Category Archives: fire stick farming

Animals on the Goldfields

During Ballarat’s gold rushes, there were many animals – both native and introduced – living on the diggings. Some were of great use to the miners and their families as a source of transport or food, while others were security guards, working animals and even served as hot water bottles. Many native animals were just living their lives but when gold mining changed their habitat, they had to relocate to different parts of Victoria as the risk of becoming extinct was high. Let’s explore the roles they played and the lives they would have led back then.

definitions

possum

Rugs made from possum-skins like this one would keep people very warm during a cold Ballarat winter. The Wadawurrung people made these to sell to the miners, who paid a lot of money for such soft and life-saving rugs.

The Wadawurrung people encouraged certain native animals across this region for thousands of years before the arrival of the European squatters and then gold miners in the 1800s. Animals such as brushtail possums, eels and grey kangaroos were plentiful around Ballarat because traditional Wadawurrung landscape management took care of them by making sure their sources of food were in rich supply. This meant that when people wanted to make use of these animals for food or clothing, they could easily be located and collected. However, enough of each species was always left alive at the end of a hunt to ensure people living in this area could keep eating and using products from these animals long into the future.

After 1835, European farmers (known as squatters) brought introduced animals such as sheep, cows, goats, and horses to what we now call the State of Victoria. The introduction of these animals (mainly sheep) and the use of European farming practices changed the landscape in terms of the kinds of plants and trees that covered it. As a result, the habitats for native animals were affected. While some native species survived, others became locally extinct (like quolls, bandicoots and bustards [also known as bush turkeys]) because Europeans ate them in unsustainable numbers, or the introduced animals seized their ecological niche. This means that today there is a mix of native and introduced species wherever you go in Australia, from kookaburras to sparrows in the sky, wombats to foxes on land, and blue-ringed octopuses to European green shore crabs in our oceans.

We had kangaroo-soup, roasted [wild] turkey well stuffed, a boiled leg of mutton, a parrot-pie, potatoes, and green peas; next, a plum pudding and strawberry-tart, with plenty of cream. Katherine Kirkland (who lived in Trawalla – 40kms west of Ballarat), Life in the Bush. By a Lady, 1845, p.23.

mutton.png

Here is one of our Education Officers taking visiting students to the Butcher’s Shamble, where miners could buy mutton (this mutton however, is made of plastic).

The gold rushes began in 1851 and brought hundreds of thousands of people from all around the world to the shores of Victoria. Many of these new migrants transported yet more animals with them. Dogs were particularly useful companion animals on the diggings because they could keep you warm at night and guard your tent/hut while you were goldmining. For this reason, there are many dogs featured in the sketches of ST Gill, one of the most famous goldrush artists. Some animals were even introduced from the late 1850s onward to help Europeans ease their homesickness! Songbirds like sparrows, starlings and blackbirds were thought to make the Australian bush sound more like England.

horse

The most useful of horse breeds on the diggings were draft horses, also known as Clydesdales – these are the biggest and strongest type of horse.

Horses were also in high demand during the early years of the gold rushes (before the need for steam-powered machines increased), as all mining work relied on muscle power. As a horse can typically push/pull the same load as ten people, they were used to lift heavy metal buckets of dirt, rocks and gold from below ground in the first few years of the gold rushes. Likewise, horses could be attached to machines that were used to free gold from paydirt and quartz rock, for example, puddling machines and Chilean mills.  People and goods could also move around by horse (or sometimes bullock). They were attached to coaches or other vehicles to transport larger groups of people and/or numerous goods. Cobb & Co built a coach, which was a bit like a modern bus, called the ‘Leviathan’ (a word meaning big monster). This vehicle could carry up to 60 people from Ballarat to Geelong with the help of 16 horses, but it did not prove very successful.

soap

Sheep fat was commonly used to make soap for washing clothes and bodies. Candles could also be made from animal fat.

Many animals were also brought by the new arrivals for food. Goats and cows were milked to produce dairy products to feed miners and their families, while chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys were farmed for eggs and their meat. However, the meat that was most commonly eaten on the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s was mutton (old sheep). You can see many animals around Sovereign Hill which represent the animals that were brought here by goldrush migrants. During a visit, you might even spy our museum cat ‘Fergus’ who helps to keep the mice and rats away from the outdoor museum.

Some animals also toured the Victorian goldfields as entertainment – read about the visits from a tiger, an elephant and two zebras that came to Ballarat in the 1850s here.

corset

Even 19th century ladies’ underwear, like this corset, were often made using animal products – the tough ribbing was typically made of baleen whale teeth, while the smooth lining was made by silk worms (the caterpillar of the silk moth).

