Tag Archives: Uardry

Here be dragons

The sound of the dragon could be heard from afar as it neared, its approach shattering the brooding silence of the Australian bush as it waded in the dark, slow moving waters of the river with an unrelenting exactitude.

Whump hiss, whump hiss.

Somewhere above, a cloud of parrots scattered from the ancient River Red Gums that suspended gnarled shapes out over the river banks, the birds screeching in protest at the abrupt end of a quiet that had lasted time without measure.

The next moment, like a watery phantasmagoria, it turned a bend in the river and the “dragon” was revealed. A fiery Leviathan, it came on in a cloud of steam, breathing smoke and spitting sparks, its paddle wheels lashing at the languid waters of the Murrumbidgee with an erratic delivery somehow at odds with its consistency.

The Australian river boat steamer.

The story of the navigation of the waters of inland Australia is tied up with a conundrum dubbed the “Riddle of the Rivers”. It started with the spectacle of boats on carts dragged by explorers into dry sand hills and abandoned. It ended with an understanding of where all that rain water went that occasionally fell on the western side of the Great Dividing Range, a place that in another age of exploration might have been simply marked on the edges of a map, “Here be dragons”.

Thomas Wragge, c1860. (Source: Bill Bush collection)

It was in this way that the putative Great Inland Sea of Australia was proved a myth and by the start of the second half of the 19th century, those dragons were taking shape in another form. Thomas Wragge’s arrival in the Colonies in 1851 was just two years earlier than the first experimental steam exploration of south eastern Australia’s inland river system and it coincided with that moment in time that saw the dawn of Australia’s steam age. This ambitious Nottingham farmer carried a letter of introduction to the Bakewells and soon began working for them at their various property interests, including of course “Yallambee Park” near Heidelberg. When the Bakewell brothers returned to England in 1857, Thomas became their tenant at Yallambee with the evidence of the certificate of his 1861 marriage to Sarah Ann Hearn describing him as a “gentleman” and a resident at the “Lower Plenty Bridge”.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambee Park), view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station with cattle in foreground. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria)
PS Ulonga towing a barge on the Murrumbidgee past the Uardry Station, c1915. (Source: State Library of South Australia)

Soon after this marriage, Thomas joined into a pastoral partnership with his brother William and his brothers in law, John and James Hearn and in 1864 the partnership purchased “Wardry”, a run on the Murrumbidgee River in New South Wales which they renamed “Uardry” expanding it to 32,000 acres by 1866.

“On the Murray River at Echuca”, by P J Lysaght, 1876. (Source: National Library of Australia) http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-134282660/view
Murrumbidgee/Murray River confluence, c1863. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

Distance from the markets was a major obstacle to pastoral activities in the Riverina at this time and while Melbourne was the logical centre for business, bullock drays could take as long as three months to complete a return journey. In 1864 the rail line from Melbourne to Bendigo was extended to Echuca and the Wragge/Hearn partnership, which commenced operations that year at Uardry, found that it could transport wool to the Melbourne market by sending it on barges pulled by paddle steamers along the river to the rail head. A regular steam boat traffic developed on the Murrumbidgee, taking wool and other produce from the upriver stations, downstream to the Murray River confluence and from there upstream to Echuca.

An early view of paddle steamers at the Echuca Wharf. (Source: picture by George Henry Kendall, State Library of Victoria)

In her book, “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, Winty Calder wrote:

“It is highly likely that the partners employed William McCulloch and Company as their transport agents as soon as they began operating from Echuca in 1865. Their (McCulloch & Co) paddles steamers took produce from Lang’s Crossing (Hay) to Echuca, from where they forwarded wool bales to Goldsborough in Melbourne”.

This journey involved a customs levy from the Colony of New South Wales at the Victorian border but it was still a practical solution to the problems of transport from the Riverina and preferable to the alternatives.

The impact of river boat traffic on the properties bordering Australia’s inland water ways at this formative period cannot be overstated. The feeling of isolation endured by the earliest settlers of the Riverina faded as the river boats brought in stores and mail, building materials and farming equipment and took away wool bales loaded onto barges into high pyramids greatly increasing the potential profitability of the inland stations in the process.

Of the partners however, only Thomas Wragge and his young family lived on the Uardry run. He and Sarah were there for three years in the early 60s and lived in a homestead, (later extended) that they built on the property.

Wragge family memorial at Warringal Cemetery, February, 2016.

