State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 67 Autumn 2001


S. T. Gill, artist, ‘Digger's Wedding in Melbourne’, 1869. Watercolour. H86.7, La Trobe Picture Collection.


The Dangers of ‘Horrid Democracy’
S. T. Gill's ‘Digger's Wedding’

Present-Day Viewers of S. T. Gill's watercolour, ‘Digger's Wedding in Melbourne’ (from his album, Victorian Gold Fields 1852-3), see merely a picture of diggers having a harmless, if rowdy, spree in town after a successful stay on the diggings, and thumbing their noses at straight-laced colonial society. But this work meant more to mid-nineteenth-century viewers, especially those with any pretensions to gentility. To them, its iconography conveyed a more confronting sub-text: ‘If the Lower Orders get power and wealth, this is what will become of Society’.
Although we cannot fail to engage with its lively attention to the theatricality of the events it depicts and the evocations of our colourful past, we have largely lost the clues which point to any of the alternative readings which this picture suggested in the minds of Gill's contemporaries.
Samuel Thomas Gill (1818-1880) made a modest living as a jobbing illustrator and ‘taker of likenesses’ in Adelaide before moving to Victoria with the aim of improving his fortunes during the gold rushes in 1851. In this undertaking he failed dismally, but his depictions of daily life on the goldfields and in Melbourne were immensely popular and recognised at the time as a valuable historical record, with the result that he was commissioned by the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library in 1869 to paint a series of 40 goldfields watercolours, of which the ‘Digger's Wedding’ is one.
How is it possible to read dire implications into such a simple picture, containing little more than a group of figures and a close-up view of a carriage? From our twenty-first-century perspective, with its acceptance of ubiquitous vehicular travel, we forget that privately owned horse-drawn vehicles were far from an everyday sight on Australian roads in the middle of the nineteenth century. So their appearance in a picture, or mention of horse-drawn conveyances in print, usually signifies that something out of the ordinary is going on and that closer inspection is warranted to discover its particular nature.
Before the 1850s, the Australian colonies could be lands of opportunity for skilled, tenacious people with a limited amount of capital, a claim on the government for a land grant, and some luck. Between the 1820s and the 1840s such people were able to gather together enough to enable them to live as gentlemen, deriving a good living from wool production, thanks to low labour costs. Additional avenues for wealth generation were to be found in mercantile activities and rents from tenant farmers.
On achieving a ‘modest competence’, colonial gentlemen set about recreating the social amenities of the ‘mother country’, building comfortable houses with extensive
gardens, hunting, holding balls, subscribing to concerts, art unions and circulating libraries. But colonial society, however softened by such graces, bore only a superficial resemblance to that of ‘Home’. ‘Good’ colonial society was far from homogeneous, and the question of rights to membership was constantly and, at times, hotly contested. At one extreme there were those who could claim gentle status in England but who presently lacked means to live like gentlemen. On the other, there were people accepted as colonial gentry because of their wealth or position but whose antecedents could stand no more than cursory examination and whose claims for acceptance into polite society would certainly fail in England. As a result ‘social life … displayed a crude, insecure face, which the cosmetic application of airs and graces could not altogether hide’.1 It was often difficult to make quick and accurate decisions about the social standing of people with whom one was forced to associate.
One reasonably accurate marker of social position was carriage ownership. Because of the high cost of owning and operating a carriage, its symbolic value was resistant to misappropriation. Since there was a hierarchy of vehicles, comprising over 60 different types, from the gig to the dress carriage, each appropriate to particular stations in society as well to fulfilling particular functions, nice judgements about the rank and means of people could easily be made by observing how they travelled.
Gentlemen by definition rode or drove. No matter how rough-and-ready or how small the early settlement, someone was quick to establish a claim to gentility by keeping a carriage. And none was quicker off the mark than Melbourne's John Pascoe Fawkner, always prickly on points of honour and personal status. On Sunday, 15 November 1835, only four months after the settlement was established, Fawkner and his wife:
took the first ride in a chaise that ever was had in Port Philip [sic]. Rode down to the Salt Lagoon and returned back another way very good driving and although through the Trees found no inconvenience from the deadwood.2
At times, driving such a carriage along unformed roads cost a prodigious physical effort; this was offset by the incalculable boost it gave to the owner's prestige. Carriage owners persisted with their driving even when the roads proved the ruin of the vehicles, since carriage ownership enabled people to control and direct the ways in which social intercourse was conducted.
The early colonial years were sheer, hard scrabble for most settlers, contending not only with unfamiliar seasons, uncertainty of title to land, ever-present threats of flood, fire and drought as well as primitive living conditions, with many in the end ‘barely making wages’. Just as some sort of uneasy equilibrium seemed to descend, the discovery of gold was proclaimed, with the result that:
