From the earliest days of European settlement, the Moorabool River crossing at Batesford was vital to the economy of what would become the Colony of Victoria. As squatters spread out across the plains to the west and pushed north to establish vast sheep and cattle stations, the ford enabled the squatters to move their stock and their wool clips between their stations and the port at Geelong.
With the arrival of the gold rush in August, 1851, the river crossing along with the newly-established town of Batesford witnessed the passage of thousands of diggers making the journey to Ballarat and beyond, hoping to strike it rich on the fabled goldfields of Victoria.
In addition to being an important river crossing, the land around Batesford was also one of the areas first settled when the Port Phillip district was established in 1836. Amongst the earliest settlers to arrive in the district were the Manifold brothers Thomas, John and Peter who - they claimed - were the first to land sheep at Point Henry near Geelong during September and October, 1836. From there, they travelled with their stock to the banks of the Moorabool where they took up land either side of the river from its confluence with Sutherland's Creek to a point below where the township of Batesford now stands. Here they built a slab hut and established a ford. One local source informed me that the Manifold's Ford was situated very near where the two road bridges stand today, giving the settlement its earlier name of Manifold's Ford. A moniker which stuck until about 1845.
By April, 1839 however, the Manifolds had become concerned by the encroachment of other squatters and increasing government regulation and decided to leave the district, moving further inland away from the more closely settled areas. At this time they relocated north west to Lake Purrumbete, leaving the land they had occupied, open for settlement by others.
|Underneath the modern road bridge, at or near the site of Manifold's ford,|
With the Learmonths occupying the west bank, by 1839 another family - brothers by the name of John and Alfred Bates - moved onto the vacant land left by the departure of the Manifolds on the east bank of the river. According to a section of an 1840 survey map reproduced in Ian Wynd's book So Fine a Country: a history of the Shire of Corio (1981), the Bates brothers established their base just under a kilometre above the current river crossings.
Rather than use the ford favoured by the Manifold's however, the Bates established a second crossing at a point around 200m downstream which they considered easier. It was this second ford which ultimately gave its name to the town of Batesford and which became the road for those passing through the district, however this state of affairs did not last long.
At the Moorabool River crossing meanwhile, it seems that the new road laid out in 1840 was soon adopted. This is probably best confirmed by the establishment in 1843 of a public house. It was at this time that Charles Ruffle opened the Marrabool Inn (later known as the Derwent Hotel) on the east bank of the river, on the site which is still occupied by the Batesford Hotel to this day. His inn would have been perfectly situated on the new line of road to make the most of traffic passing across the river.
Whilst crossing the river either at Manifold's or at Bates' ford was relatively easy in good weather, when river levels rose, it could be a different prospect entirely, a fact illustrated on 19th September, 1842 when the Geelong Advertiser reported that four bullocks "were drowned at Manifold's Ford on the Marrible". The article also stated that "the only way in which travellers can take their horses across, is by towing them by ropes passed round trees on the brink of the river."
|An illustration by Charles Norton dated 1848 and titled "Batesford in time of|
Flood". Image held by the State Library of Victoria
This does of course raise the question of why, if a bridge had existed for several years, there was need for a ford as well. Perhaps the bridge was not suitable for heavy drays and it may well have been easier to move stock via a ford which also provided them with water. Strangely, whilst both fords are mentioned regularly, I can find no description prior to 1847 of exactly how the river was crossed and whether a bridge may have been involved.
So, if an earlier bridge existed, how old was it? I could find no mention of such a structure at either Bates' or Manifold's ford prior to the 1847 floods, however as I trawled through TROVE looking for clues, I came across an intriguing snippet. In 1841, the government established a committee to investigate the possibility of using indigenous workers to fill a labour shortage in the colony and as a result, various squatters across the district were called upon to share their experiences. One who gave evidence was William Roadknight, one of the earliest squatters to arrive in the Geelong region who stated "I have been in the habit of employing the black natives upon my establishment, from June, 1836, up to the present time ; they assisted me in 1836, to build a bridge over the Marraboul River ; this was the first bridge erected at Port Phillip" (Port Phillip Patriot and Melbourne Advertiser, 30th September, 1841).
Although he doesn't specify where on the Moorabool he built his bridge, a little more digging revealed that it could well have been at or near the future site of Batesford. On 14th May, 1836 - some months before the arrival of the Manifolds - Roadknight and his three sons sailed on the Vansittart from Van Diemen's Land to Port Phillip and landed at Point Gellibrand (Williamstown). From there they, along with their shepherds and stock, travelled overland to Bell Post Hill where they camped for some time before taking up land on the Barwon River near Ceres. Could the first timber bridge at Batesford have been built by William Roadknight in 1836? Whilst I can find no other mention of a bridge in the ten years to 1846, this could certainly explain why in 1847 the existing bridge was in need of urgent repair, however any bridge built by Roadknight (perhaps in his capacity as a representative of the Port Phillip Association) would by necessity, have been rudimentary.
