30 October, 2014

Branching out - pushing the boundaries

...and so the Leigh Grand Junction Bridge was built. It was a joint effort - as described in my previous post - by the shires of Leigh, Meredith and Buninyong, however as with all infrastructure, it required maintenance...and that was where things became a little tricky.
As I outlined, after contributing its allocated share to build the bridge, the Shire of Meredith declined to make any further contribution towards its upkeep - a state of affairs which continued until 1911 when the time came to replace the original bridge.
But on what basis did the shire argue that the responsibility was not theirs?
There were two arguments. The first relates to the vexed issue of shire boundaries and will be the primary focus of this post. According to the media of the day, the bridge was built a little north of the point at which the three shires met; Buninyong to the north and Leigh and Meredith Shires to the south, the latter two divided by the Leigh River.
Complications arose however, as the boundaries between the three shires moved over time. This was not an uncommon occurrence and the Victorian Government Gazette records regular boundary changes over the years - including some changes to the area in question.

The site of all the debate
But to go right back, it is perhaps most useful to establish some original boundaries, beginning with the Buninyong Road District (predecessor of Buninyong Shire) which was proclaimed in 1858. At that time it was noted in describing the extent of the new District that part of its southern boundary (which extended either side of the Leigh River for over 18 miles) included the northern boundary of the Mount Mercer Pre-emptive Right.
Later survey maps indicate that this part of the line became the eastern end of the Dereel-Mt Mercer Road. Further entries in the Victorian Government Gazette indicate that this remained the southern boundary of the Buninyong Shire until at least 1869. The line crosses the Leigh River about 700m south of the eventual site of the Grand Junction Bridge.
Next, the Meredith Road District was proclaimed in 1863. The description of its northern most extent on the Leigh River is somewhat unhelpfully indicated as the southern boundary of the Buninyong Road District. So far so good, however in November 1870, things got a little more complicated when it was recommended by the government that a part of Buninyong Shire be detached and instead added to the Meredith Road District.
Why? Well, one possible reason arises from confusion over rates. Land owners within a given shire or road district paid rates to that entity, however land allotments were originally surveyed and titles issued within civil parishes grouped into counties. Since shire boundaries did not necessarily follow parish borders, this meant that in some cases the property of a given land owner, whilst inside a single parish, could fall under the jurisdiction of two shires.
According to the Geelong Advertiser of 10th December, 1869 this was exactly the case for one particular landowner who had received rates notices for the full extent of his land holdings from both the Buninyong Shire and the Meredith Road District - and he wasn't happy! So the suggested boundary change may have been an attempt to resolve such issues.

Small weir below the Leigh Grand Junction Bridge
The section of land (relevant to this post) which was to be ceded to the Meredith Road District was described as extending from Williamson's Creek down to the "current boundary" which presumably was the southern border of Buninyong Shire as described above. This course of action was recommended by the government. I did not find official evidence of its having been enacted, however anecdotal evidence suggests it was.
For the purposes of the Grand Junction Bridge however, it meant that rather than lying entirely within the Shire of Buninyong, by the time the bridge was built, it was now partly within the Meredith Road District. Simple!
Well, no, not really because (as Meredith Shire would later claim), at the time of construction, some or all of the land gained in 1870 was returned to the Shire of Buninyong with the opening of the bridge in 1873. The reason for this was not mentioned as far as I can see and there seemed to be some doubt as to how much land it was. Regardless, by 1881 when the bridge was in need of repair, Meredith Shire claimed it was not liable for the cost as the bridge did not fall within its boundaries (and indeed claimed it never had). Notably at this time, Leigh Shire whose land never extended as far as the bridge at any stage, agreed to pay one quarter of the cost and felt that Meredith Shire should do likewise.
A vain hope. Meredith did not contribute. The wrangling may however have drawn the attention of the state government for in 1882 the two shires (Buninyong and Meredith) were told to sort out their boundaries. They were asked to come to an agreement on a common boundary which followed a survey line, thereby avoiding the original issue of allotments divided between shires. The problem by this time however, was that Buninyong were now opposed to "any severance of their shire" and would only agree to return the territory up to the original boundary. Forgive me if I'm wrong, but didn't that involve shire boundaries dividing allotments?

