> Book - Water for Gold! - The fight to quench Central Victoria's Goldfields

In celebration of the 150th year that Bendigo has been supplied with water, on 15 April 2009, the Minister for Water, The Hon. Tim Holding, launched the book Water for Gold! - The fight to quench Central Victoria's Goldfields by local historian Dr Geoffrey Russell. Water for Gold! documents the 27-year battle to slake Central Victoria's thirst by building the Coliban System of Waterworks, an engineering marvel that still supplies Bendigo and Castlemaine.


> Brochure - Joseph Brady's Coliban System of Water Works

An historical guide to the developement of Joseph Brady's Coliban System of Water Works to supply Central Victoria's Goldfields with a reliable source of water.
Download the brochure (PDF 5MB)

> Slide show - a History of Coliban Water

Photographs and content supplied by historian Dr Geoffrey Russell

The images and cpations below can also be viewed on a Flickr slide show


Slide 1

The tens of thousands of ‘diggers’ who swarmed to Central Victoria during the 1850s’ goldrush gold soon learnt that their new home carried a mixed blessing.

True, the Bendigo and Mt Alexander (Castlemaine) goldfields were amazingly rich in gold – but they were also desperately poor in life-sustaining water.

Slide 2

This scarcity of ‘liquid gold’ was made worse by regular droughts, and was largely due to the inland climate of Central Victoria.


For unlike the rival goldfield of Ballarat, the Bendigo and Castlemaine goldfields sat north of the Great Dividing Range: Victoria’s mountainous backbone that often halted coastal rain from reaching the drier Northern Plains.

Slide 3

Sensibly, Victoria’s first European settlers had already established their primitive towns along major rivers, close to seaports for communication and trade.

These centres also enjoyed ample and reliable annual coastal rainfall.

But the Bendigo goldfield erupted far inland, midway between two meagre north-flowing rivers: the Loddon to the west, and the Campaspe to the east.

Slide 4

Margaret Kennedy and her friend Julia Farrell – both from the nearby Ravenswood Sheep Run – first discovered gold in the Bendigo Creek (at Golden Gully) in spring 1851.

Back then the Bendigo Valley was home to several hundred sheep, and although there was good grazing, the creek usually dried-up each summer into a string of miserable waterholes.

Slide 5

The two women erected a ‘mia mia’ (native hut) beside one of these waterholes and began panning for gold using a tin milk dish.

Within a few scoops they had uncovered a fortune in gold nuggets.

Naturally, they tried to keep their find a secret, but the word soon got out, and by Christmas 1851 over 300 diggers had joined the rush.


Slide 6

Those first diggers turned the summer waterholes of the Bendigo Creek into a series of inky-black, stagnant pools.

As that first summer progressed, so too did the drought, drying up whatever water was left for drinking.


Slide 7

Along the Bendigo Valley the same water that was used for panning and cradling was also relied on for domestic use: drinking, cooking and washing.

But without proper sanitation, the creek was quickly contaminated with human effluent and the offal and blood from nearby butcheries, making the waterholes teem with dangerous germs.


Slide 8

By mid-1852 there was perhaps 30,000 diggers along the Bendigo Creek, using tubs and cradles to wash gold from the alluvium (top-soil).

And though many complained of a desperate shortage of water, and the diseases they caught from drinking it, the lure of gold somehow eclipsed all misery and hardship.


Slide 9

Soon there were children on the field too, with many helping their parents by working cradles along the creek.

But with poor toileting skills, these youngsters were usually the first to catch the terrible water-borne diseases that bred in the filthy creek-water – diseases such as dysentery and diarrhoea.


Slide 10

Today such complaints are readily treated.

But in the midst of a drought on the Bendigo and Castlemaine goldfields, with no clean drinking water, there was little any parent could do to fight a child’s raging fever.

Consequently, many children died and were buried in tiny graves, such as those in the Pennyweight Flat Children’s Cemetery near Chewton (just outside Castlemaine).

Slide 11

The constant shortage of water and threat of gastrointestinal disease did little to dampen the spirit of our first gold-seekers.


By 1853 they had swarmed north along the Bendigo Creek to work the downstream alluvial ground on the broad Bendigo Flat –opposite the Gold Commissioner’s Camp.

