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.


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:
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?


, , , ,

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.


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.


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.