The trials of Thomas Turner (1754-65), cont'd

Part 2: At the mercy of Stone and Snelling

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The artery lying deep, the operation was obliged to be performed with a dissecting knife. The first cut did not hurt greatly, but the incision not being big enough at the 1st cut, he was obliged to cut a second time, which hurt me very much.

In the last Histories, I introduced the 18th century rural English diarist Thomas Turner and followed the ups and downs of his marital life. It was clear that his wife was plagued with illness (and indeed she died young – there were even cruel rumours that Turner helped her on her way); Turner himself was prone to various maladies, as anyone might be, especially in an age before a proper understanding of infection. In the course of poking about in these diaries I noticed two medical men cropping up regularly, and I think it’s interesting to have this personal account of someone’s consultations with such, and some of the treatments given. So forgive me this week as we follow the health problems of T. Turner! And best of all, he gives us his own prescription for good health, which is really quite sensible.

The first of his prescribers is Richard Stone, local apothecary and surgeon, not immune to the joys of a drink or two, as we’ll see. And when out of his depth, he would turn to John Snelling, a doctor from the nearby village of Alfriston and later godfather to one of Turner’s sons. The majority of visits from Stone are to ‘bleed’ either Turner or his wife. This was in an era when bloodletting – withdrawing blood either by scalpel or through the application of leeches, a practice inherited from an earlier age when physicians focused on balancing the ‘four humours’ in the body – was a frequent treatment for all manner of ills. (Today this practice is only undertaken in very specific circumstances.)


Mon. 22 Sept. Doctor Snelling called on me and ordered a poultice of conserve of roses, and about 6 gr. of champhire in each poultice, to be laid to my eye, with purging twice a week with sal. glabuler and manna.

Fri. 5 Dec. At home all day. Dr. Stone cut me an issue1 on my back and drawed a tooth for my wife.

Weds. 10 Dec. About 3 o’clock went down to Mr. French’s and borrowed his little horse to go to Lewes upon for wine for Dame Reeve’s funeral, having sent for some but it did not come as I expected. I rode him up home to put on my greatcoat etc., and accordingly got up at the block, but by accident, either by touching him with the spur or his taking fright of the dog, he fell a-kicking and running etc. and threw me down near the corner of Mr. Virgoe’s stone wall, and hurt my side very much. I sent Tho. Davy for the doctor in the even but he did not come.

Thurs. 11 Dec. At home all day; my side very bad. Dr. Stone came in the morn to see me and examined my side, but said I had no ribs broken.

Fri. 12 Dec. At home all day; my side very bad … This morning I had a cerecloth2 laid on my side.

[Here Thomas confides some private opinions about Dr Snelling…]

Sun. 28 Dec. Just as we was drinking tea, Dr. Snelling came in… Dr. Snelling cut me a seton3 and stayed all night.

Mon. 29 Dec. Dr. Snelling went away after breakfast. I paid him half a crown for cutting my seton… Oh, could it have been imagined that he could have took anything of me, considering that I paid him £39 for curing my wife, great part of which I paid him before he had it due, and all of it within 5 months after he had performed the cure. I always do and ever did use him after the best manner I was capable of when he was at our house. He was that man that never gave my servants anything, no, not even the meanest trifle that could be. Notwithstanding they always waited on him like as if they were his own servants. Oh, thou blackest of fiends, ingratitude, what an odious colour and appearance dost thou make!

[In the next entry Thomas gives a brilliant list of health-based rules to follow.]


Sun. 8 Feb. As I by experience find how much more conducive it is to my health, as well as pleasantness and serenity to my mind, to live in a low, moderate rate of diet, and as I know I shall never be able to comply therewith in so strict a manner as I should choose (by the unstable and over easiness of my temper), I think it therefore [right] (as it’s a matter of so great importance to my health etc.) to draw up rules of proper regimen, which I do in manner and form following, and which, at all times when I am in health, I hope I shall always have the strictest regard to follow, as I think they are not inconsistent with either religion or morality:

  • First, be it either in the summer or winter, to rise as early as I possibly can; that is, always to allow myself between 7 and 8 hours’ sleep, or full 8, unless prevented on any particular or emergent occasion.

  • 2ndly, to go to breakfast between the hours of 7 and 8 from Lady Day [25th March] to St. Michael [29th September], and from St. Michael to Lady Day between the hours of 8 and 9.

  • 3rdly, my breakfast to be always tea or coffee and never to exceed 4 dishes. If neither of those, half a pint of water or water gruel; and for eatables bread and cheese, bread and butter, light biscuit, buttered toast, or dry bread, and one morn in every week, dry bread only.

  • 4thly, nothing more before dinner, and always to dine between the hours of 12 and 1 o’clock if at home.

  • 5thly, my dinner to be meat, pudding, or any other thing of the like nature, but always to have regard, if there is nothing but salt provision, to eat sparingly; and to eat plenty of any sort of garden stuff there is at table, together with plenty of bread and acids, if any, at table; and always to have the greatest regard to give white or fresh meats and pudding the preference before any sort of highly seasoned, salt, or very strong meat; and always one day in every respective week to eat no meat.

  • 6thly, my drink at dinner to be always boiled water with a toast in it, or small beer, but water if I can have it, and never to drink anything stronger until after dinner.

  • 7thly, if I drink tea at home or abroad, to be small, green tea and not more than 4 dishes; and if I eat anything, not more than two ounces.

  • 8thly, my supper never to be meat but weak broth, water gruel, milk pottage, bread and cheese, bread and butter, apple-pie or some other sort of fruit pie, or some such light diet; my drink, water or small beer, and one night at the least in every week to go to bed without any supper.

  • 9thly, never to drink any sort of drams or spirituous liquors of what name or kind soever.

  • 10thly, if I am at home, in company, or abroad, if there is nothing but strong beer, never to drink more than 4 glasses, one to toast the king’s health, the 2nd to the royal family, the 3rd to all friends and the 4th to the pleasure of the company; if there is either wine or punch etc., never, upon any terms or persuasions whatever, to drink more than 8 glasses, nor each glass to hold or contain more than half a quarter of a pint, nor even so much if possibly to be avoided.

  • 11thly, if I am constrained by extreme drought to drink between meals, that to be toast and water, small beer, or very small wine and water; to wit, ¼ pint of red or white wine to one pint of water.

  • 12thly, never to drink any small or strong beer, winter or summer, without being warmed if possible.

  • And lastly always to go to bed at or before ten o’clock when it can be done.

Sun. 10 Oct. In the morn Dr. Snelling came and ate some breakfast with us and afterwards opened one of the capillary arteries of my temple for the benefit of my eyes. I asked several people to assist Mr. Snelling in doing it, but could get none till I asked Dame Durrant, who assisted in doing it. The artery lying deep, the operation was obliged to be performed with a dissecting knife. The first cut did not hurt greatly, but the incision not being big enough at the 1st cut, he was obliged to cut a second time, which hurt me very much. Mr. Snelling did not stay, but went away very soon.

Mon. 11 Oct. After breakfast borrowed a horse of Joseph Fuller to ride to Lewes upon to have my temple dressed. I got there about 12 o’clock, where I found Mr. John Snelling in bed, who arose and dressed my temple with a pea in the same nature as an issue, and did, in a manner, ask me to dine with him, but his behaviour was such as gave my imperious temper disgust, so I did not dine with him, but went and spent an hour or two at The White Horse with Mr. Tucker. I came home about 6 o’clock, and, with eating nothing all day and drinking but little, yet I was somewhat in liquor…


Fri. 22 Apr. We… set out for our road home about 7.20, both very much in liquor, and lost ourselves in the Broyle where we walked some time, though not without disputing whose fault it was that was the occasion of our mistaking the way. But we at last found our way to Will. Dicker’s, where we found Dr. Stone and Richd. Savage, both very drunk; and we then fell out very much insomuch that I think Dr. Stone and I was a-going to fighting, but I cannot recollect on what account unless it must be that we were both drunk and fools…

Fri. 1 July. Mr. Snelling ordered my brother to be entirely debarred from beer, brandy (or any kind of spirits), and meat, and to drink the following for his constant drink, viz., take 1 ounce of cream of tartar, ½ lb of lump sugar, the peel of a lemon; pour a gallon of boiling water on them and let it stand all night, then strain it off and bottle it for use. He also ordered him the cold bath, and blisters behind the ears to be perpetual, notwithstanding he has an issue both in the temple and arm.

