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Early 19th Century Melbourne and the search for Gold

When the very first of my ancestors, the Gall family (parents and siblings of the wife of James Govan, Margaret) arrived in Melbourne in 1842 there was no town and the countryside was still very much in its natural state. One anonymous diarist wrote of her journey up the River Yarra " I became transfixed with admiration at the transcendent beauty of this highly favoured land - No language can convey a correct idea of its loveliness. - The untrimmed trees present to the eye three distinct generations, - The tender plant just springing from the ground - The full grown budding and blossoming, and the forest tree of years almost branchless and leafless bearing its whitened head far above the whole."

Not all descriptions were as favourable. A very large number of trees were cut down for fuel and the building of shacks, leaving the land barren. By 1848 we get these descriptions: Winter: "Scenery: mud and swamp, swamp and mud, like the Lincolnshire fens must have been before draining." and summer: "Clouds of dust rising from Melbourne so thick as to impede the view of the background." By then the town of Melbourne had been laid out but not built. It was Melbourne's ugliest period.

The discovery of gold in Ballarat and Bendigo, approximately 75 and 100 miles from Melbourne, made an enormous difference to the development of the city. In 1851 the total population in Victoria was 77,345 but the discovery of gold in that year brought thousands of people from all parts of the world, buoyed up with the hope of making their fortunes by digging for the precious metal. Whether that was the reason that any of our ancestors came to Australia I do not know but it is a fact that many of them came in 1852, 1853 & 1855. In 1852 100,000 extra people arrived in Victoria. The most likely of our ancestors to have gone searching for gold were Charles Bulley (1852) and Edward Ford Newman (1853), both of whom were young single men.

I have been lucky enough to be given a description of what going to the diggings was like for, in a letter written to his sister Eliza in 1853, John Green, a man who came from Yorkshire to seek his fortune in the gold diggings of Bendigo, gives a very full description of both his journey to Bendigo and of his experiences there. John Green was a connection of a friend of mine, Frank Green, and he has given me permission to reproduce parts of this letter.

The Bendigo Diggings
"Well, you will remember that I was about to start for the diggings. The party I had proposed going with broke up, but Mr Scales and I kept together. Well after saying "Goodbye" to Joe, we took our tent, 8ft square, on our shoulders with a few necessities to the wagon. We had to pay £2.00 a 100lbs for carriage. There were about 30 people going with us that is - had goods on the wagon. We all walked by the side, 100 mile journey. We bought a frying pan, tea kettle, some pipes and "bakker". Now the start - I John Green Jnr., as follows, Trousers, Tom Perkin's, white hat, no waistcoat or coat but plaid "jumper", it is slipped over the head and reaches to the waist, a broad leather belt, a brace of pistols, a gun over my shoulder, powder horn, shot, belt, great knife, Guernsey and billycock.

"On our start, fearfully hot, 3 miles an hour singing. Crickey how the heart grows weary thinking of the old house at home. I nearly forgot - 2 German women in a gig accompany us. We go on through park like country for about 4 or 5 miles over a road like going "up street" on the roofs of the houses. What scream is that I hear? The gig shafts are broken off short, and the ladies are wrong end up in the middle of the road. By terrific exertion of personal strength we got them righted and jog on, they having to walk the odd 95 miles.

The type of landscape through which John Green would have been walking.

"Well at length the evening comes on, the wagon is drawn a few yards into the wood and halt is the word. "Where is water?" is the cry. The driver points to a valley a quarter of a mile off. Mr S. and I fix the tent in about 10 seconds. Off I start for a kettle of water. Mr S chops down a small tree and lights a fire - water boiled - tea and dry bread to eat. Tea over, all see that our arms ready at a moments notice, turn into our tents - first pull a lot of leaves off the trees to lie on, wake up early, ditto for breakfast, strike tents and off - hot - no water, bullocks and horses lying dead or rotten by the wayside for want of water, halt for dinner, tea and bread, always halt near water, though in this instance the water tasted nourishing, looked about, saw a dead bullock in it, forced to drink it.

