Penshurst Chinese Market Gardeners

The following history accounts for Chinese market gardeners in Penshurst and district. Chinese convention notes the Clan or family name first (Ah), followed by the given name (Foo)

The first mention of the Chinese in Penshurst was a tragic one. The Boram Boram Cemetery records of the 14th April 1878, under Police burials, listed Ah Foo, Chinese, cause of death, cut throat, address, Penshurst, c /o Wickliffe. This was a case of suicide. There is no Ah Foo listed in the rate books, perhaps he worked on one of the stations surrounding Penshurst.

In September of the same year the Government Gazette recorded that Ah Gow, Ah Chung, and Ah Fong had taken out licences for Garden Allotments of 2 roods, 27 perches each. These allotments were surveyed out of the Town Common,(section 47) just to the west of the Spring drain. The granting of the licences was quickly followed by a letter to the Mount Rouse Shire Council.

Penshurst 4th October 1879

The Shire Council of Mount Rouse

    Gentleman, I have the honour to inform you that I have obtained (in company with my partners) a garden licence for allotments 102 and 103 containing 5 acres, 7 perches situated near the Tea Tree scrub in the town of Penshurst. It is my intention to use the same as a market garden for the produce of vegetables to supply the residents in the district. Our object in securing the land referred to, was to enable us to procure a supply of water from the spring, without which the garden would be comparatively useless, and for this purpose we beg respectfully to apply for permission to lay an 1½” iron pipe from the spring to land referred to. We would attach a tap to the pipe and would guarantee not to use it for more than 12 hours out of the twenty and we would be willing to pay a reasonable fee for the use of the water. An early reply will oblige as if favourable we propose commencing operations at once.

                                                                      Your obedient servant, Ah Chung , c/o Jin Kong Wah Storekeeper Hamilton.

The Council granted permission and no time was wasted in digging the new market garden and a irrigation drain surrounding the plots.

More of the Ah clan showed up in the September 1880 Govt Gazette, Ah Chunn, Ah Chin, Ah Win and Sun Kuong. They joined Ah Chung as having taken out one acre garden plots licences in the Parish of Boram Boram. The cost was 5 shillings each per annum.

With the market garden up and running, the local geese that lived around the Spring basin found it too much of a temptation. They started foraging in the crops prompting Ah Sam and the other Chinese gardeners to send a letter to the Council, dated March 1881 complaining of the destruction caused by the geese. They requested that a (shire) officer or the police constable be appointed to destroy them.

At the September 1881 Court of Petty sessions, Ah Chung was summoned for driving a horse which had a sore shoulder. He was found guilty and fined one shilling, with three shillings and sixpence costs.

By 1884 Ah Chung had built a house on the garden allotments. The Shire rate book has him leasing 7 1/2 acres consisting of allotments 101,102 & 103, owned by the Crown, with a nett annual value of thirty pounds. The house site is still visible today (2014) being the highest spot in the old Chinaman’s paddock

Ah Wong was living in Penshurst, first in a house owned by Sarah Eales. He then purchased two allotments on the corner of Cox, Burchett and Dickens Streets. Around 1885 he built a house on the site, facing Cox Street.

The official history of Victoria states that commercial vegetable growing was started mainly by the Chinese in the gold digging years of the 1850s. Right up until the 20th century, vegetable growing was almost a monopoly of the Chinese. Every large pastoral station or country town had its own Chinese gardeners

Chinese gardens were hand dug with hoes, as opposed to larger farms that were worked with a plough. They used raised beds to grow seasonal vegetables in a continual planting system. Watering was by the usual Chinese method of flooding water down the furrows. This flooding seemed to be the main cause of the later trouble with the neighbours, because as the spring water was flowing into the gardens, the spring drain downstream dried up, or the overflow spilled into the near neighbour’s paddocks. Fertilizing was by manure collected from the numerous horse stables scattered around the town. In the cities, nightsoil was sometimes bought from contractors. This practice lead to laws banning the deposit (at the gardens) of nightsoil without the consent of the local Council, also banned was the watering of stalks of celery or any vegetable with liquid nightsoil or urine. The new laws also threatened to pull down, damp, dirty and dilapidated houses. At the time most Chinese gardeners lived in timber shanties with dirt floors, as did lots of Europeans.

In 1885 Ah Chung purchased allotments 1 to 6 of section 44, of 3 acres, expanding the gardens to 10 ½ acres. While Ah Chung and Ah Wong were busy growing vegies and hawking them around the district they found time to join the Penshurst Race Club, paying an annual subscription of 10 shillings each.

