Who were the Aboriginal people of Beechworth? A historical perspective.


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WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this blog post includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress, particularly to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In particular, I acknowledge the Aboriginal ancestors whose words are quoted within this post, with the greatest respect for their legacy.

There’s much confusion as to who were the first people of Beechworth and the surrounding areas. In this post I intend to lay out the historical evidence for which Aboriginal local group occupied the Beechworth area, the Pallanganmiddang.

Firstly, some clarifications…

Before leaping into this post, I would like to state clearly that in my opinion, how Aboriginal people choose to define their particular ‘clan’, ‘tribe’ and ‘country’ (or any other group category), in the present day is solely a matter for Aboriginal people, not to be defined by non-Aboriginal historians. However, historical information furnished by historians (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike) may still be of interest to Aboriginal people, particularly as it contains the voices of their ancestors. As with any history ever written, what I present here is a historical (and linguistic) interpretation, supported by evidence; and my interpretation is open to debate if it is likewise supported by evidence.

The principal historical evidence that I will draw upon in this post will be the oral testimony of Aboriginal people, as told to various Europeans (mainly government officials) in the mid to late 19th century. I will do my best to privilege Aboriginal voices as they appear in historical documents, as I place a lot of weight on these ancestral voices. While it is true that the documents themselves have been created by Europeans, it is possible to discern when an Aboriginal person has related something directly to the author of a document, as opposed to the author’s later speculations, or speculations by other Europeans who have related information to a document’s author.

There are many interpretive considerations to take into account when reading historical documents in order to determine which Aboriginal groups existed and what country they belonged to, but for the sake of this blog post, I will point out this one major consideration: that in all the historical documents available in which there are Aboriginal people talking with Europeans about North East Victoria, Aboriginal people tend to identify first and foremost the names of what are now widely referred to as ‘clans’. A ‘clan’ can be considered a smaller ‘local group’ within what is colloquially known as a ‘tribe’. I will refer to them here as ‘local groups’, and ‘tribes’ as ‘broader groups’. Local groups appear to have been the principal unit of identity from an Aboriginal point of view — as least in terms of defining land ownership.

Finally, people unused to reading Victorian Aboriginal local group and broader group names may find this post a bit mind-boggling. For now, the post is necessarily argued in detail so that the sources of the information are as transparent as I can make them. I apologise if this makes the post difficult to read.

Pallanganmiddang, the people of Beechworth and surrounds

The local group historically associated with modern-day Beechworth, and in fact a much wider surrounding area, was the Pallanganmiddang. There are various ways in which their name is spelled in historical texts. Sometimes it begins with a B rather than a P, because Europeans apparently struggled to transcribe the sound ‘Bp’. Sometimes the local group name is given the suffixes ‘-illum’ and/or ‘-balluk’ (used by the ‘Kulin’ ‘tribes’ from the Broken River down to Melbourne) rather than the local group suffix common to local groups of north-east of Victoria and the southern Wiradjuri ‘-mittang’ or ‘-middang’. In both cases these suffixes (as Theddora woman Jenny Cooper related to anthropologist Alfred Howitt) simply meant ‘a group of people’. [1a]

Anyone reading the historical documents will soon notice that the name Pallanganmiddang has a number of ‘cognates’ (linguistically, a different spelling with the same etymological origin): Ballŭng-kara-mittang-bula, Ballinggon-willum, Bal.lin.go.yal.lum, Pallingoilum, Pallanganmiddang, Pallanganmiddah, Pallengoinmitty, Pal.lum.gy.mit.um, and so on. Although it may be difficult to grasp, ‘Pallanganmiddang’ and its cognates are not linguistically the same as ‘Bpangerang’. For the sake of making this post easier to read, I have put the various cognates of Pallanganmiddang in bold throughout the text.

The Pallanganmiddang was recognised as a local group by William Barak, ngurungaeta (respected head) of the Wurundjeri-willam local group (Melbourne area). When interviewed by anthropologist Alfred Howitt in the late 19th century, Barak stated that the local group associated with Wangaratta was the ‘Ballŭng-kara-mittang-bula‘. Incidentally, Barak separated this local group from the Bpangerang by stating that the ‘Baingerang’ were associated geographically with Echuca. Barak also provided an indication of the boundary of Pallanganmiddang country to the south by stating that the Yeerŭn-illŭm-ballŭk local group (a local group of the Taungurung ‘tribe’ or broad group) were associated with a ‘big swamp Below Benalla’. [1b] This geographical descriptor definitely associates the Yeerŭn-illŭm with Benalla, and perhaps also with the big swamp now known as Winton Wetlands (although this is not ‘below’ Benalla according to cardinal points), or more likely the symbolically important waterhole ‘Marangan’ (which now forms Lake Benalla).* Importantly, this raw information appears in Alfred Howitt’s primary interview notes with Barak, which are entirely free of Howitt’s subsequent interpretations and categorisations, as seen in his The Native Tribes of South East Australia (1904).

[*Since originally writing this post I have found quite a few references to Marangan indicating its cultural significance, and I now think it more likely that Barak was referring to Marangan when he spoke to Howitt of a ‘big swamp’. — 29 May 2020]

The Pallanganmiddang were also recognised by Kulin people who gave information to Assistant Protector of Aborigines William Thomas in Melbourne in the early to mid-1840s. One or more Kulin men told Thomas that ‘The Goulborne Tribes comprehend 6 sections’; and list these sections (local groups), and the geographical localities for each local group (the geographical locality denoted mainly by the names of the pastoralists who held stations on that local group’s country). Thus the last of these six sections listed by Thomas’s informant/s was the ‘Ballinggon willum Dr Mackey, Mr Wendberg &c’. [2] This ‘Ballinggon-willum’ clan (or as Barak would have it, ‘Ballŭng-Kara-mittang’), is associated with a surprisingly accurate geographical descriptor, that of the pastoral run of ‘Dr Mackey’. At the time of Thomas’s writing, there was only one pastoralist with a station in the whole of the Port Phillip district with the name ‘Dr Mackey’, which was Dr George Edward Mackay at Whorouly.

The inclusion of ‘Ballinggon-willum‘ as comprising one of the six sections (local groups) of the Goulburn tribe (ie: Taungurung), is of interest — not least to the modern day Taungurung clans, but this is an issue which cannot be taken at face value, given the complexities of social relations between the Pallanganmiddang and several Kulin clans — especially as Thomas excluded them from his later 1858 list of Kulin nation peoples. For now, let us note that other Taungurung clans are absent from the same list: Leuk-willam, Moomoomgoondeet, Nattarak-bulluck and Waring-illum-balluk, and that these absences make it at best an incomplete if not inaccurate list. [3]

Pallanganmiddang local group was also recognised by Taungurung people (around Mansfield/Delatite River). When travelling through Taungurung country, Chief Protector of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson, spoke with Taungurung  people who provided him with a list of local groups occupying adjoining country (on 1 June 1840) [4]. Contained within this list, headed, ‘Vocabulary: Goulburn blacks at Mt. Buller and Crossing Place, May 1840’ is the clear statement ‘Pal.lin.go.mit.tite: this last [local group] at the junction of the Ovens’. The ‘junction of the Ovens,’ which was familiar to all ‘overlanders’ at this time was the junction of the Ovens River with the King River, at Wangaratta. Also contained within the vocabulary information is a numbered list of adjoining local groups [my clarification of modern-day spellings and localities in square brackets]:

‘1. Tin.ne.mit.tum; [Djinning-mittang, Mitta Mitta Valley]
2. Moke.al.lum.be; [Mogullumbidj, Mount Buffalo]
3. Peer.eng.ile: are the Ware.rag.ger.re; [‘Ware.rag.ger.re’ may be Wiradjuri]
4. Pal.lum.gy.mit.um: at Dow.koy.yong; to the NE of Mt Battery’

In this list, Robinson records the Pal.lum.gy.mit.um, at ‘Dow.koy.ong’, North East of Mount Battery. Unfortunately there does not seem to be a present-day Dow.koy.yong. North-east of Mount Battery is the location of present-day town of Barwite, and further in that same direction in the ranges, lies the upper reaches of the King Valley.  So it would seem that ‘Dow.koy.ong’ is either at Barwite, Tolmie, or in the upper King Valley. 

This information constitutes almost* as much as I could find that is on record that the Kulin peoples had to say about the Pallanganmiddang and their location: that they existed, and their country included Wangaratta, the King Valley, and Whorouly. As Kulin country lay to the south of Pallanganmiddang country (speaking in broad terms and leaving aside whether Pallanganmiddang were in fact also Kulin), it makes sense that Kulin people spoke about the southern extent of that country.

[*I am currently re-examining some statements made by Taungurung to Robinson in the Upper Broken River Valley. — JD 20 August 2020]

And now we must turn to what the Pallanganmiddang had to say about themselves and their country. Much of what is recorded of what Pallanganmiddang people had to say directly was recorded by the Chief Protector of Aborigines George Augustus Robinson, on three separate visits (April 1840, February 1841, and September 1844) to north-east Victoria. In particular, the visit of February 1841 was associated with Robinson escorting some Aboriginal men, who had been gaoled in Melbourne for an attack on Mackay’s station in May 1840, home — a journey on which he became quite closely acquainted with a young Pallanganmiddang man, Mul.lo.nin.ner (a.k.a. ‘Joe’).

Robinsons’ visit of April 1840: Robinson’s first encounter with some Pallanganmiddang people was at ‘Brodribb’s station’ at the Broken River (present-day Benalla), on Monday 20 April 1840. Robinson records that he has met 10 men of four different local groups, including [my clarification of modern-day spellings and localities in square brackets]:
‘1. Bal.lin.go.yal.lums, a section of the Ovens tribe, called I believe Wee.her.roo (queri); [Waywurru/Waveroo]
2. The Buth.er.rer.bul.luc, a section of the Tar.doon.gerong; [Butherballuk, Taungurung]
3. The Wor.rile.lum, a large tribe inhabiting the country down the Goulburn River by the Murray, east side; [likely Ngurai-illum, or alternatively a Pangerang clan on the lower Goulburn]
4. And the Pine.ger.rines, a large tribe inhabiting the country on the south and southwest banks of the Murray.’ [Pangerangs]

At this point in time Robinson is aware that the Bal.lin.go.yal.lums are a section (local group) from a larger ‘Ovens tribe’, but still unsure that the ‘Ovens tribe’ is called ‘Wee.her.roo’ [ie: Waywurru, Waveroo], so he has written a note to himself (as he does at other places in his journals) to ‘queri’ this information. For now I will say that the debates about ‘Waywurru’ constitute a different discussion to the one in this post, but it is worth noting that modern-day descendants of Pallangan-middang tend to identify as ‘Waywurru’. However, what is relevant to this post is that Robinson makes a clear distinction between the ‘Bal.lin.go.yal.lums’ who are an Ovens River clan, and the ‘Pine.ger.rines’ (Pangerang), who are a Murray River clan. His query about Waywurru seems to have been answered after he ‘spent time in conversation with the natives,’ on the 23 of April 1840. After this time he tends to refer to the Waywurru as a ‘nation’ (of which Pallangan-middang is a constituent part). Two other contemporary sources (squatters Benjamin Barber and David Reid) agree with Robinson, referring to a ‘Weeroo’ and ‘Weiro’ broad group in the area. [6]

Specifically, Benjamin Barber wrote from Barnawatha in 1841: ‘there are three distinct tribes in this neighbourhood, the Hume or Uradgerry [Wiradjuri], the Weiro [Waywurru] or Ovens, and the Unangan [Pangerang], or Lower Hume…’ [6b] It is also worth noting that in the geographical sensibilities of the day ‘Lower Hume’ generally meant downstream from Albury.

Visit of February 1841: By the end of 1840, Robinson was organising to have some Aboriginal men from North East Victoria released from gaol in Melbourne; and after talking with each, he takes down their details. The first man he organises to be released is Pallangan-middang man, Min.nup (Merriman), on 28 December 1840. [5] In taking the details of the various men being released, Robinson finds that several of these men describe Bontharambo (just out of Wangaratta) as their ‘native country’. For instance, on 10 December 1840, he records ‘Jag.ger.rog.er, conferred name Harlequin, belonging to the Pal.len.go.illum section of the Wavaroo tribe, country between the Broken River [Benalla] and Hume [Murray River], … locality at Pan.der.ram.bo.go [Bontharambo], Docker’s Plains’. On 2 January 1841 Robinson spoke with Wine.ger.rine (aka. Parngurite, conferred name Lare.re) who ‘belongs to the tribe of Wavoroo, section 1. Pal.len.go.mittum, 2. Pal.len.go.mit.tite, native locality Pan.der.ram.bo.go. On the 3 February 1841 Robinson organises for three men to be released from gaol, including ‘Mul.lo.nin.ner, alias Joe, Pal.len.gen.mit.ty, country Panderambo; stating further that he ‘is married, wife’s name Kone.ner.ro.ke country Panderambo. Joe is about 18 years.’

Robinson escorts three of these men back to North East Victoria. When they reach 15 Mile Creek, on 8 February 1841, Mul.lo.nin.ner tells Robinson ‘the country at 15 Mile Creek belongs to Pallengo.il.lum to Hone.ne.ap and Mo.me.gin.ner, two blacks who belong to the 15 Mile Creek at the place where the drays stop.’ (Fifteen Mile Creek is the former name for Glenrowan.) It is worth noting that Mul.lo.nin.ner (Joe), is well placed to relate this information, as he is married to Kone.ner.ro.ke, who is a sister to Min.nup (Merriman), and that Hone.ne.ap is one of Meriman’s ‘three fathers’ (in Aboriginal kinship systems, Merriman’s paternal uncles would also be considered ‘fathers’). In other words, Joe is Merriman’s brother-in-law and is Hone.ne.ap’s son-in-law.

By Tuesday 9 February 1841, the party has made it to Joseph Docker’s Bontharambo station, where Robinson meets with a large gathering of at least 150 Aboriginal people including ‘Pingerines… Worilum, Pallengoillum, Yarranillum, Butherbulluc.’ He later adds that he held communication with parts of four nations, viz:

  1. Urungung [ie: Wiradjuri name for Pangerang (refer to Robinson, 25.41840)]
  2. Waradgery [ie: Wiradjuri]
  3. Dorngorong [ie: Taungurung]
  4. Waveroo

The number of Aboriginal people present at Bontharambo on this occasion, of different broader groups and local groups, demonstrates that the mere presence of these various people together at Bontharambo did not confer ownership of that country: in other words, there were plenty of ‘visitors’. This should surprise no one, when one considers that Joseph Docker was sympathetic to Aboriginal people, and his station Bontharambo was a safe harbour in a landscape awash with frontier violence. However, it is only Pallanganmiddang people who tell Robinson that Bonthrambo is their native locality. Moreover, Robinson notes on 11 February 1841, ‘The Pingerines are going away to their own country.’ This further indicates the status of the Pangerang as visitors at Bontharambo, like the Wiradjuri and Taungurung.

Visit of September 1844: George Augustus Robinson visited ‘the Hume’ (Albury-Wodonga) in late September 1844, where he once again met Mul.lo.nin.ner (Joe). He found Mul.lo.nin.ner in the company of  large gathering of 250 people, including many people from southern Wiradjuri local groups. Mul.lo.nin.ner immediately recognised Robinson, and over the course of two days furnished him with information, including a vocabulary of Pallanganmiddang language.

