Category Archives: Heidelberg History

Squatting on the lower Plenty, 1837

Part 1

“The Plenty he described as a rivulet of fine water, but running through a deep ravine which made access difficult. He considered the land very favourable for sheep runs.”
– D S Garden describing Governor Sir Richard Bourke’s assessment of the Plenty River from a visit Bourke made in March, 1837, (Heidelberg – The Land and Its People, MUP)

If the Wurundjeri were relieved to escape from the 1835 “treaty” with John Batman in which they had allegedly ceded a country half the size of greater Melbourne for a few blankets, tomahawks and mirrors, they might well have taken a moment to look at the fine print of Governor Bourke’s pro bono reasoning.

The infamous “Batman Treaty”

It was not the obvious inequity of the “deal” that unsettled Bourke but his belief that the Wurundjeri Aboriginals did not “own” the land on which they stood and on which their ancestors had roamed bare foot for tens of thousands of years. His reasoning was that in real estate terms, it was not by rights theirs to sell. The devil was in the detail of this decision for in the process of making it, with the single stroke of a pen it removed the last obstacle to an inevitable and inexorable influx of British settlers to the Port Phillip District. As a direct result of Bourke’s decree, pastoralists armed doubly with muskets and the notion of terra nullius came across the Straits from Van Diemen’s Land and overland from greater NSW seeking new pastures for their flocks in this reportedly “unoccupied” territory. The open, fertile and well-watered country they found waiting for them around the Yarra and Plenty River valleys was an attractive proposition to these men who, for a £10 annual licence fee, could occupy as much Wurundjeri country as they then thought fit.

A 19th century engraving of an indigenous Australian encampment.

One of the earliest of these pastoralists was Edward (Ned) Willis whose story as a squatter on the lower reaches of the Plenty River in 1837 has been briefly mentioned in these pages previously. Edward was a young man, not yet turned 21 when he arrived with his brother and uncle and more than 600 sheep in the surf at Pt Gellibrand in Port Phillip Bay on 13 April, 1837. Edward and his brother James had been driven away from their home in Van Diemen’s Land after James quarrelled with their father, Richard Willis of Wanstead in the island’s north. Edward soon brought his sheep to the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers where he created a sheep run which stood opposite or perhaps even bordered land that would later form the south eastern part of Yallambie.

Richard Willis’ Wanstead near Campbelltown built c1823. (Source: State Library of Tasmania, LINC Tasmania).

What has not been mentioned previously in these pages is that Edward’s brother, James Willis, kept a diary for five months while pursuing these endeavours. As a document written mostly on the east bank of the lower Plenty, it makes an exceptional companion piece to the “Farm Day Book” kept by the land owning settler William Greig on the west bank at Yallambie three years later. Similarly its content stands as a counterpoint to the description of Willis’ run made by Thomas Walker in his 1838 published account, “A Month in the Bush of Australia”. Like Greig’s story, James diary is filled with the thoughts and frustrations of a well born young man struggling to come to terms with a rough existence in the Australian bush and it remains as a fascinating glimpse into the life of one of our earliest Port Phillip pioneers. The extracts used here are reproduced from the Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 6 where the diary was published in its entirety.

The Port Phillip pioneer, Edward Willis, brother of James.

The diary starts on 9 April, 1837 with the brothers Edward and James Willis and their Uncle, Arthur Willis embarking on the voyage across the Straits from Van Diemen’s Land to Port Phillip where they came ashore on the 13th. Uncle Arthur left the party soon after to arrange his return to Van Diemen’s Land while Edward and James led their shepherds, John Stockly and John Fletcher, by a circuitous route north of the settlement to the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers which they reached on the 18th led there by “Old Tom”, a shepherd working for another squatter, John Wood.

“We procured the assistance of old Tom the shepherd, who conducted us to a creek about two miles off…”

18th April, 1837
Edward and I with our guns started on foot to woods about a mile off, where we procured the assistance of old Tom the shepherd, who conducted us to a creek about two miles off running in a northerly direction. We pursued its course for three miles and found it to be a permanent steam.
We crossed it and came to our present one, which although rather thickly timbered we have every reason to be satisfied with. It is bounded in the South and the East by the Yarra. The stream I have alluded to forms its western boundary (which we call Edward’s Rivulet, but I perceive the surveyors have on their charts dignified it by the name of the ‘River Plenty’), while on the North we have a forest called by us Epping Forest.
Such is the spot selected by Edward for his place of residence for four or five years at the least, when it is hoped he will be able to leave this savage life and move once more among civilised beings…
His employment here during the day is that of a common labourer, and at night he is in momentary dread of losing all he possesses in the world by the attacks of the wild dogs of the country, his ears being alternately regaled with their hideous howls and yells, the squeaking of the flying squirrels, the corkscrew-like noise of the possums and the gloomy monotonous note of that frightful bird the ‘Mow Pork’, which “concord of sweet sound” is not unfrequently accompanied by the reports of our firearms and the shouts of ourselves and men to frighten the dogs from us.
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were employed in erecting a yard at Wanstead, the run (so called after a place of that name known to us in Van’s Land) and clearing a ford over Edward’s Rivulet.

Glimpses of moving sheep in the Australian bush, from The illustrated Australian News and Musical Times, (Source: State Library of Victoria).

James’ estimate that they had travelled three miles upriver before crossing the Plenty would seem to place them squarely opposite Yallambie. However, it is likely that this estimate and other distances mentioned later by James are a little inaccurate, especially when considering the trouble likely encountered moving alongside the unmapped river and struggling through forest and a still virgin countryside. The west bank of the Plenty upriver from the Yarra confluence is overlooked by a steep escarpment so it makes sense that they travelled some distance before attempting a crossing. It seems more than likely that the first crossing place therefore was south of Yallambie at the ford near the end of Martin’s Lane which would over the next few years become the first access route into Eltham and beyond. Edward and James apparently were working in advance of their shepherds since the crossing with the flock and the horse and cart was not attempted until the 22nd.

Conjectural map of Edward Willis 1837 pastoral run based on the 1945 Adastra Airways Aerial survey map of Melbourne . Position of hut recorded at 1841 census marked on the east bank down river from Yallambie.

22nd April, 1837
Set out from Wanstead – reached the ford – crossed with the sheep but found the banks too steep to get the horse and cart over. With spades, axes and tomahawks we commenced digging away the bank on each side, but finding at noon that we still had a day’s work before us, we walked the horse over and carried the contents of the cart across. We then loaded the empty cart by means of a rope into the stream and fastened the horse to it on the opposite side with ropes and traces.
This plan failed as the horse had no power of draught, so we were forced to pull it out the best way we could. This method succeeded, though not until we had been tugging and pushing and bursting ourselves for about three hours. This Herculean labour being accomplished, we reloaded the cart and ascended the first rising ground, when we found about a quarter of a mile from the ford, the yard which Edward and Stockly had built the day previous.

A night camp with sheep, from The Australian News For Home Readers, FG, (Source: State Library of Victoria).

Erected our tarpaulin into a sort of gipsy-looking affair to shelter us from the dews of heaven, and after a hearty meal of damper, bacon and tea we lay down to rest, and although our sleeping place consisted but of the rudest possible contrivance, and in a country equally wild looking, we both declared in the morning that we had had visions of feasting and dancing, of splendid apartments, of beautiful women and of delicious music flitting before us all night.
I could hardly avoid a slight shudder when I first awoke to see a huge mass of food lying close to me, which one of the men with a beard ten days old asked for, calling it ‘the damper’. Verily it was a damper to the delicate state of my feelings at that instant, but it was but for an instant, for I presently commenced an attack upon it myself and thought it very good feeding for a beggar as I then was, and still am…

James’ diary makes many references to their food resources, or rather lack of them, and to his “beggarly” status. On the 23rd April he “caught half a dozen very fine black fish, decidedly the most delicious fish I ever tasted”, and on the 4th May he ate an eel which Edward had caught in the river, “our bacon being all expended.” A sickly ewe had earlier been butchered and although it “proved very poor meat”, “Fletcher made us sea pies of it so long as it lasted, a great treat to us.” On the 15th May they enjoyed another “very splendid sea pie” the preparation and eating of which was described in the following way.

…Viz, two kangaroo rats, two quails, four parrots, one wattle bird, two satin birds (of the magpie species) and a few slices of pork.
It was served up in a large black iron pot and was most delicious – poor Ned was filling his plate a second time. He took some pains to select the most savoury morsels and was just emptying the last spoonful of gravy when the log on which his plate rested slipped and its contents were deposited on a heap of ashes, and great was the laughing at the fall thereof, the dogs being the only animals benefited by the display of Ned’s taste in helping himself…

The destruction of Edward’s meal on this occasion wasn’t the only such instance of loss recorded in the diary. Al fresco dining at their camp was a matter of necessity and not a matter of choice.

28th May
Dull and miserable – at supper this evening Fletcher made sundry attempts to light the lamp before he could succeed. The night was dark and cloudy and there was some wind. The light resisted the puffs of wind until we had all seated ourselves round the table when to infinite confusion, and as I was in the act of cutting a slice of pork, out went the light, away flew the candlestick, which Fletcher had perched upon a huge tin dish and had placed on the weather side of it a board, by way of protecting the luminary from sudden gusts – I rose with the laudable desire of assisting Fletcher in re-lighting the lamp, for I saw that his stock of patience was nearly gone, my knee struck the table which was not proof against this unexpected shock, it gave a lurch, tottered, and fell, when the pannikins of tea, the pork, damper and rice, together with the plates and knives and forks were all thrown in wild disorder all around us.
The wind now abated considerably and we succeeded in keeping the lamp alight which revealed to our view a most delectable chaos. A scramble ensued, in which the dogs persisted in joining, and it was with difficulty that we managed to satisfy ourselves with the fragments rescued from their devouring jaws.

House-keeping in the absence of a kitchen, or for that matter a house, could be a bit of a hit and miss affair. James described the trial of their situation thus:

…It would amuse some of our friends in Van Diemen’s Land to take a peep at us. We take our meals in the open air unless the rain be so violent as to wash the tin plates and pannikins off the table, which cannot be put upon legs until placed in the hut we propose to commence next week – it is at present supported by four logs about six inches from the ground, one of which, the thickest, serves us as a seat on one side.
Our fire is in front of us with a kettle of tea, tea pots being superfluous at Port Phillip. We are surrounded by three or four hungry dogs watching for a mouthful. There is a lump of salt pork in a tin dish, and a damper weighing about twenty pounds, sometimes relieved by a few birds and fish, the latter very seldom now. The men sleep under the tarpaulin, which also protects from the weather a cask of pork and divers other stores.
Our tent is pitched a few yards off, one side is piled high with flour, sugar, tobacco, and our two trunks placed one on the other, form a dressing table covered by a thing intended to look white, its original colour, but being spotted with ink, gunpowder and a variety of other ingredients which have occasionally dropped thereon, together with drops of rain and marks of dust, it would at present be a hard task to convey to anyone the pleasing diversity of colour it presents to the admiring eye of the beholder. We think at some future period of getting it washed.
Our mattresses are laid on the ground, each with a gun case along its side by way of uniformity. A sheep skin serves for the carpet, a trunk of books for a chair, a bag of soiled linen at night keeps the door closed. My writing desk is now my pillow and I am half reclining, half sitting at it. If I am in want of a bright thought, I have only to turn to the right and cast them on a bar of soap or a bag of sugar.

“Looking For a Sheep Run”, an optimistic camp scene by A D Lang, 1847, (Source: State Library of Victoria).

Sleeping beside their gun cases, the brothers’ firearms were apparently always near at hand and it seems, at least by the evidence presented in the diary, were almost constantly in use. In part, the diary reads like a litany of terror for the native birds and wildlife of the lower Plenty as they shot at virtually anything that moved in the surrounding neighbourhood, all of which seems to have gone into their cooking pots. On the 17th May James wrote that they, “Had a stew of birds for supper – capital tho’ it would have been all the better flavoured with ketchup.”

On the 24th James was practicing his shooting on a stationary target when he experienced a mishap while using a small pistol.

…On Sunday while Edward was in town I amused myself for half an hour by practicing at a target with a pistol, cleaned and reloaded it. Took the pocket pistol – found difficulty in pulling the trigger – loaded a second time with buck shot. The pistol burst in my hand, the lock and barrel flying in one side behind me, leaving nothing but the stock (split across the trigger) within my grasp – fortunate to escape – might have caused my sudden exit from this world of woe.

Shepherd returning to the fold, from The Australian Sketchbook, S T Gill, (Source: State Library of Victoria).

This happened on the Sunday but significantly James took three days before he wrote about his brush with death in the diary. Instead, what he did write about the following day was a description of his bitter feelings towards his estranged father Richard Willis and the family feud in Van Diemen’s Land that had resulted in their exile and which had caused James so much personal unhappiness.

This state of things cannot last. Some fearful crisis is at hand. Some impending calamity awaits our family. I dread to conjecture when any father’s unnatural conduct will have an end – he has driven all his sons from his roof… but I grow disgusted at the very remembrance of it – I have already polluted this sheet of paper with the name of a father who loathes the sight of his child – of a husband who does anything but honour and protect his wife, who outrages her feelings and strives by every possible means to render her home as miserable as it should be happy…

The near death experience with the exploding pistol had caused James more than a little self-reflection. His father, Richard was by some reports a somewhat “difficult” man. The Australian Dictionary of Biography states that Richard Willis managed to quarrel with most of his neighbours in northern Van Diemen’s Land in the 1820s and 30s and also that, “unpopularity may have been a factor in his decision to return to England,” permanently in February 1839. Whatever the cause of Richard’s quarrel with his son, there is no doubt that it affected the boy deeply.

12th May
…Ned and I smoked a cigar and retired for the night. Talked of friends in Van Diemen’s Land. I lay thinking until three o’clock in the morning – went to sleep – dreamed I was not a beggar.

