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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.


[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…’


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’.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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]
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.

[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.


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]


[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.

More problems with poo: an up-date on last week’s blog post.

In last week’s post I’d written: ‘it’s difficult to write about peoples’ toilet habits during the gold rush, because no one at the time mentioned something so unmentionable in their letters, diaries or newspaper reports.’ 

I was, of course, meaning that there was no real evidence that people shit willy-nilly. I imagined it was probably the case, only that people of the Victorian-era were too polite to discuss such matters — or so I thought! Since then, two items have come to my attention.


Thomas Woolner, Pre-Raphaelite artist and one-time gold digger.

Thomas Woolner was a digger on the Reid’s Creek diggings during November of 1852. His diary of the adventure was published as a part of the book Thomas Woolner: His Life in Letters. Only when I read Angus Trumble’s blog post (he’s now the director at the National Portrait Gallery) did I realise that in the book version, ‘most of the best bits [had been] ruthlessly excised prior to publication in 1917 by his industrious daughter.’ Fortunately, the original diary survives in full, and is available on microfilm from the National Library, which will send it to Wangaratta for you — for a fee. Today I had a look at that diary.

On the 18th of November 1852, Woolner’s diary entry starts, ‘We are encamped beside a little creek seven miles from the diggings… ‘ (which is the place we now know as Golden Ball), and ends with ‘I hate flies and human buttocks.’ This last sentence has been crossed out by his censorious daughter, but I think we know what Woolner was trying to say about Golden Ball at the time, which was a popular camp-site en route to the Ovens diggings.

The other point: local historical re-enactment aficionado Will Arnold helped me realise another direct reference to shit that I had entirely missed. William Howitt, who was on the Ovens diggings in December, wrote that the place smelled like a ‘tanyard’. I knew that people used wattle bark in the tanning process, and I had always assumed Howitt was referring to the smell of rotting sheets of bark that the diggers used to line some of their shafts. Will told me that one of the key ingredients in the tanning process of that era was dog shit, which was mixed with water to form a substance known as ‘bate.’ According to that great font of knowledge wikipedia, enzymes in the dog shit helped to relax the fibrous structure of the hide before the final stages of tanning. (And I’ve since read — in Alan Frost’s marvellous Botany Bay, The Real Story — that ‘dog shit collector’ was actually a profession in Britain.) So in saying it smelled like a tanyard, Howitt was saying the Ovens diggings smelled like shit.

I count those firsthand references as historical proof — that the Ovens diggings was a shitty place.

The problem with poo: Why the Ovens gold rush was a shi**y time.


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As a historian, it’s difficult to write about peoples’ toilet habits during the gold rush, because no one at the time mentioned something so unmentionable in their letters, diaries or newspaper reports. Nevertheless, I’ve been threatening to write about this topic for a while now — so here it is.


(Image: Soebe)

I can tell you with confidence that each one of the 8000 or so diggers on Spring and Reid’s Creeks in the summer of 1852-3 took a shit at least once but probably twice a day (despite the widespread constipation, due to lack of dietary fibre), which made at least 50,000  bogs over the course of January alone. You can probably add to that at least another 10,000 dog shits. There were no toilets, so the Ovens diggings must have been a shitty place.

In all honesty, I don’t know what happened to all that human and dog waste. As yet, I haven’t come across a single first-hand reference to what people did when they needed to go to the toilet on the Ovens goldfields. I can only extrapolate — on the basis of the health status of most individuals on the goldfields — that the shit flowed freely, as literally everyone got a dose of something special.

‘Troubled with the backdoor’

Imagine something like the Folk Rhythm and Life Festival, but set in a natural disaster zone, where our local turd tosser par excellence Hamish Skermer has given up on his concept of Pootopia for festival goers. (That’s the closest analogy I can come up with when I think of the gold rush.) The first thing that happens is that everyone gets ‘Troubled with the backdoor…’ which is how American digger Gordon Tucker described the effects of the dysentery he experienced on the Spring Creek diggings [1]. Of course, Tucker didn’t record in his diary where he went to relieve himself when he experienced the diarrhoea which accompanied his fever and abdominal pain, but he was surrounded by gold diggings, so there were plenty of holes when he was in a hurry, and of course the Creek itself.

