By Fred A Morton
Tangled ferns and blackberry bushes, thickly matted cover Clarkeville’s main street. Here eighty years ago, bullock teams trundled in from NSW with supplies and men hurried to catch their shifts at the reefs of the Clarkeville or Sunbeam mining companies. At Bendoc a poppet head stands on a deserted lease and boilers and stone crushing equipment rust slowly into extinction. Along the banks of the creeks and rivers that flow though SE Gippsland to the Southern Ocean, the Cann, the Bendoc, the Mackenzie and the Combienbar, scars remain that tell of a time when men dug, scratched or fossicked for gold.
About the same time as Hargreaves had startled Australia with his Bathurst discovery, geologists and mining surveyors carried out exploratory work through areas along the southern border of NSW. Their searching took them into a flat valley at the foot of Mt. Bendoc on the Bendoc River. This was Bendoc. 126 miles north-east of Bairnsdale. Bendoc is now a small saw-milling community. At Clarkeville there is nothing. When the gold petered out there, even the buildings were dismantled and materials removed elsewhere.
Before 1850, Bendoc was peopled by a few Chinese settlers. History sources reveal little of its beginnings, Cattlemen used the spot as a temporary watering place and Ben Boyd sometimes brought his cattle down from the Monaro High Plains to be docked. “Ben’s Dock” then is a possible derivation of the name Bendoc.
Clarkeville, discovered about 1860 was named after the famed geologist W S Clarke who did much to unearth the gold bearing potential of the areas in the Croajingalong Country. The first discovery of Gold near Bendoc was made in 1855 by Hamilton Reed and his partner (John) Lock.
From diggings in NSW and Victoria prospectors came to find gold in the new fields, bringing with them their families and possessions. Bark shanties, tents, anything that could be carried lightly and erected swiftly went into forming the first township of Bendoc. What was an unknown cattlemen’s camp a few years previously was now growing into a vigorous gold town with a population of over a thousand people. Stores, a public hall and a school were erected and shanties and tents were replaced by more permanent structures.
The first Bendoc Hotel was built by Hamilton Reed. The strong demand for an hotel called for speedy construction and the hotel, erected in a few weeks, was built at night from timber that had been cut and milled during the day. When it was finally completed it could accommodate over 60 guests, and did a brisk trade in supplying liquor. There was Mrs Downey’s boarding house, the billiard saloon, Mr Lawson’s Hotel (and Post Office}, a school, the Public Hall and other boarding houses.
No great fortunes appeared to have been made by prospectors on their alluvial claims. At Back Creek some prospectors made as much as £20 per week, whilst others panned out only 30/-. The majority made little more than the current wage of £2.10.0 per week. There has always been some conjecture as to the amount of gold won from the Bendoc-Clarkeville fields. Most of the gold produced went into NSW and Victorian records offer no reliable figures. Much of the gold found by Chinese alluvial workers went back to China with them. Storekeepers and businessmen found the exchange of gold for merchandise more convenient than the currency arrangements of pre-Federation times. So with these conditions existing, it would have been difficult to make an accurate analysis of the gold yield of the area. Prospectors working the alluvial leases used most of the standard practices of the Victorian diggings; the pan, the tub and cradle, the waterwheel and bank sluicing by water races above the claims. Early mining reports spoke of the primitive methods used here for winning gold, and made the observations that a greater gold yield would ensue if more up-to date machinery were introduced.
As the alluvial claims were worked out, several rich reefs were found. Again, Hamilton Reed can be credited for the discovery of these. The “Come Love”, “Grand United”, “Morning Star”, were among the most important. And at Clarkeville, the ‘Snowstorm’, ‘Jungle Jim’ and ‘Sunbeam’ reefs, on their discovery attracted many miners. The reefs were particularly rich. Unusually high yields of from 5 to 10 oz per ton of quartz were estimated from assays given by the Bairnsdale School of Mines. Funds were raised and local companies formed. The “strike” solicited interest even from farther afield. Syndicates in Melbourne, Sydney and London showed an interest in the Bendoc-Clarkeville fields.
Life on the Bendoc-Clarkeville fields presented hardships not encountered on other Victorian fields. Foremost of these was the isolation of the area. Miles away from Bairnsdale, the nearest Victorian Centre, and the population looked to NSW for all trade arrangements. Supplies brought to Merimbula or Two Fold Bay by sea, were taken down to Bendoc by bullock team. To add to the already exorbitant cost of living, the accepted thing on diggings was added the freight charge of transporting commodities. This was usually £2 per ton. Before Federation there was an import duty levied on all goods purchased from NSW and taken into Victoria.