For all this though, it seems probable that Thomas and Sarah never considered that the Murrumbidgee property was likely to become their permanent home for they maintained a lease on the Bakewell’s Yallambee Park throughout the 1860s and were negotiating for its purchase. Significantly, when the Wragges’ second born child, James died aged one year in April, 1864, the final resting place chosen for the infant was Warringal cemetery at Heidelberg near to Yallambee, not elsewhere.

John Bakewell (Source: Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina, Alexander Henderson, 1936)

Thomas Wragge and his family left Uardry and sailed for England in March, 1868. While Wragge had been sub leasing his Yallambee interests to John Ashton throughout much of the 1860s, it is possible that the visit to England was in some way connected to the death of Robert Bakewell three months earlier on Christmas Eve, 1867. It seems certain that it was on this trip that he visited the surviving brother, John Bakewell at John’s home at “Old Hall” north of Nottingham to finalise the outright purchase of “Yallambee Park” as it was on Wragge’s return to Australia in 1870, that the Wragge/Hearn partnership was dissolved and Wragge’s freehold title at Yallambee was established.

The Wakool River at the Talbett’s Punt crossing place, (Kyalite) 1860, from the Ludwig Becker sketchbook. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

As recounted previously, in the 1870s Thomas Wragge’s pastoral ambitions then turned to another part of the Riverina plains, to an area between the Niemur and Wakool Rivers, both anabranches of the Murray, and to a property known as Beremegad which he renamed “Tulla”. The property would in time clock in at about 110,000 acres but at Tulla, with its closer proximity to the Echuca railhead, Wragge seems to have chosen bullock drays over river transport to move the station wool clips.

Map showing location of Tulla between the Murray River anabranches. (Source: “Walking in Time” by E J Grant)
Bullock dray loaded with wool crossing a flooded creek at Tulla in the 1890s. (Source: Lady Betty Lush collection)
Thomas Wragge’s first Tulla Homestead, on the Wakool River, NSW, c1873. (Source: “Walking With Time” by E J Grant)

As colonial road and rail systems improved and expanded, the use of river steamers became less important and as the years went by, would fade almost into extinction.

PS Nile stranded in the dry bed of the Darling River. (Source: Wikipedia, from the Harry Brisbane Williams photographic collection)
Small steam launch photographed in flooded High Street, Echuca, c1906. (Source: State Library of South Australia)

Steamboat navigation on the anabranches of the Murray like the Wakool and Edward Rivers had been difficult at the best of times and more or less impossible in the dry seasons. Boats could be stranded for months in water holes when the rivers dried up but even when flowing, snags could trap ships at any time and in a flood, if the rivers broke their banks it was not unknown for river traffic to stray for miles off course, only to be left stranded high and dry when the waters subsided again.

Removing snags from the water obviously improved navigation but the practice also removed the habitat of native fish and other aquatic animals and changed the ecosystem of the rivers in the process.

PS Grappler removing snags from the river, c1860. (Source: picture by Stephen E Nixon, State Library of South Australia)

The steamers’ enormous need for wood to fire their boilers, up to a ton of timber every two hours, was another factor in this change. The need for fuel saw the destruction of large expanses of river side woodland culminating in the gradual erosion of river banks and a subsequent further change to the river systems. Finally, the later introduction of locks and weirs to regulate water flows throughout the seasons and to feed the needs of irrigation was to forever change the ecology and flow of Australia’s inland rivers.

Early picture of a paddle steamer loading wood fuel at a river bank. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

The golden age of the Australian river dragons is long ended. Today paddle steamer traffic in the Murray Darling basin is more or less limited to the tourist trade, but the changes that were made to the riverside environment remain. Section 100 of the Australian Constitution was intended to outline the Commonwealth’s powers regarding navigation on the inland river system and for the “reasonable” conservation of its waters for consumptive use, an outline that was made without the Green implications that the word “Conservation” might imply today. It’s an oft quoted clause today when the health of the Murray Darling Basin comes under scrutiny although until 1983 it was never tested in the High Court, and then only in the Dams Case of Tasmania.

Last week the taps were opened on a pipe line from the Murray River to the City of Broken Hill north of the Darling’s Menindee Lakes in a robbing Peter to pay Paul exercise of river systems management. As the Darling River dried up for the second time in three years, Broken Hill had been in danger of running out of drinking water, but while the pipe line will relieve the immediate problems of the “Silver City”, it will not address any of the underlying issues. In fact there is a concern that it will actually lead to less water in the Menindee Lakes, the previous source of Broken Hill water, as irrigators further up the Darling will have less obligation to leave water in the River for use downstream.

