It was a name given to him affectionately by his fellow artists as a passing nod to his organized ways. They started out as a loose association in the mid ’80s in what was then semi-rural Box Hill, experimenting with plein air painting, but as suburbia overtook the artists’ camps along the Gardiners Creek they relocated to a new camp on “Mount Eagle”, at an old cottage at what is now Outlook Drive in Eaglemont near Heidelberg, cementing in our consciousness by doing so an art movement that would forever be remembered as the “Heidelberg School”, Australia’s first nationally focused art movement.
Typically it was Walter (Walt) Withers, The Colonel, who found them another home when the group moved from the Eaglemont cottage. In September, 1890 Withers arranged a lease on the late David Charteris MacArthur’s “Charterisville”, just to the south of Mount Eagle, and here he painted and taught while subletting the lodges to a procession of his fellow artists. The contemporary critic Sidney Dickinson named him, along with Arthur Streeton, as a leader of the “Heidelberg School”, which in Withers’ case was almost certainly an exaggeration, but there is no doubting his significant role within the group.
In the critical period between 1889-90, at a time when Frederick McCubbin and several others were still painting in a conventional style, it has been noted that Withers “was experimenting with a brave and confident impressionistic style” and that “he was probably the first artist to paint major works using techniques of impasto”, (holmes à court Gallery).
When the Heidelberg School artists dispersed to other places after those “Glorious Summers” of the late 80s and early 90s, it was the English born Withers who chose to stay on in the Heidelberg district and paint impressions of the Australian bush while the Australian born Streeton left to paint in foreign fields and the real leader of the Heidelberg School, Tom Roberts was lost to portraiture. Withers alone remained, the sight of his bicycle with canvas and painting box strapped on board becoming a regular sight throughout the Heidelberg district.
In 1894, with his wife Fanny and the beginnings of their family of six children, Walt leased another house in Cape St, Heidelberg where he taught painting while maintaining a city studio.
Four years later the Withers family moved again to a new home, “Withers Court” on the corner of Darebin and Hawdon Streets, Heidelberg and it was probably there or at Cape Street that the grown up daughters of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge took painting lessons from him, learning techniques they would bring to their home to paint selected interior joinery at the homestead.
Possibly it was a social as well as an artistic outlet for the Wragge girls. Their mother, Sarah Anne Wragge wrote cryptically and critically in 1898 in a letter that she believed her daughters weren’t learning much about painting under the artist’s supervision.
“So Jessie has finished her paintings at last, and I quite think with you that there must be more talk than work at that studio.” (Sarah Anne Wragge – her underline – quoted by Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales)
The weather boarded Withers Court house still stands next to the rail tunnel in Heidelberg near to where the current duplication of the rail line between Heidelberg and Rosanna is right now, in a way that is pertinent to this story, reshaping the surrounding landscape. It was the building of the original cutting and rail tunnel under Darebin Street that determined Walt to move his family from Heidelberg in 1903 to a new location in Eltham. A large rock, blasted from the Heidelberg cutting, had crashed through the roof of his studio and damaged the canvas he had been working on, making Walt’s mind up in the process that it was high time to move on.
The Withers family relocated to “Southernwood”, a small farm set on 2 ½ acres on Bolton St, Eltham opposite the Montmorency Estate where he built a large adjoining studio. Here he spent the last 10 years of his life, famously painting many scenes in and around Eltham while still continuing to roam further afield on his bicycle as the painting mood took him.
He was living there, dividing his time by spending weekdays at his city studio and his weekends with his family at Southernwood when one day in 1907 he headed off from Eltham on a painting expedition on the road to Heidelberg. The result of that day, a small, loosely painted plein air oil sketch, which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria alongside some other more well-known and polished Withers’ masterpieces, carries the somewhat misleading title, “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg”. The title has helped to obscure the identity of this sketch for a hundred years as the result of a close inspection of the painting, which is freely available to view online the NGV web site, has only now revealed some rather familiar details.
In 1907 “Heidelberg” would have been a somewhat generic term. The old blue stone, Lower Plenty Road Bridge marked the official separation of Lower Plenty and Main Roads but it was on the Lower Plenty or Main Rd side that Walt appears to have set up his easel that day to paint the sort of rural Australian scene so beloved by him.
The apparently anonymous building in the painting on the left side of the road is on closer study quite obviously a loose interpretation of nothing other than the old Plenty Bridge Hotel, the story of which has been recounted on several occasions within the pages of this blog.
From the service wing with chimney, set at right angles to the main building, the post and rail fence on the opposite side of the road and the poplars planted at the far end of the building – the details are all there.
It was a light bulb moment when I was looking at this painting on the NGV web site and realised what I was really looking at. Withers has painted the land fall past the front of the PBH towards the valley of the Lower Plenty River, showing the road stretching towards the approaches of the bridge, hidden by the bend, just as it is today.
It got me thinking and to doing a little reading. Two versions of a biography of Walt Withers written by his widow Fanny have been reproduced in Andrew Mackenzie’s 1987 book, “Walter Withers – The Forgotten Manuscripts”. The longer of these two biographies, somewhat misleadingly titled, “A Short Biography of Walt Withers”, was published by Withers’ fellow Heidelberg School artist Alexander McCubbin in about 1920. Together, the two biographies contain Fanny’s written descriptions of many of her husband’s artworks and reading through them they make for some rather interesting details in the telling.
In 1907 Withers had painted a major canvas which Fanny called “Springtime on the Lower Plenty”, or “The Valley of the Lower Plenty, Victoria”, the obverse of which contained a replica of another Withers work. The story of the main painting as explained in Fanny’s writing is confusing because she freely interchanges the titles of her husband’s artworks in the context of the two biographies, but from the description “Springtime” was obviously an enlarged, studio version of the NGV oil sketch. I use the third person singular indicative as sadly the painting was destroyed in a devastating bush fire at Eltham on Black Friday, 13 January 1939.
Fortunately another painting of the same subject but painted in the tones of Autumn, “but from another point of view” was started at about the same time as “Springtime” and was worked on by Withers on and off up until the day he died. This painting has been called both “The Return from the Harvest” and “The Valley of the Lower Plenty” which makes for more confusion but Fanny wrote that it was a favourite of the artist and the largest canvas her husband ever worked upon.
“Again a road subject, with three figures, swags on their backs, two together and one following behind, walking with swinging steps towards the small hotel, nestling amongst the trees, at the side of the road. The time is Autumn, and the colouring rich and full toned. This painting is the most romantic of the painter’s work. It was much beloved by him, and it was the last canvas he painted on, the sky being completed by him the day before he was seized by his last attack of illness.” (Fanny Withers writing in “The Life and Work of Walter Withers, Landscape Painter.)
The painting was purchased and gifted to the Geelong Art Gallery which inexplicably today does not keep it on current display. It is some years since I saw the painting in the Geelong gallery myself and my memory of it is vague but clearly from the above description the painting is another image produced from painting expeditions to the countryside around the Plenty Bridge Hotel.
Recent attempts to gain a viewing of the original of this artwork at Geelong have been unsuccessful. The very poor resolution reproduction from the Gallery shown here does not allow for an observation of “the small hotel, nestling amongst the trees” described by Fanny but it does give a general feeling of the landscape on the western approach to the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge. In this painting the trees on the left hand side of the picture mark the southern boundary of Thomas Wragge’s Yallambie and one is left wondering whether the three swagmen returning “from the harvest” and painted by Withers might have been itinerant field workers going for a drink at the Plenty Bridge Hotel after a long day working in the Yallambie fields.
Maybe Walt even dropped by the Homestead that day to pay a visit to his former painting students, heading off with Sarah Annie’s husband, Walter Murdoch for a drink, as was Murdoch’s want, at the Plenty Bridge soon afterwards. It’s a thought.
Plagued by ill health later in life, Walt Withers died at Eltham of cerebral thrombosis on 13th October, 1914 aged just 59 years.
His daughter remembered him as being six feet tall in his socks and solidly built, with brown hair slightly curling at the sides, big, soft, hazel eyes and a large, bushy moustache. He is buried in the church side graveyard at the Rose Chapel (St Katherine’s), St Helena.
Writing in the forward of Andrew Mackenzie’s book, Kathleen Mangan, the daughter of Charles McCubbin wrote of the Heidelberg School artists that:
“…it was a time of freedom of spirit, gaiety, and great artistic and intellectual advancement, a glorious burst of artistic achievement which erupted into flame at the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties, a flame that was all too quickly extinguished by the Outbreak of World War One.”
The Great War was only two months old when Withers died. The artist mantra in the district passed to others, the colonies at Montsavat in Eltham and the Heide Circle at Bulleen becoming just two expressions. A story from the Heidelberg Artists Society of an incident involving artists during the Second War has a certain relevance to the Yallambie story. It is recorded that one day around 1940, two painters had set up their easels in the vicinity of Banyule Rd when a farmer armed with a shotgun and accompanied by a couple of enormous dogs arrived on the scene demanding to know their business. The artists were dressed for painting in Army disposals – slouch hats and blue boiler suits – while from a distance their easels might have been mistaken for surveyors’ tripods.
At that time the Army had just resumed a part of the old Yallambie Estate nearby to create Camp Q (Watsonia), now known as the Simpson Barracks, and the unnamed farmer feared that a survey heralding a forced annexation of his own land was about to take place. Summing up the relative sizes of the farmer’s firearm and the jaws of his hungry hounds, the artists wisely packed away their easels for another day, the decision possibly a loss to art but a gain for rural diplomacy in the district.
The association of the work of Walt Withers with the story of the Yallambie area joins the tradition of the earlier pictures of A E Gilbert and E L Bateman and the writings of Richard and William Howitt and Louisa Anne Meredith. For all that, the work of Walt Withers has fallen somewhat out of favour in recent years. Not one of the paintings he produced in and around the Heidelberg and Eltham districts and that are now in public ownership are currently on display at the galleries. “The Return from the Harvest”, AKA “The Valley of the Lower Plenty”, described by Fanny as “the most romantic of the painter’s work… much beloved by him” and likewise the NGV’s oil sketch “Springtime” must remain therefore, at least for present time, unobserved.
Heightening this unfortunate circumstance is the reality of the danger posed to the artists’ footsteps by the plans of the North East Link Authority, a subject and side subject of this blog in recent times. The location of the two Walt Withers paintings discussed above stands under direct threat of the potential building of a Corridor B through Yallambie and Lower Plenty. The tranquillity of Walt Withers churchyard grave at St Helena would be broken by the building of a Corridor C. And the implications of Corridor A on the legacy of the Heidelberg School in Banyule goes without saying.
Does anybody care?
His paintings largely forgotten, his Plenty Valley and Heidelberg subjects at risk of being despoiled by the road builders – poor Walt, “The Orderly Colonel” must be turning over in his St Helena grave.
Legend has it that a dozen years or so before the founding of Melbourne, a South American pirate by the name of Benito Bonito took brief refuge at Port Phillip while on the run from the Royal Navy with the stolen “Treasures of Lima” in his hold. There in a cave at Pt Nepean it is said the pirate hid a fabulous hoard, sealing the entrance afterwards with an explosion of gunpowder. As you might expect from such a story, Bonito reportedly met his end soon after at the end of a rope hanging from an English yard arm but be that as it may, one thing is certain, the so called “Lost Lima Treasure” was never seen again.
Many doubted the origins of the tale and indeed whether Bonito had ever been anywhere near Port Phillip but the story persisted, gaining some currency 20 years later when a man turned up in the new settlement at Melbourne claiming to have been a cabin boy on Bonito’s pirate ship. Sporting a map tattooed onto his arm as a supposed proof of the existence of the pirate treasure, the old sailor found willing ears and wishful thinkers in the infant township. The map itself was no doubt a fake, used to con free drinks from gullible patrons in Melbourne’s early shanties but it did fuel an ongoing hope in the improbable. Numerous gopher holes soon appeared in the sand dunes at Pt Nepean, the work of would be treasure hunters or what is more likely literally true, eternal optimists.
It was the visiting American writer Mark Twain who once said that the history of Australia “does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies,” and further west along the Victorian coast another story, the legend of the “Mahogany Ship” sits somewhat nicely into this same category. It too involves a story of early map making and forgotten voyages into Australian seas, but in the case of the Mahogany Ship, the origins of the story are placed even earlier.
The legend of the Mahogany Ship revolves around the reported siting of an ancient shipwreck on the beach at Warrnambool in the 1840s. Contemporary eyewitness accounts described it as being of “antique design” of “hard dark timber – like mahogany” and sitting high in the sand dunes at a considerable distance from the high water mark. By the later years of the 19th century the shifting dunes had covered the wreck and its remembered location had been forgotten but by one count, 27 different eyewitness reports had been recorded and it was later speculated from these descriptions that the wreck had been a 16th century Portuguese caravel, lost on the south coast of Victoria during a voyage of discovery by Cristóvão de Mendonça in 1522. The theory goes that knowledge of the voyage and the maps made during it had been suppressed due to the Portuguese operating in what had then been deemed to be Spanish waters under the Treaty of Tordesillas, and that any other evidence was subsequently lost in the Great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. To further the story, an ambiguous French copy of a Portuguese map purporting to show a Great South Land, “Jave la Grande” survived at Dieppe and this has been used by advocates of the Mahogany Ship story as confirmation of its truth ever since.
Mendonca aside, there is no doubting the importance of having a good map to find your place in the world and when Captain Cook arrived on the east coast of Australia in 1770 without one, the uncharted Great Barrier Reef very nearly caused his ruin off the coast of north east Queensland. With HM Bark Endeavour holed and fast taking on water, disaster loomed as Cook showed an almost uncanny presentiment to find the mouth of the Endeavour River, the only place for miles around where he could possibly beach his ship for repair. Some adherents to the Mahogany Ship story have suggested that Cook’s ability to navigate through treacherous reefs to safety owed more to his knowledge of ancient Portuguese maps than his own 18th century sailing ability, a suggestion that almost certainly does Great Britain’s greatest navigator a disservice, but it makes for an interesting conspiracy theory all the same.
Any study of the past inevitably involves map making and Yallambie is no exception. The Bakewells had a survey of their farm at Yallambee drawn up in the early 1850s, probably at a time when they were contemplating a return to England, and this map has appeared several times within these pages. It is a useful primary source and by comparing the information contained in it to the modern setting it is possible to draw some interesting conclusions about the layout of the Bakewell farm and the context of E L Bateman’s drawings within it and this, for the importance of the record, is worth affirming.
As has been stated in a previous post, it was the belief of the Wragge descendant, Nancy Bush that the original Bakewell cottage was located where the tennis court was later built, the foundations of the house presumably ending up as the starting point of her family’s grass court surface.
A second residential building stretched in a northerly direction up the slope and was connected to the cottage by a trellis covered walkway with a third building, marked as a kitchen wing on the survey map, placed at right angles at the far end. The location of these additional buildings is now largely buried under the floors of the Wragge era Yallambie Homestead.
A fence across the kitchen yard enclosed the southern end of a large building marked “dairy” on the Bakewell plan and this building was located where the smaller, present day Yallambie dairy stands to this day.