On 30 September 1844, Robinson noted: ‘Pal.ler.an.mit.ter: belong to Nar.rar, called Little River where Mr Huon’s station; language spoken is different to the Way.rad.jerre.’ (Wiradjuri). The ‘Mr Huon’ referred to here is Aime Huon who held a station on the ‘Little River’ (now known as the Kiewa River), which was named after its location ‘Merimarenbung’ [ie Mount Murramurrangbong]. Robinson took down the names of 22 Pallanganmiddang people at this gathering, and the same day he also took down a vocabulary from Mul.lo.nin.ner (Joe), which is prefaced by the statement ‘Pal.loo.ang.mitter, Nac.in.don.dy or Nack.cer.an.dy, speak language Min.u.bud.dong.’ [ie: Pallanganmiddang at Yackandandah speak Min.u.bud.dong.] The following day Robinson recorded a second vocabulary list with Joe, which is described more simply as as ‘Pal.ler.an.mitter language‘.

Through the 1840s and 1850s, and in some cases right up to the 1870s, identifiable individuals from the Pallanganmiddang show up in many stories and reports in locations from Wodonga to Mount Murramurrangbong, Tangambalanga, Yackandandah, Barwidgee, Beechworth, Stanley, Whorouly, Milawa, Oxley, Tarrawingee and Wangaratta. The evidence of their movement through their country is literally a historical confetti of stories and connections (too much to relate here), but these ‘adventures’ virtually never extend beyond the geographical extent originally outlined by the Aboriginal informants of Robinson and Thomas in the 1840s, and by William Barak in the latter 19th century.

However, one thing is clear: the newspaper reports of the Aboriginal people who visit Beechworth in 1858 and 1858 describe this group as led by Merriman and his father, ‘King Billy’ of Barwidgee, and the article clearly states that this  group make a point of visiting Beechworth as a part of their country: ‘They pay periodical visits to every part of their district, always reaching Beechworth about the time when the races come off’. [7] From all the evidence, we know that King Billy and his son Merriman, are Pallanganmiddang people.

You can read about King Billy and his clan in the post ‘Were Aboriginal people in Beechworth in the 1850s? (Following a new lead)’.

Pallanganmiddang language

In the mid-1990s, linguists Julie Reid and Barry Blake, identified on the basis of vocabularies collected in the 19th century (including those collected by George Augustus Robinson), that the Pallanganmiddang spoke a distinctive language, which is markedly different from Wiradjuri to the north and was also not a language belonging to the ‘Kulin cultural bloc’ (such as Taungurung to the south). On the basis of what we know, the language shares 25% of its vocabulary in common with Bpangerang/Yorta Yorta, and 21% in common with Dhudhuroa.  In the words of Blake and Reid, ‘It seems likely that Pallanganmiddang represents a language quite distinct from those of its neighbours.’ [8] This language is a cultural difference which sets Pallanganmiddang apart from its neighbours.

Linguistically, the two vocabulary lists that Mul.lo.nin.ner (Joe) gave Robinson in 1844 are the same language, even though only one list is prefaced by the information that Pallanganmiddang speak ‘Min.u.bud.dong’. This suggests that the name of Pallanganmiddang clan language is in fact ‘Min.u.bud.dong’, or at the very least that Min.u.bud.dong is an alternative name for Pallanganmiddang language. For his part, Dr Ian Clark has suggested, ‘that Minubuddong is a Wiradjuri exonym applied to the Pallanganmiddang.’ [9]

The same language term appears in only one other known historical source (appearing as a cognate), recorded when ethnographer R.H. Mathews interviewed Dhudhuroa man Neddy Wheeler, around five decades after Robinson spoke with Mul.lo.nin.ner (Joe). From the information Mathews gathered from Wheeler, he wrote that ‘Minyambuta, a dialect of the Dhudhuroa, was the speech of the tribe occupying the Buffalo, King, Ovens and Broken Rivers and the tributaries of these streams’ [10]. Mathews also records that ‘Minyambuta’ was spoken at Buffalo, Beechworth, Wangaratta, and Bright. [11]

When Mathews recorded ‘Minyambuta’ as a dialect of Dhudhuroa, his interpretation seems to have given rise to the idea that the Dhudhuroa peoples’ territory extended from their core country in the Mitta Mitta Valley to as far as Wangaratta (and this is actually illustrated as such on some published maps). However, modern linguists now suggest that ‘Pallanganmiddang’ language, which seems to also be known as ‘Min.u.bud.dong’ language, or by its cognate ‘Minyambuta’ language, was largely a different language to Dhudhuroa. Ian Clark states, ‘If Minyambuta is a variant of Minubuddong, which is probable, then Mathews (1909) was wrong to consider it a Dhudhuroa dialect.’ [12] Certainly, the area in which Neddy Wheeler says Minyambuta was spoken overlaps heavily with many of the locations claimed as Pallanganmiddang country in other sources, which caused Diane Barwick to consider that ‘Minjambuta’ simply referred to Pallanganmiddang. [13] (The exception to this rule does seem to be that Minjambuta was also spoken at Broken River (Benalla), which is country belonging to the Yeerŭn-illŭm local group [of the Taungurung]. However, this anomaly could be accounted for by the fact that the Yeerŭn-illŭm may have resorted to using Minyambuta language to communicate with their Pallanganmiddang neighbours.)


When looking at the primary historical evidence, there are references which clearly place the Pallanganmiddang ‘on country’ from Glenrowan, across to the King Valley, Whorouly, Beechworth, Yackandandah, Mount Murramurrangbong, the lower Kiewa River, Wangaratta and Bontharambo.

In all of the historical primary source materials located in state and national archives — including materials written from direct communication with Aboriginal people — it is notable that the Pallanganmiddang people are the only people who make claims of connection to the country from Wangaratta, up the Ovens Valley, over the Beechworth plateau and across to the lower Kiewa Valley. There is not a single historical reference directly connecting Pangerang to these places as owners of that country as opposed to being visitors, and although modern-day people may differ in their opinions, nor is there a single historical reference from which it can be inferred that Pallanganmiddang are a group within the Pangerang tribe. Moreover, in the historical sources I have not found a single individual who identifies as Pangerang anywhere east of Wodonga and Wangaratta; in other words there are no records of Pangerang people at all east of the line which has become the Hume Freeway. What we do find are references to the Mogullumbidj around Mount Buffalo, and of course the Dhudhuroa (aka Dodoro, or Theddora-mittung, not much further east). There are, however, numerous historical sources which talk about Pangerang in other locations much further west.

Current claims that Pallanganmiddang country is within the Taungurung nation, and also the notion that Pallanganmiddang is a clan of Dhudhuroa, are a far more complex and interesting questions to me, from an ethno-historical point of view, which deserve substantial discussion in their own right.

Post-script: An article written decades after European colonisation in 1887, about a group of Aboriginal ‘missionaries’ travelling the North East from Maloga mission to preach Christianity, reported that one of the group was Aboriginal man named Paddy Swift, who ‘aged 40, belongs to the Nanga tribe of Oxley. ‘”There was, a great crowd of my people there” he says, “but I do not think there are 20 left now.”‘ [14] Accounting for poor journalistic transcription, I see a possible correlation between ‘Nanga’ and ‘Pallangan’. Equally, ‘Nanga’ could have been a poor transcription of the Wiradjuri word for Pangerang, ‘Unangan’. However, I now think the most likely explanation is that Nanga is in fact referring to ‘Thilingananga’ — the original name adopted for the pastoral run at what was later renamed ‘Bruarong’. Interestingly, the ‘tribal’ name used by non-Aboriginal people by the early 20th century to refer to the people occupying the same general area was the ‘Barwidgees’ (the name of the adjoining pastoral run), and finally,  we also know that ‘King Billy of Barwidgee’ and his people also occupied Oxley.

Post-script 2: I also note that the name ‘Wangaratta’, which is local history books is said to be ‘Aboriginal for resting place of cormorants’, bares a linguistic relation to the Waywurru word for brolga, birranga. As we do not have the word for ‘cormorants’ in any local vocabulary, it is possible that the word was a category applied to tall waterbirds and applied to both brolgas and cormorants.


[1a] Alfred Howitt, notebook hw0436, State Library of Victoria, ‘Notes by Howitt on Omeo ‘tribe’ and letter from Bulmer’, p.3; this explanation is given: ‘Mittŭng = a number, or many [people]’.

[1b] Alfred Howitt, Original field notebook catalogued as XM759, held at the Museum of Victoria, p.6.

[2] William Thomas, William Thomas Papers, 1834-1868, 1902, Mitchell Library MS 214, Box 23, Section 1 (Book A (Microfilm CY 3130), p.65, 68. Transcript courtesy Dr Stephen Morey.
In the same notebook, an informant by the name of Gibberook, who was the son of ‘Netkulluk’, ‘King’ the ‘Yerren Nillum’ (Yeerŭn-illŭm) clan of the Taungurung tribe, offers a list of ‘ten sections’ (clans) and their ‘chiefs’ (clan heads); and in that list he includes more of what are now commonly understood to be Taungurung clans, but excludes Ballinggon-willum — which is interesting, considering Yeerŭn-illŭm and Ballinggon-willum are geographical neighbours.

[3] Here I have used as a guide to Taungurung clans Diane E. Barwick, ‘Mapping the Past: An Atlas of Victorian Clans 1835-1904’. Aboriginal History, Vol. 8, 1984: 100-131.

William Thomas later reported to the Select Committee of the Legislative Council of the Aborigines given in 1858 (Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Council of the Aborigines , 1858-59 p. 68),

‘Between the five nearest tribes to Melbourne there is a kind of confederacy or relationship, which, I apprehend, is followed out throughout the length and breadth of Victoria. Thus, the Yarra, Western Port, Geelong, Goulburn, and Devil’s River tribes, though continually quarrelling, nevertheless are in a degree united; and to accomplish (or force) this united interest, according to their laws, marriages are not contracted in their own tribe – for instance, a Yarra man must get himself a wife, not out of his own tribe, but either of the other tribes. In like manner a Goulburn must get his lubra from the Yarra, Devil’s River, Western Port, or Geelong tribe. Thus a kind of social compact is formed against any distant tribe who might intrude upon their country, when all unite to expel the intruder…’

[4] Ian Clark [ed.], The Journal of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector, Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate, 1839-1852, published by Ian Clark, 2014. NB: For all references to Robinson I have provided the journal entry dates rather than a page number. This should enable the read who wishes to check references to pick up any published edition of Robinson’s journal and check the reference.

[5] On the 20 December, Robinson organises for Min.nup (Merriman) to be released from gaol. At the time, he takes down this information: ‘Min.nup says he has three fathers: 1. Lang.wal.lurt, 2. Hon.ne.ap, 3. Sue.wat.ware.rum. He says he has two brothers: 1. Way.be.mur.ram, 2. Taw.row, one sister: Kone.ne.roke. This is important contextual information in terms of demonstrating Merriman’s relationship to country, given that Hon.ne.ap’s country is 15 Mile Creek (Glenrowan).

[6] Marie Hansen Fels, ‘These Singular People — The Ovens Blacks, Supplementary Report,’ 28th July 1997 (unpublished technical report prepared for the Yorta Yorta Native Title Claim), p.8.

[6b] Letter from Benjamin Barber, in ‘Replies to the following Circular Letter on the subject of the Aborigines, addressed to gentlemen residing too remote from Sydney, to expect the favour of their personal attendance upon the Committee, in Select Committee Enquiry into Immigration, NSW Legislative Council, 1841; David Reid in ‘Aboriginal Population 1860, The Argus, Friday 5 October, 1860. p.5.

[7] ‘Fashionable Arrivals’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, Wednesday 23 February, 1859, p.2

[8] Barry J. Blake and Julie Reid, ‘Pallanganmiddang: a language of the Upper Murray,’ Aboriginal History, 1999, Vol. 23, pp.15-30; this direct quote on p.17.

[9] Ian Clark, ‘Aboriginal languages in North-east Victoria – the status of ‘Waveru’ reconsidered’, Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues, 2011, Vol. 14(4): pp.2-22; this direct quote on p.5.

[10] R. H. Mathews, MS8006, Series 5, File 3, Box 6, National Library of Australia.

[11] R. H. Matthews, MS 8006, Series 3, Item 4, Volume 2 [Marked on notebook ‘6’], National Library Australia.

[12] Clark, ibid, p.7.

[13] ibid.

[14] ‘An Aboriginal Revival’, The Corowa Free Press, Friday 25 February 1887, p 5.

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Sweet Damper on the Little River


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Imagine yourself in 1839, having just eaten a good meal by the side of a creek running into the Kiewa River, in north east Victoria: a safe place you’ve known your entire life. Soon you will be dead.


Mound at House Creek, Dederang (Photograph: Megan Carter, 2019)

Imagine yourself in 1839, having just eaten a good meal by the side of a creek in north east Victoria: a safe place you’ve known your entire life. Suddenly you start to experience severe stomach pain and cramping, as well as diarrhea and vomiting; not regular vomiting, but the kind that contains blood. Soon you are urinating blood too. Those around you — your friends, family, your children and elders — are suffering the same. Before you can try to help them, your condition  deteriorates into convulsions and confusion. You finally collapse into a coma. Soon you will be dead.

There is a story among locals in the Kiewa Valley about a strange mound on the banks of House Creek at Dederang, in which the mound is described as a mass grave of Aboriginal people, buried after a massacre committed by early settlers using arsenic-laced damper. To my knowledge the story has appeared in print twice; the first of which was in Desmond Martin’s local history book, Tale of Two Cities. Martin wrote,

‘In addition there is the story of the 180 Aboriginals allegedly buried beneath the two pine trees beside House Creek, south of Dederang, on the old Woodside property… Way back in the foundation years people whose names seem to be unknown moved out onto the back of the run to muster cattle, leaving the woman of the house alone except for a house gin or two. The local tribe cannily paid her a visit and got into the store room as she was getting them a handout of flour etc to keep them peaceable. That night they all had a big feed up down by the creek, and in the morning only a few of the 200 or so visitors were still alive. The rest had been poisoned by the damper made from the station flour. If this is true then it is most unlikely that the unfortunate lady had anything to do with doping the dough. Her visitors probably grabbed a tin of arsenic, or possibly strychnine as these two poisons were common to most properties in the early days, thinking it was “sugarbag”, shared it up, and everybody mixed a fine damper that contained poison instead of sugar. The returning men are said to have buried all the bodies under the mound, and later planted the pines over them.’ [1]

Only recently, the same story has resurfaced in an new, locally published book, Squatters, Selectors and Settlers, Dederang, Gundowring and Mongan’s Bridge Pioneering District, by Dulcie Smith with Mary Cardwell:

‘One story is told that a tribe of Indigenous people called at a homestead near House Creek. The settler’s wife was there alone and frightened. Her husband and his cattlemen were away working. She deemed it best to give the visitors the good quality flour they demanded. It was possible that there was arsenic mixed in the flour. Around 180 people died where they had their feed. The returning bushmen buried them and their grave is thought to be the hillock. This is where corroborees were thought to happen. “Through the dark branches of the pine trees, the wind groans dirges for the people buried below.”‘ This information is attributed to ‘Alvara McKillop and other anonymous locals’. [2]

This is one of those stories that, considering contextual evidence, seems more than likely to be based on a real event. However there exist some elements which are suspicious. Firstly, it is unlikely that returning stockmen would have gone to the trouble of creating such a huge mound in order to bury these bodies. The mound is clearly unnatural, and if is wasn’t created by stockmen, it may well have been of pre-existing Aboriginal origins. Whatever the case, this mound has been associated with Aboriginal people at least since the late nineteenth century. While touring the region in 1886, James Stirling reported that:

‘At Dederang we noticed a peculiarly rounded hillock at the junction of a small creek… We regretted that we had not time to examine it, but our driver informed us it was locally known as a blackfellow’s mound, one of those monuments which remain of a fast expiring race’. [3]

Secondly, the story is structured to absolve early settlers of murder by attributing the 180 deaths to an accidental poisoning, for which a frightened white woman and the Aboriginal people themselves (Waywurru and/or Dhudhuroa) are responsible. This too, is highly unlikely, since there is enough evidence that European settlers in north east Victoria did deliberately poison Aboriginal people.

