Category Archives: Days

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

Things that go bump in the night

It was a dark and stormy night.

It was one of those nights when the wind blows around the roof tops and rattles the windows like an unseen hand demanding attention. It was one of those nights when your thoughts naturally turn to the spectral as you speculate what might be on the end of that unseen hand. It might even have been one of those nights when the hands of the blogger are stained purple by his own prose.

A family was walking quickly along Tarcoola Drive, glancing in at the dark facade of Yallambie Homestead as they passed.

“That’s the spooky house,” said a child.

Red sky, 2013.
A sky of purple prose, March, 2013.

I witnessed this. It’s not the first time I’ve heard something of the sort.

On that dark and stormy night, I couldn’t help but think, the kid had a point. Taken on the whole, the old pile can look a bit creepy at times. It’s an impression that appears to move some more so than others. I’ve seen many a full moon rise over the chimneys.

Moon rise at Yallambie, April, 2014.
Moon rise at Yallambie, April, 2014.

I’ve even watched the occasional bat flutter around the crumbling balconies. But for mine, the night I arrived home in a “pea soup” fog to find an enormous white owl perched silently on the iron post cap of the front gates, its grey silhouette just a shade darker than the sky and almost indecipherable from the surrounding gloom, just about sums it up. That was spooky, kiddo.

Main gate at Yallambie, minus owl, c1900.
Main gate at Yallambie, minus owl, c1900.

With that in mind and to underline Halloween, the 31st October, let us suspend all belief and enter the eerie world of things that go bump in the night. And that’s not just in the bedroom.

Halloween or “All Saints’ Eve” is the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows Day, the time in the liturgical calendar dedicated to remembering the dead. The word Halloween comes from the Scots and means “hallowed evening” with a focus on the use of humour and ridicule to confront death.

Halloween wasn’t something that was observed when I was a kid but we knew a bit about it all the same from American sit coms where children were depicted “trick or treating”. Today Halloween bumps have become a bumper business in Australia. Halloween fills in that gap in the commercial calendar in the lead up to Christmas. The shops here have been filled with suggestions for weeks. Personally, I’m still awaiting the coming of the Great Pumpkin from last year.

Small children might point at Yallambie Homestead and call it “spooky” but any house that’s been lived in for a long time by successive families develops a history. The stories of the occupants of a home become intertwined with the story of the building. The present Homestead was built over 140 years ago and stayed in the hands of the original family for the first 90 years of its life. There have been three subsequent owners.

In the garden at Yallambie in an era before the National Firearms Agreement. Bob Katter please take note. Will Wragge died 11 July, 1906 from injuries sustained in a shooting accident while climbing over a post and rail fence in the orchard, (now Yallambie Muncipal Park) at a point in the background immediately beyond this photograph.
In the garden at Yallambie in an era before the National Firearms Agreement. Bob Katter please take note. Will Wragge died 11 July, 1906 from injuries sustained in a shooting accident while climbing over a post and rail fence in the orchard, (now Yallambie Muncipal Park) at a point in the background immediately beyond this photograph.


The lives and sometimes the deaths of these people are the interwoven tapestry that are its story, even where that tapestry by chance was touched by misadventure. The third son of Thomas Wragge managed to shoot himself in the garden at Yallambie in 1906 after going out alone in the early morning in pursuit of a fox. When the body was found it was assumed that in the process of climbing over a fence with his gun loaded, the weapon had discharged accidentally while pointing at his body at point blank range.

Will was 30 years old and a bachelor when he died. After the event there was a rumour circulated that the death was suicide resulting from an unhappy love affair, but this theory seems to have been contradicted in later years, rather than confirmed. (Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, pp143-144).

So much for just one thread. Before the War, Bonnie Meares, the wife of the renowned psychiatrist Dr Ainslee Meares, was adamant that Yallambie Homestead was in fact, haunted.

The spooky house, March, 1997.
The spooky house, March, 1997. Bonnie Meare’s “haunted” room is the illuminated window upstairs on the left.

The Meares were friends of the Wragge family and in 1934 purchased the western most portion of the Yallambie estate to build “Aldermaston”, the fine neo-Tudor home still standing today within the grounds of the Simpson Army Barracks. Bonnie believed one room at the Homestead, a room that had in the 19th century been used as an upstairs billiards room, was the particular hang out of the friendly phantasms. This room had been altered in the 1923 renovations and its floors raised to bring it onto a level with the general first floor layout. It had originally been built on a level somewhat lower than the other upstairs rooms with access being gained from a side return taken from the original, Victorian era stair case. The net result of this alteration today is that the ceiling in this area appears to be somewhat lower in relation to the other upper level rooms. Access is gained along a narrow corridor, itself an early addition to the house and the feeling as you walk into it I must say is one of somewhat uncomfortable constraint. Even today it’s easy to understand Bonnie Meare’s reaction.

I have known a visitor to Yallambie Homestead run out of the house and refuse to return after entering this room alone, claiming she had heard and even felt a presence behind her, breathing down her neck. In an intriguing aside, when I went to the Simpson Army Barracks in March prior to writing my post, Diggers in the Garden State, the security guards I chatted with on the gate proffered what they said was a commonly held belief at the barracks, that Aldermaston was itself haunted. So maybe Bonnie never really left the area after all.

There have been others who have made claim to similar and additional clairaudient experiences at Yallambie (the thump of a clodhopping possum can sound amazingly like a footfall, can’t it?) and several have made claim to hearing ethereal voices. One friend who was staying with us and who was alone in the house at the time told me that he had listened for some time from the stairs to low voices emanating from a back room where a fire had been left burning low on the hearth. Another mentions this room and the bathroom next door as a place she is uncomfortable with. She would rather cross her legs she says than experience “a feeling of resentment felt from the spirit toward having people in the space.” I guess it makes for short visits. The other day my wife complained about somebody leaving the toilet seat up. I said I thought it must have been the spook. I don’t think she accepted this excuse.

The “spook” is a good generic explanation for anything of an unexplained nature that happens around the home. When our son was a baby, a clock work, musical mobile suddenly burst to life over our bed next to the cot in the dead of night. I suppose the mechanism must have been finely balanced and was left ready to act unprompted. Maybe a change in air temperature started it moving. That’s what I told myself anyway as the mobile spun little elephants wildly about, playing a maniacal tune in the night as we pulled the bed covers back over the top of our heads. Then there was the mechanical Santa that was found inexplicably singing Jingle Bells over and over again when we arrived home one Christmas Eve after a night out. Obviously a short circuit…

Occasionally unexpected aromas have been experienced, like the strong smell of pipe tobacco in the vicinity of the Wragge’s old smoking room (this, in a smoke free and, pertinent to this story, generally alcohol and certainly hallucinogenic free house hold). On another occasion a trace of kerosene as once burned in early oil lamps was identified, but where today no kerosene is present.

My wife once claimed to have smelled a cake being baked and was so convinced that I was home and busy in the kitchen baking for her benefit that she was disappointed to find me absent when she investigated. Perhaps these smells permeate the fabric of a building and can somehow present themselves years later to the subsequent occupiers of a building? A bit like the boy’s tennis socks after a Saturday morning game.

At the Homestead launch of Winty Calder’s book, Finding Uncle Harry”, (Winty Calder, Jimaringle Publications, 2004), during the speeches some reference was made to the unusual circumstances surrounding the discovery of Harry Wragge’s diary which had led to Calder’s publication. A wag in the assembly joked out loud that the Homestead was obviously haunted and that Harry’s spirit must have been hanging around like Casper, just waiting to be found and his story told.


As if on queue the flash of an old camera being used immediately exploded without damage but with a loud report. This was followed by a few nervous titters then silence from the audience before the book launch proceeded in a more subdued fashion.

Probably the oddest thing we have ever experienced here however and something that I can honestly attest to, occurred some years ago. My wife and I were sitting up late in front of a fire in the dark. The glazed doors of the room looked into the front hall but were closed against the cold that evening. For a moment a small light appeared in the darkened hall outside and was seen to float along the passage before passing through the glass of the front entrance and reappearing briefly outside and dissolving in a sudden, silent flash. Astonished I immediately asked my wife what she had seen. She described the event exactly as I had seen it. Maybe if I had been on my own I might have thought I had dreamed the experience but this really happened just as I have described it. Looking for a rational explanation later we speculated that perhaps we had witnessed the very rare phenomena of ball lightning. Such atmospheric electrical events are so rare however that scientists for years even doubted their existence. The alternative explanation though seems to me even less likely.

It was one of those dark nights when you weren't sure if it was going to be stormy or not.
It was one of those dark nights when you weren’t sure if it was going to be stormy or not.

In truth, I don’t really believe in ghostly manifestations although they do make a good fireside story on a dark and stormy night. Or improbable material for an unlikely WordPress post.

I do believe however in the occasional guiding hand in life along the road of life’s long highway. The so called “shifty shadow” or “hairy hand of God”. In the United States where the Constitution prohibits religious teaching in schools, the idea that there is a grand plan to the universe is called intelligent design. In Europe they smash protons together at close to the speed of light in a tunnel under a Swiss mountain range in search of that designer. The way I look at it, like in John Conway’s “Game of Life”, (not really a game but an exercise in creating an artificial, deterministic universe), sometimes things just seem to happen with an apparent purpose although all the signs are that the impression is largely an illusion. After all, as one writer so ably once put it, “Time is an illusion, lunch time doubly so.” There have been times when I have wished I could borrow Herbert George Wells time machine to go back for a second crack at it all the same. Doesn’t everyone wish that at some point?

