A Trip to the Gold Diggings #6: Scenes From 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 considered extremely racially offensive today, but is retained here for historical context.

Moreton Bay Courier, 13 December 1859


SAFELY down from the height, having rested as previously stated at the half-way-house, the owners of which ought to insure all lodgers at so much per head from the dangers of high winds, Saturday night nobblers, and also from all riotous and disorderly conduct on the part of all inmates, for fear of a roll below, I sent myself on an old stump and look about to see what kind of faces the diggers wear; and having made up my mind as to what party I shall first accost, I make my way to the point and draw myself together to be ready to understand what I may be told. At the same time I give imagination a tug, so that I may not fall into the category of the gullibles...

Cousin Jackies

I love a Cornishman, though not one myself; he generally has such deep scheming under his smiling ‘marning;’ and though he may make you welcome to his ‘apple pastie and cream,’ he has an eye for business. And what has made me open this part in Cornish style, may be inferred from the fact that in the claim I next visited there were three Çousin Jackies busily at work. I knew the twang of the dialect in a moment, and was ‘all there’ to find out what I could; so I sat myself down, and opened the conversation according to the best method of which I was the master. For the benefit of the uninitiated, I may say that if you can get a Cornishman to talk about Tregollis, and the ‘Bear Hunt of St. Ann’s,’ and also about ‘shooting the cherrybeam,’ you will at once gain an entrance to his affections, and may succeed in acquiring his confidence. This short sketch may manage to show how soon I was on good terms with Cousin Jackies, and how I learned the story of

The Wonderful Nugget

I mean, of course, that very identical nugget found by a digger, which weighed over eighty ozs., and which was delivered over to some person in connection with the Ipswich Escort for safety, and in relation to which there was a legal injunction to restrain the digger and finder from taking possession of, until he had been able to justify his alleged ownership in the eyes of the law. My newly found friends pointed out the spot where this large nugget was found, and told me something in relation to it which, if I tell as nearly as possible as I heard it, I may escape the libel court. ‘Ah’ said one, ‘that was a d____ shame. That fellow who laid claim to a share of the nugget had no more to do with it than a stranger. He had sold out of the claim the day before, and the finder went early to give the claim a morning trial and found the great nugget.’ I listened with pleasure. ‘Lord bless ye,’ said one, ‘I never seed a feller in such a way in my life; when he did find it he didn’t know what to do with heself; he turned white and was regularly comed over.’

‘It was his’ said another; ‘and if he’d done as he should he would have kept as dark as a chimney sweep.’ If the party in this claim were jurymen to try the case it would not be difficult to venture a bet of a dozen of champagne on the finale of the trial.'

Moreton Bay Courier, 15 December 1859:

'Nature of the Ground

Up to the present time I have been very silent on the geological character of Tooloom. I don’t profess to know much on this point, and should be sorry to set myself up as a judge in the matter. If Lyell, Sedgwick, or Buckland, had been to Tooloom and published books on the geological formations of the place, I might appropriate a few quotations. Nevertheless, in all humility, I append my own geological opinions.

The country in the neighbourhood of Tooloom is evidently volcanic, traces of the convulsions of nature being more distinable at the points near to the creek than elsewhere. The various layers are easily discernible in ascending or descending the point of the steep hill near Joe’s Gully; but as far as I could judge from actual observation, there seems to be no rule for the discovery of gold from any particular layer. One party finds the precious metal in gravel - another finds it in soil as rich as garden mould - and another is fortunate in clayey looking soil. The last named appears to show the colour of the metal sought better than any other; the gold obtainable from this kind of layer being smaller than that washed from the gravel. The top layer of the land near to the favourite resort of the diggers is very strong, the edges of the projecting stones being in many places sharp - in others, rising in boulders. One fact I state for the consideration of those more versed in peculiarities connected with soil and climate than I am. The grass growing in the naturally formed paddock I have previously mentioned, is remarkably nutritious for horses, and it is rarely that grass appears to thrive so well for feeding purposes as the tufts which sprout from the rocky and stony intersectices of this wild and broken country.

The appearance of the bed of Joe’s Gully has been entirely altered by the diggers. The bed of the gully is not very wide, but stupendous banks protect it on each side near to the bed of the creek, where the busiest operations were being carried on; and if the place has not been formed by volcanic eruptions, and is only one of the rough and stupendous water-courses of this great country, there is food for supposition that ages have rolled by in accomplishing the appearance presented in 1859 to the visitors...