One highly suggestive piece of circumstantial evidence comes in the form of an ‘early warning,’ that the first pastoralists in north-east Victoria had either started, or were about to start, deliberately killing local Aboriginal people with sweet damper — damper laced with sugar to mask the taste of arsenic. In June 1838, a pastoralist based in Berrima, in the New South Wales southern highlands, wrote a letter to the editor of Sydney-based paper, The Colonist, complaining that the Government had not given mounted police discretionary power to shoot Aboriginal people. Written only months after the Faithfull Massacre at Benalla, in which Aboriginal people had attacked and killed a number of shepherds, the letter warned that in the absence of police power to kill Aboriginal people they deemed dangerous, pastoralists were about to take matters into their own hands:

‘Since the Colonial Government, by virtually tying down the hands of the party of mounted policemen despatched towards the Hume [i.e.: Murray] River, has refused to afford to the proprietors of sheep and cattle stations on the Port Phillip Road, the necessary protection against the aggressions of the blacks, allow me to call the attention of those gentlemen who, like myself, have sent live stock to the Murray and its vicinity, to the expediency of forming a sort of militia corps, consisting of every hut-keeper, watchman, and stockman, able to shoulder a musket, in order that we may thus be enabled to repel force by force.’

The writer reported that Aboriginal people had ‘recently committed two more murders; one of these unfortunate victims was a shepherd belonging to a gentleman (Mr. Bowman), who resides in this neighbourhood; … I have been informed on good authority, that stockmen and others have often tried the experiment of mixing up arsenic in a damper, placed where the blacks were in the habit of frequenting. No atrocities on the part of the blacks, can in my opinion justify the whites in resorting to such treacherous means of retaliation. Assuredly the end does not justify the means. But what can they (the whites) do?’ … What I would here suggest is, that, until the government see the necessity of giving the mounted police already despatched a discretionary power to shoot a few of the blacks who commit outrages among the stations, the proprietors themselves should, by forming a militia corps, follow the example of Major Mitchell. It is, I admit, truly distressing to be driven to this necessity. But it appears to me that there is no other alternative. … However paradoxical the assertion may sound, I am convinced that the most humane course we can adopt as regards the majority of the blacks themselves, would be to shoot a few of their ring-leaders when detected in the act of committing their outrages. It must come to this at last. There is no other way of convincing them of the superiority of the whites.’

The article concluded with a plea to the Government to let mounted police shoot specific Aboriginal people, lest the pastoralists turn to the indiscriminate wholesale murder of Aboriginal people by arsenic:

‘Let the Government only act with vigour tempered with humanity, and these outrages will soon be put an end to. Treat the blacks as rational beings, and their natural sense of justice will make them hear reason. Treat them as wild beasts, and they will continue wild to the last. The arsenic affair is horrific! It makes one’s blood curdle!’ [4]

There is no doubt that the author of the letter was well-informed concerning matters in north east Victoria. He already had stock in the area, which means that he would have — either as an individual or partner — held a license to depasture herds and flocks and had registered a ‘run’ with the nearest Crown Lands Commissioner. He also resided at Berrima on the New South Wales southern highlands, which was the geographical base from which almost all of the early pastoralists of north east Victoria established themselves. He refers to William Bowman, whose pastoral leases took in the area from Everton on the Ovens River, through ‘Bowman’s Forest’ and the rest of the Murmungee Basin to Beechworth and country as far as Wooragee. He also suggests that pastoralists should ‘follow the example of Major Mitchell’, which can only be a reference to the fact that Mitchell and his party on their ‘Third Expedition of Discovery’ had killed a number of Aboriginal people at what has become known as the ‘Mount Dispersion massacre’ in 1836. Mitchell only received a reprimand for leading the massacre, having claimed self-defence.

The Government never did grant its mounted police powers to shoot Aboriginal people: As subjects of the Crown, Aboriginal people had to be arrested for crimes, and brought to trial like everyone else. Likewise, as subjects of the Crown, neither was it ever legal to murder Aboriginal people — but this didn’t stop the early European pastoralists. When stockmen were implicated in the mass killing of mainly women, children and old men at Myall Creek, the Government committed them to trial, and hanged seven of the perpetrators in November 1838. However, instead of ending the killings; this only meant that pastoralists devoted greater efforts to covering up their wanton acts of murder.

In his letter of 1853, squatter George Faithful of Oxley Plains would recall of these early years of European settlement, ‘The Government … threatened to hang any one who dared to shoot a black, even in protection of his property, and appointed Protectors to search about the country for information as to the destruction of the natives. These gentlemen resorted to the most contemptible means to gain information against individuals, whom the trumpet-tongue of falsehood had branded as having destroyed many of these savages. This, instead of doing good, did much evil. People formed themselves into bands of alliance and allegiance to each other, and then it was the destruction of the natives really did take place.’ [5]

The evidence that pastoralists used arsenic-laced damper to kill Aboriginal people in north east Victoria at this time, doesn’t name the individuals responsible, but it does exist. Assistant Aboriginal Protectors employed under the Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate (mainly religious men, not given to ‘trumpet tongued falsehoods’) knew too well what was going on in north east Victoria — where the colonial authorities had opted not to post a regional Protector, resolutely refusing to do so even after Chief Protector George Augustus Robinson requested it. [6]

In June 1839, not even a year after its initial settlement by Europeans, Assistant Protector of Aborigines for the Goulburn district, James Dredge, recorded the prevalence of mass poisonings with ‘sweet damper’. [7] Assistant Protector of Aborigines for the Melbourne area, William Thomas, also recorded in March 1839 that Aboriginal people on the Broken and Ovens Rivers had been ‘put out in this way.’ [8] 

Although Thomas does not specifically note the Kiewa River, it is worth pointing out that the Kiewa was at this time barely known to most Europeans, as it lay quite some distance off the main over-landing route from Sydney to the Port Phillip district, and only later did it come to be referred to by them as ‘Little River’. A letter from his stockman to pastoral lisencee John Jobbins, dated from 2 October 1839, locates Jobbins’ run Towangah (Tawonga) Station as being ‘near the head of the ‘Ovens’,’ [9] demonstrating that people at this time were generally unable to find an appropriate geographical descriptor for the Kiewa Valley. Thus when William Thomas writes that arsenic was being used on the Broken and Ovens Rivers, he could well also mean the Kiewa.

If we consider sometime after the Faithfull Massacre in April 1838 up until mid 1839, as a likely timeframe for the massacre on the Kiewa River, this allows us to speculate on which of the settlers in the district at that time could have been the perpetrators. There were, at this time, four stations (pastoral runs) in the immediate area: Kergunyah (‘Kergunnnia’) station, held by John Morrice, Robert Wylde and David MacKenzie, and managed by George Kinchington (who arrived in June 1838 with his wife and family, and would later go on to hold ‘Thilingananga’ station at what would become Bruarong) [10]; ‘Gundowring’ Station on the opposite side of the Kiewa River, held by George Hume Barber, and run by his young son Charles Barber, and their manager Frederick Street (who was a brother-in-law of George Kinchington) [11]; ‘Dederang’ Station, held by absentee pastoralist James Roberts of the property Currawang (near Young), and run by stockmen (one of whom we only know as ‘old Tom’); and finally ‘Towangah’ (Tawonga) Station, held by John Jobbins and managed on his behalf by stockmen whose names are unknown. [12] (*Since first writing this, I have discovered that Dederang station was superintended by John Wingrove. [12b]) All stations would have had a number of assigned or ticket-of-leave convict labourers.

Of the four station-holders, emancipated convict John Jobbins is the only one with a proven record of killing, or inciting his station labourers, to kill Aboriginal people, [13] but this does not lessen the chance that the other station holders and/or their managers were responsible for this mass poisoning. Of the three men who held Kergunyah Station, it seems the Reverends Wylde and MacKenzie (both school teachers at Australian College in Sydney) were merely investors, while only John Morrice was hands-on (and even then, perhaps only occasionally, as he lived at Sutton Forest on the New South Wales southern highlands, with his wife Jane, the daughter of Yackandandah’s first European settler James Osborne). Morrice would have been no stranger to the mentality of racism and brutality: his Scottish-born father had been a slave-owning tea planter in Jamaica. [14] While avoiding naming anyone specifically, Reverend David MacKenzie recounted the use of arsenic to murder Aboriginal people in his 1845 book The Emigrant’s Guide; or Ten Years’ Practical Experience in Australia [15]. MacKenzie’s comments indicate that at the very least he was familiar with the practice of poisoning Aboriginal people. Furthermore, his comments also illustrate that — particularly after the prosecution of men for the Myall Creek massacre — this method was used in preference to shooting, because it was harder to prove Aboriginal deaths by poisoning as actual murder: one could, as the oral history stories from the Kiewa Valley suggest, always blame the frightened wife of a stockman, and the Aboriginal people themselves.

We cannot point directly to anyone who was responsible for poisoning Aboriginal people in the Kiewa Valley, but we can think about the mentalities that went with such an act. It is likely there are still descendants of some early settlers possibly implicated in the murder of local Aboriginal people in the Kiewa Valley, still living locally. It could be distressing for some of these people to imagine that their ancestors were possibly involved in such horrific acts of murder. And yet, the acknowledgement of atrocities needs to happen for the descendants of the Aboriginal people who survived, and for the wellbeing of us all.

Further reading

Megan Carter has published a blog post on the Dederang Mount the same day that I wrote this post. Please read it to gain the Aboriginal (Waywurru) perspective: ‘Though the dark branches of the pine trees, the wind’s groan dirges for the people buried below’- The Dederang Mound, Kiewa Valley Also The Dederang Mound Continued.


This post could not have been written without the assistance of Megan Carter and Belinda Pearce. It is dedicated to Russell Bellingham, because he keeps asking these kinds of questions.


[1] Desmond Martin, A Tale of Twin Cities: Part 1 — The Founding Years, Graphic Books, Armadale, 1981, pp.43-44.

[2] Dulcie Stiff with Mary Cardwell, Squatters, Selectors and Settlers, Dederang, Gundowring and Monaghan’s Bridge Pioneering District, self-published locally, 2019, p.4.

[3] James Stirling, ‘FROM OMEO TO SYDNEY VIA MOUNT BOGONG, THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN IN VICTORIA. VIII.’ Gippsland Times, Monday 22 March 1886 p.3.

[4] ‘Original Correspondence. PORT PHILLIP. TO THE EDITOR OF THE COLONIST. Berrima’, June 30, 1838, The Colonist, Wednesday 4 July 1838 p.2

[5] George Faithfull, Letter number No. 27; in Thomas Francis McBride (ed.) Letters from Victorian Pioneers, A Series of Papers on the Early Occupation of the Colony, the Aborigines, etc, Addressed by Victorian Pioneers to His Excellency Charles Joseph LaTrobe, Esq, Lieutenant Governor of the Colony of Victoria, Trustees of the Public Library of Victoria, Melbourne, 1898.

[6] British Parliamentary Papers, Despatches of Governors of Australian Colonies, illustrative of Condition of Aborigines, House of Commons, Paper Series: House of Commons Papers, Paper Type: Accounts and Papers Parliament: 1844, Paper Number: 627, p.109.

[7] James Dredge Diary, 1 June 1839, p.52. James Dredge, Three volumes and one transcript of the diary, a letter book and a note book are in the La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection of the State Library [MS 11625 and MS 5244 (transcript) Box 16].

[8] Dr Marguerita Stephens (ed) The Journal of Assistant Protector William Thomas 1839-67, Volume 1: 1839-1943, Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL), Melbourne, p.8. Entry for Sunday 24 March 1839.

[9] ‘To the Editor of the Sydney Herald.’ The Sydney Herald, Friday 25 October 1839, p.2.

[10] George Kinchinton Junior, ‘Yackandandah in 1838,’ Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 16 September 1899, p.8.

[11] Street is mentioned as manager somewhere in the JFH Mitchell papers, in the Mitchell Library. I’m sorry but I don’t have the time right now to give you the exact page reference.

[12] ‘To the Editor of the Sydney Herald.’ The Sydney Herald, Friday 25 October 1839, p.2. This article contains a letter written by a stockman on Tawonga station to John Jobbins, detailing an attack by Aboriginal people, and says that ‘We certainly must have been murdered had it not been for the providential appearance of old ‘Tom,’ Mr. Robert’s man…’

[12b] Henry Bingham; Crown Lands Commissioner for Murray District, Itineraries, entry 29 August, 1839. New South Wales State Archives.

[13]  John Jobbins massacre of Wiradjuri people at Dora Dora, see Colonial Frontier Massacres in Central and Eastern Australia 1788-1930, Colonial Massacres Map, University of Newcastle.

[14] Advertisement for Australian College, The Sydney Herald, Wednesday 17 Jul 1839, Page 3; on John Morrice’s residence: Berrima District Historical and Family History Society; ‘Eling Forest property established 1835,’ Southern Highland News, 11 JUNE 2012; on John Morrice’s father: ‘David Morrice, Imperial Legacy Details‘, Legacies of British Slave-ownership, website, accessed, 24 March 2019; John Morrice’s wife Jane: see notice of her death, Yackandandah Times, 1 February, 1917, p.2.

[15] Rev David McKenzie, The Emigrant’s Guide; or Ten Years’ Practical Experience in Australia, W S Orr & Co, London, 1845, p.235-6.

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Don’t mention the ‘C’ word.


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Lately I’ve been wondering what kinds of people were living around the Beechworth area when gold was first discovered in early 1852. By this time, the local Aboriginal peoples had been reduced to small bands of survivors who had witnessed an horrific genocide of their families and clansmen and women — a genocide wrought by the first European settlers. While it cannot be said that every single white settler was directly involved in this genocide, the killers were thick among them — and so it’s worthwhile asking, in a broad sense, who were these people? The answer is, in fact, reasonably simple; even though generations of local historians almost never mention it. 


Image: courtesy National Museum of Australia.

WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this blog post includes subject matter that may cause sadness or distress, particularly to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

While researching this period of early European invasion and settlement of North East Victoria (broadly mid-1830s to mid-1840s, although most of the settlement happened in a single year — 1838), I’ve come across a number of glaring ‘myth-conceptions’, which are perpetrated in just about every history book concerning the region. It’s perhaps understandable how such errors came about: the well-to-do early European settlers who continued to stay living in the region and who went on to have descendants who in turn stayed locally, became the people who were remembered best in local histories. (If you read local history, you’ll be familiar with names like David Reid and Thomas Mitchell). As a consequence, their experiences were taken as indicative of the whole picture of early European settlement in North East Victoria. And yet, numerically, these men were very much in the minority.