Slide 12

The Camp’s elevated site (modern day Rosalind Park) was chosen because it sat adjacent to the largest permanent waterhole of the Bendigo Creek.

The police troopers there guarded this precious waterhole day and night, and erected a fence to keep out any thirsty diggers staggering in to pay their monthly gold licence fee.


Slide 13

Merchants soon established a rough township over the creek, opposite the Camp.

Then in 1854, district surveyor Richard Larritt laid-out the town survey of Sandhurst – the early name given to the principal settlement of the Bendigo Valley.

So modern Bendigo owes its very siting to the availability of water along this otherwise dry valley.


Slide 14

Continued rich finds brought a flood of diggers, and Sandhurst quickly transformed from a rabble of canvas tents into a substantial frontier township.

It soon boasted hotels, amusement halls, shops and a variety of merchants – but they all needed water to survive.


Slide 15

As in Melbourne, during drought drinking water could be bought (for exorbitant prices) from water carts like this.

They filled up at distant creeks outside the Bendigo Valley, then hauled their precious cargo into ‘town’ along rough ‘roads’, ready to ‘make a killing’ selling water for a shilling a bucket.


Slide 16

By late-1854 the Bendigo Advertiser – Sandhurst’s first newspaper – declared ‘The Want of Water’ and ‘Public Health and Safety’ as the most pressing concerns facing Bendigo’s future.


Without water, Bendigo would shrivel, and its citizens would continue to suffer terrible water-borne diseases.

A reliable source of ample, clean water had to be found!

Slide 17

Sandhurst’s leaders began investigating all options.

They organised surveys of the levels between the Bendigo Valley and the Loddon, Campaspe and Murray Rivers.

But all of these sources were too far away, and were ‘downhill’ from Bendigo – requiring (steam) pumping to raise their water to Bendigo.

It was too expensive, and too difficult.


Slide 18

As these investigations proceeded, alluvial mining across the denuded Bendigo Valley became far more sophisticated.

Many diggers now used horse-puddling machines to process even more wash-dirt.

And though these machines recovered more gold, they also used far more water, and produced a slimy sludge that quickly choked the remnant flow of the Bendigo Creek.


Slide 19

Despite the lack of potable water and the ruined Bendigo Creek, Sandhurst’s citizens bravely continued to build a civilised township amidst their ravaged natural environment.

Comfortable, double-storey buildings rose along Larritt’s central street grid, including the ‘Bendigo Baths’, which offered diggers a regular monthly bath as some relief from the heat and dust of summer.


Slide 20

Bendigo’s first municipal leader, Edward N. Emmett, knew that to secure his town’s future, Bendigo needed a reliable water supply.


But with little support, funds or interest from a cash-strapped Victorian Government, Emmett set about his long-held dream to privately fund a new water supply for Bendigo.

Slide 21

Emmett’s plan was simple.

Sandhurst Municipal Council controlled a 22 acre site along the Bendigo Creek at Golden Square.

Council had no funds to develop this into the ‘Water Reserve’ it was earmarked for, so Emmett approached council to develop the site privately.

Council eventually agreed, and Emmett set to work.


Slide 22

After gaining a rush of investor support from Melbourne capitalists, Emmett formed the ‘Bendigo Water Works Company’, and sought incorporation through parliament.

The company appointed the brilliant Irish civil engineer Joseph Brady as its first engineer, charged with the duty of surveying and laying out Bendigo’s first water supply.


Slide 23

Brady came to Bendigo well qualified.

He had arrived in Victoria in 1850, just before the gold rush.

Then, after a six-month stint as an assistant engineer with the Sydney Railway Company, Brady arrived in Melbourne to help survey Victoria’s first water supply: the Yan Yean Water Scheme.


Slide 24

Working with engineer James Blackburn, Brady surveyed the site of the Yan Yean reservoir and embankment.

This storage, lying north of Melbourne, flowed water to the growing metropolis via open gravity channels, then through lead-lined pipes.

The project provided Brady with an excellent introduction to Victoria’s unique climate and environment.


Slide 25

Brady’s first assessment of Emmett’s scheme to water Bendigo was not optimistic.

