Glimpses of Early Victoria in 1855 – Ballarat – Castlemaine – Williamstown – Geelong

Christmastide in Australia in the 1852 was ushered in under curious conditions. The gold fever was at its very height. And in Victoria especially it had reached a paroxysmal stage. The latter part of 1852 had witnessed a tremendous influx of prospective goldseekers to the new El Dorado. They overflowed the little town of Melbourne, as it was then. Tents were pitched in most of the available spaces in the town and its suburbs. In fact in many parts of Collins and Bourke streets, and others of what are now the leading streets of the Victorian capital, tents at the period referred to were to be seen side by side with the more substantial structures which ante-dated the gold discovery. On the south side of Prince’s Bridge, on the right hand at the commencement of the St. Kilda-road, sprang up the famous Canvas Town, which was very graphically described to English readers early in 1853 in HOUSEHOLD WORDS. The writer was probably Dicken’s friend, R. H. Horne, who was among the adventurers who landed in Melbourne in the memorable “year of confusion,” 1852. As will be seen, however, from the heading of these remarks, they are intended to have special reference to Victoria as it was some three years later than the date just mentioned.

MAIN-ROAD, BALLARAT

Arrival of Geelong Mail, Main Road, Ballarat

The first picture of the far-famed Ballarat represents a part of the main road as it appeared in 1855. In those days the conveyance from Geelong was a familiar apparition on any afternoon, dashing along the Main-road. The “John o’ Groat’s Concert Room,” which stood on the left hand, was a well-known place of resort, while the rival concert-room on the opposite side, together with the grocer’s store and barber’s shop, are equally authentic “bits” of what was at that time the most important business artery of the Ballarat diggings. Away to the right, where hilly ground is indicated, lay the “Eureka lead,” the tragic celebrity of which, in connection with the now historic assault and capture of the “Eureka Stockade,” was in 1855 only a matter dating back a few months. Great as was the temporary disturbance caused by the Eureka outbreak, Ballarat quickly recovered itself; and, on the whole, 1855 was a very flourishing year as far as Ballarat and its environs were concerned. Towards the close of the year the memorable rush to Cobbler’s Gully and Magpie Gully took place, but during the first half the centre of mining attraction was still confined to the Ballarat diggings proper. The “Gravel Pits” and other rich leads had not yet lost their pristine glories. For it was about this time that Thatcher, the “diggers’ poet” used to nightly introduce to the delight of his digger audience, a song in which the following lines occurred:

“Your talk of new rushes is all very fine, But give me a good claim on the Gravel Pit line.”

Mining in Victoria in 1855 was in a comparatively primitive state. Little dreaming of the operations which were to be common in later years, the Ballarat diggers used to plume themselves on the fact that theirs was emphatically “deep sinking.” Men accustomed only to the shallower “scratching,” which was as yet the order of the day in all the other Victorian gold fields, would hear almost with bated breath that shafts of 120 and 140 feet were often sunk at Ballarat.

JOHN ALLOO’S RESTAURANT

Interior of John Alloo’s Restaurant, Ballarat

No club, tavern, or hostelry in any city of Europe or America was better known or more popular in its way than was that restaurant on the Main-road, Ballarat, of which the Chinaman, John Alloo, was proprietor. John Alloo’s charge to his regular boarders was £2 per week. Considering the times one must admit that it was very far from being an exorbitant tariff. In a rough way, John Alloo’s table was exceedingly well supplied. Neither indeed, as compared with the sort of viands which diggers usually set before themselves when they were their own cooks, was John Alloo’s catering to be considered as wanting in variety and even in tempting morsels. His dinners always showed a great display of joints roast and boiled, and there was an unlimited supply of puddings and pastry. The best proof of John Alloo’s merits as a restaurant-keeper was that he held his own against numerous rivals, and finally retired from the business with a considerable sum of money. He was for a while Chinese interpreter to the Victorian Government; but of his later history the present writer is not aware.

John Alloo’s Chinese Restaurant, Main Road, Ballarat

MARKET SQUARE, CASTLEMAINE, FOREST CREEK

Market Square, Castlemaine, Forest Creek

Forest Creek, the Castlemaine of the present day, divided with Bendigo the distinction of being the most famous of the gold fields which were first opened up in Victoria. Few, or indeed no such “piles” as a little later were made on Ballarat were to be had at Forest Creek, but still there were ample prizes for those diggers who happened to be in luck’s way; and, as the sinking was quite shallow, the labor of a few days very often sufficed to bring what for poor men was a comparative fortune.

BALLARAT FROM BATH’S HOTEL

Township of Ballarat, from Bath’s Hotel

In the earlier years Bath’s Hotel was to Ballarat what Petty’s, Pfahlert’s, and the Australia, together with all the leading clubs rolled into one, are to Sydney at the present day. If a dinner was got up in honor of some special visitor, it was at Bath’s Hotel it was sure to be held. The house stood at the corner of what was then the principal street in the township, and on ground which commanded a fine view of the diggings far below, as they extended on both sides of the Main road. At the end of the street, at the left hand side, stood the old wooden shanty which did duty for a post office. When the mail arrived from Melbourne there was always a crowd gathered round the post office, each man patiently waiting his turn to get to the window and make the usual inquiry, “Any letters, &c.” Postal deliveries through the medium of postmen were as yet unknown. The low straggling buildings at the right hand side of the street, looking from Bath’s, were those in which the mounted police and soldiers—the latter a detachment of the 40th Regiment—were lodged. These quarters were distinctively known as “The Camp.”

WILLIAMSTOWN LIGHTHOUSE, &C.

Williamstown Lighthouse, Flagstaff, &c., from route to Geelong, west of Gellibrand’s Point

In 1856 communication between Melbourne and Geelong was maintained almost entirely by water, and the few steamboats engaged in the trade did, as may be imagined, splendidly for their owners. In our picture of Williams-town, it is doubtless the Geelong boat which is represented as steaming her way just off the Williamstown Lighthouse. Williamstown was indeed a little place then. The docks and the piers which now excite the admiration of visitors had no existence as yet, or for several years afterward. But there was a small though very substantial stone pier in the immediate neighborhood of the light house. This pier was chiefly constructed by the prisoners confined in the hulks, or at least by such contingents of them as were permitted to labor ashore. Two of those “floating hells” are to be recognised in the picture, one of which, as like as not, may be that very “Success” which was exhibited at the Circular Quay, Sydney, and which, after suddenly going down at her moorings in Kerosene Bay, has been raised again, doubtless to have a longer career in the show line.

MARKET SQUARE, GEELONG

Market Square, from Little Malop-street, Geelong

In the early fifties Geelong was a pretty, stirring place. Its proximity to Ballarat, and the fact of its being nearly always included in the route of travellers bound to that rich field from Melbourne, or back again, of course greatly added to its prosperity. There is a legend, if it be not indeed a piece of authentic Victorian history, that there was at one time an intention of shifting the seat of government to Geelong, and making it the capital of the colony. The site would in many respects undoubtedly have been better suited for a capital than that on the banks of the Yarra. However, it was not the fortune of Geelong to throw its elder sister, Melbourne, into the shade; and its prospects in that respect are only to be remembered now among the things that might have been. Geelong, which in 1855 was at all events unquestionably the second city in Victoria, has long since ceded that honour to Ballarat.

Source:Glimpses of Early Victoria (1892, December 17). Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1870 – 1907), p. 27.

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