Tag Archives: Alfred Howitt

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.

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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

The Terra nullius dream

“I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting.” How often have you heard these words spoken before a public event? They are de rigueur at my son’s school at every assembly and public gathering but when I asked him what he could tell me about Eddie Mabo’s fishing rods he looked at me with bewilderment. As another Australia Day dawns and we once again remember the time in 1788 when the Aboriginal people of Sydney Cove watched the sails of the convict ships enter Sydney Harbour, and muttered “Crikey” to themselves, what do those words really mean and how much of what we say is just lip service? The Yallambie days of yore that I have been writing about in these posts was not of course the first history of our district. There is another, earlier history dating back thousands of years, knowledge of which W. E. H. Stanner once described as “the great Australian silence”.

A 19th century engraving of an indigenous Australian encampment, representing the indigenous mode of life in the cooler parts of Australia
A 19th century engraving of an indigenous Australian encampment, representing the indigenous mode of life in the cooler parts of Australia

When the land that was to become the suburb of Yallambie was sold at public auction as Portion 8 at the first Crown land sales in 1838 it was assumed the land belonged to a Queen, then in the first year of her reign, sitting on a throne on the other side of the world and that it was hers by right to dispose of. It took a split decision by the best legal minds in Australia sitting on the High Court of Australia in 1992 to finally change that perception. I don’t know enough about the subject to write about it authoritatively but it seems appropriate on this day to write in a general way about the Wurundjeri, the tribe of indigenous Australians who before European settlement once occupied much of the present location of Melbourne.

The explorer, geologist and anthropologist, Alfred Howitt, son of William Howitt. Picture State Library of Victoria.
The explorer, geologist and anthropologist, Alfred Howitt, son of William Howitt. Picture State Library of Victoria.

According to the explorer and anthropologist Alfred Howitt, who with his father William visited “Yallambee” in October 1852, the Wurundjeri tribal territory was generally agreed to be all the area drained by the Yarra/Plenty River basins. It has been written elsewhere that at Yallambie the Wurundjeri occupied a more or less permanent summer camp, above a deep pool in the Plenty River that could be relied upon to never run dry even at times of the worst drought: “At that time Aborigines had a permanent camp above that long, straight, deep stretch of river below Tarcoola Drive”.

A "deep pool" on the Plenty River at Yallambie, January, 2015
A “deep pool” on the Plenty River at Yallambie, January, 2015

Archaeological studies by Banyule City Council and the MMBW have identified some evidence of pre contact civilization along the lower reaches of the Plenty River, from scarred trees to artefact scatters and possible mound sites. It is a fragile jigsaw puzzle that continuing research will add to although sometimes that puzzle can take an unexpected turn. Some years ago a newspaper reported that a skeleton had been found in a Montmorency backyard, just upstream from Yallambie and on the other side of the river. The police were called, it being believed that evidence had been found of our very own Montmorency, “Midsomer Murders”. They went away soon afterward when it became apparent that the skeleton was of Aboriginal origin and of great age, proof if proof be needed of the long occupation of the area by native people.

Banyule City Council sign posting on the banks of the Plenty River, Yallambie Park, reads: "Heartland of the Wurundjeri william".
Banyule City Council sign posting on the banks of the Plenty River, Yallambie Park, reads: “Heartland of the Wurundjeri willam”.

A few years ago at the suggestion of my wife and I, Banyule Council installed a sign on the horseshoe bend of the Plenty River at Yallambie marking the presence of the first Australians in this locality. It’s a fine looking piece of sculpture shaped a bit like a native shield propped between two logs. I’ve heard it suggested that horse shoe loops on a river were good hunting grounds for Aboriginal people. They could chase game into the bend and corner their quarry on steep banks. Perhaps the sign is a little inappropriately placed however and might have been better located upstream, near the permanent waterhole that the Indigenous people are said to have occupied as a camp. A second sign describing the Colonial history of the Wragge and Bakewell farms on the river flat would have been a better option for the location chosen. But that’s another story.

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. The waterhole where Indigenous people are said to have occupied a camp.
Plenty River at Yallambie, January, 2015
Plenty River at Yallambie, January, 2015

The story of John Batman’s infamous 1835 “Treaty” with the Wurundjeri people is well known. Teachers told us about it in school but if you were too busy considering the aerodynamic capabilities of the latest folded piece of exam paper, I would recommend Rex Harcourt’s enormously interesting book “Southern Invasion, Northern Conquest” (Golden Point Press, 2001). It contains what I think is the clearest account in print of the circumstances surrounding the Treaty and the events leading up to it. The rejection of the Treaty by Governor Richard Bourke implemented the doctrine of Terra nullius upon which British possession of Australia until Mabo became based.

