You’ve heard the term ‘swag’ — the minimalist belongings that a gold seeker carried with him to the diggings. But what was in it, how much did it weigh, and what indigenous kit was included?

EugenevonGuerard—Aborigines

Eugene von Guérard, Aborigines met on the road to the diggings, 1854 (image/collection: Geelong Art Gallery). Aboriginal people trading possum skin cloaks with a gold seeker, who has laid down his swag — comprising a bed-roll, billy and tools.

Numerous guides of the time — the Lonely Planets of their day — advised prospective gold seekers as to what to take to the diggings in their ‘swag’ or ‘traps’ (trappings). The most basic advice reflected the experience of the tens of thousands of ‘miner ’49s’ who had travelled overland from the East coast of America to the Californian goldrush only a couple of years before, where the trail became littered with unnecessary cast-offs. The key advice was this: travel light.

James Bonwick (in Notes of a gold digger and gold diggers’ guide, 1852) recommended diggers only to take what they could carry:

• hard-wearing clothes
• strong boots
• waterproof coat and trousers of oilskin
• a roll of canvas ‘for your future home’
• good jacket for Sundays
• pick, shovel and panning dish
• a cradle ‘may be carried in parts without much trouble’. (You can read about the cradle in this earlier post, Cradling for Gold in the Woolshed Valley).

William Williams, a gold digger who came to the Ovens diggings, gives us an idea of how much this kit actually weighed: ‘We started from the McIvor [i.e.: Heathcote, central Victoria] … carrying about sixty pounds weight including Grub, Blankets, Tin Dishes, Pick and Shovels, etc, this being our first attempt at carrying a ‘swag’ as it is termed in the colonies…’ [1] In metric measure, this was roughly 27 kilograms.

Unlike Bonwick, Williams also mentioned ‘grub’, the key components of which were sugar, tea, flour and salt (fresh food was generally picked up en route), which of course necessitated equipment for cooking and eating. Mrs Campbell, who lived at the Commissioner’s camp on the Spring Creek diggings (May Day Hills) in 1853, offered an overview of what a gold seeker might carry with them, including cooking implements: ‘As the digger is a migratory animal, he contents himself with few of the comforts or even necessaries of life. A small unlined tent, or rough bark hut, serves for his dwell­ing, while his furniture consists of a couple of blankets, which he spreads on the ground, a kettle, an iron pot, a pannikin [i.e.: tin mug] and tin plate, and knife and fork.’ [2]

William Williams, however, had no need of an iron pot or kettle, because he had a piece of equipment that would become synonymous with the swag — the ‘billy’. ‘[G]ot up before sunrise’ he wrote, ‘— boiled the “Billy” (a small tin pail that is used for boiling water for tea, or boiling a bit of mutton, or boiling a shirt, etc. The “billy” is an indispensable companion on a journey (it is preferred to a kettle or pot because it is so much lighter) boiled the “billy”, ate our bit of Damper, etc and started…’

Just as the billy had a multitude of uses, the gold panning dish did double-duty as a bowl in which to mix dough for bread or damper, and the neck-kerchief may have even doubled as a pudding cloth (not to mention arm sling or wound dressing). However, those travelling and working as a team often had a camp oven between them —  the workhorse of the goldfield’s kitchen. Some were designed to hang above a fire, but many had three legs so that they could sit in a fire with coals placed underneath. Many also had a flat top with a lip, which could hold coals on top to create all-round heat.

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A camp oven, also known as a dutch oven. (Image: Digrpat, via wikimedia commons).

Another essential bit of kit — so essential as to be taken for granted and therefore was never mentioned except in advertisements, was the means to light a fire. Diggers routinely lit their pipes and cooking fires from other peoples’ fires, but when that opportunity didn’t present itself they had to resort to their tinderbox, or use some congreve lucifers  early friction matches tipped with phosphorous, which were only just beginning to replace tinderboxes during the 1850s.

As for accommodation, many gold seekers en route to the diggings expected to sleep out under the trees, or under a wagon if they were travelling alongside one. On the diggings, those who did not have tents adopted an indigenous solution: the mia mia.

En route to the diggings, gold seekers passed through several indigenous countries, and were able to glimpse the ways of life of various Aboriginal clans. This included their use of temporary shelters made of bark, branches, leaves and grass.

While visiting relatives at Bontharambo near Wangaratta, English woman Mary Spencer explained as best she could: ‘I cannot describe the bush. It means such an extent of country covered with trees; some large, some small, no sign of human habitation except here and there a few camps or tents; some inhabited by blacks, who construct their huts by placing poles in position and covering them with the outer bark of the trees.’ [3]

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Unknown photographer, circa 1907-1915 (Image: Art Gallery of NSW, accession #520.2014)

The gold seekers quickly adopted the term ‘mia mia’ for such shelters — the word coming from the Wathaurong (Wadawurrung) people who lived near present day Geelong. Some diggers favoured mia mias over tents, no doubt as they were free, and could be easily rearranged depending on wind direction.

