Tag Archives: Ballarat

Fire in the 19th Century


Fire is an important yet destructive force in Australia.

Fire was an important tool for Australians new and old in the 19th century, but it could also be an enemy of gold miners and farmers alike.

Aboriginal People used fire to help them with hunting, and to promote the growth of valued edible and medicinal plants. This land management system also had the benefit of keeping “bush fuel” (leaf litter, fallen branches etc.) from building up to cause huge, dangerous fires. Many historians and scientists argue that Aboriginal People regularly and strategically burned parts of their country in this way for tens of thousands of years. Learn more about this here.

When large numbers of European People arrived in Victoria in the 1830s, a lot of land was cleared to grow more grass for sheep. The felled trees were used to build houses and fuel the fires people needed for cooking and heating, and later yet more trees were felled to reinforce the mineshafts and feed the boiler houses of Australia’s industrial revolution.

HH squattors

A page from Sovereign Hill’s new website about the Aboriginal side of the goldrush story. Learn more about Hidden Histories: The Wadawurrung People here.

In places like Ballarat where people searched for gold in deep quartz mines once the alluvial deposits dried up, gold workings relied on steam power, which came from boiler houses fuelled with wood taken from the surrounding bush.

By 1851, farming had changed much of Victoria’s landscape from what it looked like before European colonisation. Fire was no longer a key land management tool but instead a threat to fear. Very few Aboriginal communities were still able to routinely burn their country, which meant bush fuel had the opportunity to build up. Within 16 years of the arrival of European People, almost all of the farmable land in Victoria had been turned into private property owned by squatters (European farmers). View a map that outlines this sudden change to the Victorian landscape here.

Some historians argue that as a result of this change in land management systems, one of Australia’s largest fires in recorded history occurred in 1851, the same year gold was discovered. Black Thursday, as it was later called, saw a quarter of Victoria burn, killing 12 people and destroying 1 million sheep. There is a famous painting of this catastrophe at the State Library by celebrated goldrush artist William Strutt, entitled “Black Thursday, 6th February 1851”.

Ballarat’s firefighting history

SH Fire

A re-enactment of 19th century fire fighters putting out a staged fire as part of Fire Awareness Week 2015 at Sovereign Hill.

European and later Chinese miners on the diggings needed to use fire daily to warm and light their huts, cook their food and boil their tea. However, due to a combination of highly flammable eucalypt trees growing around the township, and its many wooden buildings etc., it was no surprise that dangerous fires featured in people’s experiences of Ballarat goldrush life.

1 December 1855: Got into Ballarat by the Red Streak (coach service) where we beheld the scene of last night’s fire. The American Hotel, the Adams Express premises and a clothing establishment next to it, and all along to the Charlie Napier which, God knows, had escaped. Several stores on the opposite side of the street had caught and were burned down. Report says eleven lives have been lost. The proprietor, Nicholls, was awakened by the noise and left his room. When he got into the lobby he recollected having left his pocket book with £90 below his pillow and returned to get it, but this delay cost him his life for he got so severely burned that he died about 9 o’clock this morning.Victorian Goldfields Diary, manuscript diary by an unidentified prospector on the Ballarat and surrounding goldfields during 1855–1856.

As a result of the danger that fire presented to the community, Victorian towns established dedicated fire brigades to tackle fires caused by campfires, candles, oil lamps and lightning strikes. In 1856 Ballarat’s first fire brigade was formed and relied entirely on volunteers. Horse-drawn hose carriages and water carts raced to a fire when the alarm bell sounded. To fight a fire, firemen used leather buckets, hooks, ladders and tomahawks. Water was very precious,so instead of using it to fight the fire they often tore down buildings in the path of the fire to stop its spread.


The Yarrowee, an original, hand-operated pumping engine from the 19th century on display at Sovereign Hill.

Along with the famous burning down of James Bently’s Eureka Hotel in the lead up to the Eureka Rebellion in 1854, in 1859 the Ballarat Town Hall burned to the ground!

