Its Geography, Geology and Social Condition
The Narrative of an Educational Tour in 1857
by James Bonwick

First Published in 1858


Heywood - Hotspurr - Digby - Sandford - Casterton - The Border Land.

Leaving Portland for the north, the traveller is quickly buried in the Nine Mile forest of bullock driver's dread. This Stringybark country is a series of short rises, covered with clay and ironstone gravel. The undulations are very trying to animals. The road is frightful. The 20,000 grant for the Tramway will be a boon to Portland, and no less a boon to the Ararat diggers, who will get their supplies cheaper from that port than from Melbourne, it is said, the Rush being ninety miles from the one, and one hundred and fifty from the other. But the Nine Mile forest will scarcely be reached by the grant, if the calculation be correct at 4000 a mile. Sundry swamps afterwards need the eye of the Director of Roads. Two Hotels afford halting places in the forest stage.

The last part of the timber changes, as the sand of the open country is gradually invading southward. On a few spots the basalt floor ventures forth in modest Rises on the elevated ground. Once in the clear we travel over sandy heaths and through most wretched swamps. This character of country continues, with slight variation, for nearly fifty miles from Portland. The sparseness of population, and the almost total absence of agriculture, would alone give it quite a desert appearance. The Surry, or first river, is crossed twelve miles from the coast. The Fitzroy, or second river, is crossed at twenty miles.

HEYWOOD [ 1 ] is the township upon the Fitzroy. An hotel was established here by Mr. Evans as early as 1839, but for many years it has been conducted by Mr. Bilston, who succeeded Mr. Edgar. I found comfortable quarters there. The township was formed some four years since, at the time of Township Mania. It is situated on the usual uninteresting flat of the region round, and ingenious Dutch contrivances are adopted to prevent an entire swamping. Two hotels, a fair store, and a few huts form the city of Heywood. It is not a very enlightened neighbourhood. No school existed there, and no religious service had been ever held in the township.

On Black Thursday, in 1851, the fire reached this inland resting place, and a few moments were sufficient to consume everything. Some articles of clothing were rescued and thrown into the water hole of the creek; but even there the raging flames reached them, and burnt all that appeared above the edge of the water. A dray was consumed in the road. The poor terrified children were placed for safety beneath the bridge. But even from this refuge they were driven, by the fire reaching and burning it. The neighbouring forests were filled with smoke and flames, the shifting wind occasionally showing huge columns of the roaring element, or bringing down a perfect tempest of fire.

Mount Eckersley is three miles north of Heywood. The base is of more compact basalt than the top. A half circle of hills seems to bound an ancient crater, in the centre of which a cone arises. The red earth in the immediate neighbourhood is very rich; beyond it is covered by the sterile clay and gravel. About three miles to the south-west of Heywood the limestone crops out, and gives a beautiful patch of land to the farmer. There are caves with alabaster stalactites, and some really very choice and valuable marbles.

The road is a dreary one to the next stage. Grass disappears, and the Australian Broom flourishes along with the Banksia, Epacris, and Tea-tree, while the poor horse struggles through sands and swamps. Not the voice of a bird is to be heard for miles. It is a sad place for a hungry and foot-tired traveller.

HOTSPUR [ 2 ] upon the Crawford, or Smoky River, eighteen miles from Heywood, and thirty-eight from Portland, is another of the four years old towns. A rude bridge and an hotel had existed from very primitive times. A new bridge is now being constructed, in the place of the other washed down by the flood. A large flat stretches for some distance on both sides of the river, and is a perfect gluepot to pass in winter; my horse trembled in his passage through, and the rider confesses to some nervousness, as he had just been regaled with divers stories of mud smotherings and river drownings. The present bridge is to prevent further accidents, and is made three hundred and fifty yards long by five yards wide. A party of sober and intelligent Canadians had the contract, and were to receive 7 a yard for the work.

