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Cowey photographs

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Cowey photographic collection

Black and white photo showing a man, woman and three young children standing in front of a slab hut.
The Cowey family at The Patch (detail).

Forests to farmland

Kate Rigby is a scholar who explores the changing ways people have imagined and engaged with the living world.

Kate responds to the Robert Orlando Cowey collection of photographs, taken in the early 1900s at The Patch, in the Dandenong Ranges, near Melbourne. These photos are a record of the lives of small-scale farmers in forested terrain that was transformed to farmland.

Once a sanctuary for the Wurundjeri people, The Patch was home to settlers including the Coweys and the A'Vards, the Monbulk Jam Factory, and visited by author Jeannie Gunn, who forged friendships with Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the area. It has been Kate's home since the 1990s.

Here, Kate considers the meanings of the images and their stories at this time of global warming and ecological disruption.

Fashioning the Patch

'The Patch': the faded photo from the remarkable Cowey collection that bears this name testifies to the refashioning of this once densely forested vale in the traditional country of the Wurundjeri people into a rural landscape shaped by European values, labour and life ways (below).

Captured in the early years of the 20th century, this image leads the viewer's gaze to a whitewashed building that gleams all the brighter next to the dark foliage of the large tree left standing alongside. Probably a blackwood, this tree would have been dwarfed by the eucalypts with which its kind, in company with the silver wattle, had long co-existed in this place: mountain grey gum, messmate stringybark, and the mighty 'monarch' of the wet sclerophyll forest, mountain ash, which rank among the tallest trees on earth.

Scenery shot of Weardale, which is commonly called 'The Patch'. The open clearing of Weardale has a small light coloured house featured with a large tree to its right. In the distance are very tall leafless trees across the hills. In the bottom left of the image the words 'The Patch' has been etched, in the far bottom right corner the initials 'R.O.C.' have also been etched.
The Patch. Robert Orlando Cowey collection, National Museum of Australia.

Victims of the popular colonial practice of ring-barking, those eucalypts that had not already fallen or been felled, such as that pictured lying across the bottom of the frame, remain visible as a ghostly presence on the hills rising behind a straggly line of dwellings. These houses appear to be sitting with their backs turned towards the sombre evidence of the unravelling of the multi-species connectivities that once constituted the more-than-human life of this lush little valley. Instead, they seem to face onto the fenced fields in the foreground, where the rich volcanic soil provided good pasture for livestock, as well as generously accommodating vegetable gardens, orchards and, above all, the berry farms that supplied the famous Monbulk jam factory established on a low rise overlooking The Patch valley by the berry grower Daniel Camm in 1913.

Courageous newcomers

While some contemporary viewers might desiderate the historically-contingent ethical and ecological blind spots that can be glimpsed in this invaluable photographic record of early settler life in the Dandenong Ranges, something of the admirable courage, determination and fortitude of the newcomers is evident from an earlier photo, in which the photographer of 'The Patch' appears as a young boy, the oldest of three siblings, Robert, James, and Esther (below).

Taken around 1894, this photo shows the children protectively flanked by their parents, John and Augusta Cowey, where they pose amidst timber off-cuts outside the log hut, fashioned out of tree ferns, that constituted their first home on the small 'selection' that they had dubbed ‘Weardale’ in memory of the Wear River in Sunderland, County Durham, where John Cowey was born.[1]

Family shot posing outside a timber hut with smoke rising from the chimney and logs lying on the ground.
The Cowey family at The Patch: John and Augusta Cowey with children Robert, James and Ester. Robert Orlando Cowey collection, National Museum of Australia.

The north-western boundary of the Cowey’s selection, where Robert would later build a still-standing cottage when he retired from farming and subdivided the property in the 1950s, ran along the Kallista-Emerald Road (on which, as it happens, I too have had the profound pleasure and privilege to reside for the past 15 years). When the Dandenongs were opened for 'selection' in the 1890s, Patch valley (as it was yet to be colloquially named) had already been partly cleared by the timber-getters who first made their way up there in the 1860s. Yet it is clear from this photo that the Coweys had needed to open up a dwelling space on still heavily forested land in order to take up their selection.

The Coweys, previously resident in Ballarat, were among those who were encouraged to have a bash at farming in the Dandenongs following the financial crash of 1893, despite the fact that John lacked appropriate knowledge and tools for this formidable task, having worked only in clerical positions (although Esther's parents had held land for a time at Werribee before moving to Melbourne).[2] Prompted by a decade of unbridled property speculation, the banking crisis occasioned a severe Depression during the 1890s, with high unemployment, low wages, property foreclosures, and business failures. For some, selecting land in the hills was no doubt an adventure; but for many, including the Coweys, it was also motivated by dire necessity (my own great grand-father was also among the victims of this crash, but he unhappily chose an alternative solution: he killed himself).

Family shot posing outside between two large tree stumps. A woman sits to the left of the frame, a young boy lies down at centre, alongside a dog. To the right, a man poses with an axe resting at the base of a towering tree stum,p, and a young girl holds a large sun hat at her side.
Clearing the bush. Robert Orlando Cowey collection, National Museum of Australia.

