Ragbag on road- Maldon

As I said in my, slightly unplanned, video; welcome to the first edition of Ragbag on Road. These entries are going to differ a little from my normal posts, because rather than a detailed history of a person, building, painting, book, topic etc., I’m going to take you on a wander with me through a new place. In this case I’m beginning with Maldon, a town in north central Victoria. This isn’t a full history of the town, but I’ll be talking briefly about several of interesting sights and sites and hope you enjoy this ramble with me.

I want to start by acknowledging both the Dja Dja Waurrung people on whose land Maldon stands and the Bunurong people on whose land I write from. The history of the Dja Dja Waurrung stretches back tens of thousands of years before white colonists arrived and ‘discovered’ gold in the Maldon area. The history of Australia is not new and clean and everything that was ‘discovered’ was already part of the land of the First Nations people. Australia’s First Nations’ history is ancient and in writing about recent history I acknowledge and celebrate a millennia of First Nations’ storytelling and knowledge keeping. The story of the Dja Dja Waurrung is not mine to tell, but I direct you to https://djadjawurrung.com.au/ the Dja Dja Waurrung Land Council which explores their history. I just want to be very clear that Maldon is Dja Dja Waurrung land.

To explore the town itself. This will be a little random because I tend to wander around new places and see what I can find, and I’m hoping to take you on that journey with me. I will give a little history to get us started though.

As I said in my opening video gold was found in Maldon in 1853, but that’s not the beginning of colonial history in the area. In 1836 the area was passed through by surveyor Major Thomas Mitchell. I’ve actually written about Mitchell’s survey of the ‘Australian Felix’ before you can find that post here. The land was soon settled by Europeans, and as pastoralists moved into the region First Nations people were denied access to their food and water sources and eventually forcibly moved on to reserves, including one at near by Loddon, with only a small number remaining in the area.

The Maldon region would have remained as the pastoral run of the 100 000 acre Cairn Curran property if gold hadn’t been found in 1853. The region was quickly flooded with people as part of Victoria’s gold rush with an immediate rush of up to 40 000 people. As you can imagine this massive influx of people only continued to grow and infrastructure was needed. The town as you see it now was laid out in 1856 by Thomas Adair at the behest of the Colonial government. He named it Maldon. The gold in the area proved to be a very rich seam and, while the alluvial gold petered out in about two years, mines were soon being dug. The deepest reached 75 meters and there were roughly 40 mines in the area. It’s believed that over 2 million ounces of gold were produced from the region, which in today’s money would be worth billions of dollars. The town grew quickly after it was declared a municipality in 1858 and this is the streetscape you see today. The photos below give you an idea.

This is the intact street scape that led the National Trust to declare Maldon Australia’s first ‘notable town’ in 1965. So that’s the basic history, now it’s time for our wander.

We begin, down the end of the main street (mainly because that’s where I could find a car park) with the Warnock’s Flour Mill.

This was the site of the local flour mill run by James and Samuel Warnock (the entrance was via rear lane) it was converted to shops in the early 1900s and is now famous for its Bushells sign. It is technically a ghost sign as Bushells is no longer sold there, but it’s so vibrant it’s hard to see it as especially ghost like.

You’ll have spotted the nice brick building next door. This is the Free Mason’s Hall.

This building was originally part of the Warnock’s store but the facade was added in 1908 and the Freemasons moved in and used it as their hall until the 1980s.

In our first random jump we move past some of the other high street buildings (I’ll return later). One of the key reasons I wanted to visit Maldon is its Athenaeum Library, but as it doesn’t open until the afternoon I have a quick wander to find it before going for lunch and on the way I discover two of Maldon’s many churches on the way. Both in fact Baptist churches.

The smaller building is the original church opened in 1865. It began as a Welsh church due to the large number of Welsh miners in the area. There was a division of the congregation which resulted in the construction of the larger church just round the corner in 1895. But eventually the differences were solved and the congregation reunified in 1930 into the larger building, using the small church as the Sunday school. The light you can see next to the original church is a modern replica of the lamp built in the 1880s so that passers by could read the times of upcoming Baptist sermons.

We then wander along to the Maldon Progress Hall. It was opened in 1873 as a Temperance Hall and is now owned by Mount Alexander Shire and used as a community hall.

Looking back we see Brook’s Store which was built in 1866 and run as cooperative store by a shareholding company. The Co-op never really got off the ground and the shares were liquidated in 1872. Brooks took the store over and the Brooks Family ran it until 1986- very little of the building has been changed.

Our next stop on the way to the Athenaeum is the Post Office. It was opened in 1869 and has one really interesting claim to fame. Australian author Henry Handel Richardson grew up there when her mother was post mistress from 1880 to 1886. It features in her work Myself When Young.

Ok, so we have now reached the Athenaeum. It was opened in 1863 though the current building dates to the 1930s

As you can see it is currently closed, so now that I’ve located it I’m headed off for some lunch, exploring a couple more interesting sites on my way back to the main street. Below you can see the Holy Trinity Anglican Church which is just opposite the Athenaeum.

