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Bad roads from the beginning: a look at Warragul’s early years

james biram first shop warragul

ASK anyone living in Warragul to describe the town today and no doubt the words “growth” and “bad roads” will enter the conversation.

The town’s population is increasing rapidly and Baw Baw Shire’s councillors have seen fit to make road maintenance a priority for the council, but if history is any clue to the success of the council’s current road maintenance blitz, it will be an uphill battle.

In 1897 the Warragul Guardian newspaper published an article titled “Early days of Warragul – recollections of a pioneer.” That pioneer was James Biram, who built Warragul’s first building in 1876 and served as the town’s first postmaster, deputy electoral registrar and registrar of births and deaths.

The Guardian’s article retold the story of Warragul’s establishment and early expansion with help from Biram, who recalled that from the start “the roads were nothing but quagmires.”

Indeed, Biram said that before the railway was built the cost of transporting goods from Melbourne to Brandy Creek was less than the cost of transporting goods the short distance from Brandy Creek to Warragul due to the condition of the roads.

Biram also noted the early struggle between the people of Warragul and Drouin to become the dominant town in the area – a struggle won by Warragul through some clever planning and negotiations with governments.

You can read more of Biram’s recollections in the transcribed article below.

station warragul 1880 warragul citizen

Notably missing from the Guardian’s article was the fate of the town’s first building, which was either moved or demolished to make way for the railway before the first train to Warragul arrived on 1 March 1878.

Although Biram is known for establishing the town, the first expedition led by white colonialists to successfully navigate the swamps and dense forest undergrowth around Warragul took place in 1841. Explorers on that expedition included W.A. Brodribb, Alexander Kinghorne and Charlie Tarra, the latter of whom had taken part in a previous unsuccessful expedition.

From the Warragul Guardian, Tuesday 7 December 1897, page three.

EARLY DAYS OF WARRAGUL.

——-

RECOLLECTIONS OF A PIONEER.

The history of Warragul is certainly a record of rapid progress. Twenty-one years ago the site now occupied by the township was a dense forest; and the only inhabitants in the district were a few selectors. The honor (sic) of being the pioneer of Warragul belongs to Mr. Jas (sic – assumed James) Biram, and thinking that some of his recollections of Warragul’s early days would be of interest to our readers, a representative of the “Guardian” waited on that gentleman, who courteously placed at our disposal some interesting facts.

The first settlement of the district dates from early in the seventies. About this time considerable publicity was given to a dispute over selections taken up by Professors Strong and Dobson, of the Melbourne University, and which ended in their being forfeited by the then Minister of Lands, Mr. J. J. Casey. It became generally recognised that what was known as the Brandy Creek district contained splendid land, and there was consequently a rush for selections, and settlers came flocking in.

At this time Mr Biram was in business in Melbourne; but so impressed was he with what he had heard of the possibilities of the Brandy Creek district that he decided to establish himself there. Accordingly in March, 1876, he took up a selection, erected a store on what is now the railway reserve, and commenced business as storekeeper and chemist. He was also the first postmaster, deputy electoral registrar, and registrar of births and deaths. Mr. Birams possesses an interesting memento in the shape of a watercolor (sic) drawing of the first shop and dwelling he built, and which was the first building in Warragul.

Before the construction of the railway, all goods had to be carted to Brandy Creek, and packed from thence to Warragul, and an idea of the state of the latter part of the road may be gathered from the fact that although it cost only £4 per ton for carting the 60 miles from Melbourne to Brandy Creek, it cost £6 per ton for the remaining four miles. On one of his trips Mr. Biram had as a companion the well-known agricultural writer, Mr. T. K. Dow, and it took them three hours to get over the journey from Brandy Creek to Warragul.

In 1879 the railway line was completed as far as Warragul. It had been a matter of doubt as to whether Drouin or Warragul would be the principal station on the line between Melbourne and Sale, but this point was settled in favor of Warragul on account of the fact that permanent water was procurable there.

As there seemed every prospect of the town becoming an important business centre, a strong demand set in for building allotments. The Government, however, refused to sell any township blocks. Notwithstanding this, numerous buildings were erected “onspec” ; and the occupiers, acting on the advice of the Crown lands bailiff, took out miner’s rights and business licenses. Almost the whole of Queen-street (sic) was taken up in this way.

The first land sale was held in 1879, and an arrangement was come to by which the Government permitted those who occupied land under miners’ rights or business licenses, to fix their own valuation for improvements, on condition that the upset price should be equivalent to the highest amount obteained for a vacant block. The highest price obtained at the sale was £80.

To show how the scales of fortune sometimes tremble in the balance, one of Mr. Biram’s transactions soon after his arrival may be cited. He applied for a rural store site, the land which he was desirous of obtaining including a considerable portion of what is now Queen-street (sic). His application was granted, on condition that he paid £8 per acre and £5 survey fees. Mr. Biram considered the latter amount excessive, and did not proceed any further. If he had completed the transaction, he would have become possessed, for a small outlay, of some of the most valuable land in the township.

The new township made headway under great difficulties. The roads were nothing but quagmires, and old residents tell some amusing stories about the misadventures of those who had to travel over them. On one occasion a party of actors, who were to give a performance at Warragul, had a very unpleasant experience. They had driven to Warragul in a covered waggon, and when they had reached one of the worst parts of the road their conveyance broke down, with the result that the party, which included several ladies, had to walk through mud waist-deep to reach the footpath.

For a long time it was a doubtful question whether Drouin or Warragul would be selected for the establishment of Government offices, and there was naturally a good deal of rivalry over the matter, which was ultimately decided in favor (sic) of Warragul. This result was mainly brought about by the energy of some of the residents. It having transpired that it was the intention of the Government to establish a County Court between Melbourne and Sale, and that in all probability the Government offices would follow, a meeting of the inhabitants of Warragul was held, at which it was decided to build the Atheneum and offer it to the Government for use is a courthouse. The offer was accepted, and thus a good stroke of business on behalf of the township was affected.

The most notable events that occurred during the first few years of Warragul’s existence were two disastrous fires, which on each occasion did a large amount of damage. Mr.Biram possesses some interesting photographs, showing Queen-street before and after the fire. One result of the fires was that much more substantial buildings were erected than those which had been destroyed,

Of course Warragul had its land boom, as some of its residents know to their sorrow. When land in the township was at its highest value, £44 per foot was offered for the block now occupied by W. D. Leslie & Co.’s store. This may be regarded as the maximum price reached for land in Warragul.

Warragul, it will be seen, has had its share of ups and downs,and although its boom period is past, there is every prospect that the town and district will in the future progress steadily and surely.

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Information for this article was sourced from the aforementioned Warragul Guardian article and the book Forests Old Pastures New by Sally Wilde. The Warragul Guardian article was accessed via Trove.

Click here to see the full digitalised newspaper.

Wilde’s book was published in 1988 by the Shire of Warragul. Images are used with permission from the Baw Baw Shire Council.

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One comment on this article:

Marcia on June 16th, 2013, 4:42 PM

Loved this article William,, ought to be more. Regards Marcia.


 

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