This article highlights many interesting aspects of the history of Rowville and Lysterfield.

This article is not intended to be a ‘potted’ history of Rowville and Lysterfield. Rather it is intended to whet your appetites for finding out more about the district’s past by briefly indicating people and topics that can be read about from the extensive local history resources kept at the Rowville Library.

The Rowville and Lysterfield area has a fascinating history. It was first settled by Europeans in 1837, only two years after John Batman founded the settlement of Melbourne on the banks of the Yarra River.

In October 1837, Captain William Lonsdale who was in charge of the infant settlement directed that land in the district of “Nerre Nerre Warrene” be set aside for a depot for a native police corps. Early survey maps show this land to have covered an area of about six square miles. It extended from the present line of Police Road in the north to Heatherton Road in the south and from the present Gladstone Road to the west (in North Dandenong) to deep into the Lysterfield Hills to the east. The depot itself was established on a hill east of what was then called the “Dangynon” or “Dangy Nong” Creek in what is now the Police Paddocks.

The initial Native Police Corps under the leadership of Captain De Villiers was not successful. However, in 1842 Superintendent LaTrobe appointed Captain Henry Dana to re-establish the Corps. Dana was a tough, resourceful leader who welded the Corps into a disciplined unit that saw active service all over Victoria or, more correctly, the territory that was then called the Port Phillip District of New South Wales.

Thus the Corps from its base in the Police Paddocks was involved in the history of settlements throughout Victoria. Because of that involvement there are very extensive official records of its activities and personnel. More about the Corps can be found in Les Blake’s small and easily read book “Captain Dana and the Native Police Force” available at the Rowville Library.

There were plenty of dramatic moments at the Native Police Depot. In July 1849, bad feeling between W.H. Walsh, second in command at the depot, and Superintendent William Dana led to attempted murder.

Walsh had become jealous because of Dana’s attentions to Mrs Walsh and one day as Dana assisted the lady to dismount from her horse, Walsh drew his pistol and shot him. The bullet passed through Dana’s body but he survived to make a generous plea for mercy for his attacker at Walsh’s trial.

As a result of this Walsh received the comparatively light sentence of seven years.

The Corps was finally disbanded in 1852 but the depot became a stud for police horses and, later, horses for other authorities such as the fire brigades.

Rev James Clow settled here in 1838 (to the north east of the bridge over Dandenong Creek in Wellington Road). He got on well with the local aborigines and was appointed as an official protector by Governor LaTrobe.

John Wood Beilby bought the Corhanwarrabul run from Clow in 1850. He had been an explorer and claimed to have made the first discovery of gold in Victoria (at Navarre near Stawell). He established the first saw mill in the Dandenongs but had to close it down because of the competition of cheaper timber from Tasmania.

The district was part of the hunting grounds of the Yarra Yarra and Westernport tribes. You can find out a great deal about them through the reports of the dedicated Protector of Aborigines, William Thomas (after whom Thomas Street in Dandenong is named).

James Clow taught one of the tribesmen whom he named Jack Weatherly to use a rifle to shoot game – including lyre birds – for the Clow family.

The story of the decline of the tribes following European settlement is a very sad one.

Many stories of the original inhabitants of the district still survive. One is a legend about an aboriginal boy named Billoo. On hearing that a ship carrying white men had arrived in the bay, he walked beside the Corhanwarrabul and Dandenong Creeks until he reached the seashore. It is believed that there he met the giant runaway convict William Buckley and that many years later he came in contact with John Batman’s party and assisted them in their dealings with the native tribesmen.

When the Kelly Gang was thumbing its nose at the law in the 1880s, aboriginal trackers were brought from Queensland to assist in locating the outlaws. A group of trackers was stationed at the Police Paddocks up until the 1930s.

The first sale of Crown land within what is now the City of Knox was for land in Rowville. This occurred in October 1855. The sale was not successful with only three lots being purchased. However, it is interesting to note that an area designated then as a village site has now become the Stud Park Shopping Centre.

One of the allotments bought at the sale extended from the corner of Stud and Wellington Roads south to the Dandenong Creek (including the site of the present SEC station). The purchaser was a cigar merchant, Julius Politz, who named his property Kilcatten Park. He planted forty acres of tobacco there and employed several families who established a small settlement on the creek. A very old pear tree is all that remains now of that little community of homes.

The district was originally known as “Nerre Nerre Warrene” which was an aboriginal term interpreted as meaning “no good water”. The Lysterfield area came to be known as “The Flats” until about the mid 1870s when one of the earliest selectors, William Lyster, donated land to be used for a school site. When the locals were asked what name they wanted the school to be called they chose “Lysterfield” in honour of William Lyster’s generosity. The name was gradually used for the whole area including what is now known as Rowville.

In 1903 the blacksmith, Nick Bergin, whose forge was near the corner of Stud and Wellington Roads, decided to petition the government to establish a postal service to the area. (Mail had to be picked up at Scoresby up to that time.) Permission was given and Nick was asked to provide a name for the Post Office. He chose “Rowville” to honour the Row family of Stamford Park. The family, with its large stable of horses, was Nick’s biggest customer.

