Category Archives: Yallambie history

The oldest new idea

In the pulp fiction of imagined history, the picture of chinless English younger sons, reclining in easy chairs and casually remarking, “The natives are restless tonight” has become the stuff of Hollywood parody. Comfort, safety and security, not necessarily in that particular order, were important considerations to the pioneer settler in his home and in the face of a sometimes strange and rebellious aboriginal world, the answer to this combined problem would turn out to be a novel one. In the absence of home and hearth the solution the settlers chose was to bring these things along with them, packed into boxes and transported under sail and ox drawn cart to destinations beyond the seas.

The prefabricated house as a concept has been called “the oldest new idea in architecture” with the Romans using it to build demountable elements of their fortresses and the Vikings fashioning strong holds from the dismantled timbers of their long ships. In Australia the idea had its origins in the form of the home brought to Sydney Cove with the First Fleet by the Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip in 1788. Contemporary reports described Phillip’s house as having “framed and sides etc of painted canvas”, measuring about 50’X20’ and taking about a week to erect. It leaked like a sieve and was “not impervious to either wind or weather” but for Phillip, a naval man, dripping canvas maybe felt just like home.

Prefabrication was further augmented in those early years with the arrival of the infamous Second Fleet on Australian shores in 1790. That Fleet, along with its maltreated human cargo, brought with it rudimentary prefabricated cottages, a store house and a hospital. The hospital buildings had been fashioned in England, “not to require artificers of any kind to fix them up or take them down”, which was fortunate as the hospital was needed almost immediately to house the mistreated Second Fleet convicts.

By the time of the founding of Melbourne at Port Phillip 45 years later, the process of prefabricated construction had been rendered into something of an art form with suppliers reducing building forms into their component parts, numbered into a logical sequence to be erected at their destination rather like a wooden Meccano set. The innovative carpenter John Manning was probably the most famous of these early prefab suppliers, but there were others. Peter Thompson of Commercial Rd, Limehouse, whose houses were generally larger and more ambitious than Manning, was one but Joseph Harvey, L.R. Peacock and James Matthews were others.

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

When John and Robert Bakewell arrived at Port Phillip on the SS Lord Goderich on 7th April, 1840 in the company of their sister Phoebe and brother in law, Dr Godfrey Howitt and affinal brother Richard, they brought with them or had access to at least three prefabricated houses. Godfrey’s house was put up on the block of land he purchased at the top of Collins Street East while Richard’s went onto land he and Godfrey purchased on the Yarra at Alphington, after first arranging for the building to be “prepared by my nephew in Melbourne, ready for putting up at the farm, when we could get it conveyed there”, (Impressions of Australia Felix, R Howitt). The Bakewells meanwhile took their prefabricated house to a farm they were consolidating on the Plenty River, known from the first days of settlement as the Station Plenty, but soon after renamed by them, “Yallambee”.

The Bakewell’s first purchase of land at Yallambee occurred in July 1840 and their prefabricated cottage was probably put up soon afterward. Two years later Richard Howitt described the Bakewell’s house during a visit, writing that:

Their weather-boarded house is situated beautifully on an eminence in the wild region, overlooking the river and its meadow… How neat and nicely fitted-up was their house! In it, with its thin walls and French windows, you seemed scarcely in-doors. (Impressions of Australia Felix – Richard Howitt)

YALLAMBEE by George Alexander Gilbert, elevated view of river, vineyard on side of hill rising from the river and house at crest of hill. Source: State Library of Victoria
The Station Plenty, (Yallambee) view VI by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station on hill with creek in foreground. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

Almost contemporaneous with this visit, a pastel drawing by A E Gilbert shows an early version of Yallambee from the west when only the prefabricated cottage and associated residential and kitchen wings had been erected. In this pastel, there is a sort of feeling of impermanence to the Bakewell buildings. They seem to float ghost-like in the landscape, as ethereal as the adjacent haystacks. E L Bateman’s Plenty Station drawings, drawn a decade later, show a much more extensive and presumably more permanent complex by comparison. A third Howitt brother, William, visited Yallambee around about the same time as Bateman and added another written description to the record:

“…the house is one of those wooden ones brought out of England, and which seem as good now as on the day they were set up. They certainly have answered well. To this are added extensive out-buildings, generally of wood, and some of them roofed with sheets of stringy bark.” (Land, Labour, and Gold – William Howitt)

According to Avril Payne (Salter) who interviewed Nancy Bush at the start of the 1970s for a La Trobe University thesis, the Wragge family’s anecdotal understanding was that the Bakewell house “stood where the tennis court now stands”.

Detail of Bakewell survey map superimposed onto modern Google satellite image. Map shows the relative positions of the Bakewell features with present day Yallambie subdivision. Wragge’s Yallambie Homestead was built virtually astride the Bakewell residential structures.

By carefully comparing the Bakewell survey map with a modern satellite image of the landscape it is now possible to confirm this assertion and furthermore show that the footprint of the secondary residential and kitchen wings of the Bakewell complex are now largely buried under the floorboards of the “newer” Wragge Homestead.

The Wragge family on the verandah at Yallambie, c1900. The building in the background on the north east side of the house appears to be the Bakewell prefab moved to that location from a position just behind where the photographer stood to take this picture. The inscription on the original photograph suggests that by this time it was being used as a school room. (Source: Bill Bush collection)

The survey map, which was drawn near the time of E L Bateman’s drawings and William Howitt’s recorded visit, portray a somewhat enlarged establishment from the one shown in the pastel, but all of these resources, together with the misattributed State Library of Victoria Daguerreotype and Wragge era photographs, which show the cottage after it had been repositioned behind the “new” Homestead, make it possible to form a reasonably accurate idea of the Bakewell prefab.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambee) view III by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. House with lattice-work verandah and garden. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

Yallambee was a weatherboarded, shingle roofed structure with French doors and lattice covered verandahs. William Howitt had written that the Bakewell house was, “one of those wooden ones brought out of England” and this would seem to preclude any possibility of a colonial origin. In a couple of the Bateman drawings it is quite possible to see an indication of the joined sides on the east end of the cottage near the apex of the roof and from this it would appear that the Bakewell prefab was not a Manning cottage. The Manning design relied on a unique system of bolted frames and tell-tale infill panels – an example of which can be seen today in the form of “La Trobe’s Cottage” in the Melbourne Domain.

“Jolimont. Front.” Lieutenant Governor La Trobe’s Manning style house as sketched by his cousin, E L Bateman. (Source: State Library of Victoria). The property has been meticulously reconstructed by the National Trust and can be seen today in the Melbourne Domain.

It may possibly have been a Thompson house whose designs Gilbert Herbert in “Pioneers of Prefabrication “ described as having “full-length shuttered windows and lean-to verandas – which seemed to be not only more practical but patently more suited to the Australian climate in form and character.” This description, while seeming to fit the Bakewell house, overlooks that Thompson’s advertised houses were generally conceived on a large scale. The Bakewell cottage was small by comparison. All the same, Thompson is believed to have greatly exaggerated his Colonial building triumphs with the result that modest size buildings may have been a deliberately unacknowledged part of his catalogue.

A British Treasury grant had allowed Peter Thompson to manufacture timber framed buildings free of duty for export to the colonies. His houses were more traditional in design than Manning’s and used standard studwork framing which were sheathed internally and externally with boarding, and internally they enjoyed boarded ceilings. As a result the thermal insulation properties of Thompson’s houses gained on Manning’s designs although in practice this double lining proved to be “complete and convenient repositories for many of the noxious and innocuous tribes” of vermin, (The Builder, p110, 1846, quoted by Herbert).

“…complete and convenient repositories for many of the noxious and innocuous tribes of vermin.”

In spite of the potential for Tom and Jerry style mouse holes, the two Howitt descriptions of Yallambee portray an apparently very comfortable house. On the west wall of the Bakewell cottage was located a chimney serving a fireplace, the cosy nature of which was described by William Howitt as featuring, “the old English dog, in the fire-places of the country houses instead of stoves. Wood is the chief fuel; the fires it makes are very warm and cheerful.” (ibid) The bricks used in this component were presumably the same slop-sided bricks brought as ballast in shipping from the UK which are known to have been a component part of the Bakewell stables.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambee) view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station with cattle in foreground. Source: National Gallery of Victoria
From the Port Phillip Herald, March, 1844.

The Bakewell prefab would in time be enlarged with the addition of trellis covered walkways and extra wings. In 1844 a surplus Thompson house was offered for sale at the Melbourne wharf and it would be interesting to know now whether the Bakewell’s were the purchasers and whether they used it to add to their existing cottage. It is known that over time John Bakewell would ultimately import numerous prefab houses into Victoria. Alexander Henderson in his “Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and the Riverina,” under an entry for John Bakewell’s business partner William Lyall states that:

“Lyall lived for a time at Kew in a wooden house called ‘Clifton’, on the cliff above Victoria Bridge, next door to the premises occupied by Henry Creswick. This house was one of the many imported in sections by his partner, John Bakewell…”

John Bakewell’s Clifton property south of the Kew Junction bordered by Studley Park Rd, High St, Barkers Rd and a bend in the Yarra River. Bakewell’s Clifton House was a prefab fronting Studley Park Rd. It was significantly enlarged and rebuilt in the 1860s before being demolished to make way for the boom style mansion, Tara Hall. Source: detail from “https://rbkr.wordpress.com/2012/09/11/a-hook-to-catch-your-interest/

John Bakewell purchased 160 acres of land in Kew in 1851 and his house, “Clifton” was located on a high point south of the Studley Park Rd. Lyall’s occupation was in 1856 and by the time of a subsequent sale in the 1860s, Clifton like Yallambee had been greatly enlarged from its simple prefab origins. Apart from his extensive pastoral runs, John Bakewell is known to have held several properties in and around Melbourne with land owned by him at Caulfield, St Kilda and Elsternwick during that early era. It is not inconceivable then that prefabricated houses or parts of prefabricated houses may have been introduced at each.

After being moved to a new position behind the “new” Homestead c1870, the Bakewells’ Yallambee cottage was still being used by the Wragge family as a school house for their growing children in the latter years of the 19th century. Winty Calder mentions a possible fate for the building in a note in “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” suggesting that it may eventually have been destroyed in a fire, although the actual evidence for this would seem to be slight. Elements of the building may actually have been used to construct the Murdoch’s later garden hot house in the same position, or even to build Harry Ferne’s cottage on the river flat. No one now can know for sure.

The Homestead with the garden hothouse pictured at right. Screen still from the Bush era Yallambie film, c1955.

The building of Wragge’s “new” Yallambie, a rendered brick Italianate style house constructed in about 1872 from bricks fired on the property was a visible representation of the success of a wealthy pastoralist, but prefabrication did not die with the end of the initial stages of the Colonial era. It has been used on and off ever since whenever the availability of skilled labour resources has been outstripped by housing needs. It was used extensively as an answer for shortages immediately after the end of the Second War and in more recent times, as the real estate sector has shown every sign of overheating, there has been a strong resurgence in interest for prefabricated building principles.

This interest may be seen in the occasional use of transportable, factory made modules in the construction of new buildings but it might be argued that every one of the new towers we have literally seen thrown up across Melbourne in recent times has carried with it an element of the same processes. Like Big Ears’ mushroom house springing out of the ground overnight, these buildings are erected with slabs of concrete formed off site, trucked to chosen locations before being tilted vertically and then quickly bolted into position. It’s the same idea that Thompson used and is done to speed up the building process, but what does the practice really achieve? Figures from the 2016 census show that there are now more than one million homes standing empty in Australia, despite a shortfall in available housing that has pushed the cost of home ownership beyond the reach of many. It’s a way of squirreling away investment by a “propertocracy” safe in the knowledge that with current Australian negative gearing laws, bricks and mortar really are as safe as houses. Successive governments have responded to the situation not by changing negative gearing itself but by egging it on with unsustainable deficits and historically high rates of immigration. In the face of this the Federal Member of Parliament tasked with tackling Australia’s housing affordability problem said earlier this year that the “first step” towards owning a home is to get a “highly paid job”. Well there has never been a shortage in the unemployed to thank the minister for the advice but it really isn’t solving the problem.

The “Tiny House” movement which advocates simple living in small homes is a reaction to the situation, but finding land that hasn’t been subject to land banking or where Council regulations might allow you to park a Tiny House is not as easy as you might think. The consequence seems to be a proliferation in apartment tower living challenging the concept of Melbourne as the “world’s most livable city”. Look out across the skyline of this town and you would think from the sight of the cranes on the horizon that there would be housing enough for all. The reality is however that if you take a trip into parts of the City of Melbourne on any night of any given week, in spite of the cold evenings, homelessness for many is not so much a matter of choice.

Even in the suburbs it is a sometime social plight. Last Saturday I went for a walk along the Plenty River bicycle path at Greensborough near where Main Road crosses the Plenty River and close to where the Council’s shiny new tower stands alongside the ugly expanse of the Greensborough Plaza. Under the Main Road Bridge, like an echo from an old Chili Peppers’ song, a homeless camp had taken up refuge. It wasn’t the City of Angeles, but the rapid sound of water flowing quickly past in the bed of nearby Plenty River made it a nice place for camping, although aesthetically the combined effects of graffiti and pigeon poo left a little to be desired. Meanwhile on that same Saturday there were probably hundreds of house auctions being conducted across the north and north east with no limit seemingly applied to the upward spiral of the prices achieved.

In 1945 on the eve of a post war housing boom and a roll out of new Federal and State Government social housing programmes, the Commonwealth Housing Commission stated that:

A dwelling of good standard and equipment is not only the need but the right of every citizen. Whether the dwelling is to be rented or purchased, no tenant or purchaser should be exploited for excessive profit.

Today, faced with the social implications of a great ponzi housing scheme at odds with that 1945 statement, it’s no wonder that the natives are getting restless. It’s time to take stock because when it comes down to it, have we really come such a long way from those First Fleet convicts who arrived here without a roof over their heads?

