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Bendigo’s Gold

Canvas Town

Gold was discovered in 1851 at Summerhill Creek and Bendigo, two small towns in a new territory on the mainland, the Colony of Victoria. Among those credited as the first to find Bendigo gold were Margaret Kennedy and Julia Farrell, when postings announced that “women were getting quart-pots of gold on Bendigo Creek.”1

The shape of modern Australia began to take form at the same time the promise of gold electrified imaginations around the world. When news spread of the riches lying just inches beneath the thick scrub, a huge confluence of hopeful and often hapless immigrants headed for Australian shores. For many, Port Phillip and the township of Melbourne was their first destination.

One man, in particular, took credit for starting the gold fever that first swept over the continent and then around the world. Born in Hampshire, England, Edward Hargraves arrived in New South Wales on a merchant marine ship in 1832. He married in Sydney but was unable to earn a living. In 1849, hoping to change his luck, he set off for the California goldfields. While there, Hargraves noticed a striking similarity between the hills surrounding his home in the Macquarie Valley and the claims that were yielding so much gold near Sacramento. Before boarding his ship to return to Australia in 1851, an American digger admonished the British dreamer: “There’s no gold in the country you’re going to, and if there is, that darned Queen of yours won’t let you dig it.”2 The quickwitted response from the egocentric Hargraves became legendary, soon reaching mythic proportions. Answering the American digger, he reportedly removed his hat and struck a well-rehearsed pose of triumphant confrontation, proclaiming: “There’s as much gold in the country I am going to as there is in California; and Her Most Gracious Majesty the Queen, God bless her, will make me one of her gold commissioners.”3

Hargraves’s confident statement proved prophetic. Anxious to collect a reward from the government for locating a goldfield, he shortly found the bounty he anticipated and received the commission he sought. The announcement of his discovery in the newspapers started a deluge of enthusiastic, and mostly inexperienced, treasure hunters from adjoining colonies into New South Wales.

A May 1851 news release in the Bathhurst Free Press was reprinted in newspapers with broad distribution:


The existence of gold in the Wellington district has for a long time been an ascertained fact, but public attention has never until now been seriously drawn to the circumstance. . . . Mr. Hargraves states . . . that from the foot of the Big Hill to a considerable distance below Wellington, on the Macquarie, is one vast gold field, that he has actually discovered the precious metal in numberless places, and that indications of its existence are to be seen in every direction. Ophir is the name given to these diggings.

Several samples of fine gold were shown to the company by Mr. Hargraves, weighing in all about four ounces—the produce, he stated, of three days digging. The amount thus earned by each man he represented to be £2 4s. 8d. per day. . . . From the nature of some of the country explored by him, he is of opinion that gold will be found in mass, and would not be surprised if pieces of 30 or 40 lbs. should be discovered. He had seen no country in California which promised metal in such heavy masses.4

With golden visions dancing before their eyes, men deserted farms, crews abandoned their ships, and husbands left wives in a blind rush for the promise of prosperity. Shovels and picks in hand, laborers walked off their jobs, grabbed a wheelbarrow, jumped on a cart, or threw a sack over their shoulders. They streamed out of Victoria to the digging fields in New South Wales to a little patch of ground called Ophir. In hopes of drawing people back to the newly formed Victoria, the colony’s governor offered a reward to the first person who found gold in the territory. Within the first month, three claimants presented specimens, vying for the prize. The rush was on. By Christmas 1851, two hundred fifty thousand ounces of gold had been pulled from the Victoria goldfields.5

News reached Van Diemen’s Land shortly after the initial finds, in a rather unremarkable announcement, buried on page three of the Colonial Times, May 23, 1851: “Gold—We understand that Dr. George Bruhn, the celebrated German mineralogist, on his mineralogical excursions from Mount Macedon to the Pyrenees, has been fortunate enough to discover the existence of gold.”6 These initial reports were greeted with skepticism in Hobart Town and Launceston, but more and more stories touting stupendous windfalls began to appear. Word of mouth delivered the news up the Huon River and to campfires around the forests of Franklin. Supper conversations inevitably turned to gold—gold for the taking along a fast road to riches.

In 1852, Ludlow and Arabella Tedder joined the fortune seekers exiting Van Diemen’s Land, each in the company of a new husband. For a few years after her release from the female factories, Ludlow’s life had seemed settled. Then suddenly she lost another husband. William Manley Chambers either died or deserted her, most likely the latter. A few years later, a man by his name applied for a Hobart Town liquor license for a pub on Old Wharf called Sailor’s Return.7

Soon after William’s departure, Ludlow met John Atterwell, an ambitious “hawker” who peddled his wares from house to house in Launceston. Still determined to live a full life at fifty-three, she married John on January 20, 1847. A year later, Ludlow had good reason to celebrate the holidays with abandon. On December 21, 1848, ten years after the Old Bailey judge sentenced her into exile for stealing eleven spoons and a bread basket, prisoner #151 held her Certificate of Freedom. The next year, Ludlow became a proud grandmother when nineteen-year-old Arabella gave birth to a son she named Henry James Tedder. The family of four lived together in Launceston. In 1851, Arabella delivered another son called Benjamin Waters, his surname taken from the man she planned to marry, a freed convict from England.

