Harsh Times on the Goldfields

Life in the 1850’s in Hobart Town was not easy. Like my great grandfather it is  likely that this family were drawn to the Victorian goldfields, from Hobart, lured by the prospect of finding gold and making a fortune.

Disease was rife upon the goldfields, where poor sanitation meant that refuse and excrement were liable to end up in the rivers that supplied drinking water for those on the diggings. Dysentery, typhus and other contagious diseases were all represented. The monotonous diet of mutton and damper did not help the health of diggers, and it is probable that many people, especially during the first years of a rush, were deficient in essential nutrients and vitamins. Common colds could be lethal; because of the combination of lack of sanitation and poor diet, miners lacked the necessary antibodies to fight off disease. With a weak immune system, a cold could quickly develop into pneumonia.

Within a week something of plague proportions wiped out Elizabeth Smart and her children. It is hard to imagine how Elizabeth Smart’s husband managed the grief of the loss of  his wife and children within such a short time . The experience of life on the goldfields was different for all who arrived, but few, as this tombstone reveals, had it easy. This husband and father had it tough.

Sacred To The Memory Of
Elizabeth Smart
Native of Hobart Town
Who Died July 5th 1864
Aged 26 Years
Also
Salena Smart
Who Died July 5th 1864
Aged 5 Years
Also
Henry Smart
Who Died July 8th 1864
Aged 5 Years
Also
Elizabeth Smart
Who Died July 10th 1864
Aged 14 Days

Weep not for me my husband dear 
I am not dead but sleeping here
Weep not for me but pity take
And love my children for my sake

Suffer the Children

Life on the goldfields was particularly harsh on children. They were often used as a source of labour and could earn small amounts of money for errands. Their young immune systems were still developing and children were highly susceptible to diseases that sometimes ran through mining communities. However, even the young were drawn to the lure of gold and could also be found panning along the rivers.

Aside with the associated danger of children wandering off and getting lost, the poor and inadequate drainage of the early settlements caused much discomfort not only for everyone’s olfactory nerves but on the community’s health problems.

We take for granted the way in which we can now store perishable foods, having a clean water supply, a well operating sewerage system and the many other conveniences at the press of a button or flick of a switch.

When we really think about it, how would we cope under the circumstances that the early diggers and their families faced when they first arrived here? There were a number of diseases which were fatal to the goldfield’s population, and the health officer of the local council in co-operation with the police had to be extremely vigilant. Police and health officials were a partnership which we rarely consider at the present, but at the time  this was almost a symbiotic relationship.

An example of this is that it was an appointed police officer who made inspections regarding sanitation or the lack thereof, and made demands that certain activities had to cease or be curbed, such as slaughtering and butchering animals in one’s own back yard. Another instance which was recognised as undesirable was to allow cesspools to sit and stagnate on private land.

If the drains which had been commissioned and dug by the council on the sides of roads had insufficient fall, these too were a problem as animal waste accumulated in these low spots, along with road runoff from the horses and bullocks used in transport. Effluvia was a frequently used word to describe the gaseous smells emanating from the decaying organic material lying in the street gutters. Another word, now not in regular use, to describe the horrific gaseous smells was miasma.

Many people thought that the smell alone would be the transmitter of disease, however it was not generally understood that water and milk were, in the 1850s, the cause of many of the health afflictions which beset the community. Diphtheria is a disease which is rare today, yet it was very troublesome in early Bendigo. Diphtheria is highly contagious, its symptoms are a very high fever and difficulty in breathing and swallowing as it produces a false membrane in the throat.

In the mid 1870s diphtheria created great alarm as it had caused the deaths of a significant number of infants, with older members of the community not being spared either. Those who were treated in hospital for diphtheria were few and far between, as frequently by the time the disease was diagnosed it was already too late. Source: Bendigo Weekly.

In these conditions it was the children who suffered and the Pennyweight Cemetery is a testimony to the number of children who perished on the Forest Creek Diggings.

A Child’s Life on the Goldfields

What life was like on the Goldfields

Life for Children on the Goldfields