‘The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka’ by Claire Wright – a review

Screen shot 2013-12-04 at 8.57.20 PMThis post is timely for it is now 159 years since the famous uprising known as the Eureka Stockade. The story of the massacre in Ballarat on December 3, 1854 after police and soldiers broke the miner’s stronghold  is one of Australia’s great stories, but according to Claire Wright, author of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, the story we learned as children neglected half of the participants-the women.

Contrary to the myth that the Australian goldfields were populated almost exclusively by men, there were 5165 women and 6365 children in Ballarat in December 1854. The name of the stockade leader Peter Lalor and perhaps one or two of the fallen miners may be familiar to us but how many of us have ever heard of  Catherine Bentley, the landlady of the Eureka Hotel, or Sarah Skinner who died from ‘child-bed fever’- ‘the grimmest reaper of nineteenth century childbirth’ for which the treatment included injections of turpentine into the abdomen along with turpentine enemas and applications of mercury to her wounds.

Women and children accounted for 32% of the population to be found on Victorian goldfields in the 1850s. The female demographic was young, recently married, pregnant and raising small children and living a life of subsistence and hardship ‘in a tent city on a colonial frontier that characterised this Australian experience’.

Claire Wright calls on us to imagine the goldfields of the 1850s as anything but the masculinist culture of our lessons. The author asks: “What if the hot-tempered, free-wheeling gold miners we learned about at school were actually husbands and fathers, brothers and sons? And what if their wives and families weren’t far away across the watery wastes, but right by their sides?”

By the end of 1853 ‘women were thick on the ground’. In her chapter ‘Deliverance’, Wright describes the turmoil that existed in Europe at the time, and suggests that this was a stimulus to the exodus and willingness of many people to join the ‘New El Dorado’ as Victoria was to be known in the 1840s-50s. Famine was rife in Ireland owing to the potato blight and crop failures were being experienced throughout Europe. The social conditions were ripe for political reforms across the region with uprisings to be found in France, Germany, Britain and Russia. Around the same time, middle class women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others were protesting the oppression of women and the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments was penned. The women’s suffrage movement had begun and as well as campaigning for voting rights, women fought for dress reform and emancipation from ‘corsets and crinolines’ in favour of more comfortable outfits such as the long tunic worn over ‘billowing pants’. Many welcomed the news of the Ballarat gold rush with activists, dissidents, renegades and others restless for change, eagerly migrating to Victoria. Immigration officials sought to attract young females to the colony anxious to address the disproportion of the sexes and in 1853, 9342 females received assisted passage to Victoria compared to 5236 males.

Described by Wright as ‘a city reeling’, Melbourne was the gateway to the Ballarat goldfields and as early as March 1853 many observers noted that huge numbers of women were attracted to life on the goldfields. James Bonwick called it a ‘feminine exodus from our townships’. Among the arrivals were hundreds of single women with some searching for husbands or joining family members on the goldfields. Margaret Watson was determined to accompany her husband James on his excursion to Ballarat, for she’d decided this was an adventure that she was going to enjoy and she wasn’t about to be left at home. Mary Bristow, 42 years old and unmarried found three other women to accompany her on the journey, and on the first day they travelled 14 miles, and on the next 24, all the while wearing veils and large bonnets to protect against the hot summer sun. Other arrivals such as Mrs Elizabeth Massey originally disgusted at the ‘filth, flies and the expense of Melbourne’, found her fellow travelers to be more ‘warm-hearted and hospitable’ than those she had left behind in England. Massey spent two years on the diggings, and like many other middle-class Englishwomen welcomed the escape from the rituals of their former restrained lives and came to love the ‘sweet harmony of nature’ and ‘her gipsy life’.

With no hospital or midwifery services, Ballarat’s tent city ‘rang with the cries of birthing’. There were even pharmacies that stocked breast pumps to relieve engorged lactating breasts. Martha Clendinning who was a keystone of the Ballarat area ran a store supplying clothing materials and quaint baby clothes and whatever her loyal clientele of mostly women wanted or needed.

It is hard to fathom why the history of Eureka has failed to include the stories of the brave women recorded in The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, for even on ‘Bloody Sunday’, amid the bayonets and the bullets, the women were there. The miners who had the means had sent their families away from the goldfields before the massacre, but many remained. Although the exchange of fire had lasted for only fifteen minutes it was what occurred after the firing ceased that made observers call Eureka a massacre, and not a battle. Wright describes the scene: ‘Mayhem and carnage reigned, as the crazed soldiers and police thrust their blades into the dead, dying and wounded miners. Gold lust gave way to blood lust as the Eureka line became a killing field’.

Wounded soldiers lay protected by the bodies of courageous women pretending to mourn their dead. Pregnant Bridget Hynes bravely screened a wounded miner declaring him dead so that troopers would not ‘run him through’. An unfortunate victim of the madness was store owner Rebecca Noonan who was brutally assaulted by troops and had her very life threatened after she protested the arrest of her miner husband Michael.

There were many keen observers such as Charles Evans who kept a diary in which he wrote of the horse-drawn carts carrying the bodies to the burial ground on the Monday morning after the massacre. Evans describes one coffin in particular:

‘One of the coffins trimmed with white and followed by a respectable and sorrowing group was the body of a woman who was mercilessly butchered by a mounted trooper while she was pleading for the life of her husband.’

More than 150 years after the Eureka Stockade there is a new plaque in Ballarat which shows that some progress in recognising women’s place has occurred.

‘We honour the memory of all those who died during or because of the events at the Eureka Stockade on 3 December 1854 – the men known to us, who are recalled below, as well as the other men and women whose names are unrecorded.’

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka is so much more interesting than the story we learnt at school and that’s because it documents the lives of women, who let’s face it, play such a vital role whereever we are.

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1 Comment

  1. As Clare Wright reveals, there were thousands of women on the goldfields and many of them were active in pivotal roles. The stories of how they arrived there, why they came and how they sustained themselves make for fascinating reading in their own right. But it is in the rebellion itself that the unbiddable women of Ballarat come into their own.

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