The Australian gold rush attracted artists and performers from all over the world. They created a thriving cultural scene and left a legacy of knowledge about the gold rush era.
Desperate for diversion from gruelling labour, many diggers embraced literature, art and music.
As the world’s oldest continuing culture, First Nations peoples have a rich tapestry of stories, dances, songs and other practices that have been passed down for over 65,000 years. After the violence of invasion and colonisation, and subsequent government policies outlawing the practice of culture and language, First Nations peoples still found ways to keep culture alive and create new works that preserve culture for future generations.
- First Cultures
- Theatre, Circuses and
- Chang Woo Gow (Zhan Shichai/
Chang The Giant)and Kin Foo
- Lola Montez
- The Inimitable Mr Thatcher
- Chinese-Australian Goldfields
Parades and Textiles
- Aboriginal women’s possum skin textiles
- Eugene Von Guerard and
Johnny The Aboriginal Artist
- Where are the photographs?
Life on the goldfields was not all work and no play – after sunset, Monday to Saturday, the working day ended, and the opportunity for revelry was enthusiastically embraced. After the initial weariness subsided and daily ablutions were completed, many miners enjoyed a ritual gathering around campfires with tea, a pipe and a willingness to tell a story.
This section was contributed by Deanne Gilson and Tammy Gilson, Wadawurrung Traditional Custodians.
“Arts, culture and entertainment reflected Wadawurrung cultural practices. Wadawurrung would actively engage in bai:err or corrobboree (celebration), which was held sacred to Wadawurrung people and performed at a particular time and place. The lessons learnt throughout life were only taught through respect shown to the Elders. Certain elements of this practice were forbidden to be performed either by men or women and were referred to as the ‘men’s and women’s business.’
During the gold rush, the Wadawurrung would ngarrimili (dance) whilst performing ‘corrobboree’ to the miners to make a living. Their music consisted of striking two sticks together, known as porrogayn (clap sticks) or stretching possum skins over their legs to strike with their hands making a drum beating; these skins were rubbed with djuwutj (resin) to make them hard.
Cultural practice was presented in many forms; the women would weave their magic, making adornments, creating baskets, mats, and fishing nets, whilst the men would make spears, boomerangs, and shields.
The women always carried their darra (digging sticks), a tool not only used to gather food and perform ceremony but also depicted in art. Many objects represent the collective stories associated of ‘dreaming’. These objects become more than something inanimate – they transform the material to the spiritual.”
Chinese community entertainments
Night-time campfire gatherings were also central to Chinese community life. At the end of the working day, the Chinese miners would meet for campfire conversations with close friends and relatives from their home village.
An 1856 report in the Bendigo Advertiser noted the popularity of books and newspapers among many Chinese residents: “It is also well-known that the Chinese are extremely fond of reading, and bring with them great numbers of books, printed in their mother tongue.”
The Many Roads: Stories of the Chinese on the goldfields exhibit describes some of the other entertainments enjoyed by Chinese communities on the goldfields: “Major Chinese centres such as Ballarat and Guildford had permanent Chinese circuses and theatres. Travelling Chinese performers would set up tents to entertain audiences in other towns.” For more information about these performances, please see the Theatre and Circuses.
Kites often flew above mining towns on the weekends. In 1872, the Ballarat Star reported, “The Chinese residents of Golden Point (Ballarat East) were amusing themselves by kite-flying on Sunday. Some of the kites which were of a curious pattern, went to a great height, and the sounds proceeding from them caused a good deal of astonishment to those who had never seen the performance before.”
In 1868, a group of Aboriginal cricketers toured England, becoming the first organised group of Australian sportspeople to travel overseas.
Aussie Rules Football was inspired by Marngrook, a traditional First Nations game played with a possum skin ball. There are many historical records that show Marngrook being played across Victoria at the time of the gold rush. For example, the following is a description from the ‘Assistant Protector of Aborigines’ in Victoria, William Thomas, in 1858:
Marngrook games could last up to two days. Often the two teams were represented by their totems, for example, black cockatoos versus white cockatoos. Marlene Gilson's painting Marngrook Football, 2015, shows Marngrook being played.
