A tree and a family: a century on from war

 Helen Hunter reflects on the ever-steady presence of a memorial tree in the years following conflict

It is nearly 40 degrees Celsius on the morning I decide to pay a visit to my grandfather’s commemorative tree on the Ballarat Avenue of Honour.  Wandering in the dry and narrow roadside strip (the space somewhat lacking no doubt as the Avenue was originally laid for horse and buggy) I am sweating, scorched by the sun that’s barely filtered by the avenue’s trees.

I have proudly arrived to not only connect with the tree I’ve not visited in perhaps 20 years, but also to run my own personal test of the mapping feature found on the City of Ballarat Honouring Our Anzacs website.  The website’s fantastic pin-point mapping of my grandfather’s tree has informed me of the location of his tree among the 22 kilometre stretch of elms, American Ash and English Ash.  It also informs me of the tree number (“3027”), tree species (“Ulmus Sp.”) and perhaps most excitingly of all, the name of the E.Lucas & Co. employee who planted the tree (a certain Miss E. Pitts).

Ballarat’s E.Lucas & Co. textile company, under the leadership of dynamic sales manager Tilly Thompson, famously rallied its staff of 450 young seamstresses to fundraise and plant out the entire avenue of trees. Planting was carried out from June 1917 in eight rounds, with the assistance of the Boy Scouts, oversight by professional gardeners and carpenters to install the tree guards, as well as plantings carried out by visiting dignitaries.

Before today, my regular trips along the Avenue to visit a friend were coloured by the anxious and somewhat guilty feeling of knowing that I couldn’t locate my beloved Pa’s tree.

My grandfather, Alexander Hunter, left his family home in Buninyong in September 1917, aged 18, to enlist in the war. Over the years I’ve seen many sepia-toned photographs of my grandfather in uniform. I’ve scratched the surface of the story, patched together romantic notions, assumptions and snippets of information based on hazy memories of sitting down to dinner with my grandfather as a child.  But today’s visit to the tree represents me truly deciding to take stock of his story – to take the time to see his tree as a precursor to learning more of what he went through and saw while he was at war.

Alexander, in Buninyong, 1918

As I navigate the long Avenue searching for his tree the heat radiating from the tar is blistering and I imagine a pleasant and slower-paced setting 100 years ago when it was planted. I remind myself that these few minutes staggering roadside in a sweat hardly compares to the privations any one of these soldiers, paid tribute to by the surrounding trees, would have gone through.  For that matter even Miss E Pitts herself would have likely endured more hardship than I, weathering the elements in the winter of 1918 to voluntarily dig and plant my grandfather’s tree.

I have read that such loving care was taken in the preparation for tree planting by the Lucas Girls that one of the soldier’s family members was personally invited to attend the planting alongside a member of the Lucas and Co. staff. The Star reported during the first round of tree plantings in 1917:

A personal letter has been sent by the young lady who is to plant the tree to the next of kin of each soldier, requesting their presence and assistance.

I have a memory of visiting the tree as a young girl, pulling in to the side of the road on the Avenue of Honour, on one of many lengthy family road trips. Fields stretching in the distance either side of the avenue.

We bundled out of the car to see ‘Pa’s tree’, a silent sturdy symbol of his participation in a war that was but a fairy tale to me.

We gathered around the tree for a family photo and proudly took in our grandfather’s initials and surname set into the bronze commemorative plaque at the tree’s foot.

Hunter family AOH
The author (in fetching quilted overalls) with family members visiting Alex’s tree in the early 1980s.

My grandfather at the time was in his early eighties and living in Donald in the Wimmera, a retired mechanic. Following the war he returned to Australia in late 1919.  From the age of 20 he spent some seven years farming on land owned by his family in Scotsburn, unable (or unwilling) to work inside following the long stretch of time abroad, wandering in the outdoors and sleeping in rough accommodation.

I recall a visit to his tree in my early twenties which came with a much fuller understanding of the war he took part in. Having studied trench warfare in World War I at university, my thoughts now ran to the true horrors of war – the long lists of dead, the drawn out stand-stills inherent to trench warfare, fraternisation between enemy troops, followed by the brutal self-sacrifice of surprise offensives.  I wonder at just how much my grandfather actually saw.

I cross the road and begin scanning the plaques of the trees, realising happily that the numbers are steadily approaching “3027”.  I see the tree of Frank Penhalluriack, a distinctive surname I remember well as belonging to family friends of my grandfather. And then two trees down I am finally at Pa’s tree: AE Hunter, 2nd FCE (2nd Field Company Engineers).

I take in the fields running behind his tree and am pleased to realise that the tree itself is likely the original planted 100 years ago.  A full century has elapsed since my grandfather took the journey alongside so many other young men, into an unknown battle that was more protracted and horrific than any of them could have foreseen.   I struggle to realise that the man I knew was really, when this happened, but a boy just out of his teen years.  Boys of the same age today would be, mercifully,  focussed on beginning summer jobs, playing their X-Box or making plans for university, not engaged in a conflict they barely had the life experience to understand let alone give their lives and the lives of others for.

