FLOOD, FIRE AND FEVER
A History of Elwood
Elwood’s First Settlers: The Story of John and Mary Broadbent in Australia 1852-1913, was published in 2004 by their great granddaughter, Beverly Broadbent. It is a typical immigrant story of hard work, tenacity and adaptability with much depending on good health and luck.
In 1852, John and Mary arrived in Melbourne from Yorkshire on the Merlin, seventeen years after colonial settlement. They were amongst 86,000 gold rush immigrants that arrived that year. Accommodation was desperately short with seven thousand persons living in ‘Canvas Town’ in South Melbourne. They decided to set up their tent at Point Ormond, later claiming to have been the first and, at the time, only residents of Elwood. John was a carter by trade and cut timber at the Point to meet the huge public demand for firewood.
In March 1854, the Broadbents purchased the first of four lots for a home and farm from speculator Joseph Vautier.6 It was located on Elwood Hill, a small rise above potential floodwaters. John’s father sent the young couple a portable wooden house by ship from England. Life was challenging with isolation, bushrangers and ‘colonial fever’ that often raged in the summer. Their first child was born in October 1853 but died five weeks later. Three more children soon followed – Thomas, Agnes and Isabella. In 1870 twins, Lucy and Flint, were born to their forty-year-old mother.
In 1860, John became a part time porter for the Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay United Railway Co. He continued to farm in Elwood, as well as buying, renting and selling property. In 1884, he became the station master at Albert Park and later at Auburn Station. His son Thomas joined him eventually rising to the lofty position of stationmaster at Spencer Street in 1904.
Over the years, the family expanded their holdings in Elwood, purchasing thirty investment plots after 1863. They actively supported improvements, strongly lobbying for the railway, the draining of the swamp and the closing of noxious activities such as the abattoir. John represented residents during a meeting with Thomas bent MP on 14 June 1877at the Elsternwick Hotel to propose that Elwood succeed from St Kilda and be joined to Brighton. This was a tactic to force St Kilda to undertake improvements. In February 1888, a new attempt was made by residents to form a new municipality called Elsternwick. John retired to his home at Elwood in May 1892 and successfully campaigned to close the slaughter yards in 1899. in the same year he was a speaker at the first meeting of the Elwood Railway League, which led a powerful community movement for a rail link to Elwood.
He died at eighty years of age in 1905, the same year that the draining of the Elwood swamp reclamation was completed, and was buried at St Kilda Cemetery. He has witnessed enormous changes to the landscape in his 53 years at Elwood and was responsible for progressing many of them. His son Thomas (grandfather of Beverley) retired to 21 Tiuna Street in 1916. By 1922 Thomas had sold off the last of his father’s 33 blocks of land. In 2005, a century after John Broadbent’s death, one of these blocks was resold for $1.5 million.
Thomas and Jessie Broadbent with their children c. 1900
The Stirling family was a relative latecomer to Elwood, arriving in 1887. Their story is notable however because of the remarkable details of Elwood recorded by Amie Stirling in her autobiography: Memories of an Australian Childhood 1880 – 1900.
Amie was only seven years old when she arrived from Omeo with her parents James and Elizabeth, her sister Mary and her brothers Victor, Australia (Alvie) and Kosciusko (Kos).7 Her home, Omeo Villa, at 56 Spray Street, was one of the first houses in the new ‘Seaside Estate’. 8 The bush child was less than impressed with her new home:
Our villa sat on the side of a hill, one of a row all exactly alike. How should I tell them apart?...the front was level with the road, while the back had a flight of steps to go down, from the verandah outside the kitchen. Looking from the back verandah we could see Melbourne in the distance, an uninteresting group of roofs and chimneys. In the foreground was our paddock; father down were more paddocks, a few scattered houses, and a canal that was being dug to the sea. A bridge was being built and men were working there.
On the first morning her father took her to the bluff where she recalled the small graveyard and saw the sea for the first time:
Before me stretched, as far as my eyes could see, a vista of such beauty as I never dreamed. From that moment I loved the sea with a deep and passionate love.
The Stirlings were a nurturing, literate and artistic family which valued equality of the sexes, love for nature and all fields of learning. James eventually became the Government Geologist of Victoria and was instrumental in the mapping of the brown coal deposits of Gippsland. He was highly regarded for his pioneer research in scientific fields including geology, speleology (caving), ethnography, botany, and meteorology. Elizabeth was an artist who painted and collected specimens for Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, the Government Botanist, who adored the Stirling children and often visited 56 Spray Street. Amie described him:
The only German I ever met as a child was one of the most lovable people I have ever known.
The Baron would sit Mary, the small shy sister of Amie, on his knee and say:
This is not a child. She is an elf. See how quiet she is. She does not cry or jump about. She is a pixie, a spirit of the great mountains in a little child’s body.
