The 1850s – Then and Now

During the Victorian goldrushes of the 19th century, people lived very different lives to those Australians lead today in the 21st century. We can understand these differences by taking a look at some examples of technologies etc. which highlight what has changed in our lives between then and now.

Do you think you could have lived in the 1850s? What listed in the ‘Now’ column couldn’t you live without today?



A meat safe (a fly-wire box which is covered with a damp cloth to keep food cool)


Electric refrigerator


Wooden, bone, paper and metal toys


Plastic toys (plastic is made from petroleum or natural gas, and wasn’t invented until the 20th century)


Humorism – the belief that illness was the result of an imbalance in the four humors (4 bodily liquids: blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile). Imbalances were thought to be caused by bad smells called ‘miasma’

Germ theory – the understanding that most illnesses are caused by microorganisms (bacteria, like viruses, fungi etc.) that spread easily if you don’t wash your hands or carefully manage sewage

A wash board and clothes mangle

A washing machine and tumble dryer

Newspaper, leaves, smooth stones or even your hand!

Toilet paper

Corset – a tight-fitting piece of structured underwear mainly worn by ladies to secure and train the torso

Bra – a complex piece of ladies’ underwear designed to support the breasts

Long-handled toasting fork – used to hold bread close to the fire to toast it

An electric toaster

Tooth powder often made of chalk, charcoal or bicarb soda – the wealthy used a brush, the poor used a finger

Tooth paste – made available once flexible metal tubes were invented in the 1890s

Pantalettes – long cotton ladies underwear that are secured with a button/ribbon

Cotton, elasticated underpants for ladies

Anaesthetics were being invented in the 1850s – before then only alcohol or cocaine were available to help with pain during surgery!

Modern anaesthetics to make either a small part or the entire body ‘fall asleep’ and not feel any pain during surgery

Phrenology – a ‘science’ that uses the shape of the skull to explain personalities and behaviours of people


Psychology – a science that seeks to explain the chemistry, thoughts and behaviours of the brain/mind


Dresses for babies and small children – including boys, who might wear a sort of dress until they were ‘breeched’ (a rite-of-passage that allows boys to start wearing pants – there’s a boy in a dress in this S. T. Gill sketch)


Jumpsuits/bodysuits for babies (also known as ‘onesies’)


Click on the S. T. Gill sketch to enlarge

Trains and boats

Aeroplanes and cars

Leeches and amputation were used to treat infections (this is a real 1850s amputation kit…)


Antibiotics are now used to treat bacterial infections (this is the structural formula of penicillin)


Flat (or ‘sad’) iron which is heated on the fire

Electric steam iron that you fill with water and plug into the electricity outlet in the wall

Newspapers, the postal service and the electric telegraph

The internet and mobile phone technology

A fob or pocket watch (a watch on a chain/necklace) powered by daily manual winding

A battery-powered wrist watch

Candles and gas lights (which were highly explosive and killed lots of people in their homes)

Electric lights

Life has changed dramatically in the last 160 years. In that time, we have popularised world-changing ideas like germ and evolutionary theory, and we invented amazing technologies like electricity, the car and the internet. How do you think it will change in the next 160 years?

Links and references

An article about the big ideas that have changed our world:

A video about the most important inventions humans have ever created:

Changes to life expectancy across the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries:

The impact of the Industrial Revolution:

The way the Industrial Revolution fostered globalisation:

Costume at Sovereign Hill: The Redcoat Soldiers

When you visit Sovereign Hill, you see lots of different kinds of costumes being worn by the staff and volunteers in the streets, shops and on the diggings. All our costumes tell stories about the kind of people who were really here in Ballarat in the 1850s. Some of our most photographed costumed characters are the Redcoat Soldiers, who tell the story of the British Army’s role in 19th century Victoria.


Sovereign Hill’s daily Redcoat Soldiers parade.

Students often ask, ‘Why are they wearing bright red jackets? Soldiers today wear camouflage to hide in the bush, but a red jacket can’t hide you anywhere!’. These jackets, which are actually called coatees, were red for a number of reasons:


A diagram explaining the different parts of a Redcoat’s uniform. Click on the image to enlarge.

