Perhaps you remember it as the place you called at on your way home from school, your pocket money burning a hole for a 5 cent, white wax paper bag of mixed lollies. Five cents could buy you a lot of tooth decay in those days. Or maybe you remember it as a place to meet the gang, a place where you could fool around with Coca Cola yo-yos on strings, trade Scanlens football cards or punish the sides of the old pin ball machine inside.
It was the witness to the springtide of our lives.
I’m talking of course of that pillar of small retail society, the ubiquitous Aussie milk bar. Now largely lost to history, as a concept it has now all but vanished, like the Polly Waffle chocolate bars it sold and those frozen Sunny Boy triangular ices – free tokens printed oh, so rarely, on the inside wrapping.
An ode to the milk bars of memory.
The milk bar sprang from the old corner shop tradition of a local store prepared to sell just about anything, a Ronnie Barker world of “Open All Hours” but with a uniquely Australian twist on the theme. New emigrants into Australia from Europe after the Second War mixed the idea of the corner shop with an American tradition of soda bars but instead of lemonade sodas, the home grown milk bar sold ice cream milk shakes. It also sold ice cream in cones, lemonade in bottles, hot meat pies, sometimes newspapers (in both the morning AND the afternoon), fags and even the occasional, dangerously addictive, non-prescription pain killer. You see the milk bar would sell you just about anything in a convenience line. It even sold milk, which in case you don’t remember, in those days came in pint sized glass bottles with the cream at the top of the bottle sealed up tight with silver foil.
Although coming late onto the scene, Yallambie too had its own milk bar. Responding to community demands for a local shop, the developer AV Jennings reserved a block of land for a shop, opposite the site of a planned kindergarten on the corner of Yallambie Rd and Binowee Ave. Opening around 1971, an artist’s rendering from four years earlier shows a building on a grander scale than the one finally completed. By 1973 the “milk bar” was already styling itself as a “supermarket”, going head to head with the next closest shopping precinct, the Lower Plenty strip in Main Rd.
This was an era when supermarkets closed at Noon on Saturday so the original concept at Yallambie was for a shop that would operate as a defacto general store but stay open at other times as a milk bar. It worked for a time but the rise of petrol stations operating as convenience stores eventually saw a change in the playing field and in more recent times, the age of digital trading has shifted it again. Anything that you might previously have bought at a milk bar you can now order online from Uber Eats or purchase at the local petrol station. The station in Lower Plenty Rd, Yallambie does all this while the presence of a well-known hamburger franchise next door serves that other traditional function of the milk bar, that of social venue. The fact that you will probably need a car to get to either of them is apparently of small consideration.
Over the last 50 years, the Yallambie shop has moved from milk bar to grocery store, from department store to pizza shop and finally to its latest adaption – an Asian grocer, a reflection perhaps on the changing face of a multicultural society.
You might think this is all a new trend but it’s interesting to reflect for a moment in these pages so often devoted to historical matters, that Chinese herbalists were a feature of Melbourne dating from the goldfields era while Afghan or Indian hawkers were once a common sight in outback Australia. On up country properties like Thomas Wragge’s Tulla in the Riverina, the dignified, bearded and turbaned travellers were sometimes the only way that country people could secure the latest in 19th century consumer society. Their wagons were specially designed with shelves and drawers with sides that could be lowered to display dress material, trousers, hats and shirts, patent medicines, essences, pins and all manner of wares. At Tulla the hawker arrived in the shearing season and set up shop just outside the Home Paddock, not so close to intrude on the homestead but close enough to be reached by foot. As Betty Lush, ne Wragge recalled, remembering her childhood and quoted in Calder’s ‘Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales’:
“At some time during the shearing period the Afghan hawkers would appear with their horse and cart. They were a sort of travelling store and were no doubt a useful institution for the shearers in those days of ‘humping your bluey’ and the nearest store 15 miles away. They always fascinated me. Not only for the variety of things that they stocked but they were colourful people with turbans. They were often quite generous too and many a time I came away from a visit to their cart with a paper cone of boiled sweets…”
A sort of veritable milk bar on wheels.
As an Asian grocery store, the “Yallambie Food Mart/Asian Groceries/Dollar Shop Supermarket” as it styles itself has a lot to live up to but, as it turns out, it is a remarkably well stocked institution for an emporium of this kind located in a suburban back street.
And yes, you can still buy your milk there.
Paul Keating famously described this as the “Asian Century” and has long insisted that we are part of it, in spite of a few claims to the contrary both here and abroad. There’s no escaping the fact that Australia is nearer Asia than it is to either of its previous two greatest spheres of influence, the United Kingdom and United States, neither of which seem to be particularly united just now. I’m afraid a bit of Xenophobia is an all too common part of the human condition, but have you noticed lately the results of unsubstantiated fears of COVID-19 coronavirus? In the heart of the Chinese community down Whitehorse Rd way, face masks have become the latest in fashion accessories and you could shoot a cannon down the middle of the street without fear of hitting anyone. Newspapers have reported that Asian restaurants across town are half empty half the time and at hours of the day when they should be the best part full. Already it has been reported that the iconic Shark Fin House in Little Bourke St, Melbourne, has closed its doors after an 80% drop in customer numbers. I ask you, whatever happened to the spirit of the Blitz?
Locally, there are Chinese takeaways near to Yallambie in Lower Plenty, Rosanna and Greensborough, so let’s pause for a moment and give them a thought.
Yow Sing near the corner of Rosanna and Lower Plenty Roads does a pretty mean, homemade dim sim, the ancient décor of the shop probably unchanged from a time 50 years before when the shop converted from a haberdashery known for some reason as “Blue Hills”. I’m thinking now might be a good time to try a dim sim there again as the building of the North East Link Project will soon separate this forgotten shopping precinct from Yallambie once and for all.
There are a number of other Chinese eating houses to choose from in easy reach from Yallambie. Several are located in Greensborough but for mine, the best tucker is found at “Li’s Dumplings” in Main Rd, Greensborough. And if you think that’s too far to travel for a feed, please note. You’ll find Li’s dumplings one of the items stocked frozen at the Yallambie shop, so put away those Uber eats.
Deciding to do our bit for the Blitz, we took ourselves off to Li’s Dumpling and Noodle in Greensborough for a meal last Friday night. The décor at Li’s is plain and the seats are hard, but the food and family style atmosphere is terrific. Li’s specialize in dumplings, the skins thin and light but strong enough to hold a variety of yummy fillings intact. They plunge the dumplings in boiling water, stirring vigorously to prevent them sticking then add a cup of cold water half way through the eight minute cooking process to bring out the flavour. I’m told this is the secret of boiling a good dumpling. Or if that doesn’t suit, you can get them fried, the bottoms of the dumplings turning a light golden brown in the process.
We don’t eat out much but when we do it often seems to be to this particular little restaurant that we go. That said, we haven’t got even a part way through the menu yet. Li’s is an establishment that probably does more takeaways than sit down meals and when we went in there with a birthday party once I think they nearly fell down in surprise. There’s an informal atmosphere present here, the sort of feeling you get when you enjoy a home cooked meal though Mum’s Sunday roast was never like this.
On this night we chose chicken and coriander dumplings to start with but there are many others you might choose from, each one rolled, pressed and filled by hand. I’m told that the range of fillings on the menu mirrors what a northern Chinese family might cook at home and reading from the list you’ll find lamb and coriander; chive, vermicelli and egg; fish and calamari; lamb and onion; spicy beef and others just too numerous to mention here.
We also ordered sizzling chicken, its sizzle filling the table with steam; honey chicken, the batter light and crisp and without that risk you get of it weighing heavily on an overstocked tum; and a beef fried noodles which I think would give the best fried noodles of my life a run for its money. That was a noodles I remember buying from a Chinese cook serving from a caravan window on an island in the Pacific years ago, a bit too far away now to pop out for a takeaway.
So, if you’re hungry and not just for the memory of Polly Waffle, get yourself down to your local shop and if that shop turns out to be a Chinese eating house or a repurposed milk bar, well you’ll be doing your bit for your local community right now. A changing world has made it hard going for the small retailer, the current fears of a global pandemic only compounding the problems for one section of our community. I suspect these problems aren’t going to go away for a little while yet but until they do, keep rattling those chopsticks.
Throughout the ages the collective memory of primitive societies has been preserved by what we call “the oral tradition”. It might seem unlikely now in this age of the internet and digital space, but before the invention of the written word, oral tradition was often the only way that human beings were able to preserve the record of generational knowledge outside the superfluous grey matter found between their ears.
We might think we’ve come a long way since but in some ways the power of memory is as important now as it ever was. Oral history, as opposed to oral tradition, is an academic discipline which can be defined by the collection and study of historical information using recording devices and interview techniques, a process which strives to obtain information unavailable by other methods. Publishing these personal histories has never been more popular with desk top publishing and cheap printing making the process relatively easy.
Locally, the Greensborough Historical Society has taken a leaf out of what could be called the oral history book by publishing a couple of recent companion volumes, “As I Recall” and “Do You Recall?” which feature stories drawn from the memories of long-time residents of Greensborough and nearby suburbs. Last week while travelling on the 293 Greensborough bus with my nose buried in the pages of one of these tomes which happened to be opened at a chapter describing the history of the now defunct Diamond Valley Community Hospital, a woman sitting next to me after first apologizing for reading over my shoulder pointed at the page and said, “I was born at that hospital.”
“You and about 10,000 others,” I said, quoting directly from the pages of the book.
What followed then turned into an interesting chat about her memories of the local area before I had to let it go and get off at my stop, leaving her story only half complete. It was a loss in one respect. Given longer I’m guessing I might have turned her story into a post, but in another respect it was a gain as it got me thinking about history and the importance of memory within the spoken framework. As it happens, both GHS volumes contain chapters recording the memories of one Eric Barclay and are complete with his impressions of what it was like growing up in a Post War rural environment on what was colloquially known as the Grace Park Estate, Greensborough. This estate was located more or less on the northern boundaries of Yallambie and at one time was home to a rough and ready, 9-hole golf course. It was an area parts of which remained semi-rural into the last quarter of the 20th century and Eric’s story makes an interesting tale.
Born in 1938, Eric Barclay was the only child of Henry and Dorothy Barclay who were aged 60 and 40 respectively when their son surprised them by being born. The family owned a small weatherboard cottage on a 10 acre farm in Elder St, Greensborough, south of where Henry St ends at the T intersection. The Barclay property was located about an equidistance from Greensborough, Montmorency, Watsonia and Lower Plenty and could only be accessed along unmade roads and bush tracks. The house, which had been relocated from Collingwood in an earlier era, was without power, sewerage or mains water and although basic in its necessities, it proved to be a happy and healthy childhood environment for young Eric.
“We were hillbillies. We never ever got the light on until the early 50s…. We were very primitive out there. One thing about it, when we were hungry we had a bit of an orchard. Dad was a good gardener. We had vegetables. We had plenty of chooks, plenty of eggs.” (Eric Barclay, “Do You Recall?” GHS, 2017)
Much of Eric Barclay’s story as related in the two GHS books is devoted to what he called his memories of “The Big Paddock”, (the title of his chapter in “Do You Recall?). The Big Paddock was a 600 acre area roughly bounded in the west by Greensborough Rd, in the north by Nell St, the east by the River where the unmade track that was Elder St petered out, and by Yallambie in the south.
“It had a wire fence around it and besides briar bushes only had cattle, kangaroos and hares in it… Every year The Big Paddock used to get burnt out. We had no fire brigades in Greensborough in those days. The locals would get out and fight it, my father and Mr Bell and others. Almost every year up to the late 40s our area’s 5 to 10 acre farmlets had a planned burn off and they’d do maybe three places one night, all the men. The women would have a central place where they’d have cups of tea and a few beers later on. We did that until all the tussocks had been cleared off. We’d look forward to it as kids, we’d have a bag each and go round beating out the posts so they didn’t take fire.” (Eric Barclay, “Do You Recall?” GHS, 2017)
Eric’s father, Henry was employed at “Stubley’s”, a produce merchant in Main Rd, Greensborough with ties to a motor garage and service station of the same name. Later Henry found work at Annie Murdoch’s Yallambie, a circumstance that will be of particular interest to readers of this blog. The following words are reproduced here, directly from the pages of the Greensborough Historical Society volume, “Do You Recall?” published by the Society in 2017.
My father Henry Banwell Barclay ended up working at Yallambie House, the mansion. They used to have quite a market garden there, they would have had a couple of hundred acres I reckon. They had river frontage on the Plenty. The driveway of Yallambie House ran through to Lower Plenty Road.
Going through the paddocks I’d take Dad over his lunch and a bottle of cold tea. Dad worked down there on the river flats. They had vegetables and fruit trees. It was pretty substantial. Old Joe worked there as well as Dad who was 60 when I was born in Whittlesea in 1938.
The people that had Yallambie, the elderly lady was Mrs Murdoch. She was the owner, the matriarch. Her daughter married a Mr Bush. They were lovely people. They had two children, Elizabeth, about my age, and Billy who was a lot younger. I can remember Elizabeth going to Ivanhoe Grammar.
They had two Daimler cars and one day Mr Bush said “Now, young Eric I’d like to give you a bit of pocket money.” I used to wash the two Daimlers once a fortnight and get three bob… three shillings, which was good. We didn’t have a lot of money. My father had spent a lot on his children (from his first marriage) in the earlier days setting them up. I would have been about 11 at the time. He was 71 and still working over there.
They had an asphalt tennis court there and a year or so later Mrs Bush said “Eric, if you’d like to bring some of your friends over you can play tennis.” So Leslie Dunstan, Donny Bell, Robert Collins and myself would go over there and sweep the leaves off and mark the lines and play. There were elm trees and a big verandah out the back and Mrs Bush would come out and she’d say “Righto boys!” She’d have a table set up on the verandah and we’d have lemonade and butterfly cakes and that. They were terrific.
Each year around Melbourne Cup time they’d put Dad and Mum and myself in the Cup sweep and I’d have to go across Melbourne Cup morning and see what horses we had.
There was a manager’s house there, the cookhouse, the whole lot. In the early days the manager was a Mr Gardiner. The cook was Nellie.
Eric’s story continues with his memories of the Plenty River, the riding school at Woodside, (Casa Maria) and Wragge’s Anglican Church of the Holy Spirit.
Us kids learnt to swim in the Plenty River, you’d get holes 20 foot deep. There were platypus and water rats. It was a beautiful stream. When I was a bit older Leslie Dunstone, Donny Bell and myself used to fish it from one end to the other, nearly down to the junction with the Yarra River. That’s a long walk. We’d take hurricane lamps and the dogs with us, a tin of baked beans and a bit of bread.
