Advance Australia! Chapter 12


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When a gold-rush started at Mount Britton in the nearby mountains, Finch-Hatton headed off to try his luck. (Although he calls it 'Mt. Britten', the correct spelling was always 'Britton'.) Gold-rush, gold fever, gold miners, bankrupt, growth of the diggings, alluvial vs. reef gold, searching for a reef, the Chinese, discovery of gold.

In 1881, gold was discovered not far from the Finch-Hattons' station:

One day I heard that gold had been found in a creek on the western fall of the coast range, about forty miles from here, and that a "rush" had already set in, so I determined to go up and see what was going on. I was delayed for a few days by the flooded state of the creeks between here and the diggings. While I was waiting I was joined by Dick Absolon, formerly in our employ as stockman, and now on his way to the new rush. ...

My swag was soon ready, consisting of a pick and shovel, a tin prospecting dish for washing gold, 20 lbs. flour, 12 lbs. beef, some tea and sugar, a couple of changes of clothes, and a blanket, unlimited tobacco and matches, a revolver, a quart pot, a calico fly of a small tent, a Shakespear, a pack of cards, a piece of soap, two towels, and a toothbrush. Having planted these scientifically on the back of a packhorse, we climbed on to our own horses, and, lighting the inevitable pipe, sallied down to the first creek. ...

We camped the first night at an old bark hut, the remains of a deserted station, about fourteen miles from the diggings.

Next morning we made a fresh start. Neither of us knew exactly where the diggings lay, beyond a vague idea that they were in the western fall of the main range, somewhere to the north of us; but after jogging along for a few miles we came across a new mark-tree line, made by the first prospectors of the diggings, which took us right away into them.

Gold fever was a powerful force (and, to judge by his own later efforts, Finch-Hatton was not immune to it either):

As we got near the place, we began to overtake a few straggling swagsmen, pounding along through the black soil as if the devil was behind them instead of in front of them.

To the initiated it did not require the pick and shovel along on their backs to tell where they were bound for. The pace at which they were going, so different from the languid dawdle habitual to men who are merely wandering about in search of work, betrayed at once that the "gold fever" was upon them. Once smitten by this malady, a man seldom or never thoroughly recovers, and the exertions he will make while under its influence are perfectly incredible.

All the evils that humanity naturally shrinks from at once assume a cheerful aspect. When the Palmer rush broke out on the Gulf of Carpentaria, it is a positive fact that a man walked the whole way from Melbourne to get to it, a distance of nearly 2000 miles.

While I was on Mount Britten diggings, a man came in, wheeling his Lares and Penates [his personal effects] before him in a wheelbarrow. The whole certainly weighed over 150 pounds, and he had wheeled it through 200 miles of heavy blacksoil country, in pouring rain, in just a fortnight's time.

Gold miners alternated periods of hard work with sprees in which they threw away their hard-won earnings recklessly:

The true professional digger passes his life in wandering about from one new rush to another. Any regular employment he considers beneath him; and except for the purpose of raising sufficient money to carry him on to the next diggings, he will never work for wages. No class of men work so hard; as soon as it is light in the morning he is off, and seldom knocks off before dark. That a man should work so hard to get gold is not in the least odd, but it is odd that the value he sets on it should be in exactly inverse proportion to the trouble it costs him to get it. And yet such is the case. As long as he is at work, no miser could be more careful than a real digger in the actual process of collecting gold. When he has got it, no spendthrift could be more reckless in flinging it away. Whether up to his knees in the freezing waters of the Snowy River, or grilling under the fires of a Queensland sun, no day is too long for him while he is on gold. Not a crevice of his claim is unexplored, not a particle of dirt likely to contain gold is wasted; and he will spend as much time and trouble in collecting the finest particles of gold in his disk, as if he were an analytical chemist making an experiment in weights and measures. He toils patiently on, day after day, week after week, undismayed by failure, and quite unelated by success, until the moment comes when something impels him irresistably to squander all that he has collected.