Colonial society, stable for sixty years in a pyramid from convicts through farmers, merchants, professional men and officers to the Governor, was thrown into flux by the diggers. Adventurers, cranks, foreigners, whoremongers, Flash Jacks and three-pea men crashed through it, oblivious of what their proper level should have been.3
The trickle of migrants became a torrent, bearing who-knew-what ideological baggage. The customs and ideas of foreign arrivals represented an obvious threat to good order, yet more unnerving were fears that recent political and social unrest abroad in the British Isles might be exported to the colonies. The spectre of a flood of half-articulate labourers from Home, harbouring outrageous ‘primitive socialist’ ideas, haunted the old colonists, believing, as Charles Dilke put it, that:
Democracy, like Mormonism, would be nothing if found among Frenchmen or people with black faces, but it is at first sight very terrible when it smiles on you from between a pair of rosy Yorkshire cheeks.4
There was a distinct possibility that such people could, through a short spell of toil on the goldfields, provide themselves with sufficient means to pursue the active propagation of their political and social heresies.
To compound the colonist's worries, the rush to be rich had thrown the local economy into complete turmoil. It was impossible to get servants or labourers to work for anything but inflated wages and unheard-of conditions, and even then there was no guarantee that they would stay for long. The upper echelons of colonial society were assailed by an uneasy feeling that recognised yardsticks of social worth, such as the ability to command capital, land and labour, had suddenly been displaced by the new aristocracy of brute strength in the topsy-turvy world of the gold rushes. The public displays of conspicuous squandering by their newly enriched inferiors filled them with disgust and foreboding.
It was not the odd spree that aroused anxiety. Behaviour such as lighting pipes with five pound notes, using bottles of rare vintage wine as ninepins, and tipping horse-holders with one pound notes, could be put down to drunken high spirits during a binge. To the extent that the digger's lavish spending provided local businesses with their own goldmine, such behaviour was even welcome; but there were unsettling implications when diggers deliberately set out to acquire and flagrantly misuse those acknowledged status symbols of the rich and successful — the horse and the carriage.
One particularly ostentatious and worrying way of flaunting new-found wealth was by indulging in the charade dubbed the ‘Digger's Wedding’, a deliberate perversion and very public parody of nuptial ceremonies, which lay at the heart of ‘good society’. The phenomenon of the ‘Digger's Wedding’ was remarked upon by several contemporary diarists:
Weddings among them were of daily occurrence, and were celebrated with fantastic pomp and splendour, extending to the favour and nosegays, which were of unusual dimensions, and to their own costume, which was refulgent in brilliancy of colour.5
A typical ‘Digger's Wedding’ started when a more-than-usually successful digger came down to town and put up at the best hotel Melbourne had to offer. Mine Host saw to it that his guest was plied with champagne (at £3 per bottle) until he had run up a huge bill, succumbed to the charms of the barmaid and was induced to ‘make an
honest woman of her’. It was understood that the union would not be long-term in nature.
The wedding involved assembling a procession of at least six carriages (each hired at the rate of £1 per hour — the equivalent of a week's wages for a skilled tradesman) to take the happy pair, best man, ‘bridesmaids’ and hangers-on for a lengthy drunken tour ‘at a furious rate’ in full view of the sober Melburnians. The final bill for the festivities could run up to £600, and the digger-groom often then had to return, single, to the goldfields to replenish his fortune.
Some observers were inclined to make light of these parodies, remarking: ‘It is most amusing to see how completely the tables are turned’.6 But other accounts convey a sense of anxiety about the portent of such unseemly parades. It seemed to some members of upper colonial society, mindful of their present difficulties in hiring and holding biddable workers, that events such as the ‘Digger's Wedding’ warned of further social turmoil in post-goldrush colonial society when a newly enriched labouring class pushed its claims for recognition. John Hunter Kerr struck just such a sombre note:
In exultation they drove through the streets in their showy plumage while their superiors in station walked humbly in their sober array. ‘It is our turn to be masters now’ was their taunting exclamation: ‘you will have to be our servants yet’.7
This sense of anxiety pervades the scene that Gill painted. Closer examination of the details serves to highlight the unseemly elements that contemporary observers found so objectionable, if not threatening, to the good order of their world.
Of prime importance to this reading of Gill's picture is the fact that the coach pictured is a barouche, that most elegant and aristocratic (and expensive) of all coachman-driven vehicles; a favourite of Queen Victoria,8 and the sort of vehicle commonly used in colonial society by the Governor, it was the Rolls Royce Corniche of its day. An imposing four-wheeled vehicle, retaining deliberate archaisms such as heavy perch construction and ‘C’ spring suspension, its sole raison d'être was to display its privileged occupants to advantage in public. Unlike the lighter and more practical landau, the barouche was equipped with a single folding hood, thus restricting its use to good weather only. Gill's contemporary viewers would have been aware of the vast disparity between the symbolism of the barouche and the depicted use. We see a hint of this in the mock coat of arms that Gill has depicted on the carriage door, providing an ironic comment upon the occupants who are obviously neither armigerous nor in love.
