Ashburton: 100 years of community spirit
Transcript of presentation to the Ashburton Community Centre at the AGM on 20 October 2021
Link to more photos (public Facebook page)
I decided to start looking into Ashburton’s history earlier this year. The main reason was to try and find the answer to one of the most perplexing issues for today’s parents in Ashburton: why isn't there a wine bar or pub? It’s great the place is so family friendly but where is the place we can relax without our kids, have a drink with friends, and be home in time to fall asleep in front of whatever we’re watching on Netflix?
So in trying to answer that perplexing question, I uncovered a few broader questions that sparked my historian sensibilities.
The first is how intrinsically Ashburton's historical sources are intertwined with Camberwell. On the surface, there's an understandable reason for this. After all, Camberwell has been the centre of local government for over a century. Rule #1 of the Historian Handbook is that history need sources and evidence. For local history, this tends to be the records and documents produced by the local government administrative structure. While these are important historical sources, they don’t really show the spirit of the communities that live within their borders.
These days it’s harder to tell from the rapidly escalating housing prices, but Ashburton is not the same as Camberwell. For one thing, nearly 60 years separates the foundation of Camberwell from Ashburton. The Camberwell postal jurisdiction began in 1864 and the Ashburton in 1923. That’s two generations of Australians – far more likely to be born here than not - and a World War apart. Camberwell was settled as part of the Victorian colony, Ashburton as part of the Australian Federation.
Now think about how much has changed in the world in just the past ten years, hey, even the past two years and we can begin to appreciate this point. There is going to be differences between Camberwell’s residents who have already lived there for decades and the new land-owners and residents of Ashburton that arrived in the 1920s.
This is not intended as a criticism of Camberwell or the wonderful historical work done to produce these important histories. But from enquiries, I’ve found that Ashburton and its residents are often an afterthought or footnote within them. Particularly those from around the old Ashburton housing estate. More on that at a little later.
Rule #2 of the Historian’s Handbook is that what is absent from history books is almost as important as what is included within them. And as I read more books and investigated further, what emerged was ... well, not much at all.
So with all of this in mind, earlier this year I decided to start a blog dedicated to unlocking Ashburton's history and making it accessible to all. Of course, this is a total violation of Rule #3 of the Historian Handbook: if you have something to say, it goes in a book. But hey, its 2021 and there's no money or jobs in history anyway so why not just make our history available online and for anyone to find?
So today I'm going to talk about what I've found out so far about Ashburton's community spirit. There are going to be gaps in this story and it is a work in progress. Lockdown has made it impossible to access all that gold in Camberwell's special collections. It’s also tricky navigating the wealth of oral history available from long-term residents when no-one can meet in person. The State Library has a vast collection of newspaper resources but anything from 1970 to 2000 has not been digitised so I can’t access it until the library opens again. So I’m particularly grateful for local historian Neville Lee, who wrote Ashburton Through the Ages in 2014 and helpfully placed it online. I am very happy to talk with anyone who can help me fill these gaps in.
What is Ashburton now was originally occupied by the Wurundjeri people. The area was called Norwood by British settlers running dairy farms, market gardens and orchards. There seemed to be a sufficient number of people to field a Norwood cricket team and this began the long history of cricket in the area. By the time the infamous Outer Circle Line had left behind the Ashburton railway station, the Wurundjeri people had long been dispersed.
1920s to 1930s
The first significant phase of Ashburton’s development came in the 1920s. Every 30 or 40 years or so, Camberwell Council released large tracts of land for purchase. Glen Iris came about in 1890, Ashburton in 1923. We can credit the first community endeavours to the ill-fated Outer Circle Railway line. It had left a distasteful mark on Melbourne. When it was proposed, Melbourne’s elite, such as the parliamentarian James Munro, of Munro Avenue fame, purchased the land surrounding its route. They then profited immensely off the sale of the land back to the government for the railway line.