Advertisements

The past is not such a foreign country

“You are destroying your past, and one day you will realise it when it is too late.”

These words were spoken by Dutch artist Rein Slagmolen nearly fifty years ago and were quoted in a local newspaper report. At the time Slagmolen was referring to the impending demise of an historic, National Trust classified landmark at Yallambie but his words have a discouragingly all too familiar ring to them today as they echo across the passage of the intervening years. As the built face of Melbourne continues to change with every passing year, it turns out the past is not such a foreign country after all. They do things just the same there.

William Laing's Casa Maria, formerly "Woodside Farm", (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
William Laing’s Casa Maria, formerly “Woodside Farm”, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

Slagmolen had been living at Casa Maria, “the House on the Hill”; a local feature on a ridge on what is now the north eastern edge of Yallambie. As stated in the previous post, when John and Robert Bakewell created their farm, “Yallambee Park” at the start of the 1840s by buying up most of the parts of Walker’s subdivision of Portion 8 north of the Lower Plenty Road, the one section that they overlooked was a strip of land combining Walkers’ Lots 6 & 7.

Walker's subdivision of Portion 8 with coneptual overlay of Bakewell c1850 survey map and (part) modern street plan.
Walker’s subdivision of Portion 8 with coneptual overlay of Bakewell c1850 survey map and (part) modern street plan.

This land of about 68 hectares was at this time in the hands of Nicholas Fenwick, later Police Magistrate at Geelong. In 1843, by dint of a complicated deal involving several disassociated parties during the turbulent period characterising the first economic crisis of the Port Phillip District, the land was handballed to William Laing and Peter Johnstone. William Laing soon became the sole owner of the property and built an attic roofed farmhouse, probably adding it in front of a pre-existing, single storey cottage he found already located there to the north.

Laing called the property “Woodside”; an appropriate name perhaps given that Richard Howitt, writing about nearby “Yallambee” in 1842, recorded that: “The locality is at the commencement of the vast and sterile stringy-bark forests.” (Impressions of Australia Felix)

1945 aerial survey showing late 20th century subdivisions and site of Casa Maria (Woodside) farm.
1945 aerial survey showing late 20th century subdivisions and site of Casa Maria (Woodside) farm.
Squatting era kitchen wing, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
Squatting era kitchen wing, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

In the late 1960s, foundation members and honorary architects for the National Trust of Australia, John and Phyllis Murphy, reported that the earliest cottage section at Woodside most probably dated far back to the 1830s and the first days of settlement in Victoria.

Verandah detail, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
Verandah detail, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

The Murphys were well known Melbourne architects at the time and noted for their conservation work at what is still reputed to be Victoria’s earliest building, “Holly Green” (Emu Bottom Homestead). They speculated that the original cottage at Woodside was as old, or perhaps even older, than that Sunbury property itself. Remarkably this would have put the first construction at Woodside outside the first Crown land sales of Heidelberg and back into the short lived squatting era on the Lower Plenty, but their hypothesis seems immaterial now. By any State of Victoria measure, Woodside was old. Very old.

This earliest part of Woodside was used by Laing as a kitchen wing and to minimise fire risks it was kept separated from the main building. It consisted of a large, single storey kitchen/living room area and three utility rooms. The doors of the cottage were small by any standard, barely 180cm tall, with wooden steps that by 1970 had been worn quite hollow by the passage of time. High beams in the roof were concealed by a low ceiling lit by small, crooked windows and much later, a sky light and west facing louvre window. The sum total of kitchen “mod cons” consisted of a simple wooden kitchen dresser built alongside a huge kitchen fireplace. The fireplace had originally been an open arrangement with a chimney crane used to lift pots over the embers, later replaced by the installation of an Aga stove.

Dormer windows", (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
Dormer windows”, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

The other, or front section of the house, erected by William Laing when he took possession of the property, was dual level with two attic dormer bedrooms across a small hallway which was reached via an iron made staircase. These bedrooms were built without internal fireplaces but were kept warm in winter by the heat from the exposed brick work of the chimneys from the ground floor rooms below. Australian Red Cedar joinery was a feature of the lower rooms although later, much of this was ignominiously painted over. The walls were of soft, hand-made bricks and rendered with lime mortar. The roof, originally slate shingled, had been replaced by tiles after a fire in 1950.

20th century addition, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
20th century addition, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

William Laing died in his 90s in 1891 and Woodside passed to his family who continued to farm it until well into the 20th century.

Paved courtyard, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
Paved courtyard, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

A third section of the house with walls made of battened fibro sheets was added between the original cottage and Laing’s main building, joining the three parts together into a “house that Jack built” whole. A small paved court yard was located in a space left vacant on the western side between the two original sections and planted with vines.

Donald S. Garden writing in “Heidelberg: the Land and its People” states that Woodside suffered a somewhat “chequered history” in its later years. A man named Brassier farmed and operated a vineyard at the property, (adding to an early local tradition started by the Bakewells in 1840) and he was followed by a certain Ms Nancy Hassock who operated a riding school there. She was succeeded by a Mr Shaw, who also operated a riding school.

In 1950 Woodside was purchased by an order of novitiate nuns, the Santa Maria Order, who renamed the property “Casa Maria”, the name by which it became more generally known over time in the surrounding community. By this time the original property had been reduced to 11 hectares. The nuns built a prefabricated structure behind the house and this they maintained as a dormitory and chapel.

Casa Maria pictured from the west, south and east, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).
Casa Maria pictured from the west, south and east, (John T. Collins, Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria).

In 1960 Casa Maria was sold again, this time to the property agents Arthur Tucket & Malone. The property was leased for ten years to a succession of tenants but with the carve up of the nearby Yallambie Homestead estate by the developer A V Jennings from September 1966, it was only a matter of time before Casa Maria would itself come to the building planners’ attention. A contemporary newspaper reporting on the Casa Maria property recorded that: “several hundred yards away is Lord Ragg’s Yallambie homestead.” Thomas Wragge would certainly have been amused by this presumptuous promotion of his person to the peerage, however the two properties did occupy adjoining ridges on the western lower reaches of the Plenty River. Laing had been Wragge’s nearest neighbour.

According to Ethel Temby’s memoir, Jennings’ first survey of the Yallambie Homestead “cut through the house garden and pegs close to the verandah indicated that had they not found a buyer for the house it would have been demolished.” In the end, Yallambie Homestead was spared this inglorious fate, but for Casa Maria, the end seemed nigh. John T. Collins, a teacher by profession and keen amateur photographer, would record the building between 1967 and 1969 in a series of photographs taken as part of a National Trust programme aimed at recording historic properties.

In the 1960s Rein Slagmolen became the final occupant of the Laing farm house. He was a Dutch born sculptor who, with his wife Hilary Prudence Reynolds, had immigrated to Australia from central Africa shortly after World War II.

The wrecking ball threat...
The wrecking ball threat…

The Slagmolens had four sons and were still renting Casa Maria in 1970 when the wrecking ball came swinging. The family kept horses and enjoyed a semi-rural lifestyle. Their sons would recall frightening childhood friends with night time tales of bushrangers, stories that seemed all too real to ears and imaginations tuned to the sounds of horses in the surrounding paddocks.

Casa Maria childhood, (Slagmolen family collection).
Casa Maria childhood, (Slagmolen family collection).

Rein kept an artist’s studio in the nuns’ old prefab chapel/dormitory from where he operated a successful business “Vetrart Studios” working on collaborative commissions for new church spaces.

Stations of the Cross (6 stages of 14) by Dutch artist Rein Slagmolen, on display in St Francis Xavier Church, Mayona Rd, Montmorency.
Stations of the Cross (6 stages of 14) by Dutch artist Rein Slagmolen, on display in St Francis Xavier Church, Mayona Rd, Montmorency.

The beautiful, light filled Modernist interior, with its sculptures and lead light panels at St Francis Xavier Church, Montmorency are just one local example of his work.

Slagmolen interior of St Francis Xavier Church, Montmorency.
Slagmolen interior of St Francis Xavier Church, Montmorency.
Holy water font by Rein Slagmolen, located inside the entrance to St Francis Xavier Church, Montmorency.
Holy water font by Rein Slagmolen, located inside the entrance to St Francis Xavier Church, Montmorency.

The Slagmolens attempted unsuccessfully several times to buy Casa Maria from the property developer syndicate and a community campaign was launched to save Casa Maria, but it was all to no avail. The chance to create a Montsalvat style artist community at Yallambie was lost. In the words of Donald S. Garden, “the battle culminated in yet another victory to private enterprise,” (ibid). Casa Maria, formerly “Woodside Farm”, was demolished in 1971 to make way for an enlargement of the Yallambie housing estate, the so called “Santa Maria Subdivision”.

Today if you walk past the former location of Casa Maria along Allima Avenue and into Kurdian Court, Yallambie, there is little to remind you of the presence of one of the earliest colonial properties ever built in Victoria. A number of ancient Italian Cypresses still mark the lines of the old garden but these are probably held in little regard, the exotic home of nuisance possums and cockatoos.

As quoted at the start of this post, Rein Slagmolen said, “You are destroying your past, and one day you will realise it when it is too late,” but perhaps he had it all wrong. As the past is destroyed it fades from our collective memory. Without records, who remembers what has gone before? If they are not written down, stories are all too soon forgotten, a fact that has perhaps never been more true in this digital age of email. This has been the operating inspiration behind the existence of this blog from the very first post of August, 2014.

At the time of writing this post, two houses which occupy the former front yard of Casa Maria at 38 and 40 Allima Avenue are scheduled for auction by separate agents later in the month. Furthermore, on a suburban block opposite these houses, a new home is even now nearing completion after a brick veneer from the old A V Jennings/Santa Maria subdivision was cleared away to make way for it. A new, two storey house fills the block almost to its boundaries. It will be a fine home when complete but in a few years’ time, who will remember the earlier succession of homes it replaced and the haunting layers of their life’s existence?

If you’re like me and enjoy watching old episodes of the British made documentary series “Time Team” on cable, it seems there are very few places in the UK where you cannot dig without turning up Roman mosaics or Iron Age ring forts. The European archaeological history of Australia is small beer by comparison but at 10.30am on this Friday at Eltham Library, Jeremy Smith, an archaeologist at Heritage Victoria, is scheduled to give a talk about one example at the site of Viewbank Homestead, just down river from Yallambie. That 1840s era homestead was professionally demolished in 1922 and several digs in the last two decades have uncovered an array of artefacts: jewellery, porcelain, ornaments and coins, all of which give an insight into the lives of the settlers of this district.

Archaeological investigation of remains of Viewbank Homestead, Viewbank, 1997
Archaeological investigation of remains of Viewbank Homestead, Viewbank, 1997

Long academic studies have been devoted to the story of Viewbank. Perhaps one day someone will show enough interest to stick a pick or trowel into the forgotten histories at Yallambie, some of which are still there to be found, just below our pedestrian feet.

casa_maria

William Greig: A South Sea Bubble in Port Phillip

“History never repeats.”

So goes the song. The New Zealand band were singing about love and hurt but in the world of economics it’s a different story. Boom and bust have long been a feature of the Australian economy and as property prices continue to soar once more across Melbourne, it’s a sobering thought that when it comes to the economy, we never learn from the past.

"The old belief in the safety of money in bricks and mortar remains strong..."
“The old belief in the safety of money in bricks and mortar remains strong…”

As UK based analyst Jonathan Tepper recently put it, Australia is now in the midst of “one of the biggest housing bubbles in history.” The old belief in the safety of money in bricks and mortar remains strong in a world where governments print money to lend it on the property market, hoping repayments in another, more valuable foreign currency, will cover their own dubious paper. It’s money making money, the economists’ dream.

In the last post the tale was told of the Plenty River bushrangers of 1842 whose activities up and down the Plenty River valley could be seen as a reaction itself to a down turn in the Colonial economy at that time. Everyone loves a get rich scheme and the Plenty River Bushrangers had one they thought would beat even the property speculators. It all ended in tears for them of course but then, get rich schemes often do.

The recession at Port Phillip in the early 1840s was driven by a combination of economic and social factors. In an all too familiar story, rampant speculation led to an overheated local property market where prices paid for land became unreflective of its ability to produce an income in a rural economy at the bottom end of the world. This, combined with a fluctuating international economy and a corresponding withdrawal of foreign investment, led to Port Phillip’s first financial crisis.

                         John Bakewell, 1807-1888

John and Robert Bakewell’s arrival in Port Phillip in 1840 was timed almost to coincide with this crisis but instead of being caught up in it, they turned the situation to their advantage. As Donald S. Garden Wrote in “Heidelberg: The Land and its People”, the story of the land that became Yallambie:

“…was a constant struggle because of the relatively poor quality of much of the land in Portion 8. Nevertheless, where others failed, the Bakewells managed to succeed, both by means of hard work and sufficient capital.” (Heidelberg: The Land and its People, Donald S. Garden, MUP, 1972).

The “profile” which accompanies each page of this blog at left describes Yallambie as having been “first settled in the 1840s” within the “Goldilocks Zone” of Melbourne. However this is a somewhat overly simplified view of history. Although the Bakewells were the first settlers to consolidate a successful farm on land that forms the present day suburb, they were by no means the first to dig a spade into Yallambie’s good earth.

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

The land that formed Portion 8 at the first land sales of the Heidelberg district was purchased from a Crown comfortable with its concept of Terra Nullius, at a public auction in Sydney in September, 1838 by Thomas Wills for £1067, or £1 2s per acre. Wills was a speculator who had no interest in the property and quickly passed it on to Thomas Walker for £1261, or £1 6s per acre, a profit of almost £200 for holding it for just six months. As previously noted in the pages of this blog, Walker had visited Edward Willis squatting run in 1837 at what is now Yallambie and Lower Plenty, writing about it in his book “A Month in the Bush of Australia,” (Thomas Walker, J. Cross, 1838). It is believed that it was either Wills or Walker who first referred to the land at Yallambie as the “Station Plenty”.