It was built in 1861 of local stone (hornfels), which is known for its hardness. Some of the deep gutters are also built of it. It is the largest stone building in the town. It was designed by D.R Drape. You can see also see one of the outbuildings and an olive tree which was planted by Bishop Bowden to mark the centenary of the Bendigo Diocese in 2002.

The last building before lunch is the Market Building. It’s now the home of the Maldon Museum (which is closed when I visit but wrote most of the remarkable array of historical brochures which I am basing this post on). The Market was opened in 1859, but closed in 1860 because of a depression. It was converted into the Council buildings in 1865 and they remained there until 1964. In the photos below you can also see grounds around the Market building which contain two English Oaks planted in 1863 to commemorate the marriage of Prince Albert Edward to Alexandra Princess of Denmark. The rotunda dates to 2008 but it is a realisation of a long held dream with the petition to raise funds for a brass band rotunda presented to Council in 1883.

After lunch I go straight back to the Maldon Athenaeum Library and it’s open.

It was opened in 1863. The original wooden building burnt down in early 1900s with all records lost along with, apparently, the stuffed albatross in the window. The building dates to the 1930s and it is still community owned and run. It’s one of only eight mechanics’ institutes in Victorian which still have lending libraries (I work for one of the others). The Athenaeum is volunteer run and it’s a fascinating little building and collection. I hope the below photos give a good overview.

So Athenaeum explored I wander back to the main street via one more church and some hotels.

The Wesleyan Church and Parsonage which you can see above dates to 1863, it is the earliest church building still intact in Maldon. The brick chapel behind was probably the first building used as a church in Maldon. There is also a spring on the site and the stories say the minister threatened legal action against anyone who was caught removing more than one bucket of water. The building has been beautifully converted to The Cascade Art Gallery.

After the church I make my way past a couple of hotels.

Maldon Hotel opened in 1908 by Thomas Butler. Its site was originally a creek bed, but after severe flooding in the 1860s a drain was erected.

Another casualty of the creek bed was Shakespeare House, after the original wooden building was flooded the drain was built. It was delicensed as a hotel in 1910. It remains intact to the period.

At the end of the main street I head up to the Beehive Mine which I shoot my opening video from.

The chimney is 30 metres high and was built in 1863. The mine itself opened in 1859 and operated until 1911. You can see the remains of the building foundations in the second photo.

After a quick wander around the mine I make my way back to my car and drive out to the railway station.

The station opened in 1884 and was closed to passengers in 1941. It now runs as a short tourist heritage railway.

Now I have my car I head for my final stop in my wanderings, the tower at the top of Mount Tarrengower. Part of the tower is an original mine poppet head and it is still used as a fire watching tower today. It has been lit up every Easter since 1926. This was originally done with kerosene lamps but now electric lights are used. Local children grow up with the legend that the tower is the Easter Bunny’s house. The top of Mount Tarrengower is also roughly the centre of Victoria (there is a survey post I just couldn’t find it). The view from the top is incredible.

After admiring the view I head for home and the storm you can see in the last photo hits me on the way back. It’s been a fascinating day and I hope you have enjoyed wandering with me.

Ellen

References:

Site visit 2022

A Walk in the Reserve (Booklet)

Maldon’s Historic CBD (Booklet)

Historic Churches of Maldon (Booklet)

The Maldon Athenaeum Library (Booklet)

Historic Town Walk Maldon (Booklet)

History of Maldon (Booklet)

Maldon Historic Drive: Beehive Mine (Booklet)

https://djadjawurrung.com.au/giyakiki-our-story/#malamiya-yu

https://maldonmuseum.com.au/?page_id=368

http://tours.maldonmuseum.com.au/index.php/mobile/walks/4

http://maldonbaptist.org/about-us/#history

https://www.flickr.com/photos/31967465@N04/33925037822/

http://www.vgr.com.au/homepage.php

The photos are all mine.

This post doesn’t cover every heritage building in Maldon by any stretch of the imagination. I recommend a visit and I intend to go back. Contact the Maldon Museum if you would like further information.

Susanna Gale

This blog post takes me out of my comfort zone (era wise) as I know very little about the mid 18th century and I’ve never written about an artwork before. But in many ways it is also right in my wheelhouse, exploring the lives of women in history to bring them out of the shadows. But before I introduce you to Susanna Gale, I need to go back to the beginning.

One of my favourite places in Melbourne is the National Gallery of Victoria. It’s an amazing bluestone building with the ambience of the ancient cathedrals. It’s also home to Leonard French’s stained glass ceiling- the largest in the world. It is Melbourne tradition to lie on your back on the carpet and look up at it when you visit the gallery. You can see the view below.

Anyway, as soon as we were allowed out again after lockdown the NGV was high on my list of places to visit. I started with the medieval section, best place to see reliquaries in Melbourne, and then headed for Tiepolo’s magnificent (if incredibly historically inaccurate in just about every conceivable way) Banquet of Cleopatra. It’s one of the NGV’s stalwarts and it’s nice to visit.

