Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Making tracks - forging ahead

And so the journey continues...
After departing the somewhat dubious delights of the Golden Fleece, local knowledge suggests that those earliest, hopeful diggers made their way back across the Coolebarghurk Creek, following the track along the bank for a short distance before taking a westerly line through the site of today's Meredith Primary School.
Heading north along the track beside Coolebarghurk Creek 
From this point, the exact route of the track becomes a little less certain. After passing through the school, the 1943 description of the track by a local resident indicates that the track "continued up the old Lal Lal road through Mt Doran to Buninyong and Ballarat". But is there any remaining evidence to support this?
As usual I had a bit of a dig around and talked to a few locals with an interest in the history of Meredith and came up with some snippets which may give a few pointers. About the section from the school to Lal Lal Road, I could find nothing. The one available surveyed line running up Wallace St and into the Ballan-Meredith Rd did not show a track crossing it at any point, however this line was taken in July, 1858 by which time the new road had been established for several years. Perhaps the original track had already faded in what was fast becoming quite a populous area.
My next approach was to spend many hours pawing over the surveyors' field books covering the northern portion of the parish of Meredith. Whilst the areas covered seem to be a little hit-and-miss, I was very fortunate that the book for this section was both available and clearly written by surveyor Maurice Weston who criss-crossed the area in 1857.
After finally managing to establish the baseline position he worked from, I was then able to follow the lines he surveyed, marking them - and any notable features - on Google Earth. Fortunately, the surveyors were diligent about marking tracks when they crossed them, occasionally even providing some indication as to where the track lead. The end result was a series of points which when plotted, yielded a number of lines radiating northwards from town.
The above image shows the approximate line of the tracks leaving Meredith
marked on Google Earth. Click to enlarge
The most easterly followed the line of Slate Quarry Road with the already-surveyed Ballan-Meredith Rd also marked. Slightly to the west of the road but heading in much the same direction was an old track - presumably the precursor to the surveyed road just mentioned. Next was a line which for the most part followed the current path of Lal Lal Rd; a possible candidate, if the 1943 source is to be taken at face value, for the continuation of the track to the goldfields.
There was however, one further track which emerged. This was more westerly than all the others and may either have branched off from the track to Lal Lal just north of the town boundary or may even have left town at today's Creamery Rd, near the site of what was the Free Presbyterian Church as a track was also marked at this point. This path to the west looks to have followed a similar line to the Midland Highway but at a distance of a few hundred metres to the east of that road and roughly following the eastern bank of Coolebarghurk Creek. Tantalisingly, one of the points along the track was marked "Old Main Road".
 Before jumping straight to conclusions however, it is perhaps worth noting that the - admittedly vague - map produced by surveyor A.J. Skene in 1845, shows the line of track passing through the future site of Meredith and exiting via a path remarkably similar to the first 2 km of the track following the Lal Lal Rd. On the face of it, this would seem to support the above statement that the track continued up the "old Lal Lal Road to Mt Doran". I always thought however, that this seemed a somewhat odd path to follow for travellers intent on reaching Mt Buninyong as it would extend the journey by several kilometres. I did find a possible explanation for this, but that belongs in a future post.
Finally, there is a locally held belief that there was a blacksmith's shop on the old track out of town. Sources would have it that the smithy was on the south west corner of Gargan's and Griffith's Road. As the map above shows, the track to the west, likely passed right by this corner. But who was this smith and is there any evidence to support the theory?
A search of the newspapers of the day gave surprisingly little information. The earliest reference I could find - by implication - to a blacksmith in Meredith was an 1856 advertisement for a forge at the Victoria Hotel, Lethbridge which claimed to be the only forge between Batesford and Meredith.
The first blacksmith in Meredith it was said by an early resident, was Michael Ward and it wasn't hard to find reference to him. Ward was amongst the first to own land in the district and in 1853 when the earliest land sales occurred in the parish of Meredith, he purchased a half acre block in town which ran between Lawler and Russell Streets. In addition to this and other purchases in town, Michael and his son Joseph, went on to amass a significant estate immediately to the north of Griffith's Rd - directly opposite the purported site of the forge.
