Tasmanian Times

Books

Forgotten Fearless Females

Paula Xiberras
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Clare Wright has only been to Tasmania once but she had a wonderful time and wonders to herself why she hasn’t visited more often planning to put that to ‘w-rights'(pardon the pun) by returning next year.

It’s thrilling to speak to Clare, as she looks at Tasmania from the approach of an historian, and sees in Tasmania, history co-existing alongside modernity in an easy balance. Whereas in other parts of Australia colonial history has been lost, Tasmania has, seemingly to Clare, remained in a time capsule. She says that walking around Tasmania with so many of its colonial buildings still in existence allows you imagine what it was like to live in Australia in a time long ago. The waterfront particularly is alive with the industry of the past.

Clare’s visit to Tasmania she says, was an evocative experience and she was pleasantly surprised by the lack of regulation afforded when she camped here with her children and also, the maturity of the powers that be, that saw them relax regulations on visitors.

The idea of regulation is visited however in Clare’s book ‘The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka’ she brings to light the story of the courageous female participants of Eureka, at the camp, working on the diggings as independent women sometimes ironically dressed as men, and as wives of the miners. It is in fact documented that one woman was killed in the rebellion.

The Tasmanian influence is documented with stories of women like Anastasia Withers, clearly nothing like her name which suggests a more fragile countenance. Instead Ms Withers was a Tasmanian of British extraction who was one of those responsible for sewing the Eureka flag.

Other stand outs are women like the entrepreneurial Sarah Hamner, a theatre manager who allowed her theatre, The Aldelphi, to be used for diggers meetings as they planned their rebellion and it was even sword props from her theatre that were used by the rebels.

There is an independence in woman like Sarah Hamner, where life on the Goldfields was a liberating time, as it was for a young lady like Harriet, who by cross dressing was able to be part of the digging and not be constricted by her femininity. For other woman, wives of the miners it was a hard slog especially those who were pregnant, because of lack of nutrition and medical care there was very high maternal mortality.

The Goldfields offered very little in terms of services and lack of rights together with the ‘oppressive’ licence festered rebellion

It was another courageous woman of the goldfield Catherine Bentley who gave Clare the desire to continue her research into the role of women at Eureka..

In fact she calls herself ‘an obsessive stalker’ of the Irish protestant,who immigrated to Australia with her sister, both girls married quite quickly and first make an appearance in Clare’s previous book ‘Beyond the ladies lounge’.

It was James Bentley, Catherine’s husband that obtained the first alcohol licence in June 1854.

The hotel was an elaborate structure was fashioned with ‘a vermilion gold bar’ and would be destroyed in a fire when the Scottish miner James Scobie was murdered. We know what it looked like because of the inventory made after its destruction, we know it contained band instruments, a bowling alley and stables.

In the frenetic aftermath of the murder of James Scobie Catherine is described as’ floating’ from the second floor, pregnant at the time, into the arms of the crowd below which further illustrates her courageousness and superhero qualities. After being exonerated from involvement in the murder of James Scobie she sought compensation for many years.

It’s important to remember Eureka wasn’t an entirely masculine movement but evolved from a ‘community of men, woman and children’ and that the fearless female faction was a strong and resilient one. An interesting example is how one woman hid a rebel miner under her skirts, perhaps illustrating the sheltering aspect of women as well as their warrior wisdom.

‘The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka’ by Clare Wright is out now published by Text Publishing.

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