Goldfields Girl by Elaine Forrestal is a historical novel for middle readers featuring real-life nineteenth-century teenager Clara Saunders. In this blog post, Elaine takes us into the exciting, dusty, fly-ridden world of a gold rush.
Sniffing out gold
Prospectors Arthur Bayley and Paddy Hannan both had reputations for being able to ‘smell’ gold. That is, to find gold in places where others had walked right past it. In fact, the first nugget Arthur Bayley found at the now legendary Reward Reef was reportedly lying in a boot print. Someone else had stepped right on it! When it was discovered in September 1892, Bayley’s Reward was the largest reef of pure gold in the world. The slightly larger Kalgoorlie Golden Mile, just 30 miles away, was not discovered until June 1893.
A long journey to an uncertain future
Clara Saunders was just 14 years old when she left her family behind and travelled, with her mother’s consent, 168 miles out into the desert east of Southern Cross to live and work among the fluctuating group of about 2,000 rough-and-ready prospectors camped around Reward Reef. Clara’s journey with five men in a horse-drawn coach, through isolated country with only wheel tracks to follow, took three days.
A buzzing atmosphere
The prospectors lived in tents or slept under the stars, but they tended to cluster together in groups for company and security. The camps became identified by the places where their inhabitants had come from. ‘T’Othersiders’ came from the east coast of Australia, Sandgropers from Western Australia. The camp where men from the USA congregated became known as Montana, the Irish camp Tipperary and so on. Mail deliveries were infrequent, but eagerly awaited. Letters would arrive addressed loosely, for example Seamus, last seen at Tipperary Camp or Mr Henry Bolt esq. near Bayley’s Reward. The area surrounding the Reward Reef itself was known as Fly Flat after its most prevalent and annoying occupants. Eventually the name became official and is still to be found on maps today. Some of these names can still be found in and around the town today.
A safe place for food
Living with intense heat and pesky flies made it difficult to keep fresh food from spoiling. To keep this precious commodity edible, the Coolgardie Safe evolved. No-one knows who made the first one, and they vary according to the materials lying around, but they all work on a system of evaporation (just like some modern air-conditioners) and recycled water. Basically, a length of hessian was draped over the top and sides of a metal box. A tray of water was placed on top. Small holes punched into the tray allowed the water to seep into the hessian and keep it wet. The constant desert wind blowing through the wet hessian kept the inside of the metal box cool and the water slowly dripped into another tray – without holes – at the bottom. Usually a door of some sort would be fitted, or cut in, to one side, making a secure cupboard for storing fresh meat and other items. No good for making iceblocks, but better than having to eat flyblown food.
Singalongs and bush bands
When Clara arrived with the first rush of prospectors, she was one of the lucky ones who actually had a roof over her head. A bush hut had been built and quickly became the Exchange Hotel. But there was no water for showers or flushing toilets; no electricity for lights or cooking. Of course, there was no internet, TV or Spotify either! But there was plenty of singing, dancing and partying in the evenings. Many of the men had walked the 168 miles from Southern Cross, and most musical instruments were impossible to carry on your back along with your bed-roll, cooking pot and tools. Some of the prospectors, however, had brought mouth organs, accordions and ukuleles with them. Bush bands formed and re-formed according to who happened to be in the bar on any given night. Everyone sang. And it didn’t matter whether you were wearing your work boots or your silver dancing shoes, everyone joined in the fun.
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Read a sample chapter.
Download a Goldfields Girl crossword puzzle.