Reviving our pioneering past

Inside an elaborate frame of the 110-year-old pioneer honour board are the faces of 204 men, but it’s the stories behind the faces that reveal links to some of the biggest events in Victoria’s history, leaving their mark on the state’s landscape. KATRINA LOVELL takes a look at the contribution some of those early pioneers made to Warrnambool.

A shootout with a bushranger, policing the Eureka Stockade, a search for the Mahogany Ship and creating some of Melbourne’s famous landmarks – Warrnambool’s early pioneers were anything but boring.

The 204 stern faces that stare out from the large frame hung in HeritageWorks tell the story of Warrnambool’s early years, but many of these stories have remained untold over 100 years. An adopt-a-pioneer campaign to fund the $60,000 restoration of the board and a book detailing pioneer stories has been unveiled, along with the stories behind of some of the faces.

Octavius Palmer was a well-known sportsman who played polo in the first intercolonial polo team in 1872 and was instrumental in having the hill fenced at the Warrnambool racecourse. As a teenager he headed to America during the Californian gold rush where he secured a high-risk job driving the gold escort.

Mr Palmer and his older brother, Thomas, took over the Tooram property at Allansford and he later purchased a large property on the eastern bank of the Hopkins River north of Wangoom. He served as a shire councillor during his time here and was one of the first to import Romney Marsh sheep. 

He came to Warrnambool in 1862, and despite missing the cut-off for inclusion on the pioneering board by two years, his portrait was added.

The pioneering board had a troubled past. It was the idea of Edward Vidler to get descendants of the early pioneers – those who’d settled in the area prior to 1860 – to send an image of their ancestors to commemorate the 1907 Diamond Jubilee of Warrnambool’s foundation in 1847. The cost was one pound for each image.

Edward Vidler

Edward Vidler

However, Mr Vidler left Warrnambool in 1907 and the Pioneer Honour Board expenses were left unpaid. It sat at Foyle’s Studios for 17 years until half the debt was paid and the board was moved to the Art Gallery. Historical Society president Janet Macdonald said the board was a nineteenth century view of history. “Where are the women? Where are the children? Where are the Aborigines? Every time I have school kids in, they can see that immediately,” she said.

It was the town’s first female photographer, Lilian Foyle, a radical who championed women’s rights, who was tasked with putting it together. 

Lilian Foyle

Lilian Foyle

Historian Elizabeth O’Callaghan said she often wondered what Lilian Foyle thought about the board honouring only men. “She was an activist politically for women’s suffrage and women’s rights,” Mrs O’Callaghan said. When Lilian married Labor Party Senator Edward Findley in Melbourne in 1911, she was given away by Prime Minister Andrew Fisher.

Joseph Aberline's map of the Mahogany Ship.

Joseph Aberline's map of the Mahogany Ship.

Joseph Archibald came to Warrnambool from Ireland in 1853 as one of a group of policemen called The London 50 because of a shortage of police in Victoria.

Historian Elizabeth O’Callaghan said that although he was a stern man he was also compassionate and once paid the fine for an eccentric widow who faced being jail because she couldn’t pay the fine for not sending her child to school. 

Mr Archibald became the first curator and founder of the old Warrnambool museum which was closed in the 1960s. “He collected local history, anything he could find. He had people going overseas who he asked to bring back materials for him. He collected artworks,” she said.

“He also single-handedly revived interest in the Mahogany Ship in the 1890s.” Mr Archibald interviewed everyone who had said they had seen the “ancient shipwreck”, instigated searches and wrote a scientific paper which was read at the Royal Geographic Society of Australasia. “It was pretty high-profile,” Mrs O’Callaghan said. His son, John Archibald, co-founded the Sydney Bulletin and initiated the Archibald Art prize.

Henry Foster is probably most famous for his links to the Eureka Stockade and the Burke and Wills expedition.  He studied medicine in London before coming to Australia in 1841 where he and Thomas Augustus Strong took up St Mary’s Run – a 16,000 acre farm bordered by the sea and the Hopkins and Merri rivers.

Mr Foster acted as the town’s medical man and on his death in 1884 The Standard noted the affection residents had for the man who provided so much help during his 10 years in Warrnambool. Historical society member Ray Welsford said Mr Foster joined the police force in 1852 and was inspector in charge of the police at Ballarat at the time of the Eureka rebellion. “He’s not remembered with quite such affection in that area,” Mr Welsford said.