Looking east across the banks of Coolebarghurk Creek at "Chestervale" to the
left of Griffith's Rd. The site believed to be the blacksmith's is on the opposite
side of the road, to the right
They most likely purchased the first of this land as early as 1853. The block on the south west corner (allotment 125) on the other hand, was purchased by Mr T. Connor and does not appear to have belonged to the Wards. It is interesting to note however, that a triangular section of about half an acre along the northern boundary of this block, facing Griffith's Road was excluded from Connor's allotment, instead forming part of the road reserve. This is shown on the survey maps and even today, the line of the excluded section is still clearly visible from above via Google Earth. Is it possible therefore that Ward's forge was located on government land adjoining his property?
Maybe. I do know that, by the late 1880s the Wards had purchased about 2,500 acres of land which stretched from the newly made Geelong-Ballarat Rd all the way to the Moorabool River. They named their property "Chestervale".
A Google Earth view overlaid with the 1982 survey map of the Parish of Meredith
showing the tracks (green) marked in the above map in relation to the four blocks
of Chestervale land (red), sold in 1892. Click to enlarge
I can find no direct reference to Michael operating a forge at Chestervale nor to one located nearby, but in 1853 his occupation was stated as blacksmith. By 1879, as the Wards continued to purchase land, Michael was still plying his trade as a blacksmith. When a neighbour applied to have a section of road closed, he was quick to inform the Meredith Shire Council via a petition of several ratepayers and his own statement that any alteration to the road would "ruin him as it would take the traffic away from his shop."
In today's terms, the section of road in question is Griffith's Rd between the Lal Lal and the Ballan-Meredith Roads. Chestervale was of course less than a mile to the west on Griffith's Rd. It is here then one imagines, that Michael Ward operated his blacksmith's shop, although whether on his own purchased land north of the road or perhaps on the triangle of crown land on the south west corner of Griffith's and Gargan's Roads remains a mystery.
In addition to these activities, the Wards also ran various other businesses over the years, including a hotel (known simply as Ward's Hotel) during the 1860s, a store (originally Gosling's Hotel) which burnt down in 1875 and sale yards in the township. In 1890, father and son went into business as stock, station and general commission agents, operating initially they said from their offices in Meredith where they had been since 1853.
The venture was short-lived however, as they were forced into voluntary insolvency only two years later, at which time Chestervale was broken up and auctioned off. Undeterred by this setback, by the mid 1890s Joseph was running a coach service for Cobb & Co. between Meredith and Steiglitz and also dabbled in speculative mining ventures. His father Michael, if indeed he ever ceased, returned to his work as a blacksmith. Upon his sudden death in 1905 at the age of 90, it was reported that he collapsed at his home in Staughton St, where he had just finished shoeing a horse.
Establishment believed to be Ward's. Image courtesy of the Meredith History
Interest Group's collection
So, whilst I cannot at this stage, definitely prove that Michael Ward or anyone else kept a blacksmith's shop at the south west corner of Gargan's and Griffith's Roads, I do know that Michael was a blacksmith as early as 1853 and owned the original three blocks of Chestervale land probably from 1853. Both dates are a little late for the beginning of the gold rush, however the new road was not completed until around 1856, so perhaps Ward did purchase his land for its location on the old track, in order to capture passing trade. The re-routing of the road can not have been too detrimental to business however, as he was still at Chestervale and running his business from or very near his home during the 1870s.
On a final note, by the time of his death in 1905, Michael was operating his shop from Staughton St in town. It would, I think, be safe to assume that whatever blacksmith's shop he did operate from or near Chestervale, was sold in 1892 along with the rest of the estate. By that time, the new road through Meredith had been established for more than 35 years and the land through which the old bullock track passed, had long ago been snapped up by settlers eager to own a piece of what during the 1850s, was shaping up to become one of Victoria's most important towns.