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The moral state of the diggings during the Victorian gold rush

Posted 25/04/2019 in History
Diggers. Image source: Notes of a gold digger and gold digger's guide, James Bonwick, 1852.


People were living and working under truly extraordinary circumstances during the early 1850s in Victoria. Thousands were flocking here in a frenzy with just one thing on their mind - gold! Their only objective was to pry their fortunes from the depths of Victoria's rich ground.

These people suddenly found themselves separated from civilisation and society as they knew it. They drifted from place to place in their search for gold, living in the bush or in tent cities which often popped up overnight. What effects did this lifestyle have on these early prospectors? What happened to the state of morality when these men found themselves removed from the routines and expectations of their ordinary lives?

This topic was of great interest to James Bonwick (teacher, author, historian and archivist, 1817-1906), who dedicated an entire chapter of his 1852 book Notes of a gold digger and gold diggers guide to the moral state of the diggings. 

"...among a community of men, out of the pale of civilized life, removed from restraint, surrounded by degrading and deteriorating influences, and constantly excited by the very character of their occupation, there would be found much that is repulsive and much that is condemnable." - James Bonwick, 1852.

James Bonwick, aged 70. Image source: State Library of Queensland.

Bonwick begins the chapter on a positive note by describing the few moral aspects of the diggings which he found had been well maintained. 

"Even as to coarseness and incivility, in all my wanderings there, I never experienced any conduct but courtesy and kindness. There were by no means the absorbing selfishness, and the disposition to triumph over the educated, which had been represented to me ; on the contrary, acts of obliging good nature proceeded even from the roughest of Tasmania's rough ones."

Bonwick observed that although females may be uncomfortable living at the diggings, they were generally safe from harm.

"Then as to treatment of females; I never heard of an outrage or of an incivility. Women seemed to be tabooed at the diggings ; and however a man may regret taking a wife there on account of the discomforts of such a home, he need be under no apprehension of the safely of her person or her feelings."

Although the diggings severely lacked well-structured religious services, Bonwick was impressed by the complete desertion of work on Sundays.

"The manner in which Sunday is observed, is highly creditable to the district. The utter desertion of the holes and washing stations, the quietude and propriety of the tentwalks, and the readiness with which a congregation is collected, whenever any person could be found who had benevolence and zeal enough to shew an interest in the religious welfare of the poor miner, present very pleasing features to the visitor. "

"Stopping for a night on Campbells Creek, I was delighted with the sounds of psalmody proceeding from an opposite tent. Several favorite airs were sung, and the several parts well maintained. All at once a company near struck up a song. Immediately loud cries issued from the neighbouring tents of "lay down, lay down." The revellers yielded to the pressure from without, and again the sweet notes of praise to Jehovah resounded through the quiet glen."

"All this is the bright side of the picture." - James Bonwick, 1852.

Bonwick quickly noted that these observations were the bright side of the picture, and that the reverse was not so pleasing. The unpleasant language widely used at the diggings was described.

"Swearing is an almost all prevailing vice. The recklessness begotten by the wild and uncomfortable life, induces this licentiousness of speech."

Hard work almost always left diggers too exhausted of an evening to practice reading and reflection.

"That kind of existence, also, is peculiarly antagonistic to habits of reading and reflection. No retirement is to be found in the tent. Fatigue indisposes one for mental exertion, and there is not the great incentive to reading - a wish to please."

Lucky diggers on way from Bendigo, 1852. S. T. Gill. Image source: State Library Victoria.


A lack of women on the gold fields was observed to have had a negative effect on the lifestyle of the diggers. In the absence of women, Bonwick stated that cleanliness, regularity and comfort gave way to filth, disorder and domestic misery. 

"No woman's soft voice is there to soothe and to refine. Under no circumstances could I have known better the moral influence of woman in the element of civilization, than in a sojourn at the gold fields. The filth, the disorder, the domestic misery give place at the presence of a female to cleanliness, regularity and comfort. When I passed a tent in which there was a swept floor, a bit of furniture, nicely washed plates, bright pannicans, a sheet to the bed with a clean counterpane over, with here and there a sack or piece of old carpet laid down, I knew that the genial influence of woman had been there."

The negative effects of alcohol were profound on the diggings, with Bonwick noting that scenes of "riot and bloodshed" were only found in the vicinity of grog shops. 

"True it is that tents still exist as "Sly Grogshops," and true it is, also, that scenes of riot and bloodshed are only to be found in their vicinity. Men, otherwise agreeable mates and quiet neighbours, become under the influence of drink, tumultuous and quarrelsome. The destruction of those nests of crime at Friar's Creek, soon made Murderer's Flat and Choke'em Gully associated only with the history of the past. Many parties before going up, make agreement to be Total Abstainers while at the Diggings."

One prominent and most common evil to be apprehended from the diggings, is the sense of degredation induced by the uncomfortable and often disgusting associations of the place." - James Bonwick, 1852.
 
