A Proposal for a TV Programme about the Holian Family






The towns of St James and Devenish came into being as a result of selectors taking up land in the district. The first selection of land in the St James area was thought to be in 1870 (it may have been earlier in Devenish). Therefore the HoliansÕ selections in 1874 were early examples. The Holian family selected land on both sides of the boundary of Devenish and St James Parishes with the bulk of it in St James. Prior to the arrival of the selectors, the area had been taken up by squatters around 1840. The area that would become St James pastoral station was originally an outstation of the Cobram Run. In 1855 it became a separate entity of 38,000 acres with an assessed capacity of 19,000 sheep. It is believed the station's name originated when a new owner arrived on St James Day, May 1, 1860 (it would have been St James the Lessor, as his Feast Day is celebrated on May 3 by Catholics and May 1 by Anglicans). In North East Victoria the squatters had mainly come overland from Sydney and Goulburn herding their sheep all the way. They occupied vast acreages of what was seen as wilderness. They were the white men who first met, and interacted with the aborigines (for better or worse) living on the land. The squatters learnt the aboriginal names for places and often adopted these names (albeit often in an anglicised form) which have passed down to the present. It is said in St James 1871 - 1977 that around St James the aboriginal people were the Kwat Kwat Tribe with the nearby Pangerang to the south (also known as Bangerang about whom there is the view they were a distinct language group with the Kwat Kwat being one of ten clans making up the tribe).


Aborigines lacked a built-up resistance to contagious diseases brought with European settlers and the dispersed tribes had largely succumbed by the time their traditional lands were being selected and alienated. Conflict was a real factor in different localities as with the Faithful Massacre on the Broken River at Benalla in 1838 and the subsequent reprisals, but by the middle of the second half of the 19th century few aborigines remained due to white-manÕs diseases, mainly smallpox.


An impression of the original countryside and wildlife in the North East, and the significant environmental impact of European settlement, is given in a separate webpage: www.softdawn.net/ls6/impact.htm


Historical information about the establishment of St James is taken from the informative booklet St James 1871 - 1977 published by the 1977 Back-to-St James Committee. The Victorian Land Acts allowed for the creation of counties and parishes for administrative purposes. At the time of writing it is not known when Devenish and St James were declared parishes, but it would be after the first selection claim in 1870 in the St James area, as the application form was marked No parish. Both the parish name and the town name of St James were taken from the pastoral run. The St James run appears not to have been very successful as it had nine owners in 25 years and in 1880 its licence was cancelled. Devenish Parish bordered St James on the south.


After the early selections, an increasing number came to the district and took up selections. As the numbers grew a campaign soon got underway for a spur line to be built north from the main railway at Benalla to service the region which had primitive transport options. It had been established the district could produce good harvests and plantings of wheat, barley and oats were increasing. Getting them to market was a problem. Delegations from competing localities went to meet the State Minister for Railways and well-attended public meetings were held. Construction of railways was government policy. In the last days of 1880, the Railway Construction Bill was passed by the Victorian Parliament approving construction of a number of railway lines including one from Benalla terminating in the Parish of St James. There were to be three main stations on the line, Goorambat, Devenish and St James, but the termination point was not at an existing town. The future town of St James was to be built around the railway station. The line took one year to build and the first train pulled into St James on September 3, 1883. It was the intention of the Government that the line would be extended to Yarrawonga and this commenced in mid-1885 and the line opened for traffic on May 6, 1886 with a station at the existing town of Tungamah.



Before the State GovernmentÕs announcement of the route of the new railway line there wasnÕt a town in either St James or Devenish. It was still early in the settlement of the area. However, there was the established township of Lake Rowan, 10 km east of the future St James, and on the road from Benalla to Yarrawonga (halfway between the two). The earliest selectors at Lake Rowan settled from 1873 on. A township quickly developed. However, travel from Lake Rowan to Yarrawonga wasnÕt easy as there was nothing more than an ill-defined bush track. Many travellers became bushed and had to camp out the night. Two residents of Lake Rowan solved the problem using two horses and a plough to make a furrow from Lake Rowan to Yarrawonga which soon became easy to follow by the wear and tear of regular traffic. Soon shops and businesses opened in Lake Rowan: two hotels, two stores, three blacksmiths shops, two butchers, two carpenters, a bricklayer, saddler, bootmaker, wine shop, two churches, a bank, MechanicsÕ Hall, post and telegraph office, police station and a doctor. The township was surveyed in 1874 setting out many house blocks and named streets.  A Cobb & Co. coach service through Lake Rowan in the late 1870s had a change of horses at SwannellÕs Hotel.


