Weird and wonderful goldfields history. Part one.


TigerDuring the Christmas school holiday period this year Sovereign Hill has focussed on some of the strange but true stories of the Ballarat gold rush period. These have included stories about a deep sea diver, zebra, tiger and diggers dressed as women.  As entertaining as these weird and wonderful stories have been, we must remember that as a museum it is our responsibility to be as accurate in our portrayal of goldfields’ history as possible.

ZebraFor that reason all of these activities had to have some basis in fact, and this makes the stories even better. In this Blog we will explore two of these activities and the amazing true stories that they are based on.

Tigers on the goldfields??

Sometimes the animals brought to the goldfields could be quite difficult to handle.  The Bengal Tiger on display at the Montezuma Hotel in Ballarat around August 1855 is an example of this.  Transporting dangerous animals was not handled as carefully as it should have been. This can be seen from the story in the anonymous Diary of a Miner Working on the Ballarat Goldfields (1855 –1856) and this report from The Argus Tuesday 14  August, 1855.

A tiger which has been exhibiting at the Montezuma Hotel,… was being removed in a cart, when by some  accident the cage in which the animal was confined broke, and with one bound the royal beast (rather an awkward customer) entered the store of Hopkins and Coles.  As may be supposed, the inmates were more frightened and astonished than pleased, but some gallant fellows were soon found, who succeeded in throwing a lasso over the tiger’s head and hind quarters, and replacing him in durance.  The authorities ought to insist upon the greatest care being used in the transmission of wild beasts, as, had the tiger in this instance once tasted blood, the consequences must have been fearful, before he was finally despatched…

Staff member Ben with his head in the tiger's mouth.

Staff member Ben with his head in the tiger’s mouth.

A very funny story if you weren’t there at the time, but terrifying if you were.  Don’t worry, our tiger won’t hurt anyone, except our staff member Ben, who seems to be tempting fate.

A Zebra in Ballarat??

Believe it or not, there were many cases of exotic animals on the Victorian Goldfields, including zebras.  Entertainment venues, such as theatres and hotels needed an attraction to entice customers into their establishments.  Exotic animals were one way of doing this, either on their own or in miniature zoos called menageries.   An article from the Ballarat Star in August of 1859, states that two zebras were on display at the Criterion Hotel in Ballarat.  They could be viewed for the cost of one shilling.

Other animals.

Our school holiday program focuses on the two stories you have just read. But there are more stories about animals we haven’t covered here. You may like to read about the elephant that visited Geelong or the elephant that didn’t like the dogs on the diggings. We have also researched the case of the drunken horse, a sheep crashing through a shop and the snake in a mine, all stories that we may elaborate on in future posts. For now we have given you links to begin your own research into these great stories.

Fake Mermaid. Gold Museum Collection.

Fake Mermaid. Gold Museum Collection.

There were several other attempts to bring animals and menageries to the colonies. Sometimes con men who couldn’t locate an exotic animal simply created one.  Our Gold Museum has a photograph of an apparent “merman” which you can read about in their blog.

SH_goldfields_book_web-243x300The inspiration for these stories came to us from a wonderful book by one of our favourite authors, Doug Bradby. The book is “The Seriously Weird History of the Goldfields”. It is part of Doug’s “Seriously Weird” series of books, which cover democracy, the ancient world and the history of Australia. We highly recommend these books, either in the classroom or just as a great read for history buffs like us. If you would like to read more about the series, read our previous post.

Thats our stories about animals. If you liked this post, try our post on weird and wonderful people.

3 responses to “Weird and wonderful goldfields history. Part one.

  1. Pingback: Weird and wonderful goldfields history. Part 2 | Sovereign Hill Education

  2. Well…I had no idea! I’m going to enjoy sharing this with my 3 to 6 class this year, and hopefully I can track down the book as well

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s