HB Hunter AOH 1967
Alexander’s son, Bruce, visiting the tree in 1967
HB Hunter AOH
Bruce at another visit to Alexander’s tree, 2017

The tree, for our family, has been a spot to stop by over the years, to think about the man we loved and admired so much, and to feel a connection to those days so long gone but so influential on the families, towns and people we know today.  Today, while my grandfather’s grave may be many hour’s drive away this simple tree is not so far and is a touch point to his and our past.


Do you have a relative or family friend who enlisted for war in Ballarat or Ballarat East? Do you visit their tree or are you perhaps curious to locate their tree for the first time? A complete database of the 3,801 Ballarat men and women who served in World War One is accessible on the Honouring Our Anzacs website, where you can retrieve a serviceperson’s biography in brief, their commemorative tree number and a map of its location.

We would love to hear your stories of visits to Ballarat’s Avenue of Honour and what it means to you.  Please share your pictures or memories in the comments.  If you have a longer piece you would like to contribute to the HUL blog please email Helen Hunter on h.hunter@federation.edu.au

Helen Hunter is a historian and researcher based at Federation University Australia’s Centre for eResearch and Digital Innovation (CeRDI).

Ballarat’s response to Darwin’s Evolution Theory

Darwin image

“Cast away all doubt suggested by reason [and pursue] a thorough belief in the assurance contained in the text and a faith in the spirit by which all prayers will be heard and answered.” 

Rev. C Clarke of London, Dawson Street Baptist Church, Ballarat, June 1869 

“Life needs something living to produce it; the beginning of life here on this earth must mean that there was life somewhere before.  We are content.” 

Rev. William Henderson, Presbyterian minister, Ballarat, 1882 


When Charles Darwin published the Origin of the Species in 1859 he had endured much self-doubt and personal torment over many years at the polarizing nature of his theory and its religious and spiritual implications.

Whilst not the first scientist to elaborate a theory of evolution or “transmutation” of species from a common origin, his Origin of the Species was unique for its readability and popularity with the public beyond the scientific community. Even hostile reviewers had to concede its “hosts of facts and charming diction”.

Many of us are familiar with the fall-out that followed its publication in London and on the world stage….but what was the response a little closer to home, in Melbourne and Ballarat?

Out of the frying pan and into the fire

For Australian society, Origin of the Species’ release came hot on the heels of the exciting free-for-all that was the gold rush and within a few short years of the formative and bloody conflict at Eureka. So, into a heightened mood of social turmoil, Darwin’s big idea added yet more grounds for doubt that threatened to chip away at the religious and social status quo.

Following a global trend, Australians were engaging with new ideas in the realm of spirituality and religion.  Freethinkers’ and Spiritualist organizations were drawing in supporters.  Amateur science was popular in a new mood of enquiry and popular education, spurred on by the building of schools, free libraries and mechanic’s institutes.

Members of the Ballarat District Book and Tract Society, in June 1869, bemoaned the influence of books of a “not only trashy, but..positively immoral nature being published at the present time.”  They committed themselves to “the work of disseminating pure literature, especially among the young.”

When H.S. Earl, a famous American evangelist, visited Ballarat in 1865, 800-1000 people crowded the Mechanics’ Institute on Sturt Street to hear him speak.  American spiritualists touting the wonders of mesmerism and séances, drew crowds hundreds-strong in regional centres like Bendigo and Castlemaine.

Newspapers of the day regularly advertised scientific exhibitions, lectures on geology, zoology, botany and astronomy and fossil-hunting expeditions.

When the Darwin controversy unfolded in Melbourne, the universities were the main players, but the topic drew commentary from all levels of society.

Sir Henry Barkley, then Governor of Victoria [1856-1863] chaired a public lecture on the question of evolution, whilst Frederick McCoy, head of the National Museum (today’s Melbourne Museum) procured three gorillas for the museum and emphasized “how infinitely remote the creature is from humanity”.

At the University of Melbourne, in July 1863, a professor of anatomy, George Halford, delivered a lecture entitled “The terminal divisions of the limbs of man and monkeys”.  In this lecture Prof Halford set about trying to prove that there were significant osseous and muscular differences between the make-up of human feet and what he termed “the lower extremities of the monkey tribe”.

In the weeks following Halford’s lecture the evolution debate was the focus of leading articles and letters to the editor in both The Age and The Argus, with the two papers taking opposing positions on the question.  The Argus made use of a favourite debating technique of pro-evolutionists by commenting that Halford “savours far more of the original gorilla than the improved anthropoid”.

Personal accusations flew back and forth between letter-writers and commentators, culminating in accusations that Professor Halford had turned on a visitor to his lab – “scalpel and forceps in hand” – believing him to be the writer of letters to The Argus under the pen name “Opifer”, which were scathingly critical of Halford.

It seems, reassuringly, that anonymous “key board warriors” and trolls are not solely  recent phenomena of the online world. The Darwin debates provide evidence that bitter running battles in the Letters to the Editor pages were just as acrimonious – and anonymous to boot –  150 years ago!

The debate in Ballarat

Whilst in Melbourne the Darwin debate was very much a scientific one centred on the university, in Ballarat the debate went to the heart of concerns about God, man and morality with the debate firmly in the hands of church leaders and the religious.

