Art and the Victorian Gold Rush Striking Gold In Australia
Artists include: Elizabeth Shepherd, Elizabeth Parsons, Tommy McRae, Samuel Thomas Gill, David Tulloch, George Lacy, George French Angas, Charles Doudiet, Edwin Stocqueler, George Rowe, William Strutt, Nicholas Chevalier, Eugene von Guérard, Thomas Balcombe, Arthur Esam, Cyrus Mason, Edward Roper, Emil Todt, Ernest Decimus Stocks, George Browning, Henry John Douglas Scott, Henry Winkles, Horace Burkitt, J Anderson, J B Henderson, John Godfrey, Thomas Wright, Walter Mason, Walter Withers, William Taylor Smith Tibbits, John Skinner Prout, George Baxter, Julian Ashton, O R Campbell, R S Anderson, Samuel Calvert, T G Moyle, Thomas Wright, Henry Gritten, Frederic B Schell, A Fullwodd
A period in focus –
The Art of the Victorian Gold Rush
William Strutt, On Route to the Diggings, 1852
This article is dedicated to, and inspired by, my great, great grandmother, Frances Davis Harley, who arrived on the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s[i].
The importance of sketches, paintings and prints as a record of everyday life on the goldfields can’t be understated, particularly as the use of photography was still in its infancy in the 1850s[ii]. These images provide a lively and honest view of this period, and equally importantly, demonstrate how life in Australia changed irrevocably as a result of the gold rushes.
The impacts of the goldrushes on our fledgling colony, the country our indigenous people had lived in for many tens of thousands of years, have been far greater than we might at first realise.
Edwin Stocqueler, Gold diggings, Ararat, c.1855
This article will focus primarily on the gold rush period in Victoria, where the impacts included:
Increase in migration, with a tripling of the population
Significant increase to wealth of the colony
The period known as “Marvellous Melbourne[iii]”
Major changes to architecture and lifestyles
Support for the development of the arts, and a greater market for the sale of art, particularly watercolours and prints (such as lithographs and etchings)
An increase in exports
Increase in the breath of skills in colony
Boost to local business - from produce through to manufactured goods
Strengthening of regional centres
Increase in the development of public institutions
Improvements in transport and communication – the railway, Cobb & Co coaches, and the telegraph
Introduction of Collective bargaining – Eureka stockade
Source of the term “Diggers”
Introduction of the notion of mateship
Growth of a multicultural more egalitarian society
Introduction of the eight hour day
Opportunity for a more prosperous life for ex-convicts
Denudation and destruction of land
Changing the way in which indigenous Australians lived
Introduction of new species of animals and plants, including rabbits and blackberries
Devastation of rivers and waterways
Racism and the White Australia Policy
Gold was first discovered at Mount Alexander (between Bendigo and Ballarat) about the same time that Victoria was established as an independent colony in July 1851.
Whilst there were numerous, mainly amateur, artists in Australia in the early to mid-1800s, the gold rushes attracted professional artists from overseas who were drawn, like so many others, by the lure of gold.
Some of these overseas artists included Eugène von Guérard, William Strutt, Nicholas Chevalier, S.T. Gill, George Rowe and Edwin Stocqueler.
To provide some context, in England artists such as John Constable[iv] and J.M.W. Turner[v] were prominent until about 1850, when new movements such as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1848), the Anglo-Japanese style (c. 1850) and the Aesthetic Movement (c. 1850) were becoming popular. By the 1880s the Arts and Crafts Movement was becoming a trend across Britain and then internationally.
In France, Realism[vi], which portrayed subjects of every day (particularly rural) life, by artists such as Camille Corot[vii], Gustave Courbet[viii] and Jean François Millet[ix], was a key artistic style from the early 1840s until about the 1870s. By the late 1860s artists such as Claude Monet were painting in an Impressionistic[x] style.
In comparison, with the exception of those produced by a handful of artists, many of the sketches, painting and prints produced during the Victorian gold rush period in Australia appear almost naïve. Nonetheless, they are mostly truthful portrayals of what the artists were seeing, which adds greatly to their historic value.
The gold rushes contributed to the wealth of the colony and influx of professional artists and teachers, and with that the growth of professional art bodies, school and galleries.
By the 1880s the Australian artistic voice had begun to be heard, with significant improvements in the quality of art being produced. And with an increasingly middle class population, the desire to purchase artwork as a mark of success led to a more sustainable market for paintings, particularly landscapes and portraits. Prints, such as lithographs, which could be produced much more cheaply, increased in popularity.
Striking Gold in Australia
New South Wales
In the 1840s geologists such as the Reverend William Branwhite Clarke were exploring for minerals. Clarke, who was principal at King’s School, Parramatta and later the rector at St Thomas’ North Sydney, discovered particles of gold around granite slabs near Hartley while exploring the Blue Mountains for fossils in 1841.
In 1844 he informed Governor Gipps of his finds and later claimed that the governor directed him to 'Put it away, Mr. Clarke, or we shall all have our throats cut'. Gipps’ view was that the elite free settlers and squattocracy would be concerned about the impact on a predominantly convict population. The discovery could lead to greater crimes or result in a convict rebellion brought on by greed for gold, and may have upset the status quo of the ordered convict society[xi].
This early response is likely to have delayed the development of the colony's mineral wealth[xii].
Edward Hammond Hargraves is credited with discovering the first payable goldfields in Australia, in New South Wales. In early 1851, after returning from the Californian Goldfields, he travelled to Wellington, near Bathurst. Together with local men John Lister and brothers William and James Tom, he started panning for gold at Lewis Ponds Creek. Hargraves taught the others how to make a Californian wooden cradle, which could be rocked from side to side so that the heavy gold particles were retained when the lighter gravel was sifted through it.
Walter Withers, Seeking for Gold, Cradling, 1893, Creswick Vic
On 12 February, they discovered flecks of gold in the creek. He named that part of the creek the FitzRoy Bar after the Governor, and the general area Ophir, after the biblical city of gold.
Hargraves was feted as a hero and was rewarded with £10,000 by the government and provided with an annual pension of £250. He was also given the position of Commissioner of Crown Lands for the gold districts. Hargraves became the subject of many portraits – often appearing as a hero. The painting below by Balcombe is in the Romantic Style, with Hargraves standing tall above the mountains, taking centre stage, with the horse positioned behind and below him.
T.T. Balcombe, Mr E.H. Hargraves returning the salute of the gold miners 5th of the ensuing May, June 1851
It was some decades before John Lister and the Tom brothers received formal recognition of their part in the discovery of gold, finally being acknowledged by a select committee of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in 1890[xiii].
