The Pioneer of Beech Forest

John William Gardner, was tantalised by the allure of fertile farming land in dense ferny soil south of Colac. Born in Smythesdale near Ballarat in 1861, John Gardner was working the Tasmanian gold diggings in 1885 when his father Caleb wrote 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.

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.

Gardner pitched his tent and set up 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 he 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 further settlement began, Gardner 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 Gardner. He never lost an opportunity to advance the interests of Beech Forest and had the utmost faith in the future. He fervently campaigned for the opening of the railway, and the first local school which opened in 1895 situated on Ditchley Park Estate land.   He is also credited with building the sale yards and the racecourse. 

Throughout all these grand endeavours, Annie Gardner was known for her kindness and generosity.  As well as managing businesses herself, Annie also joined Gardner in being a strong advocate for better conditions for all those who settled in the area.

The original Gardner house was erected on a high hill, the area that was later to be known as Gardner Hill, 1700 feet above sea level, commanding 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 danced with Annie Gardner and Annie's good friend, Marie Deppeler.

As well as being a farmer, hotelier and butcher, 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 hospitality and in 1895 they organised a New Year’s Day picnic for visitors and residents of Beech Forest.

John 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, Gardner built a new Ditchley Park Hotel closer to the railway station. A grand opening was held in 1914, with visitors arriving by train from Colac, and a brass band ‘discoursing music en route’. The hotel had 35 rooms, with every convenience for the comfort of travellers and visitors alike.

 John 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,  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 buried.

With his death, Beech Forest lost one of its foremost citizens, a man of many talents and ambition. 'Jack' Gardner can rightly be called the Pioneer of Beech Forest.

Photo 6-05-2015 8 18 09 pm


Edited excerpts from:

Brooks, S & O'Donnell M, 2015, 'Ditchley Park Hotel and the Gardner Family' Otway Life Winter 2015, pp6-7.