Castlemaine is located at the confluence of Barkers, Campbells and Forest Creeks, 120km north west of Melbourne CBD can be reached via Calder Freeway from Melbourne. This is one of those old Victorian towns where one would see the greatest number of heritage vehicles running on the roads. The town carries all the charms of a gold rush town, but economic decline is obvious with large number of locals turning to performing on the streets to supplement their income.
The area was occupied by Jajowurrong tribe before the arrival of Europeans. Initially the aborigines put up some resistance against the settlers but like everywhere else in Australia, they were overpowered by the presence of foreigners especially after the discovery of Gold.
Major Mitchell’s Australia Felix expedition passed though Castlemaine on 29th September 1836. White settlers soon followed his footsteps to Mt Alexander area and used the land for grazing. In 1841 William Barker established the Mt Alexander pastoral run. The Shire of Mt Alexander centred around Castlemaine got its name from Mt Alexander. Major Mitchell climbed the mountain during his exploration and named it Mount Byng but soon the name was changed to Mt Alexander honouring Alexander the Great.
In 1850, the area later became Castlemaine was part of the South end of sheep station owned by William Barker and his brothers. Kyneton was the nearest township. On 20th July 1851, Christopher Thomas Peters, hutkeeper at Specimen Gully, found some rough specks of Gold and his friends Worley, Robinson and Keen joined in prospecting and knocked off 5lb gold from quartz. William Barker fearing an exodus of his workers, did not encourage it and sacked them and ran them off his land for trespass. They were fined £20 by Chief Gold Commissioner, Captain Wright for digging without a license. Thomas Peters and his mates paid the fine in gold and took licenses for prospecting for four persons. To save them from further trouble, Worley mailed a letter to “The Argus” Newspaper in Melbourne, dated 1 September 1851 announcing this new goldfield with the precise location of the find. Within a month there were around 8000 fortune seekers at the forest creek area which came to be known as Forest Creek diggings which centred on Forest, Campbells and Barker Creeks.
Victoria had entered the grip of Goldrush mania. The crews deserted their ships on arrival, and it was said that there were around 59 empty vessels in Port Phillip at one time. On New year’s day only 2 police men were left to guard Melbourne with a population of 20,000 at that time. Forest Creek Goldfields was considered as the richest shallow alluvial goldfield in the world. The Chinese also came to the area in large numbers and in the 1850’s around 3000 Chinese camped here at the Campbells Creek.
The Goldfield was proclaimed on 8th October 1851.Captain Wright was appointed Chief Commission and selected main central camp site at Castlemaine at the junction of Forest and Barkers Creek. Castlemaine was named by Captain W. Wright, in honour of his Irish uncle, Viscount Castlemaine. The new township was surveyed by Wm. Swan Urquhart, assisted by Wm.Templeton and E. W. Bragshawe, and was gazetted on January 20, 1853. Castlemaine was proclaimed a municipal district on 23rd April 1855.
Within three years most of the alluvial Gold was taken and as Gold deposits exhausted, Castlemaine was diversifying itself as an industrial hub with the establishment of industries like Thomson’s Foundry, Castlemaine Woollen Mills and Castlemaine Brewery. All these iconic businesses are in the hands of multinationals now. “Castlemaine Rock”, that came into existence when Thomas Shinkfield Barnes started selling the lolly to miners in waxed cones at the tent city of Castlemaine in 1853. The fifth generation family business was closed in 2018, as it was not viable to run the business anymore.
Castlemaine was the centre of the great alluvial goldfield. By the end of 1852 the population of the Forest Creek diggings was conservatively estimated at 35,000; another estimate put it in excess of 50,000
The first gaol in Castlemaine was opened at an old log watch house at the Camp, which was overcrowded due to which some of the newly arrived were hand cuffed to chains stretched between trees on outside.
Initially diggers showed interest in only alluvial gold but by 1852 small number of diggers turned their attention to gold found in Quartz. The reef that was first tried for Quartz mining was named Quartz Hill. The Quartz obtained were roasted and crushed with hand hammers and primitive equipment were used to extract Gold. Among them was D and J Thomson, who started Thomson’s Castlemaine foundry which became well known around the world. In 1852 the Thompson brothers, with George Shegog and Fairburn, brought an ore-crushing plant to Forest Creek. They retrieved some 5000 ounces of gold from Quartz Hill, laying the foundations of their futures. Later the Thompsons installed a steam-driven stamp battery at Manchester Flat. The Thompsons moved on to flour milling, and then in 1875 built an iron foundry and engineering works in time to help provide for the industrialisation of mining, the great expansion of Victoria’s railway system, and the expansion of agriculture and irrigation. It supplied rails and points, designed innovative hydraulic sluicing equipment, and built railway locomotives, large and complex pumping equipment, steam rollers, and large bucket dredges
The father of Sir Frederick Thomas Sargood (who built Rippon Lea Mansion) started Sargood and King in a tent in Castlemaine.
By 1856, Castlemaine had a population of 34,348 people and mining operations in the area used around 23 steam engines and many quartz crushing machines. For fuel massive clearing of trees were undertaken and before the end of the century, operators of large quarts mines were having to obtain trees from thirty to forty kilometres away.
As the Gold reserves found at under 6ft fast disappeared, diggers started leaving the area, which was replaced by public companies with large scale mining activities focusing on quartz mining. But the 1860’s presented a different picture, as many of the big players found their investments crash, as they found it difficult to recover enough gold to recoup their investments. By 1875 quartz mining boom was over, but the hope remained that there is abundant gold reserves at deep underground. Even that hope was found to be misplaced when in 1886, the Government’s diamond drilling plant tested the District’s richest reefs and came up with a disappointing result. But the quarts mining industry picked up again by the end of 1890’s.
