For tens of thousands of years the presence of fire has been a reality check in this, the world’s smallest and outside of the Antarctic, the driest continent on Earth. Aboriginal people used these ingredients to their advantage in pre-history, regularly burning the countryside to reduce fuel loads and promote game in a practice we now call “firestick farming”. Early European navigators noted the smoke from the decks of their rolling ships and called Australia that “burning country” while remarking at the same time on the “park like” nature of its scenery. But it was no park. It was a carefully crafted mosaic habitat, created by the locals using a system of land management that had been learned and developed by their forebears over generations.
All human activity has the potential to force changes on the natural order and it seems likely that the Indigenous approach gradually modified the Australian landscape by promoting the spread of volatile, Eucalypt forest at the expense of naturally less flammable plants. The overland explorer of south-eastern Australia Thomas Mitchell observed that, “Fire, grass, kangaroos and human inhabitants seem all dependent on each other for existence in Australia. Fire is necessary to burn the grass and form these open forests in which we find the large kangaroos.” In the Pacific Rim, the extinction of giant flightless Moa birds in New Zealand and the whole sale destruction of the Rapa Nui subtropical broadleaf forests of Easter Island shows what can happen when humans get it wrong but generally Australia’s First people lived in a harmonious relationship with the land.
The Australian continent the Aboriginals sought to successfully control is a hugely fire prone land and nowhere is this more-so than in its South Eastern corner. A recent report by an independent assessment group (Risk Frontiers) ranked the top 10 fire danger post codes in Australia by risk potential and wouldn’t you know it? They are all located in Victoria. It’s a danger that might not have been fully appreciated by the initial wave of European settlers in the 19th century but with the end of Aboriginal land management, the bush was primed for what came next. In terms of the area damaged, the devastating bush fires that consumed much of the Port Phillip District on “Black Thursday”, 6 February, 1851 still stand as the most wide spread of the dozens of major fires that have occurred in the State of Victoria since European settlement. Over five million hectares of country burned and a million sheep were destroyed in 1851, while the comparatively low human death toll of 12 is perhaps only a reflection of the small and dispersed population of the Port Phillip District at that time.
“Fire commenced by the upper Plenty River when bullock-drivers left a smouldering fire behind them. Driven by strong, hot, north winds, it swept through the Plenty and Diamond Creek districts and close to Heidelberg before joining with other fires. Thousands of hectares of grassland were burnt; dozens of homesteads, woolsheds, bridges and shacks were destroyed; crops were lost and thousands of head of stock incinerated. Even though so close to the source of the fire, “Yallambee” escaped.”
(Calder, “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, recording the tale of the 1851, Port Phillip District bush fires.)
As remarked by Calder, John and Robert Bakewell’s Yallambee Park missed most of the destruction wrought by the 1851 fires although it is known that other properties in Heidelberg area were amongst those affected. Fire was an ever present concern in the colonial period and Calder records that a later fire may have been the eventual fate of the Bakewells’ original wooden “Yallambee” farm house although direct evidence of this beyond the anecdotal would appear to be slight.
“It has been claimed that there was a serious fire in 1866 which destroyed the Bakewell house.” (Calder, ibid, p77)
The Plenty River at Yallambie marks the boundary between two fire services, the Country Fire Authority on the Lower Plenty side and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade on the Yallambie side but fires are no observer of official boundaries. On Christmas Eve last year fire trucks raced up Greensborough Rd from here towards a fire in the Plenty Gorge near the Metropolitan Ring Rd while the month before, four fires started overnight in Lower Plenty and Viewbank between Edward Willis Court and Seymour Rd. We could see the lights of the emergency service vehicles from that fire flashing across the valley in the night and wondered what was up. It was confirmation if confirmation had been needed that even here in the suburbs the landscape is not without fire risk.
The deadly Black Saturday Bushfires 10 years ago will never fade from memory and most people living on this side of town probably knew somebody directly affected by the disaster, but as our news services continue to ring this year with the latest stories of the calamitous 2020 bush fires sweeping across the country right at this moment, it is the national scale and the sheer breadth of the disaster that makes this fire season stand alone. Virtually the whole continent is on fire in some part or in some place, burning even as I sit here, typing about it like Nero on his fiddle while Rome burned. You can smell it on the air and see it in the afternoon light. There is no escape.
So what can we do? Australia has just recorded its hottest and driest year on record. Again. Many now believe that it is human-caused global warming that has raised the severity of heat events and the associated dangers of wildfire by speeding up the annual drying of the rural landscape. The southern part of Australia has warmed on average by about 1.5° C since 1950 but try telling the politicians that there are consequences to pulling fossil fuels out of the ground with our opposable thumbs to fuel antiquated carbon emitting power stations and you will likely be met by indifference. Some reports state that the 2019/20 fires have already filled the Australian skies with two thirds of the nation’s annual carbon dioxide emissions and experts are warning that it may take forests more than 100 years to re-absorb what’s been released so far in this season. That’s assuming that in a hundred years we still have forests.
Addressing the British Parliament in July last year on the dangers of man-made climate change, Legendary natural historian and documentary film maker, David Attenborough said that, “Australia is already facing having to deal with some of the most extreme manifestations of climate change.”The sight of Sir David looking out from behind the lens of his camera in the future and saying, “I told you so” ain’t going to help us much but maybe, just maybe it might be the consequences of this season’s fires that will at last spur Australia into some sort of climate action. Sir David has long resisted attempts at politicizing his life’s work but at age 93 he’s going for broke and taking aim at government policies head on:
“We have to convince bankers and big business that, in the end, the long-term future lies in having a healthy planet. And unless you do something about it… you’re going to lose your money.”
So there’s the crux of it. Mention furry animals and trees and you will be met by stony silence from Government circles but talk to them about economics and potential damage to property, the financial sector and the danger to the quintessential Aussie way of life and you just might get some action. In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s series, the Golgafrinchams adopt the leaf as legal tender, burning down all the forests they find in order to avoid the rampant hyper-inflation of the currency that the presence of too many trees has created. The story was a jest, yes but possibly you know a Golgafrincham. I suspect there may be one wanting to stand as your member come the next election.
“The Plenty he described as a rivulet of fine water, but running through a deep ravine which made access difficult. He considered the land very favourable for sheep runs.” – D S Garden describing Governor Sir Richard Bourke’s assessment of the Plenty River from a visit Bourke made in March, 1837, (Heidelberg – The Land and Its People, MUP)
If the Wurundjeri were relieved to escape from the 1835 “treaty” with John Batman in which they had allegedly ceded a country half the size of greater Melbourne for a few blankets, tomahawks and mirrors, they might well have taken a moment to look at the fine print of Governor Bourke’s pro bono reasoning.
It was not the obvious inequity of the “deal” that unsettled Bourke but his belief that the Wurundjeri Aboriginals did not “own” the land on which they stood and on which their ancestors had roamed bare foot for tens of thousands of years. His reasoning was that in real estate terms, it was not by rights theirs to sell. The devil was in the detail of this decision for in the process of making it, with the single stroke of a pen it removed the last obstacle to an inevitable and inexorable influx of British settlers to the Port Phillip District. As a direct result of Bourke’s decree, pastoralists armed doubly with muskets and the notion of terra nullius came across the Straits from Van Diemen’s Land and overland from greater NSW seeking new pastures for their flocks in this reportedly “unoccupied” territory. The open, fertile and well-watered country they found waiting for them around the Yarra and Plenty River valleys was an attractive proposition to these men who, for a £10 annual licence fee, could occupy as much Wurundjeri country as they then thought fit.
