State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 21 April 1978


A letter from the Victorian Gold Fields by John Lees, 1852

In 1976 the State Library of Victoria purchased at a Sotheby auction in London a collection of letters written mainly from the Victorian gold fields by John Lees during the 1850's and 1860's.
John Lees came to the Australian gold fields from the depressed cotton industry of Oldham in northern England in mid 1852. He formed a party with John and Daniel Evans, also from Oldham and staked a claim in Canadian Gully, Ballarat. It was here that Lees and his partners discovered what became known as the Canadian Nugget on 31 January 1853. This nugget, which weighed 1319 oz., was the largest found up to the time and it remained the third largest on record up to the early part of this century. Lees sold the nugget to the Bank of England and returned to Oldham using the proceeds to build some houses known as the Ballarat Buildings in what was to become Nugget Street. It was at these premises that Lees’ second son, the eminent physicist C. H. Lees, F.R.S. was born.
Tiring of his life in England, Lees returned to the Victorian gold fields in August 1856 to once more try his luck. This second attempt at prospecting bought little return and the majority of the letters in the collection describe the persistent hardships and disappointments of this later period before Lees returned to England in July 1863.
The letter published here, dated 16 November 1852, is one of two Lees addressed to his father during his first visit to Australia. Lees’ lively narrative style and his acute observation of the ‘motley group’ of the new gold diggers make this collection one of the most interesting recent accessions in the Library's Australian Manuscripts Collection.
Melbourne November 16/52 Dear Father,
I hope this will find you and all the family injoying good health and every wordly comfort, in may last I told you Iwas preparing to go to the diggings there were lots of parties made up on board during the passage I was asked to join two or three; but I declined because I thought I had not money enough, there was a man a native of Lincoln about my own age who came to me one day and ask'd me if I would join him. I liked his appearance & conversation so well that I agreed to join him and get a party made up of 5, we managed to make up the party draw up rules and regulations and all signed them, one afterwards left us and we turn'd another out so there remainds when we landed only 3 of us, Benjamin Bell of Lincoln John Woodward of Northwich Cheshire and myself, we spent a week in Melbourne and started for the diggings on the monday morning, there was a mob of about 80 all met in the morning near this flag staff a motly group we were i can assure you, dress'd in colonial style blue flannel slops, belts and billy cocks, some arm'd with revolvers, in fact all arm'd up to the teeth, with revolvers, double barrel'd rifles, pistols double and single, daggers &c all looking and feeling volumes of valour, bidding defiance to, and predicting the probable fate of any bushrangers that might interrupt our progress, we were like so many beasts of burden loaded with weapons of defence blankets tools et cetras and grub, we travelled about 14 miles and encamptd for the night on the banks of a river in a deep valley, all was bustle and confusion for about an hour, at the end of that time there were at least 20 fires blazing and cracking away, we got our tea &c and then made our beds for the night, there was the two Evans'es and Cambels son from Oldham and I and party agreed to sleep together, sewed 3 sheets together and placed them in a slanting direction to windward, spread some branches bush wood and leaves and our blankets on the top, which finishes both lodging house and bed. I reckon this as romantic a scene
as I have ever seen, the river the beautifully wooded and slopeing sides of the valley, the numerous fire, with here and there a tent scatter'd along the valley, the groups of fortune hunters standing round the fires, and spinning yarns cracking jokes, speculating upon their doings at the diggings, a scene not to be forgotten in a day I never slept any during the night, either the novelty of the thing or the thoughts of home kept me awake till 1 or 2 o'clock and then there commenced a thunder storm and very heavy rain so that the upper part of our persons, were enjoying a sorts of steaming and the lower parts a shower bath which continued till daybreak well thinks I to myself if I can stand this Iwill book myself bombproof, Ineed not give you a detailed account of every days journey as it would be merely a repetition of the first we were too great a number to keep together very long. I kept up with the advance guard about 16 of us. we got lost in the black forest on the 2nd day, and on the 4th one half lost the other half again, I lost