This local example of what was a Melbourne-wide problem directly influenced the first community groups formed in Ashburton. Camberwell City’s councillors were often also wealthy owners of local land. For example, in Ashburton, Mr F W Vear owned much of the land up and down what is now Vears Road. He was also mayor of Camberwell from the early 1910s and remained on the Council until 1939. This meant he not only helped distribute the land for sub-division but most likely profited of it as well.
Now the purchasers of the new sub-divisions were not part of Melbourne’s elite, just everyday working people. They sought more say in how their tax dollars were spent. This was not unique to Ashburton. By the 1920s, Melbourne’s residents shared a common belief in the positive role of the state but also recognised the ability to achieve change through action. The Victorian Reform League movement developed because people felt the Legislative Council, primarily comprised of wealthy property owners, obstructed the people’s Legislative Assembly to further their own interests. In Glen Iris and Ashburton, residents formed their own Reform Leagues to take on Camberwell Council.
The first fight was about, you’ll never guess, concrete.
Ashburton’s first land-owners were expected to pay for the development of roads out of their own pockets. In your walks around the neighbourhood, you may have noticed that the steep streets of Lexia Street, Highgate Grove and Ward Street are made of concrete. At the time, the Glen Iris Reform League argued this was because Camberwell Council had already purchased the sturdier but far more expensive cement to pave the streets, instead of the more affordable macadam. The League argued the Council was trying to force the residents to pay for it, receiving a healthy kickback in the process.
Camberwell Council retaliated that the Ashburton Reform League supported the use of concrete and it was just doing what this Reform League requested. A flurry of belligerent meetings ensued that played out in the press. Camberwell Council eventually went ahead and paved the streets with concrete despite the Reform Leagues’ suspicions. While the streets are still there today, exactly what happened with the payments is not known.
Now as more people moved to the area, the need for religious and social facilities emerged. So Ashburton residents’ formed into Progress Associations. Unlike Reform Leagues, Progress Associations were non-political community groups that formed along sectarian lines to further the interests of the local community. By 1938, there were 14 Progress Associations in Camberwell alone. Progress Associations were responsible for fundraising for early public buildings in the area, like the Ashburton Hall on Johnston Street. Now occupied by the Shell Service Station, the hall hosted a range of community activities, including religious services before the various denominations acquired their own churches.
As usual when it comes to studying history, the role of women in these local organisations is frustratingly difficult to uncover. It is known that Melbourne’s early 20th century women were considered the backbone of government and non-government welfare organisations. They were undoubtedly crucial to the Red Cross and the local war effort. While I can’t find evidence that Ashburton’s women formed a branch of more outspoken social change advocacy groups, such as the Australian Women's National League, they were heavily involved in welfare protection of animals. In 1926, thanks to the efforts of local women, the Society for the Protection of Animals established a care home for over-worked horses in Ashburton. By 1933, the care home had cared for over 600 horses. Local women’s charities and balls were held to raise funds for its ongoing maintenance.
Now unfortunately, no census records survive from this time to gain a true understanding of the socio-economic demographic of the area before World War II. But if the development of Ashburton’s churches is anything to go by, it seems the area had a predominantly Anglo-Irish demographic, with a mix of Irish Catholics and English Protestant residents and a lean towards a Protestant majority, in keeping with the demographic of greater Melbourne.
In the early years of Ashburton’s expansion, the Protestant and Catholic faiths shared the Ashburton Hall for their religious services, despite their ideological differences.
Considering how the marginalisation of Catholics by the Protestant majority in Victoria was at the time reflected in everything from the mythologising of Ned Kelly to the Carlton-Collingwood football rivalry, this indicated an unexpected level of cooperation not broadly reflected in Melbourne society in the 1920s.
