Branxholme : Squatters and Early History

Branxholme, South-West Victoria, Australia
Branxholme sits on the western edge of the vast basalt Western District plains, one of the last volcanic cones – Mount Napier – rising up just ten kilometres on the eastern side.

The valley of the Arrandoovong Creek starts just a few kilometres north and widens just as it flows through the township. Thereon it broadens into a large flood plain and descends towards the Condah Swamp.

It is a rich land and in previous times contained many lakes and large swampy areas as well as the vast Condah Swamp. So rich in fact was that area that it supported a larger than usual number of Gunditjmara people – the Gunditjmara – in a stable environment. The Gunditjmara built semi permanent settlements near their complex system of stone weirs and channels to catch fish and eels.

‘The large number of Gunditjmara and the sophistication of their social organisation, was perhaps the reason they were able to mount a hard fought campaign against the white man when he brought his sheep to their lands in the 1830’s.’

Captain William Dutton was the first white man to settle in the district in a semi permanent way. He started a whaling concern on the shores of Portland Bay in 1828. In 1933 a boat (the Thistle) pulled in to Portland to pick up Captain Dutton’s whale oil, on board was Edward Henty.

Edward Henty returned on November 1834 with a contingent of personnel, supplies and stock to squat on the land beside Portland Bay.

Just two years later in September 1936 the explorer Major Mitchell arrived. He had been steadily drawn south from the Murray River by the rich fertile land. Down he came past the western side of the Grampians, down through the beautiful Wannon Valley near Casterton and onto Portland. Mitchell told Henty about the rich soil of the Wannon and Glenelg Valley’s before he left. Major Mitchell then headed north on his way back to Sydney. He camped at Branxholme before pushing on, finding the rich grass lands of Hamilton and good lands beyond.

Major Mitchell set the sequence from thereon. In 1837 the Henty’s quickly cut a track through to the Wannon and Glenelg Valley’s and took up the following runs – Merino Downs, Muntham and Sandford.

By the end of the year brothers Samuel and Trevor Winter lay claim to 20,000 acres of the Wannon River valley – the Murndal run, which the family still owns to this day. Murndal became quite a famous pastoral station. Samuel Winter ran his pastoral leases with practiced ease, was well respected in all levels of society and also by most of the local Gunditjmara tribes. He built an intricate set of farm buildings and ever growing manor, held numerous social interactions and entertained royalty from England. Also, even though a professed atheist, Samuel had a Anglican Minister as his special friend. Samuel managed to pay for and keep the best portion of his pastoral run during the Land Selection Acts. His descendants - to this day - still own Murndal Station, although the size is greatly reduced. They are probably the only family to have done so.

A track was soon cut from Portland to the Henty and Winter pastoral settlements. Fords and later Inn’s being established at Heywood and Hotspur along the way.

The Wedge brothers were the first to squat in the grasslands around Hamilton (the ‘Grange’ run) in the later months of 1938 or early 1939, a homestead was established and called ‘Strathkellar’. Strathkellar was later to be divided off into another run in the 1860’s.

The southern half of ‘Grange’ was partitioned off and sold to Andrew and William Forlonge in 1840. This run was called ‘Lyne’ and part of this run became the east boundary of the future township of Branxholme. The Lynd run mainly ran cattle which were quite unique as most runs in the early days only had sheep.

Donald Cameron arrived at around about the same time or soon after the Wedge brothers. Donald Cameron took up a run on the west side of the ‘Grange’ between Mount Rouse and Mount Sturgeon (which he called ‘Mount Sturgeon Plains’).

To the north of the ‘Grange’ in 1840, Robert Tulloch took up a license for the ‘Bochara’ run of 10,880 acres.

In the same year of 1840 to the south side - John and Thomas Brown took up the ‘Mount Napier Station’.

Acheson French took up the licence for the ‘Monivae’ run – on the south side of ‘Grange’ in 1841. Acheson French was quite a character, younger son of an aristocratic family, very well educated, was intended for the Church but ended up a bit of an atheist, a world traveller, slightly eccentric but still held in extremely high regard. He was appointed Police Magistrate by Governor La Trobe to handle the problems between the squatters and the Gunditjmara, hopefully in a fair and meaningful manner.

The ‘Morgiana’ run – just to the west of the ‘Grange’ - was taken up in 1842 by John and Alexander Cameron. By the end of 1842 there were ten pastoral stations within a twenty kilometre radius around Hamilton. For the local Gunditjmara this invasion led to a good deal of blood and retaliation on both sides, resulting in the complete destruction of their lifestyle. Unfortunately however, the largest loss of life to the Gunditjmara and other tribes came about more from the introduction of various European diseases.

To establish a link to the shipping terminal of Portland, a track from Heywood ford to the new pastoral settlements of Hamilton was quickly blazed. A crossing and later an Inn at the Arrandoovong Creek was built. This crossing was labelled as ‘Kent’s Inn’ on one very old map. On other documents it was called ‘The Traveller’s Inn’ or ‘Best’s Inn’. The actual Traveller’s Rest Inn opened for business in 1843. Branxholme as it is known today, quickly became ringed by Squatters runs.

The huge Crawford run, stretched all the way from Hotspur to the west side of the town boundary. After Bassett’s death in 1843, Henry Monroe took over the lease of 70,000 acres. In 1854 He hived off a separate pastoral license of 25,000 acres called ‘Kangaroo’ to Cameron and MacKinnon. Later in 1858, the pastoral station of ‘Bassett’ – on Branxholme’s west boundary was also annexed from ‘Crawford’.

