Posts Tagged ‘Victoria Gold Rush’

In an earlier article called A Hussar in India – Thomas Grisdale, I left ex-hussar Thomas Grisdale and his family aboard the ship Strathfieldsaye en route from Madras to Melbourne in Victoria, Australia. We don’t know why the family chose to go to Melbourne but we can make a good guess. The Victoria gold rush had just started and there is no doubt that news of diggers becoming immensely wealthy would have reached India. So perhaps Thomas wanted to see if he too could strike it rich. The family arrived in Melbourne harbour in November 1853.

Victoria Gold Diggers

Victoria Gold Diggers

Things then go a little dark, but not completely dark. Maybe initially Thomas got work in the Melbourne docks, where he later worked, we don’t know. Yet it is certain that he pretty soon tried his luck in the rough and tumble of Victoria’s gold diggings. The family moved to Heathcote, a gold rush town 110 kms north of Melbourne. Two more children were born there: Elizabeth in 1855 and Caroline in 1857. Heathcote itself had ‘developed on the back of a series of gold rushes along McIvor Creek commencing in 1851. One of the major strikes (1852) was a Golden Gully, behind the old courthouse’.

At the peak of the gold rushes there were up to 35,000 people, largely housed in tents and shanties on the fields. 3,000 Chinese walked to the digging from Robe in South Australia where they had disembarked to avoid paying a tax levied upon Chinese disembarking in Victoria. There were at least 3 breweries; 22 hotels; 2 flour mills, reflecting the emergence of wheat growing in the district; a bacon factory, hospital, banks and several wineries.

What sort of life did the family have in Heathcote? Perhaps we can get some idea from letters sent home by other immigrants who had done the same thing at the same time. In May 1855 Alma digger P.H. Brain wrote home to a friend:

There is no friends here, everyone for his self and the biggest rogue – the best man, that is the principle that the colony is carried on, by most people rich and poor. I am happy to say I have never wanted for anything since I have been in the colony, although I have seen more in want than ever I have in England. I have many times thought of you staying in England, I would rather live in England with one meal a day, than here with all the best in the world as there is no comfort to be had here day or night, for by day you are poisoned by dust and flies and by night perhaps nearly blown out of your bed, if it may be so called. Although I have got a feather bed, I cannot sleep…

I should not advise anyone to come out here, although I do not wish to keep them away but I am sure there is nothing to be obtained here but at the risk of your life and hard work and no comfort. You would be surprised perhaps if I say I work 60 or 70 feet underground and have got to sink the hole first. I can assure you that it is the case, one sometimes would sink 10 or a dozen of these and not see gold. I have got a hundred pounds and obliged to spend it nearly all before I could get any more, so you see it’s not all profit. The hole is sunk like a well on, a chain of 24 feet square. You must not have any more than that at any one time but you can sink as many as you want. Where you have sunk one of these holes you try 3 or 4 inches of dirt at the bottom, it is put into a tub and washed so as to wash off the dirt and leave the gravel in the bottom and from thence into a tin dish and divide the gold from the gravel, if there be any. If not you must wash it so before you can tell. So you see what work it is to get gold. I have sunk 10 or 15 before I have seen it and perhaps many around me getting it. I am thinking I shall send you and your dear wife a small nugget, so as you can say you have got some, as I may never have it in my power to bring it personally. If so I have to be more pleased to do so in a larger quantity wont if not to be a pleasure to me once more to see my friends in England all well, which I hope very much is the case now.

James Douglas Ferguson wrote to his parents in 1854 from McIvor (Heathcote):

Gold Rush Camp

Gold Rush Camp

We all live in tension the diggings that you will know I should not think there is a man on the diggings but has a brace of pistols ready for action under his head every night. I have 3 dogs round our tent there is nothing in the shape of beast or body can get near the tent for them, any one was to lay me down £20 for the 3 I would not take it. Some time ago these two men on horseback stuck us up. My dog did his duty she got one of them to an out she made him ten thousand murders. I like a fool had not my pistol charged, perhaps just as well it was not for I should have fired as sure as I am writing this letter to you, anyone comes round your tent at night you are justifiable in shooting them, this was between 12 and 1 o’clock in the morning. I got up and opened the tent door and give my faithful old dog the word of command and got the axe for a weapon myself, I darted out from the side of the tent and got a slip at one of them with the axe, the next moment the dog made the other shout like a bull they did not know that I was up ready to receive them. The wife and children screaming, the dogs barking. People came rushing from all quarters, believe me the fellow would not forget that blow I gave him for sometime. You know I am pretty sharp mettle when set on my pins. They were both armed with pistols but had not time to make use of them. We let them go quietly as there might be a party and some of them come at another time and call on us.

Such was probably the Grisdales’ life in the gold diggings. Thomas must have found some gold; otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to support his family for several years. But he clearly hadn’t struck it rich. The family moved back to Sandridge, Melbourne, where the couple’s next children were born:  Thomas (1859), Joseph (1861), Mary (1863), Isaac Arthur (1866) and Sarah (1869).

Sandridge circa 1858

Sandridge circa 1858

It is only in Melbourne that we start to find actual reports of Thomas and some of his family. The first to appear in the Melbourne Argus on Tuesday 12 September 1865 concerned Thomas himself:

At the Sandridge Police Court yesterday; before Mr. Call, P.M., an old man named Thomas Grisdale, charged with stealing fish, the property of James Lewis, was sentenced to be locked up until the rising of the Court.

Four years later, after having borne ten children, Thomas’s wife Jane died on 24 April 1869 as a result of giving birth to her last child Sarah, who herself died three  days later. On 26 April the Argus reported:

At Sandridge yesterday, the city coroner held an inquiry respecting the death of Mary Grisdale, who had died on the day previous somewhat suddenly. She had been prematurely confined on Saturday last, and from that time until Wednesday was progressing very favourably. On that morning, however, she was seized with sudden illness. Her husband went for the purpose of procuring medical assistance, but before he returned her life had expired. From the medical testimony, the jury returned a verdict that the deceased died from fatty degeneration of the heart.

After Jane’s death it seems that some of her children had to resort to begging. On Wednesday 22 February 1871 the Argus reported:

Sandridge. – On Monday, before Messrs. Molifson (?). P.M., Curtis, and Barker, Caroline Grisdale, a girl from 14 to 15 years old, was charged with stealing a pair of drawers. The prisoner went to Mary Clyans, wife of Michael Clyans, to beg, and Mrs. Clyans took her into her service. At the end of a week the prisoner left, and several articles of clothing were missed at the same time. The prisoner next went to a Mrs. Elizabeth Foley to beg for bread. Mrs Foley gave her 3 1/2d. to buy a loaf for herself and sisters, and the prisoner in return, offered the drawers, which she said belonged to her sister. The prisoner’s father, who described himself as a “lumper” appeared in court, but had nothing to say except that his daughter did not beg, or at least had no occasion to. The Bench sentenced the girl to 24 hours’ imprisonment, and to two years’ confinement in the reformatory, with a recommendation to the police to sec that Grisdale paid for his daughter’s maintenance.

