Aboriginal people are advised that this page includes a photo of people who have died.

How do you and your family fit into the story of Castlemaine and its district?  One resident made a tree change to Castlemaine some years ago, buying a house in one of the older streets of the town. He then discovered that his great great aunt and uncle had lived in and run an essential liquids business in the same street in 1861.

You may, likewise, uncover unexpected connections with the past; be it indigenous or more recent European stories.

This land, as First Nations people will attest, has origins in the dawn of time.

Early Pastoralism

Aboriginal farmers at Franklinford 1858

1 Aboriginal FarmersFranklinford 1858

The land from Lexton to Rochester and from Woodend to Donald approximately describes the traditional lands of the Dja Dja Wurrung people. They are the guardians of the land based around the Upper Loddon and Avoca Rivers. Their settlement dates back 40,000 years. Mount Alexander Shire, including Castlemaine, is in the south east of these lands.


In the south of this area lies the Newer Volcanics Province. Mount Franklin, south of Castlemaine is a scoria cone volcano, formed 470,000 years ago. Aboriginal records identify this area as “smoking ground” suggesting that the area remained active. Its eruption filled the gold-bearing creeks of the region with lava. These old creeks became the deep leads which would be mined in the gold rush of the 19th century.


The first European investigation of this region is that of Major Mitchell whose third expedition (1836) crossed the area, passing through where modern Castlemaine is now situated on the return journey to Sydney, having explored the Murray-Darling junction and the Portland area. Mitchell’s report of fertile plains enthused plans to colonise this area of the Port Phillip District, in spite of his records also showing aboriginal resistance to his expedition.


Squatters arrived to manage sheep farms in 1837, naming the area Forest Creek. There are several versions of the discovery of gold but one relates to a small gold nugget found in July 1851 in Specimen Gully, Barkers Creek. In one of the stories, an aboriginal boy picked up a sample and showed it to a shepherd’s son, commenting that the little nugget was rubbish. “Too soft for a spear point or a knife, too heavy to carry”, but the second took it to his father. It took a month for locals to be convinced that the shepherd did not have fool’s gold. Eventually the news reached Melbourne and by the end of the year, there was a tent city of 25,000 adventurous inhabitants spread from Chewton to Castlemaine. The discoveries of gold at Ballarat and Bendigo followed the Castlemaine discovery in August-September of that year.

Gold Discovery

The Forest Creek, the town centre for the goldfields

2 41.1 Goldfields

The new government in Melbourne was concerned at the impact of gold mining on the colony and initially imposed a monthly licence fee of £1/10- on the miners. After all, the gold had been declared to be royal property.  In December 1851 Governor La Trobe proposed to double the licence to £3, about 3 weeks wages for a (male) labourer. A ‘Monster Meeting’ was called and held at Golden Point, Chewton, with perhaps 15,000 miners attending. They flew the Forest Creek diggings flag and offered cheers for the speakers and groans for the governor. Governor La Trobe changed his mind and the licence fee remained at the old fee.

At this time, the Victorian government planned that Castlemaine would be the state’s second city, the administrative centre of the gold-fields.  The original government centre, in the Goldsmith Cres area was moved “across the tracks” to a new Hoddle grid street layout. The Templeton St cemetery was relocated, amid lurid (but unsubstantiated) rumours of body parts falling from the cart in the race to remove the bodies for reinterment at Campbells Creek.

Controlled by the military, the management of the goldfields was always contentious. In Castlemaine the Goldfields Commissioner, John Bull, was a notably humane man, anti-transportation and opponent of the gold licence system.  In late 1853 following a failed court-case brought by an informer against a boarding house keeper, there was a stand-off between the military on the Camp Reserve and the miners on Agitation Hill (now the site of the Anglican Church of Christ). John Bull was able to defuse the conflict gaining significant, but not universal, praise for his actions.   The miners’ issues remained across the gold-fields quickly prompting the Red Ribbon Agitation in Bendigo, finally culminating a year later in the Eureka Stockade rebellion in Ballarat. History recognises John Bull’s ability to peacefully manage conflict as one of the reasons why there was no uprising equivalent to Eureka in Castlemaine. The licence fee was finally replaced with an annual fee of 5/- which also gave the bearer the right to vote.

The Railway

The Railway Foundry in 1861 seen from Bruce St.


With gold driving the local economy, a railway was needed and construction began from Melbourne in 1852. Initial progress was slow and was eventually taken over by the Victorian government in 1856. The importance of the line was seen in the design as a double track line, unlike most Victorian lines which are single track with passing loops.

The contractors and government tried to oppose the Stonemasons’ attempts to expand the application of the 8 Hour Day. Labour was in short supply and the Stonemasons won the eight hour day award in 1856 and stonemasons were needed in the construction of the rail line, especially in the railway overpasses. One bitter confrontation was between the Stonemasons and John Bruce, the contractor, at the Theatre Royal, Castlemaine, in 1860. Bruce was one of the biggest labour employers in the colony and was well known for reducing wages and delaying payment to increase his own profits. Masons from the German states had been brought to Victoria to work at half the wage. Few of the Germans ever worked on the line, after being welcomed and supported by the Stonemasons of their arrival.