Mr Foster was transferred to Swan Hill where he joined his friend William Burke on the famed Burke and Wills expedition. “What happened next is not quite clear. He dies on January 5, 1885 on a station between Tamora and Kootamundra in New South Wales,” Mr Welsford said.

“Foster’s burial is subject to quite some conjecture. One story is that he died in a shootout with a bushranger and buried with the bushranger basically where they fell.” 

When Henry Phillips arrived in the Warrnambool district horse racing had just started to take off.

In 1865  Mr Phillips purchased a Tasmanian horse called Panic - considered the most outstanding stayer in Eastern Australia – which had been entered in the Melbourne Cup.

However, Ms Macdonald said Panic lived up to his reputation and bolted before the race started, and later ran second in the actual race despite leading near the very end.

Buying Panic set him up as one of Victoria’s best breeders for the next 30 years which he did from his property Bryan O’Lynn which he purchased at Purnim in 1867. 

“It was certainly regarded as one of the biggest and most interesting houses in the district mainly because of the parties and balls they’d have there. They were famous,” Ms Macdonald said.

James Butters in the satirical magazine Punch.

James Butters in the satirical magazine Punch.

James Butters only spent five years in Warrnambool, but he left a bigger mark on Melbourne.  As the Mayor of Melbourne in 1867, he was largely responsible for the town hall that still stands today. Mr Welsford described him as a colourful figure, known as much for the way he dressed as what he achieved during his lifetime.

Satirical magazine Punch would often poke fun at him and his obituary in the Melbourne Argus in September 1912 noted that he caught the attention of everyone he passed because he was always smartly dressed in mid-Victorian costume.

Mr Butters came from England to Warrnambool, bringing with him the skills he’d learnt in the drapery trade. He was lured away to the gold fields where he was a gold broker before turning to stocks. 

He was twice elected to the Victorian Parliament representing Portland. He even won the confidence of the King of Fiji and spent four years there helping set up its parliament.

John Shanks Jenkins was not just a Warrnambool pioneer, he became a pioneer of the eight-hour movement which led to the introduction of the eight-hour work day in 1856. He was an apprentice architect in Aberdeen, Scotland before arriving in Warrnambool 1854 where for four years he was a timber merchant and building contractor.

He moved to Richmond as the town surveyor and later won first prize for the design of the Princes Street bridge. “It really is an achievement to have that still being used as a significant thoroughfare in Melbourne 150 years down the track,” historical society member Glenys Phillpot said.

Mr Jenkins became Richmond’s mayor in 1888 and had what Mrs Phillpot described as a “unique experience” in the municipal history of Victoria – all his fellow councillors demanded his resignation by unanimous vote and refused to sit with him as long as he held office.

Warrnambool's Christ Church.

Warrnambool's Christ Church.

Nathaniel Billing may have only been in Warrnambool for four years but he left his mark on the skyline of both Warrnambool and Port Fairy.

Mr Billing emigrated with his heavily pregnant wife Henrietta and infant daughter Emma to Warrnambool and their son, Samuel, was born three months after they arrived.

In England, Mr Billing had worked as an architect with with Sir Gilbert Scott  – a noted English Gothic Revival architect who designed many iconic buildings including the memorial for Prince Albert.

Mr Billing came to the district to work for the public service and through his contribution to the Catholic and Anglican churches in Warrnambool and Port Fairy, he left his mark on the region’s heritage.

Henry Phillips was Warrnambool's undertaker.

Henry Phillips was Warrnambool's undertaker.

Henry Phillips arrived in Belfast (Port Fairy) in 1848 and spent five years working for James Anderson who built many of the early buildings in the town.

In 1855 he moved to Warrnambool, opened an undertakers business in Koroit Street with Christopher Beattie in 1865.

The business was sold in 1945 to Jim Leahy and moved to Fairy Street where O’Sullivan’s is today.

Mr Phillips also took a keen interest in the Mechanics Institute and the art gallery where he was president of the committee for several years.

Construction of the breakwater. The rocks used in the construction came from Joseph Aberline's Wangoom farm.

Construction of the breakwater. The rocks used in the construction came from Joseph Aberline's Wangoom farm.

Joseph Aberline came to Australia in 1832 and at the 1837 land sales in Melbourne he purchased a block on the corner of Queens and Little Bourke Street for 39 pounds which today is the site of an 18-story building.

They arrived in Warrnambool 1849 and it was reported that the Aberline family was the first in the district to own a chair and was known to have once grown a massive cauliflower weighing 24 pounds (just over 11 kilos).

In 1856, the bluestone blocks from their Wangoom property were used to build the Breakwater.