Conversely, the people whose involvement in settling the North East Victorian region was either comparatively brief, or those who did not go on to become ‘pillars’ of local society, were barely remembered at all. Thus local history became slanted in favour of the ‘stayers’, who would be forever memorialised as ‘our pioneers’ — as if the only early settlers of the region were free men who came here of their own volition, with the ‘heroic’ intention of single-handedly converting ‘virgin’ countryside into productive grazing land. To say that this picture is at odds with the truth on numerous counts is an understatement.

Several of the largest misconceptions perpetrated about the early European settlers of North East Victoria are ones of omission, and in this post I will tackle but one of them. To illustrate this point, I will for now avoid narrating historical events, if only to present a simple characterisation by way of examples.


It should be obvious that none of the ‘pioneers’ who ‘settled’ North East Victoria (the ‘squatters’ who took out licenses to ‘despature flocks and herds’ on Crown Lands, establishing the first pastoral stations of the region) did so single-handedly. When they first arrived in search of grazing lands, invariably with a few thousand head of sheep and/or hundred head of cattle in tow, they arrived in territory which was already fully occupied by Aboriginal peoples of the region: local groups of the Waywurru (Waveroo), Dhudhuroa, and the so-called ‘Mogullumbidj’ peoples [1]. They not only had to establish head-stations and out-stations from which stock could be managed, but do so while simultaneously dispossessing the original inhabitants. Such a feat could only be managed with the assistance of a labour force.

Each station commonly had a manager or overseer, and various stockmen, shepherds, bullock drivers, and sometimes their wives (who worked as hut-keepers). This workforce, which comprised the majority of non-Aboriginal people in North East Victoria from the late 1830s through to perhaps the gold rush of 1851-2  — people who have remained largely invisible in most local history books — were convicts, comprising either those who had been allocated as ‘assigned servants’ while still serving out their sentences, those who had been given a ‘ticket-of-leave’ (akin to being ‘on parole’), or those who had finished their sentences.

The predominance of convicts can be found in any description of the first overlanding parties to settle in North East Victoria. Among the earliest to attempt to settle were the Faithfull Brothers. After their ‘Convoy of sheep and Cattle’ was attacked and seven men killed by Aborigines at Winding Swamp (Broken River, present-day Benalla), in April 1838, Governor Gipps lamented to Lord Glenelg ‘These men (who were chiefly convicts) did not defend themselves, but ran at the first appearance of their assailants’. [2]  The partnership of Morrice, Wilde and McKenzie, who would take up Kergunyah station, was rare among squatters in that they had decided to employ a free man, George Kinchington, as their station manager. Nevertheless, their overlanding party, which arrived with 200 head of cattle on the Murray in June 1838,  also had an ‘ex-convict for stockman, and two convict prisoners, one acting as bullock-driver, the other as helper with the cattle.’ [3] Likewise, when David Reid Junior reached the Ovens River on 8 September 1838 (settling on what would become ‘Carraragarmungee’ station), he had been equipped by his father Dr David Reid with 500 head of cattle, 2 bullock wagons and teams and 6 assigned servants. [4]

Not only were members of the convict class to be found among the labourers of the pastoral runs; but emancipated convicts were, on occasion, also to be found as station holders in their own right. Among their number were George Grey and his family, at ‘Pelican Lagoons’ (a small run neighbouring George Faithfull’s, situated in the wedge of land between the Ovens and King Rivers, after which the property ‘The Pelican’ on the Oxley Flats Road is named today). While touring the North East of Victoria in the Autumn of 1840, Chief Protector of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson, and Assistant Protector James Dredge, met the Greys. Robinson said of them, ‘These people have, I believe, been convicts… They are in middling circumstances and have commenced dairying, but appear not the most efficient’, [5] while Assistant Protector James Dredge, added dryly, that they were ‘a large family, apparently not remarkable for cleanliness or industry.’ [6] Before going to North East Victoria, Grey had operated a station in the Monaro district in association with Benjamin Warby, and it is likely that he came over with cattle from the Monaro to Wangaratta at the same time as, and in association with the Warbys, who took up land at Taminick Plains. [7] While Robinson wrote that, ‘One of the Warby brothers, I have been informed, has been transported for cattle stealing,’ [8] it seems that is it was Benjamin’s father, John Warby, who (with William Deards) had been convicted of stealing two asses in October 1790 and had been sentenced to seven years transportation. [9]

On the face of it, stealing two asses is not the worst crime known to man, but before you gallop away with the romantic notion that most convicts were downtrodden souls cruelly incarcerated for stealing a loaf of bread or a packet of sewing needles, let me impress upon you the findings of eminent academic historian Alan Frost:

‘It is one of the abiding myths of Australian history that many of those sentenced to transportation… were hapless victims of a savage penal code and an uncaring, class-driven society. It seems not to matter how often or with what clarity the real situation is explained…  It would be silly to claim that there were never miscarriages of justice, or that harsh penalties were not given for what we should now consider minor offences. … However, the plain fact is that the majority of 18th century convicts sentenced to transportation were convicted of crimes that we continue to consider serious.’ [10]

This is to say, most convicts arrived in Australia after committing either violent crime, theft of a substantial criminal nature (often with threats of violence), or very occasionally, political crimes. For example, on Oxley Plains, one of George Faithfull’s original stockmen (and longest surviving — he would die a centenarian at Edi in the King Valley in 1903), had been transported for beating a man to death in a fist fight. [11]

And like all convicts, these people also had been subjected to a harsh penal system, which may have reinforced their worst tendencies. Squatter George Grey had been given a conditional pardon for what was originally a life sentence (he was an Irish rebel, convicted as a member of the agrarian-terrorist movement, the Defenders), and he also had been given three hundred lashes for his role in an attempted mutiny aboard the convict ship Brittania in 1797 — a voyage which in itself became infamous for the cruelty of its sadistic captain, Thomas Dennott. [12] In other words, the convict servants (and some of the lower-tier squatters) working on the stations of North East Victoria, were people who, for the most part, were either brutal before they hit the penal system, or had been brutalised by it.

Making matters worse, the region’s ‘Border Police’ force had been established ‘on the cheap’ by using soldiers who had been transported from South Africa to New South Wales as convicts. [13]

It’s an unstated fact, but the ability to undertake wanton acts of brutality was a payable skill on frontier. Brutality was of practical use in dispossessing Aboriginal peoples of their land, and many convict labourers were — in their day — notorious for their violent attitudes and actions towards local Aboriginal peoples. Writing many years later of the years 1839-44, during which he had overlanded through Yackandandah, Barwidgee and the King Valley with a group of stockman, James Demarr recalled, ‘the white men had been flowing into this newly-discovered country with their flocks and herds… and many of the men they had brought with them were the scum of the earth, so that collisions with the blacks were inevitable.’ Demarr continued:

‘The blacks were driven away from their ancient positions, their hunting grounds taken possession of, their game either destroyed or driven away, and they themselves driven back into mountain fastnesses; the consequence was the black sort every opportunity of revenge, killing the solitary shepherd and stockman whenever they had the opportunity of doing so, and scattering, and partly destroying the flocks and herds. The settlers retaliated in their own way, and old colonists know what that means. … Many of the settlers were well-disposed towards the blacks, and there were men [i.e.: labourers] also like-minded, but the ruffian element mixed up with them, brought on conflicts with the blacks that the kindly disposed were powerless to prevent.’ [14]

Chief Protector of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson, and Assistant Protector, James Dredge, were among those who came face-to-face with such ‘ruffian elements’ at ‘Myrhee’ station on the west bank of the King River, owned by absentee squatter John Chisholm (yet another station neighbouring George Faithfull) — ruffian elements which by May Day of 1840 had been inflamed by the fact that a shepherd on their run had been ritually murdered by Aborigines only days before. [15] Robinson wrote, ‘Harry Broadribb, a man who has been a prisoner, acts as overseer.’ [16] Dredge noted with displeasure, ‘His wife got some refreshment for us, but raved an swore awfully against the blacks.’ [17] Robinson provided more detail: ‘Mrs Broadribb is a low hard woman, been I imagine a prisoner. She was not acquainted with us and went on about the blacks in a most strange manner. She would have them all burnt, hung, drowned or any death, provided they were got rid of. She applied the vilest epithets to them and would shower out of volley of abuse upon Broadribb [not her husband Harry, but another squatter, William Brodribb on the Broken River] for harbouring the wretches.’ [18]

Two stockmen who worked for Dr George Edward Mackay at ‘Whorouly’ (on yet another station that bordered George Faithful’s ‘Oxley Plains’), became notorious for their violence towards the Aboriginal population, particularly after another attack made by a band of Aboriginals resulted in the death of one of Whorouly’s stockmen. Writing his anonymous reminiscences for the Border Post in 1875, one old station hand recalled Mackay’s stockman, named Bill Thomas — a ticket-of-leave man, who had served as a bullock driver on two of Major Thomas Mitchell’s expeditions into the interior, including the Third Expedition during which Mitchell and his party killed seven Aborigines near Mount Dispersion. [19] According to this writer in the Border Post, Thomas ‘was a most diabolical fellow – a perfect tiger – who was determined to have his revenge on the natives, and, indeed, there were others amongst us that thirsted for satisfaction. Some advised poison, but Thomas met them with the quotation – “Whose sheddeth man’s blood, by blood shall his blood be shed”.’ [20] Thomas clearly escaped any form of repercussions for his actions, but when word got back to Governor Gipps that ‘acts of cruelty had been committed on the aborigines’ of the Ovens district, none could overlook rumours and suggestions regarding the actions of stockman Ben Reid (no relation to squatter David Reid), whose ‘conduct toward the aborigines was complained of by Robinson’ and who subsequently had his ticket-of-leave cancelled and was returned to Sydney. [21] Ben Reid was no doubt among those who, in squatter Joseph Docker’s words, was responsible for the ‘considerable amount of black men’s blood which has already been shed.’ Robinson’s chief complaint against him was that, ‘Reid has had several collisions with the natives, it is feared many have been of fatal character to the aborigines.’ [22]


This characteristic aspect of the early settlement of North East Victoria — it’s settlement in the main either by seasoned absentee pastoralists or by inexperienced young sons of the same, who were in turn supported by a crude if not wholly brutal convict labour force  — ranks among the factors which combined to make it possible for the European invaders to kill large numbers of local Aboriginal peoples, and to keep the facts of the matter sufficiently secret from government authorities so that effectively nothing could or would be done to stop it.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that every convict labourer was blood-thirsty and wanted to destroy local Aboriginal people — indeed at least three local squatters Joseph Docker (‘Bontharambo’), Ben Barber (‘Barnawatha’) and for as long as he was there, William Brodribb (who held a station on the Broken River which became known as ‘The Junction’, [and who was no relation to the manager of ‘Myhree’]), were notable for the way in which they all employed local Aboriginal people as labourers in the very early days of ‘settlement’. [23] In the Autumn of 1840, George Augustus Robinson ruminated in his journal on why some stations suffered from what was commonly termed ‘depredations from the blacks,’ including substantial losses from having stock either speared or chased away; whereas other station holders suffered almost no losses of stock at all. ‘Mr Broadrib said yesterday that the blacks had speared more of Mr Faithful’s cattle, than of any other person. … There must be some cause for this’ he pondered. ‘Mr Christie lost one or 200 cattle, yet these people say they never allow blacks to come to their stations.’ Conversely, the stations which employed Aboriginal people, and allowed them to travel and camp on the land, had few problems. [24] All is suggestive of a ‘top down’ attitude being responsible for the treatment of Aborigines: that whereas every station employed a brutal and brutalised labour force, on some stations these convict labourers were encouraged by their employers to slaughter Aboriginal people; whereas on other stations they were encouraged to act towards them with tolerance. And the Aboriginal peoples responded accordingly.


[1] Concerning the Waywurru (Waveroo), Dhudhuroa, and so-called ‘Mogullumbidj’ peoples, the best works I have read on the nation-boundaries and naming for these Aboriginal peoples, which take into consideration all previous work on the North East area (E.M. Curr (1883), R.B. Smythe (1878), A. Howitt (1904), R.H. Matthews (1905), N. Tindale (1940, 1974), D. Barwick (1984, plus manuscript material produced shortly before her death in 1986, now held in the State Library Victoria), M.H. Fels (1996, 1997), S. Wesson (2000), et al), are by Dr Ian Clarke. Clark has written his papers with a knowledge of the various professional limitations associated with earlier works — those written especially prior to access to critical primary source materials such as the Journals and collected papers of George Augustus Robinson, the journals of William Thomas, and the private papers of Alfred Howitt.

Clark, Ian, ‘Aboriginal language areas in Northeast Victoria: ‘Mogullumbidj’ reconsidered.’ Victorian Historical Journal, Volume 81 Issue 2 (Nov 2010), 181-192.

Clark, Ian, ‘Aboriginal languages in North-east Victoria – the status of ‘Waveru’ reconsidered’, Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues, 2011, Vol. 14(4): 2-22

Clark, Ian, ‘Dhudhuroa and Yaithmathang languages and social groups in north-east Victoria – a reconstruction,’ Aboriginal History, 2009, VOL 33, pp.201-229.

[2] SIR GEORGE GIPPS TO LORD GLENELG. (Despatch No. 115, per ship Superb; acknowledged by Lord Glenelg, 21st December, 1838.) in: Australian Aborigines: Copies or extracts of despatches relative to the massacre of various Aborigines in Australia, in the year 1838, and respecting the trial of their murderers; compiled by the British Colonial Office, 19 August 1839.

[3] ‘YACKANDANDAH IN 1838. SOME REMINISCENCES. BY MR. GEORGE KINCHINGTON,’ Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 16 September, 1899, p.8.

[4] Reminiscences of David Reid: as given to J.C.H. Ogier (in Nov. 1905), who has set them down in the third person, type-written manuscript, p.21.

[5] Ian D Clark (ed), Journals of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector, Port Phillip Protectorate, issued in 6 parts, Heritage Matters, Melbourne, 1998-2000, this entry from Volume 1, entry for Friday 1 May 1840, p.273.

[6] James Dredge, Assistant Protector, Goulburn Protectorate, Three volumes and one transcript of the diary, a letter book and a note book are in the La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection of the State Library [MS 11625 and MS 5244 (transcript) Box 16]. The diaries contain daily and weekly entries from 1817 to 1833 and 1839–1843. This entry: Friday 1 May 1840.

[7] Harry Stephenson, Cobungra Station and Other Mountain Stories, published for the Mountain Cattleman’s Association, Omeo, 1985, p.3.

[8] George Augustus Robinson, Vol 1, 2 May 1840, p.275.

[9] For information on Benjamin Warby’s father John Warby, see entry on the well-researched website called ‘Australian Royalty’.

[10] Alan Frost, Botany Bay — The Real Story, Black Ink, Melbourne, 2012, p.54.

[11] ‘DEATH OF A CENTENARIAN AT EDI.’ Euroa Advertiser, Friday 27 February 1903, p.3.

[12] On George Grey, see entry on the well-researched website called ‘Australian Royalty’.
On the voyage of the convict ship Britannia, see Charles Bateson, The Convict Ships, 1787-1868, Brown, Son & Ferguson, Glasgow, 1959.

[13] John Conner, The Australian Frontier Wars, 1788-1838, UNSW Press, 2012.

[14] Demarr, James, Adventures in Australia fifty years ago: being a record of an emigrant’s wanderings through the colonies of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland during the years 1839-1844, Swan Sonnenschein, London, 1893, p.132.

[15] George Augustus Robinson,  op cit. Volume 1, p.273, 1 May 1840, also 7 May, p.280.

