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’, http://sydney.edu.au/news/science/397.html?newsstoryid=15394
[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



Where were Aboriginal people during the Beechworth gold rush?


, , , ,

It’s an important question, is it not? North-east Victoria was 100% populated by Aboriginal peoples when the first pastoralists arrived here around 1838; and yet there is almost no mention of Aboriginal people in association with the Beechworth gold rush, which happened only 14 years later. What happened to them?

William Barak

William Barak, Figures in Possum Skin Cloaks, 1898. (Painted on Corranderrk reserve at Healesville).

I haven’t made a post on Life on Spring Creek for a while, as I had a break while teaching Introduction to Aboriginal Australia at La Trobe University. That experience has drawn me to want to tell you about Aboriginal people during the gold rush: a story which cannot be told without some deeper historical background:

In 1836 Major Mitchell passed through North East Victoria. When he returned to Sydney, he reported that he had found ‘Australia Felix’, a Latin term which denoted the country south of the Hume [Murray] River as a ‘pleasant land’. Australia Felix was a landscape that had been cultivated for thousands of years by Aboriginal ‘fire-stick farming.’ Its lush pasture was interspersed by mature shade trees, largely free of dense understory. Its green sward drew grazing game species; its openness made for ease of hunting and travel. Its wetlands and rivers ran clear, and were abundant with fish and crustacea. To Europeans, Australia Felix looked like an English nobleman’s country park left to go wild. To prospective ‘squatters’ (pastoralists) looking to establish new sheep and cattle stations for stock which were languishing in the drought-stricken ’19 counties’ around Sydney, it smelled like opportunity. In his report, Mitchell didn’t make much of fact that the land was already occupied. But the squatters weren’t stupid; they knew what they were up for when they decided to take their vast flocks of sheep and herds of cattle beyond what was officially designated as ‘the limits of location’.

As Mitchell’s drays rolled through this countryside, the cart-wheels sunk into the ground, leaving ruts: the soils were soft and spongey, having never been trodden by hard-hoofed animals. The ruts, leading from the Murray River all the way down to the Port Phillip district [Melbourne], became the path that squatters followed in search of pasture for the thousands upon thousands of sheep and cattle they brought with them, despoiling the countryside and fouling river crossings as they went. One of these river crossings was at a place local Aboriginal people called ‘Benalta’ (thought to derive from the local word for musk duck). This became the site of one key event that history has recorded, as opposed to the doubtless numerous subsequent events that went unrecorded. It became the site of The Faithfull Massacre.

On 11 April 1838, the stockmen of squatters George and William Faithfull were attacked by a party of perhaps 20 Aboriginal people on the banks of the Broken River at Benalta (where present-day Benalla is situated). Eight of the 18 stockmen were speared to death, and in return, one Aboriginal man was killed by musket fire. Historian Judith Bassett suggests that rather than an act of war, this massacre was a guerilla-attack by a band of Aborigines intent on inflicting retributive justice against the stockmen who shot some of their people on the Ovens River seven days earlier. [1] [I now think this interpretation is pen to question. J.D. 5/9/2021]

In the wake of this attack, the Faithfulls, along with squatters on other runs nearby, retreated to the relative safety of the Murray River. That June, a group of more than 80 squatters with stations along the Port Phillip route [now the Hume Highway] petitioned Governor Gipps, who in turn refused their request: he would not sanction a war on the Aboriginal population, let alone allow the squatters to take matters into their own hands as was their threat. [2] As Dr George Edward Mackay, a squatter who was based at Everton (if you’re a local, think of the location of the ‘Pioneer Bridges’ crossing on the Ovens River) would later bitterly recount, the government wasn’t at all sympathetic to their plight: after all, they had knowingly gone beyond ‘the limits of location’. [3] They had wittingly taken a risk and now they had to bear the cost.

Nevertheless, Governor Gipps did answer their petition with the establishment of a ‘Border Force’ along the Port Phillip route. The government would set up a police post at several river and creek crossings between Sydney and Port Phillip (Melbourne), but until they did so, there existed a window of opportunity in which squatters in North East Victoria, intent on settling the land to their purposes and fuelled by a desire to undertake retribution for the Faithfull Massacre, were well beyond official scrutiny.

There are virtually no historical records of what actually happened at this time. We can only infer what happened from a handful of recollections and a few other fragmented records, which were purposefully written to avoid explicit explanation. The main recollections come from a book called Letters from Victorian Pioneers: a compilation of letters which were written in response to a circular sent by Governor Charles Joseph La Trobe in July 1853, requesting information as to the time and circumstances of the first occupation of various parts of the colony of Victoria by Europeans.