Shortly after this it seems that Thomas and his children moved from Sandridge a short distance across the water to Swan Bay.

Swan Bay, Melbourne

Swan Bay, Melbourne

Later the same year, on 6 October 1871, we read:

A man named James Amos was charged at the police court, Drysdale, yesterday, with an attempt to commit a capital offence upon the person of a girl about 10 years of age, named Mary Grisdale. The prisoner, who reserved his defense, was committed to take his trial at the next sittings of the Circuit Court.

And then the 12 October 1871:

James Amos, an elderly man, was charged with having, on the 14th ult, indecently assaulted a little girl, under 10 years of age, named Mary Grisdale, at Swan Bay. He pleaded “Not guilty,” and was undefended. The jury returned a verdict of “Guilty.”

I’ll tell more of this trial for attempted rape in a future article about Thomas’s children.

The Argus reported on Friday 23 January 1874:

DRYSDALE POLICE COURT.

Drunkenness and Obscene Language. Police v Collins.—Superintendent Furnell appeared to prosecute, and Mr McCormick for the defence. Defendant was summoned for allowing’drunkenness in his house, and for using obscene language. Thos. Grisdale said he was at defendant’s house on the night of the 24th December, there were a lot of people there; some drunk and some sober. Defendant said to me, “Your son got me fined £5 on one occasion”, and also called him some names. “He offered to fight me for £5, John Davis said-I was at the hotel on the night of the 24th ult. Butlerand Davis were there; they were prettywell on. I remember the constable coming there, but I do not recollect what he said. I heard the words complained of,”

William Grisdale—I am son of the first witness. I went to Collins on the 25th and asked him what be had said about me the night before. Collins said he was drunk, and did not know what he said, and wished to let the matter drop. The case as far as permitting drunkenness was not pressed farther, nor was evidence called as to the use of obscene language. Constable Muloahy—I was on duty on the night of the 24th. I heard Collins tell Grisdade that his son had caused him be fined £5, and offered to fight either him or his son for £5, at the same time calling him disgraceful names. Cross examined — I am not bringing these cases merely for the purpose of taking away his license. Collins told me he had been to Melbourne to try and get me removed, but did not succeed, and would go to Geelong.I asked him to give me time to bring these cases against him. Mr McCormick objected to tho wording of the summons, but this objection was overruled. Tho charge of allowing dancing was proceeded with. MrMcCormick contended that the bonch, as a Court of Petty Sessions, had no jurisdiction, it must be brought before the Licensing Magistrates. Objection allowed. Pined 40s and 30s costs.

On 16 May1874 the Geelong Advertiser reported:

Thomas Grisdale, on remand, was charged with stealing seven bags from Mr Levien, M.L.A. Mr Levien said—I have missed some bags within about two month, about two or three dozen Calcutta bags—new cornsacks. I kept them in a shed; I had openeda bale and missed two bundles containingabout twenty in each. The bags produced are of a similar description to those missed.The bag produced marked L has been my property, but I cannot say it has been stolen. I never gave prisoner authority to remove bags off my premises; the prisoner has been in my employ; he left my service about a month ago. To the prisoner—You did have two or three bags last year containing produce (flour and peas). I do not think it possible that the new bag produced is the one in which you had the produce. Joseph, Molden said—I live at Mr Levien’s farm. I identify the bag produced as Mr Levien’s property. I put that patch on it, but I cannot say when. Three other witnesses were examined, but they failed to substantiate the charge against the prisoner, and he was discharged.

Soon after this I believe Thomas moved back to Emerald Hill in south Melbourne.

Melbourne 1858

I mentioned already that after coming back from Heathcote the family settled in Sandridge in Melbourne. What was Melbourne like in those days? Referring to the arrival of William Free’s family in 1853, the same year as Thomas, one writer says:

They were landed not at a wharf but on a beach – Liardet’s Beach or Sandridge as the respectable classes preferred to call it – at which there were present some ramshackle buildings, but no quay, no warehouses, no merchants, and no shade in which the women and children could rest while the men looked for transport. The shore up to the high-water mark was lined with broken drift spars and oars, discarded ship-blocks, mattresses and pillows, empty bottles, ballast kegs, and sundry other items of flotsam. The township of Melbourne was out of sight, some eight miles distant by river and three across land.

Sandridge became Melbourne’s second port – taking the name Port Melbourne. ‘For many years Port Melbourne was a focus of Melbourne’s criminal underworld, which operated smuggling syndicates on the docks. The old Ships Painters and Dockers Union was notorious for being controlled by gangsters. The Waterside Workers Federation, on the other hand, was a stronghold of the Communist Party of Australia.’

We know that Thomas worked as a coal ‘lumper’ in Sandridge port. Margo Beasley, Australia’s expert on coal lumpers, writes: ‘Unlike wharf labourers, who shifted all manner of cargoes between ship and shore, coal lumpers worked exclusively on coal and most, but not all, of that work took place out ‘in the stream’ as they put it… some distance from the wharves…  coal lumpers saw themselves as akin to miners rather than wharf labourers and their main task was to move the coal from colliers or hulks that brought it…  into other vessels.’

Coal lumpers at work

Coal lumpers at work

There were five categories of coal lumping work. The shovellers, winchdrivers and planksmen worked on the collier or hulk that was carrying and discharging the coal, and carriers and trimmers worked on the ship that was receiving the coal or being ‘coaled’. Coal lumpers’ tools were basic: shovels, baskets, boots, ropes and their own brute strength. The ‘gear’ on the collier, which included winch, rope (called the ‘fall’) and baskets, had to be rigged so that the coal could be shifted from down below up to a suitable level on the deck for moving it into the ship that was to be coaled. The baskets were attached to a hook, which was fastened to the fall, which was run through a pulley and a winch on the deck above the hold.

Beasley describes coal lumpers’ working conditions as ‘Dantesque’. She writes:

Billy Hughs, who later became Prime Minister of Australia, was president of the Sydney Coal Lumpers’ Union in 1905, and also its advocate. He said coal lumping work ‘finds out the weak places in a man. If a man has a weak spot in his heart, lungs or back, or … say his nervous system is not all that it should be, he falls out.’ Hughes argued that only the very strong remained in the work and coal lumpers aged 45 or 50 were simply ‘the strongest who have survived’, by natural selection.