Along Yallambie Road, which was a gravel road, on the left was Bellamy’s. They had a poultry farm, there were very few houses. You went right along and there was a gate. You’d open the gate and keep going and right down the end of Yallambie Road was Nancy Hosack’s riding school. She had a nice home and the riding school and the stables and so forth. Nancy used to compete in a lot of the gymkhanas and Benny Weir, who lived in Greensborough off Alexandra Street down near the river, was probably one of her greatest competitors in them.
Past the gate, on the south side of Yallambie Road, going west, was the army camp land. Years later they brought all the people in from Camp Pell, which was like a Housing Commission kind of setup in Royal Park. That’s when all our chooks started to get stolen and so forth. They brought them out to the army camp for housing up at the top end of the camp in Yallambie Road.
Where the petrol station is now, there used to be a church there. It was a little brick Church of England church. I think they used to have a service there about once a week. A lot of people wouldn’t know that had been there.
Benny Weir’s swimming hole was probably one of my favourite spots on the Plenty. They had a rope hanging over the river and kids would go swimming there.
In about 1950 Eric’s father began selling off parts of their 10 acre farm. Australia’s leading Greyhound trainer, Stan Cleverly bought half and built the substantial brick home that stands today on a double block at the top of the rise in Elder St at the Henry St intersection. Stan installed a straight greyhound training track alongside his home where he trained from 50 to a 100 greyhounds at a time, although in the words of Eric, “Later on, it paid him more to get dogs beaten. He got outed for a year.” Eventually, Eric sold the last 3 ½ acres of the Barclay farm and moved to Macleod in 1966. His family’s presence is remembered in the area in the name of “Barclay Park”, a small reserve in Plenty Lane, Greensborough.
The importance of these spoken histories has also been recognized by the Heidelberg Historical Society which has recently put out a call for volunteers prepared to offer their services in recording the oral stories of older residents of the Heidelberg area. In reading back over the two companion volumes of oral history published earlier by the Greensborough Historical Society, I am of a mind that the more successful chapters of such books are those that, like Eric Barclay, allow the interviewee to tell remembered personal anecdotes as opposed to dry lists of unchecked facts and figures. Oral history is not about the replacement of the established order of historical sources. Go struggle with a University thesis if you want that. Oral History instead is about the perspective, thoughts, opinions and understanding of interviewees in a primary form.
On a personal note, as previously mentioned in this blog, around 1980 my late father sat down with a cassette tape recorder and recounted a life time of memories. As a lad I used to wonder about what he was up to. It seemed to me he had taken up the habit of talking to himself behind closed doors. Only after he was dead could I recognize, as he had probably done earlier, the importance of an oral legacy. A decade later I turned a transcript of those recordings into a book, the larger part of which records his impressions of World War 2 and his life as a POW of the Japanese. To my mind today, it makes an absorbing read, not as a history of that War but as the impressions of how the War affected the life of one man, caught up in a world conflict far beyond his control. My father’s was just one more voice from an otherwise unheard viewpoint falling from the pages of the history of the vast tragedy that engulfed Western Civilization in the first half of the 20th Century.
“Now, about five o’clock the next morning, our commanding officer, Major Keith Lawrence, gathered us around in a group. Not in ranks or anything like that and with words to this effect. He said, “I have a few things to explain to you here.” And he went on to tell us, you know, the position as he knew it. That the war had virtually ceased on the mainland and that we were now all gathered on Singapore Island and we had to make the most of what we had. And then, I suppose I’m only one of the two hundred and fifty or sixty men within our unit. I’m sure the others were just as shocked as I as when he turned around and said, “There is not a mile of barbed wire anywhere in front of us.” In other words he meant, we had no fortifications at all.” (Spr McLachlan learns the truth of the myth of ‘Fortress Singapore’, from “Titch – Telling Tales of T C McLachlan”, Yallambie, 1999).
So if you know an old-timer, sit down with them sometime soon and listen to their stories. It can be a pretty rewarding experience for the listener, but make sure you write down what you are told or even record it on your iPhone if that’s the way you work. There’s a gold mine of undiscovered primary history sources out there just waiting for someone to sit down, to stop, and listen.
To ornithologists with an archaic command of the English language, it could have been murder. It occurred one morning last week in the trees above Yallambie Park, but there wasn’t a strangled body left hanging in the branches and the Homicide Squad wasn’t called in to investigate.
It’s an obscure bit of phraseology, but according to the Oxford Dictionary, any noisy gathering of crows is collectively known as a “murder”, and that’s just what we had circling over the Yallambie escarpment here the other day. Like a scene from an old Alfred Hitchcock horror film, dozens of these large black birds circled and swooped through the tall trees, all the while filling the air of the Plenty Valley in every direction with their strident calls.
By the Oxford’s definition then it was a murder, and a murder of some magnitude. The aerial perambulations of these birds lasted a good ten minutes and as I stood watching them, I wondered to myself, ‘What could possibly be going on inside those bird brains rising high above the ground up there in the sky? What could they be saying to each other?’ To my mind their avian behaviour certainly seemed considered and their vocalization in many respects carried the nuances of language.
Our fruit trees have been laden this year and the cockies and lorikeets for a long time have been making deep inroads into the crop. For a while there was a bit of a stand-off between the cockatoos and the new arrivals but in this may be a clue in essence to what the crows were really chatting on about during their mid-air confab. When the crows subsequently took up an unofficial residency in the area under the outraged watch of the cockatoos, a neighbour told me that she thought, “There must be a plum tree in the neighbourhood because the birds keep dropping pips onto our tin roof.”
Go figure. Our plum tree has since been stripped quite bare. No wonder those birds had so much to say about Yallambie on arrival.
Among birds, the corvids (crows and ravens) are reputedly the most intelligent and have the largest brain for body size. They are highly social and renowned for their problem-solving abilities. You’ve probably seen them on the National Geographic Channel dropping shell fish and nuts onto hard surfaces to crack them open, or by improvising with found objects to form tools to open lunch boxes. One report even suggests that they can count to a kindergarten level, and that’s even while substituting claws for fingers as I suppose they must do.
Crows are one hell of a bird then so it surprised me to find out that calling a gathering of big black crows here in the State of Victoria a murder might actually be a misnomer.
You see, the big, black birds we see here aren’t considered by the experts to be crows at all. It turns out the birds we see in South-eastern Australia are classed by the people who know about such things as ravens, the bird Noah chose to release first up from the Ark, and it is an error of binomial nomenclature reporting to describe them otherwise.
So there you go. In the best Agatha Christie tradition, sometimes a murder isn’t necessarily what it seems, even for those of us accused of regularly murdering English here in WordPress. So maybe next time you are thinking of crying out, “Stone the crows,” perhaps what you should really be saying is, “Stone the ravens.” Doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?
The bird we call a “crow” in South-eastern Australia is actually the “Little Raven”, a bird of smaller proportion to the larger, closely related Australian Raven and next time you’re at the football standing next to a barracking Adelaide supporter, you could try suggesting they use the more literally correct form of endearment, “Carn the Little Ravens.” Try that one day and see how far you get.
The Little Raven is just one of the many types of bird that inhabit the air up and down the Plenty Valley, permanently and on a seasonal basis. The reports of the first settlers of this area are filled with descriptions of the bird life they saw, with James Willis’ diary especially filled with lists of the species he encountered as he happily blasted away at them to send them spinning out of the sky and into his cooking pot.
Thomas Wragge and his family are also remembered for having kept a captive Sulphur Crested cockatoo in a large cage on the back verandah at Yallambie in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Cockatoos are very long lived birds and can be taught to mimic the spoken language of humans. When Thomas installed one of the very first telephones in the Heidelberg district at Yallambie, an early model Ericsson wall phone, the bird developed a talent for squawking out a call in imitation to what it had heard voiced with the ring on previous occasions. “The telephone, the telephone,” the bird would scream whenever it heard the phone alarm, which I guess was every bit as good as having an extension bell in the garden.
Later, the Tembys also kept a pet cockatoo at Yallambie but they dispensed with the cage on the verandah and parked the bird instead on a beam in the kitchen from where it could chat regularly with the family.
Be that as it may and leaving all talking birds aside, while on the subject of ornithology it is an earlier connection to the story of the Bakewell brothers of the 1840s Station Plenty, (Yallambee) that most interests me and which is worth telling from this point.
The Bakewell story carries a close and familial connection with a piece of feathered history of small but international import. According to Alexander Henderson’s pedigree in his “Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina”, John and Robert Bakewell and their sister Phoebe Howitt (née Bakewell) were 2nd cousins of Lucy Bakewell, the wife of that most famous painter of American birds, John James Audubon. The Yallambee Bakewells and Lucy shared the same ancestor – Robert Bakewell of Castle Donington, their great grandfather.
Lucy Bakewell’s family moved to the United States in 1801 when she was 14 years old and she almost certainly never met her younger Australian emigre cousins who were born after that date. However, it is said that her father William was acquainted with Joseph Priestley and that Dr Erasmus Darwin had been her infant physician and, while not a member of the Lunar Society himself, William Bakewell’s dealings with these prominent members of that famous society of liberal thinkers is evidence perhaps of the sort of circles the larger Bakewell family moved within.
In an assessment, the Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Rhodes in his 2004 Audubon biography wrote that: “Even for English country gentry, the Bakewells were literate to an unusual degree.” It is therefore not so surprising the paths taken by the later members of that family when arriving in Australia. John and Robert’s acclimatization experiments at Yallambee and Phoebe’s patronage of the arts, together with the activities of her husband, Dr Godfrey Howitt, have all been well documented and form part of a tradition.
So in the best Quaker style then, it might be said that Lucy Bakewell was the product of something more than the usual ornamental education given to gentle women of that era and when John James Audobon met her for the first time in early 1804, he was immediately smitten. Lucy was just short of 17 years old. He was 18.
“She was tall, slim, graceful, poise, modest and lovely to look at, with a turned-up English nose and smoky gray eyes – in the recent estimate of one of her cousins, ‘a fine lively girl.’ She was also, as Audubon would discover, intelligent, loyal, well read, musical, meticulous, a good horsewoman and an athletic swimmer.” (Richard Rhodes, John James Audubon – The Making of an American, 2004).
John James Audubon was born in 1785 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) and raised in France during the dangerous and chaotic period after the French Revolution. In 1803 he was sent to America by his father, ostensibly to oversee his business interests there, but primarily to escape conscription into the French armies of Napolean. On Arrival in New York City, Audubon learned English in a boarding house run by Quaker women and as a result used the Quaker form of “thee” and “thou” in common speech and in his writings ever afterward. Although otherwise then an archaic form of expression, one wonders whether such Quakerisms added to the attraction of the young man in Lucy’s eyes when they met for the first time. Lucy’s father was a Unitarian but she would perhaps have remembered with childish nostalgia the Quaker connections present in the wider Bakewell family that had been left behind in England.
The Bakewells and Audubon occupied neighbouring estates in Pennsylvania and in the winter of 1804 when skating on the frozen waters of the Perkiomen with Lucy’s younger brother, Tom Bakewell, John James went through a hole in the ice narrowly avoiding being drowned after being drawn by the current under the surface for 30 or 40 yards before emerging through another hole further down. The resulting exposure contributed to a near fatal illness. As fever increased to delirium, Lucy had Audubon removed from his own home and brought to her family’s property. The fever took 10 days to break by which time Audubon was so weak he that he could not stand up. She nursed him back to health, his convalescence lasting throughout the Christmas of 1804, Lucy reading to him and talking with him while all the while developing an intimacy, (the sort feared by James Willis in another post).
As the young Frenchman recovered he would probably have been keenly interested in the novel surroundings he saw in the American home of these English Bakewells. Lucy’s father William, “in the English tradition of technological entrepreneurship”, had that year brought a young mechanic and millwright from Scotland to install an experimental steam-powered threshing machine at his farm which that Christmas was ready for testing in the barn yard. It was clear that the American Bakewell property was demonstrably at the cutting edge of agricultural science, even at the start of the 19th century.
An understanding was soon blooming between the young couple.
“They walked their adjoining woods and went riding. They exchanged childhoods, hers in Derbyshire, his along the Loire. They discovered their common love of country life and distaste for cities. The one reserved but steadfast, the other flamboyant and bold, both gifted at friendship, they began to fall in love.” (ibid)
The marriage of Lucy Bakewell and John James Audubon three years later was a love match but in many ways it was Lucy who was the rock upon which the great painter subsequently founded his talents and prodigious ambition. Theirs’ was a marriage of true minds but maybe it was also a reflection of some of the best Quaker ideals, a legacy from her Bakewell origins which encouraged the educated feminine mind. The marriage has been called the most important event in Audubon’s life because it was his wife who was “the spur to his ambition and the balance wheel to his character.” It was Lucy who raised their children and kept their home, even working as a governess and opening schools to provide an income while Audubon’s career took him for months at a time into the wilderness, for years overseas to find a publisher of his drawings, and into financial hardships that at one point involved bankruptcy.
John James crossed the Appalachians to Kentucky to start a new life with Lucy and it was in the frontier wilderness of North America that he truly began to fully revel in the natural world he saw all around him. Largely self-taught as an artist, Audubon developed his own methods for drawing birds from collected specimens, combining these with extensive field observations. He often portrayed birds as if caught in motion, especially feeding or hunting. The resulting work, “The Birds of America”, was a monumental task by any stretch of the imagination. In it Audubon documented all the birds of North America, painting the subjects in naturalistic poses in a style quite uncommon for their day and publishing the end result at life size in giant “double elephant” sized folios. At the height of one long separation Lucy wrote of her husband, “If I were jealous, I would have a bitter time of it, for every bird is my rival.” John James’ project at times was to border on an obsession.
The Birds of America was sold by subscription and took years to complete but it made John James famous both nationally and internationally.” The 435 plates each more than a half square metre in area and printed by Havells of London, depict some 1,065 different species, the majority drawn from specimens that Audubon himself had captured. He discovered 25 new species and 12 new sub species during the process. Some of the birds he drew are today extinct and this to the modern mind adds a certain poignancy to his legacy.
Compare the stiff poses of that other famed painter, the painter of Australian birds, John Gould from a similar but slightly later era with those of Audubon to appreciate the natural genius of the painter of America’s birds. Pelicans wading the shallows of interior rivers, flocks of songbirds soaring in the air and passenger pigeons darkening the skies – Audubon observed and recorded all of them.
Lucy outlived her husband by more than two decades after his death in 1851. Sadly for those around him, Alzheimer’s disease had left the great painter’s “noble mind in ruins” before the end. From then until her death in 1874, Lucy worked with her family tirelessly to preserve her husband’s tradition and when we examine the work of John James Audubon, it is easy perhaps to ignore the lifetime of separation and sacrifice that was required by his wife to make the artist’s best endeavours a reality.