At Sovereign Hill we have built an Engine House based on a photograph of the nearby Smythesdale Fire Brigade Hall of the mid-1860s. The pumping engine it houses is an original Shand Mason hand-operated device, and is called the Yarrowee, probably after the nearby Yarrowee River. It was recently used during Fire Action Week to demonstrate how important fire fighters are in our community.

The Sovereign Hill Museums Association future fire plans

There is still a lot to learn about fire use and management here in Australia. As a result, members of our research team at Sovereign Hill are keen to test some land management techniques we think were used by Wadawurrung People in this region before European colonisation. At our 2000 hectare, historic pastoral property Narmbool, we are planning to control-burn a patch of grassland area to see if we can improve the growth of Kangaroo Grass. We hope this fire will also cause old seeds lying dormant in the soil to germinate and start growing interesting, indigenous plants that haven’t been seen on the property for over one hundred years. Many plants in Australia require fire to make their seeds germinate, they are called fire-promoting plants, like eucalypts. Other Australian plants are fire-tolerant, like grass trees, while others are fire-sensitive, like native orchids.

Links and references

Get prepared for bushfire season: https://schools.aemi.edu.au/bushfire/bushfires-be-prepared

A visual history of fire fighting in Victoria: http://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/about/history-timeline/

Ballarat Fire Brigade artefacts and photos: http://victoriancollections.net.au/organisations/ballarat-fire-brigade

A great article about Australia’s fire history: https://meanjin.com.au/blog/this-continent-of-smoke/

Wikipedia on the history of firefighting: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_firefighting

The government Department of Primary Industries research into the effects of fire on Australian plants and animals:  http://www.depi.vic.gov.au/fire-and-emergencies/planned-burns/plants-and-animals

A CSIRO article about the differences between wildfires and “prescribed” fires: http://www.publish.csiro.au/onborrowedtime/docs/PCB_Ch11.pdf

Bradby, D. & Littlejohn, M. Our Stories: Life in Colonial Australia, Walker Books, 2015.

“Why do I have to learn about the Goldrush?”

Naturally, at Sovereign Hill we think everyone should learn about the Ballarat Goldrush. Why is it such an important period in Australian history you ask? Well, in essence it changed our country in profound ways which continue to impact on the way we live today. If gold hadn’t been found in this region, Australia may have developed a very different system of government, economy and population. And without gold, Ballarat itself probably wouldn’t even be on the map! Let’s examine some of the most important legacies of the Goldrush, including some aspects that perhaps we are not so proud of…

The impact of the Goldrush on our government


In the lead up to the Eureka Rebellion, those involved held public meetings to discuss their ideas for making Victoria’s democracy better. Reproduced with permission from the Gold Museum.

Due in large part to the tragic loss of life at Ballarat’s Eureka Rebellion, Victoria had the most advanced democracy in the world by 1855 (Littlejohn, Marion. Eureka Stockade, Black Dog Books, Victoria 2013, p. 29). This historic event, which occurred on Sunday 3rd December, 1854, saw at least 30 people killed. It continues to be an event that historians argue about; some say it had to happen to force the government to change the taxation and democratic systems, while others say it was an utter waste of life. Historians sometimes argue that it’s a story of pesky troublemakers, or a kind of Irish uprising against the English for the long history of conflict between those two nations. Some people claim it was the start of the union movement, and the birthplace of Australian left-wing politics, while others think it was an act of terror committed by a group of extremists.

All of this debate about its significance makes it all the more interesting and important to study – and regardless of your opinion, at the time it did push the Victorian government to improve the taxation and democratic voting systems. As a result of the Eureka Rebellion, Victoria introduced the secret ballot (secret voting), salaries for members of parliament, and for the first time, most men of European descent over the age of 21 could vote. Learn more about the Eureka Rebellion here.