On my way, I noticed a new hang from the last time I’d been in the gallery, including one painting that literally stopped me in my tracks. Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Miss Susanna Gale. Reynolds is a master painter, which is one of the reasons it stood out, but I was also enthralled by her, by Susanna. And I wanted to know more. The information on the picture didn’t tell me much other than her name, the artist and the fact it was painted in c. 1763-1764 so I did some digging. I write fiction too and originally I was intending to just use the research for a short story. I am currently working on a story about Susanna, memories, a rose and Debussy, but she captivated me enough that I thought she deserved her own post. So in all the finest traditions of Historical Ragbag here she is.

So who was Susanna and how did her painting come to be at the National Gallery of Victoria?

Let’s start with Susanna, as she is the subject of the painting and the point of this post. Susanna was an heiress, the daughter of Francis Gale and Susannah Hall. Francis Gale was a wealthy British sugar planter from Jamaica. Susannah Hall was an heiress in her own right, her father James Hall was a silver mine owner also from Jamaica. You can see what is thought to be a painting of Francis Gale below. It dates to 1763 and interestingly was also painted by Reynolds. It is held by the National Trust in the UK at Montacute House.

Reynolds, Joshua; Colonel Isaac Gale (thought to actually be Francis Gale); National Trust, Montacute House; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/colonel-isaac-gale-101861

I want to pause here to examine something that must immediately come to mind when we’re looking at British commerce in areas like Jamaica in this era, especially sugar plantations: slavery. When I started writing this post, I only had the supposition about the time and place. I have since found the Gales listed in the database of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery. When Francis Gale died in 1775 his probate indicated that he owned 45 people: 28 men, 17 women and 8 children. In all honesty when I found this, I wondered whether I should continue writing about Susanna at all, as she definitely profited directly from slavery. When I thought about it though, I decided to continue because history should be explored in all its complexities and dark places, and her life should be acknowledged in all its parts. There is scant information about Susanna, but her family’s past is part of the tapestry of her life.

So as an heiress Susanna came to London to finish her education. And this is the moment when Reynolds painted her. She’s fourteen or fifteen in this painting, but for me it’s her face that is most intriguing. She looks like she’s poised on the edge of taking steps into a new world, a child trying to be an adult. That is certainly how she is styled, her clothing and posture very much reflect a contrast to her youthful face, there are reasons for this which I will return to later. She didn’t stay in England for long. The painting dates to 1764 at the latest and we know she married a man called Sabine Turner by 1765. There is very little known about Sabine, they were married in Jamaica but he failed to make any mark. Sabine was dead by 1766. We don’t know what Susanna did in the immediate aftermath of his death, but in 1769 she married the promising navy captain Alan Gardener in Jamaica. This proved to be a good match for Susanna as Alan would go on to become Vice-Admiral Lord Alan Gardner, he was a contemporary of Nelson’s and almost as well known in his own time. The title of Baron Gardner was created for him. You can see his portrait below.

Vice-Admiral Lord Alan Gardner (1742-1809) *oil on canvas *76 x 73.5 cm *1780-1809

As usual there is a Wikipedia article about her husband and his accomplishments, but very little about Susanna after their marriage. We know they had ten children, nine sons and one daughter, and that Susanna became Lady Gardner. Of those children, the eldest Alan inherited his father’s titles and followed him into the navy, the second Francis-Farrington became an admiral in the navy, the third William-Henry became a major general, the fourth Henry-Cossley died young, the fifth Herbert didn’t do anything remarkable, the sixth Edward was a resident at the Court of the Rajah in Nepal, the seventh Valentine died young, the eighth also Valentine was a captain in the Royal Navy, the ninth Samuel-Martin didn’t do anything remarkable and the tenth and only daughter Susannah-Hall married well.

With such a large family and with so many in the military we can presume that Susanna’s life was much taken up with bearing, raising and in fact burying her children, she outlived at least five of her children and her husband. Lord Alan died in 1808 and Susanna lived until 1823. As the wife of the Baron Gardner she would have had property to help manage, especially with her husband away at sea often. From this scant information we can extrapolate a life similar to most of her station in this era. But we can add no detail. Looking at the painting, it’s hard to imagine the girl depicted as a twice widowed mother of a dynasty, a military wife, and an old woman with scores of grand-children. She is captured on the cusp of a life she couldn’t have known. Which brings us neatly back to the painting itself. It is the reason Susanna is remembered at all. Which comes back to the central question, what is it doing in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne Australia, a world away from its origins?

Unlike the details of Susanna’s life, this is a question that can actually be answered. But before I do, I want to talk a little about the composition of the painting and how it came to be painted. I preface this with the disclaimer that I am not an art historian, so please forgive any errors.

When Susanna came to London, Joshua Reynolds was the painter de jour, especially of portraits. He painted up to 150 sitters a year. With this in mind he had a streamlined process of generally three sittings of about an hour and a half each time. This would be sufficient to complete the face then as Reynolds described it in 1777 “the rest is done without troubling the sitter”. Everything else was modelled by his servants and pupils, from clothes to the hands. This might have been efficient, but does mean that you do see similarities between portraits. The best comparison in the case of Susanna’s painting is Reynolds’ portrait of Mrs Thomas Riddle painted in 1763. You can see it below and the parallels are obvious even to a completely untrained eye.