I wish I could borrow Herbert George Wells time machine and go back for a second crack at it...
I wish I could borrow Herbert George Wells time machine and go back for a second crack at it…

Harry Houdini, who devoted a large part of his career to debunking spiritualists, promised that if it was at all possible, that he would return after his death to give a sign from beyond the grave.

Houdini died prematurely and people are still waiting for that sign to come from him. I don’t think I’ll be attempting that one myself when my time comes. There are already enough spooks here.

harry houdini


Chances are, if you put a hand in your pocket anywhere in Australia before 1966, what you would pull out would likely contain something dear to the memory of the late Thomas Wragge of Yallambie.

"...something dear to the memory of the late Thomas Wragge"
“…something dear to the memory of the late Thomas Wragge”

The “shilling ram”. It was a common enough Australian coin from before the Second World War until the introduction of decimal currency in 1966 and featured the portrait of a fine Merino known as “Uardry 0.1”, the Sydney Show Grand Champion ram of 1932.

Bet you didn’t know that sheep have names. Well at least the important ones do.  Names like “Kevin” and “Bob” I have no doubt, (although when addressing one another, I have it on good authority that most sheep resort to the more usual sobriquet of “Baa”).

Thomas Wragge had been dead many years before that first shiny, shilling ram was struck so he never saw one in life. He collected more than his fair share of shillings in his woolly career though. Much more than his share those with a Socialist bent might say, including a good measure from activities at the Uardry Station itself with which property he was pretty well acquainted at one time.

Thomas was first and foremost a sheep farmer. I don’t know much about farming sheep personally but I suppose there’s probably more to it than just planting a few sheep seeds in the ground, splashing them with a watering can and watching them push up like little daisies.

Young Thomas Wragge arrived in the newly proclaimed Colony of Victoria in November, 1851 aged 21, but he showed no interest in rushing off to the Victorian gold fields. He believed in another form of gold, the sort that Jason found on Colchis.

Ray Harryhausen's fleece, the sort of gold that Jason found on Colchis.
Ray Harryhausen’s fleece, the sort of gold that Jason found on Colchis.

At different times in the 50s and 60s Thomas worked on, or leased, the 604 acre Heidelberg property “Yallambee Park” from its owners, John and Robert Bakewell who were wool sorters from Yorkshire, (see the October, 2014 post, “A Yallambie Historical Society”). But Yallambie was no sheep run.

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

In the early 1860s, while still involved with the Bakewells’ “Yallambee Park”, Thomas, together his brother William and brothers in law John and James Hearn, developed a 32,000 acre pastoral run in the Riverina. They named their property Uardry and it was they who introduced the first Merino sheep there, antecedents in a way perhaps of that very same “Uardry 0.1”, of 1932.

AKA, Mr Baa — the pre-decimal shilling ram.

Uardry 0.1
Uardry 0.1

The Wragge/Hearn Uardry venture lasted only a decade. By 1870 Thomas had left the partnership following a disagreement with at least one of his Hearn brothers in law. It was around this time that Thomas formally purchased “Yallambee Park” from John Bakewell (Robert having died in Middlesex in 1867, leaving his share to his brother) and commenced construction of the current Yallambie Homestead.

Thomas had determined to develop his own sheep station, branching out onto an anabranch of the Murray River, across the border in the colony of New South Wales. The 110,000 acre property (or rather properties) in New South Wales that he gradually acquired he called Tulla Station. Wragge built his first homestead at Tulla in 1873. Later in 1896, when the Riverina property was well established, he built another, grander Tulla under the supervision of his son Syd. In its heyday before being resumed by the government for closer settlement, it is said that Tulla and its out station Chowra, stocked one of the great Merino flocks of New South Wales.

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.
Chowar Homestead, an out station of Tulla on the Niemur River, photographed 1905.
Chowar Homestead, an out station of Tulla on the Niemur River, photographed 1905.

Thomas Wragge used his estate at Yallambie as his city digs while making a fortune from his Riverina sheep properties. He died at Yallambie in May, 1910, aged 79 and his estate was then valued at something under a half million pounds. At the time of his death, Tulla was a consolidated property of both freehold and leasehold land, about 15 kilometres wide from the Niemur River to the Merribit Creek and Wakool River.

Thomas Wragge at the Yallambie Homestead, c1903.
Thomas Wragge at the Yallambie Homestead, c1903.

The property remained under the administration of the trustees of the estate of Thomas Wragge for the next 35 years, losing about 23,000 acres in 1926 to a forced subdivision for closer settlement under the terms of The Border Railway Agreement. At that time, the governments of Victoria and New South Wales envisaged a sort of rural utopia for Australia, modelled in part on the English ideal of a system of villages dotted across the landscape a few miles apart, supporting a large population with an agricultural economy. Members of the Wragge family had said that the subdivisional lots excised from Tulla in 1926 were too small for viable farming and by 1941, after years of disastrous drought, only three of the 24 lots had been paid for and seven had been repossessed by the estate.

The introduction of the Wakool Irrigation Scheme ushered in a new era for the district which required a different type of farming. It was a type that the trustees of the Thomas Wragge, firmly rooted in the traditions of the pastoral age of the 19th century, had no wish to engage in. During the mid-1930s the main channels of the system had been constructed directly through Tulla and Chowra but despite this, very little use was made of the water except for stock and domestic requirements.

Not long after the Japanese entered World War II in 1941, the Commonwealth Government embarked on an war time, experimental rice growing project at Tulla utilising the Wakool Irrigation Scheme. The stated aim was to develop an industry capable of feeding starving Islander and Asiatic nations after an anticipated Allied victory.  In the end, the whole of the remaining property at Tulla was compulsorily resumed from the trustees of the estate of the late Thomas Wragge following the end of World War II.  It was intended that the land should be subdivided into farms for ex-servicemen, some of whom would be rice farmers, and sold under the process of the Soldier Settler Scheme of New South Wales.

Clearance sale announcement from 1947.
Clearance sale announcement from 1947.

Depression and World War had changed people’s perceptions of big holdings, and absentee landlords like those at Tulla were considered fair game. Tulla and Chowar were divided into three specific settlements with a total of 24 farms divided from Tulla and allocated to ex-servicemen by ballot. This was the beginning of the history of the “Tullakool” Irrigation Area and it marked the end of the Tulla that Thomas Wragge had known.

Block 224 in the “Tulla settlement” included both the 1873 and 1896 Tulla homesteads. In the late 1950s that block was purchased by a returned serviceman named Bert Hahn. Bert was reportedly miffed to find that he did not qualify for a nice, new asbestos house under the terms of the Soldier Settler Scheme since Board records showed he already had an existing house, or houses, on his block — Tulla mark 1 and 2. Bert battled with the bureaucracy. He didn’t want to live in the old homestead. It was too large. It was too old. It was probably haunted.

In his desperation, Bert decided to take matters into his own hands and planted a string of dynamite around the back of the rambling building. The resulting explosion completely destroyed the back verandahs, office and adjacent rooms, the vestibule and the dining room and seriously damaged the remaining structure.

Bert got his asbestos house.

The stained glass panel containing the name “Tulla” that had been above the front door of the large homestead somehow survived the explosion so Bert removed it and repositioned it over the his fibro front door.

Tulla Homestead, June, 1994
Tulla Homestead, June, 1994

In 1994, my wife and I visited the ruins of Wragge’s Tulla Station while on a mission to learn something about its history. The property had been purchased from Bert Hahn in 1972 by Norman “Shake” Williams, a veteran rice farmer. Norm already owned several blocks in the settlement so he put Block 224 to little use and instead kept the old Tulla farm as a cross between a rice farm and a nature reserve, a habitat for hundreds of bird and marsupial species.

Norm very obligingly showed us over the remains of the old Wragge buildings which by then were in a distressingly damaged condition. The original 1873 homestead had collapsed completely and the 1896 building, blown to kingdom come more than 30 years previously, was being used as a sort of sheep shed. While we were exploring the ghostly corridors of the once stately home that day, another vehicle arrived on the farm carrying the local National Party MP who it apparently was there to just to make a social call. “Two visits in one day,” said a surprised Norm to no one in particular. “Often a month goes by out here and I don’t meet anybody.”

Investigating the ruins of Tulla Station, June, 1994
Investigating the ruins of Tulla Station, June, 1994

The isolated style of his life, the wildlife and his memories seemed to suit Norm. The MP took me aside after a little while and said, “You might not know this but that old farmer you’ve been talking to was the most decorated NCO airman of the RAAF in World War II. He won the Distinguished Flying Medal twice, and the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. There’s a bronze bust of him on display up there in Canberra.”

Norman Williams bronze bust
Norman Williams bronze bust

So busy had we been exploring the history of a 19th century ruin that we had quite managed to ignore the living history right in front of us.

Norman Williams DFM and Bar, CGM
Norman Williams DFM and Bar, CGM

After the MP had made his call and gone on along his way I delicately steered the conversation with Norm away from rice and ruins and onto the RAAF. Norm told me that he had been a tail gunner in a Pathfinder Squadron in World War II and had served later in Korea and Malaya. One night in 1943 while flying over Germany, in the action that I subsequently learned resulted in his Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, Norm’s Handley Page Halifax bomber was so badly damaged by German night fighters that the crew prepared to bail out. Norm, although severely wounded and with his turret smashed to pieces, instead instructed his pilot on the radio intercom to manoeuvre the Halifax in a way that would give him a reasonable chance to fire from the immobilised tail turret. As the German night fighters returned to finish off the damaged bomber he shot two of them down. As a result the Halifax and her crew somehow survived the mission and managed to limp home to its airfield in England where Norm was cut from the turret.

