Category Archives: Uncategorized

Why is the Museum called Sovereign Hill?

Sovereign Hill Museum’s Association’s outdoor museum is located on Sovereign Hill, where quartz mining began in 1860 by what became known as the Sovereign Quartz Mining Company. The ‘sovereign’ name was associated both with the British Crown and with gold.

A sovereign is a one-pound (value, not weight) gold coin. Much of the gold from the goldfields was sent to the mint to be made into these gold coins, initially in London and then to the mints of Sydney and Melbourne.

The museum cares for many collections including the Paul and Jessica Simon coin collection. This important collection includes a variety of sovereigns like these two examples.

Gold sovereign coin (Edge Knock) featuring the bust of Queen Victoria on the obverse and the British coat of arms on the reverse. [GM 76.0107] 1851

Gold Sovereign Type 1 with bust of Queen Victoria on obverse and crown and wreath on the reverse. Made at Sydney Mint, one of the first Sovereign coins made in Australia. It was legal currency only in the colonies, you could not use an Australian Sovereign in Great Britain.  [GM 76.0031] 1853

What is a pound?

As an immersive museum one of the things, you may notice as you explore Sovereign Hill are the changes in currency and units of measurement. Currency is the system of money, like paper bills and coins, used in a particular country. What we call our money and the look of our money have changed over time. Our miners were not using the same system of measuring or currency as we do today; there was no national standard of measurement as there is today. States within Australia determined their measurement systems independently, based on the imperial systems of weights and measures used in England. The need for a nationally standardised system of weights and measures was recognised as part of the Commonwealth Constitution in 1901. With Federation Australia became responsible for its currency – until 1901 Australian colonies used the British Pound but minted in Australia. The Australian pound was introduced in 1910 and in 1966 the Australian dollar.

Around Sovereign Hill, you may hear the term “pound” used both as a unit of weight and as a unit of currency. One pound weight (lb) is the equivalent of 450g (0.45 kg) in the metric units we use in Australia today. One pound currency (£) in today’s Australian dollars ($) is a little more difficult to compare. The relative value of one pound today can vary from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars depending on what we are comparing. To understand the value of £1 today, we need to think about it relative to the cost of goods (what can you buy with £1 in 1852 and how much money would you need to buy the same things today) and relative to the average wage (how much would a person be paid in their job).

We currently use the approximate figure that £1 would have the buying and social power of $1000. But, where did we get this figure? Below are two examples of calculating the value of a pound that give us very different figures.

Compared to the Value of Gold

In the nineteenth century, the British Government adopted the Gold Standard. An economic system that matched the amount of money circulating (being used) in Britain to the amount of gold stored in the country. Gold has been highly valued for millennia so was considered a safe, stable resource on which to base the value of a country’s money. The value of 1 ounce of gold was set at £4.25 throughout the nineteenth century. As a British colony using British money at the time, we will use this value as our starting point.

1 oz gold = £4.25 in 1850

Currently (2022), gold is selling for approximately $2500 Australian per ounce.

                2022 1 oz gold = $2500 AUD

We need to convert dollars to pounds to compare these values. Currently, 1 British Pound is worth $1.76 AUD.

                ($2500 / oz) / ($1.76/£) = £1420 / oz in 2022

This gives us a value of 1 oz, but we want the value of £1, so we are going to bring back our 1850 value.

                (£1420/oz) / (£4.25/oz) = 334

Therefore, £1 in 1850 would be £334 in 2022. To understand this in Australian dollars:

                £334 x ($1.76 / £) = $588

Using the changing value of gold £1 in 1850 is worth $588 in 2022. The price of gold changes daily, so this figure will not stay the same.

Compared to the Average Wages of the Miners

We have to consider that the average person in the 1850s had far less buying power than the average person today, even after having accounted for inflation (the changing cost of goods and services, CPI). The gold value above does not account for the changing cost of living (for example paying for food, rent, and clothing) or changing wages (how much you are paid for work). In 1851, at the start of the gold rush period, a married couple with a family likely has an annual income of between £29-35.

So, what does it mean to make a one-pound purchase if this is your household income – for example, a £1 / month Gold Licence? When you consider that, apart from Carpenters and Blacksmiths, most other jobs earned between £25-35 pounds a year, then one pound a month could be as much as a third if not almost half of a yearly wage (£12 / year).

You  can see more specific examples of wages from 1851 in an excerpt from The Argus, 23 June 1851 ( and at the State Library of Victoria (

In 2021 the average Australian weekly earning was $1328.90 or an annual salary of about $69 000 ( As a very loose approximation, we can draw a comparison that if a third of $69 000 is $23 000 (this is our £12 / year figure), and one-twelfth of $23 000 is $1 919, then a £1 / month fee in 1850 in Ballarat would cost the wage-equivalent of $1919 Australian Dollars today.

Creating Connections:

Was a Gold Licence really expensive?

On the 1 September 1851 a fee of 30 shillings/month was introduced for a miner’s licence (there were 20 shillings in a pound) – all adult males on the goldfields were required to have one, whether searching for gold, finding gold, or not. By 1853 all persons (women, if they were prospecting, included) on the goldfields were required to have a licence and the fee had dropped to £ 1 / month or £8 / year. Reflecting on the relative value of a pound above ($588 or $1 919 current AUD) this was a significant expense. Following the events of the Eureka Rebellion in 1854, in mid-1855 the Miner’s Right replaced the Gold Licence and was purchased annually rather than monthly or quarterly.

A miner’s right is still required for fossicking or prospecting today, and it must be on you at all times when prospecting (even in your own backyard!). It currently costs about $25 and is valid for 10 years.

Links and References:

A great resource to explore changing values of money over time is Measuring Worth,

Learn more about Sovereign Hill and the story it tells here:

For more information on current prospecting visit Victoria State Government Earth Resources site

ABC Education “digibook” called The Colonisation of the Central Victorian Goldfields:!/digibook/2873696/colonisation-of-the-central-victorian-goldfields A “digitour” of the Aboriginal side of the goldrush story:

Study History with help from the Sovereign Hill Museums Association

There are many great reasons to learn about the past, and that is why The Sovereign Hill Museums Association (SHMA) exists! We aim to “Connect people through our history to adapt for a better future” and “Provide meaningful, immersive experiences that tell stories of our humanity”. To support this purpose and mission, the Victorian Curriculum-aligned education programs presented by our Education Officers focus on learning through inquiry. Some of the key questions that guide our inquiries include:

  • Does the past make us who we are today?
  • Whose history is it?
  • What should stay in the past?
  • How has our culture changed over time?
  • Were we more sustainable in the past?

