Category Archives: Environment

Life before plastic

parkesine

An example of 19th century nitrocellulose jewellery – if you rubbed it, it could explode! From Wikipedia Commons.

Many visiting students are shocked to learn that plastic didn’t exist in 19th century Australia. The Industrial Revolution, which began in England around 1750, encouraged the creation of many products which could be mass-produced in the newly-invented factories. Some plastic-like products – like fake ivory jewellery – were being produced as early as the 1860s, but the nitrocellulose from which they were made was extremely dangerous. Wikipedia says ‘When dry, nitrocellulose is explosive and can be ignited with heat, spark, or friction’! Therefore, the development of modern plastics (largely made from the fossil fuel crude oil) is a 20th century story. So how did people survive without plastic in the 1800s?

At Sovereign Hill, we have numerous garbage and recycling bins so our visitors can dispose of their rubbish responsibly, but these didn’t really exist in 19th century Ballarat. Before cheap plastics and paper (paper was expensive before we began making it entirely from wood pulp in factories), people rarely produced household waste. Items were reused and often re-purposed, and when they eventually fell apart, they would be disposed of in the fireplace or in the garden where most would biodegrade. Let’s describe a typical (European) family home’s production of waste over a normal goldrush day here in Ballarat to compare and contrast it to a family’s waste output today.

The family wakes at dawn (clocks were made of metal and were therefore expensive, so most people were woken by the sun). Their bedsheets were mass-produced in Manchester, England, from cotton shipped from the United States of America, and their woollen blankets were made in Bradford, England, from wool shipped from Victoria. If they were wealthy, they might also own a hand-made possum-skin rug, bought from the Wadawurrung people – these were sold on the Ballarat diggings for the equivalent of $4000-$5000 in today’s money! All of these items were made to last, and once they had reached the end of lives as sheets and blankets, they would be made into clothes or nappies (most 21st century nappies are made of plastic), used to stuff pillows, or as cleaning rags.

manchester from kersal moor by edward goodall c.1850

An industrial city indeed, full of cotton-spinning factories. Manchester from Kersal Moor, by Edward Goodall, c.1850. From Wikipedia Commons.

The house would be warmed by lighting a fire in the fireplace. This is also where the family meal would be prepared. Today, our energy is produced hundreds of kilometres away, by burning fossil fuels like coal or harnessing the energy of wind through turbines. Their fire fuel – wood – would be cut down from a nearby forest. Even the ash from the fire found other uses in 19th century Australia; ash could be used to make soap, polish metals, keep snails off the lettuce, fertilise the garden, or be used in the outhouse (also known as a ‘dunny’)!

clarke bros

Clarke Bros. Grocers at Sovereign Hill – sometimes we have to wrap food in plastic for safety reasons, even though it isn’t historically accurate.

A breakfast would be prepared using food grown in the garden, or bought at the local grocer’s (the supermarket wasn’t invented for another 70 years!). Most store-bought food would be sold wrapped in paper (often wax paper), or perhaps even weighed and placed immediately into the family’s cooking pot (made of local iron from Lal Lal) or bucket (often made of cheap leather at this time). Only (relatively expensive) preserves like jam or mustard would be sold in glass jars or ceramic (clay) pots. After the meal, food scraps would be used again in cooking (bones for making broth/soup) or fed to the family chickens/pigs/goats/dog. The wax paper would be reused to wrap other foods until it disintegrated (the invention of Tuppaware was nearly 100 years off) and it would then be thrown in the fire. Jars or ceramic pots would be saved for another household purpose. The plates used to eat such a meal would have most likely been made in Staffordshire, England from nearby natural clays, and then shipped (by wind/steam power) to Australia. Drinking water was collected from local rivers and groundwater pumps.

If children were lucky enough to be sent to school, there they would learn the ‘3 R’s’ (reading, writing, and arithmetic) using slate boards and graphite pencils (which would last many generations of students) in the younger years, and after Grade 4 would begin using paper, ink, and dip pens (but only if they passed the Grade 3 writing test – paper was too expensive to make inky mistakes on!). For most children except the very wealthy, 19th century toys were typically handmade from wood or animal bones (which are all biodegradable materials, unlike plastic). As school uniforms were yet to be invented, children simply wore their normal clothes to school.

howmuchclothingwasted

Clothes waste in the 21st century – a big problem because much of it will never biodegrade. From Wikipedia Commons.

