Monthly Archives: December 2011


Inspired by the ‘Pioneers of Bushwalking’ exhibition,  I turned to an article in the most recent Victorian Historical Journal about the Melbourne Walking Club’s trek to Wonnangatta in Easter 1936.  The article, written by one of the walkers is written in the rather flippant, “what-an-adventure!” tone that we use for holiday emails or blogs today. What really intrigued me in the article was a photograph accompanying the article, now part of the RHSV archives, showing Wonnangatta homestead as a mere speck on a wide, grassed plain that opened up amongst the folds of the surrounding mountain peaks.  The photograph below is not the one in the article but it gives an idea of the remoteness of Wonnangatta and the splendour of the landscape.  What particularly struck me was that there are no roads at all.

Wonnangatta was, until late in the 20th century, Victoria’s most remote high country cattle station.  It is located in the high country east of Mansfield and as late as 1947 it could be claimed that there were no records of a wheeled vehicle ever visiting it (although the claim was qualified by noting that a dray was built in-situ at Wonnangatta and two bicycles were carried in). It is two-and-a-half day’s horse ride from Mansfield, and a day-and-a-half from Dargo.

It is ironic that in many ways Wonnangatta was more accessible in the 1860s than it was a hundred years later (after which four-wheel drives became more common).  During the 1860s Gippsland gold rush a number of small towns sprouted around the Crooked River, Snake Creek and Jungle Creek diggings, connected by a pack-horse trail. Twenty to thirty horses would be saddled with two padded flaps on either side, joined at the top with iron loops like an inverted U to which hooks were attached and loads secured.

Wonnangatta at the time lay on this trail, and was visited by William Bryce and his pack-train who brought supplies to Oliver Smith who had settled there with his sons, his second ‘wife’ and her son Harry from a previous marriage.  Bryce decided to bring his wife and six children there as well, and the men from the two families worked together to build Wonnangatta Homestead.

What an isolated life for these two families!  Ellen Smith died in childbirth in 1873, giving birth to twins who both died within a week.  Oliver Smith quit the station with his sons, signing it over to Bryce and did not return, although his youngest son Harry did come back later.   Two years later, Mrs Bryce also gave birth to twins, attended only by her thirteen year old daughter. A year later the ninth and  final child, Cornelius, was born.

Wonnangatta Homestead itself consisted of two parts.  The first section, constructed jointly by Bryce and Oliver and Harry Smith consisted of five rooms, and this was extended by a second section of nine rooms, joined to the first by a covered verandah.  Bryce employed a cabinet maker to assist with the construction, and he built furniture from locally grown blackwood that was so heavy and well-constructed that it was left behind when the homestead was sold in 1914 to pastoralists who let it fall into disrepair when they used it as a storage shed.  In the main bedroom was a triple-doored wardrobe almost ceiling height with a large drawer at the base; there were carved mantlepieces, and elaborate sideboards, tables, chairs and ottomans.  The house was wall-papered in a green-and-gold design throughout (even the kitchen!), although in later years this was covered by layers of newspapers.  The homestead survived the 1939 bushfires, only to be burnt down some time between a visit in 1955 and the next visit two years later in 1957.

Although remarkable for its remoteness, Wonnangatta may have remained largely unknown except for two murders which occurred there in December 1917/January 1918.  The body of the caretaker, Jim Barclay was discovered by one of Wonnangatta’s first white occupants, Harry Smith, who lived in (relatively) nearby Eaglevale, by now an elderly man, who used to call in one every three weeks or so with the mail.  At first the cook John Bamford was suspected of the murder, but his body was also found some months later.  The mystery was never solved, despite wide coverage of the inquests and investigation in the newspapers.

The mystery of the murder is the main focus of a small publication on Wonnangatta called The Saga of Henry Smith by Geoffrey H. Mewton, with contributions by B. Alex Trahair and Ellen Walsh.  This is a small, typewritten publication of 24 pages, written in Melbourne in October 1984.  It comes with a rather forthright claim to accuracy:

This is a historically accurate account of some of the events which took place in the Wonnangatta Valley in northern Gippsland and the surrounding mountainous country from the early 1860s until the year 1945 when Harry Smith died.  This area is probably the most isolated and remote part of Victoria and until recently was unknown to most people, except of course to the few inhabitants themselves and the very occasional and more adventurous walker. … Before commencing writing I had read many books on the general subject of the mountains and the people who lived in them and with the exception of Wallace Mortimer, I was so surprised to find many authors giving inaccurate accounts of these people, particularly regarding the mysterious murders which occurred there, that I felt in necessary to make an accurate record.

