The Commissioner’s Camp and its Discontents


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The site of Beechworth’s police station and old gaol has an earlier history as the site of the Commissioner’s Camp: the administrative hub from which representatives of the government attempted to enforce the rule of law on the gold diggings — not always with the greatest success.  

As I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve carefully skirted around one fundamental daily aspect of the Spring Creek and Reid’s Creek diggings: its administration by the colonial government. This is because the relationship between the miners and their administrative overlords was complex in ways that, I would argue, haven’t been properly accounted for by any historian to date (at least in the case of Beechworth), but which we know resulted in political agitations that contributed to the common man being granted the right to vote in the colony of Victoria by 1856. However, in mid-November 1852, when the Camp itself was being set up, its occupants had no way of knowing the role they would play in future events.

The Commissioner's Camp, Spring Creek diggings, May Day Hills,

The Commissioner’s Camp, Spring Creek diggings, May Day Hills, drawn by Edward La Trobe Bateman, December 1852.

For the purposes of this blog post, it is enough just to explain the Commissioner’s Camp itself: what it was, who was there, and what they thought they were up to; and to look at some of their immediate troubles.

First, some background

When the Victorian gold rushes first hit, the colony of Victoria had been only freshly carved-out from New South Wales. Its newly appointed Lieutenant-Governor Charles Joseph La Trobe and his inexperienced government were in complete shock when they suddenly found their quiet and remote colony invaded by thousands of gold seekers from across the globe. Nevertheless, they swiftly developed a system for administering the various goldfields, which was fashioned after the existing administration of the pastoral districts. This administrative system enabled the government to police the various diggings; provide and oversee official armed escorts for gold to Melbourne; provide an official means of registering and settling disputes over mining claims; and to tax the miners through a licensing system (the fee being initially set at 30 shillings per month, later reduced to £1 per month).

The miner’s license was extremely unpopular among the gold seekers. It was a regressive tax in the sense that it had to be paid before mining commenced, and therefore bore no relation to the ability of a miner to pay. Moreover, the tax was imposed on men who, generally lacking in property rights, had no corresponding right to vote under the existing political system. The miners expected, at the very least, to see their licensing fees fund amenities and services for the diggings, but for largely internal political reasons, the government was noticeably slow to fulfil these obligations. And finally, the antagonism over the licensing system was further exacerbated by the fact that it was often enforced by inexperienced, incompetent, sometimes heavy-handed and not infrequently corrupt officials and police; their activities summarised by digger Edward Ridpath:

‘the injustice of this impost [i.e.: the license fee] is great enough but the manner of its enforcement is even more so, at Bendigo men have been shot when running away form the police, others have been chained to logs, in cases where diggers have left their licenses at home they have not been allowed to go and fetch them, but at once marched off to the Commissioners and fined 5 pounds for not having them on their persons, for this service Government employs a body of men called the gold foot Cadets, a kind of nondescript policemen, they are principally young men of overbearing dispositions’ [1]

S. T. Gill, Licensing Tent

Licensing tent, Collection of lithographs and sketches, 1853-1874 by Samuel Thomas Gill, State Library Victoria. (Depicting a scene at Ballarat or Bendigo).

The Commissioner’s Camp, Ovens diggings — Who and what was there?

As soon as it became apparent that the Ovens diggings would be a goldfields of some significance, the government followed the procedure already developed to administer earlier-established diggings such as those at Ballarat and Bendigo, which was to establish an official encampment there. Organisation of this camp commenced with official appointments beginning in mid-October 1852. One of the earliest appointments was the man who would be Commissioner, James Maxwell Clow (1820-1894). Clow was charged with raising his own police force for the camp, and as the son of a Scottish Presbyterian Minister he seems to have selected a disproportionate number of Scotsmen for the task. [2] The Camp would be headed by a Resident Commissioner in the form of Henry Wilson Hutchinson Smythe (1815-1854), who left his base in Benalla (where he had already served as Commissioner of Crown Lands for the Murray district for close to a decade), especially to take up this new role. Known as ‘Long Smythe,’ (he was a commanding 198 centimetres tall), Smythe had started in the government service as a surveyor and cartographer, and though still in his mid-30s, he was a man of considerable experience. Worth pointing out is that technically, a ‘Commission’ was a royal appointment, so in a symbolic way, the Commissioners embodied sovereign power.

In terms of personnel, the earliest official appointments for the Commissioner’s Camp  — appointments which continued through late October and into early November 1852 — were, in addition to the Resident Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner, their Clerk (J. LaTrobe); an Assistant Colonial Surgeon and Coroner (Dr Henry Greene); Police Magistrate (George Mitchell Harper) and his Clerk of the Bench (William Alexander Abbott); as well as Store-keeper (W. H. Agg). [3] There were also Mounted Police and Foot Police (also known as ‘Cadets’), headed by Lieutenant Templeton and Mr Mackay (rank of ‘Subaltern’) respectively. [4]

Resident Commissioner Smythe arrived on site on the Friday 19 November, 1852, where he found the camp in the process of being ‘judiciously pitched’. [5] Much of this was owed to the efforts of Assistant Commissioner Clow (who previously had been an Assistant Commissioner of Crown Lands, and Assistant Gold Commissioner at Bendigo Creek [6]) and his newly appointed tent-keeper William Murdoch. It seems that Clow had arrived practically in advance of almost every other official, as a letter in the Argus dated 1 November, reported,

Our Commissioner, J. M. Clow, Esq., has arrived without any force that I have yet heard of; but it matters little, they are not, or rather have not been required in our community; a more quiet, orderly, set of diggers are not to be found assembled in Australia. [7]

Having been appointed in mid-October [8], Clow had made some arrangements for the Camp in Melbourne [9]. His tent keeper and personal attendant, William Murdoch, arrived at Spring Creek on Monday 15 November, and immediately erected a large tent for the store. Murdoch then spent the whole of Tuesday pitching tents, setting the Commissioner’s tent to rights the following day, and witnessing ‘Most of the men employed in putting up tents’ on Thursday before Smythe’s arrival on Friday. [10]

The Camp itself was situated on a slight rise above Spring Creek (‘a rising hill covered with flowering shrubs and stringy bark trees’ [10b]) facing onto a track (possibly of indigenous making, and almost certainly used by David Reid’s shepherds, as a shepherd’s hut was located nearby [11]), that would become modern-day High Street. The encampment spanned roughly the frontage from where the current police station is sited, across Williams Street to the frontage of the old Beechworth Gaol. [12] The location in official correspondence was ‘May Day Hills’: the name given to the area by Governor LaTrobe, who had visited the infant diggings on May Day earlier that year. [13]

Author William Howitt described the established May Day Hills Camp when he visited about a month later:

The tents of the Commissioners stood in a row, on a rising ground on the other side of the creek, with a number of other tents for servants and officials behind them. The whole was enclosed with post and rails, and sentinels were on duty as in a military camp. The Commissioners’ tents, lined with blue cloth, and of a capacious size, looked comfortable and, to a degree, imposing. Mr. Smythe, Commissioner of Crown Lands for this district, as well as a gold commissioner, and Mr. Lieutenant Templeton of the mounted police, received us most cordially… They had a good packet of letters for us, which we soon returned to our tent to read. [14]

Other tents erected in the Camp included a Mess tent (where Protestant religious services were also held), and two Hospital Tents (the only tents besides the Commissioners’ tents which were lined). [15] By early December, there was also a flagstaff,  where, as Murdoch recorded in his diary, the men ‘got the Union Jack hoisted on the camp which here waved for the first time and I warrant as gaily as ever” on the land of the brave and the free”.’ [16]

Diggers and Commissioners, Order and Disorder 

It had been already noted (in the popular press at least) that prior to the arrival of the Commissioners and their police on the Ovens diggings, ‘a more quiet, orderly, set of diggers [were]… not to be found assembled in Australia’. As historian David Goodman leads us to understand, this proclamation of a naturally high degree of ‘order’ on the diggings was not mentioned casually, but rather, the idea of ‘how order could be maintained in a society in which all were rushing, madly, after their own fortunes,’ was one of the major cultural themes of the gold rush era (in both California and Victoria). Funnily enough, this frequently included the assertion that ones’ own countrymen possessed an innate instinct for creating an ordered society when compared to the other: Victorians perceived respect for British law and institutions, and deference to existing social and political hierarchies, as constituting ‘order’, in preference to the Californian tendency towards independent self-organisation and self-governance, which in turn Californians perceived as a more worthy form of ‘order’. [17] Whatever the case, when the Commissioners and their police finally arrived on Ovens diggings in November 1852, their presence would test the supposed natural order of these diggings.

