Back to Bendigo and Castlemaine

We returned to Bendigo, about 150 kms NE of Melbourne,  on Friday to nail down some final details for the bi-ennial reunion of the unit that I served with in Vietnam  – 85 Transport Platoon. On a day in which Bendigo had 65 mm, (2 1/2”) of rain – more than its monthly total in one day, we zipped from place to place trying to stay dry but still managing to get some final reunion details in place.  We are very grateful for the sponsorship of the Bendigo City Council who have been an enormous help in supporting our reunion. We had lunch and a meeting at the RSL (Returned Service League) although some of the details that we need to get in place for our functions were not able to be finalised because the key people were on leave.

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The RSL (Returned Service League) has a fine statue near their from door that shows the various roles of The Australian Defence Force on operations.

I pretty well covered Bendigo as a gold town in my previous posting in June when we were able to visit in between the two lockdowns we had in Victoria. You can read my post about Bendigo here.

On our second night in Bendigo we were able to revisit the Woodhouse Restaurant again for a wonderful, but quite expensive meal. Their combination of tender steak and superb red wine made for a wonderful meal.

Driving home, we made a quick detour into another of the Central Victorian gold mining towns at Castlemaine, previously called Mount Alexander. Like other towns in the region this town grew out of the goldrush of the 1850s.


Castlemaine Streetscape


Castlemaine Town Hall and School of Mines

At the height of the goldrush there were over 2000 houses in the town, and a population of 7,500. As gold mining gradually ceased a number of other secondary industries sprang up. These included breweries, iron foundries and a woollen mill. From the 1970s the industries that had dominated employment in the town for a century began to decline with many families leaving in search of jobs elsewhere. The area’s goldrush history and heritage was, however, increasingly recognised, along with its notable population of artists and craft workers. Substantial planning and activity has helped to now create new industries in heritage tourism, arts tourism and nature tourism.

Castlemaine is where my maternal grandmother was born in 1888. She lived in a house opposite the famous Castlemaine syncline in Lyttleton Street. We could, at one time, see the old house from the street, but the gardens are now so mature that trees hide the house from the road.


Castlemaine Syncline

As a competent pianist, she played the pedal organ in the Methodist church and also, for some pocket money, played the piano at the silent movie theatre. She married my grandfather in 1913 and went on to have eight children.  With a couple of miscarriages along the way, I think she spent a good deal of her married life being continually pregnant.


The church where my grandmother attended is now owned by a local motel and used as accommodation.

Castlemaine has an interesting place in Australian history. Years after the prosperous gold mining days passed, Castlemaine established itself as a town with a thriving agricultural, arts and tourism industry. The town’s historic streetscapes are a reminder of its immensely rich gold mining days, with many magnificent public buildings still existing. 

On a hill to the east of the town is the towering Burke and Wills monument, erected in 1862 to honour the death of these famous explorers. They were the first explorers to cross the continent from South to North. The Burke and Wills expedition, remains one of the most celebrated journeys of the ‘heroic era’ of Australian land exploration.

Robert O’Hara Burke led the expedition. He was was an Irish-born soldier who emigrated to Melbourne in 1853. He served as a police inspector and superintendent in Castlemaine. Despite having little exploration or navigation experience, he was chosen to lead the expedition.

William John Wills was the expedition’s surveyor and astronomer, and was second-in-command. Wills had also arrived in Victoria in 1853, first working as a shepherd and then as an assistant to his father, a surgeon. He studied surveying and was appointed to a position at the Melbourne Observatory.

Described as the best equipped expedition in Australia’s history, the explorers set off for the Gulf of Carpentaria carrying about 21 tonnes of equipment. The departure from Royal Park in Melbourne on 20 August 1860 was a grand public event — the expedition party was farewelled by 15,000 Victorians. On their first day, they traveled a total of seven miles.

As they progressed northward, Burke found the expedition overburdened and the wagons unreliable. He feared that South Australian explorer John McDouall Stuart, who was also heading for the Gulf, might get there first.

At Menindie, Burke appointed William Wright to be in charge and left for Cooper Creek. Wright was to bring up the party and supplies. Burke grew impatient waiting for Wright to arrive and decided to leave Depot Camp 65 for the Gulf of Carpentaria. On 16 December 1860 Burke, Wills, Charles Gray and John King left Cooper Creek to make a dash for the northern shoreline. Burke and Wills eventually encountered salty marshes and a shifting tide, and could proceed no further. They had reached their goal, even though they could not see the open water.

The return journey proved fatal. Charles Gray died and the others limped back to the Cooper Creek camp only to find that rest of the depot party had departed just hours earlier. Burke and Wills died attempting to reach Mount Hopeless. King, near death, was cared for by the Yandruwandha people until a relief expedition rescued him.

When news of their disappearance reached Melbourne, four relief parties were despatched to search for them. One of the parties, led by Alfred Howitt, rescued King and buried Wills and Burke at Cooper Creek. 

The tragic fate of the Burke and Wills expedition received international attention. King was given a public welcome on his return to Melbourne but never recovered from the expedition ordeal.


Memorial t Burke and Wills

From the monument, there are good views down to the town centre.


In 1860, 25 hectares of gold diggings along Barkers Creek were set aside for the Castlemaine Botanical Gardens. Recognised as one of Victoria’s oldest public gardens, they feature ancient oak and elm trees, colourful garden beds, open lawns, a rotunda and Lake Joanna.

Some of the old houses are still in existence. These include Buda – an authentic goldfields villa house and garden.  It was named after Budapest by its Hungarian owner, Ernest Leviny for whose family it was home for 118 years.


We came across this cottage and had a chat to the owner for a few minutes. It a very well kept example of a home for a more wealthy family who lived in this area the days after the gold rush.


Heading towards home, we made on final stop at a little town of Malmsbury. The biggest building in this town is a jail for young offenders. I’m a bit intrigued at the way that names are changing in our society. It was once a jail, but now it is referred to as a ‘Youth Justice Centre’. Similarly, old fashioned cattle sale yards have become Livestock Exchanges., Town Halls are now called Civic Centres and Manhole Covers are now called Access Covers.

There is a rather grand railway bridge in Malmsbury (still used). It is a large brick and stone masonry arch bridge over the Coliban River on the Bendigo Railway line. It was erected as part of the Melbourne, Mount Alexander and Murray River Railway between 1858 and 1861, and was at the time the largest masonry arch railway bridge built in Victoria.The bridge is over 100m long with five 18.3 metre spans, standing about 25 metres high.


2 thoughts on “Back to Bendigo and Castlemaine

  1. As always a great read. Love the photo of the Imperial Hotel in your streetscape. For the followers of The Honourable Phryne Fisher, Private Detective, it is the hotel she stayed in while sleuthing in Murders at Castlemaine. One which sadly has not been recreated in the TV series

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