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Entertainment on the goldfields

Life on the goldfields was not all work and no play – after sunset, Monday to Saturday, the working day ended and the opportunity for revelry was enthusiastically embraced. After the initial weariness subsided and daily ablutions were completed, the miners enjoyed a ritual gathering around campfires with tea, a pipe and a willingness to tell a story.

Clay pipes, tobacco and Manilla cheroots were in big demand - so much so that the ritual of the evening smoke-o was familiarly known as "blowing a cloud". These sessions were conducted on "log settees" near each tent (the longer the log, the more welcome the neighbours). Publisher James Bonwick said these sessions often featured "some coarse and spicy anecdote to sustain that excitement of spirit natural to men". At Forest Creek in February 1852, there were more than 20,000 diggers on either side of the creek, with the scene at night resembling "two long, irregular strings of luminously iridescent beads".

Convivial diggers in Melbourne by S.T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

Music makes the world go around

In addition to story telling, music played a big part in the diggers’ leisure time. Musical miners were encouraged to bring their instruments with them to evening gatherings, with Saturday nights at Bendigo’s Pennyweight Flat the venue for a regular concert of "penny tin-whistle, dish-bottom drum, and a primitive set of triangles fashioned from a meat-hook, a horse-shoe and a spoon". The entertainment also came from a multitude of travelling bands of local musicians, although these were not always as popular as they imagined themselves to be. Their limited repertoire often failed to satisfy a demanding audience.

More popular were the professional entertainers that came to the goldfields from Britain and the Continent. Among them was a Mr Ellis – an entrepreneur who claimed to be the originator of the "casino", or public dance hall, in London, and who proposed to do the same in the Victorian goldfields. Although Ellis and his band of thespians never ventured beyond Melbourne, a German immigrant, Herr Kraemer, set up a "pleasure garden" at White Hills, Victoria, where the main attractions were a brass band and three German girls with whom, for a fee, patrons could dance a mazurka (popular dance of the day). The venue was alcohol free and was a frontier version of Ellis’s London casino.

Dancing affordable on any budget

A ball or concert such as the Subscription Ball depicted by S.T. Gill, was seen as a major event on the goldfields. An excuse to relax, dress up in finery and show off some of the lucky diggers new found wealth.

" was a ball in which fanciful dresses of the most outré description abounded, particularly amongst the ladies, many of whom, in their ambition to figure in low dresses, ran into that extreme of nudity about the region of the shoulders which opera-dancers delight in extending to their legs..."

Subscription Ball, Main Road Ballarat by S. T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

Even for the lowliest digger dancing was a luxury that everyone could afford

"Jigs, reels, flings, and country-dances were, therefore, the order of the night, and danced with a ceaseless vigour, too, that quickly begot a stifling steam, compounded of animal exhalations, vile scents, and lamp smoke, which rendered the whole place a large vapour-bath."

Life on the gold fields - a diggers ball
From Illustrated Australian news, 28 May 1867, p. 13.
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

From the State Library of Victoria’s virtual exhibition Life on the Goldfields.

Literary pursuits

For those who eschewed the activity of the dance-floor, there was always a good book, although the literary Mr Bonwick claimed:

"The recklessness begotten by the wild and uncomfortable life … is peculiarly antagonistic to habits of reading and reflection".

Most diggers had in their possession a Bible, perhaps a volume of Shakespeare or one of the poets (Milton was popular) and all of these were passed from mate to mate, tent to tent, with reading circles becoming a regular feature of digger entertainment. Gradually, some of the stores on the diggings began operating as "lending libraries". Borrowers paid the full price (grossly inflated) of the book as a deposit, which was refunded to them – less sixpence per week for the read – when they brought the book back.

Letting off Steam

Surely one of the more unusual leisure pursuits of the diggers was the nightly ritual of firing off weapons, where every firearm at the diggings was discharged almost simultaneously.

The explanations for this phenomenon were wide and varied. Some in Ballarat in 1851 said the firing of a gun at night was a sign its owner had met with luck that day. To many however, it was a declaration to would-be-thieves and assassins that the “shooter” was ready for them. Still others maintained that it was purely a maintenance issue – the discharging and reloading of the firearms necessary to prevent the ammunition becoming damp! Whatever the justification, on an average night, upwards of 1500 shots could be heard.

Happy Daze

As a digger told Henry Brown:

"Now, if people in Melbourne, with comfortable houses, good water, and exposed to no hardships, find that the dryness of the climate compels them to drink, how much more necessary must grog be to the diggers, who toil in the hot sun, oftentimes compelled to drink foul water, are continually wet through, and live and sleep under canvas."

Although the goldfields were "officially" under prohibition law, there was never any shortage of alcoholic beverages to be found. Ellen Clacy wrote: "There is more drinking and rioting at the diggings than elsewhere, the privacy and the risk gives the obtaining it an excitement which the diggers enjoy as much as the spirit itself."

Sly grog shanty by S.T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

Storekeepers frequently had brandy smuggled up to the diggings packed inside cargoes of flour and other foodstuffs, with the "consignment" as good as sold by the time it arrived. A system of secret nods and winks (the digger grapevine) did enough to ensure everyone was kept informed of delivery times and availability.

And it wasn’t just brandy that was consumed. William Kelly, on his last night at Ballarat, had a "jolly evening" around the campfire with neighbours: "drink was handed around in buckets, and I saw 'one big shout' of aerated stuff called champagne disgorged into a pudding-tub."

Prohibition was thus a great impetus for invention, with many sightings of some incredibly "large" women on the diggings: their girth due not to over-consumption of foodstuffs, but rather a bulky tin container strapped around their waists, under their clothing. These women were in fact, walking brandy kegs, which the diggers accessed (for a shilling a time) via a tube poking out of the side pocket of her dress!

Given the relative ease of getting alcohol, it is no surprise that drunken revelry was a nightly occurrence on the diggings, with many men (and some women) failing to negotiate the often-treacherous path back to their tents. Many tripped into mine holes, fell over log-pews, entered the wrong tents and generally caused havoc at the conclusion of each night’s entertainment.

Cultural Differences

The Chinese miners chose significantly different activities to pass the time. Most shunned alcohol, some smoked opium and almost all played mahjong and the Chinese lotteries. The Chinese lotteries gained favour with Europeans in the 1870s but otherwise, the difference in their entertainment only exacerbated the already tense relationship between Chinese and European miners.

Chinese theatricals in Melbourne by Samuel Calvert
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

For more information on the experience of Chinese miners in Australia, see the topic Immigration and population


By Nicole Grant


Robyn Annear, Nothing but gold: The diggers of 1852, The Text Publishing Company, 1999.

The State Library of Victoria’s virtual exhibition Life on the Goldfields.


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