Gold Fever and women
Some people believed that finding gold would be easy!
Indeed! The reality was hard work. Intense heat and dust in the summer, bringing clouds of flies and mosquitoes then very cold winters and of course there was the mud.
Wives and children had little choice but to accompany their men to the diggings and they were among the thousands of people who became ill with dysentery and typhoid.
Drinking water was polluted by panning and by sewage that escaped from the thousands of holes the miners dug to use as toilets. The diet was inadequate, the basic food was mutton, damper, tea and sugar and nobody escaped the inflated food prices. You truly had to find more than a few specks to afford fruit and vegetables. Most diggers didn't bother to wash and shared their beds with fleas. 'Cures" for just about every imaginable ailment were available from the 'quacks, Sunday was observed everywhere as a day of rest. On this day men repaired their equipment mended their clothes and wrote letters home. Some sought out the sly-grog shops and drank away their aches and pains and blot out the fact they had failed to find gold and relieve their homesickness. Overall, the diggings were not a very pleasant place to be for most people.
Even getting to the goldfields was a life and death struggle.
As news of Australian gold rushes swept the world all available ships were crammed with people hoping to make their fortunes. Up to half of the children on those ships died of contaminated food and water and diseases like Scarlet fever, measles and typhoid. On the diggings children continued to be at risk. In the first half of the 1850s 200 European and chinese children under two died at the Mt.Alexander diggings alone. Goldfields cemeteries are today resting places for thousands of children.
Official estimates have reckoned the total population on the Victorian goldfields in 1853 as 46,550 men, 10,747 women, and 11,590 children. Gold digging was an almost exclusively male activity.
Women on the goldfields have often been stereotyped as entertainers and prostitutes but most women were wives of miners or single women accompanying their families. Many women died in childbirth and had to cope with poor diet, the threat and fact of disease, the loneliness and the worries of trying to bring up a family on the goldfields. As towns developed , women played an active role in changing them into places where children could go to school and where the sick could be properly looked after.
A woman by the name of Ellen Clacy recorded her observations of life on the goldfields in Victoria in 1852:-
"But night at the diggings is the characteristic time: murder here-murder there- revolvers cracking-blunderbusses bombing-rifles going off-balls whistling-one man groaning with a broken leg.....Here is one man grumbling because he brought his wife with him, another ditto because he left his behind, or sold her for an ounce of gold or a bottle of rum. Donnybrook Fair is not to be compared to an evening at Bendigo. Success at the diggings is like drawing lottery tickets-the blanks far outnumber the prizes; still, with good health and strength, and above all perseverance, it is strange if a digger does not in the end reap a reward for his labour. Meanwhile he must endure almost incredible hardships. In the rainy season, he must not murmur if compelled to work up to his knees in water, and sleep on the wet ground, without a fire, in the pouring rain, and perhaps no shelter above him more waterproof than a blanket or a gum tree.....In the summer, he must work hard under a burning sun, tortured by the mosquito and the little stinging March flies....."
Some women were successful miners in their own right. Alice CORNWELL 1852-1932 known on the goldfields as "Princess Midas" or "Madam Midas" began mining on her father George CORNWELL's lease at Ballarat. She supervised miners who worked for her and instructed them where to dig for gold. She was so good at finding gold that she once paid 20,000 for a mine. The mine yielded her 100,000 in one year.
In 1887 she went to London and listed her Midas mine on the stock exchange. She also owned the London newspaper, The Sunday Times for five years.
She was enormously wealthy, with many financial and industrial enterprises.
Her financial operations were not less notable than her diamonds which were the talk of London. There is a book and a stage play based on her life.Also the National Gallery does own some biographical cuttings which may be viewed.
*The Photograph of Alice Ann Cornwell, below, was taken in 1900.