In the 1840's my great great grandfather, his wife and five young children lived near the Barfold Gorge, in northwest Victoria. Even today, 175 years later, very few people have seen this dramatic landscape [Fig. 1]. When John Ross McNaughton died on 18 July 1885, the moderator of the West Melbourne Presbyterian Church Dr. D. MacDonald placed on his coffin a testimonial that was published in the church's Monthly Messenger [1]. MacDonald said that John "soon went further into the interior and engaged in the service of Mr. (afterwards Sir William) Mitchell, who was then making his place at Barfold, on the Campaspe." The lives of these two men, Mitchell and McNaughton, which intersected in the middle of the 19th century, had very different trajectories.

[Barfold Gorge 1]

Figure 1. Mitchell Falls in flood, 2000, Barfold Gorge.


George Berkeley Mitchell was born in 1776 in Northern Ireland, the youngest of six children. The family fell on hard times after their house burned down. George was adopted by Mrs. Monck in Dublin, a widowed relative of Bishop George Berkeley. The primary achievement of this Anglo-Irish philosopher was to deny the existence of material substance outside ideas in the mind of the perceiver. Mrs. Monck took responsibility for George Mitchell's education (and may have influenced him to adopt the middle name 'Berkeley'). Mitchell was sent to England where he came in contact with the ideas of practical Christianity, including the abolition of slavery. He became a curate of the Church of England. In 1805 he married Penelope Fancourt, daughter of the Rev. William Fancourt. They moved to Leicester, England in 1812 and had a total of eight children, six sons and two daughters [2]. William Henry Fancourt Mitchell's birth is registered as November 1811. In 1823 his father, George, became vicar of the 12th century church of St. Mary's, and later also of All Saints. In May 1828, he died of a seizure while visiting his son, possibly William, in London.

William was appointed a writer in the Van Diemen's Land Executive Council's Office and arrived in the "Sir Thomas Munro" at Hobart in January 1833 [3, 4]. On 21 August 1841 at St. John's Church of England in New Town he married Christina, daughter of Andrew Templeton of Glasgow. On 21 March 1842 he resigned his appointment and in April he and Christina sailed for Port Phillip, where he acquired 'Barfold' station, 20 km (12 mi) northeast of Kyneton [Fig. 2] and a property in the Mount Macedon district. Mitchell is described for the next eleven years as a grazier at Barfold. He supposedly 'selected' the Barfold site in 1848 and is listed as a squatter in 1849, with 65,000 acres at Terrick Terrick and 45,000 acres at Barfold, both in the Westernport Commissioner's District [5]. The latter property was estimated to have a grazing capacity of 400 cattle and 15,000 sheep. Barfold is 104 km (65 miles) northwest of Melbourne, on the Heathcote-Kyneton road. How did William Mitchell become such a large proprietor?

[Barfold Gorge 2]

Figure 2. The Barfold property has frontage on the Campaspe River and Pipers Creek
(Whereis map used with permission of Sensis Pty. Ltd.).

The European colonizers of the 19th century largely disregarded the rights of the aboriginals in Australia. There was a scramble to occupy the best grazing lands close to water. The first occupants were called squatters. Usually they had no legal rights to the land, gaining its usage by being the first (and often the only) Europeans in the area. In England 'squatter' was a term of contempt and it had a similar connotation in the early years of European settlement of Australia [6]. From the mid-1820s however, the occupation of Crown lands without legal title became more widespread, often carried out by those from the upper echelons of colonial society. From 1824 there were acts and regulations to limit squatting. By the mid-1830s Government policy in New South Wales, which also supervised Port Phillip, shifted from opposition to regulation and control. By 1840 squatters were recognized as being among the wealthiest men in the colony, many of them from upper and middle-class English and Scottish families. William Mitchell, aged 31, the son of a vicar, probably had good government connections and had saved enough money to qualify.

In June 1844 the lessees of Crown lands came into Melbourne on horseback and marched to a meeting place with flags flying, preceded by a highland piper playing martial airs [6]. They requested alterations in the law of Crown lands and a total separation from the Middle District (New South Wales). It's possible my great great grandfather witnessed this. It may have been the occasion when he met William Mitchell.


On 17 May 1838, 23-year-old John Ross McNaughton left Greenock, Scotland with his 21-year-old wife Agnes (née Stirling) and their one-year-old daughter Jane. They arrived in Port Jackson on September 26th after surviving the long journey, including a brush with pirates and a virulent outbreak of typhus. They were among a group of immigrants at the Bent Street barracks who had not been able to obtain work. These people were offered passage on the "Hope" to Port Phillip because of the buoyant state of the labor market there. John was listed as a gardener aged 24, Agnes as a servant aged 22 and Jane a child aged 1-1/2. The "Hope" departed Sydney on December 17th and arrived in Port Phillip on 3 January 1839. It was not easy to employ a family but the return for the "Hope" showed the McNaughton family was engaged on January 12th by Thomas Watt, a carpenter/builder who operated the first punt across the Yarra River [7].

