By early 1852, an estimated 16,000 people - half the male population of South Australia - had left for Victoria, sparking enormous economic distress. No one remained to bring in the harvest or work the Kapunda and Burra mines, which closed as a result. Even worse, the fledgling colony was drained of its currency, which men took with them in gold sovereigns as they headed to the gold fields. The banks, having extended credit, were now having trouble with repayments. The colony depended on its note issues, but legally required them to be matched by a gold coin reserve which was close to depletion and would soon be withdrawn.
RR Torrens described the situation in 1852:
"Mining and other productive operations requiring numerous hands were suspended. Property of every description was suddenly depreciated, but especially fixed property. Houses, now tenantless, and fields, for the cultivation of which farm labourers could no longer be procured, were offered for sale for sums equivalent to no more than two or three years’ of the previous rental. Adelaide throughout the entire day resembled the cities of Southern Europe at the hour of siesta. Grass did not spring up in her streets; drought prevented it."
In an attempt to counter the rush to Victoria, the South Australian government offered a reward of 1000 pounds for the discovery of a goldfield in the colony. Everyone from artists to actors tried their hand at finding a fortune for the southern colony. Unfortunately no one qualified for the reward which stipulated the field "must produce gold to the value of 10,000 pounds within two months".
The Bullion Act
South Australia was desperate for gold to boost its ailing economy, but there was not enough money to buy it. The colony was not authorised to mint its own coins, but was instead dependent on supplies from England.
To overcome this the Bullion Act of 1852 was passed. It allowed for the establishment of an assay office and smelting facilities for gold dust. The assay office was tasked with assessing the purity, weight and characteristics of gold purchased from the Victorian fields, stamping the weight and purity on the ingots. To encourage miners to bring their gold to South Australia, the price offered per ounce was higher than at the diggings or in Melbourne – but below that paid in London. This gold could be assayed and made into ingots which the banks could use to back their note issues as if they were gold coin.
The first deposits of gold were made on February 10, 1852, amounting to 2910 ounces. Monthly deposits were made from the Mt Alexander gold fields until the end of 1853.
Tolmer's gold escort
A gold escort was organised by Alexander Tolmer, then Commissioner of Police. By drawing on the experience of those returned from the diggings, and on the knowledge of Aboriginals and squatters along the way, Tolmer charted the best and quickest route between Adelaide and the Victorian gold fields. During the two years that the scheme was in operation, 18 escorts transported gold dust to the value of approximately 1.2 million pounds from the gold fields to South Australia.
Infringing upon the Royal prerogative
The ingots produced from Victorian gold at the Adelaide Assay Office were small and irregularly shaped. Each was stamped with its weight, purity and nominal value. They were not ideal for circulation, so in mid-1852 steps were taken to make the ingots more coin-like. Britain did not support South Australia’s new coin-like issue and was seen as infringing upon the Royal prerogative. Britain instructed the government that the Bullion Act be repealed, but by the time the instructions arrived some six months later, South Australia had survived its economic crisis.
By Miriam Raphael
Robyn Annear, Nothing but Gold: The Diggers of 1852, The Text Publishing Company, 1999.
Colin and Margaret Kerr, The Gold Seekers, Rigby Ltd, Adelaide, 1975.
John Sharples, Gold and Civilisation, Art Exhibition’s Australia, 2001.
Gold Treasury Museum’s online education resources database Built on Gold.
South Australia Police Historical Society online.