It was a typical Ballarat winter. The cold crept into your bones and the rain turned the goldfields to a sodden mess. At least it wasn’t a heavy or prolonged downpour Henry thought, just enough to top up the existing puddles and make the overflow form into narrow rivulets of muddy orange water. The rain, as if admiring its own accomplishment, stopped and allowed the sun to weakly illuminate it’s handiwork. The ground glowed as the myriad of quartz fragments which had been trodden into the clay caught and reflected the sunlight. But the increased light did not translate into extra warmth. Henry glanced down at his hands and saw that they were slightly blue. They hurt when he tried to wiggle his fingers, so he decided to delay the chilly business of gold panning until his circulation had stopped imitating the weather.
Henry was a seasoned gold prospector, he loved the yellow stuff. Like countless others he had been lured to the new diggings with golden promises of striking it rich and instant wealth. He hadn’t found the roads to ‘be paved with gold’, but so far he wasn’t starving or destitute, well, not just yet. Henry was young, unmarried and still in reasonable health in spite of leading a prospector’s life. A life of prolonged physically demanding labour, drinking, inadequate diet and poor living conditions. He was constantly searching for the big nugget, but so far had only found a handful of little ones which had kept him going, just. Recently he had moved into one of the cleaner tents near the main diggings which was right on the edge of a particularly deep and sticky patch of mud. It wouldn’t be long before everything was coated in clay, only a few more days of rain would do it, he reckoned.
Henry paid 30shillings a month for the privilege of being allowed to mine 12square feet of ground. A fortune for such a small patch of dirt. Whereas a squatter paid £10 a year to farm thousands of square feet of fertile land. What a steal! Most miners couldn’t afford the monthly licence and risked life and limb to avoid the frequent licence checks. Rumbles of discontent were spreading across both the New South Wales and Victorian goldfields. The Great South Land had begun its European life as a place for Mother England to deport it’s criminal class to. So there was already a disrespect for authority, coupled with a keen sense of injustice if the working class felt that they were being taken advantage of. In the colonies many believed that ‘Jack was as good as his master’ and should be treated as such.
Henry swore that he could usually see a golden glint in a newcomer’s eye, which would rapidly fade into desperation as they tried to survive once the harsh reality of life on the goldfields had set in. It wasn’t just the difficult task of finding enough little golden stones to stay afloat, but also trying living conditions like no clean drinking water and limited fresh food. There was also a fair bit of violence in the township; both reported incidents between townspeople, and the crimes that went unreported, often perpetrated by the troopers [police]. They had a reputation for enthusiastically meting out swift, harsh and brutal ‘justice’, as they called it. Often before the full circumstances surrounding a crime were discovered. Small infringements could be punished heavily. Miners were required to carry their licence at all times on the diggings, in case of a random licence check. Woe betide any miner who couldn’t produce a current licence. the troopers were feared and hated with good reason. Gaol sentences, public floggings, huge fines, and doing time in the stocks were daily occurrences. Long term miners like Henry, saw the troopers as another hazard of the job and tried hard to keep out of their way.
So when a small group of troopers on patrol stopped Henry and demanded to see his licence, he duly complied. He reached into his shirt pocket and carefully unfolded the well-worn document. “Here you go Constable,” he said with an air of cheerful confidence that belied the butterflies in his stomach. The captain of the small band had a bad reputation as a ‘sadistic bastard’, and Henry wanted no trouble with him. Unfortunately, this was not to be, for the officer handed back the licence with the accompanying statement delivered in a loud and contemptuous voice.
“Henry Jones of Ballarat town, your miner’s licence expired two days ago, you are in breach of the law. You will be taken to the local holding cell and summarily charged with mining illegally.”
The Main Street was quite busy and a large number of people stopped what they were doing to watch the exchange between the troopers and the hapless young miner. They were expecting to be entertained. The heartless beggars, they like a good show, Henry thought ruefully. I won’t get help from any of them. And I definitely won’t get any help or compassion from the captain or his offsiders. The butterflies in his stomach died, he knew that he was done for. The troopers knew it too, they leered at Henry, whilst their captain stared fixedly at him and absent-mindedly stroked the handle of the short whip he carried. One of the troopers let out a low snigger that to Henry sounded like a predatory snarl.
This was enough for him. He ran! Even though he would eventually be caught and his punishment would be all the more severe as a result, but Henry didn’t care, he just bolted. The fugitive miner darted across the marshy road and scrambled onto the boardwalk in front of the shops. Then he half-ran, half-slid through the slush where the boardwalk ended abruptly. The troopers hadn’t anticipated him fleeing into town, so it took them a few seconds to rally before they pursued him. Henry easily evaded them at first as he was quick and nimble. Also, he seemed to have generated some sympathy within the town, even though no-one would openly admit it. The troopers found that their pursuit was continually hampered by smallgoods and other merchandise mysteriously appearing in their way. Henry had a ten second lead. It allowed him to zig zag back across the street, sprint down the other side, and push his way through a partly opened side door. He quickly shut the door heaving a sigh of relief, safe!
Henry froze as the door behind him opened. He held his breath as he turned around to face his fate- the troopers!
“Nice show today boys, said the captain. Particularly you Henry. We nearly didn’t catch up with you.” Henry grinned with satisfaction. Ever since starting this acting gig he had tried to make his character as believable as possible. He was an aspiring actor and Sovereign Hill was as good a place to start his career as anywhere.
“We really grabbed people’s attention out there, continued the captain, and hopefully we’ve given the tourists a glimpse of life on the goldfields.”
Later that day as Henry got into his car and drove away he was very thankful that he lived in the 21st century and not the 19th century. It wasn’t just because there was good heating which was essential for a Ballarat winter. But also because on the whole workers were treated fairly regardless of what job they did.