The town's name derives from the indigenous occupants of the area (said to be the Wathawurung) who called it 'Balla-arat' which is said to mean 'a good resting place'. This is thought to be a reference to the fact that they formed a camp here by Lake Wendouree (then a swamp).
In the severe drought of 1837 a group of Scottish squatters left the Geelong area and headed north in search of superior sheep and cattle pastures. They became the first white men to see the land on which the town would emerge. One of the party, William Cross Yuille, camped adjacent Black Swamp (now Lake Wendouree) and established the 'Ballaarat' station in March 1838 around present day Ballarat and Sebastopol.
A settlement developed at Buninyong and it was there, on August 8, 1851, that blacksmith Thomas Hiscock, found the first gold of the Ballarat goldfields. The small rush that followed brought John Dunlop and James Regan who started prospecting on the Ballarat Station. On 21 August they struck gold at the location which became known as Poverty Point in the White Horse Range and, by mid-October, there were over 2000 diggers combing the area. On August 25, the diggers heard that the government was to impose a 30-shilling monthly licence fee and they organised a meeting to oppose the tax. On September 21 the licence impost led to a confrontation, thereby looking forward to the events of the Eureka Stockade in 1854.
Despite the shift of the goldfields administration from Buninyong to Ballarat on November 7, the Poverty Point site was soon worked out and the area was virtually deserted by the end of the year for the Mt Alexander diggings. Nonetheless, in December, Ballarat was surveyed and a plan drawn up for the establishment of a town. Another rush occurred there the following year and experienced and skilled British miners arrived, sinking shafts into the flats at the foot of the hills. Numerous gold-rich quartz reefs, such as the Eureka, Gravel Pits and Canadian leads, were located.
By 1853 there were some 20 000 prospectors working the field. In that year alone 9926 kg of gold were shipped out on the police-protected gold escort to Melbourne with another 77 700 kg transported from 1854 to 1857. The first gold battery in Australia was established at Ballarat in 1854.
The major single find of these years was the Welcome Nugget which, at almost 69 kg (99% of it pure gold), was the second-largest solid gold nugget to be found in the world. A cairn, on the corner of Mair and Humffray Streets, marks the spot of the find.
In the meantime the settlement of Ballarat (originally spelled 'Ballaarat') had begun to emerge as a service centre to the diggings. Ballarat West was proclaimed a township in 1852 and the first town land sale occurred that year. Initially a 5-km stretch of canvas tents, it began to develop more substantial buildings with the addition of a proper hotel in 1853, an official post office building in 1854, the commencement of work on Christ Church Anglican Cathedral that same year, the erection of two churches in 1855, and a gaol and hospital in 1856.
Ballarat became a municipality in 1855. At that time, between one-sixth and one-quarter of the population was Chinese although they were forced into six separate protectorates or villages from 1855. Ballarat East became a municipality in 1857 and both were declared boroughs in 1863. The area prospered due to the demand for goods, services, administration and mining machinery. The arrival of the railway from Geelong (Australia's first country railway) in 1862 further enhanced marketing, commercial and social possibilities.
Meanwhile, back on the goldfield, the alluvial material was soon exhausted and small-scale shaft mining was gradually replaced by more ambitious deep-lead mining enterprises, particularly under the Sebastopol Plateau to the west which, between the late 1850s and 1875 (when the mines there started to close), produced far more gold than the Ballarat East fields.
However, there were major obstacles such as floods, huge inflows of sand and four layers of basalt. This type of mining necessitated capital investment and large companies emerged, establishing famous mines such as the Township Group and the Band of Hope Mine. Just one shaft of the latter yielded 9700 kg of gold and, in 1868, the population of the Ballarat goldfield peaked at around 64 000. 1870 saw the formation of the Sebastapol Miners' Union which was the first in the state. That same year there were said to be 477 hotels, 56 churches and 3 town halls. Ballarat West was declared a city in 1870 and Ballarat East followed suit in 1872 (they were merged in 1921).
In the late 1860s some 300 mining companies were working the fields and the Ballarat Stock Exchange was set up to facilitate the marketing of shares in mining ventures. Subterranean operations also required heavy machinery and infrastructure, thereby fostering the development of local foundries such as Cowley's Eureka Iron Works and the Phoenix. The latter, established in 1855, supplied batteries, engines, boilers and mining equipment throughout Australia and New Zealand. Other forms of industry appeared, including woollen mills (1872), flour mills, tanneries, boot-making enterprises, meat-preservation works and breweries such as the Ballarat Brewing Company which made the famous 'Ballarat Bertie' brew (the company was taken over by Carlton & United Breweries in 1959). Mixed farming also began to emerge to the west with the Land Act of 1861 which enabled selectors to obtain small allotments.
