Chapter 2: Castlemaine and the Goldfields

In the late 1850s, the central Victorian town of Castlemaine was the hub of the Mount Alexander goldfields. There were nearly 40,000 people living there — many more than were living in Melbourne at that time, and a number of people believed that Castlemaine would become the capital city of the southern sector of what was then the colony of New South Wales.

But when the gold petered out, Castlemaine shrivelled somewhat to roughly its population today — just over 7000.

That was its population when we moved from Mont Albert to Burnetts Road, North Castlemaine, in 1932.

Why did my parents decide to live in Castlemaine, which was really a bit of a back-water compared to the burgeoning suburbs of Mont Albert and Box Hill?

My father was born in Castlemaine — or more accurately Moonlight Flat in the 1860s, and had a yen to return to his boyhood environs after he retired from the PostMaster General’s Department in 1928.

He had attended State School 119 in Castlemaine South.

School 119 was the 119th school to be established in the colony of New South Wales — for this of course was before Federation.

His father, Henry Howson, was a teacher of the violin and had a music shop in the eastern end of Mostyn Street in the town.

So it was to relive some of these adolescent memories that in 1928 he purchased a venerable old house in Burnetts Road on the northern side of the Castlemaine Botanic Gardens. He and my mother planned to move there when the house had been restored to a liveable condition — although I think it was my father who did most of the “planning”.

But the house, originally a property known as Forest Hall, was on a two acre block which had been let go wild, and the building needed considerable attention.

There was no electricity connected, and the house had not been wired, there was no sewerage, there was no gas, and the interior needed re-decorating.

So, in the years between 1928 and 1932 my father, then retired, spent every moment that he could wiring the house for connection to the S.E.C. supply, and re-papering every room.

He built a laundry onto the back of the house, using mainly timber that he had salvaged from old P.M.G. packing cases which he had bought at a “throw-away” price, and he transformed the wrecked and roofless stables into a garage and workshop.

At the same time he planted a number of trees in the front section of the block and laid out several ornamental gardens and lawns.

Today, the trees are fully grown and some of his original garden layout still remains. My mother changed the name of the property from “Forest Hall” to “Moondang” — a name which I think she unearthed in a book of aboriginal names. I don’t think she ever realised that the aboriginal meaning of the word is “muddy waterhole”.

The present owners, Mr and Mrs Davey, have reverted to the name “Forest Hall” and have turned the property into a showplace with a magnificent series of gardens occupying the entire two and quarter acres.

At the time that we made the move from Mont Albert, the electricity was still not connected, and we had to make do with oil lamps and candles. We had a wood stove in the kitchen and a chip-bathheater in the bathroom. There was a Coolgardie safe on the verandah, and the ice-man called once a week with a block of ice for the ice-chest.

There was another person who called once a week. His name was Bill Hargraves. Bill was known throughout the length and breadth of Castlemaine.

There was a standing conundrum very popular with the younger generation in the town.

“What has two horse-power, 42 cylinders and flies?”

The answer was the vehicle which Bill Hargraves drove.

Bill Hargraves was the local sanitary collector — or in popular parlance “the Dunny-man”.

We never got to know him personally, though I think he had good reason to remember us. On one occasion, during a wind-storm, Bill was carefully making his way down our long drive to his vehicle, with a loaded container aloft on his shoulder when a large branch fell off one of our gum trees.

It scored a direct hit. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. But the incident revived memories of a popular piece of doggerel of the day which recounted a somewhat similar situation. Here is the doggerel.

[poem]: “The night was dark and stormy,
The Nightman’s light was dim —
I heard a crash, and then a splash,
And I said “My God — he’s in!”

I attended the Castlemaine High School. Alas the building is no more. A new High School has been built in the northern part of the town.

In 1932 I was in Grade 8. The transition from Mont Albert Central to Castlemaine High was a bit of a shock. For one thing, the teachers were much more approachable and friendly. The classes were not so large, and the classrooms seemed newer.

[photo moodanong]

[photo tricar]

[photo on the town (?)]

[photos early years]

I struck up a friendship with Paul Jones, who lived at Fryerstown about eight miles south of Castlemaine, and who used to ride to school and ride home every day on his push-bike — a total of sixteen miles.

Paul Jones was a delightful person.

My other friend was Bill Clark.

Clark’s Grocery Store was the main grocery shop in the town.

Bill was one of those gifted people who could play anything on the piano without a note of music in front of him.

He also shared with me a distaste for any type of sport — mainly because we were both hopeless at it.

So on sports days, when attendance was compulsory, we devised a number of stratagems to avoid making idiots of ourselves either at football or cricket.

Having escaped from the school environs, we would make a beeline for the Presbyterian Church. Bill’s parents were Presbyterians — and Bill knew where the key to the organ console was kept.

He also knew that the church was always open for the benefit of any parishioner who wished to pop in to say a couple of prayers or put some flowers on the pulpit.

So our modus operandi was as follows.

Arriving at the church we would knock on the door of the manse, knowing that the parson was usually out on his rounds.

On the off-chance that the parson was home, Bill had a carefully prepared and seemingly innocent question at the ready — like “What time is the service next Sunday?” or “Would you like us to rake the leaves on the path?”

Fortunately we never had to do this because the Reverend never seemed to be home on school sports days. Perhaps he was down watching the sports!

Anyway, having ascertained that the coast was clear, we would enter the church, Bill would retrieve the console key from its secure hiding place and we’d have a ball, with Bill pounding out on the church organ an up-tempo potpourri of all the popular tunes of the day.

Unfortunately this harmless but non-ecclesiastic activity came to an abrupt halt on the day that the parson arrived home unexpectedly early and was surprised to hear a decidedly up-tempo version of “Tiger Rag” wafting across the church grounds and into the street. It was obviously emanating from the Church!

So from that day on both Bill Clark and myself had to suffer the ignominy of our school mates watching us trying to come to grips with the inexplicable rules and antics pertaining to cricket and football.

When my father was working for the P.M.G. (Postmaster General’s Department) he had brought home the remnants of a three-wheeled vehicle powered by a one-cylinder petrol engine, which had been designed to deliver mail.

He had no use for it. He just thought it would be nice to have.

It came to Castlemaine with us. Bill Clark and I thought it was nice to have, for we transformed it into a three-wheeled car, and we used to hurl it up and down the local streets flat out at about ten miles an hour.

It was unregistered, but we didn’t worry about that — and neither did the local police. You could do things like that in a country town in those days.

I mentioned my father’s well-equipped workshop.

During my days at Castlemaine, my father (with my assistance?) built a 35mm movie projector and I used to plague the neighbours to come and see the old silent films I would show in our Lounge Room.

Another project we undertook was the design and construction of a sound-on-disc recorder. Not an easy thing to design and build, but my father’s engineering skills did not let us down. The recorder was a success, capable of recording professional quality material.

And that recorder came in very handy in the next phase of my life … Radio in the Thirties.

P.S. What happened to Bill Clark?

He fell off a stage during an Army Concert Party in the Middle East and was killed.