Category Archives: Cultural

Withers’ Way

They called him “The Orderly Colonel”.

It was a name given to him affectionately by his fellow artists as a passing nod to his organized ways. They started out as a loose association in the mid ’80s in what was then semi-rural Box Hill, experimenting with plein air painting, but as suburbia overtook the artists’ camps along the Gardiners Creek they relocated to a new camp on “Mount Eagle”, at an old cottage at what is now Outlook Drive in Eaglemont near Heidelberg, cementing in our consciousness by doing so an art movement that would forever be remembered as the “Heidelberg School”, Australia’s first nationally focused art movement.

Heidelberg Historical Society marker in Outlook Drive, Eaglemont.
Charterisville in Ivanhoe, built by David Charteris McArthur, c1845. (Heidelberg Historical Society picture)

Typically it was Walter (Walt) Withers, The Colonel, who found them another home when the group moved from the Eaglemont cottage. In September, 1890 Withers arranged a lease on the late David Charteris MacArthur’s “Charterisville”, just to the south of Mount Eagle, and here he painted and taught while subletting the lodges to a procession of his fellow artists. The contemporary critic Sidney Dickinson named him, along with Arthur Streeton, as a leader of the “Heidelberg School”, which in Withers’ case was almost certainly an exaggeration, but there is no doubting his significant role within the group.

Portrait of the Heidelberg School artist, Walter Withers, 1854 – 1914. Source: Wikipedia

In the critical period between 1889-90, at a time when Frederick McCubbin and several others were still painting in a conventional style, it has been noted that Withers “was experimenting with a brave and confident impressionistic style” and that “he was probably the first artist to paint major works using techniques of impasto”, (holmes à court Gallery).

When the Heidelberg School artists dispersed to other places after those “Glorious Summers” of the late 80s and early 90s, it was the English born Withers who chose to stay on in the Heidelberg district and paint impressions of the Australian bush while the Australian born Streeton left to paint in foreign fields and the real leader of the Heidelberg School, Tom Roberts was lost to portraiture. Withers alone remained, the sight of his bicycle with canvas and painting box strapped on board becoming a regular sight throughout the Heidelberg district.

Walter Withers’ studio at Cape Street, Heidelberg, c1894.

In 1894, with his wife Fanny and the beginnings of their family of six children, Walt leased another house in Cape St, Heidelberg where he taught painting while maintaining a city studio.

Four years later the Withers family moved again to a new home, “Withers Court” on the corner of Darebin and Hawdon Streets, Heidelberg and it was probably there or at Cape Street that the grown up daughters of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge took painting lessons from him, learning techniques they would bring to their home to paint selected interior joinery at the homestead.

Wragge painted four panel door at Yallambie.

Possibly it was a social as well as an artistic outlet for the Wragge girls. Their mother, Sarah Anne Wragge wrote cryptically and critically in 1898 in a letter that she believed her daughters weren’t learning much about painting under the artist’s supervision.

“So Jessie has finished her paintings at last, and I quite think with you that there must be more talk than work at that studio.” (Sarah Anne Wragge – her underline – quoted by Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales)

The stableyard at Yallambie, c1900 by Sarah Annie Wragge showing the Bakewell era stables on the left and stableyard wall, both now demolished. Laundry building at right. I’m thinking maybe Annie couldn’t paint horses? (Source: Bill Bush collection)
Sarah Annie Wragge hand decorating a door at Yallambie Homestead, c1890. Source: Bill Bush collection

The weather boarded Withers Court house still stands next to the rail tunnel in Heidelberg near to where the current duplication of the rail line between Heidelberg and Rosanna is right now, in a way that is pertinent to this story, reshaping the surrounding landscape. It was the building of the original cutting and rail tunnel under Darebin Street that determined Walt to move his family from Heidelberg in 1903 to a new location in Eltham. A large rock, blasted from the Heidelberg cutting, had crashed through the roof of his studio and damaged the canvas he had been working on, making Walt’s mind up in the process that it was high time to move on.

Southernwood, Walt Withers’ former home on Bolton St, Eltham and the site of a major road reconstruction, November, 2017.
Walt Withers old studio at Southernwood as it appeared during a sale of the home in 2011. Source: Domain
The rail tunnel built under Darebin St, Heidelberg in 1901 and currently in the process of being rebuilt with duplicated line, November, 2017.

The Withers family relocated to “Southernwood”, a small farm set on 2 ½ acres on Bolton St, Eltham opposite the Montmorency Estate where he built a large adjoining studio. Here he spent the last 10 years of his life, famously painting many scenes in and around Eltham while still continuing to roam further afield on his bicycle as the painting mood took him.

Tranquil Winter, Walt Withers, 1895. The house on the ridge is still standing today in Walker Court, Viewbank. This masterpiece was singled out for praise at the time by the eminent British critic, R.A. M. Stevenson, but today is not on general display. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

He was living there, dividing his time by spending weekdays at his city studio and his weekends with his family at Southernwood when one day in 1907 he headed off from Eltham on a painting expedition on the road to Heidelberg. The result of that day, a small, loosely painted plein air oil sketch, which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria alongside some other more well-known and polished Withers’ masterpieces, carries the somewhat misleading title, “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg”. The title has helped to obscure the identity of this sketch for a hundred years as the result of a close inspection of the painting, which is freely available to view online the NGV web site, has only now revealed some rather familiar details.

Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg (sic), 1907, Walt Withers. Source: National Gallery of Victoria
https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/3251/

In 1907 “Heidelberg” would have been a somewhat generic term. The old blue stone, Lower Plenty Road Bridge marked the official separation of Lower Plenty and Main Roads but it was on the Lower Plenty or Main Rd side that Walt appears to have set up his easel that day to paint the sort of rural Australian scene so beloved by him.

Looking north east along Main Rd from the corner of the Plenty Bridge Hotel, from a screen still of original footage of the opening of the Heidelberg Golf Club. The trees on the side of the road pictured here are a feature of Withers “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg” (sic).

The apparently anonymous building in the painting on the left side of the road is on closer study quite obviously a loose interpretation of nothing other than the old Plenty Bridge Hotel, the story of which has been recounted on several occasions within the pages of this blog.

A much later picture of the Golf Club Hotel, AKA, the Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, c1950 but clearly showing the service wing set a right angles to the main buillding.

From the service wing with chimney, set at right angles to the main building, the post and rail fence on the opposite side of the road and the poplars planted at the far end of the building – the details are all there.

John Irwin balancing on Mick Noonan’s motor bike, outside the Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1950. This is perhaps the only known photograph that offers a glimpse of the eastern approach to the old Lower Plenty Road Bridge past the PBH, the direction chosen by Withers in “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg” (sic). Source: the John Irwin family collection

It was a light bulb moment when I was looking at this painting on the NGV web site and realised what I was really looking at. Withers has painted the land fall past the front of the PBH towards the valley of the Lower Plenty River, showing the road stretching towards the approaches of the bridge, hidden by the bend, just as it is today.

It got me thinking and to doing a little reading. Two versions of a biography of Walt Withers written by his widow Fanny have been reproduced in Andrew Mackenzie’s 1987 book, “Walter Withers – The Forgotten Manuscripts”. The longer of these two biographies, somewhat misleadingly titled, “A Short Biography of Walt Withers”, was published by Withers’ fellow Heidelberg School artist Alexander McCubbin in about 1920. Together, the two biographies contain Fanny’s written descriptions of many of her husband’s artworks and reading through them they make for some rather interesting details in the telling.

The Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1928. Panorama made from screen stills of original footage of the opening of the Heidelberg Golf Club. Although this picture is looking in the opposite direction to Withers “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg” (sic) many of the details painted by the artist are discernable here.

In 1907 Withers had painted a major canvas which Fanny called “Springtime on the Lower Plenty”, or “The Valley of the Lower Plenty, Victoria”, the obverse of which contained a replica of another Withers work. The story of the main painting as explained in Fanny’s writing is confusing because she freely interchanges the titles of her husband’s artworks in the context of the two biographies, but from the description “Springtime” was obviously an enlarged, studio version of the NGV oil sketch. I use the third person singular indicative as sadly the painting was destroyed in a devastating bush fire at Eltham on Black Friday, 13 January 1939.

Fortunately another painting of the same subject but painted in the tones of Autumn, “but from another point of view” was started at about the same time as “Springtime” and was worked on by Withers on and off up until the day he died. This painting has been called both “The Return from the Harvest” and “The Valley of the Lower Plenty” which makes for more confusion but Fanny wrote that it was a favourite of the artist and the largest canvas her husband ever worked upon.

“Again a road subject, with three figures, swags on their backs, two together and one following behind, walking with swinging steps towards the small hotel, nestling amongst the trees, at the side of the road. The time is Autumn, and the colouring rich and full toned. This painting is the most romantic of the painter’s work. It was much beloved by him, and it was the last canvas he painted on, the sky being completed by him the day before he was seized by his last attack of illness.” (Fanny Withers writing in “The Life and Work of Walter Withers, Landscape Painter.)

The painting was purchased and gifted to the Geelong Art Gallery which inexplicably today does not keep it on current display. It is some years since I saw the painting in the Geelong gallery myself and my memory of it is vague but clearly from the above description the painting is another image produced from painting expeditions to the countryside around the Plenty Bridge Hotel.

Thumbnail of “The Valley of the Lower Plenty”, Walt Withers. Source: Geelong Gallery
Looking towards Lower Plenty in the 1920s from a viewpoint similar to “The Valley of the Lower Plenty” but much closer to the bridge.

Recent attempts to gain a viewing of the original of this artwork at Geelong have been unsuccessful. The very poor resolution reproduction from the Gallery shown here does not allow for an observation of “the small hotel, nestling amongst the trees” described by Fanny but it does give a general feeling of the landscape on the western approach to the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge. In this painting the trees on the left hand side of the picture mark the southern boundary of Thomas Wragge’s Yallambie and one is left wondering whether the three swagmen returning “from the harvest” and painted by Withers might have been itinerant field workers going for a drink at the Plenty Bridge Hotel after a long day working in the Yallambie fields.

The Plenty Bridge Hotel and the western abutments of the Lower Plenty Road Bridge, c1927. Panorama made from screen stills of original footage of the opening of the Heidelberg Golf Club.
Drawing of Rose Chapel, (St Katherine’s) at St Helena by Victor Cobb, 1935. Withers was buried here in 1914. The building was burned almost to the ground in a bush fire in 1957 but rebuilt. It is interesting to note that the reverse side of this original drawing bears the artist’s inscription describing it as a drawing of “Rose Chapel, St Helena, Eltham”, evidence of how place names like Heidelberg and Eltham were generic district terms used loosely by artists. Private collection

Maybe Walt even dropped by the Homestead that day to pay a visit to his former painting students, heading off with Sarah Annie’s husband, Walter Murdoch for a drink, as was Murdoch’s want, at the Plenty Bridge soon afterwards. It’s a thought.

Plagued by ill health later in life, Walt Withers died at Eltham of cerebral thrombosis on 13th October, 1914 aged just 59 years.

His daughter remembered him as being six feet tall in his socks and solidly built, with brown hair slightly curling at the sides, big, soft, hazel eyes and a large, bushy moustache. He is buried in the church side graveyard at the Rose Chapel (St Katherine’s), St Helena.

Writing in the forward of Andrew Mackenzie’s book, Kathleen Mangan, the daughter of Charles McCubbin wrote of the Heidelberg School artists that:

“…it was a time of freedom of spirit, gaiety, and great artistic and intellectual advancement, a glorious burst of artistic achievement which erupted into flame at the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties, a flame that was all too quickly extinguished by the Outbreak of World War One.”

The Great War was only two months old when Withers died. The artist mantra in the district passed to others, the colonies at Montsavat in Eltham and the Heide Circle at Bulleen becoming just two expressions. A story from the Heidelberg Artists Society of an incident involving artists during the Second War has a certain relevance to the Yallambie story. It is recorded that one day around 1940, two painters had set up their easels in the vicinity of Banyule Rd when a farmer armed with a shotgun and accompanied by a couple of enormous dogs arrived on the scene demanding to know their business. The artists were dressed for painting in Army disposals – slouch hats and blue boiler suits – while from a distance their easels might have been mistaken for surveyors’ tripods.

Army cadets at Camp Q, Watsonia, (Yallambie), 1944. Source:  Australian War Memorial

At that time the Army had just resumed a part of the old Yallambie Estate nearby to create Camp Q (Watsonia), now known as the Simpson Barracks, and the unnamed farmer feared that a survey heralding a forced annexation of his own land was about to take place. Summing up the relative sizes of the farmer’s firearm and the jaws of his hungry hounds, the artists wisely packed away their easels for another day, the decision possibly a loss to art but a gain for rural diplomacy in the district.

YALLAMBEE by George Alexander Gilbert. Source: State Library of Victoria
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VI by E L Bateman 1853-1856. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

The association of the work of Walt Withers with the story of the Yallambie area joins the tradition of the earlier pictures of A E Gilbert and E L Bateman and the writings of Richard and William Howitt and Louisa Anne Meredith. For all that, the work of Walt Withers has fallen somewhat out of favour in recent years. Not one of the paintings he produced in and around the Heidelberg and Eltham districts and that are now in public ownership are currently on display at the galleries. “The Return from the Harvest”, AKA “The Valley of the Lower Plenty”, described by Fanny as “the most romantic of the painter’s work… much beloved by him” and likewise the NGV’s oil sketch “Springtime” must remain therefore, at least for present time, unobserved.

Site of former Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, November, 2014

Heightening this unfortunate circumstance is the reality of the danger posed to the artists’ footsteps by the plans of the North East Link Authority, a subject and side subject of this blog in recent times. The location of the two Walt Withers paintings discussed above stands under direct threat of the potential building of a Corridor B through Yallambie and Lower Plenty. The tranquillity of Walt Withers churchyard grave at St Helena would be broken by the building of a Corridor C. And the implications of Corridor A on the legacy of the Heidelberg School in Banyule goes without saying.

Does anybody care?

His paintings largely forgotten, his Plenty Valley and Heidelberg subjects at risk of being despoiled by the road builders – poor Walt, “The Orderly Colonel” must be turning over in his St Helena grave.

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Pirates of the North East Link

Legend has it that a dozen years or so before the founding of Melbourne, a South American pirate by the name of Benito Bonito took brief refuge at Port Phillip while on the run from the Royal Navy with the stolen “Treasures of Lima” in his hold. There in a cave at Pt Nepean it is said the pirate hid a fabulous hoard, sealing the entrance afterwards with an explosion of gunpowder. As you might expect from such a story, Bonito reportedly met his end soon after at the end of a rope hanging from an English yard arm but be that as it may, one thing is certain, the so called “Lost Lima Treasure” was never seen again.

Many doubted the origins of the tale and indeed whether Bonito had ever been anywhere near Port Phillip but the story persisted, gaining some currency 20 years later when a man turned up in the new settlement at Melbourne claiming to have been a cabin boy on Bonito’s pirate ship. Sporting a map tattooed onto his arm as a supposed proof of the existence of the pirate treasure, the old sailor found willing ears and wishful thinkers in the infant township. The map itself was no doubt a fake, used to con free drinks from gullible patrons in Melbourne’s early shanties but it did fuel an ongoing hope in the improbable. Numerous gopher holes soon appeared in the sand dunes at Pt Nepean, the work of would be treasure hunters or what is more likely literally true, eternal optimists.

It was the visiting American writer Mark Twain who once said that the history of Australia “does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies,” and further west along the Victorian coast another story, the legend of the “Mahogany Ship” sits somewhat nicely into this same category. It too involves a story of early map making and forgotten voyages into Australian seas, but in the case of the Mahogany Ship, the origins of the story are placed even earlier.

