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Woodlea forms part of the Western Volcanic Plains (also known as the Newer Volcanic Plains), which covers an area of 2.3 million hectares and is the third largest volcanic plains in the world after the Deccan Plateau in India and the Snake River Plateau in the USA.
The Western Volcanic Plains were formed by volcanic activity over the last 5 million years, a dynamic history of formation that only ceased 7,200 years ago with the last eruption at Mount Napier.
The landscape of Woodlea is the product of this turbulent history of volcanic activity. It can be read in the landscape – from the swamps that were created in shallow depressions as the lava flowed across the land in sheets to the rocky stony rises and pock marked scoria basalt rocks that represent the more recent sheetflow events to the extinct volcano Mt Cottrell that can be seen just a few kilometres to the south of Rockbank.
Traditional owners were witness to the last part of the dramatic formation history of the Volcanic Plains. A number of dreamtime stories tell of volcanic eruptions, passed down over thousands of years by word of mouth from generation to generation such as the Dja Dja Wurrung story of the two feuding volcanoes, Tarrengower and Lalgambook on the Guildford Plateau.
In the dreaming and philosophy of the Aboriginal groups who lived around Port Phillip, the great creator Bunjil (the Eaglehawk), flew over the land and dropped a snake to form Kororoit Creek. The mouth of the snake is the mouth of the creek where it meets Port Phillip and the thin tail is the headwater source further to the north. The land is flat because Waa (the Crow), was burnt when he stole fire from the Seven Sisters and couldn’t fly anymore. As he walked across the land, he tamped the ground down stamping across it.
After the last Ice Age gave way to warmer conditions 10,000 years ago, the sea level began to rise as ice caps melted. This resulted in dramatic changes to the landscape which also had profound effects on Aboriginal people who lived on either side of Bass Strait in modern day Victoria and Tasmania. Between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago, Aboriginal populations living on the southern isle were cut off from the mainland as the Bass Strait was flooded. During the same period, Port Phillip which was a dry plain during the Ice Age, was flooded when rising seas breached the heads between Point Lonsdale and Point Nepean. Incredibly, there are stories passed down over thousands of years that record this incredible event when Port Phillip was flooded and former hunting lands were cut off.
The rising sea level and flooding of Port Phillip pushed coastal Aboriginal populations inland to the current coastline areas and completely cut off Tasmanian Aborigines from the mainland. The new resources provided by creeks, swamps and the in-filled Port Phillip led to increased Aboriginal populations along the creek corridors and fringes of the bay, including along Kororoit Creek that crosses through Woodlea. These changes were accompanied by many new technological advances including the introduction of the ‘Small Tool Tradition’ toolkit and other innovations such as the introduction of the dingo, boomerangs and other technologies.
Recent investigations at Woodlea by a team of archaeologists and Aboriginal community representatives identified large stone manufacturing sites on the edges of Kororoit Creek. Thousands of stone tools were recovered from ‘hot spots’ on elevated land overlooking the creek. One particular site on the east bank of Kororoit Creek yielded a phenomenal 13,000 stone tool artefacts within a 25 square metre area, one of the highest densities of artefacts ever found on an Aboriginal site in Victoria.
The archaeological remains provide an important and fascinating insight into the nature of Aboriginal life on Kororoit Creek. The large sites speak of repeated use and occupation of the creek corridor to utilise the rich water sources, plant resources, animals and food provided by the creek. Early accounts of Aboriginal movement through the landscape, such as the records of the Assistant Protector of Aborigines William Thomas, indicate creek corridors like Kororoit Creek were also very important travel and transit corridors.
The range of tools found at the sites on Kororoit Creek are diverse and reflect a wide range of gathering, hunting and plant processing activities associated with day to day life living on the creek and on the large Deanside Wetlands located in the south-east part of Woodlea. Tools found during the archaeological excavations included
grinding stones for processing grass seeds, axe heads that were hafted onto handles to make hand axes and sharp retouched stone flakes used as barbs on hunting spears and a variety of points. Detailed analysis of the artefacts identified grass-seed grinding practises, plant processing activities and mineral residues associated with manufacturing activities and pounding. Residues relating to hafting (resins) and residues relating to use were found. The wide range of use-related residues that were identified demonstrates that flaked stone tools were often employed as versatile tools to perform a variety of functions. Grass seed grinding, likely to be Themeda triandra (Kangaroo Grass), was undertaken on grindstones from the Rockbank area.