The announcement that the route of the new railway would go well to the west of Lake Rowan had a major impact on the flourishing town with a number of its businesses quickly relocating to what would become St James. The railway stations at Goorambat, Devenish and St James became the focus for the establishment of townships. Devenish and St James have similar histories, but with differences that reflect the settlement of North East Victoria. Their stories follow.



Construction of the railway, which would terminate at a station in a selectorÕs paddock, prompted building of a township before a train had come down the line. Benalla blacksmith Michael Dowling set up business in the new town. Lake Rowan carpenter Joseph Caruthers built houses in St James and he and Michael moved there in 1882.



House on Lake Rowan Road believed to be the first house in St James, built and lived in by Joseph Caruthers.


Mr Carter opened the first store in 1882. Patrick Mullins built the North Eastern Hotel, the first of five hotels in St James. On the other side of the railway W McCague opened a butchery and a bakery and across the road an opposition butcher opened. In late 1882 West and Waters opened a general store. A post office was opened in St James at the end of 1882. On the completion of the railway the post office was relocated to the railway station, with post, telegraph and money order facilities. In April 1883 a real estate company announced the establishment of their business. At the same time a forwarding agent advertised their presence. The National Bank opened a branch followed by the Bank of Australasia. Even a football team, the St James Football Club, was formed in May 1883 before the railway opened. Horse racing and coursing were also popular sports. In 1884 the St James Railway Station School was built.




Local resident Beryl Ilsley waiting for a train on St James siding. St James Station was to the left of the photo on the main line and today is an elevated mound of earth. The Benalla – Yarrawonga line is now used for the movement of grain deposited by farmers in the operating silos along the line. The passenger rail service closed in the 1980s and now a limited bus service operates between Benalla and Yarrawonga.



Main street of St James, now known as Devenish Road.


Various protestant churches were built, but it was a case of musical chairs with churches being built and then relocated elsewhere. The Presbyterians built a church that functioned until the 1970s. From an early stage Catholics went to Devenish where their first church was built in 1876 (see below).




Historic portable police lockup relocated to St James Recreation Reserve in 2012 from rear of property on Lake Rowan Road which had been a police station. The lockup was originally at Lake Rowan, but had been moved to St James by October 1884 when it was mentioned in a newspaper article about a destructive tornado which damaged many buildings in the new town. It recorded even the lockup lost its roof which terrified the detained prisoner (taken from St James 1988 by Beryl Ilsley).




G. J. Coles, the founder of the Coles chain of stores, got his start in St James before moving to Melbourne and opening the Coles Variety Store in Smith Street, Collingwood in 1914. G. J. ColesÕ story at St James can be found at: www.softdawn.net/ls6/gjc.htm (yet to be written)



As already observed, the history of Devenish was similar to St James, but with some differences. It seems Devenish Parish may have been settled a few years before St James. The area was also known as Major Plains and Broken Creek (still local names in Benalla Rural City). A confusing issue about Devenish was that a survey of a township was done around the intersection of the Dookie and Benalla-Tocumwal Roads in 1873 and the township of Devenish was proclaimed the same year. This surveyed town was about 3 km SW of current Devenish. The survey was made by Thomas Nixon who had come from near Enniskillen on the banks of the large lake, Loch Erne, NW Ireland. It is believed he named Devenish after the small island in the lake where there are historical monastic ruins. Nixon also set aside land for Devenish Cemetery on the Tocumwal Road and the earliest known burial was in 1876.


It seems Nixon was based at Benalla and he conducted surveys of other future towns - Boho (24 km SW), Lurg (15 km east) and Monea (76 km SW) - all named after places near his Irish home. In The Kelly Outbreak, 1878-1880 John McQuilton calls Nixon the District Surveyor so he may have been an employee of the Victorian Government.


The surveyed town of Devenish never caught on. Apparently only one building was built there. It was on the Benalla-Tocumwal Road and it became a hotel for travellers and locals. However after the rail went through in 1883, a town grew by the railway station (about 3 km NE) and at some point the settlement at the railway station became Devenish and the original area became Devenish West. The surveyed area is now part of farming properties.