At this time, ordinary people in England and Australia took pleasure in walking in the parks and promenades to view the ‘quality’ taking the air in their elegant equipages. Subject to intense scrutiny from both social peers and inferiors, proper behaviour in public display in a carriage was important and hence carefully circumscribed. Drawing undue attention to one's self in any way was frowned upon, as was usurpation of another's appointed place as prescribed by etiquette. In Gill's picture, the bride properly occupies the seat of honour in the carriage, that is, the rear
offside seat facing the horses. But a contemporary viewer would understand that the most to which ‘a fat, firm red-faced Irish girl from the unions’ could aspire, if fortunate enough to rise above her ‘proper station of life’ and allowed to ride in the carriage at all, was at to occupy the front seat, with her back to the horses.
Properly conducted, carriage ownership and use demanded an appropriate dress sense that proclaimed the occupant's wealth yet providing no hint as to how it was amassed. Here, too, the wedding party fails the test. The bride and bridesmaid's taste in dress is far too showy for their presumed station in life and betrays a love of dress, a failing ‘which has its perils for weak minds’. Although Gill's picture does not emphasize it, we may be sure that the bride was ‘as profusely decorated with trinkets as the window of a jeweller's shop’.9
The groom and groomsman, neglecting appropriate morning dress, flaunt their working clothes as if glorying in the base means by which they came by their wealth. Eschewing a coat of any sort, the groom sports a garish, checked shirt, set off by a cravat held by an enormous gold pin of doubtful taste but undoubted value. He wears moleskin trousers and high top boots — the bushman's essential wardrobe. He completes his ensemble with a black topper and white gloves, an ironic nod to the notion of correct attire. The groomsman refuses to part with his cabbage tree hat, although he does wear white gloves. The coachman, innocent of the appropriate livery, fails to exhibit a suitable servile demeanour, grinning slyly as he turns to view his sozzled passengers. Such familiarity would be intolerable in good society, where servants attending their masters on a coach were required to be:
stiff and upright, immobile, all looking alike; there is no escaping the monotonous effigy of punctual, disciplined servility; their only characteristic being that they are devoid of any character.10
The groom dominates the composition; a powerful giant of a man slouched back in his seat like a gorilla, a picture of latent power and aggression. The bride looks on, an expression of stupefied good humour (or is it calculating satisfaction?) on her face, as the groomsman, half-falling out of the carriage, offers champagne to all and sundry. The action of the bridesmaid is ambiguous and open to various interpretations — is she trying to restrain or encourage her drunken consort? Indeed, the entire wedding party is visible proof of the etiquette book's proposition that ‘awkwardness of attitude is a mark of vulgarity’. Under the influence of all that champagne, the occupants of the barouche have abandoned any pretence of the gracefulness of carriage which ‘is indispensable to every well-bred man and woman’.11
Public drunkenness was, of course, regarded by the ‘well bred’ as far worse when exhibited by the lower classes, for it exposed the barely suppressed violent streak that such people were thought to possess. However, the combination of bibulousness and carriage ownership was rather highly regarded when exhibited by the rich or titled, as numerous examples from contemporary English sporting writing testify. An upper class ‘whip’ was assumed to be capable of drinking and driving, but,
unlike the lower-class toper, usually could rely on the cover of darkness to cloak the inevitable result. Perhaps this display of public insobriety in broad daylight was the most telling sin that the digger's wedding party had committed, a failing no true gentleman would willingly exhibit.
Gill's depiction of ‘The Digger's Wedding’ can be read as a record of a calculated and extended insult to polite society. Distilled into one small vignette is the deliberate misappropriation and abuse of every cherished icon of social worthiness, be it carriage, clothes, the master-servant relationship, deportment and sobriety, and even the sacrament of marriage itself.
Would these dreadful people merely slink away when and if their money ran out, satisfied with memories of having briefly been masters? Or was this uncouth yet highly successful mob staking its claim to a place in the colony's economic, political and social affairs? At some future time, would the showy barouche drawing up outside one's villa be a harbinger of Mrs. Parvenu's unwelcome visit? Could one acknowledge powerful, rich old Parvenu as he drove by on his way to town, overlooking his appalling lack of social graces and his doubtful past in deference to his ability to buy and sell most of one's friends and contemporaries? The number of thoughtful diary entries recording the carriage-borne shenanigans, and the fact that Gill returned to this theme in several paintings and lithographs, seem to suggest the underlying symbolism of the ‘Digger's Wedding’ held a hideous fascination for polite society.
The unsettling prospect of uncouth gold-rich democrats vying for power and position in society with the grazier and merchant failed to materialise, at least in the manner dreaded by the diarists. The heady days of the early gold-rush period did not last long. By 1855, the easily-won surface gold was exhausted, and only diggers with superior skills and capital behind them could afford to follow deeper leads. Most drifted back to their former occupations little changed materially from their goldfield sojourn. Their radicalism found expression in less confrontational but no less effective ways, and left the tastefully finished products of Longacre, Latrobe and Castlereagh Streets safely in the hands of colonial ‘carriage folk’.
Jim Badger

