Dropping Off The Edge: Victorian country town Maryborough confronts long-term disadvantage
By Caleb Cluff and Larissa Romensky
Maryborough, a Victorian town of 7,500 people, was once a centre for regional agricultural produce and one of the largest manufacturing and rail towns in the state.
But downturns in manufacturing, rail, and farming have seen the town fall on hard times.
It remains as one of the top five disadvantaged communities in the state, unchanged since 2007, according to the latest Dropping off the Edge report.
Six residents talk about what it is like to live in the town:
Maryborough Education Centre principal David Sutton said most problems in Maryborough centred on unemployment and disadvantage.
"For many years, there was not a willingness to stand up and say, 'there are some issues in this community and we need to work together to address them'," he said.
Mr Sutton said in his 26 years in the town, he has noticed a shift towards diversity and a less judgemental attitude.
The newly-appointed principal acknowledged low levels of literacy were not confined to school children.
"Maryborough has traditionally low levels of tertiary education for adults, and that can hold young people back," he said.
"A high level of literacy gives people lots of options; it gives people choice in their life and an understanding of the world."
Mr Sutton said there were two key areas that would encourage a positive outcome and create choice — tertiary education and transport.
"If they could have a [tertiary] campus here, that could act as a sort of bridge to wider things," he said.
"The train service is one service out, one service in, each day."
Twenty-six-year old Brett Gloury struggled to read and write until the age of 20 and spent years being ashamed and afraid of being bullied or judged.
"It was a secret I kept inside," he said.
As a child Mr Gloury experienced severe speech delay and it was not until he was in kindergarten that he began to speak.
He continued to struggle with reading and writing throughout his schooling despite speech therapy.
He said it "hugely" affected his life, especially his self-esteem.
Mr Gloury was training as an apprentice spray painter when he was confronted with the depth of his problem.
"That's when it came down to 'Oh, s***, I can't read, I can't write properly'," he said.
He sought help from his teachers who assisted him, and he began to read automotive magazines.
"Without that, I knew I wasn't going to be able to get through work, through sitting a driving test, through day-to-day life, without those skills," he said.
"I needed to be determined because I realised I wasn't going to get too far without it, and I wanted to succeed."
Trained as a sewing machinist, Kaz Hughes worked at the Maryborough Knitting Mills until their closure in the 1990s.
"When that closed down I went to Maldon and did some contract sewing work from Bendigo," she said.
She returned to Maryborough and worked from home as a contractor before the clothing industry took a downturn.
Ms Hughes said the willingness to work is there, but the industries no longer exist or people are overqualified.
"There's a lot of cleaning jobs, lower basic jobs; people have qualifications for better jobs," she said.
"I've now been out of work for 23 years.
"It's still a struggle, and it has been for as long as I've been in Maryborough.
"It's frustrating, it's depressing, and it whittles down your confidence."
John Williamson's family has farmed Lochinver, near Carisbrook, since 1891.
A staunch member of the Uniting Church, a former councillor and an advocate for disadvantaged education, Mr Williamson said decisions made in the past still affected Maryborough.
"A bale of wool in the 50s bought a lot, whereas now it's declined."
"People couldn't get jobs after the railways turned down, they couldn't get a job at Patience & Nicholson or Maryborough Knitting Mills, and then the knitting mill closed," he said.
He said this translated into intergenerational unemployment and lack of motivation.
"Kids don't know it's important to get out of bed, get dressed and be able to front up for a job," he said.
As a councillor in the late 1980s, Mr Williamson saw farms sub-divided into poorly-serviced five, ten or twenty-acre blocks, in the hope of making new townships.
"It was my view that these developments should not have been allowed; they should have been discouraged. But they had already been subdivided, and there was little the shire could do."
Chenoa Hughes worked at a fast food outlet in Maryborough until the birth of her son a year ago.
"The hours were really long ... I'd have to say it's not the best place to work," she said.
As a young mother in Maryborough, 21-year-old Ms Hughes said she found a lack of transport isolating.
"It's hard getting up at 7am just to be on the platform to catch the train, and then having to catch the last train back, and it doesn't get in until 6pm at night," she said.
She said she found meeting people in Maryborough difficult.
"Finding other people that I get along with and finding something to do with having such a young son," she said.
"I'm always home all the time. It makes me feel like a loner, to be honest.
"Sometimes I'd like to be somewhere else — but this is where my family is."
Former Carlton football player Garry Higgins grew up with hidden family violence.
