All posts by Yallambie

Yallambie is a suburb of Melbourne, 16km from the city in the "Goldilocks Zone", not too close and not too far out making the living there "just right". The area was first settled in the 1840s and a mid Victorian era homestead still stands above former agricultural land beside the Plenty River. Today just over 4000 souls call Yallambie home.

It is better that we don’t know what we don’t know until such time as we know it

It was in the cold, glowing, radioactive light of the Post-Apocalyptic new day that the truth was unveiled. The facts were utterly undeniable, even by that seemingly discredited Godzilla, post-Karen Silkwood institution which constitutes the nuclear power industry of this 21st century island Earth. A little over a year after the nuclear melt downs at the Fukushima nuclear power station following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, an independent investigating commission found that, given the earthquake prone nature of the country, the disaster had been entirely predictable and that the safety failures that occurred during the crisis should therefore have been perfectly preventable.

It was a finding that was of little comfort to those gleaming in the warm, green glow of the nuclear aftermath. The resulting catastrophic release of radioactive material into the environment was a disaster of atomic proportions for Japan and its neighbouring countries around the Pacific Rim, the ongoing effect of which is still being felt and which may not be fully realized yet for decades to come.

With the finger pointing that followed, the operator of the Japanese Fukushima plant subsequently revealed that one of the main reasons for its lack of preparedness was an underlying fear of the negative publicity and protests that might follow any admission of these safety concerns. When it comes to the nuclear industry then, it seems it is better that we don’t know what we don’t know until such time as we know it.

Lower Plenty Rd c1965 before the realignment across the new Lower Plenty Rd Bridge. This picture, which was taken from a position approximately where the ARL would later be built, shows the rural nature of the area in this era. (Picture source: © from the collection of the Eltham District Historical Society)

In Yallambie in 1974 a similar line was drawn in the sands of truth when a proposal was made to carve off about eight acres of green fields from the Army camp and build an Australian radiation laboratory in what even then was an emerging suburban environment. The land was part of a Federal Government reserve but since the start of the 1960s it had been leased by an inoffensive pony riding school fronting Lower Plenty Rd near the corner of the present day Yallambie Rd intersection.

Lower Plenty rd, a single lane in either direction at the Yallambie Rd intersection. The timber building prominent in the picture was replaced by the ARL development. (Source: PIT Environmental Impact Statement, 1974)

At the time, the proposal was met with stiff opposition from local residents of Yallambie led by the Yallambie Progress Association which had formed in 1972 to give residents of the embryonic A V Jennings housing estate a voice in local affairs. The Association convinced the Department of the Environment and Conservation to stump up $1000 to pay for the Preston Institute of Technology to write an expert environmental impact statement for the proposed laboratory site. It was a move that was surrounded with a degree of irony as the government Department of the Environment and Conservation was effectively paying to investigate the actions of another government department, the Department of Health, which was the body ultimately responsible for the Australian Radiation Laboratory.

Jim O’Connor who wrote the PIT environmental impact study into the proposed laboratory, (Picture source: The Heidelberger, 12 June, 1974).

The report was written by John O’Connor, an air pollution PHD post graduate from the Centre for Environmental Studies at PIT, Bundoora. His three month study found that the expected radiation created by the laboratory when operational would be about the same amount as the fallout from French nuclear testing in the Pacific, which at that time was becoming a major international environmental concern. On site radioactive waste however was not deemed to be an issue. The report noted that:

“Both low level and high level solid radioactive wastes are to be disposed of at a site remote from Yallambie and do not present a hazard to local residents”.

In light of subsequent developments, it would be interesting now to know what information O’Connor based that statement upon.

The Yallambie Progress Association wrote to the director of the Australian Radiation Laboratory, a Mr D Stevens in May 1974 asking him for a response to a list of 23 questions that the Association had prepared pertaining to the nature of the proposed complex. Mr Stevens reply when received was a typical bureaucratic exercise in evasive double speak:

“It would not be appropriate for me to reply direct to you with answers to your questions. However, you may be assured that answers will be provided at the public hearing of evidence. The Health Department has been advised by the Secretary of the Public Works Committee that explanations, answers to questions and the like should now be part of the evidence presented and considered by the committee.”

Yallambie Progress Association member, Robyn McConville and her daughter in their Woona Crt backyard, Yallambie overlooking the proposed Australian Radiation Laboratory site. (Picture source: The Sun News Pictorial, 17 September, 1974.

Vice President of the Yallambie Progress Association, Doug McConville who lived in Woona Crt at the back of the proposed site at this time said in response, “We should have answers to these questions, otherwise we will not be able to give considered objections.” He might very well have also added, “We don’t know what we don’t know until such time as we know it.”

Nevertheless, a petition opposing the proposed laboratory was signed by 342 local residents and presented to the Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works which sent members to visit the site before convening a meeting at the old Lower Plenty Community Hall behind the Lower Plenty shops to discuss the issue over a two day period in  September, 1974. Members of the Yallambie Progress Association took time off from their busy working lives to attend the meeting which was chaired by Keith Johnson, MHR in the wide tied Whitlam era government, with seven of the eight bi-partisan Parliamentary Standing Committee members present. A 22 page “Statement of Opinion on Behalf of the Residents of Yallambie” was tabled detailing residents many concerns with the proposed development.

The ARPANSA building visible through the trees in its suburban location as seen from the southern end of Yallambie Road, September, 2018.

The result was of course a foregone conclusion. The Government needed a site for their laboratory. It needed it to be on land owned by the Federal Government. It needed it to be within the area of metropolitan Melbourne, in reasonable proximity to Melbourne airport and suburban hospitals and also easily accessible from the City. Oh, and it had to be a place no one had ever heard of. Yallambie ticked the boxes, especially the last. In a story probably familiar to followers of the more recent saga of North East Link, a decision may have been made behind closed doors months before the public meeting was played out. The resulting resolution in favour was suitably rubber stamped and construction commenced, the only concession to residents’ wishes being the adoption of a policy to overplant the area with native trees.

River red gum and pond at “Streeton Views”, Yallambie, March, 2015

The design approved by the Standing Committee placed the “high radioactive areas” in the basement of the east wing of the complex with the direction of radiation going westwards into the undulating hillside. “As earth is an excellent absorber of radiation, this has lowered the amount of shielding that would have been required by other means”. (Standing Committee, Fifth Report, 1974) As the Streeton Views estate was subsequently constructed on that hillside, one would hope that the earth really is the “excellent absorber” described in that 1974 report.

Architect’s rendering of the ARL proposal at Yallambie. (Source: Report on the ARL proposal at Yallambie, Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works, Fifth Report, 1974)

Three 5000 gallon holding tanks were planned as part of the construction, capable of holding low level radioactive waste with the intention of developing a regime of watering the waste down and disposing of it regularly into the Metropolitan sewerage system. The Standing Committee Report noted that this was a standard practice provided for in the Victorian Radioactive Substances Regulations and in similar legislation in other states. The report did not mention any plans for ongoing storage facilities of solid radioactive wastes.

The facility was budgeted at $3,600,000, which was about three times the price the Whitlam Government controversially paid for Pollock’s Blue Poles in the same era. Which do you think was the better bargain?

The Australian Radiation Laboratory moved into the building four years later with their stated objectives at that time being to provide protection standards and codes of practice for radiation emitting devices throughout Australia and to maintain standards in radiopharmaceutical drugs used in nuclear medicine.

A sullen silence descended over the facility, the young trees shadowing the new property like a dark veil of secrecy surrounding the site. What was really going on in there? It was anybody’s guess. The minutes of the Yallambie Progress Association indicate the ongoing concerns of local residents. Minutes from the Annual General Meeting in March, 1986 show correspondence from Victorian State Premier John Cain offering “assurance of no dumping of radioactive waste at the Nat Radiation Lab at Yallambie”. As the site had always been controlled by the Federal Government it is unclear why Mr Cain felt he was in a position to offer this assurance. Maybe it was wishful thinking.

A 1981 aerial survey of the area showing the proximity of the ARL facility to Yallambie and Viewbank.
A 2018 view of the ARL ARPANSA site surrounded by the suburban streets of Yallambie and Viewbank.

In 1992 the Yallambie Progress Association noted a newspaper article that stated Victoria’s radioactive wastes were stored at four locations – East Sale, Bandiana near Wodonga, Broadmeadows and “Lower Plenty”. The newspaper article went on to say that some of the locations were deemed to be inadequate for storing radioactive material, noting that one of the four sites “was in a flood-prone area”. (Herald-Sun, 1 June, 1992) As the Yallambie facility was built next to the outfall of the Yallambie Creek near its confluence with the lower reaches of the Plenty River, a site that had been known to flood previously, it seems pretty clear which site the newspaper article was describing as inadequate.

The proposed ARL site flooded by the Yallambie Creek. (Source: PIT Environmental Impact Statement, 1974)

In 1998 the Australian Radiation Laboratory changed its name to ARPANSA (the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency) in a move some thought was a cynical attempt by the Laboratory to appease the great unwashed by removing the unfriendly word “Radiation” from its letterhead altogether. It’s been 40 years now since the radiation facility first started their operations at Yallambie but residents in the back streets of the south east end of our suburb, together with those in neighbouring Viewbank might have wondered what was up this year at ARPANSA. The obvious thing was a crane. It appeared in the sky over the tree tops at the back of the facility and stayed there for months. But what was it for?

ARPANSA photographed from the Viewbank side of Lower Plenty Rd, September, 2018.

Last week an article by Clay Lucas appeared in the columns of The Age newspaper which gave a hint. Clay reported that an FOI request had revealed that 210 drums of waste from the former Commonwealth Radium Laboratory at Melbourne University had been marked for indefinite disposal at the ARPANSA facility at Yallambie and that the removal to the site which had started on the quiet was already well under way. The material had been classified as “suitable for disposal in engineered near-surface facilities and [requiring] isolation and containment for periods of up to a few hundred years” but alarmingly an ARPANSA spokeswoman was also reported as saying that the 210 drums from the University represented only “a tiny percentage of the radioactive waste held at the facility – 0.1 per cent.” By their own admission then they were suggesting that the facility is holding a staggering 210,000 barrels of radioactive waste at Yallambie.

I beg your pardon, what?

Surely that is an exaggeration of the facility, or as is more likely, a fault with the finger counting of my school grade mathematics. The FOI request asked for a public disclosure to be made about the arrangements of payments between ARPANSA and the University but this had been denied with the plan deemed as being “subject to a confidential memorandum of understanding”, while the University itself described the arrangement as “commercial-in-confidence”.

In July, 1992 the Keating Government announced it would find a site for a national storage site for the “relatively” small amounts of nuclear waste materials produced in Australia. More than 25 years on and with multiple changes of government the Feds are still looking. The trouble is, while all the states think the proposal of a National storage site is a pretty good idea in principle, that principle only holds true if the site is not in your own back yard.

The Age newspaper story last week about the radioactive material going on its one way journey to Yallambie asks more questions than it has answered. Looking back over the old minutes of the Yallambie Progress Association from the 1970s it is clear to me that even with all the strong objections that were mounted at that time to the construction of the Radiation Laboratory, it was never suggested that the facility would later become a defacto nuclear waste dumping ground. Former members of the Yallambie Progress Association and long-time Yallambie residents, Alec and Brenda Demetris told me on Friday when I discussed this with them that if they had known in their younger days what would be revealed this week in The Age, they would not have been writing petitions and reports in 1974. They would have been chaining themselves to the builders’ fencing.

There’s been a fair bit of conjecture about the need for Orwellian truth in society of late. The tabling of a mountain of documents in State Parliament about an old planning decision gone wrong is said to set a dangerous precedent for the system of Westminster Government in Victoria. I say, bring it on. It’s time to fess up. Those outdated and undemocratic conventions where governments can hide their decisions behind a veil of secrecy for decades need to be reversed as it is only by disclosure that freedom of information and the public’s right to know can be satisfied in a democratic society. If the people of Fukushima had known what they didn’t know before the time that they knew it, would the power station operator have been able to leave the Fukushima plant so inadequately prepared for the disaster that overtook it? If we had known in the past what questions to ask about the radioactive waste dump that has been allowed to operate at Yallambie, would it have been able to exist in the middle suburbs of Melbourne for so long?

Advertisements

The large and bushy cat

After more than 14 years, the old dog still has a few tricks.

One morning last month after climbing out of bed she made a bee line for the back room and started doing somersaults.

“Woof, woof, woof.” She pranced from one corner of the room to the other, stopping regularly at the fire place to sniff at the grate.