Here again I met with the sad story of no Sunday Service since the very formation of the settlement. When journeying through the place, and observing no school, I promised to return in a few days with a clergyman to establish one. Having to organise the school by myself, through inability to procure the aid of the minister, I noticed the distress of one man at our little meeting. Inquiring into the cause, I received this explanation, delivered with much feeling. 'Why, do you see Sir,' said he, 'my wife and I wanted our children christened. For five years and more we have been hoping to get a parson to drop in here to give us a sermon. Now when I tell my wife you have not got the gentleman you promised to bring, she'll break her heart about it.'

Two things are painfully apparent to the thoughtful traveller in the Bush,-the want of the appliances of religion, as well as the almost utter indifference of the people to its claims, where means are at hand. As men are the creatures of habit, there will be sad consequences following the neglect of the habit of attending places of worship. One man acknowledged to me that for twelve years he had never been situated within many miles of any opportunity of joining in Public Worship. Township after township in the interior have I passed through, where, in answer to my usual enquiry about such matters, it was said,-'Oh no, we never had any preaching here.' Children of advanced age are as ignorant of the first principles of religion as savages, or as even many of their own parents.

With the absence of such moral agencies, there is no decrease of the force of evil. If no church be present, the public house is near. If the minister never appear, the exemplars of profanity are not wanting. If there be no one to train children for heaven, there are those who would lead them from it. We mourn over the condition of pagans, but too often forget the heathenism of our own colony. In the wide West, a distance of fifty miles may intervene between places for divine service. Even where such advantages are to be found, as the few clergymen have to serve several preaching stations, a person may hit the wrong Sunday among the four, and make a fruitless journey of many miles. Then, as many think they are paying a sort of compliment to religion to go to any church,- as there is always some odd job to do on Sunday,-as that day is always hotter, colder, or wetter than any other day of the week, and the miles of that day unusually long, the only wonder is that folks are found to go at all. Added to all this indifference, it must be admitted that there has been no progression in virtue since the gold discovery. Where formerly evil shrank from display, it is now daring and rampant. Men are loose from restraint, and those who once quailed beneath the eye of public opinion are now unblushing and bold in their infamies.

The moralist cannot observe these Signs of the Times without the deepest concern. My chief object, as an Inspector of Schools, in referring to them, is to call forth the sympathies of Christian men and women on behalf of our beloved colonial youth, growing up amidst such scenes, subjected to such influences, and deprived of opportunities of mental and moral culture. In addition to educa-tional and temperance agencies, ministers of religion are urgently required. These must be content for a while to give up thoughts of church and manse, and be willing to lead a saddle life, going from homestead to homestead, collecting people where and when they can, visiting the insulated huts, and dropping a kind and pious word in the ear of neglected ones. We want not settled clergymen in the Bush, but itinerant missionaries. The introduction of a score of such noble men as labor in the London City Mission and Ragged Schools would be the greatest boon to the colony. It is another thing to talk of their support. Although my experience of the country places would check any romantic notions of liberality towards religious teachers, yet I know that even those who never approach our Sabbath Services would most generously sympathise with any genuine, ardent devotion to sacred duty.

The reader must forgive this digression. I write thus because I love the country, and because I am not only an educationalist, but the father of some young Australians. I am deeply solicitous for the best welfare of our youth, and for the home of my children.

Hotspur is chiefly peopled by carriers. Distance from medical assistance reduces ladies to the necessity of aiding each other. I was informed that hardly any of the grown population could read. Twelve houses form the township. The half acre allotments were bought by speculators in Portland at from 20 to 50 each. A bit of decent land extends for a mile, when the desolate forest and gravel come again. The limestone breaks out near the river, about two miles down. A yellow variety has some rich looking crystals, and many fossils. The valley of the Smoky river exhibits denudations on a large scale. Large masses of the ironstone conglomerate, or solidified gravel, are found on the surface of the plateau land. Quartz was reported to me to be on the Major's Track, about ten miles to the south-east.

