Rich vein of history struck in Sovereign Hill

We overlook the richness of our history. FOTIS KAPETOPOULOS rediscovers the real gold in Ballarat’s Sovereign Hill

It is not often that I actually say “I was transported to another time” and mean it, yet, in Sovereign Hill on a grey and drizzly morning last weekend I had the haunting feeling that I actually walked right into 1850.

A rush of school children in 1850s clothes, one by one acknowledged my wife with “morning mam’ creating immediately a distant world to the one where our children are more focused on Nintendo DS than manners.

Men and women in period clothes, shopkeepers, maintenance men, printers, confectionary makers, butchers and menacing troopers traverse Sovereign Hill’s olden streets like living ghosts.

To add to the atmosphere log fires burn in street braziers and smoke rises from chimneys, while bakeries serve scones. The scene is replete with mining digs and streams, olde shoppes, miners’ tent dwellings and the amazing Chinese miners’ village. All coalesce to recreate a 19th century dreamscape.

To add to the built environment there are media presentations such as the one in the Buddhist Temple, and daily recreations, all creating a holistic experience for the visitor.

A rush of school children in 1850s garb, one by one acknowledged my wife with “morning mam” creating immediately a distant world to the one where our children are more focused on Nintendo DS than manners.

Sovereign Hill has an intangible authenticity about it. Yet, as Richard Berman-Hardman, the Director of Commercial Operations at Sovereign Hill, points out, “there is a complex debate about what authenticity means, we see ourselves more as an exciting living museum.”

Trying to “recreate the feeling” as Berman-Hardman suggests is more apt for this award-wining museum, which first opened in 1970 and is still run as a not-for-profit operation.
In its 40th year Sovereign Hill is an important historical park.

“We leave little to the imagination when visitors come here in the middle of summer and see people dressed in heavy period clothes, they really get a feel for what it was like 160 years ago,”  Berman-Hardman points out.

“We create a number of ‘activations’ as we call them ranging from street musicians, active mining for gold, to marching of the British troops down the main street, all in an effort to activate the past for visitors” he adds.

Berman-Hardman and I talk while drinking a cafe latte in the New York Bakery, him in a business suit and me in jeans.

Sovereign Hill has three key areas.

The Red Hill Gully Diggings represents the tumultuous early 1850s when the placid rural setting was torn asunder by the discovery of one of the “world’s richest alluvial goldfields.”

The Eureka Rebellion shows events that took place on the Ballarat diggings, while Blood on the Southern Cross is an amazing sound and light production narrating the miners’ rebellion against arbitrary colonial rule and corruption.

As a republican I could not help but shed a bitter tear after being overwhelmed by Blood on the Southern Cross the night before.

The employment of sound, light and effects recreates the events leading up to the fateful uprising and slaughter of miners by colonial troops: events that gave birth to the eternal Eureka flag, for many of us the real Australian flag.

The effect of Blood on the Southern Cross can be best measured by its impact on my eight‑year-old son. He was mesmerised by the 90-minute presentation saying, “They fought for their rights dad, didn’t they, the unfair license?” This took me completely back.

The Eureka rebellion was a reflection of the global politics of the time where the ‘foreigners’ were described by the Crown and fought against what they saw as exploitation by the white British colonial and global power.

Our current geopolitical realities and the fact that 60,000 Chinese tourists visit Sovereign Hill annually is not missed by Berman-Hardman who views the pilgrimage as, “history making a full circle.”

As I wandered through the town, my son was moved from excitement to ecstasy by the live musket rifle shooting by a ‘trooper’ and the photo taken of him in period clothes holding a similar rifle, after having a ‘most wanted’ poster made of him in authentic typeface at the print shop.

Throughout the experience I kept wondering, where were the Greeks? It is impossible to not have Greeks on a space that became a lighting rod for a global search for fortune.
Sovereign Hill was, as Berman- Hardman suggests, the nascent “multicultural foundations of Victoria.”

As I found out there were Greeks among the Americans, Irish, Scots, Indians, Chinese and others who converged there in search of gold.

Community researcher, Costa Markos, who has spent years researching the Greeks of Ballarat said, “Greeks were there from 1853 onwards. The main one, Anthony Major, (Margioyiannis) was jailed on the ship The Sea but escaped the gallows with a life boat and landed on Portarlington from where he made his way to Ballarat in search of gold.”
Markos adds, “There was also Spiro Corfu, Aravantinos… I need to find his surname… from Kefalonia.”

Eureka, a Greek word meaning ‘I found’ should have poignancy for Greek Australians, as the Ballarat gold fields are one of the first signs of Greek settlement in Victoria.
Just as importantly, the Eureka Stockade also represents the very Greek ideal of democracy and liberty.

The re-visioning of the historic space by the 350 staff and 200 volunteers is a indisputable achievement. You get the sense of the extraordinary difficulties of life in the past, especially when 25,000 inhabitants crowded into the gold mining town.

Two activators dressed in costume stoking an outdoor fire relayed for my wife and me the fact that “you’d be lucky to find onion, potato and carrot, if you were lucky as vegetables, and wood was such a necessary commodity people had to walk for up to three quarters of the day to find some.”

Voices of the past echo, literally, in miners’ tents from hidden speakers retelling the story of passage, hardship and struggle.

The vision of being one of the “world’s leaders in outdoor heritage museums” has been achieved. It behoves all Australians not least Greek Australians to visit Sovereign Hill and to experience Blood on the Southern Cross.

Packages are available including viewing of Blood on the Southern Cross. To find out more go to: