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Ellen Clacy: a female point of view

Throughout her book A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings in 1852-1853 Ellen Clacy demonstrates what a remarkable woman she is through her detailed and humourous accounts of her adventures in a strange new land. Ellen writes about the Australian wildlife, in particular, the big ants, for the uninitiated English audience.

"The largest ones are called by the old colonists, ‘bull dogs’, and formidable creatures they are - luckily not very common, about an inch and a half long, black, or rusty black, with a red tail. They bite like a crab. They don't - like the English ones - run scared away at the sight of a human being- not a bit of it; Australian ants have more pluck, and will turn and face you. Nay, more, should you retreat, they will run after you with all the impudence imaginable. Often when my organ of destructiveness has tempted me slightly to disturb with the end of my parasol one of the many ant-hills on the way from Melbourne to Richmond, I have been obliged, as soon as they discovered the perpetrator of the attack, to take to my heels and runaway as if for my life."

Ellen Clacy left London in 1852 with her brother bound for the Victorian gold fields. Although seemingly perturbed by her new surroundings, she was able to quickly adapt and prove what an exceptional woman she was. As her part in the adventure she was required to cook, keep camp and wash for gold, all the while she busily wrote in her diary collecting facts and figures and keeping stories of the adventure for her book. When published in 1853 the book proved to be a huge success, winning critical acclaim and selling out quickly.

Bush scene, three women panning for gold
Courtesy of the La Trobe Picture Collection
State Library of Victoria

Clacy’s appeal lies not only in the historical accounts of the burgeoning Melbourne and its surrounding towns, the descriptions of life on the gold fields and their locations, but also in her amusing anecdotes and recounts of the female experience. Her book gave an insight into the experiences of women during the gold rush.

"Wednesday, September 8. – I awoke rather early this morning, not feeling over-comfortable from having slept in my clothes all night, which it is necessary to do on the journey so as never to be unprepared for any emergency. A small corner of my brother’s tent had been partitioned off for my bed-room; it was quite dark, so my first act on waking was to push aside one of the blankets, still wet, which had been my roof during the night, and thus admit air and light into my apartments.

Women on the gold fields

For the benefit of ladies in England, Clacy noted the evidence of women on the gold fields:

"In some tents, the soft influence of our sex is pleasingly apparent: the tins are as bright as silver, there are sheets as well as blankets on the beds, and perhaps a clean counterpane, with the addition of a dry sack or piece of carpet on the ground; whilst a pet cockatoo, chained to a perch, makes noise enough to keep the ‘missus’ from feeling lonely when the good man is at work."

On the treatment of women on the gold fields, Clacy notes: "Although rough in their manners and not over select in their address, the digger seldom willfully injures a woman; in fact, a regular Vandemonian will, in his way, play the gallant with as great a zest as a fashionable about town – at any rate, with more sincerity of heart".

Adventures are not without peril

Never one to let her gender get in the way of adventure Clacy’s life in Australia was far from dreary and she writes numerous accounts of her exploits. One night the digging party became lost in the pitch black of night after walking some distance from their camp. Luckily they eventually spotted a light, and walked towards it.

"But it was a perilous undertaking. Luckily my brother had managed to get hold of a long stick, with which he sounded the way, for either large stones or water-holes would have been awkward customers in the dark; wonderful to relate we escaped both, and when within hailing distance of the light, which we perceived came from a torch held by some one, we shouted with all our remaining strength... Soon – with feelings that only those who have encountered similar dangers can understand – answering voices fell upon our ears… In the excitement of the moment we relinquished all hold of one another and attempted to wade through the mud singly. ‘Stop! Halt!’ shouted more than one stentorian voice; but the warning came too late. My feet slipped – a sharp pain succeeded by a sudden chill – a feeling of suffocation – of my head being ready to burst – and I remembered no more."

Clacy had fallen into one of the many holes that littered the gold fields, which, due to heavy rain, had filled with mud. As Clacy belonged to "the pocket edition of the feminine sex", she was totally immersed in mud and suffered a sprained and cut ankle.

Females to the rescue

On their return journey to Melbourne, Clacy’s digging party was lured into a trap by bushrangers, pretending to be victims of bushrangers themselves. As the digging party worked to free two men, supposedly tied by bushrangers, Clacy and Jessie, an orphan girl the digging party had taken in, were standing to the side "spell-bound by the incident, and incapable of rendering any assistance". When the men tied to the tree were freed, four well-armed men appeared out of the bushes and overwhelmed the digging party.

"It was a fearful sight, and I can hardly describe my feelings as I witnessed it. My brain seemed on fire, the trees appeared to reel around me, when a cold touch acted as a sudden restorative, and almost forced a scream from my lips. It was Jessie’s hand, cold as marble, touching mine. We spoke together in a low whisper, and both seem inspired by the same thoughts, the same hope."

Jessie and Clacy crept from the scene to a small hill that commanded a view of the Black Forest. From the sound of voices they concluded that the bushrangers were leading their men back to the spot they had camped that night.

"Jessie seemed listening intently. The time she had spent in the bush and at the diggings had wonderfully refined her sense of hearing. Suddenly she gave a shrill ‘coo-ey’. The moment after a shot was fired in the direction of our late camp. Jessie turned even paler, but recovering herself, ‘coo-ey’ after ‘coo-ey’ made the echoes ring. I joined my feeble efforts to hers but she was evidently well used to this peculiar call. On a fine still day, this cry will reach for full three miles, and we counted upon this fact for obtaining some assistance.

‘Help is coming’ said Jessie, in a low voice, and once more with increasing strength she gave her call.

Footsteps approached nearer and nearer. I looked up, almost expecting to see those villainous countenances again.

‘Women in danger!’ shouted a manly voice, and several stalwart figures bounded to our side."

Clacy writes that she scarcely remembers what happened after that, she was so dizzy with relief, only that shots were fired at retreating bushrangers and her brother and friends were safe and free.


By Lisa Breen


Mrs Charles Clacy, Thompson, Patricia (ed), A lady’s visit to the gold diggings in 1852 – 1853 Lansdowne Press Pty Ltd, 1963.


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