DIGBY [ 3 ] on the Emu Creek, or Stokes river of Mitchell, is ten miles north of Hotspur. This township is favoured with a monthly service, and a good Church of England School. There are a score of houses and two hotels. Many of the people are splitters in the adjoining Stringybark forest, and others are carriers of the shingles, palings, and post rails for many miles around the country to settlers. The soil about the place is hopelessly barren. There are no farms to relieve the landscape, no clearings in the forest. A vast amount of detritus covers the district, so that the rock is not seen. Further on, the country looks better from the character of its gentle undulations, especially when the dull and black Stringybark is succeeded by the more cheerful looking Gum, Cherry, &c., reminding one strongly of that charming suburb of Melbourne,- Boroondara.

Meeting with an old man on the look-out for his bullocks, I had a talk with him about the olden times of a neighbouring island, which he had visited some thirty years ago. Asking him among other questions whether he was married, he made this reply,-'No, no, Old Bobby likes a glass too well to get a wife.' He received my sermon in good part, especially as I came from Van Diemen's Land; he assured me that drink had got him into trouble, kept him in trouble, and would hold him in trouble till he died. He knew he ought to give it up; 'but what's the use of talking about that,' said he, 'when every chap on the road drinks about me.'

How many 'Old Hands' of a certain kind I have fallen in with on this journey! There is no mistaking them. Their features betray them in an instant. There is a suffering and dissipated past to be read in their countenance. They belong to an age fast going away. They are allied to departing forests and departing tribes. They move not with the times. They will no more advance with progressive civilisation than the blanketed Aborigines. Like the men of the woods they are rapidly dying off. A newer and another race are elbowing them off the stage.

And yet I must plead guilty to a peculiar interest in 'Old Hands.' I make it a rule never to pass one without a nod or a word. Some singular insights into human character I have gained among them, and rare scraps of news I have gathered in their society. They are commonly found on the way-side of Colonial life. The refined and fastidious are seldom in contact with them. Nomadic in their nature, they prefer the bush to the town, and bullock driving to counter jumping. Unless excited by drink, they are taciturn and reserved. They deal in short, expressive sentences, and have their own peculiar illustrations of speech. They consort with their own kind, and have a down upon all new chums and blackfellows. They have no partiality for the Fine Arts, nor any sympathy with the romantic. They prefer Jack Sheppard to Alexander the Great; probably, because he was no murderer, and was not so great a thief as the other, in spite of his ignorance of Homer, and his want of imitation of the ruthless Achilles.

But yet under an exterior of sullen stupidity, there is often found a rich vein of humour, and a shrewd habit of observation. Beneath the rough bark of repulsiveness, some tender material exists. No one loves a little child more than an Old Hand. He is by no means very slow to do a good turn for the unfortunate and distressed. The outcasts, and almost outlaws, of society as they may be, they, have thus their redeeming points. Never let them be despised. They feel neglect. Many a one of them has said to me,-'Who cares if I've a soul or not?' Forget not their past service. The enterprise and sufferings of the 'Old Hands' have opened up many a fine district to others. Don't turn from them in disgust as you hear their language, or witness their degradation in drink. You have never been tried as they. You have not been exposed to the same temptations, denied human sympathies and counsel, and removed from moral agencies and elevating circumstances. Look, then, charitably upon the 'Old Hand.' Take him by the hand, gaze kindly in his eye, and utter a word of brotherhood in his ear. Perchance you may awaken long lost sympathies, recall the forgotten language of a departed parent, bring back the thoughts and feelings of guileless childhood, and restore a wandering one to a Father's home.

SANDFORD [ 4 ] on the Wannon, eighteen miles north of Digby, promises to be a flourishing place, though its first sale took place but a year ago. It is situated at the end of one of the richest flats of the rich Wannon country. I was delighted enough to drop off the gravel plateau into the sweet vales of this lovely district. Much of this is being cut up for sale, and the proximity of Ararat will give an excellent market to the farmers. The drawback of the place is the brackish character of the water of the Wannon in summer. Wells, however, can be sunk on the plain. I noticed one of nineteen feet in depth, passing through four feet of good black soil, and the rest of yellow clay on to gravel. Two handsome hotels are already up in prospect of a population; one of these, Grants' 'Caledonian Union.' cost 5000 in erection. Both landlords subscribed liberally to put up a school.

