Life on the Mount Britton goldfield. At great effort and expense, Finch-Hatton installed machinery to work his reefs. Poor conditions, revenge, new house, bullock-driving, German doctor, claim-jumpers, death of
When I first came to the diggings, I pitched my camp on the bank of the creek about two miles below the reefs. It never was much of a camp at the best of times. A piece of calico stretched over a pole supported by two forked saplings formed the roof, and the sides were made of a few sheets of bark knocked off the nearest trees. It rained incessantly for weeks after I got there, and, the calico roof being no more use for turning water than a hair-sieve, everything I had was always wet through, and the floor of my camp a morass of black mud.
Besides having to walk two miles up a steep rocky path to get to my work every morning, and the same distance home at night, the increasing population of the place made my camp a most undesirable one. A rowdy township was springing up all round it. Two stores, a post-office, a tobacconist and bookseller's shop, and no less than five public-houses, surrounded my peaceful abode.
Besides all these building, which were constructed at considerable trouble and expense out of sheets of box tree bark and saplings, a perfect forest of tents grew up like mushrooms all round. One of these infernal public-houses was put up a few yards from my tent, and sleep at night became out of the question.
An army of drunken revellers made night hideous with their yells. They used to start drinking about sundown, and pass successively through the convivial, uproarious, and quarrelsome stages of drunkenness during the night, ending with total collapse about five in the morning. No early-closing interfered with the even tenor of their enjoyment, and there were no police to damp the geniality of their proceedings. As a rule, the fun did not begin much before one in the morning, by which time they had drunk sufficient to make them quarrelsome, and fighting took the place of singing for the remainder of the night.
This sort of programme was no doubt infinitely entertaining to those who assisted at it, most of whom slept solidly through the hours of sunlight, only waking up in time to begin the next night's orgie; but to anyone who had to work in the day, and wanted to rest at night, it was simply maddening. Nearly every night one or more of these Bacchanalians would stagger into my tent, and either collapse in a shapeless heap on the floor or begin shouting for liquor in language that made the whole place smell of sulphur. It was difficult to know what to do with them. Threatening to shoot them never had the slightest effect, and one has naturally a great disinclination to hammer a man when he is drunk, even though he does wake one out of a comfortable sleep at three o'clock on a cold winter's morning. If they were very drunk, I used to drag them out and roll them down the bank of the creek into the bushes that grew below.
One bitter cold night I was woke up by one of these worthies hammering at the sheet of bark I had stuck in the doorway of my tent to keep out intruders. He was demanding a drink in a whining voice of abject distress that would have done credit to a professional beggar. A happy thought occurred to me, and instead of replying in the language I was in the habit of using to my nocturnal visitors, I very civilly begged him to wait one moment while I got him a drink. A bucket of ice-cold water from the creek was standing by the doorway of my tent. Rising softly, I crept to the door and peered over the sheet of bark, which was barely five feet high, to ascertain his exact whereabouts. He was crouching close to the foot of it, so I seized the bucket of water and emptied it gently but firmly all over him. A galvanic shock could not have cleared him out quicker. He disappeared into the distance, too much surprised to anything but "Oh dear! oh dear!" which he kept on repeating as long as I could hear him. He even forgot to swear. The night was so cold, and his voice sounded so utterly dreary as he went off, not even my fury at having been woke up prevented my being sorry for him, and my heart smote me at the thoughts of the miserable night he must have passed.
However, I had something better to do than shepherd drunken men all night, and I settled to shift my camp up the creek. I fixed on a place about a mile and a half above the township, on the bank of the creek, about half a mile below the reefs, for my new camp. I had sent a man out, some time before, to strip me seventy sheets of box-tree bark, on the plains a few miles away. ...
In a couple of days my new hut was finished. Of all buildings a bark hut is the quickest and easiest to put up, and the most comfortable to live in in a climate like Queensland. The framework is made of round saplings, on which the sheets of bark are laid and secured by strips of green hide. If the bark is carefully put on, and plenty of lap allowed for each sheet over the next one, it is perfectly proof against wind and rain, and in summer the thickness of the bark keeps the heat out admirably.
