18 March, 2016

Branching out: 'Narmbool'

Whilst writing my previous post, I came across quite a bit of information about the Narmbool Run; enough that it required a post of its own, so I am taking a slight detour on the track to the goldfields before heading east to Darriwill, Steiglitz, Darra and beyond.
Today, 'Narmbool' is a 2,000 hectare (4,942 acre) working property capable of running up to 12,000 head of sheep. It has been owned by Sovereign Hill since 2000 and in addition to its grazing interests, provides educational programs aimed at students in the middle years of their schooling as well as a range of facilities suitable for conferences, retreats and weddings. Of course this hasn't always been the case and sheep haven't always been the pastoral focus.
The rolling hills of 'Narmbool' with Mt Buninyong in the distance and
Williamson's Creek running through, October, 2015
For many thousands of years before European settlement, 'Narmbool' formed part of the lands belonging to the Wathaurong people. As I have mentioned in previous posts, many of the roads we drive today in large part follow the bullock tracks established by the European pioneers as they spread out across the countryside in search of grazing land. They in turn however, often followed the tracks of the Wathaurong people and Mary Akers in her book about 'Narmbool' "Hold fast the Heritage (2010), suggests that this may well have been the case for that part of the Geelong to Buninyong Track which passed through what became Narmbool Station.
That there were indigenous people living in the area is well documented and traces of their presence today can still be found by those who know what to look for. The name 'Narmbool' itself is believed to be a derivation of an indigenous word marmbula meaning "kidney fat".  The fat from around the kidney was important to indigenous tribes across the country who used it in their ritual practices. The fat was often taken from an enemy - alive or dead - or from the body of someone who had died an untimely death. It was then daubed on the body of the medicine man to strengthen his powers or placed on objects belonging to someone who was to be cursed.
Shaped edge on a piece of stone, still sharp enough to cut
Groove worn in a rock slab, presumably from repeated use
The cultural practices of the Wathaurong people of the 'Narmbool' region however, were severely disrupted by the arrival of European settlers in the late 1830s. The way the land was used was also changed forever when, in January, 1839 a young Glaswegian called Hugh Niven took up the lease on the 22,842 acres of land lying between Mt Mercer Cattle Station in the west and Borhoneyghurk in the east.
Niven ran both sheep and cattle on his property, but his main focus was the cattle and he was looking to increase both his herd and his land holdings. His plans were cut prematurely short however later that year when during a ride to Geelong on 21st September, he was thrown from his horse and kicked. He died two days later and was buried in Geelong's Eastern Cemetery. He was 34 years old.
Hugh Niven's grave at the Eastern Cemetery, Geelong. Hugh was the first
person to be buried there on
Following Niven's death the lease for the still unnamed Portland Bay number 261 run, was taken up - along with the stock - in December, 1839 by a Melbourne solicitor whose name is still familiar to the area today - Charles Williamson. It was his name which was adopted for the creek which flows through 'Narmbool'. Like Niven, he concentrated on the breeding of cattle, holding the lease for the property until 1845 when it was taken up by brothers Thomas, William and Gideon Lang. It was the Langs it is thought who were responsible for giving the name of 'Narmbool' to the property during their short tenure of less than twelve months.
Over the next several years the licence for 'Narmbool' was held by Hector Simson and John Duerdin. They in turn transferred the lease to Henry Jackson Munday who took up the lease in May, 1849 and two years later in July, 1851 applied to take up 640 acres as his pre-emptive right, including his homestead, outbuildings and a dam. On this land in about 1850 he had constructed a two-roomed bluestone cottage. The Victorian Government Gazette of 25th August, 1854 records that at that time, Henry's Narmbool run was stocked with 20 horses, 150 cattle and 9,570 sheep, however by 16th February, 1855, these numbers had reduced to 10 horses, 100 cattle and 6000 sheep.
Sheep grazing in the distance at 'Narmbool', October, 2015
In September, 1852 he applied to purchase a second block of land within his run including an a washpool which he used for his sheep, however his request was denied, indicating instead that the area should be set aside as the site of a village. By that time, the gold rush was in full swing and there was great demand for accommodation, supplies and later, land and housing for the diggers who flocked to the goldfields.
That village would soon become the little settlement of Burnt Bridge, located near the site of the old log bridge constructed by Henry Anderson and William Cross Yuille as they journeyed to take up their runs on the other side of Mount Buninyong years before. First there was John Morrison's Burnt Bridge Inn, then a coffee tent, more hotels (one of which was a staging post for the Estafette Line of Coaches), a school, houses, and when the new road was surveyed, a toll house was also installed. By 1855 the government was calling for tenders to supply feed for police mounts which were also
stabled at Burnt Bridge.
By 1855 at 'Narmbool' however, Henry (whose brother William had died in January and was buried on the property) gave up the lease, married his brother's widow and moved back to Geelong. At this time the run passed back to a former leaseholder - John Duerdin - who also purchased the pre-emptive right.
Unlike Munday, Duerdin did not live at 'Narmbool', instead leasing it out. In this way, he held the lease until 1860 when it was transferred one last time to Samuel Wilson, younger brother of the Wilsons who had taken up the lease of the Woodbourne No. 2 Run not far away. In addition to his pastoral pursuits Samuel also trained as a lawyer and later, moved into state politics. Over the years he contributed greatly to the community, ultimately receiving a knighthood for his service to the Colony of Victoria.
Samuel Wilson, owner of 'Narmbool'. Photograph of an 1862
 painting. Image held by the State Library of Victoria
Wilson Hall at the University of Melbourne was named after him. The English perpendicular Gothic building was a centrepiece of the university and considered one of Melbourne's grandest buildings. It was built in 1882 at a cost of £40,000, following a £30,000 donation from the benefactor whose name it bore.The original building along with numerous paintings, ornate stained-glass windows and historical artifacts was destroyed by a fire caused by faulty electrical wiring on 25th January, 1952.
