Monbulk Aborigines

by | Feb 19, 2019 | Monbulk

from Monbulk: Living in the Dandenongs

CHAPTER 1 – MONBULK: Living in the Dandenongs

Billoo’s People

Billoo was only twelve years old, they said, when he saw the smoke signal, and set off down the Monbulk Creek for his first amazing view of the sea. Overwhelmed by curiosity, he had come down from Wurrunjerri country around the Yarra to the summer camp at Ferntree Gully.

It was at Koonang in Bulug-wilam country that the strangers had arrived. The men were white, like spirits returned from the dead, and came across the water in great winged boats.

The keepers of the paths could no doubt point the way. It wasn’t his country, but Bunurong and Wurrunjerri were both Kulin People, visiting and intermarrying, with many ties between them. It was not as if he was going east, right out of Kulin country into enemy territory to confront “those inferior savages”, the Ganai of Gippsland.

The Woiworung group of Wurrunjerri, who moved from Gardiners Creek to the Yarra Valley and across the slopes of the Dandenongs, were cut off from the sea by three Bunurong groups occupying all the land round the two great bays: Narug-wilam roamed the foothills south of Mt.Dandenong’s two peaks, Corrhanwarrabul and Dang-y-non (“Bunjil’s Mountain”); and Yalukit-wilam moved round the shores of Port Phillip Bay. Bulug-wilam hunted Westernport and the Mornington Peninsula between the Koo-wee-rup and Carrum swamps .

Billoo ventured through Bunurong country, down the Monbulk Creek, leading into the Corrhanwarrabul and Dandenong Creeks and Patterson River, to the sea. From the shore near the Carrum Swamp he goggled at its boundless waters. On his way along the beach to Koonang, he met his first white man, the huge escaped convict William Buckley. Billoo’s curiosity conquered his fear of the pale spirit-man with the terrifying weapon. He approached.. They conversed by signs, and parted.

The year was 1803. Buckley with his two surviving companions was putting as much distance as he could between himself and the new convict settlement, named Sorrento by the whites. A party of Bunurong armed with spears had already been put to flight by a blast from his gun.

Buckley continued on alone, to endure 32 years of isolation after the Sorrento settlement was abandoned; Billoo returned to the bark and sapling shelters at Ferntree Gully, and the legend of his journey was retold around the campfires for many decades.

Early European Contact

Some of the Bunurong had had an earlier encounter with Europeans when Matthew Flinders landed on the Mornington Peninsula in 1802. They looked more muscular and better fed, Flinders thought, than the Sydney aborigines.

Following his voyage, a more disastrous contact began when sealers settled on Churchill Island in Westernport Bay. During their four year sojourn there, the explorer W. H. Hovell visited, paying the sealers to row him to the head of the bay in their seal boat, and await his return.

About a hundred Bunurong accompanied him part of the way to the Dandenongs, where he explored the southern and western faces of Corrhanwarrabul – the “Westernport Range”. Hovell agreed with Flinders’ estimation of the good appearance of the Westernport people. Their women, he thought, were the most attractive he had seen in all his travels.

Unfortunately, the sealers appeared to agree, and many of the women became their victims. The Bunurong made no attempt to interfere with the sealers, but on their departure they moved in and burnt down some of their buildings.

It was the western group of Bunurong who planned to attack the new settlement in Melbourne in 1835, plotting with the Goulburn and Barrabool Hills tribes to massacre the settlers and commandeer their goods. The plot was abandoned after Buckley overcame his fear of recapture to bring Derrimut of the Yarra Yarra tribe to warn the whites.


Later, Derrimut assisted botanist Daniel Bunce in an ascent of Mt. Dandenong. Encountering a party of hunters, Bunce joined them.

On their way up the mountain they crept close to a kangaroo under cover of a hand-held bough. Quickly they robbed their catch of its kidney fat, and ate it raw. Roasting the rest, they shared it with Bunce and the dogs, giving the ladies the scraps. One of this group, Jemmy, took over as guide through the thickly wooded growth of Wurrunjerri country, bringing Bunce lyrebirds, gliders, wombats, echidnas, and other specimens he had killed. The possums, Bunce found, tasted strongly of the eucalyptus leaves on which they fed.

