For tens of thousands of years the presence of fire has been a reality check in this, the world’s smallest and outside of the Antarctic, the driest continent on Earth. Aboriginal people used these ingredients to their advantage in pre-history, regularly burning the countryside to reduce fuel loads and promote game in a practice we now call “firestick farming”. Early European navigators noted the smoke from the decks of their rolling ships and called Australia that “burning country” while remarking at the same time on the “park like” nature of its scenery. But it was no park. It was a carefully crafted mosaic habitat, created by the locals using a system of land management that had been learned and developed by their forebears over generations.
All human activity has the potential to force changes on the natural order and it seems likely that the Indigenous approach gradually modified the Australian landscape by promoting the spread of volatile, Eucalypt forest at the expense of naturally less flammable plants. The overland explorer of south-eastern Australia Thomas Mitchell observed that, “Fire, grass, kangaroos and human inhabitants seem all dependent on each other for existence in Australia. Fire is necessary to burn the grass and form these open forests in which we find the large kangaroos.” In the Pacific Rim, the extinction of giant flightless Moa birds in New Zealand and the whole sale destruction of the Rapa Nui subtropical broadleaf forests of Easter Island shows what can happen when humans get it wrong but generally Australia’s First people lived in a harmonious relationship with the land.
The Australian continent the Aboriginals sought to successfully control is a hugely fire prone land and nowhere is this more-so than in its South Eastern corner. A recent report by an independent assessment group (Risk Frontiers) ranked the top 10 fire danger post codes in Australia by risk potential and wouldn’t you know it? They are all located in Victoria. It’s a danger that might not have been fully appreciated by the initial wave of European settlers in the 19th century but with the end of Aboriginal land management, the bush was primed for what came next. In terms of the area damaged, the devastating bush fires that consumed much of the Port Phillip District on “Black Thursday”, 6 February, 1851 still stand as the most wide spread of the dozens of major fires that have occurred in the State of Victoria since European settlement. Over five million hectares of country burned and a million sheep were destroyed in 1851, while the comparatively low human death toll of 12 is perhaps only a reflection of the small and dispersed population of the Port Phillip District at that time.
“Fire commenced by the upper Plenty River when bullock-drivers left a smouldering fire behind them. Driven by strong, hot, north winds, it swept through the Plenty and Diamond Creek districts and close to Heidelberg before joining with other fires. Thousands of hectares of grassland were burnt; dozens of homesteads, woolsheds, bridges and shacks were destroyed; crops were lost and thousands of head of stock incinerated. Even though so close to the source of the fire, “Yallambee” escaped.”
(Calder, “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, recording the tale of the 1851, Port Phillip District bush fires.)
As remarked by Calder, John and Robert Bakewell’s Yallambee Park missed most of the destruction wrought by the 1851 fires although it is known that other properties in Heidelberg area were amongst those affected. Fire was an ever present concern in the colonial period and Calder records that a later fire may have been the eventual fate of the Bakewells’ original wooden “Yallambee” farm house although direct evidence of this beyond the anecdotal would appear to be slight.
“It has been claimed that there was a serious fire in 1866 which destroyed the Bakewell house.” (Calder, ibid, p77)
The Plenty River at Yallambie marks the boundary between two fire services, the Country Fire Authority on the Lower Plenty side and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade on the Yallambie side but fires are no observer of official boundaries. On Christmas Eve last year fire trucks raced up Greensborough Rd from here towards a fire in the Plenty Gorge near the Metropolitan Ring Rd while the month before, four fires started overnight in Lower Plenty and Viewbank between Edward Willis Court and Seymour Rd. We could see the lights of the emergency service vehicles from that fire flashing across the valley in the night and wondered what was up. It was confirmation if confirmation had been needed that even here in the suburbs the landscape is not without fire risk.
The deadly Black Saturday Bushfires 10 years ago will never fade from memory and most people living on this side of town probably knew somebody directly affected by the disaster, but as our news services continue to ring this year with the latest stories of the calamitous 2020 bush fires sweeping across the country right at this moment, it is the national scale and the sheer breadth of the disaster that makes this fire season stand alone. Virtually the whole continent is on fire in some part or in some place, burning even as I sit here, typing about it like Nero on his fiddle while Rome burned. You can smell it on the air and see it in the afternoon light. There is no escape.