Although no datable material was found, the sites on Kororoit Creek included artefact forms that were commonly made during the last 7,000 – 8,000 years and the sites likely reflect repeated occupation and use over that period of time.
Woodlea may have been an important ‘jumping off’ point for Aboriginal people travelling from Kororoit Creek to the Werribee River corridor further to the west. This is because Rockbank is located at the closest point between these two large waterways that dominate the west of Melbourne. This may be one of the reasons such an exceptionally high density of artefacts have been found along Kororoit Creek at Woodlea.
The diverse natural resources of the land have shaped the history of Woodlea and set the course for the patterns of landuse and occupation over thousands of years.
Kororoit Creek is the dominant feature in the landscape, slicing and snaking north to south across the volcanic plain. In the dreaming and philosophy of the Aboriginal groups who lived around Port Phillip, it was formed by the great creator, the Eaglehawk Bunjil, who dropped a snake from his beak, the head forming the mouth of the creek at Port Phillip and the thin tail forming the headwater source further inland. The large Aboriginal sites dotted along the length of Kororoit Creek and around the edge of the Deanside Wetlands in the southeast corner of Woodlea show the importance of water resources in supporting traditional Aboriginal life in the region.
The water bodies provided sources of fresh drinking water and also provided a diverse range of plants that were used as food sources, medicines and raw materials for making equipment. The waterbodies also attracted a wide range of animals that provided important sources of protein and materials such as skins for clothing and bone for making spear points and a range of other tools. If you walk around the edge of Deanside Wetlands or along Kororoit Creek, even today you will still see the large mobs of kangaroos that congregate to browse on the abundant grasses that grow in these areas. The waterways were the life source of the traditional owners and were used almost like highways to move from Port Phillip up into the hinterlands as travelling parties moved from camp to camp along a well-known network of creeks and swamps.
The landscape is sacred to the traditional owners. It holds their dreamtime creation stories and spiritual sites, their teaching places, living areas, meeting spots and burial places. Natural landforms were inextricably linked with day to day social and religious life and maintenance of traditions. The Woi Wurrung people, who occupied much of the land covering modern Melbourne, observed seven seasons and their movements across the seasons were carefully calibrated to access resources and carry out spiritual obligations at particular times of the year. A large spring camp to dig the fresh Murnong Daisy Yams (a traditional delicacy and staple of the Melbourne area) to a large gathering of the five tribes of the Eastern Kulin language groups, the Woi Wurrung, Boon Wurrung, Wathaurong, Daungwurrung and the Dja Dja Wrung to a small family camp foraging further afield when food sources became more scarce in winter. There was a familiar pattern and rhythm of life observed through the year and it was closely linked to the seasonal resources of the land.
Similar resources also brought in the first European settlers. The expansive Plains Grasslands that spread across the volcanic plains made perfect grazing country for the early squatters. Many of the earliest homesteads were built close to rivers and creek confluences, on exactly the same ground where the largest and most frequently occupied Aboriginal campsites were once located. The access to fresh water was just as critical to the early settlers as it had been to the Aboriginal inhabitants of the land. The natural deposits of basalt cobbles and rocks strewn across the volcanic plains made a great source of stone for constructing walls and livestock enclosures. While deeper quarries provided a source of ‘bluestone’ for most of the early buildings, including the 1853 Rockbank Inn, the remains of which can still be seen adjacent to the old line of Beattys Road.
Perhaps the strangest natural resource that Woodlea provided was silence. After an exhaustive search across Victoria, the noiseless conditions found at Rockbank were considered ideal for the construction of the US Army Rockbank shortwave radio receiving station in 1942. Silence was considered critical to maximise reception of long range military communications from US bases across the world, which was critically important in coordinating the allied Pacific Campaign against the Japanese in WW2.
