Churchill Island

57 hectare Churchill Island is the knobbly little bit, on the already fairly knobbly Phillip Island, which creates one of the heads of Western Port Bay. Hopefully you can can see what I mean in the image below.

It is also one of the earliest farms in Victoria and today operates as a heritage farm. I have to admit, as well as the history, one of my primary reasons for visiting was the highland cattle so I’m going to start with a photo of them, and then move back into the history of the island and its farm.

So, the history of Churchill Island starts with the indigenous history. For the Bunurong; Churchill Island is known as Moonahmia. The name comes from the Moonah tree, a type of Melaleuca, that is prevalent on Churchill and is the subject of a really interesting Bunurong legend. It tells of two young lovers who spent all their time embraced in each others arms, they were told that they had to break their embrace to take part in the community and to work. When they refused, they were banished so they went off and they sank into their embrace and froze there. Their entwined bodies became the first Moonah tree on the island. Their children spread across the island covering it in Moonah trees. You can see some of them in the photo below. The trees below are heritage listed and over 500 years old.

The Bunurong used Churchill Island for its abundant marine life and coastal resources, they would have used the island for tens of thousands of years before the advent of European settlement. This was Bunurong land and it is worth noting that when Europeans colonised it, the Bunurong were not consulted.

The indigenous history of the island is worth more than the explanation I have given here, but sadly there isn’t a lot of information available, middens have been found on the island and the first European to land on the island- Lt James Grant- recorded seeing canoes and fires but didn’t record sighting any Bunurong themselves. As with much indigenous history in Victoria the oral record was shattered by European invasion, I have written about this before and you can read it here.

Writing about the early colonisation of Victoria is always fraught, but with a place like Churchill Island where the early European history is of statewide significance, it very much worthwhile exploring. I do so with the disclaimer that as a descendant of early settlers, not in this area but in other parts of Victoria, I have benefited from this colonisation and invasion. In the current climate I believe it is fundamentally important to acknowledge this legacy, that all descendants of early settlers hold. It is the only way to start a real conversation about the true and complex history of the colonisation of this country, and in these discussions we can come to a better understanding of our own history as a country, rather than a glorified fairytale.

But to return to Churchill Island. As previously stated, the first European to land on the island was Lt James Grant. He left England on the Lady Nelson in 1800 to travel to Australia in what would ultimately become several survey expeditions. I won’t go into detail about his travels, you can read his log book on Project Gutenberg, but he arrived in Western Port Bay in 1801 and disembarked on Churchill Island. He named it after a Mr. John Churchill from Devon, who “when the Lady Nelson left England, had given her commander vegetable seeds, the stones of peaches, and the pips of several sorts of apples, telling him “to plant them for the future benefit of our fellow-men, be they countrymen, Europeans or savages.””

Grant followed through on this command, he felled trees, built a block house and sowed a garden. They had no tools though, so he had to use a coal shovel. He described it as “I scarcely know a place I should sooner call mine than this little island.” He didn’t stay though as he continued on, and surveyed the coast down to Wilson’s Promontory before heading back to Sydney.

The next Europeans to settle on Churchill Island were Samuel Pickersgill, his wife Winifred and their three children. They did not own the island and travelled there by boat from French Island in roughly 1860. They built a small house and garden, but left by the middle of the 1860s, before John Rogers bought the lease rights.

So the first Europeans to ‘own’ Churchill Island were John Rogers and his family in the 1860s. He leased it as well as two other islands in Western Port. Churchill was supposed to only be used for grazing stock, but Rogers farmed the land in the face of government prohibition. No action was taken against him by the government though. He lived on the island with his wife Sarah and two of their three children were born there. Their original cottage is still standing and you can see it and some of the interior in the photos below, they also began the gardens.

Rogers mortgaged the Island in 1872.

The next person in Churchill’s story is Samuel Amess. He was a well known stonemason in Melbourne and he built Amess House in 1872, as a holiday house for his family. It remained as a holiday house for the next 57 years through three generations of the Amess family. You can see the beautifully preserved house and its interior in the photos below, the furniture is not original to the house and the rooms are an amalgam of different owners throughout the years.

Amess also introduced farm animals, including highland cattle which he said reminded him of home. A tradition that has continued in the animals at the heritage farm today.

Amess planted this amazing Norfolk pine in celebration of the completion of his house. It was probably propagated by the first Director of the Botanic Gardens Ferdinand Von Mueller

It was under the Amess Family that much of the gardens were laid out as well, and Samuel Amess was a diligent gardener, even extending the orchard.

He is also responsible for the canon from the Confederate warship the Shenandoah which stands in the middle of the garden, he claimed it was given to him by the ship’s captain in return for his hospitality.

Leaving the Amess family for the moment, in 1929 Gerald Neville Buckley bought Churchill Island. Buckley was the son of Mars Buckley who was one of the founders of the Buckley and Nunn drapery store. Buckley never lived on the island, employing brothers Bob and Ted Jeffrey to run the farm. The Jeffreys worked hard to improve the farm on the island, digging a dam and in the 1930s, winning Phillip Island Council’s Better Farming competition. The Comet windmill you can see in the photo below comes from the Jeffreys’ tenure.

As well as expanding the farm the Jeffreys laid a path to the mainland with guideposts indicating the tide level, so you could drive a horse and cart across to the Island at low tide. Buckley promised the brothers that Churchill would go to them on his death, but unfortunately he died suddenly before he could change his will and his relatives in England inherited it, selling off a lot of the furniture and then selling the Island itself to Doctor Harry Jenkins.

Dr Jenkins was a prominent Melbourne dentist and he bought Churchill Island partly as a haven and place of rehabilitation for his son Ted, who’d become paralysed from the waist down after an accident diving when he was 16. They didn’t live on Churchill full time, and employed Eve and Ern Garrett to manage the farm. Another resident was Sister Margaret Campbell, who was Ted’s nurse, but also helped to manage the farm and look after the family when they did visit. it was in this era when the first wooden bridge across to Churchill was built.

During World War Two Ted lived on the Island full time, helping Sister Campbell with the farm. Ted died in 1960 at the age of 41 and Dr Jenkins died three years later at the age of 80. The Island was left to Sister Campbell. She stayed on the Island until 1973 when ill health forced her to leave. Churchill Island was bought by Alex Classou, he was best known for Patra Orange Juice, and he intended to turn it into a horse stud. He was approached by Victorian Conservation Trust and asked if he’d sell Churchill Island to the government. He agreed in 1976 and over the next 30 years the volunteers looked after the island and helped preserve its heritage.

In 1996 Churchill Island was incorporated as part of the Phillip Island Nature Park and restoration of the buildings and the establishment of a working heritage farm commenced. During this period a concrete bridge was built to replace Mr Jenkins’ wooden bridge which was completely full of worms.

You can see the fruits of all the hard work today, as Churchill Island doesn’t only have the buildings, the gardens and the heritage animals it is very much a working farm. You can see some of the agricultural buildings and equipment in the photos below.

