admitted he preferred to stick to shore.
HARRY Cleeland died last July. He was 96. His family will mourn his loss privately and properly for years to come, as they must, as is good. But for us who hardly knew him, or didn’t know him at all, there is also a loss. Harry Cleeland was a conduit to a deeper connection. He belonged, through dint of inheritance, of dreaming, of working, to Cape Woolamai and Phillip Island.
He inherited a farm that at its peak was 3000 acres (1200 hectares), stretching from Newhaven to Smiths Beach. He always wanted to work the farm, even as a boy. “I’d look out the window of the school and wish I was home riding a horse.”
His grandfather arrived in Melbourne as a 14-year-old in 1840 after a four-month voyage with his family. Later he traded across the Pacific. According to Harry, Captain Cleeland sailed his ship into Western Port to shelter from a storm one day and said, “When I retire, this is where I’ll live”. And he did. He came back and built the beautiful Woolamai House overlooking the Eastern Passage.
Harry’s dad, in turn, spent a lot of time squinting through his telescope at boats out at sea. He knew the beautiful sailing ship Alma Doepel well. “He could put that telescope on a ship when it was only a speck out to sea and tell you what ship it was.”
But Harry’s gaze turned naturally inland. “I wasn’t pleased with the way my father was running the farm. It was mostly covered in ti tree. I wanted to get busy with a tractor, clear it up and sow some grasses.”
None of the Cleeland family were good swimmers, according to Harry. “I think it was because it was always mud flats and potholes and shallow water, even when the tide was in.”
Nevertheless there were rewards to be had for living so close to the sea. Walking home from school one day, the Cleeland kids found the beach covered with nautilus shells: “Big ones, some of them six or eight inches [15-20 centimetres] high. Some of them still had fish in them.” They came back with baskets and finished up with 400 beautiful shells. Later they sold most of them for £4 each. “It was the southerlies, I believe. They breed in the islands of Fiji; you’ve got to have a lot of southerly winds to bring them to the Victorian coast.”
Another time, when they were older, Harry and his brother Jack found a huge supply of timber on the Cape Woolamai beach, washed off the deck of a ship. “Beautiful timber; 12 foot [four metres] long, some of it.” They hitched up their draught horses and dragged it home on a sled. “Used it on the farm for years.”
Incidents like this would have reinforced his respect for the sea, says Harry’s daughter, Gaye. “Shipwrecks were common enough in his youth, especially around the island, sometimes with fatalities.” Once he and Jack found a body washed up.
Maintaining the light on Cape Woolamai – the only light between Port Phillip Bay and Wilson’s Promontory – came with the Cleeland territory. “It entailed going up there with three draught horses and a sled, pulling two full gas cylinders: huge iron cylinders, about six feet high, two hundredweight [100 kilograms] each. It was a full day’s job!” Harry used to go with his father but when his father became too old, he delegated the task solely to Harry.
One night during World War 2, Harry’s father woke him. “Wake up, Son; you’ve got to go to Cape Woolamai and put the light out!” Apparently Japanese submarines had been spotted near Wilson’s Prom.
“I’m not going tonight,” said Harry. “It’s pouring rain and there’s a howling south-west gale.”
“Well,” said his dad, “I’m afraid you’ve got to, Son. There’s a war on!”
“So I got on my horse and rode,” said Harry. “It was all right along the sandy beach – you could see where you’re going – but once you got up on top amongst the bracken and tussocks of Cape Woolamai you couldn’t see anything. I just headed for the flashing light.
"I got there – the cliff edge is just there and the wind is howling – and there were double doors that held these two cylinders and when I opened them one door went this way and the other went that way. The horse reared back and pulled the reins out of my hands and disappeared.
"I eventually caught him and put the light out and rode back along the beach expecting to run into a mob of Japanese any minute. I was 26. I shouldn’t have been scared but I was.”
In those early years, the islanders paid a price for their isolation. “The biggest disaster was Les McFee. The weather was stormy and the ferryman wouldn’t take him across until the next day and he died of peritonitis.” So the first bridge between Newhaven and San Remo (a suspension bridge built in 1940) was cause for celebration. “It was designed to move,” says Harry, “but when you’ve got 40-50 cattle on it would move in all directions and if it was blowing a gale it swayed as well and sometimes you’d wonder if you were ever going to get to San Remo.”
But Harry’s formative years were the days before the bridge existed, when men were men and boys presumed.
”There were five of us young boys who’d gone to school together and we decided we’d take a rowboat to San Remo where we knew some girls. It was a lovely glassy, calm night. We got to the hotel and had a few beers, and then some of us went to a dance. At 3 or 4 in the morning we get down to San Remo jetty and a south-west gale has sprung up and there’s an ebb tide. Now if you’ve ever looked underneath the jetty when there’s a gale on and an ebb tide you’ll know there’s a huge rip there.
“We let go of San Remo jetty in the dark, two blokes sitting side by side rowing and there’s one bloke up the front, dead drunk. We put him there because he’s the only one who should have known what to do. Water’s pouring in the boat from all directions. I took my shoes off and tried my best to bail out the water, but this bloke up the front, by the time the water had splashed over him, you never saw a man come sober so quickly. He knew what to do! He said: “Row you buggers, row!” He got to the back of the boat with a spare oar and kept us head on into the gale and eventually we pulled the boat up to the beach. I hung my suit out next day on the line. It dried out almost white, it had that much salt water in it!”
Harry Cleeland saw the Alma Doepel. He told wonderful stories with humour and grace about a lifetime of living by the sea. But he would have been the first to acknowledge that he liked to keep his feet dry.
“When he was walking Banjo, his dog, he would keep his shoes and socks on, even on the hottest days,” Gaye says. “Although I remember that when we were kids he paddled in the shallows in summer, keeping watch.”
Vale Henry Kitchener Cleeland.
Gill Heal interviewed Harry Cleeland in 2004 while gathering material for an oral history production on Philip Island.