Waving not drowning

The summer holidays are a time when many Australians find themselves on a beach. That’s of course unless you’re an Australian Prime Minister serving your country during war time. Then you might find yourself not on a beach at all but off it and, by the by, not waving, but drowning.

Prime Minister Harold Holt on the beach and dreaming about the mermaids before leaving office in the most spectacular fashion. (Source: Australian Information Service)

On a windy summer’s day in 1967, with Australia at war in Vietnam, the then Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt donned his togs and went into the water off Cheviot Beach at the back of Portsea, never to be seen again. That the personal safety of a serving head of state during war time could be taken so lightly was a good one, even for a country as lackadaisical about such things as this one. Conspiracy theories later abounded, the nonsense more in keeping with the Qanon theories of today than in touch with reality. Had he been taken by the mermaids? It was said the PM had a reputation as a pants man and those mermaids certainly have their charms. An even more absurd story soon began circulating which proposed that Prime Minister Holt, a lifelong conservative, had in reality been a Communist agent and had been working for the Chinese government all the time while serving as an Australian Member of Parliament. According to this theory, the PM had faked his own death and instead of drowning he had been pulled on board a waiting Chinese submarine outside Port Phillip by wet suited Chinese frogmen and taken to Red China where he lived out the remainder of his life like some sort of pampered Panda behind the Bamboo Curtain. All complete and utter nonsense of course since, as his widow Zarah later claimed in an unnecessary response, poor Harold, “Didn’t even like Chinese food”. All the same it remains a good story and one to trot out occasionally in the silly season of the Australian summer, a time when our thoughts inevitably turn away from the even harder to believe lies being told elsewhere in the world to a few of the greater questions in life.

Summer holidays on the Mornington Peninsula. (VL McLachlan)

Like where do we go on holiday during a pandemic?

It’s true that most Australians love the beach and with a country that enjoys the advantages of so much coastline, that’s not hard to see why. Yallambie might be a long way from a beach but at this time of year with our streets quiet and face masks unavoidable, the memories of summers long past come to mind as many and varied as the destinations.

Port Phillip Bay, a body of water more or less enclosed by metropolitan Melbourne and the city of Greater Geelong, remains to this day the holiday preference of many Melbournians in the summer time. The bay covers about 2000 square kilometres in area and has a shore line that stretches along 260km of enclosed coast. Most of Port Phillip, while shallow, is navigable with a dredged shipping lane that follows an earlier, prehistoric river bed of the Yarra drowned by rising waters at the end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago.

The days of gunboat diplomacy. HMVS Cerebus, renamed HMAS Cerberus after Federation, photographed at the mouth of the Yarra, Hobson’s Bay, c1914. (Source: Friends of the Cerberus Inc from the State Library of South Australia, http://www.cerberus.com.au/1914.jpg)
Port Phillip Heads, from a print by Edwin Carton Booth, 1870 after John Skinner Prout. (Source: Wikipedia)

From the earliest days then, Port Phillip was always going to be a key to way we imagine ourselves and it quickly became a stopping off point in our contacts with the rest of the world. The rocky heads at the entrance to Port Phillip through which a “Rip” surges at the turn of each tide were often the first sight most immigrants saw on arrival and they became the avenue by which Victoria’s golden mineral wealth later flowed out to the Empire and its first point of defence. In the 19th Century Port Phillip had the reputation of being the most heavily fortified British harbour in the southern hemisphere. The presence of Victoria’s own rotating turret, monitor class warship, the HMVS Cerebus, supported by batteries deployed at fortress locations on either peninsula and on islands inside the shipping channel led to the claim that Port Phillip was a veritable “Gibraltar of the South”. Indeed the first shot fired in World War 1 is said to have come from one of these Port Phillip batteries when a shell was sent across the bows of a German merchant vessel trying to slip anchor at the outbreak of hostilities.