The evolution question was thrust into the position of leading news in early and mid-1867 following a lecture on “The Philosophy of Creation”, delivered in February of that year in the Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute, by the visiting Reverend Alfred Henderson.  The lecture, which seems to be an example of creationist geology was well-received and described as an “intellectual treat” by admirers, but when a local Reverend (another Reverend Henderson) of the St Andrew’s Presbyterian church, offered up a “mild protest on behalf of the Darwinian theory of the origin of the species” a passionate public debate was sparked.

The second Reverend, a certain Rev William Henderson, argued that one’s acceptance or rejection of evolution theory had “nothing at all to do with a man’s Christianity or theology” and described Darwin’s theory as “beautiful but insufficient” giving evidence of God having worked ”according to order and by law” as opposed to the notion of ‘spasmodic’ creation.

The Reverend A. Henderson expressed astonishment that a fellow Christian minister would apply the term ‘spasmodic’ to the Divine operation and accused Rev W. Henderson of misrepresenting his arguments on Darwinism.

Rev Wm Henderson portrait
The Rev William Henderson, portrait by James Swinton Diston, c1906. Housed at Clarendon College, Ballarat.

The lecture and Rev W. Henderson’s comments became leading news in the following day’s papers via Ballarat’s Evening Post, edited by Mr David Blair.  Mr Blair took the opportunity to write a ‘letter to the Editor’ of the Evening Post (the editor being himself, though he does not say so) in which Reverend W. Henderson’s character and suitability as a Christian minister is called into question.

“..if Christian ministers are found openly avowing belief in Darwin’s theory, it is time to shut the Bible and close the Christian churches. Darwin’s theory and Christianity hold about the same relation to each other that darkness does to light and falsehood to truth” (David Blair, To the Editor of the Evening Post, 27 February 1867)

Mr Blair challenged Rev Hendersen to “a friendly public discussion” of the subject in which he hoped to prove Darwin’s theory “first, unscientific, secondly, unscriptural; and thirdly distinctly atheistical”.

Anglicus vs. Publicus

In the following days two more Ballarat residents put forward their opinions on the subject.  Both residents chose to write under pseudonyms, with ‘Anglicus’ writing to The Evening Post to concur with David Blair, and ‘Publicus’ writing in support of Reverend Henderson to The Ballarat Star.

On March 1, Anglicus outlines how the Rev W. Henderson’s comments at the lecture in question “marred” the proceedings and amounted to “nothing short of rationalism”.  He asks :

“Would the Reverend have humanity acknowledge our ancient lineage from mammoths and mastodons and be haunted by the baleful shadows of extinct monsters?”

The next day David Blair again writes a letter to his own paper, impatient at the fact that Reverend Henderson has not responded to the challenge of “ a friendly public discussion of the subject” made in late February.

Publicus then responds beginning what is to be a recurring and bitter debate directly between himself and David Blair. Publicus writes with an implicit familiarity with Mr Blair, suggesting an animosity that pre-dates the Darwin debate.  He refers to David Blair as “a person of so dilapidated a reputation”, ridiculing Blair’s “sensational appearances as a letter-writer to his own paper”. As an “occasional hearer” of the Reverend W. Henderson he defends the Reverend’s reputation, listing off his many virtues as a Christian minister, and finishes by describing Blair as proof of the Darwinian hypothesis by being “a new and singularly repulsive species of the old disreputable genus humbug”.

After several months of silence in the Ballarat papers on the question of evolution, David Blair held a lecture for the Young Men’s Christian Assocation in the Mechanic’s Institute entitled “Darwin’s Theory Exposed and Refuted”.

In another exercise in anonymous editorializing, Blair dedicated the leading news column of The Evening Post of the following day to an account of his lecture of the night before.  He describes it as attended by “a very intelligent and respectable audience”.  He returns to the question of the Reverend Henderson’s silence regarding a public discussion of Darwin’s theory and suggests that the Reverend lacks the courage to debate him.  He criticizes “the anonymous slanderous personal attacks” by Publicus and refers to The Ballarat Star as a “disreputable Ballarat paper”.  Blair claims to know perfectly well who Publicus is and suggests that at the repetition of his lecture on Darwin he “may take the occasion to unmask this stabber in the dark” to force him to defend his “athetistical principles, on the public platform”.

“In Ballarat it is to be held a crime against society for any man to stand up and avow his belief in the plain teachings of the Bible and the common faith of all Christians.  In Ballarat a man’s personal reputation shall be assailed in the public journals by coward hands wearing the mask of the anonymous, if he dares publicly to express his dissent from the brutalizing doctrines of atheistical science, falsely so-called.”

Publicus responds to David Blair in two more lengthy letters to the The Ballarat Star.  Again, Publicus provides great detail of the ways in which he believes David Blair to be a prime example of the evolutionary hypothesis: “Here we have a lecturer-cum-editor absolutely and incontrovertibly sui generis”.

“Mr Blair says I must refute all the writers he quotes before I must say I think Darwin and his disciples (of whom I have distinctly said I am not one) may not be atheists. Well, I am a protestant.  Must I, then, refute the Pope and all the papists in Christendom? Mr Blair is a Presbyterian.  Has he refuted all the Episcopalians, and all the Wesleyans, Congregationalists, &c?”

