Category Archives: Lower Plenty

A real lot of realty

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.

Early subdivisions at Lower Plenty from an old Parish boundary map, (Source: Eltham Historical Society)

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.

The enclosing verandah at Preston Hall as pictured in “The Australian Home Beautiful” magazine, June, 1929.

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.

Mary Thomas’ Bryn Teg – from an old real estate brochure, c1926. (Source: Eltham Historical Society)

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 old barn behind Preston Hall as pictured in “The Australian Home Beautiful” magazine, June, 1929. This building bore a striking resemblance to the Bakewells’ stable building at neighbouring Yallambee and may have been the result of a common builder.

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)

View of the Plenty Bridge Hotel with Preston Hall and Bryn Teg on the ridge above.

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.

The opening of the Heidelberg GC by Prime Minister Stanley Bruce, June, 1928. This picture shows the close proximity of Bryn Teg in the foreground and Preston Hall behind. (Source: Heidelberg GC)
Ancient River Red Gum beside the (Old) Lower Plenty Rd Bridge prior to the golf links development – from an old real estate brochure, c1926. (Source: Eltham Historical Society)
The same River Red Gum in 2000, before construction of the new Edward Willis Court.

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 proposed site of the Rosanna Golf Club at Lower Plenty, photographed before 1964. The Heidelberg township is hidden behind the sign post. The Viewbank ridge is on the right. Picture: The Rosanna Golf Club, W R Trewarne

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 Yarra Yarra Golf Club house at Rosanna in 1921. Bricks from this building were sourced to build the Yallambie Kindergarten (now Yallambie Park Pre School). Picture: The Rosanna Golf Club, W R Trewarne

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 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.

River red gum and pond near Macalister Boulevard within the “Streeton Views” subdivision, Yallambie, March, 2015

“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.

The newly constructed corner at Yallambie Rd and Tarcoola Drive, June, 2017 after overnight rain.

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)

Panorama photographed from Cleveland Ave, Lower Plenty June, 2017.

Squatting on the lower Plenty, 1837

Part 1

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

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

The infamous “Batman Treaty”

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

A 19th century engraving of an indigenous Australian encampment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last orders please

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 Lower Plenty Rd Bridge and the Plenty Bridge Hotel, photographed by Mark Daniel, 1900, SLV.
The Lower Plenty Rd Bridge and the Plenty Bridge Hotel, photographed by Mark Daniel, 1900, SLV.

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.

Victorian Railways No.1 steam charabanc at the Plenty Bridge Hotel, (located opposite the south east corner of Yallambie Park), c1905
Victorian Railways No.1 steam charabanc at the Plenty Bridge Hotel, (located opposite the south east corner of Yallambie Park), c1905
John Bakewell, 1807-1888

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.

Thomas Wragge
Thomas Wragge
Opening of the Heidelberg Golf Links at Bryn Teg, 1928
Opening of the Heidelberg Golf Links at Bryn Teg, 1928

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.

Melbourne’s first formal beer garden.
Melbourne’s first formal beer garden. Source: John Irwin Family Collection
White coated "waiters" at the beer garden service counter.
White coated “waiters” at the beer garden service counter. Source: John Irwin Family Collection

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 Bar", John Brack's apology to Manet and an ironic take on Australia's "6 o'clock closing" laws, (John Brack, 1954, collection of the NGV).
“The Bar”, John Brack’s apology to Manet and an ironic take on Australia’s “6 o’clock closing” laws, (John Brack, 1954, collection of the NGV).

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.

Men crowded in the corner of the main bar of the Plenty Bridge Hotel in the late 1940s. The photograph half visible on the wall to the right was a team photograph of the Montmorency Football Club.
Men crowded in the corner of the main bar of the Plenty Bridge Hotel in the late 1940s. The photograph half visible on the wall to the right was a team photograph of the Montmorency Football Club. Source: John Irwin Family Collection

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.

Exhibition of Max Dupain photography at Mossgreen, a commercial gallery in High Street, Armadale, May, 2016.
Exhibition of Max Dupain photography at Mossgreen, a commercial gallery in High Street, Armadale, May 2016.

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.