... He got his waggon stuck in a short gully, and his team of sixteen bullocks so beautifully mixed up round the treees on the opposite bank, it took him a clear half-day to get out again.
When I found him he had been stuck about three hours. He was then perfectly exhausted with swearing, and as no team of bullocks will ever move without the incentive of the most awful language on the part of the driver, he was obliged to hire a man to help him swear at them for the rest of the afternoon. So universal is this habit amongst bullock-drivers, and so well do their bullocks know the words that precede the application of the whip, they will not attempt to exert themselves until they hear them. I knew a man who once bought an admirable team of bullocks that were perfectly useless to him, from his disinclination to address them in the language they were used to hearing.
One of the chief elements of amusement on the field was an old German doctor who came and settled there. Although he was one of the cleverest men in his profession I ever saw, and a wonderful surgeon besides, he never made any money in Queensland because he was a homœopath.
The Queensland Government, not contented with figuring before the civilised world as sordid and immoral politicians, never lose an opportunity of proving themselves benighted barbarians as well. Accordingly, they refuse to recognise a homœopathic physician's diploma; and he is, therefore, not legally able to recover his fees. The world is not slow to take advantage of this, as the poor old doctor found to his cost. He was far too kindhearted ever to refuse his services to those who were really in need of them; but it speaks ill for humanity that, out of the many patients I knew who called him in, and were perfectly well able to pay him, very few ever did so. Had he been paid one half of what he justly earned, he would have made a very good living on the field.
But I have known him keep sick men for weeks in his own hut, sitting up with them at night, and feeding them on the best of everything he could procure for them, only to see them clear out without paying him a farthing. Often I knew for a fact that the scoundrels who did this had quantities of gold in their possession, and they generally proved it by celebrating their recovery at the adjacent "pub." with a tremendous spree.
Later on, when the reefs were in full swing, and I had nearly a hundred men in my employ, I used to help him all I could by threatening to sack any men working for me who availed themselves of his services without paying him. But I could not do him much good, and finally he was starved out and had to leave the field.
One day the doctor was subpœnaed to attend an inquiry on the death of a man at Nebo, a township about twenty-seven miles off. While he was away a party of men jumped his claim, and on his return he found them hard at work in it. They had not the slightest right to do it, as he was called away on Government work; but what annoyed the doctor more than anything was, that they absolutely refused to stop working until the dispute was settled.
The rule is, that, if there is any dispute about a claim, it is to be referred at once to the Warden of the field. Pending his decision neither party has any right to work in the claim, and anyone who works a disputed claim at once forfeits any right in it.
The three men who had jumped the doctor's claim had done about as much work in the forty-eight hours he had been away as he had done himself in the six weeks he had been there; and from the rapidity with which they progressed, it became perfectly apparent that long before the Warden could arrive the biggest part of his claim would be worked out.
The doctor's fury knew no bounds. He stormed and swore, and threatened and raved, but without the slightest effect in stopping the plundering of his claim.
Before two days were over, there was not a man in the field who did not know all about it, and the Doctor's Claim became the sort of theatre of the diggings, to which anyone, who had nothing better to do, adjourned to see what was going on. A more amusing scene than it occasionally presented it is impossible to imagine.
The old doctor was very short, very fat, and quite bald. His usual get-up was the most entirely disreputable one I ever saw, consisting of a pair of untanned leather slippers, no socks, a pair of flannel pajamas, a thin jersey with as many holes to the square foot as a herring net, finished off with a red cotton nightcap balanced on one ear. Thus attired, he was generally to be found executing a frantic war-dance on the edge of his claim, hurling the most awful language at his enemies below, three murderous-looking Italian scoundrels, who continued grubbing away, perfectly indifferent to everything but their one object of looking for gold. A fair-sized audience of loafers was generally seated around, encouraging the doctor, and trying to wind him up to the point of dropping a stone on his foes' heads below.