In Ballarat and Melbourne the Darwin debates drew out some of the differences between the two cities.  A rising university-based intellectual elite in Melbourne had come to replace the cities’ religious leaders as authorities on this question.  In Ballarat the debate encapsulated the continued centrality of church and religion in all matters of social importance.

Helen Hunter is a historian and researcher based at Federation University Australia’s Centre for eResearch and Digital Innovation (CeRDI). For further information on this topic email h.hunter@federation.edu.au

Cityscapes in Art

Artists play a vital role in both documenting and commenting on the tangible and intangibles of place, and one of our favourites is the Burke and Wills Memorial Fountain (pictured below). We are currently featuring a new tool on the HUL portal called Artscapes through Time where you can fade between contemporary photographs and historic artworks in the same landscape, of which this beauty is one.

Evelyn Shaw Burke and Wills Memorial Fountain
Burke and Wills Memorial Fountain by Evelyn Shaw. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ballarat

Who was the artist behind this work, capturing the movement and life of the city in 1933? Meet Artist, Peace Activist, & Community Advocate Evelyn Healy (nee Shaw) as told by Ballarat historian and Fed Uni lecturer Anne Beggs-Sunter:

Healy, Evelyn Myrtle

Born in 1912, Evelyn Shaw was the daughter of Edgar Shaw, bank manager, and Beatrice Towl of Ballarat, Victoria. She studied law in Melbourne, then art at Swinburne and the Ballarat School of Mines, completing her studies in 1935. In December 1935 she held her first solo exhibition at Booth’s Buildings in Sturt Street, which included the etching of the Burke and Mills Monument in Sturt Street, available for 15 shillings.

Although born into a wealthy family, grand-daughter of the Belfast-born manager of the great Phoenix Foundry, her social conscience was awakened by the contrast between her own privileged background and the many unemployed people in Ballarat during the Depression. She left Ballarat to pursue her artistic and activist career in Melbourne in 1936.

She became involved with the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), the peace movement and in designing anti-war banners for the Movement Against War and Fascism. In fact she played a key role in the rescue of the Eureka Flag from obscurity in 1938, when she asked her mother to obtain a detailed drawing of the flag so that artists in Melbourne could reproduce it as a banner for the Eureka Youth League. Subsequently the flag came to prominence as an emblem of left-wing political and trade union protest.

Evelyn Healy and her Eureka fragment 1998
Evelyn Healy and her Eureka fragment 1998. Courtesy of Anne Beggs-Sunter

In 1941 she married Charles Walters, an Australian member of the International Brigade who fought in the Spanish Civil War, and moved to Sydney, where her only child Max was born in 1942. She worked in munitions factories, and became one of the first female members of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. She was involved in the fight for equal pay for women through membership of the Union’s Sydney Political Committee.

After the war she continued with factory work and some work as a commercial artist, and remained active as a Communist organiser and member of the peace movement. She was divorced in 1954.

In 1962 she married Bill Armstrong, and began working as a secondary art teacher. She was instrumental in the formation of the Cabramatta and Districts Art Society, and remained passionately committed to the peace movement, nuclear disarmament, and the United Nations Association, which made her a life member. In 1984 she represented Sydney Artists for Nuclear Disarmament on a fact finding visit to the then Soviet Union.

She married for a third time to labour activist Kevin Healy in 1986.

Into her eighties, she continued her active involvement in peace, environmental and refugee issues. She retained her faith in Communist principles to the end.

After the death of her husband in 2000, she retired to the Dalton Gardens Retirement Village in Gladesville, where she continued her involvement in art and social issues. She died at Gladesville in 2009.

By Anne Beggs-Sunter, 2015.

Published Resources

Healy, Evelyn, Artist of the Left; a personal experience 1930s – 1990s¸Sydney, the author, 1994.

Beggs-Sunter, Anne, ‘Something borrowed, something blue’, Overland, 160, Spring 2000, pp. 69-71

‘Art Show’, The Courier, Ballarat, 4 December 1935.

Thanks so much to Anne, and also to Julie McLaren and the Art Gallery of Ballarat who hold this work in their collection and have provided us images for use on the Artscapes page.  With the nose of the tram making its way up Sturt St from the left hand side of Evelyn’s etching, the advertisement for ‘Talkies’ at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the background, and the people enjoying a seat by the fountain,  Ballarat springs to life and invites us to consider all that has changed, and all that remains the same.

Thanks to the Fairfield City Art Society and Joe Briffa for this image of Evelyn and an additional artwork depicting her and her second husband Bill.

ARF_Evelyn Healy (Fairfeld City Art Society)

Evelyn Healy work depcting her and her husband. Courtesy of Joe Briffa


People & Places through Time: Recreate a Photo Competition

How have our relationships to places changed or stayed the same through time?  

Here we introduce you to some of Ballarat’s key historical and cultural collection organisations and ask them to select an image for the public to recreate and reinterpret in the modern day at the same or similar location.

Time to get creative!

