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Our History

The deep human history of this landscape

For at least 25.000 years, the middle Yarra was the traditional county of the Wurundjeri-Willam aboriginal clan who lived, hunted and foraged in and along the banks of a river they knew as “Birrarrung” – “Place of Shadow and Mist.”

In the 1840s, the first white settlers into the area found their clay ovens, tool making platforms and well-defined walking tracks along the river’s south bank.

Though graziers had begun to arrive, land at Pound Bend was designated in 1861 as an Aboriginal Reserve, and the Wurundjeri continued to visit the area intermittently for another 20 years.

Their long occupation left behind many scar trees, artefact scatters and the name Warrandyte, which means “targeted object”

One Wurundjeri creation myth, defines Warrandyte as a place where Bunjil, the creator spirit - the Wedge-tailed eagle - threw down a star. Tribal oral histories tell of a meteor that fell to earth somewhere in the vicinity of the Warrandyte Gorge.

The Golden Age

The first strike of Victoria’s Gold Rush.

In 1851, the finding of a few specks of gold in the Andersons Creek tributary of the Yarra at Warrandyte commenced Victoria’s astounding Gold Rush.

Warrandyte became “Victoria Field”, the first official site of mining activity in a new state that in one short decade would see $10 billion pour into its Treasury and 250.000 “new chums” arrive in Melbourne.

Within months of that first tentative find, 500 miners were toiling in and around the upriver settlement and they virtually denuded Warrandyte’s landscape of trees as they burrowed into the hills and, at Pound Bend, diverted the river to get at the gold. Mining continued in the area in fits and starts until 1914.

While many of the eventual 22 Warrandyte mines were south of the river, there is still evidence of gold diggings in the form of tunnels and exploratory trenches on the Osborne Peninsula:

There are some tiling heaps in the gully at the end of Hamilton Road. From 1904, the gully immediately behind Warrandyte-Kangaroo Ground Road became the site of the North Caledonia mine which had followed a reef line across the river from the Caledonia Mine at Blacks Flat.

North Warrandyte

Working and settling the land

Although the southern side of Warrandtye was surveyed in 1856 and laid out by no less a town planning genius than the naturalist Clement Hodgkinson, (who also laid out the Fitzroy Gardens and St Vincent’s Place in South Melbourne), land across the river was not taken up until the second bridge was completed in 1875.

The ‘new’ bridge gave miners better access to the diggings at Queenstown (St Andrews) and allowed an intensification of mining along the Caledonia Syncline which crossed the river behind Osborne Road.

The Frencham property at Blue Tongue Bend was one the early holdings put under orchard. The Ayton property in Dingley Dell road became orchard at around the same time. Other early North Warrandyte landholders
were the township’s founding families: the Sloans, Stiggants, Speers and Mullens who took up small holdings hoping for speculative profits rather than viable agricultural land.

The first owner of the iconic Osborne Road property Lowestoft - which over four titles amounted to 17.4 hectares (43 acres), was Scottish immigrant, dancing and fencing teacher ‘Professor’ Joseph Lowe. One of his in-laws held a further 7.6 hectares (19 acres) at the end of the Peninsula.

A Lowe family legend holds that Professor Lowe was a great friend of the first Victorian government botanist and founder of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Dr Ferdinand von Mueller.

To Baron von Mueller is credited the original layout of the Lowestoft gardens. A plaque on a massive Queensland Kauri pine in the garden supports this illustrious claim.

How the Peninsula got its name

The Osborne legacy

In 1910, the rambling wooden house Lowestoft, the quaint rubble-walled White Cottage (also built by the Lowes) and the Lowestoft acres were purchased as a holiday destination by the extraordinary Professor W.A.Osborne, Professor of Physiology at Melbourne University and - in view of his ‘profound’ range of interests and activities - a true Renaissance man.

Irish-born William Alexander Osborne (1873-1967) learned six languages and appears by nature to have been a man of letters. His father, however, encouraged him to study biochemistry and physics and after holding the post of assistant Professor at University College London, in 1903 Dr Osborne was appointed Professor of Physiology and Histology at Melbourne University.

A medical lecturer noted for wit, Professor Osborne was also a writer, ABC broadcaster, lobbyist for many causes – particularly nutrition and the need for science to be relevant to industry. He was a peripatetic traveller and friend of the famous.

He met Oscar Wilde, Buffalo Bill Cody, Joseph Lister, William Randolf Hearst, Winston Churchill and the silent era Hollywood star Mary Pickford.