One of the earliest of these pastoralists was Edward (Ned) Willis whose story as a squatter on the lower reaches of the Plenty River in 1837 has been briefly mentioned in these pages previously. Edward was a young man, not yet turned 21 when he arrived with his brother and uncle and more than 600 sheep in the surf at Pt Gellibrand in Port Phillip Bay on 13 April, 1837. Edward and his brother James had been driven away from their home in Van Diemen’s Land after James quarrelled with their father, Richard Willis of Wanstead in the island’s north. Edward soon brought his sheep to the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers where he created a sheep run which stood opposite or perhaps even bordered land that would later form the south eastern part of Yallambie.
What has not been mentioned previously in these pages is that Edward’s brother, James Willis, kept a diary for five months while pursuing these endeavours. As a document written mostly on the east bank of the lower Plenty, it makes an exceptional companion piece to the “Farm Day Book” kept by the land owning settler William Greig on the west bank at Yallambie three years later. Similarly its content stands as a counterpoint to the description of Willis’ run made by Thomas Walker in his 1838 published account, “A Month in the Bush of Australia”. Like Greig’s story, James diary is filled with the thoughts and frustrations of a well born young man struggling to come to terms with a rough existence in the Australian bush and it remains as a fascinating glimpse into the life of one of our earliest Port Phillip pioneers. The extracts used here are reproduced from the Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 6 where the diary was published in its entirety.
The diary starts on 9 April, 1837 with the brothers Edward and James Willis and their Uncle, Arthur Willis embarking on the voyage across the Straits from Van Diemen’s Land to Port Phillip where they came ashore on the 13th. Uncle Arthur left the party soon after to arrange his return to Van Diemen’s Land while Edward and James led their shepherds, John Stockly and John Fletcher, by a circuitous route north of the settlement to the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers which they reached on the 18th led there by “Old Tom”, a shepherd working for another squatter, John Wood.
18th April, 1837
Edward and I with our guns started on foot to woods about a mile off, where we procured the assistance of old Tom the shepherd, who conducted us to a creek about two miles off running in a northerly direction. We pursued its course for three miles and found it to be a permanent steam.
We crossed it and came to our present one, which although rather thickly timbered we have every reason to be satisfied with. It is bounded in the South and the East by the Yarra. The stream I have alluded to forms its western boundary (which we call Edward’s Rivulet, but I perceive the surveyors have on their charts dignified it by the name of the ‘River Plenty’), while on the North we have a forest called by us Epping Forest.
Such is the spot selected by Edward for his place of residence for four or five years at the least, when it is hoped he will be able to leave this savage life and move once more among civilised beings…
His employment here during the day is that of a common labourer, and at night he is in momentary dread of losing all he possesses in the world by the attacks of the wild dogs of the country, his ears being alternately regaled with their hideous howls and yells, the squeaking of the flying squirrels, the corkscrew-like noise of the possums and the gloomy monotonous note of that frightful bird the ‘Mow Pork’, which “concord of sweet sound” is not unfrequently accompanied by the reports of our firearms and the shouts of ourselves and men to frighten the dogs from us.
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were employed in erecting a yard at Wanstead, the run (so called after a place of that name known to us in Van’s Land) and clearing a ford over Edward’s Rivulet.
James’ estimate that they had travelled three miles upriver before crossing the Plenty would seem to place them squarely opposite Yallambie. However, it is likely that this estimate and other distances mentioned later by James are a little inaccurate, especially when considering the trouble likely encountered moving alongside the unmapped river and struggling through forest and a still virgin countryside. The west bank of the Plenty upriver from the Yarra confluence is overlooked by a steep escarpment so it makes sense that they travelled some distance before attempting a crossing. It seems more than likely that the first crossing place therefore was south of Yallambie at the ford near the end of Martin’s Lane which would over the next few years become the first access route into Eltham and beyond. Edward and James apparently were working in advance of their shepherds since the crossing with the flock and the horse and cart was not attempted until the 22nd.
22nd April, 1837
Set out from Wanstead – reached the ford – crossed with the sheep but found the banks too steep to get the horse and cart over. With spades, axes and tomahawks we commenced digging away the bank on each side, but finding at noon that we still had a day’s work before us, we walked the horse over and carried the contents of the cart across. We then loaded the empty cart by means of a rope into the stream and fastened the horse to it on the opposite side with ropes and traces.
This plan failed as the horse had no power of draught, so we were forced to pull it out the best way we could. This method succeeded, though not until we had been tugging and pushing and bursting ourselves for about three hours. This Herculean labour being accomplished, we reloaded the cart and ascended the first rising ground, when we found about a quarter of a mile from the ford, the yard which Edward and Stockly had built the day previous.
Erected our tarpaulin into a sort of gipsy-looking affair to shelter us from the dews of heaven, and after a hearty meal of damper, bacon and tea we lay down to rest, and although our sleeping place consisted but of the rudest possible contrivance, and in a country equally wild looking, we both declared in the morning that we had had visions of feasting and dancing, of splendid apartments, of beautiful women and of delicious music flitting before us all night.
I could hardly avoid a slight shudder when I first awoke to see a huge mass of food lying close to me, which one of the men with a beard ten days old asked for, calling it ‘the damper’. Verily it was a damper to the delicate state of my feelings at that instant, but it was but for an instant, for I presently commenced an attack upon it myself and thought it very good feeding for a beggar as I then was, and still am…
James’ diary makes many references to their food resources, or rather lack of them, and to his “beggarly” status. On the 23rd April he “caught half a dozen very fine black fish, decidedly the most delicious fish I ever tasted”, and on the 4th May he ate an eel which Edward had caught in the river, “our bacon being all expended.” A sickly ewe had earlier been butchered and although it “proved very poor meat”, “Fletcher made us sea pies of it so long as it lasted, a great treat to us.” On the 15th May they enjoyed another “very splendid sea pie” the preparation and eating of which was described in the following way.
…Viz, two kangaroo rats, two quails, four parrots, one wattle bird, two satin birds (of the magpie species) and a few slices of pork.
It was served up in a large black iron pot and was most delicious – poor Ned was filling his plate a second time. He took some pains to select the most savoury morsels and was just emptying the last spoonful of gravy when the log on which his plate rested slipped and its contents were deposited on a heap of ashes, and great was the laughing at the fall thereof, the dogs being the only animals benefited by the display of Ned’s taste in helping himself…
The destruction of Edward’s meal on this occasion wasn’t the only such instance of loss recorded in the diary. Al fresco dining at their camp was a matter of necessity and not a matter of choice.
Dull and miserable – at supper this evening Fletcher made sundry attempts to light the lamp before he could succeed. The night was dark and cloudy and there was some wind. The light resisted the puffs of wind until we had all seated ourselves round the table when to infinite confusion, and as I was in the act of cutting a slice of pork, out went the light, away flew the candlestick, which Fletcher had perched upon a huge tin dish and had placed on the weather side of it a board, by way of protecting the luminary from sudden gusts – I rose with the laudable desire of assisting Fletcher in re-lighting the lamp, for I saw that his stock of patience was nearly gone, my knee struck the table which was not proof against this unexpected shock, it gave a lurch, tottered, and fell, when the pannikins of tea, the pork, damper and rice, together with the plates and knives and forks were all thrown in wild disorder all around us.
The wind now abated considerably and we succeeded in keeping the lamp alight which revealed to our view a most delectable chaos. A scramble ensued, in which the dogs persisted in joining, and it was with difficulty that we managed to satisfy ourselves with the fragments rescued from their devouring jaws.