Ah Wong who started off renting a house in Watton Street had by 1890 set up a store and timberyard at his Cox street address. As his business grew, in 1891 he took on two silent partners Daniel Twomey, Kolor and Mary Stanton, Penshurst. With increased funds he built a new house, store and timberyard in Bell Street. Meanwhile Ah Chung had gained freehold over the garden allotments and soon after leased them to Hop Lea. Ah Chung further expanded the gardens to 12 acres in 1893.

Water Wars

The first of the ongoing complaints against the Chinese gardeners was made by John McNamara, July 1884, who said they were diverting the Penshurst Spring water from its natural course.

Ah Lee and Ah Chung also complained to the Council about the bad state of the drains and roads leading to the garden. They said the track from the Hamilton road to the Chinaman’s garden was very bad and almost impassable. This was followed by a petition in September1895, signed by eight ratepayers, including Ah Gow, gardener, asking the Council to make the road leading from the Hamilton road past the Chinaman’s garden to the Tea Tree Flat. In January 1898 William O Brien who owned land along Murdum Creek near the Hamilton road, sent a letter to the Council, asking that the water from the Spring be allowed to run along its drain(for the last 20 years), without being diverted to any other coarse. This letter was followed two years later by another signed by Wm. O’Brien and eight others requesting that the Spring Creek drain to Boram Boram bridge not be interfered with. The Council took no action.

Further letters followed in May 1898, from Wm O’Brien and Frank Liles Olle. A letter in favour of the Chinese gardeners was sent in by R Johnston. On January 10th 1900, William Ryan fired off an angry letter to the Council.

The President & councillors. Shire of Mount Rouse.

    Gentlemen, I wish to draw your attention to the Chinese gardeners in regard to the spring drain. They have cut a channel across the main drain to convert the water on to their property; they also dam the drain occasionally, with the result that they ruin my crops and those of the adjoining neighbours & also deprive those lower down the channel of water for their stock.

The only reply I can obtain from them when remonstrating, is “oh me no sabee, no sabee”. Last year I lost three tons of potatoes & this year a crop of mangolds thro their actions in this matter. Now it is too bad that the neighbours & myself should suffer loss to benefit these heathen & I would respectfully request the council to take such steps as will prevent a recurrence of these doings on the part of the Chinese. signed, William Ryan.

The Council resolved that the drains across the road, (Underwood’s Lane) and drainage reserve between allotments 14, 16 and 84 Penshurst, north of the Chinese garden be filled in and made good. Plus the Shire secretary was to look up what provisions had been granted by the Council to the Chinese market gardeners to take water from the spring by means of pipes.

The secretary reported back to the July Council meeting , that permission was given to the late Ah Chung on the 18th November1879 to take water via a 1, ½ pipe. He also reported that for many years past the gardens have been sublet to other Chinese, and he believed the stipulation as regards the use of the pipe for taking the water had been observed.

Then William Ryan sent another letter dated Dec 1901, complaining that the Chinamen were letting water flood his crop. The Councillors had had enough and politely told him to remedy the problem himself.

The Shire must have stopped the water flowing into the gardens other than the 2 inch pipe as Sun Wah Hong, executor of the Ah Chung estate complained about the Councils action in cutting off the water in a dry season. In 1905 the water was again cut off. After a polite letter from Sun Wah Hong, and the problem not being resolved, Mr Grano, Barrister and Solicitor of Ararat wrote to the Council suggesting a box drain would be better than the current 2 inch pipe.

Still the complaints kept coming. Davy Grieg, Thomas Leahy and William Dingwell Ross complained about the spring water being cut off (by the Chinese), and a hundred cattle are without water. William Ryan had the opposite problem, complaining in July of 1905, that as the Engineer gave permission for the Chinese to clean out the drain and as there is no outlet, the water is dammed and flows over my paddock and runs out at my gate. Ryan owned allotment 7 of section 44, East of Ah Chung’s.

Hop Lea continued to lease the gardens from Sun Wah Hong, Merchant of Ararat up until 1908 when the Chinese gardeners disappear from the rate books.

In the era of the Chinese gardeners fresh vegetables were supplied to the township and district by horse and cart and delivered to the front door. This would have contributed to a better level of nutrition in the population.

Finally, could the watercress that grows in the Spring drain be a remnant escapee from the days of the Chinese market gardens?

by Phillip Doherty, Mount Rouse & District Historical Society Inc. 2015

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