front banner


In July of the year 1852 Theophilus at the age of 29 years with his young wife Susan aged only 19 years together with their new son Thomas, then aged only one year, joined the mad rush of humanity heading for the Australian goldfields. On 3rd July, 1852 the young Sterry family boarded the 707 ton ship 'The Helen' at Gravesend, along with 263 other immigrants. The master was John Forster. According to the ship's manifest, Theophilus and Susan could both read and write and were "on their own account": that is, their fares over were paid by the Australian government but they did not have any paid employment arranged for them on arrival.

Gold was discovered in Australia first in Bathurst New South Wales and then, in even larger quantities, in Ballarat, Victoria in 1851. By the end of that year the news had reached Europe.

Britain's year of goldfever was 1852. No fewer than 86,000 people sailed from Britain to Australia in that year, followed by nearly as many in 1853 and 1854.

People beseiged shipping offices to beg for a place on any old hulk which might take them to the promised land. (Who's Master? Who's Man: Australia in the Victorian Age, Michael Cannon (1971) p.156"

"Thousands who had resisted the call of the Californian gold rush in 1849 did not resist the call of Port Phillip in Britain's year of gold fever, 1852. They boarded sailing ships at Gravesend and Liverpool and Plymouth with their own provisions for three or five months at sea, mostly young men who would never see parents or England again, and drifted with the wind into the oceans in one of the great migrations of the age.

To win gold was the only honest chance millions of people had of bettering themselves, of gaining independence, of storing money for old age or sickness, of teaching their children to read or write. The 1840s had been a decade of revolution and misery and famine in Europe, and now across the globe was a gigantic lottery in which all had a chance and the strong-armed labourer the highest chance. Gold was the magic formula in an age without football pools or state lotteries or social services. Moreover, gold had an intrinsic attraction to a generation that handled gold as currency, knew its touch and beauty, and had that love of sovereigns that made the miser of fiction counting his bag of sovereigns a convincing reality.

But for the thousands who boarded ship at English ports the long sea trip to Australia was more dangerous than life on the goldfields. Hundreds of young men were buried at sea, sewn in their hammocks, in each year of the gold trek. Heavily laden sailing ships ran aground on the Australian coast and bodies were tossed in the surf for days after. Men went mad with the boredom of five months at sea, with no sight of land." (The Rush That Never Ended, Geoffery Blainey, 1978, p.36)

Conditions on board ships headed for Australia had gradually begun improving in the 1840's and the trip out by the 1850's now only took three months. However, with the coming of gold, conditions deteriorated again as gold-seekers were prepared to try and board any ship in their scramble to get to the gold fields and unscrupulous operators were able to ignore more recent regulations.

Married couples' accommodation in steerage.

Couples were allocated a sleeping space of three feet by six feet between them. Very young children were expected to also share the space. The double storey bunk arrangement left about 18 inches of headroom. A dividing plank 23 inches high separated each couple. The area was difficult to ventilate and port holes often had to be closed because of their closeness to the water level, especially in rough weather. No Plimsoll Line in those days! Few lights were allowed because of the risk of fire and none were kept burning beyond evening. The male toilets were outside on the main deck!

The basic diet was salted beef and pork, dried potatoes and rice. Rations were doled out once a week and meat, twice. Although a cook oversaw the ship's galley, usually located on the main deck, emigrants were expected to do much of their own cooking. But fresh water was always a problem.

Entertainment on board was rather limited. However, dancing on warm evenings up on the main deck was encouraged and religious services were a welcome diversion. A teacher was usually elected from amongst the emigrants to teach the children basic reading and writing. Men were occasionally permitted to sea bathe and shoot or trap sea birds as sport.

Immigrant ships were overcrowded, unhygienic and uncomfortable. In September 1852 a ship similar to the "Helen" arrived with nearly 900 immigrants on board. A total of eighty-eight passengers on board the "Bourneuf" were reported by the captain as having died by the time the ship reached Geelong in Victoria.

