Passing the baton.
It’s a tricky space I find myself in. Returning to the town of my birth, the place I grew up. Searching for connection, for remnants of a life past, for belonging in the places of my past. Seeking reality shrouded in memory, legend, tales told between friends, hyperbole around the camp fire.
A quarter of a century ago, when I left my family home in the Northern Suburbs of Melbourne to travel, I never imagined the changes that would occur while I was gone. Back then everyone was moving to Sunny Queensland, It was not so likely that townships like Mernda (Formerly Morang), South Morang and Doreen would ever be considered within the scope of urban sprawl. The ancient Redgums that spread along the Basalt plains from Mill Park to the foot of the Great Divide would, in my mind, always be considered unnecessarily far from the concrete jungle that was Melbourne. The urbanites, football fanatics and poker machine addicts would never wander so far afield… I WAS WRONG.
When I arrived at my parents place it was the eve of yet another covid lockdown. My plans to visit friends and relatives were foiled. The order was. No unnecessary travel, we can leave the house for groceries and one hour of outdoor exercise per day with a distance limit of 5km! Woah! I had just travelled over 5,000 km through three states, through Kakadu, Uluru, urban and rural South Australia, enjoying the company of old friends along the way… This was going to bight! What could I do?
As it happened a neighbor had recently told my folks about the re-discovery of an old Mill down in the plenty gorge… only about 3km from my home! As a teenager I spent most of my days in that small patch of bushland, fishing, hunting rabbits, boozing around the fire, I thought I’d explored every nook and cranny. I knew the old gold mines, I knew the quarries and the farms. I had never heard of the ruins of any mill!
The mill was called Coulstock’s Mill and it had only recently been exposed due to the devastating fires that had raged through the gorge in 2020. In the 30 years I had been familiar with the area, the site of the mill was completely submerged in an impenetrable sea of blackberry bushes which filled the creek gully and expanded over a hundred meters across the mouth of Coulstocks Creek (now known as University Hill Creek)
I followed the neighbor’s directions which lead me straight to the crumbling rudiments of what had once been a functioning flour mill. The mill had been built in 1842 by wheat farmer George Coulstock who’d immigrated originally from England via Swan River W.A. then directly from Launceston, Vandiemen’s Land (Tasmania).
This was during the first decade of the Victorian Colony in a period described as a ‘Land Rush’. Which I find somewhat misleading yet quite telling… To describe what happened as a Rush gives me a sense that there was a vacuum in land ownership (and occupation) and people rushed in to take what was freely available… (fertile farming and grazing land). It would probably be better described as a ‘Great Land Grab’, and just like so many other Great Land Grabs was responsible for the large scale displacement of indigenous people from their Clan estates and tribal homes. (along with the disease that accompanied colonists)
Coulstocks mill was among the earliest to be constructed in the region but it didn’t last long. According to records it was “poorly designed”, a series of unfortunate circumstances including bushfires in 1846, and the creation of Yan Yean reservoir in the headwaters of the Plenty River lead to the mill becoming unusable by 1862.
Standing on the site, where the Plenty River had once flowed far more vigorously, I imagined the people who had been there before me. I strolled along ‘Coulstocks creek’ and observed the changes that had occurred since I first came this way as a teen. I wondered how many changes had taken place on this ground before I arrived. This place that I feel a part of, where I feel most at home and connected. But who were the others, the ones before Coulstock? How did they feel standing on the dry clay and Yellowbox ridges, looking down on what was a river of plenty? How did the scent of wattle and dogwood blossoms in the cool winter air play on their senses? Did they walk knee deep in bracken and delight at bronze winged pigeons taking flight as I still do? Did they lay sleepily on the south facing hills in the damp cool moss in summer, admiring the dainty maiden hair ferns that sprout in rivulets on those steep slopes?
Who were my predecessors? I wondered as I inevitably do, “Who were the original people of this place?” What has become of their stories, their dreams, their gods and their kin?
I really do believe the big question “Who am I?” can only be considered in the context of what was before me. What is in my DNA? What Elements converge between that miracle in the breath of creation cast forward and the clay of my body. A dear friend once reminded me that everyone has a place, there is no question. Mother country, father country, grandmother country… Those places are always there, calling us to return to them. I am not suggesting that these discount the capacity for people to develop their own way of being and relating but environment must surely inform our responses to the world around us, help form our personality which inevitably will impact the choices and decisions we make.
The country on which I was born will always be within me. I am a product of the land and will always be kin to it. (If the concept of land existing in DNA is hard to swallow, then how about the persistence of memory and association with belonging.)
While trying to gather a little history of the mill I managed to read a few accounts of the brief European history in this region. It seemed obvious that over a relatively short period of time there have been so many changes to the landscape, many features would have become unrecognizable from one generation to the next… Others, particularly in the deep gullies and steep river gorges, manage to hold remnants of their original being.
In just a few generations the land has seen multiple shifts in use, who lived on the land, how it was related to and how it has been named.
First the land was here, Wurundjeri were here, settlers came in the mid 1800s less than 200 years ago, a few generations. In that time nearly all trace of the original people has been wiped from the land. Ironically scar trees appear to be the most reliable evidence of their presence.
