This section is from the book "Robbery Under Arms; A Story Of Life And Adventure In The Bush And In The Australian Goldfields", by Rolf Boldrewood. Also available from Amazon: Robbery under Arms; a story of life and adventure in the bush and in the Australian goldfields.
It was rather sharp work getting the colts through men, women, and children, carts, cradles, shafts, and tin dishes; but they were a trifle tired and tender-footed, so in less than twenty minutes they were all inside of a high yard, where they could scarcely see over the cap, with a row of loose boxes and stalls behind. We put 'em into Joe Stevenson's hands to sell -- that was what every one called the auctioneer -- and walked down the long street.
My word, we were stunned, and no mistake about it. There was nothing to see but a rocky river and a flat, deep down between hills like we'd seen scores and scores of times all our lives and thought nothing of, and here they were digging gold out of it in all directions, just like potatoes, as Maddie Barnes said. Some of the lumps we saw -- nuggets they called 'em -- was near as big as new potatoes, without a word of a lie in it. I couldn't hardly believe it; but I saw them passing the little washleather bags of gold dust and lumps of dirty yellow gravel, but heavier, from one to the other just as if they were nothing -- nearly 4 Pounds an ounce they said it was all worth, or a trifle under. It licked me to think it had been hid away all the time, and not even the blacks found it out. I believe our blacks are the stupidest, laziest beggars in the whole world. That old man who lived and died in the Hollow, though -- HE must have known about it; and the queer-looking thing with the rockers we saw near his hut, that was the first cradle ever was made in Australia.
The big man of the goldfield seemed to be the Commissioner. We saw him come riding down the street with a couple of troopers after his heels, looking as if all the place, and the gold too, belonged to him. He had to settle all the rows and disputes that came up over the gold, and the boundaries of the claims, as they called the twenty-foot paddocks they all washed in, and a nice time he must have had of it! However, he was pretty smart and quick about it. The diggers used to crowd round and kick up a bit of a row sometimes when two lots of men were fighting for the same claim and gold coming up close by; but what he said was law, and no mistake. When he gave it out they had to take it and be content. Then he used to ride away and not trouble his head any more about it; and after a bit of barneying it all seemed to come right. Men liked to be talked to straight, and no shilly-shally.
What I didn't like so much was the hunting about of the poor devils that had not got what they called a licence -- a printed thing giving 'em leave for to dig gold on the Crown lands. This used to cost a pound or thirty shillings a month -- I forget rightly which -- and, of course, some of the chaps hadn't the money to get it with -- spent what they had, been unlucky, or run away from somewhere, and come up as bare of everything to get it out of the ground.
You'd see the troopers asking everybody for their licences, and those that hadn't them would be marched up to the police camp and chained to a big log, sometimes for days and days. The Government hadn't time to get up a lock-up, with cells and all the rest of it, so they had to do the chain business. Some of these men had seen better days, and felt it; the other diggers didn't like it either, and growled a good deal among themselves. We could see it would make bad blood some day; but there was such a lot of gold being got just then that people didn't bother their heads about anything more than they could help -- plenty of gold, plenty of money, people bringing up more things every day from the towns for the use of the diggers. You could get pretty near anything you wanted by paying for it. Hard work from daylight to dark, with every now and then a big find to sweeten it, when a man could see as much money lying at his foot, or in his hand, as a year's work -- no, nor five -- hadn't made for him before. No wonder people were not in a hurry to call out for change in a place like the Turon in the year 1850!
The first night put the stuns on us. Long rows of tents, with big roaring log fires in front hot enough to roast you if you went too near; mobs of men talking, singing, chaffing, dealing -- all as jolly as a lot of schoolboys. There was grog, too, going, as there is everywhere. No publics were allowed at first, so, of course, it was sold on the sly.
It's no use trying to make men do without grog, or the means of getting it; it never works. I don't hold with every shanty being licensed and its being under a man's nose all day long; but if he has the money to pay for it, and wants to have an extra glass of grog or two with his friends, or because he has other reasons, he ought to be able to get it without hardships being put in his way.
The Government was afraid of there being tremendous fights and riots at the diggings, because there was all sorts of people there, English and French, Spaniards and Italians, natives and Americans, Greeks and Germans, Swedes and negroes, every sort and kind of man from every country in the world seemed to come after a bit. But they needn't have been frightened at the diggers. As far as we saw they were the sensiblest lot of working men we ever laid eyes on; not at all inclined to make a row for nothing -- quite the other way. But the shutting off of public-houses led to sly grog tents, where they made the digger pay a pound a bottle for his grog, and didn't keep it very good either.
When the police found a sly grog tent they made short work of it, I will say. Jim and I were close by, and saw them at the fun. Somebody had informed on the man, or they had some other reason; so they rode down, about a dozen troopers, with the Commissioner at their head. He went in and found two casks of brandy and one of rum, besides a lot of bottled stuff. They didn't want that for their own use, he believed.
First he had the heads knocked in of the hogsheads; then all the bottled wine and spirits were unpacked and stowed in a cart, while the straw was put back in the tent. Then the men and women were ordered to come outside, and a trooper set fire to the straw. In five minutes the tent and everything in it was a mass of flame.