So what can we do? Australia has just recorded its hottest and driest year on record. Again. Many now believe that it is human-caused global warming that has raised the severity of heat events and the associated dangers of wildfire by speeding up the annual drying of the rural landscape. The southern part of Australia has warmed on average by about 1.5° C since 1950 but try telling the politicians that there are consequences to pulling fossil fuels out of the ground with our opposable thumbs to fuel antiquated carbon emitting power stations and you will likely be met by indifference. Some reports state that the 2019/20 fires have already filled the Australian skies with two thirds of the nation’s annual carbon dioxide emissions and experts are warning that it may take forests more than 100 years to re-absorb what’s been released so far in this season. That’s assuming that in a hundred years we still have forests.
Addressing the British Parliament in July last year on the dangers of man-made climate change, Legendary natural historian and documentary film maker, David Attenborough said that, “Australia is already facing having to deal with some of the most extreme manifestations of climate change.”The sight of Sir David looking out from behind the lens of his camera in the future and saying, “I told you so” ain’t going to help us much but maybe, just maybe it might be the consequences of this season’s fires that will at last spur Australia into some sort of climate action. Sir David has long resisted attempts at politicizing his life’s work but at age 93 he’s going for broke and taking aim at government policies head on:
“We have to convince bankers and big business that, in the end, the long-term future lies in having a healthy planet. And unless you do something about it… you’re going to lose your money.”
So there’s the crux of it. Mention furry animals and trees and you will be met by stony silence from Government circles but talk to them about economics and potential damage to property, the financial sector and the danger to the quintessential Aussie way of life and you just might get some action. In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s series, the Golgafrinchams adopt the leaf as legal tender, burning down all the forests they find in order to avoid the rampant hyper-inflation of the currency that the presence of too many trees has created. The story was a jest, yes but possibly you know a Golgafrincham. I suspect there may be one wanting to stand as your member come the next election.
The sound of the dragon could be heard from afar as it neared, its approach shattering the brooding silence of the Australian bush as it waded in the dark, slow moving waters of the river with an unrelenting exactitude.
Whump hiss, whump hiss.
Somewhere above, a cloud of parrots scattered from the ancient River Red Gums that suspended gnarled shapes out over the river banks, the birds screeching in protest at the abrupt end of a quiet that had lasted time without measure.
The next moment, like a watery phantasmagoria, it turned a bend in the river and the “dragon” was revealed. A fiery Leviathan, it came on in a cloud of steam, breathing smoke and spitting sparks, its paddle wheels lashing at the languid waters of the Murrumbidgee with an erratic delivery somehow at odds with its consistency.
The Australian river boat steamer.
The story of the navigation of the waters of inland Australia is tied up with a conundrum dubbed the “Riddle of the Rivers”. It started with the spectacle of boats on carts dragged by explorers into dry sand hills and abandoned. It ended with an understanding of where all that rain water went that occasionally fell on the western side of the Great Dividing Range, a place that in another age of exploration might have been simply marked on the edges of a map, “Here be dragons”.
It was in this way that the putative Great Inland Sea of Australia was proved a myth and by the start of the second half of the 19th century, those dragons were taking shape in another form. Thomas Wragge’s arrival in the Colonies in 1851 was just two years earlier than the first experimental steam exploration of south eastern Australia’s inland river system and it coincided with that moment in time that saw the dawn of Australia’s steam age. This ambitious Nottingham farmer carried a letter of introduction to the Bakewells and soon began working for them at their various property interests, including of course “Yallambee Park” near Heidelberg. When the Bakewell brothers returned to England in 1857, Thomas became their tenant at Yallambee with the evidence of the certificate of his 1861 marriage to Sarah Ann Hearn describing him as a “gentleman” and a resident at the “Lower Plenty Bridge”.
Soon after this marriage, Thomas joined into a pastoral partnership with his brother William and his brothers in law, John and James Hearn and in 1864 the partnership purchased “Wardry”, a run on the Murrumbidgee River in New South Wales which they renamed “Uardry” expanding it to 32,000 acres by 1866.
