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The treacherous Black Forest, Victoria

Posted 09/04/2018 in Places

The Black Forest, Woodend VIC

Treacherous roads, risk of getting lost, assault and robbery by bushrangers... travellers to the goldfields of Victoria during the 1850's had every reason to fear the journey through the dreaded Black Forest!

In the mid 19th century, Victoria had been turned upside down with gold fever. 

People were coming from all over the world to seek their fortunes on the Victorian goldfields. 

Arriving in Melbourne, diggers would travel on foot, horseback or dray to the various goldfields to try their luck digging for the precious metal.

The road from Melbourne to the famed Mt Alexander and Bendigo diggings took travellers through the Black Forest! 

Notorious for its terrible roads and the threat of assault and robbery by bushrangers (such as Captain Melville), the Black Forest gained a fearsome reputation. 

The beauty of the Mt Macedon area was accompanied with the apprehension travellers felt as they neared the dreaded woods. 

Road in Black Forest 1852 / S.T.G. Image source:

Today the Black Forest is indicated by a sign along Black Forest Drive, Woodend, and many driving through it to the Calder Freeway are largely unaware of the forest's nefarious history.

Ellen Clacy offered detailed descriptions of the Black Forest in her 1853 book, 'A Lady's Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia in 1852-53'

Clacy and her party of travelers spent the night in the Black Forest on their way to the diggings, and were assaulted by bushrangers the very next morning. The follow accounts are extracted from her book (source):

"...went forwards in better spirits, though the accounts we heard there of the bad roads in the Black Forest would have disheartened many."

" was thought advisable to recruit well before entering the dreaded precincts of the Black Forest. Fires were lit, supper was cooked, spirits and pipes made their appearance, songs were sung, and a few of the awful exploits of Black Douglas and his followers were related."

"Towards evening, a party of four, returning from the diggings, encamped at a little distance from us. Some of our loiterers made their acquaintance. They had passed the previous night in the Black Forest, having wandered out of their way. To add to their misfortunes, they had been attacked by three well-armed bushrangers, whom they had compelled to desist from their attempt, not, however, before two of the poor men had been wounded, one rather severely. Hardly had they recovered this shock, than they were horrified by the sudden discovery in a sequestered spot of some human bones, strewn upon the ground beside a broken-down cart. Whether accident or design had brought these unfortunates to an untimely end, none know; but this ominous appearance seemed to have terrified them even more than the bushrangers themselves. These accounts sobered our party not a little, and it was deemed advisable to double the watch that night."

"...with the exception of our gallant (?) captain, who resigned his post, declaring it his intention to return to Melbourne with the four returning diggers. Poor fellow! their awful account of the Black Forest had been too much for his courage."

"...we entered the forest. Here the trees grow very closely together; in some places they are so thickly set that the rear-guard of the escort cannot see the advanceguard in the march."

"Many of the ambuscades of the noted Douglas were passed, and the scenes of some most fearful murders pointed out. We only halted once - so anxious were we to leave behind us this dreaded spot - and at sunset reached the borders of the Five Mile Creek."

This 1853 pocket map shows how the road from Melbourne to Mt Alexander travels right through the dreaded Black Forest. Image - close up view of the 1853 Pocket map of the roads to all the mines in Victoria.

Clacy and her party discussed whether to spend the night beside the Black Forest or to continue their journey and camp within the dreaded forest itself. 

Despite their apprehension, they decided to camp within the Black Forest. 

It was the next morning, while breakfasting in the forest, that their fears were realized - their group was accosted by a band of bushrangers!

"We were comfortably seated at our breakfast, discussing a hundred subjects besides the food before us, when a shrill "coo-ey" burst through the air; "coo-ey" - "coo-ey" again and again, till the very trees seemed to echo back the sound. 

"We started to our feet, and, as if wondering what would come next, looked blankly at each other, and again the "coo-ey," more energetic still, rang in our ears. This is the call of the bush, it requires some little skill and practice, and when given well can be heard a great way off. In such a place as the Black Forest it could only proceed from some one who had lost their way, or be a signal of distress from some party in absolute danger. 

"We again looked from one to the other - it bewildered us; and again the cry, only more plaintive than before, came to us. 

"Simultaneously they seized their pistols, and started in the direction whence the sounds proceeded. They were all too true Englishmen to hear a fellow-creature in peril and not hasten to their succour. Jessie and myself could not remain behind alone - it was impossible; we followed at a little distance, just keeping our comrades in sight. 

"At last they came to a halt, not knowing where to turn, and we joined them. Frank gave a "coo-ey," and in about the space of a minute the words "help, help, - come, come," in scarcely, audible sounds, answered to the call. We penetrated about thirty yards farther, and a few low groans directed us to a spot more obscure, if possible, than the rest. 

"There, firmly bound to two trees close together, were two men. A thick cord was passed round and round their bodies, arms, and legs, so as to leave no limb at liberty. They seemed faint and exhausted at having called so long for help. It was the work of a moment for our party to fling down their pistols, take out knives and tomahawks, and commence the work of releasing them from their bonds. But the cords were knotted and thick, and there seemed no little labour in accomplishing it. They were also retarded by the small quantity of light, for, as I said before, it was a dark and secluded spot. 

An 1855 cartoon of a bushranger robbing a traveller. Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

"At length one man was released, and so faint and exhausted was he, from the effects of whatever ill-usage he had suffered, that, being a tall, powerfully made man, it required the united strength of both Frank and Mr. L - - to prevent his falling to the ground. Jessie and myself were standing a little apart in the shade; we seemed as if spell-bound by the incident, and incapable of rendering any assistance. 

