On the Edges of Revolution

9781922147370_large_coverBook Review by JILL BLEE

Claire Wright: The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2013

ISBN: 9781922147370

RRP: $45

Although few of the people Claire Wright writes about in her Forgotten Rebels of Eureka are any more than innocent bystanders or observers of the tumultuous events which took place in Ballarat at the end of 1854, their stories, gleaned from shipboard diaries, journals and letters to loved ones back home provide an insight into the hardships the gold seekers, and in many instances their families, endured to chance their luck on the Victorian goldfields. Many of the diarists, letter writers and journal keepers were women, affording a look at an aspect of goldfields life often neglected in previous histories of the Eureka Rebellion. Women trekked over uncertain ground, took shelter where they could, panned for gold, or tended the campfire for their menfolk. They conceived, gave birth and reared children under canvas in searing heat and dust in summer and in the cold damp in winter, and relied on other women whose only experience of midwifery was the delivery of their own children.

They were enterprising too, starting up stores in their flimsy tents, providing all manner of necessities including alcohol, euphemistically labelled lemonade, to the diggers. They sewed, mended, washed and cooked not just for their own menfolk and children but for the many single men as well, and risked fines and imprisonment if they were raided by the dreaded police for not having a licence to operate a business or for having alcohol on the premises.

A handful of these women like Ellen Young did add their voices to the growing protests which were being raised over conditions on the goldfields. They wrote letters to the newspaper and even to Governor Hotham. Sarah Hanmer and her daughter used their theatrical talents to raise awareness and funds for the relief of the families forced into hardship by the actions of the goldfields administration. Others, like Martha Clendinning, preferred to observe and record but remain aloof from the strife around them. These women, and some of their less literate sisters, are already known to students of Ballarat History. Although they received scant attention in the first History of Ballarat  written by William Branwell Withers in 1870 and revised in 1887, some were mentioned in Weston Bate’s Lucky City and they were the subject of Laurel Johnson’s Women of Eureka and more recently Dot Wickham’s Women of the Diggings, Ballarat 1854. What Claire Wright has done is let us hear their voices through her italicised inclusion of their actual words in the text and her imaginative depictions of their actions on the occasions when they took centre stage.

Of course not all the women about whom Claire Wright writes were in Ballarat in 1854. Some had not even considered leaving home at that time and would not arrive on the goldfields until well after the dreaded licence had been replaced with the much more civilised miner’s right and the odious goldfields administration had been abolished. They would find Ballarat a much more orderly place in which to live and rear a family. The opportunity to assert themselves as independent and outspoken women had largely passed them by unless, of course, they had the notoriety of Lola Montez.

Wright has also given us an insight into the dynamics of the government camp, something which other chroniclers of the Eureka story have to a large extent glossed over. Using letters, reports, newspaper articles, petitions to superiors and the governor in Melbourne she has pieced together an administration in disarray, with the police and the soldiers at loggerheads with each other and their commanding officers as they endured conditions which were at least as bad as, and probably a great deal worse than, the most unlucky diggers on the goldfields. With reinforcements rushed to Ballarat throughout November 1854 to deal with the expected, and in some circles hoped for, uprising by the diggers, the overcrowding, lack of shelter and food shortages made for an explosive situation. It was worsened by the jealousies which existed between the military officers, those in charge of the police and the goldfields administration.

Wright’s reading between the lines of the sources she has used makes for entertaining reading but there are times in the narrative when her imagination has allowed her to create explanations which must be accepted with some scepticism. The usual reason given for the dearth of fighting men in the stockade on the eve of the December 3 attack is that no-one expected the military leaders to break the age old tradition that Sundays were sacrosanct, yet Wright would have us believe that, being a full moon all the women in Ballarat were ovulating, and the diggers were taking advantage of the situation. There is also an issue with the instances of cross-dressing which Wright has unearthed. Dressing in the disguise of the opposite sex to escape pursuers or gain advantage was not unique to the goldfields. Nor did it necessarily warrant the gender bending connotation that accompanied its inclusion in the text.

Nevertheless Forgotten Rebels of Eureka is a valuable addition to the body of work already produced on this important event in the history of this nation. By focussing her attention, not on the diggers and their grievances, but on the women who stood by them, suffered the consequences of their actions, their incarceration, or worse, their death, who nursed the wounded and hid the wanted, she has brought humanity and a little humour to this oft told story. She has reminded us that this country has been shaped not just by a handful of men who have left their mark on the landscape but by ordinary men and women, often working together with courage under extreme circumstances, and by women taking the initiative on their own, when it was presented to them, to make a difference.

Jill Blee is Honorary Research Fellow at Federation University in Ballarat.