The eminent Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists which has a decade long history of commentary on the Murray Darling Basin said last month that their own studies have shown that environmental flows in the rivers are not meeting the government objectives and in at least one case, flows have actually decreased since implementation of the Murray Darling Plan.

The death of a million fish in January in an environmental catastrophe as parts of the Darling River dried up coincidentally coincided with the release of a South Australian State Royal Commission inquiring into the health of the Murray Darling River system. The release of the Royal Commission’s findings highlighted the problems associated with farming in the world’s driest continent and accused the Murray Darling Basin Authority, which had been formed a decade before, of gross maladministration of the Basin Plan and effectively proposed abandoning its principles and starting all over again. The MDBA had been charged to administer the Basin as a whole integrated system and to bring the rivers back to a sustainable level of health but in spite of billions of dollars spent, the Commission found that the original architects of the idea had been driven by “politics rather than science” and had ignored the potentially “catastrophic” risks of climate change.

Temperature gauge at Lower Plenty, December, 2018

The 2018/19 Australian summer that ended with the last day of February on Thursday has been officially acknowledged as the hottest ever recorded, with average temperatures coming in across the nation almost a full degree above the previous record, the “Angry Summer” of 2012/13. In a Bureau of Meteorology statement it was observed that, “This pattern is consistent with observed climate change.”

There is a fanciful theory which suggests that tales of dragons are the result of some sort of genetic memory of a time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth but be that as it may,  the history of the domination of chimp DNA is brief by comparison.

The Plenty River at Yallambie, June, 2018.

In a world of changing climates, the availability and access to fresh water is likely to become one of the greatest challenges facing societies. In other places this could lead to armed conflicts across the borders of nation states but in Australia it is hoped that we will continue to do things a little bit differently. That old Australian approach, “She’ll be right mate” could stand us in good stead, even when everything is clearly not altogether alright. No doubt the conflict in Australia when it comes will be limited to a bit of argy-bargy about State borders and constitutional reform and might end up in the High Court or in a Federal Referendum, but in the end it will come down to one basic question.

How do we save the Rivers?


Chances are, if you put a hand in your pocket anywhere in Australia before 1966, what you would pull out would likely contain something dear to the memory of the late Thomas Wragge of Yallambie.

"...something dear to the memory of the late Thomas Wragge"
“…something dear to the memory of the late Thomas Wragge”

The “shilling ram”. It was a common enough Australian coin from before the Second World War until the introduction of decimal currency in 1966 and featured the portrait of a fine Merino known as “Uardry 0.1”, the Sydney Show Grand Champion ram of 1932.

Bet you didn’t know that sheep have names. Well at least the important ones do.  Names like “Kevin” and “Bob” I have no doubt, (although when addressing one another, I have it on good authority that most sheep resort to the more usual sobriquet of “Baa”).

Thomas Wragge had been dead many years before that first shiny, shilling ram was struck so he never saw one in life. He collected more than his fair share of shillings in his woolly career though. Much more than his share those with a Socialist bent might say, including a good measure from activities at the Uardry Station itself with which property he was pretty well acquainted at one time.

Thomas was first and foremost a sheep farmer. I don’t know much about farming sheep personally but I suppose there’s probably more to it than just planting a few sheep seeds in the ground, splashing them with a watering can and watching them push up like little daisies.

Young Thomas Wragge arrived in the newly proclaimed Colony of Victoria in November, 1851 aged 21, but he showed no interest in rushing off to the Victorian gold fields. He believed in another form of gold, the sort that Jason found on Colchis.

Ray Harryhausen's fleece, the sort of gold that Jason found on Colchis.
Ray Harryhausen’s fleece, the sort of gold that Jason found on Colchis.

At different times in the 50s and 60s Thomas worked on, or leased, the 604 acre Heidelberg property “Yallambee Park” from its owners, John and Robert Bakewell who were wool sorters from Yorkshire, (see the October, 2014 post, “A Yallambie Historical Society”). But Yallambie was no sheep run.

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station with cattle in foreground.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. Distant view of station with cattle in foreground.

In the early 1860s, while still involved with the Bakewells’ “Yallambee Park”, Thomas, together his brother William and brothers in law John and James Hearn, developed a 32,000 acre pastoral run in the Riverina. They named their property Uardry and it was they who introduced the first Merino sheep there, antecedents in a way perhaps of that very same “Uardry 0.1”, of 1932.