"Saloon Bar at Petty's" Max Dupain, 1944, an important record of mid 20th century Australian beer room culture. NGA,
“Saloon Bar at Petty’s” Max Dupain, 1944, an important record of mid 20th century Australian beer room culture. NGA,

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.

Mick (pictured right), the Plenty Bridge barman in front of the tools of his trade.
Mick Noonan (pictured right), the Plenty Bridge barman in front of the tools of his trade. Source: John Irwin Family Collection
Another view behind the PBH bar.
Another view behind the PBH bar. Source: John Irwin Family Collection

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.

Illustrated beer coaster presented to Mick by patrons of the Plenty Bridge Hotel to commemorate his boxing display.
Illustrated beer coaster presented to Mick Noonan by patrons of the Plenty Bridge Hotel to commemorate his boxing display. Source: John Irwin Family Collection

The story of the “Fight” at the Plenty Bridge Hotel grew in the telling and was remembered locally for years afterward.

The "Walk, Trot and Gallop", a light hearted event at the Eltham Agricultural Show, c1950. Mick, the Plenty Bridge barman, is pictured centre facing the camera and wearing a white shirt. He came second. No one remembers whether this was followed by a boxing event...
The “Walk, Trot and Gallop”, a light hearted event at the Eltham Agricultural Show, c1950. Mick Noonan, the head barman at the Plenty Bridge, is pictured centre facing the camera and wearing a white shirt riding the retired race horse Tony. They came second. No one remembers whether this result was followed by an unscheduled boxing event… Source: John Irwin Family Collection

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)

The beer garden at the Plenty Bridge, AKA the Golf Club Hotel.
The beer garden at the Plenty Bridge, AKA the Golf Club Hotel.

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 1953 where 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.

Young John Irwin with transport in front of the Plenty Bridge Hotel.
Young John Irwin with transport in front of the Plenty Bridge Hotel. Source: John Irwin Family Collection

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.”

An idyllic childhood: young John Irwin inside the beer garden at the Plenty Bridge Hotel.
An idyllic childhood: young John Irwin inside the beer garden at the Plenty Bridge Hotel. Source: John Irwin Family Collection

Driving me crazy

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.

The Lower Plenty Rd Bridge and the Plenty Bridge Hotel, photographed by Mark Daniel, 1900, SLV.
The Lower Plenty Rd Bridge and the Plenty Bridge Hotel, photographed by Mark Daniel, 1900, SLV.

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.

Bicycle riders at the Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1900-1910, SLV.
Bicycle riders at the Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1900-1910, SLV.

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.

Snakes alive at Lower Plenty, September, 2015.
Snakes alive at Lower Plenty, September, 2015.

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.

Poster in shop window at Lower Plenty, September, 2015.
Poster in shop window at Lower Plenty, September, 2015.

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.

Golf Club Hotel, aka, the Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, c1950
Golf Club Hotel, aka, the Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, c1950
Site of former Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, November, 2014
Site of former Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, November, 2014
Site of former Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west with stump of Lombardy Poplar visible at center, August, 2015.
Site of former Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west with stump of Lombardy Poplar visible at center, August, 2015.

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.

Car park under construction at Lower Plenty Hotel, September, 2015.
Car park under construction at Lower Plenty Hotel, September, 2015.

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.

Lucerne Farm, the National Trust classified, former Alphington home of Thomas Wills, photographed by Colin Caldwell before demolition c1960, SLV.
Lucerne Farm, the National Trust classified, former Alphington home of Thomas Wills, photographed by Colin Caldwell before demolition c1960, SLV.

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.

Will Wragge pictured alongside one of several tanks (dams) at Yallambie at the start of the 20th century, (Bush collection). In 2013 a dam similar to this on the corner of Lower Plenty and Bannockburn Roads, Viewbank was asphalted as a carpark, an old willow similar to the tree in this picture remaining to this day to mark the spot.
Will Wragge pictured alongside one of several tanks (dams) at Yallambie at the start of the 20th century, (Bush collection). In 2013 a dam similar to this on the corner of Lower Plenty and Bannockburn Roads, Viewbank was asphalted as a carpark, an old willow similar to the tree in this picture remaining to this day to mark the spot.

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.

Motor car in the farm yard at Yallambie, c1930.
Not a Lamborghini in the farm yard at Yallambie, c1930.