Having arrived on Friday, by Saturday 20 November 1852, Smythe was writing his first report to the Colonial Secretary (which he would be called upon to do weekly, along with submitting license returns for the same period). Clearly he had been asked to decide upon arrival which buildings should be erected before winter, and he judged that only a ‘lock-up’ or ‘watch house’ was required, along with stables for about 30 horses. Smythe added that Clow estimated the population of diggers to be 1500, adding, ‘The diggers are spreading more over this Country, and a very rich spot has been opened up about one mile above the original Diggings [i.e.: possibly Madman’s Gully or Beeson’s Flat]; which His Excellency visited on the 1st May last and about four miles below the present Diggings [i.e.: Reid’s Creek].’ [18]

Smythe’s first report on that Saturday 20 November also revealed that internally, the administration of the Camp itself was not yet in order: The Police Magistrate had arrived on Wednesday, but in the absence of official paperwork, couldn’t be sworn in; the Doctor had arrived on Friday (the same day as Smythe), but as the medicines he had applied for had not yet arrived from Melbourne, he couldn’t begin to treat anyone. Mackay had also arrived, stating that he was to be Superintendent of the Foot Police, but there was no paperwork to back his claim. (Only upon further investigation by Smythe was he found to hold the lesser post of Subaltern). [19]

However, despite the internal disarray, Smythe was initially satisfied with the external order of the diggings. ‘I am happy to state,’ he wrote, ‘that good order prevails tho’ a number of bad characters are reported recognised as having been known at Bendigo.’ [20]

It all seemed promising enough. However, it only took until Monday (22 November), a mere three days after his arrival, that Smythe’s satisfaction switched to misgivings about the capacity of the Camp to enforce the rule of law. To the Colonial Secretary, he now wrote:

I find the police force at present stationed here quite inadequate for protection of life respectively in the want of their being called upon to act. Men in abundance could be hired here, in fact I am endeavouring to procure some – but they will be of little use with out arms, accoutrements and some sort of uniforms, however simple — The latter should at the same time be of the best quality – under these circumstances I beg to recommend that twenty men should be hired armed, clothed and accoutred in Melbourne and forwarded up on the command of a Sergeant. – These with the nine present on the ground and the additional Gold Police which I understand are on the road will for the present be sufficient. [21]

So what had happened that Monday after Smythe’s arrival to so rapidly change his opinion of the ‘orderliness’ of the diggings? The Reid’s Creek diggings had opened up earlier in the preceding week, so in purely geographical terms, the administrative problem had doubled almost overnight: just as one camp was being established at Spring Creek, a second camp was urgently needed four miles away at Reid’s Creek. [22] More importantly, the population of the diggings was growing at a rate of about hundred and twenty-five new diggers each day. [23] And now that the Commissioner’s camp was operational, the gold cadets had begun patrolling for licenses and had proved diligent in their efforts: the same Monday as Smythe sat down to compose his letter to request more police, ‘Twenty one diggers [had been] fined for want of licence[,] some paying others not. Perhaps for want of money but ultimately paying a £3 fine and taking a licence.’ [24] As many of the newly-arrived miners had slender financial means, the newly-arrived police force, with their increased license patrols, would have been a source of great discontent on the diggings. When Smythe wrote, I find the police force at present stationed here quite inadequate for protection of life, he meant protection of his own life, and the life of anyone attempting to collect license fees from angry and well-armed miners.

The level of discontent quickly came to a head. 12 more diggers were fined the very next day, two of whom were kept in custody, [25] and although we cannot say for certain under what conditions these miners were held, it was rumoured that they were chained to a tree. [26] This constituted too much of an affront to the miners who on Wednesday evening, held meeting attended by ‘nearly 800 diggers’, at which they discussed how to respond to their ill-treatment at the hands of the Commissioners and their police. [27] A reporter, writing for the Argus newspaper from the Royal Hotel in Albury, described the meeting:

The organ of this heterogeneos assembly was either a Yankee importation from California, or an Anglo-Australian, who had visited that part of the world. He recommended, in no measured language, the protection of all persons sought to be taken into custody by the police for an infraction of the law, and the repelling, if necessary, of force by force. [28]

In describing the meeting, the journalist clearly flagged the Californian influence on the diggings, which in the Australian popular press was equated with violence, gun-play and Republicanism. Simultaneously, the author acknowledged that the constituents of the diggings were heterogeneous — that is to say, diverse — presumably not only in their backgrounds but also in this context, political leanings. (However, rather than use the English word, the writer employed the Spanish word heterogeneos, just to further call the Californian influence into view.). [29] While the article was disparaging of Californian attitudes towards challenging authority — attitudes which had little respect for the law or established institutions — neither did this mean that its author sided with the Commissioners. They sided with the heterogeneos — that diverse and politically unrepresented group, the diggers.

The miner’s meeting would set the scene for the events of the following day (which I have recounted in the recently revised post Diggers Rise Up), which would be the first instance of civil unrest on the Ovens diggings, and which in turn helped forge new political expressions that were fundamental to the growth of Australian democracy — a subject matter which will have to be unravelled in future posts.

To read the basic facts of what happened the next day, try reading Diggers Rise Up, a precursor to the Eureka Stockade.


[1] 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], p.37

[2] 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. That Clow raised his own police force (18 October, 1852: ‘he was obliged to raise his own men – that is mounted police and foot’), and that there were a lot of Scotch men appointed (15 November 1852).

[3] Appointment listed in: 1853 Victoria, Gold Fields: Return to Address, Mr Fawkner — 10th Dec 1852, Laid upon the Council Table by the Colonial Secretary, by command of his Excellency Lieutenant Governor… printed 27 Sept 1853, Victorian Parliamentary paper; and reported in Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer, Sat 6 Nov, 1852, p.2 (drawn from The Government Gazette of Thursday (ie: 4th November 1852).

[4] These appointments are obvious from numerous correspondences and reportages.

[5] Public Records Office Victoria, Series VPRS 1189, Consignment P0000, Unit 83, document 52/8477.

[6] Goldfields: Return to Address, December 1852, op. cit.

[7] The Argus, 4 December 1852, p.5, from a letter dated 1 December, 1852.

[8] Goldfields: Return to Address, December 1852, op. cit.

[9] William Murdoch, op. cit., reports seeing Clow in Melbourne on the 23 October.

[10] William Murdoch, ibid., 18 November, 1852. [10b] William Murdoch, ibid., 15 November, 1852.

[11] David Reid, Reminiscences of David Reid : as given to J.C.H. Ogier (in Nov. 1905), who has set them down in the third person, 1906, p.54.

[12] Plan of the township of Beechworth, May Day Hills, Surveyor General’s Office, Melbourne, July 23rd 1855. (Map, held in State Library of Victoria).

[13] Smythe mentions La Trobe’s visit on May Day in official correspondence (Public Records Office Victoria Series VPRS 1189, Consignment P0000 Unit 83, 52/8477), and it is also reported in The Argus, Saturday, 8 May, 1852, p.4.

[14] William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, Kilmore, Lowden, 1972, p.93-4 (contained in a letter from the Ovens Diggings, Spring Creek, Dec. 25th 1852).

[15] Letter to the Chief Commissioner of Police, Melbourne, from Inspector Price, Acting Inspector of Police in charge Ovens district, Head Quarters Ovens Police Camp, May Day Hills, 8 April 1853. This is contained in: Beechworth District (May Day Hill) 1853 & 1856, Inward Registered Correspondence, Series VPRS Series 00937/P0000 000028, Public Records Office, Victoria. (Apologies for the lack of precise document number to identify this letter in what is otherwise a very big box of letters.)

[16] William Murdoch, op. cit., 3 December 1852.

[17] David Goodman, Gold Seeking — Victoria and California in the 1850s, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1994, pp.64-65.

[18] Public Records Office Victoria, Series VPRS 1189, Consignment P0000, Unit 83, document 52/8477.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Public Records Office Victoria, Series VPRS 1189 Consignment P0000, Unit 83, document 52/82175.

[22] To give an idea of how fast the diggings were expanding, Edward Ridpath, who arrived on the Spring Creek diggings on 4 November 1852, said of the diggings at Spring Creek, ‘I must confess to be being much surprised at their general appearance on my arrival, that their operations were confined to a spot of ground about one mile in length, and about a hundred yards in breadth’. (Ridpath, op cit., p.8-9).

Within ten days, another digger, Ned Peters (A Gold Digger’s Diary, typed manuscript of his diary, edited by Les Blake, MS 11211, State Library of Victoria, p.26.) recorded in his diary that when he arrived on the Ovens diggings, Reid’s Creek had opened-up only the day before. He’d departed for the Ovens diggings from Bendigo on 1 November 1852, and says he took ‘a fortnight on the road’ to reach the Ovens diggings, which puts his arrival around Sunday 14 or Monday 15 November. This meant that the focus of the diggings began to shift to Reid’s Creek within the exact week as the establishment of the Commissioner’s Camp at Spring Creek. Such was the force of the shift that the party of Thomas Woolner (Diary of Thomas Woolner, National Library of Australia, MS 2939, 25 November, 1852), another gold-seeker, who arrived at the diggings the same day as Smythe (Friday 19 November 1852), went straight to Reid’s Creek rather than stop for the night at Spring Creek.

[23] By 10 December, a mere 21 days after Smythe had arrived, the population of Spring and Reid’s Creeks had grown from 1500 to 4000; 2500 were at Reid’s Creek, four miles from the Commissioner’s Camp. While Clow estimated 1500 people between the two diggings in mid-November, by the first week of December it had swelled to 1500 persons on on Spring Creek (which by then was being referred to as ‘the old diggings’), and a further 2500 at Reid’s Creek. (population figures contained in The Argus, ‘Scraps from the Ovens,’ Friday 10 December, 1852.)

[24] William Murdoch, op cit., 22 November 1852.

[25] William Murdoch, ibid., 24-25 November, 1852.

[26] Edward Ridpath alludes to police chaining people to trees (as cited earlier in this piece, op. cit., p.37), and this is backed up by a ‘rumour’ in The Argus, ‘Disturbances at the Diggings’, 1 December 1852, p.4.

[27] The Argus, ‘The Ovens Diggings. (From our special commissioner.) Royal Hotel, Albury, Nov. 28th,’ 3 December, 1852, p.4.

[28] ibid.

[29] ibid.


