THE RESEARCH JOURNEY: The Problem of Proof

© Dorothy B. Williams 2018

In 1990 I joined the Australian Rare Fauna Research Association (ARFRA),founded in 1984 by Peter Chapple (1958-2002) following an encounter with a big cat in the Dandenong Ranges, after viewing some of the evidence gathered by the association. I participated as driver in many night observations, and plaster casting etc. Some years ago I was asked to write from files a small booklet on the ‘Wonthaggi Monster’ as a money-raiser. Among the confusion of attempts to explain startling sightings in the 1950s, which might have included more than one species, some consensus emerges. An animal was repeatedly seen that was marked out from known species of dogs, cats, foxes, possums, wombats, wallabies and quolls by its stripes, tail, head, size, gait, and cries that could be associated with no known animal. In 1961 following newspaper publicity, the description ‘like a Tasmanian Tiger’ appears in the records, and reports from old-timers that the thylacine was plentiful in some parts of Victoria in the early days.

Scientists are not infallible. A 1955 description — ‘It was up a tree, big as a dog, large claws, large head, furry body, striped like a Zebra, and a long tail … when it saw me it sprang 15 ft. to the ground and disappeared;’ a neighbour also heard its scream – was interpreted by expert Crosbie Morrison: a rare (silent) Great Possum Glider going to bed, the stripes probably shadows of tree branches. His later version was that it was a dog, plus a cat doing the 15 ft. jump, plus an owl or koala contributing the vocalisation. Some years ago a thylacine carcase was found, fallen into a cave under the Nullarbor; carbon dated as 2-4000 years old, and declared ‘mummified’, yet the animal had soft tissue including an eye, smelt, and was still being eaten by insects; further evidence from later close inspection of the site indicated that the body was a very recent deposit. Since the thylacine was declared extinct, there has been a strong scientific bias against any evidence of its continuing existence; in Victoria, even before that. Scientific expeditions searching for both big cats and thylacines, and failing to find them, conclude that witnesses are mistaken; but they continue to be seen.

After examining a considerable number of witness reports in the ARFRA database I realised that overall they were remarkably consistent. Looking at three apparently different descriptions in the same street, where one animal seemed more probable, I considered the effects of circumstances on perception. It seemed improbable that two different weird animals turned up in the same place around the same time. A cat-like jump from a roof in the rainy dawn and a kangaroo-like stance in the backlight from the porch do not readily exhibit colour or markings; but the boys who held the striped dog-like animal in torchlight as it ran from their chookpen got a better look. The fact that the three descriptions appeared contradictory at first sight did not prove that the witnesses were hoaxers or necessarily mistaken; my attention was further drawn to the effect on perception of circumstances.

Over the last year, since facing the prospect of trying to draw together Chapple’s assorted and unfinished writings, I have been comparing and analysing my subjective remembered experience of animal sightings in different circumstances. This has led me to start asking questions of witnesses during that time (in person, by telephone, or by following up reports submitted to the ARFRA website) about the nature of the subjective experience, in addition to details of what witnesses saw.

Subjectively, the ‘flashbulb’ memory is instanced by the visual image of a blur with a fox’s bushy tail passing a very suburban window. I have a much clearer image of the fox running straight up the back fence; yet I know I did not see this. I saw my dog, oblivious to the silent passing of the fox, suddenly pick up the scent, and follow it at such speed that it ran straight up the fence and fell off on its back. My interpretation of the fox’s behaviour was apparently coded visually. This fox’s behaviour was so unusual as to cause several people to ring the local police and newspaper, which verified for me that I had not been seeing things. Had the fox tail not been so recognisable I would not have known what I saw in that split second.

In 1982 I reacted to a loud and unidentifiable cry from the outside my window in the bush with a strong startle reaction and a feeling of something weird; the memory was dismissed as ‘weirdest fox I’ve ever heard’ until 1990, when I heard the identical cry on an ARFRA tape, recorded within a very short time of a thylacine sighting, which made my scalp prickle. Later occurrences I would designate exciting; another right outside my window was so loud as to wake me, very startled.

On a further occasion, standing with my dog at the edge of the circle of light outside my back door, I was snarled at from about 3m away in pitch darkness by something unknown. What struck me on this occasion was the opposite messages from body and brain. A week later I identified the same noise out of the blue on overhearing a CD from the San Diego Zoo: the puma. This produced a less intense alarm reaction. Shortly after, the cry occurred again, in conjunction with a panicking goat strangling itself almost to the point of death in its efforts to escape, and the dog barking hysterically from behind the safety of the security door. Physiologically I experienced intense arousal without the fear factor, but my brain forbade me to leave the house without calling for backup; the goat survived until my friend arrived and we sidled up the driveway back to back, flashing our torches, to release the goat after great difficulty just as it collapsed. I have on several occasions heard with interest vocalisations consonant with puma or panther calls from the safety of the house or car, without alarm.

I have a particular interest in perception and memory. I can identify times when I have attached the wrong face to a remembered event, or been hazy or confused, or a memory has completely disappeared. I have experienced a moment when driving overtired, of registering lights ahead of me without perception of either pattern or meaning.

All these subjective experiences led to my acceptance of theories of the unreliability of eyewitness reports in criminal cases, while entertaining a growing conviction that the probability factor of thousands of consistent animal sightings being wrong would have a large number of noughts after the decimal point. I therefore chose to examine the reports themselves in the light of studies of perception, memory, and eyewitness accuracy. One of these, by Victor Trombettas, shares my unease about attributing unerring accuracy and objectivity to artificial studies and quantification in subjective human situations, and points up the need to explore apparent contradictions through language use and point of view. Empirical evidence has also led to wrongful conviction, and its over-valuing can lead to setting aside other forms of evidence that should be considered.



It was William Hand who found a skull back in 1891 in a stream not far from his Silvan property: a European skull with a hole battered in it. Identification was impossible,. A local assumption was that it belonged to a man who had mysteriously disappeared in 1884, believed to be a victim of foul play.

Could this have been the mysterious Jack Emerald? Who knows how many perished as most of Melbourne’s population of 25,000 odd streamed out to Mount Alexander after gold in 1851?

Thousands from many countries were said to have jumped ship, convicts crossed Bass Strait, Irish rebels fled to freedom, Americans brought new hope as California’s fields declined. Even the police took off for the goldfields. Melbourne was in chaos.

A party known only as the ‘Lucky Germans’ dared their luck in the unpopulated, impenetrable Dandenongs late in October. They vanished back to Germany after making a fortune in a month in a secret location in the vicinity of the Woori Yallock Creek. They had no need to claim the reward.

Jack Emerald came up Mt. Dandenong where timber workers had made it passable, and found a promising little creek that became a larger, eastern-flowing stream, a tributary of the Woori Yallock Creek. In his late teens Ben Simcox was prospecting just above Jack Emerald’s claim, but neither of them found enough to keep them there. Ben returned to Collingwood but solitary Jack Emerald left for parts unknown, as the ground proved disappointing. He tried elsewhere, to return again only when a big strike was made further down, where Jack Emerald’s creek flowed into the Woori Yallock.

‘It was named Emerald Creek because of Jack Emerald being found dead there,’ his fossicking neighbour Ben Simcox reminisced in old age. ‘Shot through the heart’.

