Life on the Victorian Goldfields


Most of the major gold discoveries in Victoria were made in the years 1851 to 1853. While the gold rush tends to be indentified with major town centres like Ballarat, Bendigo, Castlemaine and other towns with legacies of substantial brick and stone buildings, the sources of gold were much more widespread than just the immediate surrounds of these towns. These major centres acted as hubs for the transfer of gold to Melbourne and Geelong and trade to supply the gold fields.

John and Agnes spent the years 1853 to about 1878 moving around gold fields in an area to the south of Ballarat. There were some very substantial finds in this area although many of them were just short lived rushes. Others, though, were much more sustained but required a greater level of capital investment and organisation to gain yields from gold seams deep within the earth. Very roughly, this gold-yielding area south of Ballarat ran in a circle from Buninyong south to Mount Mercer, south-west to Rokewood, west to Pitfield, north to Snake Valley and then north-east to Ballarat. Within this area are the centres around which John and Agnes moved and at which their ten children born in Victoria are recorded as being born. Many of these centres, which at the time were communities of up to a few of thousand people, are now simply names on the map, while some have been taken over by bush again.

While the family understanding has been that John had a strong connection with the diggings and town of Corindhap, his and Agnes’ early years in Victoria are marked by frequent moves around the numerous diggings in the area between Buninyong and Rokewood. Their moves in the years between the births of James in 1853 and their last child, William, in 1873 can be traced by the birth and death records of the children. During these years John’s occupation is variously recorded as miner, storekeeper, hotelkeeper and even gentleman.

In the years 1853 to 1863 the family moved many times. They invariably would have lived in bark huts, at best, but quite possibly may have lived in tents. A contemporary description maybe gives an idea of what life would have been like for them:

A gold digger must be a Jack-o-all-trades; he must be able to strip bark, fell a tree and saw it, dig roads, make embankments, put up a hut, mend your clothes, draw firewood after chopping it, bake, boil and roast, use a pick and spade, delve, dig and quarry, load and unload, draw a sledge and drive a barrow, cut paths, make roadways, puddle in mud, and splash ankle deep in water, with occasional slushings from head to foot, bear sleet and rain without flinching during the day, and sleep in damp blankets during the night, thankful that they are not entirely saturated – if ye can do this, and have spirit enough to attempt it, and endurance enough to carry it on for three months, why there is gold and rheumatism in store for you.

This is a description of the conditions for a single man, let alone a family with small children. In all, John and Agnes had thirteen children; three of these were born and died in Scotland, five were born during the years when they moved frequently between diggings and five were born in more prosperous and settled circumstances at Corindhap. Only six of their thirteen children survived to adulthood.

Click here to see a picture of a family with small children on the diggings.  

In June/July 1853 John and Agnes were at the Mt Misery Creek diggings where James was born, very shortly after Agnes’ arrival in Victoria.

James Boyle & Ann Laidler & children; c1897

back – Ann, Margaret Isobella, William James (Duck), Thomas; front – Agnes & Elizabeth  (twins - Ness & Bess)

This goldfield was about 10 to 15 kilometres due north of Rokewood. The Mt Misery Creek is a tributary of the Little Woady Yalloak Creek. The area is a multitude of deep gullies which lie to the west of the present Ballarat–Rokewood Road, in what is now heavily wooded country in the Enfield State Forest. At this time much of the prospecting consisted of searching for alluvial gold in creek beds or gathering it off the surface of the ground amongst grass and tree roots. So it is difficult to determine exactly where in these quite dispersed fields the family might have been. The area continued to support a significant population of miners through the 1860s. One contemporary account of 1853 at Mt Misery said: “They arrived in dozens daily, with their packs, implements, and even their gold-washing implements strapped to their backs. … The diggers spent money like millionaires, thinking the supply of gold everlasting.”