Clearing the forests

Among many other initial and ongoing challenges entailed in this undertaking was the necessity of deposing some of those forest monarchs, and with no more than an axe and handsaw (and a great deal of grit, muscle-power, sweat, and, perchance, swearing). This awesome feat is on display in a later photo, taken by Robert, which features his younger brother, sister and parents, along with a couple of animal companions, framed by two massive stumps, into one of which Pa Cowey has demonstratively wedged his relatively diminutive (if nonetheless powerfully efficacious) axe (above). No wonder, when the Cowey's friend Walter A'Vard, another early settler in nearby Kallista, posed for a photo with three young men (possibly his sons), humorously attired in contrasting dress, he did so, proudly, with his axe slung across his shoulder like a gun (below).

Group portrait of four men posing in front of a dwelling. Three young men stand at rear, wearing dark suits and hats. The man far left leans on a cane. The other two wear scarves. The fourth man, who is older, squats at the front, wearing a vest without a jacket and holding an axe, which rests on his shoulder.
Walter A'Vard, with axe. Robert Orlando Cowey collection, National Museum of Australia.

It has been suggested that the three young men were dressed up for an amateur theatrical performance: evidence of the do-it-yourself settler cultural life that had begun to blossom in the hills during the first decade of the 20th century. However that might be, it is to be hoped that their womenfolk were also able to enjoy a lark on occasion, stiff and proper and, in some cases, decidedly dour though they appear in the photos depicting them taking tea on the verandah in their funereal Victorian garb (below).

Group portrait of seven people posing on a veranda. Four women sit at a small wooden table. The women hold teacups and the woman at far left is also holding a teapot. At the foot of the table, sitting on the edge of the verandah is a young boy. Another young boy and a young girl stand behind the women at the table. On the table is a lace tablecloth, a teacup and a cake.
Tea on the verandah. Robert Orlando Cowey collection, National Museum of Australia.

Bush excursions

The children appear even more unhappily constrained amidst all this demure civility, although they doubtless found much to enjoy during times of unsupervised play in their rural environs, fringed with the forest fastness and its wild mysteries.

The adults too evidently developed an appreciation for 'the bush', for all their efforts to push it back, not to mention its propensity to drop 'widow-making' boughs and burst into ferocious flame during the inevitable long, hot, dry times, as it did, for example, in the 1898 bushfire that swept through The Patch, destroying the Coweys' first home here, and sending them scurrying back to Melbourne for a few years.[3]

This appreciation is apparent from the memoirs of George A'Vard, who took over his father's bullock team and made a living with them up until the late 1920s, primarily towing logs from as a far afield as Powelltown to the sawmill in Belgrave, but who nonetheless averred that he 'loved the bush'.[4] The newcomers’ pleasure in the primeval temperate rainforest that survives to this day alongside the many creeks that weave their way through this part of the Dandenongs can also be deduced from the photo depicting a family outing, with Cowey senior in a small clearing with the horse and trap, and Robert's younger siblings just visible amidst the tree ferns and other dense vegetation lining the creek (below).

Robert and James both continued to farm in The Patch, and the latter's daughter Meg recalls how she and her siblings loved to 'go bush', looking for 'birds' nests (no eggs to be taken), flowers, fungi, spiders or different kinds of trees and such,' observing that 'we know all about the bush and its treasures I feel sorry that today's kids miss this.'[5]

A scenery shot of dense bushland with palm-like trees and ferns. Two people are dwarfed by vegetation at the centre of the image. A man stands with a horse and carriage, in a clearing beside the trees.
Bush excursion. Robert Orlando Cowey collection, National Museum of Australia.

Wurundjuri sanctuary

These precious waterways are fed, in part, by numerous underground springs, such as the one that wells up along the creek that became part of the Weardale property after John acquired another ten-acre block further down into the valley in the early 1900s. The permanent presence of these life-giving springs might have contributed to the designation of the Monbulk area by the Wurundjeri people as a 'hiding place' or 'sanctuary' (monbollok), a place for the ill and injured to recover their health and vigour.[6]

Jeannie Gunn and the Monbulk area

It is appalling to consider the possible impact of the loss of such healing places to their Indigenous custodians in the wake of the violence, disease and dispossession wrought by the expansion of the Port Phillip colony from the late 1840s. Robert and James Cowey and their families might well have come to develop some appreciation of this, not least through their friendship with Jeannie Gunn, who became a frequent visitor to the Monbulk area, probably staying on occasion at Weardale, which doubled as a guest house. Jeannie is remembered principally as the author of The Little Black Princess (1905) and We of the Never-Never (1908), inspired by her close contact with Indigenous Australians during the time that she and husband Aeneas spent as newlyweds on the remote Elsey station in the Northern Territory, where Aeneas was appointed manager in 1902, only to die of malaria the following year.

