A horse and carriage rattle past me on the main street as I jump out of their way. A man in a top hat and waistcoat had just shouted to warn me that I was in the way.
I guess I’m still not quite used to my new surroundings. Or my old surroundings, I should say.
It’s the middle of the 19th century in country Victoria. Australia is still not officially a country and there’s an optimism about the potential in a new land. And nothing captures optimism better than a gold rush!
In the few years after gold was discovered here at Ballarat, more than 40,000 men descended on the location about 120 kilometres from Melbourne. With so many people and so much indiscriminate wealth to be made, a vibrant town grew quickly.
And that’s how I find myself at Sovereign Hill today.
What is Sovereign Hill?
In a sense, I have travelled back in time. Back 160 years. To a world that is so different to today… yet so much of it has a sheer of familiarity.
Sovereign Hill is a recreation of the 1850s in Ballarat – at all levels. Miners pan for gold in a creek or go down the shaft into the underground tunnels; women work behind the counters at shops; men get drunk in the hotels; police keep a watchful eye on everything.
It all seems a bit overwhelming when I first arrive and I wander around for a while to get my bearings.
I start at a camp of tents where many of the miners would stay when they first arrived. Those who never made it rich would likely stay here for longer.
If you were lucky, you might build a tiny one room house somewhere on the goldfields.
I meet Ron at one these small houses. Ron is a volunteer who, like everyone who works here, is dressed in period costume.
He tells me how the miner who would’ve lived here would’ve earned some money and sent off for his family. It might have taken a year until they arrived (the message going by boat, the family preparing, and then their passage by boat).
When they did get here, the whole family would’ve have slept in the one room – a baby in with the parents, some of the younger children on a small bed top to tail, older children on the floor.
And remember – those like this were the ones better off.
I go through the gold panning area where there are dozens of school students trying their luck by the side of the creek. Probably a lot of the miners who came here in the 1850s were not much older than these kids.
I go past the entrance to a small mine and head up the hill, past machinery and workshops, and arrive at a larger mine shaft with a pump being steam-powered from the boiler room. This is where the main tours of the mines start.
There are three possible tours for visitors here. Two of them tell a story and involve an audiovisual show along the way. The other one is taken completely by a guide and captures the spirit of working beneath the ground here in Ballarat.
I head down with my guide, Scott, on a train that hurtles us through a pitch black shaft to the level where we can find some of the original mines.
Gold mining in Ballarat
What’s interesting is seeing the two different approaches to the years of the Gold Rush and the decades that flowed after it.
Large companies moved in and excavated significant parts of the earth. They were funded by shareholders, letting investors all across the country (and world) have a little slice of the action.
But there were also the individual miners. Ambitious prospectors who claimed their patch and tried their luck. They worked alone or in small groups, setting up the potential for great wealth.
Some struck it rich, like the group of 22 Cornishmen who found the 69 kilogram Welcome Nugget in 1858.
At the time it was the largest nugget ever discovered (it’s still the second-largest) and the gold alone would be worth US$3 million dollars today.
It probably would’ve been worth even more because it was a single piece… but it was sent to London and melted down to make coins.
But then there were those who hardly earned more than they needed to survive.
The Victorian authorities brought in a licence fee for miners, regardless of whether they found anything. Police were ferocious in their checks of the licences, authorities raised the fees, tensions grew, and eventually this led to the famous Eureka Stockade here in Ballarat.
(The story of which is told in the excellent Blood on the Southern Cross show in the evenings at Sovereign Hill)
Such is the gamble of life on the goldfields. Such is the gamble of life.
You can see a bit more in this video:
Exploring Main Street
There’s no doubt that a lot of wealth was created, though, and so a town sprang up quickly to support all these new people and all their demands.
Although I think the mine tours are the highlight of a visit to Sovereign Hill, exploring this town is just as interesting in its own way. As opposed to the tour underground, where your path is predetermined, wandering along main street is like a choose-your-own-adventure.
There are dozens of buildings to pop into and you never quite know what you’ll discover. Maybe something will be showing at the theatre or there’ll be someone to talk to at the bar. There might be a performance on the street or a craftsman creating something in their workshop.
The best thing is that everyone is up for a chat, it seems.
Sue at the apothecary has been working at Sovereign Hill for 22 years. When I stop for a little bit, she jokes that during the day she really feels like she’s in the 1850s.
Sue tells me that she works four days a week in the apothecary but also does one day somewhere else in the town. She thinks that’s important to see what’s happening everywhere.
I assume she means that she wants the gossip!
That’s probably how Ballarat was in the 1850s and that’s how it is now. Everyone doing their own job but taking an interest in the community around them.
Friendships form, families grow. People come, and people go. And the town just keeps on keeping on.
The last gold mine closed in Ballarat in 1918 and Sovereign Hill opened in 1970, just a generation or two later. Of course it’s a reconstruction, a town trapped in a moment of time. But after spending some time getting to know it better, I see that it’s more than just the 1850s. I think Sovereign Hill is also the natural progression of a dream that’s hard to forget.
The Gold Rush lives on… and evolves.