Following news of gold fever, Ludlow’s husband, John, and Arabella’s fiancé, Isaac Waters, sailed from Launceston to Melbourne aboard the Shamrock. Their eyewitness assessment of the diggings was better than imagined, and the two men quickly returned to Launceston, eager to return to Bendigo’s goldfields. In the autumn of 1852, Arabella married Isaac, twenty-six years her senior and full of plans for the move to Victoria. Now business partners, John and Isaac sold everything lock, stock, and barrel, booked passage, and headed straight for the diggings. The new bride and groom, their two young sons, Ludlow, and her third husband, John, journeyed across the Bass Strait to try their luck with the thousands of others headed for the shores of Victoria. Torrential rains signaled an inauspicious beginning to their transport aboard the Sphynx, a barque about half the size of the Hindostan. The journey that typically took one day lapsed into three as the small ship fought heavy seas and driving winds. Carrying thirty-five passengers, the Sphynx landed in a flooded Melbourne packed with timber, tobacco, tea, flour, rum, ivory, and apples.8

News from the mainland traveled a bit slower to the southern tip of Van Diemen’s Land. Agnes and William were preoccupied with four children and another on the way. Even so, by the time Christmas breezes blew through the Huon pines at the close of 1853, they, too, had been bitten by the gold bug. Over the next year, they scrimped and saved for what they’d heard was a costly excursion. Before they left, it was essential that William purchase additional firearms for a dangerous journey and a new and different rough-and-tumble frontier.

Even fare-paying passengers weren’t guaranteed access to the diggings because of the ever-festering prejudice against former convicts. The Anti-Transportation League sponsored the Convicts Prevention Act, enacted into law in Victoria in 1852. In an attempt to stop “Vandemonians” from entering the mainland, convicts who held a Ticket of Leave were denied, and only those with Certificates of Freedom allowed. The act added to the challenges of those unable to find work upon release from prison. Bigotry based solely on appearance motivated the law’s passage. One lawmaker offered his view of the freed convicts: “Square of jaw, shaggy of eyebrows, low in the forehead, with strongly marked bumps beneath the closely cropped hair, their very appearance was a source of alarm to the respectable citizens.”9

Before entering Victoria, Agnes and William would have to prove they were unconditionally free and present Certificates of Freedom for #253 and #510. Still, the notion of shedding the past and creating a new future were goals too tempting to resist. In 1854, the plucky couple packed up what they could carry. Baby at her breast, Agnes left Franklin with her family and boarded a small ship destined for Melbourne.

Sitting at the top of Port Phillips Bay at the mouth of the Maribymong River, Melbourne had been chosen as the capital for the new Colony of Victoria. Now, it was the jumping-off point for newly discovered goldfields. When Agnes and William arrived, the harbor was jammed with vessels, many stranded because their crews jumped ship to try their luck in the goldfields.

To the Roberts brood, accustomed to years of living quietly in the wide-open woodlands of the Huon Valley, Melbourne presented a disturbing scene. “Slaughterhouses lined the river—wooden buildings with fenced yards to one side, holding the wretched beasts standing among the decapitated heads of their kind. . . . On the riverside entrails, blood, gore and the stripped carcasses of rotting animals trailed into the river creating a filthy malodorous welcome to the newly arrived immigrant.”10 Even Agnes, who knew well the seamy urban underside from her days as a Glasgow street urchin, must have been horrified by what her little ones were walking into.

The rustic family deposited on the new capital’s streets was instantly presented with unanticipated challenges. Compared to the pristine air and water along green rain forests, a city nicknamed “Marvellous Smellbourne” required some getting used to. The roads, though laid out in a well-ordered grid, were largely unfinished and unpaved. When it rained, they turned into impassable bogs and, when dry, into windy dust bowls. Broken bottles, garbage, and decaying animals littered the streets. Carrying everything they owned, the newly arrived couple with five children did their best to navigate a path through the confusion.

The huge influx of gold created a highly inflated economy and drove up prices on everything a family needed. Finding lodging in the city was out of the question for a large group on a tight budget. Upon entering the port, William scanned notices advertising tents for rent just outside the city in Little Adelaide, where temporary shelter could be secured for five shillings a week.

Entering the tent city, Agnes, William, and five wide-eyed children were thrust into a hodgepodge of newcomers speaking in foreign tongues of all flavors. This was the staging area for hopeful miners preparing to fan out across the goldfields. Adventurers from China, France, Italy, Germany, the West Indies, and the Americas joined in the melee caused by gold fever.11

A rural family was better prepared than most for the spartan facilities in the temporary village. Agnes and the children were accustomed to hauling water and scrounging wood for a fire. The dirt floor in their riverside cabin was not much different from the dusty ground they laid their blankets on now. Mosquitoes and flies plagued the camp. The worst of their worries, however, were sideward glances from neighboring tents, from those suspicious of Vandemonians.