The poor old doctor was far too good-natured ever willingly to hurt a flea, but to hear him talk when excited would make anyone feel quite weak who did not know him. He was absolute master of the English language, and displayed a knowledge of its back premises I had not the slightest idea a foreigner could ever attain. Under the influence of passion, he would run down a chromatic scale of declamation, with an ornamental fluency that never failed to excite admiration, even from those at whom it was levelled.
I remember one day, after a more than usually severe attack of what he called "Choleric nervousness," the old doctor turned suddenly round, and found he had been overheard by a clergyman. The countenance of this worthy man, I am grieved to say, indicated more admiration, and less regret, than the occasion called for.
"My dear doctor," he observed, "I suppose it is my duty to tell you it is very wrong to use such language; but I am going to do nothing of the kind. I am simply going to ask you how, when, and where on earth did you learn to swear like that?"
"Learn?" said the doctor; "learn! my good sir, you can't learn it. It is a gift!"
The Little Wanderer reef, at which Gibbard was working, soon began to show heavy gold. He had three mates in the claim, two of whom drank themselves out, and I bought their shares at the same figure which I had paid Gibbard for his.
The third, a young fellow called
On the fifth night the old doctor came and told me that he thought very badly of him, so I immediately went round to his hut. A sadder sight than the interior of it presented I never saw. There was no furniture of any kind, of course, and the floor was a thick paste of black mud. Seated on packing-cases or buckets turned upside down, were five or six of the rowdiest men on the diggings. On the floor was a tin prospecting-dish half full of rum, and a bucket of water, and each man helped him with a pannikin when he wanted a drink.
The place was so thick with tobacco smoke that at first I could hardly see across it, though the hut was not above twelve feet long. By degrees, as my eyes got accustomed to it, the light of a fat-lamp at the far end showed me poor
A great change had come over him since I had last seen him, not very many hours before, and I felt certain, directly I looked at him, that he was dying. His cheery features had a drawn and haggard look, and already there was that unmistakable far-off look in his eyes that too surely announces the speedy approach of death. Evidently his companions had not the slightest idea of the state he was in. To do them justice they were all half drunk, and doing their best to become quite so; but when I came in they were all shouting and laughing and blaspheming, with the most uproarious cheerfulness, and one of them had just called on
words of a lengthy song omitted...
Exhausted by the exertion,
He was a great favourite with all who knew him, and much regretted, especially by his mates, as he used to do all the work in their claim in the creek, while they got drunk at the public-houses. His share in the Wanderer Reef was sold by auction, and knocked down to me at the reserve price, without a bid.
I and Gibbard were now sole owners of the Wanderer, I holding seven-eights and he one-eighth.
Meanwhile the Absolons and I had got down with our shaft on the Erratic Star to a depth of sixty feet, and the prospects on both reefs were so good that I determined to put up machinery for crushing the stone. For this purpose I went down to Gympie, one of the chief gold-fields of Queensland, and got the estimate of a first-rate engineer for the cost and erection of a battery of ten head of stampers, and a seventeen horse-power stationary engine. His estimate was £1500 for the cost of the machinery in Melbourne, and £1000 for the cost of erection on the field.
I mentally doubled his estimate on the spot; but, for the benefit of anyone who is ever tempted to go in for putting up a quartz-mill on a new field, I may here observe that before I had completed the work it cost £9000. It is almost impossible to estimate beforehand the cost of such an undertaking in new country, a hundred miles from anywhere where you can buy a nail or a piece of string. The natural difficulties incidental to the work are great enough, but in my case the unnatural ones I had to contend against were greater still.
Whatever the planters' views might be, I should have thought that the storekeepers in Mackay would have held but one opinion as to the advantages they would be likely to derive from a diggings. And yet so saturated were they with the prevailing sugar mania, and so servilely dependent upon the planters had they become, I soon found out that any exertions upon their part would be directed more towards retarding than assisting the progress of the diggings.
