Category Archives: Christmas

“So this is Christmas”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jewel Beetles found at Yallambie.

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

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

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

Christmas Beetle (Porter’s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The search for the ever elusive Pussycat Swallowtail.

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, yeah, yeah…



We were at Yallambie and wondering where to go.
“What about carols?” said my good lady.
“She lives in Geelong. That’s too far to travel on Christmas Eve.”
“Not Carol’s.  I mean carols. The sort you sing.”
“Oh, I see. Then I suppose Noel’s is out of the question.”

It’s an unlikely story but Christmas carols in Yallambie usually means a bit of travelling. The only church, the Anglican Church of the Holy Spirit on the corner of Yallambie and Greensborough Roads, was torn down in 1961.

All the same, “it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas” and in the backstreets of our town right now the gardens and the exteriors of many Yallambie houses are already decorated with Christmas lights while nearby shopping centres have been adorned with Council sponsored ornament. Every year these shops begin posting their Christmas sales ever earlier, the sight of the Easter Bunny pulling a sleigh down Yallambie Rd a seemingly inescapable destiny.

An imaginative view of Sulivan Bay in 1803, drawn by George Gordon McCrae, c1860, (State Library Victoria).
An imaginative view of Sulivan Bay in 1803, drawn by George Gordon McCrae, c1860, (State Library Victoria).

The very first Christmas in what 50 years later, would become the Colony of Victoria, occurred in 1803 at the short-lived convict settlement at Sullivan Bay in Port Phillip near modern-day Sorrento. The weather that December remained blisteringly hot and fresh water was scarce. A more inhospitable or exposed location for a settlement could not be imagined but for homesick Englishmen far from the blazing Yule-log and holly bough of home, celebrating Christmas was a tradition, even if at Sullivan Bay it was not motivated by any particular sense of spiritual obligation.

David Collins, Lieutenant Governor at Sullivan Bay, Port Phillip, (National Library Australia).
David Collins, Lieutenant Governor at Sullivan Bay, Port Phillip, (National Library Australia).

Four days before Christmas Day, David Collins, the Lieutenant Governor of the settlement, ordered the stores to issue a pound of raisins to each person so that Christmas puddings could be made. In spite of the difficulties being experienced by the Sullivan Bay settlement at that time, it would seem from the record that Christmas was still an occasion for Old World ceremony. Plum puddings boiled in the oppressive heat of an Australian summer would become the prototype for the stereotypical Aussie Christmas but in December 1803 it was still all a very new experience. A time of goodwill and ghosts and an occasion to reflect on far away homes forever in exile.

As Christmas neared, those reflections took a turn. Some of those at Sullivan Bay were not so sure that Santa had their calling cards, lost as they were abroad in the wilds of this Great South Land. They decided to take matters into their own hands and in the early hours of Sunday morning, Christmas Day 1803, a few convicts stole from the settlement items including a kettle, a gun, boots and medical supplies. Not so much as a tin drum or toy trumpet among the whole Christmas shopping list, but these convicts, like Blackadder’s Baldrick, had a cunning plan.

“A daring robbery having been committed on Sunday morning in the Commissary’s tent, and the sick having been at the same time meanly plundered of their provisions in their tents by some person or persons at present unknown, the Lieut. Governor calls upon all the well-disposed persons in the settlement to aid and assist in bringing the offender or offenders to justice…” (General Orders, Sullivan Bay, 1803)

William Buckley from John Helder wedge's field book of 1835-6, (State Library Victoria).
William Buckley from the field book of John Helder Wedge,1835-6, (State Library Victoria).

Two days later on the 27th December, five convicts absconded from the settlement intending to “walk to China”. Four were never seen again (a sixth was shot by the garrison watch and severely wounded). The Sullivan Bay settlement itself was soon after abandoned in favour of the more promising Derwent River in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) however the fifth escapee, William Buckley, lived on with Aboriginal people, learning their languages and their customs and becoming an accepted member of the tribes. He circumnavigated Port Phillip Bay, early on losing the kettle while crossing the Yarra River “falls” before eventually settling in the vicinity of the Bellarine Peninsula.

