State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 10 October 1972

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A Canter up to the Murray

Henry Gyles Turner (1831–1920), historian of Victoria and banker, arrived in Melbourne as a migrant in December 1854. The following manuscript from his papers in the Library unfortunately is incomplete. It appears he was making a copy of an original which has not survived, and broke off in mid-sentence. The paper is actually titled ‘A Canter up to the Murray and a Scramble Back’. It is, however, well worth reproducing as an account by an enthusiastic young man of the Sydney road in 1859 and of the towns on the way.
Eight o'clock on a bright Sunday morning early in November 1859, saw me mounted on a tall grey horse, riding slowly along the Sydney road. Some dozen miles from Town, beside a friend who bestrode a stout black pony that required much holding in to make him accommodate his pace to the venerable quadruped under me and my somewhat questionable horsemanship.
A metalled road is pleasant enough in a coach but for equestrians it has a monotony that becomes tiresome after the first dozen miles, to say nothing of the irritability occasioned by the more than frequent occurrence of turnpikes, and the attendant tax, a game to which one gets tolerably well used between Brunswick and Kilmore. I have an indistinct idea that the Royal Mail Hotel where we had just breakfasted is situated in a suburb called Somerton, but as I found it impossible satisfactorily to solve the question of the boundaries of these places I can only say that we passed through Brunswick, Pentridge, Somerton, Donnybrook, Kinlochkewe, and other doubtless important townships scattered along the sides of a fine smooth road, and when we reached the Rocky Water holes about 20 miles from Melbourne began to experience a sensation of being out of town. The accredited Almanacs of the period had declared the previous day to be Saturday, and without any great difficulty we had both arrived at the conclusion that we were journeying along the Queen's highway on a Sunday morning; but nevertheless had we been left to guess the day we should never have hit it, for there were scores of teams toiling on their way towards the interior, and plenty of empty waggons being cheerfully trotted towards the metropolis; sturdy men yoking up bullocks, with kicks and objurgations; public houses incessantly busy with the passing caravans; and above all no sound or sign of the traditional “church going bell”, which one is wont to associate with Sunday morning in the old world.
However as I was not commissioned by Dr. Cairns to report specially on these infringements of the day of rest, and as moreover I was working my own beast, albeit for pleasure and not for lucre, I confess I did not take much heed at the time, but cantered pleasantly along the road satisfied with the day, the prospect, and myself. There is some very pretty country the last twelve or fifteen miles before reaching Kilmore, and to my inexperienced and cockney educated eye, the soil appeared to be richer than any I have seen in the Colony — a rich dark loam for the most part free from timber, and looking, after a night's heavy rain, very much like what Douglass Jerrold said you have only to tickle with a hoe, and it laughs with a harvest! But there is one section extending a mile or two on either side of the road, that presents a scene of desolation that leaves quite a melancholy impression on the traveller's mind. As far as the eye can reach the villainous Scotch
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thistle rears its prickly stalk, and covers with its deceitful appearance of verdure hundreds of acres of land that should be smiling in harvest time.
It was about one o'clock when we reached Kilmore, and I must confess that I expected greater things of a town that claims the high honor of being represented by an O'Shanassy. It looks like a town that has been stopped in its progress to importance some years since and been neglected by its inhabitants in consequence of superior attractions elsewhere. Three-fourths of the buildings fronting the main street have a lazy, dilapidated look about them, as though times were too bad to put them in repair, and but for the Colonial Bank office, and Vinge's Hotel, at one end, and a large steam flour mill at the other, I should not have reckoned it as a town at all. There is a good court house, and some tolerably well looking Churches on the hill, the positions of which are very fine and the prospect commanding; but these require an exploration of the place before they are seen, and the passing traveller would form a much worse opinion of the place than I did, as we spent the afternoon, after dining at Vinge's, in investigating the beauties of the locality. Knowing that the made road terminates just beyond the town and being anxious to reach Broadford, before dark, we started about five o'clock, and after passing the McIvor road, came to a cutting through a hill where the metal terminated, and where a magnificent vista through the primaeval forest presented itself. A perfectly straight line through the trees about 3 chains wide and some five or six miles long showed the great engineering work that was going on in the lower land before us. The metal was all laid with an appearance of solidity and thickness that seemed to defy traffic and time, but as the road for the greater part of its length was carried above the surrounding level, and was intersected by numerous stone culverts of a massive character, most of which were not completed, it was of course not open for traffic, so turning off into the bush where the marks of wheels led us to believe the coaches had preceded us we bid farewell to roads, mile posts and for some time to our trusty guide the Telegraph. But we got something in exchange, and plenty of it — dust, which began to fly from under us and to mark the place of every distant team before it was visible amongst the trees. Cantering quietly and slowly along within sight of the newly metalled roadway for four or five miles we passed near the base of a singular conical mountain called the “Sugar Loaf”, and across a tract of country familiarly known to drivers and teamsters on the road as the “Glue Pot”. It is in the winter time unquestionably the very worst part of the whole road between Melbourne and the Ovens, but the progress of the manufactured highway bids fair to rob it of all its terrors, before another rainy season could reduce it to the likeness of the Slough of Despond.
