J. M. Clow

James Maxwell Clow the son of the Reverend Clow of Melbourne fame settled lands in the big desert region in north west Victoria.

The following is a letter written by him to the Governor the second article is from the Argus in 1935. His first property Balerook is to the west of lake Hindmarsh the second Pine Plain is north of lake Albacutya the homestead today is just west of Patchewollock.

Sorry I have no pictures yet but hope to correct that soon.


James Maxwell Clow’s letter

 About thirty miles to the westward of Lake Hindmarsh lies the large sandy desert’ through which the boundary line between the Victorian and South Australian territories runs. The most north-westerly tract of pastoral country in the Wimmera District at that point, and forming a bay on the edge of this desert, was first occupied under pastoral lease by me in the month of May 1847. It in of the finest description of sheep country, very openly tim­bered, but scantily watered. It is dotted with swamps of no great depth, but the bottom being of tenacious clay, they, except in the droughty seasons, now contain sufficient water for the wants of the stock, since they have been, when dry, well trodden by the sheep grazing on them.

 I found the sole aboriginal occupants of that isolated tract to be one man of great muscular strength and proportions, his three women and two children. The custom of each head of a family being by inheritance or conquest the acknowledged proprietor of a certain tract of the territory of the tribe to whose chief he owned allegiance (over which the others were understood to hunt by sufferance from him) I found to prevail amongst the Wimmera and Lake Hindmarsh tribes. What I took up as a run was his portion of it.

Although this native, whom I shall call “Geordie” (his English name), as I forget his aboriginal name, was apparently on the best of terms with his tribe, yet they hinted that it was his prowess, not right, that maintained him in possession of such a large tract of their territory and more than his share of the women, when there were so many without one—whereby hangs a tale of the deep treachery which they exercised a few months after my arrival to dispossess him of both and all was so well planned that he did not seem to have the least apprehension of any impending danger.

One evening, some fifteen or twenty men of the tribe arrived at my station from the direction of Tattiara, whither they stated they had been to procure the rods of a water plant with which they form the heads of their spears, bundles of which they had with them in their crude state, and they were on their return to the lake. They appeared to be very much fatigued with their day’s journey, and very soon encamped, about 300 yards from our huts—having first prevailed on Geordie, who was encamped within 50 yards of us, to join them at their encampment, which he did without reluctance, as they showed him a good deal of deference, more from the position of lord, which his prowess had acquired for him, than as vassal to their chieftain (who was amongst the number).

When I saw them lounging round their fires that night, they counterfeited their intentions so completely by laughing and joking with each other that I was quite unprepared for the tragedy of bloodshed which I witnessed on the following morn­ing. The first shades of daylight were just dawning when the shrieks of the women rang through the forest. On reaching the outside of the hut, I heard that peculiar sounds which the men utter when engaged in fighting when in the act of throwing any of their rude instruments of warfare. As the hour was the one usually chosen by a hostile tribe to make their onslaught of re­venge, I concluded that they had been attacked by the Militant blacks, who had perhaps followed them up quickly to square a debt of blood with them. By the time that I had dressed sufficiently to go and see the fight, all was hushed except the low wailing lamentations of some women, a sure indication that there lay a corpse. It being yet too dark to see in one tableau their camp and surrounding forest, I made for the wailing. On reach­ing the group, which consisted of two of Geordie’s wives and two or three men who were winding a blanket round a corpse which was lying about half-way between their camp and my hut, the men preserved a determined silence to all my inquiries, and it was from the women that I ascertained the corpse was  their late hus­band, and that he had been murdered by some of the men who had been encamped with him. He had been attacked by nine or eleven men at once, who, springing from their fires, poured their spears into him as he lay awake at his. He jumped from his lair (they said) and made for our huts, snapping the spears which were in his body close by the flesh, as I found to be the case on walking from the corpse to their camp, where the remnants lay on either side of his track. He had got about half-way before he received the mortal wounds from two jagged malice spears, which now lay alongside of the corpse, and were covered with blood from point to tip, from their having been drawn through his body to get them out. As the two spear wounds did not cause instan­taneous death, they rushed in with their waddies, and gave the finishing stroke to the deed of blood.

