Bendigo's Golden Heritage - Central Deborah Gold Mine
Poppet heads line Eaglehawk, Bendigo. Circa 1895.

Bendigo's Golden Heritage

The discovery of alluvial gold by Mrs Margaret Kennedy in the Bendigo Creek in 1851 soon saw the word 'Gold' become synonymous with Bendigo.

During Christmas in 1851 there were 800 people on the Bendigo field, by the following June 20,000 diggers had arrived. The diggers travelled from all over the world and risked everything to make a living (and, if they were lucky, a fortune) from gold mining in Bendigo.

Margaret Kennedy's discovery sparked a gold rush that would leave Bendigo with a history of being one of the richest producers of gold in the world, yielding over 700,000kg between 1851-1954 (which would be worth about $65 billion in today's prices). Bendigo was literally built on gold and is still known today as 'Dai Gum San' or 'Big Gold Mountain' by the Chinese.

While the rich alluvial finds initially attracted tens of thousands of eager seekers, it took less than three years before declining amounts of surface gold lead miners to follow the quartz reefs below the surface. The Bendigo Goldfield contains 37 distinct gold-bearing quartz reefs that extend across an area 16km by 4km. More than 5,000 registered gold mines were formed within that area. At least 140 shafts exceeded 300 metres in depth, 67 exceeded 600 metres and 11 were over 1,000 metres deep. The Bendigo goldfield represents the largest concentration of deep shafts anywhere in the world.

Bendigo of the 1940s – the heyday of Central Deborah Gold Mine – was a very different place to the one we all experience today. Former Central Deborah Gold Mine Manager, Ray Beer, remembered the Bendigo of his childhood as "streets that literally flowed with gold." "The streets around Bendigo were all dirt back then. After a good rain, in just about any gutter, you could pan for gold. We used to do well out of it too, enough to buy our drinks, lollies and comic books. For those of us who came from large families we would give a bit back to our mothers." The downfall? When the wind blew there was dirt everywhere, you couldn't keep it out of the house. You ate dirt, you drank dirt, you slept with dirt in your bed.

With so many operating gold mines needing to process their ore, stamping batteries became known as "the soundtrack to Bendigo." As former Central Deborah Tour Guide, Neil "Snowy" Murray, recalls "The batteries pounded away day and night, six days a week. When they turned them off at 11 o'clock on Saturday night it was always hard to get to sleep. You just got so used to the noise. It reverberated all over town – there was nowhere in Bendigo you couldn't hear them."

While the Bendigo skyline may have changed since then – with obvious remnants of mining such as poppet heads, engine rooms, service quarters, battery houses and chimneys having all but disappeared – the influence of the gold rush can still be felt in the very fabric of the city today. Bendigo owes its broad boulevards to the ambitious town plan prepared in 1854. The city's ostentatious public buildings and gardens attest to the flamboyance of the gold rush era. So do the richly decorated private homes. While many of the mines have since been capped or filled in over the years, there are still regular instances of the ground opening up in the most unlikely places, such as people's driveways and backyards.