Category Archives: Ripping Yarns

Old MacDonald had a farm

The end of Jacobite ambitions on the bloody battlefield of Culloden’s Drummossie Moor on a cold, windswept April morning in 1746 was not the end of the story for its principal protagonist. While the Government would have preferred the end to feature the end of a rope, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, “The Young Chevalier” and rightful heir to the thrones of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, spent much of the following five months on the run from Government forces.

Sheltering in the heather, escaping from one scrape or near miss to another, the story of the flight of Bonnie Prince Charlie entered the folklore of legend. Long after the events of 1745 and 1746, the story of his failed uprising was told and toasted by the fireside in Scottish bothies and Baronial houses in both word and song:

…Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing,
Onward, the sailors cry.
Carry the lad that’s born to be king
Over the sea to Skye.
Though the waves leap, soft shall ye sleep,
Ocean’s a royal bed.
Rock’d in the deep, Flora will keep
Watch o’er your weary head…

Contrary to the popular idea of the Skye Boat Song lyric, it was Charles and not his companion Flora MacDonald who kept watch that night while the other slept on the trip from Uist in the Outer Hebrides to Skye off the west coast of Scotland, but the underlying sentiment remains the same. Dressed as he was as Flora’s maid servant, the boat party were almost certainly all aware of the true identity of their 5 foot 10 inch, cross dressing Royal passenger with the £30,000 Government bounty on his head, but it is part of the romance of the Jacobite legend that not one of them that night or those he encountered in the time before or after ever attempted to claim that reward.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart painted by William Mosman around 1750.

Sadly though, when it was all over and Charles was safely back in France reviewing his shattered dreams through the end of a bottle, it was Flora and the broken regiments of the Jacobite Army who were left to bear the full force of Hanovarian retribution in the Highlands. For Flora herself this meant arrest and a short time spent as an unwilling guest at the Tower of London.

Altogether Flora MacDonald spent a year in a sort of loose captivity in and around London before being pardoned in the general amnesty of July, 1747 but in the intervening time, something else had happened. With the Jacobite threat now seemingly extinguished once and for all, there was time at last to sit back and take stock. The modest Highland lass who had bravely sheltered the arch rebel himself in his time of greatest need had somehow become a celebrity.

Allan Ramsay’s portrait of Flora MacDonald

Flora was the toast of Society. Her portrait was painted by Ramsay in a boon to shortbread makers ever since. Sympathisers came to visit including Frederick, the non-pretending Prince of Wales who met her, partly to annoy his father, but principally to thumb his nose at his younger brother, the Duke of Cumberland, the “Butcher” of Highland infamy. The story goes that when Frederick asked Flora sternly why she had sided with his father’s enemies, she replied she would have done the same for anyone, even Frederick himself if she found him in similar distress. The answer is said to have impressed the heir apparent.

Following her pardon, Flora married and left Scotland for the American colonies where her husband ironically fought for the Hanovarian King against the Revolutionary armies. Forced by the British defeat in America to return to Scotland, Flora MacDonald died on the Isle of Skye in 1790 where Dr Johnson’s epitaph for her perhaps formed a lasting memorial for her life.

“Her name will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.”

The Highlands emptied of their people and the world moved on, but the memory of the Prince and his father, the “King Over the Water”, lingered on in memory. The romanticisation of the Jacobite story started during Flora’s life time but gathered pace in the 19th century, with George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822 and Victoria and Albert’s 20 years later. Victoria and Albert’s visit began for them a long love affair with the country and with the Queen’s own somewhat dubious claim to a Scottish heritage. With this in mind then, it’s no wonder then that the large Scottish contingent present in Port Phillip’s pioneer settler society of the early 1840s had its own fair share of sentimentalist Scotophiles.

Portrait group of John Brown and Queen Victoria. Oil painting by Charles Burton Barber.

Arriving in the vicinity of the Plenty River in July, 1840 one of these settlers, John MacDonald of Skye and his wife Catherine established a farm of just under 200 acres which, perhaps not surprisingly given their heritage, they named “Floraville”. The land was part of Wood’s Portion 27 in the parish of Keelbundora north-west from Yallambie in Portion 8 and was purchased for £400. MacDonald paid for the land almost entirely with a mortgage from a cashed up Dr Godfrey Howitt who had arrived in the Port Phillip District just three months earlier with his wife and brothers in law, John and Robert Bakewell.

Old survey map (part of) showing Wills’ Portion 8 (Yallambee) and Woods’ Portion 27 (MacDonald’s Floraville) straddled between the Darebin Creek and Plenty River, (marked Yarra Rivulet).
John MacDonald in 1849, (Source: electricscotland.com)

According to research made by a descendant, Betty Wooley, John MacDonald, ex Sergeant of the 26th Regiment, was born in Skye in 1806. He married Catherine in 1827 and came to Port Phillip in 1838. The land he purchased in Portion 27 backed onto the Darebin Creek but Betty believes that the MacDonald farm also had access to the Plenty River where it runs through the Plenty Gorge near present day Janefield.

Birth notice from the Geelong Advertiser, 10 January 1842 placing John MacDonald’s family at the Plenty River.

