Treasures from the lake

Treasures from the lake: archaeological finds from Lake Rowallan

The draining of Lake Rowallan to reveal that vast area of land flooded for fifty years created a certain measure of excitement for many people with roots to the Mole Creek area. These were people who recalled the high country grazing properties of Walters Marsh, the Horse Plain and Howells Plains that had been flooded in 1967 and wondered what remained. Mountain Stories reported what emerged from beneath the waters.  The remains of the Horse Plain and the Howells Plains Huts were found, together with long lines of fencing. That striking drainage system with its long laser straight sections also emerged taking our breath away as we marvelled at the pick and shovel work required to dig those ditches. Many people wanted to see it for themselves with thousands of people trekking across the exposed lake bed.

Two historical treasures were also found on the lake bed: one long anticipated and the other something of a surprise. This is the story of Humphrey Howells’ and Harry Stanley’s Hut.


Humphrey Howells 1840s hut site found!

I have to admit to having a bit of a thing about finding old hut sites. OK, perhaps more than just a thing, perhaps a bit of an obsession. In that regard Humphrey Howells hut site has been a bit of running sore for me.  Around thirty years ago I saw it marked on James Scott’s 1849 map then almost instantly realized that I could never see it because it was under Lake Rowallan.  I found his other hut sites up above Lake Mackenzie and even located the remains of huts built by two of his 1840s grazier contemporaries, Thomas Johnston at Wild Dog Creek and Frederick Patterson at Zion Vale. But despite these finds, my inability to even search for Howells hut site was a continuing frustration.

Excerpt from Scotts 1849 map showing the confluence of the Fish with the Mersey River and Howells' Hut downstream of the junction.

Until now! With Lake Rowallan drained for dam repairs, now was my great opportunity. My friend Rod How and I mounted an expedition – Rod on the ground and me, remotely, providing directions and possible clues that might help him locate it. I imagined it might be a difficult task. I had visions of Rod up to his neck in the mud or being scratched to pieces forcing his way through thick scrub. In the end it was nothing like that. My directions were pretty close and with Rod’s inherent sense of where a good campsite might be, he walked straight on to it.

Humphrey Howells' hut site 2015. Rod How Photographer

And what a site it is. It is situated in a narrow part of the valley downstream of the Fish River confluence. It sits on a bank above a marsh that stretched to the river’s edge with a creek close by for water. Visually, the site presents as a roughly circular jumble of stones over a metre high with a diameter of a couple of metres. On closer inspection the site is much more complex. Part of the jumble of stone is obviously a collapsed chimney and stone wall. There is the outline of a hut as big as five by seven metres with a very distinct square of paving stones that marks what was the doorway. The other point of interest is that backing onto the hut are two rectangular spaces each around 14 metres long and 8 metres wide marked by lines of stone on the ground. Their function is not immediately clear but they may have been stock pens built of deadwood with stone filling in any gaps. Stock pens or folds attached to buildings were common in Europe.

Paved square that marks the door of the hut? Humphrey Howells' hut, 2015. Rod How Photographer

Documentary sources that might inform our understanding of the site are very few. Scott’s map show there was a garden down by the river and that the hut was the terminus of the trans-plateau stockroute Howells developed. Lease records indicate that Howells had leases in the Mersey from 1847 to 1850 although ex-convict Harry Stanley’s story that he helped drive cattle cross the plateau for Howells in 1845 suggest an earlier date. There is no evidence of any kind to explain why Howells built his hut three kilometres downstream of the plains that would later bear his name. His hut sits in a narrow unproductive part of the valley when upstream, on the other side of the river, was a relatively open fertile river flat nearly 400 hectares in area.  Howells certainly leased Howells Plains. In 1848, for example, the notes associated with his lease (no. 65 of 2000 acres) indicated that it was on the western bank of the Mersey.

Humphrey Howells' hut site 2015. Rod How Photographer

The lease records indicate that Howells abandoned the Mersey in 1850 to centre his grazing operations at Lake Mackenzie. We know that the Fields, a family with extensive mountain grazing operations in the Mersey and Middlesex Plains took immediate control of Howells Plains. They leased it for a time and then bought it in two tranches, one in 1862 and the other in 1877. There is no evidence that the Fields used Howells hut, it being on the wrong side of the river and distant from the plains. Rather, it is likely that upon gaining control of Howells, they built their own hut at the very bottom end of the Plains (evident on the 1877 survey). The Fields did, however, lease the area on the eastern side of the river probably more as a defensive measure to prevent others graziers from entering the valley from the Plateau as Howells had done.

