The Australian writer and historian Don Watson once posed the tempting question, “What will history make of us should there be any historians left to write it?”
The news last week that the State Government had decided on Corridor A as the chosen route for the North East Link freeway leaves a devastating conflict of emotions for nearby communities. There is the feeling of relief that the alternative B, C and D roads will now, at least not for the time being, be built, but this is coupled with a general feeling of dismay at the destruction Corridor A is likely to wreak.
Corridor A when built will largely cut an underground path under Viewbank and Rosanna, with road interchanges located at Bulleen and Lower Plenty Roads, but it will be the surface road parallel with Greensborough Road along the Western boundary of Yallambie with Macleod and in Watsonia in the north, together with the associated road interchanges at either end that will have the most obvious visual impact. At least 75 homes are expected be lost to the plan and it’s pretty clear to anyone familiar with the local area just where these are likely to be.
The government spent $100 million to write a study of their four, so called alternative routes which included the utter surprise of their Corridor B proposal through the heart of Yallambie, but in the end the extra corridors were a smoke screen, an attempt to muddy the water surrounding a proposal to build Corridor A which, because it was expected to be cheaper, was always going to be the favoured option.
Corridor A has been talked about ever since something like it was first proposed in the 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan. It wasn’t built because enough people could see back then that it was a bad idea. So what has changed? A decade ago the proposal was still on the table and costed at $6 billion, but last week’s announcement rings in now at over $16 billion. The real question then is, just how much is this thing going to cost eventually, and I don’t just mean in dollar terms.
Perhaps the NELA aren’t aware of some of the worry and the sleepless nights that they have given Yallambie and Lower Plenty residents since the first suggestion of Corridor B was disclosed in August. Perhaps they don’t care. This sort of cavalier attitude is nothing new, as the recent to-ing and fro-ing over the abandoned East West Link proposal is evidence, but fifty years ago the following story illustrates perhaps just how strongly passions can run on such matters.
In the mid 1960s, at a time before the first spade had been turned on Melbourne’s freeway network, a plan was developed by Doncaster and Templestowe City Council in conjunction with the Country Roads Board to widen Templestowe Rd in Templestowe at the Thompsons Road intersection. The plan when first discussed involved realigning Templestowe Rd at its closest approach to the Yarra River with Parker St in the east, through the heart of the Templestowe township.
But there was a problem. Finn’s Upper Yarra Hotel, a local landmark of some renown, stood right in the path of the new road.
The Upper Yarra Hotel was a much loved building. James Finn had opened his hotel as a beer shop on the Templestowe corner in 1866, near what is now a vanished river crossing, and over the years various additions had been made to it which had combined to create a strange amalgamation of architectural styles. The idiosyncratic compact construction of the original building seemed to stand at odds with the later, two-storey block fronted section but somehow they combined almost by accident to form a building of considerable rambling charm.
The Upper Yarra was delicenced in the early 1920s but as it aged and became more dilapidated the rustic appeal of its setting became a favoured subject for local artists. The various parts of the hotel itself were painted a rusty red colour in an attempt to bring unity to its conflicting parts and as the paint peeled the overpainted words “Finn’s Upper Yarra Hotel” stood out like a ghostly commentary as to the building’s former life, an old world garden and a cobbled stable yard behind the hotel completing the overall effect of a genteel rural decay.
The grown up grandchildren of James Finn were still living somewhat reclusive lives at the old hotel in the mid 1960s when the Council came a knockin’. Doncaster and Templestowe City Council had purchased the land on which the Upper Yarra Hotel stood from the executors of the estate of the son of James Finn and the Council were trying to force his grandchildren from the building which the surviving generation still occupied. The Council met with some militant but probably understandable opposition from the residents who objected to being moved away from the building their family had occupied for over a hundred years. One contemporary newspaper report described how a party of journalists was chased away from the hotel environs one evening in 1967 by an aging Finn brother wielding a big stick, smashing up a photographer’s car in the process in the mistaken belief that the newspaper party were officers from the Housing Commission come to enforce an eviction order.
In the end the Council got their way of course and the Finns removed themselves voluntarily from the building on the 28th May, 1967. On the night of departure however a mysterious fire broke out in the old weatherboarded building, quickly reducing it to a pile of cinder and rubble in spite of the best efforts of the Country Fire Authority to combat the blaze.
It was a tragic loss to history for the area. The Council had been discussing the possibility of moving the hotel out of the path of the imagined road realignment in a manner that they would later employ to save another historic Doncaster building, Schramm’s Cottage, in the 1970s. The fire put an end to any further discussion, Ad infinitim.
Eventually the Council accepted a cheque of $365.95 as compensation for the loss of the building, but the money was not really the point. The final irony in the telling of this story is that when the realignment of Templestowe Rd eventually took place, a decision was made to straighten the route to meet with Foote St parallel to Parker Street, which is the situation as it exists today. If Finn’s Hotel had been standing and not by then a pile of ashes, it would have been in the clear.
Today a so called “History Pavilion” on Templestowe Rd, Templestowe marks the site of the former Upper Yarra Hotel, with photographs plastered around the interior detailing the (now mostly vanished) history of the area. It is a strangely sad, not often visited tribute.
So how does this story affect the reality of the Corridor A proposal for North East Link? The above tale is an example that road plans are not set in stone until such time as they are actually set in concrete, whether they be tunnels or tarmac and you don’t have to burn down a building to find this out. Melbourne University transport lecturer John Stone was quoted in a newspaper story about State Government transport spin doctoring in The Age last month saying that, “Communities are presented with Maggie Thatcher’s old line – ‘There is no alternative’ – and often there is. But under the current system, the community can only be heard if they can create enough political will to be heard.”
Opponents of North East Link Corridor A have called a public meeting today on a rainy afternoon at Koonung Creek Reserve, Balwyn North and the AGM of the Friends of Banyule is scheduled for Thursday night at the old Shire offices in Beverley Rd, Heidelberg where there will be no prizes offered for guessing what will be the main item on the agenda that night. The opposition to Corridor A in these neighbourhoods is understandable but by any reckoning, the real opposition to the route should be coming from groups here in the north. Corridor A will be a surface road when it passes through Greensborough, Watsonia and Yallambie/Macleod and two of the three major new road interchanges will be situated here. The lack of opposition here however is the result of the earlier sleight of hand exercise conducted by NELA when they divided community opposition with the suggested alternative Corridors, B, C and D. That’s what the State Government got for spending a $100 million to investigate the alternative corridors, although they said at the time the money was to be used to cover the cost of “geotechnical investigations, design, environmental and social studies”. The cold, hard reality is that Corridor A will have a devastating effect on the City of Banyule, dividing the municipality in two in a north south direction along Greensborough Rd while doing little to relieve the very real traffic problems in the area. Vale to the City of Banyule.
Like the Finns at the old Upper Yarra Hotel, the lives knocked about by these road proposals are real people with real homes, each with their own story to tell and each with a sense of community and belonging. $16 billion and counting sounds to me like an awful lot of money to be spending on building a road, a road that won’t even do what it is intended to do, that is complete the missing link in Melbourne’s Ring Road system. Look at a map of the proposed route of Corridor A and you will see that the Corridor A route does not contribute to a ring at all but is a dent in the road plan, driving ring bound traffic back towards the city before asking it to fan out again in an easterly direction.
So when is a ring not a ring? When it is a link in the eyes of the North East Link Authority. The building of Corridor A will not remove the need to build a completed ring through Eltham in years to come. The thing is, by then the State will be so bankrupt that this will never happen, no matter what needs might then be presented. By that time too with the advent of AVs (autonomous vehicles), cars as we know them now might be a thing of the past, which poses some interesting speculation in answer to Don Watson’s original conundrum.
It’s a bit of a cliché, but the incongruous sight of men leaning on shovels around a road sign announcing the apparent falsehood, “men at work”, is one we are all familiar with. In Tarcoola Drive, Yallambie at the start of April one such sign went up on the nature strip near the corner. It read “roadwork ahead”, a precursor to sawn lines being cut into the road surface in front of it, then – nothing. It has been like that for a month, a road hazard if not actual roadwork, evidence that somebody at the road depot at least has a sense of humour. There the sign has stood forgotten, oblivious to traffic and to all intents and purposes seemingly abandoned. Eventually a motorist missing the corner drove right on over it, bending it into a shape like banana or a boomerang made by an Aboriginal on a bad day.
The intention I’m told is to build new kerb “outstands” on the corner. These projecting kerbs are intended to reduce the speeds of vehicles entering and exiting Tarcoola Drive by making the turn disproportionately more dangerous. Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge, who owned one of the very first motor cars in the Heidelberg district, is said to have preferred a horse and cart. He may have been right.