The instant this happens, he knocks off work, and his fetische at once assumes a different aspect. Not only does the gold he has taken such pains to get become worthless, but apparently it becomes an incumbrance that some hidden law of his being obliges him to get rid of without delay. The only variation in the method of this madness is in the time allotted respectively to collecting and to spending. This varies with the individual. Some men will never work more than a week at a time before spending all they have made; others will go on for several weeks, even for months, before going on the spree, but invariably with the same purpose, which seems to be simply that of collecting sufficient to make fools of themselves. At least 90 per cent of their earnings goes in drink, of course; and the rest in good living when it is to be had. Whilst working, a digger generally keeps sober, but he lives on the best of food he can get. His drinking is reserved for when he knocks off work. As a rule, if he is getting gold, from Monday to Friday is about as long as a digger can stand without a spree; he then flings down his tools, leaves his claim, though he knows perfectly well that by doing so he is liable to have it taken from him by the first comer, and retires to the nearest public-house, to spend what plunder he has amassed in getting hopelessly drunk till Monday morning. He then creeps back, dejected in appearance, and shaking in every limb from the effects of the poisonous liquor he has swallowed, probably to find that some less fortunate individual, who had not raised suficient for a spree by Friday, and so had to go on working, had "jumped" his claim. A row ensues, which is referred for immediate setllement to the arbitration of a couple of shovels, or whatever weapons are handiest, and subsequently to the decision of the Warden of the goldfield.

Even if they struck it rich, most miners were not able to hold onto their wealth:

Numerous as are the instances of enormous fortunes made in mining, I doubt if the history of the Australian Colonies affords a score of examples where money so made has not done more harm than good. As a rule its possessor becomes bitten with an incurable mania for wild speculation, if for nothing worse; and whether he makes a few ounces out of a pot-hole in a creek and spends it at the nearest shanty, or makes a rise of £100,000 out of a good reef and fools it away trying to get more, it seems to be an inevitable law that money made by mining should be provided with something worse than wings.

Innumerable are the cases where it has brought utter ruin; a whole legion of the lost rises before me when I think of it.

I remember four men on Gympie, who in a short time took £25,000 a-piece out of a claim. Previous to their striking gold they had been sober, industrious men; but in two years three out of the four, and one of their wives, were dead from drink, and the fourth had lost all he was worth in prospecting other claims.

Another sad case I remember, of a man on Charters Towers. He was a blacksmith by trade, but he dabbled a little in mining, and by degrees got so much in debt to the bank that they would not allow him to leave the field and go to the Palmer, a new rush which broke out a few hundred miles away. He stuck to his claim, and one day struck gold. In a short time he was in receipt of £500 a day, and continued at that for a very long while. I do not think anyone, not even himself, ever knew exactly how much he was worth. If he had simply sat down, and stuck to his money as fast as it came in, he would have been one of the richest men in the colony. But he never did any good. He taught himself to read and write; took to wild speculation in other mines, in racehorses, in wheat, in everything; drank like a fish; and finally completed his downward career by becoming a member of the Legislative Assembly in Brisbane, and his bankruptcy appeared a short time ago in the London Times.

When Finch-Hatton first arrived, the diggings were still quite small, but they grew rapidly:

When I first arrived on Mount Britten goldfield there were seventy men on it, all living in tents. The only building that had any appearance of permanence about it was a butcher's shop and store, made out of a few sheets of bark and saplings. Flour had run out, the drays having all stuck in the mud half-way from port to the diggings; but there were tea, sugar, and tobacco, and a few tools to be had, and any amount of beef, supplied by fat cattle from the neighbouring run, two or three of which were run in every week into a sapling yard near the butcher's shop, and killed. For some time beef was all we had to eat; but it was very good, and there was plenty of it, so we were glad enough to get it. ...

A real rush had now set in. Men poured in by hundreds, and the whole creek was pegged out in claims from the lowest point where gold had been found right up to the head in the ranges where we were working. In two months from the time I came there were nearly 2000 men on the field. Hundreds came from the adjacent colonies, and many even from New Zealand, attracted by the fabulous reports that never fail to be circulated about a new rush, and never fail to be believed. ...

The rush to Mount Britten was stopped before it assumed a serious phase, but at no time was the field capable of supporting more than 200 men on payable gold. Most of those who came were rank new-chums at digging. Instead of setting to work to look for a new run of gold, they generally confined themselves to the melancholy pastime of sitting down and watching others getting it, and by and by, finding that, with a few exceptions, gold is no more to be picked up without hard work on a diggings than anywhere else, they cleared out, leaving the fortunate ones who had secured good claims to work them out.

