Category Archives: History Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I beg your pardon, what?

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

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

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

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

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Nine tenths of the law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Batman’s dubious “Treaty”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under the Milky Way (tonight)

It might surprise you to hear it, but there is a new fashion disturbing the dusty world of history academia. The boffins call it “Big History”, a term they use to explain a multi-disciplinary examination of the history of the Universe from the Big Bang to the present day.

By calling it Big History, that doesn’t mean necessarily that the next time you see an historian he will automatically be carrying a tape measure or even a bathroom scales. Some things are just too darn big to put a proper measure upon. What we call Big History is really an attempt to illustrate one of the fundamental points about history, the fact that we’re all part of a larger story and, in order to see where we are going in that story, we need to see where we have come from.

The “Vitruvian Man” c1490 by Leonardo da Vinci. (Source: Wikipedia, from the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice)

There are some who will argue that the name “Big History” is a bit of a vague term and that what we really have is just the same thing that has been taught in the hallowed halls of our places of learning since Renaissance times. In 15th century Italy for instance, Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci developed the concept of the Universal Man which placed man at the centre of the universe, a limitless figure in his capacity for knowledge. We’ve come a long way in our understanding since then but it is an irony that in the modern age, when mankind is at last in a position to understand what is truly our quite insignificant place in the Cosmos, we have reached a point where we no longer look to the heavens and wonder – a thing our ancestors had done previously since they first stepped away from the camp fire light at night to gnaw on a bone of the woolly mammoth.

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquistion

Light pollution from our cities and the glowing screens of hand held smart phones have shut out the night sky from observation and our minds in a way unknown to Galileo, even after all that unpleasant business with the Inquisition and the comfy chair.

Halley’s Comet photographed in the skies over Rosanna, February, 1986

Those of us of a certain age will remember back to a time in our youth when the much touted Halley’s Comet made its generational pilgrimage to the inner solar system in 1985. I remember my mother telling me from an early age that a school teacher had told her about his stunning observation of Halley’s previous visit in 1910 and how, although he would be long dead by the time of its return, he expected most of the children in his class would live to see its return in the mid-1980s. I remember thinking it a bit of a letdown when it finally arrived, the light pollution of the skies over Rosanna lessening the effects of the comet in the sky, but I did manage to take this photograph with a fast slide film, an image that with a little modern day Photoshop enhancing is at least some sort of a record of the event and of a time in my life.

Star gazing at Yallambie, March, 2018

On a scale of all things then, there is no greater subject than the study of the night sky. On a weekend last month a friend brought his telescope to Yallambie and on a dark, moonless night he demonstrated it to us in the back garden in the shadow of our Bunya Pine. His telescope was a homemade affair that would have done Galileo proud. It consisted of not much more than a pipe with an old photo copier lens attached, mounted on a tripod but capable of producing surprisingly effective results. We turned it to what looked to my eye to be a fairly bright spot in the heavens to find a spreading glow of light that hinted at unknown worlds and infinite possibilities.

The Great Nebula in Orion as photographed by Joseph Turner in 1883 using the Great Melbourne Telescope. (Source: Museum Victoria)

Our friend identified it as the “Great Nebula in Orion” and then turned our attention to Alpha Crucis, a multiple star system which appeared to our eyes as a single star at the base point of that most familiar constellation to Australian eyes, the Southern Cross.  In quick time we then looked at Betelgeuse, Sirius, Aldebaran, the globular cluster Omega Centauri and the Pleiades, the latter known by many things in the mythology of ancient peoples the world over but called the seven Karatgurk sisters in a story of the local Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation.

The Australian Aboriginals call it their Dreamtime but to look up at the stars is to literally look back into time. One of the greatest of the many great achievements of the Hubble Space Telescope was the Hubble “Deep Field” observations where the mighty telescope was turned continuously to seemingly empty points of space to record long exposures of the faintest light. What the astronomers found still does my head in to think about. In those supposedly empty patches of space the telescope recorded tens of thousands of galaxies, each galaxy itself filled with countless billions of stars. Not bad for an empty patch of sky in an expanding and ever accelerating universe where, as Carl Sagan once famously observed, the number of stars is far greater than the number of grains of sand on all the beaches of the world.

It sort of puts you into your place doesn’t it? Our ancestors used to look towards the Moon and in an exercise in Pareidolia, constructed a face from what they observed. We’ve all done that at some point but at the end of last January the world got a chance to see the “Man in the Moon” in full detail when it was treated to a magnificent Super Blue Blood Moon – a total lunar eclipse of a second full moon in a month during the Moon’s closest orbital approach to the Earth.

Super Blue Blood Moon in the north eastern sky over Yallambie, 31 January, 2018

We looked at it at Yallambie that night through my father’s old binoculars and I photographed it at the moment of totality with the longest lens I could find, unfortunately without a tripod and with the camera perched hand held on the top of the pickets of a garden fence. The resulting photograph doesn’t really do what we saw that night justice but then that’s true of most things that happen to you in life.

Photograph of the moon by Joseph Turner using the Great Melbourne Telescope,1874. (Source: Museum Victoria)

In 1874 a locally produced photograph of the Moon recorded in stunning detail was reproduced and distributed to schools, libraries and Mechanics Institutes throughout Victoria. The image was the creation of Melbourne’s very own 19th century wonder of astronomy, the “Great Melbourne Telescope”. It is a little known fact but Melbourne was once home to what was then the second largest telescope in the world, the GMT or “Great Melbourne Telescope”, a reflecting telescope with a polished speculum (metal) mirror of 48 inches (1.2 metres) diameter. Conceived in the 1840s, designed by leading British astronomers and manufactured in Ireland it was erected at the Observatory in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens in 1869 where it was intended to explore the nature of the nebulae in the southern skies.

Erection of the Great Melbourne Telescope c January, 1869. The telescope was erected in the open air, with the building that eventually housed it constructed around the telescope once the main components of the instrument had been assembled. (Source: Museum Victoria)

Cutting edge technology for its day, the Great Melbourne Telescope was beset with problems from the outset and was quickly overtaken by instruments installed at other more appropriate, non-city based locations worldwide, but for Melburnians of the 1870s and 80s it remained as a visible evidence of their city’s claim to be one of the great capital cities of the world and a tangible proof of “Marvellous Melbourne”.

By the 20th century however the Great Melbourne Telescope had become more or less old hat. It was dismantled and its component parts sold in 1944 to the Mt Stromlo Observatory in Canberra where, with many modifications, it continued to be put to good use observing the Southern skies. In 1984 Museum Victoria acquired a large number of discarded artefacts of the Great Melbourne from the Mt Stromlo Observatory which the Museum intended to form as part of a new collection. It was a fortunate move because in 2003 the Mt Stromlo Observatory was itself all but destroyed in the devastating Canberra bush fires of that year. The fires were so intense that the aluminium domes of the Observatory buildings melted at 660°C but in a stroke of unplanned luck, the intense fires stripped away all the modern aluminium and plastic additions to the GMT leaving behind little beyond its original steel and cast iron components. With the pieces Museum Victoria had already secured in 1984 it was thought that 90% of the original instrument had survived.

Bush fires surround suburban Canberra during the 2003 firestorm that destroyed the Mt Stromlo Observatory. (Source: Wikipedia)

Since 2003 a dedicated band of volunteers and staff at Museum Victoria have since been carefully restoring the pieces of the Great Melbourne Telescope, recasting and machining the missing parts with a dream of one day returning it in working order to its original building at the Melbourne Botanic Gardens.

On an Easter long weekend as we ponder our Creator and an out of control Chinese space station threatens to come crashing down around our ears in a sort of April 1st prelude, wouldn’t that be a stunning Phoenix like contribution to history on a scale both small, and large?

Vale Banyule

The Australian writer and historian Don Watson once posed the tempting question, “What will history make of us should there be any historians left to write it?”

The news last week that the State Government had decided on Corridor A as the chosen route for the North East Link freeway leaves a devastating conflict of emotions for nearby communities. There is the feeling of relief that the alternative B, C and D roads will now, at least not for the time being, be built, but this is coupled with a general feeling of dismay at the destruction Corridor A is likely to wreak.

Corridor A when built will largely cut an underground path under Viewbank and Rosanna, with road interchanges located at Bulleen and Lower Plenty Roads, but it will be the surface road parallel with Greensborough Road along the Western boundary of Yallambie with Macleod and in Watsonia in the north, together with the associated road interchanges at either end that will have the most obvious visual impact. At least 75 homes are expected be lost to the plan and it’s pretty clear to anyone familiar with the local area just where these are likely to be.

The government spent $100 million to write a study of their four, so called alternative routes which included the utter surprise of their Corridor B proposal through the heart of Yallambie, but in the end the extra corridors were a smoke screen, an attempt to muddy the water surrounding a proposal to build Corridor A which, because it was expected to be cheaper, was always going to be the favoured option.

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

Corridor A has been talked about ever since something like it was first proposed in the 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan. It wasn’t built because enough people could see back then that it was a bad idea. So what has changed? A decade ago the proposal was still on the table and costed at $6 billion, but last week’s announcement rings in now at over $16 billion. The real question then is, just how much is this thing going to cost eventually, and I don’t just mean in dollar terms.

Perhaps the NELA aren’t aware of some of the worry and the sleepless nights that they have given Yallambie and Lower Plenty residents since the first suggestion of Corridor B was disclosed in August. Perhaps they don’t care. This sort of cavalier attitude is nothing new, as the recent to-ing and fro-ing over the abandoned East West Link proposal is evidence, but fifty years ago the following story illustrates perhaps just how strongly passions can run on such matters.

In the mid 1960s, at a time before the first spade had been turned on Melbourne’s freeway network, a plan was developed by Doncaster and Templestowe City Council in conjunction with the Country Roads Board to widen Templestowe Rd in Templestowe at the Thompsons Road intersection. The plan when first discussed involved realigning Templestowe Rd at its closest approach to the Yarra River with Parker St in the east, through the heart of the Templestowe township.

Finn’s Upper Yarra Hotel on Templestowe Rd, Templestowe. (Source: Doncaster Templestowe Historical Society)

But there was a problem. Finn’s Upper Yarra Hotel, a local landmark of some renown, stood right in the path of the new road.

An early view of the Upper Yarra Hotel before the addition of the west wing.

The Upper Yarra Hotel was a much loved building. James Finn had opened his hotel as a beer shop on the Templestowe corner in 1866, near what is now a vanished river crossing, and over the years various additions had been made to it which had combined to create a strange amalgamation of architectural styles. The idiosyncratic compact construction of the original building seemed to stand at odds with the later, two-storey block fronted section but somehow they combined almost by accident to form a building of considerable rambling charm.

The Upper Yarra was delicenced in the early 1920s but as it aged and became more dilapidated the rustic appeal of its setting became a favoured subject for local artists. The various parts of the hotel itself were painted a rusty red colour in an attempt to bring unity to its conflicting parts and as the paint peeled the overpainted words “Finn’s Upper Yarra Hotel” stood out like a ghostly commentary as to the building’s former life, an old world garden and a cobbled stable yard behind the hotel completing the overall effect of a genteel rural decay.

