A gold rush swag

You’ve heard the term ‘swag’ — the minimalist kit that a gold seeker carried with him to the diggings. But what was in it, how much did it weigh, and what indigenous kit was included?

EugenevonGuerard—Aborigines

Eugene von Guérard, Aborigines met on the road to the diggings, 1854 (image/collection: Geelong Art Gallery). Aboriginal people trading possum skin cloaks with a gold seeker, who has laid down his swag — comprising a bed-roll, billy and tools.

Numerous guides of the time — the Lonely Planets of their day — advised prospective gold seekers as to what to take to the diggings in their ‘swag’ or ‘traps’ (trappings). The most basic advice reflected the experience of the tens of thousands of ‘miner ’49s’ who had travelled overland from the East coast of America to the Californian goldrush only a couple of years before, where the trail became littered with unnecessary cast-offs. The key advice was this: travel light.

James Bonwick (in Notes of a gold digger and gold diggers’ guide, 1852) recommended diggers only to take what they could carry:

• hard-wearing clothes
• strong boots
• waterproof coat and trousers of oilskin
• a roll of canvas ‘for your future home’
• good jacket for Sundays
• pick, shovel and panning dish
• a cradle ‘may be carried in parts without much trouble’. (You can read about the cradle in this earlier post, Cradling for Gold in the Woolshed Valley).

William Williams, a gold digger who came to the Ovens diggings, gives us an idea of how much this kit actually weighed: ‘We started from the McIvor [i.e.: Heathcote, central Victoria] … carrying about sixty pounds weight including Grub, Blankets, Tin Dishes, Pick and Shovels, etc, this being our first attempt at carrying a ‘swag’ as it is termed in the colonies…’ [1] In metric measure, this was roughly 27 kilograms.

Unlike Bonwick, Williams also mentioned ‘grub’, the key components of which were sugar, tea, flour and salt (fresh food was generally picked up en route), which of course necessitated equipment for cooking and eating. Mrs Campbell, who lived at the Commissioner’s camp on the Spring Creek diggings (May Day Hills) in 1853, offered an overview of what a gold seeker might carry with them, including cooking implements: ‘As the digger is a migratory animal, he contents himself with few of the comforts or even necessaries of life. A small unlined tent, or rough bark hut, serves for his dwell­ing, while his furniture consists of a couple of blankets, which he spreads on the ground, a kettle, an iron pot, a pannikin [i.e.: tin mug] and tin plate, and knife and fork.’ [2]

William Williams, however, had no need of an iron pot or kettle, because he had a piece of equipment that would become synonymous with the swag — the ‘billy’. ‘[G]ot up before sunrise’ he wrote, ‘— boiled the “Billy” (a small tin pail that is used for boiling water for tea, or boiling a bit of mutton, or boiling a shirt, etc. The “billy” is an indispensable companion on a journey (it is preferred to a kettle or pot because it is so much lighter) boiled the “billy”, ate our bit of Damper, etc and started…’

Just as the billy had a multitude of uses, the gold panning dish did double-duty as a bowl in which to mix dough for bread or damper, and the neck-kerchief may have even doubled as a pudding cloth (not to mention arm sling or wound dressing). However, those travelling and working as a team often had a camp oven between them —  the workhorse of the goldfield’s kitchen. Some were designed to hang above a fire, but many had three legs so that they could sit in a fire with coals placed underneath. Many also had a flat top with a lip, which could hold coals on top to create all-round heat.

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A camp oven, also known as a dutch oven. (Image: Digrpat, via wikimedia commons).

Another essential bit of kit — so essential as to be taken for granted and therefore was never mentioned except in advertisements, was the means to light a fire. Diggers routinely lit their pipes and cooking fires from other peoples’ fires, but when that opportunity didn’t present itself they had to resort to their tinderbox, or use some congreve lucifers  early friction matches tipped with phosphorous, which were only just beginning to replace tinderboxes during the 1850s.

As for accommodation, many gold seekers en route to the diggings expected to sleep out under the trees, or under a wagon if they were travelling alongside one. On the diggings, those who did not have tents adopted an indigenous solution: the mia mia.

En route to the diggings, gold seekers passed through several indigenous countries, and were able to glimpse the ways of life of various Aboriginal clans. This included their use of temporary shelters made of bark, branches, leaves and grass.

While visiting relatives at Bontharambo near Wangaratta, English woman Mary Spencer explained as best she could: ‘I cannot describe the bush. It means such an extent of country covered with trees; some large, some small, no sign of human habitation except here and there a few camps or tents; some inhabited by blacks, who construct their huts by placing poles in position and covering them with the outer bark of the trees.’ [3]

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Unknown photographer, circa 1907-1915 (Image: Art Gallery of NSW, accession #520.2014)

The gold seekers quickly adopted the term ‘mia mia’ for such shelters — the word coming from the Wathaurong (Wadawurrung) people who lived near present day Geelong. Some diggers favoured mia mias over tents, no doubt as they were free, and could be easily rearranged depending on wind direction.

Thus William Howitt noted the adoption of indigenous dwellings by miners on the Spring Creek diggings in early 1853: ‘…there are huts of mingled boughs and sheets of bark; and here and there simple mimies, in imitation of the mimi of the natives; that is — just a few boughs leaned against a pole, supported on a couple of forked sticks, and a quantity of gum-tree leaves for a bed.’ [4]

And then there was the bedding. Assembling his items of bedding was one of the final tasks artist Thomas Woolner undertook before heading off to the Spring Creek diggings in the Spring of 1852: ‘After breakfast I went into the cottage to arrange my traps: my bed will consist of a piece of green baize [a coarse wooden fabric], one blanket and a waterproof coat to place on the ground as protection against the damp….’ [5] Some miners even carried Indian rubber blankets against the damp, particularly as exposure to damp ground was thought to bring about rheumatism.

In the height of summer, it wasn’t necessary to carry more than one or two blankets, but the gold seekers quickly opted for something superior to wool blankets — in fact, an option so superior that they immediately became a feature of gold fields life: the possum skin cloak.

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Possum skin cloaks (the above is a reproduction of one that came from Echuca in 1850). [Photo: National Museum of Australia]. Thankfully many talented artists are making these again.

Often referred to as a ‘rug’ by gold seekers, possum skin cloaks were traditionally worn by Aboriginal peoples throughout south-eastern of Australia. They were (and continue to be) made from brush-tailed possum pelts (as many as 60 or 80), trimmed and sewn together with kangaroo sinew. Traditionally, a person would be given one as a child, and the cloak would be added to as a person grew. [6] They were decorated with patterns imbued with significant cultural and spiritual meaning, and there was much importance around the making of the cloaks and their wearing. Some were handed down through generations as heirlooms.

From the perspective of a gold seeker, a really top-notch ‘opossum rug’ rubbed with a protective and decorative layer of fat and ochre, was a significant bit of kit because it was waterproof, said to be as warm as a half dozen blankets, and exceptionally light to carry (in fact, it is difficult to describe how surprisingly light and soft they are). Therefore, the indigenous art of making possum skin cloaks was widely recognised among the gold diggers, and the cloaks themselves were a highly valued inter-cultural trade item. [7]

The comfort that possum skin cloaks offered travellers in the bush can be felt in this vignette written by Phillip Johnson as he was travelling to the Ovens diggings:

‘In the course of a few hours I fell across a couple of bullock drivers who were quietly reposing on their opossum cloaks, and enjoying that cheapest and at the same time the most consoling luxury in the bush, their pipes; in the midst of a wilderness they were at ease & evidently at home..’ [8]

And again, the splendid luxury of a possum skin cloak is almost palpable, when reading this description by George Wathen:

‘I was soon asleep on the ground, by the fire, under an overbowering banksia, wrapped in the warm folds of my opossum rug.  For a night bivouac, there is nothing comparable to the opossum-rug.…’ [9]

Many of us are still familiar with, if not users of a few of the items in a gold rush era-swag: the billy and the camp oven especially. But sadly too few of us are familiar with the possum skin cloak. You can see them in on display in Albury Library Museum encased in a glass vitrine, and yet you will still not gain a real sense of why this is a truly magnificent and luxurious a piece of kit. However, there is one on display in the Falls Creek Museum that you can actually touch (as I did last Friday), and I encourage you to seek it out.

Notes

[1] William Williams, ‘Notes of a Journey from the McIvor to the Ovens River’, MS8436, State Library of Victoria, no date, p.1.
[2] Mrs A. Campbell, Rough and smooth, or, Ho! for an Australian gold field, Hunter, Rose & Co., Quebec, 1865, p.97.
And as an aside, for those unfamiliar with the term, a ‘pannikin’ is a tin camping mug — the word being derived from the Flemish ‘cannikin’ being the diminutive of ‘can’. So just as a small can was a ‘cannikin’, a small pan became a ‘pannikin’.
[3] Mary Spencer, Aunt Spencer’s Diary (1854): A Visit to Bontharambo and the North-east Victorian Goldfields, Neptune Press, Newtown, 1981, p.40.
[4] William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, or Two Years in Victoria, Sydney University Press facsimile edition of an 1855 imprint, 1972, p.252.
[5] Amy Woolner, Thomas Woolner: His Life in Letters, Chapman and Hall, London, 1917, p.19.
[6] This piece of information I recently learned from Wiradjuri woman Tammy Campbell.
[7] Fred Cahir, ‘Dallong – Possum Skin Rugs, A Study of an Inter-Cultural Trade Item in Victoria,’ The Journal of Public Record Office Victoria, issue no. 4, 2005.
[8] Phillip Johnson, Journal 3, Document 5, 1852, National Library of Australia, MS.7627, p.4.
[9] Wathen, The Golden Colony, or Victoria in 1854: With Remarks on the Geology of the Australian Gold Fields, p.131

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Exile on High Street

High Street in Beechworth has been a lot of things, but was it really ever Beechworth’s ‘main street’? 

I have a ‘thing’ about High Street. For one, I live on it. For another, it’s the most historically significant street in Beechworth, seconded only by Buckland Gap Road. Some joke it has a ‘Paris end’ and a ‘Bohemian end’. A lot of people will wax lyrical about it having been ‘Beechworth’s original main street’ — but for a nit-picking historian such as myself, this is a vast oversimplification.

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Survey of Beechworth, lithographed from the original 1853 map in 1855. (State Library Victoria)

High Street runs along the high side of Spring Creek, and it was the main thoroughfare for the gold diggings during the gold rush. I suspect that High Street was a originally a shepherd’s track, as there was a shepherd’s hut on the Creek at the time gold was first discovered there in the Autumn of 1852. [1] More over, that shepherd’s track might well have overlain a well-trodden indigenous track. It wasn’t unusual for roads that were created before formal surveys to follow ancient Aboriginal pathways; it’s well-known, for example, that major thoroughfares like George and Pitt Streets in Sydney follow the footpaths created by the First Australians. [2]

In any case, High Street was a track along the high bank of the creek which lead to the Commissioner’s Camp: a make-shift government administrative centre which was erected in late October 1852. At the time, it was not a street so much as an ill-defined path: ‘and so close were the [miners’] holes to each other,’ explained Mrs Campbell who arrived in mid-1853, ‘that there was hardly room for our cart to pass between them, obliging us to make a constantly zig-zag track.’ [3]

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The Commissioner’s Camp at Beechworth, by Edward LaTrobe Bateman (drawn around late December 1852). The path that became High Street can be seen just in front of the tents. The vantage-point for this view is best imagined as being from the Creek between current day Tanswell and Billson Streets, looking north.