Miners found themselves paying £2 on every £5 purchase in Delegate, the nearest town to Bendoc. Local authorities saw the isolation of the Bendoc-Clarkeville diggings as a possible drawback to the development of the area. In the August of 1890 editor of the “Snowy River Mail”, the main newspaper in Croajingalong country, wrote this petulant appeal …”If the paternal government would but give us the means to access to and from this area, there would in all probability be no small number of Capitalists visiting the area”.
For some years the Bendoc-Clarkeville fields remained without adequate police protection. The report of Grimes, a Government surveyor in 1869 make this want known…”another want which requires remedy is the lack of police protection”. Parcels of gold were retained by a prospector until a visit to the nearest bank in Bombala NSW, some 32 miles away. Despite the lack of police protection, early records reveal little of the mob violence and robbery under arms associated with more populous diggings. There were the usual accounts of drunkenness and petty larceny, but certainly nothing of crime wave proportions. Perhaps the isolation and inaccessibility of the Bendoc-Clarkeville fields did much to dissuade the riff-raff that were an accepted part of the bigger gold fields.
In winter time, snow falls heavily in Bendoc. The narrow tracks from Bonang or Delegate are dusty in the summer, but after a few weeks of rain and snow, they are churned into a muddy quagmire by cart wheels and bullock hoof. Traffic in and out of the place is laboured, and the sight of a bullock team, 32 strong, shin deep in mud, struggling with heavy machinery was commonplace. Life in crude dwelling places without insulation is made almost unbearable by the penetrating cold.
There was no glamour attached to working on the fields at Bendoc, when big syndicates took over the ownership of the mines, miners worked for wages only. For forty eight hours a week they toiled below the reefs. Quartz hewed by hand was loaded into cubic yard capacity trucks and these were pushed, by hand in many cases to the surface. Lighting, supplied by wax candles was inadequate. In the winter time, the men below were forced to wear oil skins, as seepage caused an incessant fall of water from the rooves of shafts and miners worked knee-deep in mud and water.
There appeared to be a fairly active social life attached to the Bendoc-Clarkeville fields. There were dances in the public hall or at the school and cricket matches between Delegate or Bombala. Every New Years Day there was a race meeting at Bendoc, with the “Miners Cup” as the main event (a prize of 5 sovereigns) was Awarded to the owner of the winning mount, who had to be a bonafide miner.
Innumerable Chinese worked the diggings,they confined themselves to alluvial workings and often reworked mullock heaps of European prospectors. There was never any noticeable outbreak of friction between the Chinese and Europeans, although some isolated cases of violence were reported. The Chinese lived in rough shanties around the diggings whilst many of them head-quartered at “China-town” (now Craigie) a few miles inside the NSW border. Early reports tell of the movement of thousands of Chinamen from Craigie to various gold fields around Gippsland. As gold became difficult to find most of them left the diggings and returned to China.
Few relics remain to tell of the presence of the many Chinese gold seekers. Farmers in the Monaro district today point to wickerwork and stone fences built by Chinese gold seekers turned shepherd. There is still a forgotten Chinese cemetery at Bairnsdale, and prospectors still working at the Bendoc River often pan out Chinese coins and ornaments.
The opening of the Bendoc-Clarkeville fields came as a result of the pioneering work of survey parties under the leadership of men like Grimes, Stirling, Mustard, Williams, Whitelaw and the Rev W Clarke. Little is appreciated of the skill and patience with which these men set about their surveys. There was no road from Bairnsdale to Bendoc. Parties journeyed up through Bruthen, the cave country at Buchan, Gelantipy, across the Deddick and down through Bonang. There were no bridges across the Snowy or Deddick Rivers then, and parties could be forced back to Bairnsdale by sudden floods. Usually the journey took five days. Often times horses were left behind because of lack of natural feed; there were even poisonous plants that when eaten by the animal proved fatal. The journey was continued on foot and the men carried 60lb packs of camping gear, rock specimens, tools and photographic equipment, through the trackless jungled hills and gullies of Croajingalong.
Today the Bendoc-Clarkeville fields are finished. For no more than fifty years were the mines productive. The petering out of one reef was followed in a year or so but the sudden flare up of another a few hundred yards away. Around the turn of the century the reefs finished, companies went into liquidation and equipment was sold or left to rust in the bush. The “Victoria Star” mine was not worked out but abandoned in 1938 because of the smallness of the shaft. The machinery of that time wasn’t capable of controlling the water to allow the shaft to be deepened.
The yield of the Bendoc-Clarkeville fields was of no great significance compared with other fields producing in Australia’s Golden Era. As near as an accurate estimate as possible reveals the total yield of the Bendoc-Clarkeville was not more than half a million ounces.
But in the forgotten story of the Bendoc-Clarkeville fields lies an interesting phase in the historical development of Eastern Gippsland.