Priestley Family in Toolangi
by Louie Johnston (née Priestley) and Joanne Priestley
There have been Priestleys living on the Old Toolangi-Dixon’s Creek Road, Toolangi, since 1908.
The family tree of the Priestleys can be traced back to 1272 in Yorkshire, England. Early Priestleys once owned a large home named ‘White Windows’, in the English market town of Sowerby Bridge. This home still stands today.
But the story of the Priestleys in Victoria began when a 16-year-old Thomas Joseph Priestley and his 17-year-old brother Charles boarded the ship ‘Cassiope’ in Liverpool on 16 July 1881 and began a long voyage to Melbourne, Australia. Thomas, Charles and the other ten passengers in steerage, as well as four in the saloon, arrived in Melbourne on 3 October 1881.[i] During his voyage Thomas wrote a log of his journey that he sent back to his parents in England after his safe arrival at his aunt and uncle’s home in Dandenong. The letter is still in the possession of the Priestley family.
Thomas was a clerk in England and continued in this employment in South Yarra and Hawthorn until his move to Toolangi. He is listed on the Yea Electoral Roll as a farmer from 1909 until 1921, when he noted ‘selector’ as his occupation.
The Priestley Toolangi story begins when Thomas, his wife Mary Ann and their three children selected land and built a small home on Old Toolangi-Dixons Creek Road in 1908 as it was thought that the country air would benefit Mary Ann’s asthma. Old Toolangi-Dixons Creek Road was, at this time, the main thoroughfare out of Toolangi to Yarra Glen. Thomas named the property ‘Didsbury’ after his hometown in England. Son Charles, or Charlie as he was known, attended Toolangi Primary School (TPS). There is a photograph of Charles at school in 1911 with teacher Florence Mitchell and fellow student Jessie Caroline McLaine (daughter of Walter Henry McLaine and Caroline Jackson) who he married 10 years later in 1921. The newly married couple lived at numerous places including Smedley’s guesthouse ‘Heathlands’, Blackmore’s, and spent six months back at ‘Didsbury’ when Thomas Priestley went overseas.
Opposite ‘Didsbury’ there were numerous blocks of land. One division was a tramway access line from the timber mills up Spraggs Road to two of the blocks. Palings were stored there while waiting for transport to Christensen’s, 1¼ miles south on the Dixon’s Creek Road (Old Toolangi-Dixon’s Creek Road) and on to Yarra Glen.[ii] Another easement was the original route of the Dixon’s Creek Road, which took a shortcut through the property to the main road, but was later re-aligned. During the ensuing years from 1928 to 1934, Charlie and Jessie purchased these easements as well as adjacent blocks, one of which had an old house/cottage which became their home. The family have always thought the cottage was originally a Post Office and Checking Station[iii] on the timber tram track called ‘The Cutting’ that ran down to Dixon’s Creek.
Charlie grew potatoes on Didsbury land, and worked on road building in places like Murrindindi, a government Depression initiative. It was common in the early stories of the district that the men went away to work up in Murrindindi and other camps and left the families at home during the week. Charlie later was employed at Rimington’s wholesale plant nursery on Chum Creek Road, becoming a permanent foreman until his retirement. Charlie continued to live in the old cottage until ill health forced a move to Yarra Glen. Unfortunately, the old house was burnt down in the 2009 bushfires. Charlie had grown a beautiful garden, much of which was lost, but the rhododendrons survived as well as four tall Liquidambars which still serve as a reminder of the family, given to and planted by four of Charlie’s children after the 1939 fires.
Charlie and Jessie had six children from 1922 to 1940. Charles William (Bill), John Herbert, Edward Francis (Frank), Philip Arthur, Jessie Margaret and Louise Pauline (Louie). All attended TPS except for Philip who was home-schooled as he suffered severe asthma. Only Louie survives today.
At family reunions, conversations sometimes turned to those early years in Toolangi. The Priestley homes had no plumbing, so water had to be carried in from outside in all weather. In summer the water tanks were in danger of running dry, so washing and bathing were at a minimum. A big washing tub was carried inside for the weekly bath and on the other days, a wash in a dish had to do. Wood fires were for heating, cooking and washing. On washing day, an outside copper was lit early to provide hot water for the handwashing of clothes in tubs while the sheets and towels were boiled in the copper. Two people were needed to grab each end of a sheet to wring it out by hand. They hoped the prop holding the line up in the middle was high enough to stop the clothes from dragging on the ground. The ‘blue bag’ bleached the whites and served as a painkiller on ant bites.
The week’s meat would arrive in a bag on the mail bus and had to be cooked quickly on the wood fired stove before it spoiled as there was only a Coolgardie safe which barely kept the butter cool. No electricity until 1963 meant anything done at night relied on candlelight until smelly kerosene lamps were used and, later, pressure lamps. Heavy flat irons were heated on the wood stove, and care had to be taken to prevent soot from the stove getting on the clothes. Children walked to school in all weather on rough tracks and gravel roads, distances of many miles. Mud in winter, snakes in summer! But no-one seemed to mind walking to the bonfires held in a paddock opposite the hall every 5 November, nor donning their best clothes to attend a party called ‘the Christmas Tree’ at the Hall.
Growing and moving on
As the family grew up, Bill worked in the sawmills, Frank worked at Rimington’s, Philip cut timber and pulp wood, Jessie became a Sewing Mistress at TPS, and Louie did the same after her. Bill served in World War Two then moved to Orbost, Frank to Healesville, Philip to Lilydale and Louie to Syndal, then Queensland.
Jessie became a teacher in Marysville where she met husband Don Walker. In about 1975 she and Don and their three children moved to the refurbished ‘old house’, and farmed strawberry runners. Two of the children attended TPS. They built a new home beside the old one, which survived the 2009 fires. When they eventually retired and sold the property, several homes were built on smaller blocks.
John had worked at Postlethwaite’s Mill and Rimington’s Nursery before buying his grandfather’s property ‘Didsbury’ opposite. John grew paddocks of gladioli to sell in Healesville before turning to potatoes, and later swedes and was one of the first growers of strawberry runner plants in the district, also becoming the first manager of the strawberry co-operative in 1960. He married Dora Winifred (Bonnie) Hoskin and their three children all attended TPS. Upon his sudden death in 1975, John’s son Bernard continued to grow potatoes, swedes and strawberry runners. Bernard, with his wife Joanne, lived in ‘Didsbury’ for a number of years, but with the house gradually sliding away from the chimney, the old house was demolished in 1991 and a new home built beside it. Bernard and Joanne’s three children are the fifthh generation of the Priestley family to live in Toolangi.
Charlie and Jessie’s other four children, Bill, Frank, Philip and Louie, all married and between them produced ten children, bringing the grandchildren to a total of sixteen, ensuring the continuation of the Priestley name in Australia, begun by T.J. Priestley after that sea voyage in 1881.
Despite the hardships of the early days in Toolangi, those who look back also remember the brilliance of the natural world in those forests and feel fortunate to have grown up amongst them.
[ii] Timber Mountain: A Sawmilling History of the Murrindindi Forest, 1885-1950, N. Houghton, Light Railway Research Society of Australia, 1986, pages 49-56.
[iii] The family knew the house as a Checking Station/Tracking Office for the timber tramway. Houghton, Timber Mountain, page 53 and map drawn by G.R. Thorpe in 1985 refers to two parts of the property as being the sites for a ‘Paling Dump’ where palings were offloaded from the tramway, waiting for road transport to Yarra Glen.