Woodlea is the site of a pocket of very rare and significant remnant woodland that includes Lignum Swamp and Plains Grassland vegetation communities. It is quite a unique experience walking through this woodland, quite unlike anywhere else across the volcanic plains, where almost all original vegetation was cleared during the 19th century to make way for grazing and agriculture. The woodland also provides a rare insight into the nature of the environment that existed across parts of the volcanic plains before European settlement augured in large scale clearing.
The Lignum Swamp is dominated by an overstorey of River Red-gum Eucalyptus camaldulensis and an understorey of Tangled Lignum Muehlenbeckia florulenta. The reserve also includes a smaller area of Plains Grassland. Lignum Swamp and Plains Grassland are both endangered within the Victorian Volcanic Plain bioregion. The woodland is a rare pocket of remnant vegetation on the volcanic plains, locally and in the region.
The woodland was also the site of the original Army Signals Rockbank Receiving Station mess, accommodation huts and radio shack.
Woodlea is very lucky to have rare and state significant relics of the very earliest period of colonial occupation of the volcanic plains to the north of Melbourne, a time when vast squatting empires stretched across the land and men and women struck out on their own to build a new life in a very alien unfamiliar landscape.
The broken bluestone ruins of the 1853 Rockbank Inn still evoke the welcoming but isolated haven it provided for travellers and the dispersed community of early settlers. What is striking about the Inn is the quality of construction and beautiful stone masonry that is still on display – it speaks of the intent of the early settlement community to lay down long lasting roots and build for the future. The Inn was constructed on high ground overlooking a fordable bend in the creek, the same qualities that made the location an important Aboriginal camp site before the arrival of European settlers.
The founding Licensee Mr Charles Davies placed an advertisement in the Melbourne Argus on 8th September 1853, which provides an insight into the intentions of the business and shows the pub was established primarily aimed at travellers heading north to the goldfields of Ballarat:
“ROCKBANK HOTEL, late W. C. Yuille’s Station, Ballarat-road, 17 miles from Melbourne via Bacchus Marsh.
Mr. Charles Davies begs to announce to his numerous friends, and the settlers generally of Victoria, that he has lately opened the above hotel for the accommodation of travellers, which he intends to conduct in such a manner as will ensure him a portion of their patronage. Gentlemen and diggers travelling to and from the far-famed Balaarat diggings may rely upon good beds, and every attention to cleanliness and comfort, at the above hotel. Mr. D. has also laid in a stock of the very best qualities of wines, spirits and ales; and substantial meals will be provided, all at low charges. Good stabling provided for horses, and every attention paid.
Rockbank Hotel, 1st September, 1853”
Just over a year after opening, Rockbank Inn played host to a famous group of travellers – the British Redcoats
marching to Ballarat to put down the Eureka Stockade miners’ rebellion. Major General Sir Robert Nickle, the Commander in Chief of all military forces in the Australian colonies, recorded his visit in company with soldiers of the 12th and 40th foot and gun parties from HMS Electra and HMS Fantome:
“At Rocky Banks next day, the troops met a sharp discomfiture from ‘a sour, squashy, disagreeable drink … colonial beer’ which reduced the thirstier and those not yet familiar with the local tipple to ‘excruciating pain and suffering”.
If the publican’s plan was to aid the miners, it was ultimately unsuccessful. By the time Nickle and his party arrived on the field in Ballarat the stockade had been stormed and the rebellion was at an end. Despite his dislike of colonial regarded for the calming and sensitive role he played in the aftermath to the conflict on the goldfields in Ballarat and when he passed away the following year he was universally mourned.
Rockbank Inn was well placed at a crossing point over Kororoit Creek and adjacent to one of the early overland routes to Ballarat, later named Beattys Road. Today the remains of the original 1860’s bridge can be seen just to the north of the ruins of the Inn. If you look closely you can still see some of the original bluestone road cobbling on the surface of the old track leading up to the Inn ruins. This is an extraordinary group of heritage relics from the earliest phase of settlement and from a time when a stream of travellers were heading up and back from the goldfields of Ballarat.