-Grab your family and friends and recreate an image from one of the photographs below (feel free to bring your own style and flair)

-Visit the CBD, Lake Wendouree, Eureka Park and the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (M.A.D.E), or reimagine a mining scene

-Share to Have you Seen old Ballaarat Town? Facebook Page  Tag #hulballarat

-Like your favourite image and the 3 most popular will be featured here on the HUL website as well as win prizes kindly donated by The Unicorn Ballarat and Camera House Ballarat 

Two women seated in the Sturt St Gardens (FedUni Historical Collection (w credit)

Mrs Wright & Laura. Taken in Sturt St Gardens outside the Town Hall, Ballarat. 16/10/22 By Frank Wright

More information about the Wright Family and the Federation University Australia Historical Collection

Lake Wendouree 1956 (Public Records Office of Victoria)

Winners of 1st heat double sculls L&R J. A. Gardiner and Bob P. Costello of USA dip their feet in Lake Wendouree after their win, watched by Bob’s wife Trudie.  1956 Olympics

More information about this image and the Public Record Office of Victoria

M.A.D.E-Courtesy of Adrian Millane (Ian Wilson Photography)

1910 Postcard featuring the Eureka Monument and flag fragment owned by Adrian Millane, currently on loan to Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (M.A.D.E)

Adrian Millane said his Great Grandfather Francis William Joseph Breen Hanlon had been given the flag fragment by his cousin, Peter Lalor, and Hanlon had guarded this prized possession for several years until passing it onto his daughter Gertrude upon his death in 1891- and she to her daughter Dorothy Millane in 1956, and she in turn passed it on to her nephew, Adrian Millane, in 1992, a year before she died.

“Its value is in what it represents, and to me that little tiny fragment represents us all as tiny fragments that make up a great democracy.” Adrian Millane on ABC Radio

Boys mining (Ballarat library) w credit

Boys mining in an unknown Ballarat location

More information about the Australiana Research Room at Ballarat Library

Postcard Relations (Gold Museum)

Postcard: “Relations” Ballarat Lake Wendouree

The Gold Museum also houses the Ballarat Historical Society Collection. More information here

Artists on stairs (Art Gallery of Ballarat) w credit

Ballarat artists posing at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, as part of exhibition ‘Some Recent Art from the Ballarat Region, 1976’ (Edward Parfenovics, Michael Young, Peter Westwood, Ray Woolard, Bob Jenyns, Lorraine Jenyns, Peter Tyndall)          Image by Merle Hathaway

More information about the Gallery here  

Thank you to these fabulous local Collections organisations and we look forward to seeing your photos! On until the end of November 2015

Please note:

*By sharing your image you give permission for it to be used on the HUL website and Flickr

*Any offensive or derogatory images will be removed

HUL Poster_A3_r

Exploring at the School of Mines Ballarat (SMB)

Dave McGinniss is a PhD student with CRCAH and Amy Tsilemanis is currently a research officer with CeRDI, both at Federation University Australia. Together they have initiated the History Heritage Place Discussion Group in Ballarat that provides a space for ideas and discussion from a diverse range of thinking and disciplines. Join them here on a journey around Federation University’s historic School of Mines (SMB) campus as they walk, talk and snap photos, probably raising more questions than answers along the way.

VictorianCollections-large Interior of Art School by Lorna Bailey 1934    Upstairs in the Chemistry Building 2015

Artwork by Lorna Bailey 1934                                  Exploring 2015

Amy: The fascinating thing about research is all the different perspectives that can be brought to a topic and the ways they might be explored, including these processes of looking, walking, chatting and thinking. Inspired by images of a School of Mines Botanical Garden found in the FedUni Historical Collection (below) I asked Dave to show me the spot, nestled not far from the CRCAH offices themselves.

VictorianCollections- Technical Art School (Jubilee Booklet 1920s)

View of gardens towards stairs, 1920s

Starting at the gardens, we embarked on an exploration of the old campus and were struck by the hidden spaces and the changing urban values they reveal and conceal.

Above the Botanic Gardens 2015

View of gardens from the top of stairs, 2015

You can sneak up a stairway and through a door and find deserted hallways with labels the only hint as to what might have once been here: Photography, Graphic Design, the esteemed Technical Art School… We discover a bunch of bizarre disconnects. A pair of large TV screens – circa 1999 – standing up in front of a beautiful old window, obscuring views across the city, while the ivy grows inside through the window cracks. A line up of abandoned TV screens on the ground outside a building- out with the old, in with the new, whatever that is in the moment?

TV screens SMB 2015TVs in Window 2015

We find classrooms abandoned seemingly mid lesson, ‘Fight the TAFE Cuts’ written in whiteboard marker. Awkward attempts at activation, an empty ‘co-working’ space faces inward, partitioned, doors locked. Another giant screen, this time playing daytime television to no one. A photographic exhibition in a defunct café, all begging the very real question “Who are these spaces for?”

Dave McGinniss at SMB 2015

Dave: I’m here at the old School of Mines most days. It’s peaceful somehow, quiet, even though it’s right in the middle of the city. You can stand on the edge of the library, on top of the hill and look over the traffic. I’m sure you can hear it, but standing above it seems silent.

The School of Mines – or SMB as it’s known – is a fully intact university campus,without students.  Pristinely decrepit. Abandoned but not neglected. Every day the bathrooms are washed, whether they’ve been used or not, as if the students may just walk back in one day. Who knows, maybe they will.

