Book Review: The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland

Book Review: The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland

Review by Ellen Coates

Lost flowers of Alice Hart


A haunting book without being bleak, a feat in and of itself. The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart draws deeply on the Australian landscape and is intensely evocative in its depiction of the natural environment. It also has one of the best lines about libraries that I’ve ever read “a quiet garden of books, where stories grew like flowers”. This is a story that draws you in to inhabit a lush world along with the characters. From a design perspective as well, with its continuing flower motifs throughout the book, it is a truly lovely reading experience.

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart is first and foremost a compelling story, that makes you want to keep reading. It’s the story of Alice Hart as her life unfolds; set between sugar cane fields, a flower farm and the desert heart of Australia. It spans twenty plus years, beginning with Alice as a child living with her mother and father in the sugar cane fields of the coast. Alice’s life is isolated (a violent controlling father and a mother who is heart-breakingly fragile but gentle and loving) she lives in a world of stories. When her life is ripped apart by tragedy, she is sent to live with June, her paternal grandmother, on a flower farm that serves as a refuge for abused and lost women and has been in the family for generations. June teaches Alice the language of flowers and she begins to find her place and her family. Ultimately betrayal forces her to flee, and she finds solace, peace and purpose in the heart of the Australian desert, until a new relationship begins to change the control of her own story.

The landscapes evolve with Alice as her life is thrown into upheaval and she flees trauma. It’s the story of a woman looking for her place and her own narrative, independent of those forced upon her by others. It isn’t always a happy story, there are some very dark parts, but it is ultimately a story of hope, resilience, survival and the language of flowers.

Book Review: Return to Rosstown: railways, land sales and sugar beet ventures in Caulfield

Book Review: Return to Rosstown: railways, land sales and sugar beet ventures in Caulfield



Review by Michael Canavan

Why doesn’t Hawthorn Rd go to Hawthorn? And why is there a Junction Hotel at Oakleigh?

The first remains a puzzle but the second makes sense. By 1895 Oakleigh was the junction of three railways: the Outer Circle, the Gippsland and the Rosstown.

The 1870s-1880s saw a sustained attempt to profitably combine land speculation and railway building: all you had to do, it seemed, was to ask a well-disposed politician and bingo! the relevant legislation was passed, often to both parties mutual satisfaction.

Of all the railways built in the era of Marvelous Melbourne, the Rosstown Line was the most enigmatic. Young Mr Ross, a well-connected Alpha personality, concocted a grand scheme to enrich himself, and selected friends, and ensure his place in history. All he needed was the grease of any successful entrepreneur: a ready supply of other people’s money.

Sugar beet: the path to fame and fortune! Locals around Caulfield and Murrumbeena would grow it and all was to be centred on a self-named township. As no self-respecting entrepreneur of Marvelous Melbourne would be seen dead without a railway, one was duly built between Oakleigh and Elsternwick…sort of.

Dodgy finances, a very poorly laid track, protracted fights with Victorian Railways: all conspired to delay firstly construction then improvements. Debate still occurs: did a train travel the line? Depends who you ask. Whatever: it was never used for its intended purpose.

A Marvelous Melbourne scale mill would handle the beet. Plans were drawn up and sent to newspapers-even now they look very impressive. A busy railway would convey the produce to receptive markets. A de rigueur mansion on an expansive estate was built nearby. Alas, the Fates conspired.

The giant mill was built (it dominated the local landscape) but rusted away: local farmers weren’t interested in, and actively resisted, growing beet. As Ross was launching the scheme, history was moving against him: Maffra was becoming sugar beet central. Suburbia was creeping outwards and soon Caulfield, Murrumbeena and Rosstown would be given over to housing.

This book is a valuable reference, the Official History as it were, of the Rosstown frolics. It is an entertaining, in depth look at a droll piece of railway history. Given the enigmatic nature of the Rosstown saga, the author has done an excellent job piecing together its history: the accompanying photos show the difference between dreams and reality. The never ending troubles of Ross, and his allies, sympathetically presented, make you disappointed that he couldn’t put his all his dreams into effect. He even had plans to link Rosstown to St Kilda by rail, but failed to get approval. However, I also got the distinct impression that Ross was a man whose dreams would always remain just that. The fact that the mill was built and a railway [of sorts] built for it came as a bit of a surprise. The outcome didn’t.