Willis’ Run seen from Cleveland Ave, Lower Plenty June, 2017. “Mount” Eagle in the distance at left and the Austin Hospital at Heidelberg visible at right.
Willis’ Run at the confluence of the Yarra and Plenty Rivers, June, 2017.

As stated previously, James refers to his beggarly status on several occasions in the diary, displaying a wry sense of humour in this self-assessment and describing his pecuniary problems with the following diary entries.

3rd May
…Some are born under a lucky star, and some an unlucky star. None of the former could possibly have been shining at my introduction into life. An income of some four or five thousands a year would make this world to me a very beautiful world, but as it is I have ever found it as much the reverse as possible…

And this entry two weeks later, although by this time his money needs would appear to have almost doubled:

18th May
I was very industrious – sitting on a bucket turned upside down and watching the embers of the fire, thinking of a thousand things, I often am inclined to think there must be some mistake about my present condition. I fancy I could spend so amazingly well an income of five or ten thousands. What a delightful thing it is to have a command of money. How easy it would be to make people patronise you. What an excellent nice fellow I should become all at once. The magical influence of that same filthy lucre is truly surprising. I believe I never shall be a rich man – I have a sort of presentiment that it cannot be. I shall never be able to do more than earn a subsistence – drag on a mediocre kind of existence without having any very beautiful visions to look back upon, such as delicious music, captivating women, grand and mighty cities and a thousand pleasures and enjoyments that can be procured by money and when once seen one may almost live upon the remembrance of them.

It’s has been said said that money isn’t everything but at times James wrote of a desire to remove himself completely from his current situation:

9th May
Very wet. Drawing logs for the sheep yard. Hard work, as well as dirty, lifting those same logs. Smoked a cigar, went to bed – wished myself anywhere but at Port Phillip.

And a few weeks later he wrote again, this time wishing himself back in London while sarcastically contrasting his dreams with his daytime labours and the “intellectual conversation” of their shepherds:

25th May
…Our ears were regaled some two or three hours with the highly intellectual conversation of John Fletcher and John Stockly the shepherds. Warmed my toes. Went to rest much edified – dreamed of Aborigines – building chimneys –sheep – split stuff – and London.

Part 2

The joys of living under canvas through a Port Phillip winter quickly palled on the Willis brothers. James was at the settlement in Melbourne, “which at present consists entirely of turf and weather boarded huts, a very primitive looking place” and staying at John Pascoe Fawkner’s board and lodging house where Fawkner’s “one-eyed, genteel wife makes things as comfortable as one can expect,” eating her “curry which was of rabbit and certainly excellent”, when a terrific storm hit the District. James in Melbourne wrote that “the thunder and lightning (was) the most terrific I ever witnessed. I congratulated myself on being comfortably housed and thought of poor Ned at the Inn.” Edward’s own subsequent tale of the confusion at their Plenty River camp was duly recorded in the diary by James:

3rd May
He said it must have been about ten o’clock when in a sound sleep he was awoke by a desperate rush in the sheep fold. At the same instant he heard the two men shouting and hallooing in the most vehement manner, and one flash of lightning which illuminated the tent was followed by a deafening clap of thunder. He sprang from his bed expecting to find all the sheep scattered and an easy prey for the dogs, for so dark was it that you could not see beyond your nose.
The first thing he did was to cheer the men by his voice. Another blaze of lightning for some moments blinded all three of them and they reeled about insensible. Fletcher ran against a tree, a branch of which had wellnigh ripped his bowels open, and then measured his length on the ground where he lay several minutes in momentary expectation of being swallowed up by the earth. Stockly at a short distance from the yard called Fletcher to open the gate, for he thought he was driving the sheep before him, when undeceived he ran up to the fire and enquired ‘whose fire that was’, his hair literally stood on end, he was in his shirt and presented a picture of the most unutterable despair.
During the time the rain descending, the wind blowing and the repeated peals of thunder was such as to appal the heart of a lion. Fully convinced that the wild dogs had got among the sheep the men shouted, yelled and uttered every variety of noise to frighten them away. They both behaved uncommonly well throughout, but such was the tremendous war of the elements that they anticipated nothing short of an earthquake as they declared to me afterwards.
Suddenly it became fair and they found that Master Bush, one of the sheep dogs, in his alarm had jumped in among the sheep as if he sought shelter from them during the dreadful convulsion. Edward stood some minutes at the door of his tent and on reviewing the scene he had just witnessed could scarcely refrain from laughing when he saw the two men in their shirts running about like maniacs they knew not whither with their hair standing on end and bawling, squalling, shouting and screaming in the most frightful manner and falling prostrate on the ground, and then tumbling over a log. Another, mistaking the fire he had just left for some strange fire, fancying he was driving all the sheep into the yard when he called out to have the gate opened. A few of the sheep got out when the rush was made, but in the morning they were found standing quietly beside the fence.

A flock of sheep at a bush camp, from The Australian Sketcher, JAC, (Source: State Library of Victoria).

The Willis brothers were still living under canvas in early June when the land speculator Thomas Walker visited their camp on the Plenty. Walker memorialized this visit in his 1838 book, ““A Month in the Bush of Australia” writing that, “Willis is still living in his tent, but with as much comfort as under such circumstances can be looked for. He has got a nice situation in the fork formed by the junction of the creek “Plenty” and the Yarra Yarra.” (You can read Walker’s full extract in my 2014 post, here). James recorded Walker’s visit in the diary with the following entry:

3rd June
Edward arrived from Melbourne with some gentlemen who came overland from Sydney. Two of them drove a gig the whole way, the rest on horseback, having crossed four rivers and met with no kind of impediment. They accomplished the journey in about a month. Edward with his visitors after dining returned to town, where he has to arrange respecting the payment for two allotments he purchased for Willis Macintyre and Co.

An echo of the Willis brothers on the Plenty – (Cottage, Macedon, by Frederick McCubbin, c1895, Art Gallery NSW).

Throughout most of the narrative of James’ diary, while living in their tent, James writes that the brothers were occupied during the day splitting timbers for a sheep yard and for an associated slab hut. The hut was commenced on 16th May and was presumably located within easy reach of the river ford. The 1841 census placed it where the Plenty Bridge Hotel would later stand above the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge.

On the 23rd May James wrote, “Fine morning. Wet afternoon. Drawing logs for the hut. Slow work – no hired men – all done by our own hands. Ned acts carpenter – he is adzing logs – says it makes his back ache.” Four days later Edward was visiting a neighbouring squatter John Nicholas Wood whose shepherd “Old Tom” had originally led them to the Yarra Plenty confluence. Wood’s run was located approximately in the vicinity of where Hawdon’s Banyule Homestead would later be built. James had described Wood as “a good-natured little fellow though his manners are not the most refined” and Edward was hoping to enlist his help, “roofing the hut, which it is highly expedient we should inhabit before our beds are washed from under us.” The brothers were both suffering from colds at this time as they entered their first Port Phillip winter. On 1st June the building was far enough advanced for Edward to go to Melbourne to purchase nails “to put the roof on the hut” and on the 10th it was James who was in Melbourne collecting a further supply of nails. The deprivations of their house-less existence had taken their toll however and at the end of July, James’ health broke down completely. His painful illness required his immediate removal to Melbourne where the doctor, finding he was “suffering from inflammation caused by cold”, bled him in the Dracula-like medical fashion of the day. Whether or not as a result of the bleeding or simply as a result of a strong constitution, after an interval James was able to write, “I am at length quite restored to health…”

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

His humour also seemed restored. John Batman had loaned them his transport, “the only gig in the settlement” to get the invalid to Melbourne and also offered James a room in his home on Batman’s Hill during the period of his convalescence, which was duly declined subsequent to the following chivalric reasoning:

“…I thought it better to decline his offer as he was at that time an invalid himself, and moreover I was rather afraid of encountering the bright eyes of his daughter – for she might have evinced something like that tender solicitude for the wounded Knight’s recovery which the gentler, the fairer, and the softer sex are never without, and which might have prompted something like gratitude in my breast towards the sympathising damsel, admiration probably would follow, and then God knows what. But it seems that the fates have reserved me for a better, or perhaps a worse destiny than would in such case have been the inevitable result.”

The fates had indeed reserved another destiny for James. In the diary entry written just before James’ illness, James described a journey made by the brothers and their neighbour John Wood, up the Plenty River. They were provisioned and had been intending to explore the country for three or four days but after they “had traversed the course of our creek the ‘Plenty’ (or ‘Edward’s Rivulet’, as we call it) some five or six miles”, the party came to a halt upon “a tract of most excellent grazing land.” James wrote that Edward and Wood then “discovered that they must return home instantly to dress sheep”, the implication being that a race was on between the two squatters to see who could relocate a flock to the new pasturage first.

James’ illness occurred directly after this event and when he had recovered sufficiently to return to the Plenty a month later he found that Edward had removed himself to a location which was by James’ estimation, “about seven miles higher up the Plenty”, presumably the land the brothers had seen with Wood previously. At this new location it seems that a second hut had by then been constructed. The building had a thatched roof, as opposed to the nailed shingles of the earlier structure, and had been made ready for the arrival from Van Diemen’s Land of a third Willis brother, William. James described a high hill nearby from which could be “enjoyed a view of the surrounding country for twenty miles and more in every direction.” This second run it would seem therefore was located somewhere north of the Montmorency or “Epping” Forest and in the vicinity of modern day Greensborough, where an apparently unrelated farm “Willis Vale” later developed. It has been suggested (conversation with Anne Paul, Greensborough Historical Society), that the view from the high hill mentioned by James might have been from the top of Flintoff’s Hill near where modern day Civic Drive intersects the Greensborough Bypass, or from Yellow Gum Park in the Plenty Gorge Parklands, but for now this must remain a matter of conjecture.

…and for the first time we found ourselves in a snug turf hut – “The Squatter’s First Home”, with all its comforts by A D Lang, 1847, (Source: State Library of Victoria).

30th August
…and for the first time we found ourselves in a snug turf hut eleven feet by thirteen, with a thatched roof and neatly whitewashed inside.
Ned has a very respectable bedstead in one corner built of wattle sticks; one in the opposite corner is being made for William, whose arrival we are expecting. A rude contrivance bearing some faint resemblance to a sofa stands in the corner near the chimney; it answers the double purpose of sofa by day and my bed at night.
Our table is a very ingenious affair, being a hair trunk placed upon four stakes knocked in the ground, which with two wooden seats entirely of a new fashion and to which we have given the name of chairs, completes our stock of furniture. I should not omit our bookcase, which is composed of three long wattle sticks reaching from wall to wall on either side of the hut, along which our extensive and valuable collections of books appear in formidable array, having their backs, however, towards the company.
On various parts of the wall are skins of birds, and preserved amongst which the tail of a black cockatoo extended in shape of a fan, its feathers being black and crimson alternately, is handsome; several wings and tails of parrots—three kinds—are beautiful — as well as the entire skins of parrots having almost all the colours of the rainbow, some of which are the most rich and lovely I ever saw.
Sky blue, lavender, crimson, scarlet, orange, green and black are the most conspicuous, all being exquisite contrasts to each other.”

Panorama of southern end of Willis’ first Run, 1837 photographed from Cleveland Ave, Lower Plenty June, 2017. Rosanna Golf Club is in the near distance at right. Plenty River is behind the trees at the foot of the escarpment.

Today a large part of Willis’ 1837 pastoral run retains a pleasingly rural character with the land occupied by two golf courses and the Yarra Valley Parklands. How much Edward and James experiences in 1837 involved country that would later form part of the Bakewells’ Yallambee must however remain uncertain. There is no doubt that they roamed freely about nearby and probably at least crossed over a part of it. One of James’ earliest diary entries written on the 28th April mentioned them finding “a small spot of grazing land five miles off” and on the 14th May they found “some beautiful country about four miles from Wanstead” that Edward proposed turning one day into a second run, so the Willis boys were obviously on the lookout for extra pasture from the outset. Garden writing in “Heidelberg – The Land and Its People” thought that the surveyor Robert Hoddle’s notes suggested that Willis’ run involved both sides of the Plenty River, although he readily admits that Hoddle’s notes are difficult to interpret.

“…the Willis boys were obviously on the lookout for extra pasture from the outset.”

The sale of land on the west bank of the lower Plenty in 1838 and on the east bank in 1840 brought an end to the brief squatting era on the lower Plenty. With the return of their father to England at the start of 1839, Edward Willis returned to Van Diemen’s Land and his personal association with the Plenty River ended. In a letter dated 24th March 1839 Edward states that he was leaving the Plenty River ”having notice to ‘quit’ due to the imminent land sales”. He goes on to warn against future occupation of his hut on the Plenty River: “I’d scarce recommend you. For the fleas will soon make it prodigiously clean. That their bloody attacks are not meant to befriend you. This useful bit of information mind is given gratis. For the thriving squatter to the flea good bait is”.

Edward married Catherine the daughter of Captain Charles Swanston at Hobart Town in 1840 and subsequently joined his father in law in partnership in Geelong. James’ diary ends with a statement of his hopes of one day soon himself being offered a position managing a store in Geelong but by 1841 it is believed that he was established at Mernda at a wattle and daub hotel (the Bridge Inn) on the Plenty River crossing. In addition to the inn, Willis’ Mernda enterprise involved a pastoral holding of 400 acres which he again called Wanstead. After their previous Vandemonian and Lower Plenty Wanstead experiences, it’s a wonder that James was still dusting off that nomenclature for another outing at Mernda, but he remained in possession until 1851.

“My Harvest Home” by John Glover, (Source: National Gallery of Australia).

As the story of James Willis and his Plenty River diary fades into forgotten memory, it is comforting to note that the “unlucky star” recorded by James would ultimately be proved wrong by history, at least in a sense. The Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 6, MUP 1986 credits ownership of the diary manuscript to James Willis’ great-grandson, Dr R W Pearson. So it seems that James finally got to appreciate the joys of a family life that he earlier believed would be forever denied him.

Though evidently not in the arms of one of John Batman’s bright eyed daughters.


