Daily Life
on the Diggings


What was daily life like on the diggings? Can you imagine what people’s homes looked like, what they ate, and how they took care of their health?

Barkly Navarre Goldfield, Richard Daintree (photographer), 1832-1878, State Library of Victoria.

If you walked around the goldfields, you might have seen all sorts of people going about their day. There were new arrivals from all over the world and First Nations peoples, on whose lands the diggings were built. There were adults and children - and lots of dogs. Whose experiences do you know most about, and whose are less familiar? In this section, we piece together what life was really like for the different people on the diggings. Find out what they saw, heard and did day to day.

First Disruptions


This section was contributed by Deanne Gilson and Tammy Gilson, Wadawurrung Traditional Custodians.

“Traditional Aboriginal culture in Australia has been eroded by colonisation. First disruptions for Wadawurrung people saw the bonds between ancestral Country, each other and families broken and stripped away for generations that followed. They still are today.

Country is considered ‘the mother’ along with the earth and the body all viewed together as one, all connected and living to support each other in order to be healthy. Wadawurrung people believe there is no separation between the earth and the body, the cosmos and the under Country; Aboriginal people are part of Country.

When white people arrived on the diggings in Ballarat from 1851, Aboriginal people were having to deal with enormous changes as the population exploded in Ballarat.

Wadawurrung people adapted to the new life on the goldfields with some working alongside the white people. The survival of Wadawurrung people came with the skill and ability to sell their artefacts and adornments. Becoming labourers, domestic hands to the white women, minding their children in the camps and even giving gold mining a go themselves.

Marlene Gilson, Ballarat, My Country, 2019, acrylic on linen, Image courtesy of Martin Browne Contemporary. Photo credit Peter Freund.

The new ways saw Wadawurrung trade become an important commodity, especially since Ballarat’s harsh climate conditions meant the white people needed to keep warm. Possum skin cloaks, traditionally worn by Aboriginal people, were hand stitched with kangaroo sinew, traded and sold. Eugene Von Guerard painted a work that captures my ancestors trading in skins. Entitled, Aborigines met on the road to the diggings, 1854, the painting shows that the trade was important for survival and that they were still on Country at this time. Traditional grass baskets, wooden coolamons carved from scar trees and stone tool artefacts became highly sought after for practical use on the goldfields, as well as being taken or collected by historians who would ship them back to countries overseas.

Many Aboriginal people began to starve as the murnong or yam daisy (our main food source) would be gone, eaten roots and all by the sheep and cattle brought here by the first colonisers. Once the murnong tubers were gone, they did not grow back. Nothing was left in the ground to grow. Diets of First Nations peoples would be changed forever, with many never recovering. These critical points in history altered and damaged the DNA of Wadawurrung people.”

Eating & Drinking


Images of the diggings often show an improvised main street where tent shops sold supplies or served as eating-houses, teahouses, theatres and sly grog shops. Meat hung from the verandah of the butcher’s shop, often covered in flies (you knew where the butcher was by the rotting meat smell.) Hawkers walked around, shouting about their wares. People from different backgrounds crossed paths and mingled in this area, and dogs ran riot underfoot.

Butcher shop, Home Rule, American & Australasian Photographic Company, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Mutton & Damper

In the early days, there was a lack of variety of food, and it was expensive because of the difficulty of getting supplies to the goldfields. Most diggers lived on mutton (the meat from older sheep), tea, sugar, and flour, which they used to make damper, a campfire bread. This quickly got very unhealthy – and unappetising.

“All the meat that we got at the diggings was intolerably tough, partly because squatters were killing off […] the scabbiest sheep and those worn to skeletons with foot-rot; and partly because it was obliged to be eaten immediately, on account of the heat and the flies.”
- William Howitt

Finding bush tucker

Marlene Gilson, Black Swamp-Lake Wendouree, 2016, acrylic on linen, Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ballarat. Photo credit Peter Freund.

Some diggers looked to the bush for an alternative. Diggers’ letters and diaries mention a large menu of bush food, including parrots and cockatoos (often baked into pies), kangaroo, wallaby, wombat, ant eggs, pigeon, parakeets, magpies, bandicoot, wattlebirds, quail, eels, native fish, dingo and possum. Occasionally echidna, ‘jackass pie’ (kookaburra) and other wild fowl were placed in the billy. Almost all miners had guns, but most lacked the skill to catch much bush food. Miner John Chapple confessed he had, “tried night and morning for some game but could only get a teal”. Instead the new arrivals turned to First Nations peoples for help; the Wadawarrung people of the Ballarat area of Victoria often sold eels to hungry diggers in Ballarat.