Or perhaps the head? But when? They were a long way apart when they returned.

Geological surveyors battled from Dandenong through the Ranges to the Yarra In 1855 despite the ‘densely scrubby nature of the country’. The bushfires of early 1851 had ravaged five million hectares – leaving few identifiable bodies – and dense undergrowth grew back thicker than ever. They forced their way through and got lost, built themselves mia mias at night, and slept rolled in their opossum rugs in unknown, unlabelled whereabouts. They saw no use for the mountain country but the promise of gold.

A couple of years later Police Superintendant Smith could locate only about twenty prospectors in the entire Yarra Ranges area. Only their names defined the small creeks and gullies, sometimes changing as they moved on. Along the Yarra Valley, Boston’s Gully became Smith’s Creek; Yankee Jim’s and other such personal local names were only later fixed by survey. There was enough pay dirt in ‘Scotty’s’ Creek to keep Mr. Menzies going until his surname was officially affixed.

Others were believed to have preceded him on nearby tributaries of the Woori Yallock but disappeared without leaving a name, or a trace. If they were lost, starved, or died of exposure or accident, who would report their deaths? Or even find their remains, when even a dead kangaroo can completely disappear within a couple of weeks as its bones are exposed and scattered by predators among scrub, wombat holes and waterways?
The geological survey motivated Magistrate McCrea to assemble a prospecting party. Two Irishmen, Walsh and Geraghty, set off. On the way they met an American, McEvoy (a brother of Yankee Jim further up the valley), and Big Pat O’Hannigan on the way to Omeo, and persuaded them to join the party.

Working along the Cockatoo Creek, Big Pat caused such trouble that Gold Warden Warburton Carr had to put him in irons. He went off then with inexperienced Pete the Swede and battled through the scrub to reach the lower end of Emerald’s creek in January 1859. They struck it lucky and the rest of the party regrouped there. Soon hundreds followed, bringing further dangers of violence.

Simcox and Jack Emerald were now lured back, Simcox to settle in his old spot and build a slab hut. Jack Emerald continued downstream to the main creek near its junction with the Woori Yallock, both quickly lined with new claims. Big Pat’s site was now rumoured to be the rich one the Lucky Germans had found in 1851. Jack Emerald settled in a dry gully leading down from the bank of the stream. His surname being already in use, this became ‘Parson’ Jack’s gully, an ironical nickname said to arise from his extremely foul language.

Four hundred diggers got together to choose a name for the diggings: the ‘Dandenong Ranges Goldfields’. As chairman, Magistrate McCrea was to witness to this at a later Select Committee. This name however was more widely and vaguely applied, while Jack Emerald’s name remained in local usage. Across the Woori Yallock the diggings on its western tributaries became known as East Emerald. The population soon dropped back to 50-60 each on the Emerald, Warrandyte and Warburton.

As tent stores soon appeared on the Emerald diggings, some of the diggers were joined by their families. Kirkpatrick’s store also accommodated a policeman. When two Kirkpatrick children died they were buried on the slope above the creek.

The policeman was no longer there, being moved to a more central position up Scotty’s Creek where a township site called Main Ridge was laid out, but remained disused. In the 1870s his successor was summoned to the Cockatoo Creek to investigate some trouble over miners’ rights. His helmet and saddle were found at his camp site; but he was never heard of again.

When a hearing was set in 1861 to decide who was eligible for the Government reward for discovery, most of the Emerald diggers had already scattered over the Dandenong Ranges and up and beyond the Yarra valley. However, a number stayed on, or returned to settle after the 1890s forest subdivision. One of these was Emerald identity Gus Ryberg.

The squabbling began. Who was eligible? In the Irish party, Walsh claimed for the Cockatoo Creek, ‘portion of the Emerald Diggings’ in Jan. 1859. McEvoy’s claim of arrival in 1858 was substantiated by the others.
Apparently Jack Emerald’s name had spread more effectively than ‘Dandenong Ranges Diggings’. And Geraghty claimed for Nov. 1858, before Big Pat’s find. Geraghty was asked to describe the area, Gus Ryberg recalled. He couldn’t. He was illiterate, Gus Ryberg recalled; not unusual among the Irish rebels.

‘What does it remind you of?’ was the chairman’s helpful question. ‘The Emerald Isle’! It is puzzling to wonder how this wilderness transformed into gold workings could resemble ‘the Emerald Isle’. The widely used local name would provide a quick grab for an Irishman groping with the language of description. And then — a reward was in question. Had Jack Emerald survived those two years? Was he still on the ground?

No resolution was then possible. A Select Committee tried again in 1863. O’Hannigan claimed alone for Emerald, and for Warburton (Big Pat’s Creek) a year later. A petition supporting his claim was signed by over 2000 people, including Gold Warden Warburton Carr and several magistrates. It was mislaid by the Attorney General.

McCrea counterclaimed for the Emerald, Britannia (known as Yankee Jim’s) and Nicholson (McCrea’s Creek) goldfields, giving the names of three of his mates; he added Geraghty and O’Hannigan only when prompted. Warburton Carr wrote, ‘When I first heard the name of Mr. McCrea as the discoverer of some goldfields there I thought there was some misapprehension.’
The principal speaker at this 1863 meeting was Henry Frencham, an educated Irish squatter at Warrandyte who later claimed (along with a dozen others) the reward for the Bendigo diggings. ‘It was he who named the diggings,’ Geraghty confirmed: the Caledonia on the Plenty, the Britannia (Warburton), and the next should surely be ‘Hibernia’, a name used among the professional Irish. But ‘Emerald’ conveniently represented both its discouraged first prospector, and the Irish party who struck it rich.

Where was Jack Emerald in 1863? Could he have perished in Parson Jack’s Gully as a later digger so nearly did? Or moved on when again he missed the spot? If he simply disappeared, were there clues, and his body disposed of? Whose business was it to leave a claim unsupervised to report his death – and where, if the policeman happened to be roaming the Yarra valley? Gus Ryberg reported Jack Emerald as running a cattle property to the south. Whose was that ‘mysterious disappearance’ mentioned in 1884?

The Depression of the 1890s brought many unemployed to the Dandenongs to give the gold another go, or take up a block in the newly subdivided forest. Bennie Simcox, upgrading from claim to selection, established ‘Nathania Springs’ as a tourist destination, remembered him well and spoke of him. ‘Main Ridge’ only then began growing into the present Emerald township.

The first baby born in the new settlement, Aldy Coulson lived above Parson Jack’s Gully and knew several of the men who had remained on the Emerald Diggings or returned in the 1890s Depression. Percy Cerutty ran a tent store for the Monbulk settlers, but made the first worthwhile find in Parson Jack’s Gully. He too spoke to Aldy of Jack Emerald.

Percy almost perished in Parson Jack’s Gully. Falling into his own diggings, he lay with a fly-blown broken leg going rotten, until Aldy discovered him, hauled him out and got him to Lilydale on horseback. After World War II Aldy sold his property to writer Ivan Southall, who uncovered a flooded shaft. Would he have found Parson Jack’s remains there? A woman living on the other side of Parson Jack’s disappeared down a Chinese shaft, but the visitors she had turned to warn pulled her out.