The impact of the Goldrush on the economy

Approximately $100 billion of gold (in today’s dollar value) was discovered in Victoria during the Goldrush (Bradby, Doug. Don’t go to the Goldfields, 2015, Waller & Chester, Victoria, p.126) making Melbourne one of the richest cities in the world! This wealth enabled Victorians to make huge investments in industrial technologies such as foundries, factories and ports, and bought us important public infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, roads, and bridges. The foundation stones for both The University of Melbourne and the State Library were laid on the same day in 1854; such huge building projects were only made possible as a result of the Goldrush.


Most of the world’s largest gold nuggets were found in the Ballarat region, like this 68kg monster – the famous ‘Welcome Nugget”. Reproduced with permission from the Gold Museum.

Gold also transformed the structure of Victoria’s economy. Before gold, our economy was based on producing wool (sheep farming) to be exported to the factories of industrial England thus making all involved very rich. If we go back even further, the (pre-European) Aboriginal economy in this region was based on the trade of things like precious greenstone axes and possum-skin cloaks.

Many historians argue that the Ballarat Goldrush finished when World War 1 began, as by that time Ballarat’s economy had turned to manufacturing – the city’s foundries and factories were used to make trains, shoes, woollen blankets etc. This is one of the reasons Ballarat continued to grow and thrive after the Goldrush finished. And what is our local economy based on now? It’s based on a combination of things like healthcare, tourism and manufacturing to name just a few. Learn more about Ballarat’s 21st century economy here.

The impact of the Goldrush on Victoria’s population

Without the Goldrush, many Victorians wouldn’t be here today. The reason many of you were born here is because your great-great-great-great grandparents immigrated to Australia in search of gold during the 19th century.

The goldfields were a true melting pot of cultures, languages and ideas. Things were harmonious at times while at others, sadly, there was racially-fueled violence in the streets. Regardless of such details, Victoria’s population exploded from about 80,000 people before gold in 1851, to more than 550,000 only ten years later (Serle, Geoffrey. The Golden Age: A history of the colony of Victoria 1851-1861, 1977, Melbourne University Press, p.382). Ask your parents and grandparents some questions about your family history – was your family in Australia at the time of the Goldrush or did they come later as a result of it?

Some negative impacts of the Goldrush

History must not be “sugar-coated”. There are important aspects of the Goldrush that should also be studied which don’t fill us with pride about the development of modern Australia. The first of the negative consequences of the Goldrush involves the disruption it caused to Ballarat’s ecosystems. 160 years later there is still lots of evidence of this region being turned upside-down in pursuit of gold. Forests, animal populations and waterways are still recovering today.


Learn more about the Aboriginal side of Sovereign Hill’s Goldrush story by exploring our new digital tour – Hidden Histories: The Wadawurrung People.

This relates to the second negative consequence of the Goldrush – this region has been the country of the Wadawurrung People for 2,000 generations. Although there were already Europeans in Victoria (mostly farming sheep) before the Goldrush, the huge population increase the Goldrush brought had a devastating impact on the traditional lifestyles of the Wadawurrung People. All of the new arrivals needed food, water, and wood for houses and mineshafts, which meant that natural resources in this region were in unparalleled demand. This meant that traditional hunting grounds were turned into private farms with fences, and forests that Wadawurrung People had looked after for thousands of years to ensure they produced all of the food, shelter and fibre their population needed to live comfortably, were chopped down to be built with, or burnt in the boiler houses of the goldfields (learn more about this here). In one generation, the lives of Victorian Aboriginal People were radically transformed. As a result, the Wadawurrung People will never be able to truly practice their traditional culture, as their ancestors have done for perhaps as long as 60,000 years. These aspects of the Goldrush story are just as important to learn about as all of the wealth and prosperity it brought to this country. Sovereign Hill recently launched a new digital tour focusing on the Goldrush experiences of the Wadawurrung People called Hidden Histories.

So, do you think the Goldrush is an important part of the Australian story? Does studying it help us better understand who we are now? What other periods in Australian history do you think people should learn about?

