What’s small and furry, has a duck bill and webbed feet, lays eggs while suckling it’s young and can be found on occasion with a sting close alongside its beaver like tail?
I’m sure you know the answer already although chances are, like me you’ve probably never seen one outside of a natural history museum. If you’ve got 20 cents in your pocket though, you could be closer to one than you think.
Ornithorhynchus anatinus – I was walking in the park early in the morning a week ago when I saw it. As I crossed the river from the Yallambie to Montmorency side at the bridge below the site of Casa Maria I heard a splash and, pausing to look upriver in the direction of the sound, I heard another movement just below me. Turning in the direction of the new sound, I was just in time to see something furry go into the water with a kersplosh and an instant later I saw it rolling over in the water of the overhanging river bank, unmistakable now in its appearance with a short, flat tail. It didn’t break the surface of the water again while I watched but I could see the direction that it took underwater, marked by a “V” on the surface of the pool heading in the direction of an obscuring reed bed and the source of the first splash. ‘Must be a pair of them,’ I thought as I turned away. ‘That’s a good sign for the health of the river.’
Playtpus, for that’s what my furry friend turned out to be, is a somewhat paradoxical animal. A semi-aquatic, egg laying, mammal it is the sole survivor of the family Ornithorhynchidae, in the genus Ornithorhynchus (bird billed). When stuffed examples were sent for study from Australia to Britain at the end of the 18th century, outraged scholars believed they were the victims of an attempted antipodean hoax for if the imaginary Babel Fish can be used as “a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God,” then the Platypus is the ultimate contradiction. It proves that God has a sense of humour.
Platypus are possibly more common along watercourses in the suburbs than you might think. Shy and nocturnal, they are all too seldom seen however. Historically, the Plenty River is said to have been abundant with these aquatic native animals with Thomas Wragge’s grandson, Frank Wright remembering the river at Yallambie before the Great War, writing that, “Possums and platypus were plentiful. Often we would see six or ten platypus in a day.”(Wright, Recollections of the Plenty River, 1974, quoted in Calder, p212). Similarly Wragge’s great grandson, Bill Bush reported seeing them regularly while growing up at Yallambie in the 1950s but in all the years that we’ve lived here, this is the first time I’ve seen one.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the Platypus is an endangered species. Not yet. It is evidence only of the difficulties some species have adapting to life within an urbanised landscape and how unobservant we tend to be in our every day lives. I see wallabies often enough in Yallambie Park, including a pair that seem to have taken up residence on the ridge above the Platypus bathing pool. We’ve even had a beautiful, chocolate coloured swamp wallaby in our garden but while wallabies and kangaroos seem to have urbanized OK, other animals don’t necessarily adapt so well. Platypus are susceptible to illegal netting practices in the river and the morning I spotted the Platypus, I saw a dog running off the lead and into the water in the immediate vicinity of the sighting.
It has been reported that Australia has the fourth-highest level of animal species extinction in the world with the number of extinct species topping 40 with another 106 listed as critically endangered. Clearing land for urban expansion and agriculture, logging forests and damming rivers have all contributed to this problem while Victoria also enjoys the dubious reputation of being the most deforested state in Australia. More than 60 per cent of the forest that existed at the time of first settlement is now gone. The announcement yesterday by the State Government that logging of native timber in Victoria would end by 2030 is at least a step in the right direction and an indication that the Government is aware of the problem and concerned by the flow on effects of the destruction of native ecosystems. But will it be too little, too late? Already the critics are lining up, supported by a conservative Federal government, to claim that the State Government is putting furry animals ahead of timber industry jobs. A decade sometimes seems like a long way away.
Meanwhile we city folk can continue to take our walks in the reinstated setting of a suburban park land environment, convinced that everything is going to be alright Jack. It brings me joy to see our chocolate coloured swamp wallaby exploring the lower reaches of the garden although, given the history of urban landscapes, I suppose my chances of seeing another Platypus down by the river anytime soon are about as good as seeing the legendary Babel Fish.
Throughout the ages the collective memory of primitive societies has been preserved by what we call “the oral tradition”. It might seem unlikely now in this age of the internet and digital space, but before the invention of the written word, oral tradition was often the only way that human beings were able to preserve the record of generational knowledge outside the superfluous grey matter found between their ears.
We might think we’ve come a long way since but in some ways the power of memory is as important now as it ever was. Oral history, as opposed to oral tradition, is an academic discipline which can be defined by the collection and study of historical information using recording devices and interview techniques, a process which strives to obtain information unavailable by other methods. Publishing these personal histories has never been more popular with desk top publishing and cheap printing making the process relatively easy.
Locally, the Greensborough Historical Society has taken a leaf out of what could be called the oral history book by publishing a couple of recent companion volumes, “As I Recall” and “Do You Recall?” which feature stories drawn from the memories of long-time residents of Greensborough and nearby suburbs. Last week while travelling on the 293 Greensborough bus with my nose buried in the pages of one of these tomes which happened to be opened at a chapter describing the history of the now defunct Diamond Valley Community Hospital, a woman sitting next to me after first apologizing for reading over my shoulder pointed at the page and said, “I was born at that hospital.”
“You and about 10,000 others,” I said, quoting directly from the pages of the book.
What followed then turned into an interesting chat about her memories of the local area before I had to let it go and get off at my stop, leaving her story only half complete. It was a loss in one respect. Given longer I’m guessing I might have turned her story into a post, but in another respect it was a gain as it got me thinking about history and the importance of memory within the spoken framework. As it happens, both GHS volumes contain chapters recording the memories of one Eric Barclay and are complete with his impressions of what it was like growing up in a Post War rural environment on what was colloquially known as the Grace Park Estate, Greensborough. This estate was located more or less on the northern boundaries of Yallambie and at one time was home to a rough and ready, 9-hole golf course. It was an area parts of which remained semi-rural into the last quarter of the 20th century and Eric’s story makes an interesting tale.
Born in 1938, Eric Barclay was the only child of Henry and Dorothy Barclay who were aged 60 and 40 respectively when their son surprised them by being born. The family owned a small weatherboard cottage on a 10 acre farm in Elder St, Greensborough, south of where Henry St ends at the T intersection. The Barclay property was located about an equidistance from Greensborough, Montmorency, Watsonia and Lower Plenty and could only be accessed along unmade roads and bush tracks. The house, which had been relocated from Collingwood in an earlier era, was without power, sewerage or mains water and although basic in its necessities, it proved to be a happy and healthy childhood environment for young Eric.
“We were hillbillies. We never ever got the light on until the early 50s…. We were very primitive out there. One thing about it, when we were hungry we had a bit of an orchard. Dad was a good gardener. We had vegetables. We had plenty of chooks, plenty of eggs.” (Eric Barclay, “Do You Recall?” GHS, 2017)
Much of Eric Barclay’s story as related in the two GHS books is devoted to what he called his memories of “The Big Paddock”, (the title of his chapter in “Do You Recall?). The Big Paddock was a 600 acre area roughly bounded in the west by Greensborough Rd, in the north by Nell St, the east by the River where the unmade track that was Elder St petered out, and by Yallambie in the south.
