Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Thomas Roxburgh - Asparagus Pioneer

Over ninety percent of Australian asparagus is grown on the Koo Wee Rup Swamp and asparagus has been commercially grown in this region for over 100 years, so this is a look at the early history of asparagus growing on the Swamp.

The first mention I can find of asparagus was in The Australasian of October 31, 1896.  There was a report on James Pincott’s farm about three miles from Bunyip, one of the most interesting and best managed in the settlement. Mr. Pincott carried out some experiments for six months for the Agricultural Department on this plot, when the fertility of the soil was being tested, and the place locally has consequently become known as the “experimental farm." He grew potatoes, onions, strawberries, and clover, amongst other crops and found that Asparagus and celery can be raised to wonderful perfection.

The next reference was in The Age of May 10, 1912 when it was reported that Thomas Roxburgh, had planted asparagus at his farm on the Koo Wee Rup Swamp. Mr. Roxburgh who, although a busy man in Melbourne, pays a good deal of attention to his farm at Iona, and for a considerable time has experimented in the cultivation of asparagus. Some three years ago he put in one acre as a test, adopting the American principle of planting 1 foot in depth and 3 feet between the plants, with rows 10 feet apart, so as to allow of cultivation between, the soil being of a peaty nature. Now he has nine acres under asparagus, and intends extending the area, as the managers of hotels and cafes in Melbourne have advised him that the asparagus is of the finest quality. This article puts Roxburgh’s first planting in 1909; he had imported the seed from California.

Who was Thomas Roxburgh and where was his farm? His farm, Cheriton Park, was on the corner of Fallon Road and Simpson Road at Vervale, even though it is also listed in the papers as being at Iona, Garfield or Catani. The farm was locally known as Roxburgh Park and was 350 acres.

Thomas Roxburgh was born in Jamaica, West Indies to Adam Roxburgh and Jane Watson. The family arrived in Melbourne on September 28, 1853 when Thomas was two years old. They moved to Ballarat which was where he married Sarah Anne Holthouse on July 2, 1879. Sarah was the daughter of Ballarat’s well known and most esteemed citizen, Dr Thomas Le Gay Holthouse, as he was described in a newspaper report,  and his wife Hanna (nee Pratt).

Thomas and Sarah had seven children - Edith Jenny (1880-1881), Mabel Stella (1881-1970), Leslie Le Gay (1884 -1969, married the delightfully named Miss Widgie Potts of Narrabri, NSW,  in 1915. Her real name was the more prosaic Ann), Reginald Owen (1889-1953, 1st A.I.F), Dorothy Alice (1890-1987), Leeuwin Beatrice (1895 - 1981, married Peter Charles Ferguson, of Barcaldine, QLD,  in 1924),  and Mary Hope Bradgate (1899 - 1978, married Jeffrey Ivey Retallack in 1942). The first two children were born in Ballarat and the rest in Hawthorn. Sarah Anne Roxburgh died on 1942, aged 84. Thomas and Sarah are buried at Brighton Cemetery. Interestingly, their name is spelt as Roxburghe on the head stone. 

Thomas Roxburgh (1851 - 1931)
The Argus December 31, 1931

According to his obituary, Thomas became a member of the firm of James Fry and Co., wheat millers and ship charterers. In 1895 Mr. Roxburgh commenced business on his own account as a grain and shipping broker in Collins-street, and this business he personally conducted practically up to the time of his death. He did a large business, with the East, and was agent for steamers trading with Japan. (The Age, December 30, 1931)

Thomas died on December 29, 1931 and his pall bearers were - Sir James Elder, trade advisor to the Commonwealth Governement and Director of Goldsbrough Mort pastoral company. Read his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, here; Japanese Merchant, Mr T. Hirai - I have no more information about him at the moment, but maybe connected to the Japan-Australia line of which Roxburgh was an agent; Walter Herbert Sollas, shipping agent, died 1933 aged 78; William Howell Swanton, Director of William Crosby & Co. - Ships Agents, Charterers and merchants, died 1951 aged 88; John Fordyce, General Manager Union Bank, Collins Street, died 1942, aged 78; Norman Seale, chairman of the Victorian Stevedoring Co.; Aubrey Clifton Matthews, who later became a Director of the Roxburgh Company; W. Parbury - presumably connected to the firm of Parbury, Henty & Co, merchants and importers and exporters.  

