He was known locally as “Old Harry” and in the conservative pre-Whitlam era ’60s, Old Harry Ferne was something of a Yallambie eccentric. The stories that surrounded Harry were legendary and as he assured his listeners, they were all true. Well, mostly. A square peg in a round hole. You might say that they broke the mould when they made Old Harry.
Harry Ferne lived in a one room cottage on the banks of the Plenty River. He was a relative or maybe a sometime friend of the Temby family at Yallambie Homestead. Nobody was really quite sure exactly. He moved into a cottage in the garden on the river flat below the Homestead in 1968 and stayed there for more than a decade, even in the face of increasing pressure from Heidelberg City Council to move him out. In a recorded interview made in the early 1980s Harry remembered that, “When I arrived in the area there was a forest of trees. Now there’s a forest of houses.” (Heidelberger, 2 June, 1982)
Like a hermit at the bottom of the garden in the finest of English folly traditions, Old Harry was a bit of an enigma. He walked with a pronounced stoop that belied his clipped moustache and a somewhat understated military bearing. A “real gentleman” as one local described him but a man who was for all that, prepared to live outside of the mores of society. Local children from the nearby developing housing estate seemed drawn to him and “descended on him in droves, keen to fish for tadpoles in his water storage ponds,” or to simply spend time with this curious character with the mysterious past. In an era when children could spend as much time as they wanted with an older, unmarried man living alone in peculiar and reduced circumstances without anyone batting an eyelid, Old Harry and his stories became a magnet for juvenile gangs, the king of the kids in the Yallambie area.
Harry’s Yallambie Cottage was a single roomed timber dwelling that had been built at the foot of the Yallambie escarpment sometime in the dim dark, far distant past, nobody could quite remember when. Maybe it was a re-erection of a Bakewell pre-fab, but who knows. Harry said, “When I took over the cottage, it was a ruin. No windows, no door, no water and no sewerage. Just possums in the roof, bees in two walls and a wombat under the floorboards.”
Harry set to work and cleaned up the ramshackle building, laying brick paving and redeveloping the remnant gardens surrounding the exterior.
Harry was fascinated by the history of the area and especially the legend that Baron Ferdinand von Mueller had contributed to the Yallambie landscape. He would point out trees to interested listeners as possible contenders for a von Mueller provenance. Even in 1970 these trees were well over 100 years old and on one occasion Harry narrowly escaped with his life when a pair of trees from the Yallambie pinetum collapsed and nearly destroyed his house.
The Yallambie Cottage was surrounded by a forest of these exotic trees and in the winter months the smoke from Harry’s fires hung low, trapped by their overhanging branches. Harry did a lot of his cooking on a barbecue in a half barrel outside but his cottage also housed a cast iron range where he made toast and where an old kettle was kept continuously on the boil for anybody who cared to stop by long enough to share a yarn and a strong cup of tea.
Harry’s cottage neighboured the nearby old Yallambie pumping house which in the farming era had been used to draw water up from the river for use in the outlying paddocks. Invoking the principle that possession remains nine tenths of the law, Harry claimed the pumping house likewise as his own, although ostensibly it was located on Heidelberg City Council land. This was Harry’s world. It was a place to spend time with friends both young and old. It was a place to watch the passing of the seasons and to stare at the reflections in the waters of the river. And it was a place to think about the past.
Harry’s was a naturally artistic nature and he spent hours in the fields sketching the surrounding river landscape. He was a friend of the Dutch sculptor Rein Slagmolen whose artists’ colony at the nearby former convent, Casa Maria, was an early feature of the pre subdivisional landscape of Yallambie. Harry also had friends in the theatre and the opera who probably wondered at what they had struck when they came to visit him in his rural realm.
Harry kept a car, an early model VW Beetle, but it didn’t get driven about much. Harry didn’t find much need to get behind the wheel or to leave the area. The Temby children and others kept their horses on the Yallambie river flats and it was the horses that Harry preferred to populate his drawings with.
Harry kept an old concrete water trough near the cottage for the horses but when one enterprising young lad used Harry’s water colour paints to paint the trough an ultramarine blue, Harry was less than impressed.
In the summer months Harry harvested the fruit from the Yallambie orchards and in those days, there were many more trees than the few that remain today into the 21st millennium.
Pears, apples, loquats, figs, grapes and walnuts grew on the river flats in abundance but Harry also added to his crop by collecting baskets of blackberries from the vines that grew out of control along the river. Harry was a surprisingly good cook and the produce was baked into apple and blackberry pies and shared around the neighbourhood with friends and acquaintances. Throw in the occasional snared rabbit and Old Harry was virtually living off the land at Yallambie. “We’re 10 miles from the city, yet you would think we were 100 miles away,” he said. Every year on the 5th November a great bonfire would be kindled on the flats marking Guy Fawkes’ treasonous plot and “cracker night” would be celebrated with a great deal of noise and potatoes roasted in the embers of the fire.
There was no bath or shower in the Yallambie cottage and Harry’s ablutions were limited to a regular swim in the river. Toiletry arrangements involved a septic tank which Harry installed himself alongside the cottage but herein were sown the seeds to the eventual demise of his riverside rural idyll.
The cottage stood on the Plenty River flood plain. Three times in the 1970s Harry was flooded out and on one occasion he battled a surge of water that came up to his chest inside the house. Harry dug a deep 100 foot trench to the river and carted 10 tons of white sand onto the river flats to shore up the property and to protect it from flooding, but it was to no avail. The Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works wanted Harry gone, reasoning that every time the river flooded there was of a risk of Harry’s septic getting into the stream. In 1978 the matter went all the way to the Housing Commission and The Honourable Geoff Hayes, the State Minister of Housing.
In the face of this Harry finally resolved to buy a block of land in Tarcoola Drive bordering the derelict Yallambie Homestead stables. He paid about $5000 for his block and designed and built a home, putting many of his own details into the construction of the interior, everything from the blue slate floor to the leadlight chimney window, (courtesy of his friendship with Rein Slagmolen). It was a far cry from the Yallambie Cottage but Harry didn’t stop there, carving a garden into the steep slope at the back of his Tarcoola Drive address, slashing blackberries and replacing them with clusters of pampas grass and a jungle of ferns. Hundreds of blue stone blocks were introduced into the landscape with Harry erecting a flying fox rope pulley to man handle the rocks down the slope and into position. Brick paving and ponds were designed to create a Japanese style feel to the garden.
Harry said, “I love the feeling of rocks and water. I want to achieve a harmony between man and nature. I don’t think I’ll ever actually finish the garden. It’s an ongoing evolutionary process.”
He never did finish. Time had moved on and “Old Harry” was now approaching an age befitting his moniker. Soon after moving into his new home, vandals burned the pumping house and the cottage to the ground on the river flats.
Harry said, “I don’t think I’ll ever shift out of Yallambie. It all depends whether I get married or not.”
The garden Harry built in Tarcoola Drive is now a ruin, his cottage and the pumping house little more than memory. The sobriquet “Harry’s” on a letter box of a house now the only pointer to the identity of its original owner.
Harry didn’t marry of course. He died 30 years ago from a coronary occlusion while on the Heidelberg Golf Course, proof if proof be needed that if you’ve gotta go, better to go while doing something you love.
But for all that there are some who still think that Harry was true to his word. At the setting of the sun as the shadows lengthen under the trees on the river escarpment, there is a very real feeling that maybe Harry never left Yallambie after all. It is a belief held by the current owner and visitors to the Tarcoola Drive house that Harry built. At the closing of the day, the spirit of Old Harry lives on.
If there was one thing destined to end the era of convict transportation to Australia, it was the discovery of golden mineral wealth in a land which for so long had been the dumping ground of Great Britain’s most unwilling form of immigrants. Strictly speaking, the Port Phillip District was never a penal colony, but convicts did make their way there assigned to various work parties, or while holding tickets of leave in other colonies. With the discovery of gold in Australia however, the irony in sending felons to a foreign el Dorado of the south was not lost on the authorities when it seemed that half the world was quite literally falling over itself to get there in a mad “rush to be rich”.
The existence of gold in the Port Phillip District had long been something of an open secret, the facts seemingly supressed by a government fearful of the possible social dislocation of an Australian gold rush. Although it’s not widely recognized now, some of these very first rumours of gold in Victoria occurred in the Plenty Ranges and on the tributaries of the upper reaches of the Plenty River itself. One such story at the start of the 1840s involved an eccentric bushman called John or Jemmy Gomm (“Old Gum”) who was supposed to have lived in a hollow tree on the Upper Plenty on the slopes of Mt Disappointment, secretly prospecting for gold but telling people all along he was hunting for lyrebirds. Old Gum had arrived at Port Phillip in 1835 as one of John Pascoe Fawkner’s servants aboard the schooner “Enterprize” but had “gone bush”. A Plenty River pastoralist, George Urquart, writing much later to “The Brisbane Courier” newspaper in 1882 described meeting Gomm, seeing his gold specimens and the situation of his Plenty Ranges bush camp:
“He had a nice garden, which was well-stocked with a variety of vegetables, and a beautiful stream of water running through the centre of it. His habitation was an old fallen gum tree, which in its fallen state was fully 70ft in circumference. A shell of the stump stood forming the back of ‘Gum’s’ fireplace; the short space between the fallen trunk and the remains standing upright had been covered in with bark, the burnt portion of the tree cleared out with his adze; and he had in the tree a kitchen, a storeroom where he manipulated his gold, and a bedroom. He handed me a small nugget of gold, which I took, beat very thin, and sent to an elder brother in Sydney, who, when acknowledging his receipt, replied telling me, “to mind my cattle and not think of gold-gathering”. ‘Gum’ was a quiet, inoffensive man. He told me he came from Van Diemen’s Land, and appeared very thankful that I allowed my manager to supply him with rations.”
Occasionally “Old Gum” travelled down to Melbourne to dispose of gold, exchanging it for rations, before heading back into the bush. The idea of some whimsical old soul living secretly in the bush and unearthing mineral riches at random quite caught the public imagination at the time and in 1842 the police magistrate, Captain William Lonsdale, despatched troopers to find old man Gomm. They eventually found his camp but Gomm had gone. The bird had flown his proverbial coop in the face of authority, leaving his camp deserted with “crucibles and old bellows, but no gold.”
The first real rush in Australia occurred about a decade later at the Turon field near Sofala in New South Wales in June, 1851, just prior to the official separation of Port Phillip from New South Wales on the 1st July. After Separation the new Victorian government looked for their own gold strike to stem the exodus north and announced a reward of £200 for the first person to find a payable deposit within easy reach of Melbourne. The so called Plenty River “gold” rush actually coincided with the rush to the Turon but would prove to be a Furphy since the actual gold found on the Plenty would turn out to be comparatively very slight, if not altogether non-existent. At any rate, the story of Plenty River gold was perhaps more a reflection of the desire of local business interests in Melbourne to find gold in Victoria, but not so very far away from the town that it would cause a whole scale exodus to the far flung reaches of the interior. In the resulting excitement, stories of gold in the vicinity of Melbourne abounded and there were even reports of Melbourne streets being dug up, in spite of laws specifically forbidding such activities. It seems that people were finding gold everywhere.