The “astonishingly lovely” women brought Bunce wattle gum soaked in a wattle bark trough, with manna from the giant manna gum (Eucalyptus viminalis) added for sweetening. They fed him lightly grilled grubs, and roots of myrniong, the yam daisy (Microseris scapigera), that formed a staple of their diet.

In summer the women collected fruits from native cherry (Exocarpus cupressiformis) and native currant (Coprosma quadrifida). They ate roasted roots from orchids and lilies; bulrush shoots, bracken, and treefern crowns, augmented the meat provided by the hunters. Possum skins were sewn into rugs, and sometimes traded for stone for implements. Here too the people cut firesticks, and “sounding sticks” for their corroborees.

Even in winter they came to collect lyre bird tails. However, bark and boughs provided little shelter from the heavy winter rainfall, and sometimes snow, on the hills. The mountain country was not inviting when chants to ward off storms were unsuccessful.

Gathering Places

In mountain country they usually travelled along the ridge tops, making only overnight camps when necessary, preferably on level areas near water. Long term camps were usually sited on level ground, near water where fish and wildfowl abounded.

The Patch was said to be one summer meeting place, and at Clematis the Wurrunjerri visited a ceremonial ground . The lower slopes and foothills also contain many traces of regular occupation; such sites have been found at Yellingbo, Silvan and Wandin Yallock. In Mooroolbark and at Cave Hill, ceremonial sites remained in use after settlement. Squatter Tom Turner of The Basin was shown the Cave Hill site by aborigines, and guided surveyor Hardy there in the 1860s.

Mount Dandenong held mythological significance. On Mount Dandenong itself, the site of the church of St. Michael and all Angels may have been a regular corroboree ground. It has been claimed that the whole of the upper Olinda Creek valley (Gnurt-bille-warrun) was a “taboo” area, and probably included burial places. The Wurrunjerri also frequented the lower Olinda Creek, and in the 1850s gave demonstrations of the use of boomerang and fire-stick.

Another sacred site was at Bald Hill, a burial place and hallowed ground with distinctive rocks now within the Cardinia Reservoir catchment. Here the Ngaruk-willam hunters would “break fresh boughs from the trees and strip the leaves off, and place them beneath the twigs in front of the rocks, after which they felt certain of a plentiful supply of kangaroos”. No hunting was permitted in this vicinity; but implements found on a nearby property — R. H. Kerr’s “Aura” — led to the belief that it was a camping ground.

John Larkins writes: “Legend says that the lone-bird-like rock is Waang, the Crow. The two ‘body’ rocks are Djurt-Djurt and Thara, young male servants of Bunjil, the Creator. The rock near which the two bodies lie is Fire. In the Dreamtime, when the Aborigines had no fire, Karakarook, the Woman, appeared from the sky with a digging stick which contained fire. Some snakes attacked her so she killed them with her digging stick. The stick broke and the fire escaped; the people were overjoyed, realising they could now take this fire and share it among themselves.

“However, Waang, the Crow, grabbed the fire and made off with it. So Bunjil, the Creator, assembled all the people and told them to be sever with Waang. The Crow returned, afraid, and threw the fire among the people. Everyone took a share of the fire and went away to make good use of it. Bunjil’s two servants, Thara and Djurt-Djurt, stayed behind to punish Waang. They lit a fire around the Crow to burn him, but he flew away and the two young men perished instead. Bunjil’s wrath was awful to behold. The Creator turned the Crow to stone before he had time to make his escape; then she turned the bodies of her two young men, and the fire that had burned them, to stone as well.”

Such a significant site would attract the coastal Bunurong to the Dandenongs for ceremonial occasions.


Monbulk was a particularly important site for tribal gatherings. In the summer Billoo’s people travelled to meet other groups, and to bathe their sick and injured in the healing waters now known as Nathania Springs. Wounds were treated by sucking them clean and covering them with pridgerory, “a kind of wax oozing from trees”. Here, and on the site of the present football ground on the ridge between the Emerald and Sassafras Creeks, they left behind many artifacts.

Mrs. Aeneas Gunn describes the origin of the name: “Monbolloc, literally ‘a hiding place in the Hills,’ in other words, a sanctuary. It was there — actually exactly where the township of Monbulk now stands — where all the tribes came in for conferences, shall I call them? The meeting of the tribes, my old blackfellows called it. Yarra tribes, Gippsland tribes. Coastal tribes and the more northern tribes about Marysville.

