All posts by Yallambie

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

An incovenient truth

The American writer Mark Twain is generally credited with that oft quoted weather maxim, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Twain was recorded as making a remark similar to this in the early 1900s with his words later paraphrased into the famous old adage but the fact is, the idea had first been espoused by Twain’s friend, the essayist Charles Dudley Warner decades earlier. Twain later borrowed the concept during a lecture tour and the mistake in authorship stuck.

The Twain attribution is an example of how a misrepresentation if told often enough, becomes fixed. The reality is the writer’s name itself was also a fiction but ask anyone who Samuel Langhorne Clemens was in life and you will be met with a blank stare, so with this in mind maybe old Sam won’t mind if I  borrow a line from him right now.

“You know, everybody in Melbourne talks about the weather, but nobody wants to do anything about it.”

As our fossil fuel dependent power grid struggles to keep up with the demands of hundreds of thousands of houses across the state attempting to run electricity hungry air conditioning this summer, the talk has been all about the need to build a new coal fired power station, but wouldn’t you say that could be a case of the chicken and the egg?

It got me thinking about truth and the perception of truth in a globalized 21st century society. Any suggestion that the weather we’ve been having and that the associated record breaking temperatures that go with it might have anything to do with Climate Change or with Global Warming is evidence if evidence is needed that there will always be some people for whom denial is their first port of call. I’m told there is a difference between weather, which is what we have been experiencing, and climate, which is what has been changing, but the facts speak for themselves. We might be in need of a cool change right now, but there are still some around us who would have you believe there is no such thing as a changing climate, a belief which is at odds with all the scientific evidence and expert testimony to the contrary.

We live on a planet where climate has changed many times throughout prehistoric earth history, ranging from balmy warmth to long periods of glacial cold. The last Ice Age ended a mere 10,000 years ago and ushered in an era known to science as the Holocene. It may be no coincidence that in this era, the era that has seen the growth of the human species worldwide and which contains the whole of recorded history, there has been no full crash in climate on a world scale. If there had been it is likely that early civilizations would not have survived and I’m thinking we would not be here at this moment to blog about it on a World Wide Web.

The concern now however is that it may be the actions of humans that has started driving the Earth’s climate and that as a result we may be heading in a direction that will take us past what is an already natural tipping point to a place where too much is being asked of an inherently fragile climate system causing it to snap back in protest into as yet unknown territory.

It might seem like “An Inconvenient Truth” to him, but the leader of the world’s largest economy and by default the erstwhile leader of the Western World has said that he does not believe in Climate Change. End of story. The trouble is, although the boffins might generally agree on the reality of that Change, the jury is out on what this might actually mean in practice. Climate is such a tricky thing that change just one bit of it and the consequences become hazy. Some might say hazier than the sky over Beijing on a smoggy morning.

The emergence of a polar vortex of warm air over the Arctic last week actually drove cold air south which resulted in a record plunge in temperatures over the North American continent. One particularly worrying Climate Change theory anticipates an end to the Atlantic Meridional Ocean Current, the current which keeps European temperatures temperate and this would result in an overall drop in temperatures in Europe. So much for Global Warming.

In Australia we have our own Conga Line of Climate Change denying sycophants, many of whom seem to have found themselves into positions of political power where they maintain obstinately that there is nothing wrong with what we have been doing to this planet. While our economy in Australia is not on the same scale as elsewhere, we do have one of the highest per capita emissions of carbon dioxide in the world, the global effects of which are potentially equally as dangerous.

The Yallambie Creek in flood in 1974. (Source: PIT Environmental Impact Statement, 1974)
The Plenty River in flood at Yallambie,  c1890. (Source: Bill Bush Collection).
Thomas Wragge’s second Tulla Homestead, on the Wakool River, NSW, c1900, (Source: Lady Betty Lush Collection).

Much of Australia is classed as semi arid, a continent where climate is often variable and where frequent droughts lasting several seasons can be interspersed by considerable wet periods. Thomas Wragge who made a fortune running sheep in marginal country in the Riverina, made a success of these difficulties but chose to live at Yallambie after he purchased the Heidelberg property from the Bakewell brothers. His family gathered there before the Melbourne Cup each year and stayed there throughout the summer to avoid the worst extremes of temperature at their properties in inland Australia. Winty Calder noted the milder environment the family enjoyed at Yallambie in her 1996 book, “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” writing that:

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman, (Source: National Gallery of Victoria).

“Another early purchase made by the Bakewells was land beside the Plenty River east of Melbourne, where the climate was (and still is) temperate. Rain falls throughout the year, with slight peaks in spring and autumn, and averages about 700 millimetres (26 inches) per year. The mean monthly maximum temperature is about 27 degrees C (80 degrees F) in January, but falls to less than 12 degrees (53 degrees) in June and July. The mean monthly minimum in February is about 13 degrees C (55 degrees F), and about 5 degrees C (42 degrees F) in June, July and August. Any frosts are light and snow is rare.” (Calder, Jimaringle Publications, 1996)

Rainbow over Yallambie in 1995.

Yes, we’ve always thought it a lovely place to live here at Yallambie but thinking of the climate as something constant is misguided. The weather of our childhood might have felt like the norm but it was in fact a snapshot of a moment in climate history and by association different to what the early settlers found in Australia or indeed to what we are experiencing today.

I remember a time from my childhood when any temperature reaching into the 30s seemed like a heat wave. Now it is a temperature taken past 40. Across the river from Yallambie, the Lower Plenty Hotel in its bushland setting has an illuminated temperature gauge on its signboard visible from Main Rd. I photographed this at 6 o’clock in the evening last month when it was displaying 47° Celsius, or nearly 117° on the old Fahrenheit scale. I don’t know what the temperature might have been in the middle of that day but in the evening the temperature as displayed on the Lower Plenty board was several degrees above the official temperature when I checked it for Melbourne at about the same time.

