Did you Know About The Link Between Denmark’s Royal Palace and Bendigo?

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Bendigo Town Hall, Hargreaves Street

My second duty stint last weekend for Open House Bendigo was at the Town Hall, Sunday morning. According to a tourist brochure on heritage buildings:

“If it was good enough for Denmark’s royal palace, it was good enough for Bendigo. German artist, Otto Waschatz decorated both, adorning Bendigo’s Town Hall interior with mythical figures and rich gold leaf. Outside, muscular ‘Atlas” sculptures support the clock’s weight. These are fitting fixtures for architect William Vahland’s greatest work (1878-86).”

Seeing these magnificent features a definite drawcard on Sunday, however, I don’t think the artist envisaged the hall being the registration point for cyclists involved in the second Bendigo Cycling Classic – hence the signs around the doorway asking for care and respect for the walls and floors.

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The Bendigo Town Hall stands out and beautifully renovated in 2003, it is well cared for and was one of the many buildings representing gold-rush-era heritage.

Located in the heart of the city and built in the height of the gold rush period like so many of the other wonderful buildings, it is a remarkable legacy of a time when money was plentiful, dreams were big, and prominent townsfolk and those who made the decisions for the municipality ensured the wealth and splendour of Bendigo’s ‘golden age’ did not go unnoticed.

Town Hall: Council Chambers

view from doorway council chamber

Local architect WC Vahland was commissioned to redevelop the Town Hall and came up with a masterpiece that helped secure his place as one of the city’s most revered architects. The Town Hall interiors feature decorative plaster adorned with 22-carat-gold leaf, reflecting the stories the stories of a city built on gold.

In 2003, The Bendigo town Hall returned to the elegance and beauty of its 19th-century heritage after an extensive restoration and renovation program including plasterworks murals and gold leaf worked by skilled artists and artisans.

A snippet from another tourist promotion:

The name Bendigo originated from a world famous bare-knuckled boxer, William ‘Abednigo’ Thompson. A shepherd, on the Ravenswood run near Bendigo, he was handy with his fists and became renowned as a great fighter. He lived in his hut on a creek which flowed through the valley where gold was found. It is said that this shepherd, nicknamed ‘Abednigo’ lent his name to this rich goldfield – and the rest, as they say ‘is history’.

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The Cornish Miner monument outside the Town Hall

The Cornish Miner

Erected in appreciation of the endeavours of all the underground miners of Bendigo and District who created the economy from which grew a beautiful city thus leading to further developments and helping to provide the base for Victoria to become an industrial state.

Cornishmen and their descendants formed the majority of these miners. Erected by the City of Greater Bendigo on behalf of its Citizens and the Cornish Association of Bendigo and District 1996.

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Bendigo’s Coat of Arms, hand-carved cedar, by  T. Erlecki, circa 1880s.

Open House Bendigo, 2018

On Sunday, between 10.00am and 1.00 pm, 179 people took advantage of access and traipsed through the Town Hall, joining 600 from the day before.

Jaws dropped at the old Council Chamber’s polished wood, rich leather, gorgeous wall murals and marble posts, rich gilded ceiling and pelmets.

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However, despite a clear sign and my gentle reminders, I had to ask a couple of people more than once NOT to sit in the Mayor’s Chair or rub their hands over the wood and leather.

And it wasn’t young people who were the culprits but seniors who should have known about the damage human sweat can do to artefacts and that if hundreds of people were allowed “just one photo please of me sitting in the chair” the likelihood of damage is high. I’m sure if the mayoral robes had not been encased in glass, some people would have been tugging at the chain.

The policeman role aside, I loved the stories people shared with me and the many remarks of appreciation of the skilled craftsmanship and pride in the presentation evident in the old and new council chambers and the hall.

Two ladies talked about making their debut in the Town Hall – one in 1956, the other in 1966 when Mr Oliver (who happened to be her boss) was the mayor.

He let her sit in the mayor’s chair! She can remember the fear of the small group of girls waiting in the chamber before descending the staircase to walk the full length of the ‘great hall’ to be presented to the mayor (Mr Oliver). ‘It was terrifying,’ she said, never having been so exposed to officialdom and public scrutiny, it was a relief to dance the Charmaine, their presentation dance.

She explained the event to her grandchildren who listened with polite interest and I was struck with the fact that after more than half a century, her overwhelming memory is of feeling anxious and intimidated.