The Ashburton Methodist Church was proposed first but the Depression caused significant delays in building it. The Roman Catholics of Glen Iris and Ashburton raised the hefty sum of £2,000 and built St Michael’s Church in 1933 on land donated by the late Michael Mornane. The structure was brick, unlike the wooden church built by the Baptists a year later. The Baptist structure was built on Marquis Street in a day – or two, depending on which article you read –funded entirely from public donations and built with donated labour. The Methodist Church was built a year later, in 1935. Since it was built with far more sturdier brick, this indicates there was perhaps more financial resources available to the Catholics and Methodists in Ashburton than the Baptists, potentially implying a higher number of Ashburton residents followed these particular faiths.
1940s and 1950s
Unfortunately, a societal division did manifest after the building of the Ashburton Housing Commission estate in the late 1940s. The new estate divided the community not only geographically but with a healthy dose of anti-Catholic sentiment thrown in for good measure.
The Ashburton Estate came about because of the massive shortage of housing in Melbourne that began even before World War II ended. In 1944, the Housing Commission purchased 98 acres of Mr Murnane’s land south-east of Ashburton Station. The Government eventually extended the railway line one station and named it Alamein, in honour of the WWII North African battle. In total, the Commission anticipated building 800 houses, with 600 being on Murnane’s land. These houses were filled with families who lived in Fawkner Park, the army barracks in South Yarra. New residents also came from Camp Pell in Royal Park. These new residents were a mix of Catholic and non-Catholic, with Italian and Polish immigrants living in a hostel by Gardiners Creek.
According to ‘The Alameiners’, an oral history of the older residents of the Ashburton Estate, life in the estate’s early years was very tough. The streets were unpaved, so they were either extremely muddy or dusty depending on the time of year, sanitation was not completed, and the houses were prone to mould and damp. The Housing Commission children were prohibited from attending Ashburton Primary School and had to attend Alamein State School. This forced a community separation between Ashburton’s parents and established a two-class society centred on what side of High Street someone came from.
Over time, the Housing Commission residents formed their own community, centred on their street and through the Mothers Club at the Alamein State School. When St Michael’s School emerged in 1946 (church built in 1954 pictured here), class and religious divisions were very real, including within Ashburton’s Catholic community. Susan and Diane Walsh, who were interviewed for the Alameiners project, attended St Michaels School. They would be harassed and abused by kids from Alamein School for being Catholic. At the same time, St Michaels Catholic parents on the north side of High Street did not want their children mixing with the Housing Commission kids. Diane also reported that the school and church committees marginalised the Housing Commission fathers from being involved.
Apartment style dwellings were added to the estate in the 1950s, including nine concrete blocks on the creek side of Markham Avenue that became the Markham Estate. At the same time, residents were given the opportunity to buy their house from the state government. A lot of Catholics moved out of the housing estate as soon as they could afford it while other residents decided to buy their house.
Aside from the church, the most popular community space in Ashburton during the 1940s and 50s was the Civic Picture Theatre (pictured left). Built on the old site of Ashburton Hall on Johnston Street, the Civic was the centrepoint of the whole suburb because no matter what side of High Street you lived on, everyone went to the pictures.
Another popular meeting spot was the Progress Press library, opened by the Ashburton Progress Association. The Progress Press was a local community newsletter that eventually became the now defunct News Corp owned Progress Leader. In 1948, a generous bequest from the niece of WEJ Craig, a Camberwell businessman, helped establish the Craig Family Centre for the Ashburton Estate’s young mothers to meet with their children. By the mid-1950s, the men of Ashburton had formed the Ashburton Bowling Club on the site it sits today.
So it seems despite the religious and socio-economic divisions within the community, a fair chunk of Ashburton’s population was represented in its community activities: babies, children, adults and parents - but not so much for the most troublesome residents of all: the teenagers.
In the 1960s the Catholic and State School teenagers did a lot of fighting and the Housing Estate area developed a reputation for violence. Susan Walsh remembered there was a gang led by one of her school colleagues who would hold people up when they got off the train at Alamein. They used to walk her home to protect her from rival gangs. My kids’ piano teacher, Jim Leftley lived in Bakers Parade and he remembers how horrified his mother was when he started dating a girl who lived in Lancaster Street. He must have liked her a lot as few people were prepared to walk those streets at night.
