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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“No, no, no,” he chanted, using a metre borrowed from The Beatles.
“That bug. You know, Lennon, the Beatle. They just shot him in New York.”
“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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
The Australian writer and historian Don Watson once posed the tempting question, “What will history make of us should there be any historians left to write it?”
The news last week that the State Government had decided on Corridor A as the chosen route for the North East Link freeway leaves a devastating conflict of emotions for nearby communities. There is the feeling of relief that the alternative B, C and D roads will now, at least not for the time being, be built, but this is coupled with a general feeling of dismay at the destruction Corridor A is likely to wreak.
Corridor A when built will largely cut an underground path under Viewbank and Rosanna, with road interchanges located at Bulleen and Lower Plenty Roads, but it will be the surface road parallel with Greensborough Road along the Western boundary of Yallambie with Macleod and in Watsonia in the north, together with the associated road interchanges at either end that will have the most obvious visual impact. At least 75 homes are expected be lost to the plan and it’s pretty clear to anyone familiar with the local area just where these are likely to be.
The government spent $100 million to write a study of their four, so called alternative routes which included the utter surprise of their Corridor B proposal through the heart of Yallambie, but in the end the extra corridors were a smoke screen, an attempt to muddy the water surrounding a proposal to build Corridor A which, because it was expected to be cheaper, was always going to be the favoured option.
Corridor A has been talked about ever since something like it was first proposed in the 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan. It wasn’t built because enough people could see back then that it was a bad idea. So what has changed? A decade ago the proposal was still on the table and costed at $6 billion, but last week’s announcement rings in now at over $16 billion. The real question then is, just how much is this thing going to cost eventually, and I don’t just mean in dollar terms.
Perhaps the NELA aren’t aware of some of the worry and the sleepless nights that they have given Yallambie and Lower Plenty residents since the first suggestion of Corridor B was disclosed in August. Perhaps they don’t care. This sort of cavalier attitude is nothing new, as the recent to-ing and fro-ing over the abandoned East West Link proposal is evidence, but fifty years ago the following story illustrates perhaps just how strongly passions can run on such matters.
In the mid 1960s, at a time before the first spade had been turned on Melbourne’s freeway network, a plan was developed by Doncaster and Templestowe City Council in conjunction with the Country Roads Board to widen Templestowe Rd in Templestowe at the Thompsons Road intersection. The plan when first discussed involved realigning Templestowe Rd at its closest approach to the Yarra River with Parker St in the east, through the heart of the Templestowe township.
But there was a problem. Finn’s Upper Yarra Hotel, a local landmark of some renown, stood right in the path of the new road.
The Upper Yarra Hotel was a much loved building. James Finn had opened his hotel as a beer shop on the Templestowe corner in 1866, near what is now a vanished river crossing, and over the years various additions had been made to it which had combined to create a strange amalgamation of architectural styles. The idiosyncratic compact construction of the original building seemed to stand at odds with the later, two-storey block fronted section but somehow they combined almost by accident to form a building of considerable rambling charm.
The Upper Yarra was delicenced in the early 1920s but as it aged and became more dilapidated the rustic appeal of its setting became a favoured subject for local artists. The various parts of the hotel itself were painted a rusty red colour in an attempt to bring unity to its conflicting parts and as the paint peeled the overpainted words “Finn’s Upper Yarra Hotel” stood out like a ghostly commentary as to the building’s former life, an old world garden and a cobbled stable yard behind the hotel completing the overall effect of a genteel rural decay.
The grown up grandchildren of James Finn were still living somewhat reclusive lives at the old hotel in the mid 1960s when the Council came a knockin’. Doncaster and Templestowe City Council had purchased the land on which the Upper Yarra Hotel stood from the executors of the estate of the son of James Finn and the Council were trying to force his grandchildren from the building which the surviving generation still occupied. The Council met with some militant but probably understandable opposition from the residents who objected to being moved away from the building their family had occupied for over a hundred years. One contemporary newspaper report described how a party of journalists was chased away from the hotel environs one evening in 1967 by an aging Finn brother wielding a big stick, smashing up a photographer’s car in the process in the mistaken belief that the newspaper party were officers from the Housing Commission come to enforce an eviction order.
In the end the Council got their way of course and the Finns removed themselves voluntarily from the building on the 28th May, 1967. On the night of departure however a mysterious fire broke out in the old weatherboarded building, quickly reducing it to a pile of cinder and rubble in spite of the best efforts of the Country Fire Authority to combat the blaze.
It was a tragic loss to history for the area. The Council had been discussing the possibility of moving the hotel out of the path of the imagined road realignment in a manner that they would later employ to save another historic Doncaster building, Schramm’s Cottage, in the 1970s. The fire put an end to any further discussion, Ad infinitim.
Eventually the Council accepted a cheque of $365.95 as compensation for the loss of the building, but the money was not really the point. The final irony in the telling of this story is that when the realignment of Templestowe Rd eventually took place, a decision was made to straighten the route to meet with Foote St parallel to Parker Street, which is the situation as it exists today. If Finn’s Hotel had been standing and not by then a pile of ashes, it would have been in the clear.
Today a so called “History Pavilion” on Templestowe Rd, Templestowe marks the site of the former Upper Yarra Hotel, with photographs plastered around the interior detailing the (now mostly vanished) history of the area. It is a strangely sad, not often visited tribute.
So how does this story affect the reality of the Corridor A proposal for North East Link? The above tale is an example that road plans are not set in stone until such time as they are actually set in concrete, whether they be tunnels or tarmac and you don’t have to burn down a building to find this out. Melbourne University transport lecturer John Stone was quoted in a newspaper story about State Government transport spin doctoring in The Age last month saying that, “Communities are presented with Maggie Thatcher’s old line – ‘There is no alternative’ – and often there is. But under the current system, the community can only be heard if they can create enough political will to be heard.”
Opponents of North East Link Corridor A have called a public meeting today on a rainy afternoon at Koonung Creek Reserve, Balwyn North and the AGM of the Friends of Banyule is scheduled for Thursday night at the old Shire offices in Beverley Rd, Heidelberg where there will be no prizes offered for guessing what will be the main item on the agenda that night. The opposition to Corridor A in these neighbourhoods is understandable but by any reckoning, the real opposition to the route should be coming from groups here in the north. Corridor A will be a surface road when it passes through Greensborough, Watsonia and Yallambie/Macleod and two of the three major new road interchanges will be situated here. The lack of opposition here however is the result of the earlier sleight of hand exercise conducted by NELA when they divided community opposition with the suggested alternative Corridors, B, C and D. That’s what the State Government got for spending a $100 million to investigate the alternative corridors, although they said at the time the money was to be used to cover the cost of “geotechnical investigations, design, environmental and social studies”. The cold, hard reality is that Corridor A will have a devastating effect on the City of Banyule, dividing the municipality in two in a north south direction along Greensborough Rd while doing little to relieve the very real traffic problems in the area. Vale to the City of Banyule.
Like the Finns at the old Upper Yarra Hotel, the lives knocked about by these road proposals are real people with real homes, each with their own story to tell and each with a sense of community and belonging. $16 billion and counting sounds to me like an awful lot of money to be spending on building a road, a road that won’t even do what it is intended to do, that is complete the missing link in Melbourne’s Ring Road system. Look at a map of the proposed route of Corridor A and you will see that the Corridor A route does not contribute to a ring at all but is a dent in the road plan, driving ring bound traffic back towards the city before asking it to fan out again in an easterly direction.
So when is a ring not a ring? When it is a link in the eyes of the North East Link Authority. The building of Corridor A will not remove the need to build a completed ring through Eltham in years to come. The thing is, by then the State will be so bankrupt that this will never happen, no matter what needs might then be presented. By that time too with the advent of AVs (autonomous vehicles), cars as we know them now might be a thing of the past, which poses some interesting speculation in answer to Don Watson’s original conundrum.
It was a name given to him affectionately by his fellow artists as a passing nod to his organized ways. They started out as a loose association in the mid ’80s in what was then semi-rural Box Hill, experimenting with plein air painting, but as suburbia overtook the artists’ camps along the Gardiners Creek they relocated to a new camp on “Mount Eagle”, at an old cottage at what is now Summit Drive in Eaglemont near Heidelberg, cementing in our consciousness by doing so an art movement that would forever be remembered as the “Heidelberg School”, Australia’s first nationally focused art movement.
Typically it was Walter (Walt) Withers, The Colonel, who found them another home when the group moved from the Eaglemont cottage. In September, 1890 Withers arranged a lease on the late David Charteris MacArthur’s “Charterisville”, just to the south of Mount Eagle, and here he painted and taught while subletting the lodges to a procession of his fellow artists. The contemporary critic Sidney Dickinson named him, along with Arthur Streeton, as a leader of the “Heidelberg School”, which in Withers’ case was almost certainly an exaggeration, but there is no doubting his significant role within the group.
In the critical period between 1889-90, at a time when Frederick McCubbin and several others were still painting in a conventional style, it has been noted that Withers “was experimenting with a brave and confident impressionistic style” and that “he was probably the first artist to paint major works using techniques of impasto”, (holmes à court Gallery).
When the Heidelberg School artists dispersed to other places after those “Glorious Summers” of the late 80s and early 90s, it was the English born Withers who chose to stay on in the Heidelberg district and paint impressions of the Australian bush while the Australian born Streeton left to paint in foreign fields and the real leader of the Heidelberg School, Tom Roberts was lost to portraiture. Withers alone remained, the sight of his bicycle with canvas and painting box strapped on board becoming a regular sight throughout the Heidelberg district.
In 1894, with his wife Fanny and the beginnings of their family of six children, Walt leased another house in Cape St, Heidelberg where he taught painting while maintaining a city studio.
Four years later the Withers family moved again to a new home, “Withers Court” on the corner of Darebin and Hawdon Streets, Heidelberg and it was probably there or at Cape Street that the grown up daughters of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge took painting lessons from him, learning techniques they would bring to their home to paint selected interior joinery at the homestead.
Possibly it was a social as well as an artistic outlet for the Wragge girls. Their mother, Sarah Anne Wragge wrote cryptically and critically in 1898 in a letter that she believed her daughters weren’t learning much about painting under the artist’s supervision.
“So Jessie has finished her paintings at last, and I quite think with you that there must be more talk than work at that studio.” (Sarah Anne Wragge – her underline – quoted by Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales)
The weather boarded Withers Court house still stands next to the rail tunnel in Heidelberg near to where the current duplication of the rail line between Heidelberg and Rosanna is right now, in a way that is pertinent to this story, reshaping the surrounding landscape. It was the building of the original cutting and rail tunnel under Darebin Street that determined Walt to move his family from Heidelberg in 1903 to a new location in Eltham. A large rock, blasted from the Heidelberg cutting, had crashed through the roof of his studio and damaged the canvas he had been working on, making Walt’s mind up in the process that it was high time to move on.
The Withers family relocated to “Southernwood”, a small farm set on 2 ½ acres on Bolton St, Eltham opposite the Montmorency Estate where he built a large adjoining studio. Here he spent the last 10 years of his life, famously painting many scenes in and around Eltham while still continuing to roam further afield on his bicycle as the painting mood took him.
He was living there, dividing his time by spending weekdays at his city studio and his weekends with his family at Southernwood when one day in 1907 he headed off from Eltham on a painting expedition on the road to Heidelberg. The result of that day, a small, loosely painted plein air oil sketch, which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria alongside some other more well-known and polished Withers’ masterpieces, carries the somewhat misleading title, “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg”. The title has helped to obscure the identity of this sketch for a hundred years as the result of a close inspection of the painting, which is freely available to view online the NGV web site, has only now revealed some rather familiar details.
In 1907 “Heidelberg” would have been a somewhat generic term. The old blue stone, Lower Plenty Road Bridge marked the official separation of Lower Plenty and Main Roads but it was on the Lower Plenty or Main Rd side that Walt appears to have set up his easel that day to paint the sort of rural Australian scene so beloved by him.
The apparently anonymous building in the painting on the left side of the road is on closer study quite obviously a loose interpretation of nothing other than the old Plenty Bridge Hotel, the story of which has been recounted on several occasions within the pages of this blog.