[Barfold Gorge 3]

Figure 3. John McNaughton was engaged in service to
William Mitchell who was making his 45,000-acre
property at Barfold on the Campaspe River.

In March Watt lost his license "in consequence of his having occasioned a great deal of irregularity in assembling a number of disorderly characters about his punt and making them drunk." We do not know if and how Watts's dismissal affected John McNaughton. We know he later worked at Heidelberg, "an agricultural settlement far in the bush," 11 km (7 miles) northeast of Melbourne's central business district. He and Agnes had eleven children. Christina was born in 1840 and John, my great grandfather, was born in a tent in Brunswick on 28 January 1842. The children kept coming - James in 1844, Alexander 1846, Charles 1848 and Agnes in 1850 - one every two years.

Mitchell would have needed a lot of help at Barfold, with capacity for 400 cattle and 15,000 sheep [Fig. 3]. By the 1840s there were sixteen thousand shepherds and hut-keepers working in Australia, most of them in New South Wales. If the 29-year-old John Ross McNaughton met William Mitchell in 1844 when he was working in the agricultural fields at Heidelberg, his wife Agnes was 27, his daughter Jane 7, Christina 4, my grandfather John was 2 and James a newborn. This was not an easy group to employ. Some bargain was struck. Was Mitchell generous? Did Agnes have to work as well? Did the kids have a marvelous time frolicking in the bush? How did Mitchell and McNaughton relate to the aborigines? I like to think it was a golden time for this young family, despite the inevitable hardships. I wonder if their lives were much different from those portrayed in the film "Braveheart," where people lived in primitive huts in the Scottish mud.

The McNaughtons may have moved back to Melbourne in 1851, after being as many years as seven at Barfold. On 22 June 1851 five of the McNaughton children were baptized at Scots Church in Melbourne. John's profession was "Waterman." This could mean he operated boats, like Thomas Watt, or it could mean he carried water from the upper Yarra to townsfolk. He had a team of horses and developed a very profitable carting service to and from the goldfields, which boomed around this time. When his son Peter was born on 12 September 1857 John was described as a 'carter.' In 1872 and 1885 he was a 'contractor.' When his daughter Jane died in 1892 John was a 'gentleman.' When his son John died in 1934, the father was described as a 'cartage contractor.'

[Barfold Gorge 4]

Figure 4. The Barfold Gorge is home to distinct lava formations
and tessellated pavements of volcanic origin.


One of the most magical memories the McNaughton family had of Barfold must have been the Barfold Gorge, which is four kilometers long (2-1/2 miles) and up to 80 meters (262 ft) deep [8]. It has two waterfalls - called the Mitchell and the Queens - basalt columns and a lava cave [Fig. 4]. It was created by the Campaspe River and Pipers Creek incising deeply into a sequence of four or more lava flows that issued from Green Hill volcano 12 km to the southwest. The eruptions occurred 4 to 5 million years ago. The gorge is on private property, Corumbene, a 246-hectare (608-acre) sheep and cattle farm [9]. The land owner has title to the center of the river, which is unusual in the state of Victoria. Usually there is a Crown Land frontage that allows the public access to the waterway. Under a covenant that allows the owner rights to the river, the property must be opened to the public one day a year [10]. There are 95 bird species recorded for the gorge environs, including peregrine falcons and wedge-tailed eagles. Other flora and fauna include platypus, rare fish and the hairy anchor plant (Discaria pubescens), a rare and endangered plant species [Fig. 5].

[Barfold Gorge 5]

Figure 5. The gorge is home to 95 bird species, platypus, rare fish
and the hairy anchor plant, an endangered species.

(photo by Ian Menkins)

The Mitchell Falls may have been named for Sir William Mitchell, but could also have been named for Sir Thomas Mitchell (1792-1855), who was surveyor-general from 1828 until his death. In his third Australian expedition, in 1836, he passed through this region and named the Campaspe River. He was knighted in l839. Tim Read was a stewardship officer at Trust for Nature, which worked with the former landowners, Christine and Will Elliott, to place a conservation covenant on Barfold Gorge [11]. These covenants ensure sites will be protected forever, creating a haven for native wildlife and plants. This property has frontage on both the Campaspe River and Pipers Creek, 6.5 km south of Redesdale [Fig. 6 & Ref.12]. Overlooking the steep cliffs of the gorge on the Campaspe River, Tim speaks of "The majestic basalt columns, lava caves and dramatic tiled rocks [tessellated pavements that] recall the region's fiery volcanic past, making the site a prized destination for geologists."