Links and references

Here’s a great Lego movie about the Eureka Rebellion made by some Victorian Grade 5 students: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSySV9xoHzg

A brief history of Ballarat: https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballarat,_Victoria

Information about all of the Australian gold rushes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_gold_rushes

A wonderful interactive map of Australia’s gold rushes: http://www.sbs.com.au/gold/GOLD_MAP.html

Some fascinating places to visit where you can learn more about the gold rushes: http://www.visitvictoria.com/Regions/Goldfields/Things-to-do/History-and-heritage/Gold-rush-history

A video on the history of democracy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7dTDjRnBqU&index=30&list=PL8dPuuaLjXtNjasccl-WajpONGX3zoY4M

Littlejohn, Marion. Eureka Stockade, 2013, Black Dog Books, Victoria.

Bradby, Doug. Don’t go to the Goldfields, 2015, Waller & Chester, Victoria.

Serle, Geoffrey. The Golden Age: A history of the colony of Victoria 1851-1861, 1977, Melbourne University Press.

Queen Victoria


Statue of Queen Victoria in Sturt Street, Ballarat.

Queen Victoria ruled the largest empire in human history, and was Australia’s monarch during the gold rush. She ruled over 458 million people and was queen for a record 63 years! The people of Ballarat loved her so much that they paid for a marble statue of her to be made and placed it in front of the Ballarat Town Hall in 1900.

12 curious facts about Queen Victoria:

1. Queen Victoria survived 7 assassination (murder) attempts! She was so brave; after police failed to catch the second of these failed assassins on 29th May, 1842, she drove her carriage along the same road the day after the attack to tempt the man to fire his gun at her again. When he foolishly did, undercover policemen arrested him. Queen Victoria was unharmed, and the assassin, named John [James] Francis, was punished through transportation to Tasmania as a convict.


Part of a ‘broadside’ (news poster) on Francis’ attempted assassination of the Queen, printed in 1842 by E. Lloyd.

2. Victoria wasn’t your ordinary 19th century woman. At a time when women were believed by most people in Europe to be weak and intellectually inferior to men, she became queen of a huge empire at the age of 18 and was one of the best educated people in the world (read more about this here). Very interestingly, Victoria asked Prince Albert to marry her, rather than the other way around. This was because nobody by law could ask the Queen to marry them. This situation would have been very uncommon during this era. Read more about life for the average Victorian woman here.

3. The political parties in England (the “Whigs” and the “Tories”) had a huge argument – called The Bedchamber Crisis – over who Victoria’s maids should be. Being close to a king or queen through helping to dress them, tutoring their children, or even cleaning their chamber pot was considered an extremely important political position, as such jobs gave you a lot of time to potentially talk to and influence the monarch.

4. During the height of the Irish Potato Famine (known in Ireland as The Great Famine or Great Hunger), despite anger from English Anglicans (Protestants), Queen Victoria donated £2,000 of her private wealth to help the suffering (Catholic) Irish. In modern money this would be about $2 million (Australian dollars).


Queen Victoria in her famous white wedding dress.

5. Queen Victoria is believed to be the bride who popularised the white wedding dress. Before her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840, brides wore coloured dresses. As a keen supporter of British industry, Victoria wore a white, machine-made dress with handmade lace for trimmings, including her veil. Very soon after Victoria and Albert’s wedding, women all over the British Empire were wearing white to be married. Queen Victoria loved this dress so much that she often wore it, or parts of it at her wedding anniversaries, the baptism of her children, and later in life at her children’s weddings. When she died in 1901, she was even buried with her cherished wedding veil covering her face (along with a plaster cast of Prince Albert’s hand).

6. While Victoria was an intelligent, strong-willed woman who took a lead role in managing the British Empire during her time as queen, women couldn’t vote in Britain until long after her death, and she is thought to have been against the idea of female emancipation (women’s right to vote).

7. Queen Victoria was an only child, and had a difficult relationship with her mother who, many historians argue, wanted to control Victoria and thus keep royal power for herself.

