Tarabilli – history and geography

In the 20th century, my grandfather, Stephen Dewan wrote in an “exercise book” a story of his life. His father John had settled in Beechworth, where my father, Ernest Arthur Dewan was born in 1913. Dad died in July 1963, when I was eight years old.

This is the story of the Dewan resettlement in the Woolshed Valley, near Beechworth, recorded in the same form as Grandfather, Stephen Dewan, did … with a fountain pen.

… Tarabilli was a name given to a compilation of properties that included the land two 21st Century lovers acquired on their 10th wedding anniversary, part of which was a gold miners claim of John Dewan; John had died in 1921, having taken out the miners claim in 1861 for the almost 5 acres at the East end of the now 25 acres Tarabilli property. He eventually purchased the title in 1881, for which he paid 7 pounds and 10 shillings.

Records show that John and Stephen – John’s brother Stephen had his name given to John’s son and then to Stephen-the-son’s son – my uncle. A diary of the mining by the 19th century brothers (small) company resides in the Beechworth Bourke museum, as does a picture of John Dewan, who is recorded as one of the Beechworth founding fathers in a collage of images.

Padma, now my wife, and I, came to know of the connection to the Woolshed Valley in a chance meeting between my brother Tony with Jim and Pat White the owners of Ballagilli as it was then known. Tony, was to be the wedding planner in Australia and the photographer in India for the two weddings Padma and I celebrated. The first on 23rd May 2004, the second on the 20th June, in India. The chance meeting with Jim and Pat White was at a presentation by Tony as part of his photography studies. They owned the property that included the Dewan claim, and had done so from the early 1980’s; Jim, particularly, was forthright in informing my unsuspecting brother that he had confused the original settlement geography – Jim asserted it was at “ three mile”, another of the gold-claim locations of the 19th century; the Dewan clan moved after the Woolshed was sold in the 1880’s.

Illustration by Arta Syla

The next pivotal event was the discovery, at the eleventh hour, that Padma and I could not legally marry in India; we were not able to have a ceremony unless we were married … we could only have a “ceremony” not a marriage, as we were not Indian citizens. Cable beach, near Broom, was an option, but would not be possible before the 20th June Indian event. Inspirationally, we thought that getting married on the John and Ellen Dewan land would be wonderfully symbolic. The Whites, ardent historians, took no convincing, and so, with a rush of enthusiasm the “wedding” was expanded to include a family reunion the night before the marriage in the paddock – no point doing things by ½. The process of finding the extended family took some interesting and pleasant turns.

Firstly, I rang dad’s brother, Frank, then in his 90’s – almost miraculously he has since died on his 100th Birthday – Frank and I had developed a lovely relationship since I had returned to Melbourne, and particularly in the few years leading to the wedding in 2004. I always had to look up his number in the phone book; a possibility then, and nothing more than a habit that was part of the ritual of contact. We again had a warm reconnection, and which followed with extending an invitation to be the Witness at the wedding, having discussed the finding of the Woolshed property. Chest-fallen, I recall, was how I felt as Frank blurted “blood hell, I’m too old to go that far, I can barely get to Euroa these days”, which is where his son – John – resides. Undaunted, and again surprised to find a limited number of “Dewan” names in the Melbourne phone book, I started ringing them. Indians + Mauritians were clearly not related – (Dewan is now known to be a word or name in several countries – and is an Irish–Australian name. Tim de Wan (note the different way of writing the name) seemed to be very willing to get involved as soon as we spoke, as judged by our similar sense humour, at least.

Tim and I connected though his cousin Gabrielle; both were, eventually, identified to be the descendants of Stephen Dewan, John’s brother. Never-the-less they were invited to the wedding, and have remained friends.

So, after many phone calls we had a quorum for a reunion and a very special guest list for the wedding the following day.

There are other layers of connected history for the wedding on the 23rd of May 2004. It was the birthday of Emily Victoria May (Cooper) Dewan; she was born in 1915. May was (is) my mother, but she has died 1989 … the year Padma graduated from medicine.

The second wedding, in India, on the 20th of June 2004, was planned to coincide with Padma’s parents 50th wedding anniversary, which included a surprise celebration of their many years of happy marriage. One wedding with a family reunion, the other with an anniversary party – why not!

Fortunately, as for many years in the North East of Victoria, the Autumn was dry; the rain came the day after the wedding. On the wedding day, the guests gathered in the paddock, but only after the bride and groom had removed the wedding-reception-tent-proximate cow turds the previous day. We had not expected the monuments to bovine digestive processes, thus had to resort to both a gumtree shovel and an improvised, bark cartage device. Padma is famous for the “stonker” description of the post-digestion collections.