Being curious about where we come from helps us understand who we are today, and what our future might hold. Traditionally written History tells stories of individual people and societies from a specific point in time. However, interest in “Big History” (which places humans in a much longer story about the universe and the rise of life on Earth) is growing, as is the valuing of oral history traditions like those treasured by the Wadawurrung people – the Traditional Owners of the region on which this blogpost was written.

While History as an academic discipline has only existed for a couple of centuries, humans have explored themselves and their ancestors through historical stories for hundreds of thousands of years. A Greek writer by the name of Herodotus – who lived during the 5th century BCE – is thought to be the “father of HHistory” in the Western intellectual tradition, but the way we study History has changed much since then and will continue to change long into the future. When a capital “H” is used, the writer is referring to the academic discipline, while using a lower-case “h” indicates something that has merely happened in the past, e.g. “At university I majored in History” and “I like researching my family history”.  

Below you will find descriptions of the onsite and online learning opportunities the SHMA makes available to students of all ages. We are particularly excited to share our new – and FREE! – digital learning packages with you, which we launched in 2020. These carefully curated learning packages are designed around the following themes: Colonial Life, 19th Century Migration, Aboriginal People and the Goldfields, Environmental Impacts of the Goldfields, Goldfields Technology, Industrial Revolution, and Early Years Object Based Learning. Each of these packages has an “inquiry” learning approach and can be utilised by teachers and students prior to attending Sovereign Hill, when you return to school after SHMA camp/excursion, or can complement studies of Victoria’s famous gold rushes even if you are unable to visit. You can register for the learning packages here.

Students can learn about 19th century transport technologies through a ride on Sovereign Hill’s famous horse-drawn coach; we think experiential learning is the most powerful type of learning!

While SHMA’s Education Team enjoys reading and writing about history, we think one of the best ways to learn about the past is by immersing our visitors in it. This can involve getting dirty hands on the goldfields like a 19th century miner, exploring artefacts and past technologies with the help of museum experts, eating historical food, or interacting with interpreters in period clothing. The SHMA manages three sites to explore the history of both the Ballarat region and the State of Victoria:

  • The Sovereign Hill Living Museum (a historically-immersive timeline experience which tells the story of Ballarat’s famous 19th century gold rush through activated streetscapes),
  • Collections (the SHMA cares for more than 150,000 fascinating items which are used to tell the stories of Ballarat, the Victorian goldfields, and the extraordinary impact of the 19th century gold rushes had on Australia),
  • Narmbool (a 2,000-hectare sheep farm and school camp facility where visiting schools learn about sustainability, biodiversity and Aboriginal cultural heritage).

When teachers book class excursions/camps with us, our Bookings Officers help you personalise an itinerary that complements what your Foundation to Tertiary students are learning at school. Our Education Team can build rich learning experiences for students studying many topics and academic disciplines – from History to Science, English to Food Studies! We also offer special 1.5hr VCE masterclasses for Australian History, Geography, Business Management, and Health and Human Development students, which are becoming very popular. Most teachers choose one of these education programs for their class, and then add tours, demonstrations and self-exploration time into their itinerary. Discover the full list of exciting learning opportunities the Sovereign Hill Museums Association makes available to student visitors here. Teachers are also welcome to contact our team to discuss the development of a unique education session tailored to the needs of a specific class.

Our Education Officers also make learning resources for students aimed at deepening History knowledge and skills as described in the Victorian Curriculum. Some are specifically designed to help students develop the Capabilities, known in the Victorian Curriculum as Critical and Creative Thinking, Ethical, Intercultural and Personal and Social. We think these skills are crucial for 21st century people to master, and are best developed through studying the Humanities.

Many students go underground while visiting Sovereign Hill to learn about Ballarat’s “Deep Lead” and “Quartz” mining eras.

In the days before an excursion or camp, students can read blogposts and explore this “Student Resources” webpage. In particular, primary-aged students should watch this video to understand what to expect from a visit to the Sovereign Hill Living Museum. We partnered with ABC Education a few years ago to produce a “digibook” called The Colonisation of the Central Victorian Goldfields, which can also help students contextualise their visit and the stories the SHMA tells.

While onsite at the Living Museum, teachers can make use of the various resources listed on our “Teacher Resources” webpage.

After visiting, students can explore specific resources that relate to the contents of their education session, which are emailed to the teacher that makes the school booking.  

Two excellent (and free!) SHMA resources that all schools should use to support learning about colonial Australia are:

The Sovereign Hill Museums Association works hard to bring History to life through both onsite and online experiences, and we hope teachers make the most of our organisation as an educational resource.

Handling artefacts = immersive and powerful learning. We think getting “hands-on” with history is the best way to explore the past.

When we consider the challenges that lie ahead for humans and our planet, it has probably never been more important to learn about how people in the past have tackled challenges, managed change, and made good decisions. We like this quote from the Australian History Councils’ “The Value of History” publication:

The study of the past and telling its stories are critical to our sense of belonging, to our communities and to our shared future. History shapes our identities, engages us as citizens, creates inclusive communities, is part of our economic well-being, teaches us to think critically and creatively, inspires leaders and is the foundation of our future generations.

Why do you think studying History is important? Please share your thoughts in the comment section at the bottom of this blogpost to get involved in the conversation.

Links and References:

A great article from ABC Education on how History is written and who writes it:

Learn more about Sovereign Hill and the story it tells here:

Understand why learning about Victoria’s gold rushes is valuable:

Explore the stories artefacts can reveal with the help of this blogpost:

ABC Education “digibook” called The Colonisation of the Central Victorian Goldfields:!/digibook/2873696/colonisation-of-the-central-victorian-goldfields A “digitour” of the Aboriginal side of the goldrush story:

The Gold Rushes of Victoria and California Compared

In 1848, three years before Victoria’s gold rushes began, the shiny yellow metal was found in California which made the seaside city of San Francisco in the United States of America (USA) grow rapidly, much like Melbourne did after 1851. These two mining booms were similar in some ways but different in others. By comparing these two rushes we can explore what Victoria learned from California’s experience of rapid population growth and an ‘explosion’ in wealth.

Cradles were used in both gold rushes to separate rocks from gold. Left image: H. Sandham, The Cradle/California, 1883. Reproduced with permission from Library of Congress Right image: S.T. Gill, Victorian Goldfields 1852-3, Cradling, 1869. Reproduced with permission from State Library of Victoria.