There are no records of Jack Emerald’s life and death; but he was known by that name to three scattered local residents, all respected. He could have been a convict using an assumed name. He could have jumped ship and arrived with no official records. His name, however rare, distinguished his creek from Scotty’s and others for some years before the rush to the Emerald Diggings.
His could have been the skull in the mountain stream. We will never know.

From the earliest days of settlement, rumours of gold abounded. Throughout the 1840s, as squatters and their shepherds spread over the colony, followed by explorers, splitters, surveyors and stock assessors, scattered finds were made all over Victoria. But squatters had no wish to see their runs taken over and their pasture dug up. Men who did report finds were ignored, actively discouraged, even arrested.

“During the idle part of the year, and when sheep shearing was over, small parties were made up, nominally looking for pasture, but really for prospecting purposes. To avoid ridicule the true purport of these parties was kept secret.”

When a Collins Street jeweller bought a gold nugget as big as an apple from a shepherd, the news leaked out, but people scoffed. A similar sale in 1849 even caused a brief rush, but when the site could not be located it was regarded as a hoax. Such finds were hushed up for dread of the consequences. Van Diemen’s Land with its convict population lay just across Bass Strait.

When the colony’s labour force began to disappear, however, the picture changed. After 1849, California’s newly discovered bonanza drew men across the Pacific. Then New South Wales had its first strike, and drained more labour from Victoria.
In Melbourne, in 1851, the Corporation marked the changed circumstances by offering a £200 reward for a gold discovery – and within weeks its labour force had gone.
Spreading from near Melbourne to the remotest regions of the colony, men struck by gold fever began to penetrate into areas where no white man, and perhaps few aborigines, had ever been.

Before the year was out, rewards were claimed simultaneously for finds at Warrandyte, Clunes and Ballarat. Yet at Clunes, policemen were still taking the names of diggers, and the Aboriginal Protector complained of “notoriously unlicensed” gold diggers on his station.

Although the great majority of the diggers were decent men in search of a living, a steady stream of Tasmania’s convict population crossed Bass Strait. There were plenty of safe hideouts for criminals. Organised gangs of murderers and robbers preyed upon honest diggers. Women, children and the aged were left to survive in a town where social organisation had broken down. The police, too, ran off to the goldfields.

Most diggers were content to dig up a living wage; it has been estimated that less than a hundred men overall won enough gold to retire and live in comfort. Among these, apparently, were the “lucky Germans.” “The Germans say they will be off as soon as discovered,” reported the paper. They returned to Melbourne after only a month with “a great amount of gold.” In this short time they banked thousands of pounds, before returning to their homeland without bothering to claim a reward.
Others followed them out, travelling along Barkers Road, across White Flat (Croydon), past Fletcher’s homestead on the Mooroolbark run, but had no luck. Gold Commissioner Fenwick searched for the spot without success.
Later stories leaked back of a few parties making fortunes “on the Moondie Yallock”, but still none claimed the reward. The exact spot discovered by the Germans remained unknown.The Lucky Germans

In October 1851, most of Melbourne’s population of 25,000 streamed out instead to the rich new field at Mount Alexander.

At the same time, a party of Germans explored the remote creeks of the Dandenong Ranges, and struck gold around the junction of the Woori Yallock and Menzies Creeks. They lodged several thousand pounds in Union Bank, but returned home without revealing their secret location.

“The whole of the gullies and creeks rising from the Dandenong Ranges contain gold in greater or less quantities,” reported the noted German mineralogist, Dr. Bruhn. But there was no great rush to the Dandenongs. While the Germans dug quietly somewhere near Butterfield Reserve, Melbourne and the larger diggings endured oaths, murder, and every crime in between. Although the men seldom took the law into their own hands as the American diggers so often did, there was at least one lynching. There was piracy in Port Phillip Bay, resulting in the loss of a gold shipment. The worst fears of the authorities were realised.

Reports of digging in the Dandenongs continued to come out throughout the 1850s. When the alluvial gold was beginning to give out on the main fields in September 1854, there were parties still doing well in the Dandenongs. Monkey-dung Creek , a small tributary of the Ti-tree Creek, (or possibly of Menzies Creek), has been spoken of as the first site prospected; but nothing further was heard of the prospectors. Some may have become lost, and died of exposure and starvation. Diggers who attempted the journey on foot were particularly likely to have met such a fate.

During 1855-6, surveyors Selwyn and Daintree found a few diggers in the area. Their Geological Survey of Victoria included a look at the headwaters of the Woori Yallock Creek, and noted the likelihood of gold deposits.

On the 15th February 1859 the Melbourne Morning Herald carried a letter telling of a visit during the previous few days, when diggers were found occupying ‘the locality of lucky Germans who worked during the earliest days of Mount Alexander’. The unnamed creek was identified as ‘an eastern tributary of the Moodeeyallock or Pickaninny Yarra’.

Extensive sale of Crown lands ‘adjacent to Dandenong’ were advertised on 28th February but then withdrawn. It was hoped that diggers would use their savings to purchase freehold in district. While money was scarce, forced sales would only benefit large grazing purchasers.

Court cases held at ‘Dandenong’ were often delayed for want of second Magistrate. Cases were so often postponed that there were please for a local resident of adequate intelligence who could act if appointed.

  1. Check ref
  2. Check ref
  3. Flett
  4. Flett
  5. C&W Reports 2/12/51
  6. Herald 14/10/1851
  7. GR11
  8. Herald report
  9. Early settlers referred to koalas as “monkeys”

