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Gold in Victoria

Esmond and Hargraves

On January 7, 1851, two men disembarked the Emma in Sydney. Although Edward Hargraves and James William Esmond were strangers, both had made the arduous journey to America during the 1848 Californian gold rush in search of fortune. America's gold country had reminded many Australians of the hills and gullies of Victoria and New South Wales, and both men returned home determined to find gold. After reaching Sydney, Hargraves headed straight for the Bathurst plains, while Esmond boarded a coastal steamer to Melbourne.

Hargraves was the first to realise his ambition when, in February 1851, he became the first Australian to officially discover gold at Summerhill Creek, near Bathurst, New South Wales. Hargraves’ success lured thousands of hopefuls from other states to New South Wales.

The rush to NSW

A Melbourne merchant named William Hall wrote: "Astounding news reached us of the discovery of gold in the Bathurst district. I cannot describe the effect it had upon the sober, plodding and industrious people of Melbourne. Our laborers left us by ship-loads for the fields of Ophir and Sophala, and it became difficult to carry on trade, labour became so scare and valuable."

The problem of the shifting population was disastrous for Victoria, which had only received autonomy from New South Wales six months earlier. Victoria had been a bustling region with a population of 77,000 free settlers, six million sheep and a lucrative wool trade worth 1,000,000 annually. Now, the streets of Melbourne were all but deserted and farms literally emptied. The New South Wales gold rush was threatening the very existence of the Victorian colony.

The Victorian Gold Discovery Committee

In a state of desperation, Governor Charles J La Trobe assembled a Gold Discovery Committee on June 9, 1851, and offered a 200 reward to anyone who found payable amounts of gold within 200 miles of Melbourne. Unbeknownst to the Committee, gold had already been discovered in Victoria.

William Campbell claimed to have found gold in 1850 on Donald Cameron’s station in Clunes one year before Hargraves’ discovery. But Cameron feared his station would be overrun by ambitious diggers, and opted to keep quiet like many people before him. It wasn’t until the goldfields in New South Wales threatened Victoria’s economy that Donald Cameron finally announced the discovery on July 8, 1851.

Meanwhile, word of Cameron’s story reached James William Esmond and Dr George Bruhn, a German physician. Both travelled to Cameron’s station and found 50 worth of gold around June 28, 1851. It seems that while William Campbell made the first Victorian gold discovery at Clunes, Esmond was the first to work the claim. The Gold Discovery Committee rewarded Campbell, Esmond and Bruhn.

Finally James Esmond, Hargraves’ companion on the ship, had fulfilled his ambitions to become one of the first to unearth gold in Victoria. But the most lucrative goldfields had yet to be discovered.

General agricultural & gold fields map of Victoria
Proeschel, F.
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

More gold discoveries

As in New South Wales, prospective gold diggers rushed to central Victoria with hopes of striking it rich. In August 1851, Thomas Hiscock and party hit the jackpot in Buninyong, followed in December by Henry Frenchman in Bendigo. These goldfields later proved to be two of the richest in the world. Additional findings were also made in Anderson’s Creek, Ararat, Mount Alexander and McIvnor’s Creek. By Christmas, an estimated 250,000 ounces of gold had been taken from the central Victorian region.

The Victorian economy

The discovery of gold did little for Victoria’s economic woes and only resulted in increased hysteria. Melbourne remained a ghost town, with only the elderly, the sick, and women and children left to run the community. Even 80 per cent of the police force had resigned to go gold digging.

Renowned American writer Mark Twain visited the city in 1895 and wrote: "This roaring avalanche swept out of Melbourne and left it desolate, Sunday-like, paralysed, everything at a stand-still, the ships lying idle at anchor, all signs of life departed, all sounds stilled save the rasping of the cloud-shadows as they scraped across the vacant streets." (Experiences did vary: other writers depict the fledgling city as anything but a ghost town.)

Golden Point, Ballarat. 1851
Thomas Ham
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

There was no doubt, however, the economy was in shambles. To raise money for supplies, owners put their properties on the market, but there was nobody around to buy real estate so prices dropped sharply. Wages tripled due to severe shortages in labor, and inflation set in. People who had made it big on the goldfields went on absurd spending sprees. Bread doubled in price, potatoes tripled and flour soared to 70 a ton. With no support staff and rampaging inflation, crops were neglected and stockmen and farmers were on the verge of ruin.

The gold rush had not only taken over the psyche of Victorians, it had taken over the economy too. Drastic action was needed to stabilise the situation, so the next year the government promised to guard the gold claims of those who chose to return home during planting and harvesting. The response was overwhelmingly positive and no further economic emergencies arose.


By Karishma Vyas


Geoff Hocking, To the diggings!: a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in Australia, Lothian Books, 2000.

Michael Evans, Gold Fever: Life on the Diggings,
from Gold 150, Celebrating 150 Years of Australian Gold-Rush History.

Marion Place, Gold Down Under, The Story of the Australian Gold Rush, Crowell-Collier Press, 1969.


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