[16] George Augustus Robinson, ibid. Volume 1, p.276, 2 May 1840.

[17] James Dredge, op cit., diary entry 2 May 1840.

[18] George Augustus Robinson, op cit. Vol 1, p.276, 2 May 1840.

[19] D. W. A. Baker, ‘Mitchell, Sir Thomas Livingstone (1792–1855)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mitchell-sir-thomas-livingstone-2463/text3297, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 12 January 2019.

[20] ‘The Blacks,’ Border Post, Albury, NSW, 7 August 1875, p.2.

[21] Copy of Despatch No. 90, Gipps to Lord John Russel, 9 April, 1841, in British Parliamentary Papers, Despatches of Governors of Australian Colonies, illustrative of Condition of Aborigines, House of Commons Paper Series: House of Commons Papers, Paper Type: Accounts and Papers Parliament: 1844, Paper Number: 627, p.106-7.

[22] Joseph Docker to Governor George Gipps, 31 December 1840; and Enclosure 2 in number 25, Report of George Augustus Robinson to Charles Joseph LaTrobe; in British Parliamentary Papers, ibid., p.108.

[23] For Brodribb, George Augustus Robinson, Vol 1, p.232, entry for Monday 20 April; for evidence of Aboriginal people working on Docker’s and Barber’s stations, see their submissions to the NSW Legislative Council’s Select Committee Enquiry into Immigration, 1841.

[24] George Augustus Robinson, op. cit. Vol 1, entry for 9 May, 1840, p.283.

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Of Brolgas, Birds and History


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Sometimes a small, seemingly insignificant part of the historic record can provide a window into another world, given fresh insight. This week, hearing a talk by ecologist Matt Herring about Brolga conservation provided a new lens through which to view our history.

In the corn stubble

Brolgas feeding in one of their favourites, corn stubble. (Image: Ian Sutton, via Wikimedia commons.)

‘In one of the adjoining paddocks, within view of the house, the “native companions” resort, frequently eight or ten together. They are very tame, and stand very erect on their long legs; their weight, when shot, is from 18 to 23 lbs. each, with feathers.’ [1]

So wrote Mary Spencer into her diary one February day, during her stay at Bontharambo Homestead (belonging to squatter Joseph Docker) in 1855. Although I’d read it a dozen or so times, it remained relatively meaningless to me, until last Wednesday when I attended a talk by ecologist Matt Herring, arranged by Corowa Landcare to launch their booklet (authored by Matt): Brolga Breeding Habitat — A Guide to Managing Wetlands on Your Farm. [2]

Matt’s talk was about the conservation of Brolgas (Antigone rubicunda), particularly their breeding and flocking habitats. In truth, I was only attending his lecture because my partner Scott Hartvigsen went to university with Matt, and they have worked together in field ecology. When I arrived to hear Matt talk, my ignorance about Brolgas was so dense I wasn’t even aware that they were a member of the crane family, let alone that they stand almost 1.5 metres tall and have massive wingspans — often over 2 metres. All I knew for certain was that they were a large bird found somewhere ‘up north’, and that they are celebrated for their spectacular courtship dances, especially in Aboriginal cultures throughout the country.

By the end of Matt’s talk, I had learned that not only do Brolgas breed in wetlands close to Yarrawonga, Benalla and Ruthergen, and in the southern Riverina in places like Urana, Jerilerie, Boree Creek, Lockhart, and The Rock (to name but a few localities), but also, that until recent decades Brolgas were found in many other places, including at Towong on the Upper Murray. Unfortunately, destruction of their favourite habitats has dramatically reduced their range. This especially includes the destruction of their specialised breeding habitat of ephemeral shallow wetlands, which are sparsely treed and have low vegetation like Eleocharis Spike-rushes and cane grass, allowing the Brolgas to have a panoramic view of the area around their island-like nests.

However, the point of historical illumination that I gained during Matt’s talk is that Brolgas were formerly known as ‘native companions’ (because they are quite happy to live alongside people, historically with Aboriginal people). [3] When he said these words, I suddenly realised what Mary Spencer had been writing about in 1855: that Brolgas had once flocked on the banks of the Reedy Creek, just above its confluence with the Ovens River at Bontharambo, north of Wangaratta, in paddocks adjoining that homestead. Moreover, Mary’s description of ‘their weight, when shot [being] from 18 to 23 lbs. each, with feathers’, suggests that folk at Bonthrambo did more than just admire their native companions, they ate them: ‘many consider them very nice for the table.’ [3b] (Incidentally, Brolgas are now described as weighing 6-7 kilograms, rather than the 8-10 kilograms as stated by Mary Spencer, which possibly tells us that Europeans have shot the larger-size birds out of existence.)

This knowledge of Bontharambo Homestead as a site for flocking Brolgas, put a new slant on what is already known about that site locally: that it has a corroboree ground, situated on an island in a permanent billabong known as ‘Stable Lagoon’. [4] Although it is not my role to say who used this corroboree ground, the field notes of Chief Aboriginal Protector George Augustus Robinson, which he wrote on multiple visits to Bontharambo in the early 1840s, records him as meeting mainly Waywurru, Bpangerang (which he calls ‘Pinegerine’) and Taungurung people at Bontharambo. [5]

Brolgas are long-lived, and are habitual in their travels. When Mary Spencer said that the Brolgas ‘resort[ed]’ in the paddock near the Homestead, she meant it in the nineteenth century sense of the word: that it was the birds’ custom to repeatedly visit and enjoy this place. As both sexes of Brolgas dance year around, in pairs, or in groups with birds lining up opposite each other, it seems worth considering that the Bonthrambo Homestead site was sometimes shared by at least two groups who used it as a space for formation-styled dancing: humans and birds. Perhaps a pre-existing familiarity between the Brolgas and the Aboriginal people at Bontharambo may even explain why the birds seemed ‘very tame’ to Mary Spencer.

While the Brolgas and humans shared space for dancing at Bonthrambo, humans and birds have also shared music. Earlier this week, I was listening to the 2016 Lin Onus Oration, delivered by Bruce Pascoe from the Bunurong clan of the Kulin nation, and author of the stunning book Dark Emu. In this lecture, he tells a story about Lyrebirds (Menura novaehollandiae), which are known for their ability to mimic the songs and sounds of other birds and other noises. Pascoe says that at some present-day Aboriginal ceremonial gatherings, lyrebirds have been heard mimicking the sound of Aboriginal clap-sticks made during the ceremonies. Scott Hartvigsen pointed out to me that the ability of lyrebirds to learn ‘songs’ from human sources, and pass these down through the generations, has been well-documented in the case of the ‘flute lyrebirds‘ of  the New England tablelands:

‘A lyrebird chick was raised in captivity in the 1920s in Australia’s New England Tablelands, or so the story goes. The bird mimicked the sounds of the household’s flute player, learning two tunes and an ascending scale. When released back into the wild, his flute-like songs and timbre spread throughout the local lyrebird population.’ [6]

Bruce Pascoe notes that the ‘clapstick sound’ of Australian ceremonial gatherings has actually become the ‘default’ call for lyrebirds, and he thinks that this originates in the birds having listened to, and mimicked, the sounds from ceremonies since time immemorial, and having remembered and passed on these sounds, down through countless generations. Thus, anywhere lyrebirds are found, they continue to remind us of Aboriginal ceremonial practices, even in the absence of such practices.

In future I will always listen out for the birds as I read the journals, diaries and letters of early explorers, squatters and gold seekers. Their authors often mention the birds they hear and see only in passing. The people say one thing, but the birds may be telling us something altogether different: something about meaningful cultural relationships between birds and humans.


[1] Mary Spencer, Aunt Spencer’s Diary (1854): A Visit to Bontharambo and the North-east Victorian Goldfields, Neptune Press, Newtown, 1981, p.46

[2] Matt Herring, Brolga Breeding Habitat — A Guide to Managing Wetlands on Your FarmCorowa and District Landcare, second edition, May 2018.

[3] Some evidence even exists for Brolgas as companion animals to Aboriginal peoples. See: Justine Philip and Don Garden, ‘Walking the Thylacine: Records of Indigenous Companion Animals in Australian Narrative and Photographic History’, Society and Animals, Volume 24, Issue 1, pages 34–62.

[3b] Mary Spencer, p.53.

[4] pers comm. David Nicholas Moore, 24 May 2018. (David is a cousin to Mary Paul nee Docker, who lives at Bonthrambo.) This is further supported by information in J.M. McMillan, The Two Lives of Joseph Docker, Spectrum Publications, Melbourne, 1994.

[5] This statement is not to be construed as meaning that the land ‘belonged’ to either one group or the other, it is simply a statement of the Aboriginal peoples Robinson met with most frequently at Bontharambo. The question of ‘whose land?’ has been covered in a comprehensive review and detailed analysis of George Augustus Robinson’s journals and other similar early source materials, including a statement of this area being a ceremonial site, had been explored extensively in Marie Hansen Fel’s unpublished technical report ‘These Singular People — The Ovens Blacks, Supplementary Report,’ 28th July 1997. However, on the 11 February 1841 Robinson wrote from Bontharambo, ‘The Pinegerines are going away to their own country’, which suggests that while the Bpangerang were visiting Bontharambo plains, it was not ‘theirs’.

[6] These ‘flute lyrebirds’ have been discussed in numerous academic sources, for example, in Powys, Vicki, Hollis Taylor, and Carol Probets. ‘A Little Flute Music: Mimicry, Memory, and Narrativity.’ Environmental Humanities3 (2013): 43-70.

Aboriginal Beechworth — A summary of work on this blog so far.

Today it was to my great honour (and surprise) that Senator Malarndirri McCarthy acknowledged the work in this blog in the 2018 Beechworth Kerferd Oration. In her speech, she drew upon some of the material presented here, in order to compare the experiences of Aboriginal peoples from the Beechworth area with the experiences of her own peoples (Garrwa and Yanyuwa) from Borroloola in the Gulf of Carpentaria. In the event that anyone decides to have a read of this blog for its content about Aboriginal Beechworth after hearing it mentioned in the Kerferd Oration, I want to use this occasion make a short summary of this work for anyone unfamiliar with Life on Spring Creek.

The first post in which I attempted to really make sense of what happened to Aboriginal peoples in this region was a post called Where were Aboriginal people during the gold rush? This dealt with some of the early, violent contact history between Aboriginal peoples and the first pastoralists (late 1830s and 1840s), through the gold rush of the 1850s, to the period in which Aboriginal people were subjected to the colonial Victorian government’s Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines in the 1860s, which involved the creation of a system of Reserves, upon which (it was imagined) Aboriginal people would live. I personally feel I have barely touched this history, and will continue (with others) to work on it.

This was followed by another post which dealt more specifically with the Aboriginal people who came to Beechworth in the 1850s, called Were Aboriginal people in Beechworth in the 1850s? (Following a new lead), and two pieces in which I connect Aboriginal people to certain parts of the landscape in Beechworth, in In Search of a Lost Landscape, and more particularly in A Corroborree Ground in Beechworth. These writings are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and there is still much to uncover about Aboriginal history in the Beechworth and surrounding area.

Indigenous ways are ingenious ways and it is important to remember that historically, European people learned a lot from Aboriginal peoples, so I have also tried to indicate that indigenous life-ways and sensibilities were a part of every day life for white people in the first few decades of Europeans occupying this part of the country. During the Beechworth gold rush, most gold seekers would have carried a possum skin cloak of indigenous manufacture, and for shelter, many built mia mias for themselves, which I discuss in A Gold Rush Swag. Many non-Aboriginal people also ate bush foods, which they learned of from and/or traded from Aboriginal people, which I discuss in What did the gold miners eat? (Part 1: Bush food in Beechworth).

Beechworth has an ancient Aboriginal history, and we still have rock art which is thousands of years old. I discuss one of the lesser known rock art sites in Mt Pilot 2 Aboriginal Rock Art Site. Our whole region has many Aboriginal sites which we use every day, but of which most of us are unaware. I feel certain that many of our roads are Aboriginal pathways, and many of our gathering places of today are Aboriginal gathering places: Mungabareena Reserve in Albury, and the Benalla Botanical Gardens and Recreation Reserve around the Lake two such places we know of, but many more exist.


A corroboree ground in Beechworth (up-dated)


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WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this blog post includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress, particularly to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In previous posts (here and here), I’ve recounted two newspaper reports from 1858 and 1859, in which local Aboriginal people were reported as holding corroborees in Beechworth, when they ‘camped a distance from town, near the [race]course’, which they did annually. [1]

More recently I came across another reference to an Aboriginal corroboree in Beechworth:

Towards the end of 1856 a remnant of the Barwidgee blacks were in existence, King Billy, their leader, being a familiar character. He was adorned with a brass plate suspended from his neck with his name engraved on it, which he was very proud. They held a corroboree on the site where Mr. S. H. Rundle’s residence was situated. The moon was at its full. They were painted with white lines that gave them the resemblance to skeletons, and danced round a fire, while two old gins kept up a tatoo with sticks and made a droning kind of noise. There was no melody in it, but the time was perfect. [2]

The site of the corroboree is very specific: S. H. Rundle’s residence. ‘Which was where?’ I hear you ask. I assumed that it would be near the site of the former racecourse at Baarmutha Park, if the Aboriginal people held their corroborees in the same location every year (at least throughout the late 1850s). After plenty of assistance at the Burke Museum going through old directories, gazettes and rates books, I was not able to locate Mr Rundle or his house; only his draper’s store, London House, in Ford Street. At the Museum, Dan Goonan pulled out numerous old maps of Beechworth, but these only listed the very first owner of each surveyed allotment, and the date of its survey. (Even though we couldn’t find Rundle’s residence on them, the old maps eventually proved helpful.) So what to do?

As I soon discovered, there are many references to S. H. Rundle’s residence to be found in the Ovens and Murray Advertiser throughout the 1870s until the end of the century, uniformly describing it as being ‘on Sydney Road’. Even more helpfully, S. H. Rundle put his residence up for sale in 1878-9 (unsuccessfully it seems), so there is a listing for the property in the Ovens and Murray Advertiser describing it as:

MAYDAY HOUSE, Sydney Road, Beechworth
THE Residence of Mr S. H. Rundle.
The Property stands on Five Acres.
Land with choice Garden.
The party buying the above property will have the option of renting the ten-acre paddock adjoining.
For particulars apply to S. H. RUNDLE. [3]

An advertisement for the same property the year before makes it plain that Rundle owned both the five and ten acre allotments, which he had initially tried to sell as one parcel:

MAY-DAY HOUSE, with 15 ACRES LAND, Sydney-road; Beechworth, the residence of S. H. Rundle, with GARDEN of about 3 Acres, well laid out with the choicest shrubs and flowers; also, fine ORANGERY and ORCHARD, in full bearing, with the finest varieties of fruits, and Green House. Paddocks subdivided and laid down in English grasses, and Water laid on. Ten minutes walk from the Post-office. Title guaranteed. For particulars apply to S. H. Rundle. [4] 

The first survey of Beechworth in June 1853 treated ‘Sydney Road’ — rather than a continuation of Ford Street as it is today — as a continuation of High Street. (This accounts for the great width of Junction Road today, including the fact that there is more than enough space for parents to park their cars along the Primary School boundary.) The surveyor, George Smythe, laid out ten allotments along the eastern side of Sydney Road, stretching from High Street to Cemetery Road (just past the High School). The first allotment on the corner of High Street was 10 acres, and the remainders, 5 acres each. [5] We know that Rundle held 15 of these acres.