The infamous "Batman Treaty"
The infamous “Batman Treaty”

The location of the signing of Batman’s “Treaty” remains unclear. Most probably it was on the Merri Creek downstream from Rushall Station where High Street now climbs the artificial embankment to Northcote. I’ve walked there along the Merri Creek Trail with Harcourt’s book in hand and that’s my favourite for it matches John Batman’s description very nicely. However, there have been several other sites suggested including the intriguing theory put forward by H. G. Turner in his “History of Colonial Victoria” that the Treaty was signed on the Plenty River at Greensborough, just a little upstream from Yallambie. The eight Wurundjeri elders who placed their crosses on Batman’s ludicrous document on that day in 1835 almost certainly had no idea what they were signing. They were not the owners of the land that Batman and his Port Phillip Association were attempting to purchase. The land was held in common by the Tribe and was not the property of any one man to dispose of. Possibly they thought they were participating in a gift giving ceremony of friendship. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

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

The world that the settlers brought to the Plenty River and the place that the Aboriginals soon occupied in it is illustrated in the following account of the gentleman squatter Captain John Harrison on the Plenty River at Yan Yean. Written by his son in 1927 it tells of contact with Aborigines in 1837-1843 but it might equally well have described the world of Edward Willis and John and Robert Bakewell when they occupied their land on the lower reaches of the Plenty River. According to Isabel Ellender who reproduced this description in her 1989 report “The Plenty Valley Corridor”, Harrison “was typical of many of the early settlers encountered by the Aborigines of the Plenty Valley in the 1830s”.

“The blacks in the district (the Plenty Valley) belonged to the Yarra Yarra tribe and were considered rather dangerous at first. But only on two occasions do I remember our having an alarm through blacks. The first time, hundreds of them surrounded the house, the quadrangle was full of them… the blacks evidently thought only women and children were at home, for presently they became very cheeky, knocking at the doors with their waddies and sticks. My father… suddenly rushed out on them with his gun in his hand; and they were evidently so surprised at the sight of him that they disappeared in a most miraculous manner… But we could hear a great jabbering going on down at the potato patch… and there, we could see some of the lubras digging up potatoes with their yam sticks. These were always carried about by them and were six or seven feet long, and about thick as a man’s wrist, with a sharp point at one end.”

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

Near the head waters of the Plenty River lies a curious colonial building historically known as “Bear’s Castle”. I can remember my late father telling me of it when I was a wide eyed schoolboy. In his role as an inspector for the MMBW, my father was responsible for the water supply of a wide area, at one time ranging from the Heidelberg depot to the Yan Yean Reservoir. Bear’s Castle he told me had been built in the “olden days” to defend farmer Bear’s farm from marauding Aboriginals. I don’t think he quite believed the legend himself and more than likely the “Castle” was built as a garden “folly” in the style of the English Picturesque. But it makes a good story all the same. It’s not easy to get permission to visit the “Castle” today as it lies within the catchment of the Yan Yean Reservoir. I last saw it nearly two decades ago. Bear’s farm itself lies somewhere out in the middle of the reservoir, under about 30,000 megalitres of water.

The writer at Bear's Castle, 1997
A hairy bear at Bear’s Castle: the writer at Bear’s folly in 1997

The Wragge family of Yallambie are known to have had many dealings with Aboriginal people, if not at Yallambie, then at their Riverina properties. The Wragge’s are believed to have collected several Stone Age weapons and tools, Aboriginal artifacts that had been ploughed up in their farm fields. Winty Calder, writing in “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales – The Wragges of Tulla and Yallambie” (Jimaringle Publications, 1997) said of the native people of the Riverina that: “The bond between Aborigines and their country has never been fully understood by white people. The tact and friendliness of Charles Sturt, when he explored the Murray in 1829-1830, probably prevented trouble along the river above its junction with the Darling. People met by Joseph Hawdon south of the Murray (between Echuca and the Loddon River) in 1838, when there had been reports of native hostility, showed mixed reactions to the intruders. There was curiosity, alarm and astonishment. Some were not welcoming, others attempted to pilfer the explorers’ goods. In the early 1840s, Edward Curr rode over country along the lower Edward, Wakool and Niemur Rivers, which was unoccupied by Europeans, without any trouble from Aborigines, but he stressed the fact that he was careful, especially with the Moira blacks on the northern side of the river. Less than forty years later a new Aboriginal generation could no longer oppose the advance of white settlers. Numbers had decreased steadily as they fell victim to diseases caught from the whites, and as they were occasionally shot. They largely abandoned their health-giving, traditional hunting and fishing to hang about the settlers’ huts, miserable and underfed, hoping for hand-outs from the newcomers. The pressure of white occupation resulted in listlessness among many of the Aborigines, and loss of interest in life”. Later still, many Aborigines worked on the Wragge sheep stations as labourers, roustabouts and shearers, employees of white men on land that their forefathers had occupied for uncounted generations. Call us eccentric but where other couples would have chosen to lounge on a Queensland beach sipping gin and tonics, my wife and I spent our honeymoon plodding through paddocks in the Riverina in pursuit of this history visiting the old Wragge homesteads. At one of them I remember the modern day homesteader (not a Wragge descendant) showed us openings in the doors and walls of the original, free standing dairy, apertures which she claimed were rifle slopes, a sure sign of the dangers encountered by the original settlers of the district. I thought they looked like ventilation holes.

