A Letter from John at the Diggins

(Click on the small image to enlarge it. Courtesy of Victoria Dunlop)

Good Friday 1853

My Dear Father & Mother

Since I last wrote I have arrived at the above diggins. I did not calculate on going there for another month but having met 3 ship mates of mine I went up with them and I do not now regret going. We arrived on the Diggins on Tuesday morn'g and obtained our Licences the same day. We thought we would try some of the Old Holes first and on Wednesday morn'g commenced at a Hole which had been only partially work, sunk it that day and found several small nuggets weighing altogether about three 3 1/2 oz and the ne[x]t morning made about an oz washing the stuff, tried another hole the same evening and only got a few specs and today there is no work done. So you see it is a complete lottery the' the man who goes up with funds for 4 or 5 months is sure to win a prize. Gold at present is [[sterling]]3/16 per oz. The Life at the Diggins is beyond description. Firearms discharging all night, dogs barking, men shouting, in fact it baffles all description. Robberies are frequent but we make a point to keep no Gold in the Tent always lodge it with the Commissioner on the day it is obtained in our joint names to guard against either the possibility of robbery or unfair dealing. No later than (yesterday) this day week when I was in Melbourne an extensive Gold broker named Ritter was attacked at a short distance from Canvas Town (a few hundred yards) by 8 armed Bushrangers at 8 o'clock in the morning and plenty of people on the Road. He was in the habit of watering his horse at a Lagoon on the road and the robbers were aware of this for they were concealed in the Teak tree scrub close to it. His brother in law was also in the Gig. One of them rushed out and seized the horses head and the others surrounded the Gig with loaded pistols in their hands. Mr.Ritter immediately struck the man holding the horses head with the whip & forced him to let go his hold and then lashed on the horse. The 8 robbers immediately fired at him but with no material damage - 4 balls entering his clothes and hat and one taking effect in the uncle. The brother in Law escaped un hurt and the same evening the Government offered a reward of [[sterling]]600 for their arrest and 4 of them were captured. We met a Dozen or so of them in Irons on a cart guarded by an escort of Mounted Police on the Road to the Diggins. The Bushrangers have altered their plans of robbery now, as nobody brings Gold down themselves they rob people going up because they know they must have a little money. We used to take it in turns to watch the Bullocks at night and on Sunday night it was my turn from 12 to 4 to keep guard with a double barrel & to prevent the cattle being stolen which is very frequent. At about 1/2 past two in the night I went to turn them back as they ware straying too far when I saw a horseman approaching them. I was at the time in the shade of a Gum tree and I cocked both barrels. He kept approaching until I sung out to him when he suddenly stopped and I demanded what he wanted. He appeared to hesitate. I presented at him still in the shade when he said he saw the fire and and wanted a light for his pipe. He got it and went about his business. The snakes here are pretty numerous and we killed several of them. The Centipedes too are very dangerous. Perhaps when you lift a log one of them would fasten on your fingers - tho' not mortal their bite is very troublesome. Plenty of oppossums, wild dogs and lots wild cats and other animals to be met with on the road & in the bush. Lots of people here are doing nothing, absolutely nothing, and some of the holes at Ballarat are upwards of 130 feet in depth the' 60 or 70 is the average. Here the sinking is what is called shallow varying from 6 to 20 feet in depth. Provisions here are tremendous prices 3/- 2lb loaf 5/small bottle of porter (great favor) 6/- lb Butter Meat 6d to 8d p lb. The way we set about sinking a hole is this - Take your pick & place one point in the Ground Where the Centre of your Hole is to be and discribe a circle with the handle and set to work within till you bottom or it stops coming to the rock or else to the strata which consists either of Pisse clay or a species of Gravel. If there is any nuggets you will see them in it or if not send up this stuff by means of a bucket and windlass to be cradled and continue on till you arrive at the rock. If there be a crevice you then stoop down and with your knife pick out any particles of Gold and scrape the rock with your knife for there the stuff is. Then if the hole turns out any way well you prepare to counter mine along the surface of the the rock in a parallel direction which is a new & rather dangerous job for unless you get carefully to work there is considerable danger of the earth falling in. We never go out after sun down both on account of robberies and the danger of walking among so many wells or holes. We have a fine Bull dog belonging to one of my mates at the tent door and always sleep with a loaded pistol under our heads. In fact where I lived in Canvas Town we never thought of going out after dark. In fact a friend coming in always coeys before he enters for fear of accidents and on no account should you let anybody know what you are doing. If anybody asks (which an old Digger never will for he doesn't expect to hear a word of truth) The invariable reply is "Just paying expenses." Water here is the scarcest commodity. The Diggers have been frequently obliged to drink the water they found in the hole they were sinking thick with mud. That is what gives dissentery the best cure for which is to go the next gum tree and break a piece of Gum off and suck it. I expect in about a month to be able to give you a better specimen of life at the Diggins and hoping this will all at Home well .

I remain

My Dear Father & Mother

Your Most Affect[ionate]


Jno Hewat

P.S. Melbourne General Post Office is the best address.