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.