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Edward Hargraves

"There is as much gold in the country I’m going to as there is in California, and Her Most Gracious Majesty, the Queen, God bless her, will appoint me one of her Gold Commissioners". - Edward Hargraves

Portrait Of Mr. Hargreaves, The Discoverer Of Gold In Australia
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria.

He weighed 18 stone and was a sailor, publican, shopkeeper and adventurer. Edward Hargraves was also the man who would set off the first Australian gold rush. As self-appointed leader of a small group which travelled to California in 1850, Hargraves learned the craft of prospecting for gold with pans, cradles and excavation. More importantly he noticed similarities in the Californian terrain with that of his Australian home. Unsuccessful in California, he returned to Australia, determined to discover gold.

"A wild and unprofitable undertaking" - Inspector General, NSW Police, 1851

Hargraves announced his intentions to find gold in Australia to the Inspector General of the New South Wales police, who in response gave this harsh appraisal. When he returned to Sydney, very few wanted to hear of the portly man's ambitions. Those who returned from California without great riches were paid little attention. Without even visiting his family in Gosford, north of Sydney, on February 5, 1851 he headed immediately west towards the Blue Mountains. He took his resolute optimism.

"One and all, however, derided me, and treated my views and opinions [as those] of a madman," he wrote.

But he went forth regardless.

I felt myself surrounded by gold

After a long journey through the Blue Mountains, a rugged, sparsely-populated land occupied by sheep farms and small towns, Hargraves descended to the Bathurst plains, where he believed the gold field existed. After arriving in Gynong, Hargraves met John Lister, a man who had already found gold in the region, and followed him to where it was found. In his autobiography, Hargraves fails to even mention Lister's name, let alone the fact that his guide had led him to the exact spot of discovery. Regardless, Hargraves dramatized his account with suitable ceremony.

"My recollection of it had not deceived me. The resemblance of its formations to that of California could not be doubted or mistaken. I felt myself surrounded by gold.

"This is a memorable day in the history of New South Wales, I shall be a baronet, you will be knighted, and my old horse will be stuffed, put in a glass case, and sent to the British Museum!"

At Summerhill Creek, Hargraves panned for gold and discovered a few specs. He later said: "At that instant, I felt myself to be a great man".

Hargraves put a party of Lister and brothers James and William Tom to work, teaching them mining methods he had learned in California. The small party excavated 13 worth of gold from the Summerhill Creek area.

Rushing to Sydney with the finds, Hargraves went to the Colonial Secretary.

"If this is gold country," said the Colonial Secretary, "it comes on us like a clap of thunder, and we are scarcely prepared to credit it."

An adventurer rewarded

Hargraves was willing to reveal the location of the field, but he cleverly ensured he would be rewarded regardless. After a lengthy persuasion, the Colonial Secretary sent a British geologist to examine the field, and subsequently dealt a 500 reward to Hargraves.

Before the geologist had made an official statement, Hargraves told many people of the finds. The Sydney Morning Herald published the story and word quickly spread. Hargraves was able to find enough gold to warrant the approval of the geologist, Samuel Sutchbury. Sutchbury "found granular gold within three hours of his arrival at the site, and within a few days he was downright optimistic about the size of the potential goldfield".

The government declared a gold discovery on May 22, 1851. Prospectors cancelled their trips to California. Clerks, labourers and servants failed to appear for work as thousands rushed west for the newly named "Ophir" gold field. The first Australian gold rush was on.

Ophir Diggings
George French Angas
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria.

"It was never my intention ... to work for gold, my only desire was to make the discovery, and rely on the Government and the country for my reward." - Edward Hargraves

Just as he had prophesised, Hargraves was appointed Crown Commissioner of the Goldfields, reaping a further 10,000. Hargraves never shared his wealth with Lister or the Tom brothers, despite their protests (which were dragged into a lengthy court case, which Hargraves won). He also made a hasty effort to silence his original financier, ensuring no claims would be made on his wealth.

The audacity of Hargraves knew no bounds. He claims in his autobiography "it was never my intention ... to work for gold, my only desire was to make the discovery, and rely on the Government and the country for my reward".

Ophir was not to yield the vast fortunes the frenzy had promised. Hargraves was at times forced to flee angry mobs of unsuccessful diggers returning from the fields. It was, however, just the beginning of the gold rush for Australia.


By Benjamin Hoban

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

Douglas, Fetherling, The gold crusades : a social history of gold rushes, 1849-1929, University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Edward Hargraves, Australia and its goldfields, H. Ingram, 1855.

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

Gold 150, Celebrating 150 Years of Australian Gold-Rush History.


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