Temperature gauge at Lower Plenty opposite Yallambie last month.

A story in Domain last month would seem to confirm this. Of all the data examined from all the weather stations across the greater metropolitan area, the weather station at Viewbank right next door to Yallambie came in as Melbourne’s hottest suburb with an average annual temperature there of 20.9° Celsius. The Bureau of Meteorology puts this down to the distance of the suburb from the stabilizing influence of sea breezes but there is also something called the “Heat Island Effect” to take into consideration. The concrete and built structures of Melbourne absorb heat during the day storing it up like a heat bank, then radiating that heat during the night making the city warmer after dark. I’m guessing that it’s those same sea breezes mentioned by the Bureau of Meteorology that are then pushing the warmer air up the Yarra Plenty valley where it is trapped by the hills around the Viewbank weather station.

A stroll in Yallambie Park.

Trees can provide some form of relief – just take a stroll along the river under the trees in Yallambie Park on one of these warm afternoons to see my point – but as blocks of land in the suburbs are ever more reduced in size and more and more houses are jammed into the existing environment to increase the profits of the developers, the heat island effect is only ever increased. The answer they seem to have to this is to put air conditioning into those jammed in houses but these require electricity to function which in the past has been produced in greenhouse gas producing coal fired power stations. It is a situation that becomes self-replicating. A catch 22.

Yallambie, July, 2018.

Yallambie Homestead with its high ceilings and 150 year old walls of solid double brick and plaster, located within a garden setting surrounded by numerous plantings of trees, manages to stay cooler in warm weather longer than most, but when it does warm up it retains the heat far longer. Another example of the heat island effect.

This island earth as seen from space by the Apollo 17 astronauts.

In my October 2017 post about “Conurbation”, I made brief reference to the heat island effect I had seen first-hand at Ocean Island in the Central Western Pacific. The story of Ocean Island or “Banaba” has always struck me as being like an ecological mirror of our own planet and if you can think for one moment about our fragile planet as being like a Pale Blue Dot cast adrift somewhere in the dark depths of space, then spare a thought for solitary Ocean Island sitting out there in the vast Pacific, all on its own.

Abandoned and overgrown mining infrastructure at Ocean Island (Banaba) in the Central Western Pacific, (writer’s picture).

Like the Pale Blue Dot, Ocean Island was the only home its native inhabitants had ever known. That was before the mining industry realized its potential. Roughly two square miles in area or to reference our subject, twice the size of Yallambie, an 80-year long phosphate mining industry in the 20th century reduced the island to a weedy, post-apocalyptic, post-industrial moonscape of broken rock and abandoned mining buildings and machinery. Unlike the inhabitants of the Pale Blue Dot however, a new home was found for the local people, the Banabans who were relocated to a small island in the Fiji group, much to the detriment of their heritage and to their identity as a Micronesian people.

Early 20th century photograph of Banabans in traditional dress on Ocean (Banaba) Island. (Source: A St. C Compton collection)

The phosphate from Ocean Island was meanwhile used to green farm land in Australia throughout most of the last century, so look around you. There’s probably a little bit of Ocean Island below your feet at Yallambie even now.

The sacrifice of the island to the needs of an industry that aided an agricultural revolution in the 20th century resulting in the population of this planet increasing from 1 ½ billion when mining started in 1900 to 7 ½ billion and climbing today, is an irony. The industry left the island source of a small part of that revolution largely uninhabitable but even so, there is a bigger irony at work here. Should general industrial practices across this planet result in Global Warming and a rise in sea levels which is a fundamental prediction of many expert opinions, then ruinous Ocean Island as a raised atoll and politically a part of the Republic of Kiribati will be the only island within that nation that has the potential of remaining above those projected altered sea levels.

It’s a sobering thought and one that might see future peoples of low lying islands calling out the name of a certain American writer as they measure the water outside their front door. Whoever first spoke those somehow Global Warmingly appropriate words, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” the source doesn’t really matter now. It seems instead appropriate that the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, which found its origins from his years working on the Mississippi riverboats where a safe depth for passage was called out as two fathoms on the line – “by the mark twain” – could one day find another use. In years to come as the waters rise, we might all be hearing a bit more about the “Mark Twain”.

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A Blake Mystery

When it comes to detective fiction it is perhaps a little known fact that the biggest selling crime novel of the 19th century appeared in that quondam den of iniquity, boom time Melbourne after the gold rushes. Released in 1886 a full year before the first Conan Doyle, in the words of one modern review the Australian novel ‘The Mystery of a Handsome Cab’ was “a crucial point in the genre’s transformation into detective fiction”, (Rzepka & Horsley). With a story line set in and around “Marvelous Melbourne” the book was a positive, pot boiling, sleuthing success from the moment it appeared giving its writer, Fergus Hume fifteen minutes of fame and selling 100,000 copies in its first two Australian print runs on its way to becoming an international bestseller.

Detective novels by Fergus Hume

As with any success however came the public demands for a follow up. The resulting loosely drawn sequel, ‘Madame Midas’ was published about two years later with a story line that transferred the drama from late 19th century Melbourne onto the Ballarat gold fields. Although it didn’t achieve anything like the runaway success of the first novel, Midas is notable for introducing the world to a murder mystery set within the scope of an Australian regional country town and featuring a narrative centered round an independently resourced and singularly minded pre-Suffragette female protagonist.

Alice Cornwell photographed about the time Fergus Hume used her as the inspiration for his character, “Madame Midas”. (Source: National Library of Australia collection)

It is said that truth can be stranger than fiction. While the characters of Hume’s subsequent prolific literary output mostly descended into fantastical cloak and dagger melodrama, the fictionalized Madame Midas of his Ballarat based effort was an altogether different story. Hume based the portrait of Midas on his friend, Alice Cornwell whose real life tale reads like the scattered pages of a romanticized fiction. Lady mining magnate and financial wunderkind, part time inventor and full time newspaper baroness, Cornwell’s life was full of contradictions. They were contradictions however that made her a fortune and earned her the epithet “Princess Midas, the Lady of the Nuggets”. Hume found he had plenty of background material for a story, so much so that when the book became a play, Cornwell’s estranged husband sued over the content.

