and (sometimes)


The economic impacts of the gold rush were especially felt in Victoria, where the 1850s goldfields were rich and plentiful. Melbourne was transformed, and gold rush towns like Ballarat and Bendigo flourished with new wealth and a growing population. A few lucky diggers struck it rich; so too did storekeepers, ‘sly grog’ sellers, suppliers and investors.

But how did the gold rush impact the economic lives of First Nations peoples, Chinese people, children and women? What barriers did people face as they tried to provide for their families? Explore the innovative ways people devised to survive and sometimes prosper in the gold rush years. Find out how their contributions made Australia one of the wealthiest places in the world.

Bright Visions or the Gold Diggings, 1852, State Library of Victoria.

The First


Marlene Gilson, Chinese on the Goldfields, 2018, acrylic on linen. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ballarat. Photo: Peter Freund.

This section was contributed by Deanne Gilson and Tammy Gilson, Wadawurrung Traditional Custodians.

“The dispossession of the traditional lands of Wadawurrung people, along with the imposition of a European economic system, took a grave toll. Adapting to this incursion on Wadawurrung traditional lands meant the need to re-think means of survival.

Wadawurrung had no economic connection to gold nor was its composition of any use to make artefacts or tools. This knowledge presented advantage as they knew where the gold was. Desperate for that ‘lucky strike’, the diggers were aware of the Wadawurrung people’s knowledge and employed some of the men as ‘black trackers’ to navigate through Country. They were led to new gold sites that were in fact culturally significant sites for Wadawurrung people.

Wadawurrung had many skills and talents that portrayed them as the first entrepreneurs; they saw ways of earning a living through demonstrations of boomerang throwing, selling wallert wallert (possum skin rugs) and binhak (baskets). They were experts at making wooden implements, tools and bark canoes (using stone axes to remove the bark of the tree). Bark canoes were used for transporting diggers across rivers.

Some of the younger Wadawurrung men were employed as circus performers in visiting circuses; often excellent horsemen, they would perform acrobatic tricks on horseback. They also taught the miners hunting methods to catch food such as goim (kangaroo) and walert (possum).

Wadawurrung endured immense hardship and mistreatment. Ration stations were set up, offering blankets and foods such as flour and rice. Over time, the rations were halved, forcing Wadawurrung to become more dependent on the settlers. They were chained up at night and forced to work during the day, planting cops, minding the miners’ children, and forced to adapt to a colonised society.”

Marlene Gilson, Eureka Stockade, 2018, acrylic on linen, Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ballarat. Photo credit Peter Freund.

Possum skin cloaks were made in south-eastern Australia, where there was a cool climate and an abundance of possums. According to historian Fred Cahir, as many as 72 possum skins were needed to make up a rug, and it could take many months to hunt, skin, tan and stitch them together. A possum skin rug was equal in warmth to about 12 blankets. They were particularly prized by diggers since they kept out the cold and damp and made sleeping on the ground more comfortable. Orders also came in for possum skin rugs from overseas.

One government official, Andrew Porteous wrote of the trade in possum skin rugs and household goods in 1866:

“The tribe still continue to make possum rugs, and, if steady, might make a good living by it, as they generally get 20s. to 30s. for each rug, which they can make in 14 days. The women also employ themselves in making baskets and nets, which they sell to the Europeans.”

and Business


Many miners struggled to find gold, including miners who had travelled from far away countries. Some miners from China had more luck as general store owners, gardeners, restaurant and hotel owners, herbalists and businesspeople.

William A. Sac's Chinese Boarding House, Gulgong, American & Australasian Photographic Company, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Many Chinese people were skilled farm workers who cultivated market gardens on the diggings. Potatoes, onions, carrots, beans and cabbages were grown and sold by Chinese vendors and businesses and provided a source of income. You can find more information about these market gardeners, including plans of their garden plots, in the Many Roads: Stories of the Chinese on the goldfields virtual exhibit.

Chinese-owned restaurants were also popular. The most famous was run by John Alloo (originally Chin Thum Lok). The restaurant sold primarily European food, including soups, roasts and pudding. John Alloo arrived in Australia before the gold rush in the 1840s. He became a successful restaurant owner and interpreter in Ballarat and later migrated to New Zealand, where he worked as an interpreter for the police force.