Next time you visit Sovereign Hill, perhaps you could take photos to write a story book about the many animals that miners would have encountered on the diggings – from native animals to domesticated pets and animals that produce food.

Links and References

An ABC Education ‘digibook’ featuring Bruce Pascoe talking about traditional Aboriginal land management: http://education.abc.net.au/home#!/digibook/3122184/bruce-pascoe-aboriginal-agriculture-technology-an

An ecological niche explained: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xIVixvcR4Jc

A brief history of Victoria: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2017/05/18/the-history-of-victoria/

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans in Australia ate native foods to survive: https://cass.anu.edu.au/news/parrot-pie-and-possum-curry-how-colonial-australians-embraced-native-food

SBS Gold on Australia’s introduced species: https://www.sbs.com.au/gold/story.php?storyid=130

A fact sheet on invasive species in Australia: https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/2bf26cd3-1462-4b9a-a0cc-e72842815b99/files/invasive.pdf

The introduction of rabbits in Australia explained by the National Museum Australia: https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/rabbits-introduced

A blogpost exploring what was commonly eaten by goldrush immigrants: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2016/11/30/how-to-cook-a-gold-rush-feast/

An online version of Katherine Kirkland’s book Life in the Bush. By a Lady, published in 1845: https://tinyurl.com/yxavj9fh

Information on animals introduced to Australia to make European settlers less homesick: http://myplace.edu.au/decades_timeline/1860/decade_landing_14.html?tabRank=4&subTabRank=3

A blogpost on mid-19th century transport: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2015/06/25/1850s-transport/

A great Gold Museum blogpost about dogs on the Victorian diggings: http://www.goldmuseum.com.au/canine-companions/

More information about the Leviathan coach: https://blog.qm.qld.gov.au/2017/09/13/how-big-was-the-leviathan-monster-coach/

lollies

In the 1850s, animals were even used to create the red colour of raspberry drops. The cochineal beetle from Brazil was dried and ground-up to make red dye. But don’t worry, no living things are harmed in the making of Sovereign Hill’s lollies.

 

Environmental Changes to Victoria’s Landscapes

During the 19th century, what we now call the State of Victoria changed dramatically. In 1800, it was an organised collection of Aboriginal cultural landscapes, and by 1900, it was dotted with new industrial cities while the countryside was covered by farms featuring exotic animals and plants. With the introduction of European farming, the feverish gold rushes, a huge increase in population, and the impacts of the Industrial Revolution, Victoria’s landscapes were completely redesigned in less than a century. Let’s explore how and why the landscape changed, and reflect on some of the consequences of this change.

maps

Maps showing how much the surface of the landscapes have changed in Victoria since colonisation. Reproduced with permission from: https://www.environment.vic.gov.au/biodiversity/naturekit

For tens of thousands of years Victoria’s landscapes were carefully managed by Aboriginal people to produce food, fibre and medicine. In Ballarat, the Wadawurrung people farmed many plants and animals (and in some places still do today), often using fire to weed certain areas or to promote new growth. For example, on the sunny plains they farmed the murnong – a root vegetable like a mini-sweet potato. In forest areas with lots of old trees, they farmed the brushtail possum – the meat was eaten while the pelt (the skin with the fur on) could be turned into warm, waterproof clothing. By looking after landscapes carefully, they made sure there would be plenty of murnong and possums for the next generation and the many who would come after them. Such landscapes are today called Aboriginal cultural landscapes.

for blogAfter 1835, when hundreds and then thousands of European immigrants – mainly English and Scottish people – arrived to colonise South Eastern Australia with their flocks of sheep, traditional Aboriginal lifestyles and landscape management practices were interrupted. In the following sixteen years, almost all of what came to be called Victoria was divided up and made the private property of individual European farmers (known as squatters) and their families, leaving only the largest mountains and deserts un-colonised. The huge amount of wool that was produced as a result of this was sent to the new factories of England, and made many of these squatters very rich. Some historians believe this was the fastest land-grab in human history, with fences, foreign animals and protective European farmers with guns taking over. This meant the food, fibre and medicine that was being produced across Victoria’s landscapes changed radically in a very short time.

pastoral map

A map of Victoria which demonstrates how quickly European colonisation happened in this part of Australia. Reproduced with permission from the Gold Museum Ballarat Collection.