In the latter half of 1839, Walker subdivided Portion 8 into 12 blocks, selling them at a price of between £2 and £3 5s per acre, more than doubling the money that he had paid Willis only months previously. The Port Phillip District was in the middle of a full-fledged property boom, the cannon shot report of which was being heard right around the world.

Walker's subdivision of Portion 8 with coneptual overlay of Bakewell c1850 survey map and (part) modern street plan.
Walker’s subdivision of Portion 8 with coneptual overlay of Bakewell c1850 survey map and (part) modern street plan.

None of the six purchasers of Walker’s subdivision of Portion 8 took much interest in their holdings and they either sold them again or operated them as absentee landlords. The blocks which today specifically constitute the Yallambie area were bought by just five men: James David Lyon Campbell of Campbellfield, late of the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers; William Thomas Elliot, a Western Port pastoralist; Nicholas Alexander Fenwick, later to become Police Magistrate at Geelong; and Robert Reeves and Robert Cook.

Detail of Bakewell survey map with modern street plan showing position of William Greig's farm marked, "Hut" and "Old Garden".
Detail of Bakewell survey map with modern street plan showing position of William Greig’s farm marked, “Hut” and “Old Garden”.

Campbell’s land fronted the Plenty River on the corner of present day Allima Avenue and Tarcoola Drive, Yallambie. In the midst of the big property bang, it appears that Campbell agreed to sell this land on easy terms to a 24 year old Scot from Fife, William Greig, whose “Farm Day Book” written at Yallambie from October, 1840 to February, 1841 constitutes one of the earliest and most interesting primary accounts of small scale crop farming in the Port Phillip District in the early 1840s. The manuscript, now in the Mitchell Library NSW, illustrates over a five month period the experiences of this naïve young man, very much a stranger in a strange land. A man of good education Greig however had little practical farming expertise of the virgin soils that confronted him or of the unfamiliar climate that came with them.

Edward LaTrobe Bateman's pencil study for View XII in his Plenty Station series, NGV. View XII, (XII Distant view of hut with creek in foreground), drawn more than a decade after Greig's departure, very likely depicts Grieg's old hut and is marked on the Bakewell plan as "hut" and "old garden".
Edward LaTrobe Bateman’s pencil study for View XII in his Plenty Station series, NGV. View XII, (XII Distant view of hut with creek in foreground), drawn more than a decade after Greig’s departure, very likely depicts Grieg’s old hut and is marked on the Bakewell plan as “hut” and “old garden”.

Greig described himself on the 1841 Census as living at “Plenty” in a completed wooden house containing six people: himself, his wife Marion, his manservant Meikle and wife, and two other people. Greig’s original intention had been to write: “a Diary of daily events on the Farm and any other particular occurrence which may happen I shall confine myself to that,” (Greig, Farm Day Book).

In the end the “Diary” became more than that and is a record instead of all his hopes and dreams and also of the many frustrations he encountered.

It opens optimistically enough on the first day of October, 1840. Greig had just purchased a Van Dieman’s Land plough for 8 guineas and had engaged a team of six bullocks and a driver from the “Scotch Company” at £1 per day to plough his fields while he and two married workmen cleared stumps from: “a nicely lying Flat & two Banks in all about an acre & a half of as good soil as any in the Colony and to surpassed by none in richness in any Country whatever – from which I fully expect an abundant Crop of Potatoes”.

Already Greig’s initial draft of chickens had more than doubled and more eggs were hatching. A garden was started and aside from the potatoes, Greig planted a virtual vegetable Garden of Eden at Yallambie: mustard, cress, cabbages, turnips, peas, carrots, spinach, melons, lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, cauliflower, broccoli and onions.

The rural idyll: a gentleman farmer with bullocks ploughing his fields at the start of the 19th century.
The rural idyll: a gentleman farmer with bullocks ploughing his fields at the start of the 19th century.

A pony provided transport to town whenever needed but the hired bullocks kept straying and the ploughing took longer than anticipated. The work was difficult and where the plough missed Greig and his men followed up with spades. The cutting blade on the plough soon broke and had to be sent over to a nearby farm for repair but by mid-October, 1840 the initial work was complete.

On the day ploughing finished, Greig dismissed one of his workman and the man’s wife, “Owing to Jerry again giving me impudence…” When they left, Greig gave “Jerry” a paper stating that he was “a very good workman and an industrious man,” his only fault being his “impudence and a too conceited use of his tongue on all occasions.” Old World class distinctions prevailed under the wide Australian sun where Grieg’s status as an employer and independent landowner placed him, at least in his own mind, on a higher social rung on the sliding scale of a status-conscious 19th century society. Greig was obviously accustomed to hiring and firing servants and was sufficiently aware of his own implied importance to take quick offence at what he termed “impudence”.

By the 23rd October the potatoes were at last in the ground and Greig looked to the future with an “expectation of a good crop.” There were frequent trips to town for supplies, to find a replacement workman for the impudent Jerry and his wife, and to enquire after the post from Britain.

Greig was in actual fact a deeply worried man. In spite of his pretensions to gentleman status, the young Plenty River “farmer” enjoyed only limited capital. He had agreed to purchase James David Lyon Campbell’s Portion 8 landholding with a series of regular payments and the first of these would be due in the New Year. It had been some months since he had any news from home but all the same, Greig looked to the post in vain expectation of a remittance from a wealthy uncle, without whose help he would be unable to meet even his initial commitment to Campbell.

In November, 1840 the first signs of the impending collapse of the Port Phillip colony became apparent and Greig wrote: “Bad accounts from Sydney – some great failures and all business houses in a very tottering state, from the great scarcity of money – in fact the whole colony seems bordering on insolvency.”

"I intend starting a dairy if possible..."
“I intend starting a dairy if possible…”

Meanwhile work proceeded with fencing the fields while Greig contemplated diversifying his farming interests. He sent his man to inspect some cows, the property of Mr Watson of Watson & Hunter. “I intend starting a dairy if possible and he is inclined to be liberal as to receiving payment it will be always able to bring in something and would with proper management pay itself off in the first year, so I shall make the attempt.”

But to Greig’s disappointment, his man found the suitability of the moo cows a moot point. Only twenty cows in the herd of two or three hundred were satisfactory for a dairy and Greig’s enthusiasm waned, but not before he had already spent money making preparations and purchasing materials for the planned dairy.

On 4 December he wrote: “I am now very dubious as to trying the dairy at all as I am afraid the expense & trouble at this distance from Town is too great to be worth it. I think I’ll get a Bullock team which will bring as much & more money in than 20 cows wd independently of there being no trouble.” The experience of the straying bullocks at the start of his operations was forgotten.

"the rats are playing havoc among the potatoes..."
“the rats are playing havoc among the potatoes…”

Meanwhile the hoped for income from his potato beds was under threat as: “the rats are playing havoc among the potatoes, going down the drills regularly and eating them up by their very roots, I’ll have to tie the dogs up all night beside them.”

The potatoes had been sown too late in the year to do well. Bushfires played havoc with his land and dogs got into the melon patch. The heat of the Australian summer made him feel quite unwell: “I wish I had a thermometer for I can’t think the heat is far short of 130 degrees at mid day. We feel it terribly in our wooden house.” And “The nights are as unbearable as the days. What crops are in the ground just now must suffer terribly.”

Christmas and New Year passed under a gloom of anxiety. “I am far from being enviably placed now and the great anxiety I am in completely unfits me for everything… With assistance from friends at Home I think I could ensure success, but without that I have nothing left for it but to make the best of my way home. There to begin a world of troubles…”

Still no letters appeared and the horse had gone lame. The diary does not record whether he considered shooting it, or himself. Perhaps he contemplated both. Greig was losing great quantities of meat due to spoilage in the heat and on the 15 February he wrote that he had: “lost half the sheep we killed owing to the weather so that was 28lb of meat thrown to the dogs. I have altogether lost a terrible quantity since being here.”

"Finally, after five months the hoped for letters from home arrived..." (The squatter's hut: news from home, Harden S Melville, 1850-51, NGA
“Finally, after five months the hoped for letters from home arrived…” (The squatter’s hut: news from home, Harden S Melville, 1850-51, NGA

Finally, after five months the hoped for letters from home arrived (they had been delayed in Adelaide) but there was no money to accompany them.

By the end of February, 1841, Greig was negotiating to rent a house in Melbourne. The last entries for the month, and for the Farm Day Book itself, contain mention of the downturn in the colonial economy and a comment on the government’s policy of selling Crown land at a minimum upset price of £1 per acre. In Greig’s opinion: “a great many will find most of their land not worth a pound.” With this thought, Greig walked away from his 156 acres and out of history. He went into receivership in November, 1841 leaving James David Lyon Campbell to pick up the pieces.

"He went into receivership in November, 1841..."
“He went into receivership in November, 1841…”

Campbell soon found a ready-made buyer in the form of the Bakewell brothers who paid Campbell £400 for Greig’s farm. The Bakewells had purchased land at the Plenty Station from William Thomas Elliot soon after arriving in the colony and added Campbell’s holding to it, creating a farm that would henceforth be named by them, “Yallambee”.

"Casa Maria" Convent, formerly Woodside Farm, Yallambie.
“Casa Maria” Convent, formerly Woodside Farm, Yallambie.

In the depressed economy of the early 1840s the Bakewells continued to add further holdings to their “Yallambee Park” estate until they owned all of the Portion 8 land north of the Lower Plenty Road, excluding the northern most portion which passed to William Laing, (who developed the now demolished  Woodside, later Casa Maria). In mid 1842, the Bakewell’s brother in law and near neighbour, Richard Howitt, visited Yallambee and wrote that:

“The locality is at the commencement of the vast and sterile stringy-bark forests. Part of the farm is consequently almost worthless, and the other by the water-side, of the richest quality.” (Richard Howitt, Impressions of Australia Felix, 1845)

YALLAMBEE by George Alexander Gilbert, c1850, elevated view of river, vineyard on side of hill rising from the river and house at crest of hill.
“The locality is at the commencement of the vast and sterile stringy-bark forests.” Contemporary pastel by G A Gilbert. (SLV, H29575, http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/29449)

As William Greig fades from history, the question remains, what motivated these men of the pioneering 1840s to travel half way around the world to endure a world of hardship and uncertainty under the harsh Australian sun. Why did so many get caught up in a Port Phillip bubble and allow the financial burden of speculators to be passed on to them, either as lessees or buyers on terms while risking disorientation, depressive anxiety and even existential angst? The answer must surely have been their hope of a better future.

Lynette J. Peel referred to Grieg’s Diary in some detail in her book, “Rural Industry in the Port Phillip Region”, (MUP, 1974) where she wrote:

“…it is quite wrong to assume that these people made a series of sound agricultural and economic decisions in embarking on the life of a farmer. Their optimism and irrational decisions, usually through ignorance of the local situation, undoubtedly did much to fan the flames of rural land speculation before the depression.”

Peel suggests that there is no reason to believe Greig’s story of small scale crop farming at Port Phillip was atypical. Greig had found little difficulty raising easy finance for his endeavour. Including himself, there were three men working his farm, compared to an average of 4.4 recorded for small holdings in the 1841 census but Greig was nevertheless confident in his own ability to succeed provided there was what he termed “proper management.”

Cropping practices at this time were dependent on intensive manual labour. There were high costs associated with establishing a farm on virgin land and this had to be met before the natural fertility of the soil could be exploited. (NGA oil by John Glover, "My Harvest Home", 1835).
Cropping practices at this time were dependent on intensive manual labour. There were high costs associated with establishing a farm on virgin land and this had to be met before the natural fertility of the soil could be exploited. (NGA oil by John Glover, “My Harvest Home”, 1835).

Up to the time when the Diary closes, two and often three men had been working on Greig’s 156 acres to produce a one and a half acre crop of potatoes, most of which would be needed for seed the following season. Wages had been paid to the employees, some fences had been built, (although not enough to prevent the bullocks straying), and a garden had been planted. Six chickens had multiplied to 30 but additional meat and provisions had needed to be purchased to supplement what the farm produced, and to feed the four to six adults living there. In retrospect, what he really needed to plant was a money tree.

The inability of Greig through lack of capital to broaden his activities into his pie in the sky bullock team or dairy herd pipe dream meant that much more time would have been needed to make the farm on the Plenty a going concern, if ever. As Peel writes, “…reasonable financial liquidity was essential for flexibility in farming operations.”

The Bakewell brothers later success on the same land on which Greig failed was built partly on their previous farming experience in and around Nottingham, but also on their ability to diversify. John Bakewell worked as a wool sorter in Melbourne while his brother managed the farm at Yallambee, diversifying their interests from the market gardens on the river flat to a cattle herd on the uplands, Richard Howitt’s “vast and sterile stringy-bark forests.”

The pastoral era at Yallambie has long been a thing of the past. Where Greig and the Bakewells once farmed, the land was long ago consumed by the suburban sprawl. Today an average size house from the A V Jennings’ era on an average size block will set you back upwards of seven hundred thousand dollars. A house in the newer “Streeton Views” estate might cost even more. And Yallambie by all reports is one of Melbourne’s more “affordable” suburbs. All over Melbourne come reports of the million dollar mark being crossed at auction, sometimes several times over.

Where this is all leading remains worryingly unclear in the first half of 2016. Like the Emperor’s New Clothes, nobody wants to really say what we have all been thinking about Melbourne’s property scene. At the time of writing this post I have just returned from visiting a much loved sister who for two decades has lived and raised a family, together with her American husband, in one of the better neighbourhoods of Atlanta, Georgia. Their large and very fine home I am told is worth something over USD$400,000. However, if they had ever thought of living in Melbourne again, they have quite dismissed the idea as being impractical. As my brother in law told me, “We would need over $2 million to live in a house like this in an Australian capital city.”Bubbles_Millais

Meanwhile, like the Port Phillip bubble of 1840, Melbourne’s property balloon keeps expanding but with as yet, no sight or sound of anything going pop. Don’t look now, but is that Adam Smith with his eyes tight shut and his “Invisible Hands” placed firmly over our collective ears?

