Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Women on the goldfields

As early as 1851, there were women who worked with their husbands searching for gold. There were about twenty women, for instance, at the Mount Alexander diggings in early November 1851.[1] By May 1852, a visitor to the diggings was ‘struck by the number of women and children about’. [2] Some women even worked independently as diggers, but unlike their male counterparts, were not required to purchase a license. By 1854, 208 women were in paid employment in Ballarat. The majority were domestic servants, 8 per cent were storekeepers and others were needlewomen, dressmakers, milliners and shoe-binders. William Kelly was unimpressed with Ballarat women:
 
I was on the point of writing the softer sex, but that would be a misnomer, for the most callous specimens of the male creation I ever encountered were mere green pulp in comparison with some of the granite-grained viragoes I had the honour of meeting. [3]
 
Charles Evans also commented about Ballarat that ‘even women feeling themselves relieved from the salutary checks which society in civilized life lays on them fall into a vice bad enough in men, but disgusting and repulsive beyond expression in women’, and later:
 
A butcher who had picked up one of those delightful specimens of female vixenism which to the warning of bachelors are plentifully met with in this country - had a noisy brawl with his loving helpmate. – The wife’s face & hands smeared with blood from the man’s brutality & the course language of both was most disgusting. [4]
 
However, this was far from the universal view. More positive male perceptions of entrepreneurial abilities of women on the goldfields were also evident:
 
Sir - I removed to the Caledonian Lead a few months since, and located in the vicinity of the Brown Hill Hotel. In a few days after being installed in my new quarters, my attention was attracted by the strokes of an axe, plied incessantly from morning until night. On observation, much to my surprise, I perceived the indefatigable wood-chopper to be a woman…may further add, that the time of this girl, (I have been told that she is single), is not undivided. With the assistance of another female, her partner, she keeps a milk dairy, a lot of poultry, and a herd of pigs. I am unable to give the name of either of the parties, but any enquiries made in reference to the above, in the vicinity of 70 or 80 Caledonian Lead, would be successful. Her reputation has become quite a prodigy in these parts[5]
 
By the end of the 1850s in Castlemaine, women were working in a number of traditional male occupations: there were female printers, cattle dealers, quarry men, brick makers, and blacksmiths.[6] There were so many women on the diggings that Charles Hotham confidently proclaimed in a despatch to London that the increase in the fairer sex would surely see an improvement in the behaviour and demeanour of the male miners. One of these presumed ‘civilising agents’ was Nancy Kinnane, who taught at the National School tent, positioned on the Eureka lead and later confined within the Stockade. Nancy had 40 children enrolled and reportedly sheltered them during the battle. Another story placed her as an assistant in the covert amputation of the arm of miners’ leader, Peter Lalor. In the aftermath of the rebellion, Nancy and her husband sought compensation for losses incurred at the hands of the military and received £80. She went on to become the proprietor of the Camp Hotel, Ballarat.
 
Within the socially fluid circumstances on the goldfields, many women were able to gain a greater degree of economic independence and assume social roles that broke the strict confines of tradition and Victorian morality. Many women continued to be wives and housekeepers but:
 
If women weren’t rocking the baby’s cradle, they would be out on the diggings rocking the gold cradle…Women of all classes were often active in their partner’s business and economic affairs.[7]
 
One woman who ran a successful store on the Ballarat goldfields was Martha Clendinning. [8] Her husband, George, was a doctor who brought his wife to Victoria from England in 1852. He travelled to the goldfields with his brother-in-law to look for gold, leaving Martha with her sister in Melbourne. However, Martha and her sister decided to follow their husbands and walk the ninety-five miles to Ballarat. They brought with them bedsteads, mattresses, blankets, chairs and cooking utensils on a bullock dray and planned to set up a store on the diggings. This idea was met with ridicule from their husbands as it was not considered normal behaviour for respectable women of the time to operate businesses. Despite the men’s objections, the sisters opened a store in the front of their tent selling tea, coffee, sugar, candles, tobacco, jam, bottled fruit, cheese, dress materials and baby clothes but unlike many others on the diggings, did not sell sly grog. They were required to pay £40 a year for a storekeeper’s license. After her sister returned to Melbourne, Martha continued to run the store on her own until 1855 when growing competition from larger businesses and the cost of the storekeeper’s license made it less profitable. Also, Martha’s husband could now support the family and social attitudes towards middle-class women were quickly changing as Ballarat became a more settled, conservative community. Middle-class women were expected to be wives and mothers, not businesswomen. [9]
 