House-keeping in the absence of a kitchen, or for that matter a house, could be a bit of a hit and miss affair. James described the trial of their situation thus:
…It would amuse some of our friends in Van Diemen’s Land to take a peep at us. We take our meals in the open air unless the rain be so violent as to wash the tin plates and pannikins off the table, which cannot be put upon legs until placed in the hut we propose to commence next week – it is at present supported by four logs about six inches from the ground, one of which, the thickest, serves us as a seat on one side.
Our fire is in front of us with a kettle of tea, tea pots being superfluous at Port Phillip. We are surrounded by three or four hungry dogs watching for a mouthful. There is a lump of salt pork in a tin dish, and a damper weighing about twenty pounds, sometimes relieved by a few birds and fish, the latter very seldom now. The men sleep under the tarpaulin, which also protects from the weather a cask of pork and divers other stores.
Our tent is pitched a few yards off, one side is piled high with flour, sugar, tobacco, and our two trunks placed one on the other, form a dressing table covered by a thing intended to look white, its original colour, but being spotted with ink, gunpowder and a variety of other ingredients which have occasionally dropped thereon, together with drops of rain and marks of dust, it would at present be a hard task to convey to anyone the pleasing diversity of colour it presents to the admiring eye of the beholder. We think at some future period of getting it washed.
Our mattresses are laid on the ground, each with a gun case along its side by way of uniformity. A sheep skin serves for the carpet, a trunk of books for a chair, a bag of soiled linen at night keeps the door closed. My writing desk is now my pillow and I am half reclining, half sitting at it. If I am in want of a bright thought, I have only to turn to the right and cast them on a bar of soap or a bag of sugar.
Sleeping beside their gun cases, the brothers’ firearms were apparently always near at hand and it seems, at least by the evidence presented in the diary, were almost constantly in use. In part, the diary reads like a litany of terror for the native birds and wildlife of the lower Plenty as they shot at virtually anything that moved in the surrounding neighbourhood, all of which seems to have gone into their cooking pots. On the 17th May James wrote that they, “Had a stew of birds for supper – capital tho’ it would have been all the better flavoured with ketchup.”
On the 24th James was practicing his shooting on a stationary target when he experienced a mishap while using a small pistol.
…On Sunday while Edward was in town I amused myself for half an hour by practicing at a target with a pistol, cleaned and reloaded it. Took the pocket pistol – found difficulty in pulling the trigger – loaded a second time with buck shot. The pistol burst in my hand, the lock and barrel flying in one side behind me, leaving nothing but the stock (split across the trigger) within my grasp – fortunate to escape – might have caused my sudden exit from this world of woe.
This happened on the Sunday but significantly James took three days before he wrote about his brush with death in the diary. Instead, what he did write about the following day was a description of his bitter feelings towards his estranged father Richard Willis and the family feud in Van Diemen’s Land that had resulted in their exile and which had caused James so much personal unhappiness.
This state of things cannot last. Some fearful crisis is at hand. Some impending calamity awaits our family. I dread to conjecture when any father’s unnatural conduct will have an end – he has driven all his sons from his roof… but I grow disgusted at the very remembrance of it – I have already polluted this sheet of paper with the name of a father who loathes the sight of his child – of a husband who does anything but honour and protect his wife, who outrages her feelings and strives by every possible means to render her home as miserable as it should be happy…
The near death experience with the exploding pistol had caused James more than a little self-reflection. His father, Richard was by some reports a somewhat “difficult” man. The Australian Dictionary of Biography states that Richard Willis managed to quarrel with most of his neighbours in northern Van Diemen’s Land in the 1820s and 30s and also that, “unpopularity may have been a factor in his decision to return to England,” permanently in February 1839. Whatever the cause of Richard’s quarrel with his son, there is no doubt that it affected the boy deeply.
…Ned and I smoked a cigar and retired for the night. Talked of friends in Van Diemen’s Land. I lay thinking until three o’clock in the morning – went to sleep – dreamed I was not a beggar.
As stated previously, James refers to his beggarly status on several occasions in the diary, displaying a wry sense of humour in this self-assessment and describing his pecuniary problems with the following diary entries.
…Some are born under a lucky star, and some an unlucky star. None of the former could possibly have been shining at my introduction into life. An income of some four or five thousands a year would make this world to me a very beautiful world, but as it is I have ever found it as much the reverse as possible…
And this entry two weeks later, although by this time his money needs would appear to have almost doubled:
I was very industrious – sitting on a bucket turned upside down and watching the embers of the fire, thinking of a thousand things, I often am inclined to think there must be some mistake about my present condition. I fancy I could spend so amazingly well an income of five or ten thousands. What a delightful thing it is to have a command of money. How easy it would be to make people patronise you. What an excellent nice fellow I should become all at once. The magical influence of that same filthy lucre is truly surprising. I believe I never shall be a rich man – I have a sort of presentiment that it cannot be. I shall never be able to do more than earn a subsistence – drag on a mediocre kind of existence without having any very beautiful visions to look back upon, such as delicious music, captivating women, grand and mighty cities and a thousand pleasures and enjoyments that can be procured by money and when once seen one may almost live upon the remembrance of them.
It’s has been said said that money isn’t everything but at times James wrote of a desire to remove himself completely from his current situation:
Very wet. Drawing logs for the sheep yard. Hard work, as well as dirty, lifting those same logs. Smoked a cigar, went to bed – wished myself anywhere but at Port Phillip.
And a few weeks later he wrote again, this time wishing himself back in London while sarcastically contrasting his dreams with his daytime labours and the “intellectual conversation” of their shepherds:
…Our ears were regaled some two or three hours with the highly intellectual conversation of John Fletcher and John Stockly the shepherds. Warmed my toes. Went to rest much edified – dreamed of Aborigines – building chimneys –sheep – split stuff – and London.
The joys of living under canvas through a Port Phillip winter quickly palled on the Willis brothers. James was at the settlement in Melbourne, “which at present consists entirely of turf and weather boarded huts, a very primitive looking place” and staying at John Pascoe Fawkner’s board and lodging house where Fawkner’s “one-eyed, genteel wife makes things as comfortable as one can expect,” eating her “curry which was of rabbit and certainly excellent”, when a terrific storm hit the District. James in Melbourne wrote that “the thunder and lightning (was) the most terrific I ever witnessed. I congratulated myself on being comfortably housed and thought of poor Ned at the Inn.” Edward’s own subsequent tale of the confusion at their Plenty River camp was duly recorded in the diary by James:
He said it must have been about ten o’clock when in a sound sleep he was awoke by a desperate rush in the sheep fold. At the same instant he heard the two men shouting and hallooing in the most vehement manner, and one flash of lightning which illuminated the tent was followed by a deafening clap of thunder. He sprang from his bed expecting to find all the sheep scattered and an easy prey for the dogs, for so dark was it that you could not see beyond your nose.
The first thing he did was to cheer the men by his voice. Another blaze of lightning for some moments blinded all three of them and they reeled about insensible. Fletcher ran against a tree, a branch of which had wellnigh ripped his bowels open, and then measured his length on the ground where he lay several minutes in momentary expectation of being swallowed up by the earth. Stockly at a short distance from the yard called Fletcher to open the gate, for he thought he was driving the sheep before him, when undeceived he ran up to the fire and enquired ‘whose fire that was’, his hair literally stood on end, he was in his shirt and presented a picture of the most unutterable despair.
