FRONTIER MOMENT: Boldens Run 1844-44

Chapter Two:  THE LAND

During the period from August to Christmas 1840, the Messrs. Bolden, by forming various outstations, occupied on the western side of the Hopkins all the country subsequently held by Messrs. Plummer and Dent [Minjah], Strong and Foster [St Mary's], Manifold [Grasmere], Ryrie [The Lake], Carmichael [The Union], Good [Injemira], Mailor [Merri Farm], Manning [Manning's Farm], Eddington [Ballangeich], Walker [Drysdale], and Cosgrove [Bryan O'Linn]; and on the eastern side, the part of the country held by Black [The Sisters], Johnson [Liberton], Walker [Drysdale], Chisholm [The Junction], and Allan [Allandale and Tooram]. (1)
This summary of Boldens Run at the 'frontier moment' is from Thomas Manifold, the squatter who took over the Bolden Brothers home station of Grasmere in July 1844. Manifold's list provides the broad parameters of the land claimed by the brothers, by referencing the individual squatters who subsequently took over parts of the original area to form their own stations.

Unfortunately, it discloses nothing of what went on within those boundaries during the critical first four months of the Bolden 'occupation'. Manifold's brief account is almost an archetype of the brothers' history in the Warrnambool district. Contemporary reports are always circumspect. Boldens Run is mentioned rarely, and then only in the vaguest terms, leaving a virtual 'black hole' in the colonial record.

The  few details supplied in Manifold's letter are nevertheless enough to give a general idea of the eye-watering extent of the Boldens' land-grab in the latter part of 1840. From the ocean in the south (the present site of Warrnambool), it stretched northwards as far as Muston's Creek (present-day Hexham), with the Merri and Hopkins Rivers radiating out as twin spines.

Using the areas later surveyed for the 'derivative' stations in Manifold's list , it is possible to estimate the size of the initial run. The Boldens' audacious claim covered some 310,000 acres (125,455 hectares), or 482 square miles. This amount  exceeded even the boldest of the 'first-comers' into the Western District in 1838, surpassing the Henty Brothers 115,000 acres on the Wannon and the Manifold Brothers 120,000 acres at Lake Purrumbete.

This basic physical-relief map shows that Boldens Run was remarkably well watered by Australian standards. A good supply of water was necessary for cattle. In hot weather each beast could consume up to 40 gallons per day (100 litres). In addition, the land's proximity to the southern coast ensured a relatively high and reliable rainfall of between 28 and 24 inches per year (700-600 mm).

By April of 1841 it was said that Bolden Brothers "have 3,000 head" on their "cattle station". (2)  A stocking rate of one per 100 acres is conservative for this type of country. It suggests that there was still plenty of capacity to increase numbers. However it should also be remembered that the land was 'unimproved' at this time and their large herd had to be successfully 'fed and watered' through the drier summer months of the year.  

The map also shows the position of four cattle yards erected from bush timber by the brothers in the early stages of their occupation. The situations chosen for these major items of infrastructure are interesting. They speak of deliberate planning, of long term intentions, as well as immediate, 'active', management of their land holdings.

The yards were placed to service the inner core of the run, the land between the two rivers, for normal animal husbandry purposes such as drafting, marking and branding. They also served an external purpose, operating as strategically distanced 'gateways' for receiving new breeding cattle in, and marshalling surplus stock for export out to markets and other stations.

Major Mitchell's Australia Felix

The land [south of the Murray River] is open and available in its present state, for the purposes of civilized man. We traversed it in two directions with heavy carts, meeting no other obstruction than the softness of the rich soil; and, in returning, of flowery plains and green hills, fanned by the breezes of early spring, I named this region Australia Felix [or 'happy' Australia] the better to distinguish it from the parched deserts of the interior country, where we had wandered so unprofitably, and so long. (3)
The Surveyor General of the Colony of New South Wales published these comments on his return to Sydney from his third expedition in 1836. Major Mitchell was impressed by the difference between the arid hinterland of the colony to the west of the surveyed 'limits of settlement' and the rich, wet soils he had 'discovered' in the far south west.