‘What’s going on here?’ I wondered as I unlocked the door that opens onto the back verandah. She was immediately between my legs and outside, tearing down the slope into the crisp July morning air at a great pace and barking into space fit to wake up the neighbourhood. As I came out after her I was just in time to see something ginger and bushy shoot out from under the timber deck of the old verandah and vanish into the trees shaded by the pale morning light.

‘That was a very large, bushy cat,’ I thought to myself as I tried in vain to call the dog back. ‘How did our venerable, short sighted and hearing impaired hound know something was under the verandah from her comfortable tartan bed, inside the house?’

“Dogs are like that, aren’t they?”

Dogs are like that, aren’t they? The next morning it was on again. This time it was my wife who was looking from a window looking out onto the same verandah when, in response to another commotion from the dog, she clearly saw something shoot out from under the deck and take off down the slope for a second time. Moggy indeed my good lady! Have you ever seen a fox trot?

“Oh, but he was so cute,” she said as she went on to describe to me the fox she had seen from her window.

Cute maybe, but the Fantastic Mr Fox is an introduced pest in Australia and has been held responsible for the extinction of several of our native species across the mainland since settlement. Foxes are common in urban areas and they are widespread across a country where it has been estimated that there are now over 7 million of the blighters. That’s nearly two foxes for every pet dog in the country. My only sainted aunt, the said venerable hound must be feeling like a member of some sort of Yallambie social minority.

Hunt Club meeting outside the Old England Hotel, Heidelberg. (Source: Old England Hotel)
Melbourne Hunting Club meeting at Heidelberg, from “The Illustrated Australian News”, 1895. The prominent building in this picture is possibly Wragge’s Heidelberg Recreation Hall. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

Foxes were imported for sport to Port Phillip in the early days and Heidelberg to the north east of Melbourne was to become a favourite meeting place for the Melbourne hunting clubs that formed, particularly towards the end of the 19th century. The Old England Hotel in Heidelberg opposite the recreation hall owned by Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge in Lower Heidelberg Rd was for nearly half a century the favoured venue for many of these hunting club ventures. The course generally involved the release of a fox on one of the larger local estates followed by a chase over the fields and a subsequent return to the Hotel for refreshments. The Old England as a staging post provided purpose built kennels and horse stalls for the hunt while local children, displaying an entrepreneurial spirit, sometimes earned a shilling holding the reins of unstabled horses as the riders took their tea inside.

Oaklands Hunt Club meeting at Viewbank,1958. (Source: Picture Victoria, ©Heidelberg Historical Society)

For a while the hunts proved to be important social occasions in the district and the events were even occasionally patronized by Victoria’s vice regal society. At one occasion in 1874 it was recorded that the Lieutenant Governor and his wife, Sir George and Lady Bowen followed a hunt all the way from Heidelberg to Eltham in their four horse carriage, a route that would almost certainly have taken them past the southern fields of Yallambie itself.

Sanitary style wallpapersof the Hunt from an upstairs sub floor area at Yallambie Homestead.

While Thomas Wragge’s youngest son Harry is known to have hunted in the Pink on a visit to England (Calder: Classing the Wool, p145), it remains unclear now whether the Wragges on the whole followed any of these local gatherings on a regular basis. Their love of the equestrian has been documented elsewhere and, perhaps tellingly, a set of oleographs of the Hunt are remembered as hanging over the dining room fireplace at the Wragge family’s Riverina country property, Tulla Homestead and wall papers of hunting scenes have been found behind the skirting boards of the original billiards room at Yallambie Homestead.

Thomas Wragge’s second Tulla Homestead located on the Wakool River, NSW, c1900. (Source: Betty Lush Collection).

At Tulla the spread of vermin foxes had reached the vicinity of the nearby Barham by 1895, but with the coming of the motor car on the family’s up country Riverina properties, a more pragmatic mount seems to have been favoured for the hunt in the 20th century.

Thomas Wragge’s grand-daughter Lady Betty Lush recalled a thrilling fox hunt that took place at Chowar in the station Chevrolet when a fox led them on a long dance through the paddocks, the car driving through swamps and tussock grass, wire net fences and fallen timber before finally being run to ground in a haystack. With Betty’s sister Molly behind the wheel of the lurching car, their mother crouching on the floor in abject terror, their father stood to attention on the back seat, swinging the loaded shot gun wildly around in every direction in search of the target.

“(The fox) was aware of us when father who was standing up in the back of the car with the gun, the hood of the car was down of course, called out to Molly, ‘Let her go’. Molly misunderstood and jammed on the brakes where upon father fell onto the back seat and both barrels fortunately discharged into the air.” (Calder, ibid, quoting Lush)

Thomas Wragge (bearded, behind left) with children at Yallambie. Youngest son Harry is in the front holding up a shot gun while another son, Syd is lying behind him also with a shot gun. (Source: Bill Bush collection)

From this story and from photographic evidence in the Bush Collection, it is obvious that guns were important to the Wragges, both as a recreation and as tools of the trade on a working farm where not all targets came in the size of the proverbial haystack. The fact is the record shows that the Wragge’s had something of a prior history with the Fox and the story of the cavalier attitudes towards firearms described by Betty at Chowar is perhaps to be wondered at upon reflection.

William Wragge, 1875-1906 (Source: Anne Hill collection)

The inherent danger associated with firearms is nowhere better illustrated than in the following tale of the sad demise of Will Wragge at Yallambie in 1906. William, the second youngest son of Thomas, met a premature end after going out with a gun under his arm in the early morning air, calling after his sister Jessie as he did so that he had seen a fox from his window. His sister wrote afterwards that:

“Willie while dressing – morning saw from his bedroom window a fox in the orchard. He hurried threw on a raincoat & taking a pea-rifle followed the fox. When he did not come into breakfast, after a reasonable time, someone went in search and found his body beside a stile shot dead. They think that in crossing on the stile he must have stepped on his raincoat, blundered and the loaded rifle killed him.”

Will was just 30 years old when this happened, a life cut short. The Coroner, Dr Cole delivered an open verdict due to an insufficient evidence to show how or by what means the gun had exploded but there is no doubt Will’s tragic death left a hole in the lives of all those around him.

“Oryctolagus cuniculus”, the bunny who wandered in from the cold and stayed on at Yallambie as a pet. She was once lost inside a chimney of the house for several days but survived that adventure to enjoy many more carrots.

The Fox won that one but although feral foxes have been a problem on rural properties across Australia for many years, their presence did help in a small way to keep a check on another introduced species whose presence was to wreak even greater general damage to the Australian mainland environment. Oryctolagus cuniculus, better known to us as that ever so cute wild bunny rabbit is said to have been introduced to Australia in 1859 by Thomas Austin, whose money after his death founded locally Heidelberg’s Austin Hospital.

Wood engraving from “The Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers”, 1867 after an original by Nicholas Chevalier showing a rabbit hunt at Barwon Park. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

Thomas Austin was a keen sportsman and wanted a few bunnies to hunt around his Western District property, Barwon Park at Winchelsea. It’s said that he stated at the time that, “The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home.” Like the American Civil War general who said, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance,” they were to prove to be famous last words. Australia didn’t get elephants running wild at the bottom of the garden, but we did get rabbits. Loads of them. Rabbits adapted so well to local conditions that Austin soon found, keen sportsman though he was, that his rabbits were breeding faster than he could ever possibly manage to shoot them down.

“Loads of them…”

All sorts of programmes were developed to try to control the spread of the species, from dynamiting and poisoning their burrows and erecting rabbit proof fences to the cruel biological controls of the 20th century, but still the damage continued. Rabbits were first mentioned in the Tulla diaries of 1883, the year in which the Rabbit Nuisance Act of Parliament was passed, but the threat seemed to have been regarded of small consequence by the Wragges at that time. 10 years later measures were being taken at Tulla to control their numbers, with Thomas Wragge purchasing wire net fencing from England to replace the brush fences which harboured the pests, and Aboriginal middens that had been developed by Australia’s first people over a presence of tens of thousands of years, ploughed over to remove established warrens – a great loss to the Aboriginal record.

The poison wagon at Tulla used to fumigate rabbit warrens. (Source: Betty Lush collection)

Winty Calder’s conservative estimate in “Classing the Wool” was that, at its height, there was a plague of well over a million rabbits at Tulla – probably several millions. By the depression years of the 1930s a “rabbit man” had been employed to fight the rabbit problem with the agreed arrangement being that he should take measures to keep numbers down, the supposed incentive being that he should pay any nominal fines imposed on the property by the government for rabbit outbreaks.

Piling up dead rabbits at Tulla. (Source: Betty Lush collection)

George Flight proved to be a rabbit man with a singularly good mind for business. The Tulla trustees paid him £1000 per annum for the responsibility of fighting their rabbit problem and he subcontracted to gangs of other rabbiters who made camps all over the station, trapping the rabbits and sending the meat and skins down to Melbourne to market. It was only after a year or two of this activity and after rabbit numbers had exploded to astronomical proportions that it became apparent just what a good businessman George really was. He and his rabbiting pals had been trapping rabbits, dispatching the bucks but releasing the does and young back into the paddocks to breed. In effect Tulla had become Flight’s very own personal rabbit farm, a rabbit farm of over a hundred thousand acres and he profited handsomely from the exercise. When it became obvious what was going on, the team of about 70 so called rabbiters was summarily sacked but by then the matter was totally out of hand, a situation that was not brought back under control again until the drought years later in the decade.

As we have seen, foxes and rabbits have been an environmental problem for 150 years in this country with the two animals going sort of hand in hand in a sort of uneasy Br’er Fox, Br’er Rabbit, hunter and its prey exotic coexistence. With the challenges presented by climate change however, the threats to our environment in the future have never seemed clearer. With this in mind it’s worth finishing up here with another sometimes overlooked, feral animal familiar to us all but which some experts hold is arguably the single most destructive of all the introduced predator species present in Australia.

Scientists have cited the humble pussy cat as the “main threat to Australia’s biodiversity” with an estimated 23 million feral cats running wild in this country, or more than three times the number of foxes, and these cats manage to destroy 75 million native animals every single night. That’s more than 20 billion mammals, reptiles, birds and insects killed by cats Australia wide, every year. It’s a sobering thought when you look at that fluffy ball of fur pushing its way between your legs in the kitchen at tea time to know that his pals are out there all the time and that they are responsible for the destruction of many of our most threatened species, notwithstanding the fluffy balls of fur themselves all so often irresponsibly let out at night by their owners in suburban river side locations.

The truth is that feral cats are harder to eradicate in practice than those other traditional problem animals, the wild fox and the rabbit with all the evidence indicating that cats do not respond to conventional control methods such as baiting. In those places where fox numbers and rabbit populations have been reduced by baiting, it has been shown that there is inevitably a corresponding explosion in feral cat numbers leading experts to state that one cannot be controlled without reference to the other.

When it comes down to it then “the large and bushy cat” seen here last month, although exposed as a fox, might just as well have been a cat as judged by their comparative potentially destructive values. An interesting proposition I’m sure, but I’m afraid that’s probably not much consolation to the doomed native bird or animal as it slips down the throat of one or the other while contemplating the relative merits of the killer’s respective bushy tail.

The dashing Mr Gilbert

“He [George Gilbert] teaches drawing and professes to be an artist. He is a man of the most active mind… and disposition I know. He is always involved in trying mechanical experiments but unfortunately never perfects anything… he is a very intelligent person and will talk from morning to night always in a fluent and agreeable manner. He appears to have studied every subject started, or at all events plunges into the midst of it and dives to the bottom of it in a very short time.” (John Cotton, Port Phillip pastoralist, describing G A Gilbert September, 1848)

Some people listening to the claims of his capabilities or of his scale of competency might have thought him a bit of an artist, but not of a type more usually found holding onto the end of a bristle brush, palette in hand and starving in a garret. There is no doubting that G A Gilbert had both the energy and the industry to match his various claims, or that as Edmund “Garryowen” Finn put it, he enjoyed “a plausible gentlemanly manner,” but when it came to the visual arts the record was more clear. George Alexander Gilbert, teacher, publisher, librarian, gentleman pastoralist, gold commissioner, mesmerist sensation and confirmed dilettante was the walking embodiment of that old adage, “Every artist was first an amateur.”

George Gilbert was a young man of about 25 years when he emigrated to Port Phillip with his much older wife and the children from her first marriage. The son of an English landscape painter, George was himself an artist of some minor talent who had determined to look for opportunities in the new agricultural enterprise that was right then emerging at the bottom end of the world. George’s wife, Anne has been described as “one of the more exotic of the early colonists”, (Serville: Port Phillip Gentlemen) and had previously moved freely in literary circles and the London avant-garde. She was the widow of Sir John Byerley and this connection allowed the Gilberts to immediately join the cultured set of Melbourne upon their arrival at Port Phillip in 1841.