Finn’s Hotel photographed towards the end of its life by John T Collins in 1963. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

The grown up grandchildren of James Finn were still living somewhat reclusive lives at the old hotel in the mid 1960s when the Council came a knockin’. Doncaster and Templestowe City Council had purchased the land on which the Upper Yarra Hotel stood from the executors of the estate of the son of James Finn and the Council were trying to force his grandchildren from the building which the surviving generation still occupied. The Council met with some militant but probably understandable opposition from the residents who objected to being moved away from the building their family had occupied for over a hundred years. One contemporary newspaper report described how a party of journalists was chased away from the hotel environs one evening in 1967 by an aging Finn brother wielding a big stick, smashing up a photographer’s car in the process in the mistaken belief that the newspaper party were officers from the Housing Commission come to enforce an eviction order.

Finn’s Hotel seen from near the corner of Templestowe and Thompsons Rd, Templestowe. (Source: Doncaster Templestowe Historical Society)

In the end the Council got their way of course and the Finns removed themselves voluntarily from the building on the 28th May, 1967. On the night of departure however a mysterious fire broke out in the old weatherboarded building, quickly reducing it to a pile of cinder and rubble in spite of the best efforts of the Country Fire Authority to combat the blaze.

The end of Finn’s Upper Yarra Hotel on the night of 28 May, 1967 as reported in “The Sun” news pictorial the next day.
Newspaper clipping from the front page of the Doncaster and Outer Circle Mirror, 27 September, 1967.

It was a tragic loss to history for the area. The Council had been discussing the possibility of moving the hotel out of the path of the imagined road realignment in a manner that they would later employ to save another historic Doncaster building, Schramm’s Cottage, in the 1970s. The fire put an end to any further discussion, Ad infinitim.

Eventually the Council accepted a cheque of $365.95 as compensation for the loss of the building, but the money was not really the point. The final irony in the telling of this story is that when the realignment of Templestowe Rd eventually took place, a decision was made to straighten the route to meet with Foote St parallel to Parker Street, which is the situation as it exists today. If Finn’s Hotel had been standing and not by then a pile of ashes, it would have been in the clear.

Today a so called “History Pavilion” on Templestowe Rd, Templestowe marks the site of the former Upper Yarra Hotel, with photographs plastered around the interior detailing the (now mostly vanished) history of the area. It is a strangely sad, not often visited tribute.

“History Pavillion,” at Templestowe on the site of the Upper Yarra Hotel, November, 2017. The bricks used in the cairn were salvaged from the ruins of the hotel after the fire.

So how does this story affect the reality of the Corridor A proposal for North East Link? The above tale is an example that road plans are not set in stone until such time as they are actually set in concrete, whether they be tunnels or tarmac and you don’t have to burn down a building to find this out. Melbourne University transport lecturer John Stone was quoted in a newspaper story about State Government transport spin doctoring in The Age last month saying that, “Communities are presented with Maggie Thatcher’s old line – ‘There is no alternative’ – and often there is. But under the current system, the community can only be heard if they can create enough political will to be heard.”

Opponents of North East Link Corridor A have called a public meeting today on a rainy afternoon at Koonung Creek Reserve, Balwyn North and the AGM of the Friends of Banyule is scheduled for Thursday night at the old Shire offices in Beverley Rd, Heidelberg where there will be no prizes offered for guessing what will be the main item on the agenda that night. The opposition to Corridor A in these neighbourhoods is understandable but by any reckoning, the real opposition to the route should be coming from groups here in the north. Corridor A will be a surface road when it passes through Greensborough, Watsonia and Yallambie/Macleod and two of the three major new road interchanges will be situated here. The lack of opposition here however is the result of the earlier sleight of hand exercise conducted by NELA when they divided community opposition with the suggested alternative Corridors, B, C and D. That’s what the State Government got for spending a $100 million to investigate the alternative corridors, although they said at the time the money was to be used to cover the cost of “geotechnical investigations, design, environmental and social studies”. The cold, hard reality is that Corridor A will have a devastating effect on the City of Banyule, dividing the municipality in two in a north south direction along Greensborough Rd while doing little to relieve the very real traffic problems in the area. Vale to the City of Banyule.

Like the Finns at the old Upper Yarra Hotel, the lives knocked about by these road proposals are real people with real homes, each with their own story to tell and each with a sense of community and belonging. $16 billion and counting sounds to me like an awful lot of money to be spending on building a road, a road that won’t even do what it is intended to do, that is complete the missing link in Melbourne’s Ring Road system. Look at a map of the proposed route of Corridor A and you will see that the Corridor A route does not contribute to a ring at all but is a dent in the road plan, driving ring bound traffic back towards the city before asking it to fan out again in an easterly direction.

Melbourne’s road network with proposed North East Links from RA, September, 2017. Corridor A is the shorter, therefore theoretically cheaper dotted line to the left at Bulleen.

So when is a ring not a ring? When it is a link in the eyes of the North East Link Authority. The building of Corridor A will not remove the need to build a completed ring through Eltham in years to come. The thing is, by then the State will be so bankrupt that this will never happen, no matter what needs might then be presented. By that time too with the advent of AVs (autonomous vehicles), cars as we know them now might be a thing of the past, which poses some interesting speculation in answer to Don Watson’s original conundrum.

 

The oldest new idea

In the pulp fiction of imagined history, the picture of chinless English younger sons, reclining in easy chairs and casually remarking, “The natives are restless tonight” has become the stuff of Hollywood parody. Comfort, safety and security, not necessarily in that particular order, were important considerations to the pioneer settler in his home and in the face of a sometimes strange and rebellious aboriginal world, the answer to this combined problem would turn out to be a novel one. In the absence of home and hearth the solution the settlers chose was to bring these things along with them, packed into boxes and transported under sail and ox drawn cart to destinations beyond the seas.

The prefabricated house as a concept has been called “the oldest new idea in architecture” with the Romans using it to build demountable elements of their fortresses and the Vikings fashioning strong holds from the dismantled timbers of their long ships. In Australia the idea had its origins in the form of the home brought to Sydney Cove with the First Fleet by the Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip in 1788. Contemporary reports described Phillip’s house as having “framed and sides etc of painted canvas”, measuring about 50’X20’ and taking about a week to erect. It leaked like a sieve and was “not impervious to either wind or weather” but for Phillip, a naval man, dripping canvas maybe felt just like home.

Prefabrication was further augmented in those early years with the arrival of the infamous Second Fleet on Australian shores in 1790. That Fleet, along with its maltreated human cargo, brought with it rudimentary prefabricated cottages, a store house and a hospital. The hospital buildings had been fashioned in England, “not to require artificers of any kind to fix them up or take them down”, which was fortunate as the hospital was needed almost immediately to house the mistreated Second Fleet convicts.

By the time of the founding of Melbourne at Port Phillip 45 years later, the process of prefabricated construction had been rendered into something of an art form with suppliers reducing building forms into their component parts, numbered into a logical sequence to be erected at their destination rather like a wooden Meccano set. The innovative carpenter John Manning was probably the most famous of these early prefab suppliers, but there were others. Peter Thompson of Commercial Rd, Limehouse, whose houses were generally larger and more ambitious than Manning, was one but Joseph Harvey, L.R. Peacock and James Matthews were others.

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

When John and Robert Bakewell arrived at Port Phillip on the SS Lord Goderich on 7th April, 1840 in the company of their sister Phoebe and brother in law, Dr Godfrey Howitt and affinal brother Richard, they brought with them or had access to at least three prefabricated houses. Godfrey’s house was put up on the block of land he purchased at the top of Collins Street East while Richard’s went onto land he and Godfrey purchased on the Yarra at Alphington, after first arranging for the building to be “prepared by my nephew in Melbourne, ready for putting up at the farm, when we could get it conveyed there”, (Impressions of Australia Felix, R Howitt). The Bakewells meanwhile took their prefabricated house to a farm they were consolidating on the Plenty River, known from the first days of settlement as the Station Plenty, but soon after renamed by them, “Yallambee”.

The Bakewell’s first purchase of land at Yallambee occurred in July 1840 and their prefabricated cottage was probably put up soon afterward. Two years later Richard Howitt described the Bakewell’s house during a visit, writing that:

Their weather-boarded house is situated beautifully on an eminence in the wild region, overlooking the river and its meadow… How neat and nicely fitted-up was their house! In it, with its thin walls and French windows, you seemed scarcely in-doors. (Impressions of Australia Felix – Richard Howitt)

YALLAMBEE by George Alexander Gilbert, elevated view of river, vineyard on side of hill rising from the river and house at crest of hill. Source: State Library of Victoria
The Station Plenty, (Yallambee) view VI by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station on hill with creek in foreground. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

Almost contemporaneous with this visit, a pastel drawing by A E Gilbert shows an early version of Yallambee from the west when only the prefabricated cottage and associated residential and kitchen wings had been erected. In this pastel, there is a sort of feeling of impermanence to the Bakewell buildings. They seem to float ghost-like in the landscape, as ethereal as the adjacent haystacks. E L Bateman’s Plenty Station drawings, drawn a decade later, show a much more extensive and presumably more permanent complex by comparison. A third Howitt brother, William, visited Yallambee around about the same time as Bateman and added another written description to the record:

“…the house is one of those wooden ones brought out of England, and which seem as good now as on the day they were set up. They certainly have answered well. To this are added extensive out-buildings, generally of wood, and some of them roofed with sheets of stringy bark.” (Land, Labour, and Gold – William Howitt)

According to Avril Payne (Salter) who interviewed Nancy Bush at the start of the 1970s for a La Trobe University thesis, the Wragge family’s anecdotal understanding was that the Bakewell house “stood where the tennis court now stands”.

Detail of Bakewell survey map superimposed onto modern Google satellite image. Map shows the relative positions of the Bakewell features with present day Yallambie subdivision. Wragge’s Yallambie Homestead was built virtually astride the Bakewell residential structures.

By carefully comparing the Bakewell survey map with a modern satellite image of the landscape it is now possible to confirm this assertion and furthermore show that the footprint of the secondary residential and kitchen wings of the Bakewell complex are now largely buried under the floorboards of the “newer” Wragge Homestead.

The Wragge family on the verandah at Yallambie, c1900. The building in the background on the north east side of the house appears to be the Bakewell prefab moved to that location from a position just behind where the photographer stood to take this picture. The inscription on the original photograph suggests that by this time it was being used as a school room. (Source: Bill Bush collection)

The survey map, which was drawn near the time of E L Bateman’s drawings and William Howitt’s recorded visit, portray a somewhat enlarged establishment from the one shown in the pastel, but all of these resources, together with the misattributed State Library of Victoria Daguerreotype and Wragge era photographs, which show the cottage after it had been repositioned behind the “new” Homestead, make it possible to form a reasonably accurate idea of the Bakewell prefab.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambee) view III by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. House with lattice-work verandah and garden. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

Yallambee was a weatherboarded, shingle roofed structure with French doors and lattice covered verandahs. William Howitt had written that the Bakewell house was, “one of those wooden ones brought out of England” and this would seem to preclude any possibility of a colonial origin. In a couple of the Bateman drawings it is quite possible to see an indication of the joined sides on the east end of the cottage near the apex of the roof and from this it would appear that the Bakewell prefab was not a Manning cottage. The Manning design relied on a unique system of bolted frames and tell-tale infill panels – an example of which can be seen today in the form of “La Trobe’s Cottage” in the Melbourne Domain.

“Jolimont. Front.” Lieutenant Governor La Trobe’s Manning style house as sketched by his cousin, E L Bateman. (Source: State Library of Victoria). The property has been meticulously reconstructed by the National Trust and can be seen today in the Melbourne Domain.

