22 April, 2016

Making tracks: lies and deception

So, how did the diggers decide which road to take when heading from Geelong (or Melbourne via Geelong) to the goldfields of Ballarat and beyond?'
Word of mouth was certainly important. Anyone recently returned from the diggings with news of the latest rush was questioned closely. Newspapers were scanned in minute detail to glean any information about which field had the greatest returns and what was the best route to get there. Weather reports were no doubt also taken into account when considering which road to take and the means of travel could also affect choice of route. For those wealthy enough to afford it, travelling by coach determined which road was used, but for those on foot - as many were - the shortest route may have held the most appeal. For the array of horses, carts, drays and wagons it was not so easy to skirt around a bad section of track - as described by Henry Mundy in his account of his time spent on the goldfields. Misjudging a creek-crossing or becoming mired in a swamp could be a very costly and even dangerous occurrence.
One source of information which purported to help the would be diggers avoid the traps and pitfalls of their newly-chosen career was guidebooks. The Digger's Hand-book, the Gold Digger's Guide, the Gold Seeker's Guide and a plethora of other helpful publications were guaranteed to provide all the information an aspiring digger needed; a list what what clothes and equipment to take, what rations to carry and what could be found along the way. Most importantly perhaps, the digger's guides also included maps, a description of the route, details of what conditions to expect during the journey and potentially also a list of places to stay or camp and the distances involved.
An example of a gold digger's guide, image from the National Maritime Collection
Whilst I found a number of newspaper articles providing helpful information for diggers and an array of advertisements selling everything from tonics to miner's cradles, diggers guides were not so easy to come by, with the exception of the one pictured above, the text of which can be found here.
Sources of information such as these whilst useful, were not however to be entirely trusted. Newspapers then as now had their own agendas which often reflected the interests of the towns and people they represented. With the outbreak of the gold rush in 1851, many of those towns were keen to profit from the flurry of activity it generated. Of course, those who were situated closest to the goldfields stood to benefit most and it wasn't long before a slanging match developed between Geelong and Melbourne with The Argus and the Geelong Advertiser championing the causes of their respective towns.
Not surprisingly, one of the chief topics of interest was the proximity - or lack there of - of each town to the Ballarat goldfields. Within weeks of the discovery of gold in Victoria, claims, counter claims, allegations and insinuations were flying. Also up for debate was the estimated cost of buying equipment for the goldfields from either town and the state of the respective roads between each and the diggings.
Nor was the battle confined to the pages of the local newspapers. In 1854 a map was published which purported to show the "true" distances between Melbourne, Geelong and the various goldfields but which placed Geelong at twice the distance from Ballarat as it did Melbourne. Not surprisingly, there was outrage amongst the Geelong fraternity at such a fraud being perpetuated upon their town.
The "false" map of the goldfields (Turnbull, 1989)
Whilst no-one seems to know who put the map together, the lithographers who printed it were Messrs Campbell & Fergusson of Melbourne. The map was recently on display at the Geelong Regional Library, but has also been reproduced in various places including "Maps are Territories: Science is an Atlas" (David Turnbull, 1989).
Whilst this map is a blatant example of the intercity rivalry, other maps were more accurate but could still prove misleading. At the outbreak of the gold rush, there were a number of maps which were considered reliable such as government surveyor A.J. Skene's 1845 "Map of the district of Geelong", engraved by Thomas Ham of Melbourne and published by James Harrison of the Geelong Advertiser.
The relevant portion of Skene's 1845 map of  the Geelong region, showing the main tracks between
towns at that time. Image held by the National Library of Australia
Another map which could be trusted to give a reasonably accurate representation of the district was Thomas Ham's 1849 "Map of the purchased and measured lands, counties, parishes, etc. of the Melbourne and Geelong districts", published prior to the discovery of gold.
A portion of Ham's 1849 map of the Melbourne and Geelong regions.
Image held by the National Library of Australia
It is worth noting however, that a subsequent map produced in 1852 by Ham (after the discovery of gold), whilst accurate, took the approach of displaying only the area north of about the 38th parallel south, which passes not too far below Werribee. This way, Geelong is not shown, and on the copy held by the National Library of Australia the roads to Buninyong and Ballarat from Melbourne have been highlighted (after publication) whereas those to Geelong were untouched or marked only faintly. Whether this was an intentional ploy to disadvantage Geelong or merely the result of a "Melbourne-centric" view of the gold rush is not clear.
Ham's 1852 map of the routes to the Mt. Alexander & Ballarat gold diggings.
Image held by the National Library of Australia
Despite both early maps being relatively accurate however, there were slight variations between Ham's 1849 and Skene's 1845 maps. Skene for example more accurately locates William Cross Yuille's Ballarat Run to the north of Mt Buninyong, whilst Ham shows it to the north west below Lake Burrumbeet. Despite these discrepancies, both the 1845 and 1849 maps give a reasonable representation of the main features of the landscape, but only give a general idea of the main tracks. This would be due at least in part to the fact that not all land in the area had been accurately surveyed at that time.
Other less official maps also claimed to provide accurate information, but were similarly vague. The "Notes of a Gold Digger and Gold Digger's Guide" shown above, contained a map "compiled & engraved by Samuel Clavert" dated 1852. Whilst the distances shown are reasonably accurate, once again, the track is a general line with few landmarks to use as a guide. Whilst Geelong is shown on this map, distances are marked from Melbourne to each of the goldfields listed but no distance is given for the road from Geelong to Ballarat, nor is the Geelong-Melbourne Rd marked on the map.
Map of the goldfields from "Notes of a Gold Digger and Gold
Digger's Guide" 
A fourth map from 1853 gave a little more detail as to places, showing inns and stopping points along the way - no doubt reflecting the many establishments which were popping up along the various routes to the goldfields to cater to the passing trade. Despite this, the map still showed only an approximation of the tracks involved and in this instance appears to show the distance from Geelong to Buninyong via Shelford to be the same as that via the Geelong-Buninyong Track. It was, it claimed "carefully compiled from authentic sources & lithographed by Edwd. Gilks."
The digger's road guide, to the gold mines of Victoria and the country extending
210 miles, round Melbourne. Image held by the National Library of Australia
So, all things considered,with an array of maps (some conflicting), a steady flow of newspaper reports and returning diggers, each with his or her own tales to tell, variable weather conditions, bad roads, new goldfields popping up here, there and everywhere, not to mention the ever-present risk of bushrangers as well as intense competition for business at every inn or hamlet along the way, is it any wonder that so many towns claimed to be "on the main route [from Geelong] to the goldfields"?


  1. What a fascinating reading of maps Jo. Gives good reason to interrogate our sources again. Your post reminds me of a shopkeeper who spent a lot of money advertising to diggers at Beechworth that there was a new goldfield at Wangaratta in the early 1860s. He also offered to buy gold from them. This may have had something to do with his new stock of shovels and mining equipment. ;) Thanks for reminding us that just because it is print does not make it gospel.

    1. Thanks Jenny! It seems to me that commercial self-interest really hasn't changed much over the years, has it?!

  2. Thanks for a fascinating review of maps and a reminder of how hard it must have been to get reliable information.