Sun. 11 Dec. After churchtime Mr. Stone paid a visit to my wife and assured us the ulcer on her leg was a scurvy…


Tues. 6 June. In the morn sent Tho. Davy to Hartfield to know how my wife’s sister did. Also sent for Dr. Stone to visit my wife… In the even Mr. Stone paid my wife a visit and declared his opinion of her illness that it was a rheumatic disorder with the gravel in her kidneys.

Weds. 7 June. Mr. Stone paid my wife another visit today and let her blood…


Tues. 24 Apr. In the forenoon Mr. Stone came and made me an issue upon my back by eating it in with caustic, and then scarifying it …

Sat. 9 June. I… spent some time with Dr. Snelling, for whose opinion I went; that is, to know if he could help me to any salve to dress the issue upon my back with that was more adhesive than that I had already, or if I could have a bandage to keep on the dressings with… Spent nothing today, only 6d. which I paid Dr. Snelling for some salve.


Sun. 20 Apr. In the forenoon Mr. Stone paid me a visit and bleeded me… At home all day. My side bad, and I am fearful whether I shall ever get the better of it.

Was that side pain still from his fall five years beforehand? It’s not clear – but it’s hard not to be grateful for modern medicine. Next week we’ll pay one last brief visit to the world of Thomas Turner, although he is not really the protagonist this time.


Another term for bloodletting.


A waxed cloth normally used for wrapping a corpse!


A piece of cloth used to help with draining fluid.

The trials of Thomas Turner (1754-65)

Part 1: Tying the Gordian knot

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Little, ah, little do the sons of riot and debauchery know how great, how far beyond description, is the pleasure that is found in the company of a virtuous wife.

Every diary offers a unique window onto its time, but the clarity of the view is of course affected by the personality of the diarist and their preoccupations. Sometimes the glass is tinted, dirty – or even warped.

This week I’m visiting the engaging diaries of an 18th century rural shopkeeper and former schoolmaster based in Sussex, England, Thomas Turner (1729–93), whose writings from 1754–65 offer a wonderful snapshot of rural life at the time. Sometimes he is preoccupied by mercantile matters; at others he is berating himself for drinking too much or keeping a note of how much he won at cards – or conversely reporting on his dutiful attendance at church; he writes regularly of figures in his community; and frequently he is pondering the state of his marriage. This last is our focus this time, notable for the real human feelings (good and bad) to be found here.

A side note on the diaries. Turner filled more than 100 volumes with his thoughts and accounts (in all senses) and the originals are at Yale. The first published selection was in 1859, in an issue of Sussex Archaeological Collections.1 This caught the eye of no less a luminary than Charles Dickens, who wrote about Turner in the 6th April 1861 edition of his magazine All the Year Round (an episode of Great Expectations is in the same issue):

Turner… sold grocery, drapery, haberdashery, hats, nails, cheese, brandy, paper, tobacco, and coffins; and in the parlour behind his shop he made entries not only as a tradesman of his dealings with his customers, but as a husband, vestryman, neighbour, and a man of his home life, and his dealings with society a large.

Dickens also spots the details of Turner’s personal life:

His first wife, with whom he records all his quarrels, and of whom he records also his hearty liking and affection, was a prudent, thrifty woman yet even she was sometimes brought home on a servant’s back, after he had slipped away, as far gone as he dared to be, leaving her behind to make his excuses.

Turner set up shop in the village of East Hoathly in 1750, and married Margaret ‘Peggy’ Slater, daughter of local farmers, on 15th October 1753 when he was 24 and she was 20. They only had one child, a boy called Peter, who was born on 19th August 1754, but sadly Turner’s diary entry for 16th January 1755 reads: “This morning about 1 o’clock I had the misfortune to lose my little boy Peter, aged 21 weeks, 3 days.” And that’s all he says on the matter.

By the summer of that year, it was clear that the couple were squabbling regularly. Here are some snapshots of Turner’s diary entries agonising over his relationship…


Sat. 30 Aug. This morn my wife and I had words about going to Lewes tomorrow. My reason for not going was on account of my owing Mr. Roase some money, and was loath to go till I could pay him the balance. Oh! what a happiness must there be in a married state when there is sincere regard on both sides and each party truly satisfied with each other’s merit; but it is impossible for tongue or pen to express the uneasiness that attends the contrary.


Thurs. 1 Jan. This day my wife and I had a great many words, but for what reason I cannot recount, though doubtless if we could be proper judges of our own actions we should find that we are both but too much to blame and possibly should find all our differences to arise from so trivial a cause that we both might have cause to blush. But oh! was marriage ever designed to make mankind unhappy? No! unless by their own choice. It’s made so by both parties being not satisfied with each other’s merit… I have almost made as it were a resolution to make a separation, I mean by settling my affairs and parting in friendship, but is this that for what I married?

Tues. 10 Feb. Oh, what have I here to say—the old story again repeated—more words again between me and my wife. Sure it is a most terrible and unhappy circumstance we cannot live agreeable together. Where the fault is I cannot be a competent judge, for as I am a party concerned, prejudice in my own favour may make me partial…

All that I know is I am happy in having that person, who of all the sex I ever had the greatest respect for, for my wife. But again how unhappy to have that only one in whom all my earthly facility was centred to be of such an unhappy temper as not only to make me, but herself also, miserable… Maybe it is I am all in fault. It cannot be she… she is all charms, and I am the ungrateful.

Fri. 15 Oct. This is the day on which I was married, and it is now 3 years since. Doubtless many have been the disputes which have happened between my wife and myself during the time, and many have been the afflictions which it has pleased God to lay upon us, and which we have justly deserved by the many animosities and dissensions which have been almost incessantly continued and fermented between us and our friends from almost the very day of our marriage, but I hope I may now say… we now begin to live happy… if I was single again and at liberty to make another choice, I should do the same, I mean, make her my wife who is so now.


Thurs. 6 Oct. This day how are my most sanguine hopes of happiness frustrated! I mean in the happiness between myself and wife, which have now some time been continued between us, but, Oh, this day become the contrary! The unhappiness which has, almost ever since we were married, been between us has raised such numberless animosities and disturbances—and amongst our friends—that I think it hath almost brought me to ruin. What the causes of it is I cannot judge.

Sun. 9 Oct. This day have my wife and I taken up a resolution in the presence of our almighty God and Saviour… to forsake our sins and to become better Christians. And, Oh, may the God of all goodness and perfection pour into our hearts His Holy Spirit that we may live together in true unity, love and peace with each other, bearing with each other’s infirmities and weakness…

Weds. 2 Nov. Oh, how transient is all mundane bliss! I, who a-Sunday last was all calm and serenity in my breast and seemed desirous of nothing so much as my eternal and immortal happiness, am now nought but storm and tempest occasioned by the unhappiness that subsists between myself and wife…

[It wasn’t all bad, of course. Many are the diary entries recounting Thomas and Peggy’s social life and their drink-fuelled late night card games with friends. Though in this next episode, is there a hint of him being mocked for his comparative sobriety?]