By this time, Wilson was long gone from 'Narmbool'. In 1863, He sold his pre-emptive right to David McNaught and John Boyd whilst continuing to maintain the lease on the remaining land. Finally, on 9th February, 1872, the lease was forfeited and the ownership of the property (now a freehold) passed to the partnership of David McNaught and John and Alexander Boyd. Having made their fortune as shopkeepers on the goldfields of Ballarat, McNaught and John Boyd ventured into property. This included 'Narmbool' which they ran successfully for many years, both at various times living on the property - or at neighbouring 'Cargerie'.
Wide open spaces, October, 2015
Over the period of their ownership however, laws enabling selection were passed and on 20th February, 1866 'Narmbool' was gazetted for selection. A number of portions of the original leasehold were taken up by selectors, several of whom worked for either Boyd or McNaught. By the time the property sold to members of the Austin family in 1884, only 18,000 acres of the original land remained. At the time the Austins took over, the homestead was a timber building. In 1889, extensive renovations were undertaken by Herbert Austin, although whether he completely demolished the original timber building  or merely added the large bluestone front an timber billiard room to one side, to the existing structure seems unclear.
A year prior, work on a second grand, brick home on the property had been completed and the land was then divided between the two Austin brothers. The snew house and the 7,500 acres which surrounded it, became 'Larundel', whilst the old homestead retained 10,500 acres of land.
In mid-1923 'Narmbool' passed out of Austin hands, purchased by William Phillips, however, like many of the large properties around the district, within months, about half the remaining land was acquired by the Closer Settlement Commission and divided into smaller lots for settlement by returning servicemen following the First World War. The endeavour was unsuccessful, with extensive land-clearing during the Austin era and over-farming by the settlers ultimately leading to a drop in productivity. By 1930, all of the acquired land had been returned to the Commission.
'Narmbool' 1972, image taken from the John T Collins Collection, State
Library of Victoria
Presumably as a consequence of this compulsory acquisition, by the end of 1923, the remaining 4,000 or so acres of the property had again been sold. This time, the purchaser was Alexander Sutherland, a land valuer with the government who had also advised on the carve up of 'Narmbool' by the Commission. Alec - as he was known - bred sheep and indulged his interest in horses. With difficulty, he nursed the property through the depression years of the 1930s, at one time even going shares in a speculative but ultimately unsuccessful mining venture on the property. During the 1920s, Alec also oversaw the establishment of a private game sanctuary at Narmbool. This government-sanctioned, private wetland retained its status until 1968 when the relevant legislation was changed. By that time, the property was in the hands of Alec's only son Ian who fought - to no avail - to have the sanctuary's status maintained.
Fortunately despite Ian's concerns, the native wildlife at 'Narmbool' was not adversely affected by the loss of sanctuary status. His tenure of the property lasted until 1980 when it was sold one final time to Robin and Andrew Ferry.
Upon their arrival, the Ferrys embarked upon an extensive program of replanting, regeneration and reclamation. Over the ensuing years, they installed a series of dams, fenced off the gullies and performed remedial works to tackle the significant erosion and salinity problems caused by the tree clearing and over farming of previous generations. In addition to this, they have been responsible for the planting of at least 40,000 trees across the property which not only contribute to halting erosion but have also provided habitat which has seen the wildlife at Narmbool flourish.
The next step in the Ferry's plans was a succession strategy. They were determined not only to leave 'Narmbool' in a better state than they acquired it, but also to preserve it for the community with a strong focus on education. To this end, after years of negotiations and planing, the property was was gifted to Sovereign Hill, to be used primarily to provide live-in 'environmental discovery programs' for middle school students whilst continuing the environmental initiatives put in place by the Ferrys.  In addition, changes were also made to provide a restaurant (The Garden Room) and function facilities, providing opportunities for interaction with the wider community.
Recreation settler's hut constructed onsite by Sovereign Hill for the education
program, October, 2015
Most recently, only days before Christmas on 19th December last year (2015) 'Narmbool' was dealt a devastating blow. A bushfire originating near Scotsburn, travelled south towards 'Narmbool', decimating the property and much of the surrounding land. The staff present on the day enacted their fire plan which meant that the  immediate homestead site, the lodge, the learning centre and some parts of the garden survived, however almost all of the pasture and fencing, as well as trees and some of the bush camp facilities used in the education programs were burnt in the fire. In addition, stock losses are believed to have numbered well over 1000, whilst parts of the garden were significantly damaged by the fire.
Burnt Bridge burns again: 29th December, 2015, roadside near the site of
Burnt Bridge following the Scotsburn fire
Roadside on the Midland Highway, looking south east towards Williamson's
Creek at the site of Burnt Bridge, following the Scotsburn fire,
29th December, 2015
In all, almost 4,700 hectares of land were burnt in the fire. The map below shows the extent of the Scotsburn fire as estimated by the "Incidents and Warnings" page of the Vic Emergency website, overlaid on Google Earth. Outlined in green is the current land area of 'Narmbool', with the red line indicating the extent of the original 22,842 acre Narmbool Run (my estimation from the 1848 surveyor's description) taken up by Hugh Niven in 1839.
Google Earth overlaid with the Vic Emergency website estimate of the Scotsburn
fire. The green line indicates the current extent of 'Narmbool'. The red line gives
the approximate boundaries of the original Narmbool Run
Finally, during a recent conversation I was informed that only 250 acres of 'Narmbool' land remained unaffected by the fire. It will be a long road back for this grand old property.






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