Australian Gold Rush

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The gold rushes in the second half of the 19th century would completely change the face of Australia. Before 1851, Australia’s combined white population was approximately 77,000. Most of those had been convicts sent by ship over the previous seventy years.

The gold rush completely changed that however. In the two years that followed Edward Hargraves’s discovery at Bathurst, Australia’s population increased to over 540,000. 370,000 immigrants arrived in Australia’s ports during the year 1852 alone.

The flow of convicts to Australia’s shores stopped. It suddenly seemed like a foolish idea (and indeed no longer a punishment) to give a free boat ride to Australia’s rich gold fields to anyone who had committed a crime.


Victoria had only been formed as a separate colony six months before the finds in Bathurst. When the first gold rush began in New South Wales, Victoria’s economy slumped. Thousands of Victorian workers went north, leaving behind empty farms and industries.

A task group was formed in Melbourne known as the Gold Discovery Committee with the purpose of finding gold within the struggling colony’s borders. An announcement from the committee stated that a reward of 200 pounds would be paid to anyone who found gold within 200 miles of Melbourne.

Hundreds of prospectors accepted the challenge and headed out into the rugged Victorian hills hoping to claim the reward and (just as important or perhaps more so) find gold. Despite this and the fact that over the next few months some of the richest gold fields the world has ever seen were discovered, Victoria’s economic woes were not over.

In fact they only got worse. A powerfully disruptive hysteria seemed to grip the State along with the rest of the country. Farmhands simply left their employers with harvests they could no longer reap and thousands of workers fled Melbourne leaving empty industries in their wake.

Wages tripled due to scarce labour. To raise money, many property owners put their houses on the market. But as there was no one interested in buying, house prices collapsed. Due to the high wages and strained businesses, prices in most commodities rose sharply contributing to a high inflation rate.

Luckily however, this was not to last. Gold was flowing in from the incredibly rich fields of central Victoria (174 tonnes of gold worth 14,000,000 pounds in 1852 alone) and immigrants came in ridiculous numbers from Europe and China. These extra workers soon picked up the jobs that had been abandoned and were paid very highly for their effort.

And of course, lucky miners returning from the gold fields spent extravagantly easing the pressure on the suffering Melbourne.

The incredible wealth that poured out of Victoria was unthinkable. When the ships returned to England carrying eight tonnes of Australia gold, the London Times declared in 1852: “this is California all over again, but, it would appear, California on a larger scale”

Robert Coupe says in his book Australia’s Gold Rushes (New Holland, 2000) that:

“When the first reports of gold in the colonies were published in English newspapers late in 1851, few took much notice. Many dismissed them as either false or greatly exaggerated. But as the reports persisted, and especially those of fabulous finds at Mount Alexander, interest increased. It reached fever pitch when, in the middle of 1852, six ships from Victoria arrived, bringing eight tonnes of gold. The Australian colonies were the talk of London and of many other towns, as thousands hurried to get passages on southward-bound ships.”

This wealth brought many imports and improvements to Australia. Due to the huge flow of traffic now moving around Victoria and New South Wales, the first railway was constructed. Thriving towns like Ballarat & Bendigo built libraries and roads.

All this extra money moving around brought criminals too. Theft, murder and armed robbery were common on the roads between diggings. This is the backdrop for Australia’s famous bushranger past.

Incredibly, Victoria alone produced more than a third of the world’s gold produced in the 1850’s. By 1871 the population of Australia had increased from 540,000 to a whopping 1.7 million.


Queensland was the next State to join in the gold rushes of the 1800’s. Queensland first separated from New South Wales as a independent colony in 1959. However it was after much of the booms in New South Wales and Victoria that the State became known as a popular destination for miners.

Gold had actually been found there as early as 1858, in a township named Canoona , which caused quite a stir. A prospector known as Chapple found gold there in July and the news was widely publicised. Thousands of miners heard the call and left the heavily worked fields in Victoria and headed north. Many threw caution into the wind and spent all their savings on a passage to Canoona with high hopes.

However, the reports hadn’t let on that there was only enough gold there for a few hundred diggers. When the hopeful multitudes arrived there via Rockhampton, the area was in chaos.

The tiny settlement was now overflowing with prospectors. There was nowhere near enough food to feed them all and prices exploded. Tent cities had appeared all over the landscape but little gold was to be found. Many walked away with nothing except for a hard lesson learnt.

It took over a decade before any truly profitable fields were discovered in Queensland. The first was Gympie which was a small agricultural town 160 kilometres north of Brisbane. A man named James Nash found gold in 1867 and triggered the Gympie Gold Rush. Queensland was in the grip of a crushing depression at the time and James Nash’s find perhaps saved the entire colony from bankruptcy.

