Ask anyone what the miners of the Spring and Reid’s Creek gold rushes ate, and they will tell you it was boiled mutton and damper, washed down with plenty of black tea. While this isn’t exactly incorrect; it is a fantastic over-simplification. So for the next few posts, I want to look more closely at what the gold diggers ate. In this post, I will start with wild or ‘bush’ foods.
One of the reoccurring themes seen in letters and diaries from the early gold rush period (1852-3) is that of the diggers telling us what animals they’d caught. Initially I glossed this as newcomers to a strange land, fascinated with Australia’s unusual flora and fauna. However, eventually, I began to wonder why diggers so frequently remarked upon hunting and fishing. Only when I considered the broader social context of the period did this really make sense: In Britain, the right to hunt game had been restricted to the aristocracy and gentry from 1671 until 1831. After this, anyone could hunt, but a game licence was required — a ploy which once again restricted all but the wealthy. So it seems that the gold diggers in Australia were remarking out of sheer amazement: that anyone could hunt and fish, and do it for free!
When we think about wild food around Beechworth in 1852, we have to imagine the forests without Samba or Red deer, wild pigs, goats or rabbits; and the streams without trout or carp. There weren’t even honey bees (the Australian native bees that produce honey only live in warmer climates), nor edible mushrooms like the saffron milk cap or slippery jack. Still, there was plenty to eat.
Miners either hunted game themselves (usually on a Sunday when their gold licenses compelled them to down tools) or bought it — either from European or Indigenous suppliers (1). Mary Spencer, who stayed on Bontharambo Station during the gold rush, explained, ‘We are kept well supplied with quantities of fish and game; such as wild duck, turkeys, waterfowl, geese and black swan. The fish is very fine; fresh water trout, cod and a kind of salmon and various other kinds.’ (2)
The favourite feathered game species of the period seems to have been Wild Turkey, otherwise known as the Australian Bustard (Ardeotis australis). One of Australia’s largest birds, it became regionally extinct as its grassland habitat was taken over by grazing pasture. Hunting saw the end of local populations around Victoria, just as it had with Britain’s Great Bustard in the 1830s. However, the Australian Bustard can still be found inland today, and I’m reliably told that they taste like chicken.
The rivers and streams were abundant with delicious fish, shellfish and crustaceans. There are 38 species of freshwater crayfish in Victoria (27 of which are now threatened). Murray crayfish (Euastacus armatus) can still be found in Spring Creek, along with, of course, the humble Yabby (with the magnificent scientific name of Cherax destructor), which is more common in billabongs. Sometimes diggers could get a pail of Freshwater Mussels (Velesunio ambiguous), which are native to the Murray-Darling River system. Apparently they are tougher to eat than salt water mussels, being more like a clam in texture.
While en route to the Spring Creek diggings in late 1852, English author William Howitt wrote of how ‘The boys amused themselves with fishing, and caught what they call black-fish and trout, to us quite new fish, and a brilliant blue crawfish, with prickles all down each side of its tail.’ (3) He was probably referring to (in order) River blackfish (Gadopsis marmoratus), Trout cod (Maccullochella macquariensis) which was originally widespread in the south-east corner of the Murray Darling River system, and has spots like a rainbow trout (during the gold rushes, it was often called ‘bluenose cod’), and finally, the Central Highlands Spiny Crayfish (Euastacus woiwuru). Other prized fish included Golden Perch (Yellow Belly) (Macquaria ambigua), Murray Cod (Maccullochella peelii), and Short-finned Eel (Anguilla australis), which Indigenous people had been trapping and preserving by smoking, for millennia. Today Trout Cod is endangered, and it is prohibited to take them across the whole of Victoria, with the exception of two lakes at Beechworth: Lake Sambell and Lake Kerferd.
[Since writing this blog post, I had a conversation with fresh water fish ecologist Dr Paul Humphries, in which I learned that two species other were found in the local billabongs of the Ovens and Murray Rivers in North East Victoria, which were very good eating, and perhaps as a consequence, are no longer found here: Freshwater Catfish (Tandanus tandanus), and Silver Perch (Bidyanus bidyanus).]
When it came to red meat, possum was a popular meal. Seweryn Korzelinski, a Polish digger who visited Spring Creek in 1853, said of the diggers, ‘Some carry a gun and shoot cockatoos and possums on moonlit nights, which they bake on wooden skewers. Possums can be shot only at night, because they spend their days in holes in the trees. Only natives know how to find them in the day time.’ (4)
[Once again, since writing this original blog post, I have learned that local Aboriginal people sometimes wrapped the possum in clay before slow-baking them in an oven. Possums were the ‘go-to’ meal for most Aboriginal people of North East Victoria, although dozens of animal species were eaten — from Emu (with its deliciously oily skin that could be roasted until crispy), to slow-moving echidna which were only considered to be fair game for equally-slow moving elderly people. Even a humble handful of tadpoles could make a quick meal.]
But bush foods weren’t all about blood and guts. Miner’s wife Emily Skinner collected Pink-flowered Native Raspberry (aka Small Leaf Bramble) (Rubus parvifolius) while living in the Woolshed Valley in the mid 1850s. She said, ‘The best of the native berries that I have seen is the wild raspberry, which nearly resembles its namesake in appearance, but its taste is more like the blackberry. We used to gather it in sufficient quantities to make tarts, a change from the preserved fruits.’ (5) Although Pink-flowered Native Raspberry is not as prolific now as the introduced blackberry, it can still be found in the Mount Pilot section of the Chiltern Mount Pilot National Park. And it’s not even the only native fruit: if you’re keen, you can try the red succulent stalk of the fruit of the Cherry Ballart (Exocarpos cupressiformis), along with the fruit of the Hairy Geebung (Persoonia rigida).
- Fred Cahir’s Black Gold: Aboriginal People on the Goldfields of Victoria, 1850-1870 (Australian National University, 2012) is comprehensive in providing firsthand period accounts of Indigenous people supplying gold miners with food.
- Mary Spencer, Aunt Spencer’s Diary (1854): A Visit to Bontharambo and the North-east Victorian Goldfields, Neptune Press, Newtown, 1981, p.46.
- William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, or Two Years in Victoria, Volumes 1 & 2, Sydney University Press, 1972 [first edn: 1855]. This reference: Volume 1, p.40.
- 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.63
- Edward Duyker (ed.), A Woman On The Goldfields, Recollections of Emily Skinner, 1852-1878, Melbourne University Press, 1995, p.69