Elaine Forrestal

Why did they do it?

Today Fly Flat looks very much as it did in 1892 when the ridge of pure gold was discovered there. It is hard to believe that one of the richest gold mines in the world has come and gone from it.

In this age of hot and cold running water, air conditioning and instant communications it’s hard to imagine why anyone would choose to live 360 miles from civilisation on a flat spinifex plain with no water and only a tent for shelter. But that is exactly what prospectors, and others, chose to do in Western Australia in 1892. As if it was not hard enough to survive in the frontier town of Southern Cross, 200 miles from Perth at the end of the line. But when Arthur Bayley rode in to town with 554ozs of pure gold in his saddle bags every able bodied man packed up and headed out to try his luck. Southern Cross became a ‘women’s town’.

Of those first two thousand men to arrive on the new ‘field’, about 1% would find enough gold to keep body and soul together. Water cost 2/6 per gallon. Even if you owned a rifle, game was hard to find. Food supplies arrived irregularly and there were no natural building materials. The spindly gum trees and patchy wattle scrub were quickly used up by men cobbling together very basic brushwood, or wattle and daub huts. And yet, within just a few weeks, four licenses were issued to people who planned to build hotels. The first of these to rise from the red dirt was the Exchange Hotel. And Clara Saunders was working there even before the town of Coolgardie was gazetted.

Why did they do it? Some were habitual prospectors, driven by the belief that, sooner or later, they would strike it rich. Some were swept along by the excitement of the crowd that always accompanied a rich find of gold. Others were looking to escape, one way or another. What about Clara? At fourteen years of age she was certainly adventurous, capable and fearless. But why was she so keen to leave behind her mother and sisters and see for herself this legendary reef that was producing untold riches?

It’s only now, after more than six months researching her story, and the era in which she lived, that I feel I am coming to grips with who Clara really was and how she came to be one of the forgotten pioneers of the West Australian goldfields.