A series of magazine photos from 1909 show a very dilapidated scene of railway effects and mill. From what is written, it was ever thus.

He eventually had the indignity of having his self-named township renamed. Such was the lot of Mr Ross.

The line lingered until 1916. There were numerous calls for it to be reopened as suburbia came marching in, to no avail. It was simply too poorly built and didn’t serve a large enough market to warrant any expenditure. Cuttings were filled in, houses built over the right of way and the railway faded away.

This book describes the time when Marvelous Melbourne ruled supreme, when nothing was too grand, unachievable, inconceivable. Money flowed freely, backed by the seemingly endless supply of land. Ross, like so many, became enamoured by visions: like so many, the 1890s were disastrous for him.

A rail trail sort of follows the alignment through suburbia, a nice walk but, for a railway buff, very dull.

At least this can’t be said of the book.

Return to Rosstown can be found in the PMI collection here


Book Review: Strangers in a Foreign Land: The Journal on Niel Black and other voices from the Western District by Maggie MacKellar

Book Review: Strangers in a Foreign Land: The Journal on Niel Black and other voices from the Western District by Maggie MacKellar

Review by Jennifer McCoy



This book is an annotated and transcribed copy of significant sections of Niel Black’s journal, that covers his journey here and the first 5 months of his life in Australia, between October 1839 to May 1840; and a shorter section consisting of commentaries by women immigrants.  Few settlers left records of this nature, females least of all. Letters went home to England, possibly the hardships they faced left little time for journal writing; perhaps too many may have been illiterate as were my family. Those that have survived offer rare and personal commentaries on their lives in this remote and masculine colony.

The editor has annotated groups of journal entries, introducing us to the social and economic context of the entries to follow. She draws on Margaret Kiddle’s Men of Yesterday, as well as numerous other research sources, to inform her commentaries, explaining certain entries and drawing our attention to particular comments. The book then becomes a valuable social record in itself, as she has made available to us, general readers, the personal experiences of these early settlers, allowing us to understand a little of the people who ventured down here so early in our history and of the challenges they faced. Let me give you some examples:

Take Black’s experiences with and attitude to the Aborigines. She draws attention to his decision to purchase Strathdownie, as his journal entry for Jan 4, 1840 reads : ‘The run is one of the most wonderful in the colony ….The blacks have been very troublesome on it and I believe they have been very cruelly dealt with. The late superintendent ran off from a fear that he would be apprehended and tried for murdering the natives. The poor creatures are now terror stricken and will be easily managed. This was my principal reason for fighting so hard for it’.

Black on women: ‘there prevails here a very general preference for Wives from the Mother Country. Colonial ladies are much more expensive in their habits, pay less attention to their household affairs and are less Stringent in their Ideas of Virtuous Conduct; at least such are the Opinions I have been in the habit of hearing…(Nov 1, 1839)’; and ‘I really believe this is not a place for Girls (generally speaking) making what is called good matches. There are just two things that occupy every young man’s head here, that is Money and Home’ (Nov 6, 1839).

Black’s scant commentaries about women in this masculine world, make the final section of this book particularly valuable. How did women survive here, travelling up country by drays, managing homes that were often primitive by our standards, bearing children without medical help.  Mackellar has selected a small range of writings by women describing their experiences.

Apart from perspectives all these writers bring to help understand our early history, I couldn’t help but wonder what personal records will be left for our descendants. Facebook and Instagram have probably replaced journals; how many of us in busy lives overwhelmed with information and technology, ever put pen to paper?  Emails have replaced letters today. I’ve come across a great-grandfather’s letter to his wife; a postcard from France to my grandmother from a soldier during WW1; letters of sympathy to my mother when she lost her first child, and I’ve been moved by the words. These family letters lead me to wonder how many of these kinds of records are discarded when we move on? Are there any others lying around in the proverbial attic? And what genuine, personal records are we leaving behind, to give our own perspectives on life today?

Please browse this book, but I strongly recommend checking those attics – and writing the occasional letter.