"On we go until we come to the entrance of the "Black Forest". Wagon halts - are told to look to our arms and stick close together for fear of bushrangers. Some rough looking men on horses gallop around us, but seeing us well armed, gallop away. Takes us 2 days to cross the forest, no water all day, halt at night, no water, all dried up, general consternation, driver blames some Freetrader - intended killing him and taking his blood, a Protestant overrules this suggestion, smoke seen at some distance - all rush there - water - spring water. You would not in England use it to wash yourself in I assure you, you would not. If the departed tramp could return once and after washing old Hannah Wadd in our dirtiest soft water tub, the water after the ceremony was performed would be cleaner and better than we commonly drink here.

"So we journey on, night comes on, just before we camp it begins to rain, like water engines. The ground is running down with water an inch deep, all are wet through, can't light any fires, no tea, get the tent fixed, small nip of brandy, just as we are dozing off hear somebody outside the tent - snatch up our arms, "Who's there?" The driver came to tell us to keep watch, bushrangers are abroad, morning comes, hot sun, clothes steaming on our backs, so at length we reach Bendigo.

"I can hardly tell you what the diggings are like but if you can imagine that valley where Gretton is on the hill on our side, the Seaton on the other, covered all over with little round and square holes about a foot from one another, and varying in depth from 4 to 40 feet, the hills on both sides the same way for 9 - 10 miles, you have some idea of Bendigo. Well we are here. Our fellow travellers leave us. Mr S and I pitch our tents near the Commissioner's. We go and buy a pick axe 10/-, spade 10/-, tin bucket 12/-, tin dish to wash the dirt in 8/-, shift our things carrying them on our backs about 2 miles further on, they would charge us £2 for carting them, and next morning we start digging for gold.

Well, we dig one hole 16 feet deep before we come to the bottom - no gold in it, another the same and so on for two months, only finding 3 ozs of gold worth £3/15s/6d per oz.

Now for the cost of living here - bread 3/- and 4/- the 4 lb loaf, flour 1/- per lb, tea 2/6 per lb, coffee 3/- per lb, sugar 1/-, salt 1/-, butter 5/-, cheese 5/-, beef 6d. Mutton is not sold by the lb but by the quarter. A sheep is divided into 4 pieces. Pepper 6d oz, tobacco 8/- lb, lucifers [matches] 3d a box. Ale and wine and spirits are not allowed to be sold on the diggings at all. If I were ill I could not afford a Doctor. They charge one to seven pounds a visit exclusive of medicine.

"The licence, as you will see is 30/- a month. Armed police and mounted troopers gallop about asking everyone they meet for their licences. If they have not got it, off they are marched as prisoners and very badly treated. The diggers here are at present in a very excited state. They - the day before yesterday - rescued some prisoners and drove off all the police and troopers back to their barracks. I expect there will be fearful work here in a month or two if the Government don't reduce the licences.

"Never recommend anyone to come to Australia to dig for gold - it is a complete lottery. Above all no young Gentleman or young Lady should come here, labourers and mechanics may do so, but shopmen, clerks and such rubbish had better drown themselves. No man should come to dig with less than £100 as a standby.

"Now to return to our subject. It's dig, dig, dig till one morning Mr S, who is cash keeper, wakes and tells me there is no food in the tent, and no money. He is in a terrible funk. I have often been so in England so I don't care about it, and commence laughing, which is strange conduct on my part and alarms, astonishes and horrifies him. I laugh him into a more cheerful humour. Then a consultation is held, the result is that my pistols are sold for £4 for immediate supplies and I go to look for work.

I soon find a job. A man offers me 10/- a day to cut down some poles in the woods. I grumble at the low pay, but under the circumstances go. In three days I finish the job, get paid. Now for another. I am offered 10/- a day and my food to drive a horse and cart, blow the man up for offering so little, get 15/- and grub. Finish his work in a week or so. No more work. Money all done. 2lbs of bread a day, with tea between two of us. Mostly hungry. Mr S sells his looking glass for 5/-. A blow out, eat until all the grub done. No breakfast. Rush out frantically to look for work, earn 2 or 3 pounds. A man wants 2000 trees cut down in the woods for post and rails. Agree to do it for 8d a post or rail, he promising to cart them in as fast as we can do them. Get down 50. No sign of cart to fetch them. Go to the man. Says the roads and gullies are impassable. He rues the bargain. See it is all a dodge. Threaten to kick his "Oh, such never mention her". Leave the job, money just about done again. At wits end. See some work at a store door. Go and ask for a job. The man has contracted to supply the camp police and all the government officials with firewood. We have agreed to cut 25 fathom for him, 316 feet in a fathom in 4 foot lengths, at 25/- a fathom, which we are at now. To pay us as the wood goes in. Tell Mr Langley I can cut a fathom a day, felling the trees included. They are hard red wood averaging four and a half feet in circumference and I'll tell you I have to work pretty hard.

