The Dja Wurrung, or Jaara People, are the Traditional Owners and custodians of Chewton and its surrounds. Indigenous people sharpened their tools over the centuries, and the scars of central Victoria’s early history can still be seen deep in the landscape, with some Aboriginal sites dating back thousands of years. There are also water holes that were used by indigenous peoples as they travelled around Mount Alexander, most of them ground out of the rock to become a water catchment for them.
In 1836-37, Major Mitchell was the first European in the area, on his travels into 'Australia Felix'. The first white settler in the region was a sheep station owner named Dr Barker in the late 1830s. The year 1851 was to see major changes in the area after a shepherd named John Worley found gold on Dr Barker’s property while panning in Forest Creek that year. This led to the start of a massive gold rush. It was estimated that around 30,000 gold-prospectors arrived in the area within three months.
The first prospectors to the site came from Melbourne, and the field soon became known as the Mount Alexander diggings. As part of the centenary celebrations in 2001, the road from Melbourne, known as the Mt Alexander Rd, saw a re-enactment of the trek. There soon followed international gold-diggers to the site and before long there was said to be four times as many diggers with an Asian background as there were prospectors with a European heritage. What was to become Chewton later, was a hillside used as the site for the first government camp of the diggings. This meant that Chewton was one the state's richest sites, due to the same of expensive gold licences, and was being panned longer than most other areas at the time.
Land sales began in Chewton in 1855, with the main street following a bullock track. The first buildings, like many other Australian towns, were stores, public houses and a Congregational and Wesleyan churches. There was a school attached to the Wesleyan Church, and an Anglican denominational school was also built. The two schools joined together in the Park School in the 1870s. The Red Hill Hotel from this period still stands today.
In 1861, the railway arrived at Chewton, at a time when the town had a population of 3353 residents. The same decade saw a decline in the amount of alluvial gold that could be panned. This led to people moving out of the town. By 1870, mining was being carried out by mining companies which employed skilled miners from Wales and Cornwall to sink shafts to get to gold-bearing quartz reefs, some quite successfully. In 1876 the Wattle Gully Gold Mine opened just south of the town, to be followed by two other major businesses, the Garfield Mine on the north side of town and the Francis Ormand Mine at the edge of the town. The Wattle Gully mine is running today making it one of Australia’s longest-running gold-mining companies. Even today, some of the older people in Chewton, talk about how the walk to school was slow after rain because specks of gold would be visible after rainfall and could be picked up.
By 1891 Chewton’s population had dropped to 1212 and in 1933 the census recorded just 454 residents. In 2011 the census for Chewton registered 323 residents.
The discovery of gold at Golden Point in 1851 saw the recording of Chewton’s history become more extensive than previously, including a history of buildings, some of which still survive.
Established around 1851, the Pennyweight Flat Cemetery was one of the first cemeteries on the Forest Creek Goldfields. 200 people were buried here from 1852 to 1857, many of them children. Further along, the same road is Donkey Gully which yielded 1000 kilogrammes of gold.
Other historic buildings in Chewton include the Red Hill Hotel, one of the earliest hotels on the goldfields to get a licence, in 1854. There is also the School in the Park (1871 to 1911), the Railway Viaducts, the Chewton Cemetery as well as the earlier gold field cemeteries, the old churches (St John’s still operates as a church, the others now a gallery and a residence), the Old Police Lock-up, Heron’s Reef, Eureka Reef, the Garfield Water Wheel, Expedition Pass Reservoir etc. The list goes on, Chewton is full of old treasures.
Chewton has a few historic buildings on Main Street, once known as the Pyrenees Highway, one of which is the Mount Alexander Hotel, built in 1864 and now a private residence. The history of the small stone cottage behind the hotel is unknown. This may have been a simple outbuilding for the hotel, though others suggest it may be one of the shepherd's huts from the first pastoral station in the area around the early 1840s.
There are two restored buildings in the area that date back to the 1840s and 1850s where you can stay overnight. The Potager stone cottage, just north of Chewton and the old mud-brick Tranquil Valley Farm on Hoopers Road, which is likely to have been one of the shepherd's hut on the first sheep station, or a miner's hut.
Next to the Mount Alexander Hotel is the Uniting Church, which was previously the Wesleyan Church built in 1861. The old sandstone Congregational Church, built in 1856, is now a restaurant.
The Town Hall, which was built in 1858, was once used as a local police courthouse from 1861 to 1916. Some of the structural features for this still exist. It is one of the few buildings in the district to survive the great gold rush era. The People and Places Display in Chewton Town Hall documents much of the small town’s history, including around 2,000 historical photographs that can be seen on weekend afternoons. Research also continues on the Monster Meeting as new information is discovered.
The Town Hall was originally built as a private venture for use as a general community hall. The Chewton Borough Council held its meetings here from 1861 to 1916. The building is listed by the State’s Historic Buildings Register and is possibly the smallest town hall in Victoria and possibly in Australia. It is still used today for community purposes, such as book launches, exhibitions and as a festival venue. Extensive renovations since 2011 have seen the venue awarded the Mount Alexander Heritage Award prize for Contractors for Specialist Heritage Trade Skills in 2014 and an award for the Restoration of a Heritage Place in 2016.
The Post Office
The Chewton post office dates from 1879. It is also included in the State Historic Buildings Register. In 1922, the Postmaster-General’s Department planned to discontinue services from the building, but it was bought by Chewton’s residents. With no house-delivery, the people of Chewton visit the building daily to collect and send their mail, making it the town’s central community point. The local Trustees managed the building until 1984 when the Shire of Metcalfe took responsibility until 1997 when it was transferred back to the community.
Next to the Post Office and Town Hall there used to be a large 19th-century house and at the crossroads, was a general store built around the same time as the Town Hall. The store was demolished in 1970 when the road was widened, and the home relocated to North Street, where it still exists.
Ellery Park, after Silas Ellery, a Metcalfe Shire Councillor is a native garden, showcasing plants of the grasslands and Box-Ironbark forests that once dominated this area and are slowly being re-introduced. The park also provides picnic, free barbecue and public toilet facilities.
Chewton Domain Society
In 1996 the titles to Chewton’s post office, town hall and Ellery park were passed from the Shire of Mount Alexander to the community of Chewton. The Chewton Domain Society (CDS) was formed and incorporated to hold the titles and manage the properties. CDS is run by a volunteer management committee elected annually. Sub-committee’s co-ordinate all the activities, including the historical display at the Town Hall, a Chewton Chat sub-committee to manage the community newspaper, website and Welcome to Chewton kit, and a Monster Meeting sub-committee to organise events celebrating the Great Meeting of Diggers in 1851.
The Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park (CDNHP)
The Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park (CDNHP) is a park made of non-adjacent plots that cover many parts of Chewton. Founded in 2002, community consultation has created a management plan which was adopted in 2007 and is being implemented by Parks Victoria (PV) with many Chewton. As the only National Heritage Park in Australia, the focus is to protect the goldfields landscape which impacts on use, infrastructure, activities and plantings within the park’s boundaries. There is currently a campaign for the CDNHP to be given a World Heritage Listing, due to significant sites such as the Forest Creek environs, Expedition Pass Reservoir, Welsh Village and Eureka Reef.