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The shores of the past

Long before the idea of Sea Change, thousands of Victorians fled city life for recreation, respite and new ventures in Queenscliffe. This long-awaited history, commissioned by the borough of Queenscliffe, at the treacherous promontory of Port Phillip Bay, covers the residents of the town of Queenscliff and the hamlet of Point Lonsdale. The Rip—the stretch of water between the heads of the bay where the combinations and concentrations of winds and tides make sea passages unpredictable—is deployed as both the background and foreground for the vicissitudes of settlement. Queenscliffe is a rich topic. Barry Hill covers Aboriginal possession and tragic dispossession, shipwrecks, escaped convicts, armed forts, grand buildings and the struggle to secure and maintain an unusual municipality.

With historical imagination Hill brings the past to life. For him, neither the pursuit of health nor pleasure provides the key to what was uniquely attractive about the locale. ‘Queenscliff was a Queen of Watering Places because her beauty contained the thrilling prospect of danger,’ Hill writes. His dramatic and compelling accounts of the work of the lifeboat crews, the pilot service and the fishermen are highlights. Surprisingly, the study of municipal endeavour is not centrally placed but subtly woven throughout. In 1863 the borough was proclaimed when half the population successfully petitioned the Colonial Secretary. The 183 citizens were publicans, boatmen, carters, shipping agents, a handful of fishermen and 26 Chinamen who lived out on the spit of Swan Bay. The council set to with a welter of civic duties that included the appointment of an Inspector of Nuisances, Dogs and Thistles. Hill notes that they were pleased with their choice of Constable Henry Goodenough and that the age of the by-law was now upon the town. Possibly not such a felicitous choice, as other historians have identified Goodenough as a paid informer and double agent at Eureka.

There are some wonderful asides. Hill’s recasting of the role of escaped convict William Buckley and his depiction of a fading, melancholic Alfred Deakin are fascinating. In a photograph Deakin appears rather chirpy as he bathes in his neck-to-knees. Hill writes: ‘The beach resort was a congregation, a social scene, the open-air habitat of what the most fashionable people called “congenial society” where you not only had to be dressed, but dressed accordingly.’ There are no comparable vignettes of women, who are described by Hill as being ‘in and out of the woodwork’. The most conspicuous were those who ran small hotels and managed homely guesthouses that employed armies of female domestics—the bedrock of the borough in the 1920s:

 At the heart of the guesthouse experience was the evening meal and all the activities that flowed from its congregation. The cooking was plain and plentiful: plain as in fresh fish, good roasts, fresh vegetables and steaming puddings, the kind of food the wives on holiday would have cooked for their husbands and children on good days.

Two local identities, James Baillieu and Jack Kerosino, are intertwined when ‘a tramp hobnobs with a toff’. The toffs frequented the ostentatious hotels. The Ozone, built by the Baillieus, published a weekly guest list. It was proud to display the connection between property, person and public appearances. ‘James fraternised widely and did not want for money, Jack drank with the fishermen at the Esplanade, and did not have to buy himself a drink. He was a wanted man. Tattooed on his back was a map showing the location of Benito’s Treasure, thought to have been deposited somewhere on the edge of Swan Bay by a Spanish buccaneer. If you were lucky Jack might lift his shirt to show you the whereabouts of treasure. Baillieu was lucky, it was said, because Jack had done that for him. For how else did the Queenscliff Baillieus keep themselves in money, if not by James keeping on the right side of Jack?’ For Hill this wry legend catches something of the psychology of the place.

Sadly many of the nostalgic and evocative photographs included are marred by the quality of reproduction. There are gems of writing in the finely constructed dialogue boxes—the stand-alone pieces inserted within each chapter. They form a timely exposé as controversial progress is redefining the borough’s quaint attractions. The proposed rebuilding of the town’s picturesque but run-down harbour, the conversion of the Ozone Hotel into apartments, the subdivision of the barracks into a multimillion-dollar housing development and the projected housing estate at the entrance of the borough herald irrevocable changes. An investigation by Hill into the vagaries and seasonality of Queenscliffe’s tourist trade over the last century could have placed these new ventures in a wider context. He writes with sentiment and it lyrically unfolds. For all lovers of this ‘Queen of Watering Places’, The Enduring Rip is a richly rewarding story.  

The Enduring Rip: A History of Queenscliffe, Barry Hill. MUP, 2004. isbn 0 522 85119 3, rrp $49.95

Jane Mayo Carolan, a Melbourne-based historian, has enjoyed more than 50 summers watering in Queenscliffe.



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