Another Nancy Bush belief held that the original cellar was located under the dairy and in Bateman’s Plenty Station View III which shows the southern end of this building behind the cottage, there would appear to be some sort of underground access into the side of the far building to confirm this.
North of the structure marked “hothouse” on the plan was a stable yard with a large stable block located on the eastern boundary and this building was still standing into the early 1980s when a modern mud brick home was built to replace it. Beyond the stables was a tool house and rick yard with a shrubbery and William Greig’s old hut and garden completing the picture within the immediate surrounds of the house.
The North East Link Authority when it made its bombshell announcement at the start of August about smashing a Freeway through Yallambie, released their own map of their plans but anyone who has tried looking at this map has found that it remains frustratingly unclear about the real intentions of their strategic planners. Their web site is little more than a sales pitch which studiously avoids any attempt at revealing too many facts while the so called pop up community consultation meetings that have been staged at various locations across the community have been even less use, an equal part spin and sometimes downright disinformation. At one of these recent meetings it was stated that a diamond shaped corridor B interchange at Lower Plenty Rd would go under the river and not over it and that it would be located on the eastern side of Main Rd. Oh, but tellingly that, “nothing has been decided”.
The lads at North East Link seem to have taken a leaf out of Nietzche’s book who famously said, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” The unstated fact is that trucks using the anticipated interchange would certainly require a grade of no more than 4%, so it is an impossibility to take the road in a tunnel under the Plenty River while still arriving at a meaningful level to connect access roads to Main and Lower Plenty Roads. Taking a road under the Plenty River flood plain would also involve tunnelling through a geologically unstable water table requiring constant pumping throughout the life of the road. My interpretation of the proposal is that if built, (perish the thought) the intention of North East Link is to exit the tunnel near the corner of Binowee Avenue and Moola Close, Yallambie and cross the Yallambie Flats on an elevated flyover and that saying otherwise is just a further attempt to draw a smoke screen over the whole exercise. Should corridor B ever be given the nod, when it comes to the crunch the engineers would wade in, the spin doctors would stand aside and the practicalities and liabilities of their plan would finally be admitted.
As the Herald Sun reported in a front page story on Wednesday, the full effect of a similar solution to another transport problem is only now beginning to be understood as the reality takes shape in Melbourne’s southeast.
Just picture for a moment a road of at least six, but more likely eight lanes stretching across the Plenty River flood plain, but if you can’t, here’s a digitally altered image of a picture I took of the landscape three years ago to give you an idea.
And just for good measure, the survey map used above but this time with corridor B splashed onto it in all its glory. Absurd as it might look, I think it is likely to be one of the more truthful representations of this unlikely proposal up to date. It’s a large file so click on it for the detail. You might even see your own roof somewhere in there.
It is part of an obvious attempt not to reveal too many facts about any of the proposed routes of North East Link before a final announcement is made later in the year. The late inclusion of corridor B within the proposal I think has a lot to do with the perceptions of Yallambie’s place in the world, or at least perceptions of the suburb in the eye of the authorities.
In the September edition of “RA”, the magazine of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria, there is a four page article detailing the North East Link proposal complete with a generalised map by way of illustration. Interestingly the article states that “broadly, NELA has been looking at three possible routes for the proposed freeway,” going on to explain what in effect constitute the options for corridors A, C and D. The route for corridor B through Yallambie doesn’t rate a mention. The implication is that in real terms, corridor B serves the same business model as corridor C but that the Yallambie/Lower Plenty route has been belatedly included as something slightly easier to digest than the unpalatable Eltham option. I expect most people who heard about Yallambie as an alternative to the Eltham route last month had to then go and look up Yallambie on a map because in cartographical terms, when it comes to your place in the world, it’s all about where you draw the line.
If you drive along the top end of Bell Street in West Heidelberg today, an enormous apartment block is right now fast reshaping the landscape, sitting there like a latter day QE2 beached on top of the ridge. This apartment block carries the moniker “The Ivanhoe” in large, friendly letters emblazoned across its Upper Heidelberg Rd frontage and the building has been described by the property developer as being located in the suburb of Ivanhoe. The project website, obviously aimed at an overseas market, describes the suburb of Ivanhoe as “a sanctuary of leafy green streets, parklands and river walks with a strong sense of community and belonging.” The thing is, this description belies its location on the west corner of busy Bell Street and Upper Heidelberg Road. The location of “The Ivanhoe” is actually West Heidelberg, or at best Heidelberg Heights, to use the jargon of real estate agents. The border of the suburb of Ivanhoe ends at Banksia Street but it seems nobody stumping up the money to live in one of these apartments wants to wake up one day and find them self suddenly living in unfavoured West Heidelberg. The solution, just move a line on the map. Do you think anyone will notice?
North East Link obviously think nobody will notice when it comes down to the nitty gritty of moving lines around a map of their proposed corridors. It’s all about what you reckon you can get away with. The State Government has vowed that one of these suggested routes will have traffic thundering through it in the early 2020s but like Benito Boninto rampaging up and down the Peruvian coast, the Pirates of the North East Link aim to wreak havoc and destruction on impacted communities without so much as a by your leave. The explosion of gunpowder used in a cave at Pt Nepean will be nothing compared to what they have in mind. To them, communities and the people living in them are simply arbitrary boundaries – mere lines to shove around on a map wherever they want – an inconvenience to their plans best not discussed within delicate hearing.
The story of the 16th century Mahogany Ship and the presence of Captain Cook on the east coast of Australia in 1770 long ago entered the blurred line between historical fact and legendary fiction but in the years to come, how will we look back on the Pirates of the North East Link and the last months of 2017? Will the anger and bitterness that these road proposals raised be remembered or will their legacy live on in history as a postscript to the main story, the forgotten doodles in a road planner’s imagination?
“But the plans were on display…”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a flashlight.”
“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.”
Thus Arthur Dent learned at the start of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy of the plans to destroy his home for a new road.
“It’s a bypass. You’ve got to build bypasses.”
This week the State Government through the guise of its North East Link Authority dropped a bombshell. It came right out of left field and landed in the solar plexus of the Yallambie community, catching all and sundry totally by surprise. As I listened to the news of this exploding shell broadcast on early Monday morning radio, I couldn’t help but think I had been weirdly trapped inside a scene from the chapters of a Douglas Adams’ science fiction farce, but this was no laughing matter. Secret proposals have been going on behind closed doors at North East Link and while nobody has been looking, somebody just moved the goal posts.
The North East Link Authority, charged with finding a route for the missing piece in Melbourne’s road system, had just announced a choice of four alternative routes to fill the void in that network. Wikipedia has long listed three of them, an eastern option from the Western Ring Rd to East Link via Kangaroo Ground and Chirnside Park, (corridor D); a central option from the Ring Rd to Eastlink via Eltham and Warrandyte, (corridor C) and a western option from the Ring Rd to the Eastern Freeway at Bulleen via Watsonia and Viewbank, (corridor A). But a fourth, previously un-thought of route has unexpectedly been thrown into the mix by the lads at North East Link. Their so called corridor B. The B is for bomb.
In essence corridor B is an afterthought. Maybe even a Furphy. A bad and cynical attempt to wrong foot opposition to an already unpopular road by dividing discussion. If built this unexpected option would be a disaster for Watsonia and Yallambie and would completely and utterly destroy the Lower Plenty township to boot.
The unique landscape at Yallambie and Lower Plenty has remained largely unchanged since the 1840s and was recognized and classified nearly two decades ago by the National Trust. Who could possibly think the idea of exiting a tunnel over this landscape and filling it with a spaghetti of connecting roads could be a good idea in this day and age? The corridor B proposal aims to smash a gaping hole into all of it (literally) by taking a route off the Greensborough Highway through Watsonia and the northern borders of Yallambie, almost certainly compulsorily acquiring and demolishing the homes of countless families in the process, before plunging underground along the existing electrical easement and spewing out of the ridge directly in front of the Yallambie Homestead. If that old and fragile building does not fall down from the vibrations during the underground blasting process of building the tunnels, then the combined effects of over a hundred thousand vehicles a day travelling on it will.
There are practical considerations for the builders’ of these roads not tunneling under rivers so the proposed corridor B route would presumably follow an elevated flyway across the Yallambie Flats, obliterating the existing soccer ground if not the tennis club in the process before crossing the Plenty River opposite the Lower Plenty Hotel and ripping the heart out of the Lower Plenty township itself.
You can forget ever having another drink at the Lower Plenty Hotel while marveling at its unique bush land setting.
You can kiss goodbye the Heidelberg Golf Course and the adjacent green wedge of the historic Edward Willis landscape. This proposal is an utter disgrace and would be a catastrophe for this area.
And just for good measure, for those who worry about such things, you can forget about selling your real estate right now. Your house has just become unsellable overnight by the mere mention of this road. So much for Yallambie as the 6th most “in demand suburb” in Australia.
What could they have been thinking? Who are the Vogons who dream up these ideas without a by your leave and then try to back pedal them as a realistic alternative to an existing transport problem?
But no, that’s not the end of it. The road they call corridor B would then travel through the back of Lower Plenty for an unspecified length before heading back underground again only to emerge and bash a path through the edge of Warrandyte and Donvale at Reynolds Road in order to meet up with Eastlink. How many communities do these planners plan to destroy along their merry way?
I was a child growing up in Rosanna when the battle lines were first drawn up in the 1970s to stop construction of what was then known as the F18 Freeway. That road aimed to carve a surface route through the back streets of the former City of Heidelberg. I might have been a kid but I remember the adults around me mobilising public opinion, attending protest rallies and vowing to lie down in front of the bulldozers if it came to the point. The years have moved on and those remembered adults of my youth are now all dead but still the fight marches on and into another generation.
I’ve been writing regularly in these pages for three years about the merits of this very special corner of the world. My writing has been an attempt to draw attention to Yallambie, its natural beauty, its historic stories and the fantastic lifestyle to be enjoyed while living on the lower reaches of the nearby precious Plenty River. I’ve mentioned in these pages the possibility of a North East Link more than once, the last occasion in my May post of this year. In my wildest dreams though I never imagined for one moment that this hot potato would fall out of the fire so close to home and that the decision makers would pull this one on us like a Yallambie rabbit out of a hat. It might be sleight of hand but they’re not fooling anyone.
Let’s call a spade a spade and call this proposal for what it is. An absolute turkey that has only been suggested now to deflect attention because of the real fight the government knows it will have on its hands with the other routes. The other corridors have been on the cards for many, many years and local groups opposed to them are well organised and ready for the fight. Before last week this had never even been suggested as an option for Yallambie and the local communities in Yallambie, Lower Plenty and elsewhere have been caught completely unprepared. It is insulting that residents have had to find out about this proposal from the newspapers and radio news. Yallambie is a small suburb and we have always had a small voice, but what consideration has been made for the people living here and elsewhere and for the birds and wild life, the historic landscape and the special bushland setting? What of beauty and nature and all those things that make up life in one of the best living environments in the city of Melbourne?
North East Link proposes to destroy all of that unless we make ourselves heard.
Stand up and have your say now. If we leave this until it is too late it will be no use complaining when you wake up one day to find yourself living in a car yard.
This morning I woke before the sunrise and lay in bed worrying while I listened to the dawn chorus of singing birds. Would the bell like sounds of the King Parrots soon be replaced by the noise of a hundred thousand vehicles a day spewing from a hole in the ground like the legions of Mordor? As if in answer to my question a lone kookaburra joined in with a tune, the ensuing laughter of its call ringing loudly in my ears. Maybe the kookaburra had been reading those newspapers. The North East Link Authority’s Monday announcement was driven off the front page the next day by a story about the Opposition Leader, a crayfish and the company he keeps. It’s good to keep these things in perspective.
Luckily for Arthur Dent, he was able to hitchhike a lift from a passing spaceship to escape the destruction of his hometown by the bulldozers. The rest of us are not so lucky. The decisions made on Melbourne’s road network in the near future will effect this city and the people living in it for generations to come. The destruction of communities in order to build these roads will look pretty stupid when Peak Oil has stopped vehicles in their tracks and left nothing behind other than a hole in the ground and an inter-generational debt with a fiscal and social implication of almost unimaginable proportions.
Some games require a considerable investment in sporting equipment. Others can be played on the fingers of one hand. One game in popular culture is famously played on thrones, but of all games there is one that beats them all hands down when it comes to capital expenditure in real estate terms.
Golf – it’s been par for the course with players since knobbly kneed Scotsmen first started hitting a Featherie around the Highland moors with a big stick. It is a game that has uniquely always required a real lot of realty to establish all the holes and fairways and the bunkers and greens that are part and parcel of making up a golfing links and therefore, perhaps not surprisingly, the district around Yallambie has usually been pretty well supplied with golfing options.
Of these options, the Grace Park course to the north “…all sand scrapes… you could lose your ball on the fairway,” (Eric Barclay), vanished 50 years ago into the suburban sprawl but of the others, the Heidelberg and Rosanna Golf Clubs, whose names seem to contravene their Lower Plenty existence, have happily endured to the south.
The early story of the land on which these two Lower Plenty courses now stand was recounted in the last post, largely through the words of James Willis who kept a diary of his brother Edward’s squatting activities on the Plenty River in 1837. That brief squatting era was over before anyone quite noticed it had happened and the Willis brothers moved on, Edward to an eventual career in Geelong and Richard onto the Plenty River upstream. Following their departure the land on the west bank passed from 1842 into the hands of John and Robert Bakewell at “Yallambee”, but what of the land on the east bank, on the ground that made up the greater part of the Willis run?
That story resumes in 1839 with the survey of land east of the river by Assistant Surveyor T H Nutt and its subsequent sale in 1840 by the Crown. Portion 11, which covered most of the present Lower Plenty area, passed through the hands of various speculators before it was bought by Patrick Turnbull, a Melbourne merchant and pastoralist. Although Turnbull did not live on his land he did clear, fence and stock it.
In the early 50s, the Lower Plenty end of Turnbull’s east bank property was purchased by John T Brown who established the Preston Hall estate of 365 acres on which he practiced dairying and general agriculture. Brown had come to Australia in 1841 and was reputed to be the first man in Victoria to breed Clydesdale horses.
In 1855 Brown built a homestead on a ridge overlooking the (Old) Lower Plenty Rd Bridge. It featured a large, overhanging red flagged and plaster lined verandah on three sides with door and window openings to the floor and was well constructed from handmade, slop sided bricks purchased by Brown on the Melbourne wharves. These bricks had been brought to Port Phillip from Scotland as ballast in the clipper ships and similar bricks had been used across the river in outbuildings at nearby Yallambee. It would be interesting to know now whether Brown and the Bakewells, who were near neighbours and whose houses were within sight of each other across the Plenty valley, purchased some of their bricks in partnership.
In the 1870s, after the local population petitioned for a State school to be opened at Lower Plenty, John Brown offered the lease of an existing slab hut on his property for use as a school building which opened there in 1874. The building must have been pretty unsatisfactory for the purpose and was replaced in 1877 after being described in that year by the Lower Plenty school teacher, Mrs Gay, as large enough to accommodate only a dozen children.
