So what did the diggings look like? If you imagined rows of snow-white tents camped on long green grass under the shade of leafy trees, you would be wrong. One miner's first impression described the diggings as dismal as a graveyard. Another said it looked like an immense army camp. A special correspondent of the Melbourne Argus newspaper, whose visit to the Victorian goldfields was published in March 1852, said there was barely a blade of grass or anything green on the goldfields: it had all been so trodden and worn by the thousands of feet crossing it each day.
"The road which winds along the creek through the diggings is, from the constant traffic, ten times more dusty than even dusty Melbourne, and the heavy gusts of wind which pour through the gullies with great violence whirl it up in clouds, and scatter it far and near upon everything around. The newly-erected tent does not, therefore long retain its brilliant whiteness; a few blasts powder it effectually, and give it the same sombre, indescribable, dusty hue that distinguishes its neighbours, and soon take off every appearance of freshness."
Worth the 16,000 mile journey
The population of the goldfields was nearly all male. Originally there was one woman to every six men, but by 1854 the ratio had changed to one woman to every four men. One of the early female arrivals at the diggings, Ellen Clacy, remembers going through a huge forest of gum trees when suddenly the diggings burst into view.
"Never shall I forget the scene, it well repaid a journey even of 16,000 miles. The trees had been all cut down; it looked like a sandy plain, or one vast unbroken succession of countless gravel pits – the earth was everywhere turned up – men’s heads in every direction were popping up and down from their holes ... The rattle of the cradle, as it swayed to and fro, the sounds of the pick and the shovel, the busy hum of so many thousands, the innumerable tents, the stores with large flags hoisted above them, flags of every shape, colour, and nation, from the lion and the unicorn of England to the Russian eagle, the strange yet picturesque costume of the diggers themselves, all contributed to render the scene novel in the extreme."
The Gold Diggings Of Victoria In Five Views Taken On The Spot By D. Tulloch
Courtesy of the La Trobe Picture Collection
State Library of Victoria
Most recent arrivals to the goldfields could not help but be impressed with all the activity taking place.
"It was like a humming bee hive," said Polish miner Seweryn Korzelinski, "with everyone animated by hope."
Briton John Sherer, on his first day at the goldfields in 1853, wrote this account:
"By the evening we were overlooking Bendigo Creek where, for a moment, you must imagine yourself placed, and seeing, as far as the eye can reach, nothing but a moving mass of human beings.
"The tents, in certain spots, are crowded together with all the compactness of a city street, and tenanted by the creatures of every country, actuated by the passions of every clime. The Government Commissioner’s establishment or residence is apparent by the mounted police on one side and the native police on the other; and a number of stores for the sale of necessaries of a gold-digger’s life are here and there scattered like so many detached shops in the middle of a town. You must not expect, however, that their frontages are windowed like those in Regent Street or St Paul’s churchyard, or defended from the attack of a midnight burglar by ponderous doors locks and bars. No, no nothing of this kind; the light penetrates the receptacles as best it can, whilst their property is guarded by the vigilance of its owners, who are usually supplied with a few formidable weapons ready charged for any danger that may invade them. The whole scene is one of busy labourious life. 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."
Sherer was so mesmerised on his first day at the diggings, that it was nearly dark, "long after the gun fired from the Commissioner’s tent signalling the end of digging for the day", that he set up camp.
Like pits in a large tanner’s yard
Before he left England, Henry Brown had in his mind what the goldfields would look like. But the picture in his mind’s eye was nothing like the reality.
"If it had not been for the bright sun, and clear, exhilarating atmosphere, the scene would, to a stranger untouched by the gold fever, have been more saddening than exciting.
"The sun was nearly setting, and the wearied miners, mostly dressed in red and blue woolen shirts and broad cabbage-tree hats, were beginning to pick up their tools to retire for the day, leaving the ground so completely holed that it resembled the empty pits in a large tanner’s yard more than any other object I have seen."
But the scene by night drew a very different appraisal.
"The Diggins look very pretty at night," gold miner and artist, Edward Snell wrote in his diary in 1852. "Thousands of fires in all directions, the flash of a gun or pistol every few seconds, two or three rows always going on, and every here and there the noise of a flute or fiddle playing Nancy Dawson, Jack’s the lad, Paddy will you now, and similar tunes, make the place quite lively. I’ve stowed my cash in the flour sack for security but don’t think it’s quite safe even there."
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.
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.