Tag Archives: Yallambie Homestead

HOME IS WHERE THE HEARTH IS

There’s something soothing in the warmth of an open fire on a cold, Melbourne evening in winter. It’s like the heat on your face wakens some sort of genetic memory from a time when our collective ancestors gathered around the fire blazing at the mouth of a cave, the flickering light a protection against the unknown dangers of the night. As a domestic arrangement, hearth and home have been an inseparable part of our lives ever since those early fires moved from the caves to a favoured place inside our homes. Firstly to a centrally placed location in the Iron Age round houses and Saxon timbered halls of Northern Europe, then about a thousand years ago to a place on the walls of those stone castle building Normans.

“…a glance into the world of the blurry, glass plate photography of the 19th Century.” Sixth-plate Daguerreotype of the Bakewell brothers'”Yallambee” from the State Library of Victoria Collection.

By all reports the draughty old castles of the picture story books took some heating, but in this world of electric fires and central heating, it’s easy to forget now all the developments that have gone into getting to where we are today. One thing that a glance into the world of the blurry, glass plate photography of the 19th Century does not reveal is the smell of that world. The odours of the outhouse at the bottom of the garden or the aroma of wood smoke from thousands of kitchen cooking fires must have been something altogether and would have more or less permeated everything. In the 1880s when Melbourne after the gold rushes became known for a while as “Marvellous Melbourne”, the wags soon coined another term for it. “Marvellous Smellbourne” they dubbed the great, unsewered southern metropolis. With thousands of domestic fires pouring out their smoke and adding to the pollution of early industries, the air must have been pretty thick in those “good ol’ days”. The infamous peasouper fogs of old London for instance, the air that Dickens called a ‘London Particular’, were of course not fogs at all, but smogs. Thick, sulphurous layers of polluted air without parallel today, even in China, and those smogs were dangerous. They could kill people stone dead in their beds. Thankfully air quality has improved greatly since those dark times but for some this achievement just isn’t enough. Recent calls in the press have suggested the state government introduce a wood fire heater, buy back scheme aimed at improving air quality in Melbourne, a scheme similar to something already operating in the ACT. However, for those on a tight budget there sometimes just isn’t any alternative to getting out there and scavenging a bit of firewood and, then again, an open fire does have its comforts. Contemplating the glowing embers of a cosy living room fireplace with feet toasting nicely in their socks on the fender during the recent “work from home” protocol, I know where my thoughts on this lie. At such times my mind is apt to wander back to the days of those comfortable caves and, although I sometimes think the neighbours have given up burning proper firewood for old mattresses, really there’s nothing quite like having an open fire is there?

A cold morning for the birds.

Ethel Temby in her memoir once remarked how cold Yallambie in the farming era could be compared to other neighbourhoods. Richard Willis’ diary which he kept through a Melbourne winter spent under canvas on the Lower Plenty in 1837 similarly contains various references to the cold and also to their primitive camp fire arrangements, “a sort of gipsy-looking affair to shelter us from the dews of heaven”. The deprivations and the extremes of that early Melbourne winter very nearly killed Richard but with developing settlement came civilization. Although the first settlers at Port Phillip are known to have heated their homes in relatively primitive fashion, when it comes down to it the Bakewells prefabricated home at Yallambee must have been snug enough. William Howitt reporting on his visit to the Bakewells in October, 1852 wrote:

One thing pleased me there, — the old English dog, in the fire-places of the country houses instead of stoves. Wood is the chief fuel; the fires it makes are very warm and cheerful; and at the Plenty we found them very acceptable, for it came on heavy rain, followed by a south wind, which is always cold. I don’t know when I felt it colder than when we arose at five o’clock in the morning to return. The valley was filled with white fog, and the grass glittered in the rising sun with a frosty dew.  (William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, 1858)

“Chimneys at every protuberance” photographed November, 1995.

Twenty years later when Thomas Wragge came to build his homestead, nearly every room would be provisioned with either a corner or sometimes a centrally placed fire place, the resulting roof line seeming to sprout chimneys at every protuberance. The fire places inside were for the most part plain – white marble used in the drawing room, black marble in the dining room and marble and slate painted to look like marble in the bedrooms and secondary rooms. The Victorian era would see a medley of styles used for interior decoration and with wealth rolling into Melbourne from the gold rushes, people had more money to spend on their homes but at Yallambie in the best Yeoman tradition, style was kept simple. In the 19th century the hearth blazed brightly throughout domestic life, a symbol of family togetherness and comfort. Geoffrey Blainey called this the “maternal spirit”, and it was a spirit that could be found in kitchens and front rooms right across the nation.

Can you see the faces in the fire?” old people would enquire of one another, because sometimes they observed that the flames and the silhouette of the burning wood took the shape of human faces.” (Blainey: Black Kettle and Full Moon)

The process of fire place restoration – before

Others were to take this idea a step further and maintained that flames were a means of foretelling the future and of predicting the weather. Pale coloured flame could mean rain, fierce flames a frost. Sooty smoke predicted the arrival of a stranger and fire retreating to one corner on a hearth meant a separation. Round cinders could mean money but rectangular, (or coffin shaped) cinders meant death.

After

I don’t know about any of that but then I haven’t seen too many round cinders in my time I guess. It’s true though that watching a fire does induce a dreamy, peaceful state of mind where thoughts are apt to wander. In most households a poker was usually kept near at hand to give the fire a prod as much to awaken those nearby from their reverie as anything else but it was an unwritten law that a visitor should not prod his host’s slow burning fire. The expression “back log” as applied to our working habits today comes from the large log commonly placed at the back of a wood burning fire and which was intended to burn throughout the night. Etiquette demanded that a visitor should never disturb this back log as touching it was deemed a discourtesy. The handling of the fire and poking at the back log was held to be the prerogative of the owner as anybody who has tried making toast on the end of a long toasting fork in front of an open fire will attest that fiddling with the fireplace can be a happy diversion. Just ask my son who throughout his childhood years was a dab hand at toasting marshmallows, “Burned to perfection, Dad.”

All the same, lighting a fire is best left to the potential pyromaniacs of a family. In the days before we had proper heating at Yallambie I once found my very understanding, then pregnant wife sitting in front of a cold fire place stuffed with half burned newspapers and charred logs, her tears  of frustration soon followed predictably by the installation of some proper gas space heating in the house.

A 19th century engraving of an indigenous Australian encampment

The ability to light a fire is something we now take for granted but imagine for a moment those cave men banging two rocks together or the Australian Aboriginals rubbing at sticks for hours to produce a flame. Fire was so important to the First Australians and so difficult to produce from scratch that care was taken never to let a flame go out and if one tribe needed to request fire from another, it was a request that could never be refused no matter what enmity might otherwise exist between them. In the early era of settlement right up until the gold rushes, most travellers carried a piece of hard English flint and a steel pocket knife which were used to make fire by a spark. The invention of the Lucifer match which could be lit by striking it against a wall or rough surface changed everything. At Yallambie we have a table with rough copper plates attached to the apron below the table top, a feature I believe to be a specially made surface for striking matches in an earlier era.

The development of the portable match is said to have been one cause of the eventual increased use of tobacco in the 19th century. Where lighting a pipe previously had required much fooling around with a flint and steel, matches made everything so much easier. Much too much easier I’d say. It’s taken until modern times for a majority of people to kick a habit so obviously injurious to health.

Wallpaper fragment from sub floor area of former smoking room indicating the style of the previous decor in that room.

Thomas Wragge had a smoking room at Yallambie next door to the drawing room where the men would retire in the evening to puff away and yarn. The women would remain in the drawing room although Betty Lush, a grand-daughter of Thomas, remembered another fire side at Yallambie, writing later that, “I loved these visits even though nearly always in the early years I would fall asleep with a book by the billiard room fire while the older ones played a game or so after dinner.” (Recorded in Calder: Classing the Wool)

One of Annie Murdoch’s Edwardian fire surrounds removed at the end of the last century.

When Wragge’s daughter Sarah Annie Murdoch decided to remodel the house in 1923, marble chimney pieces were removed and smashed to pieces, some fire places were blocked up or repositioned, and wooden replacement fire surrounds were introduced into the house. In modern times though some of Annie’s replacements have themselves been replaced in an attempt to create a style thought to be more in keeping with a mid-Victorian era house. The white marble fire surround pictured above was made from pieces scrounged from multiple demolition yards on a shoestring budget. The enamelled grate was found at the back of a plumbing shop where it had sat for decades after being pulled out of a house in Brighton.

Another fire surround installed by Annie Murdoch, c1923 and now replaced by the restored black Marquina chimney piece pictured above.

As the winter solstice passes by this weekend, the days will lengthen again in their stride. Not so long ago it seems I was writing about bushfires and summer heat waves. Those days seem far off now and much has happened this year in the interim, both here and abroad. Where we are heading right now is anybody’s guess but while it seems sometimes that the world beyond the front door has gone kaput, to my mind that’s all the more reason to celebrate what we do have at home. To put this in a nut shell and to throw another spin on some otherwise well-known, much oft repeated words.
“Home is where the hearth is.”

A Spring interlude

“An effect of an old home and garden is to give a sense of being part of the continuity of life, of having roots in the past and prospects in the future.”
Ethel Temby, from her personal history of Yallambie Homestead, 1984

Ethel wrote this in the early ’80s while reflecting on more than two decades of life at Yallambie. In the 30 odd years since, the seasons have come and gone and the years have brought change. Plants and garden beds have been removed and reinstated. Drought has wrecked the garden more than once, only for it to recover and be born anew. Geriatric trees have succumbed to the passage of the time and collapsed to be replanted. Some things don’t change though and one of these is the arrival of the Spring time and the possibilities the season has to offer. I like to think the continuity described by Ethel might be something that had its beginning with R Bakewell and E L Bateman, found recognition in the writings of the Howitts and Louisa Anne Meredith and is a tradition that survives to this present day. As Ethel once said, quoting from Brown in her history:

A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!
Rose plot,
Fringed pool,
Ferned grot.

Fresh buds bloom, showers soften the earth and there is a warmth in the air outside already. It’s been a lovely Spring, don’t you think? Sorry for not writing about it more right now but I’ve got to get outside. Something’s waiting for me.

A stitch in time saves what?

There is no doubt that the lives of each and every one of us are the result of chance and random DNA.

Family legend has it that in her long ago courting days, a Great Grandmother with a fair splash of my wife’s genetic deoxyribonucleic acid brought a prospective beau home to meet the parents. Seeking to make a favourable impression on the young Scot, she wore her best dress, even removing her embroidered silk pinafore for what she perceived was likely to be the most advantageous sartorial effect while serving the young man his tea.

