Tag Archives: Walter Withers

Withers’ Way

They called him “The Orderly Colonel”.

It was a name given to him affectionately by his fellow artists as a passing nod to his organized ways. They started out as a loose association in the mid ’80s in what was then semi-rural Box Hill, experimenting with plein air painting, but as suburbia overtook the artists’ camps along the Gardiners Creek they relocated to a new camp on “Mount Eagle”, at an old cottage at what is now Summit Drive in Eaglemont near Heidelberg, cementing in our consciousness by doing so an art movement that would forever be remembered as the “Heidelberg School”, Australia’s first nationally focused art movement.

Heidelberg Historical Society marker in Summit Drive, Eaglemont.
Charterisville in Ivanhoe, built by David Charteris McArthur, c1845. (Heidelberg Historical Society picture)

Typically it was Walter (Walt) Withers, The Colonel, who found them another home when the group moved from the Eaglemont cottage. In September, 1890 Withers arranged a lease on the late David Charteris MacArthur’s “Charterisville”, just to the south of Mount Eagle, and here he painted and taught while subletting the lodges to a procession of his fellow artists. The contemporary critic Sidney Dickinson named him, along with Arthur Streeton, as a leader of the “Heidelberg School”, which in Withers’ case was almost certainly an exaggeration, but there is no doubting his significant role within the group.

Portrait of the Heidelberg School artist, Walter Withers, 1854 – 1914. Source: Wikipedia

In the critical period between 1889-90, at a time when Frederick McCubbin and several others were still painting in a conventional style, it has been noted that Withers “was experimenting with a brave and confident impressionistic style” and that “he was probably the first artist to paint major works using techniques of impasto”, (holmes à court Gallery).

When the Heidelberg School artists dispersed to other places after those “Glorious Summers” of the late 80s and early 90s, it was the English born Withers who chose to stay on in the Heidelberg district and paint impressions of the Australian bush while the Australian born Streeton left to paint in foreign fields and the real leader of the Heidelberg School, Tom Roberts was lost to portraiture. Withers alone remained, the sight of his bicycle with canvas and painting box strapped on board becoming a regular sight throughout the Heidelberg district.

Walter Withers’ studio at Cape Street, Heidelberg, c1894.

In 1894, with his wife Fanny and the beginnings of their family of six children, Walt leased another house in Cape St, Heidelberg where he taught painting while maintaining a city studio.

Four years later the Withers family moved again to a new home, “Withers Court” on the corner of Darebin and Hawdon Streets, Heidelberg and it was probably there or at Cape Street that the grown up daughters of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge took painting lessons from him, learning techniques they would bring to their home to paint selected interior joinery at the homestead.

Wragge painted four panel door at Yallambie.

Possibly it was a social as well as an artistic outlet for the Wragge girls. Their mother, Sarah Anne Wragge wrote cryptically and critically in 1898 in a letter that she believed her daughters weren’t learning much about painting under the artist’s supervision.

“So Jessie has finished her paintings at last, and I quite think with you that there must be more talk than work at that studio.” (Sarah Anne Wragge – her underline – quoted by Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales)

The stableyard at Yallambie, c1900 by Sarah Annie Wragge showing the Bakewell era stables on the left and stableyard wall, both now demolished. Laundry building at right. I’m thinking maybe Annie couldn’t paint horses? (Source: Bill Bush collection)
Sarah Annie Wragge hand decorating a door at Yallambie Homestead, c1890. Source: Bill Bush collection

The weather boarded Withers Court house still stands next to the rail tunnel in Heidelberg near to where the current duplication of the rail line between Heidelberg and Rosanna is right now, in a way that is pertinent to this story, reshaping the surrounding landscape. It was the building of the original cutting and rail tunnel under Darebin Street that determined Walt to move his family from Heidelberg in 1903 to a new location in Eltham. A large rock, blasted from the Heidelberg cutting, had crashed through the roof of his studio and damaged the canvas he had been working on, making Walt’s mind up in the process that it was high time to move on.