When a recession hit the mining industry in 1870 the population dropped quite dramatically but the manufactories, together with the nascent agricultural sector, provided an economic base which ensured the town's survival beyond the fortunes of the goldfields. The Phoenix foundry, for example, found a new lease of life when it won the contract to manufacture locomotives for the state government, producing 350 steam engines before it closed in 1906. Another local enterprise to emerge was Eleanor Lucas's lingerie factory which started as a cottage industry in 1888 (this factory was eventually taken over by Courtaulds in 1969). Moreover, the town became a significant rail centre with the lines to Maryborough and Ararat opening in 1875.
The last gold mine closed down at Ballarat in 1918 although some tailings dumps were retreated in the desperate years of the Great Depression. In all, the local fields yielded some 230 million pounds worth of gold which, between 1851 and 1960, amounted to 27% of the state's total production.
Throughout the twentieth century Ballarat has prospered as a major administrative, manufacturing and commercial service centre.
The Eureka Rebellion
Wherever a goldrush occurred in Victoria, a gold commissioner was appointed to the area to provide law and order but also to collect, from the miners, a monthly licence fee. Contention over this fee was but one of several grievances felt by miners throughout the goldfields. However, at Ballarat, these resentments became highly focused when they were entangled with a series of local incidents which culminated in the Eureka Rebellion: one of the most famous events in the history of colonial Australia.
The licensing system was introduced in 1851 and it entailed a payment of one and a half pounds a month (reduced, in December 1853, to one pound a month or two pounds for three months) for the right to dig for gold, whether precious metal was found or not. A perception of unfairness was compounded by the fact that the gold at Ballarat was increasingly to be found in subterranean lodes which it could take months of work to reach, if at all.
Failure to pay for a licence entailed a five-pound fine for a first offence and up to six months in gaol for a second. Universal resentment was intensified by the means of enforcement. Police raids were conducted and anyone without a licence on their person was liable to arrest and fines. Moreover, many of the police were ex-convicts from Tasmania who received half of each fine.
When Sir Charles Hotham became lieutenant governor of Victoria in June 1854 he noted that only 70% of the fees were being collected and ordered strict enforcement. In September 1854 he stepped up inspections from a monthly to a twice-weekly basis. The perception of injustice was exacerbated by the absence of voting rights, of political representation in the legislative assembly, and of land for settlement.
It was against this background that the Scobie incident occurred. On 6 October, 1854, a digger named James Scobie was kicked to death shortly after entering the Eureka Hotel. The owner of the hotel (James Bentley) and three other men, were charged with the murder. The case was heard by the stipendiary magistrate, the goldfields commissioner (Robert Rede) and the assistant commissioner. The evidence was strong and the public expected a guilty verdict but the four men were honourably discharged, despite the dissent of the assistant commissioner.
Consequently, a public meeting was called and, on October 17, several thousand miners gathered, denounced the finding and initiated a fund to provide reward money for further evidence. Afterwards, the men began to gather about the Eureka Hotel. The police were in attendance but hostility welled up and boiled over, culminating in the burning down of the hotel and Bentley's escape on horseback. Relations with the authorities were further damaged when three miners were given short prison sentences for their part in the riot (there seems to be some suggestion that they were innocent men, being randomly chosen to set an example).
Another major meeting was held on 11 November, at Bakery Hill and there the Ballarat Reform League was established. Inspired by Chartist aims, the miners sought universal suffrage, voting by ballot, annual parliaments, the payment of political representatives, the abolition of the licensing system, revision of laws relating to crown land and changes to the administration of the goldfields.
On 27 November a miners' deputation to Lieutenant-Governor Hotham requested the release of the three imprisoned miners. He declined but supported their desire for enfranchisement, reminded them that constitutional moves were afoot to achieve this outcome, said he would appoint their chosen representative to the legislative assembly and told them they could voice their grievances about the licensing system at a proposed commission of inquiry into the matter.
Another mass meeting was planned for the 29th so that the delegation could report back to the miners. Hotham was told by Commissioner Rede that he expected trouble and troops were dispatched to the area. Ominously, there was a skirmish as they entered Ballaarat on the evening of the 28th.
The delegation reported favourably about their meeting with Hotham but the miners decided to burn their licences at a public bonfire on Bakery Hill and to protect anyone facing arrest for being without one. That day the diggers, probably for the first time, sported their now famous blue flag adorned with the stars of the Southern Cross.
On the 30th Rede ordered a licence check. The police were rebuffed with stones and shots were fired. Rede called on the military and arrests were made. The miners elected Peter Lalor, a prominent figure of the Reform League, as their commander-in-chief. About 500 men took an oath to 'fight to defend our rights and liberties' and set about erecting a stockade on the Eureka claim.
At any rate, Commissioner Rede and the infantry captain garnered information about the defences, including the fact that the numbers had dwindled to 150 untrained men as some had left and many were out scouting for food and ammunition. The size of the encampment suggests that the diggers felt no urgency to remain vigilant and in constant attendance, indicating that they did not expect to be attacked.