Another lady was proud to tell me her son-in-law painted all the gold lettering in the hall during the renovations. I wish she had been nearby when a rare negative interaction occurred.

An old man in a faux stetson wanted to know how much gold was in the paint and how much the gilding cost. He was disappointed I didn’t know. I told him to speak with Nathan, the Town Hall representative who was managing the numbers of visitors downstairs.

Cold eyes beneath the hat stared at me for a moment, before cross-questioning who I was and why I was there. I explained about Open House and that as a long-term volunteer from Melbourne I volunteered for this inaugural Bendigo event.

His response thick with sarcasm, ‘How very altruistic of you,’ as he walked away disappointed I couldn’t give him the statistics he wanted.

I was glad Nathan was there because there was so much going on and the visitors were constant. He had shown me around the place before the doors opened and when we looked into the current council chamber he warned that although most people are respectful to watch out for ‘anti-council’ behaviour.

From my position in the hallway, I could see inside the old chamber but also see the new chamber because the wall is all glass. I kept my eye on Mr Stetson – rightly or wrongly I’d earmarked him!

Impressed by its ‘grandeur’, many people asked me why the council had stopped using the old chamber and when I pointed out the obvious they could see the new room was much more suitable:

  • the old council chamber did not have room for the current number of councillors, staff or press or the modern day technological requirements
  • the old council chamber did not have room for a public gallery and ratepayers are allowed into most council meetings
  • the cost of maintaining the old chamber – regularly cleaning it and repairing any wear and tear if it was used would be much more than for the modern chamber

The new council chamber had rows of seats for visitors plus a gallery of photos of previous mayors.

The current mayor of Bendigo is female but in the early days of the city as the dozen pictures lining the walls reveal, the ‘founding fathers’ were male.

I can almost guarantee future depictions of mayors will not be oil paintings or photographs by prized photographers or placed in huge gilt frames. I even wonder if the mayoral robes will be donned – times have changed!

The early mayors were all active in business and community organisations, each leaving a distinctive legacy and exceptional worthwhile achievements that resonate today. A lady confided to me with pride that one of the mayors pictured –  Cr JH Curnow JP, 1901 and mayor 1902-4, 1912-13, 1919-20, 1927-28 – was a relative and she had no idea of his achievements!

It Is Important to Acknowledge Mayoral Milestones

Thomas Jefferson Connelly, a solicitor, was elected mayor in 1887 – the first Bendigo native and the youngest man up to that time to hold office. He was born in Sandhurst and was 29 years old. He was president of the Australian Natives Association and a driving force behind Federation and a close friend of Australia’s second PM Alfred Deakin. Sadly, Connelly contracted typhoid fever as a result of overwork in his private practice and died at only 34 years of age leaving a widow and three children.

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Town Hall entrance

Ambrose Dunstan was one of Bendigo’s oldest Justices of the Peace and on many occasions was the assistant coroner. From 1891-2 he was President of Australian Natives Association. During his term during WW1 house numbering was carried out, 182 building permits issued and he unveiled the Soldier’s Memorial Statue, recently refurbished 2018.

The news that the armistice had been signed by German representatives reached Bendigo about midnight on November 11th 1918. At 2am on November 12th, Mayor Dunstan read a message from the Governor-general on the steps of the Town Hall to a crowd of over 1000. The joyous peal of St Paul’s bells and the continuous tolling of the town clock awakened the people, who came to the city in large numbers. The mayor invited those present to give thanks and proceeding closed with the National Anthem. Peace had been declared.”

We are close to celebrating the centenary of that PEACE and thinking about the huge numbers of war dead and casualties still makes me weep. It is not an exaggeration to think almost every household would have been touched in some way and I can just imagine the joy of this spontaneous gathering in the predawn light.

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Soldiers Memorial Bendigo 2018

David John Andrew another early mayor ‘led a very active public life and there were few movements in which he was not connected. Captain of the Bendigo Fire Brigade in 1898 he held that position until his death. Chairman of the CFA he ‘heartily devoted himself to the promotion of the best interests of firemen and the firefighting service generally.’ Born in Scotland, he was prominent in the Bendigo Caledonian Society, the Victoria Scottish Union and the Masonic Order.  For many years, as the Secretary of the Easter Fair, he was interested in the Bendigo Hospital and Benevolent Home and pursued the matter of sewerage strenuously. He believed when Bendigo was sewered the death rate would be lowered considerably and cited that in 1909 there had been 719 births and 548 deaths. He committed his life to humanitarian causes and during the years of the Great War,  he organised support for Australian soldiers and prisoners of war.

