"The past is never fully gone. It is absorbed into the present and the future. It stays to shape what we are and what we do."
Sir William Deane, Governor-General of Australia, Inaugural Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, August 1996.

Bill Meadows

The Man Who Named Lake Elizabeth

Peter Greig (bio)

Written on 7 December 2015

Lake Elizabeth stretches languidly for a kilometre along the heavily forested valley of the East Barwon River, about seven kilometres east of the little township of Forrest, on the Otway Ranges’ northern slopes. It’s a popular attraction for campers, walkers, and canoeists, not least because you can spot platypus – in the early morning and at twilight – if you’re lucky.

Forrest used to be a timber town from the early days of European settlement and especially after 1945, when timber was desperately needed to feed the post-war construction boom. In those days, the forests were vested in the Forests Commission Victoria, a statutory corporation, and managed by their staff. For some years the officer-in-charge of the Forrest District was Forester Bill Meadows, then 27.

He and his assistant Mark Stump were “playing endless games of monopoly” during a prolonged rainstorm on a long weekend in June 1952. Bill recently checked the records: on 17 and 18 June, the total rainfall at Tanybryn (near the top of the Otways) was 40 inches (or 1005 mm in the new money).

Forest Overseer Jack Hoult was told by an East Barwon farmer that, although the West Barwon was in extreme flood, the East Barwon was low and docile. So Bill, Jack & Jack’s son John drove their Landrover cautiously up the Kaanglang Road (which Bill and his staff had recently completely rebuilt). They discovered that the whole road had disappeared for 400 metres, in a gigantic landslip, leaving the steeply pitching bedrock glistening in the, by then, light rain.

Into the East Barwon had slid tens of thousands of tonnes of earth and forest, damming the river’s massive flows for a considerable period, until the water in due course, over-topped the wall, causing some minor flooding downstream. Eventually, a stable spillway was formed, creating the lake as we know it today.

Being the man in charge, Bill took numerous calls from the Melbourne Sun newspaper, and was asked what the new lake was called. It being the year of the new Queen’s ascension – top of mind in that post-war period – Bill spontaneously replied “Lake Elizabeth”. The name stuck, being apt for the time, and not inappropriate, given that Bill’s employer was the Victorian Government, whose many offices invariably displayed a picture of the monarch of the day. [Local residents had said that they would probably call the new lake 'Lake Thompson' after an old man who had once lived at the site of the landslide - Ed.]

Bill Meadows, then 90, told me this story in 2015 as if it were yesterday. These days, the timber-getting is gone, and Forrest is a tourist town, known widely for its mountain bike rallies, its brewery and a top restaurant - all more in keeping with a forest which is now national park. The old foresters, like Bill, have gone the way of the early pioneers – fondly remembered as symbols of a more romantic age.

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