If we remember that in November 1852, the faecal-oral transmission of disease wasn’t yet understood, we might understand how young Scottish-born Policeman William Murdoch managed to conclude that everyone getting diarrhoea wasn’t much to do with contaminated water:

I think this is a very unhealthsome place — everyone has had a sort of influenza accompanied with dysentery — I have had a good touch but I think I have got the better of it yet the water is good here and plenty of it. The creek at the side of our camp is very fast and runs very deep but I daresay butcher’s meat is a great cause of it. [2]

The butchers’ meat might have been a problem for other reasons, but what clean water there was (visually, at least) in Spring Creek didn’t last long. A month later, William Howitt described it and the water of Reid’s Creek as ‘fetid’ and ‘Stygian’, and the holes in which the diggers laboured as being filled with ‘sludge, filth and confusion’ [3]. ‘Stygian’ is a term easily lost on us today, but it refers to the river Styx, which in ancient Roman mythology flowed from Hades (the underworld). In other words, Howitt was saying that the water looked and smelt like it had been ejaculated from the bowels of Hell; and to one degree or other, everyone worked in it.

Let’s add some general context to this picture: It would still be a few years before toilet paper was commercially available, and many of those who came to Australia aboard English clipper ships had instead used a communal rag, soaked in vinegar. At the same time, the British had levied a tax on soap, which had done little to encourage its general use. Given the situation, you’d imagine that people would have thought twice when someone passed them a piece of food with their bare hands in 1852, except that no one knew about pathogens like bacteria. Plenty of people still thought that diseases were caused by miasmas — bad air.

Fortunately, dysentery was rarely fatal (unlike the more virulent cholera, which had taken out thousands of diggers en route to the California gold rushes just a few years before). Nevertheless, a few diggers on Spring Creek died alone in their tents, while others were saved only by the goodwill of strangers. Wrote A. Waight in a letter to his sister Elizabeth,

we worked here pretty well for new beginnings for the first week & then I was taken ill with the Dysentery & the other 3 left off work and said they had enough of it & so they took the Horse & Cart & left me to my fate although I was near Dying in fact if it had not been for the kindness of a Woman who is near my tent I do not think I should have recovered. [4]

Maggots and matter

The other thing that happens when you have shit absolutely everywhere (human, dog and horse shit too) is that you end up with oodles of blowflies. This meant that everything on the Ovens diggings that could be, was, fly-blown. As Murdoch explained, ‘Flesh must be eaten two hours after butchering or else it is crawling with large maggots. As soon as the fly blows [a piece of meat] they seem to live and grow almost as you eat a meal — the piece will be alive before you stop eating.’ [5] In fact, things were flyblown, dead or alive. William Howitt told a story of how one man, ‘hurt his eye with the handle of a windlass; and the next morning, feeling a strange creeping sensation in it, he got up and to his horror saw it alive with maggots.’ [6]

The flies also spread what the diggers called ophthalmia or sandy blight, which we now call trachoma: a bacterial infection of the eye caused by Chlamydia trachomatis. On the goldfields, the dusty conditions left peoples’ eyes scoured by dirt particles, making them more susceptible to infection; and this, combined with the lack of sanitation, meant that when a fly carrying Chlamydia landed someone’s eye, the chances of them getting trachoma — with irritation, discharge (conjunctivitis), swelling of the eyelids, and temporary loss of vision — were high.

William Murdoch offered this graphic account of the disease:

I again have got sore eyes which is called sandy blight which is very irritating and annoying besides half blinding one. The eyes gush with matter continually and some time in quantities of small pieces like butter among churned milk. So it is anything but pleasant besides the disfiguration. [7]

To this we can add Howitt’s description:

Almost every third man that you meet up the country in summer is half blind… Some of our party have had their eyes much inflamed for a week or more, when they have swelled up like two great eggs, just as if their owner had been fighting; and then they turn black. In a morning the sufferers cannot open them till they have been washed with warm water. Our dogs have suffered too. [8] 

And once again, people were ignorant of the bacterial source of the disease. Mrs Campbell wrote:

This very common complaint upon the gold-fields is said by some to be caused by the flies laying eggs in the corners of the eyes; others, however, attribute it to the hot sand-storms. In my case, I cannot say what brought it on, but know that I had a narrow escape from blindness. For a week, I could not even see a gleam of light; and the fear of remaining in that state made me cry so much, that it aggravated the disease, so that when we moved, G. had to be my guide, leading me from room to room. [9]

But at least they recognised that flies and dust played a role in the disease — so most people on the goldfields wore gauze over the face: ‘everyone wears green, black or brown veils; the ladies shades also.’ [10] So if you’ve ever wondered about the development of the Akubra hat with wine-corks hanging from the rim, you can probably thank Chlamydia.

