AN OUTRAGED witness described "stunned and horrified" passers-by holding their breath as an overpowering stench wafted through downtown Bendigo, 160 years ago.
The culprit behind the stink was the now celebrated mining magnate George Lansell.
He and his brothers were making themselves acutely unpopular with anyone with those who found themselves downwind of a soap and candle factory in View Point in 1861 and '62.
The smells wafting out of the factory close to what is today Alexandra Fountain really were appalling.
Some doctors insisted it was making people sick and letter writers claimed that at the very least it made members of the public vomit.
'I am told that customers have frequently to run out of the adjoining shops, unable to make their purchases under the choking and overpowering gusts from the melting process," one member of the public said in a letter to the Bendigo Advertiser's editor in the late 1850s.
One dubious gold miner living in another part of town had always taken the claims with a grain of salt until he too was caught in a cloud of fumes.
"By Heavens, Mr Editor, the stench was abominable; there was from the east a slight breeze, and with it came an effluvia which was stinking," he said in a letter to the Addy's editor.
"Talk about the kennels and charnel houses, there is no comparison."
Lansell in a legal, financial bind
The rancid stink was caused by melting down animal fat for soap and candles.
The Lansells insisted it was not their fault so many members of the public felt put out.
The way they saw it, they had set up their business early in the Gold Rush, before the growing town had sprung up around them. The biggest complainers were people who had moved in knowing the soap works was there.
The assertion was slightly disingenuous.
The stench had belched out of their land far less often back in the early days of the operation, and the area had never been particularly isolated.
Still, the Lansells had plenty of supporters.
"I do not see why a man following a legitimate business should be subjected to so much abuse," one typical defender wrote in a letter published in the Addy in 1859.
"Lansell is, I believe, doing all he can to keep his premises free from offensive matter."
George Lansell himself felt caught up in circumstances beyond his control.
He had already tried moving operations to another part of town only to be repulsed by residents.
"All I want is fair play and common justice," he lamented in a letter to the Bendigo Advertiser after its editor had published a scathing opinion piece.
"I am not wedded to View Point. I merely by accident happened to leave England and settle here. But what guarantee shall I receive that I shall not be prosecuted again in any locality I might go to?
"Many say I ought not to be here, but cannot say for the life of them definitely where I ought or might be.
Somebody must make soap and candles for Sandhurst [an early name for Bendigo], unless, to oblige a few people, we must send our fat to Castlemaine to be made up, and pay the cartage both ways."
Council considers compensation
As the stalemate wore on it became increasingly clear that the council was going to have to do something.
It tried tightening bylaws and deploying a town inspector, with police on hand, when complaints were made.
George Lansell ended up copping some fines but many argued it was treating the symptom, not the cause.
The court cases were also complicated and expensive.
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A number of councillors resisted pushes to pay Lansell to move.
"If it was a nuisance to the people living near Lansell's, let them pay for removing him; it would, according to their own showing, enhance the value of their property," the Advertiser paraphrased one councillor arguing during one council meeting.
Yet, by late 1863 the council had made an in-principle deal with the Lansells to pay half a £500 compensation bill (about AU$120,000 in today's money).
The other half was to come from businesses in the area, but they appear to have failed to stump up the money and the plan appears to have been abandoned.
Historian James Lerk has researched the era and has found few signs the Lansells kept their soap operation there long after.
"I'd say they moved fairly expeditiously once the deal went south," he said.
George Lansell was already turning to bolder ventures.
He spent the early 1860s buying up mining rights in a stagnating industry, taking incredible risks digging ever deeper for the untapped gold.
Then he pumped his new wealth into the city itself.
George Lansell died a hero worthy of a statue in Pall Mall.
The likeness stands a block from the same place where, four decades earlier, he had caused such a stink.
This is the latest story in our regular history series entitled WHAT HAPPENED? The series usually appears in Saturday's Bendigo Weekly lift-out, which did not run last weekend because of Christmas.
Our thanks to the Bendigo Regional Archives Centre's Susan Walter and historian James Lerk for their help on this story.