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 as one gold discovery after another peppered the district. Huge wealth was extracted from the earth in the Ballarat area and this led 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 Learmonth and the Birch brothers, Yuille, Scott, Anderson, 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 very few survived. 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 gold was officially discovered. 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 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 miner's 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 3 December 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.