Sovereign Hill




David Whitley goes back to the past in Ballarat to discover the gold-mining industry that helped shape Australia.


In European terms, Australia really isn’t that old. The first permanent British settlers arrived in 1788, and the country has not taken long to go from an outpost penal colony at the end of the earth to rich first world nation.In the early days, the place that would later become known as Australia was heavily subsidised by Britain – it was an extension of the prison service after all. But as more and more settlers arrived, industries started up. The three main money-spinners were sealing, whaling and sheep farming; enough to bring in big money for those in charge, but not exactly anything to get excited about for the outside world.


But in the middle of the 19th century, the perception of Australia being little more than desert and grazing land underwent an abrupt change. Gold was discovered, and suddenly Planet Earth became very interested indeed. Gold was the catalyst for huge population growth. The state of Victoria was where most of the gold was found. The goldfield towns of Ballarat and Bendigo became magnets for those wanting to dig for wealth, and they took on a rough-and-ready pioneer spirit. Between 1846 and 1855, the official population of Victoria went up from 32,879 to 347,305. That’s serious change.


Ironically, one of the places that drove such change is now preserved as a relic. Sovereign Hill in Ballarat has been kept as a colonial era settlement – a living museum where everyone wanders around in period costume, wooden buildings are the norm and the dusty, unpaved streets become a mudpath when the rains come. Sovereign Hill ceased to become a viable mining settlement as World War I broke out. Profits at the mines had been dwindling anyway, and once the miners had been sent off to war, there was little point in continuing. It now serves as an outpost of quaintness where you can learn to make traditional sweets, watch candle-dipping displays and cover your ears as fake soldiers in red coats fire their muskets.


You can also pan for gold in the stream and watch a gold pour where a chap with some seriously heavy duty gloves turns the molten metal in the bars we’re more familiar with. But the real draw card is the chance to go down what was once a real mine.We descend into the mine on a cable car tram – essentially a funicular railway that plunges into the darkness. It’s a shock to the senses; one that real miners would have had to go through every day, and with none of the modern electric lighting to help them out. 


The mine has had some serious work done to it to make it safe for tourists – tunnels that were formerly just five foot two inches in height have been enlarged so that they’re now six foot six – but the atmosphere remains. Lamps, benches and rudimentary kettles remain down there and some of the original machinery is still in place. Our guide demonstrates how some of it works.


But the real surprise is how little of the whole gold mining procedure was down to skill – much of it was brute force; a simple equation of getting as much rock as possible through a steam engine-powered crusher. The steam engine is still working today, pounding away on the surface of the mine in a bid to demonstrate the power. You’d need to crush three tonnes of the primarily quartz rock to get just one ounce of gold. But it’s on such mathematics and brute force that fortunes can be made and countries can be built – and while Sovereign Hill is clearly living in the past, it’s a past worth getting to know.