It was falling dusk when we reached Broadford, the principal building of which township is a fine hotel called “Ferguson's” probably after the name of its original founder, as that was not the patronymic of the gentleman who presided over its bar. Being one of the accredited places at which the mail changes horses we assured ourselves from the extensive appearance of the stabling accommodation that our quadrupeds at least were in for a good night's quarters, and as with a long journey before us, that is ever an important consideration, we handed our bridles to the ostler with strict injunctions as to oats and other mysteries of the manger. A large handsome dining room and two comfortable bedrooms on the first floor delighted our
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sense of comfort, which however suffered a shock from the coarse nature of the viands set forth for supper, to say the least of them, ill in harmony with the grandeur of the apartments. But we were hungry and in good spirits so we went satisfied to bed. At six o'clock the following morning we were at the stable, and after much knocking and shouting aroused the ostler, who called the waiter to make out the bill, while he saddled our un-groomed and unsatisfied animals. That bill disgusted me more than any I paid on the road, not only from the magnitude of its charge, but from the items of which I knew nothing. However, an hour in the glorious sunny morning air dispelled my antipathy to the waiter; and my interest in the prospect, the engineering difficulties which the Road Board were encountering, and the novelties by the way drove him out of my mind before we reached the Goulburn. After crossing on a wooden bridge a very wide creek, the road for about half a mile runs by the side of this splendid river, the bank of which is metalled as far as the punt, being about eight or ten feet above the level of the water, and commanding a splendid view up and down the stream, though suggestive of unpleasant ideas, in the company of bolting or jibbing horses, the river side not being fenced. Arrived at the punt we found seven or eight loaded waggons each with four horses awaiting their turn to cross, the punt being only capable of carrying one at a time; an arrangement that sometimes causes a delay of four-five hours to a waggon that is unfortunately in the rear of a train. We however managed to attach ourselves to the first waggon that was crossing and for the trifling toll of threepence each had nearly a quarter of an hour's trip on the swollen current of the beautiful Goulburn.
Once across, we made a dashing entry into the pretty township of Seymour, about a mile from the ferry, where we did justice to a capital breakfast and spent a couple of hours in strolling about the environs. It is true there was not much to be seen, but the banks of a river are ever an attraction in our half-irrigated country, and the township altogether though small, has such a clean, fresh, healthy appearance after Kilmore that we were quite repaid for our stroll. Mounted again we ride leisurely on, in the increasing heat, through a flat but fertile country, passing several large lagoons, round which the track winds immediately after leaving Seymour.
Fifteen miles brings us to Avenel where a splendid stone bridge of six arches is just completed across the creek that runs through the middle of the town, which is a place of more imposing aspect than Seymour, boasting three or four hotels, the handsomest and best being known as Bignell's. We stopped here an hour or so, the principal part of the time being spent in the splendid garden attached to the hotel amongst countless fruit trees, and then mounting once more we faced the road for our nights destination at Longwood. The beauty of the road however was gone for the present, the track lay through a flat forest country where the trees bounded the vision, and left the mind to settle to the dull monotony of the journey.
We reached Longwood a little before dark and found comfortable quarters at Middlemiss's hotel, where our horses were well tended and we fared sumptuously.
In the morning we took a ramble round the township and were very favourably impressed although the hotel which is very large and of brick, and the Post Office and Telegraph Station combined which is built of light freestone, are the only substantial buildings in the place.
Still the situation is fine though somewhat lonely; the scattered small farms around, and the little township are thrown
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up in fine relief by a spur of a mountain range in the background in a very picturesque manner. Soon after leaving Longwood the road resumes its old monotonous level through the apparently interminable forest, while the deep ruts, and frequent boggy patches, proclaim it by no means a desirable place to travel over in the winter season.
Passing through Euroa without stopping, for it looked such a miserable place as to offer no inducement, we continued on over the same dead level to Violet Town, twenty-three miles from Longwood. Here I could not help remarking that in this large straggling place, the only decent building, and that was of iron, was the police barracks. It is true there was an hotel, which combined the business of the Post Office with its bar trade but of the style only to be termed unique. Somewhat tired with our ride and the great heat of the day we confided our animals to the ostler and entering the hostelry called for something to eat, and a bottle of porter. The attendant damsel expressed her regret that they were quite out of the article in question. Nothing daunted I gave in and said that ale would do. But the ale was in the same state. In turn I tried ginger-beer, lemonade, and soda water, and all with equally unpropitious results. I looked at my friend who expressed his doubt as to whether we were actually in an hotel, of which however we were assured by the damsel informing us that the master was down in Melbourne replenishing his stock, which had been allowed to run unusually low. So as a last resource I requested her to produce the brandy bottle and she retired in quest of it. In a few minutes however she returned full of regret that there was no brandy, and an indignant query if there was anything to drink in the house produced the admission that there was gin and port wine, and if we did not like them we could have plenty of milk.