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.

Or visiting alien.

The Noddy car leaving Yallambie for the last time.
The Noddy car leaving Yallambie for the last time.

Edward Willis, the Plenty Bridge Hotel & the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge

Old Lower Plenty Road, Bridge and Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1900
Old Lower Plenty Road, Bridge and Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1900
Old Lower Plenty Road, Bridge and Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1957
Old Lower Plenty Road, Bridge and Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1957
Old Lower Plenty Road, Bridge and cycle path, November, 2014
Old Lower Plenty Road, Bridge and cycle path, November, 2014

So to make a liar of me the council street sweeping machine came down Tarcoola Drive again last week, the second time in as many months. Unusually, the parks and gardens department also sent a crew out to mow the fields of Yallambie Park. Maybe somebody is reading these posts after all.

On Sunday I took the hound for a walk across the newly mown common. It’s a fine place to stroll on a sunny day or to sit beside the river under one of Robert Bakewell’s trees and chill out. It’s a place to look deep down into the pools formed by the slow moving flow of the lower reaches of the Plenty River and to keep an eye out for the platypus or bunyips probably lurking there in equal measure. It’s a place to search for meaning.

Looking towards Yallambie from Lower Plenty during the farming era
Looking towards Yallambie from Lower Plenty during the farming era
Soccer ground, Yallambie Park, homestead on the hill, November 2014
Soccer ground, Yallambie Park, homestead on the hill, November 2014

My walk took me down stream to a point where pedestrians and cyclists may cross the river over the refurbished Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge to the newly made residential court, enthusiastically sign posted as “Edward Willis Court”.

The other side of the river, the “eastern bank” or Lower Plenty side was never technically a part of Yallambie although at times its history has featured in our story. Garden states that Robert Hoddle recorded in his survey field notes of June to September 1837 that the pastoralist Edward Willis was in occupation of the east bank of the Plenty River but observes that the run may have overlapped the western (the Yallambie) side of the river.

“Willis’s house, when built, was on the eastern side of the Plenty, north of the (old) Lower Plenty Road bridge. Though Hoddle’s notes are difficult to interpret, it appears that the run may have overlapped the western side of the Plenty.” (Heidelberg, The Land and Its People 1838-1900, Donald S. Garden, MUP, 1972).

Edward Willis was born on 12 September 1816 at Hornsby, Cumberland, England the son of Richard Willis and his wife Anne, née Harper. He arrived in Van Diemen’s Land with his parents in December 1823 aboard the SS Courier and until he was 21 he worked on his father’s property, Wanstead, near Campbell Town in Van Dieman’s Land. In 1837 with his brother William he crossed to Port Phillip, taking 500 ewes and several rams from his father’s pure-bred merino stud and in April the brothers took up their run on the Plenty.

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

In 1837, Thomas Walker, who was to become a significant player in the subsequent development of the Heidelberg district, (for a short while he owned the land that would later form Yallambie, having purchased it from Thomas Wills), wrote this contemporary description of the situation of Willis and his neighbouring squatters in the fertile and well watered country encompassing the confluence of the Yarra and Plenty River systems:

“After having spent the forenoon in the township, we proceeded on Friday afternoon on an excursion up the Yarra Yarra. We were accompanied by Mr. Edward Willis (son of Mr. A. Willis, of Wanstead, Van Dieman’s Land) to whom I was introduced by Mr. McIntyre, of Willis, McIntyre and Co., Sydney. It came to rain shortly after we left, and night also closing in, we did not get so far as we intended, but had to stop for the night at a settler’s Mr. Mollison’s, where we slept on the floor before the fire, but with cloaks and blankets enough to keep us warm, so that I never slept more soundly. I think no class of people live in a rougher way than many of the settlers do here at present. Mr. M. is erecting a hut, which will be well enough when finished, but in the mean time it is open and comfortless; no furniture has he except a bench or stool, a broken cup or two, tin panicans, a couple of knives and forks, and a plate or two. All he has to eat, is Irish salted pork, damper, and tea and sugar; and the light we had, was produced by burning rags in pieces of the fat pork. Upon the whole, I never met people living in a style more rude and rough, or with less attention to comfort, but to which they seem perfectly indifferent, aware it is only a temporary inconvenience. We there met a brother settler of Mollison’s and Willis’, named Wood (son of Captain Wood, of Snakebank, Van Dieman’s Land), and they made us heartily welcome, and afforded us a specimen of a certain class of Port Philip Squatters. The class I mean is numerous, and consists of off-shoots (sons) of Van Dieman’s Land settlers, who are sent over here with a few sheep to do for themselves, there being no room for them in Van Dieman’s Land…