By the time that the day had dawned the murderers had decamped, and were then many miles on their way to the lake, impatient to recite to the council of war which had deputed them to the task the successful termination of the stratagem. Those who remained maintained that they had neither previous know­ledge of what was to take place that morning, nor participation in the murder, and the testimony of the women corroborated the statement that they took no part in it. In the small open plain where the corpse lay we interred it. My men dug a grave, and having secured the top well with stones, to pre­vent the wild dogs disinterring it, crowned its summit with the murdered man’s spears and other instruments of war, which remained there till some sacrilegious white hand removed them. The three women and the orphan children left immediately afterwards. The men told me that it was the custom of their tribe for the women after the death of a husband to secrete themselves in the bush for a week or two, and that after a certain time (a week or two) they become the wives of the first man who finds them. My informant I saw afterwards in possession of one of them.

The aborigines in this tract of country subsist chiefly on a variety of roots which are very abundant, opossums, small kangaroos (called cumma) which frequent the edge of the mallee scrub, an occasional emu, the fruit or flower of the stunted honey­suckle (very prevalent in the desert), and manna in the autumn. When the hot weather prevails, birds are easily caught by them in the following manner: They conceal themselves in an arbour of boughs, close to the small remnants of surface water, or at wells, and snare the birds by laying a gin (attached to the end of a rod) where the birds must or are most likely to stand when they come to drink. Having secured their victim, they draw the rod in, and by having the same snare attached to the end of the rod, they can set it again without leaving the arbour or frightening other birds away by showing themselves.

While at this station I made several excursions into the large desert, with the view of discovering new tracts of pastoral country. We first went in a westerly direction. After proceeding about fifteen miles into it from the side next to my run, we came to a steep ridge of sand hills, about 200 or 300 feet above the adjacent limit. The surface of them was composed of nothing but loose drift-sand, and they were covered with a few stunted bushes. When on the summit they appeared to be a chain of hills running from where we ascended them northerly as far as the eye could reach. To the westward we saw nothing but an unbroken ex­panse, for the next twelve or fifteen miles, of the same dreary wil­derness that lay around us. Some months afterwards, when 70 miles further north, on the course of the Wimmera, we again struck a westerly course, and encountered the same chain of hills, still possessing the same features, and bearing in the same direction. Interspersed but very distant from each other, on this desert, are oases of a few acres, where the eucalyptus and other trees grow, with a fair sprinkling of grass. As the soil of them is very clayey, it was only on them that we found surface water to drink. The whole eastern extent of it is a loose white sand, covered chiefly with a very prickly grass, which grows in large tufts, and is so stiff in the blade that it causes the horses’ legs to bleed as they travel over it; also with stunted mallet, and a very diminu­tive species of the honeysuckle tree, the flowers of which the natives crush and steep in water, in order to obtain what is to them a sweet and nourishing drink. The emu and the lowan are the only birds of size on it. The former frequents the open desert, the latter the mallee thickets. A remarkable feature of this small portion of country I observed to be that it blew a strong fresh breeze both day and night, below which it seldom moderated, but occasionally increased to a tornado. One swept along with de­vastating fury in the month of December the same year. It passed over an out-station, snapping even trees of two and three feet diameter in two, about five or six feet from the ground, and lop­ping off the boughs of those it did not carry down. The tent in which the men were living was carried off into the swamp about half a mile, and few of the pannikins and plates were found again. It seemed to be confined to about half a mile in width. Owing to the constant current of air, I never saw any dews while there.

As most of the Wimmera District was settled the year before I went there, I cannot give a correct statement of the deportment of the aborigines to the squatters when the latter first took possession of the territory. With regard to Geordie’s behaviour on the occasion of my taking up the run, he attempted a day or two after our arrival to disarm one of the hut keepers while in the hut with him, but failed, and luckily the man had presence of mind not to shoot him. We saw no more of him for two or three weeks. When he came back he seemed ashamed of having violated the confidence we had reposed in him, ridiculed his attempt on the hut keeper, and apparently had made up his mind to have his little territory invaded by the sheep. At shearing time I found him and the other blacks very useful, placing all the flocks in their charge, as I was obliged from a scarcity of shearers in that out-of-the-way place to employ all the shepherds in shearing sheep. I never found them to appropriate any of the to their own use.

I sold this run (which I called “Balerook,” from the desert on which it lay) to Mr. George Urquhart in the following December. It has subsequently passed from his hands to Mr. Broughton, the present. holder. Its registered extent is 50 square miles. It is bounded by the runs of Major Firebrace (formerly Grant’s), Mason, and Little.

M. Clow went further north and set up a sheep run he called Pine Plain although he did not stay long. I will pick up on the Pine Plain run in another article.