In January 1853, at the peak of the gold rush, The Argus reported that ‘The site of a new township has been decided on in this neighbourhood, it will occupy the space on the side of Spring Creek between the upper waterfall and the Commissioner’s Camp.’ [4] In March, a deputation of storekeepers (Messrs C. Williams, C. Haskell, A. Palmer, and R. Mellish), who were keen to erect ‘winter stores’ on marked allotments before the cold weather set in, were assured by Chief Commissioner Smythe that they could do so as soon as allotments were marked out, and that the value of their improvements when the land was sold would be secure. [5]

When the town was finally surveyed in June, High Street appeared as just an idea of a street modelled on the reality of the existing path that followed the Creek (see illustration above). The path divided up at the north-east end, to head north to the Reid’s Creek diggings (and Albury), and south to Stanley, with a four-way junction roughly where Junction Road is today (see illustration below). Of course, you can try taking this same path to Stanley today (by heading down Peach Drive), but these days you’d have to swim the first leg across Lake Sambell, where on the opposite bank you will find what is likely a continuation of the original track in the form of Lower Stanley Road.

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A section  of a map of Beechworth in 1856. There’s a bit of a mess of pathways splitting around where Junction Road runs across High Street into Peach Drive today.

In any case, from the outset, Ford Street was the street clearly laid out with allotments on both sides, and made wide enough for a horse and cart to make a ‘U-turn’. In comparison, High Street was left as a track and only had allotments on the northern side, with the creek-side left unsurveyed. It could be argued that of those first ten allotments on High Street, Williams, Palmer and Mellish bought one each, suggesting that they may have actually erected their first stores along High Street. If this was the case, they would have quickly found themselves in exile at what was essentially a grubby part pf town — overlooking a conglomerate of make-shift tents and the diggings themselves. Williams and Palmer had the foresight to hedge their bets by buying land in Ford Street, which presented a more formal aspect. So if ever High Street took precedence as a business district, it was an incredibly short-lived phenomena.

The Ovens Directory of 1857 [6] tells us that by this time, High Street had two pubs, two general merchants (of which Richard Mellish remained one), two wholesale wine and spirit merchants, a tinware shop, a blacksmith, butcher, bootmaker, surgeon, chemist, a solicitor (Henry Elmes), a restaurant, Catherine Hughes’ ‘refreshments’ (no, that is not a euphemism), and even something for the hipsters of yesteryear — local coffee roasters, which all makes it sound as if High Street could have been the main street…. until you compare it with Ford Street at the same time.

In 1857, Ford Street had at least twice as many pubs, nine general merchants, three restaurants, Ackley and Rochlitz: Daguerrean Artists (photographers), at least two drapers, five grocers, a butcher, bookseller and stationer, medical doctor, chemist, tobacconist, bootmaker, two watchmakers, three barbers, and assorted builders, saddliers, ironmongers, blacksmiths, a coach agent, tent maker, and three wholesale wine & spirit merchants! And if one needed any more proof that Ford Street was the big end of town, it was also the location of the Bank of Victoria and Bank NSW. [7]

I’d argue that Ford Street is and always has been the main street of Beechworth — the street designated as the centre of commerce, right from the moment that the town of Beechworth came into existence. By comparison, High Street is merely a path — but what a path! Not only does it pre-date the town of Beechworth, it may even pre-date European settlement. Either way, it is the only true landscape relic of the gold rush of 1852-3 that we have left; a path made by the people, for the people.

Notes

[1] David Reid, Reminiscences of David Reid : as given to J.C.H. Ogier (in Nov. 1905), who has set them down in the third person, 1906, p.54.
[2] The Aboriginal science behind Sydney’s nightmare traffic’, http://sydney.edu.au/news/science/397.html?newsstoryid=15394
[3] Mrs Campbell, Rough and smooth, or, Ho! for an Australian gold field, Hunter, Rose & Co., Quebec, 1865, [78]
[4] The Argus, 18 January 1853 [from a letter dated 1 January]
[5] The Argus, 22 March, 1853.
[6] The Ovens directory for the year 1857 : the constitution, and general gold fields acts of the colony : the local court rules for the Beechworth and Yachandandah districts : and a sketch of the Ovens gold fields, Printed and published by Warren and Company, Beechworth, 1857.
[7] ibid.

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How to write a letter, gold rush style

It was the forerunner of the internet we have today: The postal network that started in Britain in 1840 with the issue of a uniform stamp known as the ‘Penny Black’ made communicating over great distances affordable for ordinary people. 

Although education was not yet compulsory or free in Britain, it seems that many of the gold seekers who came to the Victorian gold fields could read and write. As the letter was the only means of communication with anyone at a distance, the art of being able to write a good letter held considerable importance.

This rather long post concerns how a letter was created, written and posted in 1852. It is broken down into sections.

Step 1: Choose your paper

Anyone who was keen on writing or drawing would carry with them a portfolio or portefeuille (a leather wallet with writing paper); and some people even had a ‘laptop’ — the original ‘laptop’ being a laptop desk (otherwise known as a ‘writing slope’), which would contain ink wells, writing implements and stationary.

Antique_lap_top_desk

Interior view of antique wooden lap-top desk. The small compartments would have held pens, an inkwell, and other writing equipment, while a compartment under the desk top held paper.

The 1850s was a period in which paper production was only just switching from using pulped linen or cotton rags (which is long-lasting and highly stable), and ‘Manila’ type materials (hemp, jute, flax), to wood pulp. Paper was finally being machine-made, and as such was becoming more affordable.

There were two types of paper commonly available: the ribbed laid paper, which was made using a centuries-old process; which was being supplanted by the more uniform wove paper that came in ‘fine’ and ‘superfine’ grades. Vellum — a parchment made from calf skin — was also still readily available in the mid-1850s.

A lot of paper was Foolscap folio size (commonly contracted to ‘foolscap’ or ‘folio’) — roughly 8×13 inches. This was the traditional paper size used in Europe and the British Commonwealth before the adoption of the shorter A4 as the international standard. However, there was also writing paper and note paper of smaller sizes.

There was an etiquette surrounding the selection of paper: its quality had to be in keeping with the person, the age, the gender, and the circumstances of the correspondents. In particular, messages of mourning were written on paper with a black border, and the width of the border had to correspond somewhat to the nearness of the relationship and the recentness of the bereavement; hence you would see advertised: ‘Mourning envelopes, of the best cream laid and satin papers, of all widths of border’.

Step 2: Assemble your writing implements

The writing was commonly done using a dip pen with a steel nib (which had been mass produced since 1822), which was dipped into an ink well. (Quill pens [made from feathers], which had been in decline since the 1820s, were still available, although these had to be constantly sharpened with a quill knife [the process was known as ‘dressing’].) The ink was usually black, although dark brown and navy blue were also used. The writing was ‘running’ (cursive), because this style resulted in less ink blots. To prevent smudges, excess ink was blotted (soaked-up) using blotting paper — absorbent paper used to soak up excess ink, which only became common place in the 1840s or 1850s replacing a powder (which did the same job by way of scattering it on the writing and blowing it off), known as ‘pounce’.

Grey lead pencils were also in use, but seem not to have been used for formal correspondence. Erasers, made from natural ‘Indian rubber’, had only become commonplace in the mid-1840s. Pencil sharpeners were invented in 1847, and being such a new device were not yet commonplace in 1852.

Step 3: Fold writing paper into its own envelope

In the 1850s, envelopes were in use, particularly among the upper classes. However, many people simply folded their writing paper to make its own envelope.

One way to make the letter into its own envelope (note: these measurements are designed for a modern A4 sized sheet of paper):
1. Holding the page length-ways (ie: landscape), and fold the two side edges vertically inwards so that the two edges just touch each other. 
2. Fold the letter horizontally upwards about 7.5cm from the bottom of the page. 
3. Fold the top of the letter horizontally downwards about 3.5cm from the top of the page. 4. Flip over and address the letter on the front. Unfold the paper and write your letter. 
5. Refold, tucking the top fold into the bottom fold of the letter to form a self-made envelope measuring around 14.5cm by 9.5cm.
 5. Seal the join with wax (red, or black for mourning condolences) or a wafer.

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Letter to Gold Fields Commissioner Smythe on the Spring Creek diggings, 1853. Note the wax seal and how the paper has been folded to make its own envelope.

Step 4: Write your letter

Letters were written in cursive script, often with the lines very close together to conserve paper. Sometimes, people also wrote crossways across the initial writing, but only in limited circumstances (see note below).

What to write about, and how to write it

If you want to write like a gold digger, don’t worry too much about punctuation, and misspell the occasional word. Do not ever say anything vulgar, and if you must refer to bodily functions, excreta, or sexual matters, these can be only alluded to in an oblique fashion.

Address — Start by writing the date and location (ie: the name of your town or diggings) — in the upper right hand corner.

The salutation — Letters usually started with ‘My dear such-and-such’ and used the person’s relationship (as in ‘My dear father’) or their surname (as in ‘My dear Brown’). First names were not used in a salutation. Not ever.

Subject matter — In gold fields letters and journals, common underlying themes included:
Opposites — the sense that things in Australia were backwards, upturned or inverted (for example, the swans in Australia were black instead of white, and trees shed their bark instead of their leaves; Australia was a place where working class people became suddenly rich while rich people struggled for lack of servants);
Personal transformations — particularly in terms of personal appearance;
Descriptions of wildlife and scenery — the scenery was quite often described in Arcadian terms; describing Australia’s weird animals and dangerous snakes and insects was popular;
Descriptions of the goldfields, which by contrast with the scenery was described in quite dystopian terms (for example, as looking like ‘a graveyard where all the graves had been dug up’);
The trials and tribulations of travelling on the road by wagon, on horseback, or on foot; and finally,
How little gold you are winning (which was far more usual than talking about how well you are doing — although this was also a subject if it was indeed the case).

‘Selfies’ — If you had any artistic ability at all, you might include a sketch of yourself or your current living arrangements in a letter.

The ‘complimentary close’ — This was used to finish the letter before signing it. It is the phrase of courtesy, respect, or endearment used at the end of a letter. As in the salutation, the particular words used varied according to circumstance. Examples include:

We remain
Your affectionate sons,

I have the honor to be
Sir
your obedient servant,

Yours affectionately,

Your affectionate friend,

Yours faithfully,

Notes on expectations about readership

While we tend these days to equate letters with being a private message, goldfields letters were often intended as a broadcast social media (ie: to be read aloud to family and friends). Some letters even became the basis for travel narratives (most famously, in William Howitt’s Land, Labour and Gold, or Two Years in Victoria).

Many Victorian-era letter writing guides cautioned that once they were written, anyone could read your letters and thereby make inferences about you; so that even if those with whom you corresponded assured you that they burnt your letters, this may not in fact be the case. Therefore, when you sit to write your letter, consider the fact that its eventual readership is ultimately beyond your control. This is quite good advice for today.

A common convention when writing of other people with whom one was not closely acquainted was to identify them only by an initial (e.g.: ‘I was talking with Mr G.’) to preserve their anonymity.

A note on cross-writing letters

Back in the early 19th century when postage charges were ridiculously expensive, and were charged per sheet, letter-writers saved money with a simple technique called cross-hatching. The process went something like this: the correspondent composed the letter using closely written text to fit as much in as possible, then turned the paper 90 degrees and continued writing across the page perpendicularly. This method produced what was called a ‘crossed letter’.

