Tag Archives: Eltham

Trash & Treasure

I’ve heard it said that one man’s treasure can be another man’s trash. As I look around  at our tumble down house built in another time and in answer to the needs of another era, I can say it comes as hardly any surprise. As an idea, it’s scarcely novel.

Photograph taken with the old Kodak during a fishing trip to the Mitta Mitta River in the 1950s.

I remember my father having an old folding Autographic Kodak with a lens that popped out on the end of a bellows and with a little silver pointed scribe which could be used to write directly onto the film. As a child I was fascinated by the mechanics of the object, especially the possibilities of that pencil, but it was only later when I was at art school and getting briefly interested in photography that I thought more about it. With access to a dark room I started wondering what sort of a picture such a camera might be capable of producing in the modern era.

When I asked my father his reply was to the point.

“Oh that. I couldn’t get the film for it anymore so I threw it into the rubbish.”

“What!”

“Oh, never mind that. It was old when I got it. I bought it from a man in a pub you know. By Jove, though,” he paused. He used to talk like that. “Do you think it was hot?”

“No, not really?”

Thus ended in the Pater’s belated realization of his role as a fence, any possibility of a foray into a world of experimental art photography.

My wife’s parents have always had a good appreciation of period style and my father in law in particular has a collection of interesting if now entirely obsolete cameras. At one time he even had his own dark room but, as a freelance commercial artist, that was probably a necessity of business. The reality is, the older they have grown the more modern their tastes have become, a trend in which they are not alone. Just go mid-week to any second hand auction house to see the low prices these sales generate, a by-product of the Marie Kondo led minimalism craze and the dictates of Instagram fashion. It’s a fad but one that overlooks the fact that the old product is generally better made, lasts longer and is sometimes more aesthetically pleasing than a modern day equivalent. Pauline Morrissey calls the trend “fast furniture” and puts it into the same realm as fast food and fast fashion.

Singer of an occasional lunatic tune.

The cuckoo clock that hangs over this table for instance and which offers the occasional lunatic tune on the half hour as I type is one example. It keeps pretty good time and makes more of a contribution to family life here than an equivalent digital device. It was rescued from a rubbish pile one day in need of new bellows and replacement weights. Dusted down and rejuvenated, our feathered friend continues to make a fitting and regular Laurel and Hardy commentary on the unstated, state of the union.

Skipper’s mandala

So it was no surprise after a recent visit to her parents that my wife returned with another discarded object tucked under her arm.

“It’s a mandala,” she said holding up a bent and rusted object for me to inspect. “Apparently my parents got it from Matcham Skipper at Montsalvat back in the day. Mum and Dad threw it away in the garden but it’s going to be bolted onto that wall over there.”

I looked at it with interest. I’d seen similar things before on suburban homes of a certain age. Many have a sort of Brutalist honesty in form and the rust this example had collected in the garden only seemed to add to the shadows cast by the afternoon light onto the indicated wall. It concealed a story of potentialities. Apparently my wife’s grandmother had taken her father out to Justus Jörgensen’s Montsalvat in Eltham when his family re-emigrated from England as £10 Poms after the War. He was only a kid but he already wanted to be an artist. For some reason or other and in spite of her strict Baptist upbringing, Nan took her son over to Montsalvat where Matcham’s sister, Helen gave them a tour of the buildings many of which were still in the construction phase.

“Nan took one look at all those “Bohemians” and their libertine lifestyle and couldn’t get Dad out of there quick enough. She eventually found him an apprenticeship at Colour Gravure but imagine if he had been allowed to stay.”

“Yes, he might have missed out on a spectacular career as a commercial artist where he reached the top of his profession and instead learned how to mix concrete and spit rocks for Justus Jörgensen.”

Building project at Montsalvat c1939-45. (Picture by Albert Tucker, from the Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria)
The Great Hall at Montsalvat under construction c1939-45. (Picture by Albert Tucker, from the Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria)

The story of Justus Jörgensen’s artists’ colony at Montsalvat is well known. It is Australia’s oldest artist colony and is famous for being constructed by the artists themselves from cast off materials scavenged from places all across Melbourne. It’s a principle that seems to have extended into the production of art as for most of his life Matcham Skipper, 1921-2011, as one of the principle artists in residence at Montsalvat, was a keen advocate of the concept of “art in the found object”.

A young Matcham Skipper photographed at Montsalvat, c1939-45. (Picture by Albert Tucker, from the Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria)

One of Justus’ sons, Sigmund Jörgensen who died earlier this year wrote of the Matcham method:

“He loved the stuff and, given the opportunity, would have filled the whole of Montsalvat under metres of his junk. To Matcham, it was inspirational… each piece containing an inspired thought of what he might do with it when he had the time.” (Sigmund Jörgensen, “Montsalvat”, 2014, Allen & Unwin)

Everyone remembers Matcham Skipper today for his exquisitely fine jewellery but that was only one side of what was in essence a multi-faceted career. Sculptor, jeweller, ironworker, photographer and builder of dreams, in his lifetime Matcham Skipper would turn his hand to many things. Mandalas could be described as an eastern sort of cosmic diagram of the infinite world which extends beyond our vision and Skipper borrowed from the concept, using off pressings sourced from the Sidchrome tool works in Heidelberg and incorporating welding skills learned from the Commonwealth Industrial Gas complex in Preston to create strong yet sometimes delicate structures. In the 70s, Skipper mandalas became a bit of a must have for the bare arsed exteriors of many newly minted brick veneers, like the shag pile carpets inside and the flared trousers of their owners outside. For a while they became a much copied static design motif all around town although often it can be said without the mastery of a Skipper original.

“Once, driving him (Matcham) through a Melbourne suburb, I pointed out an ill-formed mandala that had been fixed to a front wall of a cream brick veneer home. I said to Matcham, ‘Well, there is your legacy, the welded mandala.’ Matcham groaned, his great idea prostituted for the almighty dollar.” (Sigmund Jörgensen, ibid)

On location at Montsalvat. A scene from Episode 13 of Series 2 of the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, 2013. (Source: Every Cloud Productions).

The annual Montsalvat Arts Festival is happening this weekend but with admission fees and prices charged for individual events across the two days, perhaps the almighty dollar long ago subsumed the guiding principles of what Montsalvat originally stood for, indeed if those principles ever really existed.

The Royal Insurance Building at 414 Collins Street showing its renowned Domestic Tudor facade. “The most perfect Gothic stonework in Melbourne, excepting St Paul’s Cathedral”. It was demolished by Whelan the Wrecker in 1938 and the limestone carved windows became a feature of Montsalvat’s Great Hall.

Many of the architectural elements that were used to build Montsalvat were reputedly sourced from the yard of the demolition company “Whelan the Wrecker”. Whelan’s sign on building sites “Whelan Is Here” followed by “Whelan Was Here” on an empty block became synonymous with a Post War desire for urban renewal and social change in Victoria. Like the buildings it consigned to the scrap heap, the Whelan company in its original form is now long gone but it’s said that during its existence, the company always expressed an appreciation of the heritage of the old buildings it was their task to destroy as evidenced by the select parts of the buildings they salvaged from the wrecking ball. But it is also true that under their watch, much of Melbourne’s 19th century character was sacrificed with hardly a voice heard in protest.

Whelan the Wrecker sending Parer’s Crystal Cafe at 103 Bourke Street, Melbourne into oblivion in 1960.

As reported in Robyn Annear’s fascinating 2005 book, “A City Lost & Found” detailing the history of Whelan the Wrecker in Melbourne, in 1965 Whelan purchased a disused quarry in East Brunswick with a million-and-a-quarter cubic metres of ‘air space’ to fill. It was estimated that the old quarry hole would take Whelan’s 50 years to fill. In less than 10 it was half-full and many of the best buildings in the city had ended up in it. I’ve sometimes wondered what might be found if in years to come an archaeological dig was conducted on the site.