Stones marking rectangular pens at the back of the hut? Humphrey Howell hut site 2015, Rod How Photographer

Nearly thirty years later, the Walters family from Mole Creek selected land a kilometre or two downstream of Howells hut site and, around 1900, selected more land they called the Horse Plain a kilometre or so above the hut site. The Walters knew Howells hut site as Jimmy Jones’ Plain.  They knew of Howells and told stories of how he crossed the plateau with a bullock dray that he manhandled down into the valley. But they also associated the site with bushrangers and had a story that one the ‘early settlers’ (presumably one of Howells’ men) were forced to cook for a bushrangers gang in an old iron pot that lay on the site for many years. The pot was retrieved in the 1950s and is now privately held by a member of the Walters family. The area gained additional mystery when Vincent Walters found two muzzle loading rifles leaning up against a myrtle tree at Jimmy Jones’. The wooden stocks had long rotted away with the passage of time but their barrels served as pokers in the Walters’ Horse Plain hut for decades thereafter.

Aerial view of the site, 2015. Rod How Photographer

Harry Stanley’s story about driving cattle across the Central Plateau for Howells in 1845 has another dimension. Stanley ended up working as a stockman at Gads Hill for John Field.  A newspaper account in the 1880s indicated that he had occupied that role for 40 years. If Stanley indeed was originally a stockman for Howells, it appears that when the Fields acquired Howells Plains in the 1850s, Stanley came with the property and remained in the Fields employ until he died in 1898. While only circumstantial evidence, there is reasonable likelihood that Stanley was the shepherd that occupied Howells Hut and the person who tended the garden.


Harry Stanley’s 1850 Hut Discovered!

In 1877 District Surveyor Sorell travelled to Howells Plains to re-survey three 100 acre blocks into one consolidated block of 302 acres for Field stockman James Wakeman. This land was at the bottom end of Howells Plains. It was wet and boggy country that often flooded in winter.

Near the northern boundary of the consolidated block, Sorell recorded a hut, a ford over the Mersey and a stockyard on his survey.  One hundred and thirty five years later, and after the area had been underwater for fifty years, did any of these features remain?

Excerpt from 1877 survey

The initial challenge involved matching the surveyed area to the actual landscape. That was actually quite difficult but, with the benefit of Rod How’s quad copter, eventually resolved. Then, Rod went to have a look and had almost immediate success finding not just the hut site but the ford, survey marks on trees and a large section of the Howells Plains road that had linked the Plains to Gads Hill. No evidence of the stockyard has yet been found.

Harry Stanley's 1850 hut site looking south. Ford at river (left)  Rod How Photographer

Harry Stanley's 1850 hut site, Rod How Photographer

The find prompted the question when, prior to 1877, the hut might have been built? The Fields took control of Howells Plains around 1850 from Humphrey Howells. Howells accessed the Mersey eastward from across the Central Plateau and had a hut on the eastern side of the river, a kilometre or so downstream of Howells Plains. It is highly unlikely that Howells hut was of any value to the Fields. Rather, it is far more likely that they built their own on the western side of the river close to, or on Howells Plains. This logic would suggest that the hut was likely built around 1850.

Its location is quite strategic. Howells Plains is a long narrow plain about six kilometres long with the Mersey River forming its eastern boundary. For about four kilometres of the plains’ length, from south to north, the river hugs the eastern side of the valley.  Then it changes course and begins heading across to the western side of the valley at something like a forty-five degree angle. It meets the western side about a hundred metres or so south of the hut and stockyard site.  If cattle on Howells Plains were pushed north they would inevitably get to the point where river meets hill and be easily funneled into the stockyard and any associated holding pens. This elemental geography explains, I think, the location of the stockyard, and, by default, the stockman’s hut. The need to use the river and the hill at this point to control stock, however, suggests a very low level of infrastructure development  elsewhere at Howells Plains at this time.

There is no mention of this hut in the historic records. A report in 1897 by Harry Stanley to the Deloraine police that a hut at Howells Plains was burnt down may relate to this hut, but it cannot be verified. The records indicate that Stanley was the first resident Field stockman at Howells Plains in which case he likely lived in the hut. He moved out to Gads Hill in the 1880s and was replaced by Albert Squires and then Sydney Johns. Johns left around 1915, a year or two after a massive ditching program was undertaken over the summer of 1912-13 and 1913-14 to drain Howells Plains.

By this time, most of the infrastructure at Howells Plains had been moved to the southern (top) end of the plains. The photographic record shows an extensive system of fenced yards and paddocks around what is now a small island at full supply level in the early 1920s. The stockman’s accommodation had also moved. In 1916 when Harry Glover and his family moved to Howells Plains, their house was a short distance above the stockyards and paddocks.

The assumption therefore is that Stanley’s Hut burnt down in 1897 and that a new hut was built at the top end of the plains. This hut was occupied by a succession of stockmen including (in order) Albert Squires and Syd Johns and then enlarged to provide room for Glover and his family c. 1916.

This structure burnt down in 1934 and was replaced by the Howells Plains Hut situated a short distance down the plain. Stockmen Joe Hayes and Syd Wilcox occupied this hut. Around 1950, Howells Plains was leased, then purchased some years later by the Lee family of Mole Creek. The rising waters of Lake Rowalllan destroyed the hut in 1967.

Sketch of Howells Plains and environs showing positions of known huts 1845 to 1967, with list of known Howells Plains and Gads Hill stockmen. Simon Cubit, 2015