by Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910)

This extract from Spence’s first novel, Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia During the Gold Fever (1854) is from Chapter XX, describing the effect on South Australia of the goldrushes to Victoria. Clara is working as a servant for Mrs Bantam, in suburban Adelaide, and is friends with the young women next door.

But, before Christmas, changes came upon the colony, from which neither Mrs. Bantam, nor the family next door, nor any other family in town or country, could escape.

There had been for some months, as has already been hinted, a stagnation of business, and a great want of money in South Australia. Over-speculation in building and in mines had prevailed for some years, and though the mines which were every now and then discovered, and paraded as likely to rival the Burra or Kapunda, undoubtedly contained copper ore it was neither of rich quality nor in great quantity; while the high prices of labour and freight demand both these requisites to make mining pay in South Australia.

But speculators had bought the mines, and puffed the mines, selling shares at an enormous profít, and commencing in many instances expensive workings, which produced ore not worth the freight, till every one that had dabbled in shares felt a painful tingling come over him at the very name of  ‘indications’. The gold interest in New South Wales had not been shaken into its place; the exchanges were so much against England there, that the banks in all the colonies were forced to sell bills on England at a discount. The Burra dividends had been stopped, and though there was every prospect of a speedy resumption, still it prevented money from being in circulation during the scarcity from other causes.

There was a general want of employment, particularly in Adelaide. No one had courage to build, and all trades, connected with the erection of houses, were suffering. Clerks were getting miserable salaries, and every situation that was open was besieged by dozens of applicants. Shops were empty of customers, but overflowing with goods ; for a market so small as that of Adelaide is easily glutted ; and the colony had over-imported, trusting to the large profits of retail business. Under all these circumstances of depression, it is not at all surprising that when the wonderful gold-diggings of Mount Alexander [Castlemaine, Vic.] were discovered, so many times richer and more productive than those of Bathurst or Ballarat, the rush from Melboume was followed by a similar rush from Adelaide.

Labourers, tradesmen, shopkeepers, clerks, and gentlemen, aíl caught the gold-fever, and there was no business doing in Adelaide but the sale of outfíts to the diggings. You could have no better account of the state of Adelaide about Christmas, 1852, than is contained in a letter from Annie Elliot to her friend Minnie : —

My dearest Minnie,
I promised to write you soon after my last, to detail all that happens in Adelaide, but I have nothing to write about but the all-engrossing gold-fever. I suppose you see plenty of drays going overland in your quarter, but here most people go by sea; The clerks out of employment, supernumerary shopmen, failing tradesmen, parasol-menders, and piano-tuners, went first; but now every one is going, without regard to circumstances or families. Married and unmarried, people with lots of children, and people who have none, are all making up their minds and their carpet-bags for Mount Alexander. Those who are doing nothing here fancy they will do something at the diggings, and those who are doing something are sure they will do more ; so that there is no security against any one’s leaving dear South Australia.

 We hoped that our dear family circle would have been spared, and that we should have shown an example of moderate contentment ; but, oh! Minnie, George and Gilbert are both making preparations, and will sail in ten days at furthest. And yet, you know that neither of them is avaricious but they have been in a manner forced to go. When Mr. Ainslie told George that he had no more need of his services, for he could keep his books himself in future, George looked out for a party to join, but could not meet with one that suited him; and as Gilbert was threatened with a reduction of his salary, both Margaret and Grace advised him to give up his situation and accompany George, so that in case of sickness one brother might take care of the other.

I cried a great deal about losing them both, for we shall be all so anxious and miserable while they are gone; and we hear such dreadful accounts of the bad health that the diggers suffer, with no protection from the changes of the weather in this variable climate but a tarpaulin, or a tent at best. And the water they have to drink is as thick with mud as pease-soup, which must be as bad as poison.

 But Margaret and Grace are busy making things as comfortable for the poor dear fellows as they can. I am sure Grace has thought of many things that will agreeably surprise them. Well, as I was saying, we were making up our minds to their leaving, when dear Grace got a letter from Henry Martin, saying that he had got his dismissal too (he called it ‘the sack’ but that was only his fun), and hoped he was not too late to join George’s party. Henry is expected in Adelaide tomorrow, and will spend a week with us before he starts for the Mount; and I hope he will cheer dear Grace a little, for she feels so sad to think of us three girls being left without a protector in the colony.

Margaret is the bravest of the whole of us; she has promised to Gilbert that she will make extracts for him, and go through Chitty [Chitty on Contracts, a legal text] systematically in his absence; for though Adelaide just now looks as if it was knocked completely on the head, she has confidence that it will revive again, and that Gilbert will find both his own and her knowledge of law useful to him yet.

