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No place for a lady

Most of the men who flocked to the diggings in the early years of the Australian gold rush left their wives and family at home. The harsh life of the goldfields was considered too rough for a respectable woman. It was not long, however, before women travelled to the goldfields, and as early as 1851 there were women digging for gold alongside their husbands. An 1854 census of the Ballarat goldfields found there were 4023 women compared to 12,660 men living on the diggings and only 5 percent of these women were single.

California widows

The women left behind to fend for themselves were often known as California Widows. Groups of deserted women who lived in Melbourne moved into one house for security and protection. Women who accompanied their husbands from overseas however, were rarely so comfortable. A "canvas town" sprung up in Emerald Hill, now known as South Melbourne. The population was largely destitute women, left in Melbourne to care for their children, who wondered if they would ever see their husbands return from the diggings. Most took in washing or did manual labour to survive.

Other women refused to be left in Melbourne.

A pocket edition adventure

Ellen Clacy, a young, single, middle class woman from England, panned for gold alongside her brother and their companions. At the height of gold fever she captured the imagination of Europe when she published memoirs of her adventure A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia. Ellen wrote of the difficult and rainy journey from Melbourne to Forest Creek. She travelled on the dray, her back resting against a bag of flour and her feet on a block of cheese. At night she slept fully-clothed in a partitioned area of her brother's tent.

Neither mud and rain, nor frightening tales of bushrangers could dampen her enthusiasm for gold digging. Ellen describes the diggings as "a novel scene! – thousands of human beings engaged in digging, wheeling, carrying, and washing, intermingled with no little grumbling, scolding and swearing".

Bush scene, three women panning for gold
Courtesy of the La Trobe Picture Collection
State Library of Victoria

Along with her daily routine of cooking for the men in her mining party and panning for gold in the dirt they dug up, she managed a few adventures. Ellen, her brother and another of their mining party were lost in the woods after a storm one Sunday night when Ellen fell into a flooded hole. Although the hole was only five feet deep, the self-described "pocket edition" sized woman was completely submerged in mud and water. Many on the diggings drowned by falling into flooded holes, but Ellen survived with only a sprained ankle.

The cross dressing diggeress

Ellen didn't recognise the woman who nursed her ankle. The last time they met she looked to Ellen like a young man. A few months earlier in England, Harriette Walters found herself destitute and alone. The great aunt with whom she had been living died suddenly and Harriete's income died with her.

Harriette's husband had left for Australia only weeks before. She was determined to join him. Her fare to Australia was earned by working as a nanny aboard the ship which, by twist of fate, arrived in Australia three weeks before her husband.

Melbourne was a dangerous town for an unaccompanied female.

"She possessed little money, lodgings and food were at an awful price, and employment for a female, except of the rough sort, was not easily procured."

She decided being a woman was her greatest danger so she disguised herself as a young man.

"Being of a slight figure, and taking the usual colonial costume – loose trowsers, a full, blue serge shirt, fastened around the waist by a leather belt, and a wide-awake [hat] – Harriette passed very well for what she assumed to be a young lad just arrived from England".

Dressed as a young man she found a job near the wharf where she worked and slept for three weeks until her husband arrived.

Harriette retained her disguise and was camping by the Yarra when Ellen Clacy and her brother wandered by and asked kindly for a drink of water. Ellen recalled she was struck by the young man's courteous and generous nature.

Another young woman from a good family in Dublin opted for masculine attire on the diggings.

"I was resolved to accompany my brother and his friends to the diggings and I felt that to do so in my own proper costume and character, would be to run unnecessary hazard. Hence my change. I cut my hair into a very masculine fashion; I purchased a broad felt hat, a sort of tunic or smock of coarse blue cloth, trousers to conform, boots of a miner and thus parting with my sex for a season ... behold me an accomplished candidate for mining operations and all the perils and inconveniences they might be supposed to bring."

Like Ellen, she lived in a partitioned area of her brother's tent. She cooked, washed clothes and guarded the gold.

"Of course my sex is generally known. I am called 'Mr Harry'; but no one intrudes the more on that account."

A doctor's wife

One woman who ran a successful store on the Ballarat goldfields was Martha Clendinning. Her husband George was a doctor who brought his family to Victoria from England in 1852. He ventured to the goldfields with his brother to look for gold, leaving his wife in Melbourne. Unwilling to stay in Melbourne, Martha and her sister decided to make the 95 mile trip to Ballarat. They brought with them bedsteads, mattresses, blankets, chairs and cooking utensils and set up a store in the diggings. This idea was met with ridicule from their husbands. It was not considered normal behaviour for respectable women of the time to operate a business.

Despite the men's objections, the sisters opened their store in the front of their tent, selling tea, coffee, sugar, candles, tobacco, jam, bottled fruit, cheese, dress materials and baby clothes. The pair were very proud of their flourishing store which, unlike many other stores on the diggings, did not sell sly grog (illegal alcohol). They were required to pay 40 per year for a store-keeper's licence.

After her sister returned to Melbourne, Martha continued to run the store on her own until 1855. She then decided to close her small business, which by then faced competition from larger businesses. The cost of a storekeeper's licence was also becoming too expensive. Martha's husband could now afford to support the family, and social attitudes towards roles for middle class women were quickly changing as Ballarat became a more settled community. Middle class women were expected to be wives and mothers, not businesspeople.

From the Sovereign Hill Education Service online Research Notes , Women on the Goldfields.

The sly grog seller

Escaped and ex-convicts, prostitutes, temporary brides and sly grog sellers made up a large part of the female population on the gold fields. Ellen Clacy and her mining party moved their tent to avoid a sly grog shop owner they named "the amiable female". The woman passed the day selling and drinking spirits, swearing and smoking.

"She was a most repulsive looking object. A dirty gaudy-coloured dress hung unfastened about her shoulders, coarse black hair unbrushed, uncombed, dangled about her face, over which her evil habits had spread a genuine bacchanalian glow, whilst in a loud masculine voice she uttered the most awful words that ever disgraced the mouth of a man – ten thousand times more awful when proceeding from a woman’s lips".

Harsh realities for any woman

For any class of woman, life on the diggings was difficult. Women usually had to face the hardships of childbirth without trained medical assistance. At this time women relied on help from other women or midwives. Infections were common and many women and their children died during childbirth. Diseases such as whooping cough, measles, diphtheria, scarlet fever were common on the goldfields and the child mortality rate was high. In the early 1850s, one quarter of all recorded deaths in Ballarat were children under 12 months.

From the Sovereign Hill Education Service online Research Notes , Women on the Goldfields.


By Suzie Hoban


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

Nance Donkin, The women were there: nineteen women who enlivened Australia's history, Collins Dove, 1988.

Geoff Hocking, To the diggings!: a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in Australia, Lothian Books, 2000.


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