General Character of Tub Diggings

It is time I gave the diggings a character. I must here endeavour to be very particular. I talked with the storekeepers, diggers, and workers who live by other means than searching for gold. I had an opportunity of talking with many returns on the way up; many more than I have mentioned, and I have endeavoured to form an independent judgment. That Tooloom is a gold country no man who has visited it will deny. The gold brought down by the escort is proof that there is gold. The objection urged by many that the gold which is brought by the Ipswich escort is obtained mostly from the Table Land will not hold good. The Grafton people will be sure, on that side of the country, to keep a sharp look-out ; and I may state that there is a trifle of jealousy relative to the gold coming down to Ipswich which ought not to exist; and the sooner it is allayed the better will it be for all concerned. The Table Land is thirty miles from Tooloom, and it is not likely that much of the gold from the Grafton side passes by way of Ipswich. I should be inclined to believe from what I saw that if the matter were stated vice versa, - that some of the Tooloom gold went by way of Grafton, the truth would be nearer told.

Estimation and Calculation

I should estimate the number of persons at Tooloom, ‘Eight-mile Rush’ and ‘Twenty-mile Rush‘ at about eight hundred. I allow three hundred as the population of women, children and those engaged in stores, public houses, trades, et cetera. This gives a bona fide digging population of five hundred.

The Ipswich Escort brought down last trip nearly six hundred ounces - which gives more than an ounce per man for about three weeks. Now when it is considered that many on the fields scarcely obtain their rations, and others not even enough gold to purchase supplies, while others have good claims, it is not difficult to find a solution that Tooloom diggings, like all others, are a lottery. I believe there are plenty of men doing well; but the general prosperity would, at the time when I visited, have been much heightened by a better supply of water. In this particular there was a general scarcity. Joe’s Gulley was rendered almost useless as a gold producing spot. The two rushes were as badly off as Joe’s Gulley. The country has every appearance of proving gold producing in large quantities. At present circumstances have not been favourable to the full development of its capabilities. I have faith that something good will turn up in that quarter yet; but I should be sorry to say anything which would induce men who have employment, to leave a certainty for, what must be, an uncertainty, until water and time shall make us wiser respecting Tooloom. The impetus which has been given to the Tooloom fields by our friends in Ipswich has certainly done good. Under present circumstances the difficulty is to find now claims; and this I found to be the cause for so many returning. Above all things, a digger who goes to Tooloom should be provided with some ‘tin,’ so that he may hold out. I consider I have given the Tooloom goldfields a good character. They are not, at present, the places for very poor men. Those who have means to work on, strong faith, and dogged determination will, in the end, succeed, unless the face of nature lies, and the experience of the past gold indices are in this instance a blank.

I might run on to an undue length by repeating the gist of the inquiries I made, and the answers thereto. I might tell of claims unworked, and claims registered waiting for water; but, I could not add to the general information contained in my short summary, which may be told in a few words. Tooloom is a goldfield only wanting time and favorable circumstances to develop its capabilities.

I had many conversations on Saturday night with the diggers, and what I gleaned then helped me to summarize as above. If the reader will picture his own feeling when, the week’s toil is done and there is a chance for an hour’s enjoyment and patient forgetfulness, he can spare my pen the trouble of a description. Tooloom deserves a good character...

A Fight with the Knives

Those black, ugly, devils are making faces near the doorway of the hotel, and they laugh with a hideousity that makes a sensitive nature wish a score of miles was between their carcases and the fancied abode of the white lords’ security. Some of the backs of these dark gentry are cut with ghastly wounds. A few nights previously they had indulged in an aboriginal fashionable duel, and the sinners who presented themselves for the orgies of Saturday night were of those who had shown their prowess for a lady love by deeds of bloody war. Some of these black scoundrels had been half civilized on stations, and the little English they had learned had not made first class specimens to be produced at a missionary meeting. I did hear, on the Saturday night, that the aboriginals, when they fight with knives, have certain rules and regulations, a departure from which subjects the defaulter to a punishment peculiarly in accordance with the savage race to which they belong. And here I must tell a story. Two of the blacks had gone to the fight - one had departed from the honorable mode of striking, in so far that he had dragged his knife too lowly on his enemy’s body. For the benefit of those who know not the law which governs them in this particular, I may say that where the abdomen joins the upper portion of the body is considered the rubicon which the knife must not cross. When they fight with knives they do not stab deeply, but having forced the blade into the flesh the process is that of dragging; and the longer the wound the more successful is considered the inflictor.