“When first we left old England’s shore
Such yarns as we were told
As how folks in Australia
Could pick up lumps of gold”
The short lived rush to the Plenty region itself seems to have taken place after a certain Thomas Hewitt made the following claims about gold in the Plenty Ranges in what was nevertheless a pretty percipient letter to “The Argus” newspaper which published it on 30 May, 1851:
“…I can assure you that I myself have seen two men who have been up in our ranges, and showed me a parcel of gold dust; as far as I could judge, of a very good quality; and they told me that they had been up in the ranges for two months, and had done very well on their trip. I have had some little experience in geology, and think that it is most likely that gold may be found in some quantities in the Plenty Ranges, the dip of the rock being exactly like those of the California region; but I hope for the good of the country that no such diggings may be made in our part, as through false representation an idle and worthless population might be drawn to the locality, it might at the same time delude many of our steady worthy labourers, who might thrive at the rate of about ten in a hundred. Hoping that this may not be the case, I am, Sir, yours truly, Thomas Hewitt, River Plenty, May 26th, 1851.”
News of gold on the Plenty and in such close proximity to Melbourne resulted in great excitement. “The Argus” carried almost daily reports on the developments and on June 9 reported:
“The gold on the Plenty still continues the main staple of conversation; it is alike talked of by the merchant and labourer… Several samples of so-called Plenty gold are now shown in town and there are reports on all sides of lucky individuals who have found wealth all in a moment…”
About 300 people were scattered over the Plenty Ranges, washing for gold in the creeks and minor tributaries. With fears of the fields descending into a haunt for the “Dangerous Dan McGrew” stereotype of later poetical fiction, a party of mounted troopers was sent out from Melbourne to keep order, it being reported that there were those in the Ranges “who would steal the nose off one’s face,” (ibid). The report was illustrated by the story of one man who found £17 18s 3d of gold dust only to have £18 worth of goods stolen from his unattended cart while he panned.
The news of gold on the Plenty spread quickly to the other Australian colonies and an article in “The Courier” newspaper of Hobart on June 18 speculated that the Plenty ranges were “a continuation of the Bathurst ranges, where gold is now being found in large quantities…”
As stories of real and richer finds in other parts of the colony soon began to overrun the imaginary Plenty River riches, the story should have died a quiet natural. However Henry Frencham gave it a new lease of life on June 14 when, working as a reporter for the “Port Phillip Gazette”, he claimed to have made his own discovery of gold in the Plenty region. An assay of his specimens revealed no gold but then Henry Frencham also claimed to have found gold at the western end of Bourke Street, Melbourne and would later claim to have also been responsible for the first discovery of gold on the rich Bendigo gold fields. Frencham’s claims might have been questionable but his reports made good copy for the newspapers all the same. One Argus report described Frencham as being “a respectable man, who can have no object in deceiving the public; and although his supposed discovery at the Plenty turned out a mistake, no one doubted his own firm believe in the genuineness of the article discovered.” As the author of this piece was probably Frencham himself, working in his capacity as a reporter, it can only be imagined what the deceived public really thought but interestingly Frencham’s site in the Plenty ranges near what would become Queenstown (St Andrews) would later be worked very successfully as the Caledonia gold field.
The 1850s were a pivotal decade in Victoria’s colonial history and Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge found himself in this mix right at the start. He departed England for the Australian colonies as an intermediate passenger on board the SS Northumberland in 1851, just before news of the first Australian gold strikes were received in England. Arriving at Port Phillip with £25 in his pocket to an economic climate defined by gold discoveries, rumoured discoveries and colonial separation, the 21 year old Thomas Wragge showed no inclination to join the overwhelming exodus to the new Victorian gold fields. The young, ex-Nottinghamshire farmer carried a letter of introduction written by familial connections of Yallambee’s John and Robert Bakewell and had his own ideas about how to go about finding riches in Victoria.
“Thomas and his family would not have heard of the Australian discoveries before he departed, but land and pastoral activities seem to have been his primary concerns… The great influx of gold-seeking immigrants had resulted in soaring prices for meat, and keen demand for agricultural produce.” (Calder: “Class the Wool and Counting the Bales).
The years of the Victorian gold rushes saw a great increase in the worth of agricultural produce in the new colony. For instance, hay which had previously sold for 35s a tonne sold in Melbourne in 1852 for £50. Wheat rose from 2s 8d a bushel to 12s and locally, Michael Butler of Greensborough is recorded as receiving up to £155 per tonne for carting flour to the Bendigo fields. The prices paid for beef and bullocks rose even more.
It is unknown today whether Wragge worked immediately on arrival for John and Robert Bakewell at Yallambee, or at any time thereafter between 1851 and 1854 at which later date he is known to have been on the estate. However, the Bakewells had pastoral interests in other Victorian properties and if Thomas was not at Yallambee he may have been working for them at one of these, possibly at Western Port or on the Campaspe.
Although the only gold found on the Plenty River had by then been proved to be the stuff of fools it seems that there was still enough interest locally for a couple of potential “mines” being attempted at Yallambie. In the additional notes to Winty Calder’s “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” she mentions a mine shaft that was sunk next to the river close to the location of the Plenty Bridge Hotel and another sort of “strike” made in the vicinity of the site of William Greig’s old farm, below present day Allima Avenue.
“There was once a mine shaft on Yallambie, over near the pub. There was also another sort of strike just behind the chooks (i.e. N of the house) – Picol Paddock. The other was at Barn Hill (river paddock).” (Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, notes).
In spite of these rumoured mines, it seems pretty clear now that nothing was ever found. However, Yallambee at Heidelberg would prove to be fortunately located close to the roads leading to several diggings. A way side inn was established on the Plenty River at the end of present day Martins Lane to capture the goldfields traffic heading to the Caledonia field through Eltham and Wragge, as the Bakewells’ tenant at Yallambee, would find himself well placed to cater to this market.
“Little hostelries sprang up to offer refreshment to the digger at intervals along the way, and a river crossing settlement emerged at Lower Plenty, where a slab hut was built at the ford near Martins Lane.” (Edwards: The Diamond Valley Story, p40).
William Howitt was ostensibly looking for gold when he was in the colony in 1852 and visited his brother Godfrey’s, brothers in law at Yallambee. In the event, Howitt didn’t find much in the two years he spent on the gold fields but his experiences as described in his monumental work “Land Labour and Gold,” are recognized today as an historically important primary document of life in gold rush era Victoria and include William’s description of the Bakewells’ Yallambee, (quoted previously in these pages).
In another primary account with a local interest from that time, Rebecca Greaves wrote a letter to an uncle in England at the end of 1851 from her parents’ farm in Greensborough, just upriver from Yallambee, and giving her own impressions of the early stages of the Victorian gold rushes at a time when it was still considered “that the Plenty all along abounds in gold”:
“…I read an account that a gentleman I know in Melbourne had the first shovel full found a piece of solid gold the size of a duck’s egg whereas there other gents that were with him only found 2 or three grains and Doctor Barker one of the party did not find any at all so it is all chance. I have seen some of it in the stone it is found in is exactly the same as the marble on our land in fact it is thought that the Plenty all along abounds in gold it is on the Plenty one of the places they are finding so much they are finding it in many parts of the country it is thought that Victoria abounds in Gold, “now what do you think of our emigrating to this gold region?” Everyone has left town to go to the diggings there is not a man or boy to be seen in town even the gents at the Bank are “off to the diggings” such an uproar never was known in the colony before not a ship can leave the bay for as soon as the ships get in port the sailors away to the Gold mines go where you will you cannot see a man unless it is an old man like my Father the papers are full of shops to let on account of the owners going to the “diggings” they are exactly the same plight at Sydney they are finding Gold all over the country; it seems to have raised some of the poor faint hearted English cakes now they have heard of Gold being found in quantities in Victoria they can raise courage enough to come out by ship loads but even now I would not persuade anyone to come all I can say is that the farewells of large families are complete soft cakes to remain in England when once they hear of a country that anyone must do work in if I were only a young man would not I go gold digging and even now I feel half inclined to dress in man’s clothes and go I am certain if I could not dig I could rock the cradle only I should be afraid they would know I was not a man as I should not like to part with my curls for that you know Uncle would spoil my beauty would it not and that certainly would be a great pity…” (Extract from a letter written by 23 year old Rebecca Sarah Greaves at Greensborough, dated 25 November, 1851).
In spite of the hopes of men like Frencham and the beliefs of Rebecca Greaves, the Plenty River never really got going as gold country although Victoria as a whole would for a while prove to have some of the richest fields the world has ever known. Although Wragge didn’t try his luck on these goldfields he did eventually find gold of another kind, in the form of fleece from the sheep’s back and he died a wealthy man. By the time he pulled up stumps at Yallambie in 1910, the £25 capital he carried with him on arrival had increased to more than £400,000.
Those golden days are long ended although today the signs of those times can still be seen in the occasional abandoned mullock heaps of the bush and in the presence of grand, gold rush era, inland towns. My father, a Ballarat boy born and bred, was known to point knowingly at times towards the horizon when visiting that town saying, “There’s more gold in those hills than ever came out of them.” He was speaking maybe from family experience since legend has it that, before the war, his family were supposed to have kept a large suede bag full of gold dust and quartz. “It was from the old days when your great grandfather was a miner and it was kept over for a time of need.” His childhood was marked by the years of the Great Depression and by end of the War, that bag and its contents were most definitely gone.
As a kid I used to go bushwalking into the Lerderderg Gorge halfway to Ballarat, using an old miners’ mule track which led down to the river. The Lerderderg is very close to Melbourne but as a lad it was like walking into a world of my imagination not unlike Middle-earth. There was a mine tunnel there which went in one side of a ridge and came out the other, all dug by hand by Chinese miners in the 19th century and held up without timber supports. It used to be a test of courage for us as kids to crawl through the tunnel with small battery torches from one end to the other with the roof and walls gradually getting narrower and narrower until emerging in a scramble on the other side. I went back there a few years ago with my own son but could no longer find the entrance to the tunnel. All that remained of it by then was a big hole in the side of the ridge marking the location of its collapse. Another example in the “what ifs” of life’s story.
Tolkein once noted, “All that is gold does not glitter” which references a much older saying. Whatever the source, its age old meaning remains true. Not everyone who went looking for gold in Victoria in the 1850s necessarily found what they were looking for, even those who like Hume’s Madame Midas found a dash of the precious metal at the bottom of a mine shaft or in a pan dipped into a river. But gold can be found in sometimes unexpected places. It might be the gold in the memory of a childhood adventure in an abandoned mine or in the worth of fleece cut from a sheep’s back. It might be a certain note in a piece of music that you love or it might even be the gold in that moment when your football team gets up by a point with a kick after the siren. And it may be the gold in a simple smile.
“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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The story of the “Fight” at the Plenty Bridge Hotel grew in the telling and was remembered locally for years afterward.
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)
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 1953where 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.
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.”
