Monday, December 15, 2014

The Prime Minister Disappears


Sunday, 17 December, 1967: The lead in to Christmas was dramatically interrupted by some of the most sensational news in the history of the country; The Prime Minister, Harold Holt, had disappeared! 

The Sun reports the incredible news.

Initial details were sketchy.

Holt had gone missing while swimming in the ocean near Portsea and was presumed dead, although a search was ongoing. Exactly why Holt had chosen to swim off such rough coast, notorious for rips and unpredictable swell, was uncertain.

But Holt's chances of surviving long in the Southern Ocean were obvious to everyone.


Young man in a hurry: Harold Holt circa 1930.

Born in Sydney in 1908 to a family of modest means, Harold Holt distinguished himself from a young age as a scholar and sportsman. He attended Wesley College in Melbourne and his results won him a scholarship to the University of Melbourne, where he studied law and captained the school cricket and football teams, as well as starring on the debate team.

He was a popular student, but was also viewed as a ruthless, ambitious young man. His driven nature has often been attributed to his parents; his mother died when Harold was 8 and his father was an aloof and remote figure, devoted to his business interests.

After graduating, Holt passed the Victorian bar in 1932 and went to work as a barrister in Melbourne. He also joined the United Australia Party (UAP), the leading conservative party in Australia at the time. His education and skill as a debater made him an obvious choice as a candidate for elected office, and he ran unsuccessfully in the Federal election of 1934 and state election of 1935.

Despite these setbacks, the UAP viewed Holt as one of their rising stars and offered the young go-getter the safe seat of Fawkner. Elected to Federal Parliament at the age of 27, Harold Holt remains one of Australia's youngest MP's. His intellectual accomplishments were backed by a debonair appearance and manner; handsome, genial and immaculately dressed, Holt cut quite a public figure in the staid 1930s.


Holt poses for a magazine article.

Joining the UAP in the same year as Holt, but 14 years his senior, was another man destined for the top of Australian politics; Robert Menzies. Menzies and Holt were dissimilar in many respects, but had similar policy ideas, and shared a strong work ethic and love of the theatre. They became firm friends, in and out of politics.

With the shock death of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons in 1939, Menzies (made deputy leader only the year before) assumed the Prime Minstership in dramatic circumstances. A bellicose man, not always easy to work with, Menzies reshuffled cabinet to reward his close colleagues within the party, continuing Holt's rapid rise by promoting him to the Ministry.


Robert Menzies, late 1930s.

But Menzies' blustering style made enemies within the UAP as well, and he was forced to resign in 1941 after a vote of no confidence. Surprisingly, Holt was one of the members who voted against Menzies, although he never revealed his reason and the two would remain friends.

Ongoing tensions within the UAP  would lead the party to splinter and then, finally, to dissolve, in 1944. In the space this created on the Conservative side of politics, Menzies formed a new party, The Liberal Party, as a vehicle to bring him back to power. Holt was one of the first members of the new enterprise, joining the Prahran branch.

When Menzies was re-elected in  1949, Holt was one of the highest profile members of his cabinet, and was already being touted as a future leader. Over the next decade, Holt would serve in a variety of positions, including  Minister for Labour, Immigration and National Service. In 1958 he succeeded Arthur Fadden as Treasurer, the traditional role for the heir apparent.

But he had a long wait. Menzies did not retire until 1966, with Holt sworn in as the 26th Prime Minster on Australia Day of that year. Menzies declared the country 'in good hands.'


Official portrait of Harold Holt, PM.

As Prime Minster, Holt largely continued with the policies of the Menzies era, although he modulated the details of some. Menzies signature 'White Australia Policy' was kept, but the restrictions on non European immigration were relaxed. 

But Holt is best remembered for his personal friendship with American President Lyndon Johnson, and his resulting decision to escalate Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war.


Holt and Johsnon.

The two men were known to each other before Holt became Prime Minister, but they became close when Holt visited Washington in July 1966. They shared a similar background and temperament and became so close that Holt's wife would describe their relationship as 'spectacular.' This visit to the US was when Holt made his famous remark 'all the way with LBJ,' in regards to US-Australian relations.

Johnson's return visit to Australia in October 1966 was less cordial, with violent demonstrations dogging the President's itinerary. Although the prestige attached to the visit - Johnson was the first US President to visit Australia - also had a positive effect. For despite the unpopularity of the war in Vietnam, Holt secure a crushing victory at the 1966 election. The Liberal Party result at the poll - 56.9% of the two party vote - is the highest recorded in Australian history.