CASTERTON [ 5 ] on the Glenelg, near the junction of the Wannon, is three miles from Sandford, and seventy from Portland. It is favoured with having a really pretty stone schoolroom, in which monthly service is held by the far travelling and much admired clergyman, the Rev. Dr. Russell. [ 6 ] The attendance at the school is very small, owing to the meagre population, though no other school is within twenty miles of it in one direction, thirty in another, and fifty in another. Good is done by establishing such an agency, as it is generally about the only civilising and humanising means at hand in the interior, and always produces much indirect beneficial effect. This is the more strikingly seen when the teacher is a religious man; indeed, if the highest moral qualification be held necessary in the master of a town school, how much more valuable must it be considered in a locality where perhaps, there is no other individual to exert any influence for good! The Casterton settlers have, much to their honour, come to a determination that half of all the fines levied under the Scab Act in their district shall be devoted to the school fund. It is earnestly to be hoped that the hint will be taken by settlers throughout the squatting districts.

Casterton contains nearly a score of dwellings, including two stores, and Chaffey's Hotel; in the latter building the Court House is held. Two Police have charge of the morals of the place. The Pound is a paying establishment. The township is wretchedly situated on a tongue of land by the river; the upper part of it is bare slate rock, and the lower is subjected to the winter floods, from the overflowing of the back water, or Ana branch of the Glenelg; the water has been four feet deep in the rooms of the hotel. In 1851, the river rose ninety-five feet above its ordinary level. Fogs are very troublesome in winter. Rheumatism is not uncommon at that season.

This is rather a breeding than a fattening country. There are large stations near the Glenelg; that of Messrs. Swanston & Willis contains 35,000 sheep. [ 7 ]

Dundas county, north of the Wannon, is a splendid pastoral district. It contains 2000 square miles, or 1,280,000 acres, of which only 913 acres are in cultivation. Follet county includes the country westward of the Glenelg to the Border, and southward to the sea. It contains 1040 square miles, of which but 128 acres are tilled, being one-five thousandth part. These two counties together have a population of 2030 males, and llG5 females; that is, about one individual to a square mile. Of seven of the counties I visited on this journey, comprehending 10,480 square miles, there were only 18,500 people; not two to a square mile. England averages 400 to a square mile.

The Blacks on the Glenelg were considerably troublesome in the olden times. Sad stories are told of robberies and slaughter. One Mac was a great hero of that age of conflict.. Mounted upon a tall horse, he rode in among the tribes, and dealt deadly blows with a slashing broadsword, which he always carried with him. He was the terror of the dark-skinned race. The poor fellow came to a violent end by the fall of a tree. Mr. Robinson [ 8 ] the Protector of Aborigines, has the following remarks upon a visit to that quarter in 1845-'I arrived,' he says, 'at Gibson's station on the Glenelg, and was informed of the reports so industriously circulated by certain mendacious public journals of outrages by Blacks, and, in particular, of the captivity of a white lady among the savages of the Wimmera and Hindmarsh; indeed the majority of reports relating to the Blacks are either grossly fallacious or shamefully exaggerated. Whatever purpose they may serve, it is quite clear they cannot serve the colony; for what timid person or head of a family would venture to immigrate to a colony SO situated? The rabid portion of the Press is the bane of a community.' That gentleman elsewhere speaks of a large number of native children on the Glenelg. The tribe is now nearly extinct. The miserable remnant I saw suffering, with the Whites, from the effects of wild intemperance; it being then the Race week, an awful time of reckless extravagance and unbridled debauching. The shrieks of drunken women, the cries of reeling natives, and the quarrels of besotted men greeted me upon my first visit to Casterton. By all accounts, the scenes of the three previous days would equal any of the wildest of Bacchanalian freaks and follies.

