James Armour.

The Diggings, the Bush, and Melbourne online

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G. D. MACKELLAR, 18 Renfield Street.



The following short narrative was written specially for a small circle
of intimate acquaintances, who varied the dulness of village life by
meeting once a week to read manuscript essays and selections from
favourite authors. The time allowed for reading being limited, and the
audience being partly composed of young people, I confined myself mainly
to personal experience. As many of the company had previously heard me
relate in an off-hand way, the leading incidents, detection would have
been sure to follow any attempt at spicing my story with fiction.

The incidents are selections merely from three years’ recollections
of the Colony. Some who have never been further from home than in
their annual visit to a watering place, have been pleased to call them
adventures. The term may appear too strong to those who like the writer
have reclined by a bush fire, listening to the stories of old hands, but
as there may be much serious living without broken bones, I submit this
brief history to those who think so.

James Armour.

GATESHEAD, _April, 1864_.





Early in the month of September, 1852, I landed at Cole’s Wharf in
Melbourne, one of four hundred passengers newly arrived from Liverpool
by the “Lady Head” sailing ship. While yet at sea I had agreed to join
a party of young men who intended starting for the diggings without
delay. We found the lodging-houses overcrowded, with table-tops,
chests, and chairs in use for bedsteads, and we were made acquainted
with a considerable portion of the town before we found accommodation.
Our capital being small we grudged the price asked, but were disposed
to be thankful on witnessing next morning the shifts that numbers of
our shipmates had been put to in getting shelter for the night. Some
were lying among the barrels and bales of goods that lay lumbering the
wharf. Some two dozen had made free with some piles of planks and built
off-hand houses for themselves, but the night had been rainy, the roofs
had leaked, and they looked anything but refreshed. Among these latter I
observed a mother with a family of young children. A shawl hung across
the opening that faced the road, but it was too scanty to screen her as
she sat with a looking-glass before her setting her hair in order. The
husband was absent, and the children sat with comfortless wonder in their
young eyes, gazing at the rude throng that was beginning the bustle of
the day.

I heard my name called, and turning to look, I recognised a late
mess-mate perched on the top of an old waggon-shaped boiler, that stood,
as it were, stabled, amidst the piles of wood. At first I thought he was
but taking a birds-eye view of the situation, until another well-known
figure struggled up from within, through the man-hole by his side, then
a third, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth, and a seventh, and all so brown
with rust from the hair to the boots that it was evident they were not
far from where they had been sleeping. Awakened by the rumbling din they
make in clambering out, an eighth figure is added to the group, but he
comes from beneath, and is in a more singular condition than the others,
for the lowness of the fire arch not allowing him to lie otherwise than
on his back, his face has got sooted, and the handkerchief with which
he wipes it spreads the marks all over, in various shades of black.
They tried to console themselves with the thought that all this was but
right and proper training for the diggings, but he who had lain in the
chill fire-hole seemed to have some doubt upon the matter by the haste
he made to a hot-coffee-stand that stood close by. One who had lain
within proposed that they should further inure themselves to roughing
it, by retaining possession of the boiler for the few days they would be
in town, but the suggestion fell to the ground for want of support. The
ground about was littered with the wet chests and the softer baggage of
the houseless, and before we returned to town the first of the new day’s
arrivals from the Bay, by lighter and by steamer, had begun to add to the
confusion and the mud, to the evident distress of the wives and others
who had been left in charge meantime.

Our preparations for the road were soon made. Dressed in blouses blue and
red, with the creases of the shop folds bearing witness to the newness
of our purchase, and in bright new leather leggings, and each carrying a
couple of blankets and a change of clothes, with a quantity of bread and
other necessaries in a pack slung across his shoulder, and each provided
with a tomahawk stuck in his belt, and a tin pot, we joined company with
a large party about to start from Flag-Staff Hill in the afternoon,
having been advised to do so on account of the unsafeness of the roads.
We were about forty in number at starting, but the packs, or as we
were taught to call them, “swags,” began to sit heavy on many of our
unaccustomed shoulders, obliging us to halt so often for re-adjustment,
that I found myself at sundown one of six far in the rear.

