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There were different ways to work and make money on the goldfields other than digging for gold

August 8, 2018 11:09PM Kids News

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Shopkeeper Murray Wright at Clarke Brothers grocery store at Sovereign Hill, Ballarat. Picture: David Crosling media_cameraShopkeeper Murray Wright at Clarke Brothers grocery store at Sovereign Hill, Ballarat. Picture: David Crosling

gold rush

Reading level: green


Finding a big nugget of gold wasn’t the only way to get rich on the goldfields. Unless you were strong and lucky enough to find lots of gold, you were probably more likely to get rich by becoming a shopkeeper.

According to Henry Brown, who ran a store at Bendigo: “Business did not require any very nice calculations. The plan was to usually double and treble* the Melbourne price.”

So, what would you be? A grocer selling mutton*, flour, tea and sugar?

The price of flour soared during shortages. At times, it would take more than 30 ounces of gold to pay for two weeks’ flour supply. In October 1852, William Howitt paid 20 pounds for a sack on the diggings – and it turned out to be gritty, full of lumps and riddled* with weevils*.

Only those who struck it rich could afford to buy fancy foods, such as dried fruit, cheese and butter. In a letter sent to an Adelaide newspaper, a miner joked: “The price of a biscuit is 7d (pence), a pint of water 2d, and the charge for looking at a cheese 3d.”

Sovereign Hill's lolly shop. /travel /ballarat media_cameraLollies and other treats were for days when someone in the family had found a lot of gold. At the lolly shop, Sovereign Hill, Ballarat.

If you had a shop on the goldfields, perhaps you’d be a butcher, a baker or a candle maker? Would you sell fancy clothes that people treated themselves with when they struck it rich? Or what about tents, shovels, picks, gold pans and wheelbarrows? Everyone needed those.

14/0/00 Sovereign Hill Candle Maker Gary Fisher. p/ /candles media_cameraEveryone needed candles during the Gold Rush, as there was no electricity. A candlemaker always had customers. Sovereign Hill candlemaker Gary Fisher.


More than 160,000 women were among the 600,000 who arrived in Victoria between 1851 and 1860. Those who were married looked after their husbands, because that was what was expected. They cooked, washed, made soap, sewed, carried water, cleaned, looked after children, helped other women give birth to their babies and mined for gold, too. They were very busy.

Scene from TV program "Women of the Gold Rush". media_cameraWomen were miners too. This Gold Rush photo is from an ABC series called Women of the Gold Rush.

But although life was hard, the rules of society were a little different on the goldfields to elsewhere and women had freedoms they couldn’t have imagined in their former lives. Some of the most successful shopkeepers, hotel owners, cooks, boarding house* owners and entertainers were women.

Supplied Editorial Fwd: Irish woman Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, Countess of Landsfeld otherwise known as th media_cameraIrish woman Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, Countess of Landsfeld, known as the dancer Lola Montez in the 1850s. Ms Montez reinvented herself and pretended to be Spanish when she came to Australia and became one of the most successful entertainers on the goldfields.


Anyone could become a teacher if they had children to teach. The government set up a few schools, but most of the early goldfields schools were privately run by a teacher or a group of parents, who paid the teacher.

In the early years of the Gold Rush, you could hardly call them schools. They were sometimes just in the teacher’s canvas tent or in the shade under a tree.

Teachers didn’t get paid much and they often had big classes of kids who had missed a lot of time at school and were at all different stages of learning. It can’t have been easy being a teacher.

Sovereign Hill media_cameraSchools like this one at Sovereign Hill, Ballarat, were only built later in the Gold Rush at permanent towns. Peter Beckwith is a teacher at Sovereign Hill. Picture: Andy Rogers

Ideas about how children should learn were different to today. Children practised beautiful, fancy, joined-up handwriting, times tables, reading and maths called arithmetic and if they didn’t get everything right or broke the rules the teacher was allowed to hit them.

Sovereign Hill media_cameraPeter Beckwith, who works as a teacher at Sovereign Hill, Ballarat, with some old-fashioned handwriting on the board. Picture: Andy Rogers


Miracle cures and other crazy ideas

Give us your gold!



  • treble: triple, or three times
  • mutton: meat from older sheep
  • riddled: lots all the way through
  • weevils: small beetle that eats and nests in flour
  • boarding house: accommodation like a B&B


For 25 classroom activities on this story and much more, go to to purchase the Gold Rush workbook for $20 inc GST.


  • National Museum of Australia,
  • National Library of Australia,
  • State Library Victoria,
  • State Library of NSW,
  • SBS,
  • KidCyber,
  • Growing up on the Australian Goldfields by Kimberley Webber,
  • Sovereign Hill, and

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