In terms of dress, the gold diggers weren’t merely practical. Especially in the early days of the gold rushes of 1852-3, many diggers consciously cultivated a certain style, which was a reflection of the new society in which they lived. 

I_Have_Got_It_1854

Eugene von Guerard, I Have Got It! (1854) (State Library of Victoria)

Reader’s note: This blog post is divided into three sections. 1. What the diggers wore. 2. The deeper social meaning of their clothing and general appearance. 3. Some side-reflections on the consumption and ecological sustainability of clothing then compared to now.

Basic Digger’s Wardrobe

When I say ‘the digger’s wardrobe’, I mean ‘clothing’; for as Seweryn Korzelinski, who came to the Ovens diggings in January 1853, wrote, ‘There are no spare clothes, hence no need for a wardrobe.’ [1] I’m also referring specifically to men of non-Chinese background. [2]

It’s a relatively easy matter to learn about how gold diggers dressed. Artists S.T. Gill and Eugene von Guerard made detailed paintings, and you can see from their illustrations that the typical gold digger wore:
– a hat (usually a felt or ‘cabbage tree’ hat with a smallish brim, worn with a black ribbon for a hat band), or sometimes a soft cap;
– an under-shirt;
– an over-shirt or ‘smock’, commonly of ‘alpaca’ or serge fabric, with a closure on the front of 2 or 3 buttons at the neck;
– a coat (sometimes waterproof);
– a neck-kerchief (tied either around the neck or under the collar);
– heavy cotton ‘moleskin’ trousers, light canvas trousers, or woollen trousers (either with a straight button-up fly or button-up drop-down front; no external pockets or belt loops);
– a belt (leather or a piece of rope), or sometimes a waist sash;
– ankle-length lace-up leather boots, often worn with button-up gaiters held in place with ‘bowyangs’ (a string or cord tied around the calf over the trousers), or less commonly Indian rubber boots, or calf-length leather boots; and
– to complete the look — a clay pipe, some guns or a bowie knife.

Blackhill_21_Feb_1854

Eugene von Guerard, sketch at ‘Blackhill, 21 February, 1854’. (State Library of Victoria)

There is only one item that is rarely illustrated, perhaps because the artists didn’t like to hide the faces of their subjects: a veil of gauzy material worn from the hat (nota bene historical reenactment people!). Visiting Beechworth in 1854, Mary Spencer wrote of the Ovens diggings, ‘We met many diggers, curiously attired; many wear veils, some brown or green, to protect their eyes from the glare of the sun and the dust and flies.’ [3]

Thomas Woolner — the Pre-Raphaelite artist who came to the Ovens diggings in November 1852 — further explained, ‘The day has been very warm and of course choking dusty: this is bad, but the greatest pest we have to withstand is the common domestic fly: these pernicious wretches torment the day from dawn to sundown and make it essential to wear a veil, but that afflicts me more than the pest brutes themselves, rending the senses smothered in closeness…’ [4]

A few other points worth noting:

Over-shirts were often in bright colours of blue, red, laterally striped, or sometimes checked. Under-shirts seem to have been horizontally striped. Wrote Mary Spencer of the miners at Spring Creek: ‘They wear a loose ‘blouse’ or ‘frock’; some blue, some red, as fancy dictates. The gentlemen seldom wear cloth, but a kind of alpaca.’ [5] ‘A kind of alpaca’ could have been a reference to woollen serge, or an actual alpaca or alpaca-blend fabric. Alpaca was very popular on the Californian gold diggings, probably because it is hardwearing, and is warmer and has greater wicking ability (i.e.: to evaporate moisture) compared to sheeps’ wool.

The ‘cabbage tree hat’ was a kind of finely woven straw-coloured hat made from the boiled, dried and bleached leaves of the Livistona australis, also known as the Cabbage-tree Palm. It is known as the first distinctively Australian headwear.

WashingOutAGoodProspect_Antoine_Fauchery

This image of diggers by Antoine Fauchery shows the basic clothing worn by gold diggers. Taken in 1858, the diggers here are probably less theatrical in their attire than those of the 1852 gold rush, when ‘new chums’ conspicuously dressed as ‘gold seekers’. (State Library of Victoria)

The social meaning of a digger’s attire

Simply listing what the gold diggers wore is really only half the story. As I mentioned in an earlier post ‘Loose air and swagger’ — Beards of the Beechworth Gold Rush, in the first flush of the Victorian gold rushes, diggers crafted their personal appearance in ways that went beyond the merely practical. Their clothing — at least by my conjecture — expressed a set of values that were particular to gold rush society: a robust social equality, independence, and freedom.

