The gold rush town of Ballarat, Victoria played host to one of the most significant events in Australian history – the Eureka Stockade. Today, this elegant regional city boasts some of Australia‘s finest Victorian architecture, fascinating historical museums, and a fantastic collection of fine art.
With a population of 105, 471 people, Ballarat is the third-biggest city in Victoria, and the third-biggest inland city in Australia, after Canberra and Toowoomba, Queensland.
The name Ballarat comes from an Aboriginal phrase meaning ‘resting place’. As the town’s name comes from two words, the name has been spelled as Ballaarat, which was the form adopted by the city council until 1994.io
The traditional owners of the Ballarat land are the the Wathaurong people. The first Europeans to arrive were Scottish settlers, Archibald Buchanan Yuille and William Cross Yuille, who established a sheep station in the area in 1837.
The city developed rapidly after the discovery of rich alluvial gold deposits in 1851. Within days a gold rush developed, bringing thousands of prospectors to the area. Extensive diggings developed in the areas today known as Ballarat East, defined by irregular and curving streets as opposed to the straight grid of the surveyed town centre. Ballarat’s gold fields were noted for their particularly high yields, with the first prospectors extracting between half an ounce and five ounces of alluvial gold per day.
As news of the Australian gold rushes reached the world, Ballarat gained a reputation as a particularly rich source of gold. Immigrants came from around the world – most notably Ireland and China – gathering in a collection of shanty towns around the creeks and hills. In just a few months, the population swelled to over 1,000 people.
Soon after, the city of Ballarat was formally established. The first post office built in a gold rush town arrived in November 1851, and William Urquhart surveyed a grid plan for the city in 1853. The first newspaper, The Banner, arrived in 1853.
The growing city would soon see one of the most important moments in Australia‘s history: the Eureka Stockade. In 1851, the Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria, Charles Joseph La Trobe, had proclaimed Crown rights for all mining proceeds, an a thirty-shilling per month licence fee for prospectors. The fee was a financial hardship for most prospectors (who had to pay whether they struck gold or not), particularly as the easy availability of surface gold began to diminish in 1852. Intrusive and frequent searches further agitated the prospectors.
Beginning in 1853, miners began to gather in ‘monster’ meetings to voice their complaints, and delegations were presented to the state government, which was unreceptive to their requests. Many had been active in the Chartist movement in England or the European revolutions of 1848, and were experienced in political organisation.
On 29 November 1854, the miners gathered in a mass meeting at Bakery Hill. Led by the charismatic Irishman, Peter Lalor, they swore on the Southern Cross flag – which had only weeks ago been unveiled ‘to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties’. The company gathered timber and created a stockade on the Eureka mine.
On 3 December, the Commissioner of the Ballarat Goldfields, Robert Rede, called for the police and army to destroy the stockade. On Sunday 3 December, over 300 mounted army and police marched on the protestors. The assault was over in 15 minutes, with twenty deaths – 14 miners (including one woman), and 6 police officers.
In the aftermath, the police arrested and detained 113 of the miners, with 13 going to Melbourne to stand trial. However, popular opinion was on the side of the prospectors. A Commission of Enquiry into the circumstances of the incident removed the licensing fees, and sacked many of the police and gold commissioners, among whom corruption was common.
The Eureka Stockade is commonly seen as the ‘birthplace of democracy in Australia‘, as it paved the way for universal male suffrage in Victoria in 1857. The moment has been claimed by a number of political traditions in Australian life: for some, a revolt of entrepreneurs against burdensome taxation; for others, the birthplace of the Australian labour movement. Others have questioned the importance of the stockade.
Gold transformed Victoria. In the years between 1851 and 1860, the state’s population increased from 76, 000 to 540, 000 – an over seven-fold increase, while Ballarat grew to around 60, 000 people, though many of these were itinerant miners, who moved on as gold findings dwindled. However, a small population of permanent settlers – around 23, 000 – who had built fortunes from gold mining built a prosperous community, with a shift towards deep underground mining.
The legacies of Ballarat’s gold wealth can still be seen today in the city many Victorian buildings: grand public buildings, extensive parks and public recreational areas, and opulent housing, hotels, and restaurants. Though the early 20th century saw the city follow Melbourne and other Australian centres in removing Victorian features such as cast-iron verandahs, the 1970s and onwards have seen an emphasis on preserving Ballarat’s historic architecture.
Things to see:
A walking tour around the grand historic architecture of the city centre is a highlight of any visit to Ballarat. The main street, Sturt Street (named after Charles Sturt), is lined with Victorian and Edwardian buildings, particularly between Grenville Street and Pleasant Street, with a central median strip characterised by several statues and monuments. Highlights include Ballarat Town Hall and the (former) Post Office, the second-largest in Victoria. Watch out for the two Sugg Lamps, the only remainders out of a group of twenty purchased by the city in 1881. The two lamps are the oldest of their kind in the world.
Nearby Camp Street also has impressive Victorian buildings, including the former YMCA, a unique Art Nouveau/Queen Anne style civic building built in 1908, and the historic Ballarat Trades Hall.
Lydiard Street is widely regarded as one of Australia‘s best preserved historic streets and is often used as a filming location for film and TV. Highlights include the Ballarat Gaol (1857), School of Mines (1870), and Craig’s Royal Hotel (built 1857 – 1890), an iconic gold rush hotel which has played host to celebrity guests including Prince Alfred (Prince Victoria‘s second son), Mark Twain, and Dame Nellie Melba. The hotel remains open today, and has a restaurant, cafe, wine bar, and high tea rooms open to the public. Her Majesty’s Theatre is the most intact of the remaining Victorian theatres in Australia, and is still open for concerts and live shows.
Ballarat is also home to one of regional Australia‘s most impressive art galleries, the Ballarat Art Gallery. Established in 1884, it is Australia‘s largest and oldest provincial art gallery. The collection covers the history of Australian art from colonial to contemporary, and includes substantial collections of works from the Heidelberg School and the Lindsay family. The collection includes works by Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, and Arthur Streeton among others, and also plays host to rotating exhibitions.
The city also offers a number of opportunities to explore the history of the gold rushes and the Eureka Stockade. Sovereign Hill, established in 1970, is a huge open-air museum established near the site of the first gold strike at Ballarat and on the site of the Sovereign Quartz Mining Company. A living museum, it aims to bring the Gold Rush to life through a strictly accurate recreation of a mining township, with diggings, underground mines, shops, hotels, schools and dwellings. Costumed actors show how life was lived in the 1850s, demonstrating authentic technologies and social attitudes. The museum experience is complimented by AURA, an evening sound-and-light show telling the story of the Eureka Stockade, and the more conventional displays of the Gold Museum, containing over 150, 000 gold coins and historic objects.
Located at the site of the Eureka Stockade and surrounded by the Eureka Memorial Gardens, the Eureka Centre brings to life the stories of the men and women who fought for miner’s rights. The centre is home to the original Eureka flag, one of the most important cultural objects in Australian history.
Ballarat is also gifted with extensive parklands, including the manmade reservoir of Lake Wendouree and the Ballarat Botanical Gardens, regarded as one of the finest cool climate gardens in the country. The Ballarat Wildlife Park is a 16 acre expanse of peppermint gum woodland, home to native animals including koalas, giant tortoises, wombats, Tasmanian devils, and over 100 kangaroos.