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

More than 30 years later at the founding of Melbourne, Buckley emerged from the bush like a latter day Port Phillip Crusoe, carrying wooden spears and impressively dressed in native fashion to welcome John Batman’s party. Buckley, the “Wild White Man of Port Phillip” as he became known, would never really settle back comfortably into the European world but soon received a full if belated pardon from the colonial authorities proving once and for all that sometimes all our Christmases do indeed come at once.

"The first settlers discover Buckley", by Frederick William Woodhouse, (State Library of Victoria).
“The first settlers discover Buckley”, by Frederick William Woodhouse, (State Library of Victoria).

As an escapee from convict oppression, the story of William Buckley and his admission into an indigenous world unfamiliar to the land of his birth has a contemporary and somehow familiar ring as populations are displaced by change and internecine conflict across every part of this Pale Blue Dot. The corresponding rise in ethnic nationalism the world over highlights a need felt by all peoples for a tribal identity over and above even what they feel for the football team at the end of the street. Brexit and the movement for Scottish independence were driven by this, but closer to home the disconcerting One Nation movement in Australia is a part of this same social phenomena.

Butterflies and protesters rally for refugees in Eltham, (picture by Craig Sillitoe, The Age).
Butterflies and protesters rally for refugees in Eltham, (picture by Craig Sillitoe, The Age).

Last month in Eltham, just beyond the boundaries of Yallambie, about 100 anti-refugee protesters demonstrated against a proposal to install Syrian refugees at a former local care facility. One Nation declared the protest was nothing to do with them and in the end the rent the crowd that turned up was itself outnumbered by protesters protesting against the protesters. Eltham has a reputation for left leaning politics and liberal social values and has a historically strong artists’ community. The anti-protesters brightened up the streets in the days leading up to the “Battle of Eltham” by tying thousands of handmade, brightly painted butterflies to Eltham trees and stenciling butterfly images onto pavements in a show of solidarity with the refugees.

I was in Eltham on the day of the protest and saw some of the anti-refugee protesters in the street. They looked somehow out of place in those leafy Eltham surroundings. How is it, I wondered, that growing a bushy beard and donning a knee-length oilskin is supposed to make you a more patriotic Australian than the next man in a multicultural society? The answer of course is that it doesn’t. The underlying truth when you peel back the window dressing is that as a human race we enjoy more similarities than differences.

The writer photographed in a Syrian street.
The writer photographed in streets of Syria.
Temple of Bel, Palmyra
Temple of Bel, Palmyra.
Bel after ISIL
Bel after ISIL.

As a traveller in years past I have seen at first hand some of the points of origin of this latest installment in trans-border refugee movement. Travel is an enriching experience and has become almost an Australian rite of passage among young people but I find it hard now to equate the pictures I see of ruined buildings on news feeds with those far off places of my distant memory. I have walked those streets and wandered through the Al-Madina Souq of Aleppo. On occasion I was invited off the street into family homes where I was told that this was the way they would most like visitors to see them and not as governments have defined them. How could those places and those people have been bombed into ashes and their lives ground into so much dust? What does it feel like to lose your home, your livelihood and the lives of those you hold most dear? Surely we as a nation could do more to meet our moral obligation to the displaced peoples of this world?

Australia enjoys a remarkably stable, tolerant and inclusive democracy but we take very few refugees on the world scale. Our democracy is something most Australians take for granted and it must be one of the few places in the world where the government has enacted laws to obligate people to vote come election-day. As one wag at the ABC put it during the Australian Federal Election in July, in this country it’s all about the battle for the Australian political middle ground.

Mutuma Ruteere, a UN special rapporteur, this week warned that “fringe elements” were in danger of entering the political mainstream but he said that “Australia was not unique among western democracies in grappling with popular support for parties with discriminatory policies”.