Indeed, many men tried the work for a week or two, and even an hour or two, but they couldn’t last. One coal lumper said that some men were forced to leave the work because they because they had started at too hard a pace and they were unable to keep going. Hughes judged that no other occupation called for the exercise of greater physical strength and endurance, supporting his assertion with two illustrations. Employers were unable to get sufficient men who could do coal lumping satisfactorily, or even unsatisfactorily, during strikes and lockouts; and the work necessitated certain conditions that didn’t occur in any other trade: paid two hourly breaks, because a spell was ‘absolutely essential for recuperation and food and rest.

Coal Lumpers

Coal Lumpers

Such was the hard and dangerous life of Thomas Grisdale. The son of a Bolton weaver, descended from the Matterdale Grisdales. A man who had spent years serving Queen and country in India. A man who had been under the command of Captain Nolan who became famous for ‘starting’ the Charge of the Light Brigade. A man who had tried his luck in Australia only to spend the rest of his life lumping coal in the docks. Such I’m afraid was the fate of many, indeed most, of the common soldiers who served Her Majesty throughout most of British history. A fate in stark contrast to that of the wealthy officer class.

Thomas Grisdale died aged 74 on 28 February 1879, at 11 Montague Street, Emerald Hill in Melbourne.

 

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Sometime in the spring of 1855 Betsey Grisdale decided that she must declare her husband John ‘missing’ in Australia. As she wrote her letter at her home in Lonsdale Terrace in Liverpool she was probably in despair. What had happened to her husband? What was to become of her and her children? Two years before, in February 1853, John, a Liverpool mariner, had boarded the new American-built sailing ship Eagle, bound for Melbourne, where he had arrived in May after an 88 day voyage. Betsey had received news that John had headed to the new ‘gold rush’ diggings in Bendigo, Victoria, and then – nothing.

Sailmaker

Sailmaker

Betsey had already written several letters to John. Perhaps telling him of the birth of their child Joseph in late 1853? Perhaps asking him to come home? She had had no reply. She arranged for an announcement to be placed in Melbourne’s Argus newspaper, which appeared on the 29th of November 1854:

John Grisdale lately sail maker in ship Reliance of Liverpool, lately of Bendigo – letters from wife. Apply to Joseph Pacey, Cambridge Street, opposite Cambridge Place, Collingwood.

The next year John’s brother and sister had also tried to make contact. An announcement in the Argus of the 27th April 1855 read:

If this should meet the eye of John Grisdale, that came out in the ship Eagle, from Liverpool in February 1853, he will hear of his brother and sister by writing to Portland Post Office and he will hear news from home.

Once John had been declared ‘missing’, one final announcement was to appear in the official Victoria Government Gazette on November 27, 1855:

Missing Person. John Grisdale, Victoria Australia. 20 Dec 1855. Sail and ropemaker by trade. Sailed from Liverpool 2.1/2 years ago on the Eagle.

the worshipfull company of coachmakers

the worshipful company of coachmakers

John Grisdale was born in 1815/16 in Cumberland, the son of the later ‘coachmaker’ William Grisdale and his unknown first wife – he was to marry three times. Shortly after John’s birth his mother obviously died. William remarried, his new wife being Emma ‘Amey’ Bell. They married on the 23rd March 1818 in the Cumberland village of Hesket in the Forest. The family lived in Penrith where William and Emma had their first child, called Thomas, in May 1821. Shortly thereafter the family moved to London, no doubt with John in tow. Three London-born children followed: Mark 1822 and twins Ann Bell and Eleanor Greenhow in 1824. Mark was baptized in St. Botolph without Bishopsgate in the City of London, while the twins were christened in   the church of Saint George the Martyr in Southwark. William was in all cases said to be a ‘Coach Maker’. Throughout their time in London the family lived in William Street in Kent Road, and it was there that young daughter Eleanor Greenhow died in early 1826.

Sometime thereafter it seems that William’s wife Amey also died, and William moved from London back up north. This time he managed to find work in his field of coach making in Salford in Lancashire. In Salford William married a third and final time. In October 1833 he married 37 year-old Sarah Payne in Salford.

But let us return to the subject of this story. John had no doubt moved with his father from Penrith to London and returned with him to Salford. It was most likely around the time of William’s third marriage in 1833, when he would have been 16 or 17, when John first went to sea – almost certainly becoming an apprentice seaman in Liverpool. There is no record of John in the 1841 census, implying I think that he was at sea somewhere in the world at the time. His father was at the time still coach making in Salford, living with his wife Sarah. But certainly in 1843, when he was about 26, John was back in Liverpool because on April the 4th of that year he married Betsey (Elizabeth) Bateman in the church of St. John the Baptist in Walton on the Hill in Liverpool. They both gave their address as New Mann Street in Toxteth Park.

Betsey was certainly already pregnant when she married John, because on 25th December 1843 she was delivered of twins Mary and William in Salford, where no doubt she had been living with John’s father William while John was again away at sea. The twins would be baptized back in Liverpool almost a year later, possibly when John was home. Two more children followed: Mark in 1850 and Joseph in 1853, both in Liverpool. John is continually listed as a ‘mariner’.

Embarkation of Emigrant Ship in Liverpool

Embarkation of Emigrant Ship in Liverpool

Which ships John served aboard during his first years at sea we don’t know. But we do know that by the early 1850s he was a ‘sail and rope maker’ on the 805 ton sailing ship Reliance, commanded at this time by Captain Henry B. Fell. This was a ship that was continually plying the ‘Australian Trade’, taking cargo and, more importantly, emigrants to Australia.

The story of one such trip in 1851, on which it is highly likely that John Grisdale was part of the crew, is worth retelling. Captains were always trying to make the fastest passage and often had bets with each other. In 1851 Captain Fell tried ‘the system of great circle sailing on the passage out to this colony’.

The Reliance tried the great circle sailing, and found it advantageous, having been, on July 30th, in lat. 27° 55′ S, and long. 32° 31′ W, and made Kangaroo Island on the 11th September ; doubling the Cape on 14th August, in lat 51°, and the highest latitude being 64° south. She never had to close-reef the topsails, and the thermometer was never lower than 31° at 9 o’clock in the morning.