When night fell on “Canvas Town,” a thousand fires sprang to life, and motley human creatures gathered round in a chorus of singing, swearing, and carousing. Armies of dogs barked incessantly, and revolvers crackled everywhere until sunrise brought some semblance of silence.12 It’s doubtful the tight-knit family from Franklin got much sleep their first night under the stars in Little Adelaide.

William easily found employment as a craftsman in the bustling, expanding Melbourne. His expertise in woodcutting, carpentry, and building was in high demand because so many skilled laborers had fled to the goldfields. Reports of incredible finds further fanned the fevered flames.

As people sat around blazing fires in the tent city and digging camps, they told and retold tales of incredible luck. In January 1853, a French sailor unearthed the 132-pound “Sarah Sands” nugget (so named for the ship carrying it back to England). Within sight of Melbourne, he had jumped ship with the rest of its crew and, on a whim, persuaded his mates to lower him on a rope into the first abandoned hole they encountered. A few minutes of working his inexperienced pick, with peals of laughter echoing from his chums aboveground, yielded the unmistakable sound of metal on metal. Leaning into the hole, he spied gleaming yellow just below where previous diggers had given up. As he shoveled deeper, his naïve tenacity paid off. The monster nugget sold for two hundred thousand francs, a hefty profit for two days’ work. Word of the lucky Frenchman’s find created a frenzied return to this once-abandoned patch of mines. Two more giant chunks were found within a week, “including one nugget weighing 94 lbs and another of 78 lbs.”13

Melbourne may not have smelled the freshest, but it was anything but boring. While William worked in the city, Agnes and their children settled into life in Canvas Town, a thousand-ring circus teeming with treasure hunters and money-hungry entrepreneurs. Entertainers also found fortune on the fields, though certainly less spectacular than the Frenchman’s trove. Jugglers and musicians were showered in gold nuggets if they pleased the right audience or pelted with stones if their performances fell short. The infamous Lola Montes, dubbed “the darling of the diggers,”14 left California to take Victoria by storm. Traveling across the gold settlements, she performed her “tarantula dance” to packed houses of cheering miners.

Conspicuous consumption and downright madness were symptoms that gold fever had infected another victim. A British woman who visited the Australian goldfields with her digger fiancé recorded in a diary what she heard, saw, and smelled along the way. When riches came fast and furiously, she observed foolishness of outrageous proportions:

At times, you may see men, half mad, throwing sovereigns, like halfpence, out of their pockets into the streets; and once I saw a digger, who was looking over a large quantity of bank-notes, deliberately tear to pieces and trample in the mud under his feet every soiled or ragged one he came to, swearing all the time at the gold-brokers for “giving him dirty paper money for pure Alexander gold; he wouldn’t carry dirt in his pocket; not he thank God!”15

With so few women in mining territory, weddings brought more deliriously lavish celebrations. The bride wore a white veil over a gown sewn from satin or velvet and held a silk parasol high over her head. The groom presented his new wife with orange blossoms, exorbitantly expensive and precious for their short supply. He then rented a gaudy carriage that careened through the streets, while the thoroughly inebriated wedding party poured glass after glass of sparkling champagne from a shiny black bottle. Many brides were, in fact, roaming hustlers, willing to create elaborate deception until their husband’s money ran out and the next prospect arrived.16

The shortage of women among the miners did not go unnoticed by London philanthropist Caroline Chisholm, who journeyed to Australia with her ship captain husband. Devout Christian that she was, Chisholm envisioned that the colony’s wild outback could best be tamed by the gentler influence of women, or, as she called them, “God’s police.”17 Her work started small, rescuing destitute women from Sydney’s streets and driving them in a wagon to farms where they might find employment. So successful was her mission placing “Mrs. Chisholm’s Chickens” that she started the Family Colonization Loan Society. It funded passage of fallen women she’d met in London and brought them to the goldfields, where they found work or a husband. Though some reverted to their sinful past, many others married diggers or set up small shops scattered wherever miners set up camp. Some mended clothing or washed laundry for a nugget or two. Others set up “coffee shops,” selling unlicensed grog from a washtub.

Amid the mayhem of unlikely unions, drunken men falling over the tents, and new babies crying in the night, the determined William Roberts rose early, walked into the city, and worked every day. Soon a fat sack of coins furnished tools, supplies, and a tent for the newest prospector and his family. In the spring of 1854, the Roberts clan was ready to follow the path of Ludlow’s family and head down the trail to try their luck.

Beyond the Black Forest

Nobody but a fool traveled to the goldfields alone. William was a good shot, and his hunting rifle saw plenty of use in Franklin. It hung protectively over his shoulder as he pushed a wheelbarrow piled high with tents, blankets, dishes, pots, and pans. Around his waist, he kept handy a large knife under a leather belt that holstered a revolver, the preferred firearm of the day.

