From Mount Hesse to
the Wimmera

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Life at Corack East.

At Mount Hesse

corio bay from barracool

Mount Hesse was actually a low-lying hill located some eight miles due west of Geelong and near where the town of Winchelsea is today. It was named after the Vandemonian barrister George Brooks Legrew Hesse who, together with his friend Joseph Tice Gellibrand, disappeared in the area in 1837 while on a trip of exploration from Point Henry to Corio Bay. The land surrounding the Mount was then a windswept and largely grassy plain with a few spindly honeysuckle and acacia trees clustered near the hill's summit. The verdure was mainly kangaroo grass, growing in clumps between the honeycombed rocks that dotted the landscape, with silver tussock covering the lower-lying and, in the winter months, swampy creek beds. Considered ideal for grazing sheep, the area was first leased for this purpose by John Highett in the same year Hesse and his colleague went missing. In around 1842 the lease to Highett's 67,000-acre run was transferred to William Harding who 'afterwards got rather deeply involved in the books' of the Geelong merchant William Timms (George Russell cited in Brown: 1935: 219). Timms took over the lease and, in December 1853, divided the property into the Mount Hesse and the Mount Hesse No 1 stations.

William Free was probably employed as a shepherd on the Mount Hesse No 1 run. On arrival he would have been allocated a flock of sheep which had to be grazed on the plain each day from sunrise to sunset. They would then be herded back to a watch keeper's hut and enclosed for the night behind some stone walls and brush folds. watchkeepers hutThroughout the day William and his fellow shepherds had to remain vigilant in order to prevent their sheep being taken by natives or wild dogs, or from straying and joining up with flocks from other properties. The long hours and monotonous duties involved were such that, as one contemporary reflected, 'Contemplation, with her musing sister Melancholy, might find an undisturbed retreat' (James Tuckey, cited in Shaw; 2003: 13). This was especially so for William who would have still been grieving over the loss of Louisa and young John, and had each day the added burden of caring for his sole remaining child. Since she was then only five years old, it is likely that Rebecca would not have accompanied her father on his daily treks but would have been left either by herself or in the care of the hutkeeper. Such a situation was clearly unsatisfactory for all concerned and would have added to William's inclination to re-marry as quickly as possible. Finding a wife would not only provide a mother for his daughter and a companion for himself, but someone who could also work as a hut keeper and so add to the family's income.

William chose as his new wife Eliza Flavell, who was working as a domestic servant on a nearby property at Burnt Ridge. Eliza was barely sixteen years old. Like William she came from Cambridgeshire. Indeed her home village of Landbeach was only a few miles from William's own birthplace of Haslingfield, so it is conceivable the two families either knew or knew of each other. Click here to read about Eliza's family and English origins. Eliza Flavell's youthfulness and slight size belied a strong-willed and determined nature, the legacy perhaps of having, with her parents and siblings, to live and work in the Chesterton Union work house (pictured on the right in 2001) for a number of years before the family emigrated from Plymouth to Geelong in 1855. chesterton work houseThe work house was one of hundreds of such institutions built across England following the introduction in 1834 of Lord Melbourne's New Poor Laws. Often run by former soldiers of the Crown, these austere institutions were the embodiment of the stony face of Victorian evangelism. Husbands were separated from their wives and children from their parents. All were made wear rough workhouse uniforms that distinguished them from the general population. Women who had borne an illegitimate child were further discriminated against by having to wear a yellow stripe of shame across their workhouse gowns. The work done in return for the inmates' keep was hard and demeaning and the food pitifully deficient. Britain's under-classes hated, and feared, the prospect of being incarcerated in such places not least because those who died there were buried, with little ceremony or sanctity, in unmarked paupers' graves. Many of the well-to-do in Victorian England, by contrast, saw nothing wrong in such treatment. Their views were encapsulated by the reverend H. H. Milman who preached that the work house should be a place 'of hardship, of course fare; it should be administered with strictness - with severity; it should be as repulsive as is consistent with humanity' (cited in Wilson, 2003: 12).

