State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 74 Spring 2004

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Sketch map of the search area. MS 9356, Box 1045/2b (9). Letter from A.W. Howitt to his sister Annie, 15 January 1859. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection.

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Kim Torney
A City Child Lost in the Bush

Incidents of children becoming lost in the Australian bush served to illuminate the colonists' often-complex relationship with the bush. The bush, the land generally, was a source of livelihood and, increasingly, a place for recreation. It was regarded as an area tamed—until a child became lost. Then the bush took on a threatening aspect that reminded the colonists that this was an alien environment for them and their society.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than in one of the more unusual incidents of children lost in the bush, which was the result of the meeting of city and bush. In January 1858 Lewis Vieusseux, the eight-year-old son of the proprietors of a very successful Ladies' College in Melbourne, became lost during an overnight family picnic to the increasingly popular Ferntree Gully in the Dandenongs.1 Well-educated and accomplished, the Vieusseux family—Julie and Louis Vieusseux—moved in the upper circles of Melbourne's social and cultural life following their arrival in Victoria in 1852. Julie Vieusseux was an accomplished portrait painter, among her surviving portraits being one of fellow-artist and friend, Eugene von Guérard.2 She became a friend of Georgiana McCrae, a member of the La Trobe family circle who was also well-known in the colony as a portraitist.3 In 1857 Vieusseux exhibited with the Victorian Society of Fine Arts, alongside recognized colonial luminaries, including Ludwig Becker, von Guérard, McCrae and Nicholas Chevalier.4
Within this social context the Vieusseux family would appear to be well-insulated against the vicissitudes of bush-life. Most of the recorded incidents of children lost in the bush involved children of poor settlers—shepherds, small selectors, miners and timber-cutters. Either in the course of play or work these children had wandered off into the bush and become lost. However, Lewis was lost in very different circumstances—while riding ‘an old stock horse’ down a track to the hut where the party had stayed the previous night; and with his mother and others of the party walking not far behind. It seems almost incredible that he could have become lost, but a detailed and vivid description of the incident may be found in letters held in the State Library of Victoria written by one of the party, Alfred William Howitt.5 The immediacy of this account by an intelligent, perceptive and articulate participant provides a rare insight into the awful ease with which people, particularly children, could be lost in the Australian bush, and also illuminates the details of a bush search. These letters serve to demonstrate one of the ways in which colonial experiences were portrayed and disseminated in the home country, to take their place in the rapidly developing mythology of Australian colonial life.
Howitt, who also arrived in Victoria in 1852, soon became known as a very capable bushman. He led the 1861 expedition to recover the remains of Burke and Wills and was later widely recognized for his contributions to geology and anthropology. He
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published several studies of the Aboriginal people of south-east Australia, most notably The Native Tribes of South-east Australia (1904).6
In the first of these letters, written on 15 January 1858 to his sister, Annie, Howitt explained that he had just picked up her letters because he had:
only returned [to Melbourne] the day before yesterday from the Dandenong Ranges where having been a fortnight trying with … others to find a poor little child that has been lost in the mountains but unfortunately without the slightest success. It has been a horrible affair.7
Howitt described the incident as causing a sensation in Melbourne—being ‘a very special topic of interest at present as is our search’—and devoted the rest of the letter (four closely written, crossed sides) to giving Annie ‘as clear an account I can’.
The early part of the letter alludes to his friends ‘the Vieusseux who used to live in Brighton … now living in Melbourne near the Markets’. This quintessentially urban couple were in the vanguard of excursionists to the Ferntree Gully, very possibly tempted by the work of another artist friend, Eugene von Guérard, whose widely-acclaimed painting Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges, was first exhibited in 1857.8
For some time Mrs Vieusseux has determined to have a picnic about Xmas at the Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong and on new years day we started from town for the Liddiards station which lies immediately below the mountain. We had … all kinds of good things both eatables and drinkables and set out in the highest spirits -9
This demonstrated the view of the bush as playground. Howitt's descriptions of the all-day journey to their destination—the Liddiards' hut on the mountain—and their overnight stay, accords with the notion of the bush as a place for recreation and rejuvenation, it seemed an essentially benign environment.
About one o'clock we reached the Dandenong Creek and camped for the luncheon … and a merry time we had of it. The weather was glorious, the shrubs on the banks of the creek were loaded with white blooms and the air seemed to feel lighter and purer with every step we took from Melbourne.10
The party stayed overnight at ‘the Liddiards hut’ (which Howitt sketched for Annie to illustrate what he meant by its having an ‘undoubted bush appearance’), and the next day they walked on to the Ferntree Gully. Here they separated, with several of the men, including Howitt and Mr Vieusseux, heading off for the summit of the mountain, leaving Mrs Vieusseux, Lewis and another man to rest before heading back to the hut. With the remaining group was ‘Taps’, an elderly horse belonging to Liddiard, which he had assured them would walk straight home, ensuring that they could not get lost. The tired boy headed down the track on ‘Taps’ with the adults walking a little way behind. What followed, as explained to Howitt by a distraught Julie Vieusseux, demonstrates just how easy it was to become lost.
When they got to Dobson's hut Louis and ‘Taps’ were some little way in front and out of sight and most unfortunately Mrs Vieusseux took the wrong turning – a road leading past the sawmill. Having followed this for a few hundred yards but not seeing Louis she “cooeed” and Louis answered her from the other track. She then sent the driver … [to] fetch [him] but he misunderstood her and only went as far as [to] see Louis and then came back to tell her that
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Liddiards hut. MS 9356, Box 1045/2b (9). Letter from A.W. Howitt to his sister Annie, 15 January 1859. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection.