One of the important untold stories in the development of Woodlea is the role it has played in the survival of thousands of years of Aboriginal culture and heritage and the importance of the landscape, the dreaming stories and the cultural heritage sites to the descendants of traditional owner groups, particularly the Wurundjeri elders and descendants and the Boon Wurrung descendent groups.
In the dreaming and philosophy of the Aboriginal groups who lived around Port Phillip, the land of Woodlea was formed by the Eaglehawk Bunjil, who dropped a snake from his beak, the head forming the mouth of the creek at Port Phillip and the thin tail forming the headwater source further inland. Kororoit Creek was an important transit route for Aboriginal groups moving from Port Phillip up into the hinterland towards Sunbury. The creek corridor was also the setting of a thriving
Aboriginal social, economic and cultural life over thousands of years as large clan groups were attracted by the permanent source of water it provided, the rich source of plants and animals that lived in the creek and in the vegetation on its fringes, and shelter in the bends and hollows against prevailing winds that whip across the plains. Archaeological evidence recently unearthed on the banks of Kororoit Creek shows repeated re-use and visitation of occupation sites and stone tool making camps along high points overlooking the creek.
The vibrant traditional Aboriginal life that had existed for thousands of years across the plains, on the creeks and around the swamps was suddenly broken in the 1830s and 1840s. As squatters fanned out across the grassy plains to the north and west of Melbourne, they brought with them livestock and shepherds to establish pastoral squatting runs. As the take up ofsquatting land started to squeeze Aboriginal people out of their traditional lands and flocks of sheep took over traditional hunting lands, the traditional owners fought back. The traditional owners retaliated for attacks on their women, meted out punishment to shepherds who threatened them and speared livestock for eating to replace the kangaroos that had been driven away. This lead to a range of reprisal attacks organised by squatters that ranged from poisoning flour to kill off the traditional owners to shootings and even organised reprisal expeditions that almost resembled Wild West possies.
One of the most infamous examples of frontier violence occurred just to the south of Woodlea, at the base of Mt Cottrell. It’s a story that illustrates the sadness and tragedy of this chapter of our history. In July 1836, the squatter Charles Franks and his shepherd were found dead on their sheep run with tomahawk blows to the head. Equipment and supplies had been pilfered. It is likely that the attack on Franks and his shepherd was provoked by earlier actions. A contemporary and well respected squatter, Von Steiglitz, claimed Franks called his bullets ‘blue pills’ for the natives and there is also evidence that a young Aboriginal woman was abducted near Mt Cottrell before Franks arrived on the squatting run. Therefore it is likely the attack on Franks and his
shepherd were payback killings.
The killings lead to an uproar and the formation of a punitive expedition assembled from among squatters and using Aboriginal trackers, who tracked a group of approximately 80 Aboriginal people encamped on the Werribee River. Although the accounts are murky and in part covered up to avoid criminal investigation by Colonial authorities who did not sanction or approve the attack, in the words of an old Aboriginal man, Gostyn:
“They let fly at them; killed a great many, and what was not killed and wounded ran away,
leaving all behind them; a dray was loaded with what they had carried away, and their spears and waddies and tomahawks.”
No records of the number killed are known, although it is clear that there was a dramatic decrease in the local Aboriginal population after the 1830s. Some of the survivors led by ‘King John Bull’ sought refuge for a number of years on Simon Staughton’s Exford Estate, in Melton South. Simon Staughton’s fine example of humanitarian care shows that there were people on the frontier who tried to establish friendly relations with
traditional owners and helped protect them when they were threatened.
Although traditional life across the plains of Melbourne was broken, the survivors continued to struggle on the fringes of colonial society and later were corralled into missions and native reserves. What is remarkable is that out of this the Aboriginal community managed to stay together, pass down culture and stories and survive as a community in the face of exclusion and official state sanctioned policies of assimilation. Led by strong leaders like William Barak, the remnants of the Woi Wurrung were able to find some respite on the Coranderrk Mission at Healesville and later in the 20th century the community moved into the inner city suburbs of Fitzroy and Collingwood and the western suburbs where work was available in factories and meatworks. Today the Aboriginal community in Melbourne is flourishing, passing on and celebrating their culture and their survival against all the odds stacked against them.