Crossed writing only came into use when paper was dear and postage was high, but as the prices of both dropped, cross-writing was considered to be disrespectful: it was hard to read, and showed you didn’t care enough about the person to whom you were writing to use a second sheet of paper. During the gold rushes, only the last paragraph was crossed, and even then, only if you had just a little more to write, if at all.

Crossed_letter

A cross-written letter from the early 19th century.

Step 5: Seal the envelope

Envelopes were sealed using either sealing wax or wafers. Sealing wax was used especially in cases of formal correspondence and came in common red, black and fancy colours. At this point in time, the etiquette surrounding sealing wax was quite simple: Red was for daily use. Black was usually reserved for letters of mourning, and only ladies could use fancy colours. Large wax seals were considered to be in poor taste. Wafers were also used; particularly in cases of less formal correspondence. Wafers were a precursor of the ‘sticker’. They were composed of wheat flour made into a thin paste, which was dried and stamped into shapes. Like the wax seal, they came in a variety of colours, and it was also possible to emboss a pattern onto them. Wafers had to be moistened to make them adhere.

When you began to melt your wax, rest your elbow on the table in order to keep your hand steady. Take the stick of wax between your thumb and finger, and hold it above the flame so that it barely touches. Turn the stick around until softened on all sides. Next, insert a little of the melted wax under the turn-over part of the letter, just where the seal is to come. This would give more stability to your seal than if it was entirely depended on the outside seal.

For the outside seal, begin at the outer edge of the area where the seal is supposed to go. Move the wax in a circle which must gradually diminish until it terminates at the centre. Using the end of the wax stick (the non-wicked side if you’re using a wicked stick), stir and shape the wax puddle to bring out any air bubbles, give it a uniform thickness, and mould it into the shape and size you desire.

If you have a seal to press into the wax, create a moisture barrier on it first. If you don’t create a moisture barrier on the seal before you press it into the wax, the hot wax can get stuck on the seal. So breathe, lick, or dab the seal on a moistened sponge, before plunging it into the wax. Put the seal exactly to the middle of the soft wax. Press it down hard, but do not move it in a circle, then lift it straight up.

Step 6: Post your letter

The recent history of postage in 1852

In the nineteenth century, letter writing was the only way to communicate with those living at a distance (until the advent of the development of the international telegraph network). Early in the century, postage in the United Kingdom had been expensive, being charged on the basis of how many sheets of paper were being sent (estimated by holding the letter up to candlelight), with the postage being incumbent on the receiver to pay.

After public agitation for reform, the ‘Uniform Penny Post’ was introduced in 1840. The Penny Post mandated a uniform, affordable rate for postage: a letter weighing up to half an ounce could travel anywhere in the United Kingdom for only a penny. The first stamp, with Queen Victoria’s profile — known as the ‘Penny Black’ — was released. A postal ‘network’ was established, becoming the forerunner of modern communication technologies.

These changes transformed the post into a civic service which was affordable to all social classes, and letters grew in popularity as a means of communication for both business and personal communication. The stamp grew in popularity and quickly became a model for other nations including the United States, which issued its first postage stamps in 1847.

On the gold fields, letters assumed huge importance as they were the sole means of communicating with family and loved-ones who were generally half a world away. Due to advances in the postal system elsewhere, most  diggers arrived on the Spring and Reid’s Creek diggings with an expectation of access to an affordable and efficient postal service. In reality, they were met with a notoriously unreliable post service, and this became a great source of ‘annoyance’.

Posting a letter during the Ovens gold rush, 1852-53

Initially, the nearest Post Office to the Spring and Reid’s Creek diggings was in Wangaratta, 22 miles (36 km) away. Letters were carried from the diggings by The Argus Express newspaper couriers to Wangaratta to be dealt with by its much-despised post-master, Mr Peacock. Wrote The Argus in January 1853,

‘Another nuisance, that of the Post Office, is at present attracting attention. Loud, repeated, and unanimous are the complaints of the residents on the gold fields against the inefficiency, incivility, and negligence of the Wangaratta postmaster.’

The Argus continued, ‘yesterday morning a memorial on the subject signed by 324 of the storekeepers, gold buyers, and diggers of the Ovens, was presented to Mr Resident Commissioner Smythe, complaining of the conduct of Mr Peacock, the postmaster. … letters received from that Post office were not stamped; and that, consequently, there is no means of ascertaining how long they have been in the Wangaratta office. Mr Smythe in reply, informed them, that he had already had occasion to report the Postmaster to the Posmaster-General… He also assured them, that he would forward the memorial with his endorsement, thereon, and that he expected their complaints would be immediately addressed.’
 [1]

A part of Commissioner Smythe’s response to the ‘eccentricities of the Wangaratta Post Office’, was to open ‘A Government Post Office… at the head quarters camp, May Day Hills; [with] one of the Commissioners’ clerks … acting as Postmaster till that functionary arrives.’ [2]

A new mail contractor was organised to come up from Melbourne and commenced carrying the mail between Wangaratta and the Camp, at which point the Argus Express discontinued carrying letters. However, within two weeks ‘no mail came in; and a message, brought, by the Argus Express informed the crowd assembled for their letters, that, by orders from Melbourne, all letters for the diggings were detained at Wangaratta, and that the mail had ceased running for the present.’ [3]

The Argus correspondent on the digging, who wrote under the banner ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, captured the outrage of the diggers: ‘A nice state of things this! A Government Post Office opened here, then closed, after an existence of a fortnight, and 8000 diggers told to go to Wangaratta (twenty-eight miles), if they want their letters!’ [4]

The Argus Express resumed carrying letters to and from Wangaratta, although with limited success as the post-master there processed and handed letters over in limited number. The post-master was fined £10 in a public police court, under the Postage Act, for neglect of duty as a post-master. Not only did he not pay his fine but continued to serve as post master, and in the face of mounting complaints which were received without response, the Post-Master General continued to do nothing. [5]

‘Surely the newly-appointed Inspector of Country Post Offices might deign to visit the Ovens… As for the Postmaster-General I despair of his ever being brought to a correct sense of his duty, or of his ever paying proper attention to complaints unless proceeding from official sources. The complaints of the public, and especially of dirty diggers, are far beneath his notice,’ wrote the correspondent. [6]

On 1 March, The Argus correspondent lamented that, ‘The Post-office nuisance is still felt in full force, no Inspector of Nuisances has yet visited the Ovens. Every post-day here witnesses a crowd of applicants around the Argus offices for letters, for which their written orders have been sent by the driver of the Argus Express to Wangaratta. Occasionally, a digger or storekeeper receives three or four letters together, which have lain as many weeks at Wangaratta; but, in general, nine-tenths of the applicants go away unsuccessful, the only consolation they receive being the assurance of their messenger that there is a cupboard full of letters, and two or three heaps of newspapers for the diggings, lying at Wangaratta. [7]

It took until the end of March before the diggers would see a proper Post Office at the Commissioner’s Camp on the Ovens diggings nearing competition, so that their reliance on the notorious Wangaratta Post Office could come to an end. [8] In defence of Mr Peacock, when he signed on as post-master of Wangaratta before the gold rush, Wangaratta had been nothing more than a tiny village around a river crossing, serving only a handful of local squatters, their families and staff, as well as the odd traveller on the Port Phillip route between Sydney and Melbourne. To be snowed under a deluge of mail sent from around the world was probably more grief than Peacock’s organisational skills would allow… and so it was probably not only the residents of the Ovens gold fields who ‘gladly hailed’ the opening of the new post office, but Mr Peacock himself. [9]

Notes

  1. ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, The Argus, 21 January, 1853.
  2. ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, The Argus, 4 February, 1853.
  3. ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, The Argus, 18 February, 1853.
  4. ibid.
  5. ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, The Argus, 25 February, 1853.
  6. ibid.
  7. ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, The Argus, 1 March, 1853.
  8. ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, The Argus, 29 March, 1853.
  9. ibid.

 

Personal hygiene, gold-rush style

These last couple of weeks, there has been quite a bit of viral gastroenteritis going around Beechworth, hot-on-the-heels of what would have to be one of the worst flu seasons in years. Last night at around 2am it hit our house… and as I was scraping projectile vomit from the bathroom walls, I began to think about issues of infection control in the era before microbiology and germ theory. What was personal hygiene like on the gold diggings?

Scanning electron micrograph of Escherichia coli

E. coli bacteria

If you’ve come across my earlier post, The problem with Poo, dealing with peoples’ toilet habits during the gold rushes of 1852, you will have realised that as a historian, I am far more fascinated with the minutiae of daily life than the rise and fall of empires. Ethnographic historian Robert Darnton, in the introduction to his wonderful book on the cultural history of France, The Great Cat Massacre, wrote that only when we look at trivial and taken-for-granted aspects of the past does it become fully apparent the extent to which the people who lived there did ‘not think the way we do.’ Darnton wrote:

…nothing is easier than to slip into the comfortable assumption that Europeans thought and felt two centuries ago just as we do today—allowing for the wigs and wooden shoes. We constantly need to be shaken out of a false sense of familiarity with the past, to be administered doses of culture shock. (1)

With this in mind, let us return to issues of hygiene during the gold rush era of the early 1850s: Imagine a world in which medical students walked straight from performing autopsies on decomposing corpses in one room to the maternity ward where they delivered babies in the next, without disinfecting their hands. This practice, which routinely happened at Vienna General Hospital, meant that women were actually safer delivering babies on the street than under medical care. In fact, local women were terrified of giving birth in that maternity ward; and yet most of the doctors saw no issue. Moreover, this ignorance of infection control was by no means atypical of hospitals around the world in the nineteenth century.

What came to set Vienna General Hospital apart from other hospitals was that in 1847, one of its doctors, Dr Ignaz Semmelweis, began to suspect that tiny particles of cadaverous material still present on the hands of doctors were working their way into the bodies of women and making them sick. Finally, he made students and staff wash their hands with chloride of lime after performing autopsies, which dramatically improved the survival rate of the women and the babies they delivered. Semmelweis, with his great powers of observation, had learned one fundamental aspect of infection control: disinfect your hands.

One would think that, furnished with such clear evidence, doctors everywhere would start disinfecting their hands with chloride of lime — but it just didn’t happen. Instead, Semmelweis’s ideas were actually regarded as unscientific by the medical community of the day. To most medical practitioners, the idea of tiny particles which couldn’t be seen by the naked eye being capable of actually killing people, was simply ludicrous. Semmelweis tried to push his theory, but the medical establishment wasn’t having a bar of it. It literally drove Semmelweis mad, and he was committed to a mental asylum where he died in 1865 at the age of 47.

The disinfectant which was being used by Semmelweis, chloride of lime (a mixture with slaked lime and calcium chloride to make Calcium hypochlorite), was the forerunner of today’s liquid bleach (sodium hypochlorite). It was available from chemists during the Victorian gold rushes, but probably was used predominantly as a bleaching agent for clothes. The cleaning product of the era which did kill many household pathogens (although not salmonella) because it contains roughly 5% acetic acid, was vinegar. However, once again, in the absence of germ theory, vinegar was not actively used with disinfection in mind. Moreover, basic hand hygiene was so unknown, and personal cleanliness so under-valued, that for more than one hundred years, the British (and its colonies) had seen no problem with taxing soap to make it a luxury item. When the tax was finally repealed in July 1853, Prime Minister Gladstone’s rationale was not to give poor people better access to soap, but rather “to extinguish the slave trade” by giving parts of Africa, rich in palm oil, a solid source of income. (If you are interested in what type of luxury soap was available during the gold rush, see below.)