The Redcoat Soldiers played an important role in the Eureka Rebellion and their daily parade around Sovereign Hill is one of our most popular events. We need to keep them looking ‘spiffy‘, so our Costume Department recently began a big project to make new uniforms for our hard-working soldiers.


The two ‘tails’ on a coatee.

Every time our Costume Department makes a new outfit for one of our staff or volunteers, the team starts by doing some research. There are lots of paintings, photographs and written descriptions of the Redcoat Soldier uniforms, which help us re-create their outfits to look just like the real ones worn in the 1850s. We were very lucky in this instance to find a real 1840s-50s Redcoat coatee in the collection of a local history buff, which revealed secret pockets inside the coatee ‘tails’! We think these would have been used for storing gloves and hiding important documents. Next time you visit Sovereign Hill, ask a Redcoat soldier what he hides in his secret tail pockets.

This very old, fragile coatee also helped us understand what the lining and internal structure of the coatees should be, which not only makes them more comfortable for the people wearing them, but also makes those people look more muscular and broad-shouldered.


The internal structure of a coatee.

The coatee was designed to make the chest of the man wearing it (only men could be in the British Army in the 19th century) look like a triangle (women desired to be hour-glass shaped), and epaulettes would be attached to the shoulders to make them appear even bigger. If you were an important officer in the regiment (team of soldiers), you would have received a ‘uniform allowance’ as part of your wages which you could use to decorate your coatee further.


Left: An 1850s shako. Right: Sovereign Hill’s re-created shako.

The Sovereign Hill Costume Department have now created three different kinds of Redcoat uniforms for our daily parades: an officer’s uniform (in scarlet red), and soldiers’ uniforms and a drummer’s uniform (in madder red).  We were able to achieve the correct coatee colouring thanks to information from a uniforms supplier in England which has been making outfits for the British Army since the Battle of Waterloo – more than 200 years ago! Many details like buttons, pom-poms and embroidered trimmings for the new costumes had to be made by hand by skilled craftspeople, which took a lot of hard work to organise. Re-creating the hats – or shakos – presented one of the biggest challenges to the Costume team, but the new Redcoat costumes are nearly finished and ready for the daily parade.


Drummers wore heavily-decorated uniforms.

All of our costumes tell stories about the history of clothing dyes, innovations in sewing techniques and machines, and developments in the manufacture of textiles, as well as showcasing the fashions of the time. The popular fashions of the 1850s also tell stories about community values and ideas about masculinity and femininity. What do your clothes say about you and the community you live in?

Links and References

Read about the role of the Redcoat Soldiers in the Eureka Rebellion:

Sovereign Hill’s Redcoats firing their guns:

A wonderful V&A webpage about 19th century fashion:

Learn about ladies’ weird 1850s underpants…:

What did children wear during the gold rush?

Men’s 1850s fashion:

Women’s 1850s fashion:

The British Army during Queen Victoria’s reign:

A social story for ASD students preparing for a Sovereign Hill visit:

Goldrush Immigration – Push and Pull Factors

To understand the thousands of people who chose to come to Ballarat during the gold rushes, we need to look at their motivations for leaving home for the dirty diggings. When gold was discovered in Ballarat in 1851, there were about 80,000 people living in Victoria. You can fit more than that in the MCG today! The population increased dramatically over the next ten years; by 1861, there were more than 500,000 people here! While most no doubt had their own unique, personal reasons for moving to Victoria during this time, let’s take a look at some of the things that may have pushed people out of their homes and pulled them towards gold mining towns like Ballarat.

Push factors’ – things that push people away from their homes – include wars, natural disasters, food/water shortages, a lack of paid jobs, and nasty community leaders. For example, if your country runs out of food and your family is hungry, you might decide to move to a new country where your family is less likely to suffer hunger again. This means that food shortage is your motivation to move; it’s the push factor for you and your family.

78.0973 Raffaello Carboni


The Australian gold rushes attracted lots of interesting characters – this is Raffaelo Carboni, a miner from Italy, who was in Ballarat around the time of the Eureka Rebellion.