Southernwood, Walt Withers’ former home on Bolton St, Eltham and the site of a major road reconstruction, November, 2017.
Walt Withers old studio at Southernwood as it appeared during a sale of the home in 2011. Source: Domain
The rail tunnel built under Darebin St, Heidelberg in 1901 and currently in the process of being rebuilt with duplicated line, November, 2017.

The Withers family relocated to “Southernwood”, a small farm set on 2 ½ acres on Bolton St, Eltham opposite the Montmorency Estate where he built a large adjoining studio. Here he spent the last 10 years of his life, famously painting many scenes in and around Eltham while still continuing to roam further afield on his bicycle as the painting mood took him.

Tranquil Winter, Walt Withers, 1895. The house on the ridge is still standing today in Walker Court, Viewbank. This masterpiece was singled out for praise at the time by the eminent British critic, R.A. M. Stevenson, but today is not on general display. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

He was living there, dividing his time by spending weekdays at his city studio and his weekends with his family at Southernwood when one day in 1907 he headed off from Eltham on a painting expedition on the road to Heidelberg. The result of that day, a small, loosely painted plein air oil sketch, which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria alongside some other more well-known and polished Withers’ masterpieces, carries the somewhat misleading title, “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg”. The title has helped to obscure the identity of this sketch for a hundred years as the result of a close inspection of the painting, which is freely available to view online the NGV web site, has only now revealed some rather familiar details.

Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg (sic), 1907, Walt Withers. Source: National Gallery of Victoria
https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/3251/

In 1907 “Heidelberg” would have been a somewhat generic term. The old blue stone, Lower Plenty Road Bridge marked the official separation of Lower Plenty and Main Roads but it was on the Lower Plenty or Main Rd side that Walt appears to have set up his easel that day to paint the sort of rural Australian scene so beloved by him.

Looking north east along Main Rd from the corner of the Plenty Bridge Hotel, from a screen still of original footage of the opening of the Heidelberg Golf Club. The trees on the side of the road pictured here are a feature of Withers “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg” (sic).

The apparently anonymous building in the painting on the left side of the road is on closer study quite obviously a loose interpretation of nothing other than the old Plenty Bridge Hotel, the story of which has been recounted on several occasions within the pages of this blog.

A much later picture of the Golf Club Hotel, AKA, the Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, c1950 but clearly showing the service wing set a right angles to the main buillding.

From the service wing with chimney, set at right angles to the main building, the post and rail fence on the opposite side of the road and the poplars planted at the far end of the building – the details are all there.

John Irwin balancing on Mick Noonan’s motor bike, outside the Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1950. This is perhaps the only known photograph that offers a glimpse of the eastern approach to the old Lower Plenty Road Bridge past the PBH, the direction chosen by Withers in “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg” (sic). Source: the John Irwin family collection

It was a light bulb moment when I was looking at this painting on the NGV web site and realised what I was really looking at. Withers has painted the land fall past the front of the PBH towards the valley of the Lower Plenty River, showing the road stretching towards the approaches of the bridge, hidden by the bend, just as it is today.

It got me thinking and to doing a little reading. Two versions of a biography of Walt Withers written by his widow Fanny have been reproduced in Andrew Mackenzie’s 1987 book, “Walter Withers – The Forgotten Manuscripts”. The longer of these two biographies, somewhat misleadingly titled, “A Short Biography of Walt Withers”, was published by Withers’ fellow Heidelberg School artist Alexander McCubbin in about 1920. Together, the two biographies contain Fanny’s written descriptions of many of her husband’s artworks and reading through them they make for some rather interesting details in the telling.

The Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1928. Panorama made from screen stills of original footage of the opening of the Heidelberg Golf Club. Although this picture is looking in the opposite direction to Withers “Spring on the Lower Plenty Road, Heidelberg” (sic) many of the details painted by the artist are discernable here.

