When you think about the gold rush, whose voices do you hear? Whose stories do you know? What do you imagine in your mind’s eye?

Listen: English, Polish, Italian and Cantonese voices.

Much of what we know about the gold rush has been influenced by the written sources available – journal entries, letters, diaries and newspapers. These often come from British migrants and visitors. But what of the other voices? And what of the stories that were sung and painted? This section turns the spotlight onto some of the lesser known narratives, sourced from a broad range of perspectives.

Gold miner sitting outside a bark hut in 1870
Gold miners outside a bark hut, Queensland, ca. 1870, Richard Daintree (photographer), State Library of Queensland.

First Voices


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

Deanne Gilson, Karringalabil Bundjil Murrup, Manna Gum Tree (The Creation Tree of Knowledge) White ceremonial ochre, acrylic on linen, 2020.

“The denial of First Nations cultures, structures, lores and traditional ways, has throughout the history of Australia posed many falsehoods about First Nations peoples. Traditional ways of living, engaging with Country and each other were changed when colonisers embedded themselves into Wadawurrung Country. 19th century colonists recorded voices of Wadawurrung ancestral stories. One of these stories was the Bundjil Creation Story, still relevant today. The creation story has another version, handed down not by colonists, but through generations of Wadawurrung family; testimony of the survival of people and history that pre-date colonisation.

Throughout history, Indigenous peoples have more often been objects of research and not initiators (states Professor Lester-Irabinna Rigney). Knowledge productions about Indigenous worldviews and realities can be obscured by cultural and race biases of non-Indigenous interpreters.

Bruce Pascoe talks about how the colonists sought to forget the advanced nature of Aboriginal societies and economies; this amnesia was entrenched when settlers who arrived after depopulation of districts found no structure more substantial than a windbreak, and no population that was not humiliated.

Furthermore, Brian Martin suggests the assumption of Terra Nullius enabled the colonies to refuse to form a treaty with the original inhabitants whose land they occupied.”

New Voices


Seweryn Korzeliński, ca 1860, Walery Rzewusk, 11 January 1860, Polona.pl.

“…Everyone crossed many lands and many a sea before arriving in Australia”.

Did you know that many historians describe the goldfields as the birthplace of modern multicultural Australia, rich with different voices from around the world? In this section, we hear the experiences of people who travelled from faraway lands to seek their fortune mining gold in Australia.

Seweryn Korzelinki, who was born in Poland in 1804 and arrived in Australia in 1852, vividly captured life on the goldfields of Victoria. Korzelinski often wrote of the diverse people he met on the diggings:

“Australia is a queer mixture… the drive to get rich, to penetrate the mystery of the land, to taste adventure which brings in a variety of people from nearly all parts of the world, people of different temperaments, talents and aims.”

Korzelinski also noted that although different nationalities all worked alongside one another and often banded together to survive, "national animosities exist as strongly on the fields as anywhere else,” hinting at the racism towards 'foreigners' examined in sections of this site.

Listen: Korzelinski’s quote (below) in Polish.

“[People] amuse themselves with conversation about their countries of origin and its habits and describe events they have experienced, because every one crossed many lands and many a sea before arriving in Australia.”

Another famous traveller to the goldfields from distant lands was Italian-born Raffaelo Carboni. Carboni was a professor, interpreter and translator fluent in Italian, French, Spanish, German and English. He came to Australia hoping for riches. Instead, he found unrest due to the tyrannical administration of the licensing system. Carboni had lived through a revolution in his home country:

“...I called on my fellow-diggers, irrespective of nationality, religion and colour, to salute the Southern Cross as the refuge for all the oppressed from all countries on earth.”

Listen: Carboni’s quote (above) in Italian.

The Southern Cross flag Carboni referred to symbolises one of the most famous events of the gold rush era: the Eureka Stockade. In his eyewitness account, Carboni revealed the attack by British troopers on a civilian population of men, women and children on the Ballarat diggings.

“...an infernal trooper trotting on the road to Ballarat, took a deliberate aim at me, and fired his Minie rifle pistol with such a tolerable precision, that the shot whizzed and actually struck the brim of my cabbage-tree hat, and blew it off my head.”

Many people were killed, and many more were injured. Carboni was one of 13 miners charged with treason.

Carboni, Australian Performing Group, 1980, State Library of Victoria.

Voices through Text


“As soon as we heard the hoarse voice calling, 'latest English news,' we used to run out of the tents and pay 2/6 for a slim newspaper, because any news at all would break the monotonous life of the miner.”

Sergei Korzelinski

The literature of the goldfields ranged from newspapers and periodicals to essays and poetry written by visiting writers. The Chinese Advertiser was the earliest bilingual Chinese-English newspaper in Australia, first appearing in May 1856. It was published by Robert Bell, an Englishman, in Ballarat every Saturday, had a circulation of 400 copies and was distributed for free.

The English & Chinese Advertiser, 07 August 1858, Sovereign Hill Museums Association, Ballarat Historical Society.