Dr Rob Hess, a leading historian of early Australian Rules Football history research, has uncovered the story of the first Chinese goldfields Aussie Rules league in Ballarat. The first Chinese football game took place on 26 August 1862 with lots of fireworks let off during the game, writes The Guardian: “The two Cantonese moved through Ballarat on a great scale of magnificence'... The match, which kicked off at 2pm, was umpired by Mr George Lepp. Attired in silk Chinese slippers, Lepp was the first Chinese Australian Rules umpire.” The Miners were captained by Quong Tart, who spoke English with a thick Scottish accent and later became a teahouse entrepreneur and president of the NSW Victorian Football Club. Today he is immortalised in bronze outside Ashfield Station in Sydney.
You can read more about Quong Tart's life in the Survive and (Sometimes) Prosper part of this website.
and Cultural Practices
Theatres, music halls and circuses drew nightly crowds on the goldfields. Not long after gold was discovered on the Truron River in New South Wales, Burton’s Circus arrived. After setting up their tent, the performers played for six months at Sofala and Bathurst. A night at the circus included performances on horseback, acrobatics, high-wire acts and clowns. There were also caged exotic animals: One miner’s diary describes the “escape of a Bengal tiger from the Montezuma circus… the largest sized tiger ever exhibited” on Ballarat’s main street.
First Nations boys were recruited to be circus performers. Their acrobatic and other skills stunned audiences, but these performers were often scammed and forced to work under the big top for little or no pay. Later, some would join travelling circuses to escape the Aboriginal Protection Board, which controlled where First Nations people could live and work and held onto their wages. Other First Nations performers were kidnapped, given new identities and put to the work in the circuses of P.T. Barnum and others that toured the world. We are only beginning to hear the true stories of Australia’s early First Nations circus performers.
In the 1860s, the Chinese communities of the Victorian goldfields were big enough to support visits from professional musicians and actors.
Up to 50 Chinese companies toured Melbourne and Victoria's goldfields in the early 1860s. Bigger towns had permanent Chinese theatres, and entertainers went from town to town performing acrobatics, puppetry and opera to enthusiastic audiences. Chinese Opera was very popular, and Cantonese Opera or Yueju was a particular favourite of communities across Australia. This traditional art form featured music, singing, martial arts, acrobatics and acting. Men performed the roles of women.
Chang Woo Gow (Zhan Shichai/Chang The Giant) and Kin Foo
International celebrity entertainers toured the 19th-century Australian goldfields. They included Chang Woo Gow, who went by the stage name “Chang the Chinese Giant”, and his wife Kin Foo. Starting in 1871, thousands turned out to see Chang, who was roughly eight feet tall and known for his feats of linguistics (he could reportedly speak 10 languages.)
Chang made the first of his public appearances in London in the mid-1860s, when he was just a teenager. After performing in Europe and America, he and Kin Foo embarked on an Australian tour for several years.
The two were met by packed auditoriums on the Victorian diggings in January and February 1871. During these performances, Chang posed in different costumes, including mandarin robes, a French military uniform and the armour and dress of a Mongolian warrior. One historian describes the show: “[A] tinkle of bells would rise to a crescendo as the largest brass bells with a mallet. Chang would slowly rise from his throne-like chair on stage. To the rousing sounds of The Great Chang Polka on the piano….Chang would slowly descend to greet his audience, making light conversation and exchanging polite greetings with patrons who gasped in awe at his magnificently costumed person.” A wax effigy was made of his person and was displayed at the 1877 Bendigo Easter Fair.
Kin Foo died in Australia, and Chang met and married Catherine Santley and returned with her to China. They had two sons before moving to England. In 1880, he was contracted by American showman and entrepreneur P.T Barnum to join his 'Greatest Show On Earth', “a travelling circus, menagerie and museum of human 'specimens'.” Chang died, reportedly of a broken heart, months after the death of his wife in 1893.
