Wurundjeri history in Ashburton
Updated: Aug 4, 2021
The other day I received an email from Boroondara Council seeking my thoughts on its proposed reconciliation process over the area’s indigenous history. I realised I had absolutely no idea about the area's pre-colonial history whatsoever. A quick Google didn’t come up with much, so I decided it was high time to find out.
It wasn’t that easy. When an ancient culture with historical traditions based on generations passing down stories, poems, songs is conquered by a Western society, much of the original history is lost or disregarded. This is simply because it was not written down. This happened to the multitudes of indigenous people of every continent who found themselves under European colonialism, including Australia’s indigenous people.
Often, all we can know about these original inhabitants is from the records of their colonists - diaries, letters, treaties, official journals – and what they deigned important enough to record. The authors of these records often created them with a preconceived bias that taints the stories of the indigenous people within them in a negative light. Fortunately, over the past few decades, concerted effort has been made to reconstruct the pre-colonial worlds of indigenous people through the study of biology, language, art and oral history.
And so it is with the Wurundjeri people who lived in Boroondara, including in the far-flung edge of the area known today as Ashburton.
The Wurundjeri before the British came
The Wurundjeri-willam (or Wurundjeri) are the original occupants of the lands of Boroondara. As this map shows, they are a sub-clan of the larger Woiworung (Yarra Yarra) clan family who occupied a section of the lands of south-central Victoria that comprised the Kulin Nation.
At the time of European settlement in 1835, the Wurundjeri were comprised of three inter-related families. Each group controlled its own tract of land north and south of the Yarra River. Billibellary and his family lived on the north bank of the Yarra and their territory extended from present-day Yarra Bend Park northwards along Merri Creek. Bebejan (also called Jerrum Jerrum) controlled the section of the river that stretched upstream from Heidelberg towards Mount Baw Baw. Billibellary’s brother Burrenupton lived with his people on the southern bank of the Yarra, just upstream from the beginning of Kooyong Koot Creek, known today as Gardiner’s Creek.
During the summer, the Wurundjeri women collected food along the creeks and waterways. A staple of the Wurundjeri diet was the Murnong (Yam Daisy - the root is pictured here), a root vegetable than when cooked over fire tasted similar to radish. Or coconut, depending on your taste buds.
The women would dig up this carbohydrate-laden food with their digging sticks, helping to turn the soil constantly and encouraging new roots to form. For protein, insects, large ants and swollen grubs provided a rich source when eaten raw or roasted on the fire. The women also collected roots, seeds, fruit, leaves and nectar from flowers, depending on seasonal availability. Eucalyptus gum and wattle sap were used for food and medicinal purposes.
Meanwhile, the men hunted the local kangaroos, emus, possums, koalas, and wallabies that roamed the grass plains that stretched over the hills of present-day Hawthorn, Glen Iris and Ashburton. This picture below of the Ashburton Estate was taken in 1916 but it gives some idea of how the space looked.
During the warmer months, the Wurundjeri would also visit with the Bunurong (also called Boonwurrung) people, who controlled the popular fishing spots around Port Phillip Bay. This helped them supplement their protein diet with fish.
To minimise their impact on the land and ensure a sustainable food supply, the Wurundjeri moved through the land in small family groups. They established regular camping spots along the creeks and rivers around the Yarra and made strong, dome-shaped huts out of long pieces of bark to sleep in (perhaps similar to the one pictured here).
At this time, most of early Melbourne was swamp. This meant the creeks and rivers were highly subject to flooding. So in the winter, the Wurundjeri moved north towards the mountain ranges to keep dry. There they built sturdy winter huts out of bark and settled more permanently to wait out the cold weather.
Boroondara: ‘shady place’
Burrenupton’s Kooyong Koot Creek was a favourite camping and hunting spots for the Wurundjeri. The name Boroondara came from the rich variety of trees that lined the creek. These included Eucalyptus, Stringybark, Swamp Paperbark, Black Wattle (pictured), Blackwood, River Red Gum and She-oak trees. Away from the creek’s banks grew a variety of grasses and occasional shrubs that formed the grazing areas for kangaroos and wallabies. The creek provided a habitat for a multitude of different birds, including Water Hens, Ibis, Cormorants, Kookaburras, Mountain Parrots, Galahs, Willy Wagtails and Finches. These were joined by frogs, yabbies, water snails, tortoises, fish, native eastern water rats, and platypus to create a rich supply of food and ambience.
The story of Melbourne’s foundation is well-documented elsewhere so I will only very quickly summarise it here. In June 1835, John Batman sailed across Bass Strait from Van Dieman’s Land to explore Port Phillip and find a suitable place to build a settlement. Accompanied by indigenous people from Van Dieman’s Land and Sydney, Batman sought out the local aboriginal elders to negotiate a treaty to lease their land. He intended to use diplomacy as he lacked sufficient personnel and armaments to force a conquest.
In the treaty, Batman agreed to exchange a supply of stores - including blankets, weapons, and cloth – for the annual use of the Kulin Nation’s land. When Batman returned to Van Dieman’s Land, a group of 15 settlers formed the Port Phillip Association to begin administering the new settlement. Within the Association were men with well-known names today, including Joseph Gellibrand and Charles Swanston.