Book Review: The Outer Circle: A history of the Oakleigh to Fairfield Railway

Book Review: The Outer Circle: A history of the Oakleigh to Fairfield Railway

the outer circle


The Outer Circle: a history of the Oakleigh to Fairfield Railway

by David Beardsell and Bruce H. Herbert

Review by Michael Canavan

In the day, the Dasher dashed, carriages had swing doors and trains travelled to Deepdene.

The Outer Circle Railway seemed like a good idea at the time. Conceived by Victorian Railways to bring the Gippsland Line into Melbourne by bypassing a pesky private line, the need was negated when the private line, realizing discretion was the better part of a financial bollocking, sold out to VR, thus providing the desired direct line from Oakleigh.

It should have ended the matter: but no, work proceeded. It was, after all, the Era of Marvelous Melbourne where money grew on trees, especially trees growing on vacant land. Land speculators speculated, Her Majesty’s Victorian Parliament housed an impressive array of colourful characters, the Rosstown Railway was built and the Octopus Act enfolded the Colony: too many railways weren’t enough. It was mere coincidence that the new railways passed through vacant land needing development.

The OCR was front and centre: a substantial portion of the proposed right of way passed through land held by Honourable Members. Fulham Grove estate, about half a mile from Fairfield Park, had its own station with two platforms and a passing loop-it was to be appreciated by APM. Willsmere had a similar arrangement under an impressive bridge. A fleet of locos and carriages was on-hand to carry the expected throngs.

The OCR proceeded on its circuitous route from Oakleigh to Fairfield Park [today’s Fairfield]. Passing through the sparsely settled then outskirts of Melbourne [photos of the day beg you to play “spot the dwelling”] there wasn’t much in the way of prospective revenue. No matter: it was built to the highest standards [one John Monash was engineer], in equal parts an attempt to make a statement and to encourage usage. Double platforms and passing loops were laid out, crossings safeguarded, cuttings cut, embankments banked. All for nought.

Opened, with no ceremony, around 1893, about half the line was “suspended” by 1895, the whole line closing soon after. Reprieved around 1897, the line staggered on, serviced until 1927 by the Dasher between Deepdene and Ashburton [cut back to Riversdale after electrification]. A goods service to East Kew lingered until 1943.

Despite the indifference, there were attempts to revive the Line until World War 2, mainly to woo prospective land buyers: a photo shows a train full of clients at Deepdene Station in the 1920s.

As well as assisting speculators, the railway developed suburban golf: 2 courses, at East Kew and near Riversdale, arose. Riversdale members were miffed at having to walk some distance from the nearest station; strings were pulled, and the adjacent Golf Links station [today’s Willison] provided.

This book is a valuable reference: it is the only readily available and comprehensive history of the Railway. It provides an overview of its operations plus the small details that make a satisfying railway history-it is a reminder that so much has disappeared yet remains discernible. It describes the sad fate of the Railway in affectionate detail and provides several interesting annexes– a photo of various tickets is quite nostalgic and a scathing account of a trip using the OCR a joy to read.

Apart from the impressive engineering, the other highlight was the array of locomotives that graced the line, mostly tanks and early railmotors. Naturally, the book provides excellent action shots as well as the staple “look at me” platform shots: the Dasher steaming uphill from Deepdene on a misty morning is a highlight.

The OCR never had a chance: it was a poorly managed embarrassment that Officialdom tried to ignore. It always operated in sections, never in its entirety, seemingly going out of its way to be as inconvenient for patrons as possible. Despite that, a walk along the Centenary Trail [Chandler Bridge to the Malvern Golf Course] and from East Malvern to Oakleigh leaves you asking “What if”, especially as plans are mooted for a new circular link line.

If the OCR had survived, the Packenham, Cranbourne and Gippsland lines would have connected at Oakleigh: the Junction Hotel’s name would make sense. Heading north, it would have crossed the Glen Waverley and Lilydale/Belgrave lines before joining the Hurstbridge line at Fairfield; as well, it would have connected with several tram lines [e.g. at East Kew and Riversdale]. In the 1930s it was proposed to extend the Kew line to Doncaster via a junction at East Kew.

What if?