In a letter to La Trobe, George Faithfull explained that the early European settlers in North East Victoria were subject to constant attacks on themselves and their livestock by Aboriginal people, [4] and it is clear that this resulted in retaliatory attacks by the whites, purportedly often more severe in nature than the events which had initiatied them. [4b]

By August 1839, when Henry Bingham, Commissioner for Crown Lands (Murrumbidgee district) visited the region, he found the Aboriginal peoples of the region, for the most part, already visibly afraid. He encountered large parties of ‘natives’ at Howlong, whom he says ‘appeared much alarmed at our first appearance’. At Whorouly he found they were ‘very shy’. And on the Ovens River, he reckoned, ‘the Natives appear to have a hostile feeling for the squatters from past transactions.’ [5]

David Reid, the squatter who held the run ‘Carrajarmongei’ (Carraragarmungee, on which the Beechworth goldrush would later take place), arrived in September 1838, initially building a hut somewhere on the Ovens River near what is now Tarrawingee.* In his recollections (recounted by Reid to J.C.H. Ogier in 1905) it is stated that, ‘It was some eighteen months after Mr Reid had formed his station before he allowed blacks to come there’ (my italics). It isn’t stated by what means Reid kept local Aboriginal people from living on their own land; only that in what probably would have been the late summer of 1839/1840, two Aboriginal men approached Reid as representatives of their clan ‘without instruments of war’ and with a ‘green bough in each hand’ to make peace, so that they could camp nearby on the Ovens River. Three or four weeks later, by which time Reid’s first crop of wheat was being harvested, Reid and his men spotted 15 or 20 Aboriginal men from the same group, now armed with spears and painted with ‘pipe clay’, approaching them from across the River. Reading this as an imminent attack, Reid and his men retreated to their nearby hut, after which they employed double barrelled guns: ‘It is not for Mr Reid to describe what followed but there was soon a scatterment made of our sable foes.’ [6]

[*Almost certainly at the property Reidsdale.]

Even after Reid’s shooting of Aboriginal people along the Ovens River, the hostility between Aboriginal people and squatters continued, and even stepped up. George Edward Mackay had arrived in the district on the eve of the Faithfull Massacre in the Autumn of 1838, and finding his servants unwilling to stay, had retreated to the Hume (Murray) River, returning in the Spring of 1838 to squat on land at ‘Warrouley’ (Whorouly). In his letter to Governor LaTrobe written years later, he stated that:

In May 1840, 21 [Aboriginal men], all armed with guns, besides their native weapons, attacked my station in my absence. They murdered one of my servants and burned my huts and stores, and all my wheat. … only seven head of cattle, out of nearly 3,000, were left alive on the run. … Three special commissioners were sent one after another to examine into the matter, Major Lettsom, of the 80th Regiment, Mr. Bingham, Commissioner of Crown Lands for the district, and Chief Protector Robinson. The whole drift of their inquiries seemed to me to be an attempt to prove that the cause of the attack upon my station by the blacks was an improper treatment of the native women by my servants. This was shown to be totally without foundation, for the natives had no women with them, and it was their first visit to the station. … These, Sir, are the salient points of my experience as a squatter. I have lost my capital. I have lost my health. I have lost fifteen years of the best period of my life. [7]

I don’t doubt Mackay’s sentiment: that the level of conflict with Aborigines in North East Victoria left him a broken man, but bear in mind that this is history written by the victor: he was on the side that won. Take from that what you will about what it was to be on the side that lost.

Reid and Faithfull both mention that it was necessary to be armed while going about daily work on their stations: ‘It was a rule in those days that no man went about any occupation without having his firearms immediately at his disposal, in fact a hut keeper never went for a bucket of water without going armed, not knowing at any moment whether or not he might be intercepted’. [10] George Faithfull wrote, ‘We dared not move to supply our huts with wood or water without a gun, and many of my men absconded from my service, throwing away their firelocks [i.e.: muskets], and in some cases destroying the locks and making them wholly useless from sheer terror of the blacks. This may appear too absurd for belief; nevertheless, it is a fact.’ [8]

Faithfull’s claim as to how this situation was finally ended are worth reading (the locality is probably on the Oxley Plains, on the banks of the King River, where Faithfull had a run):

At last, it so happened that I was the means of putting an end to this warfare. Riding with two of my stockmen one day quietly along the banks of the river, we passed between the ana-branch of the river itself by a narrow neck of land, and, after proceeding about half a mile, we were all at once met by some hundreds of painted warriors with the most dreadful yells I had ever heard. Had they sprung from the regions below we could have hardly been more taken by surprise. Our horses bounded and neighed with fear old brutes, which in other respects required an immense deal of persuasion in the way of spurs to make them go along. Our first impulse was to retreat, but we found the narrow way blocked up by natives two and three deep, and we were at once saluted with a shower of spears. My horse bounded and fell into an immense hole. A spear just then passed over the pummel of my saddle. This was the signal for a general onset. The natives rushed on us like furies, with shouts and savage yells; it was no time for delay. I ordered my men to take deliberate aim, and to fire only with certainty of destruction to the individual aimed at. Unfortunately, the first shot from one of my men’s carbines did not take effect; in a moment we were surrounded on all sides by the savages boldly coming up to us. It was my time now to endeavour to repel them. I fired my double-barrel right and left, and two of the most forward fell; this stopped the impetuosity of their career. I had time to reload, and the war thus begun continued from about ten o’clock in the morning until four in the afternoon. We were slow to fire, which prolonged the battle, and 60 rounds were fired, and I trust and believe that many of the bravest of the savage warriors bit the dust.
It was remarkable that the children, and many of the women likewise, had so little fear that they boldly ran forward, even under our horses’ legs, picked up the spears, and carried them back to the warrior men. We at last beat them off the field, and found that they had a fine fat bullock some of it roasting, some cut up ready for the spit, and more cattle dead ready to portion out. The fight I have described gave them a notion of what sort of stuff the white man was made, and my name was a terror to them ever after. [9]