 

Plenty river underbelly

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

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

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

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

The Plenty River bushrangers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were romantic.

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

They were fearless.

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

And they had a sense of humour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Gravely speaking

We all die.

That was as true 180 years ago as it is today and, with life expectancies generally shorter, that fact was nowhere more evident than in the primitive colony at Port Phillip in 1836. The dilemma was, what to do with all those dead people who so inconveniently kept departing this mortal coil, running down the curtain and joining the choir invisible?

The dead parrot dilemma.
The dead parrot dilemma.

Several cemetery sites were initiated in the early years, some now almost forgotten to history. The present Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Robert Doyle was in the press last week arguing the case for the inclusion of Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market on the World Heritage Register, part of his reasoning being the status of the Queen Vic site as an early burial ground (from 1836), prior to its development as a market.

Looking north at the Old Melbourne Cemetery before the Victoria Market expanded across the site.
Looking north at the Old Melbourne Cemetery before the Victoria Market expanded across the site.
Opera singer and former Yallambie girl, Shakira Tsindos at OITM, 2015.
Opera singer and former Yallambie girl, Shakira Tsindos at OITM, 2015.

Next time you’re down that way buying an orange, pause for a moment and think about those early Melbournians, many of who still reside beneath your feet and who will never enjoy an orange again. Brindisi at Opera in the Market takes on a whole new meaning.

Carpe diem while you can.

Doyle called the Market “Melbourne’s first cemetery”, a somewhat inaccurate description since a small burial ground at the Flagstaff Gardens (Burial Hill), preceded it slightly in that same year. There were also burials at the abortive settlements at Corinella in Westernport in 1826 and at Sorrento in 1803 while Indigenous  Australians with their strong sense of place, had been honouring their ancestors in their own ways throughout thousands of years of Dreamtime. But nobody likes to mention that.

Cemetery sites around Melbourne in the 1840s included Point Ormond (Elwood) where there was an early quarantine camp, the St Andrew’s Church graveyard at Brighton, established 1841, the Yarra Bend cemetery, 1848, and the Point Gellibrand cemetery at Williamstown, 1849.

Greensborough Cemetery at Jessop Street, Greensborough, February, 2016. Approximately 350 people were buried here from the early 1860s onwards.
Greensborough Cemetery at Jessop Street, Greensborough, February, 2016. Approximately 350 people were buried here from the early 1860s onwards.

Local to Yallambie, private burial grounds were developed at the St Helena churchyard, St Helena, in Jessop Street, Greensborough and in Hawdon Street, Heidelberg while major cemeteries were created at Warringal in Heidelberg and at Diamond Creek.

Old Heidelberg Cemetery in Hawdon Street, Heidelberg, February, 2016. Established by the Trustees of St John's Church of England in 1852, 111 burials took place here.
Old Heidelberg Cemetery in Hawdon Street, Heidelberg, February, 2016. Established by the Trustees of St John’s Church of England in 1852, 111 burials took place here.

Prior to 1867 record keeping was not regulated but by one count there are today a total of 22 cemeteries in Heidelberg, Greensborough, Darebin, Eltham and at Whittlesea.

Wragge family memorial at Warringal Cemetery, February, 2016.
Wragge family memorial at Warringal Cemetery, February, 2016.

In my last post the suggestion was made that two Daguerreotypes owned by the State Library of Victoria purported to show images of Dr Godfrey Howitt’s garden in Collins Street East were actually made at “Floraville”, the Bakewell garden at Yallambee, and were contemporaneous to the Plenty Station drawings created by Edward La Trobe Bateman c1853, held today by the National Gallery of Victoria. This interpretation has been provisionally accepted by the SLV (email correspondence, January, 2016) and it is hoped that the Daguerreotypes will be brought together with Bateman’s drawings at the Gallery by way of comparison. But that is possibly not the end of this discussion.

At the National Library of Australia there is an intriguing drawing, ostensibly the work of Edward La Trobe Bateman, but not necessarily a part of his Plenty Station series. This drawing is of the same size as the drawings in the Plenty Station Set (188x274mm) and carries an inscription “Private Cemetery in a Garden on the River Plenty, near Melbourne”. According to Anne Neale, “Comparison of the background details of the garden with those shown in the Plenty Set indicate that the site is almost certainly the Plenty Station,” (Illuminating Nature, Dr Anne Neale, 2001).

Private cemetery in a garden on the River Plenty, near Melbourne, National Library of Australia. This image of Italian cypresses surrounding a bush grave is not one of the NGV set of Plenty Station (Yallambee) drawings but was attributed to E L Bateman by Anne Neale in her 2001 doctorate study, (Illuminating Nature). "Comparison of the background details of the garden with those in the Plenty set indicate that the site is almost certainly the Plenty Station."
Private cemetery in a garden on the River Plenty, near Melbourne, National Library of Australia.

Neale suggests that the 1856 Athenaeum description of a drawing numbered No. 3 in the Athenaeum article “…remarkable for its dark ghostly cypresses, solid cones of black shade, silent and watchful as sentinels. The leaves of the plants, fingered or fan-like, are given with botanical truth”, fits the NLA cemetery picture better than the usual candidate in the NGV set, usually referred to as View VII. It is this confusion that she cites as the basis for the possibility that the NGV Plenty Station Set was once part of a larger whole.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856

It has been suggested elsewhere that NLA cemetery picture may depict the Pioneer Children’s Cemetery upriver from Partington’s Flat at Greensborough. However the Children’s Cemetery is on the east bank of the Plenty River. Standing on that bank the river runs south, downstream from right to left. Conversely Yallambie is on the west bank of the Plenty and when facing the river the valley runs from left to right. I would suggest that this is the fall of the land as depicted in the NLA Bateman cemetery picture.

Memorial plaque at the Pioneer Children's Cemetery, Greensborough.
Memorial plaque at the Pioneer Children’s Cemetery, Greensborough.

Furthermore, it has usually been asserted that the first burial at the Children’s Cemetery did not occur there until 1848, around five years before Bateman’s Plenty Station Set. The Italian Cypress trees in the NLA drawing are evidently too well established to have been planted in 1848, or at any time there after. If the NLA Bateman picture is to be considered as a part of the Plenty Station Set, then the trees depicted could not have been planted at the end of the 1840s.

But they might have been planted in the early 1840s.

Italian Cypresses were an early feature of Yallambee. George Alexander Gilbert drew cypresses and showed them as small trees in his pastel of Yallambee. The trees had grown considerably by the time Bateman came to draw them some years later in his Plenty Station Set.

YALLAMBEE by George Alexander Gilbert, c1850, elevated view of river, vineyard on side of hill rising from the river and house at crest of hill.
YALLAMBEE by George Alexander Gilbert, (SLV, H29575, http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/29449)
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VI by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station on hill with creek in foreground.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VI by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856.

Richard Howitt makes specific mention of cypresses during his 1842 visit to Yallambee, (“I noticed cypresses, R.(obert Bakewell) had raised from seed in abundance”) and surviving specimens of the Bakewell trees can still be found growing along the River landscape at Yallambie even today.

The inscription on the Bateman picture suggests the grave is in a garden somewhere. It obviously depicts the grave of a well-loved individual. This was a person whose loss was felt keenly and acutely enough to plant a grove of cypress trees within a garden setting around a grave and to construct a memorial over it.

When the nephew of Yallambee’s John and Robert Bakewell, the 11 year old John Henry Howitt came to Australia in 1842 with his parents, Dr Godfrey and Phoebe Howitt, it was in an attempt to improve the boy’s very fragile state of health by introducing him to Australia’s warmer climate:

“the Doctor [Godfrey Howitt] is anxious for a more salubrious climate to improve the general health of his family, but more especially, if possible to save the life of his eldest boy, to whom one more English winter would be certain death.” (Richard Howitt, Impressions of Australia Felix, 1845).

The move was ultimately to no avail as, after an initial improvement, John Henry Howitt died aged 12 in May 1843.

“The amiable qualities of this lovely boy, his high mental endowments, added to learned acquirements, which would have done honour to those far beyond his years…” (Obituary, Melbourne Times, May, 1843).

A year before he died he wrote the following touching letter to his cousin Alfred in Europe. In this letter, John Henry describes an extended visit to his Bakewell Uncle Robert at Yallambee, remarking, “I enjoyed it exceedingly”.

The letter also makes mention of the decline of John Henry’s own infant brother Charlie, his death on the 9th March, 1842 and of his burial in their father’s garden at Collins Street East. The letter is presented here in its entirety but to my mind it poses the question, just who was the lovingly regarded individual buried in the garden at Yallambee sometime in those early years of the 1840s?

Manuscript:
LETTER FROM JOHN HENRY HOWITT TO A. W. HOWITT
[1 MARCH 1842 — MAY 1842]

March 1st 1842
My dear Alfred, Are you alive and well, this and fifty other things I want to know about you; Anna Mary’s1 letters to Mamma did not say one syllable about you, I never thought I could have been so angry with Anna Mary who was so kind to me at Esher2 and in London, I felt very much inclined to wish her letters into the candle. I hope she will never again forget to write about you and I will forgive her this once. And I think you deserve a scold too, for you promised you would write to me as soon as you were at Heidelburg3 and give me a long account of its famous castle. Mamma has often told me when I wanted something to do to begin you a Journal but I thought I would wait till your letter came but I am at last tired of waiting. Today is very hot the thermometer 96 in the shade, just the heat that suits me. I was very poorly all last winter and kept almost entirely to the sofa but the hot weather has at last began to do me good, though I do not sit out of doors as I did last summer I get plenty of fresh air for we keep all our windows and doors open.

4th
Our dear little Charlie has many times been ill, he is cutting teeth; now he is lying quite still on Mamma’s lap and takes very little notice of us so different to when he was well. Oh what a fat merry little creature he then was; he has never been so ill before and Papa is very much afraid he will not get better. I don’t know what we should do without him he is such a very sweet entertaining little creature.

13th
When I began this journal I had no idea I should have such a sorrowful subject to write about Our darling little Charlie died on the 9th at 5 in the morning. He is buried in the garden. I shall put by this till we feel cheerful again.

"Dr Howitt's Corner" by Eugene von Guerard, 1862, showing the doctor's garden behind a brick wall on the corner of Flinders and Spring Street, Melbourne, (SLV).
“Dr Howitt’s Corner” by Eugene von Guerard, 1862, showing the doctor’s garden behind a brick wall on the corner of Flinders and Spring Street, Melbourne, (SLV).

17th
I have had such a pleasant drive to day, down to the Beach. The very sight of the sea did me good, it was extremely green with just the tops of the waves tiped with foam. Many ships, schooners, &c were lying at anchor at Williams Town. Three miles beyond the Manlius was in quarantine the Pathfinder with many of her sails set was tacking out of the bay; the Corsair steamer from Launceston was coming up, some boats close to us were pulling out to sea and famously they were rocked up and down. It was altogether a beautiful sight; I did long to be on board the Pathfinder for I believe another journey would do me good.

Hobsons Bay and Williamstown, Port Phillip seen from Sandridge (Port Melbourne) c1850, SLV.
Hobsons Bay and Williamstown, Port Phillip seen from Sandridge (Port Melbourne) c1850, SLV.

18th
Willie and Edith4 go to school now to Mrs Stevenson from half past 9 till 3 and they like it very much. Willie is reading Markhams History of England which have been very favourite books of mine. He is a much better accountant than I am but that does not say much for him. I had intended to learn Latin on the voyage but I have not begun yet in good earnest. I have no doubt you would think us all great dunces.

21st
To day the thermometer is 70. The sun is very bright and there is a most gentle breeze. I am sure you would think this a most pleasant country.

12th April
I have been staying 3 weeks at the Plenty with Mamma and came home yesterday. I enjoyed it exceedingly, all but the drive there and back which shook me too much. Uncle Robert5 made me a little carriage to ride in, and took me several short drives in it. I went to see some trees that Willie had felled when he was there as thick as himself which he had made a famous boast of. Uncle Robert has a very nice garden, it is down in a flat you go to it by a zig zag walk; his vines were 14 feet high.

2. "Dr. Godfrey Howitt's garden" [sic]", SLV.
“Uncle Robert has a very nice garden.”
They have abundance of Melons, the pigs are regularly fed on them; while we were there the dray and four bullocks brought up a load out of the garden, for the rats had taken a fancy to them there. The bell birds sing all day long at the Plenty; I like to hear them much better than the laughing jackasses. I read The Talisman, Old Mortality, and Ivanhoe while I was there which delighted me exceedingly and I am now reading Quentin Durward. As we came home we called at the Yarra to see Uncle Richard.6The river winds there very prettily, I had just a peep into the cottage but it did not look very clean I assure you. Mamma got out but I took my very notes sitting in the carriage.

29th
All the talk lately has been about the Bushrangers who have (?) in the Plenty district, the first there have been in Australia Felix. They are a party of 4 well armed and mounted, who have robbed more than thirty stations beside highway robbery, but their reign of terror did not last more than a week. They commit their daring deeds in broad daylight. Would you not think it extremely pleasant to be bailed up in a corner with some one standing over you with a pistol threatening you with instant death if you stirred; this they do while the other bushrangers ransack the hut of what they want and then are off to the next station. Two parties of gentlemen and a few of the mounted police went in pursuit of them, one of the party five in number at last got on their track and at Mr. Hunter’s the bushrangers were interrupted just as they were going to sit down to a breakfast of roast ducks. The gentlemen of the house having been ordered from table to make way for their superiors. When they saw the party in search of them they called out stand to your arms men, they then rushed out and fired a volley but in retreating to the hut the ringleader got separated from the rest and after a very desperate resistance, three of the gentlemen haveing been wounded, the man was shot in self defence. The other three after firing 60 shots at last surrendered and are brought in for trial.7 Uncle’s escaped a visit from these Bushrangers and only heard of them the night before they were taken.