Holt ended 1966 with control of both houses of Parliament, and firm control of his party, seemingly at the height of his powers.




On December 17, 1967, Holt rose early and drove down to Mornington Penninsula to watch solo around the world yachtsman Alec Rose enter Port Phillip Bay. With the Prime Minister were some friends, and two bodyguards, and after Rose had sailed by, the small party made their way to Cheviot Beach for lunch.

It was a broiling day and, always a keen swimmer,  Holt decided to take a dip after lunch.

His friends tried to dissuade him. The surf was rough and Holt's health - he had collapsed in Parliament earlier in the year - had been in doubt.

But the Prime Minster was determined. He had a holiday house nearby and knew the area, and the ocean conditions, well. He dismissed concerns about the rough sea and changed into his bathing suit, before striding into the ocean.

He quickly swam out past the breakers.




Other witnesses said they had seen Holt turn around and make for shore, before disappearing below the waves.

The alarm was immediately raised.

Within an  hour helicopters were scouring the waves, and by sunset more than 200 search personnel were on site. The largest search - at that time - in Australia's history would last for three weeks and involve members of the Army, Navy and Coast Guard. But after two fruitless days, those involved knew that the best they could hope for was to find the PMs body.

Holt was pronounced dead on December 19 and National Party leader John McEwan was sworn in as Prime Minister the same day. On December 22 a memorial service was held for Holt, attended by 19 heads of state from around the world, Holt's good friend Lyndon Johnson among them.

No trace of Holt's body has ever been found.




And there the matter might have rested.

But the absence of a body, and the unusual circumstances surrounding the disappearance, caused some alternative theories to come forth.

In 1970, paranormal investigator John Keel wrote Operation Trojan Horse, a widely read book that claimed that aliens were behind a number of unsolved mysteries from history. Keel claimed that Holt had, in fact, been abducted by aliens; just the latest example of their regular intervention in human affairs. 

And in 1983, British journalist Anthony Grey wrote a best selling book that claimed Holt was actually a spy, working for the People's Republic of China. In this telling, Holt hadn't drowned but had actually learned that his cover was about to be blown, and arranged to be collected by a Chinese submarine.

Still other theories posited that Holt had been assassinated by the CIA - who had learnt of his intention to withdraw Australian troops from Vietnam - or that he had simply become depressed and committed suicide. 


Cheviot Beach, present day.

In 2005 the Victorian Coroner, who had not previously investigated due to the absence of a body, conducted a formal inquiry. Their conclusion was that Holt had accidentally drowned; a tragic case of an experienced swimmer overwhelmed by freak conditions. The report speculated that Holt's body may have been swept from the area by strong currents before it could be found, or eaten by sharks, both common enough in the Southern Ocean.

Holt remains the only Australian PM to die of unnatural causes while in office.



References

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Holt

http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/holt-harold-edward-10530

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Menzies

http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1112/12rp06/12rp06l

http://www.abc.net.au/gnt/history/Transcripts/s951005.htm

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-prime-minister-who-disappeared-15319213/?no-ist

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Origin of Names: Balaclava




Situated just south of Melbourne, a few streets back from the beaches of St Kilda, the Melbourne suburb of Balaclava is an unpretentious chunk of middle Australia. It has a large Jewish population, and perhaps is best known feature for the stretch of kosher restaurants and bakeries along Carlisle Street.

It also features an artistic depiction of the sailing ship The Lady of St Kilda, from which the adjoining suburb takes its name.


The Lady of St Kilda, depicted on a railway bridge in Balaclava.

But Balaclava has an interesting origin of name story of its own, which can be traced back to a fierce military conflict fought on the other side of the world. And like the root cause of many infamous conflicts throughout history, the starting point for this story largely rests with one man.

Tsar Nicholas I
Tsar Nicholas I of Russia was a strong willed, militaristic man, determined, stubborn and nationalistic. His ascension to the Russian throne in 1825 had been unexpected; he had two older brothers, both of whom had been groomed as future rulers.

But his eldest brother Alexander had died of typhus and his other sibling, Constantine, refused the throne and decided to stay in Poland, where he had established himself as Governor. Nicholas assumed the throne on Christmas Day 1825, and immediately had to confront an armed revolt, agitating for Constantine's return. His brutal suppression of his opponents set the tone for a turbulent rule.