CHAPTER 1 – MONBULK: Living in the Dandenongs
Billoo’s People
Billoo was only twelve years old, they said, when he saw the smoke signal, and set off down the Monbulk Creek for his first amazing view of the sea. Overwhelmed by curiosity, he had come down from Wurrunjerri country around the Yarra to the summer camp at Ferntree Gully.
It was at Koonang in Bulug-wilam country that the strangers had arrived. The men were white, like spirits returned from the dead, and came across the water in great winged boats.
The keepers of the paths could no doubt point the way. It wasn’t his country, but Bunurong and Wurrunjerri were both Kulin People, visiting and intermarrying, with many ties between them. It was not as if he was going east, right out of Kulin country into enemy territory to confront “those inferior savages”, the Ganai of Gippsland.
The Woiworung group of Wurrunjerri, who moved from Gardiners Creek to the Yarra Valley and across the slopes of the Dandenongs, were cut off from the sea by three Bunurong groups occupying all the land round the two great bays: Narug-wilam roamed the foothills south of Mt.Dandenong’s two peaks, Corrhanwarrabul and Dang-y-non (“Bunjil’s Mountain”); and Yalukit-wilam moved round the shores of Port Phillip Bay. Bulug-wilam hunted Westernport and the Mornington Peninsula between the Koo-wee-rup and Carrum swamps .
Billoo ventured through Bunurong country, down the Monbulk Creek, leading into the Corrhanwarrabul and Dandenong Creeks and Patterson River, to the sea. From the shore near the Carrum Swamp he goggled at its boundless waters. On his way along the beach to Koonang, he met his first white man, the huge escaped convict William Buckley. Billoo’s curiosity conquered his fear of the pale spirit-man with the terrifying weapon. He approached.. They conversed by signs, and parted.
The year was 1803. Buckley with his two surviving companions was putting as much distance as he could between himself and the new convict settlement, named Sorrento by the whites. A party of Bunurong armed with spears had already been put to flight by a blast from his gun.
Buckley continued on alone, to endure 32 years of isolation after the Sorrento settlement was abandoned; Billoo returned to the bark and sapling shelters at Ferntree Gully, and the legend of his journey was retold around the campfires for many decades.
Early European Contact
Some of the Bunurong had had an earlier encounter with Europeans when Matthew Flinders landed on the Mornington Peninsula in 1802. They looked more muscular and better fed, Flinders thought, than the Sydney aborigines.
Following his voyage, a more disastrous contact began when sealers settled on Churchill Island in Westernport Bay. During their four year sojourn there, the explorer W. H. Hovell visited, paying the sealers to row him to the head of the bay in their seal boat, and await his return.
About a hundred Bunurong accompanied him part of the way to the Dandenongs, where he explored the southern and western faces of Corrhanwarrabul – the “Westernport Range”. Hovell agreed with Flinders’ estimation of the good appearance of the Westernport people. Their women, he thought, were the most attractive he had seen in all his travels.
Unfortunately, the sealers appeared to agree, and many of the women became their victims. The Bunurong made no attempt to interfere with the sealers, but on their departure they moved in and burnt down some of their buildings.
It was the western group of Bunurong who planned to attack the new settlement in Melbourne in 1835, plotting with the Goulburn and Barrabool Hills tribes to massacre the settlers and commandeer their goods. The plot was abandoned after Buckley overcame his fear of recapture to bring Derrimut of the Yarra Yarra tribe to warn the whites.
Later, Derrimut assisted botanist Daniel Bunce in an ascent of Mt. Dandenong. Encountering a party of hunters, Bunce joined them.
On their way up the mountain they crept close to a kangaroo under cover of a hand-held bough. Quickly they robbed their catch of its kidney fat, and ate it raw. Roasting the rest, they shared it with Bunce and the dogs, giving the ladies the scraps. One of this group, Jemmy, took over as guide through the thickly wooded growth of Wurrunjerri country, bringing Bunce lyrebirds, gliders, wombats, echidnas, and other specimens he had killed. The possums, Bunce found, tasted strongly of the eucalyptus leaves on which they fed.
The “astonishingly lovely” women brought Bunce wattle gum soaked in a wattle bark trough, with manna from the giant manna gum (Eucalyptus viminalis) added for sweetening. They fed him lightly grilled grubs, and roots of myrniong, the yam daisy (Microseris scapigera), that formed a staple of their diet. ]
In summer the women collected fruits from native cherry (Exocarpus cupressiformis) and native currant (Coprosma quadrifida). They ate roasted roots from orchids and lilies; bulrush shoots, bracken, and treefern crowns, augmented the meat provided by the hunters. Possum skins were sewn into rugs, and sometimes traded for stone for implements. Here too the people cut firesticks, and “sounding sticks” for their corroborees.
Even in winter they came to collect lyre bird tails. However, bark and boughs provided little shelter from the heavy winter rainfall, and sometimes snow, on the hills. The mountain country was not inviting when chants to ward off storms were unsuccessful.
Gathering Places
In mountain country they usually travelled along the ridge tops, making only overnight camps when necessary, preferably on level areas near water. Long term camps were usually sited on level ground, near water where fish and wildfowl abounded.
The Patch was said to be one summer meeting place, and at Clematis the Wurrunjerri visited a ceremonial ground . The lower slopes and foothills also contain many traces of regular occupation; such sites have been found at Yellingbo, Silvan and Wandin Yallock. In Mooroolbark and at Cave Hill, ceremonial sites remained in use after settlement. Squatter Tom Turner of The Basin was shown the Cave Hill site by aborigines, and guided surveyor Hardy there in the 1860s.
Mount Dandenong held mythological significance. On Mount Dandenong itself, the site of the church of St. Michael and all Angels may have been a regular corroboree ground. It has been claimed that the whole of the upper Olinda Creek valley (Gnurt-bille-warrun) was a “taboo” area, and probably included burial places. The Wurrunjerri also frequented the lower Olinda Creek, and in the 1850s gave demonstrations of the use of boomerang and fire-stick.
Another sacred site was at Bald Hill, a burial place and hallowed ground with distinctive rocks now within the Cardinia Reservoir catchment. Here the Ngaruk-willam hunters would “break fresh boughs from the trees and strip the leaves off, and place them beneath the twigs in front of the rocks, after which they felt certain of a plentiful supply of kangaroos”. No hunting was permitted in this vicinity; but implements found on a nearby property — R. H. Kerr’s “Aura” — led to the belief that it was a camping ground.
John Larkins writes: “Legend says that the lone-bird-like rock is Waang, the Crow. The two ‘body’ rocks are Djurt-Djurt and Thara, young male servants of Bunjil, the Creator. The rock near which the two bodies lie is Fire. In the Dreamtime, when the Aborigines had no fire, Karakarook, the Woman, appeared from the sky with a digging stick which contained fire. Some snakes attacked her so she killed them with her digging stick. The stick broke and the fire escaped; the people were overjoyed, realising they could now take this fire and share it among themselves.
“However, Waang, the Crow, grabbed the fire and made off with it. So Bunjil, the Creator, assembled all the people and told them to be sever with Waang. The Crow returned, afraid, and threw the fire among the people. Everyone took a share of the fire and went away to make good use of it. Bunjil’s two servants, Thara and Djurt-Djurt, stayed behind to punish Waang. They lit a fire around the Crow to burn him, but he flew away and the two young men perished instead. Bunjil’s wrath was awful to behold. The Creator turned the Crow to stone before he had time to make his escape; then she turned the bodies of her two young men, and the fire that had burned them, to stone as well.”
Such a significant site would attract the coastal Bunurong to the Dandenongs for ceremonial occasions.
Monbulk was a particularly important site for tribal gatherings. In the summer Billoo’s people travelled to meet other groups, and to bathe their sick and injured in the healing waters now known as Nathania Springs. Wounds were treated by sucking them clean and covering them with pridgerory, “a kind of wax oozing from trees”. Here, and on the site of the present football ground on the ridge between the Emerald and Sassafras Creeks, they left behind many artifacts.
Mrs. Aeneas Gunn describes the origin of the name: “Monbolloc, literally ‘a hiding place in the Hills,’ in other words, a sanctuary. It was there — actually exactly where the township of Monbulk now stands — where all the tribes came in for conferences, shall I call them? The meeting of the tribes, my old blackfellows called it. Yarra tribes, Gippsland tribes. Coastal tribes and the more northern tribes about Marysville.
“These northern tribes (came) by way of Lilydale. The Gippsland tribes by the valley in from Emerald. The coastal or Yarra Yarra tribes by way of Ferntree Gully — there it lies at your feet.
“And, as is always so in these great tribal gatherings, every man pledged to leave his home beats in peace, and to return every foot of the way under pledge of the most sacred, at peace with even every personal enemy. There the pledge ended.”
In 1850 William Thomas, the Assistant Protector, described corroborees at Monbulk:
“. . . the song & motion was like our (i.e. English) country dances and reels with as much sense in either . . .In any case if the black orchestra was inferior, their time and motion was better!”
The Native Police
Thomas’s appointment dated from 1838, when he left Melbourne for Arthur’s Seat in company with a group of thirty-six Bunurong people. He travelled round with them before taking over Narre Warren as the Protectorate station in 1841 – the site of two abortive attempts to establish a native police force, the first as early as 1837, only two years after settlement. Six square miles of land around the Lysterfield Hills on the Dandenong Creek, in the Parishes of Narree Worran and Dandenong, was set aside.
Already the opportunity of begging bread and booze was diverting the people from the battle to live by hunting. They were forbidden to eat the sheep and cattle that now occupied their land. Drunken individuals and wandering bands with diseased dogs offended the sensibilities of the Melbourne merchants. Settling them at Narre Warren would, they hoped, free them from these uncivilised nuisances.
Thomas and his staff erected three staff dwellings and a school and store, and began the frustrating task of trying to prepare a nomadic people for settled life. The men quickly began to acquire skills that would fit them for employment, and some of the children showed promise at school; but nobody wanted to stay put. Bands of sometimes up to a hundred or so would wander in, stay for days or weeks, receive clean blankets and provisions in return for a little work, and as suddenly, the whole population would disappear . It was easier back in Melbourne; they sat around camp fires enjoying bread and meat scraps handed out by misguided sympathisers, with no requirement to work for them.
The largest number to gather at Narre Warren was for a church service in August 1841. The congregation numbered 142 – encouraged by Thomas’s promise of two pounds of flour per adult and one per child. In 1842, however, there was a marked decline in the number of people moving through the Protectorate.
In February of that year, William Thomas brought together chief Billibellary of the Yarra tribe, (who has been identified as the Billoo of the story), and Sandhurst-trained squatter Captain Henry Dana, to discuss a further attempt at establishing a force of native police. After a week’s consideration, Billibellary led a party of young men to enrol.
Mounted, resplendent in green uniforms with red stripes, and armed with guns, bayonets and swords, they became under Dana’s severe discipline a force to be respected – if not always admired. He not only managed to keep them together, but from the original twentyfive, the number grew to sixty in 1851. Identifying at that time only with their own tribe, the police were used in other parts of Victoria, where they annihilated whole groups from other tribes who had stolen the white man’s sheep and cattle.
Both Billibellary and Thomas came to regret the assistance they had given in establishing the corps. In the early 1850s, the white police in charge kept a loaded shotgun in every room in case of aggression among the aborigines. On at least one occasion an Aborigine had need to seek sanctuary in his sergeant’s home after an attack from others of his people. Until the Corps ceased operations in 1853, drinking and fighting were rife among both black and white. It has been claimed that by then most of the corps had died as a result of drunkenness..
The Protectorate land was taken over as a stud for police horses. From the time the Kelly gang was active about 1880, until the 1920s, blacktrackers brought in from other parts were quartered at the Police Paddocks. Churchill National Park now occupies the site.
Working with the Squatters
For thirty years or so after the arrival of the white man’s flocks and herds, the aborigines continued to move freely round the Dandenongs. This was a condition of the vast squatting leases into which their country, now designated “waste lands of the Crown,” was now divided. For the earliest settlers in the foothills, and early fossickers on the Dandenongs goldfields, the Wurrunjerri were a familiar sight, passing on their way from winter camps to Yea, Alexandra and the Warburton Ranges — sometimes picking up a few of the farmer’s belongings on their way.
William Turner, who lived at The Basin from 1844, told his sons how some of the aborigines worked for the squatters, and taught them bushcraft. In the earliest years their campfires could be seen shining through the bush, while lubras in possum skin cloaks, with babies tucked into pockets on the back, were never far away.
Life on the Yarra
Hubert de Castella, observing the Wurrunjerri on the Yarra at Yering in 1854, describes their activities as follows:
“As the blacks have only ever set up camp in pleasant areas beside creeks or rivers and beneath huge gum-trees which provide their game, they have remained on the open banks of the Yarra, and live sometimes on our land, sometimes on our neighbours’. It is they who provide us with ducks and fish. In return we give them powder and shot and when they come to ask for something at our kitchen door they are never sent away dissatisfied.
