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A new aristocracy

For thousands, the lure of the gold rush was a chance to break free of their assigned place in the British class system. Free from the bonds of master and parish, diggers could come and go as they pleased, toiling for themselves, nuturing a dream that they would strike it lucky and become rich. This speck of precious possibility was the appeal of the goldfields. As one man confided to an English aristocrat: "I feel like a king, only happier."

The diggers were distinguished as a class by their appearance - basic navvy clothing, generous beards and a coating of mud. Most new chums wanted to blend in quickly – and airs and graces were sneered at. Wrote one correspondent: "You cannot (from appearance) tell my lord from a tinker".

But above all, it was their spirit that defined them. "Manly, independent and free" with "a kind of bold off-hand swagger", they were both romanticized by roving correspondents and condemned as "scum" by detractors, many from the old guard of genteel colonial society. To these critics, independence was seen as impudence, manliness as coarseness and boldness as cheek. And their new-found wealth was especially disturbing. As William Westgarth observed:

"Gentlemen as a class are utterly extinguished. Successful diggers are lords of the ascendant, constituting for the present the aristocracy of the colonies."

This was a new "social democracy" based on hard manual labour. It favoured brawn and muscle over breeding and education. Both on the goldfields and in town, diggers clearly relished the reversal of social fortune. According to William Howitt, some found it "a wonderful place to take the conceit out of men who expect much deference." Another observed that "...they who had felt the half suppressed sneer at their ignorance in Europe were evidently ...determined now to turn the tables."

Improvident diggers in Melbourne by S.T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

The French Revolution without the guillotine

For the elite group of squatters, merchants, civil service and clergy, the social effects of "the gold revolution" were immediate. Left deserted and helpless by their servants, they then had to endure the "galling" indignity of the lucky digger returning to town to spend the bounty. Clergyman JD Mereweather noted:

"All is confusion, selfishness, license, and subversion of all respect for worth, talent an education. In fact, we have here the French Revolution without the guillotine."

Some did believe violence would follow, and many pronounced the colony ruined. John Robert Godley lamented that the upper classes were now "no longer the rich par excellence, they are jostled at every turn, often outbid and outshone by those who had been their inferiors, perhaps their servants."

"If things continue as long as they are now, I must say I shall not be at all surprised at the best people going."

"We, the unfortunate gentle people, are reduced to a most subservient state," complained one woman. Another noted: "Women-servants are become most saucy..."

Although squatters benefited from the huge new market for meat, many yearned "for the olden times". Squatter William Forlonge hoped the "cursed gold seeking" would be broken by drought ("The rascals can’t wash without water..."). Another hoped floods would starve them out.

Provident diggers in Melbourne
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

The old guard were finding shopkeepers and hoteliers, who now had a new, lucrative source of custom, not as "respectful" as before. One farmer, who complained to a storekeeper about the cost of grapes, was told: "You can keep your lousy eighteenpence; I don’t make my living by the patronage of bloody squatters."

Shops could also become the scene of public humiliation.

"The wife of one of the highest functionaries of the Government was in a shop looking for a dress. One was shown to her, but on being told the price, she said it was too dear. A common labourer who was standing by told the shopman to let her have it: he would pay for it."

Rolling in Gold

The first wave of lucky diggers returned to Melbourne for Christmas 1851, indulging in an extravagant display of their new-found wealth. Tales were told of carriages, champagne and cigars, of horses shod and harnessed with gold, of diggers in the dress circle (instead of the pit) and servants working exclusively in silk. They made mock offers to buy property from their former employers, who were by then desperately seeking labour. They summoned old officers: "Come here, old fellow, and hold my horse, and I will give you half-a-crown".

One observer, Mrs Childers, was "infinitely disgusted with the state of things here. Felt quite humiliated by it, the lower classes rampant."

Perhaps the most symbolic gesture of all in this line of "reckless prodigality"
involved the literal consumption of money. An Australian journalist reported:

"One man put £5 between two pieces of bread and butter and ate it up as a sandwich. Another rolled two £5 notes in a small ball and swallowed it as a pill. Another went into a confectioner’s to eat a few tarts, put down a £5 note and would not accept the change. They seem to have no idea of the value of money."

Digger's wedding in Melbourne by S.T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

Ellen Clacy’s description of a digger's wedding demonstrates the depth of feeling against the nouveau riche:

"There they go, the bridegroom with one arm round his lady’s waist, the other raising a champagne bottle to his lips; the gay vehicles that follow contain company even more unrestrained, and from them noisier demonstrations of merriment may be heard. These digger’s wedding are all the rage, and bridal veils, white kid gloves, and above all, orange blossoms are generally most difficult to procure at any price ..."

These stories hinted at the darker consquences of a society where wealth was based on luck.But it would take more than sporadic, if flamboyant, displays of wealth to unseat the natural sense of superiority held by many squatters. William Forlonge argued:

"Land will tell in the long run, which with the help of God we will keep in spite of the Melbourne gold worshippers."

The ascendancy of the new aristocracy could last only as long as its money.


By Pam Leversha


Robyn Annear, Nothing But Gold: The diggers of 1852, Text Publishing 1999

Weston Bate, Victorian Gold Rushes, Sovereign Hill Museums Association 1999.

Paul de Serville, Pounds and Pedigrees, Oxford UP 1991.

David Goodman, Gold Seeking Victoria and California in the 1850’s, Allen & Unwin 1994.

Frances Hale, Wealth Beneath The Soil Topics in Australian History Series, Nelson 1981.

Nancy Keesing, Gold Fever: Voices from Australian Goldfields, Griffin Press 1967.

Geoffrey Serle, The Golden Age: A history of the Colony of Victoria 1851-1861,
Melbourne University Press 1967.


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