The Outer Circle is available for viewing at the library but is not for loan.



Book Review: Discovering CBD places of worship

Book Review: Discovering CBD places of worship

This is a book review with a difference. PMI member Geoffrey Paterson takes you through the books he used to research his Eastern Hill places of worship tour for the Uniting Church Historical Society. You can view the text of his tour in PMI’s periodical collection.

Thanks for your hard work Geoffrey

booklet scan 2018 (2)

I am not a regular PMI Library user and visit the Library when a particular task arises. I outline here how and why I recently used the Library, my approach to this particular task, and some PMI resources I used.


In the last two years, I have helped organise a Melbourne CBD Places of Worship Tour for the Uniting Church Historical Society. Each is a free guided tour of three places of worship.[i] Tour participants receive an eight-page A5 booklet which backgrounds Melbourne’s CBD and provides specific details for each place of worship.

The following notes outline some PMI resources I used to write the 2018 tour notes. This tour in Eastern Hill visited East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, St Peter’s Anglican Church, and the German Evangelical Trinity Lutheran Church.

My approach to research

How do I approach my reading? I first consider the chronology including when the place of worship was built. The second is its location and how it has changed. A third aspect is the architecture including stained glass windows and musical instruments.

Useful PMI resources

The following paragraphs outline PMI resources I have used.


A very useful publication for early Melbourne places of worship is J.M. Freeland, Melbourne churches 1836–1851: an architectural record. Parkville: Melbourne University Press, 1963.

Part I of this book covers building materials, builders and architects, and financing of these early churches. Two chapters also examine the Pioneer Period (1836–1842) and the Primitive Period (1842–1851). Each chapter in Part II considers churches from seven denominations. The book includes photographs, maps and appendices. The section on St Peter’s succinctly outlines its history, architecture, and development of the buildings on this site.


Winston Burchett, East Melbourne, 1837–1977: people, places, problems. Hawthorn: Craftsman Press, 1978 usefully describes the main and subsidiary parts to the Hoddle Grid, the land grants and reservations, and Crown land sales. Although St Peter’s establishment predates these events, the Lutheran Church and other Eastern Hill denominations received a land grant. Burchett also devotes some 30 pages to churches and schools including each of the places we visited.


I consulted two resources from the PMI in the preparation of the tour notes.

A. Willingham, St Peter’s Church, Albert Street, Eastern Hill Melbourne: a cultural history and conservation analysis for the trustees of St Peter’s Church. Allan Willingham Architectural Historian, 1992. This large volume has three parts. Part A Understanding the Place uses a range of photographs, plans and documents to detail the history of the church and associated buildings. Part B Architectural Analysis and Assessment of Cultural Significance uses text and photographs to survey the church’s physical fabric. Part C provides guidelines for conservation. The Appendices provide, in one place, a range of maps and original documents many handwritten relating to the church complex.

H.D. Mees, Editor, A German church in the garden of God: Melbourne’s Trinity Lutheran Church 1853–2003. East Melbourne: Trinity Church Historical Society for Trinity German Lutheran Church, 2004. This 700-page volume starts with the arrival of Lutherans in the late 1840s, the building of the Eastern Hill church, to the present day. It also devotes a chapter to Lutheran congregations in other Victorian locations. I particularly used Chapter 10 which traces the succession of buildings and supplies details of the exterior (pp. 451–456) and interior (pp. 456–463). The book contains many photographs and maps.

In the preparation of the tour booklets, I have used a range of sources including the State Library. However, I value the PMI Library because it is close to public transport, resources are accessible, and the Library staff is always helpful. I will be using the PMI to prepare my 2019 tour notes.

Geoffrey Paterson

[i] 2017 and 2018 tour reports have been published in the Proceedings of the Uniting Church Historical Society Synod of Victoria and Tasmania. The 2017 report is in volume 24 No 2 December 2017, pp. 109–111. The 2018 report is in volume 25 no 2, December 2018, pp. 143–152.

Book Review: Slow Catastrophes

Book Review: Slow Catastrophes


Rebecca Jones’ earlier writings include an academic article titled, “Blended Voices: Crafting a Narrative from Oral History Interviews”.   In ‘Slow Catastrophes’ she has crafted a narrative, not from oral histories, but from farm diaries.  Not merely a narrative, either, but a thought-provoking, heart-warming narrative that evidences the strength of character of rural Australians facing drought.