The Great Hall, Montsalvat, April, 1977. (Picture by John T Collins, from the La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria)
Matcham Skipper in 1964. (Source: picture by Sue Ford, from the collection of Nillumbik Shire Council, Museums Victoria)

It’s said that life imitates art and the idea of recycling has now become far more accepted today than it ever was in the days when Matcham Skipper was alive and punching out his mandalas. Recycling has become a catch cry in the 21st century but with China becoming more selective with the plastics it is willing to accept from Australia to be sent back to us as mass production stamped “Made in China”, we may have to start taking responsibility for our own actions. The collapse of SKM in August with debts of $100 million has sent the state’s recycling system into chaos with some councils reportedly forced to send thousands of tonnes of recycling to land fill.

No one wants to be “that hoarder” who ends up consumed by the detritus of a life out of control, but it’s also true that most of us could do more at patching and repairing than throwing away. For every piece of recycled timber used in a building project, a plantation tree or patch of old growth forest is saved. For every dumpster diver sourcing a culinary feast from a bin outside a supermarket, edible food that would otherwise end up as landfill, (up to 7.3 million tonnes in Australia every year according to a recent report) is a win in the war on waste. Recycling it seems has always been an art form, one that old Matcham was onto a long time before anyone else.

Reduce, reuse, recycle, repeat and reflect.

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Withers’ Way

They called him “The Orderly Colonel”.

It was a name given to him affectionately by his fellow artists as a passing nod to his organized ways. They started out as a loose association in the mid ’80s in what was then semi-rural Box Hill, experimenting with plein air painting, but as suburbia overtook the artists’ camps along the Gardiners Creek they relocated to a new camp on “Mount Eagle”, at an old cottage at what is now Summit Drive in Eaglemont near Heidelberg, cementing in our consciousness by doing so an art movement that would forever be remembered as the “Heidelberg School”, Australia’s first nationally focused art movement.

Heidelberg Historical Society marker in Summit Drive, Eaglemont.
Charterisville in Ivanhoe, built by David Charteris McArthur, c1845. (Heidelberg Historical Society picture)

Typically it was Walter (Walt) Withers, The Colonel, who found them another home when the group moved from the Eaglemont cottage. In September, 1890 Withers arranged a lease on the late David Charteris MacArthur’s “Charterisville”, just to the south of Mount Eagle, and here he painted and taught while subletting the lodges to a procession of his fellow artists. The contemporary critic Sidney Dickinson named him, along with Arthur Streeton, as a leader of the “Heidelberg School”, which in Withers’ case was almost certainly an exaggeration, but there is no doubting his significant role within the group.

Portrait of the Heidelberg School artist, Walter Withers, 1854 – 1914. Source: Wikipedia

In the critical period between 1889-90, at a time when Frederick McCubbin and several others were still painting in a conventional style, it has been noted that Withers “was experimenting with a brave and confident impressionistic style” and that “he was probably the first artist to paint major works using techniques of impasto”, (holmes à court Gallery).

When the Heidelberg School artists dispersed to other places after those “Glorious Summers” of the late 80s and early 90s, it was the English born Withers who chose to stay on in the Heidelberg district and paint impressions of the Australian bush while the Australian born Streeton left to paint in foreign fields and the real leader of the Heidelberg School, Tom Roberts was lost to portraiture. Withers alone remained, the sight of his bicycle with canvas and painting box strapped on board becoming a regular sight throughout the Heidelberg district.

Walter Withers’ studio at Cape Street, Heidelberg, c1894.

In 1894, with his wife Fanny and the beginnings of their family of six children, Walt leased another house in Cape St, Heidelberg where he taught painting while maintaining a city studio.

Four years later the Withers family moved again to a new home, “Withers Court” on the corner of Darebin and Hawdon Streets, Heidelberg and it was probably there or at Cape Street that the grown up daughters of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge took painting lessons from him, learning techniques they would bring to their home to paint selected interior joinery at the homestead.

Wragge painted four panel door at Yallambie.

Possibly it was a social as well as an artistic outlet for the Wragge girls. Their mother, Sarah Anne Wragge wrote cryptically and critically in 1898 in a letter that she believed her daughters weren’t learning much about painting under the artist’s supervision.

“So Jessie has finished her paintings at last, and I quite think with you that there must be more talk than work at that studio.” (Sarah Anne Wragge – her underline – quoted by Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales)

The stableyard at Yallambie, c1900 by Sarah Annie Wragge showing the Bakewell era stables on the left and stableyard wall, both now demolished. Laundry building at right. I’m thinking maybe Annie couldn’t paint horses? (Source: Bill Bush collection)
Sarah Annie Wragge hand decorating a door at Yallambie Homestead, c1890. Source: Bill Bush collection

The weather boarded Withers Court house still stands next to the rail tunnel in Heidelberg near to where the current duplication of the rail line between Heidelberg and Rosanna is right now, in a way that is pertinent to this story, reshaping the surrounding landscape. It was the building of the original cutting and rail tunnel under Darebin Street that determined Walt to move his family from Heidelberg in 1903 to a new location in Eltham. A large rock, blasted from the Heidelberg cutting, had crashed through the roof of his studio and damaged the canvas he had been working on, making Walt’s mind up in the process that it was high time to move on.

Southernwood, Walt Withers’ former home on Bolton St, Eltham and the site of a major road reconstruction, November, 2017.
Walt Withers old studio at Southernwood as it appeared during a sale of the home in 2011. Source: Domain
The rail tunnel built under Darebin St, Heidelberg in 1901 and currently in the process of being rebuilt with duplicated line, November, 2017.

The Withers family relocated to “Southernwood”, a small farm set on 2 ½ acres on Bolton St, Eltham opposite the Montmorency Estate where he built a large adjoining studio. Here he spent the last 10 years of his life, famously painting many scenes in and around Eltham while still continuing to roam further afield on his bicycle as the painting mood took him.

Tranquil Winter, Walt Withers, 1895. The house on the ridge is still standing today in Walker Court, Viewbank. This masterpiece was singled out for praise at the time by the eminent British critic, R.A. M. Stevenson, but today is not on general display. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

He was living there, dividing his time by spending weekdays at his city studio and his weekends with his family at Southernwood when one day in 1907 he headed off from Eltham on a painting expedition on the road to Heidelberg. The result of that day, a small, loosely painted plein air oil sketch, which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria alongside some other more well-known and polished Withers’ masterpieces, carries the somewhat misleading title, “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg”. The title has helped to obscure the identity of this sketch for a hundred years as the result of a close inspection of the painting, which is freely available to view online the NGV web site, has only now revealed some rather familiar details.

Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg (sic), 1907, Walt Withers. Source: National Gallery of Victoria
https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/3251/

In 1907 “Heidelberg” would have been a somewhat generic term. The old blue stone, Lower Plenty Road Bridge marked the official separation of Lower Plenty and Main Roads but it was on the Lower Plenty or Main Rd side that Walt appears to have set up his easel that day to paint the sort of rural Australian scene so beloved by him.

Looking north east along Main Rd from the corner of the Plenty Bridge Hotel, from a screen still of original footage of the opening of the Heidelberg Golf Club. The trees on the side of the road pictured here are a feature of Withers “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg” (sic).

The apparently anonymous building in the painting on the left side of the road is on closer study quite obviously a loose interpretation of nothing other than the old Plenty Bridge Hotel, the story of which has been recounted on several occasions within the pages of this blog.

A much later picture of the Golf Club Hotel, AKA, the Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, c1950 but clearly showing the service wing set a right angles to the main buillding.

From the service wing with chimney, set at right angles to the main building, the post and rail fence on the opposite side of the road and the poplars planted at the far end of the building – the details are all there.

