A Trip to the Gold Diggings #5: Tooloom

In 1859 a wave of gold fever hit the newly independent colony of Queensland, and hundreds of men headed southwest to Tooloom, approximately 150 kilometres over the border into New South Wales. This journey of around four or five days on horseback was also taken by J. Robinson, a correspondent of the 'Moreton Bay Courier' in November 1859, and he wrote a detailed account of his travels both there and back (see map below). The result is a fascinating insight into life on the road during the earliest days of colonial Queensland, as well as the rough-and-ready atmosphere of the goldfields. The writings are reproduced in this 'A Trip to the Gold Diggings' series.

Warning: This article contains language that would be (rightly) considered racially offensive today.

Moreton Bay Courier, 8 December 1859


LEAVING behind me the dead bucolic fragrance of which I wrote in my last, and journeying gently up a slight elevation, I came at last in sight of the township of Tooloom, which stands on the side of a gentle slope, the termination being a part of that creek, which has many miles of windings and turnings from the point of grandeur to that near the township.

The Darkies

The vanguard of Tooloom, as it is approached from the Kooreelah Range, is a camp of darkies; and these sable children of the forest, miserable specimens of humanity, do not appear to have been much improved by their mixture with the white diggers. ‘Fire water,’ as the Indians of North America called the rum, appears to be doing the work of annihilation, and so far as the mere consideration of what is best for the nation is concerned, more particularly in softening manners and elevating the mind, the sooner the aboriginals have perished from the diggings the better. If the wild bushman forgets in a measure the civilization of the old land, and descends in his habits and tastes, the aboriginal loves to copy many acts which the whites perform; and taking rum is a favourite failing up the country with the darkies, as they say it makes them feel ‘like white fellow.’ Even as the vulture and other birds of prey hang upon the trail of blood and death, so do the darkies at the diggings hang upon the trail of civilization, that they may gather the excitement and the vices. Enough for the present of these animals. Before I finish my sketch of the diggings I shall have a little to add on their behalf.

Tooloom Described

We are then in Tooloom; a rough and ready city of bark huts, canvass tents, and calico-roofed shanties. A few banners are streaming in the wind, and the residents are lounging and gossiping-the day of my arrival not being sacred lo business or pleasure, but of that class, coming near the shank end of the week, when there was a growing hope that Saturday’s trading might be ‘all alive, oh.’ Board and lodging and accommodation were signified at various places, and here and there as I entered the classic shade of Tooloom, I caught side of John Chinamen who had risen to the dignity of lodging-house keepers, and were impressed to all appearance with the importance of their vocation. That pig-eyed vacunty, and long tails pendant from the top of the nob, are not very national like on a soil fast yielding to British sway; nevertheless, it is not a time to moralize, as nuggets may be in the distance, and the cap of Fortunatus only wants the finding.

As a man travels, he should keep his eyes open; so pardon me for a few moments if I linger to describe Tooloom. In the distance I see the aristocracy of the place. The Gold Commissioner, Mr. Master, is sunning himself in front of his office-parlour and all, and holding a morning confab with the Sergeant of the Gold Police, who as he nods approvingly to what the King of Tooloom says, shakes the veil with which he has garlanded his hat, and beats his long boots with a switch. By the side of the representatives of the law and gospel of Tooloom, stands the oldest storekeeper, Mr. Miller, and the trio are evidently discussing the probabilities of the new arrival at such a strange hour, and in such a questionable shape. I catch sight of familiar faces and forms - feel satisfied I shall be able to make myself at home, and then make up to the select knot of loungers I have mentioned.

At the risk of my neck, which is more valuable to myself than to Queensland, I clamber a steep hill on the other side of the creek, to put my Rosinante away safely, until I shall again want to tempt the fortune of the road. The beast safely hobbled, and I back again in the city of Tooloom, there is nothing left for it but an Englishman’s feed - dinner; and then a leisure survey of the wonders of the place.

Whatever the townships of other diggings may have been when in their infancy, Tooloom reminded me of a village fair. The wares of the storekeepers were exposed to view in tempting forms, and there was an attempt to imitate the shop-keeping, or more properly the stall-keeping, of a gala day in a village. The flies were busy with the remaining stock-in-trade of the butcher, whose shop-block looked as if it was ‘first chop’ for the purpose for which it was intended. The chimney of the baker’s oven, constructed of corrugated iron, roared its head in pride above the calico roofing, and all inside the establishment looked clean and neat as a penny twist. An introduction to the butcher and the baker in a small town, when a man means to settle, is of no mean importance, especially if the party so favoured has a number of mouths beside his own to feed, either from his industry or his wits. Even on the diggings I found that ‘tick’ was fashionable, and that many who are there cannot, or will not, depart from the remembrance of town life, as a gentle reminder from a small bill enables a debtor to remember that his existence on terra firma is of some consequence to those to whom he may owe money.

