Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 11, 2018

A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia in 1852-53 (1853), by Ellen Clacy

I read this goldfields memoir for the week (15-21 January) dedicated to the first generation of Australian women writers hosted by Bill at The Australian Legendbut I’m not convinced that we can include Ellen Clacy amongst the honour roll of Australian writers, because she was English, and only here in Australia for a very few months. Wikipedia has this (and not much else) to say:

Little biographical information is available about Ellen Louise Clacy (née Von Sturmer).
The information that is available indicates that her life was less “proper” than it appeared in her most well-known work.
Born in 1830 in Richmond, Surrey, England, one of 5 children of clergyman Frederick Sturmer and Mary Norris.
In 1852 she travelled to Australia with her eldest brother to seek their fortunes on the goldfields of Victoria.
Clacy returned to England by ship without her brother a couple of months after arriving in Melbourne, and gave birth to her daughter Ellen Louise Clacy on board ship during the return journey.
After her return from Australia, Clacy began writing under the pseudonym “Cycla”.
In 1854, she married Charles Berry Clacy, a merchant’s clerk and mining engineer.
There seems to be some indication that she was abandoned by her husband, and she was said to support herself by writing articles for newspapers.
Ellen Clacy died in London in 1901.

Whatever about Clacy’s respectability, according to a source at Goodreads, her journal is a key resource for historical novelists, and it’s certainly interesting to read a woman’s perspective on the Gold Rush.  She has a wry style, as you can see from her thoughts about the row boat from shore to ship:

Everything was ready—boxes packed, tinned, and corded; farewells taken, and ourselves whirling down by rail to Gravesend—too much excited—too full of the future to experience that sickening of the heart, that desolation of the feelings, which usually accompanies an expatriation, however voluntary, from the dearly loved shores of one’s native land. Although in the cloudy month of April, the sun shone brightly on the masts of our bonny bark, which lay in full sight of the windows of the “Old Falcon,” where we had taken up our temporary quarters. The sea was very rough, but as we were anxious to get on board without farther delay, we entrusted our valuable lives in a four-oared boat, despite the dismal prognostications of our worthy host. A pleasant row that was, at one moment covered over with salt-water—the next riding on the top of a wave, ten times the size of our frail conveyance—then came a sudden concussion—in veering our rudder smashed into a smaller boat, which immediately filled and sank, and our rowers disheartened at this mishap would go no farther. The return was still rougher—my face smarted dreadfully from the cutting splashes of the salt-water; they contrived, however, to land us safely at the “Old Falcon,” though in a most pitiable plight; charging only a sovereign for this delightful trip—very moderate, considering the number of salt-water baths they had given us gratis. In the evening a second trial proved more successful, and we reached our vessel safely. (Kindle Locations 43-39)

I was intrigued that she had so little to say about ‘crossing the line’.   I was a rather prim and proper little girl when my family crossed the Equator on board the Stirling Castle, and I remember the raucous hijinks vividly.  There was a Captain Neptune and his crew, shaving foam was sprayed about, and while the ladies only got tipsy, the men got rather drunk (something I had never seen before).  To be given a certificate like mine (at right) passengers had to submit to being chucked into the swimming pool, but children were (mercifully) exempt.  What makes me suspicious is that Wikipedia tells us – and you can see from the drawing by Jules de Caudin below – it’s an ancient ceremony that would almost certainly have taken place aboard Clacy’s ship, which strangely, she fails to name.  Were there some hijinks that Miss Clacy cares not to share, I wonder?  Is her evasiveness about which ship it was something to do with the illegitimate daughter born on her return journey? 

Line-crossing ceremony aboard Méduse on the first of July 1816, by Jules de Caudin

Poor Ellen, she was not very impressed by Melbourne.  Our pier wasn’t up to expectations, Despite having been warned that accommodation is at a premium because of the Gold Rush, she’s not at all grateful to have a roof over her head… there were too many dogs, and revolvers were cracking in all directions until daybreak. OTOH she writes with some understanding about the reasons for the exorbitant costs of transporting goods by dray… not just carters taking advantage of the rush to the diggings but also because of the dreadful roads, the inevitable damage to the dray and sometimes, the fate of horses that were stuck in a swamp.  She’s also well aware of the danger of bushrangers, but fairly sanguine because her fellow travellers had provided themselves with weapons, (though she did think that firearms might attract rather than repel attention).  And no Melburnian can fail to be intrigued by her descriptions of places such as Flemington that are suburbs now but were outposts of civilisation then.

Flemington is a neat little village or town-ship, consisting of about forty houses, a blacksmith’s shop, several stores, and a good inn, built of brick and stone, with very fair accommodation for travellers, and a large stable and stock-yards.  (Kindle Locations 323-324).

(On my Kindle edition, I can see that this excerpt has been highlighted by other readers too).

