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Saturday, 10 December 2011


I’ve been exploring the noble Scottish Hepburn pedigree lately – far more than I needed to really, but that’s genealogy for you! My genuine connections with the ancient family are only through a couple of early 19th century marriages, and it would be cheeky to claim much relationship with them. (If you must know, the Hepburn grandfather of one cousin of my grandfather’s, and the mother-in-law of another, share a 12x great grandfather with John Stuart Hepburn, the subject of this post!)

But at about the time I was discovering all this, I heard from a literary colleague who had recently begun a year travelling in Australia and who had just reached Daylesford in Victoria. And Daylesford, I had read only that morning, was one of the places where Captain John Hepburn made a mark.

Captain John Stuart Hepburn (1803-1860)

Young John Hepburn, born on the Hepburn lands of Whitekirk near North Berwick on the east coast of Scotland, went to sea. In 1833 he became Master of a 226-ton brig The Alice, which sailed between Britain and Tasmania. En route for Hobart in 1835 he fell to talking with one of his passengers, a former banker called John Gardiner who was going into the cattle business. When the following year Hepburn’s new steam ship The Ceres ran aground and sank off the coast of New South Wales, it was suddenly a good time to join Gardiner in his venture.

Gardiner and Hepburn drove a herd of cattle overland to Port Phillip in Victoria in the summer of 1836, and it seems to have gone well. In 1837 Hepburn’s wife Eliza and their two children joined him in Australia and he organised another drive with another partner, William Coghill, with a view to finding land worth settling on. While the land he had crossed in 1836 had already been claimed and settled by other pioneers, this time he was driving sheep from eastern New South Wales into new territory in the heart of Victoria.

John and Eliza Hepburn’s two-month journey in 1838

From Braidwood NSW they set off in February 1838, west to Gundagai where they hooked up with a third pioneer, William Bowman. The three parties pressed on southwestwards on the route now followed by highway 31, crossing the Darling river at Albury and coming across the tracks of an earlier pioneer Thomas Mitchell as they entered Victoria at Wangaratta.

Major Mitchell, a fellow Scot from the industrial port of Grangemouth explored and surveyed much of southeastern Australia for the government. In September 1836 he was the first European to climb and name Victoria’s Mount Alexander, a traditional aboriginal ceremonial ground and lookout. Following his route, Hepburn, Coghill and Bowman set up a lambing camp on the slopes of the mountain in April 1838. From its summit Hepburn saw the land around Mount Kooroocheang to the southwest. He had seen a lot of land in the past three years and the slopes of Kooroocheang looked good.

While Coghill and Bowman pressed on westwards, John Hepburn staked his claim on a stretch of grazing land he called the Smeaton Run (after Smeaton House the Hepburn home at Whitekirk), on the southern slopes of Kooroocheang. It was good land. John and Eliza’s next child was born at Smeaton later that year, and The Hepburns prospered, extending their property with purchases from a succession of new land releases by the governments of the day. At the time of his death it stretched over 24,000 acres. The townships of Smeaton, Blampied and Daylesford sprang up on its fringes to service the growing population of workers which the Smeaton run supported.

Smeaton House, Victoria
symbol of prosperity built in 1849

Conditions were rough in the early days. Governor Sir George Gipps reported in October 1840 that “a race of Englishmen are living in bark huts in a state of semi-barbarism because the conditions of their leases do not make it worthwhile to build permanent dwellings.” But in 1849 Hepburn built his own Smeaton House, a symbol of his prosperity which still stands today.

About the same time, to the east of the Smeaton Run, gold was discovered in the Jim Crow Diggings; the goldrush town of Hepburn became home to miners from China, England, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and France. The strong European contingent also appreciated the properties of the many mineral springs in the area. When in 1865 pollution from the mines threatened to ruin the waters’ qualities, the government established the Hepburn Mineral Springs Reserve to protect them. Jim Crow Creek was diverted through the Blowhole Gold Diversion Tunnel (dug by Chinese miners) and the spa resort of Hepburn Springs developed to the north of Daylesford, complete with a bathhouse and a Palais de Dance.
Hepburn Springs Bathhouse and Spa
renovated in 2008 at a cost of $13 million

The town even boasted a pasta factory to feed its European and Chinese population. Let’s hope for the Hepburns’ sake they served it with mutton.

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