When Suburban In-fill Created A Real Nightmare

Editor’s Note: We’re celebrating EHN’s one-year anniversary this week! And that means we’ll be posting a piece every day to mark the occasion. During our launch week last year, Rebecca Le Get gave her insight on aerial photography that looks down on—or into—Australia. Today, she shares a different kind of history also taken place in Melbourne.

Why do we tell those eerie stories, the ones we share at social events? Ghost stories often reveal more about a community’s concerns at a specific point in time. In Australia, post-colonial ghost stories are often specific to a location and seek to describe the effects of a ghost on witnesses. A sudden change in a room’s temperature, an unexpected noise behind you, or seeing something out of the corner of your eye are consequently explained by the supernatural presence of a ghost that has also taken up residence in the area. These tales can also reveal what aspects of the past are being remembered through such stories, albeit imperfectly. A forgotten death can be rediscovered and subsequently memorialised as an explanation for present-day events. These supernatural encounters can also reveal anxieties around past colonisation, or even relatively recent changes to the landscape due to urbanisation and deinstitutionalisation [1].

One such example can be found in suburban Melbourne, Australia. To the north of the central business district, in an area called Bundoora, there was once a high density of government-operated mental health institutions. Given the close association between ghosts and psychiatric hospitals, as evinced by the commercial success of ghost tours in various former institutions around the country, it is therefore no great surprise that the area also has its own supernatural story. But what surprised me was the gentle nature of the haunting story itself, and how quickly it has seemingly been accepted and repeated in the wider Melbourne community. The legend of Lurline visiting the grave of her beloved every night appears in newspapers and blogs, is incorporated into a historic homestead’s lore, and stars in a novel. But Lurline is not a former patient or nurse of a former hospital, but a horse.

The earliest mention of Lurline’s supernatural presence that I have found is surprisingly recent, only appearing at the end of the twentieth century. In 1995, a former racehorse owner was visiting the Bundoora Park Heritage Village with three other women [2]. When they approached the graves of two racehorses buried in the Village’s grounds, called Wallace (1892-1917) and Shadow King (1925-1945), they heard a mysterious noise. According to the newspaper account, it sounded like a horse galloping across a paddock that then shied and stopped nearby. But there were no horses to be seen.

The graves of Wallace and Shadow King at the Bundoora Park Heritage Village, that Lurline is rumoured to haunt. Photo taken by author in September 2018.

From this event, a piece of modern Australian folklore was born. Even in this early account, the ghostly horse was securely identified. Despite standing beside the graves of two horses when hoof beats were heard, the sound was attributed to the presence of a third phantasmic mare called Lurline. A celebrated New Zealand racehorse in her own right, she was born in 1869 and imported to Australia in the 1870s. But in 1890 she died in mysterious circumstances. A pseudonymous sports columnist who reported on her demise in The Australasian speculated that it was “through some boys accidentally shooting her while they were after parrots” on the Bundoora property [3].

Lurline and fellow stablemates; part of the 1883 engraving A Visit to a Stud Farm: Bundoora Park by Alfred Martin Ebsworth. Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria, Australia.

As more people heard the story of Lurline’s ghost, the tale evolved into something more gothic. Despite the graveyard only opening during daylight hours, Lurline was said to regularly visit Wallace’s grave at night. Wallace and Lurline themselves were transformed from two champion racehorses who could have never met in life into an anachronistic romantic couple. As early as 1999, it was said that the mare could “be heard galloping down” a nearby hill to see who was visiting her “stable mate” [4].

A fully fleshed-out version of the evolving legend is found in the 2010 short story Ghost Ride by Rosemary Hayes. In it, a ghostly Lurline is spotted by the main character, running through the suburban streets of Bundoora at night towards an old red-brick mansion built in 1899. The book describes her as “the favourite mare of the champion racehorse Wallace” who was the “mother of many of his foals.” By 2017, the obvious temporal inconsistency in the romantic tale was solved when Lurline was described as having been killed in the 1900s [5]. By moving her story into the early twentieth century, it also explained why she was becoming increasingly identified with the stables and former mansion called Bundoora Park which were built after her death.

But what could cause a spectral racehorse to rise, over a century after her death, to visit the graves of two horses and spook a group of women in 1995? Lurline was haunting a part of Melbourne’s suburbs that was undergoing significant changes to its environment and landscape. The psychiatric institutions that clustered in Bundoora were being closed and re-developed as the state government mainstreamed mental health services and worked towards deinstitutionalisation.

Like other institutions in the area, the closure and decommissioning of the Bundoora Repatriation Hospital—which formerly provided mental health treatment for returned servicemen—was imminent. In August 1993, it was announced that the expansive grounds were intended to be redeveloped and subdivided for a new housing estate [6]. After 1920 the Bundoora Park mansion had been converted into patient wards, and along with other former hospital buildings, was going to be demolished as a part of the redevelopment. According to the Director of the Bundoora Homestead Art Centre, “it was the action of the community that literally stopped the bulldozers. The community remembered and valued its history, and acted to save Bundoora Homestead from destruction” [7]. Due to this campaign of public support, the homestead was given to the local government in 1997, before being restored and opened as an art gallery in the twenty-first century [8]. The homestead is now largely surrounded by housing but is a physical reminder of the early-twentieth century significance of the area.

By weaving a ghostly story that highlighted the importance of Bundoora in horse breeding, it also drew attention to the homestead, and bolstered community support to preserve the mansion and surrounding property. Lurline’s ghostly hoof beats and an otherworldly devotion to Wallace may not make much chronological sense, but that isn’t the point of her tale. This ghost story is told by a community to preserve the memory that a middle-ring suburb of Melbourne was once a renowned horse stud. Her appearance in the urban folklore of the 1990s reflects what, at the time, was considered to be an important part of the landscape that was worth preserving. The homestead’s association with horse racing was highlighted by advocates for the building’s preservation, so it is not a surprise that the tale of a ghostly racehorse also gained currency and has persisted into the present.

[1] K. Gelder and J.M. Jacobs, (1999) “The Postcolonial Ghost Story,” in P. Buse and A. Stott (eds), Ghosts, 179-199 (Palgrave Macmillan: London, 1999).

[2] J. Ellicott, “Spooky spiel on spirits unearths the true believers,” The Australian (13 May 1998), page 21.

[3] Augur, “Turf Gossip,” The Australasian (29 March 1890), page 13.

[4] Anonymous, “Bundoora Park Homestead,” Arts21 5 (1999).

[5] Anonymous, “Spooky Melbourne: 10 places to visit with great ghost stories,” Domain (30 October 2017).

[6] M. Lia, “Saving the Homestead,” in J. Healy (ed), Bundoora Homestead: The Smith Family Era 1899-1920, 9-10 (Bundoora: Bundoora Homestead Art Centre, 2007).

[7] J. Healey, “Creating a Heritage Icon,” in Healy, Bundoora Homestead, 3.

[8] Lia, “Saving the Homestead;” G. Robertson, “Past Glory Re-Found,” in Healy, Bundoora Homestead, 77-79.

*Disclosure & Acknowledgement of Country

Rebecca is an occasional volunteer at the Bundoora Homestead Art Centre, but her fascination with Lurline started while researching for her PhD. She wishes to thank the generosity of the Homestead staff in their suggestion to read Ghost Ride.

The Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung are the traditional custodians of the land now known as Bundoora. The author recognises their continuing connection to land, waters and culture. She pays her respects to their Elders past, present and emerging, and their integral role in the area’s history.