Well-known English writer, William Howitt, was 60 years old when he travelled to Victoria in 1852. Howitt was interested in dispelling romantic myths about gold-rich Australia that filled the newspapers.

“All this sludge and filth and confusion, swarms of people, many of them gentlemen of birth and education, all labouring as for life. When you have seen this, you begin to have a truer notion of what gold digging is, than from the rose water romancing of the Australian papers…We have begun to destroy the beauty of this creek. It will no longer run clear between its banks, covering with wattles and tea trees…A little while, and its whole course will exhibit nothing but nakedness, and heaps of gravel and mud. We diggers are horribly destructive of the picturesque.”

Howitt’s words gave vivid, and more accurate, pictures of the goldfields.

Céleste de Chabrillan (1824-1909), author, courtesan and circus performer, was born in 1824 in Paris. On 9 January 1854, she married Count Lionel de Chabrillan in London, and two days later they set sail to Melbourne to take up his appointment as French consul general. Céleste took with her, among other things, an adopted daughter, a maid, two lap dogs and a budgerigar. Shunned by high society in Melbourne, Céleste wrote for 12 to 15 hours a day, producing a novel about the goldfields called Les Voleurs d'Or (The Gold Robbers). The Gold Robbers differed from most travelogues about life on the diggings; it featured 12 murders, a hanging and three natural deaths, as well as two births and three goldfields weddings. de Chabrillan wrote 12 novels, 26 plays and seven operettas along with poems, songs and memoirs.

Voices through Art


When you think about the gold rush in Australia, what do you picture? Have you seen artwork, drawings, or photographs from the time?

Arriving from England in 1852, Edward Snell – “a man who felt at loss without pen and notebook” – was an engineer, artist and adventurer. He detailed his experiences on the goldfields in his diary, The Life and Adventures of Edward Snell. His personal thoughts often captured ordinary, day-to-day lives of gold diggers.

Snell took great care in sketching his surroundings, including drawings of the diggings, insects, animals, landscapes and people. Snell's drawings capture the haggard and tired faces of diggers; torn clothes covered with patches adorn the bodies of diggers overburdened with tools and the strains of their labour.

One of the most iconic goldfields artists was S.T Gill – Gill’s artworks provide an extraordinary record of colonial-era Australia. You can see men, women, children, First Nations peoples all vividly depicted in Gill’s work in enormous detail.

Zealous gold diggers, Castlemaine 1852, S.T. Gill (artist), 1872, State Library of Victoria.

Marlene Gilson is a Wadawurrung (Wathaurung) Elder living on Country near Ballarat. She is a descendant of King Billy and Queen Mary, respected Elders of the Wadawurrung people at the time of the gold rush, and their son John Robinson (born 1846). She learned many traditional stories of the Wadawurrung people from her grandmother who lived at Framlingham, an Aboriginal community on the Hopkins River near Warrnambool.

“Until recently, First Nations perspectives have been largely omitted from the telling of Australia’s past. In her paintings, Gilson shares stories handed down to her, repositioning the role of the Wadawurrung people within narratives of Ballarat’s history and re-contextualising Australian history from a First Nations perspective.”

Art Gallery of Ballarat

Her paintings not only reshape historical narratives but display her spiritual connection to Country.

Marlene Gilson, Another day on the Goldfields, 2021, Acrylic on linen, image courtesy of Martin Browne Contemporary.

Voices through Story & Song


Bryon Powell, Wadawurrung Elder speaks about how stories are being recovered by descendants:

“One of the things that happened 1850s, 1860s, was the movement to take Aboriginal people and put them onto missions. From there, once they were on the missions, they were controlled very strictly. They weren't allowed to speak the language, weren't allowed to tell the stories, sing the songs, teach the dances. A lot of the cultural knowledge has gone. We are learning it back. How do we learn it back? It's done through reading the history books, reading every scrap of information we have. [...] Reading settlers' diaries. Farm diaries, parish records, people’s journals, but also we have amongst us, our neighbours who have very similar customs and traditions, and stories to us. We know from our neighbours, we can glean pieces of information, such as some of our song lines, some of our stories crossover several peoples' Country. We're trying to recover what was taken from us, or was tried to be destroyed.”

Uncle Bryon Powell interviewed by Lucinda Horrocks on the banks of the Barwon River, Belmont, Geelong, Wadawurrung (Wathaurung) language country, 2 March 2015, part 2. Produced by Wind & Sky Productions

No Gold rush without Women


Women played a crucial role on the goldfields, and provided some of the best accounts of life on the diggings. Sarah Davenport emigrated from England with her cabinet-maker husband and their four children in 1841. Her husband was chronically ill, and she became the family breadwinner. On the diggings at Ballarat and then Mount Alexander, Sarah taught herself, and then her husband and sons, how to dig for gold. Her unpublished memoirs (probably written about 1869) are titled Scech of an emegrants Life in australia from Leiving England in the year of our Lord 1841.