While cloth for making things like sheets and clothing was getting cheaper in price thanks to the Industrial Revolution, most people – including children – merely owned two to three outfits at any one time. The wardrobe only became common in houses in the 20th century when ready-to-wear clothing became fashionable and was being produced very cheaply. Therefore, in the 19th century your clothing was cared for, and carefully patched and refitted, until the fabric disintegrated. Clothing was most commonly made of cotton (or sometimes other biodegradable natural fibres like wool or silk), whereas today lots of the clothing in your wardrobe is made of plastic.

While the children were at school, and wives/mothers busied themselves with 19th century housewifery, men would be at work. Most men in Ballarat worked in the goldmining industry, or in another industry that supported mining, such as a candleworks or foundry. These types of workplaces produced some waste (but nothing in comparison to most industries today!), and while some was biodegradable, some industrial waste from the 19th century is still causing pollution to Ballarat’s soil and waterways today (like arsenic from mining). The safety clothes men wore (if any!) were made from thick leather and would often last their entire working lives.

At lunch time, family members would return home for a hot meal prepared by the woman of the house. If the wife/mother had found the time to visit the grocer, baker, or butcher (all selling food produced locally – refrigeration wasn’t invented yet, so only dry food like flour, lentils and herbs could travel vast distances), she may have fresh food to serve the family. Otherwise, people ate preserved foods like salted meat, stewed fruits or re-hydrated beans. Fizzy drinks were invented in the 1700s, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that mass-produced glass and good sealing techniques made these beverages widely available. Dinner would be similar to lunch, and any leftovers would be saved for the next meal.

At night, candles made from animal fat (called tallow) would be lit if the family could afford it. Soap was also made from animal fat at this time. Again, today your candles and soaps are most commonly made of petrochemicals (taken from crude oil, the same as plastic).

PreCutProduce

A typical sight at the supermarket today – food wrapped in plastic. From Wikipedia Commons.

So, no plastic for covering or storing food, no plastic for toys, no clothes made from plastic, and no plastic safety wear at work. No drinks in plastic bottles, no plastic bags to carry the groceries, and no plastic pens and rulers etc. for school. This meant there was no need for weekly bin collections – because there were no bins! Life certainly was different in the 1850s.

Links and References

What is plastic?: https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic

The history of waste management: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_waste_management

An ABC Catalyst episode on the arsenic in Ballarat’s soil: http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/2843289.htm

A 4-part vlog on life as an 1850s woman produced by Sovereign Hill: http://education.sovereignhill.com.au/students/video/woman-of-the-hill/

A great documentary series about the history of the rooms of our houses (and many of the items you can find in them): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrn42rvTlpk

Fire in the 19th Century

Capture

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.

pump

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.

The Environmental Impact of the Gold Rush

If we compare our environmental footprint to that of those who lived here during the gold rush, it’s easy to think they were gentler on the environment than us. During the 1850s the vast majority of people travelled about on foot, while modern Ballarat is a city of cars. Most of the food they ate was produced locally and organically (using human or animal excrement as fertiliser…) while we eat food with huge food miles, the production of which relies on intensive farming practices. During the recent drought most locals still showered every day, which would have been unheard of in the 1850s; bathing only occurred once a week -if that!- in Victorian times, as clean water was scarce and taking your clothes off regularly to bathe was considered indecent. Life was simple and more environmentally harmonious before the Industrial Revolution got into full swing here in Australia, right?

Let’s look at the evidence.

Environmental change began in Ballarat when squatters established sheep runs across Victoria after 1836. The millions of sheep which fed on Victoria’s lush natural grasslands during this time not only destroyed much of those grasslands, they also caused the near-extinction of the Myrniong Daisy – the staple plant food of the local Aboriginal people. The Myrniong, which has an edible, nutritious tuber all but vanished within three years following the introduction of sheep.

