Hanging Rock: real-life mysteries are as fascinating as novel and TV
Australian landmark is a place of ancient Aboriginal worship and has always intrigued
The rock itself, the hardened magma of an ancient volcano, rises like a row of broken teeth.
“This is where those poor girls disappeared,” my brother-in-law said as we neared Hanging Rock. My wife and I exchanged worried glances. We had driven all the way to Mount Macedon in central Victoria but our teenage daughters just stared into their phones; oblivious. As we made the final turn down a gravel road, the sky darkened and near the car park, we encountered a mob of grey kangaroos who eyed us warily before hopping silently into the rain-soaked gum trees.
The rock itself, the hardened magma of an ancient volcano, rises like a row of broken teeth some three hundred feet above the woods. It is a place of ancestral worship for the Wurundjeri and near the coffee shop is a museum where visitors can read (in unashamed fake-news-fashion) about how a group of schoolgirls from Appleyard College went missing there after a picnic outing over a century ago.
The story is, of course, fictional; the product of Australian author Joan Lindsay, who was so inspired by the ethereal location that she felt compelled to write Picnic at Hanging Rock. The novel, which was made into a film, is also now a TV show starring Natalie Dormer, and so the story is once again in the ether.
Over the years several researchers have attempted to discover the truth behind the novel. Lindsay was deliberately ambiguous. She allowed her readers to think there may be some truth behind the strange disappearances, telling an interviewer in 1974: “Well it was written as a mystery and it remains a mystery. If you can draw your own conclusions, that’s fine, but I don’t think that it matters.” The museum exhibit does nothing to dispel the myth; in reality, no schoolgirls ever went missing at Hanging Rock. The tale is simply that; a story.
Nevertheless, there are true mysteries associated with Hanging Rock. On New Year’s Day 1901, the Flight family went there for a visit. Leaving his wife at the base, 37-year-old James planned to climb to the summit with his two children but, half way, he told them to go back because the going was very tough. That was the last time they would see him alive. Witnesses told police that the carpenter staggered at the summit before falling 50 or 60 feet to his death. A search later revealed that a pocket had been cut out of his trousers and that six sovereigns were missing (about €2,000 in today’s money).
Flight’s death and subsequent inquest made headline news in Melbourne. The Bendigo Independent of January 17th, 1901, carried the headline: “Murder or Accident at the Hanging Rock?” To compound the mystery, although the rock had been busy with day trippers, nobody could explain how Flight met his gruesome end and the jury was eventually forced to concede that his death had been accidental.
A year later, a six-year-old boy named McRae was found wandering at Hanging Rock in a dazed condition; his face covered in blood. There were two wounds in his forehead and his nose was broken. No explanation for what caused his injuries was ever given, by either the attending doctor or police, but he had scratch marks that could only have been inflicted by a sharp implement. In 1907, there was another murder at the rock but this time the assailant, a 19-year-old man, was caught by the police.
But there is also a more troubling history associated with the rock; one that eclipses all of these incidents by a country mile. The museum exhibit refers to local Aboriginal people but fails to mention that hundreds of them succumbed to smallpox and other European diseases. Prior to the 19th century, the site was used for male initiation ceremonies and intertribal meetings, but in 1836 those who remained were forcibly removed to a reserve in Healesville, about 100km away; part of a deliberate policy under the Victorian government’s Aboriginal Protection Act. The last initiation ceremony was mostly likely held at Hanging Rock in November 1851 by a Wurundjeri elder from the Templestowe area. After that, there was nothing left apart from farmers and their livestock. Last year, a campaign was launched by a PhD student in the state of Victoria to commemorate this real history rather than the fictitious tale of some missing girls.
Perhaps Joan Lindsay was aware of this unsettling reality. A sense of unease permeates her writing and, overall, Picnic at Hanging Rock suggests that white Anglophone European culture is nothing more than a thin veneer on an ancient land.
When director Peter Weir shot his eponymous movie in 1975, strange things happened to the film crew on location and they were dogged with setbacks. They became inexplicably lost and the producer’s watch even stopped. I can testify to what Lindsay herself found so otherworldly about the place; just a little way off the beaten track, there is a feeling of complete isolation and having reached the summit with my daughters, we spent almost an hour trying to get back down. Apparently, Lindsay was fascinated with clocks and time and as such, one possible explanation for the disappearance of the Appleyard girls in the novel is that they were the victims of a time slip phenomenon.
Hanging Rock was once listed in a local travel book as “a freak of nature”, particularly when viewed from the ground. However, towards the summit, the aspect changes and climbers are rewarded with an eagle’s view over the surrounding countryside. Far below, there are green cattle pastures dotted with stands of trees. This is bush ranger country; the old stomping ground of Ned Kelly and his gang. We may never get to the bottom of Hanging Rock’s murderous past, either real or imagined, but that is not the point. It only adds to the mystique of this ancient place.
Barry Kennerk teaches English and history at Belvedere College, Dublin. He is author of ‘Moore Street: The Story of Dublin’s Market District’ and ‘Temple Street Children’s Hospital: An Illustrated History’.