Elizabeth Scott - The Shanty Keeper's Wife

The Devil’s River

In summer the Victorian High Country hosts a seasonal explosion of visitors.  The lucky few are privy to a secret little swimming hole at Brack’s Bridge on the Delatite River close to Gough’s Bay. It’s beautiful there, the sun glinting off the water, the little rapids providing a delight for children on tyre tubes and boogie boards.  During the summer season, the river is at its lowest and provides a welcome relief from the soaring temperatures endured by locals and visitors in the know.

The Delatite’s high eastern bank is guarded by sharp blackberry canes and majestic stringy bark soldiers, hiding yet another secret.  The majority of bathers splashing about are oblivious to the murder scene hidden behind the screen of wild scrub.

In the 1860s this river was known as Devil’s River. It was presided over by Robert ‘Bob’ Scott’s sly-grog shanty. The shanty was excellently positioned between the unruly township of Mansfield and the flourishing supply town of ‘The Jamieson’. Sited on an all-weather bullock track unlike other seasonal pioneering tracks, a loaded bullock wagon originating from Melbourne could still take up to six weeks to arrive at the diggings. Here at the bend of the Devil’s River, weary travellers could easily cross the hard stony bed on their way to The Jamieson. Bob Scott’s shanty doubled as a staging post and refreshment house for prospectors en route to the gold fields in the Upper Goulburn hinterland.

Rivers acted as landmarks for pioneers and diggers alike. They were often named before the towns and water from the rivers eroded the rocks to alluvial grains making easy pickings for those first arriving. Any new chum could have a go at it. The golden crust of the riverbanks quickly became the main attraction of the high country and at The Jamieson and along the Delatite, men pegged out their claims, then proceeded to denude the land.

The discovery of the Devil’s River and rechristening as the Delatite is still today the subject of vigorous debate. A range of theories abound. It is said that the explorers George Watson and Alex McLean Hunter were searching for pastoral country for the Scottish Land Company:

'[Watson and Hunter] followed the valley till they came to a beautiful clear running river. They were sure that they saw some natives, but on dismounting they could find no trace of human beings, The conclusion reached was that they had seen black devils, who disappeared in the river…[they] determined to explore it; and…saw such immense numbers of blacks swarming among its banks and finding several dead bodies of others, killed no doubt in a fight, they immediately gave it the name it now bears.'

The aboriginals swarming the banks of Lucifer’s stream, were undoubtedly a clan of the nomadic Taungurung people, a part of the five-tribe alliance – the Kulin nation, the rightful custodians of the land. Responding to Watson and Hunters ‘discovery’, the natives told their story: that they had seen strange large animals coming towards them, and when they saw each other these animals break into two parts they became terror stricken and ran into the river. They stood in the water with just their noses out, so that they might breathe and remained until these strange animals joined together again.

Colloquially labelled the ‘Devil’s River Blacks’, the Yowung-Illam-Balug aboriginals were described as a more than usually intelligent tribe.  They inhabited the area from Alexandra through to Mansfield and the Upper Goulburn tributaries. The river has its origins in an aboriginal name – Delotite, one of the wives (lubra) of Beolite, the clan head of the Yowung-Ilam-Balluk. It was not until the late 1860s that the cartographers and surveyors started to use the name Delatite on government surveys and charts. Surveyors were instructed to use aboriginal names wherever possible and so the majority of parishes ended up being named after the local station. Following the heels of the explorers, the squatters strode out to stake their claims on the land.

Watson and Hunter’s explanation is repeated in His Excellency Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe’s compilation ‘Letters from Victorian Pioneers’. On the pages within, Mr. Edward Bell, Hunter’s manager installed at Mimamaluke Station, describes Watson and Hunter’s discovery of Devil’s River:

‘They eventually found the Devil’s River, so called from hearing a black’s “corroboree” upon its banks the night that they first camped upon it…’

Field sketch of Watson and Hunter’s station. Source: State Library of Victoria

Yet another version is that a few of the early settlers, finding the country bordering on the river so rough, wild looking and difficult of access, designated it the ‘Devil’s own place’, and from that the stream received the appellation of the Devil’s River.  The date of the re-christening of the river is unknown, but ‘Delatite’ is shown on the Australia Felix map of 1847. Whatever its origins, The Devil’s River, was true to its name.  Playing host to numerous drownings and murders, the River’s reputation still did not deter those colonials and prospectors who chose to make its banks their home.

Australia Felix Map 1847

Mansfield to The Jamieson

The Government encouraged exploration for new goldfields and provided rewards for those discovered. The Devil’s Gold Fields in the region of the Devil’s River and Jamieson River were found to be ‘sufficiently numerous, substantial and auriferous.  In 1862, a Government Report on Gold Prospectors, having carefully examined the application of various parties claiming to be the discoverers of goldfields, reported that ‘William Gooley was the discoverer of Upper Goulburn goldfields (Jamieson, Jericho and Jordan) and should be awarded 500 pounds’.

