State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 67 Autumn 2001


‘Bright Visions of Gold’: A Digger's Kerchief

Bright visions of Gold, / Each fancy, fast hold,
All hasten to share in the spoil; / The Father and Mother
With Sister and Brothers / Soon make up their mind for the toil.
(‘Bright Visions of Gold or The Gold Diggings’)
IN 1998, the State Library purchased a rare piece of goldfields ephemera: a man's kerchief, printed in sepia and red on white cotton, with illustrations accompanied by rhyming verses extolling the good fortune awaiting a gold-seeking family brave enough to set sail for the Port Phillip District. The Bright Visions text is enclosed within a ribbon-tied victor's wreath of oak leaves. The kerchief measures 63.8 × 76.8 centimetres, and is printed across the width of the cloth with a left and right selvedge, and hemstitched at both ends. The repeating pattern was designed to be cut off in lengths and hemmed by hand. Our example, apart from small brown stains on images nos. 6, 7 and 8, is in remarkably good condition. The texture of the stain on image no.6, which is embedded in the cloth, indicates that it is probably snuff. There is a little damage to the upper right corner, and a slight fraying along the upper left edge, where the stitching has become detached. It was manufactured in England, probably in 1852.
Although rare today, printed handkerchiefs were known from the end of the seventeenth century, the few surviving examples being conserved in museums.1 Kerchiefs served to record political and other events (like the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht, and the victory over Napoleon),2 commemorate political parties and decisions, and — as in this instance — to promote emigration. Their popularity developed with the growth of the cotton industry, the development of colour-fast dyes, and the consumption of snuff. Printed cotton bandannas exported from India were gradually supplanted by British-made examples. As they were originally tie-dyed, the establishment of printing and dye works in Britain meant that a wider variety of patterns and colours was available than the traditional paisley spots and stripes.
Snuff, a derivative of tobacco, became extremely popular in the eighteenth century for both men and women, but had declined in popularity for women by the middle of the nineteenth, probably in response to the gentrification of middle-class women. Men, however, continued to use it, and as it left disgusting brown stains on cloth, coloured handkerchiefs were necessary to conceal them. Brown and red were fashionable, but red was difficult to make dye-fast until the widespread improvement in the technology of Turkey-red dying. If the dye was not fast, the red ran when washed. In fact, there is a faint sign of dye-run in the top right image of the Library's kerchief, which may well have been printed in Lancashire where the mills had had some success in overcoming the problem.
The eight images and verses, when read in sequence, tell the story of the successful gold-seekers:

Haste! Of to the Diggings, away,
Our Baggage is all very light,
A pot for potatoes by day,
And a blanket to roll in by night.

Now here we sit on the salt seas,
Careering away very fast,
We think on the future, at ease,
And strive to forget all the past.

Then see us arrived at the shore,
Rather sea-sick, but yet full of fun,
As we think on the fortune in store,
To which we are off with a run.

Here trudging along on ten toes,
We keep up our spirits with glee,
It must be an ill wind that blows,
No good to the slave or the free.


Arrived at the Diggings at last,
We set-to without more delay,
Throwing up the light soil very fast,
And picking out Gold all the day.

Now having had excellent luck,
We purchase a tent with the spoil,
Buy mutton, and chicken, and duck,
And begin both to roast and to boil.

After filling our sacks with bright ore,
We haste to Old England again,
Shout Hurra! As we near the white
And think of the wide stormy main.

So, having paved Life's path with gold,
We sit and smoke at our ease,
And many long yarns too, are told,
Of the Diggings beyond the wide seas.

The images, printed in sepia in octagonal spaces on white cloth with a red background, each with a verse below, are enclosed in a border of entwined ribbon, field poppies and three-leaf clover. Five are generic scenes of family, ships, and shipboard life. Two of the scenes of the diggings (nos. 5 and 6) are based on illustrations from the Illustrated London News, 3 July 1852 (see page 38 above). These are probably the work of George Strafford, whose monogram, I believe, is just visible in the lower left hand corner of both. An English painter and illustrator, who emigrated to Melbourne in 1851 because of his health, Strafford was at this time employed by Thomas Ham, making illustrations for the Illustrated Australian Magazine, and continued as an illustrator for local newspapers until his confinement in the Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum.3
Image no. 7 may be based on an illustration of the packet-ship Marco Polo, which made the journey to Port Phillip in a record 68 days, setting out on 4 July 1852. The image could be suggesting that the family, having made their fortune, are affluent enough to travel by this celebrated ship on its return journey to Britain.
The kerchief, with its optimistic view of the life of miners and their rewards, was probably designed to entice prospective diggers and their families. It may have been a promotional gift — sign up for the voyage and we will give you one of these. Editions of the Illustrated London News carry advertisements for special clothing suitable for Australian conditions, including the Eureka shirt, but no mention of a kerchief has yet been found.
The bright visions of the kerchief epitomize the triumph of hope over experience. This optimism was fuelled by reports in the press recording amazing finds. The Times, for instance, recounted the experience of a young man who went off to the diggings with his family. After fruitlessly digging seven holes, and with only a sixpence left between them, they dug an eighth hole and found gold worth 32 pounds. Digging further, they extracted gold worth 600 pounds, an unbelievable fortune to those at the bottom of the British economic and class ladder.4 As Geoffrey7 Serle has pointed out, most diggers made at best the equivalent of the wages they would have earned had they remained in their original jobs.5 Today, the manufacturers of the kerchief would certainly be accused of misleading advertising.
Nevertheless, the romance of the big find continued to attract thousands to the goldfields, many of them — if painters like S. T. Gill are to be believed — wearing kerchiefs around their necks. Useful for mopping up the sweat generated by hard manual labour, kerchiefs could be used to carry things securely tied up in a bundle; and tied end-to-end two would hold up trousers instead of a belt or braces. Like this example, they were mainly red, and concealed the dark stains left by taking snuff or tobacco-chewing. This kerchief is one of the most interesting of the Library's relics of Victoria's golden age, and its survival almost intact something of a wonder.
Christine Downer

Digger's kerchief printed in sepia and red on white cloth, 63.0 cm x 76.0 cm, c. 1852. La Trobe Picture Collection.


M. Braun-Ronsdorf, The History of the Handkerchief. Leigh-on-sea: F. Lewis [1967]. Several examples of printed kerchiefs are illustrated (fig. 57-67, 69-77).


Susan Bean, ‘The Indian Origins of the Bandanna’, Antiques, December 1999, pp. 832-39.


Thomas Darragh gives details of Strafford's career and life in Joan Kerr, ed., Dictionary of Australian Artists, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 76-65.


Times, 16 November 1852, p. 8e.


Geoffrey Serle, The Golden Age: A history of the colony of Victoria, 1851-1861, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1963, pp. 85-86.