Fast forward a hundred years or so, give or take, and in what seemed like a continuation of the Hume whodunit tradition, Ballarat was again to become the setting for a fictional detective drama complete with its own behind the scenes, later court room problems. Viewers of the former ABC Australian TV period detective television series “The Doctor Blake Mysteries”, might have been forgiven for thinking that by the 1950s, Ballarat had become a pretty perilous place. In that post war country town of television theatrics, murders seemed to happen with an alarming regularity that would have surprised even Fergus Hume, the bloodless bodies of the lifeless victims bobbing out across the small screen with a clockwork consistency.

Two fine Australian actors. Craig McLachlan and Nadine Garner as they appeared in the original The Dr Blake Mysteries series which screened on ABC television. (Source: IMDB)

It was fiction but it proved to be rather fun and made good television, especially for the role of the lead character, the Police Surgeon Doctor Lucien Blake played by Craig McLachlan whose job it was to run to ground a new set of nefarious villains each week while supposedly juggling the duties of a neglected country medical practice and conducting a dilatory romance with his housekeeper. As a formula it was a clever take on the established detective genre and ran for five entertaining seasons before the ABC unexpectedly embarked on its own brazen act of cold blooded murder – inexplicably killing off the show at the end of 2017 at the height of its popularity in a process they claimed was a necessary cutback due to Federal Government imposed budgetary constraints.

The timing was opportune, or maybe not. That was a matter probably dependent on your view point for it came just before unassociated  hashtag Me Too allegations of misconduct were being made against the show’s leading actor, allegations themselves which are now the subject of a high risk, 6½ million dollar defamation case brought on by the actor against two media outlets, but it left the show’s creators with very little room to manoeuvre.

So it came as some surprise then when last year the makers of the show, December Media, announced that the production would make a return to the small screen, albeit without its titular character, in a made for telly, movie length drama commissioned by a commercial broadcaster. The Seven Network had earlier shown interest in saving the production and with help from Film Victoria and Screen Australia in an out-of-rounds special funding commitment, they had offered December Media a lifeline. The broken strands of the show would be pasted back together into a story which propelled the remaining cast forward into the 1960s.

Perhaps opportunely, the doctor in the Doctor Blake series had married his former housekeeper in the last of the broadcast ABC stories thereby keeping the name in the title alive in spite of the actor’s absence. The show would be repackaged as simply “The Blake Mysteries” with Jean Blake, who in the earlier series had acted as a sounding board and wise counsel to the doctor, stepping up to the wicket as a sort Australian variant on the Miss Marple theme. If it rated well it was said there was a prospect of more things to come.

“Blake found itself at that most unlikely of “country town” destinations – suburban Yallambie…”

From the start the Blake franchise has been a brand of which the regional center of Ballarat has been proud and trips are still run on a regular basis to introduce tourists and the show’s legion of fans to some of the more prominent local landmarks used in the series. It may come as a surprise to readers of this blog then that when it came to finding locations for the new telemovie, Blake found itself at that most unlikely of “country town” destinations – suburban Yallambie in Melbourne’s north east.

Prior to filming last year, the producers had been looking around for a “haunted house” to build part of their telemovie around. They wanted a country style home of semi derelict stature which their script described had stood empty and abandoned for 30 years, but for logistical reasons it also had to be within easy reach of their South Melbourne based production team. Casting Yallambie Homestead as the “haunted house” of their dreams ticked the boxes.

Readers of these posts might recall another occasion when a visiting film crew lobbed here at Yallambie. That visit continued a tradition in the district that commenced with the earliest days of film making, but the Blake shoot was certainly on a scale never seen in Yallambie before.

Bigger than Ben Hur

As we watched more and more people troop through the gates carrying equipment and film paraphernalia down to the house on that first morning back in June, it quickly became apparent that this one was going to be bigger than Ben Hur.

The lighting tower under early construction
A Zephyr sedan with a balsa wood siren

An enormous lighting tower quickly went up at the head of the drive like Jack’s bean stalk and two early-model Police cars were parked underneath, one an original 1961 Ford Zephyr Mk 2 Police Divi van, the other a repurposed Zephyr sedan with a balsa wood siren prop and a temperamental head light that we learned later only operated at night when the driver got out and gave it a bang with the palm of his hand. These cars were driven by stunt drivers who in one of their action sequences were required to whirl the vehicles up to the front of the house in a spray of gravel. In trepidation I said, “See yonder shrubbery, planted there by the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’. It’s taken years to grow back to what you see before you after the first, (and last) time I took to it with the hedge trimmer.”

“What’s that you say? Drive right over it and flatten it into match wood. No worries, we can do that for you. Happy to oblige.”

Ben Hur and his chariot never had it so tough.

Residents of houses in the local area had received timely letters inside their post boxes the week before advising them of the planned activity in the back streets of Yallambie and a traffic controller had been strategically positioned in Tarcoola Drive with apparent instructions to lean on his paddle pop in a sleepy sort of way to bamboozle the passing motorists.

Actor Finn Scicluna-O’Prey playing the part of boy scout Geoffrey Roper enters through the front door at Yallambie to find the first of the three murders
“This place is really spooky…”
“Just us ghosts…”

I once wrote a Halloween themed post for this blog but on the first evening of filming as a special effects fog was pumped into the night air, I overheard one of the child actors who had been cast in a role in the new movie comment as he looked up at the darkened house, “This place is really spooky. Does anyone even live here?”

That brought a smile to the old dial. “Just us ghosts I’m ’fraid young man.”