Most of our Inland Townships are of very recent date. The settlers were naturally jealous of the approach of strangers. They desired the enjoyment of their runs without let or hindrance. Their flocks and herds were disturbed by passers by. The sitting down of others was viewed, and occasionally somewhat justly, not merely as an infringement of rights, but as an occasion to departure bullocks and horses without permission, and sometimes for the fraudulent purpose of stock abstraction. And yet few or no difficulties were placed in the way of the establishment of a Public House. It was a convenience to the settler himself. It was even more serviceable to him in retaining his servants. When a man got his wages, he usually sought company and the means of sensual indulgence. If the inn were far away, the master might not see the fellow again, but when the money was spent near at hand, the wretched penniless debauches would naturally turn to his old master for employment. Only in this way can we account for the fact of shepherds being ten or twelve years upon a station, toiling in penitence after successive half-yearly drinking bouts.

The innkeeper paid an annual Occupation license, in addition to the regular Publican's License. After awhile he might put up a blacksmith's shed, and, perchance, retail slops from a store. Beyond this point no progress was made, and few places got beyond the tap formation. When, however, the grand era of development arose, called the Land Unlocking movement, orthodox T~umsh1/p& were surveyed, named, and sold. A Black creek, or Tommy Thomson's ford, became elevated by the title of some noble Lord or his baronial seat. With an upset of eight pounds an acre, these half or quarter acres produced a large sum to the treasury. The times were good, and extravagant notions were entertained as to the future value of land in the marked out townships. Few bought to occupy, as few cared to live in those distant places. Competition induced high prices, and in the great majority of instances the original purchasers have had to retain their lots, unless compelled to sell at a reduction of some hundreds per cent. This is one chief cause of the want of advance in such places.

After awhile, excepting in places formed by natural advantages for flourishing settlements, the prices of land allotments fell to zero. It was seen that in the majority of instances a long period must elapse before a population could be gathered. Now was the time for the Settler. He had watched with feelings of alarm and horror the cutting up of his run for sale, and was tormented with visions of intrusive squadrons of bullocks and horses; marauding towns-men, and diminished acreage. But when he beheld the subsidence of the land fever, his hopes revived; there was a possibility of retaining his position, nay, of improving it. The Diggings had raised the price of wool and mutton, a goodly balance lay in the banker's hands, and the field of investment opened. A few commenced the process of buying with great gentleness and caution. The exhausted speculator came not to bid, and the people had not much intention to settle. Large blocks of land were obtained at the upset price. Numbers imitated this course, and huge sections of a run became the property of the squatter. Competition ran higher for smaller allotments, for a carrier wanted a home, or a publican sought to extend his borders. It was worth while, however, for the settler to give 3, 4, or 6 an acre for such pieces rather than hazard the security of his position. When town lots came into the market, the same sense of self preservation, the same wish to keep off all intruders, brought the squatter forward as a purchaser. Speculators and even bona fide buyers anxious for a settlement, thought it useless to contend with the long purse of the flock master, and after a brisk struggle the latter got his own way. Under these circum-stances some of our inland townships, boasting of half a dozen huts, are almost wholly in the hands of the surrounding settlers, who thus enjoy their homesteads in undisturbed security, and feared no legislative enactments of assessment. For some time this course has been adopted throughout the country, and the land has got more effectually locked than ever it was. When conversing with settlers upon the subject, they have expressed to me their regret at the vast outlay of their capital, but that they saw no other way of protecting themselves, as they said, against the new town's cry of Anti Squatterdom.

