The Narrative of George Russell of Golf Hill: 'The Governor'


2. 'The Governor'

George Russell was born at Cluny, near Kirkcaldy in Fifeshire, Scotland, on 18th June 1812, the third son of tenant farmers Philip and Anne (nee Carstairs) Russell. He emigrated to the Australian colonies on the 'Drummore', sailing from the Edinburgh port of Leith on 19th July 1830, arriving first in Van Diemen's Land on 28th February 1831, before moving on to the Port Philip District in October 1836. During a return trip to to Scotland twenty years later, George married his cousin Euphemia Carstairs on 13th April 1852. Together they had seven daughters and one son in Australia, before Euphemia's untimely death at Golf Hill on 3rd March 1867, aged only 37 years. George Russell lived on a further two decades, dying on 3rd November 1888 when 77 years old. (Narrative, pp 27, 41, 49, 119, 322, 375, 397).

Russell's life was memorable not only for his own accumulation of massive wealth, (which he calculated in March 1883 to be worth 236,277 Pounds, 11 Shillings and 5 pence), but also for his decisive influence in establishing other family members on the Western District plains of Victoria. He assisted brothers, half-brothers, cousins and nephews to occupy vast tracts of country with thousands of Merino sheep, forming a social and commercial elite of inter-married interests across the basalt grasslands -- the Russells of Golf Hill, Carngham, Barunah Plains, Marwallock, Warrambine, and Langi-Willi, the Bells of Mt Mercer and Mooramong, the Simsons of Trawalla and Langi Kal Kal, and the Lewises of Stoneleigh. Openly admired for his status as one of the original squatters who 'pioneered' the Geelong district, he was known as 'The Governor' by the broader family who shared his wisdom and 'buying power'. (Narrative, pp 367, 2, 20, endpaper map of stations,). 

A 'canny' Scot

The word 'canny' is related to the Scots 'ken', meaning 'to know'. It is used to describe a person as 'knowing', sometimes with a sinister connotation. However its etymology suggests a more interesting definition. The original Germanic 'kunnan' crossed over into Old English as 'kunnan', meaning 'to know how to do a thing'. It is most accurately represented by the modern English word 'can', as in 'can do' or 'to be able'. It is the root for the word 'cunning', which in its traditional sense meant to to be 'skilful' or 'expert' in the performance of a craft or trade. In recent centuries, 'cunning' has become associated with slyness and deceitful strategy, but in ascribing the epithet of 'canny' to George Russell it is well to keep both strands of meaning in mind. (Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, 1965 edition, pp 151, 153, 257).

In the older sense of 'canny', George Russell was indeed capable and skilled. As a 'hands-on' manager for Clyde Company in the newly developing Australian pastoral system, he survived and succeeded through the 1840s horror decade of economic recession and financial failures. Most of his contemporaries did not. It was a prolonged period of collapsed wool prices, dry seasons, and boiling-down mutton for tallow in order to make cash for basic provisions. Russell's tenacity and pragmatism are evident from his Narrative, whether it was rebuilding the wooden woolpress that broke down in the middle of shearing in 1841, or swimming his horse over the flooded Moorabool River to kill a dingo that had been troubling his sheep in 1839. (Narrative, pp 202-20, 237-42, 245-6).

Similarly impressive was his initial ability to astutely assess and choose the most productive land for Clyde Company (and himself) at the time of first settlement. The Leigh Valley, running north-south, formed a spine of fertile river flats and reliable stockwater supply for the extensive but less safe basalt plains that comprised the eastern and western parts of Golf Hill station. This was more than luck. In addition to drought-proofing his overall carrying capacity, the comparative advantage of summer feed for joining ewes meant a quicker means of increasing his flock size. This flowed on to higher wool production, reached earlier, and the opportunity to consign sufficient one-mark bales to charter his own ship to sales in London auction houses.

In the newer sense of 'canny' or 'cunning', Russell was not without attributes either. He possessed an innate shrewdness, a tendency to keep 'close counsel' when it came to his own commercial interests. This characteristic was evident from his earliest years in the Western District. Withholding information, a silent form of caveat emptor ('let the buyer look out for himself'), was exercised regardless of its consequence for others. Single-minded attention to his own affairs, and disdain for those who appeared incapable of looking after theirs, is dramatically illustrated in the case of the lost explorers Gellibrand and Hesse.