Slipping over on the highway of life

It’s a bit of a cliché, but the incongruous sight of men leaning on shovels around a road sign announcing the apparent falsehood, “men at work”, is one we are all familiar with. In Tarcoola Drive, Yallambie at the start of April one such sign went up on the nature strip near the corner. It read “roadwork ahead”, a precursor to sawn lines being cut into the road surface in front of it, then – nothing. It has been like that for a month, a road hazard if not actual roadwork, evidence that somebody at the road depot at least has a sense of humour. There the sign has stood forgotten, oblivious to traffic and to all intents and purposes seemingly abandoned. Eventually a motorist missing the corner drove right on over it, bending it into a shape like banana or a boomerang made by an Aboriginal on a bad day.

“Road work” at the Tarcoola Drive/Yallambie Road intersection, May, 2017.

The intention I’m told is to build new kerb “outstands” on the corner. These projecting kerbs are intended to reduce the speeds of vehicles entering and exiting Tarcoola Drive by making the turn disproportionately more dangerous. Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge, who owned one of the very first motor cars in the Heidelberg district, is said to have preferred a horse and cart. He may have been right.

Thomas and Sarah Ann Wragge in a Brazier outside Yallambie Homestead shortly before the death of Thomas in 1910. (Source: Bill Bush collection)

Roads were an early priority of this area and it has been argued by D S Garden that the creation of the Heidelberg Road Trust in 1841 constituted the earliest known form of local government within the Port Phillip District. The road to Heidelberg had been formed in 1839 and was known initially as the “Great Heidelberg Road”. It was laid out by the surveyor J Townsend who followed a line that was more or less parallel to the Yarra River.

Lower Plenty Road in Rosanna, 1914 looking south west towards the Upper Heidelberg Road intersection. The approach to Yallambie was behind the photographer of this picture. (Source: Heidelberg Historical Society image).
Junction of Lower Heidelberg Road and Banksia Street in Heidelberg, 1896. The recreation hall owned by Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge is in the centre of the picture. (Source: Heidelberg Historical Society image).

I picture Townsend in those far off days whistling the highs and lows of “The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond” as he surveyed his route, the design splitting Heidelberg Road into two paths after the Darebin Creek ford. His Upper Heidelberg Road, known initially as the Nillumbik Road, ran along the top of the ridge while the Lower Heidelberg Road, first called the Mount Eagle Road, followed the valley contours.

The Heidelberg Road commanded regular traffic from its inception. The route beyond to the Diamond Valley and Lower Plenty initially led to a ford over the Plenty River near what is now Martins Lane. Although shorter this route was discarded in 1840 in favour of the current line which was considered easier. William Greig, who as recounted previously farmed at Yallambie in that year, used this way regularly to visit town. That was until the early perilous condition of its surface sent his pony lame. Richard Howitt meanwhile, who lived on the Heidelberg Road at Alphington and who we remember for his visit to his Bakewell brothers in law at Yallambee in mid-1842, was equally unimpressed.

A beautiful town is Melbourne,
All by the Yarra’s side;
Its streets are wide, its streets are deep –
They are both deep and wide

Escaping from one quagmire,
There’s room enough for more;
Such a beautiful town as Melbourne
Was never seen before…

(Richard Howitt, Impressions of Australia Felix, p299)

One of the first tasks of the Heidelberg Road Trust then was to macadamise the road surface, a process that was commenced in 1842 and which was to introduce a technology which had not long been developed in Britain. The metal for the project came from a bluestone quarry at Alphington on the west bank of the Darebin Creek. As the colony emerged from the economic stupor of the 1840s, visitors to the Heidelberg district were astonished by the experience of travelling on a luxury road that boasted an incredible macadamized surface, the first in the Port Phillip District. In March, 1848, Bishop Perry wrote after travelling on this road that:

“Yesterday we drove to Heidelberg, which is the most settled part of the country. The distance from Melbourne is about eight miles, and the road is the only made road in the colony… Here and there we went along, were neatly piled up heaps of broken stone, ready for mending the road, just as you see in England; and at places we found men at work with shovels levelling, filling up holes etc.”

Almost a decade later in 1857, an attempt was made to reform the Heidelberg Road Trust by declaring the district a municipality. It failed after a petition opposing the move, led by the leading gentry of the region, was delivered to the government. Yallambee’s Bakewell brothers must have been getting ready for their return to England when they signed but all the same, their names appear there near the top of the parchment alongside such luminaries as Hawdon of Banyule, Martin of Viewbank, McArthur of Chartresville and what amounts to a mid-19th century virtual who’s who of the Heidelberg district. It appears there had been some disagreement over which part of the Heidelberg Road would most benefit from spending of the available road finances. The Bakewells, preoccupied with their return to England, possibly believed no money should be spent on it at all.

Service station on Main Road in Lower Plenty, c1960.
Service station at Watsonia, c1950. (Source: Greensborough Historical Society)

Transportation has changed and roads might be different but disagreements about spending on infrastructure hasn’t changed that much in the one and a half centuries since. The present State government dropped more than a billion dollars to dump the East West Freeway when it came into office, all to prove a point. In the State Budget announced today, the same government released plans to spend another $100 million on a feasibility study of a North East Link, the so called missing link between the Western Ring Road and Melbourne’s south east.

Burgundy Street in Heidelberg, 1950 at the Lower Heidelberg Road intersection. (Source: Picture Victoria, Heidelberg Historical Society image).

The North East Link is an old idea that harks back nearly half a century to the “1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan” which it might be argued was an attempt to turn Melbourne into a Los Angeles of the south. They largely succeeded in that plan for as a contractor once told Arthur Dent shortly before his planet was demolished by the Vogons, “It’s a bypass, you have to build bypasses.” The glaring exception however was the freeway that was to have been built through Heidelberg. Carrying the moniker F-18, the 1969 plan was to drive it through the Heidelberg community like a Thunderbirds’ atomic road maker, road laying machine, cutting a swathe through the landscape. Thankfully the plan was abandoned in the early 1970s and the land in Buckingham Drive and Banyule Road at either end of the freeway reserve was later sold for housing. The Freeway reserve is still there in between in the form of  a linear park but the plan is now to either build a tunnel under the City of Banyule or direct the route further out through Nillumbik Shire. Either option fills nearby communities with impending dread.

In Banyule, on a local and I might say, somewhat “smaller” scale, the City Council set aside $38,000 in the 2016/17 Budget for the work near us in Tarcoola Drive mentioned at the start of this post. However, they tell me that they are determined to spend only about half of that amount this year, the rest being put aside presumably for when they feel like coming back to do the job properly. Maybe they’ve run out of money already.

Mid 90’s Council proposal for a retrofitted roundabout at the corner of Tarcoola Drive and Yallambie Road that was never built.
Council plan of proposed kerb side alterations to intersection of Tarcoola Drive and Yallambie Road, December, 2016.

Like the F-18 on a larger scale, this is not the first attempt to deal with a perceived traffic problem in Yallambie. In the mid ’90s there was a proposal drawn up to transform the same corner into a retro fitted roundabout, a project aimed at slowing traffic in Yallambie Road, as opposed to the current attempt at slowing traffic in Tarcoola Drive. That roundabout was never built, but was constructed instead onto the corner of Binowee Avenue and Yallambie Road near the shop with speed bumps formed at the approaches.

To add a bit of currency to an old problem, yesterday afternoon our son came in from school and said that as he crossed Lower Plenty Road to Yallambie Road with a green pedestrian light, he had”nearly been run over by a car turning the corner.” In 1993, during the development of Yallambie’s Streeton Views subdivision, the Traffic Engineer for the project Greg Tucker reported that a grade separated pedestrian overpass across Lower Plenty Road to the schools in Viewbank was unwarranted. “The provision of traffic signals at Grantham and Crew Street would incorporate pedestrian crossing facilities in any event…” (City of Heidelberg business paper, 8 Feb, 1993). In subsequent developments, the Martins Lane intersection was substituted for Grantham Street.

The sharp bend at the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge was a notorious local traffic hazard until the realignment of Lower Plenty Road across the modern bridge. (Source: Greensborough Historical Society, Eltham Historical Society image)

I’ve heard tell that it used to be an unofficial policy at VicRoads to undertake remedial roadwork but to do so only after a road death had occurred. A bit like shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. The profusion of roundabouts and speed bumps at the northern end of Yallambie Road are something that was added after 1980 and only after the pedestrian death of a child on Yallambie Road near the Primary School. In those days Yallambie Road was a sort of alternative route to Eltham bound traffic on Greensborough Road. The 46 page “Yallambie Road Traffic Study” prepared by Nelson English, Loxton & Andrews for Heidelberg Council in 1982 reported that approximately a third of all traffic on Yallambie Road was through traffic and that up to 78% of traffic exceeded the then maximum 60 km/h speed limit with the highest speed recorded at 100km/h. The report also noted that the impending signalisation at both ends of Yallambie Road was expected to result in even more through traffic.

The decision three years later to extend Elonera Avenue, Yallambie in the City of Heidelberg through to Elder Street, Greensborough in the Shire of Diamond Valley as a part of the Daniel’s sub division opened up another access point into Yallambie, This time from Greensborough in the north. The Yallambie Community Association which was a then very active institution, strongly opposed this connection, but their collective voice remained carefully ignored by those who make the decisions. Once again the ad hoc solution has been to retrofit speed humps, this time along Elonera Avenue.

An aerial survey photograph made of the still some what under developed Yallambie area prior to 1971. Note the abrupt end of Elonera Ave to the left of the roundabout, before its extension as a part of the Daniel’s property sub division.

The folly of creating communities without satisfactory infrastructure is nothing new. What happened at Fishermen’s Bend in Port Melbourne is a case in point and is a classic example of what can happen when the profits of a few investors and developers are put ahead of the interests of the wider community. At Fishermen’s Bend, a few property developers, mostly with connections to the then Liberal State Government, became insanely wealthy overnight when the former industrial land they had invested in was rezoned with a stroke of a pen to allow multistorey apartment buildings. Some individuals made profits of over 500% on their investments but planning for residential infrastructure such as schools and roads was almost completely disregarded in the process, leaving taxpayers to pick up the tab at a later date. It has been described as a classic example of how not to develop land ear marked for urban renewal.

Sometimes it’s not about what you know but who you know along this highway of life. The Premier of Victoria at the time of the release of the 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan freeway blueprint was the legendary, late Sir Henry Bolte. Ol’ Henry reportedly enjoyed a tipple now and then but in March 1984, long after his retirement as Premier, Bolte suffered serious injuries when the car he was driving collided with another vehicle near his home. Surveys here and abroad have consistently reported that the majority of road accidents happen near our homes but in this case it was alleged at the time that Henry had been drink driving. In the end, charges were never laid after the police mysteriously “lost” the blood sample taken from the injured ex-Premier after his crash.

The Bolte Bridge, named after Victoria’s longest serving premier. It spans the Yarra River and Victoria Harbour as a part of the CityLink road system. (Source: Wikipedia)

Bolte recovered but his legacy remains in the testament of the road network that he envisaged and that has been built right across greater Melbourne. Maybe one day we will all be travelling in driverless Tesla cars on this network, but the vote as far as it affects Banyule remains out.

Personally my money’s all on a future involving the Jetsons’ flying car.



Select sources: Heidelberg - The Land and Its People, D S Garden; The Diamond Valley Story, D H Edwards; The History of Our Roads, Maxwell Lay in The Heidelberg Historian, June 2005; Yallambie Road Traffic Study 1982, Nelson English, Loxton & Andrews; Yallambie Community Association papers; City of Heidelberg business paper, Feb 1993

Art for art’s sake

The teacher was attempting to instruct his class in Year 11 physics. After a lengthy divagation on the theory of Newton’s laws of relative motion, I thought I had a handle on it. “Sir, that’s like when you’re lying down in the fields, looking up at the sky and watching the clouds drifting by overhead,” I said. “When you do that you get the feeling that you’re moving and it is the clouds that are standing still.”

The teacher paused from his discourse for a moment and looked at me pointedly. “And do you do a lot of this lying around in the fields looking up at the sky, Mister?”

It made sense to me at the time but was apparently too left field for schoolboy scholarship. Needless to say I didn’t go on from there to forge a career in the sciences but commercial art, with its apparent opportunity for creative expression, appealed to a young man with his head firmly stuck in the clouds. As a graphic artist I had plenty of opportunity to draw and paint and for a time I derived a good deal of job satisfaction from my profession. But that’s where the story ends I’m afraid. As a graphic designer these days I find myself like most people in the digital age, parked in front of a computer and wondering about whatever happened along the way to creativity in the 21st century.

A desire for aesthetic expression is a part of what makes us human and from the dawn of time that expression has found voice in the decoration of the places where we live. The earliest cave dwellers decorated their rock walls with images of those things that were important to them in their Stone Age lives.

Cave paintings at Chauvet Cave in southern France.
Cave paintings at Chauvet Cave in southern France.

At Chauvet Cave in France, early humans of the Aurignacian era, 30,000 to 32,000 years ago, painted hundreds of extraordinary images of animals, many of which are now extinct. In classical times, Roman artisans decorated the walls of every day dwellings with murals, examples of which were uncovered and so can be seen today at the ruined city of Pompeii.

Take a leap forward to the modern world when the Victorians built houses in the classical manner in a style dubbed “Italianate”. They decorated these buildings with stencils and murals and heavily patterned or embossed wallpapers all of which were linked to a new materialism that surfaced in the 19th century. The Scottish designer and a pivotal figure in the Aesthetic Movement, Christopher Dresser, wrote that by the application of decorative art, “a very barn may become a palace.” To the later Victorians, highly developed ornamentation became an art form and this was worthy of their great endeavour.

It is clear that this was the style chosen to ornament Yallambie Homestead in the second half of 19th century. Meagre decoration and furnishing in a home were thought to be akin to poverty and Thomas Wragge would therefore have been keen to mark his successes as a wealthy pastoralist by the correct decoration of his Melbourne home. Enough discarded wall paper has been found under the floors at Yallambie to give some impression of the mode of décor chosen by Thomas Wragge and his family. The surviving interior surfaces of the house Wardlow in Parkville (the outside of which is used as a location in “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”) are an example of what possibly might once have been found on the walls at Yallambie in the post 1880s, although at a guess the earlier 1870 decorations when the house was new might have been simply painted.

