Tag Archives: 1850s food

How to cook a goldrush feast

Supermarkets, refrigeration, and the food pyramid were invented a long time after the Victorian gold rushes of the 1850s. During this time in history, most food on the goldfields was either grown fresh in your garden, imported in a dried state (like rice, flour and lentils), or pickled/preserved (like jams, stewed fruit and tinned anchovies). Some bush foods were hunted down by miners or supplied to them by Aboriginal people, but most new arrivals to the diggings had to work hard for their dinner. The rich could afford healthier diets than the poor, but life expectancy (the average length of time that people live in a particular country) was quite low in comparison to Australia today. Poor nutrition, dangerous work and deadly diseases worked together to make life on the diggings relatively short and harsh.


Australians now live much longer lives than they did during the 19th century thanks to improved diets and medicine. This graph shows how life expectancy has increased for both men and women between 1884 and 2009. Reproduced with permission of the Australian Bureau of Statistics.


S. T. Gill’s sketch of a ‘Butcher’s Shamble’ from 1869 demonstrates life before refrigeration and modern hygiene.

Most miners in 1850s Ballarat happily ate damper (campfire bread) and mutton (old sheep – ‘lamb’ means young sheep), as such a meat-heavy diet was only affordable to the rich back in Europe at this time. However, this diet isn’t very nutritious. It lacks important vitamins and minerals that the body needs, which can be found in fruit, vegetables and nuts. While such a limited diet will keep you alive, it can make your body – brains, bones, organs – age must faster than people who eat a broader range of foods. A diet of damper and mutton could make you more likely to get sick, and you would stay sicker for longer. However, the goldfields butcher wasn’t too worried about the nutrition of his customers – butchers were often the richest people on the diggings!

The reason sheep were so common on the diggings was because of Victoria’s earlier history of colonisation. The first European settlers/invaders, who arrived from 1835 onwards, were here on the grassy plains of Victoria to farm sheep. By 1851, the year the Australian gold rushes began, there were over 6 million sheep being farmed across the state (according to the National Wool Museum). The sheep farmers (often called ‘squatters’) realised that instead of boiling down their old sheep for tallow (fat for making soap/candles), they could sell them as food to the thousands of hungry miners. News of cheap meat on the Victorian goldfields attracted thousands of people to the diggings (Blainey, G. Black Kettle and Full Moon, Penguin Books Australia, 2003, p.197). Luckily, by the 1860s, the gold rushes had also attracted many Chinese miners, who used their farming experience to grow productive market gardens full of nutritious vegetables which would have improved the general health of many Victorians at this time.


S. T. Gill’s ‘John Alloo’s Chinese Restaurant’ sketch from 1855 demonstrates the many contributions the Chinese made to diggers’ diets during the Ballarat gold rush. Reproduced with permission of the Gold Museum, Ballarat.

If a man had brought his mother/wife/daughter with him to the diggings, he was bound to have a better diet than a single man. Many goldrush women in the 1850s came to Ballarat very well prepared, as they brought bags of seeds and small animals with them to ensure the family didn’t starve (Isaacs, J. Pioneer Women of the Bush and Outback, Lansdowne Publishing Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1990, p.100).

Cooks didn’t use many utensils when creating meals over a camp fire, but a simple mixing bowl, knife and camp oven (also known as a Dutch oven) were all one needed for baking bread, roasting a leg of lamb, or making stews/soups. Next time you go camping, you could try cooking like a goldrush miner!

Here are some of our favourite 1850s goldrush recipes which you could try at home or school:


Links and References

Sovereign Hill’s other blogposts about goldrush food: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2013/03/19/what-was-eaten-on-the-goldfields/


SBS Gold on goldrush food: http://www.sbs.com.au/gold/story.php?storyid=66

Goldrush food: http://www.egold.net.au/biogs/EG00116b.htm

A great video about 19th century British diets: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5dr8WSPhzw

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), maybe the most famous cookbook of all time: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mrs_Beeton%27s_Book_of_Household_Management

The British Library on food of the 1800s: http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/texts/cook/1800s2/18002.html

19th century menus: https://19thct.com/2012/08/11/a-menu-from-the-early-19th-century/

The most dangerous jobs in the 19th century: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glfVNlwv8bQ

Life for women on the early Ballarat goldfield: http://education.sovereignhill.com.au/media/uploads/SovHill-women-notes-ss1.pdf

Another webpage about the lives of goldrush women: http://www.egold.net.au/biogs/EG00115b.htm

Changing mealtimes and their names in history: http://backinmytime.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/a-bit-about-meals.html

Fantastic BBC food in history documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7FRQjdSHWk

Blainey, G. Black Kettle and Full Moon, Penguin Books Australia, 2003.