The following is therefore the outcome of talks with people who lived in this country…Nothing is mentioned that is not from first hand information from talks with the people involved.  Nothing is the result of gossip or hearsay. (Foreword)

A similar claim to accuracy is found in the aforementioned Mortimer book History of Wonnangatta Station by Wallace Malcolm Mortimer, published in 1980:

This book is not intended as a novel, but simply as a document of facts.  There is very little information in this book that is hearsay; all statements have been checked and verified by documents, or are quoted from first hand knowledge.  In the course of research hundreds of miles have been travelled, and no stone has been left unturned in an attempt to gain the truth. (Author’s Note).

Neither book names the perpetrator/s of the murders, although they both hint that the authors, like their informants from the Wonnangatta area, know but they ain’t telling.

It is no doubt a reflection of their time and purpose, but both books blithely assume (despite the very name of the homestead and the nearby river) that this vast, grassed area was some kind of untouched pastoral Eden, lying waiting to be discovered.  Of course, such a fertile, watered expanse would have been well known to the local aboriginal people who had incorporated it into their  dreamings, along with all the mountains and waterways of the surrounding areas.  This is mentioned, almost in passing on p. 63 of Mortimer’s book where Bryce and another farmer, Riggall were the first white people to see Lake Tali Kargn in the heart of the forest near Mt Wellington, closer to Dargo.

As Mortimer notes:

Evidently during one of Bryce’s visits to Glenfallock he was out riding with Riggall and an aboriginal who worked on the station.  As they approached a certain tract of the country the aborigine, who was very old, became agitated and told them not to go any further because of the evil spirits.  This only spurred their curiosity and they rode on and found no evil spirits but the mountain lake.  Tali Karng is aboriginal for “Little Lake”, and the aborigines believed that it was inhabited by evil spirits because they could see water running into the lake but no evidence of water running out. (p.63)

Where the Mewton book clearly focusses on Harry Smith, who had a rather ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ reputation, I was less clear about the intent of the Mortimer book.  However, this all came clear in the final chapters where he mounts a lengthy argument for the building of a road between Buffalo and Wonnangatta as a way of opening up tourism, driving and forestry traffic between Gippsland and the high country.

I’m rather glad to think that his pleas fell on deaf ears, although it does seem from a Google search that 4 wheel drivers, deer stalkers and bushwalkers make their pilgrimages there.  It was also the site of a mountain cattlemen’s protest ride in recent years as part of their lobbying to have National Parks re-opened for cattle grazing. How curious that politics should reach all the way to this remote spot.


Brennan, Nial ‘Historical Aspects of the Wonnangatta Valley’ Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 22, 1947, pp. 67-84  (available online at SLV)

Davey, Trevor W. ‘The Trail to Wonnangatta’ Victorian Historical Journal Vol 82, No. 2 November 2011 p.217-235

Hogan, Peter ‘The Trail to Wonnangatta, Easter 1936: Introduction’ Victorian Historical Journal Vol 82, No. 2 November 2011 p.212-216

Mewton, Geoffrey H. The Saga of Harry Smith, Melbourne, typescript, 1984

Mortimer, Wallace Malcolm History of Wonnangatta Station, Melbourne, Spectrum Publications, 1980


Argus 28 February 1918

Argus 1 March 1918

Argus 2 March 1918

that’s enough- search for yourself!!!

‘Walking on Water: A Life in the Law’ by Chester Porter

2003, 309 p.

One of the high points of my CAE bookgroup meetings (a.k.a. The Ladies Who Say Ooooh)  is when the book for the upcoming month is fished up out of the plastic box and brandished with a flourish. I’ve found recently that one advantage of actually doing some work on my thesis is that I am no longer likely to look at the next month’s offering and think “Damn, I’ve already read it!”. When our book for our final meeting was revealed last month, I found myself thinking “Good grief, who on earth chose this?” because it was Chester Porter’s memoir Walking on Water: A Life in the Law.

At first I thought that I’d never heard of the man, but I soon realized that I had without realizing it.  Most famously, he worked as Counsel assisting the Royal Commission into the convictions of  Lindy and Michael Chamberlain case, and he successfully defended Det. Sergeant Roger Rogerson on a bribery charge. He was known as “the smiling funnel web” and the title of the book comes from a quip directed towards him that “Chester Porter Walks on Water”.

Even though I encountered this book as part of my “off-duty” reading, I was very happy to read it in relation to Judge Willis.  The little gremlin of self-doubt that lives in my head regularly derides my ability to write about a man of the law (albeit a 19th century colonial man of the law) when I have no experience of that milieu at all.  The 19th century judicial culture is something that I am deducing for myself, largely from negative evidence of Willis’ breaches of judicial etiquette, rather than from any deliberate exposition of it by an insider.   So what did this book, written by a late twentieth century Australian barrister show me?

