The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Clare Wright

To be perfectly frank, the Australian gold rush history I learnt at school was dull. We suffered through it for the excursion to Sovereign Hill, of which the highlights were having personalised ‘Wanted’ posters printed and spending a vast amount of money on boiled lollies. I’m sure we covered stuff about living conditions, the growth of Ballarat, and the far-reaching effects of the miners’ protests about compulsory licences… I probably filed it under ‘Oh yeah, that was the Eureka Stockade‘, and moved on to Sovereign Hill’s chief attraction – panning for gold.

Imagine if I’d been taught from Clare Wright’s The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka? It’s a spectacular, riveting book that gives an account of the events leading up to the Eureka Stockade from the perspective of individual women on the gold fields. Until Wright’s book, women had been left out of the Gold Rush and Eureka story, despite the fact that they played a significant role and in turn shaped Victorian history.

Notably, traditional gender roles were challenged. Women were lease and land holders (for example, pub licences required a female on the lease, the logic being that a female presence would keep behaviour in check). Women ran businesses, mined for gold, and in terms of marriage, could afford to be very picky (they were the minority, hence they did the choosing). Equally, men were required to do things they weren’t accustomed to doing. In a letter to his mother, miner Henry reports “I’m a first-rate washerwoman, or if the lasses like, washerman…”.

The events on the gold fields represented the first gains for Victorian suffragettes – “They did not want to change the system of government, they wanted to be included in it.” Wright’s vivid description of the political environment is interwoven with the everyday – the bitter Ballarat winters, the birth (and loss) of babies, the fashions favoured by those who had struck gold.

Wright demonstrates that there’s no need for history books to be dry and plain. The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka is exquisitely written and has flourishes you don’t expect. Women were left in “…forsaken towns like the soapy ring around a bathtub” while their husbands rushed to get to the gold fields. On the influence and importance of immigrants, Wright says –

…the ideas, aspirations and language of the old world seeped into the porous new cultural and political landscape. Seen from this angle, the Victorian gold rush doesn’t represent a new dawn in Australia’s young history so much as the long dusk of Europe’s age of revolutions.

This is an embarrassingly paltry review of what is an epic book. In short, it’s absorbing, informative and memorable (and a worthy Stella Prize winner).

4/5 I need a post-book trip to Ballarat.

It was all about sly grog on the diggings. Although the rum came as a ‘nobbler’, I think I’d prefer a Dark and Stormy.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (August 1): Belfast 13°-17° and Melbourne 9°-15°.

15 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  2. You are right about this being such an engaging read, one that proves history can be as enjoyable to read as anything else. How much more history is out there that needs righting the balance? It’s horrendous, really, how skewed our history is – not just in terms of women, but indigenous people, and how many other overlooked groups in our society?

    • Agree. I thought Wright’s references to indigenous and immigrants from non-English speaking countries were really interesting – there wasn’t the scope in this book to look at the role of those groups more closely but maybe she has another book in her?! I’d certainly read it.

      Interestingly, I have a Year 9 student who is learning about the WWs in history at the moment – their learning is very different to mine, as they have been considering how ideas such as the ANZAC ‘spirit’ and ‘mateship’ excluded many involved in the Wars, such as indigenous people. Heartening that they are being taught history with an understanding of perspective and context.

  3. I’m with you re: bkring classroom history. History can be so fascinating yet the schools just hit you over a head with a big gray rock. This book sounds wonderful. I’m putting it on my list. Thanks for a good review of an interesting time in Australian history. In the US midwest school I went to the California gold rush wasn’t even mentioned!🤠🐧

    • The Eureka Stockade is usually included in Australian history because it is sometimes referred to as our ‘only civil war’. War is probably too strong a term – it was a single battle! Regardless, white-Australian history is relatively short, so we cover everything! If the curriculum was expanded appropriately to consider Indigenous history, the classes might look very different. Although this has changed more in recent years, when I was at school, Australian History started with white settlement 🙁

  4. I went on a school excursion just like that 🤣. Thanks for this review. I was convinced this book wouldn’t be for me (dry, dull, panning for gold drivel etc) but now I’m itching to read it.

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