Women on the goldfields

More than 160,000 women were among the 600,000 who arrived in Victoria between 1851 and 1860. Those accompanying their husbands (or who were daughters travelling with their family) felt that Australia offered a chance for a better life:

[I] did not wish to begin Life again in old England I wanted to make a fresh start in a new country my husband was a cabinet maker by trad and he used to suffer with the sick headach almost every week i had to work very hard my self to keep our familey and i found my strenth getting very low I concluded the best to try a new country.

- Sarah Davenport

Davenport, S 1851 Sketch of an immigrant's life in Australia 1841-1867 [extracts] from the diary of Mrs Sarah Davenport. 1841-1867. [manuscript] State Library of Victoria's Manuscripts Collection. MS 9784.

The status of women as subordinate to men, combined with what we now call Victorian morality means that women are not as well represented as men in the historical record. It was not as common for women to write memoirs and publish novels. Women were expected to behave better as the 'fairer' sex and were constantly warned that there were men who would take advantage of them.

First-hand accounts from women who had taken a tour of the colony were in high demand in England. Ellen Clacy reflected most of the traditional ideas about women:

To those of my own sex who desire to emigrate to Australia, I say do by all means, if you can go under suitable protection, possess good health, are not fastidious or 'fine-ladylike,' can milk cows, churn butter, cook a good damper, and mix a pudding […] But to those who cannot wait upon themselves, and whose fair fingers are unused to the exertion of doing anything useful, my advice is, for your own sakes remain at home.

- Ellen Clacy

Clacy, E 1855, A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia in 1852-53, Hurst and Blackett, London.

The physical labour of mining and the looser rules of colonial society meant that women living in Australia lived a more active and independent life than they would have in England. Some commentators sensed that the roles for men and women no longer applied as strictly in Victoria. There were successful shopkeepers, entertainers and businesswomen on the goldfields. William Howitt described a new mother on the road to the diggings:

On one shoulder she had a gun, and on the other hand basket while one of the men carried a baby, and another a swag [...] you see a good many women going up on the whole, and some of them right handsome young girls. They all seem very cheerful and even merry; and women seem to make themselves very much at home in this wild, nomadic life.

- 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.

In the years immediately following settlement of Port Phillip, there were roughly seven men to every woman. However, by the time gold was discovered in 1851, there were only 148 men to every 100 women – a significant improvement.

The imbalance of genders in the colony led Caroline Chisolm to establish an assisted migration scheme for unmarried women to come to Australia and 'civilise' the diggers. But this notion that Victoria was a 'wilderness', waiting to be transformed into a series of English homesteads and villages is one that should be examined carefully. It can be seen as just one of the ways Indigenous women and men were written out of history from the earliest days of the colony.

Sketches of women at work in the Colony.
Newspaper article suggesting that women avoid the streets when unaccompanied due to the presence of gold prospectors of dubious character.