Dr Clare Wright wins prestigious literary award

In its second year running, the Stella Prize has again been swept up by a La Trobe researcher, historian Dr Clare Wright, for The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka.

Clare's work of historical non-fiction - built on a decade of research - is an account of the Eureka Stockade in 1854, focusing on the role women played on Ballarat's goldfields.

Research meets story-telling

Kerryn Goldsworthy, Chair of the 2014 Stella Prize judging panel, described the book as a 'rare and irresistible combination of impeccable scholarship with a lively, warm, engaging narrative voice'. The book makes extensive use of contemporary newspapers, journals and personal letters, which reveal a wealth of information about people who often slip through the cracks of history.

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka states women such as shopkeepers, teachers, prostitutes and military wives were not 'just sitting in their tents folding handkerchiefs' but involved in family decision-making and politics. 'Women were intimately bound up in the events and emotions that led up to Eureka Stockade,' she said. 'Even if they weren't holding the guns, they were not passive figures. They were historical agents in the events.'


Listen to Clare discuss her research in a recent La Trobe podcast.

Women of the Eureka Stockade

PODCAST #314: Clare Wright on a forgotten part of Australian history


Lawrie Zion

Hi, I'm Lawrie Zion. I teach journalism at La Trobe and you happen to be listening to a La Trobe University podcast.

Matt Smith

I'm Matt Smith. Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. December 3rd, 1854, and rising tensions of the goldfields of Ballarat in Victoria led to the miners declaring independence and an attack by the government’s soldiers in retaliation. This tale of rebellion and bravery and death and defiance is a proud chapter of the Australian story but the tale that we’re all taught in schools is very one-sided. We’re only told about the men in this era. And here to give us a more complete picture is Clare Wright.

Dr Clare Wright

I'm Dr Clare Wright. I'm an historian, an author and a broadcaster and I'm an honorary Research Associate at La Trobe University in the History Program.

Matt Smith

Her new book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, attempts to fill in some of the blanks of this iconic era of Australia's history. She starts by telling me how she got involved in this research.

Clare Wright

I started researching the Eureka Stockade about ten years ago. The research that I'd done prior to that was about the history of women in pubs in Australia. That had been my doctoral research and the subject of my first book, Beyond the Ladies Lounge. I argued in that book that female publicans were at the epicentre of Australia's cultural and political life, and one of the women that I came across was a woman who had run the hotel at Eureka on the Eureka Lead in Ballarat in 1854 and her hotel, the Eureka Hotel, had been burnt to the ground in an event that was always considered to be the wick that lit the flame of Eureka. She was known as Mrs Bentley and all of the material that I could find was about her husband James Bentley and I had to leave it at the time. I couldn’t go down every rabbit hole, but I vowed that I'd come back and I'd see whether I could find Catherine Bentley. That’s in fact what I did. I spent months and months absolutely obsessively searching for this woman, and in the end was able to put flesh and bones on this character, who had only been ever known as a Mrs Somebody-or-Other and now here she is, a fully fledged character in this story.

Matt Smith

Just being a Mrs to someone is perhaps even not just a disservice but it seems to be quite a common characteristic when you’re dealing with women from that period. What does it say about us that we only remember these sort of events through the eyes of men?

Clare Wright

Catherine Bentley was lucky even to be referred to as a Mrs, because really the way that we’ve remembered this event, the Eureka Stockade, has been as a male-only event. Male blood was shed, male privileges were won, and that all of the players, on both sides of the stockade, the miners on the one hand and the military on the other, are an all-male cast, out on the frontier slugging it out. And there’s never been any implication that there really might have been a female component to this community in Ballarat. So I think what it says is that many of these myths that we hold as important to Australian history are just that – there’s a kind of mythological element to them and really what I've tried to do in The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka is to restore historical authenticity to that time, to that place, and to that story.

Matt Smith

So when gold was discovered in 1851 in Victoria, the men went off to the goldfields – that’s the narrative that we’ve grown used to. Are you saying that there was a substantial amount of women on the goldfields as well?

