The “official” discovery of gold in Australia in the 1850s started a series of rushes that transformed the country. From across the globe, many people poured into the Australian colonies, eager to try their luck.
Revisit early finds and follow the masses of people who chased the yellow metal across the continent. Some historians claim the migrant communities of the goldfields were Australia’s first experience as a multicultural society; although most new arrivals were British, many also came from countries such as the Germany, Poland and China. However, not all cultures were equally welcome, and as time went on, there was increasing hostility and discrimination towards non-Europeans.
This section was contributed by Deanne Gilson and Tammy Gilson, Wadawurrung Traditional Custodians.
“More than 100,00 years prior to colonisation, the geological land formation of the alluvial goldfields was occupied by the First Peoples of the land, the Wadawurrung, who referred to Ballaarat as ‘a peaceful resting place at home’.
The creator spirit Bundjil made the Country in a way that would benefit all living things; the architecture of the mountains gave form to a rich cultural landscape in harmony with the relationships held between Wadawurrung people and Country. The living nubitj (fresh) waters flow through the countryside, known as the Yaramlok – and later the Yarrowee – River.
With disrespect Wadawurrung were forced away from their homes. Wadawurrung believe that connection to Country has been fractured, however our murrup (spirit) has never been broken.
Prior to the gold rush of 1851, Wadawurrung were known to trade gold with shepherds. Gold was strewn across the country bearing the name of golden soils. Soon followed the discovery of gold and Ballarat was established as a township within the County of Grenville in the newly surveyed Victorian Colony.
Walking tracks once made by Wadawurrung families led early settlers to villages once lived in by Wadawurrung people.
Bundjil the creator spirit brought lore to Wadawurrung people, one being that we only take from Country what we need. The destruction of mining would see the settlers go against this lore and upset the harmony and balance between the land and people.”
First Nations peoples had long quarried white pipe clay for ceremonial purposes. European observers often commented on the presence of;
First Nations peoples were responsible for some of the most important leads of the gold rush. In 1852, prospector Paul Gootch wrote that the rich Eureka diggings of Ballarat had been discovered by an unnamed Wadawurrung man whom Gootch had sent out to search for a horse; “[He] picked up a nugget on the surface. Afterwards I sent out a party to explore who proved that gold was really to be found in abundance.”
Top secret finds
Reverend William Branwhite Clarke, a geologist, came upon gold particles in the Blue Mountains. In 1844, he showed them to New South Wales Governor Gipps, who reportedly said,
Gipps feared that chaos and lawlessness would break out if the people of the colony – most of whom were convicts or ex-convicts – knew they had easy access to gold
Very famous “finds”
Englishman Edward Hargraves received support from three others who had already found gold near Bathurst. After his group collected several gold flakes, Hargraves returned to Sydney, and in March 1851, presented the samples to the government.
He was awarded a £10,000 prize and made Commissioner of Crown Lands. A lavish portrait showed him as the “Gold Discoverer of Australia” on top of a mountain.
News of the find promptly appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, and by 15 May 1851, 300 diggers had flocked to the site. The Australian rush had begun in earnest.
Did you know that Charters Towers, one of the richest goldfields in Australia, was discovered by a 10-year-old Aboriginal boy?
As a child, Jupiter was “acquired” – taking First Nations children for servitude was rampant at the time – by Hugh Mosman. Soon afterwards, Jupiter accompanied Mosman and several others to the Cape River diggings. They camped near what is now called Towers Hill where in 1871 Jupiter discovered the gold-bearing quartz of the north Australian reef, the first mine of the Charters Towers goldfield. It made Hugh Mosman rich.
What other untold stories can you find of early gold discoveries in Australia?
The discovery of gold in New South Wales triggered a series of rushes throughout the Australian colonies. People travelled from lead to lead, convinced the next one would make them rich.Listen: Soundscape of the goldfields created by SBS Cantonese Producer Tracy Lo (approx. 2 mins).
NSW versus Victoria
In the newly established colony of Victoria, many left their jobs and families to move to the goldfields in New South Wales. The Victorian Government responded by offering a reward of £200 to anyone discovering gold within 200 miles of Melbourne. Within six months, there were finds in Clunes, and then Ballarat, Castlemaine and Bendigo.
The Victorian gold rush would make the one in New South Wales look small. During the 1850s, Victoria produced more than a third of the world’s gold.
Rushing across the colonies
Major deposits were found in Tasmania from 1852, in Queensland from 1857 and in the Northern Territory from 1871.
In the 1890s, gold fever hit Western Australia with the discovery of huge fields at Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie.
Towns and cities quickly sprang up around the diggings. Farming and industry followed to support the mining communities.
Between 1851 and 1871, the recorded Australian population quadrupled from 430,000 people to 1.7 million as more and more migrants arrived in search of gold.
The largest non-European group were the Chinese. By 1859, approximately one in five men in Victoria was from China.
Who benefited and who did not?
Alongside all the actions taken to dispossess and control the lives of First Nations peoples since invasion, historian Dr Benjamin Mountford points out the impact of the gold rush:
As the gold ran low, Chinese miners faced growing discrimination from the government and European diggers. These attitudes contributed to the country’s first race-based migration restrictions that would later become the White Australia policy.
A tale of two maps: The map on page 20 of the Powerhouse Museum’s Gold Fever booklet shows where Australia’s major gold discoveries were made between 1851 and 1900.
Compare it to the second map, which attempts to represent all the language, social or nation groups of the First Nations peoples of Australia.