“Their slow, relaxed gait is not without nobility, and they put their feet down with a solemnity which reminded me of the walk of actors on stage. When they ask for something they do it simply and with head held high, often with a wheedling tone of voice but with nothing contemptible about it.
“As they are resigned to disappearing from the land, if you ask them these days what they become after death they reply that they are born again as white men. ‘You are my brother long time dead,’ one of the old men used to say to me with a sort of respectful friendliness. . . ‘Bye and bye all blackfellows white men.’
“Now they have rifles and use little axes to chop their wood and cut their bark strips; once they only had weapons made of iron-wood and their hatchets were sharpened stones attached to little sticks like the flint implements of the ancient Celts.
“The weapons have a sort of hook or harpoon at the end with which they pull possums and native cats out of hollow trees where these animals hide during the day. . . . the black first checks from droppings around the foot of a tree that there is something up there for him to catch; then he tucks his spear behind his back and with his hatchet makes three cuts leading up the tree and about a foot and a half apart in the thick bark First he puts his right hand in the top one, then his right big toe in the bottom one and his left foot in the middle one, and with his free left hand makes a cut above the one his right hand is in. Then he puts his hatchet in his mouth, puts his left hand in the last cut he has just made and, taking the hatchet with his right hand again, makes another cut. Then putting the hatchet in his mouth again, he hoists himself with both hands and placing his left foot in the cut where his right hand first was, has gone up a rung. They are real rungs which he cuts like this in the tree trunk and in which he alternately puts his hands and feet. Nothing is stranger than to see his thin black body against the white gum tree, with all his muscles straining, and clinging to the bark just by the very tips of his limbs.
“When he has reached the animal’s nest he harpoons the poor thing in its hole, pulls it out and smashes its head against the trunk, laughing and shouting with joy; then he throws it to his lubra (his wife) and comes down again as he went up.
“It is the wife who then carries the animal, or the animals if the black has continued his hunt. She carries everything: her last-born in a reed basket hanging around her neck, the dead game in one hand and in the other the burning gum-tree branch which is used to make a new fire at their next camp. The husband walks ahead carrying only his weapons; the wife comes next, then the children in order of size, all one behind the other just like kangaroos and black swans. The natives probably have this habit through fear of snakes, for wherever the first has stepped the others can walk without danger. One never meets several blacks walking along-side one another, even when they are in large numbers. When the whole tribe travels across the plains a long black line can be seen from afar moving above the tall grass. . .
“Their fishing for eels in the lagoons is an unusual sight. .. Standing in water half-way up their legs or to their waists, they hold a spear in either hand and poke the bottom, swinging back and forth and keeping all their movements in perfect time with one of their jerky songs. When they have pierced an eel with one of their spears (which they can tell from the movements it makes struggling) they transfix it with the other one in another spot and, holding the two points apart, they throw it on land to one of their number who puts them in a pile. They catch really amazing numbers this way and . . . put their game or fish on coals covered with a few ashes and eat it when it is cooked. They do not cut the throats of the little quadrupeds that they roast like this, they just pull the fur off very carefully and the animal cooks in its own juice, which distends its skin so much that it looks like a full little water-skin. . .”
To construct their boats, he continued, they made a vertical cut on the inner side of a curved tree trunk, carrying the incision right around the trunk at the top and bottom, then removed the bark with their hatchet handles. Taking the bark to the water’s edge, they put pieces of wood across inside to keep the edges apart. If the tree was not very curved, they sometimes needed to mould clay to make a little rim inside to stop water coming in. The boats held two people, using spears for oars.
By the time de Castella made these observations in the mid 1850s, the remnants of different aboriginal groups had been forced to band together as one tribe.
The Kulin numbers, never great, had been quickly decimated by disease and conflict. Even before the arrival of the white man, the tribes who visited the ‘hiding place in the hills’ had been affected by epidemics, notably smallpox, originating in Sydney and transmitted from tribe to tribe.
It was a violent age. The lawless Bass Strait sealers stole women and killed men in raids from early in the century, and transmitted further disease. Convicts, brutalised by the harsh system, shot down aborigines as food for their dogs. In view of this, the Kulin people were surprisingly peaceable and cooperative with the early settlers. They mounted minor attacks and robberies, but killed few. Whites killed many more.
Gentle among friends, the tribes however mounted frequent raids and reprisals against each other, as William Buckley found. After repeated raids in the Geelong area wiped out the group that had taken him in, he preferred the rigours of a solitary but more peacable existence. An aboriginal raid was a terrifying experience.
The Gippsland Ganai destroyed a Kulin group on French Island about 1820, and in the 1830s, a dawn massacre in the Tooradin marshes accounted for more of them. In a reprisal raid, twentyfive Kulin warriors killed nine Ganai, eating not only their kidney fat according to custom (William Westgarth relates a meeting with a man who survived after having his kidney fat wrenched out and eaten ) but other body parts. The importance of Monbulk as a sanctuary, and the pledge of peace, is underscored by such accounts.
Squatter Rev. James Clow, whose lease included the Monbulk run, witnessed such a raid. One of the last Protectors of Aborigines to be appointed, Clow seems to have got on well with the tribes who camped near his homestead; he treated them kindly, and found them peaceable and trustworthy. When he first took up residence, however, the aborigines recognised one of his men who had formerly angered them by his conduct with their women. In fear of a revenge killing, the man requested his discharge, and returned to Melbourne.
Clow wrote from his homestead in Rowville of an inter-tribal raid:
“About mid-day, they surprised the camp, making prisoners of all in it, which consisted only of some old men and some children. They then went in search of the able-bodied men whom they espied busily engaged in fishing on the banks of a large river not far off. They managed to sneak up on them, within 10 or 20 yards, and then blazed into them, killing or severely wounding every one of them, seven in number. Those who escaped the first volley jumped into the river and swam across, but the second volley brought them all down. After cutting out their kidney fat, they took as much of the carcases as they could well carry on their return route, and having mustered their forces at the camp where they had captured the old men and children, they despatched them also, and then commenced their retreat. When they reached the first station on the Westernport side of the mountains they still had portions of the legs and thighs of their enemies, which they had not consumed, but reserved for those of the tribe who were not present.”
The introduction of the white man’s weapons made internecine warfare more deadly; his guns, his new diseases, and his aIcohol were fatal.
Georgiana McCrae describes a death on the Mornington Peninsula:
October 1st, 1851: A hard frost, and I have been to visit our blacks, who are quambied [camped] outside the paddock fence, on the edge of Cape Schanck Road. Here I found ‘Bogie’ in great distress, because his Johnnie (aged nineteen), was dying. Every few minutes the old man would spread himself over the boy’s body and try to revive him by breathing into his mouth, or else he would have him in his arms to sing down his ear, or lift up the lids of his eyes, so that he might see the day.
At last, not being able to bear this sight, I returned to the house where, after I had rested an hour, I heard a loud wail from the lubras and knew that Johnnie had gone. Back at the camp, I watched the grave being dug by some, while others wrapped a possum-rug about the corpse, which they interred in a sitting position, the elbows on the knees, the chin supported by the left hand, and the opposite one laid, with the fingers open, along the angle of the jaw. Cords were drawn tightly across the shoulders and round the waist, then, a new pannikin and the last bottle of medicine I had sent him having been put into the grave, the father and (fifth) step-mother filled the hole with sand. After that ‘Bogie,’ by himself started to fence the place with branches gathered from the scrub beside the road… ‘Bogie’ says he is too old to kill a blackfellow — which is the usual custom . . .George [McCrae] erected a wooden slab, bearing Johnnie’s name, over the burial mound.
6th. At twilight, a young aboriginal came out of the bush, and, approaching the grave, thrust three gum-leaves under the sand; this done, he disappeared quietly — unrecognized — never to be seen again. Doubtless, the gum-leaves were put there in token that the death had not gone unavenged!”
On the arrival of Batman and Fawkner at the site of Melbourne there may have been no more than about 1000 aborigines living within sixty miles around Melbourne.
About 100 of these were systematically massacred in 1842 by whites who surrounded them at a waterhole. The value placed by many on aboriginal lives is exemplified by the trial in the 1850s of a man named William White who shot an aboriginal at Brushy Creek, an aboriginal camping place near Lilydale. He was convicted of neither murder nor manslaughter – but fined £5 for discharging a firearm.
The appointment of a Protector of Aborigines did little to help; Protector Thomas was stationed at Narre Warren from 1841, covering territory stretching from Cape Schank to the Dandenongs. Although their land was occupied, Thomas had been given nothing to support them: “Although tens of thousands have the last few months been realized from their land, not a blanket is to be given them in return,” he had protested in 1839.
Billibellary, last ‘chief’ of the Bunurong, told him: ” . . the Black Lubras say now no good Children, Blackfellow say No Country Now for them, very good we kill and no more come up Pickaniny.”
The more their land was taken and their livelihood destroyed, the more the aborigines were obliged to take part in the work that caused its destruction. During the 1850s many became skilled reapers with hook and sickle in the Lilydale district; some also took part in grape cutting and hop picking, while others became expert stock riders and drovers. As these activities changed the face of the land, aboriginal food crops continued to disappear. The yam daisy was trampled by cattle and replaced by pasture grasses. Timber workers felled great trees and made new tracks. With the gold discoveries, thousands of people invaded the hills, new settlements appeared, and even the creeks changed their courses. During the 1850s the first Lilydale dwellings appeared to the west of the present town, at Brushy Creek.
In 1858 the last corroboree of the Bunurong was recorded.
Settler and Evangelist John Green, Government inspector, grieved at seeing them lose their hunting grounds. After an unsuccessful attempt to gather them in at an Acheron reserve, in 1863 he founded the Coranderrk Aboriginal Station on 4000 acres at Badger Creek, Healesville.
There he encouraged about 120 people to learn farming, and to adopt British beliefs and lifestyle, in the hope that they would find a place in the new society. He saw training in Christian principles and habits as a solution to the ills that settlement had brought upon them. After three years of his supervision, which included devotions twice daily with a prayer, reading and sermon, it seemed to be successful. The people were housed and clothed, working hard, and there was “no more drunkenness, superstition, quarrelling, and wandering about,” and there had been 31 baptisms.
By then, only twelve full Bunurong were left alive. There was nobody left to maintain the tracks leading to the seasonal camps and sacred sites, and the bush grew over them.
In the late 1860s, aborigines were employed to drain the swamps where they had once hunted along the Monbulk Creek. During the 1870s, the women of newly settled Wandin Yallock were sometimes startled to hear a “Cooee!” from approaching Aborigines, hawking fish from neighbouring rivers and creeks. A shooting party from Willis’s at Menzies Creek, out after kangaroos in the early 1880s, were surprised to find an aboriginal couple already occupying a hut they ran to for shelter, when overtaken by a storm. An old man seen fishing the creeks of Macclesfield in the 1880s may well have been the last of them. Their implements have been found on the banks of the Wandin Yallock and Wild Cattle Creeks.
To the settlers of 1893, the Aborigines were not even a memory. They left no trace of their passing but their place names, often corrupted, and their forgotten artifacts.
The many native spears and stone axes found at the site of the Monbulk football ground, and at Nathania Springs, testify to the importance of these locations. Other artifacts left behind on their seasonal visits were found near Dennis’s property on the Emerald Creek , at Simpson’s by the Sassafras Creek , and at Fairy Dell.
Dodd of Olinda unearthed a boomerang while clearing bracken on his property. Demonstrating it rather too effectively to an English visitor, he failed to dodge on its return, and caught it on his nose.
An aboriginal skull, perhaps unearthed by miners, lay for decades under a settler’s home above the Emerald Creek.
Still more artifacts have been found on the Woori Yallock, Sassafras, Emerald and Menzies Creeks, at Butterfield Reserve, on the hill tops round Monbulk, and in the Sherbrooke and Olinda Forests. A number of stone axes were found in the Olinda Crescent area, a known camp site . Many aboriginal sites and artifacts have no doubt been lost with the damming, draining, diversion and erosion of streams, ploughing, and removal of stones from cultivated areas.
The last full-blood Wurrunjerri, William Barak, died in 1903.

