23 October, 2015

Making tracks - to the Green Tent

My previous post traced the early stages of the likely route taken by many of the earliest gold diggers as they followed the rush to Buninyong and Ballarat. After leaving Geelong and crossing the Moorabool River at Batesford, they followed the route used first by the bullock drays and then by the mail coaches, branching off the Leigh Road and heading to the Muddy Water Holes as the area around Lethbridge was then called.
This illustration by Charles Lyall, 1854 of a bullock team crossing a river gives
an idea of what the early tracks, such as that from Geelong to Buninyong
were like. Image held by the State Library of Victoria
There was little if anything to be found there at that time, in fact the 1851 description cited in my last post does not mention either Muddy Waterholes or Lethbridge at all, instead, it refers to "the old camping ground known in bushmen's circles as the Green Tent". It is at this point that my research became rather complicated.
The Green Tent is an intriguing but elusive place - notorious even - and is definitely deserving of a post or two of its own.
The exact placement of Green Tent is somewhat unclear and I can find no reference to the original "green tent" which no doubt gave the little settlement and the nearby creek  their name. (Green Tent Creek is a short waterway which flows under the Midland Highway before joining Coolebarghurk Creek just over 2.5 km from where the latter meets the Moorabool River.) The earliest indirect reference I can find is an article from the Geelong Advertiser of 1862 which indicated that there had been ruins at the location for some 18 years, dating the Green Tent back to at least 1844 - a time when the settlement of the Port Phillip District was less than ten years advanced and the floods of gold diggers were still some seven years off.
The earliest contemporary reference I found to the Green Tent was the 1851 description mentioned above, which also claimed it as a well established site even at that date. So, where exactly was the Green Tent, what was it and why was it there?
I am not the first to ask these questions. In 2010 an archaeological dig was conducted which revealed the footings of a substantial building of unknown purpose. A local landowner and historian also has a keen and ongoing interest in the topic. So, what did I find?
Archaeological dig at Green Tent site. Image taken from
 Dr Vincent Clark& Associates website
My approach to the issue (as it usually is) was to head for the electronically available historic records to see what I could locate and to see how this tallied with what others had reported. Initially, I combed the newspapers of the 19th century (accessed via the National Library of Australia's Trove website) for any mentions of the Green Tent - and there were plenty.
Prior to the gold rush, the Green Tent seems to have been little more than a watering hole for passing bullockies, but by 1854 - three years into the gold rush - it was cited as the location of one of a number of unlicensed premises or sly-grog shanties (often euphemistically described as "coffee tents") between Geelong and Ballarat. In 1856 Benjamin Annas was fined £30 for "vending three glasses of brandy" at the Green Tent without a license.
Illustration by S.T. Gill showing a coffee tent and timber huts on Bendigo
Creek 1852, not the Green Tent, but indicative of the era. Image held by the
National Library of Australia
In 1858 however, the name "Green Tent" took on a notorious connotation. On 10th July that year, Elizabeth Lowe was brutally murdered in front of her two infant children. Her attacker - Owen McQueeny - was soon arrested and after a short trial, was hung for his crime. Several interesting pieces of information about the Green Tent arose from the inquest and subsequent trial. The evidence of various witnesses and contemporary newspaper reports, built a picture of a single mother struggling to support an 18 month old toddler and a second baby only a few weeks old. Abandoned by her husband, she had built herself a "tent" constructed partly of weatherboard and with a canvas roof and back section, petitioned to separate off a sleeping area.
Elizabeth kept a few bottles of grog a slab of cheese and bread which she would serve to her customers - said to be men working on the roads nearby. By implication, other "services" were also supplied and it is believed that McQueeny was a customer who had been hanging around her tent. She informed at least one neighbour that he was beginning to frighten her. Not surprisingly, his version of events read somewhat differently as this article from The Age shows.
Whilst they make gruesome reading, the newspaper reports of the events surrounding Elizabeth's death give more detail about the settlement at Green Tent. Firstly, Elizabeth was not living entirely alone. It was noted in evidence that other tents in the area had been robbed by McQueeny not long before Elizabeth's murder and Mary Campion (possibly Mary Sampson) indicated that she had, until shortly before the murder, lived within 100 yards of Elizabeth's tent but now lived a little less than a mile away. On the morning of the murder, she and her husband heard a gunshot in the darkness at around 6 am.