The second wave of environmental change in Ballarat occurred as a result of the discovery of gold in 1851. According to research undertaken by Dr Fred Cahir, the early miners knew their work to be “the great despoiler of nature” (Black Gold: Aboriginal People on the Goldfields of Victoria, 1850-1870, 2012, p.118). During the time when surface (alluvial) gold was easy to find, Ballarat was quite literally turned upside down by the diggers. In addition to this, waterways quickly became polluted by the mining itself and by the miners living nearby. Trees were cut down to house and warm the miners, but also to use as timber in the mines.

William Howitt wrote that “The diggers seem to have two especial [sic] propensities, those of firing guns and felling trees. It is amazing what a number of trees they fell.” (Land, Labour and Gold, 1855, p.176-7).

In 1852 the artist Eugène von Guérard, wrote:

Just a year since my arrival at Ballarat, and how changed it all is in that short time. Stretches of fine forest transformed into desolate-looking bare spaces, worked over and abandoned. In many parts, where a year ago all was life and activity, there now is a scene of desolation. At the same time the population has enormously increased, and there is less and less chance of having a lucky find… (Smith, Documents on Art and Taste in Australia: The Colonial Period 1770-1914, 1975, p. 119).

Ballarat Flat from the Black Hill - 1857Ballarat’s forests, soil composition, waterways, and air quality were all profoundly impacted by the post-1851 population boom and the mining practices of these immigrants. Further evidence of this can be seen in the two drawings by Samuel Thomas Gill. “Ballarat Flat from the Black Hill” shows a vast, largely treeless plain with only small tufts of grass between the mounds of unearthed clay. The purpose-built cart in the background of “The Splitters” suggests the considerable size of the timber industry by 1864.Splitters

The photo “Black Hill and Railway” by Charles Bayliss shows Ballarat’s light-coloured clay which is here excavated and piled up in enormous mounds which loom over the centre of the city.

Black hill and Railway - 1874

The Black Hill area was the only site in Ballarat where open-cut mining was practiced. Although not visible in this image, the principle waterway in Ballarat, the Yarrowee River, runs along the bottom of this clay moonscape and was used for steam production and washing (to separate gold from soil) by the Black Hill Quartz Mining Company pictured on the far right. Fortunately, Black Hill has now been completely reforested by trees which hide much of its ugly upturned history. Similarly, the photo “Llanberis Mine” shows a damaged landscape, silted water (on the left) and air pollution resulting from the introduction of largely wood-fuelled steam boilers which powered the mines from the 1860s onwards. In the steam powered stamper batteries, quartz rock was crushed into powder to extract the gold. This process not only consumed a lot of trees and water, it also utilised dangerous chemicals like mercury and cyanide which no doubt lingered in the landscape for a long time.

Llanberis Mine, Ballarat - 1906

The city of Ballarat was built as a direct result of this environmental damage, but to a degree the wounds on the landscape have healed. Trees in backyards and public parks have brought wildlife back to the city, and the Yarrowee River now has a great walking track along it which takes people past lovely bush areas and relics from our mining history. The people of the Ballarat gold rush left a much more visible mark on the environment than us, but are we really doing a better job at caring for nature? What will be written about our treatment of the environment in 150 years?

Links:
Cahir, Fred. Black Gold: Aboriginal People on the Goldfields of Victoria, 1850-1870, ANU Press, 2012, http://bit.ly/1pK0Ies

Goodman, David. Gold Seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s, Allen and Unwin, 1994, http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/9718935

Howitt, William. Land, Labour and Gold, Cambridge University Press, 1855, http://goo.gl/UmMvAU

Smith, Bernard. Documents on Art and Taste in Australia: The Colonial Period 1770-1914, Oxford University Press, 1975.

On the Myrniong Daisy – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microseris_lanceolata

On the Myrniong Daisy – http://www.bundianway.com.au/yamfields.htm

Eugène von Guérard, Warrenheip Hills near Ballarat 1854, oil on canvas on plywood, 46.0 x 75.5 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne – http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-05-03/eugene-von-guerard-warrenheip-hills-near-ballarat/2702474

A similar blog on the environmental impact of gold – http://www.sbs.com.au/gold/story.php?storyid=124