The story of John James and Lucy Audubon was an American love story. A love story between two people on another continent and in another time but it was also a love story that involved a common and enduring love of the natural world and all that goes into it. We can all identify with that, especially today in this world of ugliness and built cities. Today at Yallambie when I look up into the sky at the visiting crows that are not crows, or at the other many and varied forms of bird life that fill this part of the Plenty Valley, I sometimes think of Audubon and his American birds and of that small, familial connection here from another time and of another place.
“The Plenty he described as a rivulet of fine water, but running through a deep ravine which made access difficult. He considered the land very favourable for sheep runs.” – D S Garden describing Governor Sir Richard Bourke’s assessment of the Plenty River from a visit Bourke made in March, 1837, (Heidelberg – The Land and Its People, MUP)
If the Wurundjeri were relieved to escape from the 1835 “treaty” with John Batman in which they had allegedly ceded a country half the size of greater Melbourne for a few blankets, tomahawks and mirrors, they might well have taken a moment to look at the fine print of Governor Bourke’s pro bono reasoning.
It was not the obvious inequity of the “deal” that unsettled Bourke but his belief that the Wurundjeri Aboriginals did not “own” the land on which they stood and on which their ancestors had roamed bare foot for tens of thousands of years. His reasoning was that in real estate terms, it was not by rights theirs to sell. The devil was in the detail of this decision for in the process of making it, with the single stroke of a pen it removed the last obstacle to an inevitable and inexorable influx of British settlers to the Port Phillip District. As a direct result of Bourke’s decree, pastoralists armed doubly with muskets and the notion of terra nullius came across the Straits from Van Diemen’s Land and overland from greater NSW seeking new pastures for their flocks in this reportedly “unoccupied” territory. The open, fertile and well-watered country they found waiting for them around the Yarra and Plenty River valleys was an attractive proposition to these men who, for a £10 annual licence fee, could occupy as much Wurundjeri country as they then thought fit.
One of the earliest of these pastoralists was Edward (Ned) Willis whose story as a squatter on the lower reaches of the Plenty River in 1837 has been briefly mentioned in these pages previously. Edward was a young man, not yet turned 21 when he arrived with his brother and uncle and more than 600 sheep in the surf at Pt Gellibrand in Port Phillip Bay on 13 April, 1837. Edward and his brother James had been driven away from their home in Van Diemen’s Land after James quarrelled with their father, Richard Willis of Wanstead in the island’s north. Edward soon brought his sheep to the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers where he created a sheep run which stood opposite or perhaps even bordered land that would later form the south eastern part of Yallambie.
What has not been mentioned previously in these pages is that Edward’s brother, James Willis, kept a diary for five months while pursuing these endeavours. As a document written mostly on the east bank of the lower Plenty, it makes an exceptional companion piece to the “Farm Day Book” kept by the land owning settler William Greig on the west bank at Yallambie three years later. Similarly its content stands as a counterpoint to the description of Willis’ run made by Thomas Walker in his 1838 published account, “A Month in the Bush of Australia”. Like Greig’s story, James diary is filled with the thoughts and frustrations of a well born young man struggling to come to terms with a rough existence in the Australian bush and it remains as a fascinating glimpse into the life of one of our earliest Port Phillip pioneers. The extracts used here are reproduced from the Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 6 where the diary was published in its entirety.
The diary starts on 9 April, 1837 with the brothers Edward and James Willis and their Uncle, Arthur Willis embarking on the voyage across the Straits from Van Diemen’s Land to Port Phillip where they came ashore on the 13th. Uncle Arthur left the party soon after to arrange his return to Van Diemen’s Land while Edward and James led their shepherds, John Stockly and John Fletcher, by a circuitous route north of the settlement to the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers which they reached on the 18th led there by “Old Tom”, a shepherd working for another squatter, John Wood.
18th April, 1837
Edward and I with our guns started on foot to woods about a mile off, where we procured the assistance of old Tom the shepherd, who conducted us to a creek about two miles off running in a northerly direction. We pursued its course for three miles and found it to be a permanent steam.
We crossed it and came to our present one, which although rather thickly timbered we have every reason to be satisfied with. It is bounded in the South and the East by the Yarra. The stream I have alluded to forms its western boundary (which we call Edward’s Rivulet, but I perceive the surveyors have on their charts dignified it by the name of the ‘River Plenty’), while on the North we have a forest called by us Epping Forest.
Such is the spot selected by Edward for his place of residence for four or five years at the least, when it is hoped he will be able to leave this savage life and move once more among civilised beings…
His employment here during the day is that of a common labourer, and at night he is in momentary dread of losing all he possesses in the world by the attacks of the wild dogs of the country, his ears being alternately regaled with their hideous howls and yells, the squeaking of the flying squirrels, the corkscrew-like noise of the possums and the gloomy monotonous note of that frightful bird the ‘Mow Pork’, which “concord of sweet sound” is not unfrequently accompanied by the reports of our firearms and the shouts of ourselves and men to frighten the dogs from us.
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were employed in erecting a yard at Wanstead, the run (so called after a place of that name known to us in Van’s Land) and clearing a ford over Edward’s Rivulet.
James’ estimate that they had travelled three miles upriver before crossing the Plenty would seem to place them squarely opposite Yallambie. However, it is likely that this estimate and other distances mentioned later by James are a little inaccurate, especially when considering the trouble likely encountered moving alongside the unmapped river and struggling through forest and a still virgin countryside. The west bank of the Plenty upriver from the Yarra confluence is overlooked by a steep escarpment so it makes sense that they travelled some distance before attempting a crossing. It seems more than likely that the first crossing place therefore was south of Yallambie at the ford near the end of Martin’s Lane which would over the next few years become the first access route into Eltham and beyond. Edward and James apparently were working in advance of their shepherds since the crossing with the flock and the horse and cart was not attempted until the 22nd.
22nd April, 1837
Set out from Wanstead – reached the ford – crossed with the sheep but found the banks too steep to get the horse and cart over. With spades, axes and tomahawks we commenced digging away the bank on each side, but finding at noon that we still had a day’s work before us, we walked the horse over and carried the contents of the cart across. We then loaded the empty cart by means of a rope into the stream and fastened the horse to it on the opposite side with ropes and traces.
This plan failed as the horse had no power of draught, so we were forced to pull it out the best way we could. This method succeeded, though not until we had been tugging and pushing and bursting ourselves for about three hours. This Herculean labour being accomplished, we reloaded the cart and ascended the first rising ground, when we found about a quarter of a mile from the ford, the yard which Edward and Stockly had built the day previous.
Erected our tarpaulin into a sort of gipsy-looking affair to shelter us from the dews of heaven, and after a hearty meal of damper, bacon and tea we lay down to rest, and although our sleeping place consisted but of the rudest possible contrivance, and in a country equally wild looking, we both declared in the morning that we had had visions of feasting and dancing, of splendid apartments, of beautiful women and of delicious music flitting before us all night.
I could hardly avoid a slight shudder when I first awoke to see a huge mass of food lying close to me, which one of the men with a beard ten days old asked for, calling it ‘the damper’. Verily it was a damper to the delicate state of my feelings at that instant, but it was but for an instant, for I presently commenced an attack upon it myself and thought it very good feeding for a beggar as I then was, and still am…
James’ diary makes many references to their food resources, or rather lack of them, and to his “beggarly” status. On the 23rd April he “caught half a dozen very fine black fish, decidedly the most delicious fish I ever tasted”, and on the 4th May he ate an eel which Edward had caught in the river, “our bacon being all expended.” A sickly ewe had earlier been butchered and although it “proved very poor meat”, “Fletcher made us sea pies of it so long as it lasted, a great treat to us.” On the 15th May they enjoyed another “very splendid sea pie” the preparation and eating of which was described in the following way.
…Viz, two kangaroo rats, two quails, four parrots, one wattle bird, two satin birds (of the magpie species) and a few slices of pork.
It was served up in a large black iron pot and was most delicious – poor Ned was filling his plate a second time. He took some pains to select the most savoury morsels and was just emptying the last spoonful of gravy when the log on which his plate rested slipped and its contents were deposited on a heap of ashes, and great was the laughing at the fall thereof, the dogs being the only animals benefited by the display of Ned’s taste in helping himself…
The destruction of Edward’s meal on this occasion wasn’t the only such instance of loss recorded in the diary. Al fresco dining at their camp was a matter of necessity and not a matter of choice.
Dull and miserable – at supper this evening Fletcher made sundry attempts to light the lamp before he could succeed. The night was dark and cloudy and there was some wind. The light resisted the puffs of wind until we had all seated ourselves round the table when to infinite confusion, and as I was in the act of cutting a slice of pork, out went the light, away flew the candlestick, which Fletcher had perched upon a huge tin dish and had placed on the weather side of it a board, by way of protecting the luminary from sudden gusts – I rose with the laudable desire of assisting Fletcher in re-lighting the lamp, for I saw that his stock of patience was nearly gone, my knee struck the table which was not proof against this unexpected shock, it gave a lurch, tottered, and fell, when the pannikins of tea, the pork, damper and rice, together with the plates and knives and forks were all thrown in wild disorder all around us.
The wind now abated considerably and we succeeded in keeping the lamp alight which revealed to our view a most delectable chaos. A scramble ensued, in which the dogs persisted in joining, and it was with difficulty that we managed to satisfy ourselves with the fragments rescued from their devouring jaws.
House-keeping in the absence of a kitchen, or for that matter a house, could be a bit of a hit and miss affair. James described the trial of their situation thus:
…It would amuse some of our friends in Van Diemen’s Land to take a peep at us. We take our meals in the open air unless the rain be so violent as to wash the tin plates and pannikins off the table, which cannot be put upon legs until placed in the hut we propose to commence next week – it is at present supported by four logs about six inches from the ground, one of which, the thickest, serves us as a seat on one side.
Our fire is in front of us with a kettle of tea, tea pots being superfluous at Port Phillip. We are surrounded by three or four hungry dogs watching for a mouthful. There is a lump of salt pork in a tin dish, and a damper weighing about twenty pounds, sometimes relieved by a few birds and fish, the latter very seldom now. The men sleep under the tarpaulin, which also protects from the weather a cask of pork and divers other stores.
Our tent is pitched a few yards off, one side is piled high with flour, sugar, tobacco, and our two trunks placed one on the other, form a dressing table covered by a thing intended to look white, its original colour, but being spotted with ink, gunpowder and a variety of other ingredients which have occasionally dropped thereon, together with drops of rain and marks of dust, it would at present be a hard task to convey to anyone the pleasing diversity of colour it presents to the admiring eye of the beholder. We think at some future period of getting it washed.
Our mattresses are laid on the ground, each with a gun case along its side by way of uniformity. A sheep skin serves for the carpet, a trunk of books for a chair, a bag of soiled linen at night keeps the door closed. My writing desk is now my pillow and I am half reclining, half sitting at it. If I am in want of a bright thought, I have only to turn to the right and cast them on a bar of soap or a bag of sugar.
Sleeping beside their gun cases, the brothers’ firearms were apparently always near at hand and it seems, at least by the evidence presented in the diary, were almost constantly in use. In part, the diary reads like a litany of terror for the native birds and wildlife of the lower Plenty as they shot at virtually anything that moved in the surrounding neighbourhood, all of which seems to have gone into their cooking pots. On the 17th May James wrote that they, “Had a stew of birds for supper – capital tho’ it would have been all the better flavoured with ketchup.”
On the 24th James was practicing his shooting on a stationary target when he experienced a mishap while using a small pistol.
…On Sunday while Edward was in town I amused myself for half an hour by practicing at a target with a pistol, cleaned and reloaded it. Took the pocket pistol – found difficulty in pulling the trigger – loaded a second time with buck shot. The pistol burst in my hand, the lock and barrel flying in one side behind me, leaving nothing but the stock (split across the trigger) within my grasp – fortunate to escape – might have caused my sudden exit from this world of woe.
This happened on the Sunday but significantly James took three days before he wrote about his brush with death in the diary. Instead, what he did write about the following day was a description of his bitter feelings towards his estranged father Richard Willis and the family feud in Van Diemen’s Land that had resulted in their exile and which had caused James so much personal unhappiness.
This state of things cannot last. Some fearful crisis is at hand. Some impending calamity awaits our family. I dread to conjecture when any father’s unnatural conduct will have an end – he has driven all his sons from his roof… but I grow disgusted at the very remembrance of it – I have already polluted this sheet of paper with the name of a father who loathes the sight of his child – of a husband who does anything but honour and protect his wife, who outrages her feelings and strives by every possible means to render her home as miserable as it should be happy…
The near death experience with the exploding pistol had caused James more than a little self-reflection. His father, Richard was by some reports a somewhat “difficult” man. The Australian Dictionary of Biography states that Richard Willis managed to quarrel with most of his neighbours in northern Van Diemen’s Land in the 1820s and 30s and also that, “unpopularity may have been a factor in his decision to return to England,” permanently in February 1839. Whatever the cause of Richard’s quarrel with his son, there is no doubt that it affected the boy deeply.
…Ned and I smoked a cigar and retired for the night. Talked of friends in Van Diemen’s Land. I lay thinking until three o’clock in the morning – went to sleep – dreamed I was not a beggar.
As stated previously, James refers to his beggarly status on several occasions in the diary, displaying a wry sense of humour in this self-assessment and describing his pecuniary problems with the following diary entries.
…Some are born under a lucky star, and some an unlucky star. None of the former could possibly have been shining at my introduction into life. An income of some four or five thousands a year would make this world to me a very beautiful world, but as it is I have ever found it as much the reverse as possible…
And this entry two weeks later, although by this time his money needs would appear to have almost doubled:
I was very industrious – sitting on a bucket turned upside down and watching the embers of the fire, thinking of a thousand things, I often am inclined to think there must be some mistake about my present condition. I fancy I could spend so amazingly well an income of five or ten thousands. What a delightful thing it is to have a command of money. How easy it would be to make people patronise you. What an excellent nice fellow I should become all at once. The magical influence of that same filthy lucre is truly surprising. I believe I never shall be a rich man – I have a sort of presentiment that it cannot be. I shall never be able to do more than earn a subsistence – drag on a mediocre kind of existence without having any very beautiful visions to look back upon, such as delicious music, captivating women, grand and mighty cities and a thousand pleasures and enjoyments that can be procured by money and when once seen one may almost live upon the remembrance of them.
It’s has been said said that money isn’t everything but at times James wrote of a desire to remove himself completely from his current situation:
Very wet. Drawing logs for the sheep yard. Hard work, as well as dirty, lifting those same logs. Smoked a cigar, went to bed – wished myself anywhere but at Port Phillip.
