In about 1869 Sarah Davenport sat down to record her experiences of immigration and life in New South Wales and Victoria in the 1840s and fifties. Her laboriously handwritten account was entitled 'Scech of an emegrants Life in australia from Leiving England in the year of our Lord 1841'. It is held in the collection of the State Library of Victoria. Sarah's reminiscences are especially significant because they record the experiences of an ordinary working woman. Few such accounts survive. Most of the accounts of life on the diggings were written by educated men and women, many of them published authors. Sarah's 'scech'  by contrast is far from a polished narrative.  The spelling is erratic, the punctuation almost non-existent and the narrative bald, but Sarah's personality shines through the awkward expression, demanding our respect down the years for her determination and her resilience in the face of her many 'tryals'. We travel with her to rural New South Wales, then the rough diggings of gold-rush Victoria, willing her to succeed against the odds. For a brief few years we catch a glimpse of her everyday life. Then just as abruptly the account ends and we are left wondering about her fate. Did she find the prosperity she sought? There is little in the historical record to help us.  But we do know that she lived to the ripe old age of 87 and that she died in 1896 in the Victorian town of Yarroweyah near where her children were farming.

'we was all in good hopes that we was coming to better ourselves'

In the early nineteenth century the decision to emigrate to Australia was not made lightly. The journey was long and dangerous, the outcome uncertain. But like many others at this time, Sarah and her husband Samuel thought they had little chance of advancement at home.  They hoped that in coming to Australia they might 'better' themselves. Sarah was 31 at this point and the mother of three children - the youngest a baby or a toddler . Samuel was a cabinet maker, a trade that should have provided him with a secure living, but he was often unwell, prone, according to Sarah, to 'the sick headache almost every week'. As she said: 'i had to work very hard my self to keep our family and i found my strenth getting very low i concluded the best to try a new country'.

The beginning was not auspicious. Their ship had barely left Liverpool when it struck a sand bar. They all managed to get off safely, but it was a terrifying experience and they lost almost all of their belongings. Sarah had to go back to her family in Manchester to borrow more money, but was still resolved to leave England. They boarded another ship and set sail, but tragedy lurked in the difficult on-board conditions. Her youngest son was badly scalded in an accident involving another passenger and died two weeks later.  This would have been an horrific accident for mother and baby, with no effective treatment or pain relief. Sarah was too traumatised to mourn properly. 'this was a more sever trial than the ship wreck i cold not cry one tear i was stund'. In her grief she miscarried another baby. 'i had what was called a purmature [premature] labour and that babe was throne in the sea i was almost Dumb with grief i thought my tryals was heavy'. Her husband proved no comfort to her and she had to struggle on with the help of other passengers: 'i had a sore hart but i battld hard against brooding over my tryals.'


To the diggings

Sadly for Sarah and Samuel, New South Wales proved little better than England. Sarah gave birth to another son, but was ill for many months with a breast abscess and other problems. Her husband was loathe to accept any rough carpentering work and they were very poor at times. Sarah was also concerned that she could not provide proper schooling for her children. As she recorded 'i had taught them to read and spell but i could get neither slates nor copy books'. In Melbourne things improved.  Her husband found steady work and she took in washing, 'and soon things got a little comfortable about us'. Another son was born in March 1847. Samuel made her a mangle and she 'made fair money with it'.

When gold was discovered Samuel and the two eldest boys went to Ballarat to try their luck.  They had some success, but Samuel's hands blistered and 'puffed up' and he asked Sarah to come to help him. She borrowed three pounds from a neighbour and travelled to the diggings by coach. Sarah seems to have left the younger children in Melbourne, probably with her daughter who was then aged in her teens.


A feisty woman prevails over ruffians and rowdies

Life on the early diggings was rough and could be hazardous for a woman.  Sarah writes frankly that 'thair was a great deal of ruffians thair ...and they dank [drank] and fought each other but we ware not molested tho surrounded by them'. She describes the rush that followed the announcement of a new find at Mount Alexander: 'word came one day that mount Alexander was the place such a rush took place many a time in my quietate momeyts I think of that day when the word cam such packing up all was bussel'. She and her husband joined with some 'rowdies' to buy a horse and cart to move to the new area, but the ruffians tried to cheat them - refusing to put their things on the cart. They reckoned without Sarah! Although Samuel was, according to Sarah, 'quite nervous', she stood up to the men: 'now' i said 'i bought the hors and if you do not tak my things i will just brake one of his legs i am a woman of my word you cannot hurt me I bought it'. She prevailed. We can imagine the tension of the moment and the feisty woman standing up to the group of ruffians. Reflecting about this incident later Sarah seems to have thought that this behaviour required some explanation. Perhaps she thought that it was not consistent with proper womanly behaviour. 'i should not have been perseveary {persevering?]', she writes, 'but my husband seemed so exciteted and i did not wish him to be disapointid'.  Of course she didn't!