To provide the area’s teenagers with some kind of outlet for all their pent up energy and anger, the Ashburton Methodist Church (pictured left) opened a Youth Club. At the Youth Club on Auburn Grove, it didn’t matter if you weren’t Methodist or even religious, it provided a safe meeting place for the suburb’s teenagers. This was particularly timely for any Melbourne teenager in 1964 because that’s when the greatest music event of all time occurred: The Beatles came to Australia.
The social and cultural impact of the Beatles was immediate. All of a sudden, kids across Australia were forming bands and playing Beatles covers in their backyards. Not to be outdone, two cover bands emerged from Ashburton: The Nomads and the Spinning Wheels.
There was no pub music scene back then because they all closed at 6 pm. So for four heady years, the Nomads and Spinning Wheels (pictured right) played the parties, dances and community halls around Ashburton and the surrounding suburbs. The music of the Beatles, Kinks, Rolling Stones, and New Faces helped bring Ashburton’s teenagers and young people together. The Nomads also regularly played at Ashburton Methodist Church. Whenever Rev Sutherland needed a fundraiser, posters would go up on High Street, the kids would all come out from all sides of town, pay their $2 to hear the band, smoke, have a dance, and socialise.
The end of the line for the local bands came with the conscription ballot for the Vietnam War. Three of the Spinning Wheels were called up. The Nomads disbanded, got married and moved out of the area. The expansion of drinking hours caused the pubs to open for longer and the quick demise of the dance hall scene. The persistent reluctance to establish any drinking establishment in the City of Camberwell, meant Ashburton retained its teetotal status.
In the early 1960s, Ashburton’s original population of the 1920s was moving from middle to old age. Care for the suburb’s senior citizens became a community concern. A local Ashburton community group created a Senior Citizens Centre in Ashburton. By late 1967, the famous Ashy Op Shop opened and helped fund the Ashburton and District Senior Citizens Welfare Association. This organisation helped bring social support services to the area’s elderly, including Meals on Wheels. It also acquired a 10% share in the Stocks Village Independent Living Units Development, and helped fund and develop Elsie Salter House.
What Ashburton lacked in places to drink, it more than made up for in places to play sport. For such a small suburb, Ashburton has an extraordinarily robust sporting history that still provides a cornerstone for the community. As previously mentioned, cricket has been consistently played during the summer for well over a century. The exact details are still under investigation by the Ashburton Willows historian, Peter Woodgate. He understands Ashburton residents played with an East Kew club during the 1930s and 40s, before joining up with a Glen Iris club sometime in the 1950s.
Aside from cricket and the well-established Ashburton Lawn Bowls club, the opening of the Camberwell Southern Swimming Pool (pictured left) in 1963 gave a big lift to the community’s social atmosphere. Situated on the site of the present day Ashburton Pool and Recreation Centre, the new pool provided a welcome respite to the heat and humidity of a Melbourne summer. A swimming club, competitions and swimming lessons occurred for several years until the Pool’s closure to make way for the new YMCA facility.
1970s and 1980s
As the suburb moved into the 1970s, the first of several more sporting clubs arose, many supported by Ashburton Methodist Church and its successor, the Ashburton Uniting Church. In fact, any club that has ‘Uniting’ in its name now can trace its roots to the Church. The church leaders did not really interfere with sports club operations and were happy to leave these to either the adult members or parents.
The Ashburton Methodist Football Club had been playing in the Protestant Football League since at least the 1920s but its demise had already begun by the time the Ashburton United Junior Football Club was established in 1971. The struggle to keep the Club afloat took at least 25 years. Even with the formation of the AFL in the mid 1980s, the community division between the Housing estate residents and the north side of High Street made it difficult to not only find volunteers to help run matches but also to field young players. Facilities were also pretty dire, with the Club’s home ground of Watson Park turning into a marshy bog after rain and producing an unpleasant sewerage smell that caused parents to freak out any time one of their kids dropped their mouthguard and popped it back into his mouth.