Corridors, classrooms, empty. An abandoned kiosk, with fridge still in place, but not running. Enclosed glass walkways, connecting equally disused buildings. Occasionally a door is locked, so we don’t go there. Even more occasionally, an office has people in it. We don’t go there either. Our own office – Federation University’s Collaborative Research Centre in Australian History – is one of the few pulses of activity at SMB. Even so, you get the sense that if only we knew each other, there may well be a community of people in this strange pocket of Ballarat.

It’s a mix of so many styles and atmospheres. Faded Victorian goldrush civic ambition – see the Botanical Gardens that stretch right up its eastern edge, slowly overgrowing, with neat signs describing exotic species.  And its counterside, a sinister version of Victorian command and control – the immense bluestone and steel prison gates. Try overlooking those, I dare you. The neo-gothic modernism of the Old Technical Art School building, the towering red brick and glass that just has to be from the 1970s or 80s. Everywhere you look there’s something else to look at. I always feel a little bit lost.

When I talk to people about this place, I usually get one of three reactions: “I love that place”…or…  “That place used to be buzzing, but it’s so quiet now” …or…  “where’s that?” I think there are a few reasons why, maybe, that it has such an ambivalent place in Ballarat’s urban landscape. Deep down, it’s a dead end, literally and figuratively. It’s the end of the road. You’re rarely on your way somewhere else if you venture this far down Lydiard St. So it needs a reason to draw you in there. And presently, there aint many of those. And it doesn’t help that the university has installed a red and white barrier in the road, never lowered, but inexplicably, passive aggressively, unintentionally, telling people on the other side… stay out.

Back  then though, well you had no choice. It wasn’t a matter of staying out. It was about being locked in. And therein lies maybe one of the biggest reasons why this place just doesn’t quite work?. The Ballarat Gaol. It looks scary, it feels scary, and until the 1960s when it ceased corrective operations, it was scary. As long as the city elders and their next generation can remember that this was a prison, then that may well be what it remains.

VictorianCollections-Open day ballarat gaol 1964         SMB campus Gaol entrance 2015

Ballarat Gaol Open Day 1964                                                                      Exploring 2015

Many questions remain! Come join us this Thursday for the History Heritage Place Discussion group themed ‘Storytelling in the City’ curated by Lucinda Horrocks of Wind & Sky Productions (read more about some of her recent projects) and Angela Campbell from the FedUni Arts Academy.

Event details here

You can also find out about helping us recreate this image from the gardens from the 1890s. They are thought to be in the Ballarat School of Mines Materia Medica Garden (System Garden) for either a botany, chemistry or materia medica lesson, or as part of the Ballarat Field Naturalists group.

VictorianCollections- 1897 School of Mines students SMB

All the historic images featured here are from the Federation University Historical Collection, explorable via Victorian Collections. Happy exploring!

Detective Work by the Yarrowee

Have you ever wondered where the sites of famous paintings are actually located? This curiosity and the iconic Warrenheip Hills near Ballarat painted by Eugene von Guérard have led intrepid FedUni postgraduate researcher George Hook to make some fascinating discoveries. George tells his story here.

George Hook

My thesis focuses on fidelity to nature issues in the paintings of leading nineteenth century Australian landscape painter Eugene von Guérard. In particular, I am interested in composite landscapes in which two field sketches are combined to form an artwork that communicates the essential nature of, or a narrative about, a specific environment.

In the National Gallery of Victoria hangs an iconic painting entitled Warrenheip Hills near Ballarat. As this important artwork is his first major Australian landscape painting it has received quite a lot of attention from art historians, von Guérard aficionados and locals, but rather puzzlingly the peak doesn’t look much like Mount Warrenheip nor has the idyllic rocky pool been located. My take on the painting was that most likely it is a composite work and the vantage point of the main source sketch might possibly be located if the painted shape of Mt. Warrenheip was ignored.

warrenheip-hills-near-ballarat-1854 (

Eugene von Guérard: Warrenheip Hills near Ballarat 1854, National Gallery of Victoria.

My starting point was the artist’s large drawing in the State Library of Victoria. Assuming the distant hilltop visible between the trees is meant to be Mt. Warrenheip and the rocky pool is part of a creek flowing away from the viewer, then the trick would be to find a site somewhere along the Yarrowee River whose topography and hydrology matched that illustrated, with a view to Mt. Warrenheip thrown in. This proved easier said than done, especially given how extensively the Yarrowee River has been modified by miners, farmers, urban planners and the water board.

Warreneep Hills bei Ballarat, 1854 (SLV)

Eugene von Guérard: Warreneep hills bei Ballarat, 5th Februar 1854, State Library of Victoria.

More critical to locating the site were geological clues embedded in the drawing and painting, and here von Guérard had me fooled completely at times. In the drawing, the rocks forming the front edge of the pool are irregularly shaped but with a level top surface. Those in the painting have the polygonal shapes of tessellated basalt pavement, which is the top surface of highly regular columns of basalt lava.