Rear gunner, (Hallifax Bomber), by Dennis Addams, AWM
Rear gunner, (Hallifax Bomber), by Dennis Addams, AWM

The servicemen of the Second World War are nearly all gone now, as are all of those from the so called Great War, “the war to end all wars”. But the process continues. Australia still sends her troops all too often to fight in faraway places. As moral philosopher James Flynn has pointed out, we live in a bubble of the present in which many people are ahistorical. Flynn says that people who are ignorant of history and other countries invariably fail in their politics.

“Think how different America would be if every American knew that this is the fifth time western armies have gone to Afghanistan to put its house in order. And if they had some idea of exactly what happened on those four, previous occasions…”

Norm Williams died at Barham in 2007, aged 92, but his story and others like it will live on. The papers have been full of these stories leading up to ANZAC Day. As members of the human race we live our own stories each day in what we call the present, a dividing line between the past and the future, moving forever inexorably into the future, but it is when we think of the past that we become truly time travelers. The modern day Renaissance in the ANZAC tradition is driven at least in part by a new generation wanting to reconnect with its history and the origin stories of their antecedents.

So on this ANZAC Day, mark the stories of sacrifice of Australians in war but pause to remember also what that history really means and of the irrevocable changes wrought on this nation by a 30 Years War in the last century. It seems that those who don’t learn from history are truly destined to repeat it.


When the war is over

"Most Australian families have an ANZAC story tucked away somewhere in the ancestral vaults." These medals belonged to Pte Clarke, 5th Batallion AIF, the great-uncle of this writer's wife.
“Most Australian families have an ANZAC story tucked away somewhere in the ancestral vaults.” These medals belonged to Pte Clarke, 5th Batallion AIF, the great-uncle of this writer’s wife.

April 25th this year marks the centenary of the first ANZAC Day landings at Gallipoli. In retrospect they weren’t worth a zac strategically but the events of that day have been commemorated ever since on what has become an increasingly important day of Australian and New Zealand national honour.

The spiritual birth of the Australian nation, the so called “baptism of fire” at Gallipoli, is memorialized with something akin to a religious fervour each year. It even gets a football match played in its name at the MCG and that’s about as religious as you can get in this Land of Oz.

Living in Yallambie, you’re never far away from the presence of Australia’s armed forces on ANZAC Day. There’s a Dawn Service at the Simpson Barracks each year. In the past there have been Repatriation Hospitals operating at Bundoora and in Heidelberg.

Bundoora Homestead, Repatriation Hospital, Bundoora, c1920s
Bundoora Homestead Repatriation Hospital, Bundoora, c1920s

Rumour has it, a soldier of the Great War was even buried beneath a cypress tree after 1918, possibly in the grounds of the former convent, Casa Maria, now Kurdian Court, Yallambie. (Conversation with local historian, Shane Stoneham.)

"Casa Maria" Convent, formerly Woodside Farm, Yallambie.
“Casa Maria” Convent, formerly Woodside Farm, Yallambie.

Years ago when our son was very young I well remember him waking me conspiratorially early one ANZAC Day with the words, “Look Daddy, look, I’ve found the money.”

He had in hand my father’s old war service medals and was holding them out to me in a jingly, jangling coin-like demand to get out of bed.

Most Australian families have an ANZAC story tucked away somewhere in the ancestral vaults. As a nation we have a long history of punching above our weight in other people’s conflicts, usually in places with diamonds, oil or strategic rubber plantations. Those medals didn’t see the light of day much when I was a boy. My son’s long dead grandfather had never, ever worn them in life although he did march regularly on “The One Day of the Year” until stopped by ill health. As an ex POW, Dad’s feelings about the war were probably something of a mixed bag.

In 2000, in an attempt to sort through the contents of that bag, I self-published a book at Yallambie of my late father’s memoirs entitled “Titch: The Telling Tales of T C McLachlan”. It was printed in a very limited edition, to be shared exclusively among friends and family. It told the story of my late father, Sapper Tom (Titch) McLachlan, VX33554 in World War II, his childhood in Depression era Ballarat, his active service in Malaya and Singapore with the 2/10th Field Company, RAE and the time that he subsequently spent as a Prisoner of War of the Japanese on the Burma Thailand Railway.

"Titch — The telling tales of T C McLachlan"
“Titch — The telling tales of T C McLachlan”

I cannot remember a time in my childhood when I wasn’t aware in some way of a sketch in outline of that story. Dad had been a prisoner long before I was born but he hadn’t been to gaol and my Mum never baked him a cake with a file in it. I’d seen Samurai on our old telly, watched them fight with razor sharp swords and dangerous looking throwing stars and I had seen them fly magically over tall obstacles. They were worthy opponents, straight out of a story book.

The truth was more complicated and certainly rather less magical. It has taken me a life time to gain a proper understanding of it.

Writing specifically of the 2/10th Field Company in action on Singapore, the Official Historian noted that “these technical troops made a valiant stand,” (Lionel Wigmore, “The Japanese Thrust”, p321, AWM) but the enduring ordeal for the unit came only after they became prisoners of war of the Japanese.

The 2/10th Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers, 2nd AIF. This Unit photograph was probably taken at Bonegilla in north eastern Victoria in late 1940. By wars end five years later, one in three of the men in this photograph were dead.
The 2/10th Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers, 2nd AIF. This Unit photograph was probably taken at Bonegilla in north eastern Victoria in late 1940. By wars end five years later, one in three of the men in this photograph were dead.

My Auntie Melva once said in answer to a relative’s questions about family history, “Why do you want to know about them for? They’re all dead.” Auntie Melva has been dead herself these many years but her answer I guess is an illustration of the contrasting values placed on history by those who have lived it and those who go out in search of it. Totalitarian rulers have been known to rewrite it but it is history that gives us our sense of place. It is why at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we remember.

ANZAC Day dawn service at Gallipoli, photographed by the writer in Australia's Bicentenary year, 1988.
ANZAC Day dawn service at Gallipoli, photographed by the writer in Australia’s Bicentenary year, 1988.

I find something perverse in the current fashion of immortalising the ANZAC Day legend. After all, war is at the root of the ceremonies and as my father once said, “Anyone who seeks to glorify a war never lived through one.” The back firing action this week by a supermarket giant to cash in on the ANZAC tradition in an ill-advised attempt to spruik their products was as tasteless as the so called “fresh food” they were seeking to promote. Paul Keating, that most eloquent former Australian Prime Minister, once said that we make too much of the Gallipoli legend, but his 1993 eulogy at the funeral service of the Unknown Soldier of the Western Front has itself been immortalised and now takes its place as a part of the wider ANZAC legend.

ANZAC Day dawn at Gallipoli in Australia's Bicentenary year, 1988.
ANZAC Day dawn at Gallipoli in Australia’s Bicentenary year, 1988.

Some of the most poignant expressions of artistic endeavour have resulted from military conflicts throughout history and the world over.

"Stormtroops advancing under gas," etching and aquatint by Otto Dix, 1924
“Stormtroops advancing under gas,” etching and aquatint by Otto Dix, 1924
Eine Mahnung zur Vorsicht bei der Arbeit (Plakat), 1924 by Käthe Kollwitz.
Eine Mahnung zur Vorsicht bei der Arbeit (Plakat), 1924 by Käthe Kollwitz.

The poetry of Wilfred Owen, the paintings of Goya, the evocative images of the great German expressionists Käthe Kollwitz and Otto Dix and more recently, the confronting portrayals of Afghanistan veterans by contemporary artist and  Archibald prize winner, Ben Quilty to name but a few.

Air Commodore John Oddie, painting by Ben Quilty
Air Commodore John Oddie, painting by Ben Quilty

Similarly, the POW images drawn by Ronald Searle, Jack Chalker and Ray Parkin fix themselves in our minds in a way that even the grainy and authentic photographs of George Aspinall do not.

War also finds expression in music: Victoria Chorale will be performing "Music in War and Peace" at Federation Square on Saturday night and then in St Patrick's Cathedral, Ballarat, on Sunday at 2.30pm. Works include Elgar's "To the Fallen" and a new piece, "Augustam Amice" by contemporary Australian composer, Adrian Pertout.
War also finds expression in music: Victoria Chorale will be performing “Music in War and Peace” at Federation Square on Saturday night and then in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat, on Sunday at 2.30pm. Works include Elgar’s “To the Fallen” and a new piece, “Augustam Amice” by contemporary Australian composer, Adrian Pertout.

An ex-POW once reported his feelings upon seeing a jungle branch draped in abstract fashion against the linear design of the corrugated metal wall of a Japanese barracks. Across the barrier of their language he enquired of his gaolers why it was that this seemingly functionless object had been placed there. The reply he received was that they found it pleasing to their eyes. The POW felt a pain beyond the usual pain inflicted by a Japanese beating as he recognized the capacity for artistic endeavour within his enemy. It was easier to hate them as brutes than to accept them as fellow members of the human race, capable of a higher expression.

Better days: Tom "Titch" McLachlan, Frank "Kanga" Corr and Neville "Nev" Merrigan, hay making at the Merrigan family farm, Barnawatha, post war.
Better days: Tom “Titch” McLachlan, Frank “Kanga” Corr and Neville “Nev” Merrigan, hay making at the Merrigan family farm, Barnawatha, post war.