Thurs. 23 Feb. This morn about 6 o’clock, just as my wife was gladly got to bed and had laid herself down to rest, we was awakened by Mrs. Porter, who pretended she wanted some cream of tartar. But as soon as my wife got out of bed, she vowed she should come down, which she complied with and found she, Mr. Porter, Mr. Fuller and his wife with a lighted candle, part of a bottle of wine and a glass. Then the next thing in course must be to have me downstairs, which I being apprized of, fastened my door. But, however, upstairs they came and threatened as also attempted to break open my door… But as soon as ever it was open, they poured into my room, and as modesty forbid me to get out of my bed in the presence of women, so I refrained. But their immodesty permitted them to draw me out of bed (as the common phrase is) tipsy turvy. But, however, at the intercession of Mr. Porter they permitted me to put on my breeches… also, instead of my clothes, they gave me time to put on my wife’s petticoat. In this manner they made me dance with them without shoes or stockings until they had emptied their bottle of wine and also a bottle of my beer.

[And the squabbling soon returns…]

Fri. 21 Apr. But, oh! how is my pleasure palled by the scurrilous treatment I have this morn received from my wife, and to the best of my knowledge without any the least provocation.

Oh, how unhappy is that life that is continually perplexed with domestic disquietudes and matrimonial discord! … For almost those five years past, nay, even from the very day of marriage have I had such distracting tumults at every short interval of time. Not that I would be thought to charge them all upon my wife, for doubtless, as I am mortal, I am also liable to human frailties and have often, too too often, acted very indiscreet.

[Turner also reveals that he has a difficult relationship with his mother-in-law (‘mother’ here):]

Tues. 6 June. Tho. Davy came back in the even and brought us news that my sister [meaning Peggy’s sister, at death’s door] was very bad, and I suppose he had a great deal of my mother’s nonsense, which she is very full of, having a great volubility of tongue for invective, and especially if I are the subject, though what the good woman wants with me I know not, unless it be that I have offended her by being too careful of her daughter, who, poor creature, has enjoyed but little pleasure of her life in the marriage state, being almost continually (to our great misfortune) afflicted with illness.

Sat. 7 Oct. Not all the entreaties and expostulations could persuade my wife to postpone this journey, though no other reason could occasion this journey than the fantastical, odd, capricious humour of her mother…

… how miserable must [a man] be where there is nothing else but matrimonial discord and domestic disquietude! They drag on life, as it were with a galling and wearisome chain, and are only a burden to each other… But as happiness is debarred me in this affair, I sincerely wish it to all those that shall ever tie the Gordian knot …

[Thomas often describes Peggy as being ill, not without sympathy and indeed it seems to improve his tenderness – although he is sometimes more preoccupied with recounting his own inconveniences as a result.]


Mon. 6 Oct. At home all day and pretty busy, but surely my wife is extremely ill. Oh, what an agony of mind I am in with doubt and fear of my wife’s illness proving mortal.

Weds. 15 Oct. At home all day. My wife continues very ill. It is impossible for tongue or pen to express the trouble I now feel on account of my wife’s illness, and the constant fears that I have she will never get the better of her illness.


Fri. 16 Jan. At home all day. But little to do. My wife, poor creature, most extreme ill; who can paint or describe my trouble? … My soul is quite overwhelmed with grief; oh, the loss of so inestimable a treasure, even that of a sincere friend and virtuous wife!

Sun. 14 June. In the even my wife was taken with an involuntary bleeding at the nose which continued near 2 hours and half, and at times the whole night through (poor dear creature). What it is owing to I cannot tell, whether from my own unhappy temper or that of my friends and relations, but in this day of trouble they seem to stand aloof and as it were staring at me like a stranger.

Sat. 20 June. About 11.20 my wife was taken with a strong convulsive fit which lasted some time… Oh, my unhappy misfortune. I shall lose all that is desirable to me in this world; my only true and sincere friend, a treasure of more value than all the riches this world can afford, she has ever been a virtuous and discreet woman and to me the best of wives.

Tues. 23 June. About 1.50 it pleased Almighty God to take from me my beloved wife, who, poor creature, has laboured under a severe though lingering illness for these 38 weeks past, which she bore with the greatest resignation to the Divine will. In her I have lost a sincere friend and virtuous wife, a prudent and good economist in her family and a very valuable companion (and one endued with more than a common share of good sense).

Sat. 27 June. Yesterday about 5.50 I buried my wife at Framfield, and with her all my hopes of worldly happiness. I am now destitute of a friend to converse with or even a sincere friend on whom I can rely for advice now I have lost the dear, dear partner of my soul…

[But here enters a darker note, as he is accused locally of having a hand in his wife’s demise.]

Weds. 1 July. This day I was informed of the ill-natured and cruel treatment I have privately received from malevolent tongues, who have made, propagated and spread with indefatigable industry and diligence a report that Mr. Snelling at my request (and by force) castrated my wife,2 which operation was the immediate cause of her death… Now from what occasion this palpable falsehood could take its rise I am quite at a loss to guess; as to my own part I know myself thoroughly innocent… neither have I in the least any anger against them for it… as to love and respect for my deceased wife, I want no other testimony than my own conscience, [though] am I not destitute of other evidence: I have even that of my wife’s own handwriting, wherein she says she wants words to express her gratitude to me for my care etc. for her.

Sat. 4 July. At home all day and thank God pretty busy. How do I more and more daily find the loss of my wife to be great; how do I severely know the want of her in the careful and regular management of my family affairs, which are not now conducted with her conduct, prudence and good economy!

Thurs. 30 July. Very melancholy is my present situation… and to think of marrying again is what I have no thoughts of; no, not so long as the image of my dear wife is almost continual in my thoughts…

Tues. 22 Sept. Mr. Foreman, myself, and Mr. Richardson dined at The Chequer on a leg of mutton boiled and turnips and cabbage… I came home very safe and sober about 8.20… Oh, what raptures did I use to approach home with in my dear Peggy’s life when I had been out, but now how different the scene… No pleasing object to meet me with the smiles of approbation and all the other endearments of conjugal love and affection. Little, ah, little do the sons of riot and debauchery know how great, how far beyond description, is the pleasure that is found in the company of a virtuous wife.

[In due course, however, there were green shoots in Mr T’s love life, perhaps despite his own protestations. And sometimes he makes us wonder who he is writing this diary for…]


Sun. 5 Sept. After breakfast I set out for a place called Ninfield Stocks in order to meet my late servant Sarah Waller, agreeable to an appointment previously made, where we both arrived about 10 o’clock. I stayed and talked with her about two hours … Now should those minutes of my journey ever come to any person’s eye, or should my journey come to be known publicly to the world (that I took upon me such a journey, and for no other reason than purely to see an old servant), why I doubt not but they will very readily conclude she was his sweetheart, or if not so favourably disposed in their censure, perhaps the sagacious eye of scandal may see in it something worse. But however, they will be wrong for once in both conjectures…

I positively declare I have not, since that fatal day which deprived me of all, all, this earth can ever give to make me happy (I mean that melancholy day which took from me my wife), ever once made my addresses to any one of the fair sex… Not that I have taken up any resolution to celibacy, for I can with truth declare marriage to be the only state that I found any happiness in… Therefore let the vain and giddy world talk on as freely as they please of me…

Sun. 12 Sept. In the afternoon Mrs. Coates’s maid drank tea with me. This! this is the girl that the world proclaims is to be my wife. But oh, ’tis an egregious mistake, a tiling that yet has never entered my thoughts. Nor did I ever give the girl the least reason to think of any such tiling, for I am sure I have not kissed her, except once, since Whitmonday. But during the time I lived in Lewes she and I, being almost next-door neighbours, were very intimate, but then there was nought of love… My good neighbours, I have not taken up a vow of celibacy, but I am in no hurry.


