Moscow Villa has miraculously survived bushfires and vandalism, along with the ravages of time and weather, to become an iconic visitor destination in the remote State forests of East Gippsland.
But few people know the remarkable story about the man who built it, Thomas William (Bill) Ah Chow.
Bill was Chinese, ANZAC, farmer, roustabout, horseman, firetower lookout, legendary bushman and epic storyteller of East Gippsland.
Bill was born in Bruthen in 1892, as one of 13 children, and only had two years at school before he took a job as a farm roustabout and boundary rider on the remote and historic Bindi Station east of Omeo which was established in 1834.
Bill tried twice to join the army but was initially rejected because of his obvious Chinese appearance. Undeterred, he reapplied and was accepted in June 1917, where he served on the western front. He was not only gassed, but also wounded three times, once seriously of a gunshot wound to his right shoulder on 31 July 1918. His injuries affected him for the remainder of his life, and, like many men of his generation, Bill rarely spoke of his wartime experiences.
Bill returned to Bruthen after the war where he drove sheep and worked cattle. He married Myrtle Cox in 1920 and they initially lived in Swan Reach. The couple had two children Raymond William (1921) and Rose Myrtle (1923).
In 1923 Bill applied for, and after some initial rejections was granted, two small allotments of land near Mossiface under the Soldier Settlement Scheme. Bill stayed on his block until 30 March 1926, but his oat and maize crops were not a success.
Bill later helped to construct the wooden fire tower at Mt Nowa Nowa for the Forests Commission Victoria in 1926-27 after he moved to Buchan South.
In the late 1930s, with his good local knowledge of the mountain ranges, Bill was offered a new job as a fire lookout over the summer months at Mt Nugong by the local District Forester, Jim Westcott.
Mt Nugong is east of Swifts Creek and sits at an elevation of 1482 m. The summit has commanding views over the extensive mountain forests as well as the Tambo Valley below and was one of a network of fire lookouts (hilltop clearings) and fire towers (built structures) created across Victoria as consequence of the Stretton Royal Commission into the disastrous 1939 Black Friday bushfires.
Bill was paid a wage as a Fireguard plus allowances for camping and for providing his own riding horse, packhorse with packsaddle and saddle bags. Provisions and fodder for his horses, were purchased in Bruthen and delivered once a fortnight by the local Forests Commission officer assigned to oversee the area.
Bill rode his horse 3km up the mountain each day from Bentley’s Plain and sat out in the open on a rock with his heavy RC-16 portable radio and spare battery. And after unloading his packsaddles, Bill often let both his horses roam free to make their own way home back down to his camp.
Prior to a firetower and Stanley Hut being built on Mt Nugong, there was little shelter from sun, wind or cold. In 1952 the Forests Commission scrounged a decommissioned control tower from the RAAF at Bairnsdale Airfield. The tubular-steel scaffold was transported up the steep mountainside and re-assembled by local FCV crews. This first tower survived two decades before a storm blew it down in 1974 and it needed to be rebuilt.
Bill often boasted about his eagle eyesight but also complained that the Forests Commission wouldn’t issue him binoculars. The new firetower was eventually equipped with an alidade table to record compass bearings to smoke sightings and lightning strikes as well as a fixed radio set to communicate with Bruthen and Swifts Creek.
Bill helped to build Commins Hut and cattle yards on Quinn’s Plain in 1937 for James (Jim) Commins and Charlie Duke who leased the Nunniong Cattle Run. It was used when mustering stock and Bill Ah Chow also stayed there prior to building his own hut nearby.
Moscow Villa was built on the picturesque Bentley’s Plain and completed in January 1942, on the day the Battle of Moscow was won. And don’t forget… in 1942 the Soviets were on the side of the allies fighting against the Nazis.
While there are some variations to the story, which is common with oral history, bush folklore has it that Moscow Villa was visited at some stage in the mid-1940s by a party of senior Forests Commission officials from Bairnsdale which included Herbert Duncan Galbraith, the Divisional Inspector (and the man behind Stringers Knob near Orbost), who later became Commissioner, whereupon Bill was challenged about his loyalty and the name of his hut.
Bill swiftly retorted that he was not a communist and that the name was an acronym for…
|My Own Summer Cottage Officially Welcomes |
Visitors Inside Light Luncheon Available
Bill’s quick wit and humour prevailed, and his hut retained its quirky name.
Bill lived alone in his hut during the summer months and returned to his family at Ensay during winter. He also had a reputation for welcoming walkers, fisherman and foresters into his comfortable hut to sit around the fire, to share a meal, and enjoy an evening of bush yarns.
And with very little encouragement, Bill donned his colourful robes for his guests and claimed to be a descendant of Chinese Royalty, but his family believes it was more likely he picked them up from a second-hand shop in Little Bourke Street.
At the end of the summer fire spotting season, and after the first good rains of autumn, Bill set off alone on his horse along the many bridle paths that criss-crossed the alpine country as far as the NSW border throwing matches along the way to burn forest fuels and reduce the bushfire risk.
And when not on fire lookout duty Bill assisted local crews with his beloved Clydesdale Horses building nearby forest roads.
Bill worked for the Forests Commission as fireguard at Mt Nugong for more than two decades until 1957 but sometimes came out of retirement when a replacement couldn’t be found.
Thomas William (Bill) Ah Chow died on 18 August 1967 at Omeo, aged 74, and is buried at the Ensay cemetery.
Every organisation has a handful of colourful characters, and the Forests Commission had its share, but Bill remains one of its enduring legends.
Top Photo: Studio image of Bill in his colourful robes. Circa 1930s. Source: Athol Hodgson.
A big thank you to the Ah Chow family for helping with both this story and the Wikepedia entry and sharing their precious photos.