He argued that apart from building Reservoir No. 1 at Golden Square, the Bendigo Water Works should construct seven additional reservoirs around the Bendigo Valley to catching even more water.

This water would also be cleaner than water caught in the ‘drain’ of the Bendigo Creek.


Slide 26

By 23 December 1858 Brady had completed his surveys and drafted his plans for all eight reservoirs.

Six would supply water for mining; the remnant two would be for ‘domestic purposes’.

Water would be supplied via a reticulated pipe system laid along Bendigo’s main street, and domestic customers would access this water via standpipes erected in the centre of Sandhurst.


Slide 27

The BWW established crushing mills opposite Reservoir No 1 site at Golden Square.


Company directors hoped to pay for the works by recovering payable gold from the alluvium excavated from the reservoir site.

So this was both a water company, and a goldmining company – and in theory, it could not fail!

Slide 28

The company’s motto expressed this optimism: ‘From the Clouds Wealth’.

All of Bendigo backed the venture, and the company’s floating on the infant Melbourne Stock Exchange in 1859 brought a rush of outside capital investment into other company ventures across Bendigo.

Interest was spurred by the official launch of the ore-crushing works at No 1, which brought a public holiday across Bendigo.


Slide 29

Had the reservoir been successfully built and filled, it would have stretched upstream along the Bendigo Valley, at Golden Square, holding back the swelling waters of the Bendigo Creek.


Slide 30

Today this low-lying site on the corner of High Street and Maple Street houses the Maple Street Primary School.

And the straight, flat stretch of Maple Street running along in front of the school still stretches the old raised reservoir embankment.


Slide 31

Just near the Maple Street school you can still see evidence of the embankment, now cut through to allow the Bendigo Creek to run unhindered down the Bendigo Valley.


A footbridge now crosses the creek just metres from ‘The Rocks’ where Margaret Kennedy originally found gold in the creek.

Slide 32

Sadly for the BWWC and its investors – and the thirsty residents of Bendigo – the No. 1 site proved a disaster.


The company didn’t recover nearly enough gold to pay for the site’s excavation, and what water that did collect there was polluted by nearby springs and local effluent.

With barely enough funds left, the company decided to complete its Reservoir No. 7 instead, and so abandoned its failed No. 1 Reservoir for good.

Slide 33

When Reservoir No. 7 was completed in 1861, the people of Bendigo were so proud of this achievement that they organised a photograph of the new storage, and sent this to London as part of a photographic essay depicting grand achievements across the Victorian Colony.

The photo went on display at the 1862 International Exhibition, in the Crystal Palace, Hyde Park.


Slide 34

Today, the remote Reservoir No. 7 forms part of the Bendigo Regional Park, and is accessible for passive recreation.

Visitors can walk along its raised earth embankment, to gain a true appreciation of 19th water engineering technology.


Slide 35

Water from No. 7 flowed down cast iron pipes, laid beside the main Melbourne road to central Sandhurst.

Once in town, local water carts could collect water from several standpipes, which also featured fire-plugs, and drinking taps.

Slide 36

The early standpipes became a popular feature around Sandhurst, allowing council workers to draw water for watering the dusty streets that plagued the township.


Thirsty residents (who could afford the tariff) also appreciated the ready water supply, and the local fire brigades enjoyed ready access to water for fire-fighting.


Slide 37

But Bendigo’s deepening mines still needed a massive amount of water – far more than they could catch in their own local dams, or pump up from the workings, deep underground.

Another source, probably beyond the Bendigo Valley, had to be found, and most now turned their heads south to examine the Coliban River, running free year-round near Malmsbury.

Slide 38

Any such grand water scheme for the Central Victorian goldfields would cost a lot of money, and the cash-strapped Victorian Government debated the obvious question: ‘Where would the funds come from?’

The government – then as now – had two main options: either raise taxes to pay for water, or extend Victoria’s already massive overseas’ borrowings.



Slide 39

Much of the colony’s huge debt was due to the government’s love affair with building railways.

The Melbourne to Murray River Railway was completed to Bendigo by November 1862.

But the trains running on that line also needed water.

Slide 40

At stations such as Woodend, the trains also took on fuel – in the form of six feet lengths of hardwood timber, culled from the might eucalypt forests of the Central Victorian highlands.




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