Distance from the markets was a major obstacle to pastoral activities in the Riverina at this time and while Melbourne was the logical centre for business, bullock drays could take as long as three months to complete a return journey. In 1864 the rail line from Melbourne to Bendigo was extended to Echuca and the Wragge/Hearn partnership, which commenced operations that year at Uardry, found that it could transport wool to the Melbourne market by sending it on barges pulled by paddle steamers along the river to the rail head. A regular steam boat traffic developed on the Murrumbidgee, taking wool and other produce from the upriver stations, downstream to the Murray River confluence and from there upstream to Echuca.
In her book, “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, Winty Calder wrote:
“It is highly likely that the partners employed William McCulloch and Company as their transport agents as soon as they began operating from Echuca in 1865. Their (McCulloch & Co) paddles steamers took produce from Lang’s Crossing (Hay) to Echuca, from where they forwarded wool bales to Goldsborough in Melbourne”.
This journey involved a customs levy from the Colony of New South Wales at the Victorian border but it was still a practical solution to the problems of transport from the Riverina and preferable to the alternatives.
The impact of river boat traffic on the properties bordering Australia’s inland water ways at this formative period cannot be overstated. The feeling of isolation endured by the earliest settlers of the Riverina faded as the river boats brought in stores and mail, building materials and farming equipment and took away wool bales loaded onto barges into high pyramids greatly increasing the potential profitability of the inland stations in the process.
Of the partners however, only Thomas Wragge and his young family lived on the Uardry run. He and Sarah were there for three years in the early 60s and lived in a homestead, (later extended) that they built on the property.
For all this though, it seems probable that Thomas and Sarah never considered that the Murrumbidgee property was likely to become their permanent home for they maintained a lease on the Bakewell’s Yallambee Park throughout the 1860s and were negotiating for its purchase. Significantly, when the Wragges’ second born child, James died aged one year in April, 1864, the final resting place chosen for the infant was Warringal cemetery at Heidelberg near to Yallambee, not elsewhere.
Thomas Wragge and his family left Uardry and sailed for England in March, 1868. While Wragge had been sub leasing his Yallambee interests to John Ashton throughout much of the 1860s, it is possible that the visit to England was in some way connected to the death of Robert Bakewell three months earlier on Christmas Eve, 1867. It seems certain that it was on this trip that he visited the surviving brother, John Bakewell at John’s home at “Old Hall” north of Nottingham to finalise the outright purchase of “Yallambee Park” as it was on Wragge’s return to Australia in 1870, that the Wragge/Hearn partnership was dissolved and Wragge’s freehold title at Yallambee was established.
As recounted previously, in the 1870s Thomas Wragge’s pastoral ambitions then turned to another part of the Riverina plains, to an area between the Niemur and Wakool Rivers, both anabranches of the Murray, and to a property known as Beremegad which he renamed “Tulla”. The property would in time clock in at about 110,000 acres but at Tulla, with its closer proximity to the Echuca railhead, Wragge seems to have chosen bullock drays over river transport to move the station wool clips.
As colonial road and rail systems improved and expanded, the use of river steamers became less important and as the years went by, would fade almost into extinction.
Steamboat navigation on the anabranches of the Murray like the Wakool and Edward Rivers had been difficult at the best of times and more or less impossible in the dry seasons. Boats could be stranded for months in water holes when the rivers dried up but even when flowing, snags could trap ships at any time and in a flood, if the rivers broke their banks it was not unknown for river traffic to stray for miles off course, only to be left stranded high and dry when the waters subsided again.
Removing snags from the water obviously improved navigation but the practice also removed the habitat of native fish and other aquatic animals and changed the ecosystem of the rivers in the process.
The steamers’ enormous need for wood to fire their boilers, up to a ton of timber every two hours, was another factor in this change. The need for fuel saw the destruction of large expanses of river side woodland culminating in the gradual erosion of river banks and a subsequent further change to the river systems. Finally, the later introduction of locks and weirs to regulate water flows throughout the seasons and to feed the needs of irrigation was to forever change the ecology and flow of Australia’s inland rivers.