Today Churchill Island is part of Phillip Island Nature Parks and is run with the help of the dedicated Friends of Churchill Island Society. It’s a fascinating place to visit, with an excellent visitor’s centre. I also really loved the small details, like the shells as gravel in the gardens, and beautiful lavender hedge and birdbath.

I was also really pleased to discover, what looks like an Annis and George Bills water trough, though the usual epitaph isn’t present. You can read more about the history of these troughs here.

The history on this tiny island is multifaceted and it gives real insight into Victoria’s beginnings. If nothing else, the view is lovely.

References:

Site visit 2020

https://victoriancollections.net.au/items/4fe43e3d2162ef0df8275194

http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/grant-james-2117

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks/e00066.html#ch06

https://penguins.org.au/

https://historicalragbag.com/2015/12/01/surprising-horse-troughs/

The photos are all mine

Port Arthur

The world heritage listed Port Arthur settlement in Tasmania was part of Australia’s extensive convict network. It was established in 1830 as a timber camp that used convict labour and in 1833 it began to be used as a punishment place for repeat offenders. It was an incredibly harsh environment with the land itself serving as a secondary prison layer. This post is going to explore the physical world of Port Arthur, as well as the story of the site over the years beyond its life a prison camp. I want to begin by acknowledging that when the colonisers moved in to establish Port Arthur, it was not unoccupied land and was the home of the Paredarerme indigenous Australians.

As you can see from the map above the Tasman Peninsula, which Port Arthur sits on, is a natural defence. As well as having to traverse a heavily forested unfamiliar landscape, without supplies, it is connected to the main land by two very thin isthmuses which were guarded. Eaglehawk Neck (the second isthmus) was guarded not only by human guards but by a line of dogs. A military barracks was established there in 1831 and and in 1832 the dog line was installed, and the number of dogs was increased after probation stations opened on the peninsula in 1840. The dogs were set up at intervals along the land with a shelter, a chain, and a lamp. The ground they stood on was shells so it would reflect the light of the lamp. The aim was that any convict that tried to sneak past would alert the dogs who would then start barking and alert the guards. They were also installed on platforms on the water. In 1837 the dogs were described by Harden S. Melville as “every four footed black fanged individual among them would have taken first prize in his own class for ugliness and ferocity at any show” . You can see a statue of what the dogs might have looked like, and a picture of Eaglehawk Neck below.

Port Arthur is not the only convict site on the Tasman Peninsula and it was part of a broader system throughout Van Dieman’s Land (now called Tasmania). Most convicts were sent to work for free settlers or the government to start off with. By 1840s a probation system was established where groups of roughly 200 men were stationed at government sites around the state to work. There were a number of these sites on the Tasman Peninsula, as well as Port Arthur. Female convicts coming into Hobart were processed at the Cascade Female Factory and usually sent out to work for free settlers. I will write in more detail about the Female Factory later, but you can see some photos of the remains below. For now it’s enough to say that the conditions were horrendous.

Port Arthur was used for convicts that had committed other offences in the colony, but the other site I wanted to talk about briefly is where the convicts who offended at Port Arthur were sometimes sent. The coal mines. They are on the Tasman Peninsula, but further north than Port Arthur.

They were operated between 1833 and 1877 (though they were in private hands from 1848) and deserve a post in their own right, something I hope to do at some point. At its peak in 1845 there with 576 convicts, 27 military personnel, 125 civilians (this included 14 women and 90 children) living at the station. 11 375 tons of coal were produced. The coal was sold but was said to be bad quality. You can see photos of the buildings that housed the convicts at the mines below.

The quality of the stonework is remarkable, but it was a hard life where punishment involved isolation cells, which you can see the passageway for on the bottom left. Convicts did try to escape from the mines, but most were recaptured or died in the hostile bush. Like the convicts at Port Arthur, the men who worked in the coal mines were mainly not, despite often popular myth, transported for what we would now consider trifles and they had reoffended. This is not to say that they necessarily deserved the often extremely harsh punishment meted out, but it is worth noting despite the harshness of the punishment the crimes committed were still serious. Which brings us nicely back to Port Arthur itself.

Ironically enough, Port Arthur is in a truly beautiful location (though I did have very good weather for my visit)

The natural harbour, which you can see above, was the major draw for setting up a logging camp. The site was named Port Arthur after Governor Arthur in 1828. From 1833 it became the repeat offender site and by 1840 it housed more than 2000 convicts, soldiers and civilian staff. They made everything from furniture, to ships. You can see the ship building area below.

Convict transportation to Van Dieman’s land ended in 1853, but there were still convicts at Port Arthur and it became an institution for the elderly and mentally and physically ill convicts. The site was closed in 1877 and a lot of the buildings were destroyed by two bushfires. It eventually became a small town, renamed Carnarvon, but it evolved to an open air museum by the 1920s with hotels and shops and the name returned to Port Arthur. It was listed as a world heritage site as part of the greater convict network in 2010 and occupies roughly 40 hectares. It is run by the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority.

Before I continue on to explore Port Arthur itself, I wanted to briefly discuss the Port Arthur Massacre. I don’t think the story of Port Arthur can be told without it, but I will not be naming the perpetrator as they should not be remembered. But the event can’t be forgotten as to do so denigrates the lives lost. In 1996 on the 28th of April a young man began firing on the crowds at Port Arthur. 35 people were killed and 21 injured. There is a truly beautiful memorial garden on the site of the Black Arrow Cafe, where most of the killings took place. It is still the worst mass shooting in Australian history and resulted in significantly stricter gun laws.

There is not way to elegantly move on from the above paragraph so I’m not going to try. It was a horrific event, but one that is woven into the past of Port Arthur, a past that has never been easy. So I thought I’d continue the story of Port Arthur by looking at some of the individual buildings and places. This is not going to be an exhaustive examination of every building and place in Port Arthur, but it will be a representative selection.

The building you can see above is the one most commonly brought to mind when most people think of Port Arthur. The penitentiary was capable of housing 657 men in seperate cells and dormitories. It also housed a bakehouse and cook house on the right which fed the men held in the penitentiary. It was originally constructed as a flour mill and granary in 1845, by 1857 it had been converted into accommodation for convicts. There were 136 seperate cells, a dining hall and a library with some 13000 volumes. When Port Arthur closed in 1877, the building was left. It was gutted by fire in 1897 and not long after many of the bricks were repurposed.

The guard tower was constructed in 1836 on the word of the Commandant Captain Charles O’Hara Booth. It was part of a much larger military complex but the remainder has been demolished. It survived the fires of the late 1800s because it has a lead roof.

Above you can see a replica of the semaphore tower. The original would have been much taller and was part of a line of sight semaphore system that stretch back to Hobart. The system ran from about 1811 to 1880 and in good weather a message, for example about an escaped convict, could reach Hobart in about twenty minutes.

The building above is the hospital. It was built in 1842, though there had been an earlier hospital on the site. It also housed the morgue.

There was also a pauper’s complex, but there aren’t any photos because after 1877 the mess hall was set aside for a school and the 1895 bushfire destroyed the rest of the buildings. It is worth mentioning, because it was part of the later use of Port Arthur. From the 1860s Port Arthur housed the men who had been in the convict system for years who has no chance of employment. In 1870 Marcus Clarke described these men as “poor scarecrows in cast off clothing”. The complex was closed in 1874 and remaining men shipped to Hobart. Part of this system was the insane asylum which is still standing in part.