Roads were an early priority of this area and it has been argued by D S Garden that the creation of the Heidelberg Road Trust in 1841 constituted the earliest known form of local government within the Port Phillip District. The road to Heidelberg had been formed in 1839 and was known initially as the “Great Heidelberg Road”. It was laid out by the surveyor J Townsend who followed a line that was more or less parallel to the Yarra River.
I picture Townsend in those far off days whistling the highs and lows of “The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond” as he surveyed his route, the design splitting Heidelberg Road into two paths after the Darebin Creek ford. His Upper Heidelberg Road, known initially as the Nillumbik Road, ran along the top of the ridge while the Lower Heidelberg Road, first called the Mount Eagle Road, followed the valley contours.
The Heidelberg Road commanded regular traffic from its inception. The route beyond to the Diamond Valley and Lower Plenty initially led to a ford over the Plenty River near what is now Martins Lane. Although shorter this route was discarded in 1840 in favour of the current line which was considered easier. William Greig, who as recounted previously farmed at Yallambie in that year, used this way regularly to visit town. That was until the early perilous condition of its surface sent his pony lame. Richard Howitt meanwhile, who lived on the Heidelberg Road at Alphington and who we remember for his visit to his Bakewell brothers in law at Yallambee in mid-1842, was equally unimpressed.
A beautiful town is Melbourne,
All by the Yarra’s side;
Its streets are wide, its streets are deep –
They are both deep and wide
Escaping from one quagmire,
There’s room enough for more;
Such a beautiful town as Melbourne
Was never seen before…
(Richard Howitt, Impressions of Australia Felix, p299)
One of the first tasks of the Heidelberg Road Trust then was to macadamise the road surface, a process that was commenced in 1842 and which was to introduce a technology which had not long been developed in Britain. The metal for the project came from a bluestone quarry at Alphington on the west bank of the Darebin Creek. As the colony emerged from the economic stupor of the 1840s, visitors to the Heidelberg district were astonished by the experience of travelling on a luxury road that boasted an incredible macadamized surface, the first in the Port Phillip District. In March, 1848, Bishop Perry wrote after travelling on this road that:
“Yesterday we drove to Heidelberg, which is the most settled part of the country. The distance from Melbourne is about eight miles, and the road is the only made road in the colony… Here and there we went along, were neatly piled up heaps of broken stone, ready for mending the road, just as you see in England; and at places we found men at work with shovels levelling, filling up holes etc.”
Almost a decade later in 1857, an attempt was made to reform the Heidelberg Road Trust by declaring the district a municipality. It failed after a petition opposing the move, led by the leading gentry of the region, was delivered to the government. Yallambee’s Bakewell brothers must have been getting ready for their return to England when they signed but all the same, their names appear there near the top of the parchment alongside such luminaries as Hawdon of Banyule, Martin of Viewbank, McArthur of Chartresville and what amounts to a mid-19th century virtual who’s who of the Heidelberg district. It appears there had been some disagreement over which part of the Heidelberg Road would most benefit from spending of the available road finances. The Bakewells, preoccupied with their return to England, possibly believed no money should be spent on it at all.
Transportation has changed and roads might be different but disagreements about spending on infrastructure hasn’t changed that much in the one and a half centuries since. The present State government dropped more than a billion dollars to dump the East West Freeway when it came into office, all to prove a point. In the State Budget announced today, the same government released plans to spend another $100 million on a feasibility study of a North East Link, the so called missing link between the Western Ring Road and Melbourne’s south east.
The North East Link is an old idea that harks back nearly half a century to the “1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan” which it might be argued was an attempt to turn Melbourne into a Los Angeles of the south. They largely succeeded in that plan for as a contractor once told Arthur Dent shortly before his planet was demolished by the Vogons, “It’s a bypass, you have to build bypasses.” The glaring exception however was the freeway that was to have been built through Heidelberg. Carrying the moniker F-18, the 1969 plan was to drive it through the Heidelberg community like a Thunderbirds’ atomic road maker, road laying machine, cutting a swathe through the landscape. Thankfully the plan was abandoned in the early 1970s and the land in Buckingham Drive and Banyule Road at either end of the freeway reserve was later sold for housing. The Freeway reserve is still there in between in the form of a linear park but the plan is now to either build a tunnel under the City of Banyule or direct the route further out through Nillumbik Shire. Either option fills nearby communities with impending dread.
In Banyule, on a local and I might say, somewhat “smaller” scale, the City Council set aside $38,000 in the 2016/17 Budget for the work near us in Tarcoola Drive mentioned at the start of this post. However, they tell me that they are determined to spend only about half of that amount this year, the rest being put aside presumably for when they feel like coming back to do the job properly. Maybe they’ve run out of money already.
Like the F-18 on a larger scale, this is not the first attempt to deal with a perceived traffic problem in Yallambie. In the mid ’90s there was a proposal drawn up to transform the same corner into a retro fitted roundabout, a project aimed at slowing traffic in Yallambie Road, as opposed to the current attempt at slowing traffic in Tarcoola Drive. That roundabout was never built, but was constructed instead onto the corner of Binowee Avenue and Yallambie Road near the shop with speed bumps formed at the approaches.
To add a bit of currency to an old problem, yesterday afternoon our son came in from school and said that as he crossed Lower Plenty Road to Yallambie Road with a green pedestrian light, he had”nearly been run over by a car turning the corner.” In 1993, during the development of Yallambie’s Streeton Views subdivision, the Traffic Engineer for the project Greg Tucker reported that a grade separated pedestrian overpass across Lower Plenty Road to the schools in Viewbank was unwarranted. “The provision of traffic signals at Grantham and Crew Street would incorporate pedestrian crossing facilities in any event…” (City of Heidelberg business paper, 8 Feb, 1993). In subsequent developments, the Martins Lane intersection was substituted for Grantham Street.
I’ve heard tell that it used to be an unofficial policy at VicRoads to undertake remedial roadwork but to do so only after a road death had occurred. A bit like shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. The profusion of roundabouts and speed bumps at the northern end of Yallambie Road are something that was added after 1980 and only after the pedestrian death of a child on Yallambie Road near the Primary School. In those days Yallambie Road was a sort of alternative route to Eltham bound traffic on Greensborough Road. The 46 page “Yallambie Road Traffic Study” prepared by Nelson English, Loxton & Andrews for Heidelberg Council in 1982 reported that approximately a third of all traffic on Yallambie Road was through traffic and that up to 78% of traffic exceeded the then maximum 60 km/h speed limit with the highest speed recorded at 100km/h. The report also noted that the impending signalisation at both ends of Yallambie Road was expected to result in even more through traffic.
The decision three years later to extend Elonera Avenue, Yallambie in the City of Heidelberg through to Elder Street, Greensborough in the Shire of Diamond Valley as a part of the Daniel’s sub division opened up another access point into Yallambie, This time from Greensborough in the north. The Yallambie Community Association which was a then very active institution, strongly opposed this connection, but their collective voice remained carefully ignored by those who make the decisions. Once again the ad hoc solution has been to retrofit speed humps, this time along Elonera Avenue.
The folly of creating communities without satisfactory infrastructure is nothing new. What happened at Fishermen’s Bend in Port Melbourne is a case in point and is a classic example of what can happen when the profits of a few investors and developers are put ahead of the interests of the wider community. At Fishermen’s Bend, a few property developers, mostly with connections to the then Liberal State Government, became insanely wealthy overnight when the former industrial land they had invested in was rezoned with a stroke of a pen to allow multistorey apartment buildings. Some individuals made profits of over 500% on their investments but planning for residential infrastructure such as schools and roads was almost completely disregarded in the process, leaving taxpayers to pick up the tab at a later date. It has been described as a classic example of how not to develop land ear marked for urban renewal.
Sometimes it’s not about what you know but who you know along this highway of life. The Premier of Victoria at the time of the release of the 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan freeway blueprint was the legendary, late Sir Henry Bolte. Ol’ Henry reportedly enjoyed a tipple now and then but in March 1984, long after his retirement as Premier, Bolte suffered serious injuries when the car he was driving collided with another vehicle near his home. Surveys here and abroad have consistently reported that the majority of road accidents happen near our homes but in this case it was alleged at the time that Henry had been drink driving. In the end, charges were never laid after the police mysteriously “lost” the blood sample taken from the injured ex-Premier after his crash.
