THE AUSTRALIAN GOLDFIELDS
Australia must have seemed a desolate and forbidding land to the many thousands of people who arrived in Sydney and Melbourne after news of the discovery of gold reached Europe, America and the East in the early 1850s. The cities, particularly Melbourne which was to become the starting place for a many prospective diggers, were small, dirty and ill-equipped to cope with the sudden arrival of masses of immigrants. When they set off into the bush to make their way to the goldfields they found the country strange and inhospitable.
Antoine Fauchery, the French photographer who became a successful digger and as a bonus made a vivid photographic record encountered on his way to Ballarat in 1852. Soon after leaving the verdant vine-covered hills of Geelong
... all traces of cultivation vanish. You plunge for sixty miles - what am I talking about? for ever! into woods, woods entirely without coppices . . . a sterile tract of land that produces neither flower nor fruit, and is covered only with dead wood or with a coarse sort of couth-grass on which you cannot even sit. So don't expect to see a stag bound away at a turn in the road, a hare jump up from its form, a partridge or a pheasant rise from under your feet, for none of these tasty bits of game could make do with the poor fare that the Australian soil offers. Amid these vast solitudes you only encounter the kangaroo, the mediocre taste of whose ribs bears sufficient witness to the animal's sobriety. The kangaroo-rat, a small kangaroo the size of a rabbit, the possum, half kangaroo, half wild-cat and the flying squirrel share the tree-trunks where they shelter during the day and from which they come out at night to make the echoes ring with their plaintive cries. These animals 'with inoffensive habits and execrable flesh, seem to belong to a common family they all have a ouch under their belly, a travelling bag provided no doubt by providence so that at the first opportunity they and their progeny may be ready to leave an umpromising district.
Three separate trains carrying enormous quantities of gold - 450 tons - from Bendigo to Melbourne in 1868
The roads through these 'vast solitudes' were mostly indistinct; innumerable tracks, meandering through the bush, which were very bewildering to the newcomer. Wet weather meant that creeks became impassable and the heavily laden drays forced new tacks in all directions in the hope of finding easier crossings and more hospitable terrain.
Lord Robert Cecil, later three times prime minister of England, travelled to the diggings in a spring cart with only a carpet bag for luggage. He astonished other travellers by wearing a black suit and a white top-hat, clothes which must have seemed incongruous amidst the crowds of diggers in their flannel shirts and moleskin trousers. The trip was made memorable by his drunken cart driver whose attachment to a large bottle of brandy made him less than expert as a guide. The passengers had to alight continually to push their unsteady vehicle out of holes and listen to a fretful female passenger berate the driver for his intemperance.
Continuing his journey to Bendigo with another member of the gentry, Sir Montagu Chapman, Lord Robert described a further eventful journey by cart. This cart, 'a very awkward machine to steer', had one horse between the shafts and another whose traces were attached to an outrigger - an iron bar sticking out the side. The driver was again unpredictable, being
. . . ignorant of the art and given to brown studies with the result that we were twice dashed against a tree and three times within a hair's breadth of being upset in a gully.
Most of the diggers, however, were not affluent enough to be driven to the fields, they went on foot with their meagre belongings in a swag on their backs or in a handcart or wheelbarrow. Although the requirements for alluvial mining were not great the following were considered essential: iron shovels, short and long handled, a small pick, a length of strong rope, a washing dish and bucket and a tub, canvas for a tent, an axe, a frypan, a saucepan and a tin mug. As the digger often had to walk for seventy or eighty kilometres this was not an inconsiderable load. Packers and drovers with their strings of horses or bullocks came into their own carrying supplies to the goldfields. They were able to charge high prices for freight in the days before the railways were built. Prices as high as a pound per mile were not unusual and added mightily to the cost of food and other commodities.
Sandhurst in 1880 with the railway station and goods shed seen in the background
Some of the fields were inaccessible by dray. Walhalla was one of these, hidden high in a mountain cleft in Gippsland. The supplies arrived there by a most roundabout route first shipped from Melbourne to Port Albert, then hauled by bullock tam to Bald Hills where they were broken up into packhorse loads, the road being too steep for a team to negotiate. A colourful character in this area, in the 1860s, was Mrs. Buntine of Rosedale. She was a rarity, even for Australia, a female 'bullocky' described as being strong and enterprising on one occasion she is said to have flogged a drunken ruffian with her bullock whip, for insulting an unoffending girl. Because of its steep mountain roads Walhalla abounds with stories of curious modes of transport. quite a common way of ensuring he safety of small children was a to sit them up in empty gin case, strapped one each side of the horse. A famous dance-hall girl, Catherine Cane, arrived at Walhalla lashed o the back of a packhorse, which would have been unremarkable except that she weighed twenty-two stone. For Louis the Frenchman who owned the string of packhorses, and charged ninepence a pound, she must have proved a profitable load.
The Post Office at Croydon in 1908 with the Georgetown mail coach on the right
There were constant complaints from the diggers that the government did so little to improve access to the main fields. They felt, with some cause, that good roads were little enough to expect in exchange for their extortionate licence fees. But the governments of both New South Wales and Victoria moved slowly and it was some time before contracts were let, bridges built and roads improved, and many years before the railway lines began to make across the countryside. Difficulty of access made some fields virtually impossible to work for parts of the year, Kiandra, high in the Snowy Mountains, was one such place. The Pollock brothers, probably the first to discover payable gold in the area, wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald in February 1860 that the goldfield was
. . . only workable for three months, owing to heavy falls of snow and the rapid drift, which remains till September . . . Even supposing the next winter to be unusually mild and that the diggers remain on those plains - from the boggy nature of the ground and crab holes, setting aside the sleepness of some of the mountain trails, it were on impossibility the carrying or packing of provisions - this would prove on insuperable objection?
The mail coach, which usually had a mounted escort, in front of the Kiandra Hotel, 1906
The miners of Kiandra were the first people in Australia to ski which is not surprising as they formed the earliest community in the country to be regularly snowbound for long periods each hear. The Sydney Morning Herald carried a description of skiing at Kiandra on 12 August 1861.
No idea can be formed except from actual experience of the horrors of a winter in that part of the country. The roads are impassable except with snow shoes or the more novel mode of travelling on skates (skis). The skates are constructed of two palings turned up at the front and about four feet long, with straps to put the feet in, and the traveller carries a long stick to balance himself and to assist him up the hill. Down hill they can go as fast as a steamer and on the level, with the aid of the pole, they can make good headway.
At the other end of the climatic scale beat, dust and an almost total lack of water made the diggers' task equally difficult. In Western Australia camels saved the day. They could travel long distances over the hot sand, carrying heavy loads and needed little water to drink. Water was more valuable than gold in the rushes to places like Kalgoorlie, Coolgardie and Menzies, it had often to be carried many kilometres on the backs of camels or donkeys and the price paid was high. But the alternative was death and the hot sands of the West claimed a number of diggers who prized gold above water.
The endurance of the miners was astounding. Faced with the prospect of a rich strike they would cover enormous distances on foot under the most gruelling conditions. It has been estimated that 100,000 men walked from York, the nearest railhead to Coolgardie between 1892 and 1896. The halfway point, Southern Cross, could be reached from Coolgardie in two days in Cobb & Co. coach or in four days in a spring dray. Bicycles were used too, to rush the news of new finds from place to place. Camels were fast, as well as hardy, though perhaps Leslie Robert Menzies was exaggerating when he claimed that his team kept up an even sixteen miles an hour on a hundred mile trip in Coolgardie, with a vast haul of gold nuggets. He wrote of his experiences many years later in A Gold Seeker's Odyssey, and an old man's memory probably explains his rather outrageous claim that he won 750,000 pounds worth of gold in two hours and shouted 4000 pounds worth of champagne that night in Coolgardie.
Bayley Street, Coolgardie, 1894
The famous Cobb & Co. coach made a great impact in the lives of the diggers and facilitated the movements and comfort of those who could afford the fares. In the early days of the Australian rushes, Freeman Cobb brought two prototype carriages out from the United States and had them copied and manufactured. By the end of the century the Cobb & Co. system was the largest in the world with 8000 kilometres of regular route and 70,000 horses.
The New South Wales Cobb & Co. service was established in Bathurst in 1861 and Rachel Henning, a young English gentlewoman, wrote of a trip in what she described as an 'American coach':
. . . It is a machine built very strong and very light, hung upon a peculiar sort of spring and with seats inside for nine. Three on each side and a canopy over, supported by little wooden pillars drawn by four capital horses changed every ten miles at every stage.