The insane asylum was built in the late 1860s. The treatment was rudimentary at best, with ‘soothing’ activities like gardening. It was during the period of time when most of the prisoners in Port Arthur were becoming aged and infirm and industry at Port Arthur slowed significantly. The building was partly destroyed in the 1895 bushfires, and has been repurposed a number of times.

The seperate prison was opened in 1849 as part of a new method of punishment. It was a new style of prison system that kept prisoners completely seperate from each other. There were 50 cells measuring 6 ft by 9 ft by 11 ft as well as the truly horrifying isolation cells. By 1850 it was being used for the worst of the prisoners to bring their minds ‘to a more healthy condition’ . By 1884, after Port Arthur closed, it was purchased to be converted into a hotel, but it was gutted by fire in 1895 and ownership went back to the government in 1916. The aim of the seperate prison was the keep the men totally isolated, they were not allowed to speak unless they were addressed by an official, guards even used sign language amongst themselves. You can see the remarkable (and horrible) chapel in the photos below. The men were brought in hooded so they couldn’t see the other prisoners and the stalls were deliberately constructed so, once they were in, they could only see the priest.

The church at Port Arthur was opened in the 1830s and was capable of accommodating the majority of the prisoners. The 8 chime bells of the church were cast by an artisan- probably a convict- who has never been identified. When Port Arthur closed in 1877 the bells were stored at the New Norfolk Asylum, in 1897 seven of the bells when to the New Norfolk Municipal Council and they were hung in the tower of St Mathew’s Church, the 8th bell vanished. Over time seven bells have come back to Port Arthur, but the 8th is still missing.

Government Gardens and Government Cottage. The cottage was built in 1853 to house government officials who were visiting Port Arthur, from the beginning the cottage was surrounded by English style gardens that the officers’ wives and children used to walk in. The garden you can see today is a faithful reconstruction of the garden that would have originally existed.

The Governor’s House is a TARDIS like building with a really remarkable view.

It was the home of successive governors. It was built under Charles O’Hara Booth in the 1830s, but expanded extensively under successive governors. From the 1880s the building was repurposed as the Carnarvon Hotel and you can see one of the hotel murals in the photos above as well as the governor’s study and one of the bedrooms.

Point Puer was where the underage boys were housed. The first 60 boys were sent there in 1833. The aim was to train them in a useful trade and reform them so they would become useful citizens. It was not a hospitable place and it ended up being older convicts who were sent to the peninsula to teach the boys, which is just opposite the Port Arthur settlement itself, as they couldn’t get non convicts to undertake the job. By 1843 only boys under 15 were being sent there and in 1849 the remaining 162 boys were removed and sent to other stations. The buildings were cheaply built and subsequently crumbled.

I want to finish this post, I hope appropriately, with the Isle of the Dead. This was the cemetery for Port Arthur and is just off the tip of Point Puer.

The Isle of the Dead was originally called Opossum Island after the ship commanded by Captain Welsh who sheltered there in 1827. The first burial was in 1833 and it was of a 64 year old convict names John Hancock. Originally convicts didn’t get headstones, only a mound, but free settlers had headstones. This policy changed by the 1850s as there are some convict headstones from the later period. More than 10 000 convicts were buried on the Isle of the Dead between 1833 and 1877. For an island that has such a macabre purpose, it is actually very beautiful.

The Isle of the Dead seems to be a good spot to end this post. My next one will explore some of the people, convicts and soldiers, at Port Arthur. Like any site, the stories of Port Arthur is about more than the buildings.

References:

Site visit August 2019

Click to access Port-Arthur-World-Heritage-Factsheet1.pdf

http://tlf.dlr.det.nsw.edu.au/learningobjects/Content/R10815/object/r7529.html

https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/aiatsis-map-indigenous-australia

http://ontheconvicttrail.blogspot.com/2016/08/the-hospital-port-arthur.html

Margaret Peacock’s Isle of the Dead 958948909

The Isle of the Dead: Port Arthur’s unique island cemetery

Port Arthur’s Convict Days: An historic and pictorial review / Coultman Smith

Port Arthur: An historical survey

Prison Boys of Port Arthur / F.C Hooper

Penal Peninsula / Ian Brand 0909640084

The Media and The Massacre: Port Arthur 1996-2016 / Sonya Voumard 9780994395719

The Seperate Prison or Model Prison Port Arthur / Ian Brand

The Port Arthur Coal Mines 1833-1877 / Ian Brand

All the images are mine apart from the two maps which come from Google Maps.

Wil-im-ee Moor-ring Indigenous Stone Quarry

The Wil-im-ee Moor-ring Indigenous Stone Quarry (also known as Mount William) is just out of Lancefield in Victoria. It’s an area of green stone that was quarried by Indigenous Australians for more than a 1000 years. The name means place of the axe.

I was lucky enough to go on a tour of Wil-im-ee Moor-ring as part of the Australian Heritage Festival this year. It is land administered by the Wurundjeri Tribe Council. Last year I visited the Wurundjeri Earth Rings just out of Sunbury and wrote about them on this blog. You can see the post here:

https://historicalragbag.com/2018/05/21/wurundjeri-rings/

I want to reiterate what I said in that post about the Indigenous history of Australia and my place in writing about it. Firstly Indigenous history is something that all Australians should know more about, it’s arguably the oldest continuous culture in the world and over the years it has been (often deliberately) relegated to a footnote. This is slowly changing and I’m certainly trying to learn more and to share what I find. It’s also just fascinating.

I’d like to pause here to say that I am aware that as a non Indigenous person writing Indigenous history can be problematic. This post is intended to encapsulate the possible history of the site as was explained by a Wurundjeri Elder on the tour and laid out in the National Trust Heritage List report, and I claim no more than that. Wil-im-ee Moor-ring is just so interesting and important that I want to make sure people know about it and to help ensure that Indigenous history is a part of the history of Victoria, if only in my small way.

So to begin. I wanted to start with an analogy, it’s the best description I’ve heard of what’s known of Indigenous history in Victoria. Bill Nicholson, the Elder who took the group I was part of the round Wil-im-ee Moor-ring, described it as a 100 page book, with maybe 30 pages left that are in the wrong order. When Victoria was colonised not only were a lot of Indigenous people killed, through disease like small pox but also through massacres, but culture and language was often banned and they were rounded up, removed from Country and installed in missions. At Coranderk (one of the main missions just out of Melbourne) Woiwurrung, the language group that the Wurundjeri are part of, was banned in 1863. Knowledge was simply lost. Breaking up a culture that is rooted in oral history, is tantamount to burning libraries and archives in Western culture. Efforts are being made to reclaim Indigenous history and new information is being found in archives all the time, but by the time a lot of it was being written down, usually by the colonisers like William Thomas who was an Assistant Protector of Aborigines, what they were seeing was only the tip of the iceberg of what had existed. This is why sites like Wil-im-ee Moor-ing are so essential. Apart from being spiritually important, they are physical manifestation of Indigenous culture and history. There’s a lot more around than most Victorians know about too, and again I include myself in this. There’s scar trees, possible smoking trees, burials, other quarries and more.

