Fortuna Villa – Riches beyond imagination

Gold – that beautiful precious metal – is what Bendigo is built upon. This week we look at one of Bendigo’s most famous Mansions – Fortuna Villa, a building of over 40 rooms. Its original owner was George Lansell, a very successful mining investor. George invested in deep mining of Quartz reefs. He went deeper than anyone had before him and his reward was fabulous wealth. His home was full of exotica from all over the planet – his garden too was filled with rare and exotic plants from mystical and secret places, most of which are now long gone.

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Bendigo has produced over 9 billion dollars worth of Gold since the 1850s – that’s $9,000,000,000, the second highest producing Goldfield in Australia to Kalgoorlie. No wonder historic, elaborate bank buildings line the streets of old Bendigo. Originally discovered by the wives of two farm workers on a pastoral lease, a Mrs Kennedy and a Mrs Farrell, alluvial gold mining soon made way to deep shaft mining after 10 years. After 100 years the Bendigo Goldfield represented the largest concentration of deep mine shafts for Gold anywhere in the world.

George Lansell was born in 1823 in Kent, England. As a young man, George and his two brothers emigrated to Echunga in South Australia to ‘pan for Gold’. The Lansells were soap and candle makers by trade. By late in 1853 George Lansell and his brothers Wooten and William had moved to Bendigo and set up their business as butchers, soap and candle manufacturers. By 1855 Stockbrokers were visiting George and encouraging him to invest n deep shaft mining. By 1860 he had invested, lost and reinvested a number of times. He was learning what was required to be successful at this type of mining. By 1865 – a bad year for mining in Bendigo – Lansell took advantage of the tough times and bought up many shares in the Advance Mining Company and Cinderella Mine. He insisted that the miners go deeper than ever before and from then on he and his companies reaped massive rewards. By the 1870s he had accumulated a large fortune from the Garden Gully Mine and he then purchased the 180 mine. Although he was initially always on the edge of financial ruin, his methods paid off and he became a Millionaire, a philanthropist and returned to London. He was petitioned by the Bendigo Mining industry to return and in the late 1880s he did return. George continued to build onto the house Fortuna he purchased in 1871. He collected furniture, sculptures and art from around the globe. Outside he designed a spacious estate featuring walks, lakes and imported plants and flora. He died in 1906 with his second wife surviving him until 1933. His mansion was in fact directly opposite his prosperous Fortuna Mine.

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His second wife Edith and their six children lived there, she remained there until her death. He commenced his lavish building program immediately after he purchased the property in 1871.

Generally described as ‘over the top’, it was opulent and went far beyond being utilitarian. Drapes covered faux windows, mantle pieces appeared from nowhere. The impression was one of immense wealth – and power.

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George Lansell enjoyed the beauty of classical Europe and the Orient and the ‘villa’ very much reflected his personal style and tastes.

The house came close to being demolished after the death of his second wife Edith Lansell. Edith had continued to add to the house and its contents up until her death. One of the interlinked mining companies sold off the contents of the house with much of the collection saved. Many of the items have been displayed in the Post Office Gallery in Bendigo and the Bendigo Art Gallery.

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By 1942 it had been acquired by the Federal Government Department of Defence and used as a Map Making facility during WWII and remained in the hands of the Defence Department until 2008.

It is now in the hands of a private owner who permits regular tours and public access after 65 years of being closed.

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According to the Heritage Council of Victoria, Fortuna Villa’s description is as follows:

“The Villa is a rambling three storey asymmetrical rendered brick mansion, in a variety of styles , predominantly French Second Empire and Queen Anne”, reflecting the various periods of construction. Cast Iron Balconies decorate the North, East and West elevations. The original house, purchased in 1971, is encompassed in the centre of the present house and is much altered. Originally it was designed in 1857 and extended to the further designs of Bendigo Architects Vahland and Getzschmann, Emil Mauermann and William Beebe.

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By the early Twentieth Century, Lansell had expanded the house to over 40 rooms, one of the largest in Victoria. Lansell transformed the industrial site of settling ponds and tailings dumps into spacious gardens and ornamental lakes, extravagant fountains and follies, with pathways and exotic plantings.