John Irwin balancing on Mick Noonan’s motor bike, outside the Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1950. This is perhaps the only known photograph that offers a glimpse of the eastern approach to the old Lower Plenty Road Bridge past the PBH, the direction chosen by Withers in “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg” (sic). Source: the John Irwin family collection

It was a light bulb moment when I was looking at this painting on the NGV web site and realised what I was really looking at. Withers has painted the land fall past the front of the PBH towards the valley of the Lower Plenty River, showing the road stretching towards the approaches of the bridge, hidden by the bend, just as it is today.

It got me thinking and to doing a little reading. Two versions of a biography of Walt Withers written by his widow Fanny have been reproduced in Andrew Mackenzie’s 1987 book, “Walter Withers – The Forgotten Manuscripts”. The longer of these two biographies, somewhat misleadingly titled, “A Short Biography of Walt Withers”, was published by Withers’ fellow Heidelberg School artist Alexander McCubbin in about 1920. Together, the two biographies contain Fanny’s written descriptions of many of her husband’s artworks and reading through them they make for some rather interesting details in the telling.

The Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1928. Panorama made from screen stills of original footage of the opening of the Heidelberg Golf Club. Although this picture is looking in the opposite direction to Withers “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg” (sic) many of the details painted by the artist are discernable here.

In 1907 Withers had painted a major canvas which Fanny called “Springtime on the Lower Plenty”, or “The Valley of the Lower Plenty, Victoria”, the obverse of which contained a replica of another Withers work. The story of the main painting as explained in Fanny’s writing is confusing because she freely interchanges the titles of her husband’s artworks in the context of the two biographies, but from the description “Springtime” was obviously an enlarged, studio version of the NGV oil sketch. I use the third person singular indicative as sadly the painting was destroyed in a devastating bush fire at Eltham on Black Friday, 13 January 1939.

Fortunately another painting of the same subject but painted in the tones of Autumn, “but from another point of view” was started at about the same time as “Springtime” and was worked on by Withers on and off up until the day he died. This painting has been called both “The Return from the Harvest” and “The Valley of the Lower Plenty” which makes for more confusion but Fanny wrote that it was a favourite of the artist and the largest canvas her husband ever worked upon.

“Again a road subject, with three figures, swags on their backs, two together and one following behind, walking with swinging steps towards the small hotel, nestling amongst the trees, at the side of the road. The time is Autumn, and the colouring rich and full toned. This painting is the most romantic of the painter’s work. It was much beloved by him, and it was the last canvas he painted on, the sky being completed by him the day before he was seized by his last attack of illness.” (Fanny Withers writing in “The Life and Work of Walter Withers, Landscape Painter.)

The painting was purchased and gifted to the Geelong Art Gallery which inexplicably today does not keep it on current display. It is some years since I saw the painting in the Geelong gallery myself and my memory of it is vague but clearly from the above description the painting is another image produced from painting expeditions to the countryside around the Plenty Bridge Hotel.

Thumbnail of “The Valley of the Lower Plenty”, Walt Withers. Source: Geelong Gallery
Looking towards Lower Plenty in the 1920s from a viewpoint similar to “The Valley of the Lower Plenty” but much closer to the bridge.

Recent attempts to gain a viewing of the original of this artwork at Geelong have been unsuccessful. The very poor resolution reproduction from the Gallery shown here does not allow for an observation of “the small hotel, nestling amongst the trees” described by Fanny but it does give a general feeling of the landscape on the western approach to the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge. In this painting the trees on the left hand side of the picture mark the southern boundary of Thomas Wragge’s Yallambie and one is left wondering whether the three swagmen returning “from the harvest” and painted by Withers might have been itinerant field workers going for a drink at the Plenty Bridge Hotel after a long day working in the Yallambie fields.

The Plenty Bridge Hotel and the western abutments of the Lower Plenty Road Bridge, c1927. Panorama made from screen stills of original footage of the opening of the Heidelberg Golf Club.
Drawing of Rose Chapel, (St Katherine’s) at St Helena by Victor Cobb, 1935. Withers was buried here in 1914. The building was burned almost to the ground in a bush fire in 1957 but rebuilt. It is interesting to note that the reverse side of this original drawing bears the artist’s inscription describing it as a drawing of “Rose Chapel, St Helena, Eltham”, evidence of how place names like Heidelberg and Eltham were generic district terms used loosely by artists. Private collection

Maybe Walt even dropped by the Homestead that day to pay a visit to his former painting students, heading off with Sarah Annie’s husband, Walter Murdoch for a drink, as was Murdoch’s want, at the Plenty Bridge soon afterwards. It’s a thought.

Plagued by ill health later in life, Walt Withers died at Eltham of cerebral thrombosis on 13th October, 1914 aged just 59 years.

His daughter remembered him as being six feet tall in his socks and solidly built, with brown hair slightly curling at the sides, big, soft, hazel eyes and a large, bushy moustache. He is buried in the church side graveyard at the Rose Chapel (St Katherine’s), St Helena.

Writing in the forward of Andrew Mackenzie’s book, Kathleen Mangan, the daughter of Charles McCubbin wrote of the Heidelberg School artists that:

“…it was a time of freedom of spirit, gaiety, and great artistic and intellectual advancement, a glorious burst of artistic achievement which erupted into flame at the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties, a flame that was all too quickly extinguished by the Outbreak of World War One.”

The Great War was only two months old when Withers died. The artist mantra in the district passed to others, the colonies at Montsavat in Eltham and the Heide Circle at Bulleen becoming just two expressions. A story from the Heidelberg Artists Society of an incident involving artists during the Second War has a certain relevance to the Yallambie story. It is recorded that one day around 1940, two painters had set up their easels in the vicinity of Banyule Rd when a farmer armed with a shotgun and accompanied by a couple of enormous dogs arrived on the scene demanding to know their business. The artists were dressed for painting in Army disposals – slouch hats and blue boiler suits – while from a distance their easels might have been mistaken for surveyors’ tripods.

Army cadets at Camp Q, Watsonia, (Yallambie), 1944. Source:  Australian War Memorial

At that time the Army had just resumed a part of the old Yallambie Estate nearby to create Camp Q (Watsonia), now known as the Simpson Barracks, and the unnamed farmer feared that a survey heralding a forced annexation of his own land was about to take place. Summing up the relative sizes of the farmer’s firearm and the jaws of his hungry hounds, the artists wisely packed away their easels for another day, the decision possibly a loss to art but a gain for rural diplomacy in the district.

YALLAMBEE by George Alexander Gilbert. Source: State Library of Victoria
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VI by E L Bateman 1853-1856. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

The association of the work of Walt Withers with the story of the Yallambie area joins the tradition of the earlier pictures of A E Gilbert and E L Bateman and the writings of Richard and William Howitt and Louisa Anne Meredith. For all that, the work of Walt Withers has fallen somewhat out of favour in recent years. Not one of the paintings he produced in and around the Heidelberg and Eltham districts and that are now in public ownership are currently on display at the galleries. “The Return from the Harvest”, AKA “The Valley of the Lower Plenty”, described by Fanny as “the most romantic of the painter’s work… much beloved by him” and likewise the NGV’s oil sketch “Springtime” must remain therefore, at least for present time, unobserved.

Site of former Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, November, 2014

Heightening this unfortunate circumstance is the reality of the danger posed to the artists’ footsteps by the plans of the North East Link Authority, a subject and side subject of this blog in recent times. The location of the two Walt Withers paintings discussed above stands under direct threat of the potential building of a Corridor B through Yallambie and Lower Plenty. The tranquillity of Walt Withers churchyard grave at St Helena would be broken by the building of a Corridor C. And the implications of Corridor A on the legacy of the Heidelberg School in Banyule goes without saying.

Does anybody care?

His paintings largely forgotten, his Plenty Valley and Heidelberg subjects at risk of being despoiled by the road builders – poor Walt, “The Orderly Colonel” must be turning over in his St Helena grave.

The Big Con of Conurbation

The game is afoot.