Both of these gold rushes attracted miners from all around the world and in particular from Europe and China. The populations of these gold rush regions grew very quickly; 300,000 people arrived in California between 1848 and 1855, while Victoria’s population grew from about 80,000 in 1851 to 550,000 by 1861. Immigrants arrived by ship and then walked inland to the goldfields. These gold rushes also attracted ex-convicts from the British Empire’s penal settlements in Sydney and Hobart who had a reputation for causing trouble (but also became scapegoats when others caused trouble).

Sometimes goldrush immigrants worked closely with the local First Nations peoples to locate gold, food and water, while others were cruel and even violent towards the Aboriginal and Native American peoples of these two regions.

This wooden structure built over Sovereign Hill’s gold panning creek is called a flume. It diverts river water to where it is needed for mining work.

The same technologies were often used in both locations, including gold pans, cradles and flumes. The clothing the miners wore was also very similar from one place to another, as was the kind of imported food and medicine they typically used. The money that could be made from the trade of such goods often made business owners and merchants richer than the gold miners themselves in both ‘rushes’.

To protect the gold that was found on these goldfields, miners often carried guns and/or kept large dogs to protect their tents and huts (where they might store gold under their pillows or bury it under their beds). The site of a gold rush could be a dangerous place, and the police of the time faced a big challenge in maintaining law and order. This is why many miners took security into their own hands in California and Victoria.

Both of the governments responsible for overseeing these mining booms spent some of the wealth gold generated on building hospitals, schools and later train tracks and stations. However, most of the investment in services that cared for the sick and orphaned actually came from donations from wealthy individuals.

When the gold started to run out, new industries that were first promoted by mining helped to keep people from leaving both of these regions. Money made from gold was used to begin the industrialisation of both Victoria and California, supplying many jobs to those who had once been gold miners.  

Left image: William A. Jackson, Map of the mining district of California, 1850. Reproduced with permission from Public Library of America. Right image: J.B. Philp, Map of the Roads to all gold Mines in Victoria, 1853. Reproduced with permission from State Library of Victoria.

Possible Similarities

It is argued by some historians that both gold rushes were encouraged by the respective authorities for political and economic reasons.

The state now called California was part of Mexico until the start of 1848, at which time the USA took possession of it following the Mexican-American War. The USA immediately encouraged people to start mining there because the fast-growing goldrush population would help the USA keep a claim on this region long-term; Mexico was not able to reclaim it with so many new Californians ready to fight to keep their gold (and the land it was found in). This delivered the USA both political and economic advantages in the short and long-term.

During this time, the British Empire was similarly eager to make what is now called Victoria a more permanent settlement, and did not want or need to make another penal colony (as they had in Sydney, Hobart and Perth). To grow the population and to secure their control of South Eastern Australia (mainly to stop it being colonised by the French who were also keen on empire-building in the Southern Hemisphere), the British Empire would need to attract free-settlers (much like the USA aimed to in California).

Just prior to 1851, Victoria was called the Port Phillip District of New South Wales (NSW); it was part of the Colony of NSW and consisted mostly of large sheep farms owned by Europeans. When the Colony of Victoria was declared in 1851 (which meant it would have its own government and be separate from the Colony of NSW), Governor Charles La Trobe set up a Gold Discovery Committee offering a £200 reward for anyone finding gold as a way to stop the flow of people to the new NSW goldfields. When it was announced that gold could be found in Clunes (33kms north of Ballarat) and Buninyong (12kms south of Ballarat), miners were encouraged to join the ‘rush’ in Victoria. Gold had already been found by Europeans in many parts of South Eastern Australia by this time (and Aboriginal people had known about it for thousands of years), but it was only after 1851 that colonial governments allowed the news to spread and goldrush immigrants were welcomed in Australia.

Other political and economic reasons some historians believe Australia’s gold rushes (in Victoria and NSW) were promoted from 1851 onwards include:

  • wanted to grow Australia’s European population to make it a more permanent military outpost and ensure the whole continent of Australia stayed in British hands (having learnt a painful economic and political lesson when they lost control of their American colonies in the American Revolutionary War, 1775–1783).
  • The industrial cities of England (such as London, Manchester and Liverpool) had filled to the brim with people, which made living conditions dirty and dangerous. Therefore, Britain needed somewhere appealing to send British subjects to live to ‘ease the squeeze’ at home.
  • It was hoped that Australia’s gold rushes would help the British Empire pay back its significant international debts, which it easily did (with a fortune left over which helped to fund the industrialisation of Australia). This enabled the British Empire to remain the world superpower until the mid-20th century when the USA took its place (mainly due to the economic stress caused by the two World Wars).
  • The British Empire thought they should reverse the Australian population drain that occurred when the Californian gold rush began – many European Australians (and some Aboriginal Australians) left after 1848 which impacted businesses like farms and merchant ships. The gold rushes in Australia encouraged many of these people to return to help make money for the British Empire through goldmining and trade.


Community leaders in Australia during the 19th century mining boom tried to copy the best aspects of the Californian experience, and avoid its worst.

Victoria’s gold licences allowed miners to ‘stake a claim’ (secure a patch of ground) which was not a feature of California’s early gold rush; this stopped many fights from breaking out on the diggings. One of the reasons (pre-Eureka Rebellion) gold licences were so expensive was because Victoria’s government needed money to support the fast-growing population with publicly-funded police forces, hospitals, roads etc. The high cost of Victoria’s gold licences was also designed to keep Europeans already working in Australia in their jobs, but regardless, many workers on Australia’s farms, ports and in hotels and shops dropped their tools and uniforms and headed straight to the diggings when news of the ‘rush’ began. In some ways, the gold licences probably made Victoria’s goldfields a bit more organised than the early years of California’s, however, their price was one of the main reasons the Eureka Rebellion happened, during which more than 30 people died. It could be said that while the Victorian government avoided some of the goldrush issues experienced by California, they created others through the way they chose to manage the goldfields.   

The government wanted Australia’s gold rush communities to be much more polite and orderly than California’s, so along with supporting the population with roads, police etc. they also wanted to encourage women to come to the goldfields. Many Europeans at this time (such as social reformer Caroline Chisholm) believed women were a ‘civilising influence’  and could make goldfields safer and calmer. Victoria arguably did better at managing its new population in comparison to California in this respect. Interestingly, women on both goldfields had a level of social and economic freedom including being able to own businesses, which was not very common back in Europe at this time.

John Leech, Alarming Prospect: The Single Ladies off to the Diggings, Punch Pocket Book, 1853. Reproduced with permission from The Gold Museum, The Sovereign Hill Museums Association.

