Discovery of Gold

"Put it away Mr Clarke, or we shall all have our throats cut". - Sir George Phillips, 1844 after Reverend WB Clarke presented his gold discovery.

Discovery of Gold > Early gold discoveries

Gold in Australia before 1851 was a dangerous commodity. The Califorian gold rush drew people from across the globe to the 'wild west' coast of America. It was feared a similar chaos would ensue if such discoveries were made in Australia, drawing a restless population of convicts and farm workers away from their posts. The existence of Australian gold in payable amounts was thus kept confidential by fearful authorities.

Gold had been found in Australia as early as the 1830s. Explorer Paul de Strezlecki discovered gold in the Victorian Alps in 1839 and William Campbell found gold on his sheep run in Strahlodden, Victoria, in 1840. Gold was also discovered at Montecue, South Australia, in 1846, and Glenmona Station in Victoria, in 1849. Those who found gold kept the knowledge to themselves. Squatters wanted to protect their sheep runs from the undesirables who may come in search of gold. Others simply didn't want to share the potential wealth. Convicts who discovered gold while working on the land were often accused of stealing it and flogged for their trouble. Shepherds and farmers were known to appear in Sydney, disposing of these finds with as little fanfare as possible.

The Victorian Gold Discovery Committee

In a state of desperation, Governor Charles J La Trobe assembled a Gold Discovery Committee on June 9, 1851, and offered a 200 reward to anyone who found payable amounts of gold within 200 miles of Melbourne. Unbeknownst to the Committee, gold had already been discovered in Victoria.

William Campbell claimed to have found gold in 1850 on Donald Cameron's station in Clunes one year before Hargraves' discovery. But Cameron feared his station would be overrun by ambitious diggers, and opted to keep quiet like many people before him. It wasn't until the goldfields in New South Wales threatened Victoria's economy that Donald Cameron finally announced the discovery on July 8, 1851.

Meanwhile, word of Cameron's story reached James William Esmond and Dr George Bruhn, a German physician. Both travelled to Cameron's station and found 50 worth of gold around June 28, 1851. It seems that while William Campbell made the first Victorian gold discovery at Clunes, Esmond was the first to work the claim. The Gold Discovery Committee rewarded Campbell, Esmond and Bruhn.

Finally James Esmond, Hargraves' companion on the ship, had fulfilled his ambitions to become one of the first to unearth gold in Victoria. But the most lucrative goldfields had yet to be discovered.

The Victorian economy

The discovery of gold did little for Victoria's economic woes and only resulted in increased hysteria. Melbourne remained a ghost town, with only the elderly, the sick, and women and children left to run the community. Even 80 per cent of the police force had resigned to go gold digging.

Renowned American writer Mark Twain visited the city in 1895 and wrote: "This roaring avalanche swept out of Melbourne and left it desolate, Sunday-like, paralysed, everything at a stand-still, the ships lying idle at anchor, all signs of life departed, all sounds stilled save the rasping of the cloud-shadows as they scraped across the vacant streets."(Experiences did vary: other writers depict the fledgling city as anything but a ghost town.)

There was no doubt, however, the economy was in shambles. To raise money for supplies, owners put their properties on the market, but there was nobody around to buy real estate so prices dropped sharply. Wages tripled due to severe shortages in labor, and inflation set in. People who had made it big on the goldfields went on absurd spending sprees. Bread doubled in price, potatoes tripled and flour soared to 70 a ton. With no support staff and rampaging inflation, crops were neglected and stockmen and farmers were on the verge of ruin.

The gold rush had not only taken over the psyche of Victorians, it had taken over the economy too. Drastic action was needed to stabilise the situation, so the next year the government promised to guard the gold claims of those who chose to return home during planting and harvesting. The response was overwhelmingly positive and no further economic emergencies arose.

The frenzy

Once gold fever hit, Victoria would never be the same again.

"The forest, whose echoes but a few months ago were awakened only by the rushing of a stream, the voice of the bell-bird, or the cry of the jay or laughing jackass, now reverberates the sounds of human industry, wheeling, washing, rocking and digging in all directions."- John Sherer

Mass migration

As in had in California, word that gold had been found spread quickly. People joined the rush from California, China and across the globe, arriving in droves at Australian ports. British migrants were the most numerous: as gold fever mounted, more Englishmen flocked to distant Australia than to Canada.

Understandably, gold attracted criminals. But fever gripped the law keepers as well. Eighty percent of Victoria's police quit their jobs to search for gold as central Victoria became one enormous gold field. Towns around the state were deserted as people contined to flood inland.

