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(3095, 20 km NE, Shire of Nillumbik)

Despite having been encompassed by Melbourne's expanding suburbs, Eltham remains strongly attached to its heritage as a pioneering township and a haven for artists. Between 1871 and 1994 Eltham was also the name of the shire which extended from the Plenty River in the west, the Yarra River in the south, the Maroondah Reservoir in the east (later part of the Shire of Healesville), and Kinglake to the north.

Indigenous custodians of the region were the Wurundjeri-Willam clan (Woi wurrung-speaking people), who coexisted with early white settlers in the region they called Nillumbik. The first European to explore the Eltham region was Joseph Tice Gellibrand, who named the Plenty River in 1836. The land was not rich but it was suitable for grazing. Pastoral leases were taken up and timber-cutters started harvesting the stringy-bark forests. A village site, reserved in 1840, was officially gazetted as Eltham on 11 January 1851, probably named after one of the many Elthams in Britain.

The discovery of gold in the hills and gullies north-east of Eltham in 1851 brought prospectors, and a need for town infrastructure and services. By 1857 the townships of Eltham and Little Eltham to the north had a post office, three churches, a police station, a flour mill, brewery, tannery, brickworks and a population of 487. The National Trust-classified courthouse was built c. 1860. As gold supplies dwindled, industry diversified, and orchards and vineyards were established. Today Eltham is the gateway to the more than 55 vineyards of the Yarra Valley.

Eltham's natural beauty has inspired the works of artists since the Heidelberg School. The landscape painter Walter Withers (1854-1914), nicknamed 'The Colonel', took advantage of the opening of the railway (1902) to move to Eltham where he painted The return from the harvest. From 1910 painter William 'Jock' Frater and cartoonist Percy Leason often camped and painted in the area. Clara Southern and May Vale, landscape painters and students of Frederick McCubbin, settled in the region, Vale residing at Diamond Creek and Southern at Warrandyte, where an artistic community developed.

Artist Max Meldrum arrived in Eltham in 1921. One of his pupils, Justus Jörgensen, who followed a decade later, established the Montsalvat artists' colony. Built mainly from mud brick and stone, the complex remains an important space for visual and performing arts. Montsalvat was constructed by Horrie Judd who in the 1930s had moved into Eltham's oldest earth building, dating back to 1855. He built many mud brick houses in the area after environmental builder Alistair Knox persuaded the Eltham Council to approve earth building in 1947. In 1988 Knox was responsible for Australia's first mud brick community centre in Eltham. The Eltham Library, designed by Greg Burgess, was constructed in mud brick and recycled timbers and received the RAIA Institutional Architecture Award 1995. The library sits in the riverside park that is dedicated to Alistair Knox, adjacent to Shillinglaw Cottage (1878) and one of the few remaining timber railway trestle bridges (c. 1901) in Melbourne. Historic St Margaret's Church (1880) still stands in Pitt Street.

The farm and parkland surrounding Eltham are central to maintaining Melbourne's green wedge. Local native flora and fauna include several endangered species such as the Charming and the Rosella Spider Orchids, the Powerful Owl and Masked Owl, and the Eltham Copper butterfly. The region's bushland setting is highly valued by residents and tourists, who are attracted by numerous art studios, galleries, cafés, wineries and the Diamond Valley Miniature Railway.

Among the many who have been inspired by Eltham and have made the region their home are artists Clifton Pugh and Danila Vassilieff, jewellers and sculptors Michael Wilson, Simon Icarus Baigent, Matcham Skipper, authors Alan Marshall and Carolyn Van Langenberg, composers and musicians Graeme and Roger Bell, actress Kerry Armstrong and landscape architect Edna Walling.

Deborah Bartolomei

Marshall, Alan, Pioneers & painters: One hundred years of Eltham and its Shire, Thomas Nelson Australia, Melbourne, 1971. Details