Monday 22 October 2012

Our Stories: Life on the Goldfields

Our Stories: Life on the Goldfields by Doug Bradby (Walker Books)
PB RRP $17.95
ISBN 978-1-742032-13-9
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

From the wonderful series Our Stories from black dog books, comes another historical book, this time about life on the goldfields. It covers the period from 1851-1891 and focuses on the Victorian diggings.

In 1852 when six ships returned to Britain from Australia carrying eight tonnes of gold, people rushed to procure tickets on the next ship back to the goldfields. The poor were unable to pay for their ticket, so the British Government paid the fare for 90,000 workers. They also chose farmers so the migrating thousands could secure a source of food.

And so begins an interesting and informative narrative concerning life on the goldfields. The chapters are set out with main headings with sub-headings following, accompanied by supporting images. Under The Voyage to Australia we read about life on board the ships, how the accommodation and food differed between the classes, what they ate, who they shared sleeping quarters with, and what the routines of their daily life held. Why women and children were rare on the goldfields and how men managed without their families for such long stretches of time. What did they do on Sundays when nobody worked, and on Holy days and Holidays?

Dangers and Disasters exposes the difficulties encountered by the emigrants at sea, such as storms and shipwrecks, including the fate of the 546 assisted migrants on the Guiding Star’s maiden voyage which were never heard of again.

There is a chapter on all the different ethnic groups that joined the diggings, and how and when the Chinese arrived, and their contribution there. It also addresses the environmental price paid when trees were destroyed to make way for all the tents and living quarters demanded by the increasing arrivals.

The chapters have been carefully compiled to cover as many areas and as much information as possible within the thirty-two pages.

The book is a great teaching and learning tool about life on the goldfields of Victoria and the strains and pressures, loneliness and deprivation experienced by the men, women and children that lived there. The chapter on Little Diggers addresses the high rate of child death during those years from scalding and burning, when children were left alone in the tents for long hours during the winter. 376 children died by drinking contaminated water. Such facts are simultaneously interesting and heartbreaking. The outstanding images chosen and used in the book bring us visually closer to the facts which have been checked by the Education Officer of Sovereign Hill.

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