Dr Godfrey Howitt, by Samuel Calvert, 1873.

With his winning ways and refined manner George Gilbert soon befriended some of the leading men in the settlement including Dr Godfrey Howitt, Superintendent Charles Joseph La Trobe and the Oxford-educated clergyman turned squatter, Joseph Docker for whom he began acting as agent. Gilbert’s own property ambitions quickly followed suit and these included the lease on a farm on the Plenty River of which he wrote in March, 1843:

“I have taken up a farm of 200 acres 10 miles from town where I intend to train and cultivate the trees while mi cara sposa intends to train the idea [in her school] so between the intellectual and more solid requirements of this life, we hope to secure a home here by paying our rent until we can obtain apartments in that house where everything is ‘a la discretion’.

Bakewell era survey map of “Yallambee”.

The described distance of 10 miles from town begs the question, just where was this Plenty River farm? Could it have been the Bakewells’ 200 acre “Capital Compact Farm” 11 miles from town and advertised for lease that very same month? The distance of 10 miles would put the location at a guess at the lower end of the Plenty and it is an intriguing idea that, based solely on this point, Gilbert and the Bakewell brothers may very possibly have been near neighbours at this early date. Further to this, the Bakewell survey map of “Yallambee, The Property of Messrs. J. and R. Bakewell”, produced about a decade later, surprisingly places a “school” house on the south east border of their estate, somewhere near where the corner of Yallambie and Lower Plenty Roads stands today. It’s a small thing but one is left to wonder at the sort of students that might have been available at that time, the nature of the school, or indeed, the unlikely identity of its teacher.

Detail from the c1850 Bakewell survey map showing the presence of a “school” near the present day corner of Yallambie and Lower Plenty Roads.
Thomas Wills “Lucerne”, photographed by Colin Caldwell before demolition c1960, (Source: State Library of Victoria).

As a gentleman farmer, George Gilbert appears to have enjoyed only limited success at Port Phillip. Like many settlers of the early 1840s he became insolvent and with his pastoral ambitions now largely forgotten, the fact is that it is as an artist of the Port Phillip District landscape that he would later be best remembered. It was probably around this period that Gilbert produced drawings of Joseph Hawdon’s Banyule and Thomas Wills Lucerne, both early and prominent properties of the Heidelberg district, and also the now well-known pastel of John and Robert Bakewells’ Station Plenty, (Yallambee) an art work which has been reproduced on numerous occasions within these pages.

Banyule House, Heidelberg. The residence of Joseph Haw[don Esq.]
Artwork c1849 from the “Bakewell Collection of drawings by G A Gilbert”.
(Source: Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria) http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/172769
 La Trobe University’s founding professor in Art History, Lucy Ellem has suggested that The Station Plenty pastel comes from an English tradition of estate portraiture, quoting from Daniels that “flourishing plantations, pasture and tillage displayed the economic, social and patriotic virtues of progressive estate management.”

Following this English aesthetic, Gilbert has in the Plenty Station picture composed his view of the Bakewell farm in a frame of trees in imitation of an English picturesque landscape. The little prefabricated house has its back turned on its Australian bush land setting while the garden of Robert Bakewell is shown in its early infancy. A ploughman speedily turns over the virgin soils of the Plenty River flats, vines grow in rows and hay stacks float with a ghostly, ethereal quality at top of the ridge, evidence of the bounty being harvested from this new land. Smoke from a chimney on the cottage indicates the settled lives of the Quaker brothers who live here, the enclosures of fences and paths imposing an order seemingly at odds with the wild land beyond view.

The Bakewell brothers’ Yallambee by George Alexander Gilbert. (Source: Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria) http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/294649

With the end of Gilbert’s brief farming endeavours on the Plenty, the erstwhile artist threw himself into a variety of other pursuits. He was a member of the Horticultural Society, the Society of Saint George, the Melbourne Hospital and Melbourne Debating Society committees and served for a time as Secretary of the Medical Board of Port Phillip. In addition to these endeavours, Gilbert was also the Secretary of Melbourne’s Mechanics Institute for six years from 1844, an institution which boasted the membership of some of the leading and most influential figures of Port Phillip Society at that time, including Dr Godfrey Howitt and Howitt’s Bakewell brothers in law. At the MMI Gilbert taught art and acted as a secretary, librarian and museum curator and by the time he moved on in 1850, he had overseen its teething pains and “helped establish it as an important and enduring cultural organisation in the colony.” (Bowman)

Sixth-plate Daguerreotype of the Bakewell brothers'”Yallambee” from the State Library of Victoria Collection.

Gilbert’s biographer, Margaret Bowman, who recorded the above line and who wrote the definitive history of the artist, “Cultured Colonists” and upon whose research a large part of this article is based, wrote that his contemporaries found Gilbert a talkative although sometimes tiresome fellow and that he seemed to know “something about everything” while at the same time “not being entirely successful at anything.” (Bowman: Cultured Colonists, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2014) It is true that Gilbert was apparently “personable, intelligent and good hearted” (ibid) but it was also said that he appeared sometimes to present better than he performed. He is known to have dabbled in Daguerreotype photography and entomology, both subjects that were of interest to the Bakewells and their circle, but in Gilbert’s case, it seems these interests did not extend beyond early experiment and examination.

Back Creek, Bendigo by S.T. Gill 1860, (Source: State Library of NSW Collection).
Lachlan MacLachlan, AKA “Bendigo Mac”

With the discovery of gold in 1851 Gilbert was appointed by the newly created Lieutenant Governor, Charles Joseph La Trobe, as an Assistant Gold Commissioner at the Sandhurst (Bendigo) and Forest Creek (Castlemaine) gold fields where he served, funnily enough, alongside this writer’s own Great Grand Uncle, the Police Magistrate, Lachlan “Bendigo Mac” McLachlan. By the end of Gilbert’s gold fields appointment which ended in clouded circumstances a year later, the marriage of George and Anne Gilbert had broken down and in 1857 George returned to England, sans “mi cara sposa”. This was the same year that John and Robert Bakewell also returned “home” but it is unknown if these movements were in any way related.

John Bakewell (Source: Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina, Alexander Henderson, 1936)

A group of Gilbert drawings, some of which were almost certainly commissions, did find their way into the possession of John Bakewell and together with the E L Bateman Plenty Station drawings and a number of Eugene von Guerard presentation drawings, they formed a collection which remained by descent with the family of John Bakewell until 1935. In that year the Gilbert drawings were purchased by the State Library of Victoria following a Centenary of Melbourne exhibition with the Bateman and von Guerard pictures going to the NGV a little later, in 1959. Gilbert’s Yallambee pastel, which had remained in the family of Dr Godfrey Howitt, was gifted to the State Library in 1967 to complete the picture.

Photograph from the Bishop Strachan School Museum and Archives, Toronto and reproduced in Margaret Bowman’s 2014 book, “Cultured Colonists”. George is the moustachioed man slightly to the middle right of the picture.

George Alexander Gilbert appears to have returned to Australia briefly at the start of the 1860s before finally vanishing from the colonial record in Victoria. Sometime before 1863 he resurfaced in Canada with a new “wife” where he lived in style in Toronto, teaching art “to fashionable young ladies and aspiring young men.” In Toronto he was described as being “very free with his money of which he must have had plenty at that time.” Where this wherewithal had come from is unclear but by this time the “dashing Mr Gilbert” was in his early 50s and described as “impressive, tall and fair with curled grey whiskers and moustache, always well dressed and a fluent talker.” His former life in Australia seems to have been all but forgotten but after nearly a decade in Canada, he was on the move again finding another new life and another new “wife”, this time in the United States and it was there that he died in Hartford, Conneticut in December, 1877.

George Alexander Gilbert, 1869. Detail.

G A Gilbert wore many hats in his career, sometimes the cap fitting, at other times not. He reinvented himself more than once and on more than one continent in what was really a full and eventful life. In an attempt to put a perspective on his life, Margaret Bowman best summed him up with a characterization, “An artist after all,” words which she used as the title of the second to last chapter of her book. In that chapter, Bowman said that Gilbert’s output was, “historically important as a record of Early European settlement, of a land in transition, seen through English eyes.” She concludes with, “(he) not only contributed to the development of the visual arts in the colonies, but also left a substantial Victorian legacy of delightful and historically important artworks.”

“Melbourne from the south side of the Yarra.” The annotation across the lower margin identifies several landmarks including the Bakewell Wool Stores in Market Street, just above the Falls.
Artwork c1845 from the “Bakewell Collection of drawings by G A Gilbert”.
(Source: Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria) http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/172766

As a representation of this “Victorian legacy”, a proportion of Gilbert’s artwork left Australia in the 19th century along with other more significant work by E L Bateman and von Guerard, only to return to Australia in the 20th century to form important collections at the State Library of Victoria and National Gallery of Victoria.

Gilbert’s Yallambee pastel, used on a promotional page for a Heidelberg Historical Society exhibition running at their museum in Jika Street until 25 November.

John Bakewell could not have known at the time that his patronage and collecting interests in Australia would one day form the basis of a serious starting point in the understanding of Australian colonial art history, but today his collection constitutes a rich resource for the annalists. Writing in an earlier 1995 paper, Lucy Ellem described the art aesthetic that established itself during the first wave of European settlement in Australia and in particular the way in which it applies to the Plenty River landscape.

Anderson’s Mill on the Plenty by George Alexander Gilbert. Artwork c1849 from the “Bakewell Collection of drawings by G A Gilbert”. (Source: Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria) http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/172755

“An examination of written and pictorial responses to the Australian landscape of the Plenty Valley made by European visitors and settlers suggest that its transformation from its ‘natural’ state came about not simply because of practical agrarian or farming needs, nor because of nostalgia for a distant homeland, although these factors were both important, but because of a conscious aesthetic, a way of perceiving the landscape in accordance with the English aesthetic categories of the Beautiful, the Sublime and the Picturesque.” (Ellem: Picturesque and Panoramic)

The “Beautiful”, the “Sublime” and the “Picturesque” were all European concepts of the 18th century which came to be applied to the wild Australian landscape in the 19th. Writing specifically of the Bakewells’ Station Plenty, Lucy states that “the Bakewell brothers, rank among Victoria’s earliest and most important pioneers”, and while the Gilbert pictures might not necessarily stack up as great art, Lucy remarks that Gilbert’s Yallambee pastel, together with the numerous other pictorial and written records of the Bakewell property, finds a place within the narrative of this aesthetic. Indeed, in Gilbert’s case it could be said there’s more to the story. If at heart every artist really is first an amateur, then George Gilbert was an amateur but an amateur and a gentleman of the first order.

Nine tenths of the law

There’s a principle that states that possession is nine tenths of the law. It’s a principle that is familiar to every school yard bully who ever stole your toys in the playground, but that fact did not deter the British when they arrived in Australia from the end of the 18th century onward. Finding an Aboriginal population had beaten them to nine of those tenths by a matter of a mere 60 thousand years or so, they promptly moved the goal posts. They declared the land unoccupied, in spite of appearances to the contrary, thereby reducing the locals to the surprising legal status of flora and fauna.

It was a Colonial sleight of hand but it achieved the intended result. The concept of Terra Nullius granted the Crown under European right of discovery the capacity to assess survey and sell Deepest Darkest Australian Terra Firma to an emerging settler society in a pattern of dispossession that would soon be repeated throughout the Australian colonies. At Port Phillip in 1835 however, there occurred a brief anomaly that remains today as the only recorded attempt by an emerging settler society to treaty with the Australian native people in the 19th century. The story of John Batman’s dubious treaty is reasonably well known, although the actual location of the signing has long been debated, but what isn’t so widely appreciated is that one of the suggested locations for the signing was a site on the Plenty River just a little way upstream from Yallambie. Batman’s journal for various reasons remains an unreliable document, but it does describe a meeting that “took place alongside of a beautiful stream of water”:

Title: “Batman’s treaty with the aborigines at Merri Creek, 6th June 1835”, by John Wesley Burtt, c1888. The Merri Creek has long been a popular alternative location for the Treaty negotiations and Burtt’s 19th century painting was a faithful recreation of events based on oral traditions which placed the signing in the Merri Creek area. (Source: La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria)

“The country here exceeds anything I ever saw, both for grass and richness of soil. The timber light, and consists of she-oak and small gum, with a few wattle.” (John Batman)

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

James Blackburn in 1855, H. G. Turner in 1904 and George Vasey in 1909 all identified the “beautiful stream of water” described by Batman as the Plenty River while David Wilkinson more recently fixed the location more precisely, recording that the meeting took place at a distance some three miles north of its confluence with the Yarra, (Wilkinson: The Early History of the Diamond Valley, 1969).

