04 June, 2011

"...landlord to a ghost..."

Ghosts it seems, have a long association with the Barwon and its surrounds. From the very earliest times, the local indigenous Wathaurong tribes believed in ghosts. The Moorabool River which flows into the Barwon at Fyansford is named for the ghosts which the Wathaurong people believed haunted a large billabong which lay on the river. Moora means ghost in the local dialect. Another local legend suggests that the call of the Curlew - probably the Bush Stone-curlew - was thought to be the voices of ghosts in the night. The Bush Stone-curlew is a nocturnal bird, more often heard than seen. Its long, drawn out "eeeeooooooo" call, especially when coming from multiple birds would be quite eerie and not a little dissimilar to the long drawn out wail of the Currawong which the newly arrived white settlers also believed was the call of ghosts.
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
With the arrival of European settlers in the area, further tales and traditions of ghostly encounters arose. Not surprisingly, where you have old houses, you tend also to have ghost stories and several of the stately homes upon the Barwon lay claim to ghosts.
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.
Barwon Bank

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
The same can not be said however, for The Heights. One of Geelong's best known historic homesteads, the Heights sits on the corner of Aphrasia and Ruthven Streets at the top of "Joey's Hill" in Newtown overlooking the River. Built in 1855, it consists of 14 rooms and is a pre-fabricated timber house of German origin. The original bluestone stables, built soon after the house was erected, can be seen from the road as you rise from the valley. The house was built for Charles and Mary Anne Ibbotson and their family who occupied it for three succesive generations until 1975 when the National Trust took control of the property. It underwent significant modernization in the 1930s. Like many of Geelong's leading figures of that era, Ibbotson was a pastoralist and woolbroker and fulfilled many other public roles.
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
In more recent times, Kardinia House was used as a children's home by the Salvation Army and is now used by Karingal Disability Services to provide an aged care facility. A local resident who lived in the house as the child of staff members describes waking during the night to see an old woman wrapped in a shawl, knitting at the foot of their bed. As they cowered under the covers, the apparition reached out to touch them and then was gone. The same person recalled that there were a number of occasions on which ghostly apparitions were seen in Kardinia House, appearing to the children who lived there and often not seeming as benign as the knitting lady. On one further occasion, the kitchen cupboards were for some unexplained reason emptied of their contents, tipping them all over the room.
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.
Barwon Park
Born in England, he arrived in the Port Phillip District from Tasmania in 1837 with his brother James and took up land at Winchelsea. Thomas is credited with the very dubious honour of introducing rabbits to Australia in 1859, but was also a noted pastoralist and horse breeder. He also claimed to have introduced hares, blackbirds, thrushes and partridges.
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 1910.
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...


  1. I enjoyed this very much.
    My grandmother Laura Bowler owned Barwon Grange from 1906 to 1936. My father said she did not want to leave but family had grown and left so she was talked into selling. The next owner Mark Spowart even offered to let her stay. She died in Nov 1836.
    There has never been any talk in our family of a ghost being at Barwon Grange. My father who was one of 5 boys grew up there and had very happy memories.
    Maybe Laura has gone back for a visit as she loved the home so much.

  2. What a great story! Thanks for your comments. I have never heard any suggestion as to who the ghost is, but there have definitely been reports. It would be great to think it was Laura. My mother was the gardener at Barwon Grange during the mid 1980s and I believe heard the story then. I spent quite a bit of time at Barwon Grange during school holidays while Mum was working. I've been through the house a few times too, most recently earlier this year with one of the staff from the Heights where Mum now volunteers.
    There was no sign of the ghost...

  3. I was at Barwon Grange in 1963 with my parents and met Mt. Spowat who gave my father a small photo album that belonged to the Bowler family. It was surprising he had kept it all those years. He said he was like Laura in that all his family had grown and left and he was now alone there.
    We did not go into the house but could look through the windows. My father pointed out a big photo of a dog above the mantelpiece. It was a photo of one of the Bowler dogs that was left and was still on the wall. While we were there my father told me about what his brothers got up to while they were growing up there. It was a bit sad for my father as the grounds were very overgrown then.
    I went again in 2009 with my family and brought copies of old photos we have of Barwon Grange.
    It is nice to see it so well looked after now.
    Your mother would have had a huge job to try to bring order to the grounds. She must be happy with the improvement she was able to make.

  4. Hi Anon

    My wife is related to the Bowlers
    I would like to make contact if I could




  5. Had a good laugh once i got to the bit about the 'ghost' of Barwon Park. I was High School friends with her!!!

    I remember when it all unfolded originally seeing the picture on the news and just laughing for ages about recognising the ghost! Thanks for reminding me of that :)

  6. I stayed with my Grandfather William Spowart in the 60s as a youth during school holidays.
    I vividly remember taking the long walk into in the 'river' facing rooms with a kero lamp where l slept (no electrity in the river rooms)..l was scared witless with the wind in the pine trees and the bumps in the night...SO pleased l knew nothing of a ghost as a 10yo.

    Robert Spowart

  7. Hi Phil
    I did send an email and Bowler info to you today 9 Jan 2018
    I have not seen your post bere now

  8. My ancestor William Corbett was a game keeper at Barwon Park. He died there on 26 October 1866. We can probably blame him (in part) for the introduction of the rabbit to Australia.

  9. Hello, I live right across the road of the St. Albans homestead and I believe that it’s haunted, my mother when she was younger had a friend who she would play with and she said that in the house it was very creepy and she told me about a murder that Occurred, I’m pretty sure she said that one of the maids got murdered. Anyways I’ve been search all over the web for some more history on this mysterious mansion, if anyone has anymore interesting information or history please please PLEASE contact me!! I really wanna know