The event was so welcome it is still celebrated today in the week long Gympie Gold Rush Festival.

On Christmas eve 1871, a 12 year old aboriginal boy found gold in a creek at the base of Towers Hill (about 137 kilometres inland and south west of Townsville) by accident.

His name was Jupiter Mosman and he was travelling with a group of prospectors who were searching the area. Legend has it that a bolt of lightning scared their horses from their camp. While searching, Jupiter not only found the nervous mounts, but also a nugget of gold in the creek.

The rush to the area was as swift as the first diggers arriving in March. A camp had been quickly set up known as Mosman Camp but that swiftly grew into a small town with shopkeepers, blacksmiths and butchers. After that the town boomed as the gold kept flowing.

Twenty five years after the discovery, 20,000 people called the area home. The township, known as Charters Towers, is still alive today despite the fact the mining eventually dried up in the early 1900’s. This mining activity has since re-started in modern times due to the reemergence of gold.

The Charters Towers goldfield still carries off the title of richest Australian gold mine. Most of the gold was concentrated into rich veins of up to 34 grams per ton. That’s double what was seen in Victoria and 75% higher than that of Kalgoorlie, Western Australia.

Mount Morgan, Rockhampton was another famous Queensland gold mine. It began work in 1882 and closed in 1981. One man, William Knox D’Arcy, made a fortune at Mount Morgan and reinvested in oil exploration in Iran. His company was known as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company but now exists today as British Petroleum (BP).

Western Australia

The great western state was slow to join in on the booms of the east due to rugged terrain, harsh climates and its sheer distance from the heavily populated areas of Sydney and Melbourne. However, with most of the easy gold already gone and the eastern states in the grip of a economic depression during the late 1800’s, Western Australia finally got its golden age.

Gold was first discovered officially in Western Australia (WA) in 1892 by William Ford and Arthur Bailey at Fly Flat (a previous name for modern Coolgardie). Bailey reported he had mined 554 ounces of gold and received a 20 acre reward claim. This was worked until 1963 yielding 500,000 ounces of gold.

Due to the crushing depression in the east, especially in the older mining regions in Victoria, many travelled to Coolgardie hoping for an easier life. However, they were unprepared for the difficult challenges WA’s environment had in store for them.

Mining in Victoria or New South Wales was a far more simple task. The sun was hot was but water was not too hard to come by. Food was closer and could be found in the bush if a digger was wise. Western Australia however was mostly desert.

Water and food were very scarce and extremely expensive to transport into the savage wilderness of the west. Hundreds of diggers who came unprepared would suffer disease, dehydration, heat stroke and many died. Despite these hardships, the allure of gold was too powerful and miners continued to arrive in the thousands.

Incredibly, it only took ten years for Coolgardie’s population to rise to 16,000. By 1896, the first railway had arrived allowing for much easier (and cheaper) transport. The town continued to grow and in 1898, Coolgardie had become the 3rd largest town in Western Australia behind Perth and Fremantle.

Coolgardie is thought by many to be the mother of Western Australian goldfields.

The next big find was Kalgoorlie. A trio of Irish gold prospectors found gold near Mount Charlotte in 1893. Those three lucky diggers were named Paddy Hannan, Tom Flannagan and Dan Shea. News travelled very swiftly and soon hundreds were arriving into the hastily erected camp known as Hannan’s Find.

Many of the diggers came from nearby Coolgardie, distracted from the gold fields there in a similar fashion to other discoveries in the eastern states decades earlier. However, a great many poured in from the economically weakened east and across the southern deserts hoping to make their fortune.

The area was later named Kalgoorlie which is derived from an Aboriginal word meaning “place of the silky pears”. By 1903, Kalgoorlie had a population of 30,000.

After these finds, many more were discovered north and south of the Kalgoorlie-Coolgardie region. Gold prospecting became the topic in almost every conversation in Perth and around the state. Despite the harsh sun and lack of available water, explorers and prospectors scoured the land for new deposits.

In 1894, a man named Laurie Sinclair found gold in the Dundas area (south of Kalgoorlie). He named the find Norseman after his own horse, ‘Hardy Norseman’. That mine still exists today as Australia’s longest lasting gold mine operation.

Up north, the Leonora deposit and the Youanmi gold find in Murchison were discovered. Gold mining became more organised. Hundreds of companies were floated on the London stock exchange. This shadowed the end of the digger working a small 3.6 square metre claim and foretold of the future’s mining conglomerates.

Many of the gold fields in Western Australia (as well as the rest of the country) had the majority of their gold buried far below what miners could uncover with pan and shovel. Later, smaller gold rushes have occurred when mining techniques improved and gold is still found in many of these regions today.

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