During the time the rain descending, the wind blowing and the repeated peals of thunder was such as to appal the heart of a lion. Fully convinced that the wild dogs had got among the sheep the men shouted, yelled and uttered every variety of noise to frighten them away. They both behaved uncommonly well throughout, but such was the tremendous war of the elements that they anticipated nothing short of an earthquake as they declared to me afterwards.
Suddenly it became fair and they found that Master Bush, one of the sheep dogs, in his alarm had jumped in among the sheep as if he sought shelter from them during the dreadful convulsion. Edward stood some minutes at the door of his tent and on reviewing the scene he had just witnessed could scarcely refrain from laughing when he saw the two men in their shirts running about like maniacs they knew not whither with their hair standing on end and bawling, squalling, shouting and screaming in the most frightful manner and falling prostrate on the ground, and then tumbling over a log. Another, mistaking the fire he had just left for some strange fire, fancying he was driving all the sheep into the yard when he called out to have the gate opened. A few of the sheep got out when the rush was made, but in the morning they were found standing quietly beside the fence.
The Willis brothers were still living under canvas in early June when the land speculator Thomas Walker visited their camp on the Plenty. Walker memorialized this visit in his 1838 book, ““A Month in the Bush of Australia” writing that, “Willis is still living in his tent, but with as much comfort as under such circumstances can be looked for. He has got a nice situation in the fork formed by the junction of the creek “Plenty” and the Yarra Yarra.” (You can read Walker’s full extract in my 2014 post, here). James recorded Walker’s visit in the diary with the following entry:
Edward arrived from Melbourne with some gentlemen who came overland from Sydney. Two of them drove a gig the whole way, the rest on horseback, having crossed four rivers and met with no kind of impediment. They accomplished the journey in about a month. Edward with his visitors after dining returned to town, where he has to arrange respecting the payment for two allotments he purchased for Willis Macintyre and Co.
Throughout most of the narrative of James’ diary, while living in their tent, James writes that the brothers were occupied during the day splitting timbers for a sheep yard and for an associated slab hut. The hut was commenced on 16th May and was presumably located within easy reach of the river ford. The 1841 census placed it where the Plenty Bridge Hotel would later stand above the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge.
On the 23rd May James wrote, “Fine morning. Wet afternoon. Drawing logs for the hut. Slow work – no hired men – all done by our own hands. Ned acts carpenter – he is adzing logs – says it makes his back ache.” Four days later Edward was visiting a neighbouring squatter John Nicholas Wood whose shepherd “Old Tom” had originally led them to the Yarra Plenty confluence. Wood’s run was located approximately in the vicinity of where Hawdon’s Banyule Homestead would later be built. James had described Wood as “a good-natured little fellow though his manners are not the most refined” and Edward was hoping to enlist his help, “roofing the hut, which it is highly expedient we should inhabit before our beds are washed from under us.” The brothers were both suffering from colds at this time as they entered their first Port Phillip winter. On 1st June the building was far enough advanced for Edward to go to Melbourne to purchase nails “to put the roof on the hut” and on the 10th it was James who was in Melbourne collecting a further supply of nails. The deprivations of their house-less existence had taken their toll however and at the end of July, James’ health broke down completely. His painful illness required his immediate removal to Melbourne where the doctor, finding he was “suffering from inflammation caused by cold”, bled him in the Dracula-like medical fashion of the day. Whether or not as a result of the bleeding or simply as a result of a strong constitution, after an interval James was able to write, “I am at length quite restored to health…”
His humour also seemed restored. John Batman had loaned them his transport, “the only gig in the settlement” to get the invalid to Melbourne and also offered James a room in his home on Batman’s Hill during the period of his convalescence, which was duly declined subsequent to the following chivalric reasoning:
“…I thought it better to decline his offer as he was at that time an invalid himself, and moreover I was rather afraid of encountering the bright eyes of his daughter – for she might have evinced something like that tender solicitude for the wounded Knight’s recovery which the gentler, the fairer, and the softer sex are never without, and which might have prompted something like gratitude in my breast towards the sympathising damsel, admiration probably would follow, and then God knows what. But it seems that the fates have reserved me for a better, or perhaps a worse destiny than would in such case have been the inevitable result.”
The fates had indeed reserved another destiny for James. In the diary entry written just before James’ illness, James described a journey made by the brothers and their neighbour John Wood, up the Plenty River. They were provisioned and had been intending to explore the country for three or four days but after they “had traversed the course of our creek the ‘Plenty’ (or ‘Edward’s Rivulet’, as we call it) some five or six miles”, the party came to a halt upon “a tract of most excellent grazing land.” James wrote that Edward and Wood then “discovered that they must return home instantly to dress sheep”, the implication being that a race was on between the two squatters to see who could relocate a flock to the new pasturage first.
James’ illness occurred directly after this event and when he had recovered sufficiently to return to the Plenty a month later he found that Edward had removed himself to a location which was by James’ estimation, “about seven miles higher up the Plenty”, presumably the land the brothers had seen with Wood previously. At this new location it seems that a second hut had by then been constructed. The building had a thatched roof, as opposed to the nailed shingles of the earlier structure, and had been made ready for the arrival from Van Diemen’s Land of a third Willis brother, William. James described a high hill nearby from which could be “enjoyed a view of the surrounding country for twenty miles and more in every direction.” This second run it would seem therefore was located somewhere north of the Montmorency or “Epping” Forest and in the vicinity of modern day Greensborough, where an apparently unrelated farm “Willis Vale” later developed. It has been suggested (conversation with Anne Paul, Greensborough Historical Society), that the view from the high hill mentioned by James might have been from the top of Flintoff’s Hill near where modern day Civic Drive intersects the Greensborough Bypass, or from Yellow Gum Park in the Plenty Gorge Parklands, but for now this must remain a matter of conjecture.
…and for the first time we found ourselves in a snug turf hut eleven feet by thirteen, with a thatched roof and neatly whitewashed inside.
Ned has a very respectable bedstead in one corner built of wattle sticks; one in the opposite corner is being made for William, whose arrival we are expecting. A rude contrivance bearing some faint resemblance to a sofa stands in the corner near the chimney; it answers the double purpose of sofa by day and my bed at night.
Our table is a very ingenious affair, being a hair trunk placed upon four stakes knocked in the ground, which with two wooden seats entirely of a new fashion and to which we have given the name of chairs, completes our stock of furniture. I should not omit our bookcase, which is composed of three long wattle sticks reaching from wall to wall on either side of the hut, along which our extensive and valuable collections of books appear in formidable array, having their backs, however, towards the company.
On various parts of the wall are skins of birds, and preserved amongst which the tail of a black cockatoo extended in shape of a fan, its feathers being black and crimson alternately, is handsome; several wings and tails of parrots—three kinds—are beautiful — as well as the entire skins of parrots having almost all the colours of the rainbow, some of which are the most rich and lovely I ever saw.
Sky blue, lavender, crimson, scarlet, orange, green and black are the most conspicuous, all being exquisite contrasts to each other.”
Today a large part of Willis’ 1837 pastoral run retains a pleasingly rural character with the land occupied by two golf courses and the Yarra Valley Parklands. How much Edward and James experiences in 1837 involved country that would later form part of the Bakewells’ Yallambee must however remain uncertain. There is no doubt that they roamed freely about nearby and probably at least crossed over a part of it. One of James’ earliest diary entries written on the 28th April mentioned them finding “a small spot of grazing land five miles off” and on the 14th May they found “some beautiful country about four miles from Wanstead” that Edward proposed turning one day into a second run, so the Willis boys were obviously on the lookout for extra pasture from the outset. Garden writing in “Heidelberg – The Land and Its People” thought that the surveyor Robert Hoddle’s notes suggested that Willis’ run involved both sides of the Plenty River, although he readily admits that Hoddle’s notes are difficult to interpret.