Lola Montez was the stage name of Irish-born dancer, performance artist and political radical Maria Dolores Eliza Gilbert.
She adopted a Spanish persona after being instructed in Spanish language and dance in London, where she made her stage debut.
By the time she reached Australian shores, she had starred in dramas, burlesques and light comedies in Dresden, Berlin, Warsaw, St Petersburg, Paris, Munich and San Francisco. However, it was not her theatrical triumphs that heightened interest in her arrival in Australia, but rather the knowledge of her turbulent private life which linked her romantically to writer Alexandre Dumas, composer Franz Liszt and King Ludwig I of Bavaria.
For her first appearance in Australia, she chose to perform her own story as herself, namely Lola Montez in Bavaria, a burlesque on the subject of her much-publicised relationship with King Ludwig.
The anticipation surrounding her Sydney performances was so great that promoters chose to auction selected tickets off to the highest bidder.
She is most famous for her Spider Dance, which was described by a local paper:
However, The Sydney Morning Herald described it as "the most libertinish and indelicate performance that could be given on the public stage".
Although vilified in the Sydney and Melbourne press and forbidden to perform in Geelong, she found her most loyal audiences at the newly built Victoria Theatre in Ballarat. Having visited the goldfields of San Francisco prior to her arrival in Australia, Montez impressed miners with her knowledge of the trials and tribulations felt by the ordinary digger. So popular were her performances that it is said she was rewarded with showers of gold from the audience.
The moral outrage around Montez’s performances overshadowed her significance as an early feminist. As historian Anne Beggs-Sunter says: “She does appear as quite a strong feminist. She was very assertive, that it was totally right and proper for her as a woman to have this role in the public sphere as a performer. That she was not going to be trapped into any kind of domesticity. She was going to lead a full and active life, as she had led when she was involved with the royal court of Europe.”
Montez challenged the role of women in the 1850s - she was the first woman to be photographed smoking a cigarette, which was a massive taboo, and she would wear trousers occasionally (taboo at the time).
After leaving Australia, Montez spent the remainder of her days writing, lecturing and working with destitute women in New York's Magdalen Asylum. She died, age 42, in 1861.
The Inimitable Mr Thatcher
Charles Thatcher, dubbed by his contemporaries the "Colonial Minstrel", was one of many talented young people who left England in the early 1850s to seek his fortune on the goldfields of Australia.
He was the eldest son of a Bristol curio dealer but apparently preferred the entertainment business to the shop. By his early twenties, he had left Bristol for the bright lights of London. He was employed as a flautist in several theatre orchestras. Yet, he was still drawn to the music halls, where he learned many of the popular songs he would later exploit so successfully in Australia.
Thatcher evidently responded swiftly to the news of gold discoveries in Victoria, arriving in Melbourne in 1852, and setting off on foot for Bendigo with some companions. Their early attempts at digging were discouraging, but eventually his group chanced on a find. Thatcher’s share of the profits was a very satisfactory £1000, and he promptly abandoned gold-digging.
But what to do next? The story goes that Thatcher was wandering down the main street of Bendigo, when he noticed a new entertainment tent being erected by none other than one of his former theatre colleagues in London. He was offered a singing job on the spot and was an instant success. He had, by this time, already composed a number of topical songs, drawing humorously on the scenes he saw around him for lyrics, which were then set to well-known tunes of the day. It was a formula that would prove enduringly popular.
Thatcher was not the best singer on the goldfields, but he had the knack of combining shrewd insights into society on the diggings with a ready wit and a strong sense of the ridiculous. His songs covered everything from the troubles of the diggers to the excitement of rushes, horseracing, cricket, homesickness and the nuisance of dogs around the township. Newspaper columnists dubbed him the "inimitable Mr Thatcher". You can listen to a modern recording of his song “Where’s Your Licence?” here.
Charles Thatcher remained in Victoria until 1861, when he and his new wife Annie sailed for New Zealand. In 1870 he returned to England, where he resumed the family curio business. He died of cholera in Shanghai in 1878.