With his equally exceptional wife, Ethel, who at 41 became an obstetrician, Professor Osborne ‘retired’ in 1938 to a large farm at Kangaroo Ground but his children, Gerard and Audrey, continued being a presence on the Osborne Peninsula. Professor Osborne continued to head all sorts of literary and scientific institutions. He was still typing his own letters at 93.

The last resident Osborne

At age 95, in the year 2000, Audrey Cahn was the last of Professor Osborne’s four children still living on the family’s land in Osborne Road. She had known White Cottage for virtually her whole life and had been living there permanently since 1947.

Mrs Cahn still slept in a single bed in a basically-appointed bedroom in the oldest part of the historic rubble-walled building that is said to be, in part, a miner’s cottage possibly dating from the 1860s. Audrey kept her hearth burning all winter and the curl of smoke from her chimney was a comforting sight in the depths of winter.

Mrs Cahn, a nutritionist, could recall the joy of the Osborne family holidays at Lowestoft in the early part of the 20th century. She described ‘days of running wild in the bush and along the river’. She also remembered making the long trip from Melbourne University with her parents and siblings.

First, she said, they took a train to Ringwood; then a horse-drawn coach to the Warrandyte Bridge and finally, packing belongings and supplies, they would hike up the hill and along ‘Osborne’s track’ to Lowestoft.

Audrey Cahn was slowed but not bowed by age. She was as bright and feisty as ever when, at the behest of one of her two daughters she moved to Canberra to be closer to familial care.

She sold her still largely wild acres and left her riverside home to bring to an end the near-century long residency of the remarkable Osborne dynasty. Audrey died in April 2008 at the age of 102.


A place of historical and cultural significance

If walls could speak, the cave-like rock walls of Stonygrad – ‘Stony place’, the house built between 1938-47 on a half acre of land at the crook of Hamilton Road by Russian émigré Danila Vassilieff, would tell an extraordinary tale of painting, passion and the persuasion of young artists by a rare mentor talent who was to be highly influential on the course of modern Australian art.

From 1939, Vassilieff served as the foundation art teacher at the Koornung Experimental School where he exhorted his young pupils to ‘do whatever you want’. A group of young Melbourne painters also regarded the mercurial Cossack as a major creative influence who encouraged ‘an emotional rawness of expression.’

Joy Hester, Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd, Charles Blackman, John Perceval and Sydney Nolan all visited Vassilief at his “phenomenal abode” with its terraced gardens of sunflowers, iris, hens, geese and goats.

Nolan, who painted First Class Marksman - the only one of the Kelly series not completed at Heide - during a stay at Stonygrad in 1946, called Vassilieff ‘the most spontaneous man I ever knew.’ Albert Tucker said, ‘his eye gave us a vision of Australian none of us had ever seen before.’

John Perceval and Arthur Boyd said Vassilieff taught them ‘to paint quickly’. As a teacher, said Boyd, ‘he was of great importance to the modern movement in Australia.’

While he reached but failed to find popular success as a painter when, in 1947, Dailia Vassilieff turned his skills to sculpture, he was said to have found his medium. Following his death in 1958 at the age of 60, Vassilieff’s sculpture was widely regarded as ‘his most original and identifiable contribution as an artist.’

The Koornung Experimental School

Bracketed by two wedges of Warrandyte State Park at the bottom of Hamilton Road are two roads and the large square of bushy land known as the Koornung, which in a way, is a community within our Osborne Peninsula community.

The footprint on the land and some of the buildings defined as ‘1930s modern’ are remnants of the Koornong Experimental School, an idealistic ’progressive’ educational institution founded in 1939 by Clive Neild and his wife Janet, and dedicated to the fostering of ‘children’s real life needs and development.’

Operating until 1946, this fascinating school that has been called ‘an environmental laboratory’, catered to both boarders and day pupils and considered radical European theories of ‘educating the whole child’ by ‘following the rhythms of growth’, engaging ‘all the senses’ and concentrating on activities that fostered ‘mind, feelings and body’.’

Thus pottery, art, earth building, theatre, folk dancing, and physical education were taught alongside a more standard curriculum, by resident and visiting teachers who included leading experts in their field. Danila Vassilieff was the art teacher and his wife taught music. A Viennese professor taught languages and geography.

The school’s infrastructure consisted of a cluster of stone and wooden buildings, and cable trams that served as dormitories. The war years saw the school become financially troubled and it closed in 1946.

All but the headmaster’s house and a few rock walls that have since been incorporated into private Koornong residences were destroyed by fire in 1962.

wurundjeri aboriginal tribe
Wurundjeri Tribe

Old photo Koornung School
Koornung School

Artist Vassilief building Stonygrad