Walls can’t talk, but dig on 1853 hotel ruin may yield historical gems

Weeds are growing in the dining room, the slate roof is long gone and no beers have been sold here in over 150 years. The bluestone walls are crumbling; if only they could talk.

But experts hope an archaeological dig at the heritage-listed Rockbank Inn north-west of Melbourne will yield insights into Victoria's gold rush history.

Heritage Victoria principal archaeologist Jeremy Smith at the ruins of the Rockbank Inn.Credit:Justin McManus

They say thousands of artefacts, dating from as early as the 1840s, could be uncovered during the eight-week excavation, which will start in February.

The single-storey, two-room inn was built around 1853 by liquor merchants James Stewart and John "Como" Brown as an overnight stop for gold miners, just off a busy main road from Melbourne to the Ballarat goldfields.

Soldiers in the 12th and 40th regiments, on their way to confront miners at Eureka Stockade, camped in the inn's grounds in 1854.

Heritage Victoria principal archaeologist Jeremy Smith said the State Heritage Register-listed site will be "one of only a handful of gold rush hotel sites" ever excavated. It will be conducted by consultants Extent Heritage, and overseen by Heritage Victoria.

Rockbank Inn in 1938.Credit:Arthur A Beattie and Melton District Historical Society

"I've been looking forward to this for a number of years," he said.

He expects there will be between 5000 and 20,000 artefacts found, possibly including glass from the pub, ceramic plates, metal utensils, animal bones, leather shoes and toys.

"The holy grail" would be finding something linked to Eureka regiments, such as the copper alloy buttons with the number 40 on them found in a previous dig at the soldiers' base in Camp Street, Ballarat.

The Rockbank dig is being funded by developers as a condition for the go-ahead of the Woodlea housing estate — in the new suburb of Aintree — that in the next 10 years will see 7000 new homes built on 700 hectares surrounding the inn.

Heritage Victoria Principal Archaeologist Jeremy Smith at the Rockbank Inn, which overlooks Kororoit Creek.Credit:Justin McManus

The developers, Victoria Investments and Properties and Mirvac, said that after the dig, they will work with the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning and Melton City Council to retain as much of the ruins as possible.

The site will be stabilised, made safe and there will be a public view of the ruins, with landscaping, seating and educational signage.

The inn will sit within a 70-hectare green wedge flanking Kororoit Creek, including walking paths, wetlands, a pond for the endangered growling grass frog and sporting grounds.

Mr Smith said it’s possible the ruins of the stone stables and kitchen (or store) next to the inn might have been built by grazier William Yuille who owned the property in the 1840s.

Miss Fanny Beattie and her brother Charles at Rockbank Inn in 1938.Credit:Arthur A Beattie and Melton District Historical Society

From 1863, after the gold rush, the inn was a farm residence of the Beatty family, also spelled Beattie or Beatie, until it was abandoned in 1959.

The Ballarat Road, which crossed Kororoit Creek about 100 metres from the inn, became Beatty's Road, little more than a bush track.

Mr Smith said the inn was "reasonably intact" until a 1984 fire accelerated its descent into ruin.

"The slate roof was destroyed and that hastened the deterioration of the place," he said.

Local historian Judith Bilszta said the inn had suffered vandalism and neglect, and it was sad and disappointing that the building had "deteriorated to the point where there’s nothing left".

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