Let’s analyse Faithfull’s statement, as if we are looking at a silent movie and seeing the actual scene, but with none of the narration: The Aboriginal men are wearing paint. There is a bullock being roasted to feed the masses. Women and children are present. All would suggest that Faithfull and his men have stumbled across a ceremonial gathering. When interrupted, the Aboriginal people throw a ‘shower of spears’ none of which hit their mark, even though these people are consummate hunters. This would suggest that the spears were not thrown to kill or even injure, but more as a warning. In retaliation, as Faithfull explains, ‘I ordered my men to take deliberate aim, and to fire only with certainty of destruction to the individual aimed at…. We were slow to fire, which prolonged the battle, and 60 rounds were fired…’ In other words, Faithfull and his men conserve ammunition by not firing unless they are confident of killing someone, but they still manage to shoot sixty rounds over six hours. You can estimate for yourself: How many Aboriginal people are killed that day? How many children witness family members being shot?

Faithfull also resorted to kidnapping a child to buy himself some protection: ‘I picked up a boy from under a log, took him home and tamed him, and he became very useful to me, and I think was the means of deterring his tribe from committing further wanton depredations upon my property; my neighbours, however, suffered much long after this.’ [10]

Faithfull further explains, without giving explicit examples which would incriminate fellow squatters, that his own mass-killing of Aboriginal people paled to insignificance in comparison of what was to come: ‘The Government during all this time gave no help, no assistance of any kind, and at last threatened to hang any one who dared to shoot a black, even in protection of his property, and appointed [Aboriginal] Protectors to search about the country for information as to the destruction of the natives. These gentlemen resorted to the most contemptible means to gain information against individuals, whom the trumpet-tongue of falsehood had branded as having destroyed many of these savages. This, instead of doing good, did much evil. People formed themselves into bands of alliance and allegiance to each other, and then it was the destruction of the natives really did take place.’ [11] So it would seem that after the Faithfull Massacre in April 1838, there may have been a period of unrestrained slaughter before the arrival of the border police; but also, after the border police were in place, and despite the fact that Aboriginal Protectors were serving from late 1839, the slaughter of Aboriginal people not only continued but worsened as squatters became more organised and clandestine in their activities.

That Faithfull’s men destroyed guns before absconding from his service is telling. These men were servants who had found themselves caught in the midst of an horrific conflict — some of them freemen who probably had known little of what to expect on the colonial frontier before arriving; some of them assigned servants who’d had no choice in the matter at all — and as George Faithfull recounted, at least on one occasion (but we may surmise many more) these men had been pressed into shooting Aboriginal people, moreover, in the presence of children. To assume that these servants had no objections to killing other people is to assume that they came from a supremely brutal and racist mindset,* an assumption which (to adopt a line of argument from historian John Hirst) would ‘mistakenly cast the high racism of the late nineteenth century back to the century’s middle decades.’ [12] We will never know for certain why some of Faithfull’s men destroyed their guns, but it is reasonable to suspect that they wanted to end the horror.

[* Note: since writing this piece, I have concluded that unfortunately many of the early settlers (squatters and convict servants like) were from a ‘supremely brutal and racist mindset’, due to a number of factors: Exposure to violent crime and a brutal system of punishment on the part of the convicts is obviously a brutalising factor for the servants. However the squatters were another matter: many of those ‘first on the ground’ were eldest sons of wealthy landowners and squatters from the NSW southern highlands. I suspect many of their fathers had either been involved in the hands-on administrative side of the convict system, and/or had been directly involved in the Napoleonic wars (eg: Dr David Reid). Many were Scottish, and the slaughter of the 1746 Battle of Culloden, was something that would have in some way been within the intergeneration knowledge of these families.]

Aboriginal people at the Black Swan Inn, Benalla, 1852-53

So where were the remaining Aboriginal people of North East Victoria, during the gold rush of 1852? By this time, the adult Aboriginal population had been children or young adults when they survived the frontier conflict with the squatters. Without doubt they had lost family members to gunshot wounds, and bore the psychological scars. Now the country around them was filling up with gold seekers — all of whom carried guns and fired them regularly. What traces can we find of these Aboriginal survivors?

In 1853, the Commissioner of Crown Lands, Henry Smythe, estimated that there were still 399 Aboriginal people living in the region, and yet as Smythe noted, they were not attracted by the prospect of gold — a fact which he attributed to their ‘natural indolence’. [12b] Their disinterest in gold mining may partly account for why Aboriginal people are almost entirely absent from the diaries and letters of the gold seekers on the Spring and Reid’s Creek diggings, with the exception of encounters they had with Aboriginal people en route from Melbourne: frequently at Longwood, secondly at Benalla, and more occasionally at Wangaratta. The Aboriginal people at Benalla were met on the banks of the Broken River in the vicinity of the Black Swan Inn (which still stands at 4 Bridge Street West, on the river bank opposite the site of the Faithfull Massacre). These Aboriginal people seemed to offer the gold seekers nothing but hospitality and assistance, and were met in return with a mixture of condescension, fascination and sometimes admiration.

