Ballarat Heritage Services


Ballarat and District Research
by Dorothy Wickham

Ballarat and district is an exciting area to research. The pastoralists who first settled the land had their peace shattered in the early 1850s by swarms of miners intent on finding their fortune on the Victorian Goldfields as one gold discovery after another peppered the district. Huge wealth was extracted from the earth in the Ballarat area leading to the establishment of a beautiful city reflecting the prosperity of the era.

The first squatters arrived in the district in 1838. They included the Thomas and Somerville Learmonth and the Birch brothers, Yuille, Scott, Anderson, Captain John Hepburn, Cameron and others. Scott settled at Mt Boninyong (sic) and Mrs Scott was the first white women in the district. In 1840 it was reported that she rode across the dry bed of Lake Burrumbeet.

The Aborigines in the Ballarat area were of the Borneghurk and Wathaurang tribes but by the late 1840s the population was depleted. According to Withers (W.B. Withers, A History of Ballarat, Melbourne, 1887), it was observed that the adults had the marks of smallpox on their bodies when the first settlers arrived.

In 1851 payable gold was officially discovered at Ballarat. Men in Melbourne and Geelong put down their tools; walked out of offices and joined the rush. Soon the news passed around the world and dozens of sailing ships were anchored in Port Phillip Bay. The new arrivals represented many nationalities, occupations and political traditions. They were young, ambitious and independent. The pastoralists were reluctant to accommodate the changes rapidly taking place around them and earned the dislike of many of the gold miners.

Governor Charles LaTrobe and his successor in 1854, Sir Charles Hotham, struggled to cope with the chaos caused by a huge influx of people and the enormous changes that the gold rush brought. Diggers objected to paying for a miners licence when they had no rights; they felt persecuted by the arbitrary nature of police licence hunts and it was believed goldfields police and commissioners were often corrupt. Eventually their lack of political status led Ballarat miners to form a protest group which built a stockade on the Eureka Lead. On the morning of Sunday, December 3, 1854 some 120 miners in the stockade were attacked by 400 soldiers and goldfields police. A short battle resulted in the deaths of thirty miners and five soldiers but community support was so great for the miners cause that a number of democratic reforms followed Eureka. This history of Eureka is a study in itself and is of particular importance in gaining a good understanding of Victorian history.

In 1854 the district court was still run from Buninyong. There was a lock-up and the 'logs' at Ballarat but no gaol. There was no city council, no rates being collected, churches and schools when set up were conducted in flimsy tents. Provision stores were makeshift, mostly tents, so that their entrepreneurial owners could pick them up and take them to the next new rush. There was no infrastructure and no permanency. It is creditable that any records at all have survived and it is a living reminder of the struggle our forebears had to record and preserve what today can be called our wonderful heritage.

After Eureka came the building of a city. It is often said that Ballarat is 'built on gold'. After tremendous growth, consolidation of the city took place through industry, agriculture, commerce, sports and the arts.

If you have tracked your ancestors to the Ballarat region it is worth noting that the Central Highlands Historical Association Inc. is the umbrella association for fifty heritage organisations. These groups have interests as diverse as local history, family history and genealogy, the history of railways, trams, paddle steamers, astronomy, aviation and military matters. The CHHA was formed in 1985 and is an active and innovative organisation which assists by developing and maintaining resource and information networks among the member societies. It represents member societies to municipal, state and federal governments on matters of joint concern. The CHHA publishes a journal and conducts a number of public events throughout the year including a history fair.

Each society has its own unique specialities. Some societies have particularly interesting and significant collections. The following are a sample list and are by no means an entire list of the Association.

The Creswick Museum was bequeathed a collection of Lindsay paintings. It also has many other items of interest to anyone researching the Creswick area. The Clunes Museum has many archives, mining and agricultural tools, as well as memorabilia relating to Clunes, Victoria's first gold town. The Ballarat Historical Society has a notable photographic collection, some of which is housed in the Gold Museum and some at the Ballarat Municipal Library. Cape Clear has a wonderful photographic collection, Woady Yaloak Historical Society is located in the Smythesdale courthouse and has a mammoth amount of material pertaining particularly to the Smythesdale area.

The Ballarat Astronomical Society caters for group bookings. Tours of the observatory include relevant history with showings of century-old telescopes which are still in operation. The buildings have superb stained glass windows and the site has been listed by the Historic Buildings Council of Victoria. The Ballarat Engine and Machinery Preservation Society Inc. brings together people with a common interest in the preservation of old engines and machinery. The collections are privately owned by society members. If your ancestor was part of a machinery firm such as Preston and Kelly, this society may be able to help you with a wealth of information. The Phoenix Foundry was another large firm in the Ballarat area. and a book on this foundry is currently being researched.

The Ballarat Tramway Museum Inc. maintains and operates vintage trams on a section of the original Ballarat tramway system. It also operates a museum with accompanying archives and resource centre. The Blacksmith Cottage and Forge in Main Street, Bacchus Marsh is open every fourth Sunday of the month from 12 noon to 4.00 p.m. The Bungaree Historical Society is located at the Old Bluestone School, Bungaree and one members has indexed the Bungaree court records. These courts recorded truancy as well as the misdemeanours such as the filing for maintenance. Bungaree also has a collection of agricultural implements. The Carisbrook Historical Society's collection includes a large number of photographs and a range of school, cemetery and family history records. The Lake Bolac and District Historical Society is involved in the preservation of social history in that district. Two rallies are conducted annually by the Lake Goldsmith Steam and Preservation Society Ltd.

Further hints on researching in the Ballarat district can be found in the book Family History Research on the Central Goldfields of Victoria (For further details click on 'BHS Publishing'). The book includes contact details and opening hours for many research organisations, Records in the Public record Office of Victoria Ballarat repository that are not on their computer searches, and other ways to track down elusive ancestors including newspapers, court records and much more. Most libraries will have a copy, or will order one in for you.

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