It’s commonly assumed the Kulin elders did not understand the full ramifications of Batman’s treaty at its signing. However, more recent research has revealed that the Kulin people would have been very aware of the devastation inflicted on the indigenous people in New South Wales. They had comprehensive trade connections there so word of it would have easily travelled south. In addition, the goods and stores Batman offered would have been highly valued and considered worthy of the temporary use of the land. They probably strategised that allowing a small group of settlers to use the land was better than being conquered for it. After all, they were not to know just how many people would quickly descend on their land and displace them. You can read more about this discussion here.
Unfortunately, Batman’s treaty didn’t really matter anyway. When a furious Governor Bourke heard about the treaty in Sydney he declared it invalid. As far as he was concerned, the land belonged to the Crown, not the Kulin people. Within weeks, the arrival of British guns, diseases, and liquor from Van Dieman’s Land inflicted undue suffering on the Wurundjeri.
One of the settlers who arrived was John Gardiner, his wife Mary and their daughter, Mary Alice.
The arrival of John Gardiner in Boroondara
John Gardiner is often considered the ‘founding father’ of Boroondara but not a huge amount is known about the kind of person he was. He did not leave a diary and his wife Mary wrote rather erratically in hers. He was certainly wealthy, ambitious and well-connected. In early 1836, he sailed up from Van Dieman’s Land to purchase land for a cattle/sheep station in the new Port Phillip settlement. Originally from England, he had made good money in Hobart Town where he ran a successful shop and held official connections with Van Diemen’s Land Bank. He also held financial interests in Sydney.
When the Gardiner family arrived, Joseph Gellibrand arranged for John Gardiner to lease (from the Crown, not the Wurundjeri) much of the area where the Yarra River met Kooyong Koot Creek. The Gardiners built a small farmhouse (pictured here in a sketch by Mary) on the hill that Scotch College is located on now.
The couple shared a deep religious faith and were practicing Methodists, often holding sermons at home. Gardiner proved instrumental in establishing Melbourne’s first Temperance Society, discussed in my blog post about the Boroondara Dry Area.
Outside of Boroondara, John Gardiner is more widely known as one of a team of men to be the first to drive stock overland to Melbourne from New South Wales.
Wrote A. S. Kenyon in 1925, ‘in personal appearance, these Overlanders are rough, dirty, half-shaved, and ill-attired. The Stranger would look down upon them as of small repute, ignorant and poor. How he would be surprised to learn that these men held £20,000; claimed kindred with the nobility of Britain, and are versed in the literature of all ages.’
Together with his financial partners Joseph Hawdon and Captain John Hepburn of the Sydney-Newcastle steamer Ceres, the three men purchased sheep and cattle and, in three weeks and five days, crossed the Yarra River at Dights Falls to arrive in Boroondara with their stock in December 1836.
The Wurundjeri suffer
The arrival of Gardiner’s sheep and cattle instantly destroyed the delicate environmental balance the Wurundjeri had maintained along Kooyong Koot Creek for generations. Unlike the long, flat feet of the kangaroos and wallabies, the hooves of the stock dug into the soft, marshy earth. This meant the sheep quickly chewed through the Yam Daisies (pictured) and discovered Munrong, the root vegetable so crucial to the Wurundjeri’s diet. It disappeared within weeks.
The grazing of the stock also quickly destroyed the food supply of the local animals the Wurundjeri men hunted. With their primary source of protein moving away to find its own food, the hunters were forced to go with it. Kooyong Koot Creek, now more commonly referred to as Gardiner’s Creek, became the drain and sewer for the station, further exposing the Wurundjeri to diseases caused by foreign excrement.
Melbourne’s new residents began encouraging the Wurundjeri to live on missions established by pioneering religious representatives for their ‘protection’. Here they would receive food provisions and be taught the ways of the British colonists. By now, some members of the Kulin Nation realised that Batman's Treaty was not being honoured. The murder of Gellibrand was suspected of being in retaliation for it. They also realised some British colonists did not seek to live harmoniously with them as they had agreed in the Treaty. Instead, they sought to actively eradicate them. So they began to fight back.
Exactly how many Aboriginal people in the Port Phillip district died at the hands of white settlers is not known.
Settler J C Byrne remarked at the time that, ‘for every white reported killed’ in the Port Phillip District, ‘there were from 50 to 100 Aborigines who lost their lives.’
In 2005, historian Richard Broome estimated that around 10,000 Aboriginal people lived in Port Phillip when Batman arrived in 1835. By 1853, the number had dropped to 1,907. He surmised around 1,500 to 2,000 died violently at white and black hands; 1,500 died of natural causes; leaving 4 – 5,000 dying of diseases, disruption of food supplies, and the impact of cultural dislocation. At the same time, the birth rate dropped dramatically.