In 1907 Withers had painted a major canvas which Fanny called “Springtime on the Lower Plenty”, or “The Valley of the Lower Plenty, Victoria”, the obverse of which contained a replica of another Withers work. The story of the main painting as explained in Fanny’s writing is confusing because she freely interchanges the titles of her husband’s artworks in the context of the two biographies, but from the description “Springtime” was obviously an enlarged, studio version of the NGV oil sketch. I use the third person singular indicative as sadly the painting was destroyed in a devastating bush fire at Eltham on Black Friday, 13 January 1939.

Fortunately another painting of the same subject but painted in the tones of Autumn, “but from another point of view” was started at about the same time as “Springtime” and was worked on by Withers on and off up until the day he died. This painting has been called both “The Return from the Harvest” and “The Valley of the Lower Plenty” which makes for more confusion but Fanny wrote that it was a favourite of the artist and the largest canvas her husband ever worked upon.

“Again a road subject, with three figures, swags on their backs, two together and one following behind, walking with swinging steps towards the small hotel, nestling amongst the trees, at the side of the road. The time is Autumn, and the colouring rich and full toned. This painting is the most romantic of the painter’s work. It was much beloved by him, and it was the last canvas he painted on, the sky being completed by him the day before he was seized by his last attack of illness.” (Fanny Withers writing in “The Life and Work of Walter Withers, Landscape Painter.)

The painting was purchased and gifted to the Geelong Art Gallery which inexplicably today does not keep it on current display. It is some years since I saw the painting in the Geelong gallery myself and my memory of it is vague but clearly from the above description the painting is another image produced from painting expeditions to the countryside around the Plenty Bridge Hotel.

Thumbnail of “The Valley of the Lower Plenty”, Walt Withers. Source: Geelong Gallery
Looking towards Lower Plenty in the 1920s from a viewpoint similar to “The Valley of the Lower Plenty” but much closer to the bridge.

Recent attempts to gain a viewing of the original of this artwork at Geelong have been unsuccessful. The very poor resolution reproduction from the Gallery shown here does not allow for an observation of “the small hotel, nestling amongst the trees” described by Fanny but it does give a general feeling of the landscape on the western approach to the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge. In this painting the trees on the left hand side of the picture mark the southern boundary of Thomas Wragge’s Yallambie and one is left wondering whether the three swagmen returning “from the harvest” and painted by Withers might have been itinerant field workers going for a drink at the Plenty Bridge Hotel after a long day working in the Yallambie fields.

The Plenty Bridge Hotel and the western abutments of the Lower Plenty Road Bridge, c1927. Panorama made from screen stills of original footage of the opening of the Heidelberg Golf Club.
Drawing of Rose Chapel, (St Katherine’s) at St Helena by Victor Cobb, 1935. Withers was buried here in 1914. The building was burned almost to the ground in a bush fire in 1957 but rebuilt. It is interesting to note that the reverse side of this original drawing bears the artist’s inscription describing it as a drawing of “Rose Chapel, St Helena, Eltham”, evidence of how place names like Heidelberg and Eltham were generic district terms used loosely by artists. Private collection

Maybe Walt even dropped by the Homestead that day to pay a visit to his former painting students, heading off with Sarah Annie’s husband, Walter Murdoch for a drink, as was Murdoch’s want, at the Plenty Bridge soon afterwards. It’s a thought.

Plagued by ill health later in life, Walt Withers died at Eltham of cerebral thrombosis on 13th October, 1914 aged just 59 years.

His daughter remembered him as being six feet tall in his socks and solidly built, with brown hair slightly curling at the sides, big, soft, hazel eyes and a large, bushy moustache. He is buried in the church side graveyard at the Rose Chapel (St Katherine’s), St Helena.

Writing in the forward of Andrew Mackenzie’s book, Kathleen Mangan, the daughter of Charles McCubbin wrote of the Heidelberg School artists that:

“…it was a time of freedom of spirit, gaiety, and great artistic and intellectual advancement, a glorious burst of artistic achievement which erupted into flame at the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties, a flame that was all too quickly extinguished by the Outbreak of World War One.”