What can all these facts tell us about life during the Spring and Reid’s Creek gold rush in 1852-3? In short, no one thought any the worse of you if you went and relieved your bowels in a hole, wiped your rear-end up with a rag, changed the dressing on your friend’s dirty, pus-filled wound, and then came and broke bread with your mates — all without washing your hands. Little wonder most diggers experienced the most horrendous dysentery and trachoma (chlamydia infection of the eyes) — often repeatedly — and yet struggled to understand why it was happening to them. Instead, they genuinely thought themselves the victims of bad food or bad smells. (2)

These days we have vaccinations to protect us from most of the worst diseases, and antibiotics to deal with bacterial infections. These medical advances have meant that as a society, once again — but unlike our forebears, not for reasons of ignorance — we have become quite laissez-faire about personal hygiene. Where has it got us? The answer is not very far when it comes to viral gastroenteritis. And now it’s at my house. It’s time to break out the bleach, and spend more time washing hands.

Notes

The virtual absence of disinfection on the gold digging still doesn’t explain all the disease on the goldfields. Assistant surgeon general of the Commissioner’s Camp at Spring Creek, Dr Henry Green, died of typhus fever (i.e.: not typhoid) within three months of his appointment. (3) Typhus fever — a bacterial disease spread by fleas and body lice — probably owed its presence on the gold diggings to the high number of flea-ridden dogs, which is another story altogether.

(1) Robert Darnton, The great cat massacre and other episodes in French cultural history, New York, Basic Books, 1984, p.4.
(2) To see some examples as to how people were baffled by these illnesses, and how they attributed them to the wrong sources, read my earlier post, The problem with Poo.
(3) The Victorian parliamentary paper, Gold Fields: Return to Address, Mr Fawkner — 10th Dec 1852Laid upon the Council Table by the Colonial Secretary, by command of his Excellency Lieutenant Governor, printed 27 Sept 1853, lists Dr Green, Henry. Esq as being appointed assistant colonial surgeon to May Day Hills on 19 November 1852, on page 8. His death appears in ‘Scraps from the Ovens,’ The Argus , 25 February 1853, says he died on the 20 February.

Luxury Soap during the Gold Rush Era

The most commonly advertised soaps were white and brown ‘Windsor’ soaps, so named after the location in which they were traditionally made in London.

Perfumery and kindred arts: a comprehensive treatise on perfumery,
by Cristiani, R. S. (published by Richard S., 1877) explains:

‘Windsor soap is manufactured in this country with soda and sweet oil, or any good vegetable oil, and perfumed chiefly with essential oil of caraway.’

Cristiani gives this ratio of essential oils for Old Brown Windsor Soap:
Oil of bergamot… 4 ounces.
caraway. . . .2oz
cassia. . . .2oz (cassia is a type of cinnamon)
lavender. . . .8oz
cloves . . . . 1oz
petit-grain …1oz

George William Septimus Piesse, The Art of Perfumery And Methods of Obtaining the Odors of Plants, Philadelphia, Lindsay and Blakiston, 1857, gives these ratios for essential oils in brown and white windsor soaps:

Ratio of oils for Old Brown Windsor Soap:
caraway
cloves
thyme
cassia
petit grain
French lavender (all equal parts)

Ratio of oils for White Windsor Soap:
caraway 1 1/2
thyme 1/2
rosemary 1/2
cassia 1/4
cloves 1/4

 

 

Where were Aboriginal people during the Beechworth gold rush?

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It’s an important question, is it not? North-east Victoria was 100% populated by Aboriginal peoples when the first pastoralists arrived here around 1838; and yet there is almost no mention of Aboriginal people in association with the Beechworth gold rush, which happened only 14 years later. What happened to them?

William Barak

William Barak, Figures in Possum Skin Cloaks, 1898. (Painted on Corranderrk reserve at Healesville).

I haven’t made a post on Life on Spring Creek for a while, as I had a break while teaching Introduction to Aboriginal Australia at La Trobe University. That experience has drawn me to want to tell you about Aboriginal people during the gold rush: a story which cannot be told without some deeper historical background:

In 1836 Major Mitchell passed through North East Victoria. When he returned to Sydney, he reported that he had found ‘Australia Felix’, a Latin term which denoted the country south of the Hume [Murray] River as a ‘pleasant land’. Australia Felix was a landscape that had been cultivated for thousands of years by Aboriginal ‘fire-stick farming.’ Its lush pasture was interspersed by mature shade trees, largely free of dense understory. Its green sward drew grazing game species; its openness made for ease of hunting and travel. Its wetlands and rivers ran clear, and were abundant with fish and crustacea. To Europeans, Australia Felix looked like an English nobleman’s country park left to go wild. To prospective ‘squatters’ (pastoralists) looking to establish new sheep and cattle stations for stock which were languishing in the drought-stricken ’19 counties’ around Sydney, it smelled like opportunity. In his report, Mitchell didn’t make much of fact that the land was already occupied. But the squatters weren’t stupid; they knew what they were up for when they decided to take their vast flocks of sheep and herds of cattle beyond what was officially designated as ‘the limits of location’.

As Mitchell’s drays rolled through this countryside, the cart-wheels sunk into the ground, leaving ruts: the soils were soft and spongey, having never been trodden by hard-hoofed animals. The ruts, leading from the Murray River all the way down to the Port Phillip district [Melbourne], became the path that squatters followed in search of pasture for the thousands upon thousands of sheep and cattle they brought with them, despoiling the countryside and fouling river crossings as they went. One of these river crossings was at a place local Aboriginal people called ‘Benalta’ (thought to derive from the local word for musk duck). This became the site of one key event that history has recorded, as opposed to the doubtless numerous subsequent events that went unrecorded. It became the site of The Faithfull Massacre.

On 11 April 1838, the stockmen of squatters George and William Faithfull were attacked by a party of perhaps 20 Aboriginal people on the banks of the Broken River at Benalta (where present-day Benalla is situated). Eight of the 18 stockmen were speared to death, and in return, one Aboriginal man was killed by musket fire. Historian Judith Bassett suggests that rather than an act of war, this massacre was a guerilla-attack by a band of Aborigines intent on inflicting retributive justice against the stockmen who shot some of their people on the Ovens River seven days earlier. [1]

In the wake of this attack, the Faithfulls, along with squatters on other runs nearby, retreated to the relative safety of the Murray River. That June, a group of more than 80 squatters with stations along the Port Phillip route [now the Hume Highway] petitioned Governor Gipps, who in turn refused their request: he would not sanction a war on the Aboriginal population, let alone allow the squatters to take matters into their own hands as was their threat. As Dr George Edward Mackay, a squatter who was based at Everton (if you’re a local, think of the location of the ‘Pioneer Bridges’ crossing on the Ovens River) would later bitterly recount, the government wasn’t at all sympathetic to their plight: after all, they had knowingly gone beyond ‘the limits of location’. [3] They had wittingly taken a risk and now they had to bear the cost.

Nevertheless, Governor Gipps did answer their petition with the establishment of a ‘Border Force’ along the Port Phillip route. The government would set up a police post at every major river and creek crossing between Sydney and Port Phillip (Melbourne), but until they did so, there existed a window of opportunity in which squatters in North East Victoria, intent on settling the land to their purposes and fuelled by a desire to undertake retribution for the Faithfull Massacre, were beyond official scrutiny.

There are virtually no historical records of what actually happened at this time. We can only infer what happened from a handful of recollections and a few other fragmented records, which were purposefully written to avoid explicit explanation. (As a historian, I also question there accuracy of the dates given for certain events, but that’s another story.) The main recollections come from a book called Letters from Victorian Pioneers: a compilation of letters which were written in response to a circular sent by Governor Charles Joseph La Trobe in July 1853, requesting information as to the time and circumstances of the first occupation of various parts of the colony of Victoria by Europeans.

In his letter to La Trobe, George Faithfull explained that the early European settlers in North East Victoria were subject to constant attacks on themselves and their livestock by Aboriginal people. His claim as to how this situation ended are worth reading:

At last, it so happened that I was the means of putting an end to this warfare. Riding with two of my stockmen one day quietly along the banks of the [Ovens] river, we passed between the ana-branch of the river itself by a narrow neck of land [possibly the King River?], and, after proceeding about half a mile, we were all at once met by some hundreds of painted warriors with the most dreadful yells I had ever heard. Had they sprung from the regions below we could have hardly been more taken by surprise. Our horses bounded and neighed with fear old brutes, which in other respects required an immense deal of persuasion in the way of spurs to make them go along. Our first impulse was to retreat, but we found the narrow way blocked up by natives two and three deep, and we were at once saluted with a shower of spears. My horse bounded and fell into an immense hole. A spear just then passed over the pummel of my saddle. This was the signal for a general onset. The natives rushed on us like furies, with shouts and savage yells; it was no time for delay. I ordered my men to take deliberate aim, and to fire only with certainty of destruction to the individual aimed at. Unfortunately, the first shot from one of my men’s carbines did not take effect; in a moment we were surrounded on all sides by the savages boldly coming up to us. It was my time now to endeavour to repel them. I fired my double-barrel right and left, and two of the most forward fell; this stopped the impetuosity of their career. I had time to reload, and the war thus begun continued from about ten o’clock in the morning until four in the afternoon. We were slow to fire, which prolonged the battle, and 60 rounds were fired, and I trust and believe that many of the bravest of the savage warriors bit the dust.
It was remarkable that the children, and many of the women likewise, had so little fear that they boldly ran forward, even under our horses’ legs, picked up the spears, and carried them back to the warrior men. We at last beat them off the field, and found that they had a fine fat bullock some of it roasting, some cut up ready for the spit, and more cattle dead ready to portion out. The fight I have described gave them a notion of what sort of stuff the white man was made, and my name was a terror to them ever after. [4]

Let’s analyse Faithfull’s statement, as if we are looking at a silent movie and seeing the actual scene, but with none of the narration: The Aboriginal men are wearing paint. There is a bullock being roasted to feed the masses. Women and children are present. All would suggest that Faithfull and his men have stumbled across a ceremonial gathering. When interrupted, the Aboriginal people throw a ‘shower of spears’ none of which hit their mark, even though these people are consummate hunters. This would suggest that the spears were not thrown to kill or even injure, but more as a warning. In retaliation, as Faithfull explains, ‘I ordered my men to take deliberate aim, and to fire only with certainty of destruction to the individual aimed at…. We were slow to fire, which prolonged the battle, and 60 rounds were fired…’ In other words, Faithfull and his men conserve ammunition by not firing unless they are confident of killing someone, but they still manage to shoot sixty rounds over six hours. You can estimate for yourself: How many Aboriginal people are killed that day? How many children witness family members being shot?

Faithfull also resorted to kidnapping a child to buy himself some protection: ‘I picked up a boy from under a log, took him home and tamed him, and he became very useful to me, and I think was the means of deterring his tribe from committing further wanton depredations upon my property; my neighbours, however, suffered much long after this.’ [5]

Faithfull further explains, without giving explicit examples which would incriminate fellow squatters, that his own mass-killing of Aboriginal people paled to insignificance in comparison of what was to come: ‘The Government during all this time gave no help, no assistance of any kind, and at last threatened to hang any one who dared to shoot a black, even in protection of his property… This, instead of doing good, did much evil. People formed themselves into bands of alliance and allegiance to each other, and then it was the destruction of the natives really did take place.’ [6] So it would seem that after the Faithfull Massacre in April 1838, and especially before the arrival of the border police, there was a period of unrestrained slaughter.