Bad ale and even worse water? Drinking during the gold rush.


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By now, dear readers, you would all know how I like to question historical myths and anecdotes. In this post, I’m going to take issue with two: the first being that ‘in the olden days’ people drank alcohol instead of water to avoid getting sick; and the second, that colonial beer was bad because it was watered down.


Image: Hongreddotbrewhouse, via wikimedia commons.

Did people stick to drinking alcohol as a ‘safe’ alternative to drinking dirty water? And what else did they drink?

One of the most persistent ideas I’ve heard that grates on me as a historian is that people ‘in the olden days’ only drank alcohol, because it was safer than drinking water; or at least they were encouraged to do so. This idea is framed as conventional wisdom, but take a moment to think about it: this would have meant that almost everyone was constantly either drunk or tipsy (even children!); and quite clearly, they weren’t. Alcohol is also a diuretic, which means that it isn’t especially thirst quenching. Anyone who’s spent even a night drinking alcohol and nothing else with tell you about ‘the dry horrors’ the next day. For purely practical reasons, people couldn’t have drunk alcohol continuously.

So what else is wrong with the supposition that everyone drank alcohol instead of water? To begin with, prior to the 1880s, people had no idea that disease was transmitted by microbes and that these microbes could be water-borne. However, people did make a correlation between a lower incidence of illness and the availability of clear running water. William Murdoch, the attendant and tent-keeper to Assistant Commissioner Clow, said as much at the Spring Creek Commissioner’s camp on 20 November, 1852:

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. Flesh must be eaten two hours after butchering or else it is crawling with large maggots. As soon as the fly blows them they seem to live and grow almost as you eat a meal — the piece will be alive before you stop eating. [1]

However, from this statement, you also can see his confusion: Murdoch was happy to be drinking the water from Spring Creek because it looked clear (even though it was almost undoubtedly polluted with the excrement of the gold diggers), and he attributed the illness on the diggings to another cause entirely: the maggoty meat.

When an outbreak of an unknown illness, dubbed ‘low’ or ‘colonial fever,’ killed numerous people on the Buckland diggings in the summer of 1853-4, William Howitt attributed the disease to bad flour and bad air, rather than the falling water levels in the heavily polluted Buckland River.

29th January 1854

Partly, I suspect, from the bad flour sent thither, but still more from causes connected with the situation, there is a great deal of sickness here. Though the diggings are but of a few weeks old, there is a considerable burying ground already, where you see numbers of fresh graves surrounded by a rude paling, and on the post at each corner placed a square of turf, the digger’s monument!

These deep valleys, inclosed between steep, wooded mountains, are intensely hot, and rarely traversed by any wind. There are vast jungles here and there where the valleys opens out into flats, and everywhere the soil is of a light porous quality, which absorbs the rain like a sponge, and in the heat exhales malaria. You may smell the dry-rot of decaying roots of trees as you walk over the surface. A species of low fever prevails, and has attacked, more or less, almost every tent. [2]

Despite the tendency to blame bad food and bad air for illness on the diggings, let’s assume for a moment that people did actually blame dirty water, and therefore sought substitutes for clean water when none was available. Clearly the substitute wasn’t solely alcohol. Instead, it seems that the most common drink on gold diggings was in fact tea.

While staying at Bontharambo (near Wangaratta), in 1854, Mary Spencer observed that ‘far less wine appears to be taken by the gentlemen in Australia than in England. Tea is the chief beverage. I have never seen such tea drinkers.’ [3] Spencer may or may not have been referring specifically to upper classes when she referred to ‘gentlemen’, however, there is little to indicate that the entire digging population weren’t hardened tea drinkers. Tea could disguise the taste of dirty water, and although the health benefits of boiling the water were not clearly understood, putting the camp kettle or billy on was a ritual for virtually every gold digger. (As an aside, on the basis of advertisements from The Argus, it would seem that the tea on the goldfields in 1852-3 was mainly Chinese in origin, and that people drank both black and green teas.)

However, it still doesn’t appear that people actually avoided unboiled water: Edward Ridpath, a digger who was an early arrival on the Spring and Reid’s Creek diggings, reported that ‘during the summer refreshment tents were numerous over the diggings, where ginger beer, lemonade, raspberry vinegar, and spruce beer were sold.’ [4] While the spruce beer and ginger beer were brewed, and therefore boiled; the syrup-based drinks probably used unboiled water.

I don’t doubt that a lot of hard-drinking was done on the diggings during the gold rush. A browse of the newspaper advertisements of the period will tell you that anyone with access to the Melbourne markets could buy brandy, Scottish whiskey, Jamaican rum, gin (and the Dutch gin-like spirit genever), wine (French: Médoc claret [i.e.: Bordeaux], Margaux [i.e.: cabernet sauvignon], Sauternes and Champagne), Portuguese sherry, bottled beer, stout, porter and cider. However, no matter how much alcohol was consumed, there is no evidence that people did so for reasons of health. Everyone also drank a lot of tea, and yet there is still also no evidence that people did so to prevent illness. And in any case, virtually everyone on the diggings still experienced some form of water-borne illness.


Eugene von Guerard, the inside of a digger’s tent in 1853. The kettle, ready for making tea, is a stand-alone item.

Bad Ale at the Honeysuckle Inn

Almost everyone coming from Melbourne to the Ovens diggings during late 1852 and throughout 1853, stopped at certain pubs along the way. One of the most remarked upon was the Honeysuckle Inn, at what became Violet Town. The thing that has always intrigued me about the Honeysuckle Inn during the gold rush is the comments about the beer being awful. Here’s what Thomas Woolner had to say in November 1852: ‘We camped today at Honeysuckle Creek: there is a large tavern where enormous prices are charged, 1/6 for a glass of bad ale, 3/6lb for common cheese.’ [1] And here’s what William Howitt (who was travelling with his son 22-year-old son Alfred and his friends), had to say in December: ‘We found everything now monstrously dear on the roads, the nearer we got to the diggings. My youngsters, at an inn called The Honeysuckle, would insist on my having a pint of beer. It was 3s., and most disgustingly vapid…’ [2]

It’s easy to explain the complaints about the expense. We can get a sense of the cost firstly by the fact that it was one shilling and sixpence in November, and then by December — by which time thousands of gold seekers were heading up the Sydney Road — a whole three shillings (i.e.: double the price). Secondly, we can compare these prices to a pot of ‘Billson’s Best Ale’, which was being made in Beechworth and was available on draught at local pubs for sixpence (half a shilling), fifteen years later. [3]

Aside from the cost, for years it’s intrigued me as to how and why was the beer so ‘disgusting’ as to be remarked upon. But how does a historian manage to work out why the beer tasted ‘vapid’ (i.e.: bland), more than 150 years after that beer was drunk? The common assumption is that the beer was watered down. However, other more meaningful answers to this question came to me late last week, while I was working on the history of Billson’s Brewery in Beechworth (which started as Billson’s Ovens Brewery in 1867, was renamed Murray Breweries in 1914 [4], and has recently been switched back to ‘Billson’s’ by new owner Nathan Cowan). Working on the history of Billson’s compelled me to think deeply about beer.

The key constituents of good beer — other than water — are yeast, malted Barley grains and hops. At the time of the Victorian gold rushes, most malt and hops were imported. In Britain, malt had been subject to a tax, which was major source of public revenue in the 18th century — a tax which was still in effect by the time of the gold rushes (the tax wasn’t repealed until 1880) [5]. In Australia, the expense of imported malt, to which freight and tax had been already added, drove many brewers to replace it in the ferment either in part or sometimes wholly with sugar (which, incidentally, came from the cane plantations of Mauritius). Moreover, beer brewed with sugar had the advantage of turning ‘bright’ in only a few days, as opposed to malted brews, which required far longer periods of maturation. And beers which had to be matured over a period of weeks or months, had to be stored in cellars — which, at the time, were also in relatively short supply.

The use of sugar in the brew is probably one factor that made the beer seem ‘vapid’ to many British gold seekers, who were used to beers brewed only with malt. In Britain, it had been illegal to make beer with sugar in the ferment until 1847 [6]; so even by 1852, British tastes probably still ran to traditional pure malt beers: hence William Howitt’s and Thomas Woolner’s distaste for the colonial brew.

The other factor that might have made the beer taste disgusting was that it might have gone bad in the heat. In the days before refrigeration, beer-brewed in the warmer months often deteriorated, and for this reason, some brewers only brewed over winter [7]. This certainly seems to have been the case for many decades at Billson’s Brewery in Beechworth, which advertised the release of its beers in September and October, also making capital of Beechworth’s cooler climate, and their cool cellars. [8] Conversely, the ale at the Honeysuckle Inn may well have been brewed cheaply and hastily with sugar to cater to the sudden influx of gold seekers, and then had been exposed to hot temperatures when Howitt and Woolner drank it in the summer of late 1852. It might also have been contaminated with microorganisms like Lactobacilli.

So what of the legacy of colonial ‘sugar beers’? Despite various moves in the industry throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to end its use, the propensity of Australian brewers to use sugar in their ferments has remained. Beechworth’s Alfred Billson was one of the purists, who wanted to ‘compel brewers to use only malt and hops in the manufacture of beer.’ However, these visions of enforcing beer purity laws never came to fruition, and even Billson had to admit, the public had grown used to its sugar beers, and now preferred the taste. [9] We still brew plenty of beer in Australia using sugar today.