"A complete mental madness appears to have seized almost every member of the community, and as a a natural consequence, there has been a universal rush to the diggings."- The Bathurst Times

From sheep runs to towns overnight

A lucky sheep rancher could stumble upon a nugget under his shack, and suddenly he would be at the heart of a thriving new town. Such was the case in Ballarat, Bendigo and Mount Alexander.

Subverting the class system

Australia, set up as a colony of peasant farmers and convict labourers, soon developed beyond the expectations of the empire. In what was viewed as a diabolical, topsy-turvy situation by the elite, peasants struck it rich and subverted the class systems of British society. For many it was a risk to leave home in the hope of striking it rich, but it was also the only chance they would ever have of breaking out of the under-class.

Impressions of Melbourne

After 100 hard days at sea, reaching dry land at Melbourne was hardly the paradise many had been waiting for.

"The migrants who had travelled so eagerly to the other side of the world were rarely prepared for the frontier society they found at the end of their journey ... the township of Melbourne whose streets were a far cry from the leafy avenues and promenades of London, Liverpool or Dublin."

Melbourne was a wild colonial town where packs of dogs roamed the streets and men carried guns and tomahawks in their belts. Bushrangers roamed the countryside around the town. Dust, flies, mud, swamps, disease and alcohol caused further aggravation.

Ellen Clacy was alarmed that "revolvers were cracking in all directions until daybreak, giving one a pleasant idea of the state of society."

She also found Melbourne very expensive. "We were getting initiated into colonial prices - money did indeed take to itself wings and fly away."

Dust or floods

The famous Melbourne climate was much too hot for an Englishman, and prone to flash flooding. Flooding washed rubbish out to sea, but took livestock along with it. And it often caused havoc for pedestrians. Henry Brown describes a sudden river blocking his path.

"Where Collins Street crosses Elizabeth Street, I was arrested by a crowd ... and much to my own astonishment found myself on the banks of a raging torrent. I was surprised, for if my geography of Melbourne was not utterly wrong I had crossed at the same place only a few hours before."

But Melbourne wasn't without its positive aspects. Ellen Clacy described Melbourne as "very well laid out; the streets (which are all straight, running parallel with and across one another) are very wide, but are incomplete."

Suburbs like St Kilda and Brighton had already established reputations as fashionable bayside suburbs.

Mansions and canvas towns

Melbourne was close to the gold fields and offered enormous scope for adventure to new migrants. But there was very little in in the way of European comfort on offer. Before the gold rush, the city had started to take a solid shape, and with that a more definably British character. With the gold rush, all these improvements came to a halt. Henry Brown described Melbourne's incongruous architechture.

"Side by side with a shop that would have graced Regent Street stood some wooden shanty ... The new buildings were all fine, the old small and mean; the same could be said of the people, the newcomer being smart whilst the old residents were most of them plainly and dingily dressed."

Emigration was big business, and the number of arrivals seeking gold was so vast that accommodation was a problem. Tent cities sprang up on the southern banks of the Yarra River. Life under canvas was an unappealing prospect.

"Tents were again pitched, but owing to their not been fastened over securely, many of us got an unwished-for shower-bath during the night; but this is nothing - at the antipodes one soon learns to laugh at such trifles."

The tents were a chance for prospectors to test their camping ability. Many formed partnerships to take to the gold fields, or consolidated ones formed during the long journey south.

Some prospered, some simply survived. Others just gave up.

"... life in Melbourne proved too distasteful, and they simply returned on the ships that had brought them out, having never even landed their sea-trunks ... Hundreds have already gone back again, cursing those who sent such one-sided statements of the goldfields and of the climate."

Source: GOLD a VCC project

The Victorian Cultural Collaboration (VCC) is an agreement between SBS, the State Library Victoria, Museum Victoria, the Royal Botanic Gardens, the Victorian Arts Centre, the Victorian College of the Arts and the National Gallery Victoria.

The aim of the collaboration is to merge cultural content from across the organisations to create informative and entertaining websites for SBS online.

Marvellous Smellbourne

View article previously here on Smellbourne.

❊ Web Links ❊

Discovery of Gold 


Old Treasury Building Museum

History of Melbourne


❊ Also See... ❊

Old Treasury Building

Disclaimer: Check with the venue before making plans...

Trending HOT

View Event: Drive-In Movie Club
Drive-In Movie Club
Drive-In Immersive Cinema Nights Are Coming to Melbourne Put together by our friends at Hot Tub Cinema, a string of family-friendly, social distancing-safe, drive-in ..

View Event: Things to see, hear & do this weekend
Things to see, hear & do this weekend
Make the most of your weekend in Melbourne with these fabulous events. No city does it better than Melbourne, so get out and discover the very best shows, festivals, ..

Update Page