Visitors often had an unrealistic expectation of what would await them on the goldfields. In England, an industry of guidebooks, memoirs and popular songs told tales of fortunes in every Victorian stream and nuggets of gold just below the surface of the soil.

For those who went to the diggings, the harsh realities of life were apparent even from a distance. Antoine Fauchery described the Ballarat fields ‘…with as many holes as a sieve, seeming to have been turned upside down by cyclopean ants.’ William Howitt also tried to set the record straight for anyone who thought mining for gold might be easy:

[A]dvise him first to go and dig a coal-pit; then work a month at a stone-quarry; next sink a well in the wettest place he can find, of at least fifty feet deep; and finally, clear out a space of sixteen feet square of a bog twenty feet deep; and if, after that he still has a fancy for the gold-fields, let him come; understanding, however, that all the time he lives on heavy unleavened bread, on tea without milk, and on mutton or beef without vegetables, and as tough as India-rubber.

- William Howitt

Howitt, W 1855, Land, labor and gold, or, Two years in Victoria: with visits to Sydney and Van Diemen's Land, Ticknor and Fields, Boston.

High demand on the goldfields led to tenfold increases in the prices of flour and sugar. On fields that were some distance from a river, water itself became a commodity that could be bought and sold.

The repetitive manual tasks of mining required strength and energy. One commodity the goldfields were not short of was meat. On some fields it was estimated that 1,000 sheep were slaughtered each day. Butchers were some of the most successful men on the fields and the heads, hides and offal were often piled high or thrown into worked-out pits. No sooner were the sheep slaughtered but the flies would descend on the fresh carcasses:

They are in millions and millions all over the country [...] they cover your horses, your load, and yourselves[...] at your meals, in a moment myriads come swooping down, cover the dish and the meat on your plates till they are one black moving mass [...] But to go into a butcher's shop! The air is black with all sorts of flies, and the sound is like thunder - you cannot hear yourself speak!

- William Howitt

Howitt, W 1855, Land, labor and gold, or, Two years in Victoria: with visits to Sydney and Van Diemen's Land, Ticknor and Fields, Boston.

Squatters who were initially resistant to their runs being interrupted by thousands of men soon found compensation in the profits they made from the sale of cattle and sheep.

The smell of a busy goldfield would have been dominated by rotting carcasses and the waste of thousands of people and livestock. Waterborne diseases like dysentery and cholera could sweep through a mining community because of poor hygiene. Influenza and even common colds could develop into secondary infections like pneumonia. As a result, doctors were in high demand on the goldfields. 'Doctor' was a title that many claimed without any training.

Despite it being a hard life, many miners had suffered worse conditions as convicts, farm labourers or factory workers. Life 'under canvas' was better than being cooped up in an English workhouse. The weather suited the well-travelled Antoine Fauchery who pointed out that 'life in a tent made of two thicknesses of canvas and provided with a vast fireplace is just as comfortable as in the houses of the large European cities, cheaper even than in Paris and much healthier than in London.'

After the day's labour there was still time to relax by the fire with a story or a song. As long as one could stay healthy, there was freedom and independence on the goldfields that many would never have experienced. Storekeepers ensured that whisky, tobacco and even luxuries like tinned lobster were available for those who had been lucky enough to find the yellow metal.

Drawing of diggers hunting.
Diary excerpt describing life on the goldfields.
Lithograph of a bustling internal scene at a goldfields restaurant.
Newspaper column outlining some dangers of life on the goldfields.