Montsalvat was the earliest settlement in the area now called Eltham. But far from being the artist’s community it would famously become, it was originally intended to be a health spa. Here, it was planned, people would engage in prayer, exercise and regular infusions of the supposed health giving waters of the Yarra (which was to be both imbibed and swum in). If people proved recalcitrant, well, gentle persuasions – and less gentle ones – were available to encourage them. It was for their own good, after all.

But this attitude did not prove to be a selling point to the well-to-do of Melbourne. Montsalvat Health Spa began to be a losing proposition, with only the attractions of the sparkling upper Yarra as a selling point. The discovery of gold at Warrandyte, upstream from Eltham, led to a small mining boom that left the waters of the river too polluted for either of these purposes, and without that selling point, the Montsalvat Health Spa sank into financial ruin. Justus Jorgenson picked it up for a song – and a short song, at that.

Montsalvat would thrive as the artists of what would become known as the Heidelberg School made it famous and respected in the art world, but the surrounding area was left largely undeveloped for some decades. There are a number of theories as to why this desirable real estate would not be snapped up and built upon sooner that it was – distance from the city, the presence of large numbers of the Kulin people, the dense forest of the area, that it was haunted by the ghost of Montsalvat’s original owner (rumoured to have hung himself in one of its halls – although actually, he died of liver failure in a Footscray pub in 1848), but the truth is simply that the shadow of the failed health spa hung over the area in the form of the name it still bears – the spa having been nicknamed Health ‘Em due to its operators’ habit of trying to force people to be healthier.

Suburbs near Eltham:

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