Quartz crushing machine, Ballarat, S.T. Gill 1855.
(National Library of Australia nla-pic.an:6055919)

Stores and Shanties

I counted a number of stores. First, I must mention the oldest, a courtesy which will occasion no jealousy, as its priority is honorable by reason of its age. I refer to the store of Mr. Miller, from which place a banner was flying on which was written words to guide those who needed information where to purchase goods.- ‘Tooloom stores’ in large letters kept the friends of the storekeeper from going astray. Outside the store of which I am making honourable mention I saw a notice relative to the North Australian, and I candidly confess that I did not feel any of those sensations which are said to emanate from ‘That green-eyed monster that doth mock our bliss.’

It would not be exactly proper to descend to minute particulars, so I shall hurriedly take in the batch of speculators, thus forming an index for Tooloomers, and saving the expense of a directory. Mr. Betts figures as a general storekeeper, and a little way above is Mr. Gordon’s, also a general store, whilst opposite is a large calico building, (about to be supplanted by a slab one), which is said to belong to Mr. Fleming; and Messrs. Black & Co. keep a store near to the creek. The ring of the blacksmith‘s anvil sounds close at hand, and from between the sheets of bark come sparks of fire, not sufficiently powerful to indulge the fancy that Vulcan is forging thunderbolts, but sharp and swift enough to jog your memory that there are diggers who take the edge from their picks in the battle for gold. The abode of the Vulcan of Tooloom belonged to an Ipswich man a few days before my arrival, but he had sold out to Mynheer Something, who was laboring away when I passed with all the ardour of a new tradesman.

A Rose in the Wilderness

And hereabouts, midst shades of bush and mobs of cattle, came forth from a shanty, dignified by the title of a lodging-house, a good-looking woman, who, with her husband, seemed disposed for a yarn; and we all chatted on the life that diggers lead. The lady, thinking I was a new chum, expressed her sorrow that I should have come to share the profits and the losses - the hardships and the queer lodgings, that were fashionable thereabouts. In her gentle expostulations she neglected not to remind me that she had known other comforts than the diggings, and in token thereof she drew off her bonnet and displayed a head of hair that would do honor to Lady Bowen’s first fancy ball. I trust, if this small tribute to female vanity and beauty should be seen by those who will recognize the sketch as applicable, I shall not be considered acting improperly in paying a graceful compliment to beauty at Tooloom.

A Claim Jumped!

Just at this particular time, came by a digger who had made himself a name by discovering that our old friend O’Donnell and his party, consisting of the brothers Aitken, (one of whom was a short time resident in Brisbane), had more ground than they were entitled to by the laws which regulate claims on the gold-fields. The party to whom I have alluded had sent away the greater number of mates to fetch their better halves to share the glory of Tooloom. What the digger laid claim to he obtained - fair measurement had settled the job, and I found that the man’s tact and boldness was generally commended. The claim of O’Donnell and his party had a good name in the township, but the people generally considered that he had blown rather too hard in that letter which appeared in the Brisbane papers. I was told that O’Donnell had denied the authorship; that the letter may not have been intended for publication by the writer, is another matter - Mr. Rosetta, of the Freemason’s Hotel, Brisbane, would be a capital witness to decide if the letter was written by the person whose signature it bore.

Public Houses

Mr. Brooks has rigged a place called ‘The Prospector’s Arms,’ and painting has been called to aid the caligraphic art, for there shines the pick and shovel on the signboard, emblems of the digging trade, under the shade of which the workers may take their grog and discourse on the precious metal, and the chances of finding it. Mr. Black has preserved the aboriginal dialect, his house rejoicing under the appellation of ‘The Tubra Inn.’ This last place formed the head quarters of your correspondent, who, a kind of cosmopolitan in his little way, wished all parties well, - bundles of fun and piles of gold. I must not say how many private grog shops were on the digging’s, but I have no doubt that every accommodation house, with a sheet of bark for a bedstead, and blankets for sheets, counterpanes, and all, could muster their little kegs and drops of various kinds of creature comforts which help to keep up the spirits, and are oftentimes productive of little scenes not fit for modest eyes, or to be heard by ears polite. I may not indulge in rhapsody, or allow my imagination to have free scope. The better part of valour, they say, is discretion, and I close the brief sketch of the hotels by hoping, that all at Tooloom may find it to be other than a land of promise.