The golden age of the Australian river dragons is long ended. Today paddle steamer traffic in the Murray Darling basin is more or less limited to the tourist trade, but the changes that were made to the riverside environment remain. Section 100 of the Australian Constitution was intended to outline the Commonwealth’s powers regarding navigation on the inland river system and for the “reasonable” conservation of its waters for consumptive use, an outline that was made without the Green implications that the word “Conservation” might imply today. It’s an oft quoted clause today when the health of the Murray Darling Basin comes under scrutiny although until 1983 it was never tested in the High Court, and then only in the Dams Case of Tasmania.
Last week the taps were opened on a pipe line from the Murray River to the City of Broken Hill north of the Darling’s Menindee Lakes in a robbing Peter to pay Paul exercise of river systems management. As the Darling River dried up for the second time in three years, Broken Hill had been in danger of running out of drinking water, but while the pipe line will relieve the immediate problems of the “Silver City”, it will not address any of the underlying issues. In fact there is a concern that it will actually lead to less water in the Menindee Lakes, the previous source of Broken Hill water, as irrigators further up the Darling will have less obligation to leave water in the River for use downstream.
The eminent Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists which has a decade long history of commentary on the Murray Darling Basin said last month that their own studies have shown that environmental flows in the rivers are not meeting the government objectives and in at least one case, flows have actually decreased since implementation of the Murray Darling Plan.
The death of a million fish in January in an environmental catastrophe as parts of the Darling River dried up coincidentally coincided with the release of a South Australian State Royal Commission inquiring into the health of the Murray Darling River system. The release of the Royal Commission’s findings highlighted the problems associated with farming in the world’s driest continent and accused the Murray Darling Basin Authority, which had been formed a decade before, of gross maladministration of the Basin Plan and effectively proposed abandoning its principles and starting all over again. The MDBA had been charged to administer the Basin as a whole integrated system and to bring the rivers back to a sustainable level of health but in spite of billions of dollars spent, the Commission found that the original architects of the idea had been driven by “politics rather than science” and had ignored the potentially “catastrophic” risks of climate change.
The 2018/19 Australian summer that ended with the last day of February on Thursday has been officially acknowledged as the hottest ever recorded, with average temperatures coming in across the nation almost a full degree above the previous record, the “Angry Summer” of 2012/13. In a Bureau of Meteorology statement it was observed that, “This pattern is consistent with observed climate change.”
There is a fanciful theory which suggests that tales of dragons are the result of some sort of genetic memory of a time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth but be that as it may, the history of the domination of chimp DNA is brief by comparison.
In a world of changing climates, the availability and access to fresh water is likely to become one of the greatest challenges facing societies. In other places this could lead to armed conflicts across the borders of nation states but in Australia it is hoped that we will continue to do things a little bit differently. That old Australian approach, “She’ll be right mate” could stand us in good stead, even when everything is clearly not altogether alright. No doubt the conflict in Australia when it comes will be limited to a bit of argy-bargy about State borders and constitutional reform and might end up in the High Court or in a Federal Referendum, but in the end it will come down to one basic question.
The American writer Mark Twain is generally credited with that oft quoted weather maxim, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Twain was recorded as making a remark similar to this in the early 1900s with his words later paraphrased into the famous old adage but the fact is, the idea had first been espoused by Twain’s friend, the essayist Charles Dudley Warner decades earlier. Twain later borrowed the concept during a lecture tour and the mistake in authorship stuck.
The Twain attribution is an example of how a misrepresentation if told often enough, becomes fixed. The reality is the writer’s name itself was also a fiction but ask anyone who Samuel Langhorne Clemens was in life and you will be met with a blank stare, so with this in mind maybe old Sam won’t mind if I borrow a line from him right now.
“You know, everybody in Melbourne talks about the weather, but nobody wants to do anything about it.”
As our fossil fuel dependent power grid struggles to keep up with the demands of hundreds of thousands of houses across the state attempting to run electricity hungry air conditioning this summer, the talk has been all about the need to build a new coal fired power station, but wouldn’t you say that could be a case of the chicken and the egg?