When my father returned to Australia at the end of 1945 in his new “loose fitting uniform” the best advice the repatriation department could give the ex POWs was to forget about what had happened and to simply get on with their lives. Post-Traumatic Stress as a diagnosis only came into vogue in the 1980s although it has surely been around since the first humans were chased around the forests by sabre toothed tigers.

Shortly before he died my father confided to me one day in answer to my enquiry that even then, nearly 50 years after the end of World War II, not a day went by when his thoughts did not stray back in some way to those days he had spent as a POW. This is the true legacy of conflict. ANZAC Day is not just about the fallen soldiers but it is about the men who return home carrying with them the burden of their experience. It is about the families they leave behind. It is about the destructive legacy that war levels on a civilised society. It is a legacy that continues even today as the Australian Government moves to commit yet more troops to the Middle East, the words of the Judean People’s Front still ringing in their ears, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

"My Brother Jack", Cpl A J "Jack" McLachlan, 2/14 Batallion, 2nd AIF, the writer's uncle. Wounded in New Guinea he spent "three days crawling through the jungle on my hands and knees" to aid. He had this photograph taken to send home to reassure worrying family. The arm is deliberately posed to hide the injury. His family, knowing he had been injured but unaware of the details, believed on receipt of this picture that he had lost the arm altogether.
“My Brother Jack”, Cpl A J “Jack” McLachlan, 2/14 Batallion, 2nd AIF, the writer’s uncle. Wounded in New Guinea he spent “three days crawling through the jungle on my hands and knees” to aid. He had this photograph taken to send home to reassure worrying family. The arm is deliberately posed to hide the injury. His family, knowing he had been injured but unaware of the details, believed on receipt of this picture that he had lost the arm altogether.

The consequences of Australia’s 20th century military conflicts manifested themselves in a variety of ways for the soldier survivors which were not always apparent by their physical injuries. Some turned to the bottle. Others affected that peculiarly Aussie brand of stoicism — a devil may care, “she’ll be right” attitude that masked an underlying pain. Some chose to live a solitary life and, rarely, a few even found solace in self-destruction. Most sought refuge at some point in the comfort of the local RSL where they could share unspoken memories with mates who understood or could laugh at the sometimes absurdly black humour of war’s lighter side.

At the Shrine of Remembrance on ANZAC Day, 2010. One of the last marches of the 2/10th Field Company with original members, Neville Merrigan and Frank Holland Stabback at the rear.
At the Shrine of Remembrance on ANZAC Day, 2010. One of the last marches of the 2/10th Field Company with original members, Neville Merrigan and Frank Holland Stabback at the rear.
Age shall not weary them: the late Neville Merrigan and Frank Holland-Stabback, still marching in their 90s on ANZAC Day, 2010.
Age shall not weary them: the late Neville Merrigan and Frank Holland-Stabback, still marching in their 90s on ANZAC Day, 2010.

I remember my father parked on a Saturday in the tin shed in our back garden at Rosanna, the chimney of the pot-bellied stove smoking away like a steam ship in the winter of his life. ‘What did he do up there?’ I wondered. “Just getting the scratchings,” he would say, offering his interest in picking that ever elusive gee gee as justification for his solitary musings.

Dr Meares of Yallambie’s Aldermaston Manor served in New Guinea and in the Northern Territory himself during World War II as an Army doctor but it was his post war work helping disturbed veterans that led him to an eminent career in psychiatry. After the war was over, Meares became fascinated by hypno-analysis and a treatment where patients were encouraged to air repressed feelings of conflict. After a trip to Nepal in 1956 he embraced Eastern philosophical ideas such as pain management through mind control. His therapies were somewhat unorthodox for the time and this led him to a gradual departure from the main stream field of psychiatric medicine.

Meares was the author of over 30 books including the 1963 “Atavistic Theory of Mental Homeostasi”and pioneered what became known as “Stillness Meditation”, advocating the idea of accessing the undisturbed calm within a person as an antidote for anxiety, illness and pain. Between 1973 and 1979 he held self-hypnosis classes for up to one hundred people every week which he described as a community service.

Ainslie Dixon Meares (1910-1986)
Ainslie Dixon Meares (1910-1986)

In his student days in the 1980s, a teacher pal of ours worked in a well-known Melbourne book store. He maintains that “Meare’s books went out like hot cakes and we sold them as fast as we could get them in.” They were by far the biggest selling item on the catalogue.

Soldiers aside, there’s always been a need for self-help mantras and today’s modern living seems to be driving the trend to new heights. Over in Lower Plenty there is a meditation venue called the “Vine and Branches Personal Growth Centre”. Set in a 5 acre retreat alongside the Yarra River near its confluence with the Plenty, it aims to promote “growth, holistic health and healing”. Personal growth must be a growth industry since in a sign of the times they have just moved a one hundred year old, disused church from nearby Templestowe and refurbished it for use as an additional venue on site.

Meanwhile, in Heidelberg, the former sub branch of the RSL closed its doors after reportedly failing to get their pokies revenue ticking over. It would seem that pokies are at the heart of many RSL operations today with returned service men themselves taking something of a back seat. In this brave new world of the 2nd millennium, AD, there is no room for sentiment and the sound of jingly jangling money has replaced the sound of jingly jangling medals and the voices of the returned service men yarning over their tall glasses. The Heidelberg RSL was located just below the Heidelberg railway station on the corner of Mount and Yarra Streets, within a block of the land donated by Thomas Wragge to the Anglican Church in the 19th century. The 97 year old RSL building was demolished in the weeks leading up to Christmas. I watched it come down on a day to day basis on my way to and from work. It didn’t take long before there was nothing left of the old building other than a vacant block for yet another Heidelberg apartment complex, and sadly, a few fast fading ANZAC memories.

2/10th Field Company relics including a tin mug that was carried through 3½ years of captivity and the medals that "didn’t see the light of day much".
2/10th Field Company relics including a tin mug that was carried through 3½ years of captivity and the medals that “didn’t see the light of day much”.

Love makes the world go round, about

I think my wife must be getting all religious. She keeps talking to me about someone called St Valentine who apparently has a big day out next Saturday. I think this St Valentine chap must be rather influential because she insists I could be going to heaven that night. What she means by that, I’m not exactly sure. It seems to involve the sacred offerings of chocolate and flowers for something she calls the “altar of love”.

Love – it’s the oldest story of all. It’s been around since Adam was a lad. Each generation thinks they invented it which, if that were true, would offer no explanation to how the species keeps reproducing itself.

Douglas Adams thought that there was an awful lot of it going about and wrote “it really is, terribly complicated.” For all that, the tradition of sending Valentine gifts or vows dates back to the days of Chaucer with printed cards first appearing in England in 1761. Improvements in printing techniques and in the postal service lead to a great expansion in Valentine-sending in the Victorian era before an Edwardian decline which was not exceeded until the later part of the 20th century. The present day probably sees another decline in the giving of traditional Valentine cards as their role is increasingly replaced by various electronic messaging devices.

Victorian era valentines
Victorian era valentines

The tradition of giving cards must have been active in the first half of the 20th century when my late mother attended St Michael’s Church of England Girls Grammar School in St Kilda. I remember her describing to me, like a scene in “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, the excitement among the girls when one of the mistresses received a Valentine card. It carried an inscription on the front, “Roses are red, Violets are blue” but inside the insulting conclusion “a monkey like you belongs in the zoo” with an all too artistically drawn picture of a particularly nasty looking monkey. The girls thought it very amusing of course but not so the unmarried school mistress for whom teaching was probably one of the few ways of supporting herself.

Cleanliness is next to Godliness: girls of St Michael's Church of England Girls Grammar School, St Kilda
Cleanliness is next to Godliness: girls of St Michael’s Church of England Girls Grammar School, St Kilda

The concept of class distinction and the demarcation line of marital relations across it that existed in 19th century Australia is a foreign one to us in a world where today marriage is sometimes thought to be an antiquated institution. After all, who wants to live in an institution? If we look at a few of the 19th century romances that were around the Heidelberg district in the not so staid Victorian era, what is clear is that love really does make the world go round, even if sometimes the edges turn out to be a bit crooked.

As explained previously, the brothers John and Robert Bakewell established the first successful farm at Yallambee in 1840. John Bakewell was a wool classer by profession and left the running of Yallambee to his brother while he himself looked after their business affairs. John seems to have been pretty good at affairs for it has been rumoured that he managed to get a serving girl in the family way at Tooradin. That was on a property where he maintained additional farming interests as a partner in Mickle, Bakewell and Lyall. The class divisions between marital relations were very clear in the 19th century and could be experienced by every section of it at different times and to varying degrees. When reading the surviving accounts of their relationship, who does not believe that Queen Victoria was in love with John Brown? She no doubt fancied a man in a kilt. She stipulated that a photograph of Brown, a lock of his hair and his mother’s ring should be buried with her when she died. They say that love makes no clear distinction, however it was class and the mores of society that kept the devotion of Victoria and Brown in life almost certainly unconsummated.

Portrait group of John Brown and Queen Victoria. Oil painting by Charles Burton Barber, believed to have been a personal gift from the Queen to Mr Brown.
Portrait group of John Brown and Queen Victoria. Oil painting by Charles Burton Barber, believed to have been a personal gift from the Queen to Mr Brown.