During and after the First World War, Jeannie became involved in welfare work for soldiers, ex-servicemen and their families, including the Coweys, several of whom feature in her book about soldiers from the Monbulk area, My Boys, published only in 2000. Yet her continuing sympathetic interest in Australia's First Nation peoples is evident in the research she initiated for a book she considered, but never completed, on John Terrick, a Dja Dja Wurrung elder from the Bendigo area who lived for a time on the Coranderrk Aboriginal station in Healesville.[7]

In recent years, the wounds of colonisation, being finally more widely recognised, have themselves become the focus of new healing practices, here, as elsewhere in Australia. With the help of guest speakers from the Coranderrk community, children attending The Patch Primary School (as did my son in the late 1990s), now learn about Indigenous history and Wurundjeri life ways. They also have the opportunity to engage in sustainable food production, as well as helping to care for the restored wetlands on the school grounds that once again attract a variety of waterbirds and other critters.[8]

Co-existence in uncertain times

It is a bitter irony, however, that these moves towards reconciliation, both between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and between the latter and the land, should get under way right when this area is beginning to come under new pressure as a consequence of the fossil-fuelled economy of industrial modernity. Among other things, global warming is likely to increase the storm, flood and fire-risk in the Dandenongs.[9] In time, it could transform the glorious mountain ash biome that survives in nearby Sherbrooke Forest, thanks to its designation as a National Park in 1958, into the far more readily flammable dry sclerophyll bushland that predominates elsewhere in the Ranges.[10]

For this reason, some far-sighted Patch residents have already sold up and taken refuge in regions that are expected to fare better as the planet warms, while others are installing fire bunkers. Among those who remain in what has become, once again, a resplendently well-treed valley (albeit now with a rich mix of natives and exotics in amongst a still growing number of more-or-less suburban houses), there are quite a few descendants of early settlers, including Camms, A'Vards and the McAlisters (who were the Coweys' neighbours at Weardale).

Inheriting the legacy of the first fashioning of The Patch, many will doubtless wish to work together with more recent arrivals, and perhaps also in conversation with those whose forbears had been landholders in this area for far, far longer, in order to negotiate the changes that are now afoot in ways might enable a flourishing diversity of people, plants and animals, both free-living and domesticated, to continue to co-exist in this utterly lovely (and still somewhat hidden) place into an uncertain future.

About the author

Kate Rigby

Kate Rigby is Professor of Environmental Humanities at Monash University in Melbourne. Her research concentrates on the environmental humanities, with a particular emphasis on ecofeminism, ecocriticism, ecology and religion. 

Kate is a senior editor of the journal Philosophy Activism Nature, and her books include Dancing with Disaster: Environmental Histories, Narratives and Ethics for Perilous Times (2015), Topographies of the Sacred: The Poetics of Place in European Romanticism (2004), and Ecocritical Theory: New European Approaches (co-edited with Axel Goodbody, 2011). 

She lives at The Patch in Victoria.


About the Cowey collection

The Robert Orlando Cowey collection at the National Museum of Australia consists of a folding dry plate Ensign (Houghton Ltd) Camera and approximately 200 glass plate negatives in their original boxes, as well as 26 early 20th-century prints, owned, used and created by Monbulk district resident Robert Orlando Cowey. The camera and plates record the everyday lives of small-scale farmers in the Dandenongs area and capture a young man’s impressions of his life during the early 1900s. The collection is evidence of the increasingly widespread use of cameras and dry plate technology by rural Australians at the beginning of the 20th century.

Cowey collection on the Museum's Food Stories website



[1] 'Weardale', the story of the Coweys, from Jan Williams' interview with David Cowey in 2002, supplemented by notes from other family members, in Patch Pioneers: Oral Histories from Descendants of Some Early Patch Pioneers, vol. 2, Monbulk Historical Society, Monbulk, 2002, p. 9. This essay was written with research assistance from George Main and Martha Sear at the National Museum of Australia, and Sue Kempkes at the Monbulk Library.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Tom Griffiths, Forests of Ash: An Environmental History, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001.

[4] 'The Memoirs of George Walter A'Vard 1890–1966, A'Vard Family Collection, written 1963, p. 17.

[5] 'Weardale', p. 17.

[6] Place names and their meanings from the Casey Cardinia Region, Casey-Cardinia Library Corporation,, accessed 29 January 2015.

[7] Sally O'Neill, 'Gunn, Jeannie (1870–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 9,, accessed 31 January, 2015; and 'The Dja Dja Wurrung People', Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation,, accessed 31 January 2015.

[8] Patch Primary (established 1984) was one of three finalists in the Education section of the 2013 Premier's Sustainability Awards, Patch Primary School,, viewed 29 January 2015. See also 'Building a school garden', ABC Media,, accessed 29 January, 2015.

[9] Yarra Ranges Council, Submission to Review of the Climate Change Act 2010 Legislation Review, November 2011,, accessed 29 January 2015.

[10] Alan PN House et al., 'The implications of climate change for biodiversity and the national reserve system: The sclerophyll forests of south-eastern Australia', CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship Working Paper #13A, November 2012, accessed 29 January 2015,