The first world war, Castlemaine saw a downturn in mining operations . But Gold prices increased during the depression of 1930’s and about twenty mines in the Castlemaine and Fryer’s Creek Divisions re-opened.
Castlemaine was declared a city in 1965.By The 1970’s Castlemaine began its slow death from a thriving township to end up as a Goldrush era town. Many industries either closed its door or downsized considerably. Today Castlemaine survives on food manufacturing and tourism industries.
What to see in Castlemaine?
Aborigines, the early inhabitants of Australia never built permanent structures, due to which any permanent structure that is around 150 years old are considered of heritage value if it has culturally important. Castlemaine boasts of many Goldrush era building and most of which are heritage listed.
Castlemaine Market : Located at corner of Mostyn and Frederick Streets, Castlemaine market originally contained 22 shops for the sale of local fresh foods and products. Displaying a mixture of Australian colonial Greek and Roman Classical Revival styles, the building was completed in 1862, designed by town surveyor William Downe. The produce market was held until 1967. Now it houses town’s information centre.
Bank of Australasia: Located at 57 Mostyn Street, this National Trust listed building was constructed by Castlemaine builder, James Kibble to the design of Melbourne architect, John Gill, and was opened for business in July 1857.
Theatre Royal: Located at 30 Hargraves St, the current building was built in 1858 with the theatre surviving two major fires to re-emerge in 1888 as a major regional entertainment venue.
In April 1856, infamous dancer Lola Montez performed her erotic Spider Dance here raising her skirts so high during her Spider Dance in front of 400 diggers which created a sensation. Theatre Royal is also associated with Catlierine Hayes, Montgomery, Barlow, G. V. Brooke, and dozens of other world-wide celebrities.
Address: 36-48 BOWDEN STREET
Based on the Pentonville Prison model, Castlemaine Gaol was constructed in 1857 -61 using locally quarried sandstone and Harcourt Granite. It was built during a remarkable period of prison construction in Victoria, when eight prisons were built between 1857 to 1864.
Castlemaine Post Office
Address: 20 Barker Street
The Castlemaine Post Office was built in 1874-5 replacing an earlier post office constructed in 1857 and was designed by Public Works architect John James Clark.
Buda: Buda is a gracious historic home built in 1861 surrounded by 19th century gardens. It was home to creative Levini family for 118 years from 1863 to 1981 and houses a collection of significant artefacts that belong to them. This is open to public from Wednesday to Saturday from 12noon to 5pm. Sundays and public holidays from 10am to 5pm.
There are many heritage listed churches in Castlemaine which includes, Presbyterian Church (11-13 Lyttleton Street), Uniting Church (4-8 Lyttleton Street), Christ Church (8 Mostyn Street), Welsh Congregational Church(Cnr Camp and Church Streets), Welsh Baptist Church (Cnr Francis and Templeton Streets), Wesley Church
The other prominent heritage listed buildings are Castlemaine Court House at 29 Lyttleton Street, Castlemaine Drill Hall at 23 Lyttleton St, Castlemaine Cemetery at Cemetery Road, Castlemaine Railway Precinct, Former Goldsmith’s hotel at 61 Mostyn Street, Mechanics Institute and Library at 216 Barker Street, Former Castlemaine Brewery at 115 – 133 Queensbridge Street, Castlemaine Diggings national heritage park, Castlemaine Powder Magazine at 47 Farnsworth Street, Bank of NSW at 149-51 Barker Street, Former Telegraph Office at 208-210 Barker Street, Presbyterian Church at 11-13 Lyttleton Street and former School of Mines at 27 Lyttleton Street.
Mostyn St East, Hargraves St, Lyttleton St, Templeton St and Barker St. have the most number of heritage buildings.
Castlemaine Botanical Gardens
Castlemaine Gardens is one of the earliest of Victoria’s provincial gardens. It was officially gazetted on 21st February 1860. It has a collection of over 850 trees. The Garden still retain its original design, character and major plantings. Many trees and shrubs came from the collection of Baron Ferdinand Von Mueller at the Melbourne Botanical Gardens.
‘Kaweka’ and Kaweka Wildflower Reserve
Location. Turner St
The reserve is good for bird watching, with walking tracks and picnic tables. This is a small reserve of 8ha. The reserve was named after a private residence of the same name, which is a Maori word meaning, “House on the Hill”, in the area built by foundry owner and former Mayor John Thompson.
Burke & Wills Memorial
Castlemaine was the first town to decide to build a memorial for Burke and Wills. The citizens of Castlemaine raised the money through public subscription and donations. The granite obelisk was completed in July 1863. The Burke and Wills expedition was organised by the Royal Society of Victoria in Australia in 1860–61 of 19 men, led by Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills, with the objective of crossing Australia from Melbourne in the south, to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, a distance of around 3,250 kilometres. Altogether, seven men lost their lives, and only one man, the Irish soldier John King, crossed the continent with the expedition and returned alive to Melbourne.
This little digger installation was created in 1999. The central figure represents the independent men who took stand against the hated license fee imposed on diggers in 1851. The diggers mate is seen climbing out of shaft in exclamation of the nugget he found representing the spirit of mateship. The water wheel is symbolic of the engineering that were established in Castlemaine.