Gold in the Hills: Some Mining History of Toolangi-Castella District and Surrounds
In the 21st century, most Victorians associate gold mining with the Central Goldfields regions, including the Ballarat, Castlemaine and Bendigo districts, where gold finds led to the development of impressive regional towns and cities. To appreciate the context of gold mining in the Toolangi-Castella district, it is important to have some overview of the Victorian gold rush, and particularly the movement through the ranges of the prospecting miners of the mid-nineteenth century.
With gold discovery officially declared in New South Wales in early 1851, thousands of people crossed the Murray to journey to the NSW gold fields (Hawkins (ed.), 2013). The Port Phillip District was, at that time, on the cusp of secession from New South Wales. Discovery of gold was not officially announced in the Port Phillip District until July 1851, although deposits of gold in the district were known about as early as 1841. A similar situation existed north of the Murray, where gold finds were known to a minority from 1823. These earlier finds had either not been reported or supressed by the colonial authorities, fearful that a gold rush would destabilise the colony. When the NSW gold find at Bathurst was announced, the rush caused an exodus of population from Victoria. To stem this exodus, the new Colony of Victoria, now separate from NSW as of 1 July 1851, posted rewards for gold discovered in Victoria. Within weeks, gold discovery was officially declared at Anderson’s Creek, Warrandyte and in the Pyrenees (Flett, 1979), and the rushes quickly spread to many parts of Victoria.
The first record of gold mining close to Toolangi-Castella is very early in this period, when a journalist for the Melbourne Herald (22.12.1851) reported ‘…a hundred cradles working on Muddy Creek’, the early name of the Yea River. The locations were not defined beyond mention of the miners spread along the Muddy Creek and its tributaries, up to where it ran into the hills (Herald, 1851). This rush did not last long as it seems that other major rushes of the times drew these early miners on to more productive fields.
By 1855 the rushes beyond Warrandyte included the Caledonian goldfields. These were also known as the Caledonian Diggings and the Plenty Diggings and extended from the Yarra River, north across Kangaroo Grounds to Queenstown (present-day St Andrews) and embraced all the area between Diamond Creek and Watsons Creek (Flett, 1979).
Prospectors on the Caledonian fields gradually moved on to Steels Creek, on the eastern boundary of the Caledonia goldfields in the later 1850s, and then small rushes were made to the head of Steels Creek in 1867, and in 1868 along the Full and Plenty Creek, a tributary of Steels Creek, just east of the Mt Slide Road. The Steels Creek area was worked again in the depression of 1893 and Mitchell and Porter opened a new lead lower down in Steels Creek in 1895 (Flett, 1979). Julian Thomas, the famed ‘Vagabond’ journalist for the Argus and Bulletin in the 1890s, wrote of mining at Steels Creek:
For a mile and a half up and down the banks of the Full and Plenty about 100 men are camped. The most primal conditions of early mining life are here observed. Shafts dug here and there on the banks of the creek … At the present time there is a good deal of bailing on account of the claims being full of water. (The Vagabond, 1893)
The first prospectors to move up into the East Kinglake district (and some into what is present-day Castella) were exploring the creeks along the south side of the ranges from Smiths Gully, Queenstown (present-day St Andrews) and Yarra Flats (present-day Yarra Glen) and following the creeks towards the hills, beyond Steels Creek (Context Pty Ltd, 2011). Before long, these alluvial prospectors from the Caledonian goldfields were pushing further north into the wild bush country of the Dividing Range.
In February 1861, David Moore led a party into dense, scrubby country in the hills, nine miles northeast and above Queenstown and just east of present-day Kinglake, on Mountain Creek. This rush spread across a series of gullies above Mt Slide, on five creeks, which eventually fed down to the Yea River (imaginatively named Number 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 Creeks) and was called Moore’s Rush or Mountain Rush (Flett, 1979). This rush ran out in a few short years and many of the miners moved on to diggings at Woods Point in Gippsland, but the field had a resurgence in 1864. Alluvial gold mining continued in this area until 1879, when quartz mining was introduced on the field at Number 2 Creek. There was another resurgence in mining in the Kinglake field through the 1880s, with some further mining occurring in 1948. There is extensive evidence of these diggings around Kinglake and within the Kinglake National Park, which borders and includes parts of Castella.