Eliza's father, William Flavell, was contracted to work as a labourer on Charles L. Swanston's station near Inverleigh. The lease for the original station, known as the Weatherboard, had been taken up in 1837 by Swanston's father, the Hobart banker Charles Swanston, on behalf of his Tasmanian-based Derwent Company. It was leased from 1843 until 1854 by the Mercer brothers and then by William Harding who divided the run into a Number 1 and Number 2 properties. These were taken over in May 1855 by Charles L. Swanston who sold the Number 2 run to a William Berthon. The Number 1 property became known as 'Englewood'. Living conditions for most of the property's workers were very primitive which may have been responsible for the typhoid fever that killed William Flavell, then aged 58 years, on 28 July 1863. His wife Maria remained in the district until 1879 when she went to live with one of her sons who had pioneered land near Wickliffe in central Victoria. In 1897 Maria went to live with her eldest daughter Eliza Bruce (formally Free) at Watchem where she died on 27 November1907, aged 99 years.

st thomas church William and Eliza were married after banns in the St Thomas Anglican Church at Winchelsea on 26 May 1856. The wedding was conducted by the Reverend Edward Tanner and was witnessed by John Batyre and Catherine Calder. The marriage certificate records that William was 26 years old and Eliza was 18. William's 'usual residence' was Mount Hesse and Eliza's Lower Lee. Both signed the certificate with a 'mark' or cross. After the wedding the couple, together with William's daughter Rebecca, probably lived in one of the shepherd's huts on Timms' run at Mount Hesse. Constructed out of the honeycomb rocks that were scattered across the area, the huts comprised a single room - measuring some 15 feet by 13 feet - with walls just over 6 feet high and a roof made of wooden shingles (Kininmouth; 1987: 10). Their first child, John, was born at Mount Hesse in 1857 followed, in regular succession, by three further boys: William (1858-1860), William (1860) and Samuel (1861). In 1862 the lease to the Mount Hesse No 1 run was cancelled and the property's shepherds dispensed with. The family went to live in the nearby hamlet of Teesdale where William worked as a labourer and butcher and he and Eliza's first daughter, Phoebe Ann Free, was born. They then moved to Raglan, a small town a few kilometres north of Beaufort. William was employed as a shepherd on the Eurambeen station at Mount Cole near Carngham. It was here that one of their twin sons, Alexander, died at the age of 13 weeks and was buried at the Buangor cemetery.

During this time William's first daughter, Rebecca Louise Free married George Collett at Beaufort in 1875. George, the son of John Collett and Elizabeth Ives, had been born in Tasmania in around 1838. According to one of his and Rebecca's descendants, Glenice Bayliss, George's mother was a free settler who married three times, first to John Collett, then to William Sawyer and finally to George Potter. 'John Collett and William Sawyer were convicts from England, they were both convicted together of the same crime. It would appear that Elizabeth was having children to both men while still married to the first - John Collett - he was not stable in the mind and was released into the care of his wife twice'.

George sailed from Hobart to Port Philip in 1851 and worked in Victoria as a woodsplitter, miner and carter. Rebecca Collett (nee Free) had one child, Frederick Free before she was married and nine with George between 1876 and 1890. These were born in such places as Buangor, Charlton, Mount Korong, Avoca and Bealiba (where they seemed to have settled). Rebecca died and was buried in the adjoining township of Dunolly in 1891, possibly from complications arising from the birth of her last child, Samuel Job Collett in Bealiba the previous year. George died in Bealiba from cancer five years later. He was just 57 years old.

Into the Wimmera

During this time, too, William Free, like many of his working class compatriots had begun looking for new farming land on which he and his family could settle. Their quest to become rural landholders had been made possible by the 1869 and subsequent Land Acts which broke the control the squatters had earlier yielded over land beyond at least Victoria's Western and Central districts, and opened the way for working people to settle on land in the eastern and northern reaches of the colony.