She went on to describe how the Bathurst road, had on a previous trip, had much deteriorated and that but for the skill of the coachman and the excellent coach, they may not have arrived safely.
The coachman drove very much by voice. 'Hie, good horses! Paull then! Hie Chance, Hie Jemmy! Hie a-l-o-n-g' - the last word with a good roar, when the horses would make a desperate effort and pull us out of that particular boghole in which we were at that moment stuck, and with a lurch, and a pitch, and a tumble (enough to break the springs of anything but an American coach), we would go on a rock and then descend into another hole. We took six hours to do the last twenty miles that night . . .
The Chinese who became increasingly unpopular on the goldfields were rarely seen travelling by coach, perhaps they were not encouraged by the Europeans or perhaps it was because of their frugal nature. Rachel Henning in a letter noted a group of new arrivals from China wearing:
. . . broad flag hats with a little point in the middle, like ancient shields, and carrying their property slung at each end of a stick and balanced over their shoulders, exactly like the little men crossing the bridge on the willow-pattern plates.
They would set off in single file for the diggings where they were rarely unsuccessful.
The steam train which had become so important in England in the 1840s gave Australians a freedom of movement previously undreamed of. The inland grid of railway tracks which slowly spread across the country owed much of its impetus to the demands of the diggers. Lines from Melbourne to Bendigo and from Geelong to Ballarat opened in 1862 and freight charges began to drop dramatically. Unfortunately the states could not agree on a uniform gauge with the result that three different gauges were adopted necessitating train changes at most borders. Although the steam train in the Victoria era was a dirty and often dangerous beast and neither particularly fast nor comfortable, it spelt progress and the opening of a new line was always Australia, Sir Gerald Smith, opened the newly completed railway which linked Coolgardie with the coast. five hundred people drank unlimited quantities of champagne and marvelled at the prospect of cheaper goods and a guaranteed supply of water.
At Walhalla in Victoria, the miners had an even longer wait, the collapse of the land boom meant that finance was tight and there was much procrastination. The mines at Walhalla used a great deal of wood to stoke their furnaces and a rail link would have made its transport simple. The road into the town was so steep that heavily laden drays often had to drag heavy logs behind them to act as anchors. The Steam Tramway League and later the Walhalla Railway League spent years lobbying for the completion of the railways which ended at Moe, a tantalising thirty odd kilometres away. They contended that the railway would reduce the cost of all goods brought in and therefore the mines would become more profitable. They were finally successful in 1910 although the gauge was so narrow that the train was more like a toy. The first passengers were amazed at the precipitous nature of the country. In places the rails were not more than thirty centimetres from the edge of a chasm reaching down 200 metres to the river, giving travellers an illusion of being suspended in space.
Despite the rapid spread of the railway, with more than 10,000 kilometres of line of various gauges laid by 1890, there were still many inaccessible parts of the country and these were often the places where the miners wanted to go Coastal shipping was used frequently by people wanting to get to remote places, for many years it was quicker and cheaper to go to the southern goldfields of New South Wales by steamer from Sydney or Melbourne to Eden, than overland all the way. This is not surprising since one man reported that the roads were so bad that it took him thirteen weeks to drive his bullock team from Sydney to Kiandra. Shipping played an important role in the rushes to northern Australia at the end of the century, when people clamoured to reach the Palmer fields and Charters Towers in inland Queensland, and to stream down the path of the newly constructed telegraph in the Northern Territory. Cairns, Cooktown, and Rockhampton became busy ports and Darwin was the gateway for thousands of Chinese immigrants. Steamers too, took miners across the Great Australian Bite to the fields in Western Australia, most people preferring the notoriously rough voyage to the dusty wasteland of the Nullarbor.
Robe, tiny port on the southern coast of South Australia, also achieved a modicum of fame during the early rushes to the Victorian goldfields. Complaints against the Chinese for a variety of fairly spurious reasons, finally led to the government restricting the number of Chinese passengers ships could land. Shipowners got around this law by off-loading their Orientals in South Australia, and Robe, being close to the border was an ideal spot. It has been estimated that close to 15,000 Chinese, their belongings balanced at the ends of long poles, trudged across the border near Mount Gambier on their way to Ballarat and Bendigo. Along the edge of the salt lakes of the Coorong there can still be found freshwater wells bearing the marks of Chinese workmanship.
During the renewal of interest in mining in the depression of the 1930s a few men were still forced to walk to the old goldfields, but most went by train, some sponsored by the government of the day. In the Northern Territory and North Queensland, where two important new fields were discovered at that time, battered old trucks were a common form of transport. Their rusting remnants can still be seen today, preserved by the hot sun and sand, reminders of an almost forgotten era. Nowadays it is easy to forget the difficulties encountered by the intrepid miners who braved hardship and even death, in their frantic quest for gold over nearly a century of Australia's mining history. Kalgoorlie and the Kimberleys can be reached in a few hours by plane, the mountain roads of Kiandra and Walhalla are mostly sealed and certainly safely opened to ordinary motor cars and it is no longer necessary to undertake a bumpy sea voyage to reach Darwin or Cairns. The days of weary trekking across unformed and illmarked tracks are over.
FROM CALICO TO BRICK
Mining townships and camps always seem to have a special atmosphere, they are usually isolated from major centres and the work is both unique and dangerous. A feeling of excitement and expectation pervades the air too and the chance of a quick fortune keeps many a miner going. In the hope that the next shovelful of earth will be the lucky one. Although some of the people who came to the Australian goldfields in the early 1850s were experienced 'forty-niners' from California, and some had come from The mines of Cornwall and Germany, most of them were new to mining and the Australian bush. One thing which united the newcomers was the spirit of equality which was apparent on the goldfields right from the start, this was greeted with enthusiasm by the majority, who felt that for the first time they hade a chance to make something of their lives, to act for themselves and escape the right class structures of their homelands. Some of the upper class English were, however, disgusted with the egalitarian approach they met with on the diggings, where everyone was addressed as mate, and it was not who you were that counted, but your ability to put in a good day's work and survive the hardships of the bush.
In 1853, a digger wrote:
. . . even female servants are hardly to be found willing to undertake the domestic duties of a family. all the aristocratic feelings and associations of the old country are at once annihilated. Plebeianism of the rankest and, in many instances, of the lowest kind, at present dwells in Australia; and, as riches are now becoming the test of a man's position, it is vain to have any pretensions whatever unless you are supported by that powerful auxiliary. It is not what you were, but what you are that is the criterion - as, indeed, it ought to be - by which you are judged, and although your father might have been my Lord of England-all-over, it goes for nothing in this equalising colony of gold, beef and mutton. Work is the word, and if you cannot do this, you are of no use here.
Most of these people would have shared the view of Rachel Henning, an adventurous young English lady, when she described the view from the hills above Bathurst as '. . . not exactly beautiful, but very curious, being so utterly un-English!' The first diggers found the country harsh, extremes of climate made living difficult with flies, dust and lack of water in the summer and floods and frosts in the winter. Many of them arrived on the goldfields ill-equipped, and paid the price of their ignorance when they were charged exorbitant amounts for the basic necessities for living and working.
The first settlements were tent towns or villages, the few services, shops, grog shanties, banks, police quarters and inns being housed in tents of varying commodiousness. One visitor described a lodging or boarding house with rather less than enthusiasm:
It is a tent fitted up with strings bark couches, ranged down each side of the tent, leaving a narrow passage up the middle. The lodgers are supplied with damper, mutton and tea, three times a day, for the charge of five shillings a meal, and five shillings for the bed; this is by the week, a casual guest must pay double and as eighteen inches is on average considered ample width to sleep in, a tent twenty four feet long will bring in good return to the owner.
Even as early as this, it was clear to many people that the way to prosperity was via trade, rather than the turn of the shovel.
Wherever the diggers went the traders followed, despite the difficulties of ensuring a constant supply of goods and the conditions under which they had to operate. Stores were distinguished from ordinary tents by red flags or gaudy handkerchiefs, which they flew on their tentpoles, and were surprisingly well stocked. A Johnny-all-sorts shop was kept by an eccentric character called MacTaggart at Mount Alexander, who claimed that the only two things not to be found amongst his tock, were fresh pilchards and snowballs! Diggers who arrived with nothing but their excitement, must have been thankful for these shopkeepers and bought regardless of expense. In mid 1851 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that at Ophir:
Messrs Meyers and Twaddle have commenced a store in a bark building, with an excellent prospect of success . . . for there are scores who come hither without any preparation whatever . . . mobs are constantly arriving here from Sydney, without food, money or implements.