The legend of the Mahogany Ship revolves around the reported siting of an ancient shipwreck on the beach at Warrnambool in the 1840s. Contemporary eyewitness accounts described it as being of “antique design” of “hard dark timber – like mahogany” and sitting high in the sand dunes at a considerable distance from the high water mark. By the later years of the 19th century the shifting dunes had covered the wreck and its remembered location had been forgotten but by one count, 27 different eyewitness reports had been recorded and it was later speculated from these descriptions that the wreck had been a 16th century Portuguese caravel, lost on the south coast of Victoria during a voyage of discovery by Cristóvão de Mendonça in 1522. The theory goes that knowledge of the voyage and the maps made during it had been suppressed due to the Portuguese operating in what had then been deemed to be Spanish waters under the Treaty of Tordesillas, and that any other evidence was subsequently lost in the Great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. To further the story, an ambiguous French copy of a Portuguese map purporting to show a Great South Land, “Jave la Grande” survived at Dieppe and this has been used by advocates of the Mahogany Ship story as confirmation of its truth ever since.

World map by Nicolas Desliens, 1566.

Mendonca aside, there is no doubting the importance of having a good map to find your place in the world and when Captain Cook arrived on the east coast of Australia in 1770 without one, the uncharted Great Barrier Reef very nearly caused his ruin off the coast of north east Queensland. With HM Bark Endeavour holed and fast taking on water, disaster loomed as Cook showed an almost uncanny presentiment to find the mouth of the Endeavour River, the only place for miles around where he could possibly beach his ship for repair. Some adherents to the Mahogany Ship story have suggested that Cook’s ability to navigate through treacherous reefs to safety owed more to his knowledge of ancient Portuguese maps than his own 18th century sailing ability, a suggestion that almost certainly does Great Britain’s greatest navigator a disservice, but it makes for an interesting conspiracy theory all the same.

Bakewell era survey map of Yallambee.

Any study of the past inevitably involves map making and Yallambie is no exception. The Bakewells had a survey of their farm at Yallambee drawn up in the early 1850s, probably at a time when they were contemplating a return to England, and this map has appeared several times within these pages. It is a useful primary source and by comparing the information contained in it to the modern setting it is possible to draw some interesting conclusions about the layout of the Bakewell farm and the context of E L Bateman’s drawings within it and this, for the importance of the record, is worth affirming.

Bakewell plan imposed over the contemporary setting.
The Station Plenty, view I by Edward E L Bateman showing from left to right stables, kitchen, dairy and residences. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria)

As has been stated in a previous post, it was the belief of the Wragge descendant, Nancy Bush that the original Bakewell cottage was located where the tennis court was later built, the foundations of the house presumably ending up as the starting point of her family’s grass court surface.

SLV Daguerreotype of Yallambee showing trellis covered walkway. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

A second residential building stretched in a northerly direction up the slope and was connected to the cottage by a trellis covered walkway with a third building, marked as a kitchen wing on the survey map, placed at right angles at the far end. The location of these additional buildings is now largely buried under the floors of the Wragge era Yallambie Homestead.

The Station Plenty, view VI by E L Bateman showing relation of cottage and secondary buildings to the large dairy structure. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria)

A fence across the kitchen yard enclosed the southern end of a large building marked “dairy” on the Bakewell plan and this building was located where the smaller, present day Yallambie dairy stands to this day.

The Station Plenty, view III by E L Bateman showing in detail a curious access door below the floor of the dairy at the rear of the cottage. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria)

Another Nancy Bush belief held that the original cellar was located under the dairy and in Bateman’s Plenty Station View III which shows the southern end of this building behind the cottage, there would appear to be some sort of underground access into the side of the far building to confirm this.

Yallambie Homestead and Bakewell era stables, corner of Tarcoola Drive and Lambruk Court, c1970

North of the structure marked “hothouse” on the plan was a stable yard with a large stable block located on the eastern boundary and this building was still standing into the early 1980s when a modern mud brick home was built to replace it. Beyond the stables was a tool house and rick yard with a shrubbery and William Greig’s old hut and garden completing the picture within the immediate surrounds of the house.

The Station Plenty, view XII by E L Bateman showing what was probably William Greig’s old hut. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria)
Corridor B Lower Plenty Rd interchange. Map (detail) from North East Link Authority web site.

The North East Link Authority when it made its bombshell announcement at the start of August about smashing a Freeway through Yallambie, released their own map of their plans but anyone who has tried looking at this map has found that it remains frustratingly unclear about the real intentions of their strategic planners. Their web site is little more than a sales pitch which studiously avoids any attempt at revealing too many facts while the so called pop up community consultation meetings that have been staged at various locations across the community have been even less use, an equal part spin and sometimes downright disinformation. At one of these recent meetings it was stated that a diamond shaped corridor B interchange at Lower Plenty Rd would go under the river and not over it and that it would be located on the eastern side of Main Rd. Oh, but tellingly that, “nothing has been decided”.

The lads at North East Link seem to have taken a leaf out of Nietzche’s book who famously said, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” The unstated fact is that trucks using the anticipated interchange would certainly require a grade of no more than 4%, so it is an impossibility to take the road in a tunnel under the Plenty River while still arriving at a meaningful level to connect access roads to Main and Lower Plenty Roads. Taking a road under the Plenty River flood plain would also involve tunnelling through a geologically unstable water table requiring constant pumping throughout the life of the road. My interpretation of the proposal is that if built, (perish the thought) the intention of North East Link is to exit the tunnel near the corner of Binowee Avenue and Moola Close, Yallambie and cross the Yallambie Flats on an elevated flyover and that saying otherwise is just a further attempt to draw a smoke screen over the whole exercise. Should corridor B ever be given the nod, when it comes to the crunch the engineers would wade in, the spin doctors would stand aside and the practicalities and liabilities of their plan would finally be admitted.

Construction of elevated rail near Murrumbeena station. Picture: Nicole Garmston, Herald Sun 30 August, 2017

As the Herald Sun reported in a front page story on Wednesday, the full effect of a similar solution to another transport problem is only now beginning to be understood as the reality takes shape in Melbourne’s southeast.

Digitally altered image showing conjectural North East Link road crossing river flats at Yallambie.

Just picture for a moment a road of at least six, but more likely eight lanes stretching across the Plenty River flood plain, but if you can’t, here’s a digitally altered image of a picture I took of the landscape three years ago to give you an idea.

Proposed corridor B route through Yallambie and North East Link road interchange at Lower Plenty.

And just for good measure, the survey map used above but this time with corridor B splashed onto it in all its glory. Absurd as it might look, I think it is likely to be one of the more truthful representations of this unlikely proposal up to date. It’s a large file so click on it for the detail. You might even see your own roof somewhere in there.

It is part of an obvious attempt not to reveal too many facts about any of the proposed routes of North East Link before a final announcement is made later in the year. The late inclusion of corridor B within the proposal I think has a lot to do with the perceptions of Yallambie’s place in the world, or at least perceptions of the suburb in the eye of the authorities.

Melbourne’s road network with proposed North East Links from RA, September, 2017.

In the September edition of “RA”, the magazine of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria, there is a four page article detailing the North East Link proposal complete with a generalised map by way of illustration. Interestingly the article states that “broadly, NELA has been looking at three possible routes for the proposed freeway,” going on to explain what in effect constitute the options for corridors A, C and D. The route for corridor B through Yallambie doesn’t rate a mention. The implication is that in real terms, corridor B serves the same business model as corridor C but that the Yallambie/Lower Plenty route has been belatedly included as something slightly easier to digest than the unpalatable Eltham option. I expect most people who heard about Yallambie as an alternative to the Eltham route last month had to then go and look up Yallambie on a map because in cartographical terms, when it comes to your place in the world, it’s all about where you draw the line.

Melbourne’s road network with missing links from Vicroads publication “Linking Melbourne”, February, 1994.

If you drive along the top end of Bell Street in West Heidelberg today, an enormous apartment block is right now fast reshaping the landscape, sitting there like a latter day QE2 beached on top of the ridge. This apartment block carries the moniker “The Ivanhoe” in large, friendly letters emblazoned across its Upper Heidelberg Rd frontage and the building has been described by the property developer as being located in the suburb of Ivanhoe. The project website, obviously aimed at an overseas market, describes the suburb of Ivanhoe as “a sanctuary of leafy green streets, parklands and river walks with a strong sense of community and belonging.” The thing is, this description belies its location on the west corner of busy Bell Street and Upper Heidelberg Road. The location of “The Ivanhoe” is actually West Heidelberg, or at best Heidelberg Heights, to use the jargon of real estate agents. The border of the suburb of Ivanhoe ends at Banksia Street but it seems nobody stumping up the money to live in one of these apartments wants to wake up one day and find them self suddenly living in unfavoured West Heidelberg. The solution, just move a line on the map. Do you think anyone will notice?

The ‘Ivanhoe’ Apartments taking shape at the top of Bell Street, West Heidelberg, September, 2017.

North East Link obviously think nobody will notice when it comes down to the nitty gritty of moving lines around a map of their proposed corridors. It’s all about what you reckon you can get away with. The State Government has vowed that one of these suggested routes will have traffic thundering through it in the early 2020s but like Benito Boninto rampaging up and down the Peruvian coast, the Pirates of the North East Link aim to wreak havoc and destruction on impacted communities without so much as a by your leave. The explosion of gunpowder used in a cave at Pt Nepean will be nothing compared to what they have in mind. To them, communities and the people living in them are simply arbitrary boundaries – mere lines to shove around on a map wherever they want – an inconvenience to their plans best not discussed within delicate hearing.

The story of the 16th century Mahogany Ship and the presence of Captain Cook on the east coast of Australia in 1770 long ago entered the blurred line between historical fact and legendary fiction but in the years to come, how will we look back on the Pirates of the North East Link and the last months of 2017? Will the anger and bitterness that these road proposals raised be remembered or will their legacy live on in history as a postscript to the main story, the forgotten doodles in a road planner’s imagination?

Yallambie matters too

“But the plans were on display…”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a flashlight.”
“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.”
Douglas Adams

Thus Arthur Dent learned at the start of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy of the plans to destroy his home for a new road.

“It’s a bypass. You’ve got to build bypasses.”

This week the State Government through the guise of its North East Link Authority dropped a bombshell. It came right out of left field and landed in the solar plexus of the Yallambie community, catching all and sundry totally by surprise. As I listened to the news of this exploding shell broadcast on early Monday morning radio, I couldn’t help but think I had been weirdly trapped inside a scene from the chapters of a Douglas Adams’ science fiction farce, but this was no laughing matter. Secret proposals have been going on behind closed doors at North East Link and while nobody has been looking, somebody just moved the goal posts.

The North East Link Authority, charged with finding a route for the missing piece in Melbourne’s road system, had just announced a choice of four alternative routes to fill the void in that network. Wikipedia has long listed three of them, an eastern option from the Western Ring Rd to East Link via Kangaroo Ground and Chirnside Park, (corridor D); a central option from the Ring Rd to Eastlink via Eltham and Warrandyte, (corridor C) and a western option from the Ring Rd to the Eastern Freeway at Bulleen via Watsonia and Viewbank, (corridor A). But a fourth, previously un-thought of route has unexpectedly been thrown into the mix by the lads at North East Link. Their so called corridor B. The B is for bomb.

Yallambie.

Kaboom.

In essence corridor B is an afterthought. Maybe even a Furphy. A bad and cynical attempt to wrong foot opposition to an already unpopular road by dividing discussion. If built this unexpected option would be a disaster for Watsonia and Yallambie and would completely and utterly destroy the Lower Plenty township to boot.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman. Source: State Library of Victoria
An imagined North East Link connection at Yallambie seen from across the River at Lower Plenty. The reality would certainly be far worse.

The unique landscape at Yallambie and Lower Plenty has remained largely unchanged since the 1840s and was recognized and classified nearly two decades ago by the National Trust. Who could possibly think the idea of exiting a tunnel over this landscape and filling it with a spaghetti of connecting roads could be a good idea in this day and age? The corridor B proposal aims to smash a gaping hole into all of it (literally) by taking a route off the Greensborough Highway through Watsonia and the northern borders of Yallambie, almost certainly compulsorily acquiring and demolishing the homes of countless families in the process, before plunging underground along the existing electrical easement and spewing out of the ridge directly in front of the Yallambie Homestead. If that old and fragile building does not fall down from the vibrations during the underground blasting process of building the tunnels, then the combined effects of over a hundred thousand vehicles a day travelling on it will.

Yallambie Homestead photographed in 1995.
Yallambie Tennis Club, June, 2015.

There are practical considerations for the builders’ of these roads not tunneling under rivers so the proposed corridor B route would presumably follow an elevated flyway across the Yallambie Flats, obliterating the existing soccer ground if not the tennis club in the process before crossing the Plenty River opposite the Lower Plenty Hotel and ripping the heart out of the Lower Plenty township itself.

Soccer ground, Yallambie Park, homestead on the hill, November 2014
Lower Plenty Hotel terrace. (Source: David Sarkies, True Local).

You can forget ever having another drink at the Lower Plenty Hotel while marveling at its unique bush land setting.

Lower Plenty, June, 2017.

You can kiss goodbye the Heidelberg Golf Course and the adjacent green wedge of the historic Edward Willis landscape. This proposal is an utter disgrace and would be a catastrophe for this area.

And just for good measure, for those who worry about such things, you can forget about selling your real estate right now. Your house has just become unsellable overnight by the mere mention of this road. So much for Yallambie as the 6th most “in demand suburb” in Australia.

Looking towards Yallambie from Lower Plenty during the farming era

What could they have been thinking? Who are the Vogons who dream up these ideas without a by your leave and then try to back pedal them as a realistic alternative to an existing transport problem?

But no, that’s not the end of it. The road they call corridor B would then travel through the back of Lower Plenty for an unspecified length before heading back underground again only to emerge and bash a path through the edge of Warrandyte and Donvale at Reynolds Road in order to meet up with Eastlink. How many communities do these planners plan to destroy along their merry way?

I was a child growing up in Rosanna when the battle lines were first drawn up in the 1970s to stop construction of what was then known as the F18 Freeway. That road aimed to carve a surface route through the back streets of the former City of Heidelberg. I might have been a kid but I remember the adults around me mobilising public opinion, attending protest rallies and vowing to lie down in front of the bulldozers if it came to the point. The years have moved on and those remembered adults of my youth are now all dead but still the fight marches on and into another generation.

I’ve been writing regularly in these pages for three years about the merits of this very special corner of the world. My writing has been an attempt to draw attention to Yallambie, its natural beauty, its historic stories and the fantastic lifestyle to be enjoyed while living on the lower reaches of the nearby precious Plenty River. I’ve mentioned in these pages the possibility of a North East Link more than once, the last occasion in my May post of this year. In my wildest dreams though I never imagined for one moment that this hot potato would fall out of the fire so close to home and that the decision makers would pull this one on us like a Yallambie rabbit out of a hat. It might be sleight of hand but they’re not fooling anyone.

National Trust map showing the extent of their 1998 classification at Yallambie. The proposed North East Link freeway would emerge from a tunnel under the high voltage transmission line easement on the western boundary of the classification and cross National Trust classified land to Lower Plenty on the eastern bank of the Plenty.