Agnes, youngest child on her hip and leading four-year-old George Henry by the hand, marshaled the other children forward. Though peaceful in many ways, Huon Valley life had strengthened mother Roberts. She’d given birth in the wild, skinned a roo, and learned how to fire a gun. Still, she worried about the latest journey ahead. The safest way for family travel was in a larger group, so William found some new mates to split the expense of bullocks and a dray that would carry their children and their goods. They wouldn’t all fit in the wagon, so eight-year-old William walked next to his father for most of the trip. Ten-year-old Lavinia Louisa rode with her younger siblings, now two, four, and six.

Carrying everything they owned, swag bundles strapped to their backs, most parties began the hundred-mile journey from Melbourne to the goldfields well armed and alert. The trail to the diggings was lined in grave danger. Bushrangers routinely preyed on those entering and exiting, some stripping men naked and leaving them tied to a tree to be discovered by another traveler.

Both feared and glorified, daring bushrangers fed folklore and ruled the road. Jack Donahue, among the most famous, was not the typical violent plunderer but a well-dressed rakish Robin Hood. His exploits, robbing the rich to feed the poor, were immortalized in the trail song “The Wild Colonial Boy,” Australia’s first unofficial national anthem. With thousands of transients spread out across the central plains, it was nearly impossible to tell an honest digger from a lurking villain.

The Roberts party slowly made their way from Melbourne to the goldfields, encountering plenty of reasons to turn their cart around. Depending on the weather, the journey took from three to four weeks over ruts, bogs, and tree stumps. The rough roads they traveled were “littered with the wrecks of expeditions gone wrong, animals that would pull no more simply left to die by the side of the road, goods piled high as merchants waited for relief, or discarded as yet one more traveler sought to lighten his load.”18

There were many “coffee-shops” and “hotels” at various intervals along the trail. These way stations, often no more than tents themselves, offered refreshment and shelter to the stream of adventurers headed to and from the diggings. In most cases, they were best avoided. Not only were prices highly inflated, but bushrangers gathered intelligence from these haunts. That friendly face across the supper table might well be holding a pistol to a head a few miles down the trail. Travelers were wise to keep to themselves, quickly set up a camp, and post a well-armed guard at night.

The journey’s most treacherous passage proceeded through the Black Forest, a thick congregation of dense ironbarks, their trunks still charred from terrible fires.19 It was the perfect spot for an ambush and notoriously ruled by bushrangers. “Here the trees grow very close together; in some places they are so thickly set that the rear-guard of the escort cannot see the advance guard in the march.”20 William cleaned his revolver, fired a test shot, and returned the dry powder to the safety of his pouch. Agnes mounted the cart and laid the rifle at her feet. Any outlaw who foolishly tested their mettle was in for a fight.

In good weather, the Black Forest danger was cleared in about a day—if a party didn’t get lost. Approaching the forest, the road diverged: west to Ballarat or north to Mt. Alexander and Bendigo. Traffic flowed one way or the other depending on rumors of gold strikes, both real and imaginary. Ludlow and her contingent had taken the northern route.

When Ludlow’s band pulled into Bendigo in 1852, it was scorched earth like nothing they’d ever seen. As far as the eye could scan, “the trees had been all cut down; it looked like a sandy plain, or one vast unbroken succession of countless gravel pits—the earth was everywhere turned up—men’s heads in every direction were popping up and down from their holes. . . . The rattle of the cradle, as it swayed to and fro, the sounds of the pick and shovel, the busy hum of so many thousands, the innumerable tents, the stores with large flags hoisted above them, flags of every shape, color, and nation, from the lion and the unicorn of England to the Russian eagle, the strange yet picturesque costume of the diggers themselves, all contributed to render the scene novel in the extreme.”21

The tent city stretching before them was a confusing and ever-changing metropolis, regulated by strict mining rules and an enforcing army. Before John Atterwell and Isaac Waters staked out a claim, they needed a license, purchased for £1 10s (thirty shillings) for a month’s digging right. On the back of their Victoria “Gold Licence,” the following rules were printed:


1. Every Licenced Person must always have his Licence with him ready to be produced whenever demanded by a Commissioner, or Person acting under instructions otherwise he is liable to be proceeded against as an unlicenced person.

2. Every Person digging for Gold, or occupying Land, without a Licence, is liable by Law to be fined, for the first offence, not exceeding £5; for the second offence, not exceeding £15, and for a subsequent offence, not exceeding £30.