It may possibly have been a Thompson house whose designs Gilbert Herbert in “Pioneers of Prefabrication “ described as having “full-length shuttered windows and lean-to verandas – which seemed to be not only more practical but patently more suited to the Australian climate in form and character.” This description, while seeming to fit the Bakewell house, overlooks that Thompson’s advertised houses were generally conceived on a large scale. The Bakewell cottage was small by comparison. All the same, Thompson is believed to have greatly exaggerated his Colonial building triumphs with the result that modest size buildings may have been a deliberately unacknowledged part of his catalogue.

A British Treasury grant had allowed Peter Thompson to manufacture timber framed buildings free of duty for export to the colonies. His houses were more traditional in design than Manning’s and used standard studwork framing which were sheathed internally and externally with boarding, and internally they enjoyed boarded ceilings. As a result the thermal insulation properties of Thompson’s houses gained on Manning’s designs although in practice this double lining proved to be “complete and convenient repositories for many of the noxious and innocuous tribes” of vermin, (The Builder, p110, 1846, quoted by Herbert).

“…complete and convenient repositories for many of the noxious and innocuous tribes of vermin.”

In spite of the potential for Tom and Jerry style mouse holes, the two Howitt descriptions of Yallambee portray an apparently very comfortable house. On the west wall of the Bakewell cottage was located a chimney serving a fireplace, the cosy nature of which was described by William Howitt as featuring, “the old English dog, in the fire-places of the country houses instead of stoves. Wood is the chief fuel; the fires it makes are very warm and cheerful.” (ibid) The bricks used in this component were presumably the same slop-sided bricks brought as ballast in shipping from the UK which are known to have been a component part of the Bakewell stables.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambee) view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station with cattle in foreground. Source: National Gallery of Victoria
From the Port Phillip Herald, March, 1844.

The Bakewell prefab would in time be enlarged with the addition of trellis covered walkways and extra wings. In 1844 a surplus Thompson house was offered for sale at the Melbourne wharf and it would be interesting to know now whether the Bakewell’s were the purchasers and whether they used it to add to their existing cottage. It is known that over time John Bakewell would ultimately import numerous prefab houses into Victoria. Alexander Henderson in his “Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and the Riverina,” under an entry for John Bakewell’s business partner William Lyall states that:

“Lyall lived for a time at Kew in a wooden house called ‘Clifton’, on the cliff above Victoria Bridge, next door to the premises occupied by Henry Creswick. This house was one of the many imported in sections by his partner, John Bakewell…”

John Bakewell’s Clifton property south of the Kew Junction bordered by Studley Park Rd, High St, Barkers Rd and a bend in the Yarra River. Bakewell’s Clifton House was a prefab fronting Studley Park Rd. It was significantly enlarged and rebuilt in the 1860s before being demolished to make way for the boom style mansion, Tara Hall. Source: detail from “https://rbkr.wordpress.com/2012/09/11/a-hook-to-catch-your-interest/

John Bakewell purchased 160 acres of land in Kew in 1851 and his house, “Clifton” was located on a high point south of the Studley Park Rd. Lyall’s occupation was in 1856 and by the time of a subsequent sale in the 1860s, Clifton like Yallambee had been greatly enlarged from its simple prefab origins. Apart from his extensive pastoral runs, John Bakewell is known to have held several properties in and around Melbourne with land owned by him at Caulfield, St Kilda and Elsternwick during that early era. It is not inconceivable then that prefabricated houses or parts of prefabricated houses may have been introduced at each.

After being moved to a new position behind the “new” Homestead c1870, the Bakewells’ Yallambee cottage was still being used by the Wragge family as a school house for their growing children in the latter years of the 19th century. Winty Calder mentions a possible fate for the building in a note in “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” suggesting that it may eventually have been destroyed in a fire, although the actual evidence for this would seem to be slight. Elements of the building may actually have been used to construct the Murdoch’s later garden hot house in the same position, or even to build Harry Ferne’s cottage on the river flat. No one now can know for sure.

The Homestead with the garden hothouse pictured at right. Screen still from the Bush era Yallambie film, c1955.

The building of Wragge’s “new” Yallambie, a rendered brick Italianate style house constructed in about 1872 from bricks fired on the property was a visible representation of the success of a wealthy pastoralist, but prefabrication did not die with the end of the initial stages of the Colonial era. It has been used on and off ever since whenever the availability of skilled labour resources has been outstripped by housing needs. It was used extensively as an answer for shortages immediately after the end of the Second War and in more recent times, as the real estate sector has shown every sign of overheating, there has been a strong resurgence in interest for prefabricated building principles.

This interest may be seen in the occasional use of transportable, factory made modules in the construction of new buildings but it might be argued that every one of the new towers we have literally seen thrown up across Melbourne in recent times has carried with it an element of the same processes. Like Big Ears’ mushroom house springing out of the ground overnight, these buildings are erected with slabs of concrete formed off site, trucked to chosen locations before being tilted vertically and then quickly bolted into position. It’s the same idea that Thompson used and is done to speed up the building process, but what does the practice really achieve? Figures from the 2016 census show that there are now more than one million homes standing empty in Australia, despite a shortfall in available housing that has pushed the cost of home ownership beyond the reach of many. It’s a way of squirreling away investment by a “propertocracy” safe in the knowledge that with current Australian negative gearing laws, bricks and mortar really are as safe as houses. Successive governments have responded to the situation not by changing negative gearing itself but by egging it on with unsustainable deficits and historically high rates of immigration. In the face of this the Federal Member of Parliament tasked with tackling Australia’s housing affordability problem said earlier this year that the “first step” towards owning a home is to get a “highly paid job”. Well there has never been a shortage in the unemployed to thank the minister for the advice but it really isn’t solving the problem.

The “Tiny House” movement which advocates simple living in small homes is a reaction to the situation, but finding land that hasn’t been subject to land banking or where Council regulations might allow you to park a Tiny House is not as easy as you might think. The consequence seems to be a proliferation in apartment tower living challenging the concept of Melbourne as the “world’s most livable city”. Look out across the skyline of this town and you would think from the sight of the cranes on the horizon that there would be housing enough for all. The reality is however that if you take a trip into parts of the City of Melbourne on any night of any given week, in spite of the cold evenings, homelessness for many is not so much a matter of choice.

Even in the suburbs it is a sometime social plight. Last Saturday I went for a walk along the Plenty River bicycle path at Greensborough near where Main Road crosses the Plenty River and close to where the Council’s shiny new tower stands alongside the ugly expanse of the Greensborough Plaza. Under the Main Road Bridge, like an echo from an old Chili Peppers’ song, a homeless camp had taken up refuge. It wasn’t the City of Angeles, but the rapid sound of water flowing quickly past in the bed of nearby Plenty River made it a nice place for camping, although aesthetically the combined effects of graffiti and pigeon poo left a little to be desired. Meanwhile on that same Saturday there were probably hundreds of house auctions being conducted across the north and north east with no limit seemingly applied to the upward spiral of the prices achieved.

In 1945 on the eve of a post war housing boom and a roll out of new Federal and State Government social housing programmes, the Commonwealth Housing Commission stated that:

A dwelling of good standard and equipment is not only the need but the right of every citizen. Whether the dwelling is to be rented or purchased, no tenant or purchaser should be exploited for excessive profit.

Today, faced with the social implications of a great ponzi housing scheme at odds with that 1945 statement, it’s no wonder that the natives are getting restless. It’s time to take stock because when it comes down to it, have we really come such a long way from those First Fleet convicts who arrived here without a roof over their heads?

The past is not such a foreign country

“You are destroying your past, and one day you will realise it when it is too late.”

These words were spoken by Dutch artist Rein Slagmolen nearly fifty years ago and were quoted in a local newspaper report. At the time Slagmolen was referring to the impending demise of an historic, National Trust classified landmark at Yallambie but his words have a discouragingly all too familiar ring to them today as they echo across the passage of the intervening years. As the built face of Melbourne continues to change with every passing year, it turns out the past is not such a foreign country after all. They do things just the same there.

William Laing's Casa Maria, formerly "Woodside Farm", (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
William Laing’s Casa Maria, formerly “Woodside Farm”, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

Slagmolen had been living at Casa Maria, “the House on the Hill”; a local feature on a ridge on what is now the north eastern edge of Yallambie. As stated in the previous post, when John and Robert Bakewell created their farm, “Yallambee Park” at the start of the 1840s by buying up most of the parts of Walker’s subdivision of Portion 8 north of the Lower Plenty Road, the one section that they overlooked was a strip of land combining Walkers’ Lots 6 & 7.

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

This land of about 68 hectares was at this time in the hands of Nicholas Fenwick, later Police Magistrate at Geelong. In 1843, by dint of a complicated deal involving several disassociated parties during the turbulent period characterising the first economic crisis of the Port Phillip District, the land was handballed to William Laing and Peter Johnstone. William Laing soon became the sole owner of the property and built an attic roofed farmhouse, probably adding it in front of a pre-existing, single storey cottage he found already located there to the north.

Laing called the property “Woodside”; an appropriate name perhaps given that Richard Howitt, writing about nearby “Yallambee” in 1842, recorded that: “The locality is at the commencement of the vast and sterile stringy-bark forests.” (Impressions of Australia Felix)

1945 aerial survey showing late 20th century subdivisions and site of Casa Maria (Woodside) farm.
1945 aerial survey showing late 20th century subdivisions and site of Casa Maria (Woodside) farm.
Squatting era kitchen wing, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
Squatting era kitchen wing, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

In the late 1960s, foundation members and honorary architects for the National Trust of Australia, John and Phyllis Murphy, reported that the earliest cottage section at Woodside most probably dated far back to the 1830s and the first days of settlement in Victoria.

Verandah detail, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
Verandah detail, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

The Murphys were well known Melbourne architects at the time and noted for their conservation work at what is still reputed to be Victoria’s earliest building, “Holly Green” (Emu Bottom Homestead). They speculated that the original cottage at Woodside was as old, or perhaps even older, than that Sunbury property itself. Remarkably this would have put the first construction at Woodside outside the first Crown land sales of Heidelberg and back into the short lived squatting era on the Lower Plenty, but their hypothesis seems immaterial now. By any State of Victoria measure, Woodside was old. Very old.

This earliest part of Woodside was used by Laing as a kitchen wing and to minimise fire risks it was kept separated from the main building. It consisted of a large, single storey kitchen/living room area and three utility rooms. The doors of the cottage were small by any standard, barely 180cm tall, with wooden steps that by 1970 had been worn quite hollow by the passage of time. High beams in the roof were concealed by a low ceiling lit by small, crooked windows and much later, a sky light and west facing louvre window. The sum total of kitchen “mod cons” consisted of a simple wooden kitchen dresser built alongside a huge kitchen fireplace. The fireplace had originally been an open arrangement with a chimney crane used to lift pots over the embers, later replaced by the installation of an Aga stove.

Dormer windows", (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
Dormer windows”, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

The other, or front section of the house, erected by William Laing when he took possession of the property, was dual level with two attic dormer bedrooms across a small hallway which was reached via an iron made staircase. These bedrooms were built without internal fireplaces but were kept warm in winter by the heat from the exposed brick work of the chimneys from the ground floor rooms below. Australian Red Cedar joinery was a feature of the lower rooms although later, much of this was ignominiously painted over. The walls were of soft, hand-made bricks and rendered with lime mortar. The roof, originally slate shingled, had been replaced by tiles after a fire in 1950.

20th century addition, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
20th century addition, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

William Laing died in his 90s in 1891 and Woodside passed to his family who continued to farm it until well into the 20th century.