Mt. Britton
Mount Britton township, 1881
(click on image to enlarge)

Ignoring the alluvial gold in the creek, Finch-Hatton and his partners decided to look for the reef from where the gold had come:

The alluvial digging [at Mt. Britton] never extended above a few yards from the banks of the creek, and all the heavy gold was found in the bed of the creek itself, and cost little or no trouble to get, beyond the bare labour of shifting and washing the soil. No sinking or timbering was required, and what gold got, paid those well who got it. ...

From the appearance of the gold found in the creek, which was very little water-worn, and mostly in the form known as "specimen,"--that is, quartz and gold mixed,--and from the formation of the surrounding country, it seemed certain it must have come from a reef somewhere in the ranges to the head of the creek. As yet nothing in the shape of a reef carrying payable gold had been found; but a prospector, Charley Gibbard by name, had got on to a leader carrying nice gold, at the head of the valley.

Jack Absolon and I had a consultation, and it was determined that he and I, and his brother Dick, should go on looking for a reef, without troubling about the alluvial. Henceforth we were what is known on a diggings as "dividing mates." No written agreement is necessary. The fact of two or more men working together on a diggings constitutes a partnership in colonial law, which enables either party to claim his share of anything found by the others, and which can only be dissolved by the parties forming it declaring before witnesses that they are no longer mates.

The search for a reef continued, trying to ignore the increasing alluvial finds:

The process of searching for a golden reef is often one requiring unlimited patience, and a great deal of hard work. The first thing to do is to apply to the Warden of the goldfield you are on for a Protection Area. You can get one 400 yards square for a month. In this piece of ground the prospector has the exclusive right of hunting for a reef. No one else can come on to it, provided he works eight hours a day on it. Having secured his ground, the prospector sets to work to see if he can find gold on the surface, by washing prospects of surface dirt in a tin dish. Often he has to carry the dirt a long distance to water, and to wash hundreds of dishes before he gets a colour of gold. ...

Day after day the Absolons and I used to scour the ranges, opening up and prospecting numerous reefs and leaders, without coming upon anything that looked at all payable. Meanwhile, every hour brought news of richer alluvial finds in the creek below. ...

Very heavy gold was now being got in the creek below where we were working, and the finding of nuggets ranging from 10 to 20 ounces was no unusual occurrence. Occasionally a wild shout would come ringing up the valley, hailing the appearance of one of these "welcome strangers." A knot of men would immediately congregate round the finder, whose joy betrayed him a novice at the trade, and the whole lot would probably adjourn incontinently to the "pub.," and, handing the plunder over the counter, never cease drinking as long as the publican's conscience impelled him to supply them with liquor, which would probably be to about one-fourth of the value of the gold he had received from them.

These repeated cries of joy were getting too much for Dick Absolon. The gold fever attacked him with a violence not to be allayed by wandering about the ranges looking for a reef. It was with difficulty that Jack and I dissuaded him from going to try his luck at the alluvial. But the more gold they found in the creek, the more certain we were that there must be a good reef somewhere near us.

Queenslanders feared the arrival of Chinese miners, and placed legal obstacles to keep them off the goldfields (45 Chinese miners eventually came to Mount Britton in 1886):

By and by a mob of Chinamen, the most patient, persevering, hard-working of all the races under the sun, will start and systematically "gound-sluice" the whole course of the creek, from one end of the workings to the other, and make a real good thing of it.

A dead set has been made at this unfortunate race by the inhabitants of Queensland. A poll-tax of £10 a head has been imposed upon them on entering the colony, and they are not allowed upon any goldfield until it has been open two years.

Finally, Finch-Hatton and his partners discovered a rich vein of gold:

Meanwhile Gibbard was opening up his reef, which looked very promising; so when he offered to sell me an eighth share in the claim, I closed with him. He had christened his reef the "Little Wanderer".

One day soon after this, Jack, who had been patiently following a trail of gold up a little gulley in our Protection Area, discovered the cap of a reef from which it seemed likely the gold had come. A few hours' work exposed the reef clearly defined between two walls about two feet thick. The cap was of hard, hungry-looking spar; but when we had removed that, a vein of very healthy-looking bluish quartz was opened up. We broke up a few pieces, and in almost every one gold was plainly visible.

It is very rich stone that shows gold when you break it; usually it has to be crushed to powder and washed before gold shows, and many reefs pay well to work in which you never see a colour of gold in breaking down.

Jack and I looked at each other, and our countenances expanded into a smile of satisfied delight. Dick was called up from where he was working a bid down the side of the mountain, and we all sat down and had a smoke, a solemn rite never neglected by an Australian when entering upon a new phase of his career.

Alas! Aurum irrepertum et sic melius situm! (1) Perhaps it would have been better for me if we had never found it at all. No such misgivings crossed our minds at the time, however, and we hit out with a will to see what our new reef was worth.

A few days' sinking on the underlie of the reef opened up such a fine-looking body of stone, carrying splendid gold, that we decided to give notice to the Warden of the finding of a payable reef, and get him to come and lay off our claim.

Anyone finding a reef that in the opinion of the Warden of the field is a payable one, can take up as much ground along the line of reef as he pleases; but he is bound by the Government regulations to keep one man at work on it for every hundred feet he takes up, until there is machinery on the ground, and after that, one man for every fifty feet. The breadth of a reef-claim is always 400 feet.

A few feet to the north of where we first found the reef, its course was intersected by what is known as a cross-course; that is, a belt of foreign country cutting diagonally right through the reef, and shifting the course of it away towards the east. Beyond this cross-course we found the reef again, carrying still richer gold than below, and it was here we finally decided to commence operations.

We applied for six men's ground; that is, 300 feet along the reef, which, with a reward claim of 100 feet which is always given to the prospectors of a new reef, would give us a claim 400 feet square. Nothing can be done without the sanction of the Warden of the goldfield, whose business it is to see that the Government regulations are carried out, and who has full power to settle any disputes about claims that may arise in the most arbitrary manner.

Mount Britten was not yet of sufficient importance to be honoured with a Warden of its own, so the Warden for Clermont had his jurisdiction extended to take in our field. Clermont is 180 miles from Mount Britten, and often we had to wait a couple of months before getting the decision of the Warden as to some point in dispute.

The first thing to do upon finding a new reef is to christen it. After some discussion we decided to call ours the "Erratic Star"; its subsequent behaviour fully testified to the justice of the first part of the title. I do not suppose there ever was a reef whose wanderings so entirely mystified those who attempted to follow them.

This time the Warden was not long coming; but by the time he came we had already driven a tunnel in along the course of the reef for some distance, opening up magnificent stone as we went along. Our claim was situated on the fall of a very steep spur of the range, down the centre of which the course of the reef ran.

The Warden climbed up the hill to inspect our workings, and we invited him to scratch a prospect out of the reef for himself. He took a few pieces of stone from different parts of the reef, and we all retired down to the creek to crush them and wash out the gold. A mob of at least a hundred idlers, attracted by the smell of gold, sat round, like crows round a killing-yard, to watch the proceedings.

When the prospects were washed out, the excitement amongst the crowd was immense. As the last particles of dirt were deftly washed out of the dish by Jack Absolon, leaving the gold exposed, the Warden's jaw dropped, and his eyes started out of his head with surprise. Even Jack and I began to stare at each other. We had expected to get a good show; half a pennyweight, or a pennyweight at most, which would have been a tremendously rich prospect. Instead of which, though the stone was by no means carefully crushed, we got at least a quarter of an ounce of gold out of about a pound and a half of stone. As soon as he had recovered from his astonishment the Warden congratulated us upon our discovery, and laid off our claim on the spot.

In anticipation of this auspicious moment I had armed myself with a couple of bottles of rum, with which we proceeded to celebrate the occasion.

(1): From the Odes of the Roman writer Horace, Book III, Ode 3. "Aurum irrepertum et sic melius situm, cum terra celat, spernere fortior...": "Stronger to despise gold, undiscovered and thus better situated when the earth conceals it..." Finch-Hatton had, of course, received an education in the classics.

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