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Eugene von Guerard, artist. Ferntree Gully, Dandenong Ranges. [1865] Chalk lithograph. H25828. La Trobe Picture Collection.

he had seen Louis leading the horse. From this moment not the faintest trace of the little boy has ever been found. If he had been [carried] off in the air or swallowed by the earth his disappearance could not have been more complete or mysterious.11
The tone of bafflement and frustration apparent in Howitt's comment suggests why, in similar situations, some people turned to the notion of lost children having been taken by Aborigines.12 This at least gave them a tangible focus for their anger and sorrow, something capable of rational understanding.
Despite a vigorous and extensive search over three weeks Lewis's fate remained unknown. The horse was soon found ‘quietly grazing not a few hundred yards from where she was last seen’, but there was no sign of the boy. It was two years before his remains were found. Evidence given at the inquest provided the broad outlines of a vigorous search.
We commenced a search for him, and in a short time, being rejoined by the party, all of them aided us in that search…. We continued that search until night fall and lighted fires on the hill, and shouted in the direction we thought the child would be. The search was continued next day with great additional help on horseback, and was kept up daily for at least a week, and at periods for three weeks, but without any success.13
Howitt's more detailed descriptions fill in the gaps and also convey the human agony of
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Unknown photographer. Picnic party. Dandenong Ranges. [ca. 1860] Albumen silver photograph. H92.354/8. La Trobe Picture Collection.

the experience. In a letter to another family member he described helping to light fires on the mountain that night, although exhausted by searching, to appease the anxious mother, who he confessed he dreaded to see:
the terrible anxiety in her face exercised a sort of horrible fascination upon me … she would start up and wring her hands – the tears streaming from her eyes – and exclaim in a tone of such heart rending misery “Louis-Louis, my poor little boy – why will you not answer your mother” – that my blood seemed to freeze, it was like a horrible dream become as reality.14
This is an unusually intimate insight into the experience of losing a child in the bush; most accounts detail the search with only a passing reference to the state of the parents. Howitt goes on to describe the search begun early next morning, with the searchers forming ‘a “cordon” each man in sight of the others and and “cooeeing” out with [every] few minutes’, then checking through ‘thick scrub, along the creeks, over ranges’ with the area ‘full of snakes’. Horses were brought in but the country was so rough that one fell over on its rider and Howitt wondered ‘that he was not killed’.
In this letter Howitt provides more detail about the ‘blacks’ mentioned briefly in the earlier letter. They appear to have been called for about a week after the search began and rapidly realized that there was no hope of finding Louis. Howitt described going to see the ‘blackfellows’ after their first day of tracking and finding them:
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Very sulky about something … after a great deal of trouble got them to talk. “Bale me find him at all” said Big Jim “plenty rain fall him down – no get him track – a little boy too much pull away all about – no look at that fellar (the sun) – tumble down along the scrub,… This was the substance of his conversation – the two others said nothing and although they knew that by finding Louis they would get ‘fifty yellow fellow’ they would not look, they believed that he was dead and that it was useless to look and went off to the Yarra.15
Howitt agreed with their assessment but still wanted to keep searching, giving as his reason a virtually universal driving force in the search for lost children,
Of course we had given up hope of finding the child alive so many days had passed by that we could only expect to find his body – but even his cap or a piece of his clothes would have been a satisfaction16
It was the total disappearance of children that seemed so hard to bear, almost as if they had never existed.
Howitt outlined his own theory as to what had happened to Lewis in his letter to Annie, and included a sketch map to illustrate the sequence of events. He believed that the boy, upon hearing his mother cooee, had attempted to turn the grazing mare back, which it would not do being so close to home. He thought that the child had then dismounted, left the horse and headed towards the cooee, along a fence and then across an old bridge to the road his mother had just left as she hurried towards where she had heard him answer her cooee. Then Lewis, hurrying along the road looking for his mother had reached the sawmill and been frightened off into the bush by savage dogs which:
ran out at him open mouthed as they do at every one – and that he then either took a blind track leading part way to [Harbury's] or that being frightened off the road he was unable to find his way onto it again.17

Batchelder & O'Neill Photographers. Alfred William Howitt [ca. 1863]. Albumen silver carte-de-visite. H93.371/4. La Trobe Picture Collection.