Seweryn Korzelinski, who came to Spring Creek in January 1853, paints an extraordinary picture of his experience of the Victorian gold diggings thus far: one in which everyone dressed in essentially the same manner, so that previous social status could not be readily discerned:

…this very large society comprises men from all parts of the world, all countries and religions, varying dispositions and education, all types of artisans, artists, literary men, priests, pastors and soldiers, sailors, wild tribesman with tattoo markings, and those deported for crimes — all mixed into one society, all dressed similarly, all forced to forget their previous habits, leanings, customs, manners and occupations. All forced to follow their new occupation and to live the monotonous lives of the miners.

As they dig shafts next to one another, their outward appearance does not signify their previous importance, worth or mental attainments. A colonel pulls up earth for a sailor; a lawyer wields not a pen but a spade; a priest lends a match to a Negro’s pipe; a doctor rests on the same heap of earth with a Chinaman; a man of letters is carries a bag of earth; many a baron or count has a drink with a Hindu, and all of them hirsute [i.e.: hairy], dusty and muddy, so that their own mothers would not be able to recognize them. Many a one would not, a short while before, bother to look at a fellow with whom he now works. He we are all joined by a common designation: “DIGGER”. Only various shades of skin colour and speech denote nationality and origin, but it is impossible to guess previous station in life or background. [6]

The socially-levelling effect of life on the diggings was notable, especially to British-born immigrants who had come from a society in which the social stratification was pronounced. Clearly, many diggers were self-aware of the physical ‘metamorphosis’ that they undertook on the diggings, and revelled in the sense of being ‘incognito’ rather than being seen as fitting into some predetermined social order.

clay_pipe_Stanley_Athaneaum

A clay pipe of the type many gold diggers used, which was subsequently dug up beside the Stanley Athenaeum [shown to me by Friends of the Stanley Athenaeum].  ‘…if I walked into your house,’ wrote Englishman Edward Ridpath from the Ovens diggings, probably sometime in 1853, ’till I spoke, you would not know me, my hair, beard, and moustache are of eleven months growth, I wear a broad brimmed … hat, blue serge shirt, moleskin trousers, a pair of Indian rubber knee boots, and a belt with a bowie knife attached thereto, the incognito would be further aided by seeing a short black clay pipe in my mouth.’ [7]

The gold rushes usurped the social order in a number of ways, one being that if you were successful, it was neither because you were ‘born to rule’ nor because you were self-made (in the sense of having built a business or career); and equally, if you were unsuccessful, no one could say it was because you were lazy, feckless or irresponsible. Whether a digger was rich or poor could not be attributed either to social status nor personal merit; it was simply a matter of luck. This release from the bondage of crushing social stratification on one hand, and the overwhelming personal responsibility for one’s situation on the other, must have come as a great relief to many. That no one could readily discern where you stood on the social ladder by immediate appearances was a part of this liberation.

However, not everyone interpreted the outward appearance of the diggers as simply representing a new-found social equality (perhaps burgeoning, perhaps temporary — at the time, no one could be certain). Thomas Woolner wrote:

the people … mostly wear beards, carry firearms and are immensely independent: they dress something like the prints you have seen of the red French Republicans, much of that loose air and swagger. [8] 

When Woolner described the diggers at the Spring and Reid’s Creek diggings as dressing something like the ‘red French Republicans’, he was referring to recent events: the French revolutionaries of 1848 who had overthrown King Louis Philippe to create the second French Republic. These were the kind of people who insisted on liberté, égalité, fraternité by the application of force.

As Woolner alludes, a part of the ‘loose air and swagger’ of the gold seekers came not merely from their clothes, or that they had broken free of the daily ritual of shaving, but from the fact that they were well-armed. Wrote William Howitt upon leaving Melbourne for the Spring Creek diggings, ‘On Wednesday, about noon, we got under way; and with such a show of big dogs, rifles, pistols, and bowie-knives as must have daunted the most heroic bushrangers.’ Although such weaponry had a practical side — Howitt felt it necessary to qualify, the ‘daunting’ of bushrangers — when people encountered the diggers en masse, their appearance smacked of revolutionary spirit. Even the beards were symbolic of a new social order, for they were worn by the type of men who no longer deigned to let the upper classes presume to be their betters: these men constituted their own ‘hairystocracy’. [9]

In their red and blue shirts, with their neck-kerchiefs and jaunty hats; firing guns into the night sky and lighting their pipes from whichever fire they pleased, the diggers were dusty and dirty… but the one thing they were not, was drab.