The estate is actually located atop of the rich New Chum reef.

The house has been stripped of its original furnishings but still retains magnificent lead light and etched glass windows, with plaster and pressed metal ceilings, parquet flooring, its two very unique bathrooms (c1904) and its outstanding conservatory (c1880) with French Ruby glass imported from Italy and floor to ceiling windows of etched glass depicting mining scenes, Australiana and Heraldic scenes. Then there is the Pompeii Fountain (c1879), a copy of the great fountain in Pompeii inspired by Lansell’s 1879 visit to Italy and Pompeii, and a further fountain and rockery in the South Garden, stables, a tailings dam converted to a brick Swimming Pool (called the Roman Bath), a coach house, a brick laundry, a former shade house South of the house and a garage North West of the house for Lansell’s Benz motor car, the first in Bendigo.

How is it significant?

Fortuna satisfies the following criterion for inclusion in the Victorian Heritage Register:

  • Criterion A Importance to the course, or pattern, of Victoria’s cultural history
  • Criterion B Possession of uncommon, rare or endangered aspects of Victoria’s cultural history
  • Criterion C Potential to yield information that will contribute to an understanding of Victoria’s cultural history
  • Criterion D Importance in demonstrating the principal characteristics of a class of cultural places and objects
  • Criterion E Importance in exhibiting particular aesthetic characteristics
  • Criterion H Special association with the life or works of a person, or group of persons, of importance in Victoria’s history.

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Why is it significant?

Fortuna is significant at the State level for the following reasons:

Fortuna demonstrates key historic phases of Victoria’s history, notably the gold mining era, the development of the City of Bendigo and the history of defence in the state. The Fortuna cultural landscape is associated with the gold mining industry of Bendigo, particularly the extraction of gold from the richest quartz reef in the world in the nineteenth century, which had a significant influence on the settlement of Bendigo. (Criterion A)

Fortuna is an outstanding demonstration of the wealth and prosperity of Bendigo and Victoria during the gold rush period. The quartz-crushing works attached to the mansion represent a direct link between its owners’ wealth and its source. Fortuna is historically significant as the home of two of Australia’s wealthiest gold-mining families, Christopher and Theodore Ballerstedt, the earliest successful reef miners on the Bendigo goldfields. These men are often referred to as Australia’s first mining magnates, and George Lansell, known as the ‘Quartz King’, one of Australia’s most successful and adventurous nineteenth century mine owners. Although there were no mines on the Fortuna site, the estate was developed largely on the waste from Lansell’s 180 mine, north of Fortuna, which was one of the richest mines in Bendigo. The ore treatment site was gradually transformed into a picturesque landscape of lakes and gardens. Fortuna demonstrates the lavish lifestyle of the very wealthy families of Victoria’s gold-rush period. (Criterion A)

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Fortuna is an example of the large private properties appropriated by the military during World War II, and has been in Defence control since 1942, when it was acquired as a base for mapping activities. It was the headquarters of the Survey Corps, later the Army Survey Regiment, until 1966 when it became the Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation (DIGO). The work of the regiment was highly important for the war effort, as preparing maps was a matter of urgency. New techniques based on American methods were developed at Fortuna, including innovations in aerial photographic surveys, and cartographic and lithographic techniques. (Criterion A)

Fortuna has a number of features which are rare in Victoria. It was rare for such a lavish house to be built so close to the industrial works that were source of the wealth that created it, in this case the crushing works for the ore from the Ballerstedt and later the Lansell gold mines. This reflects the need for security to protect the gold produced on the site. The survival of a nineteenth century villa estate, with a grand house surrounded by its original garden, is also unusual in an urban setting, and many of Fortuna’s garden structures, such as the iron fountain, rotunda and iron arbour are now relatively rare. Other rare features at Fortuna include the Pompeii fountain and the Roman bath, whose significance is increased by its origin as a tailings treatment pool built by the Ballerstedts in the 1860s. (Criterion B)

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Fortuna has archaeological significance for its potential to contain historical archaeological features, deposits and objects associated with the establishment, development and use of the place. In particular the battery house is likely to contain archaeological features and relics associated with the operation of Lansell’s quartz crushing battery (and possibly remains of an earlier battery belonging to Ballerstedt), and other mining activities. 

