03 October, 2015

Making tracks - the early days

It often seems that every time I talk to a local or read an information sign across the Barwon catchment, I see the phrase "such-and-such a town was on the route (from Geelong) to the goldfields" or "this-or-that road formed part of the old bullock track to the goldfields" or "the old maps show...". The problem as I see it, is that if each of the towns listed were on "the" track from Geelong to the goldfields of Buninyong and Ballarat, it would be a very long and erratic journey indeed!
As a result, I thought I would take a look at some resources from the early days of the gold rush and see what evidence I could find to support any of these claims. What route did they take? How did they travel? Which towns did they pass through? And importantly for this blog, what river crossings did they make?
 On one issue, there was broad agreement. Prior to the work of the government surveyors on mapping out the official roads of the new colony during the 1850s, most traffic used the informal bullock tracks, beaten through the bush by the squatters as they pushed the boundaries of settlement in the Port Phillip District. To a large extent, the geography of the surrounding districts determined the path these tracks would take. Rivers such as the Barwon, Leigh and Moorabool and their many tributaries formed barriers to travel, but at the same time provided much needed water for both stock and travellers. Not only did the early settlers make use of the Wathaurong's fords, but often, the routes they followed were paths which had been used by Aboriginal Australians, who it is also known, used the creeks and rivers of the region as paths and navigational aids.
Where a river or creek crossing was unavoidable, natural fords were used. In many cases, these were crossings which had been used by the Wathaurong people for thousands of years. Both Fyansford and Breakwater and I assume (but can't prove) Batesford are located at crossing points used by the indigenous population before European arrival. As traffic increased, these informal fords were lined with stone and packed earth, providing a more solid passage. The crossing at Fyansford was chosen as the site of a settlement by Captain Foster Fyans in 1837 when he arrived to take up the position of police magistrate for Geelong. He was quick to recognise the importance of the location which provided relatively easy access to the vast plains of the Western District.
An 1846 illustration of the ford at Fyansford, drawn by Charles Norton, image
held by the State Library of Victoria
During the late 1840s and 1850s, bridges were built at some of these key crossing points.
The first timber bridge at Fyansford was built in 1854, providing direct access via the Great Western Road (later known as the Lower Western Road) to the towns of Inverleigh, Cressy and beyond to Portland and the Western District.
Timber bridge at Fyansford, built 1854 (image c1866-1880), image held by the
State Library of Victoria
By contrast, there had been a bridge across the Moorabool River (on the Upper Western Road) at Batesford since at least 1846. As at Fyansford, this original structure was a timber construction which by 1847 was in very bad condition having been repeatedly patched in previous years (sic). After surviving the winter rains, the bridge gave way under the weight of a bullock dray at the end of August (damaging only the bridge itself). It was replaced the following year.
These early fords and bridges and the rough tracks between them, were first used by the squatters to bring their wool to market in Geelong. With their expanding enterprises came the need for better communication, so in 1844 the first mail coach ran from Portland to Melbourne via towns such as Hamilton, Dunkeld and Fiery Creek (the Streatham/Beaufort area) to Buninyong before continuing on to Ballan and Bacchus Marsh en route to Melbourne. It wasn't long however before a second route also became popular and by the end of 1846, a mail coach from Portland to Geelong was heading south from Fiery Creek, passing through Woady Yallock (Cressy) to The Leigh (Shelford) and then via Teesdale, Leigh Road (Bannockburn) and Batesford to Geelong. From here, the mail could also be sent by steamer to Melbourne. (NB: It was this mail coach which was held up at gunpoint by Owen Suffolk and Christie Farrell in May, 1851.)
These mail coaches were run by government contractors. To confuse the issue however, squatters unhappy with the available services on occasion established their own subscription-based services. This was the case when in September, 1846 a private mail route between Geelong and Buninyong was established. The alternative government route was to send the mail via Melbourne on the Portland route and later via The Leigh and presumably through Woady Yallock and Fiery Creek.
Image by S.T. Gill shows the Royal Mail service from Geelong arriving in
Ballarat, 1854. Image held by the State Library of Victoria
The first private coach made the run on 26th September, 1846. It was a weekly service which departed Geelong at around 3 or 4am and running via the Golden Fleece Inn on the Marrabool Creek, arriving in Buninyong before midday in time to connect with the Portland and other mail services. The return run was set to arrive in Geelong by Monday morning. Within a fortnight, government representatives had been sent to assess the route with a view to establishing a public mail service.
These then, were the main routes across the region, established by the squatters as they moved their stock, pushing the boundaries of the settled districts, looking for new pastures and more space. They were not formed roads as we understand them. In wet weather, they often became an impenetrable morass. So deep was the mud in places that carriages would become bogged above their axles whilst only double teams of oxen could drag drays through the mud, with any beast which fell, being dragged in its traces and often trampled or smothered in the process.
Although from the 1870s, this image from the State Library of Victoria shows
a coach ploughing through mud in bad weather 
One such section of the track near today's Scotsburn is described in Henry Mundy's account of his goldfield adventures (Henry Mundy: a young Australian pioneer, 1988 by Les Hughes). In 1847 the Geelong Advertiser and Squatters' Advocate described the road beyond the Batesford bridge "one of the great thoroughfares to the west" as being cut up below the level of the surrounding land with swathes of mud several feet deep in some places.
With an official government survey still some years away it was these rutted tracks - mud pits in winter, dust bowls in summer - which  the first of the gold diggers followed in the hopes of finding their fortune. The details I can find are sketchy and sometimes contradictory but over the next few posts, I will look at some of these routes and perhaps address some of the conflicting claims as to what was the "route to the goldfields".

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