Perils of the roads to the diggings

The paths to the diggings were rough and difficult.  They could also be dangerous.  There were plenty of shady characters about ready to prey on the unwary, or the careless.  Sarah's reminiscences of the journey to Mount Alexander suggest that travellers had to be vigilant at all times:

we was four days traviling to Mount alexander at nights when we camped one of us had to watch the hors all night for thair was plenty of hors stealing as some of the partis that got drunk and neglected to take that precaution found to thair loss we arrived on November 5 we looked for a quiet place to camp and put up our tents and got ready to dig for goold.


Sarah finds gold!

Once at Mount Alexander the family found a quiet spot and settled down to dig. The 'goold' was 'plentiful' and they were finding about one ounce per day. She and 'another wife' decided to try some fossicking of their own.

we had not been thair maney days when me and another wife whent a looking around the hills we had each a knife and a tin plate to get goold in if we shold find anny ...i soon picked up a piece about a quarter of an ounce my youngest son came for the dinner and said they wold make two ounces or more 'tell father I will make three' for we had found a patch of surface we got a tub and pick and spade and washed one tub full we carried down to the creek to wash in a buket and washed it and finished in a tin dish [the] first tubful yealded about a 3 ounces the next 4 we was in high glee when both her husbands party and my husband and sons came and to work they went and so we had to give in but we had made 7 ounces it was fryday'.

This was triumph indeed, even if the women did have to yield their find to the men in the end. Sarah continued to work alongside her husband and sons, washing gold as she had earlier washed clothes: 'my sons was yong and my husband was but weak so to encourage them i helped to wash the stuff for gold'.


The troopers and the matter of a gold licence

All miners on the gold fields were required to have a licence to dig. Licences were expensive - initially one pound for a month's licence. For comparison a good carpenter at this time might earn 10 shillings per day, but many earned far less than this. Those digging for gold took their chances.  Many found nothing, but they still had to buy a licence or face arrest by the troopers.  One day Sarah was washing gold when troopers came along and demanded to see her licence. She did not have one, but her husband did.  Sarah was a quick-witted woman and not easily intimidated by the troopers. In the mid-nineteenth century a married woman had no separate legal status from her husband and Sarah was obviously well aware of this. 'i said "my husband has got a licence and the Parson made us one he will be hear soon" "you must have one" i said "the Parson made us one are you goin to devid [divide] us?" Mr Street was one of them he rode off laughing and the troopers followed him'. Once again Sarah stood up for herself and prevailed.


Back to Melbourne and ...?

Shortly after this incident Samuel decided to quit the diggings.  They had found 70 ounces in all - worth, according to Sarah, nearly 200 pounds.  Sarah would have preferred to stay longer, 'but was forced to comply'. It is not quite clear what happened next. Her husband apparently tried to buy both a horse and a block of land on Collingwood Flat, (against her advice) but may have been cheated. He then went off to Bendigo with their sons, leaving her to the mercy of several 'rowdies' in a neighbouring tent, who tried to bully her into storing grog for them: 'they bosted what injury they wold do if I wold not i wold not nor i did not', she wrote stoutly. Shortly afterwards her husband returned with a horse and cart and they returned to Melbourne, to vanish, effectively, from the historical record. When next we hear of Sarah she was living in Yarrowyah, where she died at the age of 87 in 1896, but her reminiscences leave an indelible impression of a strong, determined woman, prepared to meet life's challenges with courage and persistence.


Sarah Davenport's reminiscences are held in the Manuscript collection at the State Library of Victoria: MS 9784

Author: Margaret Anderson, Old Treasury Building

[bg_collapse view="link" color="#783f40" expand_text="Further reading" collapse_text="Reduce" ]

Margaret Anderson, 'Mrs Charles Clacy, Lola Montez and Poll the Grogseller: Glimpses of Women on the Early Victorian Goldfields', in Iain McCalman, Alexander Cook & Andrew Reeves (eds) Gold: Forgotten Histories and Lost Objects of Gold Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 225-43.

Patricia Grimshaw & Charles Fahey, 'Family and Community in nineteenth-century Castlemaine', in Patricia Grimshaw, Chris McConville & Ellen McEwan (eds) Families in Colonial Australia Sydney, George Allen & Unwin, 1985, pp. 83-104.