By Fiona Power
I HAD just turned five when George Bass sailed into my consciousness. It was the mid nineteen seventies and my family lived on a dairy farm near Warragul. I roamed a known territory; if I wasn’t shadowing my father up and down grassy slopes, I was building cubbies with my older sister or playing with my dolls on the veranda when she went off to school.
I took my bearings from seasonal markers. I celebrated my birthday in September, and it seemed that the natural world did too. It was then that it began to transform and grow before me. Blossom burst out on branches, daffodils bobbed beneath the orchard fence line and black and white calves appeared in the green pasture and staggered to their feet for their first drink.
History, familial or navigational, was then a mysterious concept signalled by the phrase Before You Were Born. The present was my focus and I was resistant to this unknown future. I loved the place that I had discovered and mapped as my own, with its landmarks that included my kindergarten, both sets of grandparents and our cousins’ places, the library, church, park and swimming pool. I had so many questions. Who was this Bass? Why should we relocate? How would our family and friends find us, if we were not where we had always been?
I did not know that the this was my parents’ chance to farm independently. I was unaware that they had committed to buy this property just as the world oil crisis decimated their asset, a prime dairy herd that had been built up over painstaking years. As I huffed and stomped around the removal boxes, my parents were pressing forward on a new adventure and precarious financial future with two young girls and a baby on the way. Hope and faith were stowed first, before our furniture and clothes.
We journeyed to the new world in our mustard Toyota hatchback, with the furniture and cattle trucks following. The fifty-minute trip over the Strzelecki hills and down the Bass Highway seemed to take an eternity.
Our farm was three kilometres south west of the town of Bass. Until 1977, the main route went through the town. Businesses and facilities were mostly located along the road, which, like so main streets in regional Victorian settlements, featured an avenue of honour commemorating local First World War soldiers. The two sections of the town were linked by a sturdy timber bridge. The northern side of the river had the primary school, butcher, shop, RSL and police station, as well as houses and sporting facilities, with the park at the centre and a large pine plantation opposite. On the southern side the road veered right at the cenotaph, past the mechanic, hotel and Anglican church, with the saleyards opposite. If you turned left after the bridge you entered Bass Road, where the hall, Catholic church and post office were situated.
The settlement had originally been called Woolamai (which meant snapper). It was surveyed in 1851 and allotments were sold twelve years later. Bass became the new name for the town in 1896.
It was Grandma’s cousin Clive, a one-time real estate agent, who told my parents about the farm. It had been on the market for some time before they bought it, probably because it was the pastoral equivalent of a renovator’s dream. The paddocks were enormous and loosely defined by sagging, rusty fences and leaning posts that were home to thousands of ants then on the march before a hot summer. Tracks were sunken and overgrown. Sleeping Beauty may have been slumbering in the old cattle yards, behind one hundred years of box thorn growth. The milking shed was old and built for a dainty herd with names like Daisy and Clover, and for farmers who saw back pain as inevitable. Within a few years, my father and my grandfather would remove the concrete, mostly by hand, and replace it with an improved herring bone design.
When I first surveyed the landscape, I found its flatness disconcerting. Hills reared in the distance behind us, but our farm had no undulation. There were very few trees, except the deep green cyprus line between the house and Bass Landing Road and along a distant paddock. Although Western Port Bay was just a couple of kilometres away, and a salty tang was detectable in the air when the wind was in a certain direction, it was only visible at high tide. Then, at sunset, it appeared as a silvery strip on the horizon, against which the bridge to Phillip Island was sometimes visible.
The farm did have a distinctive feature that I did not immediately see: the Bass River. From its mouth at the bay, this waterway coursed several hundred metres to the government land known as Bass Landing. From there, it wended its way inland and formed three kilometres of our property’s northern boundary, including the low, marshy country we called ‘the back’. This included a large oval area on which racehorses were apparently once trained. It flooded at king tides. It was hard to grow grass there that cows would eat (although they, long before contemporary diners, discovered the appeal of samphire). After the river left us it then continued through another farm, under the Bass Highway, through the township and onwards into the Bass Valley.
Our first visit to the river was a family expedition, as our paternal grandparents were visiting. They had all the picnic trappings and I recall it feeling a grand occasion. We drove slowly down the track and across a paddock to a bend in the river almost a kilometre from the house. In years to come, we would make that journey many times on foot, the back of the tractor, motorbikes or in the farm paddock bomb in which we learnt to drive.