Appearing as the harbinger of our doom, the sight of cranes clawing at the Melbourne horizon is an unmistakable sign of a scurrilous attempt to turn the “World’s Most Liveable City” into a “megalopolis” of over 8 million people by the year 2030.

At first glance, the two concepts would appear to be mutually exclusive, but if the crystal gazers are right, it’s a real possibility Melbourne will grow from a city of just under 4 million people at the 2016 census to an astonishing double that number sometime inside the next two decades. The so called Urban Growth Boundary, first sketched onto a map by government 15 years ago, has proved in practice to be a rubbery line that stretches this way and that way according to political whim while the old “Green Wedge” which was supposed to fill the void beyond the boundary with a ring of non-urban land, has been gradually whittled away to little more than half its original size resulting in urban sprawl and the loss of some of our most fertile agricultural lands.

It’s taken 180 years to get to this point but by any reckoning, Melbourne was always a town founded on the unchallenged principle that growth is good for us. From the heady days of the Victorian Gold Rushes and the regular boom and bust of the Real Estate economy, there has only ever been one way – the way forward. Australia has now been without an official recession for 26 years, something the commentators maintain can be counted on as some sort of a world record, but was Paul Keating right when at the start of the last one he described the descending bust as, “the recession we had to have”? Is growth really that good for us?

The pre-emptive actions of the pioneers of Port Phillip in 1835 are probably the nearest Australia ever came to the American way of doing things when it comes to an assessment of our pioneer history. In the United States, government generally took a back seat as the covered wagons rolled out across the Prairie, the settlers founding towns along the way wherever they came to rest, safe in the power that the Second Amendment gave to them to control their own destiny. In the Australian colonies by contrast, settlement was typically occasioned by Government initiative, either by sending convict fleets to the South Seas or by private enterprise supported by Royal decree.

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

In Melbourne, things happened slightly differently with the Over Straiters arriving from Van Diemen’s Land in 1835 and the Overlanders coming from New South Wales the following year to found an illegal settlement at Port Phillip, in spite of official Government policy designed to prevent it. Only after the settlement was reasonably well established did Government bow to the pressure of what was by then a fait accompli and sent in administrators armed with the acts and statutes of New South Wales to try to sort it all out. As a result, when it came time for the Roberts Russell and Hoddle to lay out the streets prior to the first land sales, some settlers found the houses they had already erected were standing in a no man’s land in the middle of the proposed roads and would need to be demolished. John Batman’s brother Henry was one who lost his home in this fashion, much to the amusement of the irascible John Pascoe Fawkner, who despised him.

Wragge women folk on a post and rail fence at Yallambie, c1890. (Source: Bill Bush collection)

The Heidelberg district to the north east of Port Phillip was founded around the three way river confluence of the Yarra/Plenty Rivers and Darebin Creek and was one of the first places to be settled outside of Melbourne itself, becoming for a while an almost fashionable location and a desirable neighbourhood for the genteel set. As such it didn’t last long with the absence of a direct railway line and properly maintained roads arresting district development in the second half of the 19th century, but the resulting quiet solitude combined with the natural beauty of the river valleys appealed greatly to those who chose to live there.

“Tranquil Winter”, by Walt Withers, 1895 showing a house which stands today in Walker Court, Viewbank. The Wragge daughters at Yallambie took painting lessons from Withers about this time. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

Sleepy Hollow they called it and when the artists discovered it towards the end of the 19th century, the area became famously the home of an Australian Nationalistic impressionistic art movement, the “Heidelberg School”.

Real estate brochure from the A V Jennings sale of Yallambie Homestead.
The fields of Yallambie prior to the residential subdivision. (Source: Eltham District Historical Society)

The square mile of country that made up the Yallambie region on the north eastern edge of the Heidelberg district remained more or less undisturbed until the second half of the 20th century, wedged in as it was between the towns of Eltham in the east and Greensborough in the north, its lands locked up within the surviving boundaries of Thomas Wragge’s farm and the neighbouring army camp. Yallambie as a suburb developed only after the sale of the 19th century homestead and its remaining farm land to the developer A V Jennings in 1958.

Folding brochure from land auction during subdivision of the Yallambie estate

The process of subdivision was initially slow, commencing in 1966 but by the early 1970s with urban sprawl gathering momentum, the neighbourhood had begun to take shape with roads and landscaping in place and an active district progress association with a dedicated membership operating with effective results.

Folding brochure reversed

Neighbourhood spirit was strong and a firm sense of community was a feature of the area.

A 1978 picture of Moola Close, Yallambie. The proposed NEL Corridor B tunnel would probably emerge at a point to the right of the photographer. (Picture source: Winty Calder)

The 1st Yallambie Scout Group formed and operated out of a hall built and paid for by residents’ initiative while local sporting clubs like the tennis club, soccer club and a junior cricket club, the “Yallambie Sparrows” all called Yallambie home.

River red gum and pond adjacent to Lower Plenty Rd at the Streeton Views estate, Yallambie, March, 2015

The suburb enlarged further at the start of the 1990s when land was carved from the south east end of the Simpson Army Barracks to create the “Streeton Views” estate, the name a real estate developer’s invention that had its basis in the notion that the Heidelberg School artist Arthur Streeton had once painted there. The idea of the subdivision of the Army land had been first mooted in 1986 as a means of supplying low cost housing to Army personnel but in the end, when the developers came on board, housing for the Army was limited to a few street locations around Crew Street, paid for by the sale of land to the public in other locations. No doubt for a while it proved to be a nice little earner for those developers lucky enough, or well-connected enough, to get themselves on board.

Adastra Airways aerial survey photograph of the Yallambie/Lower Plenty district in 1945 showing a predominantly rural landscape.
Aerial survey photograph made of a still some what undeveloped Yallambie area prior to 1971.
Aerial survey photograph of the Yallambie area in 1981 before the development of “Streeton Views” and “The Cascades”.
Aerial survey photograph of the Plenty River at Yallambie, 2017.

The subdivision at Streeton Views was initially opposed by the Yallambie Progress Association as a matter of principle, it being felt at the time that if Army land was going to be released it should be used to create park land and not an addition to the existing housing estate. A public reserve and the artificial lakes between Arthur Streeton Drive and Lower Plenty Road were arrived at as something of a compromise but the changing of the name of the local primary school from Yallambie PS to Streeton PS and subsequent loss of the Community Hall to the Education Department became a sore point. The developers at Streeton Views were selling blocks advertised as being in proximity to a primary school and the name was changed under the guise of a school merger although the reality was that it fitted nicely with the developer’s business model. The old wooden pole sign at the corner of Yallambie and Lower Plenty Roads which had been there from the start announcing the identity of the estate as “Yallambie” was removed about this time and the more permanent inscription “Streeton Views” was set into stone retaining walls on Arthur Streeton Drive and The Grange in a move further designed to confuse people.

At the start of the new century surplus land that had been previously reserved for an SEC substation adjacent to the Yallambie/Streeton Primary School was subdivided into another new estate, this time carrying the appellation, “The Cascades” with water pumped up and down a nearby gully occasionally to create the fantasy land of a fast flowing mountain stream. Many fine, modern homes have been built within the new Yallambie estates with one house in Macalister Boulevard setting a new price record for the suburb at a sale earlier this year.

Entrance to “The Cascades” at Yallambie, October, 2017. The proposal for NEL Corridor B would take a road underground through the electrical easement in this picture.

This sort of subdivision activity is being repeated all across Melbourne these days with the resulting urbanization and infrastructure pressures leading to the population estimates mentioned at the start of this post. Towns like Whittlesea further up the Plenty River were supposed to sit outside the Urban Growth Corridor within the Green Wedge but the rapid rise of new suburbs along Plenty Road has seen Whittlesea now almost absorbed into the metropolitan sprawl in a process known as “conurbation”, a concept first promulgated at the time of the start of the First World War but perfected only after the Second.