Jim Poulter in “Batman’s Treaty – The True Story”, (Red Hen Enterprises, 2016) also examines this story and in the process quotes the Aboriginal elder William Barak who was present at the signing:

“…Batman sent some potatoes from Melbourne to the camp of the Yarra blacks. Then the blacks travel to Idelberg (sic). All the blacks camp at Muddy Creek. Next morning they all went down to see Batman, old man and women and children…” (William Barak)

“All the blacks camp at Muddy Creek. Next morning they all went down to see Batman, old man and women and children…” (William Barak). The Plenty River at Yallambie, June, 2018.

In his diary, Batman records that he named the stream where the signing took place, “Batman’s Creek, after my good self” forgetting of course that the stream must already had a native name. Poulter explains that the Aboriginal name for the lower reaches of the Plenty River at the time was “Kurrum”, a Woiwurung word meaning “Muddy”, and in a forensic examination of Barak’s full text, concludes that the tribes therefore must have gathered at Heidelberg before meeting Batman on the lower Plenty.

Banyule City Council sign posting on the banks of the Plenty River, Yallambie Park, reads: “Heartland of the Wurundjeri william”.

It’s an interesting proposition. Wilkinson’s distance of three miles north of the Plenty/Yarra river confluence is about the same distance as Yallambie is from the river junction, although most commentators favouring a Plenty River signing have generally put the actual location at Partington’s Flat in Greensborough, a little further upstream from Yallambie. Be that as it may, the incident remains historically as the only ever recorded attempt in Colonial times to recognize Aboriginal prior ownership of the land. The reasons for this are obvious if understandably understated. M F Christie in “Aboriginies in Colonial Victoria” (Sydney University Press, 1979) states that “if it was acknowledged that the Aborigines had the right to dispose of their land as they saw fit, then the Crown’s claim to all Australian lands would be in doubt.” For this reason it was quickly dismissed by the then Governor of New South Wales, Sir Richard Bourke who immediately declared the Batman treaty invalid. The land in effect belonged to nobody.

John Batman’s dubious “Treaty”.

With perhaps just a little irony then, when the time came for Europeans to sell “nobody’s land” a few years later, the first sales outside Melbourne involved land from this very same treaty signing country – a country that would later constitute the greater part of the Heidelberg District with the area that now constitutes Yallambie itself forming a large part of Portion 8 in Hoddle’s 1837 survey.

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

As explained previously in these pages, most of Portion 8 soon passed into the possession of John and Robert Bakewell who had arrived in the Port Phillip District of NSW in April, 1840. The Bakewells were Quakers and shared religious and familial ties with the cultural elite of Melbourne through their friendship and kindred ties with the Howitts. Work on their Plenty Station probably began even before a complete title had been established for this in itself was one of the pillars on which rested the British claim to a legitimate occupation of Australia. Both Richard and William Howitt, writing a decade apart after separate visits to Yallambee in 1842 and 1852 respectively make reference to the productivity of the country under European occupation, and of its formerly “sterile” state while in native hands.

“How neat and nicely fitted-up was their house! In it, with its thin walls and French windows, you seemed scarcely in-doors. It was the Sabbath, and on the table lay the Bible, and not far from it a Literary Souvenir. Guns were piled in corners, but which I dare say are now, the first country newness being over, seldom used.” (Richard Howitt, Impression of Australia Felix)

The Bakewell brothers’ Yallambee by George Alexander Gilbert, (Source: State Library of Victoria collection).

“The hunter races of the earth, the forerunners of the house-building, ship-building, ploughing, busy, encroaching white man — they who occupied the wilderness, and sat under the forest-tree, without commerce or ships, living easily on the animals of the chase — they who lived like the mammoth and the mastodon, the kangaroo and the emu — have perished with them, and are daily perishing before the civilised and artistic tribes, indomitable in the spirit of the conqueror and the possessor.” (William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold)

La Trobe University’s Lucy Ellem, writing in an unpublished paper, “Plenty Botanical”, states that Richard Howitt’s 1842 account “sets a scene of British virtue, order, and good management at the Plenty Station,” and goes on to say that:

“Howitt evokes the piety and literary culture of the inhabitants, and refers to dangers faced in this frontier settlement. The Bible, brought out for the Sabbath, attests to the centrality of religion in these Quakers’ lives. It also legitimates for them their presence there, their husbandry rendering this land useful and productive, fulfilling a Biblical command to ‘subdue’ and ‘replenish the earth’…” (Ellem: Plenty Botanical)

It is an interesting insight into the workings and the motivations of the European mind in a 19th century frontier society, but Lucy also notes that the native forests described by Richard Howitt as a “sterile stringy-bark” wasteland were in actual fact a productive and essential resource for Indigenous people.

“Abounding in edible and medicinal plants, weaving fibre, timber for hunting spears and digging tools and habitat for game, this “almost worthless” land had for millennia provided the staples of Aboriginal life. But captivated by the luxuriance of imported species, Howitt is almost oblivious to the ‘natural’ nature that surrounds him. Confronted by the ‘vast and sterile’ Australian bush, he scarcely names a native species.” (Ellem: Plenty Botanical)

John Batman said in his diary that the land he passed through in 1835 “appeared laid out in farms for some hundred years back, and every tree transplanted. I was never so astonished in my life.” Many settlers after Batman recorded similar impressions of a virgin landscape which to all intents and purposes appeared to be laid out in imitation of an English gentleman’s estate. With an approach founded in the European idyll, it was an instinctive reaction for them to overlook the fact that this “natural” aspect was anything but that. It had been shaped by a fire stick farming culture over millennia to develop fields of grass land suitable for kangaroos and with carefully defined copses of woodland habitat suitable for possums.

Indigenous Australian encampment from an engraving by John Skinner Prout. (Source: Wikipedia).

Captain John Harrison, an early settler of the Yan Yean area, observed the lives of the Wurundjeri on the Plenty River and wrote that their diet consisted chiefly of speared fish, goanna, possum, kangaroo, yams and the grubs collected from the roots of wattle trees. He noted their clothing in winter consisted of possum skins joined together with kangaroo sinews and that the men carried spears and the women yam sticks. Following this theme, Wilkinson also adds that native camps typically consisted of about 30 people, their houses were made of bark and boughs and that their hair was worn in elflocks with faces painted red with ochre.

Batman’s first contact with the natives of Port Phillip occurred in the winter of 1835. During the winter months it is commonly believed that Aboriginal people moved away from the exposed river flood plains of the Yarra into the more protected forested land and elevated country of the Plenty Valley and at Yallambie this resulted in what has been described as a camp that “existed on the high terrace on the neck of the Plenty River just north of Yallambie Estate ‘the Plenty Station’.” (Weaver: Lower Plenty Archaeological Survey, 1991)

Such claims appear to have been based entirely on oral tradition for it’s a fact that Australia’s First People left very little real physical evidence of their occupation. All the same, at Yallambie I sometimes like to walk along the River in the fading light of evening, the sound of the jogger’s footfall coming up behind me like the echoing steps of a vanished people whose feet passed without a mark over the landscape. It is then that I wonder how this country might have looked at another time – a time before Bakewells and boundaries and my mind wanders. Every gnarled gum tree with an old scar becomes a Canoe Tree and every raised mound of earth becomes a midden. It is a Dream Time of the imagination.

“Every gnarled gum tree with an old scar becomes a Canoe Tree…” Old growth billabong woodland at Yallambie, June, 2018.

This month the Legislative Assembly of the Victorian State Parliament passed a bill aimed at negotiating Australia’s first Aboriginal Treaty. Thirty years after Bob Hawke’s unfulfilled promises of this same idea were made at a national level, and 183 years since John Batman’s self serving attempts, the Victorian state legislation is intended to facilitate the establishment of a Victorian Elders Council which it is hoped will pave the way towards a Treaty negotiation itself. It’s a small step and the legislation still has to pass the Victorian Legislative Council, but with support from the cross benches, this time it just might get up.

In the media in recent times there has been much debate about Australian sovereignty. The question of foreign ownership of real estate and resources in the land we call the Lucky Country is a much discussed issue, but in all this debate, the question of Aboriginal prior ownership of this country has gone missing. Australia is the only Commonwealth country not to have a treaty with its Indigenous people. Yet every dairy farm that has been purchased in recent times by Chinese business interests and every mining lease that has been carried off shore by a multinational company has done so for ready money but without a thought to the first owners of this country. Now might be as good a time as any to give this just a passing thought.

Old MacDonald had a farm

The end of Jacobite ambitions on the bloody battlefield of Culloden’s Drummossie Moor on a cold, windswept April morning in 1746 was not the end of the story for its principal protagonist. While the Government would have preferred the end to feature the end of a rope, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, “The Young Chevalier” and rightful heir to the thrones of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, spent much of the following five months on the run from Government forces.

Sheltering in the heather, escaping from one scrape or near miss to another, the story of the flight of Bonnie Prince Charlie entered the folklore of legend. Long after the events of 1745 and 1746, the story of his failed uprising was told and toasted by the fireside in Scottish bothies and Baronial houses in both word and song:

…Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing,
Onward, the sailors cry.
Carry the lad that’s born to be king
Over the sea to Skye.
Though the waves leap, soft shall ye sleep,
Ocean’s a royal bed.
Rock’d in the deep, Flora will keep
Watch o’er your weary head…

Contrary to the popular idea of the Skye Boat Song lyric, it was Charles and not his companion Flora MacDonald who kept watch that night while the other slept on the trip from Uist in the Outer Hebrides to Skye off the west coast of Scotland, but the underlying sentiment remains the same. Dressed as he was as Flora’s maid servant, the boat party were almost certainly all aware of the true identity of their 5 foot 10 inch, cross dressing Royal passenger with the £30,000 Government bounty on his head, but it is part of the romance of the Jacobite legend that not one of them that night or those he encountered in the time before or after ever attempted to claim that reward.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart painted by William Mosman around 1750.

Sadly though, when it was all over and Charles was safely back in France reviewing his shattered dreams through the end of a bottle, it was Flora and the broken regiments of the Jacobite Army who were left to bear the full force of Hanovarian retribution in the Highlands. For Flora herself this meant arrest and a short time spent as an unwilling guest at the Tower of London.

Altogether Flora MacDonald spent a year in a sort of loose captivity in and around London before being pardoned in the general amnesty of July, 1747 but in the intervening time, something else had happened. With the Jacobite threat now seemingly extinguished once and for all, there was time at last to sit back and take stock. The modest Highland lass who had bravely sheltered the arch rebel himself in his time of greatest need had somehow become a celebrity.

Allan Ramsay’s portrait of Flora MacDonald

Flora was the toast of Society. Her portrait was painted by Ramsay in a boon to shortbread makers ever since. Sympathisers came to visit including Frederick, the non-pretending Prince of Wales who met her, partly to annoy his father, but principally to thumb his nose at his younger brother, the Duke of Cumberland, the “Butcher” of Highland infamy. The story goes that when Frederick asked Flora sternly why she had sided with his father’s enemies, she replied she would have done the same for anyone, even Frederick himself if she found him in similar distress. The answer is said to have impressed the heir apparent.

Following her pardon, Flora married and left Scotland for the American colonies where her husband ironically fought for the Hanovarian King against the Revolutionary armies. Forced by the British defeat in America to return to Scotland, Flora MacDonald died on the Isle of Skye in 1790 where Dr Johnson’s epitaph for her perhaps formed a lasting memorial for her life.

“Her name will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.”

The Highlands emptied of their people and the world moved on, but the memory of the Prince and his father, the “King Over the Water”, lingered on in memory. The romanticisation of the Jacobite story started during Flora’s life time but gathered pace in the 19th century, with George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822 and Victoria and Albert’s 20 years later. Victoria and Albert’s visit began for them a long love affair with the country and with the Queen’s own somewhat dubious claim to a Scottish heritage. With this in mind then, it’s no wonder then that the large Scottish contingent present in Port Phillip’s pioneer settler society of the early 1840s had its own fair share of sentimentalist Scotophiles.

Portrait group of John Brown and Queen Victoria. Oil painting by Charles Burton Barber.

Arriving in the vicinity of the Plenty River in July, 1840 one of these settlers, John MacDonald of Skye and his wife Catherine established a farm of just under 200 acres which, perhaps not surprisingly given their heritage, they named “Floraville”. The land was part of Wood’s Portion 27 in the parish of Keelbundora north-west from Yallambie in Portion 8 and was purchased for £400. MacDonald paid for the land almost entirely with a mortgage from a cashed up Dr Godfrey Howitt who had arrived in the Port Phillip District just three months earlier with his wife and brothers in law, John and Robert Bakewell.