For a number of reasons the story of Eureka has not been told from the perspective of its female protagonists in the overwhelmingly ‘male’ narrative of mining and rebellion in Victoria’s goldfields. [10] Looking at the ways that men and women have historically shared certain spaces rather than competing for dominance over them, opens possibilities for understanding how women participated in critical events and social spaces, forging their own female or indeed collective responses to circumstances. They did not just participate on the domestic fringes of male revolutionary fervour. Clare Wright states that the women on the Ballarat goldfield ‘were witnesses to the historic events; they were agents too, intimately connected to the critical affairs and emotions unfolding in Ballarat in 1854’. Women attended protest meetings, petitioned the governor and were inside the Stockade. Such women included Anastasia Hayes, a ‘quick tempered Irish woman from Kilkenny…known as a ‘firebrand’ (who) complained openly about the harsh treatment of the miners’. She worked alongside Anastasia Withers and Anne Duke to sew the Eureka Flag that was unfurled on Bakery Hill as a symbol of united resistance and to provide material support, shelter and medical aid in the lead-up to and aftermath of the uprising. Women sold the illicit alcohol that inflamed passions and quelled discomfort. They also provided the meals and accommodation in the many goldfields hotels where meetings were held, strategies planned and grievances aired by miners and military men alike. Women were formally excluded from the political spoils that disenfranchised white men won after the uprising but did the women of Ballarat view manhood suffrage as a loss to their own dignity and self-worth?
 
A gender analysis of Eureka reveals that women could indeed be included in wider colonial narratives. Contrary to prevailing notions of women as the inevitable victims of ‘gold fever’, many women showed an aptitude for entrepreneurialism and opportunism. [11] As theatre managers, actresses, shopkeepers, liquor sellers and, of course, as prostitutes, women were able to take advantage of avenues for economic independence offered in the new country, far from the rigid moral and class restraints of England. Many popular songs of the day stress the resourcefulness and autonomy of women on the goldfields.[12] Women generally played a more active part in public life and made a significant contribution to the social struggles on the goldfields. Examining the women at Eureka brings renewed relevance to a diverse community for whom talk of ‘democracy and freedom’ automatically raised questions of gender equity.


[1] ‘Mount Alexander Diggings’, Argus, 8 November 1851, p. 2.
[2] ‘A Sailor’s Trip from Melbourne to Mount Alexander’, Argus, 20 May 1852, p. 6.
[3] Ibid, Kelly, William, Life in Victoria or Victoria in 1853 and Victoria in 1858, p. 154.
[4] SLV, MS 13518, Charles Evans Diary, 23 November 1853, pp. 64-65, 5 December 1853, p. 71.
[5] ‘What a Woman On Ballarat Can Do’, Ballarat Weekly Times, 25 December 1857.
[6] Grimshaw, Patricia, and Fahey, Charles, ‘Family and community in Castlemaine’, in Grimshaw, Patricia, McConville, Chris, and McEwen, Ellen, (eds.), Families in colonial Australia, (Allen & Unwin), 1985, p. 90.
[7] Johnson, Laurel, The Women of Eureka, (Historic Montrose Cottage and Eureka Museum), 1994.
[8] On Martha Clendinning, see Asher, Louise, ‘Martha Clendinning: a woman’s life on the goldfields’, in Lake, Marilyn, and Farley, Kelly, (eds.), Double time: women in Victoria-150 years, (Penguin Books), 1985, pp. 52-60; Anderson, Margaret, ‘Mrs Charles Clacy, Lola Montez and Poll the Grogseller: glimpses of women on the early Victorian goldfields’, in ibid, McCalman, Iain, Cook, Alexander, and Reeves, Andrew, (eds.), Gold, pp. 239, 242-243.
[9] Martha’s reminiscences (‘Recollections of Ballarat: A Lady’s Life at the Diggings Fifty Years Ago’, State Library of Victoria, Manuscript Collection: MS 10102/1) describe life on the Ballarat diggings together with a detailed description of the first Church of England in Ballarat and an account of the Eureka uprising. Her daughter Margaret married Robert Rede, Goldfields Commissioner at Ballarat during the rebellion.
[10] Kruss, S, Calico Ceilings: The Women of Eureka, (Five Islands Press), 2004; Wicham, Dorothy, Women of the Diggings: Ballarat 1854, (Ballarat Heritage Services), 2009, Wright, Clare, ‘Labour Pains: towards a female perspective on the birth of Australian democracy’, in ibid, Mayne, Alan, (ed.), Eureka: Reappraising an Australian Legend, pp. 124-142, and ‘‘New Brooms They Say Sweep Clean’: Women’s Political Activism on the Ballarat Goldfields, 1854’, Australian Historical Studies, Vol. 39, (2008), pp. 305-321.
[11] Duyker, E., (ed.), A Woman on the Goldfields: Recollections of Emily Skinner 1854-1878, (Melbourne University Press), 1995, and Thompson, P., (ed.), A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings in Australia in 1852-1853, 1853, (Lansdowne Press), 1963, pp. 84-91, on Mrs Charles Clacy, gives two examples of women’s experience on the goldfields.
[12] Thatcher, Charles R., The Victorian Songster: Containing Various New & Original Colonial Songs Together with a Choice Selection of the Most Popular Songs of the Day, (Charlwood & Son), 1855, 2nd ed., (G. H. Egremont-Gee), 1860; Thatcher, Charles R., Thatcher’s colonial songs: forming a complete comic history of the early diggings, (Charlwood), 1864; Hoskins, Robert, Goldfield balladeer: the Life and times of the celebrated Charles R. Thatcher, (Collins, Auckland), 1977, Arnold, Denis, (ed.), The New Oxford Companion of Music, (Oxford University Press), 1983, p. 119, and Anderson, Hugh, The colonial minstrel, (F.W. Cheshire), 1960.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Women and Eureka