It seems clear that extremist viewpoints are on the rise everywhere. When I was in the States in March this year a few months before our own Federal election I saw the then candidate for the Republican nomination campaigning on television in Fox advertorials, masquerading as current affairs which seemed to have been modelled on the illusory truth effect. I never doubted then that before too long the campaign of this most unlikely of US Presidential nominations would run out of puff. From a country of over 320 million people I asked myself, was this really the best they could come up with?

Who’d a thunk?

As a president time may show that, in spite of appearances, the election of a foul mouthed, misogynistic, xenophobic, tax avoiding casino mogul as unofficial leader of the Free World will prove to be the best thing for Americans since sliced bread. Stranger things have happened. I wouldn’t like to make a prediction but if nothing else, it certainly indicates some sort of a seismic shift although, like the pigs in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” who started walking around on their hind legs, it’s sometimes hard to draw a distinction.

Melbourne seen from the south bank at the falls (Queensbridge) 1836, by R Hofmann, (State Library Victoria).
Melbourne seen from the south bank at the falls (Queensbridge) 1836, by R Hofmann, (State Library Victoria).

On the last day of November, 1835 soon after the founding of Melbourne, John Pascoe Fawkner while ploughing for a potato bed near the falls on the virgin south bank of the Yarra, dug up an old and rusted kettle. Some settlers saw the pot as evidence that French or Spanish travellers had been at Port Phillip in a previous era but William Buckley recognized it as the pot he had lost all those years ago during his escape from Sullivan Bay.

Fawkner's house on the south bank of the Yarra, by Wilbraham Frederick Evelyn Liardet, (State Library Victoria).
Fawkner’s house on the south bank of the Yarra, by Wilbraham Frederick Evelyn Liardet, (State Library Victoria).

Fawkner secretly treasured this pot. During that first Christmas in 1835 at what was to become Melbourne, Fawkner saw it as link to that other settlement 32 years earlier. In his mind it somehow legitimized European presence on those Aboriginal lands, the legality of which remained (and remains) very unclear.

YALLAMBEE by George Alexander Gilbert, c1850, elevated view of river, vineyard on side of hill rising from the river and house at crest of hill.
“Within five years the Bakewell brothers would be farming at Yallambie…” Pastel by George Alexander Gilbert, (State Library Victoria, H29575)

Within five years the Bakewell brothers would be farming on the Plenty River at Yallambie. It was the start in Victoria in a wave of regular net migration into Australia that continues into the present day.

Tradition has it that Christmas marks the birth of Jesus, the Christian Messiah, the message of whose ministry 2000 years ago called on all people, even the poor and oppressed, to repent and love their enemies. It is a time when we wish peace and good will to all men (and women) and call for a better understanding for in a way, we are all travellers through life on this island earth.

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

O Tannenbaum

It would be a hard thing not to have noticed, but all across this town in recent times there has been a large broom at work, sweeping away houses, gardens and the detritus of old lives, leaving behind open blocks like missing teeth in a landscape ready for new building. Driven partly by Federal Government policy aimed at encouraging foreign investment in the local building industry, the broom has even been seen in the streets of Yallambie where occasional houses from the A V Jennings era estate have been cleared away to make room for new homes.

I’ve always wondered at the reasoning behind removing perfectly good houses to build more perfectly good houses. The ultimate expression of life in a disposable world I suppose but it is an idea that is not entirely without precedence in this area. When the original 1840s pre-fabricated buildings at Yallambie were replaced by the current Homestead at the start of the 1870s, the same thinking was behind it. Out with the old and in with the new.

Modern houses inevitably contain many advantages over their predecessors in insulation, sustainability and modern conveniences but perhaps the most surprising innovation I’ve heard about recently is the so called, dedicated “Christmas Tree Room”. By all reports, no home of the 21st century should be without one.

When I was a child, decorating a tree at the start of December with home-made paper chains was a family ritual. It is a ritual however considered by some house designers to be too taxing on the demands of modern day lifestyles. Better to leave the plastic tree decorated from the previous December in a purpose built room, the “Christmas Tree Room”, and wheel it out annually ready to go for Santa’s arrival over our roof tops.