In one of its early reports, the Age insisted that Elizabeth did not live near the Green Tent, but that her dwelling was in fact the Green Tent which had been variously occupied for at least five years, during which time it had developed a bad reputation. It may be worth noting at this point, that she had probably been living there for about four months since her husband had left. I also found reference to a William Dawson, a store keeper of Green Tent who was declared insolvent around the same time in March, 1858. I have no evidence, but suspect she may have moved in and occupied an existing empty building (if it could be called that), making her own additions to keep out the elements.
 Also living in the vicinity was Mr Thomas Champion, the proprietor of an eating house/store. It was to Champion's that Elizabeth's body was taken for the inquest, after which she was buried on the bank of a nearby creek. In another macabre twist, her body was exhumed a fortnight later to provide more evidence for the trial of her murderer. Some sources indicate that Elizabeth's body was reburied at the Old Meredith Cemetery, however an article published in 1922 which describes the return of Elizabeth's son to the scene of his mother's murder, indicates that she remained buried in the original location and that until a short time before his return, the grave had been surrounded by a picket fence.
So, where was Elizabeth's tent and where were the others in the area living? In one of those curious coincidences, government surveyor Maurice Weston was working in the vicinity of Green Tent, and the day prior to the murder, was only about a mile away. By the end of August, he was surveying the land immediately to the east of Elizabeth's tent, the location of which, he marked in his field books (which can be viewed on the Landata website).
Page from the field book of Maurice Weston, 1858
showing the position of Elizabeth Lowe's tent
According to Weston's measurements, in layman's terms, Elizabeth lived 396 yards before the 30 mile post from Ballarat (marked clearly on a later 1867 geological survey map of the region) and 240 yards south west of the main road to Ballarat (see map below). This very exact description is supported by the evidence of a witness at McQueeny's trial - local farmer Thomas Cleary. He described the Green Tent as standing "off the metal road about 200 yards and to the left of the road going to Ballaarat(sic).
Weston indicates at least one section of the main road to Ballarat as being "metal" in his notes, which suggests that it was also informally known as "the metal road".
Some distance away, on the banks of Coolebarghurk Creek, he also noted the presence of a grave.
Page from the field book of Maurice Weston, 1858
showing a grave site. Probably that of Elizabeth Lowe
Unfortunately however, Weston made no note of where others in the area were living. We know from the evidence of the inquest that Elizabeth's tent was some distance away from the other residents - a fact which concerned her. We know Champion's store was in the vicinity and there were others living in tents. By the following year (assuming no move took place) Champion's was referred to as Champion's Hotel.
Looking south east across the site indicated by surveyor Maurice Weston as
the site of Elizabeth Lowe's tent
At this point however, things become a little unclear.
In September, 1859 the Green Tent Hotel was advertised for sale. The description given indicated that the premises were newly-built and extensive but the vendor's name is not mentioned. It could have been Champion's. The following month, Francis M'Kenne, a boardinghouse keeper at the Green Tent was declared insolvent, however there is no mention of the name or location of his business.
By 1860 another player had appeared. William Hooley was running the "Old Green Tent Hotel", a timber structure located not far from the 25 mile post from Geelong. According to the newspapers, Mr Hooley's hotel was situated opposite Champion's. Hooley was not in business for long however as his establishment caught fire and burnt to the ground on 21st March, 1862, leaving only a kitchen and stables which were detached from the main building. His friends and associates rushed to his aid and quickly relocated him to Champion's Hotel "over the road".
Thomas Champion it seems did not remain long either. In April, 1861 he put his hotel - including 10 rooms, a 20-stall stable, stockyards and outbuildings - on the market, then again in May and a third time in August. The property was also described as situated on 2 acres of securely-fenced government land. Interestingly, the early survey maps show a small reserve of about 6 acres, positioned roughly to the south of the Green Tent Creek on the western side of the highway - a likely location for Champion's Hotel.
By October the following year, the hotel was on the market once again. On this occasion however, the proprietor was J.H. Jones and the property was to be auctioned at noon on 29th October, 1862.