Poor Great Grandmama. Her efforts were all in vain as they had quite the opposite of the intended effect. So the story goes, they didn’t see that boy for the dust as he strode out the door that day and headed for the hills. In the best traditions of Scottish courtship, the prospective boyfriend is said to have feared that such a woman, dressed in all her finery without even seeing a need to protect her outfit with an apron, could never be supported in marriage by a man the likes of him. His amours were soon forgotten and Great Grandmother went on to meet and marry another fellow, my wife’s future Great Grandfather, presumably a man who could afford to supply her with more than one dress. Thus was a family formed.

19th century hand embroidered parlor apron

But what if Great Grandmother had kept her hand embroidered silk apron safely pinned around her slim waist on that day? Our births and our histories are all the results of such random events.

Anecdotal though the story possibly is, it does illustrate the importance that was placed in times past on economy in the home and of the merits placed upon good housekeeping. Great Grandmamma lived at a time not very far removed from the Wragge girls at Yallambie and the world she knew and its restrictions I suspect would not have been all that dissimilar.

Victorian era embroidered velvet cushion cover

Sewing was almost exclusively the domain of women in the 19th century and an occupation generally looked upon with indulgence by the male of the species, at least at those times when he thought about it at all. Needlework and the art of embroidery were viewed as necessary attributes of any genteel young lady and were a reflection on the leisure time available to such individuals and the creative efforts needed for these ladies to perfect their skills.

Aesthetic style era unmounted cushion design

Most upper to middle class ladies of the 19th century therefore spent at least some of their days working at their sewing box. The introduction to one contemporary sewing tome, ‘The Ladies’ Work-Table Book’, states pointedly if condescendingly that, “No one can look UPON THE NEEDLE without emotion; it is a constant companion throughout the pilgrimage of life.”

Hand beaded and machine embroidered purses with a contemporary book, “Dainty Work for Pleasure and Profit” offering advice and sewing instructions to young ladies

The reality was, women’s domestic handiwork was more often than not the only way a woman could reveal an otherwise hidden artistic nature. Tatted doilies, macramé mats, crocheted antimacassars and beaded and embroidered cushions were produced in great numbers by ladies from patterns sourced in popular embroidery manuals, as well as from a growing number of weekly women’s magazines.

Louisa Anne Meredith, (Source: Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts).

One exception to the generally domestic nature of this rule was that doyen of the arts, Louisa Anne Meredith, who as previously recounted in these pages, visited the Bakewells at Yallambee in 1856. She is known to have been a keen if somewhat inexpert worker of embroidery before her arrival in Australia who could, nevertheless, draw on a wide range of her travel experiences and her considerable skills in draughtsmanship to produce original designs in sewing of great Antipodean charm.

Writing of her journey to Australia in one of her published books, she described the days she spent sewing during the voyage:

“I passed every day on deck, busy with that most pleasant of all ‘fancy work’, wool embroidery; and to it I owe my exemption from much of the overpowering ennui so general on a long voyage. To study is, I think, impossible, and I very soon disposed of all the light reading to be found on board, when compelled by illness or bad weather to remain below. But my work-basket and frame were my daily companions, and I was often told how enviable was my happiness in having something to employ me.” (‘Notes and Sketches of New South Wales’, by Mrs Charles Meredith)

19th century lambrequin at Yallambie

Several examples of Louisa’s later Australian themed needlework are believed to have survived, including flower pictures and a lambrequin, a sort of piece of decorative drapery designed to hang across the length of a mantelpiece. The lambrequin as a piece of sewing was at one time the height of fashion in the Victorian home and was most usually created by the hand of the lady of the house as a statement of her skill and good taste. As a furnishing, it was a device used to bring attention to the fireplace, the focal point of any room, and to the clutter of bric-a-brac inevitably displayed there. A similar if less creatively executed lambrequin exists today as a decorative motif over the Marquina dining room fire surround at Yallambie, although as a dust trap, it is usually rolled away and brought out only on occasion.

Embroidered gents smokers’ caps
19th century crazy patchwork tea cosy

Other types of sewn items include cushions and tapestries, smoking caps and aprons, and a single tatty if well used crazy patchwork tea cosy. Unfortunately none of these items come with a Wragge family provenance, but they can make an interesting resource for review all the same.

One of the few artefacts at Yallambie that does have a Wragge family provenance is a beaded and embroidered gout stool. The velvet is faded and the upholstery dented, but the beading is intact and probably unaltered from the time a young Annie Wragge first sewed it into place probably in or about 1890. To my eye it seems a funny shaped object. A bit like a model of the slippery dip at Luna Park, but whether or not it was ever used by a member of the Wragge family for the purpose for which it was designed – resting up a gouty limb I mean, not sliding down the slippery dip – remains unrecorded.

Late 19th century gout stool stitched by Annie Murdoch ne Wragge at Yallambie

People it seems are generally too busy today to be bothered with the sort of creative endeavours our great grandparents were familiar with. The model aeroplanes I built as a child from scratch from balsa wood and varnished tissue paper can now be purchased ready made from any model shop and the vast array of sewn items made by women in earlier times are largely obsolete.

Hand knitted woolen child’s cardigan

My late mother was a keen and expert knitter and when I was a child, socks, scarfs and jumpers came off her woollen needles with regularity and in profusion throughout the winter. The first Geelong football Guernsey I ever owned came from those knitting needles and while I might have thought at the time that the outfit didn’t quite measure up against the VFL approved jumpers of my opponents on the Primary School footy field, there is no doubting the love and the care that went into its creation. Under her instruction I even learned to knit myself after a fashion although I would never have admitted to my friends to being occupied with such a sissy occupation. The pure wool jumper I laboriously completed I probably passed off in the school yard as one of Mum’s.

Most of the clothes I wear these days are sourced from second hand stores, so I guess in my own way I’m doing my bit for the planet and at least I can be sure of wearing outfits not likely to be repeated elsewhere on the streets of Yallambie. My wife and I have been avid Op shoppers from way back but in this fast paced, Marie Kondo led, modern world , it seems such ideas are yet in a minority. It’s said that David Beckham never wears the same set of underpants twice before throwing them away but in a society where it is easier to buy new clothes than go to the trouble of washing the old ones, something has got to give. Inevitably David Beckham’s old underpants are going to end up in land fill and as some people will tell you, given the size of those underpants that’s going to be a lot of land to fill.

 

An incovenient truth

The American writer Mark Twain is generally credited with that oft quoted weather maxim, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Twain was recorded as making a remark similar to this in the early 1900s with his words later paraphrased into the famous old adage but the fact is, the idea had first been espoused by Twain’s friend, the essayist Charles Dudley Warner decades earlier. Twain later borrowed the concept during a lecture tour and the mistake in authorship stuck.

The Twain attribution is an example of how a misrepresentation if told often enough, becomes fixed. The reality is the writer’s name itself was also a fiction but ask anyone who Samuel Langhorne Clemens was in life and you will be met with a blank stare, so with this in mind maybe old Sam won’t mind if I  borrow a line from him right now.

“You know, everybody in Melbourne talks about the weather, but nobody wants to do anything about it.”

As our fossil fuel dependent power grid struggles to keep up with the demands of hundreds of thousands of houses across the state attempting to run electricity hungry air conditioning this summer, the talk has been all about the need to build a new coal fired power station, but wouldn’t you say that could be a case of the chicken and the egg?

It got me thinking about truth and the perception of truth in a globalized 21st century society. Any suggestion that the weather we’ve been having and that the associated record breaking temperatures that go with it might have anything to do with Climate Change or with Global Warming is evidence if evidence is needed that there will always be some people for whom denial is their first port of call. I’m told there is a difference between weather, which is what we have been experiencing, and climate, which is what has been changing, but the facts speak for themselves. We might be in need of a cool change right now, but there are still some around us who would have you believe there is no such thing as a changing climate, a belief which is at odds with all the scientific evidence and expert testimony to the contrary.

We live on a planet where climate has changed many times throughout prehistoric earth history, ranging from balmy warmth to long periods of glacial cold. The last Ice Age ended a mere 10,000 years ago and ushered in an era known to science as the Holocene. It may be no coincidence that in this era, the era that has seen the growth of the human species worldwide and which contains the whole of recorded history, there has been no full crash in climate on a world scale. If there had been it is likely that early civilizations would not have survived and I’m thinking we would not be here at this moment to blog about it on a World Wide Web.

The concern now however is that it may be the actions of humans that has started driving the Earth’s climate and that as a result we may be heading in a direction that will take us past what is an already natural tipping point to a place where too much is being asked of an inherently fragile climate system causing it to snap back in protest into as yet unknown territory.

It might seem like “An Inconvenient Truth” to him, but the leader of the world’s largest economy and by default the erstwhile leader of the Western World has said that he does not believe in Climate Change. End of story. The trouble is, although the boffins might generally agree on the reality of that Change, the jury is out on what this might actually mean in practice. Climate is such a tricky thing that change just one bit of it and the consequences become hazy. Some might say hazier than the sky over Beijing on a smoggy morning.

The emergence of a polar vortex of warm air over the Arctic last week actually drove cold air south which resulted in a record plunge in temperatures over the North American continent. One particularly worrying Climate Change theory anticipates an end to the Atlantic Meridional Ocean Current, the current which keeps European temperatures temperate and this would result in an overall drop in temperatures in Europe. So much for Global Warming.

In Australia we have our own Conga Line of Climate Change denying sycophants, many of whom seem to have found themselves into positions of political power where they maintain obstinately that there is nothing wrong with what we have been doing to this planet. While our economy in Australia is not on the same scale as elsewhere, we do have one of the highest per capita emissions of carbon dioxide in the world, the global effects of which are potentially equally as dangerous.

The Yallambie Creek in flood in 1974. (Source: PIT Environmental Impact Statement, 1974)
The Plenty River in flood at Yallambie,  c1890. (Source: Bill Bush Collection).
Thomas Wragge’s second Tulla Homestead, on the Wakool River, NSW, c1900, (Source: Lady Betty Lush Collection).

Much of Australia is classed as semi arid, a continent where climate is often variable and where frequent droughts lasting several seasons can be interspersed by considerable wet periods. Thomas Wragge who made a fortune running sheep in marginal country in the Riverina, made a success of these difficulties but chose to live at Yallambie after he purchased the Heidelberg property from the Bakewell brothers. His family gathered there before the Melbourne Cup each year and stayed there throughout the summer to avoid the worst extremes of temperature at their properties in inland Australia. Winty Calder noted the milder environment the family enjoyed at Yallambie in her 1996 book, “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” writing that:

The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view I by Edward La Trobe Bateman, (Source: National Gallery of Victoria).