The Wurundjeris confront John Gardiner
As John Gardiner’s farm took shape, he began to experience problems with local Wurundjeri men stealing stock and vegetables from his garden. Reverend George Langhorne, who ran one of the missions near John Gardiner’s property and comes across as at least nominally sympathetic to the plight of the Wurundjeri, began to suspect that several of his charges had been engaged in nightly depredations against Gardiner. He warned the men to stay away from Gardiner’s property or face severe consequences. Not long after, the Wurundjeri men Langhorne suspected of theft left the mission for the extremity of the Boroondara reserve (present day Ashburton).
One of these men was called Tullamarine. This was the same Tullamarine whose name adorns the freeway, suburb and airport.
One afternoon a short time later, Mr Gardiner was leading the family and his workers in prayers when he heard loud shouts of ‘Murder!’ coming from the garden. He had placed a man called Underwood out there to guard over it. It was Underwood’s voice he heard yelling out.
Underwood’s attention had been captured when he noticed two men carrying potatoes in shirts and baskets.
‘I saw no more blacks and thought I might endeavour to decoy them up to Mr Gardiner’s house in order that they might be apprehended,’ he later told the Melbourne Court. ‘I tried to do so but they would not go. I then took hold of one and tried to force him up, but he told me there were a great many more blacks in the potatoes, and on looking round I saw another black about 20 years from me with a gun presented at me.’
The young man threatened to shoot him, Underwood alleged, and then a man he knew as Tullamarine came up behind him with some other kind of firearm. Tullamarine then told the young man to lower his weapon. Three other men also appeared carrying potatoes.
Sensing Tullamarine had protected him, Underwood continued, ‘I shook hands with them and made them understand that I must go away,’ Underwood continued. ‘I told them to pick up the potatoes and said I would not tell Mr Gardiner.’ Underwood assumed the men would quickly disappear but instead, they went back to the field and continued taking potatoes.
As Underwood ran back up the hill to the house to report the incident to Mr Gardiner, yelling ‘Murder’ to get everyone's attention, more of Gardiner’s men emerged bearing rifles. Underwood told them the ‘blacks’ had guns and had threatened to shoot him.
The men all ran down into the field. When Tullamarine and his friends saw them, they quickly ran towards the river. The men began firing at them in the water. Three of the Wurundjeri men swam across and escaped but Tullamarine and a man called Jin Jin were captured. When Tullamarine tried to escape, Underwood struck him in the head with the butt end of his gun, inflicting a serious head wound. This ended the two men's escape.
Tullamarine and Jin Jin appeared before the Melbourne Court on allegations of theft. George Langhorne spoke in their favour, saying ‘they appeared sensible that to [steal] was wrong, particularly when I charged them not to go near Mr Gardiner’s potato ground. Tullamarine told me he had gone with a gun which was given him by and inhabitant to shoot pigeons.’
Tullamarine and Jin Jin were committed for trial in Sydney.
While waiting for the ship in the Melbourne lockup, the two men set the thatched roof on fire and made their escape, committing the first ever jailbreak in Melbourne history (pictured here in 1875 by an unknown artist). Tullamarine was recaptured and sent to Sydney for trial. When it was found he could not speak English, he was set free.
According to local legend, he walked 600 miles home before he reached the area now known as Tullamarine and settled there.
After the Gardiner Potato Theft incident, the number of Wurundjeri in the area dropped dramatically. According to Langhorne, within a month, the distressed Wurundjeri residents of the Mission had retreated to the mountains, never to return.
John Gardiner stayed at his property on the Yarra for a few more years. But his marriage had turned unhappy. It’s not known why this occurred. A hand-written biography by Leslie J Wilmoth speculated Mary (pictured here) suffered from mental ill-health. Gardiner began to live on another property at Yarra Glen while Mary stayed in the cottage with their daughter Mary Alice. He returned to England in 1842 and never returned to Australia.
Today, Gardiner’s Creek would not be recognisable as the Kooyung Kook Creek of the Wurundjeri of 1835. Over the years, massive amounts of engineering work have completely re-orientated its original path to safeguard it from flooding. This picture here was taken in the 1930s and shows the works going into the building of the original Solway Street Bridge. The Creek’s original trees are also long gone.
So there you have it. Next time you're down at Gardiner's Creek, take a moment to listen to the birds chirping happily in the blooming wattles and remember the Wurundjeri who lived there long before you.
Do you have a something, someone or somewhere around Ashburton you'd like to know more about? Then fill out the topic suggestion form!
 Ellender, Isabel and Peter Christiansen, People of the Merri Merri: The Wurundjeri in Colonial Days, ed. Tony Faithfull (East Brunswick, Vic: Merri Creek Management Committee, 2001). Map is taken from this book.  Burns, Don, "A History of Gardiner's Creek Valley" (1984).  Kenyon, A S, "The Overlanders," Victorian Historical Magazine, Vol 2, 1925.  Ryan, Lyndall, 'Settler Massacres on the Port Phillip Frontier, 1836-1851,' Journal of Australian Studies 34, no. 3 (2010) 257-73: 257.  The Aborigines of Port Phillip 1835-1839, vol. 2A, Historical Records of Victoria (Public Records Office Victoria, 1982), 217.  Ibid., 219.