Old survey map (part of) showing Wills’ Portion 8 (Yallambee) and Woods’ Portion 27 (MacDonald’s Floraville) straddled between the Darebin Creek and Plenty River, (marked Yarra Rivulet).
John MacDonald in 1849, (Source: electricscotland.com)

According to research made by a descendant, Betty Wooley, John MacDonald, ex Sergeant of the 26th Regiment, was born in Skye in 1806. He married Catherine in 1827 and came to Port Phillip in 1838. The land he purchased in Portion 27 backed onto the Darebin Creek but Betty believes that the MacDonald farm also had access to the Plenty River where it runs through the Plenty Gorge near present day Janefield.

Birth notice from the Geelong Advertiser, 10 January 1842 placing John MacDonald’s family at the Plenty River.

A listing in Billis & Kenyon’s 1932 ”Pastoral Pioneers of Port Phillip” confusingly mentions a John Macdonald of “Floraville”, Lower Plenty, 1841 to 1842 and this may be the start of a certain uncertainty that has surrounded this story from the start. A contemporaneous newspaper article from the same time in “The Australasian” also suggests that: “In partnership with John W Shaw the Bakewells took out a depasturing licence in 1841 for a run called Floraville…” (The Australasian, October, 1936)

Birth notice in the Port Phillip Patriot, 3 January, 1842 placing John MacDonald’s family at the Darebin Creek.

What does this mean? The Bakewells’ property “Yallambee” has at times been referred to in print as “Floraville”, a name which seemed to suit its garden perfectly. To get to the truth it is probably important to look at what happened to John MacDonald’s farming interests during the economic crisis that hit Port Phillip in the early 1840s.

With the onset of the recession the MacDonalds like so many other colonists, found themselves in financial difficulty. In February 1842 the family’s wet nurse sued for payment of unpaid wages and in April, labourers were reported to have taken MacDonald to court over an outstanding payment for the sinking of a well at Floraville.

Dr Godfrey Howitt, by Samuel Calvert, 1873.

Three months later Godfrey Howitt foreclosed on his mortgage to John MacDonald and the property was advertised for sale in the newspapers in terms that might well have been used to describe the Bakewells’ own Yallambee Park instead.

9th July 1842 – ‘Floraville Estate’, on the Plenty Road, the whole farm fenced in and subdivided into two paddocks of about one hundred acres each, there is about fifty acres under cultivation, or ready for the plough. On it is erected an excellent weather boarded house, containing six rooms and out offices, with barn and huts, stockyards etc., a well ninety feet deep of good never failing water. The view of the house is extensive; the roads are good, and the distance from town so short, that produce may be conveyed to the market at very trifling expense.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station with cattle in foreground. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria)

Even with the economic hardships of that time, Dr Godfrey didn’t have to look very far to find a ready buyer for the MacDonald Farm. On the 31st August, 1842 under the terms of the earlier mortgage, “Floraville Estate” was conveyed to Dr Godfrey’s brothers in law, John and Robert Bakewell for £575.

John Bakewell (Source: Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina, Alexander Henderson, 1936)

Perhaps this then is the origins of the name “Floraville” at Yallambee. The Bakewells may have used their newly purchased property further up the Plenty initially as a depasturing run as has been suggested in the Australasian article, but seven months later it is clear they were prepared to make it available for lease. In March 1843 the following advertisement appeared:

To Be Let, the Capital Compact Farm, Floraville, lately in the occupation of Mr Macdonald, only 11 miles from Melbourne, consisting of 200 acres of excellent land, The greater part clear, and first rate soil. Thirty acres are now in crop, and speak for themselves. The house is furnished with a veranda, and contains six rooms. The huts and stockyards are all superior. The proprietors being desirous of procuring a good tenant, intend to let the whole at an exceedingly low rent. For further particulars apply to Messrs J. and R. Bakewell the proprietors, Plenty Bridge.

After letting MacDonald’s Floraville before presumably selling it, did the Bakewells subsequently adopt the name as a sometime alternative to their Lower Plenty property, Yallambee simply because they liked the sound of it? They might not have fully appreciated the Jacobite implications of the name but it sort of fitted in with what Robert was trying to do with the garden at Yallambee at this time. Certainly it is from this point on that the name “Floraville” like the earlier title, “The Station Plenty”, is mentioned occasionally in the sources in context of the Bakewells’ Yallambee Park narrative.

River valley photographed from the Plenty River Trail opposite Montmorency Secondary College, July, 2016.

Much has been made of the cultural history of the Plenty River and its course through the Upper Plenty Valley. Melbourne Water, as custodians of a part of that history as it applies to the Yan Yean catchment, and Whittlesea Council, with its reserve of heritage assets, do a very good job at defending that history, but lower down the picture has not always been so clear.

Anderson’s Mill on the River Plenty by G. A. Gilbert. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

The Plenty River above and below the Plenty Gorge is like a tale of two rivers defined by the spill over of geology from the volcanic plains to the west. As Winty Calder explained in “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, the two halves of the River mark the crossing point of two geologies, one ancient the other recent, at least in geological terms. The resulting landscape shaped the people and the lives of the settlers who came to stay.

“More than one million years earlier, basalt flows from the west had pushed the pre-existing Plenty River eastward before cooling and forming rock, the surface of which ultimately weathered into rich soil. The displaced river gradually cut down through the basalt and into the underlying, much older sandstones and mudstones…”
(Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales)

From its source on the forested slopes of Mt Disappointment, through the Yan Yean swamps and its final confluence with the Yarra River, the Plenty River is a rich cultural asset filled with interesting stories and history. The story of how Old MacDonald’s Farm became at some point and in some quarters, interchanged and intertwined with the Bakewells’ Yallambee Park, at least in name but perhaps also in memory, is but one of these.

So with this in mind, the next time you find yourself reaching across the table for that last piece of shortbread from a souvenir tin, if your eyes should meet a Jacobite biscuit heroine gazing your way, spare a thought for her eponym “Floraville”, another fragment of the Yallambie puzzle.

Under the Milky Way (tonight)

It might surprise you to hear it, but there is a new fashion disturbing the dusty world of history academia. The boffins call it “Big History”, a term they use to explain a multi-disciplinary examination of the history of the Universe from the Big Bang to the present day.

By calling it Big History, that doesn’t mean necessarily that the next time you see an historian he will automatically be carrying a tape measure or even a bathroom scales. Some things are just too darn big to put a proper measure upon. What we call Big History is really an attempt to illustrate one of the fundamental points about history, the fact that we’re all part of a larger story and, in order to see where we are going in that story, we need to see where we have come from.

The “Vitruvian Man” c1490 by Leonardo da Vinci. (Source: Wikipedia, from the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice)

There are some who will argue that the name “Big History” is a bit of a vague term and that what we really have is just the same thing that has been taught in the hallowed halls of our places of learning since Renaissance times. In 15th century Italy for instance, Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci developed the concept of the Universal Man which placed man at the centre of the universe, a limitless figure in his capacity for knowledge. We’ve come a long way in our understanding since then but it is an irony that in the modern age, when mankind is at last in a position to understand what is truly our quite insignificant place in the Cosmos, we have reached a point where we no longer look to the heavens and wonder – a thing our ancestors had done previously since they first stepped away from the camp fire light at night to gnaw on a bone of the woolly mammoth.

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquistion

Light pollution from our cities and the glowing screens of hand held smart phones have shut out the night sky from observation and our minds in a way unknown to Galileo, even after all that unpleasant business with the Inquisition and the comfy chair.

Halley’s Comet photographed in the skies over Rosanna, February, 1986

Those of us of a certain age will remember back to a time in our youth when the much touted Halley’s Comet made its generational pilgrimage to the inner solar system in 1985. I remember my mother telling me from an early age that a school teacher had told her about his stunning observation of Halley’s previous visit in 1910 and how, although he would be long dead by the time of its return, he expected most of the children in his class would live to see its return in the mid-1980s. I remember thinking it a bit of a letdown when it finally arrived, the light pollution of the skies over Rosanna lessening the effects of the comet in the sky, but I did manage to take this photograph with a fast slide film, an image that with a little modern day Photoshop enhancing is at least some sort of a record of the event and of a time in my life.

Star gazing at Yallambie, March, 2018

On a scale of all things then, there is no greater subject than the study of the night sky. On a weekend last month a friend brought his telescope to Yallambie and on a dark, moonless night he demonstrated it to us in the back garden in the shadow of our Bunya Pine. His telescope was a homemade affair that would have done Galileo proud. It consisted of not much more than a pipe with an old photo copier lens attached, mounted on a tripod but capable of producing surprisingly effective results. We turned it to what looked to my eye to be a fairly bright spot in the heavens to find a spreading glow of light that hinted at unknown worlds and infinite possibilities.

The Great Nebula in Orion as photographed by Joseph Turner in 1883 using the Great Melbourne Telescope. (Source: Museum Victoria)

Our friend identified it as the “Great Nebula in Orion” and then turned our attention to Alpha Crucis, a multiple star system which appeared to our eyes as a single star at the base point of that most familiar constellation to Australian eyes, the Southern Cross.  In quick time we then looked at Betelgeuse, Sirius, Aldebaran, the globular cluster Omega Centauri and the Pleiades, the latter known by many things in the mythology of ancient peoples the world over but called the seven Karatgurk sisters in a story of the local Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation.

The Australian Aboriginals call it their Dreamtime but to look up at the stars is to literally look back into time. One of the greatest of the many great achievements of the Hubble Space Telescope was the Hubble “Deep Field” observations where the mighty telescope was turned continuously to seemingly empty points of space to record long exposures of the faintest light. What the astronomers found still does my head in to think about. In those supposedly empty patches of space the telescope recorded tens of thousands of galaxies, each galaxy itself filled with countless billions of stars. Not bad for an empty patch of sky in an expanding and ever accelerating universe where, as Carl Sagan once famously observed, the number of stars is far greater than the number of grains of sand on all the beaches of the world.

It sort of puts you into your place doesn’t it? Our ancestors used to look towards the Moon and in an exercise in Pareidolia, constructed a face from what they observed. We’ve all done that at some point but at the end of last January the world got a chance to see the “Man in the Moon” in full detail when it was treated to a magnificent Super Blue Blood Moon – a total lunar eclipse of a second full moon in a month during the Moon’s closest orbital approach to the Earth.

Super Blue Blood Moon in the north eastern sky over Yallambie, 31 January, 2018

We looked at it at Yallambie that night through my father’s old binoculars and I photographed it at the moment of totality with the longest lens I could find, unfortunately without a tripod and with the camera perched hand held on the top of the pickets of a garden fence. The resulting photograph doesn’t really do what we saw that night justice but then that’s true of most things that happen to you in life.

Photograph of the moon by Joseph Turner using the Great Melbourne Telescope,1874. (Source: Museum Victoria)

In 1874 a locally produced photograph of the Moon recorded in stunning detail was reproduced and distributed to schools, libraries and Mechanics Institutes throughout Victoria. The image was the creation of Melbourne’s very own 19th century wonder of astronomy, the “Great Melbourne Telescope”. It is a little known fact but Melbourne was once home to what was then the second largest telescope in the world, the GMT or “Great Melbourne Telescope”, a reflecting telescope with a polished speculum (metal) mirror of 48 inches (1.2 metres) diameter. Conceived in the 1840s, designed by leading British astronomers and manufactured in Ireland it was erected at the Observatory in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens in 1869 where it was intended to explore the nature of the nebulae in the southern skies.

Erection of the Great Melbourne Telescope c January, 1869. The telescope was erected in the open air, with the building that eventually housed it constructed around the telescope once the main components of the instrument had been assembled. (Source: Museum Victoria)

Cutting edge technology for its day, the Great Melbourne Telescope was beset with problems from the outset and was quickly overtaken by instruments installed at other more appropriate, non-city based locations worldwide, but for Melburnians of the 1870s and 80s it remained as a visible evidence of their city’s claim to be one of the great capital cities of the world and a tangible proof of “Marvellous Melbourne”.