The sale of land on the west bank of the lower Plenty in 1838 and on the east bank in 1840 brought an end to the brief squatting era on the lower Plenty. With the return of their father to England at the start of 1839, Edward Willis returned to Van Diemen’s Land and his personal association with the Plenty River ended. In a letter dated 24th March 1839 Edward states that he was leaving the Plenty River ”having notice to ‘quit’ due to the imminent land sales”. He goes on to warn against future occupation of his hut on the Plenty River: “I’d scarce recommend you. For the fleas will soon make it prodigiously clean. That their bloody attacks are not meant to befriend you. This useful bit of information mind is given gratis. For the thriving squatter to the flea good bait is”.
Edward married Catherine the daughter of Captain Charles Swanston at Hobart Town in 1840 and subsequently joined his father in law in partnership in Geelong. James’ diary ends with a statement of his hopes of one day soon himself being offered a position managing a store in Geelong but by 1841 it is believed that he was established at Mernda at a wattle and daub hotel (the Bridge Inn) on the Plenty River crossing. In addition to the inn, Willis’ Mernda enterprise involved a pastoral holding of 400 acres which he again called Wanstead. After their previous Vandemonian and Lower Plenty Wanstead experiences, it’s a wonder that James was still dusting off that nomenclature for another outing at Mernda, but he remained in possession until 1851.
As the story of James Willis and his Plenty River diary fades into forgotten memory, it is comforting to note that the “unlucky star” recorded by James would ultimately be proved wrong by history, at least in a sense. The Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 6, MUP 1986 credits ownership of the diary manuscript to James Willis’ great-grandson, Dr R W Pearson. So it seems that James finally got to appreciate the joys of a family life that he earlier believed would be forever denied him.
Though evidently not in the arms of one of John Batman’s bright eyed daughters.
So goes the song. The New Zealand band were singing about love and hurt but in the world of economics it’s a different story. Boom and bust have long been a feature of the Australian economy and as property prices continue to soar once more across Melbourne, it’s a sobering thought that when it comes to the economy, we never learn from the past.
As UK based analyst Jonathan Tepper recently put it, Australia is now in the midst of “one of the biggest housing bubbles in history.” The old belief in the safety of money in bricks and mortar remains strong in a world where governments print money to lend it on the property market, hoping repayments in another, more valuable foreign currency, will cover their own dubious paper. It’s money making money, the economists’ dream.
In the last post the tale was told of the Plenty River bushrangers of 1842 whose activities up and down the Plenty River valley could be seen as a reaction itself to a down turn in the Colonial economy at that time. Everyone loves a get rich scheme and the Plenty River Bushrangers had one they thought would beat even the property speculators. It all ended in tears for them of course but then, get rich schemes often do.
The recession at Port Phillip in the early 1840s was driven by a combination of economic and social factors. In an all too familiar story, rampant speculation led to an overheated local property market where prices paid for land became unreflective of its ability to produce an income in a rural economy at the bottom end of the world. This, combined with a fluctuating international economy and a corresponding withdrawal of foreign investment, led to Port Phillip’s first financial crisis.
John and Robert Bakewell’s arrival in Port Phillip in 1840 was timed almost to coincide with this crisis but instead of being caught up in it, they turned the situation to their advantage. As Donald S. Garden Wrote in “Heidelberg: The Land and its People”, the story of the land that became Yallambie:
“…was a constant struggle because of the relatively poor quality of much of the land in Portion 8. Nevertheless, where others failed, the Bakewells managed to succeed, both by means of hard work and sufficient capital.” (Heidelberg: The Land and its People, Donald S. Garden, MUP, 1972).
The “profile” which accompanies each page of this blog at left describes Yallambie as having been “first settled in the 1840s” within the “Goldilocks Zone” of Melbourne. However this is a somewhat overly simplified view of history. Although the Bakewells were the first settlers to consolidate a successful farm on land that forms the present day suburb, they were by no means the first to dig a spade into Yallambie’s good earth.
The land that formed Portion 8 at the first land sales of the Heidelberg district was purchased from a Crown comfortable with its concept of Terra Nullius, at a public auction in Sydney in September, 1838 by Thomas Wills for £1067, or £1 2s per acre. Wills was a speculator who had no interest in the property and quickly passed it on to Thomas Walker for £1261, or £1 6s per acre, a profit of almost £200 for holding it for just six months. As previously noted in the pages of this blog, Walker had visited Edward Willis squatting run in 1837 at what is now Yallambie and Lower Plenty, writing about it in his book “A Month in the Bush of Australia,” (Thomas Walker, J. Cross, 1838). It is believed that it was either Wills or Walker who first referred to the land at Yallambie as the “Station Plenty”.
In the latter half of 1839, Walker subdivided Portion 8 into 12 blocks, selling them at a price of between £2 and £3 5s per acre, more than doubling the money that he had paid Willis only months previously. The Port Phillip District was in the middle of a full-fledged property boom, the cannon shot report of which was being heard right around the world.
None of the six purchasers of Walker’s subdivision of Portion 8 took much interest in their holdings and they either sold them again or operated them as absentee landlords. The blocks which today specifically constitute the Yallambie area were bought by just five men: James David Lyon Campbell of Campbellfield, late of the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers; William Thomas Elliot, a Western Port pastoralist; Nicholas Alexander Fenwick, later to become Police Magistrate at Geelong; and Robert Reeves and Robert Cook.
Campbell’s land fronted the Plenty River on the corner of present day Allima Avenue and Tarcoola Drive, Yallambie. In the midst of the big property bang, it appears that Campbell agreed to sell this land on easy terms to a 24 year old Scot from Fife, William Greig, whose “Farm Day Book” written at Yallambie from October, 1840 to February, 1841 constitutes one of the earliest and most interesting primary accounts of small scale crop farming in the Port Phillip District in the early 1840s. The manuscript, now in the Mitchell Library NSW, illustrates over a five month period the experiences of this naïve young man, very much a stranger in a strange land. A man of good education Greig however had little practical farming expertise of the virgin soils that confronted him or of the unfamiliar climate that came with them.
Greig described himself on the 1841 Census as living at “Plenty” in a completed wooden house containing six people: himself, his wife Marion, his manservant Meikle and wife, and two other people. Greig’s original intention had been to write: “a Diary of daily events on the Farm and any other particular occurrence which may happen I shall confine myself to that,” (Greig, Farm Day Book).
In the end the “Diary” became more than that and is a record instead of all his hopes and dreams and also of the many frustrations he encountered.
It opens optimistically enough on the first day of October, 1840. Greig had just purchased a Van Dieman’s Land plough for 8 guineas and had engaged a team of six bullocks and a driver from the “Scotch Company” at £1 per day to plough his fields while he and two married workmen cleared stumps from: “a nicely lying Flat & two Banks in all about an acre & a half of as good soil as any in the Colony and to surpassed by none in richness in any Country whatever – from which I fully expect an abundant Crop of Potatoes”.
Already Greig’s initial draft of chickens had more than doubled and more eggs were hatching. A garden was started and aside from the potatoes, Greig planted a virtual vegetable Garden of Eden at Yallambie: mustard, cress, cabbages, turnips, peas, carrots, spinach, melons, lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, cauliflower, broccoli and onions.