A listing in Billis & Kenyon’s 1932 ”Pastoral Pioneers of Port Phillip” confusingly mentions a John Macdonald of “Floraville”, Lower Plenty, 1841 to 1842 and this may be the start of a certain uncertainty that has surrounded this story from the start. A contemporaneous newspaper article from the same time in “The Australasian” also suggests that: “In partnership with John W Shaw the Bakewells took out a depasturing licence in 1841 for a run called Floraville…” (The Australasian, October, 1936)

Birth notice in the Port Phillip Patriot, 3 January, 1842 placing John MacDonald’s family at the Darebin Creek.

What does this mean? The Bakewells’ property “Yallambee” has at times been referred to in print as “Floraville”, a name which seemed to suit its garden perfectly. To get to the truth it is probably important to look at what happened to John MacDonald’s farming interests during the economic crisis that hit Port Phillip in the early 1840s.

With the onset of the recession the MacDonalds like so many other colonists, found themselves in financial difficulty. In February 1842 the family’s wet nurse sued for payment of unpaid wages and in April, labourers were reported to have taken MacDonald to court over an outstanding payment for the sinking of a well at Floraville.

Dr Godfrey Howitt, by Samuel Calvert, 1873.

Three months later Godfrey Howitt foreclosed on his mortgage to John MacDonald and the property was advertised for sale in the newspapers in terms that might well have been used to describe the Bakewells’ own Yallambee Park instead.

9th July 1842 – ‘Floraville Estate’, on the Plenty Road, the whole farm fenced in and subdivided into two paddocks of about one hundred acres each, there is about fifty acres under cultivation, or ready for the plough. On it is erected an excellent weather boarded house, containing six rooms and out offices, with barn and huts, stockyards etc., a well ninety feet deep of good never failing water. The view of the house is extensive; the roads are good, and the distance from town so short, that produce may be conveyed to the market at very trifling expense.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station with cattle in foreground. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria)

Even with the economic hardships of that time, Dr Godfrey didn’t have to look very far to find a ready buyer for the MacDonald Farm. On the 31st August, 1842 under the terms of the earlier mortgage, “Floraville Estate” was conveyed to Dr Godfrey’s brothers in law, John and Robert Bakewell for £575.

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

Perhaps this then is the origins of the name “Floraville” at Yallambee. The Bakewells may have used their newly purchased property further up the Plenty initially as a depasturing run as has been suggested in the Australasian article, but seven months later it is clear they were prepared to make it available for lease. In March 1843 the following advertisement appeared:

To Be Let, the Capital Compact Farm, Floraville, lately in the occupation of Mr Macdonald, only 11 miles from Melbourne, consisting of 200 acres of excellent land, The greater part clear, and first rate soil. Thirty acres are now in crop, and speak for themselves. The house is furnished with a veranda, and contains six rooms. The huts and stockyards are all superior. The proprietors being desirous of procuring a good tenant, intend to let the whole at an exceedingly low rent. For further particulars apply to Messrs J. and R. Bakewell the proprietors, Plenty Bridge.

After letting MacDonald’s Floraville before presumably selling it, did the Bakewells subsequently adopt the name as a sometime alternative to their Lower Plenty property, Yallambee simply because they liked the sound of it? They might not have fully appreciated the Jacobite implications of the name but it sort of fitted in with what Robert was trying to do with the garden at Yallambee at this time. Certainly it is from this point on that the name “Floraville” like the earlier title, “The Station Plenty”, is mentioned occasionally in the sources in context of the Bakewells’ Yallambee Park narrative.

River valley photographed from the Plenty River Trail opposite Montmorency Secondary College, July, 2016.

Much has been made of the cultural history of the Plenty River and its course through the Upper Plenty Valley. Melbourne Water, as custodians of a part of that history as it applies to the Yan Yean catchment, and Whittlesea Council, with its reserve of heritage assets, do a very good job at defending that history, but lower down the picture has not always been so clear.

Anderson’s Mill on the River Plenty by G. A. Gilbert. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

The Plenty River above and below the Plenty Gorge is like a tale of two rivers defined by the spill over of geology from the volcanic plains to the west. As Winty Calder explained in “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, the two halves of the River mark the crossing point of two geologies, one ancient the other recent, at least in geological terms. The resulting landscape shaped the people and the lives of the settlers who came to stay.

“More than one million years earlier, basalt flows from the west had pushed the pre-existing Plenty River eastward before cooling and forming rock, the surface of which ultimately weathered into rich soil. The displaced river gradually cut down through the basalt and into the underlying, much older sandstones and mudstones…”
(Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales)

From its source on the forested slopes of Mt Disappointment, through the Yan Yean swamps and its final confluence with the Yarra River, the Plenty River is a rich cultural asset filled with interesting stories and history. The story of how Old MacDonald’s Farm became at some point and in some quarters, interchanged and intertwined with the Bakewells’ Yallambee Park, at least in name but perhaps also in memory, is but one of these.

So with this in mind, the next time you find yourself reaching across the table for that last piece of shortbread from a souvenir tin, if your eyes should meet a Jacobite biscuit heroine gazing your way, spare a thought for her eponym “Floraville”, another fragment of the Yallambie puzzle.

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GOLD!