Warlow House, Parkville, 2005.
Warlow House, Parkville, 2005.

When I discovered these fragmentary wall papers under the floor a decade ago (along with the previously mentioned Day Book and a few mummified moggy cats), a friend said to me enthusiastically, “That’s great, now you know the style of decoration you will need to follow in order to recreate the interior at Yallambie.”

Sanitary style wallpapers from upstairs sub floor area, Yallambie.
Sanitary style wallpapers from upstairs sub floor area, Yallambie.
Wallpaper fragments from sub floor area of former upstairs billiards room, Yallambie.
Wallpaper fragments from sub floor area of former upstairs billiards room, Yallambie.
Wallpaper fragment from sub floor area of former smoking room, Yallambie.
Art Nouveau wallpaper fragment from sub floor area of former smoking room, Yallambie.
Wallpaper fragments from sub floor area of music room, Yallambie.
Wallpaper fragments from sub floor area of music room, Yallambie.

Frankly the idea of following such a course of action filled my wife and myself with horror. As that other famous exponent of Aestheticism, Oscar Wilde reportedly said on his death bed, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.” Not being prepared to share with the Irish playwright the fate of the “ex-parrot” just yet we decided instead on a series of painted surfaces with just a passing nod to what had gone before in the form of a few individually hand painted surfaces.

Even in the 19th century, writers made a mockery of Victorian decorative values and of the drawing rooms of the colonial nouveau riche in particular. Richard Twopeny in “Town Life in Australia” (Elliot Stock, London, 1883) wrote satirically of the Australian squattocracy which for him was defined by a character he dubbed “Muttonwool”, a person probably not so very dissimilar to Mr T. Wragge, Esq. himself:

“…it is time we should go through Muttonwool’s house room by room. On entering the drawing-room the first thing that strikes is the carpet, with a stiff set pattern large enough to knock you down, and of a rich gaudy colour. You raise your eyes — find opposite them the regulation white mantelpiece, more or less carved…”

At Yallambie, two of the marble fire surrounds in the principle rooms had been removed and a third modified during Sarah Annie Murdoch’s 1923 renovations of the homestead. In that decade, she and her husband, Wallace Murdoch, were intent on creating a post- Edwardian style interior within the Victorian house that Sarah Annie’s father had built. Although at odds with the building, the ideas chosen did have some merit and were you might say the Murdochs’ contribution to the precept of the Chauvet Cave principle. Rooms were enlarged, plumbing installed and a red pine panelled and timber beamed ceiling introduced into a front room that became the new dining room.

Music room at the end of the Temby occupation of Yallambie, 1984.
Music room at the end of the Temby occupation of Yallambie, 1984.
Music room during reinstatement of window panels, October, 2011.
Music room during reinstatement of window panels, October, 2011.

Over the last decade, the Edwardian mantle pieces from the Murdoch era have been replaced and the earlier marble fire surrounds repaired in a style more befitting a mid-Victorian building. These included a chimney piece installed into the music/drawing room. It was reconstructed on a limited budget, not so much a shoe string, more a shoe thread from pieces found in demolition yards. The same source supplied discarded slate and marble that were recycled to tile the ground floor halls with a black and white diamond pattern, a design motif that is typically Victorian and which I am told is rooted in Freemasonry symbolism of the dark and light or of the yin and yang. This tiling project alone took 18 months to complete. Each piece of stone was cut individually and laid with mortar, a task which I suppose qualifies this amateur as some sort Mason himself now, but without the obligatory handshaking.

Front hall at Yallambie.
Front hall at Yallambie.

The Melbourne merchant and decorator William Henry Rocke described a more tasteful mid Victorian drawing room in a booklet he published in 1874: “Once the walls were hung with fluted silk, of a French grey tint, but now they are simply painted that colour and relieved by oblong panels of gold beading, which is also carried along the line where the walls and ceiling meet… A few intertwined sprays of delicate Australian blossoms, hand painted, form the central ornament of each panel.” (Remarks on House Furnishing and House Decoration, W H Rocke, Melbourne, 1874)

Painted plaster in the drawing room at Mt Rothwell Homestead, 2002.
Painted plaster in the drawing room at Mt Rothwell Homestead, 2002.

This was the inspiration for the approach that was eventually chosen. The painted surfaces at Mt Rothwell Homestead near Geelong and the slightly later but utterly remarkable interior of Villa Alba in Kew are grand and significant survivors of this approach to interior decoration.

Painted surface at Villa Alba, Kew.
Painted surface at Villa Alba, Kew.

The Pre-Raphaelite artist, Edward La Trobe Bateman, who visited Yallambee in the 1850s and who produced a series of drawings to record the property, worked in a number of creative disciplines and he was admired for his contemporary coloured stencil decorations on board walls and ceilings and for flowers painted over fireplaces in at least two properties.

Sarah Annie Wragge hand decorating a door at Yallambie Homestead, c1890.
Sarah Annie Wragge hand decorating a door at Yallambie Homestead, c1880s.

Whether any of the Wragges met Bateman is unrecorded but the daughters of Thomas Wragge are known to have hand decorated several doors at Yallambie in the 1890s with designs based on plants found in the garden.

Wragge painted door, Yallambie.

Wragge painted study door, Yallambie.
Wragge painted door panels, Yallambie.

Three of these doors have survived with their decoration to the present day and follow a tradition of painted doors in Victorian houses that can be found elsewhere at properties in the state like the aforementioned Mt Rothwell and at Reedy Creek Homestead near Broadford, amongst others.

Painted door in the drawing room at Mt Rothwell Homestead, 2002.
Painted door in the drawing room at Mt Rothwell Homestead, 2002.
Papered 4-panel drawing room door at Reedy Creek Homestead, Broadford, 2003.
Papered 4-panel drawing room door at Reedy Creek Homestead, Broadford, 2003.
Dining room door and surround at Reedy Creek Homestead, Broadford, 2003.
Dining room door and surround at Reedy Creek Homestead, Broadford, 2003.
Bedroom door painted by the writer's wife in 2000.
Bedroom door painted by the writer’s wife in 2000.

In the spirit of this tradition, my wife, herself a fine artist, painted a couple of interior doors at Yallambie. She also painted the panels under each of the seven windows of the music room and gilded the cornices and architraves.

Details of motifs painted onto the panels in the music room.
Details of motifs painted onto the panels in the music room.
Panel detail.
Panel detail.
Painted ceiling frieze, February, 2014.
Painted ceiling frieze, February, 2014.

A ceiling in another room which had been covered with lining papers in the past, presumably to hide the various imperfections in the Marianas Trench style, lathe and plaster surfaces, was found to have a ghostly outline of a painted frieze around the deep cornices when the papers were removed. This became the basis for a design that my wife has gradually been repainting overhead from a precarious height.

Over 70% of all accidents happen within the home. A makeshift painter's scaffold at Yallambie photographed alongside Wragge painted, 4 panel door, June, 2012.
Over 70% of all accidents happen within the home. A makeshift painter’s scaffold at Yallambie photographed alongside a Wragge painted, 4 panel door, June, 2012.

When it came to painting a ceiling rose however, unlike Michelangelo, she painted the plaster at table height before we lifted the rose delicately to its present location 13 feet above the surface of the floor. A gilded and pressed metal centre rose completed the effect.

Gilt metal and painted plaster ceiling rose.
Gilt metal and painted plaster ceiling rose.

Gilded cornices were described at Yallambie in an inventory made of the house in 1910 after the death of Thomas Wragge. The metal was presumably destroyed during the 1923 renovations as several pieces have been found discarded in an old rubbish pit. Replacement gilt metal has been cheaply sourced at demolition yards and reinstated at several locations in the house, wherever practicable.

Painted gilt metal curtain pelmet, May, 2015
Painted gilt metal curtain pelmet, May, 2015

Why go to such efforts with a house that has been variously described by Winty Calder as a “white elephant”? It is the same urge that drove those cavemen to go “Ugh,” and decorate the walls of Chauvet cave and the artisans at Pompeii to decorate the walls of Roman villas even as Vesuvius murmured their impending doom. Yallambie Homestead was purchased 20 years ago for what seems today  the price of a town house or a teepee, or maybe only a part thereof. Almost everything that has been done since that time has been done DIY on a limited budget although it is a disturbing thought that parts of the building continue to deteriorate faster than they can be properly maintained. However, if things cannot be done by our own hand, they tend not to get done at all. Although solidly constructed, Yallambie is a building that has become fragile with age but necessity is the mother of invention and it is surprising what can be achieved by a couple of artists left purely to their own devices.

Interior of Napier Waller's house in Fairy Hill, Ivanhoe.
Interior of Napier Waller’s house in Fairy Hill, Ivanhoe.

A versatile artist who left a legacy in the City of Banyule was Napier Waller, the 20th century Australian muralist, mosaicist and painter of stained glass. Waller lost an arm in the Great War but later trained himself to work with his non preferred left which shows that disability is not necessarily an impediment to artistic expression. One of Waller’s later designs was installed as a moving war memorial at St John’s Church of England in Heidelberg, alongside the Wragge Ascension Windows triptych described previously. Waller’s home and studio was located in Fairy Hills, Ivanhoe not far from the house that Nancy and Cliff Bush built for themselves when they left Yallambie. (It can be seen as the location of the doctor’s house in the “Dr Blake Mysteries”). Since his death in 1972, Waller’s house has been preserved as a sort of memorial to his memory with many of the artist’s preliminary drawings, sketches and full cartoons remaining inside the house. The overall effect is “mysterious and church like” in the words of one visitor, with one large design for a mosaic from the University of Western Australia dominating the interior. Art lives on at Waller’s house long after the inspiration that created it has returned to the cosmic dust.

One of the great conundrums has always been, just what constitutes art? Pablo Picasso said that, “the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Last week a painting by the famed Spanish modern master went under the hammer at Christie’s auction house for a record price of some 227 million Australian dollars. Picasso’s Cubist painting “The Women of Algiers”, itself a reworking of a subject tackled a hundred years earlier by Delacroix, is rather a snazzy picture I think and I certainly wouldn’t mind taking the auctioneer’s hammer for a moment and nailing it to our own wall. (Fox News didn’t think so however. Bizarrely, when reporting on the sale, Fox felt obliged to blur out the so called “breasts” of Picasso’s abstract).

Women of Algiers by Pablo Picasso.
Women of Algiers by Pablo Picasso.

But $200,000,000? Really? What painting is worth the GDP of some Pacific island nations within our region? Either art is priceless, and therefore by definition worth nothing, or it is worth a fair price and that’s not the sort of money that regularly changes hands for some fine art these days.

In his film, “The Great Contemporary Art Bubble”, the art critic and film maker Ben Lewis revealed how the contemporary art market deliberately inflates the prices paid for certain modern artists at auction in order to maximise prices for pieces by the same artists when sold privately. It is a business practice that would not be tolerated inside other industries.

Today there are practically no large scale paintings by Picasso remaining in private hands so it could be argued that 200 million big ones is a fair price to pay for “Women of Algiers”. I dunno. Maybe after all these years I still have my head stuck in the clouds but I suspect  that there are in private hands today an awful lot of smaller scale Picasso prints and drawings whose value has just sky rocketed. And what price should we put on Melbourne’s own Picasso, “Weeping Woman”, infamously stolen from the NGV in 1986 by the self-styled but to this day unidentified “Australian Cultural Terrorists”? My teenage son, looking over my shoulder while I write this post, claims he could make us a “Weeping Woman” with crayons if we gave him half a chance. I’d never heard of Picasso having a “Crayon Period” but then you never know. Picasso was a remarkably prolific artist.

The NGV’s “Weeping Woman” was held to ransom for a while after the theft with a demand for an increased public funding of the arts. The story reads to me something suspiciously like a piece of performance art. Burnt matches were delivered to the authorities with the ransom notes. Legend has it that as the police net closed in, the typewriter used to write the ransom notes met a watery grave in the Yarra off Princes Bridge. It’s probably still down there, the rusted keys of the typewriter mixed with all those keys from the lovers locks thrown from the Southbank footbridge. Killjoy Council workers began removing the locks from this impromptu art installation this week.

In a sleight of hand, last week’s Federal Budget removed about $105 million from the Australia Council for the Arts, the body previously charged with funding arts projects in Australia, and placed the spondoolies into the hands of the Minister of the Arts. There is a theory behind the action of course because the money will go towards funding a new programme called “Excellence in the Arts” but it’s a move that would have the Australian Cultural Terrorists fuming if they were still around.

“Weeping Woman” was eventually returned to the gallery unharmed, more famous and probably more valuable than ever before, but without any of the unlikely ransom demands for arts funding met. The crime has never been solved but the process left then gallery director, Patrick McCaughey’s bow tie in a twist for more than a little while. In the final analysis the lack of a pecuniary outcome was apt. After all it’s well known that art is priceless. Well, isn’t it?

Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso.
Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso.

Green Days

In the previous post, Lady Betty Lush remembered her childhood visits to the Yallambie Homestead:

“I also loved to be allowed to wander in the garden under the tall pine trees and around the river. It seemed to me a dream garden…”

Travelling around the suburb of Yallambie today it is sometimes hard to reconcile those impressions with the reality of life in a modern city. In 1959 when Nancy and Cliff Bush prepared to leave their farm at Yallambie after a century of occupation by the Wragge family, they commissioned a film maker and family friend, Peter Bassett-Smith to make a 16mm film as a record of the property before it was consumed by the proposed A V Jennings housing development. That film is now housed at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra after its owner, Bill Bush donated it to the library. As a testimony to a farm in close proximity to a capital city in Australia in the middle part of the 20th century, it is a fascinating picture. The scenes of rolling green fields, mature tree lined drives and gardens, the dams filled with water, and the solid, old homestead with its c1840 stable block are a glimpse into a golden, nostalgic world of which only a remnant has survived to the present day.