If for no other reason Scar Trees can be held now as sacred regardless of the purpose for which they were cut. This is not to say there are no people left, there are, but I have never met them. I hope one day I might meet someone with generations immemorial of this land in their blood.
In the 200 years since the white colonizers arrived, they cleared this land that now I am grateful, is within my 5km covid travel radius. They planted wheat… dug for gold, built mills… grazed cattle, raised horses and dairy cows. Where are those things now? What names were given and forgotten in that time? In writing this post I discovered that the Mr George Coulstock purchased a parcel of land in the Parish of Morang to farm wheat, harvest by hand, mill it and raise his family from the toil and bounty he extracted. He called the farm Mill Park and it is after this place that the Suburb was named. The land could not sustain commercial wheat production, dairies and cattle are gone… Quarries were dug… The holes remain. Roads cut, some faded to grown over tracks, others now bitumen multi lane carriageways.
In 1920, 180 years after the Coulstocks arrived, the Red Cross established a training farm for tuberculosis patients on land adjacent to the river, the farm was known as the Janefield Sanitorium. It operated for 13 years and closed in 1933. In 1937 it was re-opened with a new purpose, it became known as ‘Janefield Colony’ and was used as a centre for children with physical and intellectual disabilities. Though they dropped the word ‘Colony’ from the title, it was still used for these purposes while I was growing up.
From what I knew of the place it was an old school institution where kids with disabilities were sent if their parents weren’t able to look after them. It’s purpose was particularly significant to me as it was the kind of place my mother was advised she would have to send my brother when she realized she could not hope to raise a child with Down Syndrome. Many mothers would have been recommended to dump their kids in a place like that. Hope for a future was not encouraged. It seemed at that time society put a lot of stock into the idea of fluffing the pillow of people they wished to make disappear. Thus possibly begun my deep distrust of Authority. Needless to say, my brother did not get locked away in Janefield!
By the mid 1980s lobbying of advocates such as my parents and 1,000s of others saw broader community acceptance and changes in policy of people with intellectual disabilities. Changes in policy in turn lead to the decommissioning of institutions such as Janefield which was finally closed in 1996. The hope was that public amenities would adapt to the needs of all citizens and services would become more available in mainstream society through provision of the common-wealth… unfortunately what appears to have happened is, costly State funded institutions were closed down, while community based services languished for lack of funding. (Who’da thunk the 1970s enlightened altruism would lead into ensuing decades of capitalist self interest?)
As a teen ‘my’ bushland retreat was protected by the swale of land that had been set aside for the Janefield farm in its varying manifestations. Cattle were grazed, rabbits were a plenty and my mates and I stalked those fields and gullies for several years untroubled by the thought that one day it could possibly be devoured by urban sprawl.
As I look on the maps today, what was once a large green blob (Plenty gorge, Janefield etc…) now shows a network of walking trails, housing estates, man made lakes and light industrial / shopping precincts. But still I feel connected.
I bristle at the passing traffic of pedestrians, women in lycra sportwear talking on their phones, so many mountainbike riders that there appears to be a waiting list to get on some of the trails, people walking dogs, families taking their kids out for an hour of exercise during the covid lockdown. I bristle but I surrender. At least it is still here, at least they are in it? Maybe… just maybe, they will come to learn from this place and love it as I do.
I look at the stream of clear water flowing past the old Mill from Coulstocks Creek (Now known as University Hill Creek) and notice how clear it it is. I am aware that some kind of pond system has been created on University Hill. It’s a site that has been heavily developed. They must have been forced to manage storm water polution.
I bent over and turned a rock in the creek. Yabbies! snails, beetles! The water quality was better than I ever remember it! Could it be there is hope for this place? My mind returns to honoring this place and the people who loved it… are they separate? Are we always linked? Is there such thing as a resurrection? What would it look like? Who will it be?
While reading up on this topic I accessed information from whatever sources I could find, mostly online and in books, some word of mouth. I discovered that place names such as Bundoora, Yan Yean and Mernda were derived from the Woi wurrung language belonging to the Wurundjeri Willum people of this region. (Please correct me if I am wrong)
I see an opportunity, while I am here, in an enforced sedentary holding pattern. I have the perfect chance to slow down, walk again with bare feet on familiar ground, familiarize myself with a history I did not know, reflect on the changes that have occurred; and imagine what future may emerge.
Some references I looked to:
Springthorpe Heritage project: https://www.montparktospringthorpe.com/janefield-a-legacy-of-caring/
Finding Records website (Janefield Colony 1937-62; Training Centre 1962-96) https://www.findingrecords.dhhs.vic.gov.au/collectionresultspage/Janefield-Colony
WikiNorthia – Coulstocks Mill: https://wikinorthia.net.au/coulstocks-mill/
City of Whittlesea – Local Aboriginal History: https://www.whittlesea.vic.gov.au/about-us/our-city/local-aboriginal-history-wurundjeri-willum-people/
Victorian Collections – Eltham District Historic Societ: https://victoriancollections.net.au/items/58dc8b4bab02dd03943bd632
Melbourne the city past and present – Bundoora: https://www.emelbourne.net.au/biogs/EM00262b.htm
Edwards, Dianne Helen. (1979) The Diamond Valley story.