“The slabs which compose the sides of the building are all one and two inches apart, and the shingles of the roof are so decayed that there are holes in it one and two feet in circumference.” (Elizabeth Gay quoted by W F Henderson in School at the Crossing Place, 1974).
This hut is recorded as having been located near what is now the south corner of Old Eltham and Main Roads and from these descriptions it was obviously already an old building in 1877. Was it therefore the shingle roof slab hut built by the Willis brothers 40 years before? Slab buildings were a common form of primitive utilitarian architecture, much favoured in the earliest years of the Colony, but it is an intriguing speculation all the same. As stated in the last post, after leaving Lower Plenty James Willis relocated to the original Bridge Inn on the Plenty River crossing at Mernda, a building that was of similarly rude construction. Last month it was announced that Heritage Victoria is conducting an archaeological dig at the Willis site which is expected to “shed light on Mernda’s rich heritage and help us understand land use and early community development in the area.” (Yan Yean State MP Danielle Green, quoted in the Whittlesea Leader, 16 June, 2017). Perhaps the archaeological boffins could be persuaded to come and have a similar prod around this neck of the woods one of these days, sometime soon.
In 1884, Brown sold Preston Hall to David Thomas, a partner in Craig, Williamson and Thomas, well-known drapers on the corner of Flinders and Elizabeth Streets, Melbourne. Thomas died shortly afterwards but in 1887 his widow, Mary Thomas realized their ambitions by building a new and substantial red brick home standing adjacent to Brown’s then 30 year old homestead and which was connected to it by a breezeway. Mary Thomas called the new homestead Bryn Teg, a Welsh name meaning “small hills” and its 10ft wide halls, lofty rooms, polished joinery and large lead lighted windows were complemented by a substantial blackwood staircase overlooked by a stained glass window, all of which bespoke luxury.
The widow Thomas has been described as a Scottish, “rather prim, stout lady” who lived on quietly at Bryn Teg for the next 40 years. Near the end of her life the Lower Plenty School reopened with a class room inside an old freestone barn building located behind Preston Hall and a former pupil would later recall that the old lady made sweets for the school children in groups:
“We would all eventually get a turn. In the hot weather she would make home-made lemon syrup.” (Henderson, ibid)
Mary Thomas died at Bryn Teg in August, 1925 and the homestead was put onto the market by her executors. At that time the “Heidelberg Club House Co Ltd”, which had been formed from the earlier Yarra Yarra Golf Club at Rosanna, was looking for a home for a new golf links north of the Yarra. In 1927 they paid £13,000 for the late Mrs Thomas’ home which also included 177 acres of land and famously the freehold title on the nearby Plenty Bridge Hotel.
A new course was laid out and opened on 23rd June, 1928 by the Prime Minister Stanley Bruce who on that day congratulated the club for the absence of any suggestions of golfing snobbery and for its stated ambition to “encourage ordinary players”. Over the years various modifications at Byn Teg were made by the Heidelberg Golf Club to fulfil their clubhouse requirements in a changing world. Preston Hall vanished altogether while other than some surviving interior wood work, tiled fire surrounds and lead light, Bryn Teg all but disappeared under these modern alterations.
The Heidelberg GC was formed from the Yarra Yarra GC and that last mentioned club, with a few ups and downs, continued at its 101 acre site alongside the railway line between Rosanna and Macleod stations for the next 30 years, changing its name to the Rosanna Glen or Rosanna Golf Club along the way. However, in a process that has continually plagued the viability of golf links in the suburbs, in 1962 after rates and taxes increased in one year from £3000 to £10,000, the land at Rosanna was considered to be too valuable for the club to continue on that site. A decision was made to sell the Rosanna situation and 139 replacement acres were selected just down river from the Heidelberg GC astride the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers. This was the south-east corner of George Porter’s old Cleveland Estate, owned at that time by the Bartram and Rank families. Negotiations were cordial and conducted between the Manager of the Rosanna Club, Norm Turnbull and the vendors with a nod and a handshake.
“Mrs Bartram, when a verbal agreement was reached between them, accepted a gentleman’s word as his bond, but he felt money should change hands to make the negotiations legal, and Mrs Bartram then consented to accept ‘sixpence’ to seal the contract” (The Rosanna Golf Club, W R Trewarne, 1980)
One wonders if that earlier Turnbull, the 1840s Patrick (probably no relation), conducted his real estate dealings in a similar easy fashion.
The new home of the Rosanna GC was opened by the State Governor of Victoria, General Sir Dallas Brookes on 27th March, 1965. The final cost of the course and clubrooms at Lower Plenty would ring in at about £125,000 with Heidelberg Council eventually coughing up $975,000 in 1968 for the former Rosanna links to be developed as a housing estate.
As an aside relevant to these pages, when the old Yarra Yarra/Rosanna Club House at Rosanna was demolished during the development of the Rosanna Golf Links estate, salvaged bricks from the building were used to build the Yallambie Kindergarten (now pre-school). The Yallambie Community Association had been involved with Heidelberg Council in the creation of the kindergarten project and money being short, local councillor and architect Harry Pottage, sourced second hand building materials from the former golf links at Rosanna. The Rosanna club house at Lower Plenty burned to the ground in 1974 and afterwards was completely rebuilt so in a sense the memory of what was once their first club rooms lives on at Yallambie.
The net result of the presence of these two golf courses at Lower Plenty has been the retention of hundreds of acres of Willis’ former run as open land, but in the face of economic change, how soon will it be before this situation becomes untenable? The decision by Heidelberg Golf Club nearly 20 years ago to sell the former site of the Plenty Bridge Hotel which resulted in a fight with the developer over the building of Edward Willis Court, eventually landed in a hearing at VCAT where it was revealed that the decision to sell had been governed largely by financial pressures facing the club.
More recently over at the Yarra Valley Country Club in Bulleen owned by pokies king Bruce Mathieson, an ex mayor of Manningham and developer, Charles Pick has revealed a plan to build a 217 home housing estate in what can only be described as a slight of hand where it is proposed that private golf course land subject to flooding along the river would be exchanged for public land in a prime position along Templestowe Rd. At the same time and in a worrying sign of things to come, the Victorian State government announced a new study to look at “the value of golf courses and alternative land use development proposals”, the reality of which may mean moving the boundary of the “Green Wedge” beyond the urban fringe to release land currently locked up in golf courses.
It’s all part of a property boom in Melbourne that is not without its parallel in history. In the 1880s, prior to an economic collapse that ravaged the Colonial economy and sent many people to the wall, society marvelled at the changes that had occurred in Melbourne in the 50 short years since settlement. “Marvellous Melbourne” they called it and to the people who lived through it, there seemed to be no end in sight to their prosperity or to the growth of the city founded in 1835 on the banks of the Yarra River by the Johns, Pascoe Fawkner and Batman.
The current bull market in Melbourne real estate reads like a road map of that old story as an unfailing belief in the safety of capital in bricks and mortar drives change in the built landscape of the city and suburbs. Here in the north east, multi-purpose towers in Heidelberg and Doncaster and the $31 million “Taj Mahal” Council building in Greensborough are part and parcel of a boom where fortunes are being made but apparently never lost and where it is hard to remember sometimes not only what was on a corner last year, but occasionally even last week.
In concert with this process the prices of existing houses soar in a spiral driven largely by a foreign investment bubble that continues to exclude many first home buyers while eluding approximately one third of people in general. Clearance rates at auctions in the north east are running at above 80% and when REA Group Ltd released its “Group Property Demand Index” for June, listing the Australian suburbs judged by it to be in highest demand nationwide, Yallambie was recorded at number 6 overall. Seriously? When I saw this reported on the television news last month I had to do a double take. Even a triple take. The data is based on views of property listings on realestate.com.au but the first sentence from the very first post on this blog in August, 2014 came back to haunt me:
“The glazed look that creeps across a face when you tell someone you live in Yallambie is the motivation behind this blog.”
Where’s Yallambie? Perhaps they meant a Yallambie in some other State? Or maybe on another planet?
But no, a new record for Yallambie was recorded last month when a modern home at Macalister Boulevard inside the “Streeton Views” subdivision sold for a staggering $1.67 million, $430,000 beyond the reserve. The agent for the sale said afterwards that the price was more reflective of sales in Heidelberg, Macleod and Viewbank.
“I think that Yallambie has been undervalued for a long time,” Mr Kurtschenko said. “When you compare it to the surrounding suburbs, you can get a lot more for your money.” (Heidelberg Leader, 13 June, 2017)
The median house price in Yallambie according to CoreLogic remains at $715,000, less than all of the neighbouring suburbs bar one. Rosanna ($980,000), Viewbank ($922,500), Lower Plenty ($905,000), Macleod ($830,000), Montmorency ($782,500) and Greensborough ($720,000) all have greater median prices than Yallambie. Only Watsonia ($701,500) has less.
Banyule Council has always treated Yallambie like the poor relation that these figures would imply. The road works on the corner of Yallambie Rd and Tarcoola Drive described in my April post have now been “finished” but as this photograph indicates, the road makers have asked water to run up hill. The nearest storm water drain is south along Yallambie road up a slight incline and near enough is no doubt good enough when it comes to Yallambie. Maybe the sale in Macalister Boulevard will change their perspective, but I think not.
Meanwhile over at the other end of town, the ghost of Mary Thomas looks on and sips her lemonade with presentiment as deals are made and developers decide which part of the green sward they will cut up next. The immortal PG Wodehouse was writing with an ironic understanding of a game he loved, but might well have been thinking about developers when he wrote:
“He enjoys that perfect peace, that peace beyond all understanding, which comes to its maximum only to the man who has given up golf.” (PG Wodehouse –The Clicking of Cuthbert)
“The Plenty he described as a rivulet of fine water, but running through a deep ravine which made access difficult. He considered the land very favourable for sheep runs.” – D S Garden describing Governor Sir Richard Bourke’s assessment of the Plenty River from a visit Bourke made in March, 1837, (Heidelberg – The Land and Its People, MUP)
If the Wurundjeri were relieved to escape from the 1835 “treaty” with John Batman in which they had allegedly ceded a country half the size of greater Melbourne for a few blankets, tomahawks and mirrors, they might well have taken a moment to look at the fine print of Governor Bourke’s pro bono reasoning.
It was not the obvious inequity of the “deal” that unsettled Bourke but his belief that the Wurundjeri Aboriginals did not “own” the land on which they stood and on which their ancestors had roamed bare foot for tens of thousands of years. His reasoning was that in real estate terms, it was not by rights theirs to sell. The devil was in the detail of this decision for in the process of making it, with the single stroke of a pen it removed the last obstacle to an inevitable and inexorable influx of British settlers to the Port Phillip District. As a direct result of Bourke’s decree, pastoralists armed doubly with muskets and the notion of terra nullius came across the Straits from Van Diemen’s Land and overland from greater NSW seeking new pastures for their flocks in this reportedly “unoccupied” territory. The open, fertile and well-watered country they found waiting for them around the Yarra and Plenty River valleys was an attractive proposition to these men who, for a £10 annual licence fee, could occupy as much Wurundjeri country as they then thought fit.
One of the earliest of these pastoralists was Edward (Ned) Willis whose story as a squatter on the lower reaches of the Plenty River in 1837 has been briefly mentioned in these pages previously. Edward was a young man, not yet turned 21 when he arrived with his brother and uncle and more than 600 sheep in the surf at Pt Gellibrand in Port Phillip Bay on 13 April, 1837. Edward and his brother James had been driven away from their home in Van Diemen’s Land after James quarrelled with their father, Richard Willis of Wanstead in the island’s north. Edward soon brought his sheep to the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers where he created a sheep run which stood opposite or perhaps even bordered land that would later form the south eastern part of Yallambie.
What has not been mentioned previously in these pages is that Edward’s brother, James Willis, kept a diary for five months while pursuing these endeavours. As a document written mostly on the east bank of the lower Plenty, it makes an exceptional companion piece to the “Farm Day Book” kept by the land owning settler William Greig on the west bank at Yallambie three years later. Similarly its content stands as a counterpoint to the description of Willis’ run made by Thomas Walker in his 1838 published account, “A Month in the Bush of Australia”. Like Greig’s story, James diary is filled with the thoughts and frustrations of a well born young man struggling to come to terms with a rough existence in the Australian bush and it remains as a fascinating glimpse into the life of one of our earliest Port Phillip pioneers. The extracts used here are reproduced from the Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 6 where the diary was published in its entirety.
The diary starts on 9 April, 1837 with the brothers Edward and James Willis and their Uncle, Arthur Willis embarking on the voyage across the Straits from Van Diemen’s Land to Port Phillip where they came ashore on the 13th. Uncle Arthur left the party soon after to arrange his return to Van Diemen’s Land while Edward and James led their shepherds, John Stockly and John Fletcher, by a circuitous route north of the settlement to the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers which they reached on the 18th led there by “Old Tom”, a shepherd working for another squatter, John Wood.
18th April, 1837
Edward and I with our guns started on foot to woods about a mile off, where we procured the assistance of old Tom the shepherd, who conducted us to a creek about two miles off running in a northerly direction. We pursued its course for three miles and found it to be a permanent steam.
We crossed it and came to our present one, which although rather thickly timbered we have every reason to be satisfied with. It is bounded in the South and the East by the Yarra. The stream I have alluded to forms its western boundary (which we call Edward’s Rivulet, but I perceive the surveyors have on their charts dignified it by the name of the ‘River Plenty’), while on the North we have a forest called by us Epping Forest.
Such is the spot selected by Edward for his place of residence for four or five years at the least, when it is hoped he will be able to leave this savage life and move once more among civilised beings…
His employment here during the day is that of a common labourer, and at night he is in momentary dread of losing all he possesses in the world by the attacks of the wild dogs of the country, his ears being alternately regaled with their hideous howls and yells, the squeaking of the flying squirrels, the corkscrew-like noise of the possums and the gloomy monotonous note of that frightful bird the ‘Mow Pork’, which “concord of sweet sound” is not unfrequently accompanied by the reports of our firearms and the shouts of ourselves and men to frighten the dogs from us.
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were employed in erecting a yard at Wanstead, the run (so called after a place of that name known to us in Van’s Land) and clearing a ford over Edward’s Rivulet.
James’ estimate that they had travelled three miles upriver before crossing the Plenty would seem to place them squarely opposite Yallambie. However, it is likely that this estimate and other distances mentioned later by James are a little inaccurate, especially when considering the trouble likely encountered moving alongside the unmapped river and struggling through forest and a still virgin countryside. The west bank of the Plenty upriver from the Yarra confluence is overlooked by a steep escarpment so it makes sense that they travelled some distance before attempting a crossing. It seems more than likely that the first crossing place therefore was south of Yallambie at the ford near the end of Martin’s Lane which would over the next few years become the first access route into Eltham and beyond. Edward and James apparently were working in advance of their shepherds since the crossing with the flock and the horse and cart was not attempted until the 22nd.
22nd April, 1837
Set out from Wanstead – reached the ford – crossed with the sheep but found the banks too steep to get the horse and cart over. With spades, axes and tomahawks we commenced digging away the bank on each side, but finding at noon that we still had a day’s work before us, we walked the horse over and carried the contents of the cart across. We then loaded the empty cart by means of a rope into the stream and fastened the horse to it on the opposite side with ropes and traces.
