Benalla’s history to be revived with impressive water tower project

By Simon Ruppert

Benalla's water tower complex is steeped in local history.

The towers, and the three buildings beneath, are heritage listed and the oldest surviving examples of that type of structure in Australia.

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The towers and building are part of a precinct being restored by a group of local volunteers.

The idea behind the project is to operate the site as a tourist attraction with blacksmith and carpenter on-site operating as they would have more than 100 years ago.

The original blacksmith's barrel

Benalla Mayor Danny Claridge is part of the team looking to bring this corner of Benalla's history back to life.

“The Benalla Water Tower Preservation group has recently been formed and we’re talking to the government at the moment to try to get some funds to do get the project moving,” Cr Claridge said.

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“The intention is to make it an operation blacksmith, carpenters and pump-house.

“It’s the most complete water reticulation system left in Australia and was built in 1876.

Isobel and Les Ormomd Croxford

“It is in great condition for its age.

“You could literally just turn the tap on and it would work.

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“It has original cast iron tanks.

“Underneath is an octagonal building which was a blacksmith shop.

The old pump house delivered water directly to Benalla Station via a series of wooden pipes

“They just closed the door when it shut-down and and left it.

“So the forge and bellows are in good condition, and a lot of the original tools and equipment are still there.

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“We want to open it to the public as a tourist attraction where people can go in and see an operational blacksmith shop.

“We also want it to be used by educational programs like Tomorrow Today's Connect9.

A small section of one of the wooden water pipes

“We have a blacksmith on the committee who will run it and there will be a carpenters workshop, too.

“There is also the pump house, which had a huge steam engine that would pump water to the railway station, which was the biggest user of water at the time.”

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The water would make its way across town through a network of wooden pipes, some examples of which are still available to see at the site.

“It's a work in progress and we don't have a time-frame for opening it up yet,” Cr Claridge said.

Original tools donated by the family of Les Ormomd Croxford

“We’ve got an Memorandum of Understanding from North East Water, who own the site.

“The blacksmiths workshop needs the roof fixed, so we are working with Heritage Victoria on that as it is a listed building.

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“And we need to ensure the whole site is safe before we can open it to the public.”

One exciting development is that a local family have donated a set of tools that is more than 100 years old.

Inside the blacksmith's workshop

They belonged to Les Ormomd Croxford, who was born in Violet Town in 1900.

After leaving school he started as an apprentice with Riddell Brothers Blacksmiths.

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He also worked at Wheelwrights, which was a coach-makers based in Violet Town.

After marrying Isobel Fenton in 1923 the Croxfords moved to Benalla where they raised their children.

Inside the carpenters workshop volunteers have been cataloging the various original tools and equipment

They would live in their Bridge St home for many years while Les worked at the post office, and later AMP.

The tools have been in the family since the day Les acquired them, and have been lovingly cared for and passed down the generations.

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It was Les’ granddaughter Sue Bartlett who learned about the Water Tower Project and decided to gift the tools to the committee.

There has been some talk about the water towers being utilised as a canvas for a future Wall to Wall festival.

Wall to Wall Committee chair Shannon Tharratt said the idea had been suggested several years ago.

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“Unfortunately as the buildings are listed we had to wait for Heritage Victoria approval, which did not arrive in time,” Ms Tharratt said.

“However, if we can get approval from the owners of the site and from Heritage Victoria is is something we would like to revisit for a future Wall to Wall.”

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Benalla Water Tower Preservation group Chair Phil Rees said that the site was unlikely to gain approval to be painted.

However, he did say the idea of a laser or light installation projecting onto the concrete tower was something they would like to do at some stage in the future.

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