All posts by Helen Hunter

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

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