Hargraves was keen to promote the search for gold and published articles in the Sydney Morning Herald to build support for gold mining, as well as lecturing on mining techniques.
Then, on 22 May 1851, the government announced the gold discovery, although it was concerned that both people in Sydney and those working on the land would leave their employment at the prospect of finding gold, and this concern was well founded.
Governor FitzRoy wrote to Earl Grey on 29 May reporting that 'thousands of people of every class are proceeding to the locality, - tradesmen and mechanics deserting certain and lucrative employment for the chance of success in digging for gold, - so that the population of Sydney has visibly diminished’[xiv].
Ophir became a canvas town overnight as tents were set up along the hillsides. Prospectors then moved into areas north of Bathurst along the Turon River. It was winter and heavy frost and rain quickly turned the diggings to mud.
New goldfields were then opened up from Sofala, Gulgong, Hill End and Bathurst in the Central West and south to new diggings at Lambing Flat (Young), Braidwood, Tilba Tilba and Kiandra in the Snowy Mountains.
As the news of the gold finds spread, people from other parts of Australia travelled to New South Wales. This was disastrous for Victoria, which had been a bustling region with a population of 77,000 free settlers, six million sheep and a lucrative wool trade worth £1,000,000 annually. Now, the streets of Melbourne were all but deserted and farms literally emptied[xv].
In response to this exodus, Governor Charles J La Trobe assembled a Gold Discovery Committee on 9 June, who decided that a reward of £200 would be offered to diggers who discovered payable gold within 200 miles of Melbourne. By September ‘diggers’ (the newly coined term which has since become part of Australia’s lexicon to refer to soldiers who fought in world wars, particularly the ANZACs of WWI[xvi]) descended upon Ballarat and surrounding areas.
In 1852, thousands came from Van Dieman’s Land on small steamers, or sailed, rode or walked from South Australia. Later in the year nearly 300 ships sailed into in Melbourne or Geelong from the British Isles. Then, in the following year, another 900 ships arrived bringing immigrants from the United States, China, Germany and the British Isles. Chinese diggers, who were mostly indentured labourers from mainland southern China sent to Australia, disembarked at Robe in South Australia and walked overland to the gold fields.
Nicholas Chevalier, Emigrants Landing at the Queens Wharf, Melbourne
The Mount Alexander goldfield, 60 kilometres north-east of Ballarat, (taking in the goldfields of Castlemaine and Bendigo) was one of the world's richest shallow alluvial goldfields. Here the gold lay just under the surface and the shallowness meant that diggers could just scrape back soil to discover gold nuggets. It yielded around four million ounces of gold, most of which was found in the first two years of the rush and within five metres of the surface [xvii].
Map of Victoria showing location of goldfields, State Library, Victoria
Although most gold nuggets were small, weighing only a few ounces, occasionally a miner would unearth a spectacular find. In 1858 the largest single mass of gold, the ‘Welcome’ nugget, was found at Ballarat by a group of Cornish miners in a shaft 55 metres deep. It weighed 2,217 oz (about 62 kg).
Approximately 10% of miners made substantial fortunes and another 10% made enough to invest in a farm or business, while most miners just managed to sustain themselves[xviii]. Some lost money, considering the cost of getting to the goldfields and the purchase of their equipment.
Between 1850 and 1900, Bendigo produced the most gold in the world. The deep mines were never exhausted – despite having 140 shafts that went down more than 300 metres below surface level[xix].
S T Gill, Deep Sinking,
Bakery Hill, Ballaarat, 1853
Other finds within Australia
Significant deposits were discovered in Tasmania from 1852, in Queensland from 1857 and in the Northern Territory from 1871. In the 1890s a new series of rushes were triggered by the discovery of huge gold fields at Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie in Western Australia[xx].
Impacts of the Gold Rush in Victoria
As most of the population until the 1850s comprised either government officials, free settlers or convicts from England, Ireland and Scotland, immigration in response to the gold rushes resulted in some significant changes to the developing colony.
For the first 50 years of settlement about 40 per cent of the total colonial population in Australia were transported convicts – between 1788 and 1868 approximately 170,000 men and women, and some children, had been transported.[xxi]
During that time, wealthy squatters and landowners became heavily dependent on cheap convict labour.
However, opposition to transportation[xxii] had become a major issue in New South Wales in the 1830s, with the main opponents to it being the urban-dwelling, immigrant middle and working classes. Between 1830 and 1850 about one third of migrants who had come to Australia had paid their own way.[xxiii]
Finally, in August 1840, an Order in Council which prohibited transportation to the east coast of Australia became effective - with the final shipment of convicts arriving in Sydney in 1850, and Tasmania in 1853. However, shipments to Western Australia (still a separate colony) continued until January 1868.
Not surprisingly, once the discovery of gold was known about overseas, immigration quickly increased, with people from England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Germany, Italy, Poland, Switzerland, America, Canada, the Caribbean and China flooding to Australia hoping to find gold.
It’s estimated that between 1851 and 1871 the Australian population quadrupled from 430,000 people to 1.7 million. Many new immigrants were educated and from middle-
class or merchant backgrounds.
George Baxter, Australia - news from Home, c1853
In Victoria, the gold rush saw a tripling of the population - from 77,000 in 1851 to 237,000 in 1854 and then to 411,000 by 1857.
Eugene von Guérard, Chinese in Melbourne, 1854
Elizabeth Parsons, Chinaman's Hut. Daylesford. c 1880
The largest group were the Chinese - in 1855 there were about 20,000 Chinese on the Victorian diggings.
During 1852, which was the peak year of the gold rush, 90,000 people arrived in Melbourne.
More than 160,000 women were among the 600,000 who arrived in Victoria between 1851 and 1860[xxiv] and unsurprisingly, there was also a significant increase in both marriages and the birth rate in the 1850s and 60s.
Establishing Digging Sites in Victoria
Most new immigrants arrived at the Melbourne port, although Geelong was closer to the gold sites. Melbourne’s Southbank became a tent town, acting as a staging ground for new arrivals before they headed to the fields. Initially, they followed the old bullock tracks, forged by the squatters and the early settlers of the district.
However, Chinese diggers, who were mostly indentured labourers from mainland southern China sent to Australia, disembarked at Robe in South Australia and walked overland to the gold fields.