It is thought that the murnong was nearly extinct within 1-3 years after the arrival of sheep, because these new animals ate it and at the same time changed the nature of Victoria’s soils with their hard feet. Now, murnong is only found in a few places across the state. It fed people for tens of thousands of years (thought to have eight times more nutrition than the potatoes we buy from the supermarket today) and was a staple of Aboriginal diets all across South Eastern Australia (meaning it was eaten regularly, like most Australians now eat bread). Its sudden disappearance had grave consequences for 19th century Aboriginal communities.

The rapid changes to local landscapes left many Aboriginal people hungry. Occasionally they stole sheep, fruit and vegetables from the European farms to keep their families from starving. Some of the squatters reacted by killing the Aboriginal people who took these possessions, or any other Aboriginal people they found on or near their farms after a theft had taken place. As a result, we know that at least 69 massacres of Aboriginal people (where 6 or more people are killed at a time) occurred during the first sixteen years of European colonisation of what we now call Victoria.

Many Aboriginal people survived this period in our history – commonly called the “Squatter Era” – by adapting to the new colonial culture and economy. This often meant learning English, wearing European clothes, and eating the foods common to a European diet at the time. Due to this cultural change and a lack of access to land, Victorian Aboriginal people could no longer practice their landscape management to produce the foods, fibres and medicines of their ancestors. The old staple foods of murnong and possum had been replaced by wheat and lamb.

Black Thursday post-restoration

William Strutt, Black Thursday, February 6th. 1851, 1864. Reproduced with permission from the State Library of Victoria Collection. The largest fire in Victoria’s history happened in the summer of 1851. It burnt one quarter of the state, killed millions of animals, and a handful of people. Some believe this fire was so ferocious because Aboriginal people had not been able to practice traditional landscape management techniques (like firestick farming) for the 16 years beforehand, thanks to the arrival of sheep farmers. This meant that “fuel” (like dry leaves, branches, dead trees etc.) had built up across the state, making this a devastating fire both economically and environmentally.

Then, in 1851, some of Victoria’s landscapes began another transformation – the rush for gold brought thousands of new immigrants with shovels, axes and gold pans, eager to find their fortune. These gold seekers quickly multiplied (more than 500,000 new arrivals came to Victoria from all over the world between 1851 and 1861, which is the fastest population increase that Australia has ever experienced) as did the environmental change they caused to landscapes in the hunt for shiny yellow metal. Most did not plan to stay on the goldfields – or even in Australia – for long, and thought little of the lasting environmental impacts of their mining activities. Soil was upturned, rivers diverted and polluted, and trees were cut down at a rapid rate. These new arrivals all needed food, shelter and water, and took whatever could be collected from local landscapes, causing a number of plants and animals that had survived the Squatter Era to become locally extinct.

After the social change brought about by the Eureka Rebellion in 1854, many miners decided to stay and make goldfields like Ballarat, Bendigo and Beechworth, a permanent home. At this time, some local landscapes started to be protected for their beauty, or for their good soil for farming. However, this permanency also brought the Industrial Revolution to Victoria, with its wood-hungry steam engines and CO2 emissions. This transformed landscapes again. Trains, boilers, factories and foundries created urban industrial landscapes around Melbourne, Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo which demanded yet more natural resources to be taken from local environments and re-purposed.

steam ops

Sovereign Hill employee in the role of Boiler Attendant feeds a boiler to produce the steam to power working steam exhibits. During Australia’s Industrial Revolution, lots of communities burnt wood from local forests, instead of coal like their European equals to power their steam engines.

From this, modern Victoria as we know it today was born. There are many places across this state where sheep are still farmed, gold is still mined, and factories and foundries still operate. While Aboriginal landscape management practices were disrupted across most of Victoria for more than 180 years, in many places these practices are now being revived by Aboriginal communities and government agencies to help restore biodiversity, and manage bushfire risk. So, next time you travel around Victoria in a car/bus/train/plane, take a moment to think about how much the landscape has changed in recent history, and how it might change again in the future.

Links and References

Australia’s Aboriginal farming history in a nutshell: https://www.news.com.au/technology/environment/indigenous-historian-bruce-pascoe-says-weve-got-our-story-all-wrong/news-story/70518cd1c35efd73c126ec0c19bb8281

The National Museum of Australia has produced a free video series on Australian history, including environmental history: https://www.nma.gov.au/learn/classroom-resources/australian-journey

A free online podcast series made by La Trobe University on Australia’s environmental history: https://itunes.apple.com/au/course/australian-environmental-history/id499537077

The Australian Research Council on “Australia’s Epic Story”: https://epicaustralia.org.au/

Australia and New Zealand’s environmental history by professors Libby Robin and Tom Griffiths: https://ceh.environmentalhistory-au-nz.org/wp-content/uploads/Environmental_History_in_Australasia_2004.pdf