If there was one thing destined to end the era of convict transportation to Australia, it was the discovery of golden mineral wealth in a land which for so long had been the dumping ground of Great Britain’s most unwilling form of immigrants. Strictly speaking, the Port Phillip District was never a penal colony, but convicts did make their way there assigned to various work parties, or while holding tickets of leave in other colonies. With the discovery of gold in Australia however, the irony in sending felons to a foreign el Dorado of the south was not lost on the authorities when it seemed that half the world was quite literally falling over itself to get there in a mad “rush to be rich”.

The existence of gold in the Port Phillip District had long been something of an open secret, the facts seemingly supressed by a government fearful of the possible social dislocation of an Australian gold rush. Although it’s not widely recognized now, some of these very first rumours of gold in Victoria occurred in the Plenty Ranges and on the tributaries of the upper reaches of the Plenty River itself. One such story at the start of the 1840s involved an eccentric bushman called John or Jemmy Gomm (“Old Gum”) who was supposed to have lived in a hollow tree on the Upper Plenty on the slopes of Mt Disappointment, secretly prospecting for gold but telling people all along he was hunting for lyrebirds. lyre_birdOld Gum had arrived at Port Phillip in 1835 as one of John Pascoe Fawkner’s servants aboard the schooner “Enterprize” but had “gone bush”. A Plenty River pastoralist, George Urquart, writing much later to “The Brisbane Courier” newspaper in 1882 described meeting Gomm, seeing his gold specimens and the situation of his Plenty Ranges bush camp:

An echo of Jemmy Gomm: a 19th century stump house in old Gippsland. (Source: Art Gallery of NSW).
An echo of Jemmy Gomm: a 19th century stump house in old Gippsland. (Source: Art Gallery of NSW).

“He had a nice garden, which was well-stocked with a variety of vegetables, and a beautiful stream of water running through the centre of it. His habitation was an old fallen gum tree, which in its fallen state was fully 70ft in circumference. A shell of the stump stood forming the back of ‘Gum’s’ fireplace; the short space between the fallen trunk and the remains standing upright had been covered in with bark, the burnt portion of the tree cleared out with his adze; and he had in the tree a kitchen, a storeroom where he manipulated his gold, and a bedroom. He handed me a small nugget of gold, which I took, beat very thin, and sent to an elder brother in Sydney, who, when acknowledging his receipt, replied telling me, “to mind my cattle and not think of gold-gathering”. ‘Gum’ was a quiet, inoffensive man. He told me he came from Van Diemen’s Land, and appeared very thankful that I allowed my manager to supply him with rations.”

Melbourne's Police Magistrate, Captain William Lonsdale.
Melbourne’s Police Magistrate, Captain William Lonsdale.

Occasionally “Old Gum” travelled down to Melbourne to dispose of gold, exchanging it for rations, before heading back into the bush. The idea of some whimsical old soul living secretly in the bush and unearthing mineral riches at random quite caught the public imagination at the time and in 1842 the police magistrate, Captain William Lonsdale, despatched troopers to find old man Gomm. They eventually found his camp but Gomm had gone. The bird had flown his proverbial coop in the face of authority, leaving his camp deserted with “crucibles and old bellows, but no gold.”

The Turon River, NSW, scene of Australia's first gold rush.
The Turon River, NSW, scene of Australia’s first gold rush.

The first real rush in Australia occurred about a decade later at the Turon field near Sofala in New South Wales in June, 1851, just prior to the official separation of Port Phillip from New South Wales on the 1st July. After Separation the new Victorian government looked for their own gold strike to stem the exodus north and announced a reward of £200 for the first person to find a payable deposit within easy reach of Melbourne. The so called Plenty River “gold” rush actually coincided with the rush to the Turon but would prove to be a Furphy since the actual gold found on the Plenty would turn out to be comparatively very slight, if not altogether non-existent. At any rate, the story of Plenty River gold was perhaps more a reflection of the desire of local business interests in Melbourne to find gold in Victoria, but not so very far away from the town that it would cause a whole scale exodus to the far flung reaches of the interior. In the resulting excitement, stories of gold in the vicinity of Melbourne abounded and there were even reports of Melbourne streets being dug up, in spite of laws specifically forbidding such activities. It seems that people were finding gold everywhere.

“When first we left old England’s shore
Such yarns as we were told
As how folks in Australia
Could pick up lumps of gold”

The short lived rush to the Plenty region itself seems to have taken place after a certain Thomas Hewitt made the following claims about gold in the Plenty Ranges in what was nevertheless a pretty percipient letter to “The Argus” newspaper which published it on 30 May, 1851:

“…I can assure you that I myself have seen two men who have been up in our ranges, and showed me a parcel of gold dust; as far as I could judge, of a very good quality; and they told me that they had been up in the ranges for two months, and had done very well on their trip. I have had some little experience in geology, and think that it is most likely that gold may be found in some quantities in the Plenty Ranges, the dip of the rock being exactly like those of the California region; but I hope for the good of the country that no such diggings may be made in our part, as through false representation an idle and worthless population might be drawn to the locality, it might at the same time delude many of our steady worthy labourers, who might thrive at the rate of about ten in a hundred. Hoping that this may not be the case, I am, Sir, yours truly, Thomas Hewitt, River Plenty, May 26th, 1851.”