Paved courtyard, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
Paved courtyard, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

A third section of the house with walls made of battened fibro sheets was added between the original cottage and Laing’s main building, joining the three parts together into a “house that Jack built” whole. A small paved court yard was located in a space left vacant on the western side between the two original sections and planted with vines.

Donald S. Garden writing in “Heidelberg: the Land and its People” states that Woodside suffered a somewhat “chequered history” in its later years. A man named Brassier farmed and operated a vineyard at the property, (adding to an early local tradition started by the Bakewells in 1840) and he was followed by a certain Ms Nancy Hassock who operated a riding school there. She was succeeded by a Mr Shaw, who also operated a riding school.

In 1950 Woodside was purchased by an order of novitiate nuns, the Santa Maria Order, who renamed the property “Casa Maria”, the name by which it became more generally known over time in the surrounding community. By this time the original property had been reduced to 11 hectares. The nuns built a prefabricated structure behind the house and this they maintained as a dormitory and chapel.

Casa Maria pictured from the west, south and east, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
Casa Maria pictured from the west, south and east, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

In 1960 Casa Maria was sold again, this time to the property agents Arthur Tucket & Malone. The property was leased for ten years to a succession of tenants but with the carve up of the nearby Yallambie Homestead estate by the developer A V Jennings from September 1966, it was only a matter of time before Casa Maria would itself come to the building planners’ attention. A contemporary newspaper reporting on the Casa Maria property recorded that: “several hundred yards away is Lord Ragg’s Yallambie homestead.” Thomas Wragge would certainly have been amused by this presumptuous promotion of his person to the peerage, however the two properties did occupy adjoining ridges on the western lower reaches of the Plenty River. Laing had been Wragge’s nearest neighbour.

According to Ethel Temby’s memoir, Jennings’ first survey of the Yallambie Homestead “cut through the house garden and pegs close to the verandah indicated that had they not found a buyer for the house it would have been demolished.” In the end, Yallambie Homestead was spared this inglorious fate, but for Casa Maria, the end seemed nigh. John T. Collins, a teacher by profession and keen amateur photographer, would record the building between 1967 and 1969 in a series of photographs taken as part of a National Trust programme aimed at recording historic properties.

In the 1960s Rein Slagmolen became the final occupant of the Laing farm house. He was a Dutch born sculptor who, with his wife Hilary Prudence Reynolds, had immigrated to Australia from central Africa shortly after World War II.

The wrecking ball threat...
The wrecking ball threat…

The Slagmolens had four sons and were still renting Casa Maria in 1970 when the wrecking ball came swinging. The family kept horses and enjoyed a semi-rural lifestyle. Their sons would recall frightening childhood friends with night time tales of bushrangers, stories that seemed all too real to ears and imaginations tuned to the sounds of horses in the surrounding paddocks.

Casa Maria childhood, (Slagmolen family collection).
Casa Maria childhood, (Slagmolen family collection).

Rein kept an artist’s studio in the nuns’ old prefab chapel/dormitory from where he operated a successful business “Vetrart Studios” working on collaborative commissions for new church spaces.

Stations of the Cross (6 stages of 14) by Dutch artist Rein Slagmolen, on display in St Francis Xavier Church, Mayona Rd, Montmorency.
Stations of the Cross (6 stages of 14) by Dutch artist Rein Slagmolen, on display in St Francis Xavier Church, Mayona Rd, Montmorency.

The beautiful, light filled Modernist interior, with its sculptures and lead light panels at St Francis Xavier Church, Montmorency are just one local example of his work.

Slagmolen interior of St Francis Xavier Church, Montmorency.
Slagmolen interior of St Francis Xavier Church, Montmorency.
Holy water font by Rein Slagmolen, located inside the entrance to St Francis Xavier Church, Montmorency.
Holy water font by Rein Slagmolen, located inside the entrance to St Francis Xavier Church, Montmorency.

The Slagmolens attempted unsuccessfully several times to buy Casa Maria from the property developer syndicate and a community campaign was launched to save Casa Maria, but it was all to no avail. The chance to create a Montsalvat style artist community at Yallambie was lost. In the words of Donald S. Garden, “the battle culminated in yet another victory to private enterprise,” (ibid). Casa Maria, formerly “Woodside Farm”, was demolished in 1971 to make way for an enlargement of the Yallambie housing estate, the so called “Santa Maria Subdivision”.

Today if you walk past the former location of Casa Maria along Allima Avenue and into Kurdian Court, Yallambie, there is little to remind you of the presence of one of the earliest colonial properties ever built in Victoria. A number of ancient Italian Cypresses still mark the lines of the old garden but these are probably held in little regard, the exotic home of nuisance possums and cockatoos.

As quoted at the start of this post, Rein Slagmolen said, “You are destroying your past, and one day you will realise it when it is too late,” but perhaps he had it all wrong. As the past is destroyed it fades from our collective memory. Without records, who remembers what has gone before? If they are not written down, stories are all too soon forgotten, a fact that has perhaps never been more true in this digital age of email. This has been the operating inspiration behind the existence of this blog from the very first post of August, 2014.

At the time of writing this post, two houses which occupy the former front yard of Casa Maria at 38 and 40 Allima Avenue are scheduled for auction by separate agents later in the month. Furthermore, on a suburban block opposite these houses, a new home is even now nearing completion after a brick veneer from the old A V Jennings/Santa Maria subdivision was cleared away to make way for it. A new, two storey house fills the block almost to its boundaries. It will be a fine home when complete but in a few years’ time, who will remember the earlier succession of homes it replaced and the haunting layers of their life’s existence?

If you’re like me and enjoy watching old episodes of the British made documentary series “Time Team” on cable, it seems there are very few places in the UK where you cannot dig without turning up Roman mosaics or Iron Age ring forts. The European archaeological history of Australia is small beer by comparison but at 10.30am on this Friday at Eltham Library, Jeremy Smith, an archaeologist at Heritage Victoria, is scheduled to give a talk about one example at the site of Viewbank Homestead, just down river from Yallambie. That 1840s era homestead was professionally demolished in 1922 and several digs in the last two decades have uncovered an array of artefacts: jewellery, porcelain, ornaments and coins, all of which give an insight into the lives of the settlers of this district.

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

Long academic studies have been devoted to the story of Viewbank. Perhaps one day someone will show enough interest to stick a pick or trowel into the forgotten histories at Yallambie, some of which are still there to be found, just below our pedestrian feet.

casa_maria

William Greig: A South Sea Bubble in Port Phillip

“History never repeats.”

So goes the song. The New Zealand band were singing about love and hurt but in the world of economics it’s a different story. Boom and bust have long been a feature of the Australian economy and as property prices continue to soar once more across Melbourne, it’s a sobering thought that when it comes to the economy, we never learn from the past.

"The old belief in the safety of money in bricks and mortar remains strong..."
“The old belief in the safety of money in bricks and mortar remains strong…”

As UK based analyst Jonathan Tepper recently put it, Australia is now in the midst of “one of the biggest housing bubbles in history.” The old belief in the safety of money in bricks and mortar remains strong in a world where governments print money to lend it on the property market, hoping repayments in another, more valuable foreign currency, will cover their own dubious paper. It’s money making money, the economists’ dream.

In the last post the tale was told of the Plenty River bushrangers of 1842 whose activities up and down the Plenty River valley could be seen as a reaction itself to a down turn in the Colonial economy at that time. Everyone loves a get rich scheme and the Plenty River Bushrangers had one they thought would beat even the property speculators. It all ended in tears for them of course but then, get rich schemes often do.

The recession at Port Phillip in the early 1840s was driven by a combination of economic and social factors. In an all too familiar story, rampant speculation led to an overheated local property market where prices paid for land became unreflective of its ability to produce an income in a rural economy at the bottom end of the world. This, combined with a fluctuating international economy and a corresponding withdrawal of foreign investment, led to Port Phillip’s first financial crisis.

John Bakewell, 1807-1888

John and Robert Bakewell’s arrival in Port Phillip in 1840 was timed almost to coincide with this crisis but instead of being caught up in it, they turned the situation to their advantage. As Donald S. Garden Wrote in “Heidelberg: The Land and its People”, the story of the land that became Yallambie:

“…was a constant struggle because of the relatively poor quality of much of the land in Portion 8. Nevertheless, where others failed, the Bakewells managed to succeed, both by means of hard work and sufficient capital.” (Heidelberg: The Land and its People, Donald S. Garden, MUP, 1972).

The “profile” which accompanies each page of this blog at left describes Yallambie as having been “first settled in the 1840s” within the “Goldilocks Zone” of Melbourne. However this is a somewhat overly simplified view of history. Although the Bakewells were the first settlers to consolidate a successful farm on land that forms the present day suburb, they were by no means the first to dig a spade into Yallambie’s good earth.

Thomas Walker, 1804-86
Thomas Walker, 1804-86

The land that formed Portion 8 at the first land sales of the Heidelberg district was purchased from a Crown comfortable with its concept of Terra Nullius, at a public auction in Sydney in September, 1838 by Thomas Wills for £1067, or £1 2s per acre. Wills was a speculator who had no interest in the property and quickly passed it on to Thomas Walker for £1261, or £1 6s per acre, a profit of almost £200 for holding it for just six months. As previously noted in the pages of this blog, Walker had visited Edward Willis squatting run in 1837 at what is now Yallambie and Lower Plenty, writing about it in his book “A Month in the Bush of Australia,” (Thomas Walker, J. Cross, 1838). It is believed that it was either Wills or Walker who first referred to the land at Yallambie as the “Station Plenty”.

In the latter half of 1839, Walker subdivided Portion 8 into 12 blocks, selling them at a price of between £2 and £3 5s per acre, more than doubling the money that he had paid Willis only months previously. The Port Phillip District was in the middle of a full-fledged property boom, the cannon shot report of which was being heard right around the world.

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

None of the six purchasers of Walker’s subdivision of Portion 8 took much interest in their holdings and they either sold them again or operated them as absentee landlords. The blocks which today specifically constitute the Yallambie area were bought by just five men: James David Lyon Campbell of Campbellfield, late of the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers; William Thomas Elliot, a Western Port pastoralist; Nicholas Alexander Fenwick, later to become Police Magistrate at Geelong; and Robert Reeves and Robert Cook.

Detail of Bakewell survey map with modern street plan showing position of William Greig's farm marked, "Hut" and "Old Garden".
Detail of Bakewell survey map with modern street plan showing position of William Greig’s farm marked, “Hut” and “Old Garden”.

Campbell’s land fronted the Plenty River on the corner of present day Allima Avenue and Tarcoola Drive, Yallambie. In the midst of the big property bang, it appears that Campbell agreed to sell this land on easy terms to a 24 year old Scot from Fife, William Greig, whose “Farm Day Book” written at Yallambie from October, 1840 to February, 1841 constitutes one of the earliest and most interesting primary accounts of small scale crop farming in the Port Phillip District in the early 1840s. The manuscript, now in the Mitchell Library NSW, illustrates over a five month period the experiences of this naïve young man, very much a stranger in a strange land. A man of good education Greig however had little practical farming expertise of the virgin soils that confronted him or of the unfamiliar climate that came with them.

Edward LaTrobe Bateman's pencil study for View XII in his Plenty Station series, NGV. View XII, (XII Distant view of hut with creek in foreground), drawn more than a decade after Greig's departure, very likely depicts Grieg's old hut and is marked on the Bakewell plan as "hut" and "old garden".
Edward LaTrobe Bateman’s pencil study for View XII in his Plenty Station series, NGV. View XII, (XII Distant view of hut with creek in foreground), drawn more than a decade after Greig’s departure, very likely depicts Grieg’s old hut and is marked on the Bakewell plan as “hut” and “old garden”.