The area in the direct vicinity of the house has the potential to contain historical archaeological features, deposits and objects associated with the construction and use of the place, including sub-floor deposits, refuse and garden or landscape features. (Criterion C)

Fortuna is an outstanding and relatively intact example of an extensive nineteenth century villa estate. The house, developed over several decades, is significant as one of the grandest residences built in Victoria in the nineteenth century. The villa is significant for its outstanding collection of stained and etched glass windows, for its ornate plaster and pressed metal ceilings and parquet floors, and for its now rare intact early bathrooms. The conservatory is significant for its outstanding glass workmanship, and is regarded as among the most important examples of its kind in Australia. The Pompeii fountain is unique in Victoria and indeed in Australia. The Roman bath is significant as a rare feature in a nineteenth century villa, and is the only known surviving private swimming pool from this period in Victoria. (Criterion D)

Fortuna is aesthetically significant for its decorative architecture, its remaining interiors and for its landscape setting and garden buildings and structures. The picturesque landscape extensively planted with trees, shrubs, garden beds and lawns is located on high ground that retains an undulating and modified land form of a former mining site with terracing, walls, steps, fences and gates, roads and paths and a lake, being a former settling pond. The contrasting and extensive plantings consisting of conifers, evergreen and deciduous trees, palms, shrubs, herbaceous plants, camellias and roses form a garden of aesthetic significance. Fortuna’s gardens, at their peak, were a marvel of aesthetic design, and many significant plantings remain. (Criterion E)

Fortuna is inextricably linked with George Lansell, the ‘Quartz King’, Australia’s first gold mining millionaire, who is credited with being the driving force behind much of Bendigo’s early prosperity. Lansell made a significant contribution to the mining industry in Bendigo and is credited with the introduction of technologies such as the diamond drill for quartz mining. Fortuna Villa and its grounds were Lansell’s passions and he decorated them extravagantly. (Criterion H)

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Fortuna is also significant for the following reasons, but not at the State level:

Fortuna is of historical significance at a local level for its association with the history of Bendigo.

Fortuna is a historic landmark in Bendigo. It symbolises the founding of the town, and is important as a reference point in the community’s sense of identity. Many of the town’s citizens have worked on the site and several active community-based social groups have been formed to actively promote the history and importance of the site. The community, through the City of Greater Bendigo, has shown a profound interest in the future of the site.

Fortuna is significant for its association with one of Australia’s wealthiest gold magnates, Christopher Ballerstedt, who played an important role in the development of Bendigo’s gold mining industry. It is a demonstration of the work of the prominent Bendigo architects, Vahland & Getschmann, E Maurmann and W Beebe.

Source: vhd.heritagecouncil.vic.gov.au

All in all a rather significant building and a spectacular history, but there is a final chapter.

In 2017 the Fortuna Villa Estate was released for public sale. The masterplan offers modern housing – houses and townhouses positioned in a horseshoe configuration facing back at the Estate’s Lake and Historic Mansion.

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According to the Estate’s website it consists of “79 contemporary architectural residences on one of Bendigo’s most renowned locations.”

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You can view the development here

For us it certainly provides a major juxtaposition to the eccentricity and charm of the old estate. But you will experience “spectacular views of gardens, lake, historic villa and uninterrupted views over Bendigo”.

The last question is whether it resonates with the Heritage Listing and its reasons for protecting the original Fortuna Villa. We’ll let you be the judge of that.

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Balance Architecture recognises the importance of the preservation of Historical Architecture. We specialise in the renovation and restoration of Heritage Buildings.

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One thought on “Fortuna Villa – Riches beyond imagination

  1. Pingback: Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Balance Architecture. | Balance Architecture

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