In the early days of the Bendigo rush Mrs Clacy described the delights of the many large and obviously prosperous store tents which stocked an extraordinary quantity of goods, ranging from the essential to the most exotic luxury:
The stores of the diggings are large tents generally square or oblong, and every requirement by a digger can be obtained for money, from sugar-candy to potted anchovies, from East India pickles to Bess's ale, from ankle jack-boots to a pair of stays, from a baby's cap to a cradle; and every apparatus for mining, from a pick to a needle. But the confusion - the din - the medley - what a scene for a shop walker! Here lies a pair of herrings dripping into a bag of sugar, or a box of raisins; here a gay-looking bundle of ribbons beneath two tumblers, and a half-finished bottle of ale. Cheese and butter, bread and yellow soap, pork and currants, saddles and frocks, wide-awakes and blue serge shirts, green veils and shovels, baby linen and tallow candles, are all heaped indiscriminately together; added to which, there are children bawling, men swearing, storekeeper sulky, and last, not least, women's tongues going nineteen to the dozen.
Doubtless the diggers took an occasional potted anchovy, followed by a draught of the good Bess's ale to make up for the unwholesome water, which was said to be strongly flavoured with the essential oils of the stringy bark and caused dysentry according to Lord Robert Cecil, who went on to explain that: 'Though it did me no harm it completely upset Sir Montagu's internal arrangements'.
The diggings in the days of alluvial mining must have presented a strange sight to the newcomer; the whole landscape denuded of trees and the ground pitted with holes and constantly traversed by busy figures pushing wheelbarrows, rocking, cradles and digging, with rows of tents flapping in the background:
The rattle of the cradle as it swayed to and fro, the sounds of the pick and shovel, the busy hum of so many thousands, the innumerable tents, the stores with large flags hoisted above them, flags of every shape, colour and nation, from the lion and the unicorn of England to the Russian eagle, the strange yet picturesque costume of the diggers themselves, all contributed to render the scene novel in the extreme.
Nighttime on the diggings was by all accounts pretty exciting; it was a common practice for men to fire muskets and revolvers into the air to show any 'crooks', who were believed to abound on the rich fields, that they were well-armed and ready and willing to defend themselves:
Night at the diggings is the characteristic time murder here - murder there - revolvers cracking - blunderbusses bombing - rifles going off - balls whistling - one man groaning with a broken leg - another shouting because he couldn't find the way to his hole, and a third equally vociferous because he has tumbled into one - this man swearing - another praying - a party of bacchanals chanting various ditties to different time and tune, or rather minus both. Here is one man grumbling because he has brought his wife with him, another ditto because he has left his behind, or sold her for an ounce of gold or a bottle of rum. Dannybook Fair is not to be compared to an evening at Bendigo.
But despite this colourful description, it seems that in comparison to other mining fields, the Victorian diggings were resonably law-abiding, a surprising fact, considering the constant complaints from the authorities that there were not enough police, and that felons and bushrangers abounded. In a letter written to an English clergymen, Cecil compares the Australian rush with that of California, where the conditions were similar but disorder prevailed and lynch law was common. In Australia on the other hand.
Government was of the Queen, not of the mob, from above, not below, holding from a supposed right (whether real or not, no matter) and not from 'the people, the source of all legitimate power' and because instead of murders, rape and robberies daily. Lynch law and a Committee of Vigilance, there was less crime than in a large English town, and more under and civility than I have myself witnessed in my own native town of Hatfield.
Whether this was universally so or not is debatable and William Howitt recorded that conditions differed greatly from field to field; he noticed that at Spring Creek he was treated with the utmost civility and good nature and that tools and cooking apparatus were left unharmed outside the digger's tents, while at neighbouring Reid's Creek the opposite was the rule, and that field had the character of a dangerous and disorderly place.
Tent slitting was a widely recognised method of separating the lucky winner from his cache of nuggets, and at various times thee were gangs of thieves who operated in this way. Henrietta Walke, who spent seven of her early married years on the fields at Bendigo, described a horrifying experience which she had when here husband was away. She was menaced, one night, by a man who demanded money and when she refused to let him into her tent, she at once expected the canvas would be ripped through with a knife. To convince him of her seriousness, she recounted:
I fired one of my pistols up the chimney, and though I waited and waited, with the baby in my arms, no-one came. I was never better pleased to see daylight, though I don't know to this day whether it was I or someone else that kept the thief off.
Bushrangers came into their own during the gold rush period, and were to continue to be a constant source of harassment to successful miners for many years. The police on the goldfields were undermanned and often sufficient escorts could not be provided to ensure that the gold consignment got a safe passage to the city. Rachel Henning thought that Australians were a cowardly lot when it came to dealing with these highway robbers of the outback. She wrote contemptuously: 'The bushrangers now are not escaped convicts, as they used to be, but disappointed diggers and general ne'er-do-wells.' She considered them to be consequently less fierce and was amazed to hear that one man had been able to stick up and rob a whole coach full of passengers, on the Yass road, with no-one even attempting to fight back. On the other hand she admired the Frenchmen who responded quite differently when they were in a party stopped by two bushrangers who ordered all the passengers to get out and be robbed. The Australians all meekly obeyed, but the '. . . two little Frenchmen made such a sturdy fight that the bushrangers decamped, one of them badly hurt'.
Sunday on the diggings during the early rushes was a special day. The government had decreed that there should be no mining done and that the day should be treated with reverence. According to most contemporary accounts this was respected and the diggers were glad to have a day free for wood chopping, washing, writing letters and generally organising their lives. The prohibition meant that, as no-one worked, there was no danger of an unscrupulous miner digging into his neighbour's claim while it was untended. From the beginning the churches were well represented, the first churches were often no more than a space in the open air, with the preacher declaiming from a stump, but soon large tent churches made their appearance, followed in the course of time by grander buildings. An unsuccessful sermon was described by Preshaw in 1860: "This afternoon a digger got on to a rock and began to preach. A crowd soon gathered. As he was preaching a funeral was passing, a fight was got up, and in less time than I can write it, the preacher was left alone, not one stayed, all went to see the fight.' At Forest Creek in 1852, Sunday was doubly important because it was the day that the Melbourne Argus arrived by packhorse. All copies were sold out within an hour, although the cost of the paper was two shillings and sixpence.
Henry Button, from Castlemaine, recalls a not untypical Sunday:
The churches and chapels in those days, like the banks and stores, were tents. Services were occasionally conducted under discouraging circumstances. One Sunday evening the Rev. Cheyne went down to Forest Creek, now called Chewton, to hold services in the Episcopalian tent. He sallied forth with a bell in his hand and marched up and down the rows of tents ringing it, and exhorting all and sundry to come to the house of prayer. The result of his vigorous exertions was that he succeeded in drawing a congregation of three!
The number included the writer's father and a drunk who at the conclusion of the service clapped the Reverend on the back and bawled 'well done, old boy!' into his ear.
At first there were few women on the fields and, of these, most were of 'doubtful character'. There are countless tales of female fortune hunters whose aims were decidedly more mercenary than domestic. Some of these women were well known characters who added to the atmosphere of the diggings. At Sailor's Gully, Forest Creek:
A woman used to come up the gully selling hop-beer at sixpence a pannikan - the initiated could get something stronger. The dame had suffered from spasms in her chest, and she had been advised to get a curved tin fit another part of her anatomy, so she filled it with spirits, with a conductor-like tube of an infant's feeding bottle, and by putting her hand into a side pocket she could bring the tube out and serve her customers. The police suspected here and watched her, but no constable's life would have been safe if he had meddled with her on her rounds among her digger mates.
As the fields became established, more women joined their menfolk and elaborate tents and sophisticated domestic arrangements began to make their appearance. Mrs. Clacy wrote:
In some tents the soft influence of our sex is pleasingly apparent; the tins are as bright as silver, there are sheets as well as blankets on the beds, and perhaps a clean counterpane, with the addition of a dry sack or piece of carpet on the ground, whilst a pet cockatoo, chained to a perch, makes noise enough to keep the 'missus' from feeling lonely when the good man is at work.
Cooking for many years was done over open fires and when most people lived in tents there was often a separate cookhouse with a substantial chimney to hold the cooking pots. Damper, mutton and potatoes were fairly standard items on the menu and tin dishes and sheath knives were more common than the family silver. Wooden crates provided versatile furniture and washing up would be done in a tine dish that could well have doubled for the family washing. The elaborate dresses worn by women in the Victorian era must have posed serious problems for washing and ironing, except in Western Australia where, according to some accounts, there was so little water that clothes were cleaned by shaking them in the wind.
