Newcomers who took the time to record environmental observations were delighted with the natural beauty of Australia and painted the (unmined) countryside in a very positive light.
"Long sweeps for rich verdure, here and there studded with clumps of trees; flowers of every hue springing up spontaneously through the velvety grass; birds of the rarest plumage... there was a luxury of feeling on looking at such a spot... that I could have taken farewell forever of the world, resigned myself to the groves, and relinquished the pursuit of gold..."
It was thought that with the introduction of English plants and animals that Australia could be the ideal rural retreat, just the place to breed cattle, tend exotic gardens and relax under the warm balmy skies. The land was likened to an expansive garden, and the settlers were quick to modify it to their liking. William Howitt noted
"...the English stamp and English character on all their settlements. They are English houses...English farms... English cattle and horses...there are hedges of sweet briar around their gardens, bushes of holly... England reproduces herself in the new lands."
However the enduring gold fever proved a disruption to this ideal of rural harmony. The arrival of thousand of immigrants desperate to find their fortunes caused an undesirable transformation in the peaceful haven. Henry Brown was shocked when he arrived at the Bendigo fields to find "the miners' holes were close together; the whole of the soil had evidently been upturned, the trees were cut down, vegetation destroyed, and the soil that had been thrown out of the holes, gave to the whole valley an appearance of little gravelly hillocks... every little valley of gully that ran down into the broad valley of Bendigo, had evidently been dug over, and presented the same gravelly appearance"
The transformation from tranquil squatting environment to chaotic ugly gold fields was swift and harsh.
"The forest, whose echoes but a few months ago were awakened only by the rushing of a stream, the voice of the bell-bird, or the cry of the jay or laughing jackass, now reverberates the sounds of human industry, wheeling, washing, rocking and digging in all directions."
The fields of Ballarat were described as "like a honeycomb, and the men were clustered together on this spot like bees. It seemed utterly impossible to throw up and remove the quantity of earth in such a very brief period... there were about 2,000 tents and 10,000 diggers in the immediate vicinity of Golden Point..."
Conditions on the crowded fields were atrocious – lack of clean water meant very little drinking water, and even less for cleaning or hygiene purposes. Lack of space and water meant there were few toilet or sewerage facilities. For reasons of sanitation tents were legally supposed to be pitched at least 20 feet apart, but once word got around about a popular dig, tents were pitched wherever a square of land could be found. Store tents and stinking slaughterhouses dotted the fields, the surrounding earth full of immense holes, some as deep as 30 feet. The fields were often likened to huge graveyards where men happily went about "digging their own grave".
Flood and drought plagued the goldfields. During the summer heat dust was kicked up everywhere until it was choking and invaded every crack and crevice. Clean water, scarce at the best of times, became almost as valuable as the gold itself. Festering piles of butchers’ refuse invited blowflies by the thousands. Centipedes, flies, ants and sandflies also contributed to the miners’ plague of terrors. And in the winter the choking dust turned to mud, which seeped into the miners’ holes, flooded their tents and rotted their food.
Life on the gold fields was certainly not for the faint hearted, yet tens of thousands tolerated the conditions in the all-consuming pursuit of gold. Simultaneously they obliterated the natural landscape, causing irreversible change, completely oblivious of the carnage. Willaim Howitt lamented "...every tree is felled, every feature of nature is annihilated... no scene can be more revolting to the eye that is accustomed to the beautiful".
By Yvette Height
Robyn Annear, Nothing but Gold: The Diggers of 1852, The Text Publishing Company, 1999.
Ellen Clacy, A Lady’s Visit to the gold diggings of Australia, Lansdowne Press, 1963.
Don Garden, Catalyst or Cataclysm? Gold Mining and the Environment, Victorian Historical Journal Vol 72, No 1-2, September 2001.
David Goodman, Gold seeking :Victoria and California in the 1850s; Agrarianism and Pastoral, Allen & Unwin, 1994.
Geoff Hocking, To the diggings!: a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in Australia, Lothian Books, 2000.
William Howitt, Land, labour, and gold: or two years in Victoria with visits to Sydney and Van Dieman’s Land, Sydney University Press, 1972.
John Sherer, The Gold-finder of Australia: how he went, how he fared, how he made his fortune, Clarke, Beeton, 1853.
Edward Snell, The life and adventures of Edward Snell, Angus & Robertson and The Library Council of Victoria, 1988.