First, that even though a man might be a highly educated, brilliant barrister, he is not necessarily a successful memoirist.  Although Porter clearly expresses a number of opinions about the law, they are hedged with qualifications and nimble logical footwork. The book reads like a series of mini-essays which, from a reader’s perspective, made it easy to abandon a chapter or two if one’s attention was wandering.  There was no discernible overarching structure or motif to tie the book together.  In several places it was quite repetitious and the prose was doggedly careful. His daughter is the late poet Dorothy Porter, but whatever else she gained from her father- and I am sure that there is much- there is little poetry here.

Second, the book shares with military memoirs that felt need on the writer’s part to doff one’s hat (wig?) to learned colleagues, by praising them, rather formulaically, in passing.  Hence, many of his associates are named with the bracketed annotation (now SC; now QC, now Supreme Court Judge).  Given this emphasis on naming his colleagues, it seemed strange that there was no index.

I found myself wondering about the audience for the book. The frequent greetings-in-print that he gives to his colleagues suggests that he sees them as one readership, but the careful explanations and observations about the law are aimed at a more general lay readership.  The author comes over as a somewhat stilted, and rather old-fashionably decent man, able to look back at his life and acknowledge mistakes, and reticent about his family and private life.

Nonetheless, a book can work on one level while being perhaps less successful on another.  Despite my qualms about the structuring and language of the book, I found myself listening carefully to the radio report of evidence given recently by Ian Macdonald  at the recent Independent Commission Against Corruption hearing. It was another cross-examiner at work because Chester Porter retired eleven years ago, but as I listened I found myself thinking about the construction of a chain of questions and responses as an intellectual and rhetorical exercise. And as I read about the successful appeal of Jeffrey Gilham a few days ago, Porter’s warnings about expert testimony, the demeanor of witnesses and the shortcomings of police evidence loomed large in my mind.

My rating: 6/10

Read because: it was a face-to-face bookgroup choice

Copy sourced from: Council of Adult Education Book Groups

‘Pioneers of Bushwalking’ Exhibition at the RHSV

I’m up to my habitual practice of catching an exhibition in its closing days again. This time it is the ‘Pioneers of Bushwalking’ exhibition at the Royal Historical Society of Victoria.  It was officially launched on the 24th of October by that intrepid bushwalker, Tim Holding M.P. and closes this coming Friday 9 December.

Between 2004 and 2010 the RHSV was donated archival material from the Melbourne Walking Club  including photograph albums, maps and archival material. The club was founded in 1894 as a male-only enterprise: a status which it (rather surprisingly)  still holds today, although women are welcome to attend ‘many’ of their events as ‘visitors’.  Early on it encouraged race-walking, and the exhibition shows two Edwardian gentlemen strutting along in that curious gait. However, it seems that a major part of their activities involved bushwalking, particularly in the high country mountain areas.

The photograph albums in particular are fascinating.  They are beautifully presented and labelled, and they document trips particularly in the 1930s around Healesville, Gippsland and the snowfields.  It looks to be a damned uncomfortable hobby, sleeping on groundsheets under the stars, or under tents with do-it-yourself waterproofing.  There’s a curious flavour to the exhibition though- lots of jolly-ho, rather private-boys’-school humour, and an unsettling hint of homophobia in one particular publication discreetly placed on a lower display shelf.

Looking at the names of the stalwart members, I was attracted by the name ‘Chris Bailey’, a now-deceased but well known Ivanhoe resident who was, among many other things, President of the Heidelberg Historical Society and heavily involved in conservation of the Yarra River. My husband noted R. H. Croll, prominent in athletic, literary and arts circles.

I thought of both these men whose names seem to pop up in varied contexts as I browsed the glossy magazine that came with The Age this morning.  It lists Melbourne’s 100 most “influential, inspirational, provocative and creative” people for 2011.  The 100 are arranged by theme: ‘provocateurs’ (the men and women shaking things up around this place); ‘power partnerships’ (when two heads are much better than one); ’cause and effect’ (the people encouraging us to give a little bit- or a lot; ‘social glue’ (Who brings everybody together to make things happen?); ‘bright ideas’ (Why didn’t we think of that?) ; ‘My first time’ (i.e. people’s debut events);   ’20/20′ (twenty inspirational people all in their twenties); ‘global sensations’; ‘changing lives’ (making a difference to people’s lives; ‘music’ and ‘from these hands’ (creative people).  Just flipping through, there is a strong entrepreneurial theme running through them, along with activism, sport, politics,and an emphasis on youth- although that may well just be me getting older!

