In fact, one of the Wathaurong's earliest contacts with a white settler was they believed, a supernatural encounter. As I have previously described, when they stumbled upon the escaped convict William Buckley, they believed him to be the ghost of a legendary warrior known as Murrangurk.
|Barwon Grange, Newtown|
Oral tradition has it that Barwon Grange has a female ghost who appears in a long gown. I am not sure who this apparition is supposed to be, but the weatherboard house was built in the Gothic villa style of the early Victorian era in 1855 for Johnathan Porter O'Brien - a wealthy, upper middle class banker, merchant and financier who, with his young family lived in the property for only a year before returning to England, selling off all the property's goods and chattels at auction upon their departure. Subsequently, the house underwent a string of changes in ownership including names such as Chadwick, Mercer, Buckland, Giblin, McCormick, Haimes and Elms before, being handed over to the National Trust in 1970 who undertook a restoration of the property to its original, 1855 decor. There do not appear to be any stories of murder or unnatural death associated with the house which might have given rise to the reports of a ghost sighting, so the at this point the identity of the lady in the long gown remains a mystery.
Along this section of the river are a number of historically significant homes which were built in the 19th century. Not far upstream is Barwon Bank, built in basalt in the Regency style between 1853 and 1856 for local solicitor John Alexander Gregory. It boasted 18 rooms and a large garden and was considered the finest home in Victoria in its day. I have not come across any suggestion at this point that the property might be haunted.
Further upriver at the bottom of Pakington Street is Sladen House. It was built between 1849 and 1850 for the solicitor and later Victorian Premier Charles Sladen. Substantial renovations were undertaken in 1863. The style of the house is Victorian Italianate and like Barwon Bank it is built in basalt. Unlike the former two houses, Sladen House was demolished in 1940 for its materials but then rebuilt according to its original detail at a later date. Again, no ghost stories seem to attend the property.
|Looking through the gates of Sladen House|
It is said that in recent years, the housekeeper reported seeing the ghost of a woman and on another occasion, it was said that the piano was heard to be playing of its own accord. Perhaps Mary Anne - who died in 1882 - or one of the younger Ibbotson women continues to walk through the rooms of this grand old home.
Opposite Barwon Grange on the Belmont side of the river, sits Kardinia House. The initial building was erected in a similar era to the other houses mentioned (1850-1855) by one of Geelong's earliest pioneers - Dr. Alexander Thomson. Thomson was medical officer for the Port Phillip Association as well as a leading churchman and politician. Kardinia house underwent extensive renovation over the years, with major additions made prior to 1869 and changes to the verandah in 1889. As it stands today, the exterior reflects further renovations carried out in 1890 by a local businessman H.F. Richardson, rendering the original facade unrecognisable.
|Kardinia House, Belmont|
Even further upriver, this time near the township of Winchelsea in August, 2009 there was significant media coverage of what was believed to be a photograph of a ghost taken during an evening ghost tour at Barwon Park. The 42 room, bluestone mansion plus stables was built by Thomas and Elizabeth Austin and completed in 1871, the year of Thomas' death.
By the end of his life, Barwon Park extended to some 29,000 acres and after his death Thomas' wife Elizabeth was credited with many charitable works, including the establishment of the Austin Hospital in Heidelberg and Austin Hall and Terraces, located in Yarra Street, South Geelong, only a few blocks from the river. This latter was erected as a home for "educated women in reduced circumstances" and has changed very little to the present day and maintains it's original function.
Barwon Park also remains much as it was in the Austins' day, but is now owned, like many of the properties mentioned, by the National Trust. As mentioned, in August, 2009 during a "ghost tour" of the stables, a photograph was taken which showed the image of a young woman in what appeared to be a low-cut, period dress - the ghost of Elizabeth Austin?
Well, probably not. Some few days after all the media hype, a young woman came forward claiming to be the face in the photo. This, along with other irregularities in the time stamp of the digital photo seem to have put paid to any ghostly claims, however it has been noted over the years, that a moving light can sometimes be seen coming from the window of the bedroom in which Elizabeth Austin died in 1901.
Finally, if we head back downriver as far as the present day Geelong suburb of St. Albans Park, we find the historic homestead of St. Albans, built in 1873 for renowned racehorse breeder and trainer James Wilson. The brick house consists of 30 rooms and was extended first in 1875 and then again three years later. The names of many famous racehorses were associated with the property during the 19th century and the early parts of the 20th century, including the great Phar Lap who was hidden on the property for three days prior to the 1930 Melbourne Cup after an attempt was made on the horse's life.
The property remains in private hands but has been opened to the public at some points. On one such occasion in 2003, the then owner remarked that whilst he had never seen a ghost in the house, he had noticed a number of unexplained occurrences such as mysteriously opening and closing doors. He also indicated that there were reported to be several ghosts associated with the property including a racehorse owner, a vanishing jockey and a lecherous ladies' man in the guest room. Exactly who these characters might be is not explained.
On balance then, it seems that there are a number of "ghosts" making themselves at home in the remnants of of 19th century architecture along the Barwon, however most are reported to be peacful apparitions and gruesome tales of murder and violent death seem to be largely absent. Perhaps, like many of us, these people from a bygone era so enjoyed their lives on the banks of the river that they are unwilling to leave.
No doubt there are many other ghost stories associated with the Barwon and its surrounds. These are just a few...