In the early hours of 3 December, 152 infantry, 30 cavalry men and their officers, and 100 police approached the stockade by a surreptitious route. They charged the camp, where many still slept, and overcame resistance within about 15 minutes. It seems clear the troops employed excessive force and gratuitous violence, needlessly destroying property and tents. This may be to do with the fact that six of their number were killed. Peter Lalor claimed 22 miners died and another 12 later recovered from substantial wounds. 120 prisoners were taken, although some of the leaders escaped, including Lalor who went into hiding until a general amnesty was declared (he later became a Victorian MP). Most were released but 13 were accused of high treason. Of these 12 would later be acquitted and proceedings were dropped against the 13th. The editor of the Ballarat Times received a six-month prison sentence for three counts of seditious libel.
Lieutenant-Governor Hotham appointed the promised commission of inquiry into the gold fields on 7 December. In March 1855 it recommended the abolition of the licensing fee and the establishment of a Miner's Right document which cost one pound per annum and which gave prospectors the title deed to their claim. It also advocated the opening of crown land to small landowners and an export duty on gold. All recommendations were eventually adopted and the upshot was the greater democratisation of the polity.
19th-century poet and politician Adam Lindsay Gordon moved to Ballarat with his family in October 1867. A keen horseman, he operated a livery stable behind Craig's Hotel. However, his stay was a most unhappy one. The stables burned down, he was injured when he fell from his horse and his 11-month-old daughter died. He left town in October 1868 and committed suicide in 1870.
Distinguished public figures who started their lives at Ballarat were Prime Minister of Australia James Scullin, Premier of Victoria Sir Henry Bolte, distinguished long-distance runner Steve Moneghetti and one of Victoria's first female poets, 'Jennings Carmichael'.
Poet Bernard O'Dowd, who grew up in Ballarat, was publishing his material in the Ballarat Evening Post by the time he was 16. He taught at St Alipius' School but was replaced owing to his growing religious skepticism.
Ballarat was also the setting for Australia Felix (1917) - the first volume of Henry Handel Richardson's famous literary trilogy: The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney. Henry Lawson, 'Rolf Boldrewood', Norman Lindsay and Peter Carey have also used the city as a setting or subject in their literary works and Eugene von Guerard (1811-1901) took to painting the early goldfields and landscapes. American writer Mark Twain visited Ballarat in the 1890s and gave lectures in the Mechanics Institute in Sturt Street. He too used the city as a setting in his works, while future US president, Herbert Hoover, made an unsuccessful search for gold to the north of Ballarat in 1905.
A man with a less salubrious reputation who also had associations with the city and district was bushranger Captain Moonlite (Andrew Scott). Born in Ireland, Scott arrived in Sydney in 1867, claiming a colourful past with Garibaldi's red shirts in Italy, in New Zealand's Maori Wars and in the Union Army during the USA's Civil War. Well educated and the son of an Anglican clergyman, he befriended famous churchman John Dunmore Lang and, in 1868 or 1869, was appointed as a lay preacher at Egerton, a goldmining settlement 30 km east of Ballarat (near Gordon).
On 8 May 1869 Ludwig Brunn, the local agent for the London Chartered Bank, was bailed up by a masked man with a pistol at the banking chamber in the main street. Brunn immediately deduced, from the voice, that it was Preacher Scott. After 697 pounds in bank notes and a cake of gold worth 500 pounds were taken, Brunn was forced to write a note which stated he had done his best to defend the bank's property and was forced at gunpoint to comply. The letter was signed by the thief under the nom de plume 'Captain Moonlite'.
The next day the police informed Scott he was accused by Brunn. Scott suggested the signature resembled that of James Simpson, the superintendent of Scott's Sunday School, at whose house Brunn was boarding. Brunn and Simpson were subsequently charged with the theft although the case against them later collapsed.
Scott went to Sydney where he lived prodigally and presented himself as a squatter. He was arrested for fraud and forgery while setting sail for Fiji in a private yacht and, despite a brilliant self-defence in court, was sentenced to 18 months. Upon his release he was arrested and extradited to Ballarat as new evidence had arisen over the Egerton robbery (the sale of the cake of gold was traced back to him). His arrival at Ballarat caused considerable excitement and crowds turned up at the railway station for a glimpse. However, Scott soon escaped from the newly-built gaol.
He was recaptured two months later and re-secured at Ballarat Gaol. Although he again defended himself with considerable flair and always proclaimed his innocence, he was found guilty and sentenced by Sir Redmond Barry (who later sentenced Ned Kelly to death) to 10 years in prison. After his early release for good behaviour he gave public lectures on prison reform issues but, as his fortunes declined, he became a bushranger (see entry on Wagga Wagga).
Another goldfields visitor was the famous Lola Montez who danced her 'sensational' Spider Dance at Ballarat in 1855. For this she was denounced by Ballarat newspaper editor Harry Seekamp, prompting her to attack him with a whip.