Thomas Woolner, while travelling to the diggings on 15 November 1852, wrote, ‘I saw there a black man attiring himself, performing his toilet duties with grimaces of fastidiousness self-admiration: he combed his thick shock of wool with some pain to himself, then (smeared) it with grease and rubbed some fat over his visage, then combed again twisting his delight into hideous leers; after he had finished I told him he had made himself look very pretty, he grinned at me in ecstasy and asked if I wanted a light for my pipe.’ However, when one of Woolner’s party drowned in the Broken River on the return journey on 18 December, Woolner mentions that ‘a black woman was diving for a long time but could not find him.’ Woolner’s inference is that while he and his party dragged the river, the person most capable of finding their friend’s body — this Aboriginal woman — could not, and therefore efforts to locate the body, though in vain, had been substantial. [13]

Seweryn Korzelinski passed through Benalla around the same time, writing, ‘I saw for the first time native women and their children, called piccaninni.’ He was clearly impressed when ‘One of their men who arrived soon after, on our request for a fish just dived in the river and soon came out with a tasty looking foot-long fish.’ [14] Some five or six months later, Mrs Campbell was travelling to the Spring Creek Commissioner’s Camp where her husband was serving as the new Police Magistrate. On the way, she stayed at the Black Swan Inn with her daughter ‘G’:

Hearing the sitting-room door open I looked up; a black head was popped in and out again. So ugly was the object that I gave an involuntary scream and covered my face, a proceeding which evidently caused amusement, for the owner of the cranium now showed itself, making a low guttural his­sing sound, meant for a laugh. Ashamed of myself, I ven­tured to look up again, and was introduced by my landlady to the queen of a tribe then at Bannalla, said to be handsome. Fancy a black woman, with hair long and stiff, hanging like porcupine quills over her shoulders, no forehead, eyes long and half closed, broad nose, mouth from ear to ear, with the contrast of beautifully white and even teeth, and you will have the picture of a handsome Aborigine, quite a belle. She was pleased with G., who, wiser than her mother, saw nothing to be frightened at in her, and made friends accordingly. Of course she was civilized. In their native state, as I afterwards saw them, they are a very repulsive people, said to be tho lowest of the human race… [15]

There is much one could read into Mrs Campbell’s thoughts about ‘the queen of the tribe’, but what is striking is the good nature of this Aboriginal woman in the face of uncomprehending, almost involuntary prejudice.

I wish I knew what became of these Aboriginal people who were camped at Benalla that Summer leading into the Autumn of 1853, who had lived through such extraordinary changes of circumstance. One sad footnote to this scene at Benalla is a brief entry in a government report of 1861, concerning an orphan Aboriginal ‘or half-caste’ girl living in a ‘public house’ in Benalla (which could well have been the Black Swan). A local man named Banfield had made repeated applications to the government for land on which the girl could live, to improve her situation. The government agency, the new Central Board appointed to watch over the interests of The Aborigines, could only think to remove her to an asylum in Melbourne, but once it realise it had no power to do so, did nothing more. [16]

[Since writing this blog post, I have realised that William Howitt (in Land Labour and Gold, Chapter 15) also encounters a substantial encampment of Aboriginal people while en route to Albury, camped on the river near Wodonga, in early 1853. This tells us that Aboriginal people were still in the district, but perhaps were choosing to stay away from the crowded areas impacted by the gold rush.]

Aboriginal people around Beechworth, Yackandandah and Chiltern, 1860-62

In 1860, by which time the Beechworth gold rush had been and gone some six or seven years, the colony of Victoria established the aforementioned Central Board appointed to watch over the interests of The Aborigines. The Board was ‘of the opinion’ that:

it is the bounden duty of the people who have taken possession of their country to protect them as far as possible, and to a certain extent to maintain them. We occupy for pastoral and for other purposes nearly all the land in the Colony, and that which we do not occupy is least fitted for the black population. Under these circumstances it is necessary that permanent reserves should be made for the blacks whenever their numbers are such as to require a tract of country for yielding food. [17]

Ironically, many of those who would be drawn-in by the Board to assess the situation of the Aboriginal peoples of Victoria and assist with ‘protecting them’, were the very same pastoralists who had forcibly taken the land away from Aboriginal peoples in the first place. Needless to say, the few ‘permanent reserves’ created were pitiful in size.

In 1861, the Board made its first report to parliament. Squatter David Reid was one of the Board’s honorary correspondents, as was George Edward Mackay. In the Report, Reid estimated that there were 60 Aboriginal people in the area between Wodonga and Wangaratta, reaching over to the Kiewa Valley. Incidentally, by comparison, this number made this patch of country — originally so rich in natural resources of food, clothing and shelter — one of the least indigenous-populated regions in the state. [18] Mackay commented that these people rarely stayed in one location for more than a couple of weeks. That Aboriginal people continued to move through country, as they had done for millennia, shows extraordinary resilience; and yet the indigenous preference for movement was met with distaste by Mackay and Reid, because their perpetual movement afforded them poor prospects for permanent employment. [19]

In 1862, a reserve of 640 acres on which Aboriginal people were expected — somehow — to live, had been gazetted at Tangambalanga. Police Magistrate H. B. Lane distributed stores (food, blankets and clothing) to 41 people at Tangambalanga, while David Reid, now of The Hermitage (at Barnawatha, near Chiltern), distributed stores to 48 people. [120] Reid wrote that ‘The condition of the blacks is improved, owing to having food and raiment [i.e.: clothing], and being thereby protected in the winter from the effects of cold and rain. This, of course, with wholesome food, which they receive, tends to contentment and good health.’ [21]

In the ten years since the gold rush, and 24 years since the first pastoralists settled in North East Victoria, the miserable handouts, and tiny reserve on which it was hoped Aboriginal people would remain, was a far cry from the Australia Felix that they, and they alone, had created.