Elizabeth Street, Melbourne in 1847 looking north past the Collins Street corner. (Source: Tinted lithograph by J. S. Prout, National Library of Australia)

Robert Hoddle produced a classic 19th century rectangular street grid for Melbourne, the wide avenues named after a motley collection of Port Phillip identities, politicians, Royalty and Vice Royalty. The main north south road, east of the town was named after Hoddle himself and for motorists stuck in the grid lock on Hoddle Street today the question probably is, why did Hoddle create a city plan without an orbital route around the city centre? The answer of course is that Melbourne was laid out long before such questions were ever an issue and the present situation where the Eastern Freeway finishes at a dead end at Hoddle Street has only compounded the original problem.

Which brings us back in a roundabout sort of way to what has been most lately on my mind, the North East Link. Without proper road reserves the four alternative routes would each require tunneling and a buyback of houses that might have brought a smile to John Fawkner or a frown to Henry Batman in another era. A mail out to every household in the City of Banyule last month cost ratepayers an alleged $110,000 and included a letter describing the four corridors and Council’s grave concerns about the impact of the Corridor A (Viewbank) proposal. The letter also makes the point that the Corridor B (Yallambie) and Corridor C (Eltham) proposals would connect the Western Ring Road with East Link at the aptly named Ring-wood. The letter was signed by the Mayor of Banyule and the last paragraph sums up the situation: “Council has long recognised the need to complete Melbourne’s Ring Road as a direct orbital link from the Metropolitan Ring Road to Eastlink at Ringwood…”

A 1994 map of Melbourne’s road network with missing links indicated and no suggestion of a “Corridor B” poposal. From a Vicroads publication “Linking Melbourne”, February, 1994.

In other words, Banyule Council supports the concept of Corridor B equally as much as Corridor C as a viable alternative to bad, bad Corridor A! The scenic railway of the Corridor D (Kangaroo Ground) proposal has already been ruled out by most pundits which leaves Corridor B looking increasingly like an unlikely NEL compromise between Corridors A and C, routes which have been strongly opposed by Banyule and Nillumbik respectively. Let’s face it, when it comes to opposing Corridor B through Yallambie and Lower Plenty, we are on our own as the letter from the Mayor of Banyule makes quite clear.

Lower Plenty Road in 1914, south west of the Rosanna Rd intersection. (Source: Picture Victoria, Heidelberg Historical Society image).

At a meeting at the old Heidelberg Town Hall last month, during a long discourse about the limitations of Corridor A, the Mayor made the fair point that something needs to be done because Rosanna Road, the current de facto orbital link, was well, “full”. Yes, it’s full but it’s not just Rosanna Rd that’s full. The reality is that it’s the planet that is full and we have only been adding to the problem. I might be in a minority but I’m sure I’m not alone in not wanting any of these road proposals built. The ongoing need to build more freeways is a symptom of the problem but not the problem in itself.  With desalination plants needed to provide our society with drinking water and a conurbation of towns and cities fast consuming our arable land surfaces, mankind has not been kind to the planet it calls home. When those covered wagons wheeled out across the Prairie in the 19th century it seemed that there were no limits to the horizon but the reality today is so much more uncertain.

Marco Amati from the RMIT Centre for Urban Research was quoted in a story in “Domain” last week saying that the greening efforts of local governments had not been as effective as hoped and that with a major decline in canopy coverage, “As they lose vegetation, urban areas start to act like heat sponges.”

To digress along this line, consider for a moment the case of a remote Pacific island, Ocean (or Banaba) Island, an elevated speck of rock within the island nation of Kiribati, (pronounced “Kiribus”). Just 10km in circumference, Ocean Island had been home to a British phosphate mining industry for the first ¾ of the 20th century leaving its hinterland a scarred moonscape when I saw it during a prolonged visit some years ago, denuded of both vegetation and the tribal society that once called the island home.

Early 20th century photograph of Banabans in traditional dress on Ocean (Banaba) Island. (Source: A St. C Compton collection)

The shameful plight of the Banabans is a long and compelling story, too long for these pages, but suffice to say that the exiled locals now live mostly on a completely different island in the Fiji group. Meanwhile the ecological fate of their homeland is to my mind the story of our planet in a microcosm. The Island is infamous for its droughts and so much vegetation was eventually removed from it that when rain clouds approached the island, it was recorded that the clouds would separate around the pulsating heat emanating from the denuded rock surfaces to join up again on the other side, dropping all the while their much needed rain into the ocean. This claim might seem far-fetched, but the mining industry on the island had a desalination plant operating on the island long before Victoria ever needed one.

I’m not pretending that there’s an answer. You wanna planet of 7½ billion people and counting, you need cities to put ’em in and roads to get them around.  That nutcase in North Korea reckons he has the answer to having too many people on the planet, but his answer isn’t really an answer and would destroy the planet itself.

The English animator Steve Cutts summed it up poignantly in 2012 with his environmentalist message, “Man”. The prospect of a flying saucer arriving to mete out primary justice to mankind might raise a Golgafrinchan style smile right now, but without flying saucers to make good our escape, a smile may be the only thing we have left one day on this “Pale Blue Dot”.

CHRISTMAS TRAVELS

We were at Yallambie and wondering where to go.
“What about carols?” said my good lady.
“She lives in Geelong. That’s too far to travel on Christmas Eve.”
“Not Carol’s.  I mean carols. The sort you sing.”
“Oh, I see. Then I suppose Noel’s is out of the question.”

It’s an unlikely story but Christmas carols in Yallambie usually means a bit of travelling. The only church, the Anglican Church of the Holy Spirit on the corner of Yallambie and Greensborough Roads, was torn down in 1961.

All the same, “it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas” and in the backstreets of our town right now the gardens and the exteriors of many Yallambie houses are already decorated with Christmas lights while nearby shopping centres have been adorned with Council sponsored ornament. Every year these shops begin posting their Christmas sales ever earlier, the sight of the Easter Bunny pulling a sleigh down Yallambie Rd a seemingly inescapable destiny.

An imaginative view of Sulivan Bay in 1803, drawn by George Gordon McCrae, c1860, (State Library Victoria).
An imaginative view of Sulivan Bay in 1803, drawn by George Gordon McCrae, c1860, (State Library Victoria).

The very first Christmas in what 50 years later, would become the Colony of Victoria, occurred in 1803 at the short-lived convict settlement at Sullivan Bay in Port Phillip near modern-day Sorrento. The weather that December remained blisteringly hot and fresh water was scarce. A more inhospitable or exposed location for a settlement could not be imagined but for homesick Englishmen far from the blazing Yule-log and holly bough of home, celebrating Christmas was a tradition, even if at Sullivan Bay it was not motivated by any particular sense of spiritual obligation.

David Collins, Lieutenant Governor at Sullivan Bay, Port Phillip, (National Library Australia).
David Collins, Lieutenant Governor at Sullivan Bay, Port Phillip, (National Library Australia).

Four days before Christmas Day, David Collins, the Lieutenant Governor of the settlement, ordered the stores to issue a pound of raisins to each person so that Christmas puddings could be made. In spite of the difficulties being experienced by the Sullivan Bay settlement at that time, it would seem from the record that Christmas was still an occasion for Old World ceremony. Plum puddings boiled in the oppressive heat of an Australian summer would become the prototype for the stereotypical Aussie Christmas but in December 1803 it was still all a very new experience. A time of goodwill and ghosts and an occasion to reflect on far away homes forever in exile.

As Christmas neared, those reflections took a turn. Some of those at Sullivan Bay were not so sure that Santa had their calling cards, lost as they were abroad in the wilds of this Great South Land. They decided to take matters into their own hands and in the early hours of Sunday morning, Christmas Day 1803, a few convicts stole from the settlement items including a kettle, a gun, boots and medical supplies. Not so much as a tin drum or toy trumpet among the whole Christmas shopping list, but these convicts, like Blackadder’s Baldrick, had a cunning plan.