John Alloo's Chinese Restaurant, main road, Ballaarat, S.T Gill, 1855, National Library of Australia, nla.obj-135291710.

Chinese goldfields communities also had internal economies of storekeepers, restaurants, teahouses, tailors, herbalists, acupuncturists, interpreters, scribes and specialised artisans. There were Chinese theatres and, in some locations, a coach service that ran between goldfields towns.

Quong Tart, ca. 1880s, Mitchell Library, State of New South Wales.

These economic achievements took place despite the excessive taxes, immigration restrictions, bans on working in some industries and harassment faced by Chinese people. The Chinese community organised protests and marches against unfair taxes. Petitions against discriminatory treatment attracted hundreds of signatures from people across many different communities, and were sent to the colonial governments.

In New South Wales, prominent entrepreneur Quong Tart, was an essential negotiator between Chinese immigrants and the government. He was known for his chain of silk stores and tea shops that became the first tea rooms in Sydney. Quong Tart's tea rooms were the site of the first meetings of Sydney's suffragettes. He is also the great-grandfather of Australian actor Josh Quong Tart.



Many women also became independent entrepreneurs during the gold rush, panning for gold as well as establishing successful businesses. Many were economic pioneers who broke the mould of what was considered possible for women.

Colonial wine & dining rooms, Hill End, American & Australasian Photographic Company, 1870-1875, State Library of New South Wales.
Modernity’s End: Half The Sky, 2016. Drawing for embroidery, 10 x 14.5cm Courtesy: John Young

This Artwork by John Young Zerunge presents the lives of Alice Lim Kee (Wu Ai-lien 伍愛蓮) and Daisy Kwok, two Australian-born Chinese women. The women migrated to Shanghai at the height of interwar modernity, rising to prominent positions in Shanghai society prior to the Japanese invasion and occupation in 1937. Alice became an actress and the first woman radio announcer in Shanghai’s media industry, and later a journalist for the English-language Shanghai North-China Daily News. Daisy, through her family’s ties to the luxurious Wing On Department store was a member of Shanghai’s vanguard elite; one of the first women in Shanghai to own and drive a car.

Listen: Modernity’s End: Half The Sky – John Young talks about the historical memories of two young Australian women Alice Lim Kee and Daisy Kwok moving to China in the 1930s (approx. 3 mins).

Kee escaped occupation and travelled back to Australia and on to America, spending many years lecturing and advocating for the Chinese nation and Chinese refugees. Kwok chose to remain in Shanghai. Following persecution during the Communist take-over in 1949, she became a historian of Chinese-Australians, assisting the Australian consulate when it reopened in Shanghai in 1987; translating documents, teaching English language, and as building a repository of the history of China-Australia connections prior to the cutting of diplomatic ties in the 1950s. She died in Shanghai in 1998 as an Australian citizen.

The combined images and drawings reveal the strength and resilience of the women, acknowledging their contributions to the transcultural histories of China and Australia, and the significant role Australian bicultural figures have played in shaping international histories. As historians Paul Macgregor and Sophie Loy-Wilson have noted, through her Australian lecture tours, “Alice may well have had a pivotal role in changing White Australians' attitudes to China as a nation, and the Chinese as a people.”

Another successful woman was Alice Cornwell, known as "Madam Midas". Alice came to the goldfields when she was just nine years old. By the time she was in her late 20s she was a partner in her father's mine in Ballarat. She was known for "her business skills, her ability to find gold, and for supervising men as a mine manager". In 1886, she returned to London a millionaire.

Sarah Hanmer was a 32-year-old Scots-Irish actress and a single mother when she arrived on the Ballarat goldfields in 1854. She became a star at the Queen’s Theatre in Ballarat and then launched her own company, the Adelphi Theatre. Starting off in a canvas tent, the Adelphi became Ballarat's most popular theatre. Sarah was the largest benefactor of the miners’ rights protest movement.

Portrait of Alice Cornwell, ca. 1888, Herbert Rose Barraud (photographer), National Library of Australia, nla.obj-138062441.
Interior of Adelphi Theatre, Ballarat 1855, State Library of Victoria.

In the Voices section of this website, we met Clara Seekamp, an important figure in printing and publishing during the gold rush era and the first woman to edit an Australian newspaper.

Englishwoman Ellen Young, the self-proclaimed “Ballarat poetess”, expressed the grievances of her community through poetry and passionate letters to the editor of The Ballarat Times.

