Known as the ‘Rose City’, the picturesque rural centre of Benalla is the gateway to Victoria‘s high country.
Benalla is situated on the Broken River, a tributary of the Murray-Darling. The town is located on a flat floodplain, to the north and west of the Great Dividing Range.
The first inhabitants of the area were the Taungurong people. The area was first passed through by settlers in 1824, when Hamilton Hume and William Hovell passed through, noting that the area had good pastoral land. They named the Broken River the ‘Swampy River’.
In 1838 Grantville Stapylton renamed the river ‘Broken’, and the following year a border police spot was established, named ‘Broken River’. The station was on the main road between Melbourne and Sydney, meaning that it became an important stop for travellers and traders, and a village grew up over the following decade, named after the nearby Benalta pastoral run. By 1875, the town had a population of about 2,000, with 10,000 in the surrounding pastoral district.
In the first part of the 20th century, Benalla grew quickly as a regional centre. From 1901 to 1945, the town’s population grew by 90%, to around 5000 people.
Today, Benalla is an important regional centre, noted for the annual rose festival, pretty Lake Benalla, and an excellent regional art gallery.
Things to see:
The majority of sights in town are concentrated around Lake Benalla, an attractive man-made lake, made by damming the Broken River from 1974-5. On the shore of the lake is the Benalla Art Gallery, one of regional Victoria’s many exemplary art galleries. Constructed 1975, the gallery is in a striking modernist building. The collection is particularly interesting for those with an interest in Ned Kelly, with Sidney Nolan’s tapestry, Siege at Glenrowan, and Albert Tucker’s painting of gang member Joe Byrne. The gallery is also home to works by important Australian artists including Arthur Streeton, Margaret Preston, and Brett Whiteley.
Lake Benalla is also home to significant public art, including the Ceramic Mural Garden, a ceramic and terracotta mural inspired by the work of Spanish architect and sculptor Antonio Gaudi. The mural, began in 1983, has been called the ‘largest community artwork in Australia’, with over 1,000 contributors including significant regional artists, art students and community volunteers. Nearby is the Weary Dunlop Memorial, a powerful 1996 sculpture commemorating Weary Dunlop, a Benalla High School alumni who was surgeon to over 1,000 Japanese prisoners of war on the Thai-Burma Railway during World War II. The moving statue depicts two doctors helping a wounded and emaciated comrade.
Nearby is the Costume and Kelly Museum, which specialises in historic costume from 1770 to the present. It also has a historic house from the 1960s, and exhibits devoted to famous locals, including Dunlop, Michael Joseph Savage (the first Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand) and Captain Hector Waller, a senior officer in the Australian navy. The highlight is the exhibit devoted to the Kelly Gang, including the sash Ned wore at the Glenrowan siege, the Witness box from the Benalla Courthouse (where he was tried), and a copy of the famous Jerilderie letter, in which Kelly justified his actions and brought attention to police corruption in the Victorian forces.
The Benalla Botanical Gardens and Rose Garden, from which the city gets the moniker ‘Rose City’, also adjoin Lake Benalla. The Botanical Gardens, established 1887, were created out of what was then a cricket field, and still contain a large grassy oval, while the extensive rose gardens, established 1959, spread along the south side of the garden. Since 1967, the gardens have played host to the ‘Rose Festival’ (renamed the Benalla Festival), bringing visitors from around Victoria.
Heading away from the lake and into the main part of town, you’ll find several heritage buildings. On Nunn Street, the National Bank is an attractive rural bank built in 1891, while the Benalla Town Hall is an Italianate structure built 1882-3.
In particular, Benalla is home to a number of historic buildings associated with Ned Kelly. As the regional centre of the country in which he ranged, Kelly frequently appeared in the Benalla courthouse on trial for minor offences. The Old Courthouse, built 1864, still stands, with the cell in which Kelly was held still in its original state. The Commercial Hotel was built in 1860 to provide accommodation to prospectors on their way to the goldfields, and became the unofficial headquarters of police on the hunt for the Kelly Gang. The Old Bootmaker’s Shop is a small timber structure built prior to 1877, which was the site of an escape attempt by Kelly, who burst into the shop while en route from the police station to the courthouse. He was recaptured in the shop after a violent struggle with Sergeant Whelan and Constables Lonigan, O’Dea and Fitzpatrick. Kelly would later kill Constable Lonigan at Stringybark Creek, turning the Kelly Gang into national outlaws.
The artistic culture of Benalla spreads beyond the confines of the formal art gallery. Since 2015, Benalla has emerged as the street art capital of rural Australia, with huge murals adorning buildings across town. The Benalla Street Art organisation has sought to attract top street artists from around the world. Today, Benalla’s street art is celebrated at the annual Benalla Street Art Wall to Wall Festival, held in April each year.
The town’s street art traditions spread into the surrounding countryside on the North East Victoria Silo Art Trail. The trail takes about two hours to drive, and passes through the small town of Goorambat, where grain silos are decorated with works by top Melbourne street artist Jimmy Dvate; Devenish, with moving murals depicting women’s service in the Australian military; and Tungamah, where the first female Australian street artist to participate in the project, Sobrane Simcock, painted dancing brolgas and a kookaburra onto a silo in 2018. The tour ends in the Winton Wetlands, where street artist Guido van Helten painted portraits of three local volunteer firefighters onto a Country Fire Authority Water Tank.
Located about 25 km south-east of Benalla is the Kelly Gang Picnic Area, located on the Stringybark Creek site where Kelly and his gang killed three policemen in a shoot out on 25 October, 1878. The event turned the Kelly Gang from local horse thieves to nationally wanted outlaws, meaning that they could be shot on site. While the tree where Lonigan was shot is long gone, the area is marked by a bronze plaque.