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domingo, 11 de marzo de 2012

The Legend of Letty Browne

Letty Browne
Leticia Brown or Browne was born in Dorset, England, on 15th March 1842. In 1857 she is on the passenger list (surname given as Brown) of the "Cora Pearl"  (from Southampton bound for Lyttleton), where her occupation is given as servant. Her patrons were Mr and Mrs James Stephenson, also of Dorset. The Stephensons established themselves in Christchurch and became prominent in social circles. James Stephenson, a barrister, is best known as trustee of several provincial institutions including the McDongle Art Gallery and the Christchurch Friendly Society and as a member of the Provincial Council from 1868 to 1882. Nothing more is known of their servant Leticia as she does not appear even on the 1858 census.

James Stephenson
However, on 28th December of the next  year a Leticia Browne[sic] registered the birth of an illegitimate female child in Clyde, Central Otago. The child was given its mother's surname but was apparently given in adoption. We can only speculate on the circumstances that brought a pregnant Leticia to the goldfields at the tender age of seventeen. Should it be laid at the door of the respectable Mr Stephenson? In those days it was not unusual to dismiss pregnant maidservants with a sum of money and the address of a distant relative. Or did Leticia run away with a beau and a promise of marriage? There is a reference in verse  that we shall consider presently, attributed to Leticia herself in later life although probably apocryphal,  that suggests the culprit may have been a clergyman. Be that as it may, the only alternatives for girls in her situation in the 19th century were starvation, a quick marriage  or prostitution , and the best place to find a plentiful supply of clients in the latter  case was on the goldfields. There were more varieties of gold digger than the prospector with his pick, shovel  and pan: cardsharps, so-called dancing troupes, claim jumpers, gangs of bandits, confidence trickster of every ilk, gunrunners, liquor stills, false assay agents, mine salters and a plethora of other free-riders and hangers-on followed the gold rushes wherever they led like a cloud of blowflies. Amongst this motley crowd were those known as working girls.

Goldfield working girls

Leticia was evidently a very determined person and knew what she wanted. A legend grew up around her exploits as a working girl. Notoriety brought prosperity, as she was in demand by the "crème de la crème" of goldfield society: miners who had struck it rich, local dignitaries, dredgemasters with their generous wage and share in profits, the chief of police and district judges... She could afford to pick and choose.
During the sixties she was known all over the Central Otago region as Letty Browne. She was celebrated in popular songs that went the rounds of the pubs and drinking houses. Most of these have been lost in the mists of time, but one remains extant due to a curious circumstance. Mr Alec Hardy, sole teacher at the Garston primary school during the 1950's, confiscated an exercise book in which a schoolboy had copied the following verses. The culprit, whose surname was McClean, said he had heard his grandfather sing the song on many occasions when he got a little tipsy with his cronies:

The Ballad of Jack and Letty

Jack and Jim and Bob and George
Sluiced the face above the gorge
Staked a claim in sixty-nine
Spoon dredge on the Clutha line

Letty Browne was a working lass
Generous bust and shapely ass
Digger's dream and miner's curse
Dunstan pub was her home turf

Jack swagged out the take that day
Assay office, eight men's' pay
Two months sweat in a banker's note
Thought he'd stop to wet his throat

"Hello digger, what's your choice?"
Letty Brown had a soft wee voice
Starry eyes and plunging cleavage
Folded arms to get more leverage

Now Jack was just your average bloke
Barrel chested, legs of oak
Weak of brain and strong of arm
He lost his way in Letty's charms

George was wrathful, Bob was plastered
"Where's that friggin' no-good bastard?
I'll put his balls through the stamping gear
And tie his dick to the bosuns chair!"

Jack came sneaking home at dawn
Face all bloody, clothes all torn
"I met with bandits on the bluff
Half a hundred strong, and tough"

"I put up such a bloody fight
We were at it half the night
Six or eight I sent to hell
More than that I cannot tell"

Jim gave Jack a friendly hug
Bob poured tea into his mug
George said "Jack, ye did thy best
Get thee down and take thy  rest"

Jack  stood up, he looked a wreck
Something fell from round his neck
Something perfumed, something pretty
Something they'd all seen on Letty

A gold dredge is a dangerous place
One false move, you leave no trace
Catch your foot in a chain drive hole
The Devil waits to take your soul

Clutha water is turquoise blue
Clutha current is strong and true
Cold and deep the river wends
And in those depths my story ends

The Clutha River at Devil's Nook
The only known photograph
of Letty Browne, wearing her
famous gold nugget chain.


The ditty I referred to above as probably being apocryphal I got from a schoolmate, also at Garston primary school during the 1950's. It formed part of a longer composition that circulated amongst schoolboys in those days. Perhaps its only value is to show the extent of the acclaim reached by Letty's reputation as the epitome of the working girls in Central Otago nearly a century earlier:
       "Ode on my Goldmine"
     by Leticia Browne

              Oft have I wondered how I would of got on 
            If I hadn't been blessed with a cunt so fine.
       Washing the dishes for some lucky John
   A penny a day and  scraps for to dine.

         But I was deflower'd by a parson at Clyde
   And he gave me a nugget worth fifty.
                   I resolved on that day as a whore I would bide 
 To work hard and always be thifty.  

               And all this I owe to my goldmine, you see   
 I call it my Sweet Kitty Puss Pie.      
                      If you got the dough there's none better than me
               If you're ever up Dunstan way give it a try   

There is also the story of a rich dredge owner who wrote  poems to her in the hope that she would consent to spend the night with him on his monthly holiday. In those days people wrote verse at the drop of a hat. None of these ditties can be considered to constitute poetry, such is the low artistic value of the rhymes. But it casts a curious light on the decline of written communication that has taken place since. At all events, the story goes that the dredgemaster sent Letty the following missive:

Gold dredge on the Waimumu Stream

Letty will you make me oh so happy?
Letty if you let me
Letty if you pet me
I promise to be a real nice chappie
I'll give you gold
And price ten-fold
If you'll dress up in a baby's nappy
Suck your thumb
Show your bum
Letty will you make me oh so happy?

To which Letty is reputed to have replied:

Letty don't and Letty won't,
for all the gold in Gabriel's Gully

You're too fat and stink of rat,
Puss with you I will not sully.

Balclutha Bridge
Letty Browne plied her trade throughout the sixties and gathered together a fortune big enough to establish her as an investor in various mining enterprises. In the seventies she bought a large house at Balclutha (appopriately, for Jack's bones must have passed under the famous Balclutha bridge, the last before the river reaches the sea) and lived the rest of her days in retirement. Nothing more is known of her until her death in 1911. In her will she left her entire fortune of more than 100,000 pounds, including the house,  to the Otago Women's Shelter movement.

The little we know of Letty sheds a fascinating light on one of the seldom-mentioned aspects of the goldfields. It is time some serious research was carried out into the origins, customs, working conditions, economic impact and sociological implications of the working girls of the Otago gold rushes.

I would like to recommend Diggers, Hatters & Whores  by Stevan Eldred-Grigg.

NOTE: Letty Browne never existed. She sprang to life during a night on the wine in Geneva with Bob McKerrow. We hope you enjoyed the read, which is pure fiction. The photos are culled from public domain sites on the Internet and the persons portrayed therein have nothing to do with the roles I have given them. If anyone objects to their presence on this blog I will be happy to remove them. All verse written by James Williamson and Bob McKerrow.