A side note on clothing and ecological sustainability

In 1852, clothing was probably cheaper than ever before, due largely to the Industrial Revolution. Since the turn of the century, more and more fabrics were being made on ‘power looms’, rather than being hand woven. These new looms could be used by unskilled labourers, so the wages for skilled weavers plummeted. By the 1850s there were 3/4 million power looms in Britain.

Two quick historical asides:

  • At the time when power looms were being introduced, a group of English textile workers, aggrieved at the destruction of their livelihoods, protested the fact by smashing these looms and burning textiles factories. They became known as the ‘Luddites’ (a term we still use today — mistakenly — to refer to someone who rejects new technologies, rather than someone protesting their job being automated). The Luddite rebellion (which lasted from 1811 to 1816) was eventually quelled, especially after a show trial saw the instigators sentenced to either execution, or transportation to Australia.
  • These troubles of the Industrial Revolution never reached the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, where on the island of Harris and Lewis (two names; one island), the crofters continued to weave a woollen fabric called ‘tweed’ on pedal-powered looms in their own homes, as they continue to do today. Yes — Harris tweed costs a bit more than other fabrics, but it is still handmade in someone’s house!

Back to the 1850s. Despite the increasingly industrial nature of its production, clothing on the gold diggings was far more sustainable than today. All the materials used were natural plant fibres and gums (linen, cotton, rubber), animal fibres (sheeps’ wool, alpaca, silk), fur (mainly possum skin) and leather. Some fabrics were especially long-lasting and hardwearing, because of their long fibres; in particular fabric made from hemp or flax (linseed), such as canvas. All were readily biodegradable when discarded. Obviously, there were no synthetic polyesters, nylons or polar fleeces manufactured from non-renewable petroleum derivatives.

Quite unlike today’s throw-away fashion, people on the gold diggings mended their clothes. Although there were women on the diggings who charged men for the privilege of having their clothes washed and mended for them (‘a great many bring their wives and children with them, as the former are very useful in washing and cooking, they wash other men’s clothes for which they demand 12/- per doz’ [10]), some men mended clothes themselves. American digger Gordon Tucker was not alone when he wrote in his diary on Sunday 12 February, 1854, ‘Mending shirts all day’ [11]; for miners weren’t permitted to dig on a Sunday and aside from religious observance there was little else to do but cook, chop wood, and clean and mend clothes [12]. Washing clothing by hand was, of course, the only option, but the act of hand-washing and air-drying gave those clothes greater longevity that what our commonly machine-washed and dried clothes have today. We could all learn a little, and waste less, from their example.

Notes

[1] 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.59.
[2] Chinese miners wore quite different attire, but I am yet to find any reference to a Chinese gold seeker on the Ovens diggings during the actual ‘rush’ of 1852-3. It seems they came later, and in considerable numbers, once the rush had subsided. I’m also consciously not addressing the issue of what women wore.
[3] Mary Spencer, Aunt Spencer’s Diary (1854): A Visit to Bontharambo and the North-east Victorian Goldfields, Neptune Press, Newtown, 1981, p.58.
[4] Thomas Woolner, in Amy Woolner, Thomas Woolner: His Life in Letters, Chapman and Hall, London, 1917, p.21.
[5] Mary Spencer, op cit.
[6] Seweryn Korzelinski, op cit., p.55-6.
[7] Edward Ridpath, Journal of Edward Ridpath, and transcription of letters to his father, possibly in his own hand, 1850-53, MS 8759 State Library of Victoria, Box 1012/4. Also includes his gold license from 3 August 1853, signed by commissioner Hood. (Hood arrived between the 22 and 26 February 1853, [see Argus 1 March]). Second volume of two, p.49.
[8] Thomas Woolner, op cit., p.18.
[9] William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, or Two Years in Victoria, 1855, opening paragraph of Chapter V.
[10] Ridpath, op. cit., p.28
[11] Gordon Tucker, Journal, 1853 Apr. 12-1857 June 6. Manuscript 10649, State Library of Victoria. This entry: Sunday, 12 February, 1854.
[12] Edward Ridpath, op cit. p.48.

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