A mass of gold weighing almost 50 kilograms was found embedded in quartz in July 1851. It was, the Sydney Morning Herald reported ‘a most marvellous event’. The Bathurst Free Press commented that ‘men meet together, stare stupidly at each other, talk incoherent nonsense, and wonder what will happen next.’
The Ballarat goldfield closely followed those of NSW and was opened up in the latter part of 1851. In the early days on the Ballarat Diggings life was strenuous, men outnumbered women three to one, and a woman, William Bramwell Withers noted, was an absolute phenomenon. Withers wrote that in ‘those first days of digging-life, when womanless crowds wrestled with the earth and the forest amid much weariness and solitude of heart, the arrival of a woman was the signal for a cry and a gathering’.
One of the first women to arrive on the Ballarat Diggings was a bullock driver’s wife, then came Mrs Bath and a few more adventurous souls. By 1857 gradually life became more settled and resembled older settled communities. However, for women especially, life was often precarious. The loss of a husband through an accident, or by desertion meant they might have the sole responsibility for the provision and care of children. Untold hardships often were forthcoming as the following case for sympathy and succour from the Ballarat Times illustrates.
The 1857 Times reported that ‘ There is a lady now living at the Brown Hill, in great distress. She is the widow of Mr Kennedy, formerly an attorney practising in Dublin, and recently a respected and hardworking miner in this district, who, sometime during the past year, met with his death at Slaty Creek, by a quantity of earth falling in upon him and breaking his back. His widow, a well educated woman, and tenderly brought up, was thus thrown penniless upon the world, with two children, and an infant at her breast. A short time afterwards she was attacked by paralysis, and became hopelessly crippled upon one side of her body. Application on her behalf was made to the magistrates who, under circumstances and as magistrates, could do nothing better than procure for her a sojourn for three months in jail, and get her two children admitted to the orphanage. The three months expired, and the poor woman is again amongst us, distressed indeed in mind, body and estate, and endeavouring to do motherly offices to her child, under circumstances not for us to tell.’ An appeal for donations was made. As there was no state welfare, not yet a Benevolent Asylum, or Refuge in Ballarat, the plight of such women relied heavily upon charity.