Long-forgotten stories of Ballarat’s dark and bizarre past are being brought to life in an award-winning podcast series featuring the research of a Federation University Australia folklorist and historian.
Tales from Rat City tells the stories from everyday life on the goldfields, a period idealised for the fortunes that were made but a time that was traumatic for thousands of people who had flocked to the region.
The podcasts are produced by Dr David Waldron, from the School of Arts, Katrina Hill and Tom Hodgson, and begin with an episode on spiritualism – a common 1800s social movement with mediums and seances on the goldfields. The many members embraced the progressive social causes that infuriated the church.
From ghost stories to big cats prowling rural Victoria, Dr Waldron’s fascination for urban legends and popular folklore began when he was a student. His PhD thesis became the book, The Sign of the Witch: Modernity and the Pagan Revival, published in the United States, and became the catalyst for his research in what were considered fringe and often poorly researched topics.
“I found there was an enormous hunger in the public to have well-researched critical writing in these fields. A lot of my early research was in Britain and one of the things that I found interesting was the way in which people would slip into very broad generalisations, across centuries and even whole cultures,” Dr Waldron said.
“I became interested in the notion of the ghost story, not whether the ghosts are real or not, but rather the way they are a cultural representation of trauma for communities that suffered.”
This included black dog legends in Britain, with much of the literature linking the stories to ancient Celts.
“But when you get into the nuts and bolts of the research, I found the myths were really originating in the English Civil War. The original story I was able to trace back in parish records to 1577, emerging out of a conflict between Protestants and Catholics which people at the time represented in an enormous storm that hit England,” Dr Waldron said.
“The story of the black dog attacking the community became a representation of God's displeasure that Christians were killing their fellow Christians and this became entrenched in them, changing over time in relation to social and cultural transformation. In Bungay, which was a key centre in the industrial revolution with boat building, hemp manufacturing and so on, when it collapsed in the Great Depression, the story was revived again as a way of promoting local tourism and heritage.”
The black dog research then led him to one of the great Australian myths – big cats in the bush – with ‘sightings’ recorded as far back as the gold rush.
As Australians grappled with their environment and introduced species – rabbits, sparrows, foxes and feral pegs – travelling circuses criss-crossed the country with their exotic animal shows. These were often poorly secured.
“People would think well if it happened with the rabbits, what if it happens with something a lot more dangerous? You start finding this whole structure of panic supported by occasional cases where you did have big cats getting loose and the circuses not wanting to tell anyone. This happened at St Arnaud in the 1920s when a puma escaped the Perry Brothers Circus,” Dr Waldron said.
“It became entrenched in the popular psyche, wrestling with problems relating to the environment in terms of us grappling with predators and trying to put European farming systems into the Australian landscape. Again, you get a fringe area but the fringe area which is culturally prominent nonetheless, and have these really interesting stories to tell about our past, our environment and tumultuous issues.” Dr David Waldron
Tales from Rat City was awarded the National Trust People's Choice Award at the Ballarat Heritage Awards in 2019 and has resulted in a series of spin-offs, including a Ballarat jail tour and events during the Ballarat Heritage weekend. Students and alumni take up key roles in the events and the podcasts.
The podcast is named after a line in the Sherlock Holmes story The Boscombe Valley Mystery, where a character’s dying words reveal that ‘a rat’ – a member of a Ballarat gang – was responsible for his shooting. The next chapter will tell the story of Andrew Scott, the bushranger Captain Moonlite.
“We ran a play on ghost hoaxing where we used original transcripts from court records and newspaper articles, and we had a tour with these little activations with actors re-enacting the ghost hoaxing incidents from Ballarat's past as they went through the alleyways behind the Camp St campus,” Dr Waldron said.
“One of the things I strive for is looking at how the research we do can be communicated to the public, and I particularly think with rampant social media disinformation there's a real danger that if we don't engage with the public in a way they can understand, we run the risk of everything from vaccine denial to all kinds of strange urban legends that support racism.
“We need, as academics, to be engaging with the public and look for different mediums to get that information out there. Podcasting is easy to consume and there are a lot of excellent well-researched podcasts out there. This is a great way to bring people on the journey and it also lets us use vehicles like social media to get research out there.”