A drop in at Christmas.
A drop in at Christmas.

At our home we don’t have a “Christmas Tree Room”. We don’t have a plastic tree for that matter. We do have an ancient, wonky table top sized, fibre tree that has seen more than seven decades of Christmas ritual of my wife’s family and which is left decorated with its fragile ornament in a cupboard from one year to the next. Is that the same thing?

The wonky Christmas tree.
The wonky Christmas tree.

The Scouts do a roaring trade in trees around Melbourne at this time of the year, but almost every year there seems to have been a self-sown pine or cypress growing somewhere in our garden in quite just the wrong place and demanding removal. The enormous Mexican Cypress (Cupressus lusitanica), mistakenly identified from a distance in one council survey as a Sequoiadendron Giganteum (it really is a big tree) and growing on the Yallambie Park escarpment, keeps seeding our nearby garden beds and most years there has been at least one young tree ready to come inside.

Mexican cypress used as a Christmas tree.
Mexican cypress used as a Christmas tree.

A couple of years ago I brought a particularly tall specimen in from the garden at Christmas and stood it in our bay window where it literally touched the ceiling. I needed a high step ladder to decorate it. Inside that bay window was hanging what was, at that time, a recently installed Italian glass light fitting. It had been reconstructed by us painstakingly from a collection of found pieces and represented a great deal of creative effort.

“Mind that light fitting while you’re up there,” said my wife anxiously watching me reach past the light to get at the top of the tree. “Don’t you think you should remove the glass first?”

They say that one definition of love is never being tempted to use those words, “I told you so,” but it must have been tempting for her all the same as she watched me the next minute step first one way, then the other doing a juggling act on the top most rung of the ladder. In bumping one of the glass feathers of the light and attempting to catch its fall, I managed to knock down two more and to watch all three at the end of my juggling act smash helplessly on the floor. It took me a long time to live down that particularly brilliant effort. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, don’t you know? But could it have happened with the convenience of a pre-decorated tree and an associated “Christmas Tree Room”?

The ritual of the Christmas tree developed as a Christian custom in early modern Germany with possible origins in much earlier pagan traditions. The idea spread beyond Germany in the 19th century, at first within the ruling classes, but with the practice ultimately spreading to summer time Australia from winter time Great Britain after the marriage of Queen Victoria to the German Prince Albert.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Royal Family at Christmas
Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Royal Family at Christmas

Christmas trees were traditionally decorated with edibles such as apples, nuts, or other foods and illuminated by candles. The inherent dangers of naked flames in early Christmas trees seem obvious now and if the practice had not been discontinued by the introduction of modern electric lighting, I suspect there might be many more cleared blocks today than has resulted even from that sweeping broom of foreign investment.

Santa at Yallambie.
Santa at Yallambie.

Today there are web sites devoted to the art of how to decorate the perfect Christmas tree. O Tannenbaum comes in a myriad variety of forms and in the endless pursuit of perfection that is life in the modern world, Christmas is in danger of sometimes becoming just another in that list of ceremonial opportunities designed to impress your friends. Rambling gardens, eclectic interiors and wonky Christmas trees are out of fashion. It is the same mind set that has seen that broom all too busy in the suburbs where the collision between established residential communities and the needs of cashed up property developers has seen the wholesale demolition of houses in some quarters, leaving those areas with a confusing patchwork of conflicting architectural styles. Georgian, French Provincial, Rhode Island and Antebellum; just about everything other than “Australian”. Our iconic Federation era style architecture has been just about the biggest casuality in the big clean up. The demolition of the century old Queen Anne style house “Idylwilde” in Toorak made headlines just over a month ago. In this young nation, our heritage is not always appreciated as economics and practicalities take precedence. One wonders at just what will replace it.

Idylwilde in Toorak before and during demolition.
Idylwilde in Toorak before and during demolition.

