The Lancefield Black Panther

Australia is riddled with black panthers, jaguars and pumas. They are skittish and seldom seen. Deadly dangerous and fiercely secretive. Some claim they are a myth. But, if that were the case, how could so many people know so much about them? I visited Lancefield because it is a town that has added their own small dollop of bullshit onto a pile as high as nearby Mt Macedon. They have a black panther and I wanted to see it.

Lancefield is a small town. It has a short main street with a handful of shops including bakeries, cafes, book stores and galleries. At the end of the street is a disproportionally large and very grand hotel. A common fixture of towns of or near the goldfields.

As far as small out of the way country towns go it seems better than most. There are also some important ties to history, Wikipedia tells me, but, ultimately it is like a lot of other places.

What makes Lancefield different and why I’ve visited, will visit again, will even take unwitting overseas or city friends for trip to get a neenish tart is because Lancefield has a black panther sculpture. The sun is already beginning to take its toll upon it and the lustre of black is quickly fading to grey. The sculpture isn’t necessarily worth the visit, it’s not very big and it’s not very impressive. There is a similarly not quite impressive story behind it. As the Midland Express writes, the sculpture mysteriously appeared overnight one weekend back in 2015.

No one knows who made it or how it was delivered.

Except the same article does go on to quote the mysterious creator. He or she details how they had three people help and a forklift to install the piece. In a town with a population of less than 2500 it seems likely the mystery is a little bit of a conceit. But, be that as it may, the sculpture exists. It was supposedly installed without the sanction of the council. In this area that is enough of an accomplishment. Plus, that there is any level of mystery even it seems a little forced is truly in the spirit of the Australian black panther.

Every year there is a big cat sighting in different parts of Victoria or different parts of Australia. There has been photos and video footage, but they are not considered definitive proof. Naysayers are quick to discredit witnesses. Claiming they are drunk, that the footage of black beasts only shows overgrown feral domestic cats.

I remember hearing stories of large cats ever since I was a child. Variously described as panthers, jaguars, pumas or leopards the popular theory in my town was they were the mascots of, and had escaped from, American military training bases during WW2.

This ABC article posits the theories of other districts and eras. That the large cats escaped from zoos or could have been brought back as souvenirs with troopships returning from Africa. The article is surprisingly reasonable about the existence of the large cats though also points out that the appeal of the rumour is that it allows us to imbue the landscape with a sense of mystery.

It’s not just the cats that are the mystery though but the origins of the stories. In my story of escaped military mascots, I questioned why the American army would allow their soldiers to have such dangerous mascots. I took for granted that there were mascots, and that there were enough American military bases to sustain a breeding based of escaped Pumas. I’ve since never been able to confirm the existence of such bases or mascots (although perhaps that’s because covered it all up – seriously though).

I think it’s the stories of the large cats are the most enthralling part. Because they have been passed on so effectively for so long, decades, without the help of internet or television. The stories have different local flavours and are imbued with embellishments to suit different districts. In the mountains the cats are shadows which retreat to the peaks at night, leaving little but the occasional paw print behind them. The large cats of farming districts are responsible for the mysterious mutilations of livestock.

The Macedon ranges are an area which trades heavily upon the invented mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock. It is also a place which is increasingly at war with itself on whether to allow or prohibit development as people move into the area from Melbourne.

Whether it came mysteriously or not. Whether it was sanctioned beforehand or retrospectively by a council often paralysed by the paradoxical needs of its constituents, the black panther of Lancefield is great for its homage to drunken sightings and fear of the bush. The chance that we don’t really know what roams the vast countryside and deserts. That there still might be mysteries hidden in folklore.

Old Kyneton Hospital

Because apparently empty buildings are the best way to conserve the ‘vibe’.

The Old Kyneton Hospital was founded in 1857. It has been abandoned since 2005 boarded up and fenced off on the top of the hill overlooking the Campaspe river.

To the left of picture is the small red brick infectious diseases ward. Not picture, behind this building, is the small blue stone mortuary building.

There has been interest in developing the old hospital into housing but it has been met with resistance by residents amidst fears the heritage facade will be compromised. This is hardly surprising considering how garish the original planing proposals were. There is an interest group that is calling for it to continue to be used as a public space. The inside of

morgue
The mortuary behind the main building. Credit: realestate.com.au

the property has been gutted so this move would require a large investment to make it a viable working site of any kind.

Development seems to be the best option for the site but allowing such poorly fitting plans to be proposed have understandably worried residents. If the development plan had been more fitting for the area it may not have seemed to prohibitive to residents. That said, the reluctance to renovate the hospital is perhaps representative of a growing conflict in the Macedon ranges area. The population and housing prices are increasing as people look to move outside of Melbourne’s overcrowded suburbs.

It is hard to know if there is any rhyme or reason as to which groups are conservative and who are progressive in terms of development. Anecdotally it seems the more senior long term residents and new residents are interested in conserving the old and quiet feel to the town. In the case of senior residents who may be retired there is no incentive to allow growth of any kind in the area. Similarly newer residents may who have moved from Melbourne are likely to work and socialize in the city. They may not need increased business in their new country homes and, potentially, not wish to see development in the hope that property prices will continue to rise and offer them capital appreciations.

Longer-term residents of the area who are younger or middle-aged, who have lived longer, worked and socialise in the area are potentially more interested in seeing sites such as this be utilised. In addition to the hospital also contains several abandoned pubs and factories.

This difference becomes stark when there are new and senior residents who organise Facebook groups and events to save the old Kyneton hospital building. Meanwhile long-term residents who were actually patients at the hospital shudder at the memory of being treated inside those blue stone walls in its latter years. Again this is anecdotal rather than necessarily representative but seems to reflect the growing tension between residents and traders to towns opening up to cater for growing populations.

 

This isn’t a new situation. For decades the changes in primary industry and retail have led to downswings in country towns throughout Australia and probably throughout the world. Small towns are usually prone to high youth unemployment and above average general unemployment rates. A new study also shows the prevalence of homelessness among these small regional areas.

The old Kyneton hospital is a an empty shell growing ever closer to collapse through sheer lack of action. Some of the blame lies with developers because, well some of the blame always lies with developers who, as always, were greedy in their proposal. It is understandable that residents have sought to preserve the heritage facade of the building. It is inexcusable that so much land, and potential housing, in this and the many other buildings in the area have been allowed to languish while there is homelessness and rising property prices.

The Kyneton hospital is an example of why interest groups, council members and politicians should hesitate to so quickly bemoan the lack of jobs, rising property prices or the exodus of the youth from regional areas. Large buildings like this and the steel casting factory have stood vacant for decades. Half the businesses in town are empty or for sale and many are reluctant to stay open late lest slow trade cuts into their daily profits. In situations like this where the lack of action seems almost an act of self-sabotage its often hard to know if the councils, red tape, indecision or indecisiveness is representative of sheer incompetence or a weak form of corruption.

olderhospitalphoto
The Hospital site approximately twenty years ago. Adjacent buildings have since been demolished. Credit: Victoria Heritage Database