01 August, 2016

Fyansford's forgotten falls: a lost von Guerard

My previous three posts identified the locations along the Barwon River of several sketches made by 19th century landscape painter Eugene von Guerard during his visits to Geelong during the 1850s. Some were developed into oil paintings which became well-known works of art such as View of Geelong and Mr Lewin's Hut on the Barwon River. Others, such as his sketches of the Barrabool Hills appear to have remained just that - sketches. Whilst the locations of these and other illustrations depicting scenes on the Barwon at Buckley Falls were easy enough to identify, there was one sketch which had both George Hook and I scratching our heads.
The scene portrayed was a narrow waterfall beside an elevated road, upon which two loaded drays were travelling. The first clue as to the fall's location came from von Guerard's own notes which indicated that the scene was the "Moorabool Valley and new [road] to Ballarat near Fyansford. 14 March. Geelong." (My translator was unsure of the 5th word and from context the year was 1855.)
So, this spot was near Fyansford on the Moorabool River, not the Barwon.  But where? I had never seen such a fall along the lower reaches of the Moorabool. I was aware that a section of several kilometres along the river had been diverted during the 1980s to facilitate works at the Batesford Quarry. Could the waterfall have been in this section? Perhaps.  I had only ever seen the newer diversion, not the original watercourse.
von Guerard sketch of the Moorabool Valley
If this was the case then where was the"new road" which appeared in the sketch? Survey maps of the area mostly indicated that the only surveyed road between the Lower Leigh Rd (Hamilton Hwy) and the Leigh Rd (Midland Hwy) was today's Fyansford-Gheringhap Rd. The 1861 geological survey map marked some roads running to the river (which I doubt were ever made), but none of them crossed or ran alongside the river. Could the "road" have been a track on private land?  If so, why describe it as a new road? To me this implied a newly made public road. Furthermore, this land west of the Moorabool was considered grazing land. The geological survey was yet to be undertaken in 1855 when the sketch was made and the quarry was decades away. There were river crossings at Batesford and Fyansford but no mention of another between the two.
So, was there a road near the Moorabool at Fyansford which would have been considered new in 1855 when the sketch was made? Well, yes. There was. In 1854 the first bridge at Fyansford was built across the Moorabool River. It was erected several hundred metres downstream from the original ford and at the time of its construction, the road leading out of the valley on either side of the river was redirected to the new crossing point and upgraded - a new road near Fyansford. A road furthermore, which was heavily plied by diggers heading to the goldfields of Ballarat or the pastures of the Western District.
It was probably no co-incidence that it was this same section of road to the west of the river which immediately came to mind when I first saw the sketch. I envisaged von Guerard positioned with his back to the river and looking up to the road rising out of the valley to the west.
But where was the waterfall? Could the site have been a gully running into the river beside the road at this point, rather than a fall on the river itself? An initial visit to the cutting did not immediately reveal the likely site of a gully, but much has changed since 1855. Both the Monier Bridge (1900) and the current bridge (1970) were built on sites downstream of the original bridge. By the 1920s, the land to the south of the Hamilton Hwy was Nichterlein's bluestone quarry and the Lower Papermills Rd had been built in the 1870s, a narrow gully could easily have become the victim of 160 years of development.
Modern cutting on the Hamilton Hwy at Fyansford, June, 2016
And there things might have stayed except that on a subsequent visit to the site, I noticed an old section of road rising up the valley, roughly parallel and a short distance to the south of the present road. I soon decided that this was the route of the original section of road formed in 1854 when the first bridge was built. Finally perhaps, a remnant from von Guerard's day.
I then discovered that in 1854 this road passed by a dangerous drop which according to The Argus of 27th April, 1855 (a mere five weeks after von Guerard made his sketch) was the scene of an accident which saw a horse and dray, along with its driver, plunge down a "precipice some twenty feet deep" next to the "new road" which was "not fenced in on either side, and [was] very narrow".
So, I now knew that the road out of the Moorabool Valley at Fyansford had passed by a steep drop of about 20 feet (or 6 metres), however as indicated during my conversations with George Hook, the height of the falls as estimated from the sketch may have been closer to 8m - perhaps even 10m. All this however was academic if the falls themselves could not be found. Imagine my excitement then when, on a subsequent visit, about 100m up the old line of road I heard the sound of trickling water!
Upon investigating the source of the noise, I discovered a channel - no more than a drain today - which ran beside the highway for some distance before dropping a short distance to a rocky crevice through which water was flowing.
Rocky channel from above the crevice
At this point, the water flowed over a natural rock formation, however the height of the drop was nowhere near the expected 8-10m, instead it was closer to 4m and the water was falling not onto the ground, but into a drain which was located just inside the fence of Nichterlein's former quarry (now the Fyansford Waste Disposal and Recycling Centre). From what I could see, it consisted of natural rock walls enclosed by a bluestone wall several metres in width and height. The floor was concrete and the collected water escaped via a large underground pipe at the bottom of the wall.
Drain in a corner of the old quarry
From above, it was difficult to determine angles. I needed to be down below, looking up as von Guerard had been. Time to visit the tip!
To cut a long story short, I was - reluctantly - allowed access to look at the site from below with just enough time to snap a few photos and ask a couple of questions. No, the manager didn't know when the drain was built, but assumed it was done when the site was a quarry and when OH&S and environmental concerns were unheard of. The pipe leading from the drain ran underground to the front of the property where, as he later showed me, it emptied into a culvert which runs under Lower Papermills Rd and drains into the river.
The extent of the fall today, viewed from the top of the bluestone wall
So, had I found another "missing von Guerard"? Well on balance, probably. Comparing my photos of the site at the tip to the sketch, there were certainly similarities, however it was also clear that quarrying had removed the majority of the high ground to the left of the waterfall whilst the height of the drain significantly impaired the view of the falls from below. Nor was it possible for me to establish what the original ground level was. Perhaps before the installation of the drain, the fall had been much greater. In addition, there were several places where boxthorn and other weeds growing over the rock face obscured some of the natural features, making comparison harder.
von Guerard's sketch and a photo taken from inside the quarry for comparison
In general however, the lines were the same as those of the sketch. In the photo I took, the cutting is out of shot to the right of the picture but is still present at the site. I have searched for photos which might include the site in the hope of getting a better idea of the original ground level, but have so far been unsuccessful.


  1. Well done Jo! Excellent work once again. Do need to note that the Monier bridge is on the same site as the 1854 bridge. A photo showing the first bridge used to support the concrete shuttering of Monash & Anderson's bridge exists as does an image of the temporary bridge built a short distance downstream while the Monier was under construction. Piles of the first bridge remain in the water under the Monier span.

    1. Hi Geoff,
      Glad you enjoyed the post. Personally, having looked at the site, I think the 1854 bridge was on a slightly different alignment to the Monier bridge. On the west bank of the river amongst all the undergrowth there are a pair of bluestone piles which I believe were the western abutment of the original bridge. My guess however is that the eastern abutment was indeed in the same location as that of the Monier bridge. I can't say I've seen the piles under the Monier Bridge. I will have to go back for a closer look when the water levels drop again.
      My post discussing the Monier Bridge I think shows the image of the temporary bridge you mention but I'm not sure I've seen the other photo you refer to. Can you point me in the direction of a copy?