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The Australian Gold Rush

First published April 28th, 2006

The Australian Gold Rush - Diggers (State Library of NSW)

Many people associate the Gold Rush with California or the Klondike, but the Australian gold rush remains the world's richest.

The discovery of Australian gold

Isolated gold finds had been reported in New South Wales since the 1820s, but it was another thirty years before a fully-fledged gold rush would take its hold on the British penal colonies in Australia. Edward Hargraves, an Australian immigrant from England, had already (unsuccessfully) tried his luck in the California gold rush and spent his last dollars on a passage back to Sydney. He was familiar with the terrain west of the Blue Mountains not far from Sydney and became struck by the similarity of its quartz outcrops and gullies with those he had seen in the Californian goldfields.

In February 1851 Hargraves took his pan and rocking-cradle and with his guide, John Lister, set out on horseback to Lewes Pond Creek, a tributary of the Macquarie River close to Bathurst. In his own words, once in the creek bed he somehow felt "surrounded by gold." Scratching in the gravel with his pick and shovel he filled and washed several pans, a number of which did indeed produce gold.

Word spread quickly and within a few days 100 diggers were frantically tunnelling for instant wealth. The road over the Blue Mountains from Sydney became choked with men from all walks of life, carrying tents, blankets, and rudimentary mining equipment hastily bought at inflated prices. By June there were over 2000 people digging at Bathurst, and thousands more were on their way.

Edward Hargraves did not make a fortune from gold. He named the Bathurst goldfield Ophir and was paid £15,000 by the governments of New South Wales and Victoria, but a dispute arose when James Tom, a farmer involved by Hargraves in early diggings at Summer Hill Creek, protested that it was he who had discovered gold. An official enquiry resolved the dispute in favour of Hargraves, who was appointed Crown Land Commisioner for New South Wales and later received an annual pension of £250. However, a second enquiry just before his death in 1899 reversed the earlier decision, upholding claims by John Lister and William Tom (whom Hargraves had shown how to make a Californian-style washing cradle, and was the brother of James Tom) that it was they who had discovered the first payable gold, and they were each awarded £1000.

The discovery in New South Wales and the resulting rush of labour from the adjoining state of Victoria prompted the Governor of Victoria, Charles J. La Trobe, to offer a £200 reward to anyone who found payable gold within 200 miles of Melbourne. William Campbell had already claimed to have found gold in 1850 on Donald Cameron's sheep station at Clunes but this was kept secret by Cameron, fearing the station would be overrun by diggers. Now, in June 1851, Cameron decided to announce the discovery and it was worked by James William Esmond - who had accompanied Edward Hargraves on the return journey from California - and Dr George Bruhn.

Other prospectors realised that Victoria was a geological extension of New South Wales and shortly afterwards gold was discovered in even greater abundance by a septuagenarian digger, James Dunlop, at Poverty Point, Ballarat. Thomas Hiscock and others struck it rich nearby at Buninyong, and more was found by Henry Frenchman at Bendigo Creek. The Australian gold rush was on, and by the end of 1851 some 250,000 ounces had been taken from the central Victorian region.

Gold in abundance - the colonies transformed

Very soon the fabulously wealthy alluvial goldfields (stream and river deposits) at Ballarat and Bendigo turned Victoria into a magnet for immigrant adventurers, who came in their hundreds of thousands - literally. The Australian gold rush would transform the British colonies, eventually into a nation. In 1851 the population of Victoria stood at around 80,000, and a decade later it had risen to over 500,000. The total population of Australia increased threefold from 430,000 in 1851 to 1.7 million in 1871.

Deposits were also uncovered in other states: Western Australia and Queensland in the early 1850s, the Northern Territory in 1865, and Tasmania in 1877, though the rich Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie fields in the west were not uncovered until the 1890s. But Victoria was the epicentre of the Australian gold rush.

The huge influx of population threatened to collapse the administration of the fledgling state, exacerbated by the fact that a large part of the civil service and police of Melbourne - including the city's most senior government officials - abandoned their posts and flocked to the gold diggings. It seemed as if a plug had been pulled. Businesses lost their workers and schools emptied. Ships' crews deserted and headed inland in droves. Fathers left their families to dig for gold, and whole families travelled the short distance from the city to set up camp on the goldfields. Mining camps appeared seemingly overnight with each new find, then moved on when the gold ran out to set up elsewhere.