[Barfold Gorge 6]

Figure 6. Topographical map of Barfold Gorge, Campaspe River,
Pipers Creek and the Mitchell and Queens Falls.

Because of the dramatic geology in the Barfold Gorge and the prolific wildlife I feel sure this must have been a haunt of the native people, possibly a sacred place. Did they inhabit or visit it while John was there with his family? How did these two cultures get along? John, with his white Calvanistic upbringing, his wife and his young brood, and the aborigines with their blue-black skin, their 40,000-year history, their stewardship of the land and their unfamiliar ways. John would have felt protective of his family but no doubt anxious to get along. Did he have a gun? Did he develop friendships and understandings with the locals? How did he look after the thousands of livestock brought in by William Mitchell? Did the aborigines help themselves? Were there any incidents? How was justice served? We have no information about all of this. No stories have survived. All is speculation. I have some information about another relative who was a policeman in Queensland and that is hard to digest [13]. In the absence of facts about John and his family at Barfold I lean on fiction to understand the dynamics of this clash of cultures [14].


When Victoria was separated from New South Wales in 1851 gold had just been discovered. John Ross McNaughton was carting supplies to the goldfields with a team of horses. The first lieutenant governor, Charles Latrobe, appointed William Mitchell chief commissioner of police, with orders to stamp out bush-ranging. Mitchell began duty on 1 January 1853 and within a year he built up the force from 700 to 2,000, virtually eradicating bush-ranging. During his leadership the gold miners in Ballarat rebelled against what they perceived as various forms of government oppression. This culminated in the Battle of Eureka Stockade on 4 December 1854. Mitchell resigned from the police the same year. After a visit to England 1854-55 he commenced a series of posts in the Victorian Legislative Council, including postmaster-general 1857-8 and minister for railways and roads 1861-3.

The Legislative Council was created at Separation as the single house of the Parliament of Victoria. Five years later, in 1856, a lower house, the Legislative Assembly was created. In 1870 William Mitchell was elected as second president of the Legislative Council, holding that office for fourteen years. In 1875 he was appointed Knight Bachelor. He was well positioned to protect the 110,000 acres that he had 'selected' - chief commissioner of police, postmaster general, minister for railways and roads and president of the upper house of the Victorian parliament. He died at Barfold on 24 November 1884 after a short illness, aged 73. He and his wife Christina had nine children but there are no descendants with the name Mitchell. John Ross McNaughton died a year later, aged 71. He and his wife Agnes had eleven children. His McNaughton descendants live all over Australia and around the world.

[1] McNaughton, Ken "West Melbourne Presbyterian" Port Phillip Pioneers Group Newsletter.
[2] Fancourt, Mary St. J[ohn], "George Berkeley Mitchell 1776-1828"
[3] "Mitchell, Sir William Henry Fancourt (1811-1884)," Australian Dictionary of Biography - Online Edition
[4] "William Henry Fancourt Mitchell," Wikipedia
[5] Romanov-Hughes, Alexander "Squatters Directory of the Occupants of Crown Lands of Port Phillip 1849."
[6] "Squatting (pastoral)," Wikipedia
[7] McNaughton, Ken, "First Punt across the Yarra," Port Phillip Pioneers Group Newsletter, February/March and April/May 2015.
[8] "Barfold Gorge," Wikipedia
[9] Guerrera, Orietta "Secret gorge lifts its veil" "The Age", 22 September 2006.
[10] Private correspondence with Neville Rosengren, 2014.
[11] Mundell, Meg, "Tim Read: A Majestic Outdoor Office" Environment Victoria, 2007.
[12] " Barfold Gorge: Schedule 3 to the Environmental Significant Overlay" Mount Alexander Planning Scheme (ES03).
[13} McNaughton, Ken, "Robert Johnstone: Queensland Pioneer," Queensland Family Historian, Vol. 31, No. 2, May 2010.
[14] Grenville, Kate, "The Secret River," Canongate, 2005.

NOTE: Neville Rosengren, an honorary associate at La Trobe University, was formerly senior lecturer in earth sciences. A former owner of the Barfold property allowed him to visit the gorge with students at any time in return for him being available to explain the geo-features to the public on the annual open day. I am very grateful to Neville for allowing me to publish Figs. 1, 3, 4 and 6 and for his help in reviewing the article.

[Ken McNaughton]

Contributed by Ken McNaughton ( PPPG Member No. 1061 )

© COPYRIGHT This work is copyrighted and may not be reproduced in whole or in part in any medium without written permission from Ken McNaughton, 3778 College Avenue, Ellicott City, MD 21043; phone/fax: 410-418-9340; (28 May 2014).

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