S T Gill (attrib. to), Canvas Town, Melbourne's tent town in the 1850s. (The road in the middle became St Kilda Road and the NGV now stands near the butcher’s tent on the left)
On August 31 1852 Bendigo storekeeper William Kidd wrote:
"People are flocking in from all countries now, and there is not accommodation for a tenth of them. Some have to sleep in sheds, &c., who never knew anything but a feather-bed in England. We have had very heavy rains lately; several people have been drowned on their way to and from the diggings in attempting to swim the creeks, as the Government does not think of putting any bridges where required; indeed, the people are beginning to murmur against the abominable way in which our government is carried out."[xxv]
Edward Roper, Gold diggings, Ararat, c.1855
S T Gill, Township of Ballaarat from Baths Hotel, showing part of the Camp and the Logs, 1855
The towns they moved to were also originally made of tents, such as Bendigo, Ballarat, Castlemaine, Daylesford, and Creswick. (In 1847 the Ballarat township boasted some huts, a store, a hotel, a doctor and a church.)
Caroline Chisholm[xxvi], who had demonstrated great concern and support for migrants during the early 1800s, set up a female Immigrants' home in Sydney in the 1840s and, together with her husband, gained sufficient patronage to establish a Family Colonization Loan Society to assist families to emigrate to eastern Australia and to find employment on arrival. Chisholm toured the Victorian goldfields in 1854, and proposed that a series of shelter sheds along the routes to the diggings be built to help make travelling conditions more comfortable. With some government help, ten shelters were under construction by the end of 1855[xxvii].
S T Gill, The New Rush, 1865
Prospectors often walked to the fields, sometime pushing wheelbarrows, or carrying their supplies of tents, shovels, sieves, cradles, buckest, pickaxes, blankets, cooking utensils and flour, tea and sugar.
They were accompanied by workers involved in a large number of support industries: carpenters, blacksmiths, foundries, provisioners, banks with vaults and lines of credit, hotels, and, much to the dislike of colonial authorities, taverns, breweries and distilleries[xxviii].
Local settlers responded to the growing need for supplies by people on their way to the goldfields. For example, brothers Dr Robert and George Hope, who held grazing leases at Batesford near Geelong, built a flour-mill on the Moorabool River and another on the Barwon River near Inverleigh, and supplied meat, bread and vegetables to the diggers on the route from Geelong to the goldfields.
To address the shortages as the population grew, land around Melbourne was allotted to selectors, typically urban working and lower middle-class men and women, on the provision they cleared it and made it productive within five years.
Without refrigeration, produce was best grown close to the city and the Dandenongs, Warrandyte, Yarra Valley and beneath Mount Macedon were popular sites.
Thomas Wright, Sandhurst in 1862
S T Gill, Forest Creek, Mt Alexander, 1852
Rough tracks were created between the goldfields and these would be dotted with shops, grog shanties and amusements halls, usually built of canvas on a wooden frame. Wooden buildings began to appear at the larger sites and settlements were formed with houses, hotels, dance halls, shops, and public buildings[xxix].
Fields became filled with tents, lean to huts and the diggings themselves, with mounds of spoil.
Edward Roper, The Goldfield of Australia 1858, Ararat
William Bentley, Mt Alexander Gold Diggings, 1853
By 1862 a railway line had been built between Geelong and Ballarat and in 1889 the Melbourne to Ballarat line was opened.
The legendry Cobb & Co[xxx] coach company was also established in 1853 to service the Victorian goldfields. Mail contracts were awarded to the company which operated a gold escort, passenger and mail service based on their reliable and efficient schedules. Cobb & Co became a success and household name across Australia, operating for 70 years.
William Bentley, Mt Alexander Gold Diggings, 1853
Arthur Esam, Cobb and Co Coach, Pakenham, 1889
At the same time, the telegraph was introduced in Victoria by an Irish-Canadian engineer named Samuel Walker McGowan, who won the contract to erect 'a line of electric telegraph between Melbourne and Williamstown'. The first electric telegraph line in Victoria opened in March 1854 and by December the telegraph line to Geelong was completed. The telegraph was used effectively to share shipping information and European news[xxxi], however, the first message sent to Melbourne gave news of the Eureka Stockade.
Samuel Calvert, Planting the first pole on the Overland Telegraph line to Carpentaria, Melbourne, c1870
There was a government camp on each goldfield with gold commissioners, police, and soldiers, usually situated on a hill overlooking digging. Their responsibility was to manage the licensing system, adjudicate mining disputes, issue licences for stores and other businesses, prosecute sly grog dealers and respond to other crimes.
Edward La Trobe Bateman (attrib to) The Government Camp. May Day Hill, Ovens. Australia, ca. 1852-1881
Some towns grew out of the diggings, such as Castlemaine, but as other goldfields were decimated, diggers would move on, “leaving behind wrecked shaftheads and mounds of muck, rivers filled with sludge, hillsides scoured down to clay or bedrock, or river flats so sluiced that they became fields of stone”.[xxxii]
Ernest Decimus Stocks, Buninyong from Bowen Hill, 1875
Building a Democratic Society
Because gold attracted people from all classes of society, from convicts who’d served their sentences, people (mainly young men) seeking a quick fortune, farmers, professionals, tradespeople, craftsmen, the established middle class and artists, the goldfields became a melting pot where prospectors tended to be labelled by the period they’d spent on the fields – ie whether they were ‘old chums’ or ‘new chums’. Generally, living at close quarters meant that people from different countries and different backgrounds learnt to live comfortably with each other.
The term ‘mate’, which had initially referred to a two-man digging partnership, became extended to include a larger group of four to six people working a claim, and then more generally to comradeship. As Donald Horne wrote “it did not matter what people had been before, what mattered was how they would react to the challenges of the diggings”[xxxiii]. Mateship as a term has endured in Australia and embodies equality, loyalty and friendship.
Emil Todt, The Gold Diggers, 1854, Melbourne
This sense of mateship and fair play was evident during the events which led up the Eureka Stockade[xxxiv] rebellion in 1854 (which resulted from an unfair licensing system and an intense dislike of policing methods) and this event is credited with influencing moves towards a democratic form of government.
George Lacy, First Commissioner Hardy Collecting Licences - Diggers Evading, c 1851
Rafaello Carboni, the only eyewitness to give a full account of the incident, wrote about the licensing system:
“One fine morning … I hear a rattling noise among the brush. My faithful dog, Bonaparte, would not keep under my control. "What's up?" "Your licence, mate," was the peremptory question from a six-foot fellow in blue shirt, thick boots, the face of a ruffian, armed with a carabine and fixed bayonet. The old "all right" being exchanged, I lost sight of that specimen of colonial brutedom and his similars, called, as I then learned, "traps" and "troopers." I left off. work, and was unable to do a stroke more that day”.
