The first white men to pass through the Ararat district, around 200km north west of Melbourne, were explorer Thomas Mitchell and his party on their “Australia Felix” expedition. Mitchell’s description of the land in the west of what is now Victoria encouraged squatters to the area.
In 1841, Horatio Wills passed through the area on his way to selecting country further south, wrote in his diary, “like the Ark we rested” and named a nearby hill Mt. Ararat. It is from this entry and the nearby Mount that the town takes its name.
Gold was first discovered in the vicinity at Pinky Point, 6 km west of present-day Ararat, in 1854. Other leads followed and there were soon 9000 people strewn about the area known as ‘Cathcart’ after a popular actress of the day. One such prospector was escapee bushranger ‘Gipsy’ Smith who killed Sergeant John McNally during an attempted arrest at the Cathcart goldfields in 1856 (Smith was soon caught and executed).
The strike which established the town came about, indirectly, as a result of racial strife on the Victorian goldfields. As a result of anti-Asian sentiment, the state government, in 1855, placed a 20 pound poll tax on every Chinese person entering Victorian ports. Consequently, ships from China began landing at South Australia leaving the immigrants a walk of 500 km or more to the Victorian goldfields, often in winter with few opportunities to renew supplies or water and with unreliable guides.
Thus one party of 700 Chinese miners came to rest on the future townsite while en route to Clunes. One member discovered alluvial gold in a stream and thus the Canton Lead was established. Within two weeks, the population was allegedly 20 000. With the assistance of the Chinese Protector, the Chinese miners survived violent attempts from whites to oust them from their claims. 93 kg of gold were shipped out in the first three weeks and 3 tons were officially escorted from town in the first three months.
By 1863 gold reserves were depleted, but the town continued on as a centre for surrounding pastoralists, and in 1875 became an important railway centre.
Ararat Town Hall
Ararat’s first newspaper was published in 1857. The town was named after the nearby mountain and declared a municipality almost immediately (in 1858). Buildings such as the mechanics institute, a hospital, a church and a courthouse were all under construction by 1859. Pyrenees House, featuring a decorative exterior in Queen-Anne style, was constructed to replace the original hospital in 1885.
The Ararat County Gaol was finished in 1861, and continued in this role until 1887. Three murderers were hanged here during this time and the graves can still be visited. The Classical Revival style bluestone building became known as J Ward and from 1887 until 1991 it functioned as Victoria’s asylum for the criminally insane. The longest serving inmate, Bill Wallace, was held here for over 60 years, during a time when inmates were housed under tight security and often terrible conditions.
Ararat was advanced to the status of a borough in 1863 but, by that time, the gold had already begun to dwindle. However, the town survived as a service centre to the old pastoral properties and as a regional administrative centre. Moreover, from 1862, the process of breaking up the old squatter’s estates began. Selectors gained a foothold and farming commenced. When the railway arrived in 1875 Ararat became a major rail junction.
The Mafeking goldrush at Mt William in 1900 saw a revival of gold fever and a resurgence of Ararat’s population. Other goldmines contributed to the local economy from 1909 to 1920. The borough became a town in 1934 and a city in 1950.
The town hall (c1898) and shire hall (c1871) were also built in Classical Revival style. The town hall contains a clock tower in the middle of its symmetrical exterior.
Ararat’s role as a pastoral centre is evidenced by buildings such as the 1874 bluestone wool and grain store, now functioning as the Langi Morgala Musuem.
The Old Ararat school, with a central belltower and gabled, symmetrical bluestone wings, was built in Gothic Revival style in 1867. Ararat’s second courthouse was also constructed in 1867, but was built in a Romanesque style.
Ararat Gum San Chinese Heritage Centre