On reaching Keilor plains, about ten miles from Melbourne, it began to
rain, and as it was now useless to think of overtaking the main party
we looked about for some place to camp in for the night. Much previous
rain had drenched the ground, but we found a spot, with a dwarfish
tree standing in the middle, and with perhaps a little less water than
elsewhere standing about the grass roots. With difficulty we got a fire
lit. We took no thought of those who would be coming after us, but
carried and dragged from far and near the old mouldering wood that lay
thinly scattered in our neighbourhood, and piled log upon log, until we
raised a blaze that reddened the clouds overhead. We were drenched to
the skin, our blankets were wet, and our bread and tea in a miserable
condition. Fixing our loaves on long forked sticks, we would have toasted
them, but the rain kept pouring down, and only made them softer, until
the crust could be distinguished only by its colour. The steam from our
fire-heated clothes enveloped us like smoke; we began to feel drowsy, and
yet unwilling to lie down, for where were we to lie? Our feet had swollen
in our rain-soaked boots, but for fear we might not be able to get them
on again if taken off, the boots were allowed to go with us to bed.
Breaking some branches from the tree above us, we made a rain shed of
them, and spreading a few upon the floor, crept underneath the dripping
bower, leaving one on guard to see to the fire and our general security
while we slumbered. One of the company, when the fire had begun to throw
out heat, had called the situation “jolly,” and in the exuberance of his
delight, had commenced to sing,

“In the days when we went gipsying,”

and sacrificing both poetry and music to his desire to bring the thing
home to our hearts, he improvised, and made the diggings and bags of gold
the burden of his lay; but finding he was having the singing all to do
himself, he soon gave over, and now here he was lying next to me, close
huddled up, and shivering I thought even worse than myself.

In the middle of the night, those lying down had almost succeeded in
falling asleep, when splashing footsteps were heard approaching. The
watch called out, and we scrambled to our feet, our wits all flying loose
in vain attempt to gather what the calling was about, or even where we
were; and before we were thoroughly aware, a man with his face streaked
with blood, and his clothes muddy and torn, ran in amongst us. Gazing
on us for a moment, with eyes swollen and red, he inquired whereabouts
the nearest police station lay. Truly we were sorry we did not know,
for the question made us suddenly apprehensive that the knowledge might
be useful to ourselves before morning; and not knowing but that this
apparent distress of his was merely a device to throw us off our guard,
while he spied our quality and means of defence, we felt glad when the
owner of the only gun in our possession came forward with it in his hand.
Willing however to propitiate the powers of evil, we spoke him softly,
in our ignorance of how many confederates he might have close by to come
up at his signal. Making known to him that we were strangers, he looked
round on us, and in a tone that was anything but complimentary, and that
sounded strangely from one seeking help, he answered. “Ha, I might ha’
seen’t afore.—A lot o’ new chums, d⸺ ’em.” An awkward pause followed,
in which we were beginning to regard him with increased suspicion, and
to connect him with numberless shadows that we had not noticed till now
outlying in the gloom, and to which the unsteady flame of our fire gave
the appearance of motion. After sitting a few moments with his head
between his knees, he abruptly rose, and started off in the direction of
a light that appeared away on the border of the plain, and we saw him no
more, though we thought we did several times, which led us, when the fire
burnt low, to be content with a seat closer to it rather than venture out
for more fuel.

