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.


See https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Clacy-39.


The full text is at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4054/4054-h/4054-h.htm.


A type of flatbread made with flour and water.


Victorian Historical Journal 84(2).