“These northern tribes (came) by way of Lilydale. The Gippsland tribes by the valley in from Emerald. The coastal or Yarra Yarra tribes by way of Ferntree Gully — there it lies at your feet.

“And, as is always so in these great tribal gatherings, every man pledged to leave his home beats in peace, and to return every foot of the way under pledge of the most sacred, at peace with even every personal enemy. There the pledge ended.”

In 1850 William Thomas, the Assistant Protector, described corroborees at Monbulk:

“. . . the song & motion was like our (i.e. English) country dances and reels with as much sense in either . . .In any case if the black orchestra was inferior, their time and motion was better!”

The Native Police

Thomas’s appointment dated from 1838, when he left Melbourne for Arthur’s Seat in company with a group of thirty-six Bunurong people. He travelled round with them before taking over Narre Warren as the Protectorate station in 1841 – the site of two abortive attempts to establish a native police force, the first as early as 1837, only two years after settlement. Six square miles of land around the Lysterfield Hills on the Dandenong Creek, in the Parishes of Narree Worran and Dandenong, was set aside.

Already the opportunity of begging bread and booze was diverting the people from the battle to live by hunting. They were forbidden to eat the sheep and cattle that now occupied their land. Drunken individuals and wandering bands with diseased dogs offended the sensibilities of the Melbourne merchants. Settling them at Narre Warren would, they hoped, free them from these uncivilised nuisances.

Thomas and his staff erected three staff dwellings and a school and store, and began the frustrating task of trying to prepare a nomadic people for settled life. The men quickly began to acquire skills that would fit them for employment, and some of the children showed promise at school; but nobody wanted to stay put. Bands of sometimes up to a hundred or so would wander in, stay for days or weeks, receive clean blankets and provisions in return for a little work, and as suddenly, the whole population would disappear . It was easier back in Melbourne; they sat around camp fires enjoying bread and meat scraps handed out by misguided sympathisers, with no requirement to work for them.

The largest number to gather at Narre Warren was for a church service in August 1841. The congregation numbered 142 – encouraged by Thomas’s promise of two pounds of flour per adult and one per child. In 1842, however, there was a marked decline in the number of people moving through the Protectorate.

In February of that year, William Thomas brought together chief Billibellary of the Yarra tribe, (who has been identified as the Billoo of the story), and Sandhurst-trained squatter Captain Henry Dana, to discuss a further attempt at establishing a force of native police. After a week’s consideration, Billibellary led a party of young men to enrol.

Mounted, resplendent in green uniforms with red stripes, and armed with guns, bayonets and swords, they became under Dana’s severe discipline a force to be respected – if not always admired. He not only managed to keep them together, but from the original twentyfive, the number grew to sixty in 1851. Identifying at that time only with their own tribe, the police were used in other parts of Victoria, where they annihilated whole groups from other tribes who had stolen the white man’s sheep and cattle.

Both Billibellary and Thomas came to regret the assistance they had given in establishing the corps. In the early 1850s, the white police in charge kept a loaded shotgun in every room in case of aggression among the aborigines. On at least one occasion an Aborigine had need to seek sanctuary in his sergeant’s home after an attack from others of his people. Until the Corps ceased operations in 1853, drinking and fighting were rife among both black and white. It has been claimed that by then most of the corps had died as a result of drunkenness.

The Protectorate land was taken over as a stud for police horses. From the time the Kelly gang was active about 1880, until the 1920s, blacktrackers brought in from other parts were quartered at the Police Paddocks. Churchill National Park now occupies the site.

Working with the Squatters

For thirty years or so after the arrival of the white man’s flocks and herds, the aborigines continued to move freely round the Dandenongs. This was a condition of the vast squatting leases into which their country, now designated “waste lands of the Crown,” was now divided. For the earliest settlers in the foothills, and early fossickers on the Dandenongs goldfields, the Wurrunjerri were a familiar sight, passing on their way from winter camps to Yea, Alexandra and the Warburton Ranges — sometimes picking up a few of the farmer’s belongings on their way.

William Turner, who lived at The Basin from 1844, told his sons how some of the aborigines worked for the squatters, and taught them bushcraft. In the earliest years their campfires could be seen shining through the bush, while lubras in possum skin cloaks, with babies tucked into pockets on the back, were never far away.

