History of the Shire

Aboriginal history

The area of the Shire of Nillumbik was roamed for centuries by the Wurundjeri-willam clan of the Woi wurrung speaking people. The Woi wurrung territory encompassed the watersheds of both the Yarra and Maribyrnong Rivers and therfore occupied much of present-day Melbourne.

At the time of Melbourne's establishment, the Wurundjeri were recorded as being divided into three clans with their respective leaders and land boundaries. The arrival of Europeans in the Port Phillip region had a significant impact on the Woi wurrung populations of the area.

A number of archaeological sites remain as evidence of Aboriginal custodianship of much land within the Shire, and the Wurundjeri are recorded as having co-existed with the early white setllers. The Wurundjeri continued to live in the Yarra Glen area after 1851, perhaps into the twentieth century, and a small group of Aborigines is recorded as regularly visiting Yarrambat's Stuchberry family in the 1890s.

Recognition and respect of Nillumbik's Aboriginal heritage is reflected today in the Shire's commitment to Reconciliation. Council has signed a formal statement recognising prior ownership of Shire lands by the Wurundjeri people and acknowledges this at civic occasions. Council has implemented a range of programs aimed at raising awareness of Nillumbik's Aboriginal past and promoting Reconciliation within the community.

White settlement

The first Europeans came into contact with the Nillumbik area in about 1836. These early settlers generally claimed pockets and runs of land on pastoral leases scattered across much of the Shire, though most actually spent little time residing in the area.

The first industry in the area was timber cutting, which dates to the late 1830s. Early timber cutters felled the Stringybark forests and carted the timber by bullock teams for use in Melbourne's rapidly developing building trade.

In spite of grazing and timber, the area was slow to develop until the discovery of gold in the 1850s. The gold rushes brought prospectors and with them a demand for transport, services, food, accommodation, fuel and water. Gold saw the establishment of townships such as Panton Hill, Research, Queenstown (now St Andrews) and Diamond Creek in the late 1850s and 1860s. Some gold mining continued into the early twentieth century though it was not enough to sustain the more remote townships.

The varying fortunes of gold mining after the 1860s and the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s also encouraged further European settlement of the area, and a diversification of land uses.

The development of a fruit industry in the northern areas of the Shire, and the arrival of the railway to Eltham and later Hurstbridge in the early twentieth century, helped to sustain the other towns and localities born during the gold rush era. A successful Scottish farming community was established at Kangaroo Ground in the 1840s, thanks to its rich and fertile volcanic soil. The Land Acts and Selection Acts of the 1860s allowed smaller blocks of land around the gold mining areas to be bought on condition the owners made improvements such as fencing and clearing. While this encouraged further settlement, the Shire's Stringybark forests proved a liability for some who had to supplement their incomes in fledgling trades such as rabbit shooting, carting or timber felling.

Until the 1860s, European agriculture had been undertaken largely by tenant farmers who enjoyed the profits the 1850s gold rushes afforded them by increased demand for food. Orchards, first established in the Shire in the 1860s by selectors, utilised the quartz-laden soil of the gold mining areas, whilst the small blocks of land selected in the Diamond Valley were ideal for this labour intensive pursuit. By 1900, fruit from the Shire's orchards was being exported to other states and overseas. However, increased competition after Federation, World War I and the Great Depression saw many of the area's orchardists turning to other pursuits such as poultry, selling firewood or supplementing their incomes by working for other landowners or working in gold mines.

Viticulture commenced in the Yarra Valley in 1836 at Yering and in 1850 a vineyard was established by Joseph Stevenson at Kangaroo Ground. Today, we have 42 vineyards in this northern part of the Yarra Valley wine region.

Increasing population following the gold rushes created a need for a permanent water supply. The Shire's water resources were harnessed by first extending the Yan Yean Reservoir's catchment area in the 1870s. In 1886, work began on a weir on the Watts River near Healesville and on construction of the Maroondah Aqueduct to carry this water 66 kilometres into Melbourne. The Aqueduct travels through Christmas Hills, Kangaroo Ground, Research and Greensborough on its way to Preston. While it is no longer in use, the Maroondah Aqueduct can still be traced across the Shire. In the 1970s, the Sugarloaf Reservoir was constructed inundating 445 hectares of land in Christmas Hills. Sugarloaf was officially opened in 1980 and serves as a water storage and treatment plant supplying Melbourne.

Artistic tradition

Drawn by its beauty, artists have traditionally settled in the Nillumbik area. Since the notable member of the Heidelberg School, Walter Withers (1854-1914) lived at Eltham, the community has been home and inspiration for many of Australia's great artists and intellectuals.

The Shire of Nillumbik's artistic tradition boasts famous names including painters Clara Southern, Max Meldrum, May Vale, William 'Jock' Frater and Clifton Pugh; sculptors and jewellers Michael Wilson, Matcham Skipper, Tim Benson and Simon Baigent; composers and musicians Dorian LeGallienne, Graeme and Roger Bell, Mike Brady, Sebastian Jörgensen and Franciscus Henri; and playwright David Williamson. Cartoonists Michael Leunig and Percy Leason lived in the municipality for several years.