These days in Beechworth, we’re a lot wiser to principles of disease and basic sanitation. But if you happen to be going to the Beechworth Music Festival or Folk Rhythm and Life this summer, be thankful for the modern conveniences of porta-loos; and if you’re camping there, maybe take some sanitised hand-wipes. And remember, we still have Chlamydia  which these days is predominantly a sexually transmitted disease (readily treatable with a single dose of antibiotics), so maybe take some condoms too.*

*First manufactured in 1855, when they were about the same thickness as a bicycle inner-tube.


[1] Gordon Tucker, Journal, 1853 Apr. 12-1857 June 6. Manuscript 10649, State Library of Victoria. This entry: Thursday 8 – Sat 10 December 1853.
[2] 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. This is from an entry dated: 20 November, 1852.
[3] William Howitt, Land, Labour and GoldOr Two Years in Victoria, Lowden Publishing Company, Kilmore, 1972 [original first published 1855], pp. 95, 99.
[4] A. Waight, Letter to his sister Elizabeth, 20th Nov 1852, National Library of Australia, MS:2279.
[5] William Murdoch, 20 November, 1852.
[6] William Howitt, op cit, p.100.
[7] William Murdoch, op cit, 6 March, 1853.
[8] William Howitt, op cit, p. 128.
[9] Mrs A. Campbell, Rough and smooth, or, Ho! for an Australian gold field, Hunter, Rose & Co., Quebec, 1865, p.104-5.
[10] Mary Spencer, Aunt Spencer’s Diary (1854): A Visit to Bontharambo and the North-east Victorian Goldfields, Neptune Press, Newtown, 1981, p.42.


The Ovens Directory, 1857 — Woolshed to Eldorado, and Yackandandah


As I said in my previous post, Dean from the Beechworth Ice Creamery found an original copy of the Ovens Directory from 1857, and he let me photograph it. I’ve already posted the sections covering the businesses in Beechworth 159 years ago, and some of you avid history geeks were also keen to see the Woolshed Valley to Eldorado sections of the Directory, as well as Yackandandah and surrounds — so here they are.

I don’t know why the Directory jumps from Woolshed to Devil’s Elbow and back to Woolshed, but a map is helpful to understand the localities in the Woolshed Valley as (East to West) Woolshed, Devil’s Elbow, Sebastapol, Napoleon and Eldorado.


Map courtesy of Sue Phillips of the Eldorado Museum.











The Ovens Directory, 1857 — Beechworth businesses


Dean from the Beechworth Ice Creamery found an original copy of the Ovens Directory from 1857, and while I was getting a chocolate milkshake, he let me photograph it. So if you’d like to know the ‘who, what and where’ of businesses in Beechworth 159 years ago (doesn’t everyone?!), here it is…

In fact, the Ovens Directory of 1857 falls a little outside of the scope of this blog (i.e.: the gold rush of 1852-53). But it’s such a charming document, it seems wrong not to post some of it here. In this post, I’ve included only the pages relating to Beechworth businesses in the immediate township, including those ‘beyond the bridge’. I will put the businesses of the Woolshed Valley and Eldorado in a separate post.


The cover of the Ovens Directory, 1857.









I have removed several pages here relating to the Woolshed, so I can move straight onto Beechworth (Beyond the Bridge).



Wildlife during the Gold Rush: fauna in Beechworth, then and now.


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With the Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park on our doorstep, the residents of Beechworth get to see some amazing wildlife. But has the local fauna changed since the gold rush? And is there anything still living in our forests that we don’t really know about?


Tiger Quoll (aka Spot-tailed Quoll) (Image: Joshua Cunningham)

It was an interesting thing to read, and yet also devastating: the diary entry of American gold digger Gordon Tucker from 4 July 1854, who says he celebrated American Independence Day in Beechworth by ‘killing native cats’. [1] The glorious cat-like creature he was referring to was the Tiger Quoll (Dasyurus maculatus, sometimes also referred to as a ‘Spot-tailed Quoll‘).

