Waterways


'The River', Bundoora Homestead Art Centre, Oct-Feb, 2012.

Aboriginal People are … outcasts in our own land.
Doug Nicholls, National Day of Mourning speech, 1938.[i]


From the time I went ‘yabbying’ in the Merri Creek near Heidelberg Road, to swimming at the sandy point below the Pipe Bridge over the Yarra, or exploring the abandoned Fairfield Boat Shed and its stagnant overgrown swimming pools, the waterways of Darebin have played a part in my life. I grew up and currently live in Westgarth on the plateau between the Merri Creek and the Yarra River. It is a curious place to live. I feel somehow privileged, as if the power of the rivers meeting has some sway. I recall John Batman’s description of the ‘Merri’ area[ii] as being superb country, with open pastures, tall river gums and pristine waters. Darebin has historically strong connections with Indigenous communities, particularly the traditional owners, the Wurundjeri. Down the waterway from where I live, the Merri Creek Aboriginal School was established in 1846. I was a pupil at Westgarth Primary School where Indigenous children from the nearby Aboriginal Advancement League would also attend. At this school, in the 1960s, I was taught an appreciation for Indigenous painting and dream-time stories. My street, which once consisted of the telephone exchange, a car yard, a dairy and empty factories, is now peppered with artisans. Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s 2008 documentary film, Bastardy,[iii] about the life of Jack Charles, child of the Stolen Generations and founder of the first Aboriginal Theatre Company, was partially filmed while he was a resident in my street and I wonder if he is still here. Is the lone Aboriginal flag draped across the seventh floor window his? This window overlooks the Northcote Park Football Ground where Sir Doug Nicholls (Pastor) played football and lived for several years in a cottage as the ground’s curator. 1960s inner-city Melbourne was also, as Darebin still is today, a destination for new settlers.

Recently, I enjoyed a stroll along the banks of the Yarra River at Alphington. The narrated signage illustrating the history of the billabongs, swimming pools and houses that once existed along the water’s edge made my walk all the more enjoyable. As an artist, I am aware of two great Australian painters with a connection to Darebin’s waterways. Ian Fairweather lived at the Darebin Bridge Hotel, the then home of Lina Bryans, during his Melbourne stay from 1945-7. Whilst he occupied the basement, he also enjoyed reading on the front veranda.[iv] Knowing Fairweather’s lifestyle, I imagine he explored the Darebin Creek. At the back of this property a palm tree and a row of old pines suggest a once rambling garden to the waters edge. Tom Roberts also encouraged the Impressionists to appreciate the local flora of Studley Park and painted A Quiet Day on Darebin Creek, 1885. History’s evidence is not always tangible; it can be experienced in other ways. Roberts probably travelled along Heidelberg Road to get to the Darebin Creek painting site, an Indigenous track (the original creek crossing was at Spensely Street, Clifton Hill).[v] Upon seeing the reconstruction of Dights Falls, one could further surmise whether the natural land fall was at some time enhanced by Indigenous peoples to create a weir. For the Wurundjeri, the falls area provided a safe harbour and meeting place, an insurance against drought and flood contamination with a steady supply of food (trapped eels for example) and fresh drinking water.[vi]

… by the banks of the Merri Creek not far from central Melbourne
Philip Jones, historian, 2009. [vii]

The most significant event likely to have occurred on Darebin’s waterways in settlement history is the signing of the Dutigalla Treaty, for, says Philip Jones, ‘our continuing need to explore how two cultures meet and might have met on Australian soil’.[viii] A group known as the Port Philip Association, of which Batman was a founding member, conceived and backed Batman’s treaty expedition with the intent to circumvent the atrocities that had occurred in Tasmania.[ix] Batman, a Currency lad and bushman, set off with seven Aboriginal interpreters and three servants for Port Phillip on the Rebecca. The ship was steered safely into the Yarra. He met elders of the Wurundjeri including Billibellary and Jerum Jerum where the ‘Merri joins the Yarra Yarra’.[x] Batman expressed a desire to settle on ‘friendly’ terms and pay an annual tribute of necessities. Goods were traded (for example, knives, scissors, blankets and shirts in substantive amounts) in exchange for vast tracts of land. The next day, June 6, 1835, according to Manning Clark, the treaty was read out, Batman left, elated, for Launceston[xi] on June 9. A scurrilous deed, the treaty negotiation was also the first and only known attempt by European colonists to acknowledge First Australians as traditional land owners. Batman’s treaty inadvertently spurred Sir Richard Bourke, Governor of N.S.W., in August, to declare any treaty illegal under terra nullius, a notion which was not abolished until the Mabo case and a decision of the High Court in 1992.