“The gift that keeps on giving”
Emptying bags of leaves inside the front hall

In spite of appearances to the contrary, the ghosts had vainly spent the weekend prior to this sprucing the wreckage, but the first thing the Blake crew did on arriving was to hang fake cobwebs around, empty bags of old leaves where they had previously been swept away, and generally turn our lives upside down in a topsy-turvy sort of way. If the house hadn’t looked derelict before they started, it did completely by the time the cameras were ready to roll, but this was entirely the effect they had been trying to achieve. Yallambie Homestead for film makers was they said “the gift that keeps on giving”.

Actor Matthew Connell discusses preparations for the fall from the ceiling with his stunt double

One of the key scenes shot at the house called for an actor to smash his way out of a ceiling and somersault down the 23 flight staircase inside. Originally the plan had been for the actor to be positioned on the balcony outside throwing fictional broken slates off the roof, but perhaps after looking at the non-fictional very real crumbling state of the balcony, veteran director Ian Barry wisely chose to move the action inside. A stunt double was used for the tumble and a whole lot of special effects falling plaster, but the plan also called for the removal of some large furniture that was deemed to be blocking the way of the big landing.

“But that furniture hasn’t moved for years.”

“No worries, we have somebody to handle things like this.”

A plethora of somebodies

We soon learned there was a plethora of somebodies ready to handle all manner of things as the need arose. There was even a bloke whose sole job apparently was to look after the “blood”. Blake prides itself on the restraint of its drama but the “blood man” arrived armed with a special effects, fiberglass pool of blood lovingly prepared on a tray and ready to be placed near the foot of the stairs when required. Meanwhile the intended murder victim himself stalked around in the sun outside, talking on his mobile phone while waiting for his cue to lie down dead in what I guess was probably one of the less demanding of the on screen roles.

The soccer ground car park at Yallambie taken over by the Blake catering staff and support crew
Blake catering tent

Catering tents and caravans were set up in the soccer ground car park in Yallambie near the Lower Plenty Rd Bridge and at meal times a shuttle bus ran between the locations and the sports field in order to get the empty stomachs of the cast and crew to the place where they could be filled. One thing I learned from observation is that the film production process requires many, many people all pulling together apparently in different directions before suddenly coming together at the moment the cameras start to roll. Hours of work might translate into only a few minutes or even seconds of screen time but for the interested bystander, it is a fascinating process to watch.

The blackout screens at the front of the house
Preparations for the outdoor shoot in Yallambie Park

We watched as large blackout screens were erected in front of the house in an attempt to achieve continuity in some of the night scenes that for practical reasons had been scheduled to be filmed in daylight hours but later on, when filming had moved on to an outdoor shoot in Yallambie Park, the question then became how much camera time could be fitted in between the sun popping in and out from behind the clouds. Apparently too much sun can cause havoc with exposures so another of the aforementioned Blake “somebodies” had the job of peering at the sky through a glass then calling out his estimates of sun time between the patches in the overhead rolling clouds.

Child actors at Yallambie

The child actors themselves had minders to oversee their welfare but it was the costume department’s dedication to the detail in their dress that I found extraordinary. The script required the children to be dressed in scout uniforms and these I learned had been borrowed from the Scout Heritage Center. The uniforms were not only authentic for the period but were decorated with the correct, matching insignia badges for a Ballarat based troop.

Ballarat boy scouts camping in Yallambie Park
Blake on location in Yallambie Park

The script required not only Boy Scout uniforms but also a Boy Scout camp and this was cleverly constructed using bush skills on the banks of the River Plenty in Yallambie Park. Filming took place in the Park on two consecutive nights in front of a roaring campfire, which for OHS reasons, wasn’t a real camp fire at all but a very convincing gas log fire that could be pumped up into flame or extinguished as required.

Nadine Garner in the role of Jean Blake looking for clues
The Blake crew making preparations for a scene inside the front hall

The final result of all this Yallambie based film making aired on the Seven Network at the end of November. Personally, I found the format didn’t translate well onto commercial television with the need for ad breaks interrupting the flow of an already needlessly convoluted story line. All the same the telemovie still averaged 450,000 viewers across the five capital cities with another 247,000 tuning in from regional areas with the Seven Network’s Angus Ross reported as saying, “We never rush decisions around quality shows such as The Blake Mysteries but the first round of numbers are very encouraging.” Whether this is enough to save the Blake franchise in the long run remains to be seen. The Seven Network announced last week that it would not commission any further Blake stories in 2019 but maybe like Fergus Hume’s Handsome Cab, Madame Midas themed follow up, they are waiting on just the right character formula coming along for a sequel. The very large elephant in the Blake room has always been the absence from the production of the good Doctor himself. Towards the end of the November telemovie, actress Nadine Garner in the role of Jean Blake turns to the camera and says, “You can spend your whole life focusing on the past. Or you can look forward. Be grateful for the people you have and the time you have with them.”

Spectator to a night shoot at Yallambie

She was speaking in character of course but the cast and crew were obviously offering up their feelings on events external to the show and those matters that have been outside of their control. As a writer of a blog that has busied itself in the past more often than not with history and the lives of people now long departed, those words struck with me a chord. Hosting the Blake crew at Yallambie was one hell of a ride and meeting the cast and crew while being a spectator to the organized chaos that is the process of film making was an absolute privilege. Whether Blake will be, like “Lazarus with a triple bypass”, resurrected for a third time after these events remains unclear. Like the stage version of Madame Midas, it may depend upon the result of an apparently unrelated court case. With the recent turmoil surrounding the decision makers at the ABC, perhaps our national broadcaster could start listening to their audiences and themselves consider reinstating free to air, one of their more recent successful ventures. Whatever the outcome, the Blake visit to the suburbs in down town Yallambie last year was an experience we will long remember, even after all else around here has become just history.

I’ve been a very good boy all year

Multi armed goddess at Bhaktapur, Nepal, (writer’s picture).