The Green Tent is next mentioned in 1866 when John Kneale was described in rate books as keeping a beer house at Green Tent on land owned by Alexander Sutherland. The Sutherland's Native Creek Run was located to the west of the current highway.
Looking north west across Sutherland's pre-emptive right
 Upon the death of his wife Bridget in 1871, Kneale was required to sign probate documents in which he declared that he was "of Green Tent near Meredith in the Colony of Victoria formerly Lodging House Keeper now out of business". By December that same year however, he gave notice of his intention to apply for a publican's license at the Green Tent where he was proprietor of an establishment consisting of ten rooms in addition to those used by the family, a detached kitchen and stabling for 30 horses with a secure supply of water. From the description, this was presumably the one-time Champion's Hotel. Kneale's tenure however was also short-lived and by late 1872 he was looking to sell the property. Still at Green Tent, John died the following year and was buried at Meredith.
The name Green Tent Hotel continues to appear in the newspapers for some years after this time, however, by the 1870s, the huge amount of traffic generated by the gold rush had begun to decline and the Geelong-Ballarat railway which had opened in 1862 bypassed the little settlement of Green Tent, taking potential customers with it.
So, no-one seems to know the exact origin of the original "green tent" but it may have occupied a site in the area as early as 1844, providing a respite for the early settlers as they made their way with their stock to their distant runs. With the arrival of the gold rush, the Green Tent - by then a well-established watering hole - became a stopping point for the diggers as they came and went from the goldfields; a place where they could spend the night or just quench their thirst with a (sometimes not so legal) drink before continuing their long trudge.
The events surrounding the murder of Elizabeth Lowe established the position of at least one Green Tent residence - hers - and it seems that it had been standing for some years and was thought by some to be "the" Green Tent - a sly-grog shop with a bad reputation. At some distance, but still near enough to be considered part of Green Tent, were two public houses, located on opposite sides of the current Midland Highway. Champion's was a substantial building and it may well be the footings of this building which were excavated during the 2010 archaeological dig on the western side of the highway. The other - presumably older - building occupied by William Hooley, was a timber structure which burnt down in March, 1862.
Looking south across the site indicated as "Green Tent" on the 1867
geological survey map and possible site of Hooley's "Old Green Tent Hotel"
At that time, there were also a number of people in the area living in informal tents or huts. Their location is unclear, however the geological survey map of 1867 indicates a small cluster of buildings, labelled as "Green Tent" on the banks of the creek with the same name. The map places the settlement to the east of the Midland Highway, just before a sweeping right hand bend, about 1.3 km past Taylor's Road and only a few hundred metres from the site of the archaeological excavation. On the same map, at a slight distance from the settlement is marked an "inn shed". It occurs to me that by 1867 when the survey for the above map was completed, the outbuildings would be all which remained of Hooley's hotel which had burnt down some four years earlier.
Google Earth image showing my estimations of various locations mentioned above
Whilst more proof is needed, the above map indicates what I think are the likely locations for the events and places described.
Note: a little more research has revealed more circumstantial evidence. An article published in The Argus of  31st August, 1866 indicates that an applicant for some land at Green Tent had 80 acres surveyed which it was said enclosed the only fresh water reservoir for some distance around. The land was indicated as important to the local inhabitants and had previously been a reserve [a government reserve I assume].
Whilst the location of the land is not clear, only a few months later on 27th November, John Matheson of Moranghurk purchased several blocks of land either side of - but excluding - the reserve and a neighbouring block between the railway line and today's Midland Highway.

1 comment:

  1. I am writing a book of fiction which incorporates the story of the Green Tent and subsequent murder of Elizabeth Matheson/Lowe. Although my story is fictional I've tried to be as factual as possible about the location and nature of the crime. After 7 years of research I had concluded that the original green tent was near where present day Green Tent Road crosses over Native Hut creek. Of course, since I am far away in the United States, you are in a much better position to determine details. My late wife and I lived in Geelong during the late 1970s and my book is of a supernatural nature and involves a house we lived in in Geelong which was very much haunted(for real). For what it is worth my email address is rionrlty@hotmail.com
    I love your blog and will keep following, especially on this subject. Sincerely, Mike Rion