Mayor William Beebe, MBE, continued as a councillor until ten weeks before his death in 1920 and was mourned by many including PM Hughes who sent condolences: “ My deepest sympathy in your sad bereavement. Bendigo has lost a very worthy citizen and Australia one of her most loyal sons.” Beebe took the lead in patriotic movements and social, religious and philanthropic objectives hence being awarded the MBE.

Born in Sandhurst in 1857 he worked with his father as a stonemason, studied architectural drawing at the School of Mines and with his father designed and built several buildings during the 1880s. Later as an architect, Beebe was responsible for the ANA Hall, the City Markets, the Fire Station in View Street, the Royal Bank (now a restaurant) and Lansellstowe and numerous private homes.

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Another young councillor (39 years), Mayor Michael Guidice (1922-24) directed his energy and faith to commercial enterprises for the advancement of Bendigo. Managing Director of Bendigo United Breweries he was associated with the moving picture industry from its pioneering days.

In 1913 he formed the Bendigo Lyric Photoplays and personally supervised the opening and work of the new Lyric theatre that year as well as being governing director of The Shamrock Hotel. He was a moving force in forming the Shakespearean Reading and Literary Society and assisted in the formation of the Bendigo Choral Society.

Mayor Ernest Vains (1924-25) was born in Kerang and started a Stock and Station Agent’s business in Bendigo. “He had a great capacity for work and attempted to attract industries…” Director of the Bendigo Sun and the Farmers and Citizens Trustees P/L, playing a prominent role in the formation of Bendigo Rotary Club in 1925. A keen outdoor sportsman, a member of the Bendigo Jockey Club, secretary of the South Bendigo Bowling Club and office bearer Golden Square Bowling Club. When retiring from office 1926, he noted four deaths ascribed to diphtheria and two from typhoid fever and overall 497 deaths and 689 births.

Mayor Frederick Niemann born in sale 1879 and mayor during the Depression years took a prominent role in retaining the railway workshops in Bendigo. He was one of the founders of the Advance Bendigo and North League and held the position of Chief Magistrate in Bendigo with many years of experience in commerce and industry.

Thank you, Mayor Niemann, for saving the railway workshops! I caught the train to Bendigo for Open House weekend. On the way, there were plenty of rolling green fields with emerald green grass to feed the grazing cattle, horses and sheep. No obvious signs of drought yet.

The Bendigo to Melbourne train line opened in October 1862 but the steam train then a different beast entirely from the comfortable and relatively smooth ride V-Line offers today.

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Another mayor in the 1930s, Mayor George Bennetts built up the well known Bennetts Arcade Stores, one of the most progressive of its kind in Bendigo and later acquired by Woolworths. Bennetts was a keen bowler and member of Bendigo Golf Bowling Club, a Justice of the Peace and responsible for the Easter Saturday Street carnival.

There is a street sculpture by artist Maggie Fooke “After The Procession” dedicated on October 1993 and commissioned by the Bendigo Easter Fair Society. I didn’t remember seeing it on an earlier visit to Bendigo perhaps because it looks so natural! It was ‘refurbished and restored and presented to the people of Bendigo to celebrate the 140th Easter Procession on the 5th April 2010.

W.C Vahland the architect for the Town Hall, came originally from Germany seeking gold but stayed to practice his profession as an architect. How lucky was Bendigo!?

He may have struck out finding gold, but his legacy of fine buildings increased the wealth of Bendigo.

A comment on the refurbishment – a young man was keen to show me travel pictures on his phone. Inside the huge twin towers in Abu Dhabi, there are the exact same light fittings used in the hallway between Bendigo’s two council chambers – and he has seen them elsewhere!

And a final comment from an appreciative visitor to Open House at the Town Hall. She had visited ‘by default’ because like many people in Bendigo she wanted to see what had been achieved so far in the redevelopment of the Beehive Building, which was still a construction site and had been boarded up for several years.

However, her curiosity didn’t extend to waiting in a queue for over an hour and she was thrilled to come straight into the Town Hall, learn history she didn’t know and be amazed at the beautiful finishing touches on the walls and ceiling.

The woman was really enjoying the Open House weekend and agreed wholeheartedly with the current mayor, Cr Margaret O’Rourke,

Bendigo has so much fascinating architecture that will be wonderful to share with visitors and residents alike.”