Women on the Goldfields?!?

Part of the purpose of our work in colonial archaeology is to bring to light the stories of the people who are often left out of history books. In the nineteenth century, historical records were dominated by the stories of European men. Women, children, and non-Europeans aren’t given a voice, but they were there, and they formed a vital part of early colonial society. We’ve talked a bit before about some of these silenced people (the Chinese on the goldfields, the children in our colonial settlements), now it’s time to shine a spotlight on the women! 

It’s easy to think that life on the goldfields was completely male dominated. Stories of hard labour, brotherly camaraderie, and lone men in hidden valleys striking it rich are a part of the romanticised popular view of the goldfields. Women are rarely included in this picture – in fact in researching for this blog I have searched and searched for any photographs or sketches showing women on the Otago goldfields during the rushes, to no avail! Many men abandoned their wives, going to the goldfields alone in search of their fortunes, which added to the male-dominated nature of society there. The excerpts below are just a few of the notices from women deserted by men of the goldrush…

Deserting husbands, and anxious wives – adverts looking for lost men were common during the initial rushes. Top to bottom: Otago Witness (24th Oct 1863), Otago Daily Times (8th Oct 1862; 28th Feb 1863; 19th July 1864). All accessed via Papers Past.

If women are mentioned in our picture of goldfields life, popular culture would have us believe the majority of them were employed as prostitutes or brothel owners. Even the titles of books associated with the goldrush reflect this – I’m looking at you Steven Eldred-Grigg with your Diggers, Hatters and Whores. I’m currently watching (and loving) the TVNZ adaptation of the Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, which drew inspiration from Eldred-Grigg’s book. It’s fabulous, but it’s main female characters very much conform to this popular perception of goldfields life – one being almost a madame, the other forced into prostitution. 

It’s undoubtedly true that some women on the goldfields were sex-workers. Papers of the time are full of magistrates notices of women being charged with prostitution. But aside from this we know little of their lives. Like most of the men on the goldfields, the women generally had lower-class backgrounds. This means they were more than likely to be illiterate and unable to tell their own stories… and so we are much more likely to hear about their perceived misdemeanours and ‘unseemly’ behaviour than their everyday lives. The newspapers of the time upheld traditional nineteenth century values. Women breaking out of the traditional mould, like those who chose sex-work as a way of making an independent living, those who freely associated with the Chinese, or those who sold ‘sly grog’ (liquor without a licence), were not treated kindly in the press. Some of these women, and their ‘bad’ characters, were mythologised in derogatory place names – Drunkenwoman’s Gully near Poolburn for example. 

Scandalous women were often in the news for offences involving sly-grog, prostitution and generally being too rowdy. (Left top: Lake Wakatip Mail, 12th Sept 1863; Left bottom: Bruce Herald, 3rd Oct 1879; Right: Tua[eka Times 8th Sept 1880. All accessed via Papers Past)

Even the ‘respectable’ middle-upper class married women on the goldfields rarely had a voice in society. A rare exception to this is Susan Nugent Wood, the wife of a goldfields warden in Otago in the 1860s. In her writings we find stories of women left behind at diggings while their husbands go to try new claims, having to fight off the attentions of other men, or women marrying miners of poor character being betrayed and beaten by their men (these both in Waiting for the Mail). Her stories and essays show how worried she was about the women off ill-character on the goldfields, and she is constantly demanding that women to uphold the virtues of modesty, grace and domesticity even on the goldfields. Somewhat ironically, Mrs. Wood was herself considered slightly scandalous as a woman on the goldfields who had a clear public voice – she even dared to give lectures about her work, much to the astonishment of local papers at the time!

A woman who dared to lecture? What madness! (Otago Witness, 8th May 1869, from Papers Past)

It’s important to remember that the newspaper accounts never tell the full story and there were plenty of women on the goldfields whose lives were much more invisible. Often single women came to work at the goldfields hotels, as laundry maids, seamstresses, barmaids, dancing girls or housekeepers. These were independent young women, who made good wages, but worked extremely hard to do so.

Barmaids in particular were often the subject of unwanted attentions. In these articles at least, they seem to have had to be pretty clear in showing that they were not interested. (Left: Western Star, 3rd Aug 1878; Right: Western Star, 27th April 1878. Accessed via Papers Past)

Some of these women even became business owners, running local institutions like the Masonic Hotel in Lawrence. Usually these business owners were ‘respectable’ women, widowed and taking over their husband’s business, or with husbands who shared in the running of them. These women were business-savvy and unafraid to protect their own interests. In her excellent book “A History of New Zealand Women” Barbara Brookes recounts the story of Jessie McLeod, whose first hotel was closed due to its reputation for rowdiness, but who went on undeterred to reopen it, and continued to take no nonsense from the men around her as she did it!

Advertisements from the period show us that women were not just present but also active in business on the goldfields/the routes out to them. (top: Tuapeka Times, 11th Dec 1875; bottom: Tuapeka Times 4th March 1874. Accessed via Papers Past)

Women were so few on the goldfields that offers of marriage were quickly given to barmaids and housekeepers, and many left their positions to become wives to the diggers. There are some accounts that ‘ugly’ barmaids were advertised for as they were less likely to marry off and leave their work. I’ve been trying to find some of these adverts as examples, but the closest I’ve got is finding some hotels advertising for “middle aged” women. No mention of ugliness though, so I’m not sure how true this is … But the competition amongst the men on the goldfields for the few women there certainly existed.

Competition for female attention was a reality of life on the goldfields. Often at balls men would engage in “stag dancing” (where both parties dancing were male) for want of female partners (Cromwell Argus, 8th April 1873)

Unfortunately the wives of miners are perhaps the most difficult group to get at using historical records. As respectable, but lower-class, women they are rarely mentioned in papers. Their experiences are occasionally talked about in writings by the more literate women on the diggings though (like Susan Wood mentioned earlier).

As we carry on with the blog we’ll be working to bring the stories of the goldfields women to life, including by talking about the skeletal remains of female individuals from our goldfields sites. So watch this space for tales of women who were more than just objects of scandal! 

Charlotte King, 12th June 2020


There are some fabulous histories out there that bring to life the forgotten stories of women in colonial New Zealand. The works below are a great starting point:

Brookes, B. 2016. A History of New Zealand Women. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books

Paterson, L. & Wanhalla, A. 2017. He Reo Wāhine: Māori Women’s Voices from the Nineteenth Century. Auckland: Auckland University Press

Bishop, C. 2019. Women mean business: colonial businesswomen in New Zealand. Dunedin: Otago University Press.

Porter, F., and MacDonald, C. (Eds.) 1996. “My hand will write what my heart dictates”. The unsettled lives of women in nineteenth-century New Zealand as revealed to sisters, family and friends. Auckland, NZ: Auckland University Press

3 thoughts on “Women on the Goldfields?!?

  1. I enjoyed reading this article. I am researching one of those women you describe as “respectable but lower-class”. I recently discovered a 1900 Electoral Roll entry for my ancestor Jane Thomson Niven married to David Elles Ramsay Niven and she was living at Teo Oneroa on Preservation Inlet. You have to admire someone who would live in such isolation.


  2. So just fyi re Susan Nugent Wood- she is the grandmother of Evaline Skerrett who was known as princess Iwa and sung at King Georges coronation after leaving Bluff at 14 and never returning to NZ


    1. Amazing – thanks Jo! I had no idea of the link with Princess Iwa (another amazing kiwi woman). I looked into Susan Nugent Wood’s family tree – is it Lyella Skerett (nee. Nugent Wood) that there’s a link through?


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