Possible smoking tree. Would have been used for smoking meat to preserve it.

There’s been stone formations found in the Western District that are as old or older than Stone Henge and have possible astronomical alignments. Budj Bim, also in the Western District, with its sophisticated eel and fish trap systems and remains of housing is under consideration for World Heritage Status. Petroglyphs are being un-earthed all over Victoria and then you’ve got the earth rings like the ones near Sunbury. Wil-im-ee Moor-ring is part of a large system of sophisticated land management, language, law, ceremony, trade routes, Country and family that stretched across Victoria and Australia.

To return to Wil-im-ee Moor-ring itself. It’s roughly forty acres (though the original quarry would have covered more land), and has been fenced off since the 80s. It’s been a tourist attraction of sorts since the 1800s, visited on day trips along with the near by Hanging Rock. So it has been thoroughly picked over and much of the land was cleared. That being said, since the 1800s it has been acknowledged as a site of an Indigenous quarry pre dating European colonisation, which is very unusual in Australia (it’s much earlier than any Indigenous activity pre colonisation was usually acknowledged). The first European reference to Wil-im-ee Moor-ring comes from William Buckley, who was an escaped convict living in the bush from 1803 to 1833, he describes a hard black stone from a place called Kar-keen which was shaped into stone heads. William Barak, a prominent Wurundjeri Elder in the mid 1800s, witnessed the final operation of Wil-im-ee Moor-ring as a quarry and described it to an anthropologist called Howitt as one of the places that “a group of people claimed for some special reason, and in which the whole tribe had an interest.” This clear recorded history of Indigenous custodial rights and processes is very unusual.

To return to Wil-im-ee Moor-ring physically. The rock in is class five diorite. Simply put, it’s very hard.

Above you can see one of the rocks from which the stone was split. It was done by heating the rock up with fire and then pouring water on it to cause the cracking. The axe heads themselves were shaped on a flaking floor, one of which you can see below. You can also see what might be broken rejects.

Wattle branches were probably split to make a loop for the handles of the axes and Xanthorrhoea sap was boiled to make glue to hold it all together and it was bound with kangaroo sinew. These weren’t axes that were used for fighting, they were used whilst hunting and for things like stripping bark off trees. These specific axes have been found as far as South Australia and Southern Queensland. They were immensely valued, not only for their utility but probably for the spiritual significance of Wil-im-ee Moor-ring itself. Part of the Indigenous belief system of the area is that the ancestral spirits formed themselves into the landscape, and Wil-im-ee Moor-ring is one of these landscape features. There is also records of axes being physically traded in the 1830s when William Bradley observed one polished axe head being traded for two possum skin cloaks, and a rough head for a large number of spears. To understand the value of possum cloaks you only have to think about how small a possum is, and how many you would need and how long it would take to construct one full cloak, let alone two. The axe heads were valued.

While there is more known about Wil-im-ee Moor-ring that a lot of other Indigenous sites there is still a lot to learn and hopefully be discovered and reconstructed where it can be. It’s a beautiful place, part of a broader landscape, that more people should know more about.

References:

Site visit and tour 2019, information provided by Wurundjeri Tribe Council https://www.wurundjeri.com.au/

National Trust Heritage List Report of Mount William.

The photos are all mine.

Fort Denison

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It’s easy to see Fort Denison as a funny looking little island in the Sydney Harbour, but it has a fascinating history.

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When the Europeans arrived in what is now called Sydney Harbour Fort Denison looked approximately like this.

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It stood  at an elevation of about 75 feet.

For the local indigenous people the island was known as Muttewai. When the First Fleet landed the local indigenous population, the Eora, Guringai and Daruk nations, were forced inland away from traditional grounds and killed, by European diseases such as small pox, in the wars trying to protect their land from Europeans settlers and quite intentionally by Europeans. For more information click here.

I believe it is worth discussing the indigenous history of the area because, even though it doesn’t invalidate the interesting later history of Fort Denison itself, it is essential to acknowledge and understand that the European history of Fort Denison wasn’t built on a nice clean blank slate. [1]

Fort Denison itself wasn’t called Fort Denison by the European settlers to begin with. It was originally known as Pinchgut Island. Pinchgut is a nautical term meaning a narrow passage, but it was also used because the convicts they marooned there as punishment, before a gaol was built, had very little food so they always had ‘pinched guts’.  In the early 1800s a gibbet was also erected on the island to display a convict called Francis Morgan in chains. It was named Fort Denison after the current Governor of New South Wales in 1857.

The island of Fort Denison was levelled in the 1840s, partly with the idea of making it a defensive site and partly to mine the sandstone which was used to help construct Bennelong Point, which the Opera House now sits on. One of the reasons for the levelling of the island to make it a defensive position was the completely unexpected arrival of two American men of war in December 1839. They arrived over night and the locals completely failed to notice their arrival until the morning. The commander of the American ships was quoted as saying

“If [we had been] enemies, it would have been in our power before daylight to have fired all the Shipping and store houses, laid the town under contribution and departed unhurt.”

Developing the island to be a fortification was one of the reactions to this nasty shock. The top was blasted, but the majority of the work was carried out by convicts with pickaxes. By 1842 it was almost completely levelled. No decisions, however,  regarding the island’s use as a defensive structure were made and it was left levelled for a number of years.

The settlers in Sydney Harbour were always frightened of attack and coastal defences were erected, but when the Crimean War broke out in the 1850s there was serious and widespread fear of a Russian attack on Sydney. It was decided definitively that a defensive fort should be built on the island. The fort was built by paid labour with 8000 tonnes of sandstone brought over for the construction of the Martello Tower, gun batteries and barracks. The Martello Tower is the only one in Australia and one of the last of its type of Martello Tower in the world. The walls in the base of the tower are four metres thick.

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Martello Towers are a very particular type of structure and this one, the whole fort was ready for habitation by 1857, is actually one of the later examples of its kind. Martello Towers were built to a specific plan based on a tower on Mortella Point in Corsica, which held off two British warships for two days in 1794. The British were so impressed by the design that they copied it and it was replicated across the empire. Martello Towers were designed to protect the men within from cannon fire and to have cannon on the top and inside to fire back. For more information on Martello Towers click here. In the case of the Fort Denison Martello Tower, it would have originally have had a cannon on the top, but it was removed much later. You can see roughly where the cannon would have stood below.

img_9685The three cannons inside the upstairs room remain because it is impossible remove them. img_9677img_9673They were winched into place and then the roof was finished over them. As you can see from the keystone it was completed in 1857.img_9669

From the top of the tower, just below where the original cannon would have stood, you can see the power that the view from the tower would have commanded. The bell in the photo is the fog bell.

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The tower is also built to withstand cannon fire. You can see the linking keystones in the the photo below. They are made from granite and are embedded in the softer large blocks of sandstone that make up the rest of the tower, to link them together and to hold the tower in one piece in the face of a strike from a cannon.