Let’s call a spade a spade and call this proposal for what it is. An absolute turkey that has only been suggested now to deflect attention because of the real fight the government knows it will have on its hands with the other routes. The other corridors have been on the cards for many, many years and local groups opposed to them are well organised and ready for the fight. Before last week this had never even been suggested as an option for Yallambie and the local communities in Yallambie, Lower Plenty and elsewhere have been caught completely unprepared. It is insulting that residents have had to find out about this proposal from the newspapers and radio news. Yallambie is a small suburb and we have always had a small voice, but what consideration has been made for the people living here and elsewhere and for the birds and wild life, the historic landscape and the special bushland setting? What of beauty and nature and all those things that make up life in one of the best living environments in the city of Melbourne?

North East Link proposes to destroy all of that unless we make ourselves heard.

Stand up and have your say now. If we leave this until it is too late it will be no use complaining when you wake up one day to find yourself living in a car yard.

Misty morning with Hoop pine  at Yallambie, August, 2014

This morning I woke before the sunrise and lay in bed worrying while I listened to the dawn chorus of singing birds. Would the bell like sounds of the King Parrots soon be replaced by the noise of a hundred thousand vehicles a day spewing from a hole in the ground like the legions of Mordor? As if in answer to my question a lone kookaburra joined in with a tune, the ensuing laughter of its call ringing loudly in my ears. Maybe the kookaburra had been reading those newspapers. The North East Link Authority’s Monday announcement was driven off the front page the next day by a story about the Opposition Leader, a crayfish and the company he keeps. It’s good to keep these things in perspective.

Luckily for Arthur Dent, he was able to hitchhike a lift from a passing spaceship to escape the destruction of his hometown by the bulldozers. The rest of us are not so lucky. The decisions made on Melbourne’s road network in the near future will effect this city and the people living in it for generations to come. The destruction of communities in order to build these roads will look pretty stupid when Peak Oil has stopped vehicles in their tracks and left nothing behind other than a hole in the ground and an inter-generational debt with a fiscal and social implication of almost unimaginable proportions.

A real lot of realty

Some games require a considerable investment in sporting equipment. Others can be played on the fingers of one hand. One game in popular culture is famously played on thrones, but of all games there is one that beats them all hands down when it comes to capital expenditure in real estate terms.

Golf – it’s been par for the course with players since knobbly kneed Scotsmen first started hitting a Featherie around the Highland moors with a big stick. It is a game that has uniquely always required a real lot of realty to establish all the holes and fairways and the bunkers and greens that are part and parcel of making up a golfing links and therefore, perhaps not surprisingly, the district around Yallambie has usually been pretty well supplied with golfing options.

Of these options, the Grace Park course to the north “…all sand scrapes… you could lose your ball on the fairway,” (Eric Barclay), vanished 50 years ago into the suburban sprawl but of the others, the Heidelberg and Rosanna Golf Clubs, whose names seem to contravene their Lower Plenty existence, have happily endured to the south.

The early story of the land on which these two Lower Plenty courses now stand was recounted in the last post, largely through the words of James Willis who kept a diary of his brother Edward’s squatting activities on the Plenty River in 1837. That brief squatting era was over before anyone quite noticed it had happened and the Willis brothers moved on, Edward to an eventual career in Geelong and Richard onto the Plenty River upstream. Following their departure the land on the west bank passed from 1842 into the hands of John and Robert Bakewell at “Yallambee”, but what of the land on the east bank, on the ground that made up the greater part of the Willis run?

That story resumes in 1839 with the survey of land east of the river by Assistant Surveyor T H Nutt and its subsequent sale in 1840 by the Crown. Portion 11, which covered most of the present Lower Plenty area, passed through the hands of various speculators before it was bought by Patrick Turnbull, a Melbourne merchant and pastoralist. Although Turnbull did not live on his land he did clear, fence and stock it.

Early subdivisions at Lower Plenty from an old Parish boundary map, (Source: Eltham Historical Society)

In the early 50s, the Lower Plenty end of Turnbull’s east bank property was purchased by John T Brown who established the Preston Hall estate of 365 acres on which he practiced dairying and general agriculture. Brown had come to Australia in 1841 and was reputed to be the first man in Victoria to breed Clydesdale horses.

The enclosing verandah at Preston Hall as pictured in “The Australian Home Beautiful” magazine, June, 1929.

In 1855 Brown built a homestead on a ridge overlooking the (Old) Lower Plenty Rd Bridge. It featured a large, overhanging red flagged and plaster lined verandah on three sides with door and window openings to the floor and was well constructed from handmade, slop sided bricks purchased by Brown on the Melbourne wharves. These bricks had been brought to Port Phillip from Scotland as ballast in the clipper ships and similar bricks had been used across the river in outbuildings at nearby Yallambee. It would be interesting to know now whether Brown and the Bakewells, who were near neighbours and whose houses were within sight of each other across the Plenty valley, purchased some of their bricks in partnership.

In the 1870s, after the local population petitioned for a State school to be opened at Lower Plenty, John Brown offered the lease of an existing slab hut on his property for use as a school building which opened there in 1874. The building must have been pretty unsatisfactory for the purpose and was replaced in 1877 after being described in that year by the Lower Plenty school teacher, Mrs Gay, as large enough to accommodate only a dozen children.

“The slabs which compose the sides of the building are all one and two inches apart, and the shingles of the roof are so decayed that there are holes in it one and two feet in circumference.” (Elizabeth Gay quoted by W F Henderson in School at the Crossing Place, 1974).

This hut is recorded as having been located near what is now the south corner of Old Eltham and Main Roads and from these descriptions it was obviously already an old building in 1877. Was it therefore the shingle roof slab hut built by the Willis brothers 40 years before? Slab buildings were a common form of primitive utilitarian architecture, much favoured in the earliest years of the Colony, but it is an intriguing speculation all the same. As stated in the last post, after leaving Lower Plenty James Willis relocated to the original Bridge Inn on the Plenty River crossing at Mernda, a building that was of similarly rude construction. Last month it was announced that Heritage Victoria is conducting an archaeological dig at the Willis site which is expected to “shed light on Mernda’s rich heritage and help us understand land use and early community development in the area.” (Yan Yean State MP Danielle Green, quoted in the Whittlesea Leader, 16 June, 2017). Perhaps the archaeological boffins could be persuaded to come and have a similar prod around this neck of the woods one of these days, sometime soon.

Mary Thomas’ Bryn Teg – from an old real estate brochure, c1926. (Source: Eltham Historical Society)

In 1884, Brown sold Preston Hall to David Thomas, a partner in Craig, Williamson and Thomas, well-known drapers on the corner of Flinders and Elizabeth Streets, Melbourne. Thomas died shortly afterwards but in 1887 his widow, Mary Thomas realized their ambitions by building a new and substantial red brick home standing adjacent to Brown’s then 30 year old homestead and which was connected to it by a breezeway. Mary Thomas called the new homestead Bryn Teg, a Welsh name meaning “small hills” and its 10ft wide halls, lofty rooms, polished joinery and large lead lighted windows were complemented by a substantial blackwood staircase overlooked by a stained glass window, all of which bespoke luxury.

The old barn behind Preston Hall as pictured in “The Australian Home Beautiful” magazine, June, 1929. This building bore a striking resemblance to the Bakewells’ stable building at neighbouring Yallambee and may have been the result of a common builder.

The widow Thomas has been described as a Scottish, “rather prim, stout lady” who lived on quietly at Bryn Teg for the next 40 years. Near the end of her life the Lower Plenty School reopened with a class room inside an old freestone barn building located behind Preston Hall and a former pupil would later recall that the old lady made sweets for the school children in groups:

“We would all eventually get a turn. In the hot weather she would make home-made lemon syrup.” (Henderson, ibid)

View of the Plenty Bridge Hotel with Preston Hall and Bryn Teg on the ridge above.

Mary Thomas died at Bryn Teg in August, 1925 and the homestead was put onto the market by her executors. At that time the “Heidelberg Club House Co Ltd”, which had been formed from the earlier Yarra Yarra Golf Club at Rosanna, was looking for a home for a new golf links north of the Yarra. In 1927 they paid £13,000 for the late Mrs Thomas’ home which also included 177 acres of land and famously the freehold title on the nearby Plenty Bridge Hotel.

The opening of the Heidelberg GC by Prime Minister Stanley Bruce, June, 1928. This picture shows the close proximity of Bryn Teg in the foreground and Preston Hall behind. (Source: Heidelberg GC)
Ancient River Red Gum beside the (Old) Lower Plenty Rd Bridge prior to the golf links development – from an old real estate brochure, c1926. (Source: Eltham Historical Society)
The same River Red Gum in 2000, before construction of the new Edward Willis Court.

A new course was laid out and opened on 23rd June, 1928 by the Prime Minister Stanley Bruce who on that day congratulated the club for the absence of any suggestions of golfing snobbery and for its stated ambition to “encourage ordinary players”. Over the years various modifications at Byn Teg were made by the Heidelberg Golf Club to fulfil their clubhouse requirements in a changing world. Preston Hall vanished altogether while other than some surviving interior wood work, tiled fire surrounds and lead light, Bryn Teg all but disappeared under these modern alterations.

The Heidelberg GC was formed from the Yarra Yarra GC and that last mentioned club, with a few ups and downs, continued at its 101 acre site alongside the railway line between Rosanna and Macleod stations for the next 30 years, changing its name to the Rosanna Glen or Rosanna Golf Club along the way. However, in a process that has continually plagued the viability of golf links in the suburbs, in 1962 after rates and taxes increased in one year from £3000 to £10,000, the land at Rosanna was considered to be too valuable for the club to continue on that site. A decision was made to sell the Rosanna situation and 139 replacement acres were selected just down river from the Heidelberg GC astride the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers. This was the south-east corner of George Porter’s old Cleveland Estate, owned at that time by the Bartram and Rank families. Negotiations were cordial and conducted between the Manager of the Rosanna Club, Norm Turnbull and the vendors with a nod and a handshake.

“Mrs Bartram, when a verbal agreement was reached between them, accepted a gentleman’s word as his bond, but he felt money should change hands to make the negotiations legal, and Mrs Bartram then consented to accept ‘sixpence’ to seal the contract” (The Rosanna Golf Club, W R Trewarne, 1980)

One wonders if that earlier Turnbull, the 1840s Patrick (probably no relation), conducted his real estate dealings in a similar easy fashion.

The proposed site of the Rosanna Golf Club at Lower Plenty, photographed before 1964. The Heidelberg township is hidden behind the sign post. The Viewbank ridge is on the right. Picture: The Rosanna Golf Club, W R Trewarne

The new home of the Rosanna GC was opened by the State Governor of Victoria, General Sir Dallas Brookes on 27th March, 1965. The final cost of the course and clubrooms at Lower Plenty would ring in at about £125,000 with Heidelberg Council eventually coughing up $975,000 in 1968 for the former Rosanna links to be developed as a housing estate.

As an aside relevant to these pages, when the old Yarra Yarra/Rosanna Club House at Rosanna was demolished during the development of the Rosanna Golf Links estate, salvaged bricks from the building were used to build the Yallambie Kindergarten (now pre-school). The Yallambie Community Association had been involved with Heidelberg Council in the creation of the kindergarten project and money being short, local councillor and architect Harry Pottage, sourced second hand building materials from the former golf links at Rosanna. The Rosanna club house at Lower Plenty burned to the ground in 1974 and afterwards was completely rebuilt so in a sense the memory of what was once their first club rooms lives on at Yallambie.

The Yarra Yarra Golf Club house at Rosanna in 1921. Bricks from this building were sourced to build the Yallambie Kindergarten (now Yallambie Park Pre School). Picture: The Rosanna Golf Club, W R Trewarne

The net result of the presence of these two golf courses at Lower Plenty has been the retention of hundreds of acres of Willis’ former run as open land, but in the face of economic change, how soon will it be before this situation becomes untenable? The decision by Heidelberg Golf Club nearly 20 years ago to sell the former site of the Plenty Bridge Hotel which resulted in a fight with the developer over the building of Edward Willis Court, eventually landed in a hearing at VCAT where it was revealed that the decision to sell had been governed largely by financial pressures facing the club.

More recently over at the Yarra Valley Country Club in Bulleen owned by pokies king Bruce Mathieson, an ex mayor of Manningham  and developer, Charles Pick has revealed a plan to build a 217 home housing estate in what can only be described as a slight of hand where it is proposed that private golf course land subject to flooding along the river would be exchanged for public land in a prime position along Templestowe Rd. At the same time and in a worrying sign of things to come, the Victorian State government announced a new study to look at “the value of golf courses and alternative land use development proposals”, the reality of which may mean moving the boundary of the “Green Wedge” beyond the urban fringe to release land currently locked up in golf courses.

It’s all part of a property boom in Melbourne that is not without its parallel in history. In the 1880s, prior to an economic collapse that ravaged the Colonial economy and sent many people to the wall, society marvelled at the changes that had occurred in Melbourne in the 50 short years since settlement. “Marvellous Melbourne” they called it and to the people who lived through it, there seemed to be no end in sight to their prosperity or to the growth of the city founded in 1835 on the banks of the Yarra River by the Johns, Pascoe Fawkner and Batman.

The current bull market in Melbourne real estate reads like a road map of that old story as an unfailing belief in the safety of capital in bricks and mortar drives change in the built landscape of the city and suburbs. Here in the north east, multi-purpose towers in Heidelberg and Doncaster and the $31 million “Taj Mahal” Council building in Greensborough are part and parcel of a boom where fortunes are being made but apparently never lost and where it is hard to remember sometimes not only what was on a corner last year, but occasionally even last week.

In concert with this process the prices of existing houses soar in a spiral driven largely by a foreign investment bubble that continues to exclude many first home buyers while eluding approximately one third of people in general. Clearance rates at auctions in the north east are running at above 80% and when REA Group Ltd released its “Group Property Demand Index” for June, listing the Australian suburbs judged by it to be in highest demand nationwide, Yallambie was recorded at number 6 overall. Seriously? When I saw this reported on the television news last month I had to do a double take. Even a triple take. The data is based on views of property listings on realestate.com.au but the first sentence from the very first post on this blog in August, 2014 came back to haunt me:

“The glazed look that creeps across a face when you tell someone you live in Yallambie is the motivation behind this blog.”

Where’s Yallambie? Perhaps they meant a Yallambie in some other State? Or maybe on another planet?

But no, a new record for Yallambie was recorded last month when a modern home at Macalister Boulevard inside the “Streeton Views” subdivision sold for a staggering $1.67 million, $430,000 beyond the reserve. The agent for the sale said afterwards that the price was more reflective of sales in Heidelberg, Macleod and Viewbank.

River red gum and pond near Macalister Boulevard within the “Streeton Views” subdivision, Yallambie, March, 2015

“I think that Yallambie has been undervalued for a long time,” Mr Kurtschenko said. “When you compare it to the surrounding suburbs, you can get a lot more for your money.” (Heidelberg Leader, 13 June, 2017)

The median house price in Yallambie according to CoreLogic remains at $715,000, less than all of the neighbouring suburbs bar one. Rosanna ($980,000), Viewbank ($922,500), Lower Plenty ($905,000), Macleod ($830,000), Montmorency ($782,500) and Greensborough ($720,000) all have greater median prices than Yallambie. Only Watsonia ($701,500) has less.

The newly constructed corner at Yallambie Rd and Tarcoola Drive, June, 2017 after overnight rain.

Banyule Council has always treated Yallambie like the poor relation that these figures would imply. The road works on the corner of Yallambie Rd and Tarcoola Drive described in my April post have now been “finished” but as this photograph indicates, the road makers have asked water to run up hill. The nearest storm water drain is south along Yallambie road up a slight incline and near enough is no doubt good enough when it comes to Yallambie. Maybe the sale in Macalister Boulevard will change their perspective, but I think not.

