FLOOD, FIRE AND FEVER
A History of Elwood
The Traditional Owners
The city of Port Phillip acknowledges the people
and the elders of the Kulin Nation who have
traditional connections and responsibilities for the
land, which the Port Phillip Council now occupies.
Memorandum of Understanding, City of Port Phillip 2004
The occupation by indigenous people for up to 40,000 years or more of the area now called Elwood is largely unrecorded. This short summary is compiled mainly from records kept by writers, settlers, botanists, and protectors after the settlement of Melbourne in 1835.
Frederick Revans, a Supreme Court judge in New Zealand, arrived as a boy in Melbourne in 1854 and later published his reminiscences in the Victorian Historical Journal of the Royal Historical Society. Amongst his memories, he recalled an event in Elwood:
I remember our excitement when one day, probably in 1857, two hundred blacks from Gippsland arrived suddenly in Hotham Street, trooping towards Elsternwick. An hour or two later, a solitary female appeared, and we gave her something to eat. She followed the tracks of the tribe in the dusty road, and when we asked her if she could see her husband’s tracks, she pointed them out to us amid hundreds of others, and started to follow them at a run, pursuing an irregular course such as he had taken when carelessly strolling with the mob. In the evening we followed the blacks, hearing that they were going to hold a corroboree, and found the whole tribe camped at a place where the trees were fairly thick. There were no residences near, save for a house or two along Brighton-road, some distance away. I think the spot must have been somewhere not far from where, in later years, Sir Frederick Sargood built his fine house (Rippon Lea). Here we stayed until midnight, mixing with the blacks, listening to their chants, and watching the strange and grave dances of the corroboree circle.
Archaeological records indicate that Point Ormond was a campsite for the traditional owners. A midden was recorded in the vicinity in 1974, apparently during the redevelopment of the road junction at Barkly, Glenhuntly and Ormond Esplanade. Middens are former cooking sites containing charcoal, shells, bone and stone flints, often of great size and antiquity. These shells were probably harvested from the reef just offshore beyond the Point. Mrs Huon/Dougharty (1858-1929), who resided in Elwood House in Vautier Street, recalled:
Aboriginals came to the Red Bluff, the sands thereabouts containing large beds of cockles.
Stone axes were also recovered from the Point Ormond area in the 1970s.
5 In about 1973 Roadworks were undertaken at Robinson Reserve behind Point Ormond near the junction of Glenhuntly Road and Barkly Street. Marine Parade was extended south to join Ormond Esplanade splitting the reserve. Glenhuntly Road was extended west to join Marine Parade. These works apparently uncovered an Aboriginal midden from which two stone axes and possibly other tools were recovered. Such axes were an essential tool of all adult males. St Kilda was known by the name Euro Yroke or the ‘grinding stone’ area for the red sandstone in the St Kilda area used to sharpen stone axe blades. The red and yellow sandstone at the bluff may have also been used for ochre. The Point would also have offered an excellent strategic outlook for hunting animals and for signalling to other clans.
According to George Robinson, the Aboriginal Chief Protector in the 1840s, the Yalukit willam clan of the Boon wurrung tribe were the occupants of the coastal tract at the head of Port Phillip Bay including Elwood. Derrimut, a well-known arweet or leader of this clan, has been credited with saving the first settlers on the Yarra from attack in 1836. He died in 1864 and his memorial stone is located in the Melbourne General Cemetery. Other recorded arweet of the Yakulit willam clan included Eurernowel and his sons Par-tour-weer-rop, Bullourd and Mangerer.
Wetlands like the Elwood swamp provided a rich abundance of food for the clans including tortoises, ducks, eels, frogs, fish and freshwater shellfish. Wetland plants provide many edible roots from which starch can be extracted to make damper. As little as four to five hours a day’s foraging may have been sufficient to meet family needs.
Elwood occupies the fringe of Hobson’s Bay which was recalled by Aboriginal people in the nineteenth century as a hunting or ‘kangaroo ground’ before the sea broke through the Heads at the end of the last Ice Age about 9,000 years ago. During the Ice Age, Hobson’s Bay was a plain across which the ancestors of the Kulin could have walked to Tasmania. A Dreamtime story tells how Bunjil, the ancestral creator, placed sacred rocks in the area now known as St Kilda to stop the approach of the sea during the great flood. Perhaps these sacred ‘rocks’ included the bluff at Point Ormond.
Corroborees at nearby Emerald Hill (where the South Melbourne Town Hall now stands) were recollected and painted by Wilbraham Liardet. In 1840 Richard Howitt described fifty men dancing there assisted by the musical accompaniment of women as a performance to ‘haunt the soul for years afterwards’. Clans also reputedly gathered at the nearby Corroboree Tree, an ancient river red gum at St Kilda Junction.
By the early nineteenth century, time was running out for the Koories. The clans on the foreshore of Port Phillip faced the loss of their physical and spiritual connection to their lands, as visits by European vessels to Victoria became ever more frequent. In 1802 Charles Grimes led a surveying party from Sydney to Port Phillip aboard the ‘Cumberland’, recorded the presence of the Elwood swamp and sighted two emus. Shortly after Christmas Day of the same year, convict William Buckley fled past Elwood after escaping from a short-lived British settlement at Sorrento. In 1835 John Fawkner’s vessel, the Enterprize, dropped anchor at Point Ormond en route to the Yarra.
The European adventure would soon turn the landscape into an environmental nightmare. Diseases brought by Europeans would also prove to have a devastating effect on the Aboriginal population. Only five years after settlement a plague ship was unloading its passengers on the campgrounds of the traditional occupants of Elwood.
Jimmy and Nancy Dunbar,
two well known members of the Boon wurrung
(La Trobe Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria)