brothers were occupied during the day splitting timbers for a sheep yard and for an associated slab hut. The hut was commenced on 16th May and was presumably located within easy reach of the river ford. The 1841 census placed it where the Plenty Bridge Hotel would later stand above the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge.

On the 23rd May James wrote, “Fine morning. Wet afternoon. Drawing logs for the hut. Slow work – no hired men – all done by our own hands. Ned acts carpenter – he is adzing logs – says it makes his back ache.” Four days later Edward was visiting a neighbouring squatter John Nicholas Wood whose shepherd “Old Tom” had originally led them to the Yarra Plenty confluence. Wood’s run was located approximately in the vicinity of where Hawdon’s Banyule Homestead would later be built. James had described Wood as “a good-natured little fellow though his manners are not the most refined” and Edward was hoping to enlist his help, “roofing the hut, which it is highly expedient we should inhabit before our beds are washed from under us.” The brothers were both suffering from colds at this time as they entered their first Port Phillip winter. On 1st June the building was far enough advanced for Edward to go to Melbourne to purchase nails “to put the roof on the hut” and on the 10th it was James who was in Melbourne collecting a further supply of nails. The deprivations of their house-less existence had taken their toll however and at the end of July, James’ health broke down completely. His painful illness required his immediate removal to Melbourne where the doctor, finding he was “suffering from inflammation caused by cold”, bled him in the Dracula-like medical fashion of the day. Whether or not as a result of the bleeding or simply as a result of a strong constitution, after an interval James was able to write, “I am at length quite restored to health…”

John Batman portrait by William Beckworth McInnes (City of Melbourne Collection )

His humour also seemed restored. John Batman had loaned them his transport, “the only gig in the settlement” to get the invalid to Melbourne and also offered James a room in his home on Batman’s Hill during the period of his convalescence, which was duly declined subsequent to the following chivalric reasoning:

“…I thought it better to decline his offer as he was at that time an invalid himself, and moreover I was rather afraid of encountering the bright eyes of his daughter – for she might have evinced something like that tender solicitude for the wounded Knight’s recovery which the gentler, the fairer, and the softer sex are never without, and which might have prompted something like gratitude in my breast towards the sympathising damsel, admiration probably would follow, and then God knows what. But it seems that the fates have reserved me for a better, or perhaps a worse destiny than would in such case have been the inevitable result.”

The fates had indeed reserved another destiny for James. In the diary entry written just before James’ illness, James described a journey made by the brothers and their neighbour John Wood, up the Plenty River. They were provisioned and had been intending to explore the country for three or four days but after they “had traversed the course of our creek the ‘Plenty’ (or ‘Edward’s Rivulet’, as we call it) some five or six miles”, the party came to a halt upon “a tract of most excellent grazing land.” James wrote that Edward and Wood then “discovered that they must return home instantly to dress sheep”, the implication being that a race was on between the two squatters to see who could relocate a flock to the new pasturage first.

James’ illness occurred directly after this event and when he had recovered sufficiently to return to the Plenty a month later he found that Edward had removed himself to a location which was by James’ estimation, “about seven miles higher up the Plenty”, presumably the land the brothers had seen with Wood previously. At this new location it seems that a second hut had by then been constructed. The building had a thatched roof, as opposed to the nailed shingles of the earlier structure, and had been made ready for the arrival from Van Diemen’s Land of a third Willis brother, William. James described a high hill nearby from which could be “enjoyed a view of the surrounding country for twenty miles and more in every direction.” This second run it would seem therefore was located somewhere north of the Montmorency or “Epping” Forest and in the vicinity of modern day Greensborough, where an apparently unrelated farm “Willis Vale” later developed. It has been suggested (conversation with Anne Paul, Greensborough Historical Society), that the view from the high hill mentioned by James might have been from the top of Flintoff’s Hill near where modern day Civic Drive intersects the Greensborough Bypass, or from Yellow Gum Park in the Plenty Gorge Parklands, but for now this must remain a matter of conjecture.

…and for the first time we found ourselves in a snug turf hut – “The Squatter’s First Home”, with all its comforts by A D Lang, 1847, (Source: State Library of Victoria).