“Another early purchase made by the Bakewells was land beside the Plenty River east of Melbourne, where the climate was (and still is) temperate. Rain falls throughout the year, with slight peaks in spring and autumn, and averages about 700 millimetres (26 inches) per year. The mean monthly maximum temperature is about 27 degrees C (80 degrees F) in January, but falls to less than 12 degrees (53 degrees) in June and July. The mean monthly minimum in February is about 13 degrees C (55 degrees F), and about 5 degrees C (42 degrees F) in June, July and August. Any frosts are light and snow is rare.” (Calder, Jimaringle Publications, 1996)

Rainbow over Yallambie in 1995.

Yes, we’ve always thought it a lovely place to live here at Yallambie but thinking of the climate as something constant is misguided. The weather of our childhood might have felt like the norm but it was in fact a snapshot of a moment in climate history and by association different to what the early settlers found in Australia or indeed to what we are experiencing today.

I remember a time from my childhood when any temperature reaching into the 30s seemed like a heat wave. Now it is a temperature taken past 40. Across the river from Yallambie, the Lower Plenty Hotel in its bushland setting has an illuminated temperature gauge on its signboard visible from Main Rd. I photographed this at 6 o’clock in the evening last month when it was displaying 47° Celsius, or nearly 117° on the old Fahrenheit scale. I don’t know what the temperature might have been in the middle of that day but in the evening the temperature as displayed on the Lower Plenty board was several degrees above the official temperature when I checked it for Melbourne at about the same time.

Temperature gauge at Lower Plenty opposite Yallambie last month.

A story in Domain last month would seem to confirm this. Of all the data examined from all the weather stations across the greater metropolitan area, the weather station at Viewbank right next door to Yallambie came in as Melbourne’s hottest suburb with an average annual temperature there of 20.9° Celsius. The Bureau of Meteorology puts this down to the distance of the suburb from the stabilizing influence of sea breezes but there is also something called the “Heat Island Effect” to take into consideration. The concrete and built structures of Melbourne absorb heat during the day storing it up like a heat bank, then radiating that heat during the night making the city warmer after dark. I’m guessing that it’s those same sea breezes mentioned by the Bureau of Meteorology that are then pushing the warmer air up the Yarra Plenty valley where it is trapped by the hills around the Viewbank weather station.

A stroll in Yallambie Park.

Trees can provide some form of relief – just take a stroll along the river under the trees in Yallambie Park on one of these warm afternoons to see my point – but as blocks of land in the suburbs are ever more reduced in size and more and more houses are jammed into the existing environment to increase the profits of the developers, the heat island effect is only ever increased. The answer they seem to have to this is to put air conditioning into those jammed in houses but these require electricity to function which in the past has been produced in greenhouse gas producing coal fired power stations. It is a situation that becomes self-replicating. A catch 22.

Yallambie, July, 2018.

Yallambie Homestead with its high ceilings and 150 year old walls of solid double brick and plaster, located within a garden setting surrounded by numerous plantings of trees, manages to stay cooler in warm weather longer than most, but when it does warm up it retains the heat far longer. Another example of the heat island effect.

This island earth as seen from space by the Apollo 17 astronauts.

In my October 2017 post about “Conurbation”, I made brief reference to the heat island effect I had seen first-hand at Ocean Island in the Central Western Pacific. The story of Ocean Island or “Banaba” has always struck me as being like an ecological mirror of our own planet and if you can think for one moment about our fragile planet as being like a Pale Blue Dot cast adrift somewhere in the dark depths of space, then spare a thought for solitary Ocean Island sitting out there in the vast Pacific, all on its own.

Abandoned and overgrown mining infrastructure at Ocean Island (Banaba) in the Central Western Pacific, (writer’s picture).

Like the Pale Blue Dot, Ocean Island was the only home its native inhabitants had ever known. That was before the mining industry realized its potential. Roughly two square miles in area or to reference our subject, twice the size of Yallambie, an 80-year long phosphate mining industry in the 20th century reduced the island to a weedy, post-apocalyptic, post-industrial moonscape of broken rock and abandoned mining buildings and machinery. Unlike the inhabitants of the Pale Blue Dot however, a new home was found for the local people, the Banabans who were relocated to a small island in the Fiji group, much to the detriment of their heritage and to their identity as a Micronesian people.

Early 20th century photograph of Banabans in traditional dress on Ocean (Banaba) Island. (Source: A St. C Compton collection)

The phosphate from Ocean Island was meanwhile used to green farm land in Australia throughout most of the last century, so look around you. There’s probably a little bit of Ocean Island below your feet at Yallambie even now.

The sacrifice of the island to the needs of an industry that aided an agricultural revolution in the 20th century resulting in the population of this planet increasing from 1 ½ billion when mining started in 1900 to 7 ½ billion and climbing today, is an irony. The industry left the island source of a small part of that revolution largely uninhabitable but even so, there is a bigger irony at work here. Should general industrial practices across this planet result in Global Warming and a rise in sea levels which is a fundamental prediction of many expert opinions, then ruinous Ocean Island as a raised atoll and politically a part of the Republic of Kiribati will be the only island within that nation that has the potential of remaining above those projected altered sea levels.

It’s a sobering thought and one that might see future peoples of low lying islands calling out the name of a certain American writer as they measure the water outside their front door. Whoever first spoke those somehow Global Warmingly appropriate words, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” the source doesn’t really matter now. It seems instead appropriate that the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, which found its origins from his years working on the Mississippi riverboats where a safe depth for passage was called out as two fathoms on the line – “by the mark twain” – could one day find another use. In years to come as the waters rise, we might all be hearing a bit more about the “Mark Twain”.

A Blake Mystery

When it comes to detective fiction it is perhaps a little known fact that the biggest selling crime novel of the 19th century appeared in that quondam den of iniquity, boom time Melbourne after the gold rushes. Released in 1886 a full year before the first Conan Doyle, in the words of one modern review the Australian novel ‘The Mystery of a Handsome Cab’ was “a crucial point in the genre’s transformation into detective fiction”, (Rzepka & Horsley). With a story line set in and around “Marvelous Melbourne” the book was a positive, pot boiling, sleuthing success from the moment it appeared giving its writer, Fergus Hume fifteen minutes of fame and selling 100,000 copies in its first two Australian print runs on its way to becoming an international bestseller.

Detective novels by Fergus Hume

As with any success however came the public demands for a follow up. The resulting loosely drawn sequel, ‘Madame Midas’ was published about two years later with a story line that transferred the drama from late 19th century Melbourne onto the Ballarat gold fields. Although it didn’t achieve anything like the runaway success of the first novel, Midas is notable for introducing the world to a murder mystery set within the scope of an Australian regional country town and featuring a narrative centered round an independently resourced and singularly minded pre-Suffragette female protagonist.

Alice Cornwell photographed about the time Fergus Hume used her as the inspiration for his character, “Madame Midas”. (Source: National Library of Australia collection)

It is said that truth can be stranger than fiction. While the characters of Hume’s subsequent prolific literary output mostly descended into fantastical cloak and dagger melodrama, the fictionalized Madame Midas of his Ballarat based effort was an altogether different story. Hume based the portrait of Midas on his friend, Alice Cornwell whose real life tale reads like the scattered pages of a romanticized fiction. Lady mining magnate and financial wunderkind, part time inventor and full time newspaper baroness, Cornwell’s life was full of contradictions. They were contradictions however that made her a fortune and earned her the epithet “Princess Midas, the Lady of the Nuggets”. Hume found he had plenty of background material for a story, so much so that when the book became a play, Cornwell’s estranged husband sued over the content.

Fast forward a hundred years or so, give or take, and in what seemed like a continuation of the Hume whodunit tradition, Ballarat was again to become the setting for a fictional detective drama complete with its own behind the scenes, later court room problems. Viewers of the former ABC Australian TV period detective television series “The Doctor Blake Mysteries”, might have been forgiven for thinking that by the 1950s, Ballarat had become a pretty perilous place. In that post war country town of television theatrics, murders seemed to happen with an alarming regularity that would have surprised even Fergus Hume, the bloodless bodies of the lifeless victims bobbing out across the small screen with a clockwork consistency.

Two fine Australian actors. Craig McLachlan and Nadine Garner as they appeared in the original The Dr Blake Mysteries series which screened on ABC television. (Source: IMDB)

It was fiction but it proved to be rather fun and made good television, especially for the role of the lead character, the Police Surgeon Doctor Lucien Blake played by Craig McLachlan whose job it was to run to ground a new set of nefarious villains each week while supposedly juggling the duties of a neglected country medical practice and conducting a dilatory romance with his housekeeper. As a formula it was a clever take on the established detective genre and ran for five entertaining seasons before the ABC unexpectedly embarked on its own brazen act of cold blooded murder – inexplicably killing off the show at the end of 2017 at the height of its popularity in a process they claimed was a necessary cutback due to Federal Government imposed budgetary constraints.

The timing was opportune, or maybe not. That was a matter probably dependent on your view point for it came just before unassociated  hashtag Me Too allegations of misconduct were being made against the show’s leading actor, allegations themselves which are now the subject of a high risk, 6½ million dollar defamation case brought on by the actor against two media outlets, but it left the show’s creators with very little room to manoeuvre.

So it came as some surprise then when last year the makers of the show, December Media, announced that the production would make a return to the small screen, albeit without its titular character, in a made for telly, movie length drama commissioned by a commercial broadcaster. The Seven Network had earlier shown interest in saving the production and with help from Film Victoria and Screen Australia in an out-of-rounds special funding commitment, they had offered December Media a lifeline. The broken strands of the show would be pasted back together into a story which propelled the remaining cast forward into the 1960s.

Perhaps opportunely, the doctor in the Doctor Blake series had married his former housekeeper in the last of the broadcast ABC stories thereby keeping the name in the title alive in spite of the actor’s absence. The show would be repackaged as simply “The Blake Mysteries” with Jean Blake, who in the earlier series had acted as a sounding board and wise counsel to the doctor, stepping up to the wicket as a sort Australian variant on the Miss Marple theme. If it rated well it was said there was a prospect of more things to come.