A pony provided transport to town whenever needed but the hired bullocks kept straying and the ploughing took longer than anticipated. The work was difficult and where the plough missed Greig and his men followed up with spades. The cutting blade on the plough soon broke and had to be sent over to a nearby farm for repair but by mid-October, 1840 the initial work was complete.
On the day ploughing finished, Greig dismissed one of his workman and the man’s wife, “Owing to Jerry again giving me impudence…” When they left, Greig gave “Jerry” a paper stating that he was “a very good workman and an industrious man,” his only fault being his “impudence and a too conceited use of his tongue on all occasions.” Old World class distinctions prevailed under the wide Australian sun where Grieg’s status as an employer and independent landowner placed him, at least in his own mind, on a higher social rung on the sliding scale of a status-conscious 19th century society. Greig was obviously accustomed to hiring and firing servants and was sufficiently aware of his own implied importance to take quick offence at what he termed “impudence”.
By the 23rd October the potatoes were at last in the ground and Greig looked to the future with an “expectation of a good crop.” There were frequent trips to town for supplies, to find a replacement workman for the impudent Jerry and his wife, and to enquire after the post from Britain.
Greig was in actual fact a deeply worried man. In spite of his pretensions to gentleman status, the young Plenty River “farmer” enjoyed only limited capital. He had agreed to purchase James David Lyon Campbell’s Portion 8 landholding with a series of regular payments and the first of these would be due in the New Year. It had been some months since he had any news from home but all the same, Greig looked to the post in vain expectation of a remittance from a wealthy uncle, without whose help he would be unable to meet even his initial commitment to Campbell.
In November, 1840 the first signs of the impending collapse of the Port Phillip colony became apparent and Greig wrote: “Bad accounts from Sydney – some great failures and all business houses in a very tottering state, from the great scarcity of money – in fact the whole colony seems bordering on insolvency.”
Meanwhile work proceeded with fencing the fields while Greig contemplated diversifying his farming interests. He sent his man to inspect some cows, the property of Mr Watson of Watson & Hunter. “I intend starting a dairy if possible and he is inclined to be liberal as to receiving payment it will be always able to bring in something and would with proper management pay itself off in the first year, so I shall make the attempt.”
But to Greig’s disappointment, his man found the suitability of the moo cows a moot point. Only twenty cows in the herd of two or three hundred were satisfactory for a dairy and Greig’s enthusiasm waned, but not before he had already spent money making preparations and purchasing materials for the planned dairy.
On 4 December he wrote: “I am now very dubious as to trying the dairy at all as I am afraid the expense & trouble at this distance from Town is too great to be worth it. I think I’ll get a Bullock team which will bring as much & more money in than 20 cows wd independently of there being no trouble.” The experience of the straying bullocks at the start of his operations was forgotten.
Meanwhile the hoped for income from his potato beds was under threat as: “the rats are playing havoc among the potatoes, going down the drills regularly and eating them up by their very roots, I’ll have to tie the dogs up all night beside them.”
The potatoes had been sown too late in the year to do well. Bushfires played havoc with his land and dogs got into the melon patch. The heat of the Australian summer made him feel quite unwell: “I wish I had a thermometer for I can’t think the heat is far short of 130 degrees at mid day. We feel it terribly in our wooden house.” And “The nights are as unbearable as the days. What crops are in the ground just now must suffer terribly.”
Christmas and New Year passed under a gloom of anxiety. “I am far from being enviably placed now and the great anxiety I am in completely unfits me for everything… With assistance from friends at Home I think I could ensure success, but without that I have nothing left for it but to make the best of my way home. There to begin a world of troubles…”
Still no letters appeared and the horse had gone lame. The diary does not record whether he considered shooting it, or himself. Perhaps he contemplated both. Greig was losing great quantities of meat due to spoilage in the heat and on the 15 February he wrote that he had: “lost half the sheep we killed owing to the weather so that was 28lb of meat thrown to the dogs. I have altogether lost a terrible quantity since being here.”
Finally, after five months the hoped for letters from home arrived (they had been delayed in Adelaide) but there was no money to accompany them.
By the end of February, 1841, Greig was negotiating to rent a house in Melbourne. The last entries for the month, and for the Farm Day Book itself, contain mention of the downturn in the colonial economy and a comment on the government’s policy of selling Crown land at a minimum upset price of £1 per acre. In Greig’s opinion: “a great many will find most of their land not worth a pound.” With this thought, Greig walked away from his 156 acres and out of history. He went into receivership in November, 1841 leaving James David Lyon Campbell to pick up the pieces.
Campbell soon found a ready-made buyer in the form of the Bakewell brothers who paid Campbell £400 for Greig’s farm. The Bakewells had purchased land at the Plenty Station from William Thomas Elliot soon after arriving in the colony and added Campbell’s holding to it, creating a farm that would henceforth be named by them, “Yallambee”.
In the depressed economy of the early 1840s the Bakewells continued to add further holdings to their “Yallambee Park” estate until they owned all of the Portion 8 land north of the Lower Plenty Road, excluding the northern most portion which passed to William Laing, (who developed the now demolished Woodside, later Casa Maria). In mid 1842, the Bakewell’s brother in law and near neighbour, Richard Howitt, visited Yallambee and wrote that:
“The locality is at the commencement of the vast and sterile stringy-bark forests. Part of the farm is consequently almost worthless, and the other by the water-side, of the richest quality.” (Richard Howitt, Impressions of Australia Felix, 1845)
As William Greig fades from history, the question remains, what motivated these men of the pioneering 1840s to travel half way around the world to endure a world of hardship and uncertainty under the harsh Australian sun. Why did so many get caught up in a Port Phillip bubble and allow the financial burden of speculators to be passed on to them, either as lessees or buyers on terms while risking disorientation, depressive anxiety and even existential angst? The answer must surely have been their hope of a better future.
Lynette J. Peel referred to Grieg’s Diary in some detail in her book, “Rural Industry in the Port Phillip Region”, (MUP, 1974) where she wrote:
“…it is quite wrong to assume that these people made a series of sound agricultural and economic decisions in embarking on the life of a farmer. Their optimism and irrational decisions, usually through ignorance of the local situation, undoubtedly did much to fan the flames of rural land speculation before the depression.”
Peel suggests that there is no reason to believe Greig’s story of small scale crop farming at Port Phillip was atypical. Greig had found little difficulty raising easy finance for his endeavour. Including himself, there were three men working his farm, compared to an average of 4.4 recorded for small holdings in the 1841 census but Greig was nevertheless confident in his own ability to succeed provided there was what he termed “proper management.”
Up to the time when the Diary closes, two and often three men had been working on Greig’s 156 acres to produce a one and a half acre crop of potatoes, most of which would be needed for seed the following season. Wages had been paid to the employees, some fences had been built, (although not enough to prevent the bullocks straying), and a garden had been planted. Six chickens had multiplied to 30 but additional meat and provisions had needed to be purchased to supplement what the farm produced, and to feed the four to six adults living there. In retrospect, what he really needed to plant was a money tree.
The inability of Greig through lack of capital to broaden his activities into his pie in the sky bullock team or dairy herd pipe dream meant that much more time would have been needed to make the farm on the Plenty a going concern, if ever. As Peel writes, “…reasonable financial liquidity was essential for flexibility in farming operations.”
The Bakewell brothers later success on the same land on which Greig failed was built partly on their previous farming experience in and around Nottingham, but also on their ability to diversify. John Bakewell worked as a wool sorter in Melbourne while his brother managed the farm at Yallambee, diversifying their interests from the market gardens on the river flat to a cattle herd on the uplands, Richard Howitt’s “vast and sterile stringy-bark forests.”