“A daring robbery having been committed on Sunday morning in the Commissary’s tent, and the sick having been at the same time meanly plundered of their provisions in their tents by some person or persons at present unknown, the Lieut. Governor calls upon all the well-disposed persons in the settlement to aid and assist in bringing the offender or offenders to justice…” (General Orders, Sullivan Bay, 1803)

William Buckley from John Helder wedge's field book of 1835-6, (State Library Victoria).
William Buckley from the field book of John Helder Wedge,1835-6, (State Library Victoria).

Two days later on the 27th December, five convicts absconded from the settlement intending to “walk to China”. Four were never seen again (a sixth was shot by the garrison watch and severely wounded). The Sullivan Bay settlement itself was soon after abandoned in favour of the more promising Derwent River in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) however the fifth escapee, William Buckley, lived on with Aboriginal people, learning their languages and their customs and becoming an accepted member of the tribes. He circumnavigated Port Phillip Bay, early on losing the kettle while crossing the Yarra River “falls” before eventually settling in the vicinity of the Bellarine Peninsula.

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

More than 30 years later at the founding of Melbourne, Buckley emerged from the bush like a latter day Port Phillip Crusoe, carrying wooden spears and impressively dressed in native fashion to welcome John Batman’s party. Buckley, the “Wild White Man of Port Phillip” as he became known, would never really settle back comfortably into the European world but soon received a full if belated pardon from the colonial authorities proving once and for all that sometimes all our Christmases do indeed come at once.

"The first settlers discover Buckley", by Frederick William Woodhouse, (State Library of Victoria).
“The first settlers discover Buckley”, by Frederick William Woodhouse, (State Library of Victoria).

As an escapee from convict oppression, the story of William Buckley and his admission into an indigenous world unfamiliar to the land of his birth has a contemporary and somehow familiar ring as populations are displaced by change and internecine conflict across every part of this Pale Blue Dot. The corresponding rise in ethnic nationalism the world over highlights a need felt by all peoples for a tribal identity over and above even what they feel for the football team at the end of the street. Brexit and the movement for Scottish independence were driven by this, but closer to home the disconcerting One Nation movement in Australia is a part of this same social phenomena.

Butterflies and protesters rally for refugees in Eltham, (picture by Craig Sillitoe, The Age).
Butterflies and protesters rally for refugees in Eltham, (picture by Craig Sillitoe, The Age).

Last month in Eltham, just beyond the boundaries of Yallambie, about 100 anti-refugee protesters demonstrated against a proposal to install Syrian refugees at a former local care facility. One Nation declared the protest was nothing to do with them and in the end the rent the crowd that turned up was itself outnumbered by protesters protesting against the protesters. Eltham has a reputation for left leaning politics and liberal social values and has a historically strong artists’ community. The anti-protesters brightened up the streets in the days leading up to the “Battle of Eltham” by tying thousands of handmade, brightly painted butterflies to Eltham trees and stenciling butterfly images onto pavements in a show of solidarity with the refugees.

I was in Eltham on the day of the protest and saw some of the anti-refugee protesters in the street. They looked somehow out of place in those leafy Eltham surroundings. How is it, I wondered, that growing a bushy beard and donning a knee-length oilskin is supposed to make you a more patriotic Australian than the next man in a multicultural society? The answer of course is that it doesn’t. The underlying truth when you peel back the window dressing is that as a human race we enjoy more similarities than differences.

The writer photographed in a Syrian street.
The writer photographed in streets of Syria.
Temple of Bel, Palmyra
Temple of Bel, Palmyra.
Bel after ISIL
Bel after ISIL.

As a traveller in years past I have seen at first hand some of the points of origin of this latest installment in trans-border refugee movement. Travel is an enriching experience and has become almost an Australian rite of passage among young people but I find it hard now to equate the pictures I see of ruined buildings on news feeds with those far off places of my distant memory. I have walked those streets and wandered through the Al-Madina Souq of Aleppo. On occasion I was invited off the street into family homes where I was told that this was the way they would most like visitors to see them and not as governments have defined them. How could those places and those people have been bombed into ashes and their lives ground into so much dust? What does it feel like to lose your home, your livelihood and the lives of those you hold most dear? Surely we as a nation could do more to meet our moral obligation to the displaced peoples of this world?

Australia enjoys a remarkably stable, tolerant and inclusive democracy but we take very few refugees on the world scale. Our democracy is something most Australians take for granted and it must be one of the few places in the world where the government has enacted laws to obligate people to vote come election-day. As one wag at the ABC put it during the Australian Federal Election in July, in this country it’s all about the battle for the Australian political middle ground.

Mutuma Ruteere, a UN special rapporteur, this week warned that “fringe elements” were in danger of entering the political mainstream but he said that “Australia was not unique among western democracies in grappling with popular support for parties with discriminatory policies”.

It seems clear that extremist viewpoints are on the rise everywhere. When I was in the States in March this year a few months before our own Federal election I saw the then candidate for the Republican nomination campaigning on television in Fox advertorials, masquerading as current affairs which seemed to have been modelled on the illusory truth effect. I never doubted then that before too long the campaign of this most unlikely of US Presidential nominations would run out of puff. From a country of over 320 million people I asked myself, was this really the best they could come up with?

Who’d a thunk?

As a president time may show that, in spite of appearances, the election of a foul mouthed, misogynistic, xenophobic, tax avoiding casino mogul as unofficial leader of the Free World will prove to be the best thing for Americans since sliced bread. Stranger things have happened. I wouldn’t like to make a prediction but if nothing else, it certainly indicates some sort of a seismic shift although, like the pigs in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” who started walking around on their hind legs, it’s sometimes hard to draw a distinction.

Melbourne seen from the south bank at the falls (Queensbridge) 1836, by R Hofmann, (State Library Victoria).
Melbourne seen from the south bank at the falls (Queensbridge) 1836, by R Hofmann, (State Library Victoria).

On the last day of November, 1835 soon after the founding of Melbourne, John Pascoe Fawkner while ploughing for a potato bed near the falls on the virgin south bank of the Yarra, dug up an old and rusted kettle. Some settlers saw the pot as evidence that French or Spanish travellers had been at Port Phillip in a previous era but William Buckley recognized it as the pot he had lost all those years ago during his escape from Sullivan Bay.

Fawkner's house on the south bank of the Yarra, by Wilbraham Frederick Evelyn Liardet, (State Library Victoria).
Fawkner’s house on the south bank of the Yarra, by Wilbraham Frederick Evelyn Liardet, (State Library Victoria).

Fawkner secretly treasured this pot. During that first Christmas in 1835 at what was to become Melbourne, Fawkner saw it as link to that other settlement 32 years earlier. In his mind it somehow legitimized European presence on those Aboriginal lands, the legality of which remained (and remains) very unclear.

YALLAMBEE by George Alexander Gilbert, c1850, elevated view of river, vineyard on side of hill rising from the river and house at crest of hill.
“Within five years the Bakewell brothers would be farming at Yallambie…” Pastel by George Alexander Gilbert, (State Library Victoria, H29575)

Within five years the Bakewell brothers would be farming on the Plenty River at Yallambie. It was the start in Victoria in a wave of regular net migration into Australia that continues into the present day.

Tradition has it that Christmas marks the birth of Jesus, the Christian Messiah, the message of whose ministry 2000 years ago called on all people, even the poor and oppressed, to repent and love their enemies. It is a time when we wish peace and good will to all men (and women) and call for a better understanding for in a way, we are all travellers through life on this island earth.

This island earth as seen from space by the Apollo 17 astronauts.
This island earth as seen from space by the Apollo 17 astronauts.

Last orders please

The Desert Continent can be a thirsty place. The Quixote sight of windmills standing high above dry watering holes in the Outback is evidence enough of that, but if extra evidence is needed, take a peek at the bending elbows inside any Aussie pub on a Saturday night and see just how thirsty this dry land can really be.

