Newspaper Article WHEN REVOLVERS WERE WORTH THEIR WEIGHT IN GOLD

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WHEN REVOLVERS WERE WORTH THEIR WEIGHT IN GOLD.

Reminiscences of Sam Matthews.
Edited by J. M. Harcourt.


THE Melbourne of the early '50's has passed from the face of the earth. The Melbourne of to-day bears perhaps as much resemblance to it as a man bears to a newly born son. It was different physically, psychologically, and spiritually.
The Melbourne of those days was a township of tents and shanties, and foundations, more or less surrounded by swamps and bush. Bushrangers roamed the country that is now thriving suburbs. The gold rush at Ballarat had denuded the settlement of labour, and the wages offered were in themselves enough to justify the phrase "good old days."

Sam Matthews, the author of these reminiscences, was the son of a London tea merchant, blessed or cursed with a wayward disposition, which prompted him secretly to marry the pretty daughter of a manor estate lodge keeper, and emigrate to Australia. They embarked from Gravesend on the sailing ship Nepaul on July 9, 1852, and dropped anchor at Sandridge on October 16, 1852, 98 days later.
Come ashore and take a look at the Melbourne of 1852 through Sam Matthews's eyes: "We did not land at Sandridge, but 29 passengers transferred to the tug Agenora for a run up the river, intending to return to the ship for the night. I left the missus behind. A hot north wind was blowing. As we progressed up the Yarra we noticed several bullock heads floating past. The smell from the slaughter-houses on the Saltwater River was enough to turn a man's stomach.

"We landed about Market street and walked up to Collins street, where a large bluestone building was going up on the corner. My friend Garrett, being a plasterer, was immediately offered a job at £2/10/ a day, and I was offered one as a 'hod boy' at 30/ a day, but I turned it down because I wanted to go up to the diggings at Ballarat.

"There were great heaps of bluestone in Collins street, and every one of them was a hive full of rats. The dusty, hot wind made us all pretty thirsty, so we went to the Rainbow Hotel (near where the Town Hall is now) and asked for a gallon of rum, but they'd only sell us bottles at 2/6 each.

We missed the return boat to the Nepaul, so we all walked to Sandridge along a corduroy road across the swamp, with the blazing north wind behind us. At Sandridge the boatman wanted £1 to take us out to the ship. We told him to go to blazes, walked back to town, bought a 6 ft. x 8 ft. tent, and six of us slept in that at the bottom of Latrobe street. Returned to the ship for the missus next day, and we erected our bell tent, which we'd brought out from London, at the western end of the town, between Lonsdale and Latrobe streets. They charged us a guinea a week rental for the land.

I heard of a job of rough fencing somewhere east of Brighton. Five of our erstwhile shipmates and I walked out to investigate. The wages offered were 17/ a day, but the job was too far from town, and there was too much difficulty about getting provisions, so none of us would take it. As we were returning we came on a race meeting in progress. There was no charge for admittance, and only an area round the winning post was roped in. Nearly all the spectators were on horseback. While we were looking on a race started, and a big horse ridden by a black boy immediately went to the front. He was leading by about 15 lengths, but apparently a win would have been unpopular, because several of the mounted spectators rode on to the course to obstruct him. As we were 'new chums,' and on foot, and it looked as though a row was brewing, we cleared out. Lucky we did! Next day we heard that bushrangers had held up the crowd returning from the races and had cleaned them out, one and all.

Sam, as has been noted, had a way- ward disposition. The niceties of the distinction between "meum" and "teum" eluded him. He records with satisfaction one of the ways in which his young wife coped with the high price of living. A certain Mrs. Shiels, who occupied a tent hard by the Matthews, kept goats. Milk being 7d. the half-pint, my wife , could not withstand the temptation sometimes to entice away one of these goats and milk it unbeknownst to the owner, notes Sam, and then records the fact that bread was 2/6 a loaf Unfortunately there was no neighbour who ran a bakery. After 10 days in Melbourne Sam "humped the bluey" up to Ballarat, travelling with a party of about 20 others.

Bushrangers were patrolling the route For a whole day, Sam notes, a party of five bushrangers, with a led horse to provide for emergencies, travelled parallel with the party, "but our numbers evidently disconcerted them," he says, and goes on to relate that "Some police troopers arrived at our camp the following evening and informed us that the bushrangers were the same lot that had staged the St. Kilda hold-up, and that they had just stuck up an old man and woman returning from the diggings, and had knocked them about terribly."