Everyone loves a good story of crime and punishment. Like Dostoyevsky, we all like to ponder for a moment the motivations behind these stories, comfortably remembering all the while that it’s a tale that hopefully involves somebody else.
In the last post, the 11 year old John Henry Howitt wrote to his cousin Alfred in Europe, describing the Bakewell farm at Yallambee in 1842 and recounting in adolescent fashion the escapades of a gang of bushrangers who had been busy along the Plenty River at that time, holding up isolated homesteads up and down the valley, all along the way.
“Would you not think it extremely pleasant to be bailed up in a corner with some one standing over you with a pistol threatening you with instant death if you stirred…” (1842 letter from John Henry Howitt to A. W. Howitt, SLV).
The Plenty River bushrangers.
It’s a fistful of dollars, narrative of Sergio Leone proportions. I first heard of them from another source in a hearsay anecdote told to me about Yallambee nearly 20 years ago. John Bakewell had been “shot in the arm by bushrangers in the early 1840s” went this surprising but improbable story which would appear now at best to have been a baseless exaggeration of history. It seems that these bushrangers never operated further south on the Plenty River than St Helena and they hardly wounded anyone in the process. John Henry Howitt’s own report of the events confirms that:
“Uncle’s escaped a visit from these Bushrangers and only heard of them the night before they were taken.” (John Henry Howitt).
However, had Yallambee been disturbed by the bushrangers, they may not have found the Bakewells completely underprepared. As Richard Howittt, writing of the situation of his brothers-in-law at Yallambee in that same year said:
“Guns were piled in corners, but which I dare say are now, the first country newness being over, seldom used.” (Impressions of Australia Felix, Richard Howitt).
The Plenty River gang were formed at a meeting in a back room of a hotel on the north-west corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets, Melbourne, early in 1842. The economy of the Port Phillip District was in recession that year. Money was tight for many and to the have-nots of the early colony, the settlers of the Plenty valley must have appeared as relatively well-off sitting ducks, ripe for the plucking.
The gang of four was led by a 27 year old bounty immigrant, John Williams. The other members were Martin Fogarty aged 18, Charles Ellis, 19, and an American, Daniel Jepps aged 27. They may have earlier been active in Geelong and Dandenong but then switched their operations to the Plenty where they proceeded to bail up numerable stations. For all their efforts however, the bushrangers were remarkably inept and in the end, didn’t really steal very much. Indeed, the story seems to contain all the elements of a melodramatic comedy.
They were romantic.
Fogarty was seen riding around in his (stolen) scarlet Austrian Hussar’s uniform, complete with a ceremonial sword.
They were fearless.
Jepps was observed nonchalantly lighting his pipe with bank notes in the face of the massed, levelled muskets of the besieging authorities.
And they had a sense of humour.
They shot a goose at one station and told the cook to prepare it for their return the next day and, when interrupting a meal at another station, they:
“…appropriated the roast ducks and red herrings to their own plebeian throats remarking that “you must make way for your betters gentlemen”… (while) regaling themselves with much glee…” (Port Phillip Herald, 1842).
But for all that, the confrontation with the authorities when it came was a violent affair. After all, these were desperate men in straitened times and they were pitted against the well-established order.
Legend has it that when reports of the bushrangers on the Plenty filtered through to the settlement at Melbourne, Superintendent La Trobe stood on the steps of the Melbourne Club and exhorted the Gentlemen of Melbourne to bring the miscreants to justice where the inept local police force had failed. The story may be apocryphal but in any event, five Port Phillip gentlemen were sworn in as special constables (later styled as the “Fighting Five” of Port Phillip: Henry Fowler, Peter Snodgrass, James Thompson, Robert Chamberlain and Oliver Goulay) and set off on the evening of Friday, 29 April, 1842 to hunt the gang down. They went first to Heidelberg in an attempt to gain up to date information and they may have visited the Bakewells at Yallambee in the process, as John Henry Howitt wrote that his uncle had heard about the bushrangers “the night before they were taken”.
The posse then systematically made their way up the Plenty River valley overnight, visiting each station in succession. Peter Snodgrass narrowly avoided being shot in the face when he went to the door of the St Helena Station homestead north of Yallambee where a pistol was presented at his head by someone who mistook him for one of the bushrangers. After identifying himself and the object of his party, Snodgrass was informed that the bushrangers had been in the area the day before but had left.
The posse eventually ran the Plenty River bushrangers to ground the next morning, Saturday, 30 April upriver, at Campbell Hunter’s “Wet Lowlands” station, located just north of present day Milky Lane, an extension of Wildwood Rd, Whittlesea.
The pursuers discovered the bushrangers sitting down to a (purloined) breakfast at the station and spurred their horses to the charge. The station owner, Campbell Hunter and five others had up to that moment been held prisoner against a fence at the homestead while the bushrangers ate their fill but effected an escape during the charge. Fogarty, Jepps and Ellis retreated to the Wet Lowlands homestead but Williams instead took cover in a nearby shed.
The battle was ferocious. Goulay was first on the scene, forcing the shed door open where he came face to face with Williams who was armed to the teeth and held pistols in either hand. As Williams fired one pistol, Goulay dodged the ball knocking the second pistol aside and shoving his own into the bushranger’s mouth. He pulled the trigger but instead of sending Williams into eternity, the weapon misfired. Reversing it he clubbed Williams about the head with the butt end, struggling with him onto the floor where the bushranger managed to pull another pistol out of his belt and fired it at point blank into Goulay’s side. Goulay, thinking himself a dead man, swooned and called for assistance but the ball had hit a powder flask in his coat pocket and had been deflected. Snodgrass burst into the shed to find Goulay still struggling with Williams, took aim at the bushranger with his musket and fired.
Snodgrass had previously been known as a duellist who, in a farcical encounter with William Ryrie using a pair of hair trigger pistols borrowed from Joseph Hawdon of Banyule, Heidelberg, had only managed to prematurely shoot himself in his own foot. (Ryrie sportingly delivered his own shot into the air.) On this occasion, Snodgrass’s aim was slightly better for his ball hit its mark, but not before grazing the head of the hapless Goulay in the process. Williams however, like a cat with nine lives, was “not dead yet”. Channelling Rasputin he struggled to his feet, drew yet another pistol and declared, “I’ll die game.” Snodgrass then dashed forward and broke the stock of his musket over Williams’ head, perhaps in an attempt to see which of the two was the harder, just as Chamberlain appeared in the doorway and fired his pistol, killing the leader of the Plenty River bushrangers on the spot.
The three remaining bushrangers meanwhile defended themselves with a fusillade of gunfire from the homestead. Henry Fowler was hit in the face and had to be escorted from the field of battle but the gentlemen were soon joined by reinforcements at Wet Lowlands in the form of a party of 12 settlers and constables drawn to the scene of the siege. A barrage of shots were exchanged over a period of several hours without further serious damage being done on either side before the three remaining “not dead yet” bushrangers consigned themselves to their inevitable fate and surrendered to their attackers. But not before Jepps had presented himself as a target outside the homestead, lighting his pipe with currency notes in the manner described earlier, in a suicidal attempt to beat the hangman. When they were searched, the bushrangers’ immediate loot amounted to nothing more than a few gold and silver watches, some shillings and sovereigns, a gold chain and stamp, and a few other assorted trifles. The settlers of the Plenty River valley we find were not so very well off after all.
The surviving bushrangers were brought before the irascible John Walpole Willis in Melbourne, the Resident Supreme Court Judge of Port Phillip. Their case was probably not helped when it was revealed that one object of the bushrangers was to meet Willis on the Heidelberg Road and kill him, their mistaken belief being that, in the event of their capture, they could not be tried in the absence of a Supreme Court Judge at the settlement.
The three prisoners were accordingly convicted and condemned, although Willis to his credit recommended mercy for Jepps, a recommendation in the event denied by the court in Sydney. The execution took place in front of a crowd of several thousand people in Melbourne on 28 June, 1842, the first white men to be hanged in Port Phillip. (The Aboriginals, Bob and Jack, had been executed previously in January, that same year).
The Plenty River bushrangers were not the only bushrangers to make a mark in Victoria, but they were among the first. The ruins of the Wet Lowlands homestead were visible for many years up until the end of the 19th century near the present day Yan Yean Reservoir, the timber framing of the structure still bearing the ball marks of the exchange of fire from that day in 1842. Another early construction in the same area that may be connected with this story is “Bear’s Castle”. It survives to this day on the banks of the Yan Yean and is romantically believed by some to have been built by the Plenty River settler, John Bear, as a protection from bushrangers, (or Aboriginals), after his family were terrorised by the Plenty River gang.
Lindsay Mann has researched and written comprehensively on this subject in “The Plenty River Bushrangers of 1842” and Michael Jones also covered the subject with a chapter in “Nature’s Plenty”. During their short career however, the Plenty River bushrangers never actually managed to kill anyone and it is this fact that has been given latterly as a reason for their story becoming otherwise largely forgotten by history.
One way of looking at bushranging in Australia in the 19th century is as an extension of the English highwayman tradition of the previous century. Unlike the Plenty River bushrangers however, the most well-known highwayman of the 18th century, Dick Turpin, did kill but only when threatened by capture.
Adam Ant on the other hand never killed anyone, although he possibly damaged some ears along the way.
A bushranger killed Henry Hurst at Hurstbridge in 1866, not far from the scene of the earlier activities of the Plenty River gang and Australia’s most famous (or should that read infamous?) bushranger, Ned Kelly, also killed, but we forgive Kelly this for the sake of his sartorial style. Kelly was born at neighbouring Beveridge in about 1854. The ensuing “Kelly Outbreak” of the 1870s is seen now as the “last expression of the lawless frontier”. (Serle)
However, even before this “last expression of the lawless frontier”, the image of the Australian bushranger had already entered the popular imagination in a similar way to that of the Old West as represented in Buffalo Bill Cody’s shows. William Howitt, who visited Yallambee in 1852, had personal experience of bushrangers during his travels across the early gold fields of northern Victoria:
“…I determined, if they demanded money, to go into the tent, on pretence of fetching it, and giving them the contents of a revolver in rotation.” (Land, Labour and Gold, William Howitt).
He later used these travel experiences as an inspiration for a work of fiction, “A Boy’s Adventures in the Wilds of Australia”.
Similarly, it has been noted by others that the writer Ernest William Hornung, who created the gentleman thief A. J. Raffles, was inspired by stories of bushrangers during a two year visit to Australia in the 1880s. The suggestion goes that Hornung became absorbed specifically with the tale of the Plenty River bushrangers during that time and in one of his stories, written in 1899, Raffles is seen recalling a visit to the Plenty River.
“It was an interesting ride enough, especially after passing the place called Whittlesea, a real wild township on the lower slopes of the ranges, where I recollect having a deadly meal of hot mutton and tea, with the thermometer at three figures in the shade.” (Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman, E. W. Hornung).
In a case of mistaken identities, Raffles robs a country bank during the confusion in the neighbourhood caused by a bushranger attack.