3. Digging for Gold is not allowed within Ten feet of any Public Road, nor are the Roads to be undermined.

4. Tents or buildings are not to be erected within Twenty feet of each other, or within Twenty feet of any Creek.

5. It is enjoined that all Persons at the Gold Fields maintain and assist in maintaining a due and proper observance of Sundays.22

A continual object of contention between the diggers and the commissioner’s inspectors, the license later became an instrument of revolt. For the time being, it was a necessary evil and a costly inconvenience. Paid based on the fines they collected, the gun-toting inspectors, or “traps,” hounded the miners with carefully orchestrated “licence hunts.” Raiding the diggings with military precision, “they stretched out across the gullies and worked their way from one end to the other. A digger caught between the shaft and his tent without his licence in his pocket would be immediately chained like a dog to other unfortunate fellows, and driven back to the Commissioner’s Camp to be . . . chained to logs or the trunks of trees, with the excuse, real or pretext, that the lock-ups were full, and often left outside all night and in all weather.”23

Prospectors were often fined even before they set up camp. Always on the lookout for newcomers, an ornery thug undoubtedly targeted Isaac and John. Arabella and Ludlow attracted attention as well. When the gold rush began, few women were seen near the fields. Sightings of skirts incited whistles and yelping. Diggers dropped tools, and sunburned heads popped out from the mining holes. Apart from diversion, women were also valued as treasure keepers. Prized was the woman willing to carry a man’s stash in a money belt at her waist, carefully tucked under a corset or petticoat. Additionally, women weren’t charged license fees even if they worked the fields, thus avoiding both fees and nasty collector confrontations.

When she wasn’t chasing sons Henry James and Benjamin across the muddy red clay, Arabella helped Isaac dig. Ludlow happily provided grandmotherly care, especially when Arabella was pregnant again in late 1853. Arabella gave birth to her third child in a tent on the Bendigo goldfields. Tossing cloths and towels into boiling water over a campfire, former Nurse Ludlow sterilized what she could and prayed for the best. In the role of midwife, on July 19, 1854, she delivered her newest grandchild, named Arabella Ludlow. There was no room in the hospital because injured miners held priority and filled every bed.24

Life around the tents took on a domestic simplicity. Women “baked bread, churned butter, made curtains, bedspreads, rugs, lace-work and clothing. They made their own candles, spun their own wool and crocheted . . . whatever it took to make a home in this unforgiving country.”25 They gathered gum leaves to stuff mattresses, stewed mutton, and made simple bread from flour and water.

Everyone looked alike, dressed in moleskin trousers and waterproof boots, and everyone blended in, including the freed convicts. “It was impossible to tell a man’s background from his appearance. No one asked any questions and all diggers were, for the time being, of the same class.”26Each tent, however, took on a unique personality, marked at the entrance by a hanging boot, a billy pot, or a bright piece of cloth. A handy ax-man like William would have built a more elaborate structure from sturdy slabs of timber. A society unto themselves, the tented towns transformed on Sundays when mining was forbidden. The faithful gathered around converted tree stumps used as pulpits by the traveling preachers. By day, the tents were quieter with the men in the fields. But all hell broke loose with their return at night.

Under the Southern Cross

When Agnes and William reached the fork at the Black Forest trail in 1854, they chose the western route, deciding to try their luck in the Ballarat goldfields. There, they would witness an event that shook the continent, a rebellion that many called the birth of Australian democracy: the Eureka Stockade.

Dissension had been brewing for quite some time. In 1851, Governor La Trobe tried to raise licensing fees but rescinded his decision in the wake of the “Great Meeting of the Diggers,” in which twelve thousand stood defiantly firm against an increase in fees. When the governor foolishly sent troops to suppress the insurrection, miners stared down the 99th Regiment, forcing their withdrawal when they realized the miners outnumbered them two hundred to one.

The flood of license fees created a bonanza for colonial authorities. In Bendigo alone, permits jumped from six thousand to more than twenty thousand a month by the end of 1852.27 Soon after their arrival, Ludlow’s family watched the tent city’s population explode. A torrent of cash filled the coffers of Victoria’s newly formed government. Instead of using it for sorely needed improvements in roads, hospitals, and schools, the government betrayed the miners’ trust with incompetence and corruption. Fee collection often amounted to little more than thinly disguised extortion for personal gain. When the widely reviled Governor La Trobe was finally removed from office and returned to England in May 1854, one-quarter of the money deposited in the treasury was nowhere to be found.28

The goldfields also attracted many who did not hold “Mother England” in high esteem, especially a huge contingent of displaced and mistreated Irish, many of whom were political activists. Chartists—members of a working-class labor movement started in Great Britain—joined freedom-loving Yanks who held no regard for the empire’s rules. In addition, a growing number of anarchists and dissenters joined large gatherings at the diggings to promote radical ideas of equality and rights for all. The goldfields lay ripe for firebrands, as the sparks of liberty found easy tinder in the frustrated miners.

Bendigo became a hotbed of dissension. The Anti-Gold Licence Association was formed in 1853, representing twenty-three thousand diggers and their families. Isaac and John likely joined massive rallies where they flew the diggers’ flag, depicting the scales of justice and other symbols of democracy. Displaying the flag, leaders presented Governor La Trobe with the Bendigo Petition, stretching ninety feet long and holding five thousand signatures. It demanded reduced mining fees, the right for new colonists to own property, and the elimination of soldiers as fee collectors.