Pull factors’ – things that pull people to a new home – include safety, food/water security, good job opportunities, and good community leaders. For example, if there’s not much opportunity for you to get a good job in your country, you might decide to move to a country with a strong economy and low unemployment, where you have a high chance of getting a great job. This means that good job opportunities is your motivation to move; it’s the pull factor for you.

The chance of finding a huge Ballarat gold nugget (which could make you so rich that you never had to work another day in your life), was a HUGE pull factor for people who wanted to improve their lives in the 1850s and 1860s. Thousands of people from all over the world heard about Ballarat’s rich alluvial goldfield and decided to try their luck on the diggings.

The kind of people who came in search of gold were usually young and usually male, but of course many brought their families. This gold-seeking adventure was often a one-way trip, and the work was hard and dangerous. Most people who came to Ballarat during the gold rushes were motivated by more than just gold – there were lots of push and pull factors for each person!

If you were from England, things that may have pushed you to Australia might have included overpopulation (lots of English cities were very crowded at this time thanks to the Industrial Revolution), limited social mobility (little chance of improving your life; if you were born poor in England in the 1850s, you were likely to stay poor, no matter how hard you worked) and frustrations with the government (the ‘Chartists’ were trying to improve democracy during this time in English history, but weren’t having much luck). Pull factors for the English, apart from gold, could have included Australia’s good weather (lots of English people still come for this reason), and the chance to buy land (almost impossible back in England, unless you were extremely rich).

Peter Lalor (Montrose Cottage Collection)


Peter Lalor, leader of the miners in the Eureka Rebellion, moved from Ireland to Ballarat in 1852.


If you were from Ireland, the biggest push factor at this time in history would have been the ‘Great Hunger’ (also known as the Irish Potato Famine). Between 1845 and 1852, over one million Irish people died of starvation due to a disease called potato blight which destroyed their main food source: the potato. As a result of the Great Hunger, two million Irish people left Ireland and never returned – some moved to the United States of America and Canada, while many others came to Australia, in particular to Ballarat.

If you were from Scotland in the 1850s and you were the second son in your family, your big brother got to keep the family home and any land your family owned. That meant second sons had to make their own fortunes. This could have been one of the main push factors for the Scottish.

If you were from China, it was likely you were a peasant farmer in the 1850s. At this time in China, you didn’t have much chance of improving your life (limited social mobility), and opium was a big social/health problem (thanks to the [English] East India Company – who bought this highly addictive drug from India to sell in China for huge profits). This led to two wars between England and China during this time. These were the major push factors
for the Chinese miners. While gold was the major pull factor, the Chinese commonly had a different motivation than the Europeans when it came to spending their gold wealth. The Europeans tended to find gold to benefit themselves and their families, and many decided to stay in Australia after finding their fortune. The Chinese instead tended to find gold to take home to benefit not just their families but their entire villages; Chinese communities often worked together to pay for a ship ticket for just one or two miners, so that any gold they brought home was for the benefit of everyone. Some historians say that most of the Chinese miners were not really immigrants for this reason.

99_0114 John Alloo's


John Alloo, from China, owned one of the first restaurants on the Ballarat diggings.


If you were from the United States of America, it was possible you had been a miner in the 1849 gold rush in San Francisco, California, or wished you had been. The pull factor of gold was probably the main reason Americans came to Ballarat.

If you were an Aboriginal Australian, you may have been on the Ballarat goldfield because this had been your family’s home for thousands of years, or you may have come from another part of Victoria as you had been forced off your homelands by invading farmers and miners. In terms of pull factors, some Aboriginal People did make money from gold during the gold rushes, while others worked as Native Police or farmhands. However, Aboriginal People had few choices at this time in history; it was very difficult to live their traditional lives any more whether they were on their homelands or not, thanks to the changes the new arrivals introduced.

STG Kangaroo Stalking


Without the help of Aboriginal People, many new arrivals to Victoria would have perished in the harsh conditions of 19th century Australia.


Australia – in particular its population – changed dramatically during the Victorian gold rushes of the 1800s. When did your family arrive in Australia? If you’re an Aboriginal Australian, your ancestors may have arrived 60,000 years ago. If your ancestors were convicts sent to Sydney, Hobart or (later) Western Australia, they may have arrived around 230 years ago. If your ancestors came during the gold rushes, they may have arrived 160 years ago.

