Bob Pockett, Local Historian
by David Pockett
Bob was born in Healesville, in May 1922, right in the middle of the guesthouse and tourism boom. At this time many of the key ‘players’ in the district were themselves making their own impacts on history, while major projects like the Maroondah Dam were also being constructed and the timber industry was flourishing. History was being made before his eyes. He also knew many of the people making that history, and somehow, a young Bob realised it, soaking it all in. It must have been an exciting time to grow up.
Aged only 7, Bob first visited Toolangi about 1929 on a picnic with his mother and younger sister Elvena.[i] It must have made a big impression because decades later he was still able to clearly recall the church, the original school and a ford on the Yea River at what would now be called Cherrys Lane.[ii] In the mid-1930s Bob revisited Toolangi a few more times in company with the Rev. Townsend, Healesville’s Church of England Minister, and around 1938 he rode up from Healesville by bicycle to investigate purchase of a horse from Mr Bassett, who ran the Toolangi Post Office.[iii]
Subsequently Bob met a Toolangi girl, Jean Blackmore, at a dance at the Chum Creek School. Jean had lived in Toolangi all of her life. The Blackmores had been in Toolangi since late 1916.[iv]
Bob and Jean married and later moved to Toolangi in 1953, farming on 24 acres, with Bob joining the local cricket team.[v] A talented cricketer, Bob was a member of various Toolangi Cricket Club Premiership teams and continued playing well into his late 50s, also becoming a Life Member of the Toolangi Cricket Club.[vi]
Bob was a foundation member of the Toolangi Fire Brigade and at the time of his passing in 2020 had served 67 years including as secretary, 3rd lieutenant and PFA (Private Fire Appliance) officer. He was both a Life Member of the Toolangi Brigade and also a Life Member of the CFA and was awarded the National Medal in 2003. During his service with the brigade, Bob once again saw history happening before his eyes, through fires and other events, including Toolangi’s own share of tragedies.
In the mid-1950s, Bob is understood to have been the first Toolangi farmer to commercially grow potentially virus-free strawberry runners[vii], a crop which would go on to have significant benefits for the entire district. With his background in horticulture, shortly afterwards he was offered a job working for the Department of Agriculture and made responsible for growing the virus free mother stock plants at the Potato Research Station.[viii] Later he became the first secretary of the Toolangi Certified Strawberry Runner Growers Cooperative.[ix] Bob worked for the Department of Agriculture for 30 years as the local inspector for the strawberry runner scheme. In this role Bob got to meet and interact with nearly all of the people in the district, during a time of enormous social and economic change in Toolangi, as the timber mills slowly closed and eventually the historical farming of carrots and potatoes was taken over by the farming of certified, virus-free strawberry runners, now a huge multi-million-dollar industry. In 2010 Bob was recognised as one of the four key people whose unique leadership and vision was responsible for the success of the scheme.[x]
Bob’s in-laws, Alex and Edith Blackmore, were themselves very well-known Toolangi residents. Alex was a Forest Overseer for 30 years with the Forests Commission and also worked in the mills, witnessing both the 1926 and 1939 bushfires.[xi] The family was heavily involved for well over 50 years with Toolangi community activities including the school and the church.[xii] Jean had worked at the primary school as a ‘sewing mistress’ and been a housekeeper for Mr Woods of ‘Wirilda’, and also played the organ at the Toolangi church for many years.[xiii] Jean knew the poet C.J. Dennis and later, the Thring family who bought ‘Arden’ after Dennis died.[xiv] What the Blackmores and Jean knew of this history was also passed on to Bob, and Jean also had an extensive photographic collection, first started by the Blackmores in the early 1920s.
Never one to sit still, Bob was involved in a host of other activities in the Toolangi community, which included being secretary of the Recreation Reserve Committee for many years. He also served on the local C.J. Dennis Centenary Committee in 1976. Later Bob learned how to use a computer and wrote the official history of the Healesville Fire Brigade (of which he had been a member during the war years), with that book being entitled Answering the Call.
Already Toolangi’s unofficial historian, Bob joined the Healesville Historical Society in 1984 and was awarded Life Membership in 2006.[xv] Over more than 30 years, Bob wrote or assisted with the writing of numerous historical publications for the society, including in recent years, the three-volume Images of Time series.[xvi] People inquiring about Toolangi history were inevitably referred to Bob at the society, and also more locally, with Bob writing many historical articles for the local ‘Talking Toolangi’ newsletters and otherwise capturing information about events, people and places before they were lost. Both Bob and Jean were co-authors of the Toolangi Primary School Centenary book in 1995.[xvii] Bob also wrote Raking the Trail, the history of the Toolangi Fire Brigade, plus various other historical articles for the 1987 Mountain Views Newspaper Shire Centenary Edition.
These articles and books remain in many cases the only ones ever recorded or published about key aspects of the history of Toolangi, and we are amazingly fortunate to have them.
For his significant contributions to the local community and to local history preservation and research, Bob was also awarded a ‘New Year Honour’ by Mountain Views Newspaper in 1987.
Bob absolutely loved Toolangi, his adopted home in the mountains. Only very reluctantly moving to the ‘lowlands’ of Healesville in 2018, he passed away peacefully on 10 August 2020 in his 99th year, leaving behind a substantial historical and community legacy for the communities of both Toolangi and Healesville.
References[i] Original notes from Bob’s address to Healesville Historical Society, October 1986
[iv] Date recorded in family history records
[v] A Long Life Through Historical Times, Bob Pockett, 2019/20
[vi] Pockett family information
[viii] A Long Life Through Historical Times, Bob Pockett, 2019/20
[x] Marathon Runners: The Story of the Victorian Strawberry Runner Certification Scheme 1960-2010, Victorian Strawberry Industry Certification Authority, 2010
[xi] Pockett family information
[xv] Healesville Historical Society Life Membership Certificate
[xvi] Images of Time, Volumes 1-3, Healesville Historical Society
[xvii] Toolangi Primary School: The First Hundred Years 1895-1995, published by Toolangi Primary School, 1995