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Mining 101

The gold rushes of the 1850s were a time of unparalleled social and economic development, when mining techniques leap-frogged from the rudimentary to the sophisticated in a few short years.

In 1851, as gold fever began to spread, the sight most commonly encountered by "new chums" eager to find their fortune in the newly-discovered fields was a pock-marked landscape of shallow diggings with the occasional head of a digger appearing and disappearing in a bewildering dance. The landscape would be dotted with tents and a flurry of intense activity.

At the beginning of the gold rushes, the term "digger" accurately represented the techniques employed to get to gold-bearing gravel. Most early discoveries were dug up with a shovel from a very shallow depth. Digging was particularly easy in Victoria, where high rainfall and gently sloping hill made gold extraction possible with little more than a pick, shovel, gold pan and handmade cradle.

Alluvial gold was most often found in clay soil, clay-laden gravel or between layers of thin rock that had to be pried apart. The predominant method of mining in the early 1850s was tin-dish washing or panning. Ideally done by the side of a stream, it involved carefully sifting and re-sifting of the "dirt" (a digger term meaning earth or soil) with water, to gradually reveal what miners hoped would be worthwhile pieces of gold dust.

Tin Dish Washing by S.T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

In the more arid fields of Western Australia, where water was prized almost above gold, a method of dry-blowing was developed. Essentially, it involved throwing the dirt in the air to sift out the scrap. It was a primitive and uncomfortable method only practiced when water was unavailable.

Delving deeper

As surface alluvial gold began to dwindle, miners had to delve deeper, which in turn facilitated the development of more sophisticated mining techniques. In some cases, alluvial gold occurred 20 to 30 feet down, necessitating the construction of timbered mines with winches in order to bring the dirt to the surface. Horses were also used to drive whims to raise buckets up from deep mines.

Not all mining techniques being developed at this time were of a sound nature: one of the new processes developed involved the toxic substance cyanide. A solution of potassium cyanide was passed over zinc shavings and through a number of tanks. From this, the gold was precipitated. Often, the men who used this mining technique suffered infected sores and cuts – advances in technique certainly didn’t guarantee safer work practices!

The Victorian Historical Journal illustrates the changing mining environment and its impact on the mining community as a whole:

The nature, as well as the size, of the mining population changed as the nature of gold mining changed. There were four main types of gold mining, each reflecting the geological characteristics of the gold deposits. The first was shallow alluvial gold, which was well suited to the individual digger. Deeper mining of alluvial gold through clay and rock, that is to a depth of less than 30 metres, could be done by a group of diggers. Mining of alluvial gold at greater depth, especially beneath lava flows (the deep leads), required expensive machinery and prolonged de-watering with large pumps, and was suited to mining companies (especially public companies) that employed miners. Mining of gold-bearing quartz on any large scale required similar equipment to deep lead mining, plus large treatment plants (batteries) to crush the ore and separate the gold. Although some batteries would do this on a fee basis, it was largely a company undertaking.

Puddling by S.T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

Mining companies first developed in Ballarat, and quickly spread to other fields throughout the country. In 1863, the Argus newspaper reported that primitive methods of mining using a tub and a cradle, or puddling with horse power, had been superseded, and quartz mining on a large scale had become the order of the day.

Cradling by S.T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

From the early 1860s, mining companies were floated almost daily – many founded more on a wing and a prayer than sound business acumen. Many failed to budget adequately for the cost of heavy machinery necessary to mine at deeper levels.

Those that survived were faced with the intricacies of quartz mining: a large-scale operation that involved either steam or the power transformed from water by large wooden water wheels. Interestingly, water - such a precious commodity in the early days of the diggings - became a hindrance as mine shafts went deeper and deeper. Now there was too much of it! It was necessary in many of the deeper mines to continuously remove water to avoid flooding. Unfortunately for many who had invested heavily in the deeper mines, there were no sophisticated methods of drainage and ventilation at this time, and many mines were forced to close due to flooding and "foul air" contamination.

Nuggeting Eagle Hawk Bendigo by S.T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

One of Australia’s first millionaires - George Lansell of Bendigo – was a great advocate of deep quartz mining. His 180 mine (at nearly a mile deep) was one of the deepest in the world, and he further advanced mining technology in the late 1870s. In 1877, in conjunction with several other Bendigo mine owners, he sent an agent to the United States to study new methods.

During this period that the safety cage, sophisticated drills and dynamite were introduced, making mining both safer and more efficient.

Explore our interactive feature
Golden Technologies: patents from the gold rush.


by Nicole Grant


Derrick I Stone & Sue Mackinnon, Life on the Australian Goldfields.

Martin J Hughes & Neil Phillips; Evolution of the Victorian Gold Province: Geological and Historical


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