Wonnangatta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Mortimer notes:

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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

Trove

Argus 28 February 1918

Argus 1 March 1918

Argus 2 March 1918

that’s enough- search for yourself!!!

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2 responses to “Wonnangatta

  1. Janine, have you come across Melissa Harper’s book?
    Author Harper, Melissa.
    Title The ways of the bushwalker : on foot in Australia / Melissa Harper.
    Publisher Sydney : UNSW Press, 2007.
    despite the ambiguity of the title (probably aimed at the Fathers Day market!) it’s actually an interesting history of bush walking.

    • No- I wasn’t aware of this book. You’re right about the title- I looked her up and it’s obviously based on her PhD and not a coffee table book at all! Taking it ‘on foot’ would give a different perspective on Australian history. Thanks for alerting me to it.

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