17 November, 2012

The Willows

As promised, in this post I intend to pinpoint as closely as possible the location of the camping spot on the Barwon known as The Willows which was so beloved of Geelong Grammar in the 19th century as well as being popular with both the wider community and Grammar's long-time rival, Geelong College.
Part of the problem with trying to locate the spot was simply the extensive number of willows which were planted along the banks of the river during the 19th and early 20th centuries. And these weren't just incidental plantings by individuals but rather, were introduced as part of civic beautification programs and - ironically - to control bank erosion across an extended time period.

Willow on the river bank below Barwon Grange
By the 1930s however, there were problems in some parts of the river and money was being provided by the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission to clear the willows from the upper reaches of the Barwon where they were clogging the flow. By contrast, downstream at Geelong and beyond, willows were still being planted. On 19th February, 1934 the Geelong Advertiser reported that recent plantings of willow had taken well and were now 6 ft high.  Then again, articles such as The Tragedy of the Barwon which appeared in The Argus of 14th May, 1949 highlighted the problem with willows.
But in the latter half of the 19th century when the boys from Grammar and College were honing their rowing skills on the lower reaches of the Barwon or whiling away their weekends around a campfire under the drooping branches, there was little concept of the problems ahead.
All of this meant that pinning down the precise location of a campsite simply known as The Willows was not exactly an easy process, but here is what I found:
The publication Light Blue Down Under: The History of Geelong Grammar School by Weston Bate made the following statement:

On the river their favourite breakfast place was The Willows, 8 kilometres downstream past the Barwon Breakwater, called simply 'the break'.

Willows and other exotic plantings immediately below the breakwater and the
 remnant chimney belonging to the "Willows" fellmongery of Dan Fowler
The Illustrated Heritage Guide to the Geelong College noted that:

The Willows was the name of a popular picnicking location on the Barwon River six miles downriver from the boat shed.

A little plotting using Google Earth showed me that - assuming the course of the river has not changed significantly in the intervening years - the two distances mentioned are only a few hundred metres apart...in the middle of Reedy Lake. Possible perhaps as there seem to be some areas not completely waterlogged, but unlikely as this was a publicly accessible picnic ground.
By contrast, many of the indirect references I located, pointed to the site being on the north bank of the river near Wilsons or Coppards Road, perhaps on the bend which is located between the two. My reasoning in thinking this was firstly, the place names mentioned in the poem Anabasis of the Alice by James Lister Cuthbertson which I mentioned in a previous post and I quote:

No check, no stay at The Willows
That redden in tender bloom,
But forward - and St Albans
Fades in the river gloom;
The crew in the poem are rowing from Barwon Heads to the school boat shed in town. An earlier part of the poem sees them enter Reedy Lake and then race another crew before rowing past The Willows and then 'St Albans', the stud built in 1873 for James Wilson, the famous racehorse trainer. His poem "Easy All" refers to cows grazing in nearby fields and "A Lament For The Willows" declaims:

No more do the thoroughbreds cluster
And stand in the cool of the shade,
To dream of the Flemington muster...
'St Albans' Homestead from Boundary Road
This surely refers to the bloodstock at St Albans Stud and is consistent with the following passage from the Church of England Grammar School Geelong History and register 1907 which states:

From Goat Island to the Willows the river is at its broadest and best; indeed, half-a-dozen eights could row abreast on the magnificent Long Reach, with its willow bordered shore....But what need of words: the Willows are the Willows, and for ever enshrined in the hearts of all true Grammar School Boys, who, one and all, feel to the successive proprietors of St Albans a deep debt of gratitude for allowing them, in Bean Lean's language "wood and water".

View downriver from the end of Boundary Road
Next, I found a newspaper report from September, 1903 detailing the accidental drowning of an 8 year old boy - incidentally a student at Geelong Grammar - who was on a boating excursion with the school at The Willows. The article refers to the event having occurred near the Geelong Racecourse which at that time as GC Magazine noted and I quoted in my previous post was:

on Barwon River flats off Tannery Road on the opposite banks to the end of Wilsons Road.

So, The Willows was on St Albans land near the Geelong Racecourse and I figured that "the magnificent Long Reach" between Goat Island (the small island over which the aqueduct passes) and The Willows was the broad, straight stretch of the river extending from somewhere downstream of Boundary Road to a bend about halfway between Wilsons and Coppards Road.
Looking up the "Long Reach" from Wilsons Road
Then, finally,  on the History of Australian Rowing website, I stumbled across an online version of Karen Threlfall's Fair Play and Hard Rowing: A History of The Barwon Rowing Club 1870-1990. On pages 3 and 4 of Chapter 4 is an extended description of a rowing excursion to Barwon Heads written (of course) by Cuthbertson. In it, is the following passage:

...and soon running beyond Goat Island and the bend, which leads to the Long Reach. At this point the river is wide enough to row six eights abreast and for a mile and a quarter runs quite straight. The view from off the Australian tannery is very fine, right ahead lies the long stretch of bright blue water, terminating in picturesque clumps of withered yellow reeds, crowned with the pale green lines of the willows, which are now in the glory of their spring foliage. Coming down to the end of the reach, the boat travels opposite the side of Mr Crozier's splendidly grassed paddocks, which are here bordered for half a mile by willows. We run our boat up the cutting, at the end of the paddock, and get out for breakfast at the spot which is so well known and liked by Grammar School boys. We collect large bundles of dried lignum branches, boil our billy, cook our chops, and make coffee of a most satisfactory description. Could anyone wish for a better camp?

Now, it didn't take long to ascertain that "Mr Crozier" was John Crozier, owner of 'St Albans' subsequent to James Wilson. Well that fitted.  A few more quick measurements on Google Earth and I came up with a location which was at the bottom of Coppards Road almost exactly where I guessed from Cuthy's poems and some of the other sources.
Probable location of The Willows. Click to enlarge
Well, that solved that problem. I still have no explanation for the two sources suggesting that the site was some 2 to 3km further downstream in Reedy Lake, but am reasonably confident that I now have the right spot. The next problem however, is taking some photos. I know that Coppards Road runs into the lake, about 1km short of the river channel. I don't currently have a kayak, so an on river approach isn't appealing, which leaves a stroll of just over 1.5km across private land...
I'll keep you posted...

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