ANU Professor Tim Bonyhady’s take on Australia’s environmental history in “The Colonial Earth” (2003): https://www.bookdepository.com/Colonial-Earth-Tim-Bonyhady/9780522850536

The State Library of Victoria Ergo Blog on Victoria’s experiences of environmental change: http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/explore-history/land-exploration/environment

SBS Gold on the environmental impacts of the gold rushes: https://www.sbs.com.au/gold/story.php?storyid=124

Is modern Australian farming broken? https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-dark-emu-and-the-blindness-of-australian-agriculture-97444

An article from The Conversation called “What Australia can learn from Victoria’s shocking biodiversity record”: https://theconversation.com/what-australia-can-learn-from-victorias-shocking-biodiversity-record-113757

The History of Victoria

How does the Ballarat gold rush fit into the story of the State of Victoria? Let’s take a look at the bigger picture.

Wadamap

The Wadawurrung people have lived in the Ballarat region for tens of thousands of years. This map, produced by Sovereign Hill for its annual Aboriginal history and living culture celebration – The Gnarrwirring Ngitj Festival – shows the borders of the five Kulin nations.

Aboriginal people began living in what is now called Victoria at least 50,000+ years ago. According to their beliefs, creator-spirits like Bunjil the wedge-tailed eagle made the land and its people, and stories about him have been passed down (without writing) for at least 2,000 generations amongst the people of the Kulin nations (the Wadawurrung, Woiwurrung [Wurundjeri], Bunurong, Taungurong, and Dja Dja Wurrung). When Europeans arrived in Victoria in the 1800s, they found the Aboriginal people of this land had formed approximately 35 nations, all with different languages and cultures. Each nation owned and cared for their Country. The boundaries of each of these nations were carefully protected; however, goods like greenstone axes and brush-tail possum pelts used for making cloaks were traded over them. While some of these Aboriginal nations are traditionally enemies, others continue practising important ceremonies together (like the Kulin nations’ Tanderrum ceremony) to this day.

Captainjamescookportrait

Nathaniel Dance-Holland, Official portrait of Captain James Cook, 1775-6, from the National Maritime Museum, United Kingdom. Reproduced with permission from Wikipedia Commons.

When Captain Cook claimed possession of what he called ‘New South Wales’ in England’s name in August 1770, he hadn’t set foot on the coast of what is now called Victoria. After England lost its northern hemisphere penal colonies (a place to send convicts) in the American War of Independence in 1783, it was decided that New South Wales, in Australia, was the next best place to send England’s criminals. England wanted to colonise (take over ownership of) the ‘great southern continent’ before the French. So, in 1787 King George II sent Captain Arthur Phillip to New South Wales with what came to be known as the ‘First Fleet’. Phillip’s ships arrived in Botany Bay in early 1788, but decided this was an unsuitable place for a settlement, so they sailed to Sydney Cove, in Port Jackson, and sent the convicts to shore on 26 January. This fleet of English ships only beat the French ships by a few days.

Before any Europeans arrived in Victoria, their contagious diseases spread out from Sydney to kill countless thousands of Aboriginal people across all of Eastern Australia. European diseases like chicken pox, small pox and even the common cold caused large numbers of Aboriginal people to die during this time in history, as their bodies had never been exposed to these germs before. Sadly, we will never know how many Aboriginal people were in Australia before Europeans arrived, and we will never know how many died from these diseases they brought.

smallpox

Young Bangladeshi girl suffering a smallpox infection, 1973. Reproduced with permission from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library.

Europeans explored the Victorian coast in the hope of developing a second Australian penal settlement and decided to send a small group of soldiers, settlers and convicts from England to set up a camp in Port Phillip Bay (of what later became Melbourne) in 1803. Again, this was an attempt to beat the French in taking over the lands of Australia. During their stay of less than 2 months, they clashed with local Aboriginal people, killing a Wadawurrung leader in Corio Bay in the process, making him the first Victorian Aboriginal person to die at the hands of the European colonisers. The camp failed as they ran out of fresh water, and a number of the convicts escaped before their ships left for Van Diemen’s Land (now called Tasmania – it changed its name in 1856) to establish the second penal settlement there. One of those convicts – William Buckley – lived with the Wadawurrung people for the next 32 years.

TheLangingoftheConvictsatBotanyBay Watkin Tench 1789

Watkin Tench, The Landing of the Convicts at Botany Bay, from his book ‘A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay’. First published in 1789. Reproduced with permission from Wikipedia Commons.