Back to Thomas and his asparagus - Roxburgh did not personally work on the farm, he employed a farm manager and by 1927 it was reported he had planted 100 acres of asparagus, and his farm was one of the most lucrative farms on the Kooweerup Swamp area, as a ready sale is found for the product at £1 per box. The rich, peaty soil is particularly adapted for the production of the plant, which grows to perfection. (The Age, September 28, 1927). By 1932, the farm had 120 acres under asparagus and in the cutting season 20 to 25 men are employed every day, and from 10cwt. to 15cwt. of asparagus a day are despatched. [cwt - hundred weight or 112 pounds or 50 kg]. (The Argus, April 2, 1932)

It seems that most of the asparagus was canned by either the Gartside cannery at Dingley or the Rosella Preserving Company or A.J.C. (Australasian Jam Company).

During the Second World War, the Roxburgh farm had the Australian Women’s Land Army (AWLA) girls working on the property. The AWLA was established to fill the gap in agricultural workers due to the War. They had training at Mont Park or the Werribee Research Station and were then allocated to farms.

Australian Women's Land Army girls - Naida Rose and Jennie Shouewille working on Roxburgh's farm.
The Australasian November 21, 1942.
View this and other photos here

The Argus of November 11, 1942 interviewed Mr G. Roxburgh (this was Thomas’ son Leslie Le Gay, who was listed in the Electoral Roll at Vervale, occupation farm manager) - about the Land Army 'girls' and the  family farm which was growing asparagus for the use of the Army. Mr Roxburgh was quoted as being “very proud of the girls. He finds them fine workers, though physically they cannot stand up to the same speed of work as the men. He thinks that 5 girls can do the work of 3 men”. “They are steady workers," Mr Roxburgh said, "and once I have told them what fields I want done I do not have to worry again.” The women did the cutting, placing the spears into bundles, the picking up of the bundles onto the cart and also worked in the packing shed. The report goes onto describe the living conditions - There are 20 girls, and they live in a camp on the estate, where they sleep in tents and have a small recreation hut. The camp is run on the lines of a Girl Guides' camp, as 2 of the girls first there are Guides, and they helped to establish the camp. The day is a long one. The girls rise at 6.15 and are in the fields at 7.30. They have one hour for lunch, 12 to 1, when they all go to the cookhouse for a generous hot meal, and then spend 20 minutes or so in their tents resting. Work finishes about 5.30, or sometimes earlier if they are able to get through their day's work quicker. In spite of this long day, the reporter said that after work the girls often ride the 6 miles on bicycles to Garfield, to go to the pictures or to a dance. The day I was there several girls were going to walk 2 or 3 miles to a dance!

Australian Women's Land Army girl - Norma Elliott working on Roxburgh's farm.
The Australasian November 21, 1942. 
View this and other photos here

All the asparagus produced was being sent to the canneries for the American Army, as it had been declared a ‘luxury item’ by the Commonwealth Government. Mr Gartside was not happy about this and he was interviewed by the Herald on June 1, 1943 - Canneries which had processed practically the entire output, were virtually told that tins could not be provided for asparagus designed for civilian consumption. Instead of canning asparagus in long spears, canneries had been ordered to cut it into small soup pieces, which turned good food into pig's food, claimed Mr Gartside. Both civilians and service personnel were prevented from eating asparagus as it should be eaten—long spears dipped in melted butter or iced — and troops would have to eat it in soup or with a fork.

Australian Women's Land Army girls - setting out for the field after their midday rest on Roxburgh's farm.
The Australasian November 21, 1942. 
View this and other photos here

From October 1944 there was a small Italian Prisoner of War Camp at Koo Wee Rup (read more here) and the men were allocated to work on various local farms, including the Roxburgh farm. My Dad, Frank Rouse, who was ten at the time, remembers truckloads of the prisoners driving down the road to the farm in the morning, one guard on each truck. At lunch time a food van with a portable cooker would go the farm to feed them. 