Onboard an Australian Emigrant Ship

Onboard an Australian Emigrant Ship

But although the Reliance made a quick voyage by taking the Great Circle route, it wasn’t otherwise a very successful trip, at least not for the emigrants. In the South Australian Register in Adelaide on the 15th September 1851 the following report appeared:

THE EMIGRANT SHIP ‘RELIANCE’

The very unusual number of deaths (15) in proportion to the arrivals (313) on board the above-named ship, which arrived on Saturday from Liverpool and Plymouth, calls for some special explanation and comment, the particulars obtained by our reporter present the following sorrowful details:

July 17.  Mary Ann Bull, 24, disease of the heart. July 22. George Hunt, threw himself overboard whilst in a state of insanity.  Aug. 1 Janet Watson, 23, typhoid fever.  Elizabeth Clyne, 23, ditto. Aug. 7 Rosina Mott, 3, ditto. Aug. 10. Edwin Pople, 26, ditto. Aug. 15. Edward Thrower, 35, diarrhoea. Aug. 20. James Clyne, 21, consumption. Aug. 30. Rachael Grossman, infant, mesenteric disease. Elizabeth Reynolds, Montefiore Warren, William Lock, children of tender age, died from inflammation of the lungs. Sept. 2. Martha Reynolds, 18, typhoid fever. Sept.7. Mary Simpson, 30, consumption.    Sept. 10. T. Chapman, infant, inflammation of the lungs.

The cases of typhoid fever, of which it will be seen  that several terminated fatally, are attributed by the survivors to the offensive evaporations or rather the gases emitted by the quantity of patent fuel (350tons) forming so large a portion of the cargo. The unpleasant smell is much complained of, even by those who are in health, and we are told the com-plaint is by no means a new one, similar effects, though not followed by consequences so fatal, having been experienced on board previous arrivals partly laden with patent fuel.  We hope the Government will make the most careful enquiry into this serious matter with a view to put the Commissioners in England on their guard in the chartering of vessels in future, if these sad consequences are attributable to the large quantity of patent fuel on board. Judging from the names of the emigrants, as well as from the circumstance of the final departure from Plymouth, we conclude that emigrants were embarked at both places. This is a very objectionable arrangement, as involving tedious delay for the emigrants first embarked, and very possibly producing serious inconveniences which were felt throughout the subsequent voyage. The births during the passage out of six in number, viz.: – Four girls – Reynolds, Sutton, Pierce, and Pryce and two boys – Mott and Kirran.

But Captain Fell had other concerns. By 1851 the Victoria gold rush was just starting in earnest. In every Australian port ships were at anchor but couldn’t leave because the crews had deserted en masse, to try their luck digging for gold.  Such was the case for Captain Fell and the Reliance. Fell wrote to the Adelaide Times on the 27th November 1851:

THE ‘TIMES’ NEWSPAPER, AND THE SHIP ‘RELIANCE’.

TO THE EDITOR OF THE ADELAIDE TIMES.

Sir— I am sorry to notice in your paper of this day that great complaints are made of the detention of the Overland Mail by the Reliance, more particularly as it appears all sorts of rumours are in town as to the cause of the delay, which do no credit to the Captain. I will ask you, with all due deference, if any of the reports are relative to my not having a crew on board? Or whether my having brought out emigrants affords greater facility for keeping a crew ?The Reliance is not the only vessel in Port that has been most fearfully detained by the desertion of seamen. The Satellite now at the North Arm is an instance, and the Constitution, that sailed the other day, was upwards of three months here with few hands on board. I picked up one of my men at Gumeracka last week, and have him now in gaol; and so long as encouragement is given to deserters by secreting them, I see very little chance of vessels visiting this colony getting anything like quick dispatch. I posted two letters for my own mail some three weeks ago, thinking I would have been able to pick up a crew long ere this, but it is much easier said than done. Perhaps some kind friend who makes rumours that do no credit to the Captain will lend a helping hand to get a crew for me.

I am Sir, etc, Henry B. Fell. Reliance. North Arm, 27th Nov., 1851.

If John Grisdale was part of the Reliance’s crew in 1851 then he, it seems, didn’t do a bunk. Eventually Captain Fell did manage to scrape a crew together by paying enormous wages, and the Reliance returned to England. But the next August the Reliance was back in Adelaide. There were the same problems with the crew deserting and with crew wages. We know that John Grisdale was a sail maker on the Reliance and thus he was certainly a member of the crew in 1852.

Ships in the Yarra River, Melbourne in the 1850s

Ships in the Yarra River, Melbourne in the 1850s

John was back in Liverpool in 1853. We know this because it was then that his last child Joseph was conceived and, of course, it was in February 1853 that John boarded the emigrant ship Eagle for Australia, commanded by the famous Captain Boyce. As I have said, the evidence seems to suggest that during one or more trips to Australia on the ship Reliance John conceived the idea of returning to try his luck digging for gold. Hence rather than jumping ship we find him as an ‘unassisted immigrant’ aged 37 among the passenger list of the Eagle, which docked in Melbourne in May 1853. Perhaps he wanted to get rich quick and return home? A few did just this. Or possibly he thought that if things went well he could later bring out his Liverpool family to join him? We’ll never know.

What we do know is that one way or another he managed to tell his family that he had gone to the diggings in Bendigo, Victoria.

It is believed the first major discovery of gold in Victoria was in early August 1851 at Buninyong, near Ballarat. Two months later it was discovered at Bendigo. By mid-1853 around 60,000 diggers and their families were on the Victorian goldfields – nearly 23,000 of these were at Bendigo.

diggers on way to bendigo

diggers on way to bendigo

What was John’s journey like?

Men could generally be noticed trudging along beside the drays. Most of them wore moleskin trousers and gay-coloured shirts. They had heavy boots on their feet. They would pass bullock wagons which were loaded with produce such as flour, sugar and tea, destined for enterprising merchants who expected to make money, not from searching for gold, but by selling supplies to the diggers and their families.

One woman who arrived at the Bendigo diggings at around the same time as John wrote the following:

What a scene presented itself for my wondering gaze. I cannot describe it. … Heaps and heaps of newly upturned earth; deep holes out of which sickly looking men were drawing buckets more of it; while others, up to their waists in water, were washing pans of the sun-dried clay, and so close were the holes to each other, that there was hardly any room for one cart to pass between them, obliging us to make a constantly zig-zag track. How plainly it all seemed to speak of the grovelling nature of men. What, I thought to myself, can man stoop so low as to burrow in the earth in this way to risk health, and stand in the depth of winter, up to the waist in water, and such fleeting gains.

Life was hard in Bendigo. Not only did many of the miners die in accidents and through disease, but violence was also rife, particularly because of tensions between European and Chinese miners.

An angry group of European and American miners met in Bendigo in 1854 and declared that a “general and unanimous rising should take place… for the purpose of driving the Chinese off the goldfield”. Local constables acted quickly to prevent the uprising, by asserting their presence and warning the miners against any further vigilante action. The event was only the beginning of greater anti-Chinese tensions

Bendigo Diggers

Bendigo Diggers

At the exact time that John Grisdale would have arrived at Bendigo, in mid-1853, a petition was signed by over 5000 diggers on the Victorian goldfields who were angry about the mining licence fees imposed by the government and the system by which they were collected. The petition outlined the diggers’ grievances and called for a reduced licence fee, improved law and order, the right to vote and the right to buy land.