Fri. 4 Feb. I should prefer marriage before a single life… For in my mind virtue and a sincere love or friendship for each other seems the only basis to build a lasting happiness upon in the marriage state.

Thurs. 23 June. This day two years ago was the day on which it pleased Almighty God to take from me my dear wife, and in the loss of her I sustained a very great one. During which interval of time the world has many times discovered I have been on the point of marriage. But I am clear in this that I have never yet made any offers of love to any one woman (no, not anything like courting) notwithstanding the voice of the world has been so much of the contrary opinion.

[But now a new figure, Mary ‘Molly’ Hicks enters his life.]


Mon. 19 Mar. I dined on the remains of yesterday’s dinner. At home all day; posted my day book. Molly Hicks drank tea with me.

Mon. 13 Aug. I have not spent hardly one agreeable hour in the company of a woman since I lost my wife, for really there seem very few whose education and way of thinking is agreeable and suitable with my own.


Sun. 24 Mar. Molly Hicks… is a girl which I have taken a great liking to, she seeming to all appearances to be a girl endued with a great deal of good nature and good sense, and withal so far as has hitherto come to my knowledge is very discreet and prudent.

Thurs. 28 Mar. In the afternoon rode over to Chiddingly to pay my charmer, or intended wife or sweetheart or whatever other name may be more proper, a visit at her father’s, where I drank tea in company with their family… It being an excessive wet and windy night I had the opportunity—sure I should say the pleasure, or perhaps some might say the unspeakable happiness—to sit up with Molly Hicks, or my charmer, all night. I came home about 5.40 in the morn… Well to be sure she is a most clever girl, but, however, to be serious in the affair I certainly esteem the girl and I think she appears worthy of my esteem.

Sun. 14 Apr. After dinner I set out for Malling to pay Molly Hicks my intended wife a visit… I spent the afternoon with a great deal of pleasure, it being very fine pleasant weather and my companion very agreeable. I drank tea with her and came home about 9.30…

Now perhaps there may be many reports abroad in the world of my present intentions, some likely condemning, other approving my choice. But as the world cannot judge the secret intentions of my mind and I may therefore be censured for want of knowing the true motives of my proceedings, I will take the trouble to relate what are really and truly my intentions and the only motive from which they spring (which may be some satisfaction to those who may happen to peruse my memoirs)… the girl I believe as far as I can discover is a very industrious, sober woman and seemingly endued with prudence and good nature, and seems to have a very serious and sedate turn of mind. She comes of reputable parents and may perhaps one time or other have some fortune. As to her person I know it’s plain (so is my own), but she is cleanly in her person and dress (which I will say is something more than at first sight it may appear to be towards happiness). She is I think a well-made woman. As to her education, I own is not liberal, neither do I think it equals my own, but she has good sense and a seeming desire to improve her mind, and, I must in justice say, has always behaved to me with the strictest honour and good manners, her behaviour being far from the affected formality of the prude, nor on the other hand anything of that foolish fondness too often found in the more light part of the sex.

Sat. 11 May. At home all day; my leg very painful. In the even my intended wife and her sister called to see me and sat with me some time. This may possibly be imputed to the girl as fondness, but I must do her the justice to say I esteem it only as friendship and good manners. For I have never met with more civil and friendly usage from any one of the fair sex than I have from this girl.

Weds. 31 July. From the day last mentioned, I have been so embarrassed with a multiplicity of business that I was not able to continue my journal, being on the 19th day of June married at our church (to Mary Hicks, servant to Luke Spence Esq. of South Malling) by the Rev. Mr. Porter, and for about 14 days was very ill… But however thank God I begin once more to be a little settled and am happy in my choice. I have, it’s true, not married a learned lady, nor is she a gay one, but I trust she is goodnatured, and one that will use her utmost endeavour to make me happy, which perhaps is as much as it is in the power of a wife to do. As to her fortune, I shall one day have something considerable, and there seems to be rather a flowing stream. Well, here let us drop the subject and begin a new one.

And that’s all we know, for his diary (or ‘memoirs’ as he self-consciously writes) ends there. Thomas and Molly went on to have seven children, although only three reached adulthood. Turner’s business thrived, and he took on the local pub too. His grave can still be found in East Hoathly churchyard.

We’ll never get to hear Peggy’s side of the story. And does Turner protest his innocence too much… or is he an honest confessor of his own human frailties? You must judge for yourself.


Available online at Around a third of the full diaries were transcribed and published by David Vaisey in the 1980s, and these are available online (via paid subscription) here.


Snelling was the local doctor. Here Turner uses ‘castrated’ to mean, as he explains later, ‘taking out the uterus’.

A visit to the gold fields (Part 2, 1852)

Was Ellen really at Peg Leg and Sheep-wash – or was it hogwash?

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Success at the diggings is like drawing lottery tickets—the blanks far outnumber the prizes; still, with good health, strength, and above all perseverance, it is strange if a digger does not in the end reap a reward for his labour.

In the previous part of this visit to the first Australian gold rush, I looked at the truths and untruths around the discovery of gold in New South Wales by Edward Hammond Hargraves – if he was in fact the discoverer. In the course of researching that, I discovered numerous people left accounts of their labours for gold, or their visits to the diggers’ camps, where the work was often dangerous, brutal and fruitless.

The illustrations of the diggers below were drawn by Edward Snell (1820–80), an English engineer who arrived in Australia in 1852 at the age of 29. (There are stories to be told here another time about his work on the railways in Britain, and he later became a surveyor for the Geelong–Melbourne railway in Australia before returned to England.) Snell is one of several excellent scribes of the gold fields1 – but here I want to focus on one in particular, unusual in this arena because this account was written by a woman. In the 1850s around 600,000 immigrants came to Victoria in the gold rush, and it is easily overlooked that more than a quarter of them were female.2

Ellen Clacy was born Ellen Louisa Von Sturmer in Surrey, England in 1830, one of six children of a wealthy clergyman and his wife. She went to Australia in 1852 on the Ayrshire with her brother Frederick in search of their fortune, but she returned in 1853, giving birth to her daughter (also Ellen) on the return sea voyage.3 Ellen married a merchant’s clerk and/or mining engineer, Charles Berry Clacy – in Melbourne according to her, but proof has been elusive, although there is a record of their marriage in London in 1854 – all of which really suggests a clandestine affair and awkward pregnancy.4 (By some accounts Clacy appears5 to have stayed in Australia and married again, while Ellen described herself as a widow in the 1881 census although he was still alive. Frederick certainly stayed there and later settled in New Zealand.)

She began a writing career back in England, penning at least eight books and numerous magazine articles – two of her books were accounts of life in Australia (the second in the form of short stories), the others mostly novels under the anagrammatic pseudonym Cycla. Her book A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia in 1852-53 (“Written on the spot”), published in October 1853 and which the extracts below come from, was a bestseller, packed with vivid accounts of the places and people.6 The Literary Gazette described it as “the most graphic account of the diggings and the gold country in general that is to be had”. Ellen died in 1901. Here’s what she said about the gold diggings:

Let us take a stroll round Forest Creek—what a novel scene!—thousands of human beings engaged in digging, wheeling, carrying, and washing, intermingled with no little grumbling, scolding and swearing. We approach first the old Post-office Square; next our eye glances down Adelaide Gully, and over the Montgomery and White Hills, all pretty well dug up; now we pass the Private Escort Station, and Little Bendigo…

The principal gullies about Bendigo are Sailors’s, Napoleon, Pennyweight, Peg Leg, Growler’s, White Horse, Eagle Hawk, Californian, American, Derwent, Long, Picaninny, Iron Bark, Black Man’s, Poor Man’s, Dusty, Jim Crow, Spring, and Golden—also Sydney Flat, and Specimen Hill—Haverton Gully, and the Sheep-wash. Most of these places are well-ransacked and tunnelled, but thorough good wages may always be procured by tin dish washing in deserted holes, or surface washing.

