Today the town of Steiglitz, near Geelong, Australia, is almost deserted. The remaining colonial buildings, stone foundations and scars from large-scale mining bear testimony that there was once a thriving gold rush town here.
Steiglitz was one of the richest quartz goldfields in Australia. Barely a month after the first reef was discovered in late 1855, 200 miners had staked their claims. By 1856 Steiglitz township had a population of around 1000. Soon there were four hotels, four churches, and five schools instructing 200 children.
On the outskirts of town stand St Thomas Catholic Church and the Steiglitz pioneer cemetery. The cemetery closed in 1861 and only one headstone remains.
The headstone reads, “Lost his life by accident on the Steiglitz Goldfields“.
Flush with cash and fresh from a night’s drinking, miner Robert Duncanson fell into an open shaft. His moans attracted the attention of a passerby the next day and he was retrieved from the shaft, but the accident proved fatal.
“I remember when we used to be coming home from the New Chum school. We used to jump over the shafts … one boy, Jesse Steers, did not quite manage it, and fell back into the 80-foot shaft. He got a terrible cut on the head, but he partially recovered and lived a few years”
“A.O.”, The Age, 25 April 1936
Sandstone gutters and the occasional introduced tree mark the streets and allotments of the town. Residences and businesses stood cheek by jowl.
Harry Ellis’ drapery narrowly escaped disaster in 1895, when fire consumed a block of buildings in Regent Street. The Victoria Coffee Palace, McClellan’s grocery store and Doctor Scott’s residence and surgery were completely destroyed.
The fire had been deliberately lit by Joseph Gill, proprietor of the Coffee Palace, who had conspired with his mother-in-law to obtain the insurance.
The Steiglitz Hotel was the last of the town’s ten hotels to close. The final licensee was widow Christina Scott.
“During the many vicissitudes of a mining centre, she successfully carried on the business here until 1917 when, owing to the gradual decay of the township, she surrendered the license with the intent of living privately”.
Geelong Advertiser, 7 May 1918
Christina Scott died five months after she shut the hotel doors.
James Sugg’s wooden blacksmith cottage has been carefully restored, but nothing remains of the other traders in the street. One by one the carpenter, the plumber, the fishmonger and the barber left as the town declined. By the time Mr Sugg closed his blacksmith forge in 1944, he was the town’s last businessman.
“It may well be that the gold underground will enrich the town again. Meantime the gold of the wattle on the hills recalls happy memories to those who roamed among it in other days”.
February 1926 was the height of bushfire season. It was a hot, dry month without any rainfall to speak of. A number of bush and grass fires had already been reported in the Amherst district. Far away in the south-east of the state bushfires raged through the Yarra Valley and Gippsland, reaching their climax on “Black Sunday” 14 February, when 31 people were killed.
Andy Duncan commenced duty as sexton the week before Black Sunday. Amherst was surrounded by tinder-dry bushland. The cemetery itself was overgrown, with dry eucalyptus leaves and pine needles crackling underfoot.
A fire broke out. With no-one to call for assistance, Andy contained the fire and put it out before any great damage was done. The Talbot Leader reported that Mr Duncan “really saved the place”.
Did Jane fight the fire alongside Andy? Or did she keep 3 year old Rene at a safe distance?
After a brief return to Beaufort Andy, Jane and Rene moved to Amherst (pronounced “AM-erst”) in 1926. Jane knew this part of Victoria well from her travels during the war.
Andy became the sexton of Amherst Cemetery in February 1926. Andy was in need of work and the Cemetery Trustees were desperate to find a sexton and grave-digger.
The cemetery had been without a permanent sexton since early in 1925, when Mr T Matthews had resigned. Matthews had sought a guarantee of more regular work along with higher remuneration, neither of which the Cemetery Trustees could provide. Matthews’ replacement lasted only a few months before having his employment terminated.
Without a sexton the cemetery had become overgrown and overrun with rabbits. There was no-one to dig or tend the graves.
For a considerable period the trustees of the Amherst Cemetery have been without a permanent sexton, and at times have experienced some difficulty in obtaining the services of any person to do the grave digging. Last week a dead end was reached, inasmuch as the trustees were unable to secure anyone to open up a grave. Finally, two of the trustees volunteered to carry out the work, which they did in a satisfactory manner, but they were not anxious to take on the vacant position.
Talbot Leader newspaper, 30 January 1926
The cemetery was not far from the Amherst Hospital and Sanatorium – a 30 minute walk. The “fully equipped and up to date” Sanatorium was regarded by many as Victoria’s foremost institution for the treatment of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, typhoid fever, scarlet fever, measles and influenza.
You might think that Andy would have had plenty of grave-digging work come his way from the hospital, but that was not the case. The Sanatorium was proud of its cure rate – 225 cures from 331 patients in the 12 months to March 1928.
Andy was employed part-time, and sought other work to support his family. Jane took in laundry from the hospital, and probably had more regular work than her husband. Perhaps it was Jane who got Andy odd jobs at the hospital:
Brewster, B. 2003. Amherst District Hospital 1859 to 1933: The Story of a Gold Rush Hospital. Maryborough, Victoria, Australia: Talbot Arts & Historical Museum Inc.