Phillippa Sutherland recently produced a very nice looking booklet for the Banyule Council called: “Banyule, Heartland of the Wurundjeri Willam”. It is freely available from the Council service centres and contains this final, delightful story of the Wurundjeri dream time, adapted by Sutherland from S. Wieneke, ‘When the Wattle Blooms Again’.

Frances Derham, 1894-1987
Frances Derham, 1894-1987

Once, the water of Birrarung (Yarra River – ‘river of mists’) was locked in the mountains. This great expanse of water was called Moorool (‘great water’). It was so large that the Woiworung had little hunting ground. This contrasted with the Wathaurung’s and Bunurong’s hunting ground, the flat which is now Port Phillip Bay. Mo-yarra (‘slow and fast running’) was the headman of the Woiworung. He decided to free the country of the water and cut a channel through the hills, in a southerly direction, until he reached Koo-wee-rup (Western Port). However, only a little water followed him and the channel gradually closed up. At a later time, the headman of the tribe was Bar-wool. He remembered Mo-Yarra’s attempt to free the land. He knew that mo-Yarra still lived on the swamps beside Koo-we-rup. Each winter he saw the hilltops covered with feather-down which Mo-Yarra plucked from the water birds sheltering on the swamps. Bar-wool resolved to free the land. He cut a channel up the valley with his stone axe, but was stopped by Baw-baw, the mountain. He cut northwards, but was stopped by Donna Buang and his brothers. Then he cut westwards, through to the hills to Warr-an-dyte. There he met Yan-yan, another Woiworung. Yan-yan was busy cutting a channel for the Plenty River in order to drain his homeland of Morang. They joined forces and the waters of Moorool and Morang became Moo-rool-bark (‘the place where the wide waters were’). They continued their work, and reached Warringal (Heidelberg-Templestowe flats – ‘dingo-jump-up’). There they rested while the waters formed another Moorool. When Bar-wool and Yan-yan set to work again they had to go much slower because the ground was harder and they were using too many stone axes. They cut a narrow, twisting track between the Darebin and Merri Creeks, looking for softer ground. At last they reached Port Phillip. The waters of Moorool and Morang rushed out. Woiworung country was freed from water, but Port Phillip was inundated.” A charming story that in an uncanny way echoes what we know of the landscape from the geological record. The course of the Plenty River was changed 8000 years ago when volcanic eruptions in the west deposited a basalt flow that the river was then forced to cut a path through, creating Greensborough’s Plenty Gorge. The Plenty River at Yallambie marks the end of this basalt plain. The river bed at Yallambie and downstream until its confluence with the Yarra River in View Bank, follows the original course of the river across older, sedimentary beds. In prehistoric times when water levels were lower, the first Australians saw Port Phillip Bay as a game filled, grassy plain with the prehistoric course of the Yarra River cutting a route across it to the sea. I am told that the ancient river bed is still there, underwater somewhere at the bottom of the Bay. It has been modified to form the shipping channel so recently and so controversially deepened and is used by vessels entering the relatively shallow waters of Port Phillip enroute to the Port of Melbourne. So on this Australia Day, if you get the opportunity to take a dip with your inflatable kangaroo in the “True Blue” waters of Port Phillip or to play a game of beach cricket on some Peninsula shore line, remember for a moment a time before 1788 and 1835. A time when the first Australians hunted real kangaroos out on the grassy plains of Port Phillip where holidaying Aussie fishermen now pull in flathead and snapper. Those grassy plains are long gone now, as are the native camps of the plains and the Plenty River. They exist now only in a time of Dreams.

Frances Derham
Frances Derham, 1894-1987