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    Cemetery, by Andrew Swift

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    Grogshop, by Andrew Swift

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    Mutton, by Andrew Swift

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    Night Camp, by Andrew Swift

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    A letter from a wife in Scotland to her husband on the Victorian goldfields, courtesy of Allen & Unwin.

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    'Arabella' doll, courtesy of Sovereign Hill Gold Museum.

Social and Domestic Life: Overview

Contemporary accounts of the goldfields suggest the attraction of the diggings was not purely material. Men were attracted to the free, roving digger lifestyle – a state William Howitt coined ‘diggerdom’ (a fusion of ‘digger’ and ‘freedom’). Despite the hardships, many revelled in a life free from the confines of domesticity and traditional work, and class hierarchies. ‘The wild, free and independent life appears the great charm,’ wrote James Bonwick of his fellow diggers, ‘they have no masters. They go where they please and work where they will.’ The nature of the work blurred social distinctions creating a sense of egalitarianism and camaraderie between men. As Seweryn Korzelinski noted, men from all walks of life worked side by side:


A colonel pulls up the earth for a sailor, a lawyer wields not a pen but a spade; a priest lends a march to a negro’s pipe . . . all of them hirsute, dusty and muddy, so their own mothers would not be able to recognise them . . . Here we are all joined by a common designation ‘Digger’.

Critiques of 'diggerdom'

In recent decades, historians have begun to complicate this celebrated image of an egalitarian, anti-authoritarian ‘diggerdom’. In his history Gold Seeking, David Goodman explored the social anxiety that attended the rise of these isolated, masculine goldfield communities. Some elites found the egalitarian sheen of the diggings disquieting, but other contemporaries were more worried about the effect gold seemed to have on domestic life and masculine values. Male and female observers expressed dismay that men were abandoning their domestic responsibilities purely in pursuit of wealth – deserting families in Britain and Australia to try their luck on the goldfields. This concern was compounded by fears regarding the brutalising effects of goldfields life on men: ‘There are thousands and tens of thousands now at the diggings who have no earthly tie near them,’ wrote Caroline Chisholm, and observed that ‘They are fast losing all the associations of humanity. They are isolated beings caring for no one around them.’

The idea that the economic prosperity promised by gold would not lead to social progress – that, in fact, gold was having a detrimental effect on social and domestic life - was far from uncommon. Even the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce worried that gold seeking seemed to entail the disruption of families and encourage a selfish, individualistic, acquisitive male character. ‘The vocation of gold-digging . . . has many social disadvantages to weigh against its dazzling results in other respects’ it reported, and ‘The separation from home and domestic ties, the exposed and laborious mode of life, the semi-gambling character of the results, are all circumstances of a character adverse to social progress and welfare.’

However, Goodman observed that it is contemporary women who offer the most powerful critiques of this masculine world and its values. He argued that the letters of women abandoned by their husbands, and female accounts of goldfields life, give us a view ‘so alienated from the dominant ethos that it amounts to a critique of it.’ When Elizabeth Ramsay-Laye visited the diggings, she did not see the cheerful egalitarian industry described by Korzelinski. To her the diggings had ‘the appearance of one vast cemetery with fresh made graves,’ and, she wrote, ‘Money absorbs every thought, every heart, in this strange camp.’

The popular image of a rough and ready, manly, egalitarian ‘diggerdom’ has also been questioned by research into the experiences of particular groups on the goldfields. As well as exploring the history and cultural practices of ethnic minorities on the diggings, historians have begun to piece together the lives of women on the goldfields. While there is no doubt that the goldfields were male-dominated places, scholars like Margaret Anderson and Susan Lawrence have argued that the experience and aspirations of the women (and children) who were present deserve attention. Their research along with an increasing academic interest in aspects of goldfields life such as gardens, recreational pursuits, and cultural production, continues to refine our picture of social and domestic life on the goldfields.

Caitlin Mahar

Cannon, Michael (ed.), The Victorian gold fields 1852-3, Gill, S. T., Library Council of Victoria, South Yarra, 1982. Details
Clark, M. (ed.), Select documents in Australian history: 1851-1900, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1955. Details
Goodman, David, Gold seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1994. Details
Lawrence, Susan, Dolly’s Creek: an archaeology of a Victorian goldfields community, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2000. Details
McCalman, Iain, Alexander Cook, and Andrew Reeves (eds), Gold: forgotten histories and lost objects of Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2001. Details
Serle, Geoffrey, 'The Gold Generation', Victorian Historical Journal, vol. 41, no. 1, 1970, pp. 265-272. Details