Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891


Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

Phantoms in Straw Hats: Vanished Places in the Australian Landscape

Penned upon the 26th of June, 2007

I was born here in Colonial Capital MELBOURNE, and grew up among the rainforests, mountains, ferns and evergreens of rural Victoria. Both are exceptional places: beautiful, mysterious and sublime in the truest sense of the world; telling the viewer of a great history at work, far beyond the scale of a hairy little individual in the present day. I’ve reflected before on how our environment becomes the manifestation of our history, how bricks and beams become ideals and goals made concrete. I recently had the opportunity to apply this fascination to those fascinating forgotten parts of Australia’s landscape; an effort I’d quite like, with your permission, to reproduce for you.

What can the urban landscape tell us about Australia’s history? Many grand shops and civic halls will be happy to tell you how the institutions founded so many years ago became – and how they legitimate – those power structures that now exist. Behind the bustling facades, though, lie the forgotten places – places which have become entirely pragmatic, excluded from the greater history; places which have been abandoned, or all but; and places which have disappeared altogether, and inform the landscape through their absence. In Australia, a great many of these places are ghost towns – small towns which lived brief but intense lives before dwindling away to perhaps a handful of residents, or just as likely nothing but ruins and ghosts. These towns are not the all of Australia’s forgotten places, though. Even within the most prosperous major cities hide pockets of history, all the more poignant for falling outside of consciousness while surrounded by so many people, even lying in plain sight.

Historians have found it hard to account for such lost places as ghost towns. What place do they have in the greater history of the people? Were they just an expensive mistake, a retrograde step on the path of progress and achievement? Perrie Ballantyne links these sites with the idea of a hostile landscape. To European Australians, she argues, space itself seemed malign, capable of hampering their efforts to tame it and, if caught unprepared, of swallowing them whole. White Australia was fundamentally alienated from the land, and the consequence of this was a constant entropic force acting upon their settlement. In this image of history, colonists had to struggle constantly to maintain their achievements. If their strength failed, then the colonial work would literally be undone – machine workings would dismantle, buildings would be stripped, towns would depopulate and roads would fade away. Ghost towns are the mortal remains of these undoings, parallels to the sun-bleached bones of lost explorers. Places become like individuals, like the white Australians themselves, isolated far from civilisation. While ghost towns are ‘failures’ in this ethos, their existence reaffirms the need to succeed – the Faustian task of White Australia to struggle against the landscape and escape oblivion. They are like the ruins of a classical civilisations, monuments of virtue that the present feels compelled to live up to.

Tony Birch offers another reading of Australia’s abandoned places. Ghost towns, he argues, showcase the failures of the project to establish permanent settlement of Australia. Places which have resisted colonisation in this way threaten the very concept of the nation, relying as it does on ultimate sovereignty over its territory, both in the physical sense of occupation and the abstract sense of belonging, of the land’s hostility having been curbed. To stop this gap in the national identity, ghost towns are reinvented as (rather clumsy) heritage sites.Rather than acknowledging the forces which led to their dwindling, these places are deliberately kept alive as symbols of the importance of pioneer history. He describes the Victorian gold-mining town of Steiglitz, which has been heritage listed and gained a ‘history walk’, directing visitors to monuments of the area’s nineteenth-century origins. Without the aid of this attraction, the significance the town once held certainly would not be apparent, as most of the buildings described have long since disappeared, their location only indicated by stray remnants – a broken water tank, some foundations, a tree. While the buildings themselves have not survived, this re-imaging precludes the notion that the bush has reclaimed the town, that the European mark has been erased. Rather, the land itself is cited as evidence of settlement, rather than a force working against it.

Steiglitz is far from an isolated case: other towns which no longer exist in a physical sense at all remain signposted, with names, dates, borders and explanatory monuments. One town which receives this treatment never existed at all – it was planned and mapped, streets and all, but was never actually built and inhabited. Visitors to the site today are invited to tour the imaginary town, to contemplate the historical landscape which isn’t. By showcasing ghost towns’ contribution to the present-day, these sites deny any end to colonial control of the area, filling the map with more European places and names – claiming more of the landscape – than the living Australian nation would be able to populate and work. These towns are no longer inhabited (or, when they are, their residents aren’t necessarily eager to participate in the historicising process) but, rather than images of failure, they are literally memorialised – towns become individuals again, but, rather than victims of the bush, they are fallen soldiers in the national struggle, a source of national idolatry predating the diggers of the World Wars.

Robert Ingpen, in his visual exploration of Australia’s abandoned buildings, expounds an interesting theory for their presence. He reads Australia’s history as a series of experiments; from the macro-project of colonisation to the humblest commercial venture, Australia has fostered experimentation. By this reading, forgotten places are neither successes nor failures, but simply to be expected, for an experiment is by definition a temporary thing: if it fails, one abandons it, if it succeeds, one ceases experimenting and proceeds with implementation. What actually happened in these places? How did people live, before the town was abandoned? What were they trying to achieve? Were they attempts at permanent settlement – at nation-building – which failed? Did the demands of the land outmatch the pioneers who tried to work it? In fact, Ghost towns almost invariably came into being through a similar chain of events. A deposit of a valuable resource is discovered, and a town appears to work it.

