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Gold and ten mile towns

The gold rush in the 19th century inspired the greatest social migration yet seen in world history to that time. The discovery of gold in Australia caused a huge influx of people and produced large inland towns of tens of thousands in the space of less than 20 years. Some of those towns would disappear in the same space of time.

Tent Cities and Ten Mile Towns

Most gold towns began life as straggling "tent cities" along river and creek valleys where prospectors built rough dwellings of calico, hessian, blankets and bark. These frontier settlements rose up quickly and remained only so long as the income from gold continued to flow. Great numbers of prospectors rushed into districts where surface gold had been discovered, tearing down forests and turning the ground to mush.

The initial rash of camps were often shifting settlements spread over a wide area. Later, a "canvas town" - a collection of one or two room tent dwellings or slab huts - would converge around official government lodgings. An estimated 25 per cent of the tents belonged to storeholders who followed the trade to the goldfields, or to ex-diggers seeking an easier way to make a living.

Development proceeded quickly in profitable areas to service the needs of the new townships. The settlement at Ballarat had, by 1854, already established more permanent buildings including a post office and a number of hotels, churches and public houses. In the same year, The Ballarat Times began a weekly issue and an official grid of streets had been established on a nearby plain.

Map of the roads to all gold mines in Victoria showing the cross roads from one mine to another with indications of various stations by James B Philp
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

Other townships sprang up as wayside stops or "ten mile towns" en route to the gold fields. These appeared at regular intervals in accordance with the travellers' need for food, forage and accommodation along the way. People walking with kit and equipment, or driving horse and bullock teams, tended to travel about 10 to 15 miles a day.

Soon, inns and stables were built to service the military gold escort of British troops which were established to protect the gold haul from bushrangers. Unfortunately, the timetable for the escort was widely publicised - and of particular use to the bushrangers.

Nonetheless, many Victorian towns which were original stops between the gold fields and the capital cities survive: from Melbourne, the townships of Melton, Bacchus Marsh and Ballan mark the trail to the western gold fields at Ballarat, and from there to Adelaide. (Another trail went via Geelong.) In the north-west of Victoria, Keilor, Diggers Rest, Gisborne, Mt Macedon, Carlsruhe and Kyneton stretch out to Castlemaine and Bendigo; on the Sydney Road, the original townships at Pentridge (now Coburg), Mercers Vale, Kilmore, Avenal, Euroa and Benalla dotted the trail to NSW.

Township of Keilor from South side of Bridge by J Tingle
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

Golden Cities

A few gold field towns continued to thrive after the initial gold rush years of 1851-1870 by diversifying their mining and crushing industries into engineering works and metal foundries.

Victoria's fertile hinterland provided a natural advantage. Unlike many other gold rush towns in remote areas of Australia and overseas, it supported a large, permanent population with ready supplies of agricultural, pastoral and timber resources.

Bendigo was the nickname of a local shepherd, called (ironically perhaps) after an English prize fighter. The first gold was found in 1851 near Bendigo's hut on Bendigo's Creek. By the end of the first gold rush in the 1860s, the early township had established flour mills, woollen mills and tanneries, and a wide variety of food production industries rivalling those of other urban centres.

Bendigo historian Frank Cusack described how "the smell of jam and pickle factories, of breweries and bakeries, bacon factories and eucalyptus distilleries permeated the valley air". A number of the region's original companies, such as Leggo's tomato products and Sunshine biscuits, continue to produce today.

The gold wealth of the region built a grand city on a European scale with wide avenues and flamboyant buildings which are now some of the best preserved examples of 19th century architecture in Australia.

Lydiart St. from Bath's Hotel, Ballaarat by S.T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

Ballarat's main streets, adorned with parks and statues, reflect the sense of civic pride in the self-proclaimed "Golden City" of the 1890s. With a population of 47,000 inhabitants, it had by this time overtaken Geelong as Victoria's second city.

Mechanics Institutes were versatile public meeting places and, after churches and hotels, perhaps the final stamp of sophistication in late 19th century society. They were usually simple affairs in the new towns. The mock classical facade of Ballarat's Mechanics Institute, alongside the Victorian grandness of her hotels and theatres, suggests the presence of what might have passed for high society.

The cities that emerged from the mix of cultures at the gold fields were predominately British in character, and by far the largest proportion of diggers that remained in Australia after the gold rush had migrated there from the British Isles.


As population growth began to level off and decline in areas where gold deposits were quickly exhausted, competition intensified among townships vying for survival. The impetus for further development could quickly be exploited by neighbouring townships well positioned for a railway line, or awarded postal depots, police stations and other government institutions.

In 1859, Maryborough won a tussle with the neighbouring townships of Dunnolly and Carisbrook to have a district gaol sited there and later established itself as the regional centre of a circle of smaller gold towns to the north of Ballarat. Ararat, which was awarded a district gaol at the same time, was happy to receive an asylum for the insane a decade later.

The towns of Stawell, Mt Alexander (near Castlemaine) and Bathurst (at the centre of the gold fields in NSW), once large mining towns, proved to have smaller gold leads than those of Ballarat or Bendigo. They nevertheless survived as regional centres with thriving farming and market communities and plenty of available capital in an era when industrialisation was transforming economic development.

The success of Sale in East Gippsland, Victoria, is sometimes credited with an extraordinary meeting of its traders and townspeople in 1862 which agreed to sponsor the exploration of a track to the rich Walhalla diggings and beyond to Matlock, Aberfeldy and Woods Point.

Supplies to the diggings had to be transported from the southern coast at Port Albert and then repacked into loads suitable for the mountain tracks to the gold fields. Sale thrived as a diversified supply town to the region. The primitive township of slabs, logs and shingles was virtually rebuilt in brick and dressed timber in the decade from 1861 to 1871. The population increased fourfold in that time.

Ghost Towns

Some gold towns with a short productive life declined significantly in the decades after the gold rush as other towns in the district continued to grow. The small township of Creswick, just north of Ballarat, had a population of 25,000 during the peak of its gold rush. Like Clunes, further north, it was a huge mining community now reduced to around one tenth of its size.

Heathcote, the centre of the McIvor diggings in Victoria, had sprung up as a mining village of 30,000 diggers in 1852 and was deserted a decade later.

With only a few buildings still standing, the ghost towns of Home Rule and Gulgong, near Mudgee in New South Wales, are only shadows of their brief glamour in the roaring days of the 1860s and 70s.

Perhaps the greatest example of calamity to befall a once great mining centre is the town of Coolgardie in Western Australia, where vast quantities of gold were discovered and largely exhausted for the individual prospector in a short time. The remoteness of the region did little to encourage continued growth, despite the arrival of the railway line in 1896.

Coolgardie sparked the greatest gold rush in Australian history and grew rapidly from the first discovery of gold in 1863 to become the third largest town in the state after Perth and Fremantle. By the turn of the century water was being piped to the city. However, mining operations were already moving to nearby Kalgoorlie, where the gold deposits were much larger.

The town, which had a peak population of around 15,000, had ceased to be a municipality by 1921. The population fell dramatically and, at one point, had declined to less than 200 people before a brief revival in gold prices during the 1980s.

Coolgardie's main promenade, wide enough to allow long camel trains to turn around, with its elaborate 19th century hotels and office blocks, stands at odds with its present status - reflecting both the great riches and the impermanence of the gold rush era.


By David Whiteley


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

Susan Priestley, The Victorians - Making Their Mark, Fairfax, Syme, Weldon Assoc., 1984.

C.E. Sayers, Old Gold and Mining Towns of Australia, Rigby, 1987.

Gold Treasury Museum’s online education resources database Built on Gold


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