These included the heavily wooded regions of Gipps' Land and the semi-arid plains of Victoria's Wimmera district - stretching westward from the Avoca River and Lalbert Creek and bounded in the south by the Grampians and in the north by the Murray River. The latter area was first traversed by the British explorer Thomas Mitchell and his party in the winter of 1836. As evidenced by the deep tracks made in the soil by their boat-laden wagons, Mitchell's party went through the area in the wake of unseasonable rains, when the rivers and creeks were full and fast-flowing and the grasses were green and lush. 'The richness of the soil and the verdure near the river as well as the natural beauty of the scenery', Mitchell wrote in his diary on reaching the banks of the Wimmera River in July 1836, 'could scarcely be surpassed in any country (Mitchell, 1839: 183).

wimmera river 1845

Wimmera River c1845

Mitchell's assessment of the region was an unduly rosy one, influenced both by the weather conditions prevailing at the time of his journey and a tendency to see the Australian landscape through European eyes. As the squatters who moved into the area eight years later discovered, the reality was that both the grazing and farming potential of the Wimmera varied enormously across its scrubby plains, as did the weather and the supply of water especially beyond the major rivers. In time the Wimmera would, as Thomas Mitchell forecast, become part of Australia's wheat belt but there would need to be a good deal of hard work, experimentation and good fortune before this would be so.

Because the land was relatively poor, and improvements to it expensive, few of the Wimmera's original squatters took advantage of the provisions of the early land acts to purchase large tracts of land. Their runs therefore were much more susceptible to the pressures of selection and, as a consequence, by 1880 only 23 of the region's original 69 runs remained in operation. The leases to many of these, furthermore, were no longer owned by individual squatters and their families but by banks or pastoral companies. Although the act providing for land selection before survey in Victoria came into effect in February 1870, the number of people choosing land in the Wimmera remained small until the mid-1870s. By then word had spread, via separate surveys by Victoria's Surveyor-General and Inspector of Crown Lands, of the district's plentiful land, abundant wheat crops, and apparently bountiful soils. The reports neglected to note that the high wheat yields were due, in part, to unseasonable rainfalls and, in part, to the fact that the first settlers, like the squatters before them, had been able to choose the best of the available land. When the normally dry weather conditions returned in 1876, those who had settled in semi-arid areas well removed from permanent water supplies would struggle unless they could find means of increasing either their capital or their land holdings.

But these were matters for the future and, while the good conditions continued, large numbers of new selectors travelled in their wagons and drays into the area. They included established farmers from South Australia and Victoria's Western District as well as miners, mechanics and other artisans who used the capital obtained from selling their small goldfield allotments to settle on larger and, hopefully, more viable farms in the newly opened 'wastelands' (as Crown land was then labelled). By the end of the decade most of the land made available to the east of the Wimmera River had been taken up and new selectors were pushing further northward and westward. These included William Free who, like hundreds of other hopefuls, had travelled into the new areas, pegged out a claim, submitted their applications and survey money to the Land Office at St Arnaud, and then waited, sometimes for months, until they were issued with a licence of occupation.

William's licence was issued in July 1878 for a stretch of land at a place called Corack East, close to Lake Buloke and midway between the bush towns of Donald, Charlton and Birchip. We don't know whether William went first to Corack and his family followed him afterwards, or whether he and Eliza simply loaded all their tools, kitchen utensils, furniture, bedding, clothes and children onto a wagon and set off for their new life. In either case the journey was a relatively long one along rough bush tracks, where they existed, and through pristine forests of gum and mallee trees. It is possible they may have travelled with other family members or people from the same neighbourhood, crawling along in small, creaking convoys of wagons and drays, their sheep and other animals spread out before them. It is more likely they travelled alone, camping out on the way, and adjusting to the cries of the wild dogs and other animals that prowled about them during the inky-black nights.

Click here to read about William and Eliza's life and times at Corack East.

on the road

Image sources
'Corio Bay from the barracool Hills, 1847'. Tinted lithograph by John Skinner Prout (1805-1876). National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6940168.
'Shepherd's Watchbox, Villamanatta, 1854'. Sketch by Emma von Steiglitz. From Margaret Kiddle, Men of Yesteryear: A Social History of the Western District of Victoria, 1834-1890 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1961), facing p. 63,
'Chesterton Union Workhouse, 2001'. Photograph by Peter Higginbotham from his The Workhouse website.
'St Thomas Anglican Church Winchelsea'. Photo by John T. Collins, 1980. State Library of Victoria, Image No. jc017800.
'River Wimmera, c1845'. Sepia wash by Duncan Cooper (1813-1904). National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2686132.

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