The Wimmera sits on the edge of the Australian settler imagination. Located in the northwest of Victoria, but not the very northwest, it is an in-between place—less genteel than the Western District to its south, with its famous pastoral properties and stunning coastline; less rugged and ragged than the Mallee to its west; less exotic than the Sunraysia district to its north, with its irrigated farming and ‘last stop before the desert’ vibe.
It has registered in literature. The Wimmera is the country most commonly associated with the poetry of John Shaw (‘Jock’) Neilson. He, his father and brother were labourers who moved here and there, but they selected land at Minimay and, in 1889, moved to another block near Nhill. Both properties were in the Wimmera; the latter is commemorated with a rather modernist-looking historic marker that’s been in place on the site of the farm since the 1960s.
Some of Jock’s earliest poetry appeared in the Nhill Mail while one of his greatest poems, ‘The Poor, Poor Country’, recalled earlier hard times at Minimay, in the western Wimmera near the border with South Australia:
The New Year came with heat and thirst and the little lakes were low,
The blue cranes were my nearest friends and I mourned to see them go;
I watched their wings so long until I only saw the sky,
Down in that poor country no pauper was I.
The cottage in which he was born at Penola was moved from South Australia to Nhill in 1972, just in time for the flooding that devastated Nhill in 1974. But it remains there today as a shrine and a museum to settler Australia’s greatest lyric poet.
The Wimmera is also there in the wartime paintings of Sidney Nolan: the army sent him to the Wimmera to guard the food supply. It was here, between 1942 and 1944, that Nolan began to paint landscapes. His splendid Kiata, titled after a district a few miles east of Nhill, prefigures the more famous Ned Kelly paintings that would come after the war.
And in drama, there is Jack Hibberd’s rollicking 1968 play Dimboola, named after another Wimmera town. The story of a wedding that got out of hand in a local hall, it would soon become Australia’s most popular play, calling for participation of the audience who double as guests at the drunken wedding. Hibberd, whose pioneering role in the renaissance of Australian drama came while he was a medical student at Melbourne University, was himself from the Wimmera town of Warracknabeal. There was a 1979 feature film, too.
The Wimmera has also had its historians. The economic historian, Edward Shann, had his childhood in Nhill, where his father was a newspaper editor. So did Ian Turner, a communist and historian of the labour movement, Australian rules football, children’s rhymes and graffiti. His father was a stock and station agent. In his essay, ‘My Long March’, Turner recalled his boyhood:
A popular local story told of a farmer who had come into town to ask his bank manager about an overdraft. The manager said that he would have to go out and inspect the property. ‘Don’t bother’, said the farmer, pointing out the office window. ‘There it is blowing past’.
I have three things in common with Ian Turner. I am from Nhill. My family were also part of the town bourgeoisie, but with a difference: they were Italian. And, like Turner, I am a historian.
I returned to Nhill for a few days before Christmas in 2020, my first visit, I think, since 1994. We left the town to live in Melbourne in 1973 but had returned regularly over the years to visit grandparents and other relatives. The last of those died in a nursing home a few years ago, so there were no obvious reasons to return. I’d seen the occasional image of the town on social media during the 2020 lockdown. I decided it was time to have another look.
I found a place very different from that described by the farmer in Ian Turner’s story. It looked like the 2020 harvest had been a good one. Revisiting the area also meant seeing places I couldn’t recall having visited before. One was Mount Arapiles. A striking landmark popular with rock climbers and abseilers, it is a place of great cultural significance to the Wotjobaluk, Jaadwa, Jadawadjali, Wergaia and Jupagulk peoples. It is a massacre site, too. Native police shot Aboriginal people who had attacked a local station in 1845. The University of Newcastle’s map on colonial frontier massacres estimates that six Indigenous people lost their lives.