It is not only the diggers, however, who make money at the Gold Fields. Carters, carpenters, storemen, wheelwrights, butchers, shoemakers, &c., usually in the long run make a fortune quicker than the diggers themselves, and certainly with less hard work or risk of life. They can always get from one to two pounds a day without rations, whereas they may dig for weeks and get nothing. Living is not more expensive than in Melbourne: meat is generally from 4d. to 6d. a pound, flour about 1s. 6d a pound, (this is the most expensive article in house-keeping there,) butter must be dispensed with, as that is seldom less than 4s. a pound, and only successful diggers can indulge in such articles as cheese, pickles, ham, sardines, pickled salmon, or spirits, as all these things, though easily procured if you have gold to throw away, are expensive, the last-named article (diluted with water or something less innoxious) is only to be obtained for 30s. a bottle.

The stores, which are distinguished by a flag, are numerous and well stocked. A new style of lodging and boarding house is in great vogue. It is a tent fitted up with stringy bark couches, ranged down each side the tent, leaving a narrow passage up the middle. The lodgers are supplied with mutton, damper, and tea, three times a day, for the charge of 5s. a meal, and 5s. for the bed; this is by the week, a casual guest must pay double, and as 18 inches is on an average considered ample width to sleep in, a tent 24 feet long will bring in a good return to the owner.

The stores at the diggings are large tents, generally square or oblong, and everything required by a digger can be obtained for money, from sugar-candy to potted anchovies; from East India pickles to Bass’s pale ale; from ankle jack boots to a pair of stays; from a baby’s cap to a cradle; and every apparatus for mining, from a pick to a needle. But the confusion—the din—the medley—what a scene for a shop walker!

… Most of the store-keepers are purchasers of gold either for cash or in exchange for goods, and many are the tricks from which unsuspecting diggers suffer. One great and outrageous trick is to weigh the parcels separately, or divide the whole, on the excuse that the weight would be too much for the scales; and then, on adding up the grains and pennyweights, the sellers often lose at least half an ounce… A commoner practice still is for examiners of gold-dust to cultivate long finger-nails, and, in drawing the fingers about it, gather some up.

Sly grog selling is the bane of the diggings. Many—perhaps nine-tenths—of the diggers are honest industrious men, desirous of getting a little there as a stepping-stone to independence elsewhere; but the other tenth is composed of outcasts and transports—the refuse of Van Diemen’s Land… They generally work or rob for a space, and when well stocked with gold, retire to Melbourne for a month or so, living in drunkenness and debauchery. If, however, their holiday is spent at the diggings, the sly grog-shop is the last scene of their boisterous career. Spirit selling is strictly prohibited… The result has been the opposite of that which it was intended to produce. There is more drinking and rioting at the diggings than elsewhere, … and wherever grog is sold on the sly, it will sooner or later be the scene of a riot, or perhaps murder…

It is no joke to get ill at the diggings; doctors make you pay for it. Their fees are—for a consultation, at their own tent, ten shillings; for a visit out, from one to ten pounds, according to time and distance. Many are regular quacks, and these seem to flourish best. The principal illnesses are weakness of sight, from the hot winds and sandy soil, and dysentery, which is often caused by the badly-cooked food, bad water, and want of vegetables.

The interior of the canvas habitation of the digger is desolate enough; a box on a block of wood forms a table, and this is the only furniture; many dispense with that. The bedding, which is laid on the ground, serves to sit upon. Diogenes in his tub would not have looked more comfortless than any one else. Tin plates and pannicans, the same as are used for camping up, compose the breakfast, dinner, and tea service, which meals usually consist of the same dishes—mutton, damper,7 and tea.

In some tents the soft influence of our sex is pleasingly apparent: the tins are as bright as silver, there are sheets as well as blankets on the beds, and perhaps a clean counterpane, with the addition of a dry sack or piece of carpet on the ground…

Sunday is kept at the diggings in a very orderly manner; and among the actual diggers themselves, the day of rest is taken in a VERBATIM sense…

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—another shouting because he couldn't find the way to his hole, and a third equally vociferous because he has tumbled into one—this man swearing—an other praying—a party of bacchanals chanting various ditties to different time and tune, or rather minus both. Here is one man grumbling because he has brought his wife with him, another ditto because he has 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, 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; and this not for once only, but day after day, night after night. In the summer, he must work hard under a burning sun, tortured by the mosquito and the little stinging March flies, or feel his eyes smart and his throat grow dry and parched, as the hot winds, laden with dust, pass over him…

Various writers have observed that the rest of the world, particularly Britain, was desperate for news of the gold in Australia, and some accounts are believed to have been hastily cobbled together by journalists to please eager readers. In 2013, Marjorie Theobald wrote an article, ‘Lies, damned lies and travel writers: women’s narratives of the Castlemaine goldfields, 1852-54’,8 in which she convincingly identifies three prior sources which passages from Ellen’s narrative bear striking resemblance to. She reminds us that Ellen was later a novelist, and questions whether she really did see much, or any, of the actual gold diggings. She concludes: “So was A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings an elaborate smokescreen to conceal the birth of a child outside marriage in an era when society did not readily forgive such a transgression?”

Intriguingly, A Lady’s Visit includes an interlude about a “heroine” here given the name Mary (“The names of the parties are, of course, entirely fictitious,” Ellen writes): “Shipboard is a rare place for match-making, and, somehow or another, Henry Stephens had contrived to steal away the heart of the ‘Downshire’ belle.” A few months later, “when the marriage ceremony was to be performed, they unfortunately spent one evening together alone, and he left her—ruined… he, who should have been there to redeem his pledge and save his victim from open ruin and disgrace, was far away on the road to Ballarat.” Was this a thinly disguised retelling of Ellen’s own adventures abroad? Could her success as an author have drawn Charles Clacy back to England to belatedly tie the knot?

Ellen Clacy is not without her defenders. In the next issue of the Victorian Historical Journal after Theobald’s article, Susan Priestley acknowledges the likelihood of some borrowing in Ellen’s writing, but also it’s clear that she definitely went to Australia; and borrowings were certainly from authentic sources, absorbed into Ellen’s appealing writing style. Did she actually visit the gold fields up close in her two-month stay? Once again we are left with an ambiguous tale, and you must decide for yourself!


His diary and wonderful sketches have been scanned by State Library Victoria and are online here.


See here for a discussion of their many roles.


Ellen junior (d.1916) went on to become a reasonably well known watercolourist who exhibited at the Royal Academy in London.


See ‘A Goldfields Adventurer’ by M. Rosalyn Sheenan in Victorian Historical Journal 71(1), 2000.




The full text is at


A type of flatbread made with flour and water.


Victorian Historical Journal 84(2).

I've struck gold! (Part 1, 1851)

But who found it first? And who was like a bloated frog?

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I regret exceedingly to hear many poor people have left their employment for the purpose of seeking their fortune in the precarious occupation of gold digging… a very great amount of human misery must be the result of this reckless digging mania

The official history of the gold rush in Australia runs thus: on 12th February 1851, Edward Hammond Hargraves (1817–1891), along with his guide John Lister and brothers William and James Tom, found five specks of gold in Lewis Ponds Creek in New South Wales, a site they later named Ophir1 – and this event sparked a huge industry of ‘diggers’.

But it turns out that this claim was disputed right from the start, and new evidence and stories have come to light ever since. The one certainty is that 150 years before the internet, people still liked trolling one another, as we’ll see!