Mary Fortune kept her identity secret by writing under the names of Waif Wanderer or W.W Arriving in Australia with her young son, she supported herself by writing about life on the goldfields and in the cities and became Australia’s first woman writer of crime fiction.

Englishwoman Ellen Young, also known as the "Ballarat poetess", expressed the collective outrage of her community in political poetry and impassioned letters to the editor of The Ballarat Times. (Also, for a time, Clara Seekamp was the editor of this paper – the first woman to edit an Australian newspaper.)

20-year-old journalist Ellen Clacy’s best-selling memoir of her two years in Australia was described in one contemporary review as, "the most pithy and entertaining of all the books that have been written on the gold diggings." Her detailed and humorous descriptions of stores and tent life brought the scenes to life for British readers:

“...pork and currants, saddles and frocks, wide-awakes and blue serge shirts, green veils and shovels, baby linen and tallow candles, are all heaped indiscriminately together; added to which, there are children bawling, men swearing, store-keeper sulky, and last, not least, women’s tongues going nineteen to the dozen”.

Bush scene, three women panning for gold, ca. 1855-ca. 1910, State Library of Victoria

from China


In the 1850s, tens of thousands of Chinese people travelled to the Australian goldfields. Written accounts, artworks, photographs and artefacts form a vivid picture of Chinese people in Australia at the time of the gold rush. This section highlights just two of the many significant people who travelled to Australia from China.

Kwong Sue Duk with his three wives and fourteen children, Cairns, 1904. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 10203

In the mid-1800s, Jong Ah Siug made the arduous boat journey from Zhongshan, southern China to Victoria to seek his fortune. He was 18-years old and couldn’t read or write. In 1866, he had an altercation with another digger on the goldfields. Jong was blamed for the incident. He was subsequently condemned to 33 years of incarceration in Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum, until his death in 1900. As artist John Young Zerunge says, “The only thing left today of his life is a small hand-written diary, no bigger than one’s palm, that tried to prove his sanity and innocence.” The words “The Case” appear on the title page. The original text is described by the Victorian State Library as, “difficult to comprehend, being a mix of strangely structured English and Cantonese.” At some point, Jong Ah Siug’s notebook may have been passed on to hospital staff but they did not help his case. Eventually the text was given to the State Library of Victoria as a curious historical document. It would not be deciphered for more than 100 years.

Listen: John Young talks about the diaries of Jong Ah Siug; his worldview, encompassing traditional Chinese comprehension of spirits and the importance of translations and multilingualism, mistranslations and misunderstandings (approx. 3 mins).
Sze Pui Taam, State Library of Queensland.

Tom See Poy (an Anglicised version of the name Taam Sze-Pui) was born in about 1853 at Ny Chuen, Nam Hui district, Kwonglung, South China. The eldest son of a peasant farmer, his childhood was one of poverty and limited education. Aged 17, he immigrated to Queensland with his father and a brother in the hope of finding gold. According to See Poy’s My Life and Work, published in 1925, “...not only was gold difficult to find, the climate is not suitable and was the cause of frequent attacks of illness".

Listen: See-Poy’s quote (above) in Cantonese.

On arrival in Cooktown, he noted, "...the starved looks of our fellow countrymen who were either penniless or ill." He described the hard, three-month journey from Cooktown to Palmer gold mine. He also mentioned a man called ‘Mr Chan Poo’ (陳盤) who treated his father and brother for an eruptive fever at no charge. After five years of unsuccessful efforts on the goldfields, See Poy concluded that;

“...search for gold [is] like trying to catch the moon at the bottom of the sea.”

Several times, See Poy thought about returning to China. His uncle sent over money from Kwonglung, having mortgaged the family home. However, his father became sick again and all the money went straight to his treatment. Later, after See Poy saved enough from a restaurant job, he asked his father if he could return to China – his father refused his request and used the money to invest in a ‘vegetable garden with a few of pigs in it’. "There follow[s] a drought; the vegetables withered, and the pigs all died’. His father gave up “the whole venture and went again digging for gold."

What is striking about Tom See-Poy’s story is that when he did stop goldmining, he did so successfully. After working in the sugar and banana industries, he established a store with two other Chinese men in Geraldton (now Innisfail). See Poy & Sons grew rapidly under the management of his children. When Tom See-Poy retired in 1925, it was on its way to becoming the largest department store in North Queensland. See Poy’s wife, Chan Han Taam, is pictured below.

Tom See Poy died in Sydney on 18 April 1926. He was honoured by the townspeople of Innisfail with a long funeral procession to the Innisfail Cemetery. One year earlier, he had published his autobiography My Life and Work under his Chinese name Taam Sze-Pui, written in both Chinese and English. See Poy & Sons remained in business until the early 1980s.

Chan Han Taam, State Library of Queensland.


Now you have explored this section, what stands out most for you? Which image stays in your mind? Which story, or voice, do you hear most clearly?

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