From the service wing with chimney, set at right angles to the main building, the post and rail fence on the opposite side of the road and the poplars planted at the far end of the building – the details are all there.
It was a light bulb moment when I was looking at this painting on the NGV web site and realised what I was really looking at. Withers has painted the land fall past the front of the PBH towards the valley of the Lower Plenty River, showing the road stretching towards the approaches of the bridge, hidden by the bend, just as it is today.
It got me thinking and to doing a little reading. Two versions of a biography of Walt Withers written by his widow Fanny have been reproduced in Andrew Mackenzie’s 1987 book, “Walter Withers – The Forgotten Manuscripts”. The longer of these two biographies, somewhat misleadingly titled, “A Short Biography of Walt Withers”, was published by Withers’ fellow Heidelberg School artist Alexander McCubbin in about 1920. Together, the two biographies contain Fanny’s written descriptions of many of her husband’s artworks and reading through them they make for some rather interesting details in the telling.
In 1907 Withers had painted a major canvas which Fanny called “Springtime on the Lower Plenty”, or “The Valley of the Lower Plenty, Victoria”, the obverse of which contained a replica of another Withers work. The story of the main painting as explained in Fanny’s writing is confusing because she freely interchanges the titles of her husband’s artworks in the context of the two biographies, but from the description “Springtime” was obviously an enlarged, studio version of the NGV oil sketch. I use the third person singular indicative as sadly the painting was destroyed in a devastating bush fire at Eltham on Black Friday, 13 January 1939.
Fortunately another painting of the same subject but painted in the tones of Autumn, “but from another point of view” was started at about the same time as “Springtime” and was worked on by Withers on and off up until the day he died. This painting has been called both “The Return from the Harvest” and “The Valley of the Lower Plenty” which makes for more confusion but Fanny wrote that it was a favourite of the artist and the largest canvas her husband ever worked upon.
“Again a road subject, with three figures, swags on their backs, two together and one following behind, walking with swinging steps towards the small hotel, nestling amongst the trees, at the side of the road. The time is Autumn, and the colouring rich and full toned. This painting is the most romantic of the painter’s work. It was much beloved by him, and it was the last canvas he painted on, the sky being completed by him the day before he was seized by his last attack of illness.” (Fanny Withers writing in “The Life and Work of Walter Withers, Landscape Painter.)
The painting was purchased and gifted to the Geelong Art Gallery which inexplicably today does not keep it on current display. It is some years since I saw the painting in the Geelong gallery myself and my memory of it is vague but clearly from the above description the painting is another image produced from painting expeditions to the countryside around the Plenty Bridge Hotel.
Recent attempts to gain a viewing of the original of this artwork at Geelong have been unsuccessful. The very poor resolution reproduction from the Gallery shown here does not allow for an observation of “the small hotel, nestling amongst the trees” described by Fanny but it does give a general feeling of the landscape on the western approach to the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge. In this painting the trees on the left hand side of the picture mark the southern boundary of Thomas Wragge’s Yallambie and one is left wondering whether the three swagmen returning “from the harvest” and painted by Withers might have been itinerant field workers going for a drink at the Plenty Bridge Hotel after a long day working in the Yallambie fields.
Maybe Walt even dropped by the Homestead that day to pay a visit to his former painting students, heading off with Sarah Annie’s husband, Walter Murdoch for a drink, as was Murdoch’s want, at the Plenty Bridge soon afterwards. It’s a thought.
Plagued by ill health later in life, Walt Withers died at Eltham of cerebral thrombosis on 13th October, 1914 aged just 59 years.
His daughter remembered him as being six feet tall in his socks and solidly built, with brown hair slightly curling at the sides, big, soft, hazel eyes and a large, bushy moustache. He is buried in the church side graveyard at the Rose Chapel (St Katherine’s), St Helena.
Writing in the forward of Andrew Mackenzie’s book, Kathleen Mangan, the daughter of Charles McCubbin wrote of the Heidelberg School artists that:
“…it was a time of freedom of spirit, gaiety, and great artistic and intellectual advancement, a glorious burst of artistic achievement which erupted into flame at the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties, a flame that was all too quickly extinguished by the Outbreak of World War One.”
The Great War was only two months old when Withers died. The artist mantra in the district passed to others, the colonies at Montsavat in Eltham and the Heide Circle at Bulleen becoming just two expressions. A story from the Heidelberg Artists Society of an incident involving artists during the Second War has a certain relevance to the Yallambie story. It is recorded that one day around 1940, two painters had set up their easels in the vicinity of Banyule Rd when a farmer armed with a shotgun and accompanied by a couple of enormous dogs arrived on the scene demanding to know their business. The artists were dressed for painting in Army disposals – slouch hats and blue boiler suits – while from a distance their easels might have been mistaken for surveyors’ tripods.
At that time the Army had just resumed a part of the old Yallambie Estate nearby to create Camp Q (Watsonia), now known as the Simpson Barracks, and the unnamed farmer feared that a survey heralding a forced annexation of his own land was about to take place. Summing up the relative sizes of the farmer’s firearm and the jaws of his hungry hounds, the artists wisely packed away their easels for another day, the decision possibly a loss to art but a gain for rural diplomacy in the district.
The association of the work of Walt Withers with the story of the Yallambie area joins the tradition of the earlier pictures of A E Gilbert and E L Bateman and the writings of Richard and William Howitt and Louisa Anne Meredith. For all that, the work of Walt Withers has fallen somewhat out of favour in recent years. Not one of the paintings he produced in and around the Heidelberg and Eltham districts and that are now in public ownership are currently on display at the galleries. “The Return from the Harvest”, AKA “The Valley of the Lower Plenty”, described by Fanny as “the most romantic of the painter’s work… much beloved by him” and likewise the NGV’s oil sketch “Springtime” must remain therefore, at least for present time, unobserved.
Heightening this unfortunate circumstance is the reality of the danger posed to the artists’ footsteps by the plans of the North East Link Authority, a subject and side subject of this blog in recent times. The location of the two Walt Withers paintings discussed above stands under direct threat of the potential building of a Corridor B through Yallambie and Lower Plenty. The tranquillity of Walt Withers churchyard grave at St Helena would be broken by the building of a Corridor C. And the implications of Corridor A on the legacy of the Heidelberg School in Banyule goes without saying.
Does anybody care?
His paintings largely forgotten, his Plenty Valley and Heidelberg subjects at risk of being despoiled by the road builders – poor Walt, “The Orderly Colonel” must be turning over in his St Helena grave.
Appearing as the harbinger of our doom, the sight of cranes clawing at the Melbourne horizon is an unmistakable sign of a scurrilous attempt to turn the “World’s Most Liveable City” into a “megalopolis” of over 8 million people by the year 2030.
At first glance, the two concepts would appear to be mutually exclusive, but if the crystal gazers are right, it’s a real possibility Melbourne will grow from a city of just under 4 million people at the 2016 census to an astonishing double that number sometime inside the next two decades. The so called Urban Growth Boundary, first sketched onto a map by government 15 years ago, has proved in practice to be a rubbery line that stretches this way and that way according to political whim while the old “Green Wedge” which was supposed to fill the void beyond the boundary with a ring of non-urban land, has been gradually whittled away to little more than half its original size resulting in urban sprawl and the loss of some of our most fertile agricultural lands.
It’s taken 180 years to get to this point but by any reckoning, Melbourne was always a town founded on the unchallenged principle that growth is good for us. From the heady days of the Victorian Gold Rushes and the regular boom and bust of the Real Estate economy, there has only ever been one way – the way forward. Australia has now been without an official recession for 26 years, something the commentators maintain can be counted on as some sort of a world record, but was Paul Keating right when at the start of the last one he described the descending bust as, “the recession we had to have”? Is growth really that good for us?
The pre-emptive actions of the pioneers of Port Phillip in 1835 are probably the nearest Australia ever came to the American way of doing things when it comes to an assessment of our pioneer history. In the United States, government generally took a back seat as the covered wagons rolled out across the Prairie, the settlers founding towns along the way wherever they came to rest, safe in the power that the Second Amendment gave to them to control their own destiny. In the Australian colonies by contrast, settlement was typically occasioned by Government initiative, either by sending convict fleets to the South Seas or by private enterprise supported by Royal decree.
In Melbourne, things happened slightly differently with the Over Straiters arriving from Van Diemen’s Land in 1835 and the Overlanders coming from New South Wales the following year to found an illegal settlement at Port Phillip, in spite of official Government policy designed to prevent it. Only after the settlement was reasonably well established did Government bow to the pressure of what was by then a fait accompli and sent in administrators armed with the acts and statutes of New South Wales to try to sort it all out. As a result, when it came time for the Roberts Russell and Hoddle to lay out the streets prior to the first land sales, some settlers found the houses they had already erected were standing in a no man’s land in the middle of the proposed roads and would need to be demolished. John Batman’s brother Henry was one who lost his home in this fashion, much to the amusement of the irascible John Pascoe Fawkner, who despised him.
The Heidelberg district to the north east of Port Phillip was founded around the three way river confluence of the Yarra/Plenty Rivers and Darebin Creek and was one of the first places to be settled outside of Melbourne itself, becoming for a while an almost fashionable location and a desirable neighbourhood for the genteel set. As such it didn’t last long with the absence of a direct railway line and properly maintained roads arresting district development in the second half of the 19th century, but the resulting quiet solitude combined with the natural beauty of the river valleys appealed greatly to those who chose to live there.
Sleepy Hollow they called it and when the artists discovered it towards the end of the 19th century, the area became famously the home of an Australian Nationalistic impressionistic art movement, the “Heidelberg School”.
The square mile of country that made up the Yallambie region on the north eastern edge of the Heidelberg district remained more or less undisturbed until the second half of the 20th century, wedged in as it was between the towns of Eltham in the east and Greensborough in the north, its lands locked up within the surviving boundaries of Thomas Wragge’s farm and the neighbouring army camp. Yallambie as a suburb developed only after the sale of the 19th century homestead and its remaining farm land to the developer A V Jennings in 1958.
The process of subdivision was initially slow, commencing in 1966 but by the early 1970s with urban sprawl gathering momentum, the neighbourhood had begun to take shape with roads and landscaping in place and an active district progress association with a dedicated membership operating with effective results.
Neighbourhood spirit was strong and a firm sense of community was a feature of the area.
The 1st Yallambie Scout Group formed and operated out of a hall built and paid for by residents’ initiative while local sporting clubs like the tennis club, soccer club and a junior cricket club, the “Yallambie Sparrows” all called Yallambie home.
The suburb enlarged further at the start of the 1990s when land was carved from the south east end of the Simpson Army Barracks to create the “Streeton Views” estate, the name a real estate developer’s invention that had its basis in the notion that the Heidelberg School artist Arthur Streeton had once painted there. The idea of the subdivision of the Army land had been first mooted in 1986 as a means of supplying low cost housing to Army personnel but in the end, when the developers came on board, housing for the Army was limited to a few street locations around Crew Street, paid for by the sale of land to the public in other locations. No doubt for a while it proved to be a nice little earner for those developers lucky enough, or well-connected enough, to get themselves on board.
The subdivision at Streeton Views was initially opposed by the Yallambie Progress Association as a matter of principle, it being felt at the time that if Army land was going to be released it should be used to create park land and not an addition to the existing housing estate. A public reserve and the artificial lakes between Arthur Streeton Drive and Lower Plenty Road were arrived at as something of a compromise but the changing of the name of the local primary school from Yallambie PS to Streeton PS and subsequent loss of the Community Hall to the Education Department became a sore point. The developers at Streeton Views were selling blocks advertised as being in proximity to a primary school and the name was changed under the guise of a school merger although the reality was that it fitted nicely with the developer’s business model. The old wooden pole sign at the corner of Yallambie and Lower Plenty Roads which had been there from the start announcing the identity of the estate as “Yallambie” was removed about this time and the more permanent inscription “Streeton Views” was set into stone retaining walls on Arthur Streeton Drive and The Grange in a move further designed to confuse people.
