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A Hard Life: Darry Fraser, author of The Widow of Ballarat, writes about the brave Australian women who worked on the goldfields

December 17, 2018

About the author:

For Darry Fraser, writing is her journey and the Australian landscape – rural, coastal, and desert – is her home and hearth. History, hidden catalysts, and powerful connections between humans drive her stories. Well-developed characters and layered stories woven with passion denote her love of telling a great tale. Darry is a daughter, a sister and an aunty. She loves animals, especially dogs, and walks her beloved Dog every day. She is left-handed, has an extreme fondness for plain-flavoured potato chips and fresh licorice, and loves a bold berry-flavoured red wine (not necessarily at the same time).

Purchase a copy of The Widow of Ballarat here

Read our review of The Widow of Ballarat here

WORDS // Darry Fraser

It was exciting to research The Widow of Ballarat. As in other goldrush areas around the world, many nations were represented on the Ballarat fields. And with the men, or closely thereafter, came women and children. By very late 1854, at the time of the Eureka Stockade, women on the goldfields numbered around 4000 or so—about 20 per cent of the European population.

Most were English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish—some had been transported from Britain for so-called crimes much earlier than the 1850s, some were survivors of the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1840s. There were Americans and Canadians who’d traveled to Australia after their own country’s goldrushes.

The local Wadawurrong people traded strongly on the goldfields. Their hunting skills meant many digger’s families had warm clothing, and rugs—much in demand in the freezing Ballarat winters—as well as food they brought to the trading ‘table’. Perhaps the most interesting was that the local people also knew about gold and gold deposits—though they little use for it—and often, in exchange for money or goods, directed the diggers to new finds of gold.

There were thousands of Chinese men working at the Ballarat diggings, but Chinese women stayed home to wait for the riches—and their men—to return to China. Of the thirty thousand or so Chinese diggers to arrive, only about four thousand remained in Australia.

A large contingent of Jewish people settled mostly as merchants and traders. In fact, the great social worker of the time, Caroline Chisholm, organised a group of young Jewish women to sail from London to become wives for the Jewish men on the fields—on the Caroline Chisholm, named in her honour. Mrs Chisholm visited the Ballarat goldfields in November 1854 and later in Melbourne gave a speech encouraging women and children to go to the goldfields to be with their men. After all the good work she did, she died a pauper in England in 1877.

Though the number of women living on the Ballarat diggings was low compared to the number of men, they certainly made their presence felt. They were business entrepreneurs; they held liquor licences, they were store-keepers and traders, they set up one of the first known child-minding centres—a large tent was used to keep the toddlers entertained by minders when there was large-scale entertainment such as the subscription balls. Mrs Seekamp took over the newspaper after her husband was incarcerated for sedition over the stockade battle. And a fine editor she turned out to be.

Women were brave and steadfast in the face of the very things that still face us today: violence, misogyny, ignorance. Wherever they could, some of the braver amongst them took their grievances to the magistrates, and invariably won. It was illegal at the time for a man to abandon his family (married or not) and often the man was ordered back home because the wife had no means of support whatsoever. Domestic violence was rife, and when things simply did not work out, some women took matters into their own hands and built lives for themselves. And for those who couldn’t, death by starvation was a reality.

The wonderful works of artist ST Gill depict life on the fields and one clearly shows a woman, nursing her child in one arm, and working a ‘puddling’ cradle (cleaning the silt looking for gold) in the other. Children also worked as little diggers for the family.

Some, when looking at history, might call the times romantic, but for most people there, and especially the women, it was the only life they knew, and it was a hard one.


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