Surrounding himself with hawkish advisors, and expanding the Russian army to a million soldiers, Nicholas was soon eager to flex his military muscle. He did this through a series of interventions in neighbouring countries; helping to suppress revolts in Poland and Hungary. Emboldened by these successes - Nicholas was known as 'The policeman of Europe' for a time - the Tsar then turned his sights on a traditional Russian enemy; The Ottoman Empire.




Founded in Northern Anatolia in 1299 by the Turk Osman Bey, the Ottoman Empire expanded aggressively in the 14th and 15th centuries under a series of military rulers. It reached its apogee in 1683, when it encompassed Egypt, all of northern Africa, the West of the Arabian peninsula and south eastern Europe, including Greece, Bulgaria and parts of Hungary. In the north, it expanded as far as southern Russia, where an Ottoman aligned puppet state had been in place since the 1450's, much to Russia's chagrin.

By the 19th century, however, the Ottoman Empire's boundaries were receding as its power and influence waned. Corrupt, bloated and poorly administered, the Empire was in the middle of an extended collapse. The sharp mind of Nicholas I saw a clear opportunity to right an historic wrong; reclaiming traditional lands from a weakened foe. In early 1852 Nicholas mobilised his enormous army and positioned them to the south, threatening Ottoman positions in the Black Sea and Dardenelles.


A Russian military camp, Crimean campaign.

But the other great powers of Europe, France and England, were not about to stand back idly while one of their neighbours made such a bold grab for territory and influence. While not naturally allied with the Turks, the British and French had interests in the region, and were concerned about Russia gaining control of vital shipping routes.

In July 1853, the Russian Navy routed the Turkish fleet in a major battle in the Black Sea, which convinced France and England that they would have to intervene if the Russians were to be stopped. An expeditionary force of 60 000 was assembled, and by March 1854 France and England were formally allied with the Ottomans, and at war with Russia.

In  September 1854, French, English and Turkish troops landed on the Crimean peninsula, preparing to mount an attack on the principal Russian base at Sevastapol. While the British Navy blockaded Sevastapol, British troops took the smaller port city of Balaclava to the south as their base.




General Menshikov, commanding the Russian forces, saw Balaclava as a weak spot in the allied position. With only 4 500 troops guarding the city, Menshikov reasoned he could rout the entire allied advance if he could capture their principal port. He assembled a much a larger force, 25 000 strong, for an all out assault on the city. The attack was launched October 25, 1854.


Unforms of the 93rd regiment, Crimean war.

The Russian forces easily overwhelmed the outer defences of Balaclava, but met unexpectedly stiff resistance from the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders, a Scottish regiment dug in on the outskirts of the city. Heavily outnumbered, and outgunned, the redoubtable Scots nevertheless managed to hold their positions and repel the Russian troops, a dramatic act of bravery immortalised by a Times journalist with the famous phrase; 'only a thin red line tipped with a line of steel stood between the Russian cavalry and the British base.'

Once The Thin Red Line checked the Russian advance, the British commanders sought to go on the offensive against the retreating Russian troops.


The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Richard Caton Woodville jr.

British commander Lord Raglan sent his own cavalry out into the field, intending to have them attack Russian ground forces from the rear as they fled. However, a tragic miscommunication meant that the British light cavalry, the Light Brigade, were instead directed towards the wrong target; being sent towards an entrenched Russian artillery position at the end of a fortified valley. While the Light Brigade took to the charge with gusto, and inflicted casualties on their target, they came under heavy fire from three sides and were decimated. Of the 600 men in the brigade, less than 200 survived to return to the British lines.

The Battle of Balaclava then ended in stalemate, with the Russian advance beaten back, but the Allies unable to capitalise on their success.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

News of the Battle of Balaclava traveled slowly back to England, taking several weeks for dispatches to reach the local press, where it was greeted with a mixture of pride and outrage. The bravery of the British troops was instantly, and widely, lionised, but criticism of the British military commanders was severe; several generals were recalled from the front and forced to explain themselves before Parliament.

The Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, read of the Battle of Balaclava in the newspaper and was moved to write a poem to honour the men who had fallen. Written (according to his nephew) in just a few minutes, it contains some of the most well known verse in the English language:



Stories of The Thin Red Line and The Charge of the Light Brigade would soon reach every corner of the British Empire, and monuments to the participants of both were erected worldwide.