At the start of the new century surplus land that had been previously reserved for an SEC substation adjacent to the Yallambie/Streeton Primary School was subdivided into another new estate, this time carrying the appellation, “The Cascades” with water pumped up and down a nearby gully occasionally to create the fantasy land of a fast flowing mountain stream. Many fine, modern homes have been built within the new Yallambie estates with one house in Macalister Boulevard setting a new price record for the suburb at a sale earlier this year.
This sort of subdivision activity is being repeated all across Melbourne these days with the resulting urbanization and infrastructure pressures leading to the population estimates mentioned at the start of this post. Towns like Whittlesea further up the Plenty River were supposed to sit outside the Urban Growth Corridor within the Green Wedge but the rapid rise of new suburbs along Plenty Road has seen Whittlesea now almost absorbed into the metropolitan sprawl in a process known as “conurbation”, a concept first promulgated at the time of the start of the First World War but perfected only after the Second.
Robert Hoddle produced a classic 19th century rectangular street grid for Melbourne, the wide avenues named after a motley collection of Port Phillip identities, politicians, Royalty and Vice Royalty. The main north south road, east of the town was named after Hoddle himself and for motorists stuck in the grid lock on Hoddle Street today the question probably is, why did Hoddle create a city plan without an orbital route around the city centre? The answer of course is that Melbourne was laid out long before such questions were ever an issue and the present situation where the Eastern Freeway finishes at a dead end at Hoddle Street has only compounded the original problem.
Which brings us back in a roundabout sort of way to what has been most lately on my mind, the North East Link. Without proper road reserves the four alternative routes would each require tunneling and a buyback of houses that might have brought a smile to John Fawkner or a frown to Henry Batman in another era. A mail out to every household in the City of Banyule last month cost ratepayers an alleged $110,000 and included a letter describing the four corridors and Council’s grave concerns about the impact of the Corridor A (Viewbank) proposal. The letter also makes the point that the Corridor B (Yallambie) and Corridor C (Eltham) proposals would connect the Western Ring Road with East Link at the aptly named Ring-wood. The letter was signed by the Mayor of Banyule and the last paragraph sums up the situation: “Council has long recognised the need to complete Melbourne’s Ring Road as a direct orbital link from the Metropolitan Ring Road to Eastlink at Ringwood…”
In other words, Banyule Council supports the concept of Corridor B equally as much as Corridor C as a viable alternative to bad, bad Corridor A! The scenic railway of the Corridor D (Kangaroo Ground) proposal has already been ruled out by most pundits which leaves Corridor B looking increasingly like an unlikely NEL compromise between Corridors A and C, routes which have been strongly opposed by Banyule and Nillumbik respectively. Let’s face it, when it comes to opposing Corridor B through Yallambie and Lower Plenty, we are on our own as the letter from the Mayor of Banyule makes quite clear.
At a meeting at the old Heidelberg Town Hall last month, during a long discourse about the limitations of Corridor A, the Mayor made the fair point that something needs to be done because Rosanna Road, the current de facto orbital link, was well, “full”. Yes, it’s full but it’s not just Rosanna Rd that’s full. The reality is that it’s the planet that is full and we have only been adding to the problem. I might be in a minority but I’m sure I’m not alone in not wanting any of these road proposals built. The ongoing need to build more freeways is a symptom of the problem but not the problem in itself. With desalination plants needed to provide our society with drinking water and a conurbation of towns and cities fast consuming our arable land surfaces, mankind has not been kind to the planet it calls home. When those covered wagons wheeled out across the Prairie in the 19th century it seemed that there were no limits to the horizon but the reality today is so much more uncertain.
Marco Amati from the RMIT Centre for Urban Research was quoted in a story in “Domain” last week saying that the greening efforts of local governments had not been as effective as hoped and that with a major decline in canopy coverage, “As they lose vegetation, urban areas start to act like heat sponges.”
To digress along this line, consider for a moment the case of a remote Pacific island, Ocean (or Banaba) Island, an elevated speck of rock within the island nation of Kiribati, (pronounced “Kiribus”). Just 10km in circumference, Ocean Island had been home to a British phosphate mining industry for the first ¾ of the 20th century leaving its hinterland a scarred moonscape when I saw it during a prolonged visit some years ago, denuded of both vegetation and the tribal society that once called the island home.
The shameful plight of the Banabans is a long and compelling story, too long for these pages, but suffice to say that the exiled locals now live mostly on a completely different island in the Fiji group. Meanwhile the ecological fate of their homeland is to my mind the story of our planet in a microcosm. The Island is infamous for its droughts and so much vegetation was eventually removed from it that when rain clouds approached the island, it was recorded that the clouds would separate around the pulsating heat emanating from the denuded rock surfaces to join up again on the other side, dropping all the while their much needed rain into the ocean. This claim might seem far-fetched, but the mining industry on the island had a desalination plant operating on the island long before Victoria ever needed one.
I’m not pretending that there’s an answer. You wanna planet of 7½ billion people and counting, you need cities to put ’em in and roads to get them around. That nutcase in North Korea reckons he has the answer to having too many people on the planet, but his answer isn’t really an answer and would destroy the planet itself.
The English animator Steve Cutts summed it up poignantly in 2012 with his environmentalist message, “Man”. The prospect of a flying saucer arriving to mete out primary justice to mankind might raise a Golgafrinchan style smile right now, but without flying saucers to make good our escape, a smile may be the only thing we have left one day on this “Pale Blue Dot”.
Legend has it that a dozen years or so before the founding of Melbourne, a South American pirate by the name of Benito Bonito took brief refuge at Port Phillip while on the run from the Royal Navy with the stolen “Treasures of Lima” in his hold. There in a cave at Pt Nepean it is said the pirate hid a fabulous hoard, sealing the entrance afterwards with an explosion of gunpowder. As you might expect from such a story, Bonito reportedly met his end soon after at the end of a rope hanging from an English yard arm but be that as it may, one thing is certain, the so called “Lost Lima Treasure” was never seen again.
Many doubted the origins of the tale and indeed whether Bonito had ever been anywhere near Port Phillip but the story persisted, gaining some currency 20 years later when a man turned up in the new settlement at Melbourne claiming to have been a cabin boy on Bonito’s pirate ship. Sporting a map tattooed onto his arm as a supposed proof of the existence of the pirate treasure, the old sailor found willing ears and wishful thinkers in the infant township. The map itself was no doubt a fake, used to con free drinks from gullible patrons in Melbourne’s early shanties but it did fuel an ongoing hope in the improbable. Numerous gopher holes soon appeared in the sand dunes at Pt Nepean, the work of would be treasure hunters or what is more likely literally true, eternal optimists.
It was the visiting American writer Mark Twain who once said that the history of Australia “does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies,” and further west along the Victorian coast another story, the legend of the “Mahogany Ship” sits somewhat nicely into this same category. It too involves a story of early map making and forgotten voyages into Australian seas, but in the case of the Mahogany Ship, the origins of the story are placed even earlier.
The legend of the Mahogany Ship revolves around the reported siting of an ancient shipwreck on the beach at Warrnambool in the 1840s. Contemporary eyewitness accounts described it as being of “antique design” of “hard dark timber – like mahogany” and sitting high in the sand dunes at a considerable distance from the high water mark. By the later years of the 19th century the shifting dunes had covered the wreck and its remembered location had been forgotten but by one count, 27 different eyewitness reports had been recorded and it was later speculated from these descriptions that the wreck had been a 16th century Portuguese caravel, lost on the south coast of Victoria during a voyage of discovery by Cristóvão de Mendonça in 1522. The theory goes that knowledge of the voyage and the maps made during it had been suppressed due to the Portuguese operating in what had then been deemed to be Spanish waters under the Treaty of Tordesillas, and that any other evidence was subsequently lost in the Great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. To further the story, an ambiguous French copy of a Portuguese map purporting to show a Great South Land, “Jave la Grande” survived at Dieppe and this has been used by advocates of the Mahogany Ship story as confirmation of its truth ever since.
Mendonca aside, there is no doubting the importance of having a good map to find your place in the world and when Captain Cook arrived on the east coast of Australia in 1770 without one, the uncharted Great Barrier Reef very nearly caused his ruin off the coast of north east Queensland. With HM Bark Endeavour holed and fast taking on water, disaster loomed as Cook showed an almost uncanny presentiment to find the mouth of the Endeavour River, the only place for miles around where he could possibly beach his ship for repair. Some adherents to the Mahogany Ship story have suggested that Cook’s ability to navigate through treacherous reefs to safety owed more to his knowledge of ancient Portuguese maps than his own 18th century sailing ability, a suggestion that almost certainly does Great Britain’s greatest navigator a disservice, but it makes for an interesting conspiracy theory all the same.
Any study of the past inevitably involves map making and Yallambie is no exception. The Bakewells had a survey of their farm at Yallambee drawn up in the early 1850s, probably at a time when they were contemplating a return to England, and this map has appeared several times within these pages. It is a useful primary source and by comparing the information contained in it to the modern setting it is possible to draw some interesting conclusions about the layout of the Bakewell farm and the context of E L Bateman’s drawings within it and this, for the importance of the record, is worth affirming.
As has been stated in a previous post, it was the belief of the Wragge descendant, Nancy Bush that the original Bakewell cottage was located where the tennis court was later built, the foundations of the house presumably ending up as the starting point of her family’s grass court surface.
A second residential building stretched in a northerly direction up the slope and was connected to the cottage by a trellis covered walkway with a third building, marked as a kitchen wing on the survey map, placed at right angles at the far end. The location of these additional buildings is now largely buried under the floors of the Wragge era Yallambie Homestead.
A fence across the kitchen yard enclosed the southern end of a large building marked “dairy” on the Bakewell plan and this building was located where the smaller, present day Yallambie dairy stands to this day.
Another Nancy Bush belief held that the original cellar was located under the dairy and in Bateman’s Plenty Station View III which shows the southern end of this building behind the cottage, there would appear to be some sort of underground access into the side of the far building to confirm this.
North of the structure marked “hothouse” on the plan was a stable yard with a large stable block located on the eastern boundary and this building was still standing into the early 1980s when a modern mud brick home was built to replace it. Beyond the stables was a tool house and rick yard with a shrubbery and William Greig’s old hut and garden completing the picture within the immediate surrounds of the house.
The North East Link Authority when it made its bombshell announcement at the start of August about smashing a Freeway through Yallambie, released their own map of their plans but anyone who has tried looking at this map has found that it remains frustratingly unclear about the real intentions of their strategic planners. Their web site is little more than a sales pitch which studiously avoids any attempt at revealing too many facts while the so called pop up community consultation meetings that have been staged at various locations across the community have been even less use, an equal part spin and sometimes downright disinformation. At one of these recent meetings it was stated that a diamond shaped corridor B interchange at Lower Plenty Rd would go under the river and not over it and that it would be located on the eastern side of Main Rd. Oh, but tellingly that, “nothing has been decided”.
The lads at North East Link seem to have taken a leaf out of Nietzche’s book who famously said, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” The unstated fact is that trucks using the anticipated interchange would certainly require a grade of no more than 4%, so it is an impossibility to take the road in a tunnel under the Plenty River while still arriving at a meaningful level to connect access roads to Main and Lower Plenty Roads. Taking a road under the Plenty River flood plain would also involve tunnelling through a geologically unstable water table requiring constant pumping throughout the life of the road. My interpretation of the proposal is that if built, (perish the thought) the intention of North East Link is to exit the tunnel near the corner of Binowee Avenue and Moola Close, Yallambie and cross the Yallambie Flats on an elevated flyover and that saying otherwise is just a further attempt to draw a smoke screen over the whole exercise. Should corridor B ever be given the nod, when it comes to the crunch the engineers would wade in, the spin doctors would stand aside and the practicalities and liabilities of their plan would finally be admitted.
As the Herald Sun reported in a front page story on Wednesday, the full effect of a similar solution to another transport problem is only now beginning to be understood as the reality takes shape in Melbourne’s southeast.