“…a huge chap in a red checked shirt, with a beard like W. G. Grace, but the very devil of an expression.” (ibid)
So the Plenty River bushrangers lived on, at least for a while it seems in popular literature. Material maybe for the ultimate in prequels to a certain television franchise, the Plenty River “Underbelly”. After all, when it comes to crime and punishment there’s nothing new under the Australian sun.
“The Plenty River Bushrangers of 1842”, Lindsay Mann
“The Australian Experience in the Plenty Valley” (Plenty Valley Papers vol 2), edited by Lucy M Grace Ellem
“1842, The Public Executions at Melbourne”, compiled by Ian MacFarlane
“Nature’s Plenty”, Michael Jones
My wife’s parents’ fox terrier hated garden hoses.
With a vengeance.
Usually all you had to do was turn on a garden tap to set little Rosie a howling. A few weeks ago the dog was out in their garden and keeping uncommonly quiet. On investigation she was found sitting astride the end of the garden hose, the running sprinkler held firmly beneath her body where she could snap in a conquering and triumphant way at the end of the flowing water.
“Ol’ Rosie,” I said after being told this story. “She’s been after that hose for years. I guess she reckons now she’s finally caught it, she might have taught it a damned good lesson. Just like the dog chasing the moon in that movie, Dean Spanley.”
Almost on queue and at the mention of Lord Dunsany’s story about reincarnation and the theme of the transmigration of souls, Rosie the dog in question, came in from the garden and to everyone’s great distress, foamed at the mouth, rolled over and died.
Right there in front of us.
Poor little Rosie. It soon became apparent that she had suffered a fatal snakebite, especially when signs of a battle and the mortal remains of a deadly Tiger Snake were found outside the next day. She was a plucky little terrier our Rosie, no doubt, but the timing of her demise was very strange. Maybe she will be reincarnated someday like the Dean in Dunsany’s book, but in her particular case with an inexplicable fear of snakes.
And garden hoses.
In Western medicine a snake is seen in the Rod of Asclepius, the ancient Greek symbol of the deity associated with medicine and healing, which is ironic given the dangers associated with some forms of snake bite. In Australia snake bite is an ever present danger of the summer months, particularly around river landscapes like those that exist along the eastern margins of Yallambie. One of the world’s most venomous snakes, the Tiger (Notechis scutatus) is an aggressive species although the availability of anti-venoms today means that the bite is usually manageable. They are all too common however along the rivers and I’ve seen several in our garden over time.
Nationwide, snakebite comes in after road trauma as the single biggest cause of the untimely demise of “man’s best friend” and in the time we have lived at Yallambie, our neighbours on all sides have lost pets to snake bite. A pity St Patrick never made it downunder to do his thing with snakes. Our next door neighbour’s pet moggy survived a snake bite although only after two lots of anti-venom at the vet costing $800 a pop. What price a pet? Another neighbour accidentally stepped on the head of a snake in his darkened garden at night, crushing the life out of it under foot in his open sandals. A lucky man perhaps but it shows the importance of keeping a battery torch handy in your garden at night.
In my earlier post, Dear Diary, of January 2015, I recounted a story once told to us of how the late Ethel Temby found a Tiger snake inside her home at Yallambie Homestead. When she saw the snake it was going under the back door, however its direction of travel was from the inside going out. On questioning her young sons they admitted that they had caught it in the garden some while previously and brought it secretly into the house to keep as a pet. This dangerous, so called, pet had escaped and been at large in the house for days before being spotted by Ethel, slip, sliding away.
There are a number of blue tongue lizards living in our garden this year which have become so used to us that they can literally be fed from the hand. I often see one or another poke its head out of the random rocks of the garden wall at the back of the kitchen as I walk by.
Blue tongues are a type of skink with back markings not unlike those of the Tiger snake, a fact that has given rise at times to some dangerous confusions. A lad in my youth, a hero of the school yard just for this story, once pulled what he thought was the tail of a blue tongue lizard from a hollow log. This so called “lizard” gradually revealed itself as being longer and longer in body but without any evident signs of the expected leg appendages. Suddenly came the drastic realization that, far from a lizard being held by the tail, the boy was actually tugging at the tail of a snake. You can well imagine the speed with which a retreat was conducted by the school children from the vicinity of the hollow log on that occasion.
Overseas visitors to our country sometimes comment on the perils of living in a society where you can be eaten by sharks in the ocean, burned to death by fire in the bush or fatally poisoned by the bite of spiders and snakes in and around the home. Growing up in Australia the boy scouts were taught that, in the case of a snake attack, a cut should be made into the wound with a pen knife and the poison sucked out. I don’t know if this advice ever saved a life but the action was later discouraged when it was realized that the knife wounds were often more dangerous than the bite itself.
As a small boy in Rosanna I remember my father once coming in and declaring that he had killed a black snake on our corner.
“How did you do that, Daddy?” I asked in my innocence.
“Picked it up by its tail Son, and cracked it like a whip.”
I was particularly impressed by this story and imagined for years my father, my hero, going around the neighbourhood, picking up snakes by their tails and cracking them right and left like stock whips.
Years later when I was grown I happened to recall this tale to my father and quizzed him about its veracity. He looked puzzled for a moment before recalling, that yes, he had killed a snake on the corner once upon a time but had done so by collecting it across the back with the edge of a garden spade.
In such ways are the illusions of our childhood destroyed.
It is said that to dream of snakes is to dream of your enemies. My wife said she dreamed of a snake the night before poor Rosie died in what might uncertainly be described as a premonition of events.
The serpent as an icon is almost as old as mankind itself with the snake of course infamously representing the temptations of the Devil in the Garden of Eden but in many other cultures, the idea of a snake shedding its skin is used as a metaphor for the reincarnation of the soul. The Kundalini awakening, the object of a powerful form of yogic theory, is described as being like a coiled serpent at the base of the spine. It is seen as a primordial and dormant energy present in three-and-a-half coils at the base of the spine in a triangular bone called the Sacrum, the Latin word for a holy bone identified as the last bone to be destroyed when the body is burnt.
Ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail, symbolizes this cycle of life and the eternal return. Carl Jung included the Ouroboros as one of his psychological archetypes. For mine, that’s the best way of imagining the snake for I like to think of our Rosie making a return some time soon.
Take a second look at the communion wine the next time the Dean offers it your way. It just might be Dean Spanley or maybe the Rev Roscoe offering you a glass of the finest Tokay.
What do you think you would catch if you threw a fishing line into the Plenty River at Yallambie? A Redfin perhaps? The “Salmon of Doubt”? An old boot?
I was walking in Yallambie Park the other day below Tarcoola Drive and heard movements on the river bank below me. A few Yallambie likely lads and their girlfriends were down by the riverside with fishing gear and lines trailing into the water. The esky they had brought along with them probably contained little in the way of a catch, but at a guess, lots in the way of lager, the obligatory essential for a good day’s fishing anywhere.
Although the sight of Yallambie anglers is about as uncommon these days as a monster in Loch Ness, a few die hard fishermen are still seen now and then elsewhere along the river. There were plenty of fish in the Plenty once upon a time, enough even for an angling club to form upstream from Yallambie at Greensborough in 1926.
Under the name of the “Greensborough Angling Club”, it met initially at the Greensborough Masonic Hall in Ester St before building premises on the west bank of the Plenty at 161 Para Rd, (then Rattray Rd). The club is still active today and is one of Victoria’s oldest angling clubs, although it’s doubtful whether they fish the River competitively at the back of the club house much anymore. Easier I would say to put in an order at the local fried fish and chip shop.
Frank Wright, a grandson of Thomas Wragge, the landholder of Yallambie in the second half of the 19th century, wrote of his earliest memories and of fishing on the Plenty River in a paper entitled “Recollections of the Plenty River”, extracts of which were quoted by Winty Calder in “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”.
The Plenty water, from my earliest days, was always said to be exceedingly pure, and in the 1920s I heard a professor of engineering say that Yan Yean water was so pure that, without treatment, it could be used indefinitely as boiler-feed water.
I have some slight recollections of the Plenty at Yallambie in the very early 1900s, but my main experiences there were during the years after 1910 when the unoccupied property became, to all intents and purposes, my happy hunting ground… we might walk from and return to Heidelberg for a day’s fishing, or go by train to Greensborough, walk and fish our way to Yallambie and then walk back to Heidelberg; or sometimes my father would pile three or four of us boys and our camping gear into the family buggy and leave us to our own devices on the banks of the river for a week or two at a time. The old (Yallambie) orchard provided us with fruit, the creek with fish, and we (learnt) to look after ourselves. Thus we got to know the river well, at least the length of it between Greensborough and the Lower Plenty Bridge.
It never occurred to us not to drink the water straight out of the river. It was crystal clear, an always flowing stream of pools and little rapids. Trees and bush lined its banks, and here and there an old fallen tree provided a bridge crossing. In other places crossings were easily made.
Possums and platypus were plentiful. Often we would see six or ten platypus in a day. We used to catch blackfish and mountain trout, and once we caught a rare native fish called a marbled trout. It was like a rather narrow 10-inch flathead in shape, with a mottled grey-black colouring. Eels and small freshwater lobsters also came our way.
Looking back, it is now realized, our hunting days at Yallambie bracketed the time that was the beginning of the end for these native fish. I don’t remember which we caught first, an English perch or a Murray cod; anyway, we caught both. Someone had put them in the Yarra and they had made their way up the Plenty, to add to our fun. But these two fish were, I believe, destroyers of the little blackfish and mountain trout.
My visits to the Plenty at Yallambie ceased with World War I.
Fishing has always been a hugely popular past time in Australia. My own father was a keen freshwater river fisherman in the years that followed that other World War. He and his old army mates, all ex POWs, kept a shack after 1945 on the Mitta Mitta River where they would disappear away from their families at irregular intervals to yarn about the “one that got away”. Some sort of wish granting, talking fish I have no doubt.
I remember going there years later as a child, around about the time that to quote my father, the building of the Dartmouth Dam “wrecked the Mitta for fly fishing”. There was a large drawing of a fish in outline on a wall of the shack which, as my father explained, was the outline of a trout which legend had it had been reeled in hook, line and sinker by my godfather, Uncle John. The men had traced the fish onto the wall to immortalize it before it went into the pan. “But take with a grain of salt, or at least a slice of lemon, that drawing and anything else your Uncle John tells you of his Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Your Uncle John was a lousy fisherman. If you ask me, I reckon it was more like a fish finger.”
Like the later building of the Dartmouth, when a catching reservoir was built in the 1850s on the upper reaches of the Plenty River at Yan Yean, the river’s natural flow was forevermore diminished downstream. Mills closed for lack of water and farming practices had to be modified up and down the Plenty valley. The colonial government paid financial compensation to the mill owners whose business literally “dried up” overnight, causing some wags at the time to suggest that there was more money to made in building mills to claim the compensation than in actual mill operation. Oral history would suggest that in the early days of settlement a water driven, mill wheel was located at Yallambie. Indeed, Ethel Temby claimed to have seen the still visible foundations of this feature in the 1960s but locating the mill site within Yallambie Park today can only be described as a problematic exercise at best, although a cut through the river bank for watering cattle and old billabong depressions are still apparent.
