THIS is the story of a secret garden. It is centred on a tree – one genealogical and one growing – a story of the shared branches of our lives.
Frederick Blume was born the son of farmers Christian and Catherine Blume in Leimberg in Hanover in 1842 and was 19 when he left Germany with a friend with the hope of making Australia. According to Beechworth historian and author Joan Hilderbrand, in Liverpool the two young men stowed away on a ship from which they disembarked in Melbourne in 1862. After mining for a time in New Zealand, Frederick returned to Australia and came to the Woolshed Valley near Beechworth. He married in 1872 Mary Louisa Cox in Beechworth’s Anglican Christ Church, which is as you see it today, with its Early English Gothic-influenced square stone tower.The Blumes were living in the Woolshed Valley on the night of June 26, 1880, when bushrangers Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly shot their neighbour, Aaron Sherritt – an alleged police informant – to death. It is said that Frederick and Louisa saw both assailants before they rode off early the next morning. Byrne and Kelly went on to Glenrowan and the infamous siege that claimed their own lives and which led to the capture, committal in Beechworth, trial in Melbourne and execution in November 1880 of Ned Kelly, outlaw. Later that year or early in 1881 Frederick and Louisa and their three children moved to the Three Mile, south of Beechworth – just across the dip in the hills about half a kilometre from where we live, and into a small corrugated iron and weatherboard cottage said to have been built by Chinese miners perhaps late in the 1850s or early 1860s. It is believed to be contemporaneous with the old heart of our house built for the American-born Ring brothers, miners, at about the same time.
It was after the move to the Three Mile that another 10 children were born to Frederick and Louisa. With their mother, the four whose lives remained intertwined with the story of our house and garden were Francis or Frank, born in 1882, Florence, in 1885, Alvina – known as ‘Topsy’ – in 1895, and George, in 1898.
The Blume farm – on which Topsy for probably eight decades of her long life husbanded and milked a small herd of Jersey cows and tended her much loved garden – is rare, if not unique, in the North East and perhaps Victoria.
Thanks to the Bartsh family, our neighbours, who bought the property from Topsy in 1971 while agreeing to her life-tenancy, it remains preserved as it was 150 years ago – intact, secure and protected.Topsy, it seems, had the farming gene – an innate knowledge of farming ways, something heritable through generations of people of farming stock.
The English poet and gardener Vita Sackville West, who was three years older than Topsy, plumbed this sense in her epic 1926 narrative work, The Land:
I sing once more
The mild continuous epic of the soil,
Haysel and harvest, tilth and husbandry;
I tell of marl and dung, and of the means
That break the unkindly spirit of the clay;
I tell the things I know, the things I knew
Before I knew them, immemorially…
‘We used to have cows and milk them,” Topsy told Border Morning Mail reporter Chris Hornsey in an interview which she gave him in 1981, when she was 85. “We used to sell our cream in Wangaratta.”
With her sister Florence – known as ‘Cookie’ because of her exceptional baking skills – Topsy lived in their parents’ cottage, with its kitchen in a building separate from the cottage living and bedrooms, for their entire lives.Gitte Mielitz, who came to know and love the Blume sisters after she arrived as a six-year-old with her mother and stepfather to Beechworth as a post-war immigrant from Germany in 1949, and lived in what is now our house – which the Blume family owned and let to them – remembers that they slept together in their parents’ double bed. It’s almost certain that there was neither plenty nor waste. There was neither running water nor electricity. There was simply the steady, continuous cycle of their shared lives: Florence, cook and housekeeper, and Topsy, gardener and farmer. Chris Hornsey wrote in the Border Mail 35 years ago – ‘Just as the cottage, with its antique furniture, sepia photographs and other assorted memorabilia echoes the lifestyle of a bygone era, so does the garden. It is filled with flowers and trees which seem to blend with the atmosphere. Miss (Topsy) Blume treasures the money plants, camellias, the scented verbena and the balm.” These same plants grow their still, just as they do in our garden, across the dip, at Weir Lane.
The Blume garden was watered throughout the sisters’ lives with water from the well. It remains today under a corrugated iron roof held up with bush timber, and drops away beneath a well-housing, featuring double doors, that covers the windlass.
“It’s not an easy job,” Tospy told the Border Mail, “particularly in the summer months when the level of water drops considerably.” The heavy iron bucket is lowered into the water and, when filled, wound up again by hand. “It’s down to 17 turns at the moment and it will get down to 22,” she said. In the summer of 1981 she was drawing water three times a day, as she went on to tell the journalist, “because I have to water the flowers”. She recalled that at one time she drew up a live snake in the bucket. “You have to get them out,” she said, “or they rot in the water (and taint it)”.