The following was published in The Argus Saturday 17th November 1934 it covers the event of these runs set up by Clow being annexed by the expansion of Wyperfeld Park.

The Argus Saturday 17th November 1934




Mr. Chisholm paid a visit recently to the Wyperfeld National Park, in the Mallee, which has just been added to so that the reservation amounts   to 42,000 acres. The park and its   historic associations are described.

It was announced recently that the Government had added 12,000 acres to the Wyperfeld National Park, in the Mallee, making the reservation 42,000 acres.

Whether or not my general interest was   aroused by this announcement, the fact is that the action was one of the most useful and enduring of all Centenary measures. The Minister for Lands might well have claimed it as such. He might have pointed to the fact that topical celebrations pass into oblivion but a National Park goes on for ever. He might also   have invited the attention of a “Centenary-minded” populace to the appropriateness of his action, pointing out that it was in this decade 100 years ago that the Mallee was discovered. The most definite   exploration of the remarkable region, it is true, was done in the ‘forties, but Sturt touched the northern margin during his adventurous voyage down the Murray in 1830, Mitchell skirted its eastern boundary in 1836, and Eyre made an attempt to cut through it in 1838. Mitchell and Eyre, in a sense, may be regarded as “godfathers” of the Wyperfeld Park, since one discovered the Wimmera and the other discovered Lake Hindmarsh, which together control the extraordinary series of   lagoons in the reservation.

Pastoral invasion began soon after the publication of Eyre’s report. and in 1843[?] Governor La Trobe Sent Pulteney Dana, then in charge of the recently formed native police, to inquire into the nature   of the country north of Hindmarsh. Dana   found that the Wimmera emerged from the lake and pursued its course north- ward, and he jumped to the conclusion that it reached the Murray. Later exploration was to reveal that the luckless river became disheartened, and gave up the struggle long before that. Its brethren to the east – the Loddon, the Goulburn, the Campaspe, and the rest reached the Murray, through, normal country, without trouble. The Wimmera was compelled to strive with vast areas of   sand. Moreover, after filling Hindmarsh, in itself no mean task, it had to fill Albacutya, and after that a dozen other lake-lagoons levied upon it. Small wonder   that the river died of sheer exhaustion – perhaps of a broken heart at this stage. It has not, within historic times, contrived to get any farther than the area that is now Pine Plains Station, immediately north of the present National Park.

This terminal region of the Wimmera between Pine Plains and the Wyperfeld Park, is the area that has recently been added to the reservation.

Exploring the “Mallee” In the late ‘forties exploration began in earnest, and the region was given “a local habitation and a name.” The term “Mallee,” however, as Mr. A. S. Kenyon has pointed out, had no fixity of spelling or pronunciation at the time. Neither Mitchell nor Eyre used it. Ham’s map of 1846 gives the present spelling, and states that it was the name given by the blacks to it small and distinctive gum- tree, Eucalyptus dumosa. Henry Wade, who surveyed the boundary line between Victoria and South Australia in 1847, first spells it “Mallie” and later “Mallee.” J. W. Beilby, in his account of a run-seeking journey in 1849, uses “Mallay.” After Ham’s map the word  remained on official plans as “Mallee,” and this version has become fixed. It   is applied to the whole of the 11,000,000 acres of scrub and “desert” in the north west of Victoria, and also to kindred areas in New South Wales, South Australia, and Western Australia.

All of those adventurers of the ‘forties found Mallee exploration a heartbreaking task. Less than 100 years later men were to fly over the entire area in a few minutes, but in the days of discovery travel was limited to a few miles a day. Wagon wheels sank into the endless sandhills. Thick scrub barred the way almost everywhere Porcupine grass   pierced horses’ legs and drove them almost desperate. Added to all this was that inevitable trial in sandy areas, shortage of water. The astonishing thing is that in such circumstances J. M. Clow, then occupying Balerook, near Nhill, found his way past Hindmarsh and Albacutya, through the wild country that is now a National Park, and established, at the terminus of the Wimmera waters, Pine Plains, Station. That was In 1847. Pine Plains   remained an outpost for many years. It has since passed through several hands, and has been temporarily abandoned. At present it is held by the O’Sullivan brothers, one of whom, Mr. J. O’Sullivan, acts as an honorary ranger of the National Park.

