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The Victorian gold diggings were exceptionally noisy, and the Spring and Reid’s Creek diggings were no exception. In this post, we will visit the characteristic sounds of the gold rush, and ask ‘What did those sounds mean to those who heard them?’ [1]

Pepperbox_IMG_5237.jpg

A English pepperbox revolver. (Photograph by Rama)

If you sit down by Spring Creek today, you’ll hear one or two cars on High Street, the distant buzz of a lawn mower, and birds calling (right now, three doors up from the creek, I can hear the incessant hooting of a Bronze-wing pigeon courting a mate). The creek itself makes a pleasant gurgling sound, which is a far cry from the Summer of 1852-53.

Perhaps the most quintessential sound of the gold rush was not the sound of dirt being shovelled or gravel being rocked in cradles, but that of gunfire. Almost everyone on the goldfields was armed, and whether it was a cheap single-shot Belgian or English percussion pistol, a multi-barrel English pepperbox, or a revolver like the Colt six-shooters, the diggers fired these guns nightly: partly as a deterrent to anyone planning to rob them, and partly in the belief that it was necessary to discharge their gun and reload it daily to make certain it wouldn’t fail if needed. [2]

[Check Museum of Victoria’s collection of Firearms in Gold Rush Victoria if you’re interested.]

‘The sound of shooting begins, at first single shots and then as the number increases it sounds like flanking fire,’ explained a wary, if not horrified Polish digger Seweryn Korzelinski, who was already a veteran of armed insurrections in his native country. [3]

Digger Edward Ridpath compared the diggings to ‘a bivouac of an army’:

…the similitude of the scene is heightened by the incessant discharge of guns and revolvers, leaving one almost to imagine the diggings were in a state of siege, this noise is frequently improved by a general watching and barking of the watch dogs, if one of these happened to begin, his example is followed by all the rest, until it swells into a full chorus [4] 

Just as almost all miners carried a gun, most kept a big mongrel dog to guard their tent while they worked, and to warn of approaching strangers as they slept: ‘Sometimes I sleep peacefully throughout the night,’ explained Korzelinski, ‘…but sometimes the dog leaps up suddenly, barks and disappears like an arrow into the darkness of the night.’ [5]

William Howitt, who arrived on the diggings on Christmas Eve 1852, noted yet another source of ‘abominable noise’ made by the diggers:

The diggers seem to have two especial propensities, those of firing guns and felling trees. It is amazing what a number of trees they fell. No sooner have they done their day’s work, than they commence felling trees, which you hear falling continually with a crash, on one side of you or the other. [6]

Comparatively, the low-tech industrial sound of actual gold mining was the lesser noise on the diggings, at least by volume. Still, William Murdoch (a young Scottish policeman stationed at the Commissioner’s Camp) seemed to despair at its sheer repetition. He wrote in his diary in Februrary 1853:

All is nearly the same day after day  … the constant grate grate of the cradles, the noise of the many dogs and the shouts of merriment or anger, such is every day noise with the “caw wa hoaring” of the black demon like raven — for I never behold one here but I picture an evil spirit for they float and skim about on the air making such melancholy and unearthly like noises… [7] 

What did these sounds mean to those who heard them?

Today in rural Victoria, we would not consider the sound of a tree being felled all that exciting (perhaps unless we were doing it ourselves). Only when you consider that Britain had run out of firewood in the 16th century [8] — more than 200 years before the gold rush — and had resorted to coal for cooking and heating ever since, do you realise that the sound of trees being felled was quite novel for British diggers in 1852. When explaining how cooking was done, Mary Spencer had to explain to her readers that at Bontharambo, ‘There are no stoves; all the fuel is wood’. [9] Compared to Britain, wood on the goldfields was a free-for-all, and the diggers went at those stringybarks and black cypress pines in a state of near frenzy.

Writers of the period suggest that firing guns was hugely entertaining for most diggers. Howitt thought them ‘like children… immensely delighted by the noise of gunpowder’ [10]. However, the gunfire made Seweryn Korzelinski nervous: ‘Those nightly salvos always made me feel uncomfortable, because many of the diggers have had little experience with firearms and were as proficient in handling them as I would be if told to change a baby… Sleeping miners have been killed by stray bullets. I nearly had it happen to me in Bendigo.’ [11]

To many conventional observers, this constant felling of trees, the chorus of barking dogs, and the gunfire, denoted chaos. It was a sound-scape that supported one of the commonest contemporary responses to gold rush society — which was to associate it with social decline. People worried about the kind of society that the gold rushes threatened to bring into being: one in which self-interest reigned, and in which there was no past and little prudent thought of the future. [12]

However, the noise of the gold rush was short-lived. By the 12 April 1853, William Murdoch reported that ‘a great many of the diggers have left for richer and better quarters’. Later that year a rush to the Buckland River carried off the remaining diggers, so that by late November — a mere 10 months after the peak of the Spring and Reid’s Creek rush — ‘scarcely 30 people’ remained working. [13]

Notes

1. This blog post was much inspired by the book chapter: Diane Collins, ‘A “Roaring Decade”: Listening to the Australian gold-fields’, in Joy Damousi and Desley Deacon (eds)., Talking and Listening in the Age of Modernity, Essays on the History of Sound, ANU Press, 2007. http://epress.anu.edu.au/tal/mobile_devices/ch01.html
2. Seweryn Korzelinski, Memoirs of gold-digging in Australia, translated and edited by Stanley Robe, foreword and notes by Lloyd Robson, University of Queensland Press, 1979, p.64.
3. ibid.
4. 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], pp.p.27-8.
5. Seweryn Korzelinski, op. cit., p.62.
6. William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, Or Two Years in Victoria, Lowden Publishing Company, Kilmore, 1972 [original first published 1855], p.98.
7. 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 28 February 1853. I added in some commas to make it more coherent.
8. John U. Nef, ‘An Early Energy Crisis and Its Consequences’, Scientific American, November 1977, pp:140-150. This reference, p.140.
9. Mary Spencer, Aunt Spencer’s Diary (1854): A Visit to Bontharambo and the North-east Victorian Goldfields, Neptune Press, Newtown, 1981, p.43.
10. William Howitt, op cit.
11. Seweryn Korzelinski, op. cit., pp.64, 66.
12. David Goodman, Gold Seeking, St. Leonard, Allen & Unwin, 1994, pp.xvii, 9.
13. William Murdoch, op. cit.; 12 April, 1853; 28 November, 1853.

 

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