Hockley, A. 1996. ‘History of the Amherst Hospital’. Avoca and District Historical Society Newsletter No. 139 July 1996.
Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 21 Mar 1925. State Library of Victoria
Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 11 Jul 1925. State Library of Victoria
Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 24 Dec 1925. State Library of Victoria
Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 30 Jan 1926. State Library of Victoria
Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 20 Feb 1926. State Library of Victoria
Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 7 May 1927. State Library of Victoria
Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 28 Mar 1931. State Library of Victoria
Featured image: Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 13 Feb 1926. State Library of Victoria
If you want to get away from your in-laws, then moving over 1,700 kilometres from one end of the country to the other is definitely one way to do it. By mid 1920 Andy and Jane Duncan were just north of Roma, Queensland, where Andy took up a perpetual lease on the Mt. Hutton returned soldier settlement.
Soldier settlement schemes were established by Australia’s state governments to open up land for returning servicemen. In Queensland perpetual lease provisions were that no deposit of rent or survey fee were required up-front, and during the first three years only a peppercorn rent was charged. After the first three years the survey fee and rent increased.
Why did Andy apply for the Queensland soldier scheme rather than the Victorian one? Did Mt. Hutton feel closer to his pre-war Broken Hill life than Beaufort? Did he have army mates who encouraged him to join them in Queensland? Did he really want to put some distance between himself and his in-laws?
Or did a family connection influence him? Andy’s great-aunt, Jean Murray (nee Stewart), had emigrated to Queensland in 1862, living in Rockhampton and later Ravenswood. Another great-aunt, Mary Taylor (nee Stewart), and great-uncle, John Stewart, followed in 1884. Mary Taylor settled in Georgetown. John Stewart re-established his stonemasonry business and became a city alderman in Brisbane. Andy would have grown up hearing stories of his Stewart relations’ successes in relocating to Queensland.
One thing is clear, though: when the Queensland newspaper announced Andy’s successful lease application on 11 February 1920 the Beaufort soldier settlement scheme was still just an idea under discussion. Andy had taken the first chance he got to apply for a land lease.
By August 1920 Andy and Jane had moved from Beaufort to Gunnewin. Andy had secured 638 acres, which he named Bonnie Brae Farm. The land was poor, but Andy threw himself into making a go of the lease, establishing a dairy farm. The soldier settlers had a hard time of it.
In May 1922 Queensland newspapers reported on conditions at the settlement
Signs of drought were noticeable on the blocks, but the ex-soldiers were found to be battling well against great odds to make a success of their farms.
There is hardly a living at dairying at the present time on account of the dry weather and the low price of cream.
The Queensland government seemed unaware of the actual situation. The Minister for Lands claimed there had been “very few failures” on the settlement, and rather uncharitably explained that they were “due to the inadaptability of the settlers concerned”.
For Andy the struggle with the land was made harder by the shrapnel he carried in his back. It prevented him from horse riding and when the shrapnel moved he had to take to bed. But he was determined to make a success of his farm.
Andy’s civic-mindedness was still strong, as was Jane’s. Andy was appointed Secretary of the Gunnewin Bush Nursing Centre and in May 1922 he became a founding member of the Mt. Hutton sub-branch of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League. He was appointed secretary and treasurer. Part of his role was to lobby for an increase in the returned soldier loan from an insufficient £625 to a hoped-for £1,000. The League sub-branch also sought State Government assistance to build new facilities at Gunnewin including a School of Arts, library and soldiers’ meeting room.
On 8 May 1922 the Governor of Queensland, Sir Matthew Nathan, visited the soldier settlement. Jane Duncan assisted with serving a luncheon to the official party.Perhaps she baked her famous scones. The Governor was welcomed to the district by the settlers’ representative James Thorne, who pressed for government support. Thorne spoke of
the very serious time through which the settlers were passing, and expressed the hope that eventually the markets would be stabilised so as to give them a fair and reasonable return for their labor, and enable them to win through.
The Governor’s response suggested that fortitude and perseverance were the keys to improving the settlers’s situation
His Excellency, in thanking the settlers for their address of welcome, said he believed that the great majority of the returned soldiers would win through. After all, those that went, those that volunteered to undergo the great risks, the exhausting sufferings and the extreme discomforts of war were the best of the land. Some, no doubt were weakened in body and will by what they went through. But he did not believe that this applied to the great majority, and he was sure there were some who were stronger and not weaker for their experiences. It was a new proposition that they had come to here, but that he was sure did not frighten them. Soldiering was a new proposition to most of them, but they made none the worse soldiers for that. They were having a difficult time at the start, but they had a difficult time at the start at Gallipoli and in France, and that did not prevent them winning in the end. He felt sure they would win in the end here.
One can only imagine Andy’s feelings as he watched the Governor’s party disappear down the dusty road.
