Category Archives: 19th century medicine

Sovereign Hill’s Gardens Explained

Many visitors to Sovereign Hill are surprised to see the vegetable and decorative gardens on display around the Outdoor Museum. Did you know that many of the gardens are inspired by understandings of gardens that existed in goldfields towns like Ballarat? Here, we will explore some of their stories and what they can tell us about life on the Victorian goldfields in the 19th century.

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 Peppercorn trees like this one were often planted at schools to provide shade and because they were thought to keep bugs away. This tree is identified by the orange circle on the map.

The Sovereign Hill Museums Association gardeners work closely with historians to build the gardens – and even change them from season to season. These spaces tell stories about the kinds of gardens that existed in Ballarat in the 1850s and the people who would have owned them. Some residents of goldrush Ballarat had large, expensive houses and used a beautiful garden to show off their wealth. Other residents grew gardens to feed their families, or provide medicine or vegetables for sale. Trees were also used for shade, to keep the bugs away (such as peppercorn trees), or as posts for displaying advertising posters or important community news. The only lawn you see at Sovereign Hill is next to our modern Café and playspace – back in the gold rush, lawns were not very common because lawnmowers were yet to have motors (they were pushed by hand at this time, which was hard work!) and they were very expensive.

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 A map of the Sovereign Hill Outdoor Museum showing the location of the gardens and trees featured in this blogpost.

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The Bright View Cottage sundial garden and rose arch.

The garden in front of the Bright View Cottage has a typically orderly Victorian design. It shows that the owner can afford to use land for decorative and not just practical purposes. While the garden does include some vegetables and herbs (which were more for viewing pleasure than eating), it also includes formal decorative features such as a sundial and hedged garden beds. A rose arch greets visitors as they enter through the white picket gate into the garden. Perfumed flowers like roses, lavender and daphne were popular because it was believed at the time that good smells kept you healthy while bad smells could make you sick. Many 19th century gardeners were also interested in growing exotic plants and hunting for rare species, which is why gunnera manicata (giant rhubarb) features on the left side of the cottage. This garden is marked on the Sovereign Hill guide map by a blue circle.

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 The garden behind Linton Cottage full of springtime foods.

There is a kitchen garden located behind Linton Cottage (across the road from the Bright View Cottage) which grows fruit, vegetables, nuts and herbs. Like many people on the goldfields, the owners of such a property improved their position in society by growing food for sale in the grocery store. The trees grown in this garden are apple, pear and walnut. There is also a grapevine along the back fence. The vegetables produced by this garden change with the season, and the herbs are grown partly for their ability to control pests; rhubarb and pyrethrum can be used to keep insects away. This garden also has a compost bin to replace the nutrients in the soil; using the garden scraps to make compost to spread on the garden beds helps plants grow better. There is also a large chicken coop for the production of eggs, meat, feathers and fertiliser. It is marked on the map by a yellow circle.

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 An example of a productive vegetable garden in the Golden Point Chinese Camp.

These two gardens found in the Golden Point Chinese Camp tell different stories. The first demonstrates the way Chinese miners from the late 1850s onwards produced fresh food for themselves and sometimes the broader community. As most of the Chinese miners had been farmers back home in China, many were skilled at growing vegetables. Typically, these gardens were grown communally. So, they would take it in turns to look after them while others went mining. Some Chinese miners began growing food for sale when Ballarat’s gold became harder to find, changing their work from mining to market gardening.

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 An example of a medicinal garden owned by a Chinese herbalist.

The second of these gardens in the Chinese Camp would have belonged to a herbalist (whose replica store is close by). Today, we would call him a Traditional Chinese Medical Practitioner. This garden is growing medicines and food that can be used in a medicinal diet to treat certain diseases, although many of the herbs for sale in the herbalist’s would have been imported from China. Both these gardens are identified by the green circle on the map.

Sometimes, the Sovereign Hill gardeners grow slightly different plants than would have been seen on the Ballarat goldfields to keep visitors safe, to respond to pests, and to design gardens better suited to the region’s changing climate. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, Victoria has become warmer and drier since the 1850s. This encourages our gardeners to plant more drought-tolerant species than would have been grown in the past.

black wattle sap

 The Wadawurrung people – the Traditional Custodians of the Ballarat region – supplied black wattle sap as a diarrhoea medicine to European miners. Many native plants were promoted across the landscape over thousands of years by Aboriginal people to provide food, fibre and medicine.

Some features seen in our gardens are not as they were in the 1850s for quite different reasons. For example, while you can see poppies growing at Sovereign Hill, they are not the opium poppies you might have seen in goldrush gardens in the 19th century; real opium poppies can be turned into powerful drugs of addiction. Finally, foxes only became a pest in Australia after their introduction in Ballarat and Geelong in the 1870s. Therefore, while 1850s chicken coops were not built to keep them out, our chicken enclosures need to be much sturdier, as we do sometimes have foxes in the gardens at night.

Walk around your own garden with fresh eyes. What does it say about your diet, your family’s social status, and our climate today?

Links and References

How to cook a goldrush feast: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2016/11/30/how-to-cook-a-gold-rush-feast/

The lives of animals on Victoria’s goldfields: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2019/10/04/animals-on-the-goldfields/

The National Museum Australia on goldrush immigration: https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/gold-rushes

How and why were so many exotic street trees planted in Australia? https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-12/curious-central-west-why-peppercorn-trees-were-planted/10231768

Information on pest management plants: https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/pest-management-plants/9427576

How compost is made: https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/get-composting/9437492

Plant hunting was very fashionable across the British Empire in the 19th century: https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/the-plant-hunters-adventurers-who-transformed-our-gardens-would-put-indiana-jones-to-shame-7936364.html

Life before we knew about germs …

How did we get from Miasma Theory to Germ Theory in the 19th century?