“The search for licences, or "the traps are out to-day"—their name at the time—happened once a month. The strong population now on this gold-field had perhaps rendered it necessary twice a month. Only in October, I recollect they had come out three times”. [xxxv]
Charles Doudiet, Burning of the Eureka Hotel, 1854
J B. Henderson, Eureka Stockade riot, Ballarat, 1854
Geoffrey Blainey commented in 1963 that:
"Eureka became a legend, a battlecry for nationalists, republicans, liberals, radicals, or communists, each creed finding in the rebellion the lessons they liked to see." ..."In fact the new colonies' political constitutions were not affected by Eureka, but the first Parliament that met under Victoria's new constitution was alert to the democratic spirit of the goldfields, and passed laws enabling each adult man in Victoria to vote at elections, to vote by secret ballot, to stand for the Legislative Assembly"[xxxvi]. (‘Adult male’ did not mean indigenous males.)
This didn’t apply to all races, and the Chinese, in particular, were not treated well. (The pressure of anti-chinese feelings led the NSW government to introduce the Immigration Restriction Act and Regulations in 1861 in order to reduce numbers of Chinese immigration, and paved the way for the first piece of Federal government legislation in 1901 - the Immigration Restriction Act, which became known as the “White Australia policy”.)
Horace Burkitt, Creswick Chinese Camp, 1859
Australia’s Indigenous Population
The impact on Australia’s Indigenous population was significant, with non-indigenous prospectors showing little regard for the Aboriginal people’s ownership of and relationship to the land they were mining.
However, Aboriginals did participate in activities on the goldfields. In his paper, Black Gold Aboriginal People on the Goldfields of Victoria, 1850-1870, Fred Cahir writes:
“Their experiences, like those of non-Indigenous people, were multi-dimensional, from passive presence, active discovery, to shunning the goldfields. There is striking and consistent evidence that Aboriginal people, especially those whose lands were in rich alluvial gold bearing regions, remained in the gold areas, participated in gold mining and interacted with non-Indigenous people in a whole range of hitherto neglected ways, whilst maintaining many of their traditional customs[xxxvii]”.
Tommy McRae, Scenes from Aboriginal Life, Aboriginal dancers and animals, including emus and lizards, taking part in a ceremony, 1862
Their roles included acting as police, gold escorts, guides to new goldfields, bark cutters, trackers, postal deliverers, child minders, fur merchants, bushrangers, entertainers, prostitutes and prison guards.
Cahir also states that:
´there is no evidence that Aboriginal people attached any great economic or spiritual significance to the heavy yellow metal” but “much evidence shows Aboriginal people quarrying for crystal, greenstone, sandstone, obsidian, kaolin, ochres and basalt across Victoria”[xxxviii].
Eugene von Guérard, Aborigines met on the road to the diggings, 1854
Native Police Encampment, Thomas Ham Engraver, 1854
Life on the Goldfields
‘Homes’ on the goldfields were usually calico tents (although some diggers built slab or bark huts) with only an outside fire for cooking, with boxes, chests, sacks or tree trunks for furniture. Meals mainly comprised mutton chops, damper and pannikins of tea.
Writing about life on the goldfields, historian Donald Horne said:
“In some ways the gold rushes were like a kind of safe, minor military campaign for which a man would volunteer with growing affection for the rest of his life: there were not many deaths; there was plenty of fresh air and there were the excitements of failure or success, the bonds of exclusive comradeship, and the feeling of free choice that can come from an unpredictable event”[xxxix].
This is somewhat of an idealised view, as many diggers were ruined as they didn’t find enough gold to support themselves, ‘homes’ were rough, women had a tough life, mostly acting in support roles, illness followed the seasons, and the cost of supplies could be highly inflated. Pigs, fowls, dogs and goats ran riot on the streets in townships.
Eugene von Guérard, Georg Griffiths and Carl James Morgan, Tent, Ballarat, 16 July 1853
S T Gill, Butcher's Shamble, Forest Creek, 1869
Diggers faced a continual battle to keep flies, cockroaches and spiders from food, bedding and themselves. Water was often contaminated from multiple use, so infections and fevers were quickly spread. Toilets were drop holes dug into ground and raw sewerage ran in open drains throughout mining townships. Dysentery was the curse of the Ballarat goldfields in the 1850s, taking a particularly heavy toll on infants[xl].
There were only two private tent hospitals set up by medical practitioners in Ballarat (neither of which were available for birthing), and a third at the Government camp, that was initially for Government servants only.
However, people on the goldfields found many ways to entertain themselves.
S T Gill, Dancing Saloon & Grog Shop Main Road Ballarat, May 30th 55, 1855
John Skinner Prout, Night Scene at the Diggings, c 1852
Walter Mason, Diggers at a Sly Grog Shop warned of the approach of a Commissioner, 1857
Diggings often had an improvised main street with ‘shops’ selling supplies, eating-houses, theatres, saloons, sly-grog booths, brothels and gambling dens. Impromptu music was popular with fiddles, banjos, accordions and pipe and brass instruments.
Singing and dancing were also popular in the canvas theatres. Unfortunately, alcohol abuse on the Victorian goldfields was considered to be at epidemic levels between the 1850s and 1860s [xli] and had particularly severe consequences on Aboriginal communities.
The betting game of ‘two-up’ (now played nationally in Australia on Anzac day) was also popular.
The Sabbath was observed by many, and church meetings were common, with people wearing their ‘Sunday Best’.
Cyrus Mason, Open Air Services at the Diggings, 1854
Women on the Goldfields
The majority of women on the goldfields juggled between assisting with gold digging and undertaking domestic duties and rearing children. Immigrant Sarah Davenport[xlii] wrote:
“we had not been thair maney days when me and another wife whent a looking around the hills we had each a knife and a tin plate to get goold in if we shold find anny ...i soon picked up a piece about a quarter of an ounce".
In 1854 only 208 of over 4,000 women (only five percent were single) living on the Ballarat goldfields were officially recorded as being in paid employment, mostly as domestic servants. Some women worked as storekeepers, running tearooms or boarding houses, milliners and dressmakers.
Elizabeth Shepherd/Woodmansey, Simmons Reef, Mount Blackwood, 57 Miles from Melbourne, Victoria, 1858
For example, in the painting above, you can see a shop sign E Shepherd, with the artist and child standing in the doorway.