8. Victoria and Albert had 9 children, naming them (in order) Victoria, Albert, Alice, Alfred, Helena, Louise, Arthur, Leopold and Beatrice. In total, they had 42 grandchildren. Their first grandchild, born to daughter Victoria (Jr) and her husband Prince Frederick of Prussia (Germany), was named Wilhelm and became the last German Kaiser (emperor) who is considered largely responsible for causing World War 1.

9. Victoria gave birth to her two youngest children under the influence of chloroform, which was really the first general anaesthetic. The church was not happy about her decision to have (and by way of her fame, promote) pain-free childbirth, as they believed it was against the teaching of The Bible. She didn’t listen; Victoria hated being pregnant, hated childbirth, is thought to have suffered postnatal depression, and didn’t breastfeed her own children. In her detailed diaries, she wrote “Being pregnant is an occupational hazard of being a wife”.

10. Until recent times, it was common for European royals to keep the power in the family so to speak. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, was actually her cousin.

11. Victoria passed the haemophilia gene (which stops your blood from clotting, so you can bleed to death from a simple scratch) to many of her children and grandchildren.


A gold sovereign (£1 sterling) from 1851, the year gold was discovered in Australia, featuring Queen Victoria’s profile.

12. The love of Victoria’s life, Prince Albert, died from typhoid at the age of 42 in 1861. Typhoid is a horrible bacterial infection which, without treatment causes a fever, digestive system failure, a rash, blood poisoning, and in many cases results in death. Antibiotics weren’t developed and made available until the 1940s, long after Alfred’s death. Victoria remained in mourning for the rest of her life, and wore black in memory of Albert until the day she died.

During Queen Victoria’s reign, Britain went to war with China twice (called the Opium Wars), primary education was made compulsory and free, vaccination against smallpox became compulsory, Prince Albert managed the hugely successful Great Exhibition of 1851, London’s famous underground railway – the Tube – was developed, the telephone was invented, the Irish Potato Famine occurred, and our state, Victoria (named of course after our beloved queen), became a separate colony. She lived and ruled the largest empire on Earth during a fascinating time in history!

Links and References

Child-friendly website about Queen Victoria: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/primaryhistory/famouspeople/victoria/

Horrible Histories on Queen Victoria: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flaLHJCKy3I

List of the largest empires in history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_empires

On assassin John Francis’ transportation to Tasmania: http://www.linc.tas.gov.au/events/featured/research/john-francis

Queen Victoria’s wedding dress: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wedding_dress_of_Queen_Victoria

Curious facts about Queen Victoria: http://www.history.com/news/5-things-you-may-not-know-about-queen-victoria

A timeline of Victoria’s reign: http://www.britroyals.com/kings.asp?id=victoria

Oh, Sovereign Hill is a museum!


Hard-boiled lollies YUM!!!

Many of our guests – young and old – get confused about Sovereign Hill. Some people think that it is a theme park because panning for gold, eating lollies and riding in horse-drawn carriages is so much fun. However, Sovereign Hill is actually a museum, meaning it is a place where Ballarat’s history is studied, artefacts are collected, and Australia’s gold story is shared with visitors. Most museums tell their stories through displays in glass cases, but we teach visitors about the past through living exhibits.

Why does Sovereign Hill do this?

The first part of the answer challenges us to think about the purpose of studying history – why learn about the past? History helps us understand who we are; it explains why we speak the language we do, why we dress a certain way etc., and it also helps us understand the wider world and our place in it. It teaches us to avoid repeating the mistakes that others have already made, and to appreciate all of the good things about 21st century life. History also helps us see that there are other ways of living, of organising our society, of thinking about ourselves, and that things can and do change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Also let’s not forget all of the weird and wonderful characters, events, technologies and fashions from the past that make people of all ages giggle and gasp!