Reynolds was also drawing on a long artistic tradition, especially the work of van Dyck and specifically his painting of Elena Grimaldi, from 1623. You can see it below.

Susanna is cast into a role demarcated by more than century of artistic tradition, and I’d like to return to her specific portrait. Interestingly, the painting at the NGV is not the only version. It is the original, but there is a copy held by the National Trust in the UK in Clarendon Park. It was painted after 1763, but before the original was cut down. You can see it below.

Reynolds, Joshua; Susanna Gale (1749-1823), Lady Gardner; National Trust, Clandon Park; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/susanna-gale-17491823-lady-gardner-216831

The really interesting bit about this is ‘before the original was cut down’. The painting was taken to sea by Lord Alan on several of his voyages (I like the thought of him wanting the portrait of his wife with him-maybe it’s an indicator of a happy marriage?) and it was damaged so much that the dimensions had to be reduced. It also suffered some kind of injury when it was in transit on the Midland Railway, necessitating restoration. Close examination of the painting in 1956 by the NGV noted evidence of the painting having many skilfully mended cuts and tears especially across the top. It had also been relined and possibly re-stretched. So the painting has not lived a comfortable life gathering dust on the wall of the family mansion. And this brings us back to the question of how did it end up in Melbourne?

Once Lord Alan died Susanna gave the painting to her daughter Susannah Cornwall and when she died in 1853 it passed down to her descendant Reverend Alan Gardener Cornwall. The painting remained in the family until 1872 when it was sold and came into the possession of banker Bertram Currie you can see him below.

When he died in 1896 it was inherited by his son Laurence Currie. Laurence died in 1934 and the painting was purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria from Christies as part of the Felton Bequest. The Felton Bequest was set up by Alfred Felton who was a successful Melbourne businessman. You can see his portrait below.

Felton began collecting art from the late 1880s onwards, he lived with his art collection at the Esplanade Hotel in St Kilda. He donated paintings to the gallery during his life time, but it was his will that really shaped the gallery’s collection. The bequest continues to this day and is responsible for purchasing 80% of the NGV’s finest artworks that are valued at over 2 billion.

The will was drawn up in 1900 with trustees of a committee of five to administer the funds. The income was divided equally between donations to charity and to purchase art works for the NGV. The committee was able to appoint art advisors in Europe and around the world and the only stipulations for purchasing was that the works had “to have an artistic and educational value and to be calculated to raise or improve public taste” The overseas advisors were key to the purchasing of art under the bequest and Randall Davies was appointed the London advisor in c.1928. He presided over the bequest until 1934, and one of his final recommendations was Joshua Reynolds’ Miss Gale which was bought for 3500 pounds. The Argus newspaper at the time printed a photo of the newly hung portrait.

The Argus reported:

Referring to the picture and its history, Sir Charles Holmes, the English painter and critic, says that it bears no trace of the two accidents which overtook it-once, when Admiral Gardner took it to sea with him, and once in a railway smash. At Christies, while under a darkened varnish, the picture still left a delightful impression of dignity combined with youthful grace. After cleaning, the picture revealed an unexpected richness and glow of colour in the rose-red dress and russet background, coupled with a freedom of brushwork, anticipating the magnificent ease and breadth of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s maturity “I cannot help feeling,” Sir Charles Holmes says, “that on this occasion Sir Joshua had in mind some work by his great rival Gainsborough, an inspiration reflected in the free brushwork, the transparent colour, and, above all, in the sensitive refinement, the gentle distinction, with which the young lady is invested other works by Reynolds maybe more profound, more imposing, but I know of very few indeed that would be so desirable a possession”

She was hung on Tuesday the 7th of August 1934 and has remained at the NGV ever since.

So that brings us to the end of both Susanna’s story and the story of how a Joshua Reynolds portrait of a Jamaican British heiress painted in 1763-64 came to be hanging on the walls of the National Gallery of Victoria in 2021 to enthral me. I’ll leave you again with the painting, and if you’re ever in Melbourne, maybe go and visit her.

References:

Images:

Leonard French Ceiling: Ellen Coates

Banquet of Cleopatra National Gallery of Victoria: https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/4409/

Susanna Gale National Gallery of Victoria https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/4299/

Francis Gale National Trust UK https://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/597959

Admiral Lord Alan Gardner https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b1/Vice-Admiral_Lord_Alan_Gardner_%281742-1809%29%2C_by_William_Beechey.jpg

Mrs Thomas Riddell https://www.wikiart.org/en/joshua-reynolds/mrs-thomas-riddell

Elena Grimaldi National Gallery of Art https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.1231.html

Susanna Gale National Trust UK https://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1441498

Bertram Currie https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bertram_Wodehouse_Currie.jpg

Alfred Felton https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Felton#/media/File:Longstaff_felton1.jpg

Susana Gale The Argus https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/rendition/nla.news-article10975964.3.html?followup=47ff0cf3a10a59d0cdb69e5d3a63ed02

General references:

