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Little Vignettes about Ashburton

Those few weeks of silence on the blog were brought to you by a trip to Western Australia in honour of my partner’s 50th birthday. In the interim, you may have seen the article I wrote about Ashburton for The Age’s Life in the ‘Burbs special series.

I initially pitched the article because I saw an opportunity to extend my Ashburton history work beyond my blog. Yes, it was originally all about self-promotion. It drew a big spike of traffic to the blog (as you can see from this graph) and a few new subscribers. So if that’s you, welcome! Thanks for signing up.

The spike in hits on my blog for 27 June

I had no control over the publication date so I was pleasantly surprised at the immediate and very positive response. I always love to hear from readers and several people took the time to email me and share their memories of Ashburton. This was very welcome because to be honest, after the popularity of the Brumby’s post, I was starting to think that I was running out of things to write about – that’s why recent articles covered Balwyn and Boroondara!

Some of these stories I’m going to investigate further for future blog posts but here are a few things people shared with me (names not included to protect privacy).

Nick Cave and St Matthews Anglican Church

Nick Cave, the frontman of emotionally intense band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, met Mick Harvey, his long time collaborator and guitarist at an audition at St Matthews Anglican Church in Ashburton in 1973. Mick’s father was the vicar and allowed his son to use the parish hall for rehearsals for his band, Concrete Vulture.

Nick turned up with a ‘memorably surly, defensive attitude and a hip flask’ that he used to regularly swig vodka.

According to Mick, he couldn’t sing at all but he looked and acted like a front man, so he was in.

St Matthew's Anglican Church in 2023

[NB: this information was from a book but the correspondent could not remember the name of it. I think it could be Ian Johnston’s Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave (1996). If it’s not, apologies to the original author!]

The pair attended Caulfield Grammar and with some other school friends, formed the group The Boys Next Door. They played popular covers at parties and school functions. Then punk happened, they started writing their own songs and changed their name to The Birthday Party.

I suspect that despite its public conservativism and dry area culture, Ashburton in the 1970s was an interesting little microcosm of Melbourne’s counter-culture. I’m always keen to hear more about this time. The youth club at Ashburton Methodist Church in the 1970s was central to the local music scene but this is the first I had heard of one at the Anglican Church.

Or it may have just been the case of a bemused vicar trying to support his wayward son!

The wallaby that invaded St Michael’s Parish was a pet

The Age included this photograph of a wallaby that apparently wandered into St Michael’s Parish in 1959 before being shooed away by parishioners.

This was not a random incident. According to a former resident who gave me a call, Rufus the Wallaby was the McNeill family pet. Mrs McNeill had raised Rufus from infancy after finding his mother dead. Rufus was notorious for getting himself into pickles such as this one but everyone treated him with great affection.

The caller was thrilled to see Rufus again!

Rex McNeill joined the Australian Ballet

Rex and Michela pictured in The Age in 1978.

A suburb that punched above its weight in sport may seem an unlikely source for a ballet student, especially a male one. But against all odds and, I imagine, a lot of bullying and questioning of his sexuality (including from his father), local resident Rex McNeill (of the pet wallaby family above) joined the Australian Ballet School in 1967. In his second year, he received the first scholarship the school had ever offered. Within a few years, he became a soloist for the Australian Ballet.

Rex got into ballet quite late: at age 13. According to his brother, he was hit by a car as a youth. Recovery from the accident required physical therapy and Rex’s neighbour, Margaret Stewart – who went on to become a choreographer for Young Talent Time – took him along to her ballet classes in Malvern. He studied there for a few years before leaving school and attending Jordanville Technical School.

You can imagine that being a male ballet dancer at Jordy Tech would have been… character building. But Rex went on to a successful ballet career and in 1978, moved to Forest Hills with his wife, Michela Kirkaldie, a principal dancer at the Australian Ballet.

I'm keen to do a post on all of Ashburton's notable residents, so do send through suggestions!

Pincott’s Cake Shop

Another subject I’m always interested in documenting is the changing nature of Ashburton’s High Street. Several people commented on the article about its vibrancy during the 1960s and 1970s. Even today, it maintains a strong independent streak and is one of the only main suburban shopping strips in Melbourne without either a Coles or Woolworths.

If you’ve lived here awhile, you’ll know that High Street goes through different stages of shop types. In this post-Covid era, it’s doctors surgeries and gyms. In the 1960s and 70s it was fresh grocery stores; vegetables, butchers and bakeries. But during the post-World War II period of the 1950s, High Street enjoyed a proliferation of milk bars and cake shops.

The lead story in Progress Press in June 1955!

One reader told me about Pincott’s Cake Shop. ‘Every Christmas,’ she wrote, ‘their shop window display was filled with beautifully decorated cakes with snowy scenes featuring chunks of meringue.’ Everyone knew each other then and the Pincott family even gathered on the corner of Lexia to see her off to her wedding!

This story reminded me of the lovely article Elizabeth Drake wrote in Burwood Bulletin’s December 2013 issue. Her favourite confectioner was Mermaid Milk Bar. It opened on High Street in the early 1950s near the train line. Then in 1961, it changed its name to Dairy Queen and began selling the latest type of ice-cream: soft serve.

To celebrate this arrival of this amazing innovation in Ashburton, all cones were free between certain hours on the first day. The queue was so long it extended along High Street across the bridge. Several of the children decided to swap jumpers among themselves in the hope of obtaining seconds.

Elizabeth used to spend a ha’penny at a time in the shop because she fancied the young good-looking shopkeeper. Girls never change!

The Dunscombe Family story

One of my more popular blog posts is the origins of street names in Ashburton. As a result of the article, I received a lovely email from a descendent of the Dunscombe family, of Dunscombe Avenue fame.

William Moncrieff Dunscombe lived with his wife Maria (nee Plant) at 128 Fakenham Road. Like many early residents of Ashburton, they operated their market garden from the surrounding land. He had inherited it from his father, Henry Robert Dunscombe who emigrated from Surrey to Ashburton. According to family legend, wrote the correspondent, ‘they were staunch Presbyterians and any visiting children were ordered to sit still on hard wooden benches after dinner until bedtime.’

The property passed down the family to Edith “Edie” Maria Dunscombe and her husband, Hughie Stone. By this time, it was 97 Fakenham Road. ‘I remember it as a sturdy, red brick house with white painted trim and a very imposing full-sized billiards table in the front main room.’

‘It had a big palm tree at the front and a magnificent rear garden filled with white-painted glasshouses, a fernery and best of all, a pond filled with water snails.’

The correspondents’ grandmother, Ivy May Dunscombe (beautiful name!) overcame considerable prejudice and adversity to become a woman of learning, great lover of classical music and a talented artist. She is buried at Burwood Cemetery.


That’s just a few of the stories people told me!

There’s more to come (including a mysterious poisoning at the Ashburton Tennis Club!) so thanks to everyone for reading and supporting my blog, it is always appreciated.

And to think my story was just waking up to find a penis spray-painted on the road near my house.

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