 In Mitchell's opinion, one of the most favourable aspects of the 'new country' was that it was "open and available in its present state, for the purposes of civilized man". The particular variety of "civilized man" that he had in mind was the squatter, a whole class of whom would shortly intrude "on the sublime solitude of these verdant plains" with their "flocks and herds". (4)  In the Colony, where land was in abundant supply but labour was not, the great advantage of Australia Felix "in its present state" was its relative treelessness. Land that was not densely timbered did not require expensive man-hours in 'clearing'. It was "open and available" for immediate use.

In any attempt to re-imagine the landscape of Boldens Run at the time of the brothers' arrival in late 1840, it is necessary to make some mental adjustments. First of all, the Western District was not only the "treeless plains" of popular memory. Secondly, the extensive areas of "open woodland" that co-existed were nearly as Casuarina-dominant as they were Eucalyptus. And thirdly, all timbered areas represented a much more diverse range of species than current remnants of Gum and Blackwood suggest.

An image of vast grass paddocks stretching to the horizon, lined with low stone walls and Sugar Gum plantations, is accurate enough for some parts of the basalt plains, although this picture really belongs to a later period than the 1840s. What Major Mitchell and the first squatters actually saw were areas of dense timber, interspersed by some plains without trees, and a lot of "open woodland".

Out of a total of approximately 2,200,000 hectares, it is estimated that 825,000 hectares was naturally occurring treeless grassland. Another 185,000 hectares could be classified as dense forest, and 242,000 as swamp, scrub and heathland. The remaining 960,000 hectares could be most accurately described as grassy and herb-rich woodland. (5)  

For Boldens Run, these proportions were naturally skewed towards forest, reflecting its position near the coast and higher rainfall. The principle is the same though. Much of the run's best land was covered by timber and was therefore inaccessible for grazing purposes. The Bolden Brothers' cattle were effectively excluded from the rich loam banks around Dwarroon Maar, Lake Wangoom, and the mega-maar Tower Hill, for example. The coveted portions of the run, as with most Western District stations, were the areas of "open woodland".

The prevalence of Drooping She-oak (Allocasuarina verticillate) in the tree canopy of the western plains is unexpected because so few examples have survived in their natural conditions. However, evidence of their former numbers can be seen in the paintings of the Port Phillip District by colonial artists like Eugene von Guerard, Louis Buvelot, and William Clark. Painters from this early era are sometimes criticized for their 'primitive' style and dark palette, as if they were struggling to represent Australian landscapes through European eyes, In fact though, they were probably quite truthfully portraying the 'bush' as they saw it.

The She-oak, like its northern relatives Buloke and Belah, does not have leaves. Its 'foliage' is made up of long, thin, segmented strands that hang down like a dispirited mop-head. The colour is difficult to describe, It is a dark grey-green that seems to absorb the surrounding light, rather than reflect it back. It often looks brown, dead. The black bark of the trunk and branches underneath reinforces this sombre hue, so that when the She-oak is viewed from a distance it can seem to be a shadow, a dark space, amongst the less formidable greens of other trees in the landscape. The distinctive moodiness of early colonial paintings is therefore likely to be a reliable depiction of a contemporary reality, truly capturing the ubiquitous presence of this Australian native.

There were Gums of course. The main one was White Gum (Eucalyptus viminalis). Swamp Gum (Eucalyptus ovata) and River Red Gum (Eucalyptus cameldulensis) were also present in wetter areas, along watercourses and in marshland. But the Drooping She-oak was equally common in the Warrnambool region. This is borne out by pollen counts taken from the sediment of local maar craters.

