In November 1850, the sailing ship Admiral, Captain John T Freyer in command, limped into Port Phillip Bay with two broken masts. This was a common occurrence with ships outbound from England on the ‘Great Circle’ route traversing the ‘Roaring Forties’ or the ‘Furious Fifties’, the gale-swept latitudes between Australia and Antarctica. Where to find a new mast? Freyer was pointed towards the blue Dandenong Ranges on the eastern horizon.
Assuming that a suitable mast was found, how to get it from the hills to the ship? There were then no roads spanning the 40 km distance, and no bridges over the creeks. But Freyer was resourceful. He rounded up a bullock team and a pair of bush carpenters, and headed for the hills. The lowlands were disappointing: the trees were simply not big enough. But in a deep gully on the south side of the main range, Freyer and his team found what they sought: a perfectly straight, 100 foot (30m) tall white gum, with no branches along its length to weaken the trunk.
Getting the trunk back to the ship took a month. The bullockies and the bush carpenters built temporary
bridges across Dandenong and Gardiners Creek. Freyer was so pleased with his new spar that he extracted a second from the same source, which became known, not surprisingly, as Mast Gully. The Admiral sailed back to England, where the masts were widely admired.
Others noted this as well. John Wood Beilby bought freehold land at the base of the range in 1853, and promptly set up a sawmill. This provided an outlet for Thomas Dobson the following year, 1854, who found valuable lightwood trees in a nearby gully. The tree ferns were pretty, but then of no commercial value, and so were left alone. Landscape artist Eugene von Guerard immortalised the ‘Fern Tree Gully, near Dandenong’ in 1858, and the district now had a name.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of The Knox Historian. Thanks to Ray Peace and the Knox History Society for inclusion in Ferntree Gully News.