James Quirk was the original purchaser of the property later named Stamford Park and he sold to Frederick Row senior in 1858. Frederick had been born in the village of Bourne in the county of Lincolnshire, England in 1825. The village of Stamford is about ten miles south of Bourne. Frederick and his cousin, Richard Goldsborough, came to Melbourne as young men and established prosperous businesses in the wool trade. Stamford Park passed to Frederick’s second son, Edward, who in 1882 built Stamford House. Edward bred racehorses, jumping horses and remounts which were exported to India where they were in demand for the Indian Army. At Christmas time and during the spring racing season the house was filled with guests. Because of failing health, Edward sold the property to Thomas O’Keefe in 1909. He died a year later at the age of 54.

+ Edward Row’s most famous horse was Mahonga whose name is recalled in Mahonga Drive that runs off Lakeview Avenue. He won many jumping prizes at shows including a fifty pound first prize at the Royal Melbourne Show. Other top class horses owned by Edward were Jess and Cedric. Jess cleared a jump of six feet six inches at the 1893 Melbourne Show. Tragically, most of the horses were killed when the stables caught fire in 1901. There were excellent horses down the road in the Police Paddocks such as the imported thoroughbred stallions Woolaton, Valiant and Gersey.

The most famous of the district’s horses, however, was undoubtedly Mosstrooper owned by Gus Powell of Lysterfield. Mosstrooper was an extraordinary racehorse and many good judges have rated him as the greatest jumper ever bred in Australia. In the space of twelve months (between August 1929 and August 1930) he won five of the nation’s top jumping races: the Australian Hurdle and Steeplechase double at Caulfield in August 1929, the Grand National Hurdle and Steeplechase double at Flemington in July 1930 and, a month later, the Australian Hurdle at Caulfield for the second year in succession

The only thing that stopped Mosstrooper winning in later years were the huge weights imposed on him by the handicapper. Even so, he still managed places. For example, he ran third in the 1932 VRC Steeplechase carrying 12 stone 7 pounds (79.5kg). In those days too he was not jumping the brush fences used today but obstacles such as stone walls and log fences. The Mosstrooper Hurdle is run each May in his honour at Caulfield.

Mosstrooper was retired in 1934 following the death of his owner and spent the rest of his days at the family’s Lysterfield property, “Netherlea”. The gallant horse is buried on the property, his headstone reading:

Here Lies Mosstrooper
Best Horse Ever
1921 – 1946

+ Rowville and Lysterfield have often been used as locations for the filming of TV episodes especially some of the old police shows such as Matlock Police. All of the outdoor scenes in the TV series “Rush” starring John Waters were shot in the valley behind Churchill National Park, north of Churchill Park Drive. A “tent town” was constructed there and traces of it can still be found in the valley.

+ Churchill National Park with its area of only 193 hectares is Victoria’s smallest National Park. However, since its linkage with Lysterfield Lake Park in 1994, the total area has been greatly enlarged. Churchill Park was originally part of the area set aside in 1837 for the Native Police Corps depot. In the 1930s the area was declared a National Park with the name Dandenong National Park. In 1944 at the height of the Second World War it was renamed Churchill National Park in honour of the famous British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.

+ There have been two points of discussion in Rowville for many, many years: when will Wellington Road be duplicated and will there be a rail link to Rowville. Well, way back in 1912 Rowville had a railway – but not for passengers. The line was established to transport stone for road making from a quarry located just inside the present northern fence line of Churchill National Park. Dandenong Council invested 4,000 pounds in the project. A large steam engine was set up on site to power the crusher and the concrete foundations are still visible there today. Stone was fed from the crusher into side-tipping wagons, each of which held 2.6 cubic yards. A “train” of three wagons descended by gravity along a two foot gauge iron track past the site of the Native Police Depot before crossing Dandenong Creek. At this point horses hauled the trucks towards the intersection of Brady and Stud Roads where the stone was tipped into large hopper bins. From the bins the stone dropped into six wagons which were pulled into Dandenong by a steam traction engine known as “Lizzie”. Because of its great weight it could only negotiate Stud Road in the dry summer months. Rising costs and the dwindling quantity of good quality stone caused the closure of the venture and with it Rowville’s only railway in 1915.

More about this piece of local history can be read in a booklet entitled “Scoresby Tramways” available at the Rowville Library.

+ In the late 1970s the site of James Clow’s homestead, “Tirhatuan”, was excavated by the Archaeological Society of Victoria. It would seem that most of the original building had collapsed by the late 1860s with the exception of a stable that may have lasted until about 1930. The dig revealed the existence of a large house with stone footings, slab walls and a large number of heavy timber poles supporting an iron roof. The house had an earthen floor and some of the walls were up to ninety centimetres (three feet) thick. These walls were built with a stone core faced with mud bricks. There were three separate buildings: the original timber slab hut, the later main house which was surrounded by a side verandah and then a much later construction which appears to have been the stable. The collapse of the house covered a store containing about 80 bottles. The bottles enabled the archaeologists to accurately date the site. Many of the artefacts discovered at Tirhatuan can be viewed at the Visitors’ Centre at Jells Park.

+ The Rowville Drive-In Theatre was built on land owned by Jack Finn between Stud Road and Bergins Road. The giant screen stood on the present site of the Baton Rouge Motel. The Drive-In was built in 1956 and photos of the ticket box at that time show the large Olympic decorations as it was the time of the Melbourne Games. The Drive-In was a great success and a good film on a warm weekend caused traffic jams. Irene Gilligan remembered the queue of cars sometimes extending well up Stud Road beyond the Wellington Road intersection.

Bryan Power

First published in the June, July and August 1994 editions of the Rowville-Lysterfield Community News.