Beechworth Powder Magazine
Listen to the audio tour here:
In 1857 the Victorian Government passed an act to regulate the importation, carriage and custody of black powder which led to the construction of several Powder Magazines throughout Victoria.
The Beechworth Powder Magazine was constructed in 1859 by T Dawson and Company. Built of solid, buttressed granite, with slate roof and surrounded by a high stone wall, the Powder Magazine was used as a storage room for large amounts of black-powder used in mining and quarrying. By law, miners were required to leave bulk black-powder in this building overnight.
The building is designed so any explosion would be directed upwards rather than outwards. There are safety features built into the Powder Magazine such as; wooden nails, lightning rod and solid outer wall.
In loving memory of Ernest Jack & Margaret Jean Hawking. Ernest 'Ern' Hawking was instrumental in the original restoration of the powder magazine in the 1960s. The Beechworth Historic Precinct and Indigo Shire Council recognises the generous and continuing contribution made to the preservation of our heritage from the Hawking family.
Audio tour transcript
Voice of narrator: Welcome to the Beechworth Powder Magazine, I’m so glad you could come. Please make your way in and close the door behind you.
You have entered an original powder magazine constructed to store gun powder for mining purposes. Please take note of all the safety precautions.
In the year of 1852, when gold was discovered in Beechworth, thousands of fortune hunters rushed to the area to try their luck. The first strike was made on Spring Creek which was soon followed with discoveries being made all through the district. Within two months, the number of miners that had come to the area soared to 8000.
By January 1854 well over 100,000 ounces of gold had been taken out of the diggings. Camps and settlements sprang up, and the town of Beechworth was born, almost overnight.
At first the gold was alluvial, and easily found, but by the mid 1850’s, most of the surface gold was gone and mining was required, leading to the process of delving into the deep alluvial and quartz deposits.
These were pre-dynamite days, so the rock was blasted open with black powder. As a result, large quantities of black powder were being brought onto the Victorian goldfields, but the storage of the black powder was often careless and dangerous.
It was to improve safety and storage, that in 1857 the Victorian Government passed an act to regulate the importation, carriage and custody of black powder.
As a result of this law, the State Treasury financed the construction of powder magazines. Anyone bringing more than 100 pounds of powder into the mining district that possessed a magazine, had to store it in this safe and secure storage facility for which the owner was required to pay a small rental.
The Beechworth Powder Magazine was built in 1859 by T Dawson and Company. The surrounding stone walls were added in 1860.
According to the National Trust it is the best example in Victoria of this particularly important building type. It is also the only intact survivor of the various powder magazines built in the 1850’s. Technically, these buildings were highly specialized and designed by colonial architects in the Public Works Department.
The architecture features a classical style in the tradition of early colonial military buildings. It is constructed in local granite and includes several in built safety features.
The safety features of the external architecture of the building include the unusual early lightning conductors on the slate and granite roof.
You also may have noticed how the internal yard area is clear of vegetation. Originally, the bushland beyond the fence boundary was also cleared as an added precaution in case of fire.
In the case of an explosion within the building, the arched inner roof, and double arched foundations ensured the explosion would go upwards and not outwards.
Another feature was that whilst the walls were made of solid granite blocks, the ceiling was constructed with ordinary bricks.
You also may observe the arched foundations where the flooring has been removed. Originally, the building also featured non-flammable softwood finishes and wooden nails in the flooring to reduce the possibility of accidental sparks being struck.
The storage of black powder and the practice of explosive mining in Beechworth was dominated by one particular company called the Rocky Mountain Mining Company. In 1856, a small party of miners applied to run a tail race to lower the water table in the Spring Creek goldfields. A channel was cut through the granite from Newtown Falls to the flats at Spring Creek.
One of these miners was Donald Fletcher, who recalls his story and the beginnings of the rocky Mountain tunnel.
Voice of Donald Fletcher:
Hello everybody, my name is Donald Fletcher and I arrived in Beechworth in late 1855.
My first claim was a sluicing operation at Pennyweight Flat. I was engaged in mining all my life. I mined at Silver Creek, Eldorado, Clear Creek, Hurdle Flat and Yackandandah.
The hardest part about mining along Spring Creek was lowering the water table so shafts could reach bedrock. On top of the bedrock, was often a thin layer of gold covered with black sand. This tail race we applied to run took 18 months to finish and cost 3,500 pounds. Unfortunately, it was successful at draining only the lower part of the flat.