Still from the film "Yallambie" by Peter Bassett-Smith
Still from the film “Yallambie” by Peter Bassett-Smith

When surveyed at the start of the 1960s, the A V Jennings plan for the subdivision of Yallambie cut through the house garden. Pegs observed close to the Homestead at that time suggest that Jennings also contemplated the demolition of the c1870 farm house.

Still from the film "Yallambie" by Peter Bassett-Smith
Still from the film “Yallambie” by Peter Bassett-Smith

After construction, Tarcoola Drive cut through the house paddock and Lambruk Court opposite the Homestead crossed the site of the old stockyards and loading ramps. A V Jennings auctioned the first blocks of land at Yallambie in September, 1966 for an average price of £4118. From 1974, after the Victorian Government Gazette published its approval, the new suburb was officially listed as “Yallambie”, within the City of Heidelberg (now City of Banyule). Today it is home to a resident population of several thousand people, many of whom are probably unaware of its earlier history. For them and for any others who might be interested to see the beauty of a now vanished farming era, here is that film:

Diggers in the Garden State

Sometime in the 1980s in the last decade of the “Cold War”, there was a tall graffiti on a bus stop in Greensborough Rd outside the entrance to the Watsonia Military Camp. “U2” it proclaimed in large letters of carefully drawn sans serif. It was there for a long time, homage to a rock band from Ireland, without deference to the base beyond or to American spy planes flying thickly in the blue skies up above.

"American spy planes flying thickly in the blue skies up above..."
“American spy planes flying thickly in the blue skies up above…”

Travelling quickly past, the army barracks in Heidelberg’s north wasn’t something we thought about much, unless while turning the pages of a Neville Shute book on the beach on the Mornington Peninsula in the summer holidays. There was some expectation that suburbia would someday obliterate the barracks, if the Cold War Ruskies didn’t manage it first, as agrarian land has never been able to co-exist for long in Melbourne without someone, somewhere wanting to come along and put a housing estate on it. And there were several hundred acres of it enclosing the Watsonia Camp.

The thing is, the “Watsonia Army Barracks” as we called it wasn’t actually in Watsonia. A Commonwealth reserve, the land the camp occupies has habitually been a geographic part of Yallambie, separated from neighbouring Watsonia and Macleod by the Greensborough Hwy and the western end of Yallambie Rd. Known simply as the Simpson Barracks after 1986, not after the Private soldier with the donkey (who incidentally was not a Simpson but a Kirkpatrick), but after a World War II Army brass hat, its official address is Mackay Rd, Yallambie and it occupies what was in the 19th century the western most portion of the Yallambie estate.

Wragge women on a post and rail fence. Sarah Ann Wragge appears to be the person in the middle. Picture taken probably in the fields that later became the Simpson Army Barracks.
Wragge women on a post and rail fence. Sarah Ann Wragge appears to be the person in the middle. Picture taken probably in the fields that later became the Simpson Army Barracks.

When Thomas Wragge died in 1910 his 604 acre Heidelberg property, Yallambie Park, passed to his wife Sarah Ann (less one acre bequeathed to the Church of England) and upon her death five years later, to three of their surviving children, Sarah Annie Murdoch, (ne Wragge) and her brothers Syd and Harry, with a another brother sharing equally from the income.

Between 1920 and 1921, Annie, Syd and Harry agreed to divide the Yallambie estate between them. While the two men received a larger share of the land, Annie took the homestead with 109 acres, including the gardens and the prime alluvial river flats on the western banks of the Plenty River. Syd and Harry both received 247 acres.

Syd leased his brother’s share and with the two portions he and his wife, Grace, developed a farm on the western most part of Yallambie. They named the enterprise “Tulla” after the Wragge family’s famous Riverina sheep station. Syd’s daughter, Lady Betty Lush, (ne Wragge) would later recall her father’s Blanding Castle style farming activities with the following description chronicled by Winty Calder in her book, “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”:

“We built a weekend house on the highest ridge and bought and moved from nearby another house for the manager. Stockyards, fowl pens, stables and cow bails were erected and we went into farming in a small way. In my father’s lifetime we kept bees, fowls, had horses out on agistment in the paddocks but most profitable of all were some middle Yorkshire pigs. These if not a financial success, and it has been said most of my father’s ventures were not a financial success, were definitely a breeding success as one boar ‘Tulla Laird’ (we called the farm Tulla) was champion pig for three years at the Royal Melbourne Show…”

Tulla Laird, with apologies to the Empress of Blandings.
Tulla Laird, with apologies to the Empress of Blandings.

Betty also remembered with fondness her visits to the Yallambie Homestead in the 1920s, by then occupied solely by her Aunt Sarah Annie and Uncle Walter Murdoch and their daughter, her cousin, Nancy. By the early 20th century the garden planted by the Bakewell brothers and Thomas Wragge had reached its maturity and fully justified its nomenclature, Yallambie Park.

"The garden planted by the Bakewell brothers and Thomas Wragge had reached its maturity..."
“The garden planted by the Bakewell brothers and Thomas Wragge had reached its maturity…”

“As a small child I can well remember our trips out to Heidelberg every Sunday afternoon, wet or fine, to supervise the running of the farm, first father then mother, and our weekend visits and Easter vacations spent there. On these longer visits one or all of us were invited always for some reason to Yallambie, very often for dinner and the evening. I loved these visits even though nearly always in the early years I would fall asleep with a book by the billiard room fire while the older ones played a game or so after dinner. Often I would ride down there with a message, only too glad of an excuse to go there. Auntie Annie was always very generous and seemed pleased to see us, and I had what was then known as a “crush” on Nancy. I also loved to be allowed to wander in the garden under the tall pine trees and around the river. It seemed to me a dream garden…”

Kath Wright (later Adams) at Yallambie, 1918
Kathleen (Kath) Wright who, like Betty Wragge, was a cousin of Nancy Murdoch. Kath grew up at “The Trossachs” in Odenwald Rd, Eaglemont and “often rode her horse from her home in Eaglemont to Yallambie when visiting Nancy”. This photograph was taken in 1918 in the stable yard at Yallambie when Kath was about 18 years old.

Betty’s father, Syd Wragge, died prematurely in 1927 aged only 53. His widow Grace initially continued running their Heidelberg farm as a dairy but due to the poor soils on the remote heights located away from the Plenty River flood plain, (Richard Howitt’s “vast and sterile stringy-bark forests” of 1841), and the fact that artificial fertilisers were not used, it was never a great success. In 1934 she decided to sell her 247 acres for £10,000 to Ainslie Meares, a family friend and relation of the wife of a cousin, Jim (JP) Hearn.

Ainslie Dixon Meares (1910-1986) was born in Melbourne and after graduating in medicine from Melbourne University, practiced in the field of psychiatry. He pioneered the concept of therapeutic meditation and wrote many books on the subject on his way to becoming arguably Australia’s most distinguished, certainly its best known and most flamboyant, psychiatrist.

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

Meares employed the architect Lesley Forsyth, renowned for his Neo-Tudor houses, to design a two storey brick residence. It was built in 1936 on the high ground that had earlier been selected by Syd Wragge for his dairy farm. Ainslie Meares and his wife Bonnie (ne Byrne) named their house “Aldermaston” after the village in the UK where the couple had spent their honeymoon two years earlier. It was constructed in the style of an English country house at an estimated cost of £7000 and featured a turreted castle tower, steeply graded slate roofs and crisp, white French windows. Its blend of Art Deco and Gothic constructional ideas, together with its sweeping views of Mt Dandenong and the Plenty Ranges was a remarkable architectural realization. A contemporary newspaper report described the finished building:

The circular wooden staircase lies in a rounded turret and leads to the balcony, which surrounds the central hall… all the main rooms open from this spacious hall, which is panelled with Queensland maple … opening from the left hand side of the hall with folding doors is the long, light sitting room at the end of which a tall bay window is carried from ceiling to floor …directly opposite is the dining-room. One of the most attractive rooms in the house is the study, which is octagonal and is panelled with Queensland maple to match the hall. This delightful room has windows on three sides and a door opening to the garden from a fourth …a breakfast room corresponding in shape and size opens from the opposite corner of the hall, and leads to the kitchen and servants’ quarters which are in a separate self-contained wing.

Ainslie’s brother is reported to have lived in a house on another ridge in the district and the two properties were within sight of each other.  Many years later Meares wrote about the inspiration for the design of Aldermaston:

“The old home in which I had been brought up was of unusual design with a central hall going up to the full height of the two storeys. We often try to relive our childhood fancies in later life, and I drew a plan for a house on this principle. I gave these ideas to the architect Mr Les Forsyth, and he designed the details and supervised the building”.


Meares' Aldermaston Manor
Meares’ Aldermaston Manor

Aldermaston was rated with an A1 grading by Graeme Butler in his 1985, “Heidelberg Conservation Study, Part 1” which contained the following glowing citation:

“Built in the Neo-Tudor style, so favoured in Heidelberg. Aldermaston is perhaps the biggest and the best, showing an extension of the eclectic style to suit the modern concept of massing. Clinker face brickwork, steep overlapping slated gabled roofs and multi-paned shuttered windows are the components of the style, whilst the curved driveway, with main and service entrances spaced along its length, illustrates a design for facility on a grand scale. Internally, the two levels of the house are carried through to overlook a vast two level space, in the Great Hall manner, with the lacquered veneered panelling, large fireplace, and gallery which communicates with the upper level rooms. The garden has basically survived and is an important part of the hillside setting. This is an outstanding and original house of the Neo-Tudor style and the former first marital home of Australia’s most renowned psychiatrist, Dr Ainslie Meares. The building is of state importance, architecturally and historically.”

Picture from The "Heidelberg Conservation Study, Part 1", 1985
Picture from The “Heidelberg Conservation Study, Part 1”, 1985

In 2011, the Banyule Heritage Review recommended the house for inclusion on the Commonwealth Heritage List.

The Meares lived at Aldermaston for only a brief time in the 1930s before the Army requisitioned the property for training purposes. With the threat of war looming, the adjacent land to the north of the property was developed as an Army training ground and included administrative staff, reception and transit camps for the troops. The area was given the official title of “Camp Q”, but soon became known, somewhat inaccurately, as simply the “Watsonia Barracks”.

Army cadets at Watsonia (Yallambie) military camp, 1944, AWM
Army cadets at Watsonia (Yallambie) military camp, 1944, AWM

In 1941 the Army formally purchased a part of the property and the Meares home was turned into a training hospital for the duration. By that time, Ainslie Meares had enlisted in the Army as a doctor with the rank of Captain. On at least one occasion during those years, Captain Meares, like Evelyn Waugh’s fictional Captain in “Brideshead Revisited”, found himself billeted in Army barracks at the Camp while senior officers were living in the comfort of the manor house.

The 7th Division on parade at Watsonia (Yallambie) military camp, 1944, AWM
The 7th Division on parade at Watsonia (Yallambie) military camp, 1944, AWM

With victory in World War II, the “Watsonia Barracks” began to wind down and by 1946 it was practically deserted. Between 1946 and 1951 the old Army Nissan huts were being used by the Victorian Government as makeshift housing. Some were removed and were to find new life in other uses, such as meeting halls for Scout troops in the district.

Eaglemont Scout Group Hall, removed to Chelsworth Park, Ivanhoe from the "Watsonia" Barracks in 1958.
Eaglemont Scout Group Hall, removed to Chelsworth Park, Ivanhoe from the “Watsonia” Barracks in 1958.

Dr Ainslie and Bonnie Meares returned to Aldermaston Manor but in 1951 they vacated the house again and sold the remaining part of their property to the Army which had decided to extend the Watsonia Camp. At the time there was an expectation that the Army would also purchase the Yallambie Homestead, its gardens and river side farmland. Sarah Annie Murdoch had died in 1949 and the remaining Wragge property at Yallambie had passed to her daughter, Nancy. A preliminary approach was made to Nancy and her husband, Cliff Bush.

The Hon Josiah Francis, Minister for the Army in 1954
The Hon Josiah Francis, Minister for the Army in 1954

“About 1954, the Federal Government put Nancy under considerable pressure to sell her property for extension of the Watsonia Military Camp. She opposed the resumption, but invited Mr Francis, Minister for the Army, to visit her at Yallambie. The entertainment she provided included good food and a Henry Clay cigar, out of which a silverfish popped. Whether for that or for some other reason, the government dropped its plans to compulsorily acquire Yallambie.”

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

Vintage Henry Clay cigar box of the 1880s.
Vintage Henry Clay cigar box of the 1880s.

The Army’s collective “nyet” meant that after 1951 the Camp did not expand beyond its existing boundaries. Nancy retained her Yallambie property but at the end of the decade, after a century of occupation by the Wragge family, she sold it to the real estate developer A. V. Jennings which developed the Yallambie housing estate there after 1966.

Meares’ Aldermaston House remained largely immune from advancing suburbia and was utilised as a residence by the Army’s Victorian Military District commander in the 1970s. Since 1984 it has been the HQ for the Defence Force School of Music where the crashing of cymbals can no doubt be heard mixed in with the laughter of the kookaburras.

In 1991 the Commonwealth declared about 120 acres (50 hectares) of the Simpson Barracks, surplus to Army requirements and sold it to the Defence Housing Authority. The “Pioneer Property Group” entered into a joint venture with the Authority and developed about 500 house lots on the land which was dubbed “Streeton Views” estate at Yallambie. Arthur Streeton had been an official artist in the Great War but I expect it was his earlier Heidelberg School paintings and not his visions of war torn France that the developers had in mind when imagining the Yallambie project.

Pond at Streeton Views estate, Yallambie, March, 2015
Pond at Streeton Views estate, Yallambie, March, 2015

As housing estates go, the Streeton Views exercise was handled with some degree of sensitivity. A grassy common intended to reflect the style of the nearby Meares house and ornamental lakes fashioned from levees banks bordering Lower Plenty Rd were significant features. John Hawker, horticulturalist with Heritage Victoria, was retained to provide advice on preserving a number of significant, pre settlement native trees within the development. The estate won the 1994 Housing Industry Award for best medium density development and the 1996 Urban Design Institute of Australia Award for Best Estate over 200 lots nationwide.

