Category Archives: children

Women on the Goldfields Part 3 – Working in the Home

chamber

.A costumed character at Sovereign Hill emptying the contents of a chamber pot. This is yellow cordial, not real urine.

The most valuable and respected role a European woman in the 19th century could undertake was that of housewife. Making a home, which included: raising the next generation (educating children, feeding them a nutritious diet, and caring for them during times of sickness), managing all of the chores, mastering needlework, and being able to make an excellent meal for guests, was an accomplishment that women worked hard to achieve, as many still do today.

This final blogpost in our series on goldrush women focuses on the domestic lives of European women living on Victoria’s goldfields in the 1850s.def3

The Art of Housewifery

The culture that European immigrants brought to Australia’s goldfields promoted the idea that women should manage the private life of the family, while men should be involved in public life, which included holding a job outside the home. During this time in history, housewifery was a highly honourable family and community role for women, and the majority of women were proud to perform it (as many are today). While 21st century Australian women might not hold housewifery in the same high regard, it is important to respect the status of housewifery back then.

A woman’s success in housewifery depended very much on her education in the ‘domestic arts’ and the money her husband could spend on their household.

cooking

A Sovereign Hill volunteer teaching visitors how butter was made by hand in a mid-19th century kitchen.

While some girls were being sent to school at this time in European history, it was much more common for boys to attend lessons with a qualified teacher. Girls instead were typically kept at home where their mothers would teach them how to cook, clean, sew and raise children because these were the most important skills for a woman to have at this time. Girls who were taught to read (which was considered worthwhile by many as they could then teach that skill to their children) could also learn from books on housewifery such as ‘Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management’ (published in 1861). Even if girls had the opportunity to attend school, they were often taught gendered skills like sewing, which was particularly helpful to those whose mothers had died before their skills could be passed on.

Being able to ‘keep a wife’ was an indication of a man’s status, meaning a woman’s clothing, their home and its contents communicated his social and economic success. A European man would have been ashamed if his wife was forced to take a job outside the home to support the family; it was a sign to others that he had failed as man. For a brief time, these European social norms brought to Victoria’s goldfields shifted (read more about this here), but not for long. In the 1850s, almost all of Ballarat’s miners were young men who came to the goldfields by themselves or with their male friends or family. They needed to make some money before they could afford to marry.

Living Conditions for Married Women on the Goldfields

fam

Photographer unknown, Eliza Perrin and her children, c.1860. Reproduced with permission from The Gold Museum, The Sovereign Hill Museums Association. The dress Eliza is wearing here is also in the Gold Museum Collection.

At the start of Victoria’s gold rushes, Europeans on the diggings typically lived in tents and huts. This made it hard for families to keep children healthy and maintain bodily cleanliness, especially during Ballarat’s famously cold winters. However, there were a small number of very resilient women living on the goldfields during this time. It was only in the mid-to-late 1850s, once the community became wealthier and locals started living in more permanent homes (normally made of weatherboards or bricks), that female immigration from Europe increased. This change encouraged the number of families to grow. More hygienic living conditions (including better systems for managing human waste) also made it safer to raise children.

Despite improvements in living conditions, every pregnancy a woman faced was a risk to her life no matter what her social status. Experiencing complications during childbirth was one of the most common causes of death for women until recent history. Until the mid-20th century, most women birthed their babies at home, and if complications occurred, there was a high risk that both mother and child would die. The use of anaesthetics to ease the pain of childbirth was popularised after chloroform was given to Queen Victoria when had her eighth child in 1853. Anaesthetics as we know them today, that enabled caesarean sections to be performed were not available until later in the 19th century. Even then, the risk of death from post-operative infection was still high. A woman could also bleed to death or develop a deadly infection following the successful birth of her baby. Antibiotics and blood transfusions that could save both mother and baby only came along in the 20th century.

Ballarat’s women had a particularly hard time birthing and raising children without the support of their own mothers and older women with childrearing experience. Emily Skinner travelled to Victoria in 1854 and wrote this about her lonely experience of motherhood: “You mothers in England little imagine how blessed you are compared with poor women in the diggings, at this time, especially such as I, who knew nothing about babies and their management”.

Keeping children alive during their most vulnerable early years of life also presented goldrush women with significant challenges. About a quarter of Ballarat’s children died before the age of five in the 1850s, usually from drinking polluted water. Until 1859, people didn’t know that germs existed and were the main cause of disease. At least goldrush women knew not to let their babies crawl on the filthy ground, whether they knew about germs or not. Crawling as a developmental stage in a child’s life only started being encouraged in the late 19th century thanks, in large part, to Germ Theory.

