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The myth and the reality

Back in bleak old England, it was hard not to get caught up in the excitement of the goldfields in a sunnier part of the world. As opposed to gold panning in California, where miners were forced to take the law into their own hands, Australia appeared - to outsiders at least – to be a well-ordered and peaceful place despite its lingering reputation as a penal colony. British law was well established, and while the sea voyage to Australia was long, it was nothing in comparison to the dangerous overland travel required to get to the Californian diggings.

Europe was swept up in a gold fever frenzy, thanks in part to the local press. In 1851 and 1852, Charles Dickens’ periodical Household Words published a constant stream of tales from the goldfields as well as helpful information for the would-be prospector.

Gold mining wannabes in Europe read that gold was pulled out of the holes in the ground in lumps in Australia. John Sherer's colourful The Goldfinder of Australia, published in 1853, is a prime example of the exaggerations and distortions produced through the publisher's need to meet the expectations of a British reading public.

"Everyone was bustling about, getting his things together to be off to the 'Diggings', lest all the gold be gathered before his arrival. I, among the rest, was not idle, for there were news arriving every hour of the immense findings, which some unfortunate fellows were happy enough to light upon without much trouble. We heard little of the failures of any; consequently success was in some measure, assured in one’s own mind before he had even applied himself with his pick to dig the ground."

So often success on the goldfields remained in the minds of the miners rather than in the shape of gold at the end of their shovel. Sherer reported that in the frenzy to find gold, there was "hardly a range or watercourse that had not been delved into in the search for the glittering dross".

"Get rich quick": more fantasy than fact

I have got it
Eugene von Guerard
Courtesy of the La Trobe Picture Collection
State Library of Victoria

Although explorer and anthropologist William Howitt would later become a magistrate and warden of the Gippsland goldfields for 26 years, he wrote of the misleading information about the goldfields, and his subsequent disappointment on first visit in 1852. When you have seen the goldfields, he said, you begin to have a "truer notion of what gold-digging is, than fom the rose-water romancing of the Australian papers".

"We have seen sufficient already to show the falsity of the Arabian Nights’ fables, which the Melbournians have circulated all over the world. The idea of walking up to Mount Alexander in a couple of days, and shovelling up a few sack-bags full of gold, and going home again, is very charming, and quite as true as the romance of Aladdin’s lamp. The history of this, our memorable journey to the goldfields, will show what a gigantic undertaking going on to the diggings really is. And our history is but that of thousands. We are not the only ones who have had hardship, accidents, and sickness to encounter. Hundreds have already gone back again, cursing those who sent such one-sided statements of the goldfields and of the climate."

Death by disappointment

"There seems a general feeling of disappointment; and there is as general an expression of indignation at the inflated accounts, which have drawn such numbers to this colony. They declare that the only object has been to cause a large immigration, at any expense of truth; and that where the accounts were true in some respects, they were not the whole truth; the drawbacks and difficulties being carefully kept out of sight, which make all the difference. Numbers of those who came out in the same ship with us, have abandoned the quest of gold, and a considerable number made their way back."

Howitt told the story of a Dr Godwin, who he described as the "most intelligent and best-informed on his ship". Dr Godwin, said Howitt, "died of sheer disappointment – nothing more or less than a broken heart... The depression of his spirits, on perceiving how cruelly he had been drawn from one end of the world to the other by enormously exaggerated statements, completely overpowered him."

The diggings thrived on "wonderful rumours" he said, most of them untrue, like the tale of the German diggers who were claimed to have found a 150 pound nugget which turned out to be only 100 ounces.

"If the golden stories that reach home, could have thus been put to the test, how many thousands might have spared themselves the circumnavigation of the globe."

Boring fare for food

Aside from the disappointing findings, there also wasn’t much to eat on the diggings. Damper was the official bread of the bush, made from flour and water and put in the ashes to bake. Whatever meat they could get the miners ate in the morning and at night.
Many felt deceived; the diggings weren’t "just a short walk from Melbourne" nor did they know how monotonous the menu would become, said Polish cook and miner Seweryn Korzelinski.

"Such then is the life of a miner. Morning and evening steak, or for a change mutton chops, at midday bread. Coffee or tea number one morning and night, number two as a drink in between [the second cup was always a watered down version the miners called cafio.] And so the same, week in, week out, months and years. Sometimes on Sundays when there is more time and the utensils are available one can make a European-style broth for lunch, make some dough, throw in a few potatoes and cabbage, and lo there is a feast! Only miners from countries where soups are an important part of the diet cook this, but not the English. They prefer plum pudding on Sundays."


By Helen Pitt


Michael Evans, Gold Fever: Life on the Diggings,
from Gold 150, Celebrating 150 Years of Australian Gold-Rush History.

William Howitt, Land, labour, and gold: or two years in Victoria with visits to Sydney and Van Dieman’s Land, Sydney University Press, 1972.

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.


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