Clow’s feat was a stout effort, but it pales before the work of Surveyor E. R. White, whose name should be cherished in Victorian history as that of the greatest of Mallee explorers. A man of courage, resource, and endurance, and having bush- craft beyond the ordinary, White faced the greatest difficulties – during 1849-51 in surveying and mapping a considerable area of Victoria’s wild north-west. It needs little imagination on the part of visitors to Wyperfeld to realise that both Clow and White deserve commemoration. Perhaps these two, rather than Mitchell and Eyre, should be regarded as the “godfathers” of the Mallee Park.

The Park and Its Future

Wyperfeld Park lies about 20 miles to the north-west of Rainbow. Sandy throughout, it contains extensive ridges that are still drifting, and others that have been bound by vegetation, either mallee scrub or pine forests. On some of the ridges and in most of the valleys the spiny porcupine grass flourishes in great clusters, and the scrubby nature of the area is emphasised by dwarf tea-trees, banksias, and kindred plants. Add to these areas the forests of big gums along the old river-bed, and you get four types of country; mallee scrub, pine forests, big gum forests, and porcupine-grass scrub. It is this diversity of vegetation that gives the area a diversity of bird- life, and it was the diversity of bird-life, coupled with the fact that the area appeared to be useless for settlement, that caused a party of Melbourne naturalists, in 1909, to persuade the Government to establish a reservation. The proclamation was made permanent in 1921, and from time to time afterward further areas were   added. In 1926 a committee of management was appointed, and this body continues to have charge. The present president is Sir James Barrett, and the honorary secretary is Mr. G. R. Riby, of Rainbow.

Three days spent in the area – a bush- man and I camped in an iron shelter shed in the heart of the park-brought the conviction that the reservation has been abundantly justified in that it has provided sanctuary for some of the most interesting and most beautiful birds in Australia. That being so, It must always be attractive to naturalists. Whether it   will ever be popular with the public is another question. It can never have the persistent appeal of the National Park near Sydney, or of the glorious National Park on the Macpherson Range near Brisbane, or of Victoria’s other National Park at Wilson’s Promontory. It has, how-   ever, a charm of its own, and it must be really beautiful on the rare occasions when Hindmarsh and Albacutya overflow, and the 10 or 12 shallow lakes in the reservation are filled. In other times, according to Mr. Kenyon, flooding occurred at intervals of about 20 years – 1830-4, 1851-4, 1870-4, 1890-3, and 1911-15. On this basis the extraordinary chain of lakes should be filled at present. Perhaps their dryness is due to the fact that the Wimmera “got out of its stride” in the meantime : some of the lakes were replenished 10 years ago. Since then, however, that   “old man river” has slept soundly. I should like to be present when he reawakens.

The following photos were taken by my grandmother on a walk in Wyperfeld in 1935 on the occasion of the announcement of its expansion. Mum and her brothers and granddad and grandma Miller are amongst the hikers.

 Wyperfeld 1web Wyperfeld 2Web

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One thought on “J. M. Clow”

  1. I have come upon your history today and thought I might add a couple of facts for you, not that they are relevant to your immediate purpose. James Maxwell Clow subsequently went on to become a significant Victorian, ” including Commissioner of Crown Lands and Police Magistrate(1),” a quote. He was appointed to the Steiglitz goldfields in the 1850s.
    I have also come across Edward Riggs White also, having spent several years at Broadford. He was the son of Lt Col Henry White, Broadford’s first settler, taking up the pastoral lease on Mt Piper Run, at Broadford, possibly around June 1838, after moving on from the Ovens River area, after one of the very first Aboriginal massacres in Victoria. He and his father had stopped there, but the droving of animals in large numbers through the area, resulted in a massacre of drovers. Retaliatory action is reported to have killed a large number of Aboriginal men, women and children. E R White, at about 20 years of age, is likely to have been among the first pastoral licences reported in June 1840, but he appears to have followed the good life and was bankrupt by 1843. As you know, he became a surveyor, and completed the survey of Victoria’s border, which you refer to.

    You may as well have the full copy of the extract that brought me to your page today :
    James Maxwell Clow was born in 1820 in India. He was a notable figure in the early days of Victoria, Australia.  Clow held several government positions including Commissioner of Crown Lands and Police Magistrate.  He was also the first Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria.  Clow married Jane Navarina Gray in Melbourne in 1865.  He passed away on April 7, 1894, at the age of 74. Clow was buried in St Kilda Cemetery, East St Kilda, Colony of Victoria . ( annotation has been removed. )
    Co-incidentally, it appears possible that Riggs and Clow may have met in the fields being discussed, but I guess that is not likely, given the size of the area concerned.

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