Just picture for a moment a road of at least six, but more likely eight lanes stretching across the Plenty River flood plain, but if you can’t, here’s a digitally altered image of a picture I took of the landscape three years ago to give you an idea.
And just for good measure, the survey map used above but this time with corridor B splashed onto it in all its glory. Absurd as it might look, I think it is likely to be one of the more truthful representations of this unlikely proposal up to date. It’s a large file so click on it for the detail. You might even see your own roof somewhere in there.
It is part of an obvious attempt not to reveal too many facts about any of the proposed routes of North East Link before a final announcement is made later in the year. The late inclusion of corridor B within the proposal I think has a lot to do with the perceptions of Yallambie’s place in the world, or at least perceptions of the suburb in the eye of the authorities.
In the September edition of “RA”, the magazine of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria, there is a four page article detailing the North East Link proposal complete with a generalised map by way of illustration. Interestingly the article states that “broadly, NELA has been looking at three possible routes for the proposed freeway,” going on to explain what in effect constitute the options for corridors A, C and D. The route for corridor B through Yallambie doesn’t rate a mention. The implication is that in real terms, corridor B serves the same business model as corridor C but that the Yallambie/Lower Plenty route has been belatedly included as something slightly easier to digest than the unpalatable Eltham option. I expect most people who heard about Yallambie as an alternative to the Eltham route last month had to then go and look up Yallambie on a map because in cartographical terms, when it comes to your place in the world, it’s all about where you draw the line.
If you drive along the top end of Bell Street in West Heidelberg today, an enormous apartment block is right now fast reshaping the landscape, sitting there like a latter day QE2 beached on top of the ridge. This apartment block carries the moniker “The Ivanhoe” in large, friendly letters emblazoned across its Upper Heidelberg Rd frontage and the building has been described by the property developer as being located in the suburb of Ivanhoe. The project website, obviously aimed at an overseas market, describes the suburb of Ivanhoe as “a sanctuary of leafy green streets, parklands and river walks with a strong sense of community and belonging.” The thing is, this description belies its location on the west corner of busy Bell Street and Upper Heidelberg Road. The location of “The Ivanhoe” is actually West Heidelberg, or at best Heidelberg Heights, to use the jargon of real estate agents. The border of the suburb of Ivanhoe ends at Banksia Street but it seems nobody stumping up the money to live in one of these apartments wants to wake up one day and find them self suddenly living in unfavoured West Heidelberg. The solution, just move a line on the map. Do you think anyone will notice?
North East Link obviously think nobody will notice when it comes down to the nitty gritty of moving lines around a map of their proposed corridors. It’s all about what you reckon you can get away with. The State Government has vowed that one of these suggested routes will have traffic thundering through it in the early 2020s but like Benito Boninto rampaging up and down the Peruvian coast, the Pirates of the North East Link aim to wreak havoc and destruction on impacted communities without so much as a by your leave. The explosion of gunpowder used in a cave at Pt Nepean will be nothing compared to what they have in mind. To them, communities and the people living in them are simply arbitrary boundaries – mere lines to shove around on a map wherever they want – an inconvenience to their plans best not discussed within delicate hearing.
The story of the 16th century Mahogany Ship and the presence of Captain Cook on the east coast of Australia in 1770 long ago entered the blurred line between historical fact and legendary fiction but in the years to come, how will we look back on the Pirates of the North East Link and the last months of 2017? Will the anger and bitterness that these road proposals raised be remembered or will their legacy live on in history as a postscript to the main story, the forgotten doodles in a road planner’s imagination?
“But the plans were on display…”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a flashlight.”
“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.”
Thus Arthur Dent learned at the start of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy of the plans to destroy his home for a new road.
“It’s a bypass. You’ve got to build bypasses.”
This week the State Government through the guise of its North East Link Authority dropped a bombshell. It came right out of left field and landed in the solar plexus of the Yallambie community, catching all and sundry totally by surprise. As I listened to the news of this exploding shell broadcast on early Monday morning radio, I couldn’t help but think I had been weirdly trapped inside a scene from the chapters of a Douglas Adams’ science fiction farce, but this was no laughing matter. Secret proposals have been going on behind closed doors at North East Link and while nobody has been looking, somebody just moved the goal posts.
The North East Link Authority, charged with finding a route for the missing piece in Melbourne’s road system, had just announced a choice of four alternative routes to fill the void in that network. Wikipedia has long listed three of them, an eastern option from the Western Ring Rd to East Link via Kangaroo Ground and Chirnside Park, (corridor D); a central option from the Ring Rd to Eastlink via Eltham and Warrandyte, (corridor C) and a western option from the Ring Rd to the Eastern Freeway at Bulleen via Watsonia and Viewbank, (corridor A). But a fourth, previously un-thought of route has unexpectedly been thrown into the mix by the lads at North East Link. Their so called corridor B. The B is for bomb.
In essence corridor B is an afterthought. Maybe even a Furphy. A bad and cynical attempt to wrong foot opposition to an already unpopular road by dividing discussion. If built this unexpected option would be a disaster for Watsonia and Yallambie and would completely and utterly destroy the Lower Plenty township to boot.
The unique landscape at Yallambie and Lower Plenty has remained largely unchanged since the 1840s and was recognized and classified nearly two decades ago by the National Trust. Who could possibly think the idea of exiting a tunnel over this landscape and filling it with a spaghetti of connecting roads could be a good idea in this day and age? The corridor B proposal aims to smash a gaping hole into all of it (literally) by taking a route off the Greensborough Highway through Watsonia and the northern borders of Yallambie, almost certainly compulsorily acquiring and demolishing the homes of countless families in the process, before plunging underground along the existing electrical easement and spewing out of the ridge directly in front of the Yallambie Homestead. If that old and fragile building does not fall down from the vibrations during the underground blasting process of building the tunnels, then the combined effects of over a hundred thousand vehicles a day travelling on it will.
There are practical considerations for the builders’ of these roads not tunneling under rivers so the proposed corridor B route would presumably follow an elevated flyway across the Yallambie Flats, obliterating the existing soccer ground if not the tennis club in the process before crossing the Plenty River opposite the Lower Plenty Hotel and ripping the heart out of the Lower Plenty township itself.
You can forget ever having another drink at the Lower Plenty Hotel while marveling at its unique bush land setting.
You can kiss goodbye the Heidelberg Golf Course and the adjacent green wedge of the historic Edward Willis landscape. This proposal is an utter disgrace and would be a catastrophe for this area.
And just for good measure, for those who worry about such things, you can forget about selling your real estate right now. Your house has just become unsellable overnight by the mere mention of this road. So much for Yallambie as the 6th most “in demand suburb” in Australia.
What could they have been thinking? Who are the Vogons who dream up these ideas without a by your leave and then try to back pedal them as a realistic alternative to an existing transport problem?
But no, that’s not the end of it. The road they call corridor B would then travel through the back of Lower Plenty for an unspecified length before heading back underground again only to emerge and bash a path through the edge of Warrandyte and Donvale at Reynolds Road in order to meet up with Eastlink. How many communities do these planners plan to destroy along their merry way?
I was a child growing up in Rosanna when the battle lines were first drawn up in the 1970s to stop construction of what was then known as the F18 Freeway. That road aimed to carve a surface route through the back streets of the former City of Heidelberg. I might have been a kid but I remember the adults around me mobilising public opinion, attending protest rallies and vowing to lie down in front of the bulldozers if it came to the point. The years have moved on and those remembered adults of my youth are now all dead but still the fight marches on and into another generation.
I’ve been writing regularly in these pages for three years about the merits of this very special corner of the world. My writing has been an attempt to draw attention to Yallambie, its natural beauty, its historic stories and the fantastic lifestyle to be enjoyed while living on the lower reaches of the nearby precious Plenty River. I’ve mentioned in these pages the possibility of a North East Link more than once, the last occasion in my May post of this year. In my wildest dreams though I never imagined for one moment that this hot potato would fall out of the fire so close to home and that the decision makers would pull this one on us like a Yallambie rabbit out of a hat. It might be sleight of hand but they’re not fooling anyone.
Let’s call a spade a spade and call this proposal for what it is. An absolute turkey that has only been suggested now to deflect attention because of the real fight the government knows it will have on its hands with the other routes. The other corridors have been on the cards for many, many years and local groups opposed to them are well organised and ready for the fight. Before last week this had never even been suggested as an option for Yallambie and the local communities in Yallambie, Lower Plenty and elsewhere have been caught completely unprepared. It is insulting that residents have had to find out about this proposal from the newspapers and radio news. Yallambie is a small suburb and we have always had a small voice, but what consideration has been made for the people living here and elsewhere and for the birds and wild life, the historic landscape and the special bushland setting? What of beauty and nature and all those things that make up life in one of the best living environments in the city of Melbourne?
North East Link proposes to destroy all of that unless we make ourselves heard.
Stand up and have your say now. If we leave this until it is too late it will be no use complaining when you wake up one day to find yourself living in a car yard.
This morning I woke before the sunrise and lay in bed worrying while I listened to the dawn chorus of singing birds. Would the bell like sounds of the King Parrots soon be replaced by the noise of a hundred thousand vehicles a day spewing from a hole in the ground like the legions of Mordor? As if in answer to my question a lone kookaburra joined in with a tune, the ensuing laughter of its call ringing loudly in my ears. Maybe the kookaburra had been reading those newspapers. The North East Link Authority’s Monday announcement was driven off the front page the next day by a story about the Opposition Leader, a crayfish and the company he keeps. It’s good to keep these things in perspective.
Luckily for Arthur Dent, he was able to hitchhike a lift from a passing spaceship to escape the destruction of his hometown by the bulldozers. The rest of us are not so lucky. The decisions made on Melbourne’s road network in the near future will effect this city and the people living in it for generations to come. The destruction of communities in order to build these roads will look pretty stupid when Peak Oil has stopped vehicles in their tracks and left nothing behind other than a hole in the ground and an inter-generational debt with a fiscal and social implication of almost unimaginable proportions.
In the pulp fiction of imagined history, the picture of chinless English younger sons, reclining in easy chairs and casually remarking, “The natives are restless tonight” has become the stuff of Hollywood parody. Comfort, safety and security, not necessarily in that particular order, were important considerations to the pioneer settler in his home and in the face of a sometimes strange and rebellious aboriginal world, the answer to this combined problem would turn out to be a novel one. In the absence of home and hearth the solution the settlers chose was to bring these things along with them, packed into boxes and transported under sail and ox drawn cart to destinations beyond the seas.
The prefabricated house as a concept has been called “the oldest new idea in architecture” with the Romans using it to build demountable elements of their fortresses and the Vikings fashioning strong holds from the dismantled timbers of their long ships. In Australia the idea had its origins in the form of the home brought to Sydney Cove with the First Fleet by the Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip in 1788. Contemporary reports described Phillip’s house as having “framed and sides etc of painted canvas”, measuring about 50’X20’ and taking about a week to erect. It leaked like a sieve and was “not impervious to either wind or weather” but for Phillip, a naval man, dripping canvas maybe felt just like home.
Prefabrication was further augmented in those early years with the arrival of the infamous Second Fleet on Australian shores in 1790. That Fleet, along with its maltreated human cargo, brought with it rudimentary prefabricated cottages, a store house and a hospital. The hospital buildings had been fashioned in England, “not to require artificers of any kind to fix them up or take them down”, which was fortunate as the hospital was needed almost immediately to house the mistreated Second Fleet convicts.
By the time of the founding of Melbourne at Port Phillip 45 years later, the process of prefabricated construction had been rendered into something of an art form with suppliers reducing building forms into their component parts, numbered into a logical sequence to be erected at their destination rather like a wooden Meccano set. The innovative carpenter John Manning was probably the most famous of these early prefab suppliers, but there were others. Peter Thompson of Commercial Rd, Limehouse, whose houses were generally larger and more ambitious than Manning, was one but Joseph Harvey, L.R. Peacock and James Matthews were others.