At Lake Wangoom, samples from the last 9,000 years or so reveal almost equal proportions of Eucalyptus and Casuarina dominating the sclerophyll (non-rainforest) woodland canopy. (6)  Like Wangoom, results from nearby Tower Hill, Lake Cartcarrong and Lake Keilambete, indicate an early rise of Casuarina at the end of a long dry period (pre-9,000 years), with a partial replacement by Eucalyptus as higher rainfall levels consolidated to the present (post-9,000 years). Allocasuarina verticillate proved a resilient survivor, however, and it took the botanical holocaust of European settlement to remove its 'equi-dominant' presence from the region. (7)

One final adjustment is necessary to appreciate what the pre-settlement landscape really looked like. The range of trees that accompanied the Gums and the She-oaks was much more extensive, to the degree that their popular names (common knowledge to the squatters and surveyors of the time), now require 'translator's notes' to identify them to today.

Stands of timber were routinely listed as comprising, "Gum, She-oak, Blackwood, Lightwood, Honey-suckle, and Cherry-tree". This was in a period when the nature of the country was as keenly observed by white man as black. The settlers rightly believed that the type of tree growing naturally had a strong link to the quality of the soil that nurtured it. In other words, the pre-existing vegetation was a good indicator of fertility, drainage, and future productivity.

While many can still recognise a White Gum, a She-oak, or a Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon, an upstanding tree form of Wattle), the terms "Lightwood, Honey-suckle, and Cherry-tree" probably remain a mystery. This again is not surprising, as they too have virtually disappeared from the volcanic plains. (8)

Lightwood referred to less upright forms of Wattle, like Silver Wattle (Acacia implexa) and Black Wattle (Acacia mearnsii). Their disappearance is explained by their tannin rich bark, which was stripped in massive quantities and shipped to Britain for leather curing. Honey-suckle was a tall tree form of Bottle-brush (Banksia marginate, or Silver Banksia), whose soft and uneven wood seems to have fallen to the domestic need for firewood. Cherry-tree was a form of native pine (Exocarpus cuppressiformis, or Cypress-like), and like its northern relation the Murray Pine, was much favoured for fence posts. (9)

Between these "discrete, dense patches of trees", (not the isolated 'monarchs of the paddock' we now associate with scattered trees in grassland), there grew the grasses and tussocks that so impressed the Major and the squatters who followed him: Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra), Spear Grass (Austrostipa spp.), Wallaby Grass (Austrodanthonia spp.), Common Wheatgrass (Elymus scabrum), Common or White Tussock (Poa labillardiere), Weeping Grass (Microlaena stipoides), and Blown Grass (Agrostis aveneceae). In amongst these grasses grew numerous wildflowers, orchids, daisies (Everlastings, Billy-buttons, Beauty-heads, and the important Plains Yam and Swamp Daisies), lillies and wild peas, most of which were 'eaten out' by sheep and cattle within a couple of decades. (10)

What the surveyors saw

Boldens Run, 310,000 acres stretching northwards from the sea to Mustons Creek, contained a mixture of botanic forms and geographical features within itself. Just as the Western District varied from east to west and north to south, according to position, eruption history, and relative rainfall, so too did the run. For example, volcanic soils did not cover it all, with the surface of the southern part in particular retaining the characteristics of original Port Campbell Limestone. The property is best examined in sections to understand both its uniformity (overall a very good run) and its diversity (each part requiring a slightly different management approach to maximise its grazing potential).

 The three  samples  outlined above have been drawn from survey maps made of the area from the late 1840s up to the early 1860s. In drafting the first parish and county maps, government and contract surveyors were instructed to have in mind the needs of future closer settlement. Not only were they to take careful measurements and represent them accurately in map form. They were also to provide descriptions of the land they were subdividing, sufficient to guide colonial officers and free settlers about the agricultural usefulness of the  districts they surveyed. It is their 'general descriptions' that are basis of the following sketch maps.

There are obvious limitations to using the early surveyors' comments to recreate the nature of the country as it looked in 1840. For instance, the areas of timber shaded brown in the sketch maps probably under-estimates the actual amount existing then. Surveyors were not active until the late 1840s and after, when some sections of woodland may have already been cleared.

In addition, the areas depicted here as forested or swamp lands were only officially represented by the surveyors on their own maps in very approximate terms. Written phrases were simply superimposed over their much more precisely drawn crown allotments and creek frontages. These sample drawings of 'pre-settlement conditions' are necessarily the product of 'broad brush-strokes' and 'free-hand impressions', not trigonometric calculation. Nevertheless...