Regardless of when your family arrived, the Australian story is a story of immigration.

Links and References:

A great TEDed video about push and pull factors:

An overview of the impact of the Australian gold rushes:

Simple English Wikipedia on the Great Hunger:

Why do famines happen?

The influence of the Irish on Ballarat:

The influence of the Scottish on Ballarat:

The influence of the Jewish on Ballarat:

Research notes about the experiences of the Chinese in 19th century Ballarat:

The impact of the Victorian gold rushes and 19th century immigration on Aboriginal People:

Australia’s immigration history:


The hidden stories in artefacts

Why do historians like artefacts so much? Things like ancient pots, mummified kings, and your great-grandfather’s watch, can make history nerds very excited because artefacts tell stories. Sometimes the story an artefact reveals is obvious, but at other times is takes a lot of careful observation and even extra research to make the story clear. All ‘man-made’ objects can tell us stories about people, and those stories are often pretty interesting when we are looking at objects from the past. Let’s have a look at an example.

‘Look what I found!’potty

This undecorated white bowl is about 25cm across and could probably hold 4L of water. It has a sturdy handle and a small square of cut-up newspaper inside with a date on it 1858. It was discovered underneath an old wardrobe in a miner’s cottage in Eureka Street, Ballarat. What could it be?

To reveal the stories this artefact is hiding, we need to figure out what it was used for in the past. Here are some questions and example answers that help us figure out what it was made to do. Some of these questions are difficult or impossible to answer depending on the artefact you are studying, but it’s important to think about them when you are trying to uncover an artefact’s story.

Questions that help us ‘unpack’ the stories hidden in artefacts

  1. What do you think this artefact was made for/to do?

Maybe it’s a soup serving bowl, but the cut-up newspaper makes me think it’s a toilet from the olden days because you don’t put paper in soup, but you do put it in a toilet bowl. 

  1. When in history might this have been used?

Luckily we found a date alongside the artefact – the cut-up newspaper is dated 1858. This makes our artefact over 150 years old, and back then flushing toilets and toilet paper weren’t really invented, so the date supports the idea, or theory, that this may be an olden day’s toilet.

  1. What is it made of and what does this tell us about it?

This artefact is a ceramic bowl, so it’s probably made out of some kind of clay. It looks like it was made using a mould; it’s not a hand-made artefact. This fits with the time period – if this was made around 1858 it was probably made in a factory in England (the world’s first factories had started to mass-produce household items like this between 1800 and 1900). For a long time in history, the colour white has been associated with cleanliness. Today’s toilets are mostly white, so that also supports the theory that it was used as a toilet.

  1. Where was it discovered and what does that tell us about it?

It was found underneath a wardrobe in a bedroom. The toilets of this time in history, often called chamber pots, were usually stored under beds or bedroom furniture so they were handy in a rush, but certainly weren’t on show for guests to see. Again, the place it was found supports the theory that it’s a 19th century toilet.

  1. Is it a fancy item or a simple artefact? What does this tell us about the people who may have owned/used it?

It is a simple item with no decoration. This makes me think that it was designed to be functional, not pretty, and again supports the theory that it’s a toilet. Just like today, back in the 1850s everyone needed a toilet, so this wasn’t a rare, luxury item. Therefore I think I would be able to find lots of other examples of such toilets if I do some research.

  1. Was it an item for men or women, or both? How can we know? What does this tell us?

We can’t really tell if this item was created for a man or woman, but again the idea that it’s a unisex item (for use by both men and women) makes me think it’s a toilet. While men and women use a modern toilet differently and no doubt used an olden day’s toilet differently, I think both men and women would be able to use this artefact for that purpose.

  1. Does it look like something we have seen before? Have you seen these in movies or museums? What can that extra knowledge tell us about this artefact?

I saw these under beds in the tents, huts and houses when I was at Sovereign Hill. As these buildings didn’t always have a room (usually outside – a ‘dunny’ or outhouse) dedicated to bathroom/toilet ‘business’, it again makes me think that this is an 1850’s toilet.

