The historic township of Castlemaine is located approximately one and a half hours drive north-west of Melbourne. The Dja Dja Wurrung people who lived within the area had a rich culture and reverence for the land around Castlemaine. The explorer Thomas Mitchell passed through the region in 1836, during his third expedition. On his return, he talked of the fertile grazing plains around the Loddon river region and soon after the first squatters arrived and established vast sheep stations.
In 1845 William Barker acquired a 20,000-acre run called “Mount Alexander”, named after the granodiorite mountain located about 20 kilometres northeast of Castlemaine. Gold was discovered on the property at Barkers creek in Specimen Gully on the 20th July 1851 by one of Barker’s shepherds Christopher Thomas Peters. At the time his discovery was believed to have been nothing more than the mineral pyrite, commonly known as “Fool’s Gold”, and was discarded. Undeterred, Peters and some of his close work colleagues secretly prospected around the site of the discovery. They mailed a letter to the Melbourne newspaper The Argus proclaiming their new goldfield and within three months of the letter appearing in the newspaper 30,000 diggers arrived, a larger population than Melbourne at the time. The region was claimed to have been the richest shallow alluvial goldfield in the world and during its peak in 1852, producing over 16,000 kilograms of gold in six months!
The initial administrative centre for the goldfields, overseen by the Gold Commissioner Henry William Wright, was based at the junction of Barkers and Forrest Creeks, now called Camp Reserve. The area was originally known as either Mount Alexander or Forrest Creek. How Castlemaine was officially named is disputed. One story has it that Wright named it in honour of his Irish uncle, Viscount Castlemaine, the other that Governor La Trobe named it after the Irish town where he had once been employed as a school inspector.
With the population boom, tents were soon replaced by more permanent bricks and mortar buildings; a post office, courthouse and stores were opened to service the prospectors. One of these more permanent structures was the Theatre Royal, re-opened in 1855 after a fire destroyed the original wooden and canvas building. It provided entertainment to the local diggers and the infamous dancer Lola Montes, on a tour of the Victorian goldfields, performed her controversial spider dance at the theatre to a captivated audience. The Theatre Royal is Australia’s longest-running theatre, still operating today as a cinema and entertainment centre, hosting arts and community events and touring musical acts.
In 1860, to highlight the prosperity of Castlemaine, land was set aside to create an expansive botanical garden. The Castlemaine Botanical Gardens are one of the oldest regional botanic gardens in Victoria. They were designed and created by Phillip Doran, who had been an apprentice to the famous architect and gardener Joseph Paxton, designer of the Crystal Palace and Chatswood gardens, considered one of the finest landscaped gardens of the time.
The prosperity of the region is also evident in the town’s historic architecture. Notable buildings include the Emperial Hotel (1861), Buda homestead (1861), the town hall (1898), post office (1875), the Oriental Bank Chambers (1862), State Savings Bank (1855), French's Talbot Drug Store (1858) and Market Building (1861-62).
Several well-known Australian brands have their origins in Castlemaine. Edward Fitzgerald established a brewery in 1856 and, with his brother Nicholas, went on to produce the famous Castlemaine XXXX beer. The Barnes’ confectionery company created the Castlemaine Rock boiled lolly in 1851 continued to sell it for over 165 years (closing in 2013). And well-known food brand The KR Castlemaine had its origins as the Castlemaine Bacon Company, established in 1911.
Once the heady days of the gold rush had passed Castlemaine’s economy was buoyed by local industry but during the 1970s, the community fell into decline as many of these industries were closed or downsized and people soon left to find gainful employment elsewhere. Fortunately, Castlemaine has seen a rebirth of sorts; with the boom in Melbourne property prices, there has been a steady exodus of Melburnians moving out to regional Victoria, lured by more affordable property prices and a more laidback regional lifestyle.
Today Castlemaine is a vibrant and energetic town in the throes of its rebirth. It has become a foodie destination with some excellent cafes (Saffs, Fig, Origini, etc), restaurants (Das Kaffehaus, Lola, Wild, etc), bars (The Empyre, Maurocco, etc) and wineries (Boomtown, Sutton Grange, Harcourts, etc) to visit. For lovers of the arts, it is home to one of Victoria’s premier festivals, The Castlemaine State Festival, a bi-annual event since its inception in 1976 and the Castlemaine Art Museum, founded in 1913, home to an extensive collection of historic artefacts and Australian art. For those looking to shop Castlemaine has an array of retail options including Castlemaine Vintage Bazaar, The Mill complex, Tribe for eco-friendly giftware, the Restorers barn, Cornerstore Merchants, and Platform 5 to name but a few.
Popular cafe with great coffee, menu and atmosphere31 Templeton Street, Castlemaine
Beautifully realised Viennese coffee house serving traditional Austrian food with a traditional Viennese flair9 Walker Street, Castlemaine
Cafe, Pizzeria & Wine Bar housed in the historic Theatre Royal30 Hargraves Street, Castlemaine
Stunning cafe with a fastidious melding of old world charm with contemporary glamour68 Mostyn Street, Castlemaine
Take a steam train journey through the beautiful countryside between Castlemaine and MaldonCastlemaine railway station
Sustainably and ethically sourced jewellery, homewares, crafting materials & more227 Barker Street, Castlemaine
1850 square metres of stalls offering a diverse and eclectic edit of vintage magnificenceThe Mill, 9 Walker Street, Castlemaine
A curated collection of vintage, clothing, homewares and contemporary art220 Barker Street, Castlemaine
Upcycled homewares, clothing, toys and vintage collectables1-9 Walker Street, Castlemaine
Historical artworks, photographs, costumes & decorative arts14 Lyttleton Street, Castlemaine