This plan failed as the horse had no power of draught, so we were forced to pull it out the best way we could. This method succeeded, though not until we had been tugging and pushing and bursting ourselves for about three hours. This Herculean labour being accomplished, we reloaded the cart and ascended the first rising ground, when we found about a quarter of a mile from the ford, the yard which Edward and Stockly had built the day previous.
Erected our tarpaulin into a sort of gipsy-looking affair to shelter us from the dews of heaven, and after a hearty meal of damper, bacon and tea we lay down to rest, and although our sleeping place consisted but of the rudest possible contrivance, and in a country equally wild looking, we both declared in the morning that we had had visions of feasting and dancing, of splendid apartments, of beautiful women and of delicious music flitting before us all night.
I could hardly avoid a slight shudder when I first awoke to see a huge mass of food lying close to me, which one of the men with a beard ten days old asked for, calling it ‘the damper’. Verily it was a damper to the delicate state of my feelings at that instant, but it was but for an instant, for I presently commenced an attack upon it myself and thought it very good feeding for a beggar as I then was, and still am…
James’ diary makes many references to their food resources, or rather lack of them, and to his “beggarly” status. On the 23rd April he “caught half a dozen very fine black fish, decidedly the most delicious fish I ever tasted”, and on the 4th May he ate an eel which Edward had caught in the river, “our bacon being all expended.” A sickly ewe had earlier been butchered and although it “proved very poor meat”, “Fletcher made us sea pies of it so long as it lasted, a great treat to us.” On the 15th May they enjoyed another “very splendid sea pie” the preparation and eating of which was described in the following way.
…Viz, two kangaroo rats, two quails, four parrots, one wattle bird, two satin birds (of the magpie species) and a few slices of pork.
It was served up in a large black iron pot and was most delicious – poor Ned was filling his plate a second time. He took some pains to select the most savoury morsels and was just emptying the last spoonful of gravy when the log on which his plate rested slipped and its contents were deposited on a heap of ashes, and great was the laughing at the fall thereof, the dogs being the only animals benefited by the display of Ned’s taste in helping himself…
The destruction of Edward’s meal on this occasion wasn’t the only such instance of loss recorded in the diary. Al fresco dining at their camp was a matter of necessity and not a matter of choice.
Dull and miserable – at supper this evening Fletcher made sundry attempts to light the lamp before he could succeed. The night was dark and cloudy and there was some wind. The light resisted the puffs of wind until we had all seated ourselves round the table when to infinite confusion, and as I was in the act of cutting a slice of pork, out went the light, away flew the candlestick, which Fletcher had perched upon a huge tin dish and had placed on the weather side of it a board, by way of protecting the luminary from sudden gusts – I rose with the laudable desire of assisting Fletcher in re-lighting the lamp, for I saw that his stock of patience was nearly gone, my knee struck the table which was not proof against this unexpected shock, it gave a lurch, tottered, and fell, when the pannikins of tea, the pork, damper and rice, together with the plates and knives and forks were all thrown in wild disorder all around us.
The wind now abated considerably and we succeeded in keeping the lamp alight which revealed to our view a most delectable chaos. A scramble ensued, in which the dogs persisted in joining, and it was with difficulty that we managed to satisfy ourselves with the fragments rescued from their devouring jaws.
House-keeping in the absence of a kitchen, or for that matter a house, could be a bit of a hit and miss affair. James described the trial of their situation thus:
…It would amuse some of our friends in Van Diemen’s Land to take a peep at us. We take our meals in the open air unless the rain be so violent as to wash the tin plates and pannikins off the table, which cannot be put upon legs until placed in the hut we propose to commence next week – it is at present supported by four logs about six inches from the ground, one of which, the thickest, serves us as a seat on one side.
Our fire is in front of us with a kettle of tea, tea pots being superfluous at Port Phillip. We are surrounded by three or four hungry dogs watching for a mouthful. There is a lump of salt pork in a tin dish, and a damper weighing about twenty pounds, sometimes relieved by a few birds and fish, the latter very seldom now. The men sleep under the tarpaulin, which also protects from the weather a cask of pork and divers other stores.
Our tent is pitched a few yards off, one side is piled high with flour, sugar, tobacco, and our two trunks placed one on the other, form a dressing table covered by a thing intended to look white, its original colour, but being spotted with ink, gunpowder and a variety of other ingredients which have occasionally dropped thereon, together with drops of rain and marks of dust, it would at present be a hard task to convey to anyone the pleasing diversity of colour it presents to the admiring eye of the beholder. We think at some future period of getting it washed.
Our mattresses are laid on the ground, each with a gun case along its side by way of uniformity. A sheep skin serves for the carpet, a trunk of books for a chair, a bag of soiled linen at night keeps the door closed. My writing desk is now my pillow and I am half reclining, half sitting at it. If I am in want of a bright thought, I have only to turn to the right and cast them on a bar of soap or a bag of sugar.
Sleeping beside their gun cases, the brothers’ firearms were apparently always near at hand and it seems, at least by the evidence presented in the diary, were almost constantly in use. In part, the diary reads like a litany of terror for the native birds and wildlife of the lower Plenty as they shot at virtually anything that moved in the surrounding neighbourhood, all of which seems to have gone into their cooking pots. On the 17th May James wrote that they, “Had a stew of birds for supper – capital tho’ it would have been all the better flavoured with ketchup.”
On the 24th James was practicing his shooting on a stationary target when he experienced a mishap while using a small pistol.
…On Sunday while Edward was in town I amused myself for half an hour by practicing at a target with a pistol, cleaned and reloaded it. Took the pocket pistol – found difficulty in pulling the trigger – loaded a second time with buck shot. The pistol burst in my hand, the lock and barrel flying in one side behind me, leaving nothing but the stock (split across the trigger) within my grasp – fortunate to escape – might have caused my sudden exit from this world of woe.
This happened on the Sunday but significantly James took three days before he wrote about his brush with death in the diary. Instead, what he did write about the following day was a description of his bitter feelings towards his estranged father Richard Willis and the family feud in Van Diemen’s Land that had resulted in their exile and which had caused James so much personal unhappiness.
This state of things cannot last. Some fearful crisis is at hand. Some impending calamity awaits our family. I dread to conjecture when any father’s unnatural conduct will have an end – he has driven all his sons from his roof… but I grow disgusted at the very remembrance of it – I have already polluted this sheet of paper with the name of a father who loathes the sight of his child – of a husband who does anything but honour and protect his wife, who outrages her feelings and strives by every possible means to render her home as miserable as it should be happy…
The near death experience with the exploding pistol had caused James more than a little self-reflection. His father, Richard was by some reports a somewhat “difficult” man. The Australian Dictionary of Biography states that Richard Willis managed to quarrel with most of his neighbours in northern Van Diemen’s Land in the 1820s and 30s and also that, “unpopularity may have been a factor in his decision to return to England,” permanently in February 1839. Whatever the cause of Richard’s quarrel with his son, there is no doubt that it affected the boy deeply.
…Ned and I smoked a cigar and retired for the night. Talked of friends in Van Diemen’s Land. I lay thinking until three o’clock in the morning – went to sleep – dreamed I was not a beggar.
As stated previously, James refers to his beggarly status on several occasions in the diary, displaying a wry sense of humour in this self-assessment and describing his pecuniary problems with the following diary entries.
…Some are born under a lucky star, and some an unlucky star. None of the former could possibly have been shining at my introduction into life. An income of some four or five thousands a year would make this world to me a very beautiful world, but as it is I have ever found it as much the reverse as possible…
And this entry two weeks later, although by this time his money needs would appear to have almost doubled:
I was very industrious – sitting on a bucket turned upside down and watching the embers of the fire, thinking of a thousand things, I often am inclined to think there must be some mistake about my present condition. I fancy I could spend so amazingly well an income of five or ten thousands. What a delightful thing it is to have a command of money. How easy it would be to make people patronise you. What an excellent nice fellow I should become all at once. The magical influence of that same filthy lucre is truly surprising. I believe I never shall be a rich man – I have a sort of presentiment that it cannot be. I shall never be able to do more than earn a subsistence – drag on a mediocre kind of existence without having any very beautiful visions to look back upon, such as delicious music, captivating women, grand and mighty cities and a thousand pleasures and enjoyments that can be procured by money and when once seen one may almost live upon the remembrance of them.
It’s has been said said that money isn’t everything but at times James wrote of a desire to remove himself completely from his current situation:
Very wet. Drawing logs for the sheep yard. Hard work, as well as dirty, lifting those same logs. Smoked a cigar, went to bed – wished myself anywhere but at Port Phillip.
And a few weeks later he wrote again, this time wishing himself back in London while sarcastically contrasting his dreams with his daytime labours and the “intellectual conversation” of their shepherds:
…Our ears were regaled some two or three hours with the highly intellectual conversation of John Fletcher and John Stockly the shepherds. Warmed my toes. Went to rest much edified – dreamed of Aborigines – building chimneys –sheep – split stuff – and London.
The joys of living under canvas through a Port Phillip winter quickly palled on the Willis brothers. James was at the settlement in Melbourne, “which at present consists entirely of turf and weather boarded huts, a very primitive looking place” and staying at John Pascoe Fawkner’s board and lodging house where Fawkner’s “one-eyed, genteel wife makes things as comfortable as one can expect,” eating her “curry which was of rabbit and certainly excellent”, when a terrific storm hit the District. James in Melbourne wrote that “the thunder and lightning (was) the most terrific I ever witnessed. I congratulated myself on being comfortably housed and thought of poor Ned at the Inn.” Edward’s own subsequent tale of the confusion at their Plenty River camp was duly recorded in the diary by James:
He said it must have been about ten o’clock when in a sound sleep he was awoke by a desperate rush in the sheep fold. At the same instant he heard the two men shouting and hallooing in the most vehement manner, and one flash of lightning which illuminated the tent was followed by a deafening clap of thunder. He sprang from his bed expecting to find all the sheep scattered and an easy prey for the dogs, for so dark was it that you could not see beyond your nose.
The first thing he did was to cheer the men by his voice. Another blaze of lightning for some moments blinded all three of them and they reeled about insensible. Fletcher ran against a tree, a branch of which had wellnigh ripped his bowels open, and then measured his length on the ground where he lay several minutes in momentary expectation of being swallowed up by the earth. Stockly at a short distance from the yard called Fletcher to open the gate, for he thought he was driving the sheep before him, when undeceived he ran up to the fire and enquired ‘whose fire that was’, his hair literally stood on end, he was in his shirt and presented a picture of the most unutterable despair.
During the time the rain descending, the wind blowing and the repeated peals of thunder was such as to appal the heart of a lion. Fully convinced that the wild dogs had got among the sheep the men shouted, yelled and uttered every variety of noise to frighten them away. They both behaved uncommonly well throughout, but such was the tremendous war of the elements that they anticipated nothing short of an earthquake as they declared to me afterwards.
Suddenly it became fair and they found that Master Bush, one of the sheep dogs, in his alarm had jumped in among the sheep as if he sought shelter from them during the dreadful convulsion. Edward stood some minutes at the door of his tent and on reviewing the scene he had just witnessed could scarcely refrain from laughing when he saw the two men in their shirts running about like maniacs they knew not whither with their hair standing on end and bawling, squalling, shouting and screaming in the most frightful manner and falling prostrate on the ground, and then tumbling over a log. Another, mistaking the fire he had just left for some strange fire, fancying he was driving all the sheep into the yard when he called out to have the gate opened. A few of the sheep got out when the rush was made, but in the morning they were found standing quietly beside the fence.
The Willis brothers were still living under canvas in early June when the land speculator Thomas Walker visited their camp on the Plenty. Walker memorialized this visit in his 1838 book, ““A Month in the Bush of Australia” writing that, “Willis is still living in his tent, but with as much comfort as under such circumstances can be looked for. He has got a nice situation in the fork formed by the junction of the creek “Plenty” and the Yarra Yarra.” (You can read Walker’s full extract in my 2014 post, here). James recorded Walker’s visit in the diary with the following entry:
Edward arrived from Melbourne with some gentlemen who came overland from Sydney. Two of them drove a gig the whole way, the rest on horseback, having crossed four rivers and met with no kind of impediment. They accomplished the journey in about a month. Edward with his visitors after dining returned to town, where he has to arrange respecting the payment for two allotments he purchased for Willis Macintyre and Co.
Throughout most of the narrative of James’ diary, while living in their tent, James writes that the brothers were occupied during the day splitting timbers for a sheep yard and for an associated slab hut. The hut was commenced on 16th May and was presumably located within easy reach of the river ford. The 1841 census placed it where the Plenty Bridge Hotel would later stand above the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge.
On the 23rd May James wrote, “Fine morning. Wet afternoon. Drawing logs for the hut. Slow work – no hired men – all done by our own hands. Ned acts carpenter – he is adzing logs – says it makes his back ache.” Four days later Edward was visiting a neighbouring squatter John Nicholas Wood whose shepherd “Old Tom” had originally led them to the Yarra Plenty confluence. Wood’s run was located approximately in the vicinity of where Hawdon’s Banyule Homestead would later be built. James had described Wood as “a good-natured little fellow though his manners are not the most refined” and Edward was hoping to enlist his help, “roofing the hut, which it is highly expedient we should inhabit before our beds are washed from under us.” The brothers were both suffering from colds at this time as they entered their first Port Phillip winter. On 1st June the building was far enough advanced for Edward to go to Melbourne to purchase nails “to put the roof on the hut” and on the 10th it was James who was in Melbourne collecting a further supply of nails. The deprivations of their house-less existence had taken their toll however and at the end of July, James’ health broke down completely. His painful illness required his immediate removal to Melbourne where the doctor, finding he was “suffering from inflammation caused by cold”, bled him in the Dracula-like medical fashion of the day. Whether or not as a result of the bleeding or simply as a result of a strong constitution, after an interval James was able to write, “I am at length quite restored to health…”
His humour also seemed restored. John Batman had loaned them his transport, “the only gig in the settlement” to get the invalid to Melbourne and also offered James a room in his home on Batman’s Hill during the period of his convalescence, which was duly declined subsequent to the following chivalric reasoning:
“…I thought it better to decline his offer as he was at that time an invalid himself, and moreover I was rather afraid of encountering the bright eyes of his daughter – for she might have evinced something like that tender solicitude for the wounded Knight’s recovery which the gentler, the fairer, and the softer sex are never without, and which might have prompted something like gratitude in my breast towards the sympathising damsel, admiration probably would follow, and then God knows what. But it seems that the fates have reserved me for a better, or perhaps a worse destiny than would in such case have been the inevitable result.”
The fates had indeed reserved another destiny for James. In the diary entry written just before James’ illness, James described a journey made by the brothers and their neighbour John Wood, up the Plenty River. They were provisioned and had been intending to explore the country for three or four days but after they “had traversed the course of our creek the ‘Plenty’ (or ‘Edward’s Rivulet’, as we call it) some five or six miles”, the party came to a halt upon “a tract of most excellent grazing land.” James wrote that Edward and Wood then “discovered that they must return home instantly to dress sheep”, the implication being that a race was on between the two squatters to see who could relocate a flock to the new pasturage first.