“It had a wire fence around it and besides briar bushes only had cattle, kangaroos and hares in it… Every year The Big Paddock used to get burnt out. We had no fire brigades in Greensborough in those days. The locals would get out and fight it, my father and Mr Bell and others. Almost every year up to the late 40s our area’s 5 to 10 acre farmlets had a planned burn off and they’d do maybe three places one night, all the men. The women would have a central place where they’d have cups of tea and a few beers later on. We did that until all the tussocks had been cleared off. We’d look forward to it as kids, we’d have a bag each and go round beating out the posts so they didn’t take fire.” (Eric Barclay, “Do You Recall?” GHS, 2017)
Eric’s father, Henry was employed at “Stubley’s”, a produce merchant in Main Rd, Greensborough with ties to a motor garage and service station of the same name. Later Henry found work at Annie Murdoch’s Yallambie, a circumstance that will be of particular interest to readers of this blog. The following words are reproduced here, directly from the pages of the Greensborough Historical Society volume, “Do You Recall?” published by the Society in 2017.
My father Henry Banwell Barclay ended up working at Yallambie House, the mansion. They used to have quite a market garden there, they would have had a couple of hundred acres I reckon. They had river frontage on the Plenty. The driveway of Yallambie House ran through to Lower Plenty Road.
Going through the paddocks I’d take Dad over his lunch and a bottle of cold tea. Dad worked down there on the river flats. They had vegetables and fruit trees. It was pretty substantial. Old Joe worked there as well as Dad who was 60 when I was born in Whittlesea in 1938.
The people that had Yallambie, the elderly lady was Mrs Murdoch. She was the owner, the matriarch. Her daughter married a Mr Bush. They were lovely people. They had two children, Elizabeth, about my age, and Billy who was a lot younger. I can remember Elizabeth going to Ivanhoe Grammar.
They had two Daimler cars and one day Mr Bush said “Now, young Eric I’d like to give you a bit of pocket money.” I used to wash the two Daimlers once a fortnight and get three bob… three shillings, which was good. We didn’t have a lot of money. My father had spent a lot on his children (from his first marriage) in the earlier days setting them up. I would have been about 11 at the time. He was 71 and still working over there.
They had an asphalt tennis court there and a year or so later Mrs Bush said “Eric, if you’d like to bring some of your friends over you can play tennis.” So Leslie Dunstan, Donny Bell, Robert Collins and myself would go over there and sweep the leaves off and mark the lines and play. There were elm trees and a big verandah out the back and Mrs Bush would come out and she’d say “Righto boys!” She’d have a table set up on the verandah and we’d have lemonade and butterfly cakes and that. They were terrific.
Each year around Melbourne Cup time they’d put Dad and Mum and myself in the Cup sweep and I’d have to go across Melbourne Cup morning and see what horses we had.
There was a manager’s house there, the cookhouse, the whole lot. In the early days the manager was a Mr Gardiner. The cook was Nellie.
Eric’s story continues with his memories of the Plenty River, the riding school at Woodside, (Casa Maria) and Wragge’s Anglican Church of the Holy Spirit.
Us kids learnt to swim in the Plenty River, you’d get holes 20 foot deep. There were platypus and water rats. It was a beautiful stream. When I was a bit older Leslie Dunstone, Donny Bell and myself used to fish it from one end to the other, nearly down to the junction with the Yarra River. That’s a long walk. We’d take hurricane lamps and the dogs with us, a tin of baked beans and a bit of bread.
Along Yallambie Road, which was a gravel road, on the left was Bellamy’s. They had a poultry farm, there were very few houses. You went right along and there was a gate. You’d open the gate and keep going and right down the end of Yallambie Road was Nancy Hosack’s riding school. She had a nice home and the riding school and the stables and so forth. Nancy used to compete in a lot of the gymkhanas and Benny Weir, who lived in Greensborough off Alexandra Street down near the river, was probably one of her greatest competitors in them.
Past the gate, on the south side of Yallambie Road, going west, was the army camp land. Years later they brought all the people in from Camp Pell, which was like a Housing Commission kind of setup in Royal Park. That’s when all our chooks started to get stolen and so forth. They brought them out to the army camp for housing up at the top end of the camp in Yallambie Road.
Where the petrol station is now, there used to be a church there. It was a little brick Church of England church. I think they used to have a service there about once a week. A lot of people wouldn’t know that had been there.
Benny Weir’s swimming hole was probably one of my favourite spots on the Plenty. They had a rope hanging over the river and kids would go swimming there.
In about 1950 Eric’s father began selling off parts of their 10 acre farm. Australia’s leading Greyhound trainer, Stan Cleverly bought half and built the substantial brick home that stands today on a double block at the top of the rise in Elder St at the Henry St intersection. Stan installed a straight greyhound training track alongside his home where he trained from 50 to a 100 greyhounds at a time, although in the words of Eric, “Later on, it paid him more to get dogs beaten. He got outed for a year.” Eventually, Eric sold the last 3 ½ acres of the Barclay farm and moved to Macleod in 1966. His family’s presence is remembered in the area in the name of “Barclay Park”, a small reserve in Plenty Lane, Greensborough.
The importance of these spoken histories has also been recognized by the Heidelberg Historical Society which has recently put out a call for volunteers prepared to offer their services in recording the oral stories of older residents of the Heidelberg area. In reading back over the two companion volumes of oral history published earlier by the Greensborough Historical Society, I am of a mind that the more successful chapters of such books are those that, like Eric Barclay, allow the interviewee to tell remembered personal anecdotes as opposed to dry lists of unchecked facts and figures. Oral history is not about the replacement of the established order of historical sources. Go struggle with a University thesis if you want that. Oral History instead is about the perspective, thoughts, opinions and understanding of interviewees in a primary form.
On a personal note, as previously mentioned in this blog, around 1980 my late father sat down with a cassette tape recorder and recounted a life time of memories. As a lad I used to wonder about what he was up to. It seemed to me he had taken up the habit of talking to himself behind closed doors. Only after he was dead could I recognize, as he had probably done earlier, the importance of an oral legacy. A decade later I turned a transcript of those recordings into a book, the larger part of which records his impressions of World War 2 and his life as a POW of the Japanese. To my mind today, it makes an absorbing read, not as a history of that War but as the impressions of how the War affected the life of one man, caught up in a world conflict far beyond his control. My father’s was just one more voice from an otherwise unheard viewpoint falling from the pages of the history of the vast tragedy that engulfed Western Civilization in the first half of the 20th Century.
“Now, about five o’clock the next morning, our commanding officer, Major Keith Lawrence, gathered us around in a group. Not in ranks or anything like that and with words to this effect. He said, “I have a few things to explain to you here.” And he went on to tell us, you know, the position as he knew it. That the war had virtually ceased on the mainland and that we were now all gathered on Singapore Island and we had to make the most of what we had. And then, I suppose I’m only one of the two hundred and fifty or sixty men within our unit. I’m sure the others were just as shocked as I as when he turned around and said, “There is not a mile of barbed wire anywhere in front of us.” In other words he meant, we had no fortifications at all.” (Spr McLachlan learns the truth of the myth of ‘Fortress Singapore’, from “Titch – Telling Tales of T C McLachlan”, Yallambie, 1999).
So if you know an old-timer, sit down with them sometime soon and listen to their stories. It can be a pretty rewarding experience for the listener, but make sure you write down what you are told or even record it on your iPhone if that’s the way you work. There’s a gold mine of undiscovered primary history sources out there just waiting for someone to sit down, to stop, and listen.
It’s said that if you’re not careful, waving a red flag could get you a visit from the pointy end of a very angry bull. That’s if you’re unlucky enough to find a member of that bovine species with its horns down and tail up, charging past when you happen to be holding one. Yet in the 19th century a red flag could be the herald of something quite different and in practice, rather more sedate.
