While reading through the newspapers of 1840s Port Phillip, my attention has been arrested several times by the location called “No-Good-Damper”. The location seemed to attract malfeasants and scoundrels of all types: people were often being held up and robbed on the road, and the Plenty Valley bushrangers were sighted there. So where is No-Good-Damper? Why was it called that?
The No-Good-Damper hotel was located, apparently, near the present Springvale six-way junction where Dandenong and Centre roads converge. For those who are topographically inclined, the longitude is approximately 145.16 and latitude 37.95.
The present-day Vale Hotel claims it as its forerunner. The original licence for the No Good Damper hotel was granted to Christian Ludolph Johannes De Villiers on April 20 1841, and it seems to have changed hands several times- to William Scott who also had the licence for the Squatters Rest in April 1842 (they may have been the same hotel), and then to a Robert McGhee in May 1844 who may or may not have been the same person as Robert McKee who held the licence in April 1845.
It was a rather dangerous place to hang around. The Port Phillip Herald of April 4, 1843 reports that Mr Bond of No-Good-Damper was the victim of an attempted robbery:
On Monday night week as Mr Bond of No-Good-Damper was returning home from Melbourne, and only a short distance from his house, he was suddenly commanded “to stand” by an armed man, who after demanding his money, and not waiting to see if the same would be delivered to him, struck Mr Bond a violent blow with a bludgeon, which, however, did not bring him to the ground, but being armed with a leaded riding whip, he quickly knocked down the ruffian, and before he could dismount a pistol was fired at him, the ball carrying away the brim of his hat, and shaving off a portion of the hair of his head. Mr Bond made up to him with the intention of closing with him, but the villain took to his heels, and notwithstanding that he was pursued for a short distance he succeeded in getting clear off.
A year earlier, in April 1842, there had been another more daring raid by the Plenty Valley bushrangers, who were to later be sentenced to death by hanging by Judge Willis. On April 29th 1842 the Port Phillip Herald reported
In our last we reported some daring attacks, which have been recently made upon the stations of a number of settlers in the vicinity of Melbourne, since which we have learned the particulars of another outrage committed, it is presumed by the same banditti, upon Captain Gwatkin of the ‘Scout’ at present in our harbour, and Mr F. Pittman. On Wednesday evening as these gentlemen were proceeding in a gig to the station of the Messrs. Langhorne at Dandenong, they were stopped at about seven o’clock, a mile and a half on this side No Good Damper, or about twelve miles from Melbourne, by four men heavily armed both with guns and pistols, three of the gang being well mounted and the other on foot. They immediately ordered Messrs. Gwatkin and Pittman to get out of the gig and strip off their clothes, which of course they were compelled to do, as during the time the guns were held cocked at their heads, and threats of instant death pronounced should they disobey orders. The clothes were minutely rifled, and from those of Captain Gwatkin were taken 21 pounds in Launceston notes, of which 3 were fives and the remainder ones, 33 pounds of the Melbourne Banks, of which five were fives, also four sovereigns and a half, a quantity of silver, and a few coppers, amounting in all to 63 pound 1s. 8d. They returned 5s to Mr Pittman “to pay for his bed at No Good Damper”, but upon being remonstrated with by Captain Gwatkin, who said that having got such a handsome booty they might have the generosity to return a sovereign to pay his expenses until his return to town, they very cooly informed him that he could go to sea and make more, and to think himself safe they did not blow his brains out; they had at first demanded and learned his name. The horse was next taken out of the gig; the harness, with the exception of the bridle was taken off; and Mr Pittman ordered to assist the ruffian on foot to mount thereon, when the whole party rode off at a brisk pace. Messrs. Gwatkin and Pittman proceeded on to No Good Damper, from which they immediately despatched a messenger to town with the intelligence; and on coming into town yesterday morning they called at Mr Le Mann’s near the place where they were robbed, and were informed that about 8 o’clock the previous evening, four men paid him a visit, “bailed up” two men who were in his hut, forced a woman to make them some tea, helped themselves to two saddles, one for the horse they had taken out of the gig, and the other for one of the horses on which they had previously only a saddle cloth, gave a boy 1s. 7d. for holding their horses, and decamped.