As a portion of Sydney Road was renamed Junction Road at least by the 1860s if not earlier [6], and Rundle’s residence continued to be described as being on Sydney Road, we can exclude that he owned either of the allotments from High Street to just before Victoria Road: those originally belonging to Henry Smyth and George Smythe (allotments 1 & 2).

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Survey of the township of Beechworth, May Day Hills, as surveyed by Geo D. Smythe, 8 June, 1853 (lithographed by the Surveyor General’s Office, Victoria, 1855 [State Library of Victoria]). This map illustrates that in the mid 1850s, there were only ten allotments along Sydney Road. The cemetery is also in the survey.

We can get another clue as to where on Sydney Road Rundle’s residence was located from the fact that in 1883, Councillor Ingram ‘presented a petition to Council from a number of residents of Sydney Road, Beechworth, requesting that a lamp be placed at the stone culvert in front of Mr Rundle’s private residence; also, another a short distance the other side of the Vine Hotel, as nearly opposite as possible where the roads leading to Yackandandah and El Dorado, &c., divide.’ [7] So: Rundle’s residence was near the Vine Hotel. The Vine Hotel is often described as being on Reid’s Creek Road or Chiltern Road, and so must have been near the intersection of what is Sydney Road and Old Chiltern Road today.

To add to this, in 1868, a ‘robbery which appears to have been the work of Chinese thieves, took place on Monday night or Tuesday at a hut between Mr Rundle’s house and the Vine Hotel, Beechworth, on a paddock of Mr J. S. Clark’s.’ [8] So: Rundle’s residence was near the Vine Hotel, with a paddock and hut in-between owned by Clarke. Later maps show that J. S. Clark owned allotment number 9.

Therefore Rundle could only have owned 3 consecutive allotments on Sydney Road out of those numbered 3-8. On the original survey, three consecutive allotments were originally owned by Edwin Vickery, and it is tempting to assume Rundle purchased these to make up his 15 acres. All of them would have originally backed onto the racecourse reserve (with un-surveyed land in between).


Original allotments along Sydney Road: Number 1 and 2 are opposite the Primary School, and Number 10 and 9 are the Secondary College. Rundle’s residence was at Numbers 6, 7 and 8.

The best I could discern with any degree of certainty is that Rundle’s residence, and therefore the corroboree ground of the late 1850s, was somewhere along Sydney Road between Victoria Road and roughly the Hospital grounds, taking in Beaumont Drive, Nankervis Court and Hillsborough Village. Then this happened:

UP-DATE The morning after I published this blog (on 20/7/18), Jenny Coates, who has a genealogy blog relating to Wangaratta, sent me a link to a newspaper description from 1912 of the next time Rundle’s property came up for sale. The property had expanded by this stage to 20 1/2 acres, and was owned presumably by Sydney Rundle’s son W. J. Rundle. It was described as comprising ‘Allot. 5 of Section A, Suburban Allots. 8 and 9, and part of Suburban Allot. 7’ and as the ‘Largest Township Property in Beechworth’. Given its size and significance, I told myself it had to be in the Beechworth rate books, so I went back to the Burke Museum, whereby I swiftly found Sydney Rundle’s property in the rate books (the book 1878-1880), as Allotments 6, 7, 8 Sydney Road. (Obviously Sydney Rundle initially owned these three allotments; Allotment 5 was added sometime later; and by 1912, some of the land had been divided in suburban lots.) If you refer to the above maps you can see that Allotments 6-8 takes in the land along Sydney Road now taken up by Best Western Motor Inn, the Hospital Grounds, and the houses either side of Beaumont Drive as far as the little park. [see additional references below].

This may have been a long-standing corroboree ground, unless the activities of the gold miners had displaced another earlier site.

Can we imagine some of what happened in this corroboree? Here is a description from an article in 1858, of a corroboree ‘near the course’, which I will quote at length:

The blacks, about twenty in number, ranged themselves in the form of a semi-circle, having several large fires kindled in front, their lubras being in the rear. Their faces were streaked with white paint in a savagely artistic style, and daubs of the same graced their shoulders — the left shoulder of one and the right of another alternately as they stood in line, so as to produce an agreeable uniformity. They had bushes attached to their legs, and carried boughs in their hands. On a given signal the lubras commenced singing, not exactly a la Julia Harland [i.e.: American operatic vocalist, then recently arrived in Australia], but in a very low key, and in strains sounding more like “Yankee Doodle” or the hurdy gurdy than anything else in modern music. The time kept, however, by the musicians, would not have disgraced Jullien [i.e.: a musician then famous for The Drum Polka], and was marked by beating their ‘possum skins, or blankets with a stick, and at the same time producing a deep, monotonous accompaniment.

Immediately on the striking up of the music, the savages, who had been standing with their legs a little apart, began to move to the time of the music, bringing their knees together, and then again bending them outwards without moving the position of their feet. They gradually appear to feel the inspiration of the songs, as the Scotchman is said to be inspired by the sublime music of the bagpipes, and their motions grow more animated. The time of the tune changes from somewhere about two fourths to six-eighths, the beating of the ‘possum skins is more rapid, the savages join in the concert, and commence throwing their arms about, and imitating at short intervals the hushing of the serenaders in their commencement of a railway overture. The time of the music again changes, and again, until it reaches furioso; and in tho same degree does the excitement of the sons of the bush increase, until having reached the climax, when the howling of the “entire strength of the company,” in concert, the furious whirling of the boughs in their hands, their fantastic and continually changing gestures and attitudes, coupled with the wildness of the adjacent scenery, the grotesque effect produced by the painting their faces and forms, and the immense fires apparently encircling the bodies of the actors create a spectacle…

… After this state of semi frenzy has continued some minutes, it gradually diminishes, and at last ceases entirely. The participators lie about in twos and threes, close to their fires, some occasionally singing snatches of their native music, and beating time with two pieces of stick, while others on hearing’ the strains, so great is the effect produced, jump up and commence “fighting their battles o’er again,” singly after the manner we have described, until totally exhausted with their exertions they drop down into their miamias one after the other, and seek strength and renewed vigor in repose. [9]

Maybe next time you are travelling along Sydney Road, take a moment to re-imagine the landscape  — alive with the dance, music, ritual and stories of Beechworth’s first nations’ people.

Thank you: Scott Hartvigsen for questioning my initial thoughts and nudging me to reassess the evidence.


[1] ‘THE MURRAY NATIVES. (From the Constitution.)’, The Age, Tuesday 13 April 1858, p.4; ‘Fashionable Arrivals,’ Ovens and Murray Advertiser, Wednesday 23 February 1859, p.2.

[2] ‘Old Memories — From an imported article No. III’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 20 October, 1906, p.8.

[3] Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 29 May 1879, p.1.

[4] Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 23 February, 1878, p.2. It also appears that S. H. Rundle never did sell this house and that it stayed in the family. Family notices in the Ovens and Murray Advertiser, Monday 6 January 1902, p.1; list Sidney Rundle as having died at Mayday House, Sydney Road.

[5] Survey of the township of Beechworth, May Day Hills, as surveyed by Geo D. Smythe, 8 June, 1853 (lithographed by the Surveyor General’s Office, Victoria, 1855; State Library of Victoria.

[6] It is apparent that Junction Road, as separate from Sydney Road, makes an appearance in the 1860s. See: Ovens and Murray Advertiser 30 November, 1869, p.4.

[7] Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 9 June 1883, p.1

[8] Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 17 December 1868, p.2.

[9] The Age, 1858, op. cit.

Additional references:

‘Highly Important Sale. VALUABLE RESIDENTIAL PROPERTY, – Within Ten, Minutes of Beechworth Post Office. MAY DAY HOUSE,’ OVENS AND MURRAY ADVERTISER, 7 December, 1912, p.3.

Property 733, owned by Sydney Rundle, Beechworth Shire Rate Book 1878-1880, Robert O’Hara Burke Memorial Museum.

When did Chinese people come to Beechworth, and why?


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Chinese people formed a large proportion of the mining population in Beechworth during the 1850s. What’s less well known is that at the peak of the gold rush, there were almost no Chinese on the Ovens diggings. Why?


Loading Tea at Canton (Tinqua [active 1830s–1870s]), circa 1852. (Peabody Essex Museum)

A walk through the Chinese section of the Beechworth cemetery will demonstrate clearly enough that, historically, there were plenty of Chinese people in Beechworth. The Cemetery opened in 1857, and the fact that whoever designed its grounds felt compelled to create a Chinese section within its bounds, should be proof enough that by the mid-1850s, Beechworth had a substantial Chinese populace. That there were also anti-Chinese riots on the Buckland diggings (considered part of the Ovens district) in 1857, will also tell you there were many Chinese people here: enough for racist mobs to warrant persecuting.

China is a big country, but the people who came to the Victorian diggings weren’t from all over China; they were mainly from the Siyi (Sze Yup) or the ‘Four Counties’ in the Pearl River Delta of southern Guangdong province, south-eastern China. The capital of this area is Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton); and the majority language is Cantonese.

It isn’t so surprising that those coming from China to Australia in the 1850s were from Guangdong province, especially when one realises that from the mid-eighteenth century, Canton had been China’s port of international trade (in fact, its sole international port; famous for its tea, silk and porcelain); and that by the time of the Victorian gold rushes, it had been operating for around a decade as one of the ‘treaty ports’ established by the British in the wake of First Opium War under the Treaty of Nanking (1842). More than any other region in China, Guangdong province had the richest history of contact with Britain and her colonies.

However, throughout all of my research concerned with the initial gold rush at Spring and Reid’s Creek (which happened in the summer of 1852-1853), I’ve been surprised by the conspicuous absence of Chinese people. At its high point, there were roughly 8000 diggers on Spring and Reid’s Creeks, and yet it seems that there were not enough Chinese among them as to be remarked upon. The only exception I have found to date is this solitary account in The Argus of what could be the very first arrival of a Chinese person in the area:

The Ovens diggings (from our Special Commissioner), Royal Hotel, Albury, November 28th, 1852:

No little astonishment has been excited at the Ovens by the appearance on Spring Gully of a gentleman of decided Tartar physiognomy. A wide field for speculation has been opened by the proceedings of this individual, who speaks English fluently, and appears tolerably conversant with English habits and manners. In consequence of his having spent a whole week in the erection of his tent, it is surmised that he can hardly have arrived with the view of digging for gold, but that he is commissioned here by the merchants of Canton in some capacity or other. It will be singular if he should turn out to be sent by a private channel to this the youngest colony of the Empire, on a commercial or emigration errand, while the Celestial Government itself still disdains to enter into diplomatic intercourse with the Home Government. [1]

The man in question is described as looking like a Tartar, Tartary being the name used until the late nineteenth century to refer to a vast area from Russia to Mongolia, to Kazakhstan and countries immediately to the south. It is clear that he isn’t a gold seeker, but instead, a trader or merchant of some kind. He is accustomed to speaking in English, which supports the suggestion he may have recently come from Canton (Guangzhou). Alternatively, there is the possibility that he was already established in Australia as a trader, perhaps having arrived here as an indentured labourer (many of whom came from Fujian province and were brought to Australia to replace convict labour in the 1840s).

The article also spells out that his presence on the Ovens diggings is ‘singular’, i.e.: somehow unusual or extraordinary. This is probably because Chinese didn’t really start arriving on the Victorian diggings until 1853 (see Melbourne’s Chinatown ); and also because — as the author of the article suggests — the presence of this Chinese man, particularly as some kind of a merchant, runs contrary to the uneasy diplomatic and trade relations which existed at the time between the ‘Celestial’ Chinese Qing dynasty Government and the British ‘Home’ Government. The casual way in which the author refers to the lack of ‘diplomatic intercourse’ between the two governments assumes that readers of The Argus are more or less fully aware of the recent history between China and Britain, in which the Qing dynasty was compelled to sign unequal trade treaties with the British after the British won the First Opium War in 1842.

The exact reason why Chinese people didn’t start arriving on the Victorian diggings en masse until late 1853 remains something of a mystery to me. Recently, I came across the biography of Louis Ah Mouy (1826-1918), a Melbourne-based merchant and Chinese community leader, originally from the Toishan district of Kwangtung province, south of Canton. His arrival in Melbourne in 1851 coincided with the discovery of gold, and he claimed to have written the letter (home to his brother) that prompted the migration of many thousands of Cantonese to the Victorian goldfields. [2] At a guess, it seems that it took a while before news of gold in Australia spread sufficiently for Chinese agents in Canton to develop partnerships with the captains of the foreign ships who would deliver people to Australia. I also wonder how much this timing relates to the fact that by 1852, California had introduced a Foreign Miners Tax to deter Chinese miners; and by 1853, Chinese were actively being driven off the Californian diggings by racial violence.

However, the reason many Chinese left China in the early 1850s is more readily discernible: At the time of gold discovery in Victoria, China was rapidly falling into a state of total civil war between the ruling Qing dynasty and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom — an oppositional state based in Tianjing (present-day Nanjing, inland from Shanghai). The fighting broke out in Guangxi province, directly west of Guangdong province, in January 1851. From here, the situation (commonly referred to as the ‘Taiping Rebellion’) devolved into one of the bloodiest wars in human history. Tens of millions of people were killed in the fighting and associated plagues and famine, with millions more displaced. Chinese people coming to Beechworth weren’t coming merely for the sake of personal wealth or adventure; they were escaping a country ravaged by war, as well as sending home remittances of gold and money to help struggling family members who couldn’t join them.

As always, comments and contributions welcome.


[1] ‘THE OVENS DIGGINGS. (FROM OUR SPECIAL COMMISSIONER.) ROYAL HOTEL, ALBURY,’  Nov. 28th, The Argus, 3 December, 1852, p.4.

[2] Ching Fatt Yong, ‘Ah Mouy, Louis (1826–1918),’ Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, Melbourne University Press, 1969.


The Commissioner’s Camp and its Discontents


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The site of Beechworth’s police station and old gaol has an earlier history as the site of the Commissioner’s Camp: the administrative hub from which representatives of the government attempted to enforce the rule of law on the gold diggings — not always with the greatest success.  

As I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve carefully skirted around one fundamental daily aspect of the Spring Creek and Reid’s Creek diggings: its administration by the colonial government. This is because the relationship between the miners and their administrative overlords was complex in ways that, I would argue, haven’t been properly accounted for by any historian to date (at least in the case of Beechworth), but which we know resulted in political agitations that contributed to the common man being granted the right to vote in the colony of Victoria by 1856. However, in mid-November 1852, when the Camp itself was being set up, its occupants had no way of knowing the role they would play in future events.

The Commissioner's Camp, Spring Creek diggings, May Day Hills,

The Commissioner’s Camp, Spring Creek diggings, May Day Hills, drawn by Edward La Trobe Bateman, December 1852.

For the purposes of this blog post, it is enough just to explain the Commissioner’s Camp itself: what it was, who was there, and what they thought they were up to; and to look at some of their immediate troubles.

First, some background

When the Victorian gold rushes first hit, the colony of Victoria had been only freshly carved-out from New South Wales. Its newly appointed Lieutenant-Governor Charles Joseph La Trobe and his inexperienced government were in complete shock when they suddenly found their quiet and remote colony invaded by thousands of gold seekers from across the globe. Nevertheless, they swiftly developed a system for administering the various goldfields, which was fashioned after the existing administration of the pastoral districts. This administrative system enabled the government to police the various diggings; provide and oversee official armed escorts for gold to Melbourne; provide an official means of registering and settling disputes over mining claims; and to tax the miners through a licensing system (the fee being initially set at 30 shillings per month, later reduced to £1 per month).