“Blake found itself at that most unlikely of “country town” destinations – suburban Yallambie…”

From the start the Blake franchise has been a brand of which the regional center of Ballarat has been proud and trips are still run on a regular basis to introduce tourists and the show’s legion of fans to some of the more prominent local landmarks used in the series. It may come as a surprise to readers of this blog then that when it came to finding locations for the new telemovie, Blake found itself at that most unlikely of “country town” destinations – suburban Yallambie in Melbourne’s north east.

Prior to filming last year, the producers had been looking around for a “haunted house” to build part of their telemovie around. They wanted a country style home of semi derelict stature which their script described had stood empty and abandoned for 30 years, but for logistical reasons it also had to be within easy reach of their South Melbourne based production team. Casting Yallambie Homestead as the “haunted house” of their dreams ticked the boxes.

Readers of these posts might recall another occasion when a visiting film crew lobbed here at Yallambie. That visit continued a tradition in the district that commenced with the earliest days of film making, but the Blake shoot was certainly on a scale never seen in Yallambie before.

Bigger than Ben Hur

As we watched more and more people troop through the gates carrying equipment and film paraphernalia down to the house on that first morning back in June, it quickly became apparent that this one was going to be bigger than Ben Hur.

The lighting tower under early construction
A Zephyr sedan with a balsa wood siren

An enormous lighting tower quickly went up at the head of the drive like Jack’s bean stalk and two early-model Police cars were parked underneath, one an original 1961 Ford Zephyr Mk 2 Police Divi van, the other a repurposed Zephyr sedan with a balsa wood siren prop and a temperamental head light that we learned later only operated at night when the driver got out and gave it a bang with the palm of his hand. These cars were driven by stunt drivers who in one of their action sequences were required to whirl the vehicles up to the front of the house in a spray of gravel. In trepidation I said, “See yonder shrubbery, planted there by the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’. It’s taken years to grow back to what you see before you after the first, (and last) time I took to it with the hedge trimmer.”

“What’s that you say? Drive right over it and flatten it into match wood. No worries, we can do that for you. Happy to oblige.”

Ben Hur and his chariot never had it so tough.

Residents of houses in the local area had received timely letters inside their post boxes the week before advising them of the planned activity in the back streets of Yallambie and a traffic controller had been strategically positioned in Tarcoola Drive with apparent instructions to lean on his paddle pop in a sleepy sort of way to bamboozle the passing motorists.

Actor Finn Scicluna-O’Prey playing the part of boy scout Geoffrey Roper enters through the front door at Yallambie to find the first of the three murders
“This place is really spooky…”
“Just us ghosts…”

I once wrote a Halloween themed post for this blog but on the first evening of filming as a special effects fog was pumped into the night air, I overheard one of the child actors who had been cast in a role in the new movie comment as he looked up at the darkened house, “This place is really spooky. Does anyone even live here?”

That brought a smile to the old dial. “Just us ghosts I’m ’fraid young man.”

“The gift that keeps on giving”
Emptying bags of leaves inside the front hall

In spite of appearances to the contrary, the ghosts had vainly spent the weekend prior to this sprucing the wreckage, but the first thing the Blake crew did on arriving was to hang fake cobwebs around, empty bags of old leaves where they had previously been swept away, and generally turn our lives upside down in a topsy-turvy sort of way. If the house hadn’t looked derelict before they started, it did completely by the time the cameras were ready to roll, but this was entirely the effect they had been trying to achieve. Yallambie Homestead for film makers was they said “the gift that keeps on giving”.

Actor Matthew Connell discusses preparations for the fall from the ceiling with his stunt double

One of the key scenes shot at the house called for an actor to smash his way out of a ceiling and somersault down the 23 flight staircase inside. Originally the plan had been for the actor to be positioned on the balcony outside throwing fictional broken slates off the roof, but perhaps after looking at the non-fictional very real crumbling state of the balcony, veteran director Ian Barry wisely chose to move the action inside. A stunt double was used for the tumble and a whole lot of special effects falling plaster, but the plan also called for the removal of some large furniture that was deemed to be blocking the way of the big landing.

“But that furniture hasn’t moved for years.”

“No worries, we have somebody to handle things like this.”

A plethora of somebodies

We soon learned there was a plethora of somebodies ready to handle all manner of things as the need arose. There was even a bloke whose sole job apparently was to look after the “blood”. Blake prides itself on the restraint of its drama but the “blood man” arrived armed with a special effects, fiberglass pool of blood lovingly prepared on a tray and ready to be placed near the foot of the stairs when required. Meanwhile the intended murder victim himself stalked around in the sun outside, talking on his mobile phone while waiting for his cue to lie down dead in what I guess was probably one of the less demanding of the on screen roles.

The soccer ground car park at Yallambie taken over by the Blake catering staff and support crew
Blake catering tent

Catering tents and caravans were set up in the soccer ground car park in Yallambie near the Lower Plenty Rd Bridge and at meal times a shuttle bus ran between the locations and the sports field in order to get the empty stomachs of the cast and crew to the place where they could be filled. One thing I learned from observation is that the film production process requires many, many people all pulling together apparently in different directions before suddenly coming together at the moment the cameras start to roll. Hours of work might translate into only a few minutes or even seconds of screen time but for the interested bystander, it is a fascinating process to watch.

The blackout screens at the front of the house
Preparations for the outdoor shoot in Yallambie Park

We watched as large blackout screens were erected in front of the house in an attempt to achieve continuity in some of the night scenes that for practical reasons had been scheduled to be filmed in daylight hours but later on, when filming had moved on to an outdoor shoot in Yallambie Park, the question then became how much camera time could be fitted in between the sun popping in and out from behind the clouds. Apparently too much sun can cause havoc with exposures so another of the aforementioned Blake “somebodies” had the job of peering at the sky through a glass then calling out his estimates of sun time between the patches in the overhead rolling clouds.

Child actors at Yallambie

The child actors themselves had minders to oversee their welfare but it was the costume department’s dedication to the detail in their dress that I found extraordinary. The script required the children to be dressed in scout uniforms and these I learned had been borrowed from the Scout Heritage Center. The uniforms were not only authentic for the period but were decorated with the correct, matching insignia badges for a Ballarat based troop.

Ballarat boy scouts camping in Yallambie Park
Blake on location in Yallambie Park

The script required not only Boy Scout uniforms but also a Boy Scout camp and this was cleverly constructed using bush skills on the banks of the River Plenty in Yallambie Park. Filming took place in the Park on two consecutive nights in front of a roaring campfire, which for OHS reasons, wasn’t a real camp fire at all but a very convincing gas log fire that could be pumped up into flame or extinguished as required.

Nadine Garner in the role of Jean Blake looking for clues
The Blake crew making preparations for a scene inside the front hall

The final result of all this Yallambie based film making aired on the Seven Network at the end of November. Personally, I found the format didn’t translate well onto commercial television with the need for ad breaks interrupting the flow of an already needlessly convoluted story line. All the same the telemovie still averaged 450,000 viewers across the five capital cities with another 247,000 tuning in from regional areas with the Seven Network’s Angus Ross reported as saying, “We never rush decisions around quality shows such as The Blake Mysteries but the first round of numbers are very encouraging.” Whether this is enough to save the Blake franchise in the long run remains to be seen. The Seven Network announced last week that it would not commission any further Blake stories in 2019 but maybe like Fergus Hume’s Handsome Cab, Madame Midas themed follow up, they are waiting on just the right character formula coming along for a sequel. The very large elephant in the Blake room has always been the absence from the production of the good Doctor himself. Towards the end of the November telemovie, actress Nadine Garner in the role of Jean Blake turns to the camera and says, “You can spend your whole life focusing on the past. Or you can look forward. Be grateful for the people you have and the time you have with them.”

Spectator to a night shoot at Yallambie

She was speaking in character of course but the cast and crew were obviously offering up their feelings on events external to the show and those matters that have been outside of their control. As a writer of a blog that has busied itself in the past more often than not with history and the lives of people now long departed, those words struck with me a chord. Hosting the Blake crew at Yallambie was one hell of a ride and meeting the cast and crew while being a spectator to the organized chaos that is the process of film making was an absolute privilege. Whether Blake will be, like “Lazarus with a triple bypass”, resurrected for a third time after these events remains unclear. Like the stage version of Madame Midas, it may depend upon the result of an apparently unrelated court case. With the recent turmoil surrounding the decision makers at the ABC, perhaps our national broadcaster could start listening to their audiences and themselves consider reinstating free to air, one of their more recent successful ventures. Whatever the outcome, the Blake visit to the suburbs in down town Yallambie last year was an experience we will long remember, even after all else around here has become just history.

I’ve been a very good boy all year

Multi armed goddess at Bhaktapur, Nepal, (writer’s picture).

Have you ever thought what it would be like to live your life as some sort of multi armed, Hindu deity? She who I share my breakfast table with probably knows. She’s often said she could do with an extra pair of hands about the place but maybe that’s got less to do with the domestic goddess in her and more to do with her ongoing passion for old keyboard instruments and the consequent number of fingers needed to bang out a tune on the same. At last count she owned three pianos of varying descriptions and in fluctuating playing condition. She also has a pedal pump parlour organ, a folding church reed organ and even a virginal style, rectangular harpsichord, but unless things have taken a turn in a decidedly Zaphod Beeblebrox direction lately, at last count she only had the usual issue of piano playing arms.

I’d been thinking there must be some other purpose for having all these keyboard instruments around our shared domicile, other than the obvious musical motif. Then it struck me. The folded up tops of those instruments are where the annual harvest of Christmas cards get deposited each and every December, come what may in the Yule tide Season. In the days before television and wireless when most homes owned an upright, the piano top was an obvious and apparently ready made shelf for all manner of things, albeit the place where the cat would sometimes jump to knock it all flying.

But that was then and fashions change. Nowadays the cat plays the piano on the internet while the piano itself has been replaced by an App on your lap top that will do just about the same thing with an on-screen keyboard. Pianos struggle to make a hundred dollars at auction and I’ve even seen them left out on the side of the road. It’s all a bit sad really but, more to the point, it’s not like anyone even sends out bundles of Christmas cards these days.

Christmas cards in a New York shop window, 1910. (Source: Wikipedia, from The New York Times photo archive)

Every year it seems our Christmas card list is pared back ever more and I don’t think that’s just a reflection on my dwindling list of friends, although maybe I should take that as a hint. I reckon I could now fit the Christmas card list onto the back of a postage stamp but wait, when’s the last time you actually saw a postage stamp outside of a philatelic album? The reasons for the decline are obvious and represent another change in societal fashion. Log onto Facebook or send an e-card out to your contacts and the job is considered done for another 12 months, and that’s without any of that tedious and unhygienic business of licking stamps, addressing envelopes or perish the thought, actually writing anything resembling a properly personalised message.