Occasional floods on the Plenty River at Yallambie are still possible and at their highest point can cut right across the plain of the horseshoe bend in the vicinity of the billabong depressions.
A Wragge photograph from the 1890s shows the river in flood and in 1996, a century later, another flood was captured in this video clip:
There is no doubt that Yan Yean was a visionary engineering project for an infant colony when it opened in 1857. Certainly Yan Yean water was an improvement on the old system of collecting water from the Yarra, upstream from the settlement, and carting it around the town in barrels.
Visiting Australia in 1871, the English novelist Anthony Trollope, wrote of Melbourne’s water supply and stated, perhaps with some satire, that it “is supposed to be the most perfect water supply ever produced for the use of man. Ancient Rome and modern New York have been less blessed in this respect than is Melbourne with its Yan Yean. I do believe that the supply is almost as inexhaustible as it is described to be. But the method of bringing it into the city is not as yet by any means perfect… I will also add that the Yan Yean water is not pleasant to drink — a matter of comparatively small consideration in a town in which brandy is so plentiful.”
I’ve heard tell that ultra-pure water (literally H²O) produced for use in the medical industry, has the texture of water without the taste of water, and in fact it can be quite dangerous to drink in quantity. Sounds weird doesn’t it? Generally, it is the mineral content in water that gives water the taste we assume it doesn’t have. The use of lead piping in early Melbourne, used to deliver water around the city streets, was probably one reason for Trollope’s reservations about the quality. Consumers at the time were even advised to run their taps to waste for a few minutes each morning in an attempt to lessen the dangers associated with lead piping.
The “inexhaustible” supply described by Trollope all too soon also proved to be inadequate. Further diversions of streams into the Yan Yean system occurred and the 20th century saw the building of a series of new dams on many of the main rivers within casting distance of Melbourne. The last one was built on the Thomson River in west Gippsland within the memory of many people. When completed in 1983, the Thomson Reservoir was more than four times the capacity of Melbourne’s next largest reservoir and was supposed to drought proof Melbourne for all time. Like Yan Yean and the other reservoirs, it was never going to be enough of course. Australia is a dry country. So dry in fact that here in Victoria a few years ago, with the much vaunted Thomson standing almost empty, the politicians went all to water in the face of an ongoing drought and in a robbing “Peter to pay Paul” exercise, built a pipe line to bring water from the Goulburn Valley across the divide to Melbourne. And if that was not enough, at the same time they ordered the building of a massive desalination plant on the Bass Coast near Wonthaggi.
A desalination plant was always going to be a dumb idea and the fact that regular rainfall since its opening has saved the desalination plant (or the pipe line for that matter) from being used is scarcely the point. When you have to start manufacturing water it’s clear to me that you have a population that is living beyond the ecological limits of the environment.
As Melbourne continues to expand into an ever enlarging megatropolis, it is our environment that always pays the price. The latest “Sustainable Cities Index”, a study that rates 50 of the world’s most important cities from 31 countries, taking into account social, economic and environmental considerations, ranks Melbourne 17th in environmental considerations. The same study however ranks Melbourne fifth for profitability and 8th in social factors. I can see a trend developing, can’t you?
In “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, Winty Calder further described some of the environmental stresses that beleaguered the Plenty River at Yallambie in the second half of the 20th century:
Bill Bush would remember platypus in the Plenty River during the 1950s, but both the river and its flood plain were degraded as residential development proceeded. Frank Wright continued returning to Yallambie until the 1970s, by which time his early memories of the property were in sharp contrast to current reality. It had become “a jumble of new roads and dwellings, and the formerly lovely Plenty River (was) a yellow mess of pollution and dumped rubbish.” (Letter from Frank Wright to Olive Shann.) He would never forget that:
“about 1970 or ’71, I… looked sadly at the once pure and beautiful Plenty. The water was a turbid orange colour from the stirred up clay. Raw bulldozed rubble edged the waterway in places. Tin cans, old tyres and other dumpers’ rubbish littered the scene. No sewerage drains served the many dwellings along the banks. I don’t want to see the Plenty again.” (Frank Wright, “Recollections of the Plenty River”).
Soon after Frank’s last visit to that river, the water quality testing programme of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works confirmed his fears that the Plenty was so polluted it could no longer support aquatic life in its lower reaches. However, by then, a main sewer traversed the whole length of the river with branch sewers connected to it at various points.
Around the time Frank Wright wrote his epilogue of the Plenty River, a report from the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works put forward the notion that by 1990 the then polluted river systems of Melbourne would be mended. In fact it claimed that the Yarra, Melbourne’s perennial “upside down river”, would be flowing by then like some sort of Perrier at Dights Falls in Collingwood. Or words to that effect.
It seems hard to believe now, but the Yarra River and its tributaries at Heidelberg, the Plenty River and Darebin Creek all had their swimming holes at one time, some with suburban beaches and pools, dug out surrounds and semi concreted sides rather like sea baths — that was before river pollution made them unfit or at least unfashionable for use.
The remnants of a swimming pool on the Plenty River at Greensborough, a little upstream from Yallambie, are still visible and can be found just below the Main Road Bridge. The Greensborough pool was built as a “Susso” project in the Great Depression at a cost of £200 and was of cement and blue stone construction. It was opened in 1937 by the Mayor of Heidelberg, Councilor Robert Reid with demonstrations of swimming by leading swimmers of the day. It now makes a convenient platform for occasional anglers who would probably balk at the idea of getting their feet wet in the sometimes murky water.
A very good swimming beach of sand at Sills Bend in Heidelberg was still being risked by hardy souls when I was a boy but reduced and changing river flows have affected stream form and that beach consists now mainly of silt and clay when last I visited. I believe there was formerly a camping spot used by the Scouts located just down river from Sills Bend at Bulleen near what is believed to be today one of the most polluted ground locations in Heidelberg — namely the old gasometers site. Camping there was probably never a very good idea. Swimming in the Yarra these days is limited largely to around Warrandyte and to further upstream.
Against all odds and in the face of continued suburban expansion, by the 1990s Melbourne’s rivers were indeed considerably cleaner than from the time when Frank Wright wrote about the Plenty. Still not quite the promised Perrier but things had improved by 1997 to the extent that the local newspaper was able to report that platypus were once again occupying the Plenty River at Yallambie, in the vicinity of the Lower Plenty Rd Bridge. The following year a fishing event was organized for the river codenamed “Catch a Carp Day”. It was intended to reduce the numbers of these introduced European fish in the Plenty River, the correct assumption being that the species was in competition with the native aquatic wildlife.
In January this year it was reported that a 20 year old platypus was found in the Plenty River during a spring survey in 2014 and that, “a breeding population exists at least as far downstream as the mouth of the Plenty River, about 15 kilometres from downtown Melbourne”. (The iconic Platypus is a peculiar animal. A semiaquatic, egg laying, mammal it is the sole living representative of the family Ornithorhynchidae, in the genus Ornithorhynchus (literally 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 elaborate antipodean hoax. They infamously tried to remove the “stitching” on the platypus bill that they were sure had been employed in the forgery and the marks of the scissors can still be seen on the specimen on display today in the British Museum of Natural History.)
In the 19th century it was not unknown for platypus pelts and the furs of other rare native species to be turned into rugs and coats like some sort of Australian “One Hundred and One Dalmatians”. A pity nobody stripped their crinoline for PeTA in the 19th century. The Platypus is of course a protected species these days but it remains at risk from pollutants in rivers and the practice of illegal netting. A local newspaper story last month warned about illegal fishing practices and mentioned that two platypuses had recently been found dead in the Yarra River near Laughing Waters Rd, Eltham.
March 1st, is designated “Clean Up Australia Day” 2015, a day when many socially conscious Australians are getting out into the community to clean up the environment. There is a group meeting today in Yallambie Park where no doubt much good work will be done along the environs of the Plenty River, clearing the rubbish washed into the river by overnight rain. “Clean Up Australia Day” is a great Australian idea, the concept of which has spread to nations all around the world, but it is just one day of the 365¼ days in a year.
People love water features near their homes, be they bayside, a natural stream running through parkland, or artificial lakes in the manner of Yallambie’s, “Cascades” and “Streeton Views” housing estates. However, while storm water continues to empty into the suburban river system, every poisonous cigarette butt dropped from a car window, every oil spill that goes onto the road and the proceeds of every one of man’s best friends who ever uses a Ned Flander’s nature strip as a make shift dunny, all of it eventually ends up in one of our rivers or lake features. From there it makes its inexorable way to the Bay and thence to the oceans. After the oceans though there’s no where else to go on this “Pale Blue Dot”. That is the “Wall-e” reality of our world.
“I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting.” How often have you heard these words spoken before a public event? They are de rigueur at my son’s school at every assembly and public gathering but when I asked him what he could tell me about Eddie Mabo’s fishing rods he looked at me with bewilderment. As another Australia Day dawns and we once again remember the time in 1788 when the Aboriginal people of Sydney Cove watched the sails of the convict ships enter Sydney Harbour, and muttered “Crikey” to themselves, what do those words really mean and how much of what we say is just lip service? The Yallambie days of yore that I have been writing about in these posts was not of course the first history of our district. There is another, earlier history dating back thousands of years, knowledge of which W. E. H. Stanner once described as “the great Australian silence”.
When the land that was to become the suburb of Yallambie was sold at public auction as Portion 8 at the first Crown land sales in 1838 it was assumed the land belonged to a Queen, then in the first year of her reign, sitting on a throne on the other side of the world and that it was hers by right to dispose of. It took a split decision by the best legal minds in Australia sitting on the High Court of Australia in 1992 to finally change that perception. I don’t know enough about the subject to write about it authoritatively but it seems appropriate on this day to write in a general way about the Wurundjeri, the tribe of indigenous Australians who before European settlement once occupied much of the present location of Melbourne.
According to the explorer and anthropologist Alfred Howitt, who with his father William visited “Yallambee” in October 1852, the Wurundjeri tribal territory was generally agreed to be all the area drained by the Yarra/Plenty River basins. It has been written elsewhere that at Yallambie the Wurundjeri occupied a more or less permanent summer camp, above a deep pool in the Plenty River that could be relied upon to never run dry even at times of the worst drought: “At that time Aborigines had a permanent camp above that long, straight, deep stretch of river below Tarcoola Drive”.
Archaeological studies by Banyule City Council and the MMBW have identified some evidence of pre contact civilization along the lower reaches of the Plenty River, from scarred trees to artefact scatters and possible mound sites. It is a fragile jigsaw puzzle that continuing research will add to although sometimes that puzzle can take an unexpected turn. Some years ago a newspaper reported that a skeleton had been found in a Montmorency backyard, just upstream from Yallambie and on the other side of the river. The police were called, it being believed that evidence had been found of our very own Montmorency, “Midsomer Murders”. They went away soon afterward when it became apparent that the skeleton was of Aboriginal origin and of great age, proof if proof be needed of the long occupation of the area by native people.