River red gum and pond adjacent to Lower Plenty Rd at Streeton Views estate, Yallambie, March, 2015
River red gum and pond adjacent to Lower Plenty Rd at Streeton Views estate, Yallambie, March, 2015

A recent Armed Services audit of assets at Yallambie is rumoured to have attached a staggering one hundred million dollar price tag on the remaining Army land at the Simpson Barracks, but Mum’s the word, Mr Hockey. The Army has been spending millions on building programmes inside the Simpson Barracks and on security upgrades to the entry points. New gatehouses, due to be completed in June, are being constructed at the main entrance on Greensborough Rd and on the Yallambie Rd entry points.

I saw inside Aldermaston in 2009 while on a tour arranged by the Heidelberg Historical Society but photography was forbidden at that time. Late last month, for the purpose of illustrating this post, I went up to the barracks with the intention of photographing Aldermaston from public stomping ground outside the fence. After a conversation with the guards at the nearby gatehouse that included a discussion about the relative merits of the art of photography around a secure military base, I put my post 9/11 camera away and didn’t get much of a picture I’m afraid.

Aldermaston, photographed with a post 9/11 camera, March, 2015
Aldermaston, photographed with a post 9/11 camera, March, 2015

Thinking about what became of Meares’ home, the greatest distinction of Aldermaston House remains its superlative setting on the highest ground in Yallambie and, thanks to the Army, this has never been built out. The occasional fly over by Army helicopters and loosened roof slates is the price we pay in this suburb for having that extra slice of green swath down the road.

Army Black Hawk helicopters flying low over roof top chimneys of Yallambie Homestead, March, 2011
Army Black Hawk helicopters flying low over roof top chimneys of Yallambie Homestead, March, 2011

It’s an irony that in a world that can no longer afford the environmental destructions caused by military conflicts, it is the Army that has done much to develop a land management strategy at Yallambie. Indigenous trees have been replanted, stands of River Red Gums regenerated and the Yallambie Creek that runs through the Base has been stabilised and overplanted, a boon for wildlife. Driving past on a Saturday morning a few weeks ago the Army woodland bordering Yallambie Rd was brim full of kangaroos. Captain Kangaroo, the all new recruit, perhaps?

The pressures that suburban development can bring can be illustrated by a brief mention of the story of the Plenty Gorge Park upriver from Yallambie. The first proposal for a Park in the Gorge came in the Melbourne Planning Scheme of 1928 however nothing was done until suburban development reached the area in the 1970s and 80s. A community action group, the “Friends of the Plenty Gorge, Inc” was formed in 1987 with the stated aim of extending the Plenty Gorge Park into the southern fringes of the Gorge environment. Irreconcilable differences within the group emerged when land owners bordering the Gorge around Janefield in the south, many of whom had previously maintained the area and thought themselves best qualified to do so, found themselves at loggerheads with environmentalists who favoured a wider strategy. The group effectively disintegrated soon after the southern boundaries of the Park, which placed urban development in close proximity to the Gorge bushland, were declared.

“The debate that tore apart Friends of the Plenty Gorge in many ways reflected debate occurring in the wider society regarding private and public ownership of assets.”

(A Story in Landscape, Gerry Closs, The Australian Experience in the Plenty Valley, Plenty Valley Papers, vol 2, 1996.)

Batman's c1841 apple tree and old Maroondah Aquaduct pipe bridge near the corner of Corowa Cr and Lear Ct, Greensborough, downstream from the Plenty Gorge, March 2015.
Batman’s c1841 apple tree and old Maroondah Aquaduct pipe bridge near the corner of Corowa Cr and Lear Ct, Greensborough, downstream from the Plenty Gorge, March 2015.

Travel anywhere around Melbourne these days and you will find open land is now at a premium. In most suburbs temporary fencing surrounds building projects, very often where houses have been demolished on larger blocks to make way for the multiple unit constructions that seem to be forever popping up like mushrooms. Big Ears might be happy to live in a mushroom but somebody is certainly getting wealthy on the strength of it. A newspaper report last month suggested that “developers are making apartments smaller and smaller because it supercharges their profits.” (The Age, 19 March, 2015). Look at the following link to see what the 70 years since the end of World War II have done to Melbourne and its suburbs.

Where will we be in another 70 years? It is a frightening fact that the Chinese used more greenhouse gas producing concrete in three years from 2011 than the United States used throughout the entire course of the previous one hundred years. As Paul Gilding so eloquently explained, “The Earth is Full” and we’re not about to get another one to replace it. There’s a war going on out in the suburbs and this one doesn’t involve the Army. Dr Meares treated returned servicemen suffering from the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress after the War but today it is modern living that is creating victims and people are both its culprits and casualties. Apartment living and the fashion for smaller house blocks might answer the needs of an expanding metropolis but they deny people the health giving benefits in both a physical and spiritual sense of managing a garden.

I was driving with my son yesterday and he pointed at the slogan that can be seen on the number plates of most, late model cars — VICTORIA THE PLACE TO BE.

“What does that mean?” he said.

“Dunno, not New South Wales I suppose. I remember when the plates used to say — THE GARDEN STATE.”

In addition to his series of drawings of "Yallambee", E La Trobe Bateman was a noted garden designer and laid out East Melbourne's Fitzroy Gardens in 1856. In 2011 a plaque was placed on a "meditation bench" in the Gardens to commemorate the life of Ainslie Meares. This is the view from that bench.
In addition to his series of drawings of “Yallambee”, E La Trobe Bateman was a noted garden designer and laid out East Melbourne’s Fitzroy Gardens in 1856. In 2011 a plaque was placed on a “meditation bench” in the Gardens to commemorate the life of Ainslie Meares. This is the view from that bench.

Former State Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett has appeared on television recently and written in the press, proclaiming the health giving benefits of gardening. “I know from experience that gardening is a great antidote to stress and anxiety”, (Herald Sun, 4 March, 2015). Loved and loathed by Victorians in equal measure, Jeff was a controversial figure in political office but since leaving government he has undergone something of a transformation. His work for the mental health organization, Beyond Blue is well known but Jeff claims that it is his garden that gives his life the balance that it needs on a day to day basis and that moreover, Beyond Blue is the most important work he has ever done. It’s an idea that I think would have left old Dr Meares chuffed.

Inscription on the "meditation bench", Fitzroy Gardens, East Melbourne.
Inscription on the “meditation bench”, Fitzroy Gardens, East Melbourne.

A river runs through it

What do you think you would catch if you threw a fishing line into the Plenty River at Yallambie? A Redfin perhaps? The “Salmon of Doubt”? An old boot?

I was walking in Yallambie Park the other day below Tarcoola Drive and heard movements on the river bank below me. A few Yallambie likely lads and their girlfriends were down by the riverside with fishing gear and lines trailing into the water. The esky they had brought along with them probably contained little in the way of a catch, but at a guess, lots in the way of lager, the obligatory essential for a good day’s fishing anywhere.

Although the sight of Yallambie anglers is about as uncommon these days as a monster in Loch Ness, a few die hard fishermen are still seen now and then elsewhere along the river. There were plenty of fish in the Plenty once upon a time, enough even for an angling club to form upstream from Yallambie at Greensborough in 1926.

Greensborough and District Angling Club rooms at 161 Para Rd (formerly Rattray Rd), Greensborough
Greensborough and District Angling Club rooms at 161 Para Rd (formerly Rattray Rd), Greensborough

Under the name of the “Greensborough Angling Club”, it met initially at the Greensborough Masonic Hall in Ester St before building premises on the west bank of the Plenty at 161 Para Rd, (then Rattray Rd). The club is still active today and is one of Victoria’s oldest angling clubs, although it’s doubtful whether they fish the River competitively at the back of the club house much anymore. Easier I would say to put in an order at the local fried fish and chip shop.

Releasing fish into the Plenty River between the wars
Releasing fish into the Plenty River between the wars

Frank Wright, a grandson of Thomas Wragge, the landholder of Yallambie in the second half of the 19th century, wrote of his earliest memories and of fishing on the Plenty River in a paper entitled “Recollections of the Plenty River”, extracts of which were quoted by Winty Calder in “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”.

The Plenty water, from my earliest days, was always said to be exceedingly pure, and in the 1920s I heard a professor of engineering say that Yan Yean water was so pure that, without treatment, it could be used indefinitely as boiler-feed water.

I have some slight recollections of the Plenty at Yallambie in the very early 1900s, but my main experiences there were during the years after 1910 when the unoccupied property became, to all intents and purposes, my happy hunting ground… we might walk from and return to Heidelberg for a day’s fishing, or go by train to Greensborough, walk and fish our way to Yallambie and then walk back to Heidelberg; or sometimes my father would pile three or four of us boys and our camping gear into the family buggy and leave us to our own devices on the banks of the river for a week or two at a time. The old (Yallambie) orchard provided us with fruit, the creek with fish, and we (learnt) to look after ourselves. Thus we got to know the river well, at least the length of it between Greensborough and the Lower Plenty Bridge.

It never occurred to us not to drink the water straight out of the river. It was crystal clear, an always flowing stream of pools and little rapids. Trees and bush lined its banks, and here and there an old fallen tree provided a bridge crossing. In other places crossings were easily made.

Possums and platypus were plentiful. Often we would see six or ten platypus in a day. We used to catch blackfish and mountain trout, and once we caught a rare native fish called a marbled trout. It was like a rather narrow 10-inch flathead in shape, with a mottled grey-black colouring. Eels and small freshwater lobsters also came our way.

Looking back, it is now realized, our hunting days at Yallambie bracketed the time that was the beginning of the end for these native fish. I don’t remember which we caught first, an English perch or a Murray cod; anyway, we caught both. Someone had put them in the Yarra and they had made their way up the Plenty, to add to our fun. But these two fish were, I believe, destroyers of the little blackfish and mountain trout.

My visits to the Plenty at Yallambie ceased with World War I.

Fishing has always been a hugely popular past time in Australia. My own father was a keen freshwater river fisherman in the years that followed that other World War. He and his old army mates, all ex POWs, kept a shack after 1945 on the Mitta Mitta River where they would disappear away from their families at irregular intervals to yarn about the “one that got away”. Some sort of wish granting, talking fish I have no doubt.

The writer's father (right) and a mate with a catch of river trout in the 1950s
The writer’s father, (right) and a mate with a catch of river trout after the war, discussing the size of “the one that got away”. He was known as “Titch” in the army, a nickname derived from his stature, not his fishing ability.

I remember going there years later as a child, around about the time that to quote my father, the building of the Dartmouth Dam “wrecked the Mitta for fly fishing”. There was a large drawing of a fish in outline on a wall of the shack which, as my father explained, was the outline of a trout which legend had it had been reeled in hook, line and sinker by my godfather, Uncle John. The men had traced the fish onto the wall to immortalize it before it went into the pan. “But take with a grain of salt, or at least a slice of lemon, that drawing and anything else your Uncle John tells you of his Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Your Uncle John was a lousy fisherman. If you ask me, I reckon it was more like a fish finger.”

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view XI by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. View of garden with cypress and fence.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view XI by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. View of garden with cypress and fence prior to the building of Yan Yean. Viewing platform on stilts above the high water mark of the Plenty River.

Like the later building of the Dartmouth, when a catching reservoir was built in the 1850s on the upper reaches of the Plenty River at Yan Yean, the river’s natural flow was forevermore diminished downstream. Mills closed for lack of water and farming practices had to be modified up and down the Plenty valley. The colonial government paid financial compensation to the mill owners whose business literally “dried up” overnight, causing some wags at the time to suggest that there was more money to made in building mills to claim the compensation than in actual mill operation. Oral history would suggest that in the early days of settlement a water driven, mill wheel was located at Yallambie. Indeed, Ethel Temby claimed to have seen the still visible foundations of this feature in the 1960s but locating the mill site within Yallambie Park today can only be described as a problematic exercise at best, although a cut through the river bank for watering cattle and old billabong depressions are still apparent.

Anderson's Mill on the Plenty was one of a number of mills that suffered as a result of the damming of the Plenty River. (SLV)
Anderson’s Mill on the Plenty was one of a number of mills that suffered as a result of the damming of the Plenty River. (SLV)

Occasional floods on the Plenty River at Yallambie are still possible and at their highest point can cut right across the plain of the horseshoe bend in the vicinity of the billabong depressions.

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

A Wragge photograph from the 1890s shows the river in flood and in 1996, a century later, another flood was captured in this video clip:

There is no doubt that Yan Yean was a visionary engineering project for an infant colony when it opened in 1857. Certainly Yan Yean water was an improvement on the old system of collecting water from the Yarra, upstream from the settlement, and carting it around the town in barrels.

Before the opening of the Yan Yean Reservoir on the Plenty River in 1857, Melbourne's water needs were met by primitive means
Before the opening of the Yan Yean Reservoir on the Plenty River in 1857, Melbourne’s water needs were met by primitive means

Visiting Australia in 1871, the English novelist Anthony Trollope, wrote of Melbourne’s water supply and stated, perhaps with some satire, that it “is supposed to be the most perfect water supply ever produced for the use of man. Ancient Rome and modern New York have been less blessed in this respect than is Melbourne with its Yan Yean. I do believe that the supply is almost as inexhaustible as it is described to be. But the method of bringing it into the city is not as yet by any means perfect… I will also add that the Yan Yean water is not pleasant to drink — a matter of comparatively small consideration in a town in which brandy is so plentiful.”