Domestic Technologies

Making a healthy and happy home for a family remains a challenging job for women, even though men today tend to play a larger role in childrearing and undertake more household chores compared to men in the past. Back then, however, housework was much more physically demanding because there were no washing machines, vacuum cleaners or supermarkets. Whether a woman was managing her own domestic duties, or was a maid working for a wealthy family, this job could include many responsibilities such as collecting water (plumbing arrived in Australian houses later in the 19th century), chopping wood, growing and making food from scratch, washing/ironing/sewing the family’s clothes, and disposing of the contents of chamber pots. Lower-class wives frequently washed other people’s laundry or sewed clothes to help pay their family’s bills, while middle class wives owned ‘high-tech’ cleaning technologies (like a charcoal iron instead of a sad iron) to make their chores easier. Wives in the upper classes usually had maids and cooks to do all of this work for them.

fam2

Photographer unknown, family outside home, c.1860. Reproduced with permission from The Gold Museum, The Sovereign Hill Museums Association.

One of the most important technologies to affect women’s lives during this time was the sewing machine. On average, it took an experienced sewer about 15 hours to hand-stitch a man’s shirt, but a sewing machine cut that time down to only an hour and a half. Inventions like these became status symbols for middle-class families, and could help many lower-class women make money by producing clothes for sale from the safety and privacy of their homes.

In addition to this busy workload of chores, housewives educated their children, cared for the sick and elderly, and often volunteered for their church. It’s no wonder they used to say “a woman’s work is never done”!

The lives Australian women live today maintain many of the traditions explained in these three blogposts, however, some have been rejected or replaced with new social norms and a focus on gender equality. What do you think Australian womanhood will look like in another 100 or 200 years?

Links and References:

Sovereign Hill Education’s student research notes about women on the Ballarat goldfields: http://education.sovereignhill.com.au/media/uploads/SovHill-women-notes-ss1.pdf

A State Library of Victoria blogpost on women on the goldfields: http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/explore-history/golden-victoria/life-fields/women-goldfields

An SBS blogpost about women on the goldfields: https://www.sbs.com.au/gold/story.php?storyid=27#94

Two Sovereign Hill Education blogposts on 1850s women’s fashion: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2012/02/28/gold-rush-belles-womens-fashion-in-the-1850s/   https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2013/09/06/gold-rush-undies-womens-fashionable-underwear-in-the-1850s/

A Sovereign Hill Education blogpost on general clothing in the 1850s: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2018/06/19/1850s-fashions-in-australia/

A Sovereign Hill Education blogpost on keeping the floor clean: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2012/08/28/household-arts-of-the-1850s-sweeping-beating-and-scrubbing/

Two Sovereign Hill Education blogposts on laundry: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2016/04/22/in-praise-of-washing-machines/     https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2012/02/09/household-arts-of-the-1850s-laundry/

A Sovereign Hill Education blogpost on ironing: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2012/08/13/household-arts-of-the-1850s-ironing/

A series of videos made by a Sovereign Hill volunteer who attempted to live 1850s-style in one of the small houses within the outdoor museum for a few days: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2013/03/05/household-arts-of-the-1850s-a-personal-experience/    https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2013/03/20/household-arts-of-the-1850s-part-2-the-first-night/    https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2013/04/03/household-arts-of-the-1850s-a-personal-experience-part-3/

A Sovereign Hill Education blogpost about Lola Montez: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2017/07/19/who-was-lola-montez/

A Culture Victoria webpage about the few Chinese women living in 19th century Victoria: https://cv.vic.gov.au/stories/immigrants-and-emigrants/many-roads-chinese-on-the-goldfields/voyaging-to-australia/who-were-they/nearly-all-men/

Childhood in the 1850s

Growing up on the Victorian goldfields was tough, even for children from rich families. If you had healthy parents, you could expect to have lots of brothers and sisters, and if they couldn’t afford to send you to school, you would be sent to work instead. Girls and boys experienced childhood quite differently back then, and if you had one or even two toys, you were a lucky child indeed!

boots
Ballarat Orphanage boot factory, date unknown. Reproduced with permission of the Gold Museum.

Life on the goldfields was dangerous for children. While falling down a mineshaft or being trodden-on by a horse was always a risk, the big killer of children was disease. In the 1850s, people – especially children – often died from diseases which rarely kill Australians today, like scarlet fever, pneumonia, diphtheria and consumption (tuberculosis). However, children were most likely to die from drinking water contaminated by human ‘poo’ … Horrible diseases like dysentery, cholera and typhoid killed thousands of children during the Victorian gold rushes. Until Germ Theory was developed and the flushing toilet introduced, such ‘poopy’ diseases could kill as many as HALF of all British children before the age of five! Parents sometimes died of diseases and accidents too, and life was especially tough for the orphans of the gold rushes. Fortunately, we had kind people (philanthropists) in Ballarat like Emanuel Steinfeld, who established a free school for local orphans during the gold rushes.