By the 20th century however the Great Melbourne Telescope had become more or less old hat. It was dismantled and its component parts sold in 1944 to the Mt Stromlo Observatory in Canberra where, with many modifications, it continued to be put to good use observing the Southern skies. In 1984 Museum Victoria acquired a large number of discarded artefacts of the Great Melbourne from the Mt Stromlo Observatory which the Museum intended to form as part of a new collection. It was a fortunate move because in 2003 the Mt Stromlo Observatory was itself all but destroyed in the devastating Canberra bush fires of that year. The fires were so intense that the aluminium domes of the Observatory buildings melted at 660°C but in a stroke of unplanned luck, the intense fires stripped away all the modern aluminium and plastic additions to the GMT leaving behind little beyond its original steel and cast iron components. With the pieces Museum Victoria had already secured in 1984 it was thought that 90% of the original instrument had survived.

Bush fires surround suburban Canberra during the 2003 firestorm that destroyed the Mt Stromlo Observatory. (Source: Wikipedia)

Since 2003 a dedicated band of volunteers and staff at Museum Victoria have since been carefully restoring the pieces of the Great Melbourne Telescope, recasting and machining the missing parts with a dream of one day returning it in working order to its original building at the Melbourne Botanic Gardens.

On an Easter long weekend as we ponder our Creator and an out of control Chinese space station threatens to come crashing down around our ears in a sort of April 1st prelude, wouldn’t that be a stunning Phoenix like contribution to history on a scale both small, and large?

Through a Bakewell glass, darkly

Genealogy is one of those things that is met with either interest or disdain, depending on your viewpoint. As far back as Genesis it has been a closely considered subject and, although it sometimes seems to me that we can’t see the wood for the family trees, from my experience it’s a matter which would appear to be dependent entirely on whose relative it is under general scrutiny.

“You’ll find nothing in there but fair dinkum kosher Scottish aristocracy,” I tell my wife if she gives me half a chance to steer the subject, but somehow that’s a claim that never seems to have the intended effect. Her eyes take on that glassy, faraway look and it’s about this time that she finds something of particular interest to look at up on the ceiling.

Fair dinkum kosher Scottish aristocracy? (Source: Gold Museum Collection)

Be that as it may, the pursuit of history sometimes invokes a mention of genealogy and, in the last post, I used the Bakewell connection to the wife of John James Audubon to introduce in brief outline the story of that famed painter of America’s birds.

Lucy Audubon from a miniature by Frederick Cruickshank, c1831.

Lucy Audubon, née Bakewell, was a second cousin of Yallambee’s John and Robert Bakewell, but that was not the only familial connection of note in what is really a most intriguing family tree, even for the unrelated. In Henderson’s pedigree can be found, amongst others, a Bakewell Yale professor, a Bakewell Chief Justice, a Bakewell geological scientist and a Bakewell practitioner of early lunacy treatments. Alongside these however and of particular note perhaps, was Robert Bakewell of Dishley Grange (1725-95), the noted agriculturalist and stock breeder and considered by many to be the father of modern agricultural practices. The uncle of that Robert Bakewell was the great-great grandfather of the Yallambee Bakewells.

Robert Bakewell of Dishley Grange from a painting by John Boultbee.

Before too long then it appears as though we’ve got Bakewells coming out of our Yallambie ears, but perhaps that’s just getting a little bit ahead of our story. The nearest relative of especial note related to the John and Robert B of Yallambee was it turns out, Benjamin Bakewell, a flint glass maker of Pittsburgh and a first cousin once removed of the Yallambee Bakewells and an uncle of Lucy Audubon.

Benjamin Bakewell, glassmaker of Pittsburgh, USA.

The name of Benjamin Bakewell is noted by those who make a serious study of the history of glass making and his factory under numerous partnerships was producing glassware of the highest standards for three quarters of a century. Described as “a man of wide-ranging intellect who found creative expression and financial success in the manufacture of glass”, Benjamin Bakewell’s factory “produced objects that reflected the highest quality of craftsmanship and decoration achieved in Nineteenth Century American glass”, (Frick Art & Historical Center).

Benjamin Bakewell emigrated to America from Derby in 1794 and embarked on a series of business pursuits which included a brewery, run in partnership with his brother William (the father of Lucy Audubon), and an import/export business trading in American commodities to Europe in Bakewell’s own fleet of ships. In 1808 Benjamin took a failing glass making factory in Pittsburgh and redeveloped it as Bakewell & Ensell, the first glass factory to make fully cut glass in America and by the 1820s it was recognized as one of that country’s premier glass establishments.

Bakewell sulphide portrait decanter of Benjamin Franklin, c1826-35 from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Source: Wikipedia)

“In the history of Nineteenth Century American decorative arts, Benjamin Bakewell stands out as an exemplar of innovation, creativity and entrepreneurial initiative. His enterprise, founded in 1808, had a vital role in establishing Pittsburgh as a major center of glassmaking in the Nineteenth Century.” (ibid)

Whether free-blown, mold-blown or pressed glass, Bakewell glass revealed an innovative approach to design and decoration using a variety of decorative techniques which included wheel cutting, engraving and cameo-incrustation. When the Bakewell factory finally closed in 1882 it had by then become the longest running flint glassworks in continuous operation in the United States, with successive generations of Bakewells having added to the legacy.

Benjamin Bakewell Jr (left), grandson of his namesake, c1852. (Source: Pixburgh: A Photographic Experience from the Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center).

Following Benjamin Bakewell’s initial enterprise for business, subsequent generations of Bakewells all made their mark. Thomas Bakewell’s application of chemistry and Benjamin Bakewell Jr’s talent for innovation, added to the mechanical expertise of John Palmer Bakewell and the practical and steady hand of Benjamin Bakewell Campbell, created a factory which influenced the cultural and industrial landscape of the United States throughout the 19th century in an exemplary marriage of the decorative arts and industrial processes.

John Bakewell (Source: Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina, Alexander Henderson, 1936)

How much if anything Yallambee’s John and Robert B knew about the glass making efforts of their American cousins will probably never be known but I refer to the story here to add to my earlier contention that the wider Bakewell family is full of such stories of innovation and entrepreneurship.

After John and Robert departed Yallambee in 1857, Yallambie was leased, then purchased by Thomas Wragge who in about 1872 built the present Homestead, (managing to change the spelling to its more common form along the way).

Thomas Wragge photographed in the 1880s. (Source: Bill Bush collection).

The first prefabricated Yallambee had impressed Richard Howitt who wrote in 1842 that with its “French windows, you seemed scarcely in-doors.” (Howitt: Impressions of Australia Felix)

The new house that Wragge built by contrast featured “a large, arched window of figured glass at the top of the stairs” (Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales) and an acid etched, glass overhead fan light and side lights at the front door, a remaining fragment of which was found under the floor when the boards were disturbed in modern times.

Group on the front step at Yallambie Homestead, c1895. Harry Wragge is the boy standing apart on the left. The highly reflective glass in the sidelight behind his shoulder suggests acid etching. Jessie Wragge and her mother Sarah Anne are the two women at right. (Source: Bill Bush collection)

When Thomas Wragge’s daughter Sarah Annie and her husband Walter Murdoch remodelled Yallambie, possibly starting in about 1919 and continuing on until 1923, this etched glass at the front was removed and replaced with a lead light design that was also to be repeated elsewhere in the house. As a part of this process the front door was cut down and the fan light removed to accommodate a large lead light window within the upper door panel. This was the arrangement that remained in place until the end of the 20th century.

The Temby front hall,1984. (Source: Calder collection)
The three stages of development when reinstating the front entrance. The hallway stripped. The hallway plastered. The hallway glazed.
Acid etched glass at Yallambie, March, 2018.

At the start of the new millennium a long process commenced to rebuild the front entrance into a resemblance of the original 19th century configuration. Original acid etched glass side lights were sourced from a house that had been demolished in Albert Park and the very personable Paul Storm, Australia’s only remaining practitioner of the highly skilled and dangerous art of acid etching on glass, was commissioned to create a new fan light to suit. It featured a “Golden Fleece” motif in a sort of latter day nod to old Tom’s original ambition.

Bathroom window and lead light, December, 2017.

Stylistically appropriate, the large front door panel found its way, with modifications, into the lower sash of a double hung bathroom window in the Edwardian extension of the house. An upper sash was also created to match and incorporated a purpose made, square cut, clear “picture” window for observing the moon at night from the bath tub, a curious but stated minimum requirement for the window from the glass designer’s wife.

Lead lighting –  I’ve always admired the skill of one of our friends who, over time,  has produced countless complex and colourful works of art in his own home and was all too ready to help with the end result in this case. Armed with this certitude and a few Youtube tutorials to suit, this amateur quickly found that, while there may be a bit of a knack to cutting glass, the main challenge confronting the novice lead lighter is the amount of time needed to do even a small leadlight project properly. With a monthly blog to write up, it’s not as though any of us has time on our hands these days is it?

Former side lights used in a 4 panel door plus newly made top light, December, 2017.

In time the leadlight side lights from the front found their own good way into a new but typically still unpainted four panel door and a matching overhead vestibule window was created to suit. The small panel shown above the Edwardian style door in the photograph here represents hours of patient work and more than a little broken and wasted glass. Even so there remains a mistake in the final design. I didn’t spot it until I’d finished but I’m not about to remake it. Give the man (or woman) a cigar who can spot the difference.

Sarah Annie Wragge at Yallambie, c1890. (Source: Bush collection).

According to Winty Calder, Thomas Wragge may have purchased porcelain door trim for Yallambie Homestead at the Royal Derby China factory during a trip to England and some of these items may have been subsequently removed prior to the A V Jennings sale when fittings were allegedly used by the agent’s so called “caretaker” to generate beer money at the Plenty Bridge Hotel.

Glass door furniture and lead light.

Whatever the truth, in later times several door fittings have been replaced with original glass or porcelain fittings scrounged obsessively from demolition yards and junk shops on a beer budget.

The Ascension Windows triptych at St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg.
Inscription reads,”In loving memory of Thomas and Sarah Ann Wragge for many years worshippers in this church. Presented by their daughter Annie and two sons Syd and Harry 1920.”

The period following the end of the Edwardian era was a time of great change and upheaval in Australian society. At Yallambie a generational change had occured. As previously recounted in the pages of this blog, the Wragge family commissioned a magnificent triptych chancel window at St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg showing Christ ascending with Mary and John on the side panels. Meanwhile, Thomas Wragge’s “arched window of figured glass”, over the stairs at Yallambie disappeared from living memory during Sarah Annie’s renovations when the original staircase, a “wide curved central stairway”, (Calder) was remodelled.

Stained glass installed into the dining room.

In another nod to the past, an old stained and leaded glass window has now been positioned in a window at the back of the stairs as a sort of surrogate reinterpretation of that first idea. Purchased in another dusty junk shop in SA, reputedly sourced from a defunct school of architecture in NSW, and brought to Victoria on the roof of our car, the window is possibly an early Australian example of the glass painters’ art.

Preparing the stained glass for transport, February, 1999.

You might wonder at so much attention seeming to be wasted on detail while so many parts of an old building are crumbling around the occupants’ ears. You might think it’s a story filled suspiciously with glasses of a rose colour but when it comes down to it, we all want to make a mark as we sail through on our allotted span. Maybe that means the changes made to a pile of bricks and mortar sometimes called home. Or maybe it’s the untangling of a genealogical record for the sake of an imagined posterity. Or maybe it’s simply a few words recorded in an obscure blog read by someone, somewhere, some time while looking through a glass, darkly.

 

Bird is the word

To ornithologists with an archaic command of the English language, it could have been murder. It occurred one morning last week in the trees above Yallambie Park, but there wasn’t a strangled body left hanging in the branches and the Homicide Squad wasn’t called in to investigate.

It’s an obscure bit of phraseology, but according to the Oxford Dictionary, any noisy gathering of crows is collectively known as a “murder”, and that’s just what we had circling over the Yallambie escarpment here the other day. Like a scene from an old Alfred Hitchcock horror film, dozens of these large black birds circled and swooped through the tall trees, all the while filling the air of the Plenty Valley in every direction with their strident calls.

By the Oxford’s definition then it was a murder, and a murder of some magnitude. The aerial perambulations of these birds lasted a good ten minutes and as I stood watching them, I wondered to myself, ‘What could possibly be going on inside those bird brains rising high above the ground up there in the sky? What could they be saying to each other?’ To my mind their avian behaviour certainly seemed considered and their vocalization in many respects carried the nuances of language.

Cockatoos in a walnut tree at Yallambie.
Rainbow lorikeet photographed at Yallambie, January, 2018.
Little Raven, (corvus mellori) photographed at Yallambie, January, 2018.

Our fruit trees have been laden this year and the cockies and lorikeets for a long time have been making deep inroads into the crop. For a while there was a bit of a stand-off between the cockatoos and the new arrivals but in this may be a clue in essence to what the crows were really chatting on about during their mid-air confab. When the crows subsequently took up an unofficial residency in the area under the outraged watch of the cockatoos, a neighbour told me that she thought, “There must be a plum tree in the neighbourhood because the birds keep dropping pips onto our tin roof.”