And a few weeks later he wrote again, this time wishing himself back in London while sarcastically contrasting his dreams with his daytime labours and the “intellectual conversation” of their shepherds:
…Our ears were regaled some two or three hours with the highly intellectual conversation of John Fletcher and John Stockly the shepherds. Warmed my toes. Went to rest much edified – dreamed of Aborigines – building chimneys –sheep – split stuff – and London.
The joys of living under canvas through a Port Phillip winter quickly palled on the Willis brothers. James was at the settlement in Melbourne, “which at present consists entirely of turf and weather boarded huts, a very primitive looking place” and staying at John Pascoe Fawkner’s board and lodging house where Fawkner’s “one-eyed, genteel wife makes things as comfortable as one can expect,” eating her “curry which was of rabbit and certainly excellent”, when a terrific storm hit the District. James in Melbourne wrote that “the thunder and lightning (was) the most terrific I ever witnessed. I congratulated myself on being comfortably housed and thought of poor Ned at the Inn.” Edward’s own subsequent tale of the confusion at their Plenty River camp was duly recorded in the diary by James:
He said it must have been about ten o’clock when in a sound sleep he was awoke by a desperate rush in the sheep fold. At the same instant he heard the two men shouting and hallooing in the most vehement manner, and one flash of lightning which illuminated the tent was followed by a deafening clap of thunder. He sprang from his bed expecting to find all the sheep scattered and an easy prey for the dogs, for so dark was it that you could not see beyond your nose.
The first thing he did was to cheer the men by his voice. Another blaze of lightning for some moments blinded all three of them and they reeled about insensible. Fletcher ran against a tree, a branch of which had wellnigh ripped his bowels open, and then measured his length on the ground where he lay several minutes in momentary expectation of being swallowed up by the earth. Stockly at a short distance from the yard called Fletcher to open the gate, for he thought he was driving the sheep before him, when undeceived he ran up to the fire and enquired ‘whose fire that was’, his hair literally stood on end, he was in his shirt and presented a picture of the most unutterable despair.
During the time the rain descending, the wind blowing and the repeated peals of thunder was such as to appal the heart of a lion. Fully convinced that the wild dogs had got among the sheep the men shouted, yelled and uttered every variety of noise to frighten them away. They both behaved uncommonly well throughout, but such was the tremendous war of the elements that they anticipated nothing short of an earthquake as they declared to me afterwards.
Suddenly it became fair and they found that Master Bush, one of the sheep dogs, in his alarm had jumped in among the sheep as if he sought shelter from them during the dreadful convulsion. Edward stood some minutes at the door of his tent and on reviewing the scene he had just witnessed could scarcely refrain from laughing when he saw the two men in their shirts running about like maniacs they knew not whither with their hair standing on end and bawling, squalling, shouting and screaming in the most frightful manner and falling prostrate on the ground, and then tumbling over a log. Another, mistaking the fire he had just left for some strange fire, fancying he was driving all the sheep into the yard when he called out to have the gate opened. A few of the sheep got out when the rush was made, but in the morning they were found standing quietly beside the fence.
The Willis brothers were still living under canvas in early June when the land speculator Thomas Walker visited their camp on the Plenty. Walker memorialized this visit in his 1838 book, ““A Month in the Bush of Australia” writing that, “Willis is still living in his tent, but with as much comfort as under such circumstances can be looked for. He has got a nice situation in the fork formed by the junction of the creek “Plenty” and the Yarra Yarra.” (You can read Walker’s full extract in my 2014 post, here). James recorded Walker’s visit in the diary with the following entry:
Edward arrived from Melbourne with some gentlemen who came overland from Sydney. Two of them drove a gig the whole way, the rest on horseback, having crossed four rivers and met with no kind of impediment. They accomplished the journey in about a month. Edward with his visitors after dining returned to town, where he has to arrange respecting the payment for two allotments he purchased for Willis Macintyre and Co.
Throughout most of the narrative of James’ diary, while living in their tent, James writes that the brothers were occupied during the day splitting timbers for a sheep yard and for an associated slab hut. The hut was commenced on 16th May and was presumably located within easy reach of the river ford. The 1841 census placed it where the Plenty Bridge Hotel would later stand above the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge.
On the 23rd May James wrote, “Fine morning. Wet afternoon. Drawing logs for the hut. Slow work – no hired men – all done by our own hands. Ned acts carpenter – he is adzing logs – says it makes his back ache.” Four days later Edward was visiting a neighbouring squatter John Nicholas Wood whose shepherd “Old Tom” had originally led them to the Yarra Plenty confluence. Wood’s run was located approximately in the vicinity of where Hawdon’s Banyule Homestead would later be built. James had described Wood as “a good-natured little fellow though his manners are not the most refined” and Edward was hoping to enlist his help, “roofing the hut, which it is highly expedient we should inhabit before our beds are washed from under us.” The brothers were both suffering from colds at this time as they entered their first Port Phillip winter. On 1st June the building was far enough advanced for Edward to go to Melbourne to purchase nails “to put the roof on the hut” and on the 10th it was James who was in Melbourne collecting a further supply of nails. The deprivations of their house-less existence had taken their toll however and at the end of July, James’ health broke down completely. His painful illness required his immediate removal to Melbourne where the doctor, finding he was “suffering from inflammation caused by cold”, bled him in the Dracula-like medical fashion of the day. Whether or not as a result of the bleeding or simply as a result of a strong constitution, after an interval James was able to write, “I am at length quite restored to health…”
His humour also seemed restored. John Batman had loaned them his transport, “the only gig in the settlement” to get the invalid to Melbourne and also offered James a room in his home on Batman’s Hill during the period of his convalescence, which was duly declined subsequent to the following chivalric reasoning:
“…I thought it better to decline his offer as he was at that time an invalid himself, and moreover I was rather afraid of encountering the bright eyes of his daughter – for she might have evinced something like that tender solicitude for the wounded Knight’s recovery which the gentler, the fairer, and the softer sex are never without, and which might have prompted something like gratitude in my breast towards the sympathising damsel, admiration probably would follow, and then God knows what. But it seems that the fates have reserved me for a better, or perhaps a worse destiny than would in such case have been the inevitable result.”
The fates had indeed reserved another destiny for James. In the diary entry written just before James’ illness, James described a journey made by the brothers and their neighbour John Wood, up the Plenty River. They were provisioned and had been intending to explore the country for three or four days but after they “had traversed the course of our creek the ‘Plenty’ (or ‘Edward’s Rivulet’, as we call it) some five or six miles”, the party came to a halt upon “a tract of most excellent grazing land.” James wrote that Edward and Wood then “discovered that they must return home instantly to dress sheep”, the implication being that a race was on between the two squatters to see who could relocate a flock to the new pasturage first.
James’ illness occurred directly after this event and when he had recovered sufficiently to return to the Plenty a month later he found that Edward had removed himself to a location which was by James’ estimation, “about seven miles higher up the Plenty”, presumably the land the brothers had seen with Wood previously. At this new location it seems that a second hut had by then been constructed. The building had a thatched roof, as opposed to the nailed shingles of the earlier structure, and had been made ready for the arrival from Van Diemen’s Land of a third Willis brother, William. James described a high hill nearby from which could be “enjoyed a view of the surrounding country for twenty miles and more in every direction.” This second run it would seem therefore was located somewhere north of the Montmorency or “Epping” Forest and in the vicinity of modern day Greensborough, where an apparently unrelated farm “Willis Vale” later developed. It has been suggested (conversation with Anne Paul, Greensborough Historical Society), that the view from the high hill mentioned by James might have been from the top of Flintoff’s Hill near where modern day Civic Drive intersects the Greensborough Bypass, or from Yellow Gum Park in the Plenty Gorge Parklands, but for now this must remain a matter of conjecture.
…and for the first time we found ourselves in a snug turf hut eleven feet by thirteen, with a thatched roof and neatly whitewashed inside.
Ned has a very respectable bedstead in one corner built of wattle sticks; one in the opposite corner is being made for William, whose arrival we are expecting. A rude contrivance bearing some faint resemblance to a sofa stands in the corner near the chimney; it answers the double purpose of sofa by day and my bed at night.
Our table is a very ingenious affair, being a hair trunk placed upon four stakes knocked in the ground, which with two wooden seats entirely of a new fashion and to which we have given the name of chairs, completes our stock of furniture. I should not omit our bookcase, which is composed of three long wattle sticks reaching from wall to wall on either side of the hut, along which our extensive and valuable collections of books appear in formidable array, having their backs, however, towards the company.
On various parts of the wall are skins of birds, and preserved amongst which the tail of a black cockatoo extended in shape of a fan, its feathers being black and crimson alternately, is handsome; several wings and tails of parrots—three kinds—are beautiful — as well as the entire skins of parrots having almost all the colours of the rainbow, some of which are the most rich and lovely I ever saw.
Sky blue, lavender, crimson, scarlet, orange, green and black are the most conspicuous, all being exquisite contrasts to each other.”
Today a large part of Willis’ 1837 pastoral run retains a pleasingly rural character with the land occupied by two golf courses and the Yarra Valley Parklands. How much Edward and James experiences in 1837 involved country that would later form part of the Bakewells’ Yallambee must however remain uncertain. There is no doubt that they roamed freely about nearby and probably at least crossed over a part of it. One of James’ earliest diary entries written on the 28th April mentioned them finding “a small spot of grazing land five miles off” and on the 14th May they found “some beautiful country about four miles from Wanstead” that Edward proposed turning one day into a second run, so the Willis boys were obviously on the lookout for extra pasture from the outset. Garden writing in “Heidelberg – The Land and Its People” thought that the surveyor Robert Hoddle’s notes suggested that Willis’ run involved both sides of the Plenty River, although he readily admits that Hoddle’s notes are difficult to interpret.
The sale of land on the west bank of the lower Plenty in 1838 and on the east bank in 1840 brought an end to the brief squatting era on the lower Plenty. With the return of their father to England at the start of 1839, Edward Willis returned to Van Diemen’s Land and his personal association with the Plenty River ended. In a letter dated 24th March 1839 Edward states that he was leaving the Plenty River ”having notice to ‘quit’ due to the imminent land sales”. He goes on to warn against future occupation of his hut on the Plenty River: “I’d scarce recommend you. For the fleas will soon make it prodigiously clean. That their bloody attacks are not meant to befriend you. This useful bit of information mind is given gratis. For the thriving squatter to the flea good bait is”.
Edward married Catherine the daughter of Captain Charles Swanston at Hobart Town in 1840 and subsequently joined his father in law in partnership in Geelong. James’ diary ends with a statement of his hopes of one day soon himself being offered a position managing a store in Geelong but by 1841 it is believed that he was established at Mernda at a wattle and daub hotel (the Bridge Inn) on the Plenty River crossing. In addition to the inn, Willis’ Mernda enterprise involved a pastoral holding of 400 acres which he again called Wanstead. After their previous Vandemonian and Lower Plenty Wanstead experiences, it’s a wonder that James was still dusting off that nomenclature for another outing at Mernda, but he remained in possession until 1851.
As the story of James Willis and his Plenty River diary fades into forgotten memory, it is comforting to note that the “unlucky star” recorded by James would ultimately be proved wrong by history, at least in a sense. The Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 6, MUP 1986 credits ownership of the diary manuscript to James Willis’ great-grandson, Dr R W Pearson. So it seems that James finally got to appreciate the joys of a family life that he earlier believed would be forever denied him.
Though evidently not in the arms of one of John Batman’s bright eyed daughters.
The bees have made themselves at home behind the shingled walls of our verandah. On warm days the honey they make has been known to drip out onto the deck below, or even back into the ceiling inside the house where a stain on the plaster took several thousand licks of paint to conceal. Other than that though they don’t seem to be doing much real harm, and with the old verandah looking a bit shonky these days, it may be that honey is the only thing holding the whole humongous hotchpotch upright. With bees in trouble on several fronts, to my mind they might as well stay where they are. Our friends the bees are in need of all the help they can get.
You’ve probably heard that there’s something wrong with bees. They are on the decline worldwide with parasites, loss of habitat, pesticides and the mysterious colony collapse disorder held largely to blame, yet bees have been buzzing around this island earth since a time before the dinosaurs. As a motif they have long been used by man to symbolize industry and orderliness, yet on an evolutionary scale, it has taken us the mere blink of an eye to bring bees in this modern age to their bees’ bended knees.
The experimental film director Godfrey Reggio introduced the Native American word “Koyaanisqatsi” to popular culture in 1982. In the Hopi language it means “unbalanced life”, but in the more than three decades since, the situation Reggio described in film has not changed. All over Melbourne right now, developers are smashing up gardens for multiple occupancy dwellings, tearing up farm land for new suburbs, all the while cynically leaving here and there an occasional geriatric gum tree or token strip of park to appease the regulators. It’s not much chop for the people but it’s tantamount to a desert landscape for bees.
August was almond pollination season in the southern states of Australia. The two almond trees we have in our garden already have fruit on them, at least until the cockies cotton on to it, but in the natural order of things there are now many other plants following the almonds into flower. It highlights the importance of a diversity in flowering plants in the garden, an idea that has been promoted by bee activist and author, Doug Purdie, in books like “Backyard Bees”.
By contrast the monoculture farming techniques used up country creates Koyaanisqatsi of the highest order. These techniques offer bees rich sources of nectar for short periods, then nothing for the remainder of the year. Commercial production of almonds in the triangle between South Australia, NSW and north-west Victoria is a case in point and highlights the inherent dangers of these practices. It involves vast numbers of almond trees being grown artificially in a marginal landscape using lots of Murray River irrigation. Because there are few other trees in this area, truck-loads of bee hives are brought in from interstate every spring to assist in a pollination event which is is as surprising as it is unsustainable. Bees are brought from as far away as Queensland where worryingly a pest bee, the Asian Honey Bee, has recently been found. The Asian Honey Bee is believed to have been the original source of the parasitic mite, Varroa destructor which has caused so much damage to bee colonies around the planet. Australia remains one of the few places in the world where the destructor mite has not been seen but with the related Varroa jacobsoni already present on Asian honey bees around Townsville, the introduction of the destructor in the near future is now taken as a given. When that happens, it is farming practices like the almond pollination events of southern Australia that will make the spread of the mite across this island continent virtually unstoppable.
The European bee so familiar to our gardens was introduced to Australia in 1822 and in the nectar rich regions of our flowering eucalypt forests it soon became firmly established. It is the heavy work horse of the pollination world, a typical hive containing about 80,000 bees. Native bees, of which there are about 2000 varieties, are by comparison smaller, generally solitary and produce less honey. To the early settlers with their peculiar idea of finders keepers, this great southern land where little bits of Europe seemed so easily to reinvent itself must have seemed like a land flowing with proverbial milk and honey. In due course it had to be admitted that the keepers weren’t the finders after all but while the milk comes in suburban cartons these days, at Yallambie the second part of that flow equation can be thought of as being quite literally true.