Anthony Trollope around the time of his visits to Australia, c1870s
Anthony Trollope around the time of his visits to Australia, c1870s

I’ve heard tell that ultra-pure water (literally H²O) produced for use in the medical industry, has the texture of water without the taste of water, and in fact it can be quite dangerous to drink in quantity. Sounds weird doesn’t it? Generally, it is the mineral content in water that gives water the taste we assume it doesn’t have. The use of lead piping in early Melbourne, used to deliver water around the city streets, was probably one reason for Trollope’s reservations about the quality. Consumers at the time were even advised to run their taps to waste for a few minutes each morning in an attempt to lessen the dangers associated with lead piping.

Public warning which appeared on the reverse side of Melbourne water supply rate notices in the early 1860s
Public warning which appeared on the reverse side of Melbourne water supply rate notices in the early 1860s

The “inexhaustible” supply described by Trollope all too soon also proved to be inadequate. Further diversions of streams into the Yan Yean system occurred and the 20th century saw the building of a series of new dams on many of the main rivers within casting distance of Melbourne. The last one was built on the Thomson River in west Gippsland within the memory of many people. When completed in 1983, the Thomson Reservoir was more than four times the capacity of Melbourne’s next largest reservoir and was supposed to drought proof Melbourne for all time.  Like Yan Yean and the other reservoirs, it was never going to be enough of course. Australia is a dry country. So dry in fact that here in Victoria a few years ago, with the much vaunted Thomson standing almost empty, the politicians went all to water in the face of an ongoing drought and in a robbing “Peter to pay Paul” exercise, built a pipe line to bring water from the Goulburn Valley across the divide to Melbourne. And if that was not enough, at the same time they ordered the building of a massive desalination plant on the Bass Coast near Wonthaggi.

A desalination plant was always going to be a dumb idea and the fact that regular rainfall since its opening has saved the desalination plant (or the pipe line for that matter) from being used is scarcely the point. When you have to start manufacturing water it’s clear to me that you have a population that is living beyond the ecological limits of the environment.

As Melbourne continues to expand into an ever enlarging megatropolis, it is our environment that always pays the price. The latest “Sustainable Cities Index”, a study that rates 50 of the world’s most important cities from 31 countries, taking into account social, economic and environmental considerations, ranks Melbourne 17th in environmental considerations. The same study however ranks Melbourne fifth for profitability and 8th in social factors. I can see a trend developing, can’t you?

In “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, Winty Calder further described some of the environmental stresses that beleaguered the Plenty River at Yallambie in the second half of the 20th century:

Bill Bush would remember platypus in the Plenty River during the 1950s, but both the river and its flood plain were degraded as residential development proceeded. Frank Wright continued returning to Yallambie until the 1970s, by which time his early memories of the property were in sharp contrast to current reality. It had become “a jumble of new roads and dwellings, and the formerly lovely Plenty River (was) a yellow mess of pollution and dumped rubbish.” (Letter from Frank Wright to Olive Shann.) He would never forget that:

“about 1970 or ’71, I… looked sadly at the once pure and beautiful Plenty. The water was a turbid orange colour from the stirred up clay. Raw bulldozed rubble edged the waterway in places. Tin cans, old tyres and other dumpers’ rubbish littered the scene. No sewerage drains served the many dwellings along the banks. I don’t want to see the Plenty again.” (Frank Wright, “Recollections of the Plenty River”).

Soon after Frank’s last visit to that river, the water quality testing programme of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works confirmed his fears that the Plenty was so polluted it could no longer support aquatic life in its lower reaches. However, by then, a main sewer traversed the whole length of the river with branch sewers connected to it at various points.

Around the time Frank Wright wrote his epilogue of the Plenty River, a report from the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works put forward the notion that by 1990 the then polluted river systems of Melbourne would be mended. In fact it claimed that the Yarra, Melbourne’s perennial “upside down river”, would be flowing by then like some sort of Perrier at Dights Falls in Collingwood. Or words to that effect.

Stereoview of children swimming in the Darebin Creek at Ivanhoe
Stereoview of children swimming in the Darebin Creek at Ivanhoe

It seems hard to believe now, but the Yarra River and its tributaries at Heidelberg, the Plenty River and Darebin Creek all had their swimming holes at one time, some with suburban beaches and pools, dug out surrounds and semi concreted sides rather like sea baths — that was before river pollution made them unfit or at least unfashionable for use.

Swimming Pool in the Plenty River at Greensborough, c1952
Swimming Pool in the Plenty River at Greensborough, c1952

The remnants of a swimming pool on the Plenty River at Greensborough, a little upstream from Yallambie, are still visible and can be found just below the Main Road Bridge. The Greensborough pool was built as a “Susso” project in the Great Depression at a cost of £200 and was of cement and blue stone construction. It was opened in 1937 by the Mayor of Heidelberg, Councilor Robert Reid with demonstrations of swimming by leading swimmers of the day. It now makes a convenient platform for occasional anglers who would probably balk at the idea of getting their feet wet in the sometimes murky water.

Fishermen casting into the former swimming pool on the Plenty River at Greensborough, February, 2015
Fishermen casting into the former swimming pool on the Plenty River at Greensborough, February, 2015

A very good swimming beach of sand at Sills Bend in Heidelberg was still being risked by hardy souls when I was a boy but reduced and changing river flows have  affected stream form and that beach consists now mainly of silt and clay when last I visited. I believe there was formerly a camping spot used by the Scouts located just down river from Sills Bend at Bulleen near what is believed to be today one of the most polluted ground locations in Heidelberg — namely the old gasometers site. Camping there was probably never a very good idea. Swimming in the Yarra these days is limited largely to around Warrandyte and to further upstream.

Against all odds and in the face of continued suburban expansion, by the 1990s Melbourne’s rivers were indeed considerably cleaner than from the time when Frank Wright wrote about the Plenty. Still not quite the promised Perrier but things had improved by 1997 to the extent that the local newspaper was able to report that platypus were once again occupying the Plenty River at Yallambie, in the vicinity of the Lower Plenty Rd Bridge. The following year a fishing event was organized for the river codenamed “Catch a Carp Day”. It was intended to reduce the numbers of these introduced European fish in the Plenty River, the correct assumption being that the species was in competition with the native aquatic wildlife.

"Catch a Carp Day" fishing event on the Plenty River at Yallambie, October, 1998
“Catch a Carp Day” fishing event on the Plenty River at Yallambie, October, 1998

In January this year it was reported that a 20 year old platypus was found in the Plenty River during a spring survey in 2014 and that, “a breeding population exists at least as far downstream as the mouth of the Plenty River, about 15 kilometres from downtown Melbourne”. (The iconic Platypus is a peculiar animal. A semiaquatic, egg laying, mammal it is the sole living representative of the family Ornithorhynchidae, in the genus Ornithorhynchus (literally bird billed). When stuffed examples were sent for study from Australia to Britain at the end of the 18th century, outraged scholars believed they were the victims of an attempted elaborate antipodean hoax. They infamously tried to remove the “stitching” on the platypus bill that they were sure had been employed in the forgery and the marks of the scissors can still be seen on the specimen on display today in the British Museum of Natural History.)

First published illustration of a Platypus: George Shaw, The Naturalist's Miscellany, 1799
First published illustration of a Platypus: George Shaw, The Naturalist’s Miscellany, 1799

In the 19th century it was not unknown for platypus pelts  and the furs of other rare native species to be turned into rugs and coats like some sort of Australian “One Hundred and One Dalmatians”. A pity nobody stripped their crinoline for PeTA in the 19th century. The Platypus is of course a protected species these days but it remains at risk from pollutants in rivers and the practice of illegal netting. A local newspaper story last month warned about illegal fishing practices and mentioned that two platypuses had recently been found dead in the Yarra River near Laughing Waters Rd, Eltham.

Platypus pelt rug from Alstonville, NSW, (Power House Museum) and Thylacine skin buggy rug from Upper Blessington area, Tasmania, (Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery)
Platypus pelt rug from Alstonville, NSW, (Power House Museum) and Thylacine skin buggy rug from Upper Blessington area, Tasmania, (Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery)

March 1st, is designated “Clean Up Australia Day” 2015, a day when many socially conscious Australians are getting out into the community to clean up the environment. There is a group meeting today in Yallambie Park where no doubt much good work will be done along the environs of the Plenty River, clearing the rubbish washed into the river by overnight rain. “Clean Up Australia Day” is a great Australian idea, the concept of which has spread to nations all around the world, but it is just one day of the 365¼ days in a year.

People love water features near their homes, be they bayside, a natural stream running through parkland, or artificial lakes in the manner of Yallambie’s, “Cascades” and “Streeton Views” housing estates.  However, while storm water continues to empty into the suburban river system, every poisonous cigarette butt dropped from a car window, every oil spill that goes onto the road and the proceeds of every one of man’s best friends who ever uses a Ned Flander’s nature strip as a make shift dunny, all of it eventually ends up in one of our rivers or lake features. From there it makes its inexorable way to the Bay and thence to the oceans. After the oceans though there’s no where else to go on this “Pale Blue Dot”. That is the “Wall-e” reality of our world.

Made in Japan and inspired by the Australian platypus, perhaps. Duck bill designer pet muzzles for the Japanese pet owner who has everything.
Made in Japan and inspired by the Australian platypus, perhaps. Duck bill designer pet muzzles for the Japanese pet owner who has everything.

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

From Yallambie to Heidelberg & the road to salvation

An early view of St Johns Church of England, Heidelberg from the north
An early view of St Johns Church of England, Heidelberg from the north

It was already old when I was young.

From the outset, St John’s Church of England was always there, it’s influence on district life felt or implied in many ways. Later, when I knew the church, the Reverend Simondson had by then become an institution. Perhaps he had been there from the start? The Rev’s piano accordion was like a white toothed chest appendage that squeaked when he moved, his weekly pastoral crusade to the young heathens of Banyule Primary School a regular thing.

Recollections of the church in spring time, Sunday School classes moved outside into the crisp, fresh air of the park to make the most of a beautiful morning. Children singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children”, its lyrics loaded with unintended racism. Book prizes at Christmas and the annual Parish fair. The hard work of the Ladies’ Guild on the white elephant stall like an elephant in the room. A bus, lying mysteriously on its side on the banks of Salt Creek one Sunday morning some time in the 1970s. Its brakes had failed at the top of Burgundy Street and it had careered out of control with a load of schoolgirls before overturning in Heidelberg Park. The driver was killed, the girls shaken. And always the church bell calling the faithful to worship. When I was old enough I had the job sometimes of ringing it. A temperamental thing, it was harder to get it swinging than I had imagined.

It all started readily enough when we were quite small, my parents simply asking, “So where do you kids want to go to Sunday School?”

“What’s that?”

“It’s like school, but on Sunday. Sunday, school, get it. You could go to the church in Arden Crescent where you went to kinder or St John’s in the Park where we were married.”

My sister answered for both of us. She usually did. “I want to go to the place Mummy and Daddy got married.”

‘There’s a school on Sunday?’ I thought with a sinking feeling, maybe. ‘I wonder if there will be finger painting?’

St John's Church of England, Heidelberg from the south west before addition of side porches below the bell tower
St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg from the south west before addition of side porches below the bell tower
St John's Church of England, Heidelberg from the north east before addition of side chapel &, vestry
St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg from the north east before addition of side chapel &, vestry

The association of Yallambie with St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg, the third oldest church in Melbourne, goes back a long way. The Bakewell brothers at Yallambie, like their friends and relations in law the Howitts, were Quakers at the time of their arrival in Australia. Quakers or the Religious Society of Friends (or Friends as they call themselves), other than making porridge believed in a doctrine of the priesthood of all Christian believers. They avoided creeds and the hierarchical structure of churches and refused to swear loyalty oaths or participate in wars. The established churches “viewed the Quakers as a blasphemous challenge to social and political order” which in an earlier time, before the Act of Toleration, led to a degree of persecution.

John Bakewell’s name appears alongside that of Dr Godfrey Howitt on a grant of a burial ground in Melbourne to the “Society of Friends” by the Governor of New South Wales in November, 1847. However, by the time of his return to England in 1857, Robert Bakewell’s resignation from the “Society” was accepted by the Nottingham Monthly Meeting (of Quakers) because “he had entirely discontinued his membership during his long residence in Australia.” (Minutes of Nottingham M. M., February, 1857).

Possibly Robert and John had found that during their stay in Australia, their support for an as yet unestablished outpost of Quakerism in Port Phillip gave them little scope to advance their aim of creating a successful farm in the English character on the Plenty River. In an era when the interests of church and state were often intertwined, it was the Church of England that was at the seat of power in Port Phillip. It is believed the Bakewell brothers, like their brother in law, Dr Godfrey Howitt, lost interest in Quaker activities some time after arriving in Port Phillip. In the case of Howitt, his “gradual alienation from ‘Friends’ followed his increasing identification with ‘upper’ classes of Melbourne and with the established church”. (Quakers in Australia in the 19th Century,William Nicolle Oats).

When plans were drawn up by the Church of England diocese to build a church in the Heidelberg parish, on the list of donors alongside the names of church trustees, local gentry Hawdon, Martin and McArthur, the Bakewells’ name appears in the Church accounts book, their initial contribution being £10. (The pre gold rush wage of an agricultural labourer in 1850 was about £26 per annum).

A grant of two acres which had been reserved in the “diamond shaped” village green of the original subdivision of the Warringal village was secured from the government and the foundations of St John’s Church of England were commenced in 1849. The foundation stone “J. W. 1850”, believed to be the oldest surviving engraved stone of this sort in Melbourne, was laid the following year and the building officially opened in October, 1851.

Engraved foundation stone, St John's Church of England, Heidelberg
Engraved foundation stone, St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg

The architectural style of St John’s is reminiscent of an English Parish church from the Decorated period of English Gothic Revival. Its idyllic setting near the river curiously drew this comparison with Yallambie in the 1987 Loder & Bayly, Marilyn McBriar Heidelberg Conservation Study:

Existing Landscape character
This zone is dramatically different from any area previously described. Its closest affinity is with Yallambie well to the north…
The area is characterised by old plantings of mixed conifer species and a minor sub-planting of deciduous trees.

