Kilmore: Victoria’s Earliest Inland Town

 An Early History

First Settlers

Charles Bonney, who overlanded from Sydney in early 1837, was probably the first white settler in the Kilmore district. He originally settled closer to Glenaroua, but after an encounter with two bushrangers he moved closer to where Kilmore is today, settling there sometime in 1837. Bonney’s sheep station was known as the ‘Out Sheep Station’ or ‘Out Station’, being the farthest settlement from Port Phillip, “there being no other station within a distance of 20 miles”. Experiencing difficulty in hiring labour, Bonney consequently abandoned his station and moved to Mt. Macedon.

Other early squatters that followed were Dr. Richard Hamlyn, who squatted on the Dry Creek near Kilmore in 1837; Frederick A. Powlett and W. P. Green had squatted just north of Kilmore; William Hamilton was on the Sugarloaf Creek and Alexander Mollison at Pyalong, all by 1838.

The Mail Run

By December 1837 a mail run was established between Sydney and Melbourne, with the overlander (and later squatter), Joseph Hawdon the contractor. His employee, John Conway Bourke was the first mailman to travel the route. Charles Bonney’s ‘Out Sheep Station’ was the stopover on the second night out from Melbourne. The Sydney Road was becoming a well-used route by men overlanding their cattle and sheep from Sydney. The site where Kilmore would emerge in subsequent years was a favourite sheltered camping ground and watering hole.

William Rutledge’s Special Survey

In 1841, Irishman William Rutledge purchased by Special Survey, 5120 acres (or eight square miles) of land at one pound per acre from the Colonial Government. In the SE corner of the survey, township allotments of about one acre, and suburban lots of 20 acres were mapped out.

William Rutledge named the town Kilmore, after his home town in County Cavan. Translated from the Gaelic, the name Kilmore comes from ‘Kil’ --cell, burying place, church and ‘Mor’ --big church.

Victoria’s Earliest Inland Town

By September 1841, the Port Phillip Gazette advertised allotments in the “Kilmore Special Survey” for sale by auction. Kilmore’s future seemed assured, with its prominent position on the Sydney Road, a plentiful source of water and rich volcanic soil. However, the depression of 1841 halted progress for a time with sale prices not reaching an acceptable price to the vendor. Instead, Rutledge leased allotments, mainly to Irish farmers, with an option to buy later. 

By 2 May 1843 when Rutledge began to sell off the survey it was known as “the township of Kilmore”. In December 1843, Rutledge disposed of the remainder of the survey to three Sydney-siders, John Lamb, Allan McGaa and William Carr who subsequently sold the remaining land.

Rutledge’s Special Survey was also known as the Willowmavin Survey, the Kilmore Survey and The Survey. Today, we know most of the area contained within the survey as the Parish of Willowmavin, or to the locals simply, Willowmavin. The northern part of the Kilmore township, north of the Lancefield road, and west of East Street, is contained within Rutledge’s original special survey.

A Thriving Settlement

Before long, canvas tents gave way to more permanent buildings and Kilmore was a thriving settlement of farmers and those employed in servicing the farming community and travelling public; boot makers, blacksmiths, carpenters, livery stable keepers, storekeepers, boarding house and hotel keepers lined the Sydney Road at Kilmore. 

Impact of Gold

With the discovery of gold came the demand for more food to be grown locally to feed the masses pouring into the new colony. By 1851 some 3000 acres of wheat were being grown in the rich earth on the Kilmore Survey. A total of three flour mills were built in Kilmore, the earliest in 1847, and these serviced grain growers for many miles distant.  J.A. Maher, in his book A Tale of the Century described the area around Kilmore as “the granary of the young colony”. It was not unusual to see 50 bullock teams laden with wheat heading towards the three mills at any one time.

During the 1850’s and 60’s vast numbers of coaches and bullock teams lined the Sydney Road on their way to the Beechworth and McIvor (today’s Heathcote) goldfields and beyond. Come sunset, it was not an uncommon site to see a line of teamsters camping on vacant blocks from one end of the town to the other. Several coach lines began and ended their journey at Kilmore; many more passed through enroute to the goldfields or towns on the Murray River. Numerous hotels and associated businesses sprang up to service these travellers and Kilmore prospered as a result. 

With increased prosperity and population came the need for more permanent buildings and social organizations. It was during the 1850’s that the majority of Kilmore’s more substantial buildings were built, many of which still stand today. The churches, hotels (up to 32 in Kilmore and surrounds), the gaol, the first courthouse (it later burnt down), banks, the hospital, mills, and breweries were all built in the 1850’s. Social organizations such as the Mechanics’ Institute and Free library, and the Total Abstinence Society were established, as was Kilmore’s first newspaper The Kilmore Standard of Freedom.

The New Township or Government Survey

In 1850 Government surveyor, Henry Bourn Foot surveyed further land south of the existing Kilmore township. These town allotments were first sold by auction on 11th September 1850. The town, south of Foot Street/Lancefield road is in the Parish of Bylands and was known for many years as the New Township (also Newtownship) or the Government Survey (as opposed to Rutledge’s private survey). With the subsequent building of the post office (1863), courthouse (1864), and the police barracks, and the southward relocation of the banks The New Township, particularly at the corner of Sydney Street and Foot Street (now Skehan Place) became the business centre of the town for many years. 

By Heather Knight


Suggested reading:

Tucker, Maya Kilmore on the Sydney Road Kilmore, Vic. Kilmore Shire Council, 1988.

Maher, J.A. A Tale of a century 1837-1937 Kilmore, Lowden, 1972 (reprint with index)  

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Kilmore Historical Society Page Updated 27 March, 2008