Digitised newspapers and happenstance

A few days ago J showed me a photograph of beechworth from the early 1990’s that one of her Art Society friends had come across.

Nothing unusual, but the photograph was from the New York Times, which did seem a touch exotic –However a quick search of the Times archive revealed it was an article from the NYT travel section, which kind of explained the mystery.

Now I hadn’t expected there two be too much coverage of Beechworth in the NYT, so my search had been pretty simple – type in Beechworth, and there it was. But interestingly there was also an article from December 1853 which turned out to be a precis of an article from the Argus in August, reporting on a major Chartist inspired meeting of gold diggers protesting about conditions and licence charges, just as had happened at Castlemaine, and culminated in the Eurkea stockade in Ballarat.

By all accounts the meeting in Beechworth was peaceful and relatively civilised, drawing miners from the diggings all around, but the message was clear. The miners were unhappy and wanted better conditions and basically something in return for the money they were paying the government.

And the Chartists? – well the British government in the first half of the nineteenth century had a habit of exiling political agitators to Australia, out of harms way, and many once released, found employment in the goldfields.

So inspired by this, I tried a little experiment. Using the NLA’s digitised newspaper collection, I searched for Beechworth but restricted the search to articles between 01 January 1850 – 31 December 1859 – a period that covered the discovery of gold in 1853, but well before Ned Kelly or Harry Power were on the scene.

And it was a little goldmine. Not only the Chartist meeting, and expected incidents such as fights between Anglo and Chinese miners but little things that revealed a lot – such as a case of attempted rape in in 1858 where the perpetrator cut the wall of the woman’s tent and attempted to chloroform her.

Interesting as it shows

  • people were still living in tents as late as 1858, 5 years after the discovery of gold
  • there were women in the goldfields, in this case a miner’s daughter who cooked and cleaned for him
  • there were people who not only had access to chloroform, but also how to use it

and remember 1858 was also a year the congregationalist church was founded, and three years before the Botanic Gardens were laid out.

Another story from the early 1850’s was single column inch reporting that the mail from Sydney (which would have come by stagecoach) was delayed by heavy snow, and how it was expected that the interior was similarily affected – meaning that really no one had any real idea of what was happening out further west.

Often when I talk to visitors at the documentation project I’m working on I make the point that in the 1850’s and 1860’s Beechworth (and Chiltern) really were on the edge of the world with nothing much beyond but a few sheep farmers and the indigenous communities in the Murray Valley – and here was proof that what I was saying was not just a flamboyant turn of phrase.

My little search was really just a taster. What I found was interesting, and perhaps the sort of material that one could use to build a little microhistory of the early days …

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About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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