“We, the people demand cheap land, just magistrates, to be represented in the Legislative Council, in fact treated as the free subjects of a great nation”.



Transport was vital during the gold rush, enabling the movement of miners, traders and their goods over long distances. Much of the terrain was inhospitable and bewildering to travellers. In Victoria and elsewhere, First Nations peoples were the providers of early transport networks. Together with overland guiding services that often followed traditional songlines, this transport allowed newcomers to reach the goldfields.

Before colonisation, First Nations peoples across Australia had established complex river transport systems over thousands of generations. The management of waterways, rivers and waterholes was vital to spiritual life, and rivers were valuable sources of food and other resources as well as a means of trade and travel. Many European migrants couldn't swim and relied on First Nations peoples' navigation of the waterways and their knowledges of canoe building, swimming and fishing.

The 2015 documentary Seeing the Land from an Aboriginal Canoe explores the significance of the transport systems of the Wadawarrung and Dja Dja Wurrung peoples for the goldfields economy. As Wadawurrung Elder Uncle Bryon Powell has said, “[I]f it wasn’t for my family, my old people, the gold rush probably wouldn’t have happened, and the miners wouldn’t have survived…they had to use Aboriginal people to ferry their goods down the river.”

Mr. Blandowski's encampment on the Lower Murray, February 6, 1858, State Library of Victoria.
Prospective Chinese gold miners leaving for the diggings on Cobb and Co. Coach, Castlemaine, State Library of Victoria.

By the mid-1850s, horse-drawn carriage and coach services had become more common on the routes to the goldfields. The Chinese settlement at Guildford had its own Chinese-run coach service running between Sandhurst (Bendigo) to the north, and Ballarat to the south. This was one of several Chinese-run coach services.

The development of roads and later rail services between the New South Wales goldfields is examined in a Sydney Living Museums online resource. New roads designed to take people to new gold towns sometimes followed First Nations walking tracks. Heavy traffic to the goldfields destroyed many of the original roads and tracks.

Geelong and Melbourne railway drawing. including the branch line to Williamstown, Edward Snell, 1852, State Library of Victoria.

While travel by road was fast and popular, it was often dangerous due to the presence of bushrangers. A new mode of transport was sought out that would shorten travel times dramatically; rail. Three major rail lines were constructed in New South Wales between 1850 and 1880. During the building of the railways, land often had to be bought from private citizens, however Traditional Owners, whose lands were being crossed, were not compensated.

Old Money
New Money


For thousands of European gold seekers, the gold rush was a chance to break free of their place in a rigid class system. This was particularly true in Britain. Limited social mobility meant that if you were born poor in England in the 1850s, you were likely to stay poor, no matter how hard you worked. The possibility of social transformation was the appeal of the goldfields.

For First Nations peoples, class mobility was not an option. 19th-century laws that established Aboriginal reserves and missions removed civil rights, rights to work, be paid, own land or property, practice culture, associate with non-Indigenous people, and access education and healthcare. Many First Nations peoples were forced into servitude, further stripping away rights, freedoms and social autonomy. These laws had monumental impacts on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, families, cultures, languages and economic sovereignty.

Improvident diggers in Melbourne Author / Creator Gill, S. T., 1818-1880 artist.
1866: The Worlds of Lowe Kong Meng and Jong Ah Siug, 2015 Digital print on photographic paper and chalk on blackboard painted archival cotton paper 49 works, 320 x 1350 cm total Courtesy: Boroondara City Council Collection and John Young

Chinese-Australian artist John Zerunge's history projects explore two extremes of class mobility for 19th-century Chinese migrants.

In the mid-1800s, two young men arrived in the colony of Victoria to seek their fortune in the goldfields. Lowe Kong Meng (Liu Guangming 劉光明, 1831-1888) was an educated Chinese-Malaysian merchant from Penang, Malaysia, who at 22 years of age arrived speaking four languages. Jong Ah Siug (c. 1837–1900) was an illiterate miner, aged 18, who landed following an arduous boat journey from Zhongshan, Southern China.

By 1866, the paths of these two migrants had diverged dramatically. Lowe Kong Meng had risen to become one of the colony’s powerful elite, owner of a fleet of trading ships, active in Australian politics and a board member of the Commercial Bank of Australia, now Westpac, whilst remaining connected to the Qing dynasty as an overseas Chinese.

