WITHIN WEEKS, TENTS AND SHANTIES LINED BOTH SIDES OF THE MOLYNEUX FOR 70 MILES FROM MODERN-DAY CROMWELL TO BEAUMONT.
The newcomers faced a tough life on the goldfields. Even those who’d come via California or Victoria found the Otago hinterland much wilder and more rugged than any place they’d ever been.
It was desolate and treeless, with brutal mountain ranges and unforgiving rivers. The winters were Arctic, the summers scorching with little shade to provide relief.
Arriving hungry, many of the men converged on Earnscleugh Station, named Mutton Town for the meat sold at a shilling per pound. The station’s boat was also used for crossing the Molyneux, saving the diggers a dangerous swim.
The rip-roaring towns of the Junction (Cromwell), Upper Dunstan (Clyde) and Lower Dunstan (Alexandra) soon sprung up, slung together from whatever materials were on hand.
Calico, sod, stone, mud-brick and tin were all used, as were tussock and scrub. Some diggers built rock bivvies, while luckier ones got hold of precious timber, rafted downriver from Wanaka.
Out on the riverbanks, it was pretty easy to get gold. Diggers pegged out a claim of around 80 square metres, known as a paddock. Hole by hole, they dug up ‘wash-dirt’ and panned it in their tin dishes to reveal anything from a few specks to flat, wee nuggets the size of a small coin.
Some men also used a wooden cradle, known as a rocker box. The wash-dirt was shoveled in and rocked, trapping the gold in a series of slats.
At the end of a hard day’s work, the men would return to their dwellings. In winter these were so cold that one fellow claimed he had to defrost his boots and clothes under the blankets before he could put them on in the morning.
A LACK OF FRUIT, VEGETABLES AND OTHER PROVISIONS MADE FOR A DULL AND UNHEALTHY DIET.
A typical meal was chewy muttonchops and damper, washed down with rough black tea.
Storekeepers ‘grubstaked’ the diggers, extending credit until they panned enough gold to pay their way. Between a captive audience and inflated prices the storekeepers thrived, with one butcher reporting that he ‘made money fast … and fitted up a comfortable home for my family.’
Social life revolved mostly around grog shanties or hotels where the diggers drank, smoked, gambled and caught up on news. There were more than 20 hotels on the goldfields by 1863, and competition was fierce. Elaborately dressed dancers and barmaids, billiard tables and concert evenings enticed the punters in.
The diggers were quite a musical bunch, with the goldfields ballads of Charles Thatcher striking a particular chord with Otago’s miners.
Old the diggings we’re all on a level, you know:
The poor man out here ain’t oppressed by the rich
But, dressed in blue shirts, you can’t tell which is which
There were few women around. The first arrivals were mostly single women, drawn for much the same reasons as the menfolk – the chance to earn a decent living and settle down.
While some worked as sly-grog sellers, barmaids and prostitutes, they were just as likely to be cooks, bakers, washerwomen and seamstresses. An intrepid few also worked on the diggings.
Most spinsters were wed in a jiffy, and joined the ever-growing ranks of married women with children in tow. The hardships of life on the goldfields meant that many were widowed early.
Between the merciless climate, rugged terrain and treacherous work, the goldfields proved fatal all too often. Local cemeteries bear witness to such fates as drowning, rockfall, hypothermia, disease, malnutrition and even murder.