When John and Robert Bakewell arrived at Port Phillip on the SS Lord Goderich on 7th April, 1840 in the company of their sister Phoebe and brother in law, Dr Godfrey Howitt and affinal brother Richard, they brought with them or had access to at least three prefabricated houses. Godfrey’s house was put up on the block of land he purchased at the top of Collins Street East while Richard’s went onto land he and Godfrey purchased on the Yarra at Alphington, after first arranging for the building to be “prepared by my nephew in Melbourne, ready for putting up at the farm, when we could get it conveyed there”, (Impressions of Australia Felix, R Howitt). The Bakewells meanwhile took their prefabricated house to a farm they were consolidating on the Plenty River, known from the first days of settlement as the Station Plenty, but soon after renamed by them, “Yallambee”.
The Bakewell’s first purchase of land at Yallambee occurred in July 1840 and their prefabricated cottage was probably put up soon afterward. Two years later Richard Howitt described the Bakewell’s house during a visit, writing that:
Their weather-boarded house is situated beautifully on an eminence in the wild region, overlooking the river and its meadow… How neat and nicely fitted-up was their house! In it, with its thin walls and French windows, you seemed scarcely in-doors. (Impressions of Australia Felix – Richard Howitt)
Almost contemporaneous with this visit, a pastel drawing by A E Gilbert shows an early version of Yallambee from the west when only the prefabricated cottage and associated residential and kitchen wings had been erected. In this pastel, there is a sort of feeling of impermanence to the Bakewell buildings. They seem to float ghost-like in the landscape, as ethereal as the adjacent haystacks. E L Bateman’s Plenty Station drawings, drawn a decade later, show a much more extensive and presumably more permanent complex by comparison. A third Howitt brother, William, visited Yallambee around about the same time as Bateman and added another written description to the record:
“…the house is one of those wooden ones brought out of England, and which seem as good now as on the day they were set up. They certainly have answered well. To this are added extensive out-buildings, generally of wood, and some of them roofed with sheets of stringy bark.” (Land, Labour, and Gold – William Howitt)
According to Avril Payne (Salter) who interviewed Nancy Bush at the start of the 1970s for a La Trobe University thesis, the Wragge family’s anecdotal understanding was that the Bakewell house “stood where the tennis court now stands”.
By carefully comparing the Bakewell survey map with a modern satellite image of the landscape it is now possible to confirm this assertion and furthermore show that the footprint of the secondary residential and kitchen wings of the Bakewell complex are now largely buried under the floorboards of the “newer” Wragge Homestead.
The survey map, which was drawn near the time of E L Bateman’s drawings and William Howitt’s recorded visit, portray a somewhat enlarged establishment from the one shown in the pastel, but all of these resources, together with the misattributed State Library of Victoria Daguerreotype and Wragge era photographs, which show the cottage after it had been repositioned behind the “new” Homestead, make it possible to form a reasonably accurate idea of the Bakewell prefab.
Yallambee was a weatherboarded, shingle roofed structure with French doors and lattice covered verandahs. William Howitt had written that the Bakewell house was, “one of those wooden ones brought out of England” and this would seem to preclude any possibility of a colonial origin. In a couple of the Bateman drawings it is quite possible to see an indication of the joined sides on the east end of the cottage near the apex of the roof and from this it would appear that the Bakewell prefab was not a Manning cottage. The Manning design relied on a unique system of bolted frames and tell-tale infill panels – an example of which can be seen today in the form of “La Trobe’s Cottage” in the Melbourne Domain.
It may possibly have been a Thompson house whose designs Gilbert Herbert in “Pioneers of Prefabrication “ described as having “full-length shuttered windows and lean-to verandas – which seemed to be not only more practical but patently more suited to the Australian climate in form and character.” This description, while seeming to fit the Bakewell house, overlooks that Thompson’s advertised houses were generally conceived on a large scale. The Bakewell cottage was small by comparison. All the same, Thompson is believed to have greatly exaggerated his Colonial building triumphs with the result that modest size buildings may have been a deliberately unacknowledged part of his catalogue.
A British Treasury grant had allowed Peter Thompson to manufacture timber framed buildings free of duty for export to the colonies. His houses were more traditional in design than Manning’s and used standard studwork framing which were sheathed internally and externally with boarding, and internally they enjoyed boarded ceilings. As a result the thermal insulation properties of Thompson’s houses gained on Manning’s designs although in practice this double lining proved to be “complete and convenient repositories for many of the noxious and innocuous tribes” of vermin, (The Builder, p110, 1846, quoted by Herbert).
In spite of the potential for Tom and Jerry style mouse holes, the two Howitt descriptions of Yallambee portray an apparently very comfortable house. On the west wall of the Bakewell cottage was located a chimney serving a fireplace, the cosy nature of which was described by William Howitt as featuring, “the old English dog, in the fire-places of the country houses instead of stoves. Wood is the chief fuel; the fires it makes are very warm and cheerful.” (ibid) The bricks used in this component were presumably the same slop-sided bricks brought as ballast in shipping from the UK which are known to have been a component part of the Bakewell stables.
The Bakewell prefab would in time be enlarged with the addition of trellis covered walkways and extra wings. In 1844 a surplus Thompson house was offered for sale at the Melbourne wharf and it would be interesting to know now whether the Bakewell’s were the purchasers and whether they used it to add to their existing cottage. It is known that over time John Bakewell would ultimately import numerous prefab houses into Victoria. Alexander Henderson in his “Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and the Riverina,” under an entry for John Bakewell’s business partner William Lyall states that:
“Lyall lived for a time at Kew in a wooden house called ‘Clifton’, on the cliff above Victoria Bridge, next door to the premises occupied by Henry Creswick. This house was one of the many imported in sections by his partner, John Bakewell…”
John Bakewell purchased 160 acres of land in Kew in 1851 and his house, “Clifton” was located on a high point south of the Studley Park Rd. Lyall’s occupation was in 1856 and by the time of a subsequent sale in the 1860s, Clifton like Yallambee had been greatly enlarged from its simple prefab origins. Apart from his extensive pastoral runs, John Bakewell is known to have held several properties in and around Melbourne with land owned by him at Caulfield, St Kilda and Elsternwick during that early era. It is not inconceivable then that prefabricated houses or parts of prefabricated houses may have been introduced at each.
After being moved to a new position behind the “new” Homestead c1870, the Bakewells’ Yallambee cottage was still being used by the Wragge family as a school house for their growing children in the latter years of the 19th century. Winty Calder mentions a possible fate for the building in a note in “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” suggesting that it may eventually have been destroyed in a fire, although the actual evidence for this would seem to be slight. Elements of the building may actually have been used to construct the Murdoch’s later garden hot house in the same position, or even to build Harry Ferne’s cottage on the river flat. No one now can know for sure.
The building of Wragge’s “new” Yallambie, a rendered brick Italianate style house constructed in about 1872 from bricks fired on the property was a visible representation of the success of a wealthy pastoralist, but prefabrication did not die with the end of the initial stages of the Colonial era. It has been used on and off ever since whenever the availability of skilled labour resources has been outstripped by housing needs. It was used extensively as an answer for shortages immediately after the end of the Second War and in more recent times, as the real estate sector has shown every sign of overheating, there has been a strong resurgence in interest for prefabricated building principles.
This interest may be seen in the occasional use of transportable, factory made modules in the construction of new buildings but it might be argued that every one of the new towers we have literally seen thrown up across Melbourne in recent times has carried with it an element of the same processes. Like Big Ears’ mushroom house springing out of the ground overnight, these buildings are erected with slabs of concrete formed off site, trucked to chosen locations before being tilted vertically and then quickly bolted into position. It’s the same idea that Thompson used and is done to speed up the building process, but what does the practice really achieve? Figures from the 2016 census show that there are now more than one million homes standing empty in Australia, despite a shortfall in available housing that has pushed the cost of home ownership beyond the reach of many. It’s a way of squirreling away investment by a “propertocracy” safe in the knowledge that with current Australian negative gearing laws, bricks and mortar really are as safe as houses. Successive governments have responded to the situation not by changing negative gearing itself but by egging it on with unsustainable deficits and historically high rates of immigration. In the face of this the Federal Member of Parliament tasked with tackling Australia’s housing affordability problem said earlier this year that the “first step” towards owning a home is to get a “highly paid job”. Well there has never been a shortage in the unemployed to thank the minister for the advice but it really isn’t solving the problem.
The “Tiny House” movement which advocates simple living in small homes is a reaction to the situation, but finding land that hasn’t been subject to land banking or where Council regulations might allow you to park a Tiny House is not as easy as you might think. The consequence seems to be a proliferation in apartment tower living challenging the concept of Melbourne as the “world’s most livable city”. Look out across the skyline of this town and you would think from the sight of the cranes on the horizon that there would be housing enough for all. The reality is however that if you take a trip into parts of the City of Melbourne on any night of any given week, in spite of the cold evenings, homelessness for many is not so much a matter of choice.
Even in the suburbs it is a sometime social plight. Last Saturday I went for a walk along the Plenty River bicycle path at Greensborough near where Main Road crosses the Plenty River and close to where the Council’s shiny new tower stands alongside the ugly expanse of the Greensborough Plaza. Under the Main Road Bridge, like an echo from an old Chili Peppers’ song, a homeless camp had taken up refuge. It wasn’t the City of Angeles, but the rapid sound of water flowing quickly past in the bed of nearby Plenty River made it a nice place for camping, although aesthetically the combined effects of graffiti and pigeon poo left a little to be desired. Meanwhile on that same Saturday there were probably hundreds of house auctions being conducted across the north and north east with no limit seemingly applied to the upward spiral of the prices achieved.
In 1945 on the eve of a post war housing boom and a roll out of new Federal and State Government social housing programmes, the Commonwealth Housing Commission stated that:
A dwelling of good standard and equipment is not only the need but the right of every citizen. Whether the dwelling is to be rented or purchased, no tenant or purchaser should be exploited for excessive profit.
Today, faced with the social implications of a great ponzi housing scheme at odds with that 1945 statement, it’s no wonder that the natives are getting restless. It’s time to take stock because when it comes down to it, have we really come such a long way from those First Fleet convicts who arrived here without a roof over their heads?
Some games require a considerable investment in sporting equipment. Others can be played on the fingers of one hand. One game in popular culture is famously played on thrones, but of all games there is one that beats them all hands down when it comes to capital expenditure in real estate terms.
Golf – it’s been par for the course with players since knobbly kneed Scotsmen first started hitting a Featherie around the Highland moors with a big stick. It is a game that has uniquely always required a real lot of realty to establish all the holes and fairways and the bunkers and greens that are part and parcel of making up a golfing links and therefore, perhaps not surprisingly, the district around Yallambie has usually been pretty well supplied with golfing options.
Of these options, the Grace Park course to the north “…all sand scrapes… you could lose your ball on the fairway,” (Eric Barclay), vanished 50 years ago into the suburban sprawl but of the others, the Heidelberg and Rosanna Golf Clubs, whose names seem to contravene their Lower Plenty existence, have happily endured to the south.
The early story of the land on which these two Lower Plenty courses now stand was recounted in the last post, largely through the words of James Willis who kept a diary of his brother Edward’s squatting activities on the Plenty River in 1837. That brief squatting era was over before anyone quite noticed it had happened and the Willis brothers moved on, Edward to an eventual career in Geelong and Richard onto the Plenty River upstream. Following their departure the land on the west bank passed from 1842 into the hands of John and Robert Bakewell at “Yallambee”, but what of the land on the east bank, on the ground that made up the greater part of the Willis run?
That story resumes in 1839 with the survey of land east of the river by Assistant Surveyor T H Nutt and its subsequent sale in 1840 by the Crown. Portion 11, which covered most of the present Lower Plenty area, passed through the hands of various speculators before it was bought by Patrick Turnbull, a Melbourne merchant and pastoralist. Although Turnbull did not live on his land he did clear, fence and stock it.
In the early 50s, the Lower Plenty end of Turnbull’s east bank property was purchased by John T Brown who established the Preston Hall estate of 365 acres on which he practiced dairying and general agriculture. Brown had come to Australia in 1841 and was reputed to be the first man in Victoria to breed Clydesdale horses.
