I’ve worked as a lawyer and also served in the armed forces so I am eminently well qualified to write about war and soldiers. I understand that world! I can knock over a book set in the English Civil War as if it were an integral part of my DNA, but hard rock gold mining…? This requires hard rock research!
So why on earth would I choose to set a series of books around a gold mine and how, did I go about researching the technical aspects of nineteenth century mining?
I am fortunate (some would say… blessed) to be married to a mechanical engineer. Now if any of you have a mechanical engineer in your life, you will know what I mean when I say they know everything about everything… and they really do.
Mr S, my engineer, comes from a long line of tin miners in Cornwall. We have visited Geevor Tin Mine in Cornwall where his ancestors worked for generations and nothing quite beats the experience of going down into those hand-hewn tunnels. I can see why they emigrated to Australia! Sharp eyed readers will note the odd reference to Geevor in the book. (see pic of author in Geevor Mine below)
The instinct to fossick for gold is in Mr S’s blood and that is how we first came to Walhalla one February many years ago, armed with gold pans and ambition. Needless to say, in all our many trips to Walhalla he has never found a speck of gold… except once and that incident still rankles. (He found a lump of quartz and broke it open… being a good host he gave it to the young tourist who was with him who threw it away claiming it had to be fools gold. Every time we go back to Walhalla Mr S looks for that lump of quartz. C’est la vie.)
So, I have resident expert on all things mechanical and gold related and to give him credit, he’s been brilliant… in fact never has he been so engaged with anything I have written as these Maiden’s Creek books. So much so that he ‘suggested’ it would be wonderful to show the world that mechanical engineers are true hero material. After 35 years of marriage, I am still starry eyed about this wonderful man so I agreed and this is why the hero of THE GOLDMINER’S SISTER, Alec McLeod, is an engineer.
But, between us, there were a number of times I nearly gave up on poor Alec. When Ian (Alec’s brother) says to him:
‘She’s strong and healthy and properly raised. That’s all you need in a wife.’
‘No it’s not. I need a companion who shares my interests.’
Ian laughed. ‘Machinery and mines? Really, Alec?’
‘My point exactly, Ian.’
That was me, silently screaming at my hero…
However, he comes good in a solid, engineer way and turned into one of my favourite heroes. Is he modelled on Mr S? Not really… Mr S is not a tall, good looking Scotsman (Mr S is a tall, good looking South Australian!).
However even a detailed blow by blow description of the gold mining process (see my eyes glaze over?) is no substitute for seeing the real thing in action and, being a visual person, I took myself off for a day’s research at our fabulous Sovereign Hill in Ballarat. Apart from indulging myself in a little ride in a coach (authenticity is very important), I braved the wonderful volunteers who keep the authentic gold processing equipment running. These men are fanatics… they live for their steam driven engines and to have a tame visitor who seems genuinely interested in steam boilers- see pic below-, piston engines and battery stampers is their idea of heaven (cue lots more explanation!).
I have to say SEEING these great machines in action is worth a million words. It has left me in awe of our nineteenth century forebears and their inventiveness. What staggers me more than anything is how they moved what were ENORMOUS pieces of heavy equipment into the inaccessible sites of the Walhalla goldfields. I give you as an example… the wheel from the Morning Star mine (pic below) can still be seen and has, amazingly, survived bushfires. Walking in to get to it is no mean feat today, let alone carrying it in piece by piece and assembling.
Much of the equipment for the Walhalla mines was shipped to Port Albert, loaded on to bullock drays and hauled over the mountains. No train reached Walhalla until the early 1900s by which time the mines were in decline. And I can't go without mentioning the fabulous guides at Walhalla's own LONG TUNNEL MINE (on which the Maiden's Creek Mine is closely based). They are so knowledgeable and so passionate about this amazing tribute to the tenacity of our forebears. If you get to Walhalla... put this top of your visiting list!
And mining was inherently dangerous. In THE POSTMISTRESS I touched on one of the risks of the hand drilling operation. In THE GOLDMINER’S SISTER, Alec worries about the new, more efficient pneumatic drills that are coming and he is right to be concerned. These drills would be nicknamed ‘the widow makers’ because the dust they produced killed so many miners. But by far the biggest risk to the mines were collapses and I spent some time researching one of Australia’s worst mine disasters, the Creswick Mine Disaster.
When the Australasian Mine collapsed in December 1882, 22 men lost their lives. And to get a taste of what it would have been liked to be a miner trapped in a mine, Sovereign Hill has a recreation of the Creswick Mine Disaster experience. Nothing, but nothing, beats a sensory experience – even though you may only be in the dark for a few seconds with rushing water coming at you…
The other joy at Sovereign Hill were the schools and being term time, they were in full swing with modern children at the desks and terrifying teachers in crinolines. I remember taking my own sons to a school there and they were very grateful to be schooled in modern times, although in some ways my own schooling of the 1960s hadn’t really progressed much further! The living museum provided me with plenty of material for Eliza’s school in Maiden’s Creek.
Even though I am writing about matters outside my direct experience, the wonderful thing about research is access to good books, knowledgeable people and, if you are lucky, hands-on three-dimensional experiences. I hope I was somewhat successful in bringing all of that together in the book but most of all I hope you love my schoolmistress heroine, Eliza and my engineer hero, Alec, as much as I do!