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Crime on the gold fields

Opinions vary as to the scale of crime on the gold fields. Some writers reported "the lawless condition of the place, and the deeds of rapine and bloodshed that disgrace it". Others, like the future Lord Cecil, were pleasantly surprised, finding "less crime than in a large English town, and more order and civility than I have witnessed in my own native village of Hatfield".

But clearly there were several factors that assisted crime.

  • The lack of police and the remoteness of the diggings
  • The density and restlessness of the population
  • The mining country which was, as Governor La Trobe noted, "full of secluded hollows, honeycombed with hundreds or thousands of ready-made graves..."
  • Proximity to Van Dieman’s Land. Ex convicts or "Vandemonians" were blamed for most of the criminal activity on the gold fields.

Even within the same field there were local variations, as criminal gangs tended to cluster at certain fields at certain times. So although the diggings may have been relatively law-abiding places, there are many stories of crimes ranging from claim disputes, theft, robbery with violence to manslaughter and murder. A degree of self-regulation became necessary, with some crimes receiving summary justice, and most disputes being settled between diggers "in a practical manner".

Claim Jumping

If claims were not guarded they could be "jumped" or taken over by others, and disputes were often settled by fist fights. "On returning from my mid-day meal one afternoon," one digger noted," I found the claim jumped, and I emerged from the melee which ensued minus a frontal tooth".

According to Seweryn Korzelinski:

"Where the diggings are poor no one bothers much if the claims are a few feet over the regulations. But on a rich lode, not feet, but even inches can be the occasion for arguments, fights and sometimes murder... When I was working a claim at the Alma diggings my claim was jumped by a Tipperary boy. I assured him my iron pick was very sharp and that I never look where I use it once I am in the shaft. A little encouragement from my neighbours convinced him to move out."

A subterranean variation of claim jumping was the practice of "undermining", which involved digging into the adjoining claim. Some diggers took to sleeping in their workings to guard against unwanted fossickers.

The claim disputed by S.T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

Night Fossicking

On his first day of issuing licences, magistrate C Rudston Read noticed a suspicious looking miner and murmurs of "candle light, candle light". He was told "the man was what they called a night fossicker, who slept or did nothing during the day, and then went round at night to where he knew claims to be rich and stole the stuff by candle light. This was a very common practice but they all managed to escape detection."

"Old hands were prowling about for chances to rob the rich holes," noted another digger. "We kept a loaded gun always on the ready on the claim and in the tent".

Theft And Robbery

Thieves robbed the claims of both gold and equipment, cut tents and stole goods from stores and from travellers on the road. Horse stealing was very common.

One gang had "two dray-loads of various stolen articles secreted in old drives about the diggings". Some gangs pretended to be miners and others applied diversionary tactics. One party of "light-fingered gentry" at Moonlight Flat gave a nightly concert of music.

When they had lulled the unsuspecting diggers to sleep they started their nefarious work. [Another would] ... organize a fight late at night in the vicinity of the shop, and when the merchant came out curious to see the fisticuffs, accomplices would cut the canvas wall at the rear and grab what they could.

On the counter of one store was a severed hand, which the storekeeper had chopped off as it appeared one night at the bottom of his tent. In the diggers' code, nothing was worse than stealing from a mate, and it was an act which incited strong feeling everywhere.

Diggers of high degree by S. T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

Diggers of low degree by S. T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

Accidental Homicide

Most men kept dogs chained to their tents and armed themselves, firing their guns to warn intruders off. "Those nightly salvos always make me feel uncomfortable," wrote Seweryn Korzelinski, "because many of the diggers have had little experience with firearms. Everyone in Australia knows that he is not allowed to enter a tent without first calling out to the owner," he claimed, "and that the owner can shoot at anyone approaching too closely". Despite this assertion there were many cases of accidental shootings or "justifiable homicide".

At Forest Creek. Henry Britton recalled:

"Two miners sleeping there heard the discomposing sound (so like a mouse running up the canvas wall) of a pair of scissors slitting the canvas. A pistol was fired in the direction of the supposed thief, and when the two miners went out to see the result, they found a well-dressed young man lying dead with a bullet in his chest. He did not look like one of the lawless class and it was not at all clear that he had intended robbery. He was buried next day without any information having being obtained in regard to him. This is one of the many ways in which people mysteriously disappeared on the diggings, to be afterwards advertised for by their friends in vain."

Henry Leversha recalled: "A man broke into a store ... and was in the act of carrying away a bag of flour, when a boy, who had been sleeping inside, awoke with the noise, and, following the man outside, told him to put the bag down or he would shoot him. The boy fired, the man fell mortally wounded, and the poor lad, seeing what he had done, began to cry."


Less common were cases of wilful murder at the diggings, and the perpetrators often escaped detection. One example of an act of "barbarous atrocity" was the "Sabbath day murders" at Beechworth in 1852. A young man was robbed and his body mutilated. On the same Sunday, a German publican camping with his wife and three children had his horse stolen. He pursued the thieves, but was dragged into the bush and shot through the head, his body partially suspended from a tree "in a frightful state". There were several suspects, but noone was ever caught. In the long term, brutal murders like these helped to undermine the digger's confidence in gold fields administration, and their sense of injustice about license fees.

Other Crimes

Drunkenness was common, as was fighting. One "brutish man ... while fighting, bit another man’s nose off". There were cases of "brutality of husbands &c", and the three perpetrators of a rape case in 1852 were believed to have been dealt with summarily. The deceptive tricks of some gold buyers were notorious. Some gullible new chums were victims of "salt and peppering", where gold would be planted in a worn out claim to make it appear productive. A less common crime, which occurred in Kurnalpi Western Australia, was the circulation of bogus £1 notes, which became an issue once they appeared in the two-up schools.


By Pam Laversha
(Henry Leversha is the author's great-great grandfather)


W.E. Adcock The Gold Rushes of the Fifties Poppet Head Press 1977.

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

Frank Crowley A Documentary History of Australia. Volume 2 1841-74 Nelson 1980.

The Castlemaine Association of Pioneers and Old Residents
Records of the Castlemaine Pioneers Rigby 1972, Graffiti 1996.

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.

Seweryn Korzelinski Memoirs of Gold-Digging in Australia, University of Qld 1979.

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

W. Fearn-Wannan Australian Folklore Landsdowne 1970.

Carole Woods Beechworth: A Titan’s Field Hargreen 1985.


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