Until this point, it had never occurred to me that a large carnivorous marsupial like the Tiger Quoll had once lived around Beechworth, let alone in such numbers that hunting them could be considered a day’s sport. So you can imagine my excitement when Mick Webster (long-time Friends of the Chiltern Mt Pilot National Park member) and Cathryn Mahon (Southern Cross Wildlife and Vermin Management) came across several ‘scats’ that look like they’ve come from a Tiger Quoll, while walking near Mt Pilot last September (2016). These scats have been sent away for scientific analysis, so it is yet to be confirmed whether Beechworth still has Tiger Quolls roaming its forests. Let’s hope so.


Possible Quoll scat found near Mt Pilot, September 2016. Awaiting official confirmation. (Image: Mick Webster)

And there are other animals mentioned in the letters and diaries of gold diggers from the 1850s that are virtually unseen around Beechworth today. In November 1852, William Murdoch (a policeman stationed at the Commissioner’s Camp) wrote that, ‘One of the men shot a large flying squirrel its length from the nose to the tip of the tail four feet. The breadth from wing to wing two and half feet. Its back and upper parts outside the wings of a beautiful black fur. The belly white having a pouch.’ This is undoubtedly a reference to the Greater Glider (Petauroides volans), a huge glider with a long tail, that come in colours ranging from black and white to black and tan, and brown and white.

The Greater Glider is an arboreal species which is now under threat, for the reason that they don’t like to touch the ground ever, and have a huge ‘wing-span’, meaning that they need to continuously glide between very tall, widely spaced trees, just to get around. That Greater Gliders once lived around Beechworth also tells you about the forest that once existed: that Beechworth had old-growth forests of mammoth trees, mature enough to have the height and hollows that could sustain the Greater Glider. In any case, I’m told there are still some Greater Gliders in the hills at Barranduda.


Greater Glider (Image: Toby Hudson)

Having described the Greater Glider, William Murdoch continued, ‘[The men also] shot a kangaroo rat[,] like a rat in the head but shaped otherwise like a kangaroo[,] in size, not bigger than a rabbit with soft fur the colour of a Roe Deer. In its pouch was a youngster a new born.’ [2] This mostly likely would have been a Bandicoot, but it’s impossible to tell whether it was a Long-nosed Bandicoot (Perameles nasuta) or a Southern Brown Bandicoot (Isoodon obesulus). I’ve only ever seen one Bandicoot in the last 25 years, running across a road at Whorouly. There’s also a small chance that the animal referred to here is not a Bandicoot, but a Rufous Bettong (aka, Rufous Rat-kangaroo, Aepyprymnus rufescens), which used to be found along the Murray River.


Dingo (Image: Kim Navarre)

Finally, the other animal occasionally mentioned in gold rush diaries that has now been hunted and inter-bred out of existence in the wild, is the Dingo. Wrote Murdoch, ‘Saw a tame native dog which if in a Scottish wild would pass for Mr. Fox his shape and fur being the same bushy tail with a white spot at the point. The only difference I could see might be a shorter nose and a more erect carriage.’ [3] A. Waight also reported in a letter to his brother, ‘There are plenty of what we call Curiosities at home in these parts, I have seen Kangaroos, Wallabys, Native Dogs, Cockatoos, both black and White.’ [4] Unfortunately, the days when the howling of packs of wild dingoes could be heard in the hills of North East Victoria at night, are long gone.

The diggers of the Beechworth gold rush mention a great many other animals which remain relatively common around Beechworth today, particularly the goanna (usually described as an ‘iguana’), snakes, and ‘opossums’. Strangely enough, I am yet to come across a single mention of the animal which growls like a zombie in the trees just outside my bedroom window at night, the Koala.

[1] Gordon Tucker, Journal, 1853 Apr. 12-1857 June 6. Manuscript 10649, State Library of Victoria. This entry: 4 July, 1854.

[2] 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. This entry: 26 November 1852.

[3] William Murdoch. This entry: 23 February, 1853.

[4] A. Waight, in a letter to his brother, 20th Nov 1852, NLA MS2279.