At this point it is quite unclear who was the next child born to John and Agnes. Elizabeth, or Lizzie as she was often known, appears as the second child born on the birth certificates for her younger siblings and on these she is listed as older than Hellen, or Ellen. As there is no official record of the birth of Elizabeth, though, we can only arrive at her birth year and location from the details on her marriage record to Alexander Reid in 1886. Her age listed at this time would place her birth during 1858 therefore after her sister Hellen, who is officially recorded as born in 1854. Elizabeth’s marriage certificate lists her as born at Hardie Hills, diggings about 10 km south of Buninyong on the road to Mount Mercer. At this stage the Hardie Hills diggings were mostly alluvial, although deeper reserves of gold were gained later through more capital intensive mining. The population of around 1200 was very scattered in the area.

Hellen was likely named after John’s mother Helen and was born on June 23, 1854 at ‘The Leigh’ (later known as Shelford) on the Bannockburn-Skipton Rd where this crosses the Leigh River.

Hellen Boyle (Smith) c 1918 age 64

It is not clear why the birth took place here, 40km from the Mount Misery Creek diggings where James was born. Maybe Agnes was sent away from the diggings for the birth. It was also common practice for diggers to take work on local pastoral stations during the winter so they could retreat from the bleak winter elements. Shelford was the centre for the Clyde Company – a pastoral company based in Glasgow with vast squatting runs in western Victoria. On the birth certificate John lists himself as a quarryman. Hellen, who was later to be known as Ellen, married Joseph William Smith.

Shelford (The Leigh) 1867

In about January 1859, while they were still at the Hardies Hill diggings, another child was born and named John. In July 1860, at the age of one year and seven months, he died at the Whim Holes diggings. Whim Holes is 10 km west of the Hardie Hills diggings so they had moved during this period. An inquest into the cause of John’s death returned a finding of accidental drowning. Click here to read the findings of the inquest. At it John, the father, is described as the Whim Holes storekeeper. Click here to see a picture of a typical diggings store.

Although alluvial mining had been going on in the area to the north of the town of Rokewood from 1852/53 in 1857 nuggets were discovered and so it quickly became a rush. At the time the Break o’ Day rush was considered to be one of the richest fields in the state. Nuggets were numerous, one of up to 300 ounces (troy = 31 grams) being found and one mine yielding 1,100 ounces in two hours. At 2009 value of A$1220 per ounce this is equivalent to $366,000 for a morning’s work! No wonder there was a rush to locations where there were new finds.

John built his first hotel at Break o’ Day (later Corindhap) in 1860, a timber structure. He was the second hotel-keeper in the town, after Mr. J. Jones who ran a grog shanty from a “calico structure”. Jock, as he was known, was “noted far and wide for his immense size. According to William McDonald writing in 1927 and a boy in Break o’ Day during the 1850s, Jock was 13 feet in girth and 27 stone [172kg]in weight.” Family legend has always understood him to weigh 31 stone[197kg].

This is the only photo of Jock which we have and it gives no clues as to its date or where it may have been taken. He appears to be in his 60s. We have no photo of Agnes.

Jock sold his first hotel, a timber structure, to James Giblin. He then built the Break O’ Day Hotel, a more substantial timber building, which was later to include a billiard room, store and butcher’s shop. The more substantial brick structure, pictured below was built on the site later and was named the Commercial Hotel. It still stands today, although is not licensed.

The Commercial Hotel in the late 19th or early 20th century. The hotel is on the left. The building in the centre is most likey the billiard room and the building on the right the butchers shop and possibly store.

In the late 1850s the town and district was said to have a population of around 5000. Tents and bark huts were the most common form of accommodation in the shire rate records, most of them occupied by single men.

“Shops and houses were distributed along a formed street; even tobacconists, jewellers and tailors were established, and trade was flourishing. Wealth seemed never ending. Lack of currency did not inconvenience the population, for small nuggets and fine gold formed the medium of exchange. Every tradesman had his delicately balanced gold scales. Old pioneers report having seen diggers spend £50 on Saturday nights over the bar counter.”

In 1862 The Leigh District Roads Board was formed with the intention of improving roads in the district. This body was the forerunner of the Leigh Shire Council. In November of 1863 John tendered for the task of rate collector for the entire Leigh district, an area of about 8000 square kilometres mostly to the south and east of Rokewood, along with seven or eight other contenders. He was unsuccessful in his bid but it is interesting to note that the successful tenderer was required to put down a £250 surety. This would mean that by this stage, ten years after his arrival in the colony, John had accumulated some substantial capital. When he left Glasgow the rate of pay for a labourer in Glasgow at the time was £1 per week.

