Monthly Archives: January 2009

A day at Sills Bend


One of my favourite places to take a deck chair, picnic, glass of wine and good book on a warm afternoon is down to Sills Bend, beside the Yarra River in Heidelberg.  I’m a Heidelberg gal at heart, and down at Sills Bend I feel particularly close to the early settlers, including the Resident Judge Willis, whose rented property was on the ridge overlooking these river flats. As Alexander Sutherland was to describe it in 1888,

Heidelberg was scarcely a suburb; it was rather a favourite district for those who desire to have ample domains around their dwelling.  Until 1850 it was regarded as the distinctly aristocratic locality; the beauty of the river scenery, the quiet romantic aspect of the place, gave it an early reputation among the Melbourne men of means as the site for country residence – Alexander Sutherland Victoria and Its Metropolis 1888

The land that is now Heidelberg was offered for sale at the first land sales, conducted in Sydney. The fact that the sales were held in Sydney, meant that unless locals or their agents were prepared to travel up to Sydney, then most of the sales were to Sydney investors.  Thomas Walker, the Scottish investor, purchased several of  the available lots.  However, as is usual in land boom conditions, the estates changed hands several times in a short period of time.  And why wouldn’t they- prime land, water access through the Yarra, Darebin and Plenty rivers, and all within ten miles of the centre of Melbourne.

The river flats, with a good source of water were turned over to tenant farmers like Peter Fanning (1827-1905), who farmed the next bend of the river (Fanning’s Bend) , or subdivided from the larger estates and sold as small holdings to farmers like Mark Sill (1818-1885) who planted an orchard.  Several of the pear trees are still alive.


The gold rush had little effect on Heidelberg beyond stimulating market gardens and agriculture to supply the increased population moving to the diggings at Queenstown (St Andrews) and Warrandyte. However, during the 1860s there was a succession of ‘droughts and flooding rains’ that made sustainable farming very difficult.  As the agent for the Banyule Estate, James Graham wrote on 12 January 1865

I am quite concerned about the low rents from Banyule area the tenants are doing no good. What with this very dry season and rust and caterpillars, the crops are very poor indeed.  Fanning is both losing money and rent altogether and he has been at me several times to let him off the lease. He had worked hard poor fellow but I see and I know that he is losing money.  His wife is in very bad health, which helps to make matters worse.

The dominance of English-style estates around the Heidelberg areas means that there are quite a few stands of oak and hawthorn trees.  The oak trees down at Sills Bend are spectacular, with branches that reach right down to the ground.  There’s a little beach (very little) down on the Yarra bank



The small size of Heidelberg militated against the provision of infrastructure like water and rail, which in turn hampered growth.  It was really only with the Depression of the 1890s that the large estates began to be broken up.  Land subdivision progressed in a piecemeal fashion right up until the 1960s.

So, Melburnians, when you read of the “missing link” between the Western Ring Road and the Eastern Freeway, look very carefully at what is proposed when they start talking about the Bulleen option.  You might want to join me on the barricades.


Don Garden, Heidelberg: The Land and Its People

Plaque at Sills Bend

Good on you, Mrs Mac

From the Port Phillip Gazette 1/1/42

BIRTH EXTRAORDINAIRE! On Thursday Mrs McDonald, the wife of a respectable settler, presented her husband at Mr Mortimer’s Crown Hotel, with a Christmas box consisting of two girls and a boy, whom with the mother, are doing well. Advance Australia Felix.  The girls were christened Victoria and Adelaide, the boy Albert.

My, what regal names!  The Port Phillip Herald of 4/1/42 adds the alarming detail that Mrs John McDonald of River Plenty had presented her husband with twins about 12 months earlier!! Five under about eighteen months……

I wonder whether she came into the Crown Hotel specially for the birth or whether she just happened to be there.  Ironic, really, that maternity hospitals today shove their new mothers off into hotel suites to clear the hospital beds.

There were only occasional birth notices in the Port Phillip newspapers of the 1840s, and generally only for the wives of “highly respectable” professional men, rather than the wives of  humble “respectable settlers” like Mrs McDonald.   I noticed that the Insolvency Commissioner’s wife Mrs Verner had a baby, then about two weeks later there was an advertisement for a wet nurse with the instruction to apply at the Insolvency Court- surely not the first place one would think to make such a contract. [I feel a bad joke about milking people dry coming on…..]

Well, I wonder what happened to Mr and Mrs McDonald and their little ones?

Happy New Year!


Well, New Years Eve in Melbourne came and went, as it always does, last night.  Many police in the city, and just a handful of arrests apparently.

(Update: Well, more than a handful.  The Age today reports that there were 1147 arrests across the state, double that of New Years Eve 2007 when there were 511 arrests.  “The tougher stance produced ‘the quietest New Year’s Eve on record’, with no repeat of the riots that marred past New Year’s Eves at Rye and St. Kilda.”  136 people were taken off the street for offensive behaviour, indecent language and minor assaults, and 485 motorists were booked for a range of traffic offences, well up on 248 last year).

What about in Port Phillip in 1841?  Here we are, in the Port Phillip Gazette of 1/1/41 in the Police Intelligence column- where else?

POLICE INTELLIGENCE. William Porter, Charles Aldgate, David Holmes, John Walsh, John Percival, Charles Major and Richard Bennet were driven into the box like a flock of sheep, having been found suffering from the effects of the season.