My initial speculation about the geology was that the pool ledge could be a section of the front edge of a basalt lava flow from Clarkes Hill to the north, which has been gradually worn back by the tumbling action of water over geological time, but a misunderstood email from Federation University geologist Stephen Carey seemed to indicate there was no columnar basalt around Kirks or Pincott reservoirs, so I never bothered checking my initial conjecture.


Lava flows and scoria cones east of Ballarat (detail from Figure 12-2.4 in Ian Clark, Barry Cook and Greg Cochrane, Victorian Geology Excursion Guide, Canberra, 1988, p. 202).

The blocky looking rocks forming the left bank above the pool in the drawing and painting are an intriguing feature as they don’t look much like basalt or even granite. David Taylor from the Geological Survey of Victoria thought they resembled vertically cleaved sandstone found only in the hinge of a fold. Due to tectonic forces in Earth’s crust, the sandstone bedrock underlying much of Ballarat has been crumpled into large folds running in a north-south direction. As fold hinges are usually only a few meters wide, they are relatively rare. If David’s insight was correct, then the key to locating the site would be to find where the Yarrowee cuts a hinge, matches the general topography of the drawing, and provides a view of Mt Warrenheip if taller trees were removed.

Tony Mander Geology of folds in the Ballarat district

Tony Mander: Geology of folds in the Ballarat district.

Over a period of nine months, I investigated three sites along the Yarrowee and two on sandstone elsewhere, along the way acquiring some skill in using a machete and a geological hammer. I located two possible sites that met the above criteria, although one rather disconcertingly faced Blackhill rather than Mt. Warrenheip, but frustratingly neither Stephen nor David could find conclusive evidence of that elusive hinge at either site.

Over a somewhat subdued pub lunch at the Brownhill Tavern adjacent to one of my hopeful sites, I showed David a copy of the painting without realising that he had only ever looked at the drawing previously. He immediately picked up on the tessellated pavement and said there was columnar basalt in the catchment area east of the Ballarat-Daylesford Road. The next week I contacted Peter Field of Central Highlands Water, who gave permission to enter the catchment area between Kirks and Pincotts reservoirs. From topographic and geological maps, I worked out where the rocky pool ought to be if it still existed, and set out to walk from Kirks along the then dry creek bed to Pincotts, but the head-high blackberry proved impossible to penetrate, so I followed a logging track up to Pincotts and began to walk back down the creek.

Within minutes I stumbled across a rocky stream depression that matched so many of the topographical, hydrological and geological features in von Guerard’s drawing that I was immediately convinced I had found that site where he stood to make the sketch on which the famous painting is based. It was a thrilling moment realising that only he and I knew exactly where he had been sketching on the afternoon of the 5th of February 1854.

Site of the field drawing

Site of the field drawing along the Yarrowee River

The rocky ledge just visible beneath the fallen tree trunk in the photo is indeed a knickpoint in a section of a columnar basalt lava flow, which has been steadily retreating upstream over the last three million years as tumbling water undermines the base of the ledge. The columns, however, are very irregular in shape so his tessellations must be attributed to artistic licence.

Since then I have taken several art historians to the site, or shown them photographic evidence, and all agree the evidence is strong, even compelling. Gordon Morrison, director of the Ballarat Art Gallery, said he would only be fully convinced if Mt. Warrenheip could be seen in the distance, so I enlisted the help of local photographer Andrew Thomas to fly his drone camera above the trees surrounding the now water-filled pool and below you can see the evidence that finally convinced him.

View of Mt. Warrenheip by Andrew Thomas

Andrew Thomas: View of Mt. Warrenheip from above von Guérard’s site when the pool was filled with water on 17 May 2015. (The fallen log can just be seen at the bottom middle. )

George Hook

August 2015

Stories Bringing New Perspectives

This is the first in a series of blog posts exploring stories of research, looking at what the historic urban landscape might mean for different research and storytelling projects.

Lucinda Horrocks is one half of Wind & Sky Productions, a Ballarat based independent film production company specialising in short form documentaries, and she joins us here for a Q&A.

The key concept behind the Historic Urban Landscape (HUL) and Visualising Ballarat portals is to provide different lenses with which to view the city and region. As storytellers, Wind & Sky explore ways of presenting multiple perspectives in compelling “big ideas for the small screen.”

You have worked on/are working on a couple of interesting historical projects connected to Federation University Australia- can you talk a bit about Seeing the Land from an Aboriginal Canoe and Memories of War? And how have the processes differed?

‘Seeing the Land from an Aboriginal Canoe’ is a film and multimedia project about a forgotten history of encounters between Aboriginal Victorians and settlers on the rivers of Victoria in the 1800s. The FedUni connection is that the project was inspired by the research of Associate Professor Fred Cahir, who was struck by the everyday use of bark canoes in Victoria in the 19th century, and the reliance European settlers had on Aboriginal technology and skills in that period. The project, which is hosted on Culture Victoria, features interviews with Fred Cahir and Traditional Owners Uncle Bryon Powell, Jamie Lowe and Rick Nelson, and includes artwork, maps and photographs from the regional and metropolitan collections of the State Library of Victoria, the Art Gallery of Ballarat, Public Record Office Victoria, Museum Victoria and the Ballarat Gold Museum. More here.