AKA, Mr Baa — the pre-decimal shilling ram.

Uardry 0.1
Uardry 0.1

The Wragge/Hearn Uardry venture lasted only a decade. By 1870 Thomas had left the partnership following a disagreement with at least one of his Hearn brothers in law. It was around this time that Thomas formally purchased “Yallambee Park” from John Bakewell (Robert having died in Middlesex in 1867, leaving his share to his brother) and commenced construction of the current Yallambie Homestead.

Thomas had determined to develop his own sheep station, branching out onto an anabranch of the Murray River, across the border in the colony of New South Wales. The 110,000 acre property (or rather properties) in New South Wales that he gradually acquired he called Tulla Station. Wragge built his first homestead at Tulla in 1873. Later in 1896, when the Riverina property was well established, he built another, grander Tulla under the supervision of his son Syd. In its heyday before being resumed by the government for closer settlement, it is said that Tulla and its out station Chowra, stocked one of the great Merino flocks of New South Wales.

Thomas Wragge's first Tulla Homestead, on the Wakool River, NSW, c1873.
Thomas Wragge’s first Tulla Homestead, on the Wakool River, NSW, c1873.
Thomas Wragge's second Tulla Homestead, on the Wakool River, NSW, c1900.
Thomas Wragge’s second Tulla Homestead, on the Wakool River, NSW, c1900.
Chowar Homestead, an out station of Tulla on the Niemur River, photographed 1905.
Chowar Homestead, an out station of Tulla on the Niemur River, photographed 1905.

Thomas Wragge used his estate at Yallambie as his city digs while making a fortune from his Riverina sheep properties. He died at Yallambie in May, 1910, aged 79 and his estate was then valued at something under a half million pounds. At the time of his death, Tulla was a consolidated property of both freehold and leasehold land, about 15 kilometres wide from the Niemur River to the Merribit Creek and Wakool River.

Thomas Wragge at the Yallambie Homestead, c1903.
Thomas Wragge at the Yallambie Homestead, c1903.

The property remained under the administration of the trustees of the estate of Thomas Wragge for the next 35 years, losing about 23,000 acres in 1926 to a forced subdivision for closer settlement under the terms of The Border Railway Agreement. At that time, the governments of Victoria and New South Wales envisaged a sort of rural utopia for Australia, modelled in part on the English ideal of a system of villages dotted across the landscape a few miles apart, supporting a large population with an agricultural economy. Members of the Wragge family had said that the subdivisional lots excised from Tulla in 1926 were too small for viable farming and by 1941, after years of disastrous drought, only three of the 24 lots had been paid for and seven had been repossessed by the estate.

The introduction of the Wakool Irrigation Scheme ushered in a new era for the district which required a different type of farming. It was a type that the trustees of the Thomas Wragge, firmly rooted in the traditions of the pastoral age of the 19th century, had no wish to engage in. During the mid-1930s the main channels of the system had been constructed directly through Tulla and Chowra but despite this, very little use was made of the water except for stock and domestic requirements.

Not long after the Japanese entered World War II in 1941, the Commonwealth Government embarked on an war time, experimental rice growing project at Tulla utilising the Wakool Irrigation Scheme. The stated aim was to develop an industry capable of feeding starving Islander and Asiatic nations after an anticipated Allied victory.  In the end, the whole of the remaining property at Tulla was compulsorily resumed from the trustees of the estate of the late Thomas Wragge following the end of World War II.  It was intended that the land should be subdivided into farms for ex-servicemen, some of whom would be rice farmers, and sold under the process of the Soldier Settler Scheme of New South Wales.

Clearance sale announcement from 1947.
Clearance sale announcement from 1947.

Depression and World War had changed people’s perceptions of big holdings, and absentee landlords like those at Tulla were considered fair game. Tulla and Chowar were divided into three specific settlements with a total of 24 farms divided from Tulla and allocated to ex-servicemen by ballot. This was the beginning of the history of the “Tullakool” Irrigation Area and it marked the end of the Tulla that Thomas Wragge had known.

Block 224 in the “Tulla settlement” included both the 1873 and 1896 Tulla homesteads. In the late 1950s that block was purchased by a returned serviceman named Bert Hahn. Bert was reportedly miffed to find that he did not qualify for a nice, new asbestos house under the terms of the Soldier Settler Scheme since Board records showed he already had an existing house, or houses, on his block — Tulla mark 1 and 2. Bert battled with the bureaucracy. He didn’t want to live in the old homestead. It was too large. It was too old. It was probably haunted.