James’ illness occurred directly after this event and when he had recovered sufficiently to return to the Plenty a month later he found that Edward had removed himself to a location which was by James’ estimation, “about seven miles higher up the Plenty”, presumably the land the brothers had seen with Wood previously. At this new location it seems that a second hut had by then been constructed. The building had a thatched roof, as opposed to the nailed shingles of the earlier structure, and had been made ready for the arrival from Van Diemen’s Land of a third Willis brother, William. James described a high hill nearby from which could be “enjoyed a view of the surrounding country for twenty miles and more in every direction.” This second run it would seem therefore was located somewhere north of the Montmorency or “Epping” Forest and in the vicinity of modern day Greensborough, where an apparently unrelated farm “Willis Vale” later developed. It has been suggested (conversation with Anne Paul, Greensborough Historical Society), that the view from the high hill mentioned by James might have been from the top of Flintoff’s Hill near where modern day Civic Drive intersects the Greensborough Bypass, or from Yellow Gum Park in the Plenty Gorge Parklands, but for now this must remain a matter of conjecture.
…and for the first time we found ourselves in a snug turf hut eleven feet by thirteen, with a thatched roof and neatly whitewashed inside.
Ned has a very respectable bedstead in one corner built of wattle sticks; one in the opposite corner is being made for William, whose arrival we are expecting. A rude contrivance bearing some faint resemblance to a sofa stands in the corner near the chimney; it answers the double purpose of sofa by day and my bed at night.
Our table is a very ingenious affair, being a hair trunk placed upon four stakes knocked in the ground, which with two wooden seats entirely of a new fashion and to which we have given the name of chairs, completes our stock of furniture. I should not omit our bookcase, which is composed of three long wattle sticks reaching from wall to wall on either side of the hut, along which our extensive and valuable collections of books appear in formidable array, having their backs, however, towards the company.
On various parts of the wall are skins of birds, and preserved amongst which the tail of a black cockatoo extended in shape of a fan, its feathers being black and crimson alternately, is handsome; several wings and tails of parrots—three kinds—are beautiful — as well as the entire skins of parrots having almost all the colours of the rainbow, some of which are the most rich and lovely I ever saw.
Sky blue, lavender, crimson, scarlet, orange, green and black are the most conspicuous, all being exquisite contrasts to each other.”
Today a large part of Willis’ 1837 pastoral run retains a pleasingly rural character with the land occupied by two golf courses and the Yarra Valley Parklands. How much Edward and James experiences in 1837 involved country that would later form part of the Bakewells’ Yallambee must however remain uncertain. There is no doubt that they roamed freely about nearby and probably at least crossed over a part of it. One of James’ earliest diary entries written on the 28th April mentioned them finding “a small spot of grazing land five miles off” and on the 14th May they found “some beautiful country about four miles from Wanstead” that Edward proposed turning one day into a second run, so the Willis boys were obviously on the lookout for extra pasture from the outset. Garden writing in “Heidelberg – The Land and Its People” thought that the surveyor Robert Hoddle’s notes suggested that Willis’ run involved both sides of the Plenty River, although he readily admits that Hoddle’s notes are difficult to interpret.
The sale of land on the west bank of the lower Plenty in 1838 and on the east bank in 1840 brought an end to the brief squatting era on the lower Plenty. With the return of their father to England at the start of 1839, Edward Willis returned to Van Diemen’s Land and his personal association with the Plenty River ended. In a letter dated 24th March 1839 Edward states that he was leaving the Plenty River ”having notice to ‘quit’ due to the imminent land sales”. He goes on to warn against future occupation of his hut on the Plenty River: “I’d scarce recommend you. For the fleas will soon make it prodigiously clean. That their bloody attacks are not meant to befriend you. This useful bit of information mind is given gratis. For the thriving squatter to the flea good bait is”.
Edward married Catherine the daughter of Captain Charles Swanston at Hobart Town in 1840 and subsequently joined his father in law in partnership in Geelong. James’ diary ends with a statement of his hopes of one day soon himself being offered a position managing a store in Geelong but by 1841 it is believed that he was established at Mernda at a wattle and daub hotel (the Bridge Inn) on the Plenty River crossing. In addition to the inn, Willis’ Mernda enterprise involved a pastoral holding of 400 acres which he again called Wanstead. After their previous Vandemonian and Lower Plenty Wanstead experiences, it’s a wonder that James was still dusting off that nomenclature for another outing at Mernda, but he remained in possession until 1851.
As the story of James Willis and his Plenty River diary fades into forgotten memory, it is comforting to note that the “unlucky star” recorded by James would ultimately be proved wrong by history, at least in a sense. The Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 6, MUP 1986 credits ownership of the diary manuscript to James Willis’ great-grandson, Dr R W Pearson. So it seems that James finally got to appreciate the joys of a family life that he earlier believed would be forever denied him.
Though evidently not in the arms of one of John Batman’s bright eyed daughters.
If there was one thing destined to end the era of convict transportation to Australia, it was the discovery of golden mineral wealth in a land which for so long had been the dumping ground of Great Britain’s most unwilling form of immigrants. Strictly speaking, the Port Phillip District was never a penal colony, but convicts did make their way there assigned to various work parties, or while holding tickets of leave in other colonies. With the discovery of gold in Australia however, the irony in sending felons to a foreign el Dorado of the south was not lost on the authorities when it seemed that half the world was quite literally falling over itself to get there in a mad “rush to be rich”.
The existence of gold in the Port Phillip District had long been something of an open secret, the facts seemingly supressed by a government fearful of the possible social dislocation of an Australian gold rush. Although it’s not widely recognized now, some of these very first rumours of gold in Victoria occurred in the Plenty Ranges and on the tributaries of the upper reaches of the Plenty River itself. One such story at the start of the 1840s involved an eccentric bushman called John or Jemmy Gomm (“Old Gum”) who was supposed to have lived in a hollow tree on the Upper Plenty on the slopes of Mt Disappointment, secretly prospecting for gold but telling people all along he was hunting for lyrebirds. Old Gum had arrived at Port Phillip in 1835 as one of John Pascoe Fawkner’s servants aboard the schooner “Enterprize” but had “gone bush”. A Plenty River pastoralist, George Urquart, writing much later to “The Brisbane Courier” newspaper in 1882 described meeting Gomm, seeing his gold specimens and the situation of his Plenty Ranges bush camp:
“He had a nice garden, which was well-stocked with a variety of vegetables, and a beautiful stream of water running through the centre of it. His habitation was an old fallen gum tree, which in its fallen state was fully 70ft in circumference. A shell of the stump stood forming the back of ‘Gum’s’ fireplace; the short space between the fallen trunk and the remains standing upright had been covered in with bark, the burnt portion of the tree cleared out with his adze; and he had in the tree a kitchen, a storeroom where he manipulated his gold, and a bedroom. He handed me a small nugget of gold, which I took, beat very thin, and sent to an elder brother in Sydney, who, when acknowledging his receipt, replied telling me, “to mind my cattle and not think of gold-gathering”. ‘Gum’ was a quiet, inoffensive man. He told me he came from Van Diemen’s Land, and appeared very thankful that I allowed my manager to supply him with rations.”
Occasionally “Old Gum” travelled down to Melbourne to dispose of gold, exchanging it for rations, before heading back into the bush. The idea of some whimsical old soul living secretly in the bush and unearthing mineral riches at random quite caught the public imagination at the time and in 1842 the police magistrate, Captain William Lonsdale, despatched troopers to find old man Gomm. They eventually found his camp but Gomm had gone. The bird had flown his proverbial coop in the face of authority, leaving his camp deserted with “crucibles and old bellows, but no gold.”
The first real rush in Australia occurred about a decade later at the Turon field near Sofala in New South Wales in June, 1851, just prior to the official separation of Port Phillip from New South Wales on the 1st July. After Separation the new Victorian government looked for their own gold strike to stem the exodus north and announced a reward of £200 for the first person to find a payable deposit within easy reach of Melbourne. The so called Plenty River “gold” rush actually coincided with the rush to the Turon but would prove to be a Furphy since the actual gold found on the Plenty would turn out to be comparatively very slight, if not altogether non-existent. At any rate, the story of Plenty River gold was perhaps more a reflection of the desire of local business interests in Melbourne to find gold in Victoria, but not so very far away from the town that it would cause a whole scale exodus to the far flung reaches of the interior. In the resulting excitement, stories of gold in the vicinity of Melbourne abounded and there were even reports of Melbourne streets being dug up, in spite of laws specifically forbidding such activities. It seems that people were finding gold everywhere.
“When first we left old England’s shore
Such yarns as we were told
As how folks in Australia
Could pick up lumps of gold”
The short lived rush to the Plenty region itself seems to have taken place after a certain Thomas Hewitt made the following claims about gold in the Plenty Ranges in what was nevertheless a pretty percipient letter to “The Argus” newspaper which published it on 30 May, 1851:
“…I can assure you that I myself have seen two men who have been up in our ranges, and showed me a parcel of gold dust; as far as I could judge, of a very good quality; and they told me that they had been up in the ranges for two months, and had done very well on their trip. I have had some little experience in geology, and think that it is most likely that gold may be found in some quantities in the Plenty Ranges, the dip of the rock being exactly like those of the California region; but I hope for the good of the country that no such diggings may be made in our part, as through false representation an idle and worthless population might be drawn to the locality, it might at the same time delude many of our steady worthy labourers, who might thrive at the rate of about ten in a hundred. Hoping that this may not be the case, I am, Sir, yours truly, Thomas Hewitt, River Plenty, May 26th, 1851.”
News of gold on the Plenty and in such close proximity to Melbourne resulted in great excitement. “The Argus” carried almost daily reports on the developments and on June 9 reported:
“The gold on the Plenty still continues the main staple of conversation; it is alike talked of by the merchant and labourer… Several samples of so-called Plenty gold are now shown in town and there are reports on all sides of lucky individuals who have found wealth all in a moment…”
About 300 people were scattered over the Plenty Ranges, washing for gold in the creeks and minor tributaries. With fears of the fields descending into a haunt for the “Dangerous Dan McGrew” stereotype of later poetical fiction, a party of mounted troopers was sent out from Melbourne to keep order, it being reported that there were those in the Ranges “who would steal the nose off one’s face,” (ibid). The report was illustrated by the story of one man who found £17 18s 3d of gold dust only to have £18 worth of goods stolen from his unattended cart while he panned.
The news of gold on the Plenty spread quickly to the other Australian colonies and an article in “The Courier” newspaper of Hobart on June 18 speculated that the Plenty ranges were “a continuation of the Bathurst ranges, where gold is now being found in large quantities…”
As stories of real and richer finds in other parts of the colony soon began to overrun the imaginary Plenty River riches, the story should have died a quiet natural. However Henry Frencham gave it a new lease of life on June 14 when, working as a reporter for the “Port Phillip Gazette”, he claimed to have made his own discovery of gold in the Plenty region. An assay of his specimens revealed no gold but then Henry Frencham also claimed to have found gold at the western end of Bourke Street, Melbourne and would later claim to have also been responsible for the first discovery of gold on the rich Bendigo gold fields. Frencham’s claims might have been questionable but his reports made good copy for the newspapers all the same. One Argus report described Frencham as being “a respectable man, who can have no object in deceiving the public; and although his supposed discovery at the Plenty turned out a mistake, no one doubted his own firm believe in the genuineness of the article discovered.” As the author of this piece was probably Frencham himself, working in his capacity as a reporter, it can only be imagined what the deceived public really thought but interestingly Frencham’s site in the Plenty ranges near what would become Queenstown (St Andrews) would later be worked very successfully as the Caledonia gold field.
The 1850s were a pivotal decade in Victoria’s colonial history and Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge found himself in this mix right at the start. He departed England for the Australian colonies as an intermediate passenger on board the SS Northumberland in 1851, just before news of the first Australian gold strikes were received in England. Arriving at Port Phillip with £25 in his pocket to an economic climate defined by gold discoveries, rumoured discoveries and colonial separation, the 21 year old Thomas Wragge showed no inclination to join the overwhelming exodus to the new Victorian gold fields. The young, ex-Nottinghamshire farmer carried a letter of introduction written by familial connections of Yallambee’s John and Robert Bakewell and had his own ideas about how to go about finding riches in Victoria.
“Thomas and his family would not have heard of the Australian discoveries before he departed, but land and pastoral activities seem to have been his primary concerns… The great influx of gold-seeking immigrants had resulted in soaring prices for meat, and keen demand for agricultural produce.” (Calder: “Class the Wool and Counting the Bales).
The years of the Victorian gold rushes saw a great increase in the worth of agricultural produce in the new colony. For instance, hay which had previously sold for 35s a tonne sold in Melbourne in 1852 for £50. Wheat rose from 2s 8d a bushel to 12s and locally, Michael Butler of Greensborough is recorded as receiving up to £155 per tonne for carting flour to the Bendigo fields. The prices paid for beef and bullocks rose even more.
It is unknown today whether Wragge worked immediately on arrival for John and Robert Bakewell at Yallambee, or at any time thereafter between 1851 and 1854 at which later date he is known to have been on the estate. However, the Bakewells had pastoral interests in other Victorian properties and if Thomas was not at Yallambee he may have been working for them at one of these, possibly at Western Port or on the Campaspe.
Although the only gold found on the Plenty River had by then been proved to be the stuff of fools it seems that there was still enough interest locally for a couple of potential “mines” being attempted at Yallambie. In the additional notes to Winty Calder’s “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” she mentions a mine shaft that was sunk next to the river close to the location of the Plenty Bridge Hotel and another sort of “strike” made in the vicinity of the site of William Greig’s old farm, below present day Allima Avenue.
“There was once a mine shaft on Yallambie, over near the pub. There was also another sort of strike just behind the chooks (i.e. N of the house) – Picol Paddock. The other was at Barn Hill (river paddock).” (Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, notes).
In spite of these rumoured mines, it seems pretty clear now that nothing was ever found. However, Yallambee at Heidelberg would prove to be fortunately located close to the roads leading to several diggings. A way side inn was established on the Plenty River at the end of present day Martins Lane to capture the goldfields traffic heading to the Caledonia field through Eltham and Wragge, as the Bakewells’ tenant at Yallambee, would find himself well placed to cater to this market.
“Little hostelries sprang up to offer refreshment to the digger at intervals along the way, and a river crossing settlement emerged at Lower Plenty, where a slab hut was built at the ford near Martins Lane.” (Edwards: The Diamond Valley Story, p40).
William Howitt was ostensibly looking for gold when he was in the colony in 1852 and visited his brother Godfrey’s, brothers in law at Yallambee. In the event, Howitt didn’t find much in the two years he spent on the gold fields but his experiences as described in his monumental work “Land Labour and Gold,” are recognized today as an historically important primary document of life in gold rush era Victoria and include William’s description of the Bakewells’ Yallambee, (quoted previously in these pages).