"Five women had died of consumption, puerperal fever, or been lost overboard. Of the 180 children under seven years of age who embarked, nearly half died of diarrhoea, measles, and other complaints … Arrangements for hygiene were primitive or non-existent. The main deck leaked, so that the two migrant decks were usually damp. The water-closets (toilets) were 'of inferior construction and leaky'… The upper emigrant deck had a 'disagreeable smell' while the lower deck was dark and 'difficult to ventilate'. There was insufficient hospital accommodation or spare bedding, so that infected mattresses had to be used again. The matron was almost useless 'owing to physical want of activity or energy', while Surgeon McKevit was accused by the passengers of being 'so grossly intoxicated that he could not attend to his duty'…" (Who's Master? Who's Man: Australia in the Victorian Age, Michael Cannon (1971) pp159-160")

There were thirty deaths recorded on 'The Helen' of whom 23 were children under seven years. Most are recorded as dying simply of 'fever and sore throat'. Five appear to have been born on board. A daughter, Eliza, is listed as born on the ship to Theophilus and Susan on the way out. However, she is never heard of again. Presumably she died on the way out although she is not listed amongst those who died on the ship. Perhaps this was an omen. Theophilus and his young family were not destined to make their fortune in their new found home land. Their story was rather to be a sad and tragic one.

But all this would have been forgotten in the excitement when the ship finally came in sight of the Australian shore. "Mothers holding up babies to look at the shore, men shaking the hands of men to whom they had not spoken in months, men in tears as they thought of the wide waste of water severing them from loves and homes, young men shouting and leaping, grey-haired men throwing up hats: all envisaging a fortune and a quick return to Britain." (op.cit. Blainey p 36)

The sight coming into a harbour caged by the masts of ships would have been spectacular. Victorian ports had never been so busy. In Port Melbourne in May 1853 twenty ships arrived from London, twenty-three from other British ports, seventeen from the United States, seven from India and Mauritius, two from Cape of Good Hope, and they joined a fleet of ketches and schooners arriving daily from Australasian ports.

But there was chaos again when immigrants finally landed in Australia. There was no effective reception, health or welfare organisation when the ships docked and immigrants were largely left to fend for themselves as best they could. By September 1852 the port authorities in Melbourne (Victoria) had ceased to even attempt to record deaths on board ships arriving because so many of their staff had left for the gold diggings.

If the trip out wasn't bad enough, when the immigrants arrived they had to find shelter and food and prepare for the treck inland to the goldfields.

"Many passengers had brought with them an extraordinary range of impedimenta: wheelbarrows, camp beds, chamber pots, umbrellas, mosquito nets, patent lamps, pistols and so on … Hundreds were forced to throw their bulkier possessions overboard rather than pay exorbitant landing costs demanded by local operators .. small boats circled around newly arrived ships selling fresh food and liquor at enormous prices and offered to take passengers ashore … Luggage was dumped on wharves where it was often pillaged or left exposed to all weathers …" (Who's Master? Who's Man: Australia in the Victorian Age, Michael Cannon (1971) p.163"

The young Sterry immigrants arrived in November, 1852 at Portland, a minor port to the west of the major ports of Melbourne and Geelong. Portland then would have had a population of only about 2000. Prior to the discovery of gold, Portland had established itself as mainly a wool port, exporting 6674 bales of wool in the years 1850-51. Most of the wool went straight to London. It was not a port for free settlers. That is until gold. The first immigrant ship arrived in June, 1852. But during 1853 alone, one hundred vessels entered the port! (Portland 1800 to 1920, A Synopsis, E.W. Harvey & N.F. Learmouth (1966) pp20-23) Between 1851 and 1857 thirty eight ships immigrant ships sailed into Portland direct from England carrying some 11,000 passengers. Theophilus and Susan were amongst some of the first.

Will and Liz
What did Theophilus look like? Perhaps like
his son William. Photo taken circa
1890 with his wife, Elizabeth Watt.

Once the ship anchored in Portland harbour, the passengers had fourteen days on board in which to try and find work. The ship would have flown a red flag to indicate it still had passengers on board that were looking for work. Any single females on board would have been taken ashore and housed in the Immigration Depot.

They would have had to try and find accommodation in an overcrowded, chaotic port and then make the trek, either by foot or bullock and dray. (However cartage rates at this time were 60 pounds a ton or even higher! The young Sterry family probably walked or if they were lucky had been able to afford a handcart or wheelbarrow. Or they may have 'hitched' a ride on a bullock dray with supplies for the goldfields or a farmer returning after having brought down a load of wool to be exported to London.) Along with hundreds of others, they had to face mudded roads to the goldfields, several days away. They may have been lucky enough to find a room in Portland, or else, like hundreds of others, may have just slept in the open air or under canvas sheets on the docks or open fields, under bridges or table-tops in inns. And this was the season of persistent spring rains! Shanty "canvas towns" sprang up until government officials told then to move on. Many immigrants who were lucky enough to survive the journey out either spent all their saving in the struggle to exist while attempting to get to the diggings or finally succumbed to the "miasmic fevers of the rain-sodden township". (op. cit. Cannon: p.163) In Portland, there was a "tent city" set up on the corner of Bentinck and Gawler Streets. (Personal correspondence, Bev Rundell, Hon. Secretary, Portland Family History Group Inc.)