Locally, the suburb of Balaclava was named to commemorate this famous battle, with a number of streets within the suburb continuing this trend. Among the streets so named:




The war in the  Crimea continued until 1856, when Russia was finally forced out of the peninsula and Ottoman rule restored, at a cost of nearly half a million soldiers lives (some 200 000 of them Turkish). The Treaty of Paris was signed, barring Russia from the Crimea and limiting Russian naval strength.

But conflict flared between the participants again only 20 years later, in the Russo - Turkish war, which saw Russia claim Crimea, along with a large swathe of Ottoman territory in Eastern Europe. 

Britain and France did not join the fight over the territory for a second time.


References

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crimean_War

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicholas_I_of_Russia

http://www.nationalturk.com/en

http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/the_crimean_war_1853-1856.htm

http://www.93rdhighlanders.com


Friday, August 29, 2014

The Radiant Baby


Running east-west through the inner North, the largely commercial stretch of Johnson Street is an unusual place to go looking for fine art. But there you will find it; among the trendy cafes and retro clothing outlets, standing five metres tall over the nearby Tote, a public mural by one of the 20th century's most famous street artists.




Born in 1958, in Reading Pennsylvania, Keith Haring showed a talent for art from an early age. After high school he studied drawing in Pittsbugh, where he had his first solo exhibition in early in 1978. Later that same year, he moved to New York to study at the renowned School for Visual Arts (SVA), an event which would change his life.

The late seventies saw a burgeoning street art movement in New York City, and Haring was quickly at the centre of a group of talented, like minded individuals (among them Jean-Michel Basquiat, who Haring befriended). Experimenting with different media, drawing energy from his contemporaries and influenced by Andy Warhol and Christo, among others, Haring became determined to express himself artistically in a public way.

He found an outlet in New York's subway system, the operators of which used to cover disused advertising with plain black board. This provided a free canvas, which Haring was eager to utilise.




Creating strange, cryptic images in white chalk, often with a subversive, socio-political message, Haring's subway drawings quickly became well known. He later described his subway work as his 'laboratory', the results of which were then transposed to rapturously received solo shows in the city's private galleries. By the early 80's, Haring was famous, a meteoric rise.


Keith Haring, 1980.

Founded in 1983, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) was part of a range of initiatives funded by Victoria's then Labor Government to promote artistic endeavours in Melbourne. From a modest start in a three bedroom cottage in the Botanic Gardens - ACCA's first exhibition was aptly titled '3 Artists/3 Rooms' - centre director John Buckley was keen to make an impression on the wider community.


ACCA's original home in the gardens.

Buckley had seen both Haring's subway work and an exhibition of his while visiting New York in 1982. When he met the artist in London that year, he extended an invitation for a visit to Melbourne, with the offer of some publicly commissioned pieces as an enticement. To the delight - and, perhaps, surprise - of the local artistic community, the rising street art star accepted. Haring arrived in Melbourne in February 1984, for a one month visit.

The main project Haring was to work on was a new design for the 'water wall' in the lobby of the NGV.





While well received, unfortunately the NGV mural did not last long. Only a few weeks after the piece was completed, a bullet was fired through the wall, shattering the glass and effectively destroying the artwork. The broken glass was beyond salvage and the wall had to be replaced (The shooters motive could not be established from any of the available reference material).

Haring then made a flying visit to Sydney, where he produced another large scale work for the state gallery; this time an internal mural at the Art Gallery of NSW.



This piece lasted much longer than the work at the NGV, but was also, subsequently, removed. While in Sydney Haring, open about his homosexuality, also appeared on a float dedicated to him in Mardi Gras.

With Haring returning to Melbourne near the end of his trip, Buckley hoped to facilitate one final, major public work from the artist. As Haring liked to work with young people, Buckley wanted to arrange for the work to adorn a school, and so approached the Principal of the Collingwood Technical School, then on Johnson Street. The blank wall at the east end of the main school building was given over for another mural.




Haring's final Australian mural was created in one day; March 6, 1984.




Haring left Australia two days later, never to return.

His distinguished career subsequently took him to many parts of the world and he left large scale public works in many of them, similar to what he had produced in Australia. Always engaged with important causes and charity work, in the late 80's Haring devoted an increasing amount of his time to raising awareness of AIDS, then in its infancy as a global health risk.


An AIDS awareness poster created by Haring.

Sadly, this cause would intervene directly in the artists life, when Haring was diagnosed with the illness himself. Haring died of an AIDS related complication in Manhattan on February 16, 1990. He was only 31 years of age.