"The second was soon set at liberty, and no sooner did he feel his hands and feet free from the cords than he gave a loud, shrill "cooey." A shriek burst from Jessie's lips as, immediately the cry was uttered, and before any one could recover from the bewilderment it occasioned, four well-armed men sprang upon our startled party. 

"Taken thus at disadvantage, unarmed, their very knives flung down in their eagerness to untwist the cords, they were soon overpowered. The wretch who had been reclining in Frank's arms quickly found his feet, and, ere Frank could recover from his surprise, one heavy blow flung him to the ground; whilst the other twined his powerful arms round Mr. L - - , and, after a short but sharp struggle, in which he was assisted by a fellow-villain, succeeded in mastering him. 

"It was a fearful sight, and I can hardly describe my feelings as I witnessed it. My brain seemed on fire, the trees appeared to reel around me, when a cold touch acted as a sudden restorative, and almost forced a scream from my lips. It was Jessie's hand, cold as marble, touching mine. We spoke together in a low whisper, and both seemed inspired by the same thoughts, the same hope. "I saw a little hill as we came here," said Jessie; "let's try and find it and look out for help." I instinctively followed her, and stealthily creeping along, we gained a small rise of ground which commanded a more extended view than most places in the Black Forest, and, but for the thickness of the trees, we could have seen our own camping-place and the part where the ambuscade had been laid. 

"From sounds of the voices, we could tell that the ruffians were leading their prisoners to the spot where we had passed the night, and the most fearful oaths and imprecations could ever and anon be heard. with apprehension, for it was known that when in obtaining the gold they expected, they vented their rage in torturing their unfortunate victims. Meanwhile Jessie seemed listening intently. The time she had spent in the bush and at the diggings had wonderfully refined her sense of hearing. Suddenly she gave a shrill "coo-ey." The moment after a shot was fired in the direction of our late camp. Jessie turned even paler, but recovering herself, "coo-ey" after "coo-ey" made the echoes ring. I joined my feeble, efforts to hers; but she was evidently well used to this peculiar call. On a fine still day, this cry will reach for full three miles, and we counted upon this fact for obtaining some assistance. "Help is coming," said Jessie, in a low voice, and once more with increasing strength she gave the call. 

"Footsteps approached nearer and nearer. I looked up, almost expecting to see those villainous countenances again. "Women in danger!" shouted a manly voice, and several stalwart figures bounded to our side. "Follow, follow!" cried Jessie, rushing forwards. I scarcely remember everything that occurred, for I was dizzy with excess of pleasure. There was a short scuffle, shots were fired at retreating bushrangers, and we saw our friends safe and free. 

"The whole matter was then related to our preservers - for such they were - and I then learnt that when the bushrangers had marched off our party to the camping-place, they proceeded to overhaul their pockets, and then bound them securely to some trees, whilst one stood ready with a pistol to shoot the first that should call for help, and the others looked over the plunder. This was little enough, for our travelling money, which was notes, was kept - strange treasury - in the lining of the body of my dress, and here too were the gold receipts from the Escort Office. Every night I took out about sufficient to defray the day's expenses, and this was generally given into Frank's hands. Enraged and disappointed, the villains used most frightful language, accompanied by threats of violence; and the one on guard, irritated beyond his powers of endurance, fired the pistol in the direction of William's head. 

"At this moment Jessie's first "coo-ey" was heard: this startled him, and the shot, from the aim of the pistol being disarranged, left him unhurt. "It's that d - d child," muttered one, with a few, additional oaths; "we'll wring her neck when we've secured the plunder." One of the ruffians now attempted more persuasive measures, and addressing Mr. L - - , whom I suppose he considered the leader, expended his powers of persuasion much in the following manner. "You sees, mate, we risks our lives to get your gold, and have it we will. Some you've got somewhere or another, for you havn't none on you got no paper from the Escort - you planted it last night, eh? Jist show us where, and you shan't be touched at all, nor that little wretch yonder, what keeps screeching so; but if you don't - " and here his natural ferocity mastered him, and he wound up with a volley of curses, in the midst of which our rescuers rushed upon them. 

"When we came to talk the whole matter over calmly and quietly, no doubt was left upon our minds, as to the premeditation of the whole affair. But for the watch kept, the attack would most probably have been made during the night."

Road in the Black Forest 1852 / S.T.G. Image source:

Another account of the Black Forest is offered in 1855 within the letters from 12 year old girl, Lucy Hannah Birchall to her grandmother. 

Her letters describe her family's journey from Melbourne to the Bendigo diggings (source):

"...we entered the far famed Black Forest Such roads! no one that has not seen them can imagine any thing worse. Now we were in a crabhole (places three or four feet deep filled with soft mud and water) now rattling over logs laid across the road of different breaths and with a space of nine or ten inches between each log we were shaken to bits. Papa had to go before the dray to pick out the best places he had to walk through all the mud to find out how deep it was Every time we were in a crab-hole the driver used to terrify us by calling out to the leading horse "Tom" "Tom"(the leader horse) I cannot write the tone he said it in. In the evening the dray got stuck so we determined to make a fire and camp out".

"So here we are camping out in the Black Forest. We are all going to sleep on top of the dray eight of us!!"

Although the days of bushrangers in the Black Forest are long gone, you can still explore the forest as well as the bushranging territory on the other side of Bendigo.

Melville Caves, where notorious bushranger Captain Melville (said to have claimed leadership of the Mount Macedon gang that waylaid travelers in the Black Forest) hid out in the beautiful hill-top caves while preying on the gold escorts below.




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