By the 1850s, immigration to Canada was a far more attractive in the eyes of respectable women than to Australia that was still haunted by its convict origins. [1] Women were outnumbered by roughly six to one in the convict settlements until the increase in free female immigration in the 1830s. [2] Historians such as Lloyd Robson, Alan Shaw and Robert Hughes have largely accepted the judgements of contemporary officials of female convicts generally as ‘damned whores’, possessed of neither ‘Virtue nor Honesty’. [3] Michael Sturma pointed out that middle- and upper-class commentators tended to see working-class women as prostitutes simply because their behaviour transgressed their class-based notions of feminine modesty and morality. For instance, long-term relationships were a common and accepted part of early-nineteenth century working-class culture, but from the perspective of the middle- or upper-class observer, these women were prostituting themselves, albeit to ‘one man only’.[4] Early feminist historians such as Anne Summers and Miriam Dixson have ironically reinforced this picture of wholesale whoredom by incorporating the stereotype as a key element in explaining Australian women’s current low status in relation to Australian men. [5] Women were compelled into prostitution by State policy and structural factors rather than their own personal ‘vice’. Portia Robinson presented an alternate view of the women of Botany Bay as good wives, good mothers and good citizens. If they were prostitutes, she says, it was as a result of the criminal environment in Britain rather than conditions in Australia that offered women the opportunity of redemption. [6]
Image result for women on Australian goldfields

Gender balance was, for instance, a defining characteristic of Irish migration to Australia throughout the nineteenth century and Irish women made a major contribution to Australian society. [7] About a third of convict women were Irish. For instance, on 20 January 1849, Lord Auckland arrived at Hobart from Dublin with 211 female convicts. More than 1,000 young women came to Sydney and Hobart in the 1830s from Foundling Hospitals in Dublin and Cork. Approximately 19,000 Irish bounty and government assisted migrants arrived in Melbourne and Sydney between 1839 and 1842 of whom about half were female. In 1855-1856 over 4,000 single Irish women arrived in Adelaide. Such infusions of Irish female blood had a powerful influence on the development of colonial society. The ‘Earl Grey’ female orphans sit within that tradition. The difference is that these ‘orphans’ stand as symbolic refugees from Famine and came from among the genuinely destitute sections of Irish society.