Notes on Contributors

Jim Badger is a librarian with a long-standing interest in Australian horse-drawn vehicles and their place in colonial society, an interest which developed during the time he spent working at the State Library of Victoria. He is currently writing a doctoral thesis on this topic in the School of Historical and European Studies at La Trobe University.
Sandra Burt is a librarian in the La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria. The Marcus Clarke exhibition at the State Library, November 1997 — January 1998, which she curated, can now be viewed online:
Peter Dowling, who lives and works in Hamilton, Victoria, is compiling an index to the illustrations in the illustrated newspapers of colonial Australia between 1853 and 1896.
Christine Downer is the Curator of the La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria.
Brian Hubber is the Rare Books Librarian at the State Library of Victoria. He has an international reputation as a scholar in the history of the book and is putting his expertise to use on two major exhibitions at the State Library of Victoria, the first of which will be ‘A Potencie of Life’, on the magical, even alchemical power of books. That will be followed by ‘Beyond Words: the secret life of books’, on the history of the book in world culture. In his spare time Brian is also acting Curator at the Geelong Gallery, where he was recently responsible for ‘William Buckley Rediscovered: an art and history extravaganza on the Wild White Man himself’.
Mary Lewis is a librarian in the La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria.
Lurline Stuart, who is a Research Associate of the School of Social and Political Inquiry at Monash University, is the editor of the Academy edition of Marcus Clarke's His Natural Life. She has contributed to this journal on a number of occasions, and is a former President of the Friends of the State Library of Victoria.


Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore, London: Pan Books, 1987, p. 324.


C. P. Billot, ed., Melbourne's Missing Chronicle: being the journal of preparations for departure to & proceedings at Port Philip, by John Pascoe Fawkner, Melbourne: Quartet Books, 1982, p. 14.


Robert Hughes, The Art of Australia, Ringwood: Penguin, 1970, p. 46.


Geoffrey Blainey, Traveller's Tales of Early Australia & New Zealand: Greater Britain — Charles Dilke visits her New Lands 1866 & 1867, Carlton: Methuen Haynes, 1985, p. 114.


John Hunter Kerr, Glimpses of Life in Victoria, Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, [1876] 1996, pp. 94-95.


Arthur de Quetteville Robin, ed., Australian Sketches: the journals & letters of Frances Perry, Carlton: Queensberry Hill Press, 1984, pp. 176-77.


Ibid Kerr.


James Aitken, ed., English Diaries of the XIX Century 1800-1850, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1944, p. 117.


James Robertson c. 1880, quoted in Records of the Castlemaine Pioneers, Adelaide: Rigby, 1972, p. 46.


Jacques Damase, Carriages, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968, pp. 83-84.


Australasian Etiquette: or the Rules and Usages of the Best Society in the Australasian Colonies etc, Melbourne: Dent, [1885] 1980, pp. 278-79.