Bees were probably kept in this area from the early days and in the second of the State Library’s c1856 daguerreotypes of Robert Bakewell’s garden, a rectangular shape in a lower corner may be evidence of a bee box positioned at that time on the Plenty River flats. If this interpretation could be proved to be correct, then in would put the Bakewells at the cutting edge of apiarist technology at that time since bee boxes with removable combs, as opposed to the more traditional skeps, were only perfected by Lorenzo Langstroth from an earlier design at the start of the 1850s.
Peter Barrett in “The Immigrant Bees”, (Springwood, 1995) quotes from Louisa Anne Meredith’s book “My Home in Tasmania” and uses her book as evidence of the Merediths’ bee keeping activities in Van Diemen’s Land in the 1840s. So the sight of bee boxes at Yallambee during Louisa’s 1856 visit would not, by association, seem to have been so out of place.
The Tembys kept bees during their tenure at Yallambie in the second half of the 20th century and a son of Ethel was still keeping bee boxes in Yallambie Park when we came to live here in the early 1990s. There were bees living inside a hollow oak in the Homestead garden at the time and I mentioned them to Ethel’s son, thinking they might be of use to him. “Yes, I can dispose of those feral bees,” he answered meaningfully. And so that was the end of that.
The bees are still in the oak and have now spread to an elm. They may have been the original source of the bees in our verandah. At this time of year the garden is literally buzzing with the busy little blighters. The Pride of Madeiras in our garden are in bloom and truly live up to their axiom, “the bee flowers”.
The above is about as good as I could manage with my simple point and shoot camera but it has been a good spring and there are plenty of other flowers in the garden around which the bees have been plying their trade. Some time ago my father in law turned up with a new lens on his camera and took the following series of photographs:
When seen up close in these pictures at a size not usually possible to our eyes, I like to wonder, ‘What goes on inside those little pin size heads?’ It’s all a question of scale and macro lens technology, but if you met one of these very alien looking little creatures up close, what sort of conversation might you have about their perspective on life? Do they know something we don’t know? Maybe you would find their space ships had been, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, “due to a terrible miscalculation of scale… accidentally swallowed by a small dog.”
Bees are known to forage up to 8km from their hives, even without their space ships, so the bees centrally located here at Yallambie are potentially now at work across the entire length and breadth of the City of Banyule. The Council doesn’t have any special planning laws restricting bee keeping in the community, providing all activities remain in accordance with the Apiary Code of Practice which requires the owner of hives to provide a nearby water source and also limits the number of hives and their location within urban environments. Bless them. I wonder if it insists on drinking straws for the bees as well?
Australia is a huge producer of honey and we actually produce more honey than our population of 23 million can consume. At the same time however we import honey into this country on a large scale. Australian honey is very pure and is therefore a valuable commodity on the world market. Not surprisingly therefore, cheap foreign honey is imported for the locals while the best home grown produce goes overseas. Ask any New Zealander about the cost of dairy produce in their country and you will hear a similar tale told.
For all of the problematic future facing our bees, they remain an integral part of the eco-system and the single most important link in our industrial food chain. All our crops are heavily reliant on their pollinating efforts but bees have been around a long time and over the passage of millennia have witnessed many changes. Whether they survive the current climate of change reflects on the ability of mankind itself to survive. So plant something flowering today and give the bees a helping hand. A world without bees would be quite simply a world without.
If you live anywhere in Melbourne or thereabouts, it’s odds on that you’ve already encountered the name “Howitt” somewhere along your travels whilst scarcely noticing it. The fact is, it’s a name that is closely associated with the early story of the Port Phillip District. There are Howitt streets and roads, Howitt parks and palms and the occasional memorial cairns and monuments, all named after the various members of that most interesting family of our early history.
There’s even a Mt Howitt somewhere in the so called Australian Alps which you can climb, as Mallory once said, “Because it’s there”.
However there are no streets in Yallambie named after these Howitts, which is perhaps surprising. There are no mountains either, for that matter.
As previously discussed in the pages of this blog, both Richard and William Howitt visited the Bakewell farm at Yallambee and wrote about their experiences in 1842 and 1852 respectively. That’s a story that deserves a closer inspection later alongside the Yallambie connection of that prominent exponent of Melbourne’s early cultural establishment, Dr Godfrey Howitt.
The good doctor was the brother of William and Richard and the brother in law of Yallambee’s John and Robert Bakewell, Godfrey and his wife Phoebe having travelled with the Bakewells when emigrating to Port Phillip aboard the SS Lord Goderich in 1840. Godfrey and Phoebe came to Australia partly in an attempt to improve the health of their eldest child, John Henry Howitt who it was considered would benefit from the warmer climate. The eleven year old John Henry Howitt is known to have visited his Bakewell uncles at Yallambee in 1842, a year before his premature death from Tuberculosis. He wrote a very interesting and eloquent letter to his then similarly aged cousin in England, the future Australian explorer, Alfred Howitt, describing the Bakewell farm and the exploits of the marauding Plenty River bushrangers.
However, more to that story in my next post.
With this in mind, it was while Googling the name of Dr Godfrey Howitt today that I found the following two images online, the property of the State Library of Victoria.
The pictures are sixth-plate Daguerreotypes from the collection of Stanley Yalkowsky and were purchased at auction by the Library at Sotheby’s in New York in 2010 for USD$18,750, nearly three times the pre-sale estimate price. The pictures reportedly carry a pencil inscription describing the images as being “Dr Godfrey Howitt’s garden”.
I had these images open on my lap top, wondering about them in a curious way when my wife came along and glanced over my shoulder.
“Oh look,” she said. “It’s the Station Plenty. Is it on ebay?” she added hopefully.
“You would have needed $20,000 6 years ago to buy it,” I replied. But she was right. It did look like Yallambee.
Dr Godfrey’s house in Collins Street East was the centre of Melbourne culture in the early colony and the beauty and the extent of his garden was widely regarded. On the face of it the photographs could have been this garden but all the same, one of the Daguerreotypes seemed to show a pre-fabricated building similar to the sort put up by Superintendant La Trobe at Jolimont or the Bakewell buildings at Yallambee. Dr Godfrey and Phoebe are believed to have built something similar in Collins Street in the 1840s but the only pictures I had seen previously of the Howitts’ house in Melbourne were of a later date and of a rendered brick building in the 1860s.
Daguerreotypes are laterally reversed or mirror images because they are necessarily viewed from the side that originally faced the camera lens. By reversing the first of the SLV pictures and comparing it to a cropped detail of Edward La Trobe Bateman’s View I, the truth suddenly becomes clear. The Howitt Daguerreotype of the building is taken looking up at the roof line and from a closer proximity than the Bateman drawing, which was made from the top of the ridge on the modern day Yallambie Road, but in essence the picture is the same. The trees are the same. The trellis is the same. The chimney is the same.
As to the second Daguerreotype, I would suggest that the Yucca depicted is the same plant visible on the right of picture in the Edward La Trobe Bateman drawing, View IX.
The photographs are extraordinarily rare out door images from the colonial era. The author of the images is unknown and one can only wonder at the reason behind and under what difficult circumstances the pictures could possibly have been made. The Howitt provenance is clear but the Bakewell connection is at this stage, speculative. One of the few photographers working in the Daguerreotype medium in early Melbourne, Douglas T Kilburn, was like Dr Godfrey’s son John Henry, a consumptive. Kilburn kept Melbourne’s first professional photographic studio in Little Collins Street and it is perhaps easy to guess at the situation leading to the creation of the SLV pictures.
To my mind the SLV “Howitt” Daguerreotypes should join the 12 Edward La Trobe Bateman Station Plenty drawings as a part of documentary evidence in any discussion of the early farm at the Bakewell brothers’, “Yallambee Park”. The story of how the Daguerreotypes came to be made, almost in unison with the Bateman drawings and at a time of or before the Victorian gold rushes, remains uncertain. Clearly more research needs to be conducted from this point by those with an academic persuasion.
However, as a last but probably not final word, it is interesting to note that Dr Ann Neale in her PHD thesis, “Illuminating Nature”, suggested that the 12 Station Plenty Bateman drawings at the NGV may have been part of an overlapping series, only a part of which the Bakewells retained privately.
Might the SLV Daguerreotypes have somehow figured in this theoretical series?
Might the two SLV photographic images have once been a part of a larger whole?
My wife’s parents’ fox terrier hated garden hoses.
With a vengeance.
Usually all you had to do was turn on a garden tap to set little Rosie a howling. A few weeks ago the dog was out in their garden and keeping uncommonly quiet. On investigation she was found sitting astride the end of the garden hose, the running sprinkler held firmly beneath her body where she could snap in a conquering and triumphant way at the end of the flowing water.
“Ol’ Rosie,” I said after being told this story. “She’s been after that hose for years. I guess she reckons now she’s finally caught it, she might have taught it a damned good lesson. Just like the dog chasing the moon in that movie, Dean Spanley.”
Almost on queue and at the mention of Lord Dunsany’s story about reincarnation and the theme of the transmigration of souls, Rosie the dog in question, came in from the garden and to everyone’s great distress, foamed at the mouth, rolled over and died.
Right there in front of us.
Poor little Rosie. It soon became apparent that she had suffered a fatal snakebite, especially when signs of a battle and the mortal remains of a deadly Tiger Snake were found outside the next day. She was a plucky little terrier our Rosie, no doubt, but the timing of her demise was very strange. Maybe she will be reincarnated someday like the Dean in Dunsany’s book, but in her particular case with an inexplicable fear of snakes.
And garden hoses.
In Western medicine a snake is seen in the Rod of Asclepius, the ancient Greek symbol of the deity associated with medicine and healing, which is ironic given the dangers associated with some forms of snake bite. In Australia snake bite is an ever present danger of the summer months, particularly around river landscapes like those that exist along the eastern margins of Yallambie. One of the world’s most venomous snakes, the Tiger (Notechis scutatus) is an aggressive species although the availability of anti-venoms today means that the bite is usually manageable. They are all too common however along the rivers and I’ve seen several in our garden over time.
Nationwide, snakebite comes in after road trauma as the single biggest cause of the untimely demise of “man’s best friend” and in the time we have lived at Yallambie, our neighbours on all sides have lost pets to snake bite. A pity St Patrick never made it downunder to do his thing with snakes. Our next door neighbour’s pet moggy survived a snake bite although only after two lots of anti-venom at the vet costing $800 a pop. What price a pet? Another neighbour accidentally stepped on the head of a snake in his darkened garden at night, crushing the life out of it under foot in his open sandals. A lucky man perhaps but it shows the importance of keeping a battery torch handy in your garden at night.
In my earlier post, Dear Diary, of January 2015, I recounted a story once told to us of how the late Ethel Temby found a Tiger snake inside her home at Yallambie Homestead. When she saw the snake it was going under the back door, however its direction of travel was from the inside going out. On questioning her young sons they admitted that they had caught it in the garden some while previously and brought it secretly into the house to keep as a pet. This dangerous, so called, pet had escaped and been at large in the house for days before being spotted by Ethel, slip, sliding away.
There are a number of blue tongue lizards living in our garden this year which have become so used to us that they can literally be fed from the hand. I often see one or another poke its head out of the random rocks of the garden wall at the back of the kitchen as I walk by.
Blue tongues are a type of skink with back markings not unlike those of the Tiger snake, a fact that has given rise at times to some dangerous confusions. A lad in my youth, a hero of the school yard just for this story, once pulled what he thought was the tail of a blue tongue lizard from a hollow log. This so called “lizard” gradually revealed itself as being longer and longer in body but without any evident signs of the expected leg appendages. Suddenly came the drastic realization that, far from a lizard being held by the tail, the boy was actually tugging at the tail of a snake. You can well imagine the speed with which a retreat was conducted by the school children from the vicinity of the hollow log on that occasion.
Overseas visitors to our country sometimes comment on the perils of living in a society where you can be eaten by sharks in the ocean, burned to death by fire in the bush or fatally poisoned by the bite of spiders and snakes in and around the home. Growing up in Australia the boy scouts were taught that, in the case of a snake attack, a cut should be made into the wound with a pen knife and the poison sucked out. I don’t know if this advice ever saved a life but the action was later discouraged when it was realized that the knife wounds were often more dangerous than the bite itself.
As a small boy in Rosanna I remember my father once coming in and declaring that he had killed a black snake on our corner.
“How did you do that, Daddy?” I asked in my innocence.
“Picked it up by its tail Son, and cracked it like a whip.”
I was particularly impressed by this story and imagined for years my father, my hero, going around the neighbourhood, picking up snakes by their tails and cracking them right and left like stock whips.
Years later when I was grown I happened to recall this tale to my father and quizzed him about its veracity. He looked puzzled for a moment before recalling, that yes, he had killed a snake on the corner once upon a time but had done so by collecting it across the back with the edge of a garden spade.
In such ways are the illusions of our childhood destroyed.
It is said that to dream of snakes is to dream of your enemies. My wife said she dreamed of a snake the night before poor Rosie died in what might uncertainly be described as a premonition of events.
The serpent as an icon is almost as old as mankind itself with the snake of course infamously representing the temptations of the Devil in the Garden of Eden but in many other cultures, the idea of a snake shedding its skin is used as a metaphor for the reincarnation of the soul. The Kundalini awakening, the object of a powerful form of yogic theory, is described as being like a coiled serpent at the base of the spine. It is seen as a primordial and dormant energy present in three-and-a-half coils at the base of the spine in a triangular bone called the Sacrum, the Latin word for a holy bone identified as the last bone to be destroyed when the body is burnt.
Ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail, symbolizes this cycle of life and the eternal return. Carl Jung included the Ouroboros as one of his psychological archetypes. For mine, that’s the best way of imagining the snake for I like to think of our Rosie making a return some time soon.
Take a second look at the communion wine the next time the Dean offers it your way. It just might be Dean Spanley or maybe the Rev Roscoe offering you a glass of the finest Tokay.
Sometime in the 1980s in the last decade of the “Cold War”, there was a tall graffiti on a bus stop in Greensborough Rd outside the entrance to the Watsonia Military Camp. “U2” it proclaimed in large letters of carefully drawn sans serif. It was there for a long time, homage to a rock band from Ireland, without deference to the base beyond or to American spy planes flying thickly in the blue skies up above.
Travelling quickly past, the army barracks in Heidelberg’s north wasn’t something we thought about much, unless while turning the pages of a Neville Shute book on the beach on the Mornington Peninsula in the summer holidays. There was some expectation that suburbia would someday obliterate the barracks, if the Cold War Ruskies didn’t manage it first, as agrarian land has never been able to co-exist for long in Melbourne without someone, somewhere wanting to come along and put a housing estate on it. And there were several hundred acres of it enclosing the Watsonia Camp.