"The Post Office is most infamously managed. It is considered exceedingly fortunate ever to get a letter. Newspapers, none but the government officials ever receive. There is a newspaper called "The Argus". Comes here from Melbourne, but they are 3/- each, so I can't afford one. As soon as we can afford it, we shall buy a horse and cart. It will cost about £80 and then we would clear about £20 a week. Horses cost about £1 a day to keep properly and they are stolen wholesale.

"Now for our situation. We moved our tents, carried all our things ourselves about 3 miles into the woods, where we are at present. We built a chimney to it [the tent] which makes it warm and comfortable. Our virtuous beds are as follows. We get 2 poles about 6 feet long, buy an old sack for 2/6, nail it on the poles which makes a nice soft stretcher, then fit 2 poles forked at the top, 2 ditto at the bottom, lodge the end of the poles in the forks, behold - the bed! One half a blanket under me and one over me. Joe's horse rug on top of that, then my great coat under which I, many a happy night, dream I am at home with you all. We have to wash our shirts, flannels and our selves, which operation takes the skin off my left wrist and my right forefinger. We get up at sunrise, get tea and meat, shoulder our axes, cut down a tree each, chop it into lengths, splitting the trunk up with buckle and iron wedges, and so on until 12 o'clock when we go to the tent and eat and drink a cup of tea, the water not being fit to drink without being boiled. No dinner, work until sunset, then come in and get tea and meat, have a pipe and go to bed and so on. We have no books but the Bible, Watts, Longfellows poems and a book called Solitude Sweetened and my scrap book.

Potatoes are 1/- lb, candles 1/6, milk 3/- a quart, cabbage about the size of a lettuce 2/-, eggs are 1/-each.

"Now for a description of ourselves. It is a gloomy wet day. I am sitting by the fire right in the chimney writing to my darling Eliza. I am in good health and spirits, have a thin long beard, ditto moustaches, Tom's trousers, a blue guernsey shirt, tight fitting leather belt, an old white felt hat, sewed up at the sides like Napoleon's to keep it out of my eyes, part of a black silk handkerchief round my neck. N.B. I have spoilt it tying it round the bucket handle to hoist water up with having no ropes. One good boot, which makes up for the other one having no sole. I am better dressed than most at the diggings. In my pockets are a piece of tobacco, two of my pet's letters, a bullock's tooth an old nail and a little pocket book - the money Mr S has. Mr S has just come in. He is sitting on his box with his axe in his hand, humming a tune. I long to receive a long letter from you.

"Tell Mr Freestone that bakers get £10 a week and their food and lodgings here.

"Everyone here lives in a tent, rich or poor. There is not one single house for 20 or 30,000 people. The stores are distinguished by a flag or something of that sort. I know a man who started in a small way by hanging his wife's shawl on a pole. Nobody considered it strange. Everyone here is met and meets on equality, lawyers, doctors, prigs and parsons, magistrates and housebreakers, all fraternise addressing one another as "Mate". There is no society at all.

"I have met no one from our part, in fact though Batt is here he would be easier found in London than on the diggings. Go where you will you will see notices on the trees on strips of paper, written, some with pencil, some with ink for absent friends. The favourite style is "Should this meet the eye of .... he will find his brother Tom at the Dead Horse Gully. He will see an old pair of breeches on the tent". Some are very amusing, some are written in German, Chinese, French, in fact in all languages. Joe advertised for me in the Melbourne paper which is full of such. I was going along the other day in the woods, I met a man and spoke to him. I knew by his accent that he was a Yorkshireman. I asked him where he came from. He said, "A little place called Horbury." I asked him who he knew there. He said a young fellow named Haigh who had turned out a great singer and Mrs More lodged at his cousin's. It seemed like talking to an old friend.