On Saturday, after breakfast, we left Mr. Mollison’s, and proceeded to Mr. Willis’, passing through Mr. Wood’s station. 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. We dined with him, and then returned home, seeing as much of the country as time and a rainy day would permit.” (Extract from “A Month in the Bush of Australia,” Thomas Walker, J. Cross, 1838).

Until the Plenty River was truncated by the Yan Yean Reservoir in the mid 1850s, it was quite substantial. Joseph Tice Gellibrand considered it one of the few streams in Port Phillip that justified the term “river” and named it “Plenty” in 1836 because the surrounding country had such a promising aspect. Gellibrand might have been advised to stop in the neighbourhood for he disappeared without trace early the following year while exploring the country around another river system, the Barwon. At this early date, the river had a number of names which included “Threepenny Creek,” “Willis’s” and Robert Hoddle’s name, the “Yarra Rivulet” before these were gradually discarded in favour of Gellibrand’s “Plenty River”. By 1838, all the land from Willis’s on both sides of the Plenty up to Whittlesea was occupied. Boundaries were determined by the squatters themselves, most of whom were single men who were by then living in stringy bark slab huts. The country must have appeared well watered and attractive to these first white residents.

At the end of the decade Edward Willis returned to Wanstead and his association with the Plenty River ended. He married Catherine, daughter of Captain Charles Swanston in 1840 at Hobart Town and subsequently joined his father in law in partnership in Geelong. He became a prominent citizen in that town’s development and died in England in 1895.

Edward Willis run east of the river was surveyed in 1839 by Assistant Surveyor T H Nutt following on from Hoddle’s initial inspection and was sold by the Crown. In 1841 in the Census, a wattle and daub hut was listed there with ten inhabitants. The land sale of portion 11, which covered most of the present Lower Plenty area, passed through the hands of speculators before being bought by Patrick Turnbull, a Melbourne merchant and pastoralist. Although he did not live on the holding he did fence, clear and stock it .

In 1855 the Preston Hall Estate of 365 acres on the site of Willis’ old run was purchased by John Brown who practiced dairying and general agriculture there. In 1884, he sold the property to David Thomas whose widow Mary in 1887 built a substantial red brick home, Bryn Teg (also known as Preston Hall), across the river and opposite Yallambie.

A track out to Ryrie’s run in Yarra Glen had been established early. It probably followed an old Aboriginal footpath and this is now mostly represented by the form of Main Road. The crossing place over the Plenty River was bridged and a few years later was described by Richard Howitt during his visit of 1843.

“We paced on from our Yarra-cottage towards the Plenty through the wild bush, noting particularly how well, to our right, on the river’s slopes and flats the land was cultivated, and extensively too; covered with emerald-green crops of corn, contrasting admirably with the dingy colour of the wild interminable woodlands. In two hours we reached the Plenty, a delightful though small tributary of the Yarra; clothed far and near with the fresh beauty of cultivated growths. Over the Plenty is a bridge that a painter would not overlook; nor yet the one at the Diamond Creek; both being picturesquely formed of trees laid across, covered with poles athwart again, and lastly overlaid with large sheets of stringy bark.” (Impressions of Australia Felix, Richard Howitt, 1845).