Survey map showing a section of Cargerie Parish and the most southerly
portion of the Buninyong Shire boundary as established in 1882.
Click to enlarge
Well, it would seem that in the end, Buninyong more than got their way. The new boundary heading east from the river was clearly defined as following the southern border of those allotments which had originally been divided between the two shires. So, from having had a foot in each camp, to belonging to the Meredith Road District these once divided allotments (and a number of properties to the north) now found themselves officially confirmed as part of Buninyong Shire.
Not surprisingly, when the bridge once again required repairs in 1890, Meredith Shire continued to maintain that it was not their responsibility, as the bridge was not within the shire. Likewise, Leigh Shire again argued that Meredith should bear part of the financial responsibility and were quick to express their disappointment at the minister's failure to arbitrate in the matter. None-the-less, Meredith made no contribution to the bridge's maintenance on this occasion or in 1902 when further works were carried out.
Finally, by 1908 the situation had reached crisis point. A new bridge was needed; the old one could no longer be repaired. Buninyong approached Leigh Shire citing a replacement cost of £800 for the new bridge.
Almost two years later by October, 1910 that estimate had risen to £1,000 and Buninyong was requesting that the Meredith Shire contribute one quarter of that cost. As usual, Meredith claimed that they were not responsible and added the rider that due to a fire in the shire hall in 1895 in which all their records were lost, they were unable to prove any liability in the matter.
This time however, representatives of the other shires were not so easily deterred and a "conference" - attended by representatives of all three shires - was held in order to settle the matter once and for all. As expected, the Meredith councillors cited the land handed back to Buninyong at the time the bridge was built and claimed that this exonerated them from any ongoing obligation regarding maintenance. They also pointed out the absence of records due to the fire, but insisted that "all they wanted was to see documentary evidence that Meredith Shire was a party to the agreement [to continue to maintain the bridge] before they took any steps in the matter".
Probably expecting this response, the councillors from the other two shires had turned to their own records from 1869 when plans for the bridge were originally outlined. The minutes from these proceedings some 40 years earlier clearly showed that the then Meredith Road District had undertaken to contribute to the ongoing maintenance of the bridge. Perhaps a little confusingly, they also indicated that the bridge had been built on the common boundary of the three shires (when in fact it would seem that it was built entirely on Buninyong land). Various councillors also claimed that the route of the road had been altered (perhaps to reflect some of the boundary changes), although no documentary evidence of the latter could be found.
Undaunted, the Meredith councillors argued that they had received no correspondence over the duration and that no approach had been made to them for maintenance costs.
On the contrary, claimed Councillor Eason for Buninyong, Meredith had been asked to contribute, but had declined to pay as they did not accept any liability in the matter. Eventually however, after all the arguments had been put forward, including the input of Councillor Vernon, the Leigh Shire President, who had been present forty years earlier at the initial negotiations,  the Meredith Shire representatives accepted their shire's responsibility and agreed to put the matter to council at their next meeting. 
Then (perhaps as a sweetener to ensure the deal to pay the £237/10/- was approved by council), councillor Eason for Buninyong made the following offer:
"owing to the friendly spirit which the Meredith Shire council had received the various delegates [at the conference], it would give him great pleasure to bring before his council the question of giving back to Meredith the land which was conceded to Buninyong 40 years ago".
And that finally, was almost that. After much discussion and despite dire warnings from some Meredith councillors that the east riding of the shire would secede to Corio Shire if forced to pay its portion of the £237/10/-, the council agreed at its meeting on 12th April, 1911 to pay up.
Mark up showing my interpretation of each boundary change. Click to Enlarge

All that remained was to build the bridge and once again establish shire boundaries. These were formally declared and described in the Victorian Government Gazette of 27th September, 1911. In brief, the southern-most section of Buninyong Shire's boundary approaching the Leigh River from the east would henceforth follow the line of the Elaine-Mt Mercer Road from its intersection with the Meredith-Mt Mercer Road up to the bridge whilst on the Leigh Shire side of the bridge, the boundary would continue to follow the road to the Mount Mercer intersection and beyond.
This latter stipulation as far as I can tell, also moved the boundary of the Leigh Shire to the north, ensuring for the first time that the bridge did indeed lie at the junction of all three shires, presumably scotching any further argument over responsibility. Today, the entire area lies firmly within the Golden Plains Shire, formed in 1994 from the amalgamation of the shires of Bannockburn, Leigh, Grenville and part of Buninyong Shire. The shire of Meredith had amalgamated with that of Bannockburn in 1915, only a few years after the new Leigh Grand Junction Bridge was opened.

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