Like many other Australian towns gripped by 'gold fever', many officials had left their posts and law and order was in danger of breaking down. Rather cryptically, the notes for 1852 in the Portland 1800 to 1920 reference above state, "Five foot police and the only two mounted troopers left for the diggings."

Theophilus Sterry, straight from Suffolk, England in the spring of 1852 was one of tens of thousands who hurried along the rutted road to Castlemaine, anxious lest the richest gold be gone, anxious for his safety in forests where bushrangers and rogues watched from the foliage. Theophilus probably wore a broad, battered straw or cabbage tree hat, a loose blue shirt and corduroy or moleskin trousers. Big beards were also popular. He almost certainly would have had a pistol in his belt to protect himself and his family from bushrangers. He probably would have had a swag (rolled up blankets or tent) strapped across his shoulders and some pots, tin saucepans, pipkins (small earthenware pots) of divers shape swinging off his waist. He would have also needed a pick, a shovel, an axe, and clothing for himself and his family. Susan probably had to mainly look after their young son Thomas who was of course only about two years old.

Travelling would have been slow and difficult with a wife and young family. It rained and fires had to be lit with with wet wood. Sleep would have been difficult, steam rising from wet blankets and their feet cold and swollen in boots worn all night. After more than a week, they would have tramped into Castlemaine for the luxury of a bed of gum-leaves and a tent of calico and rags and the hope of fortune.

"Castlemaine, or Forest Creek as it was first called, lay at the foot of Mount Alexander. Ballarat could not compete with Mount Alexander, and it is doubtful if any goldfield could have equalled Mount Alexander within six feet of the surface. A name meaningless to Victorians today but magical to millions of Englishmen a century ago, the granite Mount sat like a lion above the hills of Castlemaine, less than forty miles north of Ballarat."

"Diggers who had energy to break the Sabbath by climbing Mount Alexander late in 1851 saw at a glance the sweep of this huge goldfield. To south and west they saw white tents, mounds of yellow clay on yellow grass, blue smoke of diggers' camp fires, tracks winding through the scrub, the diggings of Fryer's Creek, Forest Creek (Chewton), Campbell's Creek, Sailor's Gully, Castlemaine, Ranter's Gully and Cobbler's Gully. The diggings spread over fifteen square miles at the foot of Mount Alexander.

A first hand account by James Robertson in about November, 1852 provides a colourful description of Forest Creek:

"It was sight! Mounds of earth lying beside holes presented the dismal appearance of a graveyard, men washing dirt in tubs, carrying its colour on their skin, hair, hats, trousers and boots, miserable-looking low tents their places of refuge. Where water (always scarce on the Castlemaine gold fields-ed.) was to be seen it was a puddle. The whole scene to a new chum was one of unspeakable squalor ..." (Records of the Castlemaine Pioneers, The Castlemaine Ass. Of Pioneers & Old Residents (1972) p 47.)

It was not, however, the extent of these fields that enticed gold-seekers, nor their closeness to Melboume. The richness and shallowness of the gold was the bait. Men found nuggets camouflaged by dust on the surface of the soil. They scraped away eight to twelve inches of black soil and found gold studding the clay. They dug three or four feet into the clay and found nuggets of gold wedged into cracks in the slate.

"There were 25,000 people on the Forest Creek diggings by March 1852. The main watercourses were lined with men working at their puddling-tubs and cradles. Mostly they lived in tents, which numbered many hundreds.

What a colourful scene it must have been. By day, hundreds of tents; the heaps of freshly-dug, ochre-tinted mullock at the shaftheads ... There was quite a large sprinkling of sailors in their rather colourful garb, many of these wearing the short, tarred pigtail. Many observers compared the scene to a gigantic ant-hill in its concentrated activity. Another said it reminded him of a vast cemetery, with its hundreds of mounds. As can be imagined, the surrounding trees were felled to furnish timber for the shafts and drives and fuel for the cooking fires.

At night the detail was blurred, but the hundreds of camp-fires and, here and there, an illuminated tent, must have made the scene a fine one. One observer, an old follower of Wellington, compared it to the military encampments he had seen during the Peninsular War." (Castlemaine: A Golden Harvest, R. Bradfield (1993) p16.)