On special occasions extra trouble was taken
with the food, a pudding was cooked u in a kerosene tin and perhaps some
wild duck would be roasted to make a change from mutton. An old-timer
recalls some pretty hectic celebrations taking place especially at
The pastime of the lucky digger often consisted of reckless indulgence in champagne and furious driving. Some diggers amused themselves by loading their guns with nuggets of gold as a substitute for leaden bullets, and firing at gumtrees. I was one of a party who partook of a golden plum pudding, prepared for our Christmas dinner in 1853. About half an ounce of fine gold was washed out from the gravelly bed of Forest Creek and mixed with the other ingredients of the pudding - so easy was it to procure the precious metal.
The arrival of women and children on the fields was generally thought to have a beneficial effect; when the brief rush to the goldfields of South Australia was at the height in 1852 it was noted that:
Many families of respectability have arrived, and are now living in comfortable and commodious tents. The presence of well-dressed women and children gives to the goldfields, apparently distinguished for decorum, security and respectability. From the feeling of security and comfort, combined with the cheapness of living, all classes of diggers are unanimous in their preference of this place to Victoria.
Despite these 'civilised' surroundings, the diggers of 'all classes' were soon hightailing it off to other,more rewarding fields. The following lament describes their plight; it is dedicated to the luckless miners of Echunga:
Women were evidently prepared to put up with all sorts of privations and soon there were large numbers of them on most of the fields. Schools were started. At first they were privately run and aimed at little more than instilling the rudiments of learning, although by the 1880s education in most Australian states was 'free, secular and compulsory' and available to children in all but the most out of the way places. Mechanics' Institutes played a large part in education in the latter part of the nineteenth century; by 1860 there were Institutes in most country towns and low cost lectures in history, science and the arts and library facilities in their halls was the extent of most of the older workingmen's education.
Some of the services on the goldfields were haphazard for man years; postal services were at the mercy of circumstances and were often interrupted. Letters, parcels and newspapers could be held up by the state of the roads, bushrangers or general disorganisation. Deception was the cause, in the case of one notorious storekeeper in Bendigo; Barnett posted a notice outside his shop, stating his willingness to post letters and parcels to any part of the world, for the small sum of one shilling per item. The diggers were delighted until the day that Barnett was raided by the police, who suspected him of dealing in sly grog; they broached a couple of casks finding neither rum nor brandy, but hundreds and hundreds of letters which had never left this so called post office for their given destinations.
In Western Australia, despite the outback nature of the goldfields, changes came very rapidly, as the discoveries did not take place until the last decade of the century. Although the first miners struggled into Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie on foot across great stretches of desert, or mounted on camels or mules if they were more fortunate, progress followed quickly. Kalgoorlie in 1894 was:
. . . a collection of canvas tents and hessian humpies. There were also a few small wood and iron structures and nowhere had any attempt been made to form roads. Fine dust several inches deep lay on the ground and there were innumerable bush tracks in all directions. The slightest breeze raised dense clouds of dust, with which the air was filled for days and nights. Files swarmed in millions. The surroundings were uninteresting, consisting merely of the interminable bush. The population was considerable. Life was attended by many discomforts. There were few women and it was not easy to seek accommodation.
Although the writer obviously found the West daunting on his arrival, he was soon caught up in the heady atmosphere of success:
. . . Memories of those days are cheery and exciting. There was a spirit of good humour everywhere. The community included splendid and most interesting characters - young adventurous and enterprising men attracted by the lure of gold. They embraced all grades of society from peers of the realm to horny-handed manual workers. There was good fellowship and a jovial camaraderie. Continually there were reports of sensational new finds and fortunes made.
With the arrival of the rail link at Coolgardie in 1896, palaces of corrugated iron soon appeared and Kalgoortlie had an electric tram advice when such a thing was still a novelty in Adelaide. At the turn of the century, gold was booming again and the five largest inland towns in Australia were all mining centres, four of them gold: Ballarat, Bendigo, Kalgoorlie, Broken Hill and Charters Towers.
Gold caused a steep increase in population in the cities and consequently there
. . . began an orgy of improvisation in living conditions. The houses knocked up to provide temporary shelter often became the permanent shells of the suburban dweller. gold was also the immediate cause of the transplanting of the fruits of the industrial revolution of the people. Gas lighting, sewerage and water supply were introduced into Sydney and Melbourne in the 1850s, the other capitals followed suit in the 1860s. The electric telegraph, first introduced between Melbourne and Williamstown in 1854, revolutionalised communications between the colonies, and by 1872 cable communication with the outside world was making possible the end of Australia's isolation.
As reef mining became a profitable and established industry towns grew up in place of the goldfields' camps. Tents and slab huts slowly gave way to more substantial buildings of timber and iron, brick, stone and slate. The range of shops and services increased, most towns had their own newspapers by 1870 and communications between country and city were more adequate. More than one town could boast that it had '. . . emerged from the chrysalis state, of canvas, slab and weatherboard, to one of brick and stone'. The new buildings erected amongst the mullock heaps were built with the great optimism and faith that had inspired the goldminers and they were paid for with their gold, their solidity was a symbol of the tremendous belief in the future, and many of them stand today as a reminder of that hopeful past.
Banks were amongst the most common and solidly built structures in the 1880s although within ten years they were seen to be founded on less than safe foundations. None of them would however, have been such a draughty affair as George Presehaw's 'bank' at Kiandra in 1860:
I found (the bank) to be a calico tent, built on the high side of the street, fully ten feet higher than the Oriental Bank, which was on the opposite side. On entering I saws a young man behind the counter . . . perched on a piece of bark which rested on two logs, a stream of water running under him, in fact right through the building. I was puzzled to account for this, but on examination found it was caused by the snow, which was a foot or two deep at the back of the tent, thawing. The floor was one mass of puddle. No fireplace, so of course no fire; no door to the tent, but merely a piece of calico with a piece of sapling at the bottom, which was rolled up or down as occasion required. The counter was a novelty in its way - four saplings stuck into the mud with a few rough boards on the top.
Although most and not particularly secure this bank was in fact a safer repository for hard won funds than the ornate banks which crashed so miserably in the 1890s.
During the building boom of the 1880s many fine houses and public buildings were erected in both large and small towns. Houses with towers and ballrooms, finely decorated and filled with luxurious imported furniture all over Australia, date from this period of wealth, so much of which had been made on the goldfields. Even after the depression of the 1890s, prosperity returned to the goldfields, but the optimism was waning, and World War I was to change many of these fine towns into mere ghosts of their former glory. The depression of the 1930s was to create a resurgence of interest in gold mining. Instead of tents, fibro shacks sprang up to house the hopeful and men whose ancestors had walked to the rich strikes of the past, rumbled into Kalgoorlie again and the newly discovered field at Tennant Creek, returned to their ghostlike lethargy - men no longer fired shotguns loaded with gold nuggets into the air, or risked their money in speculative ventures on the main street stock exchanges and ladies silken skirts no longer swept through the dusty streets of desert towns.
CAUSES OF DISCONTENT
Of the many national groups to come to Australia when gold was discovered, perhaps the Irish and the Chinese had the most important influence on the development of the country. The Irish played a major part in the Eureka uprising and subsequently in the political future, particularly in the Labour movement. The Chinese, on the other hand, made a less positive impression, the fault being in the racial bias of the majority of the European population.
Many Chinese went to the Californian goldfields in 1849, they called California the 'Golden Mountain' and when gold was discovered in southern Australia a few years later it became the 'New golden Mountain' and they sailed across the Pacific bringing their mining knowledge with them. Within three years there were 2500 Chinese in New South Wales and they had very soon aroused the enmity of the European diggers. It is hard to define the reasons for their unpopularity as it seems to have been based largely on unfounded fears and suspicions.
Antoine Fauchery described them as hard working and sober people who kept to themselves, perhaps it was just their 'foreign men' and different ways which provoked the diggers. The Chinese when worked over ground that other diggers had abandoned as unpayable and because of their diligence found gold where they had failed. Ion Idriess wrote in the manual on prospecting:
Leave the rough uneven bottom of the creeks as bore and clean as a woman's kitchen floor. Only so will you get all the gold. That is the way the Chinaman works. No man ever yet found gold after Chinamen have worked a creek, so they say.
But there was such widespread feeling against them that in 1855 the Victorian Government imposed an entry tax on Chinese coming into the state. This led to human smuggling, shipowners would conceal their Oriental cargo, putting them ashore on isolated beaches or dropping them off at south Australian ports. Such a stream of Chinese entered Victoria illegally, walking overland across the border from Robe, that in 1857 the South Australian Government followed Victoria's lead and introduced a tax too. After the fierce attack on the Chinese diggers at Lambing Flat in New South Wales in 1861, a similar restriction was imposed in that state.