The extraordinary 1865 Locomotive Act of Great Britain, sometimes known as the “Red Flag Act”, was an old law that required a man to precede at walking pace all steam powered vehicles on the open road and to carry a red flag or lantern as a warning while doing so. It developed in the middle years of the 19th century after intense lobbying from horse-drawn carriage operators and the railway industry in what was seen even then as a cynical attempt to stifle legitimate competition to their services. The Act gave local authorities unprecedented powers over speed limits which were set between 4 and 2 mph and the authority to specify the hours during which steam vehicles might use the roads, the combined effect of which was to limit the rise of steam powered road transport throughout Britain and her Empire for decades. It was enough to take the puff out of what has otherwise been called, “The Steam Age”.
Towards the end of the century, with motoring innovation and the use of the new-fangled internal combustion engine gathering pace, the Red Flag Act was seen for what it was. A patently absurd anachronism. The Act was amended and in 1896 finally repealed, after which time experimental steam transport was finally free to develop and operate unhindered.
By then it was nearly too late for road steam but all the same there were still some who were willing to try. Thomas Clarkson began producing steam buses at his Moulsham Works in Chelmsford, England at about this time with the company’s prospectus declaring that, “The Chelmsford motor omnibuses are steam propelled, and… are entirely free from smell, noise, and vibration.” The Clarkson vehicles had a two-cylinder horizontal engine with a tubular boiler and a working pressure of between 150 and 250psi and averaged almost 4 miles to a gallon of paraffin fuel.
At the dawn of the new century A G Webster & Son of Hobart imported a number of these Clarkson omnibuses to Australia and several were adopted by the state railways for use in passenger services on the roads. This photograph of a Clarkson vehicle parked outside the Plenty Bridge Hotel in Lower Plenty opposite Yallambie was taken in 1905, possibly during a proving exercise in that year. Another photograph apparently from the same series shows the same vehicle on a timber covered road, perhaps somewhere in the Upper Yarra or Upper Plenty area, localities the vehicle presumably might have travelled through after leaving the Plenty Bridge. A closer inspection of this photograph appears to show an indigenous member of the party in the middle of the group, looking away from the camera, fourth from the right. Could this photograph have been taken during a visit to the Coranderrk Aboriginal Enterprise near Healesville?
In the other picture, the Plenty Bridge picture, Edward Joseph Rigby has been identified seated in the driver’s seat. His son, Edward Jr is standing at the rear of the vehicle along from his mother. Rigby Sr was an engineer and early motoring enthusiast, being a foundation member of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria. It is believed that he was responsible for the elegant chassis construction of the Clarkson vehicles used in Melbourne.
Six Clarkson vehicles were ordered by the Victorian Railways but they were used for only a short period after proving unreliable in service. Steam transport in Victoria at this time was largely limited to the tried and true uses employed to such good effect by the railways, to which industry it was ideally suited and well established throughout the world.
The story of the early railways in the Heidelberg district reads as a chequered tale. The lack of regional progress throughout the latter part of the 19th century has been blamed mainly on the lack of an efficient, direct route into the north east, the result of protracted councils’ infighting and disagreement over the form such a railway should take and the route it should follow. Getting a train to Heidelberg in the early days involved a juggling act with timetables and a backwards and forwards movement along spur lines before there was even a chance of getting anywhere. As one wag put it at the time:
“In the old days of buses and coaches, travellers could hope, on starting from Melbourne, to reach the place in about an hour, but with the advancing times and the railway communication they could now do the journey in one hour and a half.”
(The Mercury, May 1888, quoted in Garden)
It seems the visit of a Railways steam omnibus to Lower Plenty might have had its merits.
A direct steam engine rail route to Heidelberg was finally established in 1901, extended to Eltham in June, 1902 and reached the end of the line at Hurstbridge in 1926. The route as built performs a vast arc around the Yallambie area with the stations at Rosanna, Watsonia and Montmorency all about an equidistance from the main body of the Yallambie housing estate which is centred on the western banks of the Plenty River. A modern regular bus service from St Helena, the 517, connects Yallambie today to train services at Rosanna and Greensborough Stations, although the route it takes through the back streets can add up to half an hour to a trip. This however is about the same time that it takes to walk to Montmorency Station along the Plenty River Shared Trail from Yallambie, so it’s really a case of whether or not you fancy the exercise when you’re commuting. Other bus routes connect Yallambie to all points of the compass with the 513 along Lower Plenty Rd to Eltham and the 293 from Para Rd in Montmorency to Doncaster and Box Hill being particularly useful.
The State Government’s commitment to public transport is clear with the recent removal of the Lower Plenty Rd level crossing and redevelopment of the Rosanna Station being just one local example of this policy. At the same time though, the Government’s decision to build a North East Link freeway down the western boundary of Yallambie and underground through Heidelberg is evidence of another commitment entirely.
With the use of hybrid cars and Peak Oil giving the roads of the future an unknown prospect, it remains to be seen what shape the future transport needs of Melbourne might take. As Melbourne bursts at its seams and with new development across the city outpacing existing infrastructure, perhaps we need to look back at what happened in Heidelberg in the 19th century to get an idea of where we are going. “Sleepy Hollow” they called the Heidelberg area due to the poor roads and lack of rail access but when the railway finally arrived, in the face of all the infighting that came with it, the route was not necessarily the best that might have been chosen. As for steam transport on the roads, well that one clearly never moved much beyond a walking pace.
Outside the old Court House in Jika Street, Heidelberg, now the home of the Heidelberg Historical Society, there stands an old water trough, a local example of what was known in its day as a “Bills Horse Trough”. Bills Horse Troughs, so named after the public benefactor whose financial legacy created them (but not incidentally the same Bill whose poster activities I’ve seen prosecuted so relentlessly around town), were a necessary device in an era when so much was relied upon from horse travel. The Jika Street trough was originally located on the corner of Martins Lane and Lower Plenty Rd near Yallambie, opposite a place now marked by the glowing golden arches of the Yallambie franchise of a certain hamburger restaurant chain. The trough was moved to Heidelberg in the early 1980s after the widening of Lower Plenty Rd in an earlier period and restored with funding from the Australian Bicentennial Authority in1988.
Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge’s love of horses has been well documented and horses were clearly an integral part of life at Yallambie throughout the farming era. Eventually though, horse transport on the roads was to disappear to be replaced by the erstwhile horseless carriages that are so much a part of our lives today. Every one of us relies on our vehicles, whether they be motorised, horse drawn or steam powered but for mine I’ve always liked to think there is an alternative.
It’s ever there and doesn’t need costly road tunnels, rail crossings or even watering troughs.
You’ll find it down below your knees if you stop long enough to take a look.
“The Plenty he described as a rivulet of fine water, but running through a deep ravine which made access difficult. He considered the land very favourable for sheep runs.” – D S Garden describing Governor Sir Richard Bourke’s assessment of the Plenty River from a visit Bourke made in March, 1837, (Heidelberg – The Land and Its People, MUP)
If the Wurundjeri were relieved to escape from the 1835 “treaty” with John Batman in which they had allegedly ceded a country half the size of greater Melbourne for a few blankets, tomahawks and mirrors, they might well have taken a moment to look at the fine print of Governor Bourke’s pro bono reasoning.