By August 1839, when Henry Bingham, Commissioner for Crown Lands (Murrumbidgee district) visited the region, he found the Aboriginal peoples of the region, for the most part, visibly afraid. He encountered large parties of ‘natives’ at Howlong, whom he says ‘appeared much alarmed at our first appearance’. At Whorouly he found they were ‘very shy’. And on the Ovens River, he reckoned, ‘the Natives appear to have a hostile feeling for the squatters from past transactions.’ [7]

David Reid, the squatter who held the run ‘Carrajarmongei’ (Carraragarmungee, on which the Beechworth goldrush would later take place), arrived in September 1838, initially building a hut somewhere on the Ovens River above what is now Tarrawingee. In his recollections (recounted by Reid to J.C.H. Ogier in 1905) it is stated that, ‘It was some eighteen months after Mr Reid had formed his station before he allowed blacks to come there’ (my italics). It isn’t stated by what means Reid kept local Aboriginal people from living on their own land; only that in what probably would have been the late summer of 1839/1840, two Aboriginal men approached Reid as representatives of their clan ‘without instruments of war’ and with a ‘green bough in each hand’ to make peace, so that they could camp nearby on the Ovens River. Three or four weeks later, by which time Reid’s first crop of wheat was being harvested, Reid and his men spotted 15 or 20 Aboriginal men from the same clan, now armed with spears and painted with ‘pipe clay’, approaching them from across the River. Reading this as an imminent attack, Reid and his men retreated to their nearby hut, after which they employed double barrelled guns: ‘It is not for Mr Reid to describe what followed but there was soon a scatterment made of our sable foes.’ [8]

Even after Faithfull’s and Reid’s shooting of Aboriginal people along the Ovens River, the hostility between Aboriginal people and squatters continued, and perhaps even stepped up. George Edward Mackay had arrived in the district on the eve of the Faithfull Massacre in the Autumn of 1838, and finding his servants unwilling to stay, had retreated to the Hume (Murray) River, returning in the Spring of 1838 to squat on land at ‘Warrouley’ (Whorouly). In his letter to Governor LaTrobe written years later, he stated that:

In May 1840, 21 [Aboriginal men], all armed with guns, besides their native weapons, attacked my station in my absence. They murdered one of my servants and burned my huts and stores, and all my wheat. … only seven head of cattle, out of nearly 3,000, were left alive on the run. … Three special commissioners were sent one after another to examine into the matter, Major Lettsom, of the 80th Regiment, Mr. Bingham, Commissioner of Crown Lands for the district, and Chief Protector Robinson. The whole drift of their inquiries seemed to me to be an attempt to prove that the cause of the attack upon my station by the blacks was an improper treatment of the native women by my servants. This was shown to be totally without foundation, for the natives had no women with them, and it was their first visit to the station. … These, Sir, are the salient points of my experience as a squatter. I have lost my capital. I have lost my health. I have lost fifteen years of the best period of my life. [9]

I don’t doubt Mackay’s sentiment: that the level of conflict with Aborigines in North East Victoria left him a broken man, but bear in mind that this is history written by the victor: he was on the side that won. Take from that what you will about what it was to be on the side that lost.

Reid and Faithfull both mention that it was necessary to be armed while going about daily work on their stations: ‘It was a rule in those days that no man went about any occupation without having his firearms immediately at his disposal, in fact a hut keeper never went for a bucket of water without going armed, not knowing at any moment whether or not he might be intercepted’. [10] George Faithfull wrote, ‘We dared not move to supply our huts with wood or water without a gun, and many of my men absconded from my service, throwing away their firelocks [i.e.: muskets], and in some cases destroying the locks and making them wholly useless from sheer terror of the blacks. This may appear too absurd for belief; nevertheless, it is a fact.’ [11]

That Faithfull’s men destroyed guns before absconding from his service is telling. These men were servants who had found themselves caught in the midst of an horrific conflict — freemen who probably had known little of what to expect on the colonial frontier before arriving; some of them assigned servants who’d had no choice in the matter at all — and as George Faithfull recounted, at least on one occasion (but we may surmise many more) these men had been pressed into shooting Aboriginal people, moreover, in the presence of children. To assume that these servants had no objections to killing other people is to assume that they came from a supremely brutal and racist mindset, an assumption which (to adopt a line of argument from historian John Hirst) would ‘mistakenly cast the high racism of the late nineteenth century back to the century’s middle decades.’ [12] We will never know for certain why some of Faithful’s men destroyed their guns, but it is reasonable to suspect that they wanted to end the horror.

Aboriginal people at the Black Swan Inn, Benalla, 1852-53

So where were the remaining Aboriginal people of North East Victoria, during the gold rush of 1852? By this time, the adult Aboriginal population had been children or young adults when they survived the frontier conflict with the squatters. Without doubt they had lost family members to gunshot wounds, and bore the psychological scars. Now the country around them was filling up with gold seekers — all of whom carried guns and fired them regularly. What traces can we find of these Aboriginal survivors?

In 1853, the Commissioner of Crown Lands, Henry Smyth, estimated that there were still 399 Aboriginal people living in the region, and yet as Smyth noted, they were not attracted by the prospect of gold — a fact which he attributed to their ‘natural indolence’. [12b] Their disinterest in gold mining may partly account for why Aboriginal people are almost entirely absent from the diaries and letters of the gold seekers on the Spring and Reid’s Creek diggings, with the exception of encounters they had with Aboriginal people en route from Melbourne: frequently at Longwood, secondly at Benalla, and more occasionally at Wangaratta. The Aboriginal people at Benalla were met on the banks of the Broken River in the vicinity of the Black Swan Inn (which still stands at 4 Bridge Street West, on the river bank opposite the site of the Faithfull Massacre). These Aboriginal people seemed to offer the gold seekers nothing but hospitality and assistance, and were met in return with a mixture of condescension, fascination and sometimes admiration.

Thomas Woolner, while travelling to the diggings on 15 November 1852, wrote, ‘I saw there a black man attiring himself, performing his toilet duties with grimaces of fastidiousness self-admiration: he combed his thick shock of wool with some pain to himself, then (smeared) it with grease and rubbed some fat over his visage, then combed again twisting his delight into hideous leers; after he had finished I told him he had made himself look very pretty, he grinned at me in ecstasy and asked if I wanted a light for my pipe.’ However, when one of Woolner’s party drowned in the Broken River on the return journey on 18 December, Woolner mentions that ‘a black woman was diving for a long time but could not find him.’ Woolner’s inference is that while he and his party dragged the river, the person most capable of finding their friend’s body — this Aboriginal woman — could not, and therefore efforts to locate the body, though in vain, had been substantial. [13]

Seweryn Korzelinski passed through Benalla around the same time, writing, ‘I saw for the first time native women and their children, called piccaninni.’ He was clearly impressed when ‘One of their men who arrived soon after, on our request for a fish just dived in the river and soon came out with a tasty looking foot-long fish.’ [14] Some five or six months later, Mrs Campbell was travelling to the Spring Creek Commissioner’s Camp where her husband was serving as the new Police Magistrate. On the way, she stayed at the Black Swan Inn with her daughter ‘G’:

Hearing the sitting-room door open I looked up; a black head was popped in and out again. So ugly was the object that I gave an involuntary scream and covered my face, a proceeding which evidently caused amusement, for the owner of the cranium now showed itself, making a low guttural his­sing sound, meant for a laugh. Ashamed of myself, I ven­tured to look up again, and was introduced by my landlady to the queen of a tribe then at Bannalla, said to be handsome. Fancy a black woman, with hair long and stiff, hanging like porcupine quills over her shoulders, no forehead, eyes long and half closed, broad nose, mouth from ear to ear, with the contrast of beautifully white and even teeth, and you will have the picture of a handsome Aborigine, quite a belle. She was pleased with G., who, wiser than her mother, saw nothing to be frightened at in her, and made friends accordingly. Of course she was civilized. In their native state, as I afterwards saw them, they are a very repulsive people, said to be tho lowest of the human race… [15]

There is much one could read into Mrs Campbell’s thoughts about ‘the queen of the tribe’, but what is striking is the good nature of this Aboriginal woman in the face of uncomprehending, almost involuntary prejudice.

I wish I knew what became of these Aboriginal people who were camped at Benalla that Summer leading into the Autumn of 1853, who had lived through such extraordinary changes of circumstance. One sad footnote to this scene at Benalla is a brief entry in a government report of 1861, concerning an orphan Aboriginal ‘or half-caste’ girl living in a ‘public house’ in Benalla (which could well have been the Black Swan). A local man named Banfield had made repeated applications to the government for land on which the girl could live, to improve her situation. The government agency, the new Central Board appointed to watch over the interests of The Aborigines, could only think to remove her to an asylum in Melbourne, but once it realise it had no power to do so, did nothing more. [16]

Aboriginal people around Beechworth, Yackandandah and Chiltern, 1860-62

In 1860, by which time the Beechworth gold rush had been and gone some six or seven years, the colony of Victoria established the aforementioned Central Board appointed to watch over the interests of The Aborigines. The Board was ‘of the opinion’ that:

it is the bounden duty of the people who have taken possession of their country to protect them as far as possible, and to a certain extent to maintain them. We occupy for pastoral and for other purposes nearly all the land in the Colony, and that which we do not occupy is least fitted for the black population. Under these circumstances it is necessary that permanent reserves should be made for the blacks whenever their numbers are such as to require a tract of country for yielding food. [17]

Ironically, many of those who would be drawn-in by the Board to assess the situation of the Aboriginal peoples of Victoria and assist with ‘protecting them’, were the very same pastoralists who had forcibly taken the land away from Aboriginal peoples in the first place. Needless to say, the few ‘permanent reserves’ created were pitiful in size.

In 1861, the Board made its first report to parliament. Squatter David Reid was one of the Board’s honorary correspondents, as was George Edward Mackay. In the Report, Reid estimated that there were 60 Aboriginal people in the area between Wodonga and Wangaratta, reaching over to the Kiewa Valley. Incidentally, by comparison, this number made this patch of country — originally so rich in natural resources of food, clothing and shelter — one of the least indigenous-populated regions in the state. [18] Mackay commented that these people rarely stayed in one location for more than a couple of weeks. That Aboriginal people continued to move through country, as they had done for millennia, shows extraordinary resilience; and yet the indigenous preference for movement was met with distaste by Mackay and Reid, because their perpetual movement afforded them poor prospects for permanent employment. [19]

In 1862, a reserve of 640 acres on which Aboriginal people were expected — somehow — to live, had been gazetted at Tangambalanga. Police Magistrate H. B. Lane distributed stores (food, blankets and clothing) to 41 people at Tangambalanga, while David Reid, now of The Hermitage (at Barnawatha, near Chiltern), distributed stores to 48 people. [120] Reid wrote that ‘The condition of the blacks is improved, owing to having food and raiment [i.e.: clothing], and being thereby protected in the winter from the effects of cold and rain. This, of course, with wholesome food, which they receive, tends to contentment and good health.’ [21]

In the ten years since the gold rush, and 24 years since the first pastoralists settled in North East Victoria, the miserable handouts, and tiny reserve on which it was hoped Aboriginal people would remain, was a far cry from the Australia Felix that they, and they alone, had created.