The personal appearance, language and demeanour of those on the diggings quickly declined to the level of the men around them, regardless of how well refined and educated the digger may have been upon arrival at the goldfields. 

"Even gentlemen of refinement and education have been so oppressed by the circumstances around them, as to become reckless of their personal appearance, and even their language and demeanour. They have sunk to a level with the mass about them. This loss of self respect is the precursor of a deterioration of moral feeling."

The unfavourable circumstances were not only observed by the diggers on the goldfields, they came to be anticipated and accepted by newcomers as well. 

"A very sensible digger made the following judicious observations to a new party he had formed. 'Now' said he 'we shall have hardships, and we are sure to lose our temper ; when this happens, let us lay it to the circumstances and not to each other.'" 

Coffee tent and sly grog shop, digger's breakfast, S. T. Gill, 1852. Image source: State Library Victoria.

Adults were not the only ones who suffered the decline in decency at the diggings. Children suffered many negative effects from their way of life.

"The effect of this life upon youths is most disastrous, and many parents may have to rue the day they suffered them to leave their homes of comfort and of moral control."

"Exposed to scenes with which their young eyes ought not to be conversant, knowing little of the sweets and privacy of a well ordered household, with no means of daily instruction at hand, and with no Sabbath bells to call them to the place of prayer, they fall into habits which materially and sadly affect their future course."

"The condition of children at the mines is to be particularly regretted" - James Bonwick, 1852.

Although there was a strong desire and need for the establishment of churches, their construction seemed a futile task for men who were only to be living in the vicinity for a week.

"The Bishop of Melbourne, while I was up there, made an earnest appeal to the miners at Bendigo to get a church erected before the wet season came on. But it is comparatively of little use urging this duty upon men who know that they are to leave next week."

Bonwick observed that makeshift alternatives were sought by the diggers, with groups of unkempt diggers assembling in the wilderness to worship together. 

"It is a deeply interesting sight to witness a number of rough, unshorn, and toil worn men assemble around some spreading gum tree in the wilderness, in the newly trodden gold fields, desiring to worship the God of their fathers with their brethren of a kindred faith. How pleasing, and yet how sad the emotions which rise in the breast during such an exercise!"

Open air services at the diggings, Thomas Ham, 1854. Image source: State Library Victoria.


Faith was a great comfort to those living and working at the diggings, particularly to those who had left their families behind as they sought their fortunes. 

"Visions of sweet home appear, and each familiar countenance passes in review. And then we are anxious and concerned about the friends we left behind us. A tear starts in the eye at the thought of a wife or darling little one. It is well if we then can feel that a Father above is watching our absent home."

"Could nothing more be done for the moral and religious welfare of the poor diggers?" - James Bonwick, 1852.

This division of families was the cause of many troubles, as Bonwick noted. 

"But there is a serious social evil which is too often lost sight of; - the breaking up of families. How many a bitter tear, and how much domestic trouble have the Gold Fields occasioned. Wives separated from husbands, and children far away from the care of fathers."

Tragic circumstances often fell upon separated families, as described in this case where a husband died at the diggings while his wife and children were on their way to join him. 

"Her husband, a Burra miner, had gone to Mount Alexander. Having sent for his wife, she proceded with her family overland. After this trying journey, she arrived only to hear of the death of her partner. " When dying in the hospital" said she, " the children lay heavy upon, him; he was always calling out for them." And that man was buried without a follower in the graveyard of strangers."

"The moral effects of the Diggings is an important subject. We may and do regret the debauchery and extravagance consequent upon the sudden accumulation of wealth" - James Bonwick, 1852.

Bonwick observed that this new society was still very young, and predicted that with proper means this early disorganised state of the diggings could be improved.

"At the same time we must bear in mind, that in this our embryonic state as a Golden Land, we see the first fruits only of disorganization ; by and by we may, if we use proper means, witness happier effects." 

Despite all his observations regarding the decline of morality at the diggings, Bonwick maintains a sense of pride to be part of it all.

"In spite of the confusion of the times, and the dissipation of lucky diggers, we must feel proud to live in a time when the sons of toil, without bidding or control, may realise the means of competency."

Diggers of low degree, 1852-3. S. T. Gill. Image source: State Library Victoria.

Bonwick closes the chapter with a note on the necessity of an unselfish effort to improve the future condition of life at the diggings.

"The future condition of our colony, and its influence upon the safety, comfort, and happiness of our own homes, greatly depend upon the efforts of the few and the unselfish, amidst the whirl of excitement and the rush for wealth."

"This is preeminently the occasion, when true patriots and philanthropists should awake to an earnest feeling of the moral wants of the times, and when they should in stern resolve prepare at once to do their duty." - James Bonwick, 1852.
 
James Bonwick's book, Notes of a gold digger and gold digger's guide, describes many aspects of the early Victorian gold rush, including the road to the diggings, the digger at work, the digger at home, health at the diggings, history of the diggings, and geology of the diggings. The book is well worth reading in full and is provided online by the State Library Victoria here.

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