It was not the obvious inequity of the “deal” that unsettled Bourke but his belief that the Wurundjeri Aboriginals did not “own” the land on which they stood and on which their ancestors had roamed bare foot for tens of thousands of years. His reasoning was that in real estate terms, it was not by rights theirs to sell. The devil was in the detail of this decision for in the process of making it, with the single stroke of a pen it removed the last obstacle to an inevitable and inexorable influx of British settlers to the Port Phillip District. As a direct result of Bourke’s decree, pastoralists armed doubly with muskets and the notion of terra nullius came across the Straits from Van Diemen’s Land and overland from greater NSW seeking new pastures for their flocks in this reportedly “unoccupied” territory. The open, fertile and well-watered country they found waiting for them around the Yarra and Plenty River valleys was an attractive proposition to these men who, for a £10 annual licence fee, could occupy as much Wurundjeri country as they then thought fit.
One of the earliest of these pastoralists was Edward (Ned) Willis whose story as a squatter on the lower reaches of the Plenty River in 1837 has been briefly mentioned in these pages previously. Edward was a young man, not yet turned 21 when he arrived with his brother and uncle and more than 600 sheep in the surf at Pt Gellibrand in Port Phillip Bay on 13 April, 1837. Edward and his brother James had been driven away from their home in Van Diemen’s Land after James quarrelled with their father, Richard Willis of Wanstead in the island’s north. Edward soon brought his sheep to the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers where he created a sheep run which stood opposite or perhaps even bordered land that would later form the south eastern part of Yallambie.
What has not been mentioned previously in these pages is that Edward’s brother, James Willis, kept a diary for five months while pursuing these endeavours. As a document written mostly on the east bank of the lower Plenty, it makes an exceptional companion piece to the “Farm Day Book” kept by the land owning settler William Greig on the west bank at Yallambie three years later. Similarly its content stands as a counterpoint to the description of Willis’ run made by Thomas Walker in his 1838 published account, “A Month in the Bush of Australia”. Like Greig’s story, James diary is filled with the thoughts and frustrations of a well born young man struggling to come to terms with a rough existence in the Australian bush and it remains as a fascinating glimpse into the life of one of our earliest Port Phillip pioneers. The extracts used here are reproduced from the Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 6 where the diary was published in its entirety.
The diary starts on 9 April, 1837 with the brothers Edward and James Willis and their Uncle, Arthur Willis embarking on the voyage across the Straits from Van Diemen’s Land to Port Phillip where they came ashore on the 13th. Uncle Arthur left the party soon after to arrange his return to Van Diemen’s Land while Edward and James led their shepherds, John Stockly and John Fletcher, by a circuitous route north of the settlement to the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers which they reached on the 18th led there by “Old Tom”, a shepherd working for another squatter, John Wood.
18th April, 1837
Edward and I with our guns started on foot to woods about a mile off, where we procured the assistance of old Tom the shepherd, who conducted us to a creek about two miles off running in a northerly direction. We pursued its course for three miles and found it to be a permanent steam.
We crossed it and came to our present one, which although rather thickly timbered we have every reason to be satisfied with. It is bounded in the South and the East by the Yarra. The stream I have alluded to forms its western boundary (which we call Edward’s Rivulet, but I perceive the surveyors have on their charts dignified it by the name of the ‘River Plenty’), while on the North we have a forest called by us Epping Forest.
Such is the spot selected by Edward for his place of residence for four or five years at the least, when it is hoped he will be able to leave this savage life and move once more among civilised beings…
His employment here during the day is that of a common labourer, and at night he is in momentary dread of losing all he possesses in the world by the attacks of the wild dogs of the country, his ears being alternately regaled with their hideous howls and yells, the squeaking of the flying squirrels, the corkscrew-like noise of the possums and the gloomy monotonous note of that frightful bird the ‘Mow Pork’, which “concord of sweet sound” is not unfrequently accompanied by the reports of our firearms and the shouts of ourselves and men to frighten the dogs from us.
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were employed in erecting a yard at Wanstead, the run (so called after a place of that name known to us in Van’s Land) and clearing a ford over Edward’s Rivulet.
James’ estimate that they had travelled three miles upriver before crossing the Plenty would seem to place them squarely opposite Yallambie. However, it is likely that this estimate and other distances mentioned later by James are a little inaccurate, especially when considering the trouble likely encountered moving alongside the unmapped river and struggling through forest and a still virgin countryside. The west bank of the Plenty upriver from the Yarra confluence is overlooked by a steep escarpment so it makes sense that they travelled some distance before attempting a crossing. It seems more than likely that the first crossing place therefore was south of Yallambie at the ford near the end of Martin’s Lane which would over the next few years become the first access route into Eltham and beyond. Edward and James apparently were working in advance of their shepherds since the crossing with the flock and the horse and cart was not attempted until the 22nd.
22nd April, 1837
Set out from Wanstead – reached the ford – crossed with the sheep but found the banks too steep to get the horse and cart over. With spades, axes and tomahawks we commenced digging away the bank on each side, but finding at noon that we still had a day’s work before us, we walked the horse over and carried the contents of the cart across. We then loaded the empty cart by means of a rope into the stream and fastened the horse to it on the opposite side with ropes and traces.
This plan failed as the horse had no power of draught, so we were forced to pull it out the best way we could. This method succeeded, though not until we had been tugging and pushing and bursting ourselves for about three hours. This Herculean labour being accomplished, we reloaded the cart and ascended the first rising ground, when we found about a quarter of a mile from the ford, the yard which Edward and Stockly had built the day previous.
Erected our tarpaulin into a sort of gipsy-looking affair to shelter us from the dews of heaven, and after a hearty meal of damper, bacon and tea we lay down to rest, and although our sleeping place consisted but of the rudest possible contrivance, and in a country equally wild looking, we both declared in the morning that we had had visions of feasting and dancing, of splendid apartments, of beautiful women and of delicious music flitting before us all night.
I could hardly avoid a slight shudder when I first awoke to see a huge mass of food lying close to me, which one of the men with a beard ten days old asked for, calling it ‘the damper’. Verily it was a damper to the delicate state of my feelings at that instant, but it was but for an instant, for I presently commenced an attack upon it myself and thought it very good feeding for a beggar as I then was, and still am…
James’ diary makes many references to their food resources, or rather lack of them, and to his “beggarly” status. On the 23rd April he “caught half a dozen very fine black fish, decidedly the most delicious fish I ever tasted”, and on the 4th May he ate an eel which Edward had caught in the river, “our bacon being all expended.” A sickly ewe had earlier been butchered and although it “proved very poor meat”, “Fletcher made us sea pies of it so long as it lasted, a great treat to us.” On the 15th May they enjoyed another “very splendid sea pie” the preparation and eating of which was described in the following way.
…Viz, two kangaroo rats, two quails, four parrots, one wattle bird, two satin birds (of the magpie species) and a few slices of pork.
It was served up in a large black iron pot and was most delicious – poor Ned was filling his plate a second time. He took some pains to select the most savoury morsels and was just emptying the last spoonful of gravy when the log on which his plate rested slipped and its contents were deposited on a heap of ashes, and great was the laughing at the fall thereof, the dogs being the only animals benefited by the display of Ned’s taste in helping himself…
The destruction of Edward’s meal on this occasion wasn’t the only such instance of loss recorded in the diary. Al fresco dining at their camp was a matter of necessity and not a matter of choice.
