Literary historian Charles Reade described William Howitt as a "traveller with a painter’s eye". A noted, well-versed author and journalist, Howitt received an education in Germany and England. When news of the gold discoveries reached England however, Howitt saw a chance, to not only visit his brother in Melbourne, but to join the rush with his two sons. Australian literature was given one its more important histories through this venture.
A collection of letters written to Howitt’s wife and contemporaries in England, Land Labour and Gold: or two years on Victoria with visits to Sydney and Van Dieman’s Land provides a vital insight into life during the gold rush of the early 1850’s. Howitt’s focus on the Bendigo diggings unravels many tales from that era.
Dispelling the rose water romancing
Howitt’s observations recorded the many details of travelling throughout the colony. Detailing encounters with people, the Australian landscape and his fortunes as a digger. Howitt’s memoirs, like many at the time, were written with the intention to later be published, in order to document this momentous moment in colonial history.
Howitt however, was writing specifically to draw a clearer picture for English readers, redefining their understanding of life in Australia. He was particularly interested in dispelling much of the "rose water romancing" that Australian newspapers used to describe their new gold rich colony.
"All this sludge and filth and confusion, swarms of people, many of them gentlemen of birth and education, all labouring as for life. When you have seen this, you begin to have a truer notion of what gold digging is, than from the rose water romancing of the Australian papers."
Howitt did however go to great lengths to describe many of his experiences in an English context, especially those at Bendigo.
"There is an appearance of a more thorough mining population here than I have seen at any other digging... huts and people all busy among the hills, reminding you a good deal of the lead mines of Derbyshire".
Out of the very roots of the grass we shake the gold
Some of Howitt’s more valuable observations are those of the Australian landscape. Relaying countless tales of its extraordinary diversity and beauty, patient and meticulous records of the surrounding scenery are littered throughout the book. However, these notes are often marked by Howitt’s sadness, as the rush for gold often turned much of the remarkable countryside upside down.
"We have begun to destroy the beauty of this creek. It will no longer run clear between its banks, covering with wattles and tea trees, and amongst its shallow parts overgrown with foreign looking shrubs, flags and cyress-grass. A little while, and its whole course will exhibit nothing but nakedness, and heaps of gravel and mud. We diggers are horribly destructive of the picturesque."
Deserted diggings, Spring Creek
Sun pictures of Victoria: the Fauchery-Daintree collection
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria
"Neither the snows of Canada or the heats of India present any obstacles to them"
William Howitt was able to capture the essence of many of the characters he encountered. Noting with particular detail some of the more desperate characters that raced to any news of gold and fortune, Howitt gives an invaluable sketch of the population at the diggings.
"Others had nothing but a pick and shovel. These you see are rough fellows, who can live any how, and who can lie out of doors in winter pretty much like horses and cows. The lighter they travel the faster they go".
In addition to many of these characters, Howitt also makes mention of the rampant drunken lawlessness of many of the diggers on the gold fields.
"Drunkenness therefore goes on in reality on the diggings uncontrolled... you can not avoid running your heads against crowds of drunken diggers, your noses against the fumes of vile rum and your ears against the din and uproar of dozens of the dens of debauch."
The New Aristocracy
Howitt was often struck by the lack of class displayed by many of the wealthy diggers who had become the "New Aristocracy". It seemed to Howitt that these diggers had very little concept of how to handle "sums of money that they hitherto had no conception of". One such incident provides an intriguing insight into the impact of the nouveau riche on the Colony.
"One of them the other day asked the fare for a cab for the day. ‘Perhaps more than you like’ said the Jarvie, for the digger was a very common looking fellow. ‘What is it?’ asked the digger. ‘Seven pounds for the day’, ‘There is ten’, said the fellow; ‘you can light your pipe with the difference’".
The flamboyance of these diggers, Howitt noted, was beginning to have an affect on local Melbourne society as well.
"A gentleman high in government, told me the other day that he was about to take one of these carriages for some distance; but the man said ‘We don’t drive the likes of you now ‘a days’. ‘Well but what is the fare? My money is as good as another’s I suppose’, ‘oh!’ replied the fellow hesitating ‘I don’t know – in fact we don’t drive the likes of you now!’ And that was all he could get out of him."
Howitt was of course not with out his own judgment of these matters, considering the new aristocracy "...or more properly hairystocracy – for hairy enough they are in all conscience".
After two years with reasonable success on the gold fields, William Howitt returned to England, leaving behind his son Alfred, who was to become a well-noted Australian adventurer and explorer. Deeply touched by his Australian experience, Howitt was instrumental in having Australian gum trees planted in the Campagna in Rome, Italy, where he found his final resting place in 1879.
By Ben Hoban
William Howitt, Land labour and Gold: or two years in Victoria with visits to Sydney and Van Deimans Land, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1855.
Nancy Keesing, History of the Australian Gold Rushes: by those who were there, Lloyd O’Neil, 1967.
A.W. Howitt, Monash University website.