Christmas theatre programmes from Ocean Island.

My maternal Grandfather, Alfred St C Compton designed his own Christmas theatre programmes on Ocean Island in the Central Western Pacific in the 1920s. As with most things, there’s something to be said in favour of the effort required to achieve a little home grown originality although I must say, in my case I gave up making my own cards at about the time I paid a swan song to a much loved first car.

The Noddy car leaving Yallambie for the last time.
The “Noddy” car Christmas card.

I guess the decline in the popularity of the printed Christmas message could be seen as saving a tree from giving up its life to cardboard, but does it really have to be like this? A friend in the UK still sends me her “Advent Calendar” which is a series of emailed illustrations sent one day at a time in the days leading up to Christmas. They never seem to quite follow a Christmas theme but recipients on the CC list “Reply All” with stories inspired by the images. It’s quite random and evidence perhaps that there’s still room for creativity even inside the digital age.

Christmas card by Gibbs, Shallard & Co, 1881, from the collection of Michael Aitken. (Source: State Library of Victoria)
The world’s first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843. (Source: Wikipedia)

It has been recorded that the very first printed Christmas cards were created in England in 1843 for use in the newly founded penny postal service. This was about the time that the Bakewells were settling in to their new surroundings at the Plenty Station, Yallambee, but it wasn’t until three decades later at a time concurrent with the building of the present Homestead that the giving and receiving of cards at Christmas became widely accepted. At that time inexpensive, mass produced chromolithographic cards became available and these were posted to Australia by friends and family living back “home” or were imported directly into Australia for domestic use. These cards of course typically depicted scenes from a Northern Hemisphere winter, scenes that were somewhat at odds with the heat of an Australian summer or life in the bush, so it was not long before card manufacturers started producing cards in Australia with a distinctly Australian content.

Christmas postcard showing rural scene at Heidelberg, c1918. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

In the days when you might need a bank loan to place a long distance telephone call, the so called trunk call, letter writing and dropping a card of some description into the corner letter box was the easy and inexpensive alternative. There are people who probably still remember a time when the post man on his bicycle rode past their house with a delivery on Saturday. At Yallambie we share our Post Code number with neighbouring Macleod and while Yallambie has never had its own Post Office, the Simpson Barracks up the road apparently had an office located inside the camp before the postal services were removed about 20 years ago. Maybe they got confused by people continuing to incorrectly address mail to the garrison which is located in Yallambie, to Army personnel at the “Watsonia Barracks”.

But as for what people actually write at Christmas, the other day I was looking through a collection of old Christmas cards and turned up a couple of hand written notes that had been written to Father Christmas by a boy at some now long forgotten Christmas eventide. The story of the fox recalled to mind a recent post and brought back to me nostalgic memories from another time, a time before the boy stood six foot in his socks and when the magic of Christmas on Christmas night was very much a real thing.

It is said we all yearn for the Christmas times of our youth – a time of long, hot summers in Australia and a time when people still wrote those copious quantities of Christmas greetings. In those days the scent of spruce seemed to fill the house in the weeks leading up to Christmas, just as it does now. Somehow though the idea of a jolly fat, fellow dressed all in red and flying through the night sky on a sleigh pulled by magic reindeer, landing on the roof of your house and climbing down your chimney even if your house didn’t have a chimney, seemed not an altogether impossibility. In the uncertain world of today, maybe that is one thing that hasn’t changed.

Who am I to say?

Through a Bakewell glass, darkly

Genealogy is one of those things that is met with either interest or disdain, depending on your viewpoint. As far back as Genesis it has been a closely considered subject and, although it sometimes seems to me that we can’t see the wood for the family trees, from my experience it’s a matter which would appear to be dependent entirely on whose relative it is under general scrutiny.

“You’ll find nothing in there but fair dinkum kosher Scottish aristocracy,” I tell my wife if she gives me half a chance to steer the subject, but somehow that’s a claim that never seems to have the intended effect. Her eyes take on that glassy, faraway look and it’s about this time that she finds something of particular interest to look at up on the ceiling.

Fair dinkum kosher Scottish aristocracy? (Source: Gold Museum Collection)

Be that as it may, the pursuit of history sometimes invokes a mention of genealogy and, in the last post, I used the Bakewell connection to the wife of John James Audubon to introduce in brief outline the story of that famed painter of America’s birds.

Lucy Audubon from a miniature by Frederick Cruickshank, c1831.

Lucy Audubon, née Bakewell, was a second cousin of Yallambee’s John and Robert Bakewell, but that was not the only familial connection of note in what is really a most intriguing family tree, even for the unrelated. In Henderson’s pedigree can be found, amongst others, a Bakewell Yale professor, a Bakewell Chief Justice, a Bakewell geological scientist and a Bakewell practitioner of early lunacy treatments. Alongside these however and of particular note perhaps, was Robert Bakewell of Dishley Grange (1725-95), the noted agriculturalist and stock breeder and considered by many to be the father of modern agricultural practices. The uncle of that Robert Bakewell was the great-great grandfather of the Yallambee Bakewells.

Robert Bakewell of Dishley Grange from a painting by John Boultbee.

Before too long then it appears as though we’ve got Bakewells coming out of our Yallambie ears, but perhaps that’s just getting a little bit ahead of our story. The nearest relative of especial note related to the John and Robert B of Yallambee was it turns out, Benjamin Bakewell, a flint glass maker of Pittsburgh and a first cousin once removed of the Yallambee Bakewells and an uncle of Lucy Audubon.

Benjamin Bakewell, glassmaker of Pittsburgh, USA.

The name of Benjamin Bakewell is noted by those who make a serious study of the history of glass making and his factory under numerous partnerships was producing glassware of the highest standards for three quarters of a century. Described as “a man of wide-ranging intellect who found creative expression and financial success in the manufacture of glass”, Benjamin Bakewell’s factory “produced objects that reflected the highest quality of craftsmanship and decoration achieved in Nineteenth Century American glass”, (Frick Art & Historical Center).

Benjamin Bakewell emigrated to America from Derby in 1794 and embarked on a series of business pursuits which included a brewery, run in partnership with his brother William (the father of Lucy Audubon), and an import/export business trading in American commodities to Europe in Bakewell’s own fleet of ships. In 1808 Benjamin took a failing glass making factory in Pittsburgh and redeveloped it as Bakewell & Ensell, the first glass factory to make fully cut glass in America and by the 1820s it was recognized as one of that country’s premier glass establishments.

Bakewell sulphide portrait decanter of Benjamin Franklin, c1826-35 from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Source: Wikipedia)

“In the history of Nineteenth Century American decorative arts, Benjamin Bakewell stands out as an exemplar of innovation, creativity and entrepreneurial initiative. His enterprise, founded in 1808, had a vital role in establishing Pittsburgh as a major center of glassmaking in the Nineteenth Century.” (ibid)

Whether free-blown, mold-blown or pressed glass, Bakewell glass revealed an innovative approach to design and decoration using a variety of decorative techniques which included wheel cutting, engraving and cameo-incrustation. When the Bakewell factory finally closed in 1882 it had by then become the longest running flint glassworks in continuous operation in the United States, with successive generations of Bakewells having added to the legacy.

Benjamin Bakewell Jr (left), grandson of his namesake, c1852. (Source: Pixburgh: A Photographic Experience from the Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center).

Following Benjamin Bakewell’s initial enterprise for business, subsequent generations of Bakewells all made their mark. Thomas Bakewell’s application of chemistry and Benjamin Bakewell Jr’s talent for innovation, added to the mechanical expertise of John Palmer Bakewell and the practical and steady hand of Benjamin Bakewell Campbell, created a factory which influenced the cultural and industrial landscape of the United States throughout the 19th century in an exemplary marriage of the decorative arts and industrial processes.

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

How much if anything Yallambee’s John and Robert B knew about the glass making efforts of their American cousins will probably never be known but I refer to the story here to add to my earlier contention that the wider Bakewell family is full of such stories of innovation and entrepreneurship.

After John and Robert departed Yallambee in 1857, Yallambie was leased, then purchased by Thomas Wragge who in about 1872 built the present Homestead, (managing to change the spelling to its more common form along the way).

Thomas Wragge photographed in the 1880s. (Source: Bill Bush collection).

The first prefabricated Yallambee had impressed Richard Howitt who wrote in 1842 that with its “French windows, you seemed scarcely in-doors.” (Howitt: Impressions of Australia Felix)

The new house that Wragge built by contrast featured “a large, arched window of figured glass at the top of the stairs” (Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales) and an acid etched, glass overhead fan light and side lights at the front door, a remaining fragment of which was found under the floor when the boards were disturbed in modern times.

Group on the front step at Yallambie Homestead, c1895. Harry Wragge is the boy standing apart on the left. The highly reflective glass in the sidelight behind his shoulder suggests acid etching. Jessie Wragge and her mother Sarah Anne are the two women at right. (Source: Bill Bush collection)

When Thomas Wragge’s daughter Sarah Annie and her husband Walter Murdoch remodelled Yallambie, possibly starting in about 1919 and continuing on until 1923, this etched glass at the front was removed and replaced with a lead light design that was also to be repeated elsewhere in the house. As a part of this process the front door was cut down and the fan light removed to accommodate a large lead light window within the upper door panel. This was the arrangement that remained in place until the end of the 20th century.

The Temby front hall,1984. (Source: Calder collection)
The three stages of development when reinstating the front entrance. The hallway stripped. The hallway plastered. The hallway glazed.
Acid etched glass at Yallambie, March, 2018.

At the start of the new millennium a long process commenced to rebuild the front entrance into a resemblance of the original 19th century configuration. Original acid etched glass side lights were sourced from a house that had been demolished in Albert Park and the very personable Paul Storm, Australia’s only remaining practitioner of the highly skilled and dangerous art of acid etching on glass, was commissioned to create a new fan light to suit. It featured a “Golden Fleece” motif in a sort of latter day nod to old Tom’s original ambition.

Bathroom window and lead light, December, 2017.

Stylistically appropriate, the large front door panel found its way, with modifications, into the lower sash of a double hung bathroom window in the Edwardian extension of the house. An upper sash was also created to match and incorporated a purpose made, square cut, clear “picture” window for observing the moon at night from the bath tub, a curious but stated minimum requirement for the window from the glass designer’s wife.