In one year, 25,000 Chinese disembarked at Melbourne, most of them were working for Chinese overlords who had paid their fares and expected them to send most of the gold they found back to China. This large influx created concern and there were moves made to ban them entirely from the goldfields. In 1855, as a result of this, the Chinese community in Victoria presented an address to the Governor in an effort to put forward a case for their settling in Australia.
Quang-Chew, described as a man sound in reason and affection and fifth cousin of the Mandarin Ta-Quang-Tsung-Loo, who possessed several gardens near Macao, was their spokesman. He described his compatriots as skilled gardeners, carpenters and artisans, subtle agriculturalists, kitemakers and animal trainers and continued:
|I repeat: why should all
our gardeners, cooks, animal trainers, conjurors, etc., etc. find
themselves disdained and driven away when they can become so useful in
the colony . . . will it be imprudent to allow twenty thousand Chinese
to come to Australia?
. . . I know also that an immensity of land beyond this town has never been cultivated . . . all these places, alas, are still untilled, because those to whom they belong are accustomed only to mining gold, and not to ploughing the land; or perhaps because the number of arms is not in proportion to the needs of agriculture.
The Chinese were allowed to remain but were restricted to special camps on the goldfields outside the European zones and were separately taxed. There were very few women among them and because of this they were often accused of indulging in unnatural vices and vicious habits; they were suspected of all sorts of crimes and were described as the smartest thieves in the world. Despite this, a search of the criminal records for the second half of accusations; the Chinese do not seem to have been convicted of an excessive number of crimes in proportion to their numbers. At Maldon Chinese diggers were convicted for creeping out in the dead of night and removing gravel from the surface of the roads, and taking it home to pan. They were famous for their supposedly devious ways; in Sydney a nugget sold by a Chinese digger proved to have been so cleverly worked in copper that it deceived many before it was found to be false; they were also renowned for the practice of shaking golden sovereigns together in a sheet in order to gather the precious gold dust.
Agitation against the Chinese petered out as the alluvial gold declined in Victoria and New South Wales. Perhaps at this stage people were prepared to accept the Chinese habit of reworking the mullock heaps and painstakingly gong over land that others regarded as useless. But in areas suffering from economic depression agitation again increased against the Chinese; in the late 1870s in New south Wales there was fear of their competition with European labour in shaft mining, shearing sugar cutting and shipping. They were banned entirely from gold mining on some fields and many of them turned to market gardening and running boarding houses and cafes.
The bulletin took a strong stand against coloured immigrants and fought a continuing battle to exclude them from the country. 'they were constantly referred to in scathing terms as an inferior race, both physically and intellectually. There was even a suggestion made to confine the 'Celestial workmen' to the far north which could become a kind of 'Celestial Paradise'.
'Perhaps there would be little said by the white workman against the Chinaman were the latter to confine his operations to vegetable growing and potato-peeling.' this article from the bulletin in 1890 spoke of the success of Chinese businessmen and the danger of large numbers of them settling in Australia:
On the Chinese question there must be no compromise on the part of he people of this country . . . the Chinaman, while living under the protection of our laws and enjoying every privilege of the white, contributed hardly anything to the revenue, the indirect taxes he does pay are imposts levied on the consumption of opium and other vicious habits; he invariably removes his realized wealth from the country, which as a set-off only gets his cheap labour - the ruin of the white; the Chinese bring no women with them, and foster immorality wherever they settle; the races should not be allowed to mix; they are mixing to a large extent in the lowest quarters of the large cities; and the presence of the Chinaman must ever be a disturbing element in the at all times sufficiently strained relations between capital and labour. The Chinese as a body must eventually be cleared out of all but tropical Australia, and it will be well for the country to settle the business as soon as possible.
The line that the Chinese produced only two things, vice and vegetables, was very popular and small children were not discouraged by their parents from shouting derisive remarks at 'Ching Chong Chinaman'. In 1895 the Bulletin reported that: 'The Chinese invasion was never a bogey; it was a grave danger, and so it is still . . . the Chinese in Victoria once numbered about thirteen percent of the adult male population.'
In 1888 three thousand Chinese were employed as navvies on the construction for the railway line from Darwin to Pine Creek. They also worked on the overland telegraph in the Northern Territory and were largely responsible for the discoveries of gold along its route. The Chinese were better able to stand the fierce climate and harsh conditions of the north and their numbers increased in that part of the world until they outnumbered the white population by three to one.
Darwin was a real Chinese town and the Chinese owned and ran four cafes, two shoemakers shops, seven brothels, thirty-nine stores, three laundries, five tailorshops, six gambling houses and a Joss House. By 1892 they owned eight out of the twelve crushing batteries in the Territory and most of the successful mines. But although, or perhaps because of their success, they were not encouraged to continue their contribution to the growing country.
The continual harassment of the Chinese and the fear engendered from the earliest days of the gold rushes was in a large part responsible for the inclusion of a White Australia Policy in the platform of the newly formed Australian Labour party at the turn of the century. This sorry clause was to remain to the detriment of Australia's international image for far too long. Happily now, the Chinese, once so feared and hated on the goldfields are accepted as part of Australia's past and present. The descendants of many of those who came for gold and stayed, have left their mark in our cities as their ancestors left their mark on the goldfields, each year the Chinese dragon is a major attraction at Bendigo's Easter carnival; Joss Houses in many towns add an exotic touch to the vernacular architect5uer; there are Chinatowns in all the capital cities and Chinese cooking, including the very Australian dim-sim, has become part of Australian life.
But the Chinese were not the only cause of discontent on the fields. The Irish and men of many other nationalities joined together in what was to become known as the Eureka uprising, the causes of which were many.
Causes of Discontent
'Where's your licence?'
Charles Thatcher's contempt for the licenced-hunting traps expressed in this contemporary ditty was shared by most of the diggers in the early years of the gold rush. Contempt was mixed with fear and anxiety too as few could afford the thirty shillings a month licence fee demanded by the government, and collected in such an unpleasant way by the minions of the law. when gold was discovered in Victoria Lieutenant governor Charles La Trobe followed the example of New south Wales and imposed a licence tax which was intended to quell the rushes and help to maintain law and order.
Raffaello Carboni, who has left a vigorous account of the battle of Eureka in which he took part, debated whether the diggers objected to the principle of the licence tax or the 'obnoxious mode of its collection' and wrote:
I think the practical miner, who had been hard at work, night and day, for the last four or six months, and after all, had just bottomed a shicer, objected to the tax itself, because he could not possibly afford to pay it. and was it not atrocious to confine this man in the lousy lock-up at the cam, because he had no luck?
As early as August 1851 miners were complaining about the ruinous tax; a meeting, held around a large fire at Buninyong, was attended by forty or fifty diggers and the Geelong Advertiser reported one man who described himself as a free man and a hardworking man, willing to pay his fair share to the government but he could not and would not pay thirty shillings a month for a licence to get an honest livelihood by his labour: 'I work hard and cannot get my rations by gold diggings, so how can I be expected to pay a shilling a day to the commissioner'? A second remarked that 'It's a burning shame to expect it'. 'It's more than a squatter pays for twenty square miles', said a third. 'But you are a poor man', retorted a fourth, 'I spent every halfpenny I had in fitting myself out for the diggings and now I am to be taxed before I have been here a week, or had an opportunity of getting any of it back.'
'. . . I should like to know what right the government has to tax us eighteen pounds a year before the council sits. What's the use of voting in members if the government can do as they like.'
In December 1851 La Trobe decided to raise the licence fee from thirty shillings a month to three pounds, but this was received with such heated opposition that the plan was never carried out. Two years later pressure from the Bendigo fields resulted in the tax being reduced to two pounds for three months but by then other issues had been added to the miner's grievances. When Sir Charles Hotham arrived in Australia, to replace La Trobe as governor of Victoria, he was received with enthusiasm by the diggers. He visited the Ballarat diggings on 26 August 1854 and was hailed as the 'Digger's Charlie' and to three hearty cheers he replied: 'Diggers I feel delighted with your reception - I shall not neglect your interests and welfare - again I thank you.' But Carboni points out that within a few months the same man was to be met with a loud and prolonged outburst of indignation from 5000 Melbourne citizens for the treatment of the diggers.
Hotham was evidently under great pressure from the British authorities to increase revenue from gold and it is thought that he misinterpreted the tales of the successful diggers, believing that generally a high level of prosperity existed. In fact by 1854 the alluvial gold was mostly exhausted and the change to deep mining was too costly for the majority of the diggers. A commercial slum occurred at the same time which meant that alternative employment in the city was difficult to obtain.