It got me thinking about truth and the perception of truth in a globalized 21st century society. Any suggestion that the weather we’ve been having and that the associated record breaking temperatures that go with it might have anything to do with Climate Change or with Global Warming is evidence if evidence is needed that there will always be some people for whom denial is their first port of call. I’m told there is a difference between weather, which is what we have been experiencing, and climate, which is what has been changing, but the facts speak for themselves. We might be in need of a cool change right now, but there are still some around us who would have you believe there is no such thing as a changing climate, a belief which is at odds with all the scientific evidence and expert testimony to the contrary.
We live on a planet where climate has changed many times throughout prehistoric earth history, ranging from balmy warmth to long periods of glacial cold. The last Ice Age ended a mere 10,000 years ago and ushered in an era known to science as the Holocene. It may be no coincidence that in this era, the era that has seen the growth of the human species worldwide and which contains the whole of recorded history, there has been no full crash in climate on a world scale. If there had been it is likely that early civilizations would not have survived and I’m thinking we would not be here at this moment to blog about it on a World Wide Web.
The concern now however is that it may be the actions of humans that has started driving the Earth’s climate and that as a result we may be heading in a direction that will take us past what is an already natural tipping point to a place where too much is being asked of an inherently fragile climate system causing it to snap back in protest into as yet unknown territory.
It might seem like “An Inconvenient Truth” to him, but the leader of the world’s largest economy and by default the erstwhile leader of the Western World has said that he does not believe in Climate Change. End of story. The trouble is, although the boffins might generally agree on the reality of that Change, the jury is out on what this might actually mean in practice. Climate is such a tricky thing that change just one bit of it and the consequences become hazy. Some might say hazier than the sky over Beijing on a smoggy morning.
The emergence of a polar vortex of warm air over the Arctic last week actually drove cold air south which resulted in a record plunge in temperatures over the North American continent. One particularly worrying Climate Change theory anticipates an end to the Atlantic Meridional Ocean Current, the current which keeps European temperatures temperate and this would result in an overall drop in temperatures in Europe. So much for Global Warming.
In Australia we have our own Conga Line of Climate Change denying sycophants, many of whom seem to have found themselves into positions of political power where they maintain obstinately that there is nothing wrong with what we have been doing to this planet. While our economy in Australia is not on the same scale as elsewhere, we do have one of the highest per capita emissions of carbon dioxide in the world, the global effects of which are potentially equally as dangerous.
Much of Australia is classed as semi arid, a continent where climate is often variable and where frequent droughts lasting several seasons can be interspersed by considerable wet periods. Thomas Wragge who made a fortune running sheep in marginal country in the Riverina, made a success of these difficulties but chose to live at Yallambie after he purchased the Heidelberg property from the Bakewell brothers. His family gathered there before the Melbourne Cup each year and stayed there throughout the summer to avoid the worst extremes of temperature at their properties in inland Australia. Winty Calder noted the milder environment the family enjoyed at Yallambie in her 1996 book, “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” writing that:
“Another early purchase made by the Bakewells was land beside the Plenty River east of Melbourne, where the climate was (and still is) temperate. Rain falls throughout the year, with slight peaks in spring and autumn, and averages about 700 millimetres (26 inches) per year. The mean monthly maximum temperature is about 27 degrees C (80 degrees F) in January, but falls to less than 12 degrees (53 degrees) in June and July. The mean monthly minimum in February is about 13 degrees C (55 degrees F), and about 5 degrees C (42 degrees F) in June, July and August. Any frosts are light and snow is rare.” (Calder, Jimaringle Publications, 1996)
Yes, we’ve always thought it a lovely place to live here at Yallambie but thinking of the climate as something constant is misguided. The weather of our childhood might have felt like the norm but it was in fact a snapshot of a moment in climate history and by association different to what the early settlers found in Australia or indeed to what we are experiencing today.
I remember a time from my childhood when any temperature reaching into the 30s seemed like a heat wave. Now it is a temperature taken past 40. Across the river from Yallambie, the Lower Plenty Hotel in its bushland setting has an illuminated temperature gauge on its signboard visible from Main Rd. I photographed this at 6 o’clock in the evening last month when it was displaying 47° Celsius, or nearly 117° on the old Fahrenheit scale. I don’t know what the temperature might have been in the middle of that day but in the evening the temperature as displayed on the Lower Plenty board was several degrees above the official temperature when I checked it for Melbourne at about the same time.