It’s true that many Australians like a drink. Then they like another. To paraphrase Slim Dusty, they love a beer in “moderation” hoping to “never ever ever get rollin’ drunk” and as watering holes go, the Lower Plenty Hotel across the River is the nearest place to moderately bend that elbow at Yallambie. Positioned on a ridge above the Plenty River opposite Yallambie, the “Local” was built in the 1960s when the surrounding sub divisions were just beginning to gather momentum. It might seem in a drinking haze today that the pub has been there for as long as anyone can remember but, as mentioned previously in these pages, the earlier Plenty Bridge Hotel preceded it by more than 100 years.

The old Plenty Bridge Hotel was a country pub in the classic traditions of Aussie drinking, the story of which stretches way back into the 18th century and to an infamous trade in “grog” by the 102nd Regiment of Foot, the aptly named Rum Corp of NSW. Aussie pubs themselves descended from the institution of the British public house and rural tavern, with the addition over time of a number of uniquely Australian features, such as the long bar and ice cold beer setting them apart from those of the Old Country.

The Lower Plenty Rd Bridge and the Plenty Bridge Hotel, photographed by Mark Daniel, 1900, SLV.
The Lower Plenty Rd Bridge and the Plenty Bridge Hotel, photographed by Mark Daniel, 1900, SLV.

The weather board building at the Plenty River crossing place that formed the Plenty Bridge Hotel first opened for business in 1858 and it remained a well-known centre of community life in the district for at least a century.

Victorian Railways No.1 steam charabanc at the Plenty Bridge Hotel, (located opposite the south east corner of Yallambie Park), c1905
Victorian Railways No.1 steam charabanc at the Plenty Bridge Hotel, (located opposite the south east corner of Yallambie Park), c1905
John Bakewell, 1807-1888

There has been speculation that it may have been preceded by an earlier pre-gold rush establishment on the same site which, to put this into some kind of perspective within the larger history of Yallambie, means that the first beers were being pulled at the Plenty Bridge during the Bakewells’ continuing involvement at “Yallambee Park” and while Thomas Wragge was yet a young man.

Thomas Wragge
Thomas Wragge
Opening of the Heidelberg Golf Links at Bryn Teg, 1928
Opening of the Heidelberg Golf Links at Bryn Teg, 1928

That may be, but at any rate, much of the later life of the Plenty Bridge became synonymous with its use by the Heidelberg Golf Course as a 19th Hole and indeed, over time, the hotel would even become known by an alias, the “Golf Club Hotel”.

In 1948 however, Robert (Bob) Irwin, a former Riverina Publican, took over the hotel licence with a vision of creating a country-club style venue within the environment of the old hotel. Among other renovations, the Plenty Bridge was given a lick of paint, sun blinds were installed and Irwin added what was commonly supposed to be Melbourne’s first formal beer garden.

Melbourne’s first formal beer garden.
Melbourne’s first formal beer garden. Source: John Irwin Family Collection
White coated "waiters" at the beer garden service counter.
White coated “waiters” at the beer garden service counter. Source: John Irwin Family Collection

White coated “waiters” attended patrons within a vine clad and trellised enclosure and on a sunny day the atmosphere seemed quite fashionable.

This later life of the Plenty Bridge coincided with an Australian liquor licencing policy which, although seeming strange to the drinker of today, existed for a significant part of the 20th century. This was the era of “6 o’clock closing” when public bars were forced to close at 6pm, a mere hour after most working men knocked off for the day. The infamous “6 o’clock” swill” as it became known developed as a result of austerity measures introduced during the 1st World War but, under pressure from the local Temperance Movement in a sort Antipodean version of American Prohibition, it became permanent, remaining until long after the end of the 2nd War.

"The Bar", John Brack's apology to Manet and an ironic take on Australia's "6 o'clock closing" laws, (John Brack, 1954, collection of the NGV).
“The Bar”, John Brack’s apology to Manet and an ironic take on Australia’s “6 o’clock closing” laws, (John Brack, 1954, collection of the NGV).

The Plenty Bridge Hotel as a pub located “almost” in the country, appears to have escaped the most notorious aspects of the regular 6 o’clock, city worker, drinking binge. As a country pub, it was one of the first places where a drink could be legally purchased on Sundays, before the general easing of liquor licencing laws and the gradual repeal of all the various state Sunday Observance Acts.

Men crowded in the corner of the main bar of the Plenty Bridge Hotel in the late 1940s. The photograph half visible on the wall to the right was a team photograph of the Montmorency Football Club.
Men crowded in the corner of the main bar of the Plenty Bridge Hotel in the late 1940s. The photograph half visible on the wall to the right was a team photograph of the Montmorency Football Club. Source: John Irwin Family Collection

A photograph from the John Irwin Family Collection taken inside the main bar of the Plenty Bridge Hotel in the late 1940s to my mind has an echo of one of Max Dupain’s iconic bar room images of a similar era.

Exhibition of Max Dupain photography at Mossgreen, a commercial gallery in High Street, Armadale, May, 2016.
Exhibition of Max Dupain photography at Mossgreen, a commercial gallery in High Street, Armadale, May 2016.

Dupain, perhaps better remembered for a single, quintessentially Australian image of a sunbaker he took on a NSW beach, was an incredibly prolific and gifted photographer whose subjects continue to resonate throughout the Australian consciousness. In the 1940s he was commissioned by the Australian Department of Information to document the Australian way of life and his photographs from this time remain an important record of the changing face of Australian society.

Similarly, the Plenty Bridge Hotel picture shows characters of that now largely bygone world. A time of laconic Australian men, their elbows resting lightly on the bar on a Saturday afternoon, yarning over cold glasses while their women sat across the hallway, segregated inside the so called “Ladies Lounge” in front of the fireplace with light shandies their only company.

"Saloon Bar at Petty's" Max Dupain, 1944, an important record of mid 20th century Australian beer room culture. NGA, http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=85786
“Saloon Bar at Petty’s” Max Dupain, 1944, an important record of mid 20th century Australian beer room culture. NGA, http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=85786

In those days the barman acted as a sort of de facto hotel security and Mick Noonan, the head barman at the Plenty Bridge, was no exception. Robert Irwin had met Mick years earlier at the Bendigo Show where he watched him step into the ring in one of those old time, “Thorn Birds” style boxing tent displays to take on the champion. Mick took down the champion in a one sided contest after which Robert got talking to him, liked him immediately, and offered him a job as the barman in his pub. When Robert moved to the Plenty Bridge with his wife Daisy and young son John, Mick came with the family.

Mick (pictured right), the Plenty Bridge barman in front of the tools of his trade.
Mick Noonan (pictured right), the Plenty Bridge barman in front of the tools of his trade. Source: John Irwin Family Collection
Another view behind the PBH bar.
Another view behind the PBH bar. Source: John Irwin Family Collection

Another Irwin picture from this time shows Mick behind the main bar with its top shelf liquors, valve radio and cash register. Mick’s reputation as a boxer was usually enough to keep law and order in the pub but on at least one occasion history records how this reputation was briefly put to the test by a stranger entering the bar hell bent on trouble. As the story goes, Mick remained silent to a variety of insults and challenges from this stranger before carefully folding his towel and emerging from behind the bar. In the yard outside between the pub and the stables, the hotel patrons assembled in expectation, forming a ring into which the two protagonists entered. While the stranger hurled verbal abuse Mick prepared himself without a word. Suddenly, with arms and knuckles flailing, the stranger charged into the attack.

The fight that followed was brief. Very brief. It’s said that Mick simply swayed aside from the onslaught and let go with a single punch. The stranger went down and didn’t get up. Without a word Mick went back inside the hotel to resume his duties as though nothing had happened.