By exploring the way Victoria’s gold wealth was spent on new technologies and institutions the differences between the two gold rushes can be understood. While it took California nearly a decade to start spending its gold wealth strategically, Victoria got started straight away. By the mid-1850s, Melbourne had become one of the richest cities in the world thanks to gold. To prepare for the day the gold ran out, community leaders invested in what they thought would make Melbourne (and Ballarat, Bendigo, Geelong, Ararat etc.) as beautiful and ‘cultured’ as the great cities of Europe (London, Paris, Rome etc.). This is why many communities in Victoria that were built during the gold rushes feature large, beautiful, neoclassical stone buildings.

As a result of this, the State Library of Victoria (started in 1854) was built featuring huge Greek columns around its front entrance. In the 1850s it was one of the first free libraries in the world, encouraging the people of Victoria to educate themselves, and in turn, the generations to come. The University of Melbourne (founded in 1853) was the second university to open in Australia (the first in Victoria) and is today ranked among the best higher learning institutions in the world. The Melbourne Observatory (started in 1861) was developed to promote scientific research, and by 1869 it was home to the largest fully steerable telescope in the world. All of these investments – along with the State Parliament, Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne Museum (now the largest museum in the Southern Hemisphere since it moved to its current location), General Post Office (in the Burke Street Mall – now home to a clothing store), and the Treasury Building – were created during this era to promote ‘high culture’ and keep new Australians in this country once with gold ran out.

Architect Joseph Reed, The Public Library, Melbourne, 1854. Reproduced with permission from Libraries Australia.

We can even thank the gold rushes and the wise investments the government made at this time for our sewerage pipes! California did not spend its gold wealth like this in the beginning, which caused many social and health problems for its residents.

While Victoria and California both had gold rushes, they were similar in some ways and different in others. Please add any other similarities and differences you learn about relating to these two ‘rushes’ in the comments below.

Links and References:

Australian historian Dr. Benjamin Mountford explores the similarities and difference between these two gold rushes:  and—the-gold-rush

David Goodman’s “Gold Seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s” also explores both rushes

Two brief histories of California’s gold rush: and

The National Museum of Australia’s take on the gold rushes:

The history of Melbourne from the Melbourne Museum:

Other Sovereign Hill Education blogposts related to this topic: and and and and

Women on the Goldfields Part 3 – Working in the Home


.A costumed character at Sovereign Hill emptying the contents of a chamber pot. This is yellow cordial, not real urine.

The most valuable and respected role a European woman in the 19th century could undertake was that of housewife. Making a home, which included: raising the next generation (educating children, feeding them a nutritious diet, and caring for them during times of sickness), managing all of the chores, mastering needlework, and being able to make an excellent meal for guests, was an accomplishment that women worked hard to achieve, as many still do today.

This final blogpost in our series on goldrush women focuses on the domestic lives of European women living on Victoria’s goldfields in the 1850s.def3

The Art of Housewifery

The culture that European immigrants brought to Australia’s goldfields promoted the idea that women should manage the private life of the family, while men should be involved in public life, which included holding a job outside the home. During this time in history, housewifery was a highly honourable family and community role for women, and the majority of women were proud to perform it (as many are today). While 21st century Australian women might not hold housewifery in the same high regard, it is important to respect the status of housewifery back then.

A woman’s success in housewifery depended very much on her education in the ‘domestic arts’ and the money her husband could spend on their household.


One of Sovereign Hill’s volunteers teaching visitors how butter was made by hand in a mid-19th century kitchen.

While some girls were being sent to school at this time in European history, it was much more common for boys to attend lessons with a qualified teacher. Girls instead were typically kept at home where their mothers would teach them how to cook, clean, sew and raise children because these were the most important skills for a woman to have at this time. Girls who were taught to read (which was considered worthwhile by many as they could then teach that skill to their children) could also learn from books on housewifery such as ‘Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management’ (published in 1861). Even if girls had the opportunity to attend school, they were often taught gendered skills like sewing, which was particularly helpful to those whose mothers had died before their skills could be passed on.

Being able to ‘keep a wife’ was an indication of a man’s status, meaning a woman’s clothing, their home and its contents communicated his social and economic success. A European man would have been ashamed if his wife was forced to take a job outside the home to support the family; it was a sign to others that he had failed as man. For a brief time, these European social norms brought to Victoria’s goldfields shifted (read more about this here), but not for long. In the 1850s, almost all of Ballarat’s miners were young men who came to the goldfields by themselves or with their male friends or family. They needed to make some money before they could afford to marry.

Living Conditions for Married Women on the Goldfields


Photographer unknown, Eliza Perrin and her children, c.1860. Reproduced with permission from The Gold Museum, The Sovereign Hill Museums Association. The dress Eliza is wearing here is also in the Gold Museum Collection.

At the start of Victoria’s gold rushes, Europeans on the diggings typically lived in tents and huts. This made it hard for families to keep children healthy and maintain bodily cleanliness, especially during Ballarat’s famously cold winters. However, there were a small number of very resilient women living on the goldfields during this time. It was only in the mid-to-late 1850s, once the community became wealthier and locals started living in more permanent homes (normally made of weatherboards or bricks), that female immigration from Europe increased. This change encouraged the number of families to grow. More hygienic living conditions (including better systems for managing human waste) also made it safer to raise children.

Despite improvements in living conditions, every pregnancy a woman faced was a risk to her life no matter what her social status. Experiencing complications during childbirth was one of the most common causes of death for women until recent history. Until the mid-20th century, most women birthed their babies at home, and if complications occurred, there was a high risk that both mother and child would die. The use of anaesthetics to ease the pain of childbirth was popularised after chloroform was given to Queen Victoria when had her eighth child in 1853. Anaesthetics as we know them today, that enabled caesarean sections to be performed were not available until later in the 19th century. Even then, the risk of death from post-operative infection was still high. A woman could also bleed to death or develop a deadly infection following the successful birth of her baby. Antibiotics and blood transfusions that could save both mother and baby only came along in the 20th century.

Ballarat’s women had a particularly hard time birthing and raising children without the support of their own mothers and older women with childrearing experience. Emily Skinner travelled to Victoria in 1854 and wrote this about her lonely experience of motherhood: “You mothers in England little imagine how blessed you are compared with poor women in the diggings, at this time, especially such as I, who knew nothing about babies and their management”.

Keeping children alive during their most vulnerable early years of life also presented goldrush women with significant challenges. About a quarter of Ballarat’s children died before the age of five in the 1850s, usually from drinking polluted water. Until 1859, people didn’t know that germs existed and were the main cause of disease. At least goldrush women knew not to let their babies crawl on the filthy ground, whether they knew about germs or not. Crawling as a developmental stage in a child’s life only started being encouraged in the late 19th century thanks, in large part, to Germ Theory.