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In the 1950s psychological theories of identity and ‘attachment’ were still under scientific investigation. They were not yet a real issue in ensuring the health and moral development of the child. Heredity, and Freudian theories of internal drives and conflicts, still held sway as determiners of the child’s future.
It seemed self-evident that providing a home vetted for financial security and moral values was a complete and adequate substitute for the inevitable deprivation of the child reared out of wedlock, while satisfying the hunger of childless couples for a baby of their own. The concept of adoption followed society change, the emphasis no longer on ‘rescue’, and very different from the early use of the word ‘adoption’, when children were taken in to be taught to work in families with children and not look above their lowly social status.
. The theory was that adoptive parents would fill the bill so completely that the child need never know of the existence of the birth mother beyond the fact of adoption, and could even be spared the discomforting knowledge of shameful birth.
To that end, secrecy was possible. A new birth certificate was issued giving the child a new identity, and preventing knowledge of biological inheritance, social or medical. Adoptive parents were promised that the child was wholly, legally theirs, in no way different from a child of the new mother’s own body, the accident of birth being eliminated from any further consideration. Their obligations were stressed as being totally the same as to a natural birth. T
This reassured the relinquishing mother that by her loving act, the baby would have opportunities and security in life that she could never provide. It gave the new parents more security for once the papers were signed, the biological mother could never find, identify or reclaim the child.
It came as a frightful betrayal to some devoted adopting parents when these laws were changed and they saw their children turn away in search of their ‘real’ mothers – who practically speaking would not recognise them if they met in the street. The child who had become part of her adoptive mother’s own identity was now often seen to grow up and deny that identity and seek a new self-identity away from the family of upbringing.
Insights on separation were gained from observational experiments of separation on children, including a film of a hospitalised baby’s grief and distress (A Two-Year-Old Goes to Hospital (Robertson, 1 953a, 1953b; Robertson & Bowlby, 1952). It was taken for granted that the new parents could provide everything necessary for the attachment so essential for normal development, even if the child had spent the first years in an institution without personal care. Failure in the new relationship could be blamed on genetics, for the child’s existence was demonstration enough that the mother was ‘not quite right’, morally. Unfortunately, it came to be taken for granted that mothers, natural or adoptive, were to blame for problems observed in the child.
My first observation of separation occurred during my own childhood when an aunt who occupied a separate flat in our house adopted an adorable little girl at about two years old. This was the crucial age for birth mothers who tried to hang in there. The reason why our Mrs. Woods exerted considerable (and kindly) pressure on new mothers bringing their babies to the Office, was the experience of seeing those who tried to keep them giving them up a couple of years later. This is what happened, apparently, with my new little cousin. However, she seemed to settle in well and for a few weeks I loved playing with the little one and enjoying her happy, affectionate nature. She was perhaps responding to better and more reliable care than had previously been possible.
However, she had been handed over without delaying for the few weeks allowed for the mother to make sure she had made the ‘right’ decision before giving formal consent. And this one couldn’t bear the parting. When it came to providing the fatal signature she came instead and removed the child. My aunt and uncle were heart-broken.
Poor woman, she certainly tried to keep her beautiful baby girl; but it really was impossible. Eventually she had to give up all over again. She returned one day with a pale, silent, subdued little girl suffering a third separation, a ‘different’ child. She still looked like that when I last saw her in her teens; her joie de vivre seemed to have disappeared for good.
When I think of her, I understand something of what I must have looked like myself after weeks in isolation hospital at the age of two. That separation experience had very negative effects on my relationship with my own mother – I even came to believe that I must have been adopted myself. In the 1950s, John Bowlby’s work on separation and the perception and persistence of ‘attachment disorder’ enlightened me to much of my own ‘abandonment’ experience. After half a century of further consideration I recognise even more the damage done to personality development and sense of identity by separation, especially for toddlers whose brains are still forming.
‘Maternal deprivation’ during critical periods can prevent healthy ‘attachment’ – the developmental response to loving, reliable parenting – and leave growing minds at sea in the world, without that fundamental sense of ‘belonging’ in society that is the first and most basic need after air, food, water and shelter.
The Methodist Babies’ Home believed in immediate adoption as the kindest and healthiest way. After all, the separation will always hurt but the longer the bonding, the deeper the pain. My son however was hospitalised with an unnamed illness until six weeks. He came to me apathetic and unresponsive, but very quickly began to respond and develop normally.
In a different place my daughter was breast fed for six weeks as ‘giving a good start’, which may be true physically. I believe it is cruelty to the mother; and my daughter came to me continually screaming with fear and anxiety, refusing the bottle, not responding. and for over a year ‘failing to thrive’, just like the old ‘marasmus’ description of motherless babies … it was only in her second year that she began to eat and develop normally.


