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The Wimmera

The Top Paddock
Frank Bongiorno

Professor of History at the Australian National University

30 June 2021

The Italian forebears of Frank Bongiorno prospered in the Wimmera region of northwest Victoria. After an absence of twenty-five years, he returns and discovers a revealing convergence of local and national histories.

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.



Mount Arapiles, 2020. Photograph by the author.

Other places I had visited before. There is the Wimmera Mallee Pioneer Museum at Jeparit. My mother must have taken me there in its early years, not long before we left the Wimmera in 1973. It might have changed a bit since then, but its higgledy-piggledy collection of colonial mementoes—absorbing even as their display broke most of the rules by which professional museum curators live their days—serves as a reminder that the old verities of settler history still have sway in these parts.

The Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre, by way of contrast, was new to me. Run by volunteers, it commemorates Nhill’s role as a Royal Australian Air Force base during the Second World War. There is a family connection here: my family had the contract to run people between the town and the base in this remarkable rust-bucket, which enjoys its retirement in the front yard of a defunct business in the town.


Bongiorno ‘rust bucket’, 2020. Photograph by the author.


Bongiorno soft drink label. Collection of the author.

In this and other ways, my family seems to have been an entrepreneurial lot. They were Italian migrants, from the Aeolian Island of Salina, off the Sicilian coast. After a few years in Ballarat, my great-grandfather and his family—there were two sons—arrived in Nhill in the early twentieth century. Like many Italian small businesspeople, they sold fruit and vegetables. But they were not short of ideas for other ventures, which included a roller-skating rink shortly before the First World War. They would eventually make their money selling cars, although my father and his brother extended the family activities into the making of soft drink, which they combined with running a café. I collect the bottles and labels which come up from time to time on eBay.

Whatever fortune they made was gone, or very nearly gone, by the time I came along in 1969; a family with a rich sense of loss. That sensibility was reflected in my grandparents’ home, which must have been grand in its day, but by the 1970s seemed aged, dark and creepy. I called in during my recent visit. It has been superbly renovated by a local builder, transformed inside, but with plenty for me still to recognise out the front.


Grandparents’ home in Nhill, 2020. Photograph by the author.

Even among its settler population, Nhill was far from monocultural. Quite apart from the family of Italians who made their home there, Germans settled in the district; names such as Reichelt, Schultz, Sherwell, Dahlenburg and Uthmeyer were familiar from my childhood. On my recent visit, I came across a couple of memorial plaques to Lutheranism in the tiny village of Netherby: they refer to a church being burned down during the First World War, although no explanation is offered.


Les Blake’s history of Nhill, The Land of the Lowan (1976), refers to Chinese market gardeners being present in the town in the early years of the century. More recently, Karen migrants from Myanmar have made a home there, initially working in the local duck factory. But I had to wait until I read Robert Kenny’s splendid The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper & the Ruptured World (2007) before gaining any insight into the experience of Indigenous people. It is, in part, a history of the Moravian-run Ebenezer Mission, established in the 1860s on the land of the Wotjobaluk people.


As a child, I lived in Macpherson Street. Our last house, a little weatherboard, sat opposite the old shire offices, now the historical society. On the opposite corner, there was—and still is—an Anglican church, although I incorrectly recalled it as Lutheran—an unconscious gesture, perhaps, to the strength of the German presence in the town.


Childhood home, Nhill, 2020. Photograph by the author.

Dugald Macpherson, after whom the street is named, was the owner of Nhill station. The arrival of this thrusting Scottish immigrant provides the occasion for the district’s foundational settler story. Macpherson is supposed to have encountered a group of Wotjobaluk people camped by a swamp which they called ‘nhill’ or ‘nyell’, possibly meaning ‘early morning mist rising over water’ (or so Wikipedia tells me). Museums Victoria’s website reports that his great-great granddaughter ‘says that the family remembered Dugald as very interested in his Scottish heritage and…“land-hungry”’. Indeed: Nhill run, which he held on leasehold, was 153,000 acres, and he also had vast holdings elsewhere.

When I see Nhill now, I see it with my historian’s eyes. Macpherson’s grand act of expropriation is the foundation of whatever else came later—and whoever else, too, including the Bongiornos. That was an insight unavailable even to the sensitive, intelligent Jock Neilson.

But it is an insight that should prompt humility, too, since it is hardly one that has come out of much effort on my own part to grapple with the place’s historical complexities. My Wimmera remains a fundamentally European one, formed by memory of the experience of an Italian migrant family. The ethics of our own encounters with country as settler descendants are shaped not by forgetting our own histories, but by how we weave that insight into our own personal and family histories—by how we unsettle and reimagine our own intimate sense of place.


Further Reading

Anderson, Hugh and L.J. Blake, John Shaw Neilson, Adelaide: Rigby, 1972.

Blake, Les, Land of the Lowan: 100 Years in Nhill & West Wimmera, Nhill: Nhill & District Historical Society, 1976.

Hanna, Cliff (ed.), John Shaw Neilson: Poetry, Autobiography and Correspondence, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1991.

Hanna, Cliff, Jock: A Life Story of John Shaw Neilson, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1999.

Kenny, Robert, The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper & the Ruptured World, Carlton North: Scribe Publications, 2007.

Neilson, John Shaw, The Autobiography of John Shaw Neilson, Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1978.

O’Reilly, Kevin, In Just Five Years: The RAAF & Nhill in World War II 1941-1946, Dingley Village: The Author, 2009.

Turner, Ian, ‘My Long March’, in Ian Turner, Room for Manoeuvre: Writings on History, Politics, Ideas and Play, selected and edited by Leonie Sandercock and Stephen Murray-Smith, Richmond: Drummond Publishing, 1982, pp. 105-140.

About the Author

Frank Bongiorno was Senior Lecturer in Australian Studies and Australian History at King’s College London from 2007 until 2011. He is now Professor of History at the Australian National University where he recently completed a term as Head of History. He is the author of The Eighties: The Decade That Transformed Australia (2015).

In this story

Frank Bongiorno

Frank Bongiorno

Professor of History at the Australian National University

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