Bench: Well, what have you to say?

Chorus: Christmas, Your Honor, Christmas!

Bench: Silence! We neither countenance nor approve of drunkenness, but making a little allowance for the season, we discharge you all

Chorus: Thank you, Your Honor: hurrah! a merry Christmas and a happy new year!!

The Port Phillip Patriot was a little less charitable about the lads hauled in a couple of days later:

The first day of the year 1841 must evidently have been auspicious to the publicans of Melbourne if we may judge from the number of persons, amounting to twelve who made their appearance at the bar of the Police Office on Saturday morning.  Nor was the offence confined to the male kind solely, one female being charged for the fifth time.  If we may judge from appearances, we should say that the potations of many were not pacifically concluded, the physiognomies of many bearing sanguine and sable traces of having done battle ( Patriot 4/1/41)

Given that Christmas seemed such a fizzer, I thought I’d look up to see if New Year was celebrated with any more gusto.  I checked out the chapter on Christmas in Ken Inglis’ Australian Colonists (1974) to see if my hunch about the relatively low-key, domestic nature of Christmas was sound.  He took a wider chronological sweep than I did and so includes information from later in the century (as well as the sources I found) but he  did note the prominence of New Year. He speculated whether it was the influence of the Scots and their emphasis on hogmanay but was aware of the relatively low proportion of Scots in Australia generally. However, there were proportionally more Scots in Port Phillip (40%)  than elsewhere in New South Wales (30%)  so perhaps that explains why the extended pieces I found on Christmas came from Sydney and South Australia respectively, rather than Port Phillip.

Inglis writes of Australia as a whole:

Here as at home the new year was welcomed with church bells, and people resolved to do and be better for the next twelve months.  Governors held levees, citizens played or watched games, went for picnics, listened to bands.  From the first years of the settlement it was customary for men to stay in towns, to stay out late carousing and larking, lighting bonfires and fireworks.  (p. 113)

The Port Phillip Gazette celebrated New Year by presenting its town subscribers with “an engraving by our late talented and eccentric friend John Adamson” which although falling short in conveying the size of Melbourne, “will help to convey to distant friends the position, appearance and style of the town of Melbourne.”  I think you can see the engraving here. All three papers made much of the coming of 1842,  far more than they did in 1843 when the depression was obviously biting and press columns were preoccupied with elections and politics.  All three papers in 1841/2  indulged in a bit of backward-gazing self-congratulations and worthy and jovial exhortations for the coming year, but there was none of this the following year.

So, what was there to do on New Years Eve and the following New Years Day in that party-year 1842?  On New Years Eve, you could have gone to a concert at the Pavilion

The concert held on Saturday evening last to welcome in the new year, was numerously attended and came off with considerable eclat. Although, as might have been anticipated at the season of  general jubilee, a number of rather suspicious characters were loitering about the Pavilion, many of whom endeavoured to obtain admittance, yet they were very properly excluded, and in consequence, if those favored with an entre were not all of the upper ranks of society they were respectable and conducted themselves with the greatest propriety.  The evening’s entertainment was, upon the whole, little, if any thing inferior to any similar display in the colonies and if equal attention for the future be paid to the general arrangements by the Manager, and the performers exert themselves in an equally laudable manner for the gentrification of the audience, the Pavilion will soon be a most fashionable place of resort as it is as yet the only one of rational amusement.  The “star” Miss Sinclair, fully realized the most sanguine anticipations, she has an excellent command of a good voice, and with a little more practice her success as a vocalist is certain.  Her “Kate Kearney” was sung with a spirit and national feeling which told she was at home in giving effect to an Irish air.  Miss Lucas’ “Meet me by moonlight” was good, but it was evident she labored under the effects of a bad cold; but although in consequence she had been previously recommended to resign her part, she preferred making her appearance to disappointing her previous admirers. Master Eyles’ performance was generally good, but the concluding part of the “Bay of Biscay” was excellent and promised well for future fame.  Mr Miller, as a comic singer, would not disgrace the provincial boards of the first class in Britain, and was no better received than he deserved.  In all his actions he was happy, but particularly in “Biddy the Basket Woman”.  To supply the hiatus in the performance caused by the necessary retirement of Miss Lucas, an amateur entertained the audience with a variety of dances, expert gesticulations &c. and deservedly stands a favourite.  Port Phillip Herald 4 Jan 1842

The next day, you might have attended a cricket match where “a party of civilians were duly stumped out by their opponents the government officials”. But it sounds as if THE place to be was Williams Town beach, attracting crowds from Melbourne arriving by steamer with bands playing, and spilling onto the beach to enjoy sail boat races, whale boat races, sack races, footraces,  shimmying up a greasy pole, blindfold wheelbarrow races and a greasy pig chase.


At 1.30 a free lunch was served for 200-300 people- sheep, beef, cabbage- (mmm, mmm) accompanied by the popping of corks and music.  The crowds had all melted away by 6.00 when the town worthies had their own, more select gathering of fifteen gentlemen who sat down for a much more dignified dinner.

Of course, if you were of a more spiritual bent, you could have attended the opening of the Independent Chapel on Eastern Hill- a building that could accommodate 500-600 people, splendidly lit with chandeliers.

And so, “Thus ended the amusements of a New Years Day in Australia Felix”


Ken Inglis  Australian Colonists

A. G. L. Shaw The Port Phillip District.