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Recreation and Entertainment

Diggers worked six days a week, generally adhering to the licence regulation that there was to be no gold mining on Sundays. David Goodman has argued that the licence system attempted to regulate not just a digger’s working life but his social life and morality as well. Each licence instructed that ‘all Persons on the Gold Fields maintain and assist in maintaining due and proper observance of Sundays.’ According to the regulations, Gold Fields Commissioners had to do their best to ensure ‘that Sundays are properly observed, and that all persons in public employment attend Divine Service when means of doing so are afforded them.’

However, while the majority of diggers stopped mining on Sundays, few did as their superiors desired and ‘properly observed’ the day as one of rest and worship. Only a minority of diggers attended the open-air services conducted by preachers. Most, as a horrified Mrs Andrew Campbell noted, ‘took the day to wash and mend their clothes, fell trees, repair their tents, and when they had not these to do spent it in drinking, gambling, and idleness.’

Those who drank and gambled on the goldfields on a Sunday flouted not only moral conventions but also the law; however, missionary and governmental attempts to suppress these recreational ‘vices’ met with little success. Some men gambled incessantly at cards and two-up in their spare time, while Sunday afternoons were a popular time for dogfights and bare-knuckle prize fights, with miners betting on their favourites. As well, despite attempts to enforce prohibition, liquor was never in short supply on the goldfields. Indeed, some contemporaries felt that there was ‘more drinking and rioting on the diggings than elsewhere.’ Ellen Clacy speculated that its illegality simply made grog all the more enticing: ‘the privacy and risk gives the obtaining of it an excitement which the diggers enjoy as much as the spirit itself,’ she wrote.

Tales of drinking, gambling, and an evening ritual of discharging firearms evoke pictures of the goldfields as rough and tumble places. However, a number of historians have pointed out that it is a mistake to assume the diggings were cultural wastelands. Popular songsters like Charles Thatcher, and theatre operators were quick to capitalise on the diggers desire for entertainment. At a more basic level, music and reading were popular activities. Edward Snell noted that of an evening you’d hear ‘two or three rows always going on,’ but also ‘every here and there the noise of a flute or fiddle playing.’ R. G. Jameson encouraged prospective diggers to bring their instruments with them ‘to beguile the twilight hour.’ Diggers beguiled with renditions of everything from popular ditties to Wesleyan hymns. Robyn Annear has fleshed out this picture of a more ‘cultural’ diggings with a discussion of the circulation of books on the goldfields. She suggests most digger parties would have had a couple of books between them – maybe the Bible and a volume of Shakespeare or the verses of Milton. In the earliest days these would be passed on from digger to digger, but some reading groups, and unofficial lending libraries run through stores, were fairly quickly established. By the end of 1852 there were at least two such libraries at Bendigo.

Diggers may have resisted overt official attempts to regulate their social life and ‘improve’ them, but the self-improving ethos of the nineteenth century was still evident in individual habits and recreational activities.

Caitlin Mahar

Annear, Robyn, Nothing but gold: the diggers of 1852, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 1999. Details
Cannon, Michael (ed.), The Victorian gold fields 1852-3, Gill, S. T., Library Council of Victoria, South Yarra, 1982. Details
Goodman, David, Gold seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1994. Details
McCalman, Iain, Alexander Cook, and Andrew Reeves (eds), Gold: forgotten histories and lost objects of Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2001. Details
Robyn Annear's research Notes prepared in the course of writing the book, Nothing But Gold; Private (Robyn Annear). Details