Sphinx-like, its story it would hide
as anchored fast in time's own tide,
it stands above the northern shore
of Melbourne's oldest reservoir.
Is it a folly born of a chance remark,
an ornament in a rich man's park
a flippant thing, its history insignificant,
at best an egotistic monument?
Or, could it be, a protecting citadel,
a fortress on an Australian hill
in the age-old style of merry England,
a place for one last desperate stand?
High on a hilltop in the catchment of the Yan Yean Reservoir, this mysterious old building known as ‘Bear's Castle’, is closed to the public except by arrangement with Whittlesea Courthouse Visitor Information Centre (Crn. Church & Beech Sts. Whittlesea) ph/fax 9716 1866 (conditions apply).
According to legend, John Bear was going away for some months. Before he departed, his head shepherd asked if there was anything he wanted done. Bear, having nothing, apart from his normal duties, jokingly replied, ‘Build me a castle!’ The shepherd set to work. When Bear returned the building was nearly complete. Recalling the joke, he laughingly said: ‘you silly fool, you might as well finish it now!’
The late Ethel Duffy, in her book Reminiscences of Whittlesea (1971), stated that, around 1865, her grandfather and his family lived in the castle. Therefore, it would appear that Bear’s Castle was built as the result of a joke, but in due course, it found a useful purpose. However, the book The Plenty Bushrangers of 1842 (1996), by Lindsay Mann, suggests that it ranks among Victoria's most valuable, yet largely underrated historic icons.
John and Ann Bear, together with their three teenage children arrived at Williamstown on 20 October 1841. Bear, a wealthy farmer from Devon, England, had arrived in the Port Phillip province at the start of a depression. He immediately purchased farmland at Yan Yean, then, returning to Melbourne, set-up a stock and station agency in Queen Street, which he ran with his oldest son¾19 year old John Pinney Bear. Living in a house in Little Bourke Street through the week, he visited Yan Yean at weekends. With 16 year old son, Thomas, in charge of the farm, Ann cared for their daughter, Ellen, aged 13, and organised the household.
On Friday, 29 April 1842 a gang of four bushrangers invaded the Plenty Valley. They found Ann and; by now, 14 year old Ellen; alone in the house. A neighbour, knowing John was away, came along to tell Ann Bear not to resist. The gang took five gold sovereigns and demanded supper. Upon leaving, they camped in the bush a short distance from the house. Early next morning they seized Bear’s bullock driver and forced him to take them to their next victim. Finally, after robbing a total of 13 Plenty Valley settlers in less than two days, they were cornered in a hut near present day Whittlesea, and captured after a dramatic gun battle. This resulted in the death of the gang leader, while one of the posse members received serious facial wounds.
The remaining three Bushrangers faced the Supreme Court in Melbourne accused of the attempted murder of the posse member. They were found ‘guilty as charged’, and were publicly hanged on 28 June 1842.
After the capture, Ann Bear still feared for her own and her daughter’s safety. Supported by 23 other women, she wrote to Superintendent La Trobe, requesting that he back the men's application to form a militia force. On 5 May 1842, Ann wrote:
We, the resident ladies on the River Plenty and the surrounding neighbourhoods having received such a shock by the late brutal attack of the Bush rangers [sic] on our lives and property, feel ourselves no longer sufficiently secure unless some urgent means are adopted, to prevent or put down these violent outrages. We most respectfully solicit your Honor [sic] to allow the settlers, aided by those who so gallantly risked their lives for our protection in the late ensergency [sic], to unite in carrying out the spirit of their petition.
The Plenty Valley was not alone in its proposal, with meetings held in Melbourne to form a Province wide militia force to be known as the ‘Port Phillip Volunteers’. After first offering support, La Trobe and his superior, New South Wales Governor, Sir George Gipps, fearing a slaughter should armed militia come upon an Aboriginal raiding party, secretly dumped the proposal.
Bear, after realising the volunteers would not be formed, appears to have written home to Devon, instructing that a builder be employed and sent out. Writing in The Plenty: a Centenary History of the Whittlesea Shire (1975), the late J. W. Payne states that a Mr. ‘Hannaford with John Edwards as puddler’ built the castle. Shipping Records show that a Thomas Hanniford [sic], a mason from Devon, arrived in Melbourne with his family early in 1844. Joshua John Edwards was a labourer and had arrived, with his family, two months earlier.
The castle is classified by the National Trust of Australia (Victoria). Describing it as being ‘of national significance’, the Trust states that it is ‘...a particularly rare building, both for its design and its construction techniques'. ...Built on a mud-stone plinth, it features 'lancet arch' windows, formed from the inverted forks of large gum trees. In his book Victorian Primitive (1977), Professor Miles Lewis declares that it is mainly of 'cob' construction, with timber ties placed between the courses. Lewis describes cob as mud mixed with straw, laid in courses and 'trodden in' while still in a plastic state. The castle consists of two storeys with an earthen floor. A cob turret reinforces each of three corners, while the one on the south-west corner is a fire-place and chimney built to about halfway in rough stone and finished to wall height in hand-made bricks. Winding up the inside of the cob turret on the north-west corner, a rough stone circular staircase leads to where a platform once ran around the inside of the building. Rifle holes were allowed through the turret wall, to cover its western and northern approaches.
In 1977, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works; considering that the building was in danger of destruction through erosion; asked the Caretaker of the Reservoir to take action to arrest the damage. He was provided with neither advice, nor a budget, and decided to cover it with a coat of clay, secured to the castle walls by applying it as a mud plaster, over half inch chicken wire. That is what meets the eye today, the bad news is that it no longer looks authentic, the good news—it's still standing!
Heritage Victoria, while recognising Bears Castle as being of great historical, architectural and archaeological significance, accept the legend that it was built as the result of the casual remark, reputed to have been made by John Bear to his shepherd.
Alternatively, local historian, Lindsay Mann, in his book, argues on the basis of strong circumstantial evidence, that Bear’s Castle is a uniquely Australian example of a traditional English hilltop citadel. It is historically valuable as a window through which this and future generations can glimpse how the first settlers in the Plenty Valley—then an isolated rural community—returned to their ancient historical past, to raise a defence against any attempt at staging a repeat of the well demonstrated and historically documented episode that manifested itself in this valley, when Victoria was a wild frontier.
The Plenty Bushrangers of 1842 by Lindsay Mann, is available from Whittlesea Courthouse Visitor Information Centre. Cost: $17.00 (inc. GST).