In another primary account with a local interest from that time, Rebecca Greaves wrote a letter to an uncle in England at the end of 1851 from her parents’ farm in Greensborough, just upriver from Yallambee, and giving her own impressions of the early stages of the Victorian gold rushes at a time when it was still considered “that the Plenty all along abounds in gold”:
“…I read an account that a gentleman I know in Melbourne had the first shovel full found a piece of solid gold the size of a duck’s egg whereas there other gents that were with him only found 2 or three grains and Doctor Barker one of the party did not find any at all so it is all chance. I have seen some of it in the stone it is found in is exactly the same as the marble on our land in fact it is thought that the Plenty all along abounds in gold it is on the Plenty one of the places they are finding so much they are finding it in many parts of the country it is thought that Victoria abounds in Gold, “now what do you think of our emigrating to this gold region?” Everyone has left town to go to the diggings there is not a man or boy to be seen in town even the gents at the Bank are “off to the diggings” such an uproar never was known in the colony before not a ship can leave the bay for as soon as the ships get in port the sailors away to the Gold mines go where you will you cannot see a man unless it is an old man like my Father the papers are full of shops to let on account of the owners going to the “diggings” they are exactly the same plight at Sydney they are finding Gold all over the country; it seems to have raised some of the poor faint hearted English cakes now they have heard of Gold being found in quantities in Victoria they can raise courage enough to come out by ship loads but even now I would not persuade anyone to come all I can say is that the farewells of large families are complete soft cakes to remain in England when once they hear of a country that anyone must do work in if I were only a young man would not I go gold digging and even now I feel half inclined to dress in man’s clothes and go I am certain if I could not dig I could rock the cradle only I should be afraid they would know I was not a man as I should not like to part with my curls for that you know Uncle would spoil my beauty would it not and that certainly would be a great pity…” (Extract from a letter written by 23 year old Rebecca Sarah Greaves at Greensborough, dated 25 November, 1851).
In spite of the hopes of men like Frencham and the beliefs of Rebecca Greaves, the Plenty River never really got going as gold country although Victoria as a whole would for a while prove to have some of the richest fields the world has ever known. Although Wragge didn’t try his luck on these goldfields he did eventually find gold of another kind, in the form of fleece from the sheep’s back and he died a wealthy man. By the time he pulled up stumps at Yallambie in 1910, the £25 capital he carried with him on arrival had increased to more than £400,000.
Those golden days are long ended although today the signs of those times can still be seen in the occasional abandoned mullock heaps of the bush and in the presence of grand, gold rush era, inland towns. My father, a Ballarat boy born and bred, was known to point knowingly at times towards the horizon when visiting that town saying, “There’s more gold in those hills than ever came out of them.” He was speaking maybe from family experience since legend has it that, before the war, his family were supposed to have kept a large suede bag full of gold dust and quartz. “It was from the old days when your great grandfather was a miner and it was kept over for a time of need.” His childhood was marked by the years of the Great Depression and by end of the War, that bag and its contents were most definitely gone.
As a kid I used to go bushwalking into the Lerderderg Gorge halfway to Ballarat, using an old miners’ mule track which led down to the river. The Lerderderg is very close to Melbourne but as a lad it was like walking into a world of my imagination not unlike Middle-earth. There was a mine tunnel there which went in one side of a ridge and came out the other, all dug by hand by Chinese miners in the 19th century and held up without timber supports. It used to be a test of courage for us as kids to crawl through the tunnel with small battery torches from one end to the other with the roof and walls gradually getting narrower and narrower until emerging in a scramble on the other side. I went back there a few years ago with my own son but could no longer find the entrance to the tunnel. All that remained of it by then was a big hole in the side of the ridge marking the location of its collapse. Another example in the “what ifs” of life’s story.
Tolkein once noted, “All that is gold does not glitter” which references a much older saying. Whatever the source, its age old meaning remains true. Not everyone who went looking for gold in Victoria in the 1850s necessarily found what they were looking for, even those who like Hume’s Madame Midas found a dash of the precious metal at the bottom of a mine shaft or in a pan dipped into a river. But gold can be found in sometimes unexpected places. It might be the gold in the memory of a childhood adventure in an abandoned mine or in the worth of fleece cut from a sheep’s back. It might be a certain note in a piece of music that you love or it might even be the gold in that moment when your football team gets up by a point with a kick after the siren. And it may be the gold in a simple smile.
“The journey of life is like a man riding a bicycle. We know he got on the bicycle and started to move. We know that at some point he will stop and get off. We know that if he stops moving and does not get off he will fall off.” (William Golding)
According to one survey, 43% of all Australians own a bicycle. It’s not clear whether that statistic counts every rusted machine parked with bent pedals at the back of every garage, or every bike gathering dust under a house across the nation, but one thing is pretty clear. There are an awful lot of bikes out there. Bike riding is big in the north east and in Yallambie, the history of cycling is probably a lot more extensive than people generally realize as they pedal around the neighborhood.
The late 19th century saw the world’s first “bike craze” and a proliferation in the number of bike makers. Some of them, like the Dux Cycle Co. of Little Collins St, Melbourne which employed 150 workers, were established locally. The Dux cause was helped when a Dux was used for the first Perth to Brisbane cycle ride in 1897, a distance of nearly 6000km.
Australia found itself literally in the mainstream of the world-wide bicycle boom as it emerged from the financial recession of the early 1890s and by 1897 there were over 150 brands of home grown and imported bicycles to choose from. Innovations such as the tubular steel frame, the ball bearing, roller bearing chain and pneumatic tyres were all products of advanced manufacturing techniques but in practice, any reasonably competent home handyman or bush mechanic could assemble or repair them. While bikes were comparatively expensive to buy they were ultimately a much cheaper alternative to keeping a horse and trap or even to buying regular rail tickets. As Jim Fitzpatrick observed in the introduction to “The Bicycle and the Bush”, his widely regarded book on the history of Australian pedalling, the bicycle: “required no food or water, was two or three times as fast as a horse or a camel, and did not drop dead from eating poisonous plants.”
In Yallambie, Henry Ernest “Harry” Wragge, (born 1880), the youngest son of Yallambie Homestead’s Thomas Wragge, was an early exponent of bike riding in this district. Harry had a life-long fascination with all things mechanical and is known to have owned a bicycle by May, 1896. (Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p145). The first Australian Cycle Show was held in March that year and it would be interesting to know if the teenage Harry convinced his parents to purchase a bike after attending the show.
A photograph in the Bush collection shows a young Harry riding his bike along the Homestead Road in front of the house garden on what is now the Lower Plenty end of Yallambie Rd and another shows Harry at a slightly later date, standing proudly alongside his pushbike in front of the Yallambie stable yard. Harry’s machine was a diamond frame, “safety” bicycle, a style first perfected by Humber in 1890 and known as the “safety” because of the ease and safety of riding one compared to the “ordinary” or “Penny Farthing” type. It is a design that, with few real modifications, has remained the most common bicycle design up to the present day.
Another early rider was Ada Lawrey, the daughter of one of Diamond Creek’s first settlers and a music teacher who at the start of the 20th century used her bicycle to pedal widely around the district giving piano lessons. A photograph shows her inside the gates of her parents’ Diamond Creek home alongside a fine looking machine, complete with a bicycle luggage carrying valise attached to the frame, ideal perhaps for carrying her lunch box and fork, or maybe just a tuning fork.
Cycling clubs were formed in many places and city dwellers travelled on bicycles to places near and far in the country side that were a refreshing change to the grime and factories of inner-city Melbourne. In several of the earliest extant photographs of the Plenty Bridge Hotel, bicycles are seen pulled up outside the building, evidence perhaps of the importance of the old hotel as a stopping place for travellers on the Plenty River on the road from Melbourne to Eltham and beyond.
A 1907 newspaper report in “The Age” described a cycle race organized by the “League of Victorian Wheelmen” and promoted by the publican of the Plenty Bridge Hotel. The route followed country roads from the Plenty Bridge to Bundoora and back again over a “bad course” with “hilly roads and dangerous turns”. For the record, a Mr D Hall won the event, on a handicap.
When I surveyed my old bike at the back of the garage last week with this post in mind, it seemed like it too was starting with something of a handicap. It was purchased nearly a decade ago from a large supermarket chain, familiar to most people in this town, and looked like it was worth what I paid for it that day I went shopping with money for a loaf of bread and came home with a bike.
My thoughts strayed. ‘Whatever happened to the bike my father brought home as a rusted old frame “found in a paddock”?’ I spent weeks sanding and repairing that bit of scrap metal and then delivered newspapers from it on dark mornings throughout Rosanna. It later took me on trips as far afield as Bendigo and Ballarat and for a while it seemed indestructable but as I recall, died a sudden death one day as I rode home from Heidelberg Park with football boots dangling across the handlebars. The boots became entangled with the front wheel and, with the front wheel motion suddenly arrested, the rest of the bike and associated rider were destined to continue, the resulting Barnum & Bailey circus somersault a clown act to recall.
That’s what happened to it.
What chance today? In the end I wheeled out my wife’s old pushbike from the garage instead, a good looking, red “girl’s” version with no horizontal bar and streamers on the handlebars. The tyres were a bit perished but it had been a fine machine in its day although that day apparently had been some time ago.
“You’re not going out looking like that are you,” my wife said when she saw the overall effect of me sitting astride her glorious, red retro riding road machine in an outfit she said resembled a 1920s bathing costume.
“Why not? I forgive people wearing Lycra don’t I?”
“I’m glad he didn’t ask me,” said the boy not looking up from his iPhone.
“You don’t know what you’re missing. It’ll be just like Pokemon Go.”
TRAILING THE PLENTY RIVER:
The Plenty River Trail is a shared path that leaves the Main Yarra Trail near the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers in the south and follows the Plenty River valley to a point beyond the northern margins of Greensborough. The Main Yarra Trail is like a wide open highway compared to the Plenty River trail and gets commensurately more cycling traffic as a result.
As I approached the branch to the Plenty River Trail on a recent weekend now past, a tandem bicycle flew past me on a journey down the Yarra, its riders grinding away at the pedals on the level flood plain of the Yarra Trail to achieve a missile like velocity. ‘Cripes, I’d like to see them try that on up there,’ I thought to myself as I looked at the incline that is the start of the Plenty River Trail.
“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do,
I’m half-crazy all for the love of you.
It won’t be a stylish marriage –
I can’t afford a carriage,
But you’d look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two.”
The Plenty Trail leaves the Main Yarra Trail at Viewbank at this point and rises quickly to the vicinity of the old Viewbank Homestead archaeological site, an ascent of about 30m where commanding views are to be had out across Bulleen and Templestowe. The day I was there a fine winter breeze was blowing and enthusiasts were flying a large model sail plane out over the valley. It was presumably radio controlled since like a boomerang, it kept coming back no matter how many times they tried to get rid of it.
Beyond this, the path crosses Banyule Rd and runs in a straight line alongside Hendersons Rd. It passes a pony club where it descends steeply to a point at the end of Martins Lane where, as mentioned previously, my wife’s great grandfather once kept a spectacularly unsuccessful chicken farm.
The Trail then crosses the Plenty River, the first of many crossings, and follows a route at the back of Heidelberg Golf Club between the Club and the River. For many years this was the “missing link” in the trail as the Golf Club and Council struggled to come to an agreement about the siting of the path and a bridge. After agreement was reached, the link was finally opened to riders and pedestrians in March, 2007.
Crossing the River again via the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge adjacent to the former site of the Plenty Bridge Hotel, the Trail is then in Yallambie territory proper.
It passes the Yallambie Tennis Club and the Soccer Ground before rounding out onto the Yallambie common at the next bend in the River. The well-remembered “Lone” Hoop Pine, oak trees, cypresses and remnant orchard are the neglected features of the National Trust Classified landscape that can be found here.
The path then splits in two and there is a choice of following it for some way on either side of the River, a relic of the days when the River marked the boundary between the Shires of Diamond Valley and Eltham and the two banks were under separate administrations. Today the whole of the Plenty River Trail falls within the Municipality of Banyule with Yallambie at its centre.
Up river, the Montmorency Football Oval on the eastern or “Monty side” covers the site of a former tip. Wonder in awe at a time when it was thought environmentally OK to use a river landscape as a tipping ground! The area is well maintained but if you look closely at the river bank below the oval you can see some evidence of its previous use at places where the bank is eroded.
After Montmorency Secondary College is passed, the Trail arrives at the Willinda Park Athletics Track where it becomes a single path on the western side of the River. On the eastern side, the factories on Para Rd show their backs to the River but even here wild life can be found. I stood looking from a distance at what I thought was a tree stump at the back of the factories, trying to make my mind up about what I was looking at. Then it moved and the kangaroo I had in fact been watching, hopped away and out of sight.
At what was formerly the northern most boundary of the old Montmorency Farm, Para Rd and the Greensborough/Eltham single track railway cross the River using separate bridges and here the Plenty River Trail appears for the moment to end abruptly in a residential court. The Trail is not well sign posted throughout its length but at this point it leaves you guessing completely about what course to follow next. The answer is to travel about 100m along Bicton St and resume the Trail at the far end.
At Poulter Reserve the Greensborough rail station can be accessed by riders who have had enough and want to return home via a train or cross to the looming ugly presence of the Greensborough Plaza for a café latte.
Further on, the Trail crosses the River again under the Main Street Bridge next to the remains of the old swimming pool that was built in the Depression within the bed of the Plenty River itself.
Lost history abounds here. A photograph of bicycle riders at the original blue stone bridge in 1897 is another reminder of the area’s historic popularity with riders. The original 1864 blue stone bridge was removed progressively from 1974 until 1983, its massive blue stone buttresses being turned into a barbecue on the corner of Main St and St Helena Rd above in what was surely a loss to local history but a win for sausages.
A dinky little suspension bridge crosses to Whatmough Park on Partington’s Flat where the original farm, Willis Vale, was formerly situated until being burned out by a bushfire in the 1950s. Local football is played at many of the ovals along the River on any given weekend and the day I was at Partington’s, a DVFL game was in progress between St Mary’s and Epping. It might have been a reserves game but it was very popularly attended and an example of how I remember footy used to be played. The skills were of course a long way short of AFL standard but for all that, or perhaps because of it, I found it was a very enjoyable game to watch. Forget the “flood” of players up the ground, a feature of AFL football in the modern day. I saw a bit of mud, a bit of biffo and a full forward who stayed rooted to the goal square, waiting for the ball to be kicked to him.
And further to the record, after trailing early, St Mary’s beat Epping 11.16 to 9.3.
Up-river from Partington’s, the Plenty River Trail passes under the Greensborough Bypass Road which crosses the River on an elevated roadway high above. A plane could fly under it. A Zeppelin could park under it. At this location there is an un-signposted “goat track” from Plenty River Dr at a point just about opposite Booyan Cres. The “goat track” is a mountain bike switch back but by successfully negotiating the mud for a short distance access can be gained to the Greensborough Bypass Cycle Path and thence to the Metropolitan Ring Rd Trail. By all reports you won’t find a single B-Double semi travelling in the outside lane.
