Emerald Messenger, October 2019


Not gold, but the desperate Depression of the 1890s led to the foundation of the villages of the Dandenongs. Surveyors were still marking out ten acre blocks in the forest when the father of Monbulk settlement’s first baby chose his selection. With the bounds of the Dandenong and Woori Yallock State Forest stretching to the Woori Yallock Creek, early fossickers went eastward if they wished to take up land.

Sarah Coulson remained in town with her toddler while her husband grubbed trees by hand – dug deep, cut roots, and levered them out with a long pole. In the summer of 1893 she moved into her new home. Its slabs, set vertically between two pieces of timber, formed two rooms with calico windows. A well, dug not far from the house, gave them water.

The bedroom was just over three metres square, the dining room nearly four, with the addition of an open chimney that ran the length of one wall. There was room to put a table in there to have morning tea. The flue was so wide you might fall down it without touching the sides. But rain didn’t worry the big fire, logs over a metre long kept it going all night. When the soot started to collect they raked it down with a long brush.

Sarah’s cabinet-maker father had constructed a big two-metre table with two cutlery drawers. It arrived at the door with her, tied on the back of ‘Daddy’ Nation’s coach, on one of his tri-weekly trips from South Wandin (Silvan). Unfortunately it came into the house scratched and she was upset that she could never get the scratches out.

Wilson, a neighbouring blacksmith, made Sarah’s oven out of a big drum. There were places on it where she could put a tray with a fire underneath and a fire on top. She found this new oven unsatisfactory – it was not heavy enough. So she acquired another of heavy cast iron with a large iron domed lid. With a big shovel she kept red-hot ashes going on the lid. Her roasts, with Yorkshire puddings all round, were a joy to her family, along with her beautiful bread.

When baby Harold (Aldy) Coulson was born, Mrs. Parker from South Wandin came over to help. Aldy was the first child born in the new settlement, arriving safely in his cosy little home. Earlier, in the 1850s, the wife of forestry worker Mark Holden had given birth in a tent in what later became Holden Road and in the 1860s the babies of Old Emerald arrived in diggers’ tents and huts. Aldy was the first baby born in a proper house in the new settlement of Monbulk but he could not be christened for lack of a minister in the forest.

Sarah was nervous of the Indian hawker who came round from Emerald with a pack on his back, selling trinkets for kids, necklaces, brooches. He was dark with a beard, and seemed good-natured, but Sarah would not deal with him. She kept the children inside when he came to the door. Buying would only encourage him to come again and she considered him a bit of a pest.

Beyond the Coulson’s plot lived a big fellow who ran cattle and talked to himself. Sarah found him rather scary. Another neighbour distressed them all by shooting a beloved old koala that spent its days at the top of the tallest gum tree on the block. Desperate unemployed fossickers struggled on in the worked-out diggings that had become the Bald Hills, some tying old sacking around themselves in the absence of trousers.

Monty Mattingley, a remittance man, pestered Sarah. She slammed the door on him when he came round drunk. He’d brought back from Lilydale enough beer to keep him going for a while. Later he took a shine to Mrs. Stuart at the Old Emerald store at Kidd’s Bridge and eventually he married her.

Percy Cerruty sold billycans and brooms from a tin hut on Main Street until he was found fatally injured in his mine down in Parson Jack’s gully. Another nearby settler shoed horses and repaired boots. Sarah shopped at the Old Emerald stores on the diggings and bought goods from Ides of Lilydale who delivered to the Silvan Road.

Aldy grew up free to run anywhere, playing with the fossickers’ children, with wallaby grass all over and wildflowers everywhere. He found it unbelievable that the Bald Hills had ever been thick with trees and scrub. Soon even the odd remaining trees went to Camm’s case mill.

The family luckily survived the fires of 1898 but it was said ‘they walked on charcoal from Monbulk to South Wandin’.

In 1900 Sarah lost her husband to ‘miner’s complaint’. Daisy, Aldy and Frank were nine, six and two. With no church yet, a service was held at home before Nation’s wagon took his body away. After that, a mounted constable came around regularly to assess improvements for Land Tax. Even though they had made all the improvements the Government required Sarah still had to put the children ‘on the State’, like foster children.

Only a few months later fire struck again. A neighbour helped Sarah save her home, putting the children up on a bark shed with a bucket of water each and a pannikin to extinguish sparks. Again they were able to save the house.

When Aldy was old enough Sarah bought a cow and a calf from South Wandin. They kept it on a rope and Aldy would walk it through the forest for a feed. Soon the family acquired some pigs from a neighbour across the creek, the children picking them up to carry them over a log crossing. Sometimes Sarah had a small calf killed which she would cure in brine and feed to the children and the local berry pickers.

Before too long they saw cars and a telegraph line arrive in the town. Sharing hard work, the family survived, including a fire that burnt the town in 1913.

The house was lost a few years later when children started a fire just outside. Aldy rebuilt the house and continued living on Sarah’s property until 1950 when Ivan and Joy Southall bought it for a very different writer’s life.