Have you ever thought what it would be like to live your life as some sort of multi armed, Hindu deity? She who I share my breakfast table with probably knows. She’s often said she could do with an extra pair of hands about the place but maybe that’s got less to do with the domestic goddess in her and more to do with her ongoing passion for old keyboard instruments and the consequent number of fingers needed to bang out a tune on the same. At last count she owned three pianos of varying descriptions and in fluctuating playing condition. She also has a pedal pump parlour organ, a folding church reed organ and even a virginal style, rectangular harpsichord, but unless things have taken a turn in a decidedly Zaphod Beeblebrox direction lately, at last count she only had the usual issue of piano playing arms.

I’d been thinking there must be some other purpose for having all these keyboard instruments around our shared domicile, other than the obvious musical motif. Then it struck me. The folded up tops of those instruments are where the annual harvest of Christmas cards get deposited each and every December, come what may in the Yule tide Season. In the days before television and wireless when most homes owned an upright, the piano top was an obvious and apparently ready made shelf for all manner of things, albeit the place where the cat would sometimes jump to knock it all flying.

But that was then and fashions change. Nowadays the cat plays the piano on the internet while the piano itself has been replaced by an App on your lap top that will do just about the same thing with an on-screen keyboard. Pianos struggle to make a hundred dollars at auction and I’ve even seen them left out on the side of the road. It’s all a bit sad really but, more to the point, it’s not like anyone even sends out bundles of Christmas cards these days.

Christmas cards in a New York shop window, 1910. (Source: Wikipedia, from The New York Times photo archive)

Every year it seems our Christmas card list is pared back ever more and I don’t think that’s just a reflection on my dwindling list of friends, although maybe I should take that as a hint. I reckon I could now fit the Christmas card list onto the back of a postage stamp but wait, when’s the last time you actually saw a postage stamp outside of a philatelic album? The reasons for the decline are obvious and represent another change in societal fashion. Log onto Facebook or send an e-card out to your contacts and the job is considered done for another 12 months, and that’s without any of that tedious and unhygienic business of licking stamps, addressing envelopes or perish the thought, actually writing anything resembling a properly personalised message.

Christmas theatre programmes from Ocean Island.

My maternal Grandfather, Alfred St C Compton designed his own Christmas theatre programmes on Ocean Island in the Central Western Pacific in the 1920s. As with most things, there’s something to be said in favour of the effort required to achieve a little home grown originality although I must say, in my case I gave up making my own cards at about the time I paid a swan song to a much loved first car.

The Noddy car leaving Yallambie for the last time.
The “Noddy” car Christmas card.

I guess the decline in the popularity of the printed Christmas message could be seen as saving a tree from giving up its life to cardboard, but does it really have to be like this? A friend in the UK still sends me her “Advent Calendar” which is a series of emailed illustrations sent one day at a time in the days leading up to Christmas. They never seem to quite follow a Christmas theme but recipients on the CC list “Reply All” with stories inspired by the images. It’s quite random and evidence perhaps that there’s still room for creativity even inside the digital age.

Christmas card by Gibbs, Shallard & Co, 1881, from the collection of Michael Aitken. (Source: State Library of Victoria)
The world’s first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843. (Source: Wikipedia)

It has been recorded that the very first printed Christmas cards were created in England in 1843 for use in the newly founded penny postal service. This was about the time that the Bakewells were settling in to their new surroundings at the Plenty Station, Yallambee, but it wasn’t until three decades later at a time concurrent with the building of the present Homestead that the giving and receiving of cards at Christmas became widely accepted. At that time inexpensive, mass produced chromolithographic cards became available and these were posted to Australia by friends and family living back “home” or were imported directly into Australia for domestic use. These cards of course typically depicted scenes from a Northern Hemisphere winter, scenes that were somewhat at odds with the heat of an Australian summer or life in the bush, so it was not long before card manufacturers started producing cards in Australia with a distinctly Australian content.

Christmas postcard showing rural scene at Heidelberg, c1918. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

In the days when you might need a bank loan to place a long distance telephone call, the so called trunk call, letter writing and dropping a card of some description into the corner letter box was the easy and inexpensive alternative. There are people who probably still remember a time when the post man on his bicycle rode past their house with a delivery on Saturday. At Yallambie we share our Post Code number with neighbouring Macleod and while Yallambie has never had its own Post Office, the Simpson Barracks up the road apparently had an office located inside the camp before the postal services were removed about 20 years ago. Maybe they got confused by people continuing to incorrectly address mail to the garrison which is located in Yallambie, to Army personnel at the “Watsonia Barracks”.

But as for what people actually write at Christmas, the other day I was looking through a collection of old Christmas cards and turned up a couple of hand written notes that had been written to Father Christmas by a boy at some now long forgotten Christmas eventide. The story of the fox recalled to mind a recent post and brought back to me nostalgic memories from another time, a time before the boy stood six foot in his socks and when the magic of Christmas on Christmas night was very much a real thing.

It is said we all yearn for the Christmas times of our youth – a time of long, hot summers in Australia and a time when people still wrote those copious quantities of Christmas greetings. In those days the scent of spruce seemed to fill the house in the weeks leading up to Christmas, just as it does now. Somehow though the idea of a jolly fat, fellow dressed all in red and flying through the night sky on a sleigh pulled by magic reindeer, landing on the roof of your house and climbing down your chimney even if your house didn’t have a chimney, seemed not an altogether impossibility. In the uncertain world of today, maybe that is one thing that hasn’t changed.

Who am I to say?

Albert, the Christmas pudding

“The wood-fire stove in the kitchen was always hot. Cured pigs, sausages, dried fruit and vegetables hung from a central beam beneath the ceiling. Although a cook was employed, the family invaded the kitchen each year to preserve fruit in large, labelled jars and store it in the pantry; and then again to make the annual Christmas pudding.”
Winty Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales – The Wragges of Tulla and Yallambie, Jimaringle Publications, 1996

Norman Lindsay painting in the Art Gallery of Ballarat.