Greig described himself on the 1841 Census as living at “Plenty” in a completed wooden house containing six people: himself, his wife Marion, his manservant Meikle and wife, and two other people. Greig’s original intention had been to write: “a Diary of daily events on the Farm and any other particular occurrence which may happen I shall confine myself to that,” (Greig, Farm Day Book).

In the end the “Diary” became more than that and is a record instead of all his hopes and dreams and also of the many frustrations he encountered.

It opens optimistically enough on the first day of October, 1840. Greig had just purchased a Van Dieman’s Land plough for 8 guineas and had engaged a team of six bullocks and a driver from the “Scotch Company” at £1 per day to plough his fields while he and two married workmen cleared stumps from: “a nicely lying Flat & two Banks in all about an acre & a half of as good soil as any in the Colony and to surpassed by none in richness in any Country whatever – from which I fully expect an abundant Crop of Potatoes”.

Already Greig’s initial draft of chickens had more than doubled and more eggs were hatching. A garden was started and aside from the potatoes, Greig planted a virtual vegetable Garden of Eden at Yallambie: mustard, cress, cabbages, turnips, peas, carrots, spinach, melons, lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, cauliflower, broccoli and onions.

The rural idyll: a gentleman farmer with bullocks ploughing his fields at the start of the 19th century.
The rural idyll: a gentleman farmer with bullocks ploughing his fields at the start of the 19th century.

A pony provided transport to town whenever needed but the hired bullocks kept straying and the ploughing took longer than anticipated. The work was difficult and where the plough missed Greig and his men followed up with spades. The cutting blade on the plough soon broke and had to be sent over to a nearby farm for repair but by mid-October, 1840 the initial work was complete.

On the day ploughing finished, Greig dismissed one of his workman and the man’s wife, “Owing to Jerry again giving me impudence…” When they left, Greig gave “Jerry” a paper stating that he was “a very good workman and an industrious man,” his only fault being his “impudence and a too conceited use of his tongue on all occasions.” Old World class distinctions prevailed under the wide Australian sun where Grieg’s status as an employer and independent landowner placed him, at least in his own mind, on a higher social rung on the sliding scale of a status-conscious 19th century society. Greig was obviously accustomed to hiring and firing servants and was sufficiently aware of his own implied importance to take quick offence at what he termed “impudence”.

By the 23rd October the potatoes were at last in the ground and Greig looked to the future with an “expectation of a good crop.” There were frequent trips to town for supplies, to find a replacement workman for the impudent Jerry and his wife, and to enquire after the post from Britain.

Greig was in actual fact a deeply worried man. In spite of his pretensions to gentleman status, the young Plenty River “farmer” enjoyed only limited capital. He had agreed to purchase James David Lyon Campbell’s Portion 8 landholding with a series of regular payments and the first of these would be due in the New Year. It had been some months since he had any news from home but all the same, Greig looked to the post in vain expectation of a remittance from a wealthy uncle, without whose help he would be unable to meet even his initial commitment to Campbell.

In November, 1840 the first signs of the impending collapse of the Port Phillip colony became apparent and Greig wrote: “Bad accounts from Sydney – some great failures and all business houses in a very tottering state, from the great scarcity of money – in fact the whole colony seems bordering on insolvency.”

"I intend starting a dairy if possible..."
“I intend starting a dairy if possible…”

Meanwhile work proceeded with fencing the fields while Greig contemplated diversifying his farming interests. He sent his man to inspect some cows, the property of Mr Watson of Watson & Hunter. “I intend starting a dairy if possible and he is inclined to be liberal as to receiving payment it will be always able to bring in something and would with proper management pay itself off in the first year, so I shall make the attempt.”

But to Greig’s disappointment, his man found the suitability of the moo cows a moot point. Only twenty cows in the herd of two or three hundred were satisfactory for a dairy and Greig’s enthusiasm waned, but not before he had already spent money making preparations and purchasing materials for the planned dairy.

On 4 December he wrote: “I am now very dubious as to trying the dairy at all as I am afraid the expense & trouble at this distance from Town is too great to be worth it. I think I’ll get a Bullock team which will bring as much & more money in than 20 cows wd independently of there being no trouble.” The experience of the straying bullocks at the start of his operations was forgotten.

"the rats are playing havoc among the potatoes..."
“the rats are playing havoc among the potatoes…”

Meanwhile the hoped for income from his potato beds was under threat as: “the rats are playing havoc among the potatoes, going down the drills regularly and eating them up by their very roots, I’ll have to tie the dogs up all night beside them.”

The potatoes had been sown too late in the year to do well. Bushfires played havoc with his land and dogs got into the melon patch. The heat of the Australian summer made him feel quite unwell: “I wish I had a thermometer for I can’t think the heat is far short of 130 degrees at mid day. We feel it terribly in our wooden house.” And “The nights are as unbearable as the days. What crops are in the ground just now must suffer terribly.”

Christmas and New Year passed under a gloom of anxiety. “I am far from being enviably placed now and the great anxiety I am in completely unfits me for everything… With assistance from friends at Home I think I could ensure success, but without that I have nothing left for it but to make the best of my way home. There to begin a world of troubles…”

Still no letters appeared and the horse had gone lame. The diary does not record whether he considered shooting it, or himself. Perhaps he contemplated both. Greig was losing great quantities of meat due to spoilage in the heat and on the 15 February he wrote that he had: “lost half the sheep we killed owing to the weather so that was 28lb of meat thrown to the dogs. I have altogether lost a terrible quantity since being here.”

"Finally, after five months the hoped for letters from home arrived..." (The squatter's hut: news from home, Harden S Melville, 1850-51, NGA
“Finally, after five months the hoped for letters from home arrived…” (The squatter’s hut: news from home, Harden S Melville, 1850-51, NGA

Finally, after five months the hoped for letters from home arrived (they had been delayed in Adelaide) but there was no money to accompany them.

By the end of February, 1841, Greig was negotiating to rent a house in Melbourne. The last entries for the month, and for the Farm Day Book itself, contain mention of the downturn in the colonial economy and a comment on the government’s policy of selling Crown land at a minimum upset price of £1 per acre. In Greig’s opinion: “a great many will find most of their land not worth a pound.” With this thought, Greig walked away from his 156 acres and out of history. He went into receivership in November, 1841 leaving James David Lyon Campbell to pick up the pieces.

"He went into receivership in November, 1841..."
“He went into receivership in November, 1841…”

Campbell soon found a ready-made buyer in the form of the Bakewell brothers who paid Campbell £400 for Greig’s farm. The Bakewells had purchased land at the Plenty Station from William Thomas Elliot soon after arriving in the colony and added Campbell’s holding to it, creating a farm that would henceforth be named by them, “Yallambee”.

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

In the depressed economy of the early 1840s the Bakewells continued to add further holdings to their “Yallambee Park” estate until they owned all of the Portion 8 land north of the Lower Plenty Road, excluding the northern most portion which passed to William Laing, (who developed the now demolished  Woodside, later Casa Maria). In mid 1842, the Bakewell’s brother in law and near neighbour, Richard Howitt, visited Yallambee and wrote that:

“The locality is at the commencement of the vast and sterile stringy-bark forests. Part of the farm is consequently almost worthless, and the other by the water-side, of the richest quality.” (Richard Howitt, Impressions of Australia Felix, 1845)

YALLAMBEE by George Alexander Gilbert, c1850, elevated view of river, vineyard on side of hill rising from the river and house at crest of hill.
“The locality is at the commencement of the vast and sterile stringy-bark forests.” Contemporary pastel by G A Gilbert. (SLV, H29575, http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/29449)

As William Greig fades from history, the question remains, what motivated these men of the pioneering 1840s to travel half way around the world to endure a world of hardship and uncertainty under the harsh Australian sun. Why did so many get caught up in a Port Phillip bubble and allow the financial burden of speculators to be passed on to them, either as lessees or buyers on terms while risking disorientation, depressive anxiety and even existential angst? The answer must surely have been their hope of a better future.

Lynette J. Peel referred to Grieg’s Diary in some detail in her book, “Rural Industry in the Port Phillip Region”, (MUP, 1974) where she wrote:

“…it is quite wrong to assume that these people made a series of sound agricultural and economic decisions in embarking on the life of a farmer. Their optimism and irrational decisions, usually through ignorance of the local situation, undoubtedly did much to fan the flames of rural land speculation before the depression.”

Peel suggests that there is no reason to believe Greig’s story of small scale crop farming at Port Phillip was atypical. Greig had found little difficulty raising easy finance for his endeavour. Including himself, there were three men working his farm, compared to an average of 4.4 recorded for small holdings in the 1841 census but Greig was nevertheless confident in his own ability to succeed provided there was what he termed “proper management.”

Cropping practices at this time were dependent on intensive manual labour. There were high costs associated with establishing a farm on virgin land and this had to be met before the natural fertility of the soil could be exploited. (NGA oil by John Glover, "My Harvest Home", 1835).
Cropping practices at this time were dependent on intensive manual labour. There were high costs associated with establishing a farm on virgin land and this had to be met before the natural fertility of the soil could be exploited. (NGA oil by John Glover, “My Harvest Home”, 1835).

Up to the time when the Diary closes, two and often three men had been working on Greig’s 156 acres to produce a one and a half acre crop of potatoes, most of which would be needed for seed the following season. Wages had been paid to the employees, some fences had been built, (although not enough to prevent the bullocks straying), and a garden had been planted. Six chickens had multiplied to 30 but additional meat and provisions had needed to be purchased to supplement what the farm produced, and to feed the four to six adults living there. In retrospect, what he really needed to plant was a money tree.

The inability of Greig through lack of capital to broaden his activities into his pie in the sky bullock team or dairy herd pipe dream meant that much more time would have been needed to make the farm on the Plenty a going concern, if ever. As Peel writes, “…reasonable financial liquidity was essential for flexibility in farming operations.”

The Bakewell brothers later success on the same land on which Greig failed was built partly on their previous farming experience in and around Nottingham, but also on their ability to diversify. John Bakewell worked as a wool sorter in Melbourne while his brother managed the farm at Yallambee, diversifying their interests from the market gardens on the river flat to a cattle herd on the uplands, Richard Howitt’s “vast and sterile stringy-bark forests.”

The pastoral era at Yallambie has long been a thing of the past. Where Greig and the Bakewells once farmed, the land was long ago consumed by the suburban sprawl. Today an average size house from the A V Jennings’ era on an average size block will set you back upwards of seven hundred thousand dollars. A house in the newer “Streeton Views” estate might cost even more. And Yallambie by all reports is one of Melbourne’s more “affordable” suburbs. All over Melbourne come reports of the million dollar mark being crossed at auction, sometimes several times over.

Where this is all leading remains worryingly unclear in the first half of 2016. Like the Emperor’s New Clothes, nobody wants to really say what we have all been thinking about Melbourne’s property scene. At the time of writing this post I have just returned from visiting a much loved sister who for two decades has lived and raised a family, together with her American husband, in one of the better neighbourhoods of Atlanta, Georgia. Their large and very fine home I am told is worth something over USD$400,000. However, if they had ever thought of living in Melbourne again, they have quite dismissed the idea as being impractical. As my brother in law told me, “We would need over $2 million to live in a house like this in an Australian capital city.”Bubbles_Millais

Meanwhile, like the Port Phillip bubble of 1840, Melbourne’s property balloon keeps expanding but with as yet, no sight or sound of anything going pop. Don’t look now, but is that Adam Smith with his eyes tight shut and his “Invisible Hands” placed firmly over our collective ears?

