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.