Following the discovery of gold and quartz, newly created bridle tracks crisscrossed the Devil’s River on the way to the newly sited gold mining supply town of ‘The Jamieson’. As the discovery of gold was publicised, the population at The Jamieson Flat exploded. Comprised primarily of English and Irishmen, flavoured with a smattering of Welsh, Scots, Germans, Italians, Swiss and Chinese. In 1861 about 550 men worked the claims in the Upper Goulburn alluvial deposits. By 1863 around 4,000 prospectors had joined them, scattered amongst the hills. The Goulburn Rush is described as follows:

The diggings township at Jamieson is an encampment of about 209 diggers, and is situated near the junction of the Big River, the Jamieson, the Howqua, and the Devil's River, with the Goulburn. From Jamieson it is necessary to "pack" all goods intended to be sent to Gaffney's Creek, and foot passengers from this point have frequently to climb the ascent on their hands and knees, or to cut their way through the scrub with tomahawks. At Jamieson there are no tools, and no tucker to be had, The miners have bought up all the old shovels procurable at the stables in the neighbourhood; and flour was so scarce that Mrs. Edwards, the wife of a publican, was doling it out in pannicans at a high figure in order to keep the hungry mob quiet. Nominally, long shovels 2s; sugar, Is. per lb; tea, 4s.

There is no post-office nearer than Mansfield, and no commissioner has yet arrived to take charge of the diggings…there are many creeks between Jamieson and Gaffney's Creek (such as Baker's Creek, Sailor Bill's Creek, and others) which would furnish wages to any one betting in to work them. There is payable ground for the poor man on the points of the river, but these points have nearly all been taken up. Each point is occupied by one party of miners and the men in possession keep all intruders off the ground. In the absence of any Government regulations fixing the size of claims, and in default of the presence of any officer to enforce such regulations, the first comers consider they can hold whatever extent of ground they please.

The higher the Goulburn is ascended, the richer is the ground, the left bank generally paying the best. Gaffney's Creek was first occupied about four months ago, by miners from California and from the Woolshed, The claimholders began their work under very disadvantageous circumstances. They had to run into debt for tools and rations; they were flooded out by the early winter rains; and no sooner do they begin to get gold in payable quantities than a rush sets in, and there is a barney over the size of their claims. In the creek four men take 200 yards, with the banks on both sides. …the preliminary arrangements, such as cutting away the scrub, turning the creek, fixing sluice-boxes, &c., occupy from six to eight weeks. No gold therefore can be raised for that period of time by any party of miners going to Gaffney's; and it would be madness for anyone to go unprovided with means to hold out for a time.

Traveling to the diggings was a logistical nightmare. Drays hauled basic supplies to prospectors stopping at The Jamieson; wagons could go no further. From thereon, everything has to be packed on horses or men’s shoulders. Prospectors then employ packers who are prepared to carry gold mining supplies at sixpence a pound. The track from the Jamieson to the Upper Goulburn is over a succession of steep walled mountains, heavily scrubbed rivers and creeks. Sometimes man and beast would climb and slide up and down the back of mountains via tracks only a foot in width. These difficult paths were made at great risk, labour and expense of the determined pioneers of those mountain miners. There are instances of miners devoting months and employing extra labour to cut tracks along these otherwise impassable steeps.  Prospectors follow treacherous mountain tracks to the quartz reefs at Wood’s Point goldfields some thirty-five miles north-west of The Jamieson Flat and even further on to the alluvial gold discovered in the Jordan hinterland. The few wives and families who followed these adventurers camped at The Jamieson Flat, their small but growing number reflected nightly in the twinkling fairy lights glowing in canvas tents.

Forming a natural amphitheatre, rivers and high mountain ranges surrounded the prospectors’ camps at The Jamieson. Tents were pegged on low flat ground following the geography of this natural horseshoe. Banks, stores, two butchers and dwelling houses had sprung up seemingly overnight. Lean-to’s principally made of timber soon replaced canvas tents and the Jamieson Brick Co., had commenced supplying merchants with brick-already two fine stores had been built by1863.  Very little money changes hands; most transactions carried out by uncoined gold that the storekeepers bought in exchange for goods. The habitations of the miners are constructed of logs and roofed either with bark or calico, which gave an air of comfort and permanency beyond the appearance of other goldfields.

The severe climate, hard frosts and snow in winter reeked havoc on the district sheep stations but didn’t deter the prospectors. Relief for the fortune hunters came in summer as the mountainous scrub deflected the hot northerlies. The Jamieson, as it was known, had started to rival the young township of Mansfield:

Agriculture, which has been successfully carried on in the rich and fertile flats along the Goulburn and Jamieson rivers, provides for the material wants; the luxury of bathing in the cool crystal waters is attainable by all; the sportsman can obtain any quantity of fine fish and shooting amid magnificent mountain scenery, reminding one of some of the less elevated slopes of Switzerland.

No grog, no women

Liquor laws prevented the sale of alcohol on goldfields so enterprising sly-groggers sprang up to accommodate prospectors’ needs. It was noted later at a Parliamentary enquiry that surrounding The Jamieson, ‘each and every shanty in these hills serves liquor’.  Publican’s licenses were expensive and often came with the need for provision of accommodation for travelers and families, but a victuallers license could be granted in the bush for a building composed principally of a few sheets of bark and offering a paddock for the stabling of horses. Under the guise of a beer house license, a shanty could also serve spirits and the best supplied was probably either a cold sour wash or a vile drugged potion. Chinaman’s brandy was commonly manufactured on the goldfields and relabeled for sale by enterprising victuallers alongside ‘square gin’. Gin production is said to evolve from 17th century Holland, where British soldiers drank it before battle – hence the term “Dutch Courage”. This form of Dutch courage was to be later offered to the cook at Bob’s shanty on the Devil’s River.