Literary life on the gold fields ranged from newspapers and periodicals to essays and poetry written by visiting writers. Pickings for subject matter were plentiful, if a little homogenous, with digging life the main focus for most writers of the day.
Tough economic times prior to the discovery of gold saw many small bi-weekly and tri-weekly newspapers of the 1830’s close down, including The Monitor, the Sydney Gazette and even The Australian (in 1848). The dominant newspaper of the time was the Sydney Herald (renamed The Sydney Morning Herald in August 1842), surviving the 1840’s and going on to position itself as the chief source of local and international news. This was made clear by the editor in August 1842 when he assured readers and advertisers that:
"In fine, we indulge the hope that the Sydney Herald will henceforth be to its European readers a faithful mirror of the affairs in New South Wales, and to its colonial readers a faithful mirror, not only of local occurrences, but of the prominent passing events throughout the civilized world."
In Brisbane, the Moreton Bay Courier came into existence in 1846 promising the same coverage of local and overseas (or colonial and "civilized") news, and signalled the beginning of a pattern of newsgathering around the country. Papers such as the Adelaide Observer were established around this time.
By the mid-1870’s there were at least eighty-five country newspapers in New South Wales being published weekly or more frequently.
Recording the Truth
Improvements in shipping technology in the 1840’s increased the speed and frequency of news and mail between the colony and the civilized world and made the journey to Australia more appealing to those literary types that may have been thinking of a southern hemisphere sojourn. Included in these were William Howitt and Raffaelo Carboni, both of whom arrived in 1852 and used their short time in Australian soil (2-4 years) to record and actively participate in gold fields society.
Howitt was arguably the most prolific writer of the gold fields, despite, or perhaps because of his short time there. Unlike some other writers, he was intent on recording a truthful depiction of what he encountered and not a rose-coloured version that many felt necessary to send back to the mother country:
"A distorted picture will always produce distorted impressions: and they who have hitherto painted this colony in entire coleur de rose, have grossly mistaken its real interests. I shall endeavour myself, as much as if upon oath, to state 'The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.'"
Howitt wrote about everything from land issues, taxation, government inadequacies, to conditions on the diggings and aboriginal rights, and all of this in only two years! Howitt’s forty-three long and detailed "letters" from Australia were collected and published in 1855 as Land, Labour and Gold.
"It is every man’s business to take care of himself here. They are just as independent in their speech as in their actions. It is a wonderful place to take the conceit out of men who expect much deference. The Governor was yesterday riding along among this crew, attended by one soldier; but not the slightest notice was taken of him, not even my a touch of the hat."
Despite being somewhat appalled at the lack of respect diggers showed those in authority, he was equally appalled by the mentality of those who came to the gold fields to find their fortune, take what they could, and leave:
"...the one great principle of the colony is the Dutchman’s maxim: 'Get honestly, if you can; but at all events get!' People avow the principle. They come here, in fact, as they go to India, to make fortunes, and then – 'go home'. That is the phrase. Everybody talks of England as home."
Carboni took his integration with the colonial society one step further and got himself charged with treason and imprisoned in 1854 for being actively involved with the Eureka rebellion. Imprisoned for four months then released, he felt compelled to pen a book entitled (rather aptly) The Eureka Stockade as a tribute to the miners who died in the attack.
Active rather than passive interaction with the colonial culture seemed to be the order of the day if you were a gold fields writer.
Keeping in Touch
The improvements in oceanic steam technology not only delivered writers to Australian shores but reduced costs for both the shipping companies and the local colonial governments:
"In December 1849 the New South Wales government introduced the uniform twopenny postal rate, which equalised and greatly reduced the rates of inland postage, and insisted that all letters be pre-paid."
These reductions also applied to newspapers making them easier to obtain and more importantly, less out of date. In 1849, the Phoenician (large clipper ship) made the journey from England to Sydney in a remarkable 91 days! The speed of the steam-driven deliveries was only disrupted when international events such as the war in Europe in 1854 occurred. Despite the war being half a world away, Australian colonists enthusiastically contributed to the war relief fund to aid the widows and orphans of men killed in battle. When news of peace finally reached the east coast of Australia in June 1856, the Sydney Morning Herald summed up the feeling of the colonial population:
"The welcome news of Peace was so fully expected that it occasioned more gladness than excitement. Every reflecting colonist will feel that he is lightened of a load. The colonies are liberated from a danger far greater than the ordinary risk of English communities. The nation may once more devote itself to the development of its resources, and to the improvement of the Colonial Empire."
The appetite for "popular" news including murders, assaults, gossip, accidents and all other miscellaneous happenings grew in keeping with the population. In 1867, Samuel Bennett launched the Evening News in Sydney, with an initial print run of 2000, catering to the desire for information of the social kind. Within twenty years its daily circulation had risen to 40,000, which was double that of any other Sydney newspaper.
By Nicole Grant
Frank Crowley, Colonial Australia Volume 2 1841-74, A Documentary History of Australia.
Kaye Harman, Australian Brought to Book: Responses to Australia by Visiting Writers 1836 – 1939, Boobook Publications 1985.
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.