The petition was brought to Melbourne and presented to Lieutenant-Governor Charles Joseph La Trobe on the 1 August 1853. Most of its demands, including the reduction in the licence fee, were rejected. Eventually the diggers’ dissatisfaction erupted, culminating in the Eureka uprising at Ballarat on 3 December 1854.

So this was the life mariner John Grisdale had found. But what became of him? Had he died at Bendigo? Had he just decided to abandon his family back in Liverpool? We don’t know. Certainly there seems no future mention of him in Australia. I tend to think he died by an accident, disease or violence.

Liverpool Street in mid 1800s

Liverpool Street in mid 1800s

So poor Betsey back in Liverpool and John’s brother and sister never heard from John again. In 1861 and 1871, now said to be a widow, Betsey was still in Liverpool living with her children and older sister and working as a ‘Plain Sawer’, whatever that is.

I won’t follow the lives of John and Betsey’s children here, or that of some of his siblings. Regarding John’s Grisdale ancestors, it took me a long time to pin him down. But now things are clear, or clearish. John’s father William, the coachmaker, was born in 1786 in Watermillock, the son of Mark Grisdale (1760) and his wife Eleanor Greenhow. Mark had two Grisdale parents. His father was John Grisdale, born in 1708 in Dowthwaite Head in Matterdale, who was the son of Edward Grisdale the brother of the famous Rev. Dr. Robert Grisdale, the founder of Matterdale School. Mark’s mother was Jane Grisdale (born 1730 in Dowthwaite Head), the daughter of Jonathan Grisdale and Mary Jackson. Jane was also the aunt of Sergeant Major Levi Grisdale of Peninsular War and Waterloo fame. We can of course go back further.

And that, as far as I can reconstruct it, was the life of Liverpool mariner John Grisdale.

The Bendigo Petition, 1853

The Bendigo Petition, 1853

“Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to do and die.”

What was a Grisdale man’s connection with The Charge of the Light Brigade? How did a soldier in an elite British cavalry regiment in India end up lumping coal in the Melbourne docks? And did he sire one or more ‘half-breeds’ while trying to get rich in the Victoria gold rush? This is the story of Thomas Grisdale, a Bolton cotton weaver’s son.

Thomas Grisdale was born in Bolton, Lancashire in 1804. He escaped the cotton mills by joining the army. I’m not yet precisely sure exactly when, but it seems clear that as a private in the 15th King’s Own Light Dragoons (Hussars) he sailed for India with the regiment from their base in Maidstone, Kent, in September 1839 – under Lieutenant – Colonel Sir Walter Scott, the son of the famous novelist. He was to spend the next fourteen years in India, first in Madras but mostly in Bangalore. The ‘Madras Presidency’ which covered most of southern India was run by the British East India Company.

Peterloo Massacre

Peterloo Massacre

The 15th Hussars was an illustrious regiment. They were called both The Fighting 15th and The Tabs. They were raised in 1759 and had fought in the Peninsular War at Sahagun and Vittoria and later at Waterloo. Unfortunately they had also played a pivotal role in the notorious Peterloo Massacre in 1819:  ‘Where a 60,000 strong crowd calling for democratic reform were charged by the Yeomanry. Panic from the crowd was interpreted as an attack on the Yeomanry and the Hussars (led by Lieutenant Colonel Guy L’Estrange) were ordered in. The charge resulted in 15 fatalities and as many as 600 injured.’

Captain Lewis Nolan

Captain Lewis Nolan

After an initial spell in the regional capital, Madras, Thomas was mostly on garrison duty with the regiment in Bangalore. The regiment became one of the best trained cavalry units in the British army, thanks in no small measure to the efforts and new ideas of a certain Captain Lewis Edward Nolan – under whom Thomas served. In a list of the men of the 15th Hussars stationed in Bangalore in 1845 (although I think the list comes from slightly later), we find Private Thomas Grisdale as well as Captain Lewis Nolan.

Nolan wasn’t a typical British cavalry officer. Though British Canadian by birth, through his father’s connections he had been commissioned into the Austrian Imperial Cavalry and seen action as a Hussar in Poland and Hungary. But he was persuaded by certain ‘English gentlemen’ to resign his commission and buy a commission in the British army. This he did in 1839 and he was with Grisdale and the 15th Hussars on the trip to Madras. Nolan had strong ideas about how cavalry should be used, how horses should be trained and about the inappropriateness of the Hussars’ uniforms. He later published two treatises on the subject called: The Training of Cavalry Remount Horses: A New System (1851) and Cavalry: Its History and Tactics (1853). Given his expertise, Nolan was made the regiment’s riding master and his methods were later adopted throughout the army. Two quotes from his writings give us a flavour:

Write up in golden letters – or in letters distinguishable, and easy to read – in every riding-school, and in every stable: “HORSES ARE TAUGHT NOT BY HARSHNESS BUT BY GENTLENESS.” Where the officers are classical, the golden rule may be given in Xenophon’s Greek, as well as in English.

To me it appears we have too much frippery – too much toggery – too much weight in things worse than useless. To a cavalry soldier every ounce is of consequence! I can never believe that our hussar uniform (take which of them you please) is the proper dress in which to do hussar’s duty in war – to scramble through thickets, to clear woods, to open the way through forests, to ford or swim rivers, to bivouac, to be nearly always on outpost work, to ‘rough it’ in every possible manner. Of what use are plumes, bandoliers, sabretashes, sheep-skins, shabraques, etc?

The Charge of the Light Brigade

The Charge of the Light Brigade

But besides the fact that Grisdale knew Nolan, what’s the interest in mentioning this? Well it is this: When the regiment was about to depart for home in 1853, Nolan obtained leave to precede it to Europe. After a bit of spying for Britain in Russia, he was sent to purchase horses for the army for the Crimean campaign. Nolan travelled around Turkey, Lebanon and Syria. ‘He arrived in Varna, Bulgaria… with nearly 300 animals.’ For once Britain and France were not fighting each other; they had come to the aid of the Ottoman Turks in their fight against an expansionary Imperial Russia. Nolan was made aide-de-camp to Brigadier-General Richard Airey.  On 25 October 1854, at the Battle of Balaclava, it was Captain Nolan who brought the message from Lord Raglan to Lord Lucan which read:

Lord Raglan wishes the Cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop Horse Artillery may accompany. French Cavalry is on your left. Immediate.