Domestic Technologies

Making a healthy and happy home for a family remains a challenging job for women, even though men today tend to play a larger role in childrearing and undertake more household chores compared to men in the past. Back then, however, housework was much more physically demanding because there were no washing machines, vacuum cleaners or supermarkets. Whether a woman was managing her own domestic duties, or was a maid working for a wealthy family, this job could include many responsibilities such as collecting water (plumbing arrived in Australian houses later in the 19th century), chopping wood, growing and making food from scratch, washing/ironing/sewing the family’s clothes, and disposing of the contents of chamber pots. Lower-class wives frequently washed other people’s laundry or sewed clothes to help pay their family’s bills, while middle class wives owned ‘high-tech’ cleaning technologies (like a charcoal iron instead of a sad iron) to make their chores easier. Wives in the upper classes usually had maids and cooks to do all of this work for them.


Photographer unknown, family outside home, c.1860. Reproduced with permission from The Gold Museum, The Sovereign Hill Museums Association.

One of the most important technologies to affect women’s lives during this time was the sewing machine. On average, it took an experienced sewer about 15 hours to hand-stitch a man’s shirt, but a sewing machine cut that time down to only an hour and a half. Inventions like these became status symbols for middle-class families, and could help many lower-class women make money by producing clothes for sale from the safety and privacy of their homes.

In addition to this busy workload of chores, housewives educated their children, cared for the sick and elderly, and often volunteered for their church. It’s no wonder they used to say “a woman’s work is never done”!

The lives Australian women live today maintain many of the traditions explained in these three blogposts, however, some have been rejected or replaced with new social norms and a focus on gender equality. What do you think Australian womanhood will look like in another 100 or 200 years?

Links and References:

Sovereign Hill Education’s student research notes about women on the Ballarat goldfields:

A State Library of Victoria blogpost on women on the goldfields:

An SBS blogpost about women on the goldfields:

Two Sovereign Hill Education blogposts on 1850s women’s fashion:

A Sovereign Hill Education blogpost on general clothing in the 1850s:

A Sovereign Hill Education blogpost on keeping the floor clean:

Two Sovereign Hill Education blogposts on laundry:

A Sovereign Hill Education blogpost on ironing:

A series of videos made by a Sovereign Hill volunteer who attempted to live 1850s-style in one of the small houses within the outdoor museum for a few days:

A Sovereign Hill Education blogpost about Lola Montez:

A Culture Victoria webpage about the few Chinese women living in 19th century Victoria:

Women on the Goldfields Part 2 – Working Outside the Home


Alice Cornwall, also known as ‘Madam Midas’ ran a company mine and became a millionaire by the age of 30. Reproduced with permission from the Gold Museum.

While getting dirty hands in search of gold was viewed as a man’s job in the imported European culture of 1850s Victoria, there were many hardworking and enterprising women making a living in Ballarat during this era. In addition to managing families and households, some women on the goldfields opened shops and eateries, or worked as teachers and entertainers. There is even evidence that a few women swapped their skirts for trousers to search for gold, one became a newspaper editor, and later in the 1800s a woman named Alice Cornwall became a millionaire by the age of 30 through the company mine she owned!

Back then, it was rare for a married woman in Europe to hold a job outside her home, or to play a role in public life. However, the conditions on Australia’s goldfields provided some women with new opportunities and different lifestyles compared to their equals back in Europe. This second blogpost in our series on 1850s goldrush women explores their roles in Victorian communities beyond the home.def2

Working Wadawurrung Women on the Diggings

The Wadawurrung women of the Ballarat region experienced rapid changes to their lifestyles and local environment when Europeans began to colonise South Eastern Australia in the early 19th century. Therefore, by the time the gold rushes began in Ballarat 1851, historians tell us that some Wadawurrung people already spoke English and understood the new political and economic systems that Europeans had introduced. Using their skills in tanning/sewing possum skins, sourcing native food and medicine, fossicking for gold, putting on cultural performances and taking Europeans on tours of the landscape, Wadawurrung women (and men) made money from Europeans by supplying these goods and services. According to oral history handed down by members of the Wadawurrung community, European families also turned to Wadawurrung women when they needed someone to babysit their children.

Working European Women on the Diggings

In the early 1850s, there weren’t many European women living in Ballarat. As explained in Women on the Goldfields Part 1, most of the people who came to try their luck on Australia’s goldfields were European (mostly from Britain), and gold rush communities tended to be male-dominated during this time. By the mid-1850s, Ballarat had become one of the richest places in the world, and as a result of this and the government push to encourage female immigration, the number of (mostly young) women on the goldfields grew.


Author unknown, Bush scene, three women panning for gold, c.1855-1910. Reproduced with permission from the State Library of Victoria.

I saw the other day four or five of these fellows strolling on behind their cart. Amongst them was a young woman very well dressed, wearing a sun-bonnet … [with] a full flap behind at least a foot long, to screen the neck. On one shoulder she had a gun, and in the other hand a basket, while one of the men carried a baby, and another a swag. … You see a good many women going up on the whole, and some of them right handsome young girls. They all seem very cheerful and even merry; and the women seem to make themselves very much at home in this wild, nomadic life. – William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, 1855 (1972 ed.), Victoria, p.64.

Ballarat’s immigrant women proved themselves hardworking and capable, and many appear to have made the most of the opportunity to take up jobs on the goldfields. While housewifery was a highly respected family and community role for European women to perform during this era, some of these goldrush women did all of the work for their households and worked outside their homes as well.

Part of the reason some women took on extra work was due to economics. Food, clothing and household items (much of which was imported from Europe) were very expensive on the diggings, and households with two working adults usually lived more comfortably than those relying on just one income. The main motivation for these immigrants to journey to Australia in the first place was to make money, and the more creative and resourceful you were (whether you were male or female), the more successful you were likely to be.

Some women also took up work that was usually the domain of men at this time – such as school teacher, shop assistant or hotel manager – because the men in the community were too busy searching for gold to perform these roles. Since the social norms that influenced the way Europeans were supposed to behave were somewhat relaxed on the diggings, some women saw an opportunity to work and took it.


A costumed character at Sovereign Hill selling her potent ‘other drinks’ (sly grog) from her tent to support her family after the disappearance of her husband – a common goldrush experience for women on the early diggings.