The whole district unanimously refused to spend a penny on repairing the road to the Mount Britten field. My orders for goods were persistently unattended to or delayed. The manager of one of the principal banks took the trouble to ride up to the field for the sole purpose of returning to spread false reports as to the poverty of the reefs which I was engaged in working. My own agents left my machinery lying for weeks on the wharf, and sent empty away the carriers whom I myself had taken the trouble to hunt up and send down for loading. The inconvenience and loss which I suffered in consequence was incalculable. After hanging about Mackay for some days, vainly endeavouring to induce my agents to give them my machinery the carriers loaded up for elsewhere, and went off up the country.
But the engineer I had engaged in Gympie to put up the mill turned out an invaluable acquisition. His name was William Holliman; and a smarter man at his trade never existed. From morning till night he worked as I never saw a man work for wages before. The erection of a quartz-mill, at any time, is an undertaking that involves very heavy work, and no little engineering skill. But in an out-of-the-way place like Mount Britten the difficulties are increased a hundredfold, and can only be overcome by infinite patience and skill. Holliman, however, proved himself equal to any emergency, and finally accomplished the work in a way that has earned for the obscure field of Mount Britten the reputation of possessing the most perfectly erected mill in Queensland. It is impossible to do justice to the admirable qualities he displayed during the time he was with me. Machinery stuck in the mud, broken castings, drunken contractors going on the spree with their contract uncompleted, thunderstorms sweeping away work half finished, the wrong goods sent up by a mistake which takes months to rectify; these and many other annoyances await the enthusiastic individual who is rash enough to start putting up a mill on a new field.
Holliman was equal to them all; and, though his professional reputation was at stake, and I believe he felt any hindrance to the work far more than I did, I never saw him discouraged for a minute, or otherwise than cheerful.
For anyone who lives in the midst of civilisation, and who has nothing to do but walk into a shop and buy what he wants, it is impossible to realise the situation. What words can depict the helpless fury of a man in the mountains of Northern Queensland, who has ordered a keg of a peculiar kind of nails from Sydney, and who, after an interval of four months, receives a barrel of rock-sulphur instead? This actually happened--without, however, in the least disturbing the equanimity of Holliman. He merely remarked, with an expression of countenance it is impossible to describe, that "he hoped my dog was not going to have the distemper." Though not a teetotaller, he was strictly sober, and a keen sense of humour, combined with an inexhaustible fund of anecdotes, made him an exceedingly pleasant companion. He was with me for eighteen months and when at last I handed over the concern to a company, who sent up their own manager, I parted with him greatly to my regret.
A most absurd accident happened one day at a shaft on the "Star" line of reef. The shaft was down about thirty feet, and, as usual, one man was working below, and his mate on top, winding up the stuff in an old oil-drum instead of a bucket. Somehow or other the man on top let fall the drum right on his mate's head below. Fortunately, though made entirely of iron, the bottom was very nearly worn out, and the man's head went fair through it. He was naturally very angry, but his rage redoubled when he discovered that all attempts to get his head out again were perfectly useless. Though bashed in, none of the bottom was actually knocked out, and the jagged edges had closed round his neck again, like a spring trap, causing him excruciating pain.
He was wound up the shaft, perfectly helpless and swearing fearfully, and led down the hill to the blacksmith's, to get his helmet knocked off. Anything more ridiculous than he looked I never saw in my life. He kept up a perfect hurricane of blasphemy, rendered absolutely awesome by the unearthly metallic ring which the oil-drum gave to his voice.
We were, most of us, too weak from laughing to be of the slightest assistance to him. Had the rim of the drum caught him, instead of the bottom, of course it would have killed him on the spot. Accidents of this kind are very frequent.
The greatest care is required on the part of those working at the mouth of a shaft to see that nothing, however small, is allowed to fall down below. A very small stone, falling from a great height on to a man's head, is sufficient to cause instant death.
It is extraordinary what escapes some men have, and what a slight thing will kill sometimes. I remember a man being killed on the spot by a pound of candles being dropped from a height of sixty feet on to his head. On the other hand, Jack Absolon was once working at the bottom of a shaft seventy feet deep, when the whole windlass up above carried bodily away. It came right down the shaft, together with a hundredweight of copper ore that was being wound up. He heard it coming, squeezed himself into a corner of the shaft, and never got a scratch.
Jim Foley || Email me