 

Gravely speaking

We all die.

That was as true 180 years ago as it is today and, with life expectancies generally shorter, that fact was nowhere more evident than in the primitive colony at Port Phillip in 1836. The dilemma was, what to do with all those dead people who so inconveniently kept departing this mortal coil, running down the curtain and joining the choir invisible?

The dead parrot dilemma.
The dead parrot dilemma.

Several cemetery sites were initiated in the early years, some now almost forgotten to history. The present Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Robert Doyle was in the press last week arguing the case for the inclusion of Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market on the World Heritage Register, part of his reasoning being the status of the Queen Vic site as an early burial ground (from 1836), prior to its development as a market.

Looking north at the Old Melbourne Cemetery before the Victoria Market expanded across the site.
Looking north at the Old Melbourne Cemetery before the Victoria Market expanded across the site.
Opera singer and former Yallambie girl, Shakira Tsindos at OITM, 2015.
Opera singer and former Yallambie girl, Shakira Tsindos at OITM, 2015.

Next time you’re down that way buying an orange, pause for a moment and think about those early Melbournians, many of who still reside beneath your feet and who will never enjoy an orange again. Brindisi at Opera in the Market takes on a whole new meaning.

Carpe diem while you can.

Doyle called the Market “Melbourne’s first cemetery”, a somewhat inaccurate description since a small burial ground at the Flagstaff Gardens (Burial Hill), preceded it slightly in that same year. There were also burials at the abortive settlements at Corinella in Westernport in 1826 and at Sorrento in 1803 while Indigenous  Australians with their strong sense of place, had been honouring their ancestors in their own ways throughout thousands of years of Dreamtime. But nobody likes to mention that.

Cemetery sites around Melbourne in the 1840s included Point Ormond (Elwood) where there was an early quarantine camp, the St Andrew’s Church graveyard at Brighton, established 1841, the Yarra Bend cemetery, 1848, and the Point Gellibrand cemetery at Williamstown, 1849.

Greensborough Cemetery at Jessop Street, Greensborough, February, 2016. Approximately 350 people were buried here from the early 1860s onwards.
Greensborough Cemetery at Jessop Street, Greensborough, February, 2016. Approximately 350 people were buried here from the early 1860s onwards.

Local to Yallambie, private burial grounds were developed at the St Helena churchyard, St Helena, in Jessop Street, Greensborough and in Hawdon Street, Heidelberg while major cemeteries were created at Warringal in Heidelberg and at Diamond Creek.

Old Heidelberg Cemetery in Hawdon Street, Heidelberg, February, 2016. Established by the Trustees of St John's Church of England in 1852, 111 burials took place here.
Old Heidelberg Cemetery in Hawdon Street, Heidelberg, February, 2016. Established by the Trustees of St John’s Church of England in 1852, 111 burials took place here.

Prior to 1867 record keeping was not regulated but by one count there are today a total of 22 cemeteries in Heidelberg, Greensborough, Darebin, Eltham and at Whittlesea.

Wragge family memorial at Warringal Cemetery, February, 2016.
Wragge family memorial at Warringal Cemetery, February, 2016.

In my last post the suggestion was made that two Daguerreotypes owned by the State Library of Victoria purported to show images of Dr Godfrey Howitt’s garden in Collins Street East were actually made at “Floraville”, the Bakewell garden at Yallambee, and were contemporaneous to the Plenty Station drawings created by Edward La Trobe Bateman c1853, held today by the National Gallery of Victoria. This interpretation has been provisionally accepted by the SLV (email correspondence, January, 2016) and it is hoped that the Daguerreotypes will be brought together with Bateman’s drawings at the Gallery by way of comparison. But that is possibly not the end of this discussion.

At the National Library of Australia there is an intriguing drawing, ostensibly the work of Edward La Trobe Bateman, but not necessarily a part of his Plenty Station series. This drawing is of the same size as the drawings in the Plenty Station Set (188x274mm) and carries an inscription “Private Cemetery in a Garden on the River Plenty, near Melbourne”. According to Anne Neale, “Comparison of the background details of the garden with those shown in the Plenty Set indicate that the site is almost certainly the Plenty Station,” (Illuminating Nature, Dr Anne Neale, 2001).

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

Neale suggests that the 1856 Athenaeum description of a drawing numbered No. 3 in the Athenaeum article “…remarkable for its dark ghostly cypresses, solid cones of black shade, silent and watchful as sentinels. The leaves of the plants, fingered or fan-like, are given with botanical truth”, fits the NLA cemetery picture better than the usual candidate in the NGV set, usually referred to as View VII. It is this confusion that she cites as the basis for the possibility that the NGV Plenty Station Set was once part of a larger whole.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856

It has been suggested elsewhere that NLA cemetery picture may depict the Pioneer Children’s Cemetery upriver from Partington’s Flat at Greensborough. However the Children’s Cemetery is on the east bank of the Plenty River. Standing on that bank the river runs south, downstream from right to left. Conversely Yallambie is on the west bank of the Plenty and when facing the river the valley runs from left to right. I would suggest that this is the fall of the land as depicted in the NLA Bateman cemetery picture.

Memorial plaque at the Pioneer Children's Cemetery, Greensborough.
Memorial plaque at the Pioneer Children’s Cemetery, Greensborough.

Furthermore, it has usually been asserted that the first burial at the Children’s Cemetery did not occur there until 1848, around five years before Bateman’s Plenty Station Set. The Italian Cypress trees in the NLA drawing are evidently too well established to have been planted in 1848, or at any time there after. If the NLA Bateman picture is to be considered as a part of the Plenty Station Set, then the trees depicted could not have been planted at the end of the 1840s.

But they might have been planted in the early 1840s.

Italian Cypresses were an early feature of Yallambee. George Alexander Gilbert drew cypresses and showed them as small trees in his pastel of Yallambee. The trees had grown considerably by the time Bateman came to draw them some years later in his Plenty Station Set.

YALLAMBEE by George Alexander Gilbert, c1850, elevated view of river, vineyard on side of hill rising from the river and house at crest of hill.
YALLAMBEE by George Alexander Gilbert, (SLV, H29575, http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/29449)
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VI by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station on hill with creek in foreground.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VI by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856.

Richard Howitt makes specific mention of cypresses during his 1842 visit to Yallambee, (“I noticed cypresses, R.(obert Bakewell) had raised from seed in abundance”) and surviving specimens of the Bakewell trees can still be found growing along the River landscape at Yallambie even today.

The inscription on the Bateman picture suggests the grave is in a garden somewhere. It obviously depicts the grave of a well-loved individual. This was a person whose loss was felt keenly and acutely enough to plant a grove of cypress trees within a garden setting around a grave and to construct a memorial over it.

When the nephew of Yallambee’s John and Robert Bakewell, the 11 year old John Henry Howitt came to Australia in 1842 with his parents, Dr Godfrey and Phoebe Howitt, it was in an attempt to improve the boy’s very fragile state of health by introducing him to Australia’s warmer climate:

“the Doctor [Godfrey Howitt] is anxious for a more salubrious climate to improve the general health of his family, but more especially, if possible to save the life of his eldest boy, to whom one more English winter would be certain death.” (Richard Howitt, Impressions of Australia Felix, 1845).

The move was ultimately to no avail as, after an initial improvement, John Henry Howitt died aged 12 in May 1843.

“The amiable qualities of this lovely boy, his high mental endowments, added to learned acquirements, which would have done honour to those far beyond his years…” (Obituary, Melbourne Times, May, 1843).

A year before he died he wrote the following touching letter to his cousin Alfred in Europe. In this letter, John Henry describes an extended visit to his Bakewell Uncle Robert at Yallambee, remarking, “I enjoyed it exceedingly”.

The letter also makes mention of the decline of John Henry’s own infant brother Charlie, his death on the 9th March, 1842 and of his burial in their father’s garden at Collins Street East. The letter is presented here in its entirety but to my mind it poses the question, just who was the lovingly regarded individual buried in the garden at Yallambee sometime in those early years of the 1840s?

Manuscript:
LETTER FROM JOHN HENRY HOWITT TO A. W. HOWITT
[1 MARCH 1842 — MAY 1842]

March 1st 1842
My dear Alfred, Are you alive and well, this and fifty other things I want to know about you; Anna Mary’s1 letters to Mamma did not say one syllable about you, I never thought I could have been so angry with Anna Mary who was so kind to me at Esher2 and in London, I felt very much inclined to wish her letters into the candle. I hope she will never again forget to write about you and I will forgive her this once. And I think you deserve a scold too, for you promised you would write to me as soon as you were at Heidelburg3 and give me a long account of its famous castle. Mamma has often told me when I wanted something to do to begin you a Journal but I thought I would wait till your letter came but I am at last tired of waiting. Today is very hot the thermometer 96 in the shade, just the heat that suits me. I was very poorly all last winter and kept almost entirely to the sofa but the hot weather has at last began to do me good, though I do not sit out of doors as I did last summer I get plenty of fresh air for we keep all our windows and doors open.

4th
Our dear little Charlie has many times been ill, he is cutting teeth; now he is lying quite still on Mamma’s lap and takes very little notice of us so different to when he was well. Oh what a fat merry little creature he then was; he has never been so ill before and Papa is very much afraid he will not get better. I don’t know what we should do without him he is such a very sweet entertaining little creature.

13th
When I began this journal I had no idea I should have such a sorrowful subject to write about Our darling little Charlie died on the 9th at 5 in the morning. He is buried in the garden. I shall put by this till we feel cheerful again.

"Dr Howitt's Corner" by Eugene von Guerard, 1862, showing the doctor's garden behind a brick wall on the corner of Flinders and Spring Street, Melbourne, (SLV).
“Dr Howitt’s Corner” by Eugene von Guerard, 1862, showing the doctor’s garden behind a brick wall on the corner of Flinders and Spring Street, Melbourne, (SLV).

17th
I have had such a pleasant drive to day, down to the Beach. The very sight of the sea did me good, it was extremely green with just the tops of the waves tiped with foam. Many ships, schooners, &c were lying at anchor at Williams Town. Three miles beyond the Manlius was in quarantine the Pathfinder with many of her sails set was tacking out of the bay; the Corsair steamer from Launceston was coming up, some boats close to us were pulling out to sea and famously they were rocked up and down. It was altogether a beautiful sight; I did long to be on board the Pathfinder for I believe another journey would do me good.

Hobsons Bay and Williamstown, Port Phillip seen from Sandridge (Port Melbourne) c1850, SLV.
Hobsons Bay and Williamstown, Port Phillip seen from Sandridge (Port Melbourne) c1850, SLV.

18th
Willie and Edith4 go to school now to Mrs Stevenson from half past 9 till 3 and they like it very much. Willie is reading Markhams History of England which have been very favourite books of mine. He is a much better accountant than I am but that does not say much for him. I had intended to learn Latin on the voyage but I have not begun yet in good earnest. I have no doubt you would think us all great dunces.

21st
To day the thermometer is 70. The sun is very bright and there is a most gentle breeze. I am sure you would think this a most pleasant country.

12th April
I have been staying 3 weeks at the Plenty with Mamma and came home yesterday. I enjoyed it exceedingly, all but the drive there and back which shook me too much. Uncle Robert5 made me a little carriage to ride in, and took me several short drives in it. I went to see some trees that Willie had felled when he was there as thick as himself which he had made a famous boast of. Uncle Robert has a very nice garden, it is down in a flat you go to it by a zig zag walk; his vines were 14 feet high.