Lead lighting –  I’ve always admired the skill of one of our friends who, over time,  has produced countless complex and colourful works of art in his own home and was all too ready to help with the end result in this case. Armed with this certitude and a few Youtube tutorials to suit, this amateur quickly found that, while there may be a bit of a knack to cutting glass, the main challenge confronting the novice lead lighter is the amount of time needed to do even a small leadlight project properly. With a monthly blog to write up, it’s not as though any of us has time on our hands these days is it?

Former side lights used in a 4 panel door plus newly made top light, December, 2017.

In time the leadlight side lights from the front found their own good way into a new but typically still unpainted four panel door and a matching overhead vestibule window was created to suit. The small panel shown above the Edwardian style door in the photograph here represents hours of patient work and more than a little broken and wasted glass. Even so there remains a mistake in the final design. I didn’t spot it until I’d finished but I’m not about to remake it. Give the man (or woman) a cigar who can spot the difference.

Sarah Annie Wragge at Yallambie, c1890. (Source: Bush collection).

According to Winty Calder, Thomas Wragge may have purchased porcelain door trim for Yallambie Homestead at the Royal Derby China factory during a trip to England and some of these items may have been subsequently removed prior to the A V Jennings sale when fittings were allegedly used by the agent’s so called “caretaker” to generate beer money at the Plenty Bridge Hotel.

Glass door furniture and lead light.

Whatever the truth, in later times several door fittings have been replaced with original glass or porcelain fittings scrounged obsessively from demolition yards and junk shops on a beer budget.

The Ascension Windows triptych at St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg.
Inscription reads,”In loving memory of Thomas and Sarah Ann Wragge for many years worshippers in this church. Presented by their daughter Annie and two sons Syd and Harry 1920.”

The period following the end of the Edwardian era was a time of great change and upheaval in Australian society. At Yallambie a generational change had occured. As previously recounted in the pages of this blog, the Wragge family commissioned a magnificent triptych chancel window at St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg showing Christ ascending with Mary and John on the side panels. Meanwhile, Thomas Wragge’s “arched window of figured glass”, over the stairs at Yallambie disappeared from living memory during Sarah Annie’s renovations when the original staircase, a “wide curved central stairway”, (Calder) was remodelled.

Stained glass installed into the dining room.

In another nod to the past, an old stained and leaded glass window has now been positioned in a window at the back of the stairs as a sort of surrogate reinterpretation of that first idea. Purchased in another dusty junk shop in SA, reputedly sourced from a defunct school of architecture in NSW, and brought to Victoria on the roof of our car, the window is possibly an early Australian example of the glass painters’ art.

Preparing the stained glass for transport, February, 1999.

You might wonder at so much attention seeming to be wasted on detail while so many parts of an old building are crumbling around the occupants’ ears. You might think it’s a story filled suspiciously with glasses of a rose colour but when it comes down to it, we all want to make a mark as we sail through on our allotted span. Maybe that means the changes made to a pile of bricks and mortar sometimes called home. Or maybe it’s the untangling of a genealogical record for the sake of an imagined posterity. Or maybe it’s simply a few words recorded in an obscure blog read by someone, somewhere, some time while looking through a glass, darkly.

 

Horse sense

Two-up, Tattslotto or the track, many Australians like the punt and on Melbourne Cup Day, the first Tuesday in November, even those who would otherwise give racing no second thought sit up and take notice. If you’re like me, you don’t have to like racing particularly to enjoy the Melbourne-wide public holiday the State Government declares every year to mark the “Race that Stops a Nation”. It stops because we’re all on holiday.

astor_mickeyPersonally I wouldn’t know one end of a horse from the other. Possibly the psychologists would have something to say about a childhood remembered listening to my father “taking the scratchings on the wireless”, an old valve type Astor Mickey every Saturday morning, followed by the broadcast races in the afternoon. He thought of the process as a form of entertainment and often didn’t even bother to bet and if he did, it was for never more than a few dollars for the day. In time I asked him if he were to add up all the wins he had had and compare them alongside to all the losses, well would he be a bit in front, or rather a bit behind. His response was frank and to the point, “Listen son, mark my words, if anyone ever tells you they win on the TAB they are lying to your face.”

It was a good attitude to bring to the punt. Racing for him was a culture. Occasionally he would take the family to a country race meeting and apparently this was supposed to be something of an occasion. I remember it was invariably stinking hot and for some reason I never quite fathomed, I always seemed to be over dressed in my Sunday best. On arrival my mother would put out a picnic rug and a Thermos on the lawn, Dad would disappear to inspect the bookies’ tents and my sister would take off to admire the horses in the training yard. It was usually at this moment that I would ask for the first, but certainly not for the last time that day, “Can we go home now?”

The writer's uncle, Don McLachlan, riding "The Chanter" outside Caulfield Racecourse in the 1930s.
The writer’s uncle, Don McLachlan, riding “The Chanter” outside Caulfield Racecourse in the 1930s.

But the gees gees were in the old man’s blood. His brother had been a jockey riding for the racing stable of Frank Musgrave in the 1930s and before that their father had worked as a stockman for Coghlan and Boase & Co, stock and station agents in Ballarat. During my own childhood our cousins in that town kept a racing stables which legend has it was even moderately successful for a while. My memory of that place was being put without a saddle or bridle on top of an old grey mare that I was told had not galloped for about half a century. The next thing it was off with me clinging to its neck like grim death, charging towards the busy main road which loomed up ahead at the end of the path. Looking back on it, it was probably my strangling hold on the neck of the horse that had sent it flying down the path in the first place and the harder I held on, the faster she went. Finally, as I contemplated throwing myself off before the impending intersection and its looming road traffic, my grip must have relaxed and the horse stopped mid stride. “Oh thankyou dear, dear horsey,” I whimpered as I climbed down gingerly from on high, determined to never go through that again. My cousins though were more than impressed when they came up. “Crikey, Ian, we haven’t seen that horse so very much as move in years. How on earth did you manage to get her to gallop?” Apparently natural horsemanship is something you are born with.

Syd and Harry Wragge on horseback at Yallambie with their sister Carrie leaning alongside, c1900.
Syd and Harry Wragge on horseback at Yallambie with their sister Carrie leaning alongside, c1900, (Bill Bush Collection).
Syd and Harry Wragge on horses at a slightly later date at Yallambie, looking towards the farmyard area from the northern part of the garden.
Syd and Harry Wragge on horses at a slightly later date at Yallambie, looking towards the farmyard area from the northern part of the garden, (Bill Bush Collection).
Carriage with Syd Wragge and his mother, Sarah Ann at the front door of Yallambie looking south.
Carriage with Syd Wragge and his mother, Sarah Ann at the front door of Yallambie looking south, (Bill Bush Collection).
Horse carriage in the farm yard just north of Yallambie Homestead.
Horse carriage in the farm yard in front of the stables (left of picture) at Yallambie, (Bill Bush Collection).
Probably Will Wragge, c1900 outside the old Bakewell era stables. Constructed from local sandstone and English, "slop" sided molded brickwork, these stables were demolished at the start of the 1980s.
Will Wragge outside the old Bakewell era stables, (Bill Bush Collection).

The family of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge were certainly born to horsemanship. A daughter, Alice Wragge even managed to marry one of the stable hands, an itinerant bricklayer who worked at Yallambie, very much to the enduring outrage of her father. Wragge’s Yallambie featured an extensive stables complex which dated from the previous Bakewell occupation of the property and which survived into the 1980s, the sound of clip clopping hooves echoing across the years from a time when the concept of horsepower carried a literal meaning. A brother of Thomas Wragge, Henry, whose diary was found under the floorboards at Yallambie Homestead, is also remembered as one of the earliest practitioners of equine veterinary medicine in the Victorian Colony. In the words of Winty Calder: “Horses were an essential part of the life of the Wragges”, and properties like Yallambie and their Riverina pastoral holdings could not have been run without them. (Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p173).

Will Wragge pictured alongside one of several tanks (dams) at Yallambie at the start of the 20th century, (Bush collection). In 2013 a dam similar to this on the corner of Lower Plenty and Bannockburn Roads, Viewbank was asphalted as a carpark, an old willow similar to the tree in this picture remaining to this day to mark the spot.
Will Wragge pictured alongside one of several tanks (dams) at Yallambie at the start of the 20th century, (Bill Bush Collection).

Quoting from her father Frank Wright’s memories, Calder goes on to recount an occasion at Jessie Wragge’s 1910 funeral and an incident that well illustrates the horse skills present in the family.

The cortege must have been about half a mile long. Behind the horse-drawn and black plumed hearse were two or three mourning coaches followed by a great line-up of buggies, traps, jinkers and the like, all horsedrawn. Starting at Yallambie, the procession went via Upper Heidelberg Road to the Heidelberg Cemetery. As the hearse approached the bottom of the hill near Rosanna Station, one of the horses attached to the first mourning coach started to play up just about level with where the entrance to the Yarra Yarra Golf Links subsequently stood. Probably the vehicle’s brakes were not effective during the long descent. There was no britching in the two-horse one-pole harness and all each horse could do was to try to hold back with the collar up near its head.
The off-side horse of the first coach started to kick, and got one leg over the pole. The coach ran off the road to the right and crashed into the fence in a fair tangle; and there it stuck.
The hearse continued slowly on, crossing the gully and the new railway. The second coach stopped and so did the rest of the procession. The horse had no discernment at all, or else it would not have picked that company for its misbehaviour. From a dozen vehicles poured over fifty men – brothers, cousins, second-cousins and others who had spent a great part of their lives in saddles. They rushed in a mob to the tangle of horses, making soothing, hissing noises to calm them.
In a second, someone was sitting on the head of the fallen horse while others were unharnessing all the others. The hearse continued slowly plodding up the hill to the west. The horses were reharnessed, the coach hauled out of the fence by a dozen men and the horses coupled up again. The men rushed back to their vehicles, and the procession reformed. The hearse was only about 200 yards ahead, and before it got to the top of the rise the vehicles were back in place.
(Cader: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p211).hearse

Hey presto, the dignity of the funeral procession was preserved. The wayward horse had chosen the wrong lads to mess with on that day. Horses were a part of the family’s everyday life as evidenced by Frank Wright’s further childhood memories at Upper Heidelberg Rd:

Grace Wragge (ne Wilson) standing with shawl around her shoulders. Probably her sister, Alice Wragge, seated and Syd Wragge, Grace’s husband lying down. A fence around the old east west tennis court is on the left. Bunya pine visible in the background.
Grace Wragge (ne Wilson) standing with shawl around her shoulders, her sister Alice Wragge, seated and Syd Wragge, Grace’s husband lying down with horse south of Yallambie, (Bill Bush Collection).

