written by Stephen Brooks & Merrill O’Donnell of the Colac & District Family History Group.
For John William Gardner, the allure of fertile farming land in dense ferny soil south of Colac was worth more than gold. Born in Smythesdale near Ballarat in 1861, Jack Gardner was working the Tasmanian gold diggings in 1885 when his father Caleb wrote from Barramunga of the opportunity to select land at Beech Forest. He quickly travelled back to Victoria and commenced clearing land, beginning a connection with the district that would last for the rest of his life and ensure his name is always associated as that of a true pioneer.
The family’s origins were in Oxfordshire, yet in 1852 Caleb Gardner arrived in Melbourne aboard the Castle Tulloch and immediately headed to the Ballarat goldfields. In fact, the entire crew of the migrant ship abandoned their posts in search of gold and it was four months before the shipping company could re-man the ship and set sail on the return journey. By 1884, Caleb was granted land at Barramunga and he soon welcomed his son’s arrival in the Otways.
Jack pitched his camp on a spot he called Ditchley Park and was the first to mark out a block where, within two years, he had built a homestead. In 1888 Jack opened Ditchley House, named after his father’s home in Oxfordshire. He married Annie Gilhome later that year and together they raised three daughters and four sons. When settlement started, Jack established a butcher’s shop and soon the Ditchley Park Hotel became a landmark in the district and known by all.
Over the following years, there was hardly an event that did not involve Jack Gardner. He never lost an opportunity to advance the interest of Beech Forest and had the utmost faith in the future of the forest. He fervently campaigned for the opening of the railway, the first local school opened in 1895 situated on Ditchley Park Estate land and he is credited with building the saleyards and the racecourse. Throughout all these endeavours, Annie Gardner was known for her kindness and generosity and joined Jack in being a strong advocate for better conditions for all those who settled in that isolated part of the State.
The original Gardner house was erected on a high hill, 1700 feet above sea level, and commanded extensive views of the Otway ranges. It had 15 rooms, all constructed of beech weatherboards and was comfortably furnished, setting a standard for others to follow. In 1895, Lord Hopetoun spent several days in the area and at a special ball held in his honour, the Victorian Governor had the first dance with Annie Gardner.
As well as being a farmer, hotelier and butcher, Jack Gardner always promoted the development of Beech Forest. He provided land for the railway station, school, Anglican and Catholic churches and the first public hall. He and Annie were known for their regular hospitality and in 1895 they organised a New Year’s Day picnic for visitors and residents of Beech Forest. In 1901, they hosted a Christmas Dinner for 50 bachelors in the vicinity of Ditchley Park, reported to be an annual event.
Jack and Annie continually improved and expanded their accommodation, adding extra rooms and renovating existing ones for the comfort of their guests. In 1912 advertisements for a ‘New Summer and Health Resort’ appeared in local newspapers.
With the extension of the railway and the increase of visitors to the district, Jack built a new Ditchley Park Hotel closer to the railway station at Beech Forest. A grand opening was held in 1914, with visitors arriving by train from Colac, and a brass band ‘discoursing music en route’. The renovated hotel had 35 rooms, with every convenience for the comfort of travellers and visitors alike.
Jack and Annie’s close family were proud yet apprehensive when their eldest son, John Caleb Gardner served with the Light Horse Brigade in the First World War. He enlisted three weeks after war was declared and sailed with the HMAT Orvieto in October 1914. Having survived Gallipoli, John Caleb was wounded in action and was repatriated to Australia in 1915.
In 1920, Jack Gardner left Beech Forest and moved to Melbourne. His early mining interest resurfaced and he set up a mining company in Harrietville. He remained a constant visitor to Beech Forest, where, in 1923 he had a heart attack and died suddenly. His body was placed in a railway carriage with the curtains drawn and taken to Colac, where he was later buried.
Upon news reaching the councillors of the Otway Shire Council, the meeting was immediately suspended as a mark of respect. With his death, Beech Forest lost one of its foremost citizens, a man of many talents, ambitious, yet above all, a man who led by example. Jack Gardner can rightly be called the Pioneer of Beech Forest.
All photographs are from Cliff Tann except the State Library of Victoria photograph of the original Ditchley Park Hotel