When Robert Bakewell Webster sailed to Victoria on the Iberia in 1884, he was the second generation of his family to have made the trip. Robert’s father, John Hearne Webster, had migrated to Victoria in 1848 and, after his marriage to Euphemia Stewart and the birth of four daughters, the family decided to return to England to live. Robert was born in 1865 in Reading, Berkshire, the tenth child of John and Euphemia.
Before settling at Laver’s Hill, Robert lived in various places, including some time in New Zealand. Meanwhile, in 1891 Stephen and Robert Laver and a party from Loch in Gippsland had travelled to the Otways to take up land. They endured harsh conditions while clearing 150 acres of land and decided to forfeit the blocks and return to Gippsland, which seemed to have better prospects. The name Lavers Hill was, however, given to the area after these early pioneers.
In 1893, along with several other colonists, Robert Webster selected land near Lavers Hill. Robert is believed to have said that “Any land that can grow trees that big has to be good.” He established his property ‘Beechwood’, and hand built a home constructed with split timber dressed with a draw-knife. Soft-wood windows and roofing material were carted from Colac in a wagon drawn by a team of bullocks he had bought.
In 1900, Robert married Ada Bowker from Princetown, an experienced horsewoman and daughter of one of the earliest residents of Victoria. The wedding was “a great occasion” and in a later interview, Robert said “People danced until daybreak those times, there were no motor cars with good lights then and the roads were terrible. They could not start for home until daylight, so they kept dancing.”
Robert and Ada had six children; three sons and three daughters. Life was demanding for Ada, raising a family, keeping house and helping on the farm, including milking the cows. Every Monday was washing day, and the copper would be lit, sheets boiled then blued and wrung out by hand.
Although the early years were difficult, Robert always believed in the potential of the Lavers Hill district. Roads were non-existent or impassable in winter and Beech Forest, where the railway terminated, was 21 kilometres from Lavers Hill, regularly a four day round trip with a bullock wagon. Supplies were brought in from Port Campbell, 56 kilometres away on an unformed track that followed the top of the ridges.
Even though the land was rich and could sustain abundant agricultural crops, it was often impossible to get the produce to market, with farms being virtually isolated after heavy rain. Robert later said in a newspaper interview that the dairy cow was their means to a livelihood. He believed, “but for the cheese making, none of us could have remained as we had no other source of income.”
In 1908, a half-time school opened in Lavers Hill and twenty-seven children were enrolled. The town had a store, a blacksmith, a butcher shop, a hotel, a post office, sale-yards, a cheese factory and Charles Trew had established a popular boarding house called ’Cavan House’.
Devastating bushfires, rabbits and bracken took their toll and several of the original settlers left the area, yet through all of the ups and downs, the Webster family remained at Lavers Hill and continued farming. When the eldest son Stewart married Frances Hughes in 1938, a new generation took over ‘Beechwood’ and, in the late 1940s, Robert and Ada were able to retire to Port Fairy.
Frances had worked in Lavers Hill for a short time as a Bush Nurse after having completed her training at Melbourne hospitals in 1932. She was transferred to a drier climate for health reasons, and was working in Underbool in the Mallee when Stewart proposed.
Following their marriage, Frances used her bush nursing skills to provide voluntary medical care to the community. At times the kitchen resembled a doctor’s surgery, with one accident victim being treated, while another sick or injured person waited to be tended to. The children were diplomatically given chores, such as retrieving hairs from the horse’s tail for stitching wounds, to divert their attention from some of the graphic treatments Frances had to administer.
Stewart became the ‘ambulance’ driver, ferrying serious patients to Colac in the back of their 1932 Vauxhall while Frances offered comfort and care. The 65 kilometre drive would take two hours over rough roads with landslides or flooding, causing detours and further delay. In 1974, Frances Webster was awarded an MBE for her nursing service to the community.
Robert Webster died in Colac in 1957 after almost a lifetime of determination to make Lavers Hill the agricultural success he believed it could be. Ada died in Colac in 1960 and they are buried together in the Colac cemetery.