A Gold License, issued 30 June 1853. Diggers had to keep these flimsy bits of paper in their pockets due to the constant "license hunting" by the troopers. If found on the diggings without a licence, diggers were fined or hauled away and chained to a log. (There were of course no prisons in the early days of Castlemaine.) The licences became a cause for much dispute on the Victorian goldfields, leading to the famous "Eureka Stockade" at Ballarat where diggers finally defied the troopers. Although this protest was easily overpowered by the well-armed troopers (and several diggers were shot dead), the licence system was, as a result, finally reviewed, with the licence fee gradually reduced and at last removed altogether.

A pound weight of gold a day is small remuneration for a party,' La Trobe, the governor of the new colony of Victoria, wrote home, and some parties found five and six pounds a day. In seven months government escorts alone carried to Melbourne and Adelaide 2.4 million pounds stirling of gold from the fabulous Mount Alexander. What men carried privately in saddle bags and hidden purses, what they concealed in wool drays or the harness of horses in order to evade thieves and bushrangers, is not known." (op.cit. Blainey p 36)

Thomas Graham describes the gold waggons departing from Castlemaine in 1853:

"...the starting of the cavalcade from the Camps had a somewhat imposing appearance. There stood the waggon with all the boxes of gold piled on it, and four good horses attached, the mounted troopers in their smart uniforms (and all well armed), in front and rear and on each side of the loaded waggon. When all was ready for a start the officers in charge gave the word of command and away they dashed at a rattling pace towards Melbourne." " (Records of the Castlemaine Pioneers, The Castlemaine Ass. Of Pioneers & Old Residents (1972) p 84.)

From primitive beginnings, Castlemaine soon developed into a substantial township.
In the 1860's, many thought that Castlemaine would become Victoria's second city after Melbourne.
Here is a view of Hargraves Street, Castlemaine, looking south in 1861. The railway arrived in 1862.

Theophilus must have made enough money by 1861 to purchase 1 rod of land in Castlemaine.

Victoria Government Gazette [Pg 1636]
The following Title Deeds have, since the 14th instant, been forwarded for delivery at the Receipt and Pay Offices undermentioned, on receipt of the established fees.
Lands and Survey Office,
Melbourne, 22nd August, 1861
Tuesday August 27th 1861
At the Receipt and Pay Office, Castlemaine
253 Sterry Theophilus, 1r[od], Castlemaine

But Theophilus' apparent good fortune did not last long. The early Rate Records and official assessment records for Castlemaine tell the story - and the tragedy - of the young Sterry family. Theophilus Sterry and family first lived in a "tent" on crown land opposite Section 17 Allotment 4. (This was subdivided in 1864 and appears as Section 50. It is bound by present day Lyttleton Street, Urquhart Street, an extension of Templeton Street to the east -which was never completed- and Fletcher Street (which was never connected to Lyttleton Street. Few houses stand there today as it is too hilly and rocky.) By 1862 Theophilus had two cottages (perhaps one was the original 'tent' - a tent was any structure that didn't have walls of wood or stone) in the same area (the land had still not been subdivided) which were valued at 30 pounds. He was then 32 shillings in arrears. By 1864 the valuation was 20 pounds and arrears had risen to sixty two shillings. By 1865 the valuation is down to 15 pounds stirling. (Research provided here and below by Castlemaine Historical Society Inc and Malcolm Blume in particular is gratefully acknowledged.)

But 1866 was to be the real horror year for the Sterry family.

In November,1854 Theophilus and Susan had another son, William; in 1857, a further son, Edward James; and in 1859, a daughter, Eliza Sophia. All were born at Castlemaine. In the June 21, 1866 edition of "The Mount Alexander Mail" appears the following funeral notice:

"The Friends of the late Mr Theophilus Sterry are invited to follow his remains to the Campbells Creek Cemetary. The Funeral will leave his late residence, Lyttleton Street, near the Primitive Methodist Chapel, This Day, 21st instant at Two o'clock.

E.P. Newcombe, Undertakers
W.B. Cairnes, Manager

A.O.F (Ancient Order of Forresters) The Members of Court Castlemaine, 3350 are respectfully invited to follow the remains of our late Brother Theophilus STERRY to the Campbells Creek Cemetary, This Day at Two o'clock.