Being practical and resilient were important characteristics for all to demonstrate on Victoria’s goldfields. Some women had to work because they were abandoned by their husbands. It was fairly common for men to suffer deadly accidents as a result of the dangers that come with gold mining, while others ventured to different Australian goldfields and never returned to their wives and families. When such abandoned women had children to support (and didn’t already have a job), if they could not immediately remarry or turn to charity (there was no Centrelink back then – churches did most of this type of welfare work) they sometimes had to resort to selling sly grog or even their bodies to pay the family’s bills.

Regardless of the work they did, European women arguably built a new kind of womanhood for themselves in Australia, which challenged the gentle, modest 19th century femininity they were expected to perform. This attempt at creating a new culture was part of a broader push by the youthful and broadminded goldrush communities around Australia to challenge European social norms. Some women who thought along these lines even became involved in the Eureka Rebellion.


Anastasia Hayes was a mother, school teacher and Eureka rebel. Reproduced with permission from the Public Records Office of Victoria.

Some very adventurous European women from Victoria’s gold rushes who have interesting stories to explore include Clara Seekamp, Fanny Finch, Martha Clendinning, Anastasia Hayes, Lola Montez, Edward (ne Ellen) De Lacy, Caroline Chisholm, Anne Fraser Bon, Alice Cornwall, Eliza Perrin, Catherine Bently, Anastasia Withers, Céleste de Chabrillan, Ellen Clacy, Harriette Walters, Sarah Hanmer, Elizabeth Wilson and Bridget Hynes.

As Ballarat became a more permanent township by the 1860s, many of the women who had worked in shops etc. at the start of the gold rush began to return to full-time housewifery. Martha Clendinning was a shopkeeper during the early 1850s, but the more successful her shop became as time went by, the more her femininity and class came under question. 19th century European social norms began to be reapplied, sending women back to the private sphere – so how could she be the respectable doctor’s wife, and lady of the house, when working as a shopkeeper?

The time had gone by when, even on the goldfields, a woman unaccustomed to such work could carry on her business without invidious remarks.  I began to fear my husband might be blamed for allowing me to continue at it.  After the class of residents on the field had become so superior to those of the working class, whom we had found on our first arrival, to whom all species of employment for women seemed perfectly natural if they could carry it on with success. The doctor [her husband] had been most anxious and was greatly pleased when I announced my intention [of selling her shop]. – Martha Clendinning memoirs, 1853-1930.

Chinese Women on the Diggings

By the late 1850s, there were also thousands of Chinese people on Victoria’s goldfields, but only a very small percentage of them were women. The men from China mostly left their wives and children at home to care for their family farms, as most came from agricultural communities.


The 1861 Census of Victoria shows that women were still performing many roles normally undertaken by men at the time across goldrush communities. Reproduced from Weston Bate’s book called ‘Victorian Gold Rushes’, page 37.

Some of Victoria’s immigrant women in the 1850s were ambitious and outspoken, despite these being uncommon characteristics in women in other parts of the world during this era. However, as time went by and Ballarat became a more permanent community, the social norms of Europe directed women (regardless of whether they were European, Aboriginal, or from any other cultural background) to the private sphere (learn more about this at our next blogpost). This is where they largely stayed until Australian factories needed workers during the 20th century’s World Wars (when women replaced the men who became soldiers). Women only became permanent members of Australia’s workforce in large numbers after the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960-80s.

Links and References:

Sovereign Hill Education’s student research notes about women on the Ballarat goldfields:

A State Library of Victoria blogpost on women on the goldfields: and website about how Victorian women’s lives have changed since the 19th century:

An SBS blogpost about women on the goldfields:

Dr. Claire Wright wrote a book called ‘The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka’ about the women involved in the Eureka Rebellion:

Women played many different social roles during the Victorian gold rushes:

A Culture Victoria webpage about the few Chinese women living in 19th century Victoria:

A gender equality timeline made by the Victorian Women’s Trust: and a fantastic video telling a similar story:

The gender pay gap in Australian explained:

Sex work on Ballarat’s goldfield:


Women on the Goldfields Part 1 – 19th Century Womanhood

The lives women led in 19th century Australia were similar in some ways and very different in others to those experienced by women in this country today. Much has changed for Australian women in the last 170 years from clothes to hairstyles, average life expectancy and experiences of motherhood.

Over three blogposts we will explore what life was like for women on Victoria’s goldfields between 1851 to 1861. This blogpost will focus on the common characteristics of the women who lived in Ballarat during this era, the second will explain the opportunities goldrush women had to work outside their homes, and the final blogpost will examine domestic life on the goldfields for European women in Australia.def1

The Aboriginal Women of the Ballarat Region

The first women of Ballarat were Wadawurrung women. They have been living in this region for tens of thousands of years and many continue to practice culture on Country (their traditional homeland) today. The lifestyles of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people changed dramatically when Europeans began colonising Australia (starting in 1788). The changes took place rapidly in goldrush communities like Ballarat because of the speed at which immigrants – both human and animal – arrived from across the seas to live in such places. These new arrivals changed local ecosystems and cut off access to important Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural and food production sites.


.A drawing of a young Wadawurrung woman who lived in Ballarat during the gold rush. W. Strutt, Waran-drenin, 1852. Reproduced with permission from the British Museum.

While many Wadawurrung women adapted quickly to the changing conditions and played a variety of roles in the new European economy and culture that was brought to Australia, others died from introduced diseases/alcohol and at the hands of violent settler-colonisers. By the late 1860s, most were forced off Country to live on reserves and missions in different parts of Victoria. Despite the damage this caused Aboriginal communities, many Wadawurrung women passed their language and culture onto their children, which is one of the reasons why it lives on today.

The Arrival of Non-Aboriginal Women in Ballarat

In the early years of Australia’s gold rushes, most of the non-Aboriginal women on Ballarat’s diggings came from Europe, specifically the British Isles. Female goldrush immigrants took huge risks to get to Australia by ship and hoped to become wealthy through hard work and/or a good marriage. Social mobility was nearly impossible back in Europe, but in Australia, anyone willing to work could strike it rich on a goldfield which is why around half a million new Australians arrived in Victoria during the 1850s.


John Leech, Alarming Prospect: The Single Ladies off to the Diggings, Punch Pocket Book, 1853. Reproduced with permission from The Gold Museum, The Sovereign Hill Museums Association.

As most of these new arrivals were men, the colonial government (on advice from people like Caroline Chisholm) made many attempts to attract female immigrants because they were considered to be a ‘civilising influence’ on male-dominated goldrush communities like Ballarat. Gold seeking was thought to bring out poor behaviour in some men, and it was believed by many that just the presence of women could restore their more gentlemanly qualities.

