The last of the Central Otago Heritage Trust Winter Warmer Talks last week aimed to rehabilitate many misconceptions of women on the Central Otago goldfields as harlots and temptresses.
University of Otago researcher Dr Charlotte King’s presentation last Wednesday evening, ‘‘Women on the Otago Goldfields’’, booked out so quickly the trust scheduled a second talk the following morning. That session was also fully booked.
‘‘The preconception was that women on the goldfields were quite scandalous women — prostitutes or camp followers,’’ Dr King said.
The truth was that women on the goldfields had as varied lives as women today, she said.
‘‘There were wives with their husbands, there were single women working as barmaids, seamstresses, laundresses — all the jobs considered to be civilising influences.
‘‘Often they didn’t stay single for long,’’ she added.
There were also female entrepreneurs, with many of the hotels run by women, and women also prospecting for gold as miners. In the 1861 census, 143 European women listed their occupation as miner.
Women were also employed in the taverns as dancing girls until the Licensing Act of 1881 made that profession illegal.
There was an assumption that dancing girls were prostitutes also but they were not necessarily sex workers, Dr King said, although some did moonlight.
Dr King’s specialisation is the biochemical analysis of human remains, and she is part of the team working on historic cemeteries, including Drybread, about 10km from Omakau, Central Otago.
She used the chemistry of remains to recreate the small parts of their lives, such as birthplace, diet, illnesses and environmental toxicity.
Dr King did the analysis of the unknown miner who was reburied in Cromwell Cemetery in May, more than 140 years after he died.
She said many people at her talks were members of historical groups or wanting to ask questions or share stories about their predecessors.
Her own family set up shop as general storekeepers in Clyde during the Gold Rush days, so she well understood the desire to learn more.