The infant mortality was high, with one quarter of all the recorded deaths in Ballarat being children under five[xliii]. Women often took on the role of untrained ‘nurses’ and lay midwives. (In 1862 the Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne began training nurses as 'ladies monthly nurses' who, having observed one hundred births and assisted at births under supervision, were qualified as midwives.[xliv])
However, by the end of the 1850s in Castlemaine, women were working in a number of traditional male occupations such as printers, cattle dealers, quarry workers, brick makers, and blacksmiths[xlv].
The 1861 Census of Victoria showed that women were performing many roles normally undertaken by men across goldrush communities.
William Strutt, Victoria the Golden, c.1851
S T Gill, Zealous diggers Bendigo, 1854
Becoming a Wealthy Colony
As a newly proclaimed colony, Victoria suddenly found itself very wealthy.
Profits from the sale of gold were often reinvested back into local communities as successful diggers took up businesses and farms. Banks and lending societies sprang up and in 1857 Main Street Ballarat was lined for 2.5km with stores, hotels and workshops[xlvii]. (The Art Gallery of Ballarat, which was Founded in 1884, is the oldest and largest regional gallery in Australia.)
Ballarat enjoyed a natural protection from overseas and interstate competition. Proximity to markets and protection from imported grain by distance and freight costs were key to its success. Goods were supplied locally and the manufacturing of candles, soap, boots, harness, agricultural implements and many other items were boosted.
Weston Bates wrote "Miners’ clothing and equipment, their high protein food and housing needs stimulated primary and secondary industry to a degree not experienced in pastoralism and agriculture”[xlviii].
Historian Geoffrey Blainey wrote that before the discovery of gold, graziers were at the mercy of fluctuating overseas prices for wool. But the new population brought by the gold fields meant they could profit from local demand for meat and hides.
"The demand for meat and hides meant that Victoria’s cattle population doubled and the breeding of horses as ‘engines’ for puddling machines, drays and coaches became profitable".[xlix]
William Taylor Smith Tibbits, Residence of Mr Robert Mark, Scarsdale, c1870s
Nicholas Chevalier, Gum Trees, Pool and Cattle Victoria, c 1860, National Gallery of Australia
Most middle-class immigrants returned to the larger towns and Melbourne after the initial rush where many became prominent in business, politics and law. They helped in the development of institutions such as churches, schools, hospitals, newspapers, libraries and sporting clubs.
Immigrant artists became involved in teaching and setting up formal art societies and galleries, with the National Gallery Art School, School of Design, accepting its first students in 1867.
William Tibbits (attrib to) The Victorian Artists Society
Fletchers St Gallery, Collins Street
The growing wealth of Victoria was particularly evidenced in the significant growth of Melbourne and improvements in the lifestyle of Melbournians, which by the 1880s was known as Marvellous Melbourne[l]. Jobs came from new factories, new roads and railways, house-building (in 1861 about a third of the population in Victoria was still living in tents, huts or canvas houses) and all the support industries necessary to sustain such a large population. Building workers gained and eight hour day (although the eight hour movement was slow to spread to other industries and colonies) and a Trades Hall was established in Melbourne[li].
George Rowe, View of the City of Melbourne, 1858
1880s panorama of Melbourne - with one of worlds earliest great skyscraper buildings
A degree of economic stability was achieved through the increase in the size of the labour force, with gold as an export that was practically immune to market shocks. The economy became less prone to the effects of changes in international markets.
Impacts on the Environment
But this prosperity came at a cost. The gold rush disrupted and rapidly destroyed ecosystems which had been largely undisturbed for millions of years, and put increasing pressure on the native flora and fauna.
Charles Lyall, View over a goldfield, c 1854
Eugene von Guérard, Warrenheip Hills near Ballarat, 1854, National Gallery of Victoria
And the paintings of the time depict this – consider the stark contrast between the landscapes depicting rolling hills and grassed valleys, and the denuded country of the goldfields.In many areas, once diggers had felled trees and cleared land, they moved on to another site where the process was repeated. Creeks were muddied and dammed, and entire river beds diverted or washed Creeks were muddied and dammed, and entire river beds diverted or washed away This led to a significant range of environmental issues, such as soil erosion, the decline of water quality and salinity, the growth of noxious weeds and extinction of native animals[lii].
Charles Lyall, View over a goldfield, c 1854
George Rowe, Ballarat, 1858, Dixson Galleries
As a writer of the time, William Howitt, predicted:
“...we had quietness and greenness, and the most deliciously cool water, sweet and clear. But this quietness and greenness cannot last. Prospectors will quickly follow us. We foresee that all these bushy banks of the creek will be rapidly and violently invaded. The hop-scrubs will be burnt, the bushes in and on the creek cleared away, the trees on the slope felled, and the ground torn up for miles around. The crystalline water will be made thick and foul with gold-washing; and the whole will be converted into a scene of desolation and discomfort"[liii].
Henry Winkles, View of a Goldfield, Victoria, c1853
There were also great economic incentives to introduce new plants and animals, with the realisation that reliance on gold and wool to maintain the economy would not be sustainable.
The Royal Society of Victoria argued for an increase the colony’s range of agricultural products by experimenting with a varied range of plants – particularly those from Britain with which they were most familiar, including wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, cabbages, cauliflower, peas, beans, onions, carrots, parsnips, apples, pears, plums, cherries, apricots, peaches, figs and walnuts[liv]. Many of these plants adapted well, but in the 1860s, Ferdinand Von Mueller, who was then director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, spread Blackberry seeds from his saddlebag while on travels through Victoria. Blackberries have continued to be a major concern for agriculturalists as they are extremely difficult to eradicate. English hedging plants hawthorn and gorse were also introduced and these became weeds that ran wild and choked native plants.
A large number of animals were also introduced, and in 1859 rabbits were released near Geelong as ideal hunting game - they quickly became one of Australia’s greatest pests as they multiplied in plague proportions. Buffalos were also introduced and destroyed vegetation with their heavy hooves. Cats were commonplace at gold diggings and cats hunted small marsupials and birds, often becoming feral.
William Strutt, Preparing to Start, Thomas Ham Engraver
Not only were fish such as trout introduced, but also European carp - which have remained an ongoing problem in stirring up silt and muddying rivers and dams, decreasing their nutrient levels.
The era of the goldrushes was a defining period in Australia’s history. It brought with it a range of improvements, from an increase in wealth, to skilled and culturally diverse immigrants, to major developments in all areas of infrastructure, health and science, together with greater independence from England. But just as this legacy of growth endures, so does the legacy of denudation and the introduction of species which have upset the country’s ecosystem. Some people made their fortunes, which provided increased opportunities for future generations, others paid heavily for the investment in prospecting, or living on land being taken over by miners.
