Author: Clare Wright
Publisher: Text Publishing Melbourne Australia
ISBN: 9781922147370
 

Eureka (yoo-ree-kuh) from the Greek, literally means 'I have found it!' – exactly what Clare Wright has done in her new Australian revisionist history book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka; Dr. Wright has not only found it, she has found them; the women and girls who lived, worked and died beside their husbands, brothers and fathers in the 1850’s on Australia’s Ballarat goldfields.

Women, until recently, left out of history books which describe Australia’s nineteenth century goldfields and The Eureka Stockade, a foundation event in a then young English colony, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka sets the record straight – women were not only around in significant numbers they made a huge contribution to the shanty towns that grew up around the diggings. Engaged not just in traditional roles they were top of the bill actresses, teachers, writers and publicans.

The Ballarat gold-rush is typically represented as having a cast list of mostly unattached badly behaved young men who lived in lawless, chaotic tent-cities while they mined rich gold seams. Ten years in the researching and writing, Clare Wright’s book refutes this view of a community dominated by ruffians and con-men; revealing the Ballarat goldfields of the 1850s as a reasonably law-abiding community of men, women and children, most of whom had travelled a long way to seek, if not fortune, at least a livable financial reward for their hard work. 

In 1854, the lure of gold, mined for the price of a pick-axe and a tent, caused Ballarat’s population to increase rapidly. Twenty five percent of the community, female, most of them  young and newly married, it’s no surprise there was a baby boom. In 1854-55, breast pumps were sold in stores and childcare was organised for dances and balls. The picture painted in The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka of goldfields domesticity – women who cared for children, cooked meals and worked beside their men, despite the noise, dirt, lack of water, primitive sanitary conditions and domestic violence is a fascinating look at the social history of the time.

A seminal event in the establishment of an Australian national identity, the incidents that led to The Eureka Stockade where miners rebelled against local authorities, began as a series of protests against the licence fees charged by the colonial government, enforced by poorly trained, brutal and often crooked police. Miners had to pay a fee each month to renew their licence, whether or not they had found gold.
 
Gold seams depleted, in November 1854, tensions increased, a hotel was burned down and three miners were arrested – 10,000 thousand miners met to demand the release of the prisoners, abolition of licence fees and the right to vote. Demands refused, the miners held a meeting at the Eureka diggings (named after a deep seam of gold). They built a fort, which they named the Eureka Stockade.
 
On Sunday, 3rd December, several hundred soldiers and police attacked the stockade. Better equipped, government troops outnumbered the diggers; the battle short, accounts vary, but it is thought 22 diggers and 5 soldiers were killed.
 
Women of the goldfields who were caught up in the miner’s fight for a ‘fair go’ for all, not just the ruling elite, have never been mentioned in official government reports or the accounts of the Eureka Stockade written by male historians. This extraordinary oversight, in keeping with  Australia’s male dominated historical records has been remedied by The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka – women were there; their work and suffering every bit as heroic and inspiring as the men they helped to turn a fledgling colony into the modern state of Victoria.
 
Historian, public commentator and university lecturer, Clare Wright through letters, newspapers and research of the period (included is an extensive bibliography) has written a vivid, exciting, sometimes humorous and at times sad account of truly remarkable women; Sarah Hammer, theatrical entrepreneur, Catherine Bentley, publican, are just a couple of the lead players. I particularly loved the glimpses of life in the nineteenth century gained from letters of women who welcomed the chance to escape the conventions of the time for the freedom of a brand new country. Matter of fact, I can’t remember a chapter that wasn’t an absorbing page turner.
 
Listen up: Nicole and Naomi; there are many women’s stories in The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka begging to tell the true story of Australia’s gold-rush – all of them perfect for the big screen.
 
Clare Wright’s book The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, is a scholarly work of important social and historical significance – a definite for your wish-list.


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