The little stars looked peacefully down, as if taking pity on poor wretches having to find their way across gullies, and peeking to escape broken bones by avoiding holes, stumps, and dogs. The lights shine through the roofs - the calico shanties look as if showmen were giving a night performance. There is a sound of merriment, and the Tooloomers appear to have glad hearts. Oppressed with forebodings, I confess to disappointment, for there is the appearance of rough plenty, and sadder souls are in the genteel rooms of showy poverty than are allowed elbow room at the diggings. I heard Mr. Fleming praised for the prompt and liberal supply of flour which he sent. ‘We are nearly starved,’ said a digger to me, ‘I had nearly a month on beef and peas, and if I had been required to have held out much longer it would have cooked my goose.’

So ho! My companion at the hotel is a grazier. He had brought about 1000 sheep, so that the diggers might be supplied with mutton. Evidently he looked on me with distrust, which a political yarn did not lesson. The squatter could not convince me, and I could not convert him, so off we go to bed in the same room, though on different shake downs, he believing in my rascality, and I in his cool impudence - two dear delightful companions to be closeted together for a night. I admired many notions that he entertained, and liked what squatterdom had done for him; it had made him dare to assert his belief. Flocks and herds are powerful incentives to make a man independent in his feelings. A good night to you all, and may my friend understand me better in the morning.

The Diggings

I almost feel like a criminal for having kept you so long waiting for my report of the veritable diggings. It has not been done purposely - pray pardon me. The way was long, and the stories new, but now I am off for JOE’S GULLY. It will be better, however, for me to sketch the journey. A short distance from the ‘Tubra Inn’ brings the traveller to the banks of the creek where John Chinamen amuse themselves. There are a number of Celestials engaged in the interesting process of digging and washing. Patiently they appear to labour and the water they have for their work is scanty in quantity. Still they labour on, proof against the rough witticisms of the diggers from Europe, who, one and all, despise the comers from the land of where the claims land of Confucius, where the emperor claims to be lord of the sun and the moon. Probably the reason why these queer specimens of men take matters in such hum-drum style is, because they do not understand much of the languages in which they are constantly addressed. John Chinaman resorts to a sensible method for carrying the dirt. He who is appointed dirtman for the gang swings two buckets from a yoke, such as the London milkmen use, and all day long, before returning to Hong Kong (the name by which their quarters are known at Tooloom), do they continue to labour and toil, so that they may be a trifle richer before partaking of their curry and rice.

Passing over the creek by a primitive bridge, a fallen tree, the traveller has to clamber for it to the summit of the portion of Tooloom known as the Horse Paddock, in consequence of its being the place where the diggers turn their horse; and, protected as it is by the creek on all sides save one, it is rarely that the horses stray. A hard beaten footpath, looking as if trodden by a regiment of infantry in single file, is the way to another bend of the creek, which has also to be crossed. On the opposite side the traveller has to ascend, and after a fatiguing march of a mile, the way being adorned by tents and shanties, the bed of the creek is seen, and also the entrance to Joe’s Gully. If the traveller is unused to the rough ways of life he will not be able to descend readily; and a party of Melbournites, perceiving the difficulty of the way, were in the act of erecting an accommodation house about half way down the hill, for the convenience of diggers and the public in general, - heaven bless the speculators! If one of their lodgers should partake too freely of grog at Tooloom, and begin to descend and lose his balance, the house of accommodation would not form a house of refuge, for there is nothing but a sheet of unbleached calico between the traveller and the chasm below.

As it was hard to get to Joe’s Gully, and as I have brought the reader in sight, he must have mercy and wait until I got to the bottom. I will, however, for the benefit of inquirers after gold, say that my opinions of the gold-fields at Tooloom have taken a more favorable turn, and in the next part I may talk of all the acts pertaining to searching for the precious metal. For the present I rest in sight of the spot which has hitherto been the talismanic dream and promise. In my next I shall have stories to tell of wonderful nuggets, and dust, not of Ophir and Havillah, but of the diggings where the sympathies of the workers go with Queensland.'