Staying on the Plenty River Trail the path arrives at the so called “Batman Apple Tree” next to an easement below Corowa Cres and adjacent to the old Maroondah Aqueduct Pipe Bridge.
Nearby the Pioneer Children’s Cemetery holds the unmarked graves of children from the Whatmough and Partington families, early settlers on this part of the River. Not far beyond is the official end of the Plenty River Trail at the base of a flight of stairs leading down from Punkerri Circuit.
Although it is sign posted to this effect the trail is actually longer than its official 12.3km length and follows a path further along Dry Creek, the merry sound of water running nearby which surely belies its name. The track passes through a closed gate and along an unmade path to an easement running between Plenty River Drive and Mclaughlans Lane where the 520 bus to Doreen has a stop on Sugar Gum Blvd. This is the final end of the Plenty River Trail but the vicinity also marks the south eastern approaches to the Plenty Gorge Parklands, whose mountain bike adventure trails beckon more determined riders.
The Desert Continent can be a thirsty place. The Quixote sight of windmills standing high above dry watering holes in the Outback is evidence enough of that, but if extra evidence is needed, take a peek at the bending elbows inside any Aussie pub on a Saturday night and see just how thirsty this dry land can really be.
It’s true that many Australians like a drink. Then they like another. To paraphrase Slim Dusty, they love a beer in “moderation” hoping to “never ever ever get rollin’ drunk” and as watering holes go, the Lower Plenty Hotel across the River is the nearest place to moderately bend that elbow at Yallambie. Positioned on a ridge above the Plenty River opposite Yallambie, the “Local” was built in the 1960s when the surrounding sub divisions were just beginning to gather momentum. It might seem in a drinking haze today that the pub has been there for as long as anyone can remember but, as mentioned previously in these pages, the earlier Plenty Bridge Hotel preceded it by more than 100 years.
The old Plenty Bridge Hotel was a country pub in the classic traditions of Aussie drinking, the story of which stretches way back into the 18th century and to an infamous trade in “grog” by the 102nd Regiment of Foot, the aptly named Rum Corp of NSW. Aussie pubs themselves descended from the institution of the British public house and rural tavern, with the addition over time of a number of uniquely Australian features, such as the long bar and ice cold beer setting them apart from those of the Old Country.
The weather board building at the Plenty River crossing place that formed the Plenty Bridge Hotel first opened for business in 1858 and it remained a well-known centre of community life in the district for at least a century.
There has been speculation that it may have been preceded by an earlier pre-gold rush establishment on the same site which, to put this into some kind of perspective within the larger history of Yallambie, means that the first beers were being pulled at the Plenty Bridge during the Bakewells’ continuing involvement at “Yallambee Park” and while Thomas Wragge was yet a young man.
That may be, but at any rate, much of the later life of the Plenty Bridge became synonymous with its use by the Heidelberg Golf Course as a 19th Hole and indeed, over time, the hotel would even become known by an alias, the “Golf Club Hotel”.
In 1948 however, Robert (Bob) Irwin, a former Riverina Publican, took over the hotel licence with a vision of creating a country-club style venue within the environment of the old hotel. Among other renovations, the Plenty Bridge was given a lick of paint, sun blinds were installed and Irwin added what was commonly supposed to be Melbourne’s first formal beer garden.
White coated “waiters” attended patrons within a vine clad and trellised enclosure and on a sunny day the atmosphere seemed quite fashionable.
This later life of the Plenty Bridge coincided with an Australian liquor licencing policy which, although seeming strange to the drinker of today, existed for a significant part of the 20th century. This was the era of “6 o’clock closing” when public bars were forced to close at 6pm, a mere hour after most working men knocked off for the day. The infamous “6 o’clock” swill” as it became known developed as a result of austerity measures introduced during the 1st World War but, under pressure from the local Temperance Movement in a sort Antipodean version of American Prohibition, it became permanent, remaining until long after the end of the 2nd War.
The Plenty Bridge Hotel as a pub located “almost” in the country, appears to have escaped the most notorious aspects of the regular 6 o’clock, city worker, drinking binge. As a country pub, it was one of the first places where a drink could be legally purchased on Sundays, before the general easing of liquor licencing laws and the gradual repeal of all the various state Sunday Observance Acts.
A photograph from the John Irwin Family Collection taken inside the main bar of the Plenty Bridge Hotel in the late 1940s to my mind has an echo of one of Max Dupain’s iconic bar room images of a similar era.
Dupain, perhaps better remembered for a single, quintessentially Australian image of a sunbaker he took on a NSW beach, was an incredibly prolific and gifted photographer whose subjects continue to resonate throughout the Australian consciousness. In the 1940s he was commissioned by the Australian Department of Information to document the Australian way of life and his photographs from this time remain an important record of the changing face of Australian society.
Similarly, the Plenty Bridge Hotel picture shows characters of that now largely bygone world. A time of laconic Australian men, their elbows resting lightly on the bar on a Saturday afternoon, yarning over cold glasses while their women sat across the hallway, segregated inside the so called “Ladies Lounge” in front of the fireplace with light shandies their only company.
In those days the barman acted as a sort of de facto hotel security and Mick Noonan, the head barman at the Plenty Bridge, was no exception. Robert Irwin had met Mick years earlier at the Bendigo Show where he watched him step into the ring in one of those old time, “Thorn Birds” style boxing tent displays to take on the champion. Mick took down the champion in a one sided contest after which Robert got talking to him, liked him immediately, and offered him a job as the barman in his pub. When Robert moved to the Plenty Bridge with his wife Daisy and young son John, Mick came with the family.
Another Irwin picture from this time shows Mick behind the main bar with its top shelf liquors, valve radio and cash register. Mick’s reputation as a boxer was usually enough to keep law and order in the pub but on at least one occasion history records how this reputation was briefly put to the test by a stranger entering the bar hell bent on trouble. As the story goes, Mick remained silent to a variety of insults and challenges from this stranger before carefully folding his towel and emerging from behind the bar. In the yard outside between the pub and the stables, the hotel patrons assembled in expectation, forming a ring into which the two protagonists entered. While the stranger hurled verbal abuse Mick prepared himself without a word. Suddenly, with arms and knuckles flailing, the stranger charged into the attack.
The fight that followed was brief. Very brief. It’s said that Mick simply swayed aside from the onslaught and let go with a single punch. The stranger went down and didn’t get up. Without a word Mick went back inside the hotel to resume his duties as though nothing had happened.
The story of the “Fight” at the Plenty Bridge Hotel grew in the telling and was remembered locally for years afterward.
It cemented Mick’s reputation as the law man of the PBH: “He was unruffled and not easily angered – but it was a mistake to take his quietness lightly.” (John Irwin)
Robert Irwin developed the Plenty Bridge into a thriving business that drew patrons from near and far. The Montmorency Football Club were regular drinkers. They won their first DVFL Premiership in 1951 and no doubt bent a few elbows back at the Plenty Bridge that evening.
The Plenty Bridge Hotel’s Robert Irwin was a Great War veteran who had become a father for the first and only time relatively late in life. He loved animals and any kind of sport and was still playing cricket for the RSL in his 50s. Irwin worked hard to achieve his vision for the Plenty Bridge Hotel but in the early 1950s he collapsed while on the nearby Heidelberg Golf Course. The family left the Lower Plenty Hotel in December 1951 and moved to Rosanna in 1953where in 1958, Robert Irwin died of a coronary occlusion aged 59. He left behind his wife Daisy and son John. Remembered as a loving father and husband, Irwin is buried at the Warringal Cemetery in Heidelberg with his wife.
The Plenty Bridge survived for a few more years under a succession of new licensees, Walter Stewart from 1951 to 1954, Noel Seletto from 1954 to 1957 and William Edwards from 1957 to 1958, but it was the end of an era. The hotel was demolished in 1958, the location being cleared away and standing empty for many years before the site was finally consumed last year by a newly constructed car park. With the onset of building work in the adjacent and interestingly named Edward Willis Court, the people and the times of the Plenty Bridge are long gone and all but forgotten, the legendary fight and the last orders of the ghosts of drinkers past lingering on in a few fast fading photographs and memories.
Perhaps the final word in this story should therefore go to Robert Irwin’s only child, John, now a grandfather himself of Houston, Texas. John enjoyed an idyllic childhood at the Plenty Bridge. In the following wonderfully immediate and eloquent description, extracted from an unpublished family memoir and quoted here by permission, a window is offered into that Plenty River childhood from another time:
“My mind turns back to a child’s eye: clever, brilliant, uneducated Nan, my Tasmanian grandmother, and our walks together in the bush, her stories of fairies and the spiritual world, Nan milking the cows, separating the cream, making butter with a churn and butter pats, and curling the butter, Nan telling fortunes with cards, reading palms, her pansies and jonquils, her quick wit and ever positive nature, Nan listening to “Blue Hills” on the radio; riding my three wheel bike, on two wheels at the Eltham tennis courts while my mother played, meeting my first friends at tennis; eating ice cream opposite the Eltham tennis courts on Main Road near the street up the hill to the artists’ colony at Montsalvat, my father buying my Shetland pony Dressie (Dresden Lea) at the artists’ colony, meeting someone named Jorgensen at Montsalvat; sitting on a stool in the main bar surrounded by loud men drinking, being “shouted” lemon squashes and raspberry & lemonades; the lush beer garden brimming with guests; speaking to ladies enjoying a drink in their cars in front of the hotel; Christmas morning, 1949 when I was four and was given my first two wheel bike, Mick holding the seat as I rode with him to the dairy to get milk, learning to balance and the thrill of riding home to show my parents; Nan in the backyard asking me to get the men from the bar, and finally understanding there was a deadly snake between us; being mascot for Montmorency Football Club in 1949, the smell of eucalyptus in the rooms, the thrill of running onto the ground with the players and around the oval; my adults only fifth birthday in front of a blazing fire in the ladies’ lounge, table set with a feast, my father opening champagne and then pouring a small green drink after the meal (not for me, crème de menthe); riding Dressie in the yard with my father and later at the Royal Melbourne Show; collecting eggs in the old stables which housed a coop for chickens and ducks: playing with Billie Bush at Yallambie, his birthday party, finding peanuts in the bear’s mouth on the bear skin rug, riding his sled down the slope behind Yallambie, a special air about Yallambie Homestead and its stairs and polished banister; Laddie fighting a ferocious dog called a Queensland Blue Heeler; Nan teaching Laddie to sit up, Nan teaching Cockie, the galah, to speak, Phillip the magpie who resided on the Nan’s bed stead, Nan’s canaries, Nan keeping a fishing line in the river; my father’s fascination with animals and all that we had at the hotel—pony, retired racehorse (Tony), draught horse, two or three cows (one named Daisy after my mother), chickens (“chooks”), ducks — riding around Lower Plenty with Mick in his two wheeled jinker pulled by Tony and visiting the black smith.”
In Douglas Adams “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”, the hitch hiking alien names himself after a motor car, believing it to be a safely inconspicuous nom de plume while visiting planet Earth after erroneously misidentifying the dominant life form of our world. Look at any Melbourne road at peak hour these days and you might forgive the alien his misconception. In the words of a recently defunct Federal Treasurer, “poor people don’t drive cars” but if that were true, then judging by the traffic on Greensborough Rd these days, we Melbournians must be an entirely wealthy lot.
Last November in the process of writing about the one-time site of the Plenty Bridge Hotel, formerly located across the river from Yallambie at Lower Plenty and removed at the end of the 1950s, I made the rather farfetched yet hopeful suggestion that the old hotel might be reconstructed on vacant ground adjacent to a new housing development at Edward Willis Court.
Ten months on and there is activity all aplenty down on the Plenty, but not the sort I necessarily envisaged when writing that post. You see, what’s being built over at the Lower Plenty site right now is no piece of resurrected local history but a car park. As we all know, the world needs more car parks. We need them like music needs more cow bells.
When I saw the tractors trundle out onto the former location of the Plenty Bridge Hotel at the start of last month, I initially deluded myself that this might be the harbinger of better things to come.
Across the road, on the corner of Para and Main Roads, a newly installed public sculpture hinted at community pride while a notice in one shop window asked for public help developing a display describing Lower Plenty history.
Plans are even afoot to redevelop the former Ampol service station site as a franchise store of a certain large, German supermarket chain. An exercise in urban renewal I guess. So when I need a litre of milk in the future it will be handy to know that I’ll also be able to pick up a pair of snow shoes locally while I’m at it, just perfect for the next time we have a blizzard.
So it came as a bit of a shock to watch the tractors roll right across the site of the Plenty Bridge Hotel, grading its story into the dust once and for all time. The process even involved the destruction of the last Lombardy poplar on the site, a tree that is visible in nearly every old picture of the Plenty Bridge Hotel and the survival of which orienteered the casual passerby with an eye for history to the original location of the building.
Possibly the new car park will be a very nice car park, as car parks go. Adams’ hitchhiker might even feel at home. It appears that the Lower Plenty Hotel applied for planning approval to develop the area as a lower level car park for their hotel patrons as early as October, 2010. This was authorised by Banyule Council in May the following year with amendments in July, 2012. By 2015 work had not commenced on the project and Council refused to allow an extension to the permit. However this was over ruled on appeal at VCAT with work finally commencing about two months ago. Responding to my enquiry, an officer at the Department of Planning at Banyule Council informed me that the status of the Lombardy poplar as an “environmental weed” meant that it would not have been protected by the ”Significant Landscape and Environmental Significance Overlay controls which affect the site”, whatever that statement might mean. The poplar was on the periphery of the development and not intrusive. Its removal was unnecessary and however it’s dressed up, from the perspective of historical significance, it strikes me as misguided.
Next month I note that, as a part of the Royal Historical Society History Week, a representative from Banyule Council is booked to lecture at the Watsonia Public Library about the importance of the Significant Trees and Vegetation Register. Yes, there really is a register and a number of the trees at Yallambie within both public space and on private land are on it. What this actually means in practice I would be interested to learn. At Yallambie in the last few years we have seen a century old Hoop Pine and similarly aged Irish Strawberry removed from private gardens. Add these to the disappearance of the Pre-phylloxera grape vine in Yallambie Park and the demise of assorted Italian Cypresses and the old stand of English elms and it is easy to see a pattern developing.
The Yallambie Hoop Pine referred to above was destroyed ostensibly because of the potential damage its root system might do to the drive way of the private home it flanked, although the needs of cars in this city are nothing new. The recent state election was largely fought as a referendum between the freeway and public transport lobbies but it is a debate that has been going on much longer than that. The very first “self-propelled” vehicles of the 19th century were required to be led by a pedestrian waving a red flag or carrying a lantern to warn bystanders of the vehicle’s approach. The F18 Freeway, the so called missing link in Melbourne’s road network and designed to connect traffic on the Western Ring Rd with the Eastern Freeway, is still mentioned every time traffic on Greensborough Rd grinds to a standstill. That battle was fought in the 1970s and won by the anti-freeway lobby. Today it is discussed in the terms of a tunnel under Banyule.