‘Memories of War’ is a collaborative project now in progress between Wind & Sky, Ballarat RSL, FedUni, the Gold Museum and M.A.D.E Ballarat. It commemorates the centenary of WW1 in Ballarat by exploring the connections young Ballarat people today have to events that took place a hundred years ago. A number of writing, history, arts and education students at FedUni have gone through a process of understanding WW1 this year and they are going to share their stories on a specially developed blog run by the Ballarat Gold Museum. We at Wind & Sky are producing a documentary film about the student journey and that is going to be shown at M.A.D.E Ballarat in a special screening and Q&A event on the 8 November. More info at: http://mow.windsky.com.au/

Alisha Eddy (FU) Nick Murohy (FU)

Alisha Eddy and Nick Murphy, actors from Federation University taking part in the Memories of War film project

I suppose the subject matter for each project is different, but for each project we are trying to work through a process of discovering the heart of a story behind the bare facts of history. With the canoe project that involved working closely with Fred to identify core stories but also required reaching out to Aboriginal communities to try and understand what that history means in today’s context. And that took a lot of time and listening. It’s a very subtle thing creating a documentary, it’s very collaborative, you try to let people speak for themselves, yet provide some framework and structure so it all ties together into a narrative. There’s a lot of work in getting it right, and we don’t always get it right. The ‘Memories of War’ project is complicated by the uncertain nature of it – we’re not sure how many students will choose to participate in the blog project, we’re not sure what we’re going to get. But then we’re never sure what we’re going to get in the end. That’s what makes it an exploration rather than an exposition.

What does the historic urban landscape mean to you in projects like these?

This is a tough question to answer. I’m not sure I know what historic urban landscape means. Places change over time and often the landscape that we cherish today as historical doesn’t actually relate that well to the historical story we cherish. And what does urban mean when you are talking about places of history? What is a city now wasn’t always. Look at the landscape of the 1850s and the Eureka Stockade for example – it must have been a big riotous tent city in a devastated and dug up environment. It was probably quite ugly and not much to do with the urban environment we see today or even the grand buildings of Ballarat we think of as iconic.  Urbanisation is an overlay that can add interest and diversity to a place but also threaten older landscapes and buildings. Cities are constantly rewriting their landscape and rewriting their histories. It’s an incredibly complex thing. Sometimes we play around with this complexity in our films.

With the canoe project we went to some very specific locations which were significant for the stories Fred had unearthed and for the traditional owners who spoke about them. Some were urban and some weren’t. For example we interviewed Uncle Bryon Powell, Wadawurrung Elder, on the banks of the Barwon River in the centre of Geelong, which is now very built up and vastly different from the story of what that place was like in the 1800s. But that for us was an interesting juxtaposition, to sit on that genteel river edge where they have ‘Henley on the Barwon’ today and imagine another landscape where the banks were lined with River Red Gums and Wadawurrung people relied on the resources of the river and the forest and interacted with explorers and squatters, and each group wanted to manage that landscape differently.

Bryon Powell FedSquare---Fred-Cahir

Uncle Bryon Powell by the Barwon River and Professor Fred Cahir on screen at Federation Square

How do you think the stories and memories of a city connect to the physical landscape?

Can a city have a memory? That’s an interesting question. So many people pass through cities at different times and there are a multitude of memories and stories and perspectives about them, some ancient, some recent, some dark and uncomfortable, most of them unknown, some celebrated, many of them historically wrong.  I think places with stories are powerful. Look at the Pyramids or Stonehenge. They are powerful because of what they are, but also because writers have written about them for centuries and we know, or think we know, their story. Look at Hanging Rock. It’s a beautiful place but made so much more significant for many Australians after Joan Linsday’s novel and Peter Weir’s film. I suppose the Pyramids and Stonehenge and Hanging Rock are landmarks. Cities themselves are more complex and the landscape of a city is complex, I think. It’s difficult to answer.

How does making this sort of work change your perspective on the city and its history?

I am drawn to projects which make me think ‘I had no idea that happened’. So I suppose every story I work on enhances my knowledge of a place. History is surprising in that you think you know what happened. You are so confident you know it. But scratch the surface of a common story and you find you barely know a thing. The history of Aboriginal people in the foundation of Ballarat for instance – I went to school here and my schooling taught me that Aboriginal people were in Ballarat in ancient times but after settlement they faded out of the picture, more or less without any influence on the future of the city.  To discover that Aboriginal people are alive in our history, that they were active participants in the events and foundation of this city, that they adapted and endured and influenced, and to realise the extent of their influence on our towns and exploration patterns and inhabitation patterns, that was a big surprise to me. A good surprise.

What role does collaboration play in your work? What do you think comes out of this?

We like collaborating. Well, I say ‘like’. It is scary to begin it sometimes because you have to learn to give up some of your creative control and listen to other ideas on what is important and how something should be done. So there’s a lot of preparation and groundwork needed in collaboration, setting up how you are all going to work together and how you are going to do things. But it’s very important to us. Difficult, scary, time-consuming but a lot of fun and hugely important for the outcome of projects. Through collaboration you get those different perspectives, those transformative moments that are so magic when they arrive.

-Amy Tsilemanis