At daybreak we tried to dry our blankets and spare clothes, but growing
impatient to reach the bush, we rolled them up as they were, and started.
The sun rose, and by mid-day we were making good progress. Finding the
dray track wound much about, we decided upon guiding ourselves with
the aid of a pocket compass, and the occasional sights we got of Mount
Macedon, close by the foot of which the road to the Bendigo diggings
lay, and setting out, we made what we thought were short cuts through
the bush, but as we frequently lost ourselves, these were often the
occasion of warm discussion and a change of leaders. The creeks were
swollen by many days’ rain, and we had several times to strip in fording
them. The scenery improved as we advanced. In the morning we might be
crossing lightly wooded ranges, and at mid-day winding our way through
what seemed ancient forest, in which at intervals stood groups of huge
blackened trunks, the relics of bush-fires long before the white man
had appeared upon the scene, the ground around being strewn with the
old charred limbs, half-buried by the mould of byegone vegetation, and
the rank luxuriance of the present. On the evening of the same day we
have come upon wide-spreading grazing ground, and at times on scenes
where nature, simple and unhelped, surpassed in beauty the finest parks
we had ever seen in the old country, the indented margin of the forest
that surrounded them, being as positively marked as if the hand of man
had been there to clear away, and strike the lines with fence and ditch;
while fancifully shaped clumps, with rich green underwood, relieved
the lawn-like surface with so much appearance of art and method in the
general arrangement, that our eyes have involuntarily looked about for
signs of human habitation. Again, our way lay sometimes alongside of
what at this season of the year were full watered creeks—great trees
overshadowing the pools, and the banks on either hand spreading away with
easy undulation, and looking so pleasant, with the sun shining on their
soft carpeting of grass, waved gently by a fresh-smelling summer breeze,
as to beguile completely the weariness of the way. One of our small
company, becoming thoughtful as he looked abroad one morning on such
a scene, said that if he had not been going to get gold he might have
been tempted to remain and try what he could do at kitchen gardening;
but recollecting that we had seen neither man nor habitation in the last
twenty miles we had come, save one solitary shepherd, and his small bark
hut in the distance, our friend’s thoughtfulness took a turn, and brought
him the first to his feet to resume the march.

Towards sundown of the seventh day of our journey, wearied in feet and
shoulders, we found ourselves limping along in melancholy scattered
train the songs of the morning exchanged for sighs and useless, because
unheard, murmurings against the two stronger men of the party, who would
keep going on and on though passing places that seemed in every way
suited to our wants for the night. The wearied ones being the majority
would have halted and obliged the two to come back to seek them, but
as darkness might have prevented reunion in this way, and as the two
were carrying the beef can, there seemed no help for it but to continue
following. At last, when the head and tail of the company were about a
mile apart, a halt was made in front among some grey moss-grown rocks by
the side of a small running stream. Oh what relief to throw our swags
off, and to bathe our distressed feet in the cool clear water. Bendigo,
where all the gold lay, was distant now only some ten miles; we hoped to
be there by mid-day on the morrow. The stragglers as they came toiling in
singly and in pairs with sullen moodiness louring in their faces, were
made quickly to forget they had an explanation to demand, and soon all
were merry as a wedding party, some gathering fire logs, one out with
the gun, and the others preparing supper. One of the latter beckons from
the water side that there is something to be seen there. We go to him,
get down upon our knees, and can hardly think it real, but the sandy
bottom is glittering with small gold-like atoms. We try to lift some with
our fingers, but—it may be from our clumsiness—we are unable to raise
anything but pinches of pure sand. We have learnt how the diggers wash
their bottom stuff, and hurry up for some of our tin dishes, and are busy
with them, when the man with the gun returns, and learning from us what
we are hoping to be true, urges the advisability of getting under cover
with our operations, in case we may be seen from the road by passing
travellers, who might claim a share; we see the wisdom of the advice,
scramble behind a bushy knoll, and speedily forget everything but our
new discovery. We wash and try again, but we seem awkward hands at it,
for we never can retain in the dishes anything the least like metal.
Darkness is fast coming on, and we begin to fear we shall have to give
over for the night, when a bigger bit than we have yet noticed is seen in
the failing light, faintly glistening in the bottom of a shallow pool:
three pair of legs on the instant wade in for it, and there might be
more, but a certain pearly lustre, too like the moon, for the first time
brings misgivings as to the nature of the chase. We have seen gold grains
exposed in shop windows in Melbourne, and are anxious to attribute the
difference in colour, as it now appears, to the presence of the water,
but, a finger and thumb bring the truth sadly to our notice—we have
been fishing powdered mica. We now find that we have been incredulous
from the first as to its being anything but something of the mica kind,
and the man with the gun claims credit for having saved us from making
fools of ourselves openly, by getting us to go where we were not likely
to be seen before wisdom came. We had lost time by the occurrence,
and had to do without our usual brushwood shelter from the cold night
wind; but making a large fire, we lay down to windward, with our feet
to it, and slept soundly, with our heads covered by the blankets. One
however allowed, his crown to escape from under its mantle: hoar-frost
had whitened the ground like snow, and had glued the blankets to his
uncovered locks. We found him first hard to waken, and then slow to rise,
but beyond that he seemed but little the worse.