Bolte recovered but his legacy remains in the testament of the road network that he envisaged and that has been built right across greater Melbourne. Maybe one day we will all be travelling in driverless Tesla cars on this network, but the vote as far as it affects Banyule remains out.
Personally my money’s all on a future involving the Jetsons’ flying car.
Select sources: Heidelberg - The Land and Its People, D S Garden; The Diamond Valley Story, D H Edwards; The History of Our Roads, Maxwell Lay in The Heidelberg Historian, June 2005; Yallambie Road Traffic Study 1982, Nelson English, Loxton & Andrews; Yallambie Community Association papers; City of Heidelberg business paper, Feb 1993
From the hanging gardens in Babylon and the capabilities of the very capable Brown of Great Britain, garden fashions have come and gone like the seasons, to be remembered now like the weeds in a Bangay box hedge. 19th century Australia was no exception to this rule and in 1865, the English nurseryman John Gould Veitch wrote while visiting Victoria that there had grown up in the colony “a very decided spirit for the introduction of any novelty which may be likely to prove of use or ornament to the gardens of the colony.”
There were many novelties to distract Victorian gardeners but of all of them, it was the craze for collections of pine trees, or pinetums as they were sometimes known, that has left the greatest mark on our millennial landscape. We’ve all seen the presence or former presence of colonial homes marked in country Victoria by stands of tall conifers, sometimes long after the settlers and sometimes the homes themselves have vanished. Collecting conifers was for a while a fashion in 19th century Victoria and no garden of any consequence in the colony could be said to be ever truly complete without its own resident selection of trees.
“Floraville”, the Bakewells’ garden at Yallambee Park was already well established before this coniferous craze properly kicked off but Thomas Wragge, who adopted Yallambee in the 1860s and who purchased the property in 1872, appears to have been well placed to take over at least in spirit where the Bakewells maybe left off.
The background to this story has been shrouded by the passage of time but as mentioned in the previous post, the Yallambie identity “Old Harry” Ferne who lived on the river bank at Yallambie in the 1970s believed anecdotally that the pine trees that then surrounded his home were sourced from Victoria’s first Government Botanist and director of the Royal Botanic, Baron Ferdinand von Mueller. Winty Calder, writing in “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” repeats this legend but also speculates about the origins of the story, observing that:
“…von Mueller frequently gave seeds and plants to people. However, it is more likely that the Bakewells were the recipients of von Mueller’s plant material, during the period 1857-1873, than was Thomas. During those years von Mueller distributed many plants to public institutions and to private individuals, but he claimed in 1865 that ‘the distribution of plants to private gardens has been very limited and in reciprocation only’. Unfortunately the National Herbarium in Melbourne apparently now holds little of von Mueller’s correspondence with private individuals, such as Thomas Wragge or the Bakewells, or notes relating to associated exchange of plant material. But Thomas Wragge did gain possession of Yallambie two years before von Mueller ceased to be Director of the Botanic Gardens, even though he continued as Government Botanist. Before 1873, Thomas could have continued a plant exchange begun with the Bakewells, and it is not impossible that such an exchange might have continued for a few years after 1873…”
Even without a triplane, the “Green” Baron of Colonial Victoria certainly seems to have got around a bit. Public gardens were laid out at many goldfields centres with places like Ballarat, Bendigo, Castlemaine and Kyneton all receiving large numbers of trees and seeds for their Botanic Gardens from von Mueller. Indeed, a visit to a public garden in any reasonably sized town in country Victoria today will usually turn up at least a few trees with a claim to some sort of von Mueller provenance, with many of these trees being pines, araucarias or otherwise coniferous in nature.
Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, KCMG came to Australia in 1847, arriving in Victoria in 1851. In 1853, Lieutenant Governor Charles La Trobe appointed him to the newly created role of Victorian Government Botanist and from 1857 he was also the Director of Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens. Mueller travelled widely throughout Victoria on prolonged field trips and on just one jaunt into the hitherto unexplored Buffalo Mountains and Southern Gippsland, he covered 1500 miles and added 936 new species to the Victorian plant list.
From the very beginning of his directorship, (or should that read dictatorship), of the Gardens, von Mueller saw the Gardens as an important collecting and distribution centre for plants and seeds throughout the new colony. During the period 1857-8 alone, the record states that no fewer than 39 public institutions and 206 private applicants received plants from von Mueller’s department, with 7120 plants and 22,438 packets of seeds being distributed and 57 gardeners receiving live cuttings.
With these numbers in mind it seems to me very possible that von Mueller might well have supplied plant material to the Bakewells in the 1850s, possibly in a reciprocal exchange. The Bakewells had established their garden in the early 1840s and by the mid-1850s it was well established and in a good position to take part in such an exchange. Furthermore, from the first days of settlement, Robert Bakewell conducted the garden at Yallambee as an early and successful experiment in Victorian Acclimatisation, the colonial principles of which the Baron was a well-known and early active supporter.
Another point worth considering is that when it came to approach, plants were not the only thing von Mueller was known to cultivate. He cultivated working relationships with people of consequence and was often rewarded handsomely for it. Von Mueller collected titles throughout his life like they were going out of fashion with the “Sir”, “Baron” and the “von” parts of his name being all titles that were added to his name during his lifetime. Not only were the Bakewells well-connected by religious and familial ties to the Howitts and through them to the wider cultural elite of Melbourne, but “Yallambee Park” had been acknowledged within intellectual circles with several internationally publicized descriptions.
Edward Latrobe Bateman, whose association with the Station Plenty (Yallambee) has been recounted in considerable detail previously in these pages, is another contender for a Mueller connection at Yallambee. He had been described as a “splendid artist” by von Mueller and at the Intercolonial Exhibition of 1866 which Mueller helped arrange, Bateman decorated a Great Hall and a Rotunda. Significantly, Bateman also found considerable later success as a garden designer of both public and private gardens. Obviously these people were all moving within the same circles.
Thomas Wragge by contrast was a farmer and although he would in time achieve pastoral success and considerable economic wealth, it has not been suggested that he moved within the same creative or intellectual associations as Bateman, or of the Bakewells and Howitts.
At any rate, whatever the origins of the Yallambie tree scape and whether Wragge inherited the genesis of the collection from the Bakewells, it seems clear now that Thomas and his family enjoyed the trees as they reached maturity at the end of the 19th century and that they probably continued to add to it up to and into the 20th.
In the 19th century plant collectors achieved fame as they combed the continents in search of new pines and no gardener was considered worth his salt without an ability to provide his patron with a collection of at least some description.
At nearby Eaglemont, where elm trees were once saved at the expense of those in Yallambie, the forester William Ferguson planted a great pinetum, the largest in the colony, on the summit of “Mount Eagle” for J H Brooke as a prelude to a grand estate envisaged for that place. The first curator of the Geelong Botanic Gardens, Daniel Bunce visited in 1861 and recorded that “under the skilful management of his gardener Mr Ferguson”, Brooke had accumulated “the largest number of conifers of any establishment in the colony”. The house was never built and Ferguson left the project in 1863 with Brooke himself leaving for Japan four years later. However, in the 21st century at least some of Brooke’s trees remain, hidden away inside the private gardens of wealthy Eaglemont homes, proof of the enduring nature of the grown landscape and especially the legacy of 19th century pinetums.
At Yallambie the Bakewell/Wragge conifer collection survived well into the 20th century and its condition was intact enough to draw comment from Old Harry in the 1970s and 80s. Over the years many landscape reports and surveys were written identifying its importance, first by Heidelberg City Council and then, after 1994, by Banyule City Council. One of the first but certainly not the last of these reports “Plenty River & Banyule Creek” by Gerner Sanderson Faggetter Cheesman was published in October 1983 and noted that:
“The introduced species planted adjacent to the homestead, Yallambie, also require thoughtful management, not because of any problem they create, but rather because of their cultural importance. The planting here reflects past fashions of the Victorian era. Tall, dark foliage plants such as Pinus spp., Araucaria spp., planted quite randomly are all in fair condition…”
Old Harry had recently moved into a new home in Tarcoola Drive when that report was published but a few years later another report (previously quoted here) was delivered by Loder & Bayly, Marily McBriar, the recommendations of which in part read:
“An area which requires protection and sensitive management. Conservation of important historic plants, eg. conifers, and partial reconstruction of farm elements…”
More than 30 years later the value of these reports and others like them would seem to be only in the ongoing evidence they provide of what Council hasn’t managed to deliver over time. One by one and sometimes more than one the trees of the pinetum have gone to pot, collapsing sometimes in spectacular fashion. In the last 20 years alone I have by my own count seen more than a dozen of these trees vanish and, with the exception of the trees in a few private gardens, they have not been replaced.