CSS Shenandoah being refitted at Williamstown, 1865. (Source: Wikipedia)
View of the North Shore, Port of Melbourne by W F E Liardet, 1862. (Source State Library of Victoria,

The Bay must have been some sight in those great days of sail with multifarious shipping filling the horizon, from lumbering fishing trawlers to elegantly constructed wooden Barques and armed warships, all criss-crossing the bay with abandon to the port at Melbourne. In 1865 the American Civil War Confederate commerce raider, CSS Shenandoah arrived at neutral Port Phillip to refit, an event that caused a popular sensation in the young colony but which later resulted in heavy pecuniary damages being awarded against the British government in an international court of arbitration. A cannon from the Shenandoah, left behind by the parting ship can be found to this very day at Churchill Island in Western Port, the name of which belies its location just to the east of Port Phillip. The story of the visit of Shenandoah to Melbourne is legendary and just one more example of the rich tapestry of our local maritime heritage.

Cannon at Churchill Island attributed to the Confederate raider, CSS Shenandoah. (McLachlan)
The PS Ozone on Port Phillip. (Source: Wikipedia)

The youngest son of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge, Harry has been mentioned in these pages previously mostly because of his sporting activities. Harry was introduced to boating on Port Phillip Bay at an early age and holidayed at the Nepean Hotel at Portsea where he travelled on George Coppin’s bayside paddle steamers, the PS Hygeia and the PS Ozone. These low draught steamers had the advantage of being able to ply the shallow waters of Port Phillip with impunity and without reference to the vagaries of wind direction required by sail. They became a famous sight on the Bay in the second half of the 19th Century and into the early years of the 20th. The wreckage of the paddle wheel of one, the SS Ozone, is visible even today a little way off the beach at Indented Head on the Bellarine Peninsula. The Ozone was scrapped in 1925 and deliberately sunk at Indented Head as a breakwater, a fate shared by more than one famous ship and even the occasional Great War submarine. Probably the most significant of these though and certainly the oldest was the aforementioned 150 year old HMVS Cerebus which was sunk at Black Rock as a breakwater at about the same time as the SS Ozone at Indented Head, the value of the warship as a very early example of breastwork ironclad naval technology not then properly appreciated.  The Cerebus breakwater is still there even now, a rusting piece of colonial history and easily visible from the beach at low tide, its guns silent and the hulk a home for a mixture of Australian fur seals and rubber suited, sport diving enthusiasts.

In what was a relatively short life, Yallambie’s Harry Wragge is known to have enjoyed various boating activities on Port Phillip Bay and on one documented excursion early in his married life, Harry travelled with a family group in a small dingy across the Bay to Portarlington. The weather roughened and other members of the boating party made a decision to return to Melbourne by road. As Winty Calder later explained:

The sporting Harry Wragge. (Source: Anne Hill collection)

“Harry and his young son, Stewart, set off (to return) by boat. When they did not return in the evening, Annie Murdoch (his sister) and Olive Wragge (his wife) became anxious and organized a rescue party to search for them. The attempt was unsuccessful, but the missing pair was finally found eating a hearty dinner after reaching their jetty. As they failed to let anybody know where they were, they were not very popular for some time.” (Calder, p216)

Harry survived the water that day but, as the fate of another Harold later showed, getting into deep water can have its perils. The world right now seems flooded by some pretty deep tides and it’s going to be tricky to navigate our way out of them. When HMVS Cerebus plied its way up and down the Bay all those years ago, the threat to our sovereignty then was presumed to be military and from the Tsarist Russia. Today it is the threat of economic sanctions from Australia’s largest trading partner in a time of worldwide economic turmoil that is under review. Holt was the Prime Minister under whose leadership Australia began waking up to its place in Asia and although it would take another Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam to formally recognize the People’s Republic, time has only confirmed the reality. I guess there never was a Chinese submarine lurking off the Victorian coast for Holt in 1967 but who knows, these days facts seems to be dependent on Nietzsche and his perspectives, especially in anything to do with politics. We never did get Holt’s snorkel back all those years ago and without a snorkel, waving not drowning might in the end prove just a little difficult. There’s more to being an Australian though than our love of a good holiday and I’ve been thinking, rolling with the punches could prove to be just like rolling with the waves.

We’re a resilient lot. Just you wait and see.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s