Raglan’s idea was to have the cavalry prevent the Russians taking away the naval guns from the redoubts that they had captured on the reverse side of the Causeway Heights, the hill forming the south side of the valley. Lucan was unclear what the order meant and asked Nolan for clarification. Nolan is reputed to have replied, ‘Lord Raglan’s orders are that the cavalry should attack immediately.’ Lucan replied, ‘Attack, sir! Attack what? What guns, sir? Where and what to do?’

There, my Lord! There is your enemy! There are your guns!

Nolan is said to have indicated, by a wide sweep of his arm, not the Causeway redoubts but the mass of Russian guns in a redoubt at the end of the valley, around a mile away.

So Lucan ordered Lord Cardigan, the officer commanding the Light Brigade, to charge straight at the Russian guns. So began The Charge of the Light Brigade, when just over 600 British cavalry charged straight at the main Russian cannons, into the ‘Valley of Death’. As Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote:

Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns!” he said.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

Captain Lewis Nolan was one of the first to die in the charge. One historian writes:

After delivering the order telling Lord Lucan, the Cavalry Division commander, to attack “the guns,” Nolan joined his friend, Captain William Morris, Acting Commander, 17th Lancers.  Although a staff officer, Nolan was determined not to be left out of this action.  As the Light Brigade advanced, Nolan was seen to ride forward on his own.  His reasons are the subject of vast controversy and much speculation.  In any event, his audacity didn’t last long.  He was struck in the chest by a piece of shrapnel, making him one of the first casualties of the charge.

Nolan, or perhaps only his body, remained upright in the saddle.  The horse veered right, then back through the advancing line of the 13th Light Dragoons, the horse’s former regiment.  After passing through the lines, Captain Nolan finally fell to the ground, but his gallant horse was not through.  Troop Sergeant Major John Linkon of the 13th had just lost his horse.  He managed to mount Nolan’s horse and rode after his regiment.  Thus, although Captain Nolan did not complete the famous charge, his horse did.

After the debacle, his superiors, probably unjustly, put the blame on Nolan. The French General Bosquet, who witnessed the charge, commented: C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre’: c’est de la folie’. (‘It is magnificent, but it is not war: it is madness.’)

Such was the fate of the man under whom Thomas Grisdale had served for so many years in India. But unlike his former officer, Grisdale had avoided the Valley of Death (the 15th weren’t actually there). He left the army in 1853 and with his young family made his way to Melbourne in Australia.

Before I tell of this let us go back a little to Thomas’s roots and the facts of his family. Thomas was the third child of Lancashire cotton weaver Thomas Grisdale and his wife Elizabeth Crossley. He was born in 1804 in Bolton. In previous articles I have tried to show what became of several of his close relatives who had also left England and some who stayed. Among his close relatives was his brother, the weaver Doctor Grisdale, who emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1850, and his two nephews, John and Jonathan, who “went America”.  His uncle  Benjamin became the Collector of Customs in the important port of Whitehaven. His cousin John emigrated to Sydney and his more distant cousin also called John became a missionary in India and later a Canadian Bishop!  His uncle George emigrated with his family to Hudson in Quebec and one member of his family eventually ended up in the Pacific Northwest of America as “King of the Douglas Fir Loggers”. I will tell their story at a later date. Every single one of these people was a descendant of Joseph Grisdale and Ann Temple of Dockray, Matterdale, Cumberland.

Madras 1850

Madras 1850

When Thomas arrived in India in 1839 he was a single man of 35. But while stationed in Bangalore he married the locally born Mary Cartwright, the daughter of army farrier William Cartwright and his wife Jane. The marriage took place on 5 January 1847 in Bangalore’s Holy Trinity Church. Three Indian-born children were to follow: Thomas (1848), Jane (1850) and William (1852).

Throughout his time in India the British army (or the army of the East India Company to be more precise) had been involved in many nasty little wars, for example the early Sikh and Afghan wars. But these all took place in the north of the country and because Thomas’s regiment were based in the south it seems he took no part in them. I would like to know if this was not the case.

Whatever the case, in 1853, having recently left the army, he, his wife Mary and their two children (Thomas junior had died just before they left) boarded the ship Strathfieldsaye bound for Melbourne in Victoria, Australia. We don’t know why the family chose to go to Melbourne but we can make a good guess. The Victoria gold rush had just started and there is no doubt that news of diggers becoming immensely wealthy would have reached India. So perhaps Thomas wanted to see if he too could strike it rich. The family arrived in Melbourne harbour in November 1853.

Victoria Gold Diggers

Victoria Gold Diggers

Things then go a little dark, but not completely dark. Maybe initially Thomas got work in the Melbourne docks, where he later worked, we don’t know. Yet it is certain that he pretty soon tried his luck in the rough and tumble of Victoria’s gold diggings. The family moved to Heathcote, a gold rush town 110 kms north of Melbourne. Two more children were born there: Elizabeth in 1855 and Caroline in 1857. Heathcote itself had ‘developed on the back of a series of gold rushes along McIvor Creek commencing in 1851. One of the major strikes (1852) was a Golden Gully, behind the old courthouse’.

At the peak of the gold rushes there were up to 35,000 people, largely housed in tents and shanties on the fields. 3,000 Chinese walked to the digging from Robe in South Australia where they had disembarked to avoid paying a tax levied upon Chinese disembarking in Victoria. There were at least 3 breweries; 22 hotels; 2 flour mills, reflecting the emergence of wheat growing in the district; a bacon factory, hospital, banks and several wineries.

What sort of life did the family have in Heathcote? Perhaps we can get some idea from letters sent home by other immigrants who had done the same thing at the same time. In May 1855 Alma digger P.H. Brain wrote home to a friend:

There is no friends here, everyone for his self and the biggest rogue – the best man, that is the principle that the colony is carried on, by most people rich and poor. I am happy to say I have never wanted for anything since I have been in the colony, although I have seen more in want than ever I have in England. I have many times thought of you staying in England, I would rather live in England with one meal a day, than here with all the best in the world as there is no comfort to be had here day or night, for by day you are poisoned by dust and flies and by night perhaps nearly blown out of your bed, if it may be so called. Although I have got a feather bed, I cannot sleep…

I should not advise anyone to come out here, although I do not wish to keep them away but I am sure there is nothing to be obtained here but at the risk of your life and hard work and no comfort. You would be surprised perhaps if I say I work 60 or 70 feet underground and have got to sink the hole first. I can assure you that it is the case, one sometimes would sink 10 or a dozen of these and not see gold. I have got a hundred pounds and obliged to spend it nearly all before I could get any more, so you see it’s not all profit. The hole is sunk like a well on, a chain of 24 feet square. You must not have any more than that at any one time but you can sink as many as you want. Where you have sunk one of these holes you try 3 or 4 inches of dirt at the bottom, it is put into a tub and washed so as to wash off the dirt and leave the gravel in the bottom and from thence into a tin dish and divide the gold from the gravel, if there be any. If not you must wash it so before you can tell. So you see what work it is to get gold. I have sunk 10 or 15 before I have seen it and perhaps many around me getting it. I am thinking I shall send you and your dear wife a small nugget, so as you can say you have got some, as I may never have it in my power to bring it personally. If so I have to be more pleased to do so in a larger quantity wont if not to be a pleasure to me once more to see my friends in England all well, which I hope very much is the case now.

