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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. [2a]

A reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald likewise concluded that the prevalence of illness on the diggings was something to do with meat:

With regard to the physical condition of the people here, I am sorry to say that a great deal of sickness prevails here. A low billious fever very generally prevails, with some lingering remnants of influenza, of which last I am myself suffering under a severe attack. There is also a great deal of blight, and dysentery, the last arising I doubt not in great measure from the meat, which is frequently cooked in a hot and quivering state. [2b]

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.
[2a] 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.
[2b] ‘The Ovens Gold Field (From our special reporter) S[ring Creek, Ovens district, January 13, 1853,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 24 January 1853, p 2
[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.