"As a young eight-year-old I can recall quite vividly standing between my mum and dad many, many times," he said.
"I remember that terrible feeling in your stomach or chest, when dad would start on mum, you knew what eventually it was going to lead to.
"It was all done behind closed doors, it was a little bit shameful, I suppose."
Now Mr Higgins is leading a public campaign against family violence in Maryborough and he wants the whole community onboard.
"What we've done here in Maryborough is accept and acknowledge that we've got issues — which is okay in itself — but the good thing about what has happened here is that we're actually doing stuff about it," he said.
Published August 10, 2015
Written for ABC news By Caleb Cluff and Larissa Romensky
The sweet world of language and mechanics
A multi-coloured world of words and wheels is hidden in a shed on the edge of Bendigo.
"It's a brilliant little tourism attraction, but a lousy business."
Campbell Smith is a man with two passions, and the rare ability to combine them into a vision.
We're in his tin shed on the outside of Bendigo, at Junortoun.
Outside - well it's a cream shed, rose bushes - and a swaying pendulum that proclaims 'Confectionery Capers'.
As we're allowed inside, we see a different world: a very, very different world.
Campbell tells us to stand in front of rail. Before us is - well it's hard to do justice to the brilliant display of colour and noise, of movement that is taking place.
It's Heath Robinson meets Willy Wonka - but with a genuine intent to teach.
Mr Smith says two things have inspired him.
"A lifelong love of applied mechanics, and fascination with the English language," he says.
"They're the two basic elements to the whole place. The lolly part is a misnomer, a marketing thing.
A disembodied voice issues from a removed PA, like a tram driver, above the jingle of bells, bird calls and the sound of gears driving hundreds of displays.
"Confectionery Capers is now in its 21st year. It's the result of about 37 years altogether.
"If you just want a giggle and a bit of fun, that's fine; but if you want to get deep and meaningful, explore it further, the rationale behind the place - you're welcome to do that too."
The second option seems attractive, so I ask Campbell Smith to explain to me what is exactly taking place around us.
"The place was supposed to be a part-time retirement project. I set this up for schools, for school excursions. But then I started to get a few tourists, and about 10 years ago I opened up full time," says Mr Smith.
"I don't know what happened to retirement! I'm working harder than ever!"
There are few words to describe the show that's taking place. Thousands of small toys - dolls, cars, dinosaurs, promotional gimmicks, money boxes, animated birds, whirligigs, kites, balls, wheels - are jumping, spinning, whirring, bouncing, climbing, swaying, and floating. I run out of verbs very quickly.
There's a miniature train track, and thousands - actual thousands - of tiny displays, all describing the intricacies and joy of the English language.
"I love to teach simple applied mechanics to the youngsters, because it's not taught anymore, it's assumed. I spend a lot of time on the basic rudiments of applied mechanics; and also a love of the nonsense of the English language. I really have had a lifelong fascination with English.
"It was an extension of my teaching career. I didn't know it was going to end up as a full-time job..."
So for those who don't know, here's Campbell's brief lesson on applied mechanics.
"It's the basis of the Industrial Revolution. The star of the whole show is the wheel, man's greatest invention and all of its various applications, endless.
"I'm showing youngsters just how versatile the wheel is, how relevant it is despite our modern technology - it's all based on these simple rudiments: wheel, shaft, axle, pulleys, bearings, belts, gears. All sorts of simple elements that are assumed and taken for granted. I'm highlighting them."
"In the old days one motor had to drive everything, and that's why there was a need for all this overhead line shafting. A modern factory, all the machines have integral motors.
"I'm recreating in a fun way what an old-fashioned factory was like.
"Everything's exposed and visible. That's the key to it."
And the focus on the absurdity of the English language is everywhere - puns, idiosyncratic spelling, irony.
A broken bone is 'bone-apart'. A plastic figure of a superhero with a telescope: 'Spied-a-man'
"I've always argued that teaching kids English on the basis of its nonsense creates a lot more interest than if it's cold and clinical.
"I always taught English on the basis of how you could misinterpret, manipulate, rearrange."
Confectionery Capers is open every day from 10am, or by appointment. You can learn more at Campbell Smith's website here.
Published June 5, 2015
Written for ABC Local, Central Victoria
Losing a landmark
The former Symons and DuBourg store in Majorca, Victoria, was an historic and much-loved building.
What does it mean to lose a landmark building?
On Wednesday afternoon, May 27, shortly before 2pm, the CFA fire alert application on my telephone sounded, telling me there was a building fire in the small town where I live.