Why is Sovereign Hill a museum with living exhibits such as costumed people, fragrant horse poo and a creek complete with real gold? Because we think this is the most engaging and exciting way to learn about history. When you step through our gate you are sent 160 years back into the past, to a world of dirty miners, daggy troopers (policemen), and impractically-dressed but pretty ladies in big crinolines. Instead of looking at a display in a glass case, you get to talk to our costumed staff to learn about the past – do stop to have a chat, they are all very friendly!

gold panning

“Eureka!! I found some gold!”

Play is another important part of our living museum – try your hand at gold panning, go bowling, or make a candle. You can also taste history here – try some goodies from the bakery, or a lolly, or five. Lastly, you can smell the past – the lovely perfumes of the Apothecary (known in modern times as a pharmacy/ chemist) on Main Street were actually believed to prevent sickness! You will have so much fun in our museum that you won’t even realise you are learning. We believe that is the best way to make learning about the gold rush era stick in your head.

butcher's shambles

“Butcher’s Shambles” by S. T. Gill. You can find our Butcher’s Shambles at the bottom of the Red Hill Gully Diggings.

Of course not all of our exhibits are completely accurate for very practical reasons. If our museum really smelt like Ballarat did during the gold rush, you wouldn’t come. Nobody would! In the very early days after gold was discovered here in 1851, there were no sewerage pipes… You couldn’t flush away “your business”; you just tipped your chamber pot out wherever you could. By law you had to dig a hole to pour your poop down, but sometimes such muck just ended up on the street, along with the piles of horse and sheep manure. Talking of sheep, historians estimate that about 1000 sheep per day were walked into Ballarat to be butchered and eaten during the busiest part of the gold rush. This led to rotting scraps lying in huge piles next to the butchers’ shambles (shop), and this meant flies! I hope you agree that we have made the right decision in cleaning history up a little.

The most important thing we want you to do during a visit to Sovereign Hill is empathise with the people who were here 160 years ago. When you empathise with someone you try to put yourself in their shoes, and see the world through their eyes. When you walk around our Chinese Camp, try to imagine you were a Chinese gold miner living here in 1855.  What was life like for you? As you walk around the tents, imagine you were a woman with 4 children living on the diggings while your miner husband hasn’t found any gold. How would your family survive?


“No Gold License eh?!”

One of our favourite education sessions that school students enjoy is called “Gold Fever”. Maybe your class has visited us to play it, and you remember what it felt like to be a miner getting picked on by the nasty troopers. By competing to be the richest, and therefore, most successful miners, teams have to work together, be a little sneaky about Gold Licenses, and keep their eyes on the dodgy bankers. These are all problems Ballarat’s miners had to deal with on a daily basis. This game is all about teaching students to empathise with others and to understand how different life was in the past.

So, museums exist to teach people about history, while also teaching skills like empathy, critical thinking and chronology (putting historical events in order and understanding how one event often causes the next). Do you think Sovereign Hill does a good job at teaching visitors about history?

Links and References:

What is a museum? – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Museum

Why go to a museum? – http://colleendilen.com/2009/07/31/10-reasons-to-visit-a-museum/

Why study history? – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLE-5ElGlPM 

Studying History is important – http://www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/why_history_matters.html

A great YouTube Chanel dedicated to teaching History – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCX6b17PVsYBQ0ip5gyeme-Q

Sesame Street explain empathy – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_1Rt1R4xbM

For teachers; empathy theory – https://www.ted.com/talks/jeremy_rifkin_on_the_empathic_civilization

Should museums teach facts or skills?: http://museumquestions.com/2015/01/26/schools-and-museums-can-museums-teach-content-to-school-groups/

The National Centre for History Education (Australian Government) on empathy –  http://www.hyperhistory.org/index.php?option=displaypage&Itemid=794&op=page

Ten 1850s Inventions and Innovations

Some very weird and wonderful things were created during the Industrial Revolution (c. 1750-1900) and the 1850s in particular – the same decade that Ballarat’s gold rush got underway – saw some fascinating inventions and innovations.

ss great eastern

Brunel’s SS Great Eastern with its sails and steam-powered water wheel. This photo was taken in New York Harbour, 1860.

