One of the benefits of us having a Covid free community (at least for now) is that we can once again travel, even if it’s only within the state . This weekend we spent some time in the area of the Central Victorian Goldfields. We stayed at one of the RACV resorts at Creswick, about 130 kms to the NE of Melbourne. It is a well equipped resort with an 18-hole golf course. The 18th fairway is inhabited by dozens of Eastern Grey Kangaroos that come out to graze on the green grass each evening. We are not golfers but this resort acted as a useful base for us to explore some nearby towns that are all associated with the 1850s gold rush.
Early discoveries of alluvial gold in the 1850s triggered a rush and when this gold ran out, deep lead mines were established. The impact of the Victorian gold rush is strongly evident in the towns of the Goldfields as well as scattered throughout the surrounding bushland. Most of the towns have grand old buildings that were built with money from the gold. Old pubs and miners cottages can be seen frequently throughout the area. In the countryside, mine shafts and mullock heaps are an extremely common sight and you can regularly come across abandoned mine tunnels, discarded boilers, machinery site foundations, remains of gold puddling machines (or puddlers), and old cyanide vats.
The largest alluvial gold nugget discovered in the world, the famous Welcome Stranger, was discovered in this region in 1869 at Moliagul.
Where there is money, there is also crime and one of Australia’s famous bushrangers, Captain Melville, operated in this area. Calling himself Captain Francis Melville and posing as a gentleman, he reached Victoria about October 1851 and by December had turned to bushranging. Captain Melville supposedly used the spectacular Melville Caves high in Kooyoora State Park as a hiding place as he preyed on the gold convoys travelling below.
Along with the gold rush came the establishment of early cemeteries, which offer a fascinating glimpse into the past. The cemeteries all have individual sections for different denominations with the Baptist buried in one area, Methodists in another, members of the Church of England near the front gate and the Roman Catholics right at the back. I’m not sure why this was the case – perhaps there was a fear that the spirits of the departed souls would be uncomfortable if buried next to others with different beliefs.
The early gold miners must have been a God-fearing lot as every town has a church representing every main Christian denomination.
The area around Creswick was inhabited by the Dja Dja Wurrung people before white settlement. The pioneer European settlers were Henry, Charles and John Creswick, three brothers who started a large sheep station in 1842. A town was soon established and it boomed during the Victorian gold rushes in the 1850s. The Post Office opened in 1854 and the population reached a peak of 25,000 during the gold rush. Today, local industries include forestry, grazing and agriculture. The original Victorian School of Forestry was established here in 1910 by the Government Department of Forestry. It was the first institution set up in Victoria to train and accredit young foresters. Now the campus is part of The University of Melbourne.
Creswick was the site of the New Australasian Gold Mine disaster on 12 December 1882, Australia’s worst mining disaster in which 22 men drowned when water flooded the pit.
Creswick is the birthplace of the Lindsays, perhaps Australia’s best known art family. Famous Lindsays (in birth order) were Percy Lindsay (landscape painter), Sir Lionel Lindsay (printmaker, painter and critic), Norman Lindsay (painter, sculptor and writer), Ruby Lindsay (illustrator) and Sir Daryl Lindsay (painter and arts administrator). Percy Lindsay painted many landscapes of the town and Norman Lindsay immortalised the town in his novel Redheap, a work that was banned for many years.
Many original buildings can be see in in the main street.
The band rotunda and old post office
Old Bank of New South Wales
Pasco’s hardware store and undertakers
Farmers Arms Hotel
Further up the road towards Maryborough is the town of Clunes – the site of Victoria’s first gold strike in 1851. This led to a gold rush which swept through central Victoria, resulting in a massive population boost for the state and great wealth for many. These days, Clunes is an agricultural, pastoral and tourist township, nestled in a scenic valley.
Many of the original buildings in Clunes have been preserved from those gold rush days, perfectly illustrated with a visit to the wide and elegant Fraser Street which is lined with 19th century buildings and shop fronts.
