Relics bring new life to country towns
Country towns bringing Victoria’s colourful past to life.
In front of the big doors of the Rescue Station, a coal miner’s daughter with ballet dancer’s poise gestures to a lumpy field. “This,” says Wendy Crellin with a sweep of her arm, “is where tent town was. This was the heart of Wonthaggi, not up where it is now.”
At the core of many a Victorian community lies the place that was … the old hospital, foundry, butter factory or bank. They’re tangible, often grand, legacies of cultural heritage in regions which, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, boomed with coal, gold, wool and wheat. But built heritage is not all about romantic iron-lace balconies and the manor reborn.
Here in South Gippsland, 17 million tonnes of coal was extracted between 1909 and 1968. The men and boys who dug for it were the foundation of the modern town of Wonthaggi and inevitably some paid with their lives.
Wendy’s father, Allan Opie, himself a miner’s son and an active union man who started in the State Coal Mine as a brace boy at 14, was among those at a stop-work meeting to discuss escalating safety concerns on February 15, 1937, when there was an explosion in shaft 20.
Specially trained miners in breathing apparatus immediately set out from the Rescue Station, but there was no hope for the 13 men killed in a methane gas explosion so powerful it blew a two-tonne iron cage from the shaft to the top of the poppet head.
Today the Rescue Station is an arts hub run by an incorporated committee of which Wendy is president. A handsome structure built of signature orange Wonthaggi bricks, it was derelict and had been boarded up for 50-odd years until community volunteers rescued it from a mountain of bird droppings and negotiated a lease from Parks Victoria.
Since 2005 the Rescue Station has been the scene of well-attended festivals, markets and performances from ballet to bagpipes. But while Parks Victoria has received Heritage Victoria funding for structural work, the co-op itself receives no recurrent operational funding. It is philanthropic donations from organisations like the RACV Community Foundation that helped fire the kilns of its new pottery centre with a $16,700 injection.
While this creative space now hums with potters’ wheels, it retains historic integrity, from the small crosses carved into the floor to stop the pit ponies slipping to the smoke tunnel where the rescuers practised.
“The Rescue Station really shows how spaces can be reignited with a new purpose and more often than not it’s from the imaginings and hard work of creative people who tend to see potential first,” says state MP for Bass Jordan Crugnale. “It was one of those neglected buildings where colourful things are now happening and it’s wonderfully participatory.”
As sustainable development has become a goal for all levels of government since the Year of Built Environment in 2004, derelict spaces have increasingly been revived and repurposed. Built heritage has emerged as the new financial and social hero of many regions, both attracting visitors and strengthening locals’ sense of place and community.