Isaacs, J. Pioneer Women of the Bush and Outback, Lansdowne Publishing Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1990.

Goldfields Medicine: Part 2

Apothecaries: medicines and food

Interior of Apothecary at Sovereign Hill. Gold Museum Collection

Interior of Apothecary at Sovereign Hill. Gold Museum Collection

In a previous post we talked about doctors on the goldfields, and the early hospitals in Ballarat. But there were many other medical people on the goldfields. Among them were the Apothecaries, who could make up medicines, from the ingredients available at the time. Most of these ingredients were based on plant and animal extracts, and could also be used as foodstuffs. Their role is now mainly performed by Pharmacists, but an Apothecary did so much more. They also performed surgery, midwifery and gave medical advice. In this Blog we will explore the secretive world of the Apothecary, and how they contributed to the lives of people on the goldfields and the wider world.

Continue reading


A short history of sweets

Our current school holiday program, the “Raspberry Drop Rebellion” inspired us to look at our confectioners and the history of sweet making. We already have a blog on raspberry drops and the history of our confectioners, so with the assistance of our Senior Historian Dr Jan Croggon, this blog is focused on the history of sweet making up to the goldfields era.

Etching of confectionery booth, including “a little boy with his conical bag of sugar plums” by Christoph Weigel, c. 1700
Etching of confectionery booth, including “a little boy with his conical bag of sugar plums” by Christoph Weigel, c. 1700

From earliest times, ‘Sweets’ were precious rarities, and status symbols, dating back to 600 years ago, when sugar was a rare and expensive commodity.  Sugar was closely associated with medicine, celebrations, and food preservation, and all of these came together in the early 1800s to be identified as ‘confectionery’, and sold in sweet shops.

Sugar sweetened early medicines. Apart from sweetening sugar can also preserve fruits and vegetables. Sugar was supposed to be good for colds, and comfits (nuts or seeds covered in sugar) were considered to aid digestion in the later Middle Ages (around 1400 CE). In later centuries sugar was used to preserve fruit and flowers for the winter months and enhanced the luxury image of confectionery.

From the Elizabethan age (around 1550 CE), through to the 18th century, sugar was a rich indulgence – and then falling sugar prices and technical innovation made ‘sweets’ available to more people, and ‘sugar became a necessity, and sweets a commonplace part of childhood.’ (Mason 1999).

Continue reading

What was eaten on the Goldfields; part 2

Recipes of the Bush

“Damper and Mutton”

“Tea and Damper” by A . M. Ebsworth. From Digital Collection of the State Library of Victoria.

“Tea and Damper” by A . M. Ebsworth. From Digital Collection of the State Library of Victoria.

Following a previous blog post, we have tried to find a few examples of recipes from the gold rush period of our History. Robyn Annear (Nothing But Gold, 1999), says that one who lived through it called the early years of the Gold Rush (1851-1853) the “damper and mutton stage of the colony”. The foods most readily available were sheep (mutton) from the squatters and flour, sugar, tea and dried fruit as these would not go off quickly. This brings us to our first recipe – damper.

Damper and its variations.

This explanation is from James Bonwick, quoted in Nothing but Gold (1999);

Taking a washing tin dish, and clearing off the dirt a little, six or eight pannicans of flour are thrown in; a half table spoonful of carbonate soda, the like quantity of tartaric acid (together these are Baking Powder, sort of), and a spoonful of salt are then mixed together in a pannican and then well mingled with dry flour. Water is then poured in, the whole thoroughly knuckled, rolled into a good shaped loaf, and tumbled at once into the warmed camp oven. Fire is applied beneath and a couple of hours or less will turn out a loaf fit to be set before a queen.

Continue reading

Household Arts of the 1850s: A personal experience part 3.

The Woman of the Hill part 3.

Jenni enjoying a lighter moment from her stay

Jenni enjoying a lighter moment from her stay

Our intrepid volunteer, Jenni Fithall, has completed her three days and two nights living in one of the cottages at Sovereign Hill Outdoor Museum.  During her stay approximately 3800 visitors, including about 1500 school children  came to Sovereign Hill. Many of these visitors and children visited Jenni in her cottage, so apart from living as a woman of the 1850s, Jenni also had to contend with a multitude of questions, photo opportunities and a constant stream of people walking through her little two room cottage. Continue reading

Household Arts of the 1850s: a personal experience part 2; the first night

Woman of the Hill 2

Jenni doing the dishes and talking to visitors

Jenni doing the dishes and talking to visitors

The first night of intrepid volunteer Jenni Fithall’s experiment with colonial living is over and we (two of the Education officers) called in to check up on her.