‘Slow Catastrophes’ presents a picture of living with drought, on two levels:  in the first section of the book, “Drought Stories”, Jones describes 7 farm families, blending their observations of drought with other farm and personal observations and data.  The droughts and the families span most of the twentieth century, and although the book’s title refers to Australia, there is a strong focus on Victoria. The diary excerpts reveal the characteristic stoicism of Australian farmers.  Jones seamlessly includes the historic overview necessary for us to fully understand the picture of drought in Australian life and the strength that underpins living with drought.

In the second section of the book, “Living with Drought”, Jones picks up the threads from these seven stories and divides them into intellectual, practical and physical and emotional responses to drought.  A wonderful chapter in this section is titled, “The Feeling of Drought” and includes quotes about the smell and sound of drought.

I came to ‘Slow Catastrophes’ seeking material for my research into the lives of farming families over 120 years in one small corner of Victoria’s Mallee, thinking to find data such as the number and extent of droughts, the number of young men who left farms for the battlefields of WW 1 and 2; in other words, with a quite specific and narrow focus on the impact of drought.  I found myself absorbed by Jones’ narrative, and by the personalities of her subjects.  I came away stimulated to look more deeply at the rural experience, and to ask more questions about the lives of my subjects and how their characters were formed by the vagaries of climate.

This book is highly recommended for anyone researching farming or agriculture in Australia, for those writing a family history that includes people who lived on farms or in the bush.  More, though, it is essential reading for all those of us who wonder about the impact of future climate events.

Review by Heather Redmond

Book Review: Master Gardener

Book Review: Master Gardener

Master Gardener: T.R Garnett of Marlborough College, Geelong Grammar School, The Age and The Garden of St Erth by Andrew Lemon

Review by Penny Woodward

master gardener

I always knew him as Tommy, and I only knew him in the last phase of his life when he and Penelope bought their property in Blackwood, which they called The Garden of St Erth. In 1986 Tommy wrote the forward to my first book Australian Herbal. At that time he didn’t need to be explained, anyone who gardened knew Tommy Garnett. But, today historian Andrew Lemon believes that his work is starting to be forgotten. Many of his books are out of print (luckily, I have them all) and his 15 years of articles for The Age are not on line. His gardening columns were always a joy, reflecting his scholarly background and gardening enthusiasm. I believe that no-one in Australia has yet bettered his erudite and wide-ranging garden prose. And there was something of this same approach to his gardening. Eclectic and idiosyncratic St Erth was a plantsman’s paradise.

I well remember my first visit, it was bone-chillingly cold, my breath misted the air in front of me, the ground was slippery with frost and I started to shiver but at the same time was totally beguiled by the garden surrounding me. A secret almost hidden garden, English style tucked into the middle of typical Australian bush. This bush later became an integral part of the garden. At this time, more than 25 years ago, the Garden of St Erth was the home and haven of Tommy and Penelope Garnett. Set in rural Victoria in hilly bush country 90km north west of Melbourne, the Garden of St Erth is constructed on the site of the old gold mining town, Simmonds Reef. At the height of the gold rush there were 14,000 people living here, at the time of my visit there were only two.

Although I visited their garden many times over many years, Tommy was best known to me, and others, through his From the Country columns in The Age. It has been a great joy to now read The Master Gardener and discover the detail of other parts of his working life; and family life with Penelope. We get to know Tommy as an English schoolboy, student cricketer, a flight lieutenant in the second world war, a scholar with a fascination for the classics, and a school principal in both the UK at Marlborough and at Geelong Grammar in Victoria, Australia

It was only after Tommy had retired as the head of Geelong Grammar that he and Penelope moved to Blackwood specifically to create their garden. Tommy was well known for saying that “All gardening is based on decay and renewal” recognising that gardens change over time. He also always encouraged gardeners to have a go and not to worry too much about mistakes. He was truly a scholar and a gentleman.

The Master Gardener at 632 pages takes time to read, but it is time very well spent.