All the same, the list of old plantings that remain today in Yallambie Park and within private gardens nearby still manages to read like some sort of pine growers’ plant catalogue. The list includes Araucaria bidwilli (Bunya Bunya Pine), Araucaria cunninghamii (Hoop Pine), Callitris glaucophyla (Murray River Cypress Pine), Cedrus deodara (Himalayan Cedar), Chamaecyparis funebris (Funeral Cypress), Cupressus lusitanica and Cupressus lusitanica glauca (Mexican Cypress), Cupressus macrocapa (Monterey Cypress), Cupressus sempervirens (Italian Cypress), Cupressus torulosa (Bhutan Cypress), Pinus canariensis (Canary Islands Pine), Pinus nigra var maritima (Black Pine), Pinus pinaster (Maritime Pine), Pinus pinea (Stone Pine) and Pinus radiata (Monterey Pine). As an exercise in botanical history, this list which was sourced from several of the more recent Banyule Council studies, is a tribute to the surprising longevity of some of these species at Yallambie and a memorial to the garden in which they once stood.
Garden fashions have come and gone and the popularity of pines within an Australian river environment long ago lost their allure. At Yallambie, in spite of the recommendations contained within numerous commissioned reports, exotic plantings have given way to a native landscape.
As if to follow this cue, vandals imposing their own agenda once attacked one of Robert Bakewell’s Cypresses on the river bank, leaving the tree in a shockingly ringbarked state. The tree took months to die in a process that was heartbreaking to watch. A similar end was suffered by the 400 year old “Separation Tree”, a River Red Gum in the Royal Botanic Gardens that suffered two ringbarking attacks before its final demise a couple of years ago, leaving garden lovers and history buffs equally appalled.
The late, lamented Separation Tree was already well over 200 years old when von Mueller began his directorship in 1857. In 1873 however, a year after Thomas Wragge completed his purchase of Yallambie, the Baron was summarily sacked from his position at the Gardens. It was felt within some quarters that von Mueller was more concerned with the science of plants than the business of creating a pleasure gardens for the leisured elite of Melbourne.
During his tenure Mueller had urged the establishment of a plantation of conifers at the Gardens, its purpose supposedly being to demonstrate the usefulness of the forestry industry to Victoria. Numerous trees remain from Mueller’s pinetum and can be found on the Garden’s Hopetoun and Hutingfield Lawns today but the humiliation of his situation was almost too much for a Baron to bear. After his dismissal legend has it that Mueller never again set foot inside the Gardens, pining like Adam outside the Gates of Eden.
The work of his replacement, Mueller’s protégé the young William Guilfoyle, is now mostly the landscape we see at the Royal Botanic Gardens today. After 1883 Guilfoyle remodelled Mueller’s pinetum, changing it from regimented avenues of trees to strategically placed specimens which survive in the Gardens today as signature trees. Von Mueller’s approach had gone out of fashion, his legacy dead seemingly like the Dodo.
Contemporary reports suggest that Von Mueller’s demise was the result of the lack of fountains and statues installed at the Gardens under his watch, the absence of which was keenly felt by the Melbourne masses who had a seemingly insatiable thirst for such things.
Ironically, if you step off the tan and into the gardens today, one of the first things you may see hidden behind the neighbouring shrubbery outside the National Herbarium of Victoria, is a small statue of the good Baron himself. It was installed there in 1984 to mark 150 years of settlement, its presence in the Gardens seemingly illustrating a point. When it comes to gardening, if you wait long enough, inevitably you reap what you sow.
The bees have made themselves at home behind the shingled walls of our verandah. On warm days the honey they make has been known to drip out onto the deck below, or even back into the ceiling inside the house where a stain on the plaster took several thousand licks of paint to conceal. Other than that though they don’t seem to be doing much real harm, and with the old verandah looking a bit shonky these days, it may be that honey is the only thing holding the whole humongous hotchpotch upright. With bees in trouble on several fronts, to my mind they might as well stay where they are. Our friends the bees are in need of all the help they can get.
You’ve probably heard that there’s something wrong with bees. They are on the decline worldwide with parasites, loss of habitat, pesticides and the mysterious colony collapse disorder held largely to blame, yet bees have been buzzing around this island earth since a time before the dinosaurs. As a motif they have long been used by man to symbolize industry and orderliness, yet on an evolutionary scale, it has taken us the mere blink of an eye to bring bees in this modern age to their bees’ bended knees.
The experimental film director Godfrey Reggio introduced the Native American word “Koyaanisqatsi” to popular culture in 1982. In the Hopi language it means “unbalanced life”, but in the more than three decades since, the situation Reggio described in film has not changed. All over Melbourne right now, developers are smashing up gardens for multiple occupancy dwellings, tearing up farm land for new suburbs, all the while cynically leaving here and there an occasional geriatric gum tree or token strip of park to appease the regulators. It’s not much chop for the people but it’s tantamount to a desert landscape for bees.
August was almond pollination season in the southern states of Australia. The two almond trees we have in our garden already have fruit on them, at least until the cockies cotton on to it, but in the natural order of things there are now many other plants following the almonds into flower. It highlights the importance of a diversity in flowering plants in the garden, an idea that has been promoted by bee activist and author, Doug Purdie, in books like “Backyard Bees”.
By contrast the monoculture farming techniques used up country creates Koyaanisqatsi of the highest order. These techniques offer bees rich sources of nectar for short periods, then nothing for the remainder of the year. Commercial production of almonds in the triangle between South Australia, NSW and north-west Victoria is a case in point and highlights the inherent dangers of these practices. It involves vast numbers of almond trees being grown artificially in a marginal landscape using lots of Murray River irrigation. Because there are few other trees in this area, truck-loads of bee hives are brought in from interstate every spring to assist in a pollination event which is is as surprising as it is unsustainable. Bees are brought from as far away as Queensland where worryingly a pest bee, the Asian Honey Bee, has recently been found. The Asian Honey Bee is believed to have been the original source of the parasitic mite, Varroa destructor which has caused so much damage to bee colonies around the planet. Australia remains one of the few places in the world where the destructor mite has not been seen but with the related Varroa jacobsoni already present on Asian honey bees around Townsville, the introduction of the destructor in the near future is now taken as a given. When that happens, it is farming practices like the almond pollination events of southern Australia that will make the spread of the mite across this island continent virtually unstoppable.
The European bee so familiar to our gardens was introduced to Australia in 1822 and in the nectar rich regions of our flowering eucalypt forests it soon became firmly established. It is the heavy work horse of the pollination world, a typical hive containing about 80,000 bees. Native bees, of which there are about 2000 varieties, are by comparison smaller, generally solitary and produce less honey. To the early settlers with their peculiar idea of finders keepers, this great southern land where little bits of Europe seemed so easily to reinvent itself must have seemed like a land flowing with proverbial milk and honey. In due course it had to be admitted that the keepers weren’t the finders after all but while the milk comes in suburban cartons these days, at Yallambie the second part of that flow equation can be thought of as being quite literally true.
Bees were probably kept in this area from the early days and in the second of the State Library’s c1856 daguerreotypes of Robert Bakewell’s garden, a rectangular shape in a lower corner may be evidence of a bee box positioned at that time on the Plenty River flats. If this interpretation could be proved to be correct, then in would put the Bakewells at the cutting edge of apiarist technology at that time since bee boxes with removable combs, as opposed to the more traditional skeps, were only perfected by Lorenzo Langstroth from an earlier design at the start of the 1850s.
Peter Barrett in “The Immigrant Bees”, (Springwood, 1995) quotes from Louisa Anne Meredith’s book “My Home in Tasmania” and uses her book as evidence of the Merediths’ bee keeping activities in Van Diemen’s Land in the 1840s. So the sight of bee boxes at Yallambee during Louisa’s 1856 visit would not, by association, seem to have been so out of place.
The Tembys kept bees during their tenure at Yallambie in the second half of the 20th century and a son of Ethel was still keeping bee boxes in Yallambie Park when we came to live here in the early 1990s. There were bees living inside a hollow oak in the Homestead garden at the time and I mentioned them to Ethel’s son, thinking they might be of use to him. “Yes, I can dispose of those feral bees,” he answered meaningfully. And so that was the end of that.
The bees are still in the oak and have now spread to an elm. They may have been the original source of the bees in our verandah. At this time of year the garden is literally buzzing with the busy little blighters. The Pride of Madeiras in our garden are in bloom and truly live up to their axiom, “the bee flowers”.