Another reason for discontent was the lack of available land, many men who had made money on the goldfields wanted to make a new life on the land but the squatters, who had control of the Legislative Assembly, were unwilling to relinquish their hold. The cry of 'unlock the land' was joined to the demand for a political rights. The diggers were unwilling to accept a situation which meant that they paid tax but were unrepresented in parliament: 'who tax without representation' was heard wherever the diggers gathered. The presence of quite a large number of European dissidents from the revolutionary climate of Europe in 1848 and English Chartists gave the growing movement impetus and direction.
Toward the end of 1854 the situation came to a head in Ballarat, the miner's discontent erupted at Eureka. for some time the authorities had ignored the danger signals which were appearing throughout the Victorian goldfields.
On 2 October a Bendigo newspaper correspondent expressed the diggers' resentment to an allusion by Colonial Secretary foster that they were quite satisfied with the existing goldfield's management:
If we are not in open rebellion, we are perfectly content. We are not dissatisfied unless we are agitating; and there is no agitation, unless the diggers were red ribbons, carry fire-arms and place the authorities in bodily fear. Wise Secretary Foster! Seriously let the government be assured . . . that there is a wide spread feeling of dissatisfaction with the present system.
Hotham ordered that the licence checks be increased and every effort made to prevent people avoiding payment of the tax. Carboni recorded that 'towards the latter end of October and the beginning of November we had such a set of scoundrels camped among us, in the shape of troopers and traps'. The murder of James Scobie and the acquittal of publican Bentley, who most people thought was the murderer, was enough to spark off trouble. Bentley's hotel was burnt to the ground and despite large numbers of police on the spot, rioting began. Carboni revelled in the fact that police had been unable to put out the fire or quench the digger's anger. 'The entire diggings, in a state of extreme excitement - the diggers are lords and masters of Ballarat; and the prestige of the Camp is gone forever.'
At a series of meetings of Bakery Hill the newly formed Ballarat Reform League set out its demands for changes to the goldfield's Commission, and a call for general recognition of the people's social and political rights. Peter Lalor was elected leader and on 27 November, to volleys of revolver shots and the blaze of burning licences, the blue and silver Southern Cross was unfurled at Ballarat for the first time. The following day an oath of loyalty was taken by 500 men; Lalor, kneeling beneath the flag, led the assembled men: 'We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties.'
During the next two days the stockade, covering about an acre of ground, was fortified with slabs and other available timbers. Men gathered inside and Lalor was indefatigable in his endeavour to organise the mend and to enforce an rigorous discipline. He is reported to have said: 'Any man who is found stealing or in any way interfering with private property, may look to himself for as sure as death my gun shall find him out.'
The stockade must have presented an awesome sight in those days of high excitement and anticipation. Men were collecting arms of all varieties, adding to the barricades and drilling meanwhile:
A German blacksmith, within the stockade was blazing, hammering and pointing pikes, as fast as his thick strong arms allowed him; praising the while his past valour in the wars of Mexico, and swearing that his pikes would fix red-toads and blue pissants especially. He was making money as fast as any Yankee is apt on such occasions, and it was a wonder to look at the coarse workmanship, that would hardly stick an opossum, though his pikes were meant for kangaroos and wild dogs.
Writing after the event Carboni marvels at the apparent lack of reality in the diggers' attitude.
. . . that an acre of ground on the surface of a full, accessible with the greatest of ease on every side, simply fenced in by a few slabs placed at random, could be defended by a handful of men, for the most part totally destitute of military knowledge, against a disciplined soldiery, backed by swarms of traps and troopers. Such, however, was our infatuation, that now we considered the stockade stronger, because it looked more higgledy-piggledy.
The faith of the diggers was to be severely shattered early on Sunday morning 3 December 1854. A strong belief in the sanctity of Sunday was to prove disastrous when the troops of the Twelfth and Fortieth Divisions launched their surprise attack on the unsuspecting diggers.
Contemporary reports differ about the number of people involved, though it is generally agreed that the strength of the defenders in the stockade, which had been over 1000 at times, was reduced to less than 200 on the night of the attack. 100 mounted soldiers, 176 on foot plus officers and police opened fire on the stockade in the early hours of that fateful Sunday morning; the fight was short and bloody and included a charge with fixed bayonets, the stockade was set on fire and many of the wounded were burnt to death.
Early next morning Raffaello Carboni entered the smouldering stockade to help the wounded:
I hastened, and what a horrible night! Old acquaintances crippled with shots, the gore protruding from the bayonet wounds, their clothes and flesh burning all the while. Poor Thunen had his mouth literally choked with bullets, my neighbour and mate Teddy More, stretched on the ground, both is thighs shot, asked me for a drop of water. Peter Lalor, who had been concealed under a heap of slabs, was in the agony of death, a stream of blood from under the slabs, heavily forcing its way down the hill.
Peter Lalor recovered and continued the fight for freedom in the parliament; but there were many who died on that bloody night.
Shortly afterwards a writer to the editor of the Geelong Advertiser voiced the horror of many and fears of the consequences of the action:
All whom I spoke to were of the opinion, that it was a cowardly massacre. There were only about one hundred and seventy diggers, and they were opposed to nearly six hundred military. I hope all is over; but I fear not; for amongst many, the feeling is not of intimidation, but a cry for vengeance, and an opportunity to meet the soldiers with equal numbers . . . I fear that the massacre of Eureka is only a skirmish . . . Sir, I am horrified at what I witnessed, and I did not see the worst of it. I could not breathe the blood-taunted air of the diggings, and I have left them forever!
On the afternoon after the battle, Commissioner Rede issued the following notice from the Government Camp at Ballarat:
Her Majesty's forces were this morning fired upon by a large body of evil-disposed persons of various nations, who had entrenched themselves in a stockade in the Eureka, and some officers and men were killed. Several of the rioters have paid the penalty of their crime and a large number a in custody. All well-disposed persons are earnestly requested to return to their ordinary occupations, and to abstain from assembling in large gro9ups, and every protection will be afforded them b the authorities.
The heroic stand which took place at "Eureka under the blue and silver banner of the Southern Cross was blamed on foreign activists and the authorities made every attempt to play down the importance. But the ramifications of that historic morning were wide and long lasting. Karl Marx wrote of the stirring of the revolutionary spirit in Australia and although the battle was lost Eureka became a symbol of the continuing battle for the people's rights. The licence tax was abolished, partial suffrage was granted before the end of the decade, moves were made on the land question; but more important, was the feeling that Australians could and would fight for their basic rights.
When Mark Twin visited Australia in the 189s at the time of the shearer's strikes he sensed the importance of Eureka and felt that its spirit lived on as an inspiration in the current battle. In his book, Following the Equator, he wrote:
It was a revolution -- small in size, but great politically; it was a strike for liberty, a struggle for a principle, a stand against injustice and oppression . . . It is another instance of a victory won by a lost battle. It adds an honorable page of history; the people know it and are proud of it. They keep green the memory of the men who fell at Eureka Stockade, and Peter Lalor has his monument.
In the days of the first rushes to Victoria and New South Wales, and even later in the century in the more remote parts of northern and western Australia, men made up the bulk of the goldfields population. Conditions were rough and the work hard, and although some adventures women braved it out at the side of their men, most preferred to wait until they had some prospects. Most of the early gold settlements were therefore lacking the civilising influence of women. W. B. Withers, whose History of Ballarat, published by the Ballarat Star in 1870, is filled with anecdotes redolent of first band experiences, wrote:
In those first days of digging-life, when womanless crowds wrestled with the earth and the forest amid much weariness and solitude of heart, the arrival of a woman was the signal for a cry and a gathering. The shout 'there's a woman' emptied many of tent of bespoiled and hardy diggers, for the strange sight evoked instant memories of far-away homes; of mothers, wives and sweethearts, and all the sweet affections and courtesies they represented, and never with such eloquent emphasis as then.
The absence of women may have accounted for what another contemporary commentator, William Howitt, described as the demoralised condition of a large proportion of the working population, when he visited the Victorian fields in the 1850s. He noted that 'a lot of the vilest scoundrels are assembled here from all the four winds of heaven'.
Escaped felons numbered largely amongst the diggers and Howitt complained of the low, obscene and brutal language that was to be heard on all sides. Van Demonians were described in a derogatory manner by many who visited the diggings, they were referring to convicts who had escaped from custody in Tasmania and concealed themselves amongst the gold crazy crowds.