As for the Honeysuckle Inn, it is now owned by my dear friends, Annette Walton and Andy Guerin, who have opened an art gallery in its front room. They assure me that they still serve ‘bad ale’ and ‘common cheese’.


Did people stick to drinking alcohol as a safe alternative to drinking dirty water?

[1] 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.
[2] William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, or Two Years in Victoria, Volumes 1 & 2, Sydney University Press, 1972 [first edn: Longman, Brown, Green and Longman, London, 1855]; Volume 2, pp.153-4.
[3] Mary Spencer, Aunt Spencer’s Diary (1854): A Visit to Bontharambo and the North-east Victorian Goldfields, Neptune Press, Newtown, 1981, p.46.
[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, p.32.

Bad Ale at the Honeysuckle Inn

[1] Thomas Woolner, Diary of Thomas Woolner,  National Library of Australia, MS 2939, 12 November 1852.
[2] William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, or Two Years in Victoria, Volumes 1 & 2, Lowden Publishing Company, Kilmore, 1972 [first edn: Longman, Brown, Green and Longman, London, 1855]; Volume 1, p.81.
[3] Numerous advertisements in the Ovens and Murray Advertiser for the Temple Bar (e.g.: 28 November, 1867) in Ford Street show this price. The beer was being made by Billson’s Ovens Brewery in Loch Street.
[4] Confirmed by the Minutes of the Board of Directors of Murray Breweries, still held at the brewery in Last Street, Beechworth, today; and reported in Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 21 November 1914, p.2.
[5] Raymond A. Anderson, ‘The History of The Maltsters Association of Great Britain.’
[6] Dr Brett J. Stubbs, ‘Brewing with Sugar’ Brew News, September 5, 2011; Keith Farrer, To Feed a Nation, CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Victoria, 2005, p.86.
[7] ibid.
[8] An example would be an article from the Ovens and Murray Advertiser, Saturday, 2 June 1900, p.12, which states: ‘The specialty [of the brewery]… is the high-class character of the bottled ale turned out under the well-known brand, “Anglo-Australian Ale.” This high-class bottled ale is brewed only during the cold months of the year, and is made from a special malt suited to the production of such an article. … the demand for this ale exists all over the colony, and is even sent into the heart of New South Wales, …. the climate and water supply [of Beechworth are suited] for the brewing of high-class ale…’
[9] Corowa Free Press, 16 July 1901, p.3; Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 19 July, 1901, p.31.



What did the gold miners eat? (A quick follow-up).


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In an earlier post, What did the gold miners eat? (Part 1. Bush food in Beechworth), I mentioned that one of the wild foods of the area was the Pink-flowered Native Raspberry (aka Small Leaf Bramble) (Rubus parvifolius). I have it on authority that native raspberry still occurs in bush areas around north-east Victoria, including the Chiltern-Mount Pilot National Park — although it is probably often sprayed with herbicide, because it resembles the imported blackberry. Until this weekend, I hadn’t seen it growing anywhere, let alone tasted the berries.


Ripe native raspberries (Rubus parvifolius). Note that the leaf is much finer than the imported blackberry.

However, I’ve just returned from a weekend away in a remote hut on the Big River at Glen Wills, where I was finally able to taste ripe native raspberries, and I can report: Unlike the introduced raspberry, the berries are shiny, and quite bright red when ripe. They are smaller than the imported raspberries, but also sweeter, and with a more delicate flavour. As I was not in the Alpine National Park, I took some rootlings to cultivate at home in a tub.

A gold digger’s guide to attire from top to bottom

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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


[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.







In search of a lost landscape


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Have you ever heard of Beechworth’s ‘Emerald Casacades’? No? Neither had I. This week I went search of a once much-loved beauty-spot that has since ‘disappeared’, and speculated on its indigenous associations.


Remnant grassland on the Beechworth golf links, Balaclava Road. These grasslands were once home to numerous wildflowers, including tiger and golden moth orchids, as well as bulbine and chocolate lilies.

WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this blog post includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress, particularly to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In my last post, Were Aboriginal people in Beechworth in the 1850s?, I drew upon a newspaper account of a clan of about 25 Aboriginal people who came to visit Beechworth in 1859. [1] Just after I published this post, a helpful reader alerted me to a second account of the same group of people visiting the year before. This news report from 1858 describes nightly corroborees, which the group performed not for White onlookers, but purely for themselves [2]. Both visits to Beechworth seem to have come at the end of Summer/early Autumn, and the group is said to have camped near the racecourse — which, by this time, had moved from Pennyweight Flat to what would become known as ‘Baarmutha Park’. There is also a strong suggestion that a camp at Beechworth was a part of the annual cycle of moving through country: ‘They pay periodical visits to every part of their district, always reaching Beechworth about the time when the races come off’. [3]


A painting by local Aboriginal artist Tommy Mcrae (late 19th century). The men have painted bodies and boughs tied to their legs, just as the Aboriginal men did at their corroborees in Beechworth in the 1850s. [Photo credit: State Library of NSW]

In the 1858 article, the journalist implies (quite clearly as a derogatory device) that these Aboriginal people camped near the racecourse because of the proximity to the horse racing, which translated to White people plying them with ‘firewater’. However, I had to ask myself whether the area near Baarmutha Park (now mostly taken up by the golf links) might have been a preferred campsite for these Aboriginal people well before the racecourse even existed.

If the remnant vegetation on the golf links is anything to go by, the Baarmutha Park area was once an area of open grassland filled with orchids, lilies and other wildflowers, and shaded by huge Brittle Gums (Eucalytus mannifera). The microclimate would have been more welcoming than the banks of Spring Creek, the depression of which attracts cold air. And yet I still had to ask myself, what, if anything else, made the Baarmutha Park area special?


Mature Brittle Gums on the edge of the Beechworth Golf Course, Balaclava Road.

Then, a few days ago, I came across a letter in the Ovens and Murray Advertiser from 1907, in which ‘A Lover of Beechworth’ expressed their dismay at the ‘wholesale destruction of ornamental trees which is going on in the immediate neighborhood of Beautiful Beechworth.’ The ornamental trees to which the writer was referring were mature native trees at several sites, which included ‘probably the most delightful spot in the neighborhood of Beechworth… what was called the Cemetery Creek, but which has been more appropriately styled the Emerald Cascades …’ [4]

As residents know, this charming locality is at the rear of Baarmutha Park, and consists of a wild glen. The well-worn path charmingly follows the parting stream of crystal water, which leaps from cascade to cascade for at least a mile, between cool-looking, moss-covered rocks. On a hot summer morning this glen was a most inviting scene for the painter, owing to the rare color effects that were produced in the natural objects from the bright sunshine, which with difficulty glanced through the clefts of the dense and beautifully disposed eucalyptus and pines, dappling the deep green moss and grey rocks with its glories. No one ever visited it who did not loudly praise its wonderful coolness or its delirious shade.

Was it this shady glen just behind Baarmutha Park that was the real added attraction of camping here? The letter-writer went on to explain that on a recent visit to the site, they had found that the trees, ‘which were the cause of all this charm, were all rung and fast dying! In a year they will be dead and falling, and nothing will be left but a bare, bold blazing mass of rocks.’ They complained that whoever had ringbarked the trees had no excuse — it was simply wanton damage.

I’d never heard of these ‘Emerald Cascades’, and so set set-off from Alma Road, to scope the creek-lines (fed by run-off from Red Hill), in behind Sorrenberg Vineyard and the ‘extra cross-country loop’ of the Beechworth Mountain Bike Park. Of these, the creek most likely once designated ‘Emerald Cascades’ is dotted with large rocks and boulders, and steps down into something of a ravine. Unfortunately, the creek-line has been invaded by a Pittosporum (a non-native to this area; some of enormous size), while the former ‘cascades’ are now buried beneath a sea of blackberries. The few ferns (two species of Blechnum, and a couple of Tree ferns) which survive, along with the occasional boulder that remains visible and mossy, provide the only suggestions as to the area’s former emerald-green beauty.

And what were the trees that the anonymous environmental vandal/s ringbarked all those years ago? There are still some mature Black Cypress Pine (Callitris endlicheri) along the creek, as well as numerous Red Stringybark (Eucalyptus macrorhyncha). There was also a young Kurrajong (Brachychiton populneus) on the creek, and closer to the golf links, remnant Broadleaf Peppermint (E. dives) — a species which may have also once grown closer to the creek. We can only guess at what ancient specimens are now missing from the site. Sadly, these days, it is a real stretch to imagine that this location was once considered one of the town’s best-loved natural attractions. However, even today, the site still retains quite a few Persoonia rigida (Hairy Geebung) and Exocarpos cupressiformis (Cherry Ballart or Native Cherry), which means that in season, it would have once been a good place to pick native fruits.

On a final note I am also drawn to ask whether it was the memory of the regular usage of the Baarmutha Park area by Aboriginal people that led to its naming. When official names were being discussed ahead of the Boxing Day Sports in 1880, the Ovens and Murray Advertiser wrote, ‘What better, prettier or more appropriate title could it have than that of Baarmutha Park? Beechworth itself did not originally retain its native name… Beechworth [as a name] has become endeared to us by many proud and tender associations, [but] scarcely anyone knows where the name comes from or who conferred it. The aboriginal word may, however, be perpetuated by attaching it to the public park…’ [5] It might be something to investigate further, but for now it may suffice to note that of all the places in Beechworth that could have been chosen to ‘perpetuate’ the original Aboriginal name for the area, ‘Baarmutha Park’ might just have the strongest indigenous associations.

If you have any thoughts or something to add, please comment.