News of gold on the Plenty and in such close proximity to Melbourne resulted in great excitement. “The Argus” carried almost daily reports on the developments and on June 9 reported:

“The gold on the Plenty still continues the main staple of conversation; it is alike talked of by the merchant and labourer… Several samples of so-called Plenty gold are now shown in town and there are reports on all sides of lucky individuals who have found wealth all in a moment…”

Red Dwarf channels Dangerous Dan McGrew.
Red Dwarf channels Dangerous Dan McGrew.

About 300 people were scattered over the Plenty Ranges, washing for gold in the creeks and minor tributaries. With fears of the fields descending into a haunt for the “Dangerous Dan McGrew” stereotype of later poetical fiction, a party of mounted troopers was sent out from Melbourne to keep order, it being reported that there were those in the Ranges “who would steal the nose off one’s face,” (ibid). The report was illustrated by the story of one man who found £17 18s 3d of gold dust only to have £18 worth of goods stolen from his unattended cart while he panned.

Extract from "The Courier", Hobart, 18 June, 1851.
Extract from “The Courier”, Hobart, 18 June, 1851.

The news of gold on the Plenty spread quickly to the other Australian colonies and an article in “The Courier” newspaper of Hobart on June 18 speculated that the Plenty ranges were “a continuation of the Bathurst ranges, where gold is now being found in large quantities…”

As stories of real and richer finds in other parts of the colony soon began to overrun the imaginary Plenty River riches, the story should have died a quiet natural. However Henry Frencham gave it a new lease of life on June 14 when, working as a reporter for the “Port Phillip Gazette”, he claimed to have made his own discovery of gold in the Plenty region. An assay of his specimens revealed no gold but then Henry Frencham also claimed to have found gold at the western end of Bourke Street, Melbourne and would later claim to have also been responsible for the first discovery of gold on the rich Bendigo gold fields. Frencham’s claims might have been questionable but his reports made good copy for the newspapers all the same. One Argus report described Frencham as being “a respectable man, who can have no object in deceiving the public; and although his supposed discovery at the Plenty turned out a mistake, no one doubted his own firm believe in the genuineness of the article discovered.” As the author of this piece was probably Frencham himself, working in his capacity as a reporter, it can only be imagined what the deceived public really thought but interestingly Frencham’s site in the Plenty ranges near what would become Queenstown (St Andrews) would later be worked very successfully as the Caledonia gold field.

Henry Frencham, (James Lerk collection)
Henry Frencham, (James Lerk collection)
Thomas Wragge
Thomas Wragge, (Bush collection)

The 1850s were a pivotal decade in Victoria’s colonial history and Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge found himself in this mix right at the start. He departed England for the Australian colonies as an intermediate passenger on board the SS Northumberland in 1851, just before news of the first Australian gold strikes were received in England. Arriving at Port Phillip with £25 in his pocket to an economic climate defined by gold discoveries, rumoured discoveries and colonial separation, the 21 year old Thomas Wragge showed no inclination to join the overwhelming exodus to the new Victorian gold fields. The young, ex-Nottinghamshire farmer carried a letter of introduction written by familial connections of Yallambee’s John and Robert Bakewell and had his own ideas about how to go about finding riches in Victoria.

“Thomas and his family would not have heard of the Australian discoveries before he departed, but land and pastoral activities seem to have been his primary concerns… The great influx of gold-seeking immigrants had resulted in soaring prices for meat, and keen demand for agricultural produce.” (Calder: “Class the Wool and Counting the Bales).

The years of the Victorian gold rushes saw a great increase in the worth of agricultural produce in the new colony. For instance, hay which had previously sold for 35s a tonne sold in Melbourne in 1852 for £50. Wheat rose from 2s 8d a bushel to 12s and locally, Michael Butler of Greensborough is recorded as receiving up to £155 per tonne for carting flour to the Bendigo fields. The prices paid for beef and bullocks rose even more.

It is unknown today whether Wragge worked immediately on arrival for John and Robert Bakewell at Yallambee, or at any time thereafter between 1851 and 1854 at which later date he is known to have been on the estate. However, the Bakewells had pastoral interests in other Victorian properties and if Thomas was not at Yallambee he may have been working for them at one of these, possibly at Western Port or on the Campaspe.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station with cattle in foreground.
John and Robert Bakewell’s “Yallambee”, The Station Plenty, view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station with cattle in foreground. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria).

Although the only gold found on the Plenty River had by then been proved to be the stuff of fools it seems that there was still enough interest locally for a couple of potential “mines” being attempted at Yallambie. In the additional notes to Winty Calder’s “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” she mentions a mine shaft that was sunk next to the river close to the location of the Plenty Bridge Hotel and another sort of “strike” made in the vicinity of the site of William Greig’s old farm, below present day Allima Avenue.

“There was once a mine shaft on Yallambie, over near the pub. There was also another sort of strike just behind the chooks (i.e. N of the house) – Picol Paddock. The other was at Barn Hill (river paddock).” (Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, notes).