The settlers battled on. The School of Arts, library and meeting room were built, along with a recreation hall. The men were prepared to put their own savings towards developing Gunnewin, but there was little money to spare. Fund-raising activities and social events were planned, for community morale and to encourage Roma residents to visit. Jane organised a coin evening and dance at the new Gunnewin hall in October. But fund-raising in an increasingly impoverished community was not easy, and the hall still had not been paid for a year later. The ex-soldiers felt somewhat marginalised and did not want to be perceived as a burden on the Roma community. Andy would have felt this keenly.
Andy and Jane had put their all into Bonnie Brae Farm yet there was no improvement in sight. There was no money to pay the increased survey fees and rent that were about to come due. They made the difficult decision to leave. At the start of 1923 they returned to Victoria with their new daughter, Mavis Irene “Rene” Duncan, born 20 June 1922.
NAA:J34, C40547 DUNCAN, Elizabeth Jane beneficiary of DUNCAN, Andrew Steward – Service Number – 157. National Archives of Australia
RiponshireAdvocateJanuary – March 1920. State Library of Victoria
1922 ‘Alleged Unlawfully Killing a Calf’. Western Star and Roma Advertiser (Toowoomba, Qld. : 1875 – 1948), 15 November, p. 2. [ONLINE] Available at: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article98189472 [Accessed 10 August 2013].
Featured image: ‘Discharged Soldiers’ Settlement at Mount Hutton, near Roma, Maranoa District, South-Western Queensland’. From The Pocket Queensland 1924, published by Queensland Government Intelligence and Tourist Bureau. State Library of Queensland collection. [ONLINE] Available at https://archive.org/details/ThePocketQueensland
I get the impression that John Stewart was a hard man. He lived a frontier life, born in Van Diemen’s Land in 1845, growing up in pre-gold rush Geelong and then on the central Victorian goldfields. He raised his own family at Eurambeen and the Fiery Creek goldfields. John learned the stonemason’s trade from his father. His work can still be seen in some of the old buildings not far from Ballarat.
John Stewart was 31 when he married 19-year-old Elizabeth Ann Ball in the Beaufort Primitive Methodist Church on 18 May 1877. As a young man he would have cut a rugged figure; not tall but solidly built with a jet-black bushranger beard.
My father was only two years old when John Stewart died in 1944. But he has a strong image of John sitting in a rocking chair on the back porch at Beaufort, his face hidden under the brim of his hat, puffing away on his “big, old, stinky pipe”.
When my grandmother Rene gave birth to my father, John Stewart declared, “the girl’s too young to have a baby. Take it away from her”. Rene was one month away from her 20th birthday. Apparently it had been acceptable for 31-year-old John to marry 19-year-old Elizabeth, but for Rene 19 was too young. (Elizabeth had had her first child when she was 21.)
Rene remembered Elizabeth Ann Ball as a “lovely lady”. It was Elizabeth who kept a welcoming home and maintained strong relationships with her children and grandchildren.
While Andy was overseas Jane Duncan was a dutiful wife. She took an interest in the newspaper reports of the Gallipoli campaign and later the Western Front. She clipped newspaper articles for Andy to read when he returned home.
Jane wrote regularly to the Department of Defence, advising frequent changes of address and seeking updates on Andy’s situation. She also wrote to the newspapers in Broken Hill, Adelaide and Melbourne to share any news from the front.
On 27 May 1915 Jane wrote
I suppose you know that Sergt. Duncan enlisted at Broken Hill and after his departure I sold our home & came to Beaufort to be with my mother till such times as Mr. Duncan returns
To be with my mother. Not her father? Family memories suggest that Jane and her father, John Stewart, only got along in small doses. Jane’s relationship was with her mother.
It wasn’t long until Jane’s free spirit saw her leave Beaufort again, though she returned regularly to her parents’ home. Jane’s letters to the Department of Defence record her travels.
• In August 1916 she was in Broken Hill “for a month or two”, staying with friends.
• On 24 October 1916 she changed her address to Beaufort, “as I have left Broken Hill & have returned to Victoria”.
• In April 1917 Jane wrote, “I am in Sydney for a few months” and gave her address as 146 Flinders Street, Moore Park, Darlinghurst.
• By 31 January 1918 Jane was lodging at the Dunolly Coffee Palace and planning to stay “for some considerable time”.
• On 5 April 1918 Jane was back in Beaufort, but by mid-May she was residing at 11 Victoria Road, Malvern with her aunt, Elizabeth Anne Downes White (nee Stewart). Jane stayed in Malvern until news came of Andy’s repatriation to England in January 1919, then she returned to Beaufort for a month or so.
• By 11 March 1918 she was in Bung Bong, near Maryborough. It is possible that Jane’s travels to Dunolly and Bung Bong were associated with family, as the Whites and the Stewarts were mining families with connections to the central Victorian goldfields.
• The Riponshire Advocate of 29 June 1918 reported that Jane was in Banyena.
• On 19 April 1919 Jane wrote to advise that she would be leaving Bung Bong for Beaufort and requested any further news of Andy be sent to the Stewart home.
NAA: B2455, DUNCAN, AS. National Archives of Australia.