Progress amidst hardship

Progress amidst hardship

In 1904, the Closer Settlement Act proved a turning point and a catalyst for progress in the Melton district as remaining pastoral estates were subdivided into smaller lots and sold.

This allowed for the establishment of mixed farming businesses, which grew new crops such as oats, wheat and barley, alongside livestock. The meat and dairy industries expanded significantly, with the hay and chaff industry booming in parallel. Ideal soil and climate conditions in western Victoria saw Melton develop a reputation for growing the best hay in the country.[1] But this growing farming community would soon face significant disruptions to daily life.  

Red Cross Melton members, 1916. Melton Library local history collection, MLIS-PHO-0000034.

World War I

The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 had an immediate impact on communities across Australia, including Melton. Following the announcement that Australia was joining the war with Great Britain and its allies on 5 August 1914, the Melton community launched into action. A meeting to assist the Red Cross fund was held in the Melton Mechanics’ Institute hall just days after the outbreak of the war. From June 1915 to June 1919, the Melton branch of the Australian Red Cross Society donated socks, shirts, kit bags, pillowslips, towels, and pyjamas. Jumble fairs, concerts, and gift evenings were held, and local schools collected money and goods for the war effort.[2]

Community events were held to farewell departing servicemen and welcome those returning home. Gunner Robert (Bob) Wynne, whose uncle’s family ran the general store in Toolern Vale, was presented with a pair of field glasses (binoculars), a gold watch, inscribed locket, and autographed letter before he set sail for the battlefront in 1916.[3] 

Knitting book, Australian Red Cross Society, c. 1916. An inscription reads: ‘Scarves & knee caps are not needed terribly at present. Socks are always in request. Then gloves, mittens, helmets, caps, pullovers, bed socks. Also knitted rugs. If you have lots of coloured pieces these could be knitted up into squares & sewn up in rugs’. Melton & District Historical Society, MLIS-BKT-0000024.

Some families in the Shire of Melton sent multiple members to war. Four sons in the Nolan family enlisted and three in the Neal family. Incredibly, all survived and returned.[4] The family of Thomas Lang, head teacher at the Melton State School, was not so fortunate. His son, Private Horace Lang, was killed in action at Bullecourt in 1917. Another son, Lieutenant Thomas Lang, died of pneumonia in Cairo in July 1918.[5] In one week in October 1918 the district learned with profound sorrow of the deaths of Private Lewis Norton, Corporal John Farrell, and Private Alexander Missen. Flags at the shire hall, Mechanics’ Institute and state school were flown at half-mast.[6] Other locals who served in the war returned forever changed. The daughter of Melton drover Patrick Nolan, Margaret Brooks, sadly recalled that ‘the family were aware about the state of his nerves, shaking and needing a walking stick’.[7]

Gunner Robert Wynne of Toolern Vale. Courtesy Christine Love, from the collection of Joan Jenkins.

When news of the signing of the armistice that saw an end to the fighting reached Melton around 8.15pm on Monday 11 November 1918, residents filled the streets ‘and gave vent to their feelings … by lustily singing the National Anthem’. A memorial to the district’s soldiers, an engraved granite obelisk, was unveiled in Melton’s High Street in August 1920. The cenotaph continues to be used for Anzac and Remembrance Day commemorations.[8]

Since settlement, the Melton district has often faced catastrophe from nature’s fury in the form of drought, flood and, all too often, fire.

Read more about the history of fires in Melton

While Kulin custodians utilised fire as a tool to renew the land’s rich natural resources, for European settlers unused to Australia’s harsh climate conditions, fire represented an ever-present threat to lives and livelihood.

The Black Thursday fires of 1851 and the Black Monday fire of 1865 are both remembered for their ferocity. But on Tuesday 11 March 1965, ‘the most destructive fire ever to attack the district’ left Toolern Vale almost completely destroyed.[9] Only three houses in the small township were left standing.[10] Children were evacuated from the school just 15 minutes before it was destroyed. No lives were lost, but several people were treated at Bacchus Marsh Hospital for burns.[11]

From the earliest days of settlement, Melton residents have banded together in times of crisis. A local bushfire brigade was established in 1935, forming the basis of what would later become the Melton Country Fire Authority (CFA) branch.[12] Following the 1965 fire, the Mount Cottrell Fire Brigades Group was formed. Its headquarters were established at the home of Ernest ‘Bon’ and Edna Barrie. Their daughter, Wendy Barrie, remembers the fire truck parked at the house and her mother operating the fire brigade’s radio.[13]

ABOVE IMAGE: The view over Toolern Vale after the 1965 fire. Melton & District Historical Society.