When we think of the artist Norman Lindsay perhaps it is as the painter of those naughty pictures of salacious Amazonian women in their birthday suits that we first think of him. A striking mixture of Arcadian pantheism and Bohemian semi-eroticism, those controversial paintings caused quite a stir amongst the strait laced wowsers of their era. However, there was more to Norman than just the creator of a lifetime’s work of marginally risqué Rubenesque images. A shining light in a family widely accomplished in the arts, Norman’s creative output across multiple disciplines throughout three quarters of the 20th century was prodigious. From the late 1890s until his death aged 90 in 1969, Norman worked in both the fine arts as a painter, etcher, sculptor and modeller and in the commercial arts as an editorial artist, cartoonist and draftsman.

Norman Lindsay photographed with one of his paintings by William Buckle in 1936. (Source: Art Gallery of NSW)

Not that it ended there. In his youth Norman had established a reputation as something of an amateur boxer, a fast left jab perhaps coming in useful when it came to defending himself against some of those more ardent critics, but for the moment I want to go down a completely different different track.

Norman Lindsay liked puddings.

An author of more than 20 books, only one of which was banned by the contemporary censors, Norman’s most enduring legacy is probably a book he wrote initially for children. I’m talking of course about that most quintessential of Australian childhood picture books, “The Magic Pudding”.

A first edition of Norman Lindsay’s “The Magic Pudding”.

The story of a magic pudding that wants to be eaten and reforms after every bite has enchanted Australian readers of all ages for generations. The book was supposedly the result of a wager between Norman and his friend, the journal editor Bertram Stevens. Norman, skinny as they come, maintained children preferred reading books about feeding their faces but Stevens said they preferred fairies at the bottom of the garden. It started out as a joke but Stevens’ fairy story never saw the light of day while Lindsay’s effort became a classic of Australian childhood literature.  Since its release in 1918 it has never been out of print in this country.

From this I’m thinking now that Norman would have approved of what generally happens in kitchens at this time of the year. At Yallambie, the making of the annual Christmas pudding was a Wragge family tradition, a tradition that continues up to and into the present day. While the pudding in Norman’s story was a grumpy old sod, there is one thing the Yallambie pud shares with its Lindsay counterpart.

It wants to be eaten.

Watch your head. Low flying puddings…

As I write this post this evening, a string of puddings hangs cooling over my ear, suspended from an old meat hook on the kitchen ceiling as if to say, “Eat me, no eat me,” and reminding me that Christmas is just around the corner.

You see, I left it rather late to make the pudding this year. By rights a Christmas pudding should have been made and left to air a month or more ago, but it’s hard to think about Christmas before the twelfth month of the year don’t you think?

Oranges from the garden at Yallambie, painted onto a door by Jessie Wragge in the 1890s.

The recipe I use appeared four puddings ago in one of my first posts on this site. It’s a real old fashioned recipe that uses several varieties of glace fruit which chances are you might find aren’t always easy to buy, especially at this time of the year. The glace angelica is particularly difficult to get. I used to buy glace angelica at Christmas over the counter at the Myer Food Hall before they canned it – the Hall I mean, not the angelica. These days it’s just as easy to go on line with a credit card. The glace angelica is an attractive alternative to green glace cherries and is used as a complement to the red glace cherries in the recipe, without actually being more of the same. The other ingredients are easier to source. The citrus came from our own garden.

Part of the Christmas pudding ceremony is getting each member of the family to have a stir of the mixture as it’s prepared. It’s said that this stirs in luck for the coming year. When our son came down to take his turn this year he took one look at the brown, uncooked mass mixed with fruit and declared it looked like Ronnie Barker’s prison gruel.

But he had a stir all the same.

Pot stirring isn’t the only Christmas pudding custom you will read about. When I was a kid, my mother used to throw in a few pre-decimal currency coins to be discovered and hopefully not choked on by hungry pudding hunters on Christmas day. If you’re going to do this though it’s important to use coins containing a high silver content. The metal of anything else will contaminate the mixture. My over cautious mother tended to insert the coins after the pudding had been reheated just before it was about to be served on Christmas Day. Today some dealers in old coins will sell you pre-decimal coin sets packaged up especially for use as Christmas pudding tokens. Try doing that with Australian, plastic folding currency.

This recipe requires beer and either whisky and/or brandy to mix with the fruit. The beer has the added attraction of the cook being able to finish the bottle as he makes up the recipe, but the only spirit I had on hand this year was a bottle of single malt Irish Whiskey which I’m afraid all good Scotsmen will tell you isn’t Whisky at all. At any rate, using a Malt for cooking purposes is probably sacrilegious by some measure or other, regardless of your preferred nationality.

The magic pudding of Norman Lindsay’s book spends most of the story on the run from would be pudding thieves before settling down with his rightful owners with whom he finds he has a good working relationship. The pudding’s name was Albert, which if a pudding is going to have a name, is a good name for a pudding, don’t you think?

Anyway, after a day of boiling, the pudding is done. A smell of fruity  elixir permeates the kitchen. So for any who missed this recipe when I first ran it in these pages in the week before Christmas 2014, here is ye olde Yallambie pudding recipe, reprised.

Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.

 

Pudding ingredients: Beer, flour, bread, Whisk(e)y, butter, sultanas, dried pears, raisins, brown sugar, eggs, glace apricots, red glace cherries, glace angelica, chopped almonds, orange and lemon.

CENTURY-OLD YALLAMBIE CHRISTMAS PUDDING
125 grams self-raising flour
125 grams fresh white bread crumbs
125 grams ground almonds
185 grams sultanas
185 grams glacé cherries, cut into halves
30 grams angelica, diced
60 grams blanched almonds, cut into chunky pieces
60 grams dried pears, chopped small
60 grams glacé apricots, cut into small pieces
185 grams raisins, halved if very large
150 grams brown sugar
Grated rind of one lemon
Grated rind of one orange
Juice of one lemon
185 grams unsalted butter
1 cup light beer
3 large eggs
3 tablespoons whisky or brandy

Sifting the flour.
Mix the sifted flour and fresh bread crumbs.
Mix both dry ingredients, and fruit together.
Prepare the pudding cloth.
The first boiling takes seven hours.