All this hunting put increasing strain on the local animal population, which First Nations peoples had long managed very carefully.

Skilled farmers, prized chefs

Chinese gardener, ca. 1893, G. W. Wilson, State Library of Queensland.

Chinese gold seekers played an important role in improving the food situation on the goldfields. Miners arriving from China often worked and lived in teams that included a gardener and a cook. Many of these new arrivals were highly skilled farmers who excelled at growing fresh fruit and vegetables. Some became hawkers and storekeepers and kept the entire diggings fed and provisioned. Chinese storekeepers also imported favourite foods for the Chinese community from home. One receipt from a Chinese merchant shows that tea, rice, pork, pigs’ trotters, cabbage and joss paper (used for religious ceremonies) could all be obtained at the diggings in Creswick in 1865.

“John Alloo’s Chinese restaurant”, depicted in S.T. Gill’s famous sketch, was a popular eatery among the diggers of the Ballarat goldfields. The owner was Chin Thum Lok, who was born in Guandong province and may have come to Australia as a indentured labourer. His restaurant, known for its slogan “Soups always ready”, served European food including plum puddings, jam tarts, roasted and boiled joints of meat, and vegetables.



Life under canvas

Many of the images of the goldfields housing show overcrowded tent encampments. Diggers often arrived with just a roll of canvas and looked for an open piece of ground or chopped down trees to make space and pitch a tent. Inside there was usually enough room for up to two people to sleep, eat, and store tools and belongings. It was a constant battle to keep out the flies, cockroaches, spiders and other insects. Some of the English diggers had lived in worse conditions as convicts or in workhouses. Other wealthier visitors, like French traveller Antoine Fauchery, seemed to romanticise the experience: “Life in a tent made of two thicknesses of canvas and provided with a vast fireplace [a campfire] is just as comfortable as in the houses of the large European cities, cheaper even than in Paris and much healthier than in London.”

Family and tent, Gulgong, American & Australasian Photographic Company, 1870-1875, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Exposed to the elements

The weather was a big worry for tent dwellers. In his diary, Edward Snell describes the aftermath of a fierce storm. “Friday June 10th 1852 On getting up this morning found our tent blown all on one side and the outer covering (of blankets) half stripped off - Heard of some narrow escapes through trees falling one had fallen in the long Gully and completely crushed a cradle and tubs at which two men were working.”

“Our mia”

Bark huts – modelled on First Nations peoples’ housing – provided sturdier shelter. The word gunya, borrowed from the Dharug language (from the Traditional Owners of lands to the north, west and south of Sydney), means ‘dwelling’ and was used on the New South Wales diggings to mean a temporary shelter usually made from sheets of bark and branches.

On the Victorian goldfields, diggers called these shelters mia mias based on the Wadawurrung language. European miners’ documents often refer to mia mias. For example, an 1851 map depicting the Bendigo goldfields includes references to “women’s mia mia” and “our mia”. Frances Perry, a visitor to Buangor in Victoria in April 1852, described some of the First Nations peoples’ mia mias:

We took a walk amongst the wooded hills, and came upon the largest (deserted) native encampment we had ever seen. One of the Mia Mias…was as large as an ordinary-sized circular summer-house, and actually had rude seats all round.

Gold miners outside a bark hut, Queensland, ca. 1870, Richard Daintree (photographer), State Library of Queensland.

First Nations peoples’ expertise at bark cutting (a special art that ensured the tree stayed undamaged) was well-known among miners. First Nations peoples also made money by providing bark for hut roofs and firewood. The furniture inside might include a table constructed from a shipping container or box and chairs made from tree stumps. Possum skin rugs created and sold by First Nations peoples helped keep out the cold.

Chinese camps

When Chinese miners arrived on the goldfields, they often worked in highly efficient teams. Their success led to envy and resentment from some European and North American miners. Racist attacks and violence were perpetrated against Chinese people. The Victorian government responded in 1855 by separating Chinese miners and imposing restrictions on them.