19th century goldrush families tended to be larger than Australian families today; having lots of children ensured that some survived to old age and were therefore able to look after their elderly parents (there was no pension to support senior citizens back then). Another reason for large families was tradition. Before the Industrial Revolution (c.1750-1900), most Europeans lived and worked on farms, and having lots of children meant that you had extra hands to help look after the animals and grow the food. That’s why many children worked in England’s factories at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It was absolutely normal for children to work and contribute to the household income. So, when Europeans moved to Victoria in their tens-of-thousands during the gold rushes, many brought this idea of working children with them. Young boys often worked in mines or as assistants to labourers and shopkeepers, while young girls would train as maids or seamstresses (women who sew clothes) but would only work until they were married (because after that they were expected to be full-time mothers and housewives).

lollies

Lollies – like our famous raspberry drops – were adult treats in the 19th century!

Eventually, people decided that childhood was a special time in a person’s life and should be dedicated to learning and play, which meant that sending a child to work became illegal. Nowadays, children in Victoria can’t legally work until they are 13 years old, and can only work then if they have a special ‘Child Employment Permit’ from the State Government. If you are 15 years or older, you are free to work without a permit.

Believe it or not, there was no free schooling in Victoria until the 1870s. So, if your family arrived in Ballarat in the 1850s, you would only be sent to school if your parents could afford the tuition costs. This meant that lots of poor children didn’t learn to read and write, and girls were often kept at home to learn the ‘art’ of housekeeping while their brothers received an education. If girls were sent to school, they often learnt different skills to the boys (they might learn cross-stitch while the boys learnt technical drawing). The girls were also encouraged to play different games to the boys during the breaks between lessons. ‘Graces’, for example, was a game specifically for girls. During the 1850s and 60s, it is thought that only half of Victoria’s children were lucky enough to get an education (Bradby, D. and Littlejohn, M., Life in Colonial Australia, Walker Books Australia, 2015, p.17).

costumed-school-students

Girls playing a gentle, ‘feminine’ game of Graces in the Sovereign Hill Costumed Schools Program.

corset

Women’s underwear in the 19th century: a corset, chemise and pantalettes.

Boys and girls wore very different clothes during the gold rushes, but only after a boy was ‘breeched’. Both boys and girls wore dresses until boys were toilet-trained and considered ‘ready’ for pants (in those days, boys’ pants were called knickerbockers). This ‘breeching’ often involved a little party to celebrate this rite-of-passage for young boys. Girls wore short dresses and smocks over their pantalettes (loooong white underpants) until the age of 12-14 when they would begin wearing women’s clothes like crinolines, corsets and long dresses. Not long after this, they would start looking for a husband … Young women usually married quite young in comparison to now, while young men waited until they had a good job and enough money to support a wife and children. Those who had been academic high-achievers at school could become teachers from as young as 14 years of age!

Being an Aboriginal young person would have been very difficult at this time also; by the 1850s, thousands of Victorian Aboriginal people had been forced off their ancestral lands by European sheep farmers and gold miners. Many Aboriginal people across Australia found it very difficult to practise traditional culture, and pass on their knowledge, skills and stories to the next generation thanks to the European colonisation of this continent.

So, if you could be born in another historical period, would you choose the 19th century? Why/why not?

Links and References

The history of child labour: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_labour

Industrial Revolution English children – in their own words: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87eVOpbcoVo

The history of the concept of childhood video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3MqMuqJpVyM

The history of the concept of childhood on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Childhood#History

Children on the goldfields: http://www.resourcesandenergy.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/109324/children-on-the-goldfields.pdf

More information about children on the goldfields: http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/explore-history/golden-victoria/life-fields/children

School in the 1850s: http://www.myplace.edu.au/decades_timeline/1850/decade_landing_15_1.html?tabRank=3&subTabRank=2

Children’s fashion in the 1850s: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2012/11/26/gold-rush-babes-childrens-fashion-in-the-1850s/

Women’s work in the 19th century: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/womens_work_01.shtml

Bradby, D. and Littlejohn, M., Life in Colonial Australia, Walker Books Australia, 2015.

Deary, T., Horrible Histories: Vile Victorians, Scholastic Children’s Books, London, 1994.

Fabian, S. and Morag, L., Children in Australia: An Outline History, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1980.