When interviewing older residents in Toolangi-Castella about their early memories of the district, a resident who grew up in Castella told me of a mine not far from his property, beside the Yea River. I trekked into the site in the winter of 2020, an area of dense scrub, and found what remained of two tunnels into the embankment and a shaft on the embankment above, possibly an air shaft. The size of tunnels would allow only one miner to work them and both were waterlogged. The story was that the mine had been part of the original diggings of the 1850s or 1860s and rediscovered and worked by a timber worker from one of the mills in the late 1940s, early 1950s. He worked this mine for a few years in his spare time, taking out a small amount of gold. Given the wet conditions, it was likely it could be worked for perhaps only 4-5 months of the year. This find led me to explore the small tributary creeks of the Yea River, in the Castella section of the Kinglake National Park, for any other sign of diggings. Three more small sites along tributary creeks were identified, with evidence of diggings and tunnelling beside, and sufficiently above, the creeks to survive erosion and cave-in from intermittent flooding. However, these sites were far less distinctive than the first site, as they had likely not been worked in almost 160 years.
Miners worked areas along creeks for alluvial gold, generally in a small group or alone, and many sites of this early mining were not recorded with the Mining Registrars and Surveyors. One such unregistered site is found on the Chum Creek side of Toolangi, off present-day Chum Creek Road, where Chinese miners worked a shaft at the confluence of Mick’s Creek and a tributary in the 1850s or 1860s. Toolangi’s community historian Bob Pockett actively researched this site in 1989 and reported it to Heritage Victoria, on behalf of the Healesville Historical Society (Pockett, 1989).
The Chinese miner or miners probably followed the Yarra River to the Watts River, and from the Watts, moved up a tributary creek, Chum Creek, then to Mick’s Creek, and followed this up to Toolangi, to where a further tributary stream ran in. The confluence of two streams increases the flow of water and contributes to alluvial gold being deposited and concentrated to the side of the lower stream, and hence miners sought these sites. A Chinese miner died at this site and was buried in the shaft. According to the Victorian Heritage Database, ‘This is the grave of a Chinese prospector, dating to the 1850s-60s. The site was a tourist attraction during the 1920s and 30s, when there was cairn and a plaque to mark the grave’ (Victorian Heritage Database, 2020). Local stories tell of the charabancs (motor coaches), which brought tourists from Healesville station to the Toolangi guest houses between the two wars, stopping halfway up the mountain where Mick’s Creek crossed the road, to allow tourists to walk into the grave site.
To the north of Toolangi and Castella, gold was mined in the Murrindindi area from the 1860s to the 1870s, and in the case of the largest mine, well into the 1880s. In 1866 reefs were first discovered in this area on New Chum Creek, a tributary of the Murrindindi River, about 12 miles southeast of Yea and 18 miles north of present-day Toolangi township. Development of the new field was at first retarded, due to lack of crushing machinery, but as the quartz mining extended, a few larger mines such as the Higginbotham mine overcame this. The locality was originally called New Chum field or New Chum Diggings (the name of the creek), but was changed to the Higginbotham field in 1868 (Sinnot, 2006). Although thought by some to be named after one of the miners, the name celebrated George Higginbotham, Victorian journalist and politician, who had championed the cause of the Eureka miners at Ballarat (Moore, 2018). The main Higginbotham reefs were called the Balaclava, George Higginbotham, and Galatea. The Higginbotham field was significant enough in its glory days to boast a skittle hall, several grog shanties, stores and a theatre (Sinnot, 2006; Department of Natural Resources & Environment, 1999). Today the area has returned to bush.
In exploring further reference to gold mining in Toolangi, I found, in Trove, references to a gold discovery made in Toolangi in 1903, which was reported in local newspapers. The first two reports are both March 1903, in two different papers, and refer to a gold discovery in Toolangi, 1.5 miles from the Toolangi post office (which was opposite the school). The third report is September 1903 and is 3 miles (5 kilometres) from the Healesville boundary, in Toolangi, but clearly refers to the same site and the same miners.
Healesville & Yarra Glen Guardian, 7 March 1903:
Toolangi has been all bustle and excitement this week, due to the discovery of a new goldfield. 1.5 miles from Toolangi Post Office, Mr. J. Thomas has been prospecting the area for some time. Several miners have declared it a payable goldfield. 2-3 leases of have been pegged out and applied for. The gold can be obtained in fair prospects with the dish in the loam and also by dollying up the quartz gravel.
