Within the new and evolving landscape of the goldfields, traditional class structures were challenged. No longer could government officers, property owners, the educated, and those born into prestigious families, claim superiority over government assisted immigrants, labourers and former convicts – wealth and hard manual labour were the new social levelers. With the discovery of gold ‘all barriers are broken down. There are only rich men and poor men; and as the latter may be rich within a week, everyone is “hail fellow, well met” with everyone else.’ It was not so much obtaining gold that dissolved class distinctions, as most diggers did not become wealthy, but the possibility of it challenged traditional understandings – hopeful miners, most of whom were working class or lower middle class, now had the potential to change their class status by getting rich with the discovery of a nugget.
Class distinctions were not only blurred with the notion of obtaining wealth but also by the very nature of gold mining. Until the later years, when companies mined for gold and miners became employees, men laboured independently, without bosses or overseers. They were free to dig where they chose, work or stop when they wanted to, and to choose with whom they worked. Observing this new egalitarian society, William Howitt wrote: ‘they have set themselves free of masters and servitude. They have enjoyed all the liberty, equality, and fraternity of what is called the new aristocracy – Diggerdom.’ Amongst miners the physical aspects of class were not as apparent and were, therefore, more easily overlooked. With the muddy singular uniform of pants, shirt, and a beard worn by most miners, men looked alike; it was not until speaking to one another that class became evident.
Although the diggings unsettled prevailing class structures, traditional structures were not entirely eradicated. Amongst the miners themselves the structures may have been altered, but the larger built environment of the townships reflected the stance of old. The built landscape of Ballarat attested to this – it was established on class lines, with the government camp, representing the upper class, situated on a hill overlooking the goldfields. The class superiority of the government was physically reiterated as it continually surveyed its domain from up high. As the township prospered and developed, Ballarat West became associated with the upper classes and the genteel, with its wide streets, the homes of professionals, and the gold commissioner’s offices. Conversely, Ballarat East was working class, with a maze of narrow and overcrowded streets, and loud entertainment venues.
While many celebrated the change in class structure, others were horrified by it. Mrs Childers thought the diggings an appalling place, as she was ‘infinitely disgusted with the state of things here. Felt quite humiliated by it, the lower classes rampant.’ To avoid offence, George Earp advised people who were thinking of emigrating to the diggings to lay aside their upper class ideas of respect and deferential treatment: ‘they must be careful to leave their aristocracy at home. Rank and title have no charms at the antipodes’ and the most they could expect would be ‘an occasional lionization at snob dinners in the town in which the aristocrat may be wasting his time and money.’