Choose one of the gold towns and identify the Traditional Owners. In what ways do you think they were impacted by the gold rush?
Western Australian laws: From 1886, Western Australia introduced special legislation to ensure that non-British arrivals and First Nations Peoples were excluded from the gold mining industry. You can learn more about these laws here. Who do you think stood to benefit from these laws? Would they be acceptable today?
- Ballarat was considered the world's richest alluvial goldfield during its peak between 1852 and 1853. An estimated 6,000 diggers arrived each week seeking their fortune.
- The gold rush brought migrants from all over the world to Victoria. Over the space of one year, Bendigo’s tent city became a town of 40,000 people.
- The boat journey to Australia took travellers around three months from China and three to four months from Europe. Some historians call the Victorian gold rush a youth movement; in the 1850s, almost half the people on the Australian goldfields were aged between 21 and 35. Most Chinese gold seekers were in their 20s or 30s but many were more than twice as old.
- The Welcome Stranger was the largest gold nugget ever found. It was discovered on 5 February 1869 by Cornish miners John Deason and Richard Oates near Moliagul in Central Victoria. While searching around the roots of a tree they discovered, three centimetres below the surface, a gold nugget weighing 66 kilograms and worth around $4 million based on today’s gold price.
- In some cases, it really was possible to get rich quick. Journalist David Leffman reports that in Palmer, Queensland, one prospector found five kilograms of nuggets worth around $353,990 in just three hours. Another team panned 26.8 kilograms of gold ($1.72 million) in three weeks.
Naarm is located on the banks of the Birrarung (Yarra River) on the unceded land of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung peoples of the Kulin Nation. When Europeans arrived in 1835, it had been a vital gathering place for these First Nations peoples for tens of thousands of years:
- based on Yalukit Willam The River People of Port Phillip by local historian Meyer Eidelson in consultation with the descendants of the Yalukut Weelam clan of the Boon Wurrung.
In the 15 years before the gold rush, brutal conflicts took place between squatters and Traditional Custodians on their lands. This was part of an intensified effort by squatters to establish the settlement of Melbourne, a process that some historians liken to a military-style occupation. Clare Land describes a “rapid and brutal” process in which “the face of Melbourne changed very dramatically“ and “a lot of Aboriginal people were gotten rid of.” Historians and descendants have only begun to tell the stories of the massacres and resistance of First Nations peoples both here and on other frontiers across Australia.
Newcomers often observed that Melbourne felt less like an established city and more like a war zone. Ellen Clacy was alarmed by the sound of “revolvers cracking in all directions until daybreak”. It was common for men and women to have several pistols and tomahawks slung in their belts.
Other new arrivals pointed out the dust, flies, mud and swamps – and the smell. Slaughterhouses lined the river and factories polluted the air.
The sudden and extreme human interference with the environment meant that rain could transform dirt roads into knee-deep mud. Streets became raging rivers. In summer, people wore veils to keep the dust out of their eyes and noses.
Bursting at the seams
Immigrants leaving Britain in 1852 bought more tickets to Melbourne than anywhere else worldwide. The wharves were jammed with ships, cargo and disembarking arrivals. Though accommodation was expensive, all the lodging in the city was packed, and thousands arrived daily only to find they had nowhere to stay.
Many ended up in the sprawling tent city on the south bank of the Yarra. Others slept on the wharves as they tried to figure out how they would buy all the costly equipment (a tent canvas, a mattress and shovel, gold pans, a wheelbarrow and clean water) they needed. On top of this, there was the problem of how to get to the diggings.
To the Diggings
When gold was first discovered in Victoria, there was no transport to the goldfields. Everything had to be carried in wheelbarrows or by horses and bullocks on the 100+ kilometre journey from Melbourne. It could take lost and tired travellers weeks to make it to the diggings.
Whichever way they went, they were at the mercy of the weather. In winter, it was boggy. In summer, it was a dustbowl. In the rain, horses often got bogged up to their bellies in mud. Polish digger Seweryn Korzelinski’s group tried to get their horses to budge but only knew the Polish-language commands.
Most travellers brought too much and the route to the diggings was soon littered with discarded belongings – from trousers to tablecloths to foolishly heavy equipment. After several days of rain, Korzelinski’s group’s mattresses became waterlogged, and they had to dump them with the other rubbish at the side of the track.
Finding the flat, scrubby country hard to read, migrants often relied on First Nations peoples for directions. One remembered, “Aboriginal children along the route would sing out to passing horsemen: ‘Are you off to the diggings?’”
Providing guiding services for money was one of the many innovative ways that First Nations peoples devised to survive and stay on Country in these years of growing dispossession. Especially in the early years these guides often led diggers along traditional trading routes or Song Lines. Other Wadawarrung and Dja Dja Wurrung People built and sold bark canoes or provided ferry services to transport diggers and their gear across the networks of deep rivers and creeks.
Tougher journeys for Chinese travellers
However hard the trek to the goldfields was for the new arrivals from Europe and North America, by 1855 Chinese travellers faced much longer and tougher journeys.
A hefty Victorian tax on ships carrying Chinese migrants meant many arrivals from China had to land and walk all the way from South Australia. For onlookers, the Chinese groups were a memorable sight; walking in a single file of up to 700, they each carried bags or baskets of belongings on a long pole in order to balance the weight.
What became of the objects that travellers disposed of en route to the diggings? This exhibit of Dja Dja Wurrung glass tools made from miners’ discarded glass bottles provides fascinating insight.