Batman’s diary has been sited to dispute the treaty signing location.[xii] It appears he may have first travelled up the Maribyrnong. The journal is confusing as there are no maps and the distances covered have to be exaggerated. Batman himself gets momentarily lost trying to return to the Rebecca. Page 74 of the diary, June 8, indicates he is near the ‘falls’ on the Yarra, where he states ‘this will be a place for a Village – The Natives on shore’.[xiii] Several of the signatories on the treaty including Billibellary, a Ngurungaeta (leader) and song maker[xiv] of the Wurundjeri, are known to have lived in the Yarra River region. His nephew, the son of Jerum Jerum, William Barak, said he was present at the signing.


Figure 1. What is left of the believed memorial plaque found under weeds, at the rear of ‘Terracedale’,3 McLachlan Street, December, 2010.
The treaty states Batman’s lands are, ‘running from the branch of the river at the top of the port about 7 miles from the mouth of the river’.[i] Indigenous oral history, Melbourne pioneer John Fawkner, and local folk law have the treaty signing at a spot on the Northcote side of the Merri Creek near the Old Colonist’s Association. At some stage it is believed a memorial was placed to mark the site. In December, 2010, I found the remains of the said memorial plaque buried under weeds near the creek (figure 1). According to Rex Harcourt, ‘In 2006 the Darebin Council while clearing the northern banks of the Merri Creek, unearthed a small concrete plinth with four bolts near its corners’.[ii]

Wurundjeri elder, Ian Hunter said ‘his grandmother Martha Nevin told stories about his great-great-great-grandfather Jerum-Jerum, one of three senior tribal elders at the treaty signing. Nanna pointed out the scar tree and said “That’s where it happened”’[iii] (figure 2). What is the value of Indigenous oral history, much of which is passed in song?[iv] Is Western history, which is subject to debate and reinterpretation, more authoritative?

Figure 2. The ‘Treaty’ Scar Tree (fallen), at 3 McLachlan Street, December, 2010, has since vanished 

In this area Billibellary (Jika Jika) is said to have lived. He said ‘I am king … I no go out of my country, young man go as you say, not me’.[i] You can get a good view of both the scar tree and the memorial plaque locations from the city-side of the Merri Creek, near Rushall Station. The two line up. Below is an easy walk down to the bank, a forged track. To the right is a grotto like cavernous space of rock cliff. Caught in the rain on a return visit, I realised this space is a shelter[ii] (figure 3). The site is a natural amphitheatre and may have been of significance for certain ceremonies as a scar/message tree was in the area.[iii] Additionally, a stone weir or crossing could easily have existed here (figure 4)[iv] and been subsequently washed away in floods, an occurring phenomena, which helped create the deep chasms further downstream behind Oldis Gardens.

Figure 3. ‘Shelter’ opposite suspected memorial stone base and scar tree location, August, 2011
Figure 4. Charles Troedel, Wurundjeri  on Merri Creek, 1865, lithograph. (Note the stone weir).
John Wesley Burtt, Batman’s Treaty with the Aborigines at Merri Creek, 6th June, 1835, c1875, depicts the treaty signing and exchange of goods including possum-skin cloaks. The incised Treaty Tree or ‘Batman’s Tree’ pictured was also washed away in a flood.[i] A 1911 ownership dispute resulted in the painting being hung at the Northcote Town Hall to be close to the treaty site.[ii] Recorded living testimonials attest to the accurate portrayal of the people present at the signing. The geography fits with the Merri Creek site but the vegetation does not. This is not remarkable however as it was the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition, held in Melbourne in 1889, that brought the Australian bush painted ‘plein aire’ and therefore from direct observation to public attention. The tree, for example, in Burtt’s painting is not a true representation of a gum tree, rather a romanticised depiction common at the time. Equally Rucker’s Hill is presented in the correct location but is seemingly too close and small. The main focus of the painting is the signatories and the tree. The painting seems to follow landscape’s ‘golden mean’, one third foreground, one third sky, suggesting, given the title of the painting, that the depiction of the hill was compositional.  

Practically the entire area from the Rushall Station to Heidelberg Road I can imagine was once as beautiful as Batman’s description of the ‘treaty’ stream. Sadly today what introduced trees survive at the waters edge are often adorned with rubbish, mostly plastic bags. It is hard to find a native grass,[iii] a legacy of past unresolved industry use, however the natural beauty of the river’s basalt cliffs remains.[iv] So too, the lack of any acknowledgement of a treaty site is reflective of post-settlement history. The exact location of the treaty signing may never be confirmed, but the evidence suggests it was the Merri Creek at ‘West Bend’ which deserves to be acknowledged as such.