The governments in both New South Wales and Victoria were fearful of lawlessness on the ill-policed fields and took the precautionary measure of making the sale of alcohol illegal. This law proved an impossibility to enforce and, despite frequent burnings of the so-called coffee shops, which were nothing more than sly grog tents, the sale of spirituous liquors proliferated and the government was forced to issue hotel licences. The diggers slaved all day under miserable conditions and were often unrewarded for their efforts, so it is not surprising that they turned to drink for solace.
On his trip to Mount Alexander in 1852 Lord Robert Cecil noted that large profits were made in the grog shops. He tells of seeing the authorities burn down a man's tent and fine him 100 pounds, for what proved to be his second offence. The man paid willingly and seemed unconcerned the at the loss of the tent,' . . . such are the profits of the illicit trade', he commented. Probably because of its illegality much of the goldfields booze was of an inferior quality and some of it was doped, the usual procedure being to spike the spirit with opium. Lead acetate and some locally grown poisonous herbs were also used to drug the grog of the unsuspecting digger, with the result that he often lost his nuggets as well as his senses.
the following recipe, known as the 'Knocker', a well-explanatory name when the ingredients are contemplated, has been handed down through generations since it was quaffed with effect, if dubious enjoyment, on the Ballarat diggings:
Similar recipes have turned up from other fields, and, although the ingredients differ from place to place, the intended effect is obviously the same and not one that would appeal to the template.
Fighting and brawling were commonplace events and, in fact, provided a type of recreation, a man who could see his 'fives' had an obvious advantage. George Oglivy Preshaw, who was a bank officer in the Bank of New South Wales at Kiandra in 1860, was fascinated by the fights he saw and noticed particularly how the Irish seemed to be peculiarly drawn to a good free-for-all, entering in for the pure love of the game. Of one such disturbance at Kidd's Hotel, he wrote:
Fellows at the far end of the room, who had nothing to do with the original row, directly it was well started would jump up, give a yell, and then go for the next man. Another, scenting the fray from afar, would run to the battle ground, force an entrance, and 'wire in', without taking pains to ascertain the respective sides, enough for them that kicking was to be done; so long as that luxury was to be had they were not to be restrained.
. . . those who were fortunate enough to secure one as a partner must have found it hard work dancing on a floor fully an inch which with mud. Just fancy fifty diggers coming into a room with their muddy boots, and walking about; what a nice state the floor would be in for dancing. It struck me as a queer sight to see hairy-faced men in peajackets, and long boots with pipes in their mouths, dancing together. . . . At first there were growls innumerable. There being so few girls, it was impossible for all those who wished to dance to get partners; however, those who were not fortunate enough to get a lady partner had to take a hairy-faced gentleman or not dance at all.
In Melbourne it was a different story; there were plenty of women ready and willing to entertain the successful digger, usually with the sole aim of separating him as quickly as possible from his riches. The diggers took full advantage of this and Howitt remarked that some diggers 'marry' every time they come to Melbourne. Lord Robert Cecil wrote of Melbourne's streets:
. . . thronged with ephemeral plutocrats, generally illiterate, who were hurrying to exchange their gold nuggets for velvet gowns for their wives and unlimited whisky for themselves, and who made the streets and hotels clamorous with drunken revels which now and again culminated in crimes of audacious violence.
He described the fancy women of the town who, in their damask gowns and silk parasols, would not have been out of lace in Hyde Park. One such glamorous person he discovered was a notorious lady from Adelaide, named Lavinia, whose only aim was to get her current digger mate's money. The Argus newspaper reported disparagingly that women of an inferior stamp.
. . . may occasionally be seen in some of the inns here, with a small roll of notes in one hand, and a pot of half-and-half, or half a pint of gin in the other, treating all and sundry who come in their way.
The disproportion of the sexes, a problem which started in the days of transportation and has continued to a lesser degree ever since, was exacerbated during the gold rushes. In Victoria in 1861 almost half the men over twenty years of age were not married, it is debatable whether this was the cause of an increase in prostitution, but true or not the problem existed and caused consternation. There were hundreds of prostitutes and many brothels in Melbourne and the Argues reported in November 1858 that 'by night and day the condition of Bourke Street . . . is a scandal to the city'.
But entertainment was not limited to drunken revelry and dissipation. In the tradition of the times there was a great deal of homemade fun, both sorting and cultural. Amateur concerts were common and a bent for recitation, pleasant voice or some dexterity with a musical instrument, were treasured attributes.
A poster advertising a concert and ball, featuring the Kingower Minstrels, in the Assembly Hall, Kingower, promised what would have been a typical programme for such an event in many gold towns of the period. Favourites from Victorian England included songs with such titles as 'His Funeral's Tomorrow', 'Shabby Genteel' and a trio for piano, violin and cornet entitled 'Death of Nelson', performed excellently, one can assume, by the Misses Weaver and Lewis and Mr. J. Weaver. The programme also offered other well known songs, jokes and farces and ended on a formal note with 'God Save the Queen'.
Race meetings were popular throughout the century and the New Year's Day meet held in 1862 at Kingower, a rich alluvial field in central Victoria, with prize money of ten or fifteen sovereigns would not have been unusual. Other events held on the same day included quoit playing, foot racing backwards, jumping in sacks and ascending the greasy pole, these being organised and presided over by the Veteran Starkie on his celebrated charger, Garibaldi.
The Australian preoccupation with sport was established early and apart from horse racing and cricket, a variety of different types of football and athletics were popular. Australian Rules began in 1855 as a rough and ready game of 'scrag', much in keeping with the manners of the time, although by 1866 its distinctive features had been clarified.
Cricket was played on some very strange fields and the participants were much more likely to be wearing clay spattered moleskins than the more conventional creams. At Waihalla the cricket club was lucky enough to secure one of the few flat areas of land near the township. The field was situated high above the town and a story is still told of the failure of a local batsman who bet he could lob a six into the hotel yard below.
Skiing was first tried on the goldfields in the Snowy Mountains as a matter of necessity, but it was soon taken up as a pleasant and exciting sport. The first recorded reference to skiing in Australia was published in the Monaro Mercury on 29 July 1861.:
Scores of young people are frequently engaged climbing the lofty summits with snow shoes and then sliding down with a volancy that would do credit to some of our railway trains.
Sleds and toboggans were also used and toboggan races were popular, even with women, who seemed remarkably unhampered by their wide heribboned hats and flowing gowns.
The nineteenth century abounded in what now seems extraordinary forms of entertainment; people flocked to see travelling waxworks and displays of fire crackers, even the dentist, with his agonised patient contorted with false hilarity induced by laughing gas, drew fascinated onlookers at the local fairs. Circuses with horrendous sideshows, so popular in Victorian England and Europe, toured the larger towns and individual performances by musicians and other music hall entertainers were common. In 1860 a performer much in vogue was Professor Bennet Clay, who was widely advertised as 'the popular modern Mysteriachist' and appeared at many theatres and goldfields in Victoria.
Bands wee started in many country towns and competitions were part of the entertainment at all sorts of gatherings. In Bendigo, at the height of the mining share boom in the 1870s, visitors reported that the city, brightly lit right through the night, reminded them of Paris, and that they were entertained by the gay and animated music of the excellent Hallas' city band.
The development of the Australian theatre owes much to the money and enthusiasm of the early diggers. Suddenly there was a great demand for performers, and money to pay them to make the often unpleasant journey out. At first, melodrama and music hall acts, usually performed in hotels, were the mainstay of the art, these events were rough and bawdy and not considered fit laces for the respectable. But theatres were soon built, often a grand scale, and became both respectable and popular.
Antoine Fauchery wrote that five theatres opened in Melbourne during his sty, one of which he described scathingly:
. . . a lyric theatre where the company, made up of people from all countries, sings the same opera in French, German and Italian each man singing in his own language - I pity the conductor if he is a musician - which is not highly probable.
Lola Montez, an Irish entertainer notorious all over Europe for her string of famous lovers, spent a number of years on the goldfields where her spider dance and dramatisations were much appreciated. This lusty, cigar-smoking 'lady' was often showered with nuggets during her performance and it is said that she never failed to gather in the loot, scooping up the gold without missing a step.
She was playing at Bendigo's Criterion in 1856 when it was struck by lightning. Lola calmed her audience and then commented that that it was the first time she had played the part of 'The Little Devil' with a background of real thunder and lightning. When she performed at the Theatre Royal in Castlemaine, the local paper the Mail, reported that the darling of the diggers caused a near riot'.
This theatre, first built in 1835, has been claimed as the oldest house of entertainment in Victoria and although the original building and several subsequent constructions were destroyed by fire, the theatre still exists today. One of the earliest goldfield theatres recorded was merely a canvas house set up on Ballarat in the Gravel Pits in 1853, but it was quickly followed by others whose grand titles were doubtless belied by their dubious architectural merit.