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The tower also contains the powder storage room, where you can still see the rings left in the floor by the powder barrels, as well as another storage room next door. When men were collecting the powder for the guns they had to take their shoes off as their hobnail boots could cause sparks and set the gun powder off.

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The tower also has musket loupes in the wall as well as the cannon that were mounted around the base of the tower in the battery. You can see a loupe below as well as the view through one of the recesses in which a cannon would have stood in. It is believed that a shot from a cannon in this position could have reached the headland you can see in the photo.

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As well as the guns in the tower there were some very impressive guns in the bastion area of the Fort which can be seen on the left at the end of the photo below. The flag is a navigational aid.

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The semi circular bastion was added as the fort was built and it housed 2 cast iron ten inch shell guns each weighing 4 420 kg, like the guns in the battery these guns were mounted on movable carriages. One covered the shipping channel and one pointed south towards the harbour.

The Fort was built in response to what was seen as a serious threat and the nine massive 32 pounder guns could have destroyed wooden sailing ships. The development of armour plated steam ships and the improvement of the guns on said ships, however,  rendered the Fort obsolete by the 1870s. Fort Denison has never been in a real military battle, although there have been military units quartered there for many years. In the 19th century the Royal Artillery used the Fort for artillery practice as did the NSW Volunteer Artillery. Since the 1890s the main use has been as a light and tide station, and tides as still measured from there today. By 1936 the military units had moved out and a caretaker had moved in. You can see some of the history of the Fort and some of the work of the caretaker in the videos below from 1936. The videos are from the National Film and Sound Archive and can be found here.

The caretakers were not only single men living alone on the island. The first lighthouse keeper, Thomas Wren, and his family arrived in 1869. In the 1950s the island was occupied by Osmund Jarvis, his wife Jessie and their children. They used to show people around the fort and Jessie would make tea and scones for visitors. They grew vegetables and kept animals and were largely self sufficient, though they did bring in supplies from the mainland. You can see a fruit tree in the photo below, which is a relic from when the island was lived on. The longest serving caretaker was Cliff Morris who lived on the Fort for 25 years with his wife and two daughters. The final caretaker, Norman Dow and his family of five, left in 1992.

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In the second video from 1936 you can see the caretaker loading the small cannon that was fired at 1pm from 1906 until 1942 to allow ships to calibrate their chronometers. However the practice was discontinued in 1942 because of World War II, the sound was frightening understandably nervous Sydneysiders. The tradition was reinstated in 1986 and the modern firing can be seen the video below. I apologise for the wonkyness of the footage. I was trying to hold my phone still and cover my ears, as instructed, at the same time.

The firing of the 1 pm cannon might have been discontinued during World War II, but some more modern fire power was installed on the Fort. In the photo below you can see the remains of the concrete block in the bastion area of the fort. In 1942 a 3 inch 20 hundred weight anti aircraft gun was installed here to defend from Japanese attack. It could be lowered to fire at ships if necessary.

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Fort Denison is now an important tourist attraction, the barracks is used as a lovely and informative museum as well as being part of a restaurant with the most incredible views.

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It is a place with a fascinating and complicated past, and is well worth a visit. If you do go I would highly recommend doing the guided tour. As well as supporting the national parks service who run the island, it is also the only way you’ll get inside the Martello Tower, which is absolutely worth it. Apart from anything else, the whole place is in the most beautiful location.

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References:

Site visit 2016 and Sydney visit 2006.

The Fort Denison Museum on Fort Denison.

http://www.fortdenison.com.au/

http://aso.gov.au/titles/newsreels/australia-today-fort-denison-p/clip2/#

http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/things-to-do/historic-buildings-places/Fort-Denison

http://www.geograph.org.uk/article/Martello-Towers

http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/defending_colonial_sydney

The photos are all mine.

[1] Significantly more qualified people have written much better and in more detail about the atrocities committed towards the indigenous population of Australia. I would recommend anyone who wants a broader overview of exactly what was destroyed to read Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe.

Otway Redwoods

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In the middle of a pine plantation and native Australian forest, in the Otways, in Victoria is a truly remarkable stand of Sequoia sempervirens, known as Coast Redwoods (they’re native to California). The only access is a very muddy road that is little more than a logging track and when you are driving along it, chasing the last of the sun it can seem interminable. The trees, however, are worth it. They are truly majestic and there is a sense of calmness that permeates through to the ground.

The Otways are extensive dense Australian native forestIMG_0153IMG_0198IMG_0243IMG_0252The European settlers deforested much of it, using the fertile soil for farmland. The land however was difficult to access and the forests kept coming back, so much was eventually abandoned. There was also gold mining in the area and when these mines were closed the land was left scarred.

In the late 1800s it was decided that re-forestation for harvesting was the best option. A small patch of the Aire Valley was one of the areas chosen to test a variety of trees to determine which would grow best in the area.

The Forest Act of 1907 mandated a program to try a whole variety of trees, as timber was needed quickly for construction. The majority of the experiments across the state were in pine and native forest, but the small area of the Aire Valley was chosen to trial Coast Redwood. They were known to be a very slow growing, so it was only a small test area, but it stands today as a testament to the epic nature of the redwoods.

 

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These are very big trees.

These trees were planted in 1936 and in 2004, the last time they were officially assesed, the dominant tree height was 59.8 metres with an average diameter of 106.6 cm.

They continue to grow.

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IMG_2600These trees stand amongst the mighty native mountain ash, definitely rivalling them in height.

IMG_2627The redwoods have become part of the local landscape

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While some of the redwoods have been harvested, they never became viable commercial timber on a large scale. The pines just proved to be too fast growing and effective. This isn’t the only stand of experimental redwood in Victoria, but the others don’t survive in any quantity.

Both the Redwood and the next door mountain ash are contenders in the race for the tallest trees in the world. By 2084 it is thought that some of the redwoods will reach 115.5 m and there is currently no plans to harvest them. So barring bushfire or other natural disaster, they will probably have the chance to make this record breaking height.

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This is by no means the whole story of the redwoods, to find that get a copy of the excellent book The Redwoods of the Otway Ranges by Roger Smith. (It is available for loan from the PMI Victorian History Library, or you can buy it from the author). This post is intended as a snapshot, an introduction to a remarkable stand of trees.

References:

Site visit 2018

The Redwoods of the Otway Ranges by Roger Smith

Music in the short video is from Doctor Turtle

The photos are all mine.

On a side note there will be no posts from me in September. I’m away. But expect lots about the history of Scandinavia in the following months.

 

Victorian History Quiz: Easy to Evil

This month I decided to do a quiz, as I haven’t done one for a while. I have also updated two old posts with some new photos and a video. The updated Tower Hill Cemeteries post can be found here and the updated Port Fairy and Cape Schanck can be found here

But to return to the quiz.

The rules are simple. There are sixteen questions in four categories: Easy, Medium, Hard, Evil. You will see a question then a photo clue, the answer is underneath the photo. Good luck and keep track of your score so you can see how you do at the end.

Have fun.

