Simmons Reef town, 1858. Note the store owned by E. Shepherd, depicting the artist and child in the doorway: Elizabeth (Woodmansey) Shepherd painted this picture. SOURCE: Margot Hitchcock, Blackwood & District Historical Society

Water races (and a French woman) determined whether a miner won gold or not

Water races (and a French woman) determined whether a miner won gold or not

Impounded in the Crown Dam, the trapped river water served as a reservoir to maintain supply to water races for individual gold miners and later to drive company water wheels for quartz crushing machines at nearby Simmons Reef. When the Blackwood ‘rush’ peaked in the spring of 1855, there were some 13,000 diggers seeking gold along the course of the Lerderderg River and the streams feeding steeply into it. The inaccessibility of the V-shaped valley resulted in small teams of miners dominating during the 1850s.

Without recourse to copious quantities of water, little gold could be won from the matrix within which it was embedded – whether earth, clay, river pebbles or quartz. Rocking a 2-3m long wooden box shaped like a boot, known as a cradle, served as the primary means for a digging team of 3-5 people, who were single-mindedly dedicated to separating the small nuggets or specks of gold from the riverbed or ground nearby. One of the team dug down into their gold miner’s claim; another barrowed and shovelled the resulting load of earth onto a cloth sieve stretched across the cradle-top; the third poured on water to make a slurry; and a fourth pulled a wooden lever back and forth rocking the cradle. It was this rocking movement that separated the heavier gold from the other elements in the slurry. En masse, the rocking movement was described as sounding like rolling thunder.

John Sherer, a gold seeker, wrote in 1852: “When all the earth is washed away, the rocker and washer cast their longing eyes into the sieve to see if there be a nugget” or gold specks trapped by slats athwart the bottom of the cradle. “This is the process carried on from morn to dewy eve,” recalled Sherer.

Water held in dams or water races was privatised in the early years through the simple act of labour and construction. Under the aptly named common law ‘doctrine of appropriation,’ the first person who came to a stream and claimed its water, acquired a vested right to the water at that spot, making it a form of personal property – in other words, the first in time was considered the first in right.

One of those who took advantage of this doctrine was a French woman Pauline Bonfond, who arrived at the peak of Blackwood’s gold rush in 1855 aged 39 years. In a rare feat for her gender in those rigidly patriarchal times, she is reported to have escaped home duties looking after her husband Pierre (usually done within the confines of a canvas tent) and made an excellent living contracting to cut water races with pick and shovel for gold seekers. Many of these races contoured high above the Lerderderg River opposite Golden Point, winding tortuously on a gently falling gradient in and out of gullies. Most were done the simple way. In the words of a contemporary: “…digging with the water coming along behind them so that they had the right amount of fall for the water to flow along.”

Pauline survived for over a decade in the hotly contested water race market and was even listed in the Mt Blackwood Directory of the time as a ‘race owner.’ Apparently, she had a fiery temper, which must have helped. Anyone who contradicted her or attempted to steal her water was threatened with a raised shovel, claimed a newspaper report on her death in 1867.

You can visit her gravestone in the Blackwood Cemetery.