Charlton is the first town along the Calder Highway that does not owe its existence to gold mining but to agriculture and its subsidiary industries. In the first copy of the East Charlton Tribune, published on 20th May 1876, were printed these words:
“East Charlton stands on the eastern bank of the Avoca River in a beautiful valley between two ranges of hills, and is distant twenty miles from Wedderburn and twenty- eight miles from St. Arnaud. The country around is of a very rich nature and bids fair to become the finest agricultural district in the colony. The whole of the land for many miles around has been selected. The wheat grown in the vicinity of East Charlton during the past season realized the highest price of any in Victoria."
The Editor was obviously writing with pride of the district with which he was connected. Now, over 150 years later, Charlton is still a productive farming town which has weathered many difficulties over the years and altered considerably to adapt to changing times, but still retains the spirit and resilience shown by the early pioneers.
Harvest time at the Noske Mill, Charlton, c. 1940
In 1835 Major Thomas Mitchell returned to Sydney after surveying through Central Victoria to Portland. During the journey he crossed and named the Avoca River about 50 kilometers upstream from where Charlton is now. As a result of his report, pastoralists took up leases which gradually opened up the whole state from the Murray to the sea. The first white settlers in the Charlton area were squatters Robert Cay and William Kaye, who leased a huge tract of land in 1844 west of the Avoca River. They later extended their holdings to east of the river and Buckrabanyule. The Avoca River was the boundary between two districts so Charlton was technically two runs, officially known as East and West Charlton Stations.
Dja Dja Wurrung
Charlton and the surrounding district was originally inhabited by the Jaara people, a native Aboriginal tribe. The local language group was the Dja Dja Wurrung. Also known as the Loddon River tribe, they occupied the watersheds of the Loddon and Avoca rivers. They roamed over a vast area including the Buckrabanyule hills, Mount Wycheproof and Lake Buloke, travelling from one water supply to the next. The group of low hills just west of where Charlton is now situated was once a semi permanent aboriginal camp site. The aborigines named the area Youanduk, meaning a basin in a rock, as there were a number of rock depressions on the hillsides providing a reasonably good water supply. Prior to European settlement it is thought the Dja Dja Wurrung numbered approximately 1000. In the Charlton district there are reports of up to 200 being present in the early years of the squatters who employed them as labourers and domestics. However their numbers eventually declined as they either moved away or succumbed to disease or old age, and reports of their presence in Charlton are rare after the 1870’s. While Charlton no longer has a resident population of the Dja Dja Wurrung, members still maintain contact with the area. Charlton is also surrounded by their legacy, in the names of our farming districts including Barrakee, Buckrabanyule, Woosang, Wooroonook and Yeungroon.
Rock wells near Charlton
Township of Charlton.
With the arrival of the squatters, traffic routes to and from the stations soon developed. Various travellers including hawkers, station hands, shearers and bullock teams carrying loads of supplies and wool, all had to cross the Avoca River to reach the West Charlton Station and others to the north. The future site of Charlton proved to be the best crossing place of the Avoca River for traffic going north from Bendigo and Ballarat, and soon became a camping ground where travellers stopped to feed and water their horses and bullocks. The passing of traffic at this spot naturally suggested a chance for business and in 1863 Mr John Flug built an inn on the east bank of the Avoca River laying the foundation for the township of Charlton.
In 1869 the land was opened up for selection and numerous smaller farmers, many of them former miners from the goldfields, came to begin a new future. The town which had taken the name East Charlton from the pastoral run on which it was situated, developed rapidly during the 1870's with hotels, churches, shops and a school being built to cater for the rapidly growing population. The first school in 1875 was in an old bark hut and after the teacher, Mr R.A. Nicholson sent a photograph of the dilapidated building to the Education Department, a new brick school was built in 1876 for the 68 students. By then Mr Flug had moved his wine shanty to High Street and built a hotel and general store next door. As the township grew and spread across both sides of the river, the name East Charlton became inappropriate. Eventually another town already called Charlton was renamed Chute and on 1st October 1879, East Charlton officially became Charlton and was later declared a town in 1885.
Bark Hut School, 1875
Bridges crossing the Avoca.
In the mid 1860's there was agitation for a bridge to be constructed and James Paterson of Wedderburn was contracted by the Korong Shire to build it. The bridge was finished in 1867, but because of a severe drought, no water flowed under it until 1870 when raging flood waters covered the bridge up to the middle rail. After the construction of the bridge the roads were increasingly busy with loads of wool, mail coaches and settlers travelling north to take up land.
In 1921 there was a meeting in Charlton of thirteen Shires from Gisborne to Mildura and it was decided to make the road from Melbourne to Mildura a national highway. It was this meeting that decided the route of the Calder Highway although it wasn't named that until 1927. One matter needing urgent attention in Charlton was the wooden bridge over the Avoca River. It had become old and dilapidated with a load limit of 7 tons placed on it. A new concrete bridge, 12 metres long, was erected beside the old bridge and was opened in 1924. This bridge served the town until 1963 when it too became incapable of coping with modern traffic. The bridge was then widened to 10 metres with a separate footpath being added.
Little is discarded in Charlton, as the original wooden bridge, which had stood firm against innumerable floods was dismantled and re-erected further downstream, where it became known as the ‘Low Water Bridge’. This 122 year old bridge was replaced in 1989 by a new bridge that although still called the Low Water Bridge, was meant to remain above water in a flood. At the official opening, there was in fact a flood and with the bridge unapproachable, the ceremony had to take place in the Shire Hall after which the dignitaries rowed out to the new bridge to inspect it.
New Charlton Bridge, 1925, with the old wooden bridge still positioned beside it.
From 1880 the Charlton and district residents had been agitating to form a more compact shire with Charlton as its centre. There was much jubilation when, 15 years later, on May 27th 1895, they were granted permission to form a new shire, named the Shire of Charlton. This new shire had approximately 3000 residents and covered an area of 117800 hectares of productive farming and grazing land. It had formerly been the forgotten corner of the Shires of Korong, Gordon and St. Arnaud.
The Shire served Charlton for 100 years until 1995 when the restructuring of Local Government resulted in the amalgamation of the Shires of Charlton, Birchip, Donald, and Wycheproof to form the Buloke Shire. (Source: Charlton Celebrating 150 Years, 1863-2013, Carolyn Olive & Grace Cadzow)
Charlton Shire Council, 1910.
Photos courtesy of the Charlton Golden Grains Museum.