By habit, I went outside for a cursory check - I can see most of our town from the hill where our house is. I didn't see anything that troubled me.
Shortly after, I hear a siren. Going outside again, I saw plumes of dark smoke spiralling into the air about 500m away, coming from the 1866 Majorca Store.
A local landmark, the store had been closed for years, but the owner lived at the rear, on her own.
I ran to the utility and considered hooking up the fire trailer and pump to assist, as you do in small country towns.
I looked again to the fire and saw my trailer was of little use. Flames were already visible at the sides of the substantial building.
Driving down, I parked and spoke to the CFA officer nearest, asking if they needed my trailer.
In his 60s, quiet and reserved, he looked to the dripping hose connections on his unit, and back to me; smiled, resignedly, as people who've seen a lot of life do, saying, "I don't think so. I don't think we can do anything."
By this time three, then four CFA units had arrived. They dragged the enormous hoses from their trucks, organised their angles of attack, connected to the mains water.
Low water pressure slowed their attack. Already it was obvious the building was doomed. Thick clouds of smoke spewed from the broken windows, from under the eaves. Fingers of fire began to slip through from between the sheets of roofing iron.
"She's in the rafters, mate," said Derek, another CFA member.
It's a death sentence.
By this time, about an hour in, those locals who are home are gathering. It's surprising how quickly word spreads; as fast as the fire.
It's a quiet crowd. There's a sense of disappointment, of inevitability. The building had been part of their childhoods - a local store, a post office, a petrol station.
CFA members risk themselves to break the front windows, boarded up for years. Massive windows, as old as the building itself. Their axes drive through, and the water from their hoses blasts away the splintered timber shutters and shattered glass.
Inside, among a lifetime of materials and fabrics, the fire sucks up the oxygen and roars. The cascading water can do nothing.
Those of us standing back can see gaps appearing in the brickwork of the walls, of the huge arched facade capped with concrete ball finials, reaching 30 or 40 feet high.
A CFA officer runs in and taps his colleagues on their helmets, points to the facade. They understand, and pull back.
Local Kevin Hudson is standing behind me.
"I wouldn't bloody be near there," says Kevin. "God knows what's inside."
A council officer arrives. There's the briefest of conferences with the CFA. We all understand what has to happen, and a front-end loader with an excavation bucket swiftly arrives.
The operator, Dave Stiff, a local as well, positions his digger to the left of the shopfront.
He too will have known the store from childhood.
A gentle, almost apologetic push from the bucket into the roofline, and tonnes of bricks crash to the ground. He repositions on the right, and the same balletic operation brings that side down.
Stubbornly, the doorframe and main facade front stand. They sway, unbelievably poised, like a drunk clinging to a bar.
Dave extends the bucket once more. The drunken facade buckles at the knees, crashes in a cloud of smoke and dust. The entire roof follows, and the back wall.
It's a sad and impressive sight. The building has disappeared. Plumes of water spray on the pile of twisted iron and rubble, and clouds of steam and smoke spiral skywards.
Pat Rainbow, a local farmer, stands at my shoulder. Aileen Howard stands next to her. She'll make tea for people later in the town hall.
That's what you do, in the country.
There's no idle conversation. Pat asks after the owner, who's standing, a forlorn figure, holding a burbling garden hose as a kind of helpful gesture in the lost fight.
"What a shame," says Pat.
"What an awful bloody shame."
Published May 29, 2015
Written for ABC local, Central Victoria
The curious history of Duneira, Mt Macedon's hidden treasure
Duneira is a late Nineteenth Century country house in Mt Macedon - but it has a curious history.
Built in 1875 by the wonderfully named Suetonius Henry Officer, Duneira sits high on the edge of Mount Macedon looking back towards Melbourne.
The grand country house has been home to four fascinating families and people.
The Officer family, who built its wondrous irrigation system that saw it saved in the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires.
The Nicholas family of Aspro and Burnam Beeches fame.
Laurie Matheson, the former ASIO operative and businessman who was central to the Ivanov-Combe affair.
But the story we are telling here is that of its last owner, Stuart Rusden Stoneman.
Stuart Stoneman was the only son of the Castlemaine grocer Thomas Stoneman and Blanche Stoneman nee Rusden. Blanche Rusden had graduated from Melbourne University with a Masters degree in 1921, and her passionate love of art, literature and music found itself transferred to her son.