The Great War was only two months old when Withers died. The artist mantra in the district passed to others, the colonies at Montsavat in Eltham and the Heide Circle at Bulleen becoming just two expressions. A story from the Heidelberg Artists Society of an incident involving artists during the Second War has a certain relevance to the Yallambie story. It is recorded that one day around 1940, two painters had set up their easels in the vicinity of Banyule Rd when a farmer armed with a shotgun and accompanied by a couple of enormous dogs arrived on the scene demanding to know their business. The artists were dressed for painting in Army disposals – slouch hats and blue boiler suits – while from a distance their easels might have been mistaken for surveyors’ tripods.

Army cadets at Camp Q, Watsonia, (Yallambie), 1944. Source:  Australian War Memorial

At that time the Army had just resumed a part of the old Yallambie Estate nearby to create Camp Q (Watsonia), now known as the Simpson Barracks, and the unnamed farmer feared that a survey heralding a forced annexation of his own land was about to take place. Summing up the relative sizes of the farmer’s firearm and the jaws of his hungry hounds, the artists wisely packed away their easels for another day, the decision possibly a loss to art but a gain for rural diplomacy in the district.

YALLAMBEE by George Alexander Gilbert. Source: State Library of Victoria
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view VI by E L Bateman 1853-1856. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

The association of the work of Walt Withers with the story of the Yallambie area joins the tradition of the earlier pictures of A E Gilbert and E L Bateman and the writings of Richard and William Howitt and Louisa Anne Meredith. For all that, the work of Walt Withers has fallen somewhat out of favour in recent years. Not one of the paintings he produced in and around the Heidelberg and Eltham districts and that are now in public ownership are currently on display at the galleries. “The Return from the Harvest”, AKA “The Valley of the Lower Plenty”, described by Fanny as “the most romantic of the painter’s work… much beloved by him” and likewise the NGV’s oil sketch “Springtime” must remain therefore, at least for present time, unobserved.

Site of former Plenty Bridge Hotel, looking south west, November, 2014

Heightening this unfortunate circumstance is the reality of the danger posed to the artists’ footsteps by the plans of the North East Link Authority, a subject and side subject of this blog in recent times. The location of the two Walt Withers paintings discussed above stands under direct threat of the potential building of a Corridor B through Yallambie and Lower Plenty. The tranquillity of Walt Withers churchyard grave at St Helena would be broken by the building of a Corridor C. And the implications of Corridor A on the legacy of the Heidelberg School in Banyule goes without saying.

Does anybody care?

His paintings largely forgotten, his Plenty Valley and Heidelberg subjects at risk of being despoiled by the road builders – poor Walt, “The Orderly Colonel” must be turning over in his St Helena grave.

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Love makes the world go round, about

I think my wife must be getting all religious. She keeps talking to me about someone called St Valentine who apparently has a big day out next Saturday. I think this St Valentine chap must be rather influential because she insists I could be going to heaven that night. What she means by that, I’m not exactly sure. It seems to involve the sacred offerings of chocolate and flowers for something she calls the “altar of love”.

Love – it’s the oldest story of all. It’s been around since Adam was a lad. Each generation thinks they invented it which, if that were true, would offer no explanation to how the species keeps reproducing itself.

Douglas Adams thought that there was an awful lot of it going about and wrote “it really is, terribly complicated.” For all that, the tradition of sending Valentine gifts or vows dates back to the days of Chaucer with printed cards first appearing in England in 1761. Improvements in printing techniques and in the postal service lead to a great expansion in Valentine-sending in the Victorian era before an Edwardian decline which was not exceeded until the later part of the 20th century. The present day probably sees another decline in the giving of traditional Valentine cards as their role is increasingly replaced by various electronic messaging devices.