The notions of mateship, egalitarianism and the digger spirit can be linked to the goldfields, as can a move towards a democratic society. Unfortunately, the converse was the introduction of the White Australia policy and the lack of recognition of Australia’s first people as citizens. Women had the opportunity, often driven be necessity, to take on a range of roles previously only available to men, but their place in society still remained limited, and their experiences and contributions are largely hidden in Australia’s history.
The Art and Artists of the goldfields of Victoria
The style of art during the key decades of the gold rush period is known as Colonial[lv] art and the subjects that were most popular were landscapes, seascapes, portraits (which drew valuable commissions) and views of townships and homesteads.
In particular, it was a period when the everyday life of those involved in the goldrush was portrayed. Little was idealised in the 'romantic' style of European art, except when painted by overseas artists such as Chevalier and von Guérard, who had studied in this style.
These and other professional artists who attracted by the goldrushes were bringing with them their own values about art and art styles, as well as training in technique, composition, and colour, and this added to the development of art in Australia.
Edward Roper, Christmas in the Colonies, A Christmas dinner at the Diggings.
Not surprisingly, the professionalism of art in Victoria increased markedly between the 1850s and 1880s. This came about largely as a result of a push by artists who were strongly motivated both make a name for themselves, but also to establish a strong arts culture. The increasing wealth in the colony, and a growing middle class, provided opportunities for an arts culture to flourish. Most importantly, money was spent on public bodies which enabled this to occur.
Melbourne University was established in 1853, and began to admit women in 1880 (except in study of Medicine), the first town hall building was completed in 1854, the Public Library, now known as the State Library of Victoria, opened in Melbourne in 1859, and the National Gallery of Victoria opened in the 1860s, with the Government granting it the princely sum of £2000 to purchase art work.
This led to the establishment of the National Gallery School, private schools and galleries and budding art societies. (However, the trustees of public bodies were conservative men whose idea of high art was classical and academic painting and sculpture from England and Europe, making it more difficult for a younger generation of artists to develop a unique style more suited to country with a very different history and way of viewing the world.)
By the 1880s, artists such as McCubbin, Streeton, Roberts, Boyd, Sutherland and many others were becoming interested in representing an Australian impression of our landscapes, borrowing in part from French Impressionism. By the 1880s there was also a greater market for oil painters.
Paintings and Prints of the Goldfields
In reviewing the art of the goldfields, it’s clear to see that the value of much of the work lies in its recording of the miners at work, together with those in support industries. Some activities recorded faithfully, others with a touch of humour.
Many people in the camps wanted mementos or pictures to send home to family and friends or simply to collect for themselves. They were interested in easily transportable works on paper – watercolours, lithographs and etchings.
Other key subjects were larger scale works of camps, with families, shops, entertainment, hunting and animals.
Paintings also record key activities that took place which shaped Victoria at the time, such as; massive immigration; the development of regional centres; improvements in transport and communication; the railway; Cobb & Co coaches; the telegraph; Eureka stockade; the building of Marvellous Melbourne; the impact on Aboriginals; racism toward the Chinese; denudation and destruction of land and the introduction of new species of flora and fauna.
Prints from The Picturesque Atlas of Australasia
A number of publications included prints from the goldfields, including the Illustrated Australian Magazine, Illustrated Melbourne News, Illustrated Melbourne Post and the Picturesqure Altas of Australia which was produced in the 1880s.
Numerous artists painted at the goldfields with varying degrees of proficiency. Unfortunately, I can only find two women professional artists, Elizabeth Parsons and Elizabeth Shepherd Woodmansey, who have extant paintings from this time. No doubt there were other professional and amateur women artists who painted related scenes, although during this period it would have been difficult for women to be supported as an artist, travel to the goldfields for the purpose of painting, and to receive acknowledgement and payment for their work.
Elizabeth Shepherd, Simmons Reef, Mount Blackwood, 57 Miles from Melbourne, Victoria 1858, 1882
It appears that Elizabeth Shepherd may have lived on the goldfields as the owner of a shop, as the name ‘E Shepherd’ is prominently signed above the shop in her painting. Little is known about her except that according to the National Library she came to Victoria in September 1855 and lived there until February 1884. A similar version of this painting is signed by Elizabeth Woodmansey and dated 1882 – presumably her married name. (It’s possible that she married a John Woodmansey and travelled to the UK after his death in 1884.)
Elizabeth Parsons, A Country Lane, Woodend, c1875
Elizabeth Parsons (1831–1897) painter and printmaker, arrived in Melbourne from England in 1870 and she quickly established a name for herself – teaching art students from her home. Her landscape paintings were also represented in several major Melbourne and international exhibitions.
One of the first professional women artists to work in Victoria, she exhibited with Heidelberg School artists Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder.
Parsons was the first and only woman to be elected to the prestigious Victorian Academy of Art council, a position she held for two years. She was also the only woman artist amongst those whose works were selected for inclusion in the Art Union of Victoria’s 1880 illustrated publication of Henry Kendall’s poem, Orara.[lvi]
Elizabeth Parsons, At Berwick, 1882
Tommy McRae, Squatter with Aboriginal Stockman, near Chinese man amongst trees, Wahgunyah Region, Victoria, 1881
Tommy McRae, Aboriginal man chasing Chinese man and Aboriginal men fighting, Wahgunyah Region, Victoria, 1881, NLA
There was also at least one indigenous artist depicting the impact of the life on the goldfields - Tommy McCrae.
Tommy McRae (c.1835–1901), was the most prolific nineteenth-century Aboriginal artist from south-eastern Australia, who produced several books of drawings, and boosted his income from the sale of his artworks. His Aboriginal names have been recorded as Yackaduna or Warra-euea, and he was probably from the Kwatkwat people, whose country stretched south of the Murray River near the junction of the Goulburn River in Victoria[lvii].
His books mostly recorded traditional Aboriginal life, such as ceremonies and scenes of hunting and fishing. He also produced a number of sketches which included squatters and Chinese.
Samuel Thomas Gill
The artist who was probably the most prolific on the goldfields was S T Gill, producing numerous watercolours. On his headstone he is referred to as The artist of the Goldfields.
Samuel Thomas (S. T.) Gill (1818 – 1880) arrived in South Australia, from England, at the age of 21. He arrived with his parents and siblings on the Caroline in 1839, and almost immediately began his career as a watercolourist, illustrator and printmaker.
According to art historian Sasha Grishin, Gill may have learnt art from his father who was an amateur poet and artist, as well as from drawing masters within his family and at Dr Seabrook’s Academy, which he attended as a boarder. He also apparently received training in lithography and engraving in London.
