Keast Burke
photographer, photo historian, editor of the Australian Photo-Review

 

A Web Site Dedicated to Keast Burke

Beaufoy Merlin

Gold And Silver (Australasian Photo-Review #3 1953)

cover  / portrait  / p-1  /  p-2  /  p-3   /  photos-1  /  photos-2  /  photos-3

Whilst exact dates remain uncertain, everything appears to have moved along as Merlin had planned. Some time in 1870, with the Victorian interests of "A. & A." in the hands of a very young but capable assistant, and one whom he had personally trained, Merlin set forth for that wider field which he had so long envisaged. We pause to wonder whether he could have had any anticipation of just what lay in store for him-a bare three years of life-span, but three years of crowded activity and of positive achievement. He could have had little inkling that his work in New South Wales would establish him as perhaps one of the greatest documentary photographers of all time.

The Sydney directories of 1871-1872 provide us with some information, listing the American & Australasian Photographic Company as being in business at 324 George Street, at 377 Riley St., and also at 11 Barrack St. Apart from that there is internal evidence to show that during portions of 1870-1871 he was carrying on with his outdoor photography in Sydney. Of special interest is the picture of the General Post Office, showing the building just completed, the scaffolding having been removed - this would be in 1870. Other photographs depict familiar harbour scenes, some of them most pleasantly 'pictorial' in their treatment, while others show the arrival and docking of sailing vessels.

But even as Merlin was setting up his 10" x 12" wet-plate camera along the quiet foreshores and on harbour vantage points, the tenor of life was destined to be disturbed. The cry was once again Gold! Exactly twenty years after those first eager rushes to the Ophir and the Turon, the tempo was again quickening all through the area. And then there was the new field at Gulgong, appearing even more promising.

The principal gold-bearing areas of the day in N.S.W. lay approximately within (or around) the triangle Bathurst-Orange-Mudgee, the first-named place being about one hundred and fifty miles west of Sydney. Though he must have had many predecessors, the credit for the first discovery of gold goes to Edward Hammond Hargraves, who found payable gold in a creck (which locality he subsequently named Ophir) about nine miles from Orange. The Turon area is to the north of Bathurst, the principal centres being Sofala, Hill End and Tambaroora. Gulgong lies further north, some sixteen miles beyond Mudgee.

Photographers, like everyone else, must live, and it is not surprising to learn that Merlin's caravan was soon carrying his cameras and equipment along that well-worn road that runs westward across the Blue Mountains. Let us pause a moment as we travel this same route at fifty miles an hour by car or air-conditioned express, to think back to the days of horse travel. Beyond the rail-heads, of course, an efficient service was offered by famous coaching companies; by changing horses every ten or fourteen miles, some fifty or sixty miles a day could be covered according to the terrain. For the private traveller and the teamster it was a quite different proposition.

Normally he had but the one set of animals and these had to be properly cared for at intervals during the day and at nightfall; he was, therefore, fortunate if he was able to maintain an average of twenty miles a day or thereabouts. There was a substantial degree of expense involved too. As today, those who provided food and drink and accommodation for man and beast had to be reimbursed. Special services might be required as well-harness to be repaired, swingle trees to be replaced and horseshoes to be re-nailed.

Merlin's first picture-making stop appears to have been at Hartley on the Cox River, across the mountains. Of that Hartley series just two are reproduced, but those two are more than sufficient for the realisation of his outstanding photographic ability. Everything was grist that came to Merlin's mill; every scene was a subject for him. Normally there had to be human beings in the field of view; then, as to-day, people were possessed with a deep appreciation of their personal likenesses and Merlin's posing ability was always gentle, persuasive, artistic and confident. His sitters, despite the necessity for a 'hold it' of some five or ten seconds, were always naturally grouped with little sense of strain. So much for the demands of business; in addition, there were many which were obviously taken solely for his own artistic pleasure.

And now on to Gulgong. just why he selected this new field instead of one or the other of the more obvious three Turon towns is not quite clear; he was perhaps deterred by the latter's comparative inaccessibility. Coming as he did from the established cities of Melbourne and Sydney, Gulgong must have made a great impact on his ever-susceptible 'documentary' outlook. The town was indeed a strange one and we to-day, as we study Merlin's photographs, can share something of his reactions. The Gulgong of 1871 was veritably an American gold-fields town.

"Gulgong was certainly a rough place when I visited it, but not quite so rough as I had expected. There was an hotel there, at which I got a bedroo- to myself, though but a small one, and made only ofslabs. But a gorgeously grand edifice was being built over our heads at the time, the old inn being still kept on while the new inn was being built on the same site. The inhabited part of the town consisted of two streets at right angles to each other, in each of which every habitation and shop had probably required but a few days for its erection. The fronts of the shops were covered with large advertisements - the names and praises of the traders - as is customary now with all newfitngled marts: but the place looked more like a fair than a town - perhaps like one of those fairs which used to be temporary towns and to be continued for weeks - such as some of us have seen at Amsterdam and at Leipsic. But with this difference-that in the cities named the old houses are seen at the back of the new booths, whereas at a gold rush there is nothing behind. Everything needful, however, seemed to be at hand. There were bakers, butchers, grocers and dealers in soft goods. There were public - houses and banks in abundance. There was an auctioneer's establisLment, at which I attended the sale of horses and carts."