The above is about as good as I could manage with my simple point and shoot camera but it has been a good spring and there are plenty of other flowers in the garden around which the bees have been plying their trade. Some time ago my father in law turned up with a new lens on his camera and took the following series of photographs:
When seen up close in these pictures at a size not usually possible to our eyes, I like to wonder, ‘What goes on inside those little pin size heads?’ It’s all a question of scale and macro lens technology, but if you met one of these very alien looking little creatures up close, what sort of conversation might you have about their perspective on life? Do they know something we don’t know? Maybe you would find their space ships had been, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, “due to a terrible miscalculation of scale… accidentally swallowed by a small dog.”
Bees are known to forage up to 8km from their hives, even without their space ships, so the bees centrally located here at Yallambie are potentially now at work across the entire length and breadth of the City of Banyule. The Council doesn’t have any special planning laws restricting bee keeping in the community, providing all activities remain in accordance with the Apiary Code of Practice which requires the owner of hives to provide a nearby water source and also limits the number of hives and their location within urban environments. Bless them. I wonder if it insists on drinking straws for the bees as well?
Australia is a huge producer of honey and we actually produce more honey than our population of 23 million can consume. At the same time however we import honey into this country on a large scale. Australian honey is very pure and is therefore a valuable commodity on the world market. Not surprisingly therefore, cheap foreign honey is imported for the locals while the best home grown produce goes overseas. Ask any New Zealander about the cost of dairy produce in their country and you will hear a similar tale told.
For all of the problematic future facing our bees, they remain an integral part of the eco-system and the single most important link in our industrial food chain. All our crops are heavily reliant on their pollinating efforts but bees have been around a long time and over the passage of millennia have witnessed many changes. Whether they survive the current climate of change reflects on the ability of mankind itself to survive. So plant something flowering today and give the bees a helping hand. A world without bees would be quite simply a world without.
Did you ever spend your time at school, when you should have been paying attention, drawing pictures of little stick men in the margins of your geography book designed to spring to life when you flicked back the edges of the pages? The equivalent today I suspect of surreptitiously watching episodes of Family Guy on an iPhone under the edges of a school table.
The art of the moving picture was widely practised in Australia from the earliest days of cinema. In the early 20th century, Australian film in some respects rivalled the embryonic industry on the West Coast of the United States, very apt for a newly Federated Australia. In the century before, Australians had thought of themselves as Englishmen living abroad and spoke of going “home” to Great Britain. By Federation we were thinking of ourselves as first and foremost true blue “Aussies” but with our own special place within an Empire on which the sun never set. Historical drama with a local content was popular in Australia from the outset and the world’s first narrative feature film is believed to have been the 1906 “The Story of the Kelly Gang” which, pertinent to this story, was filmed at locations around the Heidelberg district, many of which would have been familiar to the residents of Yallambie at that time.
These included the property Charterisville, leased at that time as a dairy farm by the family of the producer’s wife and located today in Burke Rd North, Ivanhoe; the Rosanna Station railway siding, where scenes of Kelly’s “last stand” at Glenrowan were filmed; and at nearby locations in both Eltham and Greensborough, where additional scenes were made.
The film was a great success and made a fortune for its backers, sparking the outlaw as a subject of film genre and popular culture with the iron clad bushranger being subsequently portrayed on screen by a diverse range of alleged actors from the Australian Rules footballer Bob Chitty to Mick Jagger of rock and roll fame. In the words of the real Kelly as he faced the scaffold in 1880, “Such is life.”
The precise story of early film making in Australia is probably lost to history like the cellulose nitrate film stock on which it was recorded. It is known that Kooringarama Films shot a silent short feature in and around Eltham in 1928 called “Borrowed Plumes”. Kooringarama Films was an amateur company and followed up the following year with four reel, one hour feature, also shot in Eltham, called “As Ye Sow” which was shown to audiences in local halls around Melbourne with an incidental musical accompaniment delivered on a hand cranked gramophone.
Three decades later Tim Burstall, an Eltham resident whose wife taught French at Eltham High School, made his first short feature “The Prize”. It was shot using an old clockwork camera of the type used in battle in the first world war mounted on a 1930s tripod from an Antarctic expedition. It portrayed a boy wandering through the bush in search of a lost goat and most of the locations used were in the vicinity of Eltham. The film won a bronze medal at the Venice Film Festival of 1960 with Burstall later going on to play a principle and “Purple” part in the reinvention of the Australian film industry in the 1970s.
Locations in and around the Heidelberg district continue to be used today in both film and television. The 2006 Nickelodeon production “Charlotte’s Web”, used locations around Heidelberg Park which was transformed for the purpose of the screen to resemble a fair ground in the mid-west of the United States. Similarly, the final episode of Series II of the “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” saw the artist colony “Montsalvat” in Eltham portrayed as a property in the so called “Australian Alps”. In the event and after the addition of a few dodgy special effects, that hang out looked oddly enough more like a castle hideaway in the Swiss Alps. A sort of Monsalvat on the Matterhorn.
The process is not without the potential for problems all the same with the owners of a home featured in the 2013 movie “The Conjuring” reportedly suing Warner Bros for an unspecified amount over trespassers coming up to their home as a result of the film’s popularity.
Most recently in Heidelberg, Banyule Homestead has been seen in great detail on the small screen in Shaun Micallef’s amusing “The Ex-PM”, (which also features scenes shot in the surrounding area including one from the opening episode shot on Greensborough Rd, Watsonia), while Napier Waller’s Fairy Hills property continues to be portrayed as the Ballarat home and surgery of the titular character in the returning series, “The Doctor Blake Mysteries”. As ownership of Banyule Homestead changed hands a few months ago and the Waller home enjoys a peculiar rates agreement with local Council, perhaps the publicity isn’t seen as a problem at those properties.
Everyone with a camcorder or even an iPhone can be a film maker of sorts these days although, previously, home movies were limited to the lens sharpness and the sometime dubious technical skills of those fortunate enough to own 16mm or 8mm movie cameras. Yallambie itself was captured on film in a fascinating and previously discussed flick of this sort in the late 1950s, before the subdivision of the estate and while it was still operating as a farm. The 20 minutes of silent, 16mm colour moving picture was shot by Peter Basset-Smith, a professional film maker and friend of the of the last descendants of Thomas Wragge to live at Yallambie.
Bassett-Smith’s film stands alone today as a fascinating tribute to that now vanished era. A few years ago a former singing chum of my wife contacted us out of the blue with news that she had embarked on a career herself in film making. In fact, she was in the process of co-producing a low budget horror film with her son for which development was well underway. She too had been to Montsalvat to enquire about using that property as a location but was disappointed to learn that the fee asked by the trustees was almost more than her whole production budget.
“Hmmm, a horror story you say? I know just the place. It’s not quite Montsalvat or the Matterhorn but will suit your needs.”
So it was that the production crew came to Yallambie as our guests and spent a couple of days on location in the our garden shooting scenes for the movie “Killervision”, (21 Black Entertainment, 2014). It was great fun to be an observer of the process and I soon perceived the possibilities of the creative, almost addictive buzz that is a part of the film making business.
Some of the action filmed at Yallambie required one of the actors to run through the garden screaming at the top of his lungs brandishing an ugly piece of 4 by 2, (in reality a lump of balsa wood). I wondered, probably too late, what the neighbours might think about this blood curdling racket and was rather perturbed at one point to hear police sirens in the distance. When those sirens came nearer and were obviously proceeding down Yallambie Rd I started to feel really concerned. I was standing next to a car at the time belonging to a member of the film crew and could see a set of (prosthetic) severed fingers oozing fake blood which had been left on the dash board. ‘How would I explain this to the cops?’ Thankfully it was a false alarm as the sirens proceeded further afield. Maybe the hamburgers from Maccas on Lower Plenty Rd were in danger of getting cold on their way back to the station.
The movie, “Killervision” was eventually finished and sold to an international film distributor. The credit cards used were balanced and the actors were paid. We received a complimentary DVD copy of the movie and it was with amusement that I saw while viewing it later that the exterior of the Homestead appears very briefly and out of focus on screen where it is described as being a facility for the mentally disturbed.
