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Better understanding our history

While some people think Ballarat’s story began with the gold rush, this part of Australia has a human history perhaps as long as 60,000+ years. Before the gold rush, there was sheep farming, and before that the Wadawurrung people lived traditional lifestyles just like their ancestors had for thousands and thousands of years before them. The story of Australia begins a long time before the arrival of Captain Cook.

The Traditional Owners of Ballarat call themselves the Wadawurrung people, named after the language they speak. Their country starts at the coast around Geelong, and ends just north of Ballarat. For tens of thousands of years, Wadawurrung people have studied the plants, animals, climate and natural features (like rivers and mountains) and their knowledge of this environment enabled them to farm it to produce all of the food, clothing and shelter they needed to live comfortable lives.


A map of central Victoria showing the traditional country of the Wadawurrung people.

The kind of farming the Wadawurrung people undertook before the arrival of Europeans looked very different to the kind of farming we see around Ballarat today. Instead of keeping animals on healthy feeding grounds (like grassy paddocks) through the use of fences, Wadawurrung people promoted the growth of the animals’ favourite foods close to their family campsites, making animals easy to find and kill for food and clothing (they used possum and kangaroo skins to make clothes/blankets). They didn’t need fences, so these animals could enjoy wild, free lives. This kind of farming was also used to provide plant foods and medicine plants.

Wadawurrung people knew their country well, so they knew where certain foods/medicines would thrive and could be easily accessed. By understanding when plants created fruit or grew big yummy tubers (like the sweet, coconutty roots of the murnong daisy which was an important Wadawurrung food) and what soil/rain conditions plants liked, the Wadawurrung people were able to produce a wide variety of foods that were reliable and plentiful. During the early years of European colonisation, many Europeans in Australia wrote in their diaries etc. that Aboriginal people appeared very healthy, and most lived long lives.


Fire was one of the most important farming tools in the Wadawurrung people’s land management system.

Due to this deep understanding of their environment, the Wadawurrung people only needed to work for a few hours each day to collect all of the food and clothing/housing resources they needed, which meant they had plenty of time for other activities. Like Australians today, they spent a lot of time teaching skills and knowledge to their children, and enjoyed complex cultural lives. During regular ceremonies like Corroborees and Tanderrums, they might visit family, friends and trading partners (business friends) all over what we now call Victoria. This leisure time could also be used to improve eel traps and hunting technologies (like spears and boomerangs), or decorate their possum-skin cloaks with stories about their lives and their country.

When the squatters (sheep farmers) arrived after Batman’s “treaty” in 1835, the lives of the Wadawurrung people started to change. Within just a few years the introduced sheep had eaten almost all of the murnong daisies, and the farmers started to push the Victorian Aboriginal peoples off their traditional lands which resulted in violent conflicts around Victoria, much of which wasn’t recorded in the history books.

By the time the gold rush began in 1851, introduced diseases, despair and violent conflict had caused the deaths of many Victorian Aboriginal peoples. Those who survived the squatter period had been compelled to learn English and seek work on farms, and could now use these skills to work with the gold miners. Traditional skills like hunting, tracking lost people and making warm possum-skin cloaks were all shared with the Europeans, usually for a price. However, as a result of this destruction of the traditional lifestyles of Victorian Aboriginal peoples, like others the Wadawurrung people have lost many aspects of their cultural, economic and language knowledge.

Many Wadawurrung people still live “on Country” today across Ballarat and Geelong. They are working hard to piece their culture back together based on both oral history and written history to better understand the lives of their ancestors. At Sovereign Hill, we think that learning about the culture, history, language and experiences of the Wadawurrung people, from 60,000 years ago until today is an important part of being a Ballaratian.

What do you know about the Wadawurrung people? If you would like to learn more about their traditional way of life and their experiences of the squatter period and the gold rush, take a look at this website Sovereign Hill created.


Our free digi-tour Hidden Histories: The Wadawurrung People helps all Victorians learn about our shared history.

If you are a teacher and want some support in teaching your students about Aboriginal history and culture, we have produced a Teaching Kit to complement our Hidden Histories: The Wadawurrung People digi-tour which you can access for free here: for primary schools, for secondary schools.

During Reconciliation Week 2016, Sovereign Hill launched its first Aboriginal history festival called ‘Gnarrwirring Ngitj’ (meaning ‘learning together’ in Wadawurrung language and pronounced ‘noworring nict’). Check out the program of events here.