Mix the flour, fresh white bread crumbs and almonds. Put the fruit and nuts into a basin and stir. If they are sticking together, add a few spoonful’s of the dry ingredients to separate them. Mix in the brown sugar, lemon and orange rinds and lemon juice. Have the butter cold, and grate it coarsely over the fruits. Do this, a little at a time, and stir to mix it through or it becomes one large lump. Mix both dry ingredients, and fruit together. Add the beer, eggs and whisky or brandy and using your hands or a wooden spoon stir the mixture thoroughly for a minute. All family members should take turns to stir the pudding mixture, traditionally from East to West in honour of the journey of the Three Kings to Bethlehem. Don’t forget to make a wish. To prepare the pudding cloth, scald the centre of the cloth with boiling water and then dust with flour. Put mixture in the centre of the cloth, gather the cloth up and tie it securely leaving a little room for the pudding to expand.

The recipe makes nine cups and is better cooked in halves, rather than one large pudding. The first boiling of this pudding takes seven hours for a large one and five hours if halved. Dry by hanging in an airy spot. Reheating times on Christmas Day are three and half hours and two and a half hours respectively. If you have any silver coins or tokens, insert them into the pudding. Douse with good quality brandy and set the pudding alight. Serve with ice cream, cream or custard.

Or maybe all three.

Mud, mud, glorious mud

At first glance, leafy Eltham with its artist colonies in Melbourne’s north east, far flung and fabled, Timbuktu in Saharan West Africa and Yallambie might not appear to have much in common, but look further. Surprisingly there is one thing seemingly attached to all three, and it’s not the peculiar place that each occupies in our collective imagination.

Mud Brick.

The Great Mosque of Djenné near Timbuktu. (Picture: Joe Benke)

It’s a building construction method that has been used by humans ever since we first realized there was an alternative to sharing our homes with the angry cave bear. At Timbuktu, Mudbrick building has been practiced since Iron Age times where sun-baked earth bricks are called “Ferey”. In other places, Mudbrick is known by a variety of provincial names (Adobe, Banco, Earth Structure, and Clay Lump) and is practiced in a variety of related technical forms (Rammed Earth, Cob, Pisé de terre and Sod).

The Taos Pueblo Native American adobe complex in New Mexico. (Photographed by the writer)
Mudbrick building in Eltham, 1947 with Alastair Knox pictured centre. (Source: alistairknox.org)

In Eltham, Mudbrick building was a construction practice that was adopted widely after 1947 in what was then a still largely rural community. This was partly as a result of post war building shortages, but also in response to a building programme that had been going on at the artist community at Montsalvat since 1934 and a general desire to return to a more primitive building aesthetic. As a material it had indefinable human and emotional qualities and a succession of local builders, starting first with the self-taught Mudbrick pioneer Alistair Knox, quickly made it their own.

Today it is estimated that there are over 1300 mud brick homes in the Shire of Nillumbik alone. Every year our son’s soon to be alma mater, runs a tour of a small selection of some of these houses as a fund raising event to support the very excellent Eltham HS music programme, continuing a tradition that dates back more than 50 years. The 2018 tour takes place this coming Sunday but the ticketed event is already a sell-out, which perhaps proves the enduring community interest in Mudbrick and by extension, the Sustainable House Movement.

Bakewell era stables corner of Tarcoola Drive and Lambruk Court, removed to make way for the Temby Mudbricks. (Source: John Botwood Collection)

In Yallambie, Mudbrick homes on the A V Jennings estate are in reality a rarity, but there are two Mudbricks located in Tarcoola Drive of comment. These houses were built at the start of the 1980s on land that was formerly occupied by the Bakewell era “Yallambee” stables. They were built by the sons of Ethel Temby after their mother had ended her 20 year association with the Wragge era Homestead. Although the Bakewell stables were sadly sacrificed to make way for these buildings, the two homes did incorporate a few selected materials salvaged from the original structure and are in a way a continuation of that spirit of place.

Bear’s Castle, Yan Yean, from a 1905 postcard.
At Bear’s Castle in 1997.

Earth building in the Plenty Valley is a story that can be traced back to the earliest days of settlement. The building of Bear’s Castle at Yan Yean used Cob, a sort of trimmed earth construction method not dissimilar to Mudbrick, and is a rare pre goldrush example of that style of earth building. It is unique in Victoria today and was built in about 1847 although at that time it appears there were other buildings of a similar type in the area. As noted by the architectural historian Miles Lewis in his book “Victorian Primitive”, a Victorian Government Prize essay of 1859 stated that at Yan Yean could be found at that time, “common pise houses about twelve years old, and the conspicuous pise tower known as Bear’s Castle.”

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view V by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Station outbuildings in distance with trees and creek in foreground. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria, Accession Number 645E-5)

It is unknown whether the Bakewells used earth construction methods in any of their buildings at Yallambee. E L Bateman’s View V of The Station Plenty series seems to hint at bark roofing and vertical slab style construction methods used in the station outbuildings with just a tantalizing hint of a “Three Little Pigs” thatched roof on the horizon, so that is not to say that other styles of primitive building were not followed in the landscape beyond the picture. Lewis states in the opening of the introduction to his book that:

“A colony is a sort of cultural laboratory. Customs and crafts which have developed in their homeland over hundreds of years are translated abruptly into totally new conditions.”
(Lewis: Victorian Primitive, Greenhouse Publications, 1977)

He goes on to on to say that slab construction in Victoria was “related to traditional English precedents” but that bark roofing was “an unequivocally local response to the presence of suitable barking trees” at Port Phillip while in regard to earth building, “in Australia mud brick quickly became acclimatised.”

