Nobblers, duffers, and life on the goldfields

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The spirit of the Otago Gold Rush is colourfully captured in Allan Houston’s manuscripts. Not much is known about Houston, but he arrived from Scotland on the Hamilla Mitchell in September 1864 and was for a short time a self-described miners’ representative, practical digger, and storekeeper at Gabriel’s Gully. His manuscript, compiled in 1865, includes description of work and social life on the goldfields, politics, farming, commerce, flora, fauna, and settlements in Otago.

A group of Tuapeka men

Commenting on a digger’s reminiscences of the first rush in 1861, Houston wrote: ‘Of all unpoetical sort of things, one of the most so, is for a young, newly married person to “go off to the diggings”. He is indeed a brave, bold, man who can go straight home & without wincing quietly say “Wife I’m off to the new rush”! It’s more trying than “popping the question” for the decent man has a great chance of being considered insane by his affectionate partner in Life – “What! Going to the diggings? Eh! what do you mean, Sir?”’

Houston explains some of the lingo in use at the time, including:

  • Making Tucker: Getting gold only sufficient to make a living.
  • A Duffer: A failure – disappointment.
  • A Stringer: A small vein of gold that does not pay, but leads a digger on ‘Will-o’the-Wisp’ like, and ends in a ‘Duffer’.
  • Cockatoos: Small owners of land, but poor.
  • Jumping a Claim: Taking forcible possession – ‘Might being right’ ‘a-la-revolver’ – Any person having a ‘Miner’s Right’ or ‘Licence’, can lawfully ‘Jump’ the claim of those without this document.
  • New Chum: The latest arrival.
  • Old Identity: Old Settlers of Otago – Barracouta – i.e. a fish contemptibly applied to old settlers.
  • New Iniquity: The Victorian new arrivals.
  • A Nobbler: A glass of any Liquor – usually costs 1/- at the diggings. 
Houston’s description and photos of Balclutha and the Crown Inn.

These manuscripts would be a great transcription project for someone. The picture painted is sometimes a little too rosy to be convincing, but Houston was there and his writing is full of life, charm, and a sense of optimism prevailing over adversity. 

The scene at Gabriel’s Gully, 1865

Post prepared by David Murray, Assistant Archivist, from Houston, Allan: ‘The Gold fields of Otago, A.H.’s Jottings 1865 with Lithographic Illustrations. Memoranda of Otago Gold diggings and of Gold Diggers, from personal inspection and reliable information written in March 1865’ (Misc-MS-1413).

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About Anna Blackman

I'm Head Curator Archives here at the Hocken Collections and one of my tasks is to maintain this blog.

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