One of the best parts about researching a historical era and location in which to set a novel is that you have to read everything. The sadest part is that you don’t get to use half of what you learn. At least, not consciously. But you don’t ever know what you’ll need. So you read.

This week have been reading Old Melbourne Town by Michael Cannon. l am always struck when reading about Victoria’s early settlers at how capricious they were – coming overland and across Bass Straight to occupy the district illegally, yet calling on British law to protect their squatting interests. Despoiling the land with nary a thought for its original inhabitants, living in tiny wattle and daub huts, enduring floods, fires, noxious odours and explosions, yet having the foresight to lay out botanical gardens, race courses and cricket clubs. What vision. What arrogance.

Here are some snippets I came across this week.

  • Punt Road is called Punt Road because – wait for it – there was a punt at that part of the river
  • Living ‘south of the Yarra’ was nothing to boast about initially.
  • The inhabitants of the south bank huts and clay pits were ‘social pariahs,’ said to be ‘terrors for drinking.’
  • Elizabeth Street was originally a creek bed
  • Small wooden bridges were constructed so that people could cross from the road to the shops
  • Commercial water carriers pumped water from the Yarra and delivered it to town inhabitants
  • Carcasses from the abattoirs below Batman’s Hill were thrown into the Yarra
  • The incoming tide washed them back towards the town
  • Some wondered whether this was causing ill health
  • A dam was constructed across the Yarra to help separate the fresh water from the incoming tidal waters
  • In July 1842, flood waters swept down the Yarra were balked at the dam and flooded the town
  • Brick makers huts and kilns were washed away
  • People drowned
  • This happened in 1842, 1843 and 1844
  • Old Melbourne gaol is in fact the fourth Melbourne gaol. Aboriginals burnt the first one down in 1838
  • The majority of Melbourne’s first constables (sent down from Sydney) were dismissed for drunkenness and corruption
  • Melbourne’ first Supreme Court Judge, John Walpole Willis’ stormy background included expulsion from school, removal as Equity Judge in Upper Canada, and constant conflict with his brother judges in Sydney.
  • Governor Gipps sent him to Melbourne to get rid of him.
  • Ditto Supreme Court Deputy Registrar James Denham Pinnock (also from Sydney) who as Emigration Agent had allowed ‘many scandals to continue.’
  • Are you picking up a theme here?
  • The first mail in the settlement was hand delivered by John Batman
  • Letters took five weeks to travel overland from Melbourne to Sydney
  • One poor horseman rode all the way to Yass and forgot to exchange the mail bags, returning months later with the original letters
  • I am thinking of taking up genealogy.
  • Seriously, I think he and I must be related