Heidelberg and Eltham artist Walter Withers' mining series, painted at Creswick in 1893 (from left): "Mining", (Ballarat Fine Art Gallery); "Cradling", (Art Gallery of NSW); "Fossickers", (National Gallery of Australia); and "Panning", (private collection).
Heidelberg and Eltham artist Walter Withers’ mining series, painted at Creswick in 1893 (from left): “Mining”, (Ballarat Fine Art Gallery); “Cradling”, (Art Gallery of NSW); “Fossickers”, (National Gallery of Australia); and “Panning”, (private collection).

In spite of these rumoured mines, it seems pretty clear now that nothing was ever found. However, Yallambee at Heidelberg would prove to be fortunately located close to the roads leading to several diggings. A way side inn was established on the Plenty River at the end of present day Martins Lane to capture the goldfields traffic heading to the Caledonia field through Eltham and Wragge, as the Bakewells’ tenant at Yallambee, would find himself well placed to cater to this market.

“Little hostelries sprang up to offer refreshment to the digger at intervals along the way, and a river crossing settlement emerged at Lower Plenty, where a slab hut was built at the ford near Martins Lane.” (Edwards: The Diamond Valley Story, p40).

William Howitt
William Howitt

William Howitt was ostensibly looking for gold when he was in the colony in 1852 and visited his brother Godfrey’s, brothers in law at Yallambee. In the event, Howitt didn’t find much in the two years he spent on the gold fields but his experiences as described in his monumental work “Land Labour and Gold,” are recognized today as an historically important primary document of life in gold rush era Victoria and include William’s description of the Bakewells’ Yallambee, (quoted previously in these pages).

In another primary account with a local interest from that time, Rebecca Greaves wrote a letter to an uncle in England at the end of 1851 from her parents’ farm in Greensborough, just upriver from Yallambee, and giving her own impressions of the early stages of the Victorian gold rushes at a time when it was still considered “that the Plenty all along abounds in gold”:

“…I read an account that a gentleman I know in Melbourne had the first shovel full found a piece of solid gold the size of a duck’s egg whereas there other gents that were with him only found 2 or three grains and Doctor Barker one of the party did not find any at all so it is all chance. I have seen some of it in the stone it is found in is exactly the same as the marble on our land in fact it is thought that the Plenty all along abounds in gold it is on the Plenty one of the places they are finding so much they are finding it in many parts of the country it is thought that Victoria abounds in Gold, “now what do you think of our emigrating to this gold region?” Everyone has left town to go to the diggings there is not a man or boy to be seen in town even the gents at the Bank are “off to the diggings” such an uproar never was known in the colony before not a ship can leave the bay for as soon as the ships get in port the sailors away to the Gold mines go where you will you cannot see a man unless it is an old man like my Father the papers are full of shops to let on account of the owners going to the “diggings” they are exactly the same plight at Sydney they are finding Gold all over the country; it seems to have raised some of the poor faint hearted English cakes now they have heard of Gold being found in quantities in Victoria they can raise courage enough to come out by ship loads but even now I would not persuade anyone to come all I can say is that the farewells of large families are complete soft cakes to remain in England when once they hear of a country that anyone must do work in if I were only a young man would not I go gold digging and even now I feel half inclined to dress in man’s clothes and go I am certain if I could not dig I could rock the cradle only I should be afraid they would know I was not a man as I should not like to part with my curls for that you know Uncle would spoil my beauty would it not and that certainly would be a great pity…” (Extract from a letter written by 23 year old Rebecca Sarah Greaves at Greensborough, dated 25 November, 1851).

Ray Harryhausen's fleece, the sort of gold that Jason found on Colchis.
“…he did eventually find gold of another kind, in the form of fleece from the sheep’s back…”.

In spite of the hopes of men like Frencham and the beliefs of Rebecca Greaves, the Plenty River  never really got going as gold country although Victoria as a whole would for a while prove to have some of the richest fields the world has ever known. Although Wragge didn’t try his luck on these goldfields he did eventually find gold of another kind, in the form of fleece from the sheep’s back and he died a wealthy man. By the time he pulled up stumps at Yallambie in 1910, the £25 capital he carried with him on arrival had increased to more than £400,000.

Those golden days are long ended although today the signs of those times can still be seen in the occasional abandoned mullock heaps of the bush and in the presence of grand, gold rush era, inland towns. My father, a Ballarat boy born and bred, was known to point knowingly at times towards the horizon when visiting that town saying, “There’s more gold in those hills than ever came out of them.” He was speaking maybe from family experience since legend has it that, before the war, his family were supposed to have kept a large suede bag full of gold dust and quartz. “It was from the old days when your great grandfather was a miner and it was kept over for a time of need.” His childhood was marked by the years of the Great Depression and by end of the War, that bag and its contents were most definitely gone.

Lerderderg River, September, 2013.
Lerderderg River, September, 2013.

As a kid I used to go bushwalking into the Lerderderg Gorge halfway to Ballarat, using an old miners’ mule track which led down to the river. The Lerderderg is very close to Melbourne but as a lad it was like walking into a world of my imagination not unlike Middle-earth. There was a mine tunnel there which went in one side of a ridge and came out the other, all dug by hand by Chinese miners in the 19th century and held up without timber supports. It used to be a test of courage for us as kids to crawl through the tunnel with small battery torches from one end to the other with the roof and walls gradually getting narrower and narrower until emerging in a scramble on the other side. I went back there a few years ago with my own son but could no longer find the entrance to the tunnel. All that remained of it by then was a big hole in the side of the ridge marking the location of its collapse. Another example in the “what ifs” of life’s story.