Notes

You might note that I have used the term ‘Aboriginal people’ rather than speak of the different clans or tribes of the area. This is a reflection of the paucity of information in the historical documents, meaning that I cannot accurately say which particular clans were involved in the particular massacres and conflicts. It is possible to say broadly which Aboriginal clans and languages were spoken in the region, but this should be the topic of another post.

[1] Judith Bassett, ‘The Faithfull Massacre at the Broken River,’ in Journal of Australian Studies, Volume 13, Issue 24, 1989, pp.18-22. It is unclear whether the stockmen shot dead or maimed the Aborigines at the Ovens, but it seems they did so in response to two head of their cattle being speared.
[2] Bassett, ibid, p.32; A. G. L. Shaw, A History of the Port Phillip District: Victoria Before Separation, MUP, p.114.
[3] George, Edward Mackay, from Tarrawingee, 30th August 1853, Letter 37 in Bride, T. (ed), Letters from Victorian Pioneers, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1898, pp.187-188.[4] George Faithfull, from Wangaratta, 8th September 1853, Letter 27 in Bride, T. (ed), Letters from Victorian Pioneers, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1898, pp.152-3.
[5] ibid.
[6] ibid.
[7] NRS 906: Colonial Secretary: Commissioners of Crown Lands – Itineraries, Murrumbidgee, Henry Bingham, 10 Jul – Nov 1839, Aug 1843, Jul 1844, Mar – Nov 1845, Apr – Jun 1847 [X812], Reel 2748 [Squatters and Graziers Index, State Archives and Records NSW]
[8] Reminiscences of David Reid: as given to J.C.H. Ogier (in Nov. 1905), who has set them down in the third person, type-written manuscript, pp:28-30.
[9] George Edward Mackay, ibid.
In his letter Mackay attributes the cessation of Aboriginal attacks on his station (barring the occasional taking of a few head of cattle for food), to the fact that he followed the men responsible for the attack for 18 months, apprehending 17 of them who were subsequently gaoled in Melbourne. However, I have to ask myself why the Commissioner of Crown Lands, Mr. Bingham, visited Whorouly in 1839, before the attack: It seems more likely that the attack actually happened earlier, and that Bingham visited Whorouly in 1839 in its wake. [10]
[10] Reid, ibid. p.23.
[11] Faithfull, ibid.
[12] John Hirst, ‘An Indigenous Game,’ in The Monthly, September 2008.
[12b] Aborigines : return to address Mr. Parker, 21st October 1853, Victorian Government paper (Legislative Council), 1853-54, no. C 33, p.24.
[13] Thomas Woolner, in Amy Woolner, Thomas Woolner: His Life in Letters, Chapman and Hall, London, 1917.
[14] Seweryn Korzelinski, Memories of Gold Digging in Australia, translated and edited by Stanley Robe, UQP, 1979, p.78.
[15] Mrs Campbell, The Rough and the Smooth or, Ho! for an Australian gold field, Quebec [Ontario] : Hunter, Rose & Co., 1865, p.108. (This entry from mid [May?] 1853).
[16] First Report of the Central Board appointed to watch over the interests of The Aborigines, in the Colony of Victoria, John Ferres, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1861, p.9.
[17] ibid., p.11.
[18] ibid., p.13.
Even fewer Aboriginal people lived towards Mitta Mitta (27) and Omeo (6).
[19] idid, p.16, p.17.
[20] Second Report of the Central Board appointed to watch over the interests of The Aborigines, in the Colony of Victoria, John Ferres, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1862, p.17.
[21] ibid., p.10.

How effective is the ‘Coolgardie safe’?

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I’d read many positive testimonials in relation to the legendary pre-electric cold-store unit, the Coolgardie safe… but I still wondered how well did it really work? When curiosity finally got the better of me, the Eldorado Museum Association came to my aid with the genuine article.

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Coolgardie safe, courtesy Eldorado Museum, Victoria

In my first post of 2017, I’m going to momentarily diverge from the 1850s gold rush. Meanwhile, I hear you asking, ‘What is the Coolgardie safe?’ The short answer is ‘a meat safe’ — but there’s more to it than the Coolgardie safe being a ventilated, vermin-proof box in which to store perishable food.

The Coolgardie safe was invented in the 1890s on the goldfields of Coolgardie, Western Australia, by Arthur McCormick. McCormick had observed that a wet bag placed over a bottle cooled its contents, and that if this bottle was placed in a breeze, the bag would dry out more quickly, but the bottle would get colder. What he was observing was the basic principle of heat transfer that occurs during the process of evaporation: that as it transforms from a liquid to gaseous state, water consumes energy in the form of heat, taken from its surroundings. [1]

Designed to take advantage of the cooling effects of heat transfer from evaporation, the Coolgardie safe was a common household item in Australia until the mid-twentieth century, initially vying with iceboxes until finally overtaken by kerosene and electrical fridges. I’d read many descriptions and testimonials regarding the Coolgardie safe, but I still wondered if it worked, and if so — how well?

I knew that the Eldorado Museum had one in its collection [2], which, until recently, had languished ‘out the back’ until local Howard Phillips gave it a fresh jacket of hessian so that it could go on display. Once on display, members of the Ross family from Wangaratta recognised it as a model that had been manufactured by their family business in Wangaratta (albeit more than half a century ago), and so they donated a set of brass name plates to attach to it. It was my good fortune that the Eldorado Museum Association agreed to let me borrow this safe for a living history trial.

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Manufacturing plate on the Coolgardie safe at the Eldorado Museum.

This particular Coolgardie safe is of a common type: a rectangular metal frame, which supports hessian sides, wired on. It has a simple hinged door on the front, and one internal shelf. The top of the frame has a galvanised sheet-metal tray (ie: a reservoir), which is filled with water. Strips of flannel are hung from the tray to contact with the hessian sides, which keeps them damp through a process of capillary siphoning (wicking). When a breeze comes, it passes through the wet hessian and evaporates the water. This cools the air inside the safe, and in turn, cools the food stored inside. The drier the air is, the greater the rate of evaporation, and the cooler the safe. The feet of the safe sit in a tray of water (also on legs), which acts as a moat to keep ants at bay, and collect water dripping from the hessian. Sometimes these trays had a tap to drain the water, but this model has only a simple spout. There is also a central vent in the bottom of the safe which vents through a little chimney passing through the middle of the reservoir at the top — and I’ve seen other Coolgardies with this feature.

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Another Coolgardie safe complete with a lid over the water reservoir. This safe has had wire mesh added at a later date (probably for decorative effect) where the hessian panels would have sat. (Photo swiped a long time ago from a seller on eBay!)

Day 1, 9 February 2017

I put the safe under my back verandah and filled the reservoir to the very top, which really kicked-off the wicking process: water could be seen wicking from the flannel down and across the hessian panels in a matter of seconds. Initially the strips of flannel I used were only half the width of each hessian panel. To increase the amount of water wicking through the hessian, I doubled the flannels until they were virtually equal to the hessian panels. This optimised the wicking, and the safe began dripping continually from the bottom, as water ran off. Immediately, I could see why it would be necessary to have a drip-tray — simply to conserve and recycle water. (Ideally you would find an economic balance between enough wicking to make the safe functional, while preventing too speedy a loss of water from the reservoir.)

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The water reservoir at the top is filled, and strips of flannel are draped over the sides to contact with the hessian panels.

After the reservoir was filled to the brim and the sides were wet, at 12.56pm, it was 30.5ºC in the shade of the verandah and 28.6ºC inside the safe, rendering a difference of 1.9ºC in temperature. (The thermometer I used was highly sensitive and constantly went up and down as much as 0.2ºC, and what’s more it read different temperatures under different places around the verandah, so my readings are a little rough.) I continued to monitor the temperatures, with these results (contrasting the temperature under the verandah with the temperature inside the Coolgardie safe, showing the difference between the two):

1.23pm — 29.6ºC vs 28ºC = 1.6ºC
1.32pm — 29.2ºC vs 26.4ºC = 2.8ºC
2.15pm — 32.3ºC vs 29.6ºC = 2.7ºC
2.42pm — 28.9ºC vs 25.6ºC = 3.3ºC

Perhaps the temperature would have continued to drop, but I decided to add a large pedestal fan to see if this would increase the rate of evaporation, and thus decrease the temperature. The short answer is, yes, it did.

3pm — 31.4ºC vs 26.4ºC = 5ºC
3.22pm — 33.6ºC vs 28.5ºC = 5.1 (and this temperature steadily fell…)
3.39pm — temperature inside dropping to 25.2ºC
3.42pm — 32.6ºC vs 24.7ºC (and my guess is, still dropping) = 7.9ºC

So I could say that the Coolgardie safe, when wicking steadily, ran from a bit over 2.5ºC to 3ºC cooler than the outside temperature, and between 5ºC to perhaps as much as 8ºC cooler when there’s a decent (albeit artificial) breeze.

Frankly, I don’t consider these to be amazing results. However, this was all without the drip tray beneath the safe. The drip-tray that came with the safe was rusted-through, so I hadn’t used it; but now I was beginning to wonder whether the tray may have also provided some micro-climatic benefits.

This question is something I’ve decided to pursue on the ‘morrow. As I write this, I’m about the pull a beer, chilled to 4ºC, from my fridge.

Day 2, 10 February 2017

I didn’t get started until later in the day, and it was a scorcher, topping a bit over 39ºC! This time I put the drip tray under the Coolgardie safe, and filled both it and the reservoir at the top. I didn’t use the fan at all. The results speak for themselves:

At 3.15pm it was 39.1ºC degrees in the sun, 36.9ºC under the verandah, and immediately 31.4ºC in the Coolgardie. This dropped to 30.3ºC within the next ten minutes.

Here are some readings:

3.15pm — 36.9ºC vs 30.3ºC = 6.6ºC
3.45pm — 35ºC vs 26.1ºC = 8.9ºC
4pm — 34ºC vs 27.8ºC = 6.2ºC

Now I could say that when fully set up, the safe is at least 6ºC cooler and maybe as much as 8-9ºC cooler than the shade of the verandah. These are the best results I could achieve on a very, very hot day, without the aid of a fan. I admit this wasn’t the most scientific trial, and maybe there are other ways to achieve better results. If you have any ideas, please let me know.

*

Thanks to my sponsors, the Eldorado Museum. This is the second living history trial in which I have been ‘enabled’ by members of the Eldorado Museum Association and other friends from Eldorado. The first trial was the manufacture and use of a replica gold cradle based on one held in the Museum’s collection. You can read about that here.

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[1] In my history of the Coolgardie safe, you may recognise information swiped from the Powerhouse Museum and Museum of Victoria.
[2] Indeed, there are very few domestic household items from the mid to late nineteenth century that the Eldorado Museum doesn’t have in its collection!

How the gold was won: mining on Spring Creek, 1852.

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This blog post presents an eye-witness account of how gold was mined on Spring Creek (Beechworth) in the rush of 1852. If you want to know why the image of the solitary miner gently panning for gold by the side of the creek is a fallacy… read on.

WARNING: This is a monumentally long post. It is broken into headings, to facilitate skim reading and promote a modicum of sanity.

Note: this post is about mining on Spring Creek, which is now referred to on some maps as ‘Silver Creek’, and runs through the modern town of Beechworth.