This sketch map of the central northeastern part of Boldens Run is taken from the parish maps for Yeth Youang and Ballangeich, dated 1860 and 1862. (11)  The surveyors showed a network of freshwater swamps that filled in winter and gradually dried out each summer. This feature is fairly typical of the shallow and poorly drained soil profiles found in much of south west Victoria's volcanic plains.

Some of this water got away to the south through small seasonal creeks, eventually reaching the Merri River. Very little drained into the nearer Hopkins River because of the high banks on its western side. An older series of lava flows created a plateau effect along this section of the Hopkins. Surveyors noted in parts, "Bank 150 feet high", (i.e. 50 metres above the riverbed).

Swamps were impassable in winter but provided useful summer feed for sheep and cattle, a 'green pick' when grass elsewhere on the run was dead or eaten. So while Yeth Youang and Ballangeich had the aspect of pretty grim country, it was actually a better proposition for pastoralists than richer soils under a dense covering of bush.

This counter-intuitive approach was behind some of the early management decisions made by the Bolden Brothers. There is evidence that the brothers held a Licence of Occupation for Tower Hill ('The Lake', transferred to Ryrie Brothers in 1844), but did not use it. Instead they streamed their cattle northwards from Grasmere to Minjah and beyond. Most of Yeth Youang was licensed to another, mostly absentee, squatter called Charles Farie ('Merrang', taken up in 1839), but the brothers negotiated an agreement to graze their stock on it.

When family friend Thomas Browne came to recall his memories of Boldens Run in the 1880s, he was quite clear that Merrang was part of the Bolden operation, and did not mention the highly fertile but thickly timbered Koroit section at all. According to Browne, "the Messrs. Bolden Brothers" had control of "Grasmere...on the banks of the Merrai" and " Spring Creek". But "they had also a share in the Merrang and Moodiwana [error: really 'Connewarren'] runs jointly with Messrs. Fairie and Rodger. It was, however, arranged that they should remove their cattle within a certain time, and I think early in 1844 [that] arrangement was carried out". (12)

Yeth Young and Ballangeich were not picturesque, but they had immediate utility from a squatter's point of view. Extensive areas of swamp actually complemented the open country and partly compensated for the sections the surveyors later marked as "Thickly timbered with Gum, Lightwood and Wattle", or "Densely wooded with gum, blackwood, honeysuckle, cherry tree and wattle".

A final, cautionary, note on this region of the run is found on a county map for Hampden, the country on the opposite side of the Hopkins. Alongside his encouraging view of "Gum Lightwood Open Country" over the river to his west, this surveyor observed "The River here consists of a chain of waterholes of brackish water." (13)  Yeth Youang and Ballangeich were at the northernmost extremity of Boldens Run. This land should not be regarded as equivalent to the lusher southern sections, where the Hopkins and Merri did not cease to flow.

  At the south end of Boldens Run was an area that would, before the the decade was out, be surveyed as the Parish of Wangoom and the Township of Warrnambool. The series of survey maps for this region is incomplete, but when the pieces that are available are patched together they give the above impression of vegetation in the 1840s. (14)

A man-made feature included in the early surveys was the "First Fence", marked here in red. Thomas Browne claimed that Boldens Run had "the distinction of being the first fenced-in cattle station in Victoria".
Two rivers, the Hopkins and the Merrai running parallel in their courses, entered the sea near Warrnambool. At the distance of several miles higher up they approached each other, but were deep and dangerous to ford on either side. The Messrs. Bolden saw that by running a fence across, a secure enclosure of great size might be formed, and the expense of stock-riders saved. It was done, henceforth to be known as 'Bolden's bullock paddock'." (15)
The fencing-off of "Bolden's bullock paddock" probably had more significance to the brothers than simply finding the shortest distance between two natural barriers. The fence line also, more or less, traces a change in the type of country. The bottom one third of Wangoom is limestone based rather than basalt. Its lighter soils 'go off' sooner in the season than the heavier soils underpinning the top two thirds of the parish. 

