PhD researcher is finding the voices of long-gone goldfields children

By PhD researcher Natasha Joyce

I grew up in Bendigo near the Victoria Hill Mining Reserve in Ironbark, and my Mum worked as a tour guide at the Central Deborah Goldmine. My brother and I were always playing in the mullock heaps and tailings that you can still see in the area today.

Mum was always telling us to be careful because “you never know when you might step backwards and whoosh! down a mine shaft”. We figured she was just trying to scare us but having now seen the number of children that died falling into deep, poorly capped abandoned shafts… well, turns out she was right.

In mid-2013 I enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts at the Bendigo campus. Seven years later I’m close to completing a history PhD, and finally becoming Dr Tash. I will be the first person in my family to finish an undergraduate degree, let alone one with honours or a post-grad.

The stories of ordinary people and what they mean for us today has kept me engaged in my studies since day one, from the broad range of themes offered in my first year, to my specific focus on accidental child death on the 19th century goldfields of Bendigo. While I enjoyed the creative arts and literature topics available, the subjects I sunk my teeth into were those with the social history elements.

Children, lost and found

As part of a wider project which looks at faith on the goldfields, I’m now researching accidental deaths of Bendigo children during the goldrushes, and how faith guided individuals and shaped communities when children died.

My research topic has been heavily influenced by the material and data available. Historical records of children are rare; children on goldfields more so; first-hand accounts from children rarer still. Firsthand accounts from Bendigo goldfields children specifically discussing death? Priceless!

Family diaries and letters might contain such examples but are likely to be parents relating tales of what their children did or said. When a child was killed in an accident however, it was likely other children witnessed it, and that an inquest had been held.

By the 1850s goldrushes in Bendigo, inquests had to be held for any sudden, unexpected death and coroners were regularly called out to investigate all manner of fatalities.

The variety of information that can be gleaned from the records of such investigations, and what that data can reveal, is astonishing. Age, gender, place and cause of death can tell us about the daily dangers faced by children, and what that meant for standards at the time. Cross reference that data with cemetery records, Sunday School accounts and newspaper reports, and you begin to get a picture of a neighbourhood’s denominational composition.

It’s when you dig down into witness statements however, that stories are teased out, connections made, and the shape of communities revealed.

Besides all my serious, academic findings, I occasionally stumble across odd or even funny titbits. For instance, did you know that laudanum, the commonly available drug of choice for many famous nineteenth century authors, and the cause of many accidental overdoses in infants, is still available by prescription today?

I’ve also seen some wonderfully passive-aggressive exchanges between council medical officers about whose town has the better hygiene. I’ve also become a disturbing source of horrible ways to die, which does not make me fun at parties.

The research can be intensely unpleasant, and I’ve learned to not talk to new parents about it. For a short while I became obsessive about the safety of my young nephews. I had to keep reminding myself that as well as decent child safety standards, we have free hospitals, clean water, antibiotics and vaccines, all things that I feel were in some small way influenced by the deaths of goldfields children.

(Historic images by Gill, S. T., 1818-1880, artist, courtesy of State Library, Victoria.)

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