Links and References:

The Wathaurong Aboriginal Corporation (trading as Wadawurrung) website:

Sovereign Hill’s free digi-tour Hidden Histories: The Wadawurrung People:

A great Wikipedia page about possum-skin cloaks:

A Wikipedia page about the frontier conflicts:

The arrival of the train


Ballarat West Railway Station

Ballarat West Railway Station c.1889. Image courtesy of The Gold Museum, Ballarat

Trains changed the world; however, nowadays their impact can easily be overlooked. For thousands of years before the invention of the train, people only had the help of horses and simple cart technologies to move themselves and their possessions around on land. When the train first arrived in Ballarat in 1862, the city celebrated in magnificent fashion; local people knew this technology would change our city forever. It confirmed Ballarat’s place on the map and was important in securing the city’s long-term success. As writer John Béchervaise has said ‘they were anticipating a marvellous twentieth century’ (Béchervaise, J. & Hawley, G. Ballarat Sketchbook, Rigby Limited, Melbourne, 1977, p52).

STG Main Rd

S. T. Gill’s Arrival of the Geelong Mail, Main Road Ballarat, 1855. Image courtesy of The Gold Museum, Ballarat.

Many people don’t realise that Ballarat’s CBD (central business district) hasn’t always been centred around the train station. Until 1862, the most important part of the city was along Main Road, which is where you can now find Sovereign Hill. Before the train line was built, and trains started delivering passengers and cargo from first Geelong and later Melbourne to Lydiard Street, Main Road was true to its name; it was the centre of town!

There was another reason the Ballarat CBD moved from Main Road to Lydiard Street – fire. Most of the structures built along Main Road were either wooden or canvas, and after a series of fires and the introduction of the train line, Ballaratians started building in stone around the new train station. After all, community leaders wanted to make Ballarat a more permanent, established city, and these beautiful stone buildings from the 1800s are still enjoyed by millions of tourists each year.

The City of Ballarat website has this to say about the city’s historic train station: ‘Located in the heart of Ballarat, the Ballarat Station is a gateway to the city, a CBD landmark and one of the grandest Victorian-era station buildings in the state.’

The fact that one of the first grand train stations in Victoria was built in Ballarat demonstrates the importance of this goldrush city. Ballarat’s closest port is Geelong; therefore, the first railway tracks between the two cities began construction in 1858 and the line was officially opened by Governor Barkly in 1862 to move people and cargo between the goldfields and the tall ships in Corio Bay. Interestingly, on its first journey to Ballarat, the train ran out of wood to fuel its steam engine, so the crew were forced to chop down some trees in Meredith to ensure the train made it to Ballarat. In 1889 the Melbourne-Ballarat line was opened. The station we now call ‘Ballarat’ used to be called ‘Ballarat West’ as Ballarat East had its own station which has now been demolished. The famous clock tower was added in 1891 as train travel by this time was proving extremely popular; however, as the clock itself was very expensive, it wasn’t installed until 1984!

The train’s arrival in Ballarat meant two very important things for the people of this region. It meant that individuals and businesses could receive their goods with a much cheaper delivery fee, and farmers etc. could send their produce to market much more easily. On the day the first train arrived, the train station was decorated with banners that said ‘Advance Ballarat’ and ‘Success to the Geelong-Ballarat Railway’ (Dooley, N. & King, D. The Golden Steam of Ballarat, Lowden Publishing, 1973, p4). Thousands of people gathered in Lydiard Street to welcome the train, and balls, dinners and parties were held all over the city to celebrate.


A history of Ballarat’s famous Phoenix Foundry. Find out more about this foundry and book here.

In addition to bringing the train line to the city to improve people’s lives, in 1873 Ballarat became one of the first Australian cities to manufacture trains. Ballarat’s Phoenix Foundry on Armstrong Street was the largest locomotive factory in Victoria until it ceased making engines in 1905. Businesses like the Phoenix Foundry couldn’t have existed without the railway close by.

While the train station gave Ballaratians easier access to Geelong and Melbourne, the Ballarat Train Station also provided people with access to leisure activities, like picnicking in places like Daylesford, and watching horseracing in Lal Lal. All around the station zone, city leaders have encouraged the building of what are now important Ballarat landmarks like:

To this day, the train station gives people access to all of these wonderful places in addition to important shopping areas and the Sturt Street sculpture gardens.

Trains gave Ballarat and its mines, factories and farms access to the big wide world. The locomotives that were manufactured here were a great source of pride for Ballaratians, as trains were a symbol of progress, technological skill, and serious financial investment for the city. Trains, like sailing ships in times past, and the cars and planes of today, changed our lives forever.