James Douglas Ferguson wrote to his parents in 1854 from McIvor (Heathcote):

Gold Rush Camp

Gold Rush Camp

We all live in tension the diggings that you will know I should not think there is a man on the diggings but has a brace of pistols ready for action under his head every night. I have 3 dogs round our tent there is nothing in the shape of beast or body can get near the tent for them, any one was to lay me down £20 for the 3 I would not take it. Some time ago these two men on horseback stuck us up. My dog did his duty she got one of them to an out she made him ten thousand murders. I like a fool had not my pistol charged, perhaps just as well it was not for I should have fired as sure as I am writing this letter to you, anyone comes round your tent at night you are justifiable in shooting them, this was between 12 and 1 o’clock in the morning. I got up and opened the tent door and give my faithful old dog the word of command and got the axe for a weapon myself, I darted out from the side of the tent and got a slip at one of them with the axe, the next moment the dog made the other shout like a bull they did not know that I was up ready to receive them. The wife and children screaming, the dogs barking. People came rushing from all quarters, believe me the fellow would not forget that blow I gave him for sometime. You know I am pretty sharp mettle when set on my pins. They were both armed with pistols but had not time to make use of them. We let them go quietly as there might be a party and some of them come at another time and call on us.

Such was probably the Grisdales’ life in the gold diggings. Thomas must have found some gold; otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to support his family for several years. But he clearly hadn’t struck it rich. The family moved back to Sandridge, Melbourne, where the couple’s next children were born:  Thomas (1859), Joseph (1861), Mary (1863), Isaac (18660 and Sarah (1869).

It is only in Melbourne that we start to find actual reports of Thomas and some of his family. The first to appear in the Melbourne Argus on Tuesday 12 September 1865 concerned Thomas himself:

At the Sandridge Police Court yesterday; before Mr. Call, P.M., an old man named Thomas Grisdale, charged with stealing fish, the property of James Lewis, was sentenced to be locked up until the rising of the Court.

Four years later, after having borne ten children, Thomas’s wife Jane died on 24 April 1869 as a result of giving birth to her last child Sarah, who herself died three  days later. On 26 April the Argus reported:

At Sandridge yesterday, the city coroner held an inquiry respecting the death of Mary Grisdale, who had died on the day previous somewhat suddenly. She had been prematurely confined on Saturday last, and from that time until Wednesday was progressing very favourably. On that morning, however, she was seized with sudden illness. Her husband went for the purpose of procuring medical assistance, but before he returned her life had expired. From the medical testimony, the jury returned a verdict that the deceased died from fatty degeneration of the heart.

After Jane’s death it seems that some of her children had to resort to begging. On Wednesday 22 February 1871 the Argus reported:

Sandridge. – On Monday, before Messrs. Molifson (?). P.M., Curtis, and Barker, Caroline Grisdale, a girl from 14 to 15 years old, was charged with stealing a pair of drawers. The prisoner went to Mary Clyans, wife of Michael Clyans, to beg, and Mrs. Clyans took her into her service. At the end of a week the prisoner left, and several articles of clothing were missed at the same time. The prisoner next went to a Mrs. Elizabeth Foley to beg for bread. Mrs Foley gave her 3 1/2d. to buy a loaf for herself and sisters, and the prisoner in return, offered the drawers, which she said belonged to her sister. The prisoner’s father, who described himself as a “lumper” appeared in court, but had nothing to say except that his daughter did not beg, or at least had no occasion to. The Bench sentenced the girl to 24 hours’ imprisonment, and to two years’ confinement in the reformatory, with a recommendation to the police to sec that Grisdale paid for his daughter’s maintenance.

Caroline was to marry John Berkley David O’Neill in 1877. One of Caroline’s sisters was Mary, who had been born in Sandridge in 1863. Later the same year, on 6 October 1871, we read:

A man named James Amos was charged at the police court, Drysdale, yesterday, with an attempt to commit a capital offence upon the person of a girl about 10 years of age, named Mary Grisdale. The prisoner, who reserved his defence, was committed to take his trial at the next sittings of the Circuit Court.

And then the 12 October:

James Amos, an elderly man, was charged with having, on the 14th ult, indecently assaulted a little girl, under 10 years of age, named Mary Grisdale, at Swan Bay. He pleaded “Not guilty,” and was undefended. The jury returned a verdict of “Guilty.”

James Amos would probably have been hung. Mary herself married James Broderick in 1882. The two other surviving sisters, Jane (born in 1850) married James McFarlane in 1874 and Elizabeth (born 1855) married Alfred James Fawcett in 1875.

But what of Thomas’ sons? Most either died in infancy or when young. Only one, William Grisdale, who had been born in India in 1852, seems to have lived long. In 1879 he married Elizabeth Corfield in Melbourne. They had one child, William James, but he soon died. Elizabeth herself died aged 22 in 1881, miles away in the mountain community of Hotham. In the Melbourne newspapers throughout the 1880s we find multiple reports of a man called William Grisdale. Was this Thomas and Jane’s son? I’ll return to this question. But first, in September 1881, the Sandridge Court tried ‘an impudent case of hotel robbery’.

The prisoner, who gave the name of William Grisdale, entered the Southern Cross Hotel, in Inglis street, on the 15th inst, accompanied by a man named Mullinger. They called for drinks, which were supplied to them by the barmaid, and for which they paid. The prisoner then asked for biscuits and matches, and while the girl temporarily quitted the bar to procure them, he leaned over the counter, and was in the act of abstracting the till, containing £1.12s 6d, when she returned. He at once ran out of the hotel, but after running some distance was stopped by two young men whose attention was attracted by the cry of ‘Stop thief.’ After a violent struggle the prisoner got away from the young men, but was eventually arrested on a warrant by Constable Good. These facts were proved by the evidence of the barmaid, Mullinger, and the arresting constable, and the prisoner, who had frequently been before the court, and had only just completed a term of imprisonment for an assault, was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour.