Cheriton Park was sold in 1947 to A.J.C and by that time it had 125 acres of asparagus under production. A report in the Weekly Times of November 24, 1939 said that the Koo Wee Rup Swamp had 1,300 acres under asparagus. There were two other early growers that I found reports on.  The Weekly Times of March 22, 1941 reported that Mr Alf Ellett had noticed that after the 1937 flood, asparagus that he had planted in his garden grew well, so he started planting the crop on a commercial basis and by 1941 had nineteen acres sown with seedlings in hand to sow another 10 acres. Also, in the Weekly Times, this time on September 14, 1944, there was an obituary for Charles William Wadsley, who died in 1944 at the age of 53. The Obituary described him thus -  He was an expert on asparagus growing, and in addition to his own property [Strathellen]  supervised an asparagus farm at Geelong.

Finally, there was an interview in the Pakenham Gazette of December 8, 1999 with Bill Roxburgh, the grandson of Thomas. In the interview Bill talks about how his grandfather, who owned Cheriton Park, had planted all different kinds of trees on a five acre section of his land and had built his own park to relax in. Some of the trees are still there.

Some of the trees planted by Thomas Roxburgh at Cheriton Park.
(photo taken about 2010)

I have created a list of newspaper articles on Trove on asparagus growing on the Koo Wee Rup Swamp in the early days and Thomas Roxburgh, you can access it, here.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Local High Schools

In Victoria, the Education Act, which came into effect on January 1, 1873, made State education ‘secular, compulsory and free’. The Act said that parents of children of ‘not less than six years and not more than fifteen years’ were required to send their children to school. Primary schools in those days went up to Year Eight.

For children who wanted further education, if their parents were wealthy enough, they would have been sent to a private school as the first Government High School in the area didn’t open until 40 years after the Education Act came into effect. This was Warragul High School, the construction of which began in March 1911, however classes started in the Shire Hall in the August of that year and the School was officially opened in 1912, with Mr J. McLennan as Head Master and a staff of four.  The School was opened as an Agricultural High School. It was situated on 23 acres, and the first students had to help with the clearing, draining and fencing of the site.  By the 1930s, enrolment numbers in the agricultural courses had declined so this arm of the curriculum was dropped, and the school concentrated on the Academic curriculum and introduced Technical courses. In 1936, Domestic Science was introduced for the girls and by 1940 there was a blacksmith, metal work and wood work rooms.

In 1940, enrolments were around 400 and accommodation was at a premium, so much so that in 1945 when my father, Frank Rouse, started his Form 1A had all their classes at the Warragul State School, where Olive ‘Bonnie’ Marrabel, instructed the pupils in all subjects. The school bus, which had picked up students from Garfield, Vervale, Modella and Bunyip used to drop Dad and his fellow students at the High School and they had to walk the mile every morning and night to and from the State School.

It seems that Cora Lynn was the border of the Warragul catchment area, as pupils who lived on the west side of Cora Lynn State School went to Dandenong High School and pupils on the east side went to Warragul.  The Dandenong High School (DHS) was opened on March 10, 1919. This was later than the usual School opening date due to the outbreak of pneumonic influenza that was prevalent at the end of the First World War. When the School opened it was in temporary premises with the junior students housed at the old Fire Station and the senior students at the Temperance Hall and Church of Christ. There were 104 students. The foundation stone of the permanent building was laid on November 21, 1919 and the School was officially opened in late 1920. In 1920 the DHS enrolment was 150 of which 60 students came from the Berwick, Pakenham, Garfield, Bunyip, Hallam, Lyndhurst, Cranbourne, Koo Wee Rup, Carnegie and Murrumbeena areas.

However, the journey to these schools often required an early start and a late return – there was one report in a paper that said that pupils leave home at 5.45 a.m. and did not reach home until 8 p.m. (This was for students who lived around Heath Hill / Yannathan  - Dandenong Journal, January 12, 1944) so it was not surprising that there was agitation for closer school.