Illustrated beer coaster presented to Mick by patrons of the Plenty Bridge Hotel to commemorate his boxing display.
Illustrated beer coaster presented to Mick Noonan by patrons of the Plenty Bridge Hotel to commemorate his boxing display. Source: John Irwin Family Collection

The story of the “Fight” at the Plenty Bridge Hotel grew in the telling and was remembered locally for years afterward.

The "Walk, Trot and Gallop", a light hearted event at the Eltham Agricultural Show, c1950. Mick, the Plenty Bridge barman, is pictured centre facing the camera and wearing a white shirt. He came second. No one remembers whether this was followed by a boxing event...
The “Walk, Trot and Gallop”, a light hearted event at the Eltham Agricultural Show, c1950. Mick Noonan, the head barman at the Plenty Bridge, is pictured centre facing the camera and wearing a white shirt riding the retired race horse Tony. They came second. No one remembers whether this result was followed by an unscheduled boxing event… Source: John Irwin Family Collection

It cemented Mick’s reputation as the law man of the PBH: “He was unruffled and not easily angered – but it was a mistake to take his quietness lightly.” (John Irwin)

The beer garden at the Plenty Bridge, AKA the Golf Club Hotel.
The beer garden at the Plenty Bridge, AKA the Golf Club Hotel.

Robert Irwin developed the Plenty Bridge into a thriving business that drew patrons from near and far. The Montmorency Football Club were regular drinkers. They won their first DVFL Premiership in 1951 and no doubt bent a few elbows back at the Plenty Bridge that evening.

The Plenty Bridge Hotel’s Robert Irwin was a Great War veteran who had become a father for the first and only time relatively late in life. He loved animals and any kind of sport and was still playing cricket for the RSL in his 50s. Irwin worked hard to achieve his vision for the Plenty Bridge Hotel but in the early 1950s he collapsed while on the nearby Heidelberg Golf Course. The family left the Lower Plenty Hotel in December 1951 and moved to Rosanna in 1953 where in 1958, Robert Irwin died of a coronary occlusion aged 59. He left behind his wife Daisy and son John. Remembered as a loving father and husband, Irwin is buried at the Warringal Cemetery in Heidelberg with his wife.

The Plenty Bridge survived for a few more years under a succession of new licensees, Walter Stewart from 1951 to 1954, Noel Seletto from 1954 to 1957 and William Edwards from 1957 to 1958, but it was the end of an era. The hotel was demolished in 1958, the location being cleared away and standing empty for many years before the site was finally consumed last year by a newly constructed car park. With the onset of building work in the adjacent and interestingly named Edward Willis Court, the people and the times of the Plenty Bridge are long gone and all but forgotten, the legendary fight and the last orders of the ghosts of drinkers past lingering on in a few fast fading photographs and memories.

Young John Irwin with transport in front of the Plenty Bridge Hotel.
Young John Irwin with transport in front of the Plenty Bridge Hotel. Source: John Irwin Family Collection

Perhaps the final word in this story should therefore go to Robert Irwin’s only child, John, now a grandfather himself of Houston, Texas. John enjoyed an idyllic childhood at the Plenty Bridge. In the following wonderfully immediate and eloquent description, extracted from an unpublished family memoir and quoted here by permission, a window is offered into that Plenty River childhood from another time:

“My mind turns back to a child’s eye: clever, brilliant, uneducated Nan, my Tasmanian grandmother, and our walks together in the bush, her stories of fairies and the spiritual world, Nan milking the cows, separating the cream, making butter with a churn and butter pats, and curling the butter, Nan telling fortunes with cards, reading palms, her pansies and jonquils, her quick wit and ever positive nature, Nan listening to “Blue Hills” on the radio; riding my three wheel bike, on two wheels at the Eltham tennis courts while my mother played, meeting my first friends at tennis; eating ice cream opposite the Eltham tennis courts on Main Road near the street up the hill to the artists’ colony at Montsalvat, my father buying my Shetland pony Dressie (Dresden Lea) at the artists’ colony, meeting someone named Jorgensen at Montsalvat; sitting on a stool in the main bar surrounded by loud men drinking, being “shouted” lemon squashes and raspberry & lemonades; the lush beer garden brimming with guests; speaking to ladies enjoying a drink in their cars in front of the hotel; Christmas morning, 1949 when I was four and was given my first two wheel bike, Mick holding the seat as I rode with him to the dairy to get milk, learning to balance and the thrill of riding home to show my parents; Nan in the backyard asking me to get the men from the bar, and finally understanding there was a deadly snake between us; being mascot for Montmorency Football Club in 1949, the smell of eucalyptus in the rooms, the thrill of running onto the ground with the players and around the oval; my adults only fifth birthday in front of a blazing fire in the ladies’ lounge, table set with a feast, my father opening champagne and then pouring a small green drink after the meal (not for me, crème de menthe); riding Dressie in the yard with my father and later at the Royal Melbourne Show; collecting eggs in the old stables which housed a coop for chickens and ducks: playing with Billie Bush at Yallambie, his birthday party, finding peanuts in the bear’s mouth on the bear skin rug, riding his sled down the slope behind Yallambie, a special air about Yallambie Homestead and its stairs and polished banister; Laddie fighting a ferocious dog called a Queensland Blue Heeler; Nan teaching Laddie to sit up, Nan teaching Cockie, the galah, to speak, Phillip the magpie who resided on the Nan’s bed stead, Nan’s canaries, Nan keeping a fishing line in the river; my father’s fascination with animals and all that we had at the hotel—pony, retired racehorse (Tony), draught horse, two or three cows (one named Daisy after my mother), chickens (“chooks”), ducks — riding around Lower Plenty with Mick in his two wheeled jinker pulled by Tony and visiting the black smith.”

An idyllic childhood: young John Irwin inside the beer garden at the Plenty Bridge Hotel.
An idyllic childhood: young John Irwin inside the beer garden at the Plenty Bridge Hotel. Source: John Irwin Family Collection

You oughta be in pictures

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.

Charterisville in Ivanhoe, built by David Charteris McArthur, c1845.
Charterisville in Ivanhoe, built by David Charteris McArthur, c1845.

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.

Kelly's last stand from the 1906 film, "The Story of the Kelly Gang".
Kelly’s last stand from the 1906 film, “The Story of the Kelly Gang”.

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.

Still from the short feature, "Borrowed Plumes" filmed in Eltham in 1928.
Still from the short feature, “Borrowed Plumes” filmed in Eltham in 1928.

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.

Screen still of Heidelberg Park restyled as Somerset County Fairgrounds, from 2006 film, Charlotte's Web, (Nickelodeon Movies).
Screen still of Heidelberg Park restyled as Somerset County Fairgrounds, from 2006 film, Charlotte’s Web, (Nickelodeon Movies).

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.

Montsalvat in Eltham as seen in Episode 13 of Series 2 of the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, 2013, (Every Cloud Productions).
Montsalvat in Eltham as seen in Episode 13 of Series 2 of the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, 2013, (Every Cloud Productions).

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.

Screen still of Banyule Homestead from Episode 3 of The Ex-PM, (CJZ, ABC TV).
Screen still of Banyule Homestead from Episode 3 of The Ex-PM, (CJZ, ABC TV).

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.

Character brandishing a piece of 4 by 2 in the garden at Yallambie, (Killervision film still).
Character brandishing a piece of 4 by 2 in the garden at Yallambie, (Killervision film still).

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.

On the soccer ground in Yallambie Park, (Killervision film still).
On the soccer ground in Yallambie Park, (Killervision film still).

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.

Fictitious university prospectus featuring Homestead, (Killervision film still).
Fictitious university prospectus featuring Homestead, (Killervision film still).

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.”

Ol' Elrond himself.
Ol’ Elrond himself.

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.”

Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner on location for the 1959 film "On the Beach", (Stanley Kramer Productions).
Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner filming the end of the world in Melbourne.

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.

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