In 1855 Brown built a homestead on a ridge overlooking the (Old) Lower Plenty Rd Bridge. It featured a large, overhanging red flagged and plaster lined verandah on three sides with door and window openings to the floor and was well constructed from handmade, slop sided bricks purchased by Brown on the Melbourne wharves. These bricks had been brought to Port Phillip from Scotland as ballast in the clipper ships and similar bricks had been used across the river in outbuildings at nearby Yallambee. It would be interesting to know now whether Brown and the Bakewells, who were near neighbours and whose houses were within sight of each other across the Plenty valley, purchased some of their bricks in partnership.
In the 1870s, after the local population petitioned for a State school to be opened at Lower Plenty, John Brown offered the lease of an existing slab hut on his property for use as a school building which opened there in 1874. The building must have been pretty unsatisfactory for the purpose and was replaced in 1877 after being described in that year by the Lower Plenty school teacher, Mrs Gay, as large enough to accommodate only a dozen children.
“The slabs which compose the sides of the building are all one and two inches apart, and the shingles of the roof are so decayed that there are holes in it one and two feet in circumference.” (Elizabeth Gay quoted by W F Henderson in School at the Crossing Place, 1974).
This hut is recorded as having been located near what is now the south corner of Old Eltham and Main Roads and from these descriptions it was obviously already an old building in 1877. Was it therefore the shingle roof slab hut built by the Willis brothers 40 years before? Slab buildings were a common form of primitive utilitarian architecture, much favoured in the earliest years of the Colony, but it is an intriguing speculation all the same. As stated in the last post, after leaving Lower Plenty James Willis relocated to the original Bridge Inn on the Plenty River crossing at Mernda, a building that was of similarly rude construction. Last month it was announced that Heritage Victoria is conducting an archaeological dig at the Willis site which is expected to “shed light on Mernda’s rich heritage and help us understand land use and early community development in the area.” (Yan Yean State MP Danielle Green, quoted in the Whittlesea Leader, 16 June, 2017). Perhaps the archaeological boffins could be persuaded to come and have a similar prod around this neck of the woods one of these days, sometime soon.
In 1884, Brown sold Preston Hall to David Thomas, a partner in Craig, Williamson and Thomas, well-known drapers on the corner of Flinders and Elizabeth Streets, Melbourne. Thomas died shortly afterwards but in 1887 his widow, Mary Thomas realized their ambitions by building a new and substantial red brick home standing adjacent to Brown’s then 30 year old homestead and which was connected to it by a breezeway. Mary Thomas called the new homestead Bryn Teg, a Welsh name meaning “small hills” and its 10ft wide halls, lofty rooms, polished joinery and large lead lighted windows were complemented by a substantial blackwood staircase overlooked by a stained glass window, all of which bespoke luxury.
The widow Thomas has been described as a Scottish, “rather prim, stout lady” who lived on quietly at Bryn Teg for the next 40 years. Near the end of her life the Lower Plenty School reopened with a class room inside an old freestone barn building located behind Preston Hall and a former pupil would later recall that the old lady made sweets for the school children in groups:
“We would all eventually get a turn. In the hot weather she would make home-made lemon syrup.” (Henderson, ibid)
Mary Thomas died at Bryn Teg in August, 1925 and the homestead was put onto the market by her executors. At that time the “Heidelberg Club House Co Ltd”, which had been formed from the earlier Yarra Yarra Golf Club at Rosanna, was looking for a home for a new golf links north of the Yarra. In 1927 they paid £13,000 for the late Mrs Thomas’ home which also included 177 acres of land and famously the freehold title on the nearby Plenty Bridge Hotel.
A new course was laid out and opened on 23rd June, 1928 by the Prime Minister Stanley Bruce who on that day congratulated the club for the absence of any suggestions of golfing snobbery and for its stated ambition to “encourage ordinary players”. Over the years various modifications at Byn Teg were made by the Heidelberg Golf Club to fulfil their clubhouse requirements in a changing world. Preston Hall vanished altogether while other than some surviving interior wood work, tiled fire surrounds and lead light, Bryn Teg all but disappeared under these modern alterations.
The Heidelberg GC was formed from the Yarra Yarra GC and that last mentioned club, with a few ups and downs, continued at its 101 acre site alongside the railway line between Rosanna and Macleod stations for the next 30 years, changing its name to the Rosanna Glen or Rosanna Golf Club along the way. However, in a process that has continually plagued the viability of golf links in the suburbs, in 1962 after rates and taxes increased in one year from £3000 to £10,000, the land at Rosanna was considered to be too valuable for the club to continue on that site. A decision was made to sell the Rosanna situation and 139 replacement acres were selected just down river from the Heidelberg GC astride the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers. This was the south-east corner of George Porter’s old Cleveland Estate, owned at that time by the Bartram and Rank families. Negotiations were cordial and conducted between the Manager of the Rosanna Club, Norm Turnbull and the vendors with a nod and a handshake.
“Mrs Bartram, when a verbal agreement was reached between them, accepted a gentleman’s word as his bond, but he felt money should change hands to make the negotiations legal, and Mrs Bartram then consented to accept ‘sixpence’ to seal the contract” (The Rosanna Golf Club, W R Trewarne, 1980)
One wonders if that earlier Turnbull, the 1840s Patrick (probably no relation), conducted his real estate dealings in a similar easy fashion.
The new home of the Rosanna GC was opened by the State Governor of Victoria, General Sir Dallas Brookes on 27th March, 1965. The final cost of the course and clubrooms at Lower Plenty would ring in at about £125,000 with Heidelberg Council eventually coughing up $975,000 in 1968 for the former Rosanna links to be developed as a housing estate.
As an aside relevant to these pages, when the old Yarra Yarra/Rosanna Club House at Rosanna was demolished during the development of the Rosanna Golf Links estate, salvaged bricks from the building were used to build the Yallambie Kindergarten (now pre-school). The Yallambie Community Association had been involved with Heidelberg Council in the creation of the kindergarten project and money being short, local councillor and architect Harry Pottage, sourced second hand building materials from the former golf links at Rosanna. The Rosanna club house at Lower Plenty burned to the ground in 1974 and afterwards was completely rebuilt so in a sense the memory of what was once their first club rooms lives on at Yallambie.
The net result of the presence of these two golf courses at Lower Plenty has been the retention of hundreds of acres of Willis’ former run as open land, but in the face of economic change, how soon will it be before this situation becomes untenable? The decision by Heidelberg Golf Club nearly 20 years ago to sell the former site of the Plenty Bridge Hotel which resulted in a fight with the developer over the building of Edward Willis Court, eventually landed in a hearing at VCAT where it was revealed that the decision to sell had been governed largely by financial pressures facing the club.
More recently over at the Yarra Valley Country Club in Bulleen owned by pokies king Bruce Mathieson, an ex mayor of Manningham and developer, Charles Pick has revealed a plan to build a 217 home housing estate in what can only be described as a slight of hand where it is proposed that private golf course land subject to flooding along the river would be exchanged for public land in a prime position along Templestowe Rd. At the same time and in a worrying sign of things to come, the Victorian State government announced a new study to look at “the value of golf courses and alternative land use development proposals”, the reality of which may mean moving the boundary of the “Green Wedge” beyond the urban fringe to release land currently locked up in golf courses.
It’s all part of a property boom in Melbourne that is not without its parallel in history. In the 1880s, prior to an economic collapse that ravaged the Colonial economy and sent many people to the wall, society marvelled at the changes that had occurred in Melbourne in the 50 short years since settlement. “Marvellous Melbourne” they called it and to the people who lived through it, there seemed to be no end in sight to their prosperity or to the growth of the city founded in 1835 on the banks of the Yarra River by the Johns, Pascoe Fawkner and Batman.
The current bull market in Melbourne real estate reads like a road map of that old story as an unfailing belief in the safety of capital in bricks and mortar drives change in the built landscape of the city and suburbs. Here in the north east, multi-purpose towers in Heidelberg and Doncaster and the $31 million “Taj Mahal” Council building in Greensborough are part and parcel of a boom where fortunes are being made but apparently never lost and where it is hard to remember sometimes not only what was on a corner last year, but occasionally even last week.
In concert with this process the prices of existing houses soar in a spiral driven largely by a foreign investment bubble that continues to exclude many first home buyers while eluding approximately one third of people in general. Clearance rates at auctions in the north east are running at above 80% and when REA Group Ltd released its “Group Property Demand Index” for June, listing the Australian suburbs judged by it to be in highest demand nationwide, Yallambie was recorded at number 6 overall. Seriously? When I saw this reported on the television news last month I had to do a double take. Even a triple take. The data is based on views of property listings on realestate.com.au but the first sentence from the very first post on this blog in August, 2014 came back to haunt me:
“The glazed look that creeps across a face when you tell someone you live in Yallambie is the motivation behind this blog.”
Where’s Yallambie? Perhaps they meant a Yallambie in some other State? Or maybe on another planet?
But no, a new record for Yallambie was recorded last month when a modern home at Macalister Boulevard inside the “Streeton Views” subdivision sold for a staggering $1.67 million, $430,000 beyond the reserve. The agent for the sale said afterwards that the price was more reflective of sales in Heidelberg, Macleod and Viewbank.
“I think that Yallambie has been undervalued for a long time,” Mr Kurtschenko said. “When you compare it to the surrounding suburbs, you can get a lot more for your money.” (Heidelberg Leader, 13 June, 2017)
The median house price in Yallambie according to CoreLogic remains at $715,000, less than all of the neighbouring suburbs bar one. Rosanna ($980,000), Viewbank ($922,500), Lower Plenty ($905,000), Macleod ($830,000), Montmorency ($782,500) and Greensborough ($720,000) all have greater median prices than Yallambie. Only Watsonia ($701,500) has less.
Banyule Council has always treated Yallambie like the poor relation that these figures would imply. The road works on the corner of Yallambie Rd and Tarcoola Drive described in my April post have now been “finished” but as this photograph indicates, the road makers have asked water to run up hill. The nearest storm water drain is south along Yallambie road up a slight incline and near enough is no doubt good enough when it comes to Yallambie. Maybe the sale in Macalister Boulevard will change their perspective, but I think not.
Meanwhile over at the other end of town, the ghost of Mary Thomas looks on and sips her lemonade with presentiment as deals are made and developers decide which part of the green sward they will cut up next. The immortal PG Wodehouse was writing with an ironic understanding of a game he loved, but might well have been thinking about developers when he wrote:
“He enjoys that perfect peace, that peace beyond all understanding, which comes to its maximum only to the man who has given up golf.” (PG Wodehouse –The Clicking of Cuthbert)
“The Plenty he described as a rivulet of fine water, but running through a deep ravine which made access difficult. He considered the land very favourable for sheep runs.” – D S Garden describing Governor Sir Richard Bourke’s assessment of the Plenty River from a visit Bourke made in March, 1837, (Heidelberg – The Land and Its People, MUP)
If the Wurundjeri were relieved to escape from the 1835 “treaty” with John Batman in which they had allegedly ceded a country half the size of greater Melbourne for a few blankets, tomahawks and mirrors, they might well have taken a moment to look at the fine print of Governor Bourke’s pro bono reasoning.
It was not the obvious inequity of the “deal” that unsettled Bourke but his belief that the Wurundjeri Aboriginals did not “own” the land on which they stood and on which their ancestors had roamed bare foot for tens of thousands of years. His reasoning was that in real estate terms, it was not by rights theirs to sell. The devil was in the detail of this decision for in the process of making it, with the single stroke of a pen it removed the last obstacle to an inevitable and inexorable influx of British settlers to the Port Phillip District. As a direct result of Bourke’s decree, pastoralists armed doubly with muskets and the notion of terra nullius came across the Straits from Van Diemen’s Land and overland from greater NSW seeking new pastures for their flocks in this reportedly “unoccupied” territory. The open, fertile and well-watered country they found waiting for them around the Yarra and Plenty River valleys was an attractive proposition to these men who, for a £10 annual licence fee, could occupy as much Wurundjeri country as they then thought fit.