Many Chinese customs and rituals were celebrated, including Chinese New Year, the Sticky Rice Festival and Dragon Boat Festival.
Traditional dragon and lion dances, fireworks, feasts and rituals were common features on festive occasions. Chinese community members would parade in fine costume, handmade in China and imported at the community's expense.
The Chinese who came to the goldfields brought with them a culture of supporting charities. In Ballarat and other goldfields towns, Chinese residents made substantial donations to the local hospitals and orphanages. Bendigo’s Chinese community participated in the Bendigo Easter Fair and Procession in 1879 to help raise funds for Bendigo's Benevolent Asylum and hospital. Featuring music, theatre and acrobatic displays, the Chinese section soon became the main attraction. Since that time, the parade has also included traditional Chinese dragon dance. More than 120 years later, the entire community ensures that the Chinese regalia is paraded every Easter.
Bendigo’s Golden Dragon Museum now houses a collection of 19th century processional regalia that was preserved by the Chinese community. It features scores of finely embroidered costumes, banners of all colours and shapes, richly carved iron wheeled vehicles and musical instruments for Chinese bands. The collection includes Loong, the oldest imperial dragon in the world. In his original state, Loong was about 60 metres long. He is entirely handmade and was built from colourful silks, mirrors, bamboo and papier-mache. It took 46 people to carry the legs, and another six to carry the head.
Aboriginal Women's Possum Skin Textiles
Possum skin cloaks are entwined in the life stories of the First Nations peoples of south-eastern Australia. Babies were wrapped up in possum skin when they were born. According to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), possum pelt was often the first object an infant touched:
“Cloaks started out small with a few skins sewn together to wrap a baby. Over time, more skins were added so that as a person grew, their cloaks grew with them.”
Over the years, the designs on the skin-side became more detailed. These designs were carefully added with bone awl or shell engraver, rubbed with animal fat and coloured with ochre. The designs recorded the cloak wearer’s journey and their connections to Country and family.
As Yorta Yorta woman Kimberley Moulton, Senior Curator of South Eastern Aboriginal Collections at Museums Victoria says, these markings were “deep, meaningful, iconography of Country, of totem and of place.”
Often, a cloak contained maps of Country; it told and held, the stories of a person’s identity. Eventually, they were buried in it. You can learn more about how to read a possum skin cloak in this video from Museums Victoria.
A vital revival
During the gold rush period, First Nations peoples sometimes sold possum skin rugs and cloaks to Europeans at home and abroad.
In 1999, Gunditjmara woman Dr Vicki Couzens and fellow artists Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm had the opportunity to view a Gunditjmara cloak from Lake Condah (c.1872), and a Yorta Yorta cloak from Maiden's Punt (c.1853), both of which are held at Melbourne’s Museum Victoria. Darroch, a Yorta Yorta, Mutti Mutti and Boon Wurrung woman, recalls “a sense of the makers being in the room with us”. With permission from Yorta Yorta and Gunditjmara elders, the artists worked to repair the old cloaks and make contemporary replicas.
There has subsequently been a revival of this artisanry among First Nations women. You can see a range of coats by visiting the Culture Victoria website.
Eugene Von Guerard and Johnny The Aboriginal Artist
Austrian-born artist Eugene von Guerard arrived in the Victorian goldfields in 1853. His sketches, paintings and diary entries are of interest to historians and contemporary Wadawurrung people because of the details they reveal about the lives of Traditional Owners. ‘Aborigines Met on the Road to the Diggings’ (1854) is one such painting. Historian Fred Cahir notes that it “depicts [Wadawurrung] people offering possum rugs for sale to white miners on their way to the goldfields.”
Wadawurrung artist Deanne Gilson says: “This painting captures my ancestors on the road from Geelong to Ballarat going to the goldfields. Eugene von Guerard was really good at capturing our traditional adornments like the possum skin cloak…what I really like about his painting is that he has really looked at our culture. He has also, in his diaries, captured our traditional marks of ochre on our faces and bodies and our ceremonial aspects and more the spiritual side of our culture too, which is interesting from a non-Aboriginal perspective.