Links and References:

A fantastic video on the history of railroads around the world:

Some great interactive photographs of Ballarat ‘then and now’:

The Ballarat train station on Wikipedia:

Horrible Histories on transport (song):

A short history of trains and stations in Ballarat:

Bate, W. Lucky City, Melbourne University Press, 1978.

Béchervaise, J. & Hawley, G. Ballarat Sketchbook, Rigby Limited, Melbourne, 1977.

Butrims, R. & Macartney, D. Phoenix Foundry: Locomotive Builders of Ballarat, Australian Railway Historical Society, 2013.

Dooley, N. & King, D. The Golden Steam of Ballarat, Lowden Publishing, 1973.

Our favourite goldrush artist – S. T. Gill

PortraitDuring a visit to Sovereign Hill and the Gold Museum, it’s hard to miss the influence of goldrush artist S. T. Gill. Samuel Thomas Gill was born in England in 1818, and migrated to Australia with his family in 1839 when he was 21. He lived in South Australia where he earnt a living as an artist using his sketching skills.
In 1852 after gold was discovered, he decided to walk to the Mt Alexander diggings (near Castlemaine). Here he tried his luck as a miner, but quickly returned to sketching to make ends meet. He also spent time in both Ballarat and Bendigo, observing and sketching what he saw on the diggings. These sketches of the goldfields have been invaluable in the creation of Sovereign Hill and deepening our understanding of 1850s goldrush life.

When we write history, we can only build a story based on available evidence. Nothing can be made-up, or guessed. While we should always think critically about the history that we read, as sometimes the historian has a bias (meaning they aren’t balanced and fair with the way they present the human story), most of the time historians are trying to be true to what really happened to people in the past. By looking closely at evidence, which can be in the form of a primary source (something that was created by people who lived in the time of study, i.e. a letter from a miner dated 1854) or a secondary source (something that was created after the time by people who didn’t live there/then i.e. these blogposts written by Sovereign Hill Education), historians can construct an accurate story of what has happened in the past.

Sketches by S. T. Gill (primary sources) help us tell an accurate story of life on the Ballarat diggings. Take a look at the images below. Here we can compare one of Gill’s famous sketches with the 1850s-style buildings (secondary sources) you see at Sovereign Hill. While our visitors often get distracted by gold panning and raspberry drops, every detail of our museum, from the buildings and gardens, to costumes and food, tell carefully-researched stories about life during the Ballarat goldrush.

Do you think we have represented 1850s Ballarat accurately? What differences can you see between Gill’s sketches and the reproduced buildings? Why do you think we sometimes choose to make our buildings slightly differently from those you see in Gill’s sketches?

You can see more of Gill’s sketches and the way we have used them to create Sovereign Hill through a visit to the Gold Museum.


Compare S. T. Gill’s “Ballarat Post Office & Township from Government Enclosure”, created in 1857, to Sovereign Hill’s Post Office in Main Street. Reproduced with the permission of the Gold Museum.


Compare S. T. Gill’s “Butchers Shamble”, created in 1852, to Sovereign Hill’s Butcher’s Shamble on the Red Hill Gully Diggings. Reproduced with the permission of the Gold Museum.


Compare S. T. Gill’s “Bushman’s Hut”, created in 1864, to Sovereign Hill’s slab hut near the Post Office Lake. Reproduced with the permission of the Gold Museum.


Compare S. T. Gill’s “John Alloo’s Chinese Restaurant, Main Road, Ballaarat”, created in 1853, to Sovereign Hill’s John Alloo’s Chinese Restaurant. Reproduced with the permission of the Gold Museum.


Compare S. T. Gill’s “Coffee tent and sly grog shop, diggers breakfast”, created in 1852, to Sovereign Hill’s sly grog tent on the Red Hill Gully Diggings. Reproduced with the permission of the Gold Museum.

Links and references

A student-friendly biography of S. T. Gill’s life:

Our very own Gold Museum on their collection of sketches by S. T. Gill:

A video on S. T. Gill’s “beautiful, original lithographs”:

Wikipedia on S. T. Gill:

The Australian Dictionary of Biography on S. T. Gill:

A video of a lecture on S. T. Gill’s life:


It’s beach time!

As this blog already contains several posts about the history of Christmas, this festive season we have decided to explore the history of beach holidays!


An early bathing machine.

