Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer Chapter XI page 3

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Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer by Sup John Sadleir

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The early diggers were a nomadic people. At the first report of some new ‘rush’ every man who was not on good gold, as the term was, struck tent and started for the new field. The diggers never regarded any place as home, and they moved easily from place to place, usually with all their lighter equipment such as tent bedding and their scanty wardrobe. Few had either wives nor children. Probably the average of their success as miners represented less than an ordinary labourer’s earnings at the present day. Many of those who got on good gold spent their profits recklessly enough, and so did no permanent good for themselves.

The estimated population of the mining district of which Beechworth was the centre was, as has been already stated, some thirty to forty thousand, which included few non-workers such as women and children; and taking the gold returns, as judged of by the amount sent by Government escort, to be equal to twenty thousand ounces per fortnight, which is a very high estimate, the earnings worked out at about ₤1 per head per week. Figures are, however, not my strong point, and I leave the matter here. The miners did not affect church-going much, nor were they, I fancy, much given to support churches, and ministers of religion. They gave liberally towards hospitals for the sick, and were not regardless of the needs of fellow miners in distress. Beyond this no one thought of appealing to them. On the whole they may be regarded as pretty hard cases for the local clergy to deal with. There was no privacy in the lives of these men either at work or at play, nor even in their tent, for therein all the members of each party took their rest. I remember riding with the Church of England clergyman one day, when he tried to impress on some diggers the duty of church going, and the necessity of religious observance generally. The men seemed dazed; the idea had apparently not entered at all into their plan of life.

They were not uncivil, they simply stared and said nothing. A Sky Pilot like Ralph Connor might have worked his way into the hearts of these men. My clerical companion was not a Ralph Connor, but rather a high bred English gentleman, courteous but stately, who from being a cavalry officer became a parson rather late in life. He was a very rigid Calvinist, and in spite of sermons nearly an hour in length, his congregation was large; but no digger was ever seen within the church.

I regret that I cannot supply any pictorial sketches of early Beechworth, such as I have been able to give in my chapter on Ballarat in the early fifties. Not that the district was without its artist, for there was a very clever fellow named Eustace who painted some really exquisite bush scenes. He was of an easy going dreamy temperament, a student of Nature only, despising the works of men. Unfortunately his drawings were on eucalyptus leaves, the largest and roundest he could find and not on canvas, and no doubt have all perished long ago.

The sketch of Bontherambo homestead, as it was before the fifties, is the only of local historical interest that I can give. The portrait of myself in 1856, if of no other interest, shows the style of dress of a young man of the period. Everybody who was anybody used then to dress expensively, except men like O’Hara Burke and his friend and companion, Virginius Murray. Burke’s rig out has been already described, Murray ’s style was more eccentric than slovenly. He was a Gold Commissioner at Beechworth, and greatly amused the natives by riding in his kilt on a donkey through the diggings. Looking back in maturer years one’s extravagance in dress in early manhood makes one inclined to blush for money so wasted. My evil genius in this way was J B Milton, of Collins Street , whom most old colonists will remember as the fashionable tailor of the time. I never entered his shop that he did not measure me, nolens volens, for a new suit, but I must do him the credit of saying that his suits lasted good to the end, and he never pressed unseemly for payment. He had an artful way, however, of reorganising his firm in every two or three years, which meant that the debts due to the old firm had to be paid up. This sort of thing, I am certain, never troubled either Burke or Murray very much.

One has read of magistrates in olden times holding court in their stables. Murray used to hold his while he lay in bed. The parties to the suit, sitting outside his slab and baize-lined hut, having stated their respective cases, Murray, lying snug in bed, would give his decision without seeing or being seen by the persons concerned. It is said that his judgments were seldom questioned.

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