What was eaten on the Goldfields?

Food on the Goldfields

Butchers Shambles, by S. T. Gill. Ballarat Gold Museum Collection 86_628

Butchers Shambles, by S. T. Gill.
Image: Gold Museum Collection 86_628

What types of foods were eaten during the gold rush? What utensils were used to cook with? What was life like for a cook in the gold rush? What things did they cook on? Was it hard for a cook? Did the children or men ever help the women? These were the questions sent to us by a year 9 girl recently. These are very good questions and we’re not sure we can answer all of them here. But evidence of the eating and cooking habits of diggers can be found in their letters home, diaries, newspapers and in some of the paintings and sketches from this time.

It is generally believed that the first diggers on the goldfields lived on Mutton and Damper (Old sheep and camp bread) at first. This could be true, as it would take time to grow vegetables, and at first diggers were not allowed to plant gardens. Sheep would have been plentiful, as Squatters had already established large holdings of land, with huge herds of sheep. This all makes sense, but are we being too general, and can we find evidence of this being the case?

Firstly lets look at the picture above, “The Butcher Shambles” by S. T.  Gill. Gill was a contemporary artist who visited the Victorian Goldfields, and we can use his sketches to interpret what life was like at the time. This picture shows the butcher calmly reading his paper, while the sheep carcases he has butchered hang from his veranda.  Gill must have forgotten all the flies, and luckily we can’t smell pictures.

Letter from James Petford. Gold Museum , Petford Letters Collection

Letter from James Petford.
Gold Museum , Petford Letters Collection

This letter by James Petford, held by the Gold Museum of Ballarat says much the same. His handwriting and spelling is very hard to decipher, so here is a translated excerpt:

…The 2 pound coffee which cost 3 [pence] is now 6 pence. Meat according butter [now] 2 [and] 6 per pound and rising now. I do not know where it will end… You wish to know about the price of fish called ‘garfish,’ [which is] about the size of a Yarmouth herring. [It is] pence per [???]. Others in proportion, fowls [are] about 3 [and] 6 per pair. I have not seen a fire grate since I’ve been here. There is a sewer [?] hole left at the bottom level with the flour, and we burn wood, which is very dear [at] 18 shillings for a small cartload. Our chief vegetable is potatoes. [At] 7 pounds for 6 very likely we shall get them cheaper when we have got a marketplace…

While this is very difficult to understand, we can make out that he is obviously upset about the prices ao food and the primitive cooking conditions. It was written just before Gold was discovered in Buninyong (August 1851), and may have been written in Adelaide but it shows the diet was restricted to what could be sourced locally.

There were some exceptions to the rule though. Diann Talbot says in The Buckland Valley Goldfield that stores sometimes sold tins of oysters, sardines and lobster as well as jars of pickles which would have added greatly to the diggers diet.

96011510 Digger's HutWomen who came to the goldfields would have done most, if not all the cooking for their family. Their increased knowledge of recipes, and determination to bring other forms of food with them would have made their cooking more popular than that of most male cooks. Indeed Caroline Chisholm is recorded as developing several different recipes for salt beef. Station Jack, Queens Nightcap, Trout Dumplings and Stewed Goose were all made with salt beef, in differing ways to make them seem different.

Want the recipes? What about the answers to the other questions? Then watch this space, as our intrepid volunteer Jenni Fithall spends the next two nights (19th &20th March 2013) living in one of our cottages.

51 responses to “What was eaten on the Goldfields?

  1. thanks for the info for my projet. 😉

  2. Hi its Tiena Leah’s friend youre info helped me alot to thanks you helped us alot 🙂

  3. This really helped my extend my brief knowledge of the amazing Australian Gold Rush.
    Anonymous.

  4. I’m doing a report and I Can’t find I

  5. I’m doing a project, does anyone know the clothes people wore on the goldfields during the gold rush?

    • Hi there. We have lots of information on our blog about the clothes worn on the goldfields- if you go to our blog (http://sovereignhilledblog.com) then type “clothing” into “Search This Site” which is on the right-hand side of the page, you will find information on women’s, men’s and children’s fashion on the goldfields. Let us know if you have more specific questions about 1850’s fashion =)

  6. we’re doing a project for class on the goldrush and this rly rly rly helped us alot is there anymore basic information, would be fantastic thankyou

  7. realy helped with my work

  8. Thank you for the help

  9. I had ot finish a project at the last minute and you guys are life savers😅

  10. What living utensils did the Chinese miners use?

  11. I was also wondering if you could tell me what equipment was use to mine for the ‘Chinese miners.’ I was hoping you could tell me as soon as possible. Sorry for the inconvenience. Thank you. 😍

  12. This page was very helpful. Could you please tell me how much gold was mined in the gold rush.(if not no biggie)

  13. Thank you so much for this page! I was just wondering though, was it possible for immigrants who came to Australia for the gold rush to send letters back home to Europe and America? Thanks!

  14. Also I was wondering if you had any information or primary sources of the riots? Thanks again!

  15. What were butchers shops made out of? And what did the butchers do to keep meat from going bad? And what did they do about flies?

    • Hi Will 🙂 Goldrush artist S. T. Gill sketched lots of Victorian “Butcher’s Shambles”, and they all appear to be made from slabs of wood and bark. Take a look at some of his sketches here: http://trove.nla.gov.au/picture/result?q=butcher+S+T+gill. Apparently you could locate the butcher’s by looking for the cloud of flies above it… Nothing much existed to protect the meat from flies in those days, but meat was slaughtered fresh, and by squeezing the meat (which we see depicted in lots of Gill’s work) you could test how old it was. If you squeezed it and maggots came out, you weren’t getting the freshest cuts of the day. Yuk!

  16. This helped me a lot

  17. Kathryn Griffin

    thanks for the excellent information on what was eaten on the goldfields. Could you let us know if you have any specific information on what the Chinese ate on the goldfields?
    Many thanks,
    Kath & Gemma

  18. Hi please I need to know what kind of ingredients were used in 1850
    Gold rush. I have a project for school. Thanks. I have to create a recipe

  19. Thank you so much for your help.

  20. Cool. Can u at least find some more info about Food of the Gold Rush? Thx.

  21. you need to add a website about policemen on the goldfields

  22. What utensils did a butcher use in the gold rush?

    • Probably the best way to find an answer to this question Mitch is to do a Google Image search of this: ST Gill butcher (just copy and paste this into your search). Take a look at these great sketches made by the the goldrush artist Samuel T. Gill for clues as to the kinds of tools butchers used in those days 🙂

  23. What food did they eat at the gold rush in Ballarat?

  24. Reblogged this on Karen'sLittleWonders and commented:
    Trying to work out what my great great grand mother would have eaten.

  25. Best advice ever

  26. Hi I am doing a project relating to gold I am really interested in law and order can you give me any information on that thanks

  27. When is this made

  28. hi what did aboriginals eat

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