Corduroy bridges such as the one built at Clarendon on the Midland Hwy were a common means of crossing rivers in the early days of settlement, but these were generally low-lying structures. From context, the bridge of 1847 may have been as much as 20 feet above the riverbed (see below). Nor can I find any source which indicates exactly where the bridge was situated, other than to say it was close to "the ford" which from context was probably Manifold's Ford (History of Batesford 1842 - 1941, Geelong Historical Records Centre).
Regardless of either the age or location of the first bridge, the warning as to the condition of the bridge proved prophetic. In July, 1847 the river did flood and whilst the bridge remained standing once the floodwaters receded, it did not last long. On 24th August an attempt was made to cross the bridge with a loaded dray, but due to the rotten state of the timber, the structure gave way and sent both dray and bullocks plummeting to the river below. Fortunately the only serious damage was to the bridge which was rendered unusable. The following month on 17th September, it was reported in The Melbourne Argus that the bridge was undergoing repair and would be open again in a few days time.
Despite the repairs, it was clear that a new bridge was necessary and the local community approached the government to plead their case for a replacement. Rather than wait upon the vagaries politics however, local subscriptions to fund the bridge were taken up across the district from those who would benefit most. A new bridge was needed before the beginning of the wool season or the squatters would be unable to get their produce to market.
|Image of a dray-load of wool crossing the Campaspe River in 1864. Image held|
by the State Library of Victoria
On 8th July the Geelong Advertiser reported a narrow escape for a woman and her children whose dray ran off the edge of the old bridge, plunging some 20 feet to a - fortunately - dry riverbed below. On this occasion, the bullock driver, not the bridge was considered to be at fault, but by September, things had gone from bad to worse. Work was not progressing and the contractor Mr Wayman, despite payments of £184, was insolvent. To make matters worse, the Geelong Advertiser (21st September, 1848) claimed that "this most necessary public work is about to be discontinued immediately, and is not to be resumed until after Christmas. This arrangement, or rather disarrangement, takes place in consequence of the working contractors of the Marrabool bridge having orders from Mr Lennox, to proceed instantly to complete another bridge within 40 miles of Melbourne."
Regardless of who was to blame for the lack of action, Bates' Ford was stuck with an incomplete bridge for which "the piles had been driven down, and some of the timber put in position" (Batesford - an historical Background, Jennifer Warner, Geelong Historical Record Centre) but which remained unusable. A solution was finally found when James Girvin was contracted to complete the work for a further £307, bringing the total cost of construction to £491. (Note: for those interested, correspondence regarding Girvin's contract to complete the bridge can be found online at the Public Records Office of Victoria's website in the VPRS 19/P1 series, Inward Correspondence, Superintendent of Port Phillip, 1839-1851.)
And so work once again got underway, but by October, and with the new bridge still unfinished, flooding again hit the Moorabool and the complaints once again began to mount:
"no later than yesterday, the bridge over Bates' Ford, is said to have had no less than three feet of water on it. To add to the increasing danger of passing it under such circumstances, it is represented to have a hole in the very centre, which if not as Shakspeare says, "quite so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door" is nevertheless sufficient to engulph(sic) any person of ordinary dimensions, or to encircle in its capacious embrace, a very considerable portion of the body of a horse! In the mean time, we may remark that the new bridge progresses so slowly as to render the period of its final completion a matter of much more speculation than certainty" (Geelong Advertiser, 17th October, 1848).
Only the day prior to the above article, perhaps even as the flood waters were receding, things took a fatal turn when a drayman walking across the bridge after leaving the Marrabool Inn, lost his footing in a hole in one of the timbers, fell into the river and drowned. Sadly, the new bridge was within days of being "passable, if not finished...and may God grant that no more lives be lost even in this short space of time. Indeed, between men being tripped into the water, drays upturned, and bullocks almost strangled in their yokes, or suffocated in the (many of which accidents happened in the course of last week) it is matter of much surprise and thanksgiving that more lives have not been lost" (Geelong Advertiser, 19th October, 1848).
Finally, in November, 1848 the long-awaited new bridge was opened to traffic and the following month, Governor La Trobe at whose command the new bridge had been constructed even took time out from a visit to Geelong, to come and see the structure. For the moment at least, Bates' Ford had its bridge.