News & Events

Benjamin Barnes engineers his mark on Victoria

April 27, 2019

Benjamin Barnes, one of Victoria’s earliest engineers, knew what it was like to live in poverty. So much so that he bequeathed 1400 pounds to build a cottage at the Old Colonists’ village in Rushall Park, and 400 pounds to endowit.

Barnes arrived in Australia aboard The Earl of Charlmont in 1853. The ship was wrecked off Barwon Heads and, like the other 365 passengers on board, he was left with nothing.

However, for Barnes and others, their lives turned around when the new town of Geelong got behind them, starting a committee to oversee assistance, find clothing, jobs and food. Among the supporters was a young George Coppin who, according to The Geelong Advertiser, 23 June 1853, page 7, came forward with the offer “of profits to the Theatre for one night, in aid of this beneficent objective.”

Despite his rocky start, Barnes’ fortunes changed and in his lifetime Benjamin left his mark across Victoria, including at the Old Colonists’ Association of Victoria’s village in Rushall Park.

His first job in Melbourne was to look after the engine and machinery at Smith and Kirk’s tannery on the Yarra for 35 pounds a year.  No stranger to hard work, Benjamin left this job after twelve months and walked to the Ovens goldfields near Beechworth to make his fortune. He didn’t, and returned to Melbourne and joined Enoch Chambers in building up an engineering business.

Barnes’ career went from strength to strength with some impressive structures signaling his success. He was the engineer for the construction of the iron bridge over the Murray River at Echuca, where he lived until the bridge was completed.  He was employed as a government engineer in the early 1870s and withWilliam Cain, Barnesbuilt the iron bridge over the Plenty River at Morang, which had been designed by government engineer William Davidson.

He continued to contribute to the development of the community and the care of the poor even after his death. At the beginning of World War 1, the Old Colonists’ Council received the welcome news about the bequest from the late Benjamin Barnes[1].  The cottage – 5 Henty Avenue –  was designed by architects Oakley & Parkes , built and endowed in 1931.The first resident in 5 Henty Ave, the Benjamin Barnes cottage, was James Nicholas Hill who was admitted in January 1932.

While we will never quite know why Barnes bequeathed the funds to the Old Colonists, it may well be that it was because he never forgot George Coppin’s largesse to him and his fellow passengers.

[1]The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957) Fri 21 Aug 1914


Image: Acknowledgement: State Library of South Australia, B 3456, PRG 1218/3 or OH 456/1.

"I love the fact that Rushall Park residents and volunteers are so active – contributing to life in the village. The sense of the community is strong which is why I put my name on the waiting list" - Maggie Birkett.

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