Gold Rush City: Bendigo and its goldmines changed the history of Australia

Dubai - Within a few years after the discovery of gold in 1851, Bendigo became the home to over 5,000 mining companies



Alexandra Fountain in the town centre, Bendigo
Alexandra Fountain in the town centre, Bendigo

By Sandip Hor

Published: Thu 25 Nov 2021, 5:47 PM

Last updated: Thu 25 Nov 2021, 7:06 PM

Today, avid travellers from around the globe visit Bendigo — a regional inland township near Melbourne in the south eastern part of Down Under — to cherish the legacy of its evolution from a sleepy pastoral nest to a wealthy settlement within a few years after the discovery of gold by a local villager Margaret Kennedy in an alluvial and shallow waterway in 1851. This sudden find soon catapulted Australia on to the world stage and made the word ‘gold’ synonymous with Bendigo.

As a remote colony mainly for the convicts, Australia then was economically handicapped. The unearthing of the precious metal fired the entire island nation’s economy by bringing substantial wealth to its shores, stimulating secondary industries, driving population growth, restructuring the manufacturing sector and significantly helping frame the nation’s future socio-political climate. As the news of finding gold spread, the region soon got filled with miners and entrepreneurs, from other parts of Australia, Europe and America. Within a few years, the domain became the home to over 5,000 mining companies, three mining stock exchanges and several banks — one of which is the Bendigo Bank which still operates as one of the nation’s well-known financial institutions. The world then saw Bendigo as one of its richest settlements. With prosperity showering the area’s rural landscape gradually moved towards a sophisticated urban setting. Dirt roads and muddy fields were replaced with tree-lined boulevards, gardens and parks — all lined with a fine array of grand architecture. Most of them still exist to awestruck onlookers.

A vintage tram — a popular tourist attraction
A vintage tram — a popular tourist attraction

While there are a host of things to see and do in present-day Bendigo, getting immersed in its rich heritage with authentic experiences still ranks at the top for visitors. Most exciting thing to do is to go below the ground to explore a real gold hideout.

Quarrying of gold in Bendigo ceased in 1954 when the overall cost of mining became more than the saleable price of gold. All mines then ended their operations. However, Central Deborah Gold Mine, which during its lifespan produced almost a ton of gold, reopened doors to take visitors over two hundred metres below the surface the same way their workers did a century ago to showcase how Bendigo’s underworld generated wealth for people living on the surface. The fully guided tours through the honeycomb of underground tunnels are enthralling and offer information on how gold was extracted with basic tools and machinery amid tough working conditions.

It was just not the Europeans and Americans who flooded Bendigo during the gold rush. A sizeable number of wealth seekers from China who called their new home ‘Dai Gum San’, meaning ‘Big Gold Mountain’, also arrived. They brought with them their traditions, rituals and beliefs. A temple built by them in 1870 still exists as a witness of the social and cultural contributions of some of the first generation Chinese settlers in Australia. While their descendants today are an integral part of the Bendigo population as local Aussies, some of their rich cultures haven’t vanished from the scene. That’s why the Chinese Dragons are still alive and can be seen parading during the Bendigo Easter Festival. Other times they rest at the Golden Dragon Museum which is a wonderful venue to know more about how the local Chinese community has culturally influenced Bendigo’s proud history for the last 150 years.

The picturesque architecture in the historic city of Bendigo
The picturesque architecture in the historic city of Bendigo

Another equally engaging heritage experience is the Bendigo Pottery which was started in 1858 by Scotsman George Duncan Guthrie. He abandoned his potter’s wheel back in Scotland to join the Bendigo gold rush but soon switched back to pottery after stumbling upon a clay deposit near the goldfields perfectly suited to the production of ceramics. Soon, his business grew plentifully to rival the great Staffordshire potteries of England. It’s still operating as the nation’s oldest working pottery and welcomes visitors to showcase the journey of its mud-sculpting processes from infancy to the present in the making of world-class products.

Bendigo is blessed with a very pretty landscape no less fascinating than its history. A novel way of shaking hands with both the history and landscape of the city at the same time is by riding on a vintage tramway operating since 1890. While rattling through the city’s main thoroughfare from one end to the other, the journey provides a running commentary on the city’s progression from classic to contemporary and spots some of its key architectural landmarks from the past like the Alexandra Fountain, Sacred Heart Cathedral, Old Post Office, Art Gallery, Capital Theatre and the Town Hall.

The heritage experience intensifies when staying the night at the opulent Shamrock Hotel which since 1854 has been playing host to the city’s social scene. Famous Australian operatic soprano Dame Nellie Melba was one of the regular celebrity guests of the hotel during the Edwardian era when it’s said this hotel even drew the attention of the British Royals. So when Prince Charles and Lady Diana toured Australia in 1983 they made it a point to drop in there to cherish its legacy.

While the legacy of the gold rush remains the strongest suit, present-day Bendigo has other charms to pull tourists like its ancient and modern artistic collections in museums and galleries, colourful street art, engaging stage performances and the choicest food delights in venues old and new. Recognising the region’s diverse food culture and community’s commitment to local, sustainable, delicious and creative produce, Bendigo in 2019 became Australia’s first UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy. It doesn’t take much time for visitors to appreciate the reasons behind granting this honour.

wknd@khaleejtimes.com


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