Known locally as Toc H, the crumbling site which surrounds the entrance to the Point Lonsdale lighthouse has sat idle and in a state of decay for some years since its closure as a children’s camp. Passersby would be forgiven for presuming that this eerie, foreboding eyesore was utterly insignificant in a historical sense. However, this unassuming patch of prime local real estate actually holds countless stories which offer a fascinating insight into Victorian history.
For centuries prior to European colonisation, the untamed coastal scrub around the windswept Lonsdale headland was traversed by generations of Wadawurrung clans who combed this side of the coast for shellfish and wild game. These First Nation’s people knew Point Lonsdale as Balla-duik and prior to British colonialism their collective existence would have been comparatively idyllic. Perhaps the first European feet to set foot on the Toc H reserve belonged to escaped convict William Buckley who was said to have briefly occupied the narrow cave that sits just under the nearby lighthouse. For 32 remarkable years this veteran of the Napoleonic Wars lived with the Wadawurrung and adopted their way of life while quickly forgetting his own.
Buckley’s presence on the Bellarine effectively signalled that the world was about to dramatically change for the Wadawurrung as migrants flocked to the Port Phillip District in search of fortune. Soon Balla-duik became Point Lonsdale and formal buildings gradually began appearing in the area as Victoria hurtled toward modernity. British colonisation altered the landscape around Point Lonsdale as a fear of foreign invasion prompted the Toc H camp to begin sprouting defence structures around the commencement of the First World War. The site housed future soldiers preparing for expeditions overseas and many of the young cadets who trained and lived on the reserve went on to fight at Gallipoli and the Western Front.
During WWII, the camp was completely surrounded by a formidable barbed wire fence manned constantly by armed soldiers. Beyond the imposing perimeter, the army huts housed Royal Australian Engineers and Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) members whose job it was to operate the gun emplacements and searchlights which litter the Lonsdale dunes.
As the threat of Japanese invasion subsided the camp became the home of Italian Prisoners of War who had been captured in North Africa. These former Italian soldiers fought alongside Nazi Germans and were led by the famous ‘Desert Fox’ Erwin Rommel during their desert campaigns against the eventually victorious Allies. As fate would have it, these POWs found themselves interned at Point Lonsdale in old army huts under the shadows of the towering white lighthouse.
As hostilities overseas ceased, the Italians awaited their return home while adapting to life in Point Lonsdale and Queenscliff. They quickly became part of the local community. Their nightly soccer games became a spectacle for the local children and harmonious singing of foreign operas could be heard floating from over the barbed wire. The Italian’s were popular around town and were noted for their hard work as they became local handymen, fixing minor carpentry issues and tending to gardens. Eventually these men returned to Italy and the camp was signed over to the Toc H organisation.
So from a site which was once home to Wadawurrung clans, soldiers and POWS, it then became a children’s camp which was enjoyed by various school groups for many decades until its closure.
While the present abandoned Toc H site may appear uninspiring and decrepit there is a great deal of Australian history which has occurred in this tiny pocket. The overgrown ti-tree and graffitied camp huts have borne witness to defining moments of Australian history, certainly adding weight to the old adage that looks can be deceiving.