Dull and miserable – at supper this evening Fletcher made sundry attempts to light the lamp before he could succeed. The night was dark and cloudy and there was some wind. The light resisted the puffs of wind until we had all seated ourselves round the table when to infinite confusion, and as I was in the act of cutting a slice of pork, out went the light, away flew the candlestick, which Fletcher had perched upon a huge tin dish and had placed on the weather side of it a board, by way of protecting the luminary from sudden gusts – I rose with the laudable desire of assisting Fletcher in re-lighting the lamp, for I saw that his stock of patience was nearly gone, my knee struck the table which was not proof against this unexpected shock, it gave a lurch, tottered, and fell, when the pannikins of tea, the pork, damper and rice, together with the plates and knives and forks were all thrown in wild disorder all around us.
The wind now abated considerably and we succeeded in keeping the lamp alight which revealed to our view a most delectable chaos. A scramble ensued, in which the dogs persisted in joining, and it was with difficulty that we managed to satisfy ourselves with the fragments rescued from their devouring jaws.
House-keeping in the absence of a kitchen, or for that matter a house, could be a bit of a hit and miss affair. James described the trial of their situation thus:
…It would amuse some of our friends in Van Diemen’s Land to take a peep at us. We take our meals in the open air unless the rain be so violent as to wash the tin plates and pannikins off the table, which cannot be put upon legs until placed in the hut we propose to commence next week – it is at present supported by four logs about six inches from the ground, one of which, the thickest, serves us as a seat on one side.
Our fire is in front of us with a kettle of tea, tea pots being superfluous at Port Phillip. We are surrounded by three or four hungry dogs watching for a mouthful. There is a lump of salt pork in a tin dish, and a damper weighing about twenty pounds, sometimes relieved by a few birds and fish, the latter very seldom now. The men sleep under the tarpaulin, which also protects from the weather a cask of pork and divers other stores.
Our tent is pitched a few yards off, one side is piled high with flour, sugar, tobacco, and our two trunks placed one on the other, form a dressing table covered by a thing intended to look white, its original colour, but being spotted with ink, gunpowder and a variety of other ingredients which have occasionally dropped thereon, together with drops of rain and marks of dust, it would at present be a hard task to convey to anyone the pleasing diversity of colour it presents to the admiring eye of the beholder. We think at some future period of getting it washed.
Our mattresses are laid on the ground, each with a gun case along its side by way of uniformity. A sheep skin serves for the carpet, a trunk of books for a chair, a bag of soiled linen at night keeps the door closed. My writing desk is now my pillow and I am half reclining, half sitting at it. If I am in want of a bright thought, I have only to turn to the right and cast them on a bar of soap or a bag of sugar.
Sleeping beside their gun cases, the brothers’ firearms were apparently always near at hand and it seems, at least by the evidence presented in the diary, were almost constantly in use. In part, the diary reads like a litany of terror for the native birds and wildlife of the lower Plenty as they shot at virtually anything that moved in the surrounding neighbourhood, all of which seems to have gone into their cooking pots. On the 17th May James wrote that they, “Had a stew of birds for supper – capital tho’ it would have been all the better flavoured with ketchup.”
On the 24th James was practicing his shooting on a stationary target when he experienced a mishap while using a small pistol.
…On Sunday while Edward was in town I amused myself for half an hour by practicing at a target with a pistol, cleaned and reloaded it. Took the pocket pistol – found difficulty in pulling the trigger – loaded a second time with buck shot. The pistol burst in my hand, the lock and barrel flying in one side behind me, leaving nothing but the stock (split across the trigger) within my grasp – fortunate to escape – might have caused my sudden exit from this world of woe.
This happened on the Sunday but significantly James took three days before he wrote about his brush with death in the diary. Instead, what he did write about the following day was a description of his bitter feelings towards his estranged father Richard Willis and the family feud in Van Diemen’s Land that had resulted in their exile and which had caused James so much personal unhappiness.
This state of things cannot last. Some fearful crisis is at hand. Some impending calamity awaits our family. I dread to conjecture when any father’s unnatural conduct will have an end – he has driven all his sons from his roof… but I grow disgusted at the very remembrance of it – I have already polluted this sheet of paper with the name of a father who loathes the sight of his child – of a husband who does anything but honour and protect his wife, who outrages her feelings and strives by every possible means to render her home as miserable as it should be happy…
The near death experience with the exploding pistol had caused James more than a little self-reflection. His father, Richard was by some reports a somewhat “difficult” man. The Australian Dictionary of Biography states that Richard Willis managed to quarrel with most of his neighbours in northern Van Diemen’s Land in the 1820s and 30s and also that, “unpopularity may have been a factor in his decision to return to England,” permanently in February 1839. Whatever the cause of Richard’s quarrel with his son, there is no doubt that it affected the boy deeply.
…Ned and I smoked a cigar and retired for the night. Talked of friends in Van Diemen’s Land. I lay thinking until three o’clock in the morning – went to sleep – dreamed I was not a beggar.
As stated previously, James refers to his beggarly status on several occasions in the diary, displaying a wry sense of humour in this self-assessment and describing his pecuniary problems with the following diary entries.
…Some are born under a lucky star, and some an unlucky star. None of the former could possibly have been shining at my introduction into life. An income of some four or five thousands a year would make this world to me a very beautiful world, but as it is I have ever found it as much the reverse as possible…
And this entry two weeks later, although by this time his money needs would appear to have almost doubled:
I was very industrious – sitting on a bucket turned upside down and watching the embers of the fire, thinking of a thousand things, I often am inclined to think there must be some mistake about my present condition. I fancy I could spend so amazingly well an income of five or ten thousands. What a delightful thing it is to have a command of money. How easy it would be to make people patronise you. What an excellent nice fellow I should become all at once. The magical influence of that same filthy lucre is truly surprising. I believe I never shall be a rich man – I have a sort of presentiment that it cannot be. I shall never be able to do more than earn a subsistence – drag on a mediocre kind of existence without having any very beautiful visions to look back upon, such as delicious music, captivating women, grand and mighty cities and a thousand pleasures and enjoyments that can be procured by money and when once seen one may almost live upon the remembrance of them.
It’s has been said said that money isn’t everything but at times James wrote of a desire to remove himself completely from his current situation:
Very wet. Drawing logs for the sheep yard. Hard work, as well as dirty, lifting those same logs. Smoked a cigar, went to bed – wished myself anywhere but at Port Phillip.
And a few weeks later he wrote again, this time wishing himself back in London while sarcastically contrasting his dreams with his daytime labours and the “intellectual conversation” of their shepherds:
…Our ears were regaled some two or three hours with the highly intellectual conversation of John Fletcher and John Stockly the shepherds. Warmed my toes. Went to rest much edified – dreamed of Aborigines – building chimneys –sheep – split stuff – and London.
The joys of living under canvas through a Port Phillip winter quickly palled on the Willis brothers. James was at the settlement in Melbourne, “which at present consists entirely of turf and weather boarded huts, a very primitive looking place” and staying at John Pascoe Fawkner’s board and lodging house where Fawkner’s “one-eyed, genteel wife makes things as comfortable as one can expect,” eating her “curry which was of rabbit and certainly excellent”, when a terrific storm hit the District. James in Melbourne wrote that “the thunder and lightning (was) the most terrific I ever witnessed. I congratulated myself on being comfortably housed and thought of poor Ned at the Inn.” Edward’s own subsequent tale of the confusion at their Plenty River camp was duly recorded in the diary by James:
He said it must have been about ten o’clock when in a sound sleep he was awoke by a desperate rush in the sheep fold. At the same instant he heard the two men shouting and hallooing in the most vehement manner, and one flash of lightning which illuminated the tent was followed by a deafening clap of thunder. He sprang from his bed expecting to find all the sheep scattered and an easy prey for the dogs, for so dark was it that you could not see beyond your nose.