30th August
…and for the first time we found ourselves in a snug turf hut eleven feet by thirteen, with a thatched roof and neatly whitewashed inside.
Ned has a very respectable bedstead in one corner built of wattle sticks; one in the opposite corner is being made for William, whose arrival we are expecting. A rude contrivance bearing some faint resemblance to a sofa stands in the corner near the chimney; it answers the double purpose of sofa by day and my bed at night.
Our table is a very ingenious affair, being a hair trunk placed upon four stakes knocked in the ground, which with two wooden seats entirely of a new fashion and to which we have given the name of chairs, completes our stock of furniture. I should not omit our bookcase, which is composed of three long wattle sticks reaching from wall to wall on either side of the hut, along which our extensive and valuable collections of books appear in formidable array, having their backs, however, towards the company.
On various parts of the wall are skins of birds, and preserved amongst which the tail of a black cockatoo extended in shape of a fan, its feathers being black and crimson alternately, is handsome; several wings and tails of parrots—three kinds—are beautiful — as well as the entire skins of parrots having almost all the colours of the rainbow, some of which are the most rich and lovely I ever saw.
Sky blue, lavender, crimson, scarlet, orange, green and black are the most conspicuous, all being exquisite contrasts to each other.”

Panorama of southern end of Willis’ first Run, 1837 photographed from Cleveland Ave, Lower Plenty June, 2017. Rosanna Golf Club is in the near distance at right. Plenty River is behind the trees at the foot of the escarpment.

Today a large part of Willis’ 1837 pastoral run retains a pleasingly rural character with the land occupied by two golf courses and the Yarra Valley Parklands. How much Edward and James experiences in 1837 involved country that would later form part of the Bakewells’ Yallambee must however remain uncertain. There is no doubt that they roamed freely about nearby and probably at least crossed over a part of it. One of James’ earliest diary entries written on the 28th April mentioned them finding “a small spot of grazing land five miles off” and on the 14th May they found “some beautiful country about four miles from Wanstead” that Edward proposed turning one day into a second run, so the Willis boys were obviously on the lookout for extra pasture from the outset. Garden writing in “Heidelberg – The Land and Its People” thought that the surveyor Robert Hoddle’s notes suggested that Willis’ run involved both sides of the Plenty River, although he readily admits that Hoddle’s notes are difficult to interpret.

“…the Willis boys were obviously on the lookout for extra pasture from the outset.”

The sale of land on the west bank of the lower Plenty in 1838 and on the east bank in 1840 brought an end to the brief squatting era on the lower Plenty. With the return of their father to England at the start of 1839, Edward Willis returned to Van Diemen’s Land and his personal association with the Plenty River ended. In a letter dated 24th March 1839 Edward states that he was leaving the Plenty River ”having notice to ‘quit’ due to the imminent land sales”. He goes on to warn against future occupation of his hut on the Plenty River: “I’d scarce recommend you. For the fleas will soon make it prodigiously clean. That their bloody attacks are not meant to befriend you. This useful bit of information mind is given gratis. For the thriving squatter to the flea good bait is”.

Edward married Catherine the daughter of Captain Charles Swanston at Hobart Town in 1840 and subsequently joined his father in law in partnership in Geelong. James’ diary ends with a statement of his hopes of one day soon himself being offered a position managing a store in Geelong but by 1841 it is believed that he was established at Mernda at a wattle and daub hotel (the Bridge Inn) on the Plenty River crossing. In addition to the inn, Willis’ Mernda enterprise involved a pastoral holding of 400 acres which he again called Wanstead. After their previous Vandemonian and Lower Plenty Wanstead experiences, it’s a wonder that James was still dusting off that nomenclature for another outing at Mernda, but he remained in possession until 1851.

“My Harvest Home” by John Glover, (Source: National Gallery of Australia).

As the story of James Willis and his Plenty River diary fades into forgotten memory, it is comforting to note that the “unlucky star” recorded by James would ultimately be proved wrong by history, at least in a sense. The Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 6, MUP 1986 credits ownership of the diary manuscript to James Willis’ great-grandson, Dr R W Pearson. So it seems that James finally got to appreciate the joys of a family life that he earlier believed would be forever denied him.

Though evidently not in the arms of one of John Batman’s bright eyed daughters.

Advertisements