In contrast, Jong Ah Siug had been sentenced to 33 years of incarceration in the Yarra Bend and Sunbury lunatic asylums following a violent altercation with a fellow miner, where he remained until his death in 1900 despite his longstanding attempts at self-exoneration.

EMBROIDERY The Meeting, 2015 Hand-sewn single thread silk embroidery 41 x 42 cm (within frame) Courtesy: Boroondara City Council Collection and John Young

These two delicate works were hand-sewn by Chinese embroiderers, commissioned by the artist, John Young. The embroideries are replicas of pages within the diary of Jong Ah Siug, a Chinese migrant to Australia in the mid-1800s. The palm-sized diary was written in pidgin English by Jong and contains detailed descriptions and accurate maps of the towns and cities he lived in and travelled through.

The only remaining legacy of Siug, the diary was a proclamation of his sanity, however difficult it was via his expression of limited English. It is thought that he intended to present it to the Duke of Edinburgh, who came to Australia for a royal tour in 1867, to regain his freedom. The diary, however, never made its way to the relevant authorities, and instead ended up in the State Library of Victoria as a ‘literary curiosity’ in 1880, twenty years before the author’s death while still incarcerated. The diary now stands as a testament to the ramifications of cultural misunderstanding and mistranslation of the Chinese community at that time.

In the embroidery The Meeting, a one-pound note is layered on top of a page from Jong’s diary. The one-pound note was produced in the late 1800s by the Commercial Bank of Australia, where Lowe sat on the board. It is the first bi-lingual one-pound note in Australia, with both Chinese and English script. This embroidery brings into dialogue the vast disparity in the lives of these two men; in the year 1866, Lowe had reached at the peak of social acceptance as a Victorian elite, while that same year Jong was incarcerated. Young commissioned these images to be hand-sewn in order to illustrate the exceptional care and attention that should be given to this poignant conjunction of events.

Mr Lowe Kong Meng, September 27, 1866, State Library of Victoria.
The Illustrious Fleet of Lowe Kong Meng and Lowe Kong Meng, 2015, Digital print and felt on canvas, 175x250.5cm and 320 x 151cm. Courtesy: John Young



In less than a decade, the gold rush transformed Melbourne’s landscape for its Traditional Custodians, the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung peoples of the Eastern Kulin Nation, who had been forced off their land.

To get a sense of Melbourne's transformation over time including the gold rush years, see the Melbourne Museums project on Marvellous Melbourne. The Coranderrk Reserve section of the site highlights the fight of the Wurundjeri people, led by William Barak, to have control over their own land.

Bourke Street, Melbourne, ca. 1858, State Library of Victoria.

In the 1850s, Melbourne was chaotic. The roads were full of holes, disease was rife, robbery was common, and the cost of living had skyrocketed. At the same time, successful diggers were able to afford whatever they wanted. They came to Melbourne with vast amounts of money - rolls of banknotes and bags of gold.

Treasury building, Melbourne, Spring Street, Melbourne, State Library of Victoria.

The huge and rapid influx of people into Melbourne stretched facilities to breaking point. Squalor, poverty and disease spread quickly. There were few tradesmen to build new facilities as everyone had left for the diggings. Until 1854, there was no drainage system in Melbourne; the streets were open sewers and, sometimes, raging torrents.

Princess Theatre, Melbourne, William Pitt (artist) 1855-1918, State Library of Victoria.

From 1853 to 1854, the number of buildings in Melbourne doubled. Architects were drawn to Melbourne by this building boom, and they created grand public buildings modelled on those in major European cities.

In a very different-looking part of the city, Melbourne's Chinatown was also emerging as a centre of community life.

South Australia
in Crisis


By early 1852, approximately 16,000 people – half the male population of South Australia – had left for Victoria, causing an enormous economic crisis. No one remained to bring in the harvest or work the Kapunda and Burra copper mines, which closed as a result. Men took all their gold sovereigns with them as they headed to the Victoria goldfields. The banks couldn't collect loan repayments.

Arrival of the first gold escort William St. Melbourne June 1852, William Austin fl. 1850-1884, State Library of Victoria.