Sovereign Hill:

Morning Jenni, how did you sleep?


Terribly! The rooster started crowing at about 3.30 am, and all the rest joined in. They would stop for about 20 minutes, and I would drift off to sleep. Then they would start again. It was nice laying in bed watching the glow from the fire.


Any other excitement overnight?


Well I had a bath. It took for ever to warm up enough water for it. I set the bath up in here (Kitchen/Dining room). I now know why they (Colonial people) only bathed once a week, it was so much work, and that’s only for one person!


We notice there’s a lot of flies around, do you need another fly strip? (The one hanging from the ceiling, is covered with flies, and there is still a swarm flying around the room).


No I have a spare one. Marion (Education officer) and I put one up about 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon, but last night the ceiling was black with flies. (They are really bad, no wonder disease was rife in these communities)

Jenni is cooking her breakfast, some sliced potato and an egg over the fire. She has some other food cooked from yesterday covered with tea towels, at least it is quiet as the Museum is not open to visitors yet.


Do you expect many visitors today?


Oh yes, there was a constant flow of people coming in yesterday. And there are plenty of school children staying at the museum so I expect I will be very busy talking to visitors and completing all my chores.

If you would like your students to experience a little of Jenni’s experience, try our a woman’s work is never done education session.

For more information about women on the Goldfields, you could try the Gold museum Blog about Eliza Perrin or our earlier Blogs.

If you would like to see what Jenni went through, we have made several videos about her time at Sovereign Hill, and the links are detailed below.

Woman of the Hill part 1

Woman of the Hill part 2

Woman of the Hill part 3

Woman of the Hill making butter

Woman of the Hill, the final interview

There was so much information about this experiment, that we created a new page on our website. All the videos and links to Blogposts are here.

What was eaten on the Goldfields?

Food on the Goldfields

Butchers Shambles, by S. T. Gill. Ballarat Gold Museum Collection 86_628

Butchers Shambles, by S. T. Gill.
Image: Gold Museum Collection 86_628

What types of foods were eaten during the gold rush? What utensils were used to cook with? What was life like for a cook in the gold rush? What things did they cook on? Was it hard for a cook? Did the children or men ever help the women? These were the questions sent to us by a year 9 girl recently. These are very good questions and we’re not sure we can answer all of them here. But evidence of the eating and cooking habits of diggers can be found in their letters home, diaries, newspapers and in some of the paintings and sketches from this time.

It is generally believed that the first diggers on the goldfields lived on Mutton and Damper (Old sheep and camp bread) at first. This could be true, as it would take time to grow vegetables, and at first diggers were not allowed to plant gardens. Sheep would have been plentiful, as Squatters had already established large holdings of land, with huge herds of sheep. This all makes sense, but are we being too general, and can we find evidence of this being the case? Continue reading

Household Arts of the 1850’s: A personal experience

Woman of the Hill

Ever wondered what it would be like to have lived during the 19th Century? Would you like to experience it for yourself? Well you don’t have to, because we have someone to do it for you. Jenni Fithall is a volunteer at Sovereign Hill Museum, Ballarat. She belongs to the “Friends of Sovereign Hill” (FOSH), a group that helps to bring the Museum to life for visitors.

Sovereign Hill Volunteer Jenni Fithall, who will be living in one of our cottages for 3 days in March 2013

Sovereign Hill Volunteer Jenni Fithall, who will be living in one of our cottages for 3 days in March 2013

Jenni has decided to try living in one of the cottages on Speedwell St for two nights and three days in March. Our Education Officers recently interviewed Jenni, to find out how she felt about her upcoming adventure. Continue reading

A Colonial Christmas in Ballarat

Christmas Celebrations in the 1850s

A drawing of Christmas celebrations during the gold rush.  - National Library of Australia

A drawing of Christmas celebrations on the diggings – from the National Library of Australia

Christmas in Ballarat during the gold rush was very different than it is today.  They didn’t have all the glitzy decorations that adorn our modern streets and houses.  Despite this, they worked hard to create a joyous atmosphere that could remind them of Christmas back home.  Although, as this newspaper article highlights, they don’t seem to be missing the cold winter days…

Continue reading

Raspberry Drops! – and other 1850s confectioneries

Confectionery in the 1850s

There were a wide range of lollies and sweets being produced during the Victorian era.  When the gold rush began in Ballarat, it wasn’t long before confectioners arrived and established their businesses here.  By 1857 there were a total of 18 people in Ballarat making confectionery.  As was common to the time, around half were also bakers or cooks.

Continue reading