At the point where we spread out the tartan rugs that day, the river was wide and deep and still flush with tidal purpose. I remember being surprised by its size and then entranced.
You could see the surface moving quickly and glinting in the sun. The water left froth, branches and refuse from boats on the muddy banks as it receded.
We scrambled up and down the high, bare banks with our parents and over a few bleached tree stumps. I inhaled the tangy air and stared at all that moving water. Later, we found that the bank was not so pleasant at low tide, being oozy with mud. Swimming would require high tide and feet clad in old sneakers. The water tasted very salty there, too.
Just over 175 years before, it was on this river that explorer and naval surgeon George Bass and his crew of six first rowed in their 8.7 metre open whale boat. They had already accomplished remarkable feats. In January 1798, they had sailed 1000 kilometres down Australia’s eastern coast and then headed west. They had gathered evidence to suggest a strait between the mainland and Van Diemen’s Land and they had become the first Europeans to enter Western Port Bay (which Bass named and sketched). Their explorations were only limited by the extent of their supplies. It was the search for fresh water in a time of drought that took them up what Bass called ‘Fresh Water Creek’, in the south eastern corner of the bay.
By the time we moved to Bass, the mangrove bordered mouth of that creek (later called Bass River) had silted up considerably. Boats could sail into Bass Landing from the bay, and out if the tide was right and they weren’t too big. Very few even attempted to travel further in and along the river at our place. We occasionally saw sails on the river from our house in later years. A couple of adventurers pulled over and pitched a tent in a paddock.
Bass and his whaleboat crew rowed upstream to a point about a kilometre past the edge of our farm, near the highway bridge, where they found water they could drink. When Mum told us about that trip, I was impressed. Holidays near a surf beach had given me respect for deep water. I decided then that I was a fan of George Bass.
While Bass’s venture up our river was historic, it was also brief. Bass sailed back to Port Jackson and on to the remarkable expedition with Matthew Flinders that recorded Bass Strait and proved Van Diemen’s Land was an island. Other European groups followed Bass’s lead up the river to obtain fresh water and to explore. None of them stayed long. These included, in March and December 1801, boats from the survey vessel Lady Nelson; in 1824, a party assessing the site where Bass found fresh water for a military post; and the brief and unfavourably reported visit in 1835 of Captain Lancey and his party.
A month after Lancey, in 1835, Samuel Anderson arrived from Launceston on a boat laden with bullocks, men and household items and established a farm near Bass’s freshwater site, which became the third permanent settlement in the colony of Victoria. His partner Robert Massie joined him in 1837.
Well before any of the Europeans ‘discovered’ the area, the Bunurong People knew, lived off and traversed the land for thousands of years. They roamed the Westernport catchment area and well beyond. We grew up on that land and yet we knew so little of them and their stories.
George Bass saw only four indigenous people in his January 1798 visit. It is likely he and his men were observed by far more people than they realised. Three years later, Lieutenant William Bowen, who accompanied Lieutenant Grant on the Lady Nelson, saw a canoe-like boat in Ross Creek, the stream running off the Bass River at Bass Landing. He and others had peaceful interactions with a group of Aborigines in January 1802, noting their use fire, clothing and appearance of good health. European visitors observed that the riverbanks were then dense with scrub and trees, the grass was lush, huge trees and ferns covered the hills and gullies.
In 1798 George Bass saw ‘an abundance of most kinds of wild fowl’ as well as swans, kangaroos and wallabies in the vicinity of the Bass River. When we arrived in the area, we saw black swans and ducks on the water. White ibis studded the pasture, fully focused on insects which they harvested via their curved black beaks. My first artwork featured these distinctive birds and many tussocks. Initially, the huge tufts of wiry grass competed with thistles in a bid to dominate the land. Some of these tussocks were so large that they hid cows on the first morning that Dad went to round them up for milking. Our faithful kelpie Tammy went to the rescue, giving Dad a reproachful look as she did so.
We relocated to Bass in November, so my sister went to school for the last six weeks of the year. She had attended the Catholic primary school in Warragul, disappearing each day into the concrete playground beside the church, one of many girls dressed in a green and white checked uniform. Now, she was enrolled at the two-teacher Bass State School, no.847, which was situated on a site above the river and park, with the new highway on its western side, not far from the site where Bass stepped ashore.