When travelling through this western district I was amazed to find the lands being thus secured by the few holders. Of course, as the best land is always put up by the government, and Settlers buy that, they are safe to hold the use of the land which is only fit for pasturage, and which forms, perhaps, five-sixths of the colony. I heard thus of men owning 20,000, 30,000 and 40,000 acres. But Squatters are not fools to their interests, nor are they governed by a malignant desire to spite the people, as some would imagine. Percentage has its influence upon them, and they would rather prefer 25 per cent upon capital invested in leasing farms, than 10 per cent in retaining lands for pasturage only. But the reflecting man perceives that in the future the great bulk of the land of Victoria and New South Wales will be in the hands of a few persons, who, as lordly proprietors, may lease sections to the productive classes. Political economists are not agreed as to the advantages of such a system. Many do hold that more progress, more profit, and more happiness are realised under the leasing system of England and Scotland than the freehold tenure of France, where small capital is wasted upon petty independent holdings. It is thought better by some of our Australian farmers to rent farms, and use their means to work the soil to advantage, than employ their capital in purchase to the restriction of their capability of effecting improvements. But surely the true hearted colonist would prefer seeing our land in the freehold possession of a larger body of independent farmers and graziers.

Intending to visit the school of Mount Gambler, to accommodate the Inspector of Schools in South Australia, who had been unable to visit that distant and isolated portion of the territory, I journeyed westward and south-westward from Casterton. In the thirty miles thence to the Border between Victoria and South Australia I saw no cultivation, no good land, nothing but a desert of sand and scrub, or forest of Stringybark upon the most heartless of soils. Grass trees (Xanthorrhea) threw up their flower stalks, it is true, but their stunted sticks of a yard high were unlike the majestic trees of other places. Yet I will not say a word against them, for the breaking off of their dead stems afforded me some amusement for miles of my slow and uncomfortable ride. Swamps, considerable in extent, were frequently in view. The Dismal Swamp is about the most gloomy looking place conceivable. My horse struggled on, now amidst heavy sands, and then through water and mud. Fires had blackened and burnt the forest, and increased the repulsive sterility of the country. And yet nature had begun to smile as well as she could in such a dull place. Though grass would not grow, there was a gay assemblage here and there of the Epacridae and other flowers that bloom only in sandy wastes. The Creator is not unmindful of the poor and the neglected, for he flings down floral treasures upon the desolate bosom of the Desert.

For several miles I rode upon the Chinese track, and discovered several relics of the Tea land. These Overlanders from Guichen Bay [ 9 ] are regarded with great benignity by our western store-keepers. A party of three hundred and fifty had passed a day or two before. Gladly enough did I catch sight in the evening twilight of the lamp of mine host of the Border Inn, which solely forms the world renowned township of LINDESAY. [ 10 ] Twenty acres were put up for sale in orthodox allotments, of which fifteen acres were purchased by the innkeeper; the remaining five were discovered to be at the bottom of a swamp, where they are still to be found. Water is readily obtained by sinking to the limestone floor, which is only at a short distance from the surface.

The arrival of a traveller at this out-of-the-way region is an event which quite disturbs the household. The accommodation is not bad, the civility and attention are quite laudable, and, barring the absence of milk and butter, the table was not ill-supplied. The Landlord is a most amusing Irishman. Again in the saddle, I saw the country changing occasionally for the better; that is, whenever the limestone was in the ascendant. I became quite sentimental at the sight of a rose in the waste, on the site of an ancient garden. A dozen miles from the Border brought me to the well managed station of the Oaklands, once belonging to Mr. Mackinnon, brother to one of the proprietors of the 'Argus,' and now in the possession of R. H. Budd, [ 11] Esq., Normal Inspector of Schools in Melbourne. Oaklands is ten miles from Mount Gambier.

Chapter Notes

Who was James BONWICK?

James BONWICK was an English schoolteacher and later school inspector who worked in Tasmania, South Australia and Victoria from 1842. He was a researcher and historian who made at least long trips in the western part of Victoria in the 1850s.

James BONWICK's family

James BONWICK was born at Lingfield, Surrey, the son of James & Mary BONWICK. In 1842 at Hobart Town he married Esther BEDDOW, born 1817 at Ridgewell, Essex, England, daughter of Barnabas BEDDOWS and Lydia ISAACS.

James & Esther BONWICK had the following known family: