Was your ancestor a goldminer?
by Dorothy Wickham
Problems associated with tracing gold miners:
- Gold miners of the 1850s are difficult to trace through records in the Central Highlands region of Victoria. Early mining was alluvial and as soon as one field was exhausted, the rush was on to another. The miners were itinerant often alternating gold seeking with labouring or farming work. They can often be found to have been at six or more localities within a very short time. When diggers were lucky, they often took off on a spree to the city where they spent the spoils of their labour. Such a mobile population can be difficult to locate especially if they had a name such as Jones or Smith! But by consulting locally held records you may pin down that elusive ancestor.
- The gold miners were hard working. There was constant noise and work, day and night, on the goldfields. There was often no time for recording baptisms or other events. It was also not compulsory to record marriages, births or deaths in Victoria until 1853. Some marriages are not recorded due to the fact that itinerant preachers did not called very often in the out-lying districts. The only mode of transport was horse or a horse-drawn vehicle and it took time to get around! There were charlatans on the gold fields who duped people into thinking that they were preachers, 'married' them, took their money and departed. The marriages were never registered and were not legal but the parties concerned did not know and thought they were legally married.
- Some miners could not read or write. This poses many difficulties. Some were semi-literate. Names are often misspelt. Even in the recording of events for the government registers there are spelling errors. Imagine the predicament of an Irish or Scottish person registering a baby's birth and the person writing down the information was a none too literate Englishman with his own broad regional accent. An illiterate person could not check to see if their name was written down correctly! We are indeed fortunate that any information is available.
- The greater majority of working people were illiterate and so there are very few diaries or written records in existence describing their lives in the 1840s to 1860s. Most of the diaries that have survived were written by people who could afford an education and naturally, their diaries tend to reflect their own more privileged lifestyle and view of society.
- Until 1855 only men who owned property could vote. The miners had to buy a miner's right and later a miner's lease to prospect for gold. This lack of political representation was one of the major grievances leading up to the Eureka rebellion. The miners were governed and laws were enforced, often brutally and unfairly, by a system in which they had no say.
- the colony of Victoria was created when the Port Phillip District separated from New South Wales in July 1851. Just a few months later gold was discovered and the rush began. There had been no time to properly settle matters between the colonies, there was no infrastructure in place to handle the population explosion and the chaos that the gold rush caused. It was a unique situation, the task was mammoth and the government was unable to provide the services required to regulate the population.
If you think your ancestor was a gold miner in the Central Highlands area and you cannot trace him, consider the following suggestions:
- Check all surrounding areas. Remember that many gold miners followed the new rushes. They simply picked up their tents and belongings and walked or rode to the new field.
- Check parish maps of the areas around Ballarat. These often have first landowners noted on them.
- Find out the dates and places that rushes occurred. This will give some indication of the movement of miners.
- For the earlier period (1838 to 1851) check New South Wales records. Remember that the Port Phillip District was under the jurisdiction of New South Wales until 1851.
- Check BDMs to locate a family. This is sometimes very helpful and so simple that it is often overlooked. If you can trace a family to a particular area, you can then access the information from that particular place.
- Check all burials. A premature death of a child is often recorded on a tombstone at a cemetery but not registered in the BDMs.
- Check all possible spellings of a surname. Surnames can be misspelt by a person indexing or by an error of transcription.
Check all church and school records even if the records do not belong to the supposed religion of the family. I have found that parents did not automatically send their children to a school of the family's religious denomination rather children often attended the nearest school or the school considered best for their children's education.
1853 Bendigo Goldfields Petition
The 1853 Bendigo Goldfields Petition was presented to the State Library of Victoria by Melbourne collector Dr John Chapman in 1988. At 13 metres in length and bound in green silk, the Petition is considered to be in remarkably fine condition. The Petition, of over 5000 signatures, was long thought lost. Its discovery is of particular value to historians and genealogists investigating the history of social and political events during the period of gold discovery in Victoria.