New Chinese arrivals to a town were required to report and live in a segregated camp called a Protectorate. Each Protectorate had a head-man and special police. Restricting Chinese people to protectorates also made it easier for authorities to collect the special taxes imposed on Chinese residents.

View in Chinese Camp, Ballarat, John Henry Harvey (photographer) ca. 1875-1938, State Library of Victoria.

The model for the Chinese Protectorates was the Aboriginal Protectorate system set up in Victoria in the 1830s. That system had claimed to protect Aboriginal peoples, but actually it forcibly separated communities and imposed strict controls over people’s lives.

Life for Children


Miners and two children on a mine head, Gulgong area, American & Australasian Photographic Company, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

I like the diggings very well I have washed myself about a pennyweight [2 grams] of gold besides a match box full of specimens [gold in quartz]. The other day I went with Mamma and Papa over to the quarry reef. There we saw a gentleman of the name of B Farrell he has one of the richest claimes in the reef He has made thousands of pounds...You will laugh when I tell you what I have been doing today, making a kennel for a puppy I have not yet got it is a very nice one made of latice. Mr Sundy is going to give me the puppy this week We began school today.

- Lucy Birchall's letter to her grandmother, 1855

Growing up on the goldfields may not have been as fun as you imagine. Schools were set up in a large tent for diggers’ children, but many did not attend regularly because it was too expensive for their parents to send them.

There were often a lot of responsibilities and pressures on children on the diggings; children’s chores commonly included looking after younger siblings, gathering firewood, getting water from the creek, washing clothes, cooking, taking care of horses and even searching for gold.

Deadly Threats 

All children who lived on the goldfields faced dangers. They could easily fall down mineshafts, be burnt by open fires or be trodden on by horses. The living conditions and harsh weather were terrible, but the biggest threat was disease. It was common for children on the goldfields to die from scarlet fever, whooping cough, pneumonia, measles, diphtheria and tuberculosis. Unsanitary conditions meant that children also died from diseases such as dysentery, cholera and typhoid.

Graduates of the Goldfields

Of those who survived a childhood on the goldfields, some went on to be prominent Australians. Eileen Joyce, a miner’s daughter, became a world-famous pianist. She later said she was grateful for her childhood, “spent running wild in Kalgoorlie and learning to play the ‘crack-pot piano’” in her uncle’s saloon. Quong Tart, a successful teahouse owner and Chinese community leader in Sydney, was only 9 years old when he left his parents and moved halfway across the world with his uncle to the Braidwood goldfields in New South Wales. Australian fashion designer Jenny Kee's father, Billy Kee, was born on the goldfields of North Queensland. Jenny describes his childhood as, “crazy as the American Wild West “. Even as a child, he was a brilliant cook and known for his kangaroo tail soup and pigeon pie.

Myth vs Reality


There were many myths about the ease of finding tonnes of gold in a peaceful land called Australia. These myths – accompanied by heavy marketing and gold rush-themed board games and merchandise – created a frenzy all around the world. Some of those who rushed to Australia were seeking an exciting adventure while others hoped to change their family’s fortunes and ‘get rich quick’.

The Diggins: poetically and pictorially portrayed, from the Log-Book of Lubin Landsman, late of Limehouse, London, B. Clayton (artist), ca.1852, State Library of Victoria.

Murray’s Guide to the Gold Diggings, published in London in 1852, contributed to this myth by assuring all those seeking wealth they would find it in on the Australian goldfields: “[Gold] lies on the surface, and after a shower of rain, you may see it with the naked eye…The gold is found all over the country nearly, and there is enough to satisfy, reasonably all the people that may come...”

A surprise on arrival

Gold rush hopefuls only learnt the harsh realities of life on the Australian goldfields upon arrival. Keen to dispel the media hype, journalist and novelist William Howitt, who visited the diggings in 1852, had recommendations for anyone contemplating trying their luck there:

Chinese men fossicking for gold in a gully near Beechworth, Victoria, ca. 1880 - ca. 1910, State Library of Victoria.

“[A]dvise him first to go and dig a coal-pit; then work a month at a stone-quarry; next sink a well in the wettest place he can find, of at least fifty feet deep; and finally, clear out a space of sixteen feet square of a bog twenty feet deep; and if, after that he still has a fancy for the gold-fields, let him come; understanding, however, that all the time he lives on heavy unleavened bread, on tea without milk, and on mutton or beef without vegetables, and as tough as India-rubber.”