Bass State School then had more than a century of history. Its story included many highlights and challenges that included sub-standard facilities, epidemics, overworked and underpaid teachers, complaint against staff or about pony paddocks and playgrounds.
Originally called the Woolamai Vested School, the educational facility opened in 1866 with an enrolment of twenty-nine students. Most of them lived within a few kilometres of the school to which they walked or rode ponies. It officially became known as Bass State School in 1915.
Over a century later, almost forty students attended Bass State School. It consisted of two buildings and a toilet block. The main 1920s weatherboard, pitch-roofed construction, with its stage and large blackboards, housed the junior primary classes. Students in grades three to six were educated in the modern 1963 classroom, with a headmaster’s office next door.
Children arrived on foot or in cars. We drove to Bass to drop off my sister and collect her. Each morning, I clung to my mother near the huge tree at the gate and watched in awe as my sister, schoolbag over her arm, merge into the colourful playground mix. Children swarmed around the building, skipping, playing with balls, or balancing on the grand memorial centenary gateway.
My sister was well ahead of the curriculum. Her challenge was to break into an established hierarchy. Most children were from families who had resided in the area for generations. The fact our mother and her sister had attended the school for several years was of little use; we were not locals. One girl led a chant while my sister played alone: ‘Catholic frogs, sitting on logs’. I didn’t understand that at all. Then, some kind girls stepped in, she joined their monkey bar activities and didn’t look back.
Haymaking plans were in full swing as that first Bass summer unfolded. Everyone was busy except me. I was bored. New worlds were all very well, but I missed my old one. I followed my father everywhere. He gave me real jobs, like sorting buckets of fence staples, and rolling hay bale twine. I tried unsuccessfully to learn to plait with hay band and to whistle.
The highlight of the school calendar was the Christmas concert. It was held at the Bass Hall, originally called Queen Victoria Hall when it was built on the main road, near the Anglican church in late 1896. It served the community well, including providing extra space for the school during the First World War, when student numbers rose to seventy or eighty. In 1956 my mother and aunt were among the local school kids who watched that hall being relocated to its quieter second site, past the cenotaph and on the western side of Bass Road. A foyer and toilets were added at the front and the building was renamed the Bass Memorial Hall.
To me the hall was palatial. The concert was the first community event we attended. I remember a warm night, lights and looking up at the heavy war honour boards on the walls. The hall was packed. I scooted from my parents’ seat and snuck in behind my sister, who was sitting cross-legged on the floorboards with the students in front of the stage, as they waited their turn to perform. There were Christmas carols and other songs. The principal and the senior students were cheered like celebrities.
I slowly became used to the new routines and environment. Cows flowed up the track and in and out of the milking shed twice a day. A truck with a huge silver tank arrived each morning and backed very slowly over the narrow entrance bridge. The driver connected a hose to the vat located in the milking shed and pumped out the litres of milk that were collected daily.
In January that year, and for many to follow, we turned right at our driveway and drove to the end of the public road to Bass Landing. It was less than a kilometre from our home. We were on a mission to pick blackberries and this was one of the sites we visited. The prickly, fruit laden bushes grew near water supplies all around the district then, before weed spraying. We picked kilograms of the fruit for Mum to freeze or turn into jam.
Bass Landing was mostly vacant land. It featured a boat ramp and two leaning fibro shacks known as the fishermen’s huts. The bay was less than a kilometre away, but I couldn’t see it. The land across the river was marshy. Ross Creek, where the canoe had been spotted all those years before, was a small tributary off the river along our western boundary. The closest home was a brick house on farmland in the distance and an old windmill was in a state of disrepair.
When we arrived, Bass Landing was just a peaceful fishing spot. Almost no sign of the built history remained. If you walked around the grassy open area inland from the ramp and scuffed with your gumboots, you could just make out the remains of concrete foundations. On a fine weekend, people sat on deck chairs by the river or launched small boats into Western Port. It was rarely busy.