La Trobe ignored the petition, and tensions escalated. Drawing a line in the sand, diggers took matters into their own hands. In united protest, they agreed to pay no more than ten shillings when their licenses came up for renewal in a few days. As a sign of solidarity, miners tied red ribbons to their hats and sent a message to the gold commissioners. The Red Ribbon Rebellion was born, and the “wearing of the ribbon became so common that supplies of red flannel, a popular material used in the making of diggers’ shirts, all but dried up.”29

During the standoff, a few men were arrested when they refused to pay the full license fee. Instantly, diggers armed with pistols, picks, and rifles marched to the Commissioners Camp to set their mates free. Following the miners’ unexpected show of force, La Trobe and the legislature quickly capitulated, reducing the license fee to £1 a month, £2 for two months, or £8 a year.30 The Bendigo association had won a partial victory for all the diggers, but there were still many who were not satisfied.

By the time Agnes and William moved to Ballarat, they found themselves at the flashpoint of an escalating clash between the diggers’ movement and Victoria’s new governor, Charles Hotham. Miners had cheered his arrival earlier in the year, holding out hope that he’d see things their way. Hotham, however, considered the miners dupes, who were manipulated by foreign agitators, especially the Irish. He also faced a huge deficit and needed license fees to help bring it under control. The miners’ initial euphoria over Governor Hotham dissipated quickly.

New to office, Hotham imposed twice-weekly license checks, fueling deeper resentment among the diggers. In Ballarat, their frustration compounded when Scottish miner James Scobie was brutally kicked to death by James Bentley, owner of the Eureka Hotel. Diggers were outraged when Bentley was acquitted after a cursory investigation by a local magistrate known to be corrupt. An angry mob formed and set fire to the Eureka Hotel on October 17, 1854.

An anxious Agnes saw smoke rising above her town. Ever since her family set up camp, a palpable tension ran through the diggings. Scobie’s murder had escalated the strife, and now that Bentley was under protection at the Commissioners Camp, the government’s collusion against justice seemed all the more apparent. The vastly outnumbered soldiers desperately reinforced the camp’s defenses as angry protesters marched through the streets of Ballarat.

The fire at the Eureka Hotel set in motion a flurry of activity, as cooler heads tried to avoid the rising inevitability of bloody confrontation. Within days, miners formed the Diggers Right Society. In November, the hastily formed Ballarat Reform League sent delegates to Melbourne with a new of list of demands for diggers’ rights. While the delegates awaited the governor’s response, a duplicitous Hotham dispatched an additional 450 troops to Ballarat. On Tuesday, November 28, a long line of crimson-jacketed soldiers marched into town. Panicked miners ran in every direction and loaded their guns. Agnes called for her children and gathered them safely inside.

News of the approaching soldiers, bayonets gleaming in the sun, spread like wildfire. The swelling crowd of shocked townsfolk greeted them with pelting stones and shouts of derision. Attempting to block the column’s advance, the gathering mob overturned carts. In the confusion, shots were fired and critically wounded the regiment’s drummer boy.31 The soldiers retaliated by drawing their swords. Shots and screams rang out across the hills and gullies surrounding Ballarat, and a bolt of terror tore through a terrified mother of five.

The next day, Wednesday, ten thousand miners met at Bakery Hill. Defying Britain’s rule, they raised a new flag for the first time. Three courageous women stitched the blue-and-white flag that represented the Southern Cross, ornamented with white stars against an off-white background. One was a freed convict from Van Diemen’s Land named Anastasia Eustes Withers. A dressmaker from London, she was transported for stealing five shawls. Together with a woman also named Anastasia, Anastasia Hayes, and a very pregnant Anne Duke, she left her mark of protest against the rule of the Crown.32

Peter Lalor, an upper-class Irish activist and one of the Ballarat Reform League founders, addressed the large, restless crowd. He was perhaps a natural for the role; his brother, James Fintan Lalor, had been involved in the Young Ireland uprising in 1848, and his father served in the British House of Commons. Six-foot-tall, twenty-five-year-old Peter ended his speech with calls for lighting a huge bonfire. Diggers defiantly tossed their licenses into the flames.

It was the last day of the month, November 30, 1854. Governor appointee Robert Rede, Ballarat’s Gold Commissioner, knew what had happened the previous night on Bakery Hill. With the backing of additional troops, Rede was confident a show of force would quash the uprising. Knowing that many miners had burned their licenses the night before, he ordered a license hunt with soldiers in full force, provoking more confrontations between diggers and soldiers.

Rede continued the hunt throughout the morning. By noon, he rode to the gravel pits and demanded that diggers present their licenses. Shots were fired, and miners rushed up the gully shouting their outrage. Rede ordered the troops to turn their guns on the gathering mob. Facing the tight line of muskets, they began to disperse.