Here was a great case; a public-house where the parched traveller was offered milk is surely worthy of the notice of Mr. Heales himself; and very thankfully we accepted the offer, fortifying ourselves however against ill effects by qualifying it with a taste of the spirit that remained on hand.
As we had a good twenty miles to do before sundown over a prolongation of the flat monotonous road, we did not stay very long after our repast, and reaching Benalla early in the evening we decided to stay at Lowe's hotel for the night anticipating if we went farther we might fare worse. The result verified our anticipations and it is not too much to say that here in the remote interior nearly 150 miles from Melbourne we found comforts and elegancies that I had imagined lingered only in the sacred recesses of West End Hotels in London. Benalla, too, in itself is a charming little place, the shops in the main street being superior to anything we had seen since leaving Melbourne, rejoicing in plate glass fronts with painting and gilding unlooked for. There is an air of health, cleanliness, comfort and prosperity pervading the place quite refreshing, breaking suddenly as it does upon the dreary tedious road.
We were so pleased with our evening inspection of the place that we resolved on spending a part of the following morning in looking about us; so after an early breakfast we sallied forth about eight o'clock, and taking our course up the banks of the Broken River, by which the Town is intersected, consecrated the hour of our matutinal pipes to a ramble in the primaeval forest. Not more than half a mile from the hotel we came upon a denizen of the woods in the shape of an elderly colored gentleman who clad only in an old cotton shirt, with a dirty blanket
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around him was sitting cross legged on the river bank with a handful of fire smouldering by his side and a very short pipe between his lips. His personal property in addition to his scanty wardrobe appeared to consist of two spears, a boomerang, and a shockingly mutilated old gun. the stock of which was bound up with numerous bits of string and leather, and presented so shaky an appearance, that it did not look much like killing anything at which it might be aimed.
I ingratiated myself with the old gentleman by a moderate present of tobacco, and entered into what conversation I could with one who spoke about ten words of English. By signs he informed us that he made his living as a fisherman, spearing the fish, with which the river abounds, at night and selling them to the hotel keepers in the morning. He gave us some practical illustrations of spear throwing, and with one spear in a kind of wooden sling he described a perfectly straight line of upwards of fifty yards. He endeavoured to make us understand that there was an encampment of his tribe somewhere in the neighbourhood but we did not succeed in finding them although we met one or two more of the men, and a lubra leading a fine little boy, about five years old and unencumbered with clothing. The windings of the river and the beauty of the place, deceived us so much with regard to distance that it was nearly noon when we regained our hotel, whence we immediately started for Wangaratta 25 miles distant.
Twelve or fourteen miles from Benalla the road begins to lose its level character and to undulate considerably; delightfully I might say for equestrians but very painfully for the teamsters, particularly the bullock-drays which toil along at such a snail's pace that the drivers must be stoical philosophers not to become mad.
About half way between Benalla and Wangaratta we crossed the spur of a range of hills, which we ascended some little height and had the first glimpse of magnificent mountain scenery on the road. A splendid stretch of country lay to the East of the road, having that peculiar appearance of dense forest which the Australian Bush wears at a distance, covering probably some millions of acres; to the North East at a distance of about 25 to 30 miles lay the Buffalo Ranges, stretching away into dim distance, while behind them again, seeming to meet the clouds, on the distant horizon, glittered the snow capped peaks of the Bogongs or Australian Alps. There was such an impression of vastness and lonely grandeur about these distant mountain peaks, that we lingered long upon the hill side overshadowing our road, and at length deeply impressed with the majesty of the scene rode on in silence for some time. The coach daily passes within a quarter of a mile of the place from whence we obtained this beautiful prospect. Yet I doubt not if it stopped for half an hour at the foot of the hill, few, if any, of the shaken, jaded travellers would trouble themselves to climb the summit.
Our admiration of natural scenery made a hole in our calculations of time and distance, and arriving at Wangaratta, about 3 o'clock, we found it would be too late to reach Beechworth that night and as we could only count upon inferior roadside inns between the two places we resolved to allow our horses a short day's stage and investigate the attractions of this Township. Accordingly we put up at the Victoria Hotel and having secured beds, we strolled out and fell in with some good natured cosmopolitan fellows, who with frank and ready hospitality invited us to join them on a little excursion down the river Ovens on which they were just starting. Seeing a good sized comfortable boat ready