Nevertheless, by the mid-1990s, the Ashburton United Junior Football Club, now known as the Ashy Redbacks, began to hit its stride. Auskick programs flourished around the schools and even the closure of the Alamein State School in 1993 did not dent the Club’s rising membership.
Soccer has historically always been far more inclusive of women than Australian Rules football but then that’s a whole other presentation. This is reflected by the Ashburton United Soccer Club, established in 1979 by the Ashburton Baptist Church. It pulled many local boys away from Australian Rules football. In the mid-1990s, it also became the first junior sports club in the area to form girls and women’s soccer teams.
1980s to 1990s
The 1990s also saw the rapid rise of basketball in Ashburton. This began with the foundation of the Solway Basketball Club in 1994. Unlike the other three sports, basketball was immediately available to girls. As the neighbourhood’s demographic shifted towards dual-working parents, basketball provided their children with a consistent sport located conveniently through the kids’ school and played all year round, always appreciated by increasingly time-poor working parents.
Other non-sport related community initiatives appeared in the 1980s. Camberwell Council opened the Ashburton library on its current site in 1980 and funded the Ashburton Community Centre in 1983. The central location of both institutions on High Street provides a focus point for the Ashburton community outside of their homes and workplaces. For the first time, the provision of community spaces unconnected to the local churches or sporting fields gave the area’s non-religious, non-sporty, child-free, single and/or aging residents a place of peace and inclusion.
The 21st century
I’ve noticed that as the Boroondara district moved into the new millennium, local historians tend to consider the 1990s the end of the area’s history. This seems to be because of the passing of the last original residents, and their old houses being torn down and replaced by large houses with smaller backyards. Even though I always feel a pang when one of those wonderful lemon trees goes with it, I think they couldn’t be more wrong. The spirit of the community does not live inside these houses, it is within the people who live there. And in the 21st century, it is as strong as ever.
The 2000s saw the rapid growth of Ashburton sports clubs and this could not have been possible without the consistent support of local parents. Until recently, Ashburton’s three schools still operated their community fairs and residents turned out in force for the Ashburton Community Festival. Local environmental groups have also sprung up, such as the Friends for Gardiners Creek, Friends for Ashburton Station and the Winton Road Food Forest. As they did a century earlier, Ashburton’s residents have also mobilised to form action groups against development, most notably the state government re-development of the Markham Estate site.
One of the most positive developments in the community in the last few years is the expansion of the local Australian Rules and Cricket clubs to include girls. Since girls and women have been seeking out space to play these sports for over a century, Ashburton is not exactly a trailblazer in this area. However, now that these sporting communities have accepted that girls want to play, great strides have been made to include them in the clubs. Appointing capable local women to club leadership roles is an excellent start, as the Ashburton Willows did in appointing Emily Wilhelm as co-President in 2019. Boroondara Council is also committed to investing in upgrading local sport facilities to accommodate the needs of girls. By 2019, the Ashy Redbacks were the biggest Junior Football club in Victoria and fielded several girls’ teams. I understand the upcoming cricket season at Ashburton Willows also has a record number of girls enrolled.
Without a doubt, the past two years of lockdowns have placed a strain on Ashburton’s community institutions and clubs. Yet the community spirit continued on social media. For example, the Ashburton and Glen Iris Covid-19 Support Group now contains more than 1,400 members. It has provided a way for people to still communicate with their neighbours and also get rid of any unwanted items discovered during each lockdown’s garage and shed clean outs.
With 100 years of history behind us, I have no doubt that as some semblance of normal times returns, the community spirit of our wonderful suburb will once again rise to the fore. Especially when the new wine bar on High Street opens. And I am very much looking forward to both of those events happening.
 Beverley Hocking, resident and editor of the Ashburton Community Newspaper in 2014, gave the number as 930 housing commission dwellings, presumably including the apartments.