[1] ‘Fashionable Arrivals’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, Wednesday, 23 February, 1859, p.2.
[2] ‘The Murray Natives’, The Age, Tuesday 13th April 1858, p.4.
[3] ‘Fashionable Arrivals’, 1859, op cit.
[4] ‘THE DESTRUCTION OF BEAUTIFUL BEECHWORTH.’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 23 November 1907, p.6. 
[5] ‘Beechworth Boxing Day Sports’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, Thursday, 16 December, 1880, p.2.


Were Aboriginal people in Beechworth in the 1850s? (Following a new lead)


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This time, it’s you, my dear readers, who have come up trumps. Cheers all round, especially for those who are furthering my efforts to answer that question of ‘Where were Aboriginal people during the Beechworth gold rush?’

WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this blog post includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress, particularly to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


A bark canoe sketched at Little River (Kiewa River, Tangambalanga) by Eugene von Guerard in 1862. (Source: Volume 12: Sketchbook XXXIII, No. 15 Australian. 1862 /​ by Eugene von Guerard. State Library of NSW). ‘King Billy of the Barwidgee tribe’ regularly camped on the Kiewa River at Tangambalanga.

Some months ago after reading my earlier post, Where were Aboriginal people during the gold rush? a reader named Richard (as it turns out, a good friend of good friends) mentioned that some years ago, someone in the Burke Museum showed him a reference in the Ovens and Murray Advertiser to an Aboriginal corroboree held at the races in Beechworth in the late 19th century. Richard suggested I follow it up. It’s taken me some time to get around to it, but I located the article to which he might have referred. And what a suggestion it has turned out to be — as until now I had difficulty placing Aboriginal people right in Beechworth around the time of the gold rush. Not any more.

The article seems to have been a news piece that follows in quick succession a report about the Wangaratta races in February, 1859, and I shall quote it in full:

‘Fashionable Arrivals — Beechworth has been, within the past day or two, honored with the presence of royalty, the representative of kingdoms in this case being no less a personage than King Billy, of the Barwidgee tribe. The king (we learn his rank from the brass plate suspended from his neck) is accompanied by about half a score of his sable countrymen, who, we presume, hold high offices in the executive of His Majesty of Barwidgee. A number of the gentler sex are also attached to the regal retinue, and the peculiarity of whose beauty has attracted the gaze, if not the admiration, of the good people of Beechworth, during the short period they have been sojourning in our midst. The party in the aggregate numbers nearly twenty, including an half cast of about twelve years of age, who we are informed as an indisputable fact has some of the blood of an ancient Scotch family in her veins, and whose familiar patronymic amongst her black companions is the Highland name of her putative father. The notorious Merryman appears to be Prime Minister of the tribe. This individual, it will be remembered, was one of the party of blacks concerned in the murder of Mr Faithful’s men some years ago, and only escaped well-merited retribution from the impossibility of directly connecting him with the crime. The boundaries of the territory, or run perhaps would be more correct, owned by this tribe, extends from the Ovens River to the lands beyond the Omeo, including the Mitta Mitta country, and all this side of the Murray for a great distance from the river. They pay periodical visits to every part of their district, always reaching Beechworth about the time when the races come off, and remain until the curiosity occasioned by their presence has subsided, and they instinctively find that their longer continuance is a nuisance. The number of the blacks in this neighborhood is getting small indeed, ere long, the sight of a member of any of the tribes who formerly hunted the kangaroo and the wallaby in grounds now covered by the habitations of civilized man, will be one of rare occurrence.’ [1]

We may well now cringe at the condescending tone of this article, and its once commonplace supposition that these Aboriginal people would simply ‘die out’, but it does offer some valuable insights. It astounds me that as late as 1859, this clan was still moving about their country — perhaps in something of a traditional manner (with ‘Little River’ [Tangambalanga] being another regular encampment) — despite two decades of European invasion. We can even tell that their arrival in Beechworth was seasonal, as it happened yearly, ‘about the time the races come off’, which seems to have been between late February and early April, if we use the Annual Beechworth Race Meeting as a guide. This is a period in which the seasons are in transition, and according to the late Bpangerang elder Eddie Kneebone, in which Aboriginal peoples made their way from the high country where they harvested bogong moths over Summer, down to the river flats in Autumn. [2]

Who were these people who identified Beechworth as a part of their country in 1859? Who were this clan who could count Merriman — famous for his involvement in the Faithfull Massacre some 21 years earlier — as a leader? One of my readers, Megan, has generously offered that she is descended from the clan involved in the Faithfull Massacre, and says ‘we are multi-clan: Waywurru and Dhudhuroa people. Lots of movement in the old days: from Corryong to Kiewa, Tarrawingee and Oxley up to Wodonga and Rutherglen.’ (*see my note).

Aborignal_breast plate_National_Museum_Australia

A brass breastplate similar to that which was worn by ‘King Billy of the Barwidgee tribe’ when he visited Beechworth in the 1850s. (Image: National Museum of Australia.)

By the mention of King Billy’s ‘brass plate’ (breastplate, which he can be seen wearing in his portrait c. 1869, now held in the National Library), it seems that King Billy was judged by non-Aboriginal administrators to be a ‘chief’ among his people, and yet it also marks him as a man who was most likely cooperative in some way with White people. This fact makes it all the more interesting that he was accompanied by his son Merriman — the warrior who years before was not only involved in the Faithfull Massacre (which destroyed the first attempt by Whites to settle on the Broken River at Benalla), but is also said to have been responsible for a retributive attack on squatter David Reid’s run ‘Currargarmonge’, and later, an attack which completely drove squatter Dr George Edward Mackay’s shepherds, hut keepers and stock off his run at Whorouly in May 1840 — figuratively and quite literally ‘lock, stock and barrel’. [3] At the time of these events, Merriman had been captured by the Border and Mounted Police not once, but twice — and escaped both times to return to his parents ‘King Billy Elengeist’ and ‘Queen Mary’ and family, who were camped at Little River [i.e.: Tangambalanga]. [4]

No doubt many residents of Beechworth took a good look at King Billy and his clan when they came to town each year. Squatter David Reid, who still lived in the district, knew of Merriman and all that he stood for: a warrior who had conducted a guerrilla attack on the Faithfull party’s shepherds in 1838; who’d fronted-up already wise to their ways, wearing European clothes and speaking English [5], and yet was determined to defend his people and lands against the violence and depredation wrought by these White newcomers. And so we might guess that even two decades after these events, many Beechworth residents knew something important about King Billy and his ‘Prime Minister’ Merriman. They may have tried to joke about it, but deep down they knew that there was much more to these ‘Fashionable Arrivals’.

Postscript: if anyone knows the whereabouts of King Billy’s breastplate, or has any more information about King Billy and his family, please share the information.

∗This is not to detract from the fact that an elder in the Bpangerang tribe, Freddie Dowling, has sent me many historic maps [and also included the N. B. Tindale map of 1974] which shows that Beechworth fell in the Bpangerang tribal area. I can only say with the greatest respect that it is not my place to reconcile the varying information.

[1] ‘Fashionable Arrivals,’ Ovens and Murray Advertiser, Wednesday, 23 February, 1859, p.2.

[2] Eddie Kneebone, ‘Interpreting Traditional Culture as Land Management,’ in Birkhead, J., DeLacy, T.’ and Smith, L.J (eds.) Aboriginal Involvement in Parks and Protected Areas, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1993, pp.227-235 [this reference, p.231].

[3] Reminiscences of David Reid : as given to J.C.H. Ogier (in Nov. 1905), who has set them down in the third person, manuscript, National Library of Australia, pp.32-33.
I am generally suspicious of this reference, as it was written when David Reid was of an advanced age, almost seventy years after the events he recounts. However, in this case I think Reid’s memory demonstrates that Merriman had a formidable reputation as a warrior.

[4] Bassett, Judith, ‘The Faithful Massacre at the Broken River,’ in  Journal of Australian Studies, Number 24, May, 1989, p.26. Bassett says that Merriman was the son of ‘King Billy Elengeist’ and ‘Queen Emily’.
Bassett says that Merriman escaped and returned to his family at Little River, Kiewa. Little River is the old name for the Kiewa River. The camp site seems to have been at Tangambalanga/Kiewa, as King Billy and his wife Emily are recorded as having regularly camped there in later years: ‘Grandfather (Joseph Coulston) came to Tangambalanga 61 years ago there was only one house on Tangam then and no fences or roads. Some black fellows, old King Billy and Queen Emily and a few more lived in a tent near where our church is now and when they went away they all carried swags on their backs and about a dozen dogs followed them’ Source: letter written by the mother of Nellie Barton (nee Coulston) in 1933, referring to the 1870s. Letter held by Nellie Barton; excerpt appearing in ‘Kiewa Valley Environmental History‘ slide show, put together by the Kiewa Catchment Landscape Group. Note that the letter specifies ‘when they went away’, meaning that they didn’t camp here permanently.

[5] Bassett, ibid — explains that Merriman was in European dress during the Faithfull Massacre, etc; and Ogier, op. cit., p.32. in which Reid is at pains to state that Merriman had lived with Whites before the Faithfull Massacre, and knew their ways: ‘This this blackfellow [Merriman] had been several years amongst the whites on the Hume River [i.e.: Murray] and therefore was to some extent a half civilised black the most dangerous, because from being brought up amongst white people he had the opportunity of judging as to their means of defence, and their customs were familiar to him. Hence he had the knowledge as to what would be the best means to attack them with the least danger and the greater certainty of success.’ This fact is corroborated (to an extent) by the information that Merriman ran a bark canoe across the river at Albury for Robert Brown, when he set up the first Inn there in 1836. (Dr Arthur Andrews, The History of Albury, 1824-1895, Albury and District Historical Society, Albury, 1988, p.5).