Many fine writers and poets including Frank Dalby Davidson, Banjo Patterson, Alan Marshall, Betty Rowland and Jon Weaving have enjoyed Nillumbik's artistic community. Landscape architects and builders such as Gordon Ford, Alistair Knox, Edna Walling, Ellis Stone, Sam Cox and Robert Boyle, also live, or have lived, in the Shire.

Russian-born painter Danila Vassilief arrived in Warrandyte in the late 1930s, building his own home from logs and stone, some carved from natural rock, and so gave birth to what Robin Boyd would later term 'the Warrandyte style'.

The Montsalvat artist's colony is perhaps the best known landmark of the area's artistic tradition. Justus Jörgensen began building his home in 1935 with help from family, friends and artists. Built in stages, Montsalvat grew from a studio and accommodation for Justus and his wife Lil, to cubicles set around a swimming pool for students, and the Great Hall, commenced in 1938 but not completed until after the World War II. In the 1970s, buildings such as the Chapel were still being added. The lifestyle pursued by Jörgensen, his family, friends and students became nearly as famous as the buildings and came to have a profound impact on the image of Eltham as a whole.

Alistair Knox, a regular visitor to Montsalvat, acknowledged its inspiration on his environmental building philosophy. Knox designed and built many Eltham houses in his favoured mudbrick which became the typical Eltham building style in the post-World War II period, thanks largely to a relaxation of local building regulations.

Artists, writers and intellectuals continued to be attracted to the Nillumbik area in the decades after World War II. In 1958, Potters Cottage was founded in North Warrandyte by locals Phyl Dunn, Arthur Halpern, Gus McLaren, Reg Preston and Charles Wilton to sell their wares. Although Potters Cottage has since moved south of the river, potters and artists are still active in the Shire.

Clifton Pugh established an artist's colony in the late 1950s at Cottles Bridge and attracted several artists to join him. Called Dunmoochin, the colony is an eclectic collection of mudbrick homes, studios and cottages still serving as an artist's retreat, despite the main house having been tragically destroyed by fire in late 2001.

Such artist's colonies, the diverse range of festivals, craft markets, galleries and exhibitions, all add to the Shire's reputation as a centre for creative pursuits.

The natural environment

The area of the Shire of Nillumbik encompasses the Diamond, Arthurs and Watsons Creeks catchments as well as part of the Plenty River's eastern catchment. Nillumbik Shire Council and the community have a responsibility to manage these waterways as they form important habitat links and are a recreation resource which must be protected for the enjoyment of future generations.

Nillumbik has earned a reputation as Melbourne's Green Wedge for its protection and preservation of this natural environment. The mix of both natural bush and agricultural land within the Shire has attracted visitors and residents to the area for well over a century. The retention of the tree canopy provides residents with an opportunity to live in a relaxed and natural setting in close proximity to Melbourne.

In 1981, a survey of Eltham residents found they valued the peace, the natural environment and the village feel of Eltham most and feared these were fast disappearing. These values and concerns are echoed in Council's 2020 Vision Statement and the Environment Survey conducted in 1999.

The value of the environment rates highly with the Shire's residents and encourages their participation in a range of Friends of and Landcare groups. The importance of the environment is also recognised by Nillumbik Shire Council through a range of environment-friendly policies and programs.

The region's bush setting abounds with native flora and fauna. Nillumbik boasts more than 300 nature and recreation reserves, 63 sites of faunal significance covering over 25,000 hectares, including three sites of national significance. Twenty-four Conservation Covenants are in place across the Shire.

Local artist and environmental activist Neil Douglas established an Environmental Living Zone at the Bend of Islands in the 1970s as a response to bushland clearing and the proposed Yarra Brae Dam. He urged like-minded owners to conserve their land as bush and to minimise their impacts on it. Collectively, they fought the proposed Yarra Brae Dam and won. In 1982, they had the Bend of Islands Environmental Living Zone declared - and it remains to this day.

The Council works with 14 Nillumbik Landcare Groups and over 30 other Friends of, school and community environment groups. By working in partnership with these groups, Nillumbik Shire Council has shown what can be achieved through community-based projects to protect the Shire's natural assets.

Community interest in the preservation of our indigenous fauna is apparent in the conservation of the Eltham Copper Butterfly habitat and in community action taken to protect a Wedgetailed Eagle nesting site in Warrandyte. Thanks to community environmental action and the collaboration of Melbourne Water, Landcare and Nillumbik Shire Council, platypus again live happily in the Shire's creeks and waterways.

Nillumbik Shire Council also seeks to promote a balance between residential living and the protection and enhancement of open space, for both active and passive recreation. Council's Planning Scheme seeks to protect the character of the townships and minimise impacts on the non-urban areas of the Shire. Residents have an important role to play in maintaining the 'greenness' of Nillumbik by planting local (indigenous) trees and shrubs and conserving natural vegetation on their properties.