Once, Bass Landing had been a very different place. Before the Europeans arrived, it was probably a tranquil wetland, with much wildlife in and around the water. It began to change in the 1840s. Samuel Anderson and Robert Massie apparently built a 24-ton cutter there in 1841. The vessel transported produce to Launceston and Melbourne. The enterprising duo subsequently constructed a flour mill beside Ross Creek. The stone roller from the mill is now in the Bass park. Anderson’s innovation extended further. He set up a system for salt manufacturing just south of the Bass River mouth in 1847.
Bass Landing became a particularly busy port from 1870 to 1900. A wharf enabled ships to load the area’s chief export, timber, harvested from the Woolamai hills, and transport it to Melbourne. A tramway was built along Bass Landing Road to replace the bullocks that originally delivered the lumber. The bustling Landing settlement then had streets and houses, pubs, and shops and even a coffee palace.
There was a sawmill belonged to Captain Henderson. He also had a general store and a boarding house that provided meals and accommodation for ship and mill workers. Mrs Henderson was multiskilled. In addition to running the boarding house, she was the local midwife and she was known to extract teeth, as required.
The beginning of the nineteenth century brought improved roads and then the railway nearby, transforming transportation. The port at Bass Landing was used less and less. The businesses closed or relocated. Gradually, the houses were abandoned or relocated.
I didn’t like going to the Landing, as we called it. Perhaps my unease came from the thought of the rise and complete disappearance of a settlement. As I grew older, I shuddered at the thought of all those magnificent trees, blue gums, blackwood and mountain ash, (some as large as 80 metres) being removed from hills and shipped off. The fishing huts always seemed lonely and the thought of them at night spooked me.
Unlike the intrepid early explorers, some modern would-be adventurers got into difficulty at the Landing. Searching for a forgotten beach, they drove with no regard for vegetation or tide. On such occasions, Dad was interrupted while milking the cows by those who got bogged, saw the rising saltwater and walked to our place to ask for help to get them out.
I went to school in late summer. There were twelve children in my prep class that year, which was more than a quarter of the Bass State School population. We sat in a long row at the front of the junior room. During the first term, the tiny blond girl on my right ran home most lunchtimes, which was achievable as her father was the headmaster and the schoolhouse bordered the yard.
Our teacher trailed perfume, and, like my mother, she was pregnant at that time, though it was news to us all when she left to have a baby. Her replacement was young and luminous in cork platform shoes and short velvet skirts. We ran eagerly in the door each day, slinging our bags on their hooks.
Autumn brought cooler days. I tried to get to school early so I could carry wood for the classroom heater. Jobs were sought after, partly because you got to be in the orbit of the big kids. They chopped wood and ordered us about. Some tended the vegetable and flower patch at the back of the headmaster’s house. They sometimes had campfires and made damper with ‘honest’ flour, which was flour you earnt from your parents through doing a job. The big kids did the yard duty, getting a teacher only if needed, which was rare. One of them was the bell monitor and they stood at the top of the senior school steps, ringing the heavy brass bell at different times of the day.
Every Sunday we went to 11 am Mass at St Joseph’s Church. The original timber Catholic church building was constructed in 1905. It had been seamlessly extended in 1968 with the addition of the Glen Alvie church to the federation structure.
Bass Catholic parishioners trickled down the hills and in from the flats, most arriving at 10.59am. The majority had, like Dad, milked cows and completed farm jobs beforehand. We were often early and sat on the right side, halfway down. We rarely beat the owners of the nearby post office (first opened in 1862 and featuring with large wooden swinging doors that I loved to walk through). Their weekly mission was to walk a tinkling tray of silver service refreshments up the road for the grateful travelling priest before mass.
Every week, as soon as the last hymn was over, while the parents chatted out the front, we ran to see George, the white cockatoo who lived next-door. George displayed an appropriate curiosity and interest in adventure. He moved quickly when his cage was open, climbing down the pole and running towards his owner. He adored her and delighted us by climbing up her leg and onto her shoulder, then gently caressing her ear. He viewed us all via shrewd, sideways glances. He had a limited but effective vocabulary delivered in a disconcertingly human sounding voice.
One memorable Sunday he decided to extend his known world. He busted out of his cage, made his way across the church and entered the double back doors. To our delight, he marched up the aisle, yellow crest alert, screeching, swinging from side to side and practising all his words.
