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The egalitarian gold fields

In California, Levi Strauss made his fortune selling hard-wearing blue denim jeans to the gold miners. Similarly on the Australian goldfields, it was often the suppliers of goods and services who struck it rich.

At the peak of their popularity in the early 1850s, the gold mines were home to up to 20,000 miners. With such a captive market, business opportunities abounded. Early entrepreneurs, said Ellen Clacy, recognised the potential immediately.

"Carters, carpenters, storemen, wheelwrights, butchers, shoemakers etc, usually in the long run make a fortune quicker than the diggers themselves, and certainly with less hard work or risk of life."

Many men were simply not suited to the hard life on the diggings, she said. She knew of one man, "more fitted for a gay life in London", who found the diggings too dirty and uncivilised and so turned to his childhood hobby of woodwork and earned a massive £400 a year from his work as a carpenter.

As British miner Henry Brown wrote while visiting the diggings: "Often have I heard men, who have carried off honours at their colleges say, Oh! If my father had but brought me up to anything useful, either baker, butcher or stonemason, what a fortune I would make."

Labour shortages

Across the nation, miners, bakers, butchers and brewers left their home towns for the gold fields, causing huge labour shortages especially in rural Australia. Clacy tells the tale of a squatter who came to the goldfields desperately searching for someone to shear his sheep. A group of larrikin miners, former shearers, agreed to do the job, only if the squatter agreed to pay them with all his wool and to work as their cook.

Hundreds of men, of all classes, left their wives and families behind and headed to the diggings. Whole crews ran away from ships and around 80 percent of government employees left their posts in the frenzy. Magistrates, lawyers, physicians, ministers and clerks packed their swags for the diggings, as well as tradesmen and labourers.

"Amidst all this sludge and filth and confusion," wrote William Howitt "were swarms of people, many of them gentlemen of birth and education, all labouring as for life!"

Whatever their social ranking, these men were known as "new chums". On the goldfields education, upbringing and class meant nothing. As gold mining was a lottery, a labourer was just as likely to strike it rich as his master. In fact the labourer, more accustomed to hard, physical labour, was more likely to get rich mining than his pampered boss.

Class system turned on its head

Ease without Opulence
S. T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

Almost overnight the social fabric of Australia changed. At the goldfields the strict British system of class was turned on its head. After the discovery of gold in Ballarat in 1851, "all the aristocratic feelings and associations of [England]," wrote John Sherer, an observer of the gold rush in 1853, were "at once annihilated ... It is not what you were, but what you are, that is the criterion by which you are judged; and although your father might have been my Lord of England-all-over, it goes for nothing in this equalising colony of gold and beef and mutton."

Like the "diggers" of the battlefields in World War I, the diggers of the goldfields played an important part in determining the Australian national identity. They also helped set the stage for a more egalitarian nation, as John Sherer observed.

"Of course the British prevailed; but there were representatives of many of the nations of continental Europe and America present, as the diversity of physiognomy and language amply tested. Besides the national distinctions, there were social distinctions of position, from the liberated convicts up to the professors of the law and the lancet. Yea, even the broken ministers of religion and the teacher of the "young idea" were here to be found pursuing a calling less responsible."

A lesson in multiculturalism

Polish miner Seweryn Korzelinski found the mining experience the ultimate leveller in terms of class and race.

"This very large society comprises men from all parts of the world, all countries and religions, varying dispositions and education, all types of artisans, artists, literary men, priests, pastors and soldiers, sailors, wild tribesmen with tattoos, markings and those deported for crimes – all mixed into one society, all dressed similarly, all forced to forget their previous habits, learnings, customs, manners and occupations.

"As they dig shafts next to each other their outward appearance does not signify their previous importance, worth or mental attainments. A colonel pulls up the earth for a sailor, a lawyer wields not a pen but a spade; a priest lends a match to a Negro’s pipe; a doctor rests on the same heap of earth with a Chinaman; a man of letters carries a bag of earth; many a baron or count has a drink with a Hindu, and all of them hirsute, dusty and muddy, so that their own mothers would not be able to recognise them. Many a one would not, a short while before, bother to look at a fellow with whom he now works. Here we are all joined by a common designation: digger. Only various shades of skin colour and speech denote nationality and origin, but it is impossible to guess previous station in life or background."


By Helen Pitt


Henry Brown, Victoria, as I found it, during five years of adventure in Melbourne, on the roads, and the gold fields; with an account of quartz mining and the great rush to Mount Ararat and Pleasant Creek, Newby, 1862.

Mrs Charles Clacy, A Lady’s Visit to the gold diggings of Australia, Lansdowne Press, 1963.

Seweryn Korzelinski, (translated and edited by Stanley Robe) Life on the goldfields; Memoirs of a Polish migrant; 1850s in Victoria, Mentone Educational Centre, 1994.

Geoffrey Serle, To the Diggings!: a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in Australia, Lothian Books, 2000.

John Sherer, The Gold-finder of Australia: how he went, how he fared, how he made his fortune, Clarke, Beeton, 1853.


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