While Australia has always endeavoured to produce a classless society, a product perhaps of our convict past, from the earliest days of settlement the Heidelberg district had pretensions to being something of an aristocratic locality, or the nearest thing to one the archetypal Port Phillip district could provide. “It is natural that on each of the main hills along the Yarra and its tributaries wealthy people, able to afford such select spots, should have settled and built large houses.” (Heidelberg – The Land and Its People 1838-1900, Donald S Garden, MUP)

The pre gold rush estates of the Yarra Plenty River confluence, with their exotic gardens and houses situated on high riverside ridges, were like Antipodean-Italian hill side villas, landmarks in a colonial landscape so newly settled. The mass plantings of Italian cypresses by Robert Bakewell would have done much to further this effect at Yallambee. Some of these properties were built on hill sides within sight of each other and given the class distinctions of the day it was only natural that sometimes the children of the owners of these prestigious rural seats would find romance nearby among their social peers.

Private cemetery in a garden on the River Plenty, near Melbourne, National Library of Australia. This image of Italian cypresses surrounding a bush grave is not one of the NGV set of Plenty Station (Yallambee) drawings but was attributed to E L Bateman by Anne Neale in her 2001 doctorate study, (Illuminating Nature). "Comparison of the background details of the garden with those in the Plenty set indicate that the site is almost certainly the Plenty Station."
This image in the collection of  the National Library of Australia is not one of the NGV set of Plenty Station (Yallambee) drawings but was attributed to E L Bateman by Anne Neale in her 2001 doctorate study, (Illuminating Nature). “Comparison of the background details of the garden with those in the Plenty set indicate that the site is almost certainly the Plenty Station.”

Minnie (Mary) Graham, the daughter of wealthy merchant and land agent, James Graham, grew up at Heidelberg’s Banyule Homestead in the early 1860s which her father leased from Joseph Hawdon. She married Robert Martin Jr in 1874, the only son of Dr Robert Martin of the neighbouring Viewbank Homestead which was built around 1840, a few kilometers downstream from the Bakewells’ Yallambee.

Archaeological investigation of remains of Viewbank Homestead, Viewbank, 1997
Archaeological investigation of remains of Viewbank Homestead, Viewbank, 1997

In 1922, after the farm was purchased by the Bartram family, Viewbank Homestead was professionally demolished, a home now to nothing more than a warren of rabbits burrowing into its foundations. We used to fly kites nearby as children, when Banyule Rd then had much less traffic.

If you stand on the vacant location of the Homestead today, marked as an archaeological site near the southern end of the Plenty River Bicycle Trail, and pause to look across the valley, you will see Banyule Homestead poking out from the suburban landscape. That impressive pre gold rush building still stands on the opposite ridge above former farmland, redeveloped in the 1970s as the “Banyule Flats” park. Squinting to look west, past the old Bunya pine and into the setting sun, you can maybe imagine for a moment how the relationship between Minnie and Robert, the proverbial older boy next door, might have developed. How often did Minnie Graham gaze out from Banyule across this valley and with rose coloured glasses imagine what the future might have in store?

Banyule Homestead seen from Viewbank Homestead (site) at dusk, February, 2015
Banyule Homestead seen from Viewbank Homestead (site) at dusk, February, 2015

The marriage pleased Robert Jr’s father, Dr Martin, who saw in it a merger of colonial gentry. Dr Martin’s wedding gift to the couple was Banyule Homestead itself, which Graham had been attempting to sell on Hawdon’s behalf for some years. Sadly Robert Martin, a diabetic, left Minnie widowed after only four years of marriage which just goes to show that in real life there is always the possibility of an unwanted postscript to the Jane Austen ending.

When it came to son in law material, Dr Martin set the bar high and was keen that each of his five daughters should marry into the Melbourne elite. Three of them, Emma, Charlotte and Annie chose or had chosen for them, well credentialed gentlemen who were all members of the doctor’s own Melbourne club. In the case of the last named, Annie, Dr Martin insisted that she marry the city coroner, the middle aged Dr Richard Youl, taking no notice of his daughter’s feelings nor taking to heart the broad disapproval: “everyone from Lady Hotham downwards all pitying poor Annie”.

Dr Martin’s other two daughters followed their hearts and in so doing defied their father. Edith Martin married Captain Bradley, the commander of HMS Galatea, the ship that brought Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh to Australia on the first Royal tour. Dr Martin disapproved of naval officers and Edith corresponded in secret with Captain Bradley for a year before a marriage was agreed upon. Even then her father insisted on a long engagement of 2 ½ years before wedding nuptials were possible.

The black sheep of the family was surely Dr Martin’s eldest child, Lucy Martin who followed her heart’s desire and eloped in 1857 with Lieutenant John Theodore Thomas Boyd of the vice regal staff. Dr Martin had even less respect for junior army officers than he did for naval men and had earlier refused his permission for the match. Aged 23 Lucy was free to marry anyway which is just what she did, leaving Viewbank on a pretext and meeting Boyd at a pre-arranged rendezvous from where they travelled to Richmond to be married. They later returned to Viewbank to confess and although we can imagine the scene that ensued, the story appears to have ended in forgiveness. The happy couple seems to have quickly got the hang of it and produced a dozen children, including Arthur Merric Boyd, the founding father of the Boyd dynasty of Australian artists. Today it is the progeny of Dr Martin’s wayward child Lucy who are remembered by history.

From "The Bride" series by Arthur Boyd, an allegory of star crossed lovers currently showing at Heide Museum of Modern Art
From “The Bride” series by Arthur Boyd, an allegory of star crossed lovers currently showing at Heide Museum of Modern Art.

A generation later, the children of Yallambie’s Thomas and Sarah Wragge perhaps encountered their own difficulties when it came to choosing appropriate life partners. The eldest Wragge son married a woman who had been governess to some of the Wragge children, a marriage that “was not wholeheartedly accepted by some members of the Wragge family”. The Wragge’s very own “Jane Eyre”.

Tranquil Winter, painted by Walter Withers,1895. The house on the ridge is still standing, located today in Walker Court, Viewbank at the back of Viewbank Secondary College.
Tranquil Winter, painted by Walter Withers,1895. The house on the ridge is still standing, located today in Walker Court, Viewbank at the back of Viewbank Secondary College.

Winty Calder thought that the Wragges probably kept fairly much to themselves, with few intimate circles on the broader scale. One social outlet it seems included drawing and painting lessons from the Heidelberg School artist Walter Withers at his studio in Cape Street, Heidelberg which Jessie and perhaps also Annie Wragge enjoyed.

Walter Withers' studio at Cape Street, Heidelberg, c1894 where the Wragge girls enjoyed painting lessons.
Walter Withers’ studio at Cape Street, Heidelberg, c1894 where the Wragge girls enjoyed painting lessons.

The conduct of these lessons drew this comment from their mother in an 1898 letter: “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.” Jessie was 30 when her mother wrote that but in the late 19th century, before the advent of “eHarmony”, country girls like Jessie from good upstanding, Anglican families probably had few real opportunities to mix with their social peers of the opposite sex. All the same, Jessie seems to have maintained a keen interest in her appearance and the social graces, evidenced by an “intense interest in current dress fashions”.

Accoutrements of fashion: an autograph album and magazine
Accoutrements of fashion: an autograph album and magazine

This story from Jessie’s nephew Frank Wright, and reported in Calder’s “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, records something about the opposition to her dress style that she encountered within the Wragge family home:

“One story of these times, and which I heard later, is rather a staggerer to us of later times. Women’s fashion then included the tight, hour-glass waist, but Thomas Wragge had forbidden it. However, secretly Jessie had bought one of these costumes and thought much of it. One evening a large party was at Yallambie and everyone but Jessie took their seats at the dining table, with grandfather at the head. He had a great joint in front of him and the carving knife and fork in his hands, when Jessie, in her beloved dress, scuttled into the room and to her seat. She had planned that by so doing, she would escape observation. She had no luck.

Thomas Wragge's nightmare: the wasp waist corset.
Thomas Wragge’s nightmare: the wasp waist corset.

There was a roar from the old man – ‘Jessie, stand up’ was the command. Then – ‘Jessie, come here’ he ordered, pointing to the floor beside him. In the paralysing silence which followed, Jessie did as ordered. Then ‘Turn around’ was the order. Whereupon the old man slid the carving knife down her back inside the offending dress, and he ripped it open to the waist. Jessie was thereupon ordered to ‘Go upstairs and get decently dressed.’”

Jessie died from tuberculosis in October, 1910, five months after the death of her father Thomas, he of the carving knife, and predeceasing her mother. She died unmarried and aged only 42. The local newspaper wrote of her: “The late Miss Wragge was of a retiring disposition, but was a general favourite among her intimate friends.”

Wragge family group on the original east verandah at Yallambie. Left to right standing are Alice, Thomas and Sarah, Jessie; seated are Annie and Harry. (Visible in the background is an earlier prefabricated wooden house possibly dating from the Bakewell era.)
Wragge family group on the original east verandah at Yallambie. Left to right standing are Alice, Thomas and Sarah, Jessie; seated are Annie and Harry. (Visible in the background is an earlier, prefabricated wooden house possibly dating from the Bakewell era.)

Another Wragge daughter, Jessie’s younger sister Alice, did marry but her choice of a younger and socially inferior partner incensed her father into a dramatic action. Calder described the union in “Classing the Wool and counting the Bales thus:

“On 24 August 1908, Alice Wragge married Albert Edward Friar of Carlton, a son of Henry and Mary Ann (nee Tyler) Friar, who lived in Heidelberg. Henry was a bricklayer. The prelude to that marriage has long been shrouded in secrecy as far as the Wragge family has been concerned. Alice was thirty-six and Albert was twenty-three. They were married by a Congregational minister at 448 Queen Street, Melbourne, and the witnesses probably knew little about the couple. Albert had been employed as a groom at “Yallambie”, and Thomas did not approve of the liaison. His disapproval was so intense that he signed a codicil to his will on 19 December 1908, ensuring that Albert would never profit directly from the Wragge fortune. But that codicil also disinherited Alice’s descendants.”