Felton Bequest:

https://www.eqt.com.au/philanthropy/the-alfred-felton-bequest

The Felton Bequest National Gallery of Victoria by Ursula Hoff

Mr Felton’s Bequest by John Poynter

Miss Susanna Gale painting:

The National Gallery of Victoria by Ursula Hoff

Painting and Sculpture Before 1800: In the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria by National Gallery of Victoria

National Gallery of Victoria: Painting drawing sculpture by Ursula Hoff

A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds Volume I by Graves and Cronin https://archive.org/details/historyofworksof01grav

The Quarterly Bulletin of the National Gallery of Victoria Vol.10 No.3 1956 https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/The-Quarterly-Bulletin-of-the-National-Gallery-of-Victoria-vol-10-No-3-1956.pdf

Work of the Week https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/work-of-the-week-miss-susanna-gale-c-1763-1764/

Works of Art Loaned by the NGV: https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/10561634/works-of-art-loaned-by-the-ngv-national-gallery-of-victoria

Quadrant: Grand European Paintings of NGV https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2012/12/grand-european-paintings-of-the-ngv/

Bertram Currie: https://www.natwestgroup.com/heritage/people/bertram-wodehouse-currie.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bertram_Wodehouse_Currie

The Argus reporting on Susanna Gale portrait: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/10975964?searchTerm=%22miss%20gale%22#

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/10986282?searchTerm=%22susanna%20gale%22

Susanna Gale and Family:

Lord Alan Gardner https://morethannelson.com/officer/alan-gardner-1st-baron-gardner/

Gale Families https://web.archive.org/web/20131213052300/http://gale-gaylefamilies.com/gale-gayle-families-of-the-west-indies.html

Debrett’s Complete Peerage of the United Kingdom and Ireland https://books.google.com.au/books?id=Ru4UAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA323&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

Baron Gardner https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baron_Gardner

Susanna Gale http://artothings.blogspot.com/2008/06/miss-susanna-gale.html

Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery: Francis Gale https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/inventory/view/3468

Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery: Susanna Hyde Turner then Gardner (nee Gale) https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/2146637755

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Book Review: Vera Deakin and the Red Cross by Carole Woods

For the first time I’ve been sent a book for review, a somewhat novel experience for me, but one that I hope will continue as I expand my range of book reviews on this blog. I always love having the chance to talk about a woman who played a crucial role in history, but whose voice and or story has been lost to the broader narrative. In being sent Vera Deakin and the Red Cross by Carole Woods, I’ve had the chance to learn about an intriguing woman, and also about the role of the Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau, which could easily have been a book in and of itself. So thank you Simone from Shebang for sending me the book.

Simone’s contact wasn’t the first time I’ve actually seen this book. I bought it for work, as I’m always keeping my eye out for any books about women in Victorian history, that can help to fill gaps in the predominantly male narrative, especially military narratives which often write out women entirely. So I’d purchased the book for the PMI Victorian History Library. Sadly, I don’t have time to read every book I buy for work (it would actually be physically impossible) and in all honesty Vera isn’t one I would have picked up and read for myself. I saw it as a reference book to be dipped in to for information as needed, not something to read cover to cover. This supposition is supported by the format, a somewhat awkward slightly oversized hardback. The book does not promote itself as a popular biography. Given this, I was intending to dip in and out for this review, but I was surprised to find how readable Vera is.

Much of this readability comes from the compelling, improbable and complex nature of Vera Deakin’s life and that’s where I want to begin.

Vera Deakin, born in 1891, was the youngest daughter of Australia’s second Prime Minister Alfred Deakin. She was many ways a deeply conventional woman, but she stepped forcibly out of the conventional mould in pursuit of what she saw as her duty to serve.

Vera begins describing her somewhat idyllic childhood, of literature, family life and education both in Melbourne and in Point Lonsdale (where both Vera and her husband chose to be buried). It explores her immediate family, and the role of both her parents Pattie and Alfred Deakin. It’s in this section that narrative lost me a little for the first time, as it skipped around in trying to create atmosphere at the same time as describing non essential people and jumping forward and back in time to allude to future events. Vera does encapsulate the world of learning and music that was the foundation of Vera’s life. However, despite extracts and comments from Vera’s own diaries and letters, Vera herself is a little lost (along with the narrative thread) in the sheer welter of new people, houses being bought and then sold, laundry listing of events, family dynamics, connections, atmosphere setting and external references.

Vera really catches you when we reach World War One. With war declared Vera, who in the preceding chapters had been travelling in England and Germany to continue her musical studies, wants to do her part, very clearly wants to serve and is rebuffed. This is where we see Vera really step into her own story. No one else (especially her father) envisions a role for her in the war other than helping at home and running canteens with her mother, so she makes one. This is where we see the Vera who would later be described as autocratic but deeply compassionate, who inspired fierce loyalty, love, but also awe and in some cases fear. If she had been a man, no doubt the autocracy would not have been commented on.