Meanwhile, on the search for our Christmas tree this year, it is apparent that most of the Mexican Cypress seedlings growing in our garden have been weeded and we don’t have a tree ready to come inside for the first time in a long time. Most of those left are ankle biters. All the same, we do have a scratchy looking Bunya Bunya pine which I’ve been growing in a pot. At least it’s an Australian native. It might not look like much right now but give it a few decorations and that little tree will find itself feeling like Christmas.


charlie brown christmas

Just desserts from the Yallambie kitchen

saint nic
Chimneys to choose from

There was a large patch of dead lawn at Yallambie, large enough for the visiting Indian cricketers to practice their googlies. In the summer heat the grass was reduced to a stubble, a brown and blasted verdure that struggled to hold the top soil together in the north wind. The global warming experts said we were experiencing an El Nino event but they weren’t fooling me. Wasn’t it obvious? Santa had parked his sleigh there on Christmas eve and the reindeers had been chewing on the grass.

There’s room on the slate roof of the Homestead for a hefty man with a red suit, black boots and beard to climb after parking his reindeers. And chimneys, a half dozen or so, for him to choose from.

santa on the roof
Room for a hefty man with a red suit, black boots and beard to climb after parking his reindeers.

The present Yallambie Homestead has undergone several building phases in the 140 or so years since it replaced the Bakewell Station. In its original form the kitchens were very likely separate from the main house and might have contained features that had survived from the earlier era. The extant dairy is certainly in the same location as the building marked “dairy” on the c1850 survey map although in photographs of the 1890s, 20 years after the homestead was built, the kitchen is hidden behind a wall and was probably by then incorporated into the main building.

Yallambie kitchen 1994
Yallambie kitchen 1994

Two decades ago, those kitchen chimneys were in a sorry state of repair after a more recent, ambitious but ultimately aborted building project. The two chimneys had been partly demolished and for a time, a massive steel beam between the two kitchen chimneys that supported the 1st floor wall was mostly held in place by a series of Acrow jacks, bending disturbingly under the weight. Santa probably hadn’t been stopping by for a while.

The AGA leaving for that great kitchen in the sky, November, 1994
The AGA leaving for that great kitchen in the sky, November, 1994

This period saw the removal of the old AGA stove from the kitchen. It had been the heart of the kitchen and was remembered by the Temby family, who lived at Yallambie for 20 years throughout the 1960s and 1970s, “as always warm in winter and the place to rest wet feet that had come in from the garden.” It was probably not however the stove described by Winty Calder in her description of the Wragge family kitchen:

“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.” (Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, Winty Calder, Jimaringle Press, 1996)

Yallambie kitchen, 2003
Yallambie kitchen, 2003

Today the kitchen chimneys have been repaired, some cracking on the exterior walls remaining. An old IXL cast iron stove, believed to have originated from the Melbourne Grammar School, has been re-introduced into the Yallambie kitchen to replace the old, fuel burning AGA and a modern gas and electric stove top and oven installed for everyday use.

Calder also provides a picture of the dining table at Yallambie. That table was constructed from an almost semi-fossilised wood that had been pulled from the Wakool River near the Wragges’ New South Wales sheep station.

“It has been recorded that for many years dinner was eaten from a great, dark polished table, which was so heavy that about ten men were needed to move it. This table had an interesting history. When posts or piles were being placed for the original bridge over the Wakool River for the Koondrook Road to Tulla, an obstruction was met with. This was found to be a great buried red gum log, which, after great trouble, was taken out. This log may have been there for centuries… And proved to be quite solid and sound… Thomas Wragge had it cut into thick planks and made into (the) great dining table. “This was probably the same table as the one described to Avril Payne by Nancy Bush as: ‘…a round table, of simple elegant proportions and sufficient to accommodate a large family.’” (Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, Winty Calder, Jimaringle Press, 1996)

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Royal Family at Christmas
Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Royal Family at Christmas

In the late 19th century, the Wragges always gathered at Yallambie at the start of November for the Melbourne Cup, the “first Tuesday in November”. They remained there throughout the summer to avoid the worst of the 50°C heat of their Riverina sheep stations. Picture that table groaning under the festive weight each Christmas. Steamed puddings, boiled hams and roast meats all served in the summer heat of Melbourne in December.

