19 October, 2017

'Lawrence Park'

The Learmonth family of squatting fame first arrived in Australia in the 1830s when Thomas Learmonth Senior established himself as a merchant in Hobart Town. In April, 1837 his sons Thomas and Somerville were amongst the first squatters to take up land in the newly-established Port Phillip District of New South Wales. As members of the Port Phillip Association (later the Derwent Company), they occupied land along the Barwon River up to its confluence with the Leigh River, beating out their competition in the form of the Clyde Company under the management of George Russell.
With their preferred land on the Barwon unavailable, the Clyde Company instead set up operations along the Moorabool River, north from Fyansford and west across to the Leigh River at Shelford. However, the Port Phillip Association once again got the jump on the Clyde Company when the first land sales were held for the parish of Gherineghap in February, 1839.
The Association disregarded the gentleman's agreement which prevented squatters from purchasing the land on which other land holders were squatting. Outbidding their rivals at the Sydney auction, they snapped up much of the land from Fyansford to the future site of Gheringhap along the Moorabool where George Russell was squatting and along the Barwon as far as Bruce's Creek.  Their success however, came at a cost. Philip Russell (half brother of George and shareholder in the Clyde Company) was able to force the sale price up to 28 shillings per acre. The Russells meanwhile, quickly stripped the land of the improvements they had made - huts, stockyards, tents, even a wool shed - and retreated to what had until then been their outpost on the Leigh River.
Google Earth map showing the boundaries of the 1839 land purchases of the
Port Phillip Association and the Learmonths as shown on the Gherineghap
Parish Survey Maps
Amongst the members of the Port Phillip Association was Thomas Learmonth Sr who is widely reported to have taken up the land after purchase before passing it to his youngest son Dr John Learmonth. In addition, the parish survey map shows that 611 acres west of Batesford was also purchased in John's own name. Meanwhile, his brothers Thomas and Somerville had headed north early in 1838, establishing first the Boninyong Estate, then the property known as Ercildoune.
In 1845 John began building a homestead on the property to replace an earlier building which according to the book The Stepping Stone: A History of the Shire of Bannockburn, Derek Beaurepaire (1995) had accidentally burnt down during an attempt to smoke out a swarm of bees.
By 1846 along with his wife - Alicia Macwhirter - John was living at the property which he called 'Laurence Park' (later 'Lawrence Park') after his father Thomas Learmonth's estate at Falkirk, Scotland. It was here that three of their ten children were born. In January that year, Alicia gave birth to a daughter who died two days later (Geelong Advertiser & Squatters' Advocate, 10th January, 1846). A second daughter followed in 1849 and a son in 1852.
In January 1854 however, John, his wife and their children (eight at that time) boarded the ship Kangaroo and headed back to Britain. 'Lawrence Park' was advertised to let as house and garden (Geelong Advertiser & Intelligencer, 7th March, 1854). It would seem perhaps that the lease was not taken up as the Australian Dictionary of Biography entry for the Learmonths indicates that after John's departure, his brother Andrew managed the property on his behalf from 1854-1855. By 1856 the property was once again up for lease, this time advertised "to be let for five years, with possession on the 1st April, the House, Garden, and Vineyard at Lawrence Park, Bates Ford, the property of Dr. Learmonth, together with about 200 Acres of fenced land" (The Argus, 30th January, 1856). John Learmonth and his family did not return.
'Lawrence Park' 19th September, 1971. Image from the J.T. Collins
Collection, La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria
Like John, all of the Learmonth brothers were essentially speculators who eventually returned to their native Scotland. By 1867, 'Lawrence Park' which had been tenanted for some time was in the hands of neighbouring land owner George Hope of 'Darriwill' who soon on-sold the property to settler George Hill who for a time had been a tenant of the Hope family (The Leader, 23rd February, 1867).
The Hills were Scottish immigrants who had arrived in Australia in April, 1853 as assisted immigrants aboard the ship Confiance. With George on the voyage was his wife Sarah, and their young children James, Philip and George Jr. In the following years to 1870 a further seven children were born to the couple.
At the time of the Hills' arrival, the house was described by the Melbourne Leader on 23rd February, 1867 as:
possess[ing] historical interest, on account of its comparative antiquity; the walls are as massive as those of many a castle; the stone, probably, was found hard to work, but whatever the reason, the building has a rough and rather primitive appearance, although roomy, extensive and lofty.
After purchasing the property however, the Hills undertook extensions, adding a south wing during the 1860s and today, the Victorian Heritage Database gives the following description:
an h-shaped colonial vernacular building with gabled roofs. The earliest part is brick, that is, the north wing and middle section of the H. The south wing constructed in the 1860s is of random rubble. There are verandahs on the north and east sides. The house has been altered over the years and little remains internally of the original features. The only section in original condition is the upper level of the stone wing. A steep, narrow timber stair leads up to it. The overall condition of the building could be described as good, although the soft early bricks are deteriorating at floor level.
George ran the farm until his retirement in 1889 when he held a clearing sale and let the property to tenants (Geelong Advertiser, 4th April, 1889), retaining ownership until his death in 1909 at which time it was purchased at auction by his son Phillip. George and Sarah (died 1901) are buried in the Church of England section of Geelong's Western Cemetery in adjacent plots.
Grave of George and Sarah Hill, Western General Cemetery, Church of England
Section, Row 1, Graves 1249 and 1250
Philip in turn ran the property with his own family before retiring to Geelong in his later years. Philip died in 1931 and was buried next to his wife Mary Jane, not far from his parents. Newspaper notices suggest that his son George continued to,manage the property after his father's death until 1933 when the property was auctioned by the estate trustees (Geelong Advertiser, 14th October, 1933).  In August the following year, a clearing sale was held on the property (The Argus, 11th August, 1834) however presumably a sale was not negotiated as the lease of 'Lawrence Park', Gheringhap was listed in The Age, 18th April, 1934 and by 1940 Garry George Hill, son of Albert Alexander - Philip's younger brother - was running the property. Along with his wife Ella, Garry made a number of appearances in The Weekly Times during the 1940s and 1950s, promoting the benefits of the district and showcasing the prosperity of 'Lawrence Park'.
Photograph of members of the Hill family at the Geelong Sheepdog Trials,
Geelong Advertiser, 31st August, 1949, captioned " Mr. J. Pettitt (right),
Chairman of the Sheep Dog Trials committee, with Mr. and Mrs. G. G.
Hill, Mr. M. Hill and Miss D. Hill from Batesford"

 The couple had four children but it was their younger son Ian James Hill who was noted as still being in residence in 1995 (The Stepping Stone: A History of the Shire of Bannockburn, Derek Beaurepaire (1995). Ian had married Sheila Pilkington in 1953 in Melbourne but I imagine that it was on the property at Batesford that the family made their home.
Today, the property remains in the Hill family, with the current addressee listed as G M Hill and the house built by John Learmonth in 1845, then extended by the Hill family still stands as a reminder of the earliest days of European settlement in the Port Phillip District.