In the Leigh District rate records of December 1863, the first year of such records, John Boyle is recorded as resident in Corindhap in what is described as a ‘house and store’, the rateable value of which was £12.

In 1864, following the accidental drowning of John, another son was born, and named John – to ‘replace’ the ones who had died previously. This giving of the same name as a child who had died earlier was a common Victorian-era practice. John married Mary Anne Moylan (Taylor).

John Boyle - possibly during 1930s

In October 1865 the rate records list John as the proprietor of the Break O’ Day Hotel, valued at £30. By 1866 outbuildings had been added and the rateable value had jumped to £64. In 1867 a daughter Agnes was born but she died the same year. In 1866 John is recorded as owning 20 acres of land at Pinchgut, north-east of the town. In 1867, as well as still being the proprietor of the hotel, John was leasing 20 acres of crown land in the town. In this year Corindhap “reached the zenith of its fame.” In 1868 another daughter was born at Rokewood and named Mary, although she was later to be known both as Nancy and Agnes. She married Ephraim Webb and they later emigrated to New Zealand.

Agnes Boyle (Webb) - possibly 1912

In the 1869 rate records John is listed as proprietor of the hotel, a billiard room, a store and butcher shop. Unfortunately the licensing records  for the Rokewood Court cannot be located so it is not possible to be more certain about Jock’s hostellery activities.

In 1857, a Mrs. Clacy described a diggings store in A Lady’s visit to the Gold Diggings:

The stores at the diggings are large tents generally square or oblong, and everything require by a digger can be obtained for money, from sugar-candy to potted anchovies; from East India pickles to Bass’s Pale Ale; from ankle jack boots to a pair of stays; from a baby’s cap to a cradle; and every apparatus for mining, from a pick to a needle. But the confusion – the din-  the medley-what a scene for a shop walker! Here lies a pair of herrings dripping into a bag of sugar, or a box of  raisins; there a gay-looking bundle of ribbons beneath two tumblers, and a half finished bottle of ale. Cheese and butter, bread and yellow soap, pork and currants, saddles and shovels, baby linen and tallow candles, are all heaped indiscriminately together; added to which there are children bawling, men swearing, store-keeper sulky, and last, not least, women’s tongues going nineteen to the dozen.

In 1871 John is listed as owning a house and store only, and his occupation is again miner. The rateable value was £16. In 1871 Marion was born at Rokewood. The yields of gold at Break o’ Day slowed markedly around 1870 and this may account for the family’s move from the town. At this point the presence of John in the rate records for Corindhap ceases.

The hotel in the early 20th century.

In 1872 a further son, Thomas, was born at Pitfield 15 km to the north-west on the Skipton road. There were no diggings at the town of Pitfield itself although there were diggings around it, particularly heading north towards Cape Clear and Piggoreet in the gully of the Woady Yalloak Creek. The Pitfield district population was around 1400 at the time and there was one hotel.

In 1873, the last child, William Charles was born. At this stage Agnes was 48 years of age (although 42 is declared on the birth certificate). William’s birth place is variously described as Piggoreet, The Devil’s Kitchen, Brownsvale or Golden Lake depending on which official records you read.

William Boyle - about 1905 age 32

The diggings around Piggoreet were all part of a very rich and active mining area 25 km SW of Ballarat, south of the town of Scarsdale, on the Woady Yalloak Creek. Piggoreet was the town located on the east side of the Woady Yalloak Creek, the Devil’s Kitchen itself was the gorge of the creek in which there was great mining activity, and Golden Lake was the town and mining area located on the west side of the creek, about 2 miles from Happy Valley further NW [see map above]. William is recorded as being born at Golden Lake on the west side of the creek.

The location of the main street of Piggoreet in 2008. In 1873 there were 1200 people living here. The school house was located on the hill to the right.