In its simplest form then, all primitive building techniques make use of local resources and require only the labour of preparing and erecting the building material, whether that be mud brick, split timber or otherwise, a consideration that must have been of considerable appeal to the early settlers of the Port Phillip District.

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

The very first European building in what was to eventually become the Colony of Victoria was a blockhouse built on Churchill Island in Westernport Bay by Lieutenant James Grant during a visit in 1801 which used an early form of common horizontal slab construction. Thirty years on, the very first shelters built by the party left behind by John Batman at Indented Head after his initial contact with the Kulin Nation were of Sod.

Sod or “Turve” construction was a popular method of housing in the “Bearbrass” settlement of 1830s Melbourne. The first two buildings in Melbourne were a hut and a storehouse of this style and in 1836 the “Sydney Gazette” reported that two of Melbourne’s three public houses were formed of turf sods. Early writers make numerous references to the resulting ramshackle appearance this material gave to the new town.

“…Melbourne which at present consists entirely of turf and weather-boarded huts, a very primitive looking place.”
(James Willis, Plenty River squatter, Diary, 2 May, 1837)

Sod buildings were constructed by cutting patches of turf into rectangles with a hatchet or plough and then piling the material up into walls. The resulting structures, although easy to create, required continual maintenance and were therefore not surprisingly easily vulnerable to rain damage.

Mudbrick or “Clay Lump” was the alternative and became more popular in Victoria as the century progressed. In Mudbrick building, bricks are made by mixing earth with water to make the mud, adding straw or other fibres as a binding agent, then placing the mixture into moulds and allowing the resulting blocks to dry in the sun. It all sounds terribly easy, which is probably the reason for the enduring popularity of the process.

Although questioning his sources, Miles Lewis quotes from a description of this method of construction as applied locally during the first years of settlement at Melbourne:

“It will not always occur that the young beginner will have either the time or the money at his disposal for burning bricks – if he has, he is well off. Sun-dried bricks, if mixed with chopped straw, and carefully made, are an excellent substitute for the burned brick, and as they may be made very large, say, nine inches wide and eighteen-and-a-half inches long, they are very quickly laid. In Victoria there is, in general, a scarcity of lime; it can always be had in Melbourne though but seldom in the country a mortar made of sandy clay or loam must, therefore, be substituted for it.”

At Yallambee the Bakewells had the cash resources to pick and choose from available building resources. Their prefabs were neat weather boarded buildings but these structures also incorporated soft fired bricks in various ways. The bricks used by the Bakewells were reportedly slop sided, narrow profile handmade bricks that had been brought out as ballast on the early clipper ships to Port Phillip. By contrast, when Thomas Wragge came to build the present homestead around 1872, the bricks used for that stucco style Italianate construction were fired on site from locally sourced clay.

Thomas Wragge’s stucco style Italianate Yallambie Homestead was constructed with hand made bricks fired on the property. (Source: Bill Bush Collection)

It took until the second half of the 20th century before the Temby boys made their attempts to return Yallambie to a more archaic style of building. The resulting houses they built today stand as a curiosity among the A V Jennings brick veneers of the Yallambie estate.

The stone built, oold Bakewell era stables, c1900, (Source: Bill Bush Collection).

The Age reported this week that one result of the continuing property boom is that the quarries that have supplied the clay and shale used in creating Melbourne’s distinctive red bricks, are fast being exhausted. Clay and clay shale demand in Victoria is expected to grow by 33 per cent to 1.6 million tonnes in 2050. The construction house market is not only depleting clay and clay shale supplies, but also the amount of land from which it can be extracted. Mudbrick houses as a building type however are  by definition, naturally sustainable. They make use of the earth from the ground on which they stand and incorporate low energy, natural materials with a preference for recycled timbers and natural stones. The Temby houses in Tarcoola Drive are no exception and use assorted stone sourced from the Bakewell stables with joinery and additional slop sided burnt bricks derived from the same source. These Yallambie houses were designed to sit into the natural contours of the land at the top of the Plenty River escarpment and are surrounded by the native gardens that were planted by Ethel during her tenure at the Homestead. Both Mudbricks passed from Temby ownership two decades ago but the larger of the two is now up for sale with an auction scheduled later this month, a consolation for those bound to miss this weekend’s 2018 Eltham Mudbrick Tour.

Mudbrick house at entrance to Yallambie Park, a long way from Glenauburn, October, 2018.
The renowned psychiatrist Dr Ainslie Meares whose house, Aldermaston Manor, is a Yallambie landmark.

In the best Ainslee Meares’ tradition, a well-respected psychiatrist whose Buddhist beliefs are much evident in the garden, lived at this house until recently. I’d have to agree with the spiel on the agent’s website which uses phrases including, “rustic charm”, “country style” and “warm earthy feel” but the same listing also manages to confuse the location of the property as being next to Glenauburn Park in Lower Plenty instead of Yallambie Park, in Yallambie, so make of that what you will. Perhaps they were confused by finding a Mudbrick house up for sale in Yallambie at all and thought it better to place it on the road to Eltham. It says something when even the real estate agents can’t separate Yallambie from Timbuktu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I beg your pardon, what?

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

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

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

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

The large and bushy cat

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

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

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

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

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

“Dogs are like that, aren’t they?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Loads of them…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dashing Mr Gilbert

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

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

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

Dr Godfrey Howitt, by Samuel Calvert, 1873.

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

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

Bakewell era survey map of “Yallambee”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Alexander Gilbert, 1869. Detail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nine tenths of the law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Batman’s dubious “Treaty”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old MacDonald had a farm

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

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

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

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

Prince Charles Edward Stuart painted by William Mosman around 1750.

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

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

Allan Ramsay’s portrait of Flora MacDonald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Godfrey Howitt, by Samuel Calvert, 1873.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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