Prior to 1851 the Creswick area had been a mixed open eucalypt forest of mainly Messmate stringybark, peppermint and gum species. It took only two decades from gold’s discovery in 1851 “for a great slaughter of trees”– in the words of La Gerche, “to strip bare these wooded foothills and gullies to feed the voracious appetites of the district’s alluvial and deep lead mines”.
As a bailiff, La Gerche had to work under poorly framed regulations. The licensing system was permissive. In the courts and magistrates were often sympathetic to the mining industry. He was often pitted against expert lawyers, who initially delighted in picking legal loopholes to dismiss forest offences. We might ask how it was possible for a solitary forester to manage a state forest in the public interest under such severe restraints, government neglect of forestry, lack of resources, demands of mining industry, a permissive licensing system and a defiant public rejection of forest authority? However John La Gerche had high moral calibre, wise judgement, sound practical sense and dogged persistence, and had a regular presence in the forest on his horse.
We know about JLG’s work as a public servant from his letter books and pocket books, recording his daily and seasonal rounds as bailiff and forester in the 1880s and 1890s. They chronicle not only the days he spent in court prosecuting pilferers, but the nights he spent in the forest waiting to catch prop cutters.
Not only was La Gerche instructed to prevent illegal timber cutting but he was expected to grow trees for mine props, control livestock grazing and to reforest denuded areas.
La Gerche’s experience in running a timber mill in nearby Bullarook Forest gave him excellent knowledge of timbers and also of dangers of uncontrolled exploitation of forest by unscrupulous timber operators, firewood collection and grazing.
Messmate Stringybark Eucalyptus obliqua – strong, durable and easy to split – was the preferred timber for mine pit props, so La Gerche was keen to protect their saplings.
He recorded “The great evils to contend against in districts situated near the gold fields are the prop cutters. These men are constantly watching the forest and the moment saplings get to 8 or 9 in diameter, they are cut down for one prop. They cut what they want. Generally 6 ft is taken away in a dray at night from the forest, barked and butted at home or on the road. If by some chance some of these men are caught in the act and brought before the magistrate, they are not fined adequately for the offence, as the destruction and waste of timber is immense.”
La Gerche would have commanded respect on horseback, as he looked down on the woodcutters with a steady gaze. He wore no uniform, but in his distinct beret and rough tweeds, he would have become a familiar figure. In his pockets he carried his letter of appointment, compass, notebook and a map of the forest. He recorded in his pocket book, times, routes travelled, descriptions of stray cows, tallies of saplings cut, names of prop cutters and woodcutters he met. Accurate details were vital for prosecution.
In 1884 this forest between Creswick and Ballarat was home to about 238 people. Most lived in bark and slab huts of messmate stringybark on quarter or half acre sites under a Miner’s Right or splitter’s license. They eked out a bare living as wood cutters, labourers, miners, fossickers and cow keepers. Old widow ladies subsisted by grazing cows and goats and tending fruit trees. A few Chinese cultivated vegetable gardens. Others had farms on the verges of the forest or occupied 20 -30 acre blocks inside the forest.
Some residents were a constant frustration, as they allowed illegally gathered props to be deposited on their property and gave false witness for the prop cutters in court, in return for payment from the illegal cutters.
La Gerche reported that in 1882 “ a great portion of the surface has been turned over by miners many years ago and there is a great quantity of diggers’ holes and gullies that have been sluiced, all over the forest. There are even now a few fossickers here and there in the gullies, but I do not think they get much gold.”
“ At present there are two or three prop cutters who sneak about from place to place in the day time presumably for firewood, with the object of finding the spots where the best saplings are. They cut a load of dry wood in the day so as to lull suspicion- at night they cut saplings for props and remove them in drays. As there are a great many roads through the forest, it is a hard matter to catch them at all .”
The purpose of La Gerche’s regular patrols through the forest was not only to watch for illegal cutters, but to inform people of regulations in force and of changes by proclamation. He also regularly posted notices in prominent locations.