Bathing in the ocean became popular in Europe in the 1700s, before Australia was colonised by Britain. Both immersing yourself in the water and drinking sea water were considered to cure all kinds of illnesses. As a result, many of Europe’s rich and powerful would spend a “season” at the seaside, bathing most days using a bathing machine. Believe it or not, winter was considered the best time to do this.


Ladies “Bathing Dress”- 1858, from the magazine Harper’s Bazaar.

A bathing machine was a hut on wheels in which people changed into their swim suits. This carriage-type contraption was then pushed into the water (using man power, horse power or sometimes even steam power) so the bather could step out and immediately lower themselves into the water. Some bathing machines had tents that would extend out and enable bathers to enter the water in complete privacy, while some came with “dippers” or “bathers”. These were attendants of the same sex as the bather who would dunk you underwater the correct number of times to cure whatever illness you had been diagnosed with.

Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert believed that sea bathing was beneficial to one’s health, and in 1846 he had a bathing machine installed on the beach near their summer palace on the Isle of Wight. Victoria and her daughters regularly used the bathing box to enjoy the water. The queen’s bathing box, used to preserve her modesty, is now fully restored and on public view.


Queen Victoria’s bathing machine has a veranda at the front where curtains concealed her from view whilst she bathed. Inside is a changing room and a plumbed-in toilet. The whole contraption was run into the sea from the beach along a long ramp, and pulled back using a wire rope and winch!

By the 1850s, when gold was discovered here in Ballarat, dippers had gone out of fashion. However, people continued to visit the seaside especially after train travel made reaching the beach cheap and convenient.  Some historians think that the main motivation now was pleasure and holiday making although many people still believed a visit to the seaside was good for your health. By this time people were going to the beach during summer rather than winter.

Bathing soon became popular here in Australia although in some parts of the country it was banned during daylight hours up until 1902 because a wet woman in a swim suit was considered an indecent sight. Furthermore, some men were said to enjoy swimming naked, so you definitely couldn’t do that in public.


St Kilda Esplanade, main beach (1864).

The St Kilda Sea Baths were opened in 1860 to take advantage of the popular seaside excursion trend. These enclosed sea baths were thought to keep bathers safe from Australia’s scariest sea creatures. However, even before the baths were built, St Kilda was a popular swimming spot. In the 1840s it already had bathing boxes (bathing machines with their wheels taken off), and by 1854 Captain Kenney had deliberately sunk a ship just off the beach and put out ropes to it for people to swim along. Once the St Kilda train station was opened in 1857 more sea baths opened and regular swimming competitions were held. As businesses, the baths were not the financial success the owners hoped as the majority of visitors to St Kilda soon became confident to swim in open water.

Since these humble beginnings, going to the beach has now become a normal part of Australian life. Most Australians live on or near the coast, and some of our beaches like Bells in Torquay, Bondi in Sydney and the Gold Coast near Brisbane are considered to be among the best in the world. Interestingly, having tanned skin was avoided by European women during the nineteenth century, as it showed you were poor and had to work outdoors like a peasant.

Like swimming, the history of swimwear is also fascinating, read all about it here. Enjoy the summer sun and happy holidays!

Links and References

The history of sea bathing:

19th century bathing history:

18th and 19th century bathing history:

History of St Kilda Baths, Melbourne:

History of sun tanning:

Collectors of the Nineteenth Century

In Victorian times, collecting was all the rage. People collected many different things such as butterflies, stamps, shells, stones, weapons, and even human bones. Some were motivated to collect in the name of science, while others filled their parlours with “curiosities” just for the fun of it. While some of these 19th century collectors and their collections have helped us better understand nature and the many different cultures around the world, collecting may have sometimes caused more harm than good.


Zoologist and taxidermist Araham Dee Bartlett with his first gorilla (pickled…!), collected by Dr. Du Chaillu for Professor Owen, British Museum, 1861.

One fascinating Victorian collector was the explorer Paul Du Chaillu. He was the first European to see (and later kill) a live gorilla while he was travelling around Africa from 1856 to 1859. Until the 1860s, Europeans thought gorillas were mythical creatures. Their bones had been collected and studied in the late 1840s, but pickled (eew!) and stuffed examples of them weren’t brought back to Europe until the 1860s! Only then did people believe that these large, hairy Great Apes really existed.