Through my own Art practice and my mum’s [Marlene Gilson’s] Art practice we are testimony of survival, of telling our stories, re-telling our stories, especially the oral stories passed down to me.
Although this artwork and other western and European artworks seem so removed from myself and my culture, they are very important because through these images, I’ve been able to get almost photographs of my ancestors and use those images within my own practice today.”
Also notable is an exchange of portraits between von Guerard and the young Aboriginal man he knew as ‘Black Johnny the Artist’. The two met in 1855 at the Western District property of James Dawson, a squatter in Kangatong near Warnabool. Their meeting led von Guerard to invite Johnny to use his drawing materials. Johnny produced a coloured pencil drawing of von Guerard.
For more insight from Deanne Gilson into First Nations and European artists’ depictions and interpretations of traditional stories, adornments and cultural practices, see this Geelong Gallery video.
A small, blue-lined notebook filled with drawings by an 18-year old Indigenous artist known as Oscar helps show how the discovery of alluvial gold on Queensland’s Palmer River (Western Kuku Yalanji nation) in 1873 affected the Aboriginal community.
Oscar and other First Nations peoples had to compete with gold miners for their own lands. They were often subjected to violence and forced to adapt to new ways of life.
Through his drawings, Oscar produced a detailed record of what must have been some of the most influential events of his young life.
It is thought that Oscar’s drawings are an autobiographical account of his life. They focus on traditional life in the Palmer River area, contemporary life in the gold field towns of Maytown and Cooktown, the activities of the Queensland Native Mounted Police and aspects of life at Rocklands.
The discovery of gold in north Queensland affected the course of Australian history and the lives of tens of thousands of people. For Oscar, it meant being separated from his culture and Country and having to adapt to a new life as a stockman. His drawings offer a rare First Nations perspective and record of those changing times.
From Oscar’s sketchbook, National Museum of Australia.
Warning: Oscar's sketchbook features scenes of frontier violence which some viewers may find disturbing
Where are the photographs?
Photography was very expensive in the 19th century as the technology was still very new and dangerous to use, and cameras were heavy to carry. Even so, several photographers left behind revealing records of the gold rush era.
Antoine Fauchery and Richard Daintree were both migrants who’d had no luck on the goldfields: Daintree came out from England in 1853, and Fauchery from France in 1852.
In 1857 they joined forces on a photo series titled Sun Pictures of Victoria. The photos included rare scenes of the early goldfields and the landscape scarred by the relentless search for gold. There were also shots of Melbourne, by then the world’s fastest growing metropolis. Using the new collodion wet-plate process, Daintree and Fauchery created albumen silver prints of unusually good quality for the time.
On the Culture Victoria site, you can view more of Daintree and Fauchery’s iconic images of early diggers. Daintree later took the only known photographs of the first goldfields of remote north Queensland.
Perhaps the most important photographic documentation of goldfields life in Australia was discovered by accident in 1951. The descendants of a German gold rush immigrant named Bernhardt Holtermann found a cache of 3500 glass plate negatives in cedar boxes and lacquered tins in a garden shed in Chatswood, New South Wales.
The glass plates showed a mix of miners, shopfronts, portraits, family homes and landscapes in 19th-century mining communities in New South Wales - a rare glimpse of towns and people of the past.
B.O. Holtermann (2nd from left), Richard Ormsby Kerr (centre) and Beyers (2nd from right), with reef gold from Star of Hope mine, American & Australasian Photographic Company, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.
Herbert Street, west side looking north from Mayne Street and showing Barnes' Chemist Shop, Gulgong, American & Australasian Photographic Company, 1870-1875, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.
William T. Lewis, undertaker, Gulgong, American & Australasian Photographic Company, 1870-1875, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.
The Holtermann collection was included on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World register in May 2013. You can view images at the links below:
You’ll notice that Holtermann himself appears in some of these photos of gold discoverers. Perhaps his greatest claim to fame was his association with the Holtermann Nugget.