John Bruce established a railway foundry in Castlemaine in 1860, at the former Steam Flour Mill (the building can still be seen at 107 Barker St.). There he manufactured rolling stock and railway plant, increasing his potential profits. Bruce died of “apoplexy” aged just 41.

Social Organisations

A football team in Castlemaine, photographed by Augustus Verey, 1890

4 010_235 Football Team 1890 2

Mining brought with it a demand for a night life. A walk through modern Castlemaine will show a moderate number of operating hotels, but many more which have been repurposed. The number of licensed premises was greatly reduced in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was Harry Lawson the Castlemaine born premier of Victoria who made 6 o’clock closing permanent, for the next 50 years, at the end of World War 1. The visitor will not see the alcohol sellers who operated from unlicensed premises, even tents. The pressure on alcohol sales by organisations pushing eventually for total prohibition was strong, especially in Castlemaine supported by the Wesleyan churches established by the Cornish and Welsh miners and their families who dominated the local diggings. This created one of the strongest tensions in the Castlemaine goldfields as these same miners drank heavily in hotels opposed by teetotal and religious organisations.

The bust of Premier Lawson is beside one hotel and faces the site of one that was demolished (now a bank). It is just 150 m from the site of the Mechanics Institute (now the Library) which was founded to offer education instead of drinking. It was faced by hotels across the road. The conflict was central in Castlemaine in the late 19th century.

The Theatre Royal was another feature of Castlemaine and its gold-rush nightlife, established in 1854 as a live theatre. The original canvas walled structure burned down in the same year. A more permanent structure was built a year later and of course Lola Montez performed there, but there was no horsewhipping of the local newspaper editor in Castlemaine. This live venue was gutted by fire in 1887 but was rebuilt and hosted musical performance and plays until after WW1 modifications were made to allow showing of silent films. Since then changes have been made, converting its appearance to art-deco when the adjacent Royal Hotel was demolished in 1938. Sound film projection was included in the update. The theatre still operates and holds the claim to being oldest continuously operating theatre on the mainland. Hobart’s Theatre Royal is significantly older.

Another Castlemaine organisation also makes a claim to significant age: the Football & Netball Club. The football club is the second oldest Australian rules club dating from 1859. Only Melbourne is older. Many of its players went on to play in the VFL/AFL. One name will stir memories. Ron Barassi Sr played for Melbourne 1936-40, in a career cut short by his death a year later at Tobruk. His son with the same name began his career at Melbourne in 1953.

Deep mining was attempted, with some success, when the alluvial resources were exhausted. The Wattle Gully Mine was the last operating, beginning successfully in 1937 and continuing operations till 1969. Meanwhile other industries were developing in Castlemaine.

Change and the 20th Century

Ernst Leviny initiated Buda as an arts centre in Castlemaine. Early 20th Century photo

5 12.1 Buda

The 20th century brought more change to Castlemaine and its region. While mining was still significant, other industries were established. The Woollen Mill opened in 1875 and lasted till 2013 as Victoria carpets.

Thompson’s foundry, now Flowserve was established a year later than the Woollen Mill. There was a brewery and an abattoir (KR manufacturing) which still operates. Agriculture has become significant with orchards, vineyards and market gardens in the district.

As throughout the world, the World Wars changed society significantly. The horrors of the wars are readily recognised, but particularly WW1 accelerated social change through increased social mobility and population movement. When men are moved halfway around the world and women leave home and farm work for industry, there had to be change. The people of Castlemaine could move to other cities: other people would move to Castlemaine and its district. This was the process which generated the Castlemaine background which so many people will find in their family history.

The late 20thcentury saw some industries succeed, while others faltered. The decline of manufacturing was severe in regional areas but Castlemaine has again reinvented itself. The development of faster trains mean some residents can work effectively in Melbourne while enjoying a tree change. Local tourism has also developed with the development of a café culture and arts community. A Hot Rod ‘street rodding’ community also thrives, filling the streets, especially on weekends with heritage vehicles.

The Castlemaine Art Museum was established by a committee of passionate local people in order to showcase Australian Art. Many notable Australian Artists including Fred McCubbin, Tom Roberts Rupert Bunny and A M E Bale who donated works, grateful for recognition in their own country. Notable among the committee were the Leviny sisters, daughters of Hungarian Silversmith Ernst Leviny who made their home at ‘Buda’ in Castlemaine a house which is open to the public and showcases the work of Leviny and his talented children. The strong Arts tradition has continued in Castlemaine including the biennial State Festival which showcases Arts of all kinds.

Ernst Leviny, a Hungarian silversmith and jeweller, arrived at the diggings in 1853 with expensive but unfortunately inappropriate equipment. He turned his attention successfully back to his business ventures and with his wealth he bought a house, which he renamed Buda. It became the family home and it remained in the family for over a century. With his wealth he was able to encourage his daughters into art and they used the home as a centre for their arts and crafts work.

The history of Castlemaine and its district has touched many people in its development from traditional lands, through scattered farming settlements and the surge of the gold discovery. The social movements driving the people to establish a small regional city reflect the wider pressures in Australian society. The changes brought by pastoralists and then gold mining determined the history in the 19th century while the changes brought by industry and social movements (Friendly societies, prohibition and women’s rights) introduced Castlemaine to the 20th century. The world’s next mark on Castlemaine was World War 1. The Australian story is told in microcosm in Castlemaine.