Easy

  1. What is the name of the capital of Victoria?

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A. Melbourne

 

2. Where was the best known book by Joan Lindsay set (hint it features a character called Miranda)

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A. Hanging Rock

 

3. What is the name of the main station in Melbourne? (this is very very easy if you look closely at the photo)

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A. Flinders Street Station.

 

4. What is the name of the island best known for its parade of little penguins

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A.Phillip Island

 

 

Medium

5. What was the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne built for?

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A. The 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition

 

 

6. Who was one of the founders of the State Library of Victoria, the the library of the University of Melbourne, the Supreme Court Library and was the judge who condemned Ned Kelly to death.

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A. Sir Redmond Barry

 

7. Where in Melbourne can you find 12000 unknown bodies?

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A.Under Queen Victoria Market.

 

8. What attraction was once known as the sow and piglets?

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A. The Twelve Apostles.

 

 

 

Hard

9. When was the State Library of Victoria established?

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A.1854

 

10. What and where is the photo below?

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A. The ceiling of the ANZ gothic bank in Collins Street Melbourne

 

11. What is the structure below called and what was it used for?

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A. Coop’s Shot tower and creating lead shot.

 

 

12. When was the Shrine opened?

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A. 1934

 

 

Evil

13. What decade was the Scenic Railway at Luna Park opened and which company designed it?

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A. 1910s (1912) and it is designed by L A Thompson Scenic Railway Company of New York.

 

 

 

14. What is the name of the mansion built in what is now Somers for Frederick Grimwade in 1895?

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A. Coolart

 

 

15. Who is the cairn on Arthur’s Seat dedicated to and why?

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A. Matthew Flinders because he stood on the mount in 1802

 

16. Who designed the Forum Theatre

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A. John Eberson and Bohringer, Taylor & Johnson

 

So that is the end. How did you do?

1-4: Well you’ve got some basics down pat. Good start.

5-8: You know more than basics, well on your way.

9-12: Good work, beginning to build a wealth of obscure facts.

13-15: Incredible effort. You may know more about Victoria than is sensible 🙂

16: Are you sure you didn’t write the quiz?

 

The photos are all mine

 

Wurundjeri Earth Rings

The history of Indigenous Australians is a vitally important part of the history of Victoria and Australia. It is something that nowhere near enough Australians, and I include myself in this, know enough about. It is a truly ancient history dating back roughly 70 000 years, making Indigenous Australians pretty much the oldest continuing culture in the world. There are Indigenous sites across Australia, many of which are thousands of years old, and if these were in Europe they’d be celebrated and visited by millions, even in places where there isn’t a lot to actually see. In Australia, however, they can be very hard to find. I’ve lived in and around Melbourne my whole life and I work in the heritage field, but I’d never even heard of the earth rings just out of Sunbury until they were part of a National Trust Heritage Festival tour this year. I jumped at the chance to visit and find out more.

I’d like to pause here to say that I am aware that as a non Indigenous person writing Indigenous history can be problematic. This post is intended to encapsulate the possible history of the site as was explained by a Wurundjeri Elder on the tour, and I claim no more than that. The rings are just so fascinating that I want to make sure people know about them and to help ensure that Indigenous history is a part of the history of Victoria.

I’d also like to say that the rings don’t show up amazingly well in photos, but I’m hoping the pictures will at least give you an idea of what I’m talking about. You can certainly see them when you’re on the site.

The rings are earthwork formations and can be found just out of Sunbury, which is an hour or so outside of Melbourne. The landscape has been farmed since 1842, but is slowly being reclaimed, and is surrounded by the curve of Jackson’s Creek. The land is being looked after by the Wurundjeri Tribe Council, using a mix of traditional and modern methods. You can see some general photos of the land and wildlife below.

IMG_0763IMG_0762IMG_0768IMG_0767The current site is 13 hectares, but it might be expanding as negotiations are currently in train to give the land council more land as part of another development.

Some of the land was owned by Salesian College, which you can see in the distance below.

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The Wurundjeri Tribe Council has begun revegetating the land, planting roughly 3000 trees and other plants. They have also cleared an extraordinary amount of weeds, including a lot of box thorn. They are using burning to help rejuvenate the land to bring back the native grasses and plants. Currently pasture grasses dominate the site, as you can see above. The smoke helps to stimulate seeds beneath the ground and regular small burns make it easier for native bushes and grasses to come back as the pasture grasses don’t regrow as easily if they are burnt regularly. You can see what I believe is an everlasting daisy which has come up below.

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While there would have been some trees originally, like the ones below, this area would have been a significant grassland.

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The Wurundjeri Tribe Council land managers have also been trying to build up the quality of the soil by raking together the leaves etc and letting them catch silt after rain before planting.

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So, that is the overall site, but what about the rings themselves. Development actually plays a key part in the history of the rings. No one knew the rings were there until a development went up on the edge of the reserve in the 1970s and they were re-discovered.

They are definitely man made and probably date to at least a thousand years, but in the invasion of western settlers in the 1800s the local Indigenous population was so decimated that the oral history of the rings was lost. They were dug out by hand with digging sticks, with nothing brought in from outside

On the site that I visited there are three rings, though there are others in the area. Unfortunately no one knows exactly what the rings were used for, only one has been archaeologically investigated. The Wurundjeri don’t want these sacred sites dug up, even for archaeology. Rings in NSW are thought to have been burial places, but there is no evidence of this for the Sunbury rings.

The first of the rings is in the worst condition. It has been too open to the public interference, especially from motorbikes. There is also a bad rabbit problem and a recent lack of rain has caused problems as well (this extends to the whole site)

The first ring was the one that was rediscovered in the 1970s with the nearby development. Once this one was re-found it was realised what the other two just over the hill were as well. You can see the ring in the photo below.

 

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IMG_0754It has been fenced off now, but even this doesn’t always work as you can see from the drain in the photo below.

IMG_0758The ring was dug out from the middle and the earth was piled up around.

The second and third rings are in better condition and it was the second one that was excavated in the 1970s. When the ring was excavated it had a pile of stones in the middle, it was thought that there might be burials underneath. There wasn’t, and it is thought that the stones were removed when the ring was dug (there is a lot of rock in the local soil) and piled in the middle. You can see the remains of the stones in the photos below.IMG_0773

IMG_0775The third ring is a little father up the hill and is actually a double ring. There is a larger ring with a smaller ring inside it.

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While it is not, currently, possible to know exactly what the rings were used for it is hoped that it will be in the future. New information is being discovered in diaries and old documentation all the time as for the first time researchers (especially Indigenous ones) really begin to look. The current theory is that the rings might have been used for marriage. You can’t see the first ring from the second and visa-versa and the idea is that the men would have got prepared in one and the women in the other and they would have joined each other in the double ring and actually married there. There is a flat section on the double ring where someone could have officiated from.

IMG_0782While at the moment this is only a theory, it is one that seems to make sense. Hopefully more answers will be discovered.

