Sinclair on the ‘Castlemaine Hermit’

Local writer Kacey Sinclair has a gift for bringing history to life through her careful reading of documents and material culture. Last year she wrote an influential article in The Conversation on Castlemaine resident Fanny Finch, Australia’s first known female voter, following her research in CAM’s social history collection. Here Sinclair weaves a wonderful local story from photographs in CAM’s Bale Photography Collection and contemporary reports in The Mount Alexander Mail.

William Mountier Bale (1851-1940) Noah Baker’s Cave, 1906, black and white photograph. Castlemaine Art Museum. Bale Collection.

Noah Baker and the Crystal Cave

If you’re mooching around Kalimna Park near the end of Parker Street, you may find an unusual proliferation of broken blue china and fragments of coloured glass. If, indeed, you do—or have in the past—you may have stumbled across a long-forgotten local treasure: Noah Baker’s “Crystal Cave”. 

Thanks to the eye of naturalist and amateur photographer William Mountier Bale (1851–1940, father of renowned Australian artist Alice Marian Ellen Bale), turn-of-the-century Castlemaine was captured in rare and modest detail. Through the lens of his Premo camera, Bale captured the everyday locales that perhaps to their contemporaries were eyesores, relics of a bygone era. A derelict hotel on the corner of Mostyn Street and Union Lane are seen as a shadow of their former glory, reduced to a timber skeleton and a sunken stone front step that hints at decades of goldrush boots brushing in and out, in and out; pre-colonial trees; old bridges; dilapidated rush houses. These monochrome windows are a rare insight into the town’s colonial past: cultural, environmental and architectural artefacts of the gold rush period—then only 50 years old. However, as you flick through the hundreds of images, one photo seems out of place. In its divergence from early 20th century scenes, it appears almost timeless, yet paradoxically, as we shall learn, truly of its time.  

Noah Baker, known as the “Castlemaine Hermit”, extolled himself as one of the early arrivals to the Forest Creek rush and the first to build a brick house in Castlemaine, in 1853. His more enduring claim to fame, however, would not be amongst the miners who first toiled and spoiled Dja Dja Wurrung soil for gold, but as the “genius” who moulded their mullock heaps, repurposed their mine shafts and recycled their goods to create a meticulous mosaiced home: The Crystal Cave.

The cave was built into the side of the hill between Parker Street gully and Milkmaid’s Flat (now part of the Kalimna golf course) in 1901 when Baker was a ripe 60 years old. Using the horizontal entrance of a former mine shaft for the front door and internal rooms, Baker fashioned a typical 19th-century colonial-style home in a truly atypical way. This photograph, entitled *Noah Baker’s Cave,* was snapped in 1906 and shows a multitude of coloured glass, quartz and china adorning the facade of the former mine. Pillars, obelisks and a small round-about create a bedazzled garden that mimics the landscaped preambles to the homes of the middle class and gentry. Mosaiced into the left side of the entrance wall is the cave’s renowned appellation, “Crystal Cave”. Baker’s home soon attracted tourists from across Victoria, and by 1908 the cave became a “show place” of the town. Not long after, or perhaps before, this photograph was taken, Noah Baker suddenly disappeared from his cave, causing local journalists to fear “he fell down a mining shaft” or perhaps was victim to “foul play”.

After months of speculation and mounting fear that the town had seen the last of their local “hermit”, the unoccupied “Crystal Cave” eventually fell victim to “mischievous” local children. Seemingly, the town was beginning to lose all hope of ever laying eyes on Baker again. It then came as a great surprise when, twelve months later, Noah Baker casually, albeit sorely, walked back into town. The Mount Alexander Mail reported, “It will be a relief to minds of a great many that Noah Baker, otherwise known as the Hermit, returned to Castlemaine yesterday looking remarkably well … On leaving here he said he walked to Sydney and then returned to Melbourne and got admittance into the Ear and Eye Hospital where he remained for some time.” 

Baker returned to his subterranean home, which he had legally occupied under a Miner’s right, only to find the Crystal Cave an unsalvageable ruin. Baker died in the Benevolent Asylum (now the Castlemaine Hospital) in 1923. 

Although now this former local treasure is lost to popular memory, Bale unwittingly immortalised a humble legacy of this local man. So, next time you stroll near the Parker Street gully and chance upon a broken piece of blue china or green or red glass, you very well may be holding a piece of Noah Baker’s Crystal Cave. 

Kacey Sinclair

Kacey Sinclair is a PhD candidate in the School of Archaeology and History at La Trobe University. Her doctoral research examines the life and legacies of Fanny Finch. Finch was a gold-rush identity in Castlemaine who cast a vote in the elections of 1856 and whose letters of resistance against injustice were published in the town throughout this period. Sinclair argues for Finch’s historical significance and examines her unique position within Australian colonial history. She is particularly interested in the stories omitted from national, local and family memory and the function of stigma and racial erasure within these spaces in modern Australia.

Womindjika Woorineen willam bit
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