In a world being rapidly changed by the advent of new technologies, the art of the moving picture is no exception. Local cinemas were once to be found in many suburban venues around Melbourne but the multiplex venue has largely seen their demise. The Were Street, or Rotex Cinema in Montmorency with its purple curtains was one that I remember as a lad but there were earlier venues in both Burgundy St, Heidelberg and Upper Heidelberg Rd, Ivanhoe. A changing industry almost saw the death of the Australian film industry and certainly the closure of most independent suburban cinemas but a modern Renaissance, supported in large measure by Federal Government tax breaks, has seen the trend reversed. Hugo Weaving who has appeared in many Australian films of this later era as well as several international blockbusters was quoted from ABC television last week, saying that:
“This is a golden era of film-making in this country, we just don’t know that. I’ve been saying that for ages. I think our films are getting better and better, we [Australians] are just not going to see them.” (One Plus One, ABC TV)
Ol’ Elrond himself believes that the problem is basically selling the idea of Australia to a local market:
“We have an industry which is so slanted towards American films that it’s very, very hard for Australian films to get a look in.”
It’s known as the “cultural cringe” and the problem is not a new one. The film makers involved in the “The Story of the Kelly Gang” in 1906 only realized the contribution to cinematic history they had made long after the fact, when it seems several of them jockeyed for credit of the initial concept.
On release of the 1959 Hollywood movie “On The Beach”, an American film that was shot in and around Melbourne about a world destroyed by nuclear holocaust, Ava Gardner is supposed to have said that Melbourne was “the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world.”
The story is almost certainly apocryphal. The quote appears to have been written by a Sydney journalist struggling to make deadline but it does illustrate all the same a very real and enduring inferiority complex that has always been a part of our way of looking at ourselves in this country. Meanwhile the Australian film industry continues to acquit itself on the global stage and not just with the export of Australian acting talent overseas. It has been said that to be born an Australian is to win the prize in the lottery of life. They call this the Lucky Country. It’s a pity we haven’t quite noticed it.
In Douglas Adams “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”, the hitch hiking alien names himself after a motor car, believing it to be a safely inconspicuous nom de plume while visiting planet Earth after erroneously misidentifying the dominant life form of our world. Look at any Melbourne road at peak hour these days and you might forgive the alien his misconception. In the words of a recently defunct Federal Treasurer, “poor people don’t drive cars” but if that were true, then judging by the traffic on Greensborough Rd these days, we Melbournians must be an entirely wealthy lot.
Last November in the process of writing about the one-time site of the Plenty Bridge Hotel, formerly located across the river from Yallambie at Lower Plenty and removed at the end of the 1950s, I made the rather farfetched yet hopeful suggestion that the old hotel might be reconstructed on vacant ground adjacent to a new housing development at Edward Willis Court.
Ten months on and there is activity all aplenty down on the Plenty, but not the sort I necessarily envisaged when writing that post. You see, what’s being built over at the Lower Plenty site right now is no piece of resurrected local history but a car park. As we all know, the world needs more car parks. We need them like music needs more cow bells.
When I saw the tractors trundle out onto the former location of the Plenty Bridge Hotel at the start of last month, I initially deluded myself that this might be the harbinger of better things to come.
Across the road, on the corner of Para and Main Roads, a newly installed public sculpture hinted at community pride while a notice in one shop window asked for public help developing a display describing Lower Plenty history.
Plans are even afoot to redevelop the former Ampol service station site as a franchise store of a certain large, German supermarket chain. An exercise in urban renewal I guess. So when I need a litre of milk in the future it will be handy to know that I’ll also be able to pick up a pair of snow shoes locally while I’m at it, just perfect for the next time we have a blizzard.
So it came as a bit of a shock to watch the tractors roll right across the site of the Plenty Bridge Hotel, grading its story into the dust once and for all time. The process even involved the destruction of the last Lombardy poplar on the site, a tree that is visible in nearly every old picture of the Plenty Bridge Hotel and the survival of which orienteered the casual passerby with an eye for history to the original location of the building.
Possibly the new car park will be a very nice car park, as car parks go. Adams’ hitchhiker might even feel at home. It appears that the Lower Plenty Hotel applied for planning approval to develop the area as a lower level car park for their hotel patrons as early as October, 2010. This was authorised by Banyule Council in May the following year with amendments in July, 2012. By 2015 work had not commenced on the project and Council refused to allow an extension to the permit. However this was over ruled on appeal at VCAT with work finally commencing about two months ago. Responding to my enquiry, an officer at the Department of Planning at Banyule Council informed me that the status of the Lombardy poplar as an “environmental weed” meant that it would not have been protected by the ”Significant Landscape and Environmental Significance Overlay controls which affect the site”, whatever that statement might mean. The poplar was on the periphery of the development and not intrusive. Its removal was unnecessary and however it’s dressed up, from the perspective of historical significance, it strikes me as misguided.
Next month I note that, as a part of the Royal Historical Society History Week, a representative from Banyule Council is booked to lecture at the Watsonia Public Library about the importance of the Significant Trees and Vegetation Register. Yes, there really is a register and a number of the trees at Yallambie within both public space and on private land are on it. What this actually means in practice I would be interested to learn. At Yallambie in the last few years we have seen a century old Hoop Pine and similarly aged Irish Strawberry removed from private gardens. Add these to the disappearance of the Pre-phylloxera grape vine in Yallambie Park and the demise of assorted Italian Cypresses and the old stand of English elms and it is easy to see a pattern developing.
The Yallambie Hoop Pine referred to above was destroyed ostensibly because of the potential damage its root system might do to the drive way of the private home it flanked, although the needs of cars in this city are nothing new. The recent state election was largely fought as a referendum between the freeway and public transport lobbies but it is a debate that has been going on much longer than that. The very first “self-propelled” vehicles of the 19th century were required to be led by a pedestrian waving a red flag or carrying a lantern to warn bystanders of the vehicle’s approach. The F18 Freeway, the so called missing link in Melbourne’s road network and designed to connect traffic on the Western Ring Rd with the Eastern Freeway, is still mentioned every time traffic on Greensborough Rd grinds to a standstill. That battle was fought in the 1970s and won by the anti-freeway lobby. Today it is discussed in the terms of a tunnel under Banyule.
Cars might be a fact of life but what would aliens really think if they happened to drop by and observed the precedence we give to them? In 1960, Lucerne Farm, the former home of Thomas Wills at the confluence of the Darebin Creek and Yarra River, was demolished to make space for a car park for the La Trobe Golf Club. Thomas Wills had been the first owner of the land that became Yallambie. He purchased it in 1836 from the Crown (nobody asked the Wurundjeri what they thought of this) and held onto it for only a few months before selling it to Thomas Walker at a profit. He would have done well in the real estate trade of the 21st century.
More recently, on the corner of Yallambie and Lower Plenty Roads, an assembly hall was built by an evangelical church. Even before the building was finished a car park went in across the site, obliterating in the process the remnant features of a dam which had survived there from the farming era up to that point. An old weeping willow was fortunately retained and it survives on the corner to this day, despite having earlier lost approximately one half of its canopy when Lower Plenty Rd was widened 20 years ago.
So where do cars fit in with life in a capital city of the 21st century living under the looming threat of Peak Oil? Many people are defined by their cars and cannot envisage a life characterised without them. I’m fast approaching that time in life when a man is supposed to go out and purchase a Harley Davidson in vain glorious pursuit of youth, but when our son recently asked which vehicle would I replace our 16 year old Japanese car with if I had the choice, I replied, “A Morris Minor.” I think he was hoping I would say a Lamborghini.
The Morris or so called “Noddy” car was the first car I ever owned and came with me when I moved to Yallambie. It sat out in the open in front of Thomas Wragge’s old brick garage for years, gradually rusting into venerable retirement. I let it go eventually, fearful that if I left it there much longer it would eventually become a roost for chickens. Observing it leave Yallambie for the last time on the back of a trailer was like watching the days of my youth driving off out of my life. The inclination to one day own such a car again proves I’m really not so different to the next man.
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”.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
No. 5 is a dark, cool pool, criss-crossed by trees, that watch it as lovers do a woman’s eye.
No. 6 is a cave, that, used for a garden-house, is hollowed out under the brow of the hill.
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.
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.
No. 9 is another view of the pool, where some black Narcissus may have drowned himself or his gins.
No. 10 is the verandah and sheltering trees;
No. 11 the river, with its wild and grassy banks; and
No. 12 is the house, with the cattle feeding in battalions, and the pigeons in a white cloud wheeling round the stable roofs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
In the previous post, Lady Betty Lush remembered her childhood visits to the Yallambie Homestead:
“I also loved to be allowed to wander in the garden under the tall pine trees and around the river. It seemed to me a dream garden…”
Travelling around the suburb of Yallambie today it is sometimes hard to reconcile those impressions with the reality of life in a modern city. In 1959 when Nancy and Cliff Bush prepared to leave their farm at Yallambie after a century of occupation by the Wragge family, they commissioned a film maker and family friend, Peter Bassett-Smith to make a 16mm film as a record of the property before it was consumed by the proposed A V Jennings housing development. That film is now housed at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra after its owner, Bill Bush donated it to the library. As a testimony to a farm in close proximity to a capital city in Australia in the middle part of the 20th century, it is a fascinating picture. The scenes of rolling green fields, mature tree lined drives and gardens, the dams filled with water, and the solid, old homestead with its c1840 stable block are a glimpse into a golden, nostalgic world of which only a remnant has survived to the present day.