The thing is, the “Watsonia Army Barracks” as we called it wasn’t actually in Watsonia. A Commonwealth reserve, the land the camp occupies has habitually been a geographic part of Yallambie, separated from neighbouring Watsonia and Macleod by the Greensborough Hwy and the western end of Yallambie Rd. Known simply as the Simpson Barracks after 1986, not after the Private soldier with the donkey (who incidentally was not a Simpson but a Kirkpatrick), but after a World War II Army brass hat, its official address is Mackay Rd, Yallambie and it occupies what was in the 19th century the western most portion of the Yallambie estate.
When Thomas Wragge died in 1910 his 604 acre Heidelberg property, Yallambie Park, passed to his wife Sarah Ann (less one acre bequeathed to the Church of England) and upon her death five years later, to three of their surviving children, Sarah Annie Murdoch, (ne Wragge) and her brothers Syd and Harry, with a another brother sharing equally from the income.
Between 1920 and 1921, Annie, Syd and Harry agreed to divide the Yallambie estate between them. While the two men received a larger share of the land, Annie took the homestead with 109 acres, including the gardens and the prime alluvial river flats on the western banks of the Plenty River. Syd and Harry both received 247 acres.
Syd leased his brother’s share and with the two portions he and his wife, Grace, developed a farm on the western most part of Yallambie. They named the enterprise “Tulla” after the Wragge family’s famous Riverina sheep station. Syd’s daughter, Lady Betty Lush, (ne Wragge) would later recall her father’s Blanding Castle style farming activities with the following description chronicled by Winty Calder in her book, “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”:
“We built a weekend house on the highest ridge and bought and moved from nearby another house for the manager. Stockyards, fowl pens, stables and cow bails were erected and we went into farming in a small way. In my father’s lifetime we kept bees, fowls, had horses out on agistment in the paddocks but most profitable of all were some middle Yorkshire pigs. These if not a financial success, and it has been said most of my father’s ventures were not a financial success, were definitely a breeding success as one boar ‘Tulla Laird’ (we called the farm Tulla) was champion pig for three years at the Royal Melbourne Show…”
Betty also remembered with fondness her visits to the Yallambie Homestead in the 1920s, by then occupied solely by her Aunt Sarah Annie and Uncle Walter Murdoch and their daughter, her cousin, Nancy. By the early 20th century the garden planted by the Bakewell brothers and Thomas Wragge had reached its maturity and fully justified its nomenclature, Yallambie Park.
“As a small child I can well remember our trips out to Heidelberg every Sunday afternoon, wet or fine, to supervise the running of the farm, first father then mother, and our weekend visits and Easter vacations spent there. On these longer visits one or all of us were invited always for some reason to Yallambie, very often for dinner and the evening. I loved these visits even though nearly always in the early years I would fall asleep with a book by the billiard room fire while the older ones played a game or so after dinner. Often I would ride down there with a message, only too glad of an excuse to go there. Auntie Annie was always very generous and seemed pleased to see us, and I had what was then known as a “crush” on Nancy. I also loved to be allowed to wander in the garden under the tall pine trees and around the river. It seemed to me a dream garden…”
Betty’s father, Syd Wragge, died prematurely in 1927 aged only 53. His widow Grace initially continued running their Heidelberg farm as a dairy but due to the poor soils on the remote heights located away from the Plenty River flood plain, (Richard Howitt’s “vast and sterile stringy-bark forests” of 1841), and the fact that artificial fertilisers were not used, it was never a great success. In 1934 she decided to sell her 247 acres for £10,000 to Ainslie Meares, a family friend and relation of the wife of a cousin, Jim (JP) Hearn.
Ainslie Dixon Meares (1910-1986) was born in Melbourne and after graduating in medicine from Melbourne University, practiced in the field of psychiatry. He pioneered the concept of therapeutic meditation and wrote many books on the subject on his way to becoming arguably Australia’s most distinguished, certainly its best known and most flamboyant, psychiatrist.
Meares employed the architect Lesley Forsyth, renowned for his Neo-Tudor houses, to design a two storey brick residence. It was built in 1936 on the high ground that had earlier been selected by Syd Wragge for his dairy farm. Ainslie Meares and his wife Bonnie (ne Byrne) named their house “Aldermaston” after the village in the UK where the couple had spent their honeymoon two years earlier. It was constructed in the style of an English country house at an estimated cost of £7000 and featured a turreted castle tower, steeply graded slate roofs and crisp, white French windows. Its blend of Art Deco and Gothic constructional ideas, together with its sweeping views of Mt Dandenong and the Plenty Ranges was a remarkable architectural realization. A contemporary newspaper report described the finished building:
The circular wooden staircase lies in a rounded turret and leads to the balcony, which surrounds the central hall… all the main rooms open from this spacious hall, which is panelled with Queensland maple … opening from the left hand side of the hall with folding doors is the long, light sitting room at the end of which a tall bay window is carried from ceiling to floor …directly opposite is the dining-room. One of the most attractive rooms in the house is the study, which is octagonal and is panelled with Queensland maple to match the hall. This delightful room has windows on three sides and a door opening to the garden from a fourth …a breakfast room corresponding in shape and size opens from the opposite corner of the hall, and leads to the kitchen and servants’ quarters which are in a separate self-contained wing.
Ainslie’s brother is reported to have lived in a house on another ridge in the district and the two properties were within sight of each other. Many years later Meares wrote about the inspiration for the design of Aldermaston:
“The old home in which I had been brought up was of unusual design with a central hall going up to the full height of the two storeys. We often try to relive our childhood fancies in later life, and I drew a plan for a house on this principle. I gave these ideas to the architect Mr Les Forsyth, and he designed the details and supervised the building”.
Aldermaston was rated with an A1 grading by Graeme Butler in his 1985, “Heidelberg Conservation Study, Part 1” which contained the following glowing citation:
“Built in the Neo-Tudor style, so favoured in Heidelberg. Aldermaston is perhaps the biggest and the best, showing an extension of the eclectic style to suit the modern concept of massing. Clinker face brickwork, steep overlapping slated gabled roofs and multi-paned shuttered windows are the components of the style, whilst the curved driveway, with main and service entrances spaced along its length, illustrates a design for facility on a grand scale. Internally, the two levels of the house are carried through to overlook a vast two level space, in the Great Hall manner, with the lacquered veneered panelling, large fireplace, and gallery which communicates with the upper level rooms. The garden has basically survived and is an important part of the hillside setting. This is an outstanding and original house of the Neo-Tudor style and the former first marital home of Australia’s most renowned psychiatrist, Dr Ainslie Meares. The building is of state importance, architecturally and historically.”
In 2011, the Banyule Heritage Review recommended the house for inclusion on the Commonwealth Heritage List.
The Meares lived at Aldermaston for only a brief time in the 1930s before the Army requisitioned the property for training purposes. With the threat of war looming, the adjacent land to the north of the property was developed as an Army training ground and included administrative staff, reception and transit camps for the troops. The area was given the official title of “Camp Q”, but soon became known, somewhat inaccurately, as simply the “Watsonia Barracks”.
In 1941 the Army formally purchased a part of the property and the Meares home was turned into a training hospital for the duration. By that time, Ainslie Meares had enlisted in the Army as a doctor with the rank of Captain. On at least one occasion during those years, Captain Meares, like Evelyn Waugh’s fictional Captain in “Brideshead Revisited”, found himself billeted in Army barracks at the Camp while senior officers were living in the comfort of the manor house.
With victory in World War II, the “Watsonia Barracks” began to wind down and by 1946 it was practically deserted. Between 1946 and 1951 the old Army Nissan huts were being used by the Victorian Government as makeshift housing. Some were removed and were to find new life in other uses, such as meeting halls for Scout troops in the district.
Dr Ainslie and Bonnie Meares returned to Aldermaston Manor but in 1951 they vacated the house again and sold the remaining part of their property to the Army which had decided to extend the Watsonia Camp. At the time there was an expectation that the Army would also purchase the Yallambie Homestead, its gardens and river side farmland. Sarah Annie Murdoch had died in 1949 and the remaining Wragge property at Yallambie had passed to her daughter, Nancy. A preliminary approach was made to Nancy and her husband, Cliff Bush.
“About 1954, the Federal Government put Nancy under considerable pressure to sell her property for extension of the Watsonia Military Camp. She opposed the resumption, but invited Mr Francis, Minister for the Army, to visit her at Yallambie. The entertainment she provided included good food and a Henry Clay cigar, out of which a silverfish popped. Whether for that or for some other reason, the government dropped its plans to compulsorily acquire Yallambie.”
(Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, Winty Calder, Jimaringle Press, 1996).
The Army’s collective “nyet” meant that after 1951 the Camp did not expand beyond its existing boundaries. Nancy retained her Yallambie property but at the end of the decade, after a century of occupation by the Wragge family, she sold it to the real estate developer A. V. Jennings which developed the Yallambie housing estate there after 1966.
Meares’ Aldermaston House remained largely immune from advancing suburbia and was utilised as a residence by the Army’s Victorian Military District commander in the 1970s. Since 1984 it has been the HQ for the Defence Force School of Music where the crashing of cymbals can no doubt be heard mixed in with the laughter of the kookaburras.
In 1991 the Commonwealth declared about 120 acres (50 hectares) of the Simpson Barracks, surplus to Army requirements and sold it to the Defence Housing Authority. The “Pioneer Property Group” entered into a joint venture with the Authority and developed about 500 house lots on the land which was dubbed “Streeton Views” estate at Yallambie. Arthur Streeton had been an official artist in the Great War but I expect it was his earlier Heidelberg School paintings and not his visions of war torn France that the developers had in mind when imagining the Yallambie project.
As housing estates go, the Streeton Views exercise was handled with some degree of sensitivity. A grassy common intended to reflect the style of the nearby Meares house and ornamental lakes fashioned from levees banks bordering Lower Plenty Rd were significant features. John Hawker, horticulturalist with Heritage Victoria, was retained to provide advice on preserving a number of significant, pre settlement native trees within the development. The estate won the 1994 Housing Industry Award for best medium density development and the 1996 Urban Design Institute of Australia Award for Best Estate over 200 lots nationwide.
A recent Armed Services audit of assets at Yallambie is rumoured to have attached a staggering one hundred million dollar price tag on the remaining Army land at the Simpson Barracks, but Mum’s the word, Mr Hockey. The Army has been spending millions on building programmes inside the Simpson Barracks and on security upgrades to the entry points. New gatehouses, due to be completed in June, are being constructed at the main entrance on Greensborough Rd and on the Yallambie Rd entry points.
I saw inside Aldermaston in 2009 while on a tour arranged by the Heidelberg Historical Society but photography was forbidden at that time. Late last month, for the purpose of illustrating this post, I went up to the barracks with the intention of photographing Aldermaston from public stomping ground outside the fence. After a conversation with the guards at the nearby gatehouse that included a discussion about the relative merits of the art of photography around a secure military base, I put my post 9/11 camera away and didn’t get much of a picture I’m afraid.
Thinking about what became of Meares’ home, the greatest distinction of Aldermaston House remains its superlative setting on the highest ground in Yallambie and, thanks to the Army, this has never been built out. The occasional fly over by Army helicopters and loosened roof slates is the price we pay in this suburb for having that extra slice of green swath down the road.
It’s an irony that in a world that can no longer afford the environmental destructions caused by military conflicts, it is the Army that has done much to develop a land management strategy at Yallambie. Indigenous trees have been replanted, stands of River Red Gums regenerated and the Yallambie Creek that runs through the Base has been stabilised and overplanted, a boon for wildlife. Driving past on a Saturday morning a few weeks ago the Army woodland bordering Yallambie Rd was brim full of kangaroos. Captain Kangaroo, the all new recruit, perhaps?
The pressures that suburban development can bring can be illustrated by a brief mention of the story of the Plenty Gorge Park upriver from Yallambie. The first proposal for a Park in the Gorge came in the Melbourne Planning Scheme of 1928 however nothing was done until suburban development reached the area in the 1970s and 80s. A community action group, the “Friends of the Plenty Gorge, Inc” was formed in 1987 with the stated aim of extending the Plenty Gorge Park into the southern fringes of the Gorge environment. Irreconcilable differences within the group emerged when land owners bordering the Gorge around Janefield in the south, many of whom had previously maintained the area and thought themselves best qualified to do so, found themselves at loggerheads with environmentalists who favoured a wider strategy. The group effectively disintegrated soon after the southern boundaries of the Park, which placed urban development in close proximity to the Gorge bushland, were declared.
“The debate that tore apart Friends of the Plenty Gorge in many ways reflected debate occurring in the wider society regarding private and public ownership of assets.”
(A Story in Landscape, Gerry Closs, The Australian Experience in the Plenty Valley, Plenty Valley Papers, vol 2, 1996.)
Travel anywhere around Melbourne these days and you will find open land is now at a premium. In most suburbs temporary fencing surrounds building projects, very often where houses have been demolished on larger blocks to make way for the multiple unit constructions that seem to be forever popping up like mushrooms. Big Ears might be happy to live in a mushroom but somebody is certainly getting wealthy on the strength of it. A newspaper report last month suggested that “developers are making apartments smaller and smaller because it supercharges their profits.” (The Age, 19 March, 2015). Look at the following link to see what the 70 years since the end of World War II have done to Melbourne and its suburbs.
Where will we be in another 70 years? It is a frightening fact that the Chinese used more greenhouse gas producing concrete in three years from 2011 than the United States used throughout the entire course of the previous one hundred years. As Paul Gilding so eloquently explained, “The Earth is Full” and we’re not about to get another one to replace it. There’s a war going on out in the suburbs and this one doesn’t involve the Army. Dr Meares treated returned servicemen suffering from the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress after the War but today it is modern living that is creating victims and people are both its culprits and casualties. Apartment living and the fashion for smaller house blocks might answer the needs of an expanding metropolis but they deny people the health giving benefits in both a physical and spiritual sense of managing a garden.
I was driving with my son yesterday and he pointed at the slogan that can be seen on the number plates of most, late model cars — VICTORIA THE PLACE TO BE.
“What does that mean?” he said.
“Dunno, not New South Wales I suppose. I remember when the plates used to say — THE GARDEN STATE.”
Former State Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett has appeared on television recently and written in the press, proclaiming the health giving benefits of gardening. “I know from experience that gardening is a great antidote to stress and anxiety”, (Herald Sun, 4 March, 2015). Loved and loathed by Victorians in equal measure, Jeff was a controversial figure in political office but since leaving government he has undergone something of a transformation. His work for the mental health organization, Beyond Blue is well known but Jeff claims that it is his garden that gives his life the balance that it needs on a day to day basis and that moreover, Beyond Blue is the most important work he has ever done. It’s an idea that I think would have left old Dr Meares chuffed.
