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The Life of an Opal Miner's Wife
- Views : 868
- Category : McKenna Mulvany
- Date Posted : Mar 25, 2022
Barbara A. Parker's Parents, Emma Davenport and her husband, opaler William Augustus Parker
Much has been written about the trials and tribulations of opal miners in the late 1800s and 1900s, how dangerous their job was, and how harsh of an environment they worked in. But what about the women who stood by their side in these impossible conditions? Being the wife of an opal miner was no easy feat, and their lifestyle varied greatly from other housewives of the era. They couldn’t shy away from hard work, and especially from getting their hands dirty. In honor of Womens’ History month, here is a glimpse into the immense bravery and intense dedication it took to be an opal miner’s wife.
The majority of these women were very young, and had never been outside of the city. For them, traveling through the outback was not only isolating, but dreadfully boring. Kathleen Hands, wife of opal miner John Hands, passed her time by writing letters home, where she described the intense heat, lack of water, and abundance of snakes and flies she encountered on her move to the Yellow Jimmy mine at Mayneside station. Kathleen’s letters offer an eye opening glimpse into the life of a miner’s wife, and how resourceful they had to be. In one letter, she details making clothes for her son Johnnie out of old flour bags.
While most women of the time would receive various homemaking gifts upon getting married, there was no way to travel any items of the sort to the outback. Everything, including the home itself, had to be made with items scavenged from the camps. Wives were expected to assist with the building, or, in the case of Coober Pedy’s underground dwellings, excavation of their new house. Most dishes, cutlery, linens, bedding, and clothing all had to be made by hand. Many of the women took up pottery as a hobby so that they could make their own dinner sets. Arts, crafts, and painting were also popular, if one could get supplies from a relative in the city. For example, Kathleen Hands handcrafted calendars out of her artworks that she would sell for a small fee.
Once the house was finished, the women had to adapt to performing everyday domestic duties in their cramped, inhospitable surroundings. Simple tasks like cooking and cleaning became a mammoth effort. The most glaring obstacle was a substantial lack of food and water. The women had to learn how to prepare whatever game their husbands hunted, whether it be a small bush turkey or a kangaroo, using all cooking materials as sparingly as possible. Each meal was precious, and had to be made to last over several days. Cleaning, as well, was an almost impossible feat, and not just because of the outback’s infamous red dirt. Any water in the camp had to have been carried from dozens of kilometers away, and was usually dirtied and partially dried up by the time it completed the journey. Whatever was left had to be designated for drinking and bathing, with little leftover to assist with household tasks.
The women also worked outside of the home. Many accompanied their husbands to the mines, where they would help them pull buckets of dirt up from the shaft. There are also stories of women who took up lapidary work to pass the time. They would take the cast offs from their husband’s parcels of opal and cut, polish, and fashion them into doublets and triplets, which they could sell for a few shillings to make a little money of their own. This was all done in addition to child rearing, which was non stop due to a lack of schools, clubs, or activities. With no outside resources in a 100 kilometer radius, including doctors or teachers, the women had to perform several roles beyond their already exhausting day to day duties.
The lack of medical care was a major issue for the wives. With illness running rampant through the camps, some days could feel like a fight for survival. But this was never more true than in the instance of child birth. Many women tragically lost their lives in the opal fields during or after a difficult labor. Barbara A. Parker’s Aunt Ellen, who was living near Opalton, was one such case, passing away at just 26 years old in October 1888. Unfortunately, this was a common occurrence well into the 20th century. Still today, the opal fields are hundreds of kilometers from nearby hospitals or doctors' practices, leaving the dangers of a century ago still very much apparent.
With all that was expected of them, the wives of opal miners had to be fiercely independent and persevering. Whether they were minding their homes or working in the fields, they stopped at nothing to establish themselves as integral to the success of the opal industry. These wives paved the way for future women to enter the workforce as well respected miners, dealers, and cutters, and we salute them. Happy Womens’ History Month!
McKenzie, R. (2000). Sweat, Tears, and Blood Red Opal.