Victorian era valentines
Victorian era valentines

The tradition of giving cards must have been active in the first half of the 20th century when my late mother attended St Michael’s Church of England Girls Grammar School in St Kilda. I remember her describing to me, like a scene in “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, the excitement among the girls when one of the mistresses received a Valentine card. It carried an inscription on the front, “Roses are red, Violets are blue” but inside the insulting conclusion “a monkey like you belongs in the zoo” with an all too artistically drawn picture of a particularly nasty looking monkey. The girls thought it very amusing of course but not so the unmarried school mistress for whom teaching was probably one of the few ways of supporting herself.

Cleanliness is next to Godliness: girls of St Michael's Church of England Girls Grammar School, St Kilda
Cleanliness is next to Godliness: girls of St Michael’s Church of England Girls Grammar School, St Kilda

The concept of class distinction and the demarcation line of marital relations across it that existed in 19th century Australia is a foreign one to us in a world where today marriage is sometimes thought to be an antiquated institution. After all, who wants to live in an institution? If we look at a few of the 19th century romances that were around the Heidelberg district in the not so staid Victorian era, what is clear is that love really does make the world go round, even if sometimes the edges turn out to be a bit crooked.

As explained previously, the brothers John and Robert Bakewell established the first successful farm at Yallambee in 1840. John Bakewell was a wool classer by profession and left the running of Yallambee to his brother while he himself looked after their business affairs. John seems to have been pretty good at affairs for it has been rumoured that he managed to get a serving girl in the family way at Tooradin. That was on a property where he maintained additional farming interests as a partner in Mickle, Bakewell and Lyall. The class divisions between marital relations were very clear in the 19th century and could be experienced by every section of it at different times and to varying degrees. When reading the surviving accounts of their relationship, who does not believe that Queen Victoria was in love with John Brown? She no doubt fancied a man in a kilt. She stipulated that a photograph of Brown, a lock of his hair and his mother’s ring should be buried with her when she died. They say that love makes no clear distinction, however it was class and the mores of society that kept the devotion of Victoria and Brown in life almost certainly unconsummated.

Portrait group of John Brown and Queen Victoria. Oil painting by Charles Burton Barber, believed to have been a personal gift from the Queen to Mr Brown.
Portrait group of John Brown and Queen Victoria. Oil painting by Charles Burton Barber, believed to have been a personal gift from the Queen to Mr Brown.

While Australia has always endeavoured to produce a classless society, a product perhaps of our convict past, from the earliest days of settlement the Heidelberg district had pretensions to being something of an aristocratic locality, or the nearest thing to one the archetypal Port Phillip district could provide. “It is natural that on each of the main hills along the Yarra and its tributaries wealthy people, able to afford such select spots, should have settled and built large houses.” (Heidelberg – The Land and Its People 1838-1900, Donald S Garden, MUP)

The pre gold rush estates of the Yarra Plenty River confluence, with their exotic gardens and houses situated on high riverside ridges, were like Antipodean-Italian hill side villas, landmarks in a colonial landscape so newly settled. The mass plantings of Italian cypresses by Robert Bakewell would have done much to further this effect at Yallambee. Some of these properties were built on hill sides within sight of each other and given the class distinctions of the day it was only natural that sometimes the children of the owners of these prestigious rural seats would find romance nearby among their social peers.

Private cemetery in a garden on the River Plenty, near Melbourne, National Library of Australia. This image of Italian cypresses surrounding a bush grave is not one of the NGV set of Plenty Station (Yallambee) drawings but was attributed to E L Bateman by Anne Neale in her 2001 doctorate study, (Illuminating Nature). "Comparison of the background details of the garden with those in the Plenty set indicate that the site is almost certainly the Plenty Station."
This image in the collection of  the National Library of Australia is not one of the NGV set of Plenty Station (Yallambee) drawings but was attributed to E L Bateman by Anne Neale in her 2001 doctorate study, (Illuminating Nature). “Comparison of the background details of the garden with those in the Plenty set indicate that the site is almost certainly the Plenty Station.”