Nevertheless Stuart Stoneman was also a visionary businessman, and on a world trip in 1950 he saw the advent of self-service supermarkets in the United Kingdom and United States.
In Australia at the time, a visit to the grocer usually involved asking for the goods you wanted and the grocer going and getting them. There was no packaging, and goods were sold by weight. They were delivered in parcels wrapped in string.
Stoneman introduced self-service - customers choosing their own goods - and actively sought or developed grocery suppliers of packaged goods.
In time this became the brand SSW - Self-Service Wholesalers. Their shops would sell fruit, vegetables, pharmaceuticals and other goods traditionally maintained by single-focus sellers such as chemists.
This outraged many of the traditional sellers - but the die was cast. The public loved going to a single point for shopping - and the supermarket was born in Australia.
Stuart Stoneman bought Duneira in 1992, and filled it with his collection of art - an eclectic but valuable collection, featuring work by Rembrandt, McCubbin, the Lindsays, Max Dupain, AME Bale, George Lambert, Fred Williams, Roy De Maistre and many other Australian artists who now are household names.
After his death in 2002, his plans to leave Duneira to the public resulted in the formation of the Stoneman Foundation which continues today, opening the building and grounds to philanthropic events.
A curious mind saw Stuart Stoneman interested in both conservative politics and socialism. He believed in civic duty and hard work, and preferred to drive Ford Zephyr utilities rather than the more expensive cars he might afford.
His interest in the arts was not a latter-day development of his wealth, but a lifelong love developed by his family.
As he said later in life of his many contradictions: "I was always a bit out of it."
Published August 14, 2015
Written for ABC Ballarat
Rediscovered bust tells a darker story
A recently-found bust tells the sad story of its creator.
A bust of William Vahland, recently rediscovered in the Bendigo Historical Society's collection, has revealed the sad story of its sculptor, the German plasterer and artist Otto Waschatz.
The bust is on display now at the Bendigo Masonic Centre.
Vahland was a master in the Bendigo Golden and Corinthian Lodge, serving the freemasonry community in the town for 40 years.
The bust was made by Otto Waschatz, another German immigrant who had arrived in Australia in 1877.
Waschatz was recognised as a first-class artisan and woodcarver, and within a year he was commissioned to do the plasterwork on the remodelled Bendigo Town Hall.
Waschatz's work is recognised as one of the greatest displays of ornate plasterwork in Australia.
Vahland most likely sat live for the bust, which was completed while Waschatz was the art master at the Bendigo School of Mines.
Soon Otto Waschatz had opened a plaster business in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond, and was responsible for the invention of the first true fibrous plaster - using a layer of hemp laid between plaster to create light and strong panels.
The panels could be used in ceiling work, obviating the need for heavy plaster and lathe work that was prone to collapse, and also allowed for the addition of the fancy plaster moulds and cornices that were coming into vogue.
By 1912 Waschatz's Lottoid Pty Ltd was a thriving and creative business, and possessed over 5,000 moulds for all kinds of plasterwork.
Otto Waschatz had four daughters: the wonderfully named Ophelia Esalda, Eona Sadie, Lalia and Melvard Flora.
His business had patents on such varied themes as improvements for coffins "and other receptacles for the dead" as well as plaster and carving works.
But by 1915 his business was finished.
Reported in The Argus at the time, Lottoid Pty Ltd was forced into liquidation "practically as a result of the war."
Quotes from the article tell much of the temper of time.
(The owners) "have had to contend with much opposition and prejudice, and the present shareholders believe much of it is due to the fact that the public still think the company is in the hands of, and run by, naturalised Germans.
"Absurd and ridiculous rumours have been circulated about the company and its connections, and in placing before the public these facts it is to be hoped that the company will receive the support it should get as an Australian industry. Only British labour is employed, and from 30 to 60 are employed according to trade conditions."
Waschatz had been forced to sell the company, and under the War Precautions Act was regarded as an enemy alien, despite having applied for naturalisation twice.
Worse was to come.
Waschatz was accused of signalling to German submarines allegedly lurking in Port Phillip Bay and Western Port via mirrors in the 'German Club' in Belgrave.
Despite being investigated and cleared of any wrongdoing absolutely, a mob of vigilantes smashed the windows of the club and burnt it to the ground.
Otto Waschatz died in 1935, aged 80, recognised as the pre-eminent artisan plasterer in Australia, but broken, as so many others were, by the actions of the state and federal governments against German immigrants during the Great War.
Published May 25, 2015
Written for ABC local, Central Victoria