Two blacks had fought and one had drawn his knife across the other’s abdomen, the consequence being that the intestines protruded and for three or four hours the black was in a state indescribable by your humble servant... The black who was thus served in his corporate body found at last a white man who took pity upon his unfortunate condition; and he lighted, by a tallow dip at the camp, and armed with a rusty needle and a bit of thread, commenced the job of sewing the blackfellow up as if he had been a dead marine. On the blackfellow’s wrist there was a wound, which was said to have been enough to kill a white fellow; but of this no notice was taken. The breach bodily was of more consequence than gash armitistically. The blackfellow lived, and appeared to suffer as little inconvenience from the mending he had received from an inexperienced body darner... I will not so far forget myself to hold the tinkerer of the black so publicly forth that he may become known. His act was one of pure charity - he took no fees - nor did he ask who was to pay him before he started to the camp on his mission of needle and thread mercy. I vouch for the accuracy of the tale as told by the performer himself, whose good deed shall now live in memory when his bad fortune as a digger at Tooloom shall have perished from memory.

Gold and the Blacks

The aboriginals seem perfectly to understand where to find the metal which makes wise men fools and gives an antipodean value to that grand army to which a wag once said he had no ambition to belong. The aboriginals, knowing the value of the metal for the purchase of grog and ‘bacca,’ nevertheless will not take the trouble to dig. For a trifle - for a glass of grog, they will do menial offices for the whites, wander a score of miles away, into the mountains with a party of diggers - to spots where the print of whitefellow’s foot has never previously been, and there point out spots favourable for prospecting. If the aboriginals were not so lazy, or if they had a tithe of the cupidity of the whites, they could soon become rich. Wise legislation might do something for them if contamination had not already struck its death roots into the race. Why need I moralise - it appears that they must perish before the advance of white civilisation, and I should like to find the man prepared with a specific definite nostrum to show that there would be any real service rendered to the world by the incorporation of the aboriginals of North Australia with any other existing race. Tastes differ, or else white women would not mate with John Chinamen as we see they do; but, then, woman is a bundle of incongruities, and cannot be reckoned by the rule of three and vulgar fractions. I hold that the thesis for incorporation, whereby and wherefrom a better race than the jibbering savage with animal instincts might rise, is not practicable so far as the Malay, Japanese, or Chinese are concerned. Nature, elevated, abhors descending. The aspirations are upward in nationality, and onward in civilisation, until the world shall be linked by rapid means of transit and great thoughts, aided by science, demonstrating that man was made for other purposes than toil and money-getting.

There were three or four aboriginals on the ground on the Saturday night in question who were above the average in point of intelligence; but, even those seemed to be short of a shingle in making the best of their knowledge as to the likely spots where gold was to be obtained. They would drink grog, beg for sixpences, journey all day long for a trifle, but the value of the metal for which the whites searched so eagerly they knew not. They had never known the possession of yellow money; prechance if they were taught the value of gold to ‘buy ‘em bacca and grog,’ they might touch the first step of civilisation. Wherever I have seen the aboriginals, so far as property is concerned, they are communists, and despise those petty distinctions which first led to the settlement of this colony...

Themes of Discussion

If a traveller spends a night at a station he will find that the fashionable subject of conversation, especially if a neighbour is visiting who is pecuniarily interested, is cattle, sheep, horses, wool, horns, hides, and tallow. Since Separation, local politics come in at the station boards as ‘Worcestershire Sauce;’ and the mixture is at times as strange as Paddy O’Rourke’s dream. Those matters which are nearest the breast pocket I suppose men will talk about, and ladies also. At Tooloom they talked of sinkings, washings, beds of gravel, boulders, beds of pipeclay, and the general opinion seemed that deep sinking would in a few weeks be the order of the diggings at Tooloom. When the news shall reach us that ‘the windows of heaven’ have been kept open for a few days in that locality, there will be such an improvement that we shall be disposed to wonder why we believed not sooner.

Modes for Inducing Sleep

The diggers crowd the bagatelle board, the balls roll with measured sound, and every now and then there is a gusto of exclamations, perfectly original in their construction and novel fin their sounds. I want to sleep and still the whir keeps on; at last I catch the indication of drowsiness, but there is a spell in the original manner of talk... There are many ways to woo Morpheus. Mesmerize yourself by imagining you are converted into a chimney and the smoke is coming from your mouth as from a funnel. Look straight at some object And if all fails make a planetary system by tightly closing the eyes and seeing sun, moon, and stars of all colours and sizes. If all these means fail don’t get into a passion - if you do you may bid farewell to sleep that night. Smoke a bit, read a page or two, think on those matters only which are pleasant, and you may get off even while a score of fellows are interesting themselves in making a noise that would wake all the blessed babies in creation. I say not how I managed, or if I found it expedient to put on a nightcap. I am off, good night. To-morrow,
Give me my horse and a bottle of wine,
And you shall all hear of the Condamine.'