Later in the day, a large crowd began to congregate on Bakery Hill. “At a meeting at 4 pm on November 30th, 1854, Peter Lalor stepped up on a tree stump beneath the billowing Southern Cross flag, and into his place in Australian history. The diggers knelt, as one, on the dusty ground, placed their hands over their hearts and chanted together the diggers oath: ‘We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and defend our rights and our liberties.’”33

Lalor later recalled that moment: “I looked around me; I saw brave and honest men, who had come thousands of miles to labor for independence. I knew that hundreds were in great poverty, who would possess wealth and happiness if allowed to cultivate the wilderness which surrounded us. The grievances under which we had long suffered, and the brutal attack of the day, flashed across my mind; and, with the burning feeling of an injured man, I mounted the stump and proclaimed ‘Liberty.’”34

They were all caught up in it. As much as Agnes wanted to escape with her family, most women on the goldfields knew one another, so Agnes wanted to help if she could. The worried mother watched the freedom fighters piece together their best defenses. For two days straight, a thousand inspired diggers worked to erect a stockade on the Eureka field. “The roughly circular encampment was about an acre in area and barricaded on three sides by a rude construction of pit logs thrown together in a higgledy-piggledy manner. . . .”35 By Saturday evening, their work was done.

Since the start of the month, there were no new incidents, two days thankfully without bloodshed. Saturday evening as campfires blazed, Agnes put her children to bed with a sigh of relief, looking forward to Sunday’s peace. It was not to be so.

At dawn’s break on Sunday, December 3, 1854, every available soldier fastened his bayonet and marched toward the thinly manned stockade on Bakery Hill. Their attack was a complete surprise. Drowsy rebels awoke to the sentries’ shocked cries, barely grabbing their guns before bullets flew over their heads. The battle was short and fierce. Three hundred soldiers had attacked the stockade, killing twenty-two prospectors and taking one hundred prisoners. Six soldiers lost their lives. A few women joined the rebellion and challenged the troops directly. In an act of defiance and protection, Bridget Hynes and several other women ran onto the battlefield, putting their bodies over the wounded and preventing soldiers bent on revenge from bayoneting them to death.

Nineteen-year-old Bridget Callinan, originally from County Clare, Ireland, helped rescue her two wounded brothers, Patrick and Michael. As the troops began to murder the wounded and burn the hospital tents, Bridget confronted the armed soldiers and created a diversion that allowed her two brothers to escape with the help of her cousins. Michael had received two bullets in his thigh, and Patrick suffered two bayonet wounds.36

Just as the tensions came to a head, Agnes’s sons William and George Henry were nowhere to be found, out on an errand when the shooting began. Young William later related a “very vivid recollection of the Eureka Stockade riots, and had the unpleasant experience of seeing a man shot down by his and his brother’s side at a time they had been sent on a message.” Needless to say, the young boys “took to their heels and did not draw breath till they were safely home.”37 Out of her mind with worry when the gunfire ensued, Agnes’s frantic screams subsided when she saw her two winded lads running back toward the camp. A battlefield was no place for children.

On this Sunday, even her church was unsafe. Largely made up of Scots, the Presbyterian ministry was harboring a severely wounded Peter Lalor, and women from her congregation were helping to save his life and amputate his shattered arm. Both political hero and hopeless romantic, the insurgent was known for having walked the hundred-mile roundtrip journey from Ballarat to Geelong to see his beloved fiancée, Alicia Dunne. With a huge price on his head after the Eureka battle, the fiery Irishman was smuggled from the Presbyterian Church back to Alicia’s Geelong home. When amnesty was declared and Lalor’s wounds healed, grateful diggers elected him to Victoria’s first legislative assembly.

What started as a dispute over licensing fees became a protest for human rights. Within a year, nearly all the miners’ demands were met, including suffrage for men, abolition of property requirements for membership in Parliament, equal electoral districts, and the abolition of diggers’ licenses. The “Gold Licence” rules were replaced by “a Miner’s Right for an annual fee of £1, and an export levy on gold. This Right gave the diggers title deed to their claims, allowing them to establish permanent dwellings, and a permanent sense of community. Commissioners were replaced with mining wardens and military rule was abolished on the goldfields forever.”38

The Eureka uprising ended with the trial of the century. Charges of treason against the protesters carried a death penalty, but no jury would bring a guilty verdict. Every deliberation brought unexpected acquittals for those taken prisoner. Huge crowds gathered around the courthouse and cheered exultantly. One by one, rebels were acquitted and paraded through the streets, as ten thousand miners carried the exonerated on chairs above their heads. The first of those acquitted was John Joseph, a black American from New York, a man the United States had left to fend for himself after the embassy helped free the four white Americans arrested at the Eureka Rebellion.

A few years after the trial, Agnes, William, and the children headed north with their gold safely hidden in the wee ones’ “nappies.”39 Invigorated by newly won freedoms, they raised their tent poles and began mining the fields at Campbell’s Creek. By this time, most gold deposits accessible to single prospectors had been harvested, so it was much more difficult to make a go of it alone. Larger deep-shaft mines like the “Hercules,” the “New Moon,” and the “Deborah” took over the mining fields.40 Mullock (waste) heaps and towering structures with poppet legs now dominated the skyline across Victoria’s central plains. Within a short time, the wandering Roberts contingent packed up and went on the move again. This time, they were hunting for “red gold.”