Steers 'growing out' into bullocks have less demanding grazing requirements than cows suckling calves, for instance, or younger yearling stock being fattened for the butcher. If necessary, they can digest rougher forage from woody shrubs and even bark and leaves from low-hanging trees. That is to say, they could survive better on the 'drier' coastal soils without much attention.

One other comment is worth making in support of this point. Along the southern coastal strip, the dominant and sometimes only species of tree was the comparatively drought-tolerant Casuarina. Surveyors noted the typograhy of limestone ridges and named the area within the lower westward bulge of the River Merri (now the site of Dennington) as "Sheoak Hills". In contrast, the basalt country to the north was more commonly described as "Open grassy flat" or "Lightly wooded, Gum and Blackwood".

The third sampling of Boldens Run considers the west-central portion, part of the productive and well-watered heartlands, situated just north of the Grasmere home station and cattle yards. The original map from which the following sketch is taken has the title "Suburban and Country Allotments in the Parishes of Meerai, Yarpturk, Cooramook, & Bullanbull, County of Villiers", and was drawn up by Acting Surveyor Thomas Watson in July 1856. (16)

 The swamp country shown southeast of Spring Creek and Merri River is once again fairly typical of poorly drained basalt plains in the Western District. It includes three older volcanic features, now weathered and smoothed down, that probably did much to create this situation -- the two lava vents Mount Taurus and Green Hills, and the maar crater Lake Cartcarrong. These eruptions have been collectively estimated to have occurred around two million years ago. From a grazing perspective, such land was still quite useful, open-wooded with winter-filled freshwater swamps that dried back each year and supplied summer grass.

The surveyor classified the parts to the north of Spring Creek as "Good grassy land" or "Good grazing land". His descriptions here reflect the high value placed on this sort of land by squatters. It was made more desirable by the proximity of the Kennedy and Union Creeks, providing additional close watering points for stock.

But it was the land where Spring Creek met the Bullanbull to form the River Merri that attracted the surveyor's greatest praise. Immediately to the west of the junction was "Very good soil lightly timbered." The peninsular between Spring and Bullanbull Creeks was "Rich chocolate coloured soil about 100 feet above the River, thinly timbered with large Gum", "Very good black and chocolate soil, Gum and Blackwood", and "Rich black soil rather thickly timbered". Similarly, the land just east of the Bullanbull (now 'Injemira') was "Rich black soil, Gum and Blackwood".

The full potential of these pockets of prime, fertile land could not be realised without some clearing. The surveyor's attention to their agricultural promise was prompted by the government's instructions about future closer settlement rather than the needs of pastoralists. However, it is obvious from these remarks that Boldens Run contained some very good country indeed, with deep and well-drained loams of the most responsive type.

In conclusion, the three sample maps included in this chapter have been an attempt to tell us something of the way in which the Bolden Brothers might have 'seen' the country they were bringing their cattle into. The class of colonists whom others disparagingly termed 'illegal squatters', actually thought of themselves as 'capitalists' or 'investors'. In particular, they were 'Improvers', firm believers in an agrarian version of Adam Smith's political economy.

The Doctrine of Improvement was enormously influential in the latter part of the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century in rural Britain. It taught that land was an asset, traditionally under-utilised, but now to be exploited in the most efficient, 'modern', manner possible. Land was amalgamated, the 'commons' were 'enclosed', subsistence farming tenants were evicted. The residue of the latter became cheap labour in the factories of industrial cities within Britain. Alternatively, as convicts, indentured servants, or 'bounty' emigrants, they were shipped across the oceans to become cheap labour on the plantations of North America and Australasia. 

To the benefiting few this was inevitable 'efficiency' and 'improvement'. To the dispossessed many it was the English Enclosures, the Scottish Clearances, the Irish Evictions.

The effect of the doctrine on 'men of capital' in the Colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land was essentially the same. Land was primarily assessed in terms of how many head of sheep or cattle it could 'carry', and where the most dependable watering points were in relation to the available grass. (Labour was assessed according to proficiency, obedience, and price).

