Sunday, February 6, 2011

Homesteads of the Murray - Chapter One

 Towong Hill
It is said that A B “Banjo” Patterson was first introduced to the real life man from Snowy River, Jack Reily, by Walter Edward Mitchell. Thanks to the inspiration provided by Mr Reily, Australian literature has never been the same since, the beauty of the high country so richly captured in every line of the classic Australian story. As for Walter Edward Mitchell, his association with Australian literature went even further, for his son, Thomas, married Elyne Mitchell, author of the children’s classic Silver Brumby books. Surrounded by the hills of the Corryong countryside, in a wide valley with a majestic view to Mount Townsend capped in snow, Walter Mitchell’s station has provided the literary stimulation for close on 100 years.

Walter Mitchell was the youngest son of upper Murray cattle grazier, Thomas Mitchell, and was given the responsibility of managing the 17,000 acre station of Towong for the family. He is still remembered fondly as a warm natured man, and one who kept the loyalty of his station hands for years on end. It was to the Murray River Valley, where the Indi and Swampy Plains rivers meet to form the Murray, that Walter brought his bride, Winifred, in 1904. They had commenced construction on a beautiful house to begin married life, and awaited its completion at nearby Bringenbrong Station, another Mitchell family property.

“Towong Hill”, as the homestead became known, was designed by Walter’s brother in law, Soley Pack. It took two years to build and was completed in 1904. Bricks were kilned on sight, produced down by the rivers muddy shores in a paddock still referred to as “the brickciln”. A fine double storied dwelling of roughly 80 squares, with 8 spacious upstairs bedrooms, each possessing an open fireplace, for Walter and Winifreds planned family.
Thomas Walter Mitchell was ushered into the world of the cattle station in 1906, and was soon joined by a sister, Honour. In 1917, Walter Mitchell passed away and Winifred chose to purchase a house at Point Piper, taking her two small children away from the station, returning only for Christmas holidays. After their schooling in Sydney was complete, Thomas, Honour and Winifred headed for England, where Thomas was to study at Cambridge University. This was followed up with Law at Inns court, and he was soon called to the Bar of London. Meanwhile, at home in Australia, the beautiful isolated cattle station – reduced to 4,000acres due to subdivision for soldiers settlement – was being managed by faithful station hands and overseers.

By 1935, Thomas Mitchell had returned home to Australia, a successful Lawyer, and in that year he married city girl, Elyne Chauvel, and settled himself back at his childhood home, Towong Hill.
Elyne was born in Melbourne in 1913, her father, Sir Harry Chauvel, a renowned soldier and mitilary man. The Chauvel family were living in Europe at the outbreak of World War I, however they moved back to the peace of Australia after the great world turmoil had ended. It was on the shores of Point Lonsdale that her father taught her to ride, and the subsequent love of horses he instilled proved intoxicating for Elyne. In her move to the remote station with its federation homestead, Elyne found plenty of opportunity to enjoy her love of the gracious animals and their mountain world. Together Thomas and Elyne threw themselves into cattle station life - mustering, droving cattle to the Cudgewa railway station, aiding birthing ewes, shearing, enjoying blissful swims in the river on hot summer days and skiing in the Snowys in winter.
Skiing proved another great love of Elynes. Encouraged to take it up by Thomas, she proved a natural at the sport, wining the Canadian downhill skiing championship in 1938. She adored the mountains of her homeland, exploring them on skis or horseback whenever the opportunity availed itself.

However, living in the beautiful rolling hills, hidden valleys and breathtaking peaks of far eastern Victoria was not all aglow with good times. Life proved challenging for Elyne who gradually took on a more managerial role at the station while Thomas was away with his many political commitments as Country Party Member for Benambra, in State Parliament. In the winter, dense fogs would envelop the station for days on end. Mrs Mitchell recalls in her autobiography the trauma of trying to search for birthing ewes in smothered paddocks, with only the call of destructive crows to lead her to the newly born lambs and the mothers trying desperately to protect them.

Bushfires were also a threat. In 1939 a fierce blaze screamed down the valley while Thomas and Elyne were away skiing in Europe. Relatives were minding the homestead when the violent flames came. Miraculously, they kept the fire at bay and saved the house with garden hoses and buckets. The station land was not quite so fortunate. Fences everywhere were destroyed and needed to be replaced quickly. And what should the station hands find in almost every charred fence post they removed from its hole? The burnt remains of snakes, caught in the blaze and looking for refuge.
In 1952 fire struck once again. The “Towong Hill” household were fighting fires for days on end, exhausted and strung out. Then came the news that King George VI had passed away and his daughter , Elizabeth, was to take the throne. To anyone else fighting fires, this was simply world news arriving in the middle of personal disaster. For the Mitchell family at “Towong Hill”, it added extra pressure and stress. Thomas Mitchell was Attorney General at the time, and it was decreed that all State and Federal Cabinet members must swear allegiance to the new Queen immediately, or else the Government of the country could not proceed. Thomas was rushed from the fires and taken to Melbourne, a 6 hour trip at the best of times, swore his allegiance in his fire fighting garb, and rushed home again to continue fighting and eventually beat the blazes at “Towong Hill”.
Four children blessed the house on the hill with love and laughter. Elyne created her most well known work of fiction, “The Silver Brumby”, for her eldest daughter, Indi, who was named after the bubbling mountain river. Published in 1958, “The Silver Brumby” has never been out of print, as popular today as it ever was. Elyne Mitchell published 33 books in her lifetime, focusing mainly on the world of the Upper Murray, in which there is no lack of substance for inspiration. Long jaunts into the countryside on horseback were had by all the family, all sharing Elynes appreciation of things Australian and things beautiful.
Until her recent passing, Elyne spent everyday she could at Towong Hill, cuddling her collie dog Millie or enjoying her garden. It was here that she has wrote her charming and award winning literary works, in a room bathed with light that filtered through stained glass windows. Through those windows she had views stretching all the way to the Snowys. Magpies would chortle high in the cypress trees lining the drive. There was a certain magic in the hollyhocks, rose, iris and hydrangeas that would sway in the breezes of the old fashioned garden, and in the wisteria hanging dramatically over a quaint garden gate. Such was her home and world for 67 years.

There has been “movement at the station” for over 100 years, with the exuberance imparted from the families of Walter, Thomas and now, Elyne’s son John. The brumby’s of Elyne’s books continue to run wild and free in the mountains, and spirit of the mountains will continue through legacy to Australian literature of a great country woman.
** All photographs used in this article are by the incomparable Brooke Orchard at Brooke Orchard Photography - check out her highly awarded and nationally acclaimed talent !!

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