Her brother Victor was the star pupil of Mr Allingham’s local Grammar School for Boys. Amie when to Mrs Nesbit’s School for the Daughters of Gentlemen but fell foul of her mannered peers. She was expelled after she organised her fellow students to roll down a hill in an old galvanized water tank, ruining their clothes. Her younger brother fell from a plank across the canal and she was blamed, leaving her to reflect on discrimination against girls.
One morning in 1888 she woke up to find her bedroom floor under water:
…The day broke on the strangest of sights: water as far as we could see. The houses on lower ground were almost submerged, and people were standing on the roofs. Soon we noticed that the water in our house was receding and we were able to go out on the verandah. We were cut off from Melbourne, and in a while rafts and boats appeared, manned by policemen who were taking the people off their housetops.
The flood destroyed the sewage system causing a diphtheria epidemic:
People died every day. In the villa next to ours was a family named Reynolds, consisting of father, mother and four children. All died except the mother and youngest child, a baby of 18 months.9 I was the only Stirling to get the disease.
On her way to school one day, Amie launched herself across the waters in an old box, which soon sand, and she was marooned on a fence post for three hours before help arrived.
In 1893 the family moved to San Remo after James was promoted. Amie eventually took up residence in Canada, but, fortunately for this history of Elwood, was persuaded by her son to write her delightful memoirs shortly before her death in 1945.
Elwood canal under construction 1889
(La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria)
56 Spray Street, home of the Stirling family from 1888 - 1893
THE REVEREND JOSEPH DOCKER (1793-1865) AND ELWOOD HOUSE.
The energetic life of Joseph Docker is narrated by J. Millan in her book, The Two Lives of Joseph Docker. He was born at Newby Head, Cumbria in England. After working as an assistant curate, he married and immigrated to Sydney in 1828. He was rector of St Mathew’s Windsor for five years but left after a local campaign to undermine his position. Encouraged by Major Mitchell’s expedition, he decided to travel overland to the Port Phillip District. In 1838, the adventurous family travelled to the Murray River in covered bullock-wagons, crossing at Albury, then known as ‘Crossing-Place’.
Docker obtained squatting rights to a run, ‘Bontharambo’ on the Ovens River near Wangaratta, as its owner had deserted after Aborigines killed the shepherds. Docker’s sympathetic approach to the indigenous people was rewarded with their support and they continued to hold corroborees near his house. The homestead prospered and in 1864 he build a granite mansion, also ‘Bontharambo’ which stands today.
In 1855, he built two terraces on one of eleven lots he purchased in the Elwood Hill Estate from Joseph Vautier. Docker lived for a while in one of the terraces and rented the other to stock agent John Dougharty, later a member of the Legislative Council. Dougharty purchased both properties in 1871 and combined them into Elwood House (30/30a Vaultier Street), one of Melbourne’s oldest terraces, and the oldest house in Elwood.
Docker was a founding settler of Richmond as well as Elwood. There are Docker streets in both suburbs. He later subdivided his land in Richmond to create the new village of Clifton Hill.
John Dougharty’s daughter, Florence, married Louis Huon in the 1870s and Elwood House was in the Huon family’s possession until the 1920s. Louis Huon’s great-grandfather was a nobleman, Gabriel Louis Marie Huon de Kerrilleau, who fled French Revolutionaries to the NSW Corps in 1794. He formed a liaison with a young French convict transported for theft, whom he married after the birth of the first two of their five children. In later years, Florence Huon described her childhood with Elwood covered with wattle trees, hundreds of magpies gathering near Elster creek and her father driving home at night in winter with the waters of Elwood swamp washing over the floor of his buggy.
One of the many challenges faced by Elwood’s first settlers was their relative isolation from Melbourne and their vulnerability to outlaws far from the watchful eyes of the authorities. By the 1850s the Age newspaper had mounted a vigorous media campaign against the lawlessness and audacity of the bushrangers who stalked the roads leading south from the city.
Elwood House, 30/30a Vautier Street.
6 Today, the original family property is apparently occupied by a block of flats at 16-18 Vautier Street.
7James named his children after his passions e.g Amie for the brotherhood of man, Victor for Victor Hugo, Kosciusko for the Victorian Alps that he surveyed as a Lands Officer for Omeo.
8‘Omeo Villa’ at 56 Spray Street and ‘Lorne’ at 54 Spray Street were proposed for heritage listing by the City of Port Phillip in 2006. They are the only survivors of the eleven villas built in the Seaside Estate between 1880 and 1900.
9 William G Reynolds was a wool merchant. Rate books indicate the family occupied 54 Spray Street between 1888 and 1890, the short period no doubt due to the tragic circumstances.