Seafaring Inventions

SS Great Eastern (ship) – Isambard Kingdom Brunel was an incredible engineer and designer during the early 1800s. He was a pioneer of steam-powered travel, and the SS Great Eastern was his third iron-hulled, steam-powered sailing ship (it had sails to use the wind and a steam engine when it was calm). This “Great Babe” as he called it, was specifically designed to bring travellers from the UK to Australia – 4,000 at a time to be exact – without needing to stop and refuel anywhere along the way. This was the largest ship in the world when it was launched in 1858, but sadly it suffered damage on its first journey south. Find out more about this amazing man and his remarkable feats of engineering here.

sub armour

Phillips’ Submarine Exploring Armour, 1856.

Submarine Exploring Armour – Lots of submarine designs had been tested out since as early as 1580, but even in the 1850s they weren’t being taken too seriously. An American shoemaker named Lodner D. Phillips, patented (a design that is licensed for production and sale by one person or company) a submarine propeller design in 1852 which allowed his home-made subs to go down to 30 metres. Phillips also patented something much more interesting in 1856: submarine exploring armour. Little is known about the success of this invention; no one appears to have actually worn one to explore the deep.

a-7095-atl (1)

Whalers hunting sperm whale (prized for the huge amounts of oil found in its head called “spermaceti”- used by these deep diving animals for sonar communication). Date: 1847 By: Illustrated London News (Newspaper); Duncan, Edward, 1803-1882. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any reuse of this image.

Electric Whaling Apparatus – Hunting whales was big business during the 1800s; while the majority of Australian whaling was concentrated in Tasmania and New South Wales during the 1850s, Portland in southern Victoria produced tonnes of whale oil, meat and bone. Whale products were used to fuel street lamps, light train carriages, make corsets and beauty products, and provide protein in people’s diets. Even a type of whale pooh was prized – for perfume manufacture would you believe! In 1852 two German men decided to improve whale hunting technology by electrifying the whale harpoon (spear); once the harpoon pierced the skin of the whale, the animal would receive 8 electric shocks, which were guaranteed to kill it… Find out more about this invention here.

Domestic Technologies

Dishwasher – The first dishwasher was patented in the US in 1850 by Joel Houghton. It was a wooden machine with a hand-powered wheel that splashed water on dishes. It barely cleaned anything but it was a starting point for the design of the electric dishwasher.


Advert for the Singer Manufacturing Company.

Sewing Machine – Many people had tried to design a machine that could sew clothing, shoes etc. but none of the designs before the 1850s were particularly popular, practical or affordable. That was until Isaac Merritt Singer came along, combined earlier designs and lodged a patent for his foot-powered machine in 1851. “Singer did not invent any notable sewing-machine advances, but he did pioneer the hire-purchase system and aggressive sales tactics” (International Sewing Machine Collectors Society website).  This eventually quite radically changed how people made their own clothes. Clothes that had traditionally been made (mostly by women) by hand, could now be completed in a fraction of the time, and this brought down the price of clothes and allowed the average person to own a greater variety of outfits and keep up with fashion trends. Apparently, “a sewing machine could produce a man’s shirt in about one hour, compared to 14 ½ hours by hand” (Draznin, Victorian London’s Middle-Class Housewife: What She Did All Day, pp. 66–68). Singer had some legal trouble with previous sewing machine designers, but as he streamlined earlier designs, he is often credited with designing the machine that people still use in homes and factories today.

The Zip – Sick of dealing with slow and annoying buttons, cords and ribbons to do up your clothes? Elias Howe Jr. was, so he invented the first zipper-style clothing and boot fasteners. Patented in 1851, his “Fastening for Garments”, was described as an “automatic, continuous clothing closure”, but it didn’t really work very well. Howe got distracted by sewing machine designs, and another attempt at making a zipper wasn’t made until 42 years later.