Uncle Scrooge contemplates one of life's eternal verities. (From Uncle Scrooge: Back to the Klondike, 1953).
Uncle Scrooge contemplates one of life’s eternal verities. (From Uncle Scrooge: Back to the Klondike, 1953).

Tolkein once noted, “All that is gold does not glitter” which references a much older saying. Whatever the source, its age old meaning remains true. Not everyone who went looking for gold in Victoria in the 1850s necessarily found what they were looking for, even those who like Hume’s Madame Midas found a dash of the precious metal at the bottom of a mine shaft or in a pan dipped into a river. But gold can be found in sometimes unexpected places. chaplin_goldIt might be the gold in the memory of a childhood adventure in an abandoned mine or in the worth of fleece cut from a sheep’s back. It might be a certain note in a piece of music that you love or it might even be the gold in that moment when your football team gets up by a point with a kick after the siren. And it may be the gold in a simple smile.

That’s gold.

 

Plenty river underbelly

Everyone loves a good story of crime and punishment. Like Dostoyevsky, we all like to ponder for a moment the motivations behind these stories, comfortably remembering all the while that it’s a tale that hopefully involves somebody else.

In the last post, the 11 year old John Henry Howitt wrote to his cousin Alfred in Europe, describing the Bakewell farm at Yallambee in 1842 and recounting in adolescent fashion the escapades of a gang of bushrangers who had been busy along the Plenty River at that time, holding up isolated homesteads up and down the valley, all along the way.

Would you not think it extremely pleasant to be bailed up in a corner with some one standing over you with a pistol threatening you with instant death if you stirred…” (1842 letter from John Henry Howitt to A. W. Howitt, SLV).

"with some one standing over you with a pistol threatening you with instant death if you stirred…"
“with some one standing over you with a pistol threatening you with instant death if you stirred…”

The Plenty River bushrangers.

It’s a fistful of dollars, narrative of Sergio Leone proportions. I first heard of them from another source in a hearsay anecdote told to me about Yallambee nearly 20 years ago. John Bakewell had been “shot in the arm by bushrangers in the early 1840s” went this surprising but improbable story which would appear now at best to have been a baseless exaggeration of history. It seems that these bushrangers never operated further south on the Plenty River than St Helena and they hardly wounded anyone in the process. John Henry Howitt’s own report of the events confirms that:

“Uncle’s escaped a visit from these Bushrangers and only heard of them the night before they were taken.” (John Henry Howitt).

However, had Yallambee been disturbed by the bushrangers, they may not have found the Bakewells completely underprepared. As Richard Howittt, writing of the situation of his brothers-in-law at Yallambee in that same year said:

“Guns were piled in corners, but which I dare say are now, the first country newness being over, seldom used.” (Impressions of Australia Felix, Richard Howitt).

The Plenty River gang were formed at a meeting in a back room of a hotel on the north-west corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets, Melbourne, early in 1842. The economy of the Port Phillip District was in recession that year. Money was tight for many and to the have-nots of the early colony, the settlers of the Plenty valley must have appeared as relatively well-off sitting ducks, ripe for the plucking.

Elizabeth Street, Melbourne in 1847 looking north past the Collins Street corner towards Bourke Street, where the Plenty River bushrangers met to plan their crimes. (Tinted lithograph by J. S. Prout, NLA.)
Elizabeth Street, Melbourne in 1847 looking north past the Collins Street corner towards Bourke Street, where the Plenty River bushrangers met to plan their crimes. (Tinted lithograph by J. S. Prout, NLA.)
"Cash and Company", bushranger TV drama.
“Cash and Company”, bushranger TV drama.

The gang of four was led by a 27 year old bounty immigrant, John Williams. The other members were Martin Fogarty aged 18,  Charles Ellis, 19, and an American, Daniel Jepps aged 27. They may have earlier been active in Geelong and Dandenong but then switched their operations to the Plenty where they proceeded to bail up numerable stations. For all their efforts however, the bushrangers were remarkably inept and in the end, didn’t really steal very much. Indeed, the story seems to contain all the elements of a melodramatic comedy.

"Fogarty was seen riding around in his (stolen) scarlet Austrian Hussar’s uniform..."
“Fogarty was seen riding around in his (stolen) scarlet Austrian Hussar’s uniform…”

They were romantic.

Fogarty was seen riding around in his (stolen) scarlet Austrian Hussar’s uniform, complete with a ceremonial sword.

They were fearless.

Jepps was observed nonchalantly lighting his pipe with bank notes in the face of the massed, levelled muskets of the besieging authorities.

And they had a sense of humour.

They shot a goose at one station and told the cook to prepare it for their return the next day and, when interrupting a meal at another station, they:

“…appropriated the roast ducks and red herrings to their own plebeian throats remarking that “you must make way for your betters gentlemen”… (while) regaling themselves with much glee…” (Port Phillip Herald, 1842).

Bushrangers raiding a house, an illustration from Melbourne Punch, 1864.
Bushrangers raiding a house, an illustration from Melbourne Punch, 1864.