A gold rush swag

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?


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.


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]


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.


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.


[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

Exile on High Street

High Street in Beechworth has been a lot of things, but was it really ever Beechworth’s ‘main street’? 

I have a ‘thing’ about High Street. For one, I live on it. For another, it’s the most historically significant street in Beechworth, seconded only by Buckland Gap Road. Some joke it has a ‘Paris end’ and a ‘Bohemian end’. A lot of people will wax lyrical about it having been ‘Beechworth’s original main street’ — but for a nit-picking historian such as myself, this is a vast oversimplification.

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Survey of Beechworth, lithographed from the original 1853 map in 1855. (State Library Victoria)

High Street runs along the high side of Spring Creek, and it was the main thoroughfare for the gold diggings during the gold rush. I suspect that High Street was a originally a shepherd’s track, as there was a shepherd’s hut on the Creek at the time gold was first discovered there in the Autumn of 1852. [1] More over, that shepherd’s track might well have overlain a well-trodden indigenous track. It wasn’t unusual for roads that were created before formal surveys to follow ancient Aboriginal pathways; it’s well-known, for example, that major thoroughfares like George and Pitt Streets in Sydney follow the footpaths created by the First Australians. [2]

In any case, High Street was a track along the high bank of the creek which lead to the Commissioner’s Camp: a make-shift government administrative centre which was erected in late October 1852. At the time, it was not a street so much as an ill-defined path: ‘and so close were the [miners’] holes to each other,’ explained Mrs Campbell who arrived in mid-1853, ‘that there was hardly room for our cart to pass between them, obliging us to make a constantly zig-zag track.’ [3]


The Commissioner’s Camp at Beechworth, by Edward LaTrobe Bateman (drawn around late December 1852). The path that became High Street can be seen just in front of the tents. The vantage-point for this view is best imagined as being from the Creek between current day Tanswell and Billson Streets, looking north.

In January 1853, at the peak of the gold rush, The Argus reported that ‘The site of a new township has been decided on in this neighbourhood, it will occupy the space on the side of Spring Creek between the upper waterfall and the Commissioner’s Camp.’ [4] In March, a deputation of storekeepers (Messrs C. Williams, C. Haskell, A. Palmer, and R. Mellish), who were keen to erect ‘winter stores’ on marked allotments before the cold weather set in, were assured by Chief Commissioner Smythe that they could do so as soon as allotments were marked out, and that the value of their improvements when the land was sold would be secure. [5]

When the town was finally surveyed in June, High Street appeared as just an idea of a street modelled on the reality of the existing path that followed the Creek (see illustration above). The path divided up at the north-east end, to head north to the Reid’s Creek diggings (and Albury), and south to Stanley, with a four-way junction roughly where Junction Road is today (see illustration below). Of course, you can try taking this same path to Stanley today (by heading down Peach Drive), but these days you’d have to swim the first leg across Lake Sambell, where on the opposite bank you will find what is likely a continuation of the original track in the form of Lower Stanley Road.

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A section  of a map of Beechworth in 1856. There’s a bit of a mess of pathways splitting around where Junction Road runs across High Street into Peach Drive today.

In any case, from the outset, Ford Street was the street clearly laid out with allotments on both sides, and made wide enough for a horse and cart to make a ‘U-turn’. In comparison, High Street was left as a track and only had allotments on the northern side, with the creek-side left unsurveyed. It could be argued that of those first ten allotments on High Street, Williams, Palmer and Mellish bought one each, suggesting that they may have actually erected their first stores along High Street. If this was the case, they would have quickly found themselves in exile at what was essentially a grubby part pf town — overlooking a conglomerate of make-shift tents and the diggings themselves. Williams and Palmer had the foresight to hedge their bets by buying land in Ford Street, which presented a more formal aspect. So if ever High Street took precedence as a business district, it was an incredibly short-lived phenomena.

The Ovens Directory of 1857 [6] tells us that by this time, High Street had two pubs, two general merchants (of which Richard Mellish remained one), two wholesale wine and spirit merchants, a tinware shop, a blacksmith, butcher, bootmaker, surgeon, chemist, a solicitor (Henry Elmes), a restaurant, Catherine Hughes’ ‘refreshments’ (no, that is not a euphemism), and even something for the hipsters of yesteryear — local coffee roasters, which all makes it sound as if High Street could have been the main street…. until you compare it with Ford Street at the same time.

In 1857, Ford Street had at least twice as many pubs, nine general merchants, three restaurants, Ackley and Rochlitz: Daguerrean Artists (photographers), at least two drapers, five grocers, a butcher, bookseller and stationer, medical doctor, chemist, tobacconist, bootmaker, two watchmakers, three barbers, and assorted builders, saddliers, ironmongers, blacksmiths, a coach agent, tent maker, and three wholesale wine & spirit merchants! And if one needed any more proof that Ford Street was the big end of town, it was also the location of the Bank of Victoria and Bank NSW. [7]

I’d argue that Ford Street is and always has been the main street of Beechworth — the street designated as the centre of commerce, right from the moment that the town of Beechworth came into existence. By comparison, High Street is merely a path — but what a path! Not only does it pre-date the town of Beechworth, it may even pre-date European settlement. Either way, it is the only true landscape relic of the gold rush of 1852-3 that we have left; a path made by the people, for the people.


[1] David Reid, Reminiscences of David Reid : as given to J.C.H. Ogier (in Nov. 1905), who has set them down in the third person, 1906, p.54.
[2] The Aboriginal science behind Sydney’s nightmare traffic’,
[3] Mrs Campbell, Rough and smooth, or, Ho! for an Australian gold field, Hunter, Rose & Co., Quebec, 1865, [78]
[4] The Argus, 18 January 1853 [from a letter dated 1 January]
[5] The Argus, 22 March, 1853.
[6] The Ovens directory for the year 1857 : the constitution, and general gold fields acts of the colony : the local court rules for the Beechworth and Yachandandah districts : and a sketch of the Ovens gold fields, Printed and published by Warren and Company, Beechworth, 1857.
[7] ibid.



How to write a letter, gold rush style

It was the forerunner of the internet we have today: The postal network that started in Britain in 1840 with the issue of a uniform stamp known as the ‘Penny Black’ made communicating over great distances affordable for ordinary people. 

Although education was not yet compulsory or free in Britain, it seems that many of the gold seekers who came to the Victorian gold fields could read and write. As the letter was the only means of communication with anyone at a distance, the art of being able to write a good letter held considerable importance.

This rather long post concerns how a letter was created, written and posted in 1852. It is broken down into sections.

Step 1: Choose your paper

Anyone who was keen on writing or drawing would carry with them a portfolio or portefeuille (a leather wallet with writing paper); and some people even had a ‘laptop’ — the original ‘laptop’ being a laptop desk (otherwise known as a ‘writing slope’), which would contain ink wells, writing implements and stationary.


Interior view of antique wooden lap-top desk. The small compartments would have held pens, an inkwell, and other writing equipment, while a compartment under the desk top held paper.

The 1850s was a period in which paper production was only just switching from using pulped linen or cotton rags (which is long-lasting and highly stable), and ‘Manila’ type materials (hemp, jute, flax), to wood pulp. Paper was finally being machine-made, and as such was becoming more affordable.

There were two types of paper commonly available: the ribbed laid paper, which was made using a centuries-old process; which was being supplanted by the more uniform wove paper that came in ‘fine’ and ‘superfine’ grades. Vellum — a parchment made from calf skin — was also still readily available in the mid-1850s.

A lot of paper was Foolscap folio size (commonly contracted to ‘foolscap’ or ‘folio’) — roughly 8×13 inches. This was the traditional paper size used in Europe and the British Commonwealth before the adoption of the shorter A4 as the international standard. However, there was also writing paper and note paper of smaller sizes.

There was an etiquette surrounding the selection of paper: its quality had to be in keeping with the person, the age, the gender, and the circumstances of the correspondents. In particular, messages of mourning were written on paper with a black border, and the width of the border had to correspond somewhat to the nearness of the relationship and the recentness of the bereavement; hence you would see advertised: ‘Mourning envelopes, of the best cream laid and satin papers, of all widths of border’.

Step 2: Assemble your writing implements

The writing was commonly done using a dip pen with a steel nib (which had been mass produced since 1822), which was dipped into an ink well. (Quill pens [made from feathers], which had been in decline since the 1820s, were still available, although these had to be constantly sharpened with a quill knife [the process was known as ‘dressing’].) The ink was usually black, although dark brown and navy blue were also used. The writing was ‘running’ (cursive), because this style resulted in less ink blots. To prevent smudges, excess ink was blotted (soaked-up) using blotting paper — absorbent paper used to soak up excess ink, which only became common place in the 1840s or 1850s replacing a powder (which did the same job by way of scattering it on the writing and blowing it off), known as ‘pounce’.

Grey lead pencils were also in use, but seem not to have been used for formal correspondence. Erasers, made from natural ‘Indian rubber’, had only become commonplace in the mid-1840s. Pencil sharpeners were invented in 1847, and being such a new device were not yet commonplace in 1852.

Step 3: Fold writing paper into its own envelope

In the 1850s, envelopes were in use, particularly among the upper classes. However, many people simply folded their writing paper to make its own envelope.