The reality of life on the Australian goldfields was also a brutal shock for some Chinese gold seekers in Australia. It is believed they called the Australian goldfields Xin Jin Shan, or New Gold Mountain. Most of them came from Guangdong province in the south of China where civil war and natural disasters had destroyed their livelihood as farmers. Lum Khen Yang – later a successful merchant in Melbourne – described the situation in Taishin:

“Our money and property were plundered. We had not the means of purchasing a morsel to put into our mouths, and there appeared no way by which we could extricate ourselves from poverty… We happily heard intelligence regarding a new gold-field in an English colony. We were told that men from all parts of the world were congregated there ... that the people were peaceably disposed, and that the country abounded in everything. The idea of going to such a country was delightful.”

While some of these new arrivals like Lum Khen Yang prospered in Australia, others were weighed down by the difficulties of mining and the added hardships imposed on Chinese migrants. Those pressures included heavy taxes and racist harassment and violence.

When the gold dried up, many migrants felt trapped and isolated in Australia and they did not have the money to get back home.



The goldfields were over-crowded, and sanitation was terrible. Raw sewerage ran in open drains and, together with mining waste, it contaminated the water supply. Under these conditions, diseases like dysentery, typhoid and cholera spread quickly. The dangers of poor hygiene were not well understood in the gold rush era. Many people still believed that disease was spread by bad smells or “miasmas” rather than from poor hygiene or contaminated water.

The invalid digger, S. T Gill 1818-1880 (artist), 1869, State Library of Victoria.

By the 1890s, when the gold rush took off in Western Australia, the link with bad hygiene was clearer. Raymond Radcliffe, a visitor to the crowded, unsanitary tent town of Kalgoorlie, observed that a “mining camp of 10,000 people innocent of sewers or dust-carts forms a unique smell.”

Insect Attacks

European miners and visitors’ accounts are filled with concerns about the flies, ants, centipedes, scorpions and redback spiders they encountered on the goldfields. Antoine Fauchery described the Ballarat fields as having, “as many holes as a sieve, seeming to have been turned upside down by cyclopean ants.” William Howitt wrote of the flies; “...at your meals, in a moment myriads come swooping down, cover the dish and the meat on your plates till they are one black moving mass.”

Bad work conditions

Unsafe working conditions led to many accidents on the goldfields. Mine shafts – the deep hole, or tunnel, that gives access to a mine – were unstable and often collapsed onto miners. Mines were filled with poisonous, deadly fumes and accidents with machinery were common. Those who did not die in a mining accident could still end up injured for life.

The closeness of diggers’ claims meant that earth collapse was a frequent event. Many of the mine shafts the Chinese miners worked had been abandoned by European miners. They were made particularly dangerous by worn or insufficient timbering and rain.

Medical care

There were few doctors on the goldfields, and those that were there charged a lot of money for a consultation. Many were not qualified, and the newspapers were full of advertisements for suspect potions and remedies that claimed to cure everything. “It is no joke to get ill at the diggings; doctors make you pay for it,” wrote Ellen Clacy, “many are regular quacks, and these seem to flourish best.” Because doctors did not know about the importance of handwashing and sterilisation, minor injuries often became septic and many progressed to serious illnesses or death.

Sovereign Hill, SBS

A positive health measure was the introduction of vegetable gardens on the goldfields, largely thanks to Chinese migrants. Eating fresh vegetables helped to keep away scurvy and other diseases caused by malnutrition.

Traditional Chinese medicine also became popular on the goldfields through the work Chinese herbalists and acupuncturists. One of the most famous was the travelling herbalist Kwong Sue Duk. Kwong worked on the Californian goldfields before migrating to Darwin (then known as Palmerston) in 1875. He established a general store trading under the name of Sun Mow Loong where he offered treatment for many diseases and ailments. Later he travelled throughout the goldfields, towns and countryside in Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory, providing relief for many sufferers of arthritis, fevers and muscle strain. His great granddaughter is the Australian chef Kylie Kwong



The multilingual diggings

At the time of the Eureka Stockade in 1854, there were diggers from at least 20 different countries on the Ballarat diggings. One of the tasks of Italian miner and Stockade participant Raffaelo Carboni was to translate for the non-English-speaking Europeans, who were mainly French, Italian and German speakers. But Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, Welsh, Greek, Swedish, Russian, Spanish and Polish were also spoken on the diggings.

