Upper Mersey at Lees Paddocks takes it shape from a series of massive
glaciers that gouged their way down the valley, bulldozing everything in
their path. Around 12,000 years ago the last river of ice slowed,
eventually ground to a halt and then began to slowly retreat. As it
melted, sediment-rich water gushed from its snout. Between Cathedral
Mountain and Mount Pillinger there was little fall and, as the water
slowed, sediment dropped in thick deposits. The river that followed in
the wake of the glacier responded to the gentle topography of the valley
by carving a meandering path through these deep beds of silt. The
valley was colonized by low shrubby vegetation for thousands of years.
It was not until just a few thousand years ago when the climate warmed
that forests began to invade the valley: rainforest trees along the
riverbanks, eucalypt forest on the drier banks and grasslands formed in
part by cold air drainage off the surrounding peaks.
Aboriginals entered this environment at
least 10,000 years ago at a time when the climate was much colder and
low alpine vegetation clothed the hillsides and plains. They came up the
valley from Howells Plains (now Lake Rowallan) during the summer
hunting wallaby and camped in rock overhangs. Bands of Aboriginals
continued to visit the valley almost every year. Their visits increased
in frequency from about 3000 years ago when the climate became warmer
and vegetation, as we know it today, began to clothe the valley.
Aborigines used fire to shape this emerging landscape to keep transport
routes open and to extend and maintain the grasslands to attract
The identity of the first European to
see The Paddocks is unknown but it may well have been Henry Stanley
(1820-1898), a convict stockman, who was left to manage Humphrey
Howells’ sheep run at Howells Plains around 1845. If he did wander
upstream for a look he would have encountered little grassy plains
enclosed within each bend of the river. These grassy plains looked a
little like paddocks and became the name for which the area was then
known. The Fields, that buccaneering grazing family that seized control
of Howells Plains in the late 1850s, might also have been interested in
what lay up stream. But given that they inherited Stanley from Howells,
they may well have been content to take his word. In any event, and
despite others that might have visited it (Stanley led packhorses there
in 1888), The Paddocks was seen as unsuitable for grazing and ignored.
If that was Field policy, it was
discarded in the 1880s when a change in the guard among the Fields saw
ambitious young Richard Field (1866-1961) outmaneuver his older brothers
and take control of Howells. Field knew it was only a matter of time
before farmers from Mole Creek came up into the Upper Mersey to select
land for summer grazing runs. Indeed, some already had. He
also knew that Howells Plains provided the only access up to The
Paddocks and while there some reserved roads, he didn’t want to have to
fence those roads to prevent his and someone else’s cattle from mixing.
The inconvenience of that event and even theft was the risk, he
realized, if someone disreputable selected land there. The solution, he
recognized, was to get someone he trusted to take up land at The
Paddocks. The person he thought of was young George Lee (1862-1932) of
Mole Creek. Lee was only a relatively young man but had demonstrated
significant business ability and moral standing. Field approached Lee
about The Paddocks emphasing its potential as a cattle run. He even
provided a sweetener designed to ensure co-operation. He proposed that
Lee stockman travelling to and from The Paddocks could enjoy his
facilities at Howells Plains if his stockmen could be afforded a similar
courtesy at Mole Creek.
George Lee (1862-1932)
Lee was intrigued at the offer and in
1888 travelled up to The Paddocks. Stories suggest he couldn’t get his
horse the whole way and had to tie it up and go ahead on foot.
Nonetheless, Lee had a good look at The Paddocks that day and part of
the next. A man of some vision, he could clearly see the potential of
The Paddocks and when he came home applied to purchase a block of land
there. The next year, in 1889, he applied for a second block. Lee
put cattle on The Paddocks but, with little experience of the mountain
seasons, left them there too late. When he went to muster them he could
only find a few, presuming the others had drowned. Embittered by the
loss, Lee decided to abandon his holding.