Life on the Yarra

Hubert de Castella, observing the Wurrunjerri on the Yarra at Yering in 1854, describes their activities as follows:

“As the blacks have only ever set up camp in pleasant areas beside creeks or rivers and beneath huge gum-trees which provide their game, they have remained on the open banks of the Yarra, and live sometimes on our land, sometimes on our neighbours’. It is they who provide us with ducks and fish. In return we give them powder and shot and when they come to ask for something at our kitchen door they are never sent away dissatisfied.

“Their slow, relaxed gait is not without nobility, and they put their feet down with a solemnity which reminded me of the walk of actors on stage. When they ask for something they do it simply and with head held high, often with a wheedling tone of voice but with nothing contemptible about it.

“As they are resigned to disappearing from the land, if you ask them these days what they become after death they reply that they are born again as white men. ‘You are my brother long time dead,’ one of the old men used to say to me with a sort of respectful friendliness. . . ‘Bye and bye all blackfellows white men.’

“Now they have rifles and use little axes to chop their wood and cut their bark strips; once they only had weapons made of iron-wood and their hatchets were sharpened stones attached to little sticks like the flint implements of the ancient Celts.

“The weapons have a sort of hook or harpoon at the end with which they pull possums and native cats out of hollow trees where these animals hide during the day. . . . the black first checks from droppings around the foot of a tree that there is something up there for him to catch; then he tucks his spear behind his back and with his hatchet makes three cuts leading up the tree and about a foot and a half apart in the thick bark First he puts his right hand in the top one, then his right big toe in the bottom one and his left foot in the middle one, and with his free left hand makes a cut above the one his right hand is in. Then he puts his hatchet in his mouth, puts his left hand in the last cut he has just made and, taking the hatchet with his right hand again, makes another cut. Then putting the hatchet in his mouth again, he hoists himself with both hands and placing his left foot in the cut where his right hand first was, has gone up a rung. They are real rungs which he cuts like this in the tree trunk and in which he alternately puts his hands and feet. Nothing is stranger than to see his thin black body against the white gum tree, with all his muscles straining, and clinging to the bark just by the very tips of his limbs.

“When he has reached the animal’s nest he harpoons the poor thing in its hole, pulls it out and smashes its head against the trunk, laughing and shouting with joy; then he throws it to his lubra (his wife) and comes down again as he went up.

“It is the wife who then carries the animal, or the animals if the black has continued his hunt. She carries everything: her last-born in a reed basket hanging around her neck, the dead game in one hand and in the other the burning gum-tree branch which is used to make a new fire at their next camp. The husband walks ahead carrying only his weapons; the wife comes next, then the children in order of size, all one behind the other just like kangaroos and black swans. The natives probably have this habit through fear of snakes, for wherever the first has stepped the others can walk without danger. One never meets several blacks walking along-side one another, even when they are in large numbers. When the whole tribe travels across the plains a long black line can be seen from afar moving above the tall grass. . .

“Their fishing for eels in the lagoons is an unusual sight. .. Standing in water half-way up their legs or to their waists, they hold a spear in either hand and poke the bottom, swinging back and forth and keeping all their movements in perfect time with one of their jerky songs. When they have pierced an eel with one of their spears (which they can tell from the movements it makes struggling) they transfix it with the other one in another spot and, holding the two points apart, they throw it on land to one of their number who puts them in a pile. They catch really amazing numbers this way and . . . put their game or fish on coals covered with a few ashes and eat it when it is cooked. They do not cut the throats of the little quadrupeds that they roast like this, they just pull the fur off very carefully and the animal cooks in its own juice, which distends its skin so much that it looks like a full little water-skin. . .”

To construct their boats, he continued, they made a vertical cut on the inner side of a curved tree trunk, carrying the incision right around the trunk at the top and bottom, then removed the bark with their hatchet handles. Taking the bark to the water’s edge, they put pieces of wood across inside to keep the edges apart. If the tree was not very curved, they sometimes needed to mould clay to make a little rim inside to stop water coming in. The boats held two people, using spears for oars.


By the time de Castella made these observations in the mid 1850s, the remnants of different aboriginal groups had been forced to band together as one tribe.