The first thing he did was to cheer the men by his voice. Another blaze of lightning for some moments blinded all three of them and they reeled about insensible. Fletcher ran against a tree, a branch of which had wellnigh ripped his bowels open, and then measured his length on the ground where he lay several minutes in momentary expectation of being swallowed up by the earth. Stockly at a short distance from the yard called Fletcher to open the gate, for he thought he was driving the sheep before him, when undeceived he ran up to the fire and enquired ‘whose fire that was’, his hair literally stood on end, he was in his shirt and presented a picture of the most unutterable despair.
During the time the rain descending, the wind blowing and the repeated peals of thunder was such as to appal the heart of a lion. Fully convinced that the wild dogs had got among the sheep the men shouted, yelled and uttered every variety of noise to frighten them away. They both behaved uncommonly well throughout, but such was the tremendous war of the elements that they anticipated nothing short of an earthquake as they declared to me afterwards.
Suddenly it became fair and they found that Master Bush, one of the sheep dogs, in his alarm had jumped in among the sheep as if he sought shelter from them during the dreadful convulsion. Edward stood some minutes at the door of his tent and on reviewing the scene he had just witnessed could scarcely refrain from laughing when he saw the two men in their shirts running about like maniacs they knew not whither with their hair standing on end and bawling, squalling, shouting and screaming in the most frightful manner and falling prostrate on the ground, and then tumbling over a log. Another, mistaking the fire he had just left for some strange fire, fancying he was driving all the sheep into the yard when he called out to have the gate opened. A few of the sheep got out when the rush was made, but in the morning they were found standing quietly beside the fence.
The Willis brothers were still living under canvas in early June when the land speculator Thomas Walker visited their camp on the Plenty. Walker memorialized this visit in his 1838 book, ““A Month in the Bush of Australia” writing that, “Willis is still living in his tent, but with as much comfort as under such circumstances can be looked for. He has got a nice situation in the fork formed by the junction of the creek “Plenty” and the Yarra Yarra.” (You can read Walker’s full extract in my 2014 post, here). James recorded Walker’s visit in the diary with the following entry:
Edward arrived from Melbourne with some gentlemen who came overland from Sydney. Two of them drove a gig the whole way, the rest on horseback, having crossed four rivers and met with no kind of impediment. They accomplished the journey in about a month. Edward with his visitors after dining returned to town, where he has to arrange respecting the payment for two allotments he purchased for Willis Macintyre and Co.
Throughout most of the narrative of James’ diary, while living in their tent, James writes that the brothers were occupied during the day splitting timbers for a sheep yard and for an associated slab hut. The hut was commenced on 16th May and was presumably located within easy reach of the river ford. The 1841 census placed it where the Plenty Bridge Hotel would later stand above the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge.
On the 23rd May James wrote, “Fine morning. Wet afternoon. Drawing logs for the hut. Slow work – no hired men – all done by our own hands. Ned acts carpenter – he is adzing logs – says it makes his back ache.” Four days later Edward was visiting a neighbouring squatter John Nicholas Wood whose shepherd “Old Tom” had originally led them to the Yarra Plenty confluence. Wood’s run was located approximately in the vicinity of where Hawdon’s Banyule Homestead would later be built. James had described Wood as “a good-natured little fellow though his manners are not the most refined” and Edward was hoping to enlist his help, “roofing the hut, which it is highly expedient we should inhabit before our beds are washed from under us.” The brothers were both suffering from colds at this time as they entered their first Port Phillip winter. On 1st June the building was far enough advanced for Edward to go to Melbourne to purchase nails “to put the roof on the hut” and on the 10th it was James who was in Melbourne collecting a further supply of nails. The deprivations of their house-less existence had taken their toll however and at the end of July, James’ health broke down completely. His painful illness required his immediate removal to Melbourne where the doctor, finding he was “suffering from inflammation caused by cold”, bled him in the Dracula-like medical fashion of the day. Whether or not as a result of the bleeding or simply as a result of a strong constitution, after an interval James was able to write, “I am at length quite restored to health…”
His humour also seemed restored. John Batman had loaned them his transport, “the only gig in the settlement” to get the invalid to Melbourne and also offered James a room in his home on Batman’s Hill during the period of his convalescence, which was duly declined subsequent to the following chivalric reasoning:
“…I thought it better to decline his offer as he was at that time an invalid himself, and moreover I was rather afraid of encountering the bright eyes of his daughter – for she might have evinced something like that tender solicitude for the wounded Knight’s recovery which the gentler, the fairer, and the softer sex are never without, and which might have prompted something like gratitude in my breast towards the sympathising damsel, admiration probably would follow, and then God knows what. But it seems that the fates have reserved me for a better, or perhaps a worse destiny than would in such case have been the inevitable result.”
The fates had indeed reserved another destiny for James. In the diary entry written just before James’ illness, James described a journey made by the brothers and their neighbour John Wood, up the Plenty River. They were provisioned and had been intending to explore the country for three or four days but after they “had traversed the course of our creek the ‘Plenty’ (or ‘Edward’s Rivulet’, as we call it) some five or six miles”, the party came to a halt upon “a tract of most excellent grazing land.” James wrote that Edward and Wood then “discovered that they must return home instantly to dress sheep”, the implication being that a race was on between the two squatters to see who could relocate a flock to the new pasturage first.
James’ illness occurred directly after this event and when he had recovered sufficiently to return to the Plenty a month later he found that Edward had removed himself to a location which was by James’ estimation, “about seven miles higher up the Plenty”, presumably the land the brothers had seen with Wood previously. At this new location it seems that a second hut had by then been constructed. The building had a thatched roof, as opposed to the nailed shingles of the earlier structure, and had been made ready for the arrival from Van Diemen’s Land of a third Willis brother, William. James described a high hill nearby from which could be “enjoyed a view of the surrounding country for twenty miles and more in every direction.” This second run it would seem therefore was located somewhere north of the Montmorency or “Epping” Forest and in the vicinity of modern day Greensborough, where an apparently unrelated farm “Willis Vale” later developed. It has been suggested (conversation with Anne Paul, Greensborough Historical Society), that the view from the high hill mentioned by James might have been from the top of Flintoff’s Hill near where modern day Civic Drive intersects the Greensborough Bypass, or from Yellow Gum Park in the Plenty Gorge Parklands, but for now this must remain a matter of conjecture.
…and for the first time we found ourselves in a snug turf hut eleven feet by thirteen, with a thatched roof and neatly whitewashed inside.
Ned has a very respectable bedstead in one corner built of wattle sticks; one in the opposite corner is being made for William, whose arrival we are expecting. A rude contrivance bearing some faint resemblance to a sofa stands in the corner near the chimney; it answers the double purpose of sofa by day and my bed at night.
Our table is a very ingenious affair, being a hair trunk placed upon four stakes knocked in the ground, which with two wooden seats entirely of a new fashion and to which we have given the name of chairs, completes our stock of furniture. I should not omit our bookcase, which is composed of three long wattle sticks reaching from wall to wall on either side of the hut, along which our extensive and valuable collections of books appear in formidable array, having their backs, however, towards the company.
