As the birthplace of Australian democracy, Ballarat’s golden past plays an integral role in the history of this great nation.
In April 1837, Thomas Livingstone Learmonth and a party of young squatters climbed Mount Buninyong and looked down on the hills and valleys which today form Ballarat.
A squatter called William Yuille camped on the shores of the Black Swamp, now known as Lake Wendouree. “Balla” “Arat” was derived from the Aboriginal words for resting or camping place.
Gold was discovered at Poverty Point in 1851 by John Dunlop and James Regan, who found a few ounces while panning in the Canadian Creek. By the following year, there were around 20,000 diggers searching in the shafts of the Ballarat goldfields. Due to this population explosion, Ballarat was proclaimed a town in 1852 and surveyor W H Urquhart was commissioned to lay out a township. By 1855, Ballarat was a municipality, a borough by 1863 and a city in 1871.
By the early 1850s, the government in Melbourne had set up a system of gold licences to allow miners to search for gold on a specified piece of land. The licence fee was paid regardless if the miner found gold or not. If found without a licence, the digger was forced to pay a fine of £10 or be chained to a log until the fine was paid. The diggers became frustrated over the frequency and corrupt manner of how the goldfields police went about their licence checks. Due to a shortage of manpower, many of the police were ex-convicts. The government gave them the power to undertake checks and many, because of their background, went about their duty in a ruthless manner. The diggers had no say as they had no representation in Parliament.
By 1854, the police ordered twice weekly licence checks due to the lack of co-operation from miners in obtaining the appropriate licence. This caused more resentment around the goldfields. On October 7, 1854, James Scobie was murdered at Bentley’s Eureka Hotel. On October 12, after a riot by miners, Bentley’s Hotel was burned to the ground in protest of Bentley’s acquittal of murdering Scobie. Three miners were arrested and sent to prison. A retrial followed later and Bentley and two others were found guilty of the manslaughter of Scobie and sent to prison.
On November 11, the Ballarat Reform League was formed with the view of abolishing licences and having the miners released. Due to the lack of response to these demands, a stockade was set up on the Eureka Lead. Led by Peter Lalor, the miners burned their licences on December 3, 1854, and went into battle after government soldiers unexpectedly stormed the stockade early that morning. The battle lasted about 15 minutes and, in that time, up to 30 miners and six government troopers were killed. A total of 114 miners were taken prisoner.
Within six months, legislation was passed to give miners a fairer deal. The monthly gold tax was abolished and miners were given the right to vote. Installed was a miners right costing £2 per year, later reduced to £1. People could now see the injustice of the whole situation. All miners arrested after the rebellion, and those sentenced for the burning of Bentley’s Eureka Hotel, were released. Peter Lalor, who had been in hiding since the uprising, came out of hiding. He became the first member for Ballarat West to be represented in the Legislative Assembly and later became Speaker of the House.
In 1858, the Welcome Nugget — the second largest gold nugget ever found in Australia — was discovered at Ballarat’s Bakery Hill. By the 1860s, the prospect of finding gold in Ballarat East had nearly diminished. By this time, many of the alluvial mines in that area had declined and companies were formed to start much deeper mining in the west and south of Ballarat. To establish these mines, heavy equipment was needed. Foundries such as the Phoenix Foundry were established to cope with this demand. By now, the town was supported by industries such as flour mills and agriculture-related companies. When the rail came through in 1862, it opened many more opportunities such as shops and markets. Trades like blacksmiths had been established many years earlier to expand both towards Melbourne and the Wimmera.
When the last mine closed in 1918, Ballarat had enough industry and service bases to support it for many years to come.