Wednesday, 16 September 2015

FERNDALE - In search of...

A century ago the Dandenongs above the Basin were the homes of several large country estates. They were residences of successful businessmen who had profited from a booming Melbourne of the late 19th Century. Two in particular have reached almost legendary status for their Swiss chalet design and sheer size of the buildings. Today barely a trace survives of these majestic residences that were victims of fire, flood, taxes and time.
One of these was Doongala situated high in the hills in what is now national forest the only physical  remains now being the front steps, an old well which is still visible but safely enclosed by a fence. There is bluestone embedded into the batters of the road leading up to the old property and several hundred metres below that the site of the old stables. The gardens terraces are still visible to those with a touch of imagination. It’s a lovely place for a picnic but to sit in the quiet of the bush and release this house had several owners and was rebuilt several times - the first time because of a flood another by fire- is quite fantastic. I wrote about Doongala in the April 2014 issue of the BBCN- because I had to get a personal feel of where these mighty houses were built and how hard it must have been to move materials up the steep tracks and see if an thing remained of the awe inspiring gardens the families had created amongst the bush.
To see Doongala now and know that it was self-sufficient in most things and had large servant’s quarters for house staff, gardeners, smiths, stable hands and drivers. It is hard to imagine it existed within this steep heavily wooded area and basically completely gone by the mid-1930s. So much activity and lives lived at a time down the road Boronia had less than 650 full time residences and that was with a railway station. Because few pictures survive and plans of the property rarer, it is worth the trek up the track to visit the site and check out the information board as it has some illustrations of the house in its former glory.
Ferndale looking up towards Ferndale Rd
The second of these Swiss chalet inspired houses Ferndale belonged to James and Emily Griffiths, James being one half of the famous Griffith Brothers and the Griffiths Tea Company. In 1880 He and his wife Emily constructed Ferndale a three storey Swiss-style home (about two kilometres as the crow flies from the Basin Triangle Park) it had 17 main rooms including 11 bedrooms, these were complemented by three bathrooms, three studies, numerous laundries, workrooms and maid’s quarters.
Like Doongala it also had cottages for the labourers and farmhands who tended the animals, orchards and gardens. It was these many
James and Emily Griffith
orchards, large livestock holdings and gardens that made Ferndale self-sufficient. Ferndale also used the mountain slopes to incorporate a water reticulation system by damming the creek above a natural waterfall and running large pipes to the property. Ferndale’s gardens were believed to be quite a spectacle with many special features including heavily ornamented entrance gates, which opened into a bluestone courtyard complete with fish pond and fountain. Lawns complimented garden beds adorned with many varied flower species with a special area that showcased chrysanthemums. Sadly not a lot of photographs or memories are recorded of Ferndale’s glory days but local historian Rick Coxhill in his wonderful History of The Basin papers managed to interview Frank Grumont who worked at the property and leave us with his memories of Ferndale in its heyday. His descriptions of Ferndale painted in white, gold and brown conjures up a striking contrast to the lawns and gardens and the natural bush background. Ferndale’s demise came shockingly quick with the tragic death of James and Emily Griffith in 1925 when their carriage (Though it was the mid-1920s and the Griffiths’ could easily afford one James Griffith disliked automobiles and travelled in a horse drawn carriage) was hit by a train whilst crossing the line on Mountain Highway in Bayswater. Griffiths left a will that bequeathed his assets to his wife Emily. However, Emily did not die until four days after the train collision and consequently two sets of death duties were payable on the estate. The estate passed to Griffiths’ next of kin who could not afford to pay the death duties, Thus the land and house had to be sold to pay duty on the large house and business.
When eventually it was sold and a large area of land surrounding the house was portioned off and part of the rest of the property was subdivided into over 100 blocks of land. Ferndale on these smaller surrounds became a popular guesthouse up to the Second World War shortly after it was used as a migrant hostel before falling into disrepair in the 1950s. Ferndale was eventually burnt to the ground during the infamous January 1962 fires that were deliberately lit near what is now Wicks Reserve and nearly took Olinda and Sassafras and resulted in lives lost and large property loss. The house was situated on the western face of the Dandenongs with the mountain as a background and commanded an excellent view overlooking the Dandenong valley and the eastern suburbs of Melbourne.
The 100 sites and the Ferndale Estate proved a disaster and eventually land above the premises was bought by the Government and returned to the National Park. With a bit of research it was easy to find the original location of Ferndale and I felt the need to visit the site myself and see if anything remained.