One of the earliest of these pastoralists was Edward (Ned) Willis whose story as a squatter on the lower reaches of the Plenty River in 1837 has been briefly mentioned in these pages previously. Edward was a young man, not yet turned 21 when he arrived with his brother and uncle and more than 600 sheep in the surf at Pt Gellibrand in Port Phillip Bay on 13 April, 1837. Edward and his brother James had been driven away from their home in Van Diemen’s Land after James quarrelled with their father, Richard Willis of Wanstead in the island’s north. Edward soon brought his sheep to the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers where he created a sheep run which stood opposite or perhaps even bordered land that would later form the south eastern part of Yallambie.
What has not been mentioned previously in these pages is that Edward’s brother, James Willis, kept a diary for five months while pursuing these endeavours. As a document written mostly on the east bank of the lower Plenty, it makes an exceptional companion piece to the “Farm Day Book” kept by the land owning settler William Greig on the west bank at Yallambie three years later. Similarly its content stands as a counterpoint to the description of Willis’ run made by Thomas Walker in his 1838 published account, “A Month in the Bush of Australia”. Like Greig’s story, James diary is filled with the thoughts and frustrations of a well born young man struggling to come to terms with a rough existence in the Australian bush and it remains as a fascinating glimpse into the life of one of our earliest Port Phillip pioneers. The extracts used here are reproduced from the Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 6 where the diary was published in its entirety.
The diary starts on 9 April, 1837 with the brothers Edward and James Willis and their Uncle, Arthur Willis embarking on the voyage across the Straits from Van Diemen’s Land to Port Phillip where they came ashore on the 13th. Uncle Arthur left the party soon after to arrange his return to Van Diemen’s Land while Edward and James led their shepherds, John Stockly and John Fletcher, by a circuitous route north of the settlement to the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers which they reached on the 18th led there by “Old Tom”, a shepherd working for another squatter, John Wood.
18th April, 1837
Edward and I with our guns started on foot to woods about a mile off, where we procured the assistance of old Tom the shepherd, who conducted us to a creek about two miles off running in a northerly direction. We pursued its course for three miles and found it to be a permanent steam.
We crossed it and came to our present one, which although rather thickly timbered we have every reason to be satisfied with. It is bounded in the South and the East by the Yarra. The stream I have alluded to forms its western boundary (which we call Edward’s Rivulet, but I perceive the surveyors have on their charts dignified it by the name of the ‘River Plenty’), while on the North we have a forest called by us Epping Forest.
Such is the spot selected by Edward for his place of residence for four or five years at the least, when it is hoped he will be able to leave this savage life and move once more among civilised beings…
His employment here during the day is that of a common labourer, and at night he is in momentary dread of losing all he possesses in the world by the attacks of the wild dogs of the country, his ears being alternately regaled with their hideous howls and yells, the squeaking of the flying squirrels, the corkscrew-like noise of the possums and the gloomy monotonous note of that frightful bird the ‘Mow Pork’, which “concord of sweet sound” is not unfrequently accompanied by the reports of our firearms and the shouts of ourselves and men to frighten the dogs from us.
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were employed in erecting a yard at Wanstead, the run (so called after a place of that name known to us in Van’s Land) and clearing a ford over Edward’s Rivulet.
James’ estimate that they had travelled three miles upriver before crossing the Plenty would seem to place them squarely opposite Yallambie. However, it is likely that this estimate and other distances mentioned later by James are a little inaccurate, especially when considering the trouble likely encountered moving alongside the unmapped river and struggling through forest and a still virgin countryside. The west bank of the Plenty upriver from the Yarra confluence is overlooked by a steep escarpment so it makes sense that they travelled some distance before attempting a crossing. It seems more than likely that the first crossing place therefore was south of Yallambie at the ford near the end of Martin’s Lane which would over the next few years become the first access route into Eltham and beyond. Edward and James apparently were working in advance of their shepherds since the crossing with the flock and the horse and cart was not attempted until the 22nd.
22nd April, 1837
Set out from Wanstead – reached the ford – crossed with the sheep but found the banks too steep to get the horse and cart over. With spades, axes and tomahawks we commenced digging away the bank on each side, but finding at noon that we still had a day’s work before us, we walked the horse over and carried the contents of the cart across. We then loaded the empty cart by means of a rope into the stream and fastened the horse to it on the opposite side with ropes and traces.
This plan failed as the horse had no power of draught, so we were forced to pull it out the best way we could. This method succeeded, though not until we had been tugging and pushing and bursting ourselves for about three hours. This Herculean labour being accomplished, we reloaded the cart and ascended the first rising ground, when we found about a quarter of a mile from the ford, the yard which Edward and Stockly had built the day previous.
Erected our tarpaulin into a sort of gipsy-looking affair to shelter us from the dews of heaven, and after a hearty meal of damper, bacon and tea we lay down to rest, and although our sleeping place consisted but of the rudest possible contrivance, and in a country equally wild looking, we both declared in the morning that we had had visions of feasting and dancing, of splendid apartments, of beautiful women and of delicious music flitting before us all night.
I could hardly avoid a slight shudder when I first awoke to see a huge mass of food lying close to me, which one of the men with a beard ten days old asked for, calling it ‘the damper’. Verily it was a damper to the delicate state of my feelings at that instant, but it was but for an instant, for I presently commenced an attack upon it myself and thought it very good feeding for a beggar as I then was, and still am…
James’ diary makes many references to their food resources, or rather lack of them, and to his “beggarly” status. On the 23rd April he “caught half a dozen very fine black fish, decidedly the most delicious fish I ever tasted”, and on the 4th May he ate an eel which Edward had caught in the river, “our bacon being all expended.” A sickly ewe had earlier been butchered and although it “proved very poor meat”, “Fletcher made us sea pies of it so long as it lasted, a great treat to us.” On the 15th May they enjoyed another “very splendid sea pie” the preparation and eating of which was described in the following way.
…Viz, two kangaroo rats, two quails, four parrots, one wattle bird, two satin birds (of the magpie species) and a few slices of pork.
It was served up in a large black iron pot and was most delicious – poor Ned was filling his plate a second time. He took some pains to select the most savoury morsels and was just emptying the last spoonful of gravy when the log on which his plate rested slipped and its contents were deposited on a heap of ashes, and great was the laughing at the fall thereof, the dogs being the only animals benefited by the display of Ned’s taste in helping himself…
The destruction of Edward’s meal on this occasion wasn’t the only such instance of loss recorded in the diary. Al fresco dining at their camp was a matter of necessity and not a matter of choice.
Dull and miserable – at supper this evening Fletcher made sundry attempts to light the lamp before he could succeed. The night was dark and cloudy and there was some wind. The light resisted the puffs of wind until we had all seated ourselves round the table when to infinite confusion, and as I was in the act of cutting a slice of pork, out went the light, away flew the candlestick, which Fletcher had perched upon a huge tin dish and had placed on the weather side of it a board, by way of protecting the luminary from sudden gusts – I rose with the laudable desire of assisting Fletcher in re-lighting the lamp, for I saw that his stock of patience was nearly gone, my knee struck the table which was not proof against this unexpected shock, it gave a lurch, tottered, and fell, when the pannikins of tea, the pork, damper and rice, together with the plates and knives and forks were all thrown in wild disorder all around us.
The wind now abated considerably and we succeeded in keeping the lamp alight which revealed to our view a most delectable chaos. A scramble ensued, in which the dogs persisted in joining, and it was with difficulty that we managed to satisfy ourselves with the fragments rescued from their devouring jaws.
House-keeping in the absence of a kitchen, or for that matter a house, could be a bit of a hit and miss affair. James described the trial of their situation thus:
…It would amuse some of our friends in Van Diemen’s Land to take a peep at us. We take our meals in the open air unless the rain be so violent as to wash the tin plates and pannikins off the table, which cannot be put upon legs until placed in the hut we propose to commence next week – it is at present supported by four logs about six inches from the ground, one of which, the thickest, serves us as a seat on one side.
Our fire is in front of us with a kettle of tea, tea pots being superfluous at Port Phillip. We are surrounded by three or four hungry dogs watching for a mouthful. There is a lump of salt pork in a tin dish, and a damper weighing about twenty pounds, sometimes relieved by a few birds and fish, the latter very seldom now. The men sleep under the tarpaulin, which also protects from the weather a cask of pork and divers other stores.
Our tent is pitched a few yards off, one side is piled high with flour, sugar, tobacco, and our two trunks placed one on the other, form a dressing table covered by a thing intended to look white, its original colour, but being spotted with ink, gunpowder and a variety of other ingredients which have occasionally dropped thereon, together with drops of rain and marks of dust, it would at present be a hard task to convey to anyone the pleasing diversity of colour it presents to the admiring eye of the beholder. We think at some future period of getting it washed.
Our mattresses are laid on the ground, each with a gun case along its side by way of uniformity. A sheep skin serves for the carpet, a trunk of books for a chair, a bag of soiled linen at night keeps the door closed. My writing desk is now my pillow and I am half reclining, half sitting at it. If I am in want of a bright thought, I have only to turn to the right and cast them on a bar of soap or a bag of sugar.
Sleeping beside their gun cases, the brothers’ firearms were apparently always near at hand and it seems, at least by the evidence presented in the diary, were almost constantly in use. In part, the diary reads like a litany of terror for the native birds and wildlife of the lower Plenty as they shot at virtually anything that moved in the surrounding neighbourhood, all of which seems to have gone into their cooking pots. On the 17th May James wrote that they, “Had a stew of birds for supper – capital tho’ it would have been all the better flavoured with ketchup.”
On the 24th James was practicing his shooting on a stationary target when he experienced a mishap while using a small pistol.
…On Sunday while Edward was in town I amused myself for half an hour by practicing at a target with a pistol, cleaned and reloaded it. Took the pocket pistol – found difficulty in pulling the trigger – loaded a second time with buck shot. The pistol burst in my hand, the lock and barrel flying in one side behind me, leaving nothing but the stock (split across the trigger) within my grasp – fortunate to escape – might have caused my sudden exit from this world of woe.
This happened on the Sunday but significantly James took three days before he wrote about his brush with death in the diary. Instead, what he did write about the following day was a description of his bitter feelings towards his estranged father Richard Willis and the family feud in Van Diemen’s Land that had resulted in their exile and which had caused James so much personal unhappiness.
This state of things cannot last. Some fearful crisis is at hand. Some impending calamity awaits our family. I dread to conjecture when any father’s unnatural conduct will have an end – he has driven all his sons from his roof… but I grow disgusted at the very remembrance of it – I have already polluted this sheet of paper with the name of a father who loathes the sight of his child – of a husband who does anything but honour and protect his wife, who outrages her feelings and strives by every possible means to render her home as miserable as it should be happy…
The near death experience with the exploding pistol had caused James more than a little self-reflection. His father, Richard was by some reports a somewhat “difficult” man. The Australian Dictionary of Biography states that Richard Willis managed to quarrel with most of his neighbours in northern Van Diemen’s Land in the 1820s and 30s and also that, “unpopularity may have been a factor in his decision to return to England,” permanently in February 1839. Whatever the cause of Richard’s quarrel with his son, there is no doubt that it affected the boy deeply.
…Ned and I smoked a cigar and retired for the night. Talked of friends in Van Diemen’s Land. I lay thinking until three o’clock in the morning – went to sleep – dreamed I was not a beggar.
As stated previously, James refers to his beggarly status on several occasions in the diary, displaying a wry sense of humour in this self-assessment and describing his pecuniary problems with the following diary entries.
…Some are born under a lucky star, and some an unlucky star. None of the former could possibly have been shining at my introduction into life. An income of some four or five thousands a year would make this world to me a very beautiful world, but as it is I have ever found it as much the reverse as possible…
And this entry two weeks later, although by this time his money needs would appear to have almost doubled:
I was very industrious – sitting on a bucket turned upside down and watching the embers of the fire, thinking of a thousand things, I often am inclined to think there must be some mistake about my present condition. I fancy I could spend so amazingly well an income of five or ten thousands. What a delightful thing it is to have a command of money. How easy it would be to make people patronise you. What an excellent nice fellow I should become all at once. The magical influence of that same filthy lucre is truly surprising. I believe I never shall be a rich man – I have a sort of presentiment that it cannot be. I shall never be able to do more than earn a subsistence – drag on a mediocre kind of existence without having any very beautiful visions to look back upon, such as delicious music, captivating women, grand and mighty cities and a thousand pleasures and enjoyments that can be procured by money and when once seen one may almost live upon the remembrance of them.