Minnie (Mary) Graham, the daughter of wealthy merchant and land agent, James Graham, grew up at Heidelberg’s Banyule Homestead in the early 1860s which her father leased from Joseph Hawdon. She married Robert Martin Jr in 1874, the only son of Dr Robert Martin of the neighbouring Viewbank Homestead which was built around 1840, a few kilometers downstream from the Bakewells’ Yallambee.

Archaeological investigation of remains of Viewbank Homestead, Viewbank, 1997
Archaeological investigation of remains of Viewbank Homestead, Viewbank, 1997

In 1922, after the farm was purchased by the Bartram family, Viewbank Homestead was professionally demolished, a home now to nothing more than a warren of rabbits burrowing into its foundations. We used to fly kites nearby as children, when Banyule Rd then had much less traffic.

If you stand on the vacant location of the Homestead today, marked as an archaeological site near the southern end of the Plenty River Bicycle Trail, and pause to look across the valley, you will see Banyule Homestead poking out from the suburban landscape. That impressive pre gold rush building still stands on the opposite ridge above former farmland, redeveloped in the 1970s as the “Banyule Flats” park. Squinting to look west, past the old Bunya pine and into the setting sun, you can maybe imagine for a moment how the relationship between Minnie and Robert, the proverbial older boy next door, might have developed. How often did Minnie Graham gaze out from Banyule across this valley and with rose coloured glasses imagine what the future might have in store?

Banyule Homestead seen from Viewbank Homestead (site) at dusk, February, 2015
Banyule Homestead seen from Viewbank Homestead (site) at dusk, February, 2015

The marriage pleased Robert Jr’s father, Dr Martin, who saw in it a merger of colonial gentry. Dr Martin’s wedding gift to the couple was Banyule Homestead itself, which Graham had been attempting to sell on Hawdon’s behalf for some years. Sadly Robert Martin, a diabetic, left Minnie widowed after only four years of marriage which just goes to show that in real life there is always the possibility of an unwanted postscript to the Jane Austen ending.

When it came to son in law material, Dr Martin set the bar high and was keen that each of his five daughters should marry into the Melbourne elite. Three of them, Emma, Charlotte and Annie chose or had chosen for them, well credentialed gentlemen who were all members of the doctor’s own Melbourne club. In the case of the last named, Annie, Dr Martin insisted that she marry the city coroner, the middle aged Dr Richard Youl, taking no notice of his daughter’s feelings nor taking to heart the broad disapproval: “everyone from Lady Hotham downwards all pitying poor Annie”.

Dr Martin’s other two daughters followed their hearts and in so doing defied their father. Edith Martin married Captain Bradley, the commander of HMS Galatea, the ship that brought Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh to Australia on the first Royal tour. Dr Martin disapproved of naval officers and Edith corresponded in secret with Captain Bradley for a year before a marriage was agreed upon. Even then her father insisted on a long engagement of 2 ½ years before wedding nuptials were possible.

The black sheep of the family was surely Dr Martin’s eldest child, Lucy Martin who followed her heart’s desire and eloped in 1857 with Lieutenant John Theodore Thomas Boyd of the vice regal staff. Dr Martin had even less respect for junior army officers than he did for naval men and had earlier refused his permission for the match. Aged 23 Lucy was free to marry anyway which is just what she did, leaving Viewbank on a pretext and meeting Boyd at a pre-arranged rendezvous from where they travelled to Richmond to be married. They later returned to Viewbank to confess and although we can imagine the scene that ensued, the story appears to have ended in forgiveness. The happy couple seems to have quickly got the hang of it and produced a dozen children, including Arthur Merric Boyd, the founding father of the Boyd dynasty of Australian artists. Today it is the progeny of Dr Martin’s wayward child Lucy who are remembered by history.