It was through another well by which the lives of Florence, Topsy, Frank and George Blume and their mother Louisa became tragically enmeshed with that of their neighbour, Margaret Ryan, and her disabled daughter, Violet, in 1931.Margaret Ryan inherited in the old cottage that forms the southern front of the house where Peter and I live – and its two hectares of hills sharing a boundary with the old Blume farm – in 1918. In August 1931, in the midst of what was said to be the worst winter since Europeans settled in the North East – in which one woman wrote that there had been not half a dozen fine days between April and September, and bitterly cold – Margaret lived at Weir Lane with her daughter Violet. She was 59. Violet was 32 and needed all of her mother’s care – being, it was later described, of “weak intellect”. Joan Hilderbrand records that it had been Margaret’s habit to send her shopping list over to the Blumes and for them to buy her household groceries and bring them from Beechworth back to the farm. Louisa Blume had been ironing when Margaret’s envelope arrived and put on the mantelpiece. It was only when her daughter Florence went to town and opened it that she found that it was not a list.
It read –
Baarmutha, 31 Aug, 1931
Dear Mrs Blume,
Would you mind keeping Violet with you until someone takes her as I am going to end my life. My body will be found in the well. Would you mind sending for Jack (her son) and tell Mr Kelly to come with him. I can’t stand the worry any longer. My head is very queer. Don’t let her (Violet) come home by herself at any time – poor girl, God help her. I hope they will be good to her who takes her.
Farewell my dearest friend
Sincerely, ever loving friend,
In a postscript she wrote:
I am sending one pound. Jack will give you more if she (Violet) is with you longer than a week. Florrie can take the cow up there (to you, the Blumes) to milk until they can see what they will do with her.
And in margin of the letter she added –
Ask Frank (Blume) to send for the police, as they can’t touch me until they come.
At the inquest the next day, the coroner also was shown a letter written by Margaret to Jack –
My dear son and all my dear children, it is with a sad heart I am writing these few lines to you. I hope God will forgive me for taking my life in such a manner – also all of you, my dears. But I have a feeling something dreadful is going to happen to me and I think this is the best way out of all my troubles…. Poor Vi, I wish I could take her with me but that can’t be. God help you all – and forgive me for what I have done.
Violet died in Sydney’s Parramatta Psychiatric Centre in December 1966. She was 67.
This lovely but unidentified pink-lilac rose grows near the well where Margaret Ryan lost her life .
Weir Lane was sold by Jack Ryan to Frank Blume within a few months of his mother’s death and in 1938, on Frank’s death, it was inherited by his sister Topsy.
It was into the lives of this hard-working woman and her housekeeping sister, Florence, that the young German-born Gitte Mieltiz came in 1949 as someone akin to a grand-daughter.
Me on the back gate – presumably your back boundary too. The bare branches (photo taken in winter) at the top left hand of the photo was a mulberry tree. The house viewed from the back is behind me… One can see the original section of the house at chimney furtherest away… The dark skinny long triangle on the left of the photo looks like the kitchen roof. The back of the house had a covered breezeway between the house proper and the kitchen, as can be seen behind me – although I don’t remember it.
Gitte also recalls feeding the Blumes’ pigs, poddy calves and chooks, and collecting the mail and newspapers from a kilometre-distant farmhouse – the Baarmutha district post office.
Tops was a hard worker. Didn’t go out shooting or mending fences, but did all the dairy work (separating), feeding the poddy calves, pigs, hens, and some housework, and lots of crocheting of an evening. I don’t think she knew how to relax. She worked for a while as a young woman in Castlemaine, but some time after her sweetheart died in the Great War 1914-18 she returned to (Three Mile). The milking was done by George and Tops – maximum 24 cows – and when the going got tough, Granny (Florence) also milked a few. They taught me how to milk cows and I could manage 2-3 maximum of the easy milkers before my fingers wore out. Granny cooked the food and had a somewhat easier lifestyle. Tops occasionally took me on afternoon walks across the paddocks, or to…visit one or two neighbours for afternoon tea. Granny wasn’t up to walking any distance, or across paddocks.
But there is one recollection of Gitte’s which, in its way, becomes a thread through all of our diverse lives – from Frederick and Louisa Blume, their children, through their neighbour Margaret Ryan, who owned our house and garden, to Gita who lived there as a small girl in what was to her a strange land, to Peter and me who now live at Weir Lane, and to each of you who has done Beechworth a great privilege by coming here with your keen interest in our shared heritage and our gardens, and listening to this story.Gitte’s abiding memory is of lying in the sun in autumn, or in the shade in summer, on one of the great, spreading lower branches of an old cypress in the Blume garden, and reading books. That tree – together with an old oak, agapanthus, numerous bulbs, camellia, verbena and lemon balm, grow there still. If the Bartsh family were prepared to consider it, the Blume farm, its agricultural heritage and its buildings and garden would be worthy of the national estate. One day, I hope, we might all see it.
AUSTRALIAN GARDEN HISTORY SOCIETY
This presentation was made to the Australian Garden History Society Victorian branch autumn 2016 tour – Autumn leaves and private gardens – by the author at Beechworth’s George Kerferd Hotel on April 30, 2016. Images: Jamie Kronborg [unless otherwise attributed].