Chinese residents set up camps according to their village dialect or ethnic unit. Many spoke See Yup language, a variety of Cantonese used by residents of four counties south-west of Guangzhou. However, there were also speakers of other dialects on particular goldfields. The culturally distinct Hakka minority tended to live separately to Cantonese speakers. Ballarat had a significant minority of Fujianese, also known as Amoy Chinese.

Chinese translation of the Gold Fields Regulations and Gold Fields Act, 1873, State Library of Queensland.

Communication strategies

How did all the different language communities on the diggings communicate? Interpreters and multilingual people had important jobs. One of their tasks was to translate new information, such as fire and licensing rules, into different languages.

English language phrasebooks could also be helpful. Today the Chinese Museum’s collection in Melbourne includes an original Cantonese-English phrasebook from the goldfields. It was written in 1857. As well as more predictable phrases like “Can you employ me?” and “There is a ferry boat here”, it includes the sentences “Why did you strike me?' and “He took away my claim”. This phrasebook belonged to Maa Loeuy, who set sail from China in 1866. On the Victorian goldfields, he added the names William and Henry to his Chinese name. Later he became a storekeeper in Launceston. You can hear some phrases from the book here.

Religion and Spirituality


Sunday camp meeting, Forest Creek, S. T. Gill (artist) 1818-1880, State Library of Victoria.

Christian rites

In the early days of the gold rush, Christian diggers had no churches and there were hardly any priests or clergy available. This meant that many services were performed in the open air by laypeople. Many Christian diggers observed Sunday as a day of rest, adhering to traditional practices.

Christian funeral services were organised soon after the death. The service would usually include a reading from the bible, the singing of a hymn and the body's burial. Attendees would pass around a collection hat for the family of the deceased. Those relatives might mourn for two to three years. During this time, they would dress in black and would not entertain guests or even go out unless to attend a church service.

Ballarat’s Jewish community

The gold rush of the 1850s brought many Jewish migrants to Ballarat, predominantly from England, Germany and Poland. Many worked as shopkeepers. Ballarat’s first synagogue was built in 1855.

Chinese spiritual practices

Chinese joss house Bright, Vic, Alice Manfield (photographer) 1878-1960, ca. 1900-1930, State Library of Victoria.

Goldfields with large populations of Chinese diggers often had temples, which were known by the European name of Joss Houses. These were places of worship as well as community centres. The main three Chinese religious groups were Confucians, Taoists and Buddhists, but there were also Chinese Christians and Muslims on the diggings.

Bendigo’s Joss House Temple is today one of the few remaining buildings of its type in Australia. Built in the 1870s, it was one of seven Chinese temples in the area when Chinese people made up 20 percent of the local population. The main temple is dedicated to Guan-Di (Kwan Gong), the god of war and prosperity, who was seen as “a wise judge, guide, protector and provider of wealth and prosperity; attributes sought by the Chinese inhabitants of this strange land.” The temple was made from locally handmade bricks and painted red – symbolising happiness, strength and vitality

Chinese funerals had to be adapted to the realities of goldfields life in Australia. There were hardly any women, children or grandchildren on the diggings so often ritual burning had to be performed by members of the deceased's club or association acting as their substitute family. The ceremonies involved ritual burning, the carrying of banners and offerings of food, incense and paper tokens.

Chinese Rites at the Graves of Their Countrymen, Robert Bruce, ca. 1839-1918, State Library of Victoria.

Laying the dead to rest

The graves of some of the 40,000 Chinese people who came out to Australia during the gold rush can be found at town cemeteries across the country. Up to a thousand Chinese graves remain at White Hills Cemetery in Bendigo. Many of the headstones are written entirely in Chinese characters.

Often the remains of the deceased do not lie under their grave. Instead, sometime after their burial, their remains were dug up and taken back to their homeland. It has been suggested the custom came from the idea among the Chinese community that Australia was not their final resting place. After a person’s remains were disinterred, their bones were cleaned then sent in packages or jars on a ship back to Hong Kong. The remains were then taken to the person’s home village, where they were laid to rest with ancestors.

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