17 May, 2013

"The best fertilizer is the gardener's shadow"

As is often the case in the course of researching a post for my blog, I sometimes come across a snippet of information which provides a clue as to what my next post might be. This was the case with the current topic.
As I scoured the contents of the 19th century newspapers on Trove, looking for details of River(s)dale and Captain Foster Fyans (hopefully more of which later...), I came across an article from The Argus of 8th December, 1866 which described some of the industry springing up along the banks of the Barwon at "Marnoch Vale" (aka Marnockvale) and downstream towards the township of Geelong.
Not surprisingly there were tanneries, flour mills, a woollen mill and even a ropeworks. The Riversdale Windmill was described as being to the left of the bridge leading to the Barrabools (Princes Bridge) with Captain Fyan's house to the right, but another thriving business was also listed which until now I hadn't seen mentioned - a Chinese market-garden.
A little searching around and I discovered that the Malay Immigration Society of Geelong were responsible for the arrival of a ship in 1848 carrying Chinese immigrant labourers to work for squatters in the district. Others arrived with the gold rush, before drifting into market-gardening when when it proved a more reliable source of income.
The Chinese were renowned as hard workers, establishing themselves on the outskirts of town and along the Barwon between Marnockvale and Breakwater. One garden was located below the Roadknight property on the river flats and in 1902 a snippet in The Argus mentions an assault on a Chinese man at a market garden in South Geelong. Much later, The Argus of 11th March, 1935 indicated that the home of a Chinese market-gardener at Breakwater was burnt to the ground as it was located outside the jurisdiction of the Geelong Fire Brigade.
Closer to town, one of the earliest market gardens was established on the river flats at Marnockvale between the West Melbourne Road (Marnock Road) and Rocky Point. The publication "The Earlier Days of Newtown and Chilwell" compiled by Charles S. Walker in 1958 describes some of the gardens in the area. The Chinese at Marnockvale would sell their vegetables either from their door or by pushing their wares in handcarts to the populated areas of Newtown and Chilwell and in town each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. The intervening days were spent cultivating, harvesting and preparing their vegetables for sale.
Handcart similar to those used by Chinese market-gardeners in 19th century
Geelong. Photo taken from the English-based Scale Model Horse Drawn
Vehicle Forum
The Argus of 8th December, 1866 describes the garden at Marnockvale thus:
The Chinese novelty...is chiefly remarkable for lack of beauty. Than its rickety make-shift surroundings, it would, perhaps, be difficult to find anything more distasteful to the eye or unattractive to the imagination; yet the Chinese garden is a feature in the district of much practical significance, and it stands as a reproach to the much-vaunted intelligence of the Anglo-Saxon, who, unable to detect a flaw in his own national character, can see only the beam in the eye of the children of Confucius.
Ah-Sam, who represents himself to be the head-man, has six acres under garden cultivation, for which he pays 14 a year. The land, formed of two slopes, north and sough, runs parallel with the river, and in the centre, on top of the rise, and at about fifty feet from the Barwon, there is a Californian pump, worked by three men by treddle motion. In a comparatively short time, sufficient water can be pumped up to flood the whole six acres; but, with an eye to economising labour in seasons when so much moisture is unnecessary, Ah Sam has constructed slabbed pits at every few yards along the various paths, and the water, as it flows from the shoot, passes along the different channels, and fills these pits before it can overflow the ground generally. At the present season all the ground is watered by hand - two stalwart Chinese filling large watering-pots at the pits, and with one in each hand sprinkling two vegetable beds simultaneously. All the young plants are mulched with long grass, and in some places a temporary paling roof is erected over the beds, to protect the more tender plants from the scorching rays of the sun during their early growth. "Next month," observed Ah Sam, "no rain; then (pointing to the river) give plenty water all over. Now plenty cabbage make no much money. Next two months make 14, 15 perhaps 20 a week." The ground appears to be manured chiefly with horse-dung. The land is anything but of good quality but the garden, which contains all kinds of kitchen vegetables, is beautifully kept, and the produce generally looks well. Besides Ah Sam, who appears to do the work of two men, and plies his feet vigorously at the pump, there are three Chinese labourers generally at work.
A second article from the Geelong Advertiser of the same year likewise describes the system of pits and channels used for watering and drainage, remarking in typically patronising fashion that "The affair is simple and efficacious; there is no pretence to engineering about the matter. No particular notice is taken of delicate gradients, and possibly no theory of gravitation ever disturbed the ideas of the projectors."
 As to the tools used by the Chinese in their work it was remarked that one  [man] was "...recreating with a sort of Armageddon-looking rake, with teeth of satanic length..."
A Chinese harrow (image from the Museum of the Riverina) which may have been similar to the tool described
The journalist also seems surprised by the Chinese knowledge of manuring to improve the soil and goes on to suggest that the European settlers would do well to follow their example stating that "It is not complementary to see Chinamen setting us an example, but as the example is a good one, it ought to be followed".
Then, in an almost prescient echo of modern concerns it points out that a thriving local market-gardening industry on the banks of the Barwon and Moorabool Rivers would reduce the reliance upon food grown in other areas of the colony.

Looking across the original Prince Albert Bridge towards West Melbourne
Road, c1860-1879. Scouring works are visible but not the market gardens
Such was the Anglo-centric view of Chinese industry in the early years of settlement at Geelong but whilst the temporary nature of their buildings may not have appealed to the European eye, there can be no doubting their perseverance. In October, 1867 a serious flood raised the Barwon to such an extent that much of the land from Geelong to Barwon Heads was said to be underwater.
Approximately the same view as the above photo as it appears today
The tanneries and wool scours at Breakwater suffered badly, with significant property damage and loss of stock, particularly to those on the south bank of the river. Captain Fyans was forced on to higher ground and an auctioneer living at the bottom of Yarra Street had to remove his family to safety by boat when his house was inundated. Ah Sam and his colleagues were not immune either, with the Gippsland Times of 3rd October stating that:
The Chinese gardeners at Marnock Vale had a very narrow escape of their lives, the water having risen 6ft in a very short time; as it was, they had to wade 200 yards with the water nearly up to their neck.
In his history of Newtown and Chilwell, Charles S. Walker indicates that there was a two-storey hut on the Marnockvale garden, intended to provide protection against high water levels, he states however, that it washed away the first time the river flooded - perhaps during the 1867 event described. The effect on the crops and loss of income must also have been significant.
In addition to the flood of 1867, high water levels were also recorded in 1870, 1893 and 1894 whilst one of the largest floods to hit the Barwon since European settlement was recorded in 1880. This is no doubt in addition to numerous minor flooding events which did not cause significant damage to buildings and infrastructure, but which would still have had a devastating effect on Ah Sam's vegetables.
Looking north west between Rock Point (right) and Marnock Road (left)
with the chimney of the Phoenix Wool Scour in the background
However, Ah Sam and his family were nothing if not resilient. Whilst there is a burial recorded at the Eastern Cemetery for the 14th March, 1903 (I am assuming this to be the same person), his garden lived on. In 1904 The Argus reported two local boys caught stealing peas were handed over to police after trying to escape by jumping into the river, then in 1930 Mr Ah Chee (presumably a relative), was fined for tampering with three water meters on his property.
Whilst there is nothing in the media to indicate exactly how long the garden remained at Marnockvale (or even if it was the only one), by the mid 1930s the number of Chinese-operated market-gardens began to decline significantly, so it is likely that Ah Sam's garden was also consigned to history.


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  2. Well researched love the article .Years ago noticed silverbeet growing around that area and wondered if they are self seedings from way back when,must check again. I can remember market garden where kmart now stands.cheers keep up the good work.