A dance floor, a jazz band that played “unchained melody” as the bridle waltz and entertained the 50 John and Ellen descendants, and Stephen Dewan offspring-interlopers. All were fed from the in-ground oven, as were Pat and Jim White, the land owners and history enthusiasts.

We unveiled a painting of the iris’s in the bush, that legend suggests, were planted by Ellen Dewan during her time in the small hut with 11 children, including Patrick, who died at a young age. Prints of Todd Whisson’s “Ellen’s Irises” now adorn 10 walls, including the Pat and Jim White house on the property now called Tarabilli … the name means “Iris” “White” … that property now owned by Padma and me.

Sunday morning (24th May 2004) was marked by a return to the site of the Wedding. Responding to concerns of the Whites that their cows would chock on the cigarette butts left behind; so, we collected them, and the tinsel left on the ground – all of it … we thought.

The site visit became an annual event. Fate would have it that on the first anniversary two unique, magical things happened. When we searched the unidentifiable site (it was now just part of the paddock) we found only one, yes only one, piece of table tinsel – we looked for hours to find more; that piece now sits in a frame on the Woolshed Valley mantel piece. The second coincidence was that only one iris flowered from the corms transplanted to our Melbourne home.

The iris’s in the field were used as the foreground for an article published in the Albury Border Morning Mail newspaper about the wedding. The journalist focused on the connection of the great-grandson to the land of his ancestors – fitting, but not the whole story.

Our vows were taken on a red carpet, under an arch, and the marriage confirmed by none other than my school dance teacher, Betty O’Keefe, who had also been a friend of my mother.

Padma arrived in a vintage car that was driven down a dirt road … the same car and road that had delivered the groom a little earlier, albeit without cufflinks that were borrowed from the driver who was happy to go without his shirt adornment!

We grew to love the concept of the connection to the original settlement even more as years past, and we developed a lovely friendship with Pat and Jim; our closeness to Pat strengthened by our shared feeling of loss after Jim passed away. Sadly, but inevitably Pat became debilitated. Julie her daughter and her husband, Andy, wanted to fulfill the wishes of Pat and Jim, namely that Padma and I had the opportunity to purchase the Dewan Family Land. As always, a dream is easy, reality bites.

Finally, we agreed to purchase the kit, mudbrick home that had darkened inside from the smoking firebox. We loved the idea of managing a small winery, but the 130 vines had diminished to half that number, and much of the trellising had fallen into disappear.

Add to that the white-ant problem that had resulted in one of the cupboard doors falling off, a “gesture” that inferred that purchase of the place seemed misguided by any logic, so went with the heart, and on the 10th wedding anniversary of a very romantic couple, we purchased John Dewan’s 1861 selection.

The white ants had been their usual cleverer–than–we–thought selves, and had taken out at least a third of the timber frame, which we only discovered as the renovation proceeded. We started with a little house divided in two halves with the typical 80’s loss-of-space-to-a-corridor hut. Wood panelling darkened the open-plan room, and gave white ants a feast. The carpet was, shall we say, a 20-30 year old “treat”. Half the house, the north facing part, consisted of a kitchen at the west end, then a bench to separate if from the dining area that merged through to the living area as you moved East toward a door that created a passage-way effect through the long narrow room, making options for furniture placement limited. The north wall was mainly single glazing, breeze facilitating windows and glass, interrupted by a central chimney and badly smoking firebox. One joy of the make-over was finding that wasp nests, softened with water, make great filler for mudbrick chimney cracks.

In the meantime, the grapes were going well, and the 2015 vintage being brewed by Julie and Andy, ready to be bottled on my birthday in 2016 – connecting events again. In the garden, I had replaced some of the termite attracting wood with Melbourne blue stone. The bluestone was sourced from a nursery in Templestowe, near the house Padma and I shared from 2009, until 2020. Bluestone, previously part of the streets of Melbourne, which was founded in 1834. John and Ellen Dewan may have travelled over some of those stones on their way through Melbourne as they ventured to the Beechworth gold field, which was first explored in 1852. The bluestone connection between Melbourne and Beechworth conjures thoughts of the Australian-rules football connection between the two towns; the Northeast Victorian town of Beechworth was one of the first that played the combined code of “football” that led to the “Aussie” rules game of today.

The bluestone connection, morphed into a bluestone monument to John and Ellen on their property in the Woolshed Valley. A property that has given us so much joy to Padma and me. A place where apple blossom soon forms into cattle feed, human breakfast and extra lunch; eventually the calves learn to eat the harder fruit, and their father, happily re-enters his home-bound truck along a trail of taste temping apple treats.

The calves remind Padma of her English Village ventures to green fields as a child, and, on returning from England after the death of her mother, in 2015, the cows and their calves were there to fill a void left by the loss of Narmada (Padma’s mother), who had enjoyed meeting Pat White and her herd. Another connection of the past, to the present and future.