The pastoral era at Yallambie has long been a thing of the past. Where Greig and the Bakewells once farmed, the land was long ago consumed by the suburban sprawl. Today an average size house from the A V Jennings’ era on an average size block will set you back upwards of seven hundred thousand dollars. A house in the newer “Streeton Views” estate might cost even more. And Yallambie by all reports is one of Melbourne’s more “affordable” suburbs. All over Melbourne come reports of the million dollar mark being crossed at auction, sometimes several times over.
Where this is all leading remains worryingly unclear in the first half of 2016. Like the Emperor’s New Clothes, nobody wants to really say what we have all been thinking about Melbourne’s property scene. At the time of writing this post I have just returned from visiting a much loved sister who for two decades has lived and raised a family, together with her American husband, in one of the better neighbourhoods of Atlanta, Georgia. Their large and very fine home I am told is worth something over USD$400,000. However, if they had ever thought of living in Melbourne again, they have quite dismissed the idea as being impractical. As my brother in law told me, “We would need over $2 million to live in a house like this in an Australian capital city.”
Meanwhile, like the Port Phillip bubble of 1840, Melbourne’s property balloon keeps expanding but with as yet, no sight or sound of anything going pop. Don’t look now, but is that Adam Smith with his eyes tight shut and his “Invisible Hands” placed firmly over our collective ears?
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
If you live anywhere in Melbourne or thereabouts, it’s odds on that you’ve already encountered the name “Howitt” somewhere along your travels whilst scarcely noticing it. The fact is, it’s a name that is closely associated with the early story of the Port Phillip District. There are Howitt streets and roads, Howitt parks and palms and the occasional memorial cairns and monuments, all named after the various members of that most interesting family of our early history.
There’s even a Mt Howitt somewhere in the so called Australian Alps which you can climb, as Mallory once said, “Because it’s there”.
However there are no streets in Yallambie named after these Howitts, which is perhaps surprising. There are no mountains either, for that matter.
As previously discussed in the pages of this blog, both Richard and William Howitt visited the Bakewell farm at Yallambee and wrote about their experiences in 1842 and 1852 respectively. That’s a story that deserves a closer inspection later alongside the Yallambie connection of that prominent exponent of Melbourne’s early cultural establishment, Dr Godfrey Howitt.
The good doctor was the brother of William and Richard and the brother in law of Yallambee’s John and Robert Bakewell, Godfrey and his wife Phoebe having travelled with the Bakewells when emigrating to Port Phillip aboard the SS Lord Goderich in 1840. Godfrey and Phoebe came to Australia partly in an attempt to improve the health of their eldest child, John Henry Howitt who it was considered would benefit from the warmer climate. The eleven year old John Henry Howitt is known to have visited his Bakewell uncles at Yallambee in 1842, a year before his premature death from Tuberculosis. He wrote a very interesting and eloquent letter to his then similarly aged cousin in England, the future Australian explorer, Alfred Howitt, describing the Bakewell farm and the exploits of the marauding Plenty River bushrangers.
However, more to that story in my next post.
With this in mind, it was while Googling the name of Dr Godfrey Howitt today that I found the following two images online, the property of the State Library of Victoria.
The pictures are sixth-plate Daguerreotypes from the collection of Stanley Yalkowsky and were purchased at auction by the Library at Sotheby’s in New York in 2010 for USD$18,750, nearly three times the pre-sale estimate price. The pictures reportedly carry a pencil inscription describing the images as being “Dr Godfrey Howitt’s garden”.
I had these images open on my lap top, wondering about them in a curious way when my wife came along and glanced over my shoulder.
“Oh look,” she said. “It’s the Station Plenty. Is it on ebay?” she added hopefully.
“You would have needed $20,000 6 years ago to buy it,” I replied. But she was right. It did look like Yallambee.
Dr Godfrey’s house in Collins Street East was the centre of Melbourne culture in the early colony and the beauty and the extent of his garden was widely regarded. On the face of it the photographs could have been this garden but all the same, one of the Daguerreotypes seemed to show a pre-fabricated building similar to the sort put up by Superintendant La Trobe at Jolimont or the Bakewell buildings at Yallambee. Dr Godfrey and Phoebe are believed to have built something similar in Collins Street in the 1840s but the only pictures I had seen previously of the Howitts’ house in Melbourne were of a later date and of a rendered brick building in the 1860s.
Daguerreotypes are laterally reversed or mirror images because they are necessarily viewed from the side that originally faced the camera lens. By reversing the first of the SLV pictures and comparing it to a cropped detail of Edward La Trobe Bateman’s View I, the truth suddenly becomes clear. The Howitt Daguerreotype of the building is taken looking up at the roof line and from a closer proximity than the Bateman drawing, which was made from the top of the ridge on the modern day Yallambie Road, but in essence the picture is the same. The trees are the same. The trellis is the same. The chimney is the same.
As to the second Daguerreotype, I would suggest that the Yucca depicted is the same plant visible on the right of picture in the Edward La Trobe Bateman drawing, View IX.
The photographs are extraordinarily rare out door images from the colonial era. The author of the images is unknown and one can only wonder at the reason behind and under what difficult circumstances the pictures could possibly have been made. The Howitt provenance is clear but the Bakewell connection is at this stage, speculative. One of the few photographers working in the Daguerreotype medium in early Melbourne, Douglas T Kilburn, was like Dr Godfrey’s son John Henry, a consumptive. Kilburn kept Melbourne’s first professional photographic studio in Little Collins Street and it is perhaps easy to guess at the situation leading to the creation of the SLV pictures.
To my mind the SLV “Howitt” Daguerreotypes should join the 12 Edward La Trobe Bateman Station Plenty drawings as a part of documentary evidence in any discussion of the early farm at the Bakewell brothers’, “Yallambee Park”. The story of how the Daguerreotypes came to be made, almost in unison with the Bateman drawings and at a time of or before the Victorian gold rushes, remains uncertain. Clearly more research needs to be conducted from this point by those with an academic persuasion.
However, as a last but probably not final word, it is interesting to note that Dr Ann Neale in her PHD thesis, “Illuminating Nature”, suggested that the 12 Station Plenty Bateman drawings at the NGV may have been part of an overlapping series, only a part of which the Bakewells retained privately.
Might the SLV Daguerreotypes have somehow figured in this theoretical series?
Might the two SLV photographic images have once been a part of a larger whole?
The glazed look that creeps across a face when you tell someone you live in Yallambie is the motivation behind this blog. “Where’s Yallambie?” usually follows and after the answer -16km due north east of Melbourne – comes the inevitable, “Oh, is that so? I thought it was in the sticks.”
It is true that the land that makes up the present day suburb that is Yallambie remained rural far longer than it’s close proximity to Victoria’s capital would suggest. But today the locality marks the geographic centre of the City of Banyule and includes a history that dates back to the very earliest days of the Port Phillip district. To give an idea of that history is my aim in these pages. As a good starting point and as an overview it’s probably best to begin with the landscape classification of Yallambie which was made by the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) in 1998.
The full classification follows under.