I wish, Minnie, you were here to see how our parlour is confused with the purchases they make; it is now a lot of Guernsey shirts, then a collection of pannikins, that are displayed and commented on. The cradle stands in one comer, for they all admire it so much that they will not allow it to be turned into the kitchen ; and George actually put their pickaxes and shovels, and crowbars, and fossicking knives under the piano, till Grace remonstrated with him on the impropriety.

 Grace and Margaret have been sewing over again the strong shirts they have bought ready-made, which Grace says are only blown together. I have done nothing but make a housewife-case, and stick needles and pins, and tapes and buttons in it; but my head is not fit for such a bustle. I have promised George to keep the garden in order, and see that the dollicas grows well over the verandah, to shade us from the west sun, which comes in so dreadfully in the afternoon. The seeds you gave me have come up, though I did not scald them with hot water.

 Henry writes that Mr, Harris says he must turn over a new leaf, and save enough of money to take him to the Mount ; for he does not like the idea of staying at the Burra when all the men have left it; besides, he thinks that it will be bad for him — he will be made too much of.

William Bell says he shall probably go in a few months, but he has his brother’s affairs to wind up, and they were left in a very involved state. I like him now better than I did, though he does not flatter me at all. By the bye, Mr. Plummer took it upon him to lecture Gilbert about leaving his situation to go to the diggings. Mr. Plummer is apprehensive of a reduction in his own salary, for the government are cutting down every description of expenditure in their panic; but he valiantly resolves to stick to the public service of South Australia, for he knows that nothing could be done in his department without the aid of his experience. So he wonders at Gilbert’s being dissatisfied with a diminished salary; but a reduction of ten shillings from two pounds a week is rather severe.

Things are cheap enough in Adelaide now, but people are afraid to buy the greatest bargains, for they do not know where money is to come from for future necessities. We are perfectly besieged by women offering to do washing and needlework for us, saying that they are in great distress; but, of course, we are less able than ever we were to pay for labour which we can do ourselves.

Has your papa lost anything through Mr. Campbell’s stopping payment ? George says that there are enough of assets, but that it is impossible to tum them into money in Adelaide at this time; so Mr. C. has got permission from his creditors to go to Melbourne to sell his goods, and six months’ time to do it in; and I hope he may be able to clear off all his debts soon.

I hear that our next-door neighbour, Mr. Bantam is going to Melbourne, some time next month; he lost sadly by Men-koo and Mount Remarkable shares. He has advertised the house for sale, but I see nobody looking at it. I wonder what will become of your pretty friend, Clara; perhaps Mrs. Bantam will take her to Melbourne, as it is impossible to get servants there. I hear that Mrs. Bantam is in great distress at leaving Adelaide; I never see her over the door, but poor Clara looks very woe-begone.

Our butcher’s man has dwindled into a small boy, who tells us that he is the only man at the shop. Our baker drives his own cart, and you see women driving about quite independently now. If you go up into the business part of town, you hear men in knots talking of going by the ‘Hero’ or the ‘Queen of Sheba’ and the words nuggets, ounces, gold-dust, cradles, and diggings, are in everybody’s mouth. The chief streets are still very full of a most unsettled-looking population; but the outskirts of Adelaide are greatly thinned, and the villages round about are almost deserted.

George and Gilbert hope to have your best wishes for their success. George has a favour to ask of you; he knows that you have three copies of Shakespeare in the house, which nobody reads but you, and even you seldom ; and he asks if you would let him have the old one, with the absurd woodcuts, to read at Mount Alexander. He does not like to deprive Margaret of her beautiful copy, and is sure that the quaint old- fashioned one will be more delightful at the diggings than any he could buy; besides that, everybody is buying up Shakspeare in Adelaide. I know that you will send it in by the dray on Tuesday, along with an answer to this long letter.

I hope you have more cheerful things to write about than I have, and that the gold fever has not cost you so many tears. All the family unite with me in love to yours and you; so I must remain, as ever, your very affectionate

The dray which was to bear Minnie’s answer and the Shakspeare did start, as Annie expected, on the Monday, so as to reach town on the following day ; but the driver, going into an inn on the road for a glass of ale, met with a party of diggers going overland, who were much in want of a man who had been used to drive bullocks or horses; for they were all shopmen, and got on very badly. They told the man that they would take him with nothing, that he might live with them, get to Mount Alexander without spending a shilling, and share equally with the party when he arrived. This temptation was too strong for Ben Hardy ; he joined the party, and telling the landlord of the inn to send in the dray for Mr. Hodges, who would pay any one handsomely for his trouble, he cracked his new whip over his old bullocks by way of farewell, and left them.

Several days passed before anybody found it convenient to take the dray into town, and it was not till the party were on the eve of sailing that the parcel was delivered.