My sister and I loved the Bass park and took any opportunity to play in it. It had equipment designed for a hardy and non-litigious age, featuring rusty metal and wood surfaces that could potentially jam, splinter and sear the flesh. To us, it was where we could swing higher and slide faster. We never came to more harm than a bruise. We adored the squeaky maypole, and the wooden swing, the see-saw and huge metal slide worn smooth over years.
The strip of houses and shops that faced the park included the then empty building that had once been the general store behind which my mother lived for several years. In those times before supermarkets my grandparents sold a range of groceries and delivered all around the area. The store was just up the street from the school, so my mother and her sister ran home for a hot lunch each day. After they left, the Bass shop had relocated to a modern building further along with a plastic ice cream cone on its roof and a sign that announced it as the Seagull Inn. We saved pocket money for the occasional treat of a white paper bag with mixed lollies
You could walk from the school via the park down a slope to the Bass River, where there was a wooden platform with steps. Trees lined the riverbank. Several of them were planted by my grandfather many years before. My sister and I learnt to swim there after school in the following years. I ingested a lot of brackish river water. I remember being very sorry that it was the best Bass and others could find to quench their thirst after all that rowing.
That first year was one of incredible challenge for my parents. It became cold and wet. Water covered some of those flat paddocks. Cows calved at all hours. Dad had to wake to check and help them as required, in rain, hail or just on a cold winter’s night. He got up early every day to milk. Visions were big but money was tight. There were only so many hours in the day.
One night in June, Dad bundled us into the car in our pyjamas with a rug. We drove across the bridge to Phillip Island. When we got to Cowes, our parents disappeared for hours.
When Dad returned, he told us Mum was in the hospital having a baby. The next morning, we had a sister. I enjoyed temporary celebrity status at school when my friends crowded around the car to see the pink-cheeked bundle in the basket at the back. She cried a lot.
Our fridge stopped working around this time. There was no money for appliances, but my maternal grandfather was an ideas man and had a garage full of potential solutions. He moved a heavy kelvinator into our kitchen. Several months after that, he suddenly died. In the confusing time of grief that followed, I fused the two events, imagining that it was moving the fridge that caused the heart attack, and wishing we could go back to the way things were.
Life and hope fought back hard in the first spring at Bass. The mud dried up and the paddocks became green. The cows put their heads down and ate. The blossom on the apple tree was better than any I had seen, and I knew it would later yield delicious fruit that Mum could preserve. We dug a vegetable garden out beyond the clothesline, and I planted my first crop, radishes. Our baby sister was smiling and sleeping more. At school, our teacher taught us a song by ABBA for the school concert, and one about a little donkey. I couldn’t wait to get up on that stage.
When our cousins visited, we designed and built a cubby. It was the best we had ever made. We took them for a walk to the river, proud to share it. Dad had removed a lot of the tussocks and begun the long process of improving pasture, re-fencing, rebuilding and restoring aspects of the farm. In time, he and Mum would plant many trees along the fence lines and river.
We took our cousins around the river, further than we had been before. The adults walked and talked, carrying the baby. We galloped around the remains of the horse track. Then, as on many occasions to come, the river gave us not only beauty but treasure in different forms: driftwood to stack or drag home, recyclable bottles and cans. I checked bottles for hidden messages. We collected feathers to sharpen and dip in ink, and sometimes we found beautiful plumes to display in our bedroom or place in our hair. My favourite found objects were shells, especially hinged ones with pearly pink-mauve interiors.
I decided that one day, when I was big, I would row a boat in that river or build a raft. I would do a bit of my own exploring; or at least make it to the other side of the waterway. And I hoped then, with all my heart, that George Bass, or one of his crew had also found some treasures to remind them of their brief visit to this part of the world.
BibliographyBass Valley Historical Society [written and published by the]; [sketches by E. Skidmore and E. Pike] A Guide to the history & beauty of the Bass District: a brief outline of the early history of the Shire of Bass, Victoria. (Bass Valley Historical Society, 1996)
Centenary Committee [written and published by the]; Bass State School No. 847 Centenary, 1866 -1966 (Bass, 1966)
Horton, Thomas and Kenneth Morris, The Andersons of Western Port (Bass Valley Historical Society, 1983)
White, Joseph, One Hundred Years of History (Shire of Bass and Phillip Island, 1974)
150 Years Settlement Committee [written and published by the]; Back to Bass: 150 years settlement celebrations (Bass, 1985)