Edward Hargraves was born in Gosport, England but went to sea at the age of 14 and soon settled in Australia, where he worked in various jobs including in the tortoiseshell industry, as a steam company agent and as a hotelier. But in July 1849 he felt called by the siren song of the Californian gold rush, which had begun the previous year. He didn’t find much there, but was apparently struck by the similarities in the landscape to the area around Bathurst in New South Wales (NSW). On 5th March 1850 he wrote to his friend Samuel Peek: “I am very forcibly impressed that I have been in a gold region in New South Wales, within 300 miles of Sydney; and unless you knew how to find it you might live for a century in the region and know nothing of its existence.” So Hargraves left San Francisco on 23rd November on a ship called the Emma, and arrived back in Sydney on 7th January 1851, setting off in search of gold just under a month later.

The only extensive account of the actual find is in Hargraves’ fanciful (and believed to have been ghostwritten) 1855 book Australia and its Goldfields. In it he alleges he said to Lister: “This is a memorable day in the history of New South Wales, I shall be a baronet, you will be knighted, and my old horse will be stuffed, put in a glass case, and sent to the British Museum!” (None of this quite happened, luckily for the horse.)

But the first record was this short note written by Hargraves and addressed to the colonial secretary of New South Wales, Sir Edward Deas Thomson: “Wednesday 12th day of February 1851 discovered gold this day – named the diggins ‘Hargraves’, who is the first discoverer in New South Wales of that Metal in the earth in a similar manner as found in California. This is a memorable day.”2 Hargraves went to see Thomson in March, apparently to secure official recognition – and a government handout, which he was later granted (£10,000 from NSW and £5,000 from Victoria).3

Another of Hargraves’ collaborators was Enoch William Rudder (1801–88), who had also been in California; Rudder himself had written to the press in July 1850 about his expectation of there being gold in NSW. It fell to Rudder rather than Hargraves himself to go public about the Ophir finds, and now we begin a heated and rather entertaining series of correspondence from the Sydney Morning Herald.4 I’ll try to let these edited extracts speak for themselves, with just brief interruptions.5

2nd April 1851

GENTLEMEN… A goldfield has been discovered extending over a tract of country of about 300 miles in length… The discovery has been made by a gentleman (an old well known colonist) with whom I had the pleasure to travel many hundred miles when in California, and know him to be a miner of very considerable experience… I trust it will not be long ere… the Government will adopt without delay such measures as shall tend further to develop the riches of this colony and enable the people to reap the golden harvest which now appears to invite attention.

I remain, gentlemen,
Your obedient servant,

[A few weeks later, an anonymous correspondent weighs in, signing himself – I think we can assume it’s a man – with only this cryptic little symbol: 𐃏]

3rd May

GENTLEMEN,—In this morning’s Herald I find the following statement:- “It is no longer any secret that gold has been found in the earth… by Mr. E. H. Hargraves… While in California, Mr. Hargraves felt persuaded that, from the similarity of the geological formation, there must be gold in several districts of this colony, and when he returned his expectations were realized.”

Here are two asseverations—one as to the date of the first discovery of gold in this colony; the other as to the method by which Mr. Hargrave[s] is asserted to have made that discovery. The object of this letter is to deny to Mr. Hargrave[s] the merit of the first discovery, or that he is the first person who was led to the conclusion that the similarity of formation in California and New South Wales indicated the presence of gold.

I almost wonder how you could have forgotten the many articles connected with this very subject which you have published long ago, even, I believe, before Mr. Hargraves went to California, in which a comparison is instituted between that country and this respecting this very matter of gold-finding…

Now, as to the assertion that it was on the 12th February, 1851, that the said fact was established, if you will turn to your own files you will find that on 28th September, 1847 the geological formation of this colony is investigated, and mention distinctly made of the existence of gold… and some of that gold is still in my possession.

Mr. Hargraves has therefore, merely acted upon suggestions thrown out years ago, and he has, therefore, no claim as a “discoverer.” There are numerous localities in which gold has been found in this colony; but is the Government to pay every individual who picks up a handful of it?

[And now an anonymous defender of Hargraves joins in…]

12th May

GENTLEMEN, In reply to the letter which appeared in your paper of the 5th ultimo headed “the gold discovery,” I have to remark it appears to me to show about as much wisdom as that established by those jealous of that great discoverer Columbus, who, though they could not doubt the truth of his discoveries, found it impossible to make an egg stand on one end. No sooner however was the thing accomplished, than they had the mortification to find it was ridiculously simple. Mr. Hargraves never doubted that others had discovered gold, but could they profit by their discoveries? No, not one of them. Who has done this? Who was the first to show the hidden riches of this vast country? Mr Hargraves… I question if the writer ever discovered anything… Like the bloated frog in the fable who envied the noble ox, the writer of the letter in question has only displayed the fact that his attempts at detraction and his desire to have it inferred he had in some way been injured by Mr. Hargraves’ announcement, must burst, and in so doing reduce him to that mere nothingness which has induced him to act with so much ill taste as to attempt wantonly to detract from the meritorious act of a fellow-colonist…

I am, Gentlemen,
Your obedient servant,

P.S. … I can assure him I have handled some of the gold of Ophir, and seen a specimen of platina found with it—nay more, I am about to dig for it.

[But 𐃏 fights back!]

13th May

GENTLEMEN, I have but little to say to the extremely vulgar letter of your correspondent “Fair Play,” who, like many who assume that title, seems to be an adept in foul insinuations. If, as he admits, others discovered gold in this country before Mr. Hargraves, why should he object to let those discoverers claim such merit as he assumes himself, if there be any merit at all in the matter? … Mr. Hargraves was not the first person who had arrived at this conclusion, and that instead of 1851, the date of the discovery that gold does exist, in this country, was many years before. In short, it was in 1840.

Whatever may be the value of Mr. Hargraves’ alleged “find,” is to me perfectly indifferent. I neither envy his luck nor covet his gains. And if there is the abundance pretended, I may honestly confess, that I am sorry for it, because though a few persons may succeed in scraping out of the earth a bag of gold dust, the mischief which would accrue to the colonists by a mania for gold hunting is so fearful to contemplate (with the example of California before our eyes), that no person well disposed to the quiet progress of our social and moral state, can desire the dreams of a Midas or an Aladdin to be realised…

I think it possible “Fair Play” may have overlooked a very important point. At present, the public know nothing about the amount or extent of the gold field, and therefore nothing of the value of Mr. Hargrave’s alleged “find.” The Columbus egg of that gentleman may, perhaps, be discovered an “addled one,” i.e., though there is gold, it may not be as abundant as it is in California.

[Two weeks later, Hargraves himself wrote to the newspaper, warning people against the very gold rush he had effectively started. He also alludes to prior claims by the Rev. William Branwhite Clarke (1798–78), who had apparently found gold in 1841 and taken it to the governor of NSW, George Gipps, who urged him to keep the whole thing quiet: “Put it away, Mr Clarke, or we shall all have our throats cut.”]