Meanwhile over at the other end of town, the ghost of Mary Thomas looks on and sips her lemonade with presentiment as deals are made and developers decide which part of the green sward they will cut up next. The immortal PG Wodehouse was writing with an ironic understanding of a game he loved, but might well have been thinking about developers when he wrote:

“He enjoys that perfect peace, that peace beyond all understanding, which comes to its maximum only to the man who has given up golf.” (PG Wodehouse –The Clicking of Cuthbert)

Panorama photographed from Cleveland Ave, Lower Plenty June, 2017.

A Bunyip for John Bakewell

The bunyip is a rare creature. So rare in fact that you would be hard pressed in a world without fantasy to find anybody today who will fully admit to ever having seen one. But according to the testimony of first contact era Aboriginal people, the bunyip was real, an amphibious animal much given to lurking in the dark waters of reedy creeks and billabongs, coming out at night to make a meal of the unwary. Their descriptions in the early 19th century varied widely and ranged from an animal with tusks and a furry body the size of an ox to a creature something more like an emu with a horse like tail, a duck bill, feathers and flippers.

There’s something to be said for the creative imaginations of the first Australians or maybe their propensity for the gentle leg pulling of the white interlopers. Their contradictory stories fascinated the pioneer settlers who wanted to believe that in a land where so much was strange, something still stranger waited just over the horizon yet to be found. The bunyip quickly entered the Australian narrative and it is perhaps not surprising that over time it has been used to sell all manner of things, from boot polish to lawn mowers and has featured in film and in literature.

The bunyip as imagined by H. J. Ford in Andrew Lang’s, “The Brown Fairy Book”, 1904.

In one favourite literary and pictorial example, Jenny Wagner and Ron Brooks’ “The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek”, a bunyip again and again asks the existential question as he emerges from the swamp, “What am I, what am I, what am I?” It’s a question that has occurred to most of us at some point in life, and not just bunyips.

 

I always loved this story book as a kid and its strangely disturbing drawings. The bunyip spends his time exploring the question of existence and is not put off when he meets a mad scientist who, without looking up from his studies, announces matter-of-factly that, “Bunyips simply don’t exist.” Unfortunately the scientist probably had a point because, in spite of Aboriginal testimony to the contrary, the modern consensus would seem that bunyips are a furphy and always have been.

“What a pity,” said the Berkeley’s Creek bunyip when this fact is revealed but the interesting thing for our story here is that, myth busting aside, Yallambee’s John Bakewell is as likely as any in the early history of Victoria to have bagged himself a bunyip. Like his brother Robert, John was an inveterate collector of all things zoological and would surely have been much interested in the story of the bunyip and the surprising thing is, he had more than half a chance to coax one onto the warm hearth rug at Yallambee. Or better still and true to the fashions of those times, get out his long rifle and turn the bunyip into the hearth rug itself.

What John might have found curled up on his hearth. From a vintage photograph.
The bunyip “Toor-roo- dun” sketched by the indigenous man Kurruck for a doctor during John Bakewell’s tenure at Tooradin and published in “The Aborigines in Victoria”, by Shepherd and Grosse, 1878.

In addition to being in partnership from 1841 with his brother Robert at Yallambee (Yallambie), John was also a third part of a business partnership with John Mickle and William Lyall which developed extensive pastoral interests around the Western Port area and elsewhere in the 1850s. But it was at their Tooradin run of 16,000 acres, which the following decade John Bakewell would later own exclusively, that legend noted a terrible bunyip lurked alongside the marshy banks of the Bunyip River, somewhere in the deep waters of a lagoon that was never dry even in the hottest of summers. This bunyip, known locally to the Aboriginals of Western Port as Toor-Roo-Dun, was reported to be emu-like in appearance and in habit resembled an eel. It was greatly feared by the Aboriginal tribes who never bathed in the waters of the Western Port swamps for it was said: “A long time ago some of the people bathed in the lake, and they were all drowned, and eaten by Toor-Roo-Dun.” (The Aborigines of Victoria, Richard Shepherd and F. Grosse, 1878).

Toor-Roo_dun: “like a Creature from the Black Lagoon”, from a 1954 movie poster.

Like a Creature from the Black Lagoon, Toor-Roo-Dun was a terrifying bogeyman of the native peoples, an unspoken menace that lurked just beyond the edge of sight, an equal part measure of Aboriginal doubt and fear. If truth be known however, the story may have been told to gullible settlers as part of an ongoing Aboriginal prank, so as if to up the ante, the settlers themselves managed to turn the whole business of the bunyip into political satire. In 1853 the Australian journalist, orator and politician, Daniel Deniehy, famously derided the attempts of the squattocracy to introduce a titled, hereditary aristocracy into colonial society by calling the concept a jumped up “Bunyip Aristocracy”, by which ipso facto decree he implied, it didn’t exist.

What John Bakewell thought about Deniehy’s speech remains unrecorded but there is no doubt that at the time it was made, by dint of his various business dealings, Bakewell was well on his way to joining the ranks of this imaginary Australian bunyip peerage. His partnership with his brother Robert at Yallambee also included a successful wool classing enterprise in Melbourne’s Market Street (which became Goldsborough, Mort & Co.) and from 1845 to 1852 involved a large pastoral run at Burnewang on the Campaspe River north east of Bendigo (Sandhurst), clocking in at 113,000 acres. His partnerships with John Mickle and William Lyall from 1851 involved even more extensive undertakings with large runs at Western Port, the Western District and on the Snowy River.

Map of the Western Port squatting runs, sourced from “The Good Country”, by Neil Gunson, 1968, and marking several but not all of Mickle, Bakewell and Lyall’s properties. These included Tooradin or “Old Manton’s”, Tobin Yallock or “Torbinurruck”, Red Bluff and the Great Swamp. Western Port to the east of Melbourne was named by George Bass in 1798 as the then most westerly bay found in Bass Strait. The discovery of Port Phillip Bay came four years later.

John Bakewell left Yallambee and returned to England with his brother in 1857 and settled at the Old Hall, Balderton in his home county of Nottingham. In England two years later he married Emily Howitt, the niece of Melbourne’s Dr Godfrey Howitt, before returning to Victoria for a final visit in 1862 to resolve his remaining business affairs.

In the UK, Bakewell lived the life of a true blue Bunyip Aristocrat, in spirit if not in name. His Australian adventures had made him a wealthy man. Neil Gunson in “The Good Country – Cranbourne Shire”, 1968, describes the Western Port properties as “Bakewell’s great Tooradin empire,” (p123) noting that they were “early put out to lease,” the revenue derived presumably proving to be a nice little earner for the British based Bakewell.

At Western Port today, John Bakewell is remembered by a Bakewell Street in Cranbourne and a Yallambee Rd in Clyde, the latter road named after a local subdivision of his Tooradin run, sometimes also referred to as “Fields Water”. John Bakewell died at Balderton in 1888 leaving four grown up children.

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

Alexander Henderson in his rare and compendious 1936 publication, “Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina”, describes John Bakewell as “one of the most prominent of the early pioneer squatters.” It is therefore surprising that in the narrative of Victorian history, his story has been somewhat forgotten. This blog is guilty itself of contributing to an ambiguity by publishing several times a photograph from the SLV purporting to be that of J Bakewell of Bendigo. As John and Robert were known to have had an extensive pastoral run on the Campaspe, (their Burnewang property), I had always assumed this picture to be of Yallambee’s John Bakewell. A photograph in the Henderson book however reveals a different man. Accepting Henderson’s image to be correct I have now replaced it in my legacy posts. Like the Berkeley’s Creek bunyip, John B has had an existential identity crisis. Fortunately for the purpose of my last post, both men at least were committed pogonologists.

From the South Bourke and Mornington Journal, 20 February 1913.

So what happened to John Bakewell’s bunyip in the 21st century? Instead of a bunyip aristocracy Federal Australia got its Senate in 1901 which serves as an Upper House of Parliament and is intended to represent the States. Over time this “house of review” has allegedly instead become a “house of obstruction”, populated by minor parties who in a preferential voting system, have done deals with the major parties to secure their franchise. A Greens Senator last week likened the filibustering of the Senate to a scene from “Men Who Stare at Goats” where captured combatants are stuck in a crate and played “The Wiggles” for days on end as a form of torture. The Age reporting thought the process was more like something from “The Lord of the Rings” with Gandalf standing on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm roaring, “You shall not pass.” Perhaps we should take a leaf out of the Queensland example which in 1922 managed to abolish the Upper House of State Parliament altogether.

The irony at Yallambie is that when you vote in the local government ward at Council elections, you vote in an electorate called “Bakewell”, named after the brothers with the bunyip pedigree. Although voting is compulsory at all levels of government in Australia (yes, they have to use the full force of the law to get Australians into the booth on polling day), in 2016 at the last Banyule Council election in Bakewell Ward, no vote was required. After any other potential candidates took a collective step backwards, the sitting member was elected unopposed which is perhaps the truest indication of what we really think about local government.

The bunyip aristocracy might never have got off the ground within the Australian nationhood but believing implicitly in the rhetoric of our egalitarian society denies the simple truth that who you are and where you are born plays a big part in the opportunities you get dealt in life. Was the iron suited outlaw, Ned Kelly born bad or was he made bad by a system that was weighted against him from the day that he first drew breath? It is a question that has intrigued historians and sociologists for generations. We’ve all heard the expression, “He was born on the wrong side of the tracks,” but the reality is that sometimes people have little choice in the matter.

In Melbourne today, many government funded schools now exclude student applicants from disadvantaged suburbs. The Gonski Report was supposed to level out the playing field but with Government refusing to fully fund that report’s recommendations, its commendable ambitions have been made a mockery. In Yallambie, you might pay a premium to rent or buy a house that falls within the “zone” of the so called better of the local government schools but still find your children excluded if your house falls a few millimetres outside the zone on a map. It is a process that continues to drive up the price of real estate in certain suburbs all across Melbourne.

Many reports locally and internationally have identified a direct correlation between poor educational standards and recidivism but in some enlightened communities the problem is now being addressed by a new approach called “Justice Reinvestment”. This is a process which takes the money that would otherwise be spent building prisons and using it instead to fund education and community infrastructure in disadvantaged communities. In many cases it has led to a cut in crime and ultimately saved money.

It seems like a good idea to me, but good luck to the Lucky Country if you expect the idea to ever catch on here unilaterally any time soon. It’s enough to make a Berkeley’s Creek bunyip balk and jump right back into the watery hole from which he came, the words of the scientist still ringing in his ears, “You’re nothing.” In a country lacking imagination just as much as aristocrats, maybe there’s a good reason why none of us have ever seen a bunyip.

This story’s got a beard on it

Have you ever met a pogonologist?

Most men who have attempted a beard have probably been one without realizing it as they study the shadow of their stubble in the mirror. It’s not a common word, although I opine it could be useful if you get stuck with a handful of Gs and Os at the end of a Scrabble game. Pogonologists were, on the available evidence, more or less the norm throughout the male gender of the species in the later Victorian age. In Yallambie a look at the faces staring back at you from old photo albums might have you believe that the place was full of pogonologists. John Bakewell was one. So was Thomas Wragge. Edward La Tobe Bateman was another, as were most of the Howitts. At least as far as the men of that illustrious family were concerned.

From left to right: John Bakewell (Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina, Henderson, 1936), Edward La Trobe Bateman (State Library of New Zealand), Thomas Wragge (Bill Bush collection), Alfred Howitt (State Library of Victoria).

Pogonology: literally it means the study of beards. A pogonologist is one for whom beard growing has become something of a science. It derives from the Latin “pogonias” meaning bearded, a word that was common throughout the Classical world. The clean shaven Emperor Constantine IV was occasionally known by the moniker “Pogonatus” from some sort of confusion with his father Constans, with whom he had reigned initially and who is mainly remembered now for sporting an imposing chin of facial hair.

The Byzantine Emporer Constans II was known for sporting an imposing chin of facial hair.
The Byzantine Emporer Constans II was known for sporting an imposing chin of facial hair.

It is said that men grow beards not to impress the female of the breed but to impress other men. “Lord, I could not endure a husband with a beard on his face; I had rather lie in the woollen,” said Shakespeare’s Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing”, affirming she would rather sleep in scratchy blankets all night than with a bearded man. Yet beards have been around since the cave man, evolving from their primitive natural state to the crimped and trimmed sophisticated designs of later years. The beard would become a symbol of individual style and an expression of personality as men learned to improve on the work of what had been blessed to them by nature.

To some cultures of the ancient word, the beard was a mark of wisdom or alternatively a sign of physical strength. To swear by your beard was considered a sacrosanct act and the kissing of beards could be used as a sign of greeting. To tweak a man’s beard however was considered a grave insult, the equivalent today of an Australian Prime Minister having the temerity to robustly discuss refugees with an American President.

Henry VIII thought the beard tax was only for the common people.
Henry VIII thought the beard tax was only for the common people.

Strange to relate, beards were taxed in Tudor England, first by Henry VIII who liked beards but needed the money, and then by Elizabeth I who simply didn’t like them. The peak of male fashion in beards was reached however in the 17th century when their care was considered the most important part of a man’s daily routine. Hours were spent starching, curling, crimping and trimming beards with the results sometimes dyed and perfumed to suit the owner’s tastes. Such efforts needed to be protected and the owner of a beard might choose to retire to his slumbers at night with it securely protected in a leather case around his neck.

The powdered wigs of the 18th century restricted the popularity of beards for a while but in the Victorian Age they returned with a vengeance. This was an age of Great Men and the bushy beard became a symbol of their world view, the size of the beard seeming to be in direct proportion to the community standing of its owner.

Sarah and Thomas Wragge at Yallambie, c1900. Source: Betty Lush collection.
Sarah and Thomas Wragge at Yallambie, c1900. Source: Betty Lush collection.
The ultimate in comb overs: my nomination for next President of the Younited-States.
The ultimate in comb overs: my nomination for next President of the Younited-States.
Thomas Wragge
Thomas Wragge, c1860, (Source: Bill Bush collection).

The earliest photographs of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge shows him with a “chin curtain” style of beard, a type that he seems to have favoured his whole life. That most revered of American Presidents of Wragge’s era, Abraham Lincoln, is remembered for a similar look which he called the “Shenandoah”. It made him look terribly wise, even when all around him was turning to ashes. Before Abraham Lincoln, no US President sported a beard but after Lincoln, every President bar two until Woodrow Wilson had either a beard or a moustache. Perhaps the current American President, with a society as divided now as in the time of old Abe, could be induced to ditch the comb over for a similar hirsute habit. Women would love it because, when you’re a star, you can do anything. At least that’s what this President tells us.

The mustachioed sons of Thomas Wragge, from left to right: Tom Wragge Jr (1862-1954), Edwin "Syd" Wragge (1874-1927), William "Will" Wragge (1875-1906) and Henry "Harry" Wragge (1880-1921). Source: Anne Hill collection.
The mustachioed sons of Thomas Wragge, from left to right: Tom Wragge Jr (1862-1954), Edwin “Syd” Wragge (1874-1927), William “Will” Wragge (1875-1906) and Henry “Harry” Wragge (1880-1921). Source: Anne Hill collection.

From the available photographic evidence, Wragge’s sons mostly adopted fashionable moustaches during the Edwardian era. Walter Murdoch, who married Thomas’ eldest daughter Sarah Annie in 1903, similarly wore a terrific walrus protuberance on his upper lip. Until the later alterations, there was no internal bathroom plumbing at Yallambie Homestead so water had to be brought upstairs to wash basins in the bedrooms or to a tin hip bath kept in the single available washroom. In an age when shaving was a time consuming business involving a cut throat razor and strop it is easy to imagine the trouble and care required in their daily shaving ritual.