We now kept upon the dray track; it was sadly cut up by the winter
traffic, and the numerous carcases of bullocks and of horses, that lay
in some places at short intervals where they had fallen in their yokes,
told a tale of road hardship and adventure, that made us better satisfied
with our simpler though toilsome mode of travelling. Half an hour before
coming on the diggings, we passed a bullock dray that had started from
Melbourne, a hundred miles distant, the day before we sailed from the
Mersey. The men looked sullen and toil-worn, and the cattle seemed scarce
able to pull their feet out of the mud in which they sank half way to the
knees at every step.

We reached the diggings about an hour before sundown, and were rather
disconcerted at the appearance of a company of diggers, whom we met,
and who called out that there was “still some left for us to get:” they
were wet to the knees, had evidently been sitting among water, and their
shoulders looked as though they had been dragged through a clay bed. Our
mica business had but little prepared us for this sort of work, and—hum—a
newly open clay field in wet weather, before the bricks have begun to be
made, is clean and comfortable walking compared to this that now comes in
view, as we near the creek that lies between us and the tents; and what
water! yea, what a place to look for gold in.

Not wishing to be out of the fashion in the mode of living as practised
by those who were now to be our neighbours, we without delay set about
making for ourselves a house, but where was the stuff to make it of?
One said that he had “some needles and three pirns o’ thread,” got for
casualties among the buttons; but that seemed small help until another
who had brought some fine bed linen with his blankets, pulled it from his
swag, and remarking that it would be “nane the waur o’ the bleachin’,”
offered it to make the roof; a third gave a tartan plaid, and a fourth a
blanket; a fifth, in the enthusiasm of the moment, tore a striped shirt
open, and throwing it with two towels among the other offerings, said
these would make a gable. While some were fixing forked sticks in the
ground to bear the ridge pole and attending to the fire and supper,
the rest were busy, without thimbles, at the needlework. “Be it ever so
humble, there’s no place like home.” We were happy and contented, nay
more, we were thankful when at last, by the aid of firelight, we got all
finished, the floor strewn thick with rosin-smelling leaves, and our
blankets disposed in order. Though not so grand looking as many of the
neighbouring edifices it was our own, and the occupiers of those others
might not be able to say more.



In the morning, having provided ourselves with tools, we made a beginning
in a small gulley near our camping place. There did not seem to be much
business doing in it, but it was nice and dry and quiet, and we had
been informed that great hits were occasionally made in very unlikely
spots. We had agreed to work in pairs, my lot falling in company with
a decent man, a hand-loom weaver to trade, from the North of Scotland.
We took spell about at the digging, short spells being in favour, as my
mate argued that “the chance o’ goold bein’ below, was’na like to be
ony greater, for oor hurtin’ oorsels, ye ken.” We agreed very well, but
a large stone that we came on about four feet from the surface, sorely
troubled us. When sitting on the top looking ruefully down upon it, and
inclined to shift to some other place, a stranger with pick and shovel on
his shoulder came sauntering up, joined us in looking down, asked what
we intended doing, and remarked that we ought at least to see what was
beneath, that many a digger would give gold to have such a boulder in his
ground, they were found to have been such grand catchers of the nuggets
when they came “scouring down in the flood.” As he seemed to have been
longer acquainted with the diggings than we, we thought it might be true
what he was saying, and that we might at least try till dinner time. The
weaver dropping down, commenced afresh to pick away the clay at one side,
but our friend said “No, the stone will drop on you if you go below it:
you must break it up, and bring it to the surface.” “Break it up, break
it up,” I heard him in the hole say, “man ye’re shurely thinkin’ its a
muckle cheese ye’re speakin’ aboot,” on which the man left us to engineer
as we had a mind.

