This week I'll be travelling to Ballarat for the Eighth Victorian Family History State Conference: Under the Southern Cross – A goldfields experience. My ancestor, Henry Ashmore, was one of the first to travel to the Victorian goldfields after payable gold deposits were discovered there in 1851.
Henry wrote a wonderfully descriptive letter to his brother in England in September 1852 which I would like to share with you. He wrote:
"On the 20th of October, 1851, I proceeded with a party of five to Ballarat diggings, it is situated six miles from Boningyong, that being the name of a very high mountain. From hence through the ranges to the diggings it is covered with white quartz which at places looks as if it is snow. To show you the fearful state of the roads, we sent our things up by a bullock-dray, and it took a fortnight (with ten bullocks) to reach a distance of fifty six miles. We walked with our damper and mutton, which occupied us eight days; some part of the way having to wade knee deep through the mud: there were drays out of number bogged on the road. At night we made our mi mis (hut) of green boughs and branches, and when it rained we were generally wet through. When it rains here it is not like your April showers, but it comes down in torrents. On reaching Ballarat we set to work, and in three weeks we averaged £60 each man, or nearly 2lbs. in weight. My party then wished to return home.
We set out shortly afterwards with a horse and dray for Mount Alexander. On our arrival we commenced work, but were not so fortunate as many, owing to our having a lazy, obstinate Scotchman with us, which was a great drawback. We stayed at the Mount three months, each dividing £150 per man. I then purchased the horse and dray for £52 (the same is now worth £120) and proceeded with my son and son-in-law to Bendigo, twenty-eight miles farther north, there being then not more than 100 people at the place. We commenced surfacing and earthing it down to the creek full two miles to wash, and we averaged about six ounces per day. We could not stop long here, as the drinking water was so bad that it gave us all the dysentry, and the heat was very oppressive. We left a great deal of sickness at the place. On our return to Corio, we found hundreds wending their way to Bendigo. After a few weeks I proceeded to Wardi Yallack, prospecting about fifty miles more southerly, as water was one grand point as well as gold. The precious metal is found there, but not in large quantities. The rocks and mountains in this district are the most splendid I have ever seen. We afterwards returned with a party to Bendigo-creek, remaining there about three months, and dividing £200 each man, The gold is mostly obtained in holes of from 10 to 30 feet deep. It took us on this last occasion 16 days to reach Bendigo from Corio. Provisions were very high when I was last at Bendigo, and there could not be less than 50,000 persons in that district—they are scattered for miles. Flour was selling £18 per bag; oats, £2 15s. per bushel; sugar 1s. 6d. per lb.; tobacco, 12s. per lb., and everything equally dear.
If the weather permits, we are off again in a week; at present it is not promising. Ice fell the other day, Sept. 2nd, nearly as big as walnuts, and the rivers are much swollen. We shall start for the Eureka (Ballarat), for diggers generally are doing well. The highest price I have obtained for my gold was £3. 7s. 3d. per ounce, the highest that has been given in this colony; when I first went to the diggins, only £2 18s. was given for it. I have sent you and my other brothers some Melbourne newspapers ; they will give you some idea of the quantity of gold that has been got. A ship left Melbourne on Tuesday with 120,000 ounces, for London; and a ship has just arrived with 837 emigrants. I should not be surprised to hear of thousands leaving Britain for our shores.
To give you some idea of the working the ground—when we get to the bottom of a hole, we fall in with different coloured clay, which we put into a tub to puddle and reduce so thin that we can wash it off in a dish: dipping the dish continually in the water, the gravel and sand wash out from being the lightest, and the gold falls to the bottom of the dish; but it frequently happens that we wash nearly all the surface down, which is done by putting the earth into a sieve and working it in a cradle—one bales water all the time, and the gold falls down on the slide or back part of the cradle. I see by the papers the gold found here has astonished our good folks at home. I must say some of the yields are wonderful: last week a nugget of solid gold, weighing 102 ounces, was found at Ballarat. The largest piece I have found was 7 oz. 15 dwts., when we first went to Ballarat."
Henry was described in a newspaper article several years later as a 'denizen of the diggins'. In the early 1860's he travelled to New Zealand in search of gold but soon returned to Australia. He lived for many years in the goldfields town of Creswick in Victoria where he died in 1884.