CJ Dennis

The most famous Toolangi resident was the poet and writer C J Dennis who spent some 30 years inspired by the Toolangi environment. He was born in South Australia to a publican father and no doubt came in contact with a wide variety of people. He never lost his love of pubs and the characters and yarns associated with them!

From an early age he involved himself with Adelaide papers and literary publications and was editor of “ Gadfly” in 1905. Following that he journeyed to Melbourne and made the acquaintance of the artist Hal Waugh. Dennis joined Waugh on an expedition to Toolangi in 1908 sleeping in tents nicknamed “Hall of Hal” and “Den of Den”.

Dennis stayed on after the expedition, attracted by the ambience of the area. He enjoyed the fresh mountain air and the clear waters of Toolangi He was attracted to the young school teacher Florence Mitchell who boarded at Smedley’s guest house and she provided further impetus for his writings. His hauntingly sad “One Week in Summer” was penned soon after she left. His most famous book, “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” completed in 1915, exemplifies his special brand of humour and his perceptive characterisation. He was masterly in his use of slang and he displayed an extraordinary skill in rhyming.

In 1915 he purchased 3.5 acres for 22 pounds. This included a mill house, and in 1917 married Biddy a fellow writer. Over a period of 10 years, with the help of a local handyman, they converted the mill house to a commodious two storey house named “Arden”. It was made of rough sawn timber with sawdust insulation in the walls and the customary iron roof. Biddy developed and tended the garden while Dennis was happy to be visited by birds and native animals – an interesting combination I would have thought! He followed “The Moods of Ginger Mick” in 1916 with “A Book for Kids” and “The Glugs of Gosh” in 1917.

By 1922 Dennis was looking for a new challenge and he wrote a column for the Melbourne Herald which was dispatched on the 4.30 pm train from Healesville. His “Singing Garden Book” included a poem entitled “The Tree”. This commemorated the visit of the Poet Laureate John Masefield to Victoria to celebrate the centenary in 1934, and the planting of a copper beech tree which still has pride of place in “The Singing Gardens”.

His asthma finally got the better of the ‘likable larrikin’ and he died in the winter of 1938. C J Dennis is buried at Box Hill and engraved on the tombstone are words from
“The Singing Garden” – “Now is the healing, quiet hour that fills this gay green world with peace and grateful rest “.