Sarah Annie Wragge and Wallace Murdoch with their bridal party at Yallambie. The marriage took place on 20 August, 1903 at St John’s Curch of England, Heidelberg with the reception following later at Yallambie. Wallace’s mother wrote soon afterwards: “I thought it was a beautiful wedding - the church quite ideal like an old English village church - the bride radiantly happy - people remarked they never saw a happier bride - the dress beautiful - the scenery so pretty and the home of the bride beautiful. There was no stiffness & everyone enjoyed themselves”.
Sarah Annie Wragge and the walrus moustached Wallace Murdoch with their bridal party at Yallambie, 20 August, 1903. Source: Bill Bush collection.

By the time we came to live at Yallambie in the early ’90s, the old house did at least enjoy modern if somewhat incomplete plumbing. Without quite realizing it, in the best traditions of Thomas, this writer has worn a beard on and off throughout his life, usually growing one when it was out of fashion then shaving it off when it came back. The last time was an attempt at a Zapata when the latest Millennial craze for beards was first kicking off. Fashion books and web sites have since been dedicated to this hairy subject with one survey suggesting that 55% of males worldwide wear some sort of facial hair. The current beard vogue became so big in the early 2010s that some reports even proposed facial hair transplants might be had by those men having trouble developing a decent growth on their chins. Not all beards are grown in the face of such adversity however. Guinness Records measured a beard a few years ago at nearly 2½ metres in length. Sarwan Singh, the wearer of this beard, is a Sikh and says that he has done nothing special. He considers his facial locks to be a divine gift from God. All the same, Sarwan should beware for beards can be dangerous. Hans Steininger the owner of a 1½ metre beard in 16th century Austria, died when he stepped on the end of it, tripped and broke his neck.

Beards can be dangerous. Just ask Brian...
Beards can be dangerous. Just ask Brian…

The lengths and the dangers of the beards of the lumbersexual and hipster subculture from the fashionable end of Melbourne town pale in comparison. Beards can grow on average about 14cm a year but there are those who said that in 2017, beards were about to go the way of the man bun. A recent sighting of a full beard with flowers trained through the fuzz on a fashionable Fitzroy street has me thinking otherwise, maybe.

A Yallambie Zapata for the new millennium.
A Yallambie Zapata for the new millennium.

As for me, personally the three day growth in my mirror is just too darn peppery these days, so when it comes to Yallambie pogonology, my vote has already been cast.

Bring out the Scrabble board.

Horse sense

Two-up, Tattslotto or the track, many Australians like the punt and on Melbourne Cup Day, the first Tuesday in November, even those who would otherwise give racing no second thought sit up and take notice. If you’re like me, you don’t have to like racing particularly to enjoy the Melbourne-wide public holiday the State Government declares every year to mark the “Race that Stops a Nation”. It stops because we’re all on holiday.

astor_mickeyPersonally I wouldn’t know one end of a horse from the other. Possibly the psychologists would have something to say about a childhood remembered listening to my father “taking the scratchings on the wireless”, an old valve type Astor Mickey every Saturday morning, followed by the broadcast races in the afternoon. He thought of the process as a form of entertainment and often didn’t even bother to bet and if he did, it was for never more than a few dollars for the day. In time I asked him if he were to add up all the wins he had had and compare them alongside to all the losses, well would he be a bit in front, or rather a bit behind. His response was frank and to the point, “Listen son, mark my words, if anyone ever tells you they win on the TAB they are lying to your face.”

It was a good attitude to bring to the punt. Racing for him was a culture. Occasionally he would take the family to a country race meeting and apparently this was supposed to be something of an occasion. I remember it was invariably stinking hot and for some reason I never quite fathomed, I always seemed to be over dressed in my Sunday best. On arrival my mother would put out a picnic rug and a Thermos on the lawn, Dad would disappear to inspect the bookies’ tents and my sister would take off to admire the horses in the training yard. It was usually at this moment that I would ask for the first, but certainly not for the last time that day, “Can we go home now?”

The writer's uncle, Don McLachlan, riding "The Chanter" outside Caulfield Racecourse in the 1930s.
The writer’s uncle, Don McLachlan, riding “The Chanter” outside Caulfield Racecourse in the 1930s.

But the gees gees were in the old man’s blood. His brother had been a jockey riding for the racing stable of Frank Musgrave in the 1930s and before that their father had worked as a stockman for Coghlan and Boase & Co, stock and station agents in Ballarat. During my own childhood our cousins in that town kept a racing stables which legend has it was even moderately successful for a while. My memory of that place was being put without a saddle or bridle on top of an old grey mare that I was told had not galloped for about half a century. The next thing it was off with me clinging to its neck like grim death, charging towards the busy main road which loomed up ahead at the end of the path. Looking back on it, it was probably my strangling hold on the neck of the horse that had sent it flying down the path in the first place and the harder I held on, the faster she went. Finally, as I contemplated throwing myself off before the impending intersection and its looming road traffic, my grip must have relaxed and the horse stopped mid stride. “Oh thankyou dear, dear horsey,” I whimpered as I climbed down gingerly from on high, determined to never go through that again. My cousins though were more than impressed when they came up. “Crikey, Ian, we haven’t seen that horse so very much as move in years. How on earth did you manage to get her to gallop?” Apparently natural horsemanship is something you are born with.

Syd and Harry Wragge on horseback at Yallambie with their sister Carrie leaning alongside, c1900.
Syd and Harry Wragge on horseback at Yallambie with their sister Carrie leaning alongside, c1900, (Bill Bush Collection).
Syd and Harry Wragge on horses at a slightly later date at Yallambie, looking towards the farmyard area from the northern part of the garden.
Syd and Harry Wragge on horses at a slightly later date at Yallambie, looking towards the farmyard area from the northern part of the garden, (Bill Bush Collection).
Carriage with Syd Wragge and his mother, Sarah Ann at the front door of Yallambie looking south.
Carriage with Syd Wragge and his mother, Sarah Ann at the front door of Yallambie looking south, (Bill Bush Collection).
Horse carriage in the farm yard just north of Yallambie Homestead.
Horse carriage in the farm yard in front of the stables (left of picture) at Yallambie, (Bill Bush Collection).
Probably Will Wragge, c1900 outside the old Bakewell era stables. Constructed from local sandstone and English, "slop" sided molded brickwork, these stables were demolished at the start of the 1980s.
Will Wragge outside the old Bakewell era stables, (Bill Bush Collection).

The family of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge were certainly born to horsemanship. A daughter, Alice Wragge even managed to marry one of the stable hands, an itinerant bricklayer who worked at Yallambie, very much to the enduring outrage of her father. Wragge’s Yallambie featured an extensive stables complex which dated from the previous Bakewell occupation of the property and which survived into the 1980s, the sound of clip clopping hooves echoing across the years from a time when the concept of horsepower carried a literal meaning. A brother of Thomas Wragge, Henry, whose diary was found under the floorboards at Yallambie Homestead, is also remembered as one of the earliest practitioners of equine veterinary medicine in the Victorian Colony. In the words of Winty Calder: “Horses were an essential part of the life of the Wragges”, and properties like Yallambie and their Riverina pastoral holdings could not have been run without them. (Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p173).

Will Wragge pictured alongside one of several tanks (dams) at Yallambie at the start of the 20th century, (Bush collection). In 2013 a dam similar to this on the corner of Lower Plenty and Bannockburn Roads, Viewbank was asphalted as a carpark, an old willow similar to the tree in this picture remaining to this day to mark the spot.
Will Wragge pictured alongside one of several tanks (dams) at Yallambie at the start of the 20th century, (Bill Bush Collection).

Quoting from her father Frank Wright’s memories, Calder goes on to recount an occasion at Jessie Wragge’s 1910 funeral and an incident that well illustrates the horse skills present in the family.

The cortege must have been about half a mile long. Behind the horse-drawn and black plumed hearse were two or three mourning coaches followed by a great line-up of buggies, traps, jinkers and the like, all horsedrawn. Starting at Yallambie, the procession went via Upper Heidelberg Road to the Heidelberg Cemetery. As the hearse approached the bottom of the hill near Rosanna Station, one of the horses attached to the first mourning coach started to play up just about level with where the entrance to the Yarra Yarra Golf Links subsequently stood. Probably the vehicle’s brakes were not effective during the long descent. There was no britching in the two-horse one-pole harness and all each horse could do was to try to hold back with the collar up near its head.
The off-side horse of the first coach started to kick, and got one leg over the pole. The coach ran off the road to the right and crashed into the fence in a fair tangle; and there it stuck.
The hearse continued slowly on, crossing the gully and the new railway. The second coach stopped and so did the rest of the procession. The horse had no discernment at all, or else it would not have picked that company for its misbehaviour. From a dozen vehicles poured over fifty men – brothers, cousins, second-cousins and others who had spent a great part of their lives in saddles. They rushed in a mob to the tangle of horses, making soothing, hissing noises to calm them.
In a second, someone was sitting on the head of the fallen horse while others were unharnessing all the others. The hearse continued slowly plodding up the hill to the west. The horses were reharnessed, the coach hauled out of the fence by a dozen men and the horses coupled up again. The men rushed back to their vehicles, and the procession reformed. The hearse was only about 200 yards ahead, and before it got to the top of the rise the vehicles were back in place.
(Cader: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p211).hearse

Hey presto, the dignity of the funeral procession was preserved. The wayward horse had chosen the wrong lads to mess with on that day. Horses were a part of the family’s everyday life as evidenced by Frank Wright’s further childhood memories at Upper Heidelberg Rd:

Grace Wragge (ne Wilson) standing with shawl around her shoulders. Probably her sister, Alice Wragge, seated and Syd Wragge, Grace’s husband lying down. A fence around the old east west tennis court is on the left. Bunya pine visible in the background.
Grace Wragge (ne Wilson) standing with shawl around her shoulders, her sister Alice Wragge, seated and Syd Wragge, Grace’s husband lying down with horse south of Yallambie, (Bill Bush Collection).

“I remember Will (Wragge) arriving one day on horseback and taking me on the pommel to Yallambie… I clearly remember an uproar one day [about 1902] when a party from Yallambie were riding to Essendon [probably to see Syd Wragge’s fiancé Grace Wilson], and Alice (Wragge) was thrown from her horse in Bell Street. Our place, being nearest belonging to the family, was returned to and Alice’s face, all grazed and bloody, made a vivid impression on me, as she sat on her horse in our yard before dismounting.” (Cader: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p139).

Kath Wright (later Adams) at Yallambie, 1918
Kathleen (Kath) Wright, the sister of Frank,  in the stable yard at Yallambie, c1918, (Margaret Walker Collection).

But of course it was at Thomas Wragge’s 110,000 acre property in NSW that the horse really came into its own and Thomas was very careful about the care of his animals.

“During the 1880s Thomas Wragge’s property became so large that much time was used riding to different parts of it, and many horses were needed. Always concerned about their welfare… one particular way in which Thomas cared for his horses has long been remembered. He insisted that a bucket of water should remain in the shade near the stables during the summer, so that bits could be immersed in it and cooled before being put in the horses’ mouth. Any man who failed to do so was instantly dismissed.” (Cader: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p105).

Thomas Wragge's first Tulla Homestead, on the Wakool River, NSW, c1873.
Thomas Wragge’s first Tulla Homestead, on the Wakool River, NSW, c1873.
Thomas Wragge's second Tulla Homestead, on the Wakool River, NSW, c1900.
Thomas Wragge’s second Tulla Homestead, on the Wakool River, NSW, c1900.

Country race meetings had their place in this world and Calder mentions a meeting at Tulla which, as a communal occasion, seems to have interrupted the shearing in that year:

“Race meetings were important social events. New Year’s Day 1887 was a Saturday and, after the usual homestead chores, all hands went to the races held at Fisher’s selection beside the Deniliquin road. Significantly, the Tulla diary entry for the next day reads: ‘Nothing much doing today – hot day.’” (Cader: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p116).

Fisher’s selection was a small holding taken up within the wide boundaries of the Tulla leasehold and according to Calder was “a continuing source of nuisance and annoyance for Thomas Wragge”. There was a bush pub located on the selection, a mere mile from the Tulla woolshed. The implication here is that sore heads after New Year’s race day drinks resulted in a diary entry, “Nothing much doing today,” with the station sheep perhaps fortunate not to face men with sharp shears after a day and night of solid drinking.

Thomas tried to buy the selection and its pub on a number of occasions but antagonism between him and the proprietor, a Mrs Beaton, meant that she refused to sell to him at any price. Eventually Thomas solved the problem by means of a simple ruse. Calder continues:

“He persuaded a man from Geelong to pose as a buyer, and that man finally made a deal with Mrs Beaton, paid a deposit and obtained a receipt which he handed to Thomas. It has been suggested that Thomas promptly rode over to the pub, ordered everyone out of it and burnt down the building.”

Thomas might not have approved of a bush pub and a country race venue in such close proximity to his woolshed, but the racing of horses was an important social activity for 19th century Australian pastoral dynasties and a family like the Wragges were no exception. They structured their year around the Melbourne Cup, moving down from the family’s properties in the Riverina annually to be in Melbourne for the running of the Cup. They then stayed on at Yallambie throughout Christmas and the hottest months of summer to avoid the worst heat of inland NSW.

As an event, the Cup has been run over 2 miles (3200 metres) at Flemington every November since 1861. Many people like to have a little flutter on the result with the certain knowledge it very probably is just “chucking money away” all the same.

We’ve all heard the story.

mr_edA man I know gets his haircut from a chap whose sister is married to a bloke who drives a taxi who gave a ride to a sporting type wearing a loud jacket who had spoken to a lad who sweeps out the stalls at a stables where he got this tip straight from the horse’s mouth, from Mr Ed, the talking horse.

Whether the Wragge’s liked a wager themselves is unrecorded but it could be argued that the very act of farming in a marginal landscape in NSW, a test for the soul and an arena for struggle in anybody’s language, was itself a form of gambling.

Early picture taken on the south lawn at Yallambie with Bunya pine on left.
Riding habit on the south lawn at Yallambie, (Bill Bush Collection).

We like to think that flying in the face of adversity is a part of the National Character but in latter years it has come to mean something more. Australia has the dubious honour of losing more money on gambling per capita than any other nation on the planet – something well over $1000 on average per adult annually. 80% of Australians, the highest proportion of any country, wager something, somewhere, sometime but this hasn’t necessarily been a problem historically. For most of the history of the running of the Melbourne Cup, there were few other methods of gambling available to the general public, even with the inevitable illegal SP bookmaker working out the back of a shop in the suburbs. The process of picking a winner was a reward in itself. But when gambling left the track and entered our pubs and clubs in the form of poker machines or into a Casino at Southbank the State Government insisted we had to have because “the other states have got ´em”, it entered the vernacular. It made a few people, the owners of poker machine and casino licences very rich, but at the cost of making some folk very poor.

Like my father listening for the “scratchings” without placing a bet, I like to think it’s all about the process and not the end in itself. It makes horse sense that if I buy a lotto ticket then leave it unchecked for weeks, I’ve bought weeks of entertainment value. There is always the idea lurking at the back of my mind that there is a possibility of it being a winner, no matter how unlikely the reality. It might even explain the continuing popularity of the Cup in an Australia where there are now so many other forms of gambling available. You see, the Cup is not just about the gambling although that has always been a part of it.