Go figure. Our plum tree has since been stripped quite bare. No wonder those birds had so much to say about Yallambie on arrival.

Among birds, the corvids (crows and ravens) are reputedly the most intelligent and have the largest brain for body size. They are highly social and renowned for their problem-solving abilities. You’ve probably seen them on the National Geographic Channel dropping shell fish and nuts onto hard surfaces to crack them open, or by improvising with found objects to form tools to open lunch boxes. One report even suggests that they can count to a kindergarten level, and that’s even while substituting claws for fingers as I suppose they must do.

Crows are one hell of a bird then so it surprised me to find out that calling a gathering of big black crows here in the State of Victoria a murder might actually be a misnomer.

You see, the big, black birds we see here aren’t considered by the experts to be crows at all. It turns out the birds we see in South-eastern Australia are classed by the people who know about such things as ravens, the bird Noah chose to release first up from the Ark, and it is an error of binomial nomenclature reporting to describe them otherwise.

So there you go. In the best Agatha Christie tradition, sometimes a murder isn’t necessarily what it seems, even for those of us accused of regularly murdering English here in WordPress. So maybe next time you are thinking of crying out, “Stone the crows,” perhaps what you should really be saying is, “Stone the ravens.” Doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?

The bird we call a “crow” in South-eastern Australia is actually the “Little Raven”, a bird of smaller proportion to the larger, closely related Australian Raven and next time you’re at the football standing next to a barracking Adelaide supporter, you could try suggesting they use the more literally correct form of endearment, “Carn the Little Ravens.” Try that one day and see how far you get.

The Little Raven is just one of the many types of bird that inhabit the air up and down the Plenty Valley, permanently and on a seasonal basis. The reports of the first settlers of this area are filled with descriptions of the bird life they saw, with James Willis’ diary especially filled with lists of the species he encountered as he happily blasted away at them to send them spinning out of the sky and into his cooking pot.

Sulphur Crested Cockatoo, non captive in an oak tree at Yallambie a few few years ago.
Syd Wragge resting his back against the bird cage at the south east corner of the house, with James Hearn and possibly Will or Harry Wragge, c1900. (Source: Bill Bush Collection).
Unidentified woman seated on the corner of the south east verandah at Yallambie, c1900. Note the crested pigeon perched on the edge of the basket and possibly taken from the cage just visible on the left of the picture. The dog was apparently not a bird dog. (Source: Bill Bush Collection).

Thomas Wragge and his family are also remembered for having kept a captive Sulphur Crested cockatoo in a large cage on the back verandah at Yallambie in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Cockatoos are very long lived birds and can be taught to mimic the spoken language of humans. When Thomas installed one of the very first telephones in the Heidelberg district at Yallambie, an early model Ericsson wall phone, the bird developed a talent for squawking out a call in imitation to what it had heard voiced with the ring on previous occasions. “The telephone, the telephone,” the bird would scream whenever it heard the phone alarm, which I guess was every bit as good as having an extension bell in the garden.

Later, the Tembys also kept a pet cockatoo at Yallambie but they dispensed with the cage on the verandah and parked the bird instead on a beam in the kitchen from where it could chat regularly with the family.

Yallambie seen from the south east, c1890, before the addition of the later shingled verandahs on that side. The cockatoo cage can be at the end of the metal verandah, just along from a ground floor room used as a study by Thomas and where he had his telephone line installed.  (Source: Bill Bush Collection).

Be that as it may and leaving all talking birds aside, while on the subject of ornithology it is an earlier connection to the story of the Bakewell brothers of the 1840s Station Plenty, (Yallambee) that most interests me and which is worth telling from this point.

Phoebe Howitt, (née Bakewell ) c1858. (Source: State Library of Victoria).

The Bakewell story carries a close and familial connection with a piece of feathered history of small but international import. According to Alexander Henderson’s pedigree in his “Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina”, John and Robert Bakewell and their sister Phoebe Howitt (née Bakewell) were 2nd cousins of Lucy Bakewell, the wife of that most famous painter of American birds, John James Audubon. The Yallambee Bakewells and Lucy shared the same ancestor – Robert Bakewell of Castle Donington, their great grandfather.

Lucy Bakewell’s family moved to the United States in 1801 when she was 14 years old and she almost certainly never met her younger Australian emigre cousins who were born after that date. However, it is said that her father William was acquainted with Joseph Priestley and that Dr Erasmus Darwin had been her infant physician and, while not a member of the Lunar Society himself, William Bakewell’s dealings with these prominent members of that famous society of liberal thinkers is evidence perhaps of the sort of circles the larger Bakewell family moved within.

“The Orrery” by Joseph Wright of Derby, c1766, (Derby Museum and Art Gallery).

In an assessment, the Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Rhodes in his 2004 Audubon biography wrote that: “Even for English country gentry, the Bakewells were literate to an unusual degree.” It is therefore not so surprising the paths taken by the later members of that family when arriving in Australia. John and Robert’s acclimatization experiments at Yallambee and Phoebe’s patronage of the arts, together with the activities of her husband, Dr Godfrey Howitt, have all been well documented and form part of a tradition.

So in the best Quaker style then, it might be said that Lucy Bakewell was the product of something more than the usual ornamental education given to gentle women of that era and when John James Audobon met her for the first time in early 1804, he was immediately smitten. Lucy was just short of 17 years old. He was 18. 

“She was tall, slim, graceful, poise, modest and lovely to look at, with a turned-up English nose and smoky gray eyes – in the recent estimate of one of her cousins, ‘a fine lively girl.’ She was also, as Audubon would discover, intelligent, loyal, well read, musical, meticulous, a good horsewoman and an athletic swimmer.” (Richard Rhodes, John James Audubon – The Making of an American, 2004).

Lucy Audubon from a miniature by Frederick Cruickshank, c1831.

John James Audubon was born in 1785 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) and raised in France during the dangerous and chaotic period after the French Revolution. In 1803 he was sent to America by his father, ostensibly to oversee his business interests there, but primarily to escape conscription into the French armies of Napolean. On Arrival in New York City, Audubon learned English in a boarding house run by Quaker women and as a result used the Quaker form of “thee” and “thou” in common speech and in his writings ever afterward. Although otherwise then an archaic form of expression, one wonders whether such Quakerisms added to the attraction of the young man in Lucy’s eyes when they met for the first time. Lucy’s father was a Unitarian but she would perhaps have remembered with childish nostalgia the Quaker connections present in the wider Bakewell family that had been left behind in England.

The Bakewells and Audubon occupied neighbouring estates in Pennsylvania and in the winter of 1804 when skating on the frozen waters of the Perkiomen with Lucy’s younger brother, Tom Bakewell, John James went through a hole in the ice narrowly avoiding being drowned after being drawn by the current under the surface for 30 or 40 yards before emerging through another hole further down. The resulting exposure contributed to a near fatal illness. As fever increased to delirium, Lucy had Audubon removed from his own home and brought to her family’s property. The fever took 10 days to break by which time Audubon was so weak he that he could not stand up. She nursed him back to health, his convalescence lasting throughout the Christmas of 1804, Lucy reading to him and talking with him while all the while developing an intimacy, (the sort feared by James Willis in another post).

As the young Frenchman recovered he would probably have been keenly interested in the novel surroundings he saw in the American home of these English Bakewells. Lucy’s father William, “in the English tradition of technological entrepreneurship”, had that year brought a young mechanic and millwright from Scotland to install an experimental steam-powered threshing machine at his farm which that Christmas was ready for testing in the barn yard. It was clear that the American Bakewell property was demonstrably at the cutting edge of agricultural science, even at the start of the 19th century.

 An understanding was soon blooming between the young couple.

“They walked their adjoining woods and went riding. They exchanged childhoods, hers in Derbyshire, his along the Loire. They discovered their common love of country life and distaste for cities. The one reserved but steadfast, the other flamboyant and bold, both gifted at friendship, they began to fall in love.” (ibid)

The marriage of Lucy Bakewell and John James Audubon three years later was a love match but in many ways it was Lucy who was the rock upon which the great painter subsequently founded his talents and prodigious ambition. Theirs’ was a marriage of true minds but maybe it was also a reflection of some of the best Quaker ideals, a legacy from her Bakewell origins which encouraged the educated feminine mind. The marriage has been called the most important event in Audubon’s life because it was his wife who was “the spur to his ambition and the balance wheel to his character.” It was Lucy who raised their children and kept their home, even working as a governess and opening schools to provide an income while Audubon’s career took him for months at a time into the wilderness, for years overseas to find a publisher of his drawings, and into financial hardships that at one point involved bankruptcy.

John James Audubon by John Syme, 1826, (Source: Wikipedia, from The White House Historical Association).
The Raven: plate 101 from “The Birds of America” by John James Audubon.

John James crossed the Appalachians to Kentucky to start a new life with Lucy and it was in the frontier wilderness of North America that he truly began to fully revel in the natural world he saw all around him. Largely self-taught as an artist, Audubon developed his own methods for drawing birds from collected specimens, combining these with extensive field observations. He often portrayed birds as if caught in motion, especially feeding or hunting. The resulting work, “The Birds of America”, was a monumental task by any stretch of the imagination. In it Audubon documented all the birds of North America, painting the subjects in naturalistic poses in a style quite uncommon for their day and publishing the end result at life size in giant “double elephant” sized folios. At the height of one long separation Lucy wrote of her husband, If I were jealous, I would have a bitter time of it, for every bird is my rival.” John James’ project at times was to border on an obsession.

Passenger Pigeon: plate 62 from “The Birds of America” by John James Audubon. A notable example of anthropogenic extinction, the pigeon which once number in the billions became extinct at the start of the 20th century due to hunting and habitat loss.

The Birds of America was sold by subscription and took years to complete but it made John James famous both nationally and internationally.” The 435 plates each more than a half square metre in area and printed by Havells of London, depict some 1,065 different species, the majority drawn from specimens that Audubon himself had captured. He discovered 25 new species and 12 new sub species during the process. Some of the birds he drew are today extinct and this to the modern mind adds a certain poignancy to his legacy.

Australian Raven: from The Birds of Australia by John Gould

Compare the stiff poses of that other famed painter, the painter of Australian birds, John Gould from a similar but slightly later era with those of Audubon to appreciate the natural genius of the painter of America’s birds. Pelicans wading the shallows of interior rivers, flocks of songbirds soaring in the air and passenger pigeons darkening the skies – Audubon observed and recorded all of them.

Lucy Audubon in her old age, c1860. (Source: New Brunswick Museum)

Lucy outlived her husband by more than two decades after his death in 1851. Sadly for those around him, Alzheimer’s disease had left the great painter’s “noble mind in ruins” before the end. From then until her death in 1874, Lucy worked with her family tirelessly to preserve her husband’s tradition and when we examine the work of John James Audubon, it is easy perhaps to ignore the lifetime of separation and sacrifice that was required by his wife to make the artist’s best endeavours a reality.

The story of John James and Lucy Audubon was an American love story. A love story between two people on another continent and in another time but it was also a love story that involved a common and enduring love of the natural world and all that goes into it. We can all identify with that, especially today in this world of ugliness and built cities. Today at Yallambie when I look up into the sky at the visiting crows that are not crows, or at the other many and varied forms of bird life that fill this part of the Plenty Valley, I sometimes think of Audubon and his American birds and of that small, familial connection here from another time and of another place.

 

Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush

The Cactus House is cactus.

Shortly before Christmas last year the bulldozers moved in and did their thing. In no time at all the “Cactus House”, the Yallambie House of Mystery in Tarcoola Drive had done the big vanishing act, leaving behind nothing but an open block of land and a few soon to be forgotten memories.

Aerial survey photograph made of a still some what undeveloped Yallambie area prior to 1971.
The newly formed Tarcoola Drive, Yallambie, c1968. This picture looks across the road towards the site where the “Cactus House” would soon be built. The Allima Ave intersection is on the left and Slagmolen’s “Casa Maria” is visible behind the pencil pines on the ridge. (Source: Composite made from the Bill Jones Collection)
E L Bateman’s pencil study for View XII in his Plenty Station series showing William Greig’s, c1839 cottage standing above the river behind the site of the later Yallambie “Cactus House”. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria Collection).