Thomas Wragge, who purchased Yallambie from the Bakewells, was a staunch Anglican and became a regular worshipper at the church. In the words of one of his descendents, “He probably thought he owned that church.” His commitment extended also to the home. In the homestead that Thomas built at Yallambie to replace the earlier Bakewell farm, it is recorded that it was Thomas’ habit to read a service to his family every morning. On one occasion while reading an appropriately filled fire and brimstone sermon through a thunderstorm, Thomas turned to a window and indicated a horse that had been killed by a bolt from above, emphasizing by example the fate to be expected of those who wandered from God’s grace.

“(He) always had a service in the morning and (once) he was just sort of reading — blessing the gathering and there was a frightful crack of lightening and a clap of thunder together. And Olive said she was looking out and then underneath the oak tree in the paddock a horse was struck by lightening so she said she would always remember the prayers at Yallambie.” (Quote from Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, Winty Calder, Jimaringle Press, 1996).

Horse carriage in the farm yard just north of Yallambie Homestead.
Horse carriage in the farm yard just north of Yallambie Homestead.

In an age when Sunday was still “church day” and most people attended regularly, the Wragge family were active members at St John’s, Heidelberg travelling there regularly to Sunday services along Lower Plenty and Rosanna Roads by horse and carriage, but never it seems by motor car. At least not initially. In some ways, Thomas Wragge was very conservative and it has been said that he believed that the novel machines that started to appear in the Heidelberg district at the end of the 19th century were wicked instruments. His son Harry had enjoyed the use of a bicycle for some time but Thomas forbade his family to have anything to do with motor cars. However, in the case of at least two of his sons, perhaps his wishes were not always entirely respected.

Young Harry Wragge and his bicycle on the road to Yallambie, c1895
Young Harry Wragge and his bicycle on the road to Yallambie, c1895

“(Before Thomas died) Syd and Harry were very keen to get a motor car, but their father would have none of the new-fangled idea. He held strong views that horseflesh had served him well all his days, and that motors were an invention of the devil. Harry would not take ‘no’ easily, and kept plaguing away for consent, until Thomas finally told him he would be disinherited if he got one of the hateful things. The family was most concerned about this, because they knew that the old man might well carry out his threat. To their horror, a little later, the whisper flashed through the family that Harry, despite all threats, had got a car (a Hurtu) and was keeping it secretly in town. Harry had, in fact, done just that. Many a quiet run he had round and about after doing all possible to find out where his father might be going, so he could go elsewhere. Cars were not registered and carried no identification numbers.

“During one of these runs, his one-lunger (sic) was snorting south in Nicholson Street a bit north of the Exhibition building where the road is fairly level. A policeman on a push bike decided he was speeding and called on him to stop. Harry began to panic, visualising his name in the newspapers and his inheritance gone, so he decided to make a run for it. The bobby came pedalling after, and Harry gradually drew away on the level road. Reaching the slight rise to the Exhibition building, the car slowed up and soon the bobby was right behind breathing heavily and gasping threats. It seemed that capture was imminent, but with a flash of genius, Harry slapped on whatever brakes he had; the bicycle crashed into the rear and the policeman took a fearful toss with a buckled front wheel. Harry and car escaped unhurt, and Harry had saved himself from the loss of perhaps £50,000.”

(Extract from Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, Winty Calder, Jimaringle Press, 1996).

It is doubtful that if Harry had been caught that day his father would have taken such drastic steps as to disinherit him. At the end of his life Thomas had put aside his reservations and had entered into arrangements with The Motor House Company for a Brazier priced at £475. This was not delivered until two weeks after his death on 12 May, 1910. All the same, it is nice to imagine his widow Sarah Anne, who took possession of the car, driving it like Granny in Tweety and Sylvester until her death five years later. Picture the sales pitch of that car, which had by then been replaced with another. “Practically new you know. Hardly anything on the clock. Driven by a little old lady who only took it to church on Sunday.”

Thomas and Sarah Ann Wragge in a Brazier outside Yallambie Homestead shortly before the death of Thomas, 1910
Thomas and Sarah Ann Wragge in a Brazier outside Yallambie Homestead shortly before the death of Thomas, 1910

The children of Thomas and Sarah Wragge all became regular parishioners at St Johns, in between visits to the family’s sheep station in New South Wales. Tom Wragge (Thomas’ eldest son) was confirmed at St John’s on 20 June, 1878 and Annie (his eldest daughter) on 18 July, 1889. Caroline Victoria Wragge (Thomas’ third daughter) married Francis James Wright at St John’s on 14 October, 1896 and Annie married Wallace Murdoch there on 20 August, 1903. Annie and Wallace’s daughter, Nancy Wragge Murdoch was baptised there in 1905. Nancy would later inherit Yallambie Homestead through her mother and live there until the end of the 1950s.

In 1907, Thomas Wragge gave £500 to the vestry of St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg to help them purchase adjoining pieces of land in Yarra and Hawdon Streets to build a new church. “This land was wanted because the population of Heidelberg was then concentrated near the railway line, and it was thought that the old church was badly placed. The church hall was moved to that land, and a new vicarage was built on it.” (Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, Winty Calder, Jimaringle Press, 1996) “…the basic wage was 7/- per day, £4.2.0 per week, so approximately £210 per annum. So Mr Wragge’s generous offer is equivalent to about two and a half annual basic wages.” (A Church in the Park, St John’s Anglican Church, 2001).

Membership of the Church of England was a spiritual comfort to Thomas and his family and they are remembered there with at least two memorials. The Holy Table or altar at St John’s was a gift to the church by the wife of Thomas Wragge, Sarah Anne in 1902. Solidly constructed of polished blackwood and with a carved front it stands appropriately before the magnificent Wragge family “Ascension Windows”. The windows were a gift to the church in 1920 and dedicated by three of the children of Thomas and Sarah Ann to the memory of their late parents. It was recorded in the church minutes of 1920 that the Wragge family at that time “desired the best position in the church” for their proposed windows and that the vicar therefore suggested the chancel in the sanctuary, the arrangement replacing an earlier design of geometric stained glass. The Wragge windows show Christ ascending with an aureole of cherub like faces adorning the perimeter. The Holy City is shown below with the apostles bowing in reverence. The left and right panels show Mary and John. The triptych bears the following inscription: “In loving memory of Thomas and Sarah Ann Wragge for many years worshippers in this church. Presented by their daughter Annie and two sons Syd and Harry 1920.” I read that inscription often in bygone times, the man in the front pew perhaps looking at his watch during the Reverend Simondson’s sermon. Who were Thomas and Sarah Ann Wragge in life? I didn’t know.

The Ascension Windows triptych at St John's Church of England, Heidelberg. Inscription reads,"In loving memory of Thomas and Sarah Ann Wragge for many years worshippers in this church. Presented by their daughter Annie and two sons Syd and Harry 1920."
The Ascension Windows triptych at St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg.
Inscription reads,”In loving memory of Thomas and Sarah Ann Wragge for many years worshippers in this church. Presented by their daughter Annie and two sons Syd and Harry 1920.”

St John’s became the mother church of several other churches throughout the district. Upon his death on 12 May, 1910, Thomas Wragge left Yallambie to his wife Sarah Ann, excepting one acre of land on the north west corner of the property. Under his will, Thomas Wragge bequeathed this land to the Church of England with the stipulation that a church should be built on it. The transfer of land was finalised in 1912 and construction of a church began. Conceived possibly on grand lines, the Church of the Holy Spirit, Watsonia on the corner of what is today Yallambie Road and the Greensborough Highway, was never completed. It’s boarded up, unfinished end became the home of roosting pigeons. In the 1950s the congregation of the Church of the Holy Spirit moved to a new location closer to the population centre of Watsonia near the rail station. A petrol, service station would later occupy the Greensborough Road site on the edge of Yallambie. There’s probably a moral somewhere in that story.

In the early 20th century there had been a notion of relocating St John’s, Heidelberg to the land in Hawdon Street that had been given to the church in 1907 by Thomas Wragge. In 1958 however, a decision was made to consolidate Parish operations at the old church in the park. The Hawdon Street site and its hall were disposed of, the sum realized for the Parish being £17,050. The upper and lower church halls at St Johns at the front of the building were built at this time and a side chapel, vestry and porches were added to the church. In 1966, soon after the alterations were reconsecrated, the Ladies Auxiliary of St Johns organized an historical exhibition of local significance to raise funds for the Church Missions. The considerable interest which the exhibition generated directly resulted in the formation of the Heidelberg Historical Society which today bases itself nearby at the Old Court House in Jika Street. For another half century the St John’s Church of England site remained relatively unchanged drawing this praise just a decade ago:

“It must have been good to hear it (the church bell) ring out for the first time from the square tower so cunningly located that it formed the focal point of a vista through an avenue of eucalyptus from the main road. We are grateful today for the foresight that chose a lie of the land that still enables one to see the tower across a modern suburb; and for later municipal planning of parkland which saves the church from being ‘built out’.” (Extract from “A Church in the Park”, St John’s Anglican Church, 2001).

Banyule Council’s report “Heritage Guidelines for Warringal Village, 2006” describes the Warringal Village/St John’s/Heidelberg Park precinct as “historically, aesthetically and socially” significant and states that”St John’s Anglican Church, at the highest point in the township, is the dominant key structure… The church, and more particularly its spire, may be seen from a number of points in the Area. It is a highly picturesque element that underscores the early history of the Village reserve.”

The same report makes these recommendations:

“The size and shape of new buildings should relate sympathetically with those of the adjacent significant buildings. New buildings should not dominate existing significant places… New buildings should respect existing settings and neither dominate nor obscure views or sight lines to existing significant buildings.”

Building work on Burgundy Street, Heidelberg, church & car park on left, November, 2014
Building work on Burgundy Street, Heidelberg, church & car park on left, November, 2014

So just what is going on at St John’s today? If you stand at the lower end of Burgundy Street and look across Heidelberg Park to the view that was formerly of St John’s Church of England, all you will see now are medium level apartment buildings. The unit developments that have been built on Burgundy and Jika Streets along the south west boundary of the church threaten to overpower the site. But they are nothing when compared to what has most recently gone in behind the church on Vine Street on the south east boundary. “Streeton Park on Yarra” as it is styled is a Freemasons premium retirement living complex conceived on a large scale. A deep excavation has been made up to the fence line of the church and a balcony apartment block built which now completely dominates the location, rising above the dugout and standing above ground level almost as tall as the tower of the church itself.

Streeton Park on Yarra & St John's Anglican Church, November, 2014
Streeton Park on Yarra & St John’s Anglican Church, November, 2014

Before this project was commenced, the then mayor of Banyule was quoted as saying in the Heidelberg Leader newspaper that not everyone wanted a garden and that many people wanted affordable living, like that which would be provided by the new project. Trouble is, that’s where the argument falls flat. “Streeton on the Park” was not conceived as affordable housing but is a premium retirement complex providing a wonderful lifestyle opposite the river.

Streeton on Park, Vine Street, Heidelberg, November, 2014
Streeton on Park, Vine Street, Heidelberg, November, 2014

My parents have their own accommodation nearby in the St John’s memorial garden, the site of their ashes now overlooked by the apartment complex next door. They loved St John’s in life and after their marriage they remained active members of the congregation at St John’s for decades. I still have the letter written by the vestry of St John’s formally thanking my father for the voluntary work he put into the garden in the 1980s. The garden at St John’s then was a place of solitude and quiet reflection. Now it is a place from which to wave to the neighbours.

Wedding at St John's Church of England, Heidelberg
Wedding at St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg

I am told that the church protested about the Streeton Park on Yarra project and that the objections were taken to VCAT. Failing to have the project stopped there was also an attempt to have one storey removed from the high level plans and to have the buildings set back at a distance from the boundary line. VCAT passed the plans. The Church “turned the other cheek” and not only has the ambience of the location been irretrievably destroyed, but the resulting increase in land values that apartment living encourages means that St John’s itself distressingly must be seen to be under potential threat. In an era of dwindling congregations the church by default now finds itself sitting on acres of premium land opposite Heidelberg Gardens and worth potentially millions.

St John's Church of England, Heidleberg before intrusion of apartment development
St John’s Church of England, Heidleberg before intrusion of apartment development
St John's bell tower from the car park with Streeton Park on Yarra apartments behind, November, 2014
St John’s bell tower from the car park with Streeton Park on Yarra apartments behind, November, 2014

Streeton Park on Yarra has taken years to take shape beside St Johns. For a long time it stood as a massive hole in the ground the development apparently on hold. It was like that in 2011 when the church hosted a “Back to St John’s” service to mark its 160th anniversary.

Similarly, in the 1970s the F18 freeway project to link Greensborough Road to the Eastern Freeway stalled within the City of Heidelberg when objections were raised to a road that would have bisected the community and potentially destroyed the important landscape around the Warringal Parklands. The freeway reserve is still there in the form of a linear park called Rivergum Walk at the back of Beverley Road but it is unlikely now to ever be used. But is that the end of the matter?

Signs on Rosanna Road have been asking in this pre election week “Who will fix Rosanna Road?” Who indeed? One party has suggested a curfew on heavy transport on Rosanna Road at night. Another party wants to build a freeway elsewhere, in Royal Park. Nobody really wants to say what everyone is thinking. Like another elephant in the room the ghost of the F18 has haunted successive governments the plans “on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”

Will the eventual solution of the road problem in Banyule see the destruction of parkland in Warringal as first proposed in the 1960 and 70s, or will the destruction move further out into leafy Eltham, the “outer ring” option? As I ponder this question, I picture old Mrs Wragge seated in her Brazier in the early years of the 20th century driving along a much quieter Rosanna Road to church on Sunday. Money is the religion of the modern day, the speed of living and development at any cost the maxim. Too bad we only have the one planet. In the words of someone somewhere, if a tree falls in the forest and no one blogs about it, who gives a damn?

North east exterior of St John's showing Wragge window in the end of the Sanctuary at right and Streeton Park on Yarra apartments on left, November, 2014
North east exterior of St John’s showing Wragge window in the end of the Sanctuary at right and Streeton Park on Yarra apartments on left, November, 2014