[1] Judith Bassett, ‘The Faithfull Massacre at the Broken River,’ in Journal of Australian Studies, Volume 13, Issue 24, 1989, pp.18-22. It is unclear whether the stockmen shot dead or maimed the Aborigines at the Ovens, but it seems they did so in response to two head of their cattle being speared.
[2] Bassett, ibid, p.32; A. G. L. Shaw, A History of the Port Phillip District: Victoria Before Separation, MUP, p.114.
[3] George, Edward Mackay, from Tarrawingee, 30th August 1853, Letter 37 in Bride, T. (ed), Letters from Victorian Pioneers, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1898, pp.187-188.
[4] George Faithfull, from Wangaratta, 8th September 1853, Letter 27 in Bride, T. (ed), Letters from Victorian Pioneers, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1898, pp.152-3.
[4b] (I’m going to be unprofessional here in this footnote, with the excuse that I consider this piece of writing to be a ‘work-in-progress’.) The fact that squatters retaliated against what were commonly referred to as ‘Aboriginal depredations’ with violence far out-weighing the original incidents was a well-known and oft-commented fact in the newspapers of the day. However, in order to demonstrate this fact conclusively, I will have to offer a number of sources — which I will do when I have time to go back over my source materials!
[5] NRS 906: Colonial Secretary: Commissioners of Crown Lands – Itineraries, Murrumbidgee, Henry Bingham, 10 Jul – Nov 1839, Aug 1843, Jul 1844, Mar – Nov 1845, Apr – Jun 1847 [X812], Reel 2748 [Squatters and Graziers Index, State Archives and Records NSW]
[6] Reminiscences of David Reid: as given to J.C.H. Ogier (in Nov. 1905), who has set them down in the third person, type-written manuscript, National Library of Australia, pp:28-30.
[7] George Edward Mackay, ibid.
In his letter Mackay attributes the cessation of Aboriginal attacks on his station (barring the occasional taking of a few head of cattle for food), to the fact that he followed the men responsible for the attack for 18 months, apprehending 17 of them who were subsequently gaoled in Melbourne.
[8] op. cit. George Faithful.
[9] ibid for George Faithfull. The Aboriginal Protectors and Assistant Protectors were appointed in late December 1837. The Protector for the Goulburn River district, which included North East Victoria, was James Dredge. The area was also subject to visits by Port Phillip’s Chief Aboriginal Protector, George Augustus Robinson. See: Ian Macfarlane (ed.), Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 2B: Aboriginal and Protectors, Victorian Government Printing Office, Melbourne, 1983, for information on James Dredge and the appointment of protectors in general; and: Ian Clarke [ed.], Journals of George Augustus Robinson, Heritage Matters, Beaconsfield, 1998, for further commentary.
[10] Faithful, ibid.
[11] Faithfull, ibid.
[12] John Hirst, ‘An Indigenous Game,’ in The Monthly, September 2008.
[12b] Aborigines : return to address Mr. Parker, 21st October 1853, Victorian Government paper (Legislative Council), 1853-54, no. C 33, p.24.
[13] Thomas Woolner, in Amy Woolner, Thomas Woolner: His Life in Letters, Chapman and Hall, London, 1917.
[14] Seweryn Korzelinski, Memories of Gold Digging in Australia, translated and edited by Stanley Robe, UQP, 1979, p.78.
[15] Mrs Campbell, The Rough and the Smooth or, Ho! for an Australian gold field, Quebec [Ontario] : Hunter, Rose & Co., 1865, p.108. (This entry from mid [May?] 1853).
[16] First Report of the Central Board appointed to watch over the interests of The Aborigines, in the Colony of Victoria, John Ferres, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1861, p.9.
[17] ibid., p.11.
[18] ibid., p.13.
Even fewer Aboriginal people lived towards Mitta Mitta (27) and Omeo (6).
[19] idid, p.16, p.17.
[20] Second Report of the Central Board appointed to watch over the interests of The Aborigines, in the Colony of Victoria, John Ferres, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1862, p.17.
[21] ibid., p.10.

How effective is the ‘Coolgardie safe’?


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I’d read many positive testimonials in relation to the legendary pre-electric cold-store unit, the Coolgardie safe… but I still wondered how well did it really work? When curiosity finally got the better of me, the Eldorado Museum Association came to my aid with the genuine article.


Coolgardie safe, courtesy Eldorado Museum, Victoria

In my first post of 2017, I’m going to momentarily diverge from the 1850s gold rush. Meanwhile, I hear you asking, ‘What is the Coolgardie safe?’ The short answer is ‘a meat safe’ — but there’s more to it than the Coolgardie safe being a ventilated, vermin-proof box in which to store perishable food.

