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ELIZA PERRIN: THE STORY OF AN ORDINARY WOMAN ON THE BALLARAT GOLDFIELDS

Eliza Perrin and her children (undated)Image: Gold Museum Collection

Eliza Perrin and her children (c.1860s)
Image: Gold Museum Collection

Life on the Ballarat goldfields in the mid-nineteenth century was hard enough for a man trying to make a living and survive, but for a miner’s wife it could be even more difficult, as her own fortunes were bound to the decisions her husband made. Eliza Perrin was an ordinary woman who followed her prospecting husband from England to the goldfields of Victoria, but her story is representative of the experiences of so many others.

The Gold Museum holds a collection of items relating to Eliza and her family including copies of letters written to her sister in England, a photographic portrait with her children (depicted left) and the exact dress she is wearing in the photograph.

Eliza Perrin's day dress (c. 1860s)Image: Gold Museum Collection

Eliza Perrin’s day dress (c. 1860s)
Image: Gold Museum Collection

Eliza Hobson was born in Cheshire, England in 1829. In 1851, she married John Perrin in West Yorkshire, just months before he sailed to the goldfields to seek his fortune. A year later, and with her young baby daughter at her side, she decided to join her husband. Upon arrival in Australia after a journey of 147 days, Eliza learned that John was at the Ballarat diggings.

They were eventually reunited, but she found that she could not reply upon him for support as he was a drunkard and constantly travelling to follow the next gold rush. In order to survive, Eliza went into business in Ballarat with a refreshment house and store. In later years, she and John established a butcher’s shop in Bungaree.

Although they had a difficult relationship, John and Eliza had two more children in the mid-1850s. When their marriage broke down completely in the late 1850s, Eliza was not able to legally separate from him because the Divorce Act had yet to be passed in Australia. She went on to “marry” (cohabit with) John Robson and have four children with him. Eliza died in 1869, and is buried in the Ballaarat Old Cemetery.

Sly Grog Shop by S.T. Gill (1852)Image: Gold Museum Collection (96.11524)

Sly Grog Shop by S.T. Gill (1852)
Image: Gold Museum Collection (96.11524)

Eliza’s dress is one of the rarest items in the Gold Museum’s collection. Everyday clothing such as this was usually worn until they no longer served a useful purpose, so it is remarkable that it has survived to this day.  The round-waisted brown dress has rows of hand-worked, chain stitch embroidery on the skirt in green, black and white.

While it is in good condition for a working day dress, it is too fragile for public display. Fortunately, thanks to the resources of the digital age, Eliza’s dress is still able to be viewed in forums such as this blog.

Zealous Gold Diggers by S.T. Gill (DATE)Image: Gold Museum Collection

Zealous Gold Diggers by S.T. Gill (1854)
Image: Gold Museum Collection (96.11504)

If you are interested in learning more about the lives and experiences of women on the goldfields, you can find more information here:

eGold – ‘Eliza Perrin’s Day Dress’; Sovereign Hill Education – ‘Household Arts of the 1850s‘; Sovereign Hill Education – ‘Gold Rush Bell(e)s: Women’s Fashion in the 1850s’; Dorothy Wickham, Women of the Diggings: Ballarat 1854; Clare Wright, ”New Brooms They Say Sweep Clean”: Women’s Political Activism on the Ballarat Goldfields’.

You can learn more about the history of divorce in the nineteenth century and how British law relates to Australian law here:

Henry Finlay, ‘Divorce and the Status of Women: Beginnings in Nineteenth Century Australia’; Henry Finlay, To Have But Not to Hold: A history of attitudes to marriage and divorce in Australia 1858-1975; Wikipedia, ‘Matrimonial Causes Act 1857’ and ‘Divorce’.

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