History of the Ballarat Common
This Essay is authored by C.J. Coventry, Anne Beggs-Sunter, Fred Cahir, Clare Gervasoni & Erik Eklund
The Ballarat Common
The Ballarat Common, officially the Ballarat West Town Common, is a rich part of Ballarat’s environmental, social and farming history. It is unique for having survived, albeit barely. Throughout its history its existence has often depended on small groups of determined people. The existing parts of the Common are of world, national, regional and local significance.
Originally, common land was not unique in regional Victoria. In fact, much of the region’s state parklands are repurposed commons. The people of Ballarat, like other goldfields towns, had access to a common. According to the late historian Weston Bate, the Common came into existence in 1861 because the city’s source of fresh meat and vegetables was under threat from squatters. Farmers and townspeople rallied together from 1856 demanding protection on the flat lands to the city’s west. Over its history the Common has been used for the grazing of sheep and cattle, as well as for crops, including flax for linen and timber for firewood. Farmers en route to market would rest their livestock on the shared pastures, improving the quality of their meat. The Common provided employment, such as for herdsmen and labourers who weeded thistle.
The idea of the Common was to allow even the poorest people access to land, food and fuel. For example, it was reported in 1864 that of the 200 head of cattle on the land, 120 were operated by ‘poor people who lived entirely’ off of their livestock, including ‘widows’ and people with disabilities. Within a year the number of cattle was 600 and ‘nearly the whole of them belonged to poor people’. Wadawurrung people had used the land too. A white local remembered coming across three Aboriginal women hunting possum on Christmas Eve, 1856, on what soon became the Common. Indeed, possum was a source of income for the Wadawurrung, who produced fine rugs made from its pelt. But it was an area also significant for Aboriginal identity; a place where the elder Mullawallah (‘King Billy’) taught the ways of the Wadawurrung people.
Historically, the Shire of Ballarat Council had an uneasy relationship with the Common while the Victorian Government long coveted its riches. It was once a large area of land bigger than the city but, as the decades passed, it was gradually enclosed; most notably by the Western Freeway, Ballarat Golf Course, Ballarat Airport, the suburb of Lake Gardens as well as post-war industrial plants. As of 2021, there are three surviving parts. Numerous mining companies and nearby farmers have eyed the land too, occasionally going as far as to peg out the area they wanted or, in the case of one bold farmer, actually fence off land. But it was also a point of unity, of shared community interest. In the 1870s, the councils of Ballarat and East Ballarat, whose people used the Common as well, united in opposition to the government to protect the land. This was so even though the Common gave the West an economic advantage; it was able to expand its economy to include agriculture and industry, while the economy of the mining-dependent, forested hills of the East waned. (The town of East Ballarat, now the suburb of Ballarat East, amalgamated with Ballarat in 1921.)
Very slowly from the 1920s the Common came into disuse. This was partly due to a succession of MPs conveniently appointed as managers. As early as 1940 a portion of the Common was planted with endemic eucalypts to create a koala sanctuary for the region’s nearly disappeared marsupial. As farming in Australia became increasingly dominated by conglomerates and – from the 1950s – supermarkets, city dwellers lost the need to produce their own food and, with it, the knowledge of how food is produced. But, evidently, the Common continued to be farmed even as late as this century. In 1990, a Government report proclaimed: “The Ballarat Common is recognised as a very important area of open space… Its importance as open space will increase in time as Ballarat grows and develops.” However, in 2014 the Common was officially dissolved by the Government and reverted to vacant crown land. Dividing Ballarat Town Common was part of a long history of desecration of the heritage of everyday inhabitants of the city. Comparatively, another regional Victorian city, Sale, has preserved its common for present and future occupants, as have the towns of Haddon and Elaine.
Present day use
To many, it has become an uninteresting series of fields next to a busy road. But to many others, it is a place of natural beauty – a breeding and feeding ground for swans and numerous species of duck, kangaroo, wallaby, wren, as well as eagles, hawks and yellow-tailed black cockatoos – where one can escape the city for a walk in rewilded and bucolic splendor. (There are other wetlands in the old common, such as Mullawallah Wetland/Winter’s Swamp in Lucas and Flax Mill Swamp in Wendouree.)
Authors: C. J. Coventry, Anne Beggs-Sunter, Fred Cahir, Clare Gervasoni & Erik Eklund