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

29th
Edith has been a week at Brighton and is to stay 2 more. it is by the sea side. There is a nice firm beach. I dare say she will be fonder of running about on the beach than attending to her lessons, though Miss Ascham, a lineal descendant of Roger Ascham, is the teacher at Mrs Were’s. Little Johny Were is a very funny boy, he says he does so wish he was married his Mamma is so cross to him. He is only four years old.8

May
I have had a very nice ship sent me. It is not half complete in the rigging. I have been very busy putting Main Mizen and fore top gallant masts, flying jibboom, main fore and sprit sail yards, and in a few weeks I shall make it a complete model full rigged ship. It was made by a sailor who had not time to finish it. The length is two feet six. It is a four gun ship. Melbourne people are very fond of keeping birthdays. The children went yesterday into the country to celebrate one and they had a famous romp at hiding seek among the bushes. They went and returned in a tax cart and were in such high spirits. Edward intends to be a Doctor and Mrs Palmer told him she would have him when she was ill to cure her and he is quite set up about it. I read the papers every morning. There is generally some good fun in them. Such curious police reports. The Police Magistrate9 is very peremtory, so his name is a bye word here. “I’ll Major St John you”.

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

Judge Willis10 is very quarrelsome. In one case a little lawyer who had the boldness to address him was frightened out of his senses by having thundered in his ear “who are you, down sir, down sir, I say” and with this the little Man rushed out of Court upsetting every one in his way. So Tipstaff was not summoned to take him out. Even Teddy stands a little in awe of Judge Willis and Big Chin, Mr La Trobe’s messenger. But Judge Willis is a very good man though he is so cross sometimes. Willie, Edith and Edward join me in dear love to you Claude and Charlton and to Anna Mary.
Your very affectionate cousin,
John Henry Howitt

1 Anna Mary Howitt, sister of the letter recipient, Alfred.
2 West End home of William Howitt, John Henry’s paternal uncle. William visited Yallambee in 1852 and wrote about it in “Land, Labour and Gold”; father of Alfred.
3 In Germany, where Alfred was sent to be educated.
4 John Henry’s siblings.
5 Robert Bakewell of Yallambee; maternal uncle of John Henry.
6 Richard Howitt, brother of William. Richard visited Yallambee in 1842 and wrote about it in “Australia Felix”.
7 The first white men to be hanged in Victoria.
8 Jonathan Were, son of J B Were.
9 Major Frederick Berkley St. John.
10 The notorious Hon John Walpole Willis, who lived 5km south of Yallambee at Heidelberg; believed to have been a target of the Plenty River Bushrangers.

Picture this

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.

The monotypic genus Howittia, a native blue-flowered mallow, named by Baron von Mueller in acknowledgement of Howitt's "devotion to botany".
The monotypic genus Howittia, a native blue-flowered mallow, named by Baron von Mueller in acknowledgement of Godfrey Howitt’s “devotion to botany”.

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”.

mount-howitt-track-sign

However there are no streets in Yallambie named after these Howitts, which is perhaps surprising. There are no mountains either, for that matter.

William Howitt
William Howitt

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.

Dr Godfrey Howitt, by Samuel Calvert, 1873.
Dr Godfrey Howitt, by Samuel Calvert, 1873.
Phoebe Bakewell (Mrs Godfrey Howitt) c1858-c1862
Phoebe Bakewell (Mrs Godfrey Howitt) c1858-c1862

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.

1. "Dr. Godfrey Howitt's garden" [sic]", SLV.
1. “Dr. Godfrey Howitt’s garden” [sic]”, SLV.
2. "Dr. Godfrey Howitt's garden" [sic]", SLV.
2. “Dr. Godfrey Howitt’s garden” [sic]”, SLV.
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.

View of the Station Plenty, Port Phillip district, (I) Distant view of station with cattle in foreground, 1853-1856, Edward La Trobe Bateman, NGV.
View of the Station Plenty, Port Phillip district, (I) Distant view of station with cattle in foreground, 1853-1856, Edward La Trobe Bateman, NGV.

A lot.

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.

Home of Dr Godfrey and Phoebe (ne Bakewell) Howitt on the corner of Collins Street East and Spring Street, Melbourne, 1868, SLV.
Home of Dr Godfrey and Phoebe (ne Bakewell) Howitt on the corner of Collins Street East and Spring Street, Melbourne, 1868, SLV.

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.

Comparative detail View I of the Station Plenty, Port Phillip district, by Edward La Trobe Bateman (reversed) and 1. Dr. Godfrey Howitt's garden [sic].
Comparative detail View I of the Station Plenty, Port Phillip district, by Edward La Trobe Bateman (reversed) and 1. Dr. Godfrey Howitt’s garden [sic].
Comparative detail View IX of the Station Plenty, Port Phillip district, by Edward La Trobe Bateman and 2. Dr. Godfrey Howitt's garden [sic].
Comparative detail View IX of the Station Plenty, Port Phillip district, by Edward La Trobe Bateman and 2. Dr. Godfrey Howitt’s garden [sic].
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.

Douglas T Kilburn, 1850s, SLT.
Douglas T Kilburn, 1850s, SLT.

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?

daguerreotype camera

Wunderkammer

butterfly collectorThey say butterflies are free.

That is unless you were a butterfly flitting around the garden at “Yallambee” in the mid-19th century. For then you would likely have found Robert Bakewell’s net landing over your head and a pin stuck rudely through your body onto a mounting card.

Robert Bakewell of “Yallambee” was an entomologist. He was, to coin a phrase, a bug catcher and by all reports, a catcher of some distinction. During his life time in Australia he developed a vast and important assortment of butterflies, moths and insects. Upon his return with his brother John to England in 1857, Robert Bakewell continued to add to this collection, purchasing and adding the M. de Laferte set to his own in 1860 when he was made a member of the French Entomological Society.

Butterfly Collector, (unidentified), daguerreotype, c1850, (George Eastman House Collection).
Butterfly Collector, (unidentified), daguerreotype, c1850, (George Eastman House Collection).

Upon his death on Christmas Eve in Nottingham in 1867, some of Robert’s specimens were left to his brother in law in Melbourne, Dr Godfrey Howitt, but the great majority of his collection was left to the British Museum. It’s still there. The register of the insect collections in the Natural History Museum in London records that 515 Buprestids and 2430 Llamellicorns were acquired from the collection of one, Robert Bakewell.

The Castaways of Gilligan's Island, referencing Robert Bakewell in their search for the ever elusive Pussycat Swallowtail butterfly, maybe.
The Castaways of Gilligan’s Island, referencing Robert Bakewell in their search for the ever elusive Pussycat Swallowtail butterfly, maybe.

The concept of collecting and classifying the natural world was a Victorian passion, often pursued by gentlemen in the privacy of their home libraries in an era when the definition of the sciences was still being determined.

Natural history specimens in the library at Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney, NSW.
Natural history specimens in the library at Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney, NSW.

The process involved naming and by implication, ownership of the natural world. This was an essential concept in the new world of the early Australian colonies where so much was alien and, under the terra nullius doctrine, supposedly without previous proprietorship.

The origins of this practice can be found right there at the start when the gentleman naturalist, Joseph Banks, hitched a ride on Cook’s first voyage of discovery. Somehow within the cramped confines of the HM Bark Endeavour of 1768, room was found for 20 strong wooden chests with hinged lids and locks in which were packed “all sorts of machines for catching and preserving insects; all kinds of nets, trawls, drags and hooks for coral fishing… many bottles with ground stoppers of several sizes to preserve animals in spirits”. With all those bugs on board, there would seem later hardly room left over for the ship’s crew. Maybe, not even a cook.

Perhaps history’s most infamous collecting voyage however followed 20 years later when the crew of HMS Bounty mutinied, aggrieved at their alleged treatment by the ship’s master, William Bligh, but also peeved by the molly coddling needed by the bread fruit specimens the ship was transporting. One of the first things the mutineers did after putting Bligh over the side at the end of a plank was to follow him up with the despised potted plants themselves.

Mutiny on the Bounty, Robert Dodd, 1790.
Mutiny on the Bounty, Robert Dodd, 1790.

French voyages to the South Seas, aimed specifically at broadening scientific understanding of the world followed, amassing thousands of plant and animal specimens for transport to the museums of France (and the garden of Napoleon’s main muse, Josephine) along the way.

The British nation by contrast came to the antipodes for the duration. As settlers they found an alien world where everything appeared to be at sixes and sevens. The trees dropped their leaves in the summer, animals hopped around on their hind legs and marvellous furry creatures sported bills like ducks.

Lachlan Macquarie, 5th governor of New South Wales and considered by some to be “The Father of Australia”, (quite fitting to this story as his family had connections to Moffat McLachlan) gathered a truly remarkable collectors’ chest during his command of the New South Wales colony . Such cabinets of curiosities, although not serious scientific items, followed a tradition of wunderkammer or collector’s cabinets designed to appeal to the cognoscenti and scientifically minded gentlemen of the day. Macquarie’s was constructed for the governor around the year 1818 and was crammed chock a block with Australian seaweeds and shells, preserved butterflies, insects, stuffed birds and was decorated with painted panels of scenes of the early colonial landscape.

Butterflies in the Macquarie Collector's Chest, SL of NSW.
Butterflies in the Macquarie Collector’s Chest, SL of NSW.

The cabinet went back with Macquarie to Scotland in 1821, along with his pet cow, and it stayed there for the best part of two centuries. Today it forms part of the Mitchell Library Collection here in Australia, along with a second chest of apparently identical origin — a sort of collection of collections, within a collection, you might say. No one knows what happened to the cow.

Macquarie Collector's Chest, c1818, SL of NSW.
Macquarie Collector’s Chest, c1818, SL of NSW.

Such artefacts from the mysterious Great Southern Land held great wonder for the stay at homes of the old world. The writer and artist and life-long friend of Edward La Trobe Bateman, Louisa Anne Meredith visited Yallambie in 1856 and wrote about it with purple prose:

…What treasures we carried back with us to Melbourne, after that merry luncheon in the cottage room, with its windows curtained by fuschias and passion flowers! (Over the Straits, p184, Meredith, 1861)

Louisa was first drawn to the idea of emigrating by the presence of Australian natural history specimens in her earlier Birmingham home. These included a case of stuffed birds and wild flowers, the skin of a Tasmanian Tiger (thylacine) and, most unusual of all, a cochlear or whale’s ear drum which sat on the chimney piece of her “painting room”, confounding visitors as to its purpose. These items had been sent to her from Van Dieman’s Land by her cousin, Charles Meredith and the fascination must have been compelling for when he visited England in 1838, she married him. The whale’s ear drum now resides in the Glamorgan War Memorial Community Centre history collection in Swansea, Tasmania, the crucial role it played half a world away in the union of one of that states best known pioneer families, probably now all but largely forgotten.

Charles and Louisa Anne Meredith and baby, c1858-63, Allport Library.
Charles and Louisa Anne Meredith and baby, c1858-63, Allport Library.

Long before the Harry Potter movie franchise made specimens under glass the new chic, my wife and I kept our own natural history collection at Yallambie. Visiting the beach usually meant coming home with a bucket load of shells, stones or seaweed. Or usually a combination of all three.

Late 19th century, cased shell display made by the wife of the head keeper at the Cape Jaffa Lighthouse, SA.
Late 19th century, cased shell display at the Cape Jaffa Lighthouse Museum, SA.

Remembering where the specimens originated or the correct classification sometimes proves a problem but my wife has books devoted to the subjects which she has been perusing since she was three years old. Her great uncle George kept pickled rattle snakes in jars from his time spent in North America and these proved a fascination for my little Wednesday Adams. Great uncle Georgey Porgy has a lot to answer for. My contributions are small beer by comparison. One stone, cut and polished along one edge, came from the floor of a banga banga or water cave on the phosphate island, Ocean Island, picked up during a visit I once made there while chasing a bit of forgotten family history. That difficult to access island was named Ocean by the first Europeans who sighted it from the British transport SS Ocean returning via the Pacific from the first abortive settlement to Port Phillip of 1803. If they had only stopped and asked the locals, they would have found the island already had a name — Banaba. Every object has a story.

Bangabanga caverns on Ocean Island, photographed by the writer's grandfather between the wars.
Bangabanga caverns on Ocean Island, photographed between the wars, (collection of the writer’s grandfather).

By contrast, Tommy Wragge’s devotion to the natural world was limited mainly to the coinage he could make from the four footed variety he kept at the bottom of his Yallambie paddocks. There were a couple of deer heads listed in the inventory made of the contents of the homestead after his death in 1910. They were described as “moth eaten”.

Years ago we attended a country clearing sale and somehow or other found ourselves driving home afterwards with an old mounted deer head parked on the back seat of the car. I can still remember driving down the Hume Hwy towards Melbourne and being passed by a tour bus. I looked across as it went by to see what seemed like a whole bus load of Japanese tourists looking down at us with cameras out from their vantage point. Glancing over my shoulder at the back seat I could see what had no doubt drawn their fascination. Our child in a baby capsule on one side of the back seat, on the other side, a Basil Fawlty moose head, belted up and antlers all askew.

What did we want it for? We really didn’t know once we got “Dougal the Deer”, as he quickly became known, to home sweet home. Eventually he went on the wall of the dining room where a Wragge specimen was said to once reside. By the time our son started going to primary school however, “Dougal” had become notorious. Sometimes all it took was a visit by a mother with her child under the watchful eye of Dougal for us never to see them again.

"Oh dear," said the the deer. "I can't feel my legs."
“Oh dear,” said the the deer. “I can’t feel my legs.”

Poor old Dougal. He was quite possibly a happy deer roaming through the gloaming before finding himself short one noggin one afternoon in the now forgotten past eventually to find himself lodged on a wall at Yallambie in the 21st century. It is this fact that must leave a cautionary note to this tale of collecting mania for the very act of collecting carries with it an inherent danger of destroying some part of the natural world that it seeks to record. How many people gasped in disbelief this year when a well-known, former Australian Test cricketer was shown on the front pages of the newspapers, photographed alongside a dead elephant shot on safari in Africa?