Although few of the theatres which sprang up over the following decades remain today, a number of the artists who performed in them are still remembered, at least in the theatrical world. Withers, in 1870, lists Catherine Hayes, Anna Bishop, Lola Montez, Brooke Kean, Eileen Tree, Sir William and Lady Don, Jefferson, Celeste and Montgomery as being amongst the 'brighter' stars that have risen upon our auriferous horizon.
The gold rush period at the 1850s and 1860s gave impetus to the cultural side of Australian life. The increase in population created a demand for public entertainment of all kinds and the new found wealth meant that the country could afford to import what was fashionable from Europe and America. Although there ere minor slumps this trend was to continue virtually unabated until World War I.
The Continuing Story
As the century wore on the excitement of the early rushes gradually decreased; the seventies and eighties were not times of frenetic discovery, although a great deal of money was invested in Australian mines, especially British money. The great depression of the 1890s however, was to act at a spur to prospecting and production. There were two main reasons for this: the recession was world-wide and Britain demanded much of her foreign investment money into Australian mining companies and there was an increase in the number of men who were keen to work in remote mining areas.
The nineties witnessed rich finds in Western Australia that were to double and redouble the output of gold and make the West one of the richest fields the world had ever seen. gold became again a more important export that wool, and at the turn of the century Australia's gold production was the highest that ever been. But the boom was a prove an 'Indian Summer' on the goldfields; the seeds of the long decline were already sown and pessimism was soon to settle over even the best fields.
The large mines stayed open but as the shafts went deeper the ore yielded less and mining costs rose. New machinery was needed and, perhaps more importantly, new ideas, as as prosperity failed investors lost interest and put their money in other ventures. The goldfields, so busy at the beginning of the twentieth century were on their deathbed ten years later, and the outbreak of world War I was the signal for their end.
Visitors to the fields in the following years reported strange sights in out-of-the-way places: a piano half-buried in sand, a billiard table standing out on a stony plain were once a hotel had done a roaring trade; tons and tons of rusting metal that once had helped to crush some of the richest ore in the world. The wind whistled through the empty streets of towns long abandoned except for a small population of old prospectors with their spirits still unbroken who believed that they could make it all happen again.
For almost twenty years gold mining was in abeyance. Even the mines which remained open were worked by skeleton crews using outdated machinery and the returns were correspondingly low. Many small mining townships virtually disappeared only the scars in the earth were left and piles of tin cans and heaps of shining bottles, gradually turning purple in the hot sun, reminded the passer-by of the former occupants, their hope and disappointments.
The depression of the 1930s, however, was to act as a stimulus once more, as similar times of economic recession had affected the goldfields in the past. The price of gold which had been static for so long, rose dramatically in 1831, as first the Australian and then the 'British pound depreciated. gold mines which had closed down because costs had made them uneconomic were reopened, for with the high price of gold even inferior ore could be treated.
Unemployment grew rapidly and men streamed out of the cities in search of work or just the price of a feed. The numbers of people on 'susso' multiplied and governments sought ways to which they could create jobs. In Victoria, where there were few operating gold mines left, the government gave 16,000 unemployed men a tent, mining tools, a copy of the prospector's guide book and a free railway pass to the goldfield of their choice.
Conditions were so hard that men were prepared to brave the hardships of the West again, and people from all over Australia flocked back to the Coolgardie-Kalgoorlie area. On 16 January 1931, a father and son prospecting team found a nugget just south of Coolgardie, which weighted 1136 ounces, half the size of the 'Welcome Stranger', Australia's largest nugget. They called it the 'Golden Eagle' and it acted as a great incentive to the new generation of fossickers. Coollgardie had a new rush, in fact the Denver City Hotel had its best year in 1933, the worst period in the depression. Miners were getting about eight pounds a week from their little mines in comparison with the average Australian worker who has lucky to get three pounds, if he had a job.
During the next ten years the annual value of gold mined in Australia increasd from under 2,000,000 pounds to 16,500,000 pounds and gold had become an important industry once more. An example of the change in interest in gold mining can be seen in that, while only twenty-eight new mining companies were registered in Victoria in 1930, there were 160 registered in 1934. The depression boom, if it could be glorified with such a title, had provided jobs for people who would otherwise have been unemployed and it has been estimated that more men gained jobs in the gold mines than were getting relief from public worked at the same time.
Despite the spate of activity during this period only two valuable new fields were discovered by the prospectors, but one of these was to be important for more than gold. Cracow in central Queensland and Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory were worthwhile discoveries and at Tennant Creek the rich deposits of copper were to make it of continuing importance. Copper had been found in conjunction with gold on fields in Tasmania too and its discovery at Mount Isa in 1931 was to add another dimension to the mining industry.
Most of the work done on gold at this time was on old fields that had been closed down during the first world war. New flotation processes and sophisticated diesel and electric motors made large-scale mining methods possible and, coupled with the high price of gold, economic. But once again it seemed that the boom was not to last; war broke out in 1939 and the mining industry went into a rapid decline. The ghost towns of the twenties, so recently rehabilitated, sank into obscurity again.
In the 1960s there was some expansion in the gold mining industry once more but it was mostly limited to Western Australia. In 1963 there were less than 300 producing mines in the whole country and of these only a handful were earning the bulk of the wealth. Perhaps the increasing prosperity of the nation had much to do with this change.
The history of gold in Australia has been one of peaks and valleys; the peak periods have stirred the country from end to end and created ripples throughout the economic world; the valley have been quieter times, peopled with rather solitary figures, men who still believe that the gold is there. And they have been proved correct more than once.
Gold miners seem to be a special race. Whether old or young, fossickers, prospectors, hi8ghly trained geologists or speculators they are all 'clean mad for the muck called gold' as the Canadian poet Robert Service wrote in The Shooting of Dan Macgrew. They talk of indicators, reef outcrops and leads, and 'speckers' can still be seen in gold country with sharp eyes on the ground after every shower of rain. For them the quest for gold is very much a reality.
Over the last decade gold towns, especially in the eastern states, have become the scene of a different, though none-the-less profitable boom. The rise of tourism as an industry has led to a renewed interest in places of historic value and many of the old gold towns, so long forgotten, have been opened up again. The National Trust of Australia has played a large part in stimulating this rebirth.
In 1964 the central Victorian town of Maldon was classified by the National Trust (Victoria) as a Notable Town. Maldon then had a population under 1000 and the little backwater provided only a faint echo of the hectic days when the hills resounded with the crash of batteries and the streets were filled with rowdy and excited crowds. But now holiday makers flock to Maldon to see what is left of the mines, visit the museum and walk down streets lined with small miner's cottages, many of which have been restored to more-or-less original condition. There are grand buildings too and it is still possible to read the old sign on the Theatre royal which must have seen many an exciting night years ago. Towns like this are making people more aware of the importance of preserving what is left of the past.
Sovereign Hill at Ballarat recreates the atmosphere of the early rushes in Victoria. Visitors can walk down streets that have been reconstructed with reference to contemporary photographs and plans. They can see how the diggers lived and worked, tents with stone fireplaces and primitive timber shacks have been stocked with the makeshift furniture and scant possessions of the miners and their families.
All over the country people are fascinated by buildings and institutions which date from the rich days of gold. Massive nineteenth century banks, hotels and public buildings are solid evidence of the prosperity of the times and the faith in the future engendered by the wealth won from the soil. Chinese Joss Houses in several Victorian towns recall the large numbers of Chinese who came to look for gold and stayed to enrich the culture and make Australia their home.
The skeletons of water wheels, the giant flumes, dams and races, batteries, poppet heads and boilers, the precipitous roads and first railway tracks, that are still to be seen in many remote places, provide proof of the energy and skill of the early miners.
There can be no doubt too that the discovery of gold played a large part in shaping the country's political structure. The influx of people from all over the world included rebels from Ireland, the United States of America, England, Italy and Germany and these were the people who led the workers in their demands for social and political rights. Although there is controversy over the important of eureka in the political development of Australia, men lost their lives at eureka and the battle, although a defeat, was the starting point in the continuing flight for democratic freedoms and their flag, the southern Cross, became its symbol.
Gold mining is no longer a major industry in Australia but the marks of its past will remain forever. When the buildings and institutions which edge from more than half a century of discovery have disappeared there will be still reminders of that era. Perhaps one day the machines will all have rusted away, the shafts filled in and the mullock heaps covered with bush again, but underground there will be still signs of that search for gold for which so many craved and often gave their lives.