27th May

GENTLEMEN,—Having passed on my road from Bathurst from 800 to 1000 people who are off to the diggings, to say nothing of the inability of a great portion of these people to endure the necessary labour to obtain gold, not ten per cent of the whole have any tools to work with, or a single pound to support themselves during their journey to the mines. Gold digging is very hard work; the season of the year is against carrying on operations in mining; a few hours’ rain would put an entire stop to digging, as the creek rises many feet in a single hour…

I regret exceedingly to hear many poor people have left their employment for the purpose of seeking their fortune in the precarious occupation of gold digging. I venture to predict a very small percentage will do good, and a very great amount of human misery must be the result of this reckless digging mania

I may take this opportunity of saying, with reference to remarks said to have emanated from the Rev. W. B. Clarke, as to prior claims to the discovery of gold, that I never had the slightest idea of any such discovery, if it ever took place…

Time will prove the correctness of the statements of
Yours, obediently,
Steamer Comet

[That letter was published on 28th May, and the next day W. B. Clarke himself contributed a 2,500 screed to the newspaper about the history of his thoughts on gold in the area from his perspective as a geologist. It’s too dry to include here, but he does comment: “I have no interests at heart but those which I believe to belong to all members of a civilized community,—the common good, which I sought when I withheld more pointed and particular statements than those previously published…” But Hargraves couldn’t resist his own comeback…]

30th May

In yesterday’s Herald appears a statement signed W. B. Clarke, to the effect that Mr. Clarke had long declared that there was gold in this country, but that nobody believed him, and that I was guided to the localities in which I discovered the gold by his published statement. Of the first part of his statement I know nothing; but I most emphatically declare the last statement to be untrue. It may possibly betray ignorance on my part to say so, but to the best of my belief I never even heard of the Rev. W. B. Clarke, of St. Leonard’s parsonage, until within the last few weeks…

I have no desire to acquire notoriety, neither do I take to myself much credit for the discovery; it was the result of observation and reflection, and some little perseverance…

I mentioned my belief of the existence of gold in this colony to several of my most esteemed and sincere friends upon my return… From the best and kindest motives they endeavoured to dissuade me from the enterprise, … but feeling that I could not rest until I had satisfied my mind by a personal search, I went through hundreds of miles of the solitary wilderness, and having made the discovery,6 disclosed it to the Colonial Government, who may or may not reward me for the unbounded wealth which I have, through an overruling Providence, been the humble instrument of conferring on my fellow-colonists.


[These catty exchanges reminded me greatly of the wonderful Gossage–Vardebedian Papers by Woody Allen.]

The real truth seems to be that Hargraves was a smart self-publicist and opportunist who perhaps saw that the value wasn’t in the gold itself as much as the awareness of its presence, and in securing official recognition. The well-known 1851 portrait of him below as a benefactor generously waving to the miners fits with his public image, perhaps not fully tallying with the corpulent grandee we see alongside, based on photographs of the time.

The story was far from over. E. W. Rudder’s own 1861 book Incidents Connected with the Discovery of Gold in New South Wales shows that some bitterness had arisen on his side too, suggesting “Mr. Hargraves forgot his friends in the intoxication of success”:

I lay no claim to the Discovery of Gold in Australia. I claim to have laid its foundation, to have been its promulgator, and the first demonstrator of the most simple and efficient method of procuring it… My object is not to lesson any real merit due to Mr. Hargraves as the actual discoverer of “Placer Deposits,” in New South Wales, but… that gentleman has absorbed within himself, not only that to which he was justly entitled, but that which was due to others, never having (so far as I know) in any way acknowledged the assistance he received, but kept their services in the background…

In 1890, a second inquiry was opened, and a parliamentary committee this time declared: “Messrs. Tom and Lister were undoubtedly the first discoverers of gold in Australia in payable quantities.”

But as this list shows, there were many possible claims to the first Australian gold finds, albeit mostly in small quantities. And politics sometimes intervened. In 1848, William Tipple Smith (son of the English geologist William Smith) had also found gold in the Ophir area, i.e. three years before Hargraves. But research published by Smith’s great-great-great-grand-niece Lynette Silver in 1986 revealed that Smith’s correspondence had been misfiled and his claim lost to history (although he found his own success in the iron and steel industry). Smith had taken a nugget of gold to colonial secretary Thomson in 1849, the latter then furtively attempting to buy the land where it was found. Smith was accused of being a liar – so perhaps that paperwork had been ‘lost’ on purpose. Smith’s role was finally acknowledged officially… in 2020.

And where did Smith find it? At a place called Yorkey’s Corner, named after a Yorkshire-born shepherd… who had allegedly found a nugget of gold himself sometime earlier. It doesn’t seem a stretch to say it was known by many people out in the wilds that gold was around – but it took one man to make a craze of it.

Next week: in Part 2 we’ll return to the Australian gold fields a few years later to find out what life as a digger was really like. Thanks for reading – do please tell people about Histories – it all helps motivate me to keep on digging myself!


The name is biblical, from the supposed source of King Solomon’s gold, although Ophir, California was named in 1850 during the gold rush there, which may have influenced Hargraves; some writers have suggested the Toms brothers’ father, William, a parson, coined the name.


This note was rediscovered in 1954, when the Melbourne newspaper The Age reported: “The tattered and torn old document, wrapped round a specimen of the gold, was unearthed from the vaults of an old strongroom at the university by the newly-appointed archivist, Mr D. Macmillan… Still enclosed in the letter when discovered was a sample nugget, beaten flat, and measuring approximately two and three-quarter inches by one inch and weighing just under 2 oz.”


These funds were frozen when John Lister protested, but Hargraves’ claims were upheld in 1853. A detailed account of Hargraves’ life and adventures can be found here.


All available online thanks to the wonderful Trove website run by the National Library of Australia.


The dates are when the letters were written, where given – typically published a day or two later.


Not really solitary, and for the full story of Lister and Toms’ claims to the actual discoveries, see here.

Want to buy a rhino? (1684)

How did Mr Langley lose his shirt?

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A rarity so great, that few men, in our country, have, in their whole lives, opportunity to see so singular an animal…

Recently one of my kids told me about a David Attenborough documentary that mentioned a rhinoceros called Clara which toured Europe in the 18th century, and ultimately died in London. This of course piqued my curiosity – surely there must be accounts of her British visit? Glenys Ridley’s book Clara’s Grand Tour tells this whole story, but alas the final London leg is only mentioned in advertisements (“To be seen at the Horse and Groom in Lambeth Marsh”), and a later German poster sadly appends: “It is 21 years old, and died in London on 14th April 1758.”

But this led me down the rabbit (or rhino) hole, and thanks to the amazing resources at the Rhino Resource Centre compiled by Dr Kees Rookmaaker, and some obsessive rhino-hunting of my own, here instead is the story of the first rhino in Britain. As usual I’ve lightly edited original accounts to modernise spellings – but I couldn’t resist leaving in all the differently wrong ways of spelling rhinoceros

The story begins in Bengal in the Indian subcontinent, a region regularly visited by the global megacorp of the era, the East India Company. All ten rhinos known to have visited Europe before the 19th century were single-horned Indian ones, Rhinoceros unicornis. One Englishman who was there, in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1683 was the seafarer Edward Barlow (1642–c.1706), who kept a remarkable journal of his life,1 including voyages to India, China, the Canaries and more. Basil Lubbock, who edited Barlow’s journals for a 1934 edition, observes: “How he managed to write and draw so beautifully in the dank, dark forecastles of ships, which rolled and tossed like barrels in even the slightest sea, is beyond my comprehension.”

In his journal for 1683, Barlow notes: “[i]n the country are bred the great beasts called the ‘rhinosarus’, and many wild and cruel tigers, it being a very level country and full of woods and rivers”. On the next page, he included this quaint picture:

And next to it, he later added these words: “The emblem of Risnosarss, that was brought from Bengal in the year 1684 and sold at London for two thousand one hundred pound.”