Clare Wright

Absolutely. So, you’re quite right. The narrative that we were given in school and this story is taught in Australian schools from primary school through to high school in the Australian curriculum. We were really told that the gold rushes were a time when men in fact deserted their wives and any women who were left behind are known as grass widows, and that men flocked to the goldfields and had a rollicking good time of it, as well. The roaring good old days of the gold rush kind of era to it, and with the idea that these places are really only inhabited by men, and if there are any women, there might be a few ragged prostitutes and occasionally a woman who’s kind of out of place, you know, the laudanum soaped middle class woman stuck in a hotel room somewhere. And what I discovered through that ten years of deep archival research is that absolutely was not the case when it came to the Australian gold rushes.

Statistically that does apply to the American gold rushes where only about 10% of people actually on the diggings were women, but in Australia, what I found was that in this period up to a third of the population were women and children. That is a quite different human landscape than any that’s been portrayed before. So instead of seeing the Ballarat diggings as being an industrial landscape, we can start to see it as a really domestic landscape, that this is a place of working families. This is a place where women and children accompanied their husbands and fathers to the goldfields, but also a place where young men and young women, single men and women, were coming together for the first time. So it’s not just about adding women to the story, it’s actually also about saying, when you put the women back in there, that actually changes the nature of the whole story, because we can start to see these diggers not just as unaccompanied miners, but as fathers and sons and husbands. It changes the complexion of the motivations and the psychology of those diggers who were on the field, and what they wanted, and why that came to bloodshed.

Matt Smith

So as you were looking through the evidence, what did you find that directly pointed to women being in this time period and in Ballarat?

Clare Wright

Well, the really remarkable thing is that they’re not difficult to find. This book of mine is 540 pages. My first draft was 50,000 words longer than that. It’s just that what I did I guess, is go back to the same archives that have been trawled over for 150 years, but I went back armed with a different set of questions. So the sort of evidence I was looking at is as simple as census statistics and one of the things that was really extraordinary once I started to crunch some of the numbers, and looking at how many babies for example were born in 1854 and 1855 in Ballarat. I could see that there was a baby boom on. There are only a handful of babies who were recorded as being born in Ballarat in 1853, but by 1854, there are over 700 babies born that year, and then in 1855, that number doubles again. So, on the raw demographics you can see those numbers.

There is also the fact that the goldfields were really highly regulated. That was one of the problems that miners came up against. It was not just that they were highly regulated, but they felt they were incredibly corruptly regulated as well, that they were over-administered and yet under-serviced.

But one of the things that was going on was that there was constant communication between the goldfields commissioners who were actually there at the diggings, and the central headquarters in Melbourne. And they actually counted up, every month, how many men, how many women and how many children. So on that demographic level, it was very easy to show the extent of women’s presence.

On another level, what I was looking for was a commentary by people at the time about the lives that they were living. You’ve got to remember that these were people who are just going about their daily lives. They’re not looking with a backward view, re-creating history or story telling or chronicling, and everybody talks about the prevalence of women. They constantly refer to how many women are coming up from Melbourne. There’s a lot of contemporary evidence that it was remarked upon at how many women there were, and the effect that had on the Ballarat community.

Matt Smith

So what sort of lives were these women living? What were they doing in their day to day lives? They weren’t going there to work the goldfields themselves were they?

Clare Wright

No, some of them were absolutely going there to work the gold themselves, and there’s a lot of evidence of women who were working as gold diggers in their own right. They weren’t helpmeets. They actually were very equal parts of family economies where the woman’s labour and the man’s labour were equally valued. And many women commented on this, about the fact that in the old country where they had come from, their labour was quite superfluous and interchangeable, but because they were so valued in the colonies, because there was not sexual parity, and a woman’s work, particularly in the domestic realm, so I'm talking about things like house-keeping, laundering, cooking, boarding-house keeping, selling grog, selling food, that those kinds of skills that women brought were in absolutely high demand. So suddenly women had these extraordinary economic opportunities, and one of the really interesting things is that by the end of 1854, the surface alluvial gold had pretty much run out in Ballarat, so there’d been a large number of people who had come over with the idea that they could just scoop up gold from the ground, because this is what all the reports coming back from Victoria in 1851/1852 were saying. So people are jumping on boats, they’re spending three months getting over here, but by the time that they actually arrive, what they’ve discovered is that in Ballarat in particular, all the gold is very deep in the ground, in deep leads, and it can take three, six, nine months to reach the gold, if they even find it at all. And it was a lottery. It really was a lottery, whether they happened to dig their shaft on top of where the old ancient river bed ran, or whether they missed that lead entirely.

So over that very long period of time investment, they needed an income and the women found that they were the breadwinners and many of them felt that they’d never had it so good. They enjoyed the liberation. They enjoyed the economic independence and they enjoyed the social status that they achieved.

Matt Smith

Looking directly at the Eureka Stockade, how much did it add to the story once you start to research for what the women are saying, and what they’re putting into it? I gather that this lovely flag that you’ve got on the cover of your book, was sewed by, from memory, three women.

Clare Wright

Well, the story has been in the past, three women. This notion that women sewed the Eureka flag, which I absolutely believe to be true, is really in the past the only way that women have kind of snuck into the story.

What I actually discovered is that it’s only the tip of the iceberg. It’s part of a pattern of women’s political activism at this time. So women saw themselves as very much a part, indeed, central to the community at Ballarat, this community of aggrieved workers. They were aggrieved because they were paying a monthly licence fee, that they had to pay whether they got gold or not. So it was actually a kind of a poll tax, you know, a head tax, that just gave them the right to be there. And they hated this, because it was expensive, because if they didn’t pay it, they were fined very heavily, and the government constantly held these kind of arbitrary licence hunts, where they would go out and they would search the miners and just say, show us your licence. Now the miners could be a hundred feet down the mine shaft at the time. They bring them up and the miner says, I haven’t got my licence on me. Why not? Because I left it in the tent. There’s no laminating machines, there’s no little plastic pockets that you could put it in to keep it safe – it would disintegrate in that water, so it could be a perfectly plausible excuse, yet they’d haul this fellow off if he couldn’t pay the £5 fine, he would be literally chained to logs. And that could be for a period of weeks. That fellow now has left a wife and children starving in a tent. It was seen as being very arbitrary justice, incredibly unfair, all the more so because there was no representation for that taxation. They paid this fee, but they weren’t given services for it. The roads were terrible. Food was incredibly expensive in winter. You could see those that were succeeding around you. You know, you could go to one of the Ballarat stores and buy potted pheasant, or caviar, or champagne, or Havana cigars. Luxury items, you could see them in front of you. And some people were enjoying them. But the vast majority weren’t. The vast majority were living in abject poverty. And these were people who were not used to living in such conditions. They were middle class people. They were professionals, who had come out to better their lives and to make a new world.

Seeing women as part of this community gives us more of an explanation for why people were so aggrieved. But there’s another level in which women’s involvement works, and that’s the individual women who played a role. There are at least half a dozen women whose lives I have sort of resurrected from silence and obscurity, who played a role in the Stockade events themselves, women who were running newspapers – in fact the first female newspaper editor in Australia is a women called Clara Duvall Seekamp who was running the Ballarat Times after her husband was arrested for sedition. There’s another woman, Sarah Hanman, who was running a theatre in Ballarat. She was a women who was becoming quite wealthy and had discovered that not only was her theatre used as the headquarters for the diggers’ defence movement, but she in fact was the chief financier of the diggers’ defence fund. She was providing the capital that was backing this movement.

There’s another woman called Ellen Young, who had been a Chartist in England. She was slightly older than the average digger’s wife. She was 44 when she came out here with her husband Frederick, who had been a chemist in England. And Ellen who had been a poet since she was a teenager, started writing poetry on the goldfields, and started publishing that poetry in the newspapers and she really becomes the voice of the community. She rallies the community around the cause. She mobilises forces and points out to them the grievances and points out to them that they’re all in this together. And the language is incredibly inclusive.

So, when you see this broader picture of this social inclusiveness, it makes more sense of something like the sewing of the flag. So the flag took this symbol that united everybody here in this new country, that were having these new experiences. It was the Southern Cross. It was the constellation that they all looked up and saw every night, and they called this flag the Australian flag. We now call it the Eureka flag, but at the time the diggers called it the Australian flag and the authorities called it the Rebel flag.

Matt Smith

When we remember an event like this, a lot of it comes down to the history being written by the victors in that case, but the victors in this story aren’t really heard as much as the rebels. I find it’s one of those sort of stories where Australia has built up the rebels because we love anybody who’s facing up to the oppressors.

Clare Wright

One of the things that I have tried to do, is to re-create the government camp as a more human landscape as well, because indeed the government officials, the soldiers, the police, and the people who were running the goldfields, had wives and children there as well. I mean, I think it’s a general problem in the way the Eureka story has been written in the past, is that those people are not given their humanity. The diggers are the ones who we have romanticised and in a sense, although they did lose the battle, they won the war, the public relations campaign.

So, the soldiers ... what I've tried to do is to humanise that landscape as well and to give some sense of the conditions that they were living under – very cramped, very squalid, nobody was having that good of a time up in the government camp either. And to me it gave some more context as to what happened on the 3rd of December, when to give a really rough analogy, it was like a pimple being popped. You know, and all this yukky muck just sprayed, you know, because they had been under intense pressure and these young men, and they were young men predominantly, the police and the soldiers, were actually able to vent their own grievances and their own frustrations. And a part of it for some of the men was that they weren’t able to have their women there. The fact that there in women inside the Stockade, which is another fact that has gone unnoticed for over 150 years, that the Stockade itself, which was a very roughly thrown together bunch of planks and upturned carts and a few old apple barrels, hastily erected around a section of the diggings, so it enclosed tents, it enclosed shops, it enclosed family dwellings. So there were women inside the Stockade and in fact, there is evidence that one woman was killed while she was defending the life of her husband. And then after the actual massacre itself, all the tents, both within the Stockade and immediately surrounding the Stockade, were set on fire by the police. Hundreds of women lost all their possessions, many of them lost their husbands, some women lost their lives and it was just an absolute tragedy on a more human scale than I think that we’ve ever seen before.

Matt Smith

So now that you’ve got this book out, do you hope that that will change the way that it’s remembered, that the story will be taught differently, that we’ll think of it differently?

Clare Wright

It is absolutely my hope and my desire, that we invest our Australian stories with more historical authenticity and reality than we presently tell them. On another level, I think that it’s really important for a kind of contemporary Australian identity and sense of national maturity, that our stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves, are as socially inclusive as possible. And what I mean by “as possible” is, as historically authentic. And what I think that allows us to do is to bring more people along with the story. So instead of there being an idea that the true Australian is a young, white male digger type, I think we should be beyond that, to look at our contemporary Australian life, which is clearly far more diverse than that picture would imply, that I think gives the hope and the possibility that particularly girls, who are looking to the past for some sense of their own identity and their own belonging within a national family, find a place for themselves there, so that you don’t just get a kind of a constant rollcall of men who made things happen. I think it’s really important for young women to feel like they can make things happen, they can make things happen in the future. If you don’t like what you see going on around you, change it. Women in the past did.

Matt Smith

That’s Clare Wright, Honorary Research Associate in History at La Trobe University. Her book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka is available now from Text Publishing and you can follow her on Twitter, that’s @clareawright. That’s it today for the La Trobe University podcast. Don’t forget you can always check out this podcast and more at our podcast blog, that’s at podcast.blogs.latrobe.edu.au. I'm Matt Smith, you have been fantastic and thanks for listening.

A Stella history

Clare's 2014 success follows that of Carrie Tiffany, a previous PhD student at La Trobe, who won the inaugural Stella Prize for her novel Mateship with Birds.

Clare will continue her role as Honorary Research Associate (History) at our Department of Humanities and Social Science. In July 2014, she will also start an ARC Future Fellowship researching a new book, Red Dirt Dreaming: A History of Australian Mining.