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From diggers to companies

Becoming their own masters

The lure of the gold rush was the chance for those stuck on the lower rungs of the British class system to break free and become their own masters. They were drawn to the gold fields not only for potential wealth, but also for a newfound freedom. As James Bonwick observed,

"They have no masters. They go wherever they please and work when they will. Healthy exercise, delightful scenery, and clear and buoyant atmosphere maintain an excitement of the spirits and a glow of animal enjoyment peculiar to bush life."

Most diggers came from the working and the lower middle classes and possessed the characteristics needed most on the alluvial field - toughness, determination and luck. The best diggers were said to be farm labourers, excavators, sailors, brickmakers and miners.

"It is not what you were, but what you are that is the criterion; and although your father might have been my Lord of England all over, it goes for nothing in this equalising colony of gold and beef and mutton. Work is the word; and if you cannot do this, you are no use there."

Reverend Arthur Polehampton observed how the freedom of self employment enabled the diggers to take breaks when they wished:

"For a smoke and a few minutes’ rest – an indulgence which every man was of course free to give himself when he liked: as the word ‘master’ was not to be found in the vocabulary at that time."

Arrival of the companies

With their newfound freedom, diggers became hostile to large-scale capitalist undertakings dependent on wage labour. Smaller, individual digs remained the norm until the late 1850s. By then the best alluvial deposits were exhausted and it was obvious larger capital organization was needed for the expensive entry into quartz mining.

In 1852 the manager of the London-based Port Phillip and Colonial Gold Company arrived in Victoria to scout for property. Within a month, he told his directors: "As far as I have been able to judge, the gold scramblers will soon disappear and we shall have the refuse to ourselves." The company was soon importing and recruiting it’s own labour force, furnishing them with accommodation, tools and gold licences in return for a share of the gold they found.

Eight-hour day

The growth of quartz mining and company formation prompted an increasing demand for labour and capital, and with it the demand for an eight-hour working day. While the movement itself had no political connection, on July 22, 1866, 400 Bendigo miners decided to accept a wage cut in order to reduce the working day from ten to eight hours. It was the first expression of industrial action on a mining field and went on to consolidate better conditions for miners employed by companies.

Government support

Advances in company mining technology and methods came hand in hand with changes in government regulations. In 1851, a 10 per cent royalty was imposed by the government on from gold produced by the companies. These regulations also contained a labour clause stipulating that at least 20 men had to be employed within six months of a quartz lease. By forcing the companies to employ certain numbers of miners, the government hoped to divert independent licensed diggers to regular paid employment.

But the opinion on the fields was still against large companies holding so much valuable ground, and the ruling credo was that the easily accessible gold should be divided among the miners into smaller lots. In protest against the companies, small groups of trespassing miners would dig into company mine shafts to claim gold.

This led the Clunes Quartz Mining Company to seek a Supreme Court injunction restraining the outside miners from trespassing. The invaders petitioned the Governor that they were protesting against the company and its "utterly unjustifiable" monopoly.

The government alone could resolve the dispute but parliament was divided on the issue. Ultimately it overlooked the trespassing on the company’s ground but refused to legalize the mining of gold on private property. And so the company was forced like hundreds of other Victorian companies to continue mining gold illegally.

Technology and Industrialisation

By the early 1860’s Victoria’s quartz mines were mechanized with five hundred steam engines to haul up and crush rock. Between 14,000 to 18,000 men were mining quartz and by 1872 the hard rock was producing as much gold as the deep and shallow gravels.

A metal fabricating industry grew from the need to keep machinery operating. Spare parts had to be individually made locally, and by 1871 Ballarat had 798 blacksmiths working in increasingly sophisticated foundries.

The technological experience of Ballarat manufacturers gave them an advantage during the expansion of company mining elsewhere in Australia and from 1862 the railway became the means by which their products were widely distributed. Towards the end of the century Ballarat, these same foundries helped cement Ballarat’s reputation as a key farm machinery-manufacturing centre, especially with the famous Sunshine Harvester of H.V. McKay.


by Tim Scott


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

Geoffrey Blainey, The Rush That Never Ended University of Melbourne Press 1963

Frank Cusak, Bendigo: a History Heineman 1973

TH Irving and Carol Liston, From Colony to Coloniser: Studies in Australian Administration History Hale and Iremonger 1987

Nancy Kessing, History of the Australian Gold Rushes by Those Who Were There 1971

Margaret Kiddle, Men of Yesterday: A Small History of the Western District 1834-1890 Melbourne University Press 1983

John Serle, The Gold Finder of Australia: How He Went, How He Fared, How He Made His Fortune Clarke, Beeton 1853

Russell Ward, The Australian Legend Oxford University Press 1977


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