End of Wanke era

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The last member of the prominent Wanke family to serve on the Harkaway Cemetery Trust – a family tradition that persisted through five generations for over a century – resigned this week marking the end of an era in Harkaway’s history.

Len Wanke’s great, great-grandfather Ernst Wanke, more commonly known by family as ‘Gottlob’, was among the German settlers to arrive in Australia in 1849.

Gottlob was a 28-year-old medical student when he came to Australia as a ship doctor.

But like many others, he deserted the ship in Melbourne and ventured off to the gold fields before buying land in Harkaway in 1853.

Gottlob’s medical knowledge became of great value to Harkaway settlers. He also donated land for a school and chapel.

Ernst Wanke Road was built in recognition of the pioneer’s contribution to Harkaway and traverses land that was once the Wankes’ farm – ‘Hillcroft’ – that was retained by the family for almost 100 years.

‘Zions Hill’ was gazetted as a public cemetery in 1905, which was later renamed the Harkaway Cemetery.

Gottlob served on the Harkaway Cemetery Trust from 1870 as one of the founding families, followed by his son Immanuel, and so the tradition continued with Hermann, Hermon and most recently Len, who was a trust member for 42 years.

More than 30 members of the Wanke family have been buried there.

Len described himself as the black sheep of the family, which across five generations has rarely ventured outside of the Casey-Cardinia region.

As a young man, the civil engineer had yearned to see another part of the world and this mindset led him to shift to Canberra for a few years after getting married in the early 1970s.

But it wasn’t long before fate brought him back to Harkaway.

He lost his job in Canberra and was offered an employment opportunity too good to refuse close to his hometown.

“I’d spent four years working in the city. I grew up on a farm, and I’d always had a longing to go back to the country,” Len said.

“The Harkaway Cemetery was one of those things that all of my ancestors were involved with. I remember going up to help at working bees to clear the cemetery of weeds and long grass as a teenager.

“It was a natural progression from volunteer work to become a member of the Trust and I was nominated just after my grandfather Hermann died. Up until that point, he’d managed the Trust for as long as I can remember.”

Berwick and Harkaway Cemetery Trust chairman Neil Lucas organised a lunch on Saturday 26 November to thank Len and the Wanke family for their devotion to the Trust since 1870.

“The Wanke family was associated with the establishment of Harkaway Cemetery, and Len has carried out the family tradition of being involved with the cemetery trust,” Mr Lucas said.

“Since its commencement, there has always been a member of the Wanke family on the Trust which is a great credit to them.

“The cemetery has benefited greatly from the Wankes. Len devoted many years of his time as a volunteer and his expertise as a civil engineer was especially of considerable value.”

Len now hopes that this will open up more time for him to spend in his large vegetable garden on his five acres in La Trobe Valley.

The busy retiree plans to soon travel to his caravan in Marlo for the first time in two years and return to his relaxed country roots.

Prior to the cemetery trust’s amalgamation with Berwick Cemetery two years ago, Len said it had been more so a “family affair”.

“I think more diversity will be a good thing for the Trust,” Len said.

“There’s been more forward planning, and it’s still very much a community-spirited team.

“The cemetery is definitely maintained much better now than it ever was when I first started, and with more government support, it’s in a better condition.”

One of Len’s legacies has been his topographical survey of the expanded cemetery.

He undertook the task of locating existing unmarked graves, surveying the site and producing a grave layout plan and a new burial register.

Originally published at Pakenham Gazette.

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About Alana Mitchelson

Alana Mitchelson is a journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. Follow her on Twitter at @AlanaMitchelson.

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