Who were the Victorians, those people who flooded to Australia between 1830 and 1900? We might think of them as dour and religious.
“My parents were very ‘Victorian’; they were very strict,” we hear. But were the Victorians really so different from us?
We have been educated to accept a vision of Victorian life on the Goldfields as rough and ready miners and prim women in crinolines; a steady rise of respectable town life built through women washing, mending, cooking, raising children, doing needlework, reading the Bible.
And while these occupations and pastimes were common, they limit our understanding of what life was actually like 160 years ago – and how much closer the population of the Goldfields were to us in their thinking.
Ballarat historian Dot Wickham has written extensively on relationships in the era.
“The times were not exactly like today but – people are people. You get two people that don’t see eye-to-eye in a marriage… if you have 20,000 people on a goldfield, with 4,000 of them women – well the women have a LOT of men to choose from.
“If they’re not happy in that relationship with one male, they’ll find a de facto relationship. And that’s what happened in a lot of cases.
“And there were a lot of deaths on the Goldfields. If a spouse died, say a female, then the husband would desperately need someone to look after the children. You would find quite often that the second wife would be a sister of the first, that the sister would come into the relationship.”
By the 1860s immigration schemes had been set up to eliminate gender inequity in the colony, raising the male-female ratio to near equal.
“There was the ‘Highland and Ireland Scheme’, the ‘Donegal’ scheme – there were a lot of schemes, in particular the ‘Irish Pauper’ scheme. These were mainly females, about 4,000, that came to Australia. It was at the time of the famine in Ireland. A lot of people left Ireland between 1830 and 1850-60. A coroner’s inquest in the 1840s found one victim of the famine had one piece of cabbage leaf in his intestine. And so a lot came to Australia; about 13 per cent were Irish on the Eureka Lead.
“They would arrive in Melbourne or Geelong. One ship arrived in Tasmania and the word went around it was full of ‘needlewomen’. The colloquial term for prostitutes was needlewomen, and of course when it arrived the wharf was covered in men waiting to meet it.”
Sly grogging and the sale of alcohol was an enormous trade on the Goldfields, but prostitution was almost as big. Brothel-keeping was an enormous sideline of hotel commerce. As timber and then brick-and-mortar hotels rose, they had rooms built specifically designed for the business, small and available for ‘short-term’ use.
“People think that York Street in Ballarat was named for the Duke of York. It was actually named after the York Brothel. It was so notorious that the Town And City Mission set up on the corner of Main Road and York Street there to preach.
“Esmond Street was notorious as well, parts of Black Hill.”
As in the case of alcohol sales, women were the proprietors of these institutions in the main.
“When you go into the women that owned houses in Ballarat between 1850 and 1870, the women that were the most affluent and had the most money, were the brothel owners,” says Dot Wickham.
Given that prostitution was illegal, how did these businesses thrive? Were the police and magistrates complicit in turning a blind eye, or even profiting from their existence?
“There are a lot of reports in the Petty Sessions registers. If it was a pretty young woman coming in for the first time, the magistrate was very lenient. You can imagine them going into court, smiling at the magistrate – who knows…
“Times haven't changed.
“There’s a story of a brothel burning down in the middle of the night. There were four or five women out in the middle of the road in their nightdresses. They were brought in by the police. But as they went to charge them, they discovered that, as the brothel had burnt down, there was ‘no evidence’.
Not that the police let everything get past them.
“The Bull Pup, alias Margaret Clarke, was well known to Ballarat police in 1854. Clarke was around 20 years of age, 5 feet 5 inches high, full coarse features, rather pale complexion, brown hair, grey eyes, strong coarse voice, of stout build and masculine appearance and a well known prostitute.
“Sergeant-Major Robert Milne testified that he had seen her several months before her arrest on 20 January, ‘dead drunk by the side of the road, with her clothes pulled up high above her head’. She was charged on this day with ‘having no lawful visible means of support and committed to gaol for two months. On 11 April 1854 she was again charged and committed for a further six months.”
Dot Wickham says the choices given to women in the rush to find gold are found still in a singularity of mind and purpose among Australian women.
“There was a lot more freedom in the early 1850s. There was a lot more freedom for women. For example, Martha Clendinning ordered goods to sell, set up a store with her sister-in-law. As the rush moved west, these women simply picked up their tent and moved too.
Eventually, as the rush faded, men assumed the roles that women had filled.
“By 1857, Martha Clendinning writes ‘it would not seem fitting to continue with my store’. Rising prosperity and men moving into the businesses formerly run by women begins to relegate women to the ‘respectable’ roles of wives and mothers.”
And the brothel trade?
By the 1890s the ‘respectable’ Victorian era was in full swing. The redoubtable Queen Victoria, spending her life in mourning after the death of Prince Albert, had influenced the demeanour of her empire and the culture had shifted to pious reflection and abstemiousness. While there were no doubt ‘houses of ill-repute’ remaining in Ballarat, their history is yet to be told.