The Kulin numbers, never great, had been quickly decimated by disease and conflict. Even before the arrival of the white man, the tribes who visited the ‘hiding place in the hills’ had been affected by epidemics, notably smallpox, originating in Sydney and transmitted from tribe to tribe.

It was a violent age. The lawless Bass Strait sealers stole women and killed men in raids from early in the century, and transmitted further disease. Convicts, brutalised by the harsh system, shot down aborigines as food for their dogs. In view of this, the Kulin people were surprisingly peaceable and cooperative with the early settlers. They mounted minor attacks and robberies, but killed few. Whites killed many more.

Gentle among friends, the tribes however mounted frequent raids and reprisals against each other, as William Buckley found. After repeated raids in the Geelong area wiped out the group that had taken him in, he preferred the rigours of a solitary but more peacable existence. An aboriginal raid was a terrifying experience.

The Gippsland Ganai destroyed a Kulin group on French Island about 1820, and in the 1830s, a dawn massacre in the Tooradin marshes accounted for more of them. In a reprisal raid, twentyfive Kulin warriors killed nine Ganai, eating not only their kidney fat according to custom (William Westgarth relates a meeting with a man who survived after having his kidney fat wrenched out and eaten ) but other body parts. The importance of Monbulk as a sanctuary, and the pledge of peace, is underscored by such accounts.

Squatter Rev. James Clow, whose lease included the Monbulk run, witnessed such a raid. One of the last Protectors of Aborigines to be appointed, Clow seems to have got on well with the tribes who camped near his homestead; he treated them kindly, and found them peaceable and trustworthy. When he first took up residence, however, the aborigines recognised one of his men who had formerly angered them by his conduct with their women. In fear of a revenge killing, the man requested his discharge, and returned to Melbourne.

Clow wrote from his homestead in Rowville of an inter-tribal raid:

“About mid-day, they surprised the camp, making prisoners of all in it, which consisted only of some old men and some children. They then went in search of the able-bodied men whom they espied busily engaged in fishing on the banks of a large river not far off. They managed to sneak up on them, within 10 or 20 yards, and then blazed into them, killing or severely wounding every one of them, seven in number. Those who escaped the first volley jumped into the river and swam across, but the second volley brought them all down. After cutting out their kidney fat, they took as much of the carcases as they could well carry on their return route, and having mustered their forces at the camp where they had captured the old men and children, they despatched them also, and then commenced their retreat. When they reached the first station on the Westernport side of the mountains they still had portions of the legs and thighs of their enemies, which they had not consumed, but reserved for those of the tribe who were not present.”

The introduction of the white man’s weapons made internecine warfare more deadly; his guns, his new diseases, and his aIcohol were fatal.

Georgiana McCrae describes a death on the Mornington Peninsula:

October 1st, 1851: A hard frost, and I have been to visit our blacks, who are quambied [camped] outside the paddock fence, on the edge of Cape Schanck Road. Here I found ‘Bogie’ in great distress, because his Johnnie (aged nineteen), was dying. Every few minutes the old man would spread himself over the boy’s body and try to revive him by breathing into his mouth, or else he would have him in his arms to sing down his ear, or lift up the lids of his eyes, so that he might see the day.

At last, not being able to bear this sight, I returned to the house where, after I had rested an hour, I heard a loud wail from the lubras and knew that Johnnie had gone. Back at the camp, I watched the grave being dug by some, while others wrapped a possum-rug about the corpse, which they interred in a sitting position, the elbows on the knees, the chin supported by the left hand, and the opposite one laid, with the fingers open, along the angle of the jaw. Cords were drawn tightly across the shoulders and round the waist, then, a new pannikin and the last bottle of medicine I had sent him having been put into the grave, the father and (fifth) step-mother filled the hole with sand. After that ‘Bogie,’ by himself started to fence the place with branches gathered from the scrub beside the road… ‘Bogie’ says he is too old to kill a blackfellow — which is the usual custom . . .George [McCrae] erected a wooden slab, bearing Johnnie’s name, over the burial mound.

6th. At twilight, a young aboriginal came out of the bush, and, approaching the grave, thrust three gum-leaves under the sand; this done, he disappeared quietly — unrecognized — never to be seen again. Doubtless, the gum-leaves were put there in token that the death had not gone unavenged!”


On the arrival of Batman and Fawkner at the site of Melbourne there may have been no more than about 1000 aborigines living within sixty miles around Melbourne.

