27 April 2016

Clunes: a delightful goldrush town (from 1857 on)

The first European settler in this part of central Victoria, a young Sydney man called Donald Cameron, took up a pastoral run in 1839. The area was 36 ks north of Ballarat, a place Cameron named Clunes after his birthplace in Scotland. He focussed on sheep. Other people settled in the area, and they too ran sheep or cattle.

Only 11 years later, the tiny town of Clunes was the site of Victoria's first gold find,  unexpectedly. Gold traces were first found on this property by a friend, William Campbell, in March 1850. There had already been many rumours of gold being found in the area by young lads, but the squatters suppressed the rumours/true stories in order to maintain the district as a quiet pastoral district.

Then Victoria separated from New South Wales in 1851 and became a colony in its own right. I am sure the good leaders of the new colony wanted to increase the population of Victoria and hoped to establish new rural centres where families would find plenty of work.

1851 was a magic year! In July 1851 James Esmond, who had been to the goldfields of California, arrived in Clunes and mined some samples from the quartz; then he travelled to Geelong to report the discovery. He reached Geelong on 5th July 1851, to great acclaim. Almost immediately the news of his gold find was published in the Geelong Advertiser and soon the Melbourne Daily News carried the story.

Thus the gold rush began in Victoria!

For the first six years, mining was still on a very small scale, and people lived and worked in very difficult conditions. In 1855 Donald Cameron sold his station property and returned to Scotland where he purchased a property near Inverness and named it "Clunes".

 Nichol and Wallace warehouse, c1860, 
now the Clunes Museum

In 1857, the Port Philip Co. became interested in the Clunes reefs. A lease was drawn up with the owners of the land to give the Company the right to mine on the land for 21 years, with the owners to receive 10% of all gold mined. This proved very profitable, with rich royalties in the early years. Clunes began to prosper from 1857; from a group of flimsy huts, it grew into a decent town. However because the gold occurred mainly in quartz veins in the basement rock, it would have taken a lot of capital and large mining projects to recover the gold. In the end, many miners were attracted to easier and richer alluvial gold discoveries e.g Ballarat.

Still, the mines were paying well and money was flowing. The population reached 1,000 and the post office, arguably the centre of civilisation in rural towns, opened in 1857.

Clunes town hall and court house, 1872

By 1866, Clunes had its own council, 8 small schools, a population of 3,500, 850 dwellings, 5 churches and 7 quartz mines. Plus every religious and fraternal organisation known to the British Empire. There were 15 hotels, many shops, ironmongers, black smiths, wheelwrights, foundries, a gas works and some brick making yards. The former Union Bank, erected in 1865, was a forerunner of many new and rebuilt premises during the late 1860s and early 1870s; by then mining led Clunes to its peak of prosperity.

By the early 1870s businesses grew slowly and hotels grew rapidly. Bailey Street was the centre of important public buildings including a town hall and courthouse (1872),  a new post office (1878) and several churches. Clunes Town Hall was very significant, because of its unusual combined-hall-and court-facilities, and because of its distinctive architecture. Many early features survive internally, including a rare painted backdrop to the main hall. The timber hall at the rear is the former Bible Christian Church.

The Free library was erected in the 1870s during the peak of prosperity at Clunes. The double gable form was unusual although, as I have discussed many times in this blog, a library or mechanics institute was to be found in most Victorian towns during the 19th century.

Mostly importantly for this town, Clunes was connected to the Victorian railway network in 1874 and Clunes station was built the next year, complete with a fine cast iron platform veranda. The Railway Hotel was also built in the 1870s, to profit from its close proximity to the new station.

Citizens wanted a pleasant place to stroll in the heat of summer, so the shady grounds of Queens Park opened in the 1870s and a fountain and pergola were built in 1887. The end of the prosperous era was nigh, but gold mining did not actually close until 1893.

Clunes State School, 1881, 
now a museum

Erected in 1881, a Church of England school became Clunes’ first Commons State School #136. Although I personally have never seen a purpose-built school like this, Richard Aitken reported that the design was first used at Horsham and was the first in Victoria to incorporate a large area of veranda. To my eyes, #136 looks Federation/Queen Anne in taste. In any case, the building was reused as a knitting mill from the 1920s and more recently as a museum.

Although the population is now tiny (1,050 people), Clunes is one of the most intact 19th-century towns in the Central Goldfields, with lovely bluestone and brick buildings. Fraser St, the main shopping road, still has original 19th-century shop fronts and verandas, including the National Hotel (1862), Club Hotel (1870) and new Union Bank (1865). The c1860 building that had once been the warehouse of mining contractors Nichol and Wallace is now the Clunes Museum, established in 1976 and owned by the local Shire Council.

Today the town’s claim to fame is as the largest collection of books in any regional centre of Australia. I am pleased the old buildings are being reused, but the town still has a somewhat sad sense of loss.


Long after this post was written, the old State Savings Bank in Clunes reappeared in the newspapers. Prominent in the commercial centre of the township, the former bank was built from rendered triple brick and contains a 4 bedroom residence with study, retail space, cellar and steel plated walk in bank vault. It has been used in film and television programmes, notably Ned Kelly starring Heath Ledger. Many of the original grand period features have been lovingly maintained including the pressed metal ceilings, marble fire places, stately living area, maid's room complete with bell and a cloak room. Downstairs includes the kitchen, bank chambers, manager's sitting room and course the vault.