Grishin writes that Gill may have worked as a carver and gilder in Plymouth and subsequently studied with artists in London, where it appears he worked as a draughtsman and watercolourist for Hubard Profile Gallery.[lviii]
Grishin observes that Gill’s early drawings are characterised by three features – a love of social caricature, precise attention to detail and a preoccupation with commenting on death and the struggle between virtues and vices.[ix]
The first two of these features are particularly obvious in Gill’s recording of life on the Victorian goldfields. It appears he first arrived at the Mount Alexander in early 1852, and by August that year he published a set of 24 lithographs in Sketches of the Victoria Diggings and Diggers As They Are [lx], and these were supplemented by a second set of lithographs only two months later. These small lithographic prints received a warm review in the Argus.
What stands out particularly about S. T. Gill’s work is the way in which he sought to humanise and convey the drama of the goldfields, while at the same time accurately recording details, for example, the layout of the landscape, the clothing, tools and equipment of the diggers, the names of tents, and the dates of his drawings. At same time, while he might often describe positive aspects of a digger’s life, he also showed the converse.
Because of this his work can be considered to be a fairly accurate recording of what he saw and the changes to the landscape over such a short period of time. Aside from a short period in New South Wales, Gill spent most of the rest of his life in Victoria, where he died in 1880.
S.T. Gill was not the first printmaker on the Victorian goldfields. In 1851 illustrator and engraver David Tulloch was commissioned to make sketches of the diggers and the diggings. These illustrations appeared in Thomas Ham’s Illustrated Australian Magazine, first published in July 1850. By January 1852 Tulloch had finished five sketches, which Ham published as Ham’s Five Views of the Goldfields of Mount Alexander and Ballarat in the Colony of Victoria, Drawn on the Spot by D. Tulloch. These are among the earliest known views of the Victorian diggings.
Little is known about his background, other than that he arrived from Scotland in 1849. In 1852 he set up his own business and went into partnership with a map engraver, James Davie Brown, in 1853. Their work, including several maps and specimens of commercial engraving, won awards at the 1854 Melbourne Exhibition at the Victorian Industrial Exhibition.
In 1889 Herbert Woodhouse, of the Victorian Lithographic Artists and Engravers Club, called Tulloch “an excellent engraver on steel and copperplate of both artistic and mechanical subjects, besides being a good draftsman”.[lxi]
David Tulloch, Great Meeting of the Gold Diggers, December 1851 - 52
David Tulloch, Commissioner's Tent Ballaarat,
This first drawing above was made only a few months after gold was first discovered in Victoria, and already you can see felling of trees and large dugouts.
Another artist who has some similarities to S. T. Gill was George Lacy, (c.1817-1878)
but Lacy often made light of the hardships faced by the mining community and this was reinforced by his use of humorous titles, often several lines in length. He was almost exclusively interested in depicting activity scenes and conflict between authority and the underdog[lxii], tending to sketch in backgrounds with broad, sweeping strokes.
Although little is known about his background, Lacy was a painter, illustrator, writer and teacher, who is thought to have had some formal art school training in England. He arrived in Sydney in 1842 on the Wilmot before moving to Victoria around 1855, where it’s believed he sold his paintings at stores at the diggings.
Including his goldrush paintings, he is known to have painted 100 drawings of the early days of Australia's inland settlement and bushranging activities, particularly those in New South Wales. (He is considered to be the artist identified only as 'G.L. of Wollongong’ who contributed ten works to the second Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Australia exhibition held at Sydney in 1849.[lxiii]) All Lacy’s surviving works are in watercolour, wash and ink or, occasionally, pencil.
Unlike many other artists in the goldfields, Lacy had great interest in painting activities which involved families, usually taken a humorous approach.
Lacy produced illustrations for the Illustrated Sydney News, Illustrated Melbourne News, Illustrated Melbourne Post and Sydney Punch in the 1860s, and published his reminiscences in the Albury Southern Courier.
He moved to Bathurst in 1876 where he died of heart disease two years later, aged 60.
George Lacy, A kangaroo on the Tambaroora Goldfields, 1852
George French Angas
In the 1850s’ Lacy contributed to a portfolio of prints, Sketches In Australia: Plates From G. F. Angas - Six Views Of The Gold Field Of Ophir (Published by) Sydney, Woolcott, And Clarke, 1851, and Original Sketches By G. Lacy[lxiv]. Also included in that publication were works by George French Angas.
George French Angas (1822-1886) was naturalist and painter who studied in England for a time under Waterhouse Hawkins, a natural history artist.
Angas sailed for Australia in 1843 in the Augustus, arriving in Adelaide. He continued to travel within Australia and overseas for several years, producing a number of drawings and watercolours which were reproduced as lithographs in publications such as South Australia Illustrated, The New Zealanders Illustrated, Savage Life and Scenes in Australia and New Zealand, Six Views of the Gold Field of Ophir (Sydney) and Views of the Gold Regions of Australia.
Aside from his paintings of the goldfields, Angas was essentially a naturalist, with interests in ethnology and conchology, although his oeuvre was quite broad. A gifted draftsman with a concern for detail, he took care to depict native vegetation accurately. In his landscape paintings he applied colour with gently gradated tints, demonstrating a feeling for space.
In 1853 Angas was appointed secretary to the Australian Museum in Sydney, a position which he held until 1860. While there he supervised the work of classifying and arranging the first public collection of Australian specimens, especially shells[lxv]. He returned to London in 1863, where he died in 1886.
Another artist to arrive at the beginning of the goldrush in Victoria was Charles Doudiet. He came from Canada in 1852, with a sketchbook given to him by his father to record his time in Australia[lxvi]. Little is known about any artistic training he may have had.
His "Australian Sketchbook" records the period from February 1853 in Melbourne to September 1855 in Ballarat, two years before he returned to Canada.
About half of the work in the original sketch book is now in the collection of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery. While the watercolours are clearly amateurish, they are important as the record the events at the Eureka Stockade. They include Eureka Riot, Swearing Allegiance to the Southern Cross and Eureka Battle (Eureka Slaughter 3 December).
Edwin Roper Loftus Stocqueler (1829-95) was born in Bombay and educated in England before travelling to Australia with his mother, Jane. Unforturnately nothing is known about his artistic training, but Stocqueler came to the goldfields with the specific intention of making money from art, rather than digging for gold.
Stocqueler and his mother were on the Bendigo diggings by 1853 and made Sandhurst (now Bendigo) their headquarters, and according to Dr Martha Sear, travelled up and down the Murray River, Goulburn River and Ovens River in a canvas boat.