Henry W. Green, Secretary"

And in the June 28 edition of the same year, the following Item of News appeared:

"A few days ago we noticed that typhus fever was prevalent on the district. A death from this painful disease has occurred in the Hospital, a little boy named STERRY (this probably would have been Edward -ed.) being the victim. His father and brother (this was probably in fact his sister, Eliza Sophia-ed) died of the same complaint about a week ago, and another brother (probably Thomas, who survived but died later at the age of only forty years, having married but produced no offspring-ed) now lies in the Hospital suffering from an attack of the fever."

The graves of Theophilus, Edward and Eliza have been located at the Castlemaine (Campbell Creek) cemetery. They were all buried in the same grave: 631E, in the Anglican section. Susan Sterry paid two pounds for the 8x4 foot plot. Eliza was buried at 12 noon on 29 May (aged 7); Theophilus, at 4pm on 20 June (aged 39); and Edward, at 4pm on 28 June (aged 9). There is no headstone or even marker to identify the grave today.

In the same year, Susan Sterry lost her husband and two of her children. As a young widow of 35 years with two boys aged fifteen and twelve, she now owed in back rates 9 pounds on real estate valued at 15 pounds!

And what became of the Sterry family after this terrible year? According to the Rate Records, someone came to Susan's assistance, possibly the Society of Forresters who were a benevolent society. In 1867 the arrears are paid off and the rates after that seem to have been waived, probably because she was a widow. Up until 1872, Mrs Sterry is listed as the owner/occupier of a cottage on Section 50. However, by 20th February. 1873, no one is listed as 'person rated', the valuation has reduced to 2 pounds and the owner is just 'Sterry' not Mrs Sterry. Susan has obviously moved from the cottage. In 1874 and up until 1897, the ratepayer is a P. Furlong, Clerk and the owner is still Sterry. It would appear that Sterry sold to Furlong between Feb 1898 and 1899 and by 1899 there is an Allotment number #20.

Lyttleton St, Castlemaine 1861.
(From Castlemaine: from Camp to City, 1835-1900, Geoff Hocking, (1994).

Lyttleton St

Section 50 is on the left hand side beyond the cross street (Urquhart St) going up the hill. One of the cottages near the clump of trees facing Lyttleton St was probably where the Sterrys lived.

Sterry House

This allotment number corresponds to the second house from the corner of Littleton and Urquehart St and the house still standing there today is very likely the same house that the Sterrys lived in. The present day owners have been contacted but cannot verify whether the house belonged at one time to the Sterry family. The current land title deeds only name owners after 1900 and the earlier mining title deeds have been lost. No physical remnants of the Sterrys have been located.

Son Thomas at the age of 25 years married a Julia Bonham at Ironbark, Bendigo, Victoria in August, 1876.

Son William at the age of 28 years married an Elizabeth Watt at Goulburn, NSW in May 1882. They later returned to Melbourne. The oddity of marrying apparently so far from where they or any of their families lived may be explained by the fact that the minister who married them was the same minister who baptised Elizabeth in Tasmania many years earlier. Presumably Elizabeth had a particular liking for this particular minister.

Son Thomas died in August 1891 at the age of 40 years in Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria. Susan is listed on death certificate, maiden name "Hetty Cousins". Is she dead by then and no one knew her correct name. Or did she call herself "Hetty" in her later years?

Son William had a number of offspring: Arthur (Collingwood, Melbourne, 1883), Ethel (Fitzroy, Melbourne, 1885), Elsie (Fitzroy, Melbourne, 1885), Frederick (Fitzroy, Melbourne, 1888), Leslie (Albury, NSW, 1894), Ernest (Wagga, NSW, 1898), Lillian (Wagga, NSW, 1899), Marion (Wagga, NSW, 1901), Daphne (Wagga, NSW, 1904) but only three of them survived beyond infancy: Arthur, Elsie and Fred. None of the children of course knew a grandfather.

William died in Wagga in April, 1909 also at a relatively young age of 55 years. William also never knew any of his grandchildren as he died before any of them were born. William was a cook by trade in Melbourne and had a chain of pastry shops. But he had to give it up because of a lung condition. He moved to Albury and then Wagga, taking a large quantity of furniture and other wares with him from Melbourne by paddle steamer. These goods formed the basis of his new business in new and second hand furniture. For many years William ran a large emporium in Wagga.

And what became of Susan? The last mention of her is on William's death certificate where she is listed as "Susan Greene", maiden name unknown. Presumably she had died by this. But did she remarry a "Mr Greene"? Did the person who supplied the information get it wrong? There is no record of such a marriage in either NSW or Victoria and no record of her death, either as a Susan Sterry or Susan Greene in either State. Perhaps we shall never know.

Robert Sterry 27th September, 1997