National Hotel (1862)
Free Library Building
Post Office Building
The South School at Clunes later became a knitting mill and the building now houses a bottle museum
Another local town, Talbot, once serviced a mining population of over 15,000 during the 1850s. Today, only a few hundred people live there. The town retains a number of historic buildings from its prosperous gold mining days which can be observed by taking a stroll along Scandinavian Crescent in the heart of the town. Some of the old shops which line this street are now home to speciality businesses, such as a clothing boutique, bookshop and homewares store.
Nearby, Majorca was the last large goldfield in the Maryborough region to be discovered. In 1858 the Gibralter diggings had been found (so called because of an escarpment), and in 1863 the Majorca field was found nearby. (Possibly the name was given because of the proximity of the Mediterranean island of Majorca to Gibralter).
A township grew rapidly but is now a story of decay. The Catholic church closed in 1910, the last hotel closed in 1936. Between 1968 and 1975 the Presbyterian and Anglican churches and the post office closed, and the school in the following decade. Now there are less than 400 people living there.
Some of the original farm houses are no longer occupied, but others are still lived in.
The largest town in the area is Maryborough. Historical buildings are a feature of Maryborough today, with the highlights being the well-preserved commercial streetscape along High Street. Iconic public buildings include the post office, and the grand railway station which was built in 1890.
Bull and Mouth Hotel
Maryborough’s Civic Square with its Courthouse, Town Hall and Post Office.
The railway station building was erected in 1890 with 25 rooms and a clock tower, of red brick with stucco trimming. It was built in such grand style as the town was expected to become the rural railway centre for Victoria. At its height, over 1000 people worked here for the railways. In 1895, Mark Twain visited Maryborough, which he dryly observed as being: “A railway station with a town attached”. The station closed in 1993 when passenger services to Mildura (The Vinelander) were withdrawn and replaced by road coaches. In 2006/07 the station was restored with repairs to the towers, clock, facade, portico, roof and guttering.
Maryborough Railway Station.
Driving back to our resort, we travelled through Smeaton. The entire town now consists of a public hall, a recreational hall, a hotel, a general store, a Presbyterian church, a recreation reserve, a bowling club and tennis courts.
Every Victorian town has a pub with most retaining the charm of yesteryear. The Cumberland Hotel in Smeaton is the oldest weatherboard pub in Victoria.
Smeaton had a solid agricultural economy before the gold rush. It was not greatly disrupted by gold discoveries in the early 1850s, although mullock heaps are within a kilometre or two of the town. On the contrary, agriculture was probably stimulated by the mining population: In a postcard setting on the banks of Birch’s Creek on the southern edge of town, Anderson’s Mill stands as a powerful reminder of an industry that flourished after the gold rush of the 1850s.
Standing today much like it was over 100 years ago, the five-storey bluestone building and its enormous 28 ft iron water wheel are still in place. Construction of the flour mill commenced in 1861 and it was operational within six months. An additional oat section of the Mill was completed by the following harvest.
Small volcanoes dot the landscape around Smeaton, some just a hundred or so metres high. These erupted around 30,000 years ago and produced the basalt lava from which many buildings are constructed. These volcanoes are part of the large lava plain of western Victoria – the third largest lava plain in the world. The lave flows buried creeks and rivers, hiding veins of gravel rich with alluvial gold. Miners who grew rich on the surface gold could invest in technology that allowed them to dig deep beneath the surface and mine the buried rivers of gold.
This area is mostly characterised by dry eucalyptus forest. It has a certain ‘gold region’ appearance to it – rocky and stony ground surface, small shrubs and small eucalyptus trees that persevere in the relatively dry climate. People still fossick for gold and we occasionally read about them finding small nuggets. The tombstones in the old cemeteries tell of a tough life. Many of the original gold diggings that once had names are now gone,. Only the major towns remain. Where there were once settlements, there were churches. There are dozens of old disused buildings scattered through the area. Some like this one have been converted into homes but many other are just crumbling remains of bricks. It’s all part of a fascinating history.