What happened to the gin and the mayhem?

12 Aug

I’ve just finished a paper based on research I carried out before beginning my postdoc here at UQ. It’s about masculinity: well, actually it’s about the late nineteenth century equivalent of the masculinity you find in Rotary Clubs in country towns or middling suburbs today. In the paper I look at William Guthrie Spence, one of the key players in the New Unionism and the growth of the political labour movement in 1890s Australia. For all his blather about mateship and the heroic qualities of Australian bushmen, Spence was a provincial father-of-nine who believed that civic service and religious feeling were all-important for a man. For most of his life, he lived in the Victorian goldfields town of Creswick, arriving there as a boy from Scotland in the 1850s. By the 1870-80s, the town was full of civic institutions: churches, mutual improvement societies, choirs, citizen militias, friendly societies, temperance groups, trade unions – and Spence was involved in a goodly number of them. Spence’s sense of what men should be had exactly that earnest, striving, morally serious air you associate with provincial progress societies or Lion’s/Rotary Clubmen, admixed with the more openly devout language of a lay preacher from the mid-nineteenth century.

I find it hard to reconcile this god-fearing, provincial picture of 1870s Creswick with the one I’ve encountered of goldfields society thus far in 1850-60s theatre memoirs. All those descriptions of street-hawkers, of miners with their guns in red sashes at the hip, of candlelight flickering in gin-bottles of an evening, of drunken hijinx on horseback in the wee hours – how does this marry with the life Spence knew as a preacher-unionist and family man? These towns were places of extraordinarily rapid cultural change, is all I can say. In two decades they went from the raw tents and elbow-jostle of the goldfields to places of a multi-layered civic life, complete with public monuments in the streets and earnest plaques on the communal buildings. Women were hugely outnumbered there in their first years, as you’d expect, and yet by the 1870s they were more or less equivalent in numbers to men in at least some goldfields towns. But was there still a street culture trading in echoes of carnival and excess in the Creswick and Castlemaine and Clunes, all Victorian goldfields towns, in the 1870-80s and beyond? Was there still evidence of the gin and the mayhem of not-too-much-earlier years? I need to find readings soon which give me some sense of this.

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