(Australia and New Zealand, by Anthony Trollope. Chapman & Hall, London, 1873.)

Those were the days when the miners and those who catered for their economic needs followed the gold strikes around the world; as the Australian fields came into the news at the very time when the Californian fields were slackening, the direction in which world interest turned is obvious. Clearly there was many a skilful carpenter aboard those Pacific ships and soon those tradesmen were busily at work.

For the main part their would care to work the wet-plate process in the field the year round, through burning summers and piercing winters. Merlin possessed, of course, that necessary asset, a wet-plate coating caravan; in fact, at one stage he appears to have had at least two (perhaps three). One was constructed on a light buggy "chassis," while the other was a two-horse vehicle of more substantial build. Both had permanent false roofs which permitted a current of air to pass between the roof and the coating chamber-a most desirable precaution. And, of course, Merlin was not working single-handed in his enterprise. He had a driver for the caravan - we see him in many of the photographs, standing by with a spare dark slide in his hands. Later on, he had at least two assistants; their services would be needed for studio operating, plate-coating and for floating and printing the large sheets of albumen paper.

Merlin's sphere of activities also covered the smaller satellite villages that had grown up at the various mining fields around Gulgong. Where for generations cattle had grazed peacefully, there was now a population larger perhaps than that of the Adelaide of its day, and it dwelt in what we to-day would call "shanty towns"-but let us not be'deceived-those people lived in homes of bark because no other building materials were available. Most of these settlements took their names from the rich alluvial leads near which they grew up. Such were Black Lead just northeast of the town, and Home Rule and Canadian Lead about six miles to the south-east. And there were many others. All of these were visited in due course and photographs obtained of dwellings, hotels and business premises of every description.

Nor did he fail to visit the diamond fields on the Cudgegong River (five miles to the west of Gulgong) and first-rate, even by today's standards, were the pictures he brought back from there. He photographed by the hundreds mining shafts and their miners, hopeful or successful as the case might be; and the results appeared to sell very well. That we know for certain for the precise Merlin has left us his sales records, these being carefully marked on a slip of paper glued to each and every negative. Of the mining subjects, perhaps the most valuable for its record value and news interest is one of the two which we have reproduced, for it shows the happenings regularly associated with a new "strike." Other photographs show, in actual operation, a variety of types of almost forgotten mining equipment as, for instance, the various devices for ventilating-a definite necessity, for many of these shafts descended hundreds of feet into the earth.

"Of course, having come to Gulgong, I had to see the mines, and I went down the shaft of one, 150 feet deep, with my foot in the noose of a rope. Having offered to descend, I did not like to go back from my word when the moment came; but as the light of the day faded from my descending eyes, and as I remembered that I was being lowered by the operations of a horse who might take it into his brutish head to lower me at any rate he pleased - or not to lower me at all, but to keep me suspended in that dark abyss-I own that my heart gave way, and that wished I had been less courageous. But I went down, and I came up again - and I found six or seven men work! It the bottom of the hole. I afterwards saw the alluvial dirt brought up from some other hole, puddled and ing hed and the gold extracted. When extracted it was carried away in a tin pannikin-which I thought was detracted much from the splendour of the result.

"Of the men around me some were miners working for wages, and some were shareholders, each probably with a large stake in the concern. I could not in the least tell which was which. They were all dressed alike, and there in was nothing of the master and the man in the tone of their conversation. Among those present at the washing up, there were two Italians, an American, a German, and a Scotchman, who I learned were partners in the property. The important task of conducting the last wash, of throwing away for ever the stones and dirt from which the gold had sunk, was on this occasion confided to the hands of the American. The gold was carried away in a parmikin by the German."

(Australia and New Zealand, by Anthony Trollope-Chapman & Hall, London, 1873.)

Towards the end of the year a most novel assignment came his way. He had always been recognised as one of Australia's leading outdoor photographers (in those days there were not very many of them), and, in consequence, when the New South Wales Government of the day required a photographer for The Victorian-New South Wales Eclipse Expedition of 1871, it did not hesitate to select Merlin for the job. This was the total eclipse of the sun of December 12th, the occasion being Australia's first great effort in that branch of scientific enterprise.

The site chosen for the observation was Cape Sidmouth, in Northern Queensland - half - way between Cape York and Cape Flattery. It was midsummer and the temperatures were unexpectedly high. It was 140 degrees in the dark tent; at noon the sun was vertically overhead and no shade could be found for the tent, while on every side there was glare from the dazzling coral strand. No wonder that, on many occasions, Merlin's plates dried out before he could get them into their processing solutions. As for the eclipse, rain clouds obscured it for the whole of its totality excepting a tantalising second or two. However, Merlin brought back some interesting locality pictures, including one of the Queensland coast that he obtained from the expedition steamer; the latter was satisfactory enough to lead Merlin to place before the Victorian Government some eminently practical (bilt long ahead of their time) suggestions for the use of photography in coastal survey work.


cover  / portrait  / p-1  /  p-2  /  p-3   /  photos-1  /  photos-2  /  photos-3