2. "Dr. Godfrey Howitt's garden" [sic]", SLV.
“Uncle Robert has a very nice garden.”
They have abundance of Melons, the pigs are regularly fed on them; while we were there the dray and four bullocks brought up a load out of the garden, for the rats had taken a fancy to them there. The bell birds sing all day long at the Plenty; I like to hear them much better than the laughing jackasses. I read The Talisman, Old Mortality, and Ivanhoe while I was there which delighted me exceedingly and I am now reading Quentin Durward. As we came home we called at the Yarra to see Uncle Richard.6The river winds there very prettily, I had just a peep into the cottage but it did not look very clean I assure you. Mamma got out but I took my very notes sitting in the carriage.

29th
All the talk lately has been about the Bushrangers who have (?) in the Plenty district, the first there have been in Australia Felix. They are a party of 4 well armed and mounted, who have robbed more than thirty stations beside highway robbery, but their reign of terror did not last more than a week. They commit their daring deeds in broad daylight. Would you not think it extremely pleasant to be bailed up in a corner with some one standing over you with a pistol threatening you with instant death if you stirred; this they do while the other bushrangers ransack the hut of what they want and then are off to the next station. Two parties of gentlemen and a few of the mounted police went in pursuit of them, one of the party five in number at last got on their track and at Mr. Hunter’s the bushrangers were interrupted just as they were going to sit down to a breakfast of roast ducks. The gentlemen of the house having been ordered from table to make way for their superiors. When they saw the party in search of them they called out stand to your arms men, they then rushed out and fired a volley but in retreating to the hut the ringleader got separated from the rest and after a very desperate resistance, three of the gentlemen haveing been wounded, the man was shot in self defence. The other three after firing 60 shots at last surrendered and are brought in for trial.7 Uncle’s escaped a visit from these Bushrangers and only heard of them the night before they were taken.

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

29th
Edith has been a week at Brighton and is to stay 2 more. it is by the sea side. There is a nice firm beach. I dare say she will be fonder of running about on the beach than attending to her lessons, though Miss Ascham, a lineal descendant of Roger Ascham, is the teacher at Mrs Were’s. Little Johny Were is a very funny boy, he says he does so wish he was married his Mamma is so cross to him. He is only four years old.8

May
I have had a very nice ship sent me. It is not half complete in the rigging. I have been very busy putting Main Mizen and fore top gallant masts, flying jibboom, main fore and sprit sail yards, and in a few weeks I shall make it a complete model full rigged ship. It was made by a sailor who had not time to finish it. The length is two feet six. It is a four gun ship. Melbourne people are very fond of keeping birthdays. The children went yesterday into the country to celebrate one and they had a famous romp at hiding seek among the bushes. They went and returned in a tax cart and were in such high spirits. Edward intends to be a Doctor and Mrs Palmer told him she would have him when she was ill to cure her and he is quite set up about it. I read the papers every morning. There is generally some good fun in them. Such curious police reports. The Police Magistrate9 is very peremtory, so his name is a bye word here. “I’ll Major St John you”.

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

Judge Willis10 is very quarrelsome. In one case a little lawyer who had the boldness to address him was frightened out of his senses by having thundered in his ear “who are you, down sir, down sir, I say” and with this the little Man rushed out of Court upsetting every one in his way. So Tipstaff was not summoned to take him out. Even Teddy stands a little in awe of Judge Willis and Big Chin, Mr La Trobe’s messenger. But Judge Willis is a very good man though he is so cross sometimes. Willie, Edith and Edward join me in dear love to you Claude and Charlton and to Anna Mary.
Your very affectionate cousin,
John Henry Howitt

1 Anna Mary Howitt, sister of the letter recipient, Alfred.
2 West End home of William Howitt, John Henry’s paternal uncle. William visited Yallambee in 1852 and wrote about it in “Land, Labour and Gold”; father of Alfred.
3 In Germany, where Alfred was sent to be educated.
4 John Henry’s siblings.
5 Robert Bakewell of Yallambee; maternal uncle of John Henry.
6 Richard Howitt, brother of William. Richard visited Yallambee in 1842 and wrote about it in “Australia Felix”.
7 The first white men to be hanged in Victoria.
8 Jonathan Were, son of J B Were.
9 Major Frederick Berkley St. John.
10 The notorious Hon John Walpole Willis, who lived 5km south of Yallambee at Heidelberg; believed to have been a target of the Plenty River Bushrangers.

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:

Dear diary

Recounting the past can be a difficult exercise if we rely entirely on the memory carrying capacity of the cauliflower that sits between our ears. Two decades ago, at a time almost before the internet, I was advised most earnestly to start keeping a written diary at Yallambie. “It would make a good history,” was the assertion. I promised to do so but of course, in the years that followed, I never did. Looking back, it seems now like the passage of time has smothered the old cauliflower with something like melted cheese.

At some future date, should historians ever feel the need to consider the early years of the 21st century, the transient nature of today’s digital age may leave their vision blurred. Not so the written word.

In 2002 an old diary was found under the floorboards of Yallambie Homestead, bearing the title, “Yallambie Day Book, 1866”. That date predated the time of the building of the present Homestead but came from a time when Thomas Wragge was already active at the Bakewell property and probably sub leasing it to John Ashton. Winty Calder, author of the Wragge family history, “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, examined the diary in detail and discovered the book had commenced its life as a farm diary on the last day of 1866 but that after 1882 it had been used by another hand to record veterinary practices. The later hand turned out to be that of Henry Wragge, the brother of Thomas and of whom not much had been previously recorded.

Yallambie Homestead from the north west. Jessie Wragge on the left with her sisters, Alice and Annie on the right. This photograph is reproduced in Garden, "Heidelberg: the Land and its People, 1838-1900". The man is erroneously indicated there to be Thomas Wragge. Calder "Finding Uncle Harry" suggests the man was in fact, Henry Wragge.
Yallambie Homestead from the north west. Jessie Wragge on the left with her sisters, Alice and Annie on the right. This photograph is reproduced in Garden, “Heidelberg: the Land and its People, 1838-1900”. The man is erroneously indicated there to be Thomas Wragge. Calder “Finding Uncle Harry” suggests the man was in fact, Henry Wragge.

Henry Wragge, MRCVS, worked as a veterinary surgeon in Melbourne and Castlemaine and may have seen service in the Crimean War. He served on the first three boards of the Veterinary Surgeons Board of Victoria. He diagnosed pleuropneumonia in Victoria in 1858 and advised destruction of the affected herd, advice that was subsequently ignored by the government of the Colony of Victoria. The disease was not eradicated until 1970.

Henry died at Yallambie in 1898 but it was the finding of his written diary that allowed his history to become more widely understood. Calder published Henry’s story in her book “Finding Uncle Harry”, (Winty Calder, Jimaringle Publications, 2004).

Two men and dogs on the grass tennis court at Yallambie in the 1890s. The man on the left was identified in Calder, "Finding Uncle Harry" as probably Henry Wragge wearing his Victorian Volunteer Light Horse cap.
Two men and dogs on the grass tennis court at Yallambie in the 1890s. The man on the left was identified in Calder, “Finding Uncle Harry” as probably Henry Wragge wearing his Victorian Volunteer Light Horse cap.

The Victoria Branch of the Australian Garden History Society maintains an ongoing interest in the Yallambie Homestead area and runs occasional, much appreciated working bees in the Homestead garden. Their last visit was November, 2014 when about a dozen Society members spent a day working around the garden. A few weeks later, one of those members contacted me and said that although she had not realized it during the working bee, she recalled that she had been a visitor at the Homestead on an earlier occasion. That was in the 1970s, during ownership of the property by the Temby family. She had forgotten much of that childhood visit, including the location of the house, but remembered it when she saw an account of Yallambie written by Ethel Temby and kept in the files of the Heidelberg Historical Society.

Ethel and her husband Alan Temby came from Eaglemont to live at Yallambie Homestead in 1961, before the development of the surrounding suburb of Yallambie and at a time when the district still retained a largely rural character. The 6 Temby children enjoyed an idyllic life at the farm. Their horses grazed in Yallambie Park, asparagus gone to seed was cut on the river flat and an annual crop was gathered in from the old fruit trees in the orchard. Bee boxes were kept in the Homestead garden and in the park and the children took a keen interest in the native wildlife that lived in the surrounding area. A cockatoo was kept in the kitchen and was known to regularly perch on the ceiling beam from where it would chat to the family. Years later Ethel told of how she had once seen a tiger snake slide underneath the back kitchen door but the direction it was going was from the inside going out. On questioning, her sons admitted that they had trapped the snake outside the house weeks before and brought it inside to keep as a pet. It had escaped and been loose about the house for days. They hadn’t liked to mention this to their mother for fear of upsetting her.

Yallambie Homestead from the south, September, 1978
Yallambie Homestead from the south, September, 1978

Ethel loved the Homestead’s aged garden which had remained largely unchanged since the 19th century. Her contribution was to plant a forest of natives, mainly north of the house, her method being to scratch the surface of the old stable yard, cover it with a copy of The Age newspaper and plant a seedling into it.

The old pump house at Yallambie. From a Christmas card by Harry Ferne who lived in the gardener's cottage associated with this building in the 1970s.
The old pump house at Yallambie. From a Christmas card by Harry Ferne who lived in the gardener’s cottage associated with this building in the 1970s.

It was in or about 1980 that I saw Yallambie on the one occasion in my teens. A school mate and I were roaming far afield on bicycles and rode through Yallambie Park. We stopped to explore the old abandoned and deserted Homestead pump house that was at that time still standing on the river bank. At least my friend did. Like a goody two shoes, I stayed with the bikes and told him officiously he was trespassing while he climbed about inside, eventually to wave at me from a window on the upper level. While I waited I looked up at the elderly Homestead on the ridge and wondered who could possibly live there. Mainly the ghosts I thought.

The old pump house burned down soon after this. I hope my friend didn’t leave the gas on.

In 1984 Ethel Temby, by then a widow, sold the Homestead at public auction. I can remember my late father at the time critically remarking on the run down nature of the property. For 30 years an inspector for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, my father seemed to know a bit about the house. The antiquated water system at the Homestead was the bane of his working life. Although it had been connected to the reticulated water system in the street, this was only turned on when the levels in the Homestead’s tanks dropped, which was usually at the time of highest summer demand. The ensuing decrease in water pressure was a problem for the immediate neighbourhood, or at least for the water officer who controlled it.

Ethel moved to Phillip Island after leaving Yallambie. Two of her sons remained in Tarcoola Drive for a while, building mud brick houses near the Homestead that incorporated materials salvaged from the demolished Bakewell era stables. Ethel is remembered separately as a passionate conservationist and an advocate for social justice, especially in regard to the deinstitutionalization of the intellectually disabled. The Ethel Temby Research Grant is a study scholarship for health care workers, named in her honour. Ethel died aged 97 in 2012. Her account of Yallambie, written around the time of her departure in 1984, remains as a glimpse into the Temby family history of Yallambie.

A V Jennings real estate brochure from the sale of Yallambie Homestead, c1961
A V Jennings real estate brochure from the sale of Yallambie Homestead, c1961

YALLAMBIE HOMESTEAD
(The Temby family’s history at Yallambie, as recorded by the late Ethel Temby MBE, 1914-2012).
A house that is of interest only because of its architecture or its age is only a building – cold, impersonal, of no general appeal. A garden planned for display may please the eye as window-boxes do, but may yet attract no human response.

