Sitting in a steep valley surrounded by extinct volcanoes lies Clunes, a historic gold mining town located in the central goldfields region of Victoria, north of Ballarat. The Djadja Wurrung people were the first inhabitants of the area and occupied most of central Victoria. The district was discovered by Major Thomas Mitchell in 1836.

  Watercolour of single story building with adjacent yard and farm buildings.

Clunes – the Station of Donald Cameron Esq. JP, H88.21/42

The first European settler, Donald Cameron, took up a pastoral run in 1839, and named it ‘Clunes’ after his birthplace in Scotland. The name in Gaelic means ‘a green place’ or ‘a pleasant place’. First traces of gold were found on the property of Dugald Cameron, Donald’s uncle, in 1850.

The discovery of gold in the area was concealed until 1851 when Irishman James Esmond, ‘Lucky Jim’, mined some gold samples opposite Cameron’s property. He took the gold to a Geelong jeweller who proclaimed it to be genuine. Esmond is recognised as the first person to report a discovery of payable gold in Victoria. So here marked the beginning of the gold rush in Victoria with Clunes heralded as the colony’s first gold town.

Newspaper article about the first reported discovery of payable gold in Victoria.

 Geelong Advertiser, Monday 7 July, 1851

In 1857 the Port Phillip Mining Company negotiated a lease with the land owners in Clunes that gave the company the right to mine the land with the owners receiving 10% of all gold mined. The mining was very lucrative amassing a wealth of £135,000 in royalties over the first twenty-four years. By 1873, the population of Clunes hit its peak at 6,203. The current population is 1,656. In that same year Clunes was the site of Victoria’s first gold strike.  Workers at the Lothair Mine had been striking for many weeks in a bid to secure the eight hour day. The company directors of the mine changed tack and decided to bring in Chinese workers. On the morning the Chinese arrived by coach, 1000 men, accompanied by women and children, formed a barricade and proceeded to stone the Chinese. Police who arrived on the scene declared the barricade unbreachable. The coaches were forced to retreat to the delight of the rioters. The Victorian government took no action against the striking miners and no charges for riotous behaviour were laid.

Black and white photograph. Elevated view of goldmining settlement showing tents, wooden huts, diggings, mine shafts, derrick in distance. One building with sign "Port Phillip Hotel".

[Port Phillip and Colonial Gold Mining Co., Clunes], H32085

Black and white print of a wood engraving showing township of Clunes and businesses

The Port Phillip Gold Mining Company’s claim and  the township of Clunes, IAN19/06/69/129

Clunes is one of the most preserved 19th century towns in the central goldfields. This has made it a popular location for film and television. Fraser Street, the main drag, has appeared in major Australian films including Mad Max and Ned Kelly. The town is well known for its antique and collectable stores and since 2007 it has hosted the Booktown event, now held annually on the first weekend in May.

In 2010, Clunes was declared Australia’s first International Booktown by the International Organisation of Booktowns. Around 15,000 bibliophiles flock to the event to browse a vast array of collectable and second hand books. Around 60 visiting booksellers assume quarters in and around the town’s historic buildings. Clunes is experiencing a resurgence. So much so that the railway station was reopened in 2011.

A coloured lithograph of the Criterion Quartz Mining Company, Clunes, Victoria. Upper section shows mine site including poppet legs and a smoke stack; in centre is the interior view of crushing battery, winding & driving engines; and below this a longditudinal section of the mine (l.l) and a traverse section of quartz mine (l.r.). Names of shareholders and company statistics are in u.l. and u.r. corners respectively.

Criterion Quartz Mining Compny [sic.] Clunes, IAN19/06/69/129

Criterion was a part of a co-operative with the Port Phillip Mining Company.

Written by Sarah Ryan
Librarian, Australian History & Literature Team


1.  Markus, Andrew 1979, Fear and hatred: purifying Australia and California, 1850-1901, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney

2. Townsend, May 1989, Early pioneers in and around Clunes, M.L. Townsend, Kingston, Vic.

3. Townsend, May [1985], The story of Clunes, M.L. Townsend, Kingston, Vic.

This article has 25 comments

  1. My wife’s family owned and operated the Northumberland Hotel, names were Gritton and Woolcock. Great grandmother Catherine Woolcock sold the Hotel around WW1 and the ran a Lolly Shop in main road.
    They left Clunes about the end of WW!.
    She was a widow with 4 children.
    Husband died at 45 y.o and was John Woolcock a surveyor, you have he’s funeral notices.

  2. John Whittleston, shareholder in the Criterion Quartz Mining company, was a brother of my great great grandfather. He was also a shareholder in the Prince Alfred mining company founded in 1865. He was born in 1825 in Lofthouse, west yorkshire in 1925. he moved to Coolgardie to chase gold there. He died in Perth in 1902

    • Hi Des

      Thank you for telling us about your family connection to gold mining in Clunes. Criterion were one of the major mining companies operating in the area at the time. Your great great grand uncle would have witnessed the mining boom and bust. Interesting to note that Western Australia was experiencing the beginnings of a mining boom 100 years after his death.