When surveyed at the start of the 1960s, the A V Jennings plan for the subdivision of Yallambie cut through the house garden. Pegs observed close to the Homestead at that time suggest that Jennings also contemplated the demolition of the c1870 farm house.
After construction, Tarcoola Drive cut through the house paddock and Lambruk Court opposite the Homestead crossed the site of the old stockyards and loading ramps. A V Jennings auctioned the first blocks of land at Yallambie in September, 1966 for an average price of £4118. From 1974, after the Victorian Government Gazette published its approval, the new suburb was officially listed as “Yallambie”, within the City of Heidelberg (now City of Banyule). Today it is home to a resident population of several thousand people, many of whom are probably unaware of its earlier history. For them and for any others who might be interested to see the beauty of a now vanished farming era, here is that film:
Sometime in the 1980s in the last decade of the “Cold War”, there was a tall graffiti on a bus stop in Greensborough Rd outside the entrance to the Watsonia Military Camp. “U2” it proclaimed in large letters of carefully drawn sans serif. It was there for a long time, homage to a rock band from Ireland, without deference to the base beyond or to American spy planes flying thickly in the blue skies up above.
Travelling quickly past, the army barracks in Heidelberg’s north wasn’t something we thought about much, unless while turning the pages of a Neville Shute book on the beach on the Mornington Peninsula in the summer holidays. There was some expectation that suburbia would someday obliterate the barracks, if the Cold War Ruskies didn’t manage it first, as agrarian land has never been able to co-exist for long in Melbourne without someone, somewhere wanting to come along and put a housing estate on it. And there were several hundred acres of it enclosing the Watsonia Camp.
The thing is, the “Watsonia Army Barracks” as we called it wasn’t actually in Watsonia. A Commonwealth reserve, the land the camp occupies has habitually been a geographic part of Yallambie, separated from neighbouring Watsonia and Macleod by the Greensborough Hwy and the western end of Yallambie Rd. Known simply as the Simpson Barracks after 1986, not after the Private soldier with the donkey (who incidentally was not a Simpson but a Kirkpatrick), but after a World War II Army brass hat, its official address is Mackay Rd, Yallambie and it occupies what was in the 19th century the western most portion of the Yallambie estate.
When Thomas Wragge died in 1910 his 604 acre Heidelberg property, Yallambie Park, passed to his wife Sarah Ann (less one acre bequeathed to the Church of England) and upon her death five years later, to three of their surviving children, Sarah Annie Murdoch, (ne Wragge) and her brothers Syd and Harry, with a another brother sharing equally from the income.
Between 1920 and 1921, Annie, Syd and Harry agreed to divide the Yallambie estate between them. While the two men received a larger share of the land, Annie took the homestead with 109 acres, including the gardens and the prime alluvial river flats on the western banks of the Plenty River. Syd and Harry both received 247 acres.
Syd leased his brother’s share and with the two portions he and his wife, Grace, developed a farm on the western most part of Yallambie. They named the enterprise “Tulla” after the Wragge family’s famous Riverina sheep station. Syd’s daughter, Lady Betty Lush, (ne Wragge) would later recall her father’s Blanding Castle style farming activities with the following description chronicled by Winty Calder in her book, “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”:
“We built a weekend house on the highest ridge and bought and moved from nearby another house for the manager. Stockyards, fowl pens, stables and cow bails were erected and we went into farming in a small way. In my father’s lifetime we kept bees, fowls, had horses out on agistment in the paddocks but most profitable of all were some middle Yorkshire pigs. These if not a financial success, and it has been said most of my father’s ventures were not a financial success, were definitely a breeding success as one boar ‘Tulla Laird’ (we called the farm Tulla) was champion pig for three years at the Royal Melbourne Show…”
Betty also remembered with fondness her visits to the Yallambie Homestead in the 1920s, by then occupied solely by her Aunt Sarah Annie and Uncle Walter Murdoch and their daughter, her cousin, Nancy. By the early 20th century the garden planted by the Bakewell brothers and Thomas Wragge had reached its maturity and fully justified its nomenclature, Yallambie Park.
“As a small child I can well remember our trips out to Heidelberg every Sunday afternoon, wet or fine, to supervise the running of the farm, first father then mother, and our weekend visits and Easter vacations spent there. On these longer visits one or all of us were invited always for some reason to Yallambie, very often for dinner and the evening. I loved these visits even though nearly always in the early years I would fall asleep with a book by the billiard room fire while the older ones played a game or so after dinner. Often I would ride down there with a message, only too glad of an excuse to go there. Auntie Annie was always very generous and seemed pleased to see us, and I had what was then known as a “crush” on Nancy. I also loved to be allowed to wander in the garden under the tall pine trees and around the river. It seemed to me a dream garden…”
Betty’s father, Syd Wragge, died prematurely in 1927 aged only 53. His widow Grace initially continued running their Heidelberg farm as a dairy but due to the poor soils on the remote heights located away from the Plenty River flood plain, (Richard Howitt’s “vast and sterile stringy-bark forests” of 1841), and the fact that artificial fertilisers were not used, it was never a great success. In 1934 she decided to sell her 247 acres for £10,000 to Ainslie Meares, a family friend and relation of the wife of a cousin, Jim (JP) Hearn.
Ainslie Dixon Meares (1910-1986) was born in Melbourne and after graduating in medicine from Melbourne University, practiced in the field of psychiatry. He pioneered the concept of therapeutic meditation and wrote many books on the subject on his way to becoming arguably Australia’s most distinguished, certainly its best known and most flamboyant, psychiatrist.
Meares employed the architect Lesley Forsyth, renowned for his Neo-Tudor houses, to design a two storey brick residence. It was built in 1936 on the high ground that had earlier been selected by Syd Wragge for his dairy farm. Ainslie Meares and his wife Bonnie (ne Byrne) named their house “Aldermaston” after the village in the UK where the couple had spent their honeymoon two years earlier. It was constructed in the style of an English country house at an estimated cost of £7000 and featured a turreted castle tower, steeply graded slate roofs and crisp, white French windows. Its blend of Art Deco and Gothic constructional ideas, together with its sweeping views of Mt Dandenong and the Plenty Ranges was a remarkable architectural realization. A contemporary newspaper report described the finished building:
The circular wooden staircase lies in a rounded turret and leads to the balcony, which surrounds the central hall… all the main rooms open from this spacious hall, which is panelled with Queensland maple … opening from the left hand side of the hall with folding doors is the long, light sitting room at the end of which a tall bay window is carried from ceiling to floor …directly opposite is the dining-room. One of the most attractive rooms in the house is the study, which is octagonal and is panelled with Queensland maple to match the hall. This delightful room has windows on three sides and a door opening to the garden from a fourth …a breakfast room corresponding in shape and size opens from the opposite corner of the hall, and leads to the kitchen and servants’ quarters which are in a separate self-contained wing.
Ainslie’s brother is reported to have lived in a house on another ridge in the district and the two properties were within sight of each other. Many years later Meares wrote about the inspiration for the design of Aldermaston:
“The old home in which I had been brought up was of unusual design with a central hall going up to the full height of the two storeys. We often try to relive our childhood fancies in later life, and I drew a plan for a house on this principle. I gave these ideas to the architect Mr Les Forsyth, and he designed the details and supervised the building”.
Aldermaston was rated with an A1 grading by Graeme Butler in his 1985, “Heidelberg Conservation Study, Part 1” which contained the following glowing citation:
“Built in the Neo-Tudor style, so favoured in Heidelberg. Aldermaston is perhaps the biggest and the best, showing an extension of the eclectic style to suit the modern concept of massing. Clinker face brickwork, steep overlapping slated gabled roofs and multi-paned shuttered windows are the components of the style, whilst the curved driveway, with main and service entrances spaced along its length, illustrates a design for facility on a grand scale. Internally, the two levels of the house are carried through to overlook a vast two level space, in the Great Hall manner, with the lacquered veneered panelling, large fireplace, and gallery which communicates with the upper level rooms. The garden has basically survived and is an important part of the hillside setting. This is an outstanding and original house of the Neo-Tudor style and the former first marital home of Australia’s most renowned psychiatrist, Dr Ainslie Meares. The building is of state importance, architecturally and historically.”