The wife of the greatest painter of North American bird life, John James Audubon, was born Lucy Bakewell to the Derbyshire branch of the family of John and Robert Bakewell of Yallambie. Like other members of that extensive family she was a Quaker and was taught an appreciation of the natural world from an early age. She met and married John James in America after emigrating there at a young age and with her background and education she proved herself to be a great assistance to her husband in his artistic endeavours.

Lucy (Bakewell) and her husband John James Audubon in silhouette, 1825.
Lucy (Bakewell) and her husband John James Audubon in silhouette, 1825.

John James Audobon shot the birds that he painted for his magnum opus, “The Birds of America”, mounting them in realistic poses on boards before sketching them. “The Birds of America” is probably the greatest book of ornithological illustration ever created and that is now ever likely to be created, for many of the birds depicted in its elephant size plates are now extinct.

The Austrian painter Eugene von Guerard developed a reputation as the foremost painter of landscapes in the Australian colonies in the 1850s and 60s. His painting “The Plenty Ranges/East Melbourne” was painted in 1862 and shows a pastoral scene somewhere in the vicinity of the Plenty Valley.

Plenty Ranges/East Melbourne, Eugene von Guérard, 1862.
Plenty Ranges/East Melbourne, Eugene von Guérard, 1862, SLV.

According to Lucy Ellem, founding professor of Art History at Latrobe University and today an Honorary Research Associate, this painting may have been produced after a visit to the Bakewells’ “Yallambee”. Writing about Richard Howitt’s earlier (and previously quoted) description of “Yallambee”, Lucy identifies this painting and compares it to Howitt’s description, stating the elegant notion that:

“…in 1862, and perhaps also on a visit to the Bakewell homestead since he was staying with their brother-in-law, Dr Godfrey Howitt in that same year, one of Australia’s leading colonial artists , Eugene von Guerard, would record the landscape of this vicinity in a work which expresses Howitt’s sense of the dreary, unending woodlands.” (The Cultural Landscape of the Plenty Valley, Plenty Valley Papers, vol 1, Lucy Ellem, 1995)

“The Plenty Ranges” is an oil sketch but possibly von Guerard’s most famous painting was the large and highly detailed “Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges” which was painted in 1857. As Tim Bonyhady explained in “The Colonial Earth”, it sat in a shop window at the top of Collins Street East near the home of Dr Godfrey Howitt for nearly two years, drawing admiring spectators and made the artist and the subject matter famous throughout the Colony.

Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges, Eugene von Guérard, 1857, NGA.
Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges, Eugene von Guérard, 1857, NGA.

Previously the “Ferntree Gully” of the painting had been known locally as Dobson’s Gully but such was the painting’s renown that the area became firmly set in the popular imagination as “Ferntree”. Admiring tourists were drawn to visit the place of von Guerard’s painting, among the first being the artist’s friend, Julie Vieusseux who went there on New Year’s Day, 1858.Tragedy followed when Vieusseux’s 8 year old son went missing in the bush. A fourteen day search failed to find him, his bones being found on the mountain two years later.

One of the keenest searchers for the lost boy was Alfred Howitt who as previously discussed had earlier visited the Bakewell brothers at Yallambie. Howitt wrote excitedly to his sister Mary Howitt (former fiancé of E La Trobe Bateman), giving her his impressions of the fern trees:

“…among their roots runs the coolest, clearest stream you can imagine and on each side an almost impenetrable musk scrub covers the side of the range. It would be almost impossible to give you an idea of the strange effects of light and shade in the gully. The fern trees seem to form a living grotto. Their rough mossy stems are the columns, their arching fronds are the roof…”

From being a wilderness where a child could be lost in the bush with fatal consequences, Ferntree Gully became a Mecca for Melbourne day trippers, enthralled by the natural beauty of the area. The inevitable consequence was destruction of the environment.

The Wood-Splitters' Hut in the Fern Tree Gully, 1865
The Wood-Splitters’ Hut in the Fern Tree Gully, 1865

With every frond removed from the Gully to decorate the Melbourne parlours of visiting tourists and every fern leaf taken to be pressed into Victorian scrap books, the Gully was that much diminished. Visit Ferntree Gully today, the Melbourne suburb on the Burwood Hwy at the foot of the Dandenong Ranges, and from the highway you would be hard pressed to find a world recognizable to von Guerard.

Douglas Adams perhaps best summed up the process of loving an environment to death with his farcical description of the fabulous fictional world of Bethselamin in his improbable, “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”:

“A fabulously beautiful planet, Bethselamin is now so worried about the cumulative erosion by ten billion visiting tourists a year that any net imbalance between the amount you eat and the amount you excrete whilst on the planet is surgically removed from your bodyweight when you leave: so every time you go to the lavatory there it is vitally important to get a receipt.”

marvin

Anyone for tennis?

Tennis — it’s a game that’s all about the love. At least that’s how it seemed to me this year when I took up the sport for the first time. Every mixed doubles concluded with a player pointing at me from the other end and calling out, “Love”. But I don’t think it was necessarily a term of endearment.

So called “Lawn” tennis developed as a sport in the 19th century from an ancient and obscure predecessor called Real (or Royal) tennis, managing to keep most of the old scoring system and many of the original French words of the earlier game along the way. Love in tennis actually comes from the French expression l’oeuf meaning the egg like shape of zero. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, love counts for nothing on the tennis court.

I’ve heard tell that Queen Victoria’s wastrel son, Edward the Prince of Wales, liked a bit of love. He popularised the game of tennis for the masses in the late 19th century after taking the sport up in a futile exercise to halt an ever expanding belt size. It soon became apparent that Eddie’s love of a second serve at the dinner table meant that this was never going to happen. The P of Wales was destined to be a whale. The game itself meanwhile became one of the world’s most widely played sports with a style about it that was all its own. It’s a funny thing, but have you noticed that in every drawing room, period comedy or murder mystery there always come a point when a Freddie Threepwood type wearing flannels bursts into a room and asks of the assembled guests, “I say, anyone for tennis?” It generally happens just before the first body is found with a knife protruding from its back in the library or the romantic lead is revealed as the lost child of a titled lady, accidentally abandoned on a railway station at birth.

The National Trust property, Ripponlea, featured in a tennis themed episode of the MIss Fisher's Murder Mysteries on ABC television last month.
The National Trust property, Ripponlea, featured in a tennis themed episode of the MIss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on ABC television last month.

Murder and adoption aside, the sight of a rubber ball being hit homicidally across a net was actually an early feature of this district. The Wragge family built themselves a lawn court south of the Yallambie Homestead for their recreational use on a site that had previously been occupied by the Bakewells’ pre-fabricated farm house.

Yallambie Homestead photographed from the south west c1890 before the addition of the large verandahs. The corner of the tennis court is just visible on the right of this picture, (Bush collection).
Yallambie Homestead photographed from the south west c1890 before the addition of the large verandahs. The corner of the tennis court is just visible on the right of this picture, (Bush collection).

Tennis was not necessarily limited by the size or availability of lawn space however or by competition from gnomes at the bottom of the family garden. Tennis clubs were started at various places around Melbourne and other outlying suburbs for it was a game that could be played wherever a piece of level ground could be found and a net, a soft ball and racquets plus a pot of paint could be provided.

Tennis court at Eltham, c1900, (Tonkinson collection).
Tennis court at Eltham, c1900, (Tonkinson collection).

All the same, some inventiveness might be required on occasion as was the case at the Wragges’ up-country sheep station, Tulla. At that property, unlike the lawn court at Yallambie, a court surface was created by grinding ant hills in the Riverina dust where the fine grass would not grow. In Winty Calder’s “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” (Jimaringle 1996), Lady Betty Lush described this tennis court as she remembered it in her youth:

“It was far from being a good court but it gave an immense amount of fun to us all. The posts were Murray pine trunks between which were hung lengths of netting of assorted meshes. The surface originally was made of ants nest gravel and in parts was really good. Unfortunately there were areas where the water lay and these areas tended to grow grass. However a Dutch hoe always removed the grass even if it didn’t improve the surface. Up at one end there was a large bull ants’ nest. Many times and in many ways we tried to remove it but they always came back again and in the end one just had to remember to jump over that part of the court.”

Tennis players on the Wragge's tennis Court at Tulla Station between the wars, (Lush collection).
Tennis players on the Wragge’s tennis Court at Tulla Station between the wars, (Lush collection).

If you want to see tennis played on grass these days your best option is to tune into the box this week, and watch the championship played at Wimbledon, home of the All England Club. Tennis courts with grassed surfaces in Melbourne are as rare as a 21st century grand slam event at Kooyong. The game itself is played enthusiastically all over Melbourne however and is a regular feature at Yallambie with play linked to a site in Yallambie Park just below the Lower Plenty Rd Bridge. It is here, at an entrance off Moola Close, that the Yallambie Tennis Club makes its home.

Yallambie TC was formed in 1972 and played initially on courts located at the Army Barracks at the Greensborough Rd end of Yallambie Rd, alongside the site of the church built by the Wragge family on the north western corner of their estate. This was at a time when the Jennings’ sub division of Yallambie was gathering momentum. The name “Yallambie” was officially adopted for the suburb in 1974 and it was in that year that the location in Yallambie Park was chosen and developed as the home for the fledgling tennis club.

Before the advent of various synthetic surfaces, a common alternative to grass courts in Victoria was “en tout cas” and it was this style of surface that was chosen at the home of the Yallambie Tennis Club. A co-op was formed and money raised to build the courts, the Heidelberg Council matching the club’s funds dollar for dollar. A local landscape gardener who had never built a tennis court but who reckoned he could build one without resorting to ant hills was commissioned to construct the first surfaces at Yallambie TC, the present day courts 1 and 2. Facilities before the construction of club rooms were initially limited to the provision of an old telegraph pole lying adjacent to the north of the courts where players and spectators could park their cold bottoms and watch play in progress.

The present day courts 4 and 5 were the next constructed followed by what are now courts 3 and 6 making a total of six “en tout cas” surfaces. Playing lights were provided in 1978 enabling the club to field teams in the NENTG and a club house provided in 1988. For many years the court surfaces were maintained by the efforts of long-time club president, Rob Kew. With his recent retirement however a professional groundsman has been employed.

Today Yallambie TC fields teams in the NEJTA, NENTG and Pennant competitions. The association of the Fireball Tennis Academy with Yallambie and involvement of Gareth Constance as a coach of the younger players, together with a new committee under a new president, Pauline Scala, has contributed much to the reinvigoration of the club. Our son has been playing tennis at Yallambie since he was barely able to see over the top of the net, typically to mixed parental acclaim from yours truly, but after my experience this year of flailing at empty air with a racquet I’ve determined never to criticise again. It’s really a lot harder to lob that furry ball over to the other side than you might think.

Sarah Annie Wragge and unidentified girl with tennis racquets on the south side of Yallambie Homestead above the adjacent tennis court, c1890, (Bush collection).
Sarah Annie Wragge and unidentified girl with tennis racquets on the south side of Yallambie Homestead above the adjacent tennis court, c1890, (Bush collection).

The sight of Annie Wragge in a long skirt and corsets careering across the tennis court at Yallambie Homestead or of one of her brothers in a blazer and straw boater stringing up a net is certainly a thing of the past. But the tradition is continued at the Tennis Club where the sport has been undergoing a bit of a Renaissance of late. Last month Yallambie 1 mixed doubles won their section grand final in the autumn competition and this was followed by grand final wins by both the junior girls and junior boys’ teams.

Yallambie junior boys playing in their grand final at Yallambie, June, 2015.
Yallambie junior boys playing in their grand final at Yallambie, June, 2015.

On the strength of that latter achievement they gave our son a little trophy which featured a plastic player, tennis racquet uplifted menacingly in hand. He received it in one hand and the boys snapped the racquet off in their excitement with the other. You might say the plastic player is suffering from a bit of tennis elbow. I hope it’s not a sign of things to come.

Yallambie TC on grand final day, June, 2015.
Yallambie TC on grand final day, June, 2015.

Tennis is a great sport and Yallambie TC is friendly and welcoming environment to play it in. The club has teams playing during the week on weeknights and at weekends and most standards are catered for. Even those like me who are still struggling to tell one end of a racquet from the other. According to one opponent I played against last season, the game should never be taken too seriously. “Afterall,” he said as he watched me hit the ball out of play for what seemed like the umpteenth time, “You know we’re not playing for sheep stations”. That at least would have been a comfort to old Tommy Wragge.

Harry and Syd Wragge with their uncle, James Hearn, and dog photographed on the Yallambie tennis court, c1898, (Bush collection).
Harry and Syd Wragge with their uncle, James Hearn, and dog photographed on the Yallambie tennis court, c1898, (Bush collection).

I’m Bat(e)man

If you are familiar with Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria, the NGV in St Kilda Rd, you might be forgiven for thinking for a moment that a Minotaur could be lurking somewhere deep within its vaults. It is a labyrinth of a building, home for much of the Gallery’s (estimated) more than 70,000 works of art.

Of course, only a fraction of this huge collection can be displayed at any one time within the bluestone, prison like walls of the St Kilda Rd building, a building once described appropriately enough as a “perfect place for a hanging”.

A Royal Worcester Aesthetic teapot channeling the spirit of E La Trobe Bateman, maybe.
A Royal Worcester Aesthetic teapot channeling the spirit of E La Trobe Bateman, maybe.

One of the items formerly on display in the NGV’s European ceramics collection was the so called “Aesthetic Teapot”, a marvellous little pot manufactured by the Royal Worcester Company in the second half of the 19th century. The teapot is a no show these days so maybe it has been withdrawn from the public eye for use in the Gallery Director’s morning cuppa. Who can say? The “Aesthetic Teapot” was modelled after the character “Patience” from the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera of the same name but to my mind, “Patience” as portrayed by the Worcester porcelain factory, always reminded me of the recorded photographic likeness of another Aesthetic character of the 19th century, Edward La Trobe Bateman.

Signed photograph of Edward La Trobe Bateman.
Signed photograph of Edward La Trobe Bateman.

