Tales of war and aviation

Tales of war and aviation

The connection of Melton to mains electricity in 1939 marked an exciting turning point in the modernisation of the shire.

Historically, kerosene lamps were commonly used but were these were expensive and dangerous. The newly renovated Golden Fleece Hotel even sported a neon sign.[1] However, the newly illuminated streets could do nothing to brighten the dark shadow of another war looming on the horizon.

Transmission line at Diggers Rest used for international radio communication, 1943. Australian War Memorial, 051997.

On 3 September 1939, Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced that the nation was again at war. As it did on communities across the globe, World War II impacted on Melton in numerous ways. Many locals from the Shire of Melton enlisted. Others were required to contribute to the war effort from home, as the chaff and food production industries of Melton were considered important to the nation.

As they had done during World War I, Meltonians worked together to raise funds and gather items for the war effort. Children were not immune to the impact of war. Robert Beaty, who was a student at Toolern Vale State School during the war, recalled ‘One lady teacher insisted on teaching air raid drill which consisted of lying under the desks with rubbers in our mouths’.[2]

Signalman Russell Errol Hill at his station at Rockbank Signal Receiving Station, 1967. Australian War Memorial, P07435.001.

Rockbank and Diggers Rest became crucial centres of international military communications during the war. Rockbank had already demonstrated its suitability for radio transmission, with the success of the beam wireless station established there in 1926. A Rockbank farm owned by the Gidney family was compulsorily acquired in April 1942 for the construction of a radio shortwave receiving station, which was established by the United States Army. A transmission station was constructed in nearby Diggers Rest.[3]

The shire’s flat terrain and existing airfields also made it a good location for air force activities. Locals remember, for example, that part of the Eynesbury estate was used as an aircraft bombing range.[4] The war arrived unexpectedly in Toolern Vale one day in 1940, when an Avro Ansen bomber aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing in a paddock, guided in by torchlight with the help of local farmer, Bob McCorkell.[5]

When the war ended on 8 May 1945, bells rang throughout the district. A holiday was declared at the Toolern Vale State School and services of thanksgiving were held in halls and churches throughout the shire. Forty returned servicemen and women were welcomed home at an event held at the Melton Mechanics’ Institute hall in January 1946.[6]

Harry Houdini’s biplane at Diggers Rest, 1910. W.G. Alma conjuring collection. State Library Victoria, P.8/NO.28.

The flat terrain that made the area useful for air force activities during World War II has also attracted notable aviators over the years. At Diggers Rest on 18 March 1910, the American magician and escape artist Harry Houdini completed what is generally considered to be the first controlled powered aircraft flight in Australia, in his Voisin biplane. Met with cheers from the excited crowd of spectators, Houdini was reported to have remarked afterwards, ‘I have fulfilled my greatest ambitions. I shall never forget my sublime and enthralling sensations’.[7]

Melton also has an important connection to one of Australia’s great cycling heroes, Sir Hubert Opperman.

Read Hubert Opperman’s story

While he was a child living in Melton, Opperman taught himself to ride – a moment that would prove significant in Australian sporting history.[8] Born in 1904, Opperman became the ‘world’s greatest endurance cyclist’, achieving huge success in Australia and Europe.[9] Later in life, Opperman enjoyed a long career in federal politics, including serving as a cabinet minister. He was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1952 and was knighted in 1968.

ABOVE IMAGE: Champion Australian cyclist Herbert Opperman in 1922. National Library of Australia, PIC/3033 LOC Drawer PIC 3033.

Aviator Jimmy Melrose. State Library Victoria, H6365.

Melton’s aviation history is unfortunately not all positive. On 5 July 1936, the much-loved 23-year-old Australian aviator Jimmy Melrose, and his passenger Alexander Campbell, were killed when their Heston Phoenix VH-AJM plane crashed at Brookfield. Memorials commemorating both the Houdini flight and the Melrose tragedy can be found today at their respective locations.


[1] Robert Macdonald, History of Melton, c. 1969, Melton & District Historical Society, p. 16.

[2] Toolern Vale State School Centenary 1869-1969, Toolern Vale State School Centenary Celebrations Committee, Toolern Vale, 1969, pp. 20-21.

[3] 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. 175.

[4] Moloney et al., ‘Shire of Melton Heritage Study Stage Two – Volume 2’, p. 182.

[5] The Canberra Times, 23 May 1940, p. 2; Express, 25 May 1940, Kay Haugh documents, Melton Library Local History Collection; Memories of Lorraine Gillespie, wife of Eddie Gillespie who witnessed the event, as told to Kay Haugh, 2010, Melton Library Local History Collection. https://mlis.libsvic.ent.sirsidynix.net.au/client/en_AU/mlis/search/results?qu=melton&te=ASSET

[6] The Express, 26 January 1946, Melton Library Local History Collection. https://mlis.libsvic.ent.sirsidynix.net.au/client/en_AU/mlis/search/results?qu=melton&te=ASSET

[7] Weekly Times, 19 March 1910, p. 36.

[8] Daniel Oakman, Oppy: the life of Sir Hubert Opperman, Melbourne Books, Melbourne, 2018, p. 20.

[9] ‘Sir Hubert Opperman OBE’, Sport Australia Hall of Fame, https://sahof.org.au/hall-of-fame-member/hubert-opperman, accessed 19 December 2021.