In finding her own place, Vera got on a ship to Cairo to join the Red Cross support services in Egypt. This was the beginning of her lifelong commitment to the Red Cross. It is not an exaggeration to say that she was the backbone of the organisation in Australia. Arriving in Egypt, Vera was at the coalface of the beginnings of the Australian Enquiry Bureau. Essentially this was a service of tracking down soldiers and sending news of them to their relatives, they also took requests from relatives to track down their loved ones. This might sound like a simple enough concept, but dealing with the conflagration of disorder that was World War One, it was anything but simple. By 1915 enquiry lists were stretching out to 900 pages. These were all soldiers listed as missing, or wounded, or dead. The idea was to provide context for families, the military notification was stark ‘missing’ ‘wounded’ ‘died of wounds’ ‘killed in action’, the Enquiry Bureau filled in these gaps, finding the soldiers, letting their families know of their condition, communicating with prisoners of war (a little later) and sending care packages, and if the solider was dead not only confirming the death but also how they died, usually by talking to another solider who had been there. As you can imagine this was a mammoth task, they had searchers who went out to all the hospitals and military units etc to ascertain the information, but it all had to be sorted and communicated and made useful. Vera was at the heart of this. When the action moved more to Europe, the Egyptian Bureau closed and Vera moved it to London in 1916, she remained there, running the Bureau until the end of the war. The Bureau provided comfort to thousands and thousands of families, but also soldiers, through contact with prisoners of war, helping soldiers on leave and visiting sick and wounded soldiers. Vera was again at the coalface of this side of the operation often ‘adopting’ soldiers and taking them to entertainments on leave, hosting parties, visiting them in hospital and, on one memorable occasion, taking Christmas to a particular hospital when her parents visited in 1916. She also formed relationships with the families of soldiers she was helping to trace, in several cases maintaining correspondence even after the solider was found to be dead. She kept in contact with one father until his death twelve years later.

Vera did not undertake this work alone. She was the heart of a dedicated group of some paid but largely volunteers. This included several women from a similar background to her own, who became lifelong friends, and some of whom she continued to work with when she returned to Australia. As a snapshot of the sheer volume of work that was undertaken- in 1917 the Bureau received 26953 cabled enquiries from Australia and sent back 24610 responses. They received 9175 posted enquires and another 11444 enquiries from Britain and France. 32753 reports come in from searchers and a further 4501 reports from soldiers, matrons and padres. We know these numbers, because of the meticulous records that Vera ensured were kept, and ensured went back to Australia. They are now at the Australian War Memorial and some are in the process of being digitised.

At the cessation in hostilities Vera began to close down the London office, and to move back to Australia. They continued their work right up to the last, sending searchers back on the troop ships, seeing it as their last chance to collect stories from the soldiers of others missing, or stories of how the dead died.

There was one more twist in the World War One part of Vera’s story though. One of the prisoners of war that Vera had been corresponding with early on in the Bureau’s existence was Thomas White, an Australian Aviator who had been captured early in the war flying in Mesopotamia, and held captive by the Turks. The Bureau corresponded directly with him, as he was the best contact to provide support for the rank and file prisoners. The officers were given slightly more lenient treatment. White escaped in 1918 and stowed away on a Russian freighter, making his way to England by circuitous route.

On the 21st of December 1918 another former Turkish prisoner from Geelong, Les Luscomb, came to the Bureau. He and other Turkish prisoners had been held for so long they didn’t know much about what had been happening in the world, so the Bureau helped reorient them. Vera invited Les to visit the Temple Church in London. She saw the soldiers as crusaders describing the deceased at the armistice as “the voices of those Crusader souls who have given their lives on the battlefield & the high seas” and thought he might appreciate the crusader knights’ effigies found in the Temple Church which dates to the 1185.

I just want pause very briefly here to put on my medievalist hat, as people reading this review have probably read some of the rest of this blog, and say that none of the effigies in the Temple Church are crusaders, but you can see where the sentiment was coming from. Les Luscomb met Vera at the Temple Church the following day. He brought his friend Thomas White, Thomas and Vera were engaged three weeks later and married for 37 years. Thomas went on to be a prominent member of parliament and Australian High Commissioner to London- where he was knighted- and it was in her role as his wife that Vera’s path and the book’s narrative continues.

This is not to say that Vera was only his wife. She certainly supported him, but she kept up her volunteer work. When World War II broke out, the Whites had both spoken out against appeasement, Vera set up and ran the Bureau again, but this time from Melbourne rather than London. It feels like an injustice to skate over this part of her life, which was filled with the same complexities as World War I and was instrumental in establishing structures that are still used by the Red Cross today, but like the book I can not cover all aspects of Vera’s life in a review. She was a woman of vision, determination, education, insight, incredible organisation, authority and deep compassion. She was also clearly a woman of her times, she was deeply dedicated to Empire and England, militaristic, pro conscription in both WWI referendums (a concept I can’t understand from someone who saw the suffering first hand), and I found her vision of ANZACs of noble crusaders uncomfortable, but that is again reading this book as a medievalist first. She and White dedicated the rest of their lives to the memorialisation of the ANZACS and all those who fought as heroes. She was at the core of the creation of the ANZAC legend, so it is ironic that her story and the story of the many dedicated (mainly female) volunteers has been lost from the narrative.