In its obituary, the New York Times called him 'one of the most astonishingly unique talents of recent times.' Among the broad legacy the artist left behind, his most famous image seemed to sum up some aspects of his short life:


The Radiant Baby. Many people who met and worked with Haring remarked on his energy and enthusiasm, much as John Buckley had done, traits that seem to be captured in the image above.

In the years after his passing, the Haring mural in Collingwood slowly faded into neglect. It's out of the way locale, and outdoor positioning, meant that while the elements took their toll, little was done to preserve the artwork. By the 1990s, the paint had faded badly, and parts of the wall had become damaged.

Victim of neglect; the mural in the 1990s.

With the Collingwood Technical School relocated, the building was acquired by Arts Victoria, who began to investigate ways to restore the work. But the assessment was both lengthy and frequently delayed, as the merits of different restoration techniques were debated.

In 2013, the Victorian Government finally appointed Italian expert Antonio Rava as chief conservator and the restoration project commenced. Cleaning the original work, and re-touching where required, the mural was several months in being restored. It was re-unveiled in August 2013, to much acclaim.

The restored work unveiled by the Arts Minister, Heidi Victoria

But there is one final prologue to the story.

When the work was first completed in 1984, Haring signed his name on a small service door at the bottom centre of the wall. You can see the spot for this on the image, above.

Shortly after the mural's completion, the door went missing, although exactly when seems to have been unrecorded. By the time it's absence was noticed, it seemed too late to do anything to recover it. The door then remained missing throughout the mural's slow decline, for 29 years.

When the restoration project began to gain pace, Arts Victoria made a public plea for anyone who may have souvenired the door to come forward and return it. Remarkably, this was successful, and an anonymous package containing the door was delivered to Project Administrator Jessica Hochberg.

Hochberg with the returned door.

The door's authenticity was verified with Haring's estate, and returned to the mural shortly afterwards. The Collingwood mural is now one of only 31 Haring murals left in the world.



References

http://www.haring.com

https://www.accaonline.org.au

http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/keith-haring-mural-restored-to-its-former-glory-20130819-2s5xa.html

http://kellyfarrelldesigns.com

http://vertufineart.com

http://www.crazytownblog.com

http://www.melbourneharingmural.com.au



Saturday, August 23, 2014

I Wanna Be Loved




In 1984, rock-pop musician Elvis Costello was close to the peak of his popularity.

His previous record, Punch the Clock, had been a critical and commercial success; it featured one of his biggest singles, Everyday I Write the Book, alongside edgier moments, like his denunciation of Thatcherism, Pills and Soap. Costello was hip, credible and popular.




But, behind the scenes, all was not as well as it appeared.

His marriage to wife Mary Burgoyne, who he had known since his teens, was faltering. And tension between Costello and his backing band, The Attractions, had been building for some time. In particular, the relationship between the singer and his bass player, Bruce Thomas, was on the slide, an issue exacerbated by the band's frustrations with the previous album.

While Punch the Clock had been a hit, Thomas felt the group had drifted too far from their roots. The clean production and accessible tunes were a long way from the raw, new wave style of the band's earlier albums.

Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas

With these different tensions in the background, the group gathered at Sarm West Studios in London to record a new record, ominously titled Goodbye Cruel World. The sessions did not go well; tensions between the band members were quick to surface, exacerbated by further differences with producer Clive Langer (who urged the band to continue with their recent, more polished approach).



Guest musicians were brought in, substitute producers hired for individual tracks, and Costello subsequently called the recording 'tense and unproductive,' and the resulting record 'our worst album.' Reflective of the behind the scenes disagreements, the content of Goodbye Cruel World was a hodge podge of many different musical styles and approaches.

One of the tracks from the new record was a cover of an obscure 1950's song called I Wanna be Loved, originally recorded by Teacher's Edition. This slow tempo, moody love song was one of the cuts on Goodbye... to get a big, commercial production and so was chosen by the record label as one of the album's singles. To support the release of the song, the label also sprung for a music video.

To create this, Costello would make a left field choice. Possibly still trying to balance commercial and artistic considerations, he selected a largely unknown, avante garde crew of Melbourne film makers, who had come to his attention after he had seen some film they had shot of The Birthday Party (then just a fringe group themselves).

Evan English

Evan English was a maverick, iconoclastic visual artist in the finest film school tradition. Studying film at Swinburne University in Melbourne in the late 70's, English - in conjunction with his classmates Paul Goldman, John Hillcoat and Chris Kennedy - established a reputation for heavy drinking and wild behaviour. Together, they were dubbed 'The Gang of Four'.