From the small amount of surviving documentary evidence concerning the life of Alice Wragge, Calder thought that “she was a light-hearted young woman, who regarded life with a considerable amount of humour- which is absent from letters written by other members of the family.” I think we would have liked Alice.

Sarah Annie Murdoch (ne Wragge) at the front door of Yallambie on her wedding day. Sarah Annie was 36 when she married Wallace Murdoch on 20 August, 1903.
Jessie and Alice’s older sister, Sarah Annie at the front door of Yallambie Homestead on her wedding day. Sarah Annie was 36 when she married Wallace Murdoch on 20 August, 1903.

It seems to me that eloping Alices must have been all the fashion at one time. My wife’s family had one all their own, complete with a Viewbank/Plenty River connection which is worth a mention here. Ada Alice Smith was a member of the extensive W. H. Smith family, well known stationers in the UK. Early in the 20th century she ran off with my wife’s great grandfather, a painter and decorator by trade, who brought Ada Alice to Australia. I suppose she must have liked his wall paperings. The net result was that Ada Alice was cut off by her family without the “proverbial shilling”. She ended up on a chicken farm on the very next bend of the Plenty river, downstream from Yallambie and which Great grandfather purchased from the Bartrams at Viewbank around the time that Viewbank Homestead met its wrecking ball end. The house that Great grandfather built is itself now long gone but the foundations are still there in parkland at the end of the extension of Martins Lane, Viewbank, if you know where to look.

Trufitt farm house, Seymour Rd, Lower Plenty. The house was located at what is now the extension of Martins Lane, Viewbank on a bend of the Plenty River, downstream from Yallambie.
Farm house, Seymour Rd, Lower Plenty. The house was located at what is now the extension of Martins Lane, Viewbank on a bend of the Plenty River, downstream from Yallambie.

It would seem that Great grandfather was better at charming than farming. In the 1920s he managed to kill all of his chickens with an accident involving an incubator. Family legend has it that only one chicken survived which Great grandfather managed to also consign to oblivion by tripping over the unfortunate feathered fellow with his size number 11 boots. Probably a partly apocryphal story but Ada Alice died all too young on the Lower Plenty River, forgotten by her paterfamilias and far from the land of her birth.

Of the family of that other Alice, in 1997 to launch “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” a Wragge family reunion was held at Yallambie Homestead with over a hundred descendants of Thomas and Sarah Wragge present. One of the more touching aspects of that day was the involvement of the descendants of Alice Wragge from her union with Albert Friar. That branch of the family had been estranged in an earlier generation in a way that, by the end of the 20th century, seemed incomprehensible. On that day for the opening of the publication of Calder’s book, for the first time in ninety years the descendants of Thomas and Sarah Wragge were remarkably united.

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

Bartram's Silos at sunset in front of the Viewbank Homestead archaeological site, Viewbank, February, 2015
Bartram’s Silos at sunset in front of the Viewbank Homestead archaeological site, Viewbank, February, 2015

The Terra nullius dream

“I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting.” How often have you heard these words spoken before a public event? They are de rigueur at my son’s school at every assembly and public gathering but when I asked him what he could tell me about Eddie Mabo’s fishing rods he looked at me with bewilderment. As another Australia Day dawns and we once again remember the time in 1788 when the Aboriginal people of Sydney Cove watched the sails of the convict ships enter Sydney Harbour, and muttered “Crikey” to themselves, what do those words really mean and how much of what we say is just lip service? The Yallambie days of yore that I have been writing about in these posts was not of course the first history of our district. There is another, earlier history dating back thousands of years, knowledge of which W. E. H. Stanner once described as “the great Australian silence”.

A 19th century engraving of an indigenous Australian encampment, representing the indigenous mode of life in the cooler parts of Australia
A 19th century engraving of an indigenous Australian encampment, representing the indigenous mode of life in the cooler parts of Australia

When the land that was to become the suburb of Yallambie was sold at public auction as Portion 8 at the first Crown land sales in 1838 it was assumed the land belonged to a Queen, then in the first year of her reign, sitting on a throne on the other side of the world and that it was hers by right to dispose of. It took a split decision by the best legal minds in Australia sitting on the High Court of Australia in 1992 to finally change that perception. I don’t know enough about the subject to write about it authoritatively but it seems appropriate on this day to write in a general way about the Wurundjeri, the tribe of indigenous Australians who before European settlement once occupied much of the present location of Melbourne.

The explorer, geologist and anthropologist, Alfred Howitt, son of William Howitt. Picture State Library of Victoria.
The explorer, geologist and anthropologist, Alfred Howitt, son of William Howitt. Picture State Library of Victoria.

According to the explorer and anthropologist Alfred Howitt, who with his father William visited “Yallambee” in October 1852, the Wurundjeri tribal territory was generally agreed to be all the area drained by the Yarra/Plenty River basins. It has been written elsewhere that at Yallambie the Wurundjeri occupied a more or less permanent summer camp, above a deep pool in the Plenty River that could be relied upon to never run dry even at times of the worst drought: “At that time Aborigines had a permanent camp above that long, straight, deep stretch of river below Tarcoola Drive”.

A "deep pool" on the Plenty River at Yallambie, January, 2015
A “deep pool” on the Plenty River at Yallambie, January, 2015

Archaeological studies by Banyule City Council and the MMBW have identified some evidence of pre contact civilization along the lower reaches of the Plenty River, from scarred trees to artefact scatters and possible mound sites. It is a fragile jigsaw puzzle that continuing research will add to although sometimes that puzzle can take an unexpected turn. Some years ago a newspaper reported that a skeleton had been found in a Montmorency backyard, just upstream from Yallambie and on the other side of the river. The police were called, it being believed that evidence had been found of our very own Montmorency, “Midsomer Murders”. They went away soon afterward when it became apparent that the skeleton was of Aboriginal origin and of great age, proof if proof be needed of the long occupation of the area by native people.

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

A few years ago at the suggestion of my wife and I, Banyule Council installed a sign on the horseshoe bend of the Plenty River at Yallambie marking the presence of the first Australians in this locality. It’s a fine looking piece of sculpture shaped a bit like a native shield propped between two logs. I’ve heard it suggested that horse shoe loops on a river were good hunting grounds for Aboriginal people. They could chase game into the bend and corner their quarry on steep banks. Perhaps the sign is a little inappropriately placed however and might have been better located upstream, near the permanent waterhole that the Indigenous people are said to have occupied as a camp. A second sign describing the Colonial history of the Wragge and Bakewell farms on the river flat would have been a better option for the location chosen. But that’s another story.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view X by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Trees and creek.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view X by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Trees and creek. The waterhole where Indigenous people are said to have occupied a camp.
Plenty River at Yallambie, January, 2015
Plenty River at Yallambie, January, 2015

The story of John Batman’s infamous 1835 “Treaty” with the Wurundjeri people is well known. Teachers told us about it in school but if you were too busy considering the aerodynamic capabilities of the latest folded piece of exam paper, I would recommend Rex Harcourt’s enormously interesting book “Southern Invasion, Northern Conquest” (Golden Point Press, 2001). It contains what I think is the clearest account in print of the circumstances surrounding the Treaty and the events leading up to it. The rejection of the Treaty by Governor Richard Bourke implemented the doctrine of Terra nullius upon which British possession of Australia until Mabo became based.

The infamous "Batman Treaty"
The infamous “Batman Treaty”

The location of the signing of Batman’s “Treaty” remains unclear. Most probably it was on the Merri Creek downstream from Rushall Station where High Street now climbs the artificial embankment to Northcote. I’ve walked there along the Merri Creek Trail with Harcourt’s book in hand and that’s my favourite for it matches John Batman’s description very nicely. However, there have been several other sites suggested including the intriguing theory put forward by H. G. Turner in his “History of Colonial Victoria” that the Treaty was signed on the Plenty River at Greensborough, just a little upstream from Yallambie. The eight Wurundjeri elders who placed their crosses on Batman’s ludicrous document on that day in 1835 almost certainly had no idea what they were signing. They were not the owners of the land that Batman and his Port Phillip Association were attempting to purchase. The land was held in common by the Tribe and was not the property of any one man to dispose of. Possibly they thought they were participating in a gift giving ceremony of friendship. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

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

The world that the settlers brought to the Plenty River and the place that the Aboriginals soon occupied in it is illustrated in the following account of the gentleman squatter Captain John Harrison on the Plenty River at Yan Yean. Written by his son in 1927 it tells of contact with Aborigines in 1837-1843 but it might equally well have described the world of Edward Willis and John and Robert Bakewell when they occupied their land on the lower reaches of the Plenty River. According to Isabel Ellender who reproduced this description in her 1989 report “The Plenty Valley Corridor”, Harrison “was typical of many of the early settlers encountered by the Aborigines of the Plenty Valley in the 1830s”.

“The blacks in the district (the Plenty Valley) belonged to the Yarra Yarra tribe and were considered rather dangerous at first. But only on two occasions do I remember our having an alarm through blacks. The first time, hundreds of them surrounded the house, the quadrangle was full of them… the blacks evidently thought only women and children were at home, for presently they became very cheeky, knocking at the doors with their waddies and sticks. My father… suddenly rushed out on them with his gun in his hand; and they were evidently so surprised at the sight of him that they disappeared in a most miraculous manner… But we could hear a great jabbering going on down at the potato patch… and there, we could see some of the lubras digging up potatoes with their yam sticks. These were always carried about by them and were six or seven feet long, and about thick as a man’s wrist, with a sharp point at one end.”