The first European sent by the government from Sydney to explore (what came to be) Victoria was Major Thomas Mitchell. He met many Aboriginal people on his journey, but it would appear that, like many European people at the time, he didn’t view them as ‘inhabitants’. He described the view of Victoria from Pyramid Hill (near Echuca) in his diary in June 1836:

… the view was exceedingly beautiful over the surrounding plains. A land so inviting and still without inhabitants! As I stood, the first European intruder on the sublime solitude of these verdant plains, as yet untouched by flocks or herds I felt conscious of being the harbinger of mighty changes; and that our steps would soon be followed by the men and animals for which it seemed to have been prepared. See more Major Mitchell quotes here.

When he explored as far as Portland on the same expedition, he was surprised to discover European whaling ships there, and even a farm owned by the Henty brothers. When he returned to Sydney, he also discovered that John Batman, a Sydney-born free settler (with a reputation in Van Diemen’s Land for hunting and killing Aboriginal people), had signed a treaty with the Aboriginal people of Port Phillip Bay – the Wurundjeri people – in 1835. As a result, the European colonisation of Victoria had already begun; however, it is thought that Major Mitchell’s findings rapidly sped-up the process. You can read more about the ‘Treaty’ of Batman here.

batmantreaty

An artist’s impression of Batman’s Treaty with the Wurundjeri people in 1835 for the purchase of 600,000 acres of land. From Picturesque Atlas of Australasia, 2 vols, Picturesque Atlas Publishing Company, Sydney, 1886. (Vol 1, p161). Reproduced with permission from Wikipedia Commons.

After 1835 and the arrival of thousands of European people, millions of sheep, instead of kangaroos, now fed on the grassy plains of Victoria. This new industry put Melbourne on the map as huge amounts of money were made by selling wool to the new factories in England. These sheep caused one of the most important foods for Victoria’s Aboriginal people – the murnong daisy – to nearly become extinct, and the European fences and guns caused a sudden end to the traditional way of life for the first people of this land. At least 68 massacres of Aboriginal people took place in the first 18 years of Victoria’s colonisation.

The arrival of these European sheep farmers – called squatters – caused a sudden change to Victoria, but that change was nothing in comparison to that brought about by the Victorian gold rushes.

The year 1851 is very significant in Victoria’s history. The Port Phillip District of New South Wales (Victoria’s colonial name before 1851) experienced a devastating series of fires in February called Black Thursday, thought by many to be the largest in known history. These fires killed 12 European people, 1 million sheep and countless native animals. In July, 1851, the Colony of Victoria was first established, named after the queen of the British Empire at this time – Queen Victoria. By August, gold had been found by European people, and newspapers all over the world spread the news – one of the world’s richest surface alluvial goldfields had been discovered in Ballarat (funnily enough at a place called Poverty Point, near to Sovereign Hill today). This new state, or ‘colony’ as it was known until Federation in 1901, would soon become the richest place in the world thanks to a few tonnes of shiny golden rock. That sudden wealth attracted another 500,000 people to the Colony of Victoria in just the first 10 years of the gold rushes (1851-61), which resulted in the speedy development of towns and trade.

The 19th century Victorian gold rushes changed this part of the world in dramatic ways and, to this day, Victoria is still benefitting from its rich gold rush history (and, of course, the echoes of the Eureka Rebellion). Once all of the easy-to-collect surface gold had been taken, mines were dug deep underground. And when they stopped producing ‘payable’ gold, towns and cities created by the Victorian gold rushes either turned their wealth to manufacturing or disappeared.

Today, Victoria has a population of a little over 6 million people (and more than 30,000 of these people identify as being of Aboriginal descent). While it is no longer the richest place in the world, it is still very wealthy, comfortable and safe because of its goldrush history. In the 21st century, Victoria’s most important industries are manufacturing, education, hospitality, tourism and construction, among others. Gold mining continues in Ballarat, although only one gold mine still operates.

Links and References

The European exploration of Australia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_exploration_of_Australia

The adventures of Major Thomas Mitchell: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Mitchell_(explorer)

Victorian Aboriginal massacre map: http://www.cv.vic.gov.au/stories/aboriginal-culture/indigenous-stories-about-war-and-invasion/massacre-map/

The history of Ballarat: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballarat

The history of Victoria: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Victoria

A history of Victoria (1700s-1851) timeline: http://guides.slv.vic.gov.au/Victoriasearlyhistory/timeline

The history of Melbourne: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melbourne

The history of Tasmania: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Tasmania

A video explaining the territorial history of post-colonial Australia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pjB8UrHwO4

A video on William Strutt’s famous painting Black Thursday: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKaOtzFBR3Y

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.