Old Lower Plenty Bridge, seen from the west bank of the Plenty River, down stream
Old Lower Plenty Bridge, seen from the west bank of the Plenty River, down stream
Looking upstream from the east bank of the Plenty River below the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge, November, 2014
Looking upstream from the east bank of the Plenty River below the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge, November, 2014

In 1865, the Heidelberg Road Board informed the Eltham Road Board that the existing Plenty Bridge was by that time “in a dangerous state” and a decision was made to replace the earlier structure, Heidelberg and Eltham jointly agreeing to share the cost. Stonework for the new bridge was by R Turnbull and Co. and the ironwork by E Chambers and Co. with the designing engineer G Francis supervising the work. This is the historic iron and blue stone bridge which today stands slightly down stream from the modern 70 km/h limit dual carriage way. The old bridge became notorious in its last years of road service as the scene of many motoring accidents, the sharp bend and narrow crossing from west to east being too much for many drivers. With construction of the modern bridge and realignment of Lower Plenty Road, the old bridge was allowed to fall into disrepair but was refurbished and reopened in 2001 as a crossing point for pedestrians and cyclists using the Plenty River Trail. The blue stone was repaired and repointed and the iron work was removed in its entirety to be repaired off site before reinstallation.

Plenty Bridge Hotel
Plenty Bridge Hotel
Site of former Plenty Bridge Hotel, November, 2014
Site of former Plenty Bridge Hotel, November, 2014

Near the eastern abutment of the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge next to the entrance of Edward Willis Court stands today a single, very elderly poplar growing out of the embankment. That tree marks the site of Plenty Bridge Hotel which opened there in 1858. Location of the hotel next to the bridge and an associated toll gate reflected the continuing significance of this river crossing to the district. The site, adjacent to the south east corner of the Yallambie farm and across the river from it, was to remain the centre of community life for the area for more than 100 years. Wallace Murdoch, who married Sarah Annie, the eldest daughter of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge, is said to have known the hotel all too well. He was a frequent customer at the pub and died of sclerosis of the liver in 1926. The 1923 renovation of Yallambie Homestead, commenced when Annie inherited the property, was encouraged by Wallace and used an architect friend of the family said to be a man Wallace met at the pub.

Legend has it that another patron of the Plenty Bridge Hotel was the notorious gangster, Squizzy Taylor, who spent time at the hotel and is supposed to have practiced his shooting by firing at a dead tree across the river with a revolver. (Recorded interview of Elsie Barnett by local historian, Shane Stoneham.) Squizzy was fatally wounded in a 1927 gun fight with a criminal rival so maybe his shooting practice was not to much effect.

View of Golf Club House, (Bryn Teg) and hotel
View of Golf Club House, (Bryn Teg) and hotel
Opening of the Heidelberg Golf Links at Bryn Teg, 1928
Opening of the Heidelberg Golf Links at Bryn Teg, 1928

In 1926, the seven decade old Plenty Bridge Hotel premises were purchased by the Heidelberg Golf Club Company Ltd which at the same time acquired 177 acres of Mary Thomas’ “Bryn Teg”. In 1927, under the supervision of Harry Alexander, that company commenced construction of a golf course which was officially opened the following year by the Federal Prime Minister, Stanley Melbourne Bruce.

At first, until the Club secured its own licence, the business of the Plenty Bridge Hotel was conducted by a Licensee, the operation run as a “19th hole”. The trading hours of 9am to 6pm initially rather restricted the drinking of the players but its position just outside the city’s metropolitan limits meant that it was one of the few places in Melbourne at that time where you could travel to for a drink on a Sunday.

Golf Club Hotel, aka the Plenty Bridge Hotel
Golf Club Hotel, aka the Plenty Bridge Hotel

In time the 19th Hole was relocated to club rooms within Mary Thomas’ old house, Bryn Teg, that building being considerably redeveloped by the club in the process. The Plenty Bridge or “Golf Club Hotel” as it had become known survived until about 1957, just as residential development at Yallambie and Lower Plenty kicked off. Another “Lower Plenty Hotel” was built on the ridge overlooking the Lower Plenty township and the Plenty Bridge Hotel disappeared under an embankment raised across the site. Thus it remained, undisturbed for two generations its story, like Frodo’s ring, all but forgotten. If any reflection was given to the weedy mound that hid the mortal remnants of all that remained of the community’s former cultural hub, it was assumed that the ground formed a part of the public open space of the river environment.

