Memories of Toolangi
by Alec Prentice Sewell
I am writing these words in my 86th year, because of the ongoing loss of village, particularly here at Toolangi, with an increasing danger of our little children’s vision being blurred as to the who, what or where of our pioneers. Before all else, a pioneer is a builder. Firstly, huge trees, with all pervading scrub and bracken were removed with infinite labour of axe, saw, crowbar, mattock and Trewhella jack. With the long, heavy paling knife and light wooden mallet, palings were stripped off and, billets split from the long-grained Eucalyptus regnans or Mountain Ash. With palings the settlers built our first school and leased it to the government. Many houses were built, largely of the same material, including roofs. Logs were split into inch thick planks for water races, sheds, and one stable with loft and chute for feeding 25 Clydesdales for breeding and pulling the timber trams along the wooden rails for the Australian Jam Company’s sawmill. The pioneers also built a church, tennis courts and sports oval.
The best way of meeting this crisis of memory is to perpetuate the names of our core pioneers, such as McLaine, Biggs and Demby. Also those names that have disappeared already must be rescued, such as Bassett, Lawrence, Smedley and others, and must include Christopherson, the little Norwegian dynamo, who fathered the Castella break away from Toolangi. He sent his 17-year-old nephew, Jack Brenda, to form the driveway here at Teamster’s Hill and to turn the first furrow with his moldboard plough. When my father told Chris how pleased he was with the work, the little man with the big voice said “Well, you know who trained him.” At the present time it would be most appropriate to recall and commemorate some strong Toolangi characters. Alf Smedley and his wife conducted a farm and guest house, Alanbee, somewhat in rivalry with the Bassett Post Office and Guest House. For one thing, C. J. Dennis preferred supper at Smedley’s, during his very impecunious years, before “The Bloke” and “Ginger Mick” appeared. It was at Alanbee where young ‘Den’ would go to show the young school teacher his latest verse, often about her. Alf had a massive Yorkshire boar, like a not very mini hippopotamus. The fence he built around this horror had tree trunk lengths for posts and massive rails that were adzed from logs. The boar, on sighting anyone, would charge and squeal in fury as it hit the fence with shuddering force.
Walter McLaine, our pioneer carpenter, was born of Highland Scots parents (Lochbuie and all that). His first son Hector married Florence Bassett and had a sawmill for a time. Walter then had twin sons, Gordon and Colin. Colin was a cook, waiter and cicerone et al. at Alex Cameron’s hotel, where we first discovered God’s own nook in the mountains. About this time we had no cricket side, because they had switched to tennis. It had to be one or the other, and this switchery went on until the good air helped to supply a few more blokes. This led to Gordon McLaine, George and Harry Biggs, when aged between 15 and 17, for at least one season walking the 14 miles, via Paul’s Creek, to Yarra Glen, playing their game of cricket (Harry’s quickies got him an invitation to South Melbourne), then walking the 14 ‘up the mountain’ miles home again, to complete a tidy sort of day for lads or men. I tell you, here in Toolangi there were boys in those days!
Pioneers are often colourful, because of their single-minded energy, origins, oddities of expression, and exceptional self-reliance, although Arthur Bassett was the only bullocky I ever heard manage his teams without adjectival language. He had an affinity with animals and rarely laid his whip across their backs, yet I have seen his leaders on their knees, pulling their hearts out for him. He either bred or bought young bullocks and trained them himself. He largely built his big heavy bullock wagon himself, for was he also not our local blacksmith? He named and knew each bullock. From the age of seven to my present age of 84 I can recall some of them. The leaders were Curly and Piper, followed by Rock and Roan, Tiger and Rowdy, but the remaining eight names have faded down memory lane. When spelling his team, he hung a bullock bell around Curly’s neck and turned them all loose at the foot of Tanglefoot, near Mount St. Leonard, where they did well on the succulent banks of wiregrass.