A few years ago at the suggestion of my wife and I, Banyule Council installed a sign on the horseshoe bend of the Plenty River at Yallambie marking the presence of the first Australians in this locality. It’s a fine looking piece of sculpture shaped a bit like a native shield propped between two logs. I’ve heard it suggested that horse shoe loops on a river were good hunting grounds for Aboriginal people. They could chase game into the bend and corner their quarry on steep banks. Perhaps the sign is a little inappropriately placed however and might have been better located upstream, near the permanent waterhole that the Indigenous people are said to have occupied as a camp. A second sign describing the Colonial history of the Wragge and Bakewell farms on the river flat would have been a better option for the location chosen. But that’s another story.
The story of John Batman’s infamous 1835 “Treaty” with the Wurundjeri people is well known. Teachers told us about it in school but if you were too busy considering the aerodynamic capabilities of the latest folded piece of exam paper, I would recommend Rex Harcourt’s enormously interesting book “Southern Invasion, Northern Conquest” (Golden Point Press, 2001). It contains what I think is the clearest account in print of the circumstances surrounding the Treaty and the events leading up to it. The rejection of the Treaty by Governor Richard Bourke implemented the doctrine of Terra nullius upon which British possession of Australia until Mabo became based.
The location of the signing of Batman’s “Treaty” remains unclear. Most probably it was on the Merri Creek downstream from Rushall Station where High Street now climbs the artificial embankment to Northcote. I’ve walked there along the Merri Creek Trail with Harcourt’s book in hand and that’s my favourite for it matches John Batman’s description very nicely. However, there have been several other sites suggested including the intriguing theory put forward by H. G. Turner in his “History of Colonial Victoria” that the Treaty was signed on the Plenty River at Greensborough, just a little upstream from Yallambie. The eight Wurundjeri elders who placed their crosses on Batman’s ludicrous document on that day in 1835 almost certainly had no idea what they were signing. They were not the owners of the land that Batman and his Port Phillip Association were attempting to purchase. The land was held in common by the Tribe and was not the property of any one man to dispose of. Possibly they thought they were participating in a gift giving ceremony of friendship. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
The world that the settlers brought to the Plenty River and the place that the Aboriginals soon occupied in it is illustrated in the following account of the gentleman squatter Captain John Harrison on the Plenty River at Yan Yean. Written by his son in 1927 it tells of contact with Aborigines in 1837-1843 but it might equally well have described the world of Edward Willis and John and Robert Bakewell when they occupied their land on the lower reaches of the Plenty River. According to Isabel Ellender who reproduced this description in her 1989 report “The Plenty Valley Corridor”, Harrison “was typical of many of the early settlers encountered by the Aborigines of the Plenty Valley in the 1830s”.
“The blacks in the district (the Plenty Valley) belonged to the Yarra Yarra tribe and were considered rather dangerous at first. But only on two occasions do I remember our having an alarm through blacks. The first time, hundreds of them surrounded the house, the quadrangle was full of them… the blacks evidently thought only women and children were at home, for presently they became very cheeky, knocking at the doors with their waddies and sticks. My father… suddenly rushed out on them with his gun in his hand; and they were evidently so surprised at the sight of him that they disappeared in a most miraculous manner… But we could hear a great jabbering going on down at the potato patch… and there, we could see some of the lubras digging up potatoes with their yam sticks. These were always carried about by them and were six or seven feet long, and about thick as a man’s wrist, with a sharp point at one end.”
Near the head waters of the Plenty River lies a curious colonial building historically known as “Bear’s Castle”. I can remember my late father telling me of it when I was a wide eyed schoolboy. In his role as an inspector for the MMBW, my father was responsible for the water supply of a wide area, at one time ranging from the Heidelberg depot to the Yan Yean Reservoir. Bear’s Castle he told me had been built in the “olden days” to defend farmer Bear’s farm from marauding Aboriginals. I don’t think he quite believed the legend himself and more than likely the “Castle” was built as a garden “folly” in the style of the English Picturesque. But it makes a good story all the same. It’s not easy to get permission to visit the “Castle” today as it lies within the catchment of the Yan Yean Reservoir. I last saw it nearly two decades ago. Bear’s farm itself lies somewhere out in the middle of the reservoir, under about 30,000 megalitres of water.
The Wragge family of Yallambie are known to have had many dealings with Aboriginal people, if not at Yallambie, then at their Riverina properties. The Wragge’s are believed to have collected several Stone Age weapons and tools, Aboriginal artifacts that had been ploughed up in their farm fields. Winty Calder, writing in “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales – The Wragges of Tulla and Yallambie” (Jimaringle Publications, 1997) said of the native people of the Riverina that: “The bond between Aborigines and their country has never been fully understood by white people. The tact and friendliness of Charles Sturt, when he explored the Murray in 1829-1830, probably prevented trouble along the river above its junction with the Darling. People met by Joseph Hawdon south of the Murray (between Echuca and the Loddon River) in 1838, when there had been reports of native hostility, showed mixed reactions to the intruders. There was curiosity, alarm and astonishment. Some were not welcoming, others attempted to pilfer the explorers’ goods. In the early 1840s, Edward Curr rode over country along the lower Edward, Wakool and Niemur Rivers, which was unoccupied by Europeans, without any trouble from Aborigines, but he stressed the fact that he was careful, especially with the Moira blacks on the northern side of the river. Less than forty years later a new Aboriginal generation could no longer oppose the advance of white settlers. Numbers had decreased steadily as they fell victim to diseases caught from the whites, and as they were occasionally shot. They largely abandoned their health-giving, traditional hunting and fishing to hang about the settlers’ huts, miserable and underfed, hoping for hand-outs from the newcomers. The pressure of white occupation resulted in listlessness among many of the Aborigines, and loss of interest in life”. Later still, many Aborigines worked on the Wragge sheep stations as labourers, roustabouts and shearers, employees of white men on land that their forefathers had occupied for uncounted generations. Call us eccentric but where other couples would have chosen to lounge on a Queensland beach sipping gin and tonics, my wife and I spent our honeymoon plodding through paddocks in the Riverina in pursuit of this history visiting the old Wragge homesteads. At one of them I remember the modern day homesteader (not a Wragge descendant) showed us openings in the doors and walls of the original, free standing dairy, apertures which she claimed were rifle slopes, a sure sign of the dangers encountered by the original settlers of the district. I thought they looked like ventilation holes.
Phillippa Sutherland recently produced a very nice looking booklet for the Banyule Council called: “Banyule, Heartland of the Wurundjeri Willam”. It is freely available from the Council service centres and contains this final, delightful story of the Wurundjeri dream time, adapted by Sutherland from S. Wieneke, ‘When the Wattle Blooms Again’.
Once, the water of Birrarung (Yarra River – ‘river of mists’) was locked in the mountains. This great expanse of water was called Moorool (‘great water’). It was so large that the Woiworung had little hunting ground. This contrasted with the Wathaurung’s and Bunurong’s hunting ground, the flat which is now Port Phillip Bay. Mo-yarra (‘slow and fast running’) was the headman of the Woiworung. He decided to free the country of the water and cut a channel through the hills, in a southerly direction, until he reached Koo-wee-rup (Western Port). However, only a little water followed him and the channel gradually closed up. At a later time, the headman of the tribe was Bar-wool. He remembered Mo-Yarra’s attempt to free the land. He knew that mo-Yarra still lived on the swamps beside Koo-we-rup. Each winter he saw the hilltops covered with feather-down which Mo-Yarra plucked from the water birds sheltering on the swamps. Bar-wool resolved to free the land. He cut a channel up the valley with his stone axe, but was stopped by Baw-baw, the mountain. He cut northwards, but was stopped by Donna Buang and his brothers. Then he cut westwards, through to the hills to Warr-an-dyte. There he met Yan-yan, another Woiworung. Yan-yan was busy cutting a channel for the Plenty River in order to drain his homeland of Morang. They joined forces and the waters of Moorool and Morang became Moo-rool-bark (‘the place where the wide waters were’). They continued their work, and reached Warringal (Heidelberg-Templestowe flats – ‘dingo-jump-up’). There they rested while the waters formed another Moorool. When Bar-wool and Yan-yan set to work again they had to go much slower because the ground was harder and they were using too many stone axes. They cut a narrow, twisting track between the Darebin and Merri Creeks, looking for softer ground. At last they reached Port Phillip. The waters of Moorool and Morang rushed out. Woiworung country was freed from water, but Port Phillip was inundated.” A charming story that in an uncanny way echoes what we know of the landscape from the geological record. The course of the Plenty River was changed 8000 years ago when volcanic eruptions in the west deposited a basalt flow that the river was then forced to cut a path through, creating Greensborough’s Plenty Gorge. The Plenty River at Yallambie marks the end of this basalt plain. The river bed at Yallambie and downstream until its confluence with the Yarra River in View Bank, follows the original course of the river across older, sedimentary beds. In prehistoric times when water levels were lower, the first Australians saw Port Phillip Bay as a game filled, grassy plain with the prehistoric course of the Yarra River cutting a route across it to the sea. I am told that the ancient river bed is still there, underwater somewhere at the bottom of the Bay. It has been modified to form the shipping channel so recently and so controversially deepened and is used by vessels entering the relatively shallow waters of Port Phillip enroute to the Port of Melbourne. So on this Australia Day, if you get the opportunity to take a dip with your inflatable kangaroo in the “True Blue” waters of Port Phillip or to play a game of beach cricket on some Peninsula shore line, remember for a moment a time before 1788 and 1835. A time when the first Australians hunted real kangaroos out on the grassy plains of Port Phillip where holidaying Aussie fishermen now pull in flathead and snapper. Those grassy plains are long gone now, as are the native camps of the plains and the Plenty River. They exist now only in a time of Dreams.
So to make a liar of me the council street sweeping machine came down Tarcoola Drive again last week, the second time in as many months. Unusually, the parks and gardens department also sent a crew out to mow the fields of Yallambie Park. Maybe somebody is reading these posts after all.
On Sunday I took the hound for a walk across the newly mown common. It’s a fine place to stroll on a sunny day or to sit beside the river under one of Robert Bakewell’s trees and chill out. It’s a place to look deep down into the pools formed by the slow moving flow of the lower reaches of the Plenty River and to keep an eye out for the platypus or bunyips probably lurking there in equal measure. It’s a place to search for meaning.
My walk took me down stream to a point where pedestrians and cyclists may cross the river over the refurbished Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge to the newly made residential court, enthusiastically sign posted as “Edward Willis Court”.
The other side of the river, the “eastern bank” or Lower Plenty side was never technically a part of Yallambie although at times its history has featured in our story. Garden states that Robert Hoddle recorded in his survey field notes of June to September 1837 that the pastoralist Edward Willis was in occupation of the east bank of the Plenty River but observes that the run may have overlapped the western (the Yallambie) side of the river.
“Willis’s house, when built, was on the eastern side of the Plenty, north of the (old) Lower Plenty Road bridge. Though Hoddle’s notes are difficult to interpret, it appears that the run may have overlapped the western side of the Plenty.” (Heidelberg, The Land and Its People 1838-1900, Donald S. Garden, MUP, 1972).
