The residence of Captain Bacchus on the Werribee river at Bacchus Marsh, 1849. SOURCE: Artist, George Alexander Gilbert. State Library of Victoria

Captain Bacchus and the squatters’ grab for power

Captain Bacchus and the squatters' grab for power

Captain William Henry Bacchus was no cattle man. At the inaugural meeting of the Pastoral and Agricultural Society of Australia Felix in January 1840 the Captain called the toast and proceeded as follows: “Let them talk of their Devon Bulls as they please but I would rather at any time see a lovely female emigrant landed at Melbourne than a hundred of the finest Devon Bulls England could produce.”

Why this did not include his wife is not entirely clear; family history has it that “Eliza had become so peculiar she had to be put in a home.” The reason for the Captain to emigrate in 1837 aged 55 may therefore have been to create a new life for his children, away from their mother’s influence. Son William Henry, ‘young Bacchus,’ was 16 years old at the time and daughter Eliza was nine. After spending some time in Van Diemen’s Land, the Captain purchased 2,000 sheep and proceeded across Bass Strait to Port Phillip. In their search for land they came upon Kenneth Scobie Clarke, the first European settler of ‘The Marsh,’ who had arrived in November 1836 and ran sheep for the Great Lakes Company of Van Diemen’s Land. Clarke agreed to move to the Pentland Hills where he already had an outstation, and so ‘The Marsh’ became known as Bacchus’s Marsh.

Squatters kept arriving. Campbell and Wilsone settled on ‘Upper Werrobie’ station near Ballan in 1838. In October 1840, Charles Griffith and James Moore, Irish barristers, settled on Glenmore Station in the Parwan Valley. Inevitably, boundary disputes occurred. When Moore and Griffiths approached the Captain about his sheep infringing on their run, the Captain referred them to his son. Griffith huffily remarked: “Young Bacchus, or Backhouse as I believe he is more correctly styled…” The dispute was, however, settled amicably.

While the Port Phillip District was part of the colony of New South Wales, the squatters were keen to make their own laws – particularly as their land tenure was insecure. They sought over the coming years to gain and exert political influence.

In November 1838, the Melbourne Club was founded and the Captain and young Bacchus were among the 23 foundation members. Security of land tenure, separation from NSW, the scarcity of labour and Aboriginal ‘outrages’ were common topics of discussion.

In 1839, the Captain moved to fast-growing Melbourne and made his fortune as a merchant and land speculator. With the proceeds he built the manor house in 1847, which still stands at 28 Manor Street in Bacchus Marsh. His final years were spent tending his garden. He was known as a kind-hearted old man who would often take people down to his garden to pick strawberries.

The Captain died in April 1849 and is buried in a plot of land, which he donated to the Anglican church for the purpose. The funeral had to be delayed by several hours on account of the ground being extremely hard to dig. The waiting horses and the hearse with black plumes and the coffin with yellow-plated handles were observed “with much curiosity by a few blacks.”

Having failed as a grazier, Henry Wilsone of Upper Werrobie station moved to Melbourne in 1840 and took up his old profession of medical doctor. He seconded the motion to establish the Melbourne Hospital, now the Royal Melbourne Hospital, with a speech full of high ideals.

On the 11th of November 1850, the ship Lysander brought intelligence that the Australian Colonies Bill had passed and separation had been achieved. Charles Griffith was one of seven squatters out of 30 members at the first sitting of the Victorian Legislative Council a year later on the 11th of November 1851. Word of gold discoveries at Clunes and Buninyong earlier in the same year had arrived by ship in distant ports and within months the road through Bacchus Marsh was clogged with drays, wheelbarrows and aspiring miners on foot and horseback.

Soon the ‘democratic element’ would challenge the squatters’ power.