The journey, mostly in pelting rain, offered little in the way of consolations until they reach Mt Macedon:

Mount Macedon became more distinct, and our proximity to a part of the country which we knew to be auriferous, exercised an unaccountable yet pleasureable influence over our spirits, which was perhaps increased by the loveliness of the spot where we now pitched our tents for the evening. It was at the foot of the Gap. The stately gum-tree, the shea-oak, with its gracefully drooping foliage, the perfumed yellow blossom of the mimosa, the richly-wooded mountain in the background, united to form a picture too magnificent to describe. The ground was carpeted with wild flowers; the sarsaparilla blossoms creeping everywhere; before us slowly rippled a clear streamlet, reflecting a thousand times the deepening tints which the last rays of the setting sun flung over the surrounding scenery; the air rang with the cawing of the numerous cockatoos and parrots of all hues and colours who made the woods resound with their tones, whilst their restless movements and gay plumage gave life and piquancy to the scene. This night our beds were composed of the mimosa, which has a perfume like the hawthorn. The softest-looking branches were selected, cut down, and flung upon the ground beneath the tents, and formed a bed which, to my wearied limbs, appeared the softest and most luxuriant upon which I had slept since my arrival in the colonies. (Kindle Locations 418-427).

Meeting other travellers with tales of robbery and murder makes them more cautious.  Their leader abandons the journey to return to Melbourne, but not Ellen.  She was certainly not averse to risky adventures!  They continue to camp out rather than succumb to the enormous prices at the inns they pass: she lists their charges in detail.

(Which made me realise.. despite the difficulties and discomforts, Ellen must have been taking notes or keeping a journal throughout the trip).

They are encouraged by successful diggers returning to Melbourne for a spree (though Ellen feels obliged to make disapproving remarks about them wasting their money).  Two of their party illegally buy mining licences from the men, and Ellen (writing before the Eureka Stockade in 1854) goes into considerable detail about how the tax operates and the fines for not having a licence.  She also retells an anecdote about a digger successfully evading capture, (and later on, when they are at Forest Creek reports on major unrest about a rise in licence fees).

After a journey of eleven days, they finally arrive at Bendigo (now an easy two hour drive from our place, less than that from the northern suburbs of Melbourne:

…the diggings themselves burst upon our view. Never shall I forget that scene, it well repaid a journey even of sixteen thousand miles. The trees had been all cut down; it looked like a sandy plain, or one vast unbroken succession of countless gravel pits—the earth was everywhere turned up—men’s heads in every direction were popping up and down from their holes.  (Kindle Locations 599-602).

I can understand why this book is so valued by writers of historical fiction.  Clacy writes vividly about the diggings and its dangers, the lawlessness and mob justice, as well as the profiteering and the money to be made from the stores that supply food, equipment, clothing and of course liquor.  Providing lodging is profitable too.

A new style of lodging and boarding house is in great vogue. It is a tent fitted up with stringy bark couches, ranged down each side the tent, leaving a narrow passage up the middle. The lodgers are supplied with mutton, damper, and tea, three times a day, for the charge of 5s. a meal, and 5s. for the bed; this is by the week, a casual guest must pay double, and as 18 inches is on an average considered ample width to sleep in, a tent 24 feet long will bring in a good return to the owner. (Kindle Locations 664-668).

(She also details the agreement forged by their party to make sure that costs and profits are shared).

After all their efforts, their party is initially not very successful at Eagle Hawk.  Prematurely, as it turns out, one returns to employment in Melbourne, the other is robbed on the road of what little he had and had to borrow his passage home to England.  But a stroll in the bush on the Sabbath ends in disaster and they are lucky not to be utterly lost.

More than once Clacy makes anti-Semitic remarks, but she is alert to the social problems that arise on the diggings.  En route from Iron Bark they come across an orphaned child aged about ten making a meagre living for her sick grandfather by making diggers’ veils and candles.  When he dies, they take Jessie into their care.  When they fall prey to bushrangers on their return journey to Melbourne, it’s young Jessie who proves her worth and enables their rescue!

Clacy also writes brief chapters about Ballarat and Geelong (which meets with her approval more than Melbourne does, though apart from its lawlessness she has more to approve of by the time she returns to Melbourne in October). She writes about Bathurst via Sydney which is now one of the finest cities that our colonial empire ever produced and also Adelaide, (which meets her approval since it wasn’t settled by convicts) but she doesn’t give her sources for what she knows, writing only that it would be useless to enter into fuller particulars of the diggings of New South Wales. Panoramas, newspapers, and serials have made them familiar to all. (Kindle Locations 1630-1632).

She provides a summary of the climate, and descriptions of flora and fauna, briefly mentions the controversy over transportation and the efforts of Caroline Chisholm to support unaccompanied females, and concludes her book with a lengthy analysis of the pros and cons of emigration.

