A MAN died at a construction site 150 years ago in a chilling incident that snared the local council in accusations of negligence.
The affair cast a shadow over a council project that was supposed to make the Bendigo Creek safer.
There are few modern reminders that bystanders pulled John Murphy's body out of a stretch of creek near Bridge Street one lonely winter's night in 1871.
It was the second death in the creek that year.
Boys had already stumbled upon a dead body four months earlier. A jury in that inquest deemed the man had fallen in at a badly lit point along the creek.
"When a mayor or councillor shall have been killed or severely hurt in some of these traps, we may look for an altered state of things," the Bendigo Advertiser remarked indignantly in an editorial.
Murphy would have lived if the council had fenced off the area, a coronial inquest into his death ruled.
This was a period of much laxer safety standards, and multiple witnesses conceded that anyone familiar with the area would have been able to see the dangers, even at 2am in the morning.
But Murphy had been drunk when he fell between the planks above a new cutting, fracturing his skull.
He could have laid there for hours had someone not heard him scream.
Someone heard him and tried to help, but could not lift him on his own.
It took half an hour for extra help to arrive. By then, Murphy was dead.
The whole affair cast a pall over a section of creek the council would much rather have wanted to talk up.
It was part of an ambitious plan to stop the flooding that kept crippling Bendigo homes and businesses by building a huge channel to funnel water past a problematic bend in the creek.
Multiple floods had burst the creek's banks during summer and carried away bridges, land and almost - in once close shave - a pub.
Part of the problem was the way the creek twisted and turned as it made its way through the area.
Miners had done the most to alter the creek's course, the Advertiser's editor would remark decades later in a brief history of flooding.
"Their sludge and tailings filled the water holes, and in many places completely obliterated the ancient lines of the creek, and overflowed on to the adjacent lands to a depth of several feet," they wrote.
"Then began the era of the floods."
The council appears to have largely dismissed Murphy's death in 1871.
Councillor George Aspinall seemed to capture the mood when he grumbled that the council was not "entirely" to blame, given the man had been "very drunk".
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Another councillor said the coroner should summon the town clerk (the equivalent of a modern day chief executive) to future inquests given the regrettable confusion about what councils were and were not responsible.
Their responses skated over key workplace failings.
One juror was so incensed by the council's attitude that he wrote a letter to the Advertiser pointing out that the inquest had heard from a council employee, who he described as a "most unwilling witness".
"But under a searching cross-examination the whole truth was elicited," the juror wrote.
The way he saw it, both the coroner and police had gone out of their way to exonerate town authorities from blame.
The jury had not been convinced. The council had blood on its hands.
Its assumption that putting a gas-powered light in the area was not enough, as far as the jury was concerned.
It was equally unconvinced by the council's protestations that its workers had put up a sign saying "the bridge on this line of street is under repair, and in consequence not passable".
The sign disappeared in the week leading up to the accident, as had some timber that had been used to block off another part of the construction site.
"Had the Town Clerk been called, the evidence he would have given would have resulted in a much more unpleasant verdict," the juror said.
"The only fault found with the one returned was that it was not strong enough."
Still, councillors were not entirely unjustified in complaining about the sea of coronial reports being sent their way.
The creek was just another in a litany of problems the city was dealing with less than 20 years after Europeans arrived en masse at the start of the gold rush.
Councils were still trying to build up essential services including road networks and street lighting.
These were not trifling matters either.
Dark streets appeared to breed crime, including reports of women being chased by strangers and violent assaults.
How was the council supposed to keep up with the amount of coronial findings coming its way?
The point was rammed home in September when a coronial jury told the council to do something about abandoned mineshafts.
In a mining city like Bendigo? Thousands of holes had already been dug. How was it the council's responsibility to police them all?
A flabbergasted Cr Aspinall said the council lacked the authority to force clean ups. All it could do was ask miners to take a few precautions as they left.
Many mine shafts were left covered with little more than metal sheeting and a little bit of dirt, as Bendigo historian John Kelly recounted in his 2020 book Danger Below: Making Bendigo Safe.
It would take another half century before councils in the area finally put serious money into capping the shafts around the city.
Bendigo still has occasional floods today, though changes to the creek have made frequent inundation a thing of the past.
The council is currently talking to the public about ways to deal with the sort of floods that happen once every 100 years. To find out more visit the council's website.
This story is the latest in the Bendigo Weekly's history series WHAT HAPPENED? Our thanks to Jim Evans for his advice on this story.
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