  1. How is it different to similar items we use today?

If it is indeed a toilet, it’s very different to the kind we use today. The biggest difference between this item and toilets today is its lack of a flush button and sewerage pipe. My guess is that when it was full, you might throw its yucky contents down a hole in the bush/garden, or maybe you could even put it on your garden as plant food.

Let’s summarise the stories this artefact has revealed. If it is indeed a toilet (which it is  :), it tells us stories about 19th century sanitation practices, the impact of the Industrial Revolution (the invention of factories in this case) on people’s everyday lives, and the kinds of technologies and materials that people in the past have developed and found practical uses for.

Further research tips

Thanks to the internet, it has never been easier to learn about the world! If you are studying artefacts, here are some great websites that will help deepen your understanding of the stories they tell.

  • Trove is a fantastic tool for history students and their teachers. Simply type in the name of your topic, artefact, historical event, or name, to find books, photographs, digitised newspapers, videos, maps and more to help with your research.trove
  • Simple English Wikipedia is great for younger students and EAL learners when conducting research. It gives simple explanations and great images on a wide range of
  • Google Images is another easy way to find more detail on

Links and References:

A student-friendly article on the power of artefacts:

An artefact article for teachers:

The history of the toilet:

The history of sanitation:


Simple English Wikipedia:

Google Images:

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:

In praise of washing machines

full washing equip

An 1850s ‘washing machine’.

Many historians believe that the invention of electricity was the most important nineteenth century invention because it changed women’s lives dramatically. In the 1850s, there was no electricity and therefore no electric washing machine. What did this mean for those charged with washing the family’s clothes?

Nineteenth century gender roles, meaning the different kinds of jobs men and women were expected to do, were very strict – men worked outside the home in the ‘public’ world, while women worked inside the home in the ‘private’ world. Activities like working in mines or participating in politics were supposed to be performed by men, while taking care of the children and doing the family cooking and cleaning were activities performed by women. Nowadays, it is more common that all jobs, whether it’s mowing the lawn, making money from working in a factory or supermarket, or ironing clothes, are done by both men and women.

soap making

A tallow melting pan and a soap mold from the 1850s.

Washing clothes was a woman’s job in the 1850s. It required some very simple technologies: a large tub (bucket), a washboard, and some soap. Here, on the early diggings, most soap was homemade using tallow (which, in Ballarat, was sheep fat) mixed with some ash. Water had to be collected from creeks and lakes by bucket and was then heated over a fire. When Ballarat became a more established city, wealthier households built laundries in their gardens and installed ‘coppers’ (big copper buckets built over fireplaces) and garden water pumps (utilising underground ‘bore’ water) to make this work easier, but women still spent at least one entire day every week washing the family’s clothes.


A laundry copper.

Have you ever heard the expression ‘She mangled her finger’? This comes from a clothes washing technology called a mangle. At first, these rollers, through which clothes would be squeezed near-dry, were hand-cranked, but when electric mangles were introduced many people (including children!) got their hands and hair caught in these machines with disastrous results. Thankfully, some of the most dangerous designs were outlawed. However, this wasn’t the only hazard to washer women. Irons made of heavy cast-iron were heated on the fireplace and then used to smoothe fabric. Modern irons are very safe in comparison! Women could easily burn themselves with 1850s irons, and getting serious burns (before antibiotics were invented) sometimes resulted in gangrene, blood poisoning and even death!


A 19th century mangle, also known as a wringer.

Until the electric washing machine became a common household appliance in the 1950s, women dedicated large amounts of their lives to washing, rinsing, wringing-out, drying, and ironing clothes. Some academics, like Swedish statistician Hans Rosling, believe that the electric washing machine was ‘the greatest invention of the Industrial Revolution’ because it suddenly afforded women time for things like education, work outside the home, and politics, once the washing machine was introduced. Can you think of any other inventions which have had a similarly big impact on people’s lives?

Links and references

A brief history of the washing machine:

A history of laundry:

A brief history of the mangle:

A history of irons:

A history of antibiotics and infection:

A teacher resource on ‘Laundry in the 19th Century’:


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.