But for all that, the confrontation with the authorities when it came was a violent affair. After all, these were desperate men in straitened times and they were pitted against the well-established order.

Legend has it that when reports of the bushrangers on the Plenty filtered through to the settlement at Melbourne, Superintendent La Trobe stood on the steps of the Melbourne Club and exhorted the Gentlemen of Melbourne to bring the miscreants to justice where the inept local police force had failed. The story may be apocryphal but in any event, five Port Phillip gentlemen were sworn in as special constables (later styled as the “Fighting Five” of Port Phillip: Henry Fowler, Peter Snodgrass, James Thompson, Robert Chamberlain and Oliver Goulay) and set off on the evening of Friday, 29 April, 1842 to hunt the gang down. They went first to Heidelberg in an attempt to gain up to date information and they may have visited the Bakewells at Yallambee in the process, as John Henry Howitt wrote that his uncle had heard about the bushrangers “the night before they were taken”.

The posse then systematically made their way up the Plenty River valley overnight, visiting each station in succession. Peter Snodgrass narrowly avoided being shot in the face when he went to the door of the St Helena Station homestead north of Yallambee where a pistol was presented at his head by someone who mistook him for one of the bushrangers. After identifying himself and the object of his party, Snodgrass was informed that the bushrangers had been in the area the day before but had left.

Photograph by Charles Nettleton of a rural station in northern Victoria but probably fairly typical of the sort of bark slab construction seen by the Plenty River bushrangers on the Upper Plenty in the 1840s, NLA.
Photograph by Charles Nettleton of a rural station in northern Victoria but probably fairly typical of the sort of bark slab construction seen by the Plenty River bushrangers on the Upper Plenty in the 1840s, NLA.

The posse eventually ran the Plenty River bushrangers to ground the next morning, Saturday, 30 April upriver, at Campbell Hunter’s “Wet Lowlands” station, located just north of present day Milky Lane, an extension of Wildwood Rd, Whittlesea.

Bushrangers sitting down to dinner, an illustration from Melbourne Punch, 1864.
Bushrangers sitting down to dinner, an illustration from Melbourne Punch, 1864.

The pursuers discovered the bushrangers sitting down to a (purloined) breakfast at the station and spurred their horses to the charge. The station owner, Campbell Hunter and five others had up to that moment been held prisoner against a fence at the homestead while the bushrangers ate their fill but effected an escape during the charge. Fogarty, Jepps and Ellis retreated to the Wet Lowlands homestead but Williams instead took cover in a nearby shed.

The battle was ferocious. Goulay was first on the scene, forcing the shed door open where he came face to face with Williams who was armed to the teeth and held pistols in either hand. As Williams fired one pistol, Goulay dodged the ball knocking the second pistol aside and shoving his own into the bushranger’s mouth. He pulled the trigger but instead of sending Williams into eternity, the weapon misfired. Reversing it he clubbed Williams about the head with the butt end, struggling with him onto the floor where the bushranger managed to pull another pistol out of his belt and fired it at point blank into Goulay’s side. Goulay, thinking himself a dead man, swooned and called for assistance but the ball had hit a powder flask in his coat pocket and had been deflected. Snodgrass burst into the shed to find Goulay still struggling with Williams, took aim at the bushranger with his musket and fired.

The former duellist, Peter Snodgrass.
The former duellist, Peter Snodgrass.

Snodgrass had previously been known as a duellist who, in a farcical encounter with William Ryrie using a pair of hair trigger pistols borrowed from Joseph Hawdon of Banyule, Heidelberg, had only managed to prematurely shoot himself in his own foot. (Ryrie sportingly delivered his own shot into the air.) On this occasion, Snodgrass’s aim was slightly better for his ball hit its mark, but not before grazing the head of the hapless Goulay in the process. Williams however, like a cat with nine lives, was “not dead yet”. Channelling Rasputin he struggled to his feet, drew yet another pistol and declared, “I’ll die game.” Snodgrass then dashed forward and broke the stock of his musket over Williams’ head, perhaps in an attempt to see which of the two was the harder, just as Chamberlain appeared in the doorway and fired his pistol, killing the leader of the Plenty River bushrangers on the spot.

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

The three remaining bushrangers meanwhile defended themselves with a fusillade of gunfire from the homestead. Henry Fowler was hit in the face and had to be escorted from the field of battle but the gentlemen were soon joined by reinforcements at Wet Lowlands in the form of a party of 12 settlers and constables drawn to the scene of the siege. A barrage of shots were exchanged over a period of several hours without further serious damage being done on either side before the three remaining “not dead yet” bushrangers consigned themselves to their inevitable fate and surrendered to their attackers. But not before Jepps had presented himself as a target outside the homestead, lighting his pipe with currency notes in the manner described earlier, in a suicidal attempt to beat the hangman. When they were searched, the bushrangers’ immediate loot amounted to nothing more than a few gold and silver watches, some shillings and sovereigns, a gold chain and stamp, and a few other assorted trifles. The settlers of the Plenty River valley we find were not so very well off after all.

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

The surviving bushrangers were brought before the irascible John Walpole Willis in Melbourne, the Resident Supreme Court Judge of Port Phillip. Their case was probably not helped when it was revealed that one object of the bushrangers was to meet Willis on the Heidelberg Road and kill him, their mistaken belief being that, in the event of their capture, they could not be tried in the absence of a Supreme Court Judge at the settlement.