Vera does a good job telling the story of Vera’s life and I would like to note the excellent index, but it hovers in the difficult territory of trying to be both a readable, enjoyable biography and a useful reference book. It doesn’t quite achieve either. It is in many ways hampered by the fullness of Vera’s life, some sections feel skated over, a laundry list of achievements rather than a story and examination. Vera tries to ride too many horses; telling Vera’s story, telling the Red Cross’s story, examining her family dynamic and Alfred Deakin, exploring broader military history, Thomas White’s story, even the Bureau’s story. Any of these could have been a book by themselves, and I found myself wanting to know more, to be move involved in the narrative. I also wanted more from Vera herself in her own words integrated into the narrative (as there was clearly been a lot of access to letters, diaries etc). For me, the section that could have been sacrificed to allow more space for the others would have been Vera’s years in Germany and Budapest, and her early tours of England, which while formative, simply aren’t as interesting as her later life. At 210 pages Vera is not a long book, and this has meant the sacrifice of depth in some areas.

All that being said Vera Deakin and the Red Cross does a wonderful job bringing Vera out of the shadows and placing her back at the heart of the ANZAC story, and the formation of the Red Cross- right where she belongs.

Vera Deakin and the Red Cross by Carole Wood can be bought from the Royal Historical Society of Victoria https://www.historyvictoria.org.au/product/vera-deakin-and-the-red-cross-by-carole-woods/

Or borrowed from the PMI Victorian History Library

https://library.pmi.net.au/fullRecord.jsp?recno=31737

Flinders Street Station Ballroom

This is going to be a slightly different post to usual, as it will not be straight history. I will cover some of the history of the ballroom above Flinders Street Station in Melbourne, Victoria, but I will be telling the story of how I experienced it for the first time (I’ve been trying to get inside for about ten years) as the exhibition space for Patricia Piccinini’s Miracle Constantly Repeated. So this piece will be part history, part personal narrative, and part art exploration. It also ties nicely back to a post I wrote some years ago about art interpreting historical spaces.

But back to the Ballroom. The Flinders Street Ballroom is one of those almost mythical places in cities, that everyone has heard of, and most people have never seen. The sort of place that pops up in newspaper articles every few years or so, with new ideas for its future, or stories of its past. These are the sort of places that strike at the heart of a city’s imagination, kind of like secret tunnels. But unlike most supposed secret tunnels, the Flinders Street Ballroom is very real.

Flinders Street Station has had trains running from roughly the same location since the 1850s, it’s the main station in Melbourne, and ‘meeting under the clocks’ remains a tradition to this day. The current buildings, you can see in the photos below, were the result of a design competition and were completed in 1910.

The Ballroom was not part of the original plan and was added during construction because of the creation of the Victorian Railway Institute. The VRI was founded in 1910 with the aim of promoting the intellectual, social and physical well-being of the members- who were largely railway staff. They still exist actually, though they have expanded beyond railway workers. The ballroom was originally the VRI’s lecture hall, and the other rooms housed, a gym with a boxing ring, a lending library which took books to members by train, and education classes at night. It was a similar concept to Mechanics’ Institutes, you can read more about MIs here. You can see members of the VRI in the then lecture hall in the photo below from the State Library of Victoria.

Much of the original lecture hall can still be seen today in the remaining fabric of the Ballroom. And you can see the activities of the VRI still reflected in the surrounding rooms. The message you can see scrawled on the wall in the final photo below, though, is thought to date to the late 1960s, once the upper floors had already begun to fall into disrepair.

By the early 1900s the lecture hall had become a ballroom, you can see an image of it all decked out in bunting from roughly the 1930s from Victorian Railways Corporation records, held at PROV, below.

By the 1950s, the dances there were so popular a mezzanine had to be added to accomodate more people. The balls always finished by midnight so everyone could catch the last train home.

By the 1970s the rooms began to fall into disuse, the last dance in the ballroom was held in 1983. It wasn’t until 1985 that the public use of the ballroom and surrounding rooms pretty much ceased completely. Every ten years or so another announcement of refurbishment pops up, there’s been ideas of locating the Melbourne City Library on the third floor (an idea I’d be in favour of as they badly need the space), of reopening the Ballroom as a ballroom, or running a school up there, along with many other concepts, none of which have come to fruition. The Andrews Government began restoring the whole Flinders Street Complex in 2015, including removing 10 tonnes of pigeon poo from the dome. The Ballroom is part of this redevelopment, but what it will be used for in the future remains very much up in the air. You can see some of development of the Ballroom (and the rest of the station) in the video below.

While the future of the use of the Ballroom remains uncertain, it has been open to the public occasionally. Either for Open House Melbourne (which ran on a ballot system which I was sadly never lucky enough to be successful in) or for artists to work in. This included the recent Rising Festival, which is where my journey into the Ballroom begins, and where we step away a little from the history and into the world of art.