"On arrival at Ballarat," he continues, "we pegged out claims on Brown's Hill. We paid 30/ a month each for digger's licences, which had to be kept on the person. One of our chaps did not have his licence handy when the troopers made a surprise raid on us. He jumped down the shaft, but they hauled him out and off to the commissioner's tent.

"We lived on mutton and flour, which cost us £7 a bag, and we had to carry it a mile to our camp. We would not work a claim unless we could win at least an ounce of gold each a day. If it panned out less than that we shifted to another spot.
"But we weren't there long when the party broke up. Benfield (one of the party) was the cause of it. One day, when it was his turn to wash the gold, he came back from the creek and said he had overbalanced and, spilt the lot, and the same night he cleared out, taking all the gold we had in the tent, the--------!"

Returning to Melbourne just at that time, Sam missed the Eureka Stockade. The affair is dismissed in his diary with the briefest mention. He was more concerned with the discovery on his arrival at Melbourne that his wife and tent had disappeared. Everything was in order, however. It appeared that a gentleman's servant's wife had rented a two-roomed cottage in a right-o'-way off Lonsdale street, had bought a large second-hand mangle, and set up in business. She had taken on my wife as her assistant. They did not take in washing, only mangling, and were making 12/ a day. I got a job as a night watchman at 12/ the watch. It was not to be expected that Sam Matthews would remain a night watch- man very long, of course. A little later he records:

"I decided to run sly grog to Forrest Creek. The return trip with a dray and two horses from a pub in Elizabeth street to the diggings took 12 days. We covered the 12 cwt. load of grog with bags and chaff. It was wet, and there was no beaten road. We were often bogged, and then, to add to our troubles, we ran into a police camp pitched right across the track. I stopped some distance from them and pretended to be tinkering with the wheels while my mate went up to them and 'pitched a tale.' He. told 'em what we'd gone through since we left town matches damp and useless, no cooked food for days, and so on. Meanwhile I got going with the dray, and just meandered past while he was talking. They didn't attempt to stop me or ask any questions, and a bit later my mate caught up to me with dry matches they'd given him." Without going into details, Sam remarks that the sly grog running was profitable, but, it seems, too risky, for he shortly gave it up to start a refreshment booth in Latrobe street, opposite Flagstaff Hill.

He sold apples from Tasmania, oranges, figs, bananas, and any other fruit obtainable. Apples were £1 a case, and oranges 5/ for half a dozen!
The elements conspired to wreck the business, however. The north wind swept across the open ground to the north, tore the canvas from the wooden framework of Sam's "shop," and covered his stock with so much dust that no one wanted it. Sam got another job as a watch-man.

Shiploads of goods which had arrived at the Melbourne of those days were piled in the streets awaiting warehouse accommodation, which could not be, built fast enough. It was over the accumulations of goods and builders' tools that it was Sam's job to keep guard. The job was prolonged by the fact that as soon as the walls of the warehouse which was being built to accommodate the goods were up, and before the roof was on, so many goods were piled in that the walls bulged outward and collapsed, and a man was killed by the falling masonry-but not Sam.

"My wages as night watchman were 14/ a night," he says. "One night I caught a man rolling hogsheads away, and I had to skittle him with a life preserver, having left my pistol behind. He thought there was electroplate in the hogsheads, the 'loon,' when there was only salt in jars!"

Sam "pottered about" Melbourne doing one job and another, while many of the men who had come out to Australia with him were making money. One of his London acquaintances brought out a great barrel of men's boots, which had cost him 1/ a pair in London. He sold them for 10/ a pair, and set himself up . in a comfortable little business. A couple of Austrian refugees arrived with two dozen "Dear and Adams" revolvers they had bought in London for £4 apiece. They sold them for £20 each! Revolvers were worth almost their weight in gold in a city which provided several hold-ups a week round its inner suburban area.

"Flinders street was the worst part of the town," remarks Sam, apropos of its lawlessness. "Policemen always went in pairs, as it was not safe to walk a beat alone.' It was customary to discharge pistols each night before turning in. The open spaces by the Yarra gave hiding to the hold-ups."
But there were already signs of what Melbourne was destined to be. The Houses of Parliament were built in 1853-54," says Sam, and St. Patrick's Cathedral was a wall of bluestone 4ft. high."

There was even a war scare. England at that time was at war with Russia. One day a man-o'-war, H.M.S. Great Britain, slipped through Port Phillip Heads and swept up to the settlement on the Yarra. There was a salute of guns, which created a wild panic. It took some time to convince a large part of the population that the Great Britain was not a Russian ship opening hostilities.

The Argus
18 March 1939
http://newspapers.nla.gov.au/


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