The ‘Arrandoovong run’ was against the north boundary and was first owned by Patrick Lynch in 1844. Paddy Lynch met his death in 1851 at a place called Patty Lynch Creek about six kilometres north of Branxholme on the road to Hamilton. This area is well noted for stories of Paddy Lynch’s ghost. Thomas Best took over the lease from 1851 till 1853. Angus Cameron obtained the lease in 1853.

On the east boundary was the huge ‘Lyne’ run. In 1846 George Elms and Alexander Lang took up the license. They still used it as a cattle run but the herd did not develop as well as they expected. Elms and Lang decided to subdivide. Lang retained the southern section and kept the old name. Lang sold ‘Lyne’ to Captain Carr in 1850. ‘Lyne’ was again sold to William and Andrew Lyall in 1856. Elm took the north section and built his homestead there. The western side was portioned into the ‘Euremete’ run which was held jointly by Elms and Lang. ‘Euremete’ later was brought outright by Elms in 1850. ‘Euremete’ was on the east boundary of Branxholme and later became known as ‘Audley’. Elms become one of the leading pastoralists of the south western district.

To the immediate south was the ‘Lake Condah’ run owned by C.P. Cooke – related to the ‘Murndal’ run owned by the Cooke’s.

Squatter runs to the south east were the ‘Werangourt’ (John Cox) and ‘Knebsworth’ stations.

Runs further to the east were the ‘Brisbane Hill’, ‘Cape Worth’ and ‘Mount Napier’ stations. Further to the north side contained ‘Narrawong’ (Rev J. Clow), ‘Morgiana’, ‘Violet Creek’ (Angus Cameron), ‘Monivae’ and ‘Grange Burn’ stations.

And to the North West lay the ‘Ardachy’, ‘Artgarden’, ‘Grassdale’, ‘Parkhill’ and ‘Murndal’ runs. In general a squatter had to have some wealth behind them. A squat or run was on average about 15,000 acres. Even though they did not ‘own’ the land they still had to pay an annual lease. Starting stock had to be procured. Then supplies, Sheppard’s and staff (initially) had to be procured and over landed to their pastoral leases. Then the fun started. Infrastructure had to be built. Upkeep and the health of the sheep to be monitored and maintained– drenching, hoof clipping, dipping and the occasional Gunditjmara raid to contend with. Sheep to be shorn and packed, wool clips to be bullock wagoned out and supplies bullock wagoned in.

To make matters worse a severe economic depression struck in 1840 - 43. Initially nearly all the squatters coped most did well, some just covered costs only and a few went broke. But by 1851 most ‘Run’ licences had changed hands.

Donald Cameron of ‘Mount Sturgeon’ fame swapped with and took over ‘Morgiana’.

Angus Cameron held interests in Arrandoovong and Narrawong up to 1848 but then shared these runs with Donald in 1851.

In the late 1850’s things started to change for the squatters. Governor La Trobe authorized land sales in the district. These initially started in the Hamilton area and very slowly moved outwards. The land sales did not put an end to the large pastoral licences. Some very close to Hamilton did lose their land but nearly all the original runs continued to exist. They now contained a mix of freehold and leasehold land. Squatters could use their pre-emptive rights; this allowed them the right to purchase an area of 640 acres around their homesteads.

The Selections Acts of 1860, 1862 and 1865 started to make inroads into the squatters runs. Sales under the 1860 Act were mainly around Hamilton but were dominated by the squatters with dummies and station hands bidding and buying on their behalf.

The 1862 Act (called the Duffy Act) was:
(a) For pastoral land further out of Hamilton and
(b) Tendered as farm blocks on terms of one pound an acre to give the selectors a chance.

The squatters again dominated using the same tactics. However this time it was at a cost. Prices were high and squatters were started to bid against each other, most buying portions of each other’s lease. Most squatters were now heavily committed monetary wise and had fragmented freeholds.

The 1865 Act and sale attempted to solve the previous abuses by replacing outright purchase with conditional leases with stringent improvement demands. This sale encompassed the squatters still further out from Hamilton. First up, the two best properties in the district were put up for sale in this group – Henty’s Muntham and winter’s Murndal. The sales were a shambles with people from all walks of life trying to acquiring a lease, speculating, with the hope of immediately selling the land back to the original Squatters – Henty and Winter. Speculators rather than legitimate selectors ended up with the land. Some speculators could not ‘on sell’ back due to poor land or had no means to pay after the lease expired and so defaulted. And some were proven to be dummies and disallowed.

Months later, when things settled down, the Act proved to be relatively effective and continued. Dummy bidders and speculators saw the writing on the wall and the legitimate selectors prevailed.

As with the previous sales, most of the Squatters survived with a proportion of their run intact, but, with the same results as the two previous sales, with a reduction in size and a large debt to service.

One who did suffer was the widow Christina Cameron. By this time she had acquired ‘Violet Creek’, ‘Narrawong’ as well as her late Husband’s ‘Arrandoovong’. Virtually all her land was thrown open for sale. Mrs Cameron widely used dummies and within a few years had recouped 15,161 acres out of 16,420 acres. With her pre-empt land she now had 16,441 acres of freehold and a huge debt to service. By 1877 she was in trouble, she was forced to sell stock and lease most of the properties. On her death in 1881 the Bank of Victoria took over the runs and sold everything off.

Footnote:

Agnes V. Walter’s book ‘Branxholme 1843-1973’ contains a comprehensive history of the original pastoral runs around the Branxholme district outlining the ownership of each pastoral run, their timeline, histories and subsequent demise. Then the farms derived from each of these pastoral runs and the different owners for each of those farms.

Also refer to ‘Hamilton, a Western District History’ – By Don Garden.

Article supplied by Alan Atkinson