A story in Domain last month would seem to confirm this. Of all the data examined from all the weather stations across the greater metropolitan area, the weather station at Viewbank right next door to Yallambie came in as Melbourne’s hottest suburb with an average annual temperature there of 20.9° Celsius. The Bureau of Meteorology puts this down to the distance of the suburb from the stabilizing influence of sea breezes but there is also something called the “Heat Island Effect” to take into consideration. The concrete and built structures of Melbourne absorb heat during the day storing it up like a heat bank, then radiating that heat during the night making the city warmer after dark. I’m guessing that it’s those same sea breezes mentioned by the Bureau of Meteorology that are then pushing the warmer air up the Yarra Plenty valley where it is trapped by the hills around the Viewbank weather station.
Trees can provide some form of relief – just take a stroll along the river under the trees in Yallambie Park on one of these warm afternoons to see my point – but as blocks of land in the suburbs are ever more reduced in size and more and more houses are jammed into the existing environment to increase the profits of the developers, the heat island effect is only ever increased. The answer they seem to have to this is to put air conditioning into those jammed in houses but these require electricity to function which in the past has been produced in greenhouse gas producing coal fired power stations. It is a situation that becomes self-replicating. A catch 22.
Yallambie Homestead with its high ceilings and 150 year old walls of solid double brick and plaster, located within a garden setting surrounded by numerous plantings of trees, manages to stay cooler in warm weather longer than most, but when it does warm up it retains the heat far longer. Another example of the heat island effect.
In my October 2017 post about “Conurbation”, I made brief reference to the heat island effect I had seen first-hand at Ocean Island in the Central Western Pacific. The story of Ocean Island or “Banaba” has always struck me as being like an ecological mirror of our own planet and if you can think for one moment about our fragile planet as being like a Pale Blue Dot cast adrift somewhere in the dark depths of space, then spare a thought for solitary Ocean Island sitting out there in the vast Pacific, all on its own.
Like the Pale Blue Dot, Ocean Island was the only home its native inhabitants had ever known. That was before the mining industry realized its potential. Roughly two square miles in area or to reference our subject, twice the size of Yallambie, an 80-year long phosphate mining industry in the 20th century reduced the island to a weedy, post-apocalyptic, post-industrial moonscape of broken rock and abandoned mining buildings and machinery. Unlike the inhabitants of the Pale Blue Dot however, a new home was found for the local people, the Banabans who were relocated to a small island in the Fiji group, much to the detriment of their heritage and to their identity as a Micronesian people.
The phosphate from Ocean Island was meanwhile used to green farm land in Australia throughout most of the last century, so look around you. There’s probably a little bit of Ocean Island below your feet at Yallambie even now.
The sacrifice of the island to the needs of an industry that aided an agricultural revolution in the 20th century resulting in the population of this planet increasing from 1 ½ billion when mining started in 1900 to 7 ½ billion and climbing today, is an irony. The industry left the island source of a small part of that revolution largely uninhabitable but even so, there is a bigger irony at work here. Should general industrial practices across this planet result in Global Warming and a rise in sea levels which is a fundamental prediction of many expert opinions, then ruinous Ocean Island as a raised atoll and politically a part of the Republic of Kiribati will be the only island within that nation that has the potential of remaining above those projected altered sea levels.
It’s a sobering thought and one that might see future peoples of low lying islands calling out the name of a certain American writer as they measure the water outside their front door. Whoever first spoke those somehow Global Warmingly appropriate words, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” the source doesn’t really matter now. It seems instead appropriate that the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, which found its origins from his years working on the Mississippi riverboats where a safe depth for passage was called out as two fathoms on the line – “by the mark twain” – could one day find another use. In years to come as the waters rise, we might all be hearing a bit more about the “Mark Twain”.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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”:
“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)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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”.
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 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.
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.
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).
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 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 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 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?
“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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 (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.
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”.
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)
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.”
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.”
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?