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In a poignant allusion to a lost opportunity of rescue, Howitt describes a meeting several days into the search with Banbury, a carter of post and rails with a hut on the mountain (marked on his sketch map). He told them that:
On Saturday night he'd heard a child “a cooeing and a hollering” in the direction of his hut and had supposed it to be his little boy. On going home he found the child there before him and thought nothing of the circumstance. … on Saturday morning he had seen the prints of a child's foot coming down towards the sawmill from Dobson's.18
This episode emphasizes the role of luck in these searches.
Given the family standing, the obvious public interest in such stories and the active and fairly lengthy search, one would expect to find some coverage in the Melbourne newspapers. In fact I have been able to find none, nor in any regional newspapers or journals. The family placed an advertisement in the Age offering a £50 reward for information about the boy, but there were no articles describing the incident or the search.19
One can only speculate as to the reason for this lack of publicity, but class certainly seems to be as possibility. There may have been some sense that it was inappropriate to intrude on an upper-class family, or even active intervention to prevent publicity. The family was, after all, running a Ladies' College for a living and may have felt that public association with such a tragedy would affect their enrolments. However, there was another very unusual aspect to this episode. Marjorie Theobald reports that among the personal papers retained by the family were several items relating to Lewis' disappearance, including, ‘a letter from the chief commissioner of police describing the search and regretting his failure to find the child … [and] a semi-literate ransom note which attempts to extort money from the parents in return for the child.20 These are unique in my experience; poor families received neither ransom demands nor letters from the chief commissioner of police. The ransom attempt may explain any lack of publicity—perhaps it was considered that news of the search would endanger the boy's life. Ransom seems a peculiarly urban crime that sits oddly with the intrinsically rural nature of the image of ‘lost in the bush’.
Nothing came of the ransom attempt or the search. In poignant recognition that her son would not be found alive, Julie Vieusseux memorialized his life. She entered his name on the flyleaf of the family bible—‘Lewis Stephen Arthur Vieusseux … lost 2nd January 1858.’—and painted his portrait, using her remaining son, Edward, as a model.21 Just over two years later some certainty was given the family with the discovery of a skeleton and clothing that served to identify Lewis. His remains were found by a woodcutter in search of water. The paragraph in the Argus announcing this discovery concludes with a reminder to readers that:
scarcely a month ago a trooper was lost somewhere about the same spot in those ranges, and up to this time has not been heard of, notwithstanding that, as we are now informed, a vigorous search was for several days instituted by the authorities.22
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The message is clear: however apparently attractive, the bush remains a dangerous place. The coronial inquest on the remains concluded that:
on the 5th of January, 1860, the remains of the deceased were found in the Dandenong ranges, that there were no marks of violence upon them, nor any evidence to show the cause of death.23
The disappearance of Lewis Vieusseux must have served as a chilling demonstration to the colonists of the power of the bush—neither money, nor education nor social status could protect the child. He was just as vulnerable as the child of the poorest settler. Nor was he the only child to be lost in the area; in John Larkins' The Book of the Dandenongs, there is a short account of an eerily similar incident. Whilst detailing the increasing settlement of the area and its construction as a tourist area Larkins notes that:
The mountains did not surrender without a struggle. In 1863 a six-year-old boy, out for a weekend riding visit, became lost in the bush near Ferntree Gully; his remains were found many years later.24
Like Lewis Vieusseux this boy had been engulfed in Howitt's ‘impenetrable scrub’.
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1

Marjorie Theobald, Knowing Women, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 47. The child's name is spelt Louis or Lewis in different accounts. I have used Lewis because that is the way in which Theobald noted it as having been entered in the family bible. Where quoting Howitt I have retained his spelling.

2

Ibid, p. 45.

3

Brenda Niall, Georgiana, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press Miegunyah, 1994, p. 214.

4

Ibid, p. 217.(Becker later died in his role as artist on the Burke and Wills expedition, Chevalier was best known for his landscape paintings, von Guérard was also known for his landscapes, as well as his paintings of the goldfields and homesteads.)

5

MS 935 6, Box 1045/2b, Alfred William Howitt Papers, letters to family and friends. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria.

6

Oxford Companion to Australian History, 1999, p.329.

7

MS 9356 1045/2b (9). A. W. Howitt to Annie Howitt, 15 January 1858,

8

Tim Bonyhady, The Colonial Earth, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 2000, p. 107.

9

A. W. Howitt letter, 15 January 1858.

10

op cit.

11

op cit.

12

For examples of this, see the account of the loss of Martha Ward, first noted in the Portland Mercury, 16 August 1843, p. 3; the Geelong Advertiser and Squatters' Advocate, 29 October 1845, p. 2, outlines a story of a lost child who had been taken and eaten by a ‘Pyrenees tribe’.

13

Age, Melbourne, 17 January 1860, report of inquest, p. 3.

14

MS 9356 1045/2b (10). A. W. Howitt to family member, 25 January 1858.

15

op cit.

16

op cit.

17

A. W. Howitt letter, 15 January 1858.

18

A. W. Howitt letter, 28 January 1858.

19

Age, 7 January 1858, p. 1 (repeated 8, 9, 11 January).

20

Theobald, Knowing Women, p. 47.

21

op cit. Another son, Stephen, had died at the age of fifteen months in 1852, p. 45.

22

Argus, 17 January 1860, p. 5.

23

Age, 17 January 1860, p. 3.

24

John Larkins, The Book of the Dandenongs, Melbourne, Rigby Limited, 1978, p. 74.