Clunes State Savings Bank, 1871

The closure of the banks was a telling part of Clune's not-so-glory-days. The Old Savings Bank now sells a collection of natural gold nuggets, jewellery, antiques, reproductions and giftware to the public. But inside its financial origins are clear - the interiors are filled with original detailing designed to connote an air of security and prosperity. The Union Bank of Australia was erected in 1865. This building is largely intact and with its modern extension has been converted for use as an art studio facility and accommodation. The Clunes London Chartered Bank was commenced in 1871. In 1921 it became the English, Scottish and Australian Bank and is currently used by the Clunes RSL as club rooms and to house their collection of memorabilia.

CAE students may be interested in the course on Gold Rush Cities in Victoria, starting on 4th May 2016.


Andrew said...

I've never seen a school design like that. It is interesting to imagine what Victoria would now be like without its former gold rush wealth.

Hels said...


gold was found in a number of states, but the big population rush was to Central Victoria. I am assuming that without the gold rush, Victoria would not have had the biggest population, the wealthiest economy and the most amazing architecture in Australia throughout the second half of the 19th century. Nor would Federation have been declared in 1901 in Melbourne or the Commonwealth Government located here for decades (until Canberra was completed).

However that all ended in 1902 when Sydney became the most populated city in Australia.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, The charm of so many mining towns is that frozen-in-time look. Big cities develop, get bigger, and in the process either tear down or overwhelm all that went before. Clunes was luckier than many similar towns because it was built up substantially--so many of these places were built with their original abandonment in mind, so the buildings were either flimsy or had that ordered-from-a-catalog look.

Hels said...


I don't know why some rural towns
a] went on to become important regional cities,
b] others lost most of their gold rush population and returned to small rural towns after 1914,
c] and others disappeared off the face of the earth and are now ghost towns.

Was there a random element of luck eg a better water supply? Was there a minimum population level that had to be reached before factories and government departments would set up in one rural town as opposed to others competing for their presence? What about the arrival of trains to and from the capital city, a few decades after gold was discovered?

Jim said...

Brilliant post, Hels, as always.

Ex-pat said...

I love Ballarat. In fact all of the old goldfield towns.

Hels said...


thank you! The Central Goldfields are chockablock full of amazing stories... and some very sad ones. I am getting right into it, just in time for the new semester.

Hels said...


In that case I recommend the Ballarat Heritage Weekend each May (this year on the 6th-8th May). The on-line programme gives you details on all the guided tours you can go on, and all the activities available in this gorgeous city.


The goldrush city I know best is Bendigo... one of the loveliest cities anywhere.

mem said...

I remember well having an afternoon tea which was catered for by the Clunes CWA in the town hall. It was a wonderful experience . Wonderful traditional country food ,scones ,jam filled sponge etc and tea from a huge pot . All in the amazing old town hall with its wonderful backdrop in the stage . Another amazing town is Talbot ,not far away . Just wonderful

Hels said...


I lived in Bendigo for two years some decades ago and fell in love with the old goldfields region of central-west Victoria. My question was always: why did a] some goldrush towns blossom into major regional cities like Bendigo and Ballart; b] some lost their huge gold digger population and became small rural towns like Clunes and Creswick and c] some became virtual ghost towns like Majorca and Timor. Lack of alternative employment, once the gold ran out?

Anyhow I agree with you about the warm hospitality, music festivals and foodie weekends in small towns like Clunes.

andrew1860 said...

Wow, this is a interesting post, When I think of goldrush towns I only think of the American West. The photo's of this Australian town even look like the same type of buildings you would expect to see in a American boomtown or goldrush town.

Hels said...


agreed. There are two important reasons why this town might remind you of goldrush towns in the USA. Firstly when the gold was running out in California etc, lots of Americans sailed to Australia in the hope of getting lucky. If they weren't diggers themselves, they opened shops or ran Australia's most important coaching company.

Secondly, the climate, economic status and populations in your California and my Victoria were almost identical. At first the men would have lived in shanties, but then they would have required timber cabins, pubs, shops, post offices, police stations, perhaps churches and primary schools. The architecture was very similar, as was the layout of the towns.

Helen S said...

Dear Hels,

A couple of years ago I did a Course with you at the CAE concerning the Gold Mining Towns of Victoria which, like many courses I have done with you, I found absolutely fascinating.
I particularly remember you saying that the architecture of St. Arnaud was the most completely preserved and on the strength of that, decided this year to visit the town. I did so last week and it was just as good as you said. Reminded me in some ways of a smaller Maryborough.

I was fortunate that the lady who ran the B and B I stayed at and her son also drove me to outlying areas as well so I had a very comprehensive understanding of the area as my hosts were very informative. Was surprised that the town was in quite a bushy area. Expected it to be more like the wheat paddocks near Charlton where an aunt and uncle lived many moons ago.

So Helen, many thanks for your information. I took my notes from your Course with me which were a great help. With kind regards,
Helen S

Hels said...


Some of the old Gold Mining towns and cities in Victoria are so full of history, special architecture, interesting town planning, fresh food locally sourced and fine park design that I wonder why we bother to race off to Far North Queensland for our holidays. Admittedly they have sunny weather in winter, but we have the well preserved history.