I wonder what themes a similar list for the early 1900s would emphasize?  I think that early 1900s examples could be found under each of these headings- for example, there would be examples of young men, clever inventions, and provocateurs- but I think that the language to talk about them would have been different.   I’m sure that formal clubs and societies, organized with archives and meetings (just like the Melbourne Walking Club), would be far more prominent than the more ephemeral and individual-based networks that we see today.

‘James Stephen and the British Colonial System 1813-1847’ by Paul Knaplund

If ‘Yes Minister’ were true (and who’s to say it isn’t?) ‘The Policies of Rt. Honorable James Hacker MP’ might more correctly be described as ‘The Policies of Sir Humphrey Applebee’.  Likewise, when considering the colonial policies of Peel and Russell, as I did recently,there is a Sir Humphrey-like character at work there too: Sir James Stephen, the Permanent Undersecretary of State for War and the Colonies.  He acted as Permanent Undersecretary between 1836 and 1847, but his involvement with the Colonial Office extended from 1813 when he commenced work as legal counsel there.  As a result, he served under, by my reckoning, thirteen different Secretaries of State, several of whom had multiple rides on the ministerial merry-go-round.

The Stephen family is a prominent English family, many of whom worked as colonial judges and legal officers, and hence moved in the same orbit as Judge Willis.  Another branch of the family extended into ‘arts and letters’ through Sir Leslie Stephen (of the Dictionary of National Biography fame) and his daughter Virginia Woolf.  The family ethos was strongly Evangelical, with links to the Clapham Sect and the anti-slavery movement.

When you’re looking at the Colonial Office records, there are little glimpses of Sir James Stephen in many places.  As part of his drive to introduce more efficiency into the Colonial Office, he introduced a stamp system by which a document would move up and down the bureaucratic ladder, from civil servant to civil servant, up to the Secretary of State and back down again, with each initialling and dating in the designated spot on the document as it made its progress through the Colonial Office.

Where it was felt that a comment should be made, the edge of the document was turned over to make a dog-ear, and the civil servant or politician would make an annotation written at right angles to the rest of the document,  asking a question, or making a comment to the next person up the chain.  If the issue raised was a curly one, it might bounce back and forth between two civil servants with comment and counter-comment until it moved further up or down the bureaucratic ladder.

On occasions, James Stephen would write a longer memorandum that would be attached to the document in question.  In the archives today, these memoranda stay with the original correspondence, each carefully hived off into the files for the each specific colony.   This colony-specific focus tends to obscure the fact that, in any given week, the Colonial Office was dealing with the small dramas and mind-numbing minutiae of British colonies across the globe.  Yet there were commonalities among the types of issues that crossed the CO desks, and the response to them was underpinned by a broader, consistent theory of empire, largely embodied in Sir James Stephen’s bureaucratic contribution.

This book takes as a whole James Stephen’s attitudes and advice on colonial policy across the portfolio and over the thirty-odd years that he was at the Colonial Office.  There is, of course, contradiction and change in his opinions as the empire itself changed: I’m sure that Stephen would have agreed with the aphorism attributed to John Maynard Keynes (“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”). Nonetheless, there are  bedrock beliefs in James Stephen’s annotations and memoranda that Knaplund draws out in this book.

One of these was his suspicion of colonial adventurers on the lookout for quick profits.  In particular, he was wary of the Wakefieldians who returned his distrust with the sobriquets ‘Mr Mother Country’ and ‘Mr Over Secretary Stephen’ and very public ridicule.  He was insistent on safeguarding humanitarian principles in relation to slavery, transportation and prison policy, and indigenous policy.  He was particularly distrustful of the West Indian plantation owners and their influence on the local legislature and judicial system.

His mode of operation was to always support the governor on the ground in the colony rather than laying down prescriptive policy from the Colonial Office.  As long as no-one other than the colonists were being hurt by what he perceived as bad policy, he was happy to let it stand.  The colonists themselves would realize their own error, he reasoned, and the Colonial Office would be in greater odour for intervening rather than letting the colonies reap what they sowed legislatively.

He was also supportive of self-government, probably moreso than his political masters.  He viewed self-government as an inevitable developmental process, arguing that the colonial children would soon grow into adolescence and demand a more adult relationship with the mother country.

He was, apparently, a painfully shy man, describing himself as “virtually without skin” and rather ascetic by nature, eschewing cigars after having just one and enjoying it too much.  He was a prodigiously hard worker and the breadth of his knowledge of events and personalities across the empire is mightily impressive.  He was in many ways the corporate memory of the Colonial Office, even though the Secretaries of State that he served under sometimes disregarded or over-ruled his advice.  Nonetheless, his is another voice in the chorus of Colonial Office policy, and one that cannot be overlooked.