Edward Willis was born on 12 September 1816 at Hornsby, Cumberland, England the son of Richard Willis and his wife Anne, née Harper. He arrived in Van Diemen’s Land with his parents in December 1823 aboard the SS Courier and until he was 21 he worked on his father’s property, Wanstead, near Campbell Town in Van Dieman’s Land. In 1837 with his brother William he crossed to Port Phillip, taking 500 ewes and several rams from his father’s pure-bred merino stud and in April the brothers took up their run on the Plenty.
In 1837, Thomas Walker, who was to become a significant player in the subsequent development of the Heidelberg district, (for a short while he owned the land that would later form Yallambie, having purchased it from Thomas Wills), wrote this contemporary description of the situation of Willis and his neighbouring squatters in the fertile and well watered country encompassing the confluence of the Yarra and Plenty River systems:
“After having spent the forenoon in the township, we proceeded on Friday afternoon on an excursion up the Yarra Yarra. We were accompanied by Mr. Edward Willis (son of Mr. A. Willis, of Wanstead, Van Dieman’s Land) to whom I was introduced by Mr. McIntyre, of Willis, McIntyre and Co., Sydney. It came to rain shortly after we left, and night also closing in, we did not get so far as we intended, but had to stop for the night at a settler’s Mr. Mollison’s, where we slept on the floor before the fire, but with cloaks and blankets enough to keep us warm, so that I never slept more soundly. I think no class of people live in a rougher way than many of the settlers do here at present. Mr. M. is erecting a hut, which will be well enough when finished, but in the mean time it is open and comfortless; no furniture has he except a bench or stool, a broken cup or two, tin panicans, a couple of knives and forks, and a plate or two. All he has to eat, is Irish salted pork, damper, and tea and sugar; and the light we had, was produced by burning rags in pieces of the fat pork. Upon the whole, I never met people living in a style more rude and rough, or with less attention to comfort, but to which they seem perfectly indifferent, aware it is only a temporary inconvenience. We there met a brother settler of Mollison’s and Willis’, named Wood (son of Captain Wood, of Snakebank, Van Dieman’s Land), and they made us heartily welcome, and afforded us a specimen of a certain class of Port Philip Squatters. The class I mean is numerous, and consists of off-shoots (sons) of Van Dieman’s Land settlers, who are sent over here with a few sheep to do for themselves, there being no room for them in Van Dieman’s Land…
On Saturday, after breakfast, we left Mr. Mollison’s, and proceeded to Mr. Willis’, passing through Mr. Wood’s station. 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. We dined with him, and then returned home, seeing as much of the country as time and a rainy day would permit.” (Extract from “A Month in the Bush of Australia,” Thomas Walker, J. Cross, 1838).
Until the Plenty River was truncated by the Yan Yean Reservoir in the mid 1850s, it was quite substantial. Joseph Tice Gellibrand considered it one of the few streams in Port Phillip that justified the term “river” and named it “Plenty” in 1836 because the surrounding country had such a promising aspect. Gellibrand might have been advised to stop in the neighbourhood for he disappeared without trace early the following year while exploring the country around another river system, the Barwon. At this early date, the river had a number of names which included “Threepenny Creek,” “Willis’s” and Robert Hoddle’s name, the “Yarra Rivulet” before these were gradually discarded in favour of Gellibrand’s “Plenty River”. By 1838, all the land from Willis’s on both sides of the Plenty up to Whittlesea was occupied. Boundaries were determined by the squatters themselves, most of whom were single men who were by then living in stringy bark slab huts. The country must have appeared well watered and attractive to these first white residents.
At the end of the decade Edward Willis returned to Wanstead and his association with the Plenty River ended. He married Catherine, daughter of Captain Charles Swanston in 1840 at Hobart Town and subsequently joined his father in law in partnership in Geelong. He became a prominent citizen in that town’s development and died in England in 1895.
Edward Willis run east of the river was surveyed in 1839 by Assistant Surveyor T H Nutt following on from Hoddle’s initial inspection and was sold by the Crown. In 1841 in the Census, a wattle and daub hut was listed there with ten inhabitants. The land sale of portion 11, which covered most of the present Lower Plenty area, passed through the hands of speculators before being bought by Patrick Turnbull, a Melbourne merchant and pastoralist. Although he did not live on the holding he did fence, clear and stock it .
In 1855 the Preston Hall Estate of 365 acres on the site of Willis’ old run was purchased by John Brown who practiced dairying and general agriculture there. In 1884, he sold the property to David Thomas whose widow Mary in 1887 built a substantial red brick home, Bryn Teg (also known as Preston Hall), across the river and opposite Yallambie.
A track out to Ryrie’s run in Yarra Glen had been established early. It probably followed an old Aboriginal footpath and this is now mostly represented by the form of Main Road. The crossing place over the Plenty River was bridged and a few years later was described by Richard Howitt during his visit of 1843.
“We paced on from our Yarra-cottage towards the Plenty through the wild bush, noting particularly how well, to our right, on the river’s slopes and flats the land was cultivated, and extensively too; covered with emerald-green crops of corn, contrasting admirably with the dingy colour of the wild interminable woodlands. In two hours we reached the Plenty, a delightful though small tributary of the Yarra; clothed far and near with the fresh beauty of cultivated growths. Over the Plenty is a bridge that a painter would not overlook; nor yet the one at the Diamond Creek; both being picturesquely formed of trees laid across, covered with poles athwart again, and lastly overlaid with large sheets of stringy bark.” (Impressions of Australia Felix, Richard Howitt, 1845).
In 1865, the Heidelberg Road Board informed the Eltham Road Board that the existing Plenty Bridge was by that time “in a dangerous state” and a decision was made to replace the earlier structure, Heidelberg and Eltham jointly agreeing to share the cost. Stonework for the new bridge was by R Turnbull and Co. and the ironwork by E Chambers and Co. with the designing engineer G Francis supervising the work. This is the historic iron and blue stone bridge which today stands slightly down stream from the modern 70 km/h limit dual carriage way. The old bridge became notorious in its last years of road service as the scene of many motoring accidents, the sharp bend and narrow crossing from west to east being too much for many drivers. With construction of the modern bridge and realignment of Lower Plenty Road, the old bridge was allowed to fall into disrepair but was refurbished and reopened in 2001 as a crossing point for pedestrians and cyclists using the Plenty River Trail. The blue stone was repaired and repointed and the iron work was removed in its entirety to be repaired off site before reinstallation.
Near the eastern abutment of the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge next to the entrance of Edward Willis Court stands today a single, very elderly poplar growing out of the embankment. That tree marks the site of Plenty Bridge Hotel which opened there in 1858. Location of the hotel next to the bridge and an associated toll gate reflected the continuing significance of this river crossing to the district. The site, adjacent to the south east corner of the Yallambie farm and across the river from it, was to remain the centre of community life for the area for more than 100 years. Wallace Murdoch, who married Sarah Annie, the eldest daughter of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge, is said to have known the hotel all too well. He was a frequent customer at the pub and died of sclerosis of the liver in 1926. The 1923 renovation of Yallambie Homestead, commenced when Annie inherited the property, was encouraged by Wallace and used an architect friend of the family said to be a man Wallace met at the pub.
Legend has it that another patron of the Plenty Bridge Hotel was the notorious gangster, Squizzy Taylor, who spent time at the hotel and is supposed to have practiced his shooting by firing at a dead tree across the river with a revolver. (Recorded interview of Elsie Barnett by local historian, Shane Stoneham.) Squizzy was fatally wounded in a 1927 gun fight with a criminal rival so maybe his shooting practice was not to much effect.
In 1926, the seven decade old Plenty Bridge Hotel premises were purchased by the Heidelberg Golf Club Company Ltd which at the same time acquired 177 acres of Mary Thomas’ “Bryn Teg”. In 1927, under the supervision of Harry Alexander, that company commenced construction of a golf course which was officially opened the following year by the Federal Prime Minister, Stanley Melbourne Bruce.
At first, until the Club secured its own licence, the business of the Plenty Bridge Hotel was conducted by a Licensee, the operation run as a “19th hole”. The trading hours of 9am to 6pm initially rather restricted the drinking of the players but its position just outside the city’s metropolitan limits meant that it was one of the few places in Melbourne at that time where you could travel to for a drink on a Sunday.
In time the 19th Hole was relocated to club rooms within Mary Thomas’ old house, Bryn Teg, that building being considerably redeveloped by the club in the process. The Plenty Bridge or “Golf Club Hotel” as it had become known survived until about 1957, just as residential development at Yallambie and Lower Plenty kicked off. Another “Lower Plenty Hotel” was built on the ridge overlooking the Lower Plenty township and the Plenty Bridge Hotel disappeared under an embankment raised across the site. Thus it remained, undisturbed for two generations its story, like Frodo’s ring, all but forgotten. If any reflection was given to the weedy mound that hid the mortal remnants of all that remained of the community’s former cultural hub, it was assumed that the ground formed a part of the public open space of the river environment.
As the 2nd millennium dawned, an approach was made to the Heidelberg Golf Club to purchase the site of the former Plenty Bridge Hotel which remained alienated under their title. Rumour has it that the potential developer charmed the Golf Club committee with the story of a wish to build a “dream home” on the spot. However, once the sale was completed and only AFTER title was secured, the land was mysteriously rezoned from low density to Residential 1. Plans were then lodged with Banyule City Council to build 22 attached, double storey unit style buildings across a 9m frontage, 0.7ha “battleaxe” block.
Such an over development of the land as proposed in this initial scheme was met with general alarm by the community. A public meeting which I along with many others attended, was called at the Lower Plenty Hotel in December 1999 to discuss the issue. A representative of the developer was present to display the suggested plans and supposedly to answer questions from the public. To issues such as storm water run off into the Plenty River, the removal of existing trees, the impact on fauna and of the general propriety of the style and density of the proposed buildings in a culturally and historically important setting, it soon became apparent that the representative had few creditable responses.
Over 30 objections were eventually made to the planning application at Council from across a wide range of the community and the application for a planning permit was dismissed. The development proponent took the matter to VCAT which also dismissed the application, the Registrar noting in doing so the high quality of the objections. There then followed a lengthy process where the plans were resubmitted every few years with slight changes, the proponent having the luxury of full time professional representation at the Tribunal and a seemingly inexhaustible bank balance, the public relying on the enthusiasm and energy of individuals. In a battle of attrition, the objectors needed to win their case on every occasion the application was presented. The developer just once.
The outcome at the Plenty Bridge was inevitable. After a decade of attempts the developer succeeded in having a plan for the site passed, albeit as a very much reduced project of 6 individual house blocks in what is now Edward Willis Court. The 2 largest river red gums and a silky oak within the development were retained during this subdivision. Will they be allowed to remain? The experience of houses built in the recent past at nearby “Streeton Views” in Yallambie has been that old native trees left within the vicinity of new housing are at risk once residential development progresses. The larger of the red gums was assessed independently twice during the application and was recorded as being between 2 and 300 years old (A&R Tree Surgeons, K F Gerraty Forestry Consultant). The disposition of limb failure in old river red gums would suggest that housing will need to be situated at some little distance from these trees in Edward Willis Court.
