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Edward Snell: writer and illustrator

"A man who felt at loss without pen and notebook"

Arriving in 1852, Edward Snell, engineer, artist and adventurer detailed his experiences on the gold fields in his reprinted candid diary The life and Adventures of Edward Snell. This man’s personal thoughts, free of an academic high ground, were able to capture the simple and the ordinary, and reveal the minutiae of day-to-day lives of gold diggers.

Unlike many memoirs from the same era, Snell’s diaries were never written for an audience, and are thus free of any edited constraints. From noting each instance that he cooked damper, to the tribulations of digging through wet mud soaked holes in winter, Snell casually reveals much about gold digging and his own independent and light hearted, self deprecating character.

"Finished washing the load which produced about 1 1/2 ozs., bought a bushel of oats £1.5.0 - made a mutton pasty - regular screamer."

Snell had been keeping a record of daily events long before arriving in the gold fields of Victoria. The personal style of the diaries is characterised quite acutely by his constant ramblings over his love affair with an Adelaide woman Rosie Masson, that intermittently appear throughout his diary. In fact, editor Tom Griffiths occasionally footnotes sections where Snell himself had crossed out whole pages relating to this painful love saga. It is only when he believed that he had been cured of his "love fit", that he and his party joined the heavy road traffic towards the gold discoveries.

A visual history

Sketch from the Edward Snell Diary
Courtesy of the Australian Manuscripts Collection
State Library of Victoria
MS 8970

Inadvertently, Edward Snell has created one of the most vivid histories of the Australian gold rush. The sketchings in his diary are of as much value as the written word. Snell took great care in sketching his surroundings, and compliments much of his flowing and detailed thoughts with drawings of the diggings, insects, animals, landscapes and people. Through many of his almost comic sketches, Snell’s view of the gold fields is given emphatic vibrancy.

"Friday April 9th 1852 - by Jove while I’ve been sketching, I’ve forgotten the damper and its burnt black as coal, there it is on the right hand side of the sketch - wouldn’t I have blown up Wornum if he had done it – as there is no one but myself to kick up a row with and as I'm tired of sketching I’ll just light a fresh pipe and meditate about it."

Sketch from the Edward Snell Diary
Courtesy of the Australian Manuscripts Collection
State Library of Victoria
MS 8970

Many drawings are accompanied by detailed explanations, but others such as his sketch of "Society at Bendigo", are subtly preceded with Snell’s irreverent humour.

"...Made a sketch of some of the queer characters at the diggins."

Society at Bendigo
Sketch from the Edward Snell Diary
Courtesy of the Australian Manuscripts Collection
State Library of Victoria
MS 8970

Snell captures the haggard and tired faces of the many dubious characters, all of which he found to be his contemporaries on the diggings. Torn clothes covered with patches adorn the bodies of diggers overburdened with tools and the strains of their labour. Unshaven and smoking pipes, the queer expressions on many of their faces capture a motley kaleidoscope of vagabonds and desperados that litter the many diggings around Bendigo creek.

A precious country for robbery and murder

Snell was struck early by the lawless chaos of the Victorian gold fields. Surrounded by the clamour of thousands of diggers turning the landscape upside down in the search for gold, random gunfire, murder and theft was commonplace.

"This is a precious country for robbery and murder. I wish I had a revolver, its hardly safe to be about even in day time without firearms, and my rifle is rather cumbersome to me and every body here seems to be provided in that way and about 1500 shots are fired in the Golden Gully every night."

"Bob brought down another load at night with the intelligence that Tom had been out at 12 0'clock on Sunday night robbing another person's hole. If he cuts these sort of capers I hope he'll be caught at it and then his life won't be worth twopence at the diggings."

The irreverent observations of Snell’s diaries provide an insight in the daily life of not only Snell, a digger also searching for his fortune, but of life on the chaotic gold fields. With the lack of an adequate police presence, the Bendigo diggings were fair game for every desperate and questionable character among the tens of thousands that had flocked there. On many occasions however, Snell is able to unearth beauty in the midst the clamour of anarchy and bedlam.

"The Diggins look very pretty at night, thousands of fires in all directions, the flash of a gun or pistol every few seconds, two or more rows always going on, and every here and there the noise of a fiddle playing Nancy Dawson, Jack’s the Lad…make the place quite lively."

"Oh for a piece of luck and Hurrah for old England"

A well-educated engineer, Snell did not necessarily need to rush to the gold diggings, however the sense of adventure and independence had captured his imagination, and was always philosophical about his fortunes.

"I think on the whole gold digging, though a dirty business, pays better than engineering."

After achieving moderate success on the gold fields, Edward Snell travelled to Melbourne, where he was to be more widely known for his involvement in the construction of the first Geelong - Melbourne railway in 1857 before returning to England a year later, where he passed away in 1880.


By Ben Hoban


Edward Snell, Griffiths Tom (ed), The Life and Adventures of Edward Snell: the illustrated diary of an artist, engineer, and adventurer in the Australian Colonies (1849-1859), Angus and Robertson and The State Library Council, 1988.


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