A couple of stark black-and-white images caught my eye that morning as I glanced through Jenny Carew’s research material. Like a Wild West film set, the town of Dandenong had clapboard buildings, deep verandas, hitching posts and buggies by the score. In their boots and waistcoats and wide-brimmed hats, farmers and auctioneers captured in 1912 looked like members of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, slightly surprised by the camera, as though Butch and Sundance had just raced out of the nearby Bank.
This was Dandenong, pre WW1. The place Will had known, connected to Melbourne by the railway, but still essentially a small country town.
At noon, elated by the two coincidences in Melbourne’s Memorial park, we climbed into our hire car and set off for the modern city of Dandenong. I looked for the Melbourne boundary, some sort of green belt – but no, for twenty miles it was suburbs all the way. And Dandenong’s town centre, when we reached it, bore no resemblance to the tree-lined main street of the photographs. The shady verandas and lovely old buildings were gone, the only remaining trees growing in a public park a few hundred yards away.
Feeling glum, we left the car nearby and walked the main street in search of lunch. There were shops and office blocks aplenty, all in the kind of square, concrete and glass architecture of the mid-20th century. Under a matt grey sky we could have been almost anywhere from Milton Keynes to the American mid-west, especially as the only eating places to be found were KFC and MacDonald’s. We tossed a coin and burgers won.
Leaving, I took photos of the one remaining Victorian building on the main street: the Town Hall. Before it, situated like an abandoned vehicle between four busy lanes of traffic, stood Dandenong’s little War Memorial.
So sad. Pocketing my camera, I suggested going back to the car and driving out of town to find some countryside.
‘You’re going the wrong way,’ Peter protested as I turned down a more interesting side street.
‘No, I’m not.’ The navigator shook his head, but I insisted. We came to a busy intersection and, glancing up as we waited to cross, I noticed a faded sign pointing across the road to ‘Laurel Lodge Historic Home.’
Sadly, the house on a deserted cul-de-sac looked to us like any other mid-Victorian villa – even the name was typical of its era. And anyway, the place was closed. Feeling flat, I was all for turning back but Peter wanted to see what was beyond the giant laurels in the garden. What he found was the Anglican Church, a modest building hiding in the shadows.
It was old enough to have been familiar to my forebear Will, but curiosity was defeated by locked doors: evidently problems here were similar to those back home.
As we turned away, a car pulled in. A girl stepped out and walked off, but the woman driver waved and called out, ‘Did you want to see the church? I have the keys here…’
She introduced herself as Carol Matthews, and we explained our reasons for being there as we went in and looked around. I said my great-uncle had worked for farmers in the area – I knew no more than that. Their name was too common for me to hold out any real hopes of tracing them.
To our surprise, she said she thought she knew of an elderly couple of that very name, who were old Australia stock, and why didn’t we come home with her for tea? We could meet her husband, who was bound to know more. He was a member of the Dandenong Historical Society…
Gary Matthews was clearly taken aback as his wife ushered a pair of strangers into their home a few minutes later. Although he couldn’t help directly with the name or farming connection, he was more than helpful when it came to the history of Dandenong.
‘This is the sort of thing you could do with,’ he said, producing a little book, Reminiscences of Early Dandenong. Written by the former editor of The Dandenong Journal in the 1930s, this copy was a lovely little facsimile edition. As I looked through the articles and old photos, I knew it was the perfect complement to the other material obtained by Jenny Carew.
As Peter began to explain that I was an established author researching for a new novel, I think Carol Matthews would have wrested the book from her husband’s hands if he hadn’t offered it first. She was almost as excited by our meeting as we were. Gary said he was sure to get another copy, and I hope he was right, because it was a great resource for the Australian chapters.
Astonished by the first two coincidences that day, I was completely stunned by this third one. ‘Imagine,’ I said for the umpteenth time, ‘in a city of 50,000 strangers, what are the chances of being in the right place at the right moment, in order to meet exactly the right person?’
My husband simply shook his head. He’d heard about all my coincidences, but having been on the spot when three occurred, one after the other in a single day, he was dumbfounded.
Gary Matthews’ book helped me make an important decision with regard to the novel. With a snippet of hearsay from Grandma, years ago: ‘He worked on a farm, for a family called Williams,’ a vague address from the diary – unidentifiable today – and only a fragment of hard evidence connecting Will with the town – ‘Trained from Dandenong to Barracks St Kilda Road, Melbourne, and marched to Broadmeadows, a distance of 12 miles to commence military training. 17th August 1914,’ I’d been unsure where to place him.
But as we waved goodbye to our new friends, instinct said that Dandenong the town was important: maybe my new book’s Australian chapters should be centred on this lowland area rather than the forested area to the north. Will would have seen the hills and forests, maybe even worked there for a while; but this area was more likely…
Once we cleared the suburbs, my instincts were confirmed. To the east, the country opened out into rolling farmland. Dotted with herds and homesteads, crops and pastures on every side, and with the blue Dandenong ranges in the distance, it was a fertile land rich with peace and beauty. My dichotomy was resolved: this was where Will would have found work as a farmhand; and since farmers need markets, in those days they would have been back and forth to the little town of Dandenong.