The news of gold discoveries in Australia captured the imagination of the world and sparked a massive influx of immigration to the young colony of Australia. In the early years of the gold rush, NSW and Victoria were the gold mining centres and attracted thousands of hopeful diggers. In March 1851, Victoria’s population was 80,000, not including Aborigines. By 1854 the population tripled to 237,000 and by 1861 it had doubled again to 540,000. The New South Wales gold fields were poorer but the state’s population increased from 200,000 in 1851 to 357,000 in 1861.
Gold production reached its peak in 1853 but immigration continued until late in the decade.
Victorian gold fields population:
The majority of migrants came from the United Kingdom. Between 1852 and 1860, 290,000 people came to Victoria from the British Isles. Of the other migrants, less than 15,000 came from other European countries and 18,000 migrated from America. In 1861, 29% of the population was Australian born, 60% were from the United Kingdom and 11% were from other parts of the world.
The colonial town of Melbourne was unequipped to deal with the thousands of people arriving at its docks every day. By August 1852 the first ships began arriving from England, flooding Melbourne with an extra 15,000 people, all looking for a place to sleep. A canvas towns of tents sprang up in the south of Melbourne. The existence of "Canvas Town" was legalised by Governor LaTrobe in 1852, who imposed weekly rent of five shillings per tent. The rows of tents formed streets which were usually better signed than those in Melbourne. They took their names from prestigous London streets like the Strand, Bond, Regent, Oxofrd and Liverpool.
Letters written to the Australian and New Zealand Gazette describe the scene:
Melbourne, October 14 1852
"One of the most striking peculiarities here to a new arrival is the immense encampments that surround Melbourne. The vast number of tents that stud the open ground in every direction conveys a clear idea of that enormous emigration to Victoria, which requires, in addition to the house accommodation of an overgrown city, the erection of canvas suburbs, where the hordes of adventurers daily arriving, may find a temporary shelter on landing, and before starting to the great storehouses of Mammon at Mount Alexander and Ballarat."
Melbourne, September 6, 1852
"It would be utterly impossible to give you any idea of the state of things in Melbourne now. It is such as the world never saw before, and perhaps never will again. With thousands arriving every day from England, California, and America, &c., we have still the same number of houses in Melbourne that we had when the population was only about 24,000 before the gold discovery. You may think what it must be now. A complete wilderness of tents has sprung up all round the city, in which all the most hardened villains in the colony have their haunts, and through which it is not safe to walk in broad daylight."
Melbourne, August 31 1852
"People are flocking in from all countries now, and there is not accommodation for a tenth of them. Some have to sleep in sheds, &c., who never knew anything but a feather-bed in England. We have had very heavy rains lately; several people have been drowned on their way to and from the diggings in attempting to swim the creeks, as the Government does not think of putting any bridges where required; indeed, the people are beginning to murmur against the abominable way in which our government is carried out." From the Gold Treasury Museum’s online education resources database Built on Gold.
Deserting towns, deserting ships
Despite the massive influx of people, many Australian towns were deserted. The rush for gold lured able-bodied men away from city centres to the gold fields. In a letter to Lord Grey, Secretary of the State, Victorian Governor Hotham, announced:
"Within the last three weeks the towns of Melbourne and Geelong and their large suburbs have been in appearance almost emptied of many classes of their male inhabitants. Not only have the idlers and day labourers in town and country thrown up their employments and run off to the workings, but responsible tradesmen, farmers, clerks of every grade, and not a few of the superior classes have followed. Cottages are deserted, house to let, business is at a standstill, and even schools are closed. The ships in the harbour are in a great measure deserted; and we hear instances where even the masters of vessels, foreseeing the impossibility of maintaining any control over their men otherwise, have made up parties among them to go shares."
From the Gold Treasury Museum’s online education resources database Built on Gold.
By Suzie Hoban
Robyn Annear, Nothing but Gold. The Diggers of 1852, The Text Publishing Company, 1999.
Andrew Markus, Fear and Hatred: Purifying Australia and California 1850 - 1901, Hale and Ironmonger, 1979
Gold Treasury Museum’s online education resources database Built on Gold.
Australian Bureau of Statistics