I am not in the least superstitious, but the rings do have a certain atmosphere. The atmosphere is of a place that has been used for a purpose for a very very long time, a land that has been shaped by human hands for time out of mind. It reminded me a little of the Hill of Tara in Ireland, a site that dates back thousands of years (which is perfectly possible for the rings).  This site and others like it should be part of the education of every Victorian child the way Eureka and the gold rush is. Places like the Wurundjeri rings and Indigenous history  in general needs to become an integral part of the overt history of Victoria rather than the background or subvert history. Indigenous history needs to become part of the historical consciousness of Australia, as important (if not more important) than the First Fleet and the ANZAC legends. It should be celebrated that we have this incredible history stretching back for thousands and thousands of years, and if doing this means coming to terms with and acknowledging how close European invasion came to destroying it all (much of the time quite intentionally) then so much the better.

 

References: Site visit 2018.

https://www.wurundjeri.com.au/services/natural-resource-management/

The photos are all mine.

The Gothic Bank and Its Museum

This post is the first in a series I’m hoping to write about small museums and libraries, their histories and collections. They will predominantly be in Melbourne and surrounds, but I’ll add the odd international one too. These sorts of posts give me the excuse to explore my city and my state. To find new ways to look at the places I’ve probably driven or walked past hundreds of times and to explore the fascinating small pieces of history that they hold.

I am beginning with the Gothic Bank in Melbourne and the banking museum that is underneath the building.

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The banking museum itself is under the gothic bank in a space that was used for many years by Australia Post. It was first opened in May 1985. It was part of the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of a Royal Charter which was granted to the Bank of Australasia, which was one of the banks from which ANZ originates. The museum was significantly refurbished in 2007, when ANZ redesigned the layout of the exhibits and updated the content.

While I was unable to take any pictures inside the museum it is a fascinating little institution. It tells the story of banking in Australia, beginning with the indigenous economy and going right up until the 21st century. I actually learnt a lot that I didn’t know.

For example:

From 1817 until 1910 Australian banks issued the bank notes. In 1910 the Commonwealth took over with the introduction of the Australian Note Act.

In World War I close to half the staff of the Union and Australian banks volunteered. Women were employed to fill the vacancies but they weren’t allowed to handle cash or deal with the customers.

The museum is open from 10-4 (traditional bankers hours) on weekdays and entry is free.

Now while the museum itself is interesting it is the building that it stands in that for me was more fascinating. As a medievalist living in Melbourne, I don’t get many chances to see medieval architecture and while the bank and its interior is Victorian Gothic, rather than the real thing, it is still very lovely.

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The bank was a collaboration between banker Sir George Verdon and architect William Wardell. Verdon was appointed General Manager of the English, Scottish and Australian Bank (which is now part of ANZ) in 1872. In 1881 he invited 3 architects to submit designs for a new headquarters in Australia. Wardell was successful. Work began in 1883 and the final cost was just over 77 000 pounds.

I especially like the attention to detail

IMG_1926IMG_1922And the gargoyles.

IMG_1932All buildings should have at least one gargoyle.

As magnificent as the exterior is, it is the interior that really shines

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IMG_1953The columns and brackets are cast iron which were made in a foundry in Carlton. They were covered with canvas, fixed with white lead and cement and had five coats of oil paint. The ceiling was hand painted and gilded. In the centre of each panel are the shields and arms of England, Scotland and Australia as well as the arms of the bank and the arms of the main cities in which it operated.

The sky light is a later addition and the banking room was expanded in the 1920s to include the entrance to the former stock exchange building.

The gothic bank does not stand alone. The stock exchange building was added in 1891 with architect William Pitt winning a design competition in 1888. The vestibule of the stock exchange, most of the actual work went on upstairs, is an impressive 20m by 15m. It contains six Harcourt granite columns which weigh between 16 and 20 tonnes. They are capped by white Tasmanian marble. They were transported all the way from Bendigo by teams of 30 horses. It is unsurprisingly known as the cathedral room.

IMG_1939The details on the walls are truly impressive

IMG_1943The beautiful tiled floor is not original but it was based on the original colours and patterns.

IMG_1940There is also a magnificent stained glass window. Up the very top you can see a miner ‘panning off’ which is meant to represent the origins of the wealth of Victoria. The central figure is a woman representing ‘labour’. The window also depicts the coats of arms of both Britain and Australia and symbols of the four divisions of the globe.

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There is also other decorative stained glass work.

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The other building constructed at the same time as the stock exchange is the Melbourne Safe Deposit. It was also designed by William Pitt and was completed by 1890. It is six stories above the ground, but there is a vault beneath it which holds 3000 safes. The floor was concrete which was laid directly onto rock. The walls were 1m thick. The actual strong room was raised off the floor and was built of wrought iron boiler plate and it was lined with un-drillable steel. The whole thing weighed nearly 200 tons. It was the first safe deposit building in Australia. It is still in use today. It is not open to the public sadly, but it is pretty incredible from the outside.

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In 1989 ANZ found itself with three significant and beautiful gothic buildings. More than 20 million was committed to restoring the old buildings and a linking atrium was built.

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At the same time a modern ANZ headquarters was being built and it retains elements of the gothic style to mirror the original buildings and to bring them all in together as one complex. IMG_1957

The gothic bank and its museum are a truly beautiful and fascinating building that are well worth a visit. I’m just pleased that this is the sort of thing I can go at look at in Melbourne. Exploring these sorts of buildings is why it can be so incredible to really look at your own city, to find the places that you’ve never noticed. To find the small corners of history that each city holds.

References:

Site visit 2018

ANZ’s Gothic Bank: A commitment to preservation (booklet)

The photos are mine.

Hanging Rock

Directly ahead, the grey volcanic mass rose up slabbed and pinnacled like a fortress from the empty yellow plain. The three girls on the box seat could see the vertical lines of the rocky walls, now and then gashed with an indigo shade, patches of grey green dogwood, outcrops of boulders even at this distance immense and formidable. At the summit, apparently bare of living vegetation, a jagged line of rock cut across the serene blue of the sky.

Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay pg 14.

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The story and the history of Hanging Rock will always be inextricably linked both with Joan Lindsay’s 1967 book Picnic at Hanging Rock and with Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaptation.

Hanging Rock is an extinct volcano just out of Woodend Victoria that last erupted about seven million years ago. It stands 711 metres above sea level and rises 100 metres above its surrounding plain. It is largely composed of volcanic mamelon. In this particular type of mamelon there was a very high soda content so when it got rained on it was eaten away into the distinctive shapes you see today.

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I have been there twice and until very recently, in fact so I could write this post, I had neither seen the film nor read the book. Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the film, the story of Picnic at Hanging Rock has seeped into Australian culture. The first time I went to Hanging Rock was nearly 11 years ago with my school. We were on a creative retreat and we had a day out to explore the rock. Naturally being a bunch of 17 and 18 year olds we spent most of the time climbing over as much of the rock as we could and running around shouting “Miranda, Miranda” thinking we were very clever.  If you haven’t read the book or seen the film, or aren’t Australian, the reference will become clear a little later.

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I went back a couple of weeks ago because I wanted to have another look. It is a place of great beauty and great history. I’ve never found it as haunting or mysterious as many do, but it is easy to become disoriented and lost up amongst the rocks which all look eerily similar once you lose your sense of direction.