As I said in my last post, one of the most exciting things about the gold rushes of the 1850s was that anyone with a small amount of capital and a few friends or acquaintances, could stake a claim and mine gold using basic equipment — the design of which had been refined on the Californian goldfields only a few year previous.

By far the best eye-witness account I’ve read of the activity of gold mining during the Beechworth gold rush was written by Edward Ridpath [1], who arrived on the Spring Creek diggings on 14 November 1852. At this point, the diggings were still quite fresh: Ridpath says he was ‘much surprised at their general appearance… that their operations were confined to a spot of ground about one mile in length, and about a hundred yards in breadth…’

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An early drawing of the Spring Creek diggings around December 1852, by Edward LaTrobe Bateman. This view is taken from southern side of the Creek looking towards the Commissioner’s Camp, which was situated where the Police Station and Gaol are today (Image: State Library of NSW).

Alluvial mining

The mining on Spring Creek was ‘alluvial’ — meaning that gold was found in deposits of sand, gravel and soil that had been washed and transported by water. ‘[T]here are two sources whence gold is derived,’ Ridpath tells us, ‘one from the bed of running creeks, the other from the earth’.

Thus, at Spring Creek in early November, Ridpath noted, ‘the first parties that arrived here worked a bed of the creek which had proved uncommonly rich and well rewarded the adventurous discoverers, [and] the soil adjoining was now being tried…’ [2] By the time another Englishman, William Howitt, arrived in mid-December, ‘The creek, that is, a considerable brook, was diverted from its course; and all the bed of the old course was dug up.’

Staking a claim, sinking a shaft 

To dig for gold along Spring Creek, Ridpath explained,

the preliminary step is to sink a shaft, which in these diggings varies from 6 feet to 46 feet in depth [i.e.: 1.8-14 metres] according to the nature of the surface, the shape of the shaft is according to the fancy of the digger, whether round, oval, square or oblong, the first is the most used, before sinking, he first marks out by a trench his claim, or ground he is entitled to, consisting of 12 ft square every way, then commences working with a pick and shovel, throwing the dirt up to the surface after picking it, till he obtains a depth of 7 or 8 feet.

Miners had to work their 12 ft square claim constantly, or else their claim was forfeited.

Using a windlass or whip

Once a depth of 7 or 8 feet was reached, ‘a wooden windlass is fixed, [and] the dirt is then pulled into buckets and hauled up.’ A windlass was a structure mounted over the shaft, fitted with a hand-cranked winch, which Howitt explained, was ‘rudely constructed out of the wood that grows about.’ Some miners preferred instead a structure containing a pulley mounted over a shaft, or even more simply, a pole centrally counter-balanced on a forked stick set into the ground, with the bucket attached by rope to one end, known as a ‘whip’.

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Illustration of a windlass: ‘Edmond Armand, Chinaman’s gully, 23 November 1853’, which appears in A pioneer of the fifties: leaves from the journal of an Australian Digger, 18 August 1852-16 March 1854, drawn by Eugen von Guerard (Image: State Library NSW).

Finding the ‘washing stuff’

The shaft was dug until the miners hit the layer of wash dirt containing the gold, which Ridpath explains, was found just above

…the rock or pipe clay, the former consists of granite, sandstone, and slate, either rotten or hard, the stratum of earth that lies on this contains (if there is any at all) the gold, the depth of this stratum varies from 6 inches to 7 feet, the latter very rarely, sometimes a stiff clay extends down to the rock, in which no gold is ever found, the technical term for this stratum is washing stuff, its chief colours are red and white, it is strange that although the dirt above this should be free from any hard substance, this is mixed up with pebbles from the size of pin heads to that of a bullock’s, they are of all shapes…

Working the claim

Once the layer of wash dirt was found

…on coming to the rock the digger takes a tin dish full of the washing stuff to try and see if it will pay for his labours in working the whole claim… if, as I said before, there is any encouraging promise, he begins to make a tunnel with a small sharp pointed pick, from the shaft to the boundary of his claim, about four feet wide and three feet in height necessitating him of course to sit like a tailor all the time, this is continued all round the claim in order to secure it from encroachments of his neighbours who will always take advantage of less able work-men than themselves, after this is completed, the rest of the ground is picked away and supported by wooden pillars so that there is a complete excavation, as this is the case with all the claims on the diggings where the ground is good, you might crawl under it for several hundred yards with few interruptions, very much like a rabbit warren, candles are always used in the tunnelling; as the stuff is picked, it is shovelled forward to the shaft, put into buckets, and hauled up…

In deep claims being worked by candle-light, the air would be foul, so ventilation was provided by ‘a windsail, like those aboard emigrant ships, to carry down fresh air.’ This device was simply a sail terminating in a long canvas pipe, rigged to catch and direct breezes.

Howitt tells us that ‘The diggers themselves generally ascended and descended by a rope fastened to a post above, and by holes for their feet in the side of the pit.’

Washing the wash dirt

Once the claim had been worked out, with all the wash dirt containing gold brought to the surface and put aside, this was

either carted down to the creek or washed near the shaft, from a water hole, by the latter method, although the expense of carting is saved, yet the thickness of the water carries away the fine gold; before being washed in the cradle it is first thoroughly puddled or moistened in a long trough or common washing tub!

Ridpath also notes that the gold mined from the creek bed was ‘very easily sought, requiring only to be shovelled once into the cradle, to be washed,’ (i.e.: no puddling was required.)

Once the earth had been ‘puddled’, and the hard lumps had been dissolved, the gold was roughly separated from the wash dirt using one of three devices:

Gold Cradle, aka Rocker.

The gold cradle was both cheap and portable, making it the most common gross method of separating the gold from wash dirt in the early days of the gold rush. As Ridpath offers, ‘perhaps you are already acquainted with this machine, one could have no clear notion of it, unless it is seen illustrated’.

I detail the use of this ‘machine’ with photos in an earlier post, Cradling for Gold in the Woolshed Valley.

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Cradling by S. T. Gill (Image: State Library of Victoria)

Long Tom

The second most common piece of equipment was the ‘Long Tom’, often shortened to ‘Tom’:

…there are two other machines on a more expensive scale used for washing gold, both Californian in origin, one is called a Long Tom, averaging 5 feet in length, /2 feet in breadth and half that in height, this is always fixed in a creek, so that there is always a stream of water running through it, the washing stuff is put into this, then shovelled backwards and forwards till it is thoroughly moistened, when the gold is carried down by the force of the stream to the other end through perforated sheet iron (to prevent the stones mixing with the finer dirt) into ripple box whence it is taken out and cleaned in a tin dish…

The ‘ripple box’ was a false bottom on the Long Tom, which was fitted with riffles — bars or cleats which would catch the heavier gold while the flowing water washed the lighter material away. (‘Ripples’ was the Australian term for ‘riffles’.)

Californian Sluice

Whereas Long Toms were essentially portable sluice boxes,

the other machine is a sluice, shaped like a Long Tom, but considerably longer, unlike the latter, the water is conveyed from a distance by means of a hose, the length of the sluice is about sixty feet sometimes less, it is usual for about two or three parties to own them, and to employ men to work them at the rate of one pound per day, their being able to wash so much stuff during the day enables them to make the rejected stuff of others profitable, who cannot get through so much in the same time, there was no sluice erected on this creek, until it was abandoned by everyone else’.

there was no sluice erected on this creek, until it was abandoned by everyone else

Washing the gold in a tin dish (gold pan)

The final step in the process was to take whatever remained in the the bottom of the Cradle, or caught in the ripples of the Long Tom or Californian sluice, and wash this in a tin dish, gently removing any heavier material that wasn’t gold (commonly tin dioxide, aka ‘black sand’). Then all that remained was to weigh the gold and divide the proceeds between the party.

The process of mining gold on Spring Creek was relatively simple compared to that on diggings known as Reid’s Creek — downstream from the Spring Creek diggings, about 4 miles distant. The Reid’s Creek diggings presented more arduous and complicated prospects for miners (which arguably also made them a grumpy and rebellious lot), for reasons I will detail in the next post. I promise it will be shorter.

Notes

1. All the quotes in this article come from between pages 9-16 of Edward Ridpath’s journal: Edward Ridpath, Journal, transcription of letters to his father, possibly in his own hand, 1850-53? [manuscript MS 8759], State Library of Victoria, Box 1012/4 [Box also includes his gold license from 3 August 1853], except where I have noted that they come from William Howitt, in which case they have been drawn from Chapter 10 of Land, Labour and Gold (1855).

A useful document when considering nineteenth century gold mining technologies is:
NEVILLE A. RITCHIE AND RAY HOOKER, ‘An Archaeologist’s Guide to Mining Terminology‘, AUSTRALASIAN HISTORICAL ARCHAEOLOGY, Vol 15, 1997, pp:3-29.

Stuff that has nothing to do with the gold rush (which you might think does).

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When most of us think of how gold was mined ‘in the olden days’, we think of a solitary miner washing dirt in his gold pan by the side of a creek. After that, the confusion and mythology sets in. In order to help simplify matters, this week’s post presents a list of mining methods and equipment NOT used during the Spring Creek and Reid’s Creek (Beechworth) gold rushes.

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12 Head Stamp Battery at the Wallaby Mine (Image: Heritage Victoria)

Yes, I’m a grumpy historian. I get really annoyed when people ‘conflate’ (combine) different historical periods into one. The Victorian gold rushes are often conflated with later periods of gold mining, but the reality is that the major gold rushes of the era (which took place in Ballarat, Bendigo and Beechworth districts) belonged to a short period of time (1851-53), in which people used particular equipment and had a particular mind-set.

One of the most exciting and attractive things about the gold rushes of the 1850s was that anyone with a small amount of capital and a few friends or acquaintances, could stake a claim and mine gold using basic equipment. Contrary to popular belief at the time, gold wasn’t easily-won (it involved hard labour), but the great virtue of the gold rushes was that anyone with a reasonably strong physical constitution could become a ‘gold seeker’. At the height of the Spring Creek and Reid’s Creek gold rushes, which took place over a few months in the late Spring and Summer of 1852-53, no large scale mining equipment was used.

So here are some mining techniques and equipment that had nothing to do with the gold rushes:

Hard Rock Mining / Stamp Batteries — Hard rock mining did not begin in the Beechworth/Yackandandah area until all the (comparatively) easily-won alluvial gold was exhausted. The gold bearing quartz was crushed using stamp batteries. There’s a massive stamp battery at the Wallaby Mine, restored after the 2003 bushfires by Parks Victoria. There are other stamp batteries to be seen at Myrtleford and Bright. (Picture above.)

Gold Dredging — Gold dredges were used to dredge gold-bearing sands from creek and river beds, and process them. There’s a spectacular ‘bucket’ dredge at Eldorado. If you haven’t done so already, I suggest you go see it; and remember, this machine began operating in 1936, long after the gold rush had finished.

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Cock’s Pioneer Dredge at Eldorado, commenced 1936 (Image: Peterdownunder)

Open-cut sluicing — Some large open-cut mines existed in the Beechworth and Eldorado areas, in which gold bearing soils were broken down for processing, using high-powered hoses. The ‘clay banks’ on the side of Lake Sambell in Beechworth are the visible remains of one such open-cut mine, run by the Rocky Mountain Gold Sluicing Co, which formed in 1867. The pit which became Lake Sambell was the result of large-scale company mining, which started (in this case) 15 years after the gold rush.