In 1859 the Dookie district (a short distance to the west) was surveyed, taking in much of the Emu Plains pastoral run. It is said the survey was unsettling for the owners because it opened up the prospect of farm subdivision. A sale of land in Broken Creek was held in Benalla in 1859. It would seem that the Emu Plains run extended at least as far as the Benalla-Tocumwal Road and stories by early settlers tell of an outlying shepherdÕs hut in the 1850s just SW of the later surveyed town.


Settlers began to occupy the Devenish district in the 1860s. It seems many came from the south west of Victoria – the Western District, Bacchus Marsh, Ballan, etc. As land was selected, those following would have to select land further to the north east. Hence the Devenish district was selected before St James. The still operating Broken Creek Primary School (15 km south of Devenish and 6 km north of the Benalla-Shepparton Road) opened in 1866. There is a bronze plaque at the school on a sizeable granite boulder. The fact that a school was required is a strong indication the early pioneers mentioned on the plaque were selectors, not squatters.








By the late 1870s most farm holdings were taken up. A number of schools were opened: Devenish West (1874-1943), Devenish East (1875-1931 in a primitive Methodist chapel) and Devenish (1876). Schools were an important focal point for local families. Farms were small by modern standards often around 300 acres (120 hectares), or less. On the other hand, families could be large – 10 to 12 kids. Transportation was limited. Establishment of schools was supported by the State Government and they were put where they were needed, often not large distances from each other. They could be relocated depending on circumstances.



Main street of Devenish.


Another confusing issue about Devenish is that a Catholic church was built in 1876 on land aligned with the future railway and township, implying the church founders had inspired insight into events which wouldnÕt occur for another six, or seven years. However, a simpler explanation is more likely.


A timber church was built on land made available by Mark Trainor. In a farming community where a town hadnÕt developed the precise location of their church wouldnÕt have been critical. The offer of free land would have been a decisive factor. It seems by chance this church land happened to be at the southern end of the future town, which was fortuitous. In 1882 Mark Trainor died and willed the land to the church and a new brick church was built, opening 1883 and named St Marks. As the parishioners grew in numbers, a larger church was necessary and a new church, built by Italians, was opened in 1912. Today the building is a private residence.


Butter and bacon factories were in the township at the turn of the century. Devenish had a school, three churches (Catholic, Church of England and Bible Christian/Methodist), general stores, two hotels and a Hiberian Society Hall which eventually became a public hall. There is silo storage for both wheat and oats. There were regular stock sales of cattle, sheep and pigs. The surviving hotel, which celebrated 130 years of existence at the end of 2014, became a community enterprise at some stage, but is now back in private hands.



As explained above the new townships of St James and Devenish came into being around the future railway stations after the announcement that the line would be built. The route of the railway ran along the borderline between adjoining selection allotments. The railway reserves for the station, silo and sheds were acquired by compulsory acquisition from one property (a map showing the St James railway line and reserve is available in section 5. An Overview of Holian Land Selection.


Therefore to obtain land to build a building – say a house, shop, or hotel - builders would reach an agreement with the selector owning or leasing the farm opposite the reserve to divide off and sell a building block. It was an irregular arrangement. It is likely to have occurred elsewhere in Victoria. The selection was invariably still under lease. The whole lease could be paid out, or else the quarterly rent needed to be paid for another ten years or so. Until the lease had been paid in full, and the selector had been given a Crown Grant transferring title to him, any agreement between the buyer and the selector was uncertain. The buyer didnÕt obtain a formal title. How this situation was resolved is unknown. In the case of St James the 240 acre allotment opposite the rail reserve was owned by Thomas Kelly who house was about 20 chains due west of the present railway station (about 400 m).


These blocks werenÕt surveyed meaning there could be future boundary disputes between neighbours who bought land. Apparently there were a number of such disputes in St James and probably in Devenish. Neither town was an officially declared town and St James was not gazetted as a town until the 1950s. However, block owners were required to pay rates to their local council which eventually provided a history of ownership and regularization of title.



I would like to thank St James historian Beryl Ilsley, and Devenish historian Joan Hooper and her husband Les, for the information and advice generously provided.




130 year old Devenish Pub in the main street of Devenish.