On various parts of the wall are skins of birds, and preserved amongst which the tail of a black cockatoo extended in shape of a fan, its feathers being black and crimson alternately, is handsome; several wings and tails of parrots—three kinds—are beautiful — as well as the entire skins of parrots having almost all the colours of the rainbow, some of which are the most rich and lovely I ever saw.
Sky blue, lavender, crimson, scarlet, orange, green and black are the most conspicuous, all being exquisite contrasts to each other.”
Today a large part of Willis’ 1837 pastoral run retains a pleasingly rural character with the land occupied by two golf courses and the Yarra Valley Parklands. How much Edward and James experiences in 1837 involved country that would later form part of the Bakewells’ Yallambee must however remain uncertain. There is no doubt that they roamed freely about nearby and probably at least crossed over a part of it. One of James’ earliest diary entries written on the 28th April mentioned them finding “a small spot of grazing land five miles off” and on the 14th May they found “some beautiful country about four miles from Wanstead” that Edward proposed turning one day into a second run, so the Willis boys were obviously on the lookout for extra pasture from the outset. Garden writing in “Heidelberg – The Land and Its People” thought that the surveyor Robert Hoddle’s notes suggested that Willis’ run involved both sides of the Plenty River, although he readily admits that Hoddle’s notes are difficult to interpret.
The sale of land on the west bank of the lower Plenty in 1838 and on the east bank in 1840 brought an end to the brief squatting era on the lower Plenty. With the return of their father to England at the start of 1839, Edward Willis returned to Van Diemen’s Land and his personal association with the Plenty River ended. In a letter dated 24th March 1839 Edward states that he was leaving the Plenty River ”having notice to ‘quit’ due to the imminent land sales”. He goes on to warn against future occupation of his hut on the Plenty River: “I’d scarce recommend you. For the fleas will soon make it prodigiously clean. That their bloody attacks are not meant to befriend you. This useful bit of information mind is given gratis. For the thriving squatter to the flea good bait is”.
Edward married Catherine the daughter of Captain Charles Swanston at Hobart Town in 1840 and subsequently joined his father in law in partnership in Geelong. James’ diary ends with a statement of his hopes of one day soon himself being offered a position managing a store in Geelong but by 1841 it is believed that he was established at Mernda at a wattle and daub hotel (the Bridge Inn) on the Plenty River crossing. In addition to the inn, Willis’ Mernda enterprise involved a pastoral holding of 400 acres which he again called Wanstead. After their previous Vandemonian and Lower Plenty Wanstead experiences, it’s a wonder that James was still dusting off that nomenclature for another outing at Mernda, but he remained in possession until 1851.
As the story of James Willis and his Plenty River diary fades into forgotten memory, it is comforting to note that the “unlucky star” recorded by James would ultimately be proved wrong by history, at least in a sense. The Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 6, MUP 1986 credits ownership of the diary manuscript to James Willis’ great-grandson, Dr R W Pearson. So it seems that James finally got to appreciate the joys of a family life that he earlier believed would be forever denied him.
Though evidently not in the arms of one of John Batman’s bright eyed daughters.
“The journey of life is like a man riding a bicycle. We know he got on the bicycle and started to move. We know that at some point he will stop and get off. We know that if he stops moving and does not get off he will fall off.” (William Golding)
According to one survey, 43% of all Australians own a bicycle. It’s not clear whether that statistic counts every rusted machine parked with bent pedals at the back of every garage, or every bike gathering dust under a house across the nation, but one thing is pretty clear. There are an awful lot of bikes out there. Bike riding is big in the north east and in Yallambie, the history of cycling is probably a lot more extensive than people generally realize as they pedal around the neighborhood.
The late 19th century saw the world’s first “bike craze” and a proliferation in the number of bike makers. Some of them, like the Dux Cycle Co. of Little Collins St, Melbourne which employed 150 workers, were established locally. The Dux cause was helped when a Dux was used for the first Perth to Brisbane cycle ride in 1897, a distance of nearly 6000km.
Australia found itself literally in the mainstream of the world-wide bicycle boom as it emerged from the financial recession of the early 1890s and by 1897 there were over 150 brands of home grown and imported bicycles to choose from. Innovations such as the tubular steel frame, the ball bearing, roller bearing chain and pneumatic tyres were all products of advanced manufacturing techniques but in practice, any reasonably competent home handyman or bush mechanic could assemble or repair them. While bikes were comparatively expensive to buy they were ultimately a much cheaper alternative to keeping a horse and trap or even to buying regular rail tickets. As Jim Fitzpatrick observed in the introduction to “The Bicycle and the Bush”, his widely regarded book on the history of Australian pedalling, the bicycle: “required no food or water, was two or three times as fast as a horse or a camel, and did not drop dead from eating poisonous plants.”
In Yallambie, Henry Ernest “Harry” Wragge, (born 1880), the youngest son of Yallambie Homestead’s Thomas Wragge, was an early exponent of bike riding in this district. Harry had a life-long fascination with all things mechanical and is known to have owned a bicycle by May, 1896. (Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p145). The first Australian Cycle Show was held in March that year and it would be interesting to know if the teenage Harry convinced his parents to purchase a bike after attending the show.
A photograph in the Bush collection shows a young Harry riding his bike along the Homestead Road in front of the house garden on what is now the Lower Plenty end of Yallambie Rd and another shows Harry at a slightly later date, standing proudly alongside his pushbike in front of the Yallambie stable yard. Harry’s machine was a diamond frame, “safety” bicycle, a style first perfected by Humber in 1890 and known as the “safety” because of the ease and safety of riding one compared to the “ordinary” or “Penny Farthing” type. It is a design that, with few real modifications, has remained the most common bicycle design up to the present day.
Another early rider was Ada Lawrey, the daughter of one of Diamond Creek’s first settlers and a music teacher who at the start of the 20th century used her bicycle to pedal widely around the district giving piano lessons. A photograph shows her inside the gates of her parents’ Diamond Creek home alongside a fine looking machine, complete with a bicycle luggage carrying valise attached to the frame, ideal perhaps for carrying her lunch box and fork, or maybe just a tuning fork.
Cycling clubs were formed in many places and city dwellers travelled on bicycles to places near and far in the country side that were a refreshing change to the grime and factories of inner-city Melbourne. In several of the earliest extant photographs of the Plenty Bridge Hotel, bicycles are seen pulled up outside the building, evidence perhaps of the importance of the old hotel as a stopping place for travellers on the Plenty River on the road from Melbourne to Eltham and beyond.
A 1907 newspaper report in “The Age” described a cycle race organized by the “League of Victorian Wheelmen” and promoted by the publican of the Plenty Bridge Hotel. The route followed country roads from the Plenty Bridge to Bundoora and back again over a “bad course” with “hilly roads and dangerous turns”. For the record, a Mr D Hall won the event, on a handicap.
When I surveyed my old bike at the back of the garage last week with this post in mind, it seemed like it too was starting with something of a handicap. It was purchased nearly a decade ago from a large supermarket chain, familiar to most people in this town, and looked like it was worth what I paid for it that day I went shopping with money for a loaf of bread and came home with a bike.
My thoughts strayed. ‘Whatever happened to the bike my father brought home as a rusted old frame “found in a paddock”?’ I spent weeks sanding and repairing that bit of scrap metal and then delivered newspapers from it on dark mornings throughout Rosanna. It later took me on trips as far afield as Bendigo and Ballarat and for a while it seemed indestructable but as I recall, died a sudden death one day as I rode home from Heidelberg Park with football boots dangling across the handlebars. The boots became entangled with the front wheel and, with the front wheel motion suddenly arrested, the rest of the bike and associated rider were destined to continue, the resulting Barnum & Bailey circus somersault a clown act to recall.