It’s has been said said that money isn’t everything but at times James wrote of a desire to remove himself completely from his current situation:
Very wet. Drawing logs for the sheep yard. Hard work, as well as dirty, lifting those same logs. Smoked a cigar, went to bed – wished myself anywhere but at Port Phillip.
And a few weeks later he wrote again, this time wishing himself back in London while sarcastically contrasting his dreams with his daytime labours and the “intellectual conversation” of their shepherds:
…Our ears were regaled some two or three hours with the highly intellectual conversation of John Fletcher and John Stockly the shepherds. Warmed my toes. Went to rest much edified – dreamed of Aborigines – building chimneys –sheep – split stuff – and London.
The joys of living under canvas through a Port Phillip winter quickly palled on the Willis brothers. James was at the settlement in Melbourne, “which at present consists entirely of turf and weather boarded huts, a very primitive looking place” and staying at John Pascoe Fawkner’s board and lodging house where Fawkner’s “one-eyed, genteel wife makes things as comfortable as one can expect,” eating her “curry which was of rabbit and certainly excellent”, when a terrific storm hit the District. James in Melbourne wrote that “the thunder and lightning (was) the most terrific I ever witnessed. I congratulated myself on being comfortably housed and thought of poor Ned at the Inn.” Edward’s own subsequent tale of the confusion at their Plenty River camp was duly recorded in the diary by James:
He said it must have been about ten o’clock when in a sound sleep he was awoke by a desperate rush in the sheep fold. At the same instant he heard the two men shouting and hallooing in the most vehement manner, and one flash of lightning which illuminated the tent was followed by a deafening clap of thunder. He sprang from his bed expecting to find all the sheep scattered and an easy prey for the dogs, for so dark was it that you could not see beyond your nose.
The first thing he did was to cheer the men by his voice. Another blaze of lightning for some moments blinded all three of them and they reeled about insensible. Fletcher ran against a tree, a branch of which had wellnigh ripped his bowels open, and then measured his length on the ground where he lay several minutes in momentary expectation of being swallowed up by the earth. Stockly at a short distance from the yard called Fletcher to open the gate, for he thought he was driving the sheep before him, when undeceived he ran up to the fire and enquired ‘whose fire that was’, his hair literally stood on end, he was in his shirt and presented a picture of the most unutterable despair.
During the time the rain descending, the wind blowing and the repeated peals of thunder was such as to appal the heart of a lion. Fully convinced that the wild dogs had got among the sheep the men shouted, yelled and uttered every variety of noise to frighten them away. They both behaved uncommonly well throughout, but such was the tremendous war of the elements that they anticipated nothing short of an earthquake as they declared to me afterwards.
Suddenly it became fair and they found that Master Bush, one of the sheep dogs, in his alarm had jumped in among the sheep as if he sought shelter from them during the dreadful convulsion. Edward stood some minutes at the door of his tent and on reviewing the scene he had just witnessed could scarcely refrain from laughing when he saw the two men in their shirts running about like maniacs they knew not whither with their hair standing on end and bawling, squalling, shouting and screaming in the most frightful manner and falling prostrate on the ground, and then tumbling over a log. Another, mistaking the fire he had just left for some strange fire, fancying he was driving all the sheep into the yard when he called out to have the gate opened. A few of the sheep got out when the rush was made, but in the morning they were found standing quietly beside the fence.
The Willis brothers were still living under canvas in early June when the land speculator Thomas Walker visited their camp on the Plenty. Walker memorialized this visit in his 1838 book, ““A Month in the Bush of Australia” writing that, “Willis is still living in his tent, but with as much comfort as under such circumstances can be looked for. He has got a nice situation in the fork formed by the junction of the creek “Plenty” and the Yarra Yarra.” (You can read Walker’s full extract in my 2014 post, here). James recorded Walker’s visit in the diary with the following entry:
Edward arrived from Melbourne with some gentlemen who came overland from Sydney. Two of them drove a gig the whole way, the rest on horseback, having crossed four rivers and met with no kind of impediment. They accomplished the journey in about a month. Edward with his visitors after dining returned to town, where he has to arrange respecting the payment for two allotments he purchased for Willis Macintyre and Co.
Throughout most of the narrative of James’ diary, while living in their tent, James writes that the brothers were occupied during the day splitting timbers for a sheep yard and for an associated slab hut. The hut was commenced on 16th May and was presumably located within easy reach of the river ford. The 1841 census placed it where the Plenty Bridge Hotel would later stand above the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge.
On the 23rd May James wrote, “Fine morning. Wet afternoon. Drawing logs for the hut. Slow work – no hired men – all done by our own hands. Ned acts carpenter – he is adzing logs – says it makes his back ache.” Four days later Edward was visiting a neighbouring squatter John Nicholas Wood whose shepherd “Old Tom” had originally led them to the Yarra Plenty confluence. Wood’s run was located approximately in the vicinity of where Hawdon’s Banyule Homestead would later be built. James had described Wood as “a good-natured little fellow though his manners are not the most refined” and Edward was hoping to enlist his help, “roofing the hut, which it is highly expedient we should inhabit before our beds are washed from under us.” The brothers were both suffering from colds at this time as they entered their first Port Phillip winter. On 1st June the building was far enough advanced for Edward to go to Melbourne to purchase nails “to put the roof on the hut” and on the 10th it was James who was in Melbourne collecting a further supply of nails. The deprivations of their house-less existence had taken their toll however and at the end of July, James’ health broke down completely. His painful illness required his immediate removal to Melbourne where the doctor, finding he was “suffering from inflammation caused by cold”, bled him in the Dracula-like medical fashion of the day. Whether or not as a result of the bleeding or simply as a result of a strong constitution, after an interval James was able to write, “I am at length quite restored to health…”
His humour also seemed restored. John Batman had loaned them his transport, “the only gig in the settlement” to get the invalid to Melbourne and also offered James a room in his home on Batman’s Hill during the period of his convalescence, which was duly declined subsequent to the following chivalric reasoning:
“…I thought it better to decline his offer as he was at that time an invalid himself, and moreover I was rather afraid of encountering the bright eyes of his daughter – for she might have evinced something like that tender solicitude for the wounded Knight’s recovery which the gentler, the fairer, and the softer sex are never without, and which might have prompted something like gratitude in my breast towards the sympathising damsel, admiration probably would follow, and then God knows what. But it seems that the fates have reserved me for a better, or perhaps a worse destiny than would in such case have been the inevitable result.”
The fates had indeed reserved another destiny for James. In the diary entry written just before James’ illness, James described a journey made by the brothers and their neighbour John Wood, up the Plenty River. They were provisioned and had been intending to explore the country for three or four days but after they “had traversed the course of our creek the ‘Plenty’ (or ‘Edward’s Rivulet’, as we call it) some five or six miles”, the party came to a halt upon “a tract of most excellent grazing land.” James wrote that Edward and Wood then “discovered that they must return home instantly to dress sheep”, the implication being that a race was on between the two squatters to see who could relocate a flock to the new pasturage first.
James’ illness occurred directly after this event and when he had recovered sufficiently to return to the Plenty a month later he found that Edward had removed himself to a location which was by James’ estimation, “about seven miles higher up the Plenty”, presumably the land the brothers had seen with Wood previously. At this new location it seems that a second hut had by then been constructed. The building had a thatched roof, as opposed to the nailed shingles of the earlier structure, and had been made ready for the arrival from Van Diemen’s Land of a third Willis brother, William. James described a high hill nearby from which could be “enjoyed a view of the surrounding country for twenty miles and more in every direction.” This second run it would seem therefore was located somewhere north of the Montmorency or “Epping” Forest and in the vicinity of modern day Greensborough, where an apparently unrelated farm “Willis Vale” later developed. It has been suggested (conversation with Anne Paul, Greensborough Historical Society), that the view from the high hill mentioned by James might have been from the top of Flintoff’s Hill near where modern day Civic Drive intersects the Greensborough Bypass, or from Yellow Gum Park in the Plenty Gorge Parklands, but for now this must remain a matter of conjecture.
…and for the first time we found ourselves in a snug turf hut eleven feet by thirteen, with a thatched roof and neatly whitewashed inside.
Ned has a very respectable bedstead in one corner built of wattle sticks; one in the opposite corner is being made for William, whose arrival we are expecting. A rude contrivance bearing some faint resemblance to a sofa stands in the corner near the chimney; it answers the double purpose of sofa by day and my bed at night.
Our table is a very ingenious affair, being a hair trunk placed upon four stakes knocked in the ground, which with two wooden seats entirely of a new fashion and to which we have given the name of chairs, completes our stock of furniture. I should not omit our bookcase, which is composed of three long wattle sticks reaching from wall to wall on either side of the hut, along which our extensive and valuable collections of books appear in formidable array, having their backs, however, towards the company.
On various parts of the wall are skins of birds, and preserved amongst which the tail of a black cockatoo extended in shape of a fan, its feathers being black and crimson alternately, is handsome; several wings and tails of parrots—three kinds—are beautiful — as well as the entire skins of parrots having almost all the colours of the rainbow, some of which are the most rich and lovely I ever saw.
Sky blue, lavender, crimson, scarlet, orange, green and black are the most conspicuous, all being exquisite contrasts to each other.”
Today a large part of Willis’ 1837 pastoral run retains a pleasingly rural character with the land occupied by two golf courses and the Yarra Valley Parklands. How much Edward and James experiences in 1837 involved country that would later form part of the Bakewells’ Yallambee must however remain uncertain. There is no doubt that they roamed freely about nearby and probably at least crossed over a part of it. One of James’ earliest diary entries written on the 28th April mentioned them finding “a small spot of grazing land five miles off” and on the 14th May they found “some beautiful country about four miles from Wanstead” that Edward proposed turning one day into a second run, so the Willis boys were obviously on the lookout for extra pasture from the outset. Garden writing in “Heidelberg – The Land and Its People” thought that the surveyor Robert Hoddle’s notes suggested that Willis’ run involved both sides of the Plenty River, although he readily admits that Hoddle’s notes are difficult to interpret.
The sale of land on the west bank of the lower Plenty in 1838 and on the east bank in 1840 brought an end to the brief squatting era on the lower Plenty. With the return of their father to England at the start of 1839, Edward Willis returned to Van Diemen’s Land and his personal association with the Plenty River ended. In a letter dated 24th March 1839 Edward states that he was leaving the Plenty River ”having notice to ‘quit’ due to the imminent land sales”. He goes on to warn against future occupation of his hut on the Plenty River: “I’d scarce recommend you. For the fleas will soon make it prodigiously clean. That their bloody attacks are not meant to befriend you. This useful bit of information mind is given gratis. For the thriving squatter to the flea good bait is”.
Edward married Catherine the daughter of Captain Charles Swanston at Hobart Town in 1840 and subsequently joined his father in law in partnership in Geelong. James’ diary ends with a statement of his hopes of one day soon himself being offered a position managing a store in Geelong but by 1841 it is believed that he was established at Mernda at a wattle and daub hotel (the Bridge Inn) on the Plenty River crossing. In addition to the inn, Willis’ Mernda enterprise involved a pastoral holding of 400 acres which he again called Wanstead. After their previous Vandemonian and Lower Plenty Wanstead experiences, it’s a wonder that James was still dusting off that nomenclature for another outing at Mernda, but he remained in possession until 1851.
As the story of James Willis and his Plenty River diary fades into forgotten memory, it is comforting to note that the “unlucky star” recorded by James would ultimately be proved wrong by history, at least in a sense. The Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 6, MUP 1986 credits ownership of the diary manuscript to James Willis’ great-grandson, Dr R W Pearson. So it seems that James finally got to appreciate the joys of a family life that he earlier believed would be forever denied him.
Though evidently not in the arms of one of John Batman’s bright eyed daughters.