As I said at the beginning, I’ve been trying to get into the Ballroom for about ten years, it’s just one of the those places that light up my imagination, and my desire to explore odd historical places (kind of the point of this blog). So when it was announced that Rising would be opening the Ballroom, I couldn’t get a ticket fast enough. Then, as has been a familiar story across the world, COVID reared its head again, forcing Melbourne into a two week lockdown, and effectively cancelling the festival, which was devastating to all involved. There was one bright light though. Miracle Constantly Repeated was being held inside in a space that wasn’t being used for anything else, so Rising managed to extend its run. And lucky enough for me restrictions lifted the day before I had my ticket. So I was one of the first groups to experience Patricia Piccinini’s extraordinary installation, in the endlessly fascinating Flinders’ Street Ballroom and surrounding rooms. For me the exploration of both the installation and the third floor rooms was a linear experience, so I thought I’d recreate it. There is just so much layered history in the rooms, that you’ll find a lot of pressed metal photography, and small corners where the origins of the stripped back rooms are poking their heads through. I hope you find it interesting, and it can give you a taste of the transcendental experience of the combination of the installations and the palpable sense of History that hangs over it all.

My journey began with the entrance to the stairs that lead you above.

I really didn’t have a clear idea of what I would find as I began the three story climb, even the stairs show a building that has lived a complex life.

Until ultimately you reach the top, and a corridor that seems to run into the horizon.

Piccinini’s installations are in the rooms along the corridor in both directions, culminating in the the full installation in the Ballroom, which really has to be seen to be believed.

As I wandered amongst their wonder, I was also exploring the building, finding the small places where time (and builders) had pulled back layers. But also looking at Melbourne literally from a new perspective.

There is also a lot of very lovely pressed metal, walls and ceilings, and I may have got slightly too excited about it, so I thought that rather than including them along the journey, I’d just do an overview.

Piccinini’s works is an exploration of nature and the urban environment, of a hybridisation between inanimate object and nature, with objects taking on natural characteristics, or nature adapting to more mechanisation, of chimeras’s who fit in both worlds and how humans find a place. But it is more than this too, she looks at elevating the notion of kindness and caring, for other humans and for the environment, of evolution and change. She creates odd creatures, that challenge how we see ourselves, she creates forests of flowering organs that tell stories of the future and the past, of rituals and ecology. She also has what has to be my favourite line for an exhibition description that “big sculptures don’t just have to be about important men in hats on horseback”.

It’s one of those exhibitions that you really need to see in person to appreciate, especially the way she has worked with the building. Everything I’ve said and will say is my own interpretation, based on the guides provided. You could view her work and experience something totally different, and that’s what I love most about art. We are seeing the expressions of someone else’s thoughts, but the pieces become our own as well, as we view them through the lens of all our own beliefs, and concepts of the world. I’m not going to include the whole installation, because if you have the chance you really should go and see it, but this should give you an idea.

You begin your journey with Diorama, an art with historic links that blurs the line between realism and the artificial.

We then move through to Sapling, where the concept of a tree’s personhood and sentience is explored.

In the same room as Sapling are the Shoeforms, which epitomise Piccinini’s concept of naturalised technology.

In a room further along you’ll find The Couple based around the central conceit of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, in this case what would have happened if Frankenstein loved the creature he created. It’s essentially a meditation on the importance of empathy and caring. I especially loved that Piccinini created the whole room around her ‘couple’ and how it felt incredibly lived in, with the aesthetic of the old building.

The following room was my favourite, ballroom aside. Celestial Field is mesmerising, the human and natural border are collapsing as flowers, like organs, grow and hang from the ceiling and in the middle is The Balance- the naturalisation of mechanisation, as two mechanical forms reach for each other.

I also shot a short video, just to give a real feel for the atmosphere Piccinini creates.

We move along to No Fear of Depths the aforementioned large sculpture of caring.

Probably my favourite of Piccinini’s individual works came next ‘The Supporter’ the idea of a natural environemnt growing out of an urban one, and a sybiotic relationship where humans, nature and the urban world, all sort of hold eachother together.

And finally we culminate in the Ballroom, which honestly I’m not going to try to describe, as the pictures speak for themselves.

As truly miraculous as Piccinini’s A Miricale Constantly Repeated is, the small parts of the building that speak with her work, the old bones that you can see, the small stories- which is kind of what this blog is about- matter to me as much, so I wanted to finish with those.

References:

http://vhd.heritage.vic.gov.au/places/result_detail/752

https://www.vri.org.au/about

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/flinders-street-station-ballroom

https://www.flindersstreetstation.com.au/third-floor.php

http://wiki.prov.vic.gov.au/index.php/File:12903-P0001-000364-085.jpg#filelinks

https://www.development.vic.gov.au/projects/flinders-street-station?page=overview

http://search.slv.vic.gov.au/permalink/f/cjahgv/SLV_VOYAGER1795533

https://miracle.rising.melbourne/the-ideas-behind-a-miracle-constantly-repeated

All the photos and videos are mine- unless attributed elsewhere in the post.

There are still tickets left to A Miracle Constantly Repeated- if you’re in Melbourne, I highly recommend you go

https://rising.melbourne/festival-program/patricia-piccinini

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

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.

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.