At the first running of the Cup in 1861 the VRC issued two ladies tickets to every gentleman club member in the belief that “where ladies went, men would follow”. So historically the Cup has always been about other things – the fashions and the flirting, the boozing and the bookmakers, the race track and the roses. But most of all it has always been about the horses and the holiday. What other excuse do we need to have a good time?

Halcyon farm days at Yallambie

GOLD!

If there was one thing destined to end the era of convict transportation to Australia, it was the discovery of golden mineral wealth in a land which for so long had been the dumping ground of Great Britain’s most unwilling form of immigrants. Strictly speaking, the Port Phillip District was never a penal colony, but convicts did make their way there assigned to various work parties, or while holding tickets of leave in other colonies. With the discovery of gold in Australia however, the irony in sending felons to a foreign el Dorado of the south was not lost on the authorities when it seemed that half the world was quite literally falling over itself to get there in a mad “rush to be rich”.

The existence of gold in the Port Phillip District had long been something of an open secret, the facts seemingly supressed by a government fearful of the possible social dislocation of an Australian gold rush. Although it’s not widely recognized now, some of these very first rumours of gold in Victoria occurred in the Plenty Ranges and on the tributaries of the upper reaches of the Plenty River itself. One such story at the start of the 1840s involved an eccentric bushman called John or Jemmy Gomm (“Old Gum”) who was supposed to have lived in a hollow tree on the Upper Plenty on the slopes of Mt Disappointment, secretly prospecting for gold but telling people all along he was hunting for lyrebirds. lyre_birdOld Gum had arrived at Port Phillip in 1835 as one of John Pascoe Fawkner’s servants aboard the schooner “Enterprize” but had “gone bush”. A Plenty River pastoralist, George Urquart, writing much later to “The Brisbane Courier” newspaper in 1882 described meeting Gomm, seeing his gold specimens and the situation of his Plenty Ranges bush camp:

An echo of Jemmy Gomm: a 19th century stump house in old Gippsland. (Source: Art Gallery of NSW).
An echo of Jemmy Gomm: a 19th century stump house in old Gippsland. (Source: Art Gallery of NSW).

“He had a nice garden, which was well-stocked with a variety of vegetables, and a beautiful stream of water running through the centre of it. His habitation was an old fallen gum tree, which in its fallen state was fully 70ft in circumference. A shell of the stump stood forming the back of ‘Gum’s’ fireplace; the short space between the fallen trunk and the remains standing upright had been covered in with bark, the burnt portion of the tree cleared out with his adze; and he had in the tree a kitchen, a storeroom where he manipulated his gold, and a bedroom. He handed me a small nugget of gold, which I took, beat very thin, and sent to an elder brother in Sydney, who, when acknowledging his receipt, replied telling me, “to mind my cattle and not think of gold-gathering”. ‘Gum’ was a quiet, inoffensive man. He told me he came from Van Diemen’s Land, and appeared very thankful that I allowed my manager to supply him with rations.”

Melbourne's Police Magistrate, Captain William Lonsdale.
Melbourne’s Police Magistrate, Captain William Lonsdale.

Occasionally “Old Gum” travelled down to Melbourne to dispose of gold, exchanging it for rations, before heading back into the bush. The idea of some whimsical old soul living secretly in the bush and unearthing mineral riches at random quite caught the public imagination at the time and in 1842 the police magistrate, Captain William Lonsdale, despatched troopers to find old man Gomm. They eventually found his camp but Gomm had gone. The bird had flown his proverbial coop in the face of authority, leaving his camp deserted with “crucibles and old bellows, but no gold.”

The Turon River, NSW, scene of Australia's first gold rush.
The Turon River, NSW, scene of Australia’s first gold rush.

The first real rush in Australia occurred about a decade later at the Turon field near Sofala in New South Wales in June, 1851, just prior to the official separation of Port Phillip from New South Wales on the 1st July. After Separation the new Victorian government looked for their own gold strike to stem the exodus north and announced a reward of £200 for the first person to find a payable deposit within easy reach of Melbourne. The so called Plenty River “gold” rush actually coincided with the rush to the Turon but would prove to be a Furphy since the actual gold found on the Plenty would turn out to be comparatively very slight, if not altogether non-existent. At any rate, the story of Plenty River gold was perhaps more a reflection of the desire of local business interests in Melbourne to find gold in Victoria, but not so very far away from the town that it would cause a whole scale exodus to the far flung reaches of the interior. In the resulting excitement, stories of gold in the vicinity of Melbourne abounded and there were even reports of Melbourne streets being dug up, in spite of laws specifically forbidding such activities. It seems that people were finding gold everywhere.

“When first we left old England’s shore
Such yarns as we were told
As how folks in Australia
Could pick up lumps of gold”

The short lived rush to the Plenty region itself seems to have taken place after a certain Thomas Hewitt made the following claims about gold in the Plenty Ranges in what was nevertheless a pretty percipient letter to “The Argus” newspaper which published it on 30 May, 1851:

“…I can assure you that I myself have seen two men who have been up in our ranges, and showed me a parcel of gold dust; as far as I could judge, of a very good quality; and they told me that they had been up in the ranges for two months, and had done very well on their trip. I have had some little experience in geology, and think that it is most likely that gold may be found in some quantities in the Plenty Ranges, the dip of the rock being exactly like those of the California region; but I hope for the good of the country that no such diggings may be made in our part, as through false representation an idle and worthless population might be drawn to the locality, it might at the same time delude many of our steady worthy labourers, who might thrive at the rate of about ten in a hundred. Hoping that this may not be the case, I am, Sir, yours truly, Thomas Hewitt, River Plenty, May 26th, 1851.”

News of gold on the Plenty and in such close proximity to Melbourne resulted in great excitement. “The Argus” carried almost daily reports on the developments and on June 9 reported:

“The gold on the Plenty still continues the main staple of conversation; it is alike talked of by the merchant and labourer… Several samples of so-called Plenty gold are now shown in town and there are reports on all sides of lucky individuals who have found wealth all in a moment…”

Red Dwarf channels Dangerous Dan McGrew.
Red Dwarf channels Dangerous Dan McGrew.

About 300 people were scattered over the Plenty Ranges, washing for gold in the creeks and minor tributaries. With fears of the fields descending into a haunt for the “Dangerous Dan McGrew” stereotype of later poetical fiction, a party of mounted troopers was sent out from Melbourne to keep order, it being reported that there were those in the Ranges “who would steal the nose off one’s face,” (ibid). The report was illustrated by the story of one man who found £17 18s 3d of gold dust only to have £18 worth of goods stolen from his unattended cart while he panned.

Extract from "The Courier", Hobart, 18 June, 1851.
Extract from “The Courier”, Hobart, 18 June, 1851.

The news of gold on the Plenty spread quickly to the other Australian colonies and an article in “The Courier” newspaper of Hobart on June 18 speculated that the Plenty ranges were “a continuation of the Bathurst ranges, where gold is now being found in large quantities…”

As stories of real and richer finds in other parts of the colony soon began to overrun the imaginary Plenty River riches, the story should have died a quiet natural. However Henry Frencham gave it a new lease of life on June 14 when, working as a reporter for the “Port Phillip Gazette”, he claimed to have made his own discovery of gold in the Plenty region. An assay of his specimens revealed no gold but then Henry Frencham also claimed to have found gold at the western end of Bourke Street, Melbourne and would later claim to have also been responsible for the first discovery of gold on the rich Bendigo gold fields. Frencham’s claims might have been questionable but his reports made good copy for the newspapers all the same. One Argus report described Frencham as being “a respectable man, who can have no object in deceiving the public; and although his supposed discovery at the Plenty turned out a mistake, no one doubted his own firm believe in the genuineness of the article discovered.” As the author of this piece was probably Frencham himself, working in his capacity as a reporter, it can only be imagined what the deceived public really thought but interestingly Frencham’s site in the Plenty ranges near what would become Queenstown (St Andrews) would later be worked very successfully as the Caledonia gold field.

Henry Frencham, (James Lerk collection)
Henry Frencham, (James Lerk collection)
Thomas Wragge
Thomas Wragge, (Bush collection)

The 1850s were a pivotal decade in Victoria’s colonial history and Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge found himself in this mix right at the start. He departed England for the Australian colonies as an intermediate passenger on board the SS Northumberland in 1851, just before news of the first Australian gold strikes were received in England. Arriving at Port Phillip with £25 in his pocket to an economic climate defined by gold discoveries, rumoured discoveries and colonial separation, the 21 year old Thomas Wragge showed no inclination to join the overwhelming exodus to the new Victorian gold fields. The young, ex-Nottinghamshire farmer carried a letter of introduction written by familial connections of Yallambee’s John and Robert Bakewell and had his own ideas about how to go about finding riches in Victoria.

“Thomas and his family would not have heard of the Australian discoveries before he departed, but land and pastoral activities seem to have been his primary concerns… The great influx of gold-seeking immigrants had resulted in soaring prices for meat, and keen demand for agricultural produce.” (Calder: “Class the Wool and Counting the Bales).

The years of the Victorian gold rushes saw a great increase in the worth of agricultural produce in the new colony. For instance, hay which had previously sold for 35s a tonne sold in Melbourne in 1852 for £50. Wheat rose from 2s 8d a bushel to 12s and locally, Michael Butler of Greensborough is recorded as receiving up to £155 per tonne for carting flour to the Bendigo fields. The prices paid for beef and bullocks rose even more.

It is unknown today whether Wragge worked immediately on arrival for John and Robert Bakewell at Yallambee, or at any time thereafter between 1851 and 1854 at which later date he is known to have been on the estate. However, the Bakewells had pastoral interests in other Victorian properties and if Thomas was not at Yallambee he may have been working for them at one of these, possibly at Western Port or on the Campaspe.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station with cattle in foreground.
John and Robert Bakewell’s “Yallambee”, The Station Plenty, view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station with cattle in foreground. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria).

Although the only gold found on the Plenty River had by then been proved to be the stuff of fools it seems that there was still enough interest locally for a couple of potential “mines” being attempted at Yallambie. In the additional notes to Winty Calder’s “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” she mentions a mine shaft that was sunk next to the river close to the location of the Plenty Bridge Hotel and another sort of “strike” made in the vicinity of the site of William Greig’s old farm, below present day Allima Avenue.

“There was once a mine shaft on Yallambie, over near the pub. There was also another sort of strike just behind the chooks (i.e. N of the house) – Picol Paddock. The other was at Barn Hill (river paddock).” (Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, notes).

Heidelberg and Eltham artist Walter Withers' mining series, painted at Creswick in 1893 (from left): "Mining", (Ballarat Fine Art Gallery); "Cradling", (Art Gallery of NSW); "Fossickers", (National Gallery of Australia); and "Panning", (private collection).
Heidelberg and Eltham artist Walter Withers’ mining series, painted at Creswick in 1893 (from left): “Mining”, (Ballarat Fine Art Gallery); “Cradling”, (Art Gallery of NSW); “Fossickers”, (National Gallery of Australia); and “Panning”, (private collection).

In spite of these rumoured mines, it seems pretty clear now that nothing was ever found. However, Yallambee at Heidelberg would prove to be fortunately located close to the roads leading to several diggings. A way side inn was established on the Plenty River at the end of present day Martins Lane to capture the goldfields traffic heading to the Caledonia field through Eltham and Wragge, as the Bakewells’ tenant at Yallambee, would find himself well placed to cater to this market.

“Little hostelries sprang up to offer refreshment to the digger at intervals along the way, and a river crossing settlement emerged at Lower Plenty, where a slab hut was built at the ford near Martins Lane.” (Edwards: The Diamond Valley Story, p40).

William Howitt
William Howitt

William Howitt was ostensibly looking for gold when he was in the colony in 1852 and visited his brother Godfrey’s, brothers in law at Yallambee. In the event, Howitt didn’t find much in the two years he spent on the gold fields but his experiences as described in his monumental work “Land Labour and Gold,” are recognized today as an historically important primary document of life in gold rush era Victoria and include William’s description of the Bakewells’ Yallambee, (quoted previously in these pages).

In another primary account with a local interest from that time, Rebecca Greaves wrote a letter to an uncle in England at the end of 1851 from her parents’ farm in Greensborough, just upriver from Yallambee, and giving her own impressions of the early stages of the Victorian gold rushes at a time when it was still considered “that the Plenty all along abounds in gold”:

“…I read an account that a gentleman I know in Melbourne had the first shovel full found a piece of solid gold the size of a duck’s egg whereas there other gents that were with him only found 2 or three grains and Doctor Barker one of the party did not find any at all so it is all chance. I have seen some of it in the stone it is found in is exactly the same as the marble on our land in fact it is thought that the Plenty all along abounds in gold it is on the Plenty one of the places they are finding so much they are finding it in many parts of the country it is thought that Victoria abounds in Gold, “now what do you think of our emigrating to this gold region?” Everyone has left town to go to the diggings there is not a man or boy to be seen in town even the gents at the Bank are “off to the diggings” such an uproar never was known in the colony before not a ship can leave the bay for as soon as the ships get in port the sailors away to the Gold mines go where you will you cannot see a man unless it is an old man like my Father the papers are full of shops to let on account of the owners going to the “diggings” they are exactly the same plight at Sydney they are finding Gold all over the country; it seems to have raised some of the poor faint hearted English cakes now they have heard of Gold being found in quantities in Victoria they can raise courage enough to come out by ship loads but even now I would not persuade anyone to come all I can say is that the farewells of large families are complete soft cakes to remain in England when once they hear of a country that anyone must do work in if I were only a young man would not I go gold digging and even now I feel half inclined to dress in man’s clothes and go I am certain if I could not dig I could rock the cradle only I should be afraid they would know I was not a man as I should not like to part with my curls for that you know Uncle would spoil my beauty would it not and that certainly would be a great pity…” (Extract from a letter written by 23 year old Rebecca Sarah Greaves at Greensborough, dated 25 November, 1851).

Ray Harryhausen's fleece, the sort of gold that Jason found on Colchis.
“…he did eventually find gold of another kind, in the form of fleece from the sheep’s back…”.

In spite of the hopes of men like Frencham and the beliefs of Rebecca Greaves, the Plenty River  never really got going as gold country although Victoria as a whole would for a while prove to have some of the richest fields the world has ever known. Although Wragge didn’t try his luck on these goldfields he did eventually find gold of another kind, in the form of fleece from the sheep’s back and he died a wealthy man. By the time he pulled up stumps at Yallambie in 1910, the £25 capital he carried with him on arrival had increased to more than £400,000.

Those golden days are long ended although today the signs of those times can still be seen in the occasional abandoned mullock heaps of the bush and in the presence of grand, gold rush era, inland towns. My father, a Ballarat boy born and bred, was known to point knowingly at times towards the horizon when visiting that town saying, “There’s more gold in those hills than ever came out of them.” He was speaking maybe from family experience since legend has it that, before the war, his family were supposed to have kept a large suede bag full of gold dust and quartz. “It was from the old days when your great grandfather was a miner and it was kept over for a time of need.” His childhood was marked by the years of the Great Depression and by end of the War, that bag and its contents were most definitely gone.

Lerderderg River, September, 2013.
Lerderderg River, September, 2013.

As a kid I used to go bushwalking into the Lerderderg Gorge halfway to Ballarat, using an old miners’ mule track which led down to the river. The Lerderderg is very close to Melbourne but as a lad it was like walking into a world of my imagination not unlike Middle-earth. There was a mine tunnel there which went in one side of a ridge and came out the other, all dug by hand by Chinese miners in the 19th century and held up without timber supports. It used to be a test of courage for us as kids to crawl through the tunnel with small battery torches from one end to the other with the roof and walls gradually getting narrower and narrower until emerging in a scramble on the other side. I went back there a few years ago with my own son but could no longer find the entrance to the tunnel. All that remained of it by then was a big hole in the side of the ridge marking the location of its collapse. Another example in the “what ifs” of life’s story.