The miner’s license was extremely unpopular among the gold seekers. It was a regressive tax in the sense that it had to be paid before mining commenced, and therefore bore no relation to the ability of a miner to pay. Moreover, the tax was imposed on men who, generally lacking in property rights, had no corresponding right to vote under the existing political system. The miners expected, at the very least, to see their licensing fees fund amenities and services for the diggings, but for largely internal political reasons, the government was noticeably slow to fulfil these obligations. And finally, the antagonism over the licensing system was further exacerbated by the fact that it was often enforced by inexperienced, incompetent, sometimes heavy-handed and not infrequently corrupt officials and police; their activities summarised by digger Edward Ridpath:

‘the injustice of this impost [i.e.: the license fee] is great enough but the manner of its enforcement is even more so, at Bendigo men have been shot when running away form the police, others have been chained to logs, in cases where diggers have left their licenses at home they have not been allowed to go and fetch them, but at once marched off to the Commissioners and fined 5 pounds for not having them on their persons, for this service Government employs a body of men called the gold foot Cadets, a kind of nondescript policemen, they are principally young men of overbearing dispositions’ [1]

S. T. Gill, Licensing Tent

Licensing tent, Collection of lithographs and sketches, 1853-1874 by Samuel Thomas Gill, State Library Victoria. (Depicting a scene at Ballarat or Bendigo).

The Commissioner’s Camp, Ovens diggings — Who and what was there?

As soon as it became apparent that the Ovens diggings would be a goldfields of some significance, the government followed the procedure already developed to administer earlier-established diggings such as those at Ballarat and Bendigo, which was to establish an official encampment there. Organisation of this camp commenced with official appointments beginning in mid-October 1852. One of the earliest appointments was the man who would be Commissioner, James Maxwell Clow (1820-1894). Clow was charged with raising his own police force for the camp, and as the son of a Scottish Presbyterian Minister he seems to have selected a disproportionate number of Scotsmen for the task. [2] The Camp would be headed by a Resident Commissioner in the form of Henry Wilson Hutchinson Smythe (1815-1854), who left his base in Benalla (where he had already served as Commissioner of Crown Lands for the Murray district for close to a decade), especially to take up this new role. Known as ‘Long Smythe,’ (he was a commanding 198 centimetres tall), Smythe had started in the government service as a surveyor and cartographer, and though still in his mid-30s, he was a man of considerable experience. Worth pointing out is that technically, a ‘Commission’ was a royal appointment, so in a symbolic way, the Commissioners embodied sovereign power.

In terms of personnel, the earliest official appointments for the Commissioner’s Camp  — appointments which continued through late October and into early November 1852 — were, in addition to the Resident Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner, their Clerk (J. LaTrobe); an Assistant Colonial Surgeon and Coroner (Dr Henry Greene); Police Magistrate (George Mitchell Harper) and his Clerk of the Bench (William Alexander Abbott); as well as Store-keeper (W. H. Agg). [3] There were also Mounted Police and Foot Police (also known as ‘Cadets’), headed by Lieutenant Templeton and Mr Mackay (rank of ‘Subaltern’) respectively. [4]

Resident Commissioner Smythe arrived on site on the Friday 19 November, 1852, where he found the camp in the process of being ‘judiciously pitched’. [5] Much of this was owed to the efforts of Assistant Commissioner Clow (who previously had been an Assistant Commissioner of Crown Lands, and Assistant Gold Commissioner at Bendigo Creek [6]) and his newly appointed tent-keeper William Murdoch. It seems that Clow had arrived practically in advance of almost every other official, as a letter in the Argus dated 1 November, reported,

Our Commissioner, J. M. Clow, Esq., has arrived without any force that I have yet heard of; but it matters little, they are not, or rather have not been required in our community; a more quiet, orderly, set of diggers are not to be found assembled in Australia. [7]

Having been appointed in mid-October [8], Clow had made some arrangements for the Camp in Melbourne [9]. His tent keeper and personal attendant, William Murdoch, arrived at Spring Creek on Monday 15 November, and immediately erected a large tent for the store. Murdoch then spent the whole of Tuesday pitching tents, setting the Commissioner’s tent to rights the following day, and witnessing ‘Most of the men employed in putting up tents’ on Thursday before Smythe’s arrival on Friday. [10]

The Camp itself was situated on a slight rise above Spring Creek (‘a rising hill covered with flowering shrubs and stringy bark trees’ [10b]) facing onto a track (possibly of indigenous making, and almost certainly used by David Reid’s shepherds, as a shepherd’s hut was located nearby [11]), that would become modern-day High Street. The encampment spanned roughly the frontage from where the current police station is sited, across Williams Street to the frontage of the old Beechworth Gaol. [12] The location in official correspondence was ‘May Day Hills’: the name given to the area by Governor LaTrobe, who had visited the infant diggings on May Day earlier that year. [13]

Author William Howitt described the established May Day Hills Camp when he visited about a month later:

The tents of the Commissioners stood in a row, on a rising ground on the other side of the creek, with a number of other tents for servants and officials behind them. The whole was enclosed with post and rails, and sentinels were on duty as in a military camp. The Commissioners’ tents, lined with blue cloth, and of a capacious size, looked comfortable and, to a degree, imposing. Mr. Smythe, Commissioner of Crown Lands for this district, as well as a gold commissioner, and Mr. Lieutenant Templeton of the mounted police, received us most cordially… They had a good packet of letters for us, which we soon returned to our tent to read. [14]

Other tents erected in the Camp included a Mess tent (where Protestant religious services were also held), and two Hospital Tents (the only tents besides the Commissioners’ tents which were lined). [15] By early December, there was also a flagstaff,  where, as Murdoch recorded in his diary, the men ‘got the Union Jack hoisted on the camp which here waved for the first time and I warrant as gaily as ever” on the land of the brave and the free”.’ [16]

Diggers and Commissioners, Order and Disorder 

It had been already noted (in the popular press at least) that prior to the arrival of the Commissioners and their police on the Ovens diggings, ‘a more quiet, orderly, set of diggers [were]… not to be found assembled in Australia’. As historian David Goodman leads us to understand, this proclamation of a naturally high degree of ‘order’ on the diggings was not mentioned casually, but rather, the idea of ‘how order could be maintained in a society in which all were rushing, madly, after their own fortunes,’ was one of the major cultural themes of the gold rush era (in both California and Victoria). Funnily enough, this frequently included the assertion that ones’ own countrymen possessed an innate instinct for creating an ordered society when compared to the other: Victorians perceived respect for British law and institutions, and deference to existing social and political hierarchies, as constituting ‘order’, in preference to the Californian tendency towards independent self-organisation and self-governance, which in turn Californians perceived as a more worthy form of ‘order’. [17] Whatever the case, when the Commissioners and their police finally arrived on Ovens diggings in November 1852, their presence would test the supposed natural order of these diggings.

Having arrived on Friday, by Saturday 20 November 1852, Smythe was writing his first report to the Colonial Secretary (which he would be called upon to do weekly, along with submitting license returns for the same period). Clearly he had been asked to decide upon arrival which buildings should be erected before winter, and he judged that only a ‘lock-up’ or ‘watch house’ was required, along with stables for about 30 horses. Smythe added that Clow estimated the population of diggers to be 1500, adding, ‘The diggers are spreading more over this Country, and a very rich spot has been opened up about one mile above the original Diggings [i.e.: possibly Madman’s Gully or Beeson’s Flat]; which His Excellency visited on the 1st May last and about four miles below the present Diggings [i.e.: Reid’s Creek].’ [18]

Smythe’s first report on that Saturday 20 November also revealed that internally, the administration of the Camp itself was not yet in order: The Police Magistrate had arrived on Wednesday, but in the absence of official paperwork, couldn’t be sworn in; the Doctor had arrived on Friday (the same day as Smythe), but as the medicines he had applied for had not yet arrived from Melbourne, he couldn’t begin to treat anyone. Mackay had also arrived, stating that he was to be Superintendent of the Foot Police, but there was no paperwork to back his claim. (Only upon further investigation by Smythe was he found to hold the lesser post of Subaltern). [19]

However, despite the internal disarray, Smythe was initially satisfied with the external order of the diggings. ‘I am happy to state,’ he wrote, ‘that good order prevails tho’ a number of bad characters are reported recognised as having been known at Bendigo.’ [20]

It all seemed promising enough. However, it only took until Monday (22 November), a mere three days after his arrival, that Smythe’s satisfaction switched to misgivings about the capacity of the Camp to enforce the rule of law. To the Colonial Secretary, he now wrote:

I find the police force at present stationed here quite inadequate for protection of life respectively in the want of their being called upon to act. Men in abundance could be hired here, in fact I am endeavouring to procure some – but they will be of little use with out arms, accoutrements and some sort of uniforms, however simple — The latter should at the same time be of the best quality – under these circumstances I beg to recommend that twenty men should be hired armed, clothed and accoutred in Melbourne and forwarded up on the command of a Sergeant. – These with the nine present on the ground and the additional Gold Police which I understand are on the road will for the present be sufficient. [21]

So what had happened that Monday after Smythe’s arrival to so rapidly change his opinion of the ‘orderliness’ of the diggings? The Reid’s Creek diggings had opened up earlier in the preceding week, so in purely geographical terms, the administrative problem had doubled almost overnight: just as one camp was being established at Spring Creek, a second camp was urgently needed four miles away at Reid’s Creek. [22] More importantly, the population of the diggings was growing at a rate of about hundred and twenty-five new diggers each day. [23] And now that the Commissioner’s camp was operational, the gold cadets had begun patrolling for licenses and had proved diligent in their efforts: the same Monday as Smythe sat down to compose his letter to request more police, ‘Twenty one diggers [had been] fined for want of licence[,] some paying others not. Perhaps for want of money but ultimately paying a £3 fine and taking a licence.’ [24] As many of the newly-arrived miners had slender financial means, the newly-arrived police force, with their increased license patrols, would have been a source of great discontent on the diggings. When Smythe wrote, I find the police force at present stationed here quite inadequate for protection of life, he meant protection of his own life, and the life of anyone attempting to collect license fees from angry and well-armed miners.

The level of discontent quickly came to a head. 12 more diggers were fined the very next day, two of whom were kept in custody, [25] and although we cannot say for certain under what conditions these miners were held, it was rumoured that they were chained to a tree. [26] This constituted too much of an affront to the miners who on Wednesday evening, held meeting attended by ‘nearly 800 diggers’, at which they discussed how to respond to their ill-treatment at the hands of the Commissioners and their police. [27] A reporter, writing for the Argus newspaper from the Royal Hotel in Albury, described the meeting:

The organ of this heterogeneos assembly was either a Yankee importation from California, or an Anglo-Australian, who had visited that part of the world. He recommended, in no measured language, the protection of all persons sought to be taken into custody by the police for an infraction of the law, and the repelling, if necessary, of force by force. [28]

In describing the meeting, the journalist clearly flagged the Californian influence on the diggings, which in the Australian popular press was equated with violence, gun-play and Republicanism. Simultaneously, the author acknowledged that the constituents of the diggings were heterogeneous — that is to say, diverse — presumably not only in their backgrounds but also in this context, political leanings. (However, rather than use the English word, the writer employed the Spanish word heterogeneos, just to further call the Californian influence into view.). [29] While the article was disparaging of Californian attitudes towards challenging authority — attitudes which had little respect for the law or established institutions — neither did this mean that its author sided with the Commissioners. They sided with the heterogeneos — that diverse and politically unrepresented group, the diggers.

The miner’s meeting would set the scene for the events of the following day (which I have recounted in the recently revised post Diggers Rise Up), which would be the first instance of civil unrest on the Ovens diggings, and which in turn helped forge new political expressions that were fundamental to the growth of Australian democracy — a subject matter which will have to be unravelled in future posts.

To read the basic facts of what happened the next day, try reading Diggers Rise Up, a precursor to the Eureka Stockade.


[1] Edward Ridpath, Journal, transcription of letters to his father, possibly in his own hand, 1850-53? [manuscript MS 8759], State Library of Victoria, Box 1012/4 [Box also includes his gold license from 3 August 1853], p.37

[2] William Murdoch, A Journey to Australia in 1852 and Peregrinations in that Land of Dirt and Gold, unpublished diary manuscript (digital form), held by the Robert O-Hara Burke Memorial Museum. That Clow raised his own police force (18 October, 1852: ‘he was obliged to raise his own men – that is mounted police and foot’), and that there were a lot of Scotch men appointed (15 November 1852).

[3] Appointment listed in: 1853 Victoria, Gold Fields: Return to Address, Mr Fawkner — 10th Dec 1852, Laid upon the Council Table by the Colonial Secretary, by command of his Excellency Lieutenant Governor… printed 27 Sept 1853, Victorian Parliamentary paper; and reported in Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer, Sat 6 Nov, 1852, p.2 (drawn from The Government Gazette of Thursday (ie: 4th November 1852).

[4] These appointments are obvious from numerous correspondences and reportages.

[5] Public Records Office Victoria, Series VPRS 1189, Consignment P0000, Unit 83, document 52/8477.

[6] Goldfields: Return to Address, December 1852, op. cit.

[7] The Argus, 4 December 1852, p.5, from a letter dated 1 December, 1852.

[8] Goldfields: Return to Address, December 1852, op. cit.

[9] William Murdoch, op. cit., reports seeing Clow in Melbourne on the 23 October.

[10] William Murdoch, ibid., 18 November, 1852. [10b] William Murdoch, ibid., 15 November, 1852.

[11] David Reid, Reminiscences of David Reid : as given to J.C.H. Ogier (in Nov. 1905), who has set them down in the third person, 1906, p.54.

[12] Plan of the township of Beechworth, May Day Hills, Surveyor General’s Office, Melbourne, July 23rd 1855. (Map, held in State Library of Victoria).

[13] Smythe mentions La Trobe’s visit on May Day in official correspondence (Public Records Office Victoria Series VPRS 1189, Consignment P0000 Unit 83, 52/8477), and it is also reported in The Argus, Saturday, 8 May, 1852, p.4.

[14] William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, Kilmore, Lowden, 1972, p.93-4 (contained in a letter from the Ovens Diggings, Spring Creek, Dec. 25th 1852).

[15] Letter to the Chief Commissioner of Police, Melbourne, from Inspector Price, Acting Inspector of Police in charge Ovens district, Head Quarters Ovens Police Camp, May Day Hills, 8 April 1853. This is contained in: Beechworth District (May Day Hill) 1853 & 1856, Inward Registered Correspondence, Series VPRS Series 00937/P0000 000028, Public Records Office, Victoria. (Apologies for the lack of precise document number to identify this letter in what is otherwise a very big box of letters.)

[16] William Murdoch, op. cit., 3 December 1852.

[17] David Goodman, Gold Seeking — Victoria and California in the 1850s, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1994, pp.64-65.

[18] Public Records Office Victoria, Series VPRS 1189, Consignment P0000, Unit 83, document 52/8477.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Public Records Office Victoria, Series VPRS 1189 Consignment P0000, Unit 83, document 52/82175.

[22] To give an idea of how fast the diggings were expanding, Edward Ridpath, who arrived on the Spring Creek diggings on 4 November 1852, said of the diggings at Spring Creek, ‘I must confess to be being much surprised at their general appearance on my arrival, that their operations were confined to a spot of ground about one mile in length, and about a hundred yards in breadth’. (Ridpath, op cit., p.8-9).