Evening came, but we had not made the progress we expected, for as my
esteemed mate said, “the hannels o’ the picks were aye in our road, there
was sae little room to work in.” The holes were only about eight or ten
feet deep, bottoming on the usual pipe clay, imbedded in the surface of
which, and in the gravelly stuff immediately overlying it, the gold was
found. Sometimes it was got in gutter-like depressions, in which numerous
pockets occurred, full of grain gold and nuggets; sometimes it lay in
patches, and often lay like seed grain in a new-sown field. In the case
of gutters, only the holes that struck upon the line were profitable,
but the line was generally so uncertain and took such unexpected turns,
that those who in the morning might despond at being so far to a side,
might in the evening be harassed with fear of the encroachments of their

The common crowd confined its operations to the ground already opened,
but kept itself ever ready for a rush to new discoveries. Numerous small
parties, possessed of more than average enterprise, were ever on the move
amongst the outlying ranges, sinking shafts on speculation. Did they
light on gold, they passed the word quietly to their friends to occupy
the ground immediately adjoining them, that the common harpies, who went
spying about, too indolent to seek for themselves, might be outsided.
Not long could the matter remain hidden; a rumour would get upon the
wind, a few would be seen to leave their old claims hastily, with their
tools upon their shoulders, and steal off through the scrub; friendly
signals would be passed about, men would be seen tumbling up out of their
holes, and in little more time than it takes to tell it, the bulk of
the multitude were away upon the run to overtake those who were before,
leaving the place that before had swarmed with life, with only a mere
gleaning, which often seemed in doubt whither it was doing the best thing
for itself by remaining. In one such rush we joined, but arrived too late
for anything better than an uphill claim, which we bottomed at about one
third of the depth that gold might be expected at. A few yards below us,
two men had come up panting among the first of the runners, and on the
instant marked off twelve feet by twenty four for their united claim,
but thinking the ground too much on the slope, they shifted just twelve
feet lower down. Another party immediately took possession of the vacated
ground, and within four hours, the sinking being shallow, broke through
into a bed of nuggets, worth, as was afterwards affirmed, four thousand
pounds. The original claimants bottomed theirs on a few pennyweights
only. There was feverish excitement in all this, and the fortunate, when
wise, kept their own counsel, at least until their findings had been
placed safe under the charge of the Commissioner, for conveyance down to

With various small fortune, my mate and I continued our labours, with
bankruptcy at length ominously near. We tried surface washing, but got
only sore backs by it, and returned to the sinking, there patiently to
await the approaching crisis in our circumstances. One day, a little
before sundown, we took our way homeward, rather downcast, and with some
misgivings about supper. Happily our friends had been more fortunate
than we, and the sight of half a sheep hanging from the tent pole, and
of a well-known face bending over a frying pan, quickened our dull weary
gait, while my companion, evidently touched with thankfulness for the
visible mercies, said half to himself, “I kent the puir ravens would be
fed,” adding for my encouragement,—“We’re no jist at the wab en’ yet, my

The night was cloudy and dark, but calm. We had drawn a large log to the
fire for want of chairs. We were in no lack of topics for conversation,

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Online LibraryJames ArmourThe Diggings, the Bush, and Melbourne → online text (page 1 of 7)