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.
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°.