Cars might be a fact of life but what would aliens really think if they happened to drop by and observed the precedence we give to them? In 1960, Lucerne Farm, the former home of Thomas Wills at the confluence of the Darebin Creek and Yarra River, was demolished to make space for a car park for the La Trobe Golf Club. Thomas Wills had been the first owner of the land that became Yallambie. He purchased it in 1836 from the Crown (nobody asked the Wurundjeri what they thought of this) and held onto it for only a few months before selling it to Thomas Walker at a profit. He would have done well in the real estate trade of the 21st century.
More recently, on the corner of Yallambie and Lower Plenty Roads, an assembly hall was built by an evangelical church. Even before the building was finished a car park went in across the site, obliterating in the process the remnant features of a dam which had survived there from the farming era up to that point. An old weeping willow was fortunately retained and it survives on the corner to this day, despite having earlier lost approximately one half of its canopy when Lower Plenty Rd was widened 20 years ago.
So where do cars fit in with life in a capital city of the 21st century living under the looming threat of Peak Oil? Many people are defined by their cars and cannot envisage a life characterised without them. I’m fast approaching that time in life when a man is supposed to go out and purchase a Harley Davidson in vain glorious pursuit of youth, but when our son recently asked which vehicle would I replace our 16 year old Japanese car with if I had the choice, I replied, “A Morris Minor.” I think he was hoping I would say a Lamborghini.
The Morris or so called “Noddy” car was the first car I ever owned and came with me when I moved to Yallambie. It sat out in the open in front of Thomas Wragge’s old brick garage for years, gradually rusting into venerable retirement. I let it go eventually, fearful that if I left it there much longer it would eventually become a roost for chickens. Observing it leave Yallambie for the last time on the back of a trailer was like watching the days of my youth driving off out of my life. The inclination to one day own such a car again proves I’m really not so different to the next man.
What do you think you would catch if you threw a fishing line into the Plenty River at Yallambie? A Redfin perhaps? The “Salmon of Doubt”? An old boot?
I was walking in Yallambie Park the other day below Tarcoola Drive and heard movements on the river bank below me. A few Yallambie likely lads and their girlfriends were down by the riverside with fishing gear and lines trailing into the water. The esky they had brought along with them probably contained little in the way of a catch, but at a guess, lots in the way of lager, the obligatory essential for a good day’s fishing anywhere.
Although the sight of Yallambie anglers is about as uncommon these days as a monster in Loch Ness, a few die hard fishermen are still seen now and then elsewhere along the river. There were plenty of fish in the Plenty once upon a time, enough even for an angling club to form upstream from Yallambie at Greensborough in 1926.
Under the name of the “Greensborough Angling Club”, it met initially at the Greensborough Masonic Hall in Ester St before building premises on the west bank of the Plenty at 161 Para Rd, (then Rattray Rd). The club is still active today and is one of Victoria’s oldest angling clubs, although it’s doubtful whether they fish the River competitively at the back of the club house much anymore. Easier I would say to put in an order at the local fried fish and chip shop.
Frank Wright, a grandson of Thomas Wragge, the landholder of Yallambie in the second half of the 19th century, wrote of his earliest memories and of fishing on the Plenty River in a paper entitled “Recollections of the Plenty River”, extracts of which were quoted by Winty Calder in “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”.
The Plenty water, from my earliest days, was always said to be exceedingly pure, and in the 1920s I heard a professor of engineering say that Yan Yean water was so pure that, without treatment, it could be used indefinitely as boiler-feed water.
I have some slight recollections of the Plenty at Yallambie in the very early 1900s, but my main experiences there were during the years after 1910 when the unoccupied property became, to all intents and purposes, my happy hunting ground… we might walk from and return to Heidelberg for a day’s fishing, or go by train to Greensborough, walk and fish our way to Yallambie and then walk back to Heidelberg; or sometimes my father would pile three or four of us boys and our camping gear into the family buggy and leave us to our own devices on the banks of the river for a week or two at a time. The old (Yallambie) orchard provided us with fruit, the creek with fish, and we (learnt) to look after ourselves. Thus we got to know the river well, at least the length of it between Greensborough and the Lower Plenty Bridge.
It never occurred to us not to drink the water straight out of the river. It was crystal clear, an always flowing stream of pools and little rapids. Trees and bush lined its banks, and here and there an old fallen tree provided a bridge crossing. In other places crossings were easily made.
Possums and platypus were plentiful. Often we would see six or ten platypus in a day. We used to catch blackfish and mountain trout, and once we caught a rare native fish called a marbled trout. It was like a rather narrow 10-inch flathead in shape, with a mottled grey-black colouring. Eels and small freshwater lobsters also came our way.
Looking back, it is now realized, our hunting days at Yallambie bracketed the time that was the beginning of the end for these native fish. I don’t remember which we caught first, an English perch or a Murray cod; anyway, we caught both. Someone had put them in the Yarra and they had made their way up the Plenty, to add to our fun. But these two fish were, I believe, destroyers of the little blackfish and mountain trout.
My visits to the Plenty at Yallambie ceased with World War I.
Fishing has always been a hugely popular past time in Australia. My own father was a keen freshwater river fisherman in the years that followed that other World War. He and his old army mates, all ex POWs, kept a shack after 1945 on the Mitta Mitta River where they would disappear away from their families at irregular intervals to yarn about the “one that got away”. Some sort of wish granting, talking fish I have no doubt.
I remember going there years later as a child, around about the time that to quote my father, the building of the Dartmouth Dam “wrecked the Mitta for fly fishing”. There was a large drawing of a fish in outline on a wall of the shack which, as my father explained, was the outline of a trout which legend had it had been reeled in hook, line and sinker by my godfather, Uncle John. The men had traced the fish onto the wall to immortalize it before it went into the pan. “But take with a grain of salt, or at least a slice of lemon, that drawing and anything else your Uncle John tells you of his Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Your Uncle John was a lousy fisherman. If you ask me, I reckon it was more like a fish finger.”
Like the later building of the Dartmouth, when a catching reservoir was built in the 1850s on the upper reaches of the Plenty River at Yan Yean, the river’s natural flow was forevermore diminished downstream. Mills closed for lack of water and farming practices had to be modified up and down the Plenty valley. The colonial government paid financial compensation to the mill owners whose business literally “dried up” overnight, causing some wags at the time to suggest that there was more money to made in building mills to claim the compensation than in actual mill operation. Oral history would suggest that in the early days of settlement a water driven, mill wheel was located at Yallambie. Indeed, Ethel Temby claimed to have seen the still visible foundations of this feature in the 1960s but locating the mill site within Yallambie Park today can only be described as a problematic exercise at best, although a cut through the river bank for watering cattle and old billabong depressions are still apparent.
Occasional floods on the Plenty River at Yallambie are still possible and at their highest point can cut right across the plain of the horseshoe bend in the vicinity of the billabong depressions.
A Wragge photograph from the 1890s shows the river in flood and in 1996, a century later, another flood was captured in this video clip:
There is no doubt that Yan Yean was a visionary engineering project for an infant colony when it opened in 1857. Certainly Yan Yean water was an improvement on the old system of collecting water from the Yarra, upstream from the settlement, and carting it around the town in barrels.
Visiting Australia in 1871, the English novelist Anthony Trollope, wrote of Melbourne’s water supply and stated, perhaps with some satire, that it “is supposed to be the most perfect water supply ever produced for the use of man. Ancient Rome and modern New York have been less blessed in this respect than is Melbourne with its Yan Yean. I do believe that the supply is almost as inexhaustible as it is described to be. But the method of bringing it into the city is not as yet by any means perfect… I will also add that the Yan Yean water is not pleasant to drink — a matter of comparatively small consideration in a town in which brandy is so plentiful.”
I’ve heard tell that ultra-pure water (literally H²O) produced for use in the medical industry, has the texture of water without the taste of water, and in fact it can be quite dangerous to drink in quantity. Sounds weird doesn’t it? Generally, it is the mineral content in water that gives water the taste we assume it doesn’t have. The use of lead piping in early Melbourne, used to deliver water around the city streets, was probably one reason for Trollope’s reservations about the quality. Consumers at the time were even advised to run their taps to waste for a few minutes each morning in an attempt to lessen the dangers associated with lead piping.
The “inexhaustible” supply described by Trollope all too soon also proved to be inadequate. Further diversions of streams into the Yan Yean system occurred and the 20th century saw the building of a series of new dams on many of the main rivers within casting distance of Melbourne. The last one was built on the Thomson River in west Gippsland within the memory of many people. When completed in 1983, the Thomson Reservoir was more than four times the capacity of Melbourne’s next largest reservoir and was supposed to drought proof Melbourne for all time. Like Yan Yean and the other reservoirs, it was never going to be enough of course. Australia is a dry country. So dry in fact that here in Victoria a few years ago, with the much vaunted Thomson standing almost empty, the politicians went all to water in the face of an ongoing drought and in a robbing “Peter to pay Paul” exercise, built a pipe line to bring water from the Goulburn Valley across the divide to Melbourne. And if that was not enough, at the same time they ordered the building of a massive desalination plant on the Bass Coast near Wonthaggi.
A desalination plant was always going to be a dumb idea and the fact that regular rainfall since its opening has saved the desalination plant (or the pipe line for that matter) from being used is scarcely the point. When you have to start manufacturing water it’s clear to me that you have a population that is living beyond the ecological limits of the environment.
As Melbourne continues to expand into an ever enlarging megatropolis, it is our environment that always pays the price. The latest “Sustainable Cities Index”, a study that rates 50 of the world’s most important cities from 31 countries, taking into account social, economic and environmental considerations, ranks Melbourne 17th in environmental considerations. The same study however ranks Melbourne fifth for profitability and 8th in social factors. I can see a trend developing, can’t you?
In “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, Winty Calder further described some of the environmental stresses that beleaguered the Plenty River at Yallambie in the second half of the 20th century:
Bill Bush would remember platypus in the Plenty River during the 1950s, but both the river and its flood plain were degraded as residential development proceeded. Frank Wright continued returning to Yallambie until the 1970s, by which time his early memories of the property were in sharp contrast to current reality. It had become “a jumble of new roads and dwellings, and the formerly lovely Plenty River (was) a yellow mess of pollution and dumped rubbish.” (Letter from Frank Wright to Olive Shann.) He would never forget that:
“about 1970 or ’71, I… looked sadly at the once pure and beautiful Plenty. The water was a turbid orange colour from the stirred up clay. Raw bulldozed rubble edged the waterway in places. Tin cans, old tyres and other dumpers’ rubbish littered the scene. No sewerage drains served the many dwellings along the banks. I don’t want to see the Plenty again.” (Frank Wright, “Recollections of the Plenty River”).
Soon after Frank’s last visit to that river, the water quality testing programme of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works confirmed his fears that the Plenty was so polluted it could no longer support aquatic life in its lower reaches. However, by then, a main sewer traversed the whole length of the river with branch sewers connected to it at various points.
Around the time Frank Wright wrote his epilogue of the Plenty River, a report from the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works put forward the notion that by 1990 the then polluted river systems of Melbourne would be mended. In fact it claimed that the Yarra, Melbourne’s perennial “upside down river”, would be flowing by then like some sort of Perrier at Dights Falls in Collingwood. Or words to that effect.
It seems hard to believe now, but the Yarra River and its tributaries at Heidelberg, the Plenty River and Darebin Creek all had their swimming holes at one time, some with suburban beaches and pools, dug out surrounds and semi concreted sides rather like sea baths — that was before river pollution made them unfit or at least unfashionable for use.
The remnants of a swimming pool on the Plenty River at Greensborough, a little upstream from Yallambie, are still visible and can be found just below the Main Road Bridge. The Greensborough pool was built as a “Susso” project in the Great Depression at a cost of £200 and was of cement and blue stone construction. It was opened in 1937 by the Mayor of Heidelberg, Councilor Robert Reid with demonstrations of swimming by leading swimmers of the day. It now makes a convenient platform for occasional anglers who would probably balk at the idea of getting their feet wet in the sometimes murky water.
A very good swimming beach of sand at Sills Bend in Heidelberg was still being risked by hardy souls when I was a boy but reduced and changing river flows have affected stream form and that beach consists now mainly of silt and clay when last I visited. I believe there was formerly a camping spot used by the Scouts located just down river from Sills Bend at Bulleen near what is believed to be today one of the most polluted ground locations in Heidelberg — namely the old gasometers site. Camping there was probably never a very good idea. Swimming in the Yarra these days is limited largely to around Warrandyte and to further upstream.
Against all odds and in the face of continued suburban expansion, by the 1990s Melbourne’s rivers were indeed considerably cleaner than from the time when Frank Wright wrote about the Plenty. Still not quite the promised Perrier but things had improved by 1997 to the extent that the local newspaper was able to report that platypus were once again occupying the Plenty River at Yallambie, in the vicinity of the Lower Plenty Rd Bridge. The following year a fishing event was organized for the river codenamed “Catch a Carp Day”. It was intended to reduce the numbers of these introduced European fish in the Plenty River, the correct assumption being that the species was in competition with the native aquatic wildlife.
In January this year it was reported that a 20 year old platypus was found in the Plenty River during a spring survey in 2014 and that, “a breeding population exists at least as far downstream as the mouth of the Plenty River, about 15 kilometres from downtown Melbourne”. (The iconic Platypus is a peculiar animal. A semiaquatic, egg laying, mammal it is the sole living representative of the family Ornithorhynchidae, in the genus Ornithorhynchus (literally bird billed). When stuffed examples were sent for study from Australia to Britain at the end of the 18th century, outraged scholars believed they were the victims of an attempted elaborate antipodean hoax. They infamously tried to remove the “stitching” on the platypus bill that they were sure had been employed in the forgery and the marks of the scissors can still be seen on the specimen on display today in the British Museum of Natural History.)
In the 19th century it was not unknown for platypus pelts and the furs of other rare native species to be turned into rugs and coats like some sort of Australian “One Hundred and One Dalmatians”. A pity nobody stripped their crinoline for PeTA in the 19th century. The Platypus is of course a protected species these days but it remains at risk from pollutants in rivers and the practice of illegal netting. A local newspaper story last month warned about illegal fishing practices and mentioned that two platypuses had recently been found dead in the Yarra River near Laughing Waters Rd, Eltham.
March 1st, is designated “Clean Up Australia Day” 2015, a day when many socially conscious Australians are getting out into the community to clean up the environment. There is a group meeting today in Yallambie Park where no doubt much good work will be done along the environs of the Plenty River, clearing the rubbish washed into the river by overnight rain. “Clean Up Australia Day” is a great Australian idea, the concept of which has spread to nations all around the world, but it is just one day of the 365¼ days in a year.
People love water features near their homes, be they bayside, a natural stream running through parkland, or artificial lakes in the manner of Yallambie’s, “Cascades” and “Streeton Views” housing estates. However, while storm water continues to empty into the suburban river system, every poisonous cigarette butt dropped from a car window, every oil spill that goes onto the road and the proceeds of every one of man’s best friends who ever uses a Ned Flander’s nature strip as a make shift dunny, all of it eventually ends up in one of our rivers or lake features. From there it makes its inexorable way to the Bay and thence to the oceans. After the oceans though there’s no where else to go on this “Pale Blue Dot”. That is the “Wall-e” reality of our world.