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Ironically enough, on this visit I actually ended up leading two groups of people back down the rock because they couldn’t find the path. I can’t claim especial prescience, I just happened to have been watching where I had come from because I knew it could be tricky, but it still felt kind of appropriate.

The sense of mystery that hangs around  is largely because of the book and the movie. The story of the rock itself will always be linked with them, so I’m going to start there.

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay is at its most basic level a gothic novella, the story of a group of school girls who go on a picnic at Hanging Rock on Valentine’s Day in 1900 and three of them and one teacher don’t come back. It is however more than that. It is the story of the Australian landscape and the attempt to superimpose an European ideal onto it. It is a haunting mystery, it’s a story of friendship and obsession and it is one of the most evocative books I’ve ever read. I know it might sound odd to say that a book which is considered a classic is really very good, but too often for me I find that I read ‘classics’ and appreciate them for their craft but can’t come to lose myself in them. This was the complete opposite with Picnic at Hanging Rock. It helped that by accident I was reading a 1967 original edition. It not only has the most fabulous late 60s cover.

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But also the start of each chapter has a beautifully decorated letter, and each one is different.

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It is an involving, extraordinarily visually descriptive and haunting story that hangs around long after you’ve finished reading. And for the Miranda reference? Miranda is one of the missing school girls, the most perfect, the idolised one. There are a number of scenes in both the book and film where searchers are clambering over the rocks shouting “Miranda Miranda”.

This history of the book itself is an interesting one. Joan Lindsay wrote it over two weeks at her house in Mulberry Hill in Baxter Victoria and some of it came to her in a dream. There are large portions of the book that are based on Joan’s life, she went to a school quite similar to the one depicted in the novel and she also spent a lot of time around and at Hanging Rock in the early 1900s. She and her family were in fact staying in the area in 1900, when the book is set. Joan recreated the long hot late Victorian early Edwardian summers in Picnic at Hanging Rock.  She also refused for all her life to say whether the book was based on a true story or not. In fact she recorded in the forward :

Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact of fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important. 

This blurring between fiction and reality is one of the most enduring aspects of the story and the lack of conclusion to the mystery, you never find out what happened to the girls, keeps drawing you back in. It has definitely defined the mystique of Hanging Rock itself. However there was a final chapter to the book, which Joan requested to be published posthumously, in which the girls disappearance is a supernatural event. Personally I prefer the conclusion of the original novel where nothing is really known and the reality is very blurred.

Joan Lindsay died on the 23rd of December 1984, but her work continues to live on and has settled as a mantle over the very stone of Hanging Rock.

Peter Weir’s film is a core part of the construction of the legend. While the book was known and appreciated before the film, it was the film which pushed it into a mainstay of Australian cultural history.

You can see the trailer below.

Weir’s film made the name of several well known Australian actors and in its depiction of the Australian bush and its eerie setting and soundtrack was ground breaking for the time. The most memorable part of the soundtrack was probably the pan pines. The dreamlike atmosphere of the film was created by placing bridal veils over the lens of the camera. The cast of school girls was largely amateur, which is one of the reasons there is so little dialogue. It was shot in six weeks, partly on site at Hanging Rock, but most of the scenes that were not actually on the rock were shot in South Australia. Joan Lindsay was involved in the filming and her house in Mulberry Hill in Baxter and her background as a painter was a strong influence on the film’s remarkable aesthetic. Once the film was released the story of Picnic at Hanging Rock became cemented in Australian culture (with Joan Lindsay besieged with letters and visitors and the media wanting to know what was true) and the narrative of Hanging Rock itself.

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The history of the rock itself is in many ways as interesting as the story of the novel and the film.

Hanging Rock has been an important site to the local Indigenous Australians for thousands of years. The Edibolidgitoorong, a sub-clan of the Wurundjeri, used it as a vantage point, for monitoring the weather, maintaining security of the area and probably for mediations and possibly initiations. The Wurundjeri people still have strong ties to the area and the rock. When settlers began to arrive in the area diseases like smallpox and the deliberate clearing of land for grazing and mining impacted the Wurundjeri very seriously. In 1863 everyone who was left in the area were rounded up and sent to the Coranderrk Aboriginal Mission, mainly as a result of conflict with local colonists. As with all of Australia, the land was very much inhabited before the arrival of the European settlers and colonists and as with much of Australia the indigenous people suffered greatly due to their arrival.

When the settlers did arrive the name “Hanging Rock” was not used originally. Hanging Rock is technically a nickname that begun to be used in roughly the 1850s and it comes from one rock that ‘hangs’ over the path to ascend to the top.

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It is officially called Mount Diogenes in line with the ancient greek theme of the surrounding area such as Mount Macedon, and Alexander’s Crown (which later came to be known as Camel’s Hump). These other names were largely bestowed by surveyor Major Thomas Mitchell, who is responsible for naming large portions of Victoria. I have written about him and his influence on Victoria’s Western District before and you can find the post here. 

The name Mount Diogenes first appears, however, on Robert Hoddle’s map of 1844. Hoddle is best known for laying out Melbourne’s grid and it is quite possible that he chose Diogenes to fit in with Major Mitchell’s slightly earlier naming scheme. Some people argue that Mitchell in fact named the rock, though it was out of his way on his journey south. Hanging Rock had one other name as well, Dryden’s Rock after Edward Dryden who leased the run that the rock sat on in 1837, he was one of the area’s first settlers. Whatever the past naming issues Hanging Rock had, “Hanging Rock” had become the common usage name by the mid to late 1800s.

There has been a settlement near the rock since the second half of the 19th century, at least partly fuelled by the railway coming to Woodend in 1861. The first settlers were pastoralists and squatters who leased and then later bought the land. No one ever lived actually on the rock but there were settlements surrounding it, boasting a hotel, church, recreations reserve and racetrack.

The racetrack has been in operation since 1880, when the inaugural Hanging Rock Cup took place. You can see it today in the photos below.

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Racing wasn’t the only social draw of the rock. Deciding to have a picnic on the rock was  a common occurrence. There was a picnic ground beneath the rock and picnicking on the rock itself in the 1800s was a common social activity for the time. In Picnic At Hanging Rock Miranda mentions a painting of “people in old fashioned dresses having a picnic at the rock”. The picture she is referring to is At The Hanging Rock by William Ford and it was painted in 1875. You can see it below

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From the National Gallery of Victoria:

https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/5568/

The is also plenty of evidence of people climbing the rock in the 1800s, including the graffiti you can see in the photo below.

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Despite its celebrity status through books and film today Hanging Rock remains surprisingly unspoilt. It still sits in its patch of pristine bush.IMG_0691And it continues to hold a fascination that goes beyond the book and the film. It is a truly majestic place.

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And has some of the most amazing views of the surrounding area.

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The walk to the top is absolutely worth it.

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References:

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay 1967

Beyond the Rock: The life of Joan Lindsay and the mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock by Janelle McCulloch

The Hanging Rock by Marion Hutton

Site visits 2007 and 2018

The photos are all mine.