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Henry Lawson underestimated the power of the camera when he asked wistfully: "Oh, who would paint a goldfield, and limn the picture right?" He was remembering the Gulgong goldfields of the 1870s—but forgetting a photographer, Beaufoy Merlin, who had limned the picture of those roaring years on thousands of negatives.
MERLIN 'S photographs, recovered from a Chatswood shed where they lay neglected for more than 40 years, will be shown at the Mitchell Library next month.
They belong to a collection gathered in the 1870s by Bern-hard Otto Holtermann, the Hill End miner who found the world's largest specimen of reef gold in 1872.
B.O. Holtermann with the Holtermann gold nugget, Hill End, New South Wales, ca.1872 https://nla.gov.au:443/tarkine/nla.obj-148020196
Bayliss, Charles & Merlin, Beaufoy & American & Australasian Photographic Company (Sydney, N.S.W.). 1872, The Holtermann gold nugget, Hill End, New South Wales, ca.1872
After this find— a 630lb lump of metal which yielded 11,000 ounces of gold—Holtermann could afford to hire a photographer, Beaufoy Merlin, to gather material for an exhibition of Australian photographs which he planned to hold in Britain.
Reef gold from the Star of Hope mine, Hill End, New South Wales, ca. 1872
Merlin, who had already taken hundreds of photographs in Gulgong during 1871, accepted this commission and took his photographer's caravan to Hill End.
Bayliss, Charles & Merlin, Beaufoy & American & Australasian Photographic Company (Sydney, N.S.W.). 1872, Dead tree trunk with pigeoncotes suspended by local storekeepers, and the horse-drawn mobile photographic studio of Beaufoy Merlin to the left, Mudgee Road, Tambaroora, New South Wales, ca.1872
Although his health was failing, Merlin worked hard at Hill End before returning to Sydney in April, 1873. Five months later, at the age of 43, he died of "an inflammation of the lungs."
Holtermann family picnic Merlin's photographic assistant Charles Bayliss, standing, Middle Harbour photographed with Holtermann's 1878 stereoscopic Attewill camera
His assistant, an able photographer named Charles Bayliss, carried on Holtermann's project during the next three years by photographing streets, buildings and industries in Sydney, Melbourne, Ballarat, Geelong, Carcoar and Dubbo.
Men standing in front of gold crusher battery, Carcoar New South Wales, ca. 1872
Bayliss's photographs were fine examples of large wet-plate photography; but Merlin's smaller negatives taken on the goldfields of Gulgong and Hill End form the more interesting section of the Holtermann collection. Bayliss photographed panoramas of cities; Merlin focused his wet plate camera on people.
Glass plate negatives of Sydney Harbour from the Holtermann residence, St. Leonards, 1870-1875
Men and women in front of Sportmans Arms Hotel, next to Barnes Mudgee Store and Plunkett and Co. auctioneers, Mayne Street, Gulgong, New South Wales, ca. 1872
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Story Of Find
In 1876, Holtermann success-fully exhibited many of these photographs in England. They attracted much attention; but little was heard of them after Holtermann's death.
Credit for recovering the photographs belongs to Mr. Vyvyan Curnow, a member of the staff of the Australasian Photo-
["There is the genially ferocious butcher, holding knife and steel and wearing a striped shirt . . ." One of the Holtermann photographs of Mayne Street, Gulgong, in 1871.]
Review, a magazine published by Kodak (Australasia) Pty. Ltd.
During 1951 Mr. Curnow was preparing an article on the Holtermann collection. He found some photographs from the col-lection at the Mitchell Library and was told that Holtermann's daughter was still living at Chatswood.
In December, Mr. Curnow visited the Holtermann home and found that Mrs. Holtermann had died two months before. Her son, Mr. Bernhard Holtermann, told Mr. Curnow that there were some photographs in a shed behind the house.
Mr. Curnow and Mr. Holtermann broke the lock on the shed and found the Holtermann collection — 3,000 negatives neatly packed in cedar boxes.
Mr. Holtermann decided to donate the negatives to the Mitchell Library. Kodak (Australasia) Pty. Ltd. developed and enlarged selected negatives which will be exhibited during March at the library.
Burke, Keast & Burke, Walter. 1956, Australasian photo-review Baker & Rouse, Sydney
Vol. 60 No. 5 (1 May 1953)
The 1870s, as Henry Lawson has written, were years "when finds of wondrous treasure set all the South ablaze."
Three men and horse outside butcher's shop with bark roof, Gulgong, New South Wales, ca. 1872
The calm solitude of Gulgong was broken in April, 1870, when a man named Tom Saunders gal-loped down to the police station at the Two Mile Flat to report the discovery of gold.
Gold miners on minehead, Gulgong New South Wales ca. 1872
By June, 500 people had camped on the diggings at Adam's Lead, and by January of the following year the population had grown to 3,000.
Other discoveries followed at Happy Valley, Caledonian and Canadian Leads and Home Rule, and by the end of 1872 there were 20,000 people on the fields.