"He was interested in natural history and in recording the landscape of those places, and he also recorded his encounters with Aboriginal people”[lxvii].
Edwin Stocqueler, Digging for Gold, 1880 from 1854 sketches
Digging for Gold shows just how quickly the land was decimated around Bendigo at the beginnings of the goldrush. Another interesting aspect to this painting is the large scar tree to the left in the foreground. It shows that part of the bark has been stripped away, possibly to be made into a canoe by local Aboriginals, and this simple inclusion in the painting demonstrates how the goldrush must have impacted local tribes.
In 1857, Stocqueler created a panorama in Bendigo called The Golden Land of the Sunny South. His father had been a narrator for a panorama in London, and Stocqueler thought he could create something similar.
The painting took about four years to complete and was one mile (1.6 kilometres) in length. It was presented in two parts, each consisting of at least twenty-five paintings. The first half mainly comprised views of Melbourne, Sandhurst, the Bendigo goldfields and the Goulburn River country, while the emphasis in the other half was on north-eastern Victoria, mainly around Beechworth but concluding with several views of Castlemaine[lxviii]. People paid to hear a narrator, accompanied by sound effects, describing the scenes as the paintings on canvas were unfurled from a spindle.
Residents of the newly established town on Bendigo creek flocked to the exhibition, which later travelled to Melbourne, but overall it didn’t attract the audiences he was hoping for.
Like many of this works, it’s not known if this panorama still exists. Visiting his studio in 1857, a reporter from the Bendigo Advertiser noted some seventy paintings of native birds and animals and referred to other 'very numerous and interesting sketches and paintings’, and the location these is also not known.
Stocqueler remained in Australia until about 1870. Unfortunately, he died penniless at the age of 65 in London, where he had been reduced to chalking art on the pavement trying to make a living.
George Rowe (1796-1864) painter and lithographer, arrived in Melbourne in 1857 at the age of 60, and although he only stayed for three years, he painted a number of panoramas of the goldfields as well as around Melbourne. As a master lithographer, he had been one of England’s most successful producers of picturesque and topographical views[lxix].
Like many others he came to Australia in search of gold to rebuild his family’s fortune but was unsuccessful as both a miner and a storekeeper, so returned to his earlier vocation as an artist, and his work proved to be very popular.
His early watercolours of the diggings were generally small in size, for example Australian Settlers’ Tents painted in 1853. He painted an average of two pictures a day, and charged between one and five guineas for each painting[lxx].
George Rowe, Australian Settler’s Huts, 1853
George Rowe, Beauchamp's Australian Stores, Victoria Place, Bendigo, 1853
Like the Romantic artists of Europe, such as Henry Fuseli who was painting in the late 1700s, Rowe expressed the romantic concept of the insignificance of humans compared with the majesty of nature. He also demonstrated a strong empathy with Australia’s first people.
In 1857 he exhibited 50 of his watercolour views of Bendigo, Castlemaine and Forest Creek for an Art Union. The Bendigo Advertiser reported with enthusiasm and at length:
“In every instance the artist has succeeded admirably in a correct delineation of the scenes he has undertaken… Of all the pictures enumerated, which, with others, are all of well known localities in the Bendigo district, we feel it is impossible to speak in too high terms of praise”.[lxxi]
In 1858 Rowe undertook a sketching tour of the Western District of Victoria (its spectacular mountain scenery also attracted such artists as Eugène von Guérard and Nicholas Chevalier). He was particularly taken by the views from Mount William, the highest peak in the Grampians Ranges. Rowe recorded the visit in his diary, “I sketched the scene and treasured up in my memory the glorious effects which I was privileged to witness, and hope someday to find time to depict them in another fashion”[lxxii].
George Rowe, Aborigines in an Australian Landscape
Interestingly, Rowe also painted horse racing scenes, with the first running of the Melbourne Cup being during the goldrush period, in 1861. (By 1880, 100,000 people travelled to Flemington to attend the Cup. As Melbourne’s population was only 290,000 at the time, this attendance was quite phenomenal.)
George Rowe, Victorian Race Meeting at Sunbury, 1858
Whilst on the goldfields Rowe also painted flags used to identify businesses, dwellings and claims wrote writing letters for the many illiterate diggers.
After he returned to England, Rowe exhibited ‘Six watercolour paintings of scenery in Victoria’ in the International Exhibition, London in 1862. Rowe was the only artist to be awarded a medal, which the jurors stated was: “For faithful and beautiful delineation of the country, workings, and other relations of the gold fields[lxxiii]”.
William Strutt, Black Thursday, February 6th, 1851, 1864
Strutt stated that he wanted to create epic pictures for what he saw as an age rich ‘with splendid subjects[lxxv]’. His dramatic painting of the bushfire that raged across Victoria on the 6th of February in 1851 is an example of the style of work being painted in France, by such artists as Ernest Meissonier[lxxvi]. Not immediately recognisable as a painting of an Australian scene, it nonetheless captures the horror and fright of those fleeing from the fire, amongst the devastation from the 1850 drought.
Strutt visited Ballarat in 1851 and painted a number of depictions of goldfields life, some of which were later printed as lithographs.
“Here, indeed, was an extraordinary sight. A piece of ground about two or three acres in extent sloping down gently towards a moderate-sized creek was perfectly honeycombed with holes, some just beginning to be dug, but in most of them the diggers were deep down below getting out the auriferous soil, which others were hauling up in buckets to carry in barrows to the cradles, where this washing stuff, as it was called, was most thoroughly washed at the side of the creek by being rocked to and fro in the sieve, [and that] which falls through to be collected from the bottom of the cradle. The creek was lined as thick as it could be packed. Every claim holder had a right to a space in front of the running stream where his cradle stood ... The whole field of operations reminded one of a huge ant hill, just disturbed, with the distressed insects hurrying about hither and thither to set things in order once more”[lxxvii].
With his academic training, it is not surprising that attempted to persuade the government leaders of his day to take some interest in historical record. For example, he made several studies of the Burke and Wills Exploring Expedition in 1860-6, including their preparations at Royal Park, Melbourne, and at its first camp at Essendon[lxxviii]. He then collected first-hand accounts from the rescue party and from King, the expedition's sole survivor, upon their return.
The portraits, detailed studies and annotations that Strutt executed on the scene provided material for his works in oil, watercolour and engraving over the next five decades following his return to England in 1862.
William Strutt, The Start of the Burke and Wills Exploring Expedition from Royal Park, Melbourne, August 20, 1860