Within ten days, another digger, Ned Peters (A Gold Digger’s Diary, typed manuscript of his diary, edited by Les Blake, MS 11211, State Library of Victoria, p.26.) recorded in his diary that when he arrived on the Ovens diggings, Reid’s Creek had opened-up only the day before. He’d departed for the Ovens diggings from Bendigo on 1 November 1852, and says he took ‘a fortnight on the road’ to reach the Ovens diggings, which puts his arrival around Sunday 14 or Monday 15 November. This meant that the focus of the diggings began to shift to Reid’s Creek within the exact week as the establishment of the Commissioner’s Camp at Spring Creek. Such was the force of the shift that the party of Thomas Woolner (Diary of Thomas Woolner, National Library of Australia, MS 2939, 25 November, 1852), another gold-seeker, who arrived at the diggings the same day as Smythe (Friday 19 November 1852), went straight to Reid’s Creek rather than stop for the night at Spring Creek.

[23] By 10 December, a mere 21 days after Smythe had arrived, the population of Spring and Reid’s Creeks had grown from 1500 to 4000; 2500 were at Reid’s Creek, four miles from the Commissioner’s Camp. While Clow estimated 1500 people between the two diggings in mid-November, by the first week of December it had swelled to 1500 persons on on Spring Creek (which by then was being referred to as ‘the old diggings’), and a further 2500 at Reid’s Creek. (population figures contained in The Argus, ‘Scraps from the Ovens,’ Friday 10 December, 1852.)

[24] William Murdoch, op cit., 22 November 1852.

[25] William Murdoch, ibid., 24-25 November, 1852.

[26] Edward Ridpath alludes to police chaining people to trees (as cited earlier in this piece, op. cit., p.37), and this is backed up by a ‘rumour’ in The Argus, ‘Disturbances at the Diggings’, 1 December 1852, p.4.

[27] The Argus, ‘The Ovens Diggings. (From our special commissioner.) Royal Hotel, Albury, Nov. 28th,’ 3 December, 1852, p.4.

[28] ibid.

[29] ibid.


Bad ale and even worse water? Drinking during the gold rush.


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By now, dear readers, you would all know how I like to question historical myths and anecdotes. In this post, I’m going to take issue with two: the first being that ‘in the olden days’ people drank alcohol instead of water to avoid getting sick; and the second, that colonial beer was bad because it was watered down.


Image: Hongreddotbrewhouse, via wikimedia commons.

Did people stick to drinking alcohol as a ‘safe’ alternative to drinking dirty water? And what else did they drink?

One of the most persistent ideas I’ve heard that grates on me as a historian is that people ‘in the olden days’ only drank alcohol, because it was safer than drinking water; or at least they were encouraged to do so. This idea is framed as conventional wisdom, but take a moment to think about it: this would have meant that almost everyone was constantly either drunk or tipsy (even children!); and quite clearly, they weren’t. Alcohol is also a diuretic, which means that it isn’t especially thirst quenching. Anyone who’s spent even a night drinking alcohol and nothing else with tell you about ‘the dry horrors’ the next day. For purely practical reasons, people couldn’t have drunk alcohol continuously.

So what else is wrong with the supposition that everyone drank alcohol instead of water? To begin with, prior to the 1880s, people had no idea that disease was transmitted by microbes and that these microbes could be water-borne. However, people did make a correlation between a lower incidence of illness and the availability of clear running water. William Murdoch, the attendant and tent-keeper to Assistant Commissioner Clow, said as much at the Spring Creek Commissioner’s camp on 20 November, 1852:

I think this is a very unhealthsome place — everyone has had a sort of influenza accompanied with dysentery — I have had a good touch but I think I have got the better of it yet the water is good here and plenty of it. The creek at the side of our camp is very fast and runs very deep but I daresay butcher’s meat is a great cause of it. Flesh must be eaten two hours after butchering or else it is crawling with large maggots. As soon as the fly blows them they seem to live and grow almost as you eat a meal — the piece will be alive before you stop eating. [1]

However, from this statement, you also can see his confusion: Murdoch was happy to be drinking the water from Spring Creek because it looked clear (even though it was almost undoubtedly polluted with the excrement of the gold diggers), and he attributed the illness on the diggings to another cause entirely: the maggoty meat.

When an outbreak of an unknown illness, dubbed ‘low’ or ‘colonial fever,’ killed numerous people on the Buckland diggings in the summer of 1853-4, William Howitt attributed the disease to bad flour and bad air, rather than the falling water levels in the heavily polluted Buckland River.

29th January 1854

Partly, I suspect, from the bad flour sent thither, but still more from causes connected with the situation, there is a great deal of sickness here. Though the diggings are but of a few weeks old, there is a considerable burying ground already, where you see numbers of fresh graves surrounded by a rude paling, and on the post at each corner placed a square of turf, the digger’s monument!

These deep valleys, inclosed between steep, wooded mountains, are intensely hot, and rarely traversed by any wind. There are vast jungles here and there where the valleys opens out into flats, and everywhere the soil is of a light porous quality, which absorbs the rain like a sponge, and in the heat exhales malaria. You may smell the dry-rot of decaying roots of trees as you walk over the surface. A species of low fever prevails, and has attacked, more or less, almost every tent. [2]

Despite the tendency to blame bad food and bad air for illness on the diggings, let’s assume for a moment that people did actually blame dirty water, and therefore sought substitutes for clean water when none was available. Clearly the substitute wasn’t solely alcohol. Instead, it seems that the most common drink on gold diggings was in fact tea.

While staying at Bontharambo (near Wangaratta), in 1854, Mary Spencer observed that ‘far less wine appears to be taken by the gentlemen in Australia than in England. Tea is the chief beverage. I have never seen such tea drinkers.’ [3] Spencer may or may not have been referring specifically to upper classes when she referred to ‘gentlemen’, however, there is little to indicate that the entire digging population weren’t hardened tea drinkers. Tea could disguise the taste of dirty water, and although the health benefits of boiling the water were not clearly understood, putting the camp kettle or billy on was a ritual for virtually every gold digger. (As an aside, on the basis of advertisements from The Argus, it would seem that the tea on the goldfields in 1852-3 was mainly Chinese in origin, and that people drank both black and green teas.)

However, it still doesn’t appear that people actually avoided unboiled water: Edward Ridpath, a digger who was an early arrival on the Spring and Reid’s Creek diggings, reported that ‘during the summer refreshment tents were numerous over the diggings, where ginger beer, lemonade, raspberry vinegar, and spruce beer were sold.’ [4] While the spruce beer and ginger beer were brewed, and therefore boiled; the syrup-based drinks probably used unboiled water.

I don’t doubt that a lot of hard-drinking was done on the diggings during the gold rush. A browse of the newspaper advertisements of the period will tell you that anyone with access to the Melbourne markets could buy brandy, Scottish whiskey, Jamaican rum, gin (and the Dutch gin-like spirit genever), wine (French: Médoc claret [i.e.: Bordeaux], Margaux [i.e.: cabernet sauvignon], Sauternes and Champagne), Portuguese sherry, bottled beer, stout, porter and cider. However, no matter how much alcohol was consumed, there is no evidence that people did so for reasons of health. Everyone also drank a lot of tea, and yet there is still also no evidence that people did so to prevent illness. And in any case, virtually everyone on the diggings still experienced some form of water-borne illness.


Eugene von Guerard, the inside of a digger’s tent in 1853. The kettle, ready for making tea, is a stand-alone item.

Bad Ale at the Honeysuckle Inn

Almost everyone coming from Melbourne to the Ovens diggings during late 1852 and throughout 1853, stopped at certain pubs along the way. One of the most remarked upon was the Honeysuckle Inn, at what became Violet Town. The thing that has always intrigued me about the Honeysuckle Inn during the gold rush is the comments about the beer being awful. Here’s what Thomas Woolner had to say in November 1852: ‘We camped today at Honeysuckle Creek: there is a large tavern where enormous prices are charged, 1/6 for a glass of bad ale, 3/6lb for common cheese.’ [1] And here’s what William Howitt (who was travelling with his son 22-year-old son Alfred and his friends), had to say in December: ‘We found everything now monstrously dear on the roads, the nearer we got to the diggings. My youngsters, at an inn called The Honeysuckle, would insist on my having a pint of beer. It was 3s., and most disgustingly vapid…’ [2]

It’s easy to explain the complaints about the expense. We can get a sense of the cost firstly by the fact that it was one shilling and sixpence in November, and then by December — by which time thousands of gold seekers were heading up the Sydney Road — a whole three shillings (i.e.: double the price). Secondly, we can compare these prices to a pot of ‘Billson’s Best Ale’, which was being made in Beechworth and was available on draught at local pubs for sixpence (half a shilling), fifteen years later. [3]

Aside from the cost, for years it’s intrigued me as to how and why was the beer so ‘disgusting’ as to be remarked upon. But how does a historian manage to work out why the beer tasted ‘vapid’ (i.e.: bland), more than 150 years after that beer was drunk? The common assumption is that the beer was watered down. However, other more meaningful answers to this question came to me late last week, while I was working on the history of Billson’s Brewery in Beechworth (which started as Billson’s Ovens Brewery in 1867, was renamed Murray Breweries in 1914 [4], and has recently been switched back to ‘Billson’s’ by new owner Nathan Cowan). Working on the history of Billson’s compelled me to think deeply about beer.

The key constituents of good beer — other than water — are yeast, malted Barley grains and hops. At the time of the Victorian gold rushes, most malt and hops were imported. In Britain, malt had been subject to a tax, which was major source of public revenue in the 18th century — a tax which was still in effect by the time of the gold rushes (the tax wasn’t repealed until 1880) [5]. In Australia, the expense of imported malt, to which freight and tax had been already added, drove many brewers to replace it in the ferment either in part or sometimes wholly with sugar (which, incidentally, came from the cane plantations of Mauritius). Moreover, beer brewed with sugar had the advantage of turning ‘bright’ in only a few days, as opposed to malted brews, which required far longer periods of maturation. And beers which had to be matured over a period of weeks or months, had to be stored in cellars — which, at the time, were also in relatively short supply.

The use of sugar in the brew is probably one factor that made the beer seem ‘vapid’ to many British gold seekers, who were used to beers brewed only with malt. In Britain, it had been illegal to make beer with sugar in the ferment until 1847 [6]; so even by 1852, British tastes probably still ran to traditional pure malt beers: hence William Howitt’s and Thomas Woolner’s distaste for the colonial brew.

The other factor that might have made the beer taste disgusting was that it might have gone bad in the heat. In the days before refrigeration, beer-brewed in the warmer months often deteriorated, and for this reason, some brewers only brewed over winter [7]. This certainly seems to have been the case for many decades at Billson’s Brewery in Beechworth, which advertised the release of its beers in September and October, also making capital of Beechworth’s cooler climate, and their cool cellars. [8] Conversely, the ale at the Honeysuckle Inn may well have been brewed cheaply and hastily with sugar to cater to the sudden influx of gold seekers, and then had been exposed to hot temperatures when Howitt and Woolner drank it in the summer of late 1852. It might also have been contaminated with microorganisms like Lactobacilli.

So what of the legacy of colonial ‘sugar beers’? Despite various moves in the industry throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to end its use, the propensity of Australian brewers to use sugar in their ferments has remained. Beechworth’s Alfred Billson was one of the purists, who wanted to ‘compel brewers to use only malt and hops in the manufacture of beer.’ However, these visions of enforcing beer purity laws never came to fruition, and even Billson had to admit, the public had grown used to its sugar beers, and now preferred the taste. [9] We still brew plenty of beer in Australia using sugar today.

As for the Honeysuckle Inn, it is now owned by my dear friends, Annette Walton and Andy Guerin, who have opened an art gallery in its front room. They assure me that they still serve ‘bad ale’ and ‘common cheese’.


Did people stick to drinking alcohol as a safe alternative to drinking dirty water?

[1] William Murdoch, A Journey to Australia in 1852 and Peregrinations in that Land of Dirt and Gold, unpublished diary manuscript (digital form), held by the Robert O-Hara Burke Memorial Museum. This is from an entry dated: 20 November, 1852.
[2] William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, or Two Years in Victoria, Volumes 1 & 2, Sydney University Press, 1972 [first edn: Longman, Brown, Green and Longman, London, 1855]; Volume 2, pp.153-4.
[3] Mary Spencer, Aunt Spencer’s Diary (1854): A Visit to Bontharambo and the North-east Victorian Goldfields, Neptune Press, Newtown, 1981, p.46.
[4] Edward Ridpath, Journal, transcription of letters to his father, possibly in his own hand, 1850-53? [manuscript MS 8759], State Library of Victoria, Box 1012/4 [Box also includes his gold license from 3 August 1853, p.32.

Bad Ale at the Honeysuckle Inn

[1] Thomas Woolner, Diary of Thomas Woolner,  National Library of Australia, MS 2939, 12 November 1852.
[2] William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, or Two Years in Victoria, Volumes 1 & 2, Lowden Publishing Company, Kilmore, 1972 [first edn: Longman, Brown, Green and Longman, London, 1855]; Volume 1, p.81.
[3] Numerous advertisements in the Ovens and Murray Advertiser for the Temple Bar (e.g.: 28 November, 1867) in Ford Street show this price. The beer was being made by Billson’s Ovens Brewery in Loch Street.
[4] Confirmed by the Minutes of the Board of Directors of Murray Breweries, still held at the brewery in Last Street, Beechworth, today; and reported in Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 21 November 1914, p.2.
[5] Raymond A. Anderson, ‘The History of The Maltsters Association of Great Britain.’
[6] Dr Brett J. Stubbs, ‘Brewing with Sugar’ Brew News, September 5, 2011; Keith Farrer, To Feed a Nation, CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Victoria, 2005, p.86.
[7] ibid.
[8] An example would be an article from the Ovens and Murray Advertiser, Saturday, 2 June 1900, p.12, which states: ‘The specialty [of the brewery]… is the high-class character of the bottled ale turned out under the well-known brand, “Anglo-Australian Ale.” This high-class bottled ale is brewed only during the cold months of the year, and is made from a special malt suited to the production of such an article. … the demand for this ale exists all over the colony, and is even sent into the heart of New South Wales, …. the climate and water supply [of Beechworth are suited] for the brewing of high-class ale…’
[9] Corowa Free Press, 16 July 1901, p.3; Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 19 July, 1901, p.31.



What did the gold miners eat? (A quick follow-up).


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In an earlier post, What did the gold miners eat? (Part 1. Bush food in Beechworth), I mentioned that one of the wild foods of the area was the Pink-flowered Native Raspberry (aka Small Leaf Bramble) (Rubus parvifolius). I have it on authority that native raspberry still occurs in bush areas around north-east Victoria, including the Chiltern-Mount Pilot National Park — although it is probably often sprayed with herbicide, because it resembles the imported blackberry. Until this weekend, I hadn’t seen it growing anywhere, let alone tasted the berries.


Ripe native raspberries (Rubus parvifolius). Note that the leaf is much finer than the imported blackberry.

However, I’ve just returned from a weekend away in a remote hut on the Big River at Glen Wills, where I was finally able to taste ripe native raspberries, and I can report: Unlike the introduced raspberry, the berries are shiny, and quite bright red when ripe. They are smaller than the imported raspberries, but also sweeter, and with a more delicate flavour. As I was not in the Alpine National Park, I took some rootlings to cultivate at home in a tub.