my partner Bell, night came and we had nothing to eat, and were all drenched to the skin, we found a deserted sheperds hut kindled a fire and dried our clothes then I went in search of something to eat I had to travel 2 miles then cross a river up to the pockets in water, got a 4 lb loaf for which they charged me 5 shillings recrossed the river again with it under my arm and traveld back to the hut before I had any supper, so much for travelling up to the diggings we arrived or at least I arrived at the digging on the sunday with 24 shilling in my pocket, now the license for digging is 30 shilling so you may be sure I felt a little anxious as to what would be my fate, having lost my partners and not having money enough to commence myself, fortune however did me a turn at this crisis, two passengers of the same ship offerd me the chance to join them one had £11 the other £10 so I agreed to do so if I did not find Bell on the morrow morning, we slept together on one of the hills in the Bendigo diggings I started in morning in search of Bell and who should I meet but one of the Evanses and he told he was stopping with Bell and Dan Harrop and that Jerry Forster was there too. Evans was going for his license, so he lent me ten shillings and got mine at the same time, and I returned with him to see the 2 Harrops and jerry Forster; well they were pretty well thunderstruck to see me I can assure you Jerry said he was as glad as if some one had given him £20 the parties with whom he had been digging had just turn him out of the party, but I did not hear on what account he asked me if I would join him, I agreed in a moment, he had only £10 and he had been up about 6 week. I told him I had only 4 shillings, well says he the £10 will set us a going I then told him about these other partners of mine and he said he would agree for them to join, so I went in search of them and found just commencing digging with 2 others, so I thought I would see how the wind blew with them, so says I well Bell are you going to to stand to your agreements with me, no says he quite haughtily well am I to be turned adrift in this way. yes you must do the best you can I can't help you. well thank God says I dont stand in need of your help and then I told him what I had come to see him for and then left them to do their own, hoping old nick would not be stopt for want of brimstone when their souls were caught, Jerry and I set about purchasing tools and rigging up a crib to sleep in I sewd two blankets together put up two sticks and a 3rd for a ridge tree, threw the blankets over and secured them fill'd the two open ends up with branches and leaves cut a gutter all round to take the water away, the next morning we commenced gold digging, I may tell you just for the sake of the thing I got 32 shillings the first day, the following are the weights we got each week.
oz dwts gr
1    week 2   " 9   " 0
2—  do 5   " 5   " 0
3—  do 2   " 6   " 12
4—  do 3   " 5   " 0
5—  do 21   " 5   " 0
34   " 10   " 12
this shows you that we got more on the 5th week than we had got in the 4 previous
weeks, and we should have mist this had I not been stupid jerry was so fickle wanting to go to this and that place with much ado he agreed to stick in were I wanted got nearly down the first day and the next bottomed and got 12 ounces, well we were quite uplifted with our success, at the week end we divided and we had each a pound weight of gold, jerry remitted his all to his wife, and then we never got anything after that, I had a presentiment in my mind that this pound of gold I had would be brattled away, so I went to the store keeper who had undertaken Jerrys and begd him to remit to you £40 and I would pay him in gold the same as jerry but he would not, he had only done it for jerry on account of wife and 7 children, my misgivings have proved but too true the same week 6th of my being at Bendigo there was some extravagant news of diggings at the ovans distance 200 mile the Harrops and the Evanses decided to go to them they asked me to go they said they believed it would be for all our good, but I did not like to go, but jerry said he should go wether I went or not, so I was in a fix, he had no money but the others said they would go shares and lend it him, so I had no alternative but either go or be alone, and a man can do nothing alone in 12 feet diggings, so I agreed very reluctantly to go we bought a horse and cart two sacks of flour and other requisites for 3 months costing us altogether £120 I paid my own share and lent jerry £12 being twice the amount and more that he had lent me so I thought that would repay him for any obligations I had been under to him for money I sold my lb. of gold for £39/12/0 the price of gold is always less at the diggings than at Melbourne the average amount per day for time I was there was 21 and a few pence clear of keep tools and license, which