The current house blocks I noticed are numbered from 11 to 16. Does this reflect future ambitions for the lower consecutive numbers and does it necessarily follow that ultimately we will get the 1999 scheme by proxy? As a mad conjecture then, why not rebuild the Plenty Bridge Hotel itself? Not in competition with the modern Lower Plenty Hotel and its pokies but as a boutique hotel catering to a smaller crowd with reference to the history of this important site. Although it has been buried to a considerable extent by earthworks that presumably originated from the ridge above, the actual footprint of the Plenty Bridge Hotel remains to this day. I have heard that a surviving floor plan of the original building exists within a private collection and numerous photographs of the exterior exist, showing the building at various times during its life and from different angles. A similar building programme was conducted from scratch with much success at the Walhalla’s Star Hotel, probably with less information to go on. The popularity of the nearby Sulwan Thai restaurant which operates from a former weather board home in Main Road is an example of the need for places of this size in the locality.
The battle between developers and the supporters of our cultural and physical environment has been played out often in the suburbs and with a State election due at the end of this month it is an issue that I’m sure will again be in focus. The primary concern of early squatters like Edward Willis was to make as much money from the land in as short a space of time as possible before moving on. In the words of Thomas Walker in 1837, “…they seem perfectly indifferent, aware it is only a temporary inconvenience.”
Prophetic words given the attitudes of developers in this modern day. Theirs is a short term, profit driven prosperity driven by population growth and measured against the costs to a world endangered by impending environmental crises and a future clouded by global warming.
I saw a sight you do not often see on Tarcoola Drive this morning. A motorised street sweeper. None too many street trees from which to sweep up the non existant leaves I expect.
You see, trees aren’t much chop with our Council. Within our neighbourhood there are a number of historic colonial era trees. Included in this list there are maybe a half dozen English elms dating from the colonial period and now growing inside private gardens. In Yallambie Park there are none.
20 years ago elm leaf beetle was identified as a developing arboricultural problem within the City of Banyule. Early in 1995 under this cloud, my wife and I attended a Council sponsored, beetle strategy meeting in Albert Jones Reserve, Eaglemont. Suggested treatments that day ranged from canopy sprays, bark banding, soil treatments or, as a last resort, complete removal of affected trees. “What would happen to house prices in Eaglemont if all the elm trees in the suburb’s leafy streets were destroyed?” That was the worrying question on peoples’ lips. A parks and gardens officer from the Council spoke and I remember his words exactly. “Strategic management is the answer. I don’t know whether anybody here knows where the suburb of Yallambie is, but there is a particularly bad outbreak of beetles in parkland on the River there. The Council intends to deal with the problem there as a priority.”
When Council workers arrived in Yallambie in March that year to handle the beetle problem, they did so by cutting down and removing all of the English elms in Yallambie Park. Those trees had stood for over a hundred years. I know this because I counted the rings on the remaining tree stumps.
The Council officer supervising the destruction told me on site during this process that the complete removal of the elm trees in Yallambie park was deemed necessary by the Council so that resources could be better concentrated on saving the street trees of Eaglemont.
There was the problem in a nutshell. Short of my wife and I chaining ourselves to the trees marked for destruction, there was little that could be done to prevent the chain saws once they were started. We did get our faces plastered in the local newspaper in protest however. “Elm Tree Cull Shocks Couple” (The Heidelberger, April 19, 1995) was the somewhat embarrassing headline. The article quoted a council officer as saying that the Council intended to revegetate with indigenous plants after the removal of the exotics. “It is part of our wider objective to return the Plenty River environs to their indigenous state.” (Ibid)
Apparently Council had not read its own Landscape Survey written by Loder & Bayly, Marilyn McBriar in 1985-87. Although there have been other reports written since, all generally overlooked, in my view the McBriar report remains the most comprehensive and observant of these Council sponsored landscape surveys. It is worth quoting briefly and in part from its chapter about Yallambie, if only to draw attention to how this report has been almost totally ignored in the nearly 3 decades since.
YALLAMBIE FLAT Existing Landscape Character A dramatic landscape in complete contrast to the precincts further north. A large horseshoe shaped open flat is contained all round with manna gums to the north east; river edge thickets to the east with a lone Roman cypress; river thickets to the south east with suckering false acacia (Robinia pseudo acacia); a thicket of elms (Ulmus procera) and a stand of mixed araucarias, mainly hoop pine (Araucaria bidwillii) to the south west; to the west the old homestead sited on the ridge is partially concealed by the large mixed conifers down the overgrown garden slopes to remnant orchard at the bottom; a line of pin oaks (Quercus palustris) and hawthorns flanking an old track to the north west; and a pair of magnificent English oaks (Quercus robur) to the west. The scene resembles a derelict common dominated by the magnificence of the conifers and oaks, and the brooding western slope with the dull walls of the old house…
Recommendations: An area which requires protection and sensitive management. Conservation of important historic plants, eg. conifers, and partial reconstruction of farm elements, eg. orchard, is required. Development should ensure the retention of the open landscape setting, with views to open water from Yallambie to indigenous woodland on the Eltham side. The Eltham side should be planted out with indigenous woodland species as a dusky woods setting to Yallambie. Preservation of the western escarpment now under private management is critical. The significance of the site should be recognised in its management and planning and the site should be permanently linked with the homestead. Western escarpment property owners should be encouraged to participate in sympathetic management of their properties. Any planting on the escarpment should be as unfussy thickets with the pines protected and dominant. The landscape should be developed to continue the impression of a mature and derelict farm/garden from a past age.
In spite of the neglect that Yallambie Park has witnessed over time and which in recent years has become almost systematic, there are several features still to be found if you take your time. Of note are several venerable oaks, some towering araucarias (including the “lone” Hoop pine of the river flat) and several historic Italian cypress. Of the latter, there were once many more. Richard Howitt mentions their existence during his visit to the Bakewell farm in 1842: “I noticed cypresses, R.(obert Bakewell) had raised from seed in abundance.” (Richard Howitt, Impressions of Australia Felix, 1845).
These cypresses were planted in the early days of the Yallambie Farm as a way of marking boundary points and sight lines for ploughing. At least one of these 150+ year old trees was ring barked within this writer’s memory, evidence of a misplaced environmental vandalism within the community.
Thomas Wragge claimed to be one of the first orchardists in the district and it is said that the quality of his trees was greatly admired, (Avril Payne, 1971 Fine Arts Thesis, possibly quoting Wragge’s grand daughter, Nancy Bush). It is likely however that Thomas was taking credit for the work of the Bakewell brothers who preceded him. Certainly the Bakewells’ vineyard was a very early venture. Raymond Henderson in his book regarding the early viticulture of Port Phillip “From Jolimont to Yering” (Roundabout Publishing, 2006) suggested that the vineyard planted at the Bakewells’ Yallambie was practically one of the first in the Colony and Dr David Dunstan in his AGL Shaw Lecture of 2011 said that “…for the vignerons of 1840 contract work was available in the gardens of the well-to-do. Their first effort was a one acre vineyard just above the confluence of the Plenty River with the Yarra at Yallambie, the property of John and Robert Bakewell.”
Until recent times, on private land at the base of the escarpment above Yallambie Park, there existed a single, extremely old grape vine. It produced a small, red grape in the summer but eventually became very overgrown by garden escapees. In the opinion of John Hawker, horticulturalist with Heritage Victoria, this vine dated from the Bakewell era at Yallambie and if so was an important and rare example of a pre Phylloxera viticulture. Perhaps William Howitt saw this vine in 1852 when he capably described the Yallambie farm:
“…the vine-plots were well dressed and kept. They cut their vine-stocks there generally much shorter than in Germany, little more than a foot from the ground, and give separate sticks to each. Mr. Bakewell’s were an exception. I was surprised to see the flat of this garden planted with the vines, and the sloping sides of the hills only partly planted with them. But as they grow the grapes chiefly for market, no doubt they obtain much heavier bunches, but they would not produce so finely-flavoured a wine.” (William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, 1858).
In the 21st century, alongside a suburban block in Goulburn Grove in the new Cascades subdivision of Yallambie, a hobby vineyard has lately been planted on the sloping electrical easement located there. I wonder if that keen gardener and vigneron realizes the traditions to which he has been adding?
Other surviving elements of the Wragge/Bakewell orchard have gradually been lost through attrition and ongoing Parks mismanagement. An ancient apple tree was very nearly killed one year after Council workers sprayed it with herbicide while treating the rampant blackberry canes that had overgrown it. The old apple tree was completely defoliated in the middle of summer and gave every appearance of being dead until finally struggling back into leaf some 18 months later, by then very much the worse for wear. That apple, several pears and one single, ancient fig are all that remain now of the once extensive Yallambie orchards. The fig tree fell over some years ago and was destined for the Council chipper when I approached the workmen on site assigned the job and suggested that if raising the tree back to a standing position was impractical, what was left of the tree should be left where it had fallen. Figs are surculose plants and sprout basal growth from their existing root base. Today that sorry tree survives in Yallambie Municipal Park and still produces fruit in summer. Against the odds it endures, a monument to neglect where it was planted probably more than 150 years ago by our early settlers. It is a true Lazarus of the fruiting world, testament that it’s sometimes better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing. This is an assertion that has become almost standard practice in Yallambie Park.
When Banyule City Council was created in 1994 from an amalgamation of the old City of Heidelberg and parts of the former Shires of Eltham and Diamond Valley, it was thought that by giving Banyule both banks of the lower reaches of the Plenty River a strategy would be developed to better manage the river environs. In Yallambie, the eastern end of the horseshoe bend has since been allowed to return to an indigenous state and much of the old cultivated river flats and the former prize winning pastures have been planted with Manna gums and native grasses. A sign identifies the site as being an important permanent camp for Aboriginal peoples in precolonial times. Near this sign on the river bank just off the bicycle path, stands diversely a large Italian cypress.
When I came to live in Yallambie two decades ago, some of my new neighbours, many of them old time Yallambie residents, could recall a time when the river banks and the surrounding vicinity of Yallambie Park were “like a botanic gardens”, planted out with fuschias and flowering bulbs. Both the river and the flood plain became degraded as residential development proceeded. A story in the “The Heidelberger” newspaper of 1982 reported local complaints that nothing was being done to prevent the spread of noxious weeds in the Yallambie parklands, (The Heidelberger, May 26, 1982).
Those noxious weeds are today a little better managed than previously but it really comes down to what your definition of a weed is. To some it is the English oaks, Italian cypress, pines, poplars, robinias, olives and fruit trees, growing now alongside the more recent, reintroduced indigenous plantings, that are the weeds. That was the verdict passed on the late and lamented English elms in Yallambie Park when they developed an associated problem. In this new millenium, as the surviving Bakewell and Wragge era trees become more geriatric and general victims of neglect, will this verdict be the fate of all remaining colonial era elements of Yallambie Park?