Australian History: Life in the Goldfields

Working  on the goldfields

Most diggers worked from dawn to dusk, six days a week. Sometimes they were lucky and had a good strike. Often they found very little at all. Perhaps they made as much as the workers left in town, perhaps a little more or a little less. But they worked very hard indeed for what they discovered.

Women and Children on the Goldfields

Most of the people on the goldfields were men. A lot of them were bachelors but many did not think the rough and ready diggings were a good place for women to live. But, from the beginning, there were women who went to the goldfields with their husbands, brothers or friends. They shared all the discomforts of life on the diggings and worked as hard as the men: washing, cooking, chop- ping wood and helping with the search for gold as well.

Other women travelled to the gold- fields later when their husbands had found enough gold to build more comfortable huts and send for their wives and children. They often kept a few hens and goats so that their children would have better food. As the number of women on the goldfields increased, life became more settled. One person wrote that 'the men are seen going to and fro, in a regular daily routine, to work, and back to their meals, and to their homes at evening'.

There were other women on the goldfields. Laundresses took in the washing that men were too busy to wash themselves. Many storekeepers were women. Prostitutes, dancers and actresses drifted to the goldfields where they made a good living entertaining the diggers.

Many children went to the goldfields with their parents and by December 1852 there were almost 12000 children on the Victorian diggings. Most of them spent their childhood helping their parents search for gold. They carried wood, looked after the tent or hut, cared for the horses and fossicked among the ‘tailings’ or left-over gravel and sand. Older children were expected to work as hard as adults.

Some parent sent their children to school on the diggings. Goldfields schools started in tents, some of which were big enough to holdup to a hundred children, sitting at long wooden benches. The children’s parents paid a fee so that their children could go to school. As you could imagine the standard of education from these schools was not very high. Children moved from one goldfield to another. If there was no teacher there, they had to wait until one turned up. Teachers, like others on the goldfields, lived in tents. They had almost no equipment and if the pupils moved, the teacher too had to pack up and move to a new place. If a goldfield became well established and diggers stayed there for several years, more permanent or lasting schools were organised

Fun and Games

The diggers worked hard but there was time, at the end of the day and on Sundays for relaxation. At the Ballarat goldfields, a makeshift boxing saloon was created to accommodate weekly boxing matches. Grog tents, like a bar in a tent, was set up for drinking. At first hotels were not allowed on the diggings, but sly grog tents or shanties were disguised as coffee shops. They were often run by women and were especially popular on Saturday nights.