"I have got my father's likeness hanging in the tent. I suppose you will be tired of this long winded drawl, but I feel I handle the pen as if I was going to chop wood with it. Well, bless you all. I can't tell when you will get this as we can get to nothing about mails here. I have shot opposums, flying squirrels, parrots and parraqueets, and all sorts of things. Kindest love to Father, Ma, Patty, Betsey, Sammy, Old Mary and Mr and Mrs Langley. I wish I could have a pipe with them. By the way I nearly got shot last week. They shoot the bullocks here with a rifle. The fool missed the bullock and sent the bullet just over my head into a tree I was chopping down, but a miss is as good as a mile.

"I know a man here who got hard up, went and sank two holes, one was 4 feet deep and the other 5 feet, and got 22 lbs of gold out of one and 26 lbs out of the other. What do you think of that? I know another man who went out with only 6d in the world to dig and came home at night with gold to the value of £40 sterling, but such cases are an exception, not the rule. A man may get 20lbs out of a hole and men digging all around him within inches won't get a grain. In digging sometimes the bottom, as it's called, is only a foot from the surface and sometimes upward of 50 feet. When you reach this bottom you wash all the earth for 6 to 8 inches above it or 1 or 2 inches of the bottom itself, which is sometimes pipe clay, sometimes mulloch. When there, if you find gold in the stuff you wash you drive, as it is called, that is, you leave an arch over your head and go burrowing along 12 or 14 feet, or, so far as you can without driving into anyone else's hole. Lots are killed by the top falling in on them. Their mates get them out and go and dig a grave and bury them somewhere. I have stumbled on lots of graves in the woods.

"There are several tents erected here for religious services, the Methodist being, I think, the best attended. Sundays are very little thought about, no digging is done, but stores are open and all that sort of thing. Oh! how I should love to see you all once more. I cannot give you any idea of the void there is in my heart. Don't forget to give my love to all your children who know me. It is only 4 months since I saw Joe, and I have only heard from him once. William's getting married makes me feel quite old. Remember me to sister Sarah and say I have not forgotten her kind present to me in London. And now dearest, goodbye, and continue to think of and pray for

Your fond brother


Melbourne was desperately short of accommodation. Many people brought tents with them and lived in those until they could buy land and erect a house on it. New allotments had to be quickly prepared for extra houses, most of which were wooden.

Some of the descriptions of Melbourne at this time, such a that of Robert Hughes in "The Fatal Shore" that I have read and which were written in the late 20th century have given a rather horrendous picture of drunkenness and general disorder.

"Melbourne was both a ghost port and a continuous saturnalia. Port Phillip Bay had become a Sargasso Sea of dead ships, rocking empty at anchor through a hundred tides and then a hundred more, bilges unpumped, their masts a bare forest. When a vessel arrived with her gold-hungry passengers and her hold crammed with mining tools and cheap furniture, the crews (and often the captains too) would desert as soon as she was unloaded, joining the thick human stream for Ballarat and Bendigo. Employers, stranded without labour, locked their offices and went on the road. `Cottages are deserted' reported the lieutenant-governor of Victoria, Charles La Trobe, in October 1851

`.houses to let, business is at a stand-still, and even schools are closed. In some of the suburbs not a man is left, and the women are known, for self protection, to forget neighbours' jars (quarrels) and to group together to keep house ..Fortunate the family, whatever its position, which retains its servants at any sacrifice, and can further secure supplies for their households from the few tradesmen that remain .all buildings and contract works, public and private, almost without exception, are at a standstill. No contract can be insisted upon under the circumstances.'

Shanty towns and bark huts proliferated to house the thousands of migrants, frantic with hope, who poured off the ships from England and Ireland.