"The Bushed Lawyers"

In late January 1837, George Russell rode down from his outstation on the Moorabool to Point Henry, near Geelong, to take delivery of a mob of 686 sheep off the brig 'Henry' from Van Diemen's Land. He spent the night on board and met the vessel's few passengers, who included Gellibrand and Hesse. A voluble Mr Gellibrand disclosed the intention of his expedition to follow the Barwon River upstream to the Leigh River junction, and then proceed up the Leigh until they sighted the Anakie Hills. From this vantage point they proposed to overland it to the small settlement of Melbourne. (Narrative, pp 120-7). 

Russell writes,
I could see from his conversation that he was under the impression that he knew a great deal of the country and of the names of the different hills and landmarks in the neighbourhood of Geelong. When speaking of the Anakie Hills I happened to say that they could be seen from the deck of the ship. He replied, "Oh no, you are quite mistaken; those hills cannot be seen from the ship". However, when I got up in the morning the first thing I did was look for those hills; and there they were, seen quite distinctly about ten or twelve miles off. I did not call Mr Gellibrand's attention to this; but he gave me the impression that he knew much less about the country and the landmarks around Geelong than he supposed he did. (Narrative, p 122)

Gellibrand pressed Russell for details about the Leigh Valley, but 'patronised' the younger man, who then became reticent and failed to correct the older man's misunderstanding of local geography. Next morning, George Russell got on with the business of unloading his sheep and droving them to his run; "while Messrs Gellibrand and Hesse continued their journey by following up the south bank of the river Barwon [thereby missing the northern fork of the Leigh River where they should have turned], and were never heard of again". (Narrative, p 123).

Unstated in this chapter of his memoir, but resonating from earlier pages in the Narrative, are Russell's glowing descriptions from his first sighting of the Leigh Valley in 1835-6 -- of its "abundant crop of grass" and its "very rich and fertile appearance", or of his instant nomination of the particular hill upon which he proposed to build his homestead ("Which afterwards turned out to be the case"). What the reader is told, however, is that during that night on board the 'Henry', "Mr Gellibrand was making many particular inquiries as to what I knew of the country, and more particularly about the valley of the Leigh". These inquiries were not welcomed by Russell. (Narrative, pp 84, 122).

To be fair, Joseph Tice Gellibrand, the recently suspended Attorney-General of Van Diemen's Land under Governor Arthur, and founding investor in John Batman's ambitious Port Phillip Association, was no idle tourist in the Geelong area. In his capacity as the Association's legal officer he had drafted Batman's infamous Treaty with the Natives (1835) and drawn up the Deeds of Land (1836), that claimed to transfer ownership of an extraordinary 600,000 acres from the Aboriginal inhabitants to his fellow shareholders. (R Stirling, 2007, 'John Batman' i & ii, Australian Heritage, Vols 5 & 6).

Comparison of two sketch maps from the period by surveyor Josiah Wedge and squatter Thomas Learmonth reveal an overlapping of boundaries claimed by the Association and the boundaries of those who had already occupied the western side of Port Phillip Bay with their sheep. The presence of Gellibrand and his proposed expedition therefore represented a direct and immediate threat to Russell's own commercial interests. The well-connected lawyer was a known competitor for grassed, well-watered, land situated near the Bay.

While omitting this information from his account, and thus avoiding any reference to conflict of interest, it is apparent that Russell had nothing to gain by correcting the loud-mouthed Gellibrand towards the Leigh River, and potentially a great deal to lose if he did offer assistance.

Note that there is no evidence that the narrator did or said anything that contributed to the explorers' subsequent disorientation. Nevertheless, the importance of the local knowledge withheld by Russell is understood by examining the obscured junction of the Leigh and Barwon rivers. At this point the Barwon forms a tight northern loop, with the Leigh entering at the very top of this loop. When travelling along the south bank of the Barwon, following the tall timber that lines the watercourse but also impeded by the dense shrubs on its banks, it is tempting to cross the short stretch of relatively open country at the bottom of the loop (250 metres), and so avoid battling 500 metres north and then 500 metres south for very little real distance gained. The entry of the Leigh into the Barwon is therefore easily missed, an observation made by Russell on at least two occasions elsewhere in his Narrative. (pp 85, 122)

Some years later, two volcanic cones, modest in size but still visible from the top edges of Leigh Valley, were name Mount Hesse and Mount Gellibrand in memory of the hapless explorers. By this time it was generally presumed they had got lost and were murdered by "some wild blackfellows" in the Otway Forest. There is no personal regret expressed by Russell in his chapter on "The Bushed Lawyers". Instead, what lingers is an impression of his disdain for, and dismissal of, brash fools who talk a lot instead of listening. He teaches a clear moral lesson here to those generations who were to come after him. 


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