Back in the 1880s my grandfather’s sister was banished from her respectable family of Methodist lay preachers least she bring the whole family into disrepute and negate the message the family set out to transmit by their lives as well as their words. She bore two children to a married cricketer, thereby bringing down his public image as well. She made no attempt to raise them herself. My grandmother laid eyes on her only once, when she was pointed out in the street by a mutual friend. Her name was never spoken.
By the time I took up employment in the Babies’ Home office society was changing and such total ostracism did not usually happen. Silence and cover-up were the alternatives. As a young teen in the 1940s I had no idea what my mother meant when she drew me away from a teenage neighbour in the street and instructed me to stay away from her. ‘Why?’ I asked, with my usual craving for rational explanation. My mother mumbled: ‘Her mother’s not really her mother.’ I failed to understand why this should make her undesirable, or how it would come about. It finally dawned on me that her much older sister was actually her mother. This sort of intra-family ‘adoption’ was one possible cover-up if the sister was still considered acceptable by the rest of the family. However, it was almost impossible to keep the secret. The child suffered a diminished reputation along with her ‘big sister’. Silence was indeed held to be golden well into the ’sixties.
In the early days of my own township a local nurse took in city girls. Her notebook, passed to the local historical society, shows that she was midwife to the residents, but also to unknown girls from the city. . City girls hid out in the country, country girls lost themselves in the city.
Talking to children of the town’s pioneers revealed the other side of the story. One woman still grieved for her sister who had gone to see a city dentist; ‘She died in the dentist’s chair,’ I was told mournfully. Mentioning this sympathetically to a gentleman of the same generation, however, I received a quick sideways glance before he said, looking away, ‘She had more out than a couple of teeth.’ He mumbled a brief remark about a bit going on behind the bushes. The boys always knew what was happening but confided only between themselves; good girls, it seems, even members of the same family, were protected from the embarrassment of knowing the facts.
The Adoption Acts of the late 1920s seemed to offer a perfect solution, certainly a much safer one than the scandalous back-street abortionist who once lived behind my grandmother, whose existence was of course ignored.
The girls went on an extended ‘holiday’ or ‘visit to relatives’ or ‘worked interstate’, returned home with reputation untarnished and resumed their normal lives. The rescued babies were found a good, stable home where they would grow up in a carefully chosen loving family with all its moral and educational advantages. The adopting parents realised their dream of raising a family, when alternatives like IVF or surrogacy were not even the stuff of science fiction. It was a win-win-win situation.
The law provided that the adoptive family had all the obligations and entitlements of a genetic family. A new name was given and all contact with the biological mother cut off, to protect the stability and security of the new family. A member of my own family was told while out playing that he was adopted but his own mother was able to deny it, showing as evidence the new birth certificate with all their own names on it. Of course, the sudden appearance of a new baby was obvious to family and friends, but the child sometimes did not find out until adulthood. It was not spoken of; the birth parents might as well not have existed.
Some children most in need of ‘rescue’ however were Aboriginal and their adoptive status could not be concealed. This could lead to double discrimination, against both origin and circumstance. Just as ‘slum babies’ were removed involuntarily by Welfare to save them from a hopeless or dangerous situation, so Aboriginal children were ‘rescued’ by decree from situations that would not have been tolerated for white children. I once spoke to a prosperous Aboriginal farmer who remained deeply grateful for his late adoption by a white family. ‘I certainly would not have survived if I’d been left where I was,’ he told me.
The focus was on giving the child a better chance in life. Adoption was thought to be a much more successful approach than seeing the children’s stability disturbed by moving in and out of institutions or foster care. This happened through the intervention of Welfare, but all too often the parents themselves were forced into it, through illness or unemployment.
The effect of these changes of custody was not then fully appreciated, as the focus was on physical survival. To the grief of relinquishing parents was added blame; but the damage to the mind of the developing child was only brought to public attention through a World Health Organisation report in the 1950s.