Woodlea was suddenly shaken out of its quiet pastoral existence when the United States Army arrived in April 1942. These were the darkest days of the World War 2 Pacific Campaign; just 2 months after Japanese forces captured Singapore and one month after they invaded Papua New Guinea – the start of the Kokoda Campaign. US General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Allied Commander South-West Pacific, set up his Melbourne headquarters in March 1942 and immediately set out to establish long range communications with the allied forces under his command, arrayed far and wide across Australia, New Guinea and the South Pacific. An urgent search was launched to find two sites close to Melbourne that had the optimal ‘quiet’ conditions required for long range short wave radio communication. The US Army settled on Woodlea, Rockbank for the site of its Receiving Station and Diggers Rest further to the north near Sunbury for the site of its Transmitting Station.
The farm owned by the Gidney family was compulsorily acquired under wartime legislation that allowed the military to commandeer private property essential to the war effort. A series of huts were quickly thrown up to house the ‘Radioshack’, mess and accommodation for the signal troop, located under the tree canopy in the remnant woodland near Leakes Road.
Four Rhombic aerials mounted on 30 metre high masts were arrayed across the paddocks and set up to receive
messages sent directly from transmission stations far afield in Port Moresby, San Francisco, Noumea and Chungking, the Chinese Kuomintang capital during WW2. The station was also set up to communicate closer to home with Darwin and Townsville. In doing so, the Rockbank Receiving Station played a very important communications role in the most critical stage of the Pacific Campaign.
By late 1942, the focus of the Pacific Campaign moved further north after key allied victories in New Guinea, on the Pacific island of Guadalcanal and in the naval battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. With it went the allied HQ, which shifted north to Brisbane. By the end of 1942, the US Army no longer needed the Rockbank Receiving Station and the Diggers Rest Transmitting Station. Both were transferred to the Australian Army in early 1943 and would remain an important international military communications facility for the next forty years. The new Australian Army signals station was expected to have:
‘… high power multi frequency transmitter and associated equipment is expected to be delivered in the next few months. This will be used to operate a radio link to London and possibly Moscow.’
The Rockbank and Diggers Rest stations enabled the Australian Army to modernise its communication network. Signals were received at Rockbank, relayed by landline to the Army Headquarters Signal Office at Grosvenor in South Melbourne where messages were deciphered and encrypted replies sent on to the transmission station at Diggers Rest. After the war the signal stations continued to play a critical role in the Australian Relay Station, which formed part of the Empire Wireless Chain linking with British and Commonwealth signal stations and the Australian Military Forces communication system.
For most of its operating life the Rockbank Receiving Station had a staff of about 30 men, and most were accommodated on site, initially in the WW2 era huts constructed in the woodland area adjacent to Leakes Road. The crew included radio operators, technicians, a cook and linesmen who were charged with maintaining the large ‘antenna farm’ of masts and rhombic aerials arrayed across the fields of Woodlea. Former Officer Commanding, Lt Col (Ret) Reg Elder, remembers life at the Station in the 1950s and 60s was basic and the relative remoteness of the station meant that many basic amenities were lacking. The winters were tough, particularly for the linesmen who were responsible for the constant upkeep of communication lines, aerials and masts in the cold, wind and rain. There was good camaraderie though, and the troop would often share a drink and a laugh with the local farmers in the staff bar.
Conditions at the Rockbank Receiving Station were greatly improved in the 1960s with the addition of married quarters housing built near the corner of Leakes Road and the Western Freeway. A modern new signal base was also constructed further to the east, right in the centre of Woodlea.
The Rockbank Receiving Station continued to play a very important role in Army Signals communications, within Australia and to units deployed overseas, including with the 1st Australian Task Force at Nui Dat during the Vietnam War. The station even played a civilian communications role during the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, communicating the results and major events of the games out to the world.
By the late 1980s, the short wave communications technology was superseded by advances in satellite
communication and the facilities at Rockbank became obsolete. Most of the buildings were demolished, the antennae, aerials, masts and cables were removed and the land sold in 2001.
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