“I remember Will (Wragge) arriving one day on horseback and taking me on the pommel to Yallambie… I clearly remember an uproar one day [about 1902] when a party from Yallambie were riding to Essendon [probably to see Syd Wragge’s fiancé Grace Wilson], and Alice (Wragge) was thrown from her horse in Bell Street. Our place, being nearest belonging to the family, was returned to and Alice’s face, all grazed and bloody, made a vivid impression on me, as she sat on her horse in our yard before dismounting.” (Cader: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p139).

Kath Wright (later Adams) at Yallambie, 1918
Kathleen (Kath) Wright, the sister of Frank,  in the stable yard at Yallambie, c1918, (Margaret Walker Collection).

But of course it was at Thomas Wragge’s 110,000 acre property in NSW that the horse really came into its own and Thomas was very careful about the care of his animals.

“During the 1880s Thomas Wragge’s property became so large that much time was used riding to different parts of it, and many horses were needed. Always concerned about their welfare… one particular way in which Thomas cared for his horses has long been remembered. He insisted that a bucket of water should remain in the shade near the stables during the summer, so that bits could be immersed in it and cooled before being put in the horses’ mouth. Any man who failed to do so was instantly dismissed.” (Cader: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p105).

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.

Country race meetings had their place in this world and Calder mentions a meeting at Tulla which, as a communal occasion, seems to have interrupted the shearing in that year:

“Race meetings were important social events. New Year’s Day 1887 was a Saturday and, after the usual homestead chores, all hands went to the races held at Fisher’s selection beside the Deniliquin road. Significantly, the Tulla diary entry for the next day reads: ‘Nothing much doing today – hot day.’” (Cader: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p116).

Fisher’s selection was a small holding taken up within the wide boundaries of the Tulla leasehold and according to Calder was “a continuing source of nuisance and annoyance for Thomas Wragge”. There was a bush pub located on the selection, a mere mile from the Tulla woolshed. The implication here is that sore heads after New Year’s race day drinks resulted in a diary entry, “Nothing much doing today,” with the station sheep perhaps fortunate not to face men with sharp shears after a day and night of solid drinking.

Thomas tried to buy the selection and its pub on a number of occasions but antagonism between him and the proprietor, a Mrs Beaton, meant that she refused to sell to him at any price. Eventually Thomas solved the problem by means of a simple ruse. Calder continues:

“He persuaded a man from Geelong to pose as a buyer, and that man finally made a deal with Mrs Beaton, paid a deposit and obtained a receipt which he handed to Thomas. It has been suggested that Thomas promptly rode over to the pub, ordered everyone out of it and burnt down the building.”

Thomas might not have approved of a bush pub and a country race venue in such close proximity to his woolshed, but the racing of horses was an important social activity for 19th century Australian pastoral dynasties and a family like the Wragges were no exception. They structured their year around the Melbourne Cup, moving down from the family’s properties in the Riverina annually to be in Melbourne for the running of the Cup. They then stayed on at Yallambie throughout Christmas and the hottest months of summer to avoid the worst heat of inland NSW.

As an event, the Cup has been run over 2 miles (3200 metres) at Flemington every November since 1861. Many people like to have a little flutter on the result with the certain knowledge it very probably is just “chucking money away” all the same.

We’ve all heard the story.

mr_edA man I know gets his haircut from a chap whose sister is married to a bloke who drives a taxi who gave a ride to a sporting type wearing a loud jacket who had spoken to a lad who sweeps out the stalls at a stables where he got this tip straight from the horse’s mouth, from Mr Ed, the talking horse.

Whether the Wragge’s liked a wager themselves is unrecorded but it could be argued that the very act of farming in a marginal landscape in NSW, a test for the soul and an arena for struggle in anybody’s language, was itself a form of gambling.

Early picture taken on the south lawn at Yallambie with Bunya pine on left.
Riding habit on the south lawn at Yallambie, (Bill Bush Collection).

We like to think that flying in the face of adversity is a part of the National Character but in latter years it has come to mean something more. Australia has the dubious honour of losing more money on gambling per capita than any other nation on the planet – something well over $1000 on average per adult annually. 80% of Australians, the highest proportion of any country, wager something, somewhere, sometime but this hasn’t necessarily been a problem historically. For most of the history of the running of the Melbourne Cup, there were few other methods of gambling available to the general public, even with the inevitable illegal SP bookmaker working out the back of a shop in the suburbs. The process of picking a winner was a reward in itself. But when gambling left the track and entered our pubs and clubs in the form of poker machines or into a Casino at Southbank the State Government insisted we had to have because “the other states have got ´em”, it entered the vernacular. It made a few people, the owners of poker machine and casino licences very rich, but at the cost of making some folk very poor.

Like my father listening for the “scratchings” without placing a bet, I like to think it’s all about the process and not the end in itself. It makes horse sense that if I buy a lotto ticket then leave it unchecked for weeks, I’ve bought weeks of entertainment value. There is always the idea lurking at the back of my mind that there is a possibility of it being a winner, no matter how unlikely the reality. It might even explain the continuing popularity of the Cup in an Australia where there are now so many other forms of gambling available. You see, the Cup is not just about the gambling although that has always been a part of it.

At the first running of the Cup in 1861 the VRC issued two ladies tickets to every gentleman club member in the belief that “where ladies went, men would follow”. So historically the Cup has always been about other things – the fashions and the flirting, the boozing and the bookmakers, the race track and the roses. But most of all it has always been about the horses and the holiday. What other excuse do we need to have a good time?

Halcyon farm days at Yallambie

O Tannenbaum

It would be a hard thing not to have noticed, but all across this town in recent times there has been a large broom at work, sweeping away houses, gardens and the detritus of old lives, leaving behind open blocks like missing teeth in a landscape ready for new building. Driven partly by Federal Government policy aimed at encouraging foreign investment in the local building industry, the broom has even been seen in the streets of Yallambie where occasional houses from the A V Jennings era estate have been cleared away to make room for new homes.

I’ve always wondered at the reasoning behind removing perfectly good houses to build more perfectly good houses. The ultimate expression of life in a disposable world I suppose but it is an idea that is not entirely without precedence in this area. When the original 1840s pre-fabricated buildings at Yallambie were replaced by the current Homestead at the start of the 1870s, the same thinking was behind it. Out with the old and in with the new.

Modern houses inevitably contain many advantages over their predecessors in insulation, sustainability and modern conveniences but perhaps the most surprising innovation I’ve heard about recently is the so called, dedicated “Christmas Tree Room”. By all reports, no home of the 21st century should be without one.

When I was a child, decorating a tree at the start of December with home-made paper chains was a family ritual. It is a ritual however considered by some house designers to be too taxing on the demands of modern day lifestyles. Better to leave the plastic tree decorated from the previous December in a purpose built room, the “Christmas Tree Room”, and wheel it out annually ready to go for Santa’s arrival over our roof tops.

A drop in at Christmas.
A drop in at Christmas.

At our home we don’t have a “Christmas Tree Room”. We don’t have a plastic tree for that matter. We do have an ancient, wonky table top sized, fibre tree that has seen more than seven decades of Christmas ritual of my wife’s family and which is left decorated with its fragile ornament in a cupboard from one year to the next. Is that the same thing?

The wonky Christmas tree.
The wonky Christmas tree.

The Scouts do a roaring trade in trees around Melbourne at this time of the year, but almost every year there seems to have been a self-sown pine or cypress growing somewhere in our garden in quite just the wrong place and demanding removal. The enormous Mexican Cypress (Cupressus lusitanica), mistakenly identified from a distance in one council survey as a Sequoiadendron Giganteum (it really is a big tree) and growing on the Yallambie Park escarpment, keeps seeding our nearby garden beds and most years there has been at least one young tree ready to come inside.

Mexican cypress used as a Christmas tree.
Mexican cypress used as a Christmas tree.

A couple of years ago I brought a particularly tall specimen in from the garden at Christmas and stood it in our bay window where it literally touched the ceiling. I needed a high step ladder to decorate it. Inside that bay window was hanging what was, at that time, a recently installed Italian glass light fitting. It had been reconstructed by us painstakingly from a collection of found pieces and represented a great deal of creative effort.

“Mind that light fitting while you’re up there,” said my wife anxiously watching me reach past the light to get at the top of the tree. “Don’t you think you should remove the glass first?”

They say that one definition of love is never being tempted to use those words, “I told you so,” but it must have been tempting for her all the same as she watched me the next minute step first one way, then the other doing a juggling act on the top most rung of the ladder. In bumping one of the glass feathers of the light and attempting to catch its fall, I managed to knock down two more and to watch all three at the end of my juggling act smash helplessly on the floor. It took me a long time to live down that particularly brilliant effort. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, don’t you know? But could it have happened with the convenience of a pre-decorated tree and an associated “Christmas Tree Room”?

The ritual of the Christmas tree developed as a Christian custom in early modern Germany with possible origins in much earlier pagan traditions. The idea spread beyond Germany in the 19th century, at first within the ruling classes, but with the practice ultimately spreading to summer time Australia from winter time Great Britain after the marriage of Queen Victoria to the German Prince Albert.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Royal Family at Christmas
Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Royal Family at Christmas

Christmas trees were traditionally decorated with edibles such as apples, nuts, or other foods and illuminated by candles. The inherent dangers of naked flames in early Christmas trees seem obvious now and if the practice had not been discontinued by the introduction of modern electric lighting, I suspect there might be many more cleared blocks today than has resulted even from that sweeping broom of foreign investment.

Santa at Yallambie.
Santa at Yallambie.

Today there are web sites devoted to the art of how to decorate the perfect Christmas tree. O Tannenbaum comes in a myriad variety of forms and in the endless pursuit of perfection that is life in the modern world, Christmas is in danger of sometimes becoming just another in that list of ceremonial opportunities designed to impress your friends. Rambling gardens, eclectic interiors and wonky Christmas trees are out of fashion. It is the same mind set that has seen that broom all too busy in the suburbs where the collision between established residential communities and the needs of cashed up property developers has seen the wholesale demolition of houses in some quarters, leaving those areas with a confusing patchwork of conflicting architectural styles. Georgian, French Provincial, Rhode Island and Antebellum; just about everything other than “Australian”. Our iconic Federation era style architecture has been just about the biggest casuality in the big clean up. The demolition of the century old Queen Anne style house “Idylwilde” in Toorak made headlines just over a month ago. In this young nation, our heritage is not always appreciated as economics and practicalities take precedence. One wonders at just what will replace it.