On Friday, August 27, 1926 there was a meeting held at the Cora Lynn Hall and representatives were present from all parts of the Kooweerup swamp area, from Lang Lang and Yannathan to Nar Nar Goon…..The meeting was organised by the Iona women's section V.F.U., who have for some months been engaged in a movement to establish a high school in the swamp. A motion in favor of this was carried. (The Age, August 28, 1926). A further meeting was held a month later where Sites at Cora Lynn and Bayles were reviewed, and it was unanimously decided to recommend an area of Crown land at Bayles. (The Age September 17, 1926)

In February 1927, a deputation made of Councillors from the Cranbourne Shire and the Berwick Shire was formed to request the minister for Education to establish a higher elementary school at Bayles. A temporary school at Cora Lynn is also to be recommended. (South Bourke & Mornington Journal, February 24, 1927)

Two years later, in June 1929, The Argus reported that The Education department has decided to establish a temporary elementary high school at Cora Lynn if sufficient inducement offers. A permanent site has been chosen at Bayles. Clearly, nothing happened about that as there was never a secondary school built at either Bayles or Cora Lynn.

Students were still going to Warragul High and the Herald of December 14, 1943 reported that The High School, which serves from Moe to Pakenham and from Noojee to Korumburra, has been asked to take more than 500 pupils next year, although it was over crowded this term with 390.

As we saw before, with students having to start their journey at 5.45am a new bus service commencing in February 1944 would  have been unlikely to have made this day any shorter -  a new daily school bus route will be commenced from Yannathan to the Dandenong High School, opening up the way to a High School education for about 26 pupils who would otherwise be unable to attend….starting from Yannathan, thence to Catani, Cora Lynn, Bayles, Five Mile, Island road, Cardinia and Clyde North. Any students on the train line such as Lang Lang, Caldermeade, Koo Wee Rup or Tooradin would have caught the train to school. (report from Dandenong Journal, February 2, 1944)

Dad had been at Cora Lynn State School and he had to sit an exam, in Grade 6, before he was accepted into the High School. His brother, Jim, who was two years older than him, completed Grade 8 at Cora Lynn, and also went onto Warragul High School in 1945. Despite Jim having his Merit certificate and being two years older, he was also put into Form 1. This appeared to be a common practice.  Apart from Miss Marrabel, Dad also specifically remembers two other teachers - Roma Bull (Mrs Gordon Jenkins) and Gladys Worthington (later Mrs Lindsay Jones, who incidentally is the sister-in-law of George Jones, with whom Dad did his National Service. You can see a photo of Dad and George, here.)

In 1953, the Dandenong Journal reported Tynong, situated roughly half way between Dandenong and Warragul High Schools….. feels that it has strong claims for the establishment of a High School there - and is pushing them. (DJ October 28, 1953)

Buses at Warragul High School
State Library of Victoria Image H2008.12/44

By this time (1952) the enrolment at Warragul High was around 800 and was obviously not relieved by the establishment of a High School at Tynong (that never happened) but did decline with the establishment of Drouin High School. Drouin High opened in 1956 and classes were held at the primary school and various Halls. It opened on the current site in 1957. This was the same year as Koo Wee Rup High School. Koo Wee Rup had started as a Higher Elementary School in 1953 with classes up to Form 4. Drouin State School operated a Form 1 and Form 2 from 1953 to 1955 as Drouin Central School. Dad’s sister, Marion, had been at Cora Lynn State School until May 1951 when it became part of Pakenham Consolidated School, she then did the rest of Grade 5 and Grade 6 at Pakenham, then Form 1 and Form 2 at Drouin Central and finally went on to Form 3 at Warragul High.

Pakenham High School, the other nearest High School to Garfield, opened in 1967 with classes being held at the Consolidated School and moved to its current site in 1970.  Interestingly, when Pakenham High was established the population of the town was something like 1,700 - it is now over 46,000 and there is still only one Government High School in Pakenham and no additional High School between Pakenham and Drouin.  If you want a prime example of how none of the State governments of either persuasion have planned for infrastructure in growth areas, then this would be it. Getting back to Warragul High School - in the late 1950s there was a move to separate the Technical and High School streams and in 1959 Warragul Technical School opened. In 1994 they were merged to form the Warragul Regional College.

All the Grenda's buses lined up at Pakenham High, early 1980s.
Casey Cardinia Libraries photo

I have created a list of newspaper articles, on Trove, relating to High Schools on the Koo Wee Rup Swamp, which includes all the articles I have referred to in this article. You can access the list, here.