The red cedar forests seemed the ideal place for William to find work, since loggers had founded the community of Lismore. He’d earned the right to buy land, and his family needed a place to call their own. They’d spent too many years living under canvas. It was time for William to put down his pick and sharpen his ax. Huge fortunes were being made from timber stands along the Richmond River, and finding a good tree to fell was certainly easier than searching for a deeply entrenched gold nugget. It would be a long journey up to the Gold Coast, but the children were older now, and the solitude of the rain forest seemed preferable to the strife at the diggings. William purchased a sawmill, and Agnes gave birth to two more children: Caroline in 1858 and Joseph in 1860.

The fervor of gold fever had subsided by Christmas 1869, when Agnes and William sat on the veranda looking out on their grandchildren with pride and delight. Life on the frontier was still rough and the world was changing around them. Agricultural development had taken over the “Big Scrub.” The forests had been cleared, and the rich stands of red cedar were nearly depleted. Springing up in their place was a new generation of children who knew nothing of their grandparents’ past.

Agnes McMillan’s journey had taken her from the murky industrial wasteland along the Glasgow wynds to the subtropical Richmond River Valley, dense with palm trees, leafy ferns, waterfall gorges, and wild orchids. Nestled in a remote timber settlement, with more ducks and black swans than people, the wilderness provided her family with everything they needed. Streams plentiful with eel, cod, bream, lobster, and perch fed a growing brood, which now included seven grandchildren. Wild game from the bush—plover, quail, and scrub turkey—also topped their cedar table, readily adorned with bowls of raspberries and wild bananas. The former street urchin could never have dreamed of the holiday feast that now lay before her. Gone were the days of singing for pennies on the Green or making choices between starving and stealing.

Though she’d followed a separate path and settled more than a thousand miles from her beloved Janet, Agnes never lost sight of the unflinching loyalty that had sustained them through their tumultuous coming of age. The two Scottish lasses had been through it all: the drudgery and filth of the wool mills, the degradation inside Newgate, a terrifying and treacherous sea journey, and finally the prison where Janet suffered the loss of little William. They would still endure tragedy from time to time.

In 1853, the year transportation ended in Van Diemen’s Land, there was little triumph for Janet. Within ten days in October, she lost two sons, eight-year-old James and three-year-old Arthur, victims of scarlet fever. By Christmas 1869, the now-greying redhead had given birth thirteen times, buried three children, witnessed the marriage of her two oldest sons, and welcomed into the world at least one grandchild. Her son William celebrated his heritage when he and his wife, Dinah, christened eleven of their twelve children with the middle name Freeman. With a touch of humor and perhaps a bit of irreverence toward British rule, they named their ninth child Charles Napoleon (Warrior) Bailey.

Ludlow, too, had relied on an unshakable bond, hers between mother and daughter. It had carried them from a Christmas inside Newgate Prison through their journey to a land “beyond the seas.” Though she’d been forced to suffer a five-year separation from Arabella in Van Die-men’s Land, Ludlow now heard the sound of laughter, from three generations, echo through the ironbark forest in Sandhurst, Victoria. Mother and child had arrived in Van Diemen’s Land with nothing, but by 1869, both owned property in a thriving township stirring with commerce from banks, hotels, watchmakers, grocers, music halls, and a bowling alley.41 After the miners’ rights were won, Arabella’s husband, Isaac, continued to work the diggings, while his expanded family settled down in a quiet country cottage just outside Bendigo proper. With Ludlow by her side, Arabella gave birth to five more children: four girls and a boy.

At age thirty-seven, Arabella became a widow in 1867, when Isaac passed away at age sixty-three. Twelve years later, she wed a widower named John Oliver. Her grandchildren, like many in Sandhurst, still found specks of gold in the dirt after a hard rainfall. Arabella lived to age eighty-eight, enjoying life as the matriarch of four generations and remembered in her 1918 obituary as “a well known and highly esteemed resident of the Golden Square district.”42

Pursuing ordinary lives twelve thousand miles from their homeland, Arabella, Ludlow, Agnes, and Janet helped shape an emerging culture with traits born of their extraordinary past. With iron wills forged in a crucible of greed, injustice, punishment, and prejudice, these survivors refused to be broken. When transportation ended, convict women and men constituted about 40 percent of Australia’s English-speaking population.

Bold women sent to a wild land against their will—Agnes McMillan, Janet Houston, Ludlow Tedder, and twenty-five thousand others—wove the rich tapestry for a nation’s future. Whether Irish, English, or Scottish, it didn’t matter where they were from or why they were transported. The winds of change had blown away much of the past. Under the Southern Cross, healing had begun. They were all Australians now.

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