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Meet the Makers

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Behind the scenes at Sovereign Hill


Tim Bignell, Blacksmith

Tim Bignell has been the blacksmith at Dilges’ Blacksmith Shop at Sovereign Hill’s Main Street for over 14 years. With a background in art, and an interest in history, Tim was mainly self-taught but refined his skills when he underwent a blacksmithing apprenticeship. Through the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, Tim had a stint in Europe in 2013 where he visited Italy, France, the UK and Ireland to learn about their traditional blacksmithing practices. “The project has greatly advanced my skills and knowledge in traditional and contemporary blacksmithing,” says Tim. “When combined with my previous experience, this new knowledge greatly assisted me in preserving this rare trade well into the future.”

At Sovereign Hill, rare trades like blacksmithing are preserved and given a new lease of life. Today, Tim works in a traditional forge with a wood fire, an anvil, hand-operated bellows, tongs and a hammer to shape red-hot steel, while visitors wander through the workshop and watch him at work - not your average 2017 job, but the right one for Tim.

I’ve never been bored a day in 14 years,” he says. “I stumbled into blacksmithing and I’ve been pretty lucky; there aren’t many people who can do this as their sole income, it’s usually more of a hobby so I make the most of it.”

Visitors to Sovereign Hill can see Tim busy at work - mainly making household items like fire pokers, brush and dustpan sets for fireplaces, candleholders, kitchen hangers and camping equipment - and give demonstrations three times a day, but examples of Tim’s blacksmithing can be seen throughout Sovereign Hill. Be sure to stop by the gardens at the entrance: the four tree guards are just one example of Tim’s handy work.

See the blacksmiths at Sovereign Hill these summer holidays.


Lucy McNeil, performer, Lola Montez

We might be used to hearing the daily musings of the Kardashian clan via social media but 1850s Ballarat was a very different place; people got on with their day with little but work to distract them. Enter Lola Montez, an Irish firecracker of a woman who performed her way around Europe before landing in the Ballarat goldfields in 1856 where Lola, much to her delight, became the talk of the town.

Lola is a bit of a favourite at Sovereign Hill,” says Lucy McNeil, who has been playing the role of Lola for the last 10 years. “She was a strong woman in an era that is, wrongly, not known for its strong women,” she says. “I liken Lola to today’s social media celebrities: famous for being famous. Lola even wrote a book on her beauty secrets to help 1850s ladies.”

Lola was a dancer, a singer, and an actress, but in reality, says Lucy, she wasn’t all that great at any of these things. But to her credit, Lola was ambitious, intelligent and cultivated an image that was revered around the world. Visitors to Sovereign Hill can get a glimpse into Lola’s life through daily performances.

Life at Sovereign Hill is always a performance in some way or another,” says Lucy. “The interaction that we regularly interpret at Sovereign Hill is a fight between Lola and the editor of the local paper, Henry Seekamp,” she says. “In reality, this argument was a full-on whip fight in the public room of the bar; they say that Lola was so beaten up that she left Ballarat in a closed carriage. She reformed in her later years and started doing religious sermons.”

Regardless of Lola’s ability to split public opinion - she was either loved or loathed - Lucy says she would have loved to be friends with her.

She had a wild life and I would have loved to have been along for the ride,” says Lucy. “I see myself in her with the regards to being a strong woman who doesn’t pander to the men of the time. I think that she had more of a temper than me and I wouldn’t have wanted to get on her bad side!”

See Lola Montez at Sovereign Hill these summer holidays.


Mick Dando, Wheelwright

For Mick Dando, keeping the wheels turning at Sovereign Hill is the most important role he plays - literally. Mick is a qualified wheelwright - in his workshop he crafts coach wheels, coach parts, and furniture components out of Australian timber using traditional tools and techniques.

There aren’t that many coach builders and wheelwrights left in Australia; Sovereign Hill is the largest,” says Mick. “Having something built in Australia with Australian timber is pretty special.”

Mick has been a wheelwright at Sovereign Hill for the past eight years, but much to his dismay, visitors still assume much of Mick’s twice-daily demonstration is just part of the show.

A common question from visitors stopping by is: ‘Do you actually do any work here?’” laughs Mick, “I can assure you, real work gets done.” In reality, visitors won’t see a coach wheel made in its entirety - a demonstration lasts 20 minutes but two wheels can take up to 10 days to finish. And drying timber? There won’t be time to stick around for this either. “An inch of timber will take up to a year to air dry; we don’t keep kiln-dried timber for consistency reasons and air-dried timber is virtually impossible to find and very expensive,” says Mick. To ensure the (wooden) wheels keep turning for years to come, Sovereign Hill keeps timber stock 10 years in advance - immediate gratification wasn’t high on a 1850s priority list.

In most trade industries today, it’s all about making money; the attention to detail just isn’t there,” says Mick. “I like the fact that at Sovereign Hill, we’re working to emulate a piece of Australian history as close as we can get to it - people can see the process with their own eyes instead of it being lost in a book. And we get to build some amazing stuff.”

See the wheelwrights at Sovereign Hill these summer holidays.