The Great Depression

As Australians began to get back on their feet after the long period of war, the roaring 1920s ended with the struggles of the Great Depression. Hugh Barrie recalled working long hours on the Melton family farm as a child in the 1930s, to help make ends meet:

… staying home to assist with milking by hand of twenty-five to thirty cows before breakfast … to be completed by twenty past six every morning, then after breakfast being ready to start work in the harvest paddocks at seven a.m.[14]

Many Melton women have lived extraordinary lives. Sometimes these stories get lost among the tales of male pioneers, entrepreneurs, and lawmakers.

Read Edna Barrie’s story

Edna Barrie (1918–2008) gave her time to many local causes and was a much-loved, vital presence in Melton over many decades. She was involved with the Melton branches of the Country Women’s Association and CFA, Melton Mechanics’ Institute, Melton South Opportunity Shop, Melton Uniting Church, and the Melton & District Historical Society. Edna’s tireless volunteer work left an indelible mark on her community.[15]

ABOVE IMAGE: Edna Barrie (née Myers) with her husband Ernest ‘Bon’ Barrie. Edna (Myers) Barrie collection.

Alice and Emil Jongebloed at the counter of Jongebloed grocery store. Courtesy Shane Jongebloed.

As it had done during World War I, the Melton community came together during this difficult time. Business owners generously supplied families with items on credit, and some of these debts were never claimed. The door to the Jongebloed’s bakery ‘was never locked and those who wished could help themselves’.[16]

World War I and the economic depression of the 1930s presented Meltonians with many tragedies and challenges, but these experiences also brought the community together.

Joan Richmond grew up in Melton and forged a successful international career as a race car driver.

Read Joan Richmond’s story

Joan Richmond (1905–1999) was the great-granddaughter of prominent early Melton pastoralist Simon Staughton and spent much of her childhood on a farm near Melton. From the early 1920s she competed in car club race events, enjoying a successful international racing career. In 1932, Joan became the first woman – with her driving partner Elsie Wisdom – to win a major international motor race, the 1000 Miles Race in Brooklands, England.[17]

ABOVE IMAGE: Joan Richmond, second from left, at a rally in Monte Carlo, 1932. London Agency Photos Ltd. State Library Victoria, H2001.135/217.


[1] David Moloney, David Rowe, Pamela Jellie, Sear-Jane Peters, ‘Shire of Melton Heritage Study Stage Two – Volume 2 – The Environmental Thematic History’, Shire of Melton, Melton, 2007, p. 65; Gary Vines, Chaff-mills in Melbourne’s West: an industrial sites study, Melbourne’s Living Museum of the West, Williamstown, 1987, p. 15.

[2] Gisborne Gazette, 1 June 1917, p. 3.

[3] Melton Express, 29 April 1916, p. 2.

[4] ‘Thomas John Lang’, Just Another Pair of Socks: Melton District Anzacs, Melton Family History Group,, accessed 2 December 2021.

[5] ‘Thomas John Lang’, Just Another Pair of Socks: Melton District Anzacs.

[6] The Bachus Marsh Express, 2 November 1918, p. 2.

[7] Memories of Margaret Nolan, Wendy Barrie’s private collection.

[8] Newspaper clipping, 22 August 1920, in the records of Mary Tolhurst, Wendy Barrie’s private collection.

[9] The Express, 18 March 1965, p. 1.

[10] The Age, 12 March 1965, p. 1.

[11] Toolern Vale State School Centenary 1869-1969, Toolern Vale State School Centenary Celebrations Committee, Toolern Vale, p. 20; Wendy Barrie’s notes from a conversation with Mary Tolhurst, private collection of Wendy Barrie.

[12] ‘Fire brigade’, private collection of Wendy Barrie.

[13] Notes on Mount Cottrell Fire Brigades Group, private collection of Wendy Barrie; Conversation with Wendy Barrie, 17 October 2017.

[14] Hugh Barrie file, Melton & District Historical Society.

[15] Communication with Wendy Barrie, 17 October 2017.

[16] Jongebloed: the building of an amazing family’, Melton: yesterday & today CD-ROM, Melton & District Historical Society.

[17] Joan Richmond, Australian Land Speed Racing,, accessed 3 December 2021.