As it happened, Lee and partner Billy
Marchant (1858-1943) won a contract in 1890 to supply food and materials
to a survey gang marking out a proposed railway line from Mole Creek to
Zeehan. From 1890 to 1891 the chief surveyor, Allan Stewart, took the
line up the Mersey Valley, around Mount Pillinger and across Pelion
Plains to Mount Pelion West. As the survey progressed he and his men
used a series of camps in the Mersey Valley, firstly at Liena, then Arm
River, Howells Plains, and then The Paddocks. As they moved their
equipment from camp to camp they also significantly improved the track
between these points. So it was that when Lee came back to The Paddocks
with a string of packhorses in 1891, he found not only a clearly defined
track he could follow, but that the survey crew had built a good hut
there. Crucially, the crew reported the existence of ‘wild cattle’
at The Paddocks, the cattle Lee had presumed lost. Given the new
and improved infrastructure and the obvious capacity of The Paddocks to
support cattle, Lee reapplied for his abandoned blocks. He had them
surveyed in 1892. One enclosed the very top little plain, a location
strategically chosen to deter those who might select below him. The
other was nearly five kilometres north claiming the open plain south of
the Wurragarra near the survey hut.
The Paddocks' blocks in order of selection
Lee had little money at this stage in
his life. He had a wife, a growing family (13 children by 1911) and a
farm to manage. It was not until 1901 that he committed to buy
more land at The Paddocks. Then, block-by-block over the next
twenty-five years, he added to his holdings often buying in the name of
his children and wife to sidestep limitations on the amount of land he
was entitled to purchase. By 1926 his property at The Paddocks was 620
acres (250 hectares) in area on fifteen titles.
Economic conditions improved markedly
in the early days of the new century prompting Lee to pour some
significant resources into improving his land, especially prior to World
War One. Around 1907, his two oldest sons, Oliver and Basil, contracted
to scrub the 80-acre block that straddled the Wurragarra. They fell
many great gums and myrtle, ringbarked others and scrubbed the
undergrowth. A few years later George, young son Oxley and Bill Clarke
burnt the huge logs that littered the ground and sowed grass seed in the
ashes. For a number of years gangs of men from Mole Creek were employed
each summer to ditch and drain the wetter parts of the land, and scrub
and sow up the hillsides where the soil was fertile. A major drain was
dug across the top plain with sharp hay knives around 1914. Some time
from 1892 to 1909, hunters accidentally burnt the survey hut and a new
one was built fifty metres south. Lewis Lee, George’s youngest son,
later to be the owner of much of The Paddocks, recalled busy times when
cattle were slaughtered to feed the gangs of men – one before Christmas
and one after.
Cattle in the snow at The Paddocks undated, photographer unknown.
George Lee also
invested in improved access. Around 1900 he and Field combined financial
resources to create a more direct, all weather crossing of the Arm
River. This allowed a specially modified bullock dray to make it up as
far as the top end of Howells
Plains for the first time. Having previously supplied his operation by
packhorse from Mole Creek, this was a major innovation for Lee.
Provisions and equipment could be freighted into Howells Plains on the dray and then packed the remaining seven kilometres to The Paddocks.
When was Old Pelion Hut named Emhlangana?
Last year I wrote of the mystery
surrounding the name ‘Emhlangana’ carved on a board and fixed above the
door of Old Pelion Hut (see my blog of 18 March 2014).
We tracked the likely origin of the
name, a Zulu word, to the Wooton family who emigrated from South Africa
to Sheffield in the late 1800s. I offered a theory that Andrew and
Dan Wyllie, Wooton descendants and Pelion stockmen in the 1930s, might
have named the hut. But when was it done? It was there in 1944 when it
was noted in the hut’s visitor’s book. Interestingly, it was not there
in 1933 when this photograph by Ken Field was taken. Thus the date
for when the name plate was erected is narrowed to a period between
1933 and 1944. For history tragics, these things are important!