Australian Town and Country Journal, 18 March 1903:
At Toolangi, Messrs Thomas and Scherber have discovered a promising formation, which seems to run east to west. They have proved it to carry gold for 20 chains. The lode is composed of porphyritic granite, with quartz leaders carrying gold. The prospectors have driven one tunnel for 80 ft and have obtained good payable prospects all the way. One crosscut across the lode for 28 feet shows gold all the way. They have obtained gold in 5 shafts on the line of lode. This is new country, gold never having been found in the district before.
Healesville and Yarra Glen Guardian, 19 September 1903:
We learn that a gold discovery has been made by Messrs Thomas and Scherber. It is, they say, a most promising lode, the width of which they have not obtained. They have three distinct lodes, all of which are carrying payable gold, samples of the worst assaying at 11 dwts/ton and the gold can be seen freely in the stone. They have sunk to a depth of 25ft. The reef in this shaft is a little mixed and from 10-12 ft wide carrying payable gold. They have cut the formation in six different places by trenching and obtained fair gold wherever cut. They have secured a lease of 30 acres and, as the place affords all the facilities for working, they consider they have a most valuable property. (Author’s note: 11dwt/ton is equal to 17 grams/ton. Above 15 grams/ton was, at that time, regarded as quite viable, i.e. could be mined for profit.)
Providing such information for the local papers suggests that Thomas and Scherber were seeking investment to extend their mining venture. At the time Australia was clawing back from the massive depression of the 1890s and attracting investment in a remote and previously unproven site would have likely proved difficult. I have not been able to establish what became of this mine and exactly where is it was located, but the first references to 1.5 miles from the Toolangi post office and the second reference to 3 miles from the Healesville boundary, suggest it was in the Pauls Range, south of Toolangi township. Scherber had a mill on the site of the present Singing Gardens. Early local newspaper reports of social events indicate that Mr & Mrs Scherber were involved in the early Toolangi community at the turn of the century. However, within a few short years Scherber was gone. C. J. Dennis wrote that he camped in the abandoned Scherber’s mill site when he first came to Toolangi in 1908. Dennis eventually bought Scherber’s mill site in 1915 and extended and restored the mill cottage.
On a final note, existence of gold deposits within certain Crown Lands, Reserves and National Parks does not necessarily mean that extraction of such deposits is permissible under the terms of a Miner’s Right (Steenhuis, 1998). The Victorian State Government plays a key role in managing and regulating earth resources of Victoria. To protect the environment, prospecting is banned in and along many of the streams, creeks and rivers of Victoria and this includes the Yea River and its tributaries (Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, 2021).
Context Pty Ltd (2011). Murrindindi Shire Heritage Study, Volume 1, ‘Mining’, pp. 61-69, Alexandra, Vic., Murrindindi Shire Council
Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions (2021). Earth Resources, Melbourne, Victorian State Government
Department of Natural Resources & Environment (1999). Historic Gold Mining Sites in the Kilmore-Yea Region
Flett, J. (1979). The History of Gold Discovery in Victoria, Melbourne, The Poppet Head Press
Guardian (1903a). ‘Toolangi’, Healesville & Yarra Glen Guardian, 7 March 1903, p. 2
Guardian (1903b). ‘Toolangi’, Healesville & Yarra Glen Guardian, 19 September 1903, p. 2
Hawkins, D. (ed.) (2013). Kinglake: A Collected History of the Kinglake District 1861-2011, Kinglake, Kinglake Historical Society
Herald, 22 December 1851, Melbourne, Colony of Victoria
Moore, G. (2018). George Higginbotham and Eureka, North Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing Pty. Ltd.
Pockett, R. (1978). Chinese Miners Grave, Micks Creek, Report to Healesville Historical Society
Sinnot, N. (June 2006). Higginbotham, Victoria: Ghost Town & Mythical Miner, in Newsletter of the Australian National Placenames Survey (ANPS), South Turramurra, NSW, ANPS
Steenhuis, L. (ed.) (1998). Research Report on Shallow Gold Occurrences in Eastern Victoria: as Reported by the Mining Registrars & Surveyors, Newspaper Correspondents and Others, Australian Bush & Country Maps & Guidebooks, Lilydale, Vic
Victorian Heritage Database (2020). Toolangi Chinese Burial, Victorian Heritage Database Report, Melbourne, Heritage Council Victoria