How did this salubrious location get the name No-Good-Damper? Let’s be charitable and go with the explanation given to the editor of the Argus on 9 September 1924:
Sir: In the interesting article “The Gippsland Mystery” on Saturday by Ernest McCaughan it is stated that a party of five whites and ten blacks were sent out under the leadership of De Villiers, an ex police officer who kept the extraordinary named No Good Damper Inn. Apropos of this, a story was related to me by the late Robert Rowley, then of Rye (a very old colonist who had known Buckley, the wild white man). The story, which may be of interest, is that about the year 1840 lime was being burnt about Sorrento and Rye. A layer of sheoak logs was laid on the ground, then a layer of limestone. Another layer of logs, then again stone, and so on, until there was a considerable stack. Fire was next applied. By this rough and ready, though wasteful system, lime used in the building of early Melbourne was then burned. The lime was then “slacked”, afterwards sieved through a fine sieve, and forwarded to Melbourne by ketch. One of these old windjammers had the misfortune to go aground near the site of Frankston. The lime was taken off undamaged, stacked, and carefully covered a little way from the shore. A number of blacks were in the vicinity.
They had some little experience of the white fellow’s flour. When they found the lime, sieved and done up in small bags under a tarpaulin, they were sure they had got the genuine article in plenty. So they mustered in force, took away all they possibly could and fearing pursuit did not stop running until they put about 12 miles between them and the stack of lime. The blacks then mixed their flour with water upon their ‘possum rugs and put the dough in the ashes to bake, the result being spoiled rugs and bad damper. In the words of Mr Rowley, “they called that place Dandenong” which means “no good damper”.
Yours &c J. L. Brown, Sandringham Sept 8.
And now for the slightly less cheery version, courtesy of Edmund Finn (Garryowen) p. 963.
There is a place near Dandenong called “No good Damper”, and the origin of this name is very laughable. The proprietor of a small store there had occasion to be sometimes away from home, and the Aborigines, who had a great weakness for flour and mutton, stole a quantity of some flour, but the storekeeper said he would be even with the blacks. So he got a couple of bags of lime from Melbourne, and made them do duty for the flour at his next absence. “Blacky” called again, but instead of flour purloined a bag of lime, and left in great glee. On arriving at their quambying ground they commenced baking operations, when on mixing water with the supposed flour, they were horrified to find it fizz, and fancing the white man’s “debble debble” was about to bewitch them, they ran away yelling “No good damper, no good damper.” So thus the phrase took, and so the storeman’s place is named to this day. The flour was never troubled after. Arsenic, is said to have been often mixed with flour for the special use of the blacks at more than one of the stations in the then wild interior.
Ah, yes, a laughable little story indeed.
And George Dunnerdale, who wrote ‘The Book of the Bush’ in 1893 wrote:
It was near Caulfield on the Melbourne side of “No Good Damper swamp”. Some blackfellows had been poisoned there by a settler who wanted to get rid of them. He gave them damper with arsenic in it, and when dying they said “No good damper”. (p. 276)
Would it have been possible at the time to pass off a deliberate poisoning as a “laughable” little anecdote, or even then would it have to have been disguised in some way? Certainly, several of the settlers who came before Judge Willis made no secret that they had shot aborigines who had “trespassed” on their land, or in retribution for stock deaths. And even now, you could be sitting in the comfort of your twentieth-century car passing “Murdering Gully” near Camperdown or Massacre Hill near Port Campbell.
For what-ever reason, though, “No Good Damper” seems to have slipped away as a place-name, even though it was used quite freely in the early 1840s. I wonder what would be the response if we tried to revive it?