1872, Men and women outside of Hanley & Blewitt's Queensland Horse Bazaar, livery and bait stable located beside the Harp of Erin Hotel, Gulgong, New South Wales
Within four years the miners had won 300,000 ounces of gold which fetched £3/17/6 an ounce. The name Gulgong — corrupted to Goolgong, Gilgong, Gulegong or Golgong — was on every miner's tongue.
Bernard Otto Holtermann, with an unlocated 160 x 96.5 cm glass plate negative, 1879, from carte-de-visite by Loescher & Petsch, Berlin, 1879, held by National Parks & Wildlife Service, Hill End, Beyers’ Family Album.
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Hub Of World!
"Why, man, there is nothing like it!" said a young English clergyman on first seeing the gold town. "The scene from here is immense, exhilarating. Yes, Gul-gong is the hub of the world!"
Hill End c.1872
"And another clergyman from Sydney: "It fills me with amazement. The order and good temper of these rough-looking men, the continual motion, the noise, the glare and glitter in your main thoroughfare, the picturesqueness of it all and the untold possibilities."
Two women outside bark house, with two two-wheeled drays on the left, Gulgong, New South Wales, ca. 1872 [picture]. (nla.gov.au)
For all this, Gulgong was a primitive community. One visitor described the town of poles and box-bark as the ugliest-looking town he ever saw. "It might have been picturesque, but it was abominably mean looking." he said.
A family standing in front of a slab hut with bark roof, Gulgong, New South Wales, ca.
A family standing with horse in front of their hut, Gulgong, New South Wales, ca. 1872 https://nla.gov.au:443/tarkine/nla.obj-147977830
Man and children outside bark hut, Gulgong area, New South Wales, ca. 1872
Ugly or picturesque, Gulgong and Hill End were alive and vigorous. The cry of "Rush oh!" had attracted Bulgarians, Greeks, Scots, Americans, Canadians, Irishmen and Chinese, as well as native-born Australians.
Men in front of the Bank of New South Wales, Gulgong, New South Wales, ca. 1872
1872, Five men, two women and two children outside Denison's Black Lead Hotel, Gulgong, New South Wales
It was a long trip from Sydney to Gulgong; but the trip was worthwhile for hundreds of miners. They travelled by train from Sydney to Wallerawang, by mail coach to Mudgee, and by Tom Tarrant's coach or horse-back to Gulgong.
Woman and three children outside J.A. Courtis Cabinet Maker and Undertaker building on Medley Street, Gulgong, New South Wales, ca. 1872
Gulgong's 30 hotels did a roaring trade in beer and whisky. One miner gained a reputation by taking 80 nips of whisky in a day; another achieved the same fame by drinking 10 gallons of beer.
Six women and one man outside Margaret Keenan's Diggers' Arms Hotel, Gulgong, New South Wales, ca. 1872
The click of billiard balls came from saloons and the sound of concertinas, accordions, flutes and tin whistles filled the night air. Miners crowded into Sawbridge's "cafe chantant" to be served cafe au lait by girls dressed in shorts and tights.
Group outside D. Wright's Queensland Hotel, Gulgong, New South Wales, ca. 1872
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The theatres offered burlesque ("Aladdin the Wonderful Scamp"), drama ("Oliver Twist") and lectures (Mrs. Constable re-plying to "Edith O'Gorman, the Escaped Nun"). But housing conditions were poor. Most miners were content to live in bark shanties for a few years before moving on to another field.
Mother and two children outside weatherboard house with bark roof, Gulgong, New South Wales, ca. 1872 https://nla.gov.au:443/tarkine/nla.obj-147985545
New South Wales was swollen with the profits of gold and wool at the start of the 1870s and its citizens could feel the latent vigour of their new continent stir-ring around them. Cockiness and self-confidence are perhaps the most striking features of Merlin's photographs.
There is the genially ferocious butcher, holding knife and steel and wearing a striped shirt, leather apron and Stetson hat.
A customer, striped-trousered legs apart, thumbs in belt and hat pulled down over one eye at a jaunty angle, stands grinning outside L. J. Hart's tobacco shop at Hill End. A mother stands with her children outside a rude bark hut which she has tried to improve with lace curtains.
Gold miners pose at their mine with the Clerk of Petty Sessions, L.S. Donaldson and the flag indicating a strike, Gulgong area
Merlin took the only known photograph of an Australian gold-strike. The members of the syndicate are standing in front of the forge, their leader holding a pan in which three nuggets are clearly visible. A neatly dressed mining warden's clerk, who has obviously just arrived, holds a shovel and looks officiously at the camera. Behind the forge, near the shaft, a red flag has been hoisted to indicate that a strike has been made.
Fossickers still chance upon gold at Gulgong today; but the time of red flags has passed. "But golden days are vanished, and altered is the scene," wrote Henry Lawson, "The diggings are deserted, the camping-grounds are green."
But Beaufoy Merlin and Bernhard Holtermann have helped to preserve the picture.