Women were in such high demand on the early diggings – not only were they a ‘civilising influence’ but also companions, cooks and cleaners – that ships arriving in the ports of Melbourne or Geelong were often met by miners ready to propose marriage to the first female they clapped eyes on!

Typical 19th Century European Womanhood

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.A costumed character at Sovereign Hill panning for gold in a day cap which is designed to both keep hair clean and provide sun protection.

Religion, culture and tradition have always influenced the way in which people behave and dress. A model mid-19th century European woman was likely to be a Christian who obeyed the social norms that came with this identity. This included being quiet and calm, a loving mother/wife, a dutiful homemaker, and good at following the instructions of men. Such women believed that the Bible should guide their behaviour in addition to their clothing choices. During the daytime, European women wore dresses that covered every part of their body except their faces and hands because a polite Christian woman was expected to be modest and hide her body. This is part of the reason you see costumed women at Sovereign Hill wearing day caps.

Ideally, a European woman would only marry a man who could already afford to house, clothe and feed her and the family they would likely make together. On their wedding day, the bride would wear the best dress she owned in whatever colour she liked. White wedding dresses were popularised by Queen Victoria – but only very wealthy families could afford to dress brides in what was ultimately a one-use dress. Back then it was considered quite normal for European women to be married before the end of their teens, as was having ten or more children. In comparison, 21st century Australian women who choose to get married (which is far less common today than it was in the past) are on average aged 30 and will typically only have one or two children.

Womanhood on Australia’s Goldfields

Some historians suggest that immigrant women on Australia’s 1850s goldfields experienced a different kind of womanhood compared to women back in Europe. This was arguably due to the relative youth of the immigrant population and the opportunities that existed for European women in Australia to work outside their homes.

Many of the European women on the goldfields were in their late teens/early twenties. Their youth helped them survive the tough living and working conditions – raising a family in a tent and having to trudge through deep mud in a Ballarat winter to buy food or harvest it from a vegetable garden was hard work. On average, Australian women at this time in history would only live until they were about 40 years old, while life expectancy for Australian women today is about 80 years old. Their shorter (on average) lives is one of the reasons that 19th century women tended to marry and start families at a younger age than women today.

In Europe, if a woman had a job, perhaps as a seamstress, housemaid, or governess (tutor) at this time in history, she would be fired as soon as she got married (unless she was very poor). From her wedding day onwards, she was expected to be busy managing a household and having children, leaving no time for other work. If poverty forced her to work outside the home, it would be a source of shame for the whole family (you can read more about this here). In Australia, and especially in places like 1850s Ballarat, living conditions changed these social norms.

Women on Australia’s goldfields could ‘bend’ social norms somewhat because they filled essential roles that the community needed in order to function while men focused on mining. They could leave the house (to go shopping, visit friends etc.) once they were visibly pregnant, which in Europe was considered bad manners. Put simply, there were many vital jobs that needed doing, so Ballarat’s women rolled up their sleeves and got to work, whether they were already married or not. You can learn more about this topic in our next blogpost.

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Photographer unknown, (from left to right) Eliza Sharwood, John Sharwood, and an unknown woman, Lot 50, Peel Street South, Ballarat, c.1875. Reproduced with permission from the Gold Museum, The Sovereign Hill Museums Association.

Once Ballarat became a more permanent community from about the 1860s, the European social norms of the era resumed and women became focussed on life in the private sphere once more.

The lives of Australian women have changed significantly since the 1850s. What social norms do you think have changed for the better and which ones have changed for the worse?

Links and References:

Sovereign Hill Education’s student research notes about women on the Ballarat goldfields:

A Crash Course video which summarises how women’s lives have changed in the last 150 years:

A State Library of Victoria blogpost on women on the goldfields:

An SBS blogpost about women on the goldfields:

Two Sovereign Hill Education blogposts on 1850s women’s fashion:

A Sovereign Hill Education blogpost on general clothing in the 1850s:

A Sovereign Hill Education blogpost about Queen Victoria:

Dr. Claire Wright wrote a book called “The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka” about the women involved in the Eureka Rebellion:



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.



 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.


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


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.


 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.


 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.


 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:

The lives of animals on Victoria’s goldfields:

The National Museum Australia on goldrush immigration:

How and why were so many exotic street trees planted in Australia?

Information on pest management plants:

How compost is made:

Plant hunting was very fashionable across the British Empire in the 19th century:

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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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:!/digibook/3122184/bruce-pascoe-aboriginal-agriculture-technology-an

An ecological niche explained:

A brief history of Victoria:

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans in Australia ate native foods to survive:

SBS Gold on Australia’s introduced species:

A fact sheet on invasive species in Australia:

The introduction of rabbits in Australia explained by the National Museum Australia:

A blogpost exploring what was commonly eaten by goldrush immigrants:

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

Information on animals introduced to Australia to make European settlers less homesick:

A blogpost on mid-19th century transport:

A great Gold Museum blogpost about dogs on the Victorian diggings:

More information about the Leviathan coach:


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.


The Eureka Rebellion – what we can and can’t ever know


George Browning, Eureka Stockade, 1854, 1985-9. The City of Ballarat Historical Collection, reproduced with permission from The City of Ballarat. Is this a primary or secondary source of historical information? Do you think it is an accurate representation of the Eureka Stockade Battle? Why/why not?

There are many parts of the Eureka Rebellion (also known as the Eureka Stockade) story that we know are historical facts, but there are many other parts that will forever remain uncertain, and even unknowable. This should not stop us from being curious about this interesting and important event in Australian history, as history is full of uncertainties. Sometimes these can be solved by more research, or even new ways of collecting and examining evidence, but sometimes they have to remain a mystery. The history you learn in the school subject often called History or Humanities is driven by the curiosity of academic historians, and their job is tell the truest version of our history. This can change over time when new evidence is found, or when evidence is interpreted from a new perspective.

Ultimately, stretching our critical and creative thinking muscles is really important in the study of history.


So, what can we know about the Eureka Rebellion?

Historians know for a fact that this famous Australian event occurred on Sunday, 3 December 1854. How is this knowable? Historians can find lots of primary source evidence that was written by people who experienced the Eureka Stockade Battle and all claim the event happened on this day. Here are two examples (1, 2) of such primary sources that corroborate (which means agree with each other) to tell us that the date this event happened was indeed Sunday, 3 December 1854.