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

Near the head waters of the Plenty River lies a curious colonial building historically known as “Bear’s Castle”. I can remember my late father telling me of it when I was a wide eyed schoolboy. In his role as an inspector for the MMBW, my father was responsible for the water supply of a wide area, at one time ranging from the Heidelberg depot to the Yan Yean Reservoir. Bear’s Castle he told me had been built in the “olden days” to defend farmer Bear’s farm from marauding Aboriginals. I don’t think he quite believed the legend himself and more than likely the “Castle” was built as a garden “folly” in the style of the English Picturesque. But it makes a good story all the same. It’s not easy to get permission to visit the “Castle” today as it lies within the catchment of the Yan Yean Reservoir. I last saw it nearly two decades ago. Bear’s farm itself lies somewhere out in the middle of the reservoir, under about 30,000 megalitres of water.

The writer at Bear's Castle, 1997
A hairy bear at Bear’s Castle: the writer at Bear’s folly in 1997

The Wragge family of Yallambie are known to have had many dealings with Aboriginal people, if not at Yallambie, then at their Riverina properties. The Wragge’s are believed to have collected several Stone Age weapons and tools, Aboriginal artifacts that had been ploughed up in their farm fields. Winty Calder, writing in “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales – The Wragges of Tulla and Yallambie” (Jimaringle Publications, 1997) said of the native people of the Riverina that: “The bond between Aborigines and their country has never been fully understood by white people. The tact and friendliness of Charles Sturt, when he explored the Murray in 1829-1830, probably prevented trouble along the river above its junction with the Darling. People met by Joseph Hawdon south of the Murray (between Echuca and the Loddon River) in 1838, when there had been reports of native hostility, showed mixed reactions to the intruders. There was curiosity, alarm and astonishment. Some were not welcoming, others attempted to pilfer the explorers’ goods. In the early 1840s, Edward Curr rode over country along the lower Edward, Wakool and Niemur Rivers, which was unoccupied by Europeans, without any trouble from Aborigines, but he stressed the fact that he was careful, especially with the Moira blacks on the northern side of the river. Less than forty years later a new Aboriginal generation could no longer oppose the advance of white settlers. Numbers had decreased steadily as they fell victim to diseases caught from the whites, and as they were occasionally shot. They largely abandoned their health-giving, traditional hunting and fishing to hang about the settlers’ huts, miserable and underfed, hoping for hand-outs from the newcomers. The pressure of white occupation resulted in listlessness among many of the Aborigines, and loss of interest in life”. Later still, many Aborigines worked on the Wragge sheep stations as labourers, roustabouts and shearers, employees of white men on land that their forefathers had occupied for uncounted generations. Call us eccentric but where other couples would have chosen to lounge on a Queensland beach sipping gin and tonics, my wife and I spent our honeymoon plodding through paddocks in the Riverina in pursuit of this history visiting the old Wragge homesteads. At one of them I remember the modern day homesteader (not a Wragge descendant) showed us openings in the doors and walls of the original, free standing dairy, apertures which she claimed were rifle slopes, a sure sign of the dangers encountered by the original settlers of the district. I thought they looked like ventilation holes.

Phillippa Sutherland recently produced a very nice looking booklet for the Banyule Council called: “Banyule, Heartland of the Wurundjeri Willam”. It is freely available from the Council service centres and contains this final, delightful story of the Wurundjeri dream time, adapted by Sutherland from S. Wieneke, ‘When the Wattle Blooms Again’.

Frances Derham, 1894-1987
Frances Derham, 1894-1987

Once, the water of Birrarung (Yarra River – ‘river of mists’) was locked in the mountains. This great expanse of water was called Moorool (‘great water’). It was so large that the Woiworung had little hunting ground. This contrasted with the Wathaurung’s and Bunurong’s hunting ground, the flat which is now Port Phillip Bay. Mo-yarra (‘slow and fast running’) was the headman of the Woiworung. He decided to free the country of the water and cut a channel through the hills, in a southerly direction, until he reached Koo-wee-rup (Western Port). However, only a little water followed him and the channel gradually closed up. At a later time, the headman of the tribe was Bar-wool. He remembered Mo-Yarra’s attempt to free the land. He knew that mo-Yarra still lived on the swamps beside Koo-we-rup. Each winter he saw the hilltops covered with feather-down which Mo-Yarra plucked from the water birds sheltering on the swamps. Bar-wool resolved to free the land. He cut a channel up the valley with his stone axe, but was stopped by Baw-baw, the mountain. He cut northwards, but was stopped by Donna Buang and his brothers. Then he cut westwards, through to the hills to Warr-an-dyte. There he met Yan-yan, another Woiworung. Yan-yan was busy cutting a channel for the Plenty River in order to drain his homeland of Morang. They joined forces and the waters of Moorool and Morang became Moo-rool-bark (‘the place where the wide waters were’). They continued their work, and reached Warringal (Heidelberg-Templestowe flats – ‘dingo-jump-up’). There they rested while the waters formed another Moorool. When Bar-wool and Yan-yan set to work again they had to go much slower because the ground was harder and they were using too many stone axes. They cut a narrow, twisting track between the Darebin and Merri Creeks, looking for softer ground. At last they reached Port Phillip. The waters of Moorool and Morang rushed out. Woiworung country was freed from water, but Port Phillip was inundated.” A charming story that in an uncanny way echoes what we know of the landscape from the geological record. The course of the Plenty River was changed 8000 years ago when volcanic eruptions in the west deposited a basalt flow that the river was then forced to cut a path through, creating Greensborough’s Plenty Gorge. The Plenty River at Yallambie marks the end of this basalt plain. The river bed at Yallambie and downstream until its confluence with the Yarra River in View Bank, follows the original course of the river across older, sedimentary beds. In prehistoric times when water levels were lower, the first Australians saw Port Phillip Bay as a game filled, grassy plain with the prehistoric course of the Yarra River cutting a route across it to the sea. I am told that the ancient river bed is still there, underwater somewhere at the bottom of the Bay. It has been modified to form the shipping channel so recently and so controversially deepened and is used by vessels entering the relatively shallow waters of Port Phillip enroute to the Port of Melbourne. So on this Australia Day, if you get the opportunity to take a dip with your inflatable kangaroo in the “True Blue” waters of Port Phillip or to play a game of beach cricket on some Peninsula shore line, remember for a moment a time before 1788 and 1835. A time when the first Australians hunted real kangaroos out on the grassy plains of Port Phillip where holidaying Aussie fishermen now pull in flathead and snapper. Those grassy plains are long gone now, as are the native camps of the plains and the Plenty River. They exist now only in a time of Dreams.

Frances Derham
Frances Derham, 1894-1987

Strangling a cat for Auld Lang Syne

“Where are you going?” asked the taxi driver.

‘I often wonder that,’ I thought to myself as I climbed into his car but replied, “Yallambie. Do you know where that is?”

“I think so,” replied the driver. “It’s a suburb a bit past Heidelberg, isn’t it? There’s an old homestead there. Been converted to a monastery or mental institution, or something.”

I smiled at the driver’s misinformation. This is a true story. It explains a lot that has happened in life. “Take me on to yonder asylum, driver. And don’t stop for the men in white jackets.”

And so, with the cuckoo clock in our kitchen chiming its Laurel and Hardy note as if in commentary, we welcome the New Year at Yallambie.

Having Scottish ancestry on two sides of our family, (Clans MacLachlan, Campbell, MacLean, Ferguson and Murray), the New Year for us is about Hogmanay. Some years it’s a struggle to find a “tall, dark, stranger” to first foot their way through the house and I have been known to pull those boots on myself. I don’t stand nearly tall enough though and the traditional shortbread in my hands is usually in some of danger of being consumed before being brought through to the back door and the whisky is more likely to be found to be a soft drink.

Gaelic toast drunk by members of the Society of True Highlanders, State Library of NSW
Gaelic toast drunk by members of the Society of True Highlanders, State Library of NSW

William Howitt, who visited “Yallambee” in 1852 and who wrote about it in “Land, Labour and Gold” (published in two volumes and quoted in a previous post), didn’t have a high opinion of the Scots. He reserved a particular distaste for the “Highlanders” who he described with some passion walking down colonial high streets, ragged in dress and ill shod but with haughty pride.

“Ten times, however, are all Highlanders that we have hitherto come across. Poor as rats at home, they are rapacious as rats abroad. There is scarcely a year at home that there is not a piteous outcry about the poor, famishing Highlanders; but catch a Highlander out here that has any feeling for an Englishman except that of – fleecing him. There may be some of a different stamp, but I have not yet met them.”

Howitt however seems to have made an exception in this low opinion of “Highlanders” when he came later to describe the Bendigo goldfields Police Magistrate, Lachlan MacLachlan. Under a page heading, “Intelligent Friends” he says:

“We dined at Dr Roche’s {the Coroner} the other day, with this gentleman {Dr Bachhaus the Catholic Priest} and Mr McLachlan, the police magistrate, who by no means belongs to the lack-a-daisical juvenility of the Camp; for he has plenty of sense, however the public may deny him other requisites of a popular magistrate.”