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Pine trees growing on the exposed ‘clay banks’ left by gold sluicing operations, on the side of Lake Sambell, Beechworth (Image: Jacqui Durrant)

Other forms of mining and gold processing that came much later than the initial gold rushes include Deep Lead Mining (which happened at Chiltern, and at Rutherglen where there was no hard rock mining, but mining of alluvial material found deep underground), and gold processing using cyanide (which happened at Chiltern).

In the next post, I will return to the 1850s and talk about how gold was mined during in the gold rushes, considering the different conditions on the Spring Creek and Reid’s Creek diggings. And I will be less grumpy.

Plum Pudding!

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Plum duff or spotted dick — by whatever name, it was the king of gold rush desserts. It’s getting close to Christmas now, which is a good excuse to talk about Plum Pudding.

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Plum pudding. (Image: Lachlan Hardy)

Along with boiled mutton, plum pudding in one form or another was one of the most commonly cooked items on the gold diggings. It was ideally suited to the camp kitchens of the gold diggers for a number of reasons: the first of which was the style of cooking. As social historian Daniel Poole explains, ‘Plum pudding had the great merit of not needing to be cooked in an oven. Wrapped in a pudding cloth, it could be wrapped up into a ball and dropped in the cooking pot along with whatever else was cooking…’ [1]

Secondly, all of the dry ingredients (dried raisins and currants, spices, flour, sugar) were readily available on the goldfields. And thirdly, plum puddings are traditionally shortened with suet rather than the usual butter. On the goldfields butter was rarity, and even when it could be bought it was usually rancid, and always expensive. Fortunately, the alternative shortening, suet, could be had at any butcher’s shambles. Suet is raw beef or mutton fat — especially the hard fat found around the loins and kidneys. Now, I know what you’re thinking: ‘I don’t want no kidney fat in my dessert,’ but trust me on this: it tastes great.

During her first day on the Spring Creek diggings in mid-1853, Mrs Campbell, Canadian wife of the new Police Magistrate, panicked about the lack of ingredients for cooking, but she was soon reassured by her male house-hand:

“Oh, dear!” I sighed, “no vegetables—eggs for a pud­ding, Barnes?” A shake of the head was the only reply. “Rice—you can surely get that?” “ Yes, ma’am, at two shillings a pound.” “Oh, then !”—and I breathed more freely—“milk; I know you can,” pointing to the half­ emptied milk-jug on the table. With a smile, Barnes said, “The milkman can only let me have a pint a-day, and it is half-a-crown a quart; but if you like I can make a plum-pudding—plenty of suet at the butchers, and raisins and currants at the store, though very dear.” “Well, then, that will have to do for to-day—boiled leg of mutton in rice, and a plum-pudding—not so bad after all,” I said, handing him some money, which he good-humouredly took, and walked off to purchase the needful.’ [2]

The pudding mixture was tied air-tight in nothing more than a square of calico, which (in an ideal world) had been boiled and thoroughly rubbed with flour to seal its surface. (Incidentally, a typical pudding cloth is about the same size as a square neckerchief, which is also amount of fabric needed to make an arm sling. It’s about 80cm or 2 1/2 foot square.)

There were two ways of making a pudding. One was to make a flat sheet of suet pastry sprinkled with dried fruit, which was then rolled up into a circular pudding; the other was to make the pudding with everything mixed at once.

Due to the length of time required for cooking, plum puddings were strictly Sunday fare, when the diggers were obliged (by the conditions of their licences) to down tools and observe the Sabbath. And of course, plenty were eaten when it was Christmas on the diggings of 1852:

Christmas-day we celebrated with the good old orthodox roast-beef and plum-pudding… and drank a Merry Christmas to all our friends in Old England, in a tumbler of brandy-and-water. We tried to believe it Christmas, spite of the thermometer at 120°, of diggers’ tents in the distance, and the bush around us. [3]

Here’s what I suspect the recipe would have looked like (and a recipe for suet pudding dough beneath that):

Traditional Plum Pudding

1/2 cup finely shredded suet
1/2lb (250grams) moist (soft brown) sugar
1lb (500 grams) seeded raisins
3/4lb (250 grams) sultanas
1/4lb (125 grams currants)
1/4lb (125grams) breadcrumbs
1/2lb (250grams) plain flour
2oz chopped blanched almonds
1/2 nutmeg, grated (or 1 level tsp nutmeg) (other spices commonly available may also have been added, such as cinnamon [cassia], mace and cloves).
1tsp baking powder (i.e.: combination of bicarbonate soda and tartaric acid [cream of tartare]
salt
4 eggs (I question whether these would have been readily available on the diggings; they may have been omitted.)
2 or more tablespoons brandy (Some recipes call for soaking the dried fruit in the brandy beforehand.)

Rub the suet into the flour, then add the sugar and breadcrumbs. Mix together the beaten eggs, and brandy, and add to the dry ingredients. The mixture should be reasonably stiff as you put onto the cloth; if it seems loose, just add a little more flour.

Your pudding cloth: A piece of unbleached, well-washed calico is excellent but anything can be used provided strong weave and with no holes! Have handy some string to tie the pudding cloth. It needs to be boiled and rubbed with flour to seal it.

Get help to tie your pudding – this is advantageous. Very important to ensure all ends are to top and will be included in the string tightly tied. If this is not done, water can get into the pudding and will create a soggy, spoiled end result. That’s very disappointing.

Be on guard to see water does not boil dry! Top up regularly throughout the cooking process with boiling water.

A good guide as to whether your pudding is cooked is that when you lift your pudding out of the steamer to hang, is that the cloth will very quickly show a drying appearance.

Cook for 6-8 hours, and to reheat, boil for one hour.

Suet Pudding Dough

The combination of suet and butter makes the flavour mellow and the texture flakey.

250g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
2 tbsp (50g) butter
75g suet, prepared or fresh grated
100-125ml water

Place the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and rub in the butter until it vanishes. Add the suet and water, then mix to a soft dough. This is ready to use straight away.

References
[1] Daniel Poole, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England, 1994.
[2] Mrs A. Campbell, Rough and smooth, or, Ho! for an Australian gold field, Hunter, Rose & Co., Quebec, 1865, p.83
[3] William Howitt, Land, Labour and GoldOr Two Years in Victoria, Lowden Publishing Company, Kilmore, 1972 [original first published 1855], (this reference is from Chapter 10).

Diggers Rise Up: a precursor to Eureka Stockade

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Everyone knows about the siege at Eureka Stockade in Ballarat in 1854. What you may not know is that this rebellion was preceded by many smaller armed protests against the government licensing system, including several on the Beechworth diggings over two years earlier.

police.jpg

The button from a police uniform found on the Sebastapol diggings in the Woolshed Valley. (Photo: Scott Hartvigsen Photography)

The first of these protests was on Thursday 25 November 1852. It started with a meeting of miners the night before, which was described by 27 year old Englishman Thomas Woolner, who was camped at Reid’s Creek:

‘Last night a great meeting of — miners, as they call themselves, was held near our tent to discuss and resolve regarding the license, whether the miners would allow their mates to be taken by a few police; it was agreed all should take licenses the beginning of next month, but in fact if the few remaining days of this no man should be taken off these diggings, they would resist to a man and use force if it were employed against themselves; immense hurrahs, chuckling and a general dispersion.’ [1]

To put Woolner’s comments in context, the Gold Fields Commissioner’s Camp at Spring Creek was barely a few weeks old, and police had only recently taken to patrolling the diggings to check whether diggers held licenses. The Reid’s Creek diggings were, at most, only two weeks old. [2] The diggers were dissatisfied with the fact that at this early stage they were expected to pay a license fee for the full month of November when most were only newly arrived on the diggings and had limited means. Already, some men had been fined, and the diggers now felt that ‘payment for the balance of the time should be resisted.’ [3]

The following day, when five armed foot police appeared to check for licenses [4], ‘the police were driven from the ground; the commissioner ditto, tho he came and said he meant not to enforce a license until next month: he was chased up the hills with hoots, sticks, stones and pistol firings.’ [5]

From the Commissioner’s camp, William Murdoch recorded in his diary that ‘the horse and foot police with the Commissioner… dared to enter the diggings… The diggers turning out in hundreds with their pistols, spades, etc. so that the police came home beaten. The diggers also threatened to fire the camp.’ [6]

After this (as reported by an anonymous eye-witness to The Argus), ‘An old Californian made a speech, the substance of which was that the diggers were intelligent enough to settle their own differences without the aid of a Commissioner: that they had no right to pay for working a country which belonged to the people, and not an imbecile Government, and that they would from that time forth, be an example which he hoped would be followed through the length and breadth of the [colony].’

In California, the diggers of the 1849 gold rush had worked almost wholly unregulated by government, and without police interference or protection. This background meant that a portion of the mining cohort on the Ovens diggings strongly resented the presence of government officials.

Between all accounts, the exact order of events is muddled, but it seems that after the initial five foot police were driven away, next, ‘Mr Commissioner Clow, accompanied by the Police Magistrate and two mounted police came on the ground and another muster took place. The former was surrounded… I afterwards heard it was to the purpose that for the rest of the month the license fee would be remitted. He was told that a lot of men had been chained up to a tree all night because they had not paid it. How far this is true I can not say.’ says the anonymous reporter, but Clow was still pelted ‘with sticks, stones… and finding it perfectly useless to do otherwise, he wisely left. He was once or twice hit, but not seriously, the mob following and hooting for upwards of half a mile.’ [7]

The next day, William Murdoch wrote in his diary from the relative safety of the Commissioner’s Camp:

‘The foot police with the inspector, one trooper and the Commissioner start[ed] against the diggings. One of the foot police before starting said they were too small a body and that he would not go. Was put under arrest filling the prison he had in the morning and fined a day’s pay to the bargain. Today the diggers were oil and conciliatory.’ [8]

Clearly, the diggers had put sufficient fear into the Commissioner’s Camp to win a temporary reprieve from license fees. However, this first uprising would not be the last on the Ovens diggings, nor the most violent. And although his presence is not directly linked, it is almost certain that the man who would become the militant leader of the Eureka Rebellion, Peter Lalor, was an observer of these events. [9]

References

[1] Thomas Woolner, Diary of Thomas Woolner,  National Library of Australia, MS 2939, 25 November, 1852.
[2] Ned Peters, A Gold Digger’s Diary, typed manuscript of his diary, edited by Les Blake, MS 11211, State Library of Victoria, p.26. Peters states that when he arrived on the Reid’s Creek diggings, they’d only opened the day before. He’d departed for the Ovens diggings from Bendigo on 1 November 1852, and says he took ‘a fortnight on the road’ to reach the Ovens diggings, which puts his arrival around 14-15 November.
[3] The Argus, ‘Disturbance at the Diggings’, 1 December 1852 p.4.
[4] ibid.
[5] Thomas Woolner, op cit.
[6] William  Murdoch, A Journey to Australia in 1852 and Peregrinations in that Land of Dirt and Gold, unpublished diary manuscript (digital form), held by the Robert O-Hara Burke Memorial Museum. These entries as dated the day they occurred.
[7] The Argus, op cit.
[8] William  Murdoch, op cit.
[9] ‘His first essay was on the Ovens goldfield, but in February, 1853, he migrated to Ballarat.’ — ‘The Late Mt Peter Lalor’ (an extract the following from the obituary notice by “The Vagabond” in the “Age”), Riverine Herald, 13 February 1889, p.2.