A Dickensian Christmas
A Dickensian Christmas with a pudding like a cannon ball

Of all the seasons, Christmas is the one that appeals most to our memory. We remember a time when the 365 days between one Christmas and the next really was a year and not reduced to the September or October that it is now. A time (in Australia) when the prospect of summer holidays seemed to open up before us and those long, hot summer nights appeared to drift on forever.

Here is an old fashioned Christmas pudding recipe that I have made many times in the past. It keeps very well and in fact improves with age. A pudding I once made from this recipe was left hanging for a long time from a beam in the kitchen. Like the pudding in Dicken’s Christmas Carol, it looked like a cannon ball. People kept hitting their head on it but when it was heated and served at Christmas it was delicious. Must have been the Brilliantine.

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

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 spoonfuls 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.

Isabella Mary Beeton (1836–1865) was the author of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. We have a much thumbed edition of Mrs Beeton’s book and it gets trotted out every Christmas time for various recipes, including the instructions for the so called “Bakewell pudding”.

Isabella Mary Beeton, author of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management

Like Thomas Wragge, the Bakewell brothers came to Port Phillip from Nottinghamshire but their family originated in the neighbouring county of Derbyshire and had connections to the American bird painter, John James Audubon. Bakewell in Derbyshire is a town of some 4000 people, its main claim to fame today seeming to be its pudding. A jam pastry with an egg and ground almond enriched filling the origins of the recipe are obscure but it appears to have been created in the town in the early 19th century before being collected by Mrs Beeton for her book. So the story goes, a visiting nobleman in Bakewell ordered strawberry tart at the coaching inn and the cook, instead of stirring the egg mixture into the pastry, mistakenly spread it on top of the jam. When cooked, the egg and almond paste set similar to an egg custard in texture, and the result was successful enough for it to become a popular dish at the inn. Here is Mrs Beeton’s recipe:

¼lb of puff-paste
5 eggs 6 oz of sugar
¼lb of butter
1 oz of almonds (ground)

Cover a dish with thin paste, and put over this a layer of any kind of jam, 1/2 inch thick; put the yolks of 5 eggs into a basin with the white of 1, and beat these well; add the sifted sugar, the butter, which should be melted, and the almonds, which should be well pounded; beat all together until well mixed, then pour it into the dish over the jam, and bake for an hour in a moderate oven. Time.—1 hour. Average cost, 1s. 6d. Sufficient for 4 or 6 persons. Seasonable at any time.

Bakewell's medieval bridge in winter time
Bakewell’s medieval bridge in winter time

In the 1890s, the Wragges were photographed with musical instruments on the steps of their homestead alongside a pony chaise. The boys’ musical appreciation is perhaps doubtful however, given this story from Frank Wright and recorded by Calder.

“I cannot resist a story of what happened somewhere about the 1890s when the Wragge family en masse went to the opera. Those were the days of walking sticks for the well dressed man and my uncles even took theirs to the opera. The family all sat in one long row. During the show one of my uncles, who was seated behind a fashionably clad and escorted female, went to sleep. Unfortunately he dozed off leaning forward on his stick. His brother, two seats away, leaned past his sister, and with his crooked handle stick, tweaked the stick from underneath his brother. Naturally, his brother fell forward onto the gorgeous lady in front, who let out a terrific squawk. Her escort thought it was a deliberate assault – he arose and smote the awakening uncle who gathered his shattered senses together and promptly fought back. Screams arose in the darkened theatre, and actors stopped, the lights came on and the two antagonists waded into each other. Attendants rushed up and the two men were forcibly removed. The uncle who caused the trouble, I’m told, just sat quietly in his seat, gravely delighted with the result.”