The Coolgardie safe was invented in the 1890s on the goldfields of Coolgardie, Western Australia, by Arthur McCormick. McCormick had observed that a wet bag placed over a bottle cooled its contents, and that if this bottle was placed in a breeze, the bag would dry out more quickly, but the bottle would get colder. What he was observing was the basic principle of heat transfer that occurs during the process of evaporation: that as it transforms from a liquid to gaseous state, water consumes energy in the form of heat, taken from its surroundings. [1]

Designed to take advantage of the cooling effects of heat transfer from evaporation, the Coolgardie safe was a common household item in Australia until the mid-twentieth century, initially vying with iceboxes until finally overtaken by kerosene and electrical fridges. I’d read many descriptions and testimonials regarding the Coolgardie safe, but I still wondered if it worked, and if so — how well?

I knew that the Eldorado Museum had one in its collection [2], which, until recently, had languished ‘out the back’ until local Howard Phillips gave it a fresh jacket of hessian so that it could go on display. Once on display, members of the Ross family from Wangaratta recognised it as a model that had been manufactured by their family business in Wangaratta (albeit more than half a century ago), and so they donated a set of brass name plates to attach to it. It was my good fortune that the Eldorado Museum Association agreed to let me borrow this safe for a living history trial.


Manufacturing plate on the Coolgardie safe at the Eldorado Museum.

This particular Coolgardie safe is of a common type: a rectangular metal frame, which supports hessian sides, wired on. It has a simple hinged door on the front, and one internal shelf. The top of the frame has a galvanised sheet-metal tray (ie: a reservoir), which is filled with water. Strips of flannel are hung from the tray to contact with the hessian sides, which keeps them damp through a process of capillary siphoning (wicking). When a breeze comes, it passes through the wet hessian and evaporates the water. This cools the air inside the safe, and in turn, cools the food stored inside. The drier the air is, the greater the rate of evaporation, and the cooler the safe. The feet of the safe sit in a tray of water (also on legs), which acts as a moat to keep ants at bay, and collect water dripping from the hessian. Sometimes these trays had a tap to drain the water, but this model has only a simple spout. There is also a central vent in the bottom of the safe which vents through a little chimney passing through the middle of the reservoir at the top — and I’ve seen other Coolgardies with this feature.


Another Coolgardie safe complete with a lid over the water reservoir. This safe has had wire mesh added at a later date (probably for decorative effect) where the hessian panels would have sat. (Photo swiped a long time ago from a seller on eBay!)

Day 1, 9 February 2017

I put the safe under my back verandah and filled the reservoir to the very top, which really kicked-off the wicking process: water could be seen wicking from the flannel down and across the hessian panels in a matter of seconds. Initially the strips of flannel I used were only half the width of each hessian panel. To increase the amount of water wicking through the hessian, I doubled the flannels until they were virtually equal to the hessian panels. This optimised the wicking, and the safe began dripping continually from the bottom, as water ran off. Immediately, I could see why it would be necessary to have a drip-tray — simply to conserve and recycle water. (Ideally you would find an economic balance between enough wicking to make the safe functional, while preventing too speedy a loss of water from the reservoir.)


The water reservoir at the top is filled, and strips of flannel are draped over the sides to contact with the hessian panels.

After the reservoir was filled to the brim and the sides were wet, at 12.56pm, it was 30.5ºC in the shade of the verandah and 28.6ºC inside the safe, rendering a difference of 1.9ºC in temperature. (The thermometer I used was highly sensitive and constantly went up and down as much as 0.2ºC, and what’s more it read different temperatures under different places around the verandah, so my readings are a little rough.) I continued to monitor the temperatures, with these results (contrasting the temperature under the verandah with the temperature inside the Coolgardie safe, showing the difference between the two):

1.23pm — 29.6ºC vs 28ºC = 1.6ºC
1.32pm — 29.2ºC vs 26.4ºC = 2.8ºC
2.15pm — 32.3ºC vs 29.6ºC = 2.7ºC
2.42pm — 28.9ºC vs 25.6ºC = 3.3ºC

Perhaps the temperature would have continued to drop, but I decided to add a large pedestal fan to see if this would increase the rate of evaporation, and thus decrease the temperature. The short answer is, yes, it did.

3pm — 31.4ºC vs 26.4ºC = 5ºC
3.22pm — 33.6ºC vs 28.5ºC = 5.1 (and this temperature steadily fell…)
3.39pm — temperature inside dropping to 25.2ºC
3.42pm — 32.6ºC vs 24.7ºC (and my guess is, still dropping) = 7.9ºC

So I could say that the Coolgardie safe, when wicking steadily, ran from a bit over 2.5ºC to 3ºC cooler than the outside temperature, and between 5ºC to perhaps as much as 8ºC cooler when there’s a decent (albeit artificial) breeze.

Frankly, I don’t consider these to be amazing results. However, this was all without the drip tray beneath the safe. The drip-tray that came with the safe was rusted-through, so I hadn’t used it; but now I was beginning to wonder whether the tray may have also provided some micro-climatic benefits.

This question is something I’ve decided to pursue on the ‘morrow. As I write this, I’m about the pull a beer, chilled to 4ºC, from my fridge.