Idylwilde in Toorak before and during demolition.
Idylwilde in Toorak before and during demolition.

Meanwhile, on the search for our Christmas tree this year, it is apparent that most of the Mexican Cypress seedlings growing in our garden have been weeded and we don’t have a tree ready to come inside for the first time in a long time. Most of those left are ankle biters. All the same, we do have a scratchy looking Bunya Bunya pine which I’ve been growing in a pot. At least it’s an Australian native. It might not look like much right now but give it a few decorations and that little tree will find itself feeling like Christmas.

Literally.

charlie brown christmas

Things that go bump in the night

It was a dark and stormy night.

It was one of those nights when the wind blows around the roof tops and rattles the windows like an unseen hand demanding attention. It was one of those nights when your thoughts naturally turn to the spectral as you speculate what might be on the end of that unseen hand. It might even have been one of those nights when the hands of the blogger are stained purple by his own prose.

A family was walking quickly along Tarcoola Drive, glancing in at the dark facade of Yallambie Homestead as they passed.

“That’s the spooky house,” said a child.

Red sky, 2013.
A sky of purple prose, March, 2013.

I witnessed this. It’s not the first time I’ve heard something of the sort.

On that dark and stormy night, I couldn’t help but think, the kid had a point. Taken on the whole, the old pile can look a bit creepy at times. It’s an impression that appears to move some more so than others. I’ve seen many a full moon rise over the chimneys.

Moon rise at Yallambie, April, 2014.
Moon rise at Yallambie, April, 2014.

I’ve even watched the occasional bat flutter around the crumbling balconies. But for mine, the night I arrived home in a “pea soup” fog to find an enormous white owl perched silently on the iron post cap of the front gates, its grey silhouette just a shade darker than the sky and almost indecipherable from the surrounding gloom, just about sums it up. That was spooky, kiddo.

Main gate at Yallambie, minus owl, c1900.
Main gate at Yallambie, minus owl, c1900.

With that in mind and to underline Halloween, the 31st October, let us suspend all belief and enter the eerie world of things that go bump in the night. And that’s not just in the bedroom.

Halloween or “All Saints’ Eve” is the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows Day, the time in the liturgical calendar dedicated to remembering the dead. The word Halloween comes from the Scots and means “hallowed evening” with a focus on the use of humour and ridicule to confront death.

Halloween wasn’t something that was observed when I was a kid but we knew a bit about it all the same from American sit coms where children were depicted “trick or treating”. Today Halloween bumps have become a bumper business in Australia. Halloween fills in that gap in the commercial calendar in the lead up to Christmas. The shops here have been filled with suggestions for weeks. Personally, I’m still awaiting the coming of the Great Pumpkin from last year.

Small children might point at Yallambie Homestead and call it “spooky” but any house that’s been lived in for a long time by successive families develops a history. The stories of the occupants of a home become intertwined with the story of the building. The present Homestead was built over 140 years ago and stayed in the hands of the original family for the first 90 years of its life. There have been three subsequent owners.

In the garden at Yallambie in an era before the National Firearms Agreement. Bob Katter please take note. Will Wragge died 11 July, 1906 from injuries sustained in a shooting accident while climbing over a post and rail fence in the orchard, (now Yallambie Muncipal Park) at a point in the background immediately beyond this photograph.
In the garden at Yallambie in an era before the National Firearms Agreement. Bob Katter please take note. Will Wragge died 11 July, 1906 from injuries sustained in a shooting accident while climbing over a post and rail fence in the orchard, (now Yallambie Muncipal Park) at a point in the background immediately beyond this photograph.

YALLAMBIE_A12

The lives and sometimes the deaths of these people are the interwoven tapestry that are its story, even where that tapestry by chance was touched by misadventure. The third son of Thomas Wragge managed to shoot himself in the garden at Yallambie in 1906 after going out alone in the early morning in pursuit of a fox. When the body was found it was assumed that in the process of climbing over a fence with his gun loaded, the weapon had discharged accidentally while pointing at his body at point blank range.

Will was 30 years old and a bachelor when he died. After the event there was a rumour circulated that the death was suicide resulting from an unhappy love affair, but this theory seems to have been contradicted in later years, rather than confirmed. (Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, pp143-144).

So much for just one thread. Before the War, Bonnie Meares, the wife of the renowned psychiatrist Dr Ainslee Meares, was adamant that Yallambie Homestead was in fact, haunted.

The spooky house, March, 1997.
The spooky house, March, 1997. Bonnie Meare’s “haunted” room is the illuminated window upstairs on the left.

The Meares were friends of the Wragge family and in 1934 purchased the western most portion of the Yallambie estate to build “Aldermaston”, the fine neo-Tudor home still standing today within the grounds of the Simpson Army Barracks. Bonnie believed one room at the Homestead, a room that had in the 19th century been used as an upstairs billiards room, was the particular hang out of the friendly phantasms. This room had been altered in the 1923 renovations and its floors raised to bring it onto a level with the general first floor layout. It had originally been built on a level somewhat lower than the other upstairs rooms with access being gained from a side return taken from the original, Victorian era stair case. The net result of this alteration today is that the ceiling in this area appears to be somewhat lower in relation to the other upper level rooms. Access is gained along a narrow corridor, itself an early addition to the house and the feeling as you walk into it I must say is one of somewhat uncomfortable constraint. Even today it’s easy to understand Bonnie Meare’s reaction.

I have known a visitor to Yallambie Homestead run out of the house and refuse to return after entering this room alone, claiming she had heard and even felt a presence behind her, breathing down her neck. In an intriguing aside, when I went to the Simpson Army Barracks in March prior to writing my post, Diggers in the Garden State, the security guards I chatted with on the gate proffered what they said was a commonly held belief at the barracks, that Aldermaston was itself haunted. So maybe Bonnie never really left the area after all.

There have been others who have made claim to similar and additional clairaudient experiences at Yallambie (the thump of a clodhopping possum can sound amazingly like a footfall, can’t it?) and several have made claim to hearing ethereal voices. One friend who was staying with us and who was alone in the house at the time told me that he had listened for some time from the stairs to low voices emanating from a back room where a fire had been left burning low on the hearth. Another mentions this room and the bathroom next door as a place she is uncomfortable with. She would rather cross her legs she says than experience “a feeling of resentment felt from the spirit toward having people in the space.” I guess it makes for short visits. The other day my wife complained about somebody leaving the toilet seat up. I said I thought it must have been the spook. I don’t think she accepted this excuse.

The “spook” is a good generic explanation for anything of an unexplained nature that happens around the home. When our son was a baby, a clock work, musical mobile suddenly burst to life over our bed next to the cot in the dead of night. I suppose the mechanism must have been finely balanced and was left ready to act unprompted. Maybe a change in air temperature started it moving. That’s what I told myself anyway as the mobile spun little elephants wildly about, playing a maniacal tune in the night as we pulled the bed covers back over the top of our heads. Then there was the mechanical Santa that was found inexplicably singing Jingle Bells over and over again when we arrived home one Christmas Eve after a night out. Obviously a short circuit…

Occasionally unexpected aromas have been experienced, like the strong smell of pipe tobacco in the vicinity of the Wragge’s old smoking room (this, in a smoke free and, pertinent to this story, generally alcohol and certainly hallucinogenic free house hold). On another occasion a trace of kerosene as once burned in early oil lamps was identified, but where today no kerosene is present.

My wife once claimed to have smelled a cake being baked and was so convinced that I was home and busy in the kitchen baking for her benefit that she was disappointed to find me absent when she investigated. Perhaps these smells permeate the fabric of a building and can somehow present themselves years later to the subsequent occupiers of a building? A bit like the boy’s tennis socks after a Saturday morning game.

At the Homestead launch of Winty Calder’s book, Finding Uncle Harry”, (Winty Calder, Jimaringle Publications, 2004), during the speeches some reference was made to the unusual circumstances surrounding the discovery of Harry Wragge’s diary which had led to Calder’s publication. A wag in the assembly joked out loud that the Homestead was obviously haunted and that Harry’s spirit must have been hanging around like Casper, just waiting to be found and his story told.

casper

As if on queue the flash of an old camera being used immediately exploded without damage but with a loud report. This was followed by a few nervous titters then silence from the audience before the book launch proceeded in a more subdued fashion.

Probably the oddest thing we have ever experienced here however and something that I can honestly attest to, occurred some years ago. My wife and I were sitting up late in front of a fire in the dark. The glazed doors of the room looked into the front hall but were closed against the cold that evening. For a moment a small light appeared in the darkened hall outside and was seen to float along the passage before passing through the glass of the front entrance and reappearing briefly outside and dissolving in a sudden, silent flash. Astonished I immediately asked my wife what she had seen. She described the event exactly as I had seen it. Maybe if I had been on my own I might have thought I had dreamed the experience but this really happened just as I have described it. Looking for a rational explanation later we speculated that perhaps we had witnessed the very rare phenomena of ball lightning. Such atmospheric electrical events are so rare however that scientists for years even doubted their existence. The alternative explanation though seems to me even less likely.

It was one of those dark nights when you weren't sure if it was going to be stormy or not.
It was one of those dark nights when you weren’t sure if it was going to be stormy or not.

In truth, I don’t really believe in ghostly manifestations although they do make a good fireside story on a dark and stormy night. Or improbable material for an unlikely WordPress post.

I do believe however in the occasional guiding hand in life along the road of life’s long highway. The so called “shifty shadow” or “hairy hand of God”. In the United States where the Constitution prohibits religious teaching in schools, the idea that there is a grand plan to the universe is called intelligent design. In Europe they smash protons together at close to the speed of light in a tunnel under a Swiss mountain range in search of that designer. The way I look at it, like in John Conway’s “Game of Life”, (not really a game but an exercise in creating an artificial, deterministic universe), sometimes things just seem to happen with an apparent purpose although all the signs are that the impression is largely an illusion. After all, as one writer so ably once put it, “Time is an illusion, lunch time doubly so.” There have been times when I have wished I could borrow Herbert George Wells time machine to go back for a second crack at it all the same. Doesn’t everyone wish that at some point?

I wish I could borrow Herbert George Wells time machine and go back for a second crack at it...
I wish I could borrow Herbert George Wells time machine and go back for a second crack at it…

Harry Houdini, who devoted a large part of his career to debunking spiritualists, promised that if it was at all possible, that he would return after his death to give a sign from beyond the grave.

Houdini died prematurely and people are still waiting for that sign to come from him. I don’t think I’ll be attempting that one myself when my time comes. There are already enough spooks here.

harry houdini