Uncle Scrooge contemplates one of life's eternal verities. (From Uncle Scrooge: Back to the Klondike, 1953).
Uncle Scrooge contemplates one of life’s eternal verities. (From Uncle Scrooge: Back to the Klondike, 1953).

Tolkein once noted, “All that is gold does not glitter” which references a much older saying. Whatever the source, its age old meaning remains true. Not everyone who went looking for gold in Victoria in the 1850s necessarily found what they were looking for, even those who like Hume’s Madame Midas found a dash of the precious metal at the bottom of a mine shaft or in a pan dipped into a river. But gold can be found in sometimes unexpected places. chaplin_goldIt might be the gold in the memory of a childhood adventure in an abandoned mine or in the worth of fleece cut from a sheep’s back. It might be a certain note in a piece of music that you love or it might even be the gold in that moment when your football team gets up by a point with a kick after the siren. And it may be the gold in a simple smile.

That’s gold.

 

ON YOUR BIKE

“The journey of life is like a man riding a bicycle. We know he got on the bicycle and started to move. We know that at some point he will stop and get off. We know that if he stops moving and does not get off he will fall off.” (William Golding)

According to one survey, 43% of all Australians own a bicycle. It’s not clear whether that statistic counts every rusted machine parked with bent pedals at the back of every garage, or every bike gathering dust under a house across the nation, but one thing is pretty clear. There are an awful lot of bikes out there. Bike riding is big in the north east and in Yallambie, the history of cycling is probably a lot more extensive than people generally realize as they pedal around the neighborhood.

The late 19th century saw the world’s first “bike craze” and a proliferation in the number of bike makers. Some of them, like the Dux Cycle Co. of Little Collins St, Melbourne which employed 150 workers, were established locally. The Dux cause was helped when a Dux was used for the first Perth to Brisbane cycle ride in 1897, a distance of nearly 6000km.

Australia found itself literally in the mainstream of the world-wide bicycle boom as it emerged from the financial recession of the early 1890s and by 1897 there were over 150 brands of home grown and imported bicycles to choose from. Innovations such as the tubular steel frame, the ball bearing, roller bearing chain and pneumatic tyres were all products of advanced manufacturing techniques but in practice, any reasonably competent home handyman or bush mechanic could assemble or repair them. While bikes were comparatively expensive to buy they were ultimately a much cheaper alternative to keeping a horse and trap or even to buying regular rail tickets. As Jim Fitzpatrick observed in the introduction to “The Bicycle and the Bush”, his widely regarded book on the history of Australian pedalling, the bicycle: “required no food or water, was two or three times as fast as a horse or a camel, and did not drop dead from eating poisonous plants.”

Harry Wragge riding his bicycle at Yallambie on the Homestead road, south of the stableyard, c1895, (Bush collection).
Harry Wragge riding his bicycle at Yallambie on the Homestead road, south of the stable yard, c1895, (Bush collection).

In Yallambie, Henry Ernest “Harry” Wragge, (born 1880), the youngest son of Yallambie Homestead’s Thomas Wragge, was an early exponent of bike riding in this district. Harry had a life-long fascination with all things mechanical and is known to have owned a bicycle by May, 1896. (Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p145). The first Australian Cycle Show was held in March that year and it would be interesting to know if the teenage Harry convinced his parents to purchase a bike after attending the show.

Harry Wragge with his diamond frame, "safety" bicycle, photographed near the front door of Yallambie Homestead, looking towards the northern gate into the farm yard area, c1900, (Bush collection).
Harry Wragge with his diamond frame, “safety” bicycle, photographed near the front door of Yallambie Homestead, looking towards the northern gate into the farm yard area, c1900, (Bush collection).

A photograph in the Bush collection shows a young Harry riding his bike along the Homestead Road in front of the house garden on what is now the Lower Plenty end of Yallambie Rd and another shows Harry at a slightly later date, standing proudly alongside his pushbike in front of the Yallambie stable yard. Harry’s machine was a diamond frame, “safety” bicycle, a style first perfected by Humber in 1890 and known as the “safety” because of the ease and safety of riding one compared to the “ordinary” or “Penny Farthing” type. It is a design that, with few real modifications, has remained the most common bicycle design up to the present day.

Diamond Creek's music teacher, Ada Lawrey used her bicycle to deliver piano lessons throughout the district. (Source: E Tingman, The Diamond Valley Story by D H Edwards)
Diamond Creek’s music teacher, Ada Lawrey used her bicycle to deliver piano lessons throughout the district. (Source: E Tingman, The Diamond Valley Story by D H Edwards)

Another early rider was Ada Lawrey, the daughter of one of Diamond Creek’s first settlers and a music teacher who at the start of the 20th century used her bicycle to pedal widely around the district giving piano lessons. A photograph shows her inside the gates of her parents’ Diamond Creek home alongside a fine looking machine, complete with a bicycle luggage carrying valise attached to the frame, ideal perhaps for carrying her lunch box and fork, or maybe just a tuning fork.

Bike riders at Kent's Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1900.
Bike riders at Kent’s Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1900.

Cycling clubs were formed in many places and city dwellers travelled on bicycles to places near and far in the country side that were a refreshing change to the grime and factories of inner-city Melbourne. In several of the earliest extant photographs of the Plenty Bridge Hotel, bicycles are seen pulled up outside the building, evidence perhaps of the importance of the old hotel as a stopping place for travellers on the Plenty River on the road from Melbourne to Eltham and beyond.

Newspaper report from p10, "The Age", 15 April, 1907.
Newspaper report from p10, “The Age”, 15 April, 1907.

A 1907 newspaper report in “The Age” described a cycle race organized by the “League of Victorian Wheelmen” and promoted by the publican of the Plenty Bridge Hotel. The route followed country roads from the Plenty Bridge to Bundoora and back again over a “bad course” with “hilly roads and dangerous turns”. For the record, a Mr D Hall won the event, on a handicap.

When I surveyed my old bike at the back of the garage last week with this post in mind, it seemed like it too was starting with something of a handicap. It was purchased nearly a decade ago from a large supermarket chain, familiar to most people in this town, and looked like it was worth what I paid for it that day I went shopping with money for a loaf of bread and came home with a bike.

barnum_baileyMy thoughts strayed. ‘Whatever happened to the bike my father brought home as a rusted old frame “found in a paddock”?’ I spent weeks sanding and repairing that bit of scrap metal and then delivered newspapers from it on dark mornings throughout Rosanna. It later took me on trips as far afield as Bendigo and Ballarat and for a while it seemed indestructable but as I recall, died a sudden death one day as I rode home from Heidelberg Park with football boots dangling across the handlebars. The boots became entangled with the front wheel and, with the front wheel motion suddenly arrested, the rest of the bike and associated rider were destined to continue, the resulting Barnum & Bailey circus somersault a clown act to recall.

That’s what happened to it.

What chance today? In the end I wheeled out my wife’s old pushbike from the garage instead, a good looking, red “girl’s” version with no horizontal bar and streamers on the handlebars. The tyres were a bit perished but it had been a fine machine in its day although that day apparently had been some time ago.

“You’re not going out looking like that are you,” my wife said when she saw the overall effect of me sitting astride her glorious, red retro riding road machine in an outfit she said resembled a 1920s bathing costume.

“Why not? I forgive people wearing Lycra don’t I?”

“I’m glad he didn’t ask me,” said the boy not looking up from his iPhone.

“You don’t know what you’re missing. It’ll be just like Pokemon Go.”

Main Yarra Trail at the intersection with the start of the Plenty River Trail, July, 2016.
Main Yarra Trail at the intersection with the start of the Plenty River Trail, July, 2016.

TRAILING THE PLENTY RIVER:

The Plenty River Trail is a shared path that leaves the Main Yarra Trail near the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers in the south and follows the Plenty River valley to a point beyond the northern margins of Greensborough. The Main Yarra Trail is like a wide open highway compared to the Plenty River trail and gets commensurately more cycling traffic as a result.

Confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers, July, 2016.
Confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers, July, 2016.

As I approached the branch to the Plenty River Trail on a recent weekend now past, a tandem bicycle flew past me on a journey down the Yarra, its riders grinding away at the pedals on the level flood plain of the Yarra Trail to achieve a missile like velocity. ‘Cripes, I’d like to see them try that on up there,’ I thought to myself as I looked at the incline that is the start of the Plenty River Trail.

plenty_bike_map

“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do,
I’m half-crazy all for the love of you.
It won’t be a stylish marriage –
I can’t afford a carriage,
But you’d look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two.”

The Plenty Trail leaves the Main Yarra Trail at Viewbank at this point and rises quickly to the vicinity of the old Viewbank Homestead archaeological site, an ascent of about 30m where commanding views are to be had out across Bulleen and Templestowe. The day I was there a fine winter breeze was blowing and enthusiasts were flying a large model sail plane out over the valley. It was presumably radio controlled since like a boomerang, it kept coming back no matter how many times they tried to get rid of it.

Rural scenery at Viewbank Homestead historic site, July, 2016.
Rural scenery at Viewbank Homestead historic site, July, 2016.

Beyond this, the path crosses Banyule Rd and runs in a straight line alongside Hendersons Rd. It passes a pony club where it descends steeply to a point at the end of Martins Lane where, as mentioned previously, my wife’s great grandfather once kept a spectacularly unsuccessful chicken farm.

The Trail then crosses the Plenty River, the first of many crossings, and follows a route at the back of Heidelberg Golf Club between the Club and the River. For many years this was the “missing link” in the trail as the Golf Club and Council struggled to come to an agreement about the siting of the path and a bridge. After agreement was reached, the link was finally opened to riders and pedestrians in March, 2007.

Old Lower Plenty Road, Bridge and Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1957
Old Lower Plenty Road, Bridge and Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1957

Crossing the River again via the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge adjacent to the former site of the Plenty Bridge Hotel, the Trail is then in Yallambie territory proper.

Plenty River in flood looking upstream towards the site of the old pump house (removed early 1980s) which had earlier replaced the windmill visible here.
Plenty River in flood looking upstream towards the site of the old pump house (removed early 1980s) which had earlier replaced the windmill visible here. (Bush collection).

It passes the Yallambie Tennis Club and the Soccer Ground before rounding out onto the Yallambie common at the next bend in the River. The well-remembered “Lone” Hoop Pine, oak trees, cypresses and remnant orchard are the neglected features of the National Trust Classified landscape that can be found here.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view XII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of hut with creek in foreground.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view XII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of hut with creek in foreground. (National Gallery of Victoria)

Beyond this are the locations of William Greig’s 1840 farm and William Laing’s Woodside (Casa Maria), the site of the latter being marked by several ancient Italian Cypress trees which can be seen standing on a ridge high above the River.

The path then splits in two and there is a choice of following it for some way on either side of the River, a relic of the days when the River marked the boundary between the Shires of Diamond Valley and Eltham and the two banks were under separate administrations. Today the whole of the Plenty River Trail falls within the Municipality of Banyule with Yallambie at its centre.

Up river, the Montmorency Football Oval on the eastern or “Monty side” covers the site of a former tip. Wonder in awe at a time when it was thought environmentally OK to use a river landscape as a tipping ground! The area is well maintained but if you look closely at the river bank below the oval you can see some evidence of its previous use at places where the bank is eroded.

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

After Montmorency Secondary College is passed, the Trail arrives at the Willinda Park Athletics Track where it becomes a single path on the western side of the River. On the eastern side, the factories on Para Rd show their backs to the River but even here wild life can be found. I stood looking from a distance at what I thought was a tree stump at the back of the factories, trying to make my mind up about what I was looking at. Then it moved and the kangaroo I had in fact been watching, hopped away and out of sight.

At what was formerly the northern most boundary of the old Montmorency Farm, Para Rd and the Greensborough/Eltham single track railway cross the River using separate bridges and here the Plenty River Trail appears for the moment to end abruptly in a residential court. The Trail is not well sign posted throughout its length but at this point it leaves you guessing completely about what course to follow next. The answer is to travel about 100m along Bicton St and resume the Trail at the far end.

At Poulter Reserve the Greensborough rail station can be accessed by riders who have had enough and want to return home via a train or cross to the looming ugly presence of the Greensborough Plaza for a café latte.

Further on, the Trail crosses the River again under the Main Street Bridge next to the remains of the old swimming pool that was built in the Depression within the bed of the Plenty River itself.

Cheltenham Cycle Club under the old Main Rd Bridge, Greensborough, 1897, (Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
Cheltenham Cycle Club under the old Main Rd Bridge, Greensborough, 1897, (Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

Lost history abounds here. A photograph of bicycle riders at the original blue stone bridge in 1897 is another reminder of the area’s historic popularity with riders. The original 1864 blue stone bridge was removed progressively from 1974 until 1983, its massive blue stone buttresses being turned into a barbecue on the corner of Main St and St Helena Rd above in what was surely a loss to local history but a win for sausages.

Old orchard scene showing Willis Vale Farm apple trees on Partington's Flat. (Source: Greensborough Historical Society).
Old orchard scene showing Willis Vale Farm apple trees on Partington’s Flat. (Source: Greensborough Historical Society).

A dinky little suspension bridge crosses to Whatmough Park on Partington’s Flat where the original farm, Willis Vale, was formerly situated until being burned out by a bushfire in the 1950s. Local football is played at many of the ovals along the River on any given weekend and the day I was at Partington’s, a DVFL game was in progress between St Mary’s and Epping. It might have been a reserves game but it was very popularly attended and an example of how I remember footy used to be played. The skills were of course a long way short of AFL standard but for all that, or perhaps because of it, I found it was a very enjoyable game to watch. Forget the “flood” of players up the ground, a feature of AFL football in the modern day.  I saw a bit of mud, a bit of biffo and a full forward who stayed rooted to the goal square, waiting for the ball to be kicked to him.

And further to the record, after trailing early, St Mary’s beat Epping 11.16 to 9.3.

"Goat track" leading to the Greensborough Bypass Trail from the Plenty River Trail, July, 2016.
“Goat track” leading to the Greensborough Bypass Trail from the Plenty River Trail, July, 2016.

Up-river from Partington’s, the Plenty River Trail passes under the Greensborough Bypass Road which crosses the River on an elevated roadway high above. A plane could fly under it. A Zeppelin could park under it. At this location there is an un-signposted “goat track” from Plenty River Dr at a point just about opposite Booyan Cres. The “goat track” is a mountain bike switch back but by successfully negotiating the mud for a short distance access can be gained to the Greensborough Bypass Cycle Path and thence to the Metropolitan Ring Rd Trail. By all reports you won’t find a single B-Double semi travelling in the outside lane.

"Batman Apple Tree" at Greensborough from "The Leader" newspaper April, 1910. (Picture by R G Brown, Museum Victoria Collections).
“Batman Apple Tree” at Greensborough from “The Leader” newspaper April, 1910. (Picture by R G Brown, Museum Victoria Collections).

Staying on the Plenty River Trail the path arrives at the so called “Batman Apple Tree” next to an easement below Corowa Cres and adjacent to the old Maroondah Aqueduct Pipe Bridge.

Early view of the Maroondah Aqueduct pipe bridge over the Plenty River at Greensborough, photographed by J H Henry, (National Library of Australia).
Early view of the Maroondah Aqueduct pipe bridge over the Plenty River at Greensborough, photographed by J H Henry, (National Library of Australia).