When rounding them up and preparing them for work, he would use the same methods as when initially training them. Yoked again, to their customary pairings, he would keep them circling around him, prodding this one or that with the long whip handle. Addressing each by name exhorting and admonishing, with now and then the rawhide cracking like a rifle shot, just above a thick, hairy hide. They would be wild and ready to side-flick a horn and would need to remember who was master. Ready for the long trek to fill the wheat silos of the Wimmera, up Goroke way, he would hoist the heavy iron tuckerbox centre-front of the wagon, with bags over the top against the heat of the sun. Pioneers are undemonstrative. Goodbyes would have been said in private. Mrs Bassett would quickly kiss him and turn away to some kitchen task or speak sharply to one of her many children. Arthur would stump out, roughly calling his dog.
My brother Jack and I were great friends with the Bassett children. There were eight all told, Florrie, Les, Doris, Thelma, Edna, Ron (Sonny), Win and Eileen. Dear little Win, the blue-eyed, fair-haired girl, such a darling, and yet such a nuisance when we lads wanted to be off on our adventures. Les was the eldest boy and by the time he was 16 he was clearing a spud patch across the road. By the time he was 19 he decided to take on a more dangerous job. He built, where the old post office was, a two-storey slab stable and he acquired a magnificent team of 25 Clydesdales to cart huge loads of timber from Toolangi Mill, at the back of Spraggs Road, onto the famous timber tramlines, with the horses actually walking on the sleepers to the Landing at the top of the Toolangi-Dixons Creek Road, where the timber was moved onto great big trucks.
Yesterday I spoke with Edna Beasley, nee Bassett, in Geelong. I went to school with her at Toolangi for a month or two when she was 10 years old and she will enter her 89th year this St. Patrick’s Day. She told me that her father, Arthur Bassett, presented the cricket club with its present ground. It was then known as the recreation ground (The Rec). Mrs Bassett (Sophie) ran the post office and guest house. Arthur spent some months every year carting wool up in the Wimmera, and was our gentlemanly non-swearing bullocky, whose team would go down on their knees to pull for him. One day he was watching his well-loved, quick-speaking little daughter on the tennis court and said “Ed, some of your strokes would turn a dog from his bone.” Another day he arrived to persuade me to play cricket. I was humping a large green split spar, about 12-feet long and thankfully dumping it, I said in my way, “Can you tell me where I can buy some postholes?” His dry reply was “They’re cheap enough, Alec.”
When Arthur was at home he ran our cricket side. “The bat is to hit the ball with.” He would have tremendous arguments with an umpire of one of the other sides. Later in a long life he was still umpiring, despite being rather hard of hearing and with a cataract in one eye.
I remember his eldest son Les, who neatly axed a slice clean off his thick working boot, with his big toes still in it. Twenty-five miles by coach and train to Lilydale Bush Nursing Hospital. I saw Edna lose a tooth when it was whipped out with a length of string between it and the smartly slammed door. The pioneers and their families were people who could stay the course. They were rarely sick, that was the required qualification.
Mrs Bassett made the house a home, extended it, became our first post mistress and conducted a successful guesthouse. The school was twice closed with only three pupils, but each time Mrs Bassett produced kids like rabbits from a conjuror’s hat and lobbied until the school was re-opened. For three months my brother and I built the roll to eight! At that time the Granton sawmill had a school with thirty children and the most wonderful slippery slide around the mountainous sawdust heaps, which the men made from timber that the company donated. Beside these activities and keeping a fine pleasure garden, vegetables, fowls, pigs and children to supervise, Mrs Bassett would chair the Progress Association and even baked me a special batch of small meat pies when I was down with multiple bull ant bites, for which she advised my mother to apply hot-bread poultices, and very effective they were.
Arthur’s three passions were his family, the Labor Party and the Toolangi Cricket club, not necessarily in that order of preference. From before 1915 to close to his death, about 1953, he was the organiser and inspiration behind our cricket club, which scored an early astonishing victory over a Prahran District side. Our side included Harry Biggs, who turned down an invitation to try out with South Melbourne. The day he went down, Warwick Armstrong (Australian Test Cricketer, 50 Test matches between 1902 and 1921) was there and just batting against the fence. Harry put one right through him. Wattie Cherry was at the other end and was a perfect bowling partner, with his abrupt, left-handed spin.
