Roads – they are something we take for granted when all is well, and complain about when it isn’t – but barely think about most times. They are everywhere, little ones in front of our houses and big ones for travelling distances. We don’t have to build them or maintain them so we just assume they are a part of life.
But it was not always so. As recently as 150 years ago there were barely any roads in the eastern suburbs area. Of course the whole Burwood area was in the country then – cattle runs, woodcutting, and little else. The first land sales in the area were not until 1853, when the area was surveyed, Oakleigh township gazetted, and “government roads” laid out. Victoria wasn’t even separated from the colony of New South Wales yet!
Many people do not realise, but at that time of the first surveys, Melbourne’s (and all of Victoria’s) roads were laid out to run (magnetic) North – South and East – West, exactly one mile apart. This was to give easy access from all points to all points, with plenty of room for quiet residential areas and self-contained industrial areas, efficient routes for public transport, etc. It was excellent planning that inspired those mile grids to be established.
Unfortunately not all local councils followed the plan, but a quick check of a street directory will show the North – South grid as Summerhill Rd, Warrigal Rd, Huntingdale Rd, Stephensons Rd, Blackburn Rd, (etc); and the East – West as Riversdale Rd, Toorak Rd, High St and High St Rd, Waverley Rd and Ferntree Gully Rd. Where there are glitches in the system there are stories to be told about stubborn characters who had to have their own way at the expense of present and future generations – Mr. Elgar, and the Bennett brothers (of Bennetswood) are prime examples. If you want to know more, you may like to find Dr Max Lay’s book, “Melbourne Miles” in a library.
But even when the roads were laid out, they were not “made.” The predecessor of local government in the Monash area, the Oakleigh/Mulgrave Road Board, was constituted in 1857. Thus the first reason for all the individual settlers to “get together” and do something en masse was to establish some roads into town. Picture it – way out here in the sticks, where there were few houses and fewer shops, settlers needed access to the Melbourne markets for their produce – firewood for the town houses, a few cattle that could be spared, and later some fruit and vegetables. A trip to town took many hours. The locals would rise early, catch and hitch their horses, and begin the breakneck journey around trees and fallen logs, down and up creek beds, over the ruts and holes and burrows. (Waverley Rd was even called Breakneck Rd in those days.) In the wet, it was all mud and bog holes; in the dry it was dust and ruts and corrugations.
If the produce was perishable, the trip would have to be started while it was still dark, increasing the danger. After a four or five hour journey, a full day at the markets was spent, selling the produce,. Then it was time to load the cart with manure from the stock area to take home for fertiliser, and start the long weary journey home. Trouble was, just as it was getting dark they would arrive at the unmade roads closer to home, with all the accompanying danger of the horse running into an unseen log, or breaking a leg in a hole.
Enter the Roads Board, to help the battling farmer. Locals could now band together and make sure the roads were levelled a bit and logs cleared to make the journey safer and a little faster. However no-one had the time to do the work voluntarily. All were on subsistence level and needed to work their selection. Who should pay for the roads? The answer was obvious – the user should pay. Tollgates were set up in various places to collect funds for the service of clearing fallen trees and mending holes.
A bronze footpath marker outside Safeway in High St Rd, Ashwood, marks the place where one of these tollgates was situated.
Of course people did not like tolls any more then than they do now, and every attempt was made to use the improved roads without paying the tolls. (Some things never change.) The toll gates were phased out by an Act of Parliament in 1874 (by then we were The Colony of Victoria), but not before the Roads Board became the Shire of Oakleigh/Mulgrave, so that local government was established, with the means to extract money for roads by other means. Incidentally, the council only ever met on full moon nights, because there was no street lighting. Travel on other nights was too dangerous.
One of the many dangers on the roads, day or night, was stray animals. When conditions were dry, stock would break out and graze “the long paddock” (the roadside, for those not used to country jargon). In the dark one could easily collide with a cow or horse, and day or night the sudden emergence of stock frightened by the sound of an oncoming cart could make the horse shy and topple the cart. Thus, commons were established to give small land holders somewhere extra to graze stock.
One was on the corner of Waverley Rd and Forster Rd in Mount Waverley. A footpath marker commemorates the place.
In those days the roads were “good” if they were relatively level. Property close to major roads was valuable, because all other roads were private and likely to be nothing more than routes. In the winter, they were muddy and in summer, dust. People used to walk to stations and bus stops carrying a clean pair of shoes for in the bus and in town. Stations and bus stops would be lined with muddy shoes, which owners would retrieve on the homeward journey. This was the case right up till about 50 years ago, when subdividers were bound to provide some basic services on estates, rather than simply drawing lines on a map.
In the 1960s and 70s freeways were built that cut the journey to Melbourne down from an hour and a quarter (compare that with the 4-5 hour journey of the 1800s!) to about 40 minutes. Now we have roads that can take us into town in 20 minutes or so, if we want to pay the toll. We also enjoy “made” minor roads, footpaths, pedestrian crossings, street lighting, freeway sound walls, and many other comforts of road use. I wonder how many of us stop to think grateful thoughts about the many benefits we enjoy each day without lifting a finger ourselves.
If you would like to read more about Waverley/Monash history, look for “Cattlemen to Commuters” by Susan Priestley, or “Taking Its Place,” by Helen Gobbi, or “Waverley Past and Present” in your local library. If you would like a free leaflet about the Waverley Heritage Trail, including all the footpath markers, visit our rooms above Mt Waverley library any Wednesday afternoon, or send a stamped self-addressed envelope to Waverley Historical Society, PO Box 2322 Mt Waverley 3149. If you do not live in Monash try your local historical society for information on the history of your area.