Lachlan MacLachlan, AKA "Bendigo Mac"
Lachlan MacLachlan, AKA “Bendigo Mac”

Lachlan MacLachlan or “Bendigo Mac” as history has elsewhere recorded him, was my Great Grand Uncle. He was appointed Police Magistrate at Castlemaine in 1853 and then at the Bendigo goldfields where he maintained the rule of law through the turbulent gold rush years. His refusal to support Lieutenant Governor Hotham’s impolitic instructions to collect licensing fees at bayonet point are seen today as being directly responsible for sparing Bendigo the riots that enforcement of similar laws at Eureka caused.

You can find his biography here:

Lachlan’s life is extensively described in the late (and colourful) Majorie Petterson’s 1986 book, “The Sovereign of Sandhurst”. Lachlan and his half brothers Don and Moffat, {my great grand father} were instrumental in the formation of Caledonian Societies at both Bendigo and Ballarat respectively. The first day’s meeting of the Caledonian Society’s Games in Bendigo on New Year’s Day, 1860 saw about 6000 persons present and £300 raised. Petterson, quoting from the Bendigo Advertiser and Castlemaine Mail newspapers of January 1860, described the three day event.

“The day was very hot. Mr McLachlan led the March on to the ground, with the swirl of pipes, then after an opening address, seated himself in the grandstand. On the Wednesday, and final day also, he repeated the proceedings, the weather being more clement, and not as hot.

The attendance was not as numerous, but decidedly more select and orderly, with better arrangements than on opening day.

The usual form of marching on to the ground, led by Mr MacLachlan, fitted out in the old MacLachlan Dress Tartan, was complied with. In addressing the gathering, he exhorted them to maintain order during the sports, so that all might enjoy themselves…

“Some dancing followed, the sword dance being very respectfully executed by Mr Robertson, even though he appeared a trifle tipsy. This must have upset the perfectionist Mr MacLachlan, as he seized the pipes from Robertson, in no courteous manner, as he was playing. Robertson left the stage in dugeon, Mr MacLachlan leaving the stage at the same time in hot pursuit; and for a short period, the demon of discord held sway, ’till Mr Rae brought forward his little laddie “Willie”, who danced several lively measures, to his father’s piping, remarkably well, for so young a dancer.

In the meantime, Mr Warden Anderson had succeeded in conciliation the irate Mr Robertson, who reappeared, on the stage, promptly followed by Mr MacLachlan, in a more docile mood, bringing up the rear.

These Caledonian Games, apparently aroused much interest in the surrounding districts, there being a preponderance of Scots, with their hearts still tuned to their homeland, for, from the Castlemaine Mail of 6/1/1860 comes this item: At the Caledonian Games, held in Sandhurst, and attended by many Castlemaine-ites, we saw, among the novelties, was the performance of Mr L MacLachlan, P. M., of the ‘Reel of Tullock’, which he piped, and Mr Warden Anderson, and Mr Kellar danced, much to the enjoyment of the spectators. At the conclusion of the dance, he screwed his pipes and ‘Gait them Skirl’, till the grandstand benches, ‘a did dirl’.

Another Scots Air ‘The Land of the Mountain and Flood’ was also played, and Mr MacLachlan was applauded for his amazing condescension in getting up and dancing with Mr Anderson and Mr Kellar.”

The Bendigo Games for a while became an annual New Year’s event. Don Watson in “Caledonia Australis”, (Collins 1984) wrote that:

“It was common in the colonies for Scots to seem larger than life, as it was in Edinburgh and London. The Caledonian societies of which many of the Gippsland settlers were members, were ideal vehicles for parading a brand of Scottishness which owed more to homesickness and Walter Scott than the realities of life in Scotland.”

Ballarat Caledonian Society New Year's Day, 1895
Ballarat Caledonian Society New Year’s Day, 1895. The writer’s great grandfather is believed to be second from the right.

Watson quotes the nephew of Richard Howitt, the explorer and natural scientist Alfred William Howitt, describing a visit to an expatriate Scottish family in Gippsland in about 1856.

“My friends are devoted to ‘horses’ and are great racing people, very kind, nice people and very rich so that it is a pleasant idle house where people come and go as they like and the gentlemen congregate in a house called the ‘barracks’, and talk of such subjects as interest us here – the American war – the weather – the floods – pleuro pneumonia – fat cattle – sheep – horses – and I am sorry to say, very rarely of books. It may not be a very intellectual life but it is without trouble or care. It is a fearful place for ‘nobblerizing’ – it goes on morning, noon and night … they dance to a harp, a melaphone and an accordian every night.”

The Caledonian Games were held again at Bendigo in 1863 and were described by Petterson thus:

“The President of the Society, Mr L MacLachlan, Messrs. Farquarson, the MacLachlan brothers visiting from Ballarat especially for the event, Donald from Sebastopol, Moffat from Bunninyong and a number of other gentlemen, arrayed in the ‘Garb of the Gaul’ all attended…

“The ‘Reel of Tullock’, danced to the piping of Mr MacLachlan’s brother, Moffat, was wildly cheered, with Mr. L MacLachlan given applause for his dancing, he being 52 years old then.

“The MacLachlan brothers continued to visit and obviously enjoyed these Games, and I am told by Donald’s descendant, Arthur Wattis, that when farewelling or greeting one another at the rail stations of Ballarat or Bendigo, the three brothers all dressed up in their Highland Dress. The air was electric, with the broad Gaelic flowing, enthusiastic greetings and the blare of the pipes. Happy days in a new land!”

Moffat McLachlan photographed with his bagpipes, c1920
The writer’s great grandfather, Moffat McLachlan, photographed late in life with his bagpipes

My great grandfather, Moffat McLachlan, the piper who played for his 52 year old half brother Lachlan’s dancing, came to the Victorian goldfields in 1854, just a few years after Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge himself first set foot in the colony. The son of a captain of the Napoleonic wars and great grandson of an adjutant in the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Moffat arrived in Australia as a younger son with little more than his pipes and a forlorn hope of finding a fortune on the Ballarat goldfields. Petterson described him as “six foot four and a half inches tall with a flowing yellow beard, and not surprisingly was generally known in Ballarat as ‘The Viking’.”

It was said of Moffat that “in his day as a piper he was classified in the first flight,” and at the time of his death in 1923 he was reputed to be Australia’s oldest piper.

Moffat’s bagpipes were a family heirloom and were probably already antique when he arrived in Australia in the mid 19th century. My late father remembered seeing them in his youth and thought the bag had been repaired with a kangaroo skin. To my father’s lasting regret Moffat’s pipes, which had previously been promised to him, went missing some time during World War 2. My father had been incarcerated on the Burma/Thailand railway, a prisoner of war of the Japanese. That’s another story and maybe one that I’ll look at in another post. He said, “I would have played those pipes but I guess the family thought I wasn’t coming back.”

If nothing else, you might say it probably saved a few ears after the war.

The men in my family seem to have all been late breeders. I can remember being taken along to an ANZAC Parade at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance as a boy, my father introducing me to an old comrade, a piper apparently. They were discussing in front of me the process of educating a child in the art of the bagpipes.

“Get him started young,” the piper said.

I went away that day thinking excitedly that I would soon be taken somewhere to be taught the skills of the Highland bagpipes.

I’m still waiting.

Members of the Clan Lachlan Society of Victoria at Yallambie, 1999
Members of the Clan MacLachlan Society of Victoria at Yallambie, 1999

At Yallambie today the pipes can be heard now and then all the same. One of our neighbours is a piper and I’ve heard him sometimes ‘strangling a cat’ on those frosty winter’s morning in Yallambie Park.

Glen Dudley, piper of the Clan Lachlan Society of Victoria at Yallambie, 1998
Glen Dudley, piper of the Clan MacLachlan Society of Victoria at Yallambie, 1998

The Clan MacLachlan Society of Victoria were for a short time meeting at the Homestead on an irregular basis and brought their own piper on those occasions. Last year our son had an opportunity to pick up a set of pipes and was playing it like a pro before we knew what was going on. He plays clarinet in the school band so no doubt that training helped him pick it up but who knows, it could be down to family history.

Yallambie wedding with bagpiper, 1994
Yallambie wedding with bagpiper, 1994

I’ll probably have to sort out an old record if I want bagpipes on New Year’s Eve but Old Lang Syne is a Hogmanay staple. Most people know the chorus but if you don’t know the verses, here’s a translation of Robbie Burns original lyrics written in 1788, the year of Australia’s first settlement.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
And surely ye’ll be your pint-stoup!
And surely I’ll be mine!
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.


We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
Sin’ auld lang syne.


We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
Frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin’ auld lang syne.


And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
And gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak a right gude-willie-waught,
For auld lang syne


We will be singing this at Yallambie on New Year’s Eve and washing it down with just a dash of my Hogmanay Punch, perhaps. I’ve mixed this up many times over the years for when we’ve needed a tipple for our family of virtual teetotallers and other entertainments. On a few occasions I served it as a warming drink at City Council sponsored “Winter in Banyule” events at Yallambie.

But if there’s one thing it is guaranteed to bring, even if it be but once a year, it is a Happy New Year!

12 oz sugar
3/4 pint lemon juice
1/2 pint pineapple juice
1 quart white wine
orange rind
1 pint tea
1 tablespoon Angostura bitters
sliced orange, cherries, and apple for garnish

Heat together sugar, lemon juice and curls of orange rind. Stir in wine and pineapple juice. Just before serving, add freshly brewed strained tea and the bitters. Pour into warmed punch bowl or jug. Garnish with cherries, sliced orange and rosy apple. Serve in punch cups or heavy glasses.

Beware the punch
Beware the punch