Collectors have taught us much about the world. Probably the most famous collector of all was Charles Darwin, who developed the theory of evolution by natural selection (he published his famous book on this topic, On the Origin of Species, in 1859). In the 1830s Darwin sailed around the world for five years collecting many different kinds of plants and animals. This helped him develop his world-changing idea that successful animals adapt to suit their environment. While he brought many dead and preserved specimens back to England, he also collected live animals including giant Galapagos tortoises. Many people believe that Harriet, a tortoise at Australia Zoo which died in 2006 at the age of 176, was originally collected by Darwin.Tortoise

Darwin was one of many famous collectors who popularised collecting as a hobby, and by the 1850s it was a very fashionable pastime for a gentleman. Here on the Ballarat goldfields there were many men who collected minerals (stones), bird eggs, postcards, weapons made by the local Aboriginal people (the Wathaurong), and animals which would commonly be preserved using the technique of taxidermy (stuffing them). Sadly, there is even evidence that at least one collector in Western Victoria dug up bodies of Aboriginal people to take their skulls (Griffiths, Hunters and Collectors: The Antiquarian Imagination in Australia, p.28-9).

The bones of such “exotic” people would be sent to places like the British Museum to be studied and displayed. At the time this was seen as scientific inquiry but today the practise is illegal and recognised as being totally inappropriate and insensitive to the families and descendants of those deceased people. Fortunately, human remains from many countries which were sent to European museums and universities in the 19th century have now been respectfully returned to their communities of origin. The remains of Truganini, mistakenly believed to be the last Tasmanian Aboriginal person, were finally returned from the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 2002, 130 years after they were sent away from her homeland.


Feejee Mermaid Year: 1842. Con artist: P.T. Barnum.

Sometimes people would try to use their collections to make money, and this often caused more creative collectors to invent curious creatures and artefacts. A good example of this is the Feejee Mermaid, which was exhibited from 1842 until the 1860s in P. T. Barnam’s world-famous circus. Another example was a petrified wooden carving of a head that claimed to have been discovered in a gold mine at Creswick, 12kms north of Ballarat in 1855. This was revealed to be a hoax after some initial excitement about what it meant for understanding Australia’s history of human habitation (Griffiths, Hunters and Collectors: The Antiquarian Imagination in Australia, p.35).

Human zoo

An advertisement for a human zoo in Stuttgart, Germany, 1928.

Perhaps the most dark and worrying aspect of collecting were zoos which displayed humans. Cities such as London, New York, Paris, Milan and Barcelona all had zoos containing “exotic” peoples by the 1870s.

While the word ‘scientist’ only came into use in 1834, the 19th century was an exciting time for science and discovery; fossils of dinosaurs and mammoths were being unearthed as were the tombs of ancient Egyptian pharaohs, and millions of people were moving from one country to another – by choice – for the first time in history. While many people still collect all kinds of weird and wonderful things today like Barbie dolls, rare books and beautiful antiques, we are much more careful about the kinds of things we collect and the way we collect them. Check out some of the fascinating collections preserved by The Gold Museum here.

Links and References:

On gorillas –

About Charles Darwin and his work –

Harriet the Giant Galapagos Tortoise –

Museum of things Queen Victoria and Prince Albert collected –

The return of Truganini’s remains –

The Feejee Mermaid –

Another fake mermaid –

Human zoos –

History of the word “scientist” –

Gold Museum collections –

On creepy Victorian mummy unwrapping parties (‘Egyptomania’) –

Griffiths, Tom. Hunters and Collectors: The Antiquarian Imagination in Australia, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Archiving our audio files

We are in the process of updating our website, and have decided to transfer our archive of audio and video files from the website to our blog. This project is going to take quite a long time to complete.

You will be able to monitor our progress as we go. We have created three new pages which we will continually add to over the next few months. Access to these pages is via the teaching resources tab near the top of the home page (As per the screenshot).

Screenshot of home page

Screenshot of home page

To begin with we have been transferring the files in the order they were loaded on the old website. If there are any files that you have lost access to, please email us and we will prioritise your request.

A Note for Teachers

These files have been created to make primary sources of information more accessible to students.

  • They are deliberately short.
  • The audio files are designed to make difficult historic text come to life for students
  • The text is provided so students can read along
  • We have tried to model good referencing techniques

Thank you for your patience as we work our way through this transfer.

Weird and wonderful goldfields history. Part 2

 Weird People

Diver_smallIn this blog we continue our research behind the weird and wonderful activities created for our school holiday program. The last blog focussed on our animal stories, this post is about the people of the goldfields and the weird but true stories of their lives on the Ballarat goldfields.

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