Dr Terri Brooks
Photographs: Terri Brooks



[i] In conversation with Rex Harcourt, May, 2011.
[ii] Madeleine Say, ‘John Wesley Burtt’, Design and Art Australia Online,
http://www.daao.org.au/bio/john-wesley-burtt/#artist_biography (accessed August 15, 2011).
[iii] Carolyn Lunt, http://www.carolyn-lunt.com.au/revegetation.html (accessed, August 14, 2011).
The revegetation work of ‘Friends of the Merri on Parade’ in the Ross Street area is the exception.
[iv] The Merri Creek Management Committee, http://www.mcmc.org.au/index.php?option
=com_content&view=article&id=154&Itemid=251 (accessed August 12, 2011).


[i] ‘Billibellary’, Macmillan, http://www.macmillan.com.au/site/maconixexch.nsf /0/c3f08a630f3db601ca25722c00169893/$FILE/1Worksheet.pdf (accessed August 18, 2011). Billibellary speaking about his time in the Native Police c1842. 
[ii] It is an open shelter of the type found with rock paintings at the Grampians-Geriwald. There are actually carved glyphs on some of the rocks but I am unable to determine their origin. Some are Western graffiti including a weathered ‘knife’ carved inscription, ‘T. Hastie’. There was a Scottish Rev. Thomas Hastie from Launceston in the Port Phillip district in 1847 (encouraged by the Learmonth brothers). He was one of the founders of Buninyong, near Ballarat. The original Buninyong station was owned by Somerville and Thomas Learmonth. Their brother John had a freehold at Batesford, acquired in 1839 by his father, assets from the Port Phillip Association. All were Scottish, including the Robertson brothers who financed Batman’s journey. Batman had high profile backers and the treaty signing was news in Van Demons Land at the time; Archeologist, Dr Susan Lawrence examined the site and confirmed it is a shelter, August 31, 2011.
[iii] Rex Harcourt in conversation, August 19, 2011.
[iv] John Batman, ‘Journal’, State Library of Victoria, http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/portphillip
/0/0/1/tdoc/pp0016-045-0.shtml (accessed August 17, 2011), 45, ‘Saw several places on going up which the Natives had made with stones across the creek.’


[i] ‘Batmania’, National Museum of Australia, http://www.nma.gov.au/kidz/batmania/ batmania_html_version/batman_land_deed_transcript_/ (accessed August 17, 2011).
[ii] Rex Harcourt, ‘Batman Treaty’, WikiNorthia : Documenting Life in the North, http://www.wikinorthia.net.au/index.php/Batman_Treaty (accessed August 16, 2011).
[iii] Ian Hunter, quoted in Alexander Romanov-Hughes, ‘Batman Treaty Memorial Located’, Port Phillip Pioneers Group Inc., http://home.vicnet.net.au/~pioneers/pppg5be.htm (accessed August 17, 2011).
[iv] We retain ten percent of what we read but I can remember the lyrics of hundreds of songs from the radio, word for word, without having heard those songs for decades. 


[i] Epigraph: Sir Doug Nicholls, quoted in Gary Foley, ‘Doug Nicholls’, The Koori History Website, http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/heroes/nicholls.html (accessed August 12, 2011).
[ii] A 20 year memory, before I knew that Batman’s presence in Northcote was contested.
[iii] Amiel Courtin-Wilson, Bastardy, 2008, http://bastardydocumentary.com/ (accessed August 12, 2011).
[iv] Murray Bail, Ian Fairweather (Sydney: Bay Books, 1981), 74.
[v] Telephone conversation with Rex Harcourt, May, 2011.
[vi] Dights Falls stopped further contamination from salt/storm waters; Eels were common in the Yarra.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] See the ‘Black Wars’ or the ‘Black Line’.
[x] C.M.H. (Manning) Clark, A History of Australia III : The Beginning of an Australian Civilization, 1824-1851 (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press), 1971, 88.
[xi] Ibid, 88-89.
[xii] Rex Harcourt, ‘Batman Treaty’, WikiNorthia : Documenting Life in the North, http://www.wikinorthia.net.au/index.php/Batman_Treaty (accessed August 14, 2011), ‘During the first 50 years or so of white settlement, it was taken for granted that West Bend at Rushall was the treaty site.’
[xiii] John Batman, ‘Journal’, State Library of Victoria, http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/portphillip/0/0/1/tdoc/pp0016-074-0.shtml (accessed August 17, 2011); ‘Billibellary’, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billibellary (accessed August 17, 2011), ‘John Batman … Billibellary, one of the eight ngurungaeta he signed a treaty with on 8 [sic] June 1835. The meeting took place on the bank of a small stream, likely to be the Merri Creek.’
[xiv] ‘William Barak’, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Barak (accessed August 16, 2011), ‘Ninggalobin, Poleorong and Billibellary were the leading song makers and principal Wurundjeri leaders in the Melbourne region.’