In between judging two writing competitions I have been working on my historical fiction about the life of Clara Saunders. I have been busy. And I have been thinking about just how tough and resilient those early pioneers of the goldfields were – especially the women.
We don’t tend to hear much about the women in remote desert goldfields. Possibly because they were too busy simply surviving from one day to the next to write down their experiences. The weather was extremely hot and dry.There was very little wild life that they could catch and kill when they ran out of food. Water was so scarce that, if you couldn’t pay 2 shillings and 6 pence (about $26) per gallon (4.56 litres) you had to go without. Many of the early prospectors died of thirst, or typhoid from drinking contaminated water. In those days it was cheaper to buy a bottle of Champagne. The story goes that two prospectors pushing further east looking for gold came across a water hole. They found no water in it, but two skeletons lay in the bottom of the hole. A billy-can made from a kerosine tin with the top cut out, and a twist of wire for a handle, lay beside them. Enquiries were made but no one ever found out who the two men were.
Men outnumbered women by a thousand to one in those first few weeks that 14 Year old Clara lived at Fly Flat. In other areas women wrote letters, but that was a luxury for Clara. There was no regular mail service and the road ended in Coolgardie. If you found time to write a letter, in between struggling to survive, you then had to also find someone who was travelling back to Southern Cross, the only town in a 167 mile radius. There are lots of tall tales and dubious yarns written by men on the goldfields. These yarns are full of daring deeds, survival of the fittest and drinking competitions. A woman’s voice was rarely heard and even more rarely written down and preserved.
Notes from the Memories of Clara Saunders, now held in the Battye Library, is a rare document indeed.