One way to make the letter into its own envelope (note: these measurements are designed for a modern A4 sized sheet of paper):
1. Holding the page length-ways (ie: landscape), and fold the two side edges vertically inwards so that the two edges just touch each other. 
2. Fold the letter horizontally upwards about 7.5cm from the bottom of the page. 
3. Fold the top of the letter horizontally downwards about 3.5cm from the top of the page. 4. Flip over and address the letter on the front. Unfold the paper and write your letter. 
5. Refold, tucking the top fold into the bottom fold of the letter to form a self-made envelope measuring around 14.5cm by 9.5cm.
 5. Seal the join with wax (red, or black for mourning condolences) or a wafer.


Letter to Gold Fields Commissioner Smythe on the Spring Creek diggings, 1853. Note the wax seal and how the paper has been folded to make its own envelope.

Step 4: Write your letter

Letters were written in cursive script, often with the lines very close together to conserve paper. Sometimes, people also wrote crossways across the initial writing, but only in limited circumstances (see note below).

What to write about, and how to write it

If you want to write like a gold digger, don’t worry too much about punctuation, and misspell the occasional word. Do not ever say anything vulgar, and if you must refer to bodily functions, excreta, or sexual matters, these can be only alluded to in an oblique fashion.

Address — Start by writing the date and location (ie: the name of your town or diggings) — in the upper right hand corner.

The salutation — Letters usually started with ‘My dear such-and-such’ and used the person’s relationship (as in ‘My dear father’) or their surname (as in ‘My dear Brown’). First names were rarely used in a salutation; and only then, when the relationship was a close one. When using a first name, it was still often used often in conjunction with the addressee’s relationship to the addressor, e.g.: ‘My dear brother Joseph,’

Subject matter — In gold fields letters and journals, common underlying themes included:
Opposites — the sense that things in Australia were backwards, upturned or inverted (for example, the swans in Australia were black instead of white, and trees shed their bark instead of their leaves; Australia was a place where working class people became suddenly rich while rich people struggled for lack of servants);
Personal transformations — particularly in terms of personal appearance;
Descriptions of wildlife and scenery — the scenery was quite often described in Arcadian terms; describing Australia’s weird animals and dangerous snakes and insects was popular;
Descriptions of the goldfields, which by contrast with the scenery was described in quite dystopian terms (for example, as looking like ‘a graveyard where all the graves had been dug up’);
The trials and tribulations of travelling on the road by wagon, on horseback, or on foot; and finally,
How little gold you are winning (which was far more usual than talking about how well you are doing — although this was also a subject if it was indeed the case).

‘Selfies’ — If you had any artistic ability at all, you might include a sketch of yourself or your current living arrangements in a letter.

The ‘complimentary close’ — This was used to finish the letter before signing it. It is the phrase of courtesy, respect, or endearment used at the end of a letter. As in the salutation, the particular words used varied according to circumstance. Examples include:

We remain
Your affectionate sons,

I have the honor to be
your obedient servant,

Yours affectionately,

Your affectionate friend,

Yours faithfully,

Notes on expectations about readership

While we tend these days to equate letters with being a private message, goldfields letters were often intended as a broadcast social media (ie: to be read aloud to family and friends). Some letters even became the basis for travel narratives (most famously, in William Howitt’s Land, Labour and Gold, or Two Years in Victoria).

Many Victorian-era letter writing guides cautioned that once they were written, anyone could read your letters and thereby make inferences about you; so that even if those with whom you corresponded assured you that they burnt your letters, this may not in fact be the case. Therefore, when you sit to write your letter, consider the fact that its eventual readership is ultimately beyond your control. This is quite good advice for today.

A common convention when writing of other people with whom one was not closely acquainted was to identify them only by an initial (e.g.: ‘I was talking with Mr G.’) to preserve their anonymity.

A note on cross-writing letters

Back in the early 19th century when postage charges were ridiculously expensive, and were charged per sheet, letter-writers saved money with a simple technique called cross-hatching. The process went something like this: the correspondent composed the letter using closely written text to fit as much in as possible, then turned the paper 90 degrees and continued writing across the page perpendicularly. This method produced what was called a ‘crossed letter’.

Crossed writing only came into use when paper was dear and postage was high, but as the prices of both dropped, cross-writing was considered to be disrespectful: it was hard to read, and showed you didn’t care enough about the person to whom you were writing to use a second sheet of paper. During the gold rushes, only the last paragraph was crossed, and even then, only if you had just a little more to write, if at all.


A cross-written letter from the early 19th century.

Step 5: Seal the envelope

Envelopes were sealed using either sealing wax or wafers. Sealing wax was used especially in cases of formal correspondence and came in common red, black and fancy colours. At this point in time, the etiquette surrounding sealing wax was quite simple: Red was for daily use. Black was usually reserved for letters of mourning, and only ladies could use fancy colours. Large wax seals were considered to be in poor taste. Wafers were also used; particularly in cases of less formal correspondence. Wafers were a precursor of the ‘sticker’. They were composed of wheat flour made into a thin paste, which was dried and stamped into shapes. Like the wax seal, they came in a variety of colours, and it was also possible to emboss a pattern onto them. Wafers had to be moistened to make them adhere.

When you began to melt your wax, rest your elbow on the table in order to keep your hand steady. Take the stick of wax between your thumb and finger, and hold it above the flame so that it barely touches. Turn the stick around until softened on all sides. Next, insert a little of the melted wax under the turn-over part of the letter, just where the seal is to come. This would give more stability to your seal than if it was entirely depended on the outside seal.

For the outside seal, begin at the outer edge of the area where the seal is supposed to go. Move the wax in a circle which must gradually diminish until it terminates at the centre. Using the end of the wax stick (the non-wicked side if you’re using a wicked stick), stir and shape the wax puddle to bring out any air bubbles, give it a uniform thickness, and mould it into the shape and size you desire.

If you have a seal to press into the wax, create a moisture barrier on it first. If you don’t create a moisture barrier on the seal before you press it into the wax, the hot wax can get stuck on the seal. So breathe, lick, or dab the seal on a moistened sponge, before plunging it into the wax. Put the seal exactly to the middle of the soft wax. Press it down hard, but do not move it in a circle, then lift it straight up.

Step 6: Post your letter

The recent history of postage in 1852

In the nineteenth century, letter writing was the only way to communicate with those living at a distance (until the advent of the development of the international telegraph network). Early in the century, postage in the United Kingdom had been expensive, being charged on the basis of how many sheets of paper were being sent (estimated by holding the letter up to candlelight), with the postage being incumbent on the receiver to pay.

After public agitation for reform, the ‘Uniform Penny Post’ was introduced in 1840. The Penny Post mandated a uniform, affordable rate for postage: a letter weighing up to half an ounce could travel anywhere in the United Kingdom for only a penny. The first stamp, with Queen Victoria’s profile — known as the ‘Penny Black’ — was released. A postal ‘network’ was established, becoming the forerunner of modern communication technologies.

These changes transformed the post into a civic service which was affordable to all social classes, and letters grew in popularity as a means of communication for both business and personal communication. The stamp grew in popularity and quickly became a model for other nations including the United States, which issued its first postage stamps in 1847.

On the gold fields, letters assumed huge importance as they were the sole means of communicating with family and loved-ones who were generally half a world away. Due to advances in the postal system elsewhere, most  diggers arrived on the Spring and Reid’s Creek diggings with an expectation of access to an affordable and efficient postal service. In reality, they were met with a notoriously unreliable post service, and this became a great source of ‘annoyance’.

Posting a letter during the Ovens gold rush, 1852-53

Initially, the nearest Post Office to the Spring and Reid’s Creek diggings was in Wangaratta, 22 miles (36 km) away. Letters were carried from the diggings by The Argus Express newspaper couriers to Wangaratta to be dealt with by its much-despised post-master, Mr Peacock. Wrote The Argus in January 1853,

‘Another nuisance, that of the Post Office, is at present attracting attention. Loud, repeated, and unanimous are the complaints of the residents on the gold fields against the inefficiency, incivility, and negligence of the Wangaratta postmaster.’

The Argus continued, ‘yesterday morning a memorial on the subject signed by 324 of the storekeepers, gold buyers, and diggers of the Ovens, was presented to Mr Resident Commissioner Smythe, complaining of the conduct of Mr Peacock, the postmaster. … letters received from that Post office were not stamped; and that, consequently, there is no means of ascertaining how long they have been in the Wangaratta office. Mr Smythe in reply, informed them, that he had already had occasion to report the Postmaster to the Posmaster-General… He also assured them, that he would forward the memorial with his endorsement, thereon, and that he expected their complaints would be immediately addressed.’

