A picnic at Lucknow

Old fashioned sticky buns at the Wentworth picnic at Lucknow, NSW. Photo © Jacqui Newling, Sydney Living Museums

On the Queen’s birthday holiday on Tuesday May 24, 1887, the miners at the Wentworth goldfields experienced a ‘unique and enjoyable event’ – a picnic with their families, hosted by the mine manager, Henry Newman and his wife. 

Inspired by this occasion of ‘enjoyment, recreation and pleasure’ a family picnic day was held at the Wentworth Main Mine site as part of this year’s Heritage Festival and the region’s Villages of the Heart project. People of all ages, including descendants of miners who worked in the mines were entertained with live music, singing, dancing and games, homemade lemonade and an array of sweet treats. Expressed in the words of young Liam, aged 3, ‘this is the best mines ever!’

A relaxed sun-drenched afternoon at Wentworth Mine picnic, Lucknow. Photo © Jacqui Newling, Sydney Living Museums

A local connection

The village of Lucknow is just nine kilometres south of Orange, New South Wales, and shares a common link with us here at Sydney Living Museums. Lucknow was once an estate granted to William Charles Wentworth, whose Sydney harbour-side residence Vaucluse House, is now in SLM’s care. Gold was found at Lucknow in 1851 and the astute Wentworth created the Wentworth Gold Field Company, the proceeds of which turned his existing wealth into a veritable fortune, funding his family’s extensive ‘grand tour’ of Europe in the 1850s. Wentworth sold out in the 1860s, but the mines continued to operate, and the Wentworth Main Mine site is now a significant heritage site, looked after by Orange City Council.

A baronial feast

The 1887 picnic, which was lavish and generous according to a local newspaper report, indicates that Henry Newman understood the importance of worker morale and loyalty:

The lunch began at about one o’clock, the children and ladies being first regaled, and then the men and youths. The spread was a varied and tremendous one, and seemed form its abundance as if a feast of giants was provided for, There were turkeys and fowls, rounds of beef and hams, and tongues, enough to feed the people of Orange, instead of Lucknow …

These foods may not seem extraordinary to us today, but these were special occasion foods in the 1880s (hence the significance of turkey and ham as festive foods at Christmas), especially for working classes. At a time when boiled mutton and corned beef were standard fare of ordinary people, roasted ‘rounds’ of beef and tongue were prestigious enough to be serve at wedding banquets, and at the ball thrown for the Prince of Wales, Edward VII, at Government House in the 1920s. But I digress…

A selection of ‘old-school’ afternoon tea treats. Photo © Jacqui Newling for Sydney Living Museums

‘The spread was more like a baronial feast than a mere picnic … tarts, cakes, buns, and plum-puddings enough to furnish a Christmas dinner for a regiment of soldiers on the march.’

These offerings seem simple fare on today’s terms, but were treats in their time, which still managed to tempt people of all ages – including yours truly, my favourite being the sticky fruit buns – at Sunday’s picnic. (Move over friands, macarons and chocolate laden brownies!)

Little hands hard at work. Making lemonade at the Wentworth picnic, Lucknow. Photo © Jacqui Newling, Sydney Living Museums

Twist, twirl and squeeeeeze

DIY lemonade provided hours of activity for 99 little pairs of hands (and a few grown-ups’ ones that couldn’t bear to miss out on the fun), as they twisted and twirled traditional wooden citrus reamers to squeeze fresh juice from lemons supplied by the local Harris Farm Grocers.

Fun and games at Wentworth Main Mine. Luisa Simms and Cathy Griffiths help junior visitors enjoy timeless play activities. Photo © Jessica Dowdell, Orange City Council

Music, songs, dance and play

In true community spirit, picnickers were entertained by a sing-along with the Orange Conservatorium Ukulele Ensemble and choir group, and danced many a jig with the local Scallywag Bush band. Historical re-enactors added personality and character to the day’s proceedings, helping families hone their skills at old-fashioned skittles, quoits, croquet and skipping games.

Historical re-enactor Cathy Griffiths helps children dress the arbour with foliage. Photo © Jessica Dowdell, Orange City Council

A lush bower

Other elements of the original picnic included dressing an arbour with foliage, which paid homage to the immense bower that formed the original dining hall, ‘which was large enough to accommodate about a hundred persons at a time for lunch, and afforded ample space for two long tables with seats on each side’. It was purpose built by the miners from ‘interlaced boughs lopped from gum trees … small trees, saplings, boughs, and gum leaves cleverly arranged.’ For miners who spent much of their time underground, dining under a lush green canopy would surely have added to the enjoyment of the day.


Special credit to Programming Officer Jessica Dowdell, who coordinated the event with the assistance of Orange Regional Museum and Wentworth Main Mine staff.