The Australian gold towns grew quickly as the state of Victoria convulsed with gold fever. Ballarat was proclaimed a township in 1852, a municipality in 1855, a borough in 1863, and a city in 1870. Bendigo - known as Sandhurst until 1891 - was proclaimed a city in 1871 and introduced trams in 1890. The Forest Creek diggings at Mount Alexander proved to become the finest alluvial goldfields in the world, where the town of Castlemaine was proclaimed a municipal district in 1855 and a borough in 1863.

Gold placed the financial viability of Victoria and New South Wales beyond doubt, and Britain no longer had any excuse for withholding self-government from its Australian colonies. A long economic boom followed, spurring the development of state infrastructure, local legislatures, and land policies. The authorities also introduced a licence system on the goldfields. A miner's licence allowed a digger to keep whatever gold he (or she) found on his (or her) claim.

Without a licence - which had to be purchased in advance, at an exorbitant fee of 30 shillings per month - a miner was deemed to be stealing from Crown property and was liable to suffer criminal proceedings. Licence hunts caused great resentment within the mining communities, especially as the police employed to enforce the licencing system were notoriously corrupt and behaved with excessive brutality. A miner was required to carry his (or her) licence at all times and to produce it on demand from an authorised officer of the law. Failure to produce it, no matter what the circumstances, meant being chained to a log and fined by the resident commissioner.

The Eureka stockade rebellion

The alluvial gold on the goldfields soon became exausted, and by 1854 the days of easy "pick and shovel" or sluice mining by individuals or groups of mates were clearly numbered. There was a switch towards deep-lead mining, which required shafts to reach the gold in quartz reefs much further below the surface, together with capital investment in machinery. The easy going atmosphere of the Australian gold rush began to slide. The Governor of Victoria, Sir Charles Hotham, ordered the frequency of licence hunts to be increased, and tensions between the diggers and the authorities rose even more.

At Ballarat, miners formed the Ballarat Reform League to campaign for a relaxation of the licencing system and the vote for every man. After two further incidents - one being the alleged corruption of a local magistrate who acquitted an inn owner of the murder of a miner, and another involving the arrest and religious victimisation of a crippled Armenian digger (who also happened to be the servant of a Roman Catholic priest) - the miners took a stand.

Under the leadership of Peter Lalor, an Irish immigrant, a group of several hundred miners erected a stockade of logs at Eureka near Ballarat. They withdrew into the stockade and unfurled the Southern Cross flag to proclaim an oath to fight to defend their rights and liberties. After a day or so most of the rebel miners returned to their claims, partly because many had intended the event to be symbolic, and partly because it took on a distinctly Irish nature. In any case they were short of arms and ammunition.

Nonetheless, more than 400 troops and police were sent from Melbourne to crush what remained of the "rebellion". They rushed the 120 or so miners still inside the stockade, killing more than 20 and trampling their Southern Cross flag into the dust. The rebel leaders were tried for treason but the juries in Melbourne refused to pass any guilty verdicts, and the authorities sensibly let the matter drop. A Royal Commission subsequently condemned the goldfield administration, and the miners' grievances were eventually remedied - including their demands for political representation: a year later, minus an arm lost at Eureka, Peter Lalor (illustrated) was duly elected to the Victorian parliament.

Life on the Victorian goldfields

Even setting aside the harshness of the licence system, life on the goldfields was very hard. Diggers sometimes worked ten metres below the surface, often waist deep in water. Poorly shored up shafts would collapse, killing those below. Digging frequently involved accumulating a load of gravel on one's claim and then carrying it quite long distances to the nearest creek or river to wash it for gold using pans, puddling boxes, or cradles. Some miners struck it rich but the hopeful majority enjoyed only moderate success, or no success at all.

Miners, and the families who chose to accompany their men, lived in tents. Brawls amongst individual diggers or between different national contingents were common, as were theft and drunkenness. Diggers of the same nationality tended to congregate together in unofficial territories. Others made a good living not from digging but as small agriculturalists selling mutton and vegetables.

Once a goldfield had been officially proclaimed the state government would then set up administrative and police personnel in that area, imposing a semblance of law and order. A resident Gold Commissioner, protected by a military garrison, provided the means by which the miners' gold could be weighed, paid for, and transported under the protection of the gold escort to the Melbourne Treasury, and thence into canvas bags and down to the waiting ships to England.

The gold escort, as well as diggers or anyone else travelling in the goldfield region, was always at risk of ambush by bushrangers - an Australian type of outlaw. The risk was much greater for a traveller 'coming down' (from the goldfields to Melbourne) rather than 'going up' (to the goldfields). The robbers liked to adopt witty names like Captain Melville (Francis McCallum), Captain Moonlight (Andrew Scott), and Captain Thunderbolt (Frederick Ward). There was also the Eureka Gang, Black Douglas, and Boogong Jack. Many were hunted down and killed in pursuit or were rounded up and imprisoned or executed.