In his desperation, Bert decided to take matters into his own hands and planted a string of dynamite around the back of the rambling building. The resulting explosion completely destroyed the back verandahs, office and adjacent rooms, the vestibule and the dining room and seriously damaged the remaining structure.

Bert got his asbestos house.

The stained glass panel containing the name “Tulla” that had been above the front door of the large homestead somehow survived the explosion so Bert removed it and repositioned it over the his fibro front door.

Tulla Homestead, June, 1994
Tulla Homestead, June, 1994

In 1994, my wife and I visited the ruins of Wragge’s Tulla Station while on a mission to learn something about its history. The property had been purchased from Bert Hahn in 1972 by Norman “Shake” Williams, a veteran rice farmer. Norm already owned several blocks in the settlement so he put Block 224 to little use and instead kept the old Tulla farm as a cross between a rice farm and a nature reserve, a habitat for hundreds of bird and marsupial species.

Norm very obligingly showed us over the remains of the old Wragge buildings which by then were in a distressingly damaged condition. The original 1873 homestead had collapsed completely and the 1896 building, blown to kingdom come more than 30 years previously, was being used as a sort of sheep shed. While we were exploring the ghostly corridors of the once stately home that day, another vehicle arrived on the farm carrying the local National Party MP who it apparently was there to just to make a social call. “Two visits in one day,” said a surprised Norm to no one in particular. “Often a month goes by out here and I don’t meet anybody.”

Investigating the ruins of Tulla Station, June, 1994
Investigating the ruins of Tulla Station, June, 1994

The isolated style of his life, the wildlife and his memories seemed to suit Norm. The MP took me aside after a little while and said, “You might not know this but that old farmer you’ve been talking to was the most decorated NCO airman of the RAAF in World War II. He won the Distinguished Flying Medal twice, and the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. There’s a bronze bust of him on display up there in Canberra.”

Norman Williams bronze bust
Norman Williams bronze bust

So busy had we been exploring the history of a 19th century ruin that we had quite managed to ignore the living history right in front of us.

Norman Williams DFM and Bar, CGM
Norman Williams DFM and Bar, CGM

After the MP had made his call and gone on along his way I delicately steered the conversation with Norm away from rice and ruins and onto the RAAF. Norm told me that he had been a tail gunner in a Pathfinder Squadron in World War II and had served later in Korea and Malaya. One night in 1943 while flying over Germany, in the action that I subsequently learned resulted in his Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, Norm’s Handley Page Halifax bomber was so badly damaged by German night fighters that the crew prepared to bail out. Norm, although severely wounded and with his turret smashed to pieces, instead instructed his pilot on the radio intercom to manoeuvre the Halifax in a way that would give him a reasonable chance to fire from the immobilised tail turret. As the German night fighters returned to finish off the damaged bomber he shot two of them down. As a result the Halifax and her crew somehow survived the mission and managed to limp home to its airfield in England where Norm was cut from the turret.

Rear gunner, (Hallifax Bomber), by Dennis Addams, AWM
Rear gunner, (Hallifax Bomber), by Dennis Addams, AWM

The servicemen of the Second World War are nearly all gone now, as are all of those from the so called Great War, “the war to end all wars”. But the process continues. Australia still sends her troops all too often to fight in faraway places. As moral philosopher James Flynn has pointed out, we live in a bubble of the present in which many people are ahistorical. Flynn says that people who are ignorant of history and other countries invariably fail in their politics.

“Think how different America would be if every American knew that this is the fifth time western armies have gone to Afghanistan to put its house in order. And if they had some idea of exactly what happened on those four, previous occasions…”

Norm Williams died at Barham in 2007, aged 92, but his story and others like it will live on. The papers have been full of these stories leading up to ANZAC Day. As members of the human race we live our own stories each day in what we call the present, a dividing line between the past and the future, moving forever inexorably into the future, but it is when we think of the past that we become truly time travelers. The modern day Renaissance in the ANZAC tradition is driven at least in part by a new generation wanting to reconnect with its history and the origin stories of their antecedents.

So on this ANZAC Day, mark the stories of sacrifice of Australians in war but pause to remember also what that history really means and of the irrevocable changes wrought on this nation by a 30 Years War in the last century. It seems that those who don’t learn from history are truly destined to repeat it.