Thus William Howitt noted the adoption of indigenous dwellings by miners on the Spring Creek diggings in early 1853: ‘…there are huts of mingled boughs and sheets of bark; and here and there simple mimies, in imitation of the mimi of the natives; that is — just a few boughs leaned against a pole, supported on a couple of forked sticks, and a quantity of gum-tree leaves for a bed.’ [4]

And then there was the bedding. Assembling his items of bedding was one of the final tasks artist Thomas Woolner undertook before heading off to the Spring Creek diggings in the Spring of 1852: ‘After breakfast I went into the cottage to arrange my traps: my bed will consist of a piece of green baize [a coarse wooden fabric], one blanket and a waterproof coat to place on the ground as protection against the damp….’ [5] Some miners even carried Indian rubber blankets against the damp, particularly as exposure to damp ground was thought to bring about rheumatism.

In the height of summer, it wasn’t necessary to carry more than one or two blankets, but the gold seekers quickly opted for something superior to wool blankets — in fact, an option so superior that they immediately became a feature of gold fields life: the possum skin cloak.

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Possum skin cloaks (the above is a reproduction of one that came from Echuca in 1850). [Photo: National Museum of Australia]. Thankfully many talented artists are making these again.

Often referred to as a ‘rug’ by gold seekers, possum skin cloaks were traditionally worn by Aboriginal peoples throughout south-eastern of Australia. They were (and continue to be) made from brush-tailed possum pelts (as many as 60 or 80), trimmed and sewn together with kangaroo sinew. Traditionally, a person would be given one as a child, and the cloak would be added to as a person grew. [6] They were decorated with patterns imbued with significant cultural and spiritual meaning, and there was much importance around the making of the cloaks and their wearing. Some were handed down through generations as heirlooms.

From the perspective of a gold seeker, a really top-notch ‘opossum rug’ rubbed with a protective and decorative layer of fat and ochre, was a significant bit of kit because it was waterproof, said to be as warm as a half dozen blankets, and exceptionally light to carry (in fact, it is difficult to describe how surprisingly light and soft they are). Therefore, the indigenous art of making possum skin cloaks was widely recognised among the gold diggers, and the cloaks themselves were a highly valued inter-cultural trade item. [7]

The comfort that possum skin cloaks offered travellers in the bush can be felt in this vignette written by Phillip Johnson as he was travelling to the Ovens diggings:

‘In the course of a few hours I fell across a couple of bullock drivers who were quietly reposing on their opossum cloaks, and enjoying that cheapest and at the same time the most consoling luxury in the bush, their pipes; in the midst of a wilderness they were at ease & evidently at home..’ [8]

And again, the splendid luxury of a possum skin cloak is almost palpable, when reading this description by George Wathen:

‘I was soon asleep on the ground, by the fire, under an overbowering banksia, wrapped in the warm folds of my opossum rug.  For a night bivouac, there is nothing comparable to the opossum-rug.…’ [9]

Many of us are still familiar with, if not users of a few of the items in a gold rush era-swag: the billy and the camp oven especially. But sadly too few of us are familiar with the possum skin cloak. You can see them in on display in Albury Library Museum encased in a glass vitrine, and yet you will still not gain a real sense of why this is a truly magnificent and luxurious a piece of kit. However, there is one on display in the Falls Creek Museum that you can actually touch (as I did last Friday), and I encourage you to seek it out.

Notes

[1] William Williams, ‘Notes of a Journey from the McIvor to the Ovens River’, MS8436, State Library of Victoria, no date, p.1.
[2] Mrs A. Campbell, Rough and smooth, or, Ho! for an Australian gold field, Hunter, Rose & Co., Quebec, 1865, p.97.
And as an aside, for those unfamiliar with the term, a ‘pannikin’ is a tin camping mug — the word being derived from the Flemish ‘cannikin’ being the diminutive of ‘can’. So just as a small can was a ‘cannikin’, a small pan became a ‘pannikin’.
[3] Mary Spencer, Aunt Spencer’s Diary (1854): A Visit to Bontharambo and the North-east Victorian Goldfields, Neptune Press, Newtown, 1981, p.40.
[4] William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, or Two Years in Victoria, Sydney University Press facsimile edition of an 1855 imprint, 1972, p.252.
[5] Amy Woolner, Thomas Woolner: His Life in Letters, Chapman and Hall, London, 1917, p.19.
[6] This piece of information I recently learned from Wiradjuri woman Tammy Campbell.
[7] Fred Cahir, ‘Dallong – Possum Skin Rugs, A Study of an Inter-Cultural Trade Item in Victoria,’ The Journal of Public Record Office Victoria, issue no. 4, 2005.
[8] Phillip Johnson, Journal 3, Document 5, 1852, National Library of Australia, MS.7627, p.4.
[9] Wathen, The Golden Colony, or Victoria in 1854: With Remarks on the Geology of the Australian Gold Fields, p.131

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