NAME OF PLACE: Yallambie House & environs and Yallambie Reserve LOCAL GOVERNMENT AREA: Banyule City Council (formerly City of Heidelberg) CADASTRAL INFORMATION: Reserved existing public open space on the western banks of the Plenty River from Lower Plenty Road. Private land comprising the remnant garden of Yallambie House 14-18 Tarcoola Drive, Macleod. The total area being about 9ha (22.5 acres). TYPE OF PLACE: River valley landscape, comprising riparian habitat and horseshoe bend river flat and escarpment. EXTENT OF CLASSIFICATION: Yallambie Reserve north of Lower Plenty Road to the extension of Allima Avenue and including the environs of Yallambie House and garden. STATEMENT OF SIGNIFICANCE: The landscape of Yallambie Reserve is of high local significance. It is of Regional significance as a cultural landscape being the site of the former ‘Plenty Station’ and one of the very important early colonial sites. In summary it is significant for the following reasons: a. Association with John and Robert Bakewell (1840-1867) and the Wragge family from 1872-1960. b. As site of the ‘Plenty Station’, one of the earliest and best documented colonial settlements. c. Remnant plantings of pines, hawthorns, oaks, elms, willows and orchard trees. Particularly the surviving Pines (Pinus radiata), Bunya Bunya Pine (Araucaria bidwillii), Hoop Pine (Araucaria cunninghamii), English Oak (Quercus robur), Cypress (Cupressus sp.) and Deodar Cedar (Cedrus deodara). d. Aesthetic characteristics of the river landscape, and views across and along the river valley from high points.
HISTORY European History
The initial Crown Grant of the Plenty Station (Crown Portion 8) was to Thomas Wills 12 September 1838. This was sold to a neighbour Thomas Walker in 1839 who in turn subdivided and sold most of the land. Brothers John and Robert Bakewell purchased lot 5 (site of Yallambie House) in 1846* for 31 pounds. The Bakewells continued to add to their holding until they owned most of the portion north of Martins Lane and South of Yallambie Rd. Robert Bakewell purchased his brother’s interest in the land in 1859 for 6000 pounds. He retained the property until his death in 1867. It was purchased by Thomas Wragge in 1872. Wragge, a farmer, came to Port Phillip in 1841** from Nottingham. He leased a property on the Plenty River in 1857 and claimed to have started the first orchard in the district. Wragge added to the Yallambie holding and by 1893 his holding totalled 606 acres (245 ha). Thomas Wragge died in 1910 but the family remained in occupation until 1960 when the area north, west and south of the house became a housing estate.
The present house was built on the edge of the Plenty River escarpment between 1872 and 1876. Further improvements were carried out by Wragge’s widow in 1910 and in 1919 by Wragge’s sons. The house is described as having two levels built of stuccoed masonry designed in the Italian style. It has an asymmetric plan, bay windows and stucco ornamentation. The main roof is slate. There is a shingle-covered balustrade to the upper level verandah. Alteration to ground level openings is evident under the verandah but generally the full arch is dominant at the window heads. Corniced guilloche pattern balconettes and corniced stucco chimneys have survived. Extensive interior alterations occurred between 1919 and 1923. Removal of major outbuilding including the stables to the north of the house occurred relatively recently. The house itself is superficially altered and is of low architectural importance but remains as the period focus of the pre subdivision context.
Little of the former orchards of Yallambie remain – a few pears, figs etc. on the river flats. The hawthorn hedged farm track now extends from the public car park off Tarcoola Drive. A number of large pines and oaks also remain on the escarpment and river margins. These plantings provide perhaps the largest and nearest to the original context for an early Victorian house in Banyule. The hill slope and house garden typify the nineteenth century landscape and encapsulate colonial attitudes to nature and land.
Yallambie Reserve is on the Plenty River some 3 km from its confluence with the Yarra. The river is in a stage of early maturity. The stream profile and widened valley floor indicates that downcutting has significantly decreased except for scour during periods of flood. The river course at Yallambie has changed little over the past 50 years. The reserve itself is mainly a river terrace within a horseshoe bend of the river.
Flora and Fauna
Public access is gained to the horse shoe river flats from Tarcoola Drive. The land slopes down to the flats with an old farm track bordered by a row of Hawthorn (Crataegus sp) trees which provide an aesthetically pleasing entrance to the flats which open up before you as you descend the path. The River flats contains an impressive 100 year old Hoop Pine (Araucaria cunninghamii) and a 120 year old English Oak (Quercus robur) both classified by the National Trust. Remnants of the orchard remain in the form of a number of Pear and Fig trees. The River flats is bordered to the west by a number of homes fronting Tarcoola Drive including the original Yallambie Homestead and a number of remnant trees remain in this area along the escarpment some in the reserve and some in backyards. These trees include Hoop Pines (Araucaria cunninghamii), Bunya Pine (Araucaria bidwillii) and Deodar Cedar (Cedrus deodara).
Other remnant exotics from the homestead era occur throughout the open space including Prickly Pear (Opuntia), Agapanthus (Agapanthus praecox), Cape Broom (Genista monspessulana), European Olive (Oleo europea), Maritime Pine (Pinus pinaster), Monterey Pine (Pinus radiata), Cypress (Cupressus sp.) and Deodar Cedar (Cedrus deodara).
A number of Manna Gums (Eucalyptus viminalis), possibly remnants, exist on the river flat; more of this species appear to have been planted. Along the River are numerous Black Wattles (Acacia mearnsii), Willows (Salix sp.), Swamp Gums (Eucalyptus ovata) and Tussock Grass (Poa sp.).
Unfortunately invasion of the reserve by weeds has occurred in many locations. These include Wandering Jew (Tradescantia albiflora), Cape Ivy (Delairia odorata), Angled Onion (Allium triquetrum), Asparagus (Asparagus officianalis), Bridal Creeper (Myrsiphyllum asparagoides), Great Brome (Bromus diandrus), Blackberry (Rubus sp.) Watsonia (Watsonia sp.), Prairie Grass (Bromus cartharticus), Fumitory (Fumaria sp.) and Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica).
Yallambie Reserve is an attractive open grassy landscape dotted with Manna Gums and remnant exotic trees. Pleasant views are possible from the elevated areas of the escarpment and from Yallambie over the horseshoe bend of the Plenty River toward the indigenous woodland on the opposite side of the valley. The approach to the Yallambie flat is along a riverside trail and from paths descending from Tarcoola Drive. One of these paths follows an old farm track and is hedged by hawthorns, pines and oaks. Preservation of the integrity of the western escarpment under private management is critical. The owners should be encouraged to participate in sympathetic management.
With the exception of Gulf Station no early river stations on the Yarra or Plenty Rivers remain relatively intact. Although the Yallambie river station landscape has been modified it nonetheless retains enough elements to allow interpretation of its earlier form. fragments of other river stations in metropolitan Melbourne include the site of Pontville Homestead within Paddle Reserve, Templestowe, but only minimal remnants of the plantings remain. Clarendon Eyre (fmr Springbank), off Bulleen Road, Bulleen, is on the Yarra escarpment but the landscape has been severely modified by recent road works and encroaching subdivision. As a landscape the Yallambie flat is comparable to other river flats on the Yarra but gains its uniqueness from the remnant plantings of large exotic trees and its association with Yallambie House.
Notes: *The date 1846 in the above classification for the purchase of the house block would appear to be an error. According to Calder, (Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales), the land on which the residence stood was purchased by the Bakewells in July 1842. Certainly, Richard Howitt is known to have visited the Bakewells in their home at the Plenty Station in August 1842 where by that time they were already well established, “the first country newness being over”. (Richard Howitt, Impressions of Australia Felix). **The date 1841 for Wragge’s arrival would also appear to be an error. (Ibid, Calder), Thomas Wragge arrived at Port Phillip in November, 1851.