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    'Frescoes for the New Houses of Parliament No VIII: Melbourne Starts for the Diggings', 29 May 1856

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    Lack of support for public institutions, courtesy of Cassell Australia.

Cultural Institutions: Overview

Putting down roots

After the initial chaos and frenzy of the early days on the diggings, life in the goldfields settlements gradually developed into a more routine affair. Having struggled in a harsh environment to obtain the bare necessities of food and shelter, the population now looked for a more refined existence. Cultural institutions began to spring up amongst the mud, denuded landscape, and early commercial establishments. Some institutions, like schools and places of worship, were quick to emerge within the embryonic townships, while others, like hospitals, libraries and gardens, took many years and were only acquired with the wealth generated by gold.


As miners flocked to the goldfields of Ballarat and Mount Alexander in late 1851, they arrived at sites with few amenities. Quickly, diggers fashioned dwellings from tents, or crudely constructed huts. Some enterprising people saw wealth not in gold seeking but rather in servicing the needs of the miners themselves, and shops, post offices, and other essential businesses were soon established. Schools and churches were hastily erected from rudimentary materials to provide education and spiritual guidance for the people; they also offered an alternate perspective to that of greed and the pursuit of quick wealth that had been generated by the search for gold. Initially there was little sense of permanency and so people were reluctant to build enduring cultural institutions. Most people ‘gave little thought to putting down roots. The prevailing hope was to strike it rich and then clear off home – to Europe, the British Isles or America. Few men, the geologists included, expected the alluvial field to last more than a year or two.’

As artists visited the diggings they became inspired and enthralled by the altered landscape, the melancholic and inspiring stories of the miners, and the rapidity of change. Writers, painters and illustrators reflected what they saw and experienced at the diggings and conveyed their representations to people in Melbourne and around the world. Many portrayed the death and hopelessness so often experienced on the goldfields, but the mateship, tenderness and hope that permeated the communities were also depicted. Seweryn Korzelinski, a Polish miner, wrote that the diggings were ‘like a humming bee hive with everyone animated by hope.’ Others, though, spoke of the hardship and struggle that was the daily life of a digger. Author William Howitt wrote of the diggings:

All this sludge and filth and confusion, swarms of people, many of them gentlemen of birth and education, all labouring as for life. When you have seen this, you begin to have a truer notion of what gold digging is, than from the rose water romancing of the Australian papers.

As the diggings continued to yield precious metal, and populations steadily grew, a tenuous stability began to prevail and enduring cultural institutions began to emerge. The increasing number of women and children settling at the fields brought with them a desire for amenities such as schools, and a wish for more civilised leisure activities (like social dances and music concerts). This encouraged a level of civility previously lacking in the male dominated communities. In late 1852, Bonwick wrote in the Diggings’ Directory:

there is now something like a settled population. Religious worship is regularly maintained, public schools are forming and the ladies of professional men, Government officers, storekeepers and respectable diggers, present the charm of polite and polished society to those auriferous wilds.

As the townships of the goldfields continued to grow, people looked increasingly towards cultural institutions to fulfil needs not yet met. Theatres and music offered an opportunity to relax and enjoy oneself in the company of friends, activities not available through commerce or mining. With few social outlets, theatres also provided a venue where men and women could socialise together. Seweryn Korzelinski wrote:

sometimes, when gold is plentiful on a field and the number of miners large, somebody improvises a racecourse and even a theatre for actors who do not disdain gold and travel from Melbourne to wherever it shines, claiming however that they have travelled only to entertain the ‘most honourable company’ of miners, though they well know that the society on the diggings is too mixed indeed to be called ‘honourable’.

Civilising the diggings

While many people eagerly supported the theatres and music venues, others sought more civilising cultural pursuits. Venues that encouraged morality, intellectual advancement and reflection, such as Mechanics’ Institutes, schools, and public gardens, were deemed necessary to counteract the greed and rawness of mining communities. In 1853, the Ballarat Star wrote that ‘the young men of Ballarat have become satiated with the Charles Napier theatre and the free concerts of the Main Road, the only amusements in Ballarat; they require an institution in which their minds can be improved.’ For that reason, libraries and Mechanics’ Institutes were sought after as they offered men an alternative to the rough drinking and drunken behaviour that was often the outcome of attending hotels, theatres and dance halls.

With time, the rudimentary cultural institutions became increasingly more refined and began to reflect the towns’ prosperity and modernity. Tents and crudely built wooden cottages gave way to imposing stone buildings with ornate facades, as hospitals, schools, libraries, Mechanics’ Institutes, and churches were renovated or newly built. The buildings, such as Ballarat’s imposing hospital (1855) or its architecturally designed Mechanics’ Institute (1859), reflected the wealth generated by gold and highlighted the town’s importance. Botanical gardens depicted a society that not only appreciated leisurely pursuits and beauty but also one that valued educational and scientific causes, as they were important centres for propagating native flora. The Mount Alexander Mail took pride in Castlemaine’s progress and development, and in May 1854 published an article, ‘Castlemaine – Past, Present and Future’, in which it wrote ‘we, therefore, may sum up in saying that we have concerts, newspapers, churches, hotels, restaurants now and this is a feeble sketch of the present of Castlemaine.’

Laura Donati

Annear, Robyn, Nothing but gold: the diggers of 1852, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 1999. Details
Korzelinski, Seweryn, Memoirs of gold-digging in Australia, Stanley Robe (ed. and trans.), University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1979. Details
McCallum, A., Mechanics’ Institute and Free Lending Library, Main Street, Sovereign Hill, 1972. Details