Australian History: the goldrush

After a long trek on foot or horseback by coach or dray from Sydney or Melbourne, new miners were thankful and excited when they reached the goldfields. On the larger fields they saw hundreds or even thousands of tents clustered around creeks or near the site of earlier discoveries. There were horses and bullocks, wagons and carts and everywhere people bustling around, digging, panning, washing gravel, moving mounds of dirt or gently rocking their cradles from side to side.

New miners soon realised, however, that the goldfields were not as attractive to live in as they looked from a distance. At Bendigo, for example, up to 40,000 people lived close together in tents. They did not have enough water and their toilets were simply holes in the ground. Garbage piled up around the diggings and even miners who were used to it found the smell impossible to work in.

Miners worked hard day after day and often could afford neither the time nor the money to buy good food. Prices on the goldfields were very high, partly because all food had to be brought to the diggings by bullock teams and partly because traders knew the diggers had to buy from them or go hungry. Like the early squatters, miners lived on bread, tea and mutton. Only those who were lucky could afford luxuries. Miners often became sick with diseases caused by bad food, poor living conditions and the effect of working outdoors in all kinds of weather.

The first diggers lived in tents which they brought with them to the goldfields. They were cold in winter, hot and stuffy in summer and very uncomfortable when it rained. If it seemed that there was a lot of gold to be found on a diggings, miners sometimes spent some time building a rough hut from bark or slabs, just as the early squatters did. The miners who took their wives and children to the diggings were usually among the first to build stronger homes.

As well as diggers’ tents or huts, there were many other buildings on the goldfields. Stores, grog shanties, inns, government offices, post offices, gold-buyers’ huts and later, theatres and public halls appeared.

GETTING A LICENCE

At first the government did not know quite what to do about the gold diggers. Should they be allowed to go wherever they like and dig wherever they wanted? How could roads and bridges be built quickly enough for the diggers to move about? Where were the wages of goldfields’ policemen and officials going to come from? Who would pay the escorts who traveled with coach loads of gold and tried to protect them from bushrangers?

The government decided that the best way of controlling diggers and, at the same time, raising money was to make each miner buy a licence. This cost was 30shillings each month.

Thirty shillings was quite a lot of money for the time and it was not easy for diggers who had found little or no gold to pay for their licences. Miners thought it was unfair that those who had not found gold had to pay the same as those who had found a lot. They hated the way the goldfields' police - 'traps' they called them - checked that the diggers had bought their licenses. The police were often brutal, dishonest, unfair and inefficient. The miners' distrust and hatred of the police was to cause serious trouble on the Ballarat goldfields in 1854.