That’s what happened to it.
What chance today? In the end I wheeled out my wife’s old pushbike from the garage instead, a good looking, red “girl’s” version with no horizontal bar and streamers on the handlebars. The tyres were a bit perished but it had been a fine machine in its day although that day apparently had been some time ago.
“You’re not going out looking like that are you,” my wife said when she saw the overall effect of me sitting astride her glorious, red retro riding road machine in an outfit she said resembled a 1920s bathing costume.
“Why not? I forgive people wearing Lycra don’t I?”
“I’m glad he didn’t ask me,” said the boy not looking up from his iPhone.
“You don’t know what you’re missing. It’ll be just like Pokemon Go.”
TRAILING THE PLENTY RIVER:
The Plenty River Trail is a shared path that leaves the Main Yarra Trail near the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers in the south and follows the Plenty River valley to a point beyond the northern margins of Greensborough. The Main Yarra Trail is like a wide open highway compared to the Plenty River trail and gets commensurately more cycling traffic as a result.
As I approached the branch to the Plenty River Trail on a recent weekend now past, a tandem bicycle flew past me on a journey down the Yarra, its riders grinding away at the pedals on the level flood plain of the Yarra Trail to achieve a missile like velocity. ‘Cripes, I’d like to see them try that on up there,’ I thought to myself as I looked at the incline that is the start of the Plenty River Trail.
“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do,
I’m half-crazy all for the love of you.
It won’t be a stylish marriage –
I can’t afford a carriage,
But you’d look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two.”
The Plenty Trail leaves the Main Yarra Trail at Viewbank at this point and rises quickly to the vicinity of the old Viewbank Homestead archaeological site, an ascent of about 30m where commanding views are to be had out across Bulleen and Templestowe. The day I was there a fine winter breeze was blowing and enthusiasts were flying a large model sail plane out over the valley. It was presumably radio controlled since like a boomerang, it kept coming back no matter how many times they tried to get rid of it.
Beyond this, the path crosses Banyule Rd and runs in a straight line alongside Hendersons Rd. It passes a pony club where it descends steeply to a point at the end of Martins Lane where, as mentioned previously, my wife’s great grandfather once kept a spectacularly unsuccessful chicken farm.
The Trail then crosses the Plenty River, the first of many crossings, and follows a route at the back of Heidelberg Golf Club between the Club and the River. For many years this was the “missing link” in the trail as the Golf Club and Council struggled to come to an agreement about the siting of the path and a bridge. After agreement was reached, the link was finally opened to riders and pedestrians in March, 2007.
Crossing the River again via the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge adjacent to the former site of the Plenty Bridge Hotel, the Trail is then in Yallambie territory proper.
It passes the Yallambie Tennis Club and the Soccer Ground before rounding out onto the Yallambie common at the next bend in the River. The well-remembered “Lone” Hoop Pine, oak trees, cypresses and remnant orchard are the neglected features of the National Trust Classified landscape that can be found here.
The path then splits in two and there is a choice of following it for some way on either side of the River, a relic of the days when the River marked the boundary between the Shires of Diamond Valley and Eltham and the two banks were under separate administrations. Today the whole of the Plenty River Trail falls within the Municipality of Banyule with Yallambie at its centre.
Up river, the Montmorency Football Oval on the eastern or “Monty side” covers the site of a former tip. Wonder in awe at a time when it was thought environmentally OK to use a river landscape as a tipping ground! The area is well maintained but if you look closely at the river bank below the oval you can see some evidence of its previous use at places where the bank is eroded.
After Montmorency Secondary College is passed, the Trail arrives at the Willinda Park Athletics Track where it becomes a single path on the western side of the River. On the eastern side, the factories on Para Rd show their backs to the River but even here wild life can be found. I stood looking from a distance at what I thought was a tree stump at the back of the factories, trying to make my mind up about what I was looking at. Then it moved and the kangaroo I had in fact been watching, hopped away and out of sight.
At what was formerly the northern most boundary of the old Montmorency Farm, Para Rd and the Greensborough/Eltham single track railway cross the River using separate bridges and here the Plenty River Trail appears for the moment to end abruptly in a residential court. The Trail is not well sign posted throughout its length but at this point it leaves you guessing completely about what course to follow next. The answer is to travel about 100m along Bicton St and resume the Trail at the far end.
At Poulter Reserve the Greensborough rail station can be accessed by riders who have had enough and want to return home via a train or cross to the looming ugly presence of the Greensborough Plaza for a café latte.
Further on, the Trail crosses the River again under the Main Street Bridge next to the remains of the old swimming pool that was built in the Depression within the bed of the Plenty River itself.
Lost history abounds here. A photograph of bicycle riders at the original blue stone bridge in 1897 is another reminder of the area’s historic popularity with riders. The original 1864 blue stone bridge was removed progressively from 1974 until 1983, its massive blue stone buttresses being turned into a barbecue on the corner of Main St and St Helena Rd above in what was surely a loss to local history but a win for sausages.
A dinky little suspension bridge crosses to Whatmough Park on Partington’s Flat where the original farm, Willis Vale, was formerly situated until being burned out by a bushfire in the 1950s. Local football is played at many of the ovals along the River on any given weekend and the day I was at Partington’s, a DVFL game was in progress between St Mary’s and Epping. It might have been a reserves game but it was very popularly attended and an example of how I remember footy used to be played. The skills were of course a long way short of AFL standard but for all that, or perhaps because of it, I found it was a very enjoyable game to watch. Forget the “flood” of players up the ground, a feature of AFL football in the modern day. I saw a bit of mud, a bit of biffo and a full forward who stayed rooted to the goal square, waiting for the ball to be kicked to him.
And further to the record, after trailing early, St Mary’s beat Epping 11.16 to 9.3.
Up-river from Partington’s, the Plenty River Trail passes under the Greensborough Bypass Road which crosses the River on an elevated roadway high above. A plane could fly under it. A Zeppelin could park under it. At this location there is an un-signposted “goat track” from Plenty River Dr at a point just about opposite Booyan Cres. The “goat track” is a mountain bike switch back but by successfully negotiating the mud for a short distance access can be gained to the Greensborough Bypass Cycle Path and thence to the Metropolitan Ring Rd Trail. By all reports you won’t find a single B-Double semi travelling in the outside lane.
Staying on the Plenty River Trail the path arrives at the so called “Batman Apple Tree” next to an easement below Corowa Cres and adjacent to the old Maroondah Aqueduct Pipe Bridge.
Nearby the Pioneer Children’s Cemetery holds the unmarked graves of children from the Whatmough and Partington families, early settlers on this part of the River. Not far beyond is the official end of the Plenty River Trail at the base of a flight of stairs leading down from Punkerri Circuit.
Although it is sign posted to this effect the trail is actually longer than its official 12.3km length and follows a path further along Dry Creek, the merry sound of water running nearby which surely belies its name. The track passes through a closed gate and along an unmade path to an easement running between Plenty River Drive and Mclaughlans Lane where the 520 bus to Doreen has a stop on Sugar Gum Blvd. This is the final end of the Plenty River Trail but the vicinity also marks the south eastern approaches to the Plenty Gorge Parklands, whose mountain bike adventure trails beckon more determined riders.
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.