Pioneering Families of Australia

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Seemingly another first for him was the construction of fish breeding ponds on his property and the successful introduction and breeding of brown trout.  During the 1860’s and 1870’s William was a member of the Zoological Acclimatisation Society of Victoria and it was under “their control and superintendence” that the project was undertaken.


Along with his substantial farming interests, timber and fish breeding William also had commercial interests in and around Gisborne either directly or in partnership with family members.  Such enterprises included the Bush Inn and a brick kiln with his son-in-law, George Stokes and a hay and corn store and later general store with his nephew James McGilchrist.


William also found time to lobby for and help establish St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church and the local Mechanics Institute, both buildings he is credited with having donated the timber for.


He was a Justice of the Peace for 30 years, Treasurer at St Andrews for 8 years and a Trustee almost until the day he died.


He has been described variously throughout recollections as “of a genial manner, although stern to any fraud or deceit, offering great hospitality, and a very intelligent interest in all passing events”  and “he liked to pose as a leader of men.  He was popular with the public and was in his element when dispensing justice from the Bench.  


Whatever his public face, things would seem to have been somewhat different at home.  His nephew James McGilchrist wrote in his memoirs “his uncle … made no effort to win the love of his children, who all feared him, and even his saintly wife lived in dread of him.  He spent his evenings alone in the living room, and at 9.00 a bell was rung when all members of the household came in for family prayers.’


James goes on to relate how he went to work for his uncle William but “that his cousins were required to work like slaves and received no wages.”


And this extract from “Old Gisborne” I think sums it all up.  With respect to “….the surrounding squatters.  Five of them were from Caledonia, stern and wild.  As Mr William Robertson was the patriarch of the region, I will deal with him first……once across the creek, the homestead was soon reached, when it was found that the old man was chieftain of a clan, all of whom were related to him, and I imagined they totalled 22….the majority were grandsons, and every one of them doing their share of work”.  If one looks closely at the homestead photo above, the houses of the rest of the family are evident in the background.

William Robertson the Entrepreneur.  


William and his family arrived in Hobart Town in 1833 – by accident – when the sailing ship they were on, Thomas of London, caught fire and the captain grounded her on a beach thereby saving the lives of all on board and most of their belongings.


Just why William and his family decided to remain in Hobart Town rather than continue on to Sydney is not know but he quickly established himself in business for the Hobart Town Courier dated 13 September 1833 carried the following advertisement.

“William Robertson, Tailor and Draper, late passenger of the ship Thomas, takes leave most respectfully to intimate to the Gentry and Public of Hobart Town and the Colony, that he has commenced business in those central premises, Elizabeth Street, lately occupied by Mr James Gow.


From experience in business, strict attention combine with elegance and economy, he hopes to merit a share of public patronage.


N.B. Ladies Riding Habits, and children’s dresses, as well as everything in the trade done up in first style.


An assortment of ready-made Coats of the very best quality, which will be sold at low prices for cash.”

During the next five years, he built this business and became friendly with John Pascoe Fawkner who persuaded William to visit Melbourne and look at the possibilities there.  In 1937 William moved the family to Melbourne and commenced business, once again as a tailor, in Collins Street, while his young family grew.


In 1839 he decided to take up land in the Mt Macedon area with an initial parcel of 640 acres.  This would eventually grow to over 7000 acres, the majority held under squatter’s license, and was described as follows in Balliere’s Victorian Gazetteer of 1865.

“Wooling Station  County Bourke): occupier Robertson W: area 5,700 acres, grazing capability 342 head of cattle; is situated on the head of the Kerri Creek (the upper portion of Macedon River), four miles north of Gisborne.”  

It appears William sent his two oldest boys to secure the land and prepare accommodation for the family’s arrival.  At just 16 and 14, one wonders how the boys even found the property, let alone constructed accommodation.


However the full family did arrive in 1840 and a homestead and farm was established which became the envy of the district.


William himself though had many other interests.   Once the homestead had been established, he turned his sawpit and saw mill into a commercial operation which would employ many local men and eventually supply most of the timber for the Melbourne to Bendigo Railway Line, and the majority of buildings constructed within a 30 mile radius.  William’s saw mill is considered to have been the first commercial saw mill in Victoria.

The Melbourne, Mount Alexander & Murray River Railway Company received parliamentary assent in February 1853 to build Victoria's first inland railway from Melbourne to Williamstown, Bendigo and Echuca. Construction commenced in January 1854 with work on a pier at Williamstown but lack of funds slowed progress, eventually prompting the company to sell out to the government.


The 100-mile (162 km) section to Bendigo opened in October 1862. Its cost of £35,000 per mile made it the most expensive railway ever built in Australia. In 1864, the line was extended to Echuca, tapping into the booming Murray-Darling paddlesteamer trade.

It has been said that Wooling was virtually self sufficient, in that it had its own labour force, timber for construction, cattle, food etc.


It also had its own cemetery.  When death came to Wooling the deceased were interred in a private cemetery on the property.  The number actually buried there is about 25.


Sadly, the Wooling created by William Robertson is long gone.  He passed the property to one of his sons but over time, the land has been sold off and subdivided many times.


In 1953 Stevenson McGilchrist paid a visit to Gisborne and wrote “we proceeded to the old homestead at Wooling, which still stood , but we were greatly distressed to find that vandals had destroyed every door and window … I was not only distressed but was also angry that nothing had been done  to preserve this historic property.  Wooling at the height of its development, though not a pretentious homestead, was typical of the times and had been greatly beautified and had been a centre of interest to visitors from far and wide, even from Melbourne itself.  … Why had the National Trust not preserved it?”


55 years later, I have recently returned from a visit to Wooling and can advise that yes the homestead is completely gone, however the land upon which it once stood is still vacant and still bears the traces of foundations and human activity.


Of the 7,000 acres once held by William, that is now in the hands of various local farmers.


The cemetery where the pioneers are buried is now under the care of the National Trust and the "40 square feet with Cypress trees, surrounded by a post and rail fence" has been restored.   A memorial to William as a pioneer has been erected. Several more recent members of the family have had ashes interred within the cemetery fenced area and memorials erected.


But most importantly, the cemetery now forms part of a larger memorial park known as Wooling Hill and the final resting place of William Robertson and 25 members of his immediate family will be protected forever.