However romantic the notion of digging for gold in the Australian bush, life on the goldfields remained characterised by squalor, greed, crime, self-interest - and racism. The diggers had come from many nations but by far the largest national contingent other than British and Irish were the 40,000 Chinese who had somehow made their way to the Australian goldfields.

As the alluvial deposits dwindled there were moves to restrict the untiring Chinese diggers as they seemed to be comparatively more successful, able to sustain the viability of their claims longer than their Western counterparts. They would rework ground abandoned by Europeans, and continue to work a claim until the whole of the gold bearing earth had been cleaned. The Chinese did not bring their wives, intending instead to send their wealth home. In 1855 the Victorian Parliament imposed a tax of £10 a head on all Chinese entering the colony and a poll tax of £1 per annum levied on every Chinese person on the goldfields.

Restrictions were eventually placed on Asians in general, to prevent an influx from other nearby nations: Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. And of course the native Aborigine was rarely permitted to own gold.

Meanwhile, in the young city of Melbourne a round-the-clock orgy was going on. Shanty towns sprung up to house the tens of thousands of immigrants pouring off the ships from England and Ireland, and in the hotels and grog shops lining the city's jam-packed muddy streets the diggers were drinking their gold away. Intoxicated miners with their pockets bulging with gold dust lurched from bar to bar and through the newly opened luxury shops, festooning their girls with jewellery and lighting their pipes with £5 notes. Biddies - unattached young women - were looking for diggers to marry. Merchants of all kinds flourished in the bonanza, and gold money began to finance the construction of a more respectable suburbia in Melbourne, with imported Italian Marble and English Axminster carpets.

The gold rush in Western Australia

By the turn of the century Australia had become the world's largest producer of gold, half of which came from Western Australia. Gold was produced at Kimberley for a short time in 1885, and then at Southern Cross (1888) and Coolgardie (1892), but it was three Irishmen - Patrick Hannan, Tom Flanagan, and Daniel Shea - who triggered the rush in Western Australia in June 1893. While camping at Mt Charlotte, by chance they discovered some 100 ounces of gold in alluvial nuggets. After a few days they reported the find to the mining warden in Coolgardie. As in the east, when the word got out the rush began. Hundreds of diggers were soon pegging out new claims around Kalgoorlie, then elsewhere in the region.

The early pickings were rich, but the circumstances were different from those in New South Wales and Victoria. This was desert and water was scarce. It was enormously expensive to obtain supplies of food and equipment in such a remote part of the continent. Eventually a reservoir was built at Kalgoorlie, by which time the surface gold was working itself out and highly capitalised companies financed by British investors were mining gold leads deep underground. The experience of the gold rush in the east had been learned.

Hundreds of companies were floated and the population of Western Australia swelled with people streaming in from Victoria and New South Wales. As the prosperity of the region improved, large public works programmes were undertaken. A habour was built at Freemantle and a railway network linked the dozens of newly established gold towns, though many townships died when the seams were exhausted. Nonethless the dramatic improvement in the state's fortunes tipped the balance of public opinion in favour of the Federation of the Commonwealth of Australia after the referendum of 1900.

The British perspective

Before the Australian gold rush, Britain had regarded the distant colony as little more than a penal settlement. The discovery of gold brought a marked change in attitude. To the fortune-hunting optimists who set sail from England in the 1850s, a berth on a ship to Australia had become worth a life's savings rather than a life-sentence. At the same time, pressure was increasing to end the transportation of convicts - there were actually empty cells in British prisons - and the 'purpose' of Australia began to look different. The British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Sir John Pakington, pronounced that the very existence of gold made it "a solecism to convey offenders... to the immediate vicinity of those very gold fields which thousands of honest labourers are in vain striving to reach."

Gold began to tilt not only the order of Australian society as the wealthy bourgeoisie expanded its power base, but also the feelings of association with the "old country". Victorians took pride in the fact that the emerging success of the state was not primarily founded on the back of convict transportation. In 1852 the mayor, aldermen, and citizens of Melbourne petitioned Queen Victoria, protesting against the transportation of convicts to Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) from where, once freed, they crossed over to contaminate the very colony which bore her name. It was subsequently ended in 1853, and soon after, to Australia as a whole.

Page last modified: March 09, 2014

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