Day 2, 10 February 2017

I didn’t get started until later in the day, and it was a scorcher, topping a bit over 39ºC! This time I put the drip tray under the Coolgardie safe, and filled both it and the reservoir at the top. I didn’t use the fan at all. The results speak for themselves:

At 3.15pm it was 39.1ºC degrees in the sun, 36.9ºC under the verandah, and immediately 31.4ºC in the Coolgardie. This dropped to 30.3ºC within the next ten minutes.

Here are some readings:

3.15pm — 36.9ºC vs 30.3ºC = 6.6ºC
3.45pm — 35ºC vs 26.1ºC = 8.9ºC
4pm — 34ºC vs 27.8ºC = 6.2ºC

Now I could say that when fully set up, the safe is at least 6ºC cooler and maybe as much as 8-9ºC cooler than the shade of the verandah. These are the best results I could achieve on a very, very hot day, without the aid of a fan. I admit this wasn’t the most scientific trial, and maybe there are other ways to achieve better results. If you have any ideas, please let me know.


Thanks to my sponsors, the Eldorado Museum. This is the second living history trial in which I have been ‘enabled’ by members of the Eldorado Museum Association and other friends from Eldorado. The first trial was the manufacture and use of a replica gold cradle based on one held in the Museum’s collection. You can read about that here.


[1] In my history of the Coolgardie safe, you may recognise information swiped from the Powerhouse Museum and Museum of Victoria.
[2] Indeed, there are very few domestic household items from the mid to late nineteenth century that the Eldorado Museum doesn’t have in its collection!

How the gold was won: mining on Spring Creek, 1852.


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This blog post presents an eye-witness account of how gold was mined on Spring Creek (Beechworth) in the rush of 1852. If you want to know why the image of the solitary miner gently panning for gold by the side of the creek is a fallacy… read on.

WARNING: This is a monumentally long post. It is broken into headings, to facilitate skim reading and promote a modicum of sanity.

Note: this post is about mining on Spring Creek, which is now referred to on some maps as ‘Silver Creek’, and runs through the modern town of Beechworth.

As I said in my last post, one of the most exciting things about the gold rushes of the 1850s was that anyone with a small amount of capital and a few friends or acquaintances, could stake a claim and mine gold using basic equipment — the design of which had been refined on the Californian goldfields only a few year previous.

By far the best eye-witness account I’ve read of the activity of gold mining during the Beechworth gold rush was written by Edward Ridpath [1], who arrived on the Spring Creek diggings on 4 November 1852. At this point, the diggings were still quite fresh: Ridpath says he was ‘much surprised at their general appearance… that their operations were confined to a spot of ground about one mile in length, and about a hundred yards in breadth…’


An early drawing of the Spring Creek diggings around December 1852, by Edward LaTrobe Bateman. This view is taken from southern side of the Creek looking towards the Commissioner’s Camp, which was situated where the Police Station and Gaol are today (Image: State Library of NSW).

Alluvial mining

The mining on Spring Creek was ‘alluvial’ — meaning that gold was found in deposits of sand, gravel and soil that had been washed and transported by water. ‘[T]here are two sources whence gold is derived,’ Ridpath tells us, ‘one from the bed of running creeks, the other from the earth’.

Thus, at Spring Creek in early November, Ridpath noted, ‘the first parties that arrived here worked a bed of the creek which had proved uncommonly rich and well rewarded the adventurous discoverers, [and] the soil adjoining was now being tried…’ [2] By the time another Englishman, William Howitt, arrived in mid-December, ‘The creek, that is, a considerable brook, was diverted from its course; and all the bed of the old course was dug up.’

Staking a claim, sinking a shaft 

To dig for gold along Spring Creek, Ridpath explained,

the preliminary step is to sink a shaft, which in these diggings varies from 6 feet to 46 feet in depth [i.e.: 1.8-14 metres] according to the nature of the surface, the shape of the shaft is according to the fancy of the digger, whether round, oval, square or oblong, the first is the most used, before sinking, he first marks out by a trench his claim, or ground he is entitled to, consisting of 12 ft square every way, then commences working with a pick and shovel, throwing the dirt up to the surface after picking it, till he obtains a depth of 7 or 8 feet.

Miners had to work their 12 ft square claim constantly, or else their claim was forfeited.

Using a windlass or whip

Once a depth of 7 or 8 feet was reached, ‘a wooden windlass is fixed, [and] the dirt is then pulled into buckets and hauled up.’ A windlass was a structure mounted over the shaft, fitted with a hand-cranked winch, which Howitt explained, was ‘rudely constructed out of the wood that grows about.’ Some miners preferred instead a structure containing a pulley mounted over a shaft, or even more simply, a pole centrally counter-balanced on a forked stick set into the ground, with the bucket attached by rope to one end, known as a ‘whip’.


Illustration of a windlass: ‘Edmond Armand, Chinaman’s gully, 23 November 1853’, which appears in A pioneer of the fifties: leaves from the journal of an Australian Digger, 18 August 1852-16 March 1854, drawn by Eugen von Guerard (Image: State Library NSW).