The Cactus House in Tarcoola Drive had been a bit of an enigma for nigh on 5 years, ever since the old lady who last lived there departed this mortal world for the great beyond. The cream brick veneer she called home must have been one of the first houses built during the subdivision of the Yallambie estate as it is visible in an aerial photograph made prior to 1971, but not in a photograph of the newly formed Tarcoola Drive c1968. It was built within a literal stone’s throw of where William Greig had earlier built his cottage. Since her death it has stood vacant, or at least it has remained vacant to all appearances. There was a feeling whenever you walked past that you could never be entirely sure about this, or indeed who or what might be watching from those brooding but seemingly empty windows with their unstated memory.

We called it the Cactus House because of a vast forest of exotic cacti that had been allowed to grow across the frontage on Tarcoola Drive. Local memory suggests that the cacti were planted prior to 1970 by the second owner of the house in an attempt to keep neighbourhood dogs from roaming into the property from the street. This was before the advent of front fencing which, as a concept, had initially been opposed by A V Jennings on the Yallambie estate.

Cactus collection of Charles Darrah later housed at Alexandra Park, Manchester. (Source: Manchester Archive & Local Studies)
Queen of the Night, night flowering cactus at Yallambie.
Flowering Zygocactus at Yallambie.

Be that as it may, collecting cacti had been something of a Victorian craze for a while and gardens filled with rare botanical specimens even became a bit of a status symbol in the 19th century. Today there are a few extant plantings scattered through the homestead garden and even along the river bank if you know where to look, so maybe the Cactus House plantings had been sourced from these.

Prickly Pear at Yallambie Homestead, March, 1984. (Source: J T Collins Collection, La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria)

At any rate, one type of cacti, the infamous prickly pear introduced from South America in the 19th century, is known to have become an invasive species all over Australia before the introduction of a moth in the 1920s was used to control its spread. The story goes that the moth, whose caterpillars ate the cactus, was such a successful biological control that scientists were subsequently encouraged to try something similar with the cane beetles that were a problem in North East Queensland. Unfortunately the toads they imported to eat the beetles hadn’t read the menu board and instead ate everything, not excepting the cane beetles, but then I digress. That’s a whole other story.

Prickly pear infestation in an Australian bush land environment prior to biological control.

Moths aside, the Cactus House was an impressive sight in Yallambie and some of its plants must have been nearly a half century old by the time the whole kit and kaboodle disappeared from the face of the earth.

The A V Jennings Yallambie estate, c1968. Ekari Crt is in the middle of the picture. The Allima Ave, Tarcoola Drive intersection is on the right. Adina and Koolya Courts at left. (Source: Bill Jones Collection)
Looking in the same direction along Tarcoola Drive, January, 2018.

For all that, with its wide frontage and a rear boundary facing Yallambie Park, it was always going to be a latter day target of the developers, especially as the house became systematically more dilapidated in recent years. As the mail piled up in the letter box uncollected, then the letter box itself disappeared altogether, I thought it would be only a matter of time before the inevitable occurred.

Site of the “Cactus House” as seen from the Yallambie Park side, January, 2018.

With the removal of the house, as expected the block where it stood has now been cleared from corner to corner and the cacti that were a distinctive, almost Mediterranean style feature at the front are all gone, utterly and without a trace. So too the lemon tree at the back of the garden. Nothing was saved of the garden from the wreckers’ waltz. Nothing but a single, solitary gum tree near the front footpath where pedestrians pass by which, I assume as a native planting, the Council in their wisdom refused a planning permit to remove.

It might seem an odd thing to be making a fuss about here. After all, they were only a few old prickly plants and this sort of house and garden destruction is going on all over Melbourne, right? Blink and a garden is gone and usually the house along with it. Before you know it in no time at all the block is usually filled again by a house as if by magic, usually from boundary to boundary or, what is more often true, a collection of multiple houses built as close together as the confines of the property will possibly allow. So stay tuned and keep your eyes to the ground.

Meanwhile, about the time that Yallambie’s Cactus House met its end, another house of memories in Banyule Rd, Rosanna similarly met its Waterloo. That’s no surprise but I make note here because the house was once the home of a family friend, elderly Mrs Rowe, and the 517 bus from Yallambie always passed right by it. I often looked at it when going by as Mrs Rowe had been a friend of my parents at the church. While we had known her for many years, she was only ever known to us as Mrs Rowe, and never by her first name. That’s just not the way it was done then. She lived to a right, venerable, old age but I guess she must have been gone a good decade or more by the time her house came down.

Planting the Mulberry, June, 1994.
The Mulberry tree, December, 2017.

Mrs Rowe bless her heart gave my sister a handkerchief painstakingly hand embroidered to carry on her wedding day and later, she gave my wife and I a young Mulberry to plant at Yallambie to mark our own. Mrs Rowe is gone. Her house is gone. Her garden is gone. But that tree she gave us to mark that day produces a new crop of fruit over an extended period each year. Maybe it will still be doing so at Yallambie after we’re gone.

Mulberries are a species of deciduous flowering trees that produce a crop of edible berries over an extended period up to and after Christmas in Melbourne. There is a grove of them growing in the Darebin Parklands which were planted by Chinese market gardeners along the Cobb and Co wagon track around 1860. The Park Management Committee at Darebin have in more recent times replanted sections of the “Mulberry Avenue” in a nod to local history which is commendable and shows what can be done when there is a will and a way. Elsewhere Mulberries don’t seem to be planted very often in the suburbs any more, which is another mystery to me every bit as big as the Cactus House as they are a great little tree in very many respects.

Mulberry fruit at Yallambie, December, 2017.

Blackberry and ivy growing out of control on the Yallambie escarpment below the water tower in 1995.

There are many species of Mulberry but the tree we planted here all those years ago is a Black Mulberry (Morus Nigra) which is thought to have originated in Persia but which was planted extensively in English garden estates from the 17th century onward in an attempt to establish a silk worm industry. Apparently as a resource for silk worms they weren’t much use but the fruit of the Black Mulberry is delicious. A bit like a blackberry but without those annoying prickles and the invasive growth habit to contend with.

The only problem worth remarking upon when picking Mulberries is the deep red stain of the fruit that seems to get over everything. As a problem however, this one can be a put down as a truly remarkably delectable dilemma.

The fruiting season of Mulberries in Melbourne is nearly over for the summer but in case anybody reading this has a tree growing in a garden or indeed is thinking of planting one instead of a housing estate at the bottom of their garden, here’s a thought. As a fruit, I’m of a mind that the Mulberry is an improvement on the thorny and sometimes downright dangerous prickly pear and, furthermore, in the off season you can take a dance around a Mulberry “Bush” on a cold and frosty morning.

Try doing that over a cactus.

Cactus Agave, “century plant” flower and lorikeet at Yallambie

“So this is Christmas”

Where were you the day they shot John Lennon? For those younger than a certain age the answer is probably, “A twinkle in my father’s eye,” but for the rest of us it seemed like one of those seminal moments in life when history is written.

I have a memory of that warm December afternoon in Melbourne. School had finished for the summer and I was in the garden at the family home in Rosanna when my father came outside with the news he had just heard broadcast on the radio.

“Hey. You there.”
“What?”
“No, no, no,” he chanted, using a metre borrowed from The Beatles.
“What?”
“That bug. You know, Lennon, the Beatle. They just shot him in New York.”
“What, who?”
“I dunno. Probably some sort of music lover I guess. I heard it on the wireless just now.”

I remember the sense of disbelief. Lennon, the man who wrote the double entendre “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” Dead at 40. With a bullet. Forty sounded old.

To put that day into its era and within the context of the Yallambie narrative, the ex-Beatle died 37 years ago this week on December 8th, (a day later in Australia). It was a time when Ethel Temby was still living at Yallambie Homestead and the last of the vacant blocks from the original AV Jennings sub division were fast disappearing into the suburban landscape, giving Santa more work to do it seems with every passing year.

Lennon’s old band mate Paul is in Melbourne to play some shows today and tomorrow and the circumstance got my mind to wandering. When I opened a box at home containing some shiny natural history specimen beetles collected at Yallambie in Christmas times now past, it got it wandering off in a fairly random direction. It’s a direction entirely appropriate for this, the silly season, and a better line to travel than dwelling on an historic, senseless murder. My old dad’s words about bugs seemed to come back like a blast from the past, along with a flood of lines from a poem you may have heard.

When Christmas comes the Christmas heat’ll
bring once more the Christmas Beetle
The first inflammatory breeze’ll
set him buzzing like a diesel.
(Leon Gellert)

So with apologies to lovers of the British ’60s beat who, like me, thought at the start this post was shaping up to be about the walrus, or beetles spelled with an “A”, think again. The question is, just where have all those Christmas Beetles gone?

Jewel Beetles found at Yallambie.

It’s an oft asked question these days. When I was a kid it seemed that Christmas was the time when shining Christmas beetles were a common thing in the garden. Maybe I was just more observant then or maybe it was the plastic toy “Bug Catcher” that arrived from Father Christmas one Christmas morning, but finding anything like a Christmas Beetle now is something of a rarity and the fact is, I haven’t seen an actual Christmas Beetle at Yallambie for several years. The photograph above is of some wood boring, Jewel Beetles which were collected at Yallambie, but I’m afraid they weren’t found in a single day, or in a single year for that matter.

Parure crafted for the Countess of Granville from real scarabs by Phillips of Cockspur Street, London, c1884. (Source: Gray & Davis)

The beauty of Jewel Beetles has long been recognized by jewellery makers who prized them and in the latter half of 19th century incorporated real beetles into everything from hatpins to bracelets, an expression of the Victorian fascination with the natural world, even while their other behaviour did everything to destroy it.

Christmas Beetle (Porter’s)

True Christmas Beetles by comparison are a type of scarab and are a fairly chunky, sometimes large insect that come in a variety of metallic colours. They are quite harmless to touch and if you’ve ever had one to hold it’s something to feel the determination of the little fellow as it pushes through your fingers.

It leaves me wondering, what goes on in a beetle mind as he sits there, snug as a bug in a rug in the palm of your hand. Does he have a name? Something scientific probably. Latin sounding, no doubt. Maybe his friends call him Ringo?

Adult Christmas Beetles feed on eucalyptus leaves and it was claimed in our Colonial past that the quintessential gum tree could sometimes be seen to bend under the sheer weight of the numbers of massed beetles. No more.

Jewel Scarabs from around the world, (National Geographic).

I don’t know if this has a relevance, but it has been reported in Germany that the flying beetle population in Germany has crashed by more than 75% over a 30-year study period. Reasons for this remain uncertain but if the results of the German survey into this phenomenon correlate into a worldwide trend, then we likely have a problem. The German report concludes that, “Loss of insect diversity and abundance is expected to provoke cascading effects on food webs and to jeopardize ecosystem services.”

80% of wild plants rely on insects for pollination and 60% of birds rely on insects as a food source. The fact is that only 10% of the world’s insect population have been identified and it is believed that many are going extinct before they can even be named.

Butterfly Collector, (unidentified), Daguerreotype. (Source: George Eastman House Collection).

Yallambee’s Robert Bakewell, an amateur entomologist of some standing, would have been most disturbed by this statistic, even as his net descended down upon the last Pussycat Swallowtail or his pin pierced an increasingly rare Christmas Beetle.

The search for the ever elusive Pussycat Swallowtail.

Comment has already been made in the pages of this blog about the decline in bee populations but apparently the decline is not limited to bees and is linked to a general loss of bio diversity worldwide. The evidence for a beetle decline in parts of Australia is anecdotal but undeniable. Climate change, loss of insect habitats and the use of pesticides have all been suggested as possible causes of this beetle malaise but the general consensus is that it has been a combination of factors without any one single cause. The plastic Bug Catcher of my childhood is in the clear after all.

The Herald Sun reported today that a recent La Trobe University study had found that human disturbance to ecosystems such as clearing forest for farmland has led to profound changes in the diversity of ant species world wide. Professor Heloise Gibb was quoted saying that, “The disappearing ant species are more likely to be predators, increasing the chances that pest populations might explode.”

In the case of the old Christmas Beetle, it’s unclear what if any effect a decline in the population will cause. The belief is that the “dual life history” of the insect is at the heart of the problem. The larvae feed on the roots of grasses, the adults on eucalypt leaves and with both environments in short supply around urban Melbourne these days the decline is understandable. It’s one explanation of why Christmas just isn’t what it used to be, at least for beetles.

Meanwhile, over in Melbourne tonight, that other rare Beatle is making his appearance stage left, some might say in the style of “Dame Nellie Melba’s Farewell”. The weather has been a trifle inclement of late but here’s hoping there’s still a chance for a fine night, a warm summer, and to the truth of those words:

“…the Christmas heat’ll
bring once more the Christmas Beetle”

Yeah, yeah, yeah…