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Gold escorts

From the earliest days of the gold rush, diggers needed a secure method of delivering their gold to the cities, where prices were higher than on the fields. They could take it themselves, but that meant leaving the field and their claim, and risking a hold-up by bushrangers who terrorised, robbed and even killed for gold.

At first, the government organised a weekly armed escort with the mail. But as gold discoveries spread, it became imperative that the gold was delivered securely.

The first official gold escort left Ballarat for Geelong and Melbourne in September 1851. Diggers were charged a shilling an ounce to have their gold escorted. However, there was neither guarantee of safe delivery nor acceptance of liability for loss if, for some reason, the gold did not arrive. If the digger could not produce his receipt and proof of identity when reclaiming his gold, it was forfeited to the government. And though a woman was authorised to collect her husband’s gold from the treasury, there were strict rules she had to abide by. A woman could only take up to 1.5 ounces of gold, when the average consignment was well over a pound.


Mount Alexander gold escort on road to Melbourne
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria
H86.7


The British 40th Regiment was given the responsibility of escorting the escort cart, which held 1500 ounces of gold. Members of the Native Police Corps also guarded the gold. There was some contention between the police and the Aboriginal troopers. Many objected that Aboriginal people been given the same authority as the police force. Often diggers felt the same way. It was a difficult life for the Native Police, and there is much historical evidence of physical and verbal abuse towards the Aboriginal troopers by their commanding officers.

With the discovery of gold came the revival of bushranging. The Victorian highwaymen were mostly escaped convicts or former convicts, many of them from Tasmania, where transportation did not end until 1853. "One-eyed Tom" Wilson was a famous criminal who got away with the robbery of several thousand ounces of gold at Mt Alexander. He bought a pub in Hobart, was convicted of robbing diggers who were his guests, and was set back to gaol for life.


Walhalla: Gold Escort leaving Bank of Victoria
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria
H87.16/61


Many of the most famous hold-ups by bushrangers occurred in the notorious Black Forest, between Gisborne and Woodend.

Norman Bartlett describes the escorts’ instructions in The Gold Seekers:

"Don’t let any man come near you. Challenge at fifty yards and warn them to stand off. If they still come on, fire!"

The gold escorts were very slow, averaging six kilometres an hour along the rough roads. Many of Victoria’s country towns began by servicing the gold escorts that passed through them. They were known as the "ten mile towns".


Dight’s Light Cavalry


The gold escorts proved to be a viable tool at a time when there was financial crisis in the Australian colonies. A group of Melbourne businessmen were aware of this opportunity and established a private escort service in 1852. It was chaired by CR Dight, and became known as "Dight’s Light Cavalry".

"It is not long since we remarked that the high rate of pay and other advantages accruing to the members of the escort would always enable the company to command the services of unexceptional character. And we now are enabled to state, that the correctness of our opinion has been proved by the fact, that out of the escort of twelve, eight of the guards are gentlemen by birth and education; one of them has been a sergeant in the mounted police, and the remaining three ... have been employed in the government escort."

(A description of Dight’s Private Gold Escort Company. The Argus, 11 June 1852)


Gold Escort, Ballarat 1853
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria
H6225



There was much debate about whether the formation of a private army was unconstitutional. One man strongly opposed to it was Dr Francis Murphy, who complained during a Legislative Council meeting that the newly-appointed officers walked through the streets "with jingling spurs, swaggering sabres and jaunty carriages". When Dight died in 1853, the company was disbanded. However private escorts continued to operate alongside the official Gold Police.



Credits

By Miriam Raphael

References:

Robyn Annear, Nothing but Gold: The Diggers of 1852, The Text Publishing Company, 1999.

Norman Bartlett, The Gold Seekers, Jarrolds Publishers, London, 1965.

Colin and Margaret Kerr, The Gold Seekers, Rigby Ltd, Adelaide, 1975.

John Sharples, Gold and Civilisation, Art Exhibition’s Australia, 2001.

Gold Treasury Museum’s online education resources database Built on Gold



 
 

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