However, she also tells a sobering tale about the ruin of a young lady called Mary, victim of a shipboard romance en route to meet up with her brother and a villain’s unfulfilled promises to marry her when she is pregnant after one evening together alone. 

To describe her agony would be impossible. Day after day, week after week, and no tidings from him came; conscience too acutely accounting to her for his faithlessness. Then the horrible truth forced itself upon her, that its consequences would soon too plainly declare her sin before the world; that upon her innocent offspring would fall a portion of its mother’s shame. (Kindle Locations 1550-1552).

Knowing, as we now do, Clacy’s own personal history, it’s hard not to draw conclusions from this anecdote.  Although ‘Mary’s’ child dies, and she casts herself into some raging river, and Mary’s brother dies in his pursuit of justice for his sister, the irrelevance of the story is striking, and – given the mores of the time – its subject matter may well have limited the publication and marketing of her book for ‘respectable’ households. Clacy must have known that including a salacious tale was risky, so she must have had a reason for inserting it.  When later on she concludes by informing her readers that she is to be married herself to a man named only as Caro Sposo (dear husband) without any mention of how she met him or the wedding or anything else about him, well… poor Ellen, it would have been very difficult for a clergyman’s daughter to return to England with an infant but no husband, so who would blame her for inventing one?

Author: Ellen Clacy
Title: A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia in 1852-53
Publisher: Project Gutenberg 2009, first published 1853, publisher unknown.



  1. Wonderful to see this being discussed. Ellen Clacy may not be ‘Australian’ but her account of the diggings is as you suggest a most valuable work for historians and novelists both. Have you read Robyn Annear’s ‘Nothing But Gold’? (1999 Text Publishing) It’s a fabulous book about the diggers, by a genuine Australian woman.


    • Hi Carmel:) Indeed I have read Robyn Annear’s book (and reviewed it here). I have loved her writing ever since I heard her talk about Bearbrass at some festival or another, went home with the book and have raved about it to whoever will listen ever since! I think I’ve read everything of hers, and I’ve featured her on Meet an Aussie Author too, the year she was shortlisted for the Melbourne Prize for Writing with an essay she wrote.
      Come to think of it, it’s been a while since she’s had a new book for me to read, I hope there’s one on the way…


  2. That was fascinating, I’m glad I recommended it to you, now I’ll have to read it myself. I don’t mind that she’s not Australian, there’s plenty of Australian writing by non Australians – think Henry Kingsley or Raffaello Carboni, other visitors who wrote of this period. And Caroline Chisholm whom you mention, later set up a refuge/way-stop for women and families traveling between Melb and Bendigo.


    • The Offspring has a wonderful Lone Female on the Melbourne docks story in his family history. Elizabeth Gazzard was so overwhelmed by a crush of men about her on the docks that she said ‘yes’ to the first man that offered to marry her. He turned out to be Antonio Francisco Nioa who’d jumped ship off a Portugese Man’o’War. Off they went to the diggings where they were quite successful, Elizabeth producing 13 children (if I remember correctly) under a tent. Here she is:


  3. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  4. Such vivid descriptions of Australian history and hoow wonderful she recorded it. She could have told people she had a husband who died suddenly on ship. That prrobably did happen. Interesting review. I enjoyed it.


    • Yes, it’s the fact that she kept a journal under those conditions that’s so amazing. I mean, I know that keeping a journal was a common activity in those days, but when you read how they got tossed around and bogged on the roads and she was jammed on the dray between boxes and a cheese of all things, and then as the only woman probably had to do the lion’s share of making whatever meals they had, she must have been exhausted – and then trying to write in a makeshift tent in the dark!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I know, it is an amazing accomplishment. If I get home from a movie too late at night I can’t write anything haha.


        • LOL You only have to look at my travel blog to see how often I just upload photos and don’t write much at all!


  5. Oooh, thanks for introducing me to this – it sounds so interesting. I’ll download it now. And I drive through The Gap (near where she so evocatively camped in your excerpt) multiple times per week. Not quite such beautiful spot anymore, although on a clear day you can see the bay.


    • Yes, she says that about being able to see the bay.
      But it is still gorgeous up that way… we go to Woodend every year for the Winter Arts Festival and usually do a bit of wandering around in the area (Macedon, Kyneton etc) and it is lovely.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Fascinatin and very educational for me. Thanks!


  7. […] ANZLitLovers of: Ellen Clacy, A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia in 1852-53 here Bronwen Hickman, Mary Gaunt: Independent Colonial Woman […]


  8. I first came across Clacy in Clare Wright’s The forgotten rebels of Eureka. It was eye-opening and I haven’t forgotten her. What a great resources hers, and the writings of other women on the goldfields, are; what insight they provide into other perspectives on life in colonial Australia.


    • *smacks forehead* Gosh, I’d read that too, but I didn’t remember about Clacy being in it.


      • For some reason I remembered her well – the name, the circumstance of her coming out, the fact that hers was published.


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