  3. Hello, I am researching my family, The Spence family, who settled in Clunes in the mid 1850’s. I understand that my GGG Grandmother, Jane Heslope Spence, ran the local hotel up until she died in the early 20th century. One of her sons also ran a hotel in Talbot. She was born in 1833 and married George Henry Spence in Clunes. They bore 11 children, most buried in the local cemetery, along with Jane and George. Hoping to connect with any family still in the local area. Looking for photos and documentation if available.

    • Hi Paige

      Thank you for your family history enquiry related to Clunes. We will be in touch during the next week or so with a response.



    • Paige. Please contact me – I too am searching for information on the Spence’s. George had a son, George also, he married my 2nd Great Aunt Grace Ann.

      [email protected]


  4. Thankyou for the information about Clunes. My ancestors John Fraser Jones and Eliza Christy were early pioneers in Clunes. Eliza was an Irish famine orphan who arrived on the ‘Diadem’ the same ship as John Jones. It sounds like I’ll need to visit Clunes one day:)

    • Hi Susan, glad you found the blog post of interest. I visited Clunes for the first time last year for the famous Booktown Festival. It’s a beautiful little town with a rich history. I also have Irish heritage and one of my ancestors lived in Clunes as well.

  5. Have you any idea as to the strange mullockheap rowsat the Lothario mine in Clunes?
    I thought that the overburden was healed up like mountain shapes, not set out in parallel rows like I saw here.Curious.

  6. I have just come across this site as I am looking for an Agnes Slater who was a friend of my grandmother in Clunes. She possibly took into her care a baby my great grandmother bore illegitimately and I cannot find any record anywhere of the child’s death or otherwise after she was christened in Clunes 1893. It is a brick wall which I cannot seem to climb over.

    • Hi Barbara

      Thank you for your comment on the blog. One of our librarians will follow it up and get back to you with a response. They might find a way over the brick wall.



  7. Susan Grainger

    Hi Sarah,
    I am looking for information to do with my Great Grandparents Henry Mitchell Jenkin and Jessie Montgomery, lived and owned houses in Clunes, moved to St Arnaud where Henry is buried, Jessie is buried in Boulder Cemetery WA. They had 6 children, 4 of whom survived.

    • Hi Susan

      I have lodged your enquiry with the Family History team and they’ll be in touch.


  8. Hi Sarah,

    My grandparents lived in Clunes, George and Emmie Fawcett, and as a family we would visit quite frequently. Interestingly my sister has researched our families, and offered to research her Canadian daughter-in-law’s family from the scottish end to ‘meet up’ with research done by daughter-in-law’s Canadian aunt. Long story short, brothers went to Canada and one came to Australia in the 1800’s. We were gobsmacked when she found this relative of daughter-in-law is buried in Clunes! So imagine my amusement when I happened along a street in Clunes named Mouatt Street, which is my husband’s surname, minus the extra T. The most common spelling of our surname is Mowat (how ours is pronounced) in Scotland, but our version is not as frequent, coming from the Shetland Islands. I would be interested to find out if Mouatt Street in Clunes was named after anyone in particular. Thanks, Pam.

    • Hi Pam

      Thanks for sharing your connection to Clunes. I’ve entered your enquiry on our database and someone will be in touch.



  9. My Great, great grandfather was Thomas Hiscock who discovered gold on the 3rd August 1851 in Buninyong, we always were told he was the first person to discover gold in Victoria, there is a bluestone obelisk on the outskirts of Buninyong indicating this was the spot where gold was first discovered by Thomas Hiscock. Was he just the first person to discover gold in this area of Victoria and there were others that discovered gold in other places.

    • Hi Helen

      Thank you for highlighting this discrepancy. James Esmond is recognised as the first person to report a discovery of payable gold in Victoria although Aboriginal Australians and settlers had found gold in the area before him. The date of the article in the Geelong Advertiser detailing the discovery is 7 July, 1851. Your great, great grandfather Thomas Hiscock is recognised as the first person to discover gold in the Buninyong area on 2/3 August, 1851 (some confusion around the actual date). According to the text on the commemorative sign on the site of Hiscock’s discovery the obelisk ‘incorrectly states that Buninyong was the first place where gold was discovered in Victoria’.

      For detailed information on the claims and the names of the claimants see the book by James Flett, The history of gold discovery in Victoria, pages 7-24, and an article by Louis Cranfield titled ‘The first discovery of gold in Victoria’ in The Victorian Historical Magazine, vol. 31, iss. 122, 1960, pages 86-96.

      Kind regards

      Sarah Ryan

  10. Carolyn Guinotte

    I am related from my dad’s side to Peter Kempson who built the first schoolhouse. There also looks to be mine named Kempson and wonder if that has anything to with Peter Kempson.
    If anyone has anything they can share I’d be forever grateful.

    • Hi Carolyn, thank you for your comment. I’ll lodge your enquiry about the Kempson mine with our Ask a Librarian service and someone will be in touch with a response.



  11. Margarete Mount

    Would you be able to tell me if there was a mine collapse in Clunes on 30 August 1893. Both of my husbands ancestors died on this date in Clunes. There names are John and Jack Coombe/Coomb. There were both born in St Agnes in 1841 and 1842 and immigrated to Australia with their sister Mary Trevena Coombe. Mary Trevena met and married Thomas Henry Pearce in Clunes.

    • Hi Margarete, I’ve lodged your enquiry with our Ask a Librarian service and someone will be in touch with a response.



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