About 100 of these were systematically massacred in 1842 by whites who surrounded them at a waterhole. The value placed by many on aboriginal lives is exemplified by the trial in the 1850s of a man named William White who shot an aboriginal at Brushy Creek, an aboriginal camping place near Lilydale. He was convicted of neither murder nor manslaughter – but fined £5 for discharging a firearm.

The appointment of a Protector of Aborigines did little to help; Protector Thomas was stationed at Narre Warren from 1841, covering territory stretching from Cape Schank to the Dandenongs. Although their land was occupied, Thomas had been given nothing to support them: “Although tens of thousands have the last few months been realized from their land, not a blanket is to be given them in return,” he had protested in 1839.

Billibellary, last ‘chief’ of the Bunurong, told him: ” . . the Black Lubras say now no good Children, Blackfellow say No Country Now for them, very good we kill and no more come up Pickaniny.”

The more their land was taken and their livelihood destroyed, the more the aborigines were obliged to take part in the work that caused its destruction. During the 1850s many became skilled reapers with hook and sickle in the Lilydale district; some also took part in grape cutting and hop picking, while others became expert stock riders and drovers. As these activities changed the face of the land, aboriginal food crops continued to disappear. The yam daisy was trampled by cattle and replaced by pasture grasses. Timber workers felled great trees and made new tracks. With the gold discoveries, thousands of people invaded the hills, new settlements appeared, and even the creeks changed their courses. During the 1850s the first Lilydale dwellings appeared to the west of the present town, at Brushy Creek.

In 1858 the last corroboree of the Bunurong was recorded.

Settler and Evangelist John Green, Government inspector, grieved at seeing them lose their hunting grounds. After an unsuccessful attempt to gather them in at an Acheron reserve, in 1863 he founded the Coranderrk Aboriginal Station on 4000 acres at Badger Creek, Healesville.

There he encouraged about 120 people to learn farming, and to adopt British beliefs and lifestyle, in the hope that they would find a place in the new society. He saw training in Christian principles and habits as a solution to the ills that settlement had brought upon them. After three years of his supervision, which included devotions twice daily with a prayer, reading and sermon, it seemed to be successful. The people were housed and clothed, working hard, and there was “no more drunkenness, superstition, quarrelling, and wandering about,” and there had been 31 baptisms.

By then, only twelve full Bunurong were left alive. There was nobody left to maintain the tracks leading to the seasonal camps and sacred sites, and the bush grew over them.

In the late 1860s, aborigines were employed to drain the swamps where they had once hunted along the Monbulk Creek. During the 1870s, the women of newly settled Wandin Yallock were sometimes startled to hear a “Cooee!” from approaching Aborigines, hawking fish from neighbouring rivers and creeks. A shooting party from Willis’s at Menzies Creek, out after kangaroos in the early 1880s, were surprised to find an aboriginal couple already occupying a hut they ran to for shelter, when overtaken by a storm. An old man seen fishing the creeks of Macclesfield in the 1880s may well have been the last of them. Their implements have been found on the banks of the Wandin Yallock and Wild Cattle Creeks.

To the settlers of 1893, the Aborigines were not even a memory. They left no trace of their passing but their place names, often corrupted, and their forgotten artifacts.

The many native spears and stone axes found at the site of the Monbulk football ground, and at Nathania Springs, testify to the importance of these locations. Other artifacts left behind on their seasonal visits were found near Dennis’s property on the Emerald Creek , at Simpson’s by the Sassafras Creek , and at Fairy Dell.

Dodd of Olinda unearthed a boomerang while clearing bracken on his property. Demonstrating it rather too effectively to an English visitor, he failed to dodge on its return, and caught it on his nose.

An aboriginal skull, perhaps unearthed by miners, lay for decades under a settler’s home above the Emerald Creek.

Still more artifacts have been found on the Woori Yallock, Sassafras, Emerald and Menzies Creeks, at Butterfield Reserve, on the hill tops round Monbulk, and in the Sherbrooke and Olinda Forests. A number of stone axes were found in the Olinda Crescent area, a known camp site . Many aboriginal sites and artifacts have no doubt been lost with the damming, draining, diversion and erosion of streams, ploughing, and removal of stones from cultivated areas.

The last full-blood Wurrunjerri, William Barak, died in 1903.