may be only small compared to what has been but the ground is all worked up and new comers have but a very small chance indeed, so we all six started for the Ovans travelling over hills through valleys and crossin so all went on very wel a few days, we went a nice easy distance each day and pitched our tent in good time before sunset, and divided the night into 6 watches, each man taking his turn according to the number on his ticket drawn by chance, the first place we encampt at was as beautiful a place as I ever saw, I happn'd to draw the 1 o clock watch. I strutted round the tent with the axe shoulder, the handle of which actually shined with the dew being upon it like a real twist barrel and I actually felt as soadierfied and valiant as if I had been a waterloo hero, things went on in a pretty smooth way till Bill Harrop begun to domineer and bullyrag too much till it came to an open rupture between him and the Evanses and then all was dissatisfaction. We however kept going, although we met hundreds coming back all giving a bad account of the Ovens, on the 8th day out we met Scholes, a native of Oldham, who had been out in these colonies 13 years, he and party had been to the Ovens, and done no good at all, so he advised us to go back, we concluded to do so or rather go to Melbourne and dispose of all we had and have a fresh start, when we were coming through the forest about 40 miles from town the cartwheel happened to go over my toe on the left foot, and I was lagging behind, when I came up to Hill Harrop laid on the ground with a bottle of spirits in his hand he asked me to drink and sit down a few minutes I did so, but never a word was spoken, I observed that he looked very sulky and morose, we went on then and overtook dan and jerry, Bill began to wrangle with Dan and Dan cryed. jerry all the while kept medling between them, I stood aloof myself and told jerry to do the same, jerry at last came away and we walked on togethr, but he begun to blackguard me and at last call'd me a bloody jackass. I then let fly at his nut, he stood to me a moment and then cut. I followed but did not nab him. I had a loaded gun in one hand he stood at a distance gabbering away at me, till I dropped the gun and away after him, I was close upon him when away he flies clean over some fallen timber and pitches sous over-head into the creek, well all my resentment melted away at seeing him there, and I went down and assisted him out, I was just doctoring him along when up
comes Bill Harrop and charges me with doing for their dan, and attempts to force, me back in search of him, I refused and he begun to strike? me on the head and face with a stick. I was forced to grapple with him to save myself, I managed to get the upper hand of him and was holding him down when jerry tryd to assist him from under but could not. he then went and broke of the branch of a tree and struck me on the head with it till I went blind and faint Bill then broke loose from me got up and begun to kick me with all his might, while I lay bleeding on the ground, the blood streaming from the wounds on my head, I then endeavoured to get away from them, and find my guns, but it was gone, and I judged they had taken it, so it proved, for Ihad not proceeded far before, they overtook me and stopt me Bill had the gun, he took his stand in front of me cocked the gun pointed it at my chest and swore he would shoot me, jerry stood with a pocket knife open, to make me turn back but I would not move, he might let go if he liked I said I would not move an inch, for neither gun nor knife. Bill then used the butt end of the gun to me, striking every time at my head I protected it as much as I could with my right arm, but I had given myself up for being murthered I never expected getting away alive, the skin was nock'd. off my a part of my right arm with warding off the musket, they then left me and turn'd back through the forest taking the gun with them it was then dark, I proceeded on then, in search of the camp. They had gone on about 3 miles I found them, I was faint with loss of blood, the Evanses and Scholes, when I came up were horrorstruck at my appearance of a blacker hearted pieces of business I never knew. Scholes got the master of a sheep station to dress my wounds. I have concluded not to prosecute on account of the expense time and trouble and having no money to spare. I am going again to try my fortune at the Balarat diggings with the Evanses who have behaved like brothers to me. I have only £15 left of my money, I was put in to sell every thing and divide the money I had to sell my thing at an enormous sacrifice, so there was not much to divide I now conclude this tirsome letter hoping to have something more pleasant to write you than a string of misfortune like this.
NB my love to me granny granfather brothers sister and all my old particks
Your affectionate son John Lees