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This short article was first published as one of Melbourne's Hidden Gems in the White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No. 472 on 14th January 2011

Garden at Ziebell's Farmhouse, Wstgarthtown

Many people feel you need to travel to country Victoria to experience find atmospheric examples of pioneer life from the time of the gold rush, but there are some fine examples hidden away in our sprawling suburbs if you know where to look. One of our favourite examples is the German settlement in Thomastown.

In the days before the gold rush a prominent Melbourne businessman and politician became impressed with the qualities of German farmers and tradesmen. The area later to be known as Germany was experiencing hard times and many people on the land were looking to emigrate. The Melbourne businessman was a contributor to charities all his life but, being a canny Scottish Presbyterian, knew that a sovereign invested into the right enterprises could soon generate 10 sovereigns for the little settlement of Melbourne. He convinced the authorities to set up an assisted passage scheme for a German settlement for which he would also put his hand in his own pocket for a substantial amount. After all, if you were looking for a Protestant work ethic, who better to look to than a bunch of German Lutherans. Thus the little German town was set up to the north of Melbourne.

When the Germans arrived they found land that would have discouraged many others. It was strewn with boulders and stones of the most intractable type. But Germans and bluestone are a good combination. Building your farmhouse and outbuildings from bluestone might be long and backbreaking work but if you did it properly you wouldn’t need to do it again for a long time. In fact the farmhouse that the Ziebell family built is still in wonderful condition and housed their descendents without external power, water or sewerage until the 1970s.

When you come to build a church, then bluestone is again the obvious choice. Nothing fancy mind you – none of these papist baubles. However they allowed themselves the indulgence of three small coloured panes of glass in the window above the doorway. Do it simple, do it well, and do it with a craftsmanship that will stand the test of time. While many more ostentatious churches in Melbourne’s suburbs have fallen into decay, Lutheran services are still held in the little German chapel.

Old Lutheran Church, Westgarthtown

And, inevitably, every such a settlement will need a graveyard. The Lutheran Cemetery contains burials from the earliest times of the settlement through to the present day. If you visit, see if you can find the only remaining wooden gravestone (Is it a gravestone if it is made of wood?). Also keep an eye out for Mimi the cat who is a regular visitor.

Wooden grave at Thomastown (Westgarthtown) Lutheran Cemetery

The farmhouse, outbuildings, a good portion of the farmland, the chapel, the graveyard and the original drystone walls all sit in the middle of downtown Thomastown – if you know where to look. It is a short walk from the railway station and an appropriate destination for the adventurous cyclist. The interior of the farmhouse is open once a month and there are occasional tours.

However, if you are on holiday, we would recommend a visit during the week. The interior of the house won’t be open but you are likely to have the whole area to yourselves and your thoughts without intrusive guides and displays telling you what to think and hiding away the things they don’t think people should be interested in. The family can have a picnic in the manicured farmhouse garden. Dad can prod at the machinery and figure out how it worked, mum can ponder the domestics of the dairy and the daily chores, older daughter can retire to the delightful garden at the front of the house overflowing with Victorian era flowers and read her Jane Austen book, teenage son can head off and take photographs of the cemetery and younger teenage daughter can pout because she doesn’t want to be there – but then again she doesn’t want to be anywhere her parents are.

Garden at Ziebell's Farmhouse, Westgarthtown

By the way, the businessman and politician who convinced the authorities to foster this German settlement also donated money of his own towards the scheme. His name was William Westgarth, and the German village (as well as a later Melbourne suburb) was named after him.

Daisies at Ziebell's Farmhouse, Westgarthtown

Open: Second Sunday of each month from 1 to 4pm or by appointment. (However see comment above about being able to wander around the exterior on any day)

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