In May 1882 ‘two wharf loafers, named James Sullivan and William Grisdale’ were charged with ‘ feloniously stealing’ silk dresses and other articles and selling them on in Sandridge. Grisdale claimed they belonged to his wife. In January 1884 ‘two young men named William Hilton and William Grisdale, who had been both frequently convicted were charged by the police with being rogues and vagabonds and also with the larceny of boots…. Both prisoners pleaded for a lenient sentence on the ground that they intended to reform and leave the colony. The Bench pointed out, however, that they had already neglected their chances, and they accordingly sentenced both men to 12 months imprisonment, with hard labour’.

Given the fact that these crimes took place or were tried in Sandridge, where the Grisdale family lived, it would seem to indicate that the ‘wharf loafer’ William Grisdale was indeed Thomas and Jane’s son. I think he probably was. But a little later in May 1887 the Argus reported:

About midnight on Tuesday Constable Lockhart observed a powerfully built half-caste named William Grisdale accosting a woman, and demanding money from her. When refused he struck the woman a violent blow and knocked her down. The constable arrested the man, who resisted most violently, striking him on the face and kicking him on various parts of the body. The prisoner had a very bad record, and he was fined £5, or in default three months’ imprisonment, at the City Court on Wednesday.

This can’t have been Thomas and Jane’s William, who was not a half-caste. So who could it have been?

Boundary Rider's Hut

Boundary Rider’s Hut

Was he an illegitimate son of Thomas Grisdale conceived with an aboriginal mother while Thomas moved around the gold diggings or later on back in Melbourne? Surely his father must have been a Grisdale? In the early years after 1853 there were probably only two Grisdale families in Victoria. I wrote about one before. This was the family of William Grisdale who arrived in Melbourne in the same year as Thomas. The family settled near Mansfield and worked in and around the gold digs situated there. And as far as we know that is where he stayed.

We also find other ‘criminal’ Grisdales in the Melbourne courts. One a ‘Singhalese’ called John Grisdale (this means a half caste from Ceylon or south India) and a mysterious Arthur Grisdale. Somebody was putting himself about!

Finally in 1924 on the electors’ list for Willaura we find a William Burrumbeep Grisdale working as a ‘boundary rider’ – that is maintaining fences on a sheep or cattle ranch. Burrumbeep itself is not far from Willaura and had a gold rush of its own. It would be tempting to relate this man with the half-caste in Melbourne in 1887, but maybe the possible ages would tell against it?

Actually I believe that sometime after his wife’s death William Grisdale headed out west to help build the Goldfields’ Water Pipeline to Perth and later became a bullock driver. But that’s for another time.

Railway pier sandridge 1858

Railway Pier Sandridge 1858

Returning to firmer ground; where did Thomas and his family live in Melbourne and what did he do? I mentioned already that after coming back from Heathcote the family settled in Sandridge. Referring to the arrival of William Free’s family in 1853, the same year as Thomas, one writer says:

They were landed not at a wharf but on a beach – Liardet’s Beach or Sandridge as the respectable classes preferred to call it – at which there were present some ramshackle buildings, but no quay, no warehouses, no merchants, and no shade in which the women and children could rest while the men looked for transport. The shore up to the high-water mark was lined with broken drift spars and oars, discarded ship-blocks, mattresses and pillows, empty bottles, ballast kegs, and sundry other items of flotsam. The township of Melbourne was out of sight, some eight miles distant by river and three across land.

Sandridge became Melbourne’s second port – taking the name Port Melbourne. ‘For many years Port Melbourne was a focus of Melbourne’s criminal underworld, which operated smuggling syndicates on the docks. The old Ships Painters and Dockers Union was notorious for being controlled by gangsters. The Waterside Workers Federation, on the other hand, was a stronghold of the Communist Party of Australia.’

We know that Thomas worked as a coal ‘lumper’ in Sandridge port. Margo Beasley, Australia’s expert on coal lumpers, writes: ‘Unlike wharf labourers, who shifted all manner of cargoes between ship and shore, coal lumpers worked exclusively on coal and most, but not all, of that work took place out ‘in the stream’ as they put it… some distance from the wharves…  coal lumpers saw themselves as akin to miners rather than wharf labourers and their main task was to move the coal from colliers or hulks that brought it…  into other vessels.’

Coal lumpers at work

Coal lumpers at work

There were five categories of coal lumping work. The shovellers, winchdrivers and planksmen worked on the collier or hulk that was carrying and discharging the coal, and carriers and trimmers worked on the ship that was receiving the coal or being ‘coaled’. Coal lumpers’ tools were basic: shovels, baskets, boots, ropes and their own brute strength. The ‘gear’ on the collier, which included winch, rope (called the ‘fall’) and baskets, had to be rigged so that the coal could be shifted from down below up to a suitable level on the deck for moving it into the ship that was to be coaled. The baskets were attached to a hook, which was fastened to the fall, which was run through a pulley and a winch on the deck above the hold.

Beasley describes coal lumpers’ working conditions as ‘Dantesque’. She writes:

Billy Hughs, who later became Prime Minister of Australia, was president of the Sydney Coal Lumpers’ Union in 1905, and also its advocate. He said coal lumping work ‘finds out the weak places in a man. If a man has a weak spot in his heart, lungs or back, or … say his nervous system is not all that it should be, he falls out.’ Hughes argued that only the very strong remained in the work and coal lumpers aged 45 or 50 were simply ‘the strongest who have survived’, by natural selection.

Indeed, many men tried the work for a week or two, and even an hour or two, but they couldn’t last. One coal lumper said that some men were forced to leave the work because they because they had started at too hard a pace and they were unable to keep going. Hughes judged that no other occupation called for the exercise of greater physical strength and endurance, supporting his assertion with two illustrations. Employers were unable to get sufficient men who could do coal lumping satisfactorily, or even unsatisfactorily, during strikes and lockouts; and the work necessitated certain conditions that didn’t occur in any other trade: paid two hourly breaks, because a spell was ‘absolutely essential for recuperation and food and rest.

Coal Lumpers

Coal Lumpers

Such was the hard and dangerous life of Thomas Grisdale. The son of a Bolton weaver, descended from the Matterdale Grisdales. A man who had spent years serving Queen and country in India. A man who had been under the command of Captain Nolan who became famous for ‘starting’ the Charge of the Light Brigade. A man who had tried his luck in Australia only to spend the rest of his life lumping coal in the docks. A man who just might have sired one or more half castes while looking for gold. Such I’m afraid was the fate of many, indeed most, of the common soldiers who served Her Majesty throughout most of British history. A fate in stark contrast to that of the wealthy officer class.

Thomas Grisdale died aged 74 on 28 February 1879, at 11 Montague Street, Emerald Hill in Melbourne.

“Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to do and die.”