Although the young girls from the workhouses were sent out to take up domestic service, very few had any experience of the work. This did not please existing settlers: they had been led to believe they were getting proficient labour cheaply, not realising that the profession ascribed to each girl was what the guardians considered her fit for, and not for any previously acquired skill. This led to problems and the Irish orphan ‘girls’ were soon maligned in the Australian metropolitan press as immoral dregs of the workhouse, ignorant of the skills required of domestic servants. Although all the workhouse girls from the first three ships to arrive in Australia had been hired almost as soon as they came ashore, a report to the Children’s Apprenticeship Board claimed that in Adelaide in 1849 ‘there are 21 of the Irish Orphans upon the Streets’ and ‘indeed there appears to be a greater number of orphans than any other class of females’. [8] While some of the ‘girls’ were neither as young nor as innocent as was inferred, it was also the case that many of the employers came from humble backgrounds themselves and often had no idea of how to treat or train a servant. Nor did the training the girls received in the workhouse prove useful in a domestic setting. When an immigrant girl failed to provide the level of service expected, she was frequently returned to the depot, or turned out of doors and left to her own devices. Having no other means of support, some of the discarded servants turned to prostitution. As protests grew more vocal, and as the Famine in Ireland appeared to have abated, the British Government agreed to end the scheme. The final group of Irish workhouse orphans left for Australia in April 1850. Altogether, 4,175 girls were sent overseas during this period; 2,253 to Sydney, 1,255 to Port Phillip, 606 to Adelaide and the remaining 61 to the Cape of Good Hope.

When gold was discovered, the majority of women remained in the towns with their families:

Women are the only scarce people that is here, in a city of some 10,000 Inhabitants, you will not see more than twelve or twenty women in a day there are only about 300 in the whole city.[9]

But it was not long before some began arriving on the goldfields. By 1854, there were 4,000 women on the Ballarat goldfields, compared to nearly 13,000 men. Only 5 per cent of all women were single and there were between 3,000 and 4,000 children. William Withers referred to the lack of females on the goldfields: ‘There were no hospitals or asylums in that early day, and a woman was an absolute phenomenon’. [10] Based on the census returns for March 1857, the total population on the goldfields in Victoria was 383,668 ‘exclusive of the residents in the Chinese encampments, and the roving aboriginals’. There were 237,743 males and 145,925 females but that:

...the numbers of the two sexes on the goldfields who, in March, 1857, had arrived at a marriageable age, but who were unmarried, stand thus in round numbers: males, 48,000; females, 2,700; or nearly eighteen males to one female. These figures at once bring before us, in a most startling form, the great sexual inequality of the goldfields’ population. [11]

However, the 1861 Victorian census showed that the population of the Ballarat goldfields had grown to 12,726 men, 9,135 women and 7,838 children, and the city was now beginning to settle into a more normal ratio of men to women. At that time, 136 women in Ballarat listed their occupation as gold mining, compared to nearly 8,000 men.

[1] Elder, Catriona, Being Australian: Narratives of National Identity, (Allen & Unwin), 2007, pp. 40-93, contrasts the notion that the working man is everywhere with the invisible woman.
[2] Carmichael, G., ‘So Many Children: Colonial and Post-Colonial Demographic Patterns’, in Saunders, K., & Evans, R., (eds.), Gender Relations in Australia: Domination and Negotiation, (Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich), 1992, p. 103.
[3] Robson, L. L., The Convict Settlers of Australia, (Melbourne University Press), 1976, Shaw, A. G. L., Convicts and The Colonies, (Faber & Faber), 1966, and Hughes, R., The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1788-1868, (Collins), 1987.
[4] Sturma, M., ‘“Eye of the Beholder’: The Stereotype of Women Convicts, 1788-1850, Labour History, Vol. 34, (1978), pp. 3-10.
[5] Summers, Anne, Damned Whores and God’s Police: The Colonization of Women in Australia, (Penguin), 1975, and Dixson, Miriam, The Real Matilda: Women and Identity in Australia, 1788 to 1975, (Penguin), 1975.
[6] Robinson, P., The Women of Botany Bay: a reinterpretation of the role of women in the origins of Australian society, (North Ryde), 1988, p. 236.
[7] See, McClaughlin, Trevor, (ed.), Irish Women in Colonial Australia, (Allen & Unwin), 1998.
[8] Cit, Report to the children’s apprenticeship board, Poor Law Commission Office, Dublin, 27 November 1850.
[9] Ulster American Folk Park, serial no: 9701190, copyright John McCleery, Belfast.
[10] Ibid, Withers, W. B., History of Ballarat, p. 55.
[11] ‘Inequality of the Sexes on the Gold Fields’, Ballarat Star, 5 July 1859.