From 3-5 May I had the good fortune of attending the conference Under the Southern Cross – A goldfields experience held in the beautiful grounds of the ACU Aquinas Campus, in Ballarat.

The conference was held under the auspices of the Victorian Association of Family History Organisations (VAFHO) and hosted by Victorian Interpretive Projects Inc. There were over 30 speakers at this event, with roughly 150 family historians, genealogists, archivists and historians attending.


From left: Ann Copeland (State Library of Victoria), Anne Burrows (State Library of Victoria), Karen Seckold (Plaza Library, Wyndham City) and Charlie Ferrugia  (Public Record Office Victoria) (photograph  – Fay Vandyk)



I attended over 15 presentations that looked at such themes as – multicultural goldfields, the Irish on the goldfields, gardens on the goldfields, Ballarat footballers, lawyers on the goldfields, immigration to Victoria and the use of maps to trace ancestors and their homes. They were all excellent presentations – but here are a few of the highlights

Goldfields Comparisons: Georgia (USA) 1820s, New Zealand, California and Victorian Goldrushes. Assoc Prof David Goodman, University of Melbourne
David gave a fascinating presentation revisiting research he had undertaken for his book Gold seeking – Victoria and California in the 1850s. He talked at length about the discovery of gold in Georgia, US in 1829 and the similarities between life on the Georgian and Victorian goldfields. He also discussed the reasons why men were drawn to the goldfields and how the experience helped develop a new ‘self reliant’ character.

“Blood and Bone”: Discovering Ned Kelly: Using DNA to trace an ancestor resulting in family reconnections. Leigh Olver
In 2009 a number of skeletons were removed from a burial site at Pentridge Village. To determine if one of the skeletons was that of Ned Kelly the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine compared the DNA of each skeleton to the mitochondrial DNA taken from Leigh Olver – a direct maternal descendant of Ned Kelly.
Leigh explained how the DNA process worked and went on to discuss how the descendants of the Kelly family finally got permission to obtain Kelly’s body and bury him in consecrated ground. This was a fascinating presentation that demonstrated just how important DNA testing can be to genealogical research.

‘Those Whom God Hath Joined Together, Let No Man Put Asunder’: Women and the Quest for Divorce in the Nineteenth Century. Claire Muir, Assistant Curator at the Gold Museum (Sovereign Hill Museums Association), Ballarat
This was a terrific presentation that looked at the fight nineteenth century women had, to gain their freedom and independence.
Claire gave a brief outline on the history of divorce and divorce reform in the UK and Australia and looked at the lives of  Eliza Perrin and James Petford, two residents of  the Ballarat goldfields whose lives were effected by the lack of divorce laws. Some of their personal items and letters are now held in the Gold Museum.


The official welcome, Ballarat Town Hall (photograph: Lisa Gervasoni)


The Footy Tribes of Ballarat. Prof. Robert Pascoe, Victoria University
Robert Pascoe is the author of The winter game: over 100 years of Australian football  and is co-authoring a multi-volume series on football in colonial Victoria. He gave a fascinating presentation on the development of football in Ballarat and the lives and the 19th century Ballarat players.
What I found particularly interesting was his explanation of the ‘prosopographical research’ process that he is using to compile biographical information on individual players. This processes uses resources relevant to other relationships and activities in their lives to find key information i.e. Sands & McDougall for work, Ancestry Library Edition for births, marriages and death records of other family members, Electoral Rolls for housing, newspapers for sporting activities etc.

The Cornish on the Victorian Goldfields. Dr Charles Fahey, La Trobe University, Bendigo
Charles Fahey gave an insight into the life of the Cornish migrants on the Victorian goldfields.  He talked about their success in mining, their shift from Ballarat to Bendigo, their close-knit communities, how the houses they built replicated their buildings in Cornwall and how they migrated as family groups rather than individually. I was particularly interested in his use of early census material to track their movement around the goldfields.

Insanity on the Goldfields: Victoria’s Lunatic Asylums. Nathaniel Buchanan
Nathaniel Buchanan operates one of the largest privately owned dark tourism businesses in Australia, running historical tours of various Victorian asylums, gaols and cemeteries. He talked about the history of lunatic asylums in Victoria – in the 19th century Victoria was known as the ‘mad colony’ with twice as many inmates as NSW.  He explained how and why the asylums were set up, the appalling conditions,  barbaric medical treatment and reasons for closure. He also commented on the magnificent architecture of the Victoria asylums – some of the largest buildings in the state.



 (photograph: Lisa Gervasoni)




The conference was a great success, with terrific speakers, food and atmosphere. For me it was a wonderful chance to hear genealogists, historians and archivists talk about their research, the resources they use, and the stories they have uncovered.  These stories really helped to contextualise what life was like on the goldfields.

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