The sun was a-shining, the magnolias a-blooming, the wattles a-bursting and the magpies a-caroling- so a good day for The Sunday Drive. It’s the second Sunday in the month and Ziebell’s Farmhouse is open at Westgarthtown. Westgarthtown is not, as one might assume, in Westgarth. Instead, it’s out at Thomastown and now surrounded by 1970s brick veneer homes.
We decided to head out along Plenty Rd, stop off for lunch at a cafe we both knew of vaguely in Mernda, then go across through Wollert to Epping and back to Thomastown. After all, Sunday drives are supposed to be a circuit, aren’t they?
My wordy, I haven’t been this far out along Plenty Road for a long time. I was once told that there wouldn’t ever be any development on the east side of Plenty Road because there was a MMBW covenant on it. Obviously not. There was little discernible difference between “Bush Boulevard” (huh! with its takeaway food stores) on the left and “Development Boulevard” on the right.
We often receive glossy pamphlets in our letter box advertising new land developments out at Berry Lane, Eden Gardens, Eucalypt etc. They all sound so bucolic until you see them clawing their way into what had been farmland.
We headed back towards the city (which was actually visible on the horizon), passing drystone walls and strange farmhouse gardens composed entirely of prickly-pear. The paddocks gave away again, this time to the triple-fronted brick veneers so proudly bought by ‘New Australian’ migrants as they moved out into suburbia in Lalor and Thomastown in the 1960s and 70s. Down a couple of side streets and there we were- Westgarthtown.
Westgarthtown is named after William Westgarth, who arrived in Port Phillip from Scotland in 1840. He was here during Judge Willis’ time and an active member of civic society with involvement in the Mechanics Institute, the Benevolent Society, and later the Victorian branch of the Australasian League for the Abolition of Transportation and the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce. He helped found the first gas company and was an enthusiastic promoter of the railways. He was a member of the NSW Legislative Council and a supporter of manhood suffrage, the abolition of property qualifications, state education and the abolition of state aid to religion.
He was instrumental in the establishment of Westgarthtown. I’ve read of other men in Upper Canada, too, who involved themselves in emigration schemes targetting particular geographical regions in the ‘old world’. These men personally sponsored from their own pocket, or sought bounties from the government for the transportation and establishment costs of whole villages into new settlements in the colonies. It is particularly significant that German settlers, like the Italians up near Daylesford, excelled at agricultural farming in its own right as distinct from pastoral farming- something that the Wakefield scheme tried without much success to encourage amongst British immigrants. Westgarth explains his own involvement:
When I made my first Home trip, in 1847, I resolved to open, if I possibly could, German emigration to Port Phillip. Quite a number had already been settled, some from the earliest years, in South Australia, where their industry, frugality, sobriety, and general good conduct had made them excellent colonists. This favourable testimony was confirmed to me by correspondence on the subject with my late much-lamented friend, Alexander L. Elder, one of South Australia’s earliest, most esteemed, and most successful colonists. My first step on arrival was to write to the “Commissioners of Emigration,” an officiate since dispensed with, pointing out this South Australian success, and suggesting that a certain charge upon the Colonial Land Fund, authorized in special cases of emigrants–an aid of 18 pounds a head, I think–might be made applicable to German vinedressers emigrating to Port Phillip. In due course, I received a most cordial reply from the secretary, Mr. (afterwards Sir) Stephen Walcot, to the effect that Lord Grey, then Colonial Secretary, highly approved of the project, and that the aid asked for would be forthcoming for properly qualified German vinedressers. ..
But the grand prize for these Germans was the acquisition of land. Accordingly Captain Stanley Carr (then on a visit with the German Prince of Schleswig-Holstein) and myself took up, in trust for such Germans as desired it, and had the means of payment, one of the square miles of surveyed land, as yet unapplied for, about twelve miles north of Melbourne, which was divided amongst them in lots as agreed upon. And there they are to this day, a thriving community. When, in company with Neuhauss, my wife and I visited them in 1857, just before finally quitting the colony, we found considerable progress in the form of a scattered village, with a little Lutheran church, and some show of gardening and cultivation. They seemed delighted to stick to their German speaking, and would not even try to speak English. One amusing feature in the scramble as to allotments was that each tried, in most cases, to get trees, stones, and rocks in preference to clear ground, as if so much additional wealth. The trees might have had value for firewood, but in the other items they had probably more than they bargained for. We secured the land for them at a pound an acre, and the fact of their being so largely settled upon it raised its value at once considerably. All the land thereabout has now risen to many times this first cost. Many more Germans have since, as I understand, settled upon other land. William Westgarth ‘Personal Recollections of Early Melbourne and Victoria’
The houses are still there, even though the Germans are not. There is a large, open square in the midst of suburbia, with Ziebell’s farmhouse in one corner of it. It is a low-slung, rough bluestone farmhouse, with a barn, wash-house and smokehouse. The last surviving member of the Ziebell family moved from it in the 1970s into a new house built beside it (now used as a caretaker’s cottage) and for the first time she had electricity and running water- yes- the 1970s.
The parents slept downstairs, beside the large pantry and kitchen, while their eight children slept in the attic upstairs.
The wash-house was separate from the main house, with a well outside it for drawing water, and a fireplace inside the wash-house for heating the water.
The house itself is only open on the second Sunday of each month between 1.00 and 4.00 pm. (entry $3.00) but you can see the garden at any time and a beautiful garden it is, tended with care and pride. It’s a credit to its keepers (whomever they may be).
The back of the farm opens onto a large expanse of grass and diagonally across is the Lutheran Church, the oldest operating Lutheran church in Australia, and still in use on alternate Sunday afternoons. I love seeing a church still fulfilling its original purpose, and the doors and windows were open (they are often shuttered and locked for fear of vandalism), a young man was preaching and a small congregation was inside. A card table was set up for their afternoon tea outside.
We didn’t go in- but if we had, the interior would have looked like this:
There had been a bluestone schoolhouse built nearby, but it was demolished in the 1950s.
Back across the field to the other corner, and here was the cemetery. You really had a sense of the centrality of church, school, God and death to these settlers’ lives. The cemetery is marked out by drystone walls and dark, gnarled conifers.
Many of the inscriptions on the gravestones are in German. The cemetery is still in use- in fact there was a very recent grave over in one corner that was too muddy to reach- but only direct descendants of the German settlers can be buried there.
It’s wonderful that this little section of Westgarthtown has been preserved intact, but there are other, privately owned old settler houses in the surrounding streets as well.