From "The Bride" series by Arthur Boyd, an allegory of star crossed lovers currently showing at Heide Museum of Modern Art
From “The Bride” series by Arthur Boyd, an allegory of star crossed lovers currently showing at Heide Museum of Modern Art.

A generation later, the children of Yallambie’s Thomas and Sarah Wragge perhaps encountered their own difficulties when it came to choosing appropriate life partners. The eldest Wragge son married a woman who had been governess to some of the Wragge children, a marriage that “was not wholeheartedly accepted by some members of the Wragge family”. The Wragge’s very own “Jane Eyre”.

Tranquil Winter, painted by Walter Withers,1895. The house on the ridge is still standing, located today in Walker Court, Viewbank at the back of Viewbank Secondary College.
Tranquil Winter, painted by Walter Withers,1895. The house on the ridge is still standing, located today in Walker Court, Viewbank at the back of Viewbank Secondary College.

Winty Calder thought that the Wragges probably kept fairly much to themselves, with few intimate circles on the broader scale. One social outlet it seems included drawing and painting lessons from the Heidelberg School artist Walter Withers at his studio in Cape Street, Heidelberg which Jessie and perhaps also Annie Wragge enjoyed.

Walter Withers' studio at Cape Street, Heidelberg, c1894 where the Wragge girls enjoyed painting lessons.
Walter Withers’ studio at Cape Street, Heidelberg, c1894 where the Wragge girls enjoyed painting lessons.

The conduct of these lessons drew this comment from their mother in an 1898 letter: “So Jessie has finished her paintings at last, and I quite think with you that there must be more talk than work at that studio.” Jessie was 30 when her mother wrote that but in the late 19th century, before the advent of “eHarmony”, country girls like Jessie from good upstanding, Anglican families probably had few real opportunities to mix with their social peers of the opposite sex. All the same, Jessie seems to have maintained a keen interest in her appearance and the social graces, evidenced by an “intense interest in current dress fashions”.

Accoutrements of fashion: an autograph album and magazine
Accoutrements of fashion: an autograph album and magazine

This story from Jessie’s nephew Frank Wright, and reported in Calder’s “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, records something about the opposition to her dress style that she encountered within the Wragge family home:

“One story of these times, and which I heard later, is rather a staggerer to us of later times. Women’s fashion then included the tight, hour-glass waist, but Thomas Wragge had forbidden it. However, secretly Jessie had bought one of these costumes and thought much of it. One evening a large party was at Yallambie and everyone but Jessie took their seats at the dining table, with grandfather at the head. He had a great joint in front of him and the carving knife and fork in his hands, when Jessie, in her beloved dress, scuttled into the room and to her seat. She had planned that by so doing, she would escape observation. She had no luck.

Thomas Wragge's nightmare: the wasp waist corset.
Thomas Wragge’s nightmare: the wasp waist corset.

There was a roar from the old man – ‘Jessie, stand up’ was the command. Then – ‘Jessie, come here’ he ordered, pointing to the floor beside him. In the paralysing silence which followed, Jessie did as ordered. Then ‘Turn around’ was the order. Whereupon the old man slid the carving knife down her back inside the offending dress, and he ripped it open to the waist. Jessie was thereupon ordered to ‘Go upstairs and get decently dressed.’”

Jessie died from tuberculosis in October, 1910, five months after the death of her father Thomas, he of the carving knife, and predeceasing her mother. She died unmarried and aged only 42. The local newspaper wrote of her: “The late Miss Wragge was of a retiring disposition, but was a general favourite among her intimate friends.”

Wragge family group on the original east verandah at Yallambie. Left to right standing are Alice, Thomas and Sarah, Jessie; seated are Annie and Harry. (Visible in the background is an earlier prefabricated wooden house possibly dating from the Bakewell era.)
Wragge family group on the original east verandah at Yallambie. Left to right standing are Alice, Thomas and Sarah, Jessie; seated are Annie and Harry. (Visible in the background is an earlier, prefabricated wooden house possibly dating from the Bakewell era.)