Golf Club Hotel, aka, the Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, c1950
Golf Club Hotel, aka, the Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, c1950
Site of former Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, November, 2014
Site of former Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, November, 2014

As the 2nd millennium dawned, an approach was made to the Heidelberg Golf Club to purchase the site of the former Plenty Bridge Hotel which remained alienated under their title. Rumour has it that the potential developer charmed the Golf Club committee with the story of a wish to build a “dream home” on the spot. However, once the sale was completed and only AFTER title was secured, the land was mysteriously rezoned from low density to Residential 1. Plans were then lodged with Banyule City Council to build 22 attached, double storey unit style buildings across a 9m frontage, 0.7ha “battleaxe” block.

Such an over development of the land as proposed in this initial scheme was met with general alarm by the community. A public meeting which I along with many others attended, was called at the Lower Plenty Hotel in December 1999 to discuss the issue. A representative of the developer was present to display the suggested plans and supposedly to answer questions from the public. To issues such as storm water run off into the Plenty River, the removal of existing trees, the impact on fauna and of the general propriety of the style and density of the proposed buildings in a culturally and historically important setting, it soon became apparent that the representative had few creditable responses.

Over 30 objections were eventually made to the planning application at Council from across a wide range of the community and the application for a planning permit was dismissed. The development proponent took the matter to VCAT which also dismissed the application, the Registrar noting in doing so the high quality of the objections. There then followed a lengthy process where the plans were resubmitted every few years with slight changes, the proponent having the luxury of full time professional representation at the Tribunal and a seemingly inexhaustible bank balance, the public relying on the enthusiasm and energy of individuals. In a battle of attrition, the objectors needed to win their case on every occasion the application was presented. The developer just once.

Edward Willis Court, November, 2014
Edward Willis Court, November, 2014

The outcome at the Plenty Bridge was inevitable. After a decade of attempts the developer succeeded in having a plan for the site passed, albeit as a very much reduced project of 6 individual house blocks in what is now Edward Willis Court. The 2 largest river red gums and a silky oak within the development were retained during this subdivision. Will they be allowed to remain? The experience of houses built in the recent past at nearby “Streeton Views” in Yallambie has been that old native trees left within the vicinity of new housing are at risk once residential development progresses. The larger of the red gums was assessed independently twice during the application and was recorded as being between 2 and 300 years old (A&R Tree Surgeons, K F Gerraty Forestry Consultant). The disposition of limb failure in old river red gums would suggest that housing will need to be situated at some little distance from these trees in Edward Willis Court.

200 year+ river red gum, at future Edward Willis Court, 2000
200 year+ river red gum, at future Edward Willis Court, 2000
200 year+ river red gum, at Edward Willis Court, November, 2014
200 year+ river red gum, at Edward Willis Court, November, 2014

The current house blocks I noticed are numbered from 11 to 16. Does this reflect future ambitions for the lower consecutive numbers and does it necessarily follow that ultimately we will get the 1999 scheme by proxy? As a mad conjecture then, why not rebuild the Plenty Bridge Hotel itself? Not in competition with the modern Lower Plenty Hotel and its pokies but as a boutique hotel catering to a smaller crowd with reference to the history of this important site. Although it has been buried to a considerable extent by earthworks that presumably originated from the ridge above, the actual footprint of the Plenty Bridge Hotel remains to this day. I have heard that a surviving floor plan of the original building exists within a private collection and numerous photographs of the exterior exist, showing the building at various times during its life and from different angles. A similar building programme was conducted from scratch with much success at the Walhalla’s Star Hotel, probably with less information to go on. The popularity of the nearby Sulwan Thai restaurant which operates from a former weather board home in Main Road is an example of the need for places of this size in the locality.

The battle between developers and the supporters of our cultural and physical environment has been played out often in the suburbs and with a State election due at the end of this month it is an issue that I’m sure will again be in focus. The primary concern of early squatters like Edward Willis was to make as much money from the land in as short a space of time as possible before moving on. In the words of Thomas Walker in 1837, “…they seem perfectly indifferent, aware it is only a temporary inconvenience.”

Prophetic words given the attitudes of developers in this modern day. Theirs is a short term, profit driven prosperity driven by population growth and measured against the costs to a world endangered by impending environmental crises and a future clouded by global warming.

Golf Club Hotel, aka, the Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west towards Old Lower Plenty Bridge, c1950
Golf Club Hotel, aka, the Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west towards Old Lower Plenty Bridge, c1950