The rescue plan

South Australia was desperate for gold to boost its devastated economy but there was no money to buy it. Realising that something had to be done to attract diggers and their wealth back to Adelaide, the government approved a rescue plan from Commissioner of Police and Police Magistrate Alexander Tolmer. In 1852, Tolmer called for the gold found by South Australians to be returned to the colony. And he persuaded the government that he could bring it back himself, accompanied by an escort of only a few men.

South Australia quickly passed the laws needed to put the plan into action. The Bullion Act of 1852 set up a special assay office to assess the purity and weight of gold from the Victorian fields and established smelting facilities for gold dust. To encourage miners to bring their gold to South Australia, the price offered per ounce was higher than at the diggings or in Melbourne.

Australia’s First


Gold taken from the Victorian goldfields was originally stored in bank vaults in Melbourne. As gold seekers became richer and the quantities increased, there was little available room. The first treasury building was constructed on William Street Melbourne, under the orders of Governor La Trobe. From 1851, gold was deposited at this building, which still stands today.

Interior Of The Coining Room In The Victorian Royal Mint, Samuel Calvert (engraver) 1828-1913, State Library of Victoria.

Kangaroo money

Since Victoria had no mint or assay office, there was no way to turn the gold into currency. This changed in 1853 when attempts were made to establish a private mint in Melbourne based on a model that had worked in California.

Known as the Kangaroo Office, the Melbourne mint was supposed to buy cheap gold and strike it into tokens of fixed weight worth 1, 2, 4 and 8 pounds. However, less than a year later the Kangaroo Office's manager admitted failure; running the Kangaroo Office was expensive and time-consuming.

The first Royal Mint

To ensure the British had a firm hold over Australian money interests, England decided to establish a branch of the Royal Mint in Sydney. The Sydney branch began striking sovereigns and half sovereigns in 1853. The coins were made to the same exact weight levels as the Royal Mint, though they had their own design to protect the international reputation of the imperial sovereign. The last sovereign was struck in 1932.

In 1872 Victoria finally started up a branch of the Royal Mint in Melbourne. A third and final branch was set up in Perth in 1899. The Perth mint continues to operate today. It uses gold found in Western Australia to make souvenir ingots and coins for the collectors' market.

From Diggers to


Great extended hustlers co's. Quartz mining claim, N. J. Caire (photographer) 1837-1918, ca. 1875, State Library of Victoria.

Smaller individual digs remained the norm until the late 1850s. By then the best sedimentary deposits were exhausted and it was obvious more capital was needed for the expensive entry into quartz mining. By the early 1860s, Victoria’s quartz mines were mechanised with 500 steam engines to haul up and crush rock. The environmental consequences of corporate mining were just beginning to reveal themselves.

The new company mines also increased the demand for labour. With this came a growing miners' rights movement, which echoed the call of other Victorian labourers for an eight-hour day. On July 22, 1866, 400 Bendigo miners negotiated the reduction of their working day from 10 to eight hours. It was the first expression of industrial action on the goldfields, and it would lead to better conditions for miners employed by companies.

The Eight Hours' Demonstration, The State Library of Victoria.

Not a movement for all miners

Despite this success, only a minority of workers initially won the eight-hour day. Chinese workers, First Nations workers, women and children generally worked much longer hours for less pay.

As racism intensified on Australian goldfields, European miners demanded more restrictions on Chinese miners' rights. They objected to companies that employed Chinese miners who worked more cheaply. By the time of the gold rush in Western Australia, laws had been passed to exclude non-white miners from this colony's mining economy.

In fact, most Chinese miners had not started off as independent diggers. They came to Australia as contracted labourers and went to work for a company to pay back their boat fare. Others were sponsored by their family or village and worked to create wealth for an entire community. Eventually some wealthier Chinese miners set up their own companies in Australia. The Woah Hawp Canton Quartz Mining Company of Ballarat was founded in 1882 by a conglomeration of Chinese shareholders and businessmen who chose to employ Chinese workers.

While First Nations peoples faced exclusion and discrimination across many goldfields, historian Galiina (Kal) Ellwood notes that certain remote Queensland goldfields provided opportunities for First Nations miners.

“Aboriginal involvement in the mining industry was most extensive, and long-lasting, on those fields which Whites found difficult to access or were remote, and which had alluvial or eluvial [different types of gold deposit] resources suited to miners with limited capital, sometimes using Aboriginal mining methods.”

Read more about Kal Ellwood’s work on the long history of Aboriginal mining in Queensland.

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