Nearby the Pioneer Children’s Cemetery holds the unmarked graves of children from the Whatmough and Partington families, early settlers on this part of the River. Not far beyond is the official end of the Plenty River Trail at the base of a flight of stairs leading down from Punkerri Circuit.

Official end of the Plenty River Trail below Punkerri Circuit, Greensborough, July, 2016.
Official end of the Plenty River Trail below Punkerri Circuit, Greensborough, July, 2016.

Although it is sign posted to this effect the trail is actually longer than its official 12.3km length and follows a path further along Dry Creek, the merry sound of water running nearby which surely belies its name. The track passes through a closed gate and along an unmade path to an easement running between Plenty River Drive and Mclaughlans Lane where the 520 bus to Doreen has a stop on Sugar Gum Blvd. This is the final end of the Plenty River Trail but the vicinity also marks the south eastern approaches to the Plenty Gorge Parklands, whose mountain bike adventure trails beckon more determined riders.

But that’s a whole other story.

Plenty river underbelly

Everyone loves a good story of crime and punishment. Like Dostoyevsky, we all like to ponder for a moment the motivations behind these stories, comfortably remembering all the while that it’s a tale that hopefully involves somebody else.

In the last post, the 11 year old John Henry Howitt wrote to his cousin Alfred in Europe, describing the Bakewell farm at Yallambee in 1842 and recounting in adolescent fashion the escapades of a gang of bushrangers who had been busy along the Plenty River at that time, holding up isolated homesteads up and down the valley, all along the way.

Would you not think it extremely pleasant to be bailed up in a corner with some one standing over you with a pistol threatening you with instant death if you stirred…” (1842 letter from John Henry Howitt to A. W. Howitt, SLV).

"with some one standing over you with a pistol threatening you with instant death if you stirred…"
“with some one standing over you with a pistol threatening you with instant death if you stirred…”

The Plenty River bushrangers.

It’s a fistful of dollars, narrative of Sergio Leone proportions. I first heard of them from another source in a hearsay anecdote told to me about Yallambee nearly 20 years ago. John Bakewell had been “shot in the arm by bushrangers in the early 1840s” went this surprising but improbable story which would appear now at best to have been a baseless exaggeration of history. It seems that these bushrangers never operated further south on the Plenty River than St Helena and they hardly wounded anyone in the process. John Henry Howitt’s own report of the events confirms that:

“Uncle’s escaped a visit from these Bushrangers and only heard of them the night before they were taken.” (John Henry Howitt).

However, had Yallambee been disturbed by the bushrangers, they may not have found the Bakewells completely underprepared. As Richard Howittt, writing of the situation of his brothers-in-law at Yallambee in that same year said:

“Guns were piled in corners, but which I dare say are now, the first country newness being over, seldom used.” (Impressions of Australia Felix, Richard Howitt).

The Plenty River gang were formed at a meeting in a back room of a hotel on the north-west corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets, Melbourne, early in 1842. The economy of the Port Phillip District was in recession that year. Money was tight for many and to the have-nots of the early colony, the settlers of the Plenty valley must have appeared as relatively well-off sitting ducks, ripe for the plucking.

Elizabeth Street, Melbourne in 1847 looking north past the Collins Street corner towards Bourke Street, where the Plenty River bushrangers met to plan their crimes. (Tinted lithograph by J. S. Prout, NLA.)
Elizabeth Street, Melbourne in 1847 looking north past the Collins Street corner towards Bourke Street, where the Plenty River bushrangers met to plan their crimes. (Tinted lithograph by J. S. Prout, NLA.)
"Cash and Company", bushranger TV drama.
“Cash and Company”, bushranger TV drama.

The gang of four was led by a 27 year old bounty immigrant, John Williams. The other members were Martin Fogarty aged 18,  Charles Ellis, 19, and an American, Daniel Jepps aged 27. They may have earlier been active in Geelong and Dandenong but then switched their operations to the Plenty where they proceeded to bail up numerable stations. For all their efforts however, the bushrangers were remarkably inept and in the end, didn’t really steal very much. Indeed, the story seems to contain all the elements of a melodramatic comedy.

"Fogarty was seen riding around in his (stolen) scarlet Austrian Hussar’s uniform..."
“Fogarty was seen riding around in his (stolen) scarlet Austrian Hussar’s uniform…”

They were romantic.

Fogarty was seen riding around in his (stolen) scarlet Austrian Hussar’s uniform, complete with a ceremonial sword.

They were fearless.

Jepps was observed nonchalantly lighting his pipe with bank notes in the face of the massed, levelled muskets of the besieging authorities.

And they had a sense of humour.

They shot a goose at one station and told the cook to prepare it for their return the next day and, when interrupting a meal at another station, they:

“…appropriated the roast ducks and red herrings to their own plebeian throats remarking that “you must make way for your betters gentlemen”… (while) regaling themselves with much glee…” (Port Phillip Herald, 1842).

Bushrangers raiding a house, an illustration from Melbourne Punch, 1864.
Bushrangers raiding a house, an illustration from Melbourne Punch, 1864.

But for all that, the confrontation with the authorities when it came was a violent affair. After all, these were desperate men in straitened times and they were pitted against the well-established order.

Legend has it that when reports of the bushrangers on the Plenty filtered through to the settlement at Melbourne, Superintendent La Trobe stood on the steps of the Melbourne Club and exhorted the Gentlemen of Melbourne to bring the miscreants to justice where the inept local police force had failed. The story may be apocryphal but in any event, five Port Phillip gentlemen were sworn in as special constables (later styled as the “Fighting Five” of Port Phillip: Henry Fowler, Peter Snodgrass, James Thompson, Robert Chamberlain and Oliver Goulay) and set off on the evening of Friday, 29 April, 1842 to hunt the gang down. They went first to Heidelberg in an attempt to gain up to date information and they may have visited the Bakewells at Yallambee in the process, as John Henry Howitt wrote that his uncle had heard about the bushrangers “the night before they were taken”.

The posse then systematically made their way up the Plenty River valley overnight, visiting each station in succession. Peter Snodgrass narrowly avoided being shot in the face when he went to the door of the St Helena Station homestead north of Yallambee where a pistol was presented at his head by someone who mistook him for one of the bushrangers. After identifying himself and the object of his party, Snodgrass was informed that the bushrangers had been in the area the day before but had left.

Photograph by Charles Nettleton of a rural station in northern Victoria but probably fairly typical of the sort of bark slab construction seen by the Plenty River bushrangers on the Upper Plenty in the 1840s, NLA.
Photograph by Charles Nettleton of a rural station in northern Victoria but probably fairly typical of the sort of bark slab construction seen by the Plenty River bushrangers on the Upper Plenty in the 1840s, NLA.

The posse eventually ran the Plenty River bushrangers to ground the next morning, Saturday, 30 April upriver, at Campbell Hunter’s “Wet Lowlands” station, located just north of present day Milky Lane, an extension of Wildwood Rd, Whittlesea.

Bushrangers sitting down to dinner, an illustration from Melbourne Punch, 1864.
Bushrangers sitting down to dinner, an illustration from Melbourne Punch, 1864.

The pursuers discovered the bushrangers sitting down to a (purloined) breakfast at the station and spurred their horses to the charge. The station owner, Campbell Hunter and five others had up to that moment been held prisoner against a fence at the homestead while the bushrangers ate their fill but effected an escape during the charge. Fogarty, Jepps and Ellis retreated to the Wet Lowlands homestead but Williams instead took cover in a nearby shed.

The battle was ferocious. Goulay was first on the scene, forcing the shed door open where he came face to face with Williams who was armed to the teeth and held pistols in either hand. As Williams fired one pistol, Goulay dodged the ball knocking the second pistol aside and shoving his own into the bushranger’s mouth. He pulled the trigger but instead of sending Williams into eternity, the weapon misfired. Reversing it he clubbed Williams about the head with the butt end, struggling with him onto the floor where the bushranger managed to pull another pistol out of his belt and fired it at point blank into Goulay’s side. Goulay, thinking himself a dead man, swooned and called for assistance but the ball had hit a powder flask in his coat pocket and had been deflected. Snodgrass burst into the shed to find Goulay still struggling with Williams, took aim at the bushranger with his musket and fired.

The former duellist, Peter Snodgrass.
The former duellist, Peter Snodgrass.

Snodgrass had previously been known as a duellist who, in a farcical encounter with William Ryrie using a pair of hair trigger pistols borrowed from Joseph Hawdon of Banyule, Heidelberg, had only managed to prematurely shoot himself in his own foot. (Ryrie sportingly delivered his own shot into the air.) On this occasion, Snodgrass’s aim was slightly better for his ball hit its mark, but not before grazing the head of the hapless Goulay in the process. Williams however, like a cat with nine lives, was “not dead yet”. Channelling Rasputin he struggled to his feet, drew yet another pistol and declared, “I’ll die game.” Snodgrass then dashed forward and broke the stock of his musket over Williams’ head, perhaps in an attempt to see which of the two was the harder, just as Chamberlain appeared in the doorway and fired his pistol, killing the leader of the Plenty River bushrangers on the spot.

The siege of the Plenty River Bushrangers, the so called "Battle of Wet Lowlands" took place at Campbell Hunter's station on 30 April, 1842. ("Tales of Old Time, C H Chomley, 1903).
The “Battle of Wet Lowlands”. (“Tales of Old Time, C H Chomley, 1903).

The three remaining bushrangers meanwhile defended themselves with a fusillade of gunfire from the homestead. Henry Fowler was hit in the face and had to be escorted from the field of battle but the gentlemen were soon joined by reinforcements at Wet Lowlands in the form of a party of 12 settlers and constables drawn to the scene of the siege. A barrage of shots were exchanged over a period of several hours without further serious damage being done on either side before the three remaining “not dead yet” bushrangers consigned themselves to their inevitable fate and surrendered to their attackers. But not before Jepps had presented himself as a target outside the homestead, lighting his pipe with currency notes in the manner described earlier, in a suicidal attempt to beat the hangman. When they were searched, the bushrangers’ immediate loot amounted to nothing more than a few gold and silver watches, some shillings and sovereigns, a gold chain and stamp, and a few other assorted trifles. The settlers of the Plenty River valley we find were not so very well off after all.

The notorious supreme court judge Hon John Walpole Willis, not the first judge to have been removed from office but the first to have been sacked twice.
The notorious supreme court judge Hon John Walpole Willis, not the first judge to have been removed from office but the first to have been sacked twice.

The surviving bushrangers were brought before the irascible John Walpole Willis in Melbourne, the Resident Supreme Court Judge of Port Phillip. Their case was probably not helped when it was revealed that one object of the bushrangers was to meet Willis on the Heidelberg Road and kill him, their mistaken belief being that, in the event of their capture, they could not be tried in the absence of a Supreme Court Judge at the settlement.

The three prisoners were accordingly convicted and condemned, although Willis to his credit recommended mercy for Jepps, a recommendation in the event denied by the court in Sydney. The execution took place in front of a crowd of several thousand people in Melbourne on 28 June, 1842, the first white men to be hanged in Port Phillip. (The Aboriginals, Bob and Jack, had been executed previously in January, that same year).

The Plenty River bushrangers were not the only bushrangers to make a mark in Victoria, but they were among the first. The ruins of the Wet Lowlands homestead were visible for many years up until the end of the 19th century near the present day Yan Yean Reservoir, the timber framing of the structure still bearing the ball marks of the exchange of fire from that day in 1842. Another early construction in the same area that may be connected with this story is “Bear’s Castle”. It survives to this day on the banks of the Yan Yean and is romantically believed by some to have been built by the Plenty River settler, John Bear, as a protection from bushrangers, (or Aboriginals), after his family were terrorised by the Plenty River gang.

Bear's Castle, Yan Yean, from a 1905 postcard.
Bear’s Castle, Yan Yean, from a 1905 postcard.

Lindsay Mann has researched and written comprehensively on this subject in “The Plenty River Bushrangers of 1842” and Michael Jones also covered the subject with a chapter in “Nature’s Plenty”. During their short career however, the Plenty River bushrangers never actually managed to kill anyone and it is this fact that has been given latterly as a reason for their story becoming otherwise largely forgotten by history.

"The most well-known highwayman of the 18th century."
“The most well-known highwayman of the 18th century.”

One way of looking at bushranging in Australia in the 19th century is as an extension of the English highwayman tradition of the previous century. Unlike the Plenty River bushrangers however, the most well-known highwayman of the 18th century, Dick Turpin, did kill but only when threatened by capture.

"Horrible Histories" channels Adam Ant and the story of Dick Turpin.
“Horrible Histories” channels Adam Ant and the story of Dick Turpin.

Adam Ant on the other hand never killed anyone, although he possibly damaged some ears along the way.

A bushranger killed Henry Hurst at Hurstbridge in 1866, not far from the scene of the earlier activities of the Plenty River gang and Australia’s most famous (or should that read infamous?) bushranger, Ned Kelly, also killed, but we forgive Kelly this for the sake of his sartorial style. Kelly was born at neighbouring Beveridge in about 1854. The ensuing “Kelly Outbreak” of the 1870s is seen now as the “last expression of the lawless frontier”. (Serle)

"The Trial", Sydney Nolan, NGA. Painted in 1947 a few kilometres south of Yallambie at "Heide", the home of John and Sunday Reed.
“The Trial”, Sydney Nolan, NGA. Painted in 1947 a few kilometres south of Yallambie at “Heide”, the home of John and Sunday Reed.

However, even before this “last expression of the lawless frontier”, the image of the Australian bushranger had already entered the popular imagination in a similar way to that of the Old West as represented in Buffalo Bill Cody’s shows. William Howitt, who visited Yallambee in 1852, had personal experience of bushrangers during his travels across the early gold fields of northern Victoria:

The visitor to "Yallambee", William Howitt, drew upon personal experience with bushrangers in northern Victoria to write stories of the Australian bush.
The visitor to “Yallambee”, William Howitt, drew upon personal experience with bushrangers in northern Victoria to write stories of the Australian bush.

“…I determined, if they demanded money, to go into the tent, on pretence of fetching it, and giving them the contents of a revolver in rotation.” (Land, Labour and Gold, William Howitt).

He later used these travel experiences as an inspiration for a work of fiction, “A Boy’s Adventures in the Wilds of Australia”.

Similarly, it has been noted by others that the writer Ernest William Hornung, who created the gentleman thief A. J. Raffles, was inspired by stories of bushrangers during a two year visit to Australia in the 1880s. The suggestion goes that Hornung became absorbed specifically with the tale of the Plenty River bushrangers during that time and in one of his stories, written in 1899, Raffles is seen recalling a visit to the Plenty River.

“It was an interesting ride enough, especially after passing the place called Whittlesea, a real wild township on the lower slopes of the ranges, where I recollect having a deadly meal of hot mutton and tea, with the thermometer at three figures in the shade.” (Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman, E. W. Hornung).

In a case of mistaken identities, Raffles robs a country bank during the confusion in the neighbourhood caused by a bushranger attack.

“…a huge chap in a red checked shirt, with a beard like W. G. Grace, but the very devil of an expression.” (ibid)

So the Plenty River bushrangers lived on, at least for a while it seems in popular literature. Material maybe for the ultimate in prequels to a certain television franchise, the Plenty River “Underbelly”. After all, when it comes to crime and punishment there’s nothing new under the Australian sun.

 

Selected sources:
 “The Plenty River Bushrangers of 1842”, Lindsay Mann
 “The Australian Experience in the Plenty Valley” (Plenty Valley Papers vol 2), edited by Lucy M Grace Ellem
 “1842, The Public Executions at Melbourne”, compiled by Ian MacFarlane
 “Nature’s Plenty”, Michael Jones