Every digger on the goldfields dreamed of striking it lucky, but the dream came true only for the few. In February 1852, goldfield commentators reckoned the average rate to be "five making their fortunes, 45 making good wages, and 50 starving out of every 100." Toward the end of the year, estimates put the proportion of starvelings closer to 90 per cent.
But with luck on his side, how much could a digger expect to make? Oliver Ragless and his party of seven arrived at Victoria’s Mount Alexander fields (about 50 miles north-east of Ballarat) early in 1852 when diggers were relatively few. By the time they headed back to South Australia at the end of April, they had about 45lbs of gold. After expenses, each man was left with nearly 300 pounds for two and a half months work – earnings equivalent to more than three years labour on an average working man’s wage, which was then less than 100 pounds per annum. Back in South Australia, if he wished, Oliver could exchange his gold for more than 300 acres of freehold land.
By gold rush standards, Oliver’s yield was considered an unexceptional amount. George Earp’s party of five, after arriving at the Mount in late 1851 and sinking seven holes over four months, made no less than 985 pounds each after expenses.
For some, however, making so much money was to prove their misfortune. The sudden shock of the transition from poverty to riches seemed to unhinge their mind. William Howitt gives the following account of a digger who discovered a 28lb nugget at Bendigo:
"He soon began to drink; got on a horse, and rode all about, generally at full gallop, and when he met people called out to inquire if they knew that he was ‘the bloody wretch’ – that was his phrase – ‘that had found the nugget’. At last he rode full speed against a tree and nearly knocked his brains out. He is a hopelessly ruined man.
The real gold diggers
However, the most successful on the gold fields were the storekeepers. They proved notoriously adept at fleecing the diggers of their earnings. In his journal of the Victorian diggings, Alec Finlay observed with bitter irony:
"There is one principle they have adopted and adhered to with greatest uniformity, and that is extortion."
Diggers dependent on the stores for food were charged exorbitant prices. Little business acumen was needed to succeed. According to Henry Brown, who ran a store at Bendigo:
"Business did not require any very nice calculations. The plan was to usually to double and treble the Melbourne price."
The staples of the diggers’ diet were flour and mutton, with tea and sugar close behind. These were the only items affordable to most. Stores stocked dried fruit, cheese, butter and jam, but only the successful digger could pay for such luxuries. In a letter sent to an Adelaide newspaper, a digger at Mount Alexander noted satirically:
The price of a biscuit is 7d (pence), a pint of water 2d, and the charge for looking at a cheese 3d.
The cost of basic necesseties
Vegetables were almost non-existent – the government had denied the diggers permission to have their own plots – and fresh fruit scarce. One vendor sold his cartload of Van Diemen’s Land apples one Sunday afternoon for 57 pounds – a fortune in that time.
Nevertheless, mutton was plentiful and relatively cheap at 4 to 6 shillings a quarter; tea and coffee were reasonable at 3 shillings a pound, as was sugar at one shilling and sixpence a pound.
But the price of flour could soar during shortages to cripplingly high levels. An average-sized party of diggers would go through a 100lb sack of flour every two weeks. In the Victorian fields in late winter, when the roads were potholed from rain and cartage costs high, a sack of flour could cost 10 pounds. With the average gold price at the diggings fetching around 3 pounds an ounce, it would take more than 30 ounces of gold to pay for a fortnight’s supply.
Wet weather, the poor state of the roads and the swelling population of the goldfields in 1852 meant the demand for flour at times ran neck and neck with supply. By October of that year, with supplies of flour perilously low, William Howitt paid 20 pounds for a sack on the diggings – and it turned out to be gritty, full of lumps and riddled with weevils.
Mutton was in good supply, however, as sheep were driven to the goldfields in their thousands by squatters. They were slaughtered on the spot by butchers, who did a lucrative trade. At Mount Alexander, the butchers would buy live sheep at 12 shillings a head and sell the mutton to diggers for 16 shillings. Selling an average of 20 to 30 sheep a day, they made a daily profit of about 5 pounds. This was the equivalent of almost 2 ounces of gold, considerably more than most diggers could find in a day.
With such a dull diet the lot of most on the goldfields, it is not surprising the years 1851-1853 were called “the damper and mutton stage of the colony”. Wrote one disgruntled digger:
“We had to content ourselves with mutton and damper three days a week, and damper and mutton on the other four days.”
To escape the monotony, some diggers managed to find an alternative source of meat – native game. Parrots and cockatoos, baked in a pie, were a popular dish, and possums and echidna were also sampled. Some were even known to dine on “jackass” (kookaburra) pie.
But in the end it was the merchants who were to have the last laugh, at the expense of the diggers, as they carried their gold all the way to the bank.
By Kim Skeltys
Robyn Annear, Nothing but Gold: The Diggers of 1852, The Text Publishing Company, 1999.
Alexander Finlay, Goldrush: The Journal of Alexander Finlay While at the Victorian Gold Diggings, May 1852, St Mark’s Press, 1992.
William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold: or 2 years in Victoria with visits to Sydney and Van Dieman’s Land, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1855.