Another Wragge daughter, Jessie’s younger sister Alice, did marry but her choice of a younger and socially inferior partner incensed her father into a dramatic action. Calder described the union in “Classing the Wool and counting the Bales thus:

“On 24 August 1908, Alice Wragge married Albert Edward Friar of Carlton, a son of Henry and Mary Ann (nee Tyler) Friar, who lived in Heidelberg. Henry was a bricklayer. The prelude to that marriage has long been shrouded in secrecy as far as the Wragge family has been concerned. Alice was thirty-six and Albert was twenty-three. They were married by a Congregational minister at 448 Queen Street, Melbourne, and the witnesses probably knew little about the couple. Albert had been employed as a groom at “Yallambie”, and Thomas did not approve of the liaison. His disapproval was so intense that he signed a codicil to his will on 19 December 1908, ensuring that Albert would never profit directly from the Wragge fortune. But that codicil also disinherited Alice’s descendants.”

From the small amount of surviving documentary evidence concerning the life of Alice Wragge, Calder thought that “she was a light-hearted young woman, who regarded life with a considerable amount of humour- which is absent from letters written by other members of the family.” I think we would have liked Alice.

Sarah Annie Murdoch (ne Wragge) at the front door of Yallambie on her wedding day. Sarah Annie was 36 when she married Wallace Murdoch on 20 August, 1903.
Jessie and Alice’s older sister, Sarah Annie at the front door of Yallambie Homestead on her wedding day. Sarah Annie was 36 when she married Wallace Murdoch on 20 August, 1903.

It seems to me that eloping Alices must have been all the fashion at one time. My wife’s family had one all their own, complete with a Viewbank/Plenty River connection which is worth a mention here. Ada Alice Smith was a member of the extensive W. H. Smith family, well known stationers in the UK. Early in the 20th century she ran off with my wife’s great grandfather, a painter and decorator by trade, who brought Ada Alice to Australia. I suppose she must have liked his wall paperings. The net result was that Ada Alice was cut off by her family without the “proverbial shilling”. She ended up on a chicken farm on the very next bend of the Plenty river, downstream from Yallambie and which Great grandfather purchased from the Bartrams at Viewbank around the time that Viewbank Homestead met its wrecking ball end. The house that Great grandfather built is itself now long gone but the foundations are still there in parkland at the end of the extension of Martins Lane, Viewbank, if you know where to look.

Trufitt farm house, Seymour Rd, Lower Plenty. The house was located at what is now the extension of Martins Lane, Viewbank on a bend of the Plenty River, downstream from Yallambie.
Farm house, Seymour Rd, Lower Plenty. The house was located at what is now the extension of Martins Lane, Viewbank on a bend of the Plenty River, downstream from Yallambie.

It would seem that Great grandfather was better at charming than farming. In the 1920s he managed to kill all of his chickens with an accident involving an incubator. Family legend has it that only one chicken survived which Great grandfather managed to also consign to oblivion by tripping over the unfortunate feathered fellow with his size number 11 boots. Probably a partly apocryphal story but Ada Alice died all too young on the Lower Plenty River, forgotten by her paterfamilias and far from the land of her birth.

Of the family of that other Alice, in 1997 to launch “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” a Wragge family reunion was held at Yallambie Homestead with over a hundred descendants of Thomas and Sarah Wragge present. One of the more touching aspects of that day was the involvement of the descendants of Alice Wragge from her union with Albert Friar. That branch of the family had been estranged in an earlier generation in a way that, by the end of the 20th century, seemed incomprehensible. On that day for the opening of the publication of Calder’s book, for the first time in ninety years the descendants of Thomas and Sarah Wragge were remarkably united.

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

Bartram's Silos at sunset in front of the Viewbank Homestead archaeological site, Viewbank, February, 2015
Bartram’s Silos at sunset in front of the Viewbank Homestead archaeological site, Viewbank, February, 2015