SBS > Gold > Discovery of Gold > The journey to Australia

The journey to Australia

People from across the world swarmed to the Victorian gold fields as news of the discoveries spread. The result was one of the largest voluntary mass migrations in history. Victoria's ports bustled with new arrivals from England, Europe, China and America - most of them men intent on making their fortune. In December 1851, Victoria's population was 97,489. By Christmas the next year it had burgeoned to 168,321 people.

Most of the newcomers arrived on clipper ships like the Marco Polo of the Black Ball Line, or the Phoenician of the White Star line. These fast clipper ships cut the journey from England from around seven months to about two and a half months. They also carried back with them the bounty from the diggings: gold which helped pay for the industrialisation of England and Europe.

Sailing card for the Etta Loring
Reproduced courtesy of the Australian National Maritime Museum and the Gold 150 website
Collection 00006895

Many left home in search of their fortune with mixed feelings. One digger, James Cooper Stewart, described his feelings in a letter to his father written on September 27, 1857.

"I took my luggage to the pier, had it measured and put on board the steam-tug which was lying out in the river. You can scarcely realise my feelings when I felt myself leaving the shores of Great Britain, for I was really downcast but I put the best face upon matters that I could, and a feeling of confidence possessed me as we neared the noble ship."
From the State Library of Victoria's virtual exhibtion Life on the Goldfields

Others, like Ellen Clacy, one of the few women to leave England in the hunt for gold, felt "too much excited - too full of the future – to experience that sickening of the heart, that desolation of the feelings, which usually accompanies an expatriation, however voluntary, from the dearly loved shores of one’s native land."

In her diary of her voyage from England to Australia in 1852, Clacy describes her first night on board the ship that was to be her home for the next four months:

"A first night on board ship has in it something very strange, and the first awakening in the morning is still more so. To find oneself in a space of some six feet by eight, instead of a good-sized room, and lying in a cot, scarce wide enough to turn round in, as a substitute for a four-post bedstead, reminds you in no very agreeable manner that you have exchanged the comforts of Old England for the 'roughing it' of a sea life. The first sound that awoke me was the 'cheerily' song of the sailors, as the anchor was heaved – not again, we trusted, to be lowered till our eyes should rest on the waters of Port Philip. And then the cry of 'raise tacks and sheets' (which I, in nautical ignorance, interpreted 'haystacks and sheep') sent many a sluggard from their berths to bid a last farewell to the banks of the Thames."

Sailing card for the Clipper Bark Quickstep, 1859
Reproduced courtesy of the Australian National Maritime Museum and the Gold 150 website
Collection 00008612

Early to bed, early to rise

Luggage was restricted onboard, as was water and food. The daily diet was made up of biscuits, preserved meat and fruit, coffee, tea and sugar. Passengers had to live by the captain’s rules: out of bed at 7am, and back in bed by 10pm. Every day they were required to roll up their beds, sweep the decks (including the space under the bottom of the berths), and throw the dirt overboard. On Sundays, passengers were to appear in clean and decent apparel (not always an easy task given they couldn’t do any washing thanks to water restrictions). "Gambling, fighting, riotous or quarrelsome behaviour, swearing and violent language" were not tolerated on any day. {|from the Gold 150√website.

At the port of embarkation, emigrants were exposed to a wide variety of infections, from whooping cough, cholera and measles to typhus. A compulsory but inadequate medical inspection overlooked many illnesses.

In an effort to stop bed bugs and lice, it was forbidden to bring bedding on board. Occasionally epidemics spread through the ship among both passengers and crew, sometimes resulting in many deaths.

Those passengers who survived the journey often arrived sick, exhausted and unfit for life on the goldfields. more

Sailing card for the Clipper Ship Keystone
Reproduced courtesy of the Australian National Maritime Museum and the Gold 150 website
Collection 00008610

Smell the wattle

Those who did survive the often-arduous voyage from England, like adventurer William Howitt, were excited by their first whiff of wattle on the shores of Port Philip Bay.

Melbourne, September 23, 1852
"At sea, on the 9th of this month I wrote, ‘Tomorrow, if the wind is favourable, I trust we shall cast anchor off Melbourne, after a voyage of 102 days!’ This morning, at ninety miles from land, on opening the scuttle in my cabin, I perceived an aromatic odour, as of spicy flowers, blown from the land;…The wind is blowing strong off the shore; and the fragrance continues, something like the scent of a hayfield, but more spicy. I expect it is the yellow mimosa, which my brother Richard said we should now find in flower all over the valleys..."

Others like Ellen Clacy, were not as impressed by their first sight of Australia.

"'And is this the beautiful scenery of Australia?’ was my first melancholy reflection. Mud and swamp – swamp and mud - relieved here and there by some few trees which looked as starved and miserable as ourselves. The cattle we passed appeared in a wretched condition, and the human beings on the road seemed all to belong to one family, so truly Vandemonian was the cast of the countenances."


By Helen Pitt


John Capper, The Immigrant’s Guide to Australia, George Phillip & Son, 1853.

Mrs Charles Clacy, A Lady’s Visit to the gold diggings of Australia, Lansdowne Press, 1963.

William Howitt, Land, labour, and gold: or two years in Victoria with visits to Sydney and Van Dieman’s Land, Sydney University Press, 1972.


| Top | Home  | About the VCC  | Contact us |