Before Gold! Majors Creek was a pastoral run, a small outpost of the Braidwood district.
But a Mrs Baxter heard a story about diggers (climbing back up from Araluen to their Reidsdale farms late on a Saturday) resting at Bell’s Creek and making a trial ‘pan’. They discovered gold.
Being an intelligent woman, Mrs Baxter recognised the topographical (not that she’d know that word) significance between that country and the waterfall area at the Creek. She went panning and Bonanza! Life at Majors Creek changed forever.
A Sad Aside: Mrs Baxter did well and astutely decided to look toward the future. She bought land at Irish Corner to produce dairy products and vegetables for the miners (who knew how long the yellow stuff would last?) Unfortunately, eighteen months later her cart capsized, killing her. Such is fate.
Hundreds of wealth seekers quickly arrived and, in the beginning, the pickings were almost unbelievably good. In 1852 Commissioner King reported…
“… half the miners were earning ₤1000 a year and thirty per cent about ₤500”
In that year a farm labourer (i.e. a free man) was lucky to earn ₤30 a year. The miners were earning between 15 and 30 years income! Add to that the fact that many miners were ex-convicts who were only used to being 'paid' survival-level rations and you can imagine the immense pull of the gold fields.
Something as simple as owning a horse strikes us as unremarkable today. But then, before gold, only gentlemen had horses. Striking it rich meant you could own and maintain your own stead. It was a truly significant step-up, the equivalent today of having a car or not.
The work was paid, but all you needed was muscle & pan, cradle, pick, shovel & wheelbarrow and you stood as good a chance of becoming rich as the next man.
Let’s go on a trip to Majors Creek in your mind’s eye. To see what it looked like then. Imagine…
You’ve just arrived by coach. As you step down, you turn and look down the Creek. You see hundreds of men toiling away in the hot sun; panning, digging, pushing wheelbarrows. You hear the mix of accents: the broad drawl of the Australian born, the plums of English, Scot burrs, Irish lilts, European gutturals, languid American cadences and the staccato of Chinese.
The hills are spotted with canvas tents and temporary structures of all shapes and sizes. Clothes, in a rainbow of colours, flutter in the breeze drying.
After sunset… the white canvas is replaced by the orange-red of camp fires. The smell of cooking wafts up the valley. As the evening deepens the loud voices, sounds of merriment and drunkenness escape from the windows of the lamp-lit hotels. A male dominant place, strangers thrown together with diverse dreams, enjoying the euphoria of success and drowning the disappointment of failure.
If you visit Major Creek look down the valley from The Elrington Hotel (named after Major Elrington, the Major in Majors Creek), conjure up pictures of your own, the scars on the hillside will guide your imagination.
Not all riches were found at the bottom of the pan.
Someone had to feed, equip and entertain all these men. And (by the pre-gold standards) the numbers were huge.
The 1861 Census showed there were around 960 people in Braidwood and approximately,
a further 7,000 (mainly miners) in the district.
Landowners made good money selling licenses to prospect, by selling sheep and cattle for butchering – and horses.
Horses weren’t just for personal transport – or the races. They were the horsepower of the boom. They carried supplies – food, equipment, grog, everything. They helped work the claims and carry the firewood to the voracious steam engines. In the mid 1800s there were around a 1000 horses servicing the creek.
* Small acreage farmers sold dairy and vegetables.
* Merchants brought in building supplies, grain for bread making, clothing and mining equipment.
* Hotels supplied grog, entertainment (of both the moral and other kind), food and lodgings.
And, as always, the Government took its own cut (by way of the sale of licenses). Wiley entrepreneurs also made a quid. Here is the story of a Mr Steve Lynch.
All That's Gold Does Not Glitter
an 1850s True Story
A handy bushman from Old Irish Corner Mountain (on the edge of the vertigo-inducing drop to the Araluen valley) struck upon a brilliant idea. Getting supplies down the narrow, three feet wide track to miners was slow and hazardous.
He made sleds to slide down the mountain side – carrying about half a ton at a time. Business was good. So good that the sled track became almost glass-hard from use.
At ₤1 a sled – and a sale rate of around 30 sleds per week – it meant business income of about ₤1500 a year. Not bad. Demand was sustained because the sleds were too heavy for horses to pull back up the mountain. His product had built-in obsolescence – they were used once and then burnt as firewood.
Reported by Richard Kennedy: Netta Ellis. Braidwood Dear Braidwood.
Men who work hard liked to play hard. What did miners do on their day off?
Miners usually worked a 6 day week (from not long after dawn to sunset), so Sunday was a special day. After Church (for some) the activity list was long.
* Not surprisingly, gambling was popular and presented itself in many forms.
* Boxing always drew a big and enthusiastic crowd (a bout in 1867 between Bill Scott – a sometimes member of the Clarke bushranger gang – and The Tasmanian saw big bets placed in a crowd of over 800 onlookers),
* Horse racing was a more regular and popular pastime. Racecourses were built at Majors Creek, Jembaicumbene and Araluen. Prize money was often ₤100 for main events.
Other contests included trials of strength, stone lifting, loaded wheelbarrow races (with claimed loads of over 1200 pounds, athletic pursuits, flat iron throwing and (in Araluen which had a proper brick walled court) handball – and of course, cricket.
For the less energetic (and indoor-oriented) types, there were quoits, marbles (yes, marbles), skittles, bowling, bagatelle and billiards. There is no recorded mention of darts.
As time progressed winning gold from The Creek became harder, more sophisticated in engineering and technology – and more capital intensive. By the 1870s, easy alluvial mining by small, independent miners had dwindled.
Progression moved from cradle to sluice box, to water race, to bigger water race, to small steam-driven crushes, to huge crushes with batteries of stampers… and finally from 1899 onwards, mammoth dredges in Jembaicumbene, Araluen, Mongarlo River.
Each innovatory phase brought its own boom and dwindle cycle. The dredges won good quantities of gold right up until the 1920’s.
In 1914 The Southern District Fields Produced
835 oz by alluvial methods
3931 oz by quartz crushing
12647 oz by dredging
Believe It Or Not
When mining became uneconomic some of the giant dredges were dismantled and (in spite of the great weight) carted out of Araluen down the track to Moruya from where they were shipped to Tonga.
In the Great Depression of the 1930’s fossicking and reef mining were tried as people became desperate. The Government helped by paying fossickers ₤1 a week and by contributing to the cost of rebuilding a crusher at The Creek. by World War Two it was all over. All that frenetic and boisterous activity faded back into the bush to a silence broken by the call of magpie.
Ladies, if you’d like a memento of the Australian gold rushes it’s a good idea to consider buying a piece of authentic 19th century gold jewellery. The diggers often made lovely and highly individualistic brooches and pins for their girlfriends and the big city jewellers made stunning pieces for their more wealthy clientele.
Both types occasionally came up for auction at major auction house sales or can be purchased from antique dealers who specialise in the field. Prices range from the affordable to the shockingly expensive.