What do you think you would catch if you threw a fishing line into the Plenty River at Yallambie? A Redfin perhaps? The “Salmon of Doubt”? An old boot?
I was walking in Yallambie Park the other day below Tarcoola Drive and heard movements on the river bank below me. A few Yallambie likely lads and their girlfriends were down by the riverside with fishing gear and lines trailing into the water. The esky they had brought along with them probably contained little in the way of a catch, but at a guess, lots in the way of lager, the obligatory essential for a good day’s fishing anywhere.
Although the sight of Yallambie anglers is about as uncommon these days as a monster in Loch Ness, a few die hard fishermen are still seen now and then elsewhere along the river. There were plenty of fish in the Plenty once upon a time, enough even for an angling club to form upstream from Yallambie at Greensborough in 1926.
Under the name of the “Greensborough Angling Club”, it met initially at the Greensborough Masonic Hall in Ester St before building premises on the west bank of the Plenty at 161 Para Rd, (then Rattray Rd). The club is still active today and is one of Victoria’s oldest angling clubs, although it’s doubtful whether they fish the River competitively at the back of the club house much anymore. Easier I would say to put in an order at the local fried fish and chip shop.
Frank Wright, a grandson of Thomas Wragge, the landholder of Yallambie in the second half of the 19th century, wrote of his earliest memories and of fishing on the Plenty River in a paper entitled “Recollections of the Plenty River”, extracts of which were quoted by Winty Calder in “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”.
The Plenty water, from my earliest days, was always said to be exceedingly pure, and in the 1920s I heard a professor of engineering say that Yan Yean water was so pure that, without treatment, it could be used indefinitely as boiler-feed water.
I have some slight recollections of the Plenty at Yallambie in the very early 1900s, but my main experiences there were during the years after 1910 when the unoccupied property became, to all intents and purposes, my happy hunting ground… we might walk from and return to Heidelberg for a day’s fishing, or go by train to Greensborough, walk and fish our way to Yallambie and then walk back to Heidelberg; or sometimes my father would pile three or four of us boys and our camping gear into the family buggy and leave us to our own devices on the banks of the river for a week or two at a time. The old (Yallambie) orchard provided us with fruit, the creek with fish, and we (learnt) to look after ourselves. Thus we got to know the river well, at least the length of it between Greensborough and the Lower Plenty Bridge.
It never occurred to us not to drink the water straight out of the river. It was crystal clear, an always flowing stream of pools and little rapids. Trees and bush lined its banks, and here and there an old fallen tree provided a bridge crossing. In other places crossings were easily made.
Possums and platypus were plentiful. Often we would see six or ten platypus in a day. We used to catch blackfish and mountain trout, and once we caught a rare native fish called a marbled trout. It was like a rather narrow 10-inch flathead in shape, with a mottled grey-black colouring. Eels and small freshwater lobsters also came our way.
Looking back, it is now realized, our hunting days at Yallambie bracketed the time that was the beginning of the end for these native fish. I don’t remember which we caught first, an English perch or a Murray cod; anyway, we caught both. Someone had put them in the Yarra and they had made their way up the Plenty, to add to our fun. But these two fish were, I believe, destroyers of the little blackfish and mountain trout.
My visits to the Plenty at Yallambie ceased with World War I.
Fishing has always been a hugely popular past time in Australia. My own father was a keen freshwater river fisherman in the years that followed that other World War. He and his old army mates, all ex POWs, kept a shack after 1945 on the Mitta Mitta River where they would disappear away from their families at irregular intervals to yarn about the “one that got away”. Some sort of wish granting, talking fish I have no doubt.
I remember going there years later as a child, around about the time that to quote my father, the building of the Dartmouth Dam “wrecked the Mitta for fly fishing”. There was a large drawing of a fish in outline on a wall of the shack which, as my father explained, was the outline of a trout which legend had it had been reeled in hook, line and sinker by my godfather, Uncle John. The men had traced the fish onto the wall to immortalize it before it went into the pan. “But take with a grain of salt, or at least a slice of lemon, that drawing and anything else your Uncle John tells you of his Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Your Uncle John was a lousy fisherman. If you ask me, I reckon it was more like a fish finger.”
Like the later building of the Dartmouth, when a catching reservoir was built in the 1850s on the upper reaches of the Plenty River at Yan Yean, the river’s natural flow was forevermore diminished downstream. Mills closed for lack of water and farming practices had to be modified up and down the Plenty valley. The colonial government paid financial compensation to the mill owners whose business literally “dried up” overnight, causing some wags at the time to suggest that there was more money to made in building mills to claim the compensation than in actual mill operation. Oral history would suggest that in the early days of settlement a water driven, mill wheel was located at Yallambie. Indeed, Ethel Temby claimed to have seen the still visible foundations of this feature in the 1960s but locating the mill site within Yallambie Park today can only be described as a problematic exercise at best, although a cut through the river bank for watering cattle and old billabong depressions are still apparent.
Occasional floods on the Plenty River at Yallambie are still possible and at their highest point can cut right across the plain of the horseshoe bend in the vicinity of the billabong depressions.
A Wragge photograph from the 1890s shows the river in flood and in 1996, a century later, another flood was captured in this video clip:
There is no doubt that Yan Yean was a visionary engineering project for an infant colony when it opened in 1857. Certainly Yan Yean water was an improvement on the old system of collecting water from the Yarra, upstream from the settlement, and carting it around the town in barrels.
Visiting Australia in 1871, the English novelist Anthony Trollope, wrote of Melbourne’s water supply and stated, perhaps with some satire, that it “is supposed to be the most perfect water supply ever produced for the use of man. Ancient Rome and modern New York have been less blessed in this respect than is Melbourne with its Yan Yean. I do believe that the supply is almost as inexhaustible as it is described to be. But the method of bringing it into the city is not as yet by any means perfect… I will also add that the Yan Yean water is not pleasant to drink — a matter of comparatively small consideration in a town in which brandy is so plentiful.”
I’ve heard tell that ultra-pure water (literally H²O) produced for use in the medical industry, has the texture of water without the taste of water, and in fact it can be quite dangerous to drink in quantity. Sounds weird doesn’t it? Generally, it is the mineral content in water that gives water the taste we assume it doesn’t have. The use of lead piping in early Melbourne, used to deliver water around the city streets, was probably one reason for Trollope’s reservations about the quality. Consumers at the time were even advised to run their taps to waste for a few minutes each morning in an attempt to lessen the dangers associated with lead piping.
The “inexhaustible” supply described by Trollope all too soon also proved to be inadequate. Further diversions of streams into the Yan Yean system occurred and the 20th century saw the building of a series of new dams on many of the main rivers within casting distance of Melbourne. The last one was built on the Thomson River in west Gippsland within the memory of many people. When completed in 1983, the Thomson Reservoir was more than four times the capacity of Melbourne’s next largest reservoir and was supposed to drought proof Melbourne for all time. Like Yan Yean and the other reservoirs, it was never going to be enough of course. Australia is a dry country. So dry in fact that here in Victoria a few years ago, with the much vaunted Thomson standing almost empty, the politicians went all to water in the face of an ongoing drought and in a robbing “Peter to pay Paul” exercise, built a pipe line to bring water from the Goulburn Valley across the divide to Melbourne. And if that was not enough, at the same time they ordered the building of a massive desalination plant on the Bass Coast near Wonthaggi.
A desalination plant was always going to be a dumb idea and the fact that regular rainfall since its opening has saved the desalination plant (or the pipe line for that matter) from being used is scarcely the point. When you have to start manufacturing water it’s clear to me that you have a population that is living beyond the ecological limits of the environment.
As Melbourne continues to expand into an ever enlarging megatropolis, it is our environment that always pays the price. The latest “Sustainable Cities Index”, a study that rates 50 of the world’s most important cities from 31 countries, taking into account social, economic and environmental considerations, ranks Melbourne 17th in environmental considerations. The same study however ranks Melbourne fifth for profitability and 8th in social factors. I can see a trend developing, can’t you?
In “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, Winty Calder further described some of the environmental stresses that beleaguered the Plenty River at Yallambie in the second half of the 20th century:
Bill Bush would remember platypus in the Plenty River during the 1950s, but both the river and its flood plain were degraded as residential development proceeded. Frank Wright continued returning to Yallambie until the 1970s, by which time his early memories of the property were in sharp contrast to current reality. It had become “a jumble of new roads and dwellings, and the formerly lovely Plenty River (was) a yellow mess of pollution and dumped rubbish.” (Letter from Frank Wright to Olive Shann.) He would never forget that:
“about 1970 or ’71, I… looked sadly at the once pure and beautiful Plenty. The water was a turbid orange colour from the stirred up clay. Raw bulldozed rubble edged the waterway in places. Tin cans, old tyres and other dumpers’ rubbish littered the scene. No sewerage drains served the many dwellings along the banks. I don’t want to see the Plenty again.” (Frank Wright, “Recollections of the Plenty River”).
Soon after Frank’s last visit to that river, the water quality testing programme of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works confirmed his fears that the Plenty was so polluted it could no longer support aquatic life in its lower reaches. However, by then, a main sewer traversed the whole length of the river with branch sewers connected to it at various points.
Around the time Frank Wright wrote his epilogue of the Plenty River, a report from the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works put forward the notion that by 1990 the then polluted river systems of Melbourne would be mended. In fact it claimed that the Yarra, Melbourne’s perennial “upside down river”, would be flowing by then like some sort of Perrier at Dights Falls in Collingwood. Or words to that effect.
It seems hard to believe now, but the Yarra River and its tributaries at Heidelberg, the Plenty River and Darebin Creek all had their swimming holes at one time, some with suburban beaches and pools, dug out surrounds and semi concreted sides rather like sea baths — that was before river pollution made them unfit or at least unfashionable for use.
The remnants of a swimming pool on the Plenty River at Greensborough, a little upstream from Yallambie, are still visible and can be found just below the Main Road Bridge. The Greensborough pool was built as a “Susso” project in the Great Depression at a cost of £200 and was of cement and blue stone construction. It was opened in 1937 by the Mayor of Heidelberg, Councilor Robert Reid with demonstrations of swimming by leading swimmers of the day. It now makes a convenient platform for occasional anglers who would probably balk at the idea of getting their feet wet in the sometimes murky water.
A very good swimming beach of sand at Sills Bend in Heidelberg was still being risked by hardy souls when I was a boy but reduced and changing river flows have affected stream form and that beach consists now mainly of silt and clay when last I visited. I believe there was formerly a camping spot used by the Scouts located just down river from Sills Bend at Bulleen near what is believed to be today one of the most polluted ground locations in Heidelberg — namely the old gasometers site. Camping there was probably never a very good idea. Swimming in the Yarra these days is limited largely to around Warrandyte and to further upstream.
Against all odds and in the face of continued suburban expansion, by the 1990s Melbourne’s rivers were indeed considerably cleaner than from the time when Frank Wright wrote about the Plenty. Still not quite the promised Perrier but things had improved by 1997 to the extent that the local newspaper was able to report that platypus were once again occupying the Plenty River at Yallambie, in the vicinity of the Lower Plenty Rd Bridge. The following year a fishing event was organized for the river codenamed “Catch a Carp Day”. It was intended to reduce the numbers of these introduced European fish in the Plenty River, the correct assumption being that the species was in competition with the native aquatic wildlife.
In January this year it was reported that a 20 year old platypus was found in the Plenty River during a spring survey in 2014 and that, “a breeding population exists at least as far downstream as the mouth of the Plenty River, about 15 kilometres from downtown Melbourne”. (The iconic Platypus is a peculiar animal. A semiaquatic, egg laying, mammal it is the sole living representative of the family Ornithorhynchidae, in the genus Ornithorhynchus (literally bird billed). When stuffed examples were sent for study from Australia to Britain at the end of the 18th century, outraged scholars believed they were the victims of an attempted elaborate antipodean hoax. They infamously tried to remove the “stitching” on the platypus bill that they were sure had been employed in the forgery and the marks of the scissors can still be seen on the specimen on display today in the British Museum of Natural History.)
In the 19th century it was not unknown for platypus pelts and the furs of other rare native species to be turned into rugs and coats like some sort of Australian “One Hundred and One Dalmatians”. A pity nobody stripped their crinoline for PeTA in the 19th century. The Platypus is of course a protected species these days but it remains at risk from pollutants in rivers and the practice of illegal netting. A local newspaper story last month warned about illegal fishing practices and mentioned that two platypuses had recently been found dead in the Yarra River near Laughing Waters Rd, Eltham.
March 1st, is designated “Clean Up Australia Day” 2015, a day when many socially conscious Australians are getting out into the community to clean up the environment. There is a group meeting today in Yallambie Park where no doubt much good work will be done along the environs of the Plenty River, clearing the rubbish washed into the river by overnight rain. “Clean Up Australia Day” is a great Australian idea, the concept of which has spread to nations all around the world, but it is just one day of the 365¼ days in a year.
People love water features near their homes, be they bayside, a natural stream running through parkland, or artificial lakes in the manner of Yallambie’s, “Cascades” and “Streeton Views” housing estates. However, while storm water continues to empty into the suburban river system, every poisonous cigarette butt dropped from a car window, every oil spill that goes onto the road and the proceeds of every one of man’s best friends who ever uses a Ned Flander’s nature strip as a make shift dunny, all of it eventually ends up in one of our rivers or lake features. From there it makes its inexorable way to the Bay and thence to the oceans. After the oceans though there’s no where else to go on this “Pale Blue Dot”. That is the “Wall-e” reality of our world.
Recounting the past can be a difficult exercise if we rely entirely on the memory carrying capacity of the cauliflower that sits between our ears. Two decades ago, at a time almost before the internet, I was advised most earnestly to start keeping a written diary at Yallambie. “It would make a good history,” was the assertion. I promised to do so but of course, in the years that followed, I never did. Looking back, it seems now like the passage of time has smothered the old cauliflower with something like melted cheese.
At some future date, should historians ever feel the need to consider the early years of the 21st century, the transient nature of today’s digital age may leave their vision blurred. Not so the written word.
In 2002 an old diary was found under the floorboards of Yallambie Homestead, bearing the title, “Yallambie Day Book, 1866”. That date predated the time of the building of the present Homestead but came from a time when Thomas Wragge was already active at the Bakewell property and probably sub leasing it to John Ashton. Winty Calder, author of the Wragge family history, “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, examined the diary in detail and discovered the book had commenced its life as a farm diary on the last day of 1866 but that after 1882 it had been used by another hand to record veterinary practices. The later hand turned out to be that of Henry Wragge, the brother of Thomas and of whom not much had been previously recorded.