Mr Bateman was a multi-talented 19th century artist and garden designer who might loosely be described as a member of the Aesthetic movement although his origins are arguably to be found in the earlier activities of their precursors, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

The PRB as it styled itself was an influential reformist English art movement which vouchsafed a return to the purity of the art of late medieval and early Renaissance Europe. The Brotherhood started as a sort of “Dead Poets Society” of the Arts in 1848, a year of political upheavals across Europe known as the “Year of Revolution”. This month the National Gallery of Victoria has a great little hanging happening which they have dubbed “Medieval Moderns”. It draws from a diverse range of Pre-Raphaelite work, mainly from the Gallery’s own collection, to tell the story of the Brotherhood and of the part in it played by some of their followers. The yarn as presented by the NGV runs with a singularly Australian bent and it is a bend that bends with a surprising angle on Yallambie.

Taking pride of place just to the left of the exhibition entrance as you access “Medieval Moderns” are three drawings by the old teapot himself, the artist E La Trobe Bateman. They are from a set of at least 12 that he produced in the 1850s of the Bakewell brothers’ “Floraville”, AKA “Yallambee” or “The Plenty Station”.

Alisa Bunbury writes in the “Medieval Moderns” exhibition catalogue that Bateman’s drawings depict the Bakewells’ Yallambee “in exquisite detail and from numerous viewpoints the buildings and, more particularly, the much-praised garden which had been established (some of which still survives)”. I wonder if the Parks and Gardens Department at Banyule Council are listening.

The NGV Bateman drawings are not on permanent display and I presume are usually kept guarded by the Minotaur somewhere deep inside the NGV vaults. You can request to see them privately however and they are serious enough to be trotted out now and again for use at temporary exhibitions with previous shows both at the St Kilda Rd and Federation Square galleries.

The Victorian Government Botanist, Baron Ferdinand von Mueller once described Bateman as a “splendid artist”. The “Station Plenty” pictures drawn by Bateman are executed with a meticulous hand and are so finely finished that today it has possible to create a reasonable 19th century plant list of Yallambie from their resource.

Edward La Trobe Bateman, NLNZ
Edward La Trobe Bateman, NLNZ

Edward La Trobe Bateman was born in Yorkshire in 1816 and was a cousin of the Superintendent of Port Phillip and first Lieutenant Governor of the Colony of Victoria, Charles Joseph La Trobe. Bateman’s work first popped up in the PRB year, 1848 with the publication of a set of chromolithographed flowers. Slightly older than the seven original members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Bateman was known by them as “the illuminator”. He worked with PRB leading light, John Everett Millais on the interior decoration of a house in Leeds and both men produced illustrations for a small, privately circulated magazine. Bateman was also an intimate friend of key PRB figure, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and lived with him at Highgate in 1852. Bateman’s concern for the truthful depiction of nature as urged by the preeminent art critic of the era and PRB supporter, John Ruskin and so evident in the Yallambee set, became a crucial element in the thinking of the Pre-Raphaelite artists.

Bateman came to Australia in 1852 in the company of the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner and another PRB sympathiser, Bernhard Smith. Ostensibly this trip was in order for these men to try their luck on the newly established Victorian goldfields but in Bateman’s case his motives were of a more personal nature and primarily connected with the Howitt family. Bateman was unofficially engaged to Anna Mary Howitt, the daughter of the writers, William and Mary Howitt. William was in Victoria to lead an exhibition to the gold fields, hoping perhaps to find a fortune but more especially to furnish material for a book he planned to write.

Phoebe Howitt, ne Bakewell — electroplate medallion by Thomas Woolner, 1853 (Medieval Moderns, NGV)
Phoebe Howitt, ne Bakewell — electroplate medallion by Thomas Woolner, 1853 (Medieval Moderns, NGV)

On arriving in Victoria, Bateman stayed at the Collins Street East home of William’s brother, Dr Godfrey Howitt, a meeting place of the infant colony’s smarty pants set.

Home of Dr Godfrey and Phoebe (ne Bakewell) Howitt on the corner of Collins Street East and Spring Street, Melbourne, 1868, SLV.
Home of Dr Godfrey and Phoebe (ne Bakewell) Howitt on the corner of Collins Street East and Spring Street, Melbourne, 1868, SLV.

Soon after he packed his brushes up with a pick and shovel and headed to the diggings where he fell in with his prospective father in law’s expedition before falling out with the old boy himself. It had been anticipated that Bateman’s brush would supply the illustrations for William’s book when written but in mid-1853 the relationship between Bateman and William Howitt broke down. It wasn’t quite the stuff of pistols at dawn but it must have been something more than a storm in the Bateman teapot. The engagement between Anna Howitt and Bateman was broken and William returned to England in 1854 where he published “Land, Labour and Gold” but without the intended illustrations. “Land, Labour and Gold” contains a wealth of detail about life in the early colony including a (previously quoted) detailed description of the Bakewells’ “Yallambee” property. The one thing that is missing from the narrative however is Bateman himself who was certainly a member of the party for much of the expedition but who is mentioned maybe 10 times in a two volume set numbering something over 800 pages.

William’s son Charlton, writing of the goldfields expedition, described the odd figure of Bateman in company with his father on the trail:

“…the governor often walks first in his broad hat and wide trousers; often the Painter walks beside him in his glazed cap, blue jumper and leather overalls which come up his thighs and with a courier pouch at his side for his sketching things, but just as often he is stalking ahead of everybody for he has a very long pair of legs and they seem to carry him involuntarily.”

The Aesthetic poet, Reginald Bunthorne, from Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera, "Patience".
The Aesthetic poet, Reginald Bunthorne, from Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, “Patience”.

Bateman stayed on in Australia after William Howitt’s return to England and it was after this that he produced the Yallambie drawings that are now part of the NGV collection. The Bakewells’ became life-long friends of Bateman and probably commissioned the drawings from him to provide a permanent record of their property at a time when their return to Britain was being contemplated. The “Yallambee” drawings were complete by 1856 when they were available in London for a review by a writer in “The Athenaeum” who, while writing anonymously, would most likely have been Bateman’s former fiancée, Anna Howitt, writing presumably without the knowledge of her father. Anna had written for “The Athenaeum” previously and the style of the article suggests a feminine hand of the Victorian era and the prose a previous knowledge of Bateman’s career:

We have been much pleased this week by some drawings of Australian scenes, the work of Mr Bateman, a gentleman who formerly assisted Mr Owen Jones in some of his miraculous and laborious books. The tepid air that bathes the gum-tree forests has not relaxed the hand of this skilful draughtsman, nor has it lost a whit of its old accuracy and ‘cunning’. The pencil drawings are merely scenes on a farm on the Plenty River, the property of Messrs Bakewell. Early settlers in Victoria. The views are taken at different points — here the stately cattle feeding, there the river sleeping and the reeds whispering to it their silly secrets.

In No. 1 there is a stream, dark, calm, unruffled, and sullen, — trees leaning about in a rude, helpless way; some leafless, others in the full flush of leaf. In the distance are out-buildings, with every plank hinted, and the very nail heads implied, if not delineated, with photographic skill and care.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view V by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Station outbuildings in distance with trees and creek in foreground.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view V by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Station outbuildings in distance with trees and creek in foreground.

No. 2 is a growing wonder, with elaborate neat fences, slopes of hill and dale, full of swelling wealth, as if mother Nature was baring her breasts to her suckling children. The leaves, grass, and trees are admirably expressed with sharp ciphers of black lead. Pre-eminent among them, and especially characteristic of the gold and copper country, is the stringy bark tree, with its ragged cordage hanging about it like shattered rigging round a mast.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VI by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station on hill with creek in foreground.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VI by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station on hill with creek in foreground.

No. 3 is remarkable for its dark, ghostly cypresses, solid cones of black shade, silent and watchful as sentinels. The leaves of the plants, fingered or fan-like, are given to botanical truth.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856

No. 4 is the house, a homely English cottage, with its broad brim of a verandah, latticed with flowers and encumbered with sweets, — the broad level lawn, calm and sunny as a good man’s conscience, is bordered by bushy plants and flowering aloes.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view III by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. House with lattice-work verandah and garden.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view III by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. House with lattice-work verandah and garden.

No. 5 is a dark, cool pool, criss-crossed by trees, that watch it as lovers do a woman’s eye.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view XI by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. View of garden with cypress and fence.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view XI by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. View of garden with cypress and fence.

No. 6 is a cave, that, used for a garden-house, is hollowed out under the brow of the hill.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view IX by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Gardening shed.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view IX by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Gardening shed.

No. 7 is a garden-walk, after the old loved English model, — just such as line round the rector’s garden, where peaches bask their velvets on the warm south wall, or the snug rich corner of the cathedral close, where the leathery medlars ripe and rot. There are huge bushes some ten feet high, and reeds with each square flat leaf snapped at an angle.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view IV by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. New Zealand flax in foreground.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view IV by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. New Zealand flax in foreground.

No. 8 is a flight of wooden steps leading from one garden to another. The dry arrow-headed palm boughs and the great cypress trees, so sad and solemn — so like huge hearse-plumes — are admirably drawn.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VIII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Cypress and steps.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VIII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Cypress and steps.

No. 9 is another view of the pool, where some black Narcissus may have drowned himself or his gins.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view X by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Trees and creek.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view X by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Trees and creek.

No. 10 is the verandah and sheltering trees;

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view II by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Detailed view of house and verandah.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view II by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Detailed view of house and verandah.

No. 11 the river, with its wild and grassy banks; and

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view XII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of hut with creek in foreground.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view XII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of hut with creek in foreground.

No. 12 is the house, with the cattle feeding in battalions, and the pigeons in a white cloud wheeling round the stable roofs.

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

We envy Mr Bateman his skill in delineation, his knowledge and his patience. His sharp, clever, precise touch, neither dry nor mechanical, evinces mechanical talent of a high order, — the distances and the selection indicate a higher power: — together and combined they promise an artist of rare ability, — one whose pencil may stick at nothing, — who, starting from the ability to render all he sees, will rise to the ability — if he has not already done so — of representing all he wishes to see, — of selecting from, or recombining, of sorting, chastening, heightening and refining Nature. (“The Athenaeum”, London, No. 1523, 1857)

As numbered in “The Athenaeum” article and ordered above based upon the interpretation by Anne Neale in her doctorate “Illuminating Nature”, Bateman’s pictures were probably intended to be hung in sequence around three walls of a room with an effect something like a guided tour, with NGV View V and View I (Anna Howitt’s No. 1 and No. 12) the bookends to the sequence. However, as noted by Neale in a previous NGV exhibition, (“This Wondrous Land” 2011), the numbering used by the writer in “The Athenaeum” article does not match the current NGV catalogue descriptions. “The Athenaeum” summary having been written in 1857 it can however be more or less assumed to be the more correct sequence of the artist’s intended order although Dr Neale suggests intriguingly that it could mean that the two sequences actually represent the overlapping parts of a larger and now certainly lost set.

E La Trobe Bateman remained in Australia until 1869, producing sketches and paintings, botanical illustrations and illuminated bindings, graphic and textile designs, garden designs and architectural plans. His was a remarkable talent that has left a significant mark on the history of Yallambie.

A trail of passion flowers, E La Trobe Bateman, watercolour, NGV
A trail of passion flowers, E La Trobe Bateman, watercolour, NGV
Passion flower, Yallambie, May, 2015.
Passion flower, Yallambie, May, 2015.

Bateman may be best described today as an Aesthetic. As an interesting end note, some years ago we heard from a descendant of a man by the name of John Morris, reputedly a gardener for the Bakewells. Morris was a Ticket of Leave convict who had been sponsored by Bateman to work at the Plenty Station, which he did so happily for 20 years, marrying and producing five children along the way. One can only wonder if this John Morris was in any way related to the family of the famous William Morris, one of the founders of Aestheticism, and himself a keen gardener.

Bateman decamped Australia at the end of 1869 after injuring his drawing hand in a buggy accident, taking virtually all of his drawings with him on departure. The “Yallambee” drawings remained by descent with the Bakewell family in England until 1935 when they passed to Alice Miller and John Compton Miller from whom they were purchased for the NGV by the Felton Bequest in 1959. Bateman spent the rest of his life as a landscape gardener to the Marquess of Bute at Rothesay in Scotland where he died in 1897 aged 82, a well brewed teapot.

im bateman meme

Art for art’s sake

The teacher was attempting to instruct his class in Year 11 physics. After a lengthy divagation on the theory of Newton’s laws of relative motion, I thought I had a handle on it. “Sir, that’s like when you’re lying down in the fields, looking up at the sky and watching the clouds drifting by overhead,” I said. “When you do that you get the feeling that you’re moving and it is the clouds that are standing still.”

The teacher paused from his discourse for a moment and looked at me pointedly. “And do you do a lot of this lying around in the fields looking up at the sky, Mister?”

It made sense to me at the time but was apparently too left field for schoolboy scholarship. Needless to say I didn’t go on from there to forge a career in the sciences but commercial art, with its apparent opportunity for creative expression, appealed to a young man with his head firmly stuck in the clouds. As a graphic artist I had plenty of opportunity to draw and paint and for a time I derived a good deal of job satisfaction from my profession. But that’s where the story ends I’m afraid. As a graphic designer these days I find myself like most people in the digital age, parked in front of a computer and wondering about whatever happened along the way to creativity in the 21st century.

A desire for aesthetic expression is a part of what makes us human and from the dawn of time that expression has found voice in the decoration of the places where we live. The earliest cave dwellers decorated their rock walls with images of those things that were important to them in their Stone Age lives.

Cave paintings at Chauvet Cave in southern France.
Cave paintings at Chauvet Cave in southern France.

At Chauvet Cave in France, early humans of the Aurignacian era, 30,000 to 32,000 years ago, painted hundreds of extraordinary images of animals, many of which are now extinct. In classical times, Roman artisans decorated the walls of every day dwellings with murals, examples of which were uncovered and so can be seen today at the ruined city of Pompeii.