Finding the ‘washing stuff’

The shaft was dug until the miners hit the layer of wash dirt containing the gold, which Ridpath explains, was found just above

…the rock or pipe clay, the former consists of granite, sandstone, and slate, either rotten or hard, the stratum of earth that lies on this contains (if there is any at all) the gold, the depth of this stratum varies from 6 inches to 7 feet, the latter very rarely, sometimes a stiff clay extends down to the rock, in which no gold is ever found, the technical term for this stratum is washing stuff, its chief colours are red and white, it is strange that although the dirt above this should be free from any hard substance, this is mixed up with pebbles from the size of pin heads to that of a bullock’s, they are of all shapes…

Working the claim

Once the layer of wash dirt was found

…on coming to the rock the digger takes a tin dish full of the washing stuff to try and see if it will pay for his labours in working the whole claim… if, as I said before, there is any encouraging promise, he begins to make a tunnel with a small sharp pointed pick, from the shaft to the boundary of his claim, about four feet wide and three feet in height necessitating him of course to sit like a tailor all the time, this is continued all round the claim in order to secure it from encroachments of his neighbours who will always take advantage of less able work-men than themselves, after this is completed, the rest of the ground is picked away and supported by wooden pillars so that there is a complete excavation, as this is the case with all the claims on the diggings where the ground is good, you might crawl under it for several hundred yards with few interruptions, very much like a rabbit warren, candles are always used in the tunnelling; as the stuff is picked, it is shovelled forward to the shaft, put into buckets, and hauled up…

In deep claims being worked by candle-light, the air would be foul, so ventilation was provided by ‘a windsail, like those aboard emigrant ships, to carry down fresh air.’ This device was simply a sail terminating in a long canvas pipe, rigged to catch and direct breezes.

Howitt tells us that ‘The diggers themselves generally ascended and descended by a rope fastened to a post above, and by holes for their feet in the side of the pit.’

Washing the wash dirt

Once the claim had been worked out, with all the wash dirt containing gold brought to the surface and put aside, this was

either carted down to the creek or washed near the shaft, from a water hole, by the latter method, although the expense of carting is saved, yet the thickness of the water carries away the fine gold; before being washed in the cradle it is first thoroughly puddled or moistened in a long trough or common washing tub!

Ridpath also notes that the gold mined from the creek bed was ‘very easily sought, requiring only to be shovelled once into the cradle, to be washed,’ (i.e.: no puddling was required.)

Once the earth had been ‘puddled’, and the hard lumps had been dissolved, the gold was roughly separated from the wash dirt using one of three devices:

Gold Cradle, aka Rocker.

The gold cradle was both cheap and portable, making it the most common gross method of separating the gold from wash dirt in the early days of the gold rush. As Ridpath offers, ‘perhaps you are already acquainted with this machine, one could have no clear notion of it, unless it is seen illustrated’.

I detail the use of this ‘machine’ with photos in an earlier post, Cradling for Gold in the Woolshed Valley.


Cradling by S. T. Gill (Image: State Library of Victoria)

Long Tom

The second most common piece of equipment was the ‘Long Tom’, often shortened to ‘Tom’:

…there are two other machines on a more expensive scale used for washing gold, both Californian in origin, one is called a Long Tom, averaging 5 feet in length, /2 feet in breadth and half that in height, this is always fixed in a creek, so that there is always a stream of water running through it, the washing stuff is put into this, then shovelled backwards and forwards till it is thoroughly moistened, when the gold is carried down by the force of the stream to the other end through perforated sheet iron (to prevent the stones mixing with the finer dirt) into ripple box whence it is taken out and cleaned in a tin dish…

The ‘ripple box’ was a false bottom on the Long Tom, which was fitted with riffles — bars or cleats which would catch the heavier gold while the flowing water washed the lighter material away. (‘Ripples’ was the Australian term for ‘riffles’.)

Californian Sluice

Whereas Long Toms were essentially portable sluice boxes,

the other machine is a sluice, shaped like a Long Tom, but considerably longer, unlike the latter, the water is conveyed from a distance by means of a hose, the length of the sluice is about sixty feet sometimes less, it is usual for about two or three parties to own them, and to employ men to work them at the rate of one pound per day, their being able to wash so much stuff during the day enables them to make the rejected stuff of others profitable, who cannot get through so much in the same time, there was no sluice erected on this creek, until it was abandoned by everyone else’.

there was no sluice erected on this creek, until it was abandoned by everyone else

Washing the gold in a tin dish (gold pan)

The final step in the process was to take whatever remained in the the bottom of the Cradle, or caught in the ripples of the Long Tom or Californian sluice, and wash this in a tin dish, gently removing any heavier material that wasn’t gold (commonly tin dioxide, aka ‘black sand’). Then all that remained was to weigh the gold and divide the proceeds between the party.

The process of mining gold on Spring Creek was relatively simple compared to that on diggings known as Reid’s Creek — downstream from the Spring Creek diggings, about 4 miles distant. The Reid’s Creek diggings presented more arduous and complicated prospects for miners (which arguably also made them a grumpy and rebellious lot), for reasons I will detail in the next post. I promise it will be shorter.


1. All the quotes in this article come from between pages 9-16 of Edward Ridpath’s journal: 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], except where I have noted that they come from William Howitt, in which case they have been drawn from Chapter 10 of Land, Labour and Gold (1855).

A useful document when considering nineteenth century gold mining technologies is:
NEVILLE A. RITCHIE AND RAY HOOKER, ‘An Archaeologist’s Guide to Mining Terminology‘, AUSTRALASIAN HISTORICAL ARCHAEOLOGY, Vol 15, 1997, pp:3-29.