08 June, 2016

Four bridges and a ford: the ford

Over recent weeks I have spent a bit of time looking at and for photos and paintings of Fyansford and the area around the confluence of the Moorabool and the Barwon Rivers. Some shots were taken from The Deviation looking west, others were taken from the cutting on the Hamilton Highway looking east towards The Deviation. Often they showed the Moorabool River crossing - whatever it was at that time - so I thought I would take a look at the history of the various crossings. Some details will be familiar to most, but perhaps not all...
First things first. As the name suggests, the Moorabool River crossing at Fyansford was originally a ford. Long before the arrival of white settlers however, the people of the Wathaurong tribe inhabited the area. It was they who first used this shallow point on the Moorabool as a ford. Their name for the area was Bukar Bulac; "the place between two rivers".
In the earliest days of European settlement, the new arrivals often made use of the tracks and fords used by the indigenous population so it is not surprising that Captain Foster Fyans - recognising it as a key location - chose this place to make camp upon his arrival in the district in 1837 to take up the role of police magistrate. As I mentioned previously, Fyansford did become an important location, providing access for the wool-growers of the Western District, to the ports and wool markets of Geelong.
Then, as European settlement spread out across the Moorabool to the west, traffic on the Great Western Road (later the Lower Western Road and now the Hamilton Highway), increased. As the squatters expanded their flocks, dray-loads of wool needed to be carted to the port at Geelong. To aid the passage of these drays and the path of other travellers, the ford was reinforced with earth and rocks.
1847 sketch by Charles Norton, looking upriver across Fyans' Ford. Image held
by the State Library of Victoria
To this end, in 1842 Mr John Atkins with his business partner Robert Nalder Clarke built an inn on the west bank of the Moorabool and was offering to make a substantial contribution towards upgrading the ford if other locals were prepared to contribute as well. Atkins' inn - originally known as the Fyanstown or Fyans Ford Inn and later as the Swan Inn/Hotel - was well situated to take advantage of the passing trade crossing the ford before following the track south to the current line of road as the sketch below shows:
1847 sketch of Fyansford and the Moorabool River, showing both the ford and
the Swan Inn. Image held by the State Library of Victoria
It also gives a good idea of where the ford was actually located, namely around 350m upstream of the current bridge. This is confirmed by the 1861 geological survey map - Quarter Sheet 24SE Geelong - produced by surveyor Richard Daintree. Looking at the minutes from a City of Greater Geelong council meeting from 24th September, 2014, I am not revealing any long lost secret here. The  minutes mention a plan "To promote the original track to the ford through appropriate interpretation", indicating that the site of the ford is well-documented. When we will see the interpretive signage however, is probably anyone's guess.
Rather than wait for council, for my own benefit, I recently went for a wander along this section of the river to get an idea of where the ford was and what it looks like today. There is no obvious sign of where it was located and whilst it is quite shallow along this stretch, it is worth remembering that in the 1840s, the upper reaches of the Moorabool had not been dammed as they have today, so water levels may have been different.
General vicinity of the ford at Fyansford, May, 2016
Whilst all trace of the ford may long-since have gone, on the west bank of the river, until a few short weeks ago, John Atkins' Swan Inn still stood; derelict but intact, until the evening of 22nd April, 2016 when a fire - believed to be a deliberate act of arson - gutted the main building. What remains of the Swan Inn can still be seen from various points around the town.
The Swan Inn, February, 2015
In 1842 when Atkins and Clarke selected the site for their inn, they chose a prime position on the track to the ford. The flats nearby were used to hold some of the region's earliest horse races as well as other sporting matches. After only a handful of years however, the original owners, were forced to sell up having overstretched themselves financially. According to The Stepping Stone: A History of the Shire of Bannockburn by Derek Beaurepaire (1995) the early 1850s saw the property used by the Mercer family as the base from which to administer their property which extended to the west. They used the name 'Fyansford House'.
 In 1856, the inn passed to William Bohn who undertook repairs and opened the property as the Swan Inn. It was during this time that Bohn was suspected of being complicit in the 1858 death of his wife. After Bohn, the property was owned by Mr Hopeton, owner of the Fyansford flour mill at which time it went by the name of 'Swanville'. Next the property passed to the Synot family who used the name 'Riverside'. In general the hotel had a successful history, by the 1860s, boasting what were said to be "charming gardens" stocked with fruit trees, ornamental plants and a generous kitchen garden.
The Swan Hotel 1860, drawn by Samuel Calvert. Image taken
from the State Library of Victoria
Changing times during the 1950s however, saw the inn finally close its doors for the last time, being converted instead into a farmhouse. By this time of course, the ford near which the Swan was built was long gone, replaced in 1854 by a bridge which would be located around 350m downstream of the ford, leaving the hotel at some distance from the new road which was formed to carry traffic from the bridge to the Western District.


  1. Interesting to read about the area, Jo..thank you.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Chris! Another post or two about the bridges to follow...

  2. Jo, I am so sad to read about the destruction of the Swan Inn - friend Tony Woolford (Convenor of Friends of Buckley Falls) passed away several weeks before the fire, and over the years had tried to get other people more interested in protecting the Inn from vandals. The original ford (base structure only) can still be seen on the western side of the Moorabool R, across from some of the Friends group's plantings. Take another look from the flatter eastern side!

  3. Hi Helen, yes, I was likewise very upset. I hate it when these things happen and had also been hoping that something would be done with it over the years. I did walk along the east side of the river to see if I could see anything. I'll have to go back and have a closer look. There are places it is tricky to get to. Lots of prickles!
    I must also have been over the site as I paddled down there in February last year. I didn't notice it then either, but I didn't know where to look for it at that stage.

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  5. Just had a look a look at some old maps and the latest Google Earth images and I think I know where the ford is located. Can you email me please to discuss.