Take a leap forward to the modern world when the Victorians built houses in the classical manner in a style dubbed “Italianate”. They decorated these buildings with stencils and murals and heavily patterned or embossed wallpapers all of which were linked to a new materialism that surfaced in the 19th century. The Scottish designer and a pivotal figure in the Aesthetic Movement, Christopher Dresser, wrote that by the application of decorative art, “a very barn may become a palace.” To the later Victorians, highly developed ornamentation became an art form and this was worthy of their great endeavour.

It is clear that this was the style chosen to ornament Yallambie Homestead in the second half of 19th century. Meagre decoration and furnishing in a home were thought to be akin to poverty and Thomas Wragge would therefore have been keen to mark his successes as a wealthy pastoralist by the correct decoration of his Melbourne home. Enough discarded wall paper has been found under the floors at Yallambie to give some impression of the mode of décor chosen by Thomas Wragge and his family. The surviving interior surfaces of the house Wardlow in Parkville (the outside of which is used as a location in “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”) are an example of what possibly might once have been found on the walls at Yallambie in the post 1880s, although at a guess the earlier 1870 decorations when the house was new might have been simply painted.

Warlow House, Parkville, 2005.
Warlow House, Parkville, 2005.

When I discovered these fragmentary wall papers under the floor a decade ago (along with the previously mentioned Day Book and a few mummified moggy cats), a friend said to me enthusiastically, “That’s great, now you know the style of decoration you will need to follow in order to recreate the interior at Yallambie.”

Sanitary style wallpapers from upstairs sub floor area, Yallambie.
Sanitary style wallpapers from upstairs sub floor area, Yallambie.
Wallpaper fragments from sub floor area of former upstairs billiards room, Yallambie.
Wallpaper fragments from sub floor area of former upstairs billiards room, Yallambie.
Wallpaper fragment from sub floor area of former smoking room, Yallambie.
Art Nouveau wallpaper fragment from sub floor area of former smoking room, Yallambie.
Wallpaper fragments from sub floor area of music room, Yallambie.
Wallpaper fragments from sub floor area of music room, Yallambie.

Frankly the idea of following such a course of action filled my wife and myself with horror. As that other famous exponent of Aestheticism, Oscar Wilde reportedly said on his death bed, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.” Not being prepared to share with the Irish playwright the fate of the “ex-parrot” just yet we decided instead on a series of painted surfaces with just a passing nod to what had gone before in the form of a few individually hand painted surfaces.

Even in the 19th century, writers made a mockery of Victorian decorative values and of the drawing rooms of the colonial nouveau riche in particular. Richard Twopeny in “Town Life in Australia” (Elliot Stock, London, 1883) wrote satirically of the Australian squattocracy which for him was defined by a character he dubbed “Muttonwool”, a person probably not so very dissimilar to Mr T. Wragge, Esq. himself:

“…it is time we should go through Muttonwool’s house room by room. On entering the drawing-room the first thing that strikes is the carpet, with a stiff set pattern large enough to knock you down, and of a rich gaudy colour. You raise your eyes — find opposite them the regulation white mantelpiece, more or less carved…”

At Yallambie, two of the marble fire surrounds in the principle rooms had been removed and a third modified during Sarah Annie Murdoch’s 1923 renovations of the homestead. In that decade, she and her husband, Wallace Murdoch, were intent on creating a post- Edwardian style interior within the Victorian house that Sarah Annie’s father had built. Although at odds with the building, the ideas chosen did have some merit and were you might say the Murdochs’ contribution to the precept of the Chauvet Cave principle. Rooms were enlarged, plumbing installed and a red pine panelled and timber beamed ceiling introduced into a front room that became the new dining room.

Music room at the end of the Temby occupation of Yallambie, 1984.
Music room at the end of the Temby occupation of Yallambie, 1984.
Music room during reinstatement of window panels, October, 2011.
Music room during reinstatement of window panels, October, 2011.

Over the last decade, the Edwardian mantle pieces from the Murdoch era have been replaced and the earlier marble fire surrounds repaired in a style more befitting a mid-Victorian building. These included a chimney piece installed into the music/drawing room. It was reconstructed on a limited budget, not so much a shoe string, more a shoe thread from pieces found in demolition yards. The same source supplied discarded slate and marble that were recycled to tile the ground floor halls with a black and white diamond pattern, a design motif that is typically Victorian and which I am told is rooted in Freemasonry symbolism of the dark and light or of the yin and yang. This tiling project alone took 18 months to complete. Each piece of stone was cut individually and laid with mortar, a task which I suppose qualifies this amateur as some sort Mason himself now, but without the obligatory handshaking.

Front hall at Yallambie.
Front hall at Yallambie.

The Melbourne merchant and decorator William Henry Rocke described a more tasteful mid Victorian drawing room in a booklet he published in 1874: “Once the walls were hung with fluted silk, of a French grey tint, but now they are simply painted that colour and relieved by oblong panels of gold beading, which is also carried along the line where the walls and ceiling meet… A few intertwined sprays of delicate Australian blossoms, hand painted, form the central ornament of each panel.” (Remarks on House Furnishing and House Decoration, W H Rocke, Melbourne, 1874)

Painted plaster in the drawing room at Mt Rothwell Homestead, 2002.
Painted plaster in the drawing room at Mt Rothwell Homestead, 2002.

This was the inspiration for the approach that was eventually chosen. The painted surfaces at Mt Rothwell Homestead near Geelong and the slightly later but utterly remarkable interior of Villa Alba in Kew are grand and significant survivors of this approach to interior decoration.

Painted surface at Villa Alba, Kew.
Painted surface at Villa Alba, Kew.

The Pre-Raphaelite artist, Edward La Trobe Bateman, who visited Yallambee in the 1850s and who produced a series of drawings to record the property, worked in a number of creative disciplines and he was admired for his contemporary coloured stencil decorations on board walls and ceilings and for flowers painted over fireplaces in at least two properties.

Sarah Annie Wragge hand decorating a door at Yallambie Homestead, c1890.
Sarah Annie Wragge hand decorating a door at Yallambie Homestead, c1880s.

Whether any of the Wragges met Bateman is unrecorded but the daughters of Thomas Wragge are known to have hand decorated several doors at Yallambie in the 1890s with designs based on plants found in the garden.

Wragge painted door, Yallambie.

Wragge painted study door, Yallambie.
Wragge painted door panels, Yallambie.

Three of these doors have survived with their decoration to the present day and follow a tradition of painted doors in Victorian houses that can be found elsewhere at properties in the state like the aforementioned Mt Rothwell and at Reedy Creek Homestead near Broadford, amongst others.

Painted door in the drawing room at Mt Rothwell Homestead, 2002.
Painted door in the drawing room at Mt Rothwell Homestead, 2002.
Papered 4-panel drawing room door at Reedy Creek Homestead, Broadford, 2003.
Papered 4-panel drawing room door at Reedy Creek Homestead, Broadford, 2003.
Dining room door and surround at Reedy Creek Homestead, Broadford, 2003.
Dining room door and surround at Reedy Creek Homestead, Broadford, 2003.
Bedroom door painted by the writer's wife in 2000.
Bedroom door painted by the writer’s wife in 2000.

In the spirit of this tradition, my wife, herself a fine artist, painted a couple of interior doors at Yallambie. She also painted the panels under each of the seven windows of the music room and gilded the cornices and architraves.

Details of motifs painted onto the panels in the music room.
Details of motifs painted onto the panels in the music room.
Panel detail.
Panel detail.
Painted ceiling frieze, February, 2014.
Painted ceiling frieze, February, 2014.

A ceiling in another room which had been covered with lining papers in the past, presumably to hide the various imperfections in the Marianas Trench style, lathe and plaster surfaces, was found to have a ghostly outline of a painted frieze around the deep cornices when the papers were removed. This became the basis for a design that my wife has gradually been repainting overhead from a precarious height.

Over 70% of all accidents happen within the home. A makeshift painter's scaffold at Yallambie photographed alongside Wragge painted, 4 panel door, June, 2012.
Over 70% of all accidents happen within the home. A makeshift painter’s scaffold at Yallambie photographed alongside a Wragge painted, 4 panel door, June, 2012.

When it came to painting a ceiling rose however, unlike Michelangelo, she painted the plaster at table height before we lifted the rose delicately to its present location 13 feet above the surface of the floor. A gilded and pressed metal centre rose completed the effect.

Gilt metal and painted plaster ceiling rose.
Gilt metal and painted plaster ceiling rose.

Gilded cornices were described at Yallambie in an inventory made of the house in 1910 after the death of Thomas Wragge. The metal was presumably destroyed during the 1923 renovations as several pieces have been found discarded in an old rubbish pit. Replacement gilt metal has been cheaply sourced at demolition yards and reinstated at several locations in the house, wherever practicable.

Painted gilt metal curtain pelmet, May, 2015
Painted gilt metal curtain pelmet, May, 2015

Why go to such efforts with a house that has been variously described by Winty Calder as a “white elephant”? It is the same urge that drove those cavemen to go “Ugh,” and decorate the walls of Chauvet cave and the artisans at Pompeii to decorate the walls of Roman villas even as Vesuvius murmured their impending doom. Yallambie Homestead was purchased 20 years ago for what seems today  the price of a town house or a teepee, or maybe only a part thereof. Almost everything that has been done since that time has been done DIY on a limited budget although it is a disturbing thought that parts of the building continue to deteriorate faster than they can be properly maintained. However, if things cannot be done by our own hand, they tend not to get done at all. Although solidly constructed, Yallambie is a building that has become fragile with age but necessity is the mother of invention and it is surprising what can be achieved by a couple of artists left purely to their own devices.

Interior of Napier Waller's house in Fairy Hill, Ivanhoe.
Interior of Napier Waller’s house in Fairy Hill, Ivanhoe.

A versatile artist who left a legacy in the City of Banyule was Napier Waller, the 20th century Australian muralist, mosaicist and painter of stained glass. Waller lost an arm in the Great War but later trained himself to work with his non preferred left which shows that disability is not necessarily an impediment to artistic expression. One of Waller’s later designs was installed as a moving war memorial at St John’s Church of England in Heidelberg, alongside the Wragge Ascension Windows triptych described previously. Waller’s home and studio was located in Fairy Hills, Ivanhoe not far from the house that Nancy and Cliff Bush built for themselves when they left Yallambie. (It can be seen as the location of the doctor’s house in the “Dr Blake Mysteries”). Since his death in 1972, Waller’s house has been preserved as a sort of memorial to his memory with many of the artist’s preliminary drawings, sketches and full cartoons remaining inside the house. The overall effect is “mysterious and church like” in the words of one visitor, with one large design for a mosaic from the University of Western Australia dominating the interior. Art lives on at Waller’s house long after the inspiration that created it has returned to the cosmic dust.

One of the great conundrums has always been, just what constitutes art? Pablo Picasso said that, “the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Last week a painting by the famed Spanish modern master went under the hammer at Christie’s auction house for a record price of some 227 million Australian dollars. Picasso’s Cubist painting “The Women of Algiers”, itself a reworking of a subject tackled a hundred years earlier by Delacroix, is rather a snazzy picture I think and I certainly wouldn’t mind taking the auctioneer’s hammer for a moment and nailing it to our own wall. (Fox News didn’t think so however. Bizarrely, when reporting on the sale, Fox felt obliged to blur out the so called “breasts” of Picasso’s abstract).

Women of Algiers by Pablo Picasso.
Women of Algiers by Pablo Picasso.

But $200,000,000? Really? What painting is worth the GDP of some Pacific island nations within our region? Either art is priceless, and therefore by definition worth nothing, or it is worth a fair price and that’s not the sort of money that regularly changes hands for some fine art these days.

In his film, “The Great Contemporary Art Bubble”, the art critic and film maker Ben Lewis revealed how the contemporary art market deliberately inflates the prices paid for certain modern artists at auction in order to maximise prices for pieces by the same artists when sold privately. It is a business practice that would not be tolerated inside other industries.

Today there are practically no large scale paintings by Picasso remaining in private hands so it could be argued that 200 million big ones is a fair price to pay for “Women of Algiers”. I dunno. Maybe after all these years I still have my head stuck in the clouds but I suspect  that there are in private hands today an awful lot of smaller scale Picasso prints and drawings whose value has just sky rocketed. And what price should we put on Melbourne’s own Picasso, “Weeping Woman”, infamously stolen from the NGV in 1986 by the self-styled but to this day unidentified “Australian Cultural Terrorists”? My teenage son, looking over my shoulder while I write this post, claims he could make us a “Weeping Woman” with crayons if we gave him half a chance. I’d never heard of Picasso having a “Crayon Period” but then you never know. Picasso was a remarkably prolific artist.

The NGV’s “Weeping Woman” was held to ransom for a while after the theft with a demand for an increased public funding of the arts. The story reads to me something suspiciously like a piece of performance art. Burnt matches were delivered to the authorities with the ransom notes. Legend has it that as the police net closed in, the typewriter used to write the ransom notes met a watery grave in the Yarra off Princes Bridge. It’s probably still down there, the rusted keys of the typewriter mixed with all those keys from the lovers locks thrown from the Southbank footbridge. Killjoy Council workers began removing the locks from this impromptu art installation this week.

In a sleight of hand, last week’s Federal Budget removed about $105 million from the Australia Council for the Arts, the body previously charged with funding arts projects in Australia, and placed the spondoolies into the hands of the Minister of the Arts. There is a theory behind the action of course because the money will go towards funding a new programme called “Excellence in the Arts” but it’s a move that would have the Australian Cultural Terrorists fuming if they were still around.

“Weeping Woman” was eventually returned to the gallery unharmed, more famous and probably more valuable than ever before, but without any of the unlikely ransom demands for arts funding met. The crime has never been solved but the process left then gallery director, Patrick McCaughey’s bow tie in a twist for more than a little while. In the final analysis the lack of a pecuniary outcome was apt. After all it’s well known that art is priceless. Well, isn’t it?

Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso.
Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso.