Life on the goldfields
Bryce Ross and S.T. Gill
12 October 2016
I have just seen a number of exceedingly spirited sketches, taken at Forest Creek and Bendigo Diggings during the last month, by a well-known Adelaide artist, whose name I am not permitted to mention at present … they afford an excellent idea of what life is like here; the landscape sketches are true and most picturesque… (Adelaide Morning Chronicle, 9 August 1852, p.3)
In 1852, Bryce Ross’s Newspaper and General Agency Office was at the centre of the emerging Forest Creek village, and enabled it to feature prominently in S.T. Gill’s painting, Forest Creek, Mt Alexander diggings, July 1852.
As goldfields correspondent for the Melbourne Morning Herald, a constant user of advertising, and an agitator for social change, Bryce Ross, like Gill, provided an excellent idea of what life was like in the colonies.
And like the diggers who rode the ebbs and flows of life on the goldfields, Ross’s own life was marked by financial and social success, sudden relocations, brushes with the courts, unstable mental health, and extreme poverty.
I first encountered Bryce Ross when assisting with the publication of Not So Eminent Victorians which includes Martin Sullivan’s chapter on Ross. This story focusses on Ross’s life and activities on the goldfields and what they tell us about the reality of the scene painted by Gill. Trove has proved an invaluable source for this blog, and for revisiting some aspects of Sullivan’s chapter.
Originally from Edinburgh, Ross worked for a manufacturer of silk garments in London before coming to the colonies in the early 1840s. He later claimed to have lived in most of the colonies and visited New Zealand.
From July 1847, Ross established himself as a land and investment agent in Adelaide. Based in the Exchange building, he also became the indefatigable secretary of many committees supporting building and investment societies and such issues as anti-transportation and early closing hours for drapers. Ross’s many business advertisements often appear on the same page of Adelaide papers as Gill’s studio advertisements.
Ross moved to the Forest Creek goldfields in early 1852 with his wife, Sarah Biggins. This was despite the fact that Ross had experienced, albeit briefly, the chaos, privations and uncertainties of seeking gold in California. In letters from California he strongly recommended that people considering the lure of gold should stay at home.
On Ross’s arrival on the goldfields, his new neighbour, the Argus correspondent Daniel Bunce, reported that the Melbourne Morning Herald 'has actually mustered sufficient courage to engage an agent’. Bunce frequently criticised Ross, resulting in some colourful exchanges between them in print.
In April 1852, Ross released a Directory to help locate people on the diggings. As Ross had conceived it, his Directory was to be a grand project covering first the Mount Alexander and Forest Creek diggings, then expanding to cover Bendigo, Ballarat and the Ovens diggings and new rushes as they occurred.
Very few copies of this version of the Ross’s Directory have survived — but there are four single sheet copies in the Public Records Office of Victoria, headed Bryce Ross’s Diggins’ [sic] Directory, and dated 12 April 1852. On the back of these Ross wrote a passionate memorial begging the Victorian Legislative Council to take immediate action to improve the parlous state of the roads to the diggings, not least to mitigate growing community animosity towards the Government.
From November 1852 advertisements appeared in the Argus for Ross’s expanded Directories of Forest Creek, Bendigo, and Ballarat.
ST Gill’s inclusion of a baker and eating houses in his painting reminds us of the perpetual challenge of feeding the miners and servicing their other needs. Ross’s April 1852 Directory for Forest Creek lists five bakers, eight butchers, three eating houses and five blacksmiths, in addition to over seventy stores, eleven doctors and chemists, a watchmaker and a hairdresser. Listed near Ross’s Agency are Guthery & Co’s Bakery, Maye’s Eating House and the blacksmith, Richard Josias — these could well be the ones shown in Gill’s painting.
The names of several of the stores in Ross's Directory indicate where they have come from, such as the M&S Marks Adelaide Stores that Gill includes in his painting. This practice gave miners a link with home and Mr S Marks was active in the same causes as Ross in support of South Australian miners. Not surprisingly, M&S Marks expanded their business beyond drapery, as shown by Gill, to gold buying.
Gill’s inclusion of the Tolmer board outside Ross’s Agency refers to the Overland Gold Escort operated by Commission Alexander Tolmer. Ross advocated for such a service to support the many South Australian miners, and to help ensure that more gold flowed to Adelaide businesses.
In this scene outside Ross’s Agency, Gill included women and children. This would have pleased Ross. He had noted their presence among the throngs of new miners streaming onto the goldfields. He was concerned that ‘On the Diggings the minds … of children were running to weeds’.
In September 1852, Mr Miller, the Inspector of Schools, met with a committee of Mount Alexander residents to discuss the provision of National Schools on the diggings, with the Government providing two-thirds of the funds, provided the diggers subscribed the other third. The committee included Ross and Daniel Bunce.
On 10 October 1852, around 500 people gathered opposite Ross’s Agency to hear Miller’s proposals. The miners contributed substantially more than￡200 and went away with expectations that schools would soon be erected. Before the end of the year, Ross complained to the Government that nothing had been done. Miller had absconded with the funds.
However, in late February 1853 Mr Benjamin Kane, secretary to the Denominational School Board, arrived with two teachers and ‘all the tents, furniture, school books, &c’ necessary to set up two schools.
Ross proudly announced that:
Thursday next, about 5 p.m., is appointed for the ceremony of opening the school at Adelaide Flat, Forest Creek, a tea meeting to be held previously in the school tent, after which the opening address will be delivered to the assembled meeting.
1853 brought Ross sadness and upheaval, but with continuing commitment to miners causes. His seven month old son died on 10 January from the dysentery that affected so many on the goldfields that summer. (Adelaide Times, 10 February 1853, p.3)
The massive exodus of miners from Mount Alexander that began in late 1852 caused Ross to consider leaving the goldfields. He spent some time in Melbourne establishing building and investment contacts and activities.
By mid-1853, Ross was again a goldfields correspondent, this time reporting for the Argus from McIvor. Ross deluged the Argus with reports, giving passionate support to miners’ concerns.
By April 1854, Ross had left the goldfields, ‘exchanged the goose quill for the gold scales’ and set up as an estate, share, gold and loan agent in Melbourne. There were no announcements of his intentions, no farewell dinners, no presentations, no testimonials.
An inquest on 15 February 1870 reported that ‘Mr Bryce Ross, lately living in Carlton … had committed suicide while of unsound mind’. His death was widely reported:
Of late years Mr. Ross had been in very bad circumstances, and his poverty at last seems to have been more than he was able to bear…He leaves behind him a widow and three children. (The Argus, 28 February 1870, p.1)
His body was found by his daughter, Alice. Three Carlton tradesmen undertook to collect money for the family to help them to earn a livelihood.
The Library holds three copies of S.T. Gill’s lithograph of Forest Creek, Mount Alexander diggings from base of Red Hill near Argus Office looking towards Castlemaine, July 1852.