Henry Wragge, MRCVS, worked as a veterinary surgeon in Melbourne and Castlemaine and may have seen service in the Crimean War. He served on the first three boards of the Veterinary Surgeons Board of Victoria. He diagnosed pleuropneumonia in Victoria in 1858 and advised destruction of the affected herd, advice that was subsequently ignored by the government of the Colony of Victoria. The disease was not eradicated until 1970.
Henry died at Yallambie in 1898 but it was the finding of his written diary that allowed his history to become more widely understood. Calder published Henry’s story in her book “Finding Uncle Harry”, (Winty Calder, Jimaringle Publications, 2004).
The Victoria Branch of the Australian Garden History Society maintains an ongoing interest in the Yallambie Homestead area and runs occasional, much appreciated working bees in the Homestead garden. Their last visit was November, 2014 when about a dozen Society members spent a day working around the garden. A few weeks later, one of those members contacted me and said that although she had not realized it during the working bee, she recalled that she had been a visitor at the Homestead on an earlier occasion. That was in the 1970s, during ownership of the property by the Temby family. She had forgotten much of that childhood visit, including the location of the house, but remembered it when she saw an account of Yallambie written by Ethel Temby and kept in the files of the Heidelberg Historical Society.
Ethel and her husband Alan Temby came from Eaglemont to live at Yallambie Homestead in 1961, before the development of the surrounding suburb of Yallambie and at a time when the district still retained a largely rural character. The 6 Temby children enjoyed an idyllic life at the farm. Their horses grazed in Yallambie Park, asparagus gone to seed was cut on the river flat and an annual crop was gathered in from the old fruit trees in the orchard. Bee boxes were kept in the Homestead garden and in the park and the children took a keen interest in the native wildlife that lived in the surrounding area. A cockatoo was kept in the kitchen and was known to regularly perch on the ceiling beam from where it would chat to the family. Years later Ethel told of how she had once seen a tiger snake slide underneath the back kitchen door but the direction it was going was from the inside going out. On questioning, her sons admitted that they had trapped the snake outside the house weeks before and brought it inside to keep as a pet. It had escaped and been loose about the house for days. They hadn’t liked to mention this to their mother for fear of upsetting her.
Ethel loved the Homestead’s aged garden which had remained largely unchanged since the 19th century. Her contribution was to plant a forest of natives, mainly north of the house, her method being to scratch the surface of the old stable yard, cover it with a copy of The Age newspaper and plant a seedling into it.
It was in or about 1980 that I saw Yallambie on the one occasion in my teens. A school mate and I were roaming far afield on bicycles and rode through Yallambie Park. We stopped to explore the old abandoned and deserted Homestead pump house that was at that time still standing on the river bank. At least my friend did. Like a goody two shoes, I stayed with the bikes and told him officiously he was trespassing while he climbed about inside, eventually to wave at me from a window on the upper level. While I waited I looked up at the elderly Homestead on the ridge and wondered who could possibly live there. Mainly the ghosts I thought.
The old pump house burned down soon after this. I hope my friend didn’t leave the gas on.
In 1984 Ethel Temby, by then a widow, sold the Homestead at public auction. I can remember my late father at the time critically remarking on the run down nature of the property. For 30 years an inspector for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, my father seemed to know a bit about the house. The antiquated water system at the Homestead was the bane of his working life. Although it had been connected to the reticulated water system in the street, this was only turned on when the levels in the Homestead’s tanks dropped, which was usually at the time of highest summer demand. The ensuing decrease in water pressure was a problem for the immediate neighbourhood, or at least for the water officer who controlled it.
Ethel moved to Phillip Island after leaving Yallambie. Two of her sons remained in Tarcoola Drive for a while, building mud brick houses near the Homestead that incorporated materials salvaged from the demolished Bakewell era stables. Ethel is remembered separately as a passionate conservationist and an advocate for social justice, especially in regard to the deinstitutionalization of the intellectually disabled. The Ethel Temby Research Grant is a study scholarship for health care workers, named in her honour. Ethel died aged 97 in 2012. Her account of Yallambie, written around the time of her departure in 1984, remains as a glimpse into the Temby family history of Yallambie.
YALLAMBIE HOMESTEAD (The Temby family’s history at Yallambie, as recorded by the late Ethel Temby MBE, 1914-2012). A house that is of interest only because of its architecture or its age is only a building – cold, impersonal, of no general appeal. A garden planned for display may please the eye as window-boxes do, but may yet attract no human response. Yallambie was built as a home for Mr. & Mrs. Thomas Wragge and their three daughters (sic) close to 110 years ago. Except for three of those years it has always been a family home. It passed to one of the Wragge daughters and her husband and then to a grand-daughter and her husband, Mr. & Mrs. Cliff Bush. The Bush’s two children grew up there but as suburbia drew closer and closer the family sold the remaining 165 acres of the farm to the developer A. V. Jennings. For three years the house was empty and the garden suffered the looting that is often the fate of unattended places.
Jennings’ survey of the property cut through the house garden and pegs close to the verandah indicated that had they not found a buyer for the house it would have been demolished. In 1961 the homestead with 2 acres was put up for auction but without success. Some months later it was bought by Ethel and Alan Temby the present owners who were looking for a larger place for their family of six. In the 20 years that the Tembys have been at Yallambie the area surrounding the homestead and the conditions of life at the house have seen remarkable change. Tarcoola Drive in front of Yallambie Homestead cuts through the old house paddock. Lambruk Court runs across the site of the stockyards and loading ramp. Just south west of the present house fence someone is living on the filled-in dam, once prolific with yabbies until poachers dragged it with nets. Jennings leased the paddocks to a cattle owner. There were water troughs in every paddock, no other houses were in sight and to reach the road (Lower Plenty road as it used to go across the old bridge), the family opened and shut five sets of farm gates. 18 years ago there was a sale of cattle at the yards and it is only 16 years since a pet sheep was torn to ribbons by a pack of feral dogs. There were three dogs often seen late at night on the slopes between the road and the house. The farm tracks were sometimes impassable in wet weather and the record long time to drive the 600 hundred yards from the road was 45 minutes of zigzagging over the grass. From time to time the Tembys reared orphaned animals, and a kangaroo which seemed to like grazing with the horses would pound down the hill to the house when called. A wombat left her mark on a back door when she tried to get into the kitchen. The door still has its protective sheet of metal.
Before Jennings developed the surrounding area (10 years after purchase), the telephone was a private one which left the public line and crossed the river at the foot of Longs Road. The private line was low, supported on saplings and thin poles and in places crossed thickets of hawthorns. It frequently broke, mostly between the poles, so drums and boxes had to be perilously mounted while the wires were twisted together again. Even the climate has changed with the coming of the houses. The combined warmth of so many dwellings has reduced the severity of the frosts. The hills no longer look nor feel like ski slopes. No tree now still has frost 50 feet from the ground at 11 a.m. All this may seem incredible such a short time ago and only 9 milesfrom the G.P.O. but the Yallambie district remained rural long after most land surrounding Melbourne had long been developed. Today Yallambie (district, not Homestead) is in many ways like a country town and has something of the same sense of community. It is partly isolated by the Plenty River and the Watsonia army camp, and has only three access points – either end of Yallambie road and the north end of Tarcoola Drive. Many local residents refer to the Homestead as “the farm”.
The first occupants of the land by the Plenty were a tribe of Aborigines who had a permanent camp by a long deep pool on the river – it always had water and fish even in the worst droughts. The name Yallambie is an approximation of the Aboriginal word meaning place of shade, or shelter. The first white settlers were two brothers, Robert and John Bakewell, who first held the land on lease from the New South Wales government. Very soon after, in 1840, they bought 604 acres. The land is sharply divided into river flats and higher areas where the main stands of timber were of stringy bark. The higher land is banded with clay and mud-stone, but the river flats are rich alluvial soil, subject now to rare flooding. Before Yan Yean dam was built the floods were much more frequent. In those days the river earned its name and a timber mill operated by a water-wheel was built on the river across the wide flat below the homestead. In the 1960s its foundations were still visible when the river was low.
The flat was established as a market garden and orchard and grew a great variety of vegetables. One of the former row of fig trees remains, (the rest were bulldozed by the Council several years ago), there are two walnuts and several other remnants of the orchard. The Bakewells grew grapes for the Melbourne market. These with other fruit and vegetables were taken by dray along Heidelberg Road. Heidelberg Road is the oldest road in the State and then had a toll where it crossed Darebin Creek. It is not known whether the Bakewells (who were Quakers) paid the toll or cheated the State asso many others did by pushing through the bush to a place up stream where the creek could be forded. The trip to market took two days at that time. The Bakewells created a wooden house – a pre fab brought out from England. It may well have arrived with them. With its French windows it was particularly appropriate for the hotter climate and the lovely environment the brothers found. The Bakewells also had property near Tooradin and used to journey between the two places – a considerable undertaking then, and hour’s drive today.
In about 1870/71 Mr. Thomas Wragge, who had earlier bought Yallambie from the Bakewells, started building the present homestead. The original (pre fab) house appears to have been where the tennis court was later laid out. A huge oak tree was probably an early planting by the Bakewells. The tree (from an acorn they brought?) is near the south-west corner of the present house. Perhaps as old as the tree – about 140 years – is the stump with remnants of white paint on it now almost completely in its shade. When the Tembys bought the house from A. V. Jennings the stump supported a sun-dial. By the time they took possession it had been stolen as had china finger-plates from some of the doors, and other things from the house. But some pieces of history are hard to remove and the old hand-pump that raised water from a tank under the drive is still there, though no longer useable. Water in the underground tank comes from the roof and before the days of electricity or ice deliveries the butter would be hung in the tank to keep it cool in summer. In the 1966/67 drought the water was used to keep some of the garden alive, especially the old magnolia grandiflora. Part of the original square sectioned iron guttering that takes the roof water remains on the west roof of the house. The tennis court must be very old because the area is now over-hung by huge branches of the big oak and of the buya pine (araucaria bidwilli). No one would have placed a tennis court under the bunya if it had been big. I drops very prickly leaves, large branches and every three years or so, huge, heavy, cones bigger than pineapples. The buya and many of the older trees were given to Mr. Wragge as seedlings by Baron Von Mueller when the famous botanist was at the Royal Botanic Gardens. There are some old fashioned garden plants and garden pests at Yallambie – some of them far too plentiful and seemingly impossible to eradicate. Ivy has killed several trees. Bindweed, some scrambling plants and onion weed are constant enemies. The ducks and bantams that used to keep down the insect pests and add life and colour to the garden have been massacred by neighbours’ cats and dogs. Four bantam hens remain. Bulbs, shrubs and trees were planted with forethought and at any time of the year there are flowers somewhere in the garden. Honesty, lilac, laurels, a big range of bulbs in flower from April to October, mock orange, flag iris, arum lilies, ixias and Sparaxis, michaelmas daisy, roses, wisteria, christmas roses, periwinkle and many others keep the succession going. There is always a patch of colour somewhere in the garden. The seemingly casual arrangement of the plantings creates corners out of the sun or shade or wind where a person can be alone to read or recuperate or talk with a friend. “A garden is a lovesome thing…”(T. E. Brown).
The water tower used to hold water pumped from the river. Its height gave the pressure for the water to flow around the garden and to the stock troughs. When reticulated water arrived at Yallambie it was linked to the concrete tank and was switched on in summer when the water pressure was low. The pump-house by the river was burnt by vandals about three years ago. Soon after the gardener’s cottage at the foot of the hill at Yallambie was also burnt. Four generations of families have lived in the historic pile that is the present Yallambie Homestead. Four generations of children have slept in its bedrooms, slid down its bannisters, played in the garden, climbed the trees, ridden their ponies, watched possum and platypus, and had birthday and Christmas, coming of age, engagement and wedding parties in its big family rooms. Each family has made its own impact. Mr. Wragge’s three daughters, in an era when young ladies painted or sewed and made music, each painted panels for the three doors in the billiard room. In 1923 it was decided to modernise the house. Marble mantelpieces were torn out and smashed, the old staircase was removed and a big 23 step flight replaced it. In the bedrooms marble was painted to look like wood. Art nouveau did some terribly inartistic things. A brick wall with wooden doors in it enclosed the house garden. It was pulled down and replaced by post and rail, painted white. At this time the cellar was filled in with rubble and the billiard room extended, a bay window being added. At some stage in the 1950s the National Trust looked at Yallambie, but to restore it would have cost a fortune even then. A figure given was £16000. The present family has repapered walls that had 1920s style andcolour, and painted to maximise light in a house that seemed to have been built to keep out the blistering Australian sun. Floors now do not have carpets screwed down with polished wood strips between. Mats on bare wood emphasise the spacious rooms. But Yallambie is not a showplace – just a family home with a mixed assortment of furniture to meet the family’s needs. The architecture of the house reflects the emphasis on social class of a hundred years ago. The family rooms have curved window tops, the staff windows are square. In between are the minor curves of the butler’s pantry and the nanny’s bedroom. But the nanny’s room is the only bedroom with no fire place! Door handles are low on staff doors, higher on family doors. Perhaps this indicated an attitude to children. It kept them out of their parents’ hair but the staff could cope! And when electricity was installed there was no switch at the family end of the kitchen. Now the mother of pearl capped bell pushers do not connect to the service board in the kitchen and if they did the woman who pressed the bell would have to run out and answer herself. Staff sitting rooms, bedrooms and bathroom lead off the kitchen – there is no light in their L shaped passage. At one time Yallambie employed fourteen people including three gardeners who used to “make plants” in a glasshouse. The glasshouse has fallen down, but the present family still sow seeds and strike cuttings to make their plants. In 1962 there were only 4 Australian native trees or shrubs in the garden. The native ‘forest’ planting in front of the old stables has all been grown in the last 15 years. Only the northern section of the stables remain now. The dividing walls are of native rock, the back hand made bricks and the front and end the remnants of the original timber. The stables appear on a survey map of 1852. They probably date from the very early Bakewell days. Part is paved with rounded river stones.
The garden, the river flats and the house have all been used many times to serve the community. Garden and house party, sport day and literary luncheon have all been used to raise money for various purposes or just to bring people together. A Halloween party one year helped neighbouring Americans to feel at home. Churchill Fellows and high school students are among those who have gathered at Yallambie. Journalistic licence leads to imaginative detail – a recent press description of the house included “rusting tanks”, “shingle roof” and “tottering chimneys”. The roof is slate, we can find no rusting tanks, and no one need fear a tottering chimney.Some of the cement rendering has fallen onto the roof. Yallambie seems as solid a homestead now as it was a hundred years ago. An effect of an old home and garden is to give a sense of being part of the continuity of life, of having roots in the past and prospects in the future. The Temby’s family of 6 has grown with marriage and children to 16 so the family house built by Thomas Wragge in 1870 remains just that. It is a place all its families have loved.