Here is another: In his famous book about his experience of the Eureka Stockade Battle, Raffaello Carboni wrote in Chapter 1:

‘Brave comrades in arms who fell on that disgraced Sabbath morning, December 3rd’.


Charles Doudiet, Eureka Slaughter 3rd December, 1854. Ballarat Fine Art Gallery Collection. Reproduced with permission from Wikipedia Commons. Is this a primary or secondary source of historical information? Do you think it is an accurate representation of the Eureka Stockade Battle? Why/why not?

When historians can agree on something like a date, we can be very confident that such a detail is an historical fact. In the same way, we can know for a fact that it was a fight between Redcoat soldiers and a group of (mostly European) goldminers, and that people on both sides died on the day of the battle.

What is currently unknowable about the Eureka Rebellion?


Aunty Marlene Gilson, Surviving on the Goldfields, 2014. Reproduced with permission from the Gold Museum – The Sovereign Hill Museums Association. Aunty Marlene paints Wadawurrung oral histories to document her ancestors’ experiences of 19th century life. Is this a primary or secondary source of historical information? Do you think it is an accurate representation of the Eureka Stockade Battle? Why/why not?

There are some parts of the story that historians do not agree on, and they probably never will. These are uncertainties, or things we cannot currently know based on the available historical evidence. For example, there is a debate about exactly where the Eureka Stockade Battle took place, and just how many people died as a result of it. There are questions around the role of women and children in the days leading up to, and during, the fight itself. A Wadawurrung oral history that has been passed down from generation to generation also exists. It describes Europeans running to the Aboriginal camp near the stockade to keep safe during the fighting – you can learn more about this here. While there is some evidence to support all of these aspects of the Eureka Rebellion story, we cannot be completely confident that these stories are true, and we may never be able to know for sure. And that is okay – we should still learn about them as possible truths about this historical event.


Samuel Huyghue, Plan of the Eureka Stockade attack by the military on 03 December 1854, 1854. Reproduced with permission from Ballarat Heritage Services Picture Collection. Is this a primary or secondary source of historical information? Do you think it is an accurate representation of the Eureka Stockade Battle? Why/why not?

All historical stories contain facts and uncertainties; we simply have to keep our versions of the story honest by stating which parts we can know, and which parts are currently unknowable. For example, in our popular Education Session for visiting students called Put Yourself in the Eureka Story (during which the whole class dresses up as characters who played a role in the Eureka Stockade Battle), we say ‘about 30 people died’ when talking about the battle death toll (the number of people killed) because we will never know for sure. Some reasons why we will never know exactly how many people died during the Eureka Stockade Battle are:

  • There is no police report from after the battle stating exactly how many dead bodies were found on the battlefield that day, and newspaper reports and books written by witnesses claim different death tolls. Also, due to the complicated politics linked to this event, the government of the time may have wanted to make the death toll look small, while the miners may have wanted the death toll to look large – this may explain why different primary source documents describe different numbers in their death tolls. You can view the list of people whom Peter Lalor believed were killed in the Eureka Stockade Battle here. However, Captain Thomas, leader of the Redcoat soldiers who fought in Ballarat, reported a different death toll:

‘The number of the killed and wounded on the side of the insurgents was great, but I have no means of ascertaining it correctly; I have reason however to believe that there were not less than thirty killed on the spot, and I know that many have since died of their wounds. Amongst these, and the persons in custody, several leaders of the insurrection appear, two of whom lie dangerously, if not mortally wounded, in hotels near the spot.’

  • Many of the miners who survived the battle went into hiding immediately afterwards to avoid being arrested by the police. During their many months in hiding, some may have died from their battle injuries. However, as they were on the run from the law, it is likely their deaths were never reported to the authorities.
  • Medicine in the 19th century was not as advanced or informed as it is now – you could die from an infected scratch (because we didn’t know about germs, let alone antiseptics or antibiotics, in the 1850s). As a result, there may have been people who died from their battle injuries a whole year after 3 December 1854, and these deaths were probably not added to the official count of people killed as a result of the Eureka Stockade Battle.

BRT Hi Res-MADE-9266

The original Eureka Flag, on display at the Eureka Centre in Ballarat. Reproduced with permission from the City of Ballarat Historical Collection. Photo credit: Tony Evans Photography.

There are also historical uncertainties surrounding the most famous Eureka Rebellion artefact – the Eureka Flag. While recent scientific study of the flag has helped us better understand what the flag is made of, we will never know exactly who made it. For example, there is a popular children’s book called ‘The Night We Made The Flag: A Eureka Story’ by Carole Wilkinson, in which the stars of this famous flag are described as being made from a girl’s nightdress. However, since this book was published, museum conservators have undertaken some study of the flag stars to reveal they are made from a wool fabric, which 19th century fashion experts tell us was not the kind of material used to make nightdresses. Before this research was undertaken, the stars were believed to be made of a fine cotton linen, from which nightdresses were commonly made at this time in history. The blue part of the flag used to be thought of as wool, but this new research tells us it is mostly cotton. This demonstrates how important it is to keep our minds open as to how the flag was made; the nightdress explanation was just a theory which has now evolved and been made less certain thanks to this new research.

Until new evidence or new ways of undertaking research come to light, many aspects of the Eureka Rebellion story have to remain unknowable. What other historical events or characters have question marks hanging over them?

Links and References

Some older Sovereign Hill Education blogposts on the causes of the Eureka Rebellion:

Behind The News (BTN) on the Ballarat gold rush and Eureka Rebellion:

A video entitled ‘Eureka Stockade: Riot or Revolution’:

The State Library of Victoria blogpost on the Eureka Stockade:

The State Library of New South Wales on the Eureka Stockade:

The National Museum of Australia on the Eureka Stockade:

No matter how the Eureka Stockade is represented, there will always be people who critique its interpretation:

How to encourage critical thinking in History:

Five ways to improve your critical thinking:

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 showing how much the surface of the landscapes have changed in Victoria since colonisation. Reproduced with permission from:

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:

The National Museum of Australia has produced a free video series on Australian history, including environmental history:

A free online podcast series made by La Trobe University on Australia’s environmental history:

The Australian Research Council on “Australia’s Epic Story”:

Australia and New Zealand’s environmental history by professors Libby Robin and Tom Griffiths:

ANU Professor Tim Bonyhady’s take on Australia’s environmental history in “The Colonial Earth” (2003):

The State Library of Victoria Ergo Blog on Victoria’s experiences of environmental change:

SBS Gold on the environmental impacts of the gold rushes:

Is modern Australian farming broken?

An article from The Conversation called “What Australia can learn from Victoria’s shocking biodiversity record”: