Tower Hill Cemetery lies between Port Fairy and Warrnambool in Western Victoria.
Tower Hill itself is a former volcano not far from Port Fairy and about 3 hours drive west of Melbourne. You can see the view looking over the remains of the Tower Hill crater and looking out towards the sea from the top of Tower Hill in the photos below.
Tower hill itself is not really a town, though there are a few houses around it. Tower Hill was first sighted by Europeans in 1802, the sighting was made by the Frenchmen in the ship the Geographe, but it wasn’t surveyed until 1846. In the surveys conducted between 1846 and 1850 it is described as heavily wooded, with descriptions of ferns and large trees. It was also a favourite site of settler James Dawson of the near by Kangatong station. He had it painted in oils in 1855 so he could show others how beautiful it was. However between 1857 and 1860 the hill itself and the surrounding area was heavily deforested, mainly for the use of the timber but also for grazing. This use of the land continued until 1961 when Tower Hill was proclaimed Victoria’s seventh state wildlife reserve. There has been significant re planting done since.
I would like to pause in the ongoing narrative of Tower Hill at this point to discuss its pre-European importance. When Tower Hill was first sighted by Europeans it was certainly not an unknown hill. For the local Koroitgundij people it is a site of great importance and their ancestors undoubtably would have witnessed the eruption that created the funnel shaped crater 30 000 years ago. Today there is the Worn Gundidj visitor’s centre in the middle of Tower Hill which tells the indigenous history of the site. You can see the visitor’s centre in the picture below.
The cemetery at Tower Hill stands at the base of the hill’s slope. It was established in 1856 and contains some of the most impressive monuments for a cemetery of its size that I’ve ever seen.
The monuments range from small, such as the heart shaped stone below.
To the significantly more dramatic
There are a number of interesting people buried at Tower Hill, but I thought I’d briefly discuss a man whose death was a key part of Australian labour history. William John Mclean was the first person to die for the union movement in Australia. Known as Billy Mclean he was born in 1869 and lived in Koroit, a small town very near Tower Hill. In the late 1800s the nearby town Port Fairy was one of Australia’s most important international ports, though you certainly wouldn’t know it now.
As an important port much of the wool shorn in areas as far away as southern NSW was taken by the river system and bullock drays to Port Fairy for transportation. Shearers would hitch rides with the bullock drays back in the opposite direction for the shearing season. Billy Mclean was one such shearer. The shearers often endured awful conditions and pretty terrible pay at the same time as being forced to pay exorbitant prices for food from stores that were owned by the stations. As such there were a number of shearer strikes. On the 26th of August 1894 in NSW the paddle steamer Rodney was transporting a non union labor force up the Darling River to work at the near by station of Tolarno. Many of the river captains refused to support the pastoralists by bringing in non union labour to try to break the strikes. Captain Dickson of the Rodney was not one of them. The paddle steamer was set upon by striking shearers and after the non union labour and the crew had been removed from the boat, the shearers doused it in kerosene and burnt to the water line.
The afternoon of the same day, a little further up river, Billy Mclean was one of about fifty shearers who were headed for Grassmere station near Willcannia where it was believed that non union workers from New Zealand had been brought in. Mclean was one of the first to enter the shearing shed and he was shot in the lung, one of his mates Jack Murphy was also shot. Neither died on the scene and they were arrested by the police on the way back to the strike camp. There is definite argument that the shooting was retaliation for the burning of the Rodney earlier that morning.
Mclean was tried and convicted of unlawful assembly, sentenced to 3 years hard labour and sent to Goulburn gaol. In the cold of the prison and never having recovered from his injury Mclean developed tuberculosis of the lung and was sent home to his mother to die, so it couldn’t be said he died in gaol. He died in 1896. He was 26. The man who shot him was never tried and was given a medal by the pastoralists association.
The other shearers rallied round Mclean’s mother and raised 90 pounds for the erection of the monument over his grave. It still stands in Tower Hill Cemetery today and is 14 feet high. You can see it in the photos below.
The epitaph reads
HIS FELLOW UNIONISTS
IN MEMORY OF THEIR COMRADE,
WILLIAM JOHN McLEAN WHO WAS SHOT BY A NON-UNIONIST
AT GRASSMERE STATION, N.S.W.,
DURING THE STRUGGLE OF 1894,
AND WHO DIED 22nd MARCH, 1896,
AGED 26 YEARS,
A GOOD SON, A FAITHFUL MATE, AND A DEVOTED UNIONIST, UNION IS STRENGTH.
Donald MacDonald, the general secretary of the AWU wrote to Henry Lawson asking him to compose the epitaph. It is not known if Lawson did or not.
For more information on Mclean and the shearers’ strikes see…
Billy Mclean is only one of a number of fascinating people buried at Tower Hill Cemetery. Alongside the outstanding individual monuments Tower Hill Cemetery also houses several groups of matching monuments such as those that you can see below.
As with many cemeteries of this era, there is a distressingly large number of young deaths and whole families. You see the same surnames repeated over and over, showing the long term connection to the area.
My next post will be on the nearby Port Fairy Cemetery.
Tower Hill: Victoria’s heritage. http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/315547/Heritage-story-Tower-Hill-Reserve-history-and-heritage.pdf
Tower Hill: What happened at Tower Hill? Fisheries and Wildlife Dept 1960.
Tower Hill by M.C Downes.
Both books can be found at the Prahran Mechanics’ Institute Victorian History Library.
The photos are all mine.