In 2011, the Banyule Heritage Review recommended the house for inclusion on the Commonwealth Heritage List.
The Meares lived at Aldermaston for only a brief time in the 1930s before the Army requisitioned the property for training purposes. With the threat of war looming, the adjacent land to the north of the property was developed as an Army training ground and included administrative staff, reception and transit camps for the troops. The area was given the official title of “Camp Q”, but soon became known, somewhat inaccurately, as simply the “Watsonia Barracks”.
In 1941 the Army formally purchased a part of the property and the Meares home was turned into a training hospital for the duration. By that time, Ainslie Meares had enlisted in the Army as a doctor with the rank of Captain. On at least one occasion during those years, Captain Meares, like Evelyn Waugh’s fictional Captain in “Brideshead Revisited”, found himself billeted in Army barracks at the Camp while senior officers were living in the comfort of the manor house.
With victory in World War II, the “Watsonia Barracks” began to wind down and by 1946 it was practically deserted. Between 1946 and 1951 the old Army Nissan huts were being used by the Victorian Government as makeshift housing. Some were removed and were to find new life in other uses, such as meeting halls for Scout troops in the district.
Dr Ainslie and Bonnie Meares returned to Aldermaston Manor but in 1951 they vacated the house again and sold the remaining part of their property to the Army which had decided to extend the Watsonia Camp. At the time there was an expectation that the Army would also purchase the Yallambie Homestead, its gardens and river side farmland. Sarah Annie Murdoch had died in 1949 and the remaining Wragge property at Yallambie had passed to her daughter, Nancy. A preliminary approach was made to Nancy and her husband, Cliff Bush.
“About 1954, the Federal Government put Nancy under considerable pressure to sell her property for extension of the Watsonia Military Camp. She opposed the resumption, but invited Mr Francis, Minister for the Army, to visit her at Yallambie. The entertainment she provided included good food and a Henry Clay cigar, out of which a silverfish popped. Whether for that or for some other reason, the government dropped its plans to compulsorily acquire Yallambie.”
(Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, Winty Calder, Jimaringle Press, 1996).
The Army’s collective “nyet” meant that after 1951 the Camp did not expand beyond its existing boundaries. Nancy retained her Yallambie property but at the end of the decade, after a century of occupation by the Wragge family, she sold it to the real estate developer A. V. Jennings which developed the Yallambie housing estate there after 1966.
Meares’ Aldermaston House remained largely immune from advancing suburbia and was utilised as a residence by the Army’s Victorian Military District commander in the 1970s. Since 1984 it has been the HQ for the Defence Force School of Music where the crashing of cymbals can no doubt be heard mixed in with the laughter of the kookaburras.
In 1991 the Commonwealth declared about 120 acres (50 hectares) of the Simpson Barracks, surplus to Army requirements and sold it to the Defence Housing Authority. The “Pioneer Property Group” entered into a joint venture with the Authority and developed about 500 house lots on the land which was dubbed “Streeton Views” estate at Yallambie. Arthur Streeton had been an official artist in the Great War but I expect it was his earlier Heidelberg School paintings and not his visions of war torn France that the developers had in mind when imagining the Yallambie project.
As housing estates go, the Streeton Views exercise was handled with some degree of sensitivity. A grassy common intended to reflect the style of the nearby Meares house and ornamental lakes fashioned from levees banks bordering Lower Plenty Rd were significant features. John Hawker, horticulturalist with Heritage Victoria, was retained to provide advice on preserving a number of significant, pre settlement native trees within the development. The estate won the 1994 Housing Industry Award for best medium density development and the 1996 Urban Design Institute of Australia Award for Best Estate over 200 lots nationwide.
A recent Armed Services audit of assets at Yallambie is rumoured to have attached a staggering one hundred million dollar price tag on the remaining Army land at the Simpson Barracks, but Mum’s the word, Mr Hockey. The Army has been spending millions on building programmes inside the Simpson Barracks and on security upgrades to the entry points. New gatehouses, due to be completed in June, are being constructed at the main entrance on Greensborough Rd and on the Yallambie Rd entry points.
I saw inside Aldermaston in 2009 while on a tour arranged by the Heidelberg Historical Society but photography was forbidden at that time. Late last month, for the purpose of illustrating this post, I went up to the barracks with the intention of photographing Aldermaston from public stomping ground outside the fence. After a conversation with the guards at the nearby gatehouse that included a discussion about the relative merits of the art of photography around a secure military base, I put my post 9/11 camera away and didn’t get much of a picture I’m afraid.
Thinking about what became of Meares’ home, the greatest distinction of Aldermaston House remains its superlative setting on the highest ground in Yallambie and, thanks to the Army, this has never been built out. The occasional fly over by Army helicopters and loosened roof slates is the price we pay in this suburb for having that extra slice of green swath down the road.
It’s an irony that in a world that can no longer afford the environmental destructions caused by military conflicts, it is the Army that has done much to develop a land management strategy at Yallambie. Indigenous trees have been replanted, stands of River Red Gums regenerated and the Yallambie Creek that runs through the Base has been stabilised and overplanted, a boon for wildlife. Driving past on a Saturday morning a few weeks ago the Army woodland bordering Yallambie Rd was brim full of kangaroos. Captain Kangaroo, the all new recruit, perhaps?
The pressures that suburban development can bring can be illustrated by a brief mention of the story of the Plenty Gorge Park upriver from Yallambie. The first proposal for a Park in the Gorge came in the Melbourne Planning Scheme of 1928 however nothing was done until suburban development reached the area in the 1970s and 80s. A community action group, the “Friends of the Plenty Gorge, Inc” was formed in 1987 with the stated aim of extending the Plenty Gorge Park into the southern fringes of the Gorge environment. Irreconcilable differences within the group emerged when land owners bordering the Gorge around Janefield in the south, many of whom had previously maintained the area and thought themselves best qualified to do so, found themselves at loggerheads with environmentalists who favoured a wider strategy. The group effectively disintegrated soon after the southern boundaries of the Park, which placed urban development in close proximity to the Gorge bushland, were declared.
“The debate that tore apart Friends of the Plenty Gorge in many ways reflected debate occurring in the wider society regarding private and public ownership of assets.”
(A Story in Landscape, Gerry Closs, The Australian Experience in the Plenty Valley, Plenty Valley Papers, vol 2, 1996.)
Travel anywhere around Melbourne these days and you will find open land is now at a premium. In most suburbs temporary fencing surrounds building projects, very often where houses have been demolished on larger blocks to make way for the multiple unit constructions that seem to be forever popping up like mushrooms. Big Ears might be happy to live in a mushroom but somebody is certainly getting wealthy on the strength of it. A newspaper report last month suggested that “developers are making apartments smaller and smaller because it supercharges their profits.” (The Age, 19 March, 2015). Look at the following link to see what the 70 years since the end of World War II have done to Melbourne and its suburbs.
Where will we be in another 70 years? It is a frightening fact that the Chinese used more greenhouse gas producing concrete in three years from 2011 than the United States used throughout the entire course of the previous one hundred years. As Paul Gilding so eloquently explained, “The Earth is Full” and we’re not about to get another one to replace it. There’s a war going on out in the suburbs and this one doesn’t involve the Army. Dr Meares treated returned servicemen suffering from the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress after the War but today it is modern living that is creating victims and people are both its culprits and casualties. Apartment living and the fashion for smaller house blocks might answer the needs of an expanding metropolis but they deny people the health giving benefits in both a physical and spiritual sense of managing a garden.
I was driving with my son yesterday and he pointed at the slogan that can be seen on the number plates of most, late model cars — VICTORIA THE PLACE TO BE.
“What does that mean?” he said.
“Dunno, not New South Wales I suppose. I remember when the plates used to say — THE GARDEN STATE.”
Former State Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett has appeared on television recently and written in the press, proclaiming the health giving benefits of gardening. “I know from experience that gardening is a great antidote to stress and anxiety”, (Herald Sun, 4 March, 2015). Loved and loathed by Victorians in equal measure, Jeff was a controversial figure in political office but since leaving government he has undergone something of a transformation. His work for the mental health organization, Beyond Blue is well known but Jeff claims that it is his garden that gives his life the balance that it needs on a day to day basis and that moreover, Beyond Blue is the most important work he has ever done. It’s an idea that I think would have left old Dr Meares chuffed.