Wattie Cherry was a terrific character and if he couldn’t get rid of a batsman he would try to talk him out as he was running on to deliver the ball. Wattie Cherry owned the first automobile in Toolangi, a Hupmobile, which he would confidently drive over logs, and not such small ones, as well as saplings and scrub. It knew Wattie would stand for no nonsense. When about 10 years old, I was at Wattie Cherry’s sawmill, watching a feller demonstrate the sharpness of his axe, by shaving a week’s whiskers from the side of his face with the blade, and mark you, no mirror, soap or water. Wattie was in the habit of kicking the belt off the wheel, instead of stopping the engine. He did this once too often. The end of his tough working trouser was caught up and he was battered about badly until someone stopped the engine. His leg was bowed, but, believe it or not, unbroken! He developed an ulcer and finished up in Melbourne hospital. The nurse was in the habit of ripping off the bandage, but Wattie made it clear, very clear, what he thought of the practice. That night he found his clothes, caught the early train from Spencer Street to Yarra Glen and arrived home in the coach. My father went in to see him and his children were crawling all over his bed. He said the ulcer was in a dreadful state. Within a few months Wattie was back running his mill, with a limp and nothing else wrong with him. Wattie was also a notable supporter of the Toolangi Ladies Tennis side. “Come on, you Toolangi dishwashers.” Frequently Doris Scott, nee Bassett, another of Arthur’s daughters, was the unbeatable champion, belting Dixons Creek, Steels Creek and Yarra Glen off the court.
Charles Demby had collateral ties with the earliest pioneers. When young he was a rival of C.J. Dennis for the favours of our neat little school mistress of those days. Charlie enlisted in the First World War, 1914-1918, with Gordon McLaine and Sid Biggs. He always loved horses and he went to Palestine as a Light Horseman, under Chauvel. One day after the war he was cantering his pretty little mare, always with the Light Horseman’s neat rope around the neck, past the long-gone Toolangi House Hotel, conducted by Alexander Cameron. A guest, General Johnstone, suddenly sat bolt upright in his deck chair and demanded “Who is that man riding past? I knew it, the straightest back of any Light Horseman I ever saw.” I don’t think Charlie could bend his back. At cricket he would bend at the knees to field a ball. Playing cricket with him, I noticed he fielded a ball by bending at the knees, or by a favourite Toolangi practice in those days, with the shins, if he could not get down in time. He would nonchalantly stop the hottest shot and one could hear the crack of ball on shins.
Charlie was our first Forestry Commission Officer, when he was appointed Forest Ranger. During those most terrible 1939 bushfires, one of his men had not re-appeared from the hell of heat with his mates. When Charlie came to check things he told his men to wait and dived in after the missing man. Later it became clear that he had found him, had heaved him on his back and would have got out with him, had he not been blinded by then and stumbling over a small log, had been pitched up against a large log. When the fire had diminished there was not a great deal left of either man. Looking back to the 1939 bushfires, I recall the temperature 114 degrees in Melbourne (45.5 Celsius), from which city something like a huge atomic explosion seemed to mushroom into the sky, like a pure white, opulent ice cream, as I drove my father to Healesville for the funeral of Charlie Demby.
Toolangi had sporadic stabs at Australian league football. The deterrent to steady participation stems from the early days, when if a man was injured, that was his bad luck and he and his family were in danger of going hungry. At the age of nine I witnessed our first and last match for many years. The team came from the sawmills and was massacred by a team of Glenburn farmers. We had one short, sturdy, laughing-faced, fair-haired lad of about nineteen, who was a busy little rover. After the match he was in a fine old sweat. Of course no tog room, so he stripped off and got me to throw a couple of buckets of near ice water over him. He then felt good and dried himself on the oily rag alongside the mill engine.
‘Memories of Toolangi’ are the words of Alec Prentice Sewell (5/2/1909–6/8/2003), taken from three documents, two of which he wrote in the 1990s for the Healesville Historical Society and the third document is a newspaper article, which contains Alec’s quotes on speaking to journalist Mardie Lambert in a ‘Mountain Views’ article in 1991.
Lambert, M., (1991), Not Quite, but Certainly the First Post Office Family of Toolangi, in ‘Mountain Views’, 27 May 1991
Sewell, A.P., (1993), Memories of Toolangi, written for the Healesville Historical Society
Sewell, A.P., (1995), First Toolangians Remembered, written for the Healesville Historical Society
Thanks to the Healesville Historical Society for their generous consent to use the articles on this website and to Joanne Priestley for the newspaper article.