From the beginning of European settlement in the 'new' Port Phillip District, the motivating vision was fundamentally an economic one. Land (and people) were viewed through the lens of achievable management and control. Squatters, those who stayed and succeeded, were intense pragmatists.

To summarise the map-story of Boldens Run: up to one quarter was densely timbered and therefore unavailable for grazing; another quarter was swamp and accessible for grazing only in the drier months of the year; and about one half was suitable for grazing all year round.

According to this rough measure of stocking capacity, perhaps half to two thirds of the land claimed by the Bolden Brothers, or 150 to 200 thousand acres, was available to feed their cattle at any one time. The balance was 'unusable' or 'waste'.

But whether they had one, two, or three thousand cattle on hand in 1840, it must soon have become apparent that their immediate problem was not whether they had enough pasture to turn them out on. There was more than enough grass to go around, a situation that would clearly continue for some years until numbers were bred up to full capacity.

What was urgent now was the need to take, and then keep, control of their vast, (and in terms of commercial livestock) 'empty' estate, until that day arrived.

(1) Thomas Manifold, 1853, in TF Bride & CE Sayers (eds.), Letters From Victorian Pioneers, (1983) Lloyd O'Neil, South Yarra VIC, p. 137. Property names in italics have been added for easier reference.
(2) G Presland (ed.), 1977, Journals of George Augustus Robinson, March-May 1841, Records of the Victorian Archaeological Society (No. 6), pp. 49-50
(3) Major Thomas Mitchell, 1836, cited in The Major Mitchell Trail: Exploring Australia Felix, (1990) Department of Conservation and Environment, Melbourne, p. 124
(4) As above, p. 31
(5) Tim Barlow & James Ross, 2001, 'Vegetation of the Victorian Volcanic Plain', Transactions of the Royal Society of Victoria, Vol. 113, No. 2, p. 28
(6) Peter Kershaw, John Tibby, Daniel Penny, Habib Yezdani, Rhys Walkley, Ellyn Cook, Rochelle Johnstone, 2004, Proceedings of the Royal Societyof Victoria, 116(1), pp. 151-6 (figs. 4a-e)
(7) J Harle, AP Kershaw, E Clayton, 2004, 'Patterns of Vegetation Change in Southwest Victoria over the Last Two Glacial/Interglacial Cycles: Evidence from Lake Wangoom', Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria, 116(1), p. 126 (fig. 4a)
(8) Barlow & Ross 2001, p. 26
(9) Rod Bird, 2013, 'The Natural History of the Hamilton Region of South-Western Victoria: an historical perspective of landscape, settlement, and impacts on Aboriginal occupants, flora and fauna', <>, pdf pp. 16,22
(10) As above, pp. 15, 20-21. Also, John 'Poor-man' Robertson, 1853, in Bride & Sayers (ed.), Letters From Victorian Pioneers, (1983) Lloyd O'Neil, South Yarra VIC, pp. 167-9
(11) 'Features in the Parish of Yeth-Youang, County of Villiers', 1860, Victorian Public Records Series 8168 P5, Feat 9 (60/409A); 'The Parish of Ballangeich', 1862, VPRS 8168 P5, Feat 195 (61/566A)
(12) Rolf Boldrewood a.k.a. Thomas Browne, 'Old Time Sketches', The Australasian, Saturday 25 November 1882, p. 3
(13) 'County of Hampden 1860', Victorian Public Records Series 8168 P5, County Plan 12
(14) VPRS 8168  P5; Feat 588 Wangoom Warrnambool (1852), Feat 583 Wangoom (1849), B7 Sydney 6197 (1848), Feat 579 Wangoom (1854), Feat 458 Port Fairy Warrnambool Runs & Settled District (1848)
(15) Rolf Boldrewood, 'Heidelberg Revisited', The Australasian, Saturday 13 June 1908, p. 52
(16) 'Pastoral Runs, Run 747, Injemira', 1846, Victorian Public Record Series 8168 P5


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