Book review: The forgotten rebels of Eureka by Clare Wright

The burning of the Bentley Hotel

Book: The forgotten rebels of Eureka by Clare Wright

Like most Australians, I learnt about the goldfields in Victoria and the Eureka Stockade (1854) at school. I loved Australian history and this was one part of our history that I found fascinating.  However the history I learnt was all about the men on the goldfields, no mention of women. In fact I hadn't even realise women were at the gold fields at all.

There were at least 1500 people crammed into the Stockade by Saturday afternoon.  Some had spent the previous night there, by most had slept in their own tents. The purpose of the Stockade, after all, was to prevent, by force if necessary, the arrest of unlicensed diggers. There had never been a licence hunt at night.  But throughout the day on Saturday, most diggers kept rolling up, many coming from other goldfields, eager to add weight to the moral majority of resistances. The numbers were swelled by women who brought food into the Stockade. (page 404)

To my surprise I discovered that there were many women on the goldfields in the 1850s.  Many had recently arrived from Britain, in particular from Ireland.  Between 1848 and 1860 "51% of single immigrants women to Victoria were Irish. English and Scottish girls proved more reluctant to leave established family circles and stable domestic service arrangements. Much depended on the girls place in the family. If an older (or younger) sister could stay behind to look after ageing parents, then a spare daughter might see herself free" (page 60)

These women were feisty, had courage and determination and willing to make a go considering the conditions were very poor. Some married (legally), others had defacto "marriages" - many ran businesses (from shop keepers, sewing and washing to running the hotel and selling illegal grog!!) to provide their families with a regular income as their husbands were not always bringing home any money.  Not everyone made it rich on the goldfields and these women took their responsibilities serioulsy when it came to helping their menfolk. Other women provided the entertainment in the make-shift theatres and as "ladies of the night"!

Clare Wright looks at the leading ladies of Ballarat in the lead up to the Eureka Stockade and the roles the these women played. They were not insignificant in any way. However, within a few years after the Stockade, women were "removed" from the history books and as a result they "disappeared" which is why I never knew they were there in the first place.  Thanks to Wright, these women have returned to their rightful place in our history.

Not only did women work very hard during those years, they also suffered badly. The conditions they lived in were cramped (lacking in basic amenities), many lost their lives during childbirth (due to very limited medical assistances) and children died from diseases such as whooping cough, measles, diphtheria and scarlet fever resulting in high child mortality rates.  In the early 1850s in Ballarat, a quarter of all recorded deaths were of children under 12 months.

These were our frontier women.
Whilst taken in 1900, it gives an idea of what it was like 50 years earlier. 
The conditions must have been appalling at the peak of the gold boom, can you imagine what it would have been like in the middle of a hot dry summer?  And the smell?
By 1857, the Chinese population in Victoria peaked at around 25,000 (page 63)

This was an excellent read and one I would recommend for anyone interested in this part of our Australian history.  It is a brand new book, only released in October  2013.

Four stars


  1. Oooo another good recommendation. I love Australian History too and learned surprisingly little in my own school years. I have enjoyed learning along with my children over the years and reading more.

    1. I work in a research library and this book hadn't even made it to the shelf, it was delivered to me straight from the person who had catalogued it!! Hot off press. It was a really good read.

  2. Have you ever been to Sovereign Hill, Jo? We went there with the children a few years ago, and having been there, I knew there had been women on the gold fields because you see the different areas they would have worked and more of the history - it is very touristy, of course, but I would still recommend going there if you ever get a chance, especially if you enjoy history. We had a blast and learned a LOT about that era of history. Yes, it was a harsh frontier. I've often wondered how the women even survived the Australian heat with the style of clothing (and layers!) from those days - summers must have been unbearable and it's a wonder they ever made it through alive!!! Houses or huts built with stone would have made it a little cooler, but a lot of their dwellings were either made of timber or just tents - the heat would have been stifling!

    1. Yes, as an adult I was aware of women on the goldfields but not when I was at at school as women didn’t feature very often in the history books. No, I haven’t been to Sovereign Hill, it would be very interesting. One of the things in the book was the description of the tent city as very few people lived in anything else (at the time of the stockade). Just imagine bringing up children in those conditions, trying to shower, cook, wash clothes - it must have been really hard. What isn’t mention and I was curious about was the waste e.g. water and toilet - where did it go - open sewage? Because the smell must have been horrible in summer and the flies! This was one really interesting book.

  3. Jo- you always read the most interesting books. Of course I'm not familiar with your Australia history- but I know I'd love the book:)

    I hope all is well with you--

    1. Hi Vicki, our Gold rush was very similar to the Californian Gold rush and happened around the same time. In fact many miners went from the USA to Australia to mine - especially those who were not successful in the USA.

      I love interesting books - I don't have the time to waste on something uninteresting!!!!

      Have a wonderful weekend.


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