The way we see the world, and ourselves in it, can completely change when new scientific theories/ideas come along. While this can be scary in the eyes of some people, for others it provides better ways of living, and exciting new opportunities to make money. Some examples of big ideas in science which have changed the world include:

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Scanning electron microscope image of Vibrio Cholerae. This is the bacterium (germ) that causes cholera, a big killer on the 19th century Victorian goldfields. Reproduced from Wikipedia Commons.

In this blogpost, we will explore the scientific idea that microscopic germs exist, and how this idea radically changed the way we treat disease and deal with human waste. We are interested in this topic at Sovereign Hill Education because the 19th century gold rushes in Victoria were happening at the same time Germ Theory became popular. It changed the way Ballarat’s doctors did their work, and is the reason sewage pipes (that Ballaratians still use today) were installed under our city.

What is Miasma Theory?

Miasma = from the Ancient Greek word for ‘pollution’.

For thousands of years, people (and their doctors) in many places around the world believed that diseases, especially epidemics (like the Black Plague), were caused by ‘bad air’ which was commonly called miasma in English-speaking countries. It was thought that breathing-in or being too physically close to bad air from rotting organic matter (like a compost heap or pile of dog poo) could cause the four liquids found in your body (blood, phlegm [like snot], yellow bile, and black bile) to get out of balance. People believed that the weather and seasons could also affect these liquids and cause sickness (click here to learn more about a related idea called Humorism). Miasma was thought to cause all kinds of diseases, from diarrhoea to chicken pox, from the flu to obesity!

 

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A representation by Robert Seymour of the cholera epidemic of the 19th century depicts the spread of the disease in the form of deadly air (miasma). Reproduced from Wikipedia Commons.

Staying away from rotting and smelly things is smart because they can cause disease, so those miasma believers were on the right track, but it’s not the smell of these things that actually makes people sick.

In the past, when doctors treated sick people based on this theory, treatments often involved draining some of their blood. We now know that such treatments could be more dangerous than the sicknesses they were treating – for example, in 1799 it is likely that George Washington was accidentally bled to death by his doctor while being treated for a throat infection!

What is Germ Theory?

Germ = Late Middle English word (from an Old French word, originally from Latin) germen, which means ‘seed, sprout’.

While the compound microscope (from the Ancient Greek forsmall’ [mikros] and ‘to see’ [skopein]) was invented in the 1600s, it wasn’t until the 1800s that people realised they could actually see (through Lister’s improved microscope design) that germs – also known as microorganisms – existed, and could cause disease in people, animals and plants. A number of people had already tried to replace Miasma Theory with Germ Theory, but it took the work of scientists like Louis Pasteur and John Snow in the 1850s to popularise the idea that germs caused most diseases. Support for Miasma Theory didn’t completely disappear until the 1880s because, like any new scientific idea, it took a while to catch on. And unsurprisingly, people found it hard to believe in something they couldn’t see, until the technology came along to help them see it!vid

 

The first doctor on record (named Ignaz Semmelweis) to suggest that doctors should wash their hands between patients to avoid spreading disease was completely ignored by other doctors … He eventually died in an lunatic asylum from a disease he could have avoided if only his doctor had washed his hands!! There are many scientific ideas through history which people laughed at, or ignored, which turned out to be true. You can explore some of the most fascinating ones here.

How did these changes to the way we understand disease change our lives?

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S.T.Gill’s Butcher’s Shamble, 1852, shows the unclean conditions in which meat was bought and sold before the popularisation of Germ Theory and the invention of electricity (to enable refrigeration)

By the time Germ Theory became popular, the Victorian gold rushes were well underway. In other parts of the world, the Industrial Revolution was creating factories around which cities were growing. Such hives of human activity like a mining centre or industrial city pushed people closer together than they had probably ever lived before in all of human history – and of course this meant diseases could spread more easily than ever from person to person. Knowledge of Germ Theory and the medicines it made possible over the next 100 years helped cure many diseases, but most importantly it helped to create more sanitary conditions, which meant people started living in cleaner houses and communities. For the first time, we started washing our hands thoroughly after going to the toilet, sterilising surgical equipment and removing and treating our sewage to make sure it didn’t end up in our drinking water. During this time, we began vaccinating children to help them avoid the most deadly diseases of childhood such as smallpox, and cleaning our teeth and bodies through the popularisation of soaps and toiletry products

In Ballarat, all of these Germ Theory changes reduced the death rate, particularly among children, and helped our city continue to grow. It affected the way we built the city and organised the infrastructure, like sewage treatment plants, hospitals, street gutters, and reservoirs (to collect and hold drinking water). Without Germ Theory, our lives would be just as brutal and short as those of our ancestors who lived during the rule of Miasma Theory.

Links and References

TEDed on the development of Germ Theory: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9LC-3ZKiok

Wikipedia on Miasma Theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miasma_theory

Wikipedia on Germ Theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germ_theory_of_disease

History of the microscope: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microscope

Learn about the job of a nightman – the human pooperscooper: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2017/11/07/bad-19th-century-jobs-the-nightman/

Life expectancy has improved radically in the last 150 years in Australia: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2016/11/30/how-to-cook-a-gold-rush-feast/