The three prisoners were accordingly convicted and condemned, although Willis to his credit recommended mercy for Jepps, a recommendation in the event denied by the court in Sydney. The execution took place in front of a crowd of several thousand people in Melbourne on 28 June, 1842, the first white men to be hanged in Port Phillip. (The Aboriginals, Bob and Jack, had been executed previously in January, that same year).

The Plenty River bushrangers were not the only bushrangers to make a mark in Victoria, but they were among the first. The ruins of the Wet Lowlands homestead were visible for many years up until the end of the 19th century near the present day Yan Yean Reservoir, the timber framing of the structure still bearing the ball marks of the exchange of fire from that day in 1842. Another early construction in the same area that may be connected with this story is “Bear’s Castle”. It survives to this day on the banks of the Yan Yean and is romantically believed by some to have been built by the Plenty River settler, John Bear, as a protection from bushrangers, (or Aboriginals), after his family were terrorised by the Plenty River gang.

Bear's Castle, Yan Yean, from a 1905 postcard.
Bear’s Castle, Yan Yean, from a 1905 postcard.

Lindsay Mann has researched and written comprehensively on this subject in “The Plenty River Bushrangers of 1842” and Michael Jones also covered the subject with a chapter in “Nature’s Plenty”. During their short career however, the Plenty River bushrangers never actually managed to kill anyone and it is this fact that has been given latterly as a reason for their story becoming otherwise largely forgotten by history.

"The most well-known highwayman of the 18th century."
“The most well-known highwayman of the 18th century.”

One way of looking at bushranging in Australia in the 19th century is as an extension of the English highwayman tradition of the previous century. Unlike the Plenty River bushrangers however, the most well-known highwayman of the 18th century, Dick Turpin, did kill but only when threatened by capture.

"Horrible Histories" channels Adam Ant and the story of Dick Turpin.
“Horrible Histories” channels Adam Ant and the story of Dick Turpin.

Adam Ant on the other hand never killed anyone, although he possibly damaged some ears along the way.

A bushranger killed Henry Hurst at Hurstbridge in 1866, not far from the scene of the earlier activities of the Plenty River gang and Australia’s most famous (or should that read infamous?) bushranger, Ned Kelly, also killed, but we forgive Kelly this for the sake of his sartorial style. Kelly was born at neighbouring Beveridge in about 1854. The ensuing “Kelly Outbreak” of the 1870s is seen now as the “last expression of the lawless frontier”. (Serle)

"The Trial", Sydney Nolan, NGA. Painted in 1947 a few kilometres south of Yallambie at "Heide", the home of John and Sunday Reed.
“The Trial”, Sydney Nolan, NGA. Painted in 1947 a few kilometres south of Yallambie at “Heide”, the home of John and Sunday Reed.

However, even before this “last expression of the lawless frontier”, the image of the Australian bushranger had already entered the popular imagination in a similar way to that of the Old West as represented in Buffalo Bill Cody’s shows. William Howitt, who visited Yallambee in 1852, had personal experience of bushrangers during his travels across the early gold fields of northern Victoria:

The visitor to "Yallambee", William Howitt, drew upon personal experience with bushrangers in northern Victoria to write stories of the Australian bush.
The visitor to “Yallambee”, William Howitt, drew upon personal experience with bushrangers in northern Victoria to write stories of the Australian bush.

“…I determined, if they demanded money, to go into the tent, on pretence of fetching it, and giving them the contents of a revolver in rotation.” (Land, Labour and Gold, William Howitt).

He later used these travel experiences as an inspiration for a work of fiction, “A Boy’s Adventures in the Wilds of Australia”.

Similarly, it has been noted by others that the writer Ernest William Hornung, who created the gentleman thief A. J. Raffles, was inspired by stories of bushrangers during a two year visit to Australia in the 1880s. The suggestion goes that Hornung became absorbed specifically with the tale of the Plenty River bushrangers during that time and in one of his stories, written in 1899, Raffles is seen recalling a visit to the Plenty River.

“It was an interesting ride enough, especially after passing the place called Whittlesea, a real wild township on the lower slopes of the ranges, where I recollect having a deadly meal of hot mutton and tea, with the thermometer at three figures in the shade.” (Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman, E. W. Hornung).

In a case of mistaken identities, Raffles robs a country bank during the confusion in the neighbourhood caused by a bushranger attack.

“…a huge chap in a red checked shirt, with a beard like W. G. Grace, but the very devil of an expression.” (ibid)

So the Plenty River bushrangers lived on, at least for a while it seems in popular literature. Material maybe for the ultimate in prequels to a certain television franchise, the Plenty River “Underbelly”. After all, when it comes to crime and punishment there’s nothing new under the Australian sun.

 

Selected sources:
 “The Plenty River Bushrangers of 1842”, Lindsay Mann
 “The Australian Experience in the Plenty Valley” (Plenty Valley Papers vol 2), edited by Lucy M Grace Ellem
 “1842, The Public Executions at Melbourne”, compiled by Ian MacFarlane
 “Nature’s Plenty”, Michael Jones