1947 Map showing original entrance
So one very cold and blustery Sunday in July I headed up the Basin-Olinda road turning off at Old Coach Road and there it was Ferndale Road, there was a little spot to park the car in front of a Yarra Valley Water tank that a lot of hikers and bush walkers use and I wandered up what the big sign nailed to the lamppost said Road Closed. A short walk up the road cut into the side of the hill you are instantly aware which side of the road is National Park (up -East) and which is private property (West –down). I was aware that the road was gated about 400 metres down for Parks Victoria access and hoped I didn’t have to do any unnecessary climbing when a saw what I first thought was a wooden panel shoring up the embankment. To my surprise it was a rather ratty looking notice board with laminated notes and photos. I may have said the board looked ratty but the information that it contained was priceless snippets of the Ferndale property and history. I spent so much time looking over the board that when I looked up I hadn’t realised that where I stood was the view that Ferndale was famous for. Looking out between the trees was a gap that looked over the Basin and the Eastern suburbs all the way to the city skyline. Even on an overcast day like that day I visited it was stunning. Thanks to the photos on the board, I got a clearer impression of the wonderful work that had been done to build the gardens and lawns. I also managed to answer a question that I couldn’t seem to find anywhere else. That Ferndale’s entrance was off Old Coach Road despite claims the property was always referred to being on Ferndale Road. I knew this must have been wrong as Ferndale Road sits so much higher in photos and would have made access very difficult, especially after such a steep incline to reach it. The entrance was also confirmed later from information gleaned from a 1947 tourist map I found just prior to writing article and also from an interview with Frank Grumont where he mentioned Ferndale Road was put in after the subdivision. On the roadside board there is a picture that featured on the cover of the original Ferndale Estate brochure. It was a view bracketed by two massive conifers overlooking the house roof and chimney out towards what then 1920s Melbourne. I felt I was standing in the same position that photographer did almost 90 years previously.

The picture that gave me a clue to the location of Ferndale,

I paid a visit to the wonderfully helpful people at the Knox Historical Society the next week to ask if they had any knowledge who may have set up the board but as a group they were unaware it existed and talked of driving up and seeing it for themselves. While I was there I got a peak of some of the group’s archived photographs of Ferndale and some more glimpses of the beautiful well-maintained property it once was. If anyone does have information regarding who may have set up the board on site could you please contact this paper or the society? I strongly suggest it be added to the Knox Heritage Trail. We have many hidden treasures with such wonderful history in our backyard and learning about Ferndale’s was a fun challenge for me and I know there is much more to discover, one of the many benefits of living in the foothills of the Dandenongs. If you want to learn more about Ferndale and the Griffiths family the Knox Historical Society has a neat little exhibit at the museum situated at Ambleside where all the photographs mentioned here and more can be viewed.

The board on Ferndale Road

The board with a glimpse of the amazing view behind.

 References and Further Reading. 
Fire on the Hill, Flowers on the Valley 1992- Rick Coxhill The History of the Basin.- Rick Coxhill 2001-Ongoing 
BBCN July-September 2004 issues 139-141 Articles:Frank Grumont and the Fendale connection. Ferndale Memories 
Story of the Dandenongs- Helen Coulson FW Clarke 1958 
Prolific in God’s Gifts – Michael Jones Allen & Urwin 1983 
Knox Historical Society- Ambleside FTG.
Originally published in BBCN issue #237    September 2015