A part of Commissioner Smythe’s response to the ‘eccentricities of the Wangaratta Post Office’, was to open ‘A Government Post Office… at the head quarters camp, May Day Hills; [with] one of the Commissioners’ clerks … acting as Postmaster till that functionary arrives.’ [2]

A new mail contractor was organised to come up from Melbourne and commenced carrying the mail between Wangaratta and the Camp, at which point the Argus Express discontinued carrying letters. However, within two weeks ‘no mail came in; and a message, brought, by the Argus Express informed the crowd assembled for their letters, that, by orders from Melbourne, all letters for the diggings were detained at Wangaratta, and that the mail had ceased running for the present.’ [3]

The Argus correspondent on the digging, who wrote under the banner ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, captured the outrage of the diggers: ‘A nice state of things this! A Government Post Office opened here, then closed, after an existence of a fortnight, and 8000 diggers told to go to Wangaratta (twenty-eight miles), if they want their letters!’ [4]

The Argus Express resumed carrying letters to and from Wangaratta, although with limited success as the post-master there processed and handed letters over in limited number. The post-master was fined £10 in a public police court, under the Postage Act, for neglect of duty as a post-master. Not only did he not pay his fine but continued to serve as post master, and in the face of mounting complaints which were received without response, the Post-Master General continued to do nothing. [5]

‘Surely the newly-appointed Inspector of Country Post Offices might deign to visit the Ovens… As for the Postmaster-General I despair of his ever being brought to a correct sense of his duty, or of his ever paying proper attention to complaints unless proceeding from official sources. The complaints of the public, and especially of dirty diggers, are far beneath his notice,’ wrote the correspondent. [6]

On 1 March, The Argus correspondent lamented that, ‘The Post-office nuisance is still felt in full force, no Inspector of Nuisances has yet visited the Ovens. Every post-day here witnesses a crowd of applicants around the Argus offices for letters, for which their written orders have been sent by the driver of the Argus Express to Wangaratta. Occasionally, a digger or storekeeper receives three or four letters together, which have lain as many weeks at Wangaratta; but, in general, nine-tenths of the applicants go away unsuccessful, the only consolation they receive being the assurance of their messenger that there is a cupboard full of letters, and two or three heaps of newspapers for the diggings, lying at Wangaratta. [7]

It took until the end of March before the diggers would see a proper Post Office at the Commissioner’s Camp on the Ovens diggings nearing competition, so that their reliance on the notorious Wangaratta Post Office could come to an end. [8] In defence of Mr Peacock, when he signed on as post-master of Wangaratta before the gold rush, Wangaratta had been nothing more than a tiny village around a river crossing, serving only a handful of local squatters, their families and staff, as well as the odd traveller on the Port Phillip route between Sydney and Melbourne. To be snowed under a deluge of mail sent from around the world was probably more grief than Peacock’s organisational skills would allow… and so it was probably not only the residents of the Ovens gold fields who ‘gladly hailed’ the opening of the new post office, but Mr Peacock himself. [9]


  1. ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, The Argus, 21 January, 1853.
  2. ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, The Argus, 4 February, 1853.
  3. ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, The Argus, 18 February, 1853.
  4. ibid.
  5. ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, The Argus, 25 February, 1853.
  6. ibid.
  7. ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, The Argus, 1 March, 1853.
  8. ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, The Argus, 29 March, 1853.
  9. ibid.


Personal hygiene, gold-rush style



These last couple of weeks, there has been quite a bit of viral gastroenteritis going around Beechworth, hot-on-the-heels of what would have to be one of the worst flu seasons in years. Last night at around 2am it hit our house… and as I was scraping projectile vomit from the bathroom walls, I began to think about issues of infection control in the era before microbiology and germ theory. What was personal hygiene like on the gold diggings?

Scanning electron micrograph of Escherichia coli

E. coli bacteria

If you’ve come across my earlier post, The problem with Poo, dealing with peoples’ toilet habits during the gold rushes of 1852, you will have realised that as a historian, I am far more fascinated with the minutiae of daily life than the rise and fall of empires. Ethnographic historian Robert Darnton, in the introduction to his wonderful book on the cultural history of France, The Great Cat Massacre, wrote that only when we look at trivial and taken-for-granted aspects of the past does it become fully apparent the extent to which the people who lived there did ‘not think the way we do.’ Darnton wrote:

…nothing is easier than to slip into the comfortable assumption that Europeans thought and felt two centuries ago just as we do today—allowing for the wigs and wooden shoes. We constantly need to be shaken out of a false sense of familiarity with the past, to be administered doses of culture shock. (1)

With this in mind, let us return to issues of hygiene during the gold rush era of the early 1850s: Imagine a world in which medical students walked straight from performing autopsies on decomposing corpses in one room to the maternity ward where they delivered babies in the next, without disinfecting their hands. This practice, which routinely happened at Vienna General Hospital, meant that women were actually safer delivering babies on the street than under medical care. In fact, local women were terrified of giving birth in that maternity ward; and yet most of the doctors saw no issue. Moreover, this ignorance of infection control was by no means atypical of hospitals around the world in the nineteenth century.

What came to set Vienna General Hospital apart from other hospitals was that in 1847, one of its doctors, Dr Ignaz Semmelweis, began to suspect that tiny particles of cadaverous material still present on the hands of doctors were working their way into the bodies of women and making them sick. Finally, he made students and staff wash their hands with chloride of lime after performing autopsies, which dramatically improved the survival rate of the women and the babies they delivered. Semmelweis, with his great powers of observation, had learned one fundamental aspect of infection control: disinfect your hands.

One would think that, furnished with such clear evidence, doctors everywhere would start disinfecting their hands with chloride of lime — but it just didn’t happen. Instead, Semmelweis’s ideas were actually regarded as unscientific by the medical community of the day. To most medical practitioners, the idea of tiny particles which couldn’t be seen by the naked eye being capable of actually killing people, was simply ludicrous. Semmelweis tried to push his theory, but the medical establishment wasn’t having a bar of it. It literally drove Semmelweis mad, and he was committed to a mental asylum where he died in 1865 at the age of 47.

The disinfectant which was being used by Semmelweis, chloride of lime (a mixture with slaked lime and calcium chloride to make Calcium hypochlorite), was the forerunner of today’s liquid bleach (sodium hypochlorite). It was available from chemists during the Victorian gold rushes, but probably was used predominantly as a bleaching agent for clothes. The cleaning product of the era which did kill many household pathogens (although not salmonella) because it contains roughly 5% acetic acid, was vinegar. However, once again, in the absence of germ theory, vinegar was not actively used with disinfection in mind. Moreover, basic hand hygiene was so unknown, and personal cleanliness so under-valued, that for more than one hundred years, the British (and its colonies) had seen no problem with taxing soap to make it a luxury item. When the tax was finally repealed in July 1853, Prime Minister Gladstone’s rationale was not to give poor people better access to soap, but rather “to extinguish the slave trade” by giving parts of Africa, rich in palm oil, a solid source of income. (If you are interested in what type of luxury soap was available during the gold rush, see below.)

What can all these facts tell us about life during the Spring and Reid’s Creek gold rush in 1852-3? In short, no one thought any the worse of you if you went and relieved your bowels in a hole, wiped your rear-end up with a rag, changed the dressing on your friend’s dirty, pus-filled wound, and then came and broke bread with your mates — all without washing your hands. Little wonder most diggers experienced the most horrendous dysentery and trachoma (chlamydia infection of the eyes) — often repeatedly — and yet struggled to understand why it was happening to them. Instead, they genuinely thought themselves the victims of bad food or bad smells. (2)

These days we have vaccinations to protect us from most of the worst diseases, and antibiotics to deal with bacterial infections. These medical advances have meant that as a society, once again — but unlike our forebears, not for reasons of ignorance — we have become quite laissez-faire about personal hygiene. Where has it got us? The answer is not very far when it comes to viral gastroenteritis. And now it’s at my house. It’s time to break out the bleach, and spend more time washing hands.


The virtual absence of disinfection on the gold digging still doesn’t explain all the disease on the goldfields. Assistant surgeon general of the Commissioner’s Camp at Spring Creek, Dr Henry Green, died of typhus fever (i.e.: not typhoid) within three months of his appointment. (3) Typhus fever — a bacterial disease spread by fleas and body lice — probably owed its presence on the gold diggings to the high number of flea-ridden dogs, which is another story altogether.

(1) Robert Darnton, The great cat massacre and other episodes in French cultural history, New York, Basic Books, 1984, p.4.
(2) To see some examples as to how people were baffled by these illnesses, and how they attributed them to the wrong sources, read my earlier post, The problem with Poo.
(3) The Victorian parliamentary paper, Gold Fields: Return to Address, Mr Fawkner — 10th Dec 1852Laid upon the Council Table by the Colonial Secretary, by command of his Excellency Lieutenant Governor, printed 27 Sept 1853, lists Dr Green, Henry. Esq as being appointed assistant colonial surgeon to May Day Hills on 19 November 1852, on page 8. His death appears in ‘Scraps from the Ovens,’ The Argus , 25 February 1853, says he died on the 20 February.

Luxury Soap during the Gold Rush Era

The most commonly advertised soaps were white and brown ‘Windsor’ soaps, so named after the location in which they were traditionally made in London.

Perfumery and kindred arts: a comprehensive treatise on perfumery,
by Cristiani, R. S. (published by Richard S., 1877) explains:

‘Windsor soap is manufactured in this country with soda and sweet oil, or any good vegetable oil, and perfumed chiefly with essential oil of caraway.’

Cristiani gives this ratio of essential oils for Old Brown Windsor Soap:
Oil of bergamot… 4 ounces.
caraway. . . .2oz
cassia. . . .2oz (cassia is a type of cinnamon)
lavender. . . .8oz
cloves . . . . 1oz
petit-grain …1oz

George William Septimus Piesse, The Art of Perfumery And Methods of Obtaining the Odors of Plants, Philadelphia, Lindsay and Blakiston, 1857, gives these ratios for essential oils in brown and white windsor soaps:

Ratio of oils for Old Brown Windsor Soap:
petit grain
French lavender (all equal parts)

Ratio of oils for White Windsor Soap:
caraway 1 1/2
thyme 1/2
rosemary 1/2
cassia 1/4
cloves 1/4