Carriage with Syd Wragge and his mother, Sarah Ann at the front door of Yallambie looking south.
Musical instruments and pony chaise at Yallambie

Music is played at Yallambie today, but without such drama. Last year a strange musical instrument was turned up at a country fair in Victoria. Called a psaltery it is an Early Music instrument somewhat related to a zither. It looks like a simple triangular box with strings keyed down the longitudinal sides and played with a bow. A bit of detective work on the internet soon found that the psaltery came from the Wragge and Bakewells’ home county of Nottingham. It had formerly belonged to the late Ann Cockburn, “a major figure in the Nottingham Traditional Music Club during its heyday in the 1970s.” Anne had the psaltery made for her especially by a local Nottingham craftsman, to a design that she had discovered in a book. A polymath with a broad interest in the arts, Anne was also remembered by her friends as an excellent cook. Although nobody could suggest how the instrument had made its way to Australia after her death, here is Anne’s recipe for Nottingham Gingerbread which was sent to us by her friends during the course of that exchange.

8oz (225g) Plain Flour
3-4 teaspoon ground ginger
4oz (110g) margarine or butter
4oz brown sugar (110g) (soft or Demerara)
8oz (225g) golden syrup (or half & half syrup and black treacle)
¼ pint (140ml) milk
1 egg, well beaten
1 level teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
2oz (60g) preserved, chopped ginger and chopped dates

Line a 7 inch cake tin with greaseproof paper. Heat oven to Gas mark 2 or 300°F (150°C) Sift together flour and ground ginger. Melt margarine, milk, sugar and treacle over a low heat. Add bi-carb and quickly mix with beaten egg into the dry ingredients. Fold in the 2oz of preserved, chopped ginger and chopped dates. Pour mixture into tin and bake for about 1¼ hours. When ready it should be springy and pull away from the tin.

Rosemary Hodgson and musicians of "La Compania", Yallambie, 1997
Rosemary Hodgson and musicians of “La Compania”, Yallambie, 1997

In “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, Calder describes a window that was once situated above the stairs at the Homestead:

“A large, arched window of figured glass at the top of the stairs threw light into the upstairs hallway which gave access to the bedrooms and bathroom.”

That window did not survive the 1923 alterations but in homage to it and the stained glass sanctuary window at St John’s Church of England, described in the previous post, here’s a recipe for a Stained Glass Cake, a Christmas favourite of my mother in law. Mostly fruit and nuts it gets its name from a stained glass appearance when cut into very thin slices.

2 cups plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt 500g
(1lb) glacé pineapple, coarsely diced
500g (1lb) of mixed glacé pears, glacé apricots, and glacé peaches, coarsely diced
500g (1lb) mixed dried fruit
250g (8oz) glacé cherries, red and green, halved
4 eggs
1 cup of sugar
1kg (2lb) of mixed shelled pecans, walnuts, Brazil nuts and blanched almonds
½ cup Grand Marnier, Cointreau or Curacao

Grease two 23x13x8cm (9x5x3in) loaf pans or 3-4 smaller pans and line with greased brown paper. Sift flour, baking powder and salt into a large bowl. Add fruits and mix well with hands to coat each piece of fruit with flour. Beat eggs until frothy and gradually beat in sugar. Add to fruit and mix well. With hands, mix in nuts. Turn mixture into pans and press down firmly with fingers. Bake in a very slow oven 140°C (275°F) for about 1½ hours. Leave cakes in pans and, while still hot, pur liqueur over, a little at a time. Leave until quite cold, then remove from tins and take off the paper. Wrap well and store in a refrigerator. Serve straight from refrigerator, cutting into very thin slices of “stained glass”.

And finally, if baking’s not your thing at Christmas, simply leave a raw carrot and a glass of milk (or beer) beside your kitchen chimney on Christmas Eve. I guarantee you will find them gone by the morning.

Merry Christmas and peace to all!

A Christmas kitchen overflowing with good things
Who raided the kitchen overnight?