Ye Olde Travel Guide: Ballarat 1854

In the latest instalment of our historical holidays series, in which experts imagine they're writing a travel guide in the past, Jenny Brown invites visitors to seek their fortune in Ballarat, known to many as 'the golden city'

Illustration by Jonty Clark.

This article was first published in the December 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Ballarat, the world’s richest gold field, where a pick might yet strike a 2,000oz nugget, is seething with gold fever and political ferment. But miners beware. The Victorian government has hiked the price of mining licences to preposterous levels – whether you find payable gold or not…

When to go

Now! It’s the second phase of the Australian Gold Rush and a mainly young male population, fluxing between 25,000 and 50,000, is already on the field.

What to take with you

Load a wooden wheelbarrow with a tent, blankets, pick, shovel, axe, panning equipment, a cooking pot and gun. Stuff a big knife into your belt and take a slavering mongrel dog to deter thieves and midnight claim-jumpers.

Costs and money

If you can afford a hotel, the tariff is 50 shillings a week for the rudest accommodation and service, or 140 shillings per week for a halfway decent room. Every commodity is scarce and price gouging a given. If you’re intent on mining legally, you’ll need a licence, which can be an expensive outlay. Payment can be in gold dust.

Sights and activities

Be warned: Ballarat doesn’t boast the same sort of diversions that can be found in Sydney. Construction has begun on the stone Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ the King, designed in the English Gothic style, perhaps in the hope of bringing spiritual instruction to a town where drinking, whoring and gambling is rife. A seemingly never-ending stream of men – voicing a wild expectation “of gold in every dishful” in a diversity of languages, from French and Italian to Polish and Chinese – descend on the town on a daily basis, setting themselves up in tented communities. If the gold rush continues, redevelopment of the area will be necessary.

Dangers and annoyances

In a tightly packed field, a neighbour encroaching on your digging space is a common irritation. With no sanitation and countless flies, typhoid is a major health risk.

The most immediate danger is falling into one of the thousands of open shafts in the dark nights which are never quiet because of drunken brawls and regular volleys of gunfire. The chief annoyance is the licence hunts by corrupt mounted troopers (some ex-convicts), who, unless they can be bribed, treat illegal miners with violent contempt, chaining them to a log until they pay up or push off.

Discontent among diggers is becoming widespread. Earlier this year, Scottish gold digger James Scobie was murdered near the Eureka Hotel. When the hotel’s owner, James Bentley, was acquitted of the killing, the miners rioted and burned the building to the ground. Tensions are still running high and further unrest is likely.

Sleeping and accommodation

The first rush in 1851 saw 500 new arrivals joining a massive encampment beside a muddied creek on a daily basis. Today, you’ll find a military barracks, some permanent buildings (one in four being a hotel), banks, bakeries and bullion dealers. There are a few basic cottages and some bark huts. If you can find an unclaimed spot, however, for many uncomfortable months you’ll probably sleep under canvas amid the squalid jumble of mullock heaps.

Eating and drinking

Unless you befriend the Chinese, who grow vegetables, foods are basic and your diet will consist of salt beef, mutton, potatoes and damper (bread cooked over coals). The place is sloshing in grog. One sly grogger has 122 tents selling rum, brandy, wine, cider and locally brewed beers – some spiced with tobacco. Beware of a drink called ‘Blow My Skull Off’, which is reputedly laced with opium.

Entertainment

The legions of wifeless men have recourse to many brothels. There is gambling, including a game built around tossing nuggets. Fiddle, flute and banjo music is part of the nightly soundscape. The odd circus or opera company visits, and while there is already a primitive theatre, a flasher Victoria Theatre is due to open in just over a year with a performance by actress Lola Montez, whose erotic ‘Spider Dance’ has been described as outrageous.

Shopping

It will soon become apparent that the most reliable route to getting rich quick in Ballarat – without risking rheumatism – is to open a tent store selling food or equipment. Why? Because prices, especially for rare luxury goods, seem to double every six months.

Getting around

If you don’t make the eight- day trek from Melbourne on foot, you’ll pay £7 to bump along frightful tracks on an American stage coach. If you’re in a syndicate sharing costs and equipment, you could hire a labouring bullock dray at £100 per tonne – the annual wage of the clerk in your party who has absconded from his desk. Unless you find gold (which only one in every four miners will), you’ll soon be trudging back to Melbourne as a dirty, disillusioned destitute.

Jenny Brown is a freelance journalist who lives in Melbourne, 65 miles east of Ballarat.


Ballarat today

Once the focal point of any ambitious man’s desires, the state of Victoria often suffers in comparison to other Australian big-hitters. Relative calm prevails today on sumptuous Lydiard Street, Ballarat’s most handsome hangover from the Victorian Gold Rush, but this is anything but a ghost town.

The Goldfields region of Victoria – and Ballarat in particular – are immensely popular destinations for travellers exploring Australia. Sovereign Hill, a re-creation of an 1850s gold-mining township, gives the most vivid insight into what life was like for prospectors. But there are other reasons to linger longer. The city’s art gallery has a fabulous collection of early colonial paintings and nearby Lake Wendouree, created for the 1956 Olympics, is a lovely place for a stroll. Touring the Goldfields beyond will take visitors to Bendigo, another handsome city, and within range of the Grampians and Little Desert National Parks.

If you like this…

For another gold-mad part of the world, try Barkerville, British Columbia, Canada. Meanwhile, Sydney’s most historic neighbourhood, the Rocks, is the best place to explore another chapter of Australian history.

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Tom Hall is the travel editor of lonelyplanet.com