Take the example of Silverton, one of New South Wales’s many mining towns. Mining began in 1882, and the settlement sprang up almost immediately – by 1884 Silverton had a number of commercial establishments and a population of 1500. These promising figures belie the nature of the town, though. Silverton’s massive influx of residents was made up of poor men, out of jobs and seeking their fortunes in the mines. Those who didn’t mine catered to those who did, and the economy of the town consisted of stores, smiths, butchers, barbers and especially entertainments – dancers, billiards, shooting and a very great deal of drinking. Despite this abundance of diversions, quality of life was extremely poor: miners lived in tiny tin sheds, or else in tents or wherever they could sleep. There was no gaol, no magistrate, no telegraph, no church and no supply of clean water, so brawling and disease both ran rampant. Those professionals who did work in town were still tied to the mines – brokers, bankers and auctioneers. The monolithic role of mining in the economy, the population dominated by male migratory workers, the absence of real housing and the prioritising of keeping the work going over providing basic living standards ensured that Silverton could never be anything but a temporary community – more a working camp than a foundation for the coming nation. Sure enough, although improvements appeared in the town’s composition – churches, a growing female population, institutions catering to more sedate and progressive elements of the citizenry – these were also the first amenities to disappear when times got hard. With the end of the silver reserves came the end of Silverton, whose life as a town had been less than ten years; today there is but a handful of residents.

Silverton’s history is entirely typical of the empty towns of Australia. Created to extract a specific resource, the booms attracted men who could not find other work, or desired to get rich quick. Life there was not one of courage and stoicism but of fierce escapism when times were hard and giddy celebration when wealth was more plentiful. An absurd number of hotels for the population was common: Kookynie, in Western Australia, had boasted seven even towards its end, and in brighter times included a number of brothels and, of all things, a swimming pool, filled with water pumped from the gold mines. When the intense work tapped out the area’s resources, the town busted, the population moved elsewhere and a ghost town was born. Those who struck lucky before the end might re-invest within the region, but they might just as easily spend their earnings on themselves, heading off to the city or returning to ‘civilisation’ and moving back to Europe and entering the gentry. These sites seem incongruous with a national history simply because they are – they were not attempts to make a better life for everyone in a new land, hindered by the severity of the landscape but aided by innate qualities – they were rather attempts to simply to take what could be taken from it and move on. They cannot even be described as failures in the national effort because they were never ultimately intended to ‘succeed’, that is, to be permanent. The control of outside territory for the economic benefit of the controller is the root of colonialism, and these ghost towns are colonial, not national, sites.

The same pattern of booms and busts applies equally to the landscape of great cities. Melbourne owes its existence as a city to the gold rushes. The influx of wealth, as well as thousands of bodies, transformed it from a relative backwater to a modernised and prosperous capital. New buildings sprang up, public and private; and old ones gained new edifices and new meanings. Particularly fascinating is Flinders Street Station. Originally an unassuming cluster of sheds, by the 1880s the city’s fortunes had increased so that it was able to look into a new central railway terminal, and in 1899 a £500 prize could be offered for an architectural design. The winning model was a fusion of Art Nouveau, Neo-Baroque and Hindu elements – as bold a proclamation of cosmpolitan sophistication as can be imagined. Not content with merely showcasing the city’s boomtime wealth, though, the station also put it toward a variety of civic uses. A dining room, accessible from under the clocks and complete with a kitchen and chef’s quarters, gave travellers a central place to refresh and enjoy themselves. A nursery, installed in 1933, let mothers visiting the city leave the children in safety – despite the play area being on the station’s roof! The Victorian Railways Institute, established 1910, catered to the physical and intellectual improvement of railways staff and the public with the on-site provision of a gymnasium, libraries, a running course (again, on the roof) and a lecture theatre.

Like the ghost towns, these urban places were doomed when times got tougher, though this time despite their usefulness to the public, rather than for want of it. The nursery closed for World War II and never re-opened – like the ghost towns, attention simply seemed to have moved elsewhere. The dining room, after moving about the building, closed in the 1980s, following the construction of the City Loop and the dwindling of Flinders Street’s importance as a central station. The lecture theatre became a ballroom in the 30s, but has famously fallen into complete disuse and disrepair. These once bustling spaces have all passed from the public eye, forgotten behind administration corridors, all but rationalised out of existence without the abundance that birthed them. The station even boasts forgotten toilets: two subway entrances on the concourse outside have been filled in, now just concrete slabs surrounded by ornate iron handrails; marked with half-deconstructed signs reading ‘NEM’.

Ingpen offers an optimistic reading of these forgotten places. Rather than anxiety, abandoned places might be a source of pride, as they show which practices we have rightfully ceased. He uses the example of the ape cage at the Melboune Zoo, but it might as easily describe the ghost towns, relics of a society of economic and ecological exploitation, of competition for wealth at the expense of every necessity of life. Conversely, Christopher Deere cites a fictional example of an abandoned future Melbourne, rendered unliveable by rising sea levels, with society wholly split into class camps. The meaning that Australia’s forgotten places have to impart to us may not be to reassure us that this land is our land, to give us a historical ideal to define ourselves by. Rather, they warn us to avoid such the future Deere describes; to work with the land rather than only thinking of what we can take from it, as the rewards of such a system are too quickly and easily lost. Perhaps forgotten places can be remembered by laying the ghosts to rest, and abandoned places reoccupied if they can truly be maintained for all people.

If you so desire, you may follow any commentary upon this missive with the aid of our “RSS-O-Matic” apparatus.

Neither remarks nor trackings-back are currently permitted, so as to focus your attention better upon the wisdom herein.

Further remarks are not permitted.