Barlow himself arrived back in London, on a ship called the Kent, on 27 June 1684 – but not with a rhino aboard. The job of transporting this beast had fallen to Captain Henry Udall of the Herbert. Surviving log books reveal that he had been on a voyage to the Bay of Bengal from 9th February 1683 until 23rd July 1684. And we know he was the rhino ferryman from this caption to the first image above:

A true and lively representation of that prodigious & wonderful creature the Rhinoceros, lately brought over from the East Indies in the year 1684, from the Court of the King of Gulkindall, by Captain Udall, Commander of the Herbert ship; and afterwards sold in London for two thousand three hundred and twenty pounds sterling…

Further details of the unnamed rhino’s arrival in London are to be found in news-sheets of the time sent to the businessman and politician Sir Richard Newdigate (1644–1710), and survive in his papers. Thus we learn…

23rd August: “On board one of the E[ast] India ships is come a Rhininceros valued at £2,000 at the Customs house; [it] will be sold next week by Inch of Candle.”

Candle auctions were popular in this era and were a way of limiting last-minute sniping (take note, eBay): the idea being that bidders had to place their bids before the flame expired, and nobody would know exactly when that would be. (Samuel Pepys mentions various candle auctions in his diaries, and on 3rd September 1662 picked up this tip from an expert: “here I observed one man cunninger than the rest that was sure to bid the last man, and to carry it; and inquiring the reason, he told me that just as the flame goes out the smoke descends, which is a thing I never observed before, and by that he do know the instant when to bid last, which is very pretty.”)

A news-sheet of 25th August then explains that when the rhino came up for auction, it was bought for £2,320 by a Mr Langley, “one of those that bought Mr Sadler’s Well2 at Islington, & in a day or two [it] will be seen at Bartholomew Fair.”

However, Langley couldn’t come up with the cash and lost his deposit:

30th August: “Mr Langley who bought the rhinocerus not being able to raise the money forfeited the £500 he paid in hand & this evening the Owners procured a Warrant from Sir James Smith and carried away Mr Langley and afterwards put up the beast for sale again by Inch of Candle for £2,000, but no person bid a farthing; so [it] lies upon their hands.”

Even the £500 was a lot of money in 1684! (The handy Measuring Worth website suggests that £2,000 then was the equivalent of at least £300,000 [$420,000)] today.)

However, it seems the owners – did this include Captain Udall?3 – went ahead and exhibited the rhino themselves. In the London Gazette (the oldest continuously published newspaper in the UK, still going) of 9th October, we read:

A Very strange Beast called a Rhynoceros, lately brought from the East-Indies, being the first that ever was in England, is daily to be seen at the Bell Savage Inn4 on Ludgate-Hill, from Nine o’ Clock in the Morning till Eight at Night.

And another contemporary newsletter reported: “The Rhinoceros is much visited at twelve pence apiece, and two shillings those that ride him. They get fifteen pound a day.”

The rhino attracted some notable visitors. The merchant Sir Dudley North (1641–91) and his brother Francis (1637–85), Baron Guilford and Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, went to see it, as recorded by their descendant Roger North in his 1780 book Lives of the Norths:

A merchant, of Sir Dudley North’s acquaintance, had brought over an enormous rhinoceros, to be sold to show-men for profit. It is a noble beast, wonderfully armed by nature for offence; but more for defence, being covered with impenetrable shields, which no weapon would make any impression upon; and a rarity so great, that few men, in our country, have, in their whole lives, opportunity to see so singular an animal. This merchant told Sir Dudley North, that if he, with a friend or two, had a mind to see it, they might take the opportunity at his house, before it was sold. Hereupon Sir Dudley North proposed to his brother, the Lord Keeper, to go with him upon this expedition; which he did, and came away exceedingly satisfied with the curiosity he had seen.

… the very next morning, a bruit went from thence all over the town… that his lordship rode upon the rhinoceros…

Did the grandee spend his two shillings for a ride, or was this just political teasing?

But the best account of this rhino comes from our old friend the diarist John Evelyn (and he’ll be back in this newsletter another time). Here is his diary entry for 22nd October:

Sir William Godolphin and I went to see the Rhinoceros (or Unicorn) being the first that I suppose was ever brought into England: It more resembled a huge enormous Swine, than any other Beast amongst us; That which was most particular & extraordinary, was the placing of her small Eyes in the very center of her cheeks & head, her Ears in her neck, and very much pointed: her Legs near as big about as an ordinary man’s waist, the feet divided into claws, not cloven, but somewhat resembling the Elephant’s, & very round & flat, her tail slender and hanging down over her Sex, which had some long hairs at the End of it like a Cow’s, & was all the hair about the whole Creature.

But what was the most wonderful, was the extraordinary bulk and Circumference of her body, which though very Young, (they told us as I remember not above 4 years old) could not be less than 20 foot in compass: she had a set of most dreadful teeth, which were extraordinarily broad, and deep in her throat, she was led by a ring in her nose like a Buffalo, but the horn upon it was but newly Sprouting, & hardly shaped to any considerable point, but in my opinion nothing was so extravagant as the Skin of the beast, which hung down on her haunches, both behind and before to her knees, loose like so much Coach leather, & not adhering at all to the body, which had another skin, so as one might take up this, as one would do a Cloak or horse-Cloth to a great depth, it adhering only at the upper parts; & these lappets of stiff skin, began to be studded with impenetrable Scales, like a Target of Coat of mail, loricated like Armor, much after the manner this Animal is usually depicted: she was of a mouse Colour, the skin Elephantine.

Tame enough, & suffering her mouth to be open’d by her keeper, who caus’d her to lie down, when she appeared like a great Coach overthrown, for she was much of that bulk, yet would rise as nimbly as ever I saw a horse: T’was certainly a very wonderful creature, of immense strength in the neck, & nose especially, the snout resembling a boar’s but much longer; to what stature she may arrive if she live long, I cannot tell; but if she grow proportionable to her present age, she will be a Mountain. They fed her with Hay, & Oats, & gave her bread.

She belonged to Certain E. Indian Merchants, & was sold for (as I remember) above two-thousand pounds. At the same time I went to see a living Crocodile…

Feeding the rhino (especially on the sea voyage) must certainly have been a challenge. In his 1693 Synopsis Animalium, the naturalist John Ray (1627–1705) wrote of “The great beast that was paraded round England in the year 1684/1785. It fed on hay, turnip-tops and corn, of which it consumed a peck and a half a day by our standard.” (A peck is 16 dry pints or about 9 litres.)

On this feeding theme, the rhino enthusiast James Parsons, who met the next one to visit Britain (in 1739), told the Royal Society in 1743: “He was fed here with rice, hay and sugar. Of the first he eat[s] 7 pounds to about 3 pounds of the sugar; they were mixed together, and he eat[s] this quantity every day, divided into three meals, and about a truss of hay in a week, besides greens of different kinds, of which he seemed fonder than of his dry victuals; and drank large quantities of water.”

Soon, plans were afoot to take our pachydermatous friend on tour. A London Gazette of 18th March 1685 reported: “the strange Beast called the Rhynoceros, will be sent beyond the Sea, and therefore will not be seen in this City after the 14th of April next, which it may be in the mean time at the Bell-Savage on Ludgate-hill.”

However, the beast was destined, like Clara 72 years later, to meet its end in London. On 28th September 1686, another newsletter reported: “Last week died that Wonderful creature the Rhinoceros; the several proprietors having Ensured £1200 on her life the Ensurers are catched for much money.”

It seems the owners made their money one way or another – but whether Mr Langley lived to regret missing out, we’ll never know.

PS. If you love language and wordplay, check out my friend Geoff’s newsletter!


Some pages from the original journal, at the Royal Museums Greenwich, can be viewed online.


In other words Langley was an investor in the ‘musick-house’ that was to become Sadler’s Wells theatre, an institution that continues to this day. A Mr Sadler (different accounts have him as Richard, Thomas or Edward) had rediscovered lost medicinal wells in the course of his building work in 1683.


We do know that Udall was stabbed to death in the Makassar revolt of 1686 – see


The Bell Savage Inn has many of its own stories to tell. I’ll save those for another time!

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