BE History 2

Presented by Edith Fry, Australiana Room Librarian Ballarat City Library.

In his definitive history of Ballarat, Lucky city: the first generation at Ballarat 1851-1901 (1978) Professor Weston Bate devotes a chapter to the relationship between the township of Ballarat and the goldfield of Ballarat East. The different histories of Ballarat and Ballarat East led to contrasting ways of life in the two municipalities, and echoes of the rivalry between them can still be heard today. Newcomers to Ballarat may not be aware of this long history, but scratch any old Eastie and the never-say-die attitude lies just under the surface.

Professor Bate uses the 1861 Ballarat Goldfield map to highlight the difference between Ballarat East and the western township.  The East, the early alluvial goldfield, shows clearly on the map that it grew spontaneously with streets like a spider’s web and thick clusters of buildings along Main Street.  But apart from the thick clustering on Main Rd, the population was scattered. The people of the East had to deal with old gold workings, mine sludge and frequent floods due to ineffective drainage systems, and the Eastern Oval was the only green open space.  After the roaring days of the gold rush Ballarat East was a desolate scene. Bate Lucky City p166

Ballarat, the western township, was surveyed and planned with precision.  There was little surface or alluvial mining disturbance because of the deep basalt.  The 1861 map indicates the advantage of formal planning with cricket grounds, hospital and cemetery reserves and the reserve around Lake Wendouree, which together with the Botanical Gardens reserve, outdid anything in Ballarat East. As well, Ballarat expanded into country land on which farming and dairying were developing, and the Common was gazetted by 1861.  Ballarat East was surrounded by forested hills.

The main market was in Ballarat, the Haymarket, at the area where the Civic Hall now stands;  the  railway arrived in the western township, meaning that the East people faced higher cartage costs; water too, was another bone of contention with Lake Wendouree being the original supply – and in the west.

Main Street’s heyday was over when businesses moved to prominent new premises in Sturt St, away from sludge and floods and fire.  Many people who could afford to move did so, leaving older people, and perhaps less successful pioneers, and a seedier population in the East.  An indicator of social inequality was the number of Chinese there.  Yet there was more colour in the East, a larrikin spirit and an earthiness less obvious on the more prosperous side of the Yarrowee. Bate Lucky City p 173    Mining continued in the East until 1917, and scarred the area: the dust from the old dumps blew through the town on hot northerly days, and there was a wasteland of mullock and sludge.  Mining families of Welsh and Cornish descent were numerous: long association with the mines and each other contributed to that East tribalism that was not so apparent in the more affluent but less coherent West.

While Ballarat East faltered, Ballarat matured rapidly under the stimulation of mining and also industry diversification – manufacturing, agricultural and trade.  The wealth and influence of Ballarat’s citizens saw improvements in the environment, planting trees and beautifying the Lake – and while citizens of East or West could use these amenities, the honour of achieving them belonged to westerners.   Ballarat East answered with reserves such as the Eureka Stockade, but the scale and amenity was smaller.

Professor Bate is passionate about the character of the East:

“… the tone of the East was strident and individual.  It would never willingly be a suburb of Ballarat West.  The two co-existed like the head and tail of a coin, looking in different directions and displaying the contrasting imprints of the historical and geographical dies that had made them.  Each was a guardian of an aspect of Ballarat’s tradition, and the community as a whole was undoubtedly more meaningful and interesting as a result.  It might be thought the East was more Australian because it was less subjected to imported urban forms and institutions and had a restless larrikin quality.  Yet the West was probably more typical of what British migrants hoped for in Australia – material success – and it contained large numbers of pioneers who had had the best of both worlds …” Bate Lucky City p.184

By the early 1900s, as mining in the East declined, so too did the population, a disaster for this less affluent community.  The East was generally in financial trouble with few streets surveyed, little land sold and few ratepayers.  Amalgamation of the two municipalities failed again and again – there were too many vested interests.  Easterners feared the loss of separate government subsidies and Westerners wanted to avoid the expense of road-making on the flat.   The East felt that Greater Ballarat policies would favour Western businessmen and disadvantage the poor.  Jealousies seemed to point to deep-seated antipathies perhaps stemming from Eureka, when town and goldfield took opposing sides.

Amalgamation finally came in 1921: at the last council meeting in Ballarat East, the Mayor of Ballarat paid tribute to Eastern generosity and public spirit.  Ballarat East’s municipal identity incorporated the earliest phase of Ballarat’s urban history.  It is worth noting the results of the final vote for amalgamation –

City: Yes 1180, No 60

Ballarat East: Yes 708, No 616

Post World War 2, industrial expansion in Ballarat was to the north and west, along Creswick Road and on the Ballarat Common.  Expansion in the East was limited because of the surrounding forested hills and so Ballarat East was cut off from the main stream of development.  Industry in the East was on a smaller scale than in the West – think of the old industries, Sunshine Biscuits, George Farmer, Eureka Terracotta, and the joineries and builders.

The cleanup of Ballarat East began with removing old mine dumps for the White Swan reservoir wall, and the recovery of old mining land for Housing Commission homes.  But to a large extent the East was unfashionable and the popular style of subdivisional development of Wendouree was not possible there.  It was unsuitable for large housing subdivisions as it was for industry.  The car also made development at Mt Clear or Mt Helen popular, a further challenge to Ballarat East.  Housing styles changed.  Greater resale value and lower maintenance costs made brick construction popular.

The tiny cottages of the East were under threat from health inspectors in the 1950s, and the Real Estate Institute in the 1960s, when it reported they were hard to sell and should be regarded as providing building blocks.

“Old people and the poor, especially in Ballarat East, were declared more or less redundant”. Bate Life After Gold p 193   

This lack of prestige did not materially help Ballarat East but yet helped sustain radical attitudes.  It was a world first when McDonalds agreed to recycle the buildings on Bakery Hill to preserve the streetscape; the Bakery Hill fight echoed the pre-Eureka protests held there.

Sovereign Hill, and the rise of heritage tourism at last allowed Ballarat to rediscover its heritage and Ballarat East to rediscover itself.  Miners’ cottages and old houses were an important resource in the 1970s when investment was curtailed, and it became fashionable to ‘do them up’.

Professor Bate ends Life After Gold with a curious statement.

“In some ways life after gold in 20th century Ballarat has involved the use of the past as an escape from the present as well as its manipulation to prop up a teetering economy”.

This is exactly why the present development of Ballarat East is so critical.  It is not an escape into the past, which for Ballarat East was often hard and difficult.  Ballarat East should look to the future with confidence precisely because of its heritage.  Development to minimum standards and maximum returns will send Ballarat East back to the ‘bad old days’ of goldrush attitudes, of taking all, with reckless regard for consequences.  Ballarat East stands in a position to be uniquely and positively developed, building on its own character of hardiness, survival and community.

Further reading:

Bate, W. Lucky city: the first generation at Ballarat 1851-1901, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 1978

Bate, W. Life after gold: twentieth century Ballarat Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 1993

Our East History woman is “an old eastie” a local research librarian with a passion for all things East. Please send her things you find, things you know to support our communities understanding of where we live. You can email her here at BE Net