When I joined the city office of the Methodist Babies’ Home in 1947 I was a very naive 16-year-old, attending to petty cash, basic typing and duplicating. As receptionist, it was my job to open a sliding window to greet unmarried girls arriving to hand over their babies, and point them to a hard chair in a narrow passageway to await their interview with our Confidential Officer.
I also got the job of making a cuppa for those whose tears overwhelmed them as our dear Mrs. Woods took the baby from its mother’s arms.
I opened the front door into the Temple Court corridor one day to find a young couple gazing at the lettering on the door and giggling. ‘METHODIST BABIES HOME’, it proclaimed. And under that, ‘Methodist Young Men’s Movement.’ They turned suddenly and scooted off down the corridor, the woman turning to giggle, ‘We were just wondering what the connection was!’
The connection, of course, was enthusiastic fund-raising by a group of passionately caring young men, who remained on the scene, now n middle age. Within the Methodist tradition of lay preachers, they travelled all over the state preaching their cause. Originally the emphasis was on rescuing ‘slum babies’ from the deprivation, neglect or abuse that arose from their hopeless backgrounds. Everywhere they went as deputationists they enlisted other young people to collect threepence a week from members of their congregations. Auditing the ‘Blue Books’ in which these donations were entered, with money and books brought to the office at intervals, was another of my jobs.
A slight carelessness in my telephone duties led to one of these deputationists failing to arrive for his scheduled country service, leaving the congregation without a leader. I was directed to ring up and apologise to him. Overwhelmed with guilt and shame, and my phobia about being berated, I refused.
Mrs. Woods refused to allow me to leave. For a whole hour our Confidential Officer stood over me, quiet, but gently insisting, regardless of her family at home waiting for tea. It was a long overdue lesson in life for which I bless her memory. When I gave in I was astonished at Clarrie Armstrong’s kind, reassuring acceptance of my apology and never again allowed my guilt and fear to override a clear duty. Such a small thing, yet life-changing. I was delighted to meet that gentle man half a century later – but never reminded him of my misdemeanour.
Others of the ‘Young Men’ occasionally called, including the prime mover in the foundation of the home, F. Oswald Barnett, whose accountancy firm was based some floors above us in Temple Court. It was his M.Comm thesis, ‘The Economics of the Slums’, that galvanised him to action on slum children and the promotion of adoption. He later instituted the Slum Abolition Board, pressuring the government into establishing the Housing Commission in 1937.
It was not until 1948 however that I saw some of the back lanes of North Richmond (where some school friends lived) demolished, and replaced by high-rise blocks of flats. I remember the cramped, decrepit terraces, houses where a tub in the back yard served as bathroom and laundry, and smelly dunnies down the back.
The scene changed after the South Yarra Home was opened in December 1929, thanks to the agitation and fundraising of the Methodist Young Men’s Movement. The new 1928 adoption laws enabled them to find stable, loving, permanent homes where babies would be given the love and nurture so essential for their growth into happy, productive, law-abiding citizens.
The new Home was modern and geared to caring for infants, and the new laws soon changed the adoption scene. However they did not totally end the admission of infants to the Cheltenham homes, where the onset of the Depression placed them under different and greater pressure.
Unable to pay rent, or even to feed them adequately during the Great Depression, the unemployed increasingly gave up the impossible struggle to support their children. At Cheltenham, the Committee turned from child rescue to providing temporary accommodation for children who had nowhere else to go, especially those who had lost one or the other parent through death. In 1932 this caused so much crowding that only three new admissions were possible. Sometimes attempts were made to obtain consent to adoption, but such decent parents had usually done nothing to merit having their children removed.
By 1935 four per cent of Victoria’s children were accommodated in seventy similar homes. By 1938 the receiving depot for the Children’s Welfare Department was sadly overcrowded. In these hard times boarding-out was going out of date. The Department was forced to go begging to those seventy institutions for placements for their 3800 state wards, but little more than half found places. In the Methodist homes nearly 15% of inmates were wards.
The War brought further dislocation. I worked in 1950 with a war widow whose son (now fifteen had and able to start work) had just returned to her care after years of being fostered out away in the country. Her anguished memory still disturbed her when she recalled that boss, who had refused to allow her time off to visit her boy when he was very ill. Another widow I knew had been driven to give up her baby for adoption when her mother could offer no support, owing to her full time care for a husband invalided home from World War 1. They were loving, caring mothers.
Without support, child-rearing just wasn’t possible. It had nothing to do with shame or moral turpitude.

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