Bendigo

We decided to spend a night away in the city of Bendigo for no other reason than we thought we could get away for a couple of days. Bendigo is approximately 150 kms north-west of Melbourne and is located very close to the geographical centre of Victoria. It now has an urban population of around 83,000 people making it the fourth largest inland city in Australia and fourth largest city in the state of Victoria.

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The discovery of alluvial gold around Bendigo during the 1850s made it one of the most significant Victorian era boomtowns in Australia. News of the finds intensified the Victorian gold rush bringing an influx of migrants from all around the world. This activity transformed the local area from a sheep station to a major settlement in what was then the newly proclaimed Colony of Victoria. The name Bendigo apparently originated from a world famous bare knuckled boxer, William “Abednigo” Thompson, who was a shepherd on the Ravenswood Run near Bendigo. He was  very handy with his fists and became renouned as a great fighter. He lived in his hut on a creek which flowed through the valley where gold was found. It is said that this shepherd, nicknamed “Abednigo” lent his name to this rich goldfield.

This creek (Bendigo Creek), at least in the centre of town, is now bricked in and looks like a sterile drain. It is hard to imagine that it was once lined with tents and dozens of people panning for gold.

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The wealth from the gold enabled the city to finance the construction of some very grand buildings. These are consistent with similar buildings of the time in Melbourne when it was one of the wealthiest cities in the world. The law courts and post office here are excellent examples of these. It seems a pity that this grand building is now the sight of so much despair and heartache because the city is currently in the grip of an epidemic of the drug ‘Ice’. There must be some sorry tales told in its courtrooms every day.

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Across the road from the courthouse is the famous old pub – The Shamrock. This grand hotel began its life in 1854, as a small hotel known as The Exchange Hotel. Its patronage grew quickly with the booming goldfields and it was renamed the Shamrock in 1855 – the same year the nearby Theatre Royal hosted Lola Montez, performing for the diggers who threw gold nuggets at her feet, many of which the Shamrock staff took as tips while cleaning. It was rebuilt a number of times until its current design in 1897. It was at risk of demolition in the 1980’s but was saved through government intervention which recognised its heritage value and funded its restoration.

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One of the side effects of the gold rush of the 1850s was the arrival of thousands of Chinese. Like others, they wanted to make their fortune but they received hostility and little recognition from most of the miners. Within ten years the Chinese miners and merchants made up 20% of the Bendigo population.  Chinese societies sprang up to provide support for these people who were many thousands of miles from their homes and families. In the 1870s an impressive imperial dragon known as Loong was sent from China for use in ceremonies. He is now housed at the Chinese Museum in Bendigo and is the oldest Chinese dragon in the world. While most of the Chinese gold miners returned home when the alluvial goldfields declined, a small population remained to form the Bendigo Chinese community which has continued to influence the city.

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The Returned Services Memorial in the centre of town must be one of the most opulent RSL buildings in Australia. It was opened in 1921 by the Earl of Stradbroke as a permanent memorial to all those from the Bendigo area who had served and died in World War One. The memorial hall was planned to house a club for returned soldiers, a band rotunda and a publicly accessible honour roll. It has an honour roll with 2972 names of those who served in WW! on bronze tablets fitted on its front wall. The Dedication is very quaintly worded by today’s standards but would have been very profound at the time – “They whom this roll commemorates were numbered amongst those who answered the call  of King and Country, left all that was dear to them, endured hardships and dangers, were prepared to pass out of the sight of man by the path of duty and sacrifice that others may live in freedom. Let those who come after see to it that there names be not forgotten”. It’s precisely worded with a lot of meaning!

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There are some very nice gardens in Bendigo although at this time of the year that are not very colourful or interesting. The weather today was a typical winters day with a mimimim temperature of 3 degrees (C) and a maximum of about 12 degrees (C). At the top of a hill behind the city is one of what used to be dozens of poppet heads that sat on the top of mine shafts. It is now a lookout with panoramic views across the city. There are almost none of these left now – not even the ones i could remember from my younger days when I came to Bendigo to visit various Great Aunts and second cousins..

Throughout the mining history of the Bendigo Goldfield, in excess of 5,000 shafts were sunk (90 km of shaft sinking in total). At least 140 shafts exceeded 300 m in depth, 67 exceeded 600 m, and 11 were over 1,000 m deep. Shafts below 1000m occur on three separate anticlines and the two deepest shafts are the New Chum Railway at 1,312 m deep and the Victoria Quartz Reef at 1,406 m. Both shafts intersected significant gold mineralisation. The Bendigo Goldfield represents the largest concentration of deep shafts anywhere in the world.

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Our last venue for the day was a chance visit to the Bendigo Woollen Mill. We came across it by accident and were stunned at the range of coloured threads that it had for sale in its shop. The mill currently employs around 30 staff members full-time, running two shifts in the factory and moving to 3 shifts during peak sales periods. The mill is Australia’s largest hand knitting & crafting yarn mail order manufacturer. The mill is located in some historic buildings that were once part of the Bendigo power generating and tramways complex. The coal powered generators (which used to be located in the main factory building) once provided all of Bendigo’s electricity including the local tramways system. In 1934 the State Electricity Commission of Victoria (SECV) took over the buildings and continued to operate it for many years. In 1988 the Bendigo Woollen Mills purchased the powerhouse buildings from the SECV. The tramways buildings remained the property of the Bendigo Tramways who still operate tourist trams from an adjacent site.

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Finally, we can strongly recommend the Rocks on Rosalind restaurant as a place to eat. Our dinner tonight was superb. This restaurant is right in the centre of town and located in a building that once housed the original Commercial Bank. This is the oldest remaining bank building in Bendigo. We sat in the main dining area looking into the old strongroom with its massive steel door. Once it would have been full of gold but today it houses the wine cellar. Just another version of ‘gold’ if you ask me.

2 comments

  1. Eamon Tansey · ·

    Great review of the city, thank you for doing this

    Eamon

  2. Pamela Saunders · ·

    What a lovely exploration of a regional city reviewing some of its significant history. lest hope that we all take pride in our young history and that our historic buildings are kept for future generations. Thanks for re telling some of these stories.