In the grog-shops and hotels that lined the filthy, traffic jammed streets of the young city (Melbourne), where a man could sink up to his knees in mud and ordure merely by stepping off the curb, a round-the-clock orgy was conducted by `the worst-looking population eyes ever beheld' - the diggers and their hangers-on, their mates and flushed doxies, drinking the gold away. One man, who had never tasted champagne before, bought a hotel's entire stock of it and emptied every bottle into a horse trough, inviting all and sundry to suck it up. Miners lurched up and down the luxury shops, jamming huge tawdry rings on their girls' fingers, demanding the most expensive dresses, lighting their pipes with £5 notes and pouring gold dust into the cupped hands of hackney-drivers.

Gold disturbed the order of Anglo-Australian society - from pastoral `aristocrat' down to convicts - with shudders of democracy. Gold wealth was not `democratic' but it did expand the existing oligarchy. It would diversify both Australian markets and Australian production and help create the Australian markets and Australian production and help create the Australian bourgeoisie. The clay-stained digger, a butcher in his former life, who still carried the grease-stink of tallow in his hair and the argot of the diggings on his tongue, would soon have his axminster-carpeted drawing room in Toorak [a wealthy suburb of Melbourne]. The cash his gold set in circulation would construct suburbia. His spending habits would raise more merchants to comfort. Fortunes were made by diggers - and extracted from them. Gold did respect class - it favoured the low: a horny-handed navvy, miner or seaman with muscles hardened by years of manual work could sink a shaft twenty feet to the blue auriferous strata of Bendigo in the time that it took a refined `new chum' his hands pulpy and blistered to scratch away three feet of earth.

`We be the aristocracy now', miners were heard to say as they rollicked in the Melbourne grog shops, `and the aristocracy be we'.

Is this the Melbourne that our ancestors came to? It is certainly very different from the other accounts I have read in diaries of settlers such as James Butters who give a much kinder picture. Also I think that what we have to remember is that probably the conditions that most emigrants came from in England were not very good either and the way we think about things today is not the way they thought about them then.

One of the areas opened up for development was North Melbourne. At the time the area was described as "undulating land studded with noble redgum trees, which gave it a beautiful park-like appearance". Aborigines used to camp there and occasionally would hold a corroboree. The bird-life was abundant. The allotments made available were quarter acre plots and cost from £200 to £700 each.

The roads were very rough, unmade and full of holes so that capsizes were not infrequent, particularly in winter when the holes were filled with water and their depth could only be guessed at.

The cost of goods was very different from the costs today and in many respects surprising, with cheap meat and expensive eggs, as can be seen from the following:-

bread 1s to 1s 3d a 4lb.loaf
imported salt butter 3s 6d per lb.
Cheese 3s 6d per lb.
Eggs 10s per dozen
potatoes 7d to 9d per lb.
Cabbages 2s 6d each
apples 3s 6d each
mutton (the whole hind quarter) 2s 6d
mutton (the whole fore quarter) 1s 6d
beef 3d to 6d per lb.

Wages for first class artisans were from £5 to £6per week which is much higher than wages for equivalent work would have been in England at that time. Rents were about 7s 6d to 10s per week.

At first there was little difficulty in obtaining firewood as all that was necessary was to cut down one of the trees growing either on your own land or on one of the streets and cut it up, but later on this source of supply failed and then people had to depend on wood-carters. In winter, when firewood was most needed, it occasionally happened that none could be obtained owing to the bad state of the roads preventing the carters bringing it into the town.

Water was an even worse problem. At first people had to take a barrel and bucket on a wheel barrow to the River Yarra which had good water above the falls and then wheel it back again. However later a water pump had been installed to pump water from the Yarra into a tank in Flinders Street and from this tank water carts were filled from four stand-pipes. The carts distributed water to the houses charging about 7 shillings per hogshead (52 and a half gallons). In 1865 water pipes were beginning to be laid and by 1872 the water carts disappeared.

The description given by James Butters in 1855 in his diary speaks only of what a wonderful place Melbourne was:

"The town is well planned, having broad streets running parallel with each other. Many of them are well paved and Macadamised. The stores and business doing in it seems immense, much like some of our large towns at home. Splendid shops and warehouses in almost every street."

I hope that this is a truer picture of the Melbourne that our ancestors lived and worked in that the one given in "The Fatal Shore" by Robert Hughes.

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