Washing Machine – While the wash board had been invented in 1797, 1851 was the year the first drum (big bucket) washing machine was patented. An American by the name of James King set out the design groundwork for the modern washing machine; however his 1851 version was hand-powered. There were a few steam-powered washing machines being used in the UK and US during the 1850s, but they were huge and only affordable to big clothing factories and hotels.  The invention of the electric washing machine changed the world.


Two charcoal irons from the Sovereign Hill collection.

Charcoal Iron – Before the electric iron was invented in 1882 by Henry W. Seeley, people relied on fires to heat up their irons to then press their clothes. The charcoal iron was patented in 1852, and unlike the simple flatirons (which you placed on your stove to heat up) in common usage before its creation, its base is a container to hold hot charcoal. Interestingly, at this time some irons were fuelled with whale oil or kerosene! The charcoal iron was considered a better option than most on the market as it stayed hot for a long time (and wasn’t fuelled by a flammable substance!).

Medical “Advances”

Scarificator – This odd blood-letting device used by doctors to cure all kinds of illnesses, was already in existence in the early 1800s, but it was refined and improved by Frederick Leypoldt in 1851. Interestingly, Leypoldt was not a doctor, but thought that making a scarificator smaller was worth patenting.  Find out more about this curious medical practice here.

Sometimes small, local inventions save lives

bal bucket

The Ballarat Hook.

Ballarat Hook – Many of the miners who came to the Ballarat goldfields were middle-class, well-educated men. When they realised that having a heavy bucket of rocks and mud (and hopefully gold) swinging above your head on a flimsy “S” hook while you stand at the bottom of a mineshaft was a little scary, they developed a solution to this potential disaster. The Ballarat Hook keeps you safe below while still allowing you to easily release the bucket at the end of the day to take it home for safekeeping.

Links and References

The Industrial Revolution and the history of human energy use – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EM1IyIyr-Zc&list=PL8dPuuaLjXtNjasccl-WajpONGX3zoY4M

Who was I. K. Brunel? – http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/primaryhistory/famouspeople/isambard_kingdom_brunel/,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isambard_Kingdom_Brunel

On submarines – http://www.submarine-history.com/NOVAone.htm, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Submarine

The history of sewing machines: http://ismacs.net/sewing_machine_history.html

The history of washing machines – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washing_machine

Everyone wants a washing machine because they are magical – http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_and_the_magic_washing_machine

The history of irons – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clothes_iron

Strange medicine – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloodletting

Draznin, Yaffa Claire. Victorian London’s Middle-Class Housewife: What She Did All Day (#179), Contributions in Women’s Studies Journal, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2001, pp. 66–68.

Goldfields Immigration 3

The Irish influence on Ballarat

Gentlemen and savages – Men of Ballarat and fellows of Bungaree” These were just some of the inflaming words spoken by the controversial Victorian politician C. E. Jones, at a political meeting in Ballarat, 1864. Jones was attempting to trade on the popular Old World idea of the Irish as lower-caste, illiterate and priest-ridden trouble makers who were intent on lowering the standards of this new society in Ballarat. In fact these ideas about the Irish presence in Ballarat were completely inaccurate.

The Irish were the second largest national group (the largest being the English), to influence the history of Australia during the gold rush and colonial periods. From 1851 to 1901 the percentage of the population considering themselves Irish remained at around 20%. Most of these immigrants came from the southwest counties of Clare, Tipperary, and Galway.

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Goldfields Immigration: Part 2

The Jewish contribution to Ballarat’s History

Ballarat Synagogue, cnr Princes & Barkly Streets, Ballarat. Gold Museum Collection.

Ballarat Synagogue, cnr Princes & Barkly Streets, Ballarat. Gold Museum Collection.

“Hidden away in plain view”, that is how many people describe the location of the Ballarat Synagogue. On the main tourist route from Melbourne to Sovereign Hill, a large stone structure on a bend of road near the East Ballarat Fire Station, hints at a connection to a Jewish community in Ballarat. In fact there have been people of the Jewish faith involved actively in Ballarat’s history from the beginning of European settlement here.

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