Their group's antics were at least as well known as their unusual, experimental films. In one instance they dumped frozen chickens into a lecturer's swimming pool, in another they set a school office on fire. A classmate recalled, 'They were intelligent but dumb, optimistic but nihilistic, stressed out and driven by a creative urge.' They were, effectively, film making punks and their involvement in the local punk music scene would lead them to the collaboration with Nick Cave and The Birthday Party, that brought them to Costello's attention.

Forming an ad hoc production company, The Rich Kids, English turned his attention to directing Costello's music video clip.

And true to his reputation, English proved difficult and demanding to work with. He insisted that the clip be shot in Melbourne, and so forced Costello to fly half way round the world right as his marriage was falling apart. Recalling this time much later, Costello remembered sitting in his hotel room on his own, depressed and uncertain.

For the clip itself, English had a simple, if unusual conceit.

Costello would sit in a photo booth at Flinders Street train station, with the camera positioned directly in front of him. As he sang, different people would join Costello in the booth, interract with him, have their photo taken and depart. To give it some edge, the director did not disclose to the singer who would join him in the booth, or what they would do.


The emotion of the shoot is apparent, as Costello looks slightly dazed at times in the clip, and mutters half of his lines.

But the video is a clever, surreal, highly original piece of work, and provides terrific accompaniment to the song. Costello was certainly pleased with the outcome, describing it as 'probably my favourite' from among the band's music videos. The clip rounds off with a nice shot of the station's well known entry hall, as Costello collects his photos and walks away.




(Viewing on an iPhone? Click here).

The song proved a hit as well, making the top ten in the UK (the last Attractions song to achieve this for a decade).

While The Rich Kids didn't last, Evan English continued to work in the local film and music industries, most notably with his old schoolmate John Hillcoat (English wrote and co-produced Hillcoat's remarkable prison movie Ghosts of the Civil Dead in 1988). But his fan favourite music video clip remains an enduring achievement, and a neat time capsule of Melbourne in the 80's.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Origin of Names: Sassafras


Due east of Melbourne, on the outer suburban fringe, the suburb (and town, pop. 1008) of Sassafras occupies the green, forested slopes of the Dandenong Ranges. The scenic beauty of the region is well known, but less well known is how it came by its exotic name, one of my favourites in the city.





As Melbourne expanded in the decades after the gold rush, the city's new inhabitants began to explore their surroundings more thoroughly. Mild of climate and richly forested, the Dandenong Valley drew visitors from Melbourne well before any settlement was based in the area.

One of these early explorers was English born chemist Ambrose Eyles, who arrived in Melbourne in 1849.


Atherosperma Moschatum, or Southern Sassafras.

Exploring the Dandenongs in 1850, Eyles identified large numbers of the tree species Atherosperma Moschatum in the gullies of the area. The Atherosperma, or Southern Sassafras, is a medium sized, native evergreen tree that requires a cool climate and high rainfall, meaning it is mostly found in Victoria and Tasmania.

The concentration of Sassafras trees in one river valley lead to the area becoming known as 'Sassafras Gully' (and the river as 'Sassafras Creek').


Painting of Sassafras Gully by Isaac Whitehead, 1870.

Sassafras Creek, 1870.

As the formal city boundaries were pushed further east in the late 1800's, more land was opened to development and agriculture. The lush soil and mild climate of the Dandenong Valley was well suited to farming, and small farm lots went on sale in 1893. A post office, at the time often the key sign of a township's development, opened in 1901.

The new town was initially known as 'Sassafras Gully'.


An early homestead in Sassafras Gully.


Alongside farming, the forests of Sassafras Gully seemed well suited to logging and the timber industry was soon active in the region. But from a surprisingly early time, locals realised that an even more lucrative enterprise was available to them.

The popularity of Sassafras Gully as a getaway destination for Melbourne's inhabitants soon meant that tourism became the bedrock of the local economy. Hotels, cafes and restaurants sprung up to cater for the demand created by city folk who wanted a weekend away in the country, conveniently only 45 km from the city.

By the time the name of the region, and town, was shortened to plain 'Sassafras' in 1917, the area was well established as one of Melbourne's foremost tourist destinations. A role that it continues to serve to this day.


Main street of Sassafras, 1940s.

Main street of Sassafras, today.