Drink-miners not worth a shirt

A “drink-miner” was a gold rush term for a miner who was indebted to a grog shop or saloon-keeper.

Advice to would-be miners was given in a booklet titled “Cariboo, the Newly Discovered Gold Fields of British Columbia, Fully Described by a Returned Digger Who Has Made His Own Fortune There and Advises Others To Go and Do Likewise” published in London, England in 1862.

Like many promotional pieces of the day it portrayed the gold diggings in British Columbia in glowing terms. Interestingly, the ‘returned digger’ said that the most important qualification to be a miner was temperance.

“Don’t suppose I am a teetotal [non-drinker] digger. I am nothing of the kind, but I tell you plainly there is nothing so pulls a man back at gold digging as spirits. They take all the strength out of him; they unman him for a time, and the expense is so great, spirits (especially the good) costing an enormous figure at all gold settlements, that I really think that the man who picks up half an ounce a day, and doesn’t spend a grain of it in drink, makes, in reality , more by the end of the month that the miner who picks up four ounces a day, and drinks when it pleases him. As a proof of the truth of what I am saying, I may declare that the owners of spirit stores are always safe to make fortunes.

This warning is worth something, for candidly I tell you that the temptation to drink is very great. Whether it is the excitement natural to a gold digger’s life, or whether it is the desire to be luxurious and dashing, I know not, but this is certain, that an enormous percentage of gold diggers…drink extravagantly of spirits.

These diggers who “drink their gold,” as they say in Australia, never are worth anything, and they generally die in ditches, unless men more temperate than they have been give them hut or tent-room.

…those who take much spirits are unable to bear the roughing of a miner’s life, and the consequence is that they are ready at any moment to take any disease which many be common, and not unfrequently, in fever times, they fall down in scores, and never get up again.

…the excitement of a miner’s life is so great that not one in six who takes a “little drop” will stick there, and if he goes beyond he becomes just what I warn you against- a fellow who digs for the spirit-store keeper, and who is never worth more than the shirt about him. Nay, I have seen a “drink-miner” as I have heard them called, not even worth a shirt.

…For my part I drank nothing but water and tea all the while I was at the diggings, and I was there long enough to feather my nest warm.”

The Old Red Shirt

In between washing clothes and repairing them, Rebecca Gibbs wrote poetry which was sometimes published in the local Barkerville newspaper. Her poem “The Old Red Shirt” tells of a thin miner who showed up at her cabin door in old dirty clothes, asking her if she could repair a threadbare red shirt.

…His cheeks were thin, and furrow’d his brow,
His eyes they were sunk in his head;
He said that he had got work to do,
To be able to earn his bread.

He said that the “old red shirt” was torn
And asked me to give it a stitch;
But it was threadbare, and sorely worn,
Which show’d he was far from rich.

O! miners with good paying claims,
O! traders who wish to do good,
Have pity on men who earn your wealth,
Grudge not the poor miner his food….