In 1863 the miners sold out to Mssrs. Kerford and Ransom. They floated shares in the Rocky Mountain Company to raise enough capital to increase the average depth of the tail race to 8 feet. These works carried out between October 1867 and July 1869. It cost the life of one of the workers who was killed during blasting operations.
Between 1869 and 1876, the company recovered 6,500 ounces of gold. As sluicing moved up Spring Creek it soon became obvious the ground deepened rendering the tailrace inoperative.
To carry on, a new company was formed called the Rocky Mountain Extended Mining Company. This company started construction of the Rock Mountain Tunnel on June 10th 1876.
The drilling was originally done by hand until the following September when the first boring machines to be used in Victoria were introduced. A lack of water to drive the waterwheel that operated the air pumps meant that work was reduced to 10 hours per day.
Mr Johnson Stephens was forced to give up his contract at 3 pounds per foot and when fresh tenders were called, Mr Stephens regained it at 4 pounds 10 per foot.
Work resumed in February 1877, when a steam engine was used to drive the compressors. In March, an air extractor was installed to speed up the work and do away with the need to cut air shafts. Only three men could work the face at once so it took until the 24th January 1880 to complete the tunnel. At the time it was one of Australia’s greatest engineering feats.
A dinner party was held at my house to celebrate the completion of the tunnel where I announced the following details;
The length of the tunnel 2,611 feet, 2,100 feet through bedrock.
The total cost of the tunnel was 14,600 pounds.
10,920 bogeys of stone removed weighing 8,628 tons.
18 miles of holes bored using 98,280 drills.
The last fact that evening is was we used 18.5 miles of fuse required to fire 32,760 shots.
Now of course you might ask why and where we accessed the 18.5 miles of fuse. It was made by a fuse making machine such as this one here on display, creating what we now know as a safety fuse.
In 1831 William Bickford, an English merchant, developed the first practical and reliable means of igniting black powder when mining—the safety fuse.
After earlier attempts at developing a safer way had failed, Bickford had an insight while visiting his friend, a rope maker. While observing his friend winding cord together to generate a rope it occurred to Bickford to adopt the same method towards developing a fuse.
Bickford invented a machine that would thread and weave two layers of jute yarn, a shiny vegetable fibre over a small tube of black powder, spun in opposite directions which would then be varnished with tar in order to waterproof the product.
The result was the development of a fuse, which when lit would burn at a known rate.
Previously in the history of the use of black powder in the mining there had been many miners hurt or killed when inspecting a fuse they suspected had burnt out. Bickford’s invention drastically improved the working conditions and safety of miners around the world.
Voice of Narrator:
When miners such as the Rocky Mountain mining company stored their black powder in this building, a charter was kept with their record and receipts were given by the post keeper for the expense of storing the black powder. The post keeper of the magazine was always a part time position as the building was only used on request. By the end of the 19th century the powder magazine was no longer being used and was officially closed in 1918 and abandoned.
During the depression in the 1930’s a number of unemployed and homeless people took refuge in the building. Upon leaving the building at the end of this audio presentation, you may be able to see one of the corners in the foyer which still reveals evidence of one of the campfires held inside the building during those desperate times.
Much of the woodwork from the interior was ripped from the walls and the floor to be used for these campfires.
To discourage the homeless and move them on, the local council removed the roof, which consequently lead to the buildings deterioration and demise.
It was during the 1960’s that discussions were being held to consider the demolition of an almost ruined building. As the result of these discussions, a local historical society sprang into action, members of the University of Melbourne joined the cause and in 1965 the National Trust formally adopted the building as a major project.
It was classed as one of the most important gold era relics intact in Australia and to be preserved at all costs. The National Trust acquired the building in 1966 and it was eventually opened to the public with a complete interpretive display.
For many years dedicated volunteers laboriously kept the building open often in cold, isolated and quite miserable conditions.
In 2003, Indigo Shire took over from the National Trust as the committee of management and the magazine became part of a significant group of buildings within the central town of Beechworth, now known as the Beechworth Historic and Cultural Precinct.
After viewing the information display, please ensure you visit our precincts other historic and culturally significant buildings. These include the Beechworth Courthouse, the Telegraph Station and the Burke Museum.
Donald Fletcher voice:
The Burke Museum team hope that you have enjoyed the powder magazine experience. Please visit us if you have any questions or comments for us.
The experience will reset in a few minutes to allow the next group of visitors to enter, so please leave the room before the lights dim and ensure the door is closed behind you.