Yallambie was built as a home for Mr. & Mrs. Thomas Wragge and their three daughters (sic) close to 110 years ago. Except for three of those years it has always been a family home. It passed to one of the Wragge daughters and her husband and then to a grand-daughter and her husband, Mr. & Mrs. Cliff Bush. The Bush’s two children grew up there but as suburbia drew closer and closer the family sold the remaining 165 acres of the farm to the developer A. V. Jennings. For three years the house was empty and the garden suffered the looting that is often the fate of unattended places.

Photograph of "Yallambee" from south east by John T Collins, State Library of Victoria
Photograph of “Yallambee” from south east by John T Collins, State Library of Victoria

Jennings’ survey of the property cut through the house garden and pegs close to the verandah indicated that had they not found a buyer for the house it would have been demolished. In 1961 the homestead with 2 acres was put up for auction but without success. Some months later it was bought by Ethel and Alan Temby the present owners who were looking for a larger place for their family of six.
In the 20 years that the Tembys have been at Yallambie the area surrounding the homestead and the conditions of life at the house have seen remarkable change. Tarcoola Drive in front of Yallambie Homestead cuts through the old house paddock. Lambruk Court runs across the site of the stockyards and loading ramp. Just south west of the present house fence someone is living on the filled-in dam, once prolific with yabbies until poachers dragged it with nets. Jennings leased the paddocks to a cattle owner. There were water troughs in every paddock, no other houses were in sight and to reach the road (Lower Plenty road as it used to go across the old bridge), the family opened and shut five sets of farm gates.
18 years ago there was a sale of cattle at the yards and it is only 16 years since a pet sheep was torn to ribbons by a pack of feral dogs. There were three dogs often seen late at night on the slopes between the road and the house. The farm tracks were sometimes impassable in wet weather and the record long time to drive the 600 hundred yards from the road was 45 minutes of zigzagging over the grass.
From time to time the Tembys reared orphaned animals, and a kangaroo which seemed to like grazing with the horses would pound down the hill to the house when called. A wombat left her mark on a back door when she tried to get into the kitchen. The door still has its protective sheet of metal.

Folding brochure from land auction during subdivision of the Yallambie estate
Folding brochure from land auction during subdivision of the Yallambie estate
Folding brochure reversed
Folding brochure reversed

Before Jennings developed the surrounding area (10 years after purchase), the telephone was a private one which left the public line and crossed the river at the foot of Longs Road. The private line was low, supported on saplings and thin poles and in places crossed thickets of hawthorns. It frequently broke, mostly between the poles, so drums and boxes had to be perilously mounted while the wires were twisted together again.
Even the climate has changed with the coming of the houses. The combined warmth of so many dwellings has reduced the severity of the frosts. The hills no longer look nor feel like ski slopes. No tree now still has frost 50 feet from the ground at 11 a.m.
All this may seem incredible such a short time ago and only 9 miles from the G.P.O. but the Yallambie district remained rural long after most land surrounding Melbourne had long been developed. Today Yallambie (district, not Homestead) is in many ways like a country town and has something of the same sense of community. It is partly isolated by the Plenty River and the Watsonia army camp, and has only three access points – either end of Yallambie road and the north end of Tarcoola Drive. Many local residents refer to the Homestead as “the farm”.

Yallambie Homestead from the south east, September, 1978
Yallambie Homestead from the south east, September, 1978

The first occupants of the land by the Plenty were a tribe of Aborigines who had a permanent camp by a long deep pool on the river – it always had water and fish even in the worst droughts. The name Yallambie is an approximation of the Aboriginal word meaning place of shade, or shelter.
The first white settlers were two brothers, Robert and John Bakewell, who first held the land on lease from the New South Wales government. Very soon after, in 1840, they bought 604 acres.
The land is sharply divided into river flats and higher areas where the main stands of timber were of stringy bark. The higher land is banded with clay and mud-stone, but the river flats are rich alluvial soil, subject now to rare flooding. Before Yan Yean dam was built the floods were much more frequent. In those days the river earned its name and a timber mill operated by a water-wheel was built on the river across the wide flat below the homestead. In the 1960s its foundations were still visible when the river was low.

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.

The flat was established as a market garden and orchard and grew a great variety of vegetables. One of the former row of fig trees remains, (the rest were bulldozed by the Council several years ago), there are two walnuts and several other remnants of the orchard. The Bakewells grew grapes for the Melbourne market. These with other fruit and vegetables were taken by dray along Heidelberg Road. Heidelberg Road is the oldest road in the State and then had a toll where it crossed Darebin Creek. It is not known whether the Bakewells (who were Quakers) paid the toll or cheated the State as so many others did by pushing through the bush to a place up stream where the creek could be forded. The trip to market took two days at that time.
The Bakewells created a wooden house – a pre fab brought out from England. It may well have arrived with them. With its French windows it was particularly appropriate for the hotter climate and the lovely environment the brothers found. The Bakewells also had property near Tooradin and used to journey between the two places – a considerable undertaking then, and hour’s drive today.

Photograph of "Yallambee" from north west by John T Collins, State Library of Victoria
Photograph of “Yallambee” from north west by John T Collins, State Library of Victoria

In about 1870/71 Mr. Thomas Wragge, who had earlier bought Yallambie from the Bakewells, started building the present homestead. The original (pre fab) house appears to have been where the tennis court was later laid out.
A huge oak tree was probably an early planting by the Bakewells. The tree (from an acorn they brought?) is near the south-west corner of the present house. Perhaps as old as the tree – about 140 years – is the stump with remnants of white paint on it now almost completely in its shade. When the Tembys bought the house from A. V. Jennings the stump supported a sun-dial. By the time they took possession it had been stolen as had china finger-plates from some of the doors, and other things from the house.
But some pieces of history are hard to remove and the old hand-pump that raised water from a tank under the drive is still there, though no longer useable. Water in the underground tank comes from the roof and before the days of electricity or ice deliveries the butter would be hung in the tank to keep it cool in summer. In the 1966/67 drought the water was used to keep some of the garden alive, especially the old magnolia grandiflora. Part of the original square sectioned iron guttering that takes the roof water remains on the west roof of the house.
The tennis court must be very old because the area is now over-hung by huge branches of the big oak and of the buya pine (araucaria bidwilli). No one would have placed a tennis court under the bunya if it had been big. I drops very prickly leaves, large branches and every three years or so, huge, heavy, cones bigger than pineapples. The buya and many of the older trees were given to Mr. Wragge as seedlings by Baron Von Mueller when the famous botanist was at the Royal Botanic Gardens. There are some old fashioned garden plants and garden pests at Yallambie – some of them far too plentiful and seemingly impossible to eradicate. Ivy has killed several trees. Bindweed, some scrambling plants and onion weed are constant enemies. The ducks and bantams that used to keep down the insect pests and add life and colour to the garden have been massacred by neighbours’ cats and dogs. Four bantam hens remain. Bulbs, shrubs and trees were planted with forethought and at any time of the year there are flowers somewhere in the garden. Honesty, lilac, laurels, a big range of bulbs in flower from April to October, mock orange, flag iris, arum lilies, ixias and Sparaxis, michaelmas daisy, roses, wisteria, christmas roses, periwinkle and many others keep the succession going. There is always a patch of colour somewhere in the garden. The seemingly casual arrangement of the plantings creates corners out of the sun or shade or wind where a person can be alone to read or recuperate or talk with a friend. “A garden is a lovesome thing…”(T. E. Brown).

Photograph of Yallambie from south east by John T Collins, 1984, State Library of Victoria
Photograph of Yallambie from south east by John T Collins, 1984, State Library of Victoria

The water tower used to hold water pumped from the river. Its height gave the pressure for the water to flow around the garden and to the stock troughs. When reticulated water arrived at Yallambie it was linked to the concrete tank and was switched on in summer when the water pressure was low. The pump-house by the river was burnt by vandals about three years ago. Soon after the gardener’s cottage at the foot of the hill at Yallambie was also burnt.
Four generations of families have lived in the historic pile that is the present Yallambie Homestead. Four generations of children have slept in its bedrooms, slid down its bannisters, played in the garden, climbed the trees, ridden their ponies, watched possum and platypus, and had birthday and Christmas, coming of age, engagement and wedding parties in its big family rooms. Each family has made its own impact.
Mr. Wragge’s three daughters, in an era when young ladies painted or sewed and made music, each painted panels for the three doors in the billiard room.
In 1923 it was decided to modernise the house. Marble mantelpieces were torn out and smashed, the old staircase was removed and a big 23 step flight replaced it. In the bedrooms marble was painted to look like wood. Art nouveau did some terribly inartistic things. A brick wall with wooden doors in it enclosed the house garden. It was pulled down and replaced by post and rail, painted white. At this time the cellar was filled in with rubble and the billiard room extended, a bay window being added.
At some stage in the 1950s the National Trust looked at Yallambie, but to restore it would have cost a fortune even then. A figure given was £16000.
The present family has repapered walls that had 1920s style and colour, and painted to maximise light in a house that seemed to have been built to keep out the blistering Australian sun. Floors now do not have carpets screwed down with polished wood strips between. Mats on bare wood emphasise the spacious rooms. But Yallambie is not a showplace – just a family home with a mixed assortment of furniture to meet the family’s needs.
The architecture of the house reflects the emphasis on social class of a hundred years ago. The family rooms have curved window tops, the staff windows are square. In between are the minor curves of the butler’s pantry and the nanny’s bedroom. But the nanny’s room is the only bedroom with no fire place! Door handles are low on staff doors, higher on family doors. Perhaps this indicated an attitude to children. It kept them out of their parents’ hair but the staff could cope! And when electricity was installed there was no switch at the family end of the kitchen.
Now the mother of pearl capped bell pushers do not connect to the service board in the kitchen and if they did the woman who pressed the bell would have to run out and answer herself. Staff sitting rooms, bedrooms and bathroom lead off the kitchen – there is no light in their L shaped passage.
At one time Yallambie employed fourteen people including three gardeners who used to “make plants” in a glasshouse. The glasshouse has fallen down, but the present family still sow seeds and strike cuttings to make their plants. In 1962 there were only 4 Australian native trees or shrubs in the garden. The native ‘forest’ planting in front of the old stables has all been grown in the last 15 years. Only the northern section of the stables remain now. The dividing walls are of native rock, the back hand made bricks and the front and end the remnants of the original timber. The stables appear on a survey map of 1852. They probably date from the very early Bakewell days. Part is paved with rounded river stones.

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

The garden, the river flats and the house have all been used many times to serve the community. Garden and house party, sport day and literary luncheon have all been used to raise money for various purposes or just to bring people together. A Halloween party one year helped neighbouring Americans to feel at home. Churchill Fellows and high school students are among those who have gathered at Yallambie. Journalistic licence leads to imaginative detail – a recent press description of the house included “rusting tanks”, “shingle roof” and “tottering chimneys”. The roof is slate, we can find no rusting tanks, and no one need fear a tottering chimney. Some of the cement rendering has fallen onto the roof. Yallambie seems as solid a homestead now as it was a hundred years ago.
An effect of an old home and garden is to give a sense of being part of the continuity of life, of having roots in the past and prospects in the future.
The Temby’s family of 6 has grown with marriage and children to 16 so the family house built by Thomas Wragge in 1870 remains just that. It is a place all its families have loved.

Yallambie Homestead from the north west, September, 1978
Yallambie Homestead from the north west, September, 1978