In 1872 there were around 1200 residents at this settlement. “Shops and hotels were numerous. Axemen, charcoal burners, sawyers and timber carters helped to swell the population … A common school was estimated to hold 200 pupils” The Golden Lake mines required a greater investment than the earlier hand digging or alluvial sluicing. In this area mines had to be bored through the hard surface cover of basalt and then layers of sedimentary rock. The deepest of the mines went down 600 metres accessing a seam of gold whose course approximated that of the Woady Yalloak Creek but was laid down in a river bed thousands of years earlier. The Lake, the most lucrative of the mines yielded 200 oz per week, about $244,000 in 2009 gold values.

On William’s birth certificate in 1873 the birth and death details for the other children of Agnes and John, along with their marriage details, are very confusing. Deceased children appear as alive and all of the births are recorded out of order compared to previous official records. When comparing the ages of John and Agnes across the birth certificates for all the children their ages vary dramatically from certificate to certificate and the location of their marriage is also listed in a range of different places in Scotland.

Officially Marion is recorded as dying at 3 months of age in 1871. Her brother Thomas is recorded as dying at 18 months old in 1872. But on William’s birth certificate in March 1873 both are shown as being still alive; Marion (Mirroan) as 3 ½ and Thomas as 1 ½. Those other children who had died (Allan, John and Agnes) are shown as deceased. To compound confusion all the children are out of birth order on William’s birth certificate when compared to official birth records. And while John and Agnes are shown on William’s birth certificate as being married at Hamilton in Lanarkshire in 1854, on Hellen’s birth certificate at Shelford, in 1854, they are shown as married in Kirkoswald, Ayrshire in 1844. On John’s birth certificate in 1864 they are shown as being married in Stirlingshire.

One is tempted to consider that maybe John married twice or that there were two different families. While there is not evidence for this it does highlight the apparent laxity with which they regarded birth and death details. But considering the tenuousness of life, particularly for small children, these matters were surely the least of their concerns. Maybe the comment of a digger, W. Barley, writing home to Britain sheds some light on this laxity with details of time and place, “ I have lost all my reckoning. I do not even know how old I am and how long I have been here.”

At the time of William’s birth in 1873: “there was a population of around 1200 at Piggoreet and a bank and five hotels. In the early 1870s the town was at the height of its prosperity; rates and taxes were low; firewood was abundant; the rabbit was not in competition with the stock for grass; the customs, habits and ambitions of the householders were not over-ambitious or clanish; nor social, religious or political controversies divided them, they were contended and happy; they engaged in the games their fathers enjoyed in the old country. … The sawn-timber hardwood weatherboard house with shingle roof predominated. … Almost every house had its own garden. Neither water, gas, nor electricity were laid on; in those times a barrel at the house-corner, a waterhole, a well-worn footpath and a few kerosene tins formed the water supply.”

In 1866 there were sixteen mining companies listed for Piggoreet such was the level of activity there. Not one house or building assoiated with mining remains in the area today, the only evidence being large scattered mullock heaps.  Mining often stopped for extended periods due to inundation of the underground mines by water and at times miners had to wait weeks before the water was cleared and they could return to work.

The Devil’s Kitchen is a steep-sided gorge of basalt cliffs flanking the Woady Yalloak River. From the top of the gorge cliffs the din and activity from the hundreds of miners below would certainly have made the place appear like the Devil’s Kitchen.

The Try Again mine in the Devil’s Kitchen

in the early 1920s.

In July 1880 the rate records for Corindhap list Agnes as the owner of a house and garden of which a John E. Carricci is tenant. In Bailliere’s Post Office Directory of 1880/81 John is again listed as Storekeeper, Corindhap. It seems, though, that sometime after 1880/81 John and Agnes moved to Melbourne. From 1883 to1885 a Mrs. Agnes Boyle is recorded as living